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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Colours and shapes

Posted on December 28 2016 at 1:43:56 0 comments

Hedge shapes

Mary Green admires the local landscape in January.

January always seems the darkest time of year, though already the days are getting longer and the evenings lighter. By this time all the leaves and nearly all the berries have disappeared from the hedges.

Plants have died down and the grass lost its colour. What you see now is the shape of the trees and of the landscape. Even grasses take on a new form and colour. It can be a very beautiful time, and a good time to enjoy the colours and shapes of the countryside.

I like to look at the trees and see their different shapes at this time of year. A good one to start off with is hazel. This doesn’t grow into a stereotypical tree-shape. Instead it comes up in a set of quite narrow trunks, a sort of self-coppicing.

So it makes a fan shape from the bottom, the individual trunks being smooth and straight if it is allowed to grow freely. Hazel is often coppiced as well, to keep it in control and to use the wood. It is the kind of wood you can use almost without working it.

One thing it makes is the sticks used by Morris dancers. I have a lovely clothes-line prop made from a straight hazel branch with a natural fork at the end. Thinner branches were often woven to make hurdles to fence sheep pens. Hazel twigs, which are straight and forked, are also used traditionally for water-divining.

There have been many attempts to explain this phenomenon: all I know is that it works and people really do find underground water this way. Now that scientists have confirmed that trees communicate with each other routinely, it is perhaps less surprising that they respond to the pull of water.

Divining sticks are often called “wands” and hazel wands were traditionally used by magicians. It is the tree of divination.

In January hazel catkins are growing well, having started the previous autumn. They will be long and dangly by the end of the month. These catkins are the male flowers. If you look carefully from now on you should see the female flowers, tiny red ones, which catch the pollen from the catkins.

The pollen is wind-borne and therefore doesn’t need insects: that’s why these flowers can come so early in the year. You can easily recognise hazel in January from its tree shape and catkins.

Another tree you can identify by its shape in this often dark month is the alder. This is rather a neglected tree, perhaps because it doesn’t have pretty leaves in spring or stunning autumn colours.

The mid-green leaves just go a bit dead and fall off. But at this time of year it has a beautiful shape. It carries its fruit from last year, small cones, and its catkins for this year. These are not quite as spectacular as the hazel’s “lamb’s tails”, but are a lovely reddish-brown and give the tree a fuzzy silhouette.

Alders often grow with their roots in water, and there are a lot along the canal here. They suffer a bit from being cut down as “in the way,” and you can recognise a cut alder by its bright orange wood. Alders were used for clog-making, and anything else where they needed to be water-resistant.

Birch trees are beautiful in winter, with silvery bark and fine drooping catkins. They often carry a growth sometimes called “witches’ brooms” which look a bit like birds’ nests.

Birch was traditionally used for making almost everything, but especially for brooms or “birch besoms”, and of course the canes of old-fashioned schoolteachers!

The most impressive tree silhouette is the oak. We are blessed with hundreds of old oaks round here, and a few ancient ones. I suppose the best way to describe the shape is a sort of skeletal cauliflower.

The trunk splits into smaller trunks, which split into branches, which split into smaller branches, which split into twigs, all having the same curly, complex pattern. It’s like the opposite of hazel. Oaks grow very slowly and are very strong and hard because of this. Their shape is very stable.

Sometimes oaks encounter obstacles to their growth, and their response is to grow around and incorporate the obstacle. It’s not uncommon to see oaks growing around old fences, or incorporating smaller trees into their trunks.

To see the true shape you need to see one out in the open. Unfortunately they suffer from being badly cut back sometimes. They need to be trimmed, if it has to be done, to balance their fractal shape and keep to the composition of the tree.

At this time of year oaks are usually totally bare. The acorns have fallen, taken away by squirrels and jays, as well as the leaves. Their bark is as crinkly and complex as their shape, and they are usually full of knobs and nodules.

What we don’t see is that they are still host to hundreds of insects and invertebrates, so that stark tree is actually very much alive. And, of course, its buds have been there since autumn, waiting till April to come into leaf.

