Female red-backed shrike (Lanus collurio)(Photo One A)
Dear Readers, we are all doing very well this week, with Fran and Bobby Freelove and Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus both getting 15 out of 15. A special shout out to Molly who completed her first quiz this week and also got 15 out of 15! And an extra special shout out to Rosalind and her husband, who had a jolly good bash at the quiz in spite of both professing ignorance on the subject of little brown jobs – you got 8 out of 15 which is more than half so that still counts as at least a silver star in my book. No wooden spoons here (unless you are short of one in the kitchen, in which case I’ll see what I can do). Well done everybody, and thank you for having a bash.
Here are the answers, and I can promise you that tomorrow’s quiz will be a little bit different…
Dear Readers, Cherry Tree Wood is much more of a park than Coldfall Wood, although it was once part of the same extensive forest, used by the Bishop of London as his hunting ground. So, although it has many things that Coldfall does not – toilets, tennis courts, a children’s playground, even a cafe – there are the same magnificent oaks and hornbeams. And, for a few weeks every year, the sun is just about rising through the trees at 8 a.m. when we go for our walk, so I thought I’d share a few photographs with you. This is something of a dangerous occupation as the park is also frequented by cyclists, joggers and, this morning, a chap on an e-scooter. Gosh these things are dangerous – fast and completely silent. At least a cycle has a bell.
I had never noticed this very twisty hawthorn before – when the leaves drop off the underlying structure of a tree is revealed. I suspect this one must have been cut back a few times when it was a mere sapling and has since gone its own way, much as many of the trees have.
I loved this little field maple (do tell me if it’s not, I have constant trouble with my maples). The leaves look too small to be sycamore to me. There’s something about the way that it shines yellow in the shade of the bigger trees that is very appealing, it almost seems to shimmer.
Looking back across the field, you can see the sun just starting to warm up the oaks and hornbeams. The field is completely waterlogged, but I like the reflections. Sometimes there are hopeful seagulls trying to swim in the puddles, but not today.
And when you enter the fragment of wood, the tree trunks seem to be dancing, much as they do in Coldfall – the hornbeams were probably coppiced a few times, but were then left to grow into trees. They look very sinuous to me, like snakes as they’re charmed.
Look at this little tree tying itself into a knot.
Just as spring during lockdown felt very special, as I slowed down and paid attention, so there is something particularly wistful rising in me as I look at the trees. Was there ever anything more beautiful? So many colours are interwoven to make that copper/orange/chestnut/golden medley.
And as we are about to leave, I look back and catch this little oak in its moment of glory, lit up by the morning sun. My heart rate seems to go down in the presence of big trees – it’s as if I somehow fall into sync with their slower pace of life. Trees seem to invoke serenity. It’s a great way to start the day, with a little dose of calmness, before all the mad rush of work starts.
Dear Readers, on a day when I would normally be knocking up a Wednesday Weed, I thought it might be fun to think about the plants that you would never normally come across in a quick march around your local green space. Who among us is regularly falling over Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) for example? Who has ever seen Whorled Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum verticillatum)? And has anybody ever seen ‘The Ghost’ of the title, the Ghost Orchid (Epigogium aphyllum)? Well, Peter Marren’s book ‘Chasing the Ghost‘ enables you to follow him as he attempts to find 50 plants that he’s never seen before.
Ghost Orchids (Epipogium aphyllum) (Photo One)
When I read the title of the book, I thought that Marren was going to be starting from scratch in his hunt for plant species, but fortunately (because otherwise the book would be the size of a small drinks cabinet) he has already seen most of the commoner species. He looked through his much-thumbed volume ‘The Concise British Flora’ and found that there were exactly fifty species unticked. However, there were difficulties afoot:
‘A few are plants that flower erratically, while others are found only in remote corners of Britain, and some bloom underwater….More problematic was that some of them flowered at the same time at opposite ends of Britain. ….over the whole enterprise hung the spectre of Epipogium, the Ghost Orchid- a plant almost as unattainable as the Holy Grail. Unless someone found it during the year, which, on recent form, seemed unlikely, it was a built-in guarantee of almost certain failure’.
