We tend to think of butterflies as nectar drinkers, but in fact their diet varies significantly by speces, and also by season. At this time of year as the blackberries ripen on brambles, many species especially hibernating Nymph butterflies like this Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album are as partial to a bit of blackberrying as you or I!
I love observing nature and the changing seasons during my Norfolk countryside dog walks accompanied by my ever-faithful canine companion Starrydog. I especially enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across while exploring local nature reserves. Visit my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures and enjoy my butterfly photos.
As July went on our heatwave turned into a full-blown drought that saw harvests fail, lawns wither and die, and ponds dry up. At Nar Cottage, even our hardy native wildflower meadow turn a rather bleached shade and our parched front lawn became covered in the gold heads of Cat’s Ears which proved popular with Skipper and White butterflies.
East Anglia was the region worst affected by the drought in the UK, experiencing only 3.4 days of rainfall in July and recorded on 21.1mm of rain in total for the entire month. It wasnt just plants that suffered during the prolonged dry conditions however, butterflies and other plant-munching insects did too.
As many plants wilting away, caterpillars struggled too. One interesting survival tactic for later flying broods of butterflies such as Common Blues was to call it a day and pupate early, emerging from their metamorphosis perfectly a formed, but far smaller adult butterfly than usual.
One species that surprisingly seemed to buck the trend was the small population of Challkhill Blue butterflies up at Warham near the north Norfolk coastline. After several years of unfavourable weather yielding poor to mediocre numbers, the official BCS timed count this year was some 570, up from just 158 last year, and they seemed to have a longer season than usual if the numbers I saw when I popped up the first week of August were anything to go by. Who knows, perhaps there may be some unexpected winners from the curious summer of 2018 after all...
As world cup fever gripped the Nation and England reached the football semi-finals for the first time in decades, and Brexit negotiations seemingly reached an even more parlous state of play, I was instead becoming fascinated by my new moth trap, and the amazing moths being attracted to the lights...
In last July's blog I wrote of my bitter disappointment at my foiled attempt to see the most celebrated British butterfly, the Purple Emperor, while discovering that, in the famous words of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, "there's no place like home".
To rub salt into the wound, 2017 proved to be an amazing season for Apatura iris and a particularly bad year to be benched. Right as my blog was published, Purple Emperors were, remarkably, seen for the first time in the Sheringham/Beeston area on the North Norfolk coast. They will need to be recorded for five consecutive years however to be classed a Norfolk resident.
I spent the year conserving my energy and biding my time, yet all the while the memory of the trip I hadn't made to see the King of butterflies in a peak season linged in the recesses of my mind, surfacing occasionally to niggle away at me. His majesty had ensnared me after all, at least a little.
Come late June and I had some leave left at work. The timing looked on paper to be perfect, but after a bumper year last year, I fretted that the early super-cold snap might have affected them. What if the population had collapsed, or this year's weather proved unfavourable?
My first week off was an anti-climax, dry but coolish, windy and unsettled. No reports showed and I felt fidgety, restless and frustrated, fearing that my timing was off and I would have another run of bad butterfly luck.
Suddenly the temperatures rose, the long predicted heatwave actually appeared and reports started to trickle in. I grasped my last chance to take the trip and headed towards a less visited Wood in Northamptonshire, close to the Purple Emperor's stronghold at Fermyn Woods.
I experienced butterflies of the tummy variety as I drove up the deserted, deeply rutted dusty track at my destination. I'd been running a little late and the temperatures were soaring. Emperors are notoriously active in the afternoons and apparently once charged up rarely come down from the canopies. Was I already too late?
As I got out of my car my spirits lifted. A large black and white butterfly immediately swept past the car door zooming along, low above the ground at a high rate of knots. Could it be that easy? Had I already seen my target? Was it a female Purple Emperor or the smaller also black and White Admiral? I'm not sure I will ever be certain whether that was really my first sighting. The flight was fast and powerful, though I definitely didnt catch a flash of purple.
