Wednesday Weed – Hyacinth

Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis)

Dear Readers, when it comes to the scent of flowers I am very particular. I find that jasmine is ok outdoors, but nauseating at close quarters. Lilies have a kind of waxy scent, redolent of decay, that doesn’t work for me either (plus the pollen is poisonous to cats). I adore freesias, but they have such short lives as cut flowers that I rarely buy them. But hyacinths have the kind of perfume that makes me want to inhale great lungfuls of perfume.

For years, Dad would plant up pots full of hyacinth bulbs for forcing. In recent years, he hasn’t been well enough, so I’ve bought some ready-planted ones for him. When they’re finished, he asks the lady who looks after the garden to plant them outdoors, and so the borders are punctuated with blues and pinks and whites. The blooms are never as spectacular as in the first year, but they are still very fine, and on a still day they bring me up short with their delicious scent. It seems as if the plants revert to their natural type in their later years, as seen in the photo of the hyacinth taken in the wild below.

Photo One by Kurt Stüber [1] - caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3792

Wild hyacinth (Photo One)

Hyacinths are native to the Eastern Mediterranean, and are members of the Scilla family. Most scillas are much smaller, more modest plants, although they can be startlingly blue.

Photo Two by By Heike Löchel - fotografiert von Heike Löchel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3703102

Siberian Scilla (Scilla siberica) (Photo Two)

Hyacinths were introduced to Western Europe in the 16th Century and, as with all things bulb-related, the Dutch became masters of breeding different cultivars. In the wild, the flowers are largely blue, with occasional white and pink plants. By the 18th Century the Dutch had bred over 2000 different varieties, and the colours available now include yellow, orange, and apricot. I definitely prefer the original blue hyacinth, and I think it has the most delightful scent of all, with the white-flowered hyacinth a close second.

Photo Three by By John O'Neill - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=459050

Hyacinths in Canberra, Australia. What a range of colours! (Photo Three)

On the subject of blue hyacinths, the word ‘Persenche’ means ‘hyacinth-blue’, and is formed of 73% ultramarine, 9% red and 18% white. So now you know.

You might expect a plant with such a strong scent to be attractive to parfumiers, and so it proved. Madame de Pompadour was an early advocate for the plant in France, and soon every titled lady was stuffing hyacinth flowers down her cleavage to surround herself with a sweet-smelling cloud. It takes 6000kg of hyacinth flowers to make a single litre of hyacinth perfume, and so it was a premium product until the days of synthetic perfumes. Strangely, as with freesias and bluebells, I have never found a convincing man-made scent that comes anywhere near the complexity of the flower.

Hyacinths are mentioned in the Iliad, as part of the eruption of flowers that sprang up to provide a bed for Zeus and Hera:

‘Therewith the son of Cronos clasped his wife in his arms, and beneath them the divine earth made fresh-sprung grass to grow, and dewy lotus, and crocus, and hyacinth, thick and soft, that upbare them from the ground. [350] Therein lay the twain, and were clothed about with a cloud, fair and golden, wherefrom fell drops of glistering dew.’

Well, it’s alright for some, that’s all I can say. All that the divine earth ever makes for me in such outdoor encounters is a fine selection of wood ants and irritated mosquitoes, but let’s draw a veil over the whole subject while there’s still time.

In Greek mythology, Hyacinthus was a young man admired by both Apollo and the god Zephyr. Hyacinthus and Apollo were playing with a discus, rather like chaps play with a frisbee I suspect (although with fewer clothes). Zephyr was the god of the West Wind, and was disgruntled that Apollo was spending time with his favourite. When Apollo threw the discus, Zephyr blew it off course so that the unfortunate Hyacinthus was clunked on the noddle by a flying discus.  Being beloved by the gods was something of a liability, I fear. A chastened Apollo created the hyacinth flower from the drops of blood shed by Hyacinthus, though there are only a few daffodils in the picture below, which means the artist missed an opportunity in my opinion.

Photo Four by By Jean Broc - http://exitinterview.biz/rarities/paidika/n12/pdk12ill.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62

Hyacinthus feeling a bit the worse for wear (The Death of Hyacinthos by Jean Broc) (Photo Four)

Hyacinth bulbs (rather than the leaves and flowers) are toxic, particularly to dogs if they dig the bulbs up and eat them. Most cats are much too sensible to eat a hyacinth.  The big danger for humans is if the bulbs are mistaken for onions, but this is much less likely to happen than with daffodils, where the brown papery covering makes for a much closer appearance.

