Category Archives: Flora of Britain

How oak galls are made

6-minute video by David Attenborough on the weird and wonderful life cycle of the knopper gall wasp (Andricus quercuscalicis.) as it provokes an oak tree to produce a gall in which the wasp can lay its eggs safely inside. From the BBC’s ‘Life in the Undergrowth’. The knopper gall wasp is just one of 70 gall wasps which can afflict a single British oak, though many have only a negligible effect on the tree.

From Wikipedia

  • Knopper galls develop as a chemically induced distortion of growing acorns on Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur (L.)) trees, caused by gall wasps which lay eggs within buds using their ovipositor. The gall thus produced can greatly reduce the fecundity of the oak host, making the gall a potentially more serious threat than those which develop upon leaves, buds, stems, etc. The Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris (L.)) introduced into Britain in 1735 is required for the completion of the life cycle of the gall
  • The word knopper derives from the German word ‘knoppe’ meaning a kind of felt cap or helmet worn during the 17th-century; also a small rounded protuberance, often decorative, such as a stud, a tassel or a knob

Spindle webs

web across nettles

Remarkable photo from the BBC’s Autumnwatch a few years back of spindle trees and bushes (Euonymus europaeus) in a Dorset hedgerow infested with the silk webs of the spindle moth or spindle ermine (Yponomeuta cagnagella). More here with a video.

Spindle ermines weave silk webs to protect themselves from birds and wasps, allowing them to gorge on leaves for six weeks before transforming into the moth. Not known for being bright sparks, they sometimes mistake other objects  for spindle trees such as this car in Rotterdam (Image: Daily Mail).
Moth attack: spindle ermines moth caterpillars covered this car with a giant silk web in Rotterdam

The ghost orchid still haunts British woods

Photo by Andy Swash

The location is a secret: somewhere in Herefordshire, and in an oak wood.  So secret that it’s taken several months to even disclose the news of its finding to the public.

The last sighting of the Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) was in Buckinghamshire back in 1986 and in 2005 it was declared extinct.  But amateur botanist sleuth Mark Jannink never gave up.  He runs a motorbike business for a living, but his passion is wild flowers, and last September his persistence paid off. Continue reading The ghost orchid still haunts British woods

Snowdrops, the poet’s flower

Poets love snowdrops.  Even Linnaeus got lyrical when he classified them as Galanthus nivalis, which translates as “milky flower of the snow”  (in Greek,  gala = milk and anthos = flower). For St. Francis the snowdrop was an emblem of hope and the touch of green on the inner petals has often been seized upon as a symbol of spring’s return.  It is uplifting to see the green sword-shaped leaves piercing the snow and the apparently fragile bell-shaped flowers resisting all that winter can hurl at them.

There is some disagreement about when the snowdrop was introduced to Britain: some say as late as the 16th century.  It’s noticeable for its absence in Shakespeare.  Snowdrops grow particularly profusely in damp deciduous woodlands, and flower from January to March: this year the Big Freeze has delayed them.

A list of gardens with particularly good snowdrop displays can be found here.

Praise for planting trees

The Guardian has an editorial this week praising the planting of trees, inspired by a scientific study for the Forestry Commission, calling for the mass planting of trees as a reliable and cheap way of soaking up carbon dioxide.

If Britain planted 23,200 hectares of woodland a year for the next 40 years, this country’s forests could soak up 10% of predicted emissions. That might sound like a lot of trees, but even at this rate woodland would cover only 16% of the land, far below the European average. The way this is done matters: no one wants to see a repeat of the endless dark lines of Sitka spruce which harmed the spirit of Ennerdale, in the Lake District, or drained the life from the peat soil of the Flow Country in Caithness. Read

RSPB chop down forest shock

Some quarters, particularly the forestry sector, are reacting with indignation and protest. In these times of climate change, it is argued, surely woodlands should be preserved, not eliminated. But what the RSPB are doing in Farnham, Surrey, by felling the conifer plantations, is restoring heathland, an increasingly rare habitat in Britain. What’s more, they are lobbying the government to clear more non-native conifers, a move that would favour biodiversity and species such as the nightjar, woodlark, sand lizard and adder, which thrive in more open shrubby areas.

