Ferns

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

February 2018 – Ferns

At a time of year when many wild plants have lost their green leaves, ferns can still be found brightening up bare walls. Those you are most likely to spot along the Canal are perhaps the Aspleniaceae, known by the common collective name of ‘spleenworts’. These species often grow in cracks in walls, where they find small patches of soil, and they like moist and shady conditions. These factors together make some of the walls along the canal, particularly around the locks, ideal habitats.

One of the most common and easily recognisable is the hart’s tongue fern – this is quite distinctive in that it is the only fern you’ll come across which has undivided leaves, looking more like a ‘normal’ plant but given away by its glossy leaves with spores dotting the undersides.

Another common species is the maidenhair spleenwort, which has a glossy, dark frond stalk and neat green leaflets arrayed on either side. Black spleenwort too is a common wall resident which looks more like fronds of your ‘typical’ fern or bracken.

These ferns are different to most of the other plants you will see along the canal – they neither flower nor produce seed but instead reproduce by means of spores which are lined beneath the leaves. The name ‘wort’ after a plant usually means that it was a food, or used medicinally. It is thought that the name spleenwort derives from folk beliefs that the plants were useful in curing afflictions of this organ!

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Maidenhair Spleenwort – Asplenium trichomanes

Kingfishers

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

February 2017 – Kingfishers

If the weather is mild, then February is the month in which kingfishers will begin their courtship. Kingfishers lead a solitary existence in the winter – catching their prey can be hard as high water, poor visibility and the tendency of fish to move into deeper water all make fishing difficult. For this reason, a kingfisher will hold their own territory, often including waters not frequented in the summer, in order to maximise their chances of survival.

Once the first signs of spring begin to appear, pairs will court and share a territory once more, ready for the breeding season ahead. Kingfishers typically excavate nest tunnels in vertical banks, digging back 60-90cm and laying a clutch of eggs at the end. Through the summer, the pair can raise 2-3 brooks in quick succession, spending little time with the young once they have fledged in their haste to start the next clutch.

February and March are excellent times to spot kingfishers along the canal – the process of forming pairs and negotiating territories makes them active and vocal. All this whilst the leaves are yet to burst on the trees makes it easy to see that flash of electric blue zipping low along the water. If you’re trying to spot them on the banks, look on overhanging branches and think of their orange-brown chests as well as the typical blue of the backs – if they are facing towards you then this is what you need your eye in for!

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Wild Clematis

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

January 2020 – Wild Clematis

In the hedgerows and trees along the canal in winter time, you might be lucky enough to spot the silken seedheads of wild clematis, also known as ‘travellers joy’ or ‘old man’s beard’ The small dark seeds are clustered in the centre whilst the white fluff which surrounds them are feathery wings which allow the seeds to catch the breeze and reach a new location. Many seeds will inevitably fall in unsuitable places, but through probability and strength in numbers, some will find a suitable place to germinate and develop a new plant. Wild clematis is a liana – a long-stemmed, woody vine – alongside other familiar species such as honeysuckle and grape vines. It can persist scrambling though herbaceous vegetation, but is most at home clambering up supports such as trees and shrubs where it twines around its unfortunate host.

Wild clematis has the latin name Clematis vitalba and is actually a member of the buttercup family. At this time of year, the seedheads provide a good source of food for wild birds such as goldfinches, whilst the flowers which preceded them sustained bees, butterflies and moths. Several species of moth are completely dependent on this species as a larval food plant, including the Small Emerald, the Small Waved Umber and Haworth’s Pug.

The native clematis is related to the garden varieties which people may be more familiar with – the flowers from July to September are less exuberant than their ornamental cousins but they share the same vanilla scent.

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Wild clematis seeds

Long tailed tits

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

January 2018 – Long tailed tits

A walk down the towpath in January is likely to be accompanied by the flutter of wings and warning calls as birds forage in the path-side hedgerows. One of the smallest species in the UK is likely to be among them, but far from being discreet they make their presence disproportionately known as they forage.

Long tailed tits, weighing just 9g, are highly social birds – they move through the landscape in flocks of closely related individuals, maintaining a shrill ‘si-si-si’ call-and-response as individuals keep in touch. Their aim, at this time of year especially, is to forage for enough high-value food to keep their tiny bodies warm enough to survive. They seek invertebrate prey by preference, capitalising on their low weight to pick food such as moth eggs as well as other invertebrates from the higher reaches of twigs and leaves which their heavier counterparts are unable to reach.

At night, the flock remains together, nestling down in a shrub or tree to form a dense ball with just their tails sticking out. As spring marches on, they will be building their tiny nests out of moss, lichen and spiders webs, lined with feathers. Interestingly, they are also social at nesting time – they will try to pair up and nest on their own but if unsuccessful, they will help at the nest of a close relative.

Listen out as you walk this winter – the distinctive call will alert you to the presence of these charming little ‘flying teaspoons’!

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Long tailed tit on hawthorn – image kindly provided by Ryan Clark

Fieldfares

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

January 2016 – Fieldfares

Fieldfares and redwings are two thrush species which arrive in the UK for the winter each year, having spent the summer in their breeding grounds in Central Europe. The UK has had unusually mild conditions this year which has led to lower numbers than usual, but October and November still saw a good influx.