On the subject of hyacinth folklore, I find that in Shropshire it’s considered unlucky to have white hyacinths in the house, as they are emblematic of death. In the course of four years of preparing this blog, I have discovered that almost every plant that I write about is not allowed in the house for fear of someone dying. I suspect that often it’s because the flowers have featured at a funeral and are now inextricably linked with those sad memories. It seems a shame, though. Flowers, especially early-flowering ones like these, can bring such cheer in the early spring.

Hyacinths have long been associated with the Nowruz (New Year) celebrations in Iran, and are often placed on the Haft-Sin table, which contains 7 symbolic items all beginning with the Persian letter Seen (‘S’):

  • Greenery (سبزهsabze): Wheat, barley or lentil sprouts grown in a dish
  • Samanu (سمنوsamanu): A sweet pudding made from germinated wheat
  • The dried fruit of the oleaster tree (سنجدsenjed)
  • Garlic (سیرsir)
  • Apples (سیبsib)
  • Sumac berries (سماقsomāq)
  • Vinegar (سرکهserke)

Other items include a holy book (usually the Quran), books of Persian poetry, candles, a goldfish in a bowl, decorated eggs for each member of the family and a mirror.

Photo Five by By Mandana asadi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67619983

A Haft-Seen table (Photo Five)

Nowruz usually occurs on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox, and I can see how the hyacinth would add its beauty and scent to the occasion. Plus, it’s an opportunity for baklava, the world’s sweetest dessert.

Photo Six by By Kultigin - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=905058

Baklava (Photo Six)

As I watched the hyacinths earlier this week, I was delighted to see that, even though the flowers were almost finished they were still being visited by hairy-footed flower bees, particularly the males, who look as if they’ve been dabbed on the forehead with Tippex. I was also delighted to find out that hyacinth seeds are are dispersed by ants, in a delightful practice called myrmecochory. Hyacinth seeds are attached to a nutrient-rich outgrowth called an eliasome. The ants take the seeds back to their nests and eat the eliasome, but the seed is unharmed and either germinates in the midden of the ant nest, or is carried outside, where it can germinate away from its parent plant. I find it fascinating that this behaviour has evolved to the mutual benefit of ant and hyacinth, and it is much more widespread than I appreciated – over 3,000 species of plants rely on ants to distribute their seeds, and it is a major method of dispersal in both the South African fynbos (where it’s used by 1000 species of plant) and in many Australian habitats, both of which have largely infertile soils. Using an insect to carry the seed away from the parent plant (who might have just enough nutrients to survive itself) is one of those evolutionary marvels that makes my head spin.

Hyacinth seeds – the white parts are the eliasomes that ants use as food (Public Domain)

So, what is left to say about hyacinths? Like snowdrops and bluebells, they seem so hopeful, spilling their perfume into the cold air. I know, even now, that whenever I smell them I will see my father, tucking the white bulbs into the brown earth and popping them away in the shed for a few months, until it’s time to bring them out to brighten the last days of winter.The Persian poet Sadi (1184-1292 apparently, which would make him 106 years old) had this to say about the joy of hyacinths, and I agree. Feeding the soul is almost as important as feeding the body.

‘If thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul’

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by Kurt Stüber [1] – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3792

Photo Two by By Heike Löchel – fotografiert von Heike Löchel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3703102

Photo Three by By John O’Neill – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=459050

Photo Four by By Jean Broc – http://exitinterview.biz/rarities/paidika/n12/pdk12ill.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62

Photo Five by By Mandana asadi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67619983

Photo Six by By Kultigin – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=905058

A Garden of Character

Dear Readers, some gardens are grand. Some are charming. But some acquire something  even better – character. I love the garden of my Aunt Hilary because it speaks to me of the love that she and her sister Morwenna have put into it over nearly 50 years. It includes just the right combination of plants that are managed, and plants that have been allowed to naturalise and roam free, such as the primroses above, which pop up in every colour from cream to palest pink to rose to cerise.

In the autumn, the cyclamen take over.

The controlled anarchy of it all, with flowers bursting forth in the lawn, by the stumps of trees, in every corner, seems almost paradisaical to me. If Adam and Eve walked on this primrose-studded lawn I’m sure they’d think themselves lucky.

