Saturday 30 April 2016

A Paradise for Botanists: Wild Flowers in Ancient Woodland

Herb Paris Paris quadrifolia. Also known as lover's knot or devil-in-a-bush. (Poisonous).  Found in Shadwell Wood and West Wood.
Two ancient woods in north west Essex, Shadwell Wood and West Wood, are bright with wild flowers at this time of year. As you might expect, there are bluebells, lesser celandines and wood anemones in flower now.  But these woods are also known for their rarer plants, and these include wild flowers that are nationally uncommon, such as the true oxlip Primula elatior.  This flower can only found in this part of the country because of the local soil, which is chalky boulder clay.  The oxlip is found in damp woodlands.

Wild Oxlip
Because of this, Shadwell Wood and West Wood have long been known as botanists' woods.  The earliest records for West Wood, for example, date from the 1200s, when the land was owned by the Hospitallers (also known as the Knights of St John). It's said that they used gather medicinal herbs here.

A note on my calendar says 'visit Shadwell Wood and/or West Wood in late April/early May'. It's a note I write on my calendars every year, although I never have the time to visit both woods. Last year I visited Shadwell Wood - and I visited it, too, in 2013 writing about it here. So this year I decided to visit West Wood.

I found the wild oxlips glowing in the sunlit rides and glades. They were a beautiful sight.  Perhaps Shakespeare had a wood like West Wood in mind when he wrote 'A Midsummer Night's Dream':

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violets grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

But even if Shakespeare had visited the oxlip woods of this area, a clear identification of Primula elatior wasn't made until the 1800s. This was done by the Essex scientist and horticulturist Henry Doubleday working with Charles Darwin.  They recognised that the Bardfield oxlip (as they called it - after the village of Great Bardfield about five miles away from West Wood) wasn't just a primrose/cowslip hybrid but a true species. Primula elatior was known as the Bardfield oxlip for many years afterwards - and this is a local name still in use today.

I didn't see any honeybees on the oxlips. Some will be visiting, but there were also fields of oilseed rape in flower around West Wood and I suspect most of the honeybees will be heading straight for that.
Among the oxlips in West Wood were the first early purple orchids.  Many of these were just starting to flower...

Deep in the woods were two ponds in a glade. Swimming just below the surface were several great crested newts (apologies for the quality of the photo but there was a sudden hailstorm in the sunshine at this point creating ripples all across the surface of the water).

I was delighted to see my first orange tip butterflies of the year, and one of their favourite flowers, the cuckoo flower, growing freely in the rides...

I also saw dog's mercury and wood violets. Wood barley Hordelymus europaeus, which is rare in Essex, can be found here, but to be honest I don't know much about this plant.  I imagine it can be found later in the summer. Adder's-tongue fern also grows in West Wood later in the year, as do more orchids, including the greater butterfly and the common spotted.

As to birdsong - I heard chiffchaffs, wrens, song thrushes, blackbirds and other familiar song birds. The information board at the entrance to the wood identified redpolls as a bird to look out for, but I didn't see any on my visit.  At times I was distracted anyway from the birdsong by the planes going overhead - West Wood is on the flight path to Stansted.  It was such a shame.  I don't know what sort of damage planes flying low over an ancient woodland can do to it, but it must be some. I hope any proposed airport expansion doesn't happen because that will inevitably worsen the impact. The contrast between the planes flying over and the planes not there was huge - when the planes had gone the wood was truly peaceful once again.

Pendulous sedge.
Around the edge of the wood there was evidence of visits by deer.  Their tracks were everywhere. The wood is managed to keep the deer from munching the wildflowers by the erection of chestnut paling and brushwood fencing.

When I left, I promised myself I'll visit one of the oxlip woods again next year. It really is a place to appreciate spring.

