A Bit of a Racket

Dear Readers, over the years I have learned to tune in to what’s going on in the garden by the sounds that the birds make, and today there was a positive cacophony of clicking and wheezing and squeaking. I followed the sound around the garden, and eventually came across this handsome chap sitting on the fence. His name is Bear (very appropriate I think), and while I have occasionally seen him patting a frog on the head, he is generally much more interested in just hanging out.

However, this didn’t put off the little family of wrens. Have a listen here! I managed to get a fleeting glimpse of one on camera, but there were probably four or five of them, making a combination of loud clicks and much softer contact calls.

Seeing a wren in the garden used to be a cause for some celebration, as it was such an unusual sight. Since lockdown, however, I’ve realised that the garden is positively inundated with the little darlings, creeping through the hedge and the bittersweet like so many adorable flying mice. Such feisty characters, and such big voices! I have rarely managed to get a decent photo, as they are so hyperactive, but here are a couple of photos by John Humble, a long-term Facebook friend and wonderful photographer.

And here is an excerpt from Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas poem, The Wren Boys, from 2015. It makes me think about all the things that we project onto animals, all the stories that we tell ourselves about them, and how they matter not a jot to the creature involved. It also makes me think about the Helen Macdonald book that I’ve just finished, ‘Vesper Flights’. A review will be making an appearance soon!

Hedge-bandit, song-bomb, dart-beak, the wren
hops in the thicket, flirt-eye; shy, brave,
grubbing, winter’s scamp, but more than itself –
ten requisite grams of the world’s weight.

And here’s the craic: that the little bird
had betrayed a saint with its song,
or stolen a ride on an eagle’s back
to fly highest; traitor and cheat.

But poets named it Dryw, druid and wren,
sought its hermit tune for a muse;
sweethearts thought it a foolproof blessing for love.
Which was true for the wren? None of the above.


It’s Quiz Time! – Name That Butterfly

Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)

Dear Readers, we’ve had a little break from quizzing, so I thought I’d see what the appetite was for having a go now that summer is here, and hopefully we’re all a bit less stressed. In honour of the Great Butterfly Count, let’s start off nice and easy with some butterfly and day-flying moth identification. Can you match the name to the insect? Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Sunday (8th August) please – I will hide any responses as soon as I see them, but if you are easily influenced you might want to write your answers down old-school on a piece of paper first.

Answers will be published on Monday 9th August. No prizes for the winners except for the respect and admiration of your peers 🙂

Here we go! So, if you think photo 1 shows a Jersey Tiger, your answer is 1) A)


A) Jersey Tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

B) Small White (Pieris rapae)

C) Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

D) Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

E) Silver-Washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

F) Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus)

G) Wall (Lasiommata megera)

H) Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

I) Large White (Pieris brassicae)

J) Marbled White (Melangaria galathea)

K) White Admiral (Limenitis camilla)

L) White-Letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album)

M) Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

N) Wood White (Leptidea sinapsis)

O) Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus)

Photo One by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Two I naturen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Three by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Four by Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Five by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Six by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Seven by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eight by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Nine by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Ten by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eleven by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Twelve by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Thirteen by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Fourteen by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Fifteen by Nzhymenoptera, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons



Small Pleasures in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

A hoverfly’s bum. You’re welcome!

Dear Readers, after missing last week’s walk in the cemetery because I was still feeling poorly, it was a great pleasure to have a stroll around today, enjoying the little things that have changed since I was here last. In truth, the end of July/beginning of August is a quiet time for nature, with the babies fledged, the caterpillars growing and all manner of creatures fattening up for the autumn, but there are still lots of interesting things going on if you look closely. The woodland graveyard site is full of blowsy thistles, wild carrot, ragwort and knapweed, and the hoverflies are taking full advantage.

Drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a honeybee mimic

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

Marmalade hoverfly (hopefully) (Episyrphus balteatus)

Hoverfly larvae are some of our most voracious aphid-eaters – we might be more familiar with ladybirds and their youngsters as they plough through a ‘herd’ of greenfly, but hoverfly maggots, though not the most appealing of creatures to look at, are basically aphid hoovers. The mimicry which means that these insects resemble bees or wasps is possibly also their downfall where humans are concerned – some people only have to see a flash of yellow and black stripes before they reach for a rolled-up newspaper. However, I’m sure that lots of predators leave them alone because of their colouration, so hopefully it all evens out. And look, here are some Common Red Soldier Beetles (Rhagonycha fulva), living up to their popular name of ‘bonking beetles’.

The conkers are continuing to fatten up.

Now, there’s a rose bush growing out of this conifer. So far, so unusual.

