Henk Beentje's Winsham botany walks
Dr Henk Beentje is an active member of our community, and an elected member of Winsham Parish Council. He has been a researcher at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and editor of the publication series 'Flora of Tropical East Africa' for many years.
Henk also has a great interest and love for our local flora and fauna, and his knowledgeable commentary on his walks in and around Winsham, with the pictures, will, help inform our own ramblings.


Walking Winsham Lanes-6th September 2021


Hazelnut
Early September, suddenly the weather has changed to hot days, but the mornings are misty and the evening light is golden. It is the tail end of summer, or, if you believe in meteorological autumn, early autumn! I am more in favour of astronomical autumn, which means summer will continue to September 21st, but whatever you prefer, the season is changing. And after such a strange year, what with a rather cold spring and a summer that had alternating long dry periods and sudden wet spells in July and August… 

Thistledown

Elder

Guelder rose

Beech

Dog rose

Fleabane

Golden banded dragonfly

Lime

Redshank

Rosebay willowherb

Sycamore

Traveller' joy

As I write this, September 6th, it is hot and sunny but the sky above Leigh is filled with twittering Martins – are they gathering to fly back to somewhere in Africa? They should really be hanging around for longer, but these are strange times. My feeling is that wild plants are setting fruit earlier than usual this year. Of course some plants are still in flower, mostly the same as last month, but with a few I had not spotted before: Traveller’s joy climbing over shrubs; and two plants with similar names but very different looks - Fleabane, here and there in hedge edges and Canadian fleabane, a foreigner growing not just by the Shearer’s front door, but also spotted along Forton Lane. Redshank, with the red spot on each leaf, is flowering in little groups along roadsides.  Some wild plants, of course, have flowers still going and are also producing fruit: Bramble, Herb Robert, Honeysuckle, Foxglove (more fruit than flower, by now) and Rosebay willowherb. 



Orb Weaver Spider
Many others have finished flowering and moved into fruit. Foremost are several trees: Ash, Beech, Sycamore and Lime. Of the smaller hedge trees and shrubs there is fruit on Elder, Field maple, Guelder rose, Hawthorn, Hazel and Holly (the last one not yet red, but full size fruit just the same). Climbers like Dog rose and herbs such as Hogweed and Burdock; here and there the pale dried spikes of Bluebells with black seeds inside. There is unexpected beauty in some of these fruits, have a good look and you might discover something new! I did, as I always thought Rosebay willowherb had rather random seed heads, but actually they are really well-engineered, with the fluffy seeds held between the slowly widening valves of the fruit. 

 

 

Walking Winsham Lanes-17th August 2021

Halfway through August, and our Winsham lanes’ hedges seem to be getting greener all the time: there are fewer wild flowers about, just at a time when our gardens seem to be bursting with colour. What is in flower? Much the same as last month, but less of it, as many species are going over to fruiting. In more open places there is still some colour, mainly Chamomile and some Ragwort, but in the hedges it is much less flowery than before. There is still some white of Hogweed and Bramble, but they too are going over and setting fruit; I ate my first blackberry last week, and got punished for my greed – it was sour as anything… The main touches of colour in the hedges are Rosebay willowherb and patches of Bindweed, a few Campions and a bit of Herb Robert. The few new arrivals are Bittersweet, rather rare and not very obvious; Wormwood, now in full flower, but those flowers are small and inconspicuous. One or two Field scabious are almost the most spectacular August flowers! The tall Burdock has come and gone in flower, and is already in fruit. Even the Creeping thistles are more thistledown than flower by now. Though those wretched Himalayan balsam are doing well, much too well for my liking – large patches near Bridge, and especially in and around Forde Abbey and along the valley road to Chard Junction. I reckon next month I will have pictures of fruits, rather than of flowers – I will only give you Lords and Ladies now, conspicuous in fruit in many a hedge and woodland edge.

Birds have gone quiet around Leigh, hardly any song at all. Swallows and Martins are still about (two days later – they now seem gone…), and plenty of insects – I even found a female Mayfly along Whatley Lane! But butterfly and dragonfly diversity is much lower than last year (which wasn’t all that good either). Though I have seen more Beautiful demoiselle, a spectacular damselfly, along the Synderford stream. Just at the moment there are lots of dragonflies zooming about Leigh, and I am not sure if they are Southern or Migrant Hawkers; but they are spectacular whatever they are. Hazel sent me a lovely photo of a Pellucid fly, which looks like a bee, and I found some Tapered drone fly, another hoverfly, on a Hogweed along Leigh Lane. On Ragwort the caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth are very visible, in their stripy yellow & black high-viz colours shouting ‘I’m poisonous, don’t eat me’. 

