Week 13 Roundup

Week 13 Roundup : 17th June

The air today is thick and humid, and there are distant—and then not-so-distant—rumbles of thunder. For the last ten minutes a peregrine has been lazily circling overhead, calling and pulling in a mob of agitated gulls. An absence of swifts, and the rumbling’s getting louder: the sky is dark to the west, darker still to the north-west. It’s dry here, for now, but it’s probably pelting on the Quantocks. Today’s brewing storm feels like it might be a reprise of yesterday’s cloudburst, with rain drops like gobbets the size of garden snails, or liquid marbles, each one producing its own miniature puddle as it hit the ground. Within a minute, down-pipes full to bursting, drains in the street bubbling up from below; and our blackbird dumb-struck and marooned in the depths of his holly tree.

Yet now, I notice, the rumbling has gone away, the air has cleared, the sun is shining again and next door’s plastic roof gutters are clicking in the heat. And that, really, sums up the week, a mixed bag of weather that each of us would probably describe quite differently; a week when it feels unsafe to generalise, when one person’s moment in the sun doubtless coincided with another person’s drenching. The only settled days, in Taunton at least, were on the 14th and 15th. Otherwise, we had rain here each day, with two days, the 11th and 12th, also quite windy. Daytime temperatures in the upper teens, peaking stickily yesterday at 24°C. Nights have been warm too, actually warmer than during earlier ‘heatwaves’, presumably due to the frequent overnight blanket of cloud.

Yesterday I was scanning the bookshelves for Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Ben used to have the boxed set, but only the first of the ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy—Northern Lights—is in the box, the other two have disappeared. Searching for something is always an opportunity to find something else that you weren’t really looking for, that maybe you’d forgotten you ever had… The Subtle Knife was proving elusive, but instead I came across something far more interesting: an old card index box, with pull-out drawer and covering of imitation snake skin. The box, I now remember, came to me on loan from Helena a few years ago. It had previously belonged to Captain Robert G.B. O’Neil Roe, BSBI’s Vice-county Recorder for VC6 1965-1993, and VC5 1978-1993.  Roe, like Walter Watson before him, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora of Somerset and was an assiduous keeper of records. The two men, luckily for us, also shared a particular interest in first flowering dates. But while Watson’s dates were eventually published (at least in summary form) Roe’s remained hidden away in this card index box. There are hundreds of 5” x 3” index cards, one for each species, and each one listing FFDs—with locations—for the period 1951-61. He had the neatest writing, and the smallest too. His records aren’t always straightforward to interpret, not least because in some years they were as likely to relate to places in Cornwall, or Wiltshire, as they were to Somerset. Also, his own ‘local patch’ was around Bath, whereas Watson’s was Taunton; and, as we’ve seen in our own records this year, dates are liable to vary considerably from one part of the county to another. But Roe’s record-cards nevertheless provide a rich seam of data that would merit much closer examination.

Interestingly, many of his FFDs seem to be as late, or later, than those recorded by Watson in the 1920s/30s. To take a random example: Tutsan, Hypericum androsaemum, was said by Watson to flower between June and August, with an average FFD of 26th June, whereas even Roe’s earliest FFD in the 1950s was 1st July. Sometimes he didn’t see it flowering until August, and his average FFD was 8th August, so about six weeks later than Watson’s. As a comparison, my own average FFD for the period 2008-17 was 6th June, while our earliest FFD for Tutsan this year was 18th May, three days earlier than even the earliest FFD during the period 2008-17. Watson would have been amazed, but Roe would have been flabbergasted!Anyway, be prepared, from this week onwards, for our own records to be cross-referenced occasionally with Roe’s as well as Watson’s dates.

Now, as you’ll be aware, the premiership football season gets underway again today, with some matches even being shown on terrestrial TV. In celebration of this long-awaited shift towards normality, I’ll start this week’s botanical summary by giving you the latest ‘state of play’ on Convolvulus arvensis colour forms. Assume that there are five matches, then, and that each match is being played between a ‘non-ticked’ colour form (on the left in the Table below) and its ‘ticked’ counterpart (on the right). So, for these purposes, you have to imagine that f. arvensis (all-white strip, without ‘ticks’) is playing against f. notatus (similar strip but with a rather smart ring of purple ‘ticks’ around the neck)…

