All posts by Chris Gibson

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: May goes out with a splash…

Spring half-term in the Beth Chatto Gardens, and time for kids’ activities. A day of bug walks was planned, but the weather thought otherwise – persistent drizzle, sometimes heavy and a cool , blustery north wind lending a very unseasonable feel to the day.

So, no kids (indeed, few visitors of any age)…

Lots of dripping  flowers, growing with a lushness fuelled by the damp preceding months…

Foliage bejewelled with mercurial magic…

A few (some very soggy) insects, the bumblebees especially on Salvia, Veronicastrum and Knautia

… while the Mullein Moth larvae keep munching on, safe in our hands from the bane of pesticide sprays!

And one happy intern on their final day at the garden who had a personalised tour, the gloom lifted by a singing Goldcrest competing for earspace with several Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, foraging Robins and Song Thrushes, and a low, flyover Red Kite.

But best of all, a call from one of the gardeners to say that one of their rescued Elephant Hawk-moths had emerged! Let’s take this as a portent for a June filled with colour and life,. And some summery weather please…

Cockaynes Reserve in early summer

Such has been the unpredictability of weather this spring that our walks around Cockaynes have been few and far between. But earlier this week a couple of hours one morning gave me chance for a catch up as to what is happening. And chance also to try out the photo capability of my new phone: about a third of the photos are with that rather than my camera.

Now is the time for flowering shrubs. Gorse is largely over but Broom has taken its place, while Dog Rose is now at its very best. Bramble (in its multiplicity of forms), Honeysuckle  and Elder are coming on well, and destined to be major pollen and nectar sources in June.

Of the lower, showy plants, there were two related semiparasites that take water from the roots of plants around them, Common Cow-wheat and Yellow Rattle…

… with Scarlet Pimpernel, Oxeye Daisy and Knotted Clover also looking good.

But in close up, ever the most undemonstrative of flowers can reveal an inner beauty: here, Ribwort Plantain and Sheep’s Sorrel.

Plenty of insects too even though it wasn’t sunny, from damselflies to awkwardly mating soldier-beetles!

Day-flying moths included Brown Silver-lines and some delightful displaying swarms of Gold-barred Longhorns.

One of the delights of the insect world, indeed all of nature, is that it is always changing, and several of the things I saw fitted that category. Cream-streaked Ladybird colonized this country in the mid-20th century, while Tree Bumblebee and Gypsy Moth followed towards the end of the century…

… while Alder Leaf-beetles have arrived in this country, after several decades of extinction, only in the past 20 years. They were first spotted in Essex here at Cockaynes a couple of years ago, and now seem well-established. Many a leaf has either the holes chomped by the larvae, or a shiny black adult sitting on it – or both. And also on Alder leaves the reddening pimple-galls cause by the microscopic mite Eriophyes laevis are now at their most prominent.

A final word to the true bugs. Forest bugs are growing fast, and several large nymphs were on display …

… while a female Parent Bug guarding her eggs showed why the species is so named, one of the few examples of maternal care in the insect world.

As to the performance of the phone camera, I suspect it will never completely replace my trusty Canon, but in the right circumstances on the right subjects it could prove useful. I just have to get out more and really put it through its paces …!


A jaunt across the North Sea: part 2 – Antwerp

Antwerp: another country, another city, another railway station of architectural wonder, although one of a very different vintage to that we departed from in Rotterdam…

Great food and beer made Antwerp a fine place for three days, surrounded by Flemish architecture, laced with its share of mad baroquery, no doubt reflecting its importance as a world trading port, then as now.

Probably the pinnacle of baroque ornamentation, Onze Lieve cathedral pierced the Swift-laden, scream-filled sky, with Black Redstarts singing from its heights, drowned out only for half-an-hour of carillon tunes at noon.

As with any city, there were green oases. The botanic garden may be small but it is space to escape the relentless shoppers, find interesting plants and a few insects and other creatures too:

Then across (or rather under, through the 500m-long Sint Anna foot-tunnel) the River Scheldt …

… to the grassy parks and marshy fringes, full of the song of Reed and Cetti’s Warblers.

