Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens. In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream. This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century. It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold. Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.
Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar. Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September. A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds.
A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths. On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well. Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum. When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.
There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.
During the hot weather in the first few weeks of August, we took to sitting in the shade by our pond with our mid-morning coffee. Butterflies, bees and hoverflies passed by, sometimes stopping on nearby flowers, but the main attraction was a large clump of lavender. With its many purple flowers and grey green foliage, it lent a sweet scent to the air as it cascaded down a rough stone wall by the path and was thronged with medium sized bumblebees. The heat seemed to stimulate them and they moved continuously from flower to flower, stopping only briefly to feed. Each time they moved to a new flower head the stem dipped as it took their weight only to spring back as it adjusted. Sometimes the light reflected off their wings like glittering fragments of glass. With all this activity, the lavender clump appeared to be alive.
In the middle of the day, up to ten bumblebees could be seen moving about the lavender clump at any one time and with their black, yellow and white striped furry bodies they looked superficially to be of the same species, probably buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). Photographs supported this identification and examination of their back legs showed they were males. These male buff-tailed bumblebees will have emerged from a nest that reached maturity during the summer and males, once out of the nest, cannot return and spend their time searching for virgin queens and feeding. Dave Goulson has likened the gangs of male bumblebees drinking nectar on flowers such as lavender to groups of men propping up the bar in a pub.
I wondered what they did at night and one evening I walked past the lavender and found three immobile male bumblebees attached upside down to flower heads (see pictures at the head of this post and below). This was their roost and one of more was there roosting on many subsequent evenings. Male bumblebees have a short life, a few weeks, and by the third week of August numbers had dropped and those that were still about looked rather sluggish. Small brown Common Carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) began to take over the clump but that was also beginning to show signs of age.
There’s a path I often take on my way into town. It runs between the back gardens of two rows of houses and is probably an ancient right of way. Much of the path is lined by old stone walls, softened in summer by the pinks and purples of valerian and campanula. Walking along here one early June morning, I was surprised to find a dense mass of flower spikes, some up to a metre tall, rising from a bank usually covered in rough grass. Whorls of purplish red flowers decorated with white art deco-style patterns grew around each stem above heart-shaped leaves, toothed and pale green, nettle-like but without the sting. This is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica). To some, it’s an invasive weed but to me it’s a beautiful wild flower, attractive to insects and with interesting medicinal properties.
Small bumblebees were drinking nectar from the flowers in their lazily laconic manner, pushing their tongue between the three-lobed lower lip and the curving upper lip, acquiring an involuntary dusting of pollen from the hidden stamens. Hedge woundwort is, though, a particular favourite of another smaller bee species, one with a very different personality. One of these was moving edgily from flower to flower stopping very briefly to feed, emitting a distinctive high-pitched buzz as it went. It was about half the size of a honeybee, a non-descript brown except for some orange hairs on the tail and a golden pollen brush on the back legs. This was a female fork-tailed flower bee (Anthophora furcata). While she was feeding, another small bee arrived at high speed, a similar brown colour but with prominent yellow hairs on the face. This was the male fork-tailed flower bee; he hovered briefly behind the female buzzing loudly before pouncing. Both bees ended up falling to the ground.
Hedge woundwort and the closely related marsh woundwort have a long history of use in folk medicine for wound healing. The 16th century surgeon Gerard once witnessed a man cut himself badly with a scythe. Gerard offered help but the man refused and poulticed the injury himself with woundwort, stopping the bleeding; his wound healed in a few days. Gerard went on to use the plant in his own practice but, his professional pride piqued by the man’s rejection, christened it “clowne’s woundwort”.
It was a rare, cloud-free evening in mid-February earlier this year and I had stopped to gaze up at the sky, by now a deepening dark blue. Although the sun had set nearly an hour previously, vestiges of light lingered in the west and only the brightest stars were visible. Almost directly above me, though, it was the Moon that captured my attention. It was bright and well defined that evening and just over half illuminated. I gazed upwards for a while and this set me thinking about our relationship with this celestial body.