But here is something even more interesting…

This shaggy mass is the gall of a wasp, Diplolepsis rosae, which laid its eggs in the buds of the rose in the spring. Otherwise known as robin’s pincushions, each of these structures is woody inside and covered in long red or green hairs. The gall will contain many chambers, each of which contains a well-protected wasp larva. Male wasps are very rare, but the females can reproduce without needing sperm, so this is no problem. The new wasps appear in the spring, just in time to find new buds to parasitize. In Germany, these galls are known as ‘sleep apples’, and putting one under your pillow is supposed to be a cure for insomnia.

Photo One by By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2623501

The inside of a robin’s pincushion, showing the chambers and larvae (Photo One)

I was having something of a gall-ing day though because I also found these galls on some crack willow. Someone has clearly been having a very good time! These are caused by a sawfly rather than a wasp: the female injects a chemical into the leaf that causes the plant to make the gall. She usually also lays an egg, which eats its way out of the gall over a few weeks, but occasionally a gall won’t have an egg, because for some reason the female didn’t lay one. This tree was positively peppered with galls but looked very healthy nonetheless. Healthy plants can put up with a great deal of nonsense from insect ‘pests’ without any detriment.

I spotted this lovely fresh female Gatekeeper butterfly (the males have a brown stripe across the forewings).

Rather less welcome is the positive plantation of Himalayan Balsam that I’m seeing next to the cemetery stream. This is such an attractive plant – it bears more than a passing resemblance to a huge moth orchid, and it comes in a whole range of pink, white and coral. However, it is going to be taking over this stream if folk don’t watch out, and as the cemetery already has a massive problem with Japanese Knotweed I hope that it will be kept under better control.

As we were walking through the trees, I heard the sound of young birds, probably raptors of some kind, hidden in the branches overhead. It was so frustrating not to be able to see them! But then I remembered a tip from Mike over at Alittlebitoutoffocus – he’d recently uploaded an app where you can ‘listen’ to birdsong with your phone, and it will then tell you, to a reasonable degree of accuracy, what you’re listening to. So, in the middle of the cemetery I downloaded the app, recorded the birds and lo and behold, it returned a result of ‘sparrowhawk’ with 95% certainty. Two minutes later, a sparrowhawk flew overhead. Result! I spent the rest of the walk recording various birds to see how good I was personally – I identified a song thrush, a green woodpecker and a blackcap, but would have missed a greenfinch (even though I know that they’re present in the cemetery because I’ve seen them). So, I can recommend this app if you want to improve your id skills, or even just want to find out what birds are about – there are definitely lots more than you ever see.

And finally, I had to stop to smell the lime blossom. I think it’s one of my favourite perfumes – not as heady as jasmine, not as floral as rose. What a delight it is to feel almost normal again.

Photo Credit

Photo One By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2623501

A Reading Challenge!

Dear Readers, you might remember that during the 2020 lockdown I set myself the task of reading the shortlisted books for the Wainwright Nature Writing Prize. I succeeded, and was introduced to some new writers and some that I was familiar with. All in all, it was a lot of fun, and it set me to wondering about what exactly ‘nature-writing’ was. This year I’m aiming to read the whole longlist, so if anyone wants to join in on any of the books that would be great!

First up is Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald. I loved ‘H is for Hawk’, and I’ve also been very impressed by Macdonald’s TV programmes – she did one which was about the impact of motorways on the countryside which was full of interesting things, and an earlier programme where she traced the route of the River Tay. What I love is that her nature-writing isn’t just about her: she gets that balance between introspection and the natural world’s independent existence just right. I am part way through the book and it is full of underlining, which is always a good sign! I shall hopefully be able to review it next week.

Next up is ‘Into the Tangled Bank’ by Lev Parikian. I’ve actually read this already, and remember laughing out loud at some parts. Nature-writing can be very serious sometimes, so this felt like an alternative way of looking at the world. I am looking forward to a revisit.

‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’ by Stephen Lovatt is a reflection on what birdsong meant to the author, and to us,  during the lockdown. I remember waking early and trying to pick out the different songs, so I am looking forward to reading the author’s thoughts. The illustrations look lovely too.

‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks won the Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year. Rebanks is a farmer, and this is the story of his family farm in the Lake District over three generations. His previous book, ‘The Shepherd’s Life’, was also a prize-winner. I think that the author’s experience will bring depth and understanding to this book, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

‘Featherhood’ by Charlie Gilmour sounds like a combination of memoir and nature-writing, and, as it involves a magpie it has that all-important corvid factor! I am reserving judgement on this one: I am a little allergic to stories in which everything is subjugated to the lessons that we can learn from nature (see my review of ‘My Octopus Teacher‘ for example), but I could be completely wrong, and am prepared to admit it!

