“Still flowerings”

from Simon Leach 11th November

Weeks 29 to 34 – drop-outs, hangers-on, second flings and upstarts

The start of another lockdown, and as good a moment as any to peep over the parapet again. Almost miraculously, the weather on the eve of this second lockdown was exactly the same as it was back in March at the start of the first. A ground frost, followed by a day of unbroken sunshine, and an afternoon high of 13°C. It felt almost spring-like!

Given my year-long obsession with spring you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m finding autumn a bit of a challenge. If I were to claim otherwise, I’d be lying. But this isn’t for want of trying, I can tell you. Vicki and I have been dipping into and out of BBC’s Autumnwatch, and like Chris Packham I’ve spent quality time with conkers, sniffed great fistfuls of leaf litter and humus, and welcomed the arrival of Fieldfares and Redwings. We’ve marvelled, too, at flocks of two-hundred or more Avocets on the Parrett Estuary. And uncountable numbers of Dunlin. We’ve seen Peregrines and departing Swallows; and Red Admirals on late bramble blossom and rotting windfalls. I’ve been revelling, as best I can, in the autumn colours this year, even after our failed attempt to ‘pre-book’ a visit to Westonbirt. We went to Ashton Court instead, meeting up with some of Vicki’s family for a socially-distanced picnic in the rain; the Beech trees, in particular, were stunning.

But despite such autumnal highlights, it’s the things still flowering that have really helped to keep my spirits up. Spurred on by the “chairman’s challenge”, on 1st October—at the start of my ‘Week 29’—I resolved, if I could, to keep a weekly list of species still flowering on my local patch. Steve asked us to concentrate on a 1-km square, but I found it hard not to stray beyond the gridlines, and have ended up making a note of anything still flowering on any of our usual dog-walking circuits in and around Taunton. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the extras seen while making a rare trip along the M5 (Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus), or when traipsing across Steart Marshes (Parsley Water-dropwort, Oenanthe lachenalii), or on one-off visits to Ash Priors Common (Devil’s-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis) or Langford Heathfield (Sneezewort, Achillea ptarmica), or Lydeard Hill (Bell Heather, Erica cinerea, and Cross-leaved Heath, Erica tetralix), or…

Which means I’ve ended up trying to keep multiple lists, involving another spread-sheet, damn it. For the “chairman’s challenge” I decided to confine my recording to Longrun Meadow, although even this falls foul of Steve’s rules (or were they guidelines?) in that this not-very-big site inconveniently straddles not one, not two, not three, but four monads. Apart from that, all but one of our usual dog-walking routes lie within ST22—the only exception being Orchard Wood which annoyingly strays into ST12 at its southern end.

The start of Week 29 coincided nicely with the beginning of October and the launch date for the “chairman’s challenge”. I have to say that, challenge or not, the last six weeks have been something of a revelation, with my own list of flowerers amounting to 257 species, and most of these—well, at least 200—on our regular dog-walking routes. Of these, 80 were seen flowering in Longrun Meadow. Yet even the relatively short list for Longrun contains a few surprises. Hoary Cinquefoil, Potentilla argentea, is (as of 7th November) still flowering nicely, but the most astonishing ‘still-flowerer’ has to be Grass-leaved Vetchling, Lathyrus nissolia. There’s a big patch of it on the bank of the western-most flood retention lagoon—the end nearest the Hospice—and it’s still throwing out the odd flower more than five months after the first flowers appeared in late May. And let’s not forget Alastair’s first record of it flowering in Minehead, on 20th April. To put these extreme dates into perspective, Walter Watson gave the flowering period for Grass-leaved Vetchling as ‘June to July’. Clapham, Tutin & Warburg suggests ‘May to July’. No mention of November (or April) anywhere…

A few, of course, like Ivy, Hedera helix, Gorse, Ulex europaeus, and Sowbread, Cyclamen hederifolium, are species that we’d expect to be flowering in the autumn. Most of October’s flowerers, however, are probably best regarded as ‘hangers-on’ from summer, with some of these finally throwing in the towel at some point during the six weeks since Steve’s “challenge” began. I estimate that at least 30 species have been lost over that time, joining a long list of others that had already ceased flowering before the end of September. It is a curious fact that quite a few species coming into flower relatively late in the summer also seem to drop out remarkably early in the autumn. Carline Thistle, Carlina vulgaris, and Strawberry Clover, Trifolium fragiferum, are two examples of this. And notice how Small Teasel, Dipsacus pilosus, starts later and finishes earlier than Wild Teasel, D. fullonum, with the latter still flowering in one or two favoured spots as late as the fourth week of October. Amongst my own ‘drop-outs’, last records of flowering Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, Meadow Vetchling, Lathyrus pratensis,and Dodder, Cuscuta epithymum, were all in the first week of the month. The second week saw more species succumbing, including the last Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, Great Willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum, Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, and Greater Plantain, Plantago major—although the last of these is hard to spot, its rather underwhelming flowers making it look ‘past its best’ even when it’s at its peak! Lesser Burdock, Arctium minus, also petered out, for me at least, in the second week of October.