Field Bindweed, interim scores up to end of Week 13

Aston Villa0v.Sheffield United0  
Manchester City3v.Arsenal0  
f. arvensis12v.f. notatus2  
f. pallidiroseus4v.f. pallidinotatus3  
f. pentarrhabdotus11v.f. pentastictus1  
f. decarrhabdotus3v.f. decemvulnerus1  
f. perroseus5v.f. quinquevulnerus0  

You can see from the above that all those teams sporting ‘tick’ marks (apart from Sheffield United) are consistently being thrashed by their ‘unticked’ rivals, giving a combined score of 35 records for ‘non-ticked’ colour forms against just seven for ‘ticked’. Oh yes, and while I think of it, to add to last week’s notes about how to distinguish between f. arvensis and f. pallidiroseus, it’s also worth stressing that the first has white anthers while the second has purplish anthers. This also holds good for the ‘ticked’ variants f. notatus (corolla and anthers white) and f. pallidinotatus (corolla ‘flushed’ palest pink, anthers purple).

Now for our sightings from the last week: scientific names of target species emboldened, other notables mentioned as and when, and, as usual, the whole lot in alphabetical order-ish. Between us, we saw ten of the 19 target species…

‘A’ is for Bent. On our target list we had Creeping Bent, A. stolonifera, seen on the 15th in Taunton, and reported by Andrew on the 16th fromLots SWT reserve—the latter along with flowering Common Bent, A. capillaris and Velvet Bent, A. canina. Amongst other ‘A’s, Andrew recorded the first few flowers on Water-plantain, Alisma plantago-aquatica at Brent Knoll village on the 14th. Pat, out at Nettlecombe, picked up Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria, on the 17th, amongst another really interesting batch of relatively late FFDs. Other species of note included Alastair’s Babington’s Leek, Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii, at Porlock Marsh on the 8th, a second record of Bog Pimpernel, Anagallis tenella, this one at Lots on the 16th, and Meadow Oat-grass, Avenula pratensis, another one of Andrew’s records, at Priddy Mineries on the 12th.

‘B’. Betony, Betonica officinalis, has now begun its ‘proper’ flowering season, with records from GB Gruffy on the 9th (Andrew), Ashton Court meadows on the 14th (David H), and at Long Dole Meadow, also on the 14th (Helena and Fred). Still no sign of it, though, at Thurlbear or Orchard Wood. One other ‘B’ of note was Rye Brome, Bromus secalinus, on the 17th, on a road verge in Taunton rather than in its usual arable habitat.

It was a week of ‘C’s, with four on the target list and all of them seen by at least one of us. Lesser Centaury, Centaurium pulchellum, was actually seen by Jeanne on the 7th (so in Week 12), at Blue Anchor; Stemless Thistle, Cirsium acaule, had begun to flower at Observatory Hill—so just in VC34—when David H visited on the 16th; first-flowering Traveller’s-joy, Clematis vitalba, clambering over a low shrub-border on the edge of Tesco’s car park off Wellington Road, Taunton, on the 14th; and Ro had Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare, at Lilstock, also on the 14th. Other noteworthy ‘C’s included Steve’s Whorl-grass, Catabrosa aquatica, near North Newton, on the 13th, and my own (very early) Fat-hen, Chenopodium album, near Creech St Michael on the 12th. Just for the record, Watson’s average FFD for Fat-hen was 8th July, while Roe’s earliest FFD in the 1950s was 9th July.

‘D’. Two reports of first-flowering Tufted Hair-grass, Deschampsia cespitosa, this week: GB Gruffy on the 9th (so actually Week 12), courtesy of Andrew, and North Newton on the 13th, with thanks to Steve. Another grass seen flowering for the first time this week was Heath-grass, Danthonia decumbens, at Thurlbear on the 15th and at Lots on the 16th. Also at GB Gruffy on the 9th was Wavy Hair-grass, Deschampsia flexuosa, which is now flowering well at several heathland sites on the Blackdown Hills, along with a couple of ‘E’s, Bell Heather, Erica cinerea, and Cross-leaved Heath, E. tetralix.

‘H’. This has definitely been the week for Square-stalked St John’s-wort, Hypericum tetrapterum, with records from Old Cleeve on the 9th (Jeanne), Creech St Michael on the 12th (me), The Quants on the 15th (Linda), and Langford Heathfield on the 17th (Chris). Another ‘H’ of possibly only ‘niche’ interest, was the discovery earlier today of a large roadside/waste ground population of (flowering) Hoary Mustard, Hirschfeldia incana, on Trenchard Way, close to the bridge across Station Road. This seems to be the first record of Hoary Mustard for the ST22 and the Taunton area since the turn of the century.