Our second full day in the city was very different: we headed to the port, specifically to the Harbour Authority building, in fact the reason we decided to take this break in the first place. We had glimpsed it tantalizingly on  both the previous days, from the train as we arrived and from the other side of the river, but nothing could have prepared us for its close-up reality.

It is a brave architect who can take one redundant, historic fire station and land a huge glass airship (or is it a boat?) right on top: a magnificent shapeshifter of a building, its glass skin cut like the facets of a diamond, reflecting Antwerp’s position at the centre of the world of diamond trade. Zaha Hadid was one such brave architect, who sadly died just as this remarkable building was completed.

I have spent many hours working in ports and port buildings, and the usual impression is of barbed wire and Keep Out signs. But not here – we just walked up to it, and inside to enjoy coffee looking up at the structure above!

Of course being a port, there were boats, fences, rubble and buildings in different states of repair, all the better for Black Redstarts to thrive…

… with green roofs, each an artwork in their own right with half a dozen or more species of Sedum melded together in a succulent mosaic.

Sown patches of pollinator-friendly plants duly attracted insects, including a Bee Chafer, and various bees (what’s not to love about a Honeybee with a pink-pollen-powdered face?!) …

… plus self-sown brownfield plants and their insects, including  Little-Robin, Hybrid Lucerne and Common Blue butterflies, and (a new one for us) 13-spot Ladybird, a species only recently rediscovered in south-eastern England after apparent extinction for several decades.

Ports have a vitality that reflects their focus on the worlds beyond the horizon. And not surprisingly this includes social history museums like MAS, itself a work of art in the regenerated former docklands. The historic inner ports may now be trading mainly in art, culture and ideas but those are as important as goods in any modern culture.

For our last half day the weather took a turn for the worse, so it was a morning of shopping, followed by a sumptuous beer, mussels, chips and mayonnaise lunch at Bier Central. And the sun came out for a final flourish as we headed back to the station, taking in the area round the Zoo, before heading to Brussels and home by Eurostar. A fantastic trip, and each and every one of our transport links on what turned out to be a holiday weekend on the Continent was dead on time!


A jaunt across the North Sea: part 1 – Rotterdam

For our main May minibreak we took the leisurely way out of the country, on a daytime ferry sailing from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. A lovely restful start – ok, we could have done it more quickly but we are fortunate that time is not an issue.

Sliding past the familiar sights of Harwich and Felixstowe, in flat calm conditions, and at first a little warm sunshine, we were on our way….

… but before long, cloud and mist settled around us adding an ethereality to the Roughs Tower and the Greater Gabbard Wind Farm, its giant turbines in stately motion despite the light winds.

Only as we headed past the Maasvlakte container port did the sun re-emerge. From there into port and straight onto the equally restful half-hour metro ride, past lights and onshore turbines.

Disembarking in the middle of Rotterdam, all of that changed. From placid calm to raucous street life in a matter of seconds. It was Saturday evening, a warm one at that, and we were staying in Witte De Withstraat, which we later learned was the ‘liveliest’ street in the city. Quite the contrast!

But just a block or two away down by the docks relative serenity returned, time to eat a great Italian, to appreciate the historic boats alongside new development, including the quirky Cube Houses and the amazing almost-cylindrical Markthal, the inner wall of which is occupied by what is claimed at 11,000 m2 in extent as the largest artwork in the world,  Horn of Plenty by Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam.

At this point, serendipity swept in as Jude recognized the artwork as the self-same pattern as on the shirt I wore when we got married, exactly eight years ago to that very day!

Next morning, early, while the revellers still slept we walked the streets and chanced upon the museum quarter. It was sculpture that drew us close; we then got sucked in by the sound of Egyptian Geese serenading us from every tall building, and competing for soundspace with the equally strident Rose-ringed Parakeets and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

Here were more remarkable buildings, especially the silvered bowl-shaped Boijmans van Beuningen Museum Depot. Its mirrors present an ever-changing panorama of the city skyline, one we thought at first must be painted on.