But it’s not all about the primroses. The wild lesser celandine combine with a handsome white periwinkle to make a little spot of semi-wildness.

Purple windflowers (Anemone blanda) hide shyly away alongside the dense conifers at the end of the garden, which are alive with wrens and goldcrests.

The rookery on the other side of the field is in full swing, with rooks croaking and conversing.

A sparrowhawk flies in over my head, long and low, for the second time in two days. She catches nothing, and swerves away, but the sparrows set up an anxious chirruping, as if discussing what has happened. In a few minutes, one is back on the roof of the old garage, which itself has a fine patina of age. The variety of lichens and mosses, here in this area of clean air, is impressive.

I wander over to the vegetable garden, and notice these two sparrows huddled against one another. I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphise, but they look like friends to me. Could they be recently fledged nest-mates, I wonder? Surely it’s too early? But then, Broadway has a lot of long-established hedgerows which provide just the conditions that these birds need – food, shelter, and lots of thorns to keep the sparrowhawks out.

When I look at a garden like this, it makes me wonder how many iterations it has gone through, how many plants have been tried and rejected because they aren’t happy in the conditions. There’s a lesson here about when to give up and try something new, when to persevere, when to intervene and when to let well enough alone. A garden can teach us many things, if we let it, and if we recognise that, in the end, we can either work with nature or against her. After almost fifty years this garden is still evolving, but is full of ‘happy accidents’ that have been allowed to multiply. Imagine how much poorer the garden would be if the first errant primrose had been dug out, instead of appreciated.

Nature touches the most unlikely things with beauty, like the roof of this bird table. I love the different textures and colours of the lichens, the way the one on the right looks as if some sea monsters are rising up and wading through the shallows. The one in the middle is as crumbly as birch bark. The lichen towards the top of the roof reminds me of the surface of a sphagnum bog. All of this is happening here on this few square inches of wood. There is so much abundance here, so much possibility. It’s hard to spend time in nature without being touched by joy.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Currant

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Dear Readers, when I was planting up my garden some eight years ago, I was wandering around the garden centre with my wonky trolley, trying to stop my phlox from capsizing, when I spotted a bush standing all alone in the corner. It seemed so lonely and unappreciated that I ground to a halt and wandered over for a closer look. The plant looked decidedly disheveled, but the leaves were just starting to emerge, and the buds were the most delicate pink-tinged things. I looked around. I looked back. I considered. And then,shoving a couple of ox-eye daisies to one side, I grabbed the plant.

‘You’re coming home with me!’ I told it. I still had no idea what it was but, just as when I was fostering cats and could sometimes see what a beautiful animal lay under the scratty fur and watery eyes, so this plant seemed to me to just be in need of some gentleness and consideration.

Eight years later it is the plant that delights both me and the hairy-footed flower bees most in the early days of April, as its cerise buds unfurl into a mass of flowers. You can’t beat a flowering currant for a spectacular show, and as this one is right next to the pond I get the double benefit of its reflection in the water.

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

A hairy-footed flower bee (Anthora plumipes) feeding on spring snowflake (Photo One)

Flowering currant is actually a North American plant, growing on the west coast from California up to British Columbia. It was brought back to the UK by the Scottish explorer David Douglas in 1826, A friend remembers that the plant had a wonderful sweet scent, but mine has unperfumed flowers, and leaves that smell rather like the pee of a tom cat if crushed.

Flowering currant is a member of the Grossulariaceae family, along with the other currant species such as redcurrant, whitecurrant and blackcurrant, although the family is actually named for another member, the gooseberry. The berries of the flowering currant are not particularly juicy or flavoursome , but all the currants have a lot of gamma-linoleic acid in their roots, leaves and seeds which is proven to be efficacious for pre-menstrual syndrome. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest also ate the berry, in particular saving it for winter food – like all of the family, flowering currant is rich in vitamin C. One method for doing this was to turn the pulp of the berries into something called fruit leather, thus avoiding the numerous annoying seeds. If you want to see how this is done, have a look at the Wild Harvests website here.

The caterpillars of many moths and butterflies will feed on flowering currant, but the confusingly-named spinach moth only eats the leaves of members of this family.

