Rattery Parish

Terry & Dot's Garden and Wildlife Advice Page 3

Information on this page is kindly provided by Terry and Dot Underhill

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February and early March is the usual time for Bumblebees to emerge from hibernation, although it is not unusual for there to be some in January on the hyacinths in our conservatory. The earliest Bumble bee is the young female Buff-tipped (Bombus terrestris), emerging from their nests, which can be up to a metre deep, free from frosts, in old mice or mole holes, where they have dried grass, leaves, moss or similar materials to line their nest. A female can lay enough eggs to provide more females, males and worker, with up to 500 individuals in one nest.
It is possible to encourage these very important pollinating insects by providing nesting places. A flower pot is buried upside down, preferably in a bank, with stones and a piece of tile or slate over the pot hole leaving enough room for a bee to enter the pot, but keeping out rain. The pot should cover suitable bedding of dry straw, grass, shredded paper or leaves, with preferably some material from a mouse nest or material soiled by mice or guinea pigs.. Do not forget to wash one’s hands thoroughly after handling soiled material.  Some organisations suggest a short length of hose pipe is fitted from the outside to the nest through which the bumble bees may enter or leave.
Female and worker Bumblebees can sting, but their sting is not barbed so it can sting repeatedly without harming itself, but the sting is weak and is rarely used as they are peaceful  insects.  

Spring is really on its way when snowdrops adorn roadside banks and many hedges and copse have shimmering displays of pendulous golden catkins 6-10cm long on leafless branches. These are the male flowers of Hazel (Corylus avellana) and produce copious amounts of pollen that can produce clouds of yellow when the conditions are warm and dry. The female flowers are small tufts of red that when pollinated produce the hazel or cob nuts. A British native occurring all over Western Europe, can reach 4-7m but is usually much lower being trained into hedges or coppiced every 6-7 years to produce long straight stems which have many uses. When enhanced by twining honeysuckle they make attractive walking sticks. Sadly the stems do not last long as morris dance sticks. The wood makes spars and pegs for thatching, cask hoops and hurdles, with the more twiggy branches as pea sticks. Fork twigs are used by water diviners. The cob nuts are much loved by squirrels while still green, with the mature nuts a favourite with rodents; the marks left by their gnawing teeth an indication of which specie is the culprit. Humans love the nuts which have been used in numerous ceremonies and celebrations, especially Halloween, which has also been called Nutcracker Night. Apart from eating the nut kernels, oils have been extracted, or ground into a fine floor and used in cosmetics. The bark and leaves have been used for tanning leather. It is relatively quick growing and is ver amenable to most soils. Unfortunately its main problem is that many people are allergic to  its copious pollen .

The tall (1.5m) perennial with frothy, pink flower heads flowering in August in parts of our hedge banks, especially those with a little moisture, has the lovely local name of ‘Raspberries and Cream’ alluding to the colour of the flowers. As they mature and set seed the Cornish name of ‘Bread Flower’ is more appropriate. It is known Nationwide as Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) the names Hemp and cannabinum resulting because the leaves have a slight resemblance to Hemp/Cannabis - but that is where the similarity  ends. The flower heads are made up of masses of small pink/purple flower with long white stamen stalks (styles) at the top of reddish stems.   It is a member of the daisy family. There are double flowered and deeper colour forms that some gardeners ‘risk’ growing in their herbaceous borders. I say ‘risk’ because although an excellent plant for attracting butterflies and numerous other insects, it can spread rapidly from its many feathery seeds which float far and wide on the slightest breeze and become a ‘Garden Thug’. However planted in a sunny, protected corner of the garden it will usually become superior to Buddleia (Buddleja) when it comes to attracting insects

