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Wildlife Garden blog

3 Posts tagged with the bluebell tag

The rich warbling song of the blackcap has welcomed us into work over the past 2 weeks! (you can hear an Eurasian blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, as recorded by Patrick Aberg here). Not only that but we've had robins nesting just above the threshold of our shed with the accompanying chatter of baby birds anticipating food, holly blue butterflies visiting clusters of fresh holly flowers, sightings of orange tip, brimstone, peacock and speckled wood butterflies, tadpoles in the main pond, the occasional glimpse of a fox cub, and many more signs that Spring has well and truly sprung.


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A speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) resting on false brome - one of its larval food plants.


The mosaic of ground flora throughout the different habitats in the Garden is changing by the day with a particular blue haze and glorious scent of bluebells in the woodland areas.


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Bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.


Note the spread compared to 12 years ago,  below,  when the woodland glade was less open than it is today.


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Woodland glade in 2003.


But how many of them are the native British species (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) rather than hybrids or the invasive Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)? The scented plants for sure, but what about their relatives?


Museum Botanist, Fred Rumsey explains some interbreeding:


"It's that time of the year again when our woods turn azure with one of our favourite wild-flowers. The cool dry winter has held things back; results from the Museum's online survey on flowering times has shown that over the last few years flowering has in some years commenced almost a month later than in some others, the variation making predictions as to the effects of global warming more difficult.


For some weeks the show has been building in the Wildlife Garden, where, in spite of our best efforts, the majority of our plants show the influence of Spanish bluebells. In this respect our Garden is typical of urban gardens throughout Britain.


The two bluebells are genetically very similar with their distinctions maintained only by their geographic isolation, because they interbreed freely where they meet and the vigorous hybrids are confusingly intermediate in all respects.


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Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica in an urban garden in south London.

© Naomi Lake


Three hundred years of British gardening has undone several thousand years of glorious isolation - Pandora's potting shed door can't now be closed but we can all act responsibly to prevent further spread into the truly wild places as yet unsullied by the paler-flowered, scentless, blue-pollened invader. In the meantime I will still appreciate the spectacle in our Garden, they may not all be 'pure' but they are still beautiful!"


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More bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.


Thank you Fred! You can hear more from him on the main differences between bluebell species in the video on our website.


And in the past week I have been out and about in the woods admiring pure blooming bluebells and contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey. Here are some May Day highlights from woodland near Ashford in Kent:


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A magnificent display of bluebells in Hunt's Wood, near Woodchurch

© Peter Buckley


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Another brilliant display - something for us to aim for in our own Wildlife Garden.

© Peter Buckley


You too can help us with our research by contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey.


And finally, a small diversion: although our fox cubs are shy, the adult male is more relaxed, spending time around the pond banks to the delight of our visitors, but not so to our nesting moorhens.

Our male fox relaxing in the Wildlife Garden.

© Daniel Osborne


Spring is marching on and keeping us all very busy. As the season progresses colour becomes more varied and the changes are noticed daily - its an exciting time!.


The dates of first flowers are early compared to last year's late Spring: trees in blossom this month - several of which first flowered in March - included Wild cherry (Prunus avium), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), bird cherry (Prunus padus), apple (Malus domestica), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and last week - also earlier than in previous years - elder (Sambucus nigra).

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Apple blossom, Malus domestica, from the 'Brownlees Russett' variety in the Wildlife Garden

© Jonathan Jackson


On the ground the variety of texture, scent and colour is changing even more dramatically, especially in woodland areas, which are now bright with whites: sweet woodruff (Galium odorata), wild garlic (Allium ursinum), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea); blues: bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), bugle (Ajuga reptans), wood speedwell (Veronica montana); and yellows: a few primroses and celendines remain with the more recent flowering of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon); and, of course, the deep pink of red campion (Silene dioica) as well as grasses wood millet (Milium effusum), false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) and more.


While in water, the delicate flowers of bogbean float daintily in the upper pond...


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Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata
© Jonathan Jackson


But the star of April is undoubtedly cowslip. In grassland areas cowslips have provided a long season - a few were spotted in flower on 25 February; ten days earlier than the first cowslip flower last year -  and there has been a succession ever since.


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Cowslip, Primula veris
© Derek Adams


Cowslips were once a common sight throughout April and May on chalk downland, and in meadows and pastures as well as hedge banks and railway embankments throughout downland areas of Britain.


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Cowslip on Wye National Nature Reserve
© Natural England


But although now sadly a rare sight generally, cowslips are still plentiful on nature reserves such as Wye NNR managed by Natural England and there are many conservation projects encouraging the return of cowslips to their former habitats…


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Cowslips in a restored meadow on the north downs in Kent this week.
© Peta Rudduck


And, some say they are returning to road sides and motorway embankments. In gardens once established they will reward you by continuing to spread both vegetatively and by seed. Our own chalk downland and pond-side meadow habitats have been crowded with cowslips all month.


