Week 10 & 11 Roundup

Weeks 10 & 11 Roundup : 3rd June

The Blackbird isn’t singing. He was broadcasting from the TV aerial first thing this morning, but now the rain’s clattering on the roof and he’s made for cover. Eerily quiet, then, and a day quite different from every other day since the middle of March: overcast, wet, and much warmer indoors than out.  Somerset should have been playing a T20 today against Sussex at Hove, but it would almost certainly have been rained off anyway—a consoling thought. So we’ve given Hove a miss, and instead Ben and I have been walking the dog up at Staple Hill and Mount Fancy where, apart from a good crop of first-flowerers, I was particularly pleased to witness another excellent show of Stinkhorn fungi, Phallus impudicus, in the same place we saw them as a group almost exactly a year ago.

Taking the fortnight as a whole, today’s rain has been an aberration at the end of another prolonged period of dry, sunny, warm weather. You’ll have heard on the TV News that it’s been the sunniest spring on record (since 1929); and in Taunton, at least, ten of the last 14 days have recorded temperatures of 25°C or above. The lack of rain this spring has also been noteworthy. Effects on first-flowerings can be strange and unpredictable: while drought stress might cause one species to ‘stall’, another—sensing impending doom, perhaps—decides to flower as quickly as it can, resulting in a mixture of responses. Even a single species can behave quite differently in different places, blooming precociously early on a dry, sheltered, sunny, south-facing slope while remaining stubbornly in bud everywhere else.

This also means that different people can have wildly differing perceptions of how first flowering dates (FFDs) are progressing. So, while some of us have had rich pickings in the last fortnight, others have been complaining that they’ve found next to nothing. Today’s rain, especially if it’s the start of a period of more changeable weather, may even things up a bit. Expect the barrenness of recent days, if that’s been your experience, to be followed by a great flourish of new records in the next week or two… 

Turning to what we’ve seen in the last fortnight, let’s start, as usual, with things other than plants. At home—where, despite all this talk of ‘easing’, I still seem to spend much of my time—I’ve been mainly distracted by bees and blackbirds. In Week 10, continuing the ‘b’ theme, it was beetles. The first, appearing like a mislaid brooch on the doormat, was a Rose Chafer, Cetonia aurata, to be swiftly followed, in the back garden, by an equally iridescent and jewel-like Thick-legged or Swollen-thighed Beetle, Oedemera nobilis. They’re not thighs of course—beetles don’t have thighs, do they?—but the first segments of the male’s back legs (the ‘hind femora’, to give them their proper name) are noticeably swollen, making it instantly recognisable: a beetle that looks like it’s been seriously ‘working out’ at the gym. I’m sure I’ve been shown them on SRPG or SANHS field meetings, but this is the first time we’ve spotted one in the garden. It’s a ‘southern’ species, with a distribution centred on the Mediterranean region and southern Europe. In the UK, at its north-western limit, it used to occur only very locally in southern-most counties of England, but since the 1990s, presumably as a result of climate change, it’s undergone a rapid expansion of range. Now common across England and Wales as far north as a line running from the Mersey to the Wash, there are even scattered records into northern England, and (most recently) the extreme south of Scotland. Definitely one to keep an eye out for in your flower borders.

It’s been a good fortnight for butterflies. Georgina saw her first Small Blues and Large Skippers on the 25th at Stoke Camp, and first Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns on the 30th at Draycott Sleights. My own first Meadow Brown, at Orchard Wood, was on the 25th, followed by several at Thurlbear on the 27th. Keith Gould had Meadow Browns and Large Skippers at Longrun Meadow, Taunton, on 1st June. He also saw his first Emperor Dragonfly, Anax imperator, there on the 1st. On the 2nd, down by the river Tone at Obridge, we found there had been an overnight/early morning mass emergence of Banded Demoiselles, Calopteryx splendens. What a gorgeous insect this is! We walked between Obridge and Creech Castle and counted dozens and dozens and dozens (easily more than 50) where the previous afternoon we hadn’t seen a single one. The description in Cyril Hammond’s field guide is spot on: “females have a feeble fluttering flight … [but] males are much more active and engage in chasing one another and sometimes more than half-a-dozen may be seen involved in the chase which can last many minutes. Courtship is pretty to watch, the male vibrating his wings rapidly in front of or above the female before flying with her in tandem.” Their slow, bobbing, butterfly-like flight is distinctive, as are the broad bands on the wings of the males, which seem, like their bodies, to have been brushed with blue-black ‘Quink’.       

