On the Beech

Photo By T. Kebert, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images

…the beechen woods in summer, the far-up cloud of green, translucent leaves, with open spaces full of green, shifting sunlight and shadow. 

W.H. Hudson, Birds and Man, Ch.5., A Wood Wren at Wells.  

Fagus sylvatica L., Common Beech, European Beech

Family: Fagaceae

A northern temperate species, native of Europe and Britain, where it is often the dominant or climax species in woodlands on chalk and limestone hills, and on some acidic, well-drained sands. Although the native range is restricted in the UK (SE England, SE Wales) it has been so widely planted in woods, policies, parks and gardens, as hedges, shelter belts, sometimes pollarded in wood pasture, that it can be found throughout the British Isles. 

It is also one of the most important forestry trees in Europe, and is extensively planted there. The timber has some 250 diverse uses; used ‘in solid’ as a building material indoors in England since at least the 13th century, for stairs and flooring; in cabinet making, high-class joinery, turnery, solid and laminated furniture; for chair frames, often gilded or painted, or turned for Windsor chair parts, steam-bent for half-round chair backs or curved legs; plates, bowls, platters, cooking utensils, toys, bobbins, sports equipment, shoe heels, and tool handles. Beech has long been coppiced for charcoal and firewood – it has high energy potential. Twigs and foliage have been gathered for winter fodder, probably since the Early/Middle Bronze age. 

Useful and beautiful. 

New leaves on beech trees, Gribskov Forest in the northern part of Sealand, Denmark.  By Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA 3.0, malene at mtfoto.dk 

Slender, conical, and graceful in youth, then, with age, achieving a hugely domed, much-branched crown, sometimes self-layering where arching branches touch the ground. The bark is smooth, silver-grey, and very thin; occasionally ridged or rippled. Beech bark is very susceptible to sun scald on open-grown specimens. 

The buds are distinctive, easily recognisable in winter; long, slender and sharp-pointed, clothed in scales that are rich red-brown at the base, paler at the tips clothed in fine tawny hair. They’re disposed at opposite intervals on slightly flexuous (zig-zag), purple-brown twigs marked with lenticels.

Beech Bud, © El Grafo, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Leaves are ovate or obovate, with slightly wavy margins, acute at the tip, each of the parallel veins sports tiny teeth at the margin. Soft-fledged on first flush in late spring, clothed in silky white hairs, they are a brilliant, translucent emerald – the green leaf-light beneath an emergent beech is unsurpassed. 

Photo By Marianne Cornelissen-Kuyt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images 

At maturity, they assume a darker, shining green, paler beneath, retaining long, white-silk hairs in the leaf axils, and on larger veins. The change in hue, and in the tone of the wind sighing through the coarsened leaves in late summer, signals a turn in the seasons.

By early autumn, they have assumed soft yellows, then turning coppery gold, and warm rufous red-brown before falling. In common with young oaks and hornbeams, juvenile beech retain their desiccated leaves overwinter, a phenomenon known as marcescence. 

Photo By Luca Mengoni – Flickr: 108, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

In spring, it bears monoecious, catkin-like flowers, male and female in separate clusters on the same twig; males are pale, golden, long-stalked and pendent, the stouter stalked females upright, hairy, and in a bristly cupule. The seed, beech nut or mast, is triangular, woody and glossy brown, and seed productivity is variable; good mast years occur every 5-8 years.

Photo By Aiwok, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons Images 

The nuts, which ripen in October, are a valuable food source for squirrels, wood pigeons, woodpeckers and jays, and their forgotten stashes play a major role in seed dispersal. They can take 2–6 years to germinate. The first seed leaves are relatively large, and perhaps this confers major advantage to beech seedlings, which show a remarkable capacity to establish and grow in the shade beneath a canopy of established trees. 

Photo By W. Bulach, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images 

The Associates of Beech

The all-round utility of Common Beech isn’t restricted to humans, birds and small mammals, however. In common with most of our native trees, it can be a vital resource for invertebrates as a larval food source. The invertebrates and their larvae, in turn, are critical players in the cycle of decay and reassimilation, as well as being one of the most protein-rich food sources for songbirds and other insectivores. And there are over a dozen fungi specifically allied to beech, Meripilus giganteus, Giant Polypore, and Oudmansiella mucida, Porcelain Fungus, among them.  

