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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!

30 December, 2016

Wintercress: goes with a bang



Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) flowers in May, June and July so one wonders at the name of wintercress! The cress is certainly in keeping as it is a member of the mustard set of the cabbage family and is said to have a bitter taste. It is a biennial plant which means it grows green in the first year and then flowers in the second. This would mean that it is green over winter and so if it was to be used as a vegetable then it would be a cress available in winter. I have not found confirmation of this but as it is also known as winter rocket I think mt theory may be sound.
Wintecress is a sturdy plant that can grow to three feet tall. It has a strong, ridged stem and the leaves at the base are large and lobed, just like some varieties of cabbage. The flowers are yellow and form in clusters around the top of the stem. Flowers that have a;ready gone to seed can be found just below the current ones on the stem. It is a shiny green colour. This is a plant that prefers moist conditions and is found along roadside ditches and on the banks of streams but it can turn up almost anywhere!
The wintercress contains several chemicals including saponins which make it resistant to some insects. Wikipedia has an interesting note that some species of moth and beetle feed on the  wintercress and absorb these saponin chemicals which then cause their larvae to die shortly after birth. This has led to tests being carried out to see if growing wintercress with other crops susceptible to moth and beetle infestations can act as a natural form of pest control. It does not say whether this has been successful.
The scientific name Barbarea is derived from St Barbara, the patron saint of artillery gun crews, as it was once used to sooth the wound caused by explosions.
Wintercress: goes with a bang

29 December, 2016

Sphagnum compactum: the compact bog moss



It is always a relief with difficult species groups to encounter one that is unmistakable and the compact bog moss (Sphagnum compactum) certainly comes in to that category.  It is a species of moss one can easily take for granted living here in Purbeck surrounded by heath where there are wet bogs and poos which make this seem quite a common plant but because its habitat requirements are quite strict it is not actually a common species across the country or, indeed, across the county. It thrives best where a thin layer of peat lies over a bed of sand or gravel but where, despite the porous under soil it remains wet or, at least, damp.
This moss has tightly compacted bunches of stems that are so tightly woven together that the individual stems are not visible. This forms a dense carpet of the moss that can cover quite large areas. This species also gives the impression it is dying when actually it is doing very well because it has a brownish tinge to it. 
Sphagnum compactum: the compact bog moss

28 December, 2016

Harebell: the Scottish bluebell



I always though of the harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) as being a classic chalk grassland flower so when I moved to Dorset some years ago now I was surprised to find them on heath and acid grasslands as well as the more familiar chalk and limestone soils. Further research confirmed that they do, indeed, grow on in grassy areas on both alkaline and acid soils.
The harebell is delightful delicate flower. A member of the bellflower family, Campanulaceae, it is a slender plant a few pale blue flowers occurring in the tops of the stems from July onward until the autumn puts a stop to them. Usually they are quite small plants but they can grow to over a foot tall. They spread by underground creeping stems but do, of course, set seed as well being a favoured nectar source for bees. They also self-pollinate so all i all they can spread themselves about a bit! .
In Scotland they are known as bluebells but they are not related in any way to the bluebells we know here down south in Dorset. In 2002 Plantlife named this as the county flower of Yorkshire following a poll of the local folk.
Harebell: the Scottish bluebell

23 December, 2016

Molinia caerulea: the purple moor grass



Many species are linked to a favoured habitat and that usually depends on the chemical composition and moisture level of the soil being suited to the plant's requirements. Some are not just linked to favoured habitat types, some are actual indicators of a specific habitat type. So it is with the purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). Purple moor grass and rush pasture is a recognised habitat type that obviously features purple more grass and rushes (usually soft rush) mixed in. This habitat often features the meadow thistle, devil's-bit scabious and heath and common spotted orchid as insects such as the marsh fritillary butterfly and the narrow bordered bee hawk moth. This habitat type occurs on heavy, moist, peaty or acidic clay soils and it occurs in various places in Dorset although it is by no means as common as it once was due to extensive draining and improvement for agriculture of the sites.
Purple moor grass occurs in may other situations too and is especially frequent on the Dorset heaths, especially the wetter areas but not where the ground is frequent. It grows in small tufts and also in large tussocks and various stages in between. Tall stems grow from the basal leaves and from July through until September purple 'flowers' appear at the top of the stems. Where there is a lot of this grass growing together it can be a lovely site as the summer breeze sends ripples through these grass stems. Once over, the flowers turn brown and can be seen for some considerable time in to the winter.
Molinia caerulea: the purple moor grass

22 December, 2016

Kidney Vetch: a bad hair day



Looking at the kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) flower one gets the impression it has a fungal infection or has, perhaps, been attacked by a gall wasp because in amongst the familiar yellow vetch flower heads are masses of white hairs. This is actually perfectly natural and it is this feature that makes kidney vetch unique and unmistakable.
Flowering from May until September the flowers are classic clover-shaped which confirms it as a member of the Fabaceae or pea family. The head is made up of a cluster of typical pea shaped flowers that start with an orange tint but quickly become a bright yellow before withering to a reddish brown. Often you can find all three stages on the one flower. It is the fluffy material between these flowers that makes it easily distinguished from its cousins in the clover family. 
It is a sprawling plant that does not grow very tall and it likes dry, open grassland; usually on chalk or limestone and frequently on sea cliffs. Where it occurs it can be abundant. It is the food plant pf the small blue butterfly and they live in close association with each other.
Kidney Vetch: a bad hair day