I’m looking forward to ‘I Belong Here’ by Anita Sethi because it will provide a completely different view of what it’s like to travel around the UK. As a woman I already know that travel can bring problems that a man wouldn’t experience, so add to that the visibility of being a woman of colour and I am prepared to contemplate all kinds of perspectives that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

‘Seed to Dust’ by Marc Hamer is about a year in the garden, but what an interesting writer he is – he had a period of homelessness, has taught creative writing in prison, has worked in graphic design, studied fine art. The extract that I read is full of new-minted metaphors and a quirky sense of humour.

Stephen Moss is a very well-established nature-writer and broadcaster, and I am looking forward to this latest book, which shares a theme of ‘wildlife in lockdown’ with Stephen Lovatt’s book.

I really enjoyed Neil Ansell’s last book ‘The Last Wilderness’, in which he documents his failing hearing, and the way that the birdsong that has been so familiar all his life is gradually fading. I am looking forward to this account of the New Forest, one of the places that I explored when I was young and foolish and a student at Southampton University.

Charles Foster is a most interesting author – his previous book ‘Being a Beast’ was an account of his attempts to live as a badger, an urban fox and an otter. In this book, about swifts, he takes a view of the particularity of the life of the bird and compares it to his own generic experience. Reading the extract it’s clear that he can certainly write! I think this one might stand out from the crowd.

Can I just start by saying that I love Melissa Harrison’s work? I am looking forward to this book, which moves from the urban verges of London to Harrison’s new home in Suffolk. She always has something new to say.

You might remember Raynor Winn from her book ‘The Salt Road’, which told how, homeless and with an ill husband, she takes to the road to walk the south-west coastal path. In this new book, she once again has a ‘home’, but the book is a meditation on what that actually means. I look forward to catching up with her story.

And finally, Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes about growing up during the Troubles in Derry with one Catholic and one Protestant parent, and how nature kept her sane, and helped her heal. I am looking forward again to getting a different perspective on what nature, and the land, can mean.

Just looking at the dates, it’s clear that I won’t be able to read all of these before the shortlist is announced on 4th August, but I shall get started and see where we get to. After 4th August I shall prioritise the short-listed books, but I hope to get back to the rest of them too. Let me know if you’ve already read any of these, and let’s see how we get on!

A Late July Walk on Hampstead Heath

Dear Readers, there has been all sorts of shenanigans at the Bathing Ponds on Hampstead Heath during the past few years. Charges were introduced for swimmers at the Women’s Pond for in 2004 (though I note that over sixties can still swim for free before 9.30 a.m.), and were increased recently. Works have taken place to dam some areas around the men’s pond due to flood risk – there are a lot of flood mitigation works in the pipeline in several of the green spaces in North London, and with the recent flooding following storms during the past month it looks as if something will need to be done. Balancing the future needs of the area against present amenities is always tricky, especially as, with climate change, things look so uncertain. One thing is certain – Hampstead Heath will always provoke strong, passionate feelings from those who use the area regularly, and who want to protect it. Long may this continue.

It was very quiet in the woods today: on a summer weekend during lockdown the crowds were everywhere, but today seemed like a welcome return to some kind of normal. The ivy roots dangling from this horse chestnut put me in mind of those great trees of the Southern USA with the Spanish Moss dangling from their branches.

There are little patches of Small Balsam (Impatiens parviflora) – I haven’t noticed this elsewhere in North London. At least it isn’t as bold and invasive as the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) that’s popped up in other places, such as the Cemetery.

This very fine hoverfly was on the creeping thistle – I can’t pass a patch of thistle without stopping for a look, there’s always someone interesting popping in for a feed. This very handsome chap is the Great Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens), a close relative of the Hornet Hoverfly(Volucella zonaria) that I mentioned in my post about Cherry Tree Wood earlier this week. The Great Pied Hoverfly has a most interesting lifecycle. The adult female walks into the nest of a common wasp, and somehow gets away without being stung to death. She lays her eggs, and when they develop into larvae they feed on detritus in the nest, and dead and dying wasps and their larvae. When they are ready to pupate, they leave the nest and burrow underground, reappearing the following spring in time for the whole cycle to begin again. Never underestimate a fly, that’s all I can say.

And here is some Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus),  a plant that I hadn’t noticed on the Heath before. I feel a Wednesday Weed coming on.

Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

And here is some Musk Mallow (Malva moschata), a much more delicate plant than the Common Mallow that I’m usually finding all over the cemetery. Another Wednesday Weed, maybe?

Musk Mallow (Malva moschata)

I always love my first glimpse of Kenwood House through the trees. That way lies coffee and a brownie!

Now, have a look at this absolutely magnificent sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). I am clearly getting better at identifying things, because one factor in identification of mature sweet chestnuts (over 60 years old) is that the bark starts to spiral around the tree, usually in a clockwise direction, though I’m not convinced that this isn’t anti-clockwise (says she, scratching her head). I do love being able to put a name to things, it seems more respectful somehow. Also, I must remember to take a big sniff towards high summer, as the male catkins are said to smell of frying mushrooms.

