Spring Equinox

The Earth tilts by 23.5 degrees in relation to its plane of orbit. What that means I have no idea but I do know that if it didn’t tilt we would be without seasons. Seasons bring change to nature and provide so much to look forward to. Whether it be the first snowdrops of late Winter or the bronze colour leaves falling from our tress in Autumn it is all thanks to that 23.5 degree tilt.

March 21st is a date I look forward to. It marks the first day of Spring, my favourite season. The Sun passes north through the Earth’s equator and daylight hours triumph over dark hours up until the Summer Solstice. My heart sunk though as I watched the weather forecast last night. I wanted to know if the weather would be on my side to escape for a few minutes with my camera today. The forecaster proudly announced that yesterday was the Spring Equinox. I had missed it by a day as this year Spring Equinox was the 20th. Who cares I still got out today for a few minutes with my camera. Lets hope its a good Spring and roll on the Summer Solstice on the 21st June. Or is the 20th this year!

Hazel Catkins

One of the joys of late winter is the glorious sight of the dangling yellow catkins of the Hazel Tree. These striking flowers send the cheerful message that Winter will soon be over. The catkins are the male flowers and very easily grab your attention. Last year I chatted to a forestry worker who told me to take a closer look. He said if I looked close enough I would hopefully see the equally impressive female flower. On my travels this week I did and I was lucky enough to find the small scarlet coloured flowers that are no more than 2 mm in size.

The pollen from the catkins is not sticky. This prevents the few insects that are around in Winter from collecting it. The trees rely purely on wind pollination. The end result of all this are Hazel Nuts in early Autumn. The squirrels will almost certainly beat me to the crop later on in the year but hopefully a few will be missed that I can be pick for myself.

Wassailing In Sussex

With the Christmas and New Year festivities over diversions are needed to escape the dark dreary nights of January. For me, this has been found by singing to apple tress! This is wassailing or in Sussex known as apple howling. Initially I found it a good excuse to have a pint but the more wassails I have attended the more I have found these ancient rituals interesting as well as a great way to connect with nature whilst in the depths of winter.

Organised wassailing events seem to be getting increasingly popular. More often than not they involve the local Morris Men. Wassails traditionally take place around the twelfth night, either the 5th or 6th January or using the old pre-Gregorian calendar 17th January. The ceremony centres around the oldest tree in the orchard. One thing for certain is that there will be a great deal of noise. Sticks, drums, pots and pans are used to awaken the trees and chase bad spirits from the orchard. Some people even bring whistles and in years gone by shot guns were used. I am not sure this will ever comply with today’s health and safety laws. Toast is then soaked in cider and hung from trees before a bowl of cider from the previous year’s crop poured over the roots of the tree. This is all to encourage a good crop for this autumn.

Over the years I have visited Wassails in Tarring, Slindon and this weekend I went to Steyning. The ceremonies have all been different and have varied in one way or another. You are guaranteed to put on a few extra layers of clothing because one thing for certain is that it will be a cold evening. I took this rather badly shot video of the Mythago Morris Men performing at Steyning. Apologises in advance if it does not give them the credit they deserve. Mythago Morris are not your typical image of Morris Men but they are very entertaining and excellent performers.

Mythago Morris At Steyning Community Orchard

Spring Flowers

As Spring moves far too quickly into Summer I thought I had better find time to write about Spring flowers before Autumn and Winter are upon us once more and they have become a distant memory.

The first signs that Winter is ending and that Spring will soon emerge are Snowdrops flowering during the middle of January, although in certain parts of the country there were sightings of Snowdrops before Christmas this year. The Latin name is Galanthus nivalus which translates as ‘milk flower of the snow’.  They are not a native species but now thrive in Britain. Look out for them in woodland and on river banks where the damp conditions favour them. Their white flowers have six petals arranged in two circles on a single stem. If we are fortunate enough to have mild weather in the early couple of months of the year pollinators will collect nectar and pollen from the flowers. Because they cannot rely on pollinators Snowdrops spread mainly by bulb division.

A walk along the river bank, pond or marshland during late March will see the first flowers of the Marsh Marigold begin to appear. These bright yellow flowers have five petals on stems with contrasting shiny green roundish to heart-shaped leaves.  This is one of Britain’s oldest native plants and was must probably much more widespread before the drainage of land for agriculture use begun. The Marsh Marigold’s common name is Kingcup and the Latin name Caltha translates into goblet. The photo on the left was taken from the tow path along the bank of the Chichester Canal near to the village of Hunston.