The Grantham Canal is always a reliable place to find chattering flocks of fieldfares which work their way along the hedgerows in search of the dogrose hips, hawthorn haws and blackthorn sloes, as well as the less obvious ivy berries which form a vital part of their diet in January and February when the best of the berries have been stripped. Their diet also includes insects, fruits and grains.

They are often quite cautious of human presence and their distinctive flight-call – a harsh “tsak tsak tsuk” – will often signal them moving ahead of you along the towpath.

Fieldfares and redwings often fly in mixed flocks but are easily told apart. Redwings are a rich warm brown with rusty-red underwings – similar in size to a song thrush – with a bold white line across the eyebrow. Fieldfares have more white/grey colour about their bodies and are slightly larger – similar in size to a blackbird. They lack the bold red underwing and the black supercilium which distinguish the redwing.

Both of these winter thrushes tend to stay with us through until April or early May when they head back to their breeding territories in warmer climes.

Fieldfare feeding on cotoneaster berry
Fieldfare feeding on cotoneaster berries

Green hellebores

There’s something about the subtler flowers which has a strange draw for me – after seeing these beautiful emerald green flowers pop up at the beginning of the year on the #wildflowerhour feed, I knew I had to track them down.

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Green hellebore – Helleborus viridis – at Dolebury Warren

Green hellebore – latin name Helleborus viridis – is a native species of hellebore found in the UK and widely across central and western Europe. It is a relative of the garden varieties which might be more familiar as late winter/early spring flowers in an ornamental setting. Hellebores are actually a member of the buttercup family – the arrangement of petals and sepals as well as the shape and structure of the leaves gives this away on more careful scrutiny.

It is generally found in shady habitats such as woodland glades or hedgerow banks, often preferring limestone or chalk. Populations are said to be relatively stable, often maintaining their size and distribution over many years with little apparent change. The distribution of this species in the UK is generally confined to the south, although individual populations do occur in the north.

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Green hellebore – Helleborus viridis – at Dolebury Warren

I was down in the Mendips in late February and in leiu of a known site, I had a google around and found reference to green hellebore in the Woodland Trust site – Dolebury Warren. It was listed as part of the management plan for one of the compartments but without a map, this could be anywhere in the woodland! Not to be deterred, I headed off on an 8-mile round trip which took me across the exposed limestone grasslands and down into the woods through evergreen plantations, gnarled horse chestnuts and ruins reclaimed by the forest. Finally I found what I was hoping for – gathered at the base of the woods where the trees meet the fields.

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Green hellebore – Helleborus viridis – at Dolebury Warren

Flowering time is early in the year – generally February and into March – making it one of the earliest flowering spring species. Plants grow to around 60cm high and often form stands thanks to their rhizomatous roots.

Historically, this species was used to treat worms, but such are its toxic properties that inappropriate administration posed a significant risk of harming the patient as much as the parasite! All parts of the plant are poisonous leading to severe vomiting and seizures.

 

Spring Snowdrops

The first of February is Imbolc – the Gaelic festival marking the end of winter and the start of spring. Much of the vegetation still seems very much set in its midwinter torpor, but snowdrops are in full flower promising more signs of spring will follow in their wake.

Snowdrops are probably not native, but have been naturalised for so long that they have gathered many regional folk names including “February Fair-Maids”, “Eve’s Tear”, “dewdrops” and “Mary’s Tapers”. They are classified as ‘neophytes’ which quite literally means ‘new plant’ from the Greek néos meaning new, and phutón meaning plant. In the UK, neophytes are alien species which escaped into the wild after 1500 AD.

Snowdrops are often planted but will quickly naturalise if left to their own devices – they often grow well under trees and in woodland, but are equally at home in parkland and gardens.

There are several species of snowdrop you might find growing naturalised in the UK but the most common is Galanthus nivalis – shown in the photograph. The genus name ‘Galanthus’ derives from the Greek gála meaning milk and ánthos meaning flower; whilst the species name ‘nivalis’ is from the latin and means snow-like. Other species with bright grass-green leaves, and ornamental varieties such as double-flowers are also found planted, especially in churchyards and cemeteries.

Below are a series of photographs taken in Grantham Cemetery at the beginning of 2019.

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Arching snakelike amongst the winter grasses
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The appearance of snowdrops amongst the black silouettes of winter has led to them generating strong cultural associations with rebirth, new life and the end of winter
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Snowdrops naturally grow in clumps, commonly beneath trees and  in woodland, but the eye is always drawn to the one which stands apart
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This group shot reminded me of an old sepia-tinted family portrait from a century ago
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The flowers buds are often closed up when first emerge but the petals tend to spread and become more open as the flower matures
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These shots were taken in Grantham Cemetery with the old lime lines forming the sillouetted branch patterns in the background
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Grace under pressure – these flowers are well adapted to being buffeted by winter winds and rain whilst maintaining their composure
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The cultural association between snowdrops, new life and rebirth may be one of the reasons they are often found in cemeteries and churchyards – the fresh green leaves and snow-white flowers set against the dark cold stone commemorating lives past is a perfect juxtoposition