On the botanical front it’s been a busy two weeks, with 19 of you sending in a total of 225 records covering goodness-knows-how-many species. As already hinted, while some of you found target species elusive, others (including me) were having a field day. In all, we saw all but five of our 28 target species. The following gives you an idea of what we’ve all been up to, and what we’ve seen; as usual, target species have their scientific names emboldened, other notables are mentioned along the way, and the whole lot is stitched together in an order that’s vaguely alphabetical, except when it isn’t….

‘A’s abounding! Two reports of Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria, first seen by Kate Jeffreys at Stolford on the 23rd, and then by Andrew (another ‘A’) at Crook Peak on the 30th.  Pyramidal Orchids, Anacamptis pyramidalis, are beginning to flower all over the place, with many of you noticing how the first blooms open towards the base of the spike, even while the top of the pyramid is still tightly closed. The first was Andrew’s, at Yarley on the 25th, then me at Orchard Wood on the 27th, followed by Steve in Bridgwater on the 29th—right next to a courting couple, apparently! Keith Gould photographed a Pyramidal Orchid on the 1st in grassland out near the Silk Mills park-and-ride, which is currently being used as a coronavirus testing station. I had my first bulbil-laden head of Wild Onion, Allium vineale, in a Taunton roadside flower-bed on the 2nd. Also we’ve had two records of the much prettier Rosy Garlic, A. roseum, one in Taunton on the 24th, the other from Alastair in Minehead, actually on the 14th (Week 9). Fool’s Watercress, Apium nodiflorum, is one of the species that seems to have ‘stalled’ in the last week or two, but I did see it in flower on the 2nd in Taunton. Other noteworthy ‘A’s included: Fool’s Parsley, Aethusa cynapium, on the 31st in Bridgwater (Steve); Marsh Foxtail, Alopecurus geniculatus, on the 25th in Bridgwater (Steve) and 2nd June at Postlebury (Gill); and more Kidney-vetch, Anthyllis vulneraria, this time at Stoke Camp, Mendip, on the 25th (Georgina).

A paucity of ‘B’s. We had two to search for, and only struck lucky with one of them: Black Horehound, Ballota nigra, was starting to flower at Obridge, Taunton, on the 23rd, while Andrew had it at Berrow on the 3rd. Flowering Rush, Butomus umbellatus, we’ll have to carry over to Week 12… Amongst other ‘B’s, we’ve had first sightings of flowering Yellow-wort, Blackstonia perfoliata, in ‘proper’ habitat, i.e. NOT beside a railway line. Georgina had it at Draycott Sleights on the 30th, while the next day Andrew saw it on Crook Peak; for the record, it’s still only ‘in bud’ at Thurlbear. A couple of sightings of Borage, Borago officinalis, this week, from Steve and Linda, and also a surprisingly early record of Butterfly-bush, Buddleja davidii, on the 31st in Bridgwater (Steve).