The Moon is the Earth’s only natural satellite and the only place away from the Earth where humans have set foot. It orbits our planet at a distance of 384,400 km and although that may seem a long way away, the Moon influences life on Earth to a surprising extent. It is the main driver of tides on the Earth setting up important rhythms that dominate lives lived near the sea. It can also influence the timing of migration and reproduction in the non-human world. Its prominence in the Earthly sky and its regular phases (new Moon, full Moon etc) have given the Moon great cultural significance influencing ancient religions as well as many artists, musicians, poets and writers.
Before the advent of widespread street lighting, the Moon was the only source of night time illumination. Travelling in the dark, without moonlight, was hazardous and evening social gatherings were often planned to take advantage of a full Moon. Nowadays, darkness features less in our lives and awareness of the phases of the Moon and the night sky is minimal. Despite this, everyday speech still contains references to the Moon in terms such as “once in a blue moon”, “over the moon”, “honeymoon” and “lunacy”.
The Moon was uppermost in my mind that evening because, the following day, we were booked to visit the Museum of the Moon exhibition in Exeter Cathedral. This exhibition featured UK artist Luke Jerram’s massive travelling artwork depicting the Moon. Jerram’s artwork had already been exhibited in several other places locally including Bournemouth, Sherborne, Taunton and Wells.
When we arrived in the Cathedral Close that morning, a small queue of people, each wearing a mask, had formed at the entrance door. After a short delay we were ushered in and were immediately confronted by the huge pale sphere. It hung between the roof and floor of the Cathedral, almost filling the vast space, dominating the view and capturing our attention. Most people reacted with surprise and there were audible exclamations of “Wow! or Gosh!”
Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon is a massive blue-grey globe, seven metres in diameter with a mottled surface, depicting the geography of the moon. The artwork is a 1/500,000 scale model based on precise lunar imaging from NASA combined with modern printing techniques and with internal lighting to create as realistic a representation as possible. In Exeter Cathedral, it was accompanied by a soundtrack specially created by composer Dan Jones.
We walked around the installation, looking from different directions, trying to take it in, not quite sure what to make of it. We weren’t alone, though, as there were quite a few people about that morning making it feel busy. Small children were running here and there, lying down beneath the huge sphere to look up, shrieking. School children, some in uniform, were drawing, colouring in shapes. Adults were standing, looking, holding their phones up to capture images. Some adults also wanted to lie down and “moonbathe”, but adults don’t, do they?
Luke Jerram’s Moon is a great concept but I wasn’t as impressed by it as I thought I would be. Perhaps in today’s culture where we are barraged with so many graphic images it is difficult to impress? Perhaps having witnessed the first Moon landings half a century ago it is hard to better those moments? I also found it difficult to concentrate on the artwork with all the other people, noise and movement around me. Despite these comments, it was good to see the children running about, enjoying the installation and engaging with its ideas. Perhaps that’s what we should all have been doing?
It’s also difficult for any artwork to compete with the splendour of Exeter Cathedral and I couldn’t help being drawn away from the Moon to gaze at the architecture, the medieval vaulted ceiling, the colourful roof bosses, the stained glass and some of the memorials and chapels. It felt as though having the Moon artwork there made me look afresh at the Cathedral. In the end, we stayed for more than an hour suggesting that we were very engaged with the totality of the experience.
One of my favourite artefacts in Exeter Cathedral is the Astronomical Clock. Dating from the 15th century but still in use, the main face of the clock shows the hour in its outer dial and on the inner dial the days of the lunar month (the time between successive new Moons). The sphere representing the Moon also rotates to show its phase. When we visited, the Moon on the clock was roughly half illuminated, very similar to what it had been in reality the night before. Despite these obvious references to the Moon, I noticed no attempt to link the Astronomical Clock to the artwork and, for the visit of the Moon to Exeter Cathedral, this was a missed opportunity.
