Mid May emergence
There is little on a broad scale to see in the middle part of May - the meadow has just started to rise and, except for the sweet vernal, the perennial grassy patches have hardly changed from the winter. Yet look closely and there are leaf and flower buds everywhere. See how many of them are tightly protected by spiny leaves or covered in sticky hairs, trapping insects. Even the common species are worth a close look. It's a fight from now on - the plants protecting, the insects eating.
Photographs above (from top left, clockwise), stem and leaf of field scabious Knautia arvensis with hairs, flower of marsh marigold Caltha palustris and may blossom Crataegus monogyna in the hedges (Living Field collection).
The first grass to bunch and flower in abundance is the sweet vernal Anthoxanthum odoratum, which moves around from year to year depending on where it can find a place. This year, it's been flowering in clumps (below left) in the west garden around the observatory and polytunnel, and as a meadow grass in the east garden. Each flower structure (spikelet) extrudes white threads on which hang pink anthers, the male parts that release pollen (below right). It's sweet because of the fresh smell when cut and vernal because it flowers in spring.
A troublesome year for the garden so far. The cold spells continue to set back the new plantings, while bouts of heat and high solar energy put pressure on the young root systems to deliver water to the leaves. Despite the weather, there's been much activity in the east garden in early May - making raised beds for the new displays of legume species. There's still some work to do but the wooden structures have taken shape and will soon be filled with soil. The purpose of the raised beds is to display around 15 agricultural grain and forage legumes. The plants will be used for training and to provide material for further study. Most of the species are now rare in the croplands, but may be valuable as future nitrogen-fixers as agriculture seeks alternatives to mineral nitrogen fertiliser.
Photograps above show (top left clockwise) sharpened poles for the central clover-leaf' enclosure, assorted offcuts, a line of raised beds made from planks, part of the clover-leaf enclosure and plank offcuts to be saved and used.
The trees and hedge shrubs in the garden are putting out their leaves through April. Each breaking bud slowly swells, unfolds and expands a lamina that will capture sunlight until the autumn. The unfolding is slightly different in each species. The leaves of alder Alnus glutinosa emerge like a compressed fan whose furrows contain the veins and whose ridges spread and flatten as the leaf grows. In the photographs below, taken 17 April 2012, the young leaf in the inset, about 1 cm across, is illuminated by the sun at a low angle from behind. The veins in the 'furrows' appear bright and the raised, the expanding tissue of the ridges darker green. The main image is a part of the same leaf, the photo modified to show some details of structure. At this stage the tissue is almost translucent.
Thousands of new plants
The hedges were trimmed, arable plots cultivated, seedbeds prepared and the annual fallow patch sown in the west garden, all by early April. Tens of thousands of seedlings were potted on in the glasshouses and moved to a place where they can harden before they go out in late April and early May. Why so many plants? This year, in addition to nine blocks of heritage and modern cereals, we are planting many more dyes and medicinals and converting a part of the west garden to a permanent exhibit of around 15 legume species. Legumes are those plants that, with the help of live-in bacteria, fix nitrogen from the air into nodules on their roots. The legume exhibit will be used in training and as a source of plant material for future scientific studies. No easy job, but worth the effort when the plants establish themselves over the summer.
The first of the wild cherries to flower each year, the blackthorn Prunus spinosa signals the spring equinox is near, the time when day and night are equal, and the day's length and sun's energy are increasing as fast as they will do. The blackthorn tree flowers well before its leaves come out, and starts the sequence of flowering in the local wild cherries that continues with gean and bird cherry and ends with hawthorn in May. The new leafing is compressed into a shorter period than the flowering, so by the time the flowering hawthorne begins to scent the lanes, all these small trees will be in full leaf. Wild cherries rarely flower and fruit in neatly cut hedges. But if last year's shoots are left to harden over winter without being cut, the characteristic white haze may appear at equinox, as it is has on parts of the garden's hedges this year.
In the photographs, taken 22 March 2012, the day after the equinox, each blackthorn flower is almost 2 cm (5/8 inch) across, and each has male and female organs (unlike the hazel and alder below). The single female structure is the pale yellow one sticking up from the centre of a flower. The male structures surround the female. Each has a white 'stem' that holds a two-lobed light brown anther that will soon crinkle and burst to release pollen.
Hazel and alder, early March 2012
Two of our small trees, indigenous to this region, flower each year in February and early March, long before their leaves unfurl. Both have male and female on the same plant, but the female can easily be missed. The hazel Corylus avellana droops its longish, pale yellow male cakins in groups from small side branches. The male catkins of the alder Alnus glutinosa are about half as long as those of the other tree, and greenish. The females on the hazel look like small brownish buds, half a centimeter at most, with deep red styles (holding the receptive female parts) sticking out the top. The alder's females, though less than a centimeter and reddish all over, already have the appearance of the dark cone-like structures that will later hold the seeds.
The male and female catkins are arranged in no particular order on the branches of the tree. Sometimes there are just males at the end of branches, sometime just females. Elsewhere the two appear close together. The photograph left, of hazel, shows groups of three and two catkins, and a very small red female just below the point where the leftmost branch leaves the stem. The photograph right shows a bunch of alder male catkins hanging below the much shorter reddish females. Each male flower on its catkin has a small hood that shelters the pollen- bearing anthers.
The warm early March this year brought out the frogs that overwinter in the small pond. They find secure lodging in late autumn, for example in the underwater stem bases of the bulrushes.
The photograph above shows one of them, not too shy, peering out from the dead leaves and stems of a bulrush in early March. Frogs and other amphibians need to live in water at some stage in their life. They have declined in farmland through loss of habitat. Even a small pond such as this gives them a place to live and spawn.
All photographs - Living Field collection.
Geoff Squire for enquiries on this page
Gladys Wright for further information on the garden