Nonetheless it proved a good omen, as I had barely entered fifty yards into the woods when I found an elderly Black Hairstreak and an unusually confiding White Admiral basking by the side of the path.
Just a few yards further on I suddenly spotted a fellow Emperor hunter photographing a sizeable butterfly "puddling" (taking up salts from mud) on the ground. The richly marked russet-orange underwings were unmistakeable - this was was no White Admiral!
The Purple Emperor continued to probe the ground with its proboscis, wings stubbornly closed, for some minutes. Then suddenly it snapped its wings open vigorously, catching the sun's rays.
The light glanced off the Purple Emperor's wings obliquely and a flash of iridescent purple appeared from nowhere. His Majesty resplendent in his imperial cloak. Just as quickly the sparkling colour vanished and reverted to black as the butterfly rotated further round towards the sun. Mission accomplished.
For around an hour or so the Purple Emperor and at least one Purple Empress wafted up and down the track in their finery, alternately mud-puddling and looping up high in a figure of eight around what seemed to be a pair of "Master" trees, one an Oak, one a Common Sallow. I was also treated to the sight of a female Purple Emperor perched up in the more attractive setting of a Sallow tree, apparently feeding on honeydew. Shortly after one o'clock I enjoyed my last figure of eight looping fly past and both I and his Majesty parted ways and headed off to attend to the rest of the day's business.
It all seemed so strangely easy in the end that I actually felt a little nonplussed. Why all the fuss, I wondered? Wasn't Iris famously elusive? Where was the challenge, the mystery? Maybe there was none and my scientific research had paid off, maybe I had simply been lucky or maybe, just maybe, fickle fate had at last taken pity on me and requested Iris to grace me with his royal presence in a random act of kindness.
Whatever the answer, I drove home at peace, with the ghost of the Purple Emperor past of 2017 that had never been seen, well and truly laid to rest.
Watching Nar Cottage's nature pond transform from a muddy hole in our clay earth into a lush, thriving, diverse insectopolis has been one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of our five-year wildlife gardening project. Each year we've seen a new species of dragon or damselfly colonise our pond. This year a further arrival brought the grand total to some nine species, five dragonflies and four damselflies. Here they all are, in order of appearance and colonisation. This is the story of a humble pond's evolution into a local wildlife mecca.
First on the scene was a large male Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly, Libellula depressa, arriving the very first week of June 2014, our pond's first spring, closely followed by a female. A beautifully marked dragonfly of early summer with a penchant for shallow sunny ponds, the males are a dusky shade of powder-blue and the females a rich mustard yellow.
Next to move in on the 1st of July was my very first damselfly species, the vivid Azure Damselfly, Coenagrion puella. Blue damselflies can be quite hard to identify but I discovered the Azure's distinguishing feature is that it has two short black stripes on the side of its thorax, whereas the Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum only has one. They took to our pond enthusiastically and set about ovipositing eggs for future generations!
Our third arrival was the dramatic and impressive Emperor Dragonfly, another species I'd never encountered before. Carrying an equally imperial latin name Anax imperator is one of the UK's biggest dragonflies and undoubtedly the most regal. According to Lewington, the Emperor's "vigour, aggression and agility in flight are unequalled in Britain".
The Emperor has a reputation for being a bit of a pioneer species and is known for colonising younger ponds so it made sense to see it early on in our pond's existence. The larva have a fearsome reputation for their creative hunting methods and can occasionally mature in a single year although they usually take two. The surrounding meadow and in subsequent years also pond foliage rapidly filled in to envelop the pond so I never did see an Emporer again.
August brought another two species, one dragonfly, one damsel and the total to 5 dragonflies in our first season. Next up was the Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum, first spotted basking on the bare earth next to the pond. A month later I was even more excited to see a mating couple zooming around our pond, hopefully ensuring future generations to come.
My second August arrival proved to be the Common Blue damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum, which has a flight period from May through to September. Blue damsels can be tricky to distinguish from each other, but the single short stripe on the thorax and all blue tail segments help to separate the Common Blue from similar species, its also a stronger flier.