Saturday 16 April 2016

Warley Place: Miss Willmott's Ghost and Nature Among the Ruins

I don't suppose Ellen Willmott, the famous horticulturist who lived in Warley Place in Essex from 1875 until her death in 1934, would be less than horrified at the appearance of her former home. The large country house that she knew is in ruins and only the shell of the conservatory still stands. Ivy climbs over the rubble of her home and wild flowers push through the bricks.  And her greenhouses and cold frames, the centre of her gardening activities, are now down to their foundations - crumbling outlines of what they once were.

I thought about Miss Willmott coming forward in time when I visited Warley Place last week and imagined the sight of her wandering around today. I think she would be horrified - but perhaps only at first, because all the buildings have gone and her neat gardens are overrun (apparently she would sack a gardener if she spotted a weed.) But I hope after her first inspection she'd realise that so much of what she created still flourished - like her acres of daffodils - and that her old estate is managed well by volunteers who have simply let it become a place of wild, natural beauty. Warley Place is now a nature reserve, owned by the Essex Wildlife Trust.

Brimstone on Bluebell
Spring is a great time to visit Warley Place. In fact, it's really worth visiting several times over the season, first of all to see the drifts of snowdrops and then the stunning carpets of daffodils. When I visited, these were starting to fade (which looked sort of appropriate here where there is a sense of gentle decay). But the daffs are being replaced by a fresh blue, as the bluebells, forget-me-nots and pulmonaria are now in flower. Along the paths, the wild garlic is coming out with its pungent smell. I also think it'll be worth visiting again in a few weeks because there are masses of self-sown foxgloves. I saw the clumps of leaves all around the ruins and I think these will look glorious in early summer.

Ellen Willmott brought in flowers from abroad and is thought to have cultivated over 100,000 different species of trees, plants and shrubs. More than 60 plants have been named after her and Warley Place, including Eryngium giganteum (Miss Willmott's Ghost)  - a large sea-holly.  She received many accolades for her plants and was one of the first recipients of the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897.

Ellen and her sister Rose taking tea under the Walnut Tree c1900
There are some interesting trees here too such as 'Umbellularia californica' (known as the headache tree, because crushing the leaves creates a headache) and the turkey oak, which has a parasitic growth on its branch known as a witch's broom.  Probably the most impressive trees of all are the old, gnarled sweet chestnuts.  In 1649 John Evelyn the Diarist purchased the manor of Warley Magna - of which Warley Place is a part. The story goes that he was thought to have planted these sweet chestnuts, although it seems that only one of the present trees actually dates back that far.

The sweet chestnuts are lovely trees and while I was looking at them I noticed that the birds love them, too.  I had to smile at this blue tit, which was completely ignoring the purpose built nest box for the hole around the corner in the trunk.

Ellen Willmott created lots of interesting features at Warley Place, such as an Alpine gorge (with stone brought down from Yorkshire)...

There are three ha-has here - deep banks and ditches established to keep the livestock away from the gardens (apparently the name ha-ha comes from the reaction of someone who suddenly stumbles across the vertical drop - although I can't imagine you'd laugh very much if you tripped into the ditch...)

Miss Willmott inherited a walled garden at Warley Place (which was probably established in the early 1600s) but much of what is here today is the result of her planting...

There is a history here, of course, that predates Ellen Willmott and John Evelyn. The old carriage drive to the house was once part of a main road and, in the Middle Ages, this road was once part of the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Walsingham.

The Warley Place estate was part of land owned by Barking Abbey, which was later dissolved by Henry VIII.  The king then gave this land in Warley to his naval minister, William Gonson.

There are North and South ponds here. This pond, the South Pond, once supplied water to the local village...

At this time of year, it's full of marsh marigolds.  A bird hide has also been set up on one side.

Ellen Willmott was well known in her time; she received visits from royalty at Warley Place. But she became increasingly eccentric towards the end of her life; she apparently booby trapped her estate for protection and wandered around with a revolver in her handbag. She also spent extravagantly throughout her life on her search for plants and seeds and eventually lost her money, so that many of her possessions had to be sold. This all seems very sad for a woman who had such a vast knowledge, expertise and talent in horticulture.

