08 August 2016

Book Review: Ladybirds by Helen Roy and others

A few years ago I blogged about raising some ladybirds from eggs that I'd found in the garden. This really began an interest in all ladybirds for me. I saw this book had been published a few years ago, and was eager to learn more but the price was a bit high for me. I managed to get it earlier this year as a used book and it's been my bible ever since (as the Ladybirds of the UK Facebook group sometimes find out).

This book contains so much research that I thought, at first, it may be too advanced for me. After I finished reading the book the following quote, attributed to Albert Einstein came to mind:
"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

However, this book is written so well, by a group of people who really know what they're talking about, that I had no problems understanding the topics. I learnt so much about ladybirds and where we're at with our knowledges of these beautiful beetles because the text was so accessible. They followed another quote attributed to Einstein: 
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler".

The book lets us in on the life cycle of ladybirds, their environment, their natural enemies, ladybird pattern variation, population and evolutionary biology, and ladybird distribution. These are accompanied by a margin glossary that explains words alongside the relevant part of the text as well as lots of tables and diagrams.

The book also has a detailed key to adult British ladybirds, followed by a key to all adult British Coccinellidae, and a third key on the lavae of British ladybirds - all with the aim of providing enough detail that can be viewed without harming the ladybird you're trying to identify.

The book closes with a chapter on how to study ladybirds, for example housing and feeding them, close examination, and how to write up your findings in a report.

I was amazed at the level of detail that has gone into this 142 page book. It doesn't feel cluttered, it flows logically, and it's enjoyable to read.

If you want to learn about British ladybirds, then this is the ultimate resource.

PS. Make sure you record your sightings at: iRecord! The folks over at the ladybird survey (some of whom wrote this book) are very quick to respond to records and really appreciate each record sent in. I recently had a chat with Peter Brown (one of the authors) and he not only answered my questions, but provided a report that was written using the records that have been sent in.

29 July 2016

Tree Flowers: July 2016: Vine-Leaved Full Moon Maple

This maple, Acer japonicum 'Vitifolium', is a cultivar of the species that was introduced to Britain in 1864 from Japan. The cultivar was named, in Britain during 1876, for its large and lovely leaves - with leaves (folium) like vine (viti).

While the leaves are impressive, it's the flowers that attracted me to this tree when I photographed it in April of this year.

The deep red petals are small and the big yellow anthers protrude out of the flower. As the flower becomes fertilised the fruit starts to develop, while the petals remain for a time. It's beautiful to see these different stages, which I have tried to show in the photograph above.

Being a tree of cultivation, there are no major uses of the tree other than for how it looks, although the wood is said to be used for furniture and engraving in Japan. From these colourful and interesting flowers early in the season to the multi-coloured foliage in the autumn, this is a fine ornamental tree that can grow to around 10 metres in 20 years if optimally placed and cared for and is known to grow in a spreading habit.

More, David, and John White. Illustrated Trees of Britain and Northern Europe. London, UK: A&C Black, 2012.
Coombes, Allen J., and Zsolt Debreczy. The Book of Leaves: A Leaf-by-Leaf Guide to Six Hundred of the World’s Great Trees. S.l.: Ivy Press, 2015.

04 July 2016

Book Review: An Orchard Invisible by Jonathan Silvertown

Spanning 17 chapters, this book takes us on a journey from seed evolution to dispersal, from inheritance to gastronomy, all the while keeping the topic light and enjoyable.

This book is not only filled with surprising and interesting facts, such as: the earliest seed plants in the fossil record being from the Devonian period, which was around 360 mya, but the author has a knack for explaining difficult concepts in a way that does away with prerequisite reading.

Each chapter begins with a line drawing of a plant that will feature in the upcoming chapter, along with a poem or quote that shows the appreciation of seeds goes much deeper than being just a source of food. The chapters are reasonably short and feature well chosen quotes from the scientists throughout history.