Goodness, how I love a quest! I am reminded of the travel and nature writer Peter Mathiesson, with his attempt to see a snow leopard (which I heartily recommend if you’ve never read it). But how much danger could there be in a search for some wild flowers? Well, quite a lot as it happens. Marren isn’t getting any younger, he has health problems which become more apparent as he gets continually rained upon and knocked over, and some of these plants grow in precipitous spots. Here he is looking for Norwegian Mugwort (Artemisia norvegica) on ‘a high, bare ridge, Cul Mor, Scottish Highlands’ for example: he has just identified the plant when:
‘Then there was the most almighty bang, followed by a flash. The storm had arrived. In terror, I splashed back up the slope as fast as my clunky boots could carry me. The right thing to do was to find shelter well below the rocks on the ridgeline and wait out the storm. But both sides plunged down steeply, and my only thought was to get off the hill as quickly as possible. Another flash burst over Cul Mor, a blast of white light, mighty close, horribly assertive. I swear I I smelt electricity. If I live, I thought, I might find this quite funny – the terrified fleeing figure with the thunder god hurling bolts at him’.
Not all rare plants are in such inhospitable spots however. Take the Childing Pink (Petrorhagia nanteulii) which grows behind a pub in Sussex:
‘When I pulled up at the forecourt they were rolling beer kegs from the back of a lorry, with metallic rattles and clangs. Behind the clubhouse is a narrow backwater with a few moored boats. Across the narrow inlet lies a desolation of dredgers and warehouses: VW Heritage, Travis Perkins, Screwfix(‘Open 7 days!’). The only beauty lay at my feet, in the patch of a tiny flower growing in bare sand’.
And then there’s the Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus), which grows to 7 feet tall, and is now known only from a ‘ditch on the busy road from Ely to Newmarket….the ragwort’s ditch regularly fills with rubbish: in 2001 four sackfuls were removed in one day, along with ‘a road sign, three drums of lubricant and a traffic cone‘. This plant was declared extinct in 1857, but suddenly reappeared when its ditch was dug in 1968, having lain dormant in the soil for all that time. Some seedlings have been replanted in Woodwalton Fen, where maybe, one day, it will start to proliferate.
Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus) (Photo Four)
In some ways, this is a perfect lockdown book, though it did make me yearn for the days when I could jump onto a train and head off in pursuit of some natural wonder or another. It also made me nostalgic for being able to meet up with friends and head off on an adventure – everywhere that Marren goes, he is helped in his search by fellow botanists, friends, conservationists and sometimes complete strangers. There is a kind of comradeship in being an enthusiast – when other people write you off as an eccentric for standing in the cold and rain with binoculars or a hand lens, there is, if we are lucky, someone who understands and will wait around with you. I grew very fond of Marren – if you read the book, you will see that some of his life experiences overlap with mine, and there is a kind of fellowship in suffering, too. He is good company – he wears his extensive knowledge and experience lightly, and he has an irrepressible sense of humour, invaluable when you’re up to your personal parts in bogwater.
I heartily recommend this book. I will certainly be looking at the author’s back catalogue – he has written Rainbow Dust, about our love affair with butterflies, and a guide to Fungi which is extremely readable. If only there were more hours in the day for all the things I want to read!
Dear Readers, I was really excited about this talk: David Bevan is a hero of mine, for a variety of reasons. He was one of the key players in the coppicing of Coldfall Wood and Queen’s Wood, a decision which greatly increased the biodiversity in both of these fragments of ancient woodland. He was the conservation officer for Haringey, the council where Coldfall Wood is located, for many years. But lastly, he only started to work in areas where his passion for plants could be used when he was in his forties, following a course at Birkbeck on Ecology and Conservation. It is never too late to learn new things, or to change your direction.
The talk was wide-ranging, and so I’m just going to pick up here on a few key points, though you can watch the whole thing here.
Bevan started with a review of the many fragments of ancient woodland that still exist in North London, and pointed up a number of very interesting differences between them. Although, as I’ve often mentioned, Coldfall Wood, Queen’s Wood and Highgate Wood are all oak and hornbeam woods, a wood that I visited recently, Big Wood, was completely clear-felled in 1820. As a result, the understorey is dominated by hazel instead, which is a boon for both insects and for the squirrels.