‘C’ is for Convolvulus. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that Andrew is leading the pack when it comes to colour-forms of Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, with a score of 7/10. Looking at everyone’s records so far, f. arvensis and f. pentarrhabdotus seem to be the most frequent, followed by f. decarrhabdotus and f. pallidiroseus. Colour forms with tick marks round the throat seem to be scarcer than those without. Or maybe they just start to flower slightly later? Thanks to Andrew, Jeanne, Ro and Linda, in particular, for their records, many of them with accompanying photographic evidence. (Sorry, I said I’d spare you the details, then couldn’t resist giving you them anyway…)

Still on ‘C’s, and still on bindweeds, there have been several records of Large Bindweed, Calystegia silvatica, from Highbridge (Andrew), Wiveliscombe (Linda) and Taunton. I’ve been playing catch-up with my own ‘C’s, with Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, on the 24th, and Basil Thyme, Clinopodium acinos, on the 30th, the latter in its usual spot on Thurlbear Quarrylands. Of our targets, Rosebay Willowherb, Chamaenerion angustifolium, showed its first flowers in Taunton on the 2nd (on our back path) but Enchanter’s-nightshade, Circaea lutetiana, (also on our back path) is yet to show itself. ‘C’ of the week, though, must surely be Steve’s Bermuda-grass, Cynodon dactylon, at Bridgwater docks on the 24th. Only the second record of this grass in VC5.

‘D’ is for Ellen’s exceptionally late FFD for Common Spotted-orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii. It was the same with her nettles, which you’ll remember were also very late. Rumour has it she’s still having to scrape ice off her windscreen each morning. For sheer classiness amongst the ‘D’s, though, what about Georgina’s Cheddar Pink, Dianthus gratianopolitanus, seen flowering in the Gorge on the 30th?

‘E’. I had thought Steve’s Viper’s-bugloss, Echium vulgare, on the 24th was a first for the year, until I looked back at Alastair’s records and discovered that he’d seen this species flowering at Dunster on 18th April. So that one shouldn’t have been on the list, really. Other than that, we’ve had our first Couch-grass, Elymus repens, in Taunton on the 29th and Highbridge on the 30th (Andrew), Great Willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum, in Taunton on the 30th, and Pale Willowherb, E. roseum, also in Taunton, also on the 29th. But still, amazingly, only a single record of Hoary Willowherb, E. parviflorum, which seems to have been badly affected by the prolonged dry spell. A couple of records of Caper Spurge, Euphorbia lathyris, on the 28th in Taunton and the 31st in Bridgwater (Steve). And, finally, a vaguely autumnal ‘E’ in the shape of Bell Heather, Erica cinerea, seen today at Staple Hill. This is usually the first of the ‘heathers’ to flower—even Walter Watson’s FFD for it was mid-June—but should soon be followed by Cross-leaved heath, E. tetralix, and then Heather, Calluna vulgaris. If you’re out looking for any of these, keep an eye out also for the first Western Gorse, Ulex gallii. Oh, and Slender St John’s-wort, Hypericum pulchrum, too…

‘F’. Just the one target this week, Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, which three of us have seen—me on the 24th in Taunton (in the same ditch as the Apium a week later), Andrew at Binham Moor, near Mark, on the 28th, and Steve in Bridgwater on the 31st. Others have commented on how it seems to have got ‘stuck’ in bud. Have another look in the next couple of days and you may find today’s rain has worked its magic…

One other ‘F’ in passing: a plant of the not-so-common Common Cudweed, Filago vulgaris, flowering in bare ground off Canal Road, Taunton, on the 1st. We’ve had records of it in previous years from road verges near the railway station, but this is the first in Taunton away from that area. It’s quite a scarce plant in Somerset, and ‘Near Threatened’ on the England Red List, so a nice one to have whether flowering or not!

‘G’. Three species of bedstraw, Galium spp, were on our target list for the fortnight, and Andrew managed to twitch them all! On the 30th he found Lady’s Bedstraw, G. verum, on Brent Knoll; the next day he had Hedge Bedstraw, G. album, on Crook Peak; and the day after that he picked up Marsh Bedstraw, G. palustre, at Wick Lane, Brent Knoll. And, not wanting to miss out completely on this sudden rash of bedstraws, I can also report seeing Fen Bedstraw, G. uliginosum, flowering nicely today at Mount Fancy, Staple Hill. To put these dates into some kind of perspective, Walter Watson’s FFDs for verum and album were 25th June, palustre 10th June, and uliginosum 3rd August.