When we finally get our coffee and brownie, we’re joined by this very fine pigeon. He is not at all deterred by the fact that my husband’s flapjack is vegan, and I swear he’d be sitting on our knees waiting for crumbs if he was allowed. He breaks off only briefly to huff and dance around a female he lands nearby before he’s back on flapjack watch.

A crow flies up onto the roof of the building opposite with what appears to be an entire scone – possibly someone wasn’t paying full attention in the tearoom gardens next door. The crow is soon joined by a fledgling. I can’t see for certain, but I suspect that the adult is dunking the cake into some water in the gutter to soften it up a bit for the youngster – I’ve seen them do this before. You are always being watched by some sort of avian beady eye when you sit here with a sandwich. Be warned.

The flowers outside the gift shop are all supersized, be they the white hydrangeas, the dahlias or the ten-foot-tall sunflowers.

And there was a brief moment on the path back to the ponds when there was no one around at all – not a jogger, not someone having a conversation on their mobile, not a gaggle of small children or a dog walker with various hounds. There was just us, and the sunshine, and the trees for about 90 seconds.

Long enough to notice how the Enchanter’s Nightshade, normally such a weedy little plant, can actually also be magical in the right light.

Back to the boating pond. Oh dear.

And just in case it isn’t clear….

No one told the ducks and the black-headed gulls though, and the swifts were skimming the surface for insects. I haven’t seen a single swallow or house martin yet this year though, I hope things are better where you are.

Tufted duck and black-headed gull having a rest

And how about this female/juvenile Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata)? I’ve never seen a male here, but I know that many of them have escaped from wildfowl collections. There are a lot more protected, reedy areas around the boating pond now, and the duck nests in tree holes, so it would be nice to think that they might have made a home here.

We head back, stepping carefully around a painted lady butterfly that’s picking up salts from the path.

I’m delighted to see the ragwort doing so well – this must be one of the UK’s most maligned plants, but it’s the foodplant of the cinnabar moth, and is much beloved by all sorts of pollinators.

We stop for a few minutes to watch the dogs swimming in the doggy part of the pond. Some dogs are clearly into it, and others can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Guess which heading this hound falls under.

And then it’s back to the 214 bus stop, with a brief pause to admire this sign on the side of what is now an Italian restaurant. How I’d love to stop for a Bean Feast!

LNHS Talks – ‘The Earliest Botanical Gardens of the Middle East’ by Shahina Ghazanfar

Dear Readers, I have always been interested in the history of botanical gardens, and their role in conservation, so this talk by Dr Shahina Ghazanfar intrigued me. Dr. Ghazanfar works for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and her specialisms include the plants of Oman and Iraq. The title of the talk is a little misleading, as the subjects covered ranged much more widely than I expected, but I learned a lot, and that is always a good thing! The talk covers a) the history of plants and human beings, and how they are intertwined, b) the history of botanical gardens in the ancient Middle East and elsewhere, and finally c) the cultural history of plants, and how specific it can be to place. Dr Ghazanfar concludes with thoughts about the role of the botanical garden in the future, specifically to the preservation of a plant’s cultural context.

Dr Ghazanfar began by explaining that plants have always been the companions of human beings: even before agriculture, there’s evidence that favoured plants were carried as seeds and used for medicinal or ritual purposes. But once people became more sedentary, the first gardens were planted, mainly for food – it helped to know where to find key crops, rather than having to spend time foraging.

From Neolithic times (12000 BCE) plants and domesticated animals were moved from their places of origin, to such an extent that it’s now hard to know where some of our key crops actually originated. However, there is evidence that there were food surpluses from about 3000 BCE which drove trade between different parts of the world – East Africa, the Middle East, South East and Southern Asia were already economically involved with one another, and linguistics has been able to show the way that plants from one culture were incorporated into another.

Dr Ghazanfar moved on to talking about Egypt in particular. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the art of cultivation was taught to humans by the gods, in particular Osiris, and the fertile floodplains of the Nile were vital for the survival of the civilisation. Floral collars were an important part of funerary rites – they included olive, which was not native to Egypt but was grown specifically for this purpose. Plant inventories of the time include such plants as tamarisk, pomegranate, myrtle, figs, sycamore, willow, moringa, date and doum palms and carob, most of which are alien species cultivated for particular purposes.

Photo Two by By Marco Schmidt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2855208

Doum Palm (Hyphaene thebaica) (Photo Two)

Wine and viticulture were known in Egypt and Mesopotamia from as far back as 3000 BCE, and in 128 BCE traders from the areas now known as Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) brought vines and wine to China for the first time.

