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 23 Roundup

Week 23 Roundup: 26th August

A week of indifferent but sometimes dramatic weather. Rain each day, until today, and windy almost the whole week; two named storms, ‘Ellen’ (such a good name for a storm, don’t you think?) and ‘Francis’. ‘Ellen’ was responsible for a little unauthorised felling of trees in Thurlbear Wood, while ‘Francis’—the wilder of the two—threatened to flatten our back-garden fence. It was wobbling yesterday afternoon, but still upright this morning, thankfully. At least the weather should improve now the Test series is over.

On Saturday, 22nd, we arrived up at Taunton Deane Cricket Club too late to watch any cricket, as Wellington had offered only feeble resistance and the game was finished by about 4.30 p.m. So instead we walked the ‘Wyvern Round’, a particular dog-walking route (for some reason all our regular routes are called ‘rounds’), from Vivary Park to Mountfields: past Pool Farm, where Walter Watson once lived; through what’s now known as ‘Thorn-apple Field’; and then back along the path running behind Richard Huish College, to check the Ivy, Hedera helix. (Still in bud.)

Anyway, here we are, sitting on the outfield. Half a pint of Thatchers Haze and an orange juice and soda; and much chatter about cricket, as you’d expect. And much chatter above, too: House Martins busily circling—a constant twittering—and then, suddenly, there’s another kind of tilt and flutter, followed by a rapid scything through the air that leaves the martins looking almost pedestrian in comparison. Just a few seconds, and then gone! Or lost, let’s say, against a sky that’s darkening to the colour of roof slates. Could this one be the last, maybe? Almost certainly…[1]

Also on the ornithological front, Gill sent a photo this week of a grounded Sparrowhawk, wings splayed, beside a box of drying onions. She jokes that the bird may have landed in her garden thinking that the onions were eggs needing to be incubated.

On Sunday, 23rd,  the dog and I were doing another ‘round’, this time near Orchard Wood, the venue for our first field meeting of spring had the year not unravelled in quite the way it did. In the shelter of a hedgerow there were Gatekeepers, Pyronia tithonus, a few bedraggled, storm-battered Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina, and a Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta. It was overcast, humid, and now there was spitting rain in the air.

A presumed-to-be Gatekeeper touched down on a bramble; in flight it looked unremarkable, but on landing it seemed far too smart, too dapper. It looked like a Gatekeeper on its way to a rather posh dinner party. It perched with wings closed: they were orangey-brown underneath, with thin black ‘hair lines’ across the undersides of both forewing and hindwing, one of those on the hindwing being accentuated by a white line along its outer edge, the other, shorter than the first, with a white line along its inner edge. At the bottom of each hindwing there was a little ‘tooth’ or… I don’t know what to call it, really: a ‘sharp protuberance’; a miniature swallow-tail?

And then, coyly at first, it opened its wings, which were a velvety chocolate colour, the forewing sporting a large ‘crescent’ of orange; the hindwing’s ‘tooth’ was orange too, with two little spots of orange on either side of it. It was beautiful. It was gorgeous. And it was my first ever Brown Hairstreak, Thecla betulae. According to Wikipedia, Thecla was an early Christian saint who was “miraculously saved from burning at the stake by the onset of a storm.” Another ‘Ellen’, perhaps? 

I’d never really rated Brown Hairstreaks. I’d been on a trip to search Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, twigs in winter for their eggs; an experience that was a bit underwhelming, to be honest. I couldn’t fathom what all the fuss about. But then, unlike my fellow egg-hunters, I’d never seen the adult butterfly. Now, with this glorious female perched on a bramble shoot, all became clear. 

The name Brown Hairstreak really doesn’t do it justice though. Hairstreak? Well, okay. But Brown? No, not okay: brown sounds boring, brown sounds dull, brown just doesn’t cut the mustard. It needs a name that better reflects its deliciously rich colours, the dark chocolate, the bright orange—Chocolate Orange sounds suitably delicious, don’t you think?

And now, finally, the botanical highlight of the week. Ivy, Hedera helix, is starting to blossom! First sightings were on Saturday, 22nd, when David Reid had Ivy flowers opening in his garden at Alford, as did Karen Netto, at Cocklake (near Wedmore). And then on Monday, 24th, there were sightings of it from Felton Common (Margaret), Draycott Sleights (Georgina) and Henlade (me).