Big Wood (Photo One)
Bevan also managed to get into Turner’s Wood, which is a scrap of woodland in Hampstead Garden Suburb that is completely surrounded by houses. Those with adjoining houses set up a company to manage the wood, and access by the public is prohibited. Bevan reports that the woodland is largely sessile oak rather than pedunculate (English) oak in the other woods, and suspects that these might have been planted rather than being remnants of an older wood.
The locked entrance to Turner’s Wood (Photo Two)
Bluebell Wood is another tiny remnant of ancient woodland not far from my favourite garden centre in Bounds Green – in spite of the name it doesn’t have bluebells (at least not these days!) To digress slightly, Bevan felt that the danger to bluebell woods from Spanish and hybrid bluebells was overstated (and recent research bears this out) – although hybrid bluebells might be found on the edge of colonies of English bluebells, they are unable to encroach into the colony as a whole, which is something of a relief.
Bevan then moved on to the trees and other plants that are found in these North London woods, and also had some interesting things to say about the wildlife that depends on them. One thing I didn’t realise was that hawfinches are very attracted to hornbeam seeds, and the birds have been recorded in Coldfall Wood, so definitely something for me to keep my eyes open for. I’ve never seen these magnificent finches with their big beefy beaks.
Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
Bevan mentioned that the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), an important indicator that a woodland is ancient, is present in all of the North London woods, although it doesn’t set seed very often in this country. When seeds are produced, they need hot summers and cold winters in order to germinate, and with our winters becoming milder and wetter this seems unlikely.
Flowers of the wild service tree.
Bevan also mentions that the wild pear tree (which was described by Oliver Rackham as one of the rarest trees in England) grows in Queen’s Wood – until coppicing took place it didn’t flower, but finally it did, producing not only flowers but ‘iron pears’, the hard, inedible fruit.
Now, on to the coppicing. Coldfall Wood’s biodiversity has been improved immeasurably by the cutting back of some of the hornbeams – it immediately lets light into the understorey, and some seeds which have been waiting for up to a century will spring up life (foxglove in particular has a very long life in the seedbank). Bevan notes that wood anemone, early and common dog violet, yellow pimpernel, ragged robin, St. John’s wort and cow wheat were all recorded, along with the only orchid in the ancient woods of North London, a broad-leaved helleborine.
Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)
And finally, Bevan did a study of the garden plants that turn up in Queen’s Wood. His study showed that while the edges of the wood had a number of garden plants, these ‘exotics’ found it much more difficult to penetrate further into the wood. He noted cherry laurel, buddleia, Himalayan honeysuckle and late cotoneaster, but is largely unworried by such ‘interlopers’. His view is that in urban woods at least, garden plants are very unlikely to be a problem, and may even increase biodiversity.
Here in North London we are extremely lucky to have such areas of woodland. Ancient woodland is defined as an area that has survived continuously since at least 1600, and each scrap has its own individual character. Bevan points out that all the woods that have survived are on very hilly land, which might be what saved them from destruction by developers during the building boom of the 60s and 70s. Today they have helped to support many thousands of people through the lockdowns of 2020. Let’s hope that people’s new appreciation of our woods will help to protect them in the future.
The ‘Giant Paperclip’ squid (Diplomoceras maximum)
Dear Readers, I am an avid devotee of New Scientist magazine, in particular the short articles which present research from around the world, and which often reveal all sorts of wonders. So, this week I thought I’d share my two favourite articles.
The ‘Gian Paperclip’ Squid That Might Have Lived for Centuries
While Tyrannosaurus Rex was wandering the land 68 million years ago, a 1.5 metre long ammonite with a strangely twisted shell was patrolling the oceans, and individuals could have lived for up to 200 years. The ‘Giant Paperclip Squid’ (Diplomoceras maximum) had one of the most unusual shells of any ammonite (this group was one of the ancestors of the cephalopods that exist today), as you can see from the artist’s impression above.