21 December, 2016

Piezpdorus lituratus: the gorse shieldbug



As its common name suggests the gorse shieldbug (Piezpdorus lituratus) is, indeed, a shield-shaped bug that is associated with gorse and also broom. Those who follow my nature notes will know I caution against trusting common names but here is a case where you can! As it feeds on gorse and broom it can be found anywhere these plants grow but the most likely place to find it is on the Dorset heaths. Although quite common they get lost in the gorse and one does not see them very often. 
This is an interesting species as the adults vary in colouration throughout the year. They hibernate as adults and the first to emerge in spring can be seen in March and the early specimens are green with blue edges to the wings and they have reddish antennae. Those later in the year in September and October have a purple triangle on the wing cases and purple antennae! It seems the purple colouring wears off over winter during hibernation. The purple triangle can be a bit of a problem with identification as other species of shieldbug display similar markings.
Piezpdorus lituratus: the gorse shieldbug

20 December, 2016

Musk Mallow: graceful and delicate



My field guide describes the musk mallow (Malva moschata) as a graceful plant; how something that does not move can be graceful I am not sure but yet I knows what the author means. Although it can grow to over two feet tall and is quite a sturdy plant I think it looks very delicate; perhaps more delicate than graceful? That delicacy is, possibly, due to lovely pale pink flowers that adorn the plant from June to August.
The flower is classic mallow in style, five equal and almost triangular petals around a cluster of stamens in the middle. The flowers do have a faint musky smell hence the common name. Not only does the pale pink flower tend to set it apart from other mallows the leaves are very different too being deeply cut in to narrow strips. 
It is not a not common plant but it can be found on dry, bare areas in grassy and scrubby places and sometimes it can be found as a weed of cultivation. Being such a lovely flower it can also be found in gardens and can be more common near human habitation than it further away.
Musk Mallow: graceful and delicate

19 December, 2016

Schoenus nigricans: the black bog-rush



The black bog-rush (Schoenus nigricans) is a common sedge but if it is common how come I have not got a very good photograph of it? Quite simply, it grows in very wet places and is difficult to get close to to get a photograph and my picture is actually the view you will often get when you find it.
This plant has a central stem that grows to between two and three feet tall and at its tip a smallish black flower appears in July and August. It has thin, pointed leaves that grow from the base of the plant and these only reach about half way to the flower head. It grows in masses; there is always a lot of it where it occurs. It is not that common overall but abundant where it is established and it establishes itself in wet bogs and salt marshes near the sea. This means that around Poole Harbour, especially on the wet areas of the Purbeck heaths to the south of the harbour, is a favoured habitat for it.
Next summer I really must put my wellies on and go wading to get a better photograph!
Schoenus nigricans: the black bog-rush

18 December, 2016

Creeping Cinquefoil: foiled again



One look at the creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans) flower and leaves is sufficient to identify it as a member of the rose family. The flower has five petals that form an open rose-like circle and the leaves five triangular segments with toothed edges similar to the dog-rose and other rose family members. With five lobed leaves it is easy to see how it became called cinquefoil, cinque being French for five of course. This is a certainly a creeping plant that sprawls across the ground, the thin stems branching to a single flower head at frequent intervals, Creeping cinquefoil does seem a suitable name for it. 
Widespread and common where there is bare or sparsely vegetated ground and it can become invasive if in the wrong place and it can be difficult to eradicate. It should be easily identified provided you take a little care as the flowers alone could be muddled with silverweed and it has much in common with tormentil but that usually only has four petals. To confuse it with a buttercup is unforgivable! 
Like many of our herbs it has a tradition of curing many illnesses including diarrhoea, sore throats and toothache.
Creeping Cinquefoil: foiled again

17 December, 2016

Miltochrista miniata: the rosy footman



Although it is primarily a nocturnal species I was fortunate to come cross two of these lovely rosy footman moths (Miltochrista miniata) feeding on hemp-agrimony in broad day light whilst walking through Hethfelton Wood near Bovington. They are unique in that they are the only moths of this vivid pink colour, pale pink in the middle with a bright rose pink border around the edge of the fore-wings. There are also some fine 
Flying through out July they are a species that likes woodland and mature hedgerows which perhaps explains why I have never had them in my moth trap although they are attracted by light. Their larvae feed on the lichens found on the stems of shrub and tree branches. They overwinter as larvae, pupating in May ready for their summer hatching.
They are widespread though nit necessarily common throughout southern Britain so I hope to see them again one day.
Miltochrista miniata: the rosy footman

16 December, 2016

Sea Rocket: shore fire



Surely one of the most inhospitable habitats for a plant to survive in is the sand on a beach. There is no firm soil here to put your roots down into to get stability and moisture, just fine, loose granules of fine rock. Despite this the sea rocket (Cakile maratima) manages to grow in these conditions quite successfully and can be found on sandy, not shingle, beaches above the high water line.
Rockets are usually members of the cabbage or crucifereae family having four petals in the shape of a cross. The sea rocket is a member of this family and has the right form of flower but the plant itself is much more fleshy than its cousins and this enables it to store what little moisture it can glean. It is a rather floppy plant with several flowering stems and produces flowers in July and August which can be various shades of lilac from very pale to quite dark.
The seeds have a fiery flavour but it is a strange plant chemically with the seeds in particular containing erucic acid which can induce heart failure in some animals and yet appears to be beneficial to humans as it can be found in rapeseed oil used as a modern replacement for butter and margarine.
Sea Rocket: shore fire

15 December, 2016

Brachypodium rupestre: the tor grass



A tor is a hill in old English, the exact origins of the name escape me but it is certainly a hill. Tor-grass (Brachypodium rupestre), then, you expect to find on hills and to a degree it does although you can encounter it virtually anywhere the soil is chalky. Its other common name is the chalk false-brome which confirms its liking for chalk and confirms it is not a species of brome!
Tor-grass grows in dense clusters with lots of leaves emanating from a condensed area. The leaves are pale yellowish green and this makes it quite distinctive. It produces flowers in July which are upright with large seeds pods, similar to soft brome.
Tor-grass can be abundant on limestone cliffs near the sea in southern England and steps are being taken in places to try and reduce it through grazing to give other plants a chance. However, it is also the food plant of Lulworth skipper caterpillars and it could be that those measures are now having an adverse effect on Lulworth skipper population levels, the experts are still out on that one.
Brachypodium rupestre: the tor grass