A welcome sight in Spring are the flowers of the primrose and the native plants have a pale cream flower. It is not uncommon for primroses to form hybrids with their relatives the Oxslip and the Cowslip. Along with snowdrops they are one of the first plants to flower at the beginning of the year. The name derives from the Latin prima rosa meaning first rose. Like many of the Spring flowering plants they prefer damp places such as woodland, hedgebanks and roadside verges. Nectar is located right at the base of the flower tube which means that only long tongued insects such as Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies can reach it.

The Cowslip (pictured to the left) is a  close relative of the primrose and flowers a little later in Spring during April and May. The Cowslip has been in serious decline due to loss of habitat and meadows coloured with its yellow flowers are now a rarity.

By the beginning of April the verges of the country lanes start to come alive with wild flowers. The photo on the right shows Cuckoo Flower and Lesser Celandine growing together. Cuckoo Flower also known as Lady’s Smock have lilac flowers and are found on wet meadows. They flower from April to late May. The plant gets its name as it generally tends to come into bloom when the first sounds of the cuckoo are heard. Lesser Celandine is also found in damp areas along the banks of rivers, woodland and wet meadows. The reflective yellow flowers have eight petals and is a member of the buttercup family. They begin to flower in early Spring when few insects are about and so spread mainly by root tubers which break away from the parent plant rather than seed.

A Spring flowering plant that has become increasingly popular especially amongst culinary enthusiasts is Wild Garlic, also known as Ramsons. This member of the Allium family, Allium ursinum, forms white flowers consisting of six petals which form into clusters. The leaves which grow from the base of the stem give a garlic odour. There are various recipes using Wild Garlic which can be found with a quick search online. If you are picking the leaves to eat do not confuse them with the similar Lily Of The Valley which is very poisonous.

The deciduous woodlands in Spring are home to many wild Spring flowers before the light is shaded by the emerging tree leaves. One of the first to flower are the wood anemones. These form a carpet of low laying delicate white flowers. They spread rapidly by underground rhizomes just below the surface. Soon after that the small flowers of Dog Violets and the upright Early Purple Orchids with their spotted leaves come into flower. These flowers then appear to pave the way for the woods to be blanketed in swathes of blue with the emergence of the iconic Spring flower Bluebells. They flower between April and May before the leaves on the trees have fully emerged. This year they flowered a little later than normal probably due to the cold spell we experienced at the beginning of March. The photo of the Bluebells at the top of the page was taken in Angmering Park which is just east of Arundel. The photo below was taken whilst walking on Leigh Hill, Surrey.


Winter’s Hidden Beauty (Part 2)

Originally published on 4th March 2018 in www.urbanescpaist.wordpress.com

Down here on the south coast it looked as though we were going to escape snow this winter but the Siberian winds and Storm Emma put pay to that. It was nowhere near the levels of snow seen in some other parts of the country which were issued with red weather warnings but we got some snow! It was enough that I couldn’t resist getting out my camera and taking some photos. The photo above was taken at the enchanting Swanbourne Lake in Arundel Park.

This winter I aimed to dispel my belief that the period of time between December and the end of February was dark and bleak and which I am pleased to say I did. Nature offers plenty of colour in winter but as I have found more effort is needed to discover it than during other seasons.

I normally associate fungi with Autumn but whilst walking through Ebernoe Common on a damp day at the beginning of February the spectacular looking fungi Scarlet Elf Cup was seen growing in the woods. This was the first time I had seen this colourful fungi and there was a group of five or six partially hidden under decaying leaves and moss. I was taken aback by their amazing colour which makes them stand out against the dull background at this time of the ye. The fungi can be found on decaying sticks and branches in damp areas of deciduous woodland. They have a particular liking for hazel, elm and willow. The fungi can be found from Winter to early Spring and as they age their colour changes from a deep red to a lighter orange.