Our only other target ‘G’ was Dyer’s Greenweed, Genista tinctoria, flowering at Thurlbear on the 26th and at Ellen’s place ‘up north’ on the 28th.  Amongst other ‘G’s, there were records of Goat’s-rue, Galega officinalis, in Minehead on the 25th (Alastair),

Gallant-soldier, Galinsoga parviflora, in Bridgwater on the 31st (Steve), Yellow Horned-Poppy, Glaucium flavum, at Dunster beach on the 25th (Alastair), and Corn Marigold, Glebionis segetum, near Nynehead on the 23rd (Linda). There were also three records for flowering French Oat-grass, Gaudinia fragilis, from Yarley, Brent Knoll and a field near Thurlbear. The last was in a new monad, in a field through which I’ve walked, probably every week, for the last 25 years. I’d like to think it must be a recent arrival, or else I’ve been extremely good at overlooking it all these years. I suspect the latter.

‘G’ is also for (botanical) Graffiti. Several of you have been in touch about the #morethanweeds campaign, becoming popular during lockdown, to chalk up the names of ‘weeds’ (sic) growing in urban streets, in pavement cracks and on roadside walls and verges. It’s simple really, you just head out with some coloured chalks, then write on the pavement or wall the English and scientific names of the plants you find. The hope is that people walking by will be encouraged to notice these street plants, and their names, and maybe come to value them more as a result. I mean to start my own campaign of pavement-scribbling soon, as well as posting a few pictures on our recently-formed neighbourhood WhatsApp group—Mexican Fleabane, Water Bent, Adria Bellflower, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Argentinian Fleabane, Musk Stork’s-bill, etc, etc… And the odd dandelion too. But it turns out someone’s already on the case, as I’ve just come across an ‘annotated’ Herb Robert growing against a wall in Eastbourne Terrace. That’s got to be my plant of the week. And it was flowering too.

‘H’. Three target ‘H’s, and all of them picked up by somebody in Week 11. Bristly Ox-tongue, Helminthotheca echioides, was seen in Taunton on the 28th, and at Lilstock on the 2nd (Ro). Hairy St John’s-wort, Hypericum hirsutum, was on Crook Peak on the 31st (Andrew), and at Thurlbear on the 1st, while Perforate St John’s-wort, H. perforatum, was seen on waste ground in Taunton on the 1st, and in Langford Budville on the 2nd (Chris). We’ve also had records this week for Meadow Barley, Hordeum secalinum, in Bridgwater and Taunton. ‘H’ of the week, though, has to be Andrew’s Lizard Orchid, Himantoglossum hircinum, at Berrow on the 22nd.

‘H’ is also for Helena, who’s beaten her personal best so often in the last fortnight it’s making me dizzy just thinking about it.

‘I’. The normal colour variety of Stinking Iris, Iris foetidissima, is now flowering quite widely, following an early first sighting at Lilstock on the 19th (Ro), then Thurlbear and Orchard Wood on the 23rd (me) and Brent Knoll on the 29th (Andrew). Ro’s experience is worth sharing, since it shows the lengths to which we’re prepared to go when plant hunting: “I had one of those walks that just turns out horrid. An arable field edge … had become choked with tangled Alexanders and blackthorn suckers … and Brambles, so I had a hellish struggle to get round … I managed to collect two ticks and get stung and prickled.” But it was worth it, in the end, as she also picked up her first flowers of Stinking Iris—or Gladdon as she and several others have called it. This name is derived, apparently, from the Latin Gladiolus, and was formerly applied also to Yellow Flag, I. pseudacorus, when early botanists knew it as ‘water gladiolus.’ (With thanks to Geoffrey Grigson.)

‘J’. A rush of rushes this week, with first-flowerings noted for Hard, J. inflexus, on the 23rd (Kate), Soft, J. effusus, and Compact, J. conglomeratus, on the 26th at Thurlbear, and a trio of Toad, bufonius, Bulbous, J. bulbosus, and Jointed, J. articulatus all flowering up at Mount Fancy earlier today. Watson would have expected these to be coming into flower in the last ten days of June, except for J. bulbosus for which his FFD was the 16th. So they’re all jolly early, basically. Has the dry weather sped them up, I wonder?

