Tag Archives: catkins

One sunny day does not make a Spring

The sun greets the spring

And the blossom the bee,

The grass the blea hill

And the leaf the bare tree

From “Love and Memory” by John Clare

 

The signs have been there for a while.  Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume.  Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers.  A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches.  If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.

So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place.  It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather.  Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.

I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing.  On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose.  Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went.  This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.

Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice.  The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies.  The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.

When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust.  The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care.    Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens.  If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.

Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.

A plumipes
Hairy-footed flower bee on rosemary

 

willow
The willow waterfall

 

honeybee 2
Honeybee on willow catkin

 

honeybee 1
Honeybee with pollen on willow catkin

 

B hypnorum
Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) on willow catkin

Short on colour, high on drama – the garden at the turn of the year

How quickly time passes! It’s already a year since I wrote my first post about the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the heart of Totnes. Each month I’ve written about the plants and the wildlife and it’s been fascinating to watch the Garden change with the seasons.   I’ve learnt so much and also met some wonderful people both here in Totnes and in the blogosphere.  (here is a quick link to these articles)

sage
A sage bush on a rare sunny day

 

I visited the Garden several times at the end of December 2014 and at the beginning of January 2015. I was particularly interested to see how the present state of the Garden compared with what I saw a year ago. I found, just like last year, an overall look that was monochrome, especially on dull days. The trees were mostly bare skeletal branches and there were very few flowers at this low time of year.

rose hips
The shrivelled black rose hips

 

It wasn’t exactly the same, though. A year ago, I found more colour. Last year, yellow crab apples were still gracing their tree in late December. This year the fruit disappeared several weeks earlier, partly because of the attention of the birds. Last year I was taken by the mass of bright red rose hips on the pergola. This year these are almost uniformly black and shrivelled. Perhaps this is due to the mostly mild, mostly damp weather.

holly
Holly

 

olive tree
The olive tree

 

Looking around for more winter interest this year, I found a variegated holly with its leaves shining in the sunshine. The olive tree looked very healthy but I doubt we shall be seeing single estate Leechwell Garden Olive Oil anytime soon. A nearby sage bush also stood out. Near the water I found several mahonia with their frothy lemon yellow flowers and for a short time I watched a visiting insect which I think was a hoverfly.

Hoverfly on mahonia
Mahonia with insect

 

bug house
The bug house. The wooden block mason bee nests are visible towards the bottom of the picture

 

The Leechwell Garden is normally a quiet place but towards the end of December there was drama. The Bug House was found to be damaged and had to be removed for repair! Apparently, someone had tried to climb in to the Garden when the gate was locked. They probably steadied themselves by standing on the Bug House which gave way under their weight. But all is now fine; the Bug House has been mended and returned to its rightful place. Fortunately, the removable tubes containing mason bee nests had been put somewhere for safe keeping over the winter and the wooden block nests seem to be undamaged. The new bees should be flying in a few months.

What we don’t know, of course, is what happened to the intruder.

lungwort
Lungwort with buds

 

Early January does feel like a low time of year and some of this feeling may be due to expectations raised but ultimately unfulfilled by our over-commercialised Christmas. The Garden does not reflect these feelings and if you look around, there are hopeful signs of the new growing season everywhere. Several trees are now veiled in a haze of small catkins getting ready to spread their pollen when the wind and the time are right. The clumps of the bee-friendly plant lungwort may not look particularly attractive at this time of year but they are already showing several stems with large buds. There will be flowers in a few weeks. I even found a few yellow flowers on a clump of primroses.

primrose
Primroses

 

Some of the most striking signs of the new season can be seen on the crab apple tree. From a distance its smooth branches have seemingly been invaded by regular short spiky outgrowths. These will be transformed in a few month’s time by blossom and leaves. Close up, we can see the intricate but beautiful textures of these buds and their rich, reddish-brown colour.

crab apple buds
Buds on crab apple

 

Postscript:  I can’t keep up with Nature! I  wrote most of this post earlier in the week and should have hit the publish button then.  On a quick walk through the Garden this morning I saw several pink flowers on the lungwort and the first frogspawn in the watery area.

frogspawn
I did not have my camera with me on the 16th when I first saw the frogspawn. Here is a picture of the frogspawn taken on January 18th when there was much more compared with two days earlier.