Around it there were other museums and galleries …

… all set amid the ecological plantings of the museum gardens …

… which include ponds and marshes, with Water-hawthorn, Water Crowfoot, Spiked Water-milfoil and Sweet Flag in flower …

… and Small China-mark moths and damselflies (Azure and Blue-tailed) together with hundreds of dragonfly exuviae. But no sign of the dragons themselves, apart from later on a Green-eyed Hawker cruising the shopping precinct.

From there it was into the older, landscaped Het Park, now overlooked by the Euromast, and a lovely brunch. Just half a day here meant we could not even start to cover it properly, so we didn’t try. Instead we resolved to return, maybe next year, armed with a Museum Pass to really get to know the area properly – including the enticing roof garden on the Depot.

But time was pressing, so it was through the city centre, past all manner of modern edifices (Rotterdam was flattened by both sides during WW2) to the most remarkable of all, the metallic golden Centraal Station, and from there the hour-long train ride to Antwerp…

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the height of Spring

It is the start of that precious time of year when the natural delights come so thick and fast that there is barely time to catch up, so this blog of my latest Meet the Wandering Naturalist event is necessarily short, mostly photos and few words. It was a lovely sunny day and the two walks attracted an amazing 35 interested visitors, who I hope all went away with the sight and sound of our garden wildlife etched on their brains and buzzing in their ears.

There are always superstar plats, and this time for bumblebees and Honeybees it was the Cistus and Allium species that were playing that role…

… whereas for hoverflies, beetles and pretty much everything else it was the various umbellifers and the Euphorbias, especially in the Reservoir Garden.

There were damselflies everywhere, especially but certainly not exclusively, round the ponds.

But really there was wildlife in every corner of the garden, from the Buzzards overhead to the singing Goldcrests, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, and everywhere invertebrate life…

There were butterflies and moths, including for one of the groups Green Hairstreaks on the Thyme and several Silver Y moths, the latter newly arrived immigrants …

… spiders, including a lurid Stretch Spider and a feisty crab spider Xysticus lanio

… Common Scorpion-flies

… a myriad of true flies ….

… beetles, including several types of soldier-beetle and a Red-headed Cardinal-beetle…

… and an array of true bugs, with Dock Bugs and Hairy Shield-bugs everywhere ….

… plus the best insect of the day, a single Bronze Shield-bug, a rather scarce bug in Essex and the first time it has been found here. Always surprises to be found!

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting!) on June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

Blogs of the previous Meet the Wandering Naturalist event this summer can be found here:

April: The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: among the April showers… | Chris Gibson Wildlife

The Wild Side of Felixstowe

A short break in Felixstowe was ostensibly a recce for our proposed #WildEssexOnTour extravaganza later in the summer, but in reality was jolly good fun as well! We didn’t venture to Landguard this time as we know it so well anyway, but we explored green spaces in the town and also up the coast to Bawdsey.

The first day, spent in glorious warm sunshine, we started along the sea-front, looking at the cliff gardens; they were a revelation, formal yet informal, filled with a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowering perennials.

The plants are mostly non-native and tolerant of sea-spray and wind: fortunately most, like the sun-roses, are a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

Others included Rose Garlic, with mixed heads of flowers and bulbils, and Red Valerian, much more familiar but in full bloom, showing its almost unique character of possessing only one stamen per flower.

A number of springs emanate from the cliffs, reflecting the local gravel/clay geology, and these have mostly been corralled into formal water-features, fringed with Monkey-flower, and with Curled Pondweed and Water-hornwort in the water.

With such an array of plants and habitats not surprisingly there was plenty of insect life on display, from Holly Blues to tiny Dark Bush-cricket nymphs and Green-palped Sun-spider (with a planthopper for lunch) to numerous nymphal froghoppers drooling ‘cuckoo-spit’.

