Monday, 17 January 2022

Mellow fruits of autumn

DESCENDING by the bridleway to the right beyond Shiplake church, listen for the ring-necked parakeets in

DESCENDING by the bridleway to the right beyond Shiplake church, listen for the ring-necked parakeets in the beech trees, exclaiming to each other over this year’s abundant crop of mast.

There are red admirals here too, in a sunny corner of the ivy, with wasps and bees in attendance.

The bushes are festooned wth hops and wild clematis, or traveller’s joy, which has not quite turned into fluffy “old man’s beard”.

Now that the luxuriant summer growth is dying back, between the monumental seedheads of thistles, teasels, hemlock and hairy willow-herb, we can glimpse Tennyson’s osier’d aits, occasional boats and a group of Canada geese bathing, preening, flapping and cackling together like Roman senators in a bath house, showing off their plumage and strength.

Balsam, visited by huge bumble bees, bistort and Michaelmas daisies are still flowering, as is the common reed, but colour is now provided by the fruits of autumn.

Whole hedgerows glow pink with ripening haws beside the flat fields towards Sonning Eye, fields beloved by the herons which stand camouflaged among the dried grasses, watching for frogs, and beloved by the road-builders who may soon want to excavate their gravel.

On the water’s edge trees of every variety have seeded and grown to produce walnuts, crab apples, rose hips and alder catkins.

The common alder, alnus glutinosa, is an unusual tree in that it carries the nitrogen-fixing bacteria frankia in nodules on its roots and therefore grows fast and improves the soil around, helping to protect the river banks by securing the edge with its roots.

There can be a single trunk or, as here, the young trees have multiple stems.

The dark foliage stays green until the leaves drop and at present they are carrying three generations: last year’s female catkins are now hard like miniature pine cones; this year’s green nobbles are ripening the new seed; and the bright green spikes of next year’s male catkins will open brown and yellow and shed their pollen in the March winds.

The seed is buoyant and can float for a month, dispersing to a new spot on the river bank.

See if you can find a twig with all three fruits on one stem.

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