31 December 2015

Trunk of the Month: December 2015: Taxus baccata

As it's December, I was hoping for a festive trunk, but the viruses have been doing the rounds at our house and we haven't been able to get out into the arboretum. Therefore I decided on the Yew, which is not only an interesting trunk (and tree), but is significant to the Christian religion.

This tree is widely planted, sometimes allowed to grow to its full stature, but often as hedging or topiary. Providing a year round cover of leaves, this tree provides hope on the darkest, coldest winter day - hope of life and the return of lush green as spring returns. The trunk is quite flaky, which tends to assist in cleaning the tree of pollution, pests, and disease.

Notoriously difficult to age due to the trunk hollowing out as the tree reaches old age, some Yews are suspected to be around 4000 years old (a trunk girth of more than 4.5 metres). This means that some of the Yews are clearly older than the Christian churches that they are commonly associated with in the UK. This is probably the most mythologised tree in the UK, if not, the world. Why are they grown so often in churchyards? To stop farmers bringing their animals to the churchyard and being poisoned? For making bows? Simply to provide shade? Some of the theories are backed by truth, all parts of the yew, apart from the aril that surround the seed, are poisonous. However, some are clearly false, bows are made from the trunk, not the branches - this would mean the complete removal of the tree - plus this species was never favoured for bow making.

This tree is so flexible, as show with topiary. But naturally it is so too. The image below shows the tree continuing to grow, with what I think are branches that eventually look like a single trunk. New branches seem to appear anywhere on the trunk and tend to grow directly vertical - making for interesting and sometimes unnatural shapes.

The yew is a slow growing tree and not often seen as a commercial timber-producing species. Although when it is used, it is highly valuable. This softwood tree is heavier and harder than the majority of hardwoods.

More importantly, this tree is now used to make Taxol. A chemotherapy drug made from clippings of yew. There is no process to make this entirely synthetically, so live yew material is necessary and therefore there is a market for such clippings.

I've photographed this tree was photographed over a period of years at St Giles in Wiltshire, over that time I've really come to appreciate the beauty of a tree so poisonous. A few years ago, we saw chicken in the woods fungus doing very well on the trunk! This species is edible, but I certainly wouldn't be brave enough with it growing on a yew trunk!

I was happy to see the yew hit the news earlier in the year, when the world famous Fortingall Yew was found with 'berries'. Yew trees are dioecious, meaning that an individual is either male or female, this is common and happens with another very common plant, the holly. However - quite rarely - a branch on a plant can change sex. So a tree that is thousands of years old can surely be forgiven if it fancies a change and provides the beauty of red arils or 'berries'! Read more on that story here.

Thank You:

Firstly a massive thank you to Lucy and Noah for taking me to Westonbirt Arboretum where all the trunks (apart from the yew) were photographed.

Thank you to Westonbirt for providing such an accessible place for me to enjoy these trees. You can learn about this magical place here.

Thank you to Hollis from In the Company of Plants and Rocks and Beth from Plant Postings. They've commented on pretty much every Trunk of the Month, which has helped jolly me along even when (unknown to them) I was iller than normal due to ME during the second half of the year and wanting to give the blog up - even though it brings me joy to write down what I learn about the natural world.

Also, thank you to the trees and, their often epic, trunks. They've captivated me over the past year. I've learnt (and forgotten) so much about them. I'll certainly never look at them in the same way again.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Richard Mabey, 2015. The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination. Edition. Profile Books Ltd
Hemery, Gabriel, and Sarah Simblet. The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

07 December 2015

Planting up Christmas pots

It’s been a while since I’ve had spare energy around this time of year, so I decided to plant up a few pots to provide some much needed colour during the winter months.

Of course, I had my supervisor watching over me to ensure that I completed the task properly. Here’s a photo of him wondering why I’ve stopped working!

Here’s Noah’s pot for Father Christmas. Fingers crossed he’ll stop by for Noah’s first Christmas.
On the other side of the door is another pot. Instead of gold crest, we’ve used a tree heather as the centrepiece.
A supermarket near us stocked some plants, but then haven’t cared for them at all. I picked the best 6-pack I could find in the hope that they’ll be ok. I’ve put one of the cyclamen on the dining table for a bit of colour indoors.
A couple of close up photographs of the garden primroses.
I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas time. We’re certainly looking forward to our first Christmas with Noah.