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=880141

The spinach moth(Eulithis mellinata) (Photo Two)

Plus many other moth caterpillars will also make an occasional meal of a currant, and I make no apology for this gratuitous picture of an ermine moth, one of my favourites.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Ermine Moth (Spilosoma lutea) (Photo Three )

It is said that birds will also eat the berries, although the ones in my garden are extremely picky and seem to prefer the (very expensive) suet pellets.In their native Pacific Northwest the flowers are a prime early nectar source for hummingbirds – the colour and shape of the flowers is a dead give away.

Photo Two by Andrew A Redding at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32933756594

Male Anna’s humminbird on flowering currant (Photo Four)

I had never made the link between the name ‘Ribena’ (the blackcurrant cordial) and the Ribes family, which proves that I am not always paying attention. Incidentally Suntory, the company that makes Ribena, has gotten itself into a whole heap of trouble after changing its formulation to try to avoid the UK sugar tax. The drink  now contains a heap of artificial sweeteners, which are also problematic as we know. There is a theory that, in addition to the various correlations between artificial sweeteners and diseases such as cancer, having too much of the stuff in your diet can screw up your glucose metabolism. So, maybe a reason to start making my own cordial  (though the only time that I have ever drunk Ribena was when I was six years old and ill in bed with a bilious attack).

Photo Two by By Patrice78500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22431600

Flowering currant berries (Photo Five)

In spite of its prettiness, bringing a bough of this shrub into the house seems to be considered unlucky all over the UK. Maybe it’s the smell of cats’ pee that does it.

And bringing it all together, as always, is Seamus Heaney. In his collection ‘Field Work‘ he writes of many things, one of them being his love for his wife. Have a look at this, both the close observation of the plant, and the skin, and the last two lines which, like the last line of a haiku, seem to leave a kind of silence.

IV

Catspiss smell
the pink bloom open
I press a leaf
of the flowering currant
on the back of your hand
for the tight slow burn
of its sticky juice
to prime your skin
and your veins to be crossed
criss-cross with leaf-veins

I lick my thumb
and dip it in mould
I anoint the anointed
leaf-shape. Mould
bloom and pigments
the back of your hand
like a birthmark
my umber one
you are stained, stained to perfection.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=880141

Photo Three Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Photo Four by Andrew A Redding at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32933756594

Photo Five by By Patrice78500 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22431600

 

 

A New Species!

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvatica)

Dear Readers, this little rodent is not actually  a ‘new’ species in the garden – I suspect that what with all the fallen bird seed, wood mice have been around for years. Plus, there are an estimated 30 million wood mice in the UK, making them commoner than either the rat or the house mouse. However,  this is the first time that a wood mouse in my garden has been bold enough to pop out in broad daylight. What a little sweetie s/he is! The eyes and ears are much larger than those of the standard house mouse, and the coat is a warm brown colour, shading to cream on the stomach. And yes, I know that s/he eats bulbs and seedlings and berries and nuts, but then s/he is a mouse, and I would expect a mouse to do such things. Plus, what with all the predators in the garden I will be very surprised if the poor little thing has a long life ahead (most wood mice do not survive for longer than a year). Furthermore, s/he occasionally eats snails, of which I have a wide variety in the garden. The mouse is living under the wooden steps which lead down to the pond (this makes the garden sound like some kind of stately home affair but I can assure you it isn’t). S/he runs out to the dropped seed under the feeder and leaps home at the slightest disturbance. The amount of febrile energy contained in that one small body is really something to witness.

Just a blur!

Wood mice don’t really hibernate, and I wonder if the cold winter has meant that this one has run out of her food store, and has become especially bold – normally wood mice are nocturnal. And with good cause, as everything loves a tasty wood mouse, though if a predator grabs the end of a wood mouse’s tail it will separate from the rest of the appendage, and will never re-grow.

In Ireland, it was believed that boiled mice were a cure for incontinence in children and for whooping cough. It was also believed that if you left a bucket of (presumably dead) mice for a year, and then smeared your head with the contents, it would cure your baldness, thus illustrating the lengths that some folk will go to to restore their hirsuteness. In fact, wood mice are not native to Ireland, and they probably came to the country with mesolithic settlers about 8,000 years ago. There is also genetic evidence that some of the mice came over with the Vikings from Scandinavia, as they are more closely related to mice from this area than from the UK. I suspect that they were often harvested along with the grain that they fed upon, and took up residence wherever they arrived.