The third week of October (Week 31) had a host of last-flowerers. At Thurlbear, for instance, I witnessed what turned out to be the final flowering of Wild Parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, Stemless Thistle, Cirsium acaule, and Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Pilosella officinarum. In town, down by the river, we had the last Marsh Woundwort, Stachys palustris, Water Figwort, Scrophularia auriculata, Water Mint, Mentha aquatica,Amphibious Bistort, Persicaria amphibia, and Hemp-agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum. None of these gave the impression that they’d be gone so soon, and yet the following week, and the week after that, the inevitability of their absence gradually dawned…

Being certain of the week of the final ‘curtain call’ for each species gets more problematic the nearer you get to the present moment, since there’s always the hope that something apparently gone in the last week may yet come back to surprise us next week. So I hesitate to claim, yet, the last Bush Vetch, Vicia sepium, or Fool’s Watercress, Apium nodiflorum. And only this week am I starting to feel confident that I’ve probably seen the last of Thurlbear’s Autumn Gentians, Gentianella amarella, and Eyebrights, Euphrasia agg. Although, having said that, I thought we’d lost Yellow-wort, Blackstonia perfoliata, last week, and then miraculously it popped into view again on Monday. Struck off one week, reinstated the next!

So, these are the drop-outs, but then there’s the (currently much bigger) group of what I’m calling ‘hangers-on’, the spring- and summer-flowering species that seem intent on continuing to flower through thick and thin, although in almost every case we have to acknowledge that at some date, yet to be specified, they too will (in some cases quite literally) fall by the wayside. My own list currently has upwards of 130 such species, and one wonders which will be next to make the switch from ‘hanger-on’ to ‘drop-out’. Within Taunton there are no fewer than five still-flowering Crane’s-bills, Geranium spp., although three of them—Dove’s-foot, G. molle, Small-flowered, G.  pusillum, and Hedgerow, G. pyrenaicum—haven’t been seen this week so may have already gone. Meadow Crane’s-bill, G. pratense, continues to light up patches of long grassland by the River Tone between Obridge and Creech Castle, but there’s less each week, and I’m preparing myself for the shock of its vanishing—it’s been a constant companion since its first appearance on 12th May, almost exactly six months ago. Meanwhile, Herb Robert, G. robertianum, the hardiest of the lot, carries on undeterred, and might well continue to produce flowers even in the middle of winter if it stays reasonably mild.

Alongside Herb Robert there’s a gang of species renowned for their all-year-round ability to keep going when those around them have long since stuttered to a halt. Daisy, Bellis perennis, Shepherd’s-purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Petty Spurge, Euphorbia peplus, Annual Meadow-grass, Poa annua, Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris,and Dandelion, Taraxacum agg., are six such species. But, in Taunton, and maybe more widely in Somerset, there are others flowering now that in the past you wouldn’t have expected to persist through the darkest quarter of the year. White Dead-nettle, Lamium album, is a case in point. Watson had its average first flowering date (FFD) as 11th March, yet in the last decade we’ve usually seen it already blooming on New Year’s Day. A still more extreme example is Pellitory-of-the-wall, Parietaria judaica: Watson had it flowering between May and October, but that seems almost ludicrous now, as this is another one that in recent years has continued to flower right through the winter. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is another. As is Annual Mercury, Mercurialis annua. And Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium. And maybe Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris? And it’s worth keeping an eye on your local Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis, too. The list of these ‘all-rounders’ seems to get longer with each passing year…

Another group of species flowering at the moment are those that I like to think of as having a ‘second fling’—these are plants that, following a (usually lengthy) period without flowers in mid to late summer, have recently indulged in a second spike[1] of flowering due to the exceptionally mild (and until last week, frost-free) autumn. Some of them you had already begun noting in September: Gill’s Holly, Ilex aquifolium, and Ann’s Wayfaring-tree, Viburnum lantana, for example. But there have been many others in October. The one that’s surprised me the most has been Heath Speedwell, Veronica officinalis, at Thurlbear and Orchard Wood. It’s not just the odd plant either, it’s dozens of plants, maybe hundreds. Watson’s flowering period for it is May to August, but I’m starting to think that this new flush of flowers could keep going until December, weather permitting.

Other species engaged in a ‘second fling’ have included Soft-brome, Bromus hordeaceus, Rye-brome, B. secalinus, Long-stalked Crane’s-bill, Geranium columbinum, Ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea, Cowslip, Primula veris, and Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa. On one wood-bank at Thurlbear I’ve even seen fresh-flowering Wood Melick, Melica uniflora, stamens and all, while the amount of Dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, blossoming now is quite exceptional—although this is one that Watson did recognise as being peculiarly prone to a second bout of flowering in mild autumns.

And then there’s the group of species that I’m calling ‘upstarts’—the ones that seem to be getting ahead of themselves, behaving as though winter’s nearly done and spring’s starting gun is about to be fired. Maybe a few of the ‘second flings’, like the Blackthorn, have been acting in a similar way, but there are others: Early Dog-violet, Viola reichenbachiana, is already flowering in the back garden, while Primrose, Primula vulgaris, is beginning to bloom up at Thurlbear. At Orchard Wood this morning there was lots of flowering Ivy-leaved Speedwell, Veronica hederifolia, and Wall Speedwell, Veronica arvensis, where two weeks ago there was none. Watson’s flowering period for Ivy-leaved Speedwell was February to June! And Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill, Geranium dissectum, was flowering there too. Watson reckoned on its flowering period to be May to August, so to see a new generation of plants beginning to flower in November is odd, to put it mildly (pun intended).