‘L’. Grass-leaved Vetchling, Lathyrus nissolia, and Meadow vetchling, L. pratensis, are both flowering well now, while there have been further records for Fairy Flax, Linum catharticum (me, at Thurlbear), Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum (Gill and Liz, at North Wootton) and Purple Toadflax, Linaria purpurea (Dee, Clevedon). The first flowering Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, was beside the river Tone on the 2nd.

‘M’. Tufted Forget-me-not, Myosotis laxa,this week, but still no Water Forget-me-not, M. scorpioides.  Alastair, by the way, had Bastard Balm, Melittis melissophyllum, at Sully on the 20th. (Helena had some in her garden, but that probably shouldn’t count. Lovely picture though.) We’ve also had further records for Dwarf Mallow, Malva neglecta, Wall Lettuce, Mycelis muralis, both in Bridgwater, andCommon Cow-wheat, Melampyrum pratense, in both the Blackdowns and the Quantocks. The Thurlbear plants could well be subsp. commutatum, which is the subspecies that tends to occur on calcareous soils. It needs checking though, so there’s a specimen in the press for Fred to examine later…

‘O’. More records for Corky-fruited Water Dropwort, Oenanthe pimpinelloides, including near Castle Cary on the 24th (David Reid) and Bridgwater on the 25th (Steve). Several records of Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera, too: Orchard Wood (me) and Yarley (Andrew), both on the 25th; Fiona’s lawn (no idea where she lives, maybe near Street?), on the 26th; and Chantry, on the 1st (Gill). And then, to cap it all, there was Jeanne and Tim’s Fly Orchids, Ophrys insectifera, on the 26th. And Andrew has just reported seeing first-flowering Common Restharrow, Ononis repens, at Berrow golf course. This would have been on next week’s list, had he managed not to see it. But he did, so it isn’t!

‘P’. We saw three of the four ‘P’s on offer: Canary Reed-grass, Phalaris arundinacea,was flowering well beside the river Tone at Obridge on the 29th; Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris, had just started flowering at Yarley on the 25th (Andrew) and at Orchard Wood on the 27th; and Greater Plantain, Plantago major, flowering (if you can call it that) on a road verge in Taunton on the 30th. Which just leaves Timothy, Phleum pratense, to carry over to Week 12.

‘R’. Interesting to note how much later-flowering Field Rose, Rosa arvensis, is than Dog-rose, R. canina. That was the case in Watson’s day, too. Whereas our first R. canina, was on 28th April (Watson’s = 22nd May), our first R. arvensis wasn’t until 28th May when Linda had it at Langford Heathfield (Watson’s = 7th June). The next day, on the 29th, Gill saw it at Truddoxhill, while my own first for it was on the 30th in Taunton.

‘S’. Firsts this last fortnight for Small Scabious, Scabiosa columbaria, on the 30th (Georgina, Draycott Sleights), Pepper-saxifrage, Silaum silaus, on the 23rd (Kate, Stolford), and Wood Club-rush, Scirpus sylvaticus, on the 29th (me, river Tone at Obridge). Nothing much else of note, although good to see that Ragged Robin, Silene flos-cuculi, now being widely reported, as also Common Figwort, Scrophularia nodosa, and Water Figwort, S. auriculata.

‘T’. A third record for Hop Trefoil, this one from Linda on the 30th in Wivvy. More significant, though, was Georgina’s discovery, on the same day, of Wild Thyme, Thymus drucei aka praecox aka polytrichus, just starting to flower on Draycott Sleights.

‘V’. And, as usual, ending with our ‘V’ of the week… This time, Andrew’s patch of Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca, at Wick Lane, Brent Knoll.

Many thanks, as always, for your records over the last fortnight, and apologies for any that didn’t get a mention.