Because they are such tasty morsels, wood mice tend to forage small, covered areas close to their nests. They may pick up bright objects, such as berries, and leave them as ‘road signs’ so that they can quickly navigate their way home. These ‘signs’ are much less conspicuous to predators than scent marking would be – it’s easy to forget that cats and foxes also understand the signs left by other species. The only other mammal species in which this ‘waymarking’  behaviour has been observed is in humans. I sometimes wonder how many other facets of the natural world we are missing.

The only other time that I’ve met a wood mouse was when one used to pop into my brother’s living room. S/he would sit up on her haunches and look around hopefully, whiskers twitching. My brother took to leaving some custard creams in a little pile, and many an evening’s entertainment would be spent watching the wood mouse stashing what s/he couldn’t eat in various corners of the room. The lady who came in to do the cleaning was most unimpressed.

Wood mice can breed at any time in the warmer months, have multiple matings (so, as with cats, each offspring can have a different father) and have up to five babies after 25 days gestation. The babies themselves are sexually mature at 2 months. You can see how, if there weren’t predators about, there would soon be a whole lot of wood mice.

Photo One by By Rasbak, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3506465

Look at the whiskers! (Photo One)

Incidentally, if something has been eating all the pips from your strawberries and discarding the pulp, it’s probably a wood mouse – unlike other animals, they seem to prefer protein to sugar. Maybe it’s their action-packed lifestyle that does it.

Wood mouse illustration from the 1920 edition of Thorburn’s British Mammals

As you might expect, this attractive little creature has appeared in several children’s books. In the Brambly Hedge series by Jill Barklem, Lord Woodmouse is the head of Brambly Hedge, and is described as a ‘kind and knowledgeable mouse’. Jill Barklem teamed up with the Wildlife Trusts in 2015 to help teach children about the real life counterparts of her characters, and you can read all about them here. In the meantime, here is Lord Woodmouse in his best regalia.

Lord Woodmouse by Jill Barklem

In North America, Thornton W.  Burgess was a prolific nature-writer and conservationist who wrote dozens of books for children about the creatures of the continent. On the mouse front, there was ‘Whitefoot the Wood Mouse’, in which

The happy little creature finds the perfect spot in Farmer Brown’s barn, where he meets a friendly stranger, tumbles into a life-threatening situation, and learns the meaning of the word “trust.”

The North American wood mouse (or deer mouse) is not the same species as the European one that I have in my garden, but you can see the similarity.

Photo One by By 6th Happiness - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6861184

Deer Mouse (Peromysucus maniculatus) (Photo Two)

There is something about the miniature world of the mouse that is enchanting – the way that the plants must loom overhead like trees,  dewdrops appear the size of beach balls, the menacing size of crows and cats. No wonder mice feature so often in children’s stories, for I believe that most children often have an instinctive empathy with creatures that are as small and vulnerable as they are. And then there is the way that mice seem to live on a different timescale from us lumbering adults. They are like quicksilver, doing everything at double speed, their short lives packed with incident and drama. When I see ‘my’ mouse hurrying out to grab a sunflower seed before the collared doves find it, I cannot begrudge them a single moment in the spring sunshine. It will be all too brief.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Rasbak, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3506465

Photo Two by By 6th Happiness – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6861184

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Aubretia

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Aubretia (Aubrieta deltoidea)

Dear Readers, it’s been a while since I’ve featured a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) here on the Wednesday Weed, so it’s my great pleasure to introduce aubretia, a rockery plant that whizzes away into the wild faster than Wily Coyote. It is in the top thirty alien plants found in the wild in both Berkshire and East Sutherland (according to Clive Stace’s magisterial ‘Alien Plants’) though not in London, where I suspect there is too much competition from other ferocious plants. At any rate, the four petals form the typical cruciform pattern of the family (hence the alternative family name of Crucifers) and I always think that the white stamen in the centre of the plant look like tiny sharp teeth.

As far as everyone at the garden centre is concerned, the plant’s name is pronounced ‘Awbreesha’. A quick look at its actual Latin name (Aubrieta) suggests that it should probably have been called, and pronounced ‘Awbree-eta’. Ho hum. Many Latin names become easier-to-pronounce common names – take ‘Chicory’ instead of Cichorium, for example. No wonder scientists stick to Latin names.