I've been meaning to read a book about seeds for quite some time and I'm glad I stumbled upon this one a few weeks ago (Edit: It was weeks when I wrote this post - which I see was November 2015!). It's the sort of book that provides enough information to satisfy, but also plants a seed (pun intended) that makes you wonder how much more there is to learn about these wonderful containers of life.

21 June 2016

Tree Flowers: June 2016: Norway Maple

The Norway maple, introduced in the late seventeenth century, have become a popular street tree due to the leaf shape and autumn colour. But before the leaves appear, the flowers steal the show.

In the Norway Maple they appear from March to April and can be numerous enough to make the tree look like it actually has leaves. I find the flowers attractive and the whole flower is yellow, including the flower stalks.

The flowers are in a cluster known as a corymb. This is where the flower stalks grow longer and try to ensure a flat-topped structure - with all the flowers forming a flat or slightly convex heard.

This is very similar, on the face of it, to another type of inflorescence called an umbel (think cow parsley). The main difference between the corymb and an umbel, seems to be that the flower stalks leave the stem at different points to form a corymb, whereas on an umbel all the flower stalks come from a common point on the stem.

These trees are tolerant of poor soils and can reach around 4 metres in 3 years. As the tree matures, the growth rate slows down. All of which, makes it a good tree for urban places, in my humble opinion.

The timber of the Norway maple is similar to that of sycamore and both are popular for making furniture. They are easy to work, making them ideal for mouldings as well as turning. However, they don't taint food, which makes them ideal for chopping boards and kitchen utensils. 

I was amazed to see just how many cultivars of the Norway maple there are. But when you look at the different leaves, from variegated to brown, from deeply lobed to almost fern-like - as well as the different tree shapes, I can see that each of the around 90 cultivars are diverse enough to be enjoyed for different reasons and used in nearly all situations.

I imagine that wherever you are in Europe or North America, there's a Norway maple near you - have you spotted it yet!?

Coombes, Allen J., and Zsolt Debreczy. The Book of Leaves: A Leaf-by-Leaf Guide to Six Hundred of the World’s Great Trees. S.l.: Ivy Press, 2015.
Hemery, Gabriel, and Sarah Simblet. The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014. 
Inflorescences. 2016. Inflorescences. [ONLINE] Available at: http://theseedsite.co.uk/inflorescences.html. [Accessed 21 June 2016].
More, David, and John White. Illustrated Trees of Britain and Northern Europe. London, UK: A&C Black, 2012.

13 June 2016

Photography: Topaz Glow

I've really been enjoying messing about with photography this year. In March, I wrote about my first attempts at focus stacking, which I use a lot for the tree flower posts.

I recently came across another piece of software call Topaz Glow. Basically, it's a piece of software that can add effects to photographs you've taken. I imagine, it's not for everyone - and certainly not for every photograph (I've tried quite a few). But, I find it to be a fun tool to use when there's a single subject.

As you can see in the screenshot below, the poppy can be slightly altered - or it can be highly stylised and sometimes unrecognisable.

Here are a couple of photographs that I tried and got results I was happy with:

Plane tree inflorescence. This is the original, followed by a collage of 4 different effects. My personal favourite is the bottom right.

Green shield bug. The original followed by the effect I really liked.

This application is simple to use, while you can change plenty of setting for each effect, such as brightness, sharpness, contrast, strength, etc, I've found little need to. When the effect works for an image, I like it to be bold and vibrant - this isn't a tool I'd use for making subtle changes!

It's not a tool I'd use too frequently, but I can see myself doing sets of photos with these effects just because it's interesting.

Have you used software like this or can recommend any similar tools? It would be great to hear from you in the comments.

06 June 2016

First look at the new garden

Regular readers will know that my family and I recently moved. We're still in Wiltshire, we just moved a town over to Calne. The garden that we've moved to has been well maintained and has awesome soil compared to our previous garden - a limestone rather than the Oxford clay that made gardening a thankless task. But it also leaves us with plenty of scope to make changes.