Originally posted: http://www.growsonyou.com/timmyh/blog/29343-christmas-pots

30 November 2015

Trunk of the Month: November 2015: Aesculus indica

I took this photo of the Indian horse chestnut in January 2014, about 11 months before I'd thought of investigating and blogging about a different trunk for each month in 2015. It really captured my interest due to the varied shapes of the bark fragments and the colours ranging from almost white to red to brown. The colour seems to depend on the age of the layer of bark, with old parts being brown. The lighter colours are revealed when fragments fall off and create a vertical crater-like landscape.

This species can grow to around 30 metres in height with a spread of around 2 metres and is fairly hardy at a reported -50oC. Being related to the European horse chestnut, affectionately known as the 'conker tree' to generations of British children, this species has the same sort of white flowers on spikes and they're pollinated by bees. It also provides a 'conker-like' seed, but this is apparently wrinkled and smaller than the European version.

Along with this species' use as an ornamental tree, the wood is used to make items such as spoons, boxes, and pots. The leaves are used as cattle feed, while the seeds are ground into a bitter flour. The saponins, which creates the bitterness, dissolve in water and are removed during preparation. (Side note: I don't know if the saponins of this tree are used to when fishing to poison fish and make them easier to collect, but anyone who watches bushcraft/tribal/survival programmes is likely to have seen saponins used in this way before).The seeds of this species are also used in traditional medicine in India, for headaches, rheumatism, and skin disease, etc.

All in all, this beautiful tree is useful for many reasons. Thanks for reading :)

Aesculus indica (Indian horse chestnut) | Plants & Fungi At Kew. 2015. Aesculus indica (Indian horse chestnut) | Plants & Fungi At Kew. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/aesculus-indica-indian-horse-chestnut. [Accessed 28 November 2015].
Aesculus indica - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2015. Aesculus indica - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesculus_indica. [Accessed 28 November 2015].

13 November 2015

Friday Five: Seeds

The largest organism on Earth, the General Sherman (Sequoiadendron giganteum) germinated from a seed weighing just a six-thousandth of a gram.

So far, the earliest seed plants that have been found in the fossil record are from the Devonian period, showing that seed plants have been around for at least 360 million years. The plants were gymnosperms, which include conifers and cycads, as well as the living fossil ginkgo biloba.

There are about 600 different species of fungi that are known to infect seeds and use them to propagate themselves. Some can be beneficial, or at least benign to the plant, however some can cause disease, such as bunt in wheat. These fungi destroy the flowers and then spread by spores.

The coco de mer is the biggest largest seed in the world. It was originally collected in the Maldives, which is why it was given the epithet of maldivica, however its' true home was eventually found to be the Seychelles. It can grow to 18 kg / 40 lbs in weight and around 30 cm / 12 in long.
The large size allows the seed to power the growth of the plant so efficiently that it can grow 10 meters in height within a few years.

The largest wingspan of any seed is held by the Brazilian zebra wood tree (Centrolobium robustum). These seeds are protected by spines and have a wing up to 30 cm long!

Here's David Attenborough talking about the coco de mer seeds:

Silvertown, Jonathan. An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds. Reprint edition. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

31 October 2015

Trunk of the Month: October 2015: Acer platanoides

The Norway maple has a large native distribution, taking in large tracts of Europe and western Asia. It can grow above the arctic circle, such as in Tromsø, Norway. It's even used in Alaska, since introduction there in the 18th century, for shade and street planting. A common replacement for the Norway maple in formal plantings (as the Norway maple can be invasive) is the London plane, which is interesting because the 'platanoides' epithet refers to the leaves resembling the plane tree. Indeed, plane-leaved maple is another common name for this tree.

There doesn't seem to be a great use for building material as it's considered non-durable to perishable. However, it seems to be used for musical instruments, along with flooring and furniture. It doesn't seem to be used for syrup either, due to a lower concentration of sugar in its sap.

The tree is often planted for ornamental reasons, primarily for the enjoyment of the colour change in the leaves. The Norway maple has many cultivars that concentrate on the colours of the leaves, or the shape. 'Crimson King' has been given the coveted RHS Award of Garden Merit.

Flora Britannica advices that this species can self-seed throughout lowland Britain in scrub, hedgerows, and woodland. So, it's one to look out for when you're out and about.

The rough grooves that criss-cross the trunk are what I like about this tree. The grooves provide a great touch sensation, as well as much needed places for lichen and moss to grow.

Mabey, Richard. Flora Britannica. 1st edition. London: Chatto & Windus / Sinclair Stevenson, 1996.
Acer platanoides - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2015. Acer platanoides - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acer_platanoides#Cultivation_and_uses. [Accessed 03 November 2015].

05 October 2015

Book Review: Seven Flowers by Jennifer Potter

This comprehensive book looks at seven different flowers and how they shaped our world. The author uses these flowers to explore how we've used these flowers throughout history and can now look back and use them to tell us something about where we come from and who we are.