Aubretia was introduced to the UK as a rock-garden plant in 1710 , but as it loves thin soil and can  tolerate a wide range of pH and light conditions it is ideally placed to survive in the tiny pockets of soil in old walls or even between paving stones.We have noticed this before with other mountain plants, from buddleia to yellow corydalis. ‘Our’ aubretia comes originally from south-eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the plant below is growing wild in the mountains of Tartej, Lebanon, where it’s known as purple rock-cress.

Photo One by By Eli+ - I (Eli+) created this work entirely by myself., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15706040

Aubretia in the wild (Photo One)

This pretty perennial is named for Claude Aubriet (1651/1665 – 1742), a French flower botanical illustrator who produced a prodigious number of drawings, not just of plants but also of animals. He was probably the first illustrator to travel to the Middle East to record the plants found there (in 1700). As far as we know, he never travelled to the New World, so the illustrations of monarch butterflies below are probably from the collection at the Natural History Museum in Paris.

Haworthia retusa by Claude Aubriet (Public domain)

Two Butterflies by Claude Aubriet (Public Domain) – Monarch and one other species (Danaus dorripus?)

Aubretia is a rather old-fashioned plant, and one that has somewhat fallen out of favour. However, it has much to recommend it. It flowers for a long period, cascades down walls and fences that you might want to cover up and, most important of all, it is beloved by pollinators. They provide important early nectar for bumblebees and solitary bees, and for butterflies such as small tortoiseshells which will be emerging from hibernation in April and May, and for such early-flying species as orange-tips and brimstones. I’m sure that the pollinators of Creighton Avenue, where I found this patch of plants, will be very happy when they take to the wing and discover that there’s some food on offer.

Lots of aubretia….

As noted previously, aubretia is a member of the cabbage family, and it looks a bit mustard-y to me. However, I can find no mention of anyone eating it. Nor can I find any reference to it being poisonous. If anyone nibbles on a leaf do tell me, otherwise I might have to try it next time I see some. Save me from myself, gentle readers! On the Plant Lore website, a reader recalls how his father told him that any plant with ‘the sign of the cross’ on it would do him no harm, a reference to the crucifix-shaped flowers, so let’s hope that’s true. On the other hand, on the same site, another reader explains that she knew someone who would never have any ‘cross’ flowers in the house (presumably their shape rather than their temperament) because of their association with the crucifixion. I always find family superstitions intriguing – how does one group of people come to one conclusion about a plant and another come to the exact opposite view? Is it all down to temperament, I wonder – maybe some folk are eternally optimistic, and some others see doom everywhere.

And now, to my poem for this week. How I love this poem, which is by the Scottish poet Helen B Cruikshank, who died in 1975. Having been somewhat thwarted in her early life and becoming a civil servant, she returned to poetry in her later years. I love that the poem echoes the magpie theme of Saturday’s post, and I suspect that it holds true for any kind of creativity, not just poetry.

ONE ASPECT OF A POET by Helen B Cruikshank

I sometimes think

That elusive bird, the Poet,

Is like the bower bird of the South

That adorns his territory with

Coloured scraps of salvage,

Bottle tops, pebbles, rags of pyjama cloth,

And exotic petals of vivid hue –

Garnered from near and far;

Or our homelier blackbird

Weaving into his nest

Discarded bits of Cellophane,

A note thrown away by the milkman

Or silver paper from a chocolate bar,

Along with native grass, and aubretia

Torn from the rockery;

Or the twinkling bluetit, using

Ravelled-out wool from a girl’s jumper,

Or combings of hair –

Once in the Highlands, I saw

An exquisite nest in a niche of a bridge

Cosily lined with sheep-wool and deer-hair,

Where the tiny scrap of sizzling energy

Had built the cradle for his multiple brood.

So, from his magpie collection of

Facts and ideas,

Garnered, remembered, or

Filched from all quarters,

The poet fashions his lines.

And we, walking on earth-borne feet

Marvel at the grace and scope of his skill,

His soaring flight, his protean imagination,

And look and listen, indulgent,

As did Dylan’s Milk Wood pastor

When naughty Polly Garter sang

As she scrubbed;

And like him we say

As we pause, then pass on,

Thank God for Song.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Eli+ – I (Eli+) created this work entirely by myself., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15706040

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public Enemy Number One?