Overall, though, Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon has been a huge global success having been presented more than 250 times in more than 30 countries (there are several Moon artworks circulating) and experienced by more than 10 million people. The Museum of the Moon is still on the move inspiring different creative responses wherever it appears. One of its notable recent outings has been at WOMAD 2022 where it was accompanied by an immersive sonic experience inspired by the ethos of the Festival and composed by Yazz Ahmed.
For many who have witnessed the artwork, this will have been their most intimate interaction with the Moon generating considerable new interest in this celestial body. Hopefully, this will have gone some way towards reconnecting people with their only natural satellite.
More than six weeks ago I went searching for spring flowers in west Dorset. I wrote about this for the Marshwood Vale Magazine and the article below appeared in the June edition.
It was an unexpectedly bright morning in the first week of May and I had come to one of my favourite places, Cogden in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. I stood in the car park for a few moments enjoying the gentle warmth of the air and taking in the familiar view set out below me. There was the sea, calm that day and a uniform greenish-blue merging into the distant mist with no clear horizon. There, also, was the yellowish-brown shingle beach with its fringe of white water, part of the larger Chesil Beach sweeping eastwards towards Portland, the wedge shape barely visible in the mist. I was here to see what flowers were in bloom on this spring day and I hoped I might find some of the first orchids.
I began my search by heading eastwards through the gate from the Car Park into the meadows that slope down below the coast road towards the sea. Despite the traffic noise, skylarks trilled overhead and a green woodpecker “yaffled” nearby. The ground was quite uneven, perhaps churned up by cattle when wet and muddy, making for awkward walking. Rough grass predominated but a few bright yellow cowslips were dotted about and spikes of bugle with their pale blue flowers were also showing well. Bugle is an unassuming flower, often overlooked but a closer examination revealed the delicately beautiful patterns of darker stripes and pale patches that decorate the flowers. Elsewhere in the meadow, the first yellow cushiony flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were emerging, a foretaste of times to come.
I asked some passing dog walkers if they had seen any orchids. They hadn’t, but kindly warned me to beware of adders. I continued to the east through several fields and across stiles gradually descending towards the sea. Traffic noise from the coast road gave way to the soothing sound of pebbles driven rhythmically back and forth by waves on the beach. When I reached the coast path, I turned to walk westwards, first along a narrow track enclosed by lush green vegetation and later above a broad grassy area bordering the reed bed and shingle beach. Colourful drifts of wild flowers grew here, mostly cowslip and cuckooflower.
I have always loved cowslips for their clusters of bright yellow, frilly-edged, trumpet shaped flowers (see picture at the head of this post). Seeing so many here reminded me of my childhood when it was common to find large numbers growing across chalk grassland and railway embankments in Dorset. Nowadays, it is a treat to see even just a few of the flowers, a reminder of how much has been lost from our countryside, mainly through urbanisation and the relentless march of intensive agriculture.
Cuckooflower is a very attractive, rather delicate looking flower, also called lady’s smock (picture below). The petals here were white with variable amounts of lilac pigmentation and lilac filigree markings. Cuckooflower is one of several plants whose name honours the cuckoo; the flowers are said to bloom at about the same time as the bird arrives from its migration. Cuckooflower is also one of the larval food plants for the orange tip butterfly.
In time, the reed bed petered out and I reached the first paved access track from the Cogden Car Park. The shingle beach near here is a very special place where many unusual plants flourish despite the harsh environment by throwing down long roots to harvest fresh water from the underlying soils. Sea kale is one of the main attractions. It is now rather uncommon in the UK but numerous clumps of the plant with their fleshy, cabbage-type, dark green leaves were evident that day. A few flowers, yellow at first then turning to white, were also showing. It was, though, too early for their great display when each clump will be covered with white flowers making the beach look as though a heavy snow has fallen. Another plant was, however, providing interest in the interim. This was sea campion and large mats of the plant were growing across the shingle, each covered in hundreds of white bowl-shaped flowers.