14 December, 2016

Wild Thyme: what a nightmare



I suppose it is easy to forget that all of the vegetables and herbs we cook with and eat today derived from wild plants. Over the years selective breeding has produced new variants of the originals and the originals now exist in the wild state less foraged than they once were. Some people still like to forage for wild plants and fungi but most of us prefer go to the supermarket.
One of the herbs we grow in our garden is thyme and it seems to look quite different to its native cousin, the wild thyme. Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) is a plant very much associated with chalk and can be found on bare patches amongst thin grass on chalk cliffs and downs, often on ant hills. Growing on poor soil it tends to be a low, sprawling plant rather that the little bush we have in the herb garden. Wild thyme is evergreen and has woody stems that grow out across the ground and small pink flowers form on them to create a fairly large cluster.
Species of thyme were considered ideal remedies for headaches and it was believed that if you drank a tea made from the leaves it would prevent nightmares!
Wild Thyme: what a nightmare

13 December, 2016

Alydus calcaratus: the broad-headed bug



I found this bug climbing along the frame of our bedroom window looking for a way out! As this broad-headed bug (Alydus calcaratus) is very local and found only on heaths that may seem an off place to find one especially as I have never seen one anywhere else but as, in Wareham, we live close to the Purbeck heaths may be it is not so surprising after all?
It is fairly long and thin for this group of bug species and is the only British member of this particular family. There is some doubt as to whether it is actually a native species. It is easily recognised by the white marks along the edges of the abdomen and if it opens its wings then a bright orange mark on the abdomen can also be seen. Apparently this is also diagnostic should it be seen in flight.
It can be seen as an adult from May through until September on heath where it favours the leaves of gorse and broom shrubs. The larva resembles and small black ant and it is thought that it may benefit from this similarity by living with ants when in this stage of its life. You can, perhaps, imagine how difficult it my be to actually prove this fact!
Alydus calcaratus: the broad-headed bug

11 December, 2016

Hedge Mustard: the singers plant



If we apply human values and judge flowers for their perceived beauty then I am afraid that hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) would not get a look in! By our values it is a boring, untidy and pretty worthless plant.

Hedge mustard is a member of the cabbage family and has tiny four-petalled yellow flowers that form in small clusters at the end of stalks that continue to grow out, new flowers appearing at the leading end whilst the ones behind turn to seed. This gives the plant a unique appearance with several flowering 'branches' coming out from the main stem. It has rather ragged pale green leaves but the stem tends towards a reddish colour. It flowers from April through until October and beyond in mild autumns and is one of the most common wayside and waste ground weeds.

It may be an untidy, ragged looking plant that we do not give a thought too but this is actually cultivated in some parts of the world as a food source, the leaves having something of a bitter taste but quite edible. The seeds are also ground into mustard and that is, of course, how it gets its common name. In traditional medicine it was considered an effective remedy for sore throats and breathing problems and was apparently known as the singer's plant.

Hedge Mustard: the singers plant

10 December, 2016

Apamea remissa: the dusky brochade



The dusky brochade (Apamea remissa) demonstrates quite well the problem with identifying some moths. Within the same species the colouring can be quite different from one individual to another. It can range from a greyish brown through, like this one, to a very dark brown partly depending on the specimens age as the colour does where off over time and if an individual manages to survive for a few weeks then it will be quite worn both structurally and pigmentally (is that a word?). Regardless of colour, though, the underlying pattern remains the same as does its physical features and so it remains possible to name a find in most cases.

A nocturnal moth that is rarely seen by day it flies as an adult from late May right through in to August. Not the same individuals of course but a succession of emerging insects. They feed on grasses and to they can turn up just about anywhere and they are quite common in gardens. The larvae feed on grasses to and over winter as a larvae before pupating and emerging in the early summer.

Apamea remissa: the dusky brochade

08 December, 2016

Hedgerow Cranesbill: hedging your bets



The cranesbill family are lovely flowers, our garden geraniums all form part of this family and they are very popular. Of the wild species my favourite is the hedgerow cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum).

Although most often found along hedgerows and banks it does also occur in open grassy areas which can throw you a bit when you come across it in such a location. It has pinkish or purple flowers visible from May until September. The flowers are perhaps bluer than most wild geraniums which helps with identification. It is also larger than most growing to almost two feet tall and has large seven-lobed leaves. It is a downy plant which gives the leaves and stems a slightly greyish appearance.

I said earlier that geraniums are popular garden flowers and there are cultivated versions of this species and when you Google Geranium pyrenaicum you find no shortage of garden plant suppliers with these for sale. As a result there is little about the wild versions. I am intrigued by the pyrenaicum species name and wonder if this is a plant found most often in the Pyrenees? It does seem to be a native species however.

Hedgerow Cranesbill: hedging your bets

07 December, 2016

Echthrus reluctator: an ichneumon



The main reason why I write my nature notes is so that I can research a species and find out much more about it. With my collection of books together wite Google and Wikipedia I usually come up with some facts that I did not know about my subject for the day. Today the Internet has met its match! Whilst Google does return a few options for the ichneumon fly Echthrus reluctator there is no information of note anywhere about it!

So, what do I know? Well, firstly I am pretty certain that this is the ichneumon Echthrus reluctator, everything about its visual characteristics matches available images elsewhere and there are a number on the Internet. Secondly, as an ichneumon I know that it will predate another insect by laying eggs in either the adult or the larvae of its host and, thanks to my big book of insects, I know this to be wood boring beetles. It follows, therefore, that this is a woodland species. I also know it is not a common species, it being described as 'local'. Beyond that I am stuck.