I’ve reflected more than once this year on how much harder it is to record the ending of something than its start. The latter only requires you to make one record, the date on which you first see it. But endings mean you have to keep noting something over and over, and over again; and then it’s only when you stop noting it that you realise, with the benefit of hindsight, that it’s finally slipped from view. Much like trying to spot the last Swift. But the “chairman’s challenge” invites us to try to keep track of these disappearances, and although my own catalogue of losses will be quite unlike anyone else’s, it’ll be interesting to see what similarities there are between our various lists. As Steve says, we should find the lists getting shorter as the year progresses, with December’s possibly the shortest of the lot. Unless, of course, the weather continues to stay mild, which might allow some of the ‘hangers-on’ to keep going until the earliest of next year’s spring-flowerers like Hazel, Corylus avellana, Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola, and Sweet Violet, Viola odorata, are underway. In the meantime, for those of us impatient to begin next spring’s main course, within a matter of days there could be Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans, to whet the appetite.

Yes, I know it can be a bit of a thug, but it does at least do an admirable job (despite its name) of signalling spring when everything else seems to be screaming winter.

[1] There are many words and phrases that have been purloined by the pandemic, and as such have lost their innocence and acquired more sinister meanings. I think ‘second spike’ is a good example of that—which is a pity. There are other words that didn’t seem to even exist a year ago. Where, for instance, did the horrid word ‘uptick’ come from? It just means ‘increase’, doesn’t it? So why don’t they just say ‘increase’? In my view uptick should be banned from the English language. (And then there’s ‘lockdown’ which is probably here to stay, unfortunately.)

The Rare Plant Register is now updated

We’re very grateful to Karen Andrews for taking on this task, so that all the available accounts are now linked to their names in the Rare Plant Register. Easy to summarise in a few words, but behind this news there’s been a lot of work in organising detail and replacing old content. Many thanks to Karen for taking this on so that it now reflects Helena’s hard work in writing and updating.

First Flowering 2020 Final Roundup

Was it really such an exceptional year?

Our lives this year have been dominated by graphs and charts. And, worryingly, many of the lines on these graphs are now heading in the wrong direction again. Infection rates are rising, the ‘rule of six’ prevails (except where it doesn’t), and local lockdowns are starting to proliferate—though, thankfully, not in Somerset yet. One secondary school in Taunton has had two year-group ‘bubbles’ self-isolating within 10 days of the start of the new school year. That’s more than 400 pupils, apparently. The test and trace system seems to be creaking under the strain. This doesn’t bode well, and right now it’s hard to see where it will all end.

We are in for a tough winter. From today’s vantage point, perched on the autumn equinox, the notion that any time soon we might be able to meet in a room together to talk about plants seems fanciful. Let’s hope that by the time of the next equinox we’ll be able to meet again. Presumably some of the field meetings cancelled this year could be rolled forward to 2021: maybe we’ll hold that early-April meeting in Orchard Wood after all, just twelve months later than anticipated.

But what about first flowerings? Has it really been such an exceptional year? This isn’t the easiest question to answer, and it may have to involve a few charts or graphs, which I’m sorry about because we’re probably all sick to the back teeth of such things. At least these graphs have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with viral pandemics. So, let’s try to think of them as light relief, if that’s possible?

Walter Watson. Let’s start with Walter Watson who, as you know, in the early decades of the last century kept detailed records of first flowering dates (FFDs). His paper, published in 1949, included a 19-page Table of average FFDs and ‘flowering periods’ for no less than 843 species. A total that puts the rest of us to shame, frankly. Watson lived in Taunton, and much of the fieldwork he did was in the south and west of the county. For the bulk of species his FFDs were based on at least 10 years’ records, which we think were made in the 1920s and early 1930s[1]. The man’s energy was extraordinary. Don’t forget that during this time he was teaching Biology at Taunton School, while also actively involved in the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, as well as being an internationally-renowned lichenologist, a more-than-competent bryologist and mycologist, and (as it happens) a man with an interest in plant galls. As if that weren’t enough, he was an avid watcher of cricket. For most of his adult life he was a member of Somerset County Cricket Club; at the time of his death, in 1960, he was the Club’s longest-serving member. He proved, if proof were needed, that one can combine natural history with a love of cricket. A relief to us all, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But that’s not the point. The point, really, is that Walter Watson bequeathed to his successors this amazing baseline of information, allowing us to compare FFDs today with those of roughly a century ago. Of his 843 species, this year we’ve recorded first dates for 526 of them. Up until mid-March the FFDs were mine, of course, but from the start of lockdown they could have been anyone’s. Plotting our earliest FFD for each species in 2020 against Watson’s FFDs gives us the graph in Fig. 1. There are 526 dots, each one a species.