I still hadn’t found any orchids and was about to give up when, almost accidentally, I came across several groups of the flowers in an area of longish rough grass, bramble and gorse behind the shingle beach. There were, perhaps, twenty or more spikes of flowers of a brilliant purplish-pink held on thick stems emerging through the drab, rough grass, looking as if someone had splashed pink paint across a dull canvas. Many were in peak condition. A few were already past their best but others were just emerging. The flower spikes were loosely decorated with florets, like jewels on a bracelet. Each floret comprised a prominent extended lower lip, mostly purplish-pink but white towards the throat with a pattern of pink spots. An overhanging hood, marked white on some spikes, contained the reproductive parts of the plant and behind the hood a spur curved upwards. These are early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), usually the first of the species to appear each year and they conjure an otherworldly beauty wherever they grow. Early purple orchids were once common across the UK but have suffered in the same way as cowslips.
My visit to Cogden had been fascinating, as always, and I was particularly pleased to have found the orchids. It was, though, early May and many flowers were only just beginning to show. In a few weeks, the shingle beach will be dominated by the white flowers of sea kale, large drifts of pink thrift will appear across the low coastal cliffs and yellow horned poppy will begin to bloom. In the meadows and in the grassy areas near the reed bed many flowers will appear including several species of orchid.
A week ago, I went down to the south Devon coast below the village of East Prawle to find the rare long-horned bees that live there. Their main nest site is located in the low cliffs near Horseley Cove and I scrambled down the steep path to the foot of the cliffs to have a look. It was a beautiful sunny day and the area was bathed in sunshine while the sea, a deep blue in that day’s light, fussed on the jumble of large boulders that lie just off shore. The sea was calm when I visited but in the winter these boulders will defend the cliffs from the worst of the storms creating a protected microenvironment.
Tracts of reddish soft rock peppered with pencil-sized holes were evident across the cliffs and several bees, roughly honeybee-sized, were patrolling the area showing a particular interest in these cavities. They swung in and moved quickly just above the surface sashaying back and forth and from side to side like hyped-up ballroom dancers. They looked very fresh and were rather lively and It was difficult to discern details but when I focussed my attention on a single insect I could see a pale yellow face, a bright russet thorax and two extra-long antennae, for these were the male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) I had come to see. One landed briefly and I marvelled at his magnificent antennae, each as long as the rest of his body.
Numbers varied but there were always a few about and sometimes up to six at one time, weaving around one another, creating a loud buzz. My presence didn’t seem to bother them, some flew around me and another collided with me but they carried on regardless. They are driven by procreative urges and having emerged from their nest holes in the soft rock within the last week or so, they were now waiting to catch a virgin female as she appeared. Mating had, though, already begun. On two or three occasions, a bee flew directly into a hole and didn’t reappear. Photos confirmed that these slightly chunkier bees with golden pollen brushes on their back legs were female Eucera longicornis, already mated and preparing their nests.
Eucera longicornis is rare and much declined and one of many special insect species found along this stretch of coast, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The cliff top meadow above the nests was a mosaic of wildflowers and earlier I had found a few male Eucera feeding on bird’s foot trefoil. The coast path either side of the meadow had, however, been treated with herbicide and strimmed, virtually eliminating wildflowers, seriously degrading this important site.
A glistening black head suddenly broke through the surface of the water a metre or two offshore. A long, dark, shadowy shape was also just visible and we realised that this was a seal. We watched, captivated, as it swam slowly south westwards, staying roughly parallel to the beach, leaving a trail of ripples in its wake. Along the beach, people were swimming and when they saw the seal coming, they quickly made their way to dry land but the seal had already disappeared.
This magical encounter occurred last year as we were walking along a shingle beach in south Devon, but chance sightings of seals can occur almost anywhere along the Dorset and Devon coasts in the south west of the UK and are unpredictable and surprising. Each observation, though, is a reminder that these fascinating creatures live alongside us, and gives an insight, however brief, into their lives.