Moving on to botanical gardens, Dr Ghazanfar explained that the first such gardens were physic gardens, for medicinal plants, or were meant to showcase different methods of cultivation. Subsequently they were for pleasure or status, to show off the strange and varied plants that could be grown. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that they began to have scientific and conservation importance. However, they have always had a role in preserving history and culture.

The earliest known botanical garden is the Royal Garden of Thotmes (3000 BCE), adjoining the Temple of Karnak in Egypt and planted by Nekht, the head gardener of the temple. It contained  vine pergolas and doum palms surrounding a rectangular pond containing lotuses, and was most likely a pleasure garden.

The Ancient Greeks didn’t appear to have botanical gardens, although Aristotle does mention a garden that he left to Theophrastus (270-287 BCE) after his death – Theophrastus subsequently improved it, and left a guide to the 500 plants that it contained.

What, though, of the most famous of the botanical gardens of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Dr Ghazanfar explained that these were most likely not in Babylon but in Nineveh at the Palace of Sennacherib, in the north west corner of what is now Iraq. It would have had an extremely sophisticated watering system, as the plants were arranged in tiers. Mostly the plants were grown for their decorative values, but some that provided the more exotic fruits for the palace would also have been grown. Sennacherib was an Assyrian king who ruled from 705-681 BCE, and there are drawings from the garden during the time of his successor, Ashurbanipal, which show the plants arranged in beds. It’s difficult to see what plants were included, but some clearly resemble cypresses and date palms.

Photo One by By Noah Wiener , Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh - http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/hanging-gardens-of-babylon-in-assyrian-nineveh/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57158048

Relief of the gardens of Nineveh (Photo One)

At approximately the same time, the King of Babylon also had a garden, and there are cuneiform tablets from this time split into sections, with details of which plants were planted in which bed. Frustratingly, we still don’t know which plants were represented, but it certainly shows a fine degree of organisation.

However, Dr Ghazanfar considers that the Chinese emperor Wu Tai (140-86 BCE) was the creator of the first botanical garden as we would understand it. He sent out collectors not just to other parts of China but right into Central Asia and the Middle East to bring back plants, and is credited with being the first person to cultivate the vine, pomegranate, safflower, common bean, cucumber, lucerne, coriander and walnut in China.

In Spain, gardens in Cordoba, Toledo and Seville built during the 8th to 11th centuries are thought to be the precursors of the Renaissance garden, though they were largely designed to enable agricultural experimentation – during the Al Andalus period there was a great flowering of scientific inquiry by Islamic scholars, and treatises were written on subjects such as the production of linseed oil from flax.

The oldest academic botanical garden that is still in its original location is the Orto Botanico di Padova in Padua, founded in 1545. It represents an understanding of the relationship between nature and culture, and has contributed to many of the sciences, from ecology and chemistry to botany and pharmacy.

Photo Three by By By A. Tosini - G Agostini "dis. in. pictra" - lithographed by "Kiev"? in Venice - older version uploaded by User:Esculapio - Unknown source Reprinted in "L'Orto botanico di Padova nell' anno 1842" by Roberto De Visiani (1842), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=518901

Botanical Gardens of Padua (Photo Three)

The Jardin des Plantes in Paris was established in 1635 as the Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants by Guy de la Brosse, Louis XIII’s physician.

In 1673 the Chelsea Physic Garden in London was founded as the Apothecary’s Garden, with the aim of teaching apprentices how to identify and use plants. However, the University of Oxford Botanical Garden is  the oldest botanical garden in the UK, founded in 1621 as a physic garden but now one of the most compact yet diverse collections in Europe: in only 4.5 acres it contains representatives of over 90% of all known plant species, and I personally recommend a visit if you’re ever amidst the dreaming spires and need a break.

When people think about botanical gardens in the UK however, their thoughts are inexorably drawn to Kew. Founded in 1759 by Princess Augusta, mother of George III, it didn’t become a public garden until 1841. The director, William Hooker, greatly expanded the area of the gardens from 10 to 75 acres, commissioned the famous glass houses, and set up a museum of economic botany. By his death in 1865 Kew was a leading scientific institution.

Some of the key botanical introductions at Kew were the Ginkgo, first planted in 1762 (and this original tree is still growing well today), and the Pagoda tree (Sophora japonica). This latter tree is actually native to China, not Japan, and one of the original trees still survives. Five were imported to the Duke of Argyll’s estate in 1753, and this tree was transplanted to Kew when still a sapling in 1762. It’s one of the few plants that survives from Princess Augusta’s original garden.

Photo Four by deror_avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Pagoda tree in Kew Gardens (Photo Four)

Kew has had an important role in the conservation of many endangered plants. The smallest water lily in the world, the Rwandan Pygmy Lily (Nymphaea thermarum) disappeared from the wild after its habitat was destroyed – this is the world’s smallest water lily, with flowers less than 1 cm across. Fortunately the botanists at Kew were able to grow some of the plants from seed. At the other end of the scale, the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) grows a frankly embarrassing flower some three metres tall, more or less when it feels like it – its flowering was described by Dr Ghazanfar as ‘rare and unpredictable’.

