Photo Blog

I love observing nature and the changing seasons at home in my wildlife garden and in the Norfolk countryside often accompanied by my loyal canine companion Starrydog. I enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across and learning about them. Bookmark my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures.

Purple Loosestrife and Autumn Copper

One of the most spectacular, for me almost magical, wildlife gardening plants I’ve discovered in my project to create a wildlife friendly garden is Purple Loosestrife, or Lythrum salicaria to give it its botanical name. This, probably my last butterfly photograph of 2019, a quickly grabbed series of a Small Copper butterfly, Lycaena phlaeas, nectaring on it’s flowers at the edge of my wildlife pond, on a sunny but blustery mid-September’s day, demonstrates beautifully the reason why its such a wonderfully wildlife friendly plant to grow.

A native perennial, widespread across the UK, Purple Loosestrife inhabits river edges, marshes and pond margins. It works well in gardens because it makes a strong impact, being visually impressive in the way that few other native wildlfowers are. Purple Loosestrife is also an easy to grow, vigourous plant which can grow up to a metre and a half tall, often in quite dense colonies. Its beautiful flowers are formed of striking rosettes of rich magenta pink coloured petals enjoying a prolonged flowering period from June well into September.

Wildlife value

Purple Loosestrife is a particularly useful nectar source for a variety of long-tongued insects; not just butterflies and bees, but also several large moth species including Elephant Hawk-moth, Willowherb Hawkmoth and Powdered Quaker, all of whom use it as their caterpillar host plant.

It’s extended flowering period means it can serve pollinators as a nectar source both through the “June Gap” and also support later emerging insects through into early autumn when many other nectar sources such as meadow flowers have vanished with the haycut.

Plant folklore

Its main common name suggests one of its herbal uses may have been to “loose strife” and it was also historically used medicinally to help gastric upsets. Alternative names for Purple Loosestrife include “blooming Sally, purple willow herb, purple lythrum, salicaire, rainbow weed, bouquet violet, purple spiked willowstrife”. A red dye and food colouring used to be made from its vividly coloured flowers.

Small Copper butterfly nectaring atop a Purple Loosestrife flower

Small Copper nectaring on Purple Loosestrife using its long proboscis

Small Copper butterfly in profile

Small Copper butterfly amidst swaying Purple Loosestrife flower spikes

Purple Loosestrife grows in a dense cluser on the pond edge. Its foliage and nectar supports a variety of long-tongued pollinators including butterflies like the Small Copper in Autumn

Cheery Cowslips

Cowslips are invaluable to early pollinators and have a long flowering period

The mid-Spring superstar of our wildflower meadow this year was undoubtably the humble Cowslip, Primula veris. I’d always hoped to see them in my wildlife garden, as not far up the lane from my cottage is a little tucked away-clearing near a small copse that is too small to farm and in springtime always seemed to be bursting full of rich custard-coloured Cowslips mixing in beautifully with the deep indigo of native Bluebells.

Disappointingly, despite their inclusion in my native seedmix for clay soil, for the first two years not a single one materialised. I philosophically put it down to the soil conditions or an unlucky batch mix and thought I might sow some plugs another year.

Then unexpectedly, the very next spring just a smattering appeared! I was overjoyed to learn that it was simply that their seeds can take several seasons to germinate and interpreted it as an encouraging sign our meadow ecosystem was establishing itself well naturally.

Since then they’ve gone from strength to strength, spreading almost right across the small sward. They must particularly like cool dry springs as this year, our meadow’s sixth season, has been their best appearance to date.

Aside from their cheerful colour and long lasting flowerheads, they have a healthy wildlife value. Their flowers are a vital resource for pollinators, particularly for early solitary bee species, quite a few of which frequent our garden, but also for butterflies such as the Brimstone butterfly and other insects such as beetles. They are also the caterpillar plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which is unfortunately not resident in Norfolk.

A member of the Primula family, the Cowslip shares more than a passing resemblance to it's cousins the Primrose Primula vulgaris and the Oxlip Primula elatior, however both of these lack its pleasant apricot perfume and have more open paler lemon-hued flowers.