 

Pale promises and lambs tails in the late February garden

“The counterfeit gold of February sunshine, making pale promises that can never be fulfilled”

I particularly like this quote from Bob Copper’s book, “A song for every season”, where he writes lyrically about his Sussex farming family and the traditional country songs they sing. On the rare occasions we have seen sunshine this month it’s usually been misleading and rain frequently followed. Heavy showers and pale sunshine then chased one another around the valley below our house, painting the sky with huge rainbows. The clear separation of the seven bands of colour in these rainbows tells us more about the wonders of science than any school physics experiment with a prism.

From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, I watch each day for changes. During the month, some of the trees on the edge of the Garden developed a golden sheen. By the end of the month, this sheen acquired texture as if many small brushstrokes had been applied. The brushstrokes were the plump catkins, bursting with fertility but hanging loosely like pale yellow lamb’s tails. On another tree, I noticed the upper branches acquiring a pale ruddy brown glow in the light of the rising sun. I initially imagined vestigial leaves, but in fact there must have been a change in the colour of the upper meshwork of slender branches.

Around 4 pm on better days, the Garden has been taken over by a group of about 10 young boys from the local comprehensive school. They run, jump and tumble their way about the Garden like a litter of puppies. They seem especially keen on a loosely organised game that resembles rugby but without the ball; the main aim seems to be to knock one another over and scramble about on the ground in heaps. They don’t seem to be doing any harm. It all looks great fun and they can work off energy after a day constrained in the classroom.

Feb 2
Pink lungwort

Down in the Garden, the lungwort are single-handedly putting on a valiant show. The pink clump is now covered with flowers, some turning blue. Another clump, also with spotted leaves, shows white flowers and a third clump, with narrow green unspotted leaves, sports mostly blue flowers with a few pink.

Feb 1
White lungwort

Feb 4
Blue lungwort

One of the Garden volunteers told me that lungwort is a favourite of the Hairy-footed Flower Bee, a solitary bee that likes to nest in old walls and in mortar, of which there is plenty in the Garden. She had also just seen a grey wagtail by the running water. I shall have to keep a careful watch for these bees and birds.

Feb 5
A clump of primroses and the Three Guardians sculpture

Elsewhere in the Garden, there are a few snowdrops and celandine in flower and several clumps of primroses, a sure sign that the year is moving on. I have a soft spot for primroses and I remember their pale yellow flowers and delicate stems when, as a child, I picked them from railway embankments of the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. Primroses also grow well in this part of Devon and in the mid 20th century, local Paper Mills sent primrose-posies to their customers to give them “a breath of Devon air”. Children collected the flowers in return for pocket money and vast numbers were picked. The practice was frowned upon by conservation-minded people so in 1977, the paper manufacturers enlisted the help of ecologists from Plymouth Polytechnic to find out if the yearly primrose harvest was damaging the wild primrose. They came to the conclusion that the harvest was an important community event and was organised in a way that was unlikely to affect survival of wild primroses. Despite this, the practice was discontinued a few years later as public attitudes hardened against wild-flower picking.

Feb 3
Some still water – look for the new frogspawn on the right and tadpoles on the left

The frogspawn I mentioned last month disappeared and I thought that was the end for the frogs. My pessimism was misplaced as not only have the frogs been busy laying more spawn but there are now quite a few tadpoles happily swimming about in the still pools of water in the Garden. There’s no sign of legs yet but it’s early days. How many will survive I don’t know but its good to see some hatched.

Towards the end of the month, there have been several days with sunshine and perhaps it’s something about the light but there was a distinct whiff of spring in the air. We shall see!

The photographs were taken on February 24th by Hazel Strange