Photo Five by By C T Johansson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18578430

Dwarf Water Lily (Nymphaea thermarum) (Photo Five)

Photo Six by By Sailing moose - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70296828

Titan Arum in flower (Photo Six)

In India, there are many important botanical gardens, but to mention two: the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden(founded in 1787) in Kolkata is famous for its 250 year-old banyan tree: banyan trees grow by expanding via aerial roots, and this tree now covers some 4 acres. The Government Botanical Gardens in Ooty, founded in 1848, is a high-altitude garden which was a pioneer in growing many medicinal and food plants in India, most notably Cinchona from Peru, which is the source of quinine for the treatment of malaria.

Dr Ghazanfar moved on to talking about the relationship between a plant in its native habitat and its culture, and how the connection is often lost when a plant is cultivated elsewhere. She also described how, with climate change, some plants can no longer survive in their original environments. She sees a role for botanical gardens in preserving these links.

The Date Palm, for example, is mentioned extensively in both the Koran and the Bible. In the Koran the plant is described as a source of food, fibre, shade and enjoyment. Medicinally, it is thought to help with childbirth, and the Koran specifically mentions the importance of conserving the plant. In Islamic thought, it symbolises wisdom.

In the Bible, the Date Palm symbolises holiness, resurrection, justice, righteousness and honour, and many place names derive from the sites of Date Palm groves.

In Hinduism there are five sacred trees mentioned in the Vedas – Cannabis, which is associated with Lord Shiva, Tulsi, Sandalwood, Jasmine (also identified with Lord Shiva), and Neem or Indian Lilac, associated with the Goddess Durga.

Pomegranate is another plant associated with both the Koran and the Bible: in the Koran it is seen as a blessing and as a symbol of paradise, as an exhortation not to be wasteful and to share equitably. In the Bible, it’s a symbol of feminine beauty. However, it has been a symbol of prosperity, fertility and rebirth in both the Jewish and Ancient Egyptian religions, and was recommended by the Prophet Mohammad as a fruit that purged the body of hatred and anger. Pomegranates are grown in many, many places now, but in so doing they lose the depth and breadth of cultural associations that they had originally.

Dr Ghazanfar concludes by saying that botanical gardens in the future could include the cultural significance of the plants in their collections as well as just their medicinal and culinary uses, so that these would not be lost in future, which seems like an excellent idea to me.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Noah Wiener , Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh – http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/hanging-gardens-of-babylon-in-assyrian-nineveh/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57158048

Photo Two by By Marco Schmidt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2855208

Photo Three by By By A. Tosini – G Agostini “dis. in. pictra” – lithographed by “Kiev”? in Venice – older version uploaded by User:Esculapio – Unknown source Reprinted in “L’Orto botanico di Padova nell’ anno 1842” by Roberto De Visiani (1842), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=518901

Photo Four by deror_avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by By C T Johansson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18578430

Photo Six by By Sailing moose – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70296828

A Summer Walk in East Finchley Cemetery

Bhutan Pine (Pinus wallichiana)

Dear Readers, today I pulled out all the stops and headed to East Finchley Cemetery for a quick look at what was going on. I feel a bit as if I’m in Wonderland at the moment – all the colours seem brighter and the sounds of the birds are enchanting.

There are some spectacular specimen trees in the cemetery, such as this Bhutan pine (Pinus wallichiana). Its original home is the foothills of the Himalayas, Karakorum and Hindu Kush, but it seems strangely at home here in North London, amidst the monkey puzzle trees and the cedars of Lebanon.

On a smaller scale, I love the community of tiny plants living on this wooden roof. What look like bird droppings are, in fact, lichens.

And then a streak of greenish-yellow catches my eye, and a young green woodpecker poses very nicely for a few minutes.

We hear a young bird of prey calling from one of the big cedars, but no amount of patience will persuade it to emerge from the foliage, and its parents are clearly not in the mood to indulge it, so I might never know what it was. Very frustrating, but then that seems to be how nature works – some days everything falls into your lap, and some days you have to sigh and walk on.

There are some lovely unused buildings in the grounds of the Cemetery, which seems to mostly use the Italianate crematorium or the big Anglican chapel at the main entrance. The Glenesk Mausoleum is a lovely building, now completely fenced off and in danger of being engulfed by the nearby trees.

The Glenesk Mausoleum

There is a hopeful kneeling saint on the right hand pediment, but the one on the left has disappeared under a tangle of ivy.

The non-conformist chapel is in better shape, though the two small heads on the doorway have seen better days.