Even flat, mown lawns were not devoid of interest, some with both Sea and Small Mouse-ears (four and five petals respectively) among the Bulbous Meadow-grass, along with Bird’s-foot Clover (with at most two flowers in a head) and Spotted Medick, all typical components of dwarfed maritime turf.

Heading inland, the Snow Hill Garden had Elm leaves with the distinctive larval munchings and meanderings of the Zig-zag Elm Sawfly, a relatively new arrival in these parts…

… while in Langer Park, a more-traditional manicured recreational space around the remnants of the once-tidal Walton Channel, the trees and nettlebeds produced a huge late-afternoon array of sun-basking invertebrates.

There were ladybirds galore, including Adonis, Cream-spot and the distinctive sexpustulata form of Two-spotted …

… along with weevils, soldier-beetles and a large leaf-beetle with a distinctive ‘gutter’ around its thorax Chrysolina oricalcia, the latter something we have never seen before.

Other insects included Hawthorn Shield-bug, Nettle-tap moth and numerous flies …

… including one hoverfly who spent five minutes laying eggs on a nettle-leaf right in front of us, perhaps up to 20 in total!

Spiders too, including a nursing Nursery-web, a few crabbies and one Larinioides cornutus, with quiff and fancy garters. A truly splendid half an hour by the nettles.

Next morning, the weather could hardly have been more different: dull, grey, cooler and with light rain on-and-off all day. A real surprise then walking to hear a veritable chorus of Swifts flying over; yesterday there has been only a few. It went on – and on – and on – and it soon became apparent that it wasn’t ‘real’ Swifts, but tapes of screaming Swifts designed to drawn in occupants to the array of next-boxes on the Library. All credit to Suffolk County Council for this, even if elsewhere in the area they do appear to be a bit heavy-handed on the glyphosate front along paths and roads.

A bus-ride to the north-eastern end of town took us to within striking distance of Felixstowe Ferry. The shingle beach was covered in froth-topped flowering plants of Sea-kale, while along the edge of the land, there were all sorts of other interesting flowers, including White Ramping-fumitory, Seaside Daisy, Sea Radish and Snow-in-Summer.

Several Silver Y moths were out and about, presumably reflecting a recent immigration event, a nomad-bee (perhaps Nomada flava) nectared upon Sea-kale and several Gorse Shield-bugs gave the lie to their name, feeding (or at least resting and mating) on Sea Beet.

Rounding the corner to the Deben, we took the foot ferry across to Bawdsey …

… where we found flowering Barberry and Sand Cat’s-tail, with a Gorse Shield-bug in its ‘proper’ home bearing more than a passing resemblance to Gorse seed-pods.

And finally, one of our most exciting finds of all, the large, rounded, reddish galls of Plagiotrochus quercusilicis on the new-season leaves of Holm Oak. Caused by a gall-wasp, this again was new to us, and indeed is relatively new to the area, being first found in Colchester as recently as 2018. By now though it could be well established – certainly on our walk back to the station we saw it abundantly in one of the gardens.

A fascinating couple of days and a very enticing prospect for our three-day event later in the year!

Chalklands in the far west of East Anglia

The Chilterns are one of the country’s great chalk landscapes, running north-easterly from the River Thames around Reading into Hertfordshire, rolling hills clad in grassland and woods, before reappearing at the surface in north Norfolk, ending in the dramatic cliffscapes of Hunstanton.

In between these two sections though, the chalk may be underground but it still influences the surface ecology, below the shallow Breckland coversands, and a little further southwest in the chalk spring-fed fens west of Cambridge, around Fowlmere.

Last week I was invited to give a talk in the latter village, so I took the opportunity to visit some of the chalk areas, about as far away from the Essex coast as one can get in East Anglia. I started at the final outpost  of the main Chilterns massif, close to the Hertfordshire-Cambridgeshire border. Therfield Heath, near Royston is a site widely recognized as one of the best places to see Pasque Flowers in Britain. With our early spring, the flowers were past their best, although still very impressive even though the sun was barely out:

Even the fruiting heads make for a spectacle, dotted with Cowslips:

The beechwoods were bursting into fresh leaf, the soon-to-be deeply shaded woodland floor producing numerous White Helleborines (their buds just bursting) and Sanicle in full, undemonstrative flower, while Wych Elm was in fruit already.