Cowslips can take several years to establish in a new meadow

Amusingly the Cowslip’s latin name Primula veris romantically deems it the “true” primrose, while its established English name more, ahem, rustically refers to its habit of growing near “cow’s slops” or cowpats in grazing pasture. It does have over two dozen pleasanter names in traditional folklore including other farming references such as Milk Maidens, descriptive names such as Freckled face, Golden Drops and Long legs as well as biblical names mentioning Mary or alluding to a myth that Cowslips sprang up where St Peter dropped the keys to heaven, perhaps in a cow pat!

Cowslips’ varied folklore names include: Artetyke, Arthritica, Buckles, Bunch of keys, Crewel, Drelip, Fairy Cups, Fairies' flower, Freckled face, Golden drops, Herb Peter, Hey-flower, Paigle, Peggle, Key Flower, Key of Heaven, Lady's fingers, Long legs, Milk maidens, Mayflower, Mary's tears, Our Lady's Keys, Palsywort, Password, Petty Mulleins, Plumrocks, Tisty-tosty. Welsh: dagrau Mair meaning Mary's tears, Anglo-Saxon: Cuy lippe, Greek: Paralysio.

The Cowslip has a rich cultural and culinary history too; traditionally it decorated Mayday garlands and was strewn along churchyard pathways at weddings and religious festivals. The Cowslip was used medicinally to aid sleep and heal coughs as well as to make Cowslip wine and “Tisty-tosty”, little balls of crushed up Cowslip flowers.

In the literary world the Cowslip’s honours include mentions in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Henry V” plays as well as featuring in Keats’ poem of Springtime romance “Hither, hither love”.

Hither, hither, love —

‘Tis a shady mead —

Hither, hither, love!

Let us feed and feed!

Hither, hither, sweet —

’Tis a cowslip bed —

Hither, hither, sweet!

'Tis with dew bespread!

Hither, hither, dear —

By the breath of life —

Hither, hither, dear!

Be the summer’s wife!

Though one moment’s pleasure

In one moment flies —

Though the passion’s treasure

In one moment dies —

Yet it has not passed —

Think how near, how near! —

And while it doth last,

Think how dear, how dear!

Hither, hither, hither

Love its boon has sent —

If I die and wither

I shall die content!

John Keats









Rhapsody in Blue

Buff-tailed bumble bee foraging among Viper's-bugloss flowers

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. 

Viper's-bugloss growing wild on Kelling Heath in Norfolk

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. 

Bumble bee nectaring on Viper's-bugloss flowers

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.

Bee flying towards Viper's-bugloss flower spikes

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"
 
 

Names for Echium Vulgare  

Bluebottle
Blue devil
Blue thistle
Blueweed
Bugloss
Cat's tail
Ironweed
Patterson's curse (Australian)
Our Saviour's Flannel
Snake flower
Viper's-bugloss
Viper's grass
Viper's herb

Beautiful Bogbean

Tall Bogbean flower spikes are used by both adult dragonflies and emerging nymphs

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 superstar bears the rather unglamorous name of "Bogbean".

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 serves to create shade and provides 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 subsequently 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.

 Bogbean flower

 

 

 

The Snowdrop And The Honeybee

An early worker honeybee gathers nectar from a Common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

By February we are all utterly weary of winter's leaden skies and lashing storms and desperately seeking those first subtle signs of spring, so it comes as no surprise that Common Snowdrops, or February's Fairmaid as they are sometimes called, are such popular flowers. It is a heavy heart indeed that could not be lifted by the sight of a milky white snowdrop flower head as it nods cheerily in the soft sunlight of a mild winter's day, or bravely peering through a late winter snowfall to earn their French name of "Pierce-neige" or Snow Piercer.  

Snowdrops favour damp woodland and stream side habitats

There are about 20 species of Galanthus in all, with the name Galanthus nivalis stemming from the Greek gala and anthus "Milky flower" and the Latin nivalis meaning "Snow".

Fond of damp woodland and watercourses, many people mistakenly believe that the Common Snowdrop is truly native to Britain or introduced in Roman times, but in fact snowdrops were first recorded in John Gerard's 1597 edition of "Great Herball" and were first documented in the wild only in the late 1770's. It is now believed Galanthus nivalis were first introduced into gardens in the late 1500's from Europe where their range spreads from the Pyrennees in the West to the Ukraine in the East.

The "Flower of Hope" grew in popularity around the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856) when many soldiers returned with a new larger variety of the spring bulb, Galanthus plicatus, the Crimean Snowdrop, which bravely covered the battlefields despite the harsh winters to augur spring. Our love affair with these delicate yet incredibly tough spring flowers continued to grow and today snowdrops are one of the most widely traded bulbs in the world.