When I was growing up, there was a children’s programme on ITV called ‘Magpie’. The theme tune was an  version of the old folk song about the bird:

‘One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl and four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told’.

And for anyone who wants to glory in their youth, you can find the whole thing here.

In truth, ‘Magpie’ was a little self-consciously trendy for me – I preferred Chris Noakes’s Fair Isle jumpers, and Valerie Singleton’s sensible dresses over on the BBC in ‘Blue Peter’. But the name ‘Magpie’ referred to the bird’s supposed habit of collecting little bits of treasure and taking them back to the nest, and harked back to a time when magpies were valued by farmers for the number of leatherjackets and other insect pests that they ate.

Nowadays, the bird has been so vilified that I doubt that anyone would name a programme after it. When did this happen? How did a common member of the crow family get to be Public Enemy Number One? And what is the truth behind its reputation?

In recent weeks, I have encountered several people who have been doing battle with the bird. In Costa Rica, I met someone who had captured one magpie in a Larsen trap, and had used this as a way to dispatch twelve others who came down to see what was going on. At the weekend I was on a very interesting Field Studies Council birdwatching walk in Regent’s Park, and the appearance of a pair of magpies led to a lively discussion about the bird’s role as a despatcher of songbird eggs and nestlings. In short, the blame for the demise of thrushes and blackbirds, black caps and tits has been laid at the scaly black feet of this noisy hooligan of a bird.

It is true that magpies will take baby birds from the nest, and  destroy eggs, but they are not alone in this. Great Spotted Woodpeckers will peck through a nest box and pull out the pink hatchlings one at a time. I have watched a jay snatch a fledgling starling by the wingtip and lay it open like the pages of a book before pummelling it to death. And don’t get me started on cats. I suspect that it is the sheer visibility of the magpie that makes them so hated. The way that they skip about, their distinctive plumage, their cackling calls and their habit of gathering in gangs, especially when young, means that they are difficult to ignore. And they have increased in numbers, especially in cities where there are more sources of food, and they are (generally) less likely to be shot.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major)

Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

But magpies have been in the British Isles for millenia, and have presumably been eating songbird young for a few months every year for all this time. They are omnivorous, adaptable birds: everything from chips to earthworms is grist to their mill. The RSPB did a study of 35 years of data, and concluded that there was no relationship between the increase in magpie numbers and the decrease in the number of songbirds. Correlation is not causation, as any scientist will tell you.

If we really want to know why our songbirds have declined, why lapwings no longer tumble above our fields, why the call of the curlew and the exultation of the lark are becoming increasingly rare, we need to look for causes more complicated than a single species.

We need to look at the impoverishment of our soils, which no amount of fertiliser will cure. We need to look at the way that those fertilisers are polluting our watercourses.

We need to look at the use of agricultural and garden herbicides, which diminish the range of plants that grow, and hence the diversity of insects upon which those songbirds depend to feed their young.

We need to look at the way that ancient hedgerows have been grubbed up and replaced by fences, because they are cheaper to maintain.

We need to look at the relentless use of pesticides which kills not just the insects that they are aimed at, but the creatures that feed upon them.

Hedgerow in Somerset

Linnet on a barbed wire fence in Milborne St Andrew

We need to look at the destruction of old barns and outbuildings that were once a place to nest, and at the design of newer houses that allow nowhere for these creatures to raise their young or to rest their heads. We need to consider the way that our gardens are paved over and decked out to make room for our cars. And we need to look at our need for tidy garden spaces that are ‘low maintenance’.

Blackbird nesting in an old farm building in Milborne St Andrew

These things are not so simple to sort out. It’s much easier to scapegoat a species that is certainly guilty of occasional nestling murder. But an ecosystem is complicated. Take out the magpies, and I would bet a pound to a penny  that they’ll be back within a year, because these are territorial creatures, and a vacant territory will not stay empty for long.

There is a strong instinct in humans to protect their territory too. I know how furious I have been with a local cat who sits for hours in my garden looking for something to torment. The cat is well-fed, and rarely eats what he kills. The magpie is taking food home for its offspring, or to feed itself. Much as I pity the blackbird or the blue tit, I know that many of them will breed again later in the year. A blue tit can have up to twelve nestlings in a single nest. If every one of those survived, we would soon be up to our waists in balls of fluff. I bow to no one in my urge to keep the more vulnerable creatures in my garden safe, but nature has other urges, and survival is one of them.