In the shade of the trees, only a few insects were apparent but included Dance Flies and Dock Bugs:

Then it was over to the spring-fed fens, specifically RSPB Fowlmere, my first visit to this lovely wetland.

Formerly watercress beds, the reedbeds and scrub are flanked by a crystal-clear chalk stream (the River Shep) that arises in the reserve.

Reed and Sedge Warblers were clamouring among the reeds, while Lesser Whitethroats and Cuckoos sang from the bushes, Skylarks and Corn Buntings serenaded from the  surrounding farmland, and Hobbies hurtled around after newly emerged dragonflies and damselflies.

A lovely diverse fen, and a pleasure to spend an afternoon there…

… with aquatic and waterside plants…

… and flowers of damp shade, from Redcurrant to Bugle …

… and all topped of with an array of insects, including Watercress Leaf-beetle and wetland snail-killer flies.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: bountiful, and beautiful, insects…

May sweeps in, and the focus for wildlife turns to the ponds and water margins. The first damselflies are out, darting everywhere, mating and making more for next year. Large Red and Azure Damselflies, along with Blue-tailed Damselflies (not photographed) are on the wing now, and the first dragonflies will be very soon.

Sharing the aquatic early stages of damselflies but in a completely different order of insects, Alder-flies have emerged in large numbers in the past week.

Lots of beetles are now out and about, from Lily Beetles to soldier beetles, click beetles and weevils…

… and the variety of butterflies is changing: Orange-tips are fading out while Peacocks are still going strong, and the first Speckled Woods and Holly Blues are now flying.

Flies, including parasite-flies, dance-flies and snail-killers are all over the garden, but especially attracted to Euphorbia …

… while bees are often more specialist, seeking the closed tubular flowers that other insects cannot penetrate. Apart from the Honeybees that go for anything that has either nectar or pollen or both…

Plant bugs have also come out in force with the warm weather – here are Dock Bugs, a Cinnamon Bug and orgies of Hairy Shield-bugs, with the results of their endeavours.

The first, tiny Dark Bush-crickets have appeared: amazing to think that after five skin-sheds they will be serenading warm summer evenings in the hedgerows.

And everywhere there is insect abundance, there are always things ready to exploit nature’s largesse: here, a Xysticus crab-spider and a Nursery-web Spider.

Everything shown above is more-or-less widespread and relatively common. But there are the rarities as well: this week has produced the garden’s second record of the White-clouded Longhorn beetle (the first, two years ago, was only the fourth Essex location in that last hundred years) and the Purple-loosestrife was covered in a leaf- beetle Galerucella calmariensis. When we looked up the Essex distribution map for this creature, we find it at only five previous locations, all of which are along the southern or western boundaries of the county.

And while not as scarce as the above two, it was great to find the Bishop’s-mitre (a plant bug that we see rather infrequently) and I was inordinately excited (as the gardeners will testify!) to spot a couple of Green Hairstreaks nectaring on the Thyme, my first of the summer and also my absolute favourite butterfly.

All this, and there are a few flowers to see as well!!

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting!) on May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

Tales from the Riverbank


All it takes is half an hour in the sun in early May, just a hundred metres from home, and our early morning stroll delivers a feast of wildlife delights!



Ceanothus was looking amazing, forming billowing blue clouds studded with pale gold stars, like a thousand EU flags. It may not be a native species, but it is certainly providing for our bees…

Moving to native plants, ‘Pocket plums’ – Taphrina fungal galls on Blackthorn’s developing fruit – were more numerous than we have ever seen before…. No sloe gin for us this year!

A micromoth Elachista argentella ‘unhiding’ in the grass, perhaps looking more like poo than food to a passing bird?