 

Some wild plant facts:

·      Wormwood has been used to flavour alcoholic drinks such as bitters, and is a main ingredient in absinthe; leaves were used to keep down insect pests such as lice and fleas from chicken coops.  

·      Ragwort is poisonous to livestock; normally they will not eat it, but if it gets harvested in hay or silage it can cause liver poisoning. The plant is the host plant of Cinnabar moths and an important food plant for carpenter bees, beetles and other insects.

·      Bittersweet is a little vine related to the potato and the tomato; its fruit looks like a tiny tomato, but is poisonous! The plant was considered effective against witchcraft in olden days. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees, who are keen on the protein-rich pollen; but they can only get to it by madly vibrating their wings, which shakes the pollen out of the anthers. So if you hear repeated short buzzes coming from your bittersweet, you know what is going on.

·      Burdock can grow to nine feet/270 cm, and has large leaves – but it is the heads that will stay with you. Literally. The flower heads are surrounded by soft hooked spines that will stick to your clothes and to your dog, too! A Swiss engineer, de Mestral, was untangling a lot of these burrs from his dog in 1941 when he had the idea that led to… Velcro!

 

     

 

 

Walking Winsham Lanes-12th July 2021

By the pond!

My main impression this month on walking Winsham Lanes is green, lush and high. All that rain!! Many shades of green (which reminds me of the Small faces’ Itchy coo Park, showing my age) with on first impression only a few touches of white: Elderflower, Hogweed and Bramble mostly, Meadowsweet coming in very recently; with here and there some Bindweed, and in more open places Oxe-eye daisy, Chamomile and Yarrow. In woods Enchanted nightshade is now in flower. The occasional purple comes in more concentrated patches, mainly from Foxgloves, in open sites Rosebay Willowherb, a few more Campions, and very occasionally some patches of Mallow. Yellow seems to be getting rare, the odd Buttercup (I am talking Winsham lanes, not my lawn!!) or Dandelion - which is just as often Hawksbit, looking like Dandelion but with branching stems; and Meadow vetchling, Wild lettuce.

And, coming to a place near you, Thistles. Lots of Thistles. They come in various sizes and shapes, but they all like soils rich in nutrients and they are all prickly – from rather prickly (like the yellow Prickly sow thistle) to quite (Meadow thistle) to very very (like the Spear thistle).

If you are wondering what the very large leaves are that come in substantial stands, such as on Whatley Cross, or Leigh Lane: these are Butterbur, which flowered much earlier in the year. The name comes from one of the former uses: butter used to be packed in these leaves, which can be up to three feet across!

With all this rain, there are even mushrooms coming out: in the grass I have spotted Meadow puffball and Pleated inkcap in small numbers. Good for mushrooms, that rain, not so good for butterflies; while there are a lot of Gatekeepers about, in general butterfly numbers are pretty low for this time of year, and diversity is not high either. All I have seen recently are those gatekeepers, a few Admiral, the odd Speckled wood and a few Small tortoiseshell; plus quite a few moths, but I am not good at those and all I can name is the Cinnabar I saw last week – oh, and the caterpillar of the Mullein moth is all over our garden Mulleins. Slightly better on the dragon- and damselfly front: Southern hawkers, Large red damselfly, Variable damselfly and Common blue damselfly, plus the odd Beautiful demoiselle – very pretty, those. Still, on sunny evenings I can see lots of insects flying about, and certainly our Swallows and Martins are having a good time! And so do the slugs and snails – I took a picture of one that I later identified as the White-lipped snail, quite common, and said to subsist on a diet of nettles, hogweed and ragwort.

I also spotted the first Himalayan balsam in flower – a nasty invasive weed, which takes over riverbanks and other moist places if not held in check; and then, in winter, there is nothing to hold the soil together (its root system is pathetic) and erosion follows. Rip it out where you see it!

A few wild plant facts:

Rosebay willowherb is a real pioneer in open spaces. It has been used in cordage, in fire-lighting, and cuts can be treated by putting a piece of cut stem on the area.