The shape of ash trees is harder to define. They can grow in a similar shape to oaks, but are more likely to have straighter, upward-pointing, more erect branches, much simpler in form. And they nearly always have their trunks covered with ivy, which has an affinity with them.

They are a bit smoother than oaks. Their twigs are full of blunt black buds, which give them a distinct shape against the sky at this time of year. Female trees may still carry bunches of “keys”, as their seeds are called.

The only berry you can rely on to still be in fruit at this time of year is ivy, which doesn’t flower till autumn. Even this is black, though, and brings no colour to the hedgerows. Ivy berries are a vital food for birds after most of the other berries have gone.

If the plants are rather monochrome in January, the birds are the opposite. They are getting into their full mating plumage now, and very colourful. Mallard drakes are bright with blues and green, and of course mandarin drakes are in vibrant orange.

Ducks may well start mating at this time, though their normal time is later in February. Robins are at their best, and you notice their red breasts among the bare twigs. Robins sing through the winter, so you are likely to hear their silvery song now that most birds are quiet. Unusually, females sing as well as males.

Another bird you should hear and see is the great-tit. It’s the one with the yellow breast with a bold black stripe down it. Blue tits are smaller and have blue and yellow marking, but don’t have that bold stripe.

he great tit has been singing since December, and you probably hear it all the time in January without realising it. It has a strong two-tone call (“Great-tit, great-tit”). Apparently the intensity of yellow is a marker of a well-fed healthy great-tit, related to the caterpillars it eats, and the females will look for the yellowest one.

One of the best reminders of colour in winter is the flash of a kingfisher. They are usually around our canal, rivers and reservoirs unless the winter is very harsh. No wonder the old name for the bird was the “halcyon”, a word which came to mean a joyous time.

Traditionally they were associated with the midwinter turn of the year, when it was even believed they started nesting (perhaps because they can have two broods a year). They are certainly made more visible by the lack of foliage around.

In a mild January, the first flowers will appear on the ground as well as the catkins in the trees. The first is usually the snowdrop. However, you may well find white dead-nettle, daisies or hogweed.

There is also a lovely early flower called winter heliotrope, growing along the canal near Tardebigge. Last year we even had cherry-plum blossom in January.

One thing you notice about native winter flowers is that they are usually white. The colours that flowers produce are mostly to attract pollinating insects – or in rare cases to deter unwanted insects. There are few insects about in January, so the flowers don’t put themselves out to attract them.

Grass which has been left to die off naturally is a lovely sandy colour in winter. Bright green grass is an anomaly at this time, caused by cutting it. Grasses, like lots of perennial flowers, have beautiful seed-heads which often last well into the winter, making structural shapes.

The carrot family – wild carrot, hogweed, angelica – are particularly good for this. But if it is mild, perennial plants will have started to grow back, so you might see the bright green feathery leaves of cow parsley already along the roadsides and footpaths. We certainly did last year.

However, if the weather turns colder, as some forecasts have predicted, we may find snow making the countryside even more monochrome! Unless it is exceptionally severe, snow in January does not affect native wildlife too much.

And at this time of year the weather is very striking, with bright sun, rainbows, starry and moonlit nights and spectacular if rather late sunrises. You can see the weather through the bare trees, defining their shapes. A beautiful time.

Here is a poem I wrote last January.

Snow
As the light comes, the field whitens
And the trees come back smoky with snow
A little covering on the grass and snowdrops
And I have to get my wellies on and go
Out with my camera to catch the lightness
Because it will not last, the delicate outlines
The extraordinary mandarin in snowy reeds
Like a Christmas dessert, the ivy and bryony
Decorating trees, the little marshmallows
On all the dustbin lids, the lovely
Bones of the branches showing clear.
You have to catch the magic when you can
However old you are, you have to rush
Out into the cold where the brightness
Shows clear and new, and may take you
Anywhere, anywhere over the snowy fields.


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