Fig. 1 First flowering dates (FFDs) for 529 species in 2020, plotted against ‘average first flowering times’ given by Watson. Dates are shown as day no. (1 January = day 1). The diagonal line marks the line along which the data-points would lie if 2020 FFDs were identical to Watson’s; above the line the 2020 date is later than Watson’s date, below the line is earlier

You can see immediately that the data-points lie mainly below the line, indicating that our dates were, on the whole, earlier than Watson’s. Indeed, only 19 species (3.6%) had later dates than Watson’s, and some of these were probably only ‘late’ because during lockdown the places in which we might find them were hard for us to visit. If you don’t like graphs, let’s summarise these findings with a single statistic: overall, our FFDs were, on average, 31 days earlier than the dates listed in Watson’s big Table.

Really? Watson, I think, would be spinning in his grave. Mind you, his dates were average FFDs over more than a decade, so obviously in some years his dates would have been earlier than average while in others they’d have been later[2]. But a whole month earlier? He’d doubtless protest that his dates were based on one pair of eyes operating across a fairly restricted geographical area, whereas ours had the benefit of many pairs of eyes scattered across the entire county. And, to be fair, he’d be right to insist that the latter would produce an earlier crop of dates than the former. In essence, then, he’d say that we had an unfair advantage.

So, maybe a fairer comparison would be to test our dates against his by restricting the analysis to just one person’s FFDs. So let’s try that. We’ll take mine, if that’s okay with everyone, since not only does that give us the largest pool of species to work with, it also comprises a set of records drawn from a geographical area that is roughly similar to Watson’s. The first thing to be said, though, is that as soon as you use only one person’s records you lose an awful lot of information, as the pool of species becomes substantially reduced—despite the fact that the individual concerned was being spurred on each week by everyone else’s recording! I recorded FFDs for 406 species, just over three-quarters of the number recorded by the group as a whole. The results for these are shown in in the graph in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 FFDs for 406 species recorded by SJL in 2020, plotted against ‘average first flowering times’ given by Watson. Dates are shown as day no. (1 January = day 1). The diagonal line marks the line along which the data-points would lie if 2020 FFDs were identical to Watson’s; above the line the 2020 date is later than Watson’s date, below the line is earlier

I’m not altogether happy with my own records for this spring. In late March and April, for instance, there were places I couldn’t get to, either because they were beyond the limits of daily permitted exercise or because Ben had gone off with the car. So some dates may actually be a little later than they would have been had we not been in lockdown. But bear in mind that Watson, too, was living through a pandemic—in his case the Spanish ‘flu—and he’d probably be keen to stress that his own mobility would have been pretty limited[3], and his records were made mostly while he was still working full-time, while I’ve had the advantage of being retired and with time on my hands. We could have argued the toss late into the night, him and me, but none of that would alter the fact that my own FFDs for 2020 are still strikingly early—below the line—in comparison with his. Again, for those who dislike graphs, my dates for these 406 species were, on average, 28 days earlier than Watson’s.

Interestingly, if we do the calculation again, but this time using the group’s earliest FFDs for these species rather than my own, the figure is 34 days earlier. Which illustrates well the added value of having many pairs of eyes, the group’s FFDs being earlier, on average, by almost a week compared with my own dates. Actually, the difference would have been greater than this, since first-flowerers before lockdown (i.e. between January and mid-March) were only recorded by me, even though others in the group would doubtless have conjured up earlier records had they been involved from the outset.

So, okay: our FFDs in 2020 were exceptionally early in comparison with the sorts of dates that Watson was getting about a century ago. But, you might say, this is barely newsworthy: climate change is happening, the evidence is all around us, and frankly it would have been surprising had our dates not been much earlier than Watson’s. And yet many of us still felt—at least during lockdown—that the spring of 2020 was unusual, even when assessed against today’s ‘new normal’. Was it, perhaps, that the season’s gallop, its speed of advancement, accelerated just at the moment our own movements were suddenly curtailed? In which case, could our perceptionof ‘earliness’ really just have been an artefact of lockdown? Was it simply that we were keeping a closer eye on spring that we would normally do, and therefore noticing things that we might otherwise have overlooked?

Well, the weather this spring was certainly unusual. It was, after all, one of the driest and sunniest springs on record. In fact it was the sunniest since records began, in 1929. Also, it followed an exceptionally mild and relatively frost-free winter. Nationally, it was the sixth-warmest January since 1884, and the warmest in the 13 years that I’ve been recording FFDs, i.e. since 2008. February was also relatively mild, being the second-warmest during that same period (only 2019 was warmer). March wasn’t especially mild, but this was followed by the second-warmest April and May since 2008. Summer was marked by prolonged periods of mainly dull weather; yet while June and July were relatively cool by today’s standards, August 2020 was, nationally, the warmest on record. In SW England, seven of the nine months from December to August had mean daily temperatures at least 1°C warmer than the long term (1961-1990) average.

Given the weather, then, one might anticipate that spring 2020 would indeed have been ‘early’, even in comparison with other recent springs. We can test this by looking at the FFDs of species in 2020 against their 2008-2017 ‘decadal average’ FFDs. This reduces the pool of species still further, since there are only 339 species for which we have a decade’s-worth of FFDs. In 2020 I failed to record FFDs for ten of these, but results for the other 329 are shown in the graph in Fig. 3. Note that the x-axis has changed: it now shows my own 2008-17 average FFDs, rather than Watson’s from back in the day.

