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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 July 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 278.

Butterfly week.

Its been a lovely week on the whole. Lots of sunny weather, very little rain (not really enough), but not so breathtakingly hot as in the south. In fact we have pottered along between 21 and 23C most days which has been enjoyable and comfortable. We have also avoided the massive electric storms; its overcast today with a little light rain (again, not really enough, particularly for all the seedlings I put out last week), but it is set to be sunny with 24C again tomorrow.

With all this fair weather we have been out a lot; in fact almost every day, and the garden has been neglected, except for Thursday when I cut and trimmed the grass, cut the 'hay' (mostly geraniums and hogweed) and  watered liberally. Its a good time of year for butterflies, and this being the second reasonable summer in succession there are signs that populations have been replenished after a run of poor years. Common Blues and Ringlets, in particular are really abundant up here. It is also quite an early season, which enouraged me to spend a particularly sunny and warm noon last Saturday at one of our local White-letter Hairstreak sites.

This elusive little butterfly spends most of its time around the tops of elm trees. You might think that it would have suffered after dutch elm disease, and it does seem to favour reasonably sized trees, but most of the wych elm around here suckers when attacked, and the new growths live for some 25 years until they are big enough to be attacked by the bark beetle again, and this seems big enough for the hairstreak. There were few if any records in Northumberland until the last 20 years, and it may be another new arrival on the wings of climate change, although it is so static in its habits that it seems a rather improbable candidate for rapid spread. Be that as it may, given large sheltered elm trees with a south aspect at low altitude, it now can be found in several parts of the county.

Finding the butterflies really is a binocular job. The following view, of a tiny butterfly in the crown of an elm tree, is typical.

Butterfly week.

However, the hairstreaks do fly lower on occasion, sometimes to feed on flowers. This is a species I had never photographed before, so when one flew down close I got so excited that several shots were spoilt by camera shake! However, the final photo came out quite well. The name of the butterfly comes from the white W on the hind wing. I was very surprised to see four individuals apparently closely wedded to a large oak tree. This made me hope they were Purple Hairstreaks, but they weren't! Perhaps they visited the oak to feed off 'honey dew' (a poetic name for aphid frass!).

Hutton Roof

The fiollowing day we went to Hutton Roof, which is on the borders of old Westmorland and north Lancashire, just to the east of the M6, south of J36. A little road climbs up through Clawthorpe from the A6070, and a footpath transects this Cumbria Wildlife Trust limestone reserve. I have to admit that my main reason for attending was to see butterflies again, as this is a famous locality for High-brown Fritillaries (and Dark-green Frits, and, earlier, Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries too! We were not disappointed, and has some excellent views of High-brown Frits while eating our sandwiches!

Hutton Roof

We also saw many other butterfles including the Northern Brown Argus which feeds on the abundant rock-rose there, and Graylings. When we reached the main area of limestone pavement, there were many excellent plants including the two limestone ferns Dryopteris submontana and Gymnocarpium robertianum.

It was nice to see southern chalk plants such as Squinancywort, Asperula cynanchica and Inula conyza. Here is the asperula.

We were pleased to run into a considerable populations of the Dark-red Helleborine orchid, Epipactis atrorubens, which is indeed often a good dark red here.

This is the best known, possibly at present the only, site in the country where Dark-red Helleborine grows in company with the common Broad-leaved Helleborine, E. helleborine and hybridises with it. The hybrid goes by the wonderful name E. x schmalhausenii, which always reminds me of the television comedy 'Allo, 'Allo! I think this group are all the hybrid.

Back to the garden; verticals

Most of the striking subjects go up rather than sideways at this time of year. The next photo is typical. The pink is Francoa sonchifolia, and the yellow and white are both forms of Verbascum chaixii, which can also be a pale pink here. The latter sows around and is ever-present, but not planned.

Back to the garden; verticals

Ligularia przewalskyii is very vertical!

The ligularia is just part of the tremendous show in Sheila's perennial border at this time of year.

Acanthus spinosus, which flourishes here in a surprising amount of shade, is another striking vertical.

Across the front path from the acanthus, a collection of astilbes form a companion welcome to the entrance.

Even Roscoea beesiana forms a vertical of a kind.

I mentioned the 'pink dandelion' Crepis incana, last week, and it is now at its best in several places.

Staying with the pink theme, I grew a batch of Dianthus haematocalyx from seed two years ago, and two have now made quite sizeable plants in sand beds in full sun. These are not the celebrated serpentine endemic from north-west Greece, ssp. pindicola, but D. haematocalyx ssp. haematocalyx from the Olimbos region, which is a looser but still attractive subject in its own right.

Checking the name of the next subject, Rosularia chrysantha, on the internet, I was confronted by my own entry from 2010, so I don't know how generally it is grown. I had just acquired it then, and grew it in a pot under glass. It clearly survived the 2010 winter alright, so it must be very hardy. I soon found out that it is not a very suitable subject for pot culture, as it is very floppy in flower, but it roots as soon as you look at it in sand, and I planted it out last year in the south-facing sand-bed where it is much more suited and it thrives there, flowering in July.

Finally, another spreader, which I see I celebrated in July 2010! I have an excuse for repeating myself, not only that Teucrium pyrenaicum is a reliable, charming, long-lived subject for a well-drained, sunny spot, but that we saw a good deal of it three weeks ago in the Pyrenees, where it covers schistose rocks at moderate altitudes. The second photo is from the wild, from the Col de Rause, near Seix where we were staying in the east-central French Alps, a charming but acidic region largely bereft of good flowers.

To go full circle, by far the best feature of the Col de Rause were the stunning Purple-edged Copper butterflies! Its an ill wind etc.

Stop Press. Its pouring with rain!


I was completely thrown by a newspaper article the other day that announced that a deadly poisonous plant had reappeared after near-extinction, namely the corncockle, Agrostemma githago. Corncockles were an attractive feature of almost every cornfield in the 19th century, but had become essentially extinct through modern agricultural methods. In view of the statement that one capsule of the large seeds apparently contains enough poison to kill a horse, one wonders of it was especially targetted by Victorian agronomists, and to what extent Victorian wheat flour was safe to eat. The toxic principles are apparently saponins, notably agrostemmin.

It must be 10 years since I visited a local Council reclamation scheme near Gateshead where corncockles were being grown in thousands, together with poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds to make a colourful approximation to the cornfields of our ancestors. I confess that a few seeds found my way into my pocket (enough to kill a horse, it seems!) and I have grown corncockles every year, both in the defunct botanic garden, in the hay meadow (now also defunct, it has been mown weekly apparently) and in my own garden where they self-sow. I have also sent lots of seed to the AGS seed exchange. Enough to kill several horses it seems! Perhaps enough is enough. I find it hilarious however, that whereas Country Park authorities strive to reintroduce the rare corncockle, other Local Authority Departments are now publicising its danger and are seeking to eradicate it!!

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