The relationship of beech and humankind is ancient, but the bond with invertebrate species that use it as a larval host must be much, much older. As with any partnership between native species, their connection is the consequence of co-evolution over aeons. Virtually every herbaceous native of grassland, heathland, or meadow supports a suite of often host-specific dependants, but in almost every case, the numbers are much higher for woody natives. Common Beech hosts over two hundred spp. of invertebrate, across most Orders; 6 Acari, 73 Coleoptera; 7 Diptera; 80 Lepidoptera. Here are some of them: 

Coleoptera: Anobiidae: Grynobius planus (Fabricius, 1787). The only species in this genusa small wood-boring beetle, about 4 mm long, found in well-wooded areas and hedgerows, mainly in the south in Britain. Its host plants include birch, alder, willows, thorns and Common Beech. 

Photo By Siga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons images

Coleoptera: Anthribidae: Enedreutes sepicola (Fabricius 1792). Saproxylic, feeding on decaying wood, a specialist of Common Beech. 

Photo By Udo Schmidt from Deutschland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Attelibidae: Attelabus nitens (Scopoli). A leaf-rolling weevil. This beetle’s usual habitat is woodland & parkland. Its primary hosts are various species of oak, but it has also been recorded on Common Beech, & on birches.

Photo By NobbiP, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons images

Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Agrilus viridis (Linnaeus, 1758.) A jewel beetle, sometimes known as Beech Splendour beetle, is a wood-boring beetle; larvae eat the wood of living trees — most often Goat Willow, Salix caprea, but also birches and Common Beech. It can become a pest species in horticulture and forestry.

Photo By Siga, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Cerambycidae: Clytus arietis (L.). A wasp-mimicking longhorn beetle that lays its eggs in fallen branches and logs; the larvae feed on dead wood. The adults are pollen and nectar feeders.  

Photo By Pudding4brains, Public Domain, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Cerambycidae: Anaglyptus mysticus (L.). Rufous-shouldered Longhorn beetle, denizen of woodland edge & hedgerow. Females lay eggs in bark crevices or in other species’ burrows, in damaged or dead wood. Larvae burrow under bark, often tunnelling into heartwood leaving galleries packed with fine wood dust. 

Photo By Siga, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Galerucinae: Crepidodera fulvicornis (F.) The adults feed on host foliage – mainly willows, but also birches, and Common Beech –and probably also on nectar and pollen. Eggs are laid in soil below host trees and larvae feed on the roots. 

Photo By Janet Graham, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Entiminae: Phyllobius argentatus (L.) Silver-green Leaf Weevil. Found on broadleaf trees, particularly Birch, but also on Oak, Hawthorn, Common Beech, and willows. Adults are foliage and flower feeders, occasionally becoming a minor pest of fruit and hazel trees in orchards.

Photo By Aiwok, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Diptera: Cecidomyiidae: Mikiola fagi (Hartig) Beech Gall. These midge galls are monophagous on beech. More common in continental Europe, where it can be a pest species. When the larva is fully grown, the gall drops to the ground, and the larva closes the opening with silk. The larva hibernates in the gall, and pupates in spring. 

Photo By Kurt Stüber [1] – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html
Part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0

Lepidoptera: Arctiidae:  Atolmis rubricollis (Linnaeus, 1758) Red-necked Footman, a lichen feeder on the lichens that grow on the bark of Common Beech, oaks, birches, spruce and Larch. Atolmis, from atolmia, meaning lack of courage, may refer to the larval habit of hiding by day in the bark crevices of host trees; the specific epithet derives from from ruber, red – and collis -neck. 

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Arctiidae: Eilema sororcula (Hufnagel, 1766) Orange Footman. As with most of the adorable Footman moths, it feeds on lichen and algae, in this case on the bark of oaks and Common Beech. The genus name, meaning a veil, refers to the wrapping of the body with the wings; the meaning of sororcula, little sister, is less clear. Perhaps it’s an affectionate term?  