Fig. 3 FFDs for 329 species recorded by SJL in 2020, plotted against 2008-17 decadal average FFDs recorded by same observer. Dates are shown as day no. (1 January = day 1). The diagonal line marks the line along which the data-points would lie if 2020 FFDs were identical to the decadal average; above the line the 2020 date is later than the decadal average, below the line is earlier

Again, most data-points sit well below the line, indicating that FFDs in 2020 were for most species earlier than their decadal average. Look closely, though, and you’ll see a little group of dots sitting well above the line around day 100 on the y-axis; these ‘late’ FFDs were at the end of March/beginning of April when lockdown brought me to a temporary standstill and some usual haunts like Thurlbear Quarrylands and Orchard Wood suddenly became off limits. Nevertheless, taking all species combined, FFDs in 2020 were, on average, 15 days earlier than the decadal average. More than that, though, it turns out that they were 4 days earlier than even the earliest set of dates during that decade, in 2014.

In summary, then: FFDs in 2020 were 28-31 days earlier (on average) than in Watson’s day, 15 days earlier (on average) than in the decade 2008-17, and 4 days earlier (on average) than even the earliest spring of that decade. So, to answer the original question: yes, it has been an exceptional year.

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Today, 21st September, has been sunny “from the word GO!”, as weather forecasters like to put it. A cloudless sky to mirror perfectly the weather we were experiencing in Week 1 of lockdown. A lot warmer today though. The spring equinox was marked by a ground frost and a daytime maximum temperature of 14°C. Today’s maximum is 25°C. We’ve been sitting in the garden enjoying Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, and Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria,and a Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Macroglossum stellatarum, has been busily working its way across the patch of ground we optimistically call ‘the flower border’.

Several of you have been reporting second first flowerings.  An Indian summer can sometimes bring with it a nod to spring, and so it’s with a sense of déjà vu that Gill, Helena, and Margaret—and maybe others—have been noting flowers on trees of Holly, Ilex aquifolium, otherwise laden with berries. Ann Fells and I have noted Wayfaring-tree, Viburnum lantana, blooming again in the Taunton area—Ann has seen flowering Spindle, Euonymus europaeus, too—while Hester’s Greater Chickweed, Stellaria neglecta, was soon followed by Grass-leaved Vetchling, Lanthyus nissolia, on a grassy bank in Longrun Meadow, as well as Goat’s-beard, Tragopogon pratensis and its startlingly beautiful hybrid with Salsify, T. porrifolius, T. x mirabilis, which hadn’t been seen flowering since the end of May. There have also been records of Dogwood, Cornus sanguineus, and Apple, Malus domestica,flowering a second time, while one or two of you have mentioned unseasonal sightings of Cowslip, Primula veris, and Primrose, P. vulgaris. Margaret claimed possibly the unlikeliest record of the last few weeks when she saw several newly-flowering Yellow Iris, Iris pseudacorus, in a ditch near Chew Valley Lake on 15th September.Blooming ridiculous, if you’ll excuse the pun!

This morning at Thurlbear I’ve had a wide variety of still-flowering plants like Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare, Hawkweed Oxtongue, Picris hieracioides, Wild Thyme, Thymus drucei, Musk Mallow, Malva moschata, Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria, and Traveller’s-joy, Clematis vitalba. We are used to the flowering periods of such species continuing long into the autumn, but these records of spring/early-summer species are much more surprising. It’s like we’re viewing the world through a distorting mirror, the seasons temporarily jumbled in an early-autumn heat haze. We claimed that spring had finally ended with the first blossom of Ivy, Hedera helix, but now there’s this echo, a faint reprise of better days—like a second spring, of sorts. But it won’t last, it never does, and as the temperatures tumble so these flowers will begin to falter, like little lights going out. The Ivy, though, will see us through. You can always rely on the Ivy.

21st September

[1] We don’t know precisely which years, unfortunately.

[2] Unfortunately, the raw data from which his average FFDs were calculated cannot be found, so we have no idea the range of dates he recorded.

[3] There is much we don’t know about Walter Watson. Did he own a car, for instance? Or did he have to rely on public transport to get around the county? We’ve got no idea…

Week 21 Roundup

Week 21 Roundup: 12th August

By some margin, the hottest week of the year. I’m in the study sweating profusely, and with every intention of being here for as short a time as possible. Drafting first-flowering updates is not for the faint-hearted…

Actually, there’s really not much to report, as everything—and everyone—seems to have been struck down by the heat. So to keep it brief, this week’s summary can take the form of a diary, lifted mainly from the ‘NoteBook’ app on my phone—not much in my ‘real’ notebook—plus various texts, emails and WhatsApp messages. All very modern, all very ‘twenty-first century’.

Thursday, 6th. 25°C. Spent the afternoon in friends’ back garden in Rockwell Green. Chicory, Cichorium intybus, on verge of ‘ring road’ was my first of the year. They have a garden pond, in which Water Mint, Mentha aquatica, is flowering. They also have Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, which they’re keen to get rid of, so I try to convert them by saying that it’s f. pentarrhabdotus. Not sure they were terribly impressed, to be honest.