My next new species didnt show up until nearly a year later in late July 2015 but, a bit like busses, suddenly two came at once. The Blue-tailed damselfly, Ishnura elegans and another life first for me, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata both showed up the same day. Blue-tailed damselflies are variable in colour and also change colour as they mature so can vary a lot in apperance, in particular there are so-called rufescens (pinkish) violacea (violet) and infuscans (green) female forms.
With its fast, agile flight and distinctive wing markings, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata, was a exciting addition to my wildlife pond's dragonfly tally. Much like the Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, the males are highly territorial and persistently patrol their patch and return to the same perches to challenge rivals and the two males often held sparring matches over my pond.
2017 only saw one new arrival, bringing our total to 8 different species. Our pond was now 4 years old and becoming pretty mature as a micro-habitat. The Ruddy Darter dragonfly, Sympetrum sanguineum, was our new addition. In the past this dragonfly was a major source of identification confusion for me due to its similarities with the Common Darter and it was satisfying to finally get a good view of the jet black legs that distinguish it most readily.
Last but by no means least in my line up is my recent 2018 sighting of the Large Red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula. It made its debut on the Nar Cottage wildlife pond stage on 28th May. Frequently one of the earliest damselflies to be seen, I'd often spotted it in late May on visits to Stoke Ferry and Hoe Rough . With its distinctive colour it was most definitely a newbie in our garden.
Its wonderful to still be seing new species colonise this micro-habitat we created even after 5 years and though my pond's evolution is perhaps slowing and stabilising now I continue to hope for more sightings. Who knows, someday this line up may yet turn into a top-ten list!
I spent a gorgeous bank holiday weekend pottering around our wildlife pond, watching the Azure damselflies wafting about in pairs and aerial dragonfly wars between the powder blue Broad-bodied Chaser and custard yellow Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies to rival any aeroplane dogfight as each fiercely competed for territory.
Suddenly among all the vivid blue Azures I quite literally saw red, that is, a pair of red mating damselflies! It was another first for Nar Cottage pond as they proved to be Britain's Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula). Flying earlier than its cousin the Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum), it can also be distinguished by its black legs and strongly striped antehumeral markings.
This photo marks the ninth species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselfles) recorded in our wildlife pond (more on that here) and not bad for a pond thats only five seasons old...
After a second fruitless jaunt hoping to photograph some rather shy Green Hairstreaks, which seem to be having a good season this year, my sunny late May Sunday ended up being an impromptu tale of two Blues in my own back garden instead.
As I was resting on my patio I spotted our first blue Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly posing ostentatiously by the side of our (now very low) wildlife pond, barely a day after our first Four-spotted chaser appeared. Both were trying to hold territory and I was entertained by some impressive aerial battles.
A subsequent gentle lap of our garden yielded a female Holly Blue Butterfly busily ovipositing on the native shrubs in our wildlife hedgerow that borders our garden and now in its 5th year is nice and dense. Our wildlife garden just keeps on giving year after year.
A surprising number of tadpoles survived this year's late snow and frosts to hatch out, proving that nature has long coped with such seasonal extremes. Once hatched, a tadpole's lot does not get easier by any means, because along with the warmth, their nemesis the Common newts have returned.
Common newts, also known as Smooth newts, predate heavily on tadpoles and frogspawn in springtime, and male Common newts can be spotted due to their vivid orange and black spotted underbelly which is a temporary colouring worn during the mating season.
Hopefully the treacherous weather will not be too damaging to this year's frogspawn. Hard to believe just three days ago my wildlife pond was an amorous hotspot with over half a dozen frogs busy making frogspawn. Today the pond is frozen over again and the ground has at least 2 or 3 inches of snow being swept around by the "mini Beast".
Winter definitely had a vicious sting in its tail this February. A "sudden stratospheric warming" over the North Pole, in itself disturbing at this time of year according to climatologists, caused a sharp cooling in lower levels of our atmosphere and via a complex chain of meteorological events reminiscent of the metaphor about the butterfly that flapped its wings on one continent and caused a hurricane on another, brought about heavy snowfall that covered virtually all of the British Isles.