I’m not sure how much this chapel is used, but according to the cemetery’s management plan to 2012 it was thought to be a feeding roost for brown long-eared bats, so maybe a little seclusion is not a bad thing. There are lots of bat boxes mounted in the trees around the cemetery, but as it closes at 4 p.m. I guess I will never take a twilight walk to see what’s going on. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the summer air is criss-crossed with bat flight.

And, as I am midway through my Leith’s Online Cookery Course (it’s pasta week!) my eye was drawn to this grave. Jean Baptiste Virlogeux was chef at the Savoy during the 1930s, and was then Head Chef at the Dorchester for ten years, where he catered for the Queen and Prince Phillip. Whilst at the Savoy he invented the ‘Omelette Arnold Bennett’, a mixture of smoked haddock, eggs and gruyere in honour of the famous author. At the Dorchester, Virlogeux came up with the idea of the ‘Chef’s Table’, a private table for very special guests who could watch the chef work and no doubt ply him with confusing and impertinent questions while he wrestled with their dinner.

On our way back to the entrance we encounter this cheeky squirrel, who is clearly of the view that if he stays still enough we won’t notice him.

But then, how about this? Most of the beds in the cemetery are rather formal, but this is so bright that it seers the eyeballs, and none the worse for that. There is a sweet smell, I think from the salvia. How it cheers me up, especially on a dull day like today.

And just when you think the colours couldn’t get any brighter, look who drops in.

Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

And now it’s time to head home for a cuppa and a few hours with my feet up (once I’ve done my blog of course). As usual the cemetery has provided all sorts of delights. What fine spots they are for reflection and for nature!

First Walk for a Week

Dear Readers, how different the world outside looks after even a few days! I positively skipped around East Finchley today, there seemed to be so many things to see. First up was this bumblebee, who couldn’t have gotten herself anymore covered in pollen if she’d tried. I wondered if she’d been caught in a shower and then visited something very pollinaceous. At any rate, she was going to be popular with any larvae left in the nest for sure.

I stopped for a look at the tree which had a branch knocked off in an unfortunate event last year. It appears that nothing much has been done, and I suspect (though I’m no expert) that damp will penetrate the wound, along with fungi and all manner of other organisms. At the moment it suddenly seems to be abloom with lichen. I note from my previous piece, though, that this is nothing new. Let’s hope the tree is resilient enough to withstand even this.

I stop to note the pretty orange berries on a rowan cultivar just down the street…

…and that the infamous bollard at the bottom of Leicester Road appears to be upright at present.

Leicester Road bollard in 2018

We turn into Summerlee Avenue, which has some of my favourite plants. There is one front garden with a mauve and white buddleia that are both abuzz.

White buddleia

Further down the road, one of my two favourite Japanese maples has tiny ‘keys’ appearing, reminding me that it’s a relative of the sycamore, even if it’s rather more refined.

But what on earth is this plant, heavy with scent and so full of insect activity that I could hear it one house away? It looks and smells a little privet-y, but the flowers don’t look right. Someone has suggested Pittosporum but I think they flower a lot earlier. Help me out here, people!

But wait, what’s that on the first photo? It’s my find of the day, a perfect hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria). It’s a big beasty, and the colours are a perfect match for a hornet, though the shape and those massive eyes are a bit of a giveaway. Hornet hoverflies are the largest hoverflies to be found in the UK, and it’s always a thrill to see this impressive, harmless beast. I do hope that its mimicry doesn’t result in more pointless swatting than usual.

A real hornet

Off we go into Cherry Tree Wood. It’s very green at this time of year, and the slow-motion dance of the hornbeam trunks seems even more marked than usual.

Lots of the hornbeams are setting seed….

And someone is working on the cafe, where I think a pop-up is planned for later in the summer. There’s been some nice planting around by the tennis courts too, and some areas are unmown, which is great for the butterflies.

On the way home we take a walk along the unadopted road, which is always great for ‘weeds’ and insects. There is a splendid red admiral who poses very nicely. I had never noticed those blue marks on the lower wings before! I must get back to doing some nature-drawing, it really helps to focus attention on the detail.

People have clearly planted wildflower seeds outside their back doors, and there are some very nice combinations. This one has some phacelia and what I think might be ‘proper’ valerian.

This house has corncockle and corn marigold and poppies. It always feels so generous to plant where you can’t even see the results.

And finally, when I get home (in dire need of a cuppa) I see that someone has been committing murder in the hemp agrimony. There are the bodies of several tiny hoverflies already trussed up amongst the flowers.

