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About Me

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I have been interested in nature for most of my life but since I retired I spend as much time as I can exploring the nature reserves and wildlife hotspots of my adopted home, Dorset in southern England. Whilst out I record what I see and take snaps where I can (I am no photographer!) and that forms the basis of my Nature of Dorset website. When I find something new I like to research it and write about it in my nature notes, it is how I learn and hopefully you might find my notes helpful as well!

This website is for the people of Dorset interested in wildlife and for people from elsewhere interested in the wildlife of Dorset!

26 October, 2016

Gymnadenia conopsea: making sense of it

It seems strange that, in general, our orchids do not have a scent, they are such splendid plants that you might expect perfume as well as looks. One orchid that defies this trend is the aptly named fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) which does indeed produce a strong, sweet smell. This is helpful because being a purple spiked flower head like many other orchids in Britain it is an easy way to identify it from the other look-a-likes.
There are other differences between the fragrant orchids and its cousins. The flowers are a very pale pink not deep purple or mauve. It is quite a short, slim flower spike with the individual flowers in the spike less densely packed than in many other orchids. Add to this very narrow, pale green leaves that lack spots an then put them all together with the scent and you have it - a fragrant orchid.
This is very much a plant of chalk grassland and although there is a lot of chalk in Dorset I understand that this particular orchid is only found in three or four sites on iron age hill forts where the ground has been undisturbed for centuries. 
Gymnadenia conopsea: making sense of it

24 October, 2016

Thuidium tamariscinum: the tamarisk moss

It is a shame that the 'leaves' of Thuidium tamariscinum are so small as individually they are so delicate and finely made and are rarely appreciated.  Not only is each individual leaf intricate in structure but together they make a wonderful bright green carpet. You need to be familiar with the garden shrub tamarisk to understand how this moss gets its name but it does, indeed, have leaves similar to tamarisk. Each leaf is like a pyramidal fan, a central dark stiff stem with 'branches' coming out on opposite sides getting gradually smaller as you go up the stem.
Very common on earth banks and ditches it is quite an easy moss to identify and to get another one 'under your belt' as you get to grips with a difficult group of plants. It has a preference for shady places and it likes heavy soil with no chalk influences so it is common in woodlands and hedgerows around the Poole Basin. It is far less common on the downs and the cliffs.
As ir usually grows in such profusion where it occurs why not pick a small piece and take a look at it through a magnifying glass to really appreciate what it looks like?
Thuidium tamariscinum: the tamarisk moss

23 October, 2016

Squinancywort: fighting tonsillitis

Squinancywort (Asperula cynanchica) is surely an odd name for a flower? It is certainly a unique label and one that helps ensure the name is not forgotten when the flower is found in the wild.
Squinancywort is one a group of flowers that you can almost predict you will find on chalk soils where the grass is thin. It does not grow under any other circumstances or in any other situations but is likely to be frequent in the conditions it favours. It is a small plant and cannot compete with vigorous grass growth so it takes its chances in its own niche. A member of the bedstraw family it has the bedstraw's distinctive small cluster of four petalled flowers, the petals forming a cross. Often cream in colour but sometimes tinged with pink the flowers can be found from May through until September.  
So, what of the strange name? In medieval times it was used as a cure for quinsy and was once known as squinsywort but somewhere along the line it became a little corrupted. Quinsy was a rather nasty and extreme version of tonsillitis and was potentially fatal. How effective squinsywort was I have no idea.
Squinancywort: fighting tonsillitis

22 October, 2016

Hypnum cupressiforme: the cypress-leaved moss

Hypnum cupressiforme is one of the most widespread and common of our mosses and. if you want to get to know mosses (even a little bit!) it pays to get to know this one well so that you can then recognise whether what you are looking at is something different.
The cupressiforme part of the name gives us a clue to identification; formed like a cypress tree leaf. That is all well and good if you know what a cypress tree leaf looks like I suppose! It is difficult to describe with words and so you do need a good illustrated guide to help. Each 'leaf' is a pointed structure which appears to be formed of overlapping segments, a bit like an unopened fir cone perhaps. A hand lens is useful here if you want to take moss identification seriously.
You can find Hypnum cupressiforme in almost all terrestrial habitats. It forms blankets over tree stumps and fallen trunks. It grows on bare soil and grows in amongst grass, especially on lawns. It can grow on rocks and on walls. It can thrive on the acid soils of the heath and the calcareous limestone and chalk of the cliffs and downs. In many ways, this is the plant people think of when they think of masses.
There are several subspecies of Hypnum cupressiforme which are, apparently, quite variable but for me that is a step too far!Hypnum cupressiforme: the cypress-leaved moss

21 October, 2016

Common Sorrel: the vinegar plant

One of the more common plants on grassland where the ground is undisturbed is the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa). When one looks at the flower heads which are loose spikes of individual reddish brown flowers it is immediately obvious that this is a member of the dock family - most docks bear the name rumex. 
Flowering from May until July the flower heads are visible long after this when bearing the seeds. Common sorrel can grow to almost three feet tall but this is rarely the case and a foot to eighteen inches is, perhaps, the norm. The leaves are absent from the upper reaches of the flower spikes and can be found further down the stem. At school we used to bite the leaves to release a taste akin to vinegar, indeed we called them the vinegar plant and that is, of course, where the acetosa part of the name comes from, acetic acid or vinegar.
In the middle ages it was grown as a food crop but this is no longer the case; the leaves were once used in salads but the presence of oxalic acid can cause problems for some people with certain conditions. It also has some traditional herbal uses but more recently it has been used in research into treatments for cancer and sinusitis. 
Common Sorrel: the vinegar plant