An unusually strong and harsh northeasterly wind stream dubbed the "Beast from the East" triggered a bitter cold snap then swept in heavy snowfall, which was in turn intensified by strong drifting due to the fierce, biting winds that blew continuously for days.
Here in big sky Norfolk we were heavily exposed to "the Beast" and much of the county was cut off by incredibly large snowdrifts formed by its winds. These, I noticed, were far deeper in areas where the farmers' field verges lacked hedging, a stark reminder of the environmental value of this oft overlooked habitat, which for many years was ripped out to maximise the yield potential of the land in ill-conceived agricultural efficiency drives.
Thankfully many incentives now exist for re-establishment of these vital wildlife corridors and natural windbreaks, so hopefully Norfolk will improve its reputation among hedge layers in years to come.
In past years, its been February before I've visited Hoe Rough to enjoy the snowdrops there out in force. But this year my first snowdrop sighting at one of my favourite, peaceful nature reserves was much earlier than usual, on the 16th January.
Almost all the snowdrop plants were still quite stubby and offering just the tiniest glimpse of little furled up white buds, there were just 2 or 3 well positioned snowdrop clumps that had opened. So for the first time I captured the very first flush.
In The Snowdrop and the Honeybee I explored the natural history and folklore of one of our earliest flowering wildflowers. Native or not, your heart can't help but lift when you first see Persephone's favourite little flower return from the depths of the underworld to a barren frosty landscape, reminding us that spring may not be as far away as it feels.
December has been colder than in recent times and we've had not a few chilly, white-world frosty mornings of late.
Hoar frosts have always held a special place in my heart as they always take me right back to fond memories of frozen winter wonderland walks up on the Ridgeway back in Letcombe Regis, but what makes a Hoar frost so special?
A Hoar frost, also known as hoarfrost, pruina or radiation frost, occurs on cold, clear nights with humid air when a dew would form if it were warmer.
In a Hoar frost, leaves, grass, branches and other objects cool by radiation to well below frost point, allowing water vapour to condense directly in the form of ice crystal deposits rather than in the form of water droplets first.
A normal White frost or Ground frost is caused when water vapour from the air forms a liquid dew first and then freezes with a subsequent drop in temperature, so tends to be more globluar in shape rather than feathery or crystalline. Fog tends to inhibit Hoar frosts as it prevents radiation cooling, however can create Rime, which is an ice deposit formed from supercooled fog vapour that crystallised when it touches a frozen object.
Our mellow autumnal weather seems to be both treating and playing tricks on us this year.
As mid October arrived I started to search for turning leaves and classic signs of Autumn, but in vain. With such mild temperatures, the trees have determinedly held on to their cloaks of green as long as possible to maximise their intake of food.
A Stroll in Blickling Estate at the start of half term week yielded some fallen leaves but the canopy was disappointingly still richly decked in a gown of glorious green, with only the occasional tree starting to offer up a hint of gold at the very top of their crowns.
At last on a visit to Wells-Next-The-Sea at the end of the week, the mood had started to shift and begun to evoke a more autumnal tone. A gorgeously mild day, I watched several Red Admirals dancing brightly in the deceptively warm golden rays of the afternoon sun, but at last, I finally saw my first fully golden-gowned birch tree!
Meanwhile, further along the pathway, a suitably russet-hued Common Darter dragonfly cast a long shadow as it perched on a fallen pine introducing rich red umber tones to the Autumnal palette.
Phew! - our tardy Lady Autumn really has finally arrived with her gown of gold, just in time for the clocks to go back.
I'm not ranging far at all, but sometimes you don't need to. This lovely female common darter from our wildlife pond posed beautifully on the lavender border next to my patio, right outside my living room french doors!
The colour purple became my leitmotiv during early July. It is the season of the purple butterflies and therein lies a tale of mystery and obsession...
Two very different, yet equally enigmatic, purple butterfly species are on the wing towards the end of June into mid-July. Though very different in fame and stature, both share two things in common: a fondness for the heady heights of mature Oak tree canopies in deciduous woodland and a strong reputation for elusiveness and ability to evade the gaze of even the most determined of butterfly seekers.