The book covers the lotus, lily, sunflower, opium poppy, rose, tulip, and orchid.

As well as telling us when these flowers made a big impact on the history of particular cultures, it also tells us when they didn't - even when we'd have expected them to. For instance, the author explains that in Incan and Mayan mythology and ritual, the sunflower plays no role whatsoever - yet we go on to read tha since Europeans took seed from their lands to Europe, the sunflower began to have a large role in culture and was very popular for a time.

The book also looks at the economic uses of the plants, a prime example being that of the oil from the sunflower seed - developed for a higher oil percentage in Russia and even higher when the American's got their hands on it.

Of course the opium poppy was used as an excuse for war; with the British Empire fighting China for the express purposes of continuing the trade of opium to the Chinese population.

This book has a great deal of information in it and, for me, required a lot of concentration. I felt like the information in each flower chapter could have been fleshed out and made into a book of its' own. Instead it read like a bullet point list of facts and sometimes this negatively impacted the flow. However, this is a really good book and there's lots to get out of it. Even if you don't have a specific interest in any of these flowers, you will gain a greater understanding of how flowers have helped humanity survive and flourish.

30 September 2015

Trunk of the Month: September 2015: Picea sitchensis

From nappies to paper, from guitars to construction, this North American tree has become important to many facets of our lives. So much so, that the Forestry Commission is investigating how climate change will affect species such as this. They think that the Sitka may become restricted to wetter coastal or upland sites in the UK. It's also possible that higher levels of carbon dioxide could make plantations of Sitka more productive - as it stands there is a yield of 14 cubic metres per hectare per year from this species.

The Sitka/sitchensis is named for Sitka, Alaska on Baranof Island (which was the Russian Capital of Alaska at one time). Picea sitchensis was introduced to Britain by the plant hunter David Douglas in 1831 and can grow to 50 m with a trunk that has a diameter of 2 m. It has lovely needles and cones, but I have chosen it for this post for the fissures and flaky plates that make up the bark.

In a way the bark reminds me of pancake ice of the Antarctic (as seen on TV). I imagine for kids, that it's hard to resist giving these plates a bit of a tug to see if they'll come away from the tree! As the plates do fall away, some areas are totally smooth underneath, but some seem to leave wrinkled scars. I also quite like the patterns created by the roots that seem precariously shallow.

So, not only is this tree epic in terms of everything it does for us, but it's a beauty to go with it.

Forestry Commission - Sitka spruce. 2015. Forestry Commission - Sitka spruce. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-5nlej6. [Accessed 02 November 2015].
Mabey, Richard. Flora Britannica. 1st edition. London: Chatto & Windus / Sinclair Stevenson, 1996.

31 August 2015

Trunk of the Month: August 2015: Paulownia elongata

This exotic tree has the common name of Empress Emerald Tree. While I'm not sure why it got its name, I'd like to think it's due to one of the social history stories on dragontrees.com. This explains that in Japan a Paulinia tree is planted for the birth of each girl. When she marries, her wedding chest is made from the tree. So, my idea is that if in England, each dad thinks of their little girl as a princess, perhaps in Japan each father considers his daughter as an empress?

Whatever the origin of the common name (if you know, please leave a comment), the tree can be fast growing in the right conditions - up to 20 ft in a single year. While it is grown as an ornamental tree, it is also grown in China and North America for the light and strong wood it creates.

I have chosen this tree for the nodules that are all along the trunk and stems of the tree. I'm not sure why they're there and they didn't seem to be filled with resin. There seem to be colonies of algae and moss surviving in and around some of the nodules. I've never noticed this tree before and just thought this trunk was good to look at and feel. There's no deeper reason than aesthetics for this month's trunk!

The Paulownia Tree Company - Fast Growing Paulownia Tree History. 2015. The Paulownia Tree Company - Fast Growing Paulownia Tree History. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dragontrees.com/dragonhi.html. [Accessed 31 October 2015].
Paulownia elongata - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2015. Paulownia elongata - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulownia_elongata. [Accessed 31 October 2015].

31 July 2015

Trunk of the Month: July 2015: Acer palmatum

This deciduous tree tends to be grown for their interesting foliage and beautiful autumn colour. The epithet of this species is palmatum due to the foliage having at least 5 toothed lobes. There are said to be over 1000 cultivars of this species, which is not surprising due to the prized foliage.

However, I've chosen it for it's lovely bark.

This must be a fairly young tree, as the Collins Complete British Trees, states that the bark is brown with young trees showing paler patches. This patterning really caught my eye and I was really taken with the tree when I saw the amount of moss growing over it.