I had assumed Winter was a dormant season with nature taking a few months off to rest before Spring. I was proved wrong again whilst out walking in early January I noticed that Hazel catkins had already developed on the trees. These catkins commonly known as lambs tails are the flowers of the Hazel tree. Hazel is monoecious and so both male and female flowers are found on the same tree. The male flower shown in the photograph on the right forms first and after it has released its pollen the female flower forms. The female flowers look completely different to the males, they are very small and bud like with red styles. The female flowers are so easy to miss as we all look at the obvious catkins. The female flower forms after the male flowers have released their pollen to avoid cross pollination as they need to be pollinated by other trees.
As January headed towards February I noticed snowdrops had begun to flower. These are probably one of the finest sights in late Winter and a reminder that Spring is on its way. They add a valuable optimism to the late Winter setting. I took the photo below at West Dean Gardens near Chichester.

Snowdrops are found in many woodlands, gardens and parks but records only go back to the 18th century so it is not clear whether they are native to Great Britain. As snowdrops flower so early in the year there are not many pollinating insects available to help with cultivation so they mainly spread by bulb division. Alongside river banks this is helped by movement of the soil from flooded rivers moving bulbs whilst in woodland numbers the division occurs when trees being uprooted and soil movement by animals.

I noticed this Winter that sunrises and sunsets appear much more vivid than in Summer. The colours are stronger and here on the South Coast with the sun is lower we are lucky to witness both sunsets and sunrises out at sea. The Winter also provides us with the added luxury that we do not have to get up really early in the morning or stay up late to see them which is a bonus for anyone who likes their sleep. Unfortunately I was without a camera for most of the sun rises and sets I saw but hopefully I will be able to catch more next year.

As we approach Spring I am already looking forward to next winter to see what else can be discovered and a photo of a female Hazel flower is a must.


Winter’s Hidden Beauty (Part 1)

Originally published on 16th December 2017 in www.urbanescapist.wordpress.com

Winter has always been my least favourite of the four seasons and the season I have appreciated least of all. To me it has always appeared comfortless, bleak, unwelcoming and I pass the days waiting for Spring to arrive. This pessimistic view of mine means the virtual loss of three months from my calendar as I wait for the days to pass. This Winter I have decided to not let this happen and intend to make every attempt to appreciate the season. There must be some hidden beauty that I am missing and so instead of hiding away at home on these cold days I will be heading into the countryside and hopefully discover all that I have neglected in previous years.

The mild and dry November ended abruptly here on the south coast with December descending upon us with a marked contrast in temperature and bringing with it rain. Throughout the country there has seen plenty of snow this week although down here it has a habit of missing us and so far we have not had the pleasure of a white ground covering of snow.
Late last Sunday afternoon I managed to find a couple of spare hours and drove over to Arundel to walk around Arundel Park. This week as we approach the Winter equinox it is just about as early as it gets for the sun to set so I did not have too much time on my hands. On my last visit the trees were displaying some magnificent colours but the frosts over the last couple of weeks have taken the last remaining leaves from the trees leaving a bare framework of branches. One particular Oak tree looked magnificent against the blue skyline. The strong winds from the previous week had done a splendid job pruning the tree of its dead wood and the fallen branches were laying on the ground beneath the tree. On a number of these branches lichen could be seen growing on the dead wood.

The lichen impressed me with its delicate and complex structure. My knowledge and recognition of the various forms of lichen compares to the same extremely low level I have of fungi. I took the above photo and hoped I would have better success in tracing it’s name than I did in the Autumn months with the various fungi I photographed. Luckily for me as it was fairly common and growing on an Oak tree I found it fairly quickly on the Internet and identified it as Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri). I hope I am correct. Lichens are strange organisms being an association between a fungus and an alga. Both parties cooperate together for survival and growth. So this is a true hidden beauty of winter, hidden away from us during the rest of the year by the leaves growing on the trees and revealing itself only once those leaves have fallen.

As I walked back to the entrance by the Arundel Castle Cricket Ground the loss of the deciduous leaves and ground covering had revealed plenty of holly with its striking red berries. Folklore suggests that if there are plenty of berries then we will be in for a cold winter. If that is correct then this winter will be especially harsh as the bushes were laden.

As I neared the car there was a kestrel perched on a telegraph pole surveying the area beneath it. Winter is well and truly alive and I look forward to spending the next few months discovering more of what nature has to offer in this season. I am now beginning to realise Winter does offer beauty and finding it will be an interesting challenge.