Since being drawn into the world of butterflying I've discovered that, since time immemorial, avid butterfly chasers have gone temporarily a little doolally at this time of year. The hysteria is all over a certain famous, purple-cloaked member of the royal family who is not, officially at any rate, currently resident in Norfolk - the magnificent Purple Emperor.
Known affectionately to his acolytes as "his Majesty" or sometimes simply "Iris", the Purple Emperor is neither Britain's largest butterfly (our very own Norfolk Swallowtail), nor the rarest (the once extinct, recently reintroduced Large Blue), nor even the brightest (arguably the Silver-washed Fritillary) so this seemingly bizarre Purple Emperor obsession had been puzzling me for some time. Just what quality is it that bewitches them all? Is it the dramatic colour purple? Their reputed vigorous flight and aggressive behaviour? Or some other mysterious factor altogether ....?
After an inspiring talk by renowned butterfly conservationist and Purple Emperor advocate Matthew Oates at Norfolk Butterfly Conservation's AGM back in 2016, I became intrigued and not a little bewitched myself. In a bid to sate my curiosity and discover the obscure reason for the Purple Emperor's celebrity status for myself, I started planning a field trip to visit his Imperial Majesty's haunts, mature Oak and Sallow woodland rides.
Alas fate was not on my side, despite attempts to make visits to Fermyn Woods in Northants, Wood Walton Fen in Cambridgeshire or Theberton in Suffolk, life events have intervened and scuppered my plans well and truly for this year. Perhaps Iris is to be my new five year nemesis butterfly, who knows.
With my ability to range much curtailed, I was crestfallen and deeply disappointed. But there was still the second less famous, but to me equally elusive, purple butterfly to discover: the Purple Hairstreak butterfly, Neozephyrus quercus. And it lives much closer to home.
Although much smaller, the Purple Hairstreak butterfly shares a surprising number of characteristics in common with its larger Imperial cousin. As suggested by its Latin species name "quercus" it too favours mature deciduous oak woodland and so is also highly elusive (and under-reported) as a result to its habit of dwelling up high amongst the tree canopy. There it lives on honeydew produced by aphids and only rarely descends from the "throne" for the odd sip of bramble nectar.
While laid up I did my research thoroughly. Purple Hairstreaks being far more widespread than his majesty, I was able to find some promising local locations in Norfolk, and had in fact already experienced my first brief glimpse of a old faded and tattered Purple Hairstreak on a dog walk at Holkham Hall one August a few years back. I took a punt on a very short run up to the nearby Syderstone Common nature reserve, on the edge of North Norfolk coastal AONB. Its a large reserve of lowland gorse heathland, an SSSI that is famous for its Natterjack toad population, but not all that much else, in fact a previous visit had left me visually underwhelmed. This time however the reserve was transmuted into a spectacular sea of vivid fuchsia pink willowherb flowers swaying in the gentle breeze.
My fieldcraft skills must have improved somewhat as I was delighted to spot an active Purple Hairstreak quite soon into my visit. There it was, a small grey blob fluttering away right up high in the treetops, initially silhouetted against the cloudy sky. Its flight was erratic and it was hard to keep track as the butterfly flitted amongst the oak treetop and nearby birches in the mature woodland circling this now spectactularly beautiful reserve.
After spotting my Hairstreak's "Master" Oak I stayed for some time, craning my neck to try to spot this diminutive butterfly amongst the oak leaves. Eventually one dropped a little lower and permitted a quick shot before circling up high again in a cluster of nearby Birches.
On my way back to the car I spotted a beautiful young buck Roe Deer, who paused, checked me out for a little while then barked at me before trotting off back into the Oak woodland, a beautiful end to my successful visit. Although my sightings had been distant and tantalising, I had bagged my first purple.
Perhaps the abiding memory for me is not so much finally photographing my first purple butterfly, but rather Syderstone Common nature reserve itself, which was a natural habitat at the peak of its mid-summer glory and afforded a sensory firework display of wildflower delight at every turn.
