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Subject: ‘Plants’

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Some wild orchids are becoming rare among Britain’s wildflowers

Posted in Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about wildflowers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

English meadow,  picture, image, illustration
The Flowering Fields, including grey wagtail, red cardinal beetle, field vole and various varieties of grass and plants including the Southern Marsh Orchid (top row, far right); picture by Bob Hersey

June is a wonderful month for all Nature lovers, and for the botanist it is the most interesting time of the year because it is now that some of Britain’s most fascinating flowers appear. Among these are the wild orchids with their delightful colours and strange, beautiful shapes; and of the forty different kinds of wild orchids growing in Britain, the Bee and Fly orchids are particularly intriguing.

The large lip of the Bee orchid is deep brown with yellow markings and resembles a large furry bee. The three sepals are bright pink or lilac and as many as a dozen flowers may be found on a single stem.

The Fly orchid although equally common is more difficult to find because it grows in shady areas and its flowers are smaller and less conspicuous. The lip of this flower is chestnut brown with a white or blue crescent in the centre. The two upper true petals are reduced to thin stalks which look very like the antennae of a fly.

It is a sad fact that many of Britain’s native orchids are becoming rare because people pick them not realising that unless they are given a chance to set their seed they will die out altogether. So next time you come across one of these beautiful flowers in the countryside, try to resist the temptation to pick one. It may look lovely in your home, but it will bring joy to a great many more people if you leave it where it is.

The explosive seed pods of the sensitive Wood Sorrel

Posted in Nature, Plants on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about wild flowers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

Spring wild flowers,  picture, image, illustration
Wood Sorrel (top, middle) by R B Davis

Wood Sorrel is one of the most sensitive of our wild plants and in dull or cold weather the flowers close up and droop with their leaves shut up like little tents. When the sun returns the clover-shaped leaves open up and the flowers expand. The wood sorrel also has a novel way of distributing its seeds. These are contained in small capsules which split open suddenly when ripe or when touched, discharging their contents over a distance of several yards.

The Wood Anemone is also known as the Windflower

Posted in Animals, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about wild flowers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

Oak tree and dependents,  picture, image, illustration
Wood Anemone (bottom right) beneath an oak tree by John Rignell

In almost any oak wood at this time of year you may come across two different wild flowers, both with white or very pale leaves. The Wood Anemone is also known as the wind flower from its habit of turning its back to the wind, the blossoms swinging on their slender stems like weather vanes. When there is no wind at all the blossoms point upwards and then it is possible to detect their pleasant but rather faint scent.

The wild flower which resembles a Town Hall clock

Posted in Nature, Plants on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about wild flowers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Nature in May,  picture, image, illustration
The Moschatel (bottom, middle) by R B Davis

A common wild plant which is often overlooked because of its small size and insignificant yellow-green flowers is the Town Hall Clock or Moschatel. You may like to look out for it this month because it is in April that it begins to flower.

It is called the Town Hall Clock because the flower head consists of four separate flowers each facing outwards like a town hall clock, with a fifth flower on top facing upwards. Its other name, Moschatel comes from its scent which resembles musk.

Lichens are reliable indicators of air freshness

Posted in Nature, Plants on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about Lichens first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Lichens, picture, image, illustration
Lichens by Eric Saunders

Lichens are those irregular shaped patches of a redrust or bilious yellow colour which you often see growing on rocks, roof tiles or old tree stumps. A lichen is a mixture of a fungus and an alga. Very simply the fungus gives the form and shape while the alga is the core and makes foodstuffs, using light energy from the sun. One of the commonest lichens is Parmelia Physodes which grows on trees, walls, fences and nearly everywhere where the air is clean. Most lichens can only flourish in clean air but one, Lècanóra Conizaeoides (Con-I-Zee-Oid-Ees), actually seems to prefer the polluted air of towns.

Where did it grow before the air became polluted?

We can only speculate that perhaps it was confined to the slopes of volcanoes where there is always a high concentration of sulphur.