Sea Beet was feeding everything, from snails to dozens of Dock Bugs to 24-spot Ladybirds (one of the few herbivorous ones – are those it’s nibbling to its right? )…

And finally, best of all, quite reliable on one or two select Beet plants in early May, the incredible Neon-striped Tortoise-beetle. Two plants regularly feature them but not it seems the many others, perhaps showing just how constrained an insect’s life can be.

All these and our first Common Terns of the year clamouring upriver, and finally screaming Swifts, the wild spirits returning to the Shipyard skies.


#WildEssexWalks: The Bluebells of Wivenhoe Wood

Always a staple in our catalogue of walks, this year we embraced our Bluebells on three separate walks over a week and a half, and this blog is an amalgam of them all. Given the unstable weather this spring, not surprisingly we had a mixed bag, from lovely warm sunshine to cool, cloudy and wet…

In fact the season started early (a symptom of our largely frost-free winter) with the first sign of blue coming in mid-March: we were concerned that the main event would be over before our walks even started.

But then the gloom of April and cool northerlies slowed things up, and even by our final walk on May 4th, there was still plenty of blue, albeit looking distinctly worse for wear.

Peak Bluebell was around the date of our recce, April 26th, when lovely sunshine lit up the blue swathes and helped contribute to a scentscape like no other.

As always we noticed a few naughty Spanish Bluebells and their hybrids: hopefully Colchester City Council will take action in line with their biodiversity duty.

But one of the lasting impressions this year was of mud. Springs springing out in places where springs have never sprung before, at least in my almost 40 years of knowing this wood: the sign of an unprecedentedly wet start to the year.

The other thing we noticed was that the overall showing was a tad less impressive than we have become accustomed to in recent years. Of course this could be weather- or climate-related, but probably more likely is that the coppice plots are growing up, and starting to cast shade sufficient to suppress the Bluebell show. If we want our Bluebells en masse, we need active coppicing to continue, something that sadly is not always assured given local authority funding constraints. Failing that, we need another ‘destructive’ storm of the order of that of October 1987, a natural dynamic event that breathed light and life into our previously neglected woodlands.

While Bluebells of course were the main course, there were substantial side portions of other woodland plants from Greater Stitchwort to Yellow Archangel, Wild Strawberry, Wood Speedwell and Bugle …

… along with the sub-shrub Butchers’-broom and swathes of Garlic Mustard in clearings and along tracksides, while on the higher drier ground Bracken was unfurling its aquiline fronds.

Our first walk, the recce, was in sunshine, although we found the ground conditions very difficult in parts of the wood, hence our decision with the groups to return along the Wivenhoe Trail and its views of the tidal River Colne, although the winter birds have now largely departed.

Insects on this occasion included the Beaky Hoverfly Rhingia campestris, the bug Harpocera thoracica, our first Scorpion-fly of the summer, and good numbers of Small and Green-veined White butterflies.

The second walk was pretty much a washout, although a Blackcap serenaded us at the start and in the interior of the wood we did find the uncommon Tree Slug, seemingly not recorded previously from the area.

Of course the Bluebells were immune to the rain, even if their scent was suppressed, and galls in the oaks likewise: there were redcurrant galls of the spring generation Spangle Gall-wasp in the flowers and large, spongy oak-apples formed by another tiny wasp Biorhiza pallida.

The final walk was again in glorious, warm sunshine. So uplifting! For us and for the wildlife too. Bird song was swelling, with a Garden Warbler being noteworthy, while butterflies included Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Orange-tips. Other insects included Crucifer Shield-bug, our first Dark Bush-cricket nymph of the summer and a mating pair of caddis-flies a surprising distance from water.

In the Lower Lodge grassland, Common Stork’s-bill was in good flower and on the King George Field, the pros and cons of ‘No Mow Grassland’ were amply demonstrated, with lots of Bulbous Buttercups and other species in the longer grass, but masses of Daisies, each flowerhead a lifeline for insects, on the mown bits. Everything in moderation is the best approach.