Yarrow is used in wound-healing, but in olden days it was also a charm against bad luck and illness.

Chamomile is of course used to make tea, from fresh or dried flower heads.

Ox-eye daisy central flowers form an intricate and beautiful Fibonacci spiral!

 

 

Along Winsham lanes, notes on wild plants and animals by Henk Beentje- Midsummer-June 2021

I am writing this on June 20th , one day before Midsummer, and it shows. The differences with my May rambles are amazing: the hedgerows are now completely leafy, the lane verges have exploded in height, and in width too, and as a result narrow lanes are now looking even narrower! Cow parsley dominated the verges for a while, turning them white and lacy, but has now gone over; its relative, Hogweed, is everywhere but not as continuous as Cow parsley was. It is taller, though, and at its basal leaves are huge. The main colour of the verges has turned to green, with many more ‘weedy’ plants making their way upwards: Bracken has gone from nil to 60 mph in a minute, Stinging nettles, Bindweed, Goosegrass or Cleavers, Sorrel… and grasses. High grass, lush grass, it is everywhere and the farmers are getting in the hay as fast as they can. As there are about 160 different species of grass in the UK I have always found them rather difficult to keep apart, but luckily in our area there are only two that are (at least at the moment) really common in roadsides: False oat grass, with rather feathery heads, and Cock’s foot with more clumpy heads. These are the tall ones that are just about everywhere, with Yorkshire fog (softly hairy) and Perennial rye grass (lower, much less noticeable with its appressed heads) less common; and only in one site, Whatley Lane near the turnoff to Leigh Lane, have I spotted Wood melick, a grass that is an indicator of ancient woodland.

Of course there is colour, here and there, with the yellow of Buttercups, Herb bennet and Wild lettuce common, the pink of Campions, Clover and Herb Robert – and Foxgloves, towering above all the rest. In the hedges Hawthorn and Elder are doing their bit, Dog roses have just begun to flower, as have Brambles, and Honeysuckle is providing several colours all on its own - as well as evening scent for the pollinating insects that are so busy at this time. Bees, Bumblebees, Hoverflies are at it, but I have found Butterflies less common than last year. Orangetips are few by now, and there is the occasional Admiral or Brimstone. There have been a few Damselflies about, but not many, and I have not spotted any Dragonflies yet, though Juliet did; Wasps are about (hopefully feasting on aphids), and Hornets too. Birdsong peaked in May, and by now is down to a minimum; they are probably too busy feeding their young! I did hear a Tawny owl calling from Channing’s Coppice, and recently saw a Kestrel by Whatley; Martins and Swallows are swooping about, and in general early Summer is well established at Winsham.

 

I will end with some less common plants you may have spotted: Pennywort is now in flower on steep banks, Greater celandine (no relative to the small celandine of early spring) on or by walls, and Hedge woundwort… by hedges.

 Some wild plant facts: Foxglove provides digitalis, an important drug used in heart conditions. Sorrel has a distinctive acid taste, and the acid juice from the plant was used in olden days to remove stains from laundry.  Elder leaves were once used to keep flies away, and branches were hung in dairies.  

Editors Note: As Liz Earl is leaving the village-not moving too far, so we all hope to continue to see a lot of her- Henk has volunteered to add local fauna to his monthly notes about his walks. I am also hoping to persuade him to edit these notes into the Annual Nature Diary that Liz has been producing  over the last six years or so for Winsham Web Museum.

 

Wild plants along Winsham lanes –

mid-May 2021

 

 

 

It is the 13th of May when I am writing this and the rain is coming down steadily. After almost four weeks without rain it finally started on the 8th, and the plants love it.

The hedges are getting leafier by the day: bright green for Hazel, Hawthorn and Blackthorn, reddish for Field maple. Brambles, Nettles and Bracken are shooting up and through but luckily there are a lot of other May plants as well. Hawthorn is coming into flower, while Oak has been flowering for a while – just not very visibly as its flowers (among the young leaves) are tiny and yellowish, the males hanging down in catkins, the females separate in small groups and more upright.

