The greening of Nowhere Wood

It is a cold and wet April in Nowhere Wood, which is full of birdsong and flowers.

The trees are becoming green with new leaves. Leaves grow silently that we can miss their unfolding, noticing only when they are fully opened. If you look carefully, you can see new leaves opening today.

New leaves grow from buds. Buds are covers that protect the developing leaves from damage during the frosty winter days.

New horse chestnut leaves - Spring 2024 new leaves are a special shade of green

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New leaves are a special shade of green called Kelly Green. Later in the year the leaves become a darker shade of green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Why do plants make new leaves during the summer, ready for the next spring?
  2. What happens to these new leaves in the autumn?

Read more about leaves in the A year in the life of a sugar factory.

 

The secret of the winter flowers

It’s January 1st and the floor of the wood is covered with fresh new leaves, growing in dense patches. The first flowers are starting to open. Within a week, the air is scented with a sweet fragrance. This is the winter heliotrope, which is just as much at home in Nowhere as it is in its native North Africa.

The winter heliotrope was probably brought to Britain by Victorian gardeners.

 

We have a large Victorian estate called Tyntesfield down the road, so originally it could easily have come from there. The plant has a big secret: its flowers are just for show!

The winter heliotrope is unusual because it has separate male and female plants. As far as we know, the Victorian gardeners only imported male plants into Britain, because they liked the showy flowers and its rich scent. So, although the flowers make good pollen, there are no female flowers available to receive it. These plants cannot make seeds.

How do the plants reproduce, if they  cannot make seeds?

What is its big secret?

 

 

 

 

Below the soil the plant has a special underground stem, called a rhizome. During the year the rhizome stores food ready for the wintertime. Then, early in the new year, it grows new leaves and flowers.

During the summer the rhizomes grow so large, that they eventually break off and become new plants. This is a different way of reproducing, called vegetative reproduction. The plants are all clones, they have the same genetic information, which means that they all flower at more or less the same time.

So good is the winter heliotrope at growing in this way, that the plant is seen by some gardeners as an uwanted pest. It seems to grow well in Nowhere Wood, where it grows undisturbed.

1. What do you think are the advantages of being able to reproduce vegetatively, without making seeds?

2. Are there any disadvantages to having plants that all have the same genetic information. Is variation needed for the survival of plants?

Fruits of the autumn

Autumn is the time for fruits to become ripe enough for animals to eat. This time last year, Nowhere Wood was full of ripe acorns and the squirrels and birds had a heyday. This year, there are no acorns, at all. Life is uncertain, in Nowhere Wood.

Somewhere, inside a fruit, is a seed and seeds contain new lives – the next generation of the woodland plants.

These fruits are blackberries. The seeds are found inside the berries. They are tiny, with hard tough seed coats.

Birds, especially blackbirds and thrushes, love to eat blackberry fruits. In doing so, they help the plant to spread its seeds away from the wood.

 

To survive, the blackbirds need the blackberry fruits and the blackberry plants need the blackbirds.

  1. Think about what happens to the seed when the fruit is eaten by a blackbird.
  2. How does the blackbird help the blackberry plant to spread its seeds away from the wood?

The secret of the winter flowers

Goodbye, for now

By late October, the last of the visitors are leaving Nowhere Wood. House martins are birds that build nests in the eaves of the surrounding houses. They fly by swooping up and down in the summer skies, feeding on flying insects.

 

Then, suddenly, as the season changes, they leave. But where do they go?

Amazingly, for such confident, visible, birds, they have been able to keep this a secret from us. And, even today, we really do not know for sure. We think they fly to Africa, over the Sahara Desert, to countries like Cameroon, Congo and the Ivory Coast. That’s a journey of over 5 000 km.

There they spend the winter, feeding and resting, before making the return journey in early Spring, arriving back to Nowhere Wood by April.

 

If all goes well, they return to the wood, and even to the same nests. It is a dangerous adventure and not all make it back. The birds can be eaten by birds of prey, or trapped by hunters.

Above all, the declining number of insects is killing the house martins. Loss of habitats, use of pesticides and climate change are all linked to human activity, so indirectly, we are to blame. So, perhaps, in the future, it will not be goodbye for now, but goodbye forever.

  1. How does the use of pesticides across Europe and Africa affect the survival of house martins?
  2. How could we conserve our populations of house martin?

Fruits of the autumn

Safety in numbers

cluster fliesThese animals look like cars parked in the autumn sunshine. They look harmless enough, but they have some gruesome secrets.