For me, what really makes a plant spectacular is multi-faceted. Beautiful foliage or flowers just isn't enough. I need to have at least some idea of how the plant fits into its surroundings. Providing a habitat for other organisms is one way that a species can leave a mark. However, even the allelopathy for species such as bracken can bring a deep wonder into the magnificence of the world around us, leaving a deep imprint. I can be fairly sure that this Acer wasn't chosen for its ability to provide indentations in the surface of the bark that allow other organisms to survive, but due to the location within the arboretum it was planted, it has done much more than provide an autumnal opportunity for photographers desperate to get that most perfect red foliage shot. It has provided a place for other organisms to flourish.

Sterry, Paul. British Trees: A Photographic Guide to Every Common Species. First Edition edition. London: Collins, 2008.
Acer palmatum - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2015. Acer palmatum - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acer_palmatum. [Accessed 30 October 2015].

13 July 2015

Stonecrop Identification (Biting, English, and White)

Note: The following appeared on the St. Giles Living Churchyard blog last year and can be read in full here.

July saw all three of our stonecrops in flower; the biting stonecrop, english stonecrop, and white stonecrop. In the past when I've seen english stonecrop and white stonecrop in isolation, I've sometimes struggled to reach the correct identification, so let's have a look at our stonecrops and see the distinguishing features are when compared to other common Sedum species.

Biting Stonecrop

This is our only yellow stonecrop and it's a perennial, which immediately rules out annual stonecrop (Sedum annuum) which at most is biennial. Being a low mat-forming plant, we can see that it's not reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre (S.reflexum)), which grows up to 30 cm tall and has its' yellow flowers clustered on an umbel-like stalk.

White Vs. English Stonecrop
Now, it's with these two species that I can sometimes become unstuck. They are both mat-forming evergreen perennials and both grow in similar conditions (rocky ground and stone walls) and flower around the same time of year (June to September). Let's see photos of some features side-by-side and see what the differences are.

The photos below show the leaves of each stone crop.  We have English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum) to the left with pale green to red leaves that are often described as 'egg-shaped'. To the right is White stonecrop (Sedum album), with (what looks like to me) fuller green to red leaves that are often described as 'cylindrical-oblong'. On both species the leaves are alternate. In the books I have (see references below), which have illustrated rather than photographed images the English stonecrop tends to be shown as the plant with red leaves, with white stonecrop being shown as having primarily green leaves. This may well depend on the time of year and the population being observed.

Our english stonecrop has 6 petals, which seems quite common, but often both species are described as having star-shaped flowers with 5 petals per flower that are white or pink tinged. On our specimens we can see that the pink tinge is more easily seen on the white stonecrop with our English stonecrop showing a yellow tinge in the centre.

Finally, let's have a look at the stems. The stems of the English stone crop have large hairless leaves growing alternately up the stem, which rules out thick-leaved stonecrop (Sedum dasyphyllum), which is very similar looking.
The leaves of the white stonecrop remain cylindrical and have a much brighter and shiny look to them.

Writing this has certainly helped me get to grips with these two species and I hope it assists anyone who stumbles across this post! It's important to remember that there is always variation within and between plant populations, but using a botanical key like that in The Wild Flower Key by Rose and O'Reilly will help you understand which features are important when identifying your plant.

06 July 2015

Book Review: Wild Flowers by Carol Klein

This book takes us through the seasons looking at some of the wild flowers that grow throughout the UK countryside and at the cultivars that have been bred from them.

Carol's writing is wonderful and within a few short pages we get social history, botany, life stages and photographs of the wild type as well as some of the cultivars mentioned in the book.

This is the first Carol Klein book I've actually read, and I find that she writes in the same infectious, excitable and intelligent way that she talks. She has a real passion for plants and writes a lot from her experiences in growing the plants she talks about in this book.

I'd be surprised if there's even a single reader who doesn't come away from this book with a desire to grow at least a hand full of the species and cultivated varieties described in this book. Carol helpfully tells us which are invasive and provides some good planting combinations.

The only downside is that Carol is being treated as a brand in this book. Her name is where the title ought to be and barely a couple of pages go by without a photo of Carol instead of all the magical cultivars described but not given even a quarter page. This can make it hard to follow the writing because there's no visual to guide the way. But, even so, this book is worth a read. My only hope is that Carol comes back with a much more detailed and plant photo rich book that will rival Flora Britannica - but for gardeners!

29 June 2015

Trunk of the Month: June 2015: Acer griseum

Acer griseum is also known as the paperbark maple. This is because the bark on this beautifully ornamental tree peels away in decorative curly flakes; in a similar way to the birches.