But it is the herbs that stand out most at this season – Winsham is lucky that our hedges are like small linear woodlands, and some of these hedges are full of colour. There is the blue of Bluebells (along Cow Down Road or upper Limekiln Lane, for instance), and of the much smaller Speedwell; the yellow of Yellow archangel; the white of Cow parsley, Stitchwort and Jack-by-the-hedge and, here and there, patches of Ramsons (such as N of Whatley, and SW of Purtington); the purple of Bush vetch and Ground ivy; the pink of Campion and Shining cranesbill. And so many shades of green! Dark green for Holly, Nettles, the upcoming Hogweed and Ivy, bright green for many grasses, young Dock, Cranesbill and Jack-by-the-hedge, and the curious yellow-green of the Lords-and-ladies. This last one’s leaves were everywhere a month ago, and now they have almost all gone, to be replaced by a pale hood shielding the reddish flowering stalk.

Many Dandelions have gone into fruit, and I have seen whole fields topped by Dandelion clocks; not something farmers like to see. In moist grassy fields there are stands of the lovely Cuckooflower,  also called Lady’s smock – hard to believe this is a close relative of Hairy bittercress!

       
       
       

 Some wild plant facts:

·       it is a good time if you are keen on garlic. Ramsons, of course, are also known as Wild garlic, and a leaf or two in your cheese sandwich spices it up nicely. But Jack-by-the-hedge, also known as Garlic mustard, can do the same, though their leaves are best before the plant flowers. The Orangetip butterfly lays its eggs on the youngest leaves just underneath the flowers.

·       Lords-and-Ladies or Cuckoo-pint has a strange flowering structure. Hidden within that pale yellow-green hood is a stalk on which the flowers stand:  females at the base, males above them, and above the males a ring of hairs that form an insect trap. The flowering stalk warms up and releases a vile smell, which attracts tiny insects that get trapped in the hairs: their only escape is through the flowers, where they get dusted with pollen before they can escape, to fly to the next trap and pollinate their host!

·       Our Bluebells are a sign of ancient woodland, and we must have had plenty of it! They provide nectar for a range of insects. Bluebell woods have a tradition in folklore of being linked to fairy magic: they were rung to call the fairies to a gathering, but hearing such a ring would bring very bad luck to humans. Whatever the truth of that – Bluebell woods are enchanting!

 

 Plants along Winsham lanes-early April 2021
Stitchworth

It is definitely looking more lush than a month ago! Our hedgerows are flushing with leaf buds for Hawthorn, Sycamore, Elder, Privet and Hazel; and Blackthorn, which flowers before it gets leaves, gives us white frothy drifts. Through these shrubs the climbers are also coming into leaf: Bramble, Dog rose, HoneyMale ferncrozierssuckle. But it is in the road and lane verges that the lushness is happening: the leaves of grasses, hogweed, cleavers, nettles are shooting up with bewildering speed. Cow parsley goes as fast as any of these and more of them are coming into flower, but we are still long before the peak, when they will form almost continuous standGoat willows along some lanes! I have seen one or two Lords and ladies in flower, as well, but these are also before their prime, I think they are even more common this year than usual. Some other ‘early’ flower sightings are Campion, Vetch, Ramsons and Jack-by-the-hedge (I wish I knew some proper Somerset names for these! I am using the names as they appear in Stace’s New flora of the British Isles); Bluebells are also coming on well, with individuals in flower here and there; but well before the glorious peak. The first Bracken spears are coming up, with the other ferns such as Tongue fern and Male fern already fully more developed – except here they have been mown, when these are also sending out their young ‘croziers’, like bishop staffs.

Last month I sent in my report on early March plants on the 9th; the day after I saw my first stand of flowering Wood anemones along Leigh Lane. There are now many more stands of them, like on the Chalkway, enjoy them while you can! Butterbur is another plant that likes to appear in stands, rather than as scattered individuals, but in this case it is because they spread by rhizomes,ground ivy underground root systems. Well into flower are Stitchwort, in many a roadside; Dandelion and Daisy; Dead nettle and Ground ivy; and still our lovely Primroses and Wood violets (I saw more white ones at Sticklepath, but violet ones are now appearing here and there in Winsham as well), though Celandines are going over by now. Many a Willow is in flower too, a glorious sight!

Here are some plants that are easily overlooked. Hairy bittercress is tiny, a few inches at most, but it is very common along fields and probably in your veg patch, too. And this strange-looking thing is a young Marsh horsetail, growing in moist sites. It is not quite a fern, but not too far away from it. These kind oMarshhorsetail3f plants, the Equisetums, grew in enormous stands to a hundred feet tall when dinosaurs roamed the Earth… and just today, the 11tyh of April, I walked past the brook at Chalkway and saw Golden saxifrage in flower – tiny (less than an inch) but oh so pretty.