Photo By Patrick Clement, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Drepanidae: Watsonalla cultraria, syn. Drepana cultraria (Fabricius, 1775) Barred Hook-tip. A denizen of beech woods, it overwinters as a pupa within a curled beech leaf, or sometimes within beech leaves spun together to create a shelter. The original generic name, from drepanon, Greek, for a reaping hook; the specific is from the Latin for a knife or ploughshare – a curved ploughshare. 

Photo By Patrick Clement, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Ennominae: Cleorodes lichenaria (Hufnagel, 1767), Brussels Lace. Another feeder on lichens found on rocks and tree bark; the specific epithet refers to its association with the larval host.  

Photo By Patrick Clement, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Ennominae: Ennomos erosaria (Denis & Schiffermuller, 1775) September Thorn. Found in parks, gardens, and woodland, using oaks, limes, birches and Common Beech as larval host. On the wing July–early October, eggs are laid on the host plant, and overwinter there. The larvae emerge in spring and pupate between leaves spun together with silk. The specific epithet means gnawed away, or eroded, and refers to the dentate outer edge of the wing, which looks as though areas have been bitten out.  

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Ennominae: Plagodis dolabraria (Linnaeus, 1767) Scorched Wing. Uses oaks, birches, sometimes Beech, or sallows as larval host. The Latin word for a pickaxe is dolabra, and, using a little imagination, the outline of this beautiful moth does indeed resemble a pickaxe head. 

Photo By Gail Hampshire, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Geometrinae: Geometra papilionaria (Linnaeus, 1758) Large Emerald. Though most often reported using birches, Hazel and Alder, the Large Emerald has also been reported on Common Beech. From the Latin, papilio, the specific name means butterfly; I can see the resemblance, even if some Lepidopterists have argued that it’s a superficial one.  

Photo By Ben Sale, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Larentiinae: Operophtera fagata (Scharfenberg) Northern Winter Moth. Despite the specific name, which suggest that Beech – Fagus – is a larval host, birches and alders are the first choices for a larval food source. It has been recorded on Common Beech, and on rosaceous fruit trees (plums, apples, cherries). It occurs in woodland, heath, scrub and in gardens and orchards. On the wing October-December. 

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Limacodidae: Heterogenea asella (Denis & Schiffermuller, 1775) Triangle. A tiny micromoth with a wingspan of 15–20mm, a Red Data Book species in the UK, where it is largely restricted to south-east England. Its preferred habitat is ancient beech and ancient oak woodland, with both of those species favoured as larval hosts. Hazel, birches, Small-leaved Lime, and Horse Chestnut have also been recorded. The specific name is interesting – it is a reference to the form of the larvae, which resembles a species of woodlouse, Oniscus asellus.    

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Limacodidae: Apoda limacodes (Hufnagel, 1766) Festoon.  Nationally Scarce, using oaks and beech as a larval host. Restricted to the southern half of England, with a preference for mature and/or ancient woodland, although it has also been recorded in old hedgerows with mature oaks. The larva overwinters in a cocoon in the leaf litter. Both generic and specific names of this species have made me smile: Apoda – poda means a foot, the prefix meaning it is almost footless – the larva is small, bright green, and grub-like. Just to rub it in, limacodes because the shape and gait of the poor almost footless larva resembles that of the slug, genus Limax. I’m glad it is beautiful when it grows up.   

Photo By Ben Sale, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Noctuidae: Chloephorinae: Pseudoips prasinana (Linnaeus, 1758) Green Silver-lines. I may have mentioned before that this is my gateway species – my introduction to the beauty of moths. First sight took my breath away, and left me trembling for weeks afterward. It’s a woodland species, using oaks, birches, Beech, and occasionally Hazel, Sweet Chestnut or Aspen, as a larval host. Prasinus is the scientific Latin colour epithet, meaning leek green. 

 Photo By Siga, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Sources and Inspiration

In 2014, the late Professor Simon Leather introduced me to T.R.E. Southwood’s classic paper, The number of insect species associated with various trees. Journal of Animal Ecology, 30, 1-8. (1961). I wish Simon could have known that I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since. 