That said, I do know it occurs in the woodland near Shipstal at Arne as I saw several crawling over a ragwort plant by the dragonfly ponds in mid-summer. They were a bit difficult to photograph so I apologise for the quality of the image.

Echthrus reluctator: an ichneumon

06 December, 2016

Thyme-leaved Speedwell: what is the thyme



Thyme-leaved Speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia) is a tiny flower which will often be overlooked as it somewhat insignificant amongst the other plants around it. It has preference for bare ground where there is little competition but it still struggles to get noticed. The flower is very small and the petal fall very quickly if the plant is touched.

Flowering from April through until October the flowers are a very pale blue, almost white, but are, on close inspection, typical of the speedwell family with four petals, the one at the bottom being narrower and more pointed than the others. The main feature are the leaves which are oval, dark green and shiny and do, indeed, recall those of the wild thyme.

It is common on bare ground, gravel, edges of car parks and such places as well as being a garden ' weed'. It can also grow in short grass including lawns.

Thyme-leaved Speedwell: what is the thyme

05 December, 2016

Lycophotia porphyrea: the true lovers knot



A moth called the true lovers knot (Lycophotia porphyrea) is bound to raise question "how does it guess its name?". This is an attractive and intricately marked moth and the pattern on the wing is said to resemble a knot that is used to join two ropes together and that is called the true lovers knot as it binds two separate entities together for ever. It seems, however there is no specific knot attributed to this name but any one of several that are used to join two ropes can carry the name so not so romantic after all for this little moth.



Another rather attractive moth that flies at night and is rarely seen by day. They fly from June until August and although widespread and do occur in gardens they favour heathers as a nectar source and so are most commonly found on heathland and there is no shortage of that here in Dorset. The larvae feed on heather too and overwinter as a larva.



Lycophotia porphyrea: the true lovers knot

04 December, 2016

Yellow Horned-Poppy: stone me



I never ceased to be amazed by nature! The yellow horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum) grows in the shingle you find on beaches, just how amazing is it that plants can not just survive but actually thrive in what appears to be a totally inhospitable environment. It is not alone, a few other plants have made shingle beaches their home.
Being a large yellow-flowered poppy you hardly likely to mistake it for any other plant but just to be certain that the sprawling, large four-petalled flower growing on a shingle beach that you have found is, indeed, the yellow horned-poppy look for the seed capsules from flowers that have gone over. In fact you probably will not need to look for them they will be obvious at once being anything from six to twelve inches long, the largest seed capsule of any British plant. This long seed capsule is, of course, how it gets its name as a horned-poppy. Related to the common field poppy you can find this flower on the various shingle beaches in Dorset but Chesil beach is its stronghold.
This is a very poisonous plant that can cause all manner of ill effects if consumed. Some chemicals, notably glaucine, are taken from it for various modern drugs but these can sometimes be accompanied by difficult side effects.
Yellow Horned-Poppy: stone me

03 December, 2016

Meadow Barley: Sir John Barleycorn



It is easy to forget that our vital cereal crops have been developed from wild grasses. When you look at meadow barley (Hordeum secalinum) it quickly reminds you of the fact, it has the characteristics of the cultivated versions in our farm fields.
It is difficult to describe the flower of the barley and I probably do not need too as most of us will be familiar with it. Barley have lots of long hairs or bristles that protrude from the central seed cases. That is very crude really, I should be mentioning glumes, awns and lemmas! However, as I do not really know what they are and I am pretty sure that unless you are grass enthusiast you would not know what I was talking about I will stick with hairs, bristles and seeds!
There are few barley species likely to be found in Dorset, the common one being wall barley and the meadow barley is very different being taller and more erect and growing in old meadows rather than on waste ground and roadsides and so it is a readily identifiable species if you encounter it. It is supposedly common but there are few old meadows still around so iy will nly be common in suitable habitat.
Meadow Barley: Sir John Barleycorn

02 December, 2016

Green Alkanet: the evergreen bugloss



This flower has such lovely deep blue petals one wonders why it is called green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), after all nearly all flowers have green leaves and stems because they contain chlorophyll. The answer would appear to be that this plant retains its green leaves and stem throughout the winter, it is always green even when there are no blue flowers. 
This species is related to forget-me-nots and that can clearly be seen in the shape of the flowers, blue with a white centre and honey guides. These flowers can be seen from as early as March through util July. It is an erect plant growing to a metre tall with very hairy leaves and stems which give it a rough appearance.
Green alkanet can be found on roadsides and in hedgerows, sometimes in woodland borders, and often this will be near human habitation. Although a native plants it was often grown in cottage gardens and has frequently escaped. It does not grow on acid soils preferring more alkaline conditions and it is thought that is where the alkanet name comes from. There are other varieties of alkanet grown in gardens and they two are sometimes encountered in the wild.
Green Alkanet: the evergreen bugloss

01 December, 2016

Eriothrix rufomaculata: a parasitic fly



When I first started out nature watching I really struggled with Latin scientific names. I may have been a Grammar School boy but I didnot study Latin although I had the chance too! Anyway, after many years I have started to pick up bits and I know that rufo is red, from our word rufus of course. Maculata means spotted and so this fly could be called the spotted red fly but it is not, it is just known by its scientific name Eriothrix rufomaculata. It is red and does have black spots so it is an appropriate name.
Being a parasitic fly it lays its eggs in moth larvae, in fac in crambid moth larvae. Crambid moths are a selection of tiny insects, long and thin when at rest, that fly up as you walk across unimproved grassland ansd so that is exactly where you will find this fly. It emerges as an adult in July and August and is quite widespread and can be very common where it occurs.
Eriothrix rufomaculata: a parasitic fly