Sadly, this tree is on the IUCN Red List with a status of endangered. While the paperbark maple is found naturally over a wide area of central China, the population is small and fragmented. It is aid to be difficult to propagate whether by vegetative methods, such as cuttings, or by seed.

Unsurprisingly, this tree has the RHS Award for Garden merit and its green leaves turn red and orange in the autumn. Growing to around 12 metres high and 8 metres in spread over 50 years, a large garden would be required to get the best of out of the tree, but if I could meet the criteria, I'd definitely grow it.

The only problem with this trunk is that nothing of note seems to be growing on it or using it as a habitat. But, that being said, you can't have everything. The beauty of the trunk alone makes this my trunk of the month.

Kew. (n.d). Acer griseum (paperbark maple). Available: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/acer-griseum-paperbark-maple. Last accessed 28/06/2015.

01 June 2015

My Garden Nemesis: Horsetail (Equisetum)

The horsetail family is often called a 'living fossil', this is because Equisetum is the only genus left of Equisetaceae, some members of which were trees growing 30 meters in height.

I think my nemesis is Equisetum arvense, the field horsetail. In some ways I'm lucky because the fertile heads that release the spores are only present in the Spring, whereas other species have fertile heads year-round.

While the plant is botanically interesting because of the silica that it deposits in its stems and leaves, especially rough horsetail (E. hyemale), which used to be used for scouring pans. Also because it can be apparently boiled in water to make a mildew fungicide for plants such as roses, and not forgetting the fact that it can be taken apart and put back together like lego (hence another name 'Lego plant'), but it is a gigantic pain in my garden and most of my energy each year is wasted keeping it under control.

This is only the beginning :(

Last year I read an article that described horsetail spores as being able to move around. So, in a bid to get to know my enemy a bit better, I decided to take a fertile head into the house and check the spores under the microscope.

I was surprised by just how green the spores are, but not how horribly numerous. Their tiny size of 50 µm hides the fact that once these things germinate they develop deep and creeping roots that are incredibly difficult to control. Even deep cultivation is likely to break the plant up into small pieces that are able to regenerate. We go for the option of pulling as much as we can reach as frequently as we have the energy in the hope of reducing the stored energy of the plant over time. It's a long term approach and as the whole street is 'infested' with horsetail it's likely to be a never ending task!

However, back to the spores!

The spores, along with being green, has 4 elaters, which are basically appendages that allow the spore to move. This movement is random and seem to be driven by cycles in humidity. During my observations, I noticed that there would be a mass movement for the first minute or so after release from the sporangium, release from which seems to be one of the three reasons for movement given by Marmottant et al. The other two being to reorient and to refold and ensures an annoyingly efficient dispersal. If you'd like to read more about horsetail spore movements, I recommend you read The walk and jump of Equisetum spores by Marmottant et al, which is available in full here.

You will also be able to find better videos of horsetail movement online, but here is the footage I captured with my microscope:

I am always open to new ideas about managing the 'horsetail situation' as long as it doesn't mean poisoning my garden or concreting it over! Please let me know what works for you in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

Mabey, Richard. Flora Britannica. 1st edition. London: Chatto & Windus / Sinclair Stevenson, 1996.
Marmottant, P., Ponomarenko, A., & Bienaime, D. (2013). The walk and jump of Equisetum spores Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280 (1770), 20131465-20131465 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1465

25 May 2015

Book Review: Home Herbal by Maureen Little

This book on using herbs for health, beauty, and domestic products, is a little treasure. Maureen writes in a way that makes every product and every herb inviting and accessible. Each page leaves you feeling an urgent desire to create a herb garden or to add ever more species of herbs to your current garden.

Chapter 1 deals with growing, harvesting, preserving and storing herbs. Sometimes in a question format, and other times as straightforward instructions on how to perform the desired task and get desired results.

Chapter 2 looks at different planting schemes for specific uses, for instance there's a planting plan for first-aid and another for cosmetics, etc.

Chapter 3 provides a C to T of body parts or ailments and the relevant recipes. Often there are two or three different recipes that you can try for problems such as bites and stings, hangovers, or toothache!

Chapters 4 and 5 look at using herbs for cosmetics and in the home, respectively.

Beyond this there is an excellent gazetteer of the herbs mentioned in the book. For me, this was the best bit of an excellent book. As well as a section on the vitals for the plant (height and spread, plant pat used, uses, etc), Maureen gives an interesting history of the plant and a description of what the plant looks like.

There are also appendices and a glossary at the end of the book.