As you can see in the photograph above, there is a central area of grass with borders each side. At the end is an area with 4 raised beds - one with plenty of strawberry plants, some with fruits developing. Nearer the house, but obscured by the rear extension is a patio area and on the right is a grape vine.

 Starting at the patio, here are the potted plants that we brought with us - including the Magnolia stellata from the previous Tree Flowers post. Below is another view of the patio with our bench and the grape vine. Noah favourite place to garden (as much as a 13 month old can garden) is in that bare patch just before the grape vine!

We weren't sure which grape it was until yesterday when Lucy found the label that much have come with the plant. It's a wine grape called Marechal foch. I guess we need to find out how easy it is to make wine!

Moving along the path, there is a trellis with red jasmine, bleeding heart, roses, and fuchsias.

The garden has lots of roses, but I've not seen any labels yet, so I'll try to identify some at some point. Not having had many roses before I know I have a lot to learn with regards to rose categories and flower shapes - not to mention the the thousands of cultivars, I accept that I may never find the exact ones we have. Either way, I'm enjoying looking and smelling them!

There's also Aquilegia 'Black Barlow', which looks different to the aquilegias I've seen in the past.

At the end of the garden are the raised veg beds. Lucy has also been planting some salad plants and parsnip seeds. We've netted all the beds and are considering some slug control options.

The other day we purchased and planted a lovely bunch of poppy plants called 'Garden gnome'. They can bloom in a variety of colours and we think they look really lovely together.

Thanks for coming for a wander around our new garden! Have a great day.

27 May 2016

Tree Flowers: May 2016: Magnolia Stellata

Magnolia's are trees with showy flowers. They're also an ancient genus of tree, with specimens found that are identifiably belonging to the magnolia family from 95 million years ago. Specific to the Magnolia genus, M. acuminata specimens dating to 20 million years ago have been found. I find flowers of magnolia to be evocative - they look so different to most other flowers, so big and beautiful. I knew I had to have one! I eventually decided on the star magnolia.

The star magnolia is closely related to the Kobushi magnolia and for a long time was considered to be a cultivar of that species. However, in 1998 it was finally accepted as a species in its own right.

I chose this tree because it grows slowly and only grows to around 2.5 metres in height and can therefore be kept reasonably happy in a container. I like that it flowers before the leaves have made an appearance and that the flower buds are protected by fuzzy bracts over winter.

Those fuzzy bracts are one of the features that gives us a clue to the magnolias ancient heritage. Most plants that have evolved more recently use sepals to protect the flower buds. The photo to the left shows different stages of development - some buds fully enclosed by the bracts, one flower just emerging from the bracts, and another with the bract falling away.

The bracts are covered with hairs to protect the flower buds from adverse weather, such as frosts. Although in severe frosts, even this adaptation can fail.

The flowers on my tree are tinged with pink before the open, but by the time they have fully opened, they are entirely white.

Another sign that magnolia trees are ancient are the strap-like tepals that resemble petals. Other ancient plants, such as water lilies also have this feature.

The flower is wide open, which presumably helped beetles to get into them - magnolias were around before bees had evolved and therefore tubes and complicated entrances would not have been beneficial.

There are many stamens and styles arranged in a spiral manner. The stamens seem oversized compared to other flowers. While many flowers have the ovary containing ovules below the flower, the magnolia seeds develop above the tepals. The carpels, which contain the ovary, of magnolias have evolved to become very tough, an advantage of this is that the beetles cannot damage them - and therefore the seeds developing within. The stamens and tepals fall away when the flower has finished.

I don't know of any other use for the star magnolia than for aesthetic reasons. Even without the flowers, the leaves start as a beautiful bronze-green before turning a lovely shade of green. The bark is smooth and grey.

There are a couple of hybrids and some cultivars, which should suit a wide variety of situations. As well as plenty of other magnolia species to suit nearly every situation.