Visually the abundant vibrant pink Rosebay Willowherb flower spires intermingled with creeping carpets of rich yellow Tormentil, while the heady scent of rambling native Honeysuckle hung in the air and bramble in full bloom. Every plant seemed to be alive, swaying in the breeze and dancing with a host of orange Skipper, Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterflies flitting about into the distance as far as the eye could see.
As for purple Royalty... I must now be patient, wait and bide my time till 2018 brings a whole new season and fresh opportunity for his Imperial Highness to ensnare me as subject.
We shall see...
In the week that saw the Pink Pride parade in London that celebrated 50 years of progress towards greater acceptance of human diversity, I was celebrating different kind of diversity success on a much smaller scale in my back garden - the biodiversity success of wildflower varieties in my wildlife flower meadow surrounding our pond.
In its fourth flowering season, the Nar Cottage wildflower meadow project has finally come into its own and is becoming a mature, established bio-diverse habitat. At last pinks, purples and mauves of Tufted Vetch and Knapweeds intermingle generously among large clusters of yellow Bird's-foot trefoil, and have started to balance out the till now prevalent whites of Ox-eye daisies and Yarrow which had dominated the last two seasons flowering. A real "purple streak" of wildflower diversity you could say.
The meadow is noticeably lower than the past two seasons and the dry spring and early June heatwave may have contributed to the increase in biodiversity as different plants definitely either struggled or thrived in contrast to the previous two colder and wetter seasons. In addition, Yellow rattle has established itself very well this year and should continue to weaken the competitive grasses in future years.
Every year the flower mix in the meadow evolves and changes to puts on a unique display of meadow flora and fauna. It will soon be hay cutting time, but already I cant wait to see what next year's meadow will be like.
I love Skippers, I may have mentioned it before. They are small, cute, furry and very confiding; though that latter characteristic could be more accurately interpreted as territorial and pugnacious. This Large Skipper butterfly (note the black, twirly antennae tips mentioned in my Skipper butterfly identification article) is perched on a humble bramble flower aka Rubus frutiscosus, a member of the romantic Rose (Rosacaea) botanical family and predecessor of modern blackberry cultivars, yet today considered a nuisance weed for most Gardeners due to its vigorous nature.
This photo serves as a timely reminder that less than glamorous native species can be excellent food sources for both adult butterflies and their caterpillar stage, not to mention other pollinators. I this week's Gardener's World episode, a Welsh research study into Bees favourite nectar source has indicated they will travel further afield to collect pollen from native species in preference to most garden ornamental imports.
According to Chris Manley's British Moths and Butterflies, a bramble bush can serve as a caterpillar host plant for some 35 moths and butterflies, including threatened Grizzled Skipper butterflies as wells as the impressive Scarlet Tiger and Emperor moths.
Perhaps in wildlife terms, not so humble after all.
And yes, if you stop, look closely... close your eyes... inhale the scent..., a rose by any other name remains as sweet.
One of the deep joys of wildlife gardening is when an idea comes together and a wildflower you've planted really takes off... and brings even more nature into your garden. That is exactly what happened this year with an experimental planting of a local native wildflower, Viper's-bugloss or Echium vulgare.
A member of the Borage plant family Boraginaceae, Viper's-bugloss is renowned for having a high wildlife value due to its flower's rapid nectar refill rate. This makes it a magnet for numerous species of bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects, which will revisit it at regular intervals throughout the day. It is also a caterpillar host plant for the glamorous Painted Lady butterfly and Golden Twin-spot moth.
A tough, bristly and flamboyant biennial, Viper's-bugloss is commonly found in dry chalky grassland and heaths and along coastal cliffs and sand dunes. I first saw this striking plant growing in the wild locally in 2015. It was at Kelling Heath, a lowland heath reserve not far from the North Norfolk coast, and I'd been on a foray to see the diminutive Silver-studded blue butterflies resident on the nature reserve.