The scientists who are studying the animal, Linda Ivany and Emily Artruc at Syracuse University, have been able to take the chemical signature of that strange shell and, comparing it with annual methane emissions that we know occurred in the oceans, they have come to the conclusion that, as with trees, each ‘ring’ in the shell represented a year. By counting the rings, it’s very likely that these animals lived for centuries. And as the shell grows by accretion, with each ring adding to the next, it might go some way to explaining the ‘paper-clip’ look of the animal.
This long life is very unusual because cephalopods are normally very short-lived creatures – many octopuses only live for a year and the longest-lived member of the family, the nautilus, lives for a maximum of twenty years. The scientists speculate that because the paperclip squid lived in Antarctica, it may have had a very slow metabolism and breeding rate to cope with the difficult conditions.
The name ammonite means ‘Horn of Ammon’, the ram-like god of the Ancient Egyptians, and you might recognise the more typical shell below. Sadly, all the ammonites were wiped out in the same incident that destroyed the dinosaurs, and there are several theories about why these oceanic animals became extinct when other ocean-goers didn’t. One theory is that ammonites lived on plankton (their beaks are very different from present-day cephalopods, which eat much bigger prey), and we know that there was a long period when plankton populations crashed, so it’s possible that only more omnivorous families of animals survived.
A second theory is that the young of ammonites floated closer to the surface of the oceans, and their shells were destroyed by the acidity of the water following the meteor impact which wiped out the land animals. Creatures who lived deeper in the ocean, scientists believe, were more likely to survive.
Whichever was the case, it seems a shame that this group, so common in the fossil record and so successful for over 300 million years, was wiped out in the geological equivalent of the blink of an eye.
And for our second glimpse into the natural world this week, this headline has attracted attention beyond the ranks of arachnophiles:
‘Some Male Spiders Tie Up Females Before Mating to Avoid Being Eaten‘
Thanatus fabricii (Photo Three)
As you might expect, this tale of spider bondage has got many news outlets over-excited, and, as with most spider stories, they choose to illustrate them with photos of completely the wrong species. So, here are the facts! No fake news here people (though please note that I’m always open to being told that I’m wrong about something – many of you are experts in your fields, and I’m delighted to learn).
The Running Crab Spider (Thanatus fabricii) lives in the Negev Desert in Israel and, as with many spiders, mating can be a fraught occasion. Lenka Sentenská at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada, had been observing some extremely fast movements made by the males of this species when they encountered a female, but, by slowing down film of the action, she was able to see exactly what was going on.
When a male encountered a female, he would rush in and bite her legs, leaving her so astonished that she would sometimes play dead. While prone, the male would bind her legs, mate with her and run away.
However, as usual, things were not quite as they seemed. The females would sometimes kill and eat a male who wasn’t fast enough, and the scientist notes that it doesn’t take much effort at all for the female to break free. Sentenská speculates that the silk used to tie the female up may contain a chemical signal from the male, and if she approves of him she is more likely to allow him to mate.
“It appears brutal, that the female has no choice, but that’s probably not how it is,” she says. So, a little less ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ than some newspapers seem to think.
Dear Readers, we have found that if we don’t get ourselves out for a walk, the rest of the day somehow never really comes into focus, so the fact that we were expecting relentless rain all day was just a reason for digging out the wet weather gear and heading to the cemetery. It’s become our place for contemplation since lockdown, and when it’s damp it’s even quieter than usual. Plus there’s something about the grey skies and the mizzle that makes the colours pop more. Look at these lovely oak leaves, for example. This is the first year that I’ve really appreciated the caramel tones of the dead foliage, interspersed with the odd citrussy yellow and green leaves.
Down in the woodland graveyard area, the swamp cypress are also showing their winter colours. This is fast becoming one of my favourite non-native trees – I love the delicacy of the foliage, and the way the leaves turn to russet in the autumn. The fruits look like little maces to me.
A much more recent addition to the area is this young ginkgo, with its bright yellow leaves. In years to come, this will look splendid with a backdrop of the fox-red swamp cypress. It already looks good with the blue-green of the conifers behind it.