Snowdrops' many folklore names symbolise hope, renewal and death

Its long history in Europe and the UK means the humble Snowdrop is well established in folklore, literature and religion. The Snowdrop's strong Ecclesiastical associations are indicated in some of its alternative names such as Candlemas Bells, Mary's Taper and Eve's Tears.  

The snowdrop is a flower of contradictions. On the one hand, for Catholics Snowdrops symbolised hope and purity. Snowdrop garlands were traditionally used in the Candlemas procession on 2nd February celebrating the Purification of the Virgin Mary, which is one reason why they are so widespread along traditional routes to village churches.

At the same time snowdrops also have a darker side to their folklore history. Perhaps owing to the flower's white shroud-like petals, Snowdrops have long been associated with death and bad luck. In Greek mythology Persephone or Kore, Queen of the Underworld and the goddess of vegetation, is said to have carried Snowdrops on her return from Hades in Spring. The snowdrops she carried brought back life to a barren, wintery landscape, but also carried strong negative connotations of the Underworld they came from. 

Snowdrops spread by bulb division but ants assist seed dispersal

Also called Death's Flower, the Snowdrop became associated with death for many Victorians. According to superstition, seeing a lone Snowdrop was perceived as a portent of death and it was also meant to be unlucky to bring the first Snowdrop flower of the season inside a house.

Whatever their origins and mythology, Snowdrops hold a deep and enduring place in our psyche signalling Spring, while for our overwintering wildlife, the sight of a Common Snowdrop is undoubtedly very lucky indeed and a massive boon at a time of great hardship and need.

Their flowers provide a desperately needed source of nectar and pollen for early insects such as solitary bees emerging from hibernation, while their seedpods that also contain protein-rich elaiosomes are taken by ants and fed to their larvae. In so doing, the ants complete the circle of life by helping the Snowdrop plants disperse and start new colonies elsewhere.

The Snowdrop

Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid,
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!
— Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Autumn Colours and Changing Clocks

Autumn seems to get later and later each year, perhaps a sign of the times in these days of global warming. The leaves here in Norfolk are only just colouring up, so to capture the mood of autumn here is a shot from my garden instead. It's a wild carrot seed head photographed against a backdrop of autumn flowering pink sedum in my butterfly and bee flower garden in gorgeous soft golden light we had yesterday afternoon before the clock change.

Blowin' in the Wind ....

A Red Poppy for the Somme

In a momentous week that has witnessed a constitutional crisis in the UK and political skulduggery to rival Machiavelli, perhaps the most important event of all was remembering that, only a hundred years ago, Britain was in a state of war with another European country. Our grandfathers were about to face the onslaught of the Battle of the Somme, the most fatal of all battles in the “War to End All Wars”.

A simple common red poppy (papaver rhoeas) blowing in the wind serves to remind us that many, many men gave their lives for our freedom.  The peace , prosperity and personal liberties that our European generation has enjoyed until now was won only through the greatest of sacrifices that most of us in our modern lives can’t even imagine – the blood spilled by our forbears.

Our week’s events, when viewed from this bigger perspective, suddenly seem to be all about petty self interest and almost inconsequential. But we can’t afford to take the life we lead today for granted, things could easily be far worse. Intolerance is a slippery, treacherous slope and can at first seem quite innocuous.

Above all we should not forget what the European project was all about when it first started.

Just one little word....

Peace

The Uncommonly Beautiful Common Spotted Orchid

Recently I visited Foxley Wood NWT while volunteering with Norfolk Butterfly Conservation Society on a Hawk moth event. As I arrived I spotted this beautiful Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza Fuchsii) nestled in a corner of the grassy verge.

I simply couldn't bring myself to leave without stopping to admire and photograph the group of delicately coloured Common Spotted Orchids. They must like damp weather as they have done very well here this year! 

The name "Common Spotted Orchid" really doesn't do this humble, yet beautiful plant justice. There's nothing common about this diminutive Orchid at all; in fact this flower is the epitomy of subtley, daintiness, elegance and refinement.

Raising a Yellow Flag

The Yellow Iris, or Yellow Flag, Iris Pseudocorus, is one of surprisingly few native British pond Irises. The vibrant and beautiful Yellow Flag makes its home in the damp clay and loamy soils of wetlands and marshes. It thrives in the Fenland habitat of the Norfolk Broads and is widespread across the county. 