I was returning to the car park after a successful mission when I spotted it and recognised the tall flower spike heavy with lilac blue flowers at first glance, even though I'd never seen one before. The bell-shaped open-rimmed flowers had vivid pink trailing stamens, and was besieged by a host of argumentative bees, butterflies and other insects all competing for the rich nectar source.
Like most native wildflowers, Viper's-bugloss is embedded in traditional herblore, with around a dozen common names in existence, many of which, like Adderwort, Snake flower or Viper's herb, contain serpentine references.
The precise origins of its common name are unclear, possibly relating to the snake's-head form of the seed pods mentioned by 17th Century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, “After the flowers are fallen, the seeds growing to be ripe, are blackish, cornered and pointed somewhat like the head of a viper.” Other theories include a comparison of the mottled leaves to snakeskin, or perhaps an allusion to the bite-like irritation caused by contact with the plants sharp bristles or its poisonous characteristics when ingested.
Perhaps because of these serpentine associations, Viper's-bugloss was traditionally used in herblore as an anti-venom for snake bites.The first documented herballist recommendation dates as far back as the first century AD and was made by a Greek Physician called Pedanius Dioscorides in a work called De Materia Medica. Even the species name Echium is derived from "Echis", the Greek for "Viper".
However the term "Bugloss" used in many of our English common names is actually a reference to the ox-tongue shape and texture of its leaves and originates from the Greek word "bou" (a cow or ox) and the Latin "glosso" (tongue).
Meanwhile I had long been pondering a horticultural problem in my wildlife garden at home. I was keen to add more wildlife friendly flowers closer to the house and enrich diversity as the garden was starting to mature, but was stumped with a problem area where next to nothing would grow.
Despite our landscaper's best endeavours, not all of the poorest soil had ended up in the right place, our designated wildlfower meadow area. Some of it had ended up adjoining the bungalow and patio edge right at the top of the rear garden. Here the south facing slope was arid , in full sun all day long and only the relentless couch grass was flourishing.
So I turned to natives I'd seen locally thriving in sandy arid conditions for a solution and bought a small Echium Vulgare plug from Glandford Wildflower Centre just outside Holt. I planted it alongside Common Century, Teasel, Red Valerian and Common Rock Rose, next to a humongous self-sown Common Mallow, which had given me the inspiration, in order to create a bee-friendly wildflower border of sorts.
Very little happened last year and my husband was sceptical. But Viper's-bugloss is known for growing deep roots and this year - success! The Echium developed numerous flower spikes and is even out competing both the Common century and Red valerian.
This weekend the month has earned its title of "Flaming June". In the sweltering 33 degree heat, I couldn't face venturing outside my garden gates. Towards the end of a long, sweltering afternoon, as the worst of the heat started to cool, I stood on our patio and enjoyed the constant humming of dozens of bumble bees as they methodically worked their way up each spike in turn, checking which flowers had refilled with nectar.
"With the buzzing of the bee,
And the glowing of the bugloss,
High Summer is here"
In an unprecedented week that saw the president of the largest Western Great Power turn his back on the Paris Accord to reduce emissions causing global climate change, I took advantage of ironically hot, sunny weather to visit Strumpshaw Fen RSPB Nature Reserve to see one of the UK's rarest and most threatened butterflies, the British Swallowtail, Papilio machaon britannicus.
The trip was an impromptu reprise of my longstanding attempts to enjoy watching this beautiful endangered Norfolk butterfly, which inspired a earlier blog post on my misadventures over several unsuccessful seasons attempting to find them at various Norfolk nature reserves. Last year, I was even interviewed as part of a BBC OneShow item on the native Swallowtail covering the story of a much more famous lepidopterist's longstanding desire to see them.
This time I was hoping for more than a record shot of this rare and uniquely beautiful butterfly, one of only 6 butterfly species fully protected by UK Law since 1992. With the weather so fair sightings had been good all week so I was daring to hope for some natural behavioural shots of it amongst native fenland flora and habitat, rather than perched upon the pretty Sweet William in the renowned Doctor's flower garden.