One problem with my other regular walk around Coldfall Wood and Muswell Hill Playing Fields is the mud at this time of year. That’s the big ‘problem’ with clay soil – rich and nutritious it might be, but in the winter it turns quickly into a quagmire. Haringey Council have put in some paths and a sandy area at one entrance between the woods and the fields, but the problem is, what do you do? For one thing, councils have very little money to spend on public amenities following years of austerity, and for another thing it’s not necessarily great to have hard paving which can become slippery and a trip hazard, plus it isn’t good for wildlife either. I guess I’ll just have to invest in wellington boots.
Although it’s been wet (Saturday 3rd October was the wettest day in Britain since records began), it’s also been extremely mild, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see some lush pockets of wildflowers. This white deadnettle was particularly toothsome – I love the shape of the flowers. By now it was not only raining but blowing a minor gale, so apologies for the blurring.
White deadnettle (Lamium album)
And here we have some Oxford Ragwort, one of those ‘weeds’ that spread along the railway tracks, and is now common all over England.
But sometimes the rain is too much even for us. I had tucked my camera into my anorak (yes, I am a proud anorak-wearer) and could barely see through the raindrops on my spectacles. If it’s not the lenses fogging up because of my face mask it’s the precipitation these days. The person who invents little windscreen wipers for glasses will make a million, mark my words.
I had time for a few shots of the big trees on the other side of the cemetery, though – what a splendid combination of colours they are! Autumn in the UK is a bit less flamboyant than in North America, but I think it still has a charm all of its own. See what you think.
Dear Readers, the world is full of little brown birds that are difficult-ish to identify. Sometimes they are females or juveniles who are anxious not to attract the attention of bird watchers, but sometimes they are just made that way. So, how good are you at identifying the less showier birds that pop up in our gardens? It’s nice and simple this week – just match the photo to the name (after all your hard work last week I thought I’d give you all a break).
All answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Thursday please if you want to be marked. As usual, write your answers down old-school on a piece of paper before you pop them onto the blog if you don’t want to be influenced by those who have come before. And above all, have fun, because I certainly enjoy creating these quizzes. It’s so much easier when you have all the answers 🙂
So, if you think bird 1 is a nightingale, your answer is 1) A. Good luck!
Well, this was a bit of a puzzler! We had a wide range of results, which is great because it means that people aren’t afraid of having a go. The answers are below, but top marks go to Fran and Bobby Freelove with 30 out of 30, followed very closely by Ringgi with 29 out of 30, Christine with 27 out of 30, Sylvie with 22 out of 30 and finally Alittlebitoutoffocus who was having a most unusual off day with 11 out of 30. I think I can hear the sound of someone kicking themselves :-). Well done everyone, thank you for taking part, and I hope you enjoyed it!
Dear Readers, was there ever a creature more maligned than the poor old False Widow spider? If the newspapers were to be believed, they are ravaging folk all over the country, taking chunks out of small children and wrestling dachshunds to the ground. Well, I must be as brave as that woman in Game of Thrones with the dragons, as I have three visible in my kitchen at the moment, one on the ceiling and two in the corners of the sash windows outside. A single bite can be enough to make you lose a limb, apparently, and back in 2013 four schools in East London were closed while they dealt with an ‘infestation’ of False Widows. To be frank, I suspect the children were in much more danger from the pesticides used than the spiders themselves. If you hear the sound of distant harrumphing, that’s probably me.
So, to get to the nitty-gritty – do these spiders bite? If cornered, yes, and the female bite is said to be worse than the males. Is it painful? Yes, and there might be local swelling. A few very unlucky people might go on to have that bite become infected, and some people might also have an allergic reaction. Is that a reason for killing every spider that you see? Absolutely not. Make sure that children know not to pick up small creatures that are just going about their business, and chances are everyone will be fine.
If you can bring yourself to look closely at the spider above, you’ll see that the eyes are lit up like little headlights – spiders have a ‘tapetum lucidum’, a membrane behind the eyeball that reflects the light. I have to say that I find that rather cute, but I can see why others might struggle.
This spider is a chap – you can see by those two things that look like jaws but are actually what are known as pedipalps, and are used to transfer sperm to the female. Also, the males tend to be a bit more slim-line than the females, who look like Maltesers with legs attached.He should have no shortage of possible mates, because the ones outside look pretty much like ladies to me.
