All posts by Chris Gibson

Beth Chatto Gardens: the reawakening of the year

‘Reawakening of the year’ hardly seems appropriate, as hitherto the winter slumber has been barely discernable, with few frosts, and bees and other insects around us all the time. As worryingly now seems to be the norm.

Maybe ‘renewal’ is a better term: last year’s leafy growth is playing its final role as a blanket protecting the coming seasons’ primordia from environmental extremes, before breaking down into the nutrients they need to fulfil their potential…

…while tussocks of grass and other plants again provide shelter for overwintering invertebrates, and sources of food to seed-eaters. In too many gardens – happily not Beth Chattos – these would have been ‘tidied up for the winter’.

New spring greens are already coming through, with added colour from variegations and coloured bark, perhaps more obvious and appreciated at this time when flowers are at a premium.

And likewise now is the time to appreciate the trees for what they are, liberated from the distraction of blowsy flowers all around. Standing for decades, centuries even, like old furniture they are so often ignored, but what a delight they are, hinting at the riches they have already given us and promises for the future.

Structure and texture are best appreciated when the sun shines, and this is when their trunks play a role for the few insects on show, sheltered spots for basking flies, even on a cold day like today.

On a warmer day, no doubt many more insects would have been evident, roused from winter torpor and needing to feed to replenish resources for any cold snaps to come. Herein lies the value of a garden: in January, the countryside is pretty much devoid of pollen and nectar sources apart from Gorse. But in a good garden, the ‘winter nectar gap’ can be closed, an essential feature in these times of climatic disruption.

Moreover, some of those plants have a scent that intoxicates even the most jaded human snout, from spicy Wintersweet to rich Witch-hazel, the delicate lily-of-the-valley fragrance of Mahonia to the ultra-sweet wafts of Sarcococca.


Identification by Internet…

May 2012, we were undertaking a butterfly transect for the national monitoring scheme within and close to the Great Notley Country Park, near Braintree. An unexpected shower at the end of the transect caught us out, but trudging back damply along the rather unpreposessing-looking hedgerow and track between two intensive arable fields, our eyes were drawn to a mating pair of insects….

Or I should say ‘mating pair’: examining our single photo back home revealed a superb example of ‘two becoming one’, the head (even down to the eye-glint) of the ‘one on top’ actually the pattern on the lone insects thorax, as if its head had been cloned there with Photoshop.

But what was it? It seemed to be a sawfly, a type of wasp without a wasp-waist, but after flicking through the paltry coverage of that group in available popular field guides, we rapidly drew  a blank. The 500 or so known species of sawfly in the UK are very poorly known, as all but a few of the more easily recognisable ones are omitted from the guides. Such a collective information gap is very unfortunate, especially when you see that many also have distinctively marked and wonderfully charismatic ‘caterpillars’, or distinctive feeding signs and galls. Just a few are shown below:

Anyway back to our ‘mating pair sawfly’. We were busy, and the photo got relegated to a pending file… until 2019 when scrolling through some of the riches of the internet, we saw something that triggered a lightbulb moment of recognition. Once we found our image, there it was – Pamphilius sylvarum. Except that is a species with records from only nine previous localities in Britain, ranging north to the Welsh borders, near Wrexham, and Sherwood Forest. The sole other Essex record came in May 2019 from Chigwell, in the Metropolitan sector of the county, courtesy of Yvonne Couch. As well as its scarcity, the habitat of ours seemed odd, given its assumed reliance on oak leaves (which its larvae roll up), perhaps in a woodland or woodland-edge context. There were several spindly hedge oaks within a few tens of metres of our specimen, but otherwise just a hedgerow and open arable. A more uninspiring location for such a rare insect is hard to imagine.

Nonetheless, we could not find much about it, nor about potential lookalikes, so I posted the picture on Twitter, and within a day, had the collective thumbs up from such experts as Steven Falk, Andy Musgrove and Andrew Green.

This episode brought to mind a similar finding from the Beth Chatto Garden, near Colchester. On one of our regular visits at the very end of October 2016, insects to photograph were few and far between, but we did find a fly sitting in a geranium flower. Once again, close examination of the photos showed it to be something different, and unknown to us. It had the appearance of a blow-fly, but with markings not unlike a hover-fly, and excitingly striped eyes, more like those of a horse-fly.