Val finds his first Common Fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, in flower, on Chasey’s Drove, along with Amphibious Bistort, Persicaria amphibia, galled by the midge Wachtliella persicariae.

Evening: sitting in another garden, this time in Colin Avenue, Taunton, eating a Gurkha 3 takeaway and discussing Test match—while keeping an eye on the sky. At least five Swifts repeatedly circling, the first birds for a couple of days. Clearly, they haven’t gone after all. A huge relief.

Friday, 7th. 27°C.  Early morning: an email from Andrew to report that he and others had seen Common Sea-lavender, Limonium vulgare, flowering at Uphill on the 4th, while there was Flowering Rush, Butomus umbellatus, on Allerton Moor on the 3rd, “… just when I’d given up hope of seeing any flowering locally [this year.]” Also, in response to my rather late FFD for Sneezewort, Achillea ptarmica, last week, he says that he’d recorded it flowering at Edford Meadows on 7th July.

Late morning: to Thurlbear Wood, trying to find some shade. First-flowering Creeping-Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, at last! Dark Bush-crickets, Pholidoptera griseoaptera, ‘chirping’ in the brambles, plus late-summer generation (partial second brood) Small Heaths, Coenonympha pamphilus, and Dingy Skippers, Erynnis tages. Freshly emerged Brimstones, Gonepteryx rhamni, as well—two brightly-coloured males—it could almost be spring again.

Meanwhile, Toby posting on WhatsApp: “Afternoon all, first few Goldilocks Aster [Galatella linosyris] out at Brean Down today!”  And another post, with photo, this time from Helena at Harptree Combe: “Pretty stars in the grass for you! Campanula patula [Spreading Bellflower] at its only Somerset site.” And then another, less pretty, from Dee in Clevedon, who has Fuschias in her garden afflicted by the rather grotesque galls of the dreaded Fuschia mite, Aculops fuschiae. At which point, Steve decides to wander into his garden in N. Petherton, only to find that he’s got Fuschia gall mites too.[1]

Late afternoon: more Swifts, a tight group of at least fifteen. First one, then two, then three ‘mewing’ Peregrines, circling lazily, until one suddenly plunges into a stoop and aims directly at three, maybe five, Swifts dashing at rooftop height down Gordon Road. They scatter in all directions and the Peregrine—presumably a young bird from the nest on St Mary’s church tower—gains height again to re-join its siblings, with nothing to show for its efforts. Friends had come over for a back-garden cuppa but hadn’t bargained on such wildlife spectacles. Neither had we.

Saturday, 8th. 29°C. Listening to Test Match Special—England closing in on a most remarkable win against Pakistan—while also watching Taunton Deane narrowly lose to Taunton St Andrews. Then a couple of pints of cider on the outfield, which may explain the lack of Swifts this evening…

Sunday, 9th. 26°C. Morning: Longrun Meadow, thistle-down everywhere. Thistle heads looking like particularly dishevelled prime-ministerial hairdos. Small Teasel, Dipsacus pilosus, still flowering nicely.

An email from David Reid, to say that he has Cowslips, Primula veris, flowering in his garden. And then Margaret posts a ‘selfie’ on WhatsApp, showing off her splendid new botanically-themed face mask. It looks so much better than my own (probably useless) black snood—unless you’re needing to look like a bank robber, in which case mine’s perfect. Oh, and she also had flowering Water Mint at Blagdon Lake.

Evening: supper in the garden. Three Swifts, very briefly, swoop down to chimney-pot height, calling madly and giving the impression of being local birds.

Monday, 10th. 24°C, the coolest day of the week, but still oppressively humid. Barrington Hill. Autumn Lady’s-tresses, Spiranthes spiralis, flowering nicely: maybe 50+ spikes along top edge of Hilly Field, and smaller numbers in Clover Ground and the bottom field. Lower flowers on some spikes already going over—so may have been flowering for a week or more? Abundant Strawberry Clover, Trifolium fragiferum, now living up to its name: ‘strawberries’ everywhere.  Gilly’s ears covered in Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria, burrs. Brilliant view of a Barn Owl, flushed from a hedgerow Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna. A Skylark singing, briefly, and a Robin; otherwise, very little bird noise—apart from numerous Wood Pigeons. Blackthorns, Prunus spinosa, laden with sloes; Oaks, Quercus robur, laden with acorns, many of them sporting knopper galls caused by the gall-wasp Andricus quercuscalicis. Also, several ‘pepperpot galls’ in the flower-heads of Common Fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, caused by a tiny fruit fly now known as Myopites apicatus (previously M. inulaedyssentericae). [2]

On the way home, more Chicory, in a field border near Staple Fitzpaine. Also a Jersey Tiger, Euplagia quadripunctaria, perched on Hoary Ragwort, Jacobea erucifolia. Various colour-forms of Field Bindweed, the best being f. notatus. Two male Clouded Yellows, Coleas croceus.

Late afternoon: 4.51 pm to be precise.  Steve’s on the wireless, BBC Radio Somerset, talking about the recent re-appearance of Lesser Water-plantain, Baldellia ranunculoides, at Shapwick. Excellent interview. Steve, afterwards, on WhatsApp: “stiff drink required.”