So while this book, at 205 pages in small format, is brief and concise; it's filled with relevant information and facts in an enjoyably readable style. It's definitely worth a read as I can see it being a book readers will dip into each time they have need.

18 May 2015

Trunk of the Month: May 2015: Pinus sylvestris

It was Ray Mears, many years ago, that first piqued my interest in Pinus sylvestris, commonly known as scots pine. Using this beautiful tree for a wide array of tasks for his bushcraft, from pine needle tea, to using old dead pine for kindling due to the build up of resin.

This reddy-grey-brown bark is beautifully intricate with a layer of ridged scales. In between these scales are places for invertebrates and flora to live, such as moss, which (to my eye) creates a lovely tortoise shell effect.
Pinus is the largest genus of conifers, with over 100 species. The scots pine is the only conifer native to Britain that is grown commercially for timber. In the old days it was used for things like ships and waterwheels. The late seventeenth century saw the great forests of Scotland ransacked, first for charcoal for the iron foundaries in the lowlands, then for the Napoleonic Wars and the demand for timber. These days, the pines are managed much more successfully and on the increase. Scots pine is still used in many applications, from furniture to telegraph poles and from paper pulp to roof timbers.

Scots pine can grow to over 30 metres in height and over 1 metre diameter. Some of these trees can live to 300 years - although some are said to be 700 years in age. Pollen records have shown that pine was present, at least in southern England, 9000 years ago and reach Scotland around 8000 year ago (possibly over the land bridge that was Doggerland).

In you're ever on the look out for squirrels in a pine woodland, then it's helpful to look at the forest floor. If squirrels are present you will see chewed up pine cone with all the scales taken off - and clearly no further use in telling the weather!

Wandering through a natural (or naturally planted) pine woodland is a wonderful experience. However, due to the commercial nature of many pine woodlands, the tree are planted in rows and are all of similar ages. Places like Brownsea Island, a refuge of the red squirrels of England, have naturalistic planting and are keen to ensure a stock of trees at all life stages.

11 May 2015

21 April 2015

Gardening with ME: My Favourite Gardening Tool

While it often easy to just choose the cheapest tools for gardening, it can quickly become a chore to use and maintain them if they're not ideal for your garden or your physical abilities.

Websites such as Thrive have a section with tools that can make gardening easier and the telegraph has a slideshow of interesting tools. I like the look of these tools and think that whether or not someone has a disability, they can be very useful.

Prior to ME I would always use full length tools, such as spades and forks, but quickly realised that with ME they take too much energy and move too much soil. Therefore, these days I tend to focus on smaller areas, where possible, and use hand tools with a small trugg, so I don't overload myself.

I also found that energy could quickly be sapped away by touching metal surfaces of tools, so I either wear gloves or use tools with plastic or wooden handles. I also have different seating options depending on the length of tool I'm using for a task - I know that some people buy full length tools and cut them down to 3/4 length, which I might think about in the future. Using small tools has helped me think about how I move when using tools in an attempt to reduce pain during and after activities. This is something the RHS is currently researching.

My favourite gardening tool is one that I've used most of my life and I find it to be a versatile and basically awesome tool! It is the bog standard patio weeder and if I'm gardening I probably have it with me. But why you ask!!? Here are a few things I use this tool for:

  • Weeding the patio.
  • Weeding pretty much anywhere!
  • Getting out tap roots without disturbing too much soil.
  • Cleaning the underside of the Flymo (one of the original uses I found as a child).
  • Making holes for seeds.
  • Making holes for planting small plants.
  • Making rows to sow seeds into.
  • Getting through though plants by slicing the sharp edge against it.
  • Refreshing border lines when the grass gets too adventurous.
  • Removing moss and the top layer of soil when maintaining pot plants.
  • And probably many more!

What's your favourite tool? Has your favourite tool changed due to illness?

13 April 2015

Trunk of the Month: April 2015: Abies grandis

This is quite an unassuming trunk that looks quite standard in the world of tree trunks. However, this is the trunk of Abies grandis, or the Grand Fir, a tree that can grow to over 80 metres tall. The current tallest can be found in Glacier Peak Wilderness, a wilderness area located in Washington, US and has been measured to be 81.4 m (267 ft). The photo below gives an idea of the size of the trees we photographed at Westonbirt Arboretum - for scale, my wife is 6 ft (1.82 m) tall.

Being quite an adaptable conifer, it can grow all the way from the coast to inland elevations of around 2000 metres as long as it's growing by a water source; such as a stream.

This tree is monoecious, meaning that the flowers are either male or female, however unlike the holly, both sexes are found on the same plant.