What are they and what are they doing? They are called cluster flies, and they are warming their bodies in the sun, before flying to feed on the fruits of the wood.

They are having adventures in time and space in Nowhere Wood.  Life in the wood is dangerous and the animals are busy being alive: feeding, drinking and staying warm.

The animals certainly look like flies: with one pair of wings, a large head and huge compound eyes. Look closer and you might see their mouthparts, sucking water from the surface of the leaf.

cluster flies
cluster flies on leaf in Nowhere Wood, October 2021

The flies have lived their whole lives in Nowhere Wood. Their mothers laid their eggs in the soil last autumn. In the Spring, the eggs hatched to release larvae into the soil that burrowed into the bodies of earthworms.

They spent the early summer feeding on the worms before pupating. The adults emerged in the early summer, killing their earthworm hosts.

 

 

The flies are in a hurry to breed before it goes colder, later in the month. They are becoming mature enough to produce the next generation of flies.

Then the cycle of ‘being and becoming’ will begin again.

There is safety in numbers. The main predator of these flies is a type of wasp. There are twenty pairs of eyes looking out for danger and when one senses the wasps, they all fly away.

Life is so uncertain in Nowhere Wood. As well as wasps, the air contains the spores of dangerous fungi, that can infect and grow inside the adults,  eating them up from the inside! In spite of the dangers, enough cluster flies survive to breed to be present in the wood next year.

Life is an uncertain adventure for the cluster flies, the earthworms, the wasps and the fungi. Everything is connected in Nowhere Wood.

  1. Suggest why cluster flies need to warm their bodies in the morning, before they can fly.
  2. Suggest why there is safety in numbers.

Goodbye, for now

Time travellers to Nowhere (3)

We are in Nowhere Wood, about 300 million years ago, staring at a forest of tree ferns, watching them make oxygen. Over the years, these tree ferns have made so much oxygen that its concentration in the air has risen to about 35%, (compare that with the 21% found in the 21st century).

There is so much oxygen that the lightning strikes produce frequent explosions in the air, causing forest fires. Nowhere Wood is a dangerous place to be, sometimes.

 

 

The animals are using the oxygen to grown large: some millipedes are 1.5 metres in length and 0.5 metres wide. Some dragonflies have 70 cm wingspans.

 

 

 With all of this food available, there are opportunities for new  carnivorous lizards to appear, including Hylonomus. This is one of the first creatures to have a new  eggs with membranes inside, a characteristic later shown by all birds.

 

 Also the flesh-eating Anthracosaurs first appeared at this time. These are the direct ancestors of the dinosaurs, that appeared millions of years later.

In Nowhere Wood, everything is connected together, in space and in time.

 

So many adventures in space and time, so much opportunity for the evolution of new forms. All of which depends on the formation of sandstone in Nowhere Wood.

  1. Imagine what it was like to live in Nowhere Wood 300 million years ago. What would be the same and what would be different.
  2. How do you think the world will change in the future?

Safety in numbers

Time travellers to Nowhere (2)

We are not alone in Nowhere Wood, about 300 million years ago. We are deep in a forest of tree ferns, towering above us, fifteen metres high. The damp air has a sweet and woody fragrance, heavy with spores, heavy with promise.

 

The plants are silently photosynthesising, growing ever taller and adding oxygen to the air. Year after year, generation after generation.

 

The wood in the tree stems is a new invention of evolution: no other plants have wood and fungi have yet to discover a way to eat it. This means that when the trees die and fall into the swampy wet soil, they do not decay, but stayed for thousands of years, gradually becoming compressed together to form deposits of coal.

The tree ferns took carbon dioxide from the air and locked it away as wood and coal. They took so much and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air fell so much, that the  climate cooled, lead to the destruction of the tropical forests.

Today, humans have found the coal and burned it, putting the hidden carbon dioxide back into the air, re-warming the planet. No we face a global warming, not a global cooling. Perhaps, one day, Nowhere Wood will be destroyed for a second time.

  1. Think about how interconnected the rocks, the trees, the atmosphere and the climate are. How does a change to one thing affect everything else?
  2. Ferns are the first group of plants to develop proper roots. Think about why it would be an advantage for the early tree ferns to grow into sandstone.

Back then, the tree ferns grew through sandstone much as the smaller ferns in Nowhere Wood do today. Read more about this in another story: Climbing the walls.

