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.