Emsworthy Mire near to Haytor on Dartmoor and managed by Devon Wildlife Trust,  consists of 100 acres of ancient farmland in a gently sloping valley, with numerous ancient dry-stone walls and the ruins of a moorland farm. It’s main attraction in May is a fantastic display of bluebells creating a blue haze across its fields.  Our lanes at the moment (Mid May) are providing a nice display. Linnaeus originally named Bluebells Hyacinthus non-scriptus (non-scriptus means "unlettered" or "unmarked" and was intended to distinguish it from the classical hyacinth of Greek mythology.  It was some time later named Scilla non-scripta, a name it kept until botanists decided it should be named Endymion non-scriptus. That name was declared invalid and was replaced by Hyacinthoides non-scripta which is its current name. It is still our common bluebell with blue, slightly tubular flowers with whitish stamens in a one-sided drooping raceme. The Mediterranean bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica is much stronger with campanulate flowers around the stem and blue anthers. and has been introduced to the UK where it has hybridised with H. non-scripta to produce intermediates known as H. × massartiana.
H. non-scripta is particularly associated with ancient woodland where it may dominate the understorey to produce carpets of blue flowers in "bluebell woods", but also occurs in more open habitats in western regions. In the 1950 it was often gathered in huge bundles, wilting and discarded within hours, but is now protected under UK law, and in some other parts of its range. It has been a plant of the fairies, and should not be picked or by children or adults or they will wander and be lost. 
It has been called Bell-bottle, Hare Bell, Wood Bells, Bloody Man’s Fingers, Blue Gramfer Greygles, Blue Rocket, Crake-feet, Craw-flower, Cross-flower, Crow-bells, Crow-flower, Crow-leek, Cuckoo-flower, Cuckoo’s Stocking, Culvers, Gowk’s- hose and Ring-of-bells.. Two of the old vernacular names I find particularly interesting - Culvers - is this the origin of Culverlane in Rattery and Cuckoo-flower as this is the time of the year when you are likely to hear cuckoos. Culver is also an old vernacular name for doves and pigeons, so was Culver Lane known for these, perhaps even structures or dovecotes kept to supply pigeon meat and eggs. The sticky sap was used as a sort of starch when stiff ruffs were worn, a bookbinders glue and for setting feathers on arrows. Surprisingly it has never been investigated for herbal or medicine properties.

Cow Parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace
Garlic Mustard, Jack-by-the-Hedge
Greater Stitchwort
A male Orange-tip Butterfly resting on a Cuckoo Flower, Ladies Smock.

Our lane verges and bank are very patriotic at the moment - red, white and blue.
The blue comes from a number of plants - Bluebells, Alkanet, Speedwells, Violets and Ground ivy. Reds from Campion, the first Foxgloves, and Herb Robert and Shiny cranesbill. White from Cow Parsley, Pignut, Stitchwort, Chickweed, Daisy , Garlic Mustard and Wild Garlic. Intermingled are greens, yellows and purples. On a stroll from Windy Corner via Crabbers Cross to the Village Hall on the morning of Tuesday 21st May  I recorded 50 different plants in flower.
The dominant plant was Cow Parsley, a metre or more in height with masses of  small white flowers in a flat topped umbel (umbrella-like) 6cm across. The many divided leaves are a fresh green and slightly hairy, the stems are hairy, hollow and not spotted. There is a fine display at Mill Cross opposite Mill Cross House, previously named Budock Vean. The scientific name is Anthriscus sylvestris - ‘sylvestris’ means ‘of the woods’. Geoffrey Grigson in The Englishman’s Flora lists over 60 local names. I prefer Queen Anne’s Lace so called because when Queen Anne travelled the countryside in May, to enjoy fresh air as she suffered from asthma, people said the roadsides had been decorated for her, and her ladies-in-waiting carried lace pillows or were making lace. Children were told that if they picked it their mother would die - no doubt to discourage them from picking any umbelliferous flower as some are very poisonous such as Hemlock or Hog Weed which can cause a horrible rash or burnt and swollen lips if those with hollow stems were made into pe-shooters.
Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holstea, is much shorter and sprawling with 10p size white flowers with what looks like 10 narrow, white petals with golden stamens in the centre. A closer look reveals that it only has 5 petals but each is strongly divided.. Its narrow leaves are in pairs and where they join the stem the area is swollen. This is a typical characteristic of the Carnation family. An infusion of the plant was used to treat stitch-like pains and ‘wort’ is an old name for a plant. It is a plant that prospers in sunny warm positions, and because Adders also like similar warm spots children were told that if they picked the flowers they would get bitten by a snake.
Another plant with white flowers in May is Garlic Mustard or Jack-by-the-Hedge, Alliaria petiolata, It makes erect stems 0.5-1m tall with heart-shaped leaves that when crushed give a hint of garlic, and was popular in Elizabethan times for flavouring sauces for fish and lamb. Its terminal cluster of small white 4-petalled flowers each with 6 stamens (4 long and 2 short) put it in the Cabbage family. In May when in bloom one usually see nearby male and female Orange-tip Butterflies. The male has orange tips to wings greenish on the outside and white inside whereas the female is all white. She likes to lay her small, orange coloured eggs just below the flower head of Garlic Mustard.. It also uses the Cuckoo flower or Lady’s Smock. The caterpillars feed on the flower head as the fruit develops and are thin and green. When disturbed thy stand erect looking just like the developing fruits.  Peasants found the smell of the leaves offensive and Jack or Jake was a name given to anything offensive, hence Jack-by-the-Hedge.