Permanently on my desk, the following resources:  

Allan, P. B. M., Larval Foodplants, A Vade-Mecum for the Field Lepidopterist. Watkins & Doncaster, Hawkhurst, Kent. 2nd Edition, 1979. 

Dade, H.A. Colour Terminology in Biology. The Commonwealth Mycological Institute, Kew, Surrey. 1949.

A. Maitland Emmet, The Scientific Names of British Lepidoptera. Harley Books, Colchester, Essex, England. 1991. 

Mitchell, Alan. A Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Northern Europe.  Collins, London, 1974 

Stearn, William T. Botanical Latin: history, grammar, syntax, terminology and vocabulary. Newton Abbott, Devon: David & Charles. (3rd Edition, 1992).

Permanently on my desktop, Wikipedia and Wiki Commons Images. The latter is the most invaluable source for picture research, and the use of the images is made possible under license by the remarkable and generous photographers who contribute their work. I’m forever grateful to them. 

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.

— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

I am Livid …

It is an uncomfortable feeling for an editor to discover that they have used a word for decades believing that they understood its meaning, only to discover that isn’t the case at all. I expect that you, too, think that you know the meaning of the word I have in mind. But since it was first coined, the word livid, from Latin, lividus, has undergone extraordinary transformations, gaining different connotations over centuries. 

Although it may be flexible enough in modern usage for its sense to be clear in context, when we look to specific epithets in Natural Latin, it is not unreasonable to demand precision and consistency in meaning and intent. For therein lie clues as to the nature of the species in question.

The Linnean ideal of the binomial is, after all, conciseness and accuracy. 

With colour epithets, there is some leeway, I suppose, to accommodate human differences in colour perception. One might confidently expect a species bearing the epithet violaceus, to show at least some hint of violet. With the Violet Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa violacea, seeing the wings shimmering in shades of violet caused me to exclaim ‘Oh, so that’s why!’

Above: Carpenter bee Xylocopa violacea. By Luc hoogenstein – CC BY-SA 4.0

The same with the Violet Oil Beetle, Meloe violaceus, whose whole body glistens in tints of deep violet blue. In the case of the European Green Lizard, Lacerta viridis – well, that’s a triumph! Its gleaming viridian skin is the very essence of green.


Above: Lacerta viridis. By Uoaei1 – CC BY-SA 4.0

While it is true that not all of the three hundred colour epithets in my lexicon can be so clearly related to their corresponding terms in modern English, lividus is so ambiguous that its use as a scientific descriptor surely ought to be regarded as limited. Its colour meanings are contradictory. It may well be unique among the colour terms in its lack of specificity. What’s odd about that is how frequently it has been used across all orders and families. I often cannot decipher what the taxonomists’ intentions were when they chose the term for a given species. In parallel with that, its journey into modern usage has embodied conflicting meanings all the way. 

The word has a colourful history that was first brought to my attention when reflecting on the meaning of the name of the Alder Bolete, Gyrodon lividus … of which more anon.

Lividus, as described by H.A. Dade in Colour Terminology in Biology 1:   – livid; this term is difficult to define; it originally meant ‘black and blue’ as well as pale and wan, or a blackish violet or purple, or merely dusky …  roughly it may defined as the peculiar livery effect of adding grey and black to a range of hues between blue and red … 

The mycologist, Pier Andrea Saccardo 2, suggests that it is a combination of his colour numbers 13 and 14, purpureus (purple) and ruber (red). In addition, he describes it in German as Blaubraun (blue-brown), adding further to my confusion with his comparison of the colour to the multi-coloured tail of the peacock (pavoninus).   

Above: Pier Andrea Saccardo, table II, from Chromotaxia, Edition of 1894. Lividus is the penultimate colour swatch. Saccardo’s intention in publishing his Chromataxia was the standardisation of colour epithets in scientific nomenclature.   

Despite Dade’s complaint about the descriptive imprecision of lividus, the term has been used as a scientific Latin epithet for no fewer than 450 species of living things, even in species as recently described as the newly discovered asclepiad, Oxypetalum lividum, Farinaccio, in 2013. 

