Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is a small flowering plant which you might easily overlook, but in the CD Nature Reserve it is the most abundant plant in the wild area nearest to the pond. It is semi-parasitic on the roots of other plants. Yellow rattles are known to grow in undisturbed meadows and stabilised dunes. In our area the plants are never reaching their full height or vigour as in other places I have visited (like the sand dunes of Oxwich Bay in South Wales). They reach about 6 or 7 inches and are very crowded together amongst the grass and other vegetation. The flowers are yellow and have leaf-like bracts with a distinctive triangular shape and serrated edges. The common name alludes to the inflated capsules that develop when the flowers are done. The ripe seeds will actually rattle in the dried brown pods.

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CD Meadow Walk 1

Some pictures from a few weeks ago when I strolled around the place I call ‘the meadow’ – which was originally, in the old Herrison Hospital days, known as the incinerator field! All the shrubs and grassland plants were burgeoning. Guelder rose, buttercups, vetch, umbellifers, sorrel, grasses of many types, sallow or goat willow catkins fallen to the ground, a poor dead vole, and a red and green early instar shield bug on a colour-coordinated grass flowerhead.

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River Cerne Walk 1

We are lucky to have access to such a lovely little chalk river only a short walk from the village of Charlton Down. Like every habitat, it can change dramatically in its appearance through the seasons, with the water level rising and falling, and the banks increasingly shrouded with luxuriant vegetation as the weather warms up. This winter saw a big tidy up and cut back for river management reasons, but last year there was a spectacular abundance of white-headed umbelliferous plants including Water Dropwort mixed in with Comfrey. Last year in June the riverbank plants were well established but the Dropwort had not yet reached anything like its full height. This year everything is a bit behind because of the cold Spring and it will be a while for plants to re-establish after the cull. It is a very pleasant walk along the bank at any time, with expansive views of the surrounding slopes and fields. There was a field of poppies in the distance, and young barley close by (field peas are the crop this year) on this particular walk.

Common or Russian Comfrey

Comfrey is a common on the banks of the Cerne, but does crop up in other place away from the water in Charlton Down. These ones with the pink-purple flowers in curved clusters could either be the Common Comfrey (Symphyum officinale) or the Russian hybrid (Symphytum x uplandicum) – there is a wide variation in the colour of the flowers and it is difficult for an amateur to tell them apart. The pink flowered plants grow mostly by the water. White or creamy flowered comfrey seems to only occur further away from the river and can be seen in a few places in the centre of the village.

In herbal healing, Comfrey is known for an impressive list of alleged medicinal benefits that include wound healing, reduction of pain, anti-inflammatory activity, boosted immune system, better bone growth, anti-cancer potential, improved respiratory health, and skin care. But be careful. One online site gives this

Word of Caution: There is a high concentration of specific alkaloids in comfrey that makes them controversial and potentially toxic when used inappropriately. These alkaloids are particularly potent when consumed, which is why many medical professionals do not suggest any internal use and only limited topical use instead. As with any new herbal remedy, check with a trained herbalist or medical professional, as some of the complications of this high alkaloid content can affect the health of your liver. Use of comfrey is restricted in some countries such as UK and U.S. so consult your local health specialist before use.

Greater Spearwort

These yellow flowers are members of the buttercup family and are called Greater Spearwort (Ranunculus lingua). They are growing on the damp edge of the pond in the Charlton Down Nature Reserve. There are over 600 species of Ranunculus in the world and this is one of 35 species that occur in Britain.

Tiger Cranefly

I saw this odd insect on a hogweed flowerhead. It is something new to me. It is rather magnificently named the Tiger Cranefly (Nephrotoma flavescens) because of the colouring and pattern if not for any behavioural characteristics. It is harmless enough, and feeds on pollen and nectar.

Pellucid Hoverfly

It is undeniable that there are fewer insects around than there used to be even ten or twenty years ago. The change is dramatic when compared with my youth and childhood which is a very long time ago. On a warm summer afternoon like yesterday there was hardly a creature on the wing in the village nature reserve. There are currently swathes of flowering plants and grasses. Nothing really remarkable – most obvious are the tall stands of various umbellifera, like hog weed and cow parsley with their large flattened flowerheads, providing hundreds of thousands of tiny white flowers full of nectar and pollen. A potential feast for insects. The creamy white background of the blooms makes it easy to see any feeding insects. There were only or two noticeable.

The first one I saw was this unusual insect that looked at first like a bee but had markings on the one pair of true wings. The second pair were reduced and these are called halteres – that signalled it as a type of fly (Dipteran, not Hymenopteran). Looking up the identification back home, I found out it was a Pellucid or Great Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens) which is more characteristic on bramble flowers although it is also seen on others like the umbellifers. Pellucid means translucently clear; and you can see that there is a band of segments on the abdomen nearest to the thorax that looks a cream colour – because you can actually see the intestines through the clear integument. Why does it mimic a bee? Well the adult female needs to be in disguise when laying her eggs inside the nests of wasps and bumble bees. The hoverfly larvae feed on waste matter and bee/wasp larvae when they hatch out.

Blackberry 1

Another of the commonest wild plants is the bramble (Rubus fruticosus)and it can be quite a nuisance too. Its sprawling, spreading, intertwining growth habit means that it spreads with ease and can soon reach out over paths and catch you as you walk by. You can’t miss them in Charlton Down. No-one ever seems to manage them – even while there is a great eagerness to mow down and cut back every other sign of natural wildlife on a regular basis. We more than tolerate them for the promise of the berries to collect in the autumn. Buds quickly turn to blooms (white or pink), and flowers rapidly convert to green fruits. Whether these develop into luscious black berries is another matter. So weather dependant. My mouth is watering at the prospect of collecting in due course the fruit from the orchard too, for making blackberry and apple crumble!

Herb Robert

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) seems able to survive almost anywhere. I have seen it at the foot of hedgerows, in the undergrowth beneath trees, and in really hostile habitats like the angle crack in concrete at the junction of walls and paths, and on stone steps in Charlton Down. I think the colour of the foliage is dependent on the degree of shade and moisture in which the plant is growing – so that the redder leaves and stems are on plants in the drier places. They are low-growing creeping plants with much-divided leaves and hairy stems. There are small pink flowers and lovely long pointed beak-like seed capsules that are the give-away sign that they are members of the cranesbill family of plants.

Dog Roses

There is something special about Dog Roses. Somehow it seems a special treat to see them in the hedgerows. Their pale pink petals so fragile, tender and ephemeral, their colour changing with the degree of light and shade. Dog roses are blooming this week in the village playing field (Olympic Park), the Charlton Down Nature Reserve, and the place I call the ‘Meadow’ on the north side of Charlton Down – to name just a few of the easily accessible spots where you can enjoy them. In these locations there are only isolated rose bushes but sometimes the whole hedgerow is adorned with them; I have included some pictures like this from a walk on Charminster Down taken several years ago.