‘L’. First records this week for: Prickly Lettuce, Lactuca serriola, on the 17th on waste ground near the A38 at Creech Castle, Taunton; Yellow Loosestrife, Lysimachia vulgaris, on the 12th at Postlebury (Gill); and Water-purslane, Lythrum portula, on the 15th at Blackdown and Sampford Common—just over the border in Devon, I admit, but always considered, by me at least, to be part of ‘Greater Somerset’. Well, the parking place is in Somerset…

‘M’, ‘N’, ‘O’… Just the one target species: Marjoram, Origanum vulgare, which, like the Water-purslane fell just outside the county’s borders—this time at Observatory Hill, Bristol, where it was seen by David H on the 16th. Other than that, a motley collection including reported first-flowerings of Creeping Forget-me-not, Myosotis secunda, Water Chickweed, Myosoton aquaticum (Stellaria aquatica in Stace 4), Mat-grass, Nardus stricta, Bog Asphodel, Narthecium ossifragum, and Spiny Restharrow, Ononis spinosa.

‘P’. Included this week are sightings of two ‘P’s that would have been on later lists: Hawkweed Oxtongue, Picris hieracioides, on the 17th on waste ground and verge of the A38 at Creech Castle, Taunton; and Burnet-saxifrage, Pimpinella saxifraga, on the 12th at Priddy Mineries (Andrew). Linda found flowering Pale Butterwort, Pinguicula lusitanica, at Ring Down on the 13th, while there were also two records of Annual Beard-grass, Polypogon monspeliensis, from Stock Moor on the 14th (Steve), and on waste ground at Firepool Weir, Taunton on the 15th. The latter is an attractive and eye-catching grass that seems to be spreading, at least in parts of VC5.

‘S’.  Our target was Autumn Hawkbit, Scorzoneroides autmnalis, which was seen by three of us: Helena in Paulton on the 14th, me in Taunton, also on the 14th, and Andrew at Crook Peak on the 17th. This is exactly a month earlier than Watson’s average FFD of 15th July, and 3-4 weeks earlier than Roe’s dates in the 1950s. Its English name really ought to be Summer Hawkbit. Some really lovely ‘S’s tagging along too, such as Chris’s Lesser Skullcap, Scutellaria minor, at Langford Heathfield on the 14th, Helena and Fred’s Devil’s-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis, at Long Dole Meadow on the 14th (a very early date), and—less lovely, but still noteworthy—my own Sand Spurrey, Spergularia rubra, on Blackdown and Sampford Common where it was growing alongside the Water-purslane. The only Marsh Woundwort, Stachys palustris, was in Surrey (!), so that one stays on the list for another week I’m afraid.

‘T’. Amongst her batch of ‘late’ FFDs, Pat also had our earliest FFD for Wood Sage, Teucrium scorodonia, on the 15th. Also, we had two more reports of Wild Thyme, Thymus drucei, both in Week 12: one from ‘near Watchet’ on the 8th (Alastair), the other, also on the 8th, from Purn Hill (Andrew).

‘V’. A strange absence of ‘V’s this week, apart from Gill’s Vervain, Verbena officinalis, at Truddoxhill, and my own Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca, which has at last begun to flower in the Taunton area.

The end of another week, each one now seeming a little more ‘normal’ than the last, despite the need for endless discussions about what’s acceptable and what’s not, how one defines a ‘bubble’, whether to wear a mask, which is the best hand sanitizer… not to mention daily amazement at some people’s interpretation of what is meant, exactly, by the term ‘two metres’!

Yet amid all the uncertainty and understandable worry, it’s good to see that a few of us are beginning to meet up with friends again for the occasional socially distanced botanical foray; and good, too, that the number of sites being visited seems to be increasing each week. A sure sign that we are returning—slowly, tentatively—to some of our old haunts and old ways.

Do keep the Convolvulus arvensis records coming in, by the way. It seems that f. arvensis may be destined to win the League—much like Liverpool—and that ‘non-ticks’ will ultimately hold sway over ‘ticks’. But, as football commentators always say following a late goal against the run of play: “it’s never over ‘til it’s over”…

And we still haven’t found The Subtle Knife.