And finally, this year the Oak leaves seem to be well ahead of those of the Ash in development: Oak before Ash, in for a splash (rather than a soak)?

 

 

 

Some wild plant facts:

·       Hairy bittercress may be small, but it is very common – and edible, with a taste between cress and rocket. Raw leaves are good in salads.

·       Marsh horsetail has its leaves in whorled branches along the jointed stem; the pattern of spacing of the nodes, increasingly close towards the stem top, inspired John Napier to invent logarithms. This plant is poisonous to grazing animals.

·       The ‘flower’ of Dandelion is really an arrangement of tiny flowers, between 150 and 200 of them. Daisy ‘flowers’ are built in the same way: there are 15-30 white flowers along the edge, the rays; and the yellow middle is composed of hundreds of minute ‘disc’ florets, arranged in a Fibonacci whorl. Aren’t plants mathematical?

·       Blackthorn, now in full flower, later produces inky dark fruits: sloes. We have some nice sloe gin maturing! It has long been associated with witchcraft (blackthorn, not our sloe gin) and witches’ wands were said to be made out of the wood – as are excellent walking sticks.

·       You can eat hawthorn buds – they have a nice nutty flavour!

 

Earlier in the year....

March 2021-Early March plants along Winsham Lanes

It is early March, and walking the Winsham lanes the Snowdrops are going over at last. The yellows are taking over from the white: stands of Celandine and Primroses, with the occasional Dandelion. Because the hedges have been cut or flailed, more light is reaching the ground, and within the hedgerows the remaining greens such as Ivy and Holly are joined by newly emerging plants. Leaves of Lords and Ladies are everywhere; at Whatley and at Bridge I have seen stands of young Ramsons leaves; here and there on steep banks the round leaves of Pennywort are a different green from anything else. And of course ferns stand out at this season, partly because there are so many of them, partly because there most other plants are still at a young stage. Hart’s tongue fern can be seen almost anywhere: it is our only fern with undivided leaves, and those leaves are long and narrow, and leathery. Despite its name, Common polypody is less common, though you can find a stand of it in, or on, many a hedgerow or lane bank. Its leaves are dark green and leathery, and divided almost to the midrib; the undersides have spores (ferns’ version of flowers) in round dots along the leaflet midribs. The final fern we can spot is the Male fern, which has its leaves twice divided, and much less leathery than the other two. Our commonest fern of all, Bracken, is still dormant underground.


I should not forget the hazel that is in flower everywhere: the catkins that we see are clusters of male flowers, the female catkins are much smaller and not as obvious.

Something that is also not obvious to most people, but common as muck in most of our hedgerows, is Dog’s mercury. It is in flower right now with tiny greenish flowers, it produces a horrible smell when crushed, and it is pretty poisonous, too - hence its older name, Boggart posy.

Cow parsley is of course also very common, and later will fill many roadsides; at the moment it is still unfurling its leaves, and is still less than a foot high, but some of them already have some tiny flowers among their young leaves.


Other ‘earlies’ are Wild strawberries, of which a few are already coming in flower, such as near Hollowells; and Field speedwell with its blue flowers in a field near Schoolhouse. I have even seen my first Stitchwort in flower on Cow Down Lane, on the 9th of March, much earlier than it should.

I will end with a hidden gem. Wood violet (or Sweet violet) is rare, and not easy to find as it is a very low plant; but if you spot the flowers you are in for a treat, as they smell very sweet. Winsham and Thorncombe ones seem to be white, which is a much rarer form than the usual blue-violet or purple.

 

Some plant facts:

·       the name Dandelion comes from the French ‘dents de lion’, lion’s teeth, and the leaf margins do look like wicked teeth.

·       if Hart’s tongue fern is, as they say, an indicator of ancient woodland, then the whole of Winsham must have been covered in ancient woodland! And it was, mostly by Small-leaved lime trees – two thousand years ago.

·       Celandine provides nectar for emerging bees and other insects at a time when not much else is in flower.

·       Ramsons are allied to onions and garlic, and the leaves certainly smell like it! In late spring there are fantastic stands of it along the ravine-like roads leading up to Dinnington.

·       There is a story you can only smell Wood violets once, as they steal your sense of smell… this has a grain of truth in it, as they contain a chemical that switches off your smell receptors briefly.

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