Plants for a future note that the inner bark can be cooked. When dried, the inner bark can be ground into a powder that can be used to thicken soups or when making bread. Along with other uses, the shoot tips can be used as a tea substitute. I could certainly use this tree right now as the Plateau Indian tribes are said to use this tree for treating colds (and fever).

Along with edible and medicinal uses, the wood from this tree is used in construction because it resists splitting and splintering. Finally, it is used socially too and is said to be a popular Christmas tree in the United States.

The Grand Fir was first described by the ill fated David Douglas. He collected specimens in 1831 along the Columbia River, located in the Pacific Northwest.

What I find fascinating about this trunk is that while it looks so plain, it hides within it a power to grow to massive heights. I guess we can't judge a tree by it's cover!

10 April 2015

Friday Five: Orchids


Orchidaceae has around 25,000 species organised into 850 genera along with over 155,000 hybrids - a number which grows by around 300 hybrid varieties each month.
The orchid appears in texts such as Dioscorides De Materia Medica (written between 50 and 70 AD), where it was thought that if the orchids greater root was eaten by men it would give them male children, whereas if women ate the lesser root, they would conceive girls - I have no idea what they thought would happen if a child was conceived when both parties had partaken.
The Dutch were the first to cultivate a tropical orchid in Europe. The orchid was listed as a Epidendrum and was introduced to Holland from Curacao and grown in the garden of Casper Fagel. This orchid became the first tropical orchid to appear in a woodcut, when it was illustrated in Paul Hermann's Paradisus Batavus (1698)

In 1887 a massive orchid bouquet measuring 4' tall and 5' in diameter and said to have 50,000 orchid flowers was presented to Queen Victoria to celebrate her Golden Jubiliee. It was displayed at Buckingam Palace and was made up of Cattleya mossiae, Odontoglossum, Oncidium and Vanda, with VRI (Victoria Regina et Imperatrix) spelled out with the scarlet flowers of Epidendrum vitellinum.

Importantly, due to over harvesting of orchids, they have the protection of CITES, an organisation that monitors and controls the international trade of threatened plant and animal species - including herbarium specimens. This includes all European species along with Cypripedium calceolus, all Paphiopedilum, and others.

Orchid flasking is where the orchids have been grown on agar instead of with a fungal partner. Sterilisation is important to prevent the growth of fungi or bacteria, which can destroy whole batches of plants. This video shows part of the process.

Jennifer Potter, 2013. Seven Flowers: and How They Shaped Our World. Edition. Atlantic Books.

30 March 2015

Course Review: What a Plant Knows

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of the book of the same name and have written quite a bit about it. Last year, I completed the course that's been made available by the folks at Coursera and delivered by none other than the author, Daniel Chamovitz.

The course is delivered over 7 weeks via videos, selected readings, and forum discussions. The website states that it take around 3-4 hours a week, but it took me no more than 2 hours a week.

It covers much of the same content as the book, such as how plants know up from down, whether they can hear music, and what sort of memory they have. Each week is completed with a short test of multiple answer questions that you can complete up to 100 times (if I remember correctly).

During one of the weeks, we also get a tour around Professor Chamovitz's laboratory.

I enjoyed reading the research papers presented as reading material throughout the course and learning some new things about the biology of plants. Importantly not all reading assignments are mandatory and a few are optional.

In this call you'll learn about plant biology, the scientific method and biological research, and how to question life in general and what senses we share with plants - and those that define us as humans.

I'd recommend this course, not just because it's free, but because it's interesting and while teaching us, allows us to question the definitions of senses and how far we've actually come in understanding plants and how they live.

The final test is much longer, can only be completed once, and is time restricted. So it's important that you feel confident that you can recall the course materials and the logic of plants before you begin it. However, saying that, I achieved 94.2% - showing that it's not that difficult.

If you'd like to find out more, please visit the course homepage. If you've already completed the course, I'd enjoy reading your comments about your experience.

25 March 2015

5th Blogiversary

Crocuses in our garden
This blog started on 25 March 2010 as a blog to document my camping journeys with my friends. After that first post, things just got busy and I didn't start blogging regularly until the following year. After that I came down with a mystery illness, now diagnosed as ME, so while I've had to leave camping behind, I didn't want to leave nature behind.

Not being able to spend much time in nature, gave me plenty of time to learn about it. So, in this blog I've written lots about the science behind plants and I've used the blog as a way to post photos and identifications of many species of plant, animal, and fungi. I also blog every now and then about Geocaching, outdoor swimming and the night sky.

I've never had a long term plan for this blog and I don't know where it will end up. But, I want to thank everyone that reads what I post, especially the long term readers.

