Common broomrape – a parasitic plant

Whilst out walking near Powderham last weekend I found a colony of Common Broomrape Orobanche minor. Broomrapes are parasitic plants which derive their energy and nutrients by tapping in the root systems of other  plants who get their energy from the sun and their nutrients from the soil.

Common broomrape
Common broomrape a species which parasites clovers and members of the daisy family – it is probably that this broomrape is paralysing the fleabane in this picture.

Broomrapes can be quite tricky to identify and I am grateful to my old friend Phil Wilson who helped me with the ID.


Never seen so much Adder’s tongue fern

I was down at Dawlish Warren yesterday – in one of the dune slacks close to the visitor centre I found an Adder’s Tongue Fern – once I got my eye I could see hundreds of them. Never seen so many before anywhere!

To those people who have never seen an Adder’s Tongue Fern before I suspect most would not recognise it as a fern at all.

Adder's tongue fern 1
The blade of the fern with its spore bearing stalk.

Adder's tongue fern 2Get your eye in and there are over a dozen Adder’s Tongue Fern plants in this square metre alone

Adder’s Tongue Ferns are plants of unimproved grassland and are usually pretty difficult to find as they blend into the similarly coloured grassland. There are three species in the UK – two very rare and this one which is more abundant but not at all common. The Latin name for the genus is Ophioglossum. It comes from the Greek ophis which is a snake and glossa which is the tongue.

I’ve always found this description rather baffling as snakes (and adders in particular) have forked tongues…..

An Adder with its forked tongue
By Thomas Brown via Wikimedia Commons

I guess the spore bearing stalk resembles a snake tongue before the fork!

The hawthorn is in full flower

Devon’s hedgerows are ablaze with hawthorn flowers at the moment. Hawthorn is also known as the May tree because of the month it flowers in. It is a member of the Rose family.

 The Woodland Trust says the following about hawthorn “In Britain, it was believed that bringing hawthorn blossom into the house would be followed by illness and death, and in Medieval times it was said that hawthorn blossom smelled like the Great Plague. Botanists later learned that the chemical trimethylamine in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue, so it is not surprising that hawthorn flowers are associated with death.

Hawthorn 2In the wild the majority of the blossom is white but many shrubs have pink blossom

Hawthorn 3The leaves have a very characteristic shape

Hawthorn is very common in Devon’s hedges and woodlands – take a few moments to spot it and wonder at its beauty.


Emsworthy’s bluebell lawns

The bluebells at Emsworthy are coming into full flower – it is an impressive and joyous sight.

Emsworthy bluebells 4
Emsworthy is a nature reserve owned and managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust – see here for location and details

Emsworthy bluebells 1
It is located west of Haytor and Saddle Tor on the road to Widecombe

Emsworthy bluebells 2
Look out for the orange barn – that is where you need to head

Emsworthy bluebells 3
The spectacle is all the more enhanced by the calling of the cuckoo – zoology and botany hail our spring

Sand crocus on the Warren

At the end of March until mid April one of Britain’s rarest plants comes into flower on Dawlish Warren – the Sand Crocus Romulea columnae. Most of the plants grow on the Warren Golf Course on the first and second holes. It is a tiny plant which only opens its flowers when the sun shines.

Sand crocus
It has six petals and long thin leaves – the petals are very pale violet with purple lines

Warren 3
The plant only grows in the UK on Dawlish Warren and another coastal site in Cornwall

Forget me not
The sand crocus grows in very short species rich turf along with other plants such as this Forget-me-not, this is possibly the Early Forget-me-not but I didn’t take a specimen to confirm the identification.

This is the Common Storkbill

The blackthorn is in flower

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is now in flower in my garden. Its name derives from the fact that it has a very dark bark and serious spiny thorns on its branches.

Blackthorn 2
Its leaves are eaten by a number of moth and butterfly caterpillars including the brown hairstreak and the emperor moth

Blackthorn 1On account of its spiny stems blackthorn is often used as a hedging shrub to keep cattle in a field.

Blackthorn 3In the autumn the fruit of the blackthorn will appear – the sloe – which is rather bitter to eat on its own but does combine very well with gin!

Mistletoe, Christmas, the Winter Solstice and the Druids

Mistletoe is inextricably linked with Christmas – ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ has become an almost universal tradition. But how has this poisonous and parasitic plant achieved such a legendary status? Like many  Christian traditions they have their ancestry in our Pagan / Celtic / Druid past – I have written before about how the magical, mystical hare changed into the Easter bunny – see here.

Here is the story of mistletoe.

Pliny the Elder in the first century AD describes how the Druids – the religious order of the Celts (or Gauls as he called them) would seek out mistletoe growing on an oak. They would then climb the tree, cut down the mistletoe, sacrifice two white bulls and then make an elixir from the white berries to cure infertility and effects of poison. This account is interesting in that today mistletoe grows predominantly on apple trees, limes and poplars. I have never seen a mistletoe growing on oak.

The story continues and I can do no better than quote the website – Mistletoe – Mythology and Folklore – The White Goddess. 

“The ancient Druids believed mistletoe to be an indicator of great sacredness. The winter solstice, called ‘Alban Arthan’ by the Druids, was according to Bardic Tradition, the time when the Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the Oak. The mistletoe is cut using a golden sickle on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice. A cloth held below the tree by other members of the order to catch the spigs of mistletoe as they fell, as it was believed that it would have profaned the mistletoe to fall upon the ground. He would then divide the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.

The Druids are thought to have believed that the berries of the mistletoe represented the sperm of the Gods. When pressed, a semen like substance issues from the white berries. Mistletoe was considered a magical aphrodisiac. Girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were asking for a bit more than a kiss, it seems.

The plant in old folklore is called Allheal, used in folk medicine to cure many ills, and indeed the Druids considered the mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft. When taken as a form of diluted tea, it was thought as a curative for everything from infertility to epilepsy. (WARNING, this plant is highly toxic when ingested. You should seek expert advice before using Mistletoe in any form.)

This account links the mistletoe to the Winter Solstice (yesterday) and therefore pretty close to Christmas and gives a hint about where the kissing bit came from! You can see how 21st  century Druids view mistletoe here.

Rather like in the mystical hare/Easter bunny story the Christian generation tweaked things around – the Anglo-Saxon (5th century + AD) word mistletoe is derived from mistle means twig or branch (thus mistle thrush) and toe means dung. This maybe relates to the fact that the berries are poisonous to people or may hark back to the aphrodisiac / sperm like properties that the druids considered.

Mistletoe isn’t very common in Devon but there is a good population at Parke in Bovey Tracey. It grows in the orchard on some of the apple trees and in the Parkland on lime trees and poplars.

Mistletoe 1
A big colony of mistletoe on a common lime in the Parkland at Parke

Mistletoe 2A clump of mistletoe on a poplar at Parke

If you want to know more about mistletoe and its biology and ecology this is a good place to go.

And if you know of any mistletoe growing on oak – I would be interested to know but I suggest you avoid the place on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice…….