Blue tit visiting the suet feeder

So next time a magpie visits the garden, I would invite you to really look at it. Admire the green and purple iridescence of its plumage, that long, ungainly tail. Take the time to look at the relationships between individual birds – a more dominant bird will always sit higher up a tree, and the length of the tail is one clue to how dominant the bird is. Watch when the magpie chicks leave the nest, with their incessant calling for food and their chubby innocence. We do not build a healthy ecosystem by knocking out a major predator, we do it by making sure that all the constituent parts, soil, plants, insects, birds, thrive.

We mulch, compost, use organic matter. We plant hedges and perennials that are good for pollinators and other insects. We lay off the pesticides and herbicides. We try to build spots suitable for nesting, roosting, sheltering. We provide a water source. We don’t cut everything back at the first sign of untidiness. Gradually, our gardens become havens for all sorts of creatures, and the drama of life plays itself out under our noses, in all its joy and occasional brutality. We cannot do everything, but if we are lucky enough to have a garden, we can do this.

Wednesday Weed – Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias ssp Wulfenii)

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Euphorbia characias ssp wulfenii

Dear Readers, last week I went on a birdwatching day organised by the Field Studies Council in Regent’s Park, and as is my wont I got there early. So, I sat in the Rose Garden and, although the roses are mere twigs at this time of year, I became very intrigued by the euphorbias. They seem to launch themselves from their woody stems like rockets.

Also, the flowers are very strange. I had never noticed their structure before, with the ‘buds’ protruding like the eyes of Martians. What’s going on?

Well, first things first. The Euphorbiaceae is a huge family of plants which vary from trees to shrubs to succulents to ‘herbs’ like our plant, and many are known as spurges. The sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) is a very common UK plant of wasteland and pavements, which featured as a Wednesday Weed several years ago. ‘True’ euphorbias have a milky, poisonous sap (which is why it’s important to wear gloves and to avoid rubbing your eyes (or indeed any delicate parts)) if you’re working with the plant. Incidentally, the colourful Crotons (those houseplants with leathery, multi-coloured leaves) are also members of the family, but their sap is said to be innocuous.

That poisonous sap has long been used for the treatment of warts, skin tags and other ‘skin excrescences’, and some species of euphorbia are under investigation as a treatment for herpes, so there you go. The name ‘spurge’ is from the same Latin root as ‘purge’, implying that the toxic properties of the plant might have been used to cause vomiting, and the genus Euphorbia is named for the Greek physician Euphorbus (50 BC – 23 AD) who considered the plant to be useful as a laxative.

It is also said that throwing a sack of chopped-up euphorbia into a pond will kill all the fish without poisoning their flesh. This seems like a very lazy way to go fishing to me. I am also sure that my frogs would not approve.

Photo One by By Karl Thomas Moore - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60359378

The innocuous croton (Photo One)

Now, back to that strange flower. It’s known as a cyathium, and is a kind of ‘false flower’. The cup at the bottom contains a single central female flower which is stalked and looks rather like a pea (see photo below) and several male flowers ranged around it, plus some crescent-shaped nectaries. The things that look like petals are actually bracts, or specialised leaves which support and protect the inconspicuous reproductive parts. All in all, it makes for a very unusual structure, but one which appears to be both attractive (the bracts retain their colour for a long time) and effective for the plant (Mediterranean spurge is a notorious self-seeder).

As you might expect from its name, Mediterranean spurge is a plant of hot, dry places (this subspecies is found from Southern France all the way to Anatolia).  It is drought and salinity tolerant, and although in its native range it often grows a long way from the sea, it sounds to me like an ideal seaside-garden plant. I do however note that it is not fond of breezy weather, so maybe this is the catch. If any of you are fortunate enough to have such a thing, do let me know what your experience is!

Now, finally I am indebted to the wonderful  Squirrelbasket blog for finding this poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Admittedly, it’s about the woodspurge (Euphorbia amaglyoides), but the Mediterranean woodspurge also has ‘a cup of three’, and I think the poem hits on some truths about grieving – that our minds may cling to something that we’ve seen in nature as a kind of lifeline, and also the way that our senses can be heightened to a painful extent.

The Woodspurge
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind’s will,–
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,–
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,–
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Karl Thomas Moore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60359378