Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Old Friend

I Get Confused…….

My friend Serendipity has not got involved in the blog this week, but let me introduce you to another character, the late great Rocky, our previous dog. The possessor of long legs and good lungs, Rocky needed plenty of exercise. (After he died, I calculated that I had walked somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 miles with the dog. Thanks for that, old pal.) I digress. One of our regular walks was in Fleming Park, now a public park, previously a golf course, and prior to that the grounds of a stately home (North Stoneham Park) with extensive landscaping by Capability Brown.

I would entertain myself by looking at the trees, some familiar, some exotic, while the dog was doing disgusting dog things. In the winter there was one tree that was remarkable for the amount of mistletoe it supported, much more than any other specimen in the park, and I was puzzled as to why that should be. What was the reward for mistletoe that it thrived so well in this particular tree? Anyway, without leaves, there was no way I could identify the species, so I had to wait until spring. I forgot of course, but Rocky inadvertently reminded me the following year when he led me to that particular corner and was snuffling around in the undergrowth. Following him, I came across flowers I had never seen before in patches all round the trunk of this tree, pale strange flowers with a purplish tint. I identified them when I got home. Toothwort is a great name, but totally outclassed by its delicious nickname of corpse flower, so-called because of the belief that it only grows from corpses.

It's another parasite, which takes all its nourishment from the roots of other plants. It needs no chlorophyll, so has no green parts, just ghostlike pale flesh and flowers, very spooky. I have found it nowhere else in the park. So what is this tree which carries a heavy parasite load on its high branches and a heavy parasite load on its roots – and yet looks in such good condition? Well, before I try to answer that, let me digress again….

I have done quite a lot of work with solitary bees in the USA. I recall one year being advised that a particular bee would be active ‘when the box elder is in flower’. That was a new one on me, so I asked to see such a tree and it sure was neither a box tree nor an elder. It is in fact a maple (Acer negundo) which was given its name because the leaves look like elder (a bit) and the wood is used for making boxes.

Leaves of silver maple Acer Saccharum

That was one confusing maple. Back to England, I checked my books and reckoned that my mystery tree is Acer saccharinum, going by the deeply serrated leaves Ha! I said, leaping to unjustified conclusions, obviously the sugar maple which gives us maple syrup, and clearly the reason why the parasites thrive on it – the sap is high in nutrients. Well, the second conclusion may or may not be true, but the first isn’t. The maple tree in North America which is harvested for syrup is in fact Acer saccharum. Saccharum, saccharinum? I expect I shall forget the distinction as soon as I close this laptop. Anyway, here is a picture of Rocky’s tree, otherwise known as silver maple.

Thriving silver maple, despite parasites above and below ground

But what about bees? I hear you ask. Let me update you on this year’s nesting of mason bees and leafcutter bees in the various nests we put up. Despite having some locations with great results historically (such as Granny’s garden in rural Suffolk), and despite ‘seeding’ the nests with plenty cocoons due to emerge bang on time, we had very poor results, the worst for sure in years and years of this work. I estimate we have about 5%, if that, of our normal population. I am not clear why, but I have just loaded the car with nests and will be examining the contents in the next month. I will share my conclusions. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the last of the summer ……..