After a pleasant chat with a Welsh couple now close to completing a multi year hunt to see all of Britain's 59 native species, I had not ventured far into the reserve before I enjoyed a wonderful encounter of a freshly emerged Swallowtail first basking low down then fluttering up with its ghostlike flight pattern onto a nearby patch of deep yellow flag iris flowers where it began to nectar frenetically. Then the inevitable happened. It was after all Strumpshaw Fen, a sunny Sunday and Swallowtail peak season: The Lepidopteran papparazzi descended.
Within minutes a host of papparazzi lenses, many far too short for the purpose, had surrounded the poor butterfly and their owners, caught up in the viewfinder, became oblivious to both other nature observers as well as the butterfly's wellbeing, and lens hoods started to encroach within inches of where the butterfly was attempting to feed up, blocking out both light and other people. I gently chaperoned and chastised as best I could to create space for the butterfly to feed and all to take turns to see, before moving on frustrated as the crowd grew too big and closed in again around the butterfly.
I reflected on how , perfectly polite people, behind the viewfinder in focussed pursuit of the perfect digital trophy shot, rapidly became so blinkered and oblivious as to unwittingly block our others and even potentially disturb the rare and protected creature they had come to see. I speculated how many had walked right past numerous other fascinating wildlife and flower species without really stopping to enjoy and appreciate them, in their single-minded mission to capture the one famous "celebrity" species. It prompted me to question the drivers behind my own past mission too, though my long lens's minimum focus always helps ensure a respectful distance.
On a bigger scale, it made me contemplate whether charities' tendency to focus on preserving single "blue chip" star species (using gallons of pesticides in the process) rather than untouched habitats is more a help or a hindrance in our efforts to help environmental recovery.
Thinking back to the Paris Accord. I wonder whether it will ultimately ever really be possible for us, collectively as the human species, to overcome our ingrained survival instinct of self interest to do "the right thing" on a big enough scale in time. I hope so. If not, then perhaps our nation's own beautiful custard-yellow Swallowtail sub-species truly is already the ghost it sometimes appears to be, fluttering amongst it's beloved milkweed and flag iris.
With striking spears of downy-white, blush-tinged, feathery star-shaped flowers as exotic as those seen on any orchid or lily, it is ironic that this glamorous, wildlife-friendly, native wildflower superstart bears the rather unglamorous name of "Bogbean".
Surely the Marilyn Monroe of aquatic plants, this beautiful spring-flowering native marginal first acquired its unfortunate, less-than-beautiful name due to its watery habitat and foliage's passing resemblance to a broad bean or clover.
Bogbean is highly valuable to wildlife, its striking pink-tinged flower spikes grow up to 30cm tall and can blossom from March right through into June or July. The frilly white flowers attract bees, hoverflies and butterflies to the pond edge.
Bogbean's tendency to grow by creeping horizontally across the water surface also service to create shade and a rich micro-habitat for pond-dwelling insects.
In particular, Bogbean's lobed trifoliate leaves form a kind of floating raft, which makes for an excellent egg laying, perching and roosting site for adult damselflies and dragonflies, whose nymphs also use the protruding stems to climb out of the water when they are ready for metamorphosis.
Bogbean is related to Gentians but in botany has its own unique plant family group.
The beautiful bogbean does have some less ugly alternative names though, Its latin name Menyanthes trifoliata refers to its triple leaved foliage and its spring flowering season. It is also known as Marsh Clover or Trefoil, Water Shamrock, Bog Myrtle and Buckbean. One of its alternative names, "Bog hop", alludes to bogbean's long history of herbal and medicinal use. Its leaves were traditionally used as a flavouring in beer making, while in medicinal herblore bogbean was said to be a cure for numerous ailments when drunk as a bitter tea. One of its German names, Scharbock, is derived from the Latin scorbutus, an ancient term for scurvy, which it was thought to cure.
In the wild, Bogbean is widespread in the marshes, fends and ponds across Northern England and Scotland, though sadly it is now less common in the South where it has suffered a marked decline due to wetland drainage.