“Seeing Trees.” Goodreads. Accessed May 17, 2016. https://www.goodreads.com/work/best_book/16175762-seeing-trees-discover-the-extraordinary-secrets-of-everyday-trees.
Wikipedia. 2016. Magnolia stellata - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnolia_stellata. [Accessed 17 May 2016].
Wikipedia. 2016. Magnolia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnolia. [Accessed 17 May 2016].

20 May 2016

Last look at the garden before we move

Thought I'd do one last post on our current garden before we move next week. I had high hopes for the garden when we moved in. It was close to a blank canvas with just grass (and tree stumps) at the front and grass and patio at the back.

But then I became ill with ME, which has remained quite constant for the past 4 years. So, I didn't really have much energy to make it the garden I wanted. However, over the years we did manage to add some plants that have really made the garden interesting during each season. Here are a few photos from the past couple of months:

Here's a mint moth resting on salvia.

I grew Brussels sprout last year. As we knew we were moving, I decided to leave them in to see if they'd flower. They actually throw out loads of flowers with 4 delicate petals and I've seen various bees having a feed - so I'm glad I left them in.
The shape of the flower, with its 4 petals, is why this plant - along with many other vegetables - are often called cruciferous, which is modern Latin for "cross-bearing".

It'll be a shame to miss out on the Victoria plums this year - but at least we were hear to look at - and smell - the lovely blossoms on this tree.

This year we've been graced with a multitude of 7-spot ladybirds. Our back path became a ladybird highway, with our garage wall being a nesting sight. I felt very lucky to see a few of these ladybirds lay their eggs.

Here's a video of the ladybird laying some eggs:

Here are the two apple trees that my wife planted a couple of year ago. It's a shame we won't get to see them mature and provide lots of apples, but the ones we have had were good!


An osteospermum that my mother-in-law gave us 2 years ago. I find it to be a wonderful plant for ground cover. Oh, and of course, these pretty blooms.

This rowan was planted during the 'tree o'clock' initiative in 2009 as nothing more than a stick. It has since grown to around 3 metres tall and provides lots of flowers and berries. Hopefully the birds will realise this soon and frequent the garden

This is a primrose that I've shared photos of before. We'll be taking this with us as it's potted. We decided to leave all the plants in the ground and just take our potted plants. Hopefully the new owners will appreciate some established plants - but with plenty of space to make the garden their own.

I'm looking forward to having a new garden. As always I have plans to do it 'properly' and create a plan and identify every plant in the garden over the course of the next year before making changes - let's see how long that idea lasts!

Thanks for reading, Tim

(Originally posted on my Grows on You account: http://www.growsonyou.com/timmyh/blog/29962-last-look-before-we-move)

13 May 2016

Book Review: Seeing Trees by Nancy Hugo Ross and Robert Llewellyn

This is an outstanding book - a sort of travel guide for looking at trees. Nancy is a great writer, who can weave diary pages, biological fact, personal experience, and quotations seamlessly. This mix of information really makes you feel like you're standing next to the author and she's pointing out the latest new tree part that she's discovered with enthusiasm that's infectious.

But, really, the star of the show has to be the photographs. Robert Llewellyn uses focus stacking to increase the range of focus and make sure that the reader can see everything that is described in the text. Such images are inspiring and at times rival any botanical illustration for detail and beauty.

The book is divided into 3 main parts: Tree Viewing, where we discover tips on how to get starts and different strategies for viewing the trees. We then move on to Observing Tree Traits: Leaves, flowers and cones, fruit, buds and leaf scars, bark and twigs. These two parts really set us up for understanding and appreciating the final part of the book.

The final part is entitled: Ten Trees: Intimate Views. Here we look at 10 trees chosen by Ross and Llewellyn. As this is an American book, many of these specific trees aren't common here - But they don't have to be. We have some relatives of those trees down our streets and in our parks in Britain, so I can transfer observations in the book to trees I have the opportunity to see on a regular basis. Importantly, the observations detailed in this book should help you view all trees in a more detailed and systematic manner - that's what makes it so enjoyable.