And as always, some surprises. A fungus looked familiar as the Jelly Ear, but we are used to seeing it on its main host tree Elder; this was on Sycamore, but reference to the books indicated that this and other broad-leaved trees can be used by the fungus.

Even more interesting, and potentially worrying, was the gall that Jude spotted on Sweet Chestnut leaves and buds. We had never seen it before although it was then found on quite a number of trees. It turned out to be galls of the Asian Chestnut Gall-wasp Dryocosmus kuriphilus. Seems this gall was first found in Britain in Kent in 2015, and has spread especially around London since then, although the latest map shows only one Essex locality, close to the M25. It is of concern to those who grow Sweet Chestnut for timber or chestnuts as it can be rather destructive, although help is at hand – a specific parasite of the gall wasp has been discovered, evaluated and risk-assessed, and is already being released in some places to control the new incipient ‘pest’.

Always something special and interesting to find!





A garden of medicinal plants and Regent’s Park

Our latest trip to London was in direct response the book we reviewed a few months ago about the botanical origins of modern, prescription medicines. The book told us about the garden of medicinal plants created by the Royal College of Physicians and the monthly guided walks around it. When we found that the May walk was to be led by a good friend of ours, our May Day out was inevitable.

The gardens may be small but they are packed with interest, hundreds of species with connections to medicine. While there are some crossovers with the Chelsea Physic Garden, that is rooted in herbalism whereas the RCP garden is more scientific, with medically proven plants rather than those that have assumed functionality based on for example the fanciful Doctrine of Signatures. It is also a beautifully laid out garden, geographically themed and impeccably labelled (surprisingly not a feature of too many botanical gardens!).

So, few of the plants below are named. You simply need to go there and find the labels yourself: it is free, indeed the walks are free, you just need to check in at reception (and book onto the guided walks). The plants range from familiar and common to rarely seen, wild to cultivated, the ordinary to the beautiful, like the very-familiar-but-stunning-close-up polka-dot paradise that is London Pride:

There were even a few that I as a hardened botanic garden visitor had never seen before, the buttercup relative  Beesia calthifolia  and the South African Buddleia glomerata, most unBuddleia-like although perhaps the leaves do echo those of the Buddleia crispa I am so familiar with at Beth Chatto Gardens.

And not just interesting flowers. Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’ always makes an impact, but here it is the Box in the bottom corner of the picture that is most significant. Lots of Box around the garden, and no signs of Box Moth damage, and it was very pleasing to hear from the Head Gardener that this is not achieved by use of chemical pesticides. Given the business of the RCP it would be ironic if they were to resort to pesticides (= poisons) to keep the garden looking good, notwithstanding the recognition of the subtle dividing line between medicines and poisons…

Away from the plants, yes of course there were Rose-ringed Parakeets, together with invertebrates including the little spider Nigma puella, Rose Aphids and the Plane Bug, no doubt using the Oriental Plane that dominates one of the garden areas.

It is a lovely garden and we will certainly make it a regular stop-off on our trips to London, to see it at different stages of the year.

And so it was then across the road to Regent’s Park on what was just about the first really warm day of the year. The trees were springing into leaf, each recognisable by their hue, rather than the ‘standard’ green of foliage later in the season sullied by the trials of life.

Once again plants, both wild and cultivated …

… but what really struck me was the overlooked beauty of the humble, freshly emerged Ribwort Plantain.

There was a Reed Warbler singing summer into the merest sliver of a reedbed by the lake, and as always a range of insects and other critters to slow down our perambulation!

We were especially pleased to see the galls of the spring generation of the gall-wasp Andricus grossulariae on the dangling tassel catkins of Turkey Oak, rather like the redcurrant galls on native oaks (the spring generation of Spangle Gall-wasps) but with a nipple-like projection. A. grossulariae is one of the gall-causers that have two generations in a year, each generation on a different species, and in this case one native and the other non-native. Some pretty complex happenstance here for it to have become established in this country –  it arrived  here around the turn of the Millennium.