As project manager Mike Coates succinctly puts it, “It should be the right tree in the right place. A field of barley is a field of grass, but it’s not a meadow; it’s a crop. In the same way, these are areas of land dominated by trees, but they are not woods, they are crops.”  Photograph: Graham Turner  Guardian

Rodborough Common: walking among orchids and butterflies

An airy place to stretch your legs, Rodborough Common is perched steeply over Stroud, on the edge of the Cotswolds.  Any time of the year is good for extensive views of the Severn estuary and Welsh mountains on the horizon, but spring to summer are best, as the carefully managed chalk grassland is a haven for butterflies and wild flowers.  Continue reading Rodborough Common: walking among orchids and butterflies

The impoverishment of British woods

Coed Tregib. Photo: Steven Kind @ Woodland Trust (click to enlarge)

A walk through a British wood may be delightful, but according to a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, woodlands are becoming more similar, leading to an overall homogenization of the landscape. They are, in a word, becoming duller. Continue reading The impoverishment of British woods

Pre-Raphaelites and nature: Ophelia

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood scandalised the Victorians with their unconventional paintings.  But Ophelia by John Everett Millais was loved even when first completed in 1852.  It remains one of the most popular paintings in the Tate collection and the gallery’s best-selling postcard.

The Industrial Revolution was in full blast, bringing with it a new freedom of movement. Millais, one of the founders of the Brotherhood, would take the train out of London and paint nature as he saw it, not according to the fixed conventions taught at the Royal Academy. Continue reading Pre-Raphaelites and nature: Ophelia

Jumping lice to fight knotfeed?

In a plan to use one non-native species to combat another, DEFRA is considering releasing jumping lice to fight battle against Japanese knotweed. The non-native sap-sucking insect would be released under licence to tackle the weed, which causes serious damage to buildings, roads and railway lines; while driving out other plants; and eroding river banks. Knotweed was originally introduced as an ornamental plant the early 19th century. It now lives unfettered without predators in the countryside. The Indepedent

Japanese knotweed is often considered Britain’s most invasive plant species.DEFRA notes: “The species also causes problems in terms of flood management. It increases the risk of riverbank erosion when the dense growth of the plant dies back in the autumn exposing bare soil. It can also create a flooding hazard if the dead stems are washed into the streams and clog up the channel. A fragment of root as small as 0.8 grams can grow to form a new plant.”

The National Trust’s ancient trees

Spanish sweet chestnuts, Croft Castle (Image: NTPL/Robert Morris)

The National Trust is embarking on a comprehensive survey to identify previously unrecorded ancient trees on its land. The NT’s land holdings are huge – they include more than 25,000 hectares of woodland, 200,000 hectares of farmland and 135 landscape and deer parks.As many as 40,000 trees are to be classified. Continue reading The National Trust’s ancient trees

Wildflowers in your garden

If you’re looking for wildflower seeds, an experienced supplier is Landlife, a registered charity who promote biodiversity.  But they don’t simply plant wildflowers.  Firm believers in nature’s power to heal and uplift, Landlife strive to improve the environment for people’s wellbeing, focusing particularly on deprived areas.  You can support their work by ordering fabulous mixtures of wildflower seeds, or making up your own combinations.  They are experts in large-scale conservation projects, as well as transforming small gardens, even balconies.  The photograph shows their classic best-selling Cornfield mix.

Read about their products and projects.

Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

Anyone out of the country that week in October came back to find an altered landscape.  An estimated 15 million trees had been toppled, mainly in southern England, which bore the brunt of the hurricane-force winds.  The north of Britain is used to ferocious winds, but the south hadn’t experienced anything like it for nearly 300 years.  The result was a large population of very tall, old trees that had never been tested by such severe weather conditions. Continue reading Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

Nettles and ancient human habitation

Stinging nettles can give away secrets of our past. They have a strong association with human habitation and buildings. This is because our waste of refuse, ash and bones is rich in phosphate, which then builds up in the soil, and Continue reading Nettles and ancient human habitation