Sunday, 22 September 2019

From the survival of species to the destruction of others, that’s nature

From the survival of species to the destruction of others, that’s nature

IT is a wonder how varied the means our wild plants deploy to set seed for a new generation.

In midsummer the foxglove relies on the slight movement caused by a breeze to spread its tiny ripe seeds a short distance as they rattle out of their dainty ripe capsules.

Dandelion, goat’s beard and other members of the asteracea family produce small parachutes that carry next year’s progeny at the vagary of the wind. Some may travel many miles to land, settle and set root.

Like the foxglove, other flowering plants produce capsules that eventually split and disperse their seeds by similar means. Both willow trees and orchids employ this method.

Some plants produce nuts and nutlets encased in a robust outer shell. Most of us will have seen a grey squirrel digging holes in the lawn to stash away a hazelnut or a jay doing likewise with an acorn. They always forget one or two for which we should be grateful unless we are the proud owner of an exemplary lawn.

Some deciduous trees, the native field maple and the introduced sycamore and Norway maple, produce little “helicopters” that spin away upon release to colonise new ground, an effective strategy.

Other trees and bushes produce fruits. Crab apple, rowan and whitebeam rely on consumption by birds to spread their seeds, as do the blackberry, raspberry and gooseberry.

The wild-service tree tends to spread through suckers.

Other plants produce burs. Burdock, hound’s-tongue and enchanter’s-nightshade are readily carried far and wide with their hooked bristles and may end up colonizing our gardens after hitch-hiking on our clothes. My friend Dave Kenny’s garden is brimming with enchanter’s-nightshade as a result.

His real problem, though, is not with unwanted plants but caterpillars, specifically those of the box tree caterpillar (Cydalima perspectalis).

This native of East Asia has devoured some of his bushes wholesale in rapid fashion.

They create a protective webbing around doomed foliage and waste no time in wreaking havoc on the host plant. If any reader finds some I can only recommend their immediate removal and destruction.

These may be bad enough but we are already witnessing the spread of the oak processionary moth, a native of south and central Europe. The caterpillars of this species move along the twigs and branches of our trees in a train-like fashion (hence their name) as they consume the leaves. Incidentally, the caterpillars’ hairs can produce a nasty allergic reactions in humans.

Another scourge is ash dieback, a fungal infection that interrupts the flow of water through the trunks and branches of these handsome trees to their leaves. I am still haunted by the obliteration of the elms back in the Seventies.

But that’s enough of gloom, doom and despair! Today I have embarked on a short walk with Dave around the fields and lanes at Whitchurch Hill.

I first ventured here back in July but the landscape has changed. The glorious meadow has been cut and baled up to presumably provide fodder for horses. I bet it tastes nice.

As we make our way towards Path Hill, we spot some giant puffballs. These are edible and can be sliced up into “steaks” and fried.

Scented mayweed, field scabious, chicory, perforate St John’s-wort and agrimony are still in flower.

Revisiting the old narrow lane that leads to Copyhold Farm, we encounter some common toadflax with its charming yellow and orange flowers, hence its nickname, butter-and-eggs.

Small-flowered cranesbill is another common plant present.

Dave spots a bird cherry (Prunus padus) and tries some of the little fruits. Thrushes love them but not Dave as they are bitter. He counters the taste by munching on some blackberries.

The local blackthorn (sloe) hang heavily with a rich harvest of velvety blue fruit. They’d make a good gin.

Finding the road, we turn back towards Whitchurch Hill to visit a massive old oak that Dave spotted last winter. He measures its girth at more than 5m.

The weather has been particularly hot so we pop into the Sun at Whitchurch Hill for some refreshments.

We sit outside with landlord Pete and the three of us reminisce until I realise that my last visit to the pub was in 1979! I like it and plan to return more regularly.

Vincent Ruane

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