Friday 30 March 2018

The Fab Four

No, not those erstwhile Merseyside mopheads but four rather special plants that are looking their best at the Botanic Gardens at the moment. As you may remember I invested in an annual subscription to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens this year. Besides giving me free admission for the whole year I also receive a newsletter which keeps me abreast of what's flowering each month. Here are four of the best:

The Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys)

If you've been following this blog for a long time you may have seen this before as I wrote about it long ago having been directed to it by a six-year-old botanist who told me I ought to see it. "There's only four of them in the country, you know". Well, I do now.

The jade vine comes from the Phillipines where it is pollinated by a certain kind of bat which hangs upside-down to suck the nectar. As these bats have become scarce due to the destruction of their habitat so the Jade Vine has become an endangered species too. They really are that psychedelic colour and are apparently related to runner beans, something which you can appreciate if you look closely at the structure of the individual flowers.

You can find the Jade Vine in the hottest, most humid part of the glasshouses.

Rhododendron 'Cilpinense'

Outside, braving the cold wind and rain that English people ironically call "Spring", is this small fragile-looking Rhododendron. Rhododendrons don't normally do well in Cambridgeshire as the soils are all wrong being too alkaline, but here the soils have been treated so that heathers and rhododendrons can thrive.

 Muehlenbeckia astonii

Some plants have names that are sheer poetry;  Muehlenbeckia astonii is not one of them. Just to make matters worse it's also known as the Wiggy-Wig Bush, though the Maori people of its native New Zealand know it as Tororaro.

It's one of those rare plants that looks better before it gets its leaves or flowers and you can see the bewildering geometry of its tangled branches. It looks even finer on a day like today when misty drizzle has added myriad water droplets like tiny scattered jewels.

Although it's become rare according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, it is an easy plant to encourage and grows well from cuttings or seed.

And finally,
Darwin's Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale)

In amongst the rampant vegetation in the Rainforest part of the glasshouse range, standing meekly in a common plant-pot is a rather interesting plant that could be easily passed by. I passed by it last time I was here anyway and had to make a special return visit today.

In 1862 Charles Darwin was sent a number of orchids from Madagascar. In the time it took me to pass by and dismiss it as a plant of little consequence, Darwin realised that this was something special. What makes it unique is the long spur which hangs down from each flower. Yes, that rather nondescript green dangling thingy. Darwin discovered that in the end of this tube, which measures over a foot long (30 cm), is a small amount of nectar. Darwin postulated that there must be a moth with a proboscis of equal length in order to pollinate it. And he explained how the two organisms, the plant and the moth, must have evolved together. The only problem was that everyone thought that the idea of a moth with a tongue so long was absurd.

Twenty-one years after the death of the great naturalist just such a moth was discovered in the jungles of Madagascar.

And besides this quartet of splendid plants there are just some parts of the garden which look splendid, even on a grey drizzly day...

Every once in a while we like to introduce you to useful words that lie in neglected corners of the dictionary. You may have noticed that the Latin name for Mr Darwin's orchid is  Angraecum sesquipedale, the last part of which means "a foot-and-a-half long", a slightly exaggerated reference to the spur which makes it unique. It's therefore closely related to the word sesquipedalianism, which literally means using words which are a foot-and-a-half long. In other words using lots of unnecessarily long words. Words like sesquipedalianism, for example.

Take care.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Pump Up Tyres And Commence Pedalling

Some photographs from my cycle ride this morning....

Daffodils by the roadside as I entered Bassingbourn

The mini-spire is not a church but the old school.

 Old houses in Bassingbourn

 A field of sheep
an unusual sight in this mostly arable area.

 The brook at Bassingbourn

 Litlington cage
this was the lock-up where miscreants were detained
till they could be formally charged.

 Steeple Morden
The memorial to the men of the RAF and USAF
who were killed while serving here during WWII.
My uncle was stationed here but survived the war,
which is just as well otherwise I'd be short of several cousins.

Today the skies are peaceful above the fields where the airfield once stood.

 A lone runner passes the blooming Blackthorn hedge.

 The church at Guilden Morden.
I had quite a conversation with the 84 year old lady
who was cleaning the church in readiness for Easter.

 Colourful cottages in Ashwell.

 Plant pots on the doorstep.

 Ashwell has its own little museum.
It's on my list of places to go one day -
not a very ambitious bucket-list I'll admit!

 Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ashwell.

 The Zoar Strict Baptist Chapel in Ashwell.

 In Ashwell village.

The wide skies of Hertfordshire.

Take care.

Monday 26 March 2018

Introducing Emma

In the past I've introduced you to Sidney, Selwyn and Peter, or to give them their full names Sidney Sussex College, Selwyn College and Peterhouse. But Emma? That had me fooled when I first encountered it at the University rowing competition, when many students were calling "Come on, Emma!" or "Go, Emma!". Not a boat-full of large, muscular men called Emma but the crew of Emmanuel College.

Emmanuel stands very much in the middle of Cambridge, right next to the bus station, but despite this it's not on the main tourist trail and local people don't seem to go there at all. Though it is usually open to visitors outside of exam time. Not only that but it's a really pleasant place to wander around and people always seem very friendly there.

The moment you enter you are confronted by its most famous piece of architecture, its Chapel. It's one of three buildings in Cambridge which were designed by Sir Christopher Wren, though it was designed in 1666, before Wren had become famous. Lets go and have a peek inside.