So, there you have it: the last first-flowering of spring! From now on, then, the steady descent towards winter, at which point we begin again to seek out the first signs of spring. Until well past the winter solstice, there will be Ivy blossom. Which begs the question: does Ivy represent the last first-flowering of the spring just finished? Or, could it be the first first-flowering of the spring to come? Or might we allow it to be both these things, acting as a kind of bridge between the end of one spring and the start of the next? Tail End Charlie and harbinger rolled into one… 

Tim Dee, you’ll remember, made the case for there being just two seasons: spring and autumn. He imagines the year to be in two halves:

“… a coming, spring, and a going, autumn; six months forward before six months back, six months up before six down, … six greening months before six browning, six growing before six dying; in autumn things fall apart, in spring things come together …”

Yet, to counter that notion, one might argue that even in spring, amidst all the ‘coming’, there is also the odd ‘going’. During May, for instance, when spring is at full throttle, Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna, is already beginning its browning, its falling apart, as it dissolves back into the soil, ready for its long summer hibernation. Just as, later in the year, on the cusp between summer and autumn, there is still an inkling of spring to be had—as this week’s just-flowering Ivy makes plain.

We all have our favourite seasons, and mine is spring. And, thankfully, it’s always there: in every season there’s a touch of spring. With Ivy still in blossom, the first Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola, could be flowering just after the winter solstice, and Hazel, Corylus avellana, not long after that.Each first flowering becomes a harbinger of the next, and the next, and the next, and together they help to pull us through the year. Until we reach Ivy. At which point there’s the briefest of lulls, and then—thank goodness—it starts all over again.

This year’s first-flowerings project was conceived as just one way of helping to keep people’s spirits up—not least my own—through a uniquely difficult and troubling time. It would give us reasons to be in contact with one another, to keep us ‘doing botany’ when this perhaps wouldn’t have been uppermost in our minds; a collective endeavour to stay sane, a distraction but also a focus; something that any of us could take part in, if we chose to, whatever our circumstances, and however socially-distanced and tied to home we needed to be.

If nothing else, it presented, during lockdown, an opportunity to see things, hear things, appreciate things, and tell each other about things, that we might otherwise have overlooked or presumed to be not noteworthy. For a few weeks our lives slowed to a near-standstill, just as spring’s trot turned into a gallop. Trying to keep up with it, to stay on its tail, became part of the fun.  

Thanks, everyone, for the records you’ve sent in through the year.[2] And for your emails, texts, WhatsApps, and photos—all of them very much appreciated. Do keep a note, if you can, of when you see your first Spurge-laurel, your first Hazel…

Roll on spring.

[1] Having been proved wrong so often, I’m now deliberately suggesting this is the last Swift, since that is evidently the best way of guaranteeing that it isn’t!

[2] A proper analysis, with graphs and tables, to follow in due course.

Week 22 Roundup

Week 22 Roundup: 19th August

Another week with very little, really, to report. In Week 21 we were sheltering from the heat, this week it’s been more about trying to keep dry. In Taunton, at least, it’s rained every day. In Southampton there’s been 1½ days of cricket when there should have been 5.  It began with the warmest night of the year–21°C in Taunton—and then 27°C the next day, after which the temperatures subsided to a pleasanter 18-22°C for the rest of the week; still very humid, sharp showers, and the odd thunder clap. Oh yes, and a funnel cloud, apparently, in the Bristol Channel. We had three days on the trot without any sunshine, ensuring that bad light stopped play even when the rain didn’t.

Let’s try diary format again…

Thursday, 13th. Very little sleep.The warmest night for years. ‘A’ Level Results Day. The injustice of ‘THE ALGORITHM’.

WhatsApp from Val: Small Teasel, Dipsacus pilosus, at Baltonsborough. Email from Pat, who had visited Porlock Weir on the 9th (so Week 21) to find Sea Aster, Aster tripolium, just starting to flower, and Sea-purslane, Atriplex portulacoides, which “had probably been flowering for weeks.” Also a Jersey Tiger, Euplagia quadripunctaria, in the orchard at Nettlecombe.

Evening: a single group of three Swifts, circling high above Trinity Street. So they’re still here…

Friday, 14th. Ivy, flowering in the rain in Upper Holway, Taunton. It’s climbing over a roadside garden fence, and some of the leaves are suspiciously variegated; clearly a cultivated Ivy of some sort—and in keeping with the weather, my initial excitement that it might be first-flowering Hedera helix is soon dampened by the realisation that it’s H. colchica.

Liz posts a stunning picture of Apple-of-Peru, Nicandra physalodes, from Wedmore allotments where it grows on a muck heap. The day’s highlight, though, is surely Fred’s Least Lettuce, Lactuca saligna, on Fobbing Marshes, Essex, where he says it’s “having an amazing year!”

Saturday, 15th. Email from Val: “I’ve seen Sparrowhawk at Catcott Lows, and last week a Hobby at Baltonsborough.”