I think that this book is great for anyone interested in trees and specifically for any tree followers out there.

This is the first of (currently) three 'Seeing' books. The others being 'Seeing Flowers' and 'Seeing Seeds'. I will review 'Seeing Seeds' soon and already have 'Seeing Flowers', which I'm looking forward to reading in the near future.

05 May 2016

Recording Wildlife with iRecord

Since 2013 I've been adding my sightings of wildlife to iRecord, the best place to record wildlife. So far there are 1,146,393 biological records on the site and I've contributed a measly 402 of those records. But, I hear you ask, why bother?

Well, you can't protect what you don't know about.

These records are checked by experts, often the Vice County Recorder for that taxon. If your record is correct, it will be verified. If not, the record will be either rejected or a photograph/additional information will be requested.

Importantly, verified records are added to the National Biodiversity Network's Gateway, which incorporates many datasets and houses 130,024,128 records itself. On a smaller scale, the records are free to anyone (apart from sensitive records) such as local Biological Records Centres and the RSPB (along with many others) and can be used to assist with things ranging from research, to conservation to planning permission.

iRecord Homepage showing recent sightings, recent photos, and a location map.

But, it's not just organisations that have access to this important data. There's an interactive map and the ability to search via filters for folks like you and me.

What's great about this is that you can add records whenever you like. I hadn't added any since Noah was born because I didn't have the time or energy or motivation or... well you get the picture! But this week I've added over 80 records.

The only downside is that because you have to wait for a real person to check your records is can sometimes be many months before receiving an email that 'verifies' your record - but when it arrives, it feels great.

I can't stress how important I feel recording schemes like this are. If you want to help conserve the life around you, if you want to help with studies about your favourite species, if you want to make sure accurate data is known about your favourite wild space before a new housing estate is built over it; then join the 14,712 members of iRecord and get your sightings verified and available. It's quick, easy, and rewarding.

Thanks for reading.

19 April 2016

Book Review: Plant Conservation: Why it Matters and How it Works by Timothy Walker

If you're interested in plants, indeed, if you are interested in life, then you need to read this book. Using the framework for the 2020 Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, the author weaves his way through many examples of plant conservation, such as in situ and ex situ and explains the history of this global strategy.

Stats are backed up with the historical and scientific data, such as why it's predicated the by 2050, 28% of all plant species may be extinct. To correctly complete a global plant list would, the author posits, would "require 1,200,000 botanists working for the whole of eternity" - if the catalogue was to be kept up to date. Clearly just knowing what's out there is a massive task - and yet, we cannot afford to wait until we know what's still alive. We need to act now.

In this regard the author is strongly in favour of gardeners planting and looking after species. Every garden is a great, yet often under utilised, resource. Perhaps you grow snowdrops, which the author enlightens me creates galantamine that can be used to effectively delay the development of the terrible disease Alzheimer's. Or maybe you're growing plants that haven't even been properly studied yet and may provide a way to rid us of such diseases.

The book is full of excellent information, all interwoven by his sense of humour - which is used to great effect to lighten the mood of such a serious dilemma as conserving plant life.

There are five objectives and sixteen targets. We are reminded of them throughout the chapters. However, it isn't until the last chapter that we look at each in detail act by act, with the players and ways in which we can get on top of this problem.

I can't stress how important books like these are. While the book isn't filled with colour photos of photogenic plants (it does have some lovely line drawings), the content should fill you with enough get up and go to think about how your life can improve the lot of plant life. Whether it's learning more about them, educating the ones around you, writing blog posts, or looking which little grown and appreciated plants would do well in your garden and growing them. Every step like this, is a step in the right direction.

We cannot wait. This steps, no matter how small, need to happen now. Perhaps you can start by reading this book?

