Sunday, 18 July 2010

Surprising Wild Flowers

Under my kitchen window is a swathe of glorious poppies, Papaver somnifera. Yes, a relative of that one, the opium poppy. So very imposing with their tall stately form and elegant silver grey leaves, nothing prepares you for the stunning flamboyance of their flowers. Unlike the oriental poppy - Papaver orientale - the better known ferny leafed perennial species, these are annuals and just like the field poppy of the battlefields of Flanders they only come-up in disturbed ground.

For years my garden was full of them then suddenly they stopped appearing. But I have recently had to dig a trench in the front garden to lay a new drain and, lo and behold, six months later all those old seeds have come to the surface and produced the most amazingly colourful display of blooms.

Some are similar to the frilly double peony bloom, others like the simple arctic poppy, a few a mixture of the two. The colours are equally varied, from bright scarlet to softest mauve, with a cross between these producing a soft French rose. Now they are dropping and I am having trouble remembering which were my favourites so I can save the heads for seed. As usual I meant to tie a coloured thread around the ones I wanted and, as usual, I never had time and now the chance is lost. So I will probably scatter them all and, if they deign to grow next year, try and remember to do it then.

I tend to let self-seeders alone in my garden. Aquilegas – Granny’s Bonnet to some – come up all over the place and they are so light and pretty they never intrude on any plantings. Michaelmas daisies, feverfew, violas, hostas, evening primroses – all are allowed to remain where they don’t look too out of place. Which is just about anywhere really!

And it is on my walks with Freddie through the local country lanes and woodlands that I am most often surprised. Because I have planned and planted nothing here and what I see is often very subtle, a tiny violet, a clump of primroses. Yesterday I noticed the honeysuckle in flower, weaving its way through the native hedgerow like thread in a tapestry.

But a couple of weeks ago I had to yank Freddie to stop because I spotted something quite outstanding in the verge. I was thrilled to see it was an orchid, pink and elegant, an exotic thing of beauty in amongst the simple grasses and annuals of the verge. Thankfully, when the verge was cut the longer grasses under the hedgerow were left and this native orchid survived.

Having not seen one in flower there for at least five years I am hoping that this one sets seed. Only last week it was still there, nearly two foot (60 centimetres) tall but beginning to fade. I hoped it didn't attract unwanted attention. Inspecting it closely, the flower spike was made up of hundreds of little umbels, palest pink spotted with vermilion. Absolutely exquisite. Amazing how such little things, such unexpected acts of nature, can give so much pleasure.


Sunday, 4 July 2010

Nesting garden birds and a heron

The pretty, pert little wren is one of my favourite garden birds. It normally nests close to the ground, being a ground feeder, and is very shy. As soon as you spot it, it is off. Never still enough to study, never slow enough to photograph. Perhaps that is part of its appeal. It is fleeting. Flitting. Imagine my surprise when I find one nesting under the old hay shelter.

Flung over a little used wooden ladder, a tatty nylon tarpaulin, no longer any use to cover bales of hay or the ancient mower, had been left crumpled and discarded. And, amazingly, the wren thought that its folds were the perfect place to build its nest.

This mossy little home of the Wren was only just visible and having seen her disappear in and out of it over a period of time, I can only hope that she managed to rear her brood. Thank goodness that everyone was warned or anyone of us could have, in a frenzy of tidiness, have yanked the tarpaulin down and thrown both it and its precious cargo in the bin or on the bonfire. Very fortunately we are prone to very few frenzied attacks of tidiness.

Last week I found a new born chick, featherless, eyes like giant goggles, lying dead on a garden step. How it got there so far from any nesting place I don’t know. A cuckoo chick would just have nudged it forcibly over the side of the nest. So perhaps the culprit was a predatory bird. A cat would have eaten it, tiny snack that it was. Anyway, it was a reminder that life is precious, often as cruel as it is beautiful.

But Friday, chopping down an overgrown laurel bush, we suddenly had to stop. There was a bird’s nest full of chicks! Yup, mirror images of one dead-on-the-step chick. So the laurel bush will have to stay looking rather mangled and lop-sided for the next month or so. And a blackbird was seen going to the bush later, so we hope that was Mom.

However, it’s not just in the countryside that unexpected birdlife (or death) appears. On a recent trip to the National Archives at Kew (marvellous place) I was on my way to the car park when I was stopped in my tracks. There, on the edge of the lake, in the urban environment of London, was a heron. I was delighted and whipped out my camera fully expecting it to take fright and wing it.

But no, unfazed by this crazy woman pointing her camera at him through the railings he stood his ground. She stood over him, she peered through the rails, she kneeled on the ground to take yet another photograph. Yet, he remained calm and composed, unmoving, as he watched the antics and camera posturing of a rural human female going through her recording ritual. Very excitable these country types.

Finally, the woman’s research companion (Best Beloved, who has never forgiven the heron’s brother for pinching his carp) said, COME ON! She had no alternative but to scurry off to catch her transport home to the counties. And the heron, sanguine, resigned, remained unmoving and unmoved. An elegant, not always loved, urbane member of the species known as large water birds. I was nearly as excited about seeing the heron as I was about what I unearthed at the archives for my book research!