Seals are the largest land-breeding marine mammals found in the UK and two species may be seen around our coasts, the grey seal and the common or harbour seal. The grey seal is the larger of the two with males up to 2.6 metres in length and 300kg in weight. The grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal globally and the UK has more than a third of the world’s population, mostly found around the west coast of Scotland, also the Orkneys and the Shetlands with a few significant colonies along the East coast of England. Common seals are smaller, with males up to 2 metres in length and 150 kg in weight. Numerically, UK waters contain fewer common seals but the population is still significant amounting to 30% of the European sub species. Common seals have a similar UK distribution to that of the grey seal.
Should you sight a seal, it can be tricky to decide which species but if you can see the head, that may help. Common seals have relatively smaller heads compared to body size with a clearly defined forehead and short snout. Grey seals have larger heads with longer flat noses and no forehead. Fur colour is deceptive as both species vary in colour from grey to pale brown and whether the animal is wet or dry. Fur patterns, though, may help identification with grey seals having irregular darker blotches and common seals being more uniformly spotted.
Seals spend their lives partly on land and partly in the water. They haul out, often in groups, on uninhabited rocky islands, secluded beaches and sandbanks to rest, to digest their food or to give birth. More than half of their time, though, is spent in the water feeding and they can travel long distances to forage. They are superb swimmers, capable of diving to a depth of up to 100 metres to find food on the sea bed and during a dive they slow their heart rate in order to conserve oxygen. On land, seals can appear ponderous and ungainly, dragging themselves about using their front flippers, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed. This ability to slip effortlessly between two distinct lives, one on land and the other in the water, seen and largely unseen, gives seals an aura of mystery. It is no surprise that a wealth of myth and story has attached itself to the creatures.
Because the majority of seals in the UK are found along northern and north western coasts, sightings as far south as Dorset and Devon are infrequent but of great interest. There are no regular haul out sites along the Dorset and east Devon coasts so sightings are usually of seals moving about. Most of these casual sightings are of grey seals although there are thought to be a few common seals resident in Poole Harbour. The picture changes as we move into south Devon where several regular haul out sites are found along the coast. Here grey seals gather in small numbers at low tide to rest although they can also be seen swimming nearby. Seals are also seen in the Exe and Dart estuaries sometimes a distance from the coast.
The Dorset Wildlife Trust Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge is trying to build up a catalogue of seal sightings. Individual seals have characteristic marking patterns on their fur, so that photos can be used, rather like a fingerprint, to identify seals seen regularly in Dorset or moving about along the coast. By sharing their findings with other seal recorders, they already know that some seals seen along the Dorset coast have also been spotted in Hampshire, south Devon, Cornwall or France. Should you see a seal, you can help this project by reporting your sighting (with photographs if available, see below for details).
There is increasing concern, however, that seals are being disturbed by encounters with humans. They are large wild animals and, although they are curious creatures, they can be easily upset and disturbed. Seals haul out to rest and digest food and this essential quiet time can be interrupted if humans get too close. Disturbed seals may even panic, jumping from rocks into the sea so risking injuring themselves. There are also sporadic reports of humans being bitten when trying to feed or pat seals. Feeding seals additionally risks disturbing their natural feeding patterns.
The Dorset Wildlife Trust has compiled a code of conduct to try to deal with these problems. This code should be followed at all times when encountering seals or taking photographs, to protect both seals and humans and to minimise disturbance of these wild creatures:
Keep well away from seals so that they can’t see, hear or smell you
Use a camera zoom or binoculars for a better view
Keep dogs on a lead if seals are known to be in the area
Never feed seals
Take all litter home
Do not seek out encounters with seals in the water
Seals are iconic wild creatures and we are privileged to be able to see them along our coasts. We must, however, treat them with respect. They have their own lives, very different from ours, and they have as much right to occupy the environment as we do. We should enjoy watching these beautiful creatures but make sure that they can live their lives undisturbed.
