Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

September 2017

Photos David Fenwick and Pamela Tompsett

Berries high and low


Whilst it is a little early to be thinking about Christmas holly, have you noticed the abundance of berries, still green, on the tree near the main church gate? This tree has usually fruited well but this year looks as though it will be better than ever, probably the result of good pollination in the spring. Holly, as the Christmas carol tells us, bears small white flowers in the spring and so is dependent upon the weather and insects at that time. However, there is one insect which has small caterpillars in spring which eat holly flowers, buds and early leaves. This is the larval stage of the Holly Blue butterfly and it is always a delight to see this neat little blue butterfly flitting about the holly trees in spring since most blue butterfly species are not seen until mid-summer and then mostly in grass meadows.

There is another berry which is fully coloured at this time of year, not on a tree but low down near the ground and this too may be seen in the churchyard. It is the fruiting body of the Cuckoo Pint (Arum maculatum). There are many local names, including snakeshead, adder’s root, devils and angels, cows and bulls, cuckoo-pint, Adam and Eve, bobbins, naked girls, naked boys, starch-root, wake robin, friar’s cowl, sonsie-give-us-your-hand, jack in the pulpit, cheese and toast and some others disapproved of by the Victorians!

Arums grow up from underground tubers and their broad arrow shaped leaves may be seen all summer. Within the leaf cluster there is often a short stem with a swelling at the base looking nothing like a flower at all. It develops a broad leaf-like sheath enveloping a basal ring of female flowers surmounted by a ring of male flowers, the inflorescence terminates in a pencil shaped spike coming up from the flower below. This spadix heats up producing a scent which is attractive to small flies known as ‘owl midges’ a Psychcoda species, which enter the floral chamber past a ring of stiff bristles and become trapped there for a day or so which ensures that they perform the necessary pollination. After this the flower wilts and the hairs which formed the prison door also perish allowing the prisoners to escape. It is now, in the autumn, that we observe the brightly coloured bunch of berries lighting up the hedge bottom or ditch.

In 1440, the nuns of Syon Abbey, used the large tuberous roots to make starch for altar cloths and other church linen, communion cloths in particular. Hopefully they took great care in handling this Wild arum which can cause severe allergic reactions and is POISONOUS, so PLEASE DO NOT HANDLE OR EAT!!

There are a range of Arum plants that grow in Tropical countries and one known as the ‘Titan arum’ may be seen in the Tropical biome at the Eden Project. It flowers occasionally and is the world’s largest flower. It has a nauseating smell which, whilst attracting pollinating flies and beetles, tends to keep the visitors at a distance!

Churchyard – You may have noticed that an old ivy-covered tree trunk came down across the path towards Merritt’s grave. This has been dealt with and the stump left to provide a habitat for a wide range of beetles and other animals.