Yellow Flag is rich in wildlife value, is popular with bees and hoverflies which pollinate its hermaphrodite flowers, The drooping yellow tepals provide a landing platform for insects. The dark yellow patch in the centre, surrounded by a zigzag line acts as a guide directing the insect towards the nectar source. It also acts as a caterpillar host plant for seven moth species including the Belted Beauty Red Sword-grass and Water Ermine. The remaining four moth caterpillars live inside its thick reed-like stems.

Frequently known as "Daggers" it has several other traditional names including Segg, Swordgrass also referencing its blade-like foliageas well as False Acorus, Fleur-de-lis, Water Flag.

It has a long folklore tradition, being said to be the original inspiration for the fleur-de-lis used in heraldic designs. In Ireland it was believed to avert evil and bunches were hung up outside doors during the feast of Corpus Christi. The rhizomous roots yield a black dye and ink and are extremely acrid. Traditionally the dried roots were also used medicinally as a cathartic, emetic and as an astrigent to halt bleeding, while the roast seeds were used to make a form of coffee, though there is uncertainty as to its toxicity. The plant also generated a pleasant essential oil, which was often used to dilute that of the Sweet Flag, Acorus calamus, giving rise to Yellow Flag’s alternative name of False Acorus

Sadly this species tends to gets overlooked by mainstream garden centres in favour of more popular blue-coloured Irises, which are actually Asian in origin, not native to the UK so do not afford the same value to wildlife.  

With a little care Yellow Flag Iris can be a wonderful addition to most wildlife garden ponds.  In particularly favourable conditions the Yellow Flag Iris will thrive and can become a little over vigorous, so growing it in containers is a good idea to avoid it taking off too dramatically, if you have a smaller ponds or bog gardens.

Fortunately my pond margin has plenty of room and mixed companion planting is providing competition from other marginal plants such as Purple Loosestrife, Meadowsweet, Water mint, Reedmace (Typha), true Bulrush (Scirpus Lacustris) to name but a few. So far this approach seems to have kept the pond margin mix nicely balanced.

Alternative names: Daggers, False Acorus, Flagon, Fleur-de-lis, Jacob’s Sword, Segg, Swordgrass, Water Flag, Water Skegs, Yellow iris, Yellow Flag

Moth Caterpillar host for: Belted beauty, Crescent, Crinan Ear, Red Sword-grass, Rush Wainscot, Water Emine, Webb’s Wainscot

Springtime in der Eifel

Spring has well and truly sprung with a couple of weeks of glorious weather in the UK and the continent. Here a small selection from a short trip to the beautiful Eifel Nationalpark on the German-Belgian border, with lush meadows dripping in springtime wildflowers and vivid dappled green woodland trails bursting with life...

New season's foliage in deciduous woodland on the slopes

Apple tree blossom on a hot sunny circular walk around a 45 thousand year old Meerfelder Maar - a volcanic crater and lake or "Maar".

Wildflowers and butterflies were very similar to those in the UK with cuckoo flower, dandelions, stitchwort and marsh marigolds and dandelions in the downland meadows.

An enticing dappled woodland trail on the Lieserpfad hiking route

Spring Orchids

Green-winged Orchid

Early Purple Orchid

The arrival of May means we are entering late springtime, augering the arrival of warm days and our early orchids. Here are two you can see readily in Norfolk, the Early Purple Orchid (orchis mascula) that can be seen in ancient woodland where it is often a companion plant to bluebells, and the very small Green-Winged Orchid (Anacamptis morio), a later flowering orchid happiest in open unimproved grassland. 

After the whites greens and yellows of early spring now pinker palette emerges among our countryside wildflowers. Amongst others, both the pretty red campion (silene dioica) and herb robert (geranium robertianum), one of several elegant native geranium species, come into bloom during in the month and if you're lucky, you might even see an early poppy.

Lush Springtime

For me, springtime is as much about the pure whites and lush greens, the fresh background colour palette against which the more vivid yellows, pinks and lilacs that pretty spring wildflowers display their wares to early pollinating insects. At this time of year the woodland floor becomes a pastel mosaic of early spring wildflowers such as greater stitchwort, water avens as well as bluebells and campions all in a mad dash to flower and seed before the renewed tree canopy shades their light for the summer season until autumn leaf-fall arrives.