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Chalk downland, with cowslips, in the Garden.

© Jonathan Jackson


And there are still a few in bud in our meadow where the flowering has been delayed due to recent grazing (at the end of March our sheep were here for a short visit, to graze the too-lush grasses in the meadow).


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March grazing in the meadow
© Sue Snell


In rural areas cowslips were traditionally harvested to make wine which was also taken medicinally. They are rich in nectar and, in former times when cowslips were a common sight, children would pick flowers and sip the nectar. Here in our Wildlife Garden, the nectar is strictly for the bees and early butterflies including the brimstone. Cowslip is also the food plant of the rare Duke of Burgundy fritillary. Other insects benefit, including pollen beetles...


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A pollen beetle, Meligethes aeneus, pays a visit to a cowslip flower.
© Jonathan Jackson


Once cowslips are in bloom I feel that spring is really, truly here and although I want these beautiful flowers to last a little longer, there are now many seed heads amongst the blooms. Not so radiantly yellow, but it's good news for next year.


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Cowslip seed heads

© Jonathan Jackson


You can find out more about cowslips in folklore from Roy Vickery. If you are out and about this weekend and spot the violets of bluebells rather than the yellows of cowslips, do join in with the Museum's survey.


And at the end of May visit us here in the Garden and discover more about Britain's most common flower, the stinging nettle. Nettle Weekend is 31 May to 1 June. More on that soon...




A wren searching for insects amongst the seed heads of wild angelica with blackbirds and robins singing nearby, a moorhen family feeding on a pond, great tits and blue tits singing in the tree canopy and sheep grazing contentedly in the meadow… it’s hard to believe I had just crossed the busy Cromwell Road seconds ago and was now starting the day at my place of work, the Museum’s Wildlife Garden.


Actually the constant hum of the nearby traffic becomes insignificant in this setting behind the screen of plane trees in the Museum grounds, for many years with its entrance hidden away at the end of the West Lawn, but now made more accessible via a new entrance outside the Darwin Centre of the Museum’s Orange Zone.


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This Wildlife Garden – the Museum’s first living, permanent exhibition and the inspiration of Museum botanist Clive Jermy - opened in 1995 following five years of planning, landscaping and planting. It was designed to illustrate a range of semi-natural habitats found in lowland Britain such as chalk downland, meadow, woodland, hedgerows, heathland and fen and ponds.


From the start the main aims of the garden were to:


… illustrate the potential for habitat creation and wildlife conservation in the inner city; to provide an educational resource for visitors to the Museum; to promote an understanding of lowland Britain’s flora and fauna; and to provide a resource for naturalists and students to undertake species recording and ecological monitoring work.



It has since also become an area for peace and contemplation where visitors and staff can quietly observe wildlife in the city. 

Near the garden’s entrance wild marjoram, salad burnet and lady’s bedstraw are among 70 or so plant species that illustrate chalk downland; that is until the sheep came in August to graze the fading flowers and grasses.


Sheep can be seen grazing our meadows in late summer to autumn






Heather, gorse and bristle bent make up the heathland – recently restored with a grant from Western Riverside Environmental Fund 


The paths meander through the garden habitats. Hints of fen wetland with iris, ragged robin, marsh fern and sedges may be seen close to the pond and reedbed. Woodland areas include oak, silver birch, field maple, hornbeam and holly. Primroses, bluebells, greater stitchwort, red campion and wood millet are just some of the plants that create a woodland floor in spring with crab apple and wild cherry provide blossom in the canopy.



Bluebells earlier this year


In late summer, the woodland areas are darker, with different shades of green and hints of autumn – dog’s mercury, enchanter’s night-shade and the occasional pink of red campion. Blue tits and long-tailed tits are commonly seen flying in the canopy of silver birch and oak, searching for late caterpillars, bugs and other insects – while jays are busily gathering acorns and hazelnuts. Blackbirds toss and turn leaf-litter and other debris while robins follow us around in hope of a few worms or insects turned up by our work.


Countryside management techniques are practiced on a small scale in the care of this living exhibition. Hazel is coppiced and woven into stock-proof fencing. Grassland is grazed. Hedges are laid. 

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Newly laid hedge


Since the garden opened over 2,300 species of plants and animals have been recorded and there are many more to discover. Perhaps you can help us? This weekend we will be hosting our Hedgerow Harvest event where you and your family can take watch a professional hedge layer at work, meet hedgehogs and take part in pond dipping, soil surveys and more.


From March to October we regularly hold special events to encourage our visitors to discover what could be in their own garden and the joys of the British countryside, so keep an eye on our website for upcoming events.


We hope to see you here, but if you can’t make it to the Museum, you can find out what we’re doing by reading our new blog. Together with fellow wildlife gardeners, I’ll be sharing some of our observations through the seasons and providing snapshots of our working day with seasonal updates and stories about some of the plants, insects and animals that fill the Museum’s living and working collection.