Time travellers to Nowhere (3)

Time travellers to Nowhere (1)

Imagine you had a time machine, where and when would you go? Come with me back to Nowhere Wood, about 300 million years ago. That is long before humans, mammals or even dinosaurs existed, but frogs laid their eggs in pools, much as they do today. Today it is hot, humid and very quiet: with no birdsong or animal noise, apart from the distant croaking of frogs. Tomorrow, there will be a raging tropical storm and the mountain will be pounded by its violence.

Nowhere Wood is located just above the equator, and we are looking up at the aftermath of a series of global catastrophes, which has taken hundreds of million years to happen. Two continents collided and sent shockwaves through the land, pushing upwards to form the mountains that we can see ahead of us. We are in a valley, downstream from a range of tall mountain peaks.

The mountain rock is soft and is easily weathered by the stormy wind and rain. Cascades of small, eroded particles surge down the mountain slopes, transported in the muddy river waters.

Mountains become tiny grains of sand settling at the bottom of the smaller streams running through Nowhere Wood. Layers upon layers of sediment are depositing in the streams, blocking the channels. Over time, the increasing weight of sand squeezes the water out, cementing the grains together to form sandstone. These are the cliffs we can see today at the far end of Nowhere Wood. It is called Pennant sandstone and was quarried to make roof tiles for the people of the town.

 

  1. It is easy to think of living organisms having uncertain adventures through time and space. But the same is true of rocks, although on a much larger time scale. Find out where the matter that makes up planet Earth originally came from.
  2. Think about what has happened to the sandstone in Nowhere Wood since it was formed.

Time travellers to Nowhere (2)

Early risers!

Every year, the snowdrop is the first plant to flower in Nowhere Wood. It is a symbol of the birth of Spring, bringing good cheer and hope at the end of a long winter. This is one reason why people plant snowdrops in their gardens.

Snowdrops are tougher than they look: they can grow through ice and snow. Their leaves have hardened edges that act as snowploughs and their cells contain a snowdrop antifreeze that stops ice crystals forming. The real secret of the snowdrop’s success is found below the ground, in the frozen soil. There, in the darkness, is a bulb, full of food made in last Spring’s photosynthesis. Like a battery, it is an energy store, so that the plant can start to grow in the weak winter sunshine.

This means that the plant can make leaves to grow in the warming Sun. The leaves make food to store in its bulbs ready for next year. Snowdrops do all of this before the leaves of the big trees open to steal the light, so that the floor of the wood becomes shaded. By then, the work of the snowdrop is over and it can wait for the next winter.

1. How have people helped the snowdrop to survive for so many years?

2. What advantages do snowdrops have by storing their food in underground bulbs. Can you think of any possible disadvantages?

Snowdrops have many more secrets that help them in their adventures in time and in space. We may tell more stories about snowdrops in the coming days! Come back to read them.

Time travellers to Nowhere (1)

What is a frog?

Frog spawn in Nowhere WoodIt is late February, the cold weather has moved away and the frogs have moved back in. It’s been a couple of years since they were last here, but here are their newly-laid eggs and the female is hiding beneath the leaf in the top left corner of the photograph. What is a frog and how is it having adventures in Nowhere Wood?

Frogs are amphibians, animals with backbones that live for most of the year on land, but which have to return to water to breed. A female with eggs is popular with males, which compete with each other to get close to her.

When she releases here eggs into the water, the males release their sperm onto the eggs. Fertilisation takes place in the water. The female lays about 2 000 eggs and many of them die. The brown eggs in the top photograph are probably a clutch of eggs that have died.

 

 

 

Inside the egg, the embryo is growing into a juvenile tadpole, feeding on the jelly that surrounds it. It will grow a tail and gills and become a free swimming tadpole. Soon, the tadpole will break free and have to make its way as an independent animal, all of the while developing into the adult frog.

There are dangers in the water: tadpoles become carnivores and will eat each other and there are other predators, too. There is also a real chance that the water in the pond will disappear if we have a prolonged dry spell.

The frogs in Nowhere Wood are having adventures, moving forward into an unknown future, with no certainty of success. Most of these eggs will be eaten and will become food for other organisms; one or two might survive. Most years, frogs return to the water to breed, as frogs everywhere have done for the last 265 million years.

1. The survival of the frogs is not just due to chance. There is competition between male frogs to get close to the females eggs. How does this help to increase the success of the mating?

2. There is also competition between tadpoles for food. How does this help ensure that some frogs will survive to become adults that can reproduce for themselves?

3. What, do you think, is a frog?

Frog news update:

One week on, and the spawn has floated to the edge of the pond and the adds are swollen because they have taken up water. They still look healthy. Fingers crossed for the next stage!

 

 

Early risers!