Thursday, 24 September 2015

On the verge!

After my last post on goldfinches, several people said that they thought that I'd lost the plot a bit.

Litter and weeds.
So this week I have grounded myself firmly back at Paxton Pits, looking down instead of up, scuffing my feet through the weeds and litter on the south shore of the Sailing Lake. It's not really on the Nature Reserve, but I often stop here on the way home to have a look around.

People park here to feed the ducks or just to stare at the lake. It's a great place to bird-watch from but I can't ignore all the jetsam from MacDonald's amid the cigarette packets, beer cans and Red Bull bottles. Today there's a discarded pack of playing cards scattered about, which makes me want to picture the situation that led to this odd assemblage of items. I assume that they all came from the same car.

"How depressing!" you might think. But I know I can deal with the litter on Friday. So, after taking photos and searching fruitlessly for any item that has a name or address on it, I have a look around for something more uplifting.

The road verge here has quite a few familiar and striking plants that are not common on the Reserve. It reminds me of a roadside I once photographed in Chicago, bringing back vivid memories of our honeymoon trip across America where I eagerly enquired about everything that was unfamiliar to me.

Wild carrot
Alongside Chicago's Morton Arboretum, the highway had a broad, scruffy verge that ran beneath an untidy array of power lines with pylons tilting this way and that. The sward was dominated by frothy white umbellifers called "Queen Anne's Lace". Scrawny purple-blue dandelions reached above them in places and I recognised the fleshy pods of milkweed; the main food-plant of the huge monarch butterflies that were migrating across the road at the time. What I didn't know until later was that most of the roadside plants in the Mid-West originated from Europe.

It turned out that "Queen Anne's Lace" was the same wild carrot that we have at Paxton Pits and the "blue dandelion" was chicory, which I am looking at now. Our invasion of the New World resulted in almost our entire flora being transported across the USA from East to West. Rat's-tail plantain likes trampled ground, it spread along the tracks and wagon trails so rapidly that the Native Americans called it "White-man's Footprint".

After John Deere invented his "Sod-buster" plough, the last of the tall-grass prairie was ploughed up and the native flora was replaced by our European wildflowers, garden flowers and our agricultural crops. Wheat was brought in from Russia and the iconic tumbleweed came with it. Some of our plants, such as buckthorn and purple loosestrife became extremely invasive.

International trade is a two-way street. We sent the Americans a bunch of weeds and they sent us potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, maize, squashes and beaver skin hats. Of course, America's weeds eventually made it to our shores in bundles of cotton and ship-loads of timber. At Paxton Pits we have yellow clumps of American evening primrose growing out of bare gravel amid purple stands of willowherb. It's not very invasive because it can't compete with native plants away from its favoured habitat that typically occurs after fires. It probably found its way to us along the railway from London.

Meanwhile, back at the Sailing Lake a rather pretty pink flower is spreading fast. After several attempts to eradicate it by chemical, by fire and by mower, it is still here, creeping over the tops of all the native plants to form dense mounds of leaves with clover-like flower heads popping up randomly. It is crown vetch and we don't want it to reach the Reserve.

Crown vetch.
This is a Eurasian plant that also grows in Africa. It was probably brought to the UK to feed livestock or to cover eroded banks, but it is far too successful at escaping for anyone to risk planting it. This is another plant that we have deliberately exported to North America where it is still being planted despite being identified as a problem. Not only does it quickly get out of control, but it is also toxic to horses. One author says that if you don't want to attract deer, don't plant it as they love it.

Leaving the Sailing Lake, let's go back to the garden at the visitor's centre. Our garden pond was completely rebuilt only two years ago and it holds a thriving population of great crested newts. This summer the pond has completely filled itself with vegetation and most of it is foreign.

We are all familiar with Canadian pond-weed. (Guess where that came from!) More dominant in our pond is New Zealand stone crop. We would love to get rid of it but it is everywhere along the river and soon reintroduces itself after it is removed.

This week, a visitor identified another new plant in the pond. Water primrose is another American plant that simply thrives in our climate and soon covers the entire surface of ponds. If the identification is correct, we will have to take stern measures against it.

I feel like a decent walk after all that. Next time, let's take a stroll along the Ouse Valley Way and just see what turns up.