05 April 2016

Tree Flowers: April 2016: Alder

The alder is a tree that is often found along the banks of rivers, which is no surprise as the wood is resistant to rotting in water. But this isn't the only interesting fact about alder as a genus, as it can also fix nitrogen in the soil.

It can fix nitrogen due to a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria called Frankia alni that lives within the roots of trees with the genus of Alnus, or alder. The bacteria absorbs the nitrogen from the air and in exchange for sugars, that the tree provides, it makes the nitrogen available to the tree. This nitrogen is also provided to the soil around the tree, which can make them useful as nurse trees.

There are many species of alder, around 35, along with a handful of cultivated varieties.

The flowers are wind pollinated catkins, with the males being pendulous and easily swayed by the wind. The female catkins are very small upright spikes and when looked at closely are slightly reminiscent of female hazel catkins. Flowering happens before the leaves appear, which of a common strategy for flowers that rely on wind for pollination. Additionally, both the male and female flowers occur on the same tree and neither have petals.

The photo above is an attempt at focus stacking a branch of alder. This shows last year's female catkins on the right, which are still on the tree despite having released the seeds. This is followed by this year's female catkins and male catkins.

Female catkin from the previous year.
Wind pollination is a very inefficient process and much of the pollen will fall to the ground or land on plants of different species and come to nothing. But, interestingly, it also seems that a large proportion of common alder seeds are actually empty. Add this to fact that common alder seeds don't store well either and this is pretty much a disaster! Seedlings of common alder will only naturally germinate in soils that are continuously wet for up to 30 days, during April through to June, and additionally must have exposure to the sun. Clearly the adoption of moist environments is not a coincidence as the seeds have appendages similar to cork that allow them to to float for around one year without any loss of viability.

Female catkin from the current year.
While alders can endure permanently moist environments, they can also endure drought conditions, which may make them a more common tree in the future. Alder is also an important tree for holding together river banks and preventing erosion.

Male catkin.
The timber from alders is often used for furniture, paper production, charcoal, and firewood. The remains of alder charcoal is found in archaeological finds, including those of the famous Beaker people, known for the pottery they produced. Interestingly, I've also read that the trees were also traditionally used to make clogs - which the Dutch half of me finds awesome.

Coombes, Allen J., and Zsolt Debreczy. The Book of Leaves: A Leaf-by-Leaf Guide to Six Hundred of the World’s Great Trees. S.l.: Ivy Press, 2015.
Hemery, Gabriel, and Sarah Simblet. The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
Alder - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2016. Alder - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alder#Classification. [Accessed 05 April 2016]. 

25 March 2016

Book Review: The Natural Explorer by Tristan Gooley

Tristan Gooley's previous book, The Natural Navigator, changed the way I viewed the world when out and about. So, I understandably had high hopes for this follow up.

07 March 2016

Tree Flowers: March 2016: Cornelian Cherry

Cornus mas, or the cornelian cherry is a small tree that grows to 6 metres in height. While the berries are red in colour with a flavour said to be similar to sour cherry; this tree is actually a dogwood. Another common name is edible dogwood, because the berries are often used in jams - due to their acidic flavour.

Like another yellow winter flowering plant, the forsythia, the cornelian cherry flowers before the leaves shoot. The flowers grow in bunches along the branch providing a mass of colour - quite impressive considering that each individual flower is very small.

The photograph below shows the bracts that protect the flowers. The bracts fully open and remain behind the flowers.

The flowers themselves have four yellow petals and four anthers surrounding a single carpel. A single carpel makes sense as each flower, once fertilised, will develop into a single berry. As you can see in the photograph below, even when the bract has opened (which can be seen at the back of the photograph), the flowers open at their own speed. I wonder if this may be an attempt to reduce the chance of self fertilisation, or to increase the overall flowering period giving the tree as a whole the best chance for fertilising as many flowers as possible if some open during poor environmental conditions - or both - or something else entirely!

Cornus mas - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2016. Cornus mas - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornus_mas. [Accessed 05 March 2016].