Birches, shaggy ink caps and a wagtail: the October garden

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.

(From Robert Frost’s poem October)


Norway Maple in Autumn
The Norway Maple with its orange crown


The beginning of October brought tangible change with alternating periods of heavy rain and cheerful sunshine. I suppose the weather had to shift but I’d got used to the warm and dry. More rain followed and when the remnants of hurricane Gonzalo passed through I saw airborne leaves, gutter-filling leaves and now rotting leaves. It still felt unseasonably mild but despite this, nature moves forward, the flowers have mostly gone and, from my kitchen window, I watched the gradual change in colour as each tree moved ahead but at its own pace. One belligerent punk of a tree (a Norway Maple) tried hard to shock by putting on a bright crown of orange foliage.

Mullein in October
The continuing new growth on the mullein


Honeybee on Mullein
A honeybee enjoying the mullein flowers


Down in the Leechwell Garden I continued to wonder at the tenacity of a mullein which, despite the season, was now a tangled mass of new flowering stems. The fresh, lemon-yellow flowers proved popular with the honeybees now that other forage is becoming scarce.

Mrytle 1
Myrtle: flowers, fruits and leaves

I also discovered a largish evergreen shrub, a myrtle, by one of the old stone walls. It was the brilliant white flowers that first caught my attention, their long yellow-tipped stamens bursting from the petals like a bonfire-night rocket lighting up the sky. The myrtle’s cloak of small, glossy, dark green leaves was complemented by many immature fruits in a variety of colours from pink to green to black. Crushed myrtle leaves emit a eucalyptus-like smell and the berries and leaves are widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking.

A fig tree clothes a large part of the ancient stone wall


Perhaps because of the dearth of flowers, I have spent some time this month looking at the grove of young trees planted near the three mature silver birches. These are a mixture of willows and birches and their height allowed me to look closely at their leaves and fruits. The young birches divide in to two groups, one still covered with large ovate green leaves, the other rapidly losing their smaller, yellowing, diamond-shaped leaves.

Himalayan Birches 1
Four himalayan birches (willows behind)


Himalayan Birch bark
Himalyan birch bark with apricot coloured lenticels


Himalayan Birch bark peeling
Peeling bark on a himalayan birch

The green-leafed birches impress for another reason – their slender, smooth trunks with luminous white bark, characteristic of the Himalayan Birch. On a dull day, the pale, narrow trunks seem to shimmer like ghosts in the gloom. On the upper parts of these trees the bark is peeling away like old wallpaper on a damp wall and, in the past, this white paper-like bark was used for writing Sanskrit scriptures and texts.

Himalayan Birches
Brownish-red markings on one himalayan birch

One of this group of birches also has crazed patterns of dark, brownish red superimposed on the white bark. I didn’t know that Himalayan Birches showed this kind of patterning and it makes me slightly uneasy about my identification.

Male catkins on Himalayan Birch
Male catkins on himalayan birch


Himalyan Birch female fruit and leaf
Seed head on himalayan birch

Around the branches, signs of reproduction and renewal abound. A few chunky male catkins are already present showing their prominent helical structure overpainted in washes of brown and green. In the spring, these catkins will become the familiar pendulous structures brimming with yellow pollen waiting to fertilise the female flowers as they emerge with the new leaves. But the tree hasn’t finished with this year’s cycle and some mature female seed heads are still waiting to discharge their seeds.

Young silver birch
Young silver birch showing reddish pink bark and many mature seed heads

The second group of young birches share many of the features of the three mature silver birches, particularly the foliage. Confusingly, the bark shows varying shades of pink, red and brown but my tree identification book tells me this is typical for young silver birches. New leaf buds are still very small as are the male catkins but this year’s mature female seed heads are very prominent. They fall apart easily if touched, releasing hundreds of seeds.

Male and female fruits on Silver Birch
Seed heads and new male catkins on silver birch

You may already know this, but the birch tree is a Celtic symbol of growth, renewal, stability etc and in Finnish sauna culture, participants gently beat themselves with leafy fragrant boughs of silver birch!

Shaggy Ink Caps
Shaggy Ink Caps

This month’s mild, damp weather has been good for fungi. On the 22nd I came across three fine upstanding shaggy ink caps (Caprinus comatus), also known as Lawyer’s Wig fungi because the bell-shaped cap develops flaking scales that protrude. These ink caps are edible although, I am told, they lack a very distinctive flavour. If you intend to eat them, pick and consume them young as they deteriorate rapidly. They should not be confused with the egg-shaped common ink cap which is poisonous in combination with alcohol.

Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail (from a distance)


Writing this diary takes me fairly regularly to the Leechwell Garden. On my visits, there has always been something to look at in the Garden, something to remark on, with one exception: birds. Why do I see so few birds, I don’t have an answer. So, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter an interesting bird this month as I walked away from the Garden towards the Leechwell. I saw the bird ahead of me as its flight traced an arc from the water to the wall above. When it reached the relative safety of the wall, it bounced about before settling; its habitual tail flicks and sleek shape told me immediately that this was a wagtail. I could see flashes of lemon yellow so this was most likely the resident, water-loving grey wagtail. It was there again a few days later. So, there are some birds about!

Autumn sculptures
Some “autumn sculptures” I found in the Garden one day.

8 thoughts on “Birches, shaggy ink caps and a wagtail: the October garden”

  1. Ah yes, Robert Frost. New England poet, much beloved of the nature warm and fuzzy school whose members never seem to notice the sting in the tail: in this instance, a wild wind laying waste to ripened leaves… I do love Frost’s irascible temperament, always lurking beneath the surface of his poetry.


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