30 November, 2016

Great Birdsfoot Trefoil: the error of my ways



I have been interested in recording flowers, along with other forms of wildlife, for many, many years but it was only comparatively recently I discovered that in addition to the common birdsfoot trefoil there is an equally common greater birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus pedunculatus). I find it hard to believe that for so many years I may have been making a fundamental error; there are far more complex identification issues that one get easily wrong but surely not between these two?
The flowers of both species are very similar although in greater birdsfoot trefoil they are, perhaps, a slightly dull yellow whereas in common birdsfoot trefoil they verge towards an orange-yellow. The main and obvious differences are in the rest of the plant. It is a much larger plant, hence 'greater', a bit straggly and has larger, darker leaves. 
Although quite different when you take a look at the two there is a key difference I have not mentioned. Common birdsfoot trefoil thrives in short grass on dry soils whereas its greater cousin likes damp conditions; ditches, marshes, damp woodland rides and so on, All in all, no excuse for making a fundamental mistake here I think!
Great Birdsfoot Trefoil: the error of my ways

29 November, 2016

Leucobryum glaucum: the white moss



The white moss (Leucobryum glaucum)? Surely it is green? You actually need to see this moss close up to see why it is called white moss. The shoots are actually different colours, some are a dirty white, some a glaucous colour (see the glaucum in the scientific name) and some are pale green. From a distance it looks green but close up it looks more white.
This is a common moss in acid conditions, especially on damp soils in woods, heaths and bogs; the soil must be bare and very acidic. It forms tufted mats of closely packed shoots and it is sometimes called the pin cushion moss for this very reason. In favourable conditions these mats can be quite large and cover earth, logs, stumps and even tree trunks. It is very distinctive and cannot really be mistaken for any other moss species which, in moss identification, is a real treat for the novice!. 
Leucobryum glaucum: the white moss

28 November, 2016

Common Mallow: a cottage garden essential



What a lovely flower the common mallow (Malva sylvestris) is! Simple but beautiful, everything that wild flowers bring us in a simple package; who needs gardens full of specially bred plants when the natural world has already produced such wonders.
All the five species of mallow found in Dorset, in general, have similar five petalled mauve flowers and yet each is quite distinctive.  The common mallow is more purple than the others, bordering on blue sometimes as each petal has darker veins running through it. The petals are also narrower leaving gaps between them. The flowers are visible from June until September. It is, perhaps, a bit of an untidy plant that sometime grows erect and other times can be sprawling across the ground. It grows on bare ground and is most commonly found by the sea.
Long associated with human benefits the common mallow has been used as a traditional May Day decoration. Its leaves have been used as a vegetable and its seeds used to decorate bread. It has various traditional uses as a remedy; notably a tea made from it was considered a laxative and it is also an ingredient in some modern medicines too. The plant was also used to create a yellow dye for fabrics so, all in all, a jolly useful plant to have around the garden and it can be found in traditional cottage gardens today because of its beauty and its versatility.
Common Mallow: a cottage garden essential

27 November, 2016

Xestia sexstrigata: the six striped rustic



A good choice of common name for this species, the six-striped rustic (Xestia sexstrigata) does, indeed, have six stripes. Having said that they are more lines than stripes in my opinions! Whatever, stripes or lines, there are six of them.
A nocturnal species rarely seen by day this is widespread and is quite common across southern England. It has no real preference for food plant, although it does like a bit of ragwort pollen, and so it can turn up almost anywhere you look for it between late July and early September. 
The larvae are hardy little chaps, overwintering in that stage eating herbaceous plants such as docks and plantains before pupating in the spring.
Xestia sexstrigata: the six striped rustic

26 November, 2016

Changing Forget-me-not: the rainbow plant



Why would a flower have a common name that includes 'changing'? I am only aware of one, the changing forget-me-not (Myosotis discolor); there may be others but I cannot recall them at present. The answer is that the colour of the flowers of the changing forget-me-not change as they age and, as the flowers open in sequence up a central stem, the newly emerging ones at the top are cream, just below they are yellow, then there will be some pink ones and finally the lower ones are blue. At the bottom of the stem the early ones will be turning to seed heads. The flowers in many plants change as they open. The birds'sfoot-trefoil, for example, starts partly orange and turns yellow when fully open but to have a full sequence of three or four colours on one flower spike is unusual.
Changing forget-me-not is not that common in Dorset preferring bare patches on dry, slightly acid soil and a lot of Dorset is alkaline lime and chalk. It flowers from May until September and can be quite prolific where it does occur.
Changing Forget-me-not: the rainbow plant

25 November, 2016

Aphrophora alni: the alder spittle bug



This is the alder spittle bug (Aphrophora alni) but it is actually associated with a wide range of deciduous trees and bushes, not just alder. Indeed, it is more likely to be seen in woodland rather than by rivers where the alder grows. The alder might be misleading but the spittle bug is not! This is one of the froghopper bugs that produces 'cuckoo-spit' to house its eggs and hatched larvae.
Large for a froghopper but still very small, just a centimetre long at most, it can be quite variable in colouring. The reasons for this are not known but one thing remains constant and that is the distinctive pale patches on the margins of the wings.
A common species but not often seen as most of its work is done at night. During the day it rests on the leaves of trees and shrubs. It is active from May until October but only produces one brood of off-spring each year.
Aphrophora alni: the alder spittle bug

24 November, 2016

White Campion: the red campions companion



The white campion (Silene latifolia) is sometimes thought to be a bleached red campion but it is, of course, a totally different species. I think the confusion comes from the fact that they can quite often be found growing together and they can hybridise giving a pale pink version. The flowers also look very similar if you disregard the colour.
The botanists who wrote my book look far more closely at these flowers than I do and point out that the flowers of the white campion are slightly larger than the red and the calyx is longer and narrower. The white is also slightly fragrant at night although I do not see how that will help with identification unless you find some by day and then go back by torch light to give them a sniff! Overall, I think the difference in colour is enough for me to work on.
The white campion is far less common than the red, both being found on waysides and field edges. The white campion flowers from May through until October.
White Campion: the red campions companion