Sunday, 16th. Email from Georgina: just-flowering Meadow Saffron, Colchicum autumnale, at Velvet Bottom and Blackdown on Mendip. A real rarity in VC5, so didn’t even think to have it on our target list, but Georgina’s date is very early. Walter Watson’s FFD for Meadow Saffron was 13th September, while Captain Roe had four FFDs for it in the 1950s, all of them in September.

At Ubley Warren, Georgina reports having had two second-brood Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Boloria selene, on the 8th, and second-brood Dingy Skippers, Erynnis tages, on the 12th (all Week 21). Both occurrences are unusual, reflecting the exceptionally warm spring and summer we’ve been having.

Not entirely unconnected, an email from Hester Stanwood, who has noticed a second flush of flowering of Greater Chickweed, Stellaria neglecta, at Longrun Meadow, Taunton. Hester is a ‘Friend of Longrun’, one of the team of volunteers responsible for looking after the area.

Monday, 17th.  THE ALGORITHM is ditched. Government announce that teacher-assessed grades will now apply.

Late morning: walking between Thurlbear and Winterwell, some fine large plants of Woolly Thistle, Cirsium eriophorum—a new monad record—and carpets of Strawberry Clover, Trifolium fragiferum. Meanwhile, on WhatsApp, Ian is enjoying a profusion of Common Wintergreen, Pyrola minor, in Moray—our most northerly outpost yet.

Tuesday, 18th.  Morning: walk over to Trull allotments to meet friends for a socially-distanced flask of tea and lemon drizzle cake. Interesting allotment weeds, including several species of Oxalis: Procumbent Yellow-sorrel, O. corniculata,and Upright Yellow-sorrel, O. stricta, are frequent enough in the Taunton area, but it turns out that Garden Pink-sorrel, O. latifolia, is new for ST22. Of the three, O. latifolia is clearly causing the most trouble, some plot-holders seem to be growing it for fun—lines of dwarf French beans with a rather lovely latifolia ‘understorey’. Black currants nicely infested with Black currant gall mite, Cecidophyopsis ribis. Pear trees laden with fruit, their leaves orange-spotted with galls of the ‘pear rust’, Gymnosporangium sabinae.

Today, 19thMorning: Thurlbear churchyard, pickingblackberries; Ivy now so close to flowering—pedicels fully extended, buds swollen, but still tightly closed like clenched fists. How long before they show their hands? Within the next week to ten days, I reckon…

Afternoon: walk in to town. Happy students everywhere. Our first experience of ‘Eat Out to Help Out!’ Two teas and a flapjack for three quid, at the café in Goodlands Gardens where we stopped on our SRPG/Wild Flower Society ‘last week hunt’ in October 2018. White Melilot, Melilotus albus, in the stonework where the old millstream joins the river. First recorded here in 2008, this is its only site in the Taunton area, and quite a scarce plant in VC5.

Late afternoon: walking back past the cricket ground, it’s spitting with rain, and—would you believe it?—there are five Swifts, high above the rooftops and the floodlights, tacking into a strengthening headwind, tilting this way and that as they zig-zag across the sky.

Having been wrong several times already, I hesitate to proclaim that these are the last Swifts of the year.

(But I think they might be.)

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

All the best.


Week 19 Roundup

Week 19 Roundup: 29th July

Perversely, just as we’re able to get out more and range more widely around the county again, so there are less and less first-flowerers still to be found. But there are fruits galore. Among blackberries, ‘Himalayan Giant’, Rubus armeniacus, has been yielding abundant ripe fruit for about three weeks now, while Dewberry, R. caesius, is also fruiting well in the Taunton area. Even the berries of Elm-leaved Bramble, R. ulmifolius, are starting to ripen up nicely. Rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, trees are sparkling with their heavy load of orange-red fruits, wild plums are soft and sweet, and beneath every roadside ‘Gean’, Prunus avium, there’s now the stain and smudge of wind-fallen cherries. Hedgerow brambles and flowery banks are alive with butterflies, too, with Gatekeepers, Pyronia tithonus, particularly abundant at the moment. My own butterfly highlight, though, was a spanking new second-brood Brown Argus, Aricia agestis, at Thurlbear Wood on the 27th.

Amid all this ‘fruitfulness’, it’s been another week of latecomers to the summer ball. Of the target list, we found just two of the seven species we hadn’t already encountered during Week 18. Corn Mint, Mentha arvensis, was spotted by Linda at Combe St Nicholas on the 26th, and by me at Thurlbear on the 27th, while there were also sightings of Thorn-apple, Datura stramonium, from the Taunton area on the 23rd (me) and 28th (the latter reported by a friend of Linda’s, Jan Fawcett) and—more surprisingly—a record via Steve of a singleton that had been seen flowering in a driveway in the Crewkerne area on or around 24th June. That’s five weeks ago!