One of my favourite British wild flowers is Bastard Balm, Meliittis melissophyllum, which is more or less confined to the South West, occurring on a few hedge bank in Devon and Cornwall. According to the Flora of Devon it was first recorded in 1650 “‘In Champernon’s Wood neere Totnes”. We are lucky to have some in Rattery along the lane going down to the A385 from Willings Cross. I have for many years grown it in our garden, Fairlight, having collected a capsule of seed, as it makes a good garden plant,  This has been its downfall and its rarity in the countryside as people have dug up plants for their gardens, an illegal practice now. My plants are seeding down well and migrating to areas of hedge bank. It is a member of the Dead-nettle family, Lamiaceae, previously named Labiatae. In the second half of May it produces on 30cm tall stems whorls of 25-40mm long tubular , white flowers blotched purple. Both the flowers and the oval-shaped sharply toothed leaves have a typical Dead Nettle smell, with a hint of sweetness; I like the smell but it is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, certainly not as sweet as Lemon Balm, the leaves of which are added to salads, Summer fruit dishes and drinks and often wiped inside skeps when gathering a swarm of bees. Because of its smell and no special use it earnt  it’s  Bastard Balm name.

See also Spring and Wild Flower Meadows

If you are lucky this time of the year (June and July) you may be able to watch the behaviour of Dragonflies and Damselflies around a garden pond. The males of both are very territorial and will fight ferociously to defend their area, attempting to bite the head of male intruders, often inflicting fatal wounds. Females are bystanders and will eventually mate with the best fighter. Some damselflies fly around hunting for a suitable female, she choosing the best fliers. While performing their sex act they seem to be contortionists with their bodies making something approaching a heart shape. Sometimes the male while clasping the female attempts to scoop out any sperm placed there by a previous male. Then comes the laying of eggs; the dragonflies going around individually bending their body to deposit an egg just below the waterline on waterweeds. The damselflies are often still attached while the female is depositing her eggs. After their reproductive acts they will continue feeding on other insects for a few days or a month before dying. I once watched a Gold-ring Dragonfly capture a large bumble bee, bite off its wings before devouring it. The eggs when hatched become ferocious larvae/nymphs which attempt to eat anything alive, with a large nymph even eating small fish. After 1-3 years the nymph crawl out of the pond, climb a waterweed where they change into an adult;  a wondrous event that make take an hour or more. The way the wings unfold and then pumped with liquid, expand and finally dry is one of natures marvels.
Damselflies in tandem
Gold-ring dragonfly
Emperor Dragonfly depositing eggs
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