No Swifts: stiff drink needed here, too.

Tuesday, 11th. 33°C. Sweltering… No desire to do anything today, really. First adult Speckled Bush-cricket, Leptophyes punctassisima, calling faintly from the flower bed.

A flurry of excitement on WhatsApp following Val’s posting of photos of Broad-leaved Ragwort, Senecio sarracenicus (= S. fluviatilis), beside the River Brue at Baltonsborough. The Floras have it as an alien, the Atlas as a neophyte; yet its early introduction (before 1600) and first date in the wild (1633), combined with its decline nationally, suggest that it could be close to the fuzzy margin between neophyte and archaeophyte…

Meanwhile, Steve is beavering away in N. Petherton, dealing with a “freedom on information request.” Another stiff drink called for, perhaps?

Skies empty again, no Swifts.

Today, 12th. The air today is unbearably heavy and humid. Didn’t sleep well. Overnight low of 19°C. Early morning: up to Thurlbear Wood. Very little to report. Blackcaps: tchack, tchack … tchack alarm calls, like someone flint-knapping in the trees. Other birds are lying low: just a few hard-to-locate and impossible-to-identify ‘seep’ calls from the undergrowth. A startled Blue Tit. A brief snatch of Robin song against the background noise of jumbo jets passing overhead—normality raised another notch.

It’s now mid-afternoon, and the temperature has risen to 35°C.

I can’t stay in this room any longer, so we plan an evening dash to the coast.

Some while later…

We’ve been to Watchet. The smell of seaweed, views of the Welsh coast, ammonites, Sandwich Terns, and at least a dozen Swifts. And, later, fish and chips. Our second, but much-needed, visit to the seaside in nearly six months.

Meanwhile, David H is actually in Wales, sending us WhatsApp ‘postcards’ from Llyn Fanod, Ceredigion: Lesser Skullcap, Scutellaria minor, Water Lobelia, Lobelia dortmanna, Floating Water-plantain, Luronium natans

And then Helena, on her second Cam Valley Botany Walk of the summer, not only avoids the brewing thunder storms but also turns up flowering Autumn Lady’s-tresses, Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, and Clustered Bellflower, C. glomerata. Clearly, a good week for bellflowers.

No preview needed for the coming week. Nothing much still to be seen, frankly. A few odds and sods, a few stragglers. And Ivy, Hedera helix, of course: the final piece in spring’s jigsaw…

[1]  Worth keeping an eye out for this gall. It’s a horticultural pest, and apparently spreading rapidly in southern Britain. First record in Somerset was in 2010 (Minehead), first record in Taunton area was in 2017. I think Dee’s may be the first record of it from VC6 but, as demonstrated by Steve, it can be easily overlooked! Dee says: “I can’t remember seeing it in my garden before, though perhaps I might not have noticed a low level of infection. Certainly it’s pretty widespread in Clevedon: walking this morning, I noticed quite a lot of plants infected.”

[2]   Most easily searched for later in the autumn, after the flower-heads have begun to fall apart, but worth looking for it now if you enjoy a challenge. Work your way through a patch of Common Fleabane, pressing down on the disc of each flower-head. An ungalled head will feel slightly spongy, and if you strip off the disc florets you’ll find the base of the flower-head (the receptacle) is small and relatively flat. A galled head will feel hard and swollen beneath the disc when you squish it, and removing the disc florets will reveal the galled receptacle, usually with a few tiny holes where the adult flies have exited the gall—hence the nickname ‘pepperpot gall’. Apparently quite scarce in the UK, M. apicatus is rare in central and northern Europe, but more frequent in southern Europe. First record in Somerset was in 2015, but a thin scatter of records in recent years suggest either we’ve been overlooking it or that it’s spreading. If the latter, might be in response to climate change?

Week 20 Roundup

Week 20 Roundup: 5th August

She’s right, of course. Everyone has their favourite season, it’s just that this one isn’t mine! But, yes, as Ellen points out, ‘high summer’ does indeed have its delights and compensations. Two weeks ago, for instance, I was lamenting the general lack of birdsong, but now—as if from nowhere—Wood Pigeons have stepped in to fill the breach: Tim Dee, this time in Four Fields, refers to late-summer pigeons playing “again and again [their] cracked tuba,” to produce  “… a lullaby sung on an iron-lung.” Apart from the pigeons, there’s still the odd Blackcap, an occasional Chiffchaff, and the wheezy rasp of Greenfinches. And then yesterday, down by the river, in an old apple tree, I heard my first ‘post-moult’ Robin. Further along the river, in a bramble patch, a Wren made a hesitant, half-hearted stab at singing again.