This list includes Cyriopagopus lividus, a burrow-dwelling tarantula native to Myanmar and Thailand, which goes by the colloquial name of Cobalt Blue tarantula. People who keep them as pets praise the beauty of their iridescent blue colour. 

Above: Cyriopagopus lividus, Cobalt Blue Tarantula. Mating pair By Flamesbane – CC BY-SA 3.0

The colours of Paracentrotus lividusthe Purple Sea Urchin, seem to encompass a range of liverish shades, so I suppose the epithet appropriate here. This is the edible sea urchin – edible, that is, if you regard salty and chewy gonads as a food source (not to mention that it flourishes near sewage outlets). They have been considered a delicacy since pre-historic times. 

Above: Paracentrotus lividus, Purple Sea Urchin. By Frédéric Ducarme – CC BY-SA 4.0

The sedge, Carex livida, which occurs across much of Eurasia and northern North America, covers the bases with its common names of Livid Sedge and Pale Sedge – they highlight either the word’s double meaning, or the confusion of the colloquial namers; the leaves are pale, they’re also a leaden blue-grey. The Mourning Widow or Dusky Crane’s-bill, Geranium phaeum, has a pale and wan variety that’s called the Leaden Dusky Cranesbill – Geranium phaeum var. lividum

Above: Geranium phaeum var lividum. By Robert Flogaus-Faust – CC BY 4.0

And in the multiple common names of the fungus Entoloma sinuatum (syn. E. lividum) one gets the sense of mycologists grasping for a clearer description of its colouration: the Livid Entoloma, Livid Pinkgill, Leaden Entoloma, and Lead Poisoner – suggestions of pink, purple, and leaden blue-grey in the melange. Is it the gills that are livid, do we think? 

Above: Entoloma sinuatum. By Gerhard Koller – This image is Image Number 40542 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0

Amphipyra livida, Black Moth, Tiefschwarze Glanzeule, Noctuelle Livide, is a moth of woods and meadows, where its larvae feed on hawkweeds, dandelions and meadow rue, which only shows its bruised colours when it reveals its underwings.

Above: Amphipyra lividaBy Dumi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


It’s my opinion that the flower of the orchid, Prosthechea livida, actually does resemble the splendid spectrum of a healing bruise. 

Above: Prosthechea livida. By Orchi – CC BY-SA 3.0

I guess I have to be satisfied that the scientific epithet is usually suggestive of the multiple colours of bruises. Perhaps I have also come to comprehend that the common understanding of livid in English is equally flexible.

Which brings me to dictionary definitions of livid: 

The root word is the Latin adjective, lividus, and my Latin Dictionary gives several alternative meanings.   

līvidus (feminine līvida, neuter līvidum). Firstly, a colour – leaden, bluish, blue. It becomes black-and-blue, when referring to bruising caused by a beating. And it was given a range of figurative meanings quite early in its career, as poets are wont to do; Ovid, Cicero and Horace used it to mean envious, invidious, spiteful, malicious.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary 3 is discursive, expanding the colour range from black-and-blue and reddish, to include ashen and pallid, these two last pale and wan are rather deathly extensions – they’re often used to suggest a corpse-like pallor. The sense of being pale with anger seems to derive from this colour meaning (although true to contradictory form, one can quite as easily be red in the face with fury). And although it may be the most common usage now, livid with rage doesn’t seem to have come into colloquial English usage until the early 20th century. 

This dance around corpse colours takes us into another dimension of livid – one that is familiar to fans of forensic detection and murders most horrid. That is, post-mortem lividity, livor mortis, the purplish red discolouration of the skin as blood settles in the lowest portions of the body after death. Since I assume, dear reader, that you may be of a nervous and delicate disposition, I’ve googled the images so you don’t have to. All the imaginable colours of a bruise are there.  

Which brings me back to the Alder Bolete, Gyrodon lividus. Its description reads like an ode to subtle colour and texture, and is expressed in my desired precision. I adore these colour terms – so evocative. 

Its specific epithet though – still an enigma.

