Crowtrees LNR, February 2018

Back to the usual frequency of blogging for all the usual reasons – a pile of marking from my Durham University students, which really needs to be finished before the next batch of Open University scripts arrives this week.  Never mind – Gill and I were able to get out in glorious sunshine on Friday afternoon for the first reprise of my Crowtrees loop (see BSBI New Year Plant Hunt).

Wall to wall sunshine, abundant bird song and the fresh red new growth of hawthorn hedges gives a definite feel of spring in the air but, ironically, there was less to be seen in flower than a month ago.  Recent snow and extended periods of low temperatures have a lot to answer for.

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Both gorse and white dead nettle have survived the cold, which makes me wonder if I will see them in bloom in every single month over the next year.  I have a soft spot for both – what is not to love about the coconut fragrance of gorse on a sunny spring day? No doubt the fragrance is equally appealing to the early bees which rely on it as a reliable source of pollen.  It reminds me of a lovely May walk with my good friend Sue along the Durham coast, a day or two before her wedding some years ago.

A quick internet search revealed plenty of recipes for gorse wine and a pickle made from gorse buds.  I normally restrict myself to wine made from grapes but this does sound quite appealing!  Both gorse bark and flowers were traditionally used to produce a yellow dye and the oil-rich wood makes gorse a good fuel.  It was harvested as such in places like the Western Isles where bigger trees are in short supply, with the added benefit that a solution of the alkali-rich ash could be mixed with animal fat to produce soap. As a nitrogen-fixing legume, gorse thrives in nutrient poor soils.  In this part of the world it is known as ‘whin’ and is said to mark outcrops of the Whin sill intrusion of dolerite, which forms some of the most dramatic features along the Northumberland coast and Hadrian’s Wall (see The great wall of Hadrian, Day 3 and What do Howick Bay, Northumberland and Guryul Ravin, Kashmir, have in common?).  New to me was the fact that the village of Brandon, on the other side of Durham, also gets its name from an old English word for a gorse covered hill.

Dead nettles, which lack the stinging cells of their equally ubiquitous cousins, have other associations – my younger son learned the difference early in his school career and used to pick dead nettles on the way home from infant school to chase his less savvy friends!

Left; Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and right; White dead-nettle (Lamium album)

There were a few daisies in flower too, but no dandelions this month.  We saw one patch of snowdrops by the side of the road but these had double flowers so were almost certainly garden escapees. We hunted for orchid rosettes but all we could find were lots of plantain leaves – I made that mistake last year!

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Hoary plantain leaves, Plantago media

That doesn’t mean that everything is dormant however. The filamentous green algae in the old mine settling ponds were bubbling away merrily – the cold is not enough to stop them photosynthesising; in fact, they do well at this time of year when the invertebrates which graze on them in summer are less active.  I should have had a sample bottle with me really so I could take a closer look under the microscope…

The Exmoor ponies are still in residence and have turned the area around the ponds into even more of a quagmire than in January – I’m looking forward to late spring here, when I know the mud will be transformed into a sea of cowslips.

Cowslips last May, where the ponies graze now

As we climb the hill beyond the ponds, the most obvious feature of the hillside opposite is the great chunk of escarpment which has been quarried in the last 18 months or so since Hepplewhites started extracting sand and limestone again from Cold Knuckles Quarry (see Too icy to run).

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When I worry about the inevitable loss of Magnesian limestone habitat this is causing, I have to remind myself how many of the nearby worked-out quarries, at Wingate, Bishop Middleham and Thrislington, now function as wonderfully-diverse nature reserves (see 30 Days wild, day 9 – orchids and their pollinators).

Walking back down the hill to Coxhoe and then home, the only flowers to be seen are male catkins – many of the hazel ones are fully open and shedding their pollen in the breeze.

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Reddish Alder and fluffy ‘Pussy willow’ catkins are appearing too, but these are not far enough out to truthfully add to my list of flowering plants for February….

…so here is this month’s rather limited list of plants in flower.

Daisy Bellis perennis
White dead-nettle Lamium album
Gorse Ulex europaeus
Hazel Corylus avellana

Roll on March!

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