Over the summer months my eye has been distracted by all the little creatures that move – butterflies and moths, dragonflies and beetles, and all manner of other insects – but now that it’s winter and those creatures have mostly disappeared (you’ll notice one crept in to one of my photos!), my eye is again drawn to the more static beauty that surrounds me. Take, for example, this small grove of trees at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park.
I spent perhaps an hour here the other day, looking in wonder at the incredible variety of tiny lichens and bryophytes to be found on the tree trunks. I haven’t tried to identify these but I’m determined to return to them over the coming months to see which I can put names to and find out more about. For now, I just want to share their beauty.
Americans call it the Hoary Rosette lichen but the Brits don’t appear to have a common name for this pretty little lichen, Physcia aipolia. I found it flourishing on wooden fence railings alongside the local coastal path so it obviously thrives in an exposed and salt-windswept location. Officially, it is usually found on the well-lit (I presume that’s sunlit rather than under lamp-posts) nutrient-rich wood of all manner of trees, their twigs and bark.
Its thallus (a plant body that doesn’t have stems, leaves, roots or veins) is foliose (has a lobed, leaf-like shape) and its apothecia (the cup-shaped fruiting bodies) have white rims, with dark brown or black centres. Physcia aipolia is widespread and common in Britain, though it does seem to prefer the slightly warmer and perhaps wetter climes of the south and west.
Since moving to the seaside two months ago I have been thoroughly enjoying exploring my new surroundings and a particular favourite has been the walk from Penarth to Lavernock, a very small 1.5km section of the Wales Coastal Path.
Despite its short length, it can take me rather a long time to walk because the path is bordered with all manner of trees, shrubs and wildflowers, so my eye is constantly drawn to checking these out.
I am fast discovering that the abundance of flora supports a wonderful array of fauna: flies and bees are flocking to the freshly opened flowers of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), recently arrived migrant Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) are announcing their arrival with their familiar onomatopoeic song while recharging their batteries on flying insects, and various species of terrestrial snails sleep, slide and slither amongst the leaves.
There’s also a huge diversity of lichens, presumably much encouraged by the Welsh rains, the occasional wild winds, and the clean and salty seaside air.
Here and there gaps in the trees and shrubs reveal tantalising glimpses of the fascinating geology this coast is famous for (I have yet to venture down the cliffs but that will soon happen).
Boats and ships chug up and down the Bristol Channel; planes from Cardiff airport fly off overhead to foreign shores; the lighthouse on Flatholm beckons; and views of Penarth’s iconic pier abound.
But most of all I love the places – and there are many – where the foliage closes in overhead, to create little tunnels of vegetation. I find there’s something magical about such spaces, a little like stepping through the wardrobe door to emerge in a real-life Narnia.
I had my first wander around Grangemoor Park yesterday and I’ll definitely be going back, though perhaps when it’s a little drier underfoot. With an extensive area of grass and scrub that rises up to two central mounds (from which you get quite good 360-degree views over Cardiff), this land wasn’t always a park. You have only to look at old maps to see that, once upon a time, the River Ely meandered through Penarth Moors here but, once the river was realigned, the hollows thus created were used as one of Cardiff’s rubbish tips. When the tip was full, Cardiff Council had a load of underground drains built, as well as ventilation pipes to allow the methane to escape, covered the lot with tons of clay – hence the very soggy ground, edged it all around with a solid stone wall, and changed its designation to a park in 2000.
That may sound like a sad history but, according to locals, the park now hosts quite a broad range of flora and fauna, and I certainly saw many of the stirrings of Spring. There were bumblebees and flies, a butterfly and a ladybird, masses of primroses almost hidden under bushes, golden coltsfoot and dandelions in bloom all around and horsetail pushing through everywhere, as well as incredibly vibrant lichens and a healthy growth of Oak curtain crust fungi. I will be going back!
I haven’t been finding much fungi lately, partly because of my house move (taking up my foraying time and I’m also still exploring my new environment) and partly, I guess, because of the weather (we seem to swing from unseasonably mild and spring-like one day to bitterly cold and hailing the next so the fungi, if they’re smart, will be biding their time before sending out fruiting bodies). What I am seeing a ton of though is lichen, covering the trunks of trees, camouflaging slabs of concrete, coating old lamp posts, carpeting the tops of stone walls. The complexity of their structures, the multiplicity of their designs and the variegation in their colours are wondrous to behold.
My Christmas holiday was spent exploring Cornwall with a friend, so I thought I’d share a few of the natural delights I saw along the way. On our first day we visited a charming old church at St Just-in-Roseland, an ancient place where St Just the Martyr has been honoured since around 550AD.
The present church, dating from the 1260s, is surrounded by a large graveyard set in a semi-tropical garden. I was particularly taken with the quantity and colours of the magnificent mosses and luxuriant lichens, and with this lovely verse about aging gracefully.
From my reading I’ve discovered that these cup lichen – Cladonia, by name – are what reindeer and caribou like to eat most. Well, I did see a jolly looking man wearing a bright red jacket walk past just before I took these photos, but I doubt there’s enough Cladonia in my local park to keep Santa’s sleigh-pullers going for more than a kilometre of their round-the-world trip in December, so I don’t think he was Father Christmas looking for potential refuelling stops!
I don’t know exactly which species of Cladonia I’ve found (and I haven’t yet waded through the 42-page key I downloaded!) and it seems you need a certain level of scientific vocabulary to determine this anyway (the first 5 pages of the key are devoted to a glossary of terms!) but I love the common names many of them have: Pixie cup lichen and Red-fruited pixie cup, Lipstick powderhorn, Trumpet lichen and Felt horn lichen, Dragon lichen, Wand lichen and British soldiers. The references to the colour red and to lipstick are due to the red-coloured fruit that appear on top of their goblet-shaped stalks (podetia). Unfortunately, there is only the merest hint of red in the photo above but, if I do manage to see them in full fruiting display, I’ll post another blog to show you.