A couple of final images from the Park, first a pollard willow doing its best to recreate ‘The Scream’, and some ‘interesting’ imagery on the bins. A fine message but to feature a Wryneck as the star seems a bit ambitious!

While in the area of course we could not ignore the surrounding built environment, especially since the business end of the RCP is housed in a Brutalist masterpiece by Denys Lasdun (we must book on one of the architectural tours in due course!):

Out the back are the impressive Art Deco Melia Apartments, and just up the road Chester Terrace, in all its Neo-Classical ‘finery’ (ie not to our taste!)…

… and  a selection of other styles, including an ‘old friend’ looking benevolently on.

Another wonderfully varied day of delights!

#WildEssexWalks: Cockaynes Reserve at the height of Spring

As is now traditional we headed off to Cockaynes Reserve for one of our main springtime walks, although the cool weather initially made it feel almost wintry. Fortunately as the morning progressed, and contrary to forecasts, the sun did come out, and sheltered from the breeze it even felt quite warm, a rather unusual occurrence in the unsettled early part of this year.

But whatever the temperature  there is no mistaking the fact that the hands of the seasonal clock are turning. Walking up Ballast Quay Lane, the hedges and verges were filled with flower and fragrance, with Cow Parsley and Hawthorn scent combining in Chris’ personal Maytime Proustian madeleine, taking him back to the days of innocence, cycling the byways of the Yorkshire Wolds as a lad…

Add to that the blue of Evergreen Alkanet, the white flowers and garlic aroma arising from both Garlic Mustard and Three-cornered Leek, yellow Greater Celandine, and the purple (occasionally white) flowers of Honesty, the latter attracting the attentions of a lovely male Brimstone for the back-markers at least.

And in a nod to the coming summer, White Bryony just coming into flower while stitching together the hedge with its telephone-cord tendrils:

At the top of the hill, splendid views over the Colne Estuary, Skylarks singing, and a meadow full of Bulbous Buttercups, interspersed with drier patches dominated by rusty-flowering Sheep’s Sorrel …

And then into Villa Wood along the newly refurbished path, to be enveloped by bird song – Chiffchaffs, Wrens, Blackbirds, Robins,  Blackcaps and a tantalisingly distant Nightingale – and the sound of a tinkling Sixpenny Brook, with a little Town-hall-clock and Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage still flowering.

The Redcurrants were in unripe fruit, Wood Anemones all-but-finished, Bluebells of course just reaching their peak on the drier slopes and  sprouting ferns in the damper spots.

Moving out into the open ground left behind after gravel extraction, a backward glance showed the beauty of the infinite spectrum of greens shown by newly emerged leaves, a sight equalled by the sound of a much nearer Nightingale in full rhapsody, and displaying Buzzards overhead:

The bare sandy areas hosted a basking Peacock, with flowering Blinks, Changing Forget-me-not and Thyme-leaved Speedwell, and just a few Bunny Bees moving around their active colony (it had been a very cold, almost frosty night preceding, so the lack of action was not surprising).

In the heathy areas, both Gorse and Broom in flower were attracting bumblebees, along with Small Gorse Mining-bees, and held numerous singing male Whitethroats, while the Crab Apple on the corner of Cockaynes Wood was already well past its best, a sign of the largely frost-free winter.

And finally a few invertebrates, expertly spotted by Jude: a bagworm moth Psyche casta,  redcurrant galls in Oak flowers (the spring generation galls of the same tiny wasp that produces the more familiar spangle galls in autumn), Brown-tail Moth caterpillars sunning themselves on their web with impunity (protected from most bird predation by their irritant hairs), a few hoverflies and tiger-craneflies, and a grass bug Stenodema calcarata.

As usual, all kinds of everything to suit all tastes, and wrapped up very well with a pint in the Greyhound garden, sitting in the sun, with a Red Kite low overhead. What could be better? Thanks to all who came along and helped make it such a good morning, particularly Peter Hill who was able to explain some of the management work of the Cockaynes Wood Trust (and perhaps encourage some more volunteers to the much needed management tasks).