Once again scrolling through the internet came to the rescue, suggesting it was the Locust Blowfly Stomorhina lunata, an egg predator of locusts and grasshoppers, normally well to the south of the UK. Perhaps reflecting its spatially unpredictable feeding preferences, it is a known wanderer, including to the UK, albeit rarely, although seemingly increasing in recent years. In fact in the previous year there had been the largest known migratory arrival in Britain to date, one of which was in Essex at Rainham, only the second record for our county. The identity of our specimen was then confirmed by Del Smith, the fly recorder for the Essex Field Club.

Of course we cannot assume either of these rarities are actually as rare as the paucity of records might suggest. Quite likely their distribution reflects the distribution of recorders rather than the species, especially given the lack of popular illustrated insect guides which cover such oddities.

The internet and social media are much maligned, with considerable justification, but they can give access to more information about insects of all sorts than we could have imagined a few years ago, at least for those without easy access to a museum collection. But BEWARE! As noted on the British and Irish Sawflies website, ‘The internet is awash with incorrectly identified sawfly images so it is recommended to avoid identification by Google searches. The image galleries on this website and on the links below are sourced from known and trusted hymenopterists‘.

Therein lies the answers. By all means use the available picture resources to attempt an identification, but one should always give greater weight to expertly determined and curated sources. And then use social or other networks to get confirmation. If forthcoming, then importantly the records should be submitted and captured for posterity, ideally via a web portal such as iRecord. As always, there will be some species whose identity cannot be ascertained definitively from a photo. As ‘ethical naturalists’ who don’t wish to kill things in pursuit of our hobby, knowing and accepting our limitations is crucial.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: January – trees in winter

January’s walks were short and sweet, and concluded our three ‘Tree-mendous’ winter events. We walked around the edges of King George’s Field looking at winter twigs, bark and tree shapes.

Below is a series of close-ups of Chris’ photos of some of the twigs we looked at, with a brief description:

ASH  Twigs straight and slightly flattened below the buds, which are black and distinctive and usually in opposite pairs.

BEECH  Twigs thin and zigzagged.  The buds are long and slender, with a waxy white tip, and spread out from twig at a 60 degree angle.

HORNBEAM Twigs slender and zigzagged.  Buds long and pointed, like Beech, but appressed close to, even curved into, the twigs.

HORSE-CHESTNUT Twigs thick, with horseshoe-shaped leaf scars.  Buds with large red-brown scales, not yet quite at the stage of developing their characteristic stickiness.

SWEET CHESTNUT  Twigs shiny and markedly ridged, with heart-shaped leaf scars, showing numerous vascular bundle scars.  Buds plump, reddish and sit on ‘shelves’.

OAK  Twigs widely branched, showing numerous pale lenticels (‘breathing holes’)  and often decorated with woody galls.  Buds plump, orange-brown, and clustered and scaly.  The number of visible bud scales is diagnostic of type of oak: fewer than 20, as here, indicates Pedunculate Oak.

SYCAMORE  Twigs greyish, often with ‘wrinkled stockings’, the stacked leaf scars from previous years. Buds large and pale green, in opposite pairs, but with a lovely purple edging and a white fringe. See, even dormant buds can be beautiful and exciting! And you really do not need leaves and flowers for identification: botanists should never hibernate!

We are indebted to The Field Studies Council for their very informative booklet ‘Winter Trees, A photographic guide’ for inspiration and information.


The Beth Chatto Gardens throughout the Seasons: December – after the election, Nature Cure

A dismal morning, literally and figuratively.

The streets were empty, humanity subdued.

So to a familiar place of refuge, to immerse myself alone in the nature of the garden.

The foliage and fruits from summer and autumn marked the passage of time with sombre hues.

But life clings on….

…some even erupting into a much-needed sign of hope for the future.

Cockaynes Reserve – landscapes, wildscapes and groundscapes dressed in the fires of autumn

The first frosts of winter arrived a couple of days ago, but winds have been light and so the fiery hues of autumn remain around Cockaynes Reserve for now. From trees to reedbeds, leaves are bronzing as if to intensify the feeble sunlight, although today it wasn’t making much impression on the cool easterly air-flow…

Wildlife was of course hiding away, as often as not in plain sight: almost everything we saw seemed to be painted in the palette of decaying chlorophyll, from all manner of fungi to seeding Reed heads to Feathered Thorn:

And then there were the Groundscapes, the pattern of leaf-shapes and colour beneath each species of tree, as distinctive now as at any time of the year. For me, these unique combinations are the shroud of the passing year: here lies Field Maple, Silver Birch, Ash, Sweet Chestnut, Hornbeam, Oak and Hazel.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: November – autumn trees and fungi in Wivenhoe Park

The weather forecast was not wonderful, but leading the charmed life that we often seem to do, all remained calm and dry for our foray into fungi and trees this month. We spent two very enjoyable sessions at the University of Essex campus, which despite being on our doorstep is somewhere, incredibly, we have rarely visited.