Purple toothwort - a parasitic plant dependent on other plants to survive.
Still, Warley Place has been protected (although I think it's strange that it hasn't been protected by the RHS but by Essex Wildlife Trust). Wandering around, I saw robins, wrens, blue tits, great tits and other birds starting to nest there last week and the reserve was full of bird song. But even if Warley Place as a wild and natural site wouldn't have appealed to Ellen Willmott, I have to admit that, if I were her, I'd be delighted that my former home was now a protected nature reserve, cared for by volunteers, with so much wildlife making a home there.

Thursday 7 April 2016

Spring Bees and the Cetti's Warbler Challenge

I love warm, sunny weather in late March/early April - because I get to inspect my bees for the first time after the winter. I now have only two hives and I've been desperate to have a good look under each roof to see what's going on in the colonies. But I have to wait until the weather warms up, because I can't expose my bees to the cold.

Last week - when there were several days of perfect, beekeeping weather - I was able to lift all the frames out of the hive and study the bees.  And I soon realised I'd found a tale of two hives...

One hive is thriving and is already filling up with honey. I'll have to watch this one, because if the colony is building up fast it may be ready to swarm soon (especially if it finds a banquet of oilseed rape in the fields). The last thing I want is to see a cloud of honeybees leaving the hive and flying over the horizon.

The other hive, meanwhile, is doing less well, because, just before Easter, it had been knocked over again and the colony has lost many of its bees. At the time, I thought the queen had been lost as well, but I've since seen eggs in the comb, which means she's there and laying.  It's a huge relief.  I've been feeding this colony with sugar-syrup and pollen patties, so hopefully it will also build up quickly.

White-tailed bumblebee
My honeybees have been foraging on the pussy willow growing just behind the hives - and the bumblebees are enjoying this, too.

I'm also starting to see other bees in the garden...

Dew-covered Buff-tailed Bumblebee.
Male Hairy-Footed Flower Bee on erysimum
I know a fair bit about honeybees but I don't know so much about the other types, so this year I want to learn more about them. I do know that there are over 250 species of bee in the UK, so this will be a bit of a challenge! I'll take photos and record sightings, and note down the flowers that interest them in my garden. In early summer I'll be joining in the Great British Bee Count 2016 organised by Friends of the Earth with Waitrose and Buglife. The aim of the count is to get a picture of bee populations by encouraging people to send in information on the bees they see in May and June. It's a great piece of 'citizen science' and the link is here

As well as my bee challenge, I've set myself a bird challenge because there's a bird I'd also like a decent photo of as well this year - the Cetti's Warbler.  This little bird has a very loud burst of song but I find it very difficult to see (given that it hides itself in reeds and bramble). I've spent too long staring at scrub where it's been singing looking at an invisible bird.  So I'm now beginning the 2016 Cetti's Warbler Challenge.

It doesn't help that when I set out to see it, I'm usually distracted by other birds that I can see flitting about such as this Chiffchaff...

and Bullfinch...

Male and female Blackcaps, nesting Long Tailed-Tits, a Treecreeper and others appeared, too. But there was no real view of the Cetti's Warbler.  So, for now, I'm having to make do with the occasional glimpse - as seen in this photo, (where it looks as though the branch is going to swing round and knock it out)

 Cetti's Warbler (latest pic below - a little bird determined to get away from my camera!)

I also wish I could take a photo that'll do justice to my beautiful primrose bank on our front verge. Each year more native primroses appear and this year I've counted nearly 300 clumps of primroses on it.

When they finish flowering, wild garlic appears with a few bluebells and then the hedge casts a greater shadow over the whole bank (it faces north) and the grass grows up. I'd like to see other wild flowers growing here then. Some do grow naturally in the lane (like bugle - loved by bumblebees), and so it would be great to see them spreading over the bank. That way I can have a verge full of different wild flowers throughout the summer.