The cap is creamy, pale ochraceous (ochraceus), pale buff to buff (bubalinus), pale yellowish brown, pale cinnamon (cinnamomeus), sometimes almost grey (griseus), often with reddish tints, sometimes rusty spotted, viscid when wet, smooth or felty, sometimes scaly when dry. The flesh is cream (cremeus) in the cap, yellowish to orange-yellow (aurantiacus) in the stipe, usually brownish (brunneolus) in the stipe base, blueing in the cap and unchanging in the stipe when exposed to air. Tubes very short, yellow to bright yellow when young, later with some olivaceous (olivaceus) tint, blueing when exposed to air. Pores yellow (flavus) to bright yellow (luteus) when young, later with some olivaceous tint. 

So far no hints of lividity  – then, then, then … the punchline, blueing when bruised. So there you have it – and that is, indeed, the identifying feature that provided its name. 

Above: Gyrodon lividus. By Holger Krisp – Own work, CC BY 3.0



1. Dade, H.A., Colour Terminology in Biology, Mycological Paper No 6, The Commonwealth Mycological Institute, Kew, Surrey, 1943.  

2. Saccardo, Pier Andrea, Chromotaxia: seu, Nomenclator colorum polyglottus additis speciminibus coloratis ad usum botanicorum et zoologorum, Patavii, Typis Seminarii, 1891.

3. Livid: Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/livid. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.

Post Script: the header image here is the Colour Circle of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Farbenkreis zur Symbolisierung des menschlichen Geistes – und Seelenlebens, 1809. PD. A dissertation on the emotional symbolism of colour.   

Singing the Praises of Natural Latin

singing the praises mid 220220

An essay concerning the history and extraordinary utility of the beautiful Romance language that is scientific Latin. It is the language that is common to all naturalists.

I call it Natural Latin.

The Extravagant Partisanship of the Leek-Green Faction

When first I became a maker of wood-meadows, it was in response to the devastating losses in flora and fauna that we have witnessed during my lifetime. That over 97% of lowland meadows have gone under the plough, with a similar degree of disappearance in coppiced woodlands – never mind all those miles of mixed hedgerows – prompted the following thoughts:
If we’ve lost all those from the base of the ecological pyramid, what has happened to the fauna that depended on them? The grievous declines in invertebrate pollinators of every stripe, and of the songbirds, which, in turn, depend on them to feed their nestlings, seem to have run in parallel. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

I know fine well that the recreation of a wood-meadow ecosystem by planting rather than natural regeneration is controversial. But perhaps by far the most important part of any such attempt must be to ensure that the plants in the wood-meadow provide not only nectar and pollen, but also the larval food sources for their young. This implies detailed study of the history of the ecosystem, and of the component parts, not only in terms of species, but especially in relation to the long-term management. It’s an ancient system, probably dating back  7,000–8,000 years. It was once widespread in temperate Northern Europe, is possibly one of the oldest known forms of human management, and it supports one of the most diverse of plant communities  on the planet.

That’s all part of my back-story now. But perhaps the biggest part of the biggest part of my researches was my discovery of moths, and the subsequent searches for the floral and arboreal associations and relationships of moths and other Lepidoptera.
And of the moth that first captured my heart in a single moment of pure trembling enchantment? How could I not have known such a joyous thing existed, or that it would inspire such a sense of wonder? A sumptuous beauty in clothed in emerald velveteen that came to mind each time I closed my eyes for weeks after my first sighting.

It was Pseudoips prasinana (L.), the Green Silver-lines. And this is why.


Above and featured photo: Pseudoips prasinana, Green Silver-lines, both taken in an East Sussex woodland by Hildesvini. Own work, CC0

The Green Silver-lines is on the wing between May and July, having hatched from its tough boat-shaped pupa on the underside of the leaves of its larval food plants: Downy and Silver birches, oaks, hazel and elms – they should all be major components in any new copse plantings, in my opinion. And no, it’s not enough just to plant flowers – many other species of moth use our native trees too, often in numbers that far outstrip those of meadow flowers.  As I discovered when reading that seminal ecological paper, by Robert Southwood, The number of insect species associated with various trees.(1961). [See acknowledgements].

