Friday, 28 January 2022

So surprised and excited by mystery fern we just had to investigate

So surprised and excited by mystery fern we just had to investigate

BEFORE breakfast we take our customary stroll around our wooded garden led by our cat Cilla. She is definitely the boss. A bumblebee annoys her, she takes a brutal, feline swipe and the poor little innocuous creature flies off like an out of control helicopter with a headache. Oh dear. That’s cats for you, especially a precious one like ours.

Afterwards we head out to Peppard Common, park in a convenient spot and then walk across the grassland towards the Red Lion pub.

There is evidence of rabbit activity in the turf with burrows and characteristic droppings. We guess that they are asleep below our feet. Originating from the Iberian Peninsula the creatures (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were introduced by Britain’s Norman invaders for their meat and fur. Numbers dropped dramatically in the early Fifties down to myxomatosis. These days the population has recovered.

There has been systematic tree pruning and felling, specifically of cherry trees around some old flint pits. We wonder why and for what purpose.

The Red Lion needs new tenants according to a billboard. A Brakspear-owned pub, we are tempted to run it. A pipe-dream? Maybe not. Over the years I have seen so many of my old watering holes closed. A tragedy.

We cross the B481 with care, as many vehicles are passing at great speed and head towards our beloved Dog Lane. We walk past the old Dog pub, the first that I ever entered, now a private house and where I first played bar-billiards in 1977. We’ve not explored the lane since last November. A little white dog barks at us, so threatening!

On our previous visit the lane was a consistently, muddy mire with what appeared to be an unusual, seasonal stream running downhill. Where it pops up I’ve no idea. Today it has dried out but it is still possible to make out the water’s course, engrained on its gravelly run.

The lane is dusty and powdery, something that I would not have predicted, and very stony. One has to be careful and pay attention to what lies underfoot when walking along this ancient lane that once formed part of an important thoroughfare between Henley and Wallingford.

We re-encounter a large amount of stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) to our left, a plant that I first came across here many years ago. A single stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) grows opposite, a pair stinkers no less. The former is uncommon, the latter rare, only recorded in my Flora of Oxfordshire, 1998, in 10 tetrads. I have found it at Binfield Heath, Chambers Copse on the outskirts of Emmer Green, Straw Hill at Goring Heath and now here. None can be garden escapes. We have some at home that Rosemary bought from the Herb Farm at Sonning Common.

As we progress towards Rotherfield Greys many more plants reveal themselves. The delicate, beautiful, snow-white flowers of greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) and lesser stitchwort (Stellaria graminea), the intense creamy-yellow of yellow archangel (Lamiastrun galeobdolon ssp argentatum), the violet-tinged blue flowers of ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea), classic common dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), dog’s mercury (mercurialis perennis), Ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia), common nettle (Urtica dioica) and white dead-nettle (Lamium album).

Hedge bedstraw, (Galium mollugo) is rising, yet to flower. Seven-spot ladybirds (Coccinella septempunctata) totter about within the leaves. Lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum) punctuate the lane, some of the leaves purply spotted, others plain. The cowl-shaped flowers are emerging. Wild onion (Allium vineale) with its hollow leaves is perking up.

We both love this ancient thoroughfare with its high banks, a true Holloway lined with hazel (Corylus avellana), field maple (Acer campestre), cherry (Prunus avium), holly (Ilex aquifolium), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), spindle (Euonymus europaeus), oak (Quercus robur), ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and saplings of English elm (Ulmus procera). The elms never give up despite the continuing prevalence of Dutch elm disease. In all hope some will prove resistant and re-populate our landscape.

Further on I spot goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus) in profusion. Nationally the plant is in decline. An indicator of ancient woodland, it really is doing very well here. The flowers are yellow and just coming out.

The whole lane is full of burrows of differing dimensions, rabbit warrens, wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), bank vole (myodes (Clethrionomys) glareolus) and fox (Vulpes vulpes) holes, and badger’s (Meles meles) setts. It seems that nocturnal parties are taking place here. An odd thought as I’m reminded of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows an enchanting but by turn a mysterious work. There are more holes in the lane’s banks than on the golf course that lies to either side. Maybe the animals take a tipple in the 99th?

I spot a strange fern on one of the banks looking like no other that I have ever come across. I ask Rosemary to take a photograph, which I shall share with a botanist friend Camilla Lambrick to see if she can help with identification. It is a most unusual plant. I’m puzzled. We find another two. One is clearly a common male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) with huge fiddleheads, the other a youngster that I think to be an example of a broad buckler-fern (Dryopteris dilatata).

As we move along we have to watch out for the occasional group of cyclists. Happily though, we meet up with fellow walkers. They are mostly all women which I find most interesting. One compliments me on my black Basque beret which is rather lovely. I congratulate her on her blue one. A pair of horse-riders pass by.

At one point we unexpectedly meet up with Bridget who we spoke with in January at Kingwood Common and her friend Liz. What a small world it is, but then people like us get out and about. Once more we have a splendid conversation, part company and move on. The first bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are in flower here and there, rafts of them below oak and beech that we come across at the junction of Dog Lane and the Chiltern Way.

We turn back and after 100 yards peel off to our left and head south alongside The Paddock. A mixed wood with some Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) the path is pleasant. All along our way we are entertained by the songs of chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus colybita), blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) and chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs). It is all rather delightful, except that I am yet to hear a single willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) so far this year. Worrying indeed.

There are some fine old oak trees in here with silver birch (Betula pendula) underneath a vast carpet of bluebells and dog’s mercury. A truly, lovely spot.

We now take a turn to the left, westwards towards Rotherfield Peppard through part of the golf course. The tree planting has now come to fruition with many small flowering plants moving in that include red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum). Some of the young oaks bear marble galls as a result of a non-native species of gall wasp (Andricus Kollari), introduced in the 19th century for tannin that was used for ink-making and dyeing.

We make our way back through lovely open country and then past the grand old rectory, church and primary school to cross the busy road to our car where I find some white-flowered common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) a plant that I associate with damp riverbanks. Here it is nonetheless and looking in good spirits too. Great. We head home.

Regarding the strange fern that I found I have received some information from pteridologists (fern experts) via my friend Camilla. Their observations are inconclusive. Speculation is that it could be a variant of soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) that we have bought and planted in our garden or a hybrid of the soft and hard shield (Polystichum aculeatum) ferns, (Polystichum x bicknelllii). If so, it will be a first for Oxfordshire. Blimey!

A couple of days later, we decide to return and explore. I find the paradoxical fern and take a small portion of one of the pinnules to examine under my microscope at home.

The hard shield-fern is somewhat prickly to the touch, the soft shield, well, soft. I’m not sure what I have found but it is rather unusual. I refer to my reference book, Britain’s Ferns, by James Merryweather, a wonderful and comprehensive book.

I have to say I can’t come to a definitive conclusion. Maybe it is indeed the hybrid. After peering through my microscope I’m still confused. I’ll relate what I see to Camilla. The jury is out.

On our way back, a peacock butterfly (Inachis io) settles on our path, sunbathing. Above a buzzard (buteo buteo) and a red kite (Milvus milvus) tangle in the air. Traveller’s joy (clematis vitalba) clambers through the branches of young trees.

Back home, our newly arrived house sparrows have settled in and seem unafraid of us, taking food from several of the tables. It would be wonderful if they would breed and set up camp. I love them, a reminder of my childhood. We will do everything within our power to help them.

When you try, small things can turn out to be big things when you aid nature. Let us all do what we can.

A tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) attends our hellebores. Cilla does not see the busy insect, how lucky!

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