The curiously named Horse-chestnut tree

Posted in Nature, Plants on Wednesday, 12 March 2014

This edited article about the Horse-chestnut tree first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Horse-chestnut, picture, image, illustration
Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit of the Horse-Chestnut by W H J Boot

There are many different opinions about how the horse chestnut obtained its common name, chief among them the horse-shoe like scar on a shoot where the leaf was attached. The little dots in the scar are just like the nails in a horseshoe. But this resemblance may not be the true reason for its name. Many other plants have the word ‘horse’ in their names and this is generally used to mean that they are strong and coarse.

The large brown buds covered with sticky scales are found on the twigs in opposite pairs. Opening out from these buds come the large leaves, each consisting of several leaflets.

The pollination of primroses intrigued Charles Darwin

Posted in Nature, Plants on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about the primrose first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Primroses,  picture, image, illustration
Christmas card with exquisitely painted primroses

The primrose is perhaps the best known of all our spring wild flowers, but have you noticed that there are two distinct types of this flower? These are known as the pin-eyed, and the thrum-eyed. In the pin-eyed primrose the style, or little stem on top of which is the stigma, is long and clearly visible, with the five stamens attached halfway down the tube. In the thrum-eyed kind the style is short and the stamens are at the top of the tube. This arrangement is an aid in pollination, because a bee picks up pollen from the stamens of one and deposits it on the stigma of the other type of primrose.

The complex and mysterious life of the Gall Wasp

Posted in Insects, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

Oak Apples,  picture, image, illustration
Oak Apples and Gall Wasps

If you were to look closely at the twigs of an oak tree in September, you would probably find some peculiar, hard round balls, which look like marbles, growing there.

These ‘marble’ swellings are called galls and they are caused by the grubs of the gall wasp which live inside them.

The type of gall wasp which produces these galls reached Britain less than 150 years ago in galls imported for making ink, and it is about one eighth of an inch long.

For many years naturalists were puzzled by the strange life-cycle of this wasp. Every insect which emerged from the marble galls was female, so naturalists were led to believe that no males of this species actually existed.

Then, just a few years ago, they discovered that there are two distinct generations of these gall wasps born within the course of a single year, the first ‘brood’ consisting of only females, and the second, of both sexes.

In September the wasps, which are all females, emerge from little holes in the marble galls and fly away in search of Turkey Oak trees. There they lay unfertilised eggs on the buds of the tree, and these hatch out and begin to form small galls to protect themselves. The wasps which eventually emerge from these small galls are different from the ones which come out of the marble galls and are of both sexes.

The females from this second brood of wasps lay fertilised eggs on the buds of a common oak and the life cycle is completed. We are back at the beginning of the story, with the grubs inside their marble galls about to emerge as female adults.

But that is not really the end of this very complicated but interesting story. If some galls are kept in a closed glass jar the wasps can be examined when they emerge. But often, instead of the expected gall wasp, a small ichneumon fly emerges. This is an insect that deposits its eggs on the grubs of other insects.

The reason for this surprising occurrence is that after the gall wasp has laid its egg on the bud, a female ichneumon fly has come along, inserted its ovipositor into the gall and laid ITS egg on the grub of the gall wasp! When the ichneumon grub hatches it feeds on the gall wasp grub and kills it. So, instead of a gall wasp coming out of the gall, an ichneumon emerges!

There are other kinds of gall wasps, each insect having its own special kind of gall. In one species, females spend the winter in galls on the roots of oak trees and then climb up the tree and lay their eggs in the buds. Here the grubs cause round, rosy-coloured swellings which are often called ‘oak apples,’ from which, in July, both males and females appear. These ‘oak apples’ are not the same galls as the marble ones we have already mentioned, and are produced by a different kind of gall wasp.

The Empusa can imitate a flower to attract and deceive its prey

Posted in Insects, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 582 published on 10 March 1973.