There have been other joys on this entomological journey. Oh, etymology, which has a constant source of wonder to me. There’s an English word, prasinous, which means of a clear, lively green colour, and it’s derived from the Ancient Greek, πρᾰ́σῐνος prásinos, meaning leek-green, light green. So there you have it: prasinus m ‎(feminine prasina, neuter prasinum) – leek green.
But as with many specific epithets that denote colour – and they’re used in Natural Latin for both flora and fauna – the actual shade is seldom precise. There are upwards of 1096 colour names to choose from. I used three major references to help track them down, mostly H.A. Dade’s Colour Terminology in Biology, and Ridgway’s Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (1912). 
The spectrum of the colour prasina looks something like this:
Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 19.25.40 copy
My further etymological explorations lead me to discover that the term prasinus has been exploited right across the natural spectrum- not only by entomologists.


Above: Anaplectoides prasina,  the Green Arches moth.
By Bernard Dupont, France. CC BY-SA 2.0


Above: Mimoides pausanias prasinus. Costa Rica, Limon Province, S. Rio Blanca. By kind permission of Andy Warren. Thanks Andy!

Big Beak, Little Body

Above: Emerald toucanet, Aulacorhynchus prasinos, at the Moody Garden’s Rainforest Pyramid, by Kati Fleming – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Above: A Green Moray Eel, Gymnothorax prasinus, left and Greyface Moray Eel, Gymnothorax thrysoideus, sharing a lair. Green Island, South West Rocks, NSW By Richard Ling – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

And to include the amphibians too, thus covering all groups …

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The Rio Calina Cochran Frog, Nymphargus prasinus (Duellman, 1981). A species of glass frog. Photo: William E Duellman via CalPhotos. © 2010 Division of Herpetology, University of Kansas.

That, however, is not the end of it. For I discovered that Claudius, Nero and Caligula were also enthusiastic leek-greeners. The leek-green faction of charioteers in the Roman circus, as opposed to the reds, blues and whites,  were known as – you’ve guessed it. The prasina, or prasinoi. You will note that, since the circuit was conducted in an anti-clockwise fashion, the greens are in the lead. And if, as Robert Graves would have us believe, Claudius enjoyed such extravagant partisanship of the leek-green faction, well frankly … so do I.

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Above: Le quatro equipas (blau, verde, blanc, rubie) al circo. Mosaico trovate a Lyon (rue Jarente) in 1806. Charioteers. By QuartierLatin1968 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Acknowledgements: I should like to thank entomologist, Robin Howard, for introducing me to both the Green Silver-lines, and to the invaluable A. Maitland Emmett, The Scientific Names Of The British Lepidoptera: Their History And Meaning. Harley Books. (1991). I now sleep with this beneath my pillow, in the hope that some form of osmosis may occur.
And to the late and sorely missed Professor Simon Leather, for introducing me to Southwood, T.R.E. (1961). The number of insect species associated with. various trees. Journal of Animal Ecology, 30, 1-8. https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/entomological-classics-southwood-1961-the-number-of-insect-species-associated-with-various-trees/

An Innocent Passion?

The vernacular names of our flora and fauna are – and will ever be – a fascinating and deeply ingrained part of our linguistic and cultural heritage. If we seem obdurately attached to them, it must in part be because they belong to our oral tradition, as often as not learned at grandmother’s knee. Many common names are charming, as with love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, or forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica. Some are reminders of widespread use in folk medicine. Heartsease, Viola tricolor, for example, was used as a love charm and for other disorders of the heart.

One of the enchantments in the etymology of many scientific terms used in Natural Latin is how intimately intertwined the vernacular and the Latin can be – not all are as saccharine as those above, and neither would your granny approve of them.

Since the season for many of our wild orchids is now upon us, I’ll begin with the resolutely masculine Orchis mascula, L., the Early Purple Orchid, whose name in both its parts implies manliness. The specific epithet is obvious. The generic, Orchis, less so.

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Reproduction of a painting by the Swedish botanist C. A. M. Lindman (1856–1928), taken from his book(s) Bilder ur Nordens Flora (first edition published 1901–1905, supplemented edition 1917–1926).