This is confusingly known as a candy-striped spider (Enoplognatha sp.) Some of them have a very attractive pink stripe or two on their abdomen, but mine only has some tiny dots. Nonetheless, what an efficient little hunter this is! She seems to spend some time under the flowers, waiting for prey of a suitable size to land – at the moment there are some tiny black hoverflies about, which seem to be a particular favourite. Then she seems to grab them from below, truss them up and give them the killer bite before retreating for a well-earned rest. I love having plants that grow to just below eye level in the garden, it makes the invertebrate-spotting so much easier.




A Lepidopteran Feast

Red Admiral on ‘feral’ buddleia

Dear Readers, thank you for sticking with me for the past week – this morning I woke up after my first proper nights sleep in ten days feeling about a billion percent better than I did. I will still be taking things easy for a few days, but it’s nice to not feel just like crawling back to bed. And one of the great things about my office is that I can bird and bug watch out of the window. There has been a great collection of new-minted butterflies today, like this red admiral. I always feel that their undersides are every bit as beautiful as the rather brash scarlet and chocolate on their upperwings. Look at the delicate tracery of sky-blue, the hint of crimson, the way the different shades of cream and cocoa and coffee blend. What a splendid creature! And then, as if to prove me wrong when I said that no one liked the much brighter buddleia in the back garden, this beauty turned up.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

The underside of this one is even more magnificent, but what impresses me is that this butterfly has quite possible arrived from Morocco – it’s a long -distance migrant that travels in search of thistles to lay its eggs upon, and ‘breaks out’ every so often when food in North Africa becomes scarce. Some butterflies then make the journey in the opposite direction. This one was so fresh that it actually made me gasp. My husband might have got a picture of it with its orange wings open, providing a contrast with the flower that my Mum would have loved (she always did love magenta and tangerine together). If so, I will pop it into the post. 

And finally, on the way to the shed to top up the bird feeder (yet again – the squirrel has been busy as usual) I disturbed a creature which flashed tomato-red at me before landing on the yew. This is my first Jersey Tiger of the year, the Vulcan bomber of the moth world. This is a moth that used to be all over the place, but is increasingly common in the south of the UK and will no doubt move north and west as fast as climate change will allow.

Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

And here’s a little view of the underside. It reminds me of a stained glass window.

So, here’s to feeling better. There’s nothing like a few days of mild misery to make one appreciate not only how great it is when you no longer have a headache, but how hard it must be to live with chronic problems, and what a special strength it takes to keep going and to make something of a rotten situation. And thanks to all of you for your concern, it really means a lot, and has certainly kept me going!

Feelin’ Good (Well, Better Anyway…)

‘Dwarf ‘ Buddleia

Dear Readers, apart from waking up in the night with a fever today I’ve actually had a pretty good day, so fingers crossed that it continues! Some of the highlights of today have been:

  • Trying to do a lateral flow test. Oh lord I am fed up with tickling my tonsils and poking things up my nose but as little children are doing that every day I’m happy to suck it up once in a while. But why did my test come back void when I’d done everything right? Very disappointing. I shall have another bash tomorrow, but as I’m on the mend I suspect that my viruses are waving goodbye to me as we speak. Let’s hope they’re not heading off to infect my husband or we’ll have a wonderful week off.
  • Look at the ‘dwarf’ Buddleia! I’d say it’s about nine feet tall. Everything seems to grow gigantic in my garden. It’s a beautiful colour, but the bees and butterflies much prefer the feral mauve one in the front garden.

  • I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the Olympics, but I have been most taken with Simone Biles, the US athlete, who spoke out  vigorously when one of the coaches was convicted of sexually assaulting the girls. She isn’t the most graceful gymnast I’ve ever seen (says she, who can just about manage a forward roll if given a push) but when she jumps she seems to defy gravity, a characteristic she shares with some of the best ice skaters and other athletes. Apparently the Gymnastics committee can’t keep up with the complexity and daring of her jumps, and is consistently underrating their difficulty. To me, she’s an absolute powerhouse, and considering that the floor work finals in London in 2012 featured 8 white athletes, she will be a model of excellence for lots of little girls watching the Olympics. Just have a look at her here.
  • And in other news, a Judoka from tiny Kosovo has won a gold medal in Judo. I’m always cheering on the little countries. Distria Krasniqi apparently took up judo after practicing with her brother, and she beat someone from Japan in the women’s 48kg final. Well done that woman!
  • And because I’ve been spending so much time feeling sorry for myself in bed, I discovered these domino videos – people basically set up thousands of dominos, tip one and hope that the effect will ripple out. I find them strangely fascinating but also horrifying – all that work destroyed in two minutes! And who cleans it all up? Do the dominoes need to be sorted back into their individual boxes to be reused at a later event? It looks like entropy in action, but I do still quite like it. There’s an example here.
  • And finally, in keeping with our musical theme yesterday (I agree with you all, it’s Elvis all the way for me, though Peggy Lee does a decent job), here is the unmatchable, incomparable Nina Simone, singing my theme song for today. Enjoy!