Now, I was just about to have my windows cleaned, but I fear I might have to wait for a bit. I have been known to block up the spider’s lair with a piece of polystyrene in an attempt to preserve them during the process, but as most window cleaners use power jets these days I wouldn’t want to risk it with these lovelies. The Noble False Widow builds a little tubular retreat, which is why old-fashioned sash windows are so popular: they also build a pretty unimpressive web (at least when compared to the lovely ones in my garden) but the silk used is extremely strong. In spite of those shining eyes, False Widows are very short-sighted (a condition with which I can sympathise) and they mainly respond to vibration. I should say that the poor little soul on the ceiling did flinch when I took a flash photograph of him though, so they definitely don’t like sudden bright light.
That short-sightedness might also account for all the stories of spider bites as well, though I do wonder how come people are coming into contact with a creature that mostly lives in cracks and holes. It’s not likely to be lurking in your washing or snuggling up in the duvet. But like all creatures, it should be respected just in case.
A much clearer photo of a Noble False Widow (Photo One)
False Widows are not native to the UK – they come originally from the Canary Islands and Madeira, of all places, and they will no doubt be delighted that our climate is warming up. It’s believed that they arrived in 1879, and one was noticed by the Reverend Hamlet Clark of Torquay (and what a fine name that is). Presumably the spider arrived in a shipment of something or other (window frames possibly) and from there it has gone on to become one of our commoner spiders.
We do have our own native species of False Widow (Steadota grossa), but as you can only tell the difference between this and the spider in my kitchen by harpooning one and dissecting its genitalia, I’m going to pass.
Uk False Widow spider (Steatoda grossa) (Photo Two)
So, I shall watch my little community of spiders with some interest over the weeks and months to come. The males, sadly, only live for a year, but the females are good for three years if no one sits on them or sprays them with pesticide. During that time they will cheerfully munch their way through any errant flies, clothes moths, gnats or midges that venture indoors: indeed, my chap with his ramshackle web on the ceiling has already caught half a dozen small invertebrates. And things will get very exciting if the male actually gets on the same side of the window as one of the females, as the ladies can be very grumpy (though not normally murderous). I shall keep you all posted.
Lombardy Poplars (probably Plantiere’s poplar, see below) in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
Dear Readers, the Lombardy poplar is one of those trees that dominates the skyline, with its thin, upright shape seemingly begging to be planted along an avenue. You can certainly pack a whole lot of Lombardy poplars into a small space! However, therein hangs a tale. In the 1960s the Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra var ‘Italica’) became extremely popular, in particular with those planting up golf courses, or those wanting a privacy screen in their garden (these trees were in some ways the forerunners of the dreaded Leylandii spruce). However, although their shape can seem very appealing, these trees were often planted without regard for the conditions that they needed: like many members of the Saliaceae(Willow) family, their roots seek out water, and soon invade water courses and other damp areas. The tree is also short-lived and drops its branches readily: after 40-50 years they become vulnerable to high winds, sometimes crashing into their neighbours and bringing the whole lot down like dominoes. Furthermore, they seem to give no indication of their incipient demise, which makes them rather unsuited as a street tree, as you can see from the report below.
In Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield, the council are aiming to replace all 356 of the area’s mature Lombardy poplars. In case you’re wondering why, here’s the litany of problems:
Since 2009 there have been a number of incidents affecting mature Lombardy Poplars: a tree fell across Bessemer Road in 2009 and was found to be rotten at the base; a tree fell on a car in Howardsgate in 2009 and was also found to be rotten at the base; a large branch fell in Parkway in 2017; a tree fell in Longmead in 2017 and was found to be rotten at the roots; and most recently a tree crushed three cars at Howicks Green and was found to be rotten at a height of 3 metres.
Tree officers began to combine visual and internal testing as a result of the 2009
incidents, but in all cases since then there has been no indication that the tree was
decayed or diseased.