I should like to thank Sarah Hodgson of the Dorset Wildlife Trust for her generous help and guidance when I was preparing this article
All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.
Here is a short piece I wrote after a visit to the Lamb Garden in Totnes on March 9th together with a poem by Thomas Hardy.
It’s that time of year when I spend more time than I should peering at patches of lungwort. The wild variety (Pulmonaria officinalis) has been flowering for several weeks here in Devon and now has a mixture of pinkish-red and purplish-blue trumpet-shaped flowers above fleshy, white-spotted green leaves. The weather has kept most insects away but this morning, there is a hint of warmth in the air and finally, I see what I have been anticipating.
It’s one of the first bees to emerge each year, and I get that first time thrill again. I don’t see it arrive but suddenly it’s there hovering by the lungwort, hanging in the air as if working out which flower to sample. As it hovers, I notice the mostly buff-haired abdomen and thorax, also the pale yellow mask-like face and is that the tongue hanging in readiness? This chunky insect might be mistaken for a bumblebee but is a very fresh male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), usually the first solitary bee species to appear in Totnes each spring.
Having chosen a flower, he settles down to feed, pushing his head in deeply to access nectar. His legs are splayed out gripping either side of the corolla, displaying the silky hairs that decorate them, celebrated in his common name. He doesn’t stay long, darting to another flower with a brief hover in between, buzzing loudly.
Lungwort flowers start out red and acquire the blue colour as they age. Red flowers contain more nectar than blue and the Anthophora feed preferentially from these red, higher forage flowers. This colour code means they don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers, increasing the chance of cross pollination.
The male then notices me and hovers, buzzing loudly and aggressively in my direction before departing in a huff. Other males appear and occasionally two find themselves together on the flowers. This also doesn’t go down well and they depart, carving circles in the air around one another.
I wanted to include a poem to go with these spring observations so here is Thomas Hardy meditating on the topic in “The Year’s Awakening” .
A recent Sunday morning walk took us past the weir that crosses the river Dart about a mile upstream from Totnes. A weir was built here as early as the 16th century to divert water from the river along a leat so that its energy could power corn mills in the town The leat is still intact, but now meanders largely unnoticed through industrial estates and near supermarkets, though still attracting the occasional kingfisher. The Town Mill also still stands and has variously been the Tourist Information Centre, a Coffee Shop and home for the Local Image Bank. In the past decade, though, the weir has seen major change and rejuvenation with the construction of the Totnes Weir Hydro. Its twin Archimedes Screw-driven turbines once more harness the energy of the upper river, this time to generate electricity. [See picture of the weir and hydro at the head of this post]
Below the weir, the river is tidal and increasingly brackish with large sandbanks emerging at low tide. Today, these are gull territory where they squabble and shout at one another while fellow birds continually join and leave the party. Nearer the weir, small gangs of mallards, male and female, poke around in the water for food, taking little notice of children and their dogs playing nearby.
We pick our way downstream across the filigree of raised tree roots that covers the tidal area at the lower river’s edge. Across the water, a large, well-marked bird is swimming back and forth despite the brisk current. With its black head and long red beak above a largely white body this is a male goosander. The bird is paying attention to something floating in the water and, from this distance, this looks like a dead bird. I make out a chestnut head and grey body, possibly a female goosander, and my immediate reaction is that the male is mourning his dead mate. But no, I was wrong because, after a little more manoeuvring, the male hops briefly on to the female and when he is finished, she miraculously springs into life and swims about rapidly. My photos [see below] confirmed that she was far from dead but had adopted a submissive posture to encourage her chosen mate.
If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time. The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces. It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days. Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness.
But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom. These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves. Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year. A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves. Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply. As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months. If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.
Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century. The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work. Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.
The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time. These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour. They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated.
It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter. Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub. The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination.
Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen. Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies. It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below. Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers. When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.
The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds. In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals. Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower. Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom. The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.
Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties. Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes. Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry. Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed.
It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.