Source: http://runeberg.org/nordflor/401.html  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=709470

The literal translation from Latin is testicle – though the derivation may not be apparent from the beauty of the flower. See the paired tubers at the root, however, and it’s clear to see that the reference is anthropomorphic. Incidentally, the medical term for the removal of testicles is … orchidectomy.

Such frankness has origins in bawdier, or at least, less inhibited times. Indeed, such venereal allusions date back at least as Pliny. The old common names in English include dog’s stones (i.e. testicles), fool’s stones, and cullions, in reference to the testicular tubers. A similar set are imaginatively applied in French to the Early Purple and to the Green-winged orchid, Orchis morio L., (now Anacamptis morio), for which the only genteel name I have found is Petite Dame des Prés, Little Lady of the meadows. More typical are such as Couillon de Chien, Couillon de Renard, as in the old English cullions. In Orchis Bouffon, literally Fool’s or Jester’s orchid, the reference is to Fool’s stones, rather than to an idiot per se, just as in English.

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Anacamptis morio, illustrated under its older, Linnean name Orchis morio. From Flora Batava, Volume 7 (1830), Janus (Jan) Kops;  Illustrator Christiaan Sepp – http://www.BioLib.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18893645

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Doctrine of Signatures that talismanic and aphrodisiacal virtues were ascribed to the orchid root.

As Dioscorides has it:

… if men do eat of the great full or fat roots of these kinds of dog’s stones, they cause them to beget male children.

In Thessaly, the women give the tender full root to be drunk in goat’s milk to move bodily lust

Maude Grieves describes salep, the concoction prepared from the ground tubers of both O. mascula and A. morio, as a wholesome and nutritious drink, and comments coyly that witches used them in their love potions. Others attribute more earthy qualities – those of a powerful aphrodisiac.

Paracelsus (1493-1541), Alchemist, Physician, Botanist, wrote thus: … behold the Satyrion root, is it not formed like the male privy parts? No one can deny this. Accordingly magic discovered it and revealed that it can restore a man’s virility and passion.

Satyrion is another, older Roman name for Orchis, (8th Century BCE) that derives from the association with satyrs, who ate orchid tubers and were impelled by so doing to their habitual excesses.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Nymphs and Satyr (1873). https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25857924 

The Greek name for these orchids was priapiscus. Priāpiscus, πριαπίσκος: a plant that excited passion, fool-stones, orchis.It takes little imagination to see where this is leading. A minor God in all but one respect, the rustic Priapus had responsibilities in the traditional small-god realms of fertility, livestock, fruit and gardens. Oh, and genitalia. He is, of course, best remembered for his huge and painfully permanent erection, which lives on in the modern medical term for the same, priapism.

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Priapus with Caduceus. Anonymous fresco in Pompeii, between 89 BC and 79 AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples), Italia.

In the modern naturalist, orchids do still inflame passions, though now, it seems, a more innocent one than was formerly the case. Find out more by clicking the links below.

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Left: the sumptuous, pleated rosette of Orchis mascula, North Yorkshire roadside verge, spring 2016

















Above: Flower spike of Orchis mascula,  arising from the rosette shown above.

Orchis mascula (L.) L. Early Purple Orchid. A denizen of woodlands, scrub, and grasslands, also found on road verges, flowering from April to June in the UK.

Species account: http://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=node/805

Distribution map: http://bsbi.org/maps?taxonid=2cd4p9h.caq

National Biodiversity Network data: https://data.nbn.org.uk/Taxa/NBNSYS0000002326


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Anacamptis morio (L.) R.M. Bateman, Pridgeon, & M.W. Chase (Orchis morio L.) Green-winged Orchid. The flower colour is variable, ranging from palest pink to red-pink, and purple-violet; it is the upper tepals with green veins that give rise to the common name. A native of grassy habitats including floodplain meadows, flowering from May to June.






Scroll down to see the species account: http://bsbi.org/species-accounts

National Biodiversity Network data: https://data.nbn.org.uk/Taxa/NHMSYS0000455893