Hide-away insects,  picture, image, illustration
Hide-away insects including the Flower mantis, cousin of the Empusa by A Oxenham

As it rests motionless, poised on the leaves of a plant, the Empusa looks as harmless, and almost as beautiful as the flower which it tries to imitate. Like its cousins, the Flower Mantis and the Praying Mantis, the Empusa is a deadly deceiver.

Known as the “Little Devil” in the Mediterranean countries where it lives, the Empusa can be distinguished from its cousins by what looks like a Bishop’s Mitre growing out of the top of its head. It has a light green body with touches of rose pink at the edges, with green and white stripes on the underside. With such brilliant colouring this wicked insect has little difficulty in deceiving its prey.

When it is hungry, the Empusa adopts its characteristic stance on the leaves of a bush or a plant to take on the shape of an anemone. This pose is not to protect itself from its enemies, as is the case with leaf-insects, but to mislead insects into believing that it is a flower so that it can entice them within reach of its vicious-looking legs. This means that instead of going in search of its prey, like most other creatures have to, the Empusa can lie in wait for its food to come along.

An unsuspecting insect passing by is instantly attracted by the colour and shape of the ‘flower,’ and as soon as it draws near, receives a sharp blow from the Empusa’s ‘mitre.’ Before it can recover from this shock, the Empusa lashes forward its fearsome forelegs, and the victim is trapped. Once caught in the Empusa’s deadly, unshakable hold, the insect is helpless, and is promptly devoured.

Despite its wicked way of catching prey, and its frightening appearance, the Empusa is not as greedy or as ferocious as its cousins, but it certainly deserves its nickname ‘Little Devil.’

The genius of Alfred Russel Wallace has been dimmed by Darwin’s

Posted in Birds, Historical articles, History, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about Alfred Russel Wallace first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 581 published on 3 March 1973.

Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace,  picture, image, illustration
Loaded with their exotic catches, Bates and Wallace trudged home while their neighbours relaxed in their hammocks by Severino Baraldi

He was a thin, bespectacled, diffident young man, a land survey or by profession, and a botanist by inclination, who was most happy when he was pottering around the English hedgerows and country lanes, looking for specimens. Looking at him, you would never have thought of him as being a robust man, capable of enduring all sorts of hardships. If anything, you would have put him down as being rather a weakling. Which makes the story of Alfred Russel Wallace, all the more incredible.

It is quite possible that Wallace might well have led an obscure and uneventful life if he had not had the good fortune to meet and become the friend of a well known naturalist of the time, known as H. W. Bates. Wallace had an abrupt manner and a withdrawn nature, but there was something about Bates that broke down all his reserve. More than that, the friendship seems to have changed him overnight from an earnest but dull naturalist, into an adventurer who was to risk his life daily in a distant primeval jungle.

His imagination suddenly fired by some books of South American travel he had been reading, Wallace decided that he would like to go there in order to search for specimens. He approached his friend Bates, and put the proposition to him. Would he like to accompany Wallace on a scientific expedition along the banks of the Amazon? Bates agreed to accompany him, and in the April of 1848, the two friends set off on their journey.

Reaching the town of Para, at the mouth of the river Amazon, they rented themselves a house which they used as a base for their early expeditions into the forest. At first Wallace was only conscious of the luxuriant foliage and the immense size of the trees, which often rose to more than eighty feet before they spread out their branches like a vast canopy over everything below. The reckless extravagance of colour that Nature used for her plant life also astonished him as he trod daily along jungle paths bordered by rare orchids and mimosa growing as plentifully as weeds.

But this, as he was soon to learn, was only one aspect of the jungle. The other was ugly and cruel. In holes, only a little way off from the footpaths, great bird-catching spiders lurked. Snakes were everywhere, ready to strike out at the intruder’s legs. Hornets and wasps abounded, and crocodiles lurked on the river banks.

In the night the air was filled with venomous insects which penetrated the muslin sleeping nets and inflicted bites which turned into ugly sores. Most loathsome of all were the vampire bats, which settled on the horses and fed on their blood.

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