What to do? People seemed to be addicted to the shape of the tree. The original Lombardy Poplar thrives in Mediterranean areas, where it’s hot and dry, but can’t stand our damp, drizzly climate. Fortunately for poplar lovers, there is another variety that dates back to 1884, known as Plantiere’s Poplar. This is a cross between the ‘Italica’ Lombardy poplar and another subspecies, Populus nigra ssp betulifolia, and is much better adapted to conditions in the UK and most parts of the US. It is a little less extreme in shape than the Italica variety, but at least it doesn’t fall over or clonk golfers on the head so often.
A Plantiere’s (Lombardy) poplar in Hungary (Photo One)
Incidentally, the tree that was used to produce Plantiere’s poplar has the common name of Black Downy Poplar (Populus nigra ssp betulifolia). It is one of the rarest trees in the UK, with probably fewer than 6000 individuals, though it features in the paintings of Constable. Richard Mabey writes about its decline in ‘Flora Britannica’ – the main culprit seems to be the gradual drainage of farmland, along with the fact that the tree is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees, and so there need to be both sexes in reasonable proximity for the plant to reproduce.
What a magnificent tree the Black Downy Poplar is, and so different from the fastigiate (upright) Lombardy Poplar! In spring, the new growth glows orange in the sun. The catkins are crimson in the male trees, green in the females. As the tree ages, they
‘..have thick fissured trunks, covered with massive bosses and burrs, grow to 100 feet if uncut and often develop a pronounced lean in middle age. The branches turn downwards at their ends, often touching the ground, then sweep up again into sheaves of twigs, as if they have been caught by a gust of wind’ (Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica pg 134)
It’s hard to believe that this magnificent tree almost vanished from view altogether, but fortunately new groupings of Downy Black Poplar are being discovered all over the country, in lots of places where the drainage remains dodgy and there is enough moisture for the tree’s seeds to germinate. Long may it thrive.
Anyhow, back to the Lombardy Poplar.
Lombardy Poplar windbreak in winter (Photo Two)
The Dutch artist Marinus Boezem has taken advantage of the Lombardy Poplar’s distinctive shape by creating a living model of Reims Cathedral, known as De Groene Kathedral (The Green Cathedral) near Almere in the Netherlands. Very cleverly, he realised that the short life of the poplars would not make for an enduring work, so nearby he has created a clearing, also in the shape of the cathedral, with longer-lived beech trees growing around the edge – as the poplars decline, so the beech trees will grow to reproduce the shape again. The current ‘Cathedral’ is used for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.
The Green Cathedral (Photo Three)
Aerial view of The Green Cathedral (Photo Four)
When I was researching this piece, I found constant mentions of the Lombardy Poplar being planted in graveyards – indeed, along with cypress and yew it seems to be one of the most funereal of trees. I imagine that the need to have something growing alongside the avenues that lead to the chapel or the crematorium is one reason, the desire of many cemeteries to have a kind of Italianate atmosphere another. These are also tidy trees, well behaved and modest – they don’t sprawl like oaks (or indeed black poplars), they take up little room, and they beg to be planted in regimented rows. Maybe that’s why they’re so anarchic at the end, dropping their branches and toppling over onto parked cars.
The leaves of many poplars give off a strong ‘balsam’ scent, and according to my Collins Tree Guide, the Lombardy poplar does too. I shall have to pay attention when the new growth comes next year.
And finally a poem. William Cowper (1731-1800) was one of the first ‘nature poets’ and was much admired by Wordsworth. Some of the lines from his poems have fallen into common usage – ‘God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform’, for example, and ‘I am the monarch of all I survey’. In between translating the Iliad and the Odyssey and writing a dozen popular hymns, Cowper found time to knock up this poem, which I rather like. See what you think!
The Poplar Field
William Cowper (1784)
The Poplars are fell’d, farewell to the shade And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade, The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves, Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.
Twelve years have elapsed since I last took a view Of my favourite field and the bank where they grew, And now in the grass behold they are laid, And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.
The black-bird has fled to another retreat Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat, And the scene where his melody charm’d me before, Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.
My fugitive years are all hasting away, And I must e’er long lie as lowly as they, With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head E’er another such grove shall arise in its stead.
’Tis a sight to engage me if any thing can To muse on the perishing pleasures of Man; Though his life be a dream, his enjoyments, I see, Have a Being less durable even than he.