Inside all is cool and calm. It's not supposed to be one of Wren's better works though it looks fine to my untrained eye, with some amazing craftsmanship on view. 

How about that for a piece of wood-carving? Can you imagine starting out making an altar rail like that from a big lump of wood?

And, if you can get your eyes to travel away from the chandelier, there's a highly ornate ceiling.

The college was founded by Elizabeth I's Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1584, originally in buildings used by a Dominican Friary prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Some of those buildings still exist though they were made to fit in with the architecture of the chapel, which itself is connected to the other buildings nearby by the colonnades  pictured above.

After Emmanuel was founded there were no more new Cambridge colleges for more than 200 years. Then building began, just down the road, at Downing College. Strangely the two sites have a similar feel, buildings of honey-coloured stone with some unity of design and a feeling of spaciousness.

Even some of the most modern additions have some echoes of earlier designs while still creating a thoroughly modern impression.

But perhaps the crowning glory of Emmanuel College are its lovely gardens which are centred on a fish pond which was a feature of the old friary.

The pond still has some decent sized fish in it and is also home to several Mallards and Moorhens. At the moment there are two visiting scholars from Canada in the form of two Canada Geese!

Today was the first day when I felt that Spring was on the way with blossom beginning to break out all over and daffodils rapidly approaching their best.

We seem to have drifted away from the academic and the architectural but before I go I'll leave you with a list of some of the more famous people who've walked these lawns and cloisters:

John Harvard, founder of Harvard College which was originally conceived to be organised along the same lines as Emmanuel; Sebastian Faulks, novelist; Jeremiah Horrocks, early astronomer; Hugh Walpole, novelist; William Sancroft, Achbishop of Canterbury; Griff Rhys Jones, comedian and TV presenter; Cecil Parkinson, politician; F R Leavis, literary critic; Graham Chapman, Monty Python comedian; Maggie O'Farrell, novelist; Richard W Murphy, U S diplomat; Choudhry Rahmat Ali, one of the founders of the state of Pakistan; Gerald Davies, Welsh rugby player; Thomas Hooker, founder of the Colony of Connecticut; Sir Fred Hoyle, astronomer; Clare Hammond, concert pianist; Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey actor; Thomas Young, polymath, said to have been the last man who knew everything; Alan Rouse, mountaineer; C Northcote Parkinson, the man who formulated Parkinson's Law; Michael Frayn, playwright and novelist; and also Lemuel Gulliver, fictitious hero of Gulliver's Travels was supposed to have attended Emmanuel College.

And now Dr C Goose!

Take care.

Saturday 24 March 2018

Places Apart

In our increasingly busy world - even for retired persons from rural Cambridgeshire (!) - many communities are creating local nature reserves in the heart of their villages. These are not generally sites teeming with rare or spectacular wildlife but they are ideal for watching common species going about their business, reconnecting with nature (as they say nowadays) or "going for a nice little walk" as our Aunt Rose would suggest when we were children. I'm lucky in that I live within easy walking distance of three such places, though visiting all three in one go makes a trek of six miles or so.

If I venture just beyond the north end of the village (imaginatively named North End) I can walk on Shepreth L-Moor which gets its name from being in Shepreth and L-shaped, though not really a moor at all. In fact it's just an unimproved and largely undrained meadow. In one of the drier corners I found a sprinkling of bright yellow stars of Celandine.

Later in the year there'll be a lot of Twayblade, one of our less spectacular wild orchids, flowering here and maybe a Southern Marsh Orchid or two as well as a many more common flowers. In order to keep it in shape it's grazed in summer by Manx Loaghtan sheep or perhaps some Hereford cattle.

During winter though it's too wet for most grazing animals, though occasionally interesting birds turn up. I've spotted a Peregrine and a few Waxwings here in the past.

Turning back to Meldreth I can take the footpath that leads into Melwood, which is my village's little parcel of land set aside for nature. Being very close to people's gardens it has several flowers more often seen growing in borders and flowerbeds, though there are attempts to reintroduce more natural plants by sowing wildflower seeds. 

The wood gets used by all sorts of people from the village, this morning for example the local primary school were staging a mini-marathon. I escaped before being trampled to death by enthusiastic five-year-old athletes.

.....but not before stopping to photograph the new shoots of Dog's Mercury appearing through the ivy. Dog's Mercury is said to be an indicator of ancient woodland. So although none of the trees here look particularly ancient there has probably been woodland here for much longer.

In order to get to the wood you take the path alongside the River Mel, a chalk stream flowing from a spring near Melbourn. You might see a Kingfisher or a Grey Wagtail along here and I'm told that Water Voles frequent the stream too. By following the path further you can get to the village of Melbourn, which is where our next oasis of wildlife will be found.

The Blackthorn is flowering in profusion along the riverside, as well as lots of other places. The sky has clouded over but I'm determined to complete my walk.

Stockbridge Meadow in Melbourn is rather hidden away and I didn't discover it till quite recently - which is absurd because it's only about a mile from home! It appears to have a wide range of habitats which I hope to find out more about over the coming months.

Pussy Willow, Goat Willow, Sallows, call it what you will it's just coming  into bud.

As well as having neatly trimmed paths and picnic tables there's also plenty of untidy areas which should attract insects, reptiles and birds. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was hammering away at a dead branch and his cousin, the Green Woodpecker, seemed to be having a good laugh at his expense. We'll be back to investigate what occurs here in the next few months.

Take care.