All the best,

Partial Solar Eclipse (complete with cloud cover!), Wiltshire, 2015

16 March 2015

Film Review: Symphony of the Soil

This feature length documentary takes us on a journey through the soil and our relationship with it. We begin by learning that it's rare for a planet to have soil - something I've never considered, but ultimately true.

Not all soil is the same and we're told that of the 12 mentioned in the film, Mollisol and Alfisol are the most productive soils. It's the plants that make the soil productive and the roots that slough off provide food for some of the many members of this massive, but mainly microscopic ecosystem.

The artwork throughout the film make it really enjoyable to watch and is used effectively to visually show concepts explained. The film is a worldwide endeavour with scientists and farmers providing the narrative and real world examples of how feeding the soil can not only provide the same harvest as fertilised land - but much more. One farmer we meet is growing potatoes on his land, but also plants purely for wildlife, with 50% of the land going to each.

Legumes are used expensively to gather nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is then available for use by plants. A history of nitrogen fertiliser use is also covered.

One of the most interesting points of the film was a simple, but well done demonstration that showed the difference in water run-off and water supplying aquifers. The soils used were: conventional soil, organic soil, organic soil with compost, and organic soil with compost and a cover crop. There was lots of run-off from the conventional soil and no water supplying aquifers. With the other 3 soils there was less run-off, to close to none with organic soil with compost and a cover crop and a fair amount of water reaching the underground aquifers.

The film closes with a nice explanation of Adam and Eve. With Adam being the masculine of Adama, which means earth and Eve meaning life. So the writers of the bible knew that life came from the Earth. They lived in the garden of Eden, with Eden meaning delight. I hope we can get back to a place where the earth is a garden of life that we can delight in and be proud of our existence on it.

At 1 hour 44 minutes, this film proceeds at a pace that keeps interest, but allows time for the viewer to grasp the topics and concepts covered. You can rent the film to stream from Vimeo here and watch the trailer below:

I wrote this because I'm trying to learn more about soil as it's International Year of Soils.For more information about it, click here.

09 March 2015

Trunk of the Month: March 2015: Betula ermanii

Well, I can't believe it's March already! In this post, we'll investigate the trunk of Erman's birch, named after Georg Adolf Erman (1806-1877), a German physicist, who collected it from one of the species native homes, Kamchatka in North East Asia.

This species is sometimes also called the gold birch, which must be due to the vivid colouring of the bark. The genus Betula is well known for its peeling bark, often used in bushcraft as a tinder material when starting camp fires, due to the thin papery properties of the peel. In the photo above, it can be seen that the bark peels in shreds quite naturally, there is also a blistered layer of bark that has peeled but not broken from the rest of the bark in the middle.

This tree can reach a height up to 20 metres and spread to around 8 metres, but it will take up to 50 years to reach full size. It seems to be a popular horticultural tree and has been bred into a few cultivars, with 'Grayswood Hill' having the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

What I find most fascinating with this birch are the elongated lenticels that provide such a striking effect.

Every plant that generated secondary growth (wood) has lenticels, some herbaceous plants have them too. They are a product of the periderm that is the protective covering, replacing the epidermis, in parts of the plant that has secondary growth.

Lenticels are more important than they appear to be. This is because the inner tissues of stems and roots are metabolically active. Because of this, they need to exchange gases with the environment. Lenticels are the structures that allow the stems and roots to perform the essential gas exchange.

If a plant is left in water logged soil, it will drown because the lenticels cannot exchange gases with the soil. Apart from plants such as mangrove tree that send up structures known as pneumatophores. These aerial roots are covers with lenticels and allow the plant to breathe in the constantly changing environment in which it lives.

Interestingly, some fruits and vegetable also have lenticels. They can be seen as small dots on the surface, as in the apple and potato, below. These allow the apple and potato to continue respiring after harvesting - however they can also be an area of disease.

Lenticel rot can be a real problem, especially in potatoes where dry, sunken, discoloured lesions surround the lenticels. This is caused by a bacteria know as Pectobacterium carotovorum subsp. carotovorum and, depending on storage conditions, can lead to the whole tuber decaying.

Until next time - happy trunk hunting.


Farrar, J., Nunez, J., & Davis, R. (2009). Losses due to lenticel rot are an increasing concern for Kern County potato growers California Agriculture, 63 (3), 127-130 DOI: 10.3733/ca.v063n03p127
Raven, Peter H., Ray F. Evert, and Susan E. Eichhorn. Raven Biology of Plants. 8 edition. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2012.
Coombes, Allen J. The A to Z of Plant Names: A Quick Reference Guide to 4000 Garden Plants. Timber Press, 2012.