23 November, 2016

Lunularia cruciata: the crescent-cup liverwort



This plant is not exactly a moss, it is a liverwort; they are related but the differences are quite technical and beyond me to even attempt to understand. If I had to make an observation I would say liverworts have waxy, leafy structures whereas mosses seem more flexible and slender. I will say no more as I expect there are specimens of both mosses and liverworts that blow that theory out of the water!
This particular species is known as the crescent-cup liverwort (Lunularia cruciata). It is best known as a coloniser of flower pots, rockeries, walls and garden paths. In some cases it can be of a pest in gardens. It is this fondness for gardens that lead to a belief that this is not actually a native species but was brought in with imported plants and has spread as people have bought pot plants from garden centres. That may be true but it can also be commonly found on stream banks and bridges and it can even occur along  woodland rides. Whether this is because the plant has escaped from gardens or because it occurs naturally is not clear. 
The 'leaves' are about 1.5mm across, are pale green and almost always form large spreading mats.
Lunularia cruciata: the crescent-cup liverwort

22 November, 2016

Great Willowherb: codlins and cream



My field guide lists no less than fourteen members of the willowherb family and as you would expect from related species separating them can be a challenge. As always, though, one can whittle the choices down by looking to see which ones occur in the area you are in and in Dorset this means there are only seven to worry about! From here you have to look for identifying features to separate them although you can use habitat as a useful guide as well.
With this in mind the great willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) is easy to pick out from the seven options. Firstly, the use of the prefix 'great' is a good indicator. Not only is it a strong, robust plant growing to nearly two metres tall it also produces 'great' flowers, much larger than other members of the family and that alone should be enough to settle it. Just to be certain, if it is in flower between July and September and is growing in damp conditions in ditches, by ponds or along river banks then it is almost certainly great willowherb.
This is also known as codlins and cream but it is hard to see why. Codlin is an old country name for apples (codlin moths are a pest of apples) so why would a completely purple flower resemble apples and cream?

Great Willowherb: codloins and cream

21 November, 2016

Leptoglossus occidentalis: the western conifer seed bug



The western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis) is a native of the west coast of the USA so how did I take this photograph of one in my greenhouse? It seems to have come with imported timber being first recorded in Europe in 1999 with records first from Italy and then the Balkans, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, France and across the Alps. At the same time it has spread across much of North American and has now been found as far east as Nova Scotia. The first British record came from Weymouth in 2007 and, given the amount of pine plantation in Dorset, it probably now quite well established here.
As its name suggests it is dependant on pine trees where it sucks the sap from developing pine cones which has the effect of withering the life fro the cone preventing the seeds forming. It is considered a pest in some areas but I think here in Dorset we should welcome it given the Corsican pine plantations here are not native and are now of little value. 
It is a distinctive creature, quite large as bugs go at almost an inch long and with distinctive and clear markings. It has long legs with 'pads. on the rear pair. It may look a bit fearsome but it is quite harmless and does not bite but it does, like many insects, emit a stinking bitter smell. If you need to handle one wear gloves but do not kill it, let it go in peace.
Leptoglossus occidentalis: the western conifer seed bug

20 November, 2016

River Water Crowfoot; a flowing flower



Is it not amazing that flowering plants can grow in our most hostile, dry habitats and everywhere down to thriving in the running water of streams and rivers? What is basically the same botanical structure can produce so many small variations to make almost any habitat a home. From navelwort growing out of walls to the river water crowfoot (Ranunculus fluitans) and countess other specialisms in between.
The problems of surviving in running water should not be underestimated, even for a plant. Firstly, of course, they have to make sure they have a firm anchor hold in the river bottom. Then, they need to present as little resistance to the water as they can and so they are hairless on their stems and leaves and the leaves are long and thin. Finally, if the flower is to be pollinated it has to appear above the water's surface on a stout, strong stem able to resist the water's flow.
All of these features can be seen in the river water crowfoot. To aid its survival it tends to find areas of the river where the water is moving more slowly on the shelter at the inside of bends in the river and normally at the lower reaches of the river where it has widened out and the flow is less vigorous than upstream. 
There are several water crowfoot species, each adapted for life in different forms of water from ponds and large lakes, to ditches and to fast flowing chalk streams.
River Water Crowfoot; a flowing flower

19 November, 2016

Agrotis clavis: the heart and club moth



Where do nocturnal moths go in the day time? Usually into hedgerows and bushes to sleep safely until the light fades and they can become active again. We rarely see them during the day unless we accidentally disturb them at rest and the reason we rarely see them I think is exemplified by this photograph of the heart and club moth (Agrotis clavis). Its dull colour and dark markings enable it to become almost invisible and to dissolve its surroundings.
It is interesting that nature has given this moth distinct markings and that those markings form shaped that we recognise from other situations and we then apply the names from elsewhere to what we see on the moth. Here on the moths wing are quite clearly two symbols from a pack of human playing cards, a heart and a club so, hence, the heart and club moth. On the moth these are neither hearts or clubs, just dark camouflage patches to break up the wind shape.
This is quite a widespread and common species in southern Britain. Preferring dry, grassy habitats it is quite varied in its tastes and visits a wide range of herbaceous flowers. It can be seen on the wing in June and July and the resulting larvae hibernate over winter before pupating and emerging as adults the following spring.