The park is impressive, comprising a landscape of native and some rather special non-native trees, most planted as features for the grounds of Wivenhoe House, a splendid structure built in the mid-18th century and now a successful hotel. The fungi did rather steal the show, though,  as we discovered a spectacular array of them at every turn (although no longer at their best following the hard frost earlier in the week).

Some particular specimens which caught our eye :

Fly Agaric, everyone’s favourite red and white spotty one


Puff Balls, puffing away


Beefsteak, so well-named, it made a few of us vegetarians feel quite queasy!

Redlead Roundheads, fairly new to UK and only found on bark chippings

Ink-cap, the gills of which drip a black inky substance, the phenomenon known as ‘deliquescence’

The Seamed Monkey-tail   – we thought this was a new-to-science fungus until we realised it was only the tail of a long-lost, half-buried child’s toy!

Yellow Waxcaps – attractive little fungi

Yellow and Grey Clubs – tiny finger like structures, the Grey species being quite a rarity.

Of course, these walks are advertised as ‘Botany and Bug’ so we did try a bit of bug-hunting too and a few things did present themselves, including, perhaps surprisingly, two species of butterfly, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood, plus a Squash Bug and a few hibernating ladybirds in the odd-looking, but insect-friendly Monkey Puzzle tree. A couple of species of harvestmen and short-palped crane-fly were found basking in the weak sunshine.

But the main attraction of the day was the wonderful trees. Today’s walks were part of our series of arboreally-related winter events.  Next month is our Leaf Identification Workshop, and in January our short walk around KGV looking at winter twigs and bark, both intended to increase our knowledge of trees.  Comparison of some different barks showed that this can be a useful identifying tool for when the trees are leafless.

The English (or Pedunculate) Oak, is a stately and magnificent tree familiar to us all, and several superb examples were seen.  A bit of botanical nomenclature for you – ‘pedunculate’ means their flowers/acorns grow on peduncles or stalks, whilst the leaves have none and grow directly out of their twig.  (Another Oak form the ‘ Sessile’ which actually means ‘non-pedunculate’, has, yes you’ve’ got it, stalkless flowers and acorns, whilst the leaves have a stalk).

Other forms of Oak were also looking good – fantastic Red  and Scarlet species, simply stunning at this time of year before their leaves drop; the giant-leaved Daimyo Oak a non-native found only in a few places; and of course the famous Cork Oaks living near the House itself. Rumour has it that General Rebow brought these two back from the Peninsular Wars, planted up in his spare pair of wellies.  They have enjoyed their time at Wivenhoe since then and are cherished specimens in the grounds.

A trio of Redwoods also are worthy of note. The Giant and Coastal Redwoods in their native North America grow to huge heights, indeed are thought to be the world’s largest trees. The Giant (aka Wellingtonia)’s bark is soft and spongy and makes a cosy home for Treecreepers.  A third species, Dawn Redwood, is a very interesting species.  This deciduous conifer was known only as fossils, until living specimens were discovered in China and introduced to Britain and elsewhere in the 1940s.  A hopeful example of extinction rebellion!

The Cedar of Lebanon could not be missed, being huge and was a popular choice for parks and formal gardens when the House was built, as was the Himalayan Pine.

And so to native species, like Silver Birch,  Beech, Ash, and Wild Cherry, all of which are understated and beautiful in their own right and have the space and location to look their best in somewhere like Wivenhoe Park.

The Horse-chestnut, which we may think of as native is in fact an introduction from the Caucasus,  where rather shockingly it is now on the Red Data list, meaning its scarcity is of extreme concern.  It is planted throughout Europe, but is now subject to attack from the Horse-chestnut Leaf-miner moth Cameraria ohridella which causes the leaves to turn brown prematurely and whilst not actually damaging the tree must compromise the efficiency of the leaves .

We thank those of you who participated and hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did. And very grateful also to Dr James Canton who first introduced us to the University Tree Trail, and shared his unique insights as a ‘wild writer’ with us.

All the above photos are ours but not all were taken on the day. Some were from our recce, so the fungi might be looking a bit fresher than you remember!

For a different, delightful perspective on the walks, the perspective of the participant, you might like to look at Helen Chambers’ own blog ‘Fascinating Fungi‘.