The world’s still turning, then, and these scraps of birdsong make up, just a little, for the sudden absence of Swifts. Last Thursday there were dozens in the skies above Taunton; on Friday and Saturday they could still be seen, and heard, as they careered and screamed around the streets at rooftop height, as well as larger numbers at higher altitude, probably feasting on flying ants. (On Friday, the gulls were gorging themselves too, strutting around the outfield at the cricket ground, picking off ants as they crawled across the grass.) On Sunday, the local air-space had become quiet, just a single sighting of one Swift, late in the day—plus, for good measure, a ‘mewing’ Peregrine that circled high above the street, before landing on the church tower opposite, causing consternation and panic amongst the local gull population. On Monday, two Swifts, early in the morning, then nothing for the rest of the day; yesterday, four birds first thing, then nothing; and finally today, nothing, nothing, nothing. So, it seems our local Swifts spent the weekend fattening up on ants, then skedaddled.  

Of course, we may yet glimpse the odd singleton passing through, but there’s no getting round the fact: they’ve gone. As Peter Brown puts it, in Swifts Round a Tower: “Three precious months / Is all that they could stay, / May, flaming June / And hot July. / Now swifts have left / To our dismay.” At this point in the year, the ‘Taunton Deane Swifts’ WhatsApp group becomes a support network for those of us struggling with the harsh reality of a world without Swifts. It happens every year, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

There have, though, been arrivals as well as departures. Georgina had her first Clouded Yellow, Colias croceus, on the 30th, at Draycott Sleights—amongst “hundreds” of Chalkhill Blues, Polyommatus coridon—while Keith Gould saw a female Clouded Yellow at Roughmoor on the 22nd. He also reports that in the last week at Thurlbear there has been the beginnings of a partial second brood of Dingy Skippers, Erynnis tages. Usually this butterfly has just a single generation each year, in the spring (April-May), but in especially hot summers second brood adults can occasionally be seen on the wing in southern England in August. Plants can do something similar, re-enacting spring with a second burst of flowering late in the season, like Val’s Spring Cinquefoil, Potentilla verna, at Velvet Bottom on the 31st, or Helena’s ridiculously late (or early?) Cowslips, Primula veris, in the Cam Valley today.

It’s been another week of thin pickings on the first-flowering front. Between us we saw just four of our target species: Georgina and friendsactuallyrecorded Common Sea-lavender, Limonium vulgare, and Sea-blite, Suaeda maritima, at Sand Bay on 23rd July (so in Week 19); Dee reported just-flowering Common Sea-lavender at Clevedon on the 3rd; I saw my first Hop, Humulus lupulus, at Longrun Meadow on the 1st, followed by Trifid Bur-marigold, Bidens tripartita, between Obridge and Creech Castle on the 4th. The last of these was next to a fine patch of Water Mint, Mentha aquatica, which was flowering profusely despite having been noted as not flowering just four days earlier—which highlights how rapidly things can change, even when nothing much seems to be happening! The 4th was a good day for Water Mint, with Helena and Val both ‘WhatsApping’ reports of having seen it flowering in VC6, the latter at Catcott Heath.

What else? I recorded Sneezewort, Achillea ptarmica, at Ruggin SWT reserve this morning—although I expect someone will surely have an earlier date for it? There was a second record for Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, this time from Liz at Westbury Beacon on the 4th. My own first-flowerers this week included Carline Thistle, Carlina vulgaris,on the 31st (Thurlbear), Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Kickxia elatine, on the 1st (Corfe), Dwarf Spurge, Euphorbia exigua, on the 4th (Staple Fitzpaine), and Sowbread, Cyclamen hederifolium, today (Angersleigh). Elsewhere, Margaret saw Bifid Hemp-nettle, Galeopsis bifida, at Redding Pits on the 3rd, while Georgina et al. had Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, at Sand Bay on 23rd (Week 19); and, most exciting of the lot, perhaps, was a message (and lovely photo) from Clive on the SRPG WhatsApp group reporting the discovery by Brian Lancastle of flowering Autumn Lady’s-tresses, Spiranthes spiralis, at Sand Point on the 27th—two days earlier than Andrew’s record of it at Purn Hill.

Ellen, in her email last week, noted the joy to be had from walking through grassland in summer, and I get what she’s saying, I really do. It’s interesting to note the subtle shift in the nature of this experience as the season advances. The sound changes: in May and June, tramping through grass produces a soft, juicy-green swish, swish, swish,whereas now it makes a much harder, drier, scrunch; and each scrunch, each foot fall, is accompanied by an explosion of grasshoppers, like fire-crackers going off.

She’s right: each season really does have its compensations.

Have a good week, everyone.


Weeks 20 and 21 Preview

Weeks 20 & 21 Preview: 30th July – 12th August

We have five species to carry over from our Weeks 18/19 target list:

Nodding Bur-marigold, Bidens cernua; Trifid Bur-marigold, Bidens tripartita; Goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea; Sea-purslane, Atriplex portulacoides; Sea-blite, Suaeda maritima.

To which we can add:

Hops, Humulus lupulus; Sea Wormwood, Artemisia maritima; Glasswort, Salicornia agg.

Plus, while we’re tramping across the saltmarshes, can anyone come up with a plausible date for first-flowering Common Sea-lavender, Limonium vulgare, or Rock Sea-lavender, L. binervosum agg.? They should have started flowering in mid-July…

Hope you have a good fortnight. Do let me know—by 3 p.m. on 5th and/or 12th August if possible—if you see any of these species in flower, preferably by email to simonleach@phonecoop.coop

All the best.