Agrotis clavis: the heart and club moth

18 November, 2016

Smooth Hawksbeard: a weed of neglected lawns

















Now surely no one can mistake this for a dandelion? I know it is yellow and has lots of florets in the flower head but it bears no other resemblance to a dandelion at all. This is the commonest of the hawk's-beards, smooth hawk's-beard (Crepis capillaris). 
The flower of the hawk's-beard is much, much smaller than a dandelion and the main stem keeps branching with a flower appearing at the top of every stem whereas the dandelion has a single central stem to support one flower. The outside florets on the edge of the each flower head is tinged with orange as the flower opens. Many of the lower flowers will have turned to seed before the top ones have even opened so each plant has a long flowering period and, again, the seed head is very different from a dandelion, it is much more contained within the sepals and does not open out into the glorious globe of a dandelion clock.
I said this was the commonest of the hawk's-beards in Dorset the only other one likely to found out of the seven listed in my reference book is the similar beaked hawk's-beard. However, they are easy to tell apart if you look at the developing flowers as the buds are pointed (giving the appearance of a beak) whereas the smooth has round flower buds.
In flower from June through until the frosts kill it off in November time you can find it along roadsides, on waste ground, and grassy places in general including lots of it on my lawn; and there you have it, a crude beginners guide to hawk's-beards!
Smooth Hawksbeard: a weed of neglected lawns

17 November, 2016

Oudemansiella mucida: the porcelain fungus



This fungus, associated with dying beech trees, has a slimy covering which makes it appear shiny and hence it has derived the name of the porcelain fungus (Oudemansiella mucida) although it is also known as the poached egg fungus.
Occurring  in late summer and in to the autumn it forms high up in beech trees and so may not always be seen until the dying tree falls, or loses branches in a storm, and then it is visible at close quarters. It usually occurs in clusters of several caps together.
It is edible if you wash the slime off it but you have to be able to reach it first to pick it!
Oudemansiella mucida: the porcelain fungus

16 November, 2016

Wall Speedwell: the healing speedwell



Now think very carefully before you answer ... where would you expect to find wall speedwell (Veronica arvensis) growing? It likes bare ground and so you can occasionally find it on walls but arvensis means 'of the field' and hard, bare ground in fields is a much more likely location for it. The scientific name is more accurate than the common English name which is not unusual!
It is a low growing, sprawling plant with small, dark blue flowers and is it is easily overlooked even though the flowers are present from March right through until October. I am pretty sure I have missed on more than one occasion.  Whist small the flowers are the classic 'bird's eye' shape but the plant itself is usually best identified by its leaves which, at first, seem more akin to germander speedwell rather than the other field speedwells.
Known also as the corn speedwell it has been also named the healing speedwell too and is supposedly an effective anti-inflammatory.
Wall Speedwell: the healing speedwell

15 November, 2016

Pyrausta aurata: the small purple and gold moth



If you have a garden and grow herbs, especially mint and marjoram, then look out for the small purple and gold moth (Pyrausta aurata) visiting them in sunshine in August and September. Its fondness for mint gives it its other common name, the mint moth.
It is one of those species that is aptly named. It is, indeed, small; less than a centimetre from wing tip to wing tip. It is mainly purple and has four small gold dots, one on each wing. It is a very active day flying moth but if you wait it will stop to feed and then you can see it properly. Whilst most often seen in August and September it actually flies from March onwards. It has two broods and the later brood tends to be more numerous and more visible than the early brood.
There is a common purple and gold moth which is slightly bigger and has more golden colouring on the fore-wings. It is less of a garden species, more usually seen on calcareous grasslands. 
Pyrausta aurata: the small purple and gold moth

14 November, 2016

Marsh Valerian: his and hers



The marsh valerian (Valeriana dioica) is certainly a plant that likes wet meadows and marshy areas and so is aptly named. Often found in places where rivers overflow frequently or where low ground next to a river is constantly under water; it does not grow in running water. As much of this sort of habitat has been drained for agricultural improvement this is a now more scarce than it one was.
An attractive plant with clusters of small, five-petalled pale pink or cream flowers that appear from April until June. Interestingly, although very similar in appearance this species has separate female and male flowers and each grow on different plants. Its main way of spreading is by underground runners. The plant grows to no more than two feet tall at the most and has opposite pairs of leaf sets, each set being a series of small, narrow oval leafs again in pairs along a short stem, a bit like rose leaves.
Traditionally used to create sleeping potions it is still used in the production of sedatives today. It is one of those plants you are advised to avoid eating, it is not poisonous but it is not good for you.
Marsh Valerian: his and hers

13 November, 2016

Noctua pronuba: the large yellow underwing



Do not be fooled by those dark, drab coloured fore-wings, they are for camouflage purposes whilst this nocturnal moths rests during the day. Once opened up they reveal the most lovely yellow, almost golden, secondary wings underneath. It is one of several species with drab fore-wings and brightly coloured under-wings and of those several species this is one of the largest hence its common name, the large yellow underwing (Noctua pronuba).
My photograph is of one with very dark wings but it is actually a very variable species and those wings can be any shade of brown from this dark colour through to a light buff colour. One can find a complete range in the same catch in the moth trap and you would, at first, think they were separate species. Whilst the fore-wings vary in colour the yellow under-wings do not.
This is a very common species found across the whole country from May right through until November. It seems to have no real preference for habitat or food plant and it has several broods a year and it is thought that numbers in the south are increased even further by immigrants from across the channel. 
Noctua pronuba: the large yellow underwing

12 November, 2016

Sweet Vernal Grass: the vanilla grass



Walk across grassland anywhere in Dorset in high summer and you will certainly find sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum). Indeed a quick glance at the distribution map for this species on my Nature of Dorset website will reveal a mass of pins showing it is widespread on all types of dry soil right across the county.
Growing to just 50 centimetres or so tall it has a conical and tufted flower head that is a little bit scruffy when compared to its cousins in the cat's-tail family which are much smoother. I know all grasses look the same (!) but actually sweet vernal grass is quite distinctive and once learned is easy to pick out. As it is so common you quickly get to recognise it.
Why is it called sweet vernal grass? There is a clue in its scientific name, oderatum; odour or smell. When cut and dried it has the sweet smell on new mown hay, indeed it is the main ingredient of the smell of new mown hay. The scent is likened to that of vanilla and so the sweet vanilla grass became the sweet vernal grass over time. 
It has been sewn for grazing and used as a lawn grass and it has even been grown specifically for its scent and it can be found in flower from April right through until the end of July and as a dried seed head in August. It is also known as holy grass again through its scent and the 'smells and bells' of high church!
Sweet Vernal Grass: the vanilla grass

