The latest update from Michael Walter:

I recently read about dead men’s fingers being washed up on a Cumbrian beach.  This isn’t actually quite as gruesome as it sounds, the fingers being the fleshy, parsnip-like roots of hemlock water dropwort – a member of the carrot family (Umbelliferae).  Hemlock, another umbellifer, is renowned as being the poison of choice taken by Socrates in 399BC, but hemlock water dropwort is also poisonous, causing, nausea, vomiting, fever, seizures and hallucinations - hence the lurid country name of dead man’s fingers.  One wonders how many food-gatherers had to die before it was established that the roots of parsnips are delicious, whereas the similar-smelling hemlock water dropwort roots are deadly.  A fairly large white-flowered plant (right), it is common in ditches and along the river bank at Hambrook, but so long as people don’t start digging it up, extoling the virtues of “food for free”, it is perfectly safe.

Owners love to leave their mark on their land, and the Church Commissioners, to whom Blean Woods (or Church Wood, as it is still shown on the Ordnance Survey maps) belonged, decided to carry out a bit of aggrandisement in the 19th century in the form of a processional avenue of trees.  A double row of conifers was planted along the main track running roughly east-west through the wood from Rough Common through to Denstroude, and along an arm that branches off southwards to meet the A2.  Planting lines of trees on both sides of the track was presumably thought to dignify the site, leading a visitor to imagine they were now approaching a stately home.  Nearly all the trees have gone now, the scattered remnants no longer recognisable as forming part of a long row, but the few survivors are Lawson cypress (a relative of the dreaded leylandii), Scots pine, black pine and, most interestingly, a bishop pine.  Identification of pines is not for the faint-hearted, all looking much the same to me, but this ecclesiastical specimen is distinctive for having small clusters of hard cones that remain on the branches for years.  The cone itself has a regular shape, but the stalk is markedly offset from the top of the blunt end, and the swirls of scales nicely demonstrate the Fibonacci sequence.  Fibonacci was a twelfth century Italian mathematician, now remembered for the eponymous number sequence that runs     0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55………  Each number is the sum of the preceding two numbers which, as you can see, leads to some rapid escalation in size, and the sequence seems to govern the whirling patterns we see in many natural structures, from whelk shells and flowers, right up to cyclones and entire galaxies!  If you hold a bishop pine cone in your hand you can clearly see the spiralling effect, starting off with tight, small scales at the centre, the scales getting larger as the spiral expands.  Perhaps an unwanted legacy of the conifer avenue is that in one area an old cypress on private land is seeding itself quite nicely across the track onto the RSPB reserve, producing a veritable grove of saplings.  Left untouched, they would develop into an alien grove of conifers, ironic considering the amount of effort that has gone into eradicating non-native species such as Corsican pine, sycamore, sweet chestnut and rhododendron from the reserve.

Michael Walter

Hemlock water dropwort