Thorn-apple is instantly recognisable by its white trumpet-shaped flowers and large spiny fruit capsules. There’s nothing else quite like it, really. It’s a plant that draws you in and pushes you away at the same time. Its reputation for being seriously poisonous resulted in the Crewkerne plant being removed, while one of the party finding the plant/s on the 28th pointed out that, not only was it poisonous and hallucinogenic, but that “gypsy horse traders used to push the seeds up the backsides of ancient nags to give them a thrill and make them behave like two year-olds!” Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora is less entertaining than that, merely stating that Thorn-apple was grown for various ‘medicinal purposes’ from about the 16th century, and that in the Channel Islands, at least, the stems and leaves used to be dried and smoked like tobacco as a remedy for asthma. I’d sooner use Ventolin, frankly.

The Thorn-apple colony found on the 23rd comprised at least 30 plants on disturbed former arable land adjoining a new housing development. I’ll not mention its exact location, but can’t resist noting that it lies within a cricket-ball’s lob of the farmhouse where Walter Watson resided almost exactly a century ago while teaching at Taunton School.  Is it too fanciful to imagine that these plants might be direct descendants of Thorn-apples, or ‘Devil’s Trumpets’, seen by Watson—maybe from from his bedroom window—shortly after the end of the Great War?

Other finds reported during the last week include more Heather, Calluna vulgaris, seen by Linda near the Wellington Monument on the 27th , and by me, today, on the Quantocks at Dead Woman’s Ditch; and another record of Blue Fleabane, Erigeron acris, this time by Andrew at Cross Quarry on the 24th. Also today, we’ve had a third record of Autumn Gentian, Gentianella amarella, this time from Georgina at Ubley Warren. Chris had Gypsywort, Lycopus europaeus, on the 25th at Langford Heathfield—a late-summer-flowering species that not many have reported yet.

Amongst Andrew’s FFDs were a few ‘stragglers’ from earlier weeks: Bifid Hemp-nettle, Galeopsis bifida, and Devil’s-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis, at Catcott on the 14th (Week 17), and Hoary Ragwort, Jacobea erucifolia/Senecio erucifolius, in Brent Knoll village on the 16th (Week 18). The first-flowering of Devil’s-bit Scabious is proving to be a long-drawn-out affair, beginning on 14th June when Helena and Fred found it to be already flowering at Long Dole Meadow. Andrew’s on 14th July was followed by Chris’s at Langford Heathfield on the 25th: “At last, some Devil’s-bit Scabious!” she said, adding “… I don’t know why I say that, it’s still very early!” Watson’s FFD for it in the 1920s/30s was 5th August.

Hoary Ragwort, on the other hand, is a species that seems to have gone the other way, flowering much later now than in Watson’s day. Unless it’s a typo—and without seeing the original data we can’t rule that out, of course—Watson’s ‘big table’ lists the FFD of J. erucifolia as ‘26/6’, i.e. 26th June. Our earliest record this year was Dee’s at Clevedon Pill on 15th July, followed by Andrew’s a day later, and my own, at Thurlbear Quarrylands, on the 27th—a full month later than Watson’s date. This lateness is backed up by my own records for the period 2008-2019, with FFDs ranging from 13th July to 14th August. So, while most species seem to be flowering much earlier today than in the 1920s/30s—or, for that matter, Roe’s 1950s—Hoary Ragwort, along with a handful of others, emphatically bucks that trend; the exception that proves the rule. (Or else a most unfortunate typo…)

And just now, I decided to make one last check of the emails and, blow me down, another message had come in from Andrew: “Somewhat to my surprise,” he wrote, clearly trying to down-play his excitement, “this afternoon [29th] produced the first Autumn Lady’s-tresses, Spiranthes spiralis, at Purn Hill.” Somewhat to his surprise? I dread to think what ‘very surprising’ might involve—a Green-winged Orchid in January, perhaps?Anyway, Watson’s date for Autumn Lady’s-tresses was 6th September. Roe had five FFDs for it in the 1950s, ranging from 19th August to 22nd September. By any standard, then, this is an exceptionally early date.

So, there we have it, the third and last of our targets with autumn in their English names: first there was the Hawkbit (14th June), then the Gentian (12th July), and now the Lady’s-tresses. Clearly, as already noted, summer is becoming more ‘autumnal’ by the day.  

Our spring is nearly done.