10 November, 2016

Field Scabious: the gypsy rose



If you are familiar with the wild teasel then I think you will understand why I find it hard to believe that field scabious (Knautia arvensis) is a member of the same family! They seem to have nothing in common at all and when you read the characteristics of plants in the dipsacaceae family you will find that the characteristics are in minute details.
The field scabious is an attractive, almost daisy-like, flower. The flower petals are blue but the anthers are pink which can make the flower overall look a little purple in hue. The leaves are pointed and have 'teeth' along the edges. There is a single pair of leaves formed opposite each other on the main stem and from the point where the leaves form the stem then branches into several flower heads. The field guide suggests that it can grow to a metre tall but in my experience a foot to eighteen inches would seem the norm.
Flowering from June through until October the field scabious does not grow in fields as such but is very much a species of chalk grassland. 
Species of scabious were used to treat sores and skin infections and are especially noted as a treatment to ease the symptoms of the bubonic plague. It is also known by its country name, the gypsy rose.
Field Scabious: the gypsy rose

09 November, 2016

Psathyrella piluliformis: the common stump brittlestem



With fungi being something of a challenge to identify unless you specialise in them it is always good to find one that has a distinctive feature. The two tone cap here, dark around the edges and lighter in the centre marks this out as the common stump brittlestem (Psathyrella piluliformis). 
A widespread and common species it is found in autumn growing on decaying wood of mainly beech and oak trees. It starts with a conical cap which gradually flattens out with age and the differentiation in colour becomes slightly less obvious. It usually grows in a small cluster.
It apparently has a rather bitter taste so it is best left where it is to spread its spores and create new fungi. 
Psathyrella piluliformis: the common stump brittlestem

08 November, 2016

Bush Vetch: purple haze



Bush vetch (Vicia sepium) is a member of the pea family and is a climbing plant using tendrils to cling to its host. It is not bush vetch because it forms a bush but because it is found in bushes where it grows up using the bush for support.
Amongst vetches with the classic pea flower bush vetch is fairly distinctive because the flowers are larger than most and tend to form in clusters a bit like a clover.  Each flower starts as dull shade of purple that then turns blue with age and so often a plant will seem to have two different coloured flowers with several shades in between also present. It produces pods after flowering which turn black when ripe. 
Flowering as early as April it can go on producing flowers right through until November. It is quite common and can be found in hedgerows and scrubby places where there are bushes to support it. It is popular plant with insects with bees and bumblebees very keen on its nectar and beetles, weevils and other creatures feeding on the leaves and seed pods.
Bush Vetch: purple haze

07 November, 2016

Phyllopertha horticola: the garden chafer



The garden chafer (Phyllopertha horticola)  is one of the smallest of the chafer beetles being just over 1 cm long. Despite this it is easily seen due to the bright iridescent colouring which shines in the summer sun revealing a metallic green thorax and bronze elytra (wing cases). The adults can be seen on sunny days in May and June feeding on the leaves of various plants. They also visit flowers.
Although quite an attractive beetle it is something of a pest on fruit crops and the larvae feed on the roots of grasses (including cereal crops). As a result it is a persecuted little beast and is now seen less frequently that it once was due to the increased use of pesticides. It is a local species but distributed across southern Britain and they they can sometimes be seen in swarms although this is far less common now that it was in the past.
Phyllopertha horticola: the garden chafer

06 November, 2016

White Clover: the Dutch clover



Along with daisies and dandelions, white clover (Trifolium repens) is the sort of plant you pass by without a second look because it is so common. That is a shame because it is actually a very attractive little flower but as it only grows just above ground level you have to take the trouble to look at it.
There are around twenty four species of clover in the British flora and apart from the similar but rare western clover found in Cornwall it is quite distinctive and should not be confused with any of the other clovers. The flower head is white and often has brown tinges around the base where the first of the individual florets are dying off and being replaced by fresh new one above. Clovers are members of the pea family and each individual floret is a tiny pea shaped flower. Often planted as a fodder crop it can be found on grassland almost everywhere, especially where the turf is short and well grazed. The flowers are visible from May through until November.
Also known as Dutch clover but a very common English plant! It spreads rapidly and could be considered a problem in some 'wild' areas where it can out grow many other species but the flowers are a very popular nectar source for bees and other insects and so we should not get too worked up about it.
White Clover: the Dutch clover

05 November, 2016

Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale: the hawthorn shieldbug



This insect is shield shaped and is found mainly on the leaves and fruits of hawthorn so, not surprisingly, it has the common English name of ... hawthorn shield-bug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale). Although common on hawthorn and carrying that name it also frequents other hedgerow shrubs like dogwood, hazel, holly and even oak. They can be found in woodland settings, in hedgerows and are quite common in gardens.
The hawthorn shield-bug is mainly green but they can vary in colour quite considerably depending on age but the red triangle is usually visible. Take care though, some other shield-bug species also have a red/brown triangular shape on their backs, it is often more pronounced on this particular species. The green surface is also pitted and appears to have lots of black dots on it as a result.
Although at their peak in September they hibernate as adults and can be see as early as March if they awake in a mild spring and can be seen as late as November if conditions are such that they do not have to go into hibernation earlier. In their search for somewhere safe to spend the winter that can venture into houses but they do not pose a threat , they are quite harmless. One of the bigger shield-bugs, one of the most distinctive in appearance and and one of the more frequently seen, there is likely to be one near you soon!
Shield bugs are part of the order Hemiptera, sub-order Heteroptera; they are not flies or beetles, they are a separate taxonomical group. 
Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale: the hawthorn shieldbug