A Mothy Tale

Tachystola mulliganae (Photo by David Lees/Trustees of the Natural History Museum) from Ealing: New species of moth discovered in west London park – BBC News

Dear Readers, I sometimes dream of how exciting it would be to find a species new to science in my back garden, but this week there was news that lifelong moth enthusiast Barbara Mulligan had done just that. Mulligan had been fascinated by moths since she was ten years old, and had recently retired from her job as a housing finance officer when she found a moth in her moth trap (in Ealing, West London) that she didn’t recognise.

She sent the moth to her local moth recorder, who was also stumped, so the moth ended up at the Natural History Museum, where it was recognised as being similar to a specimen of an Australian moth that had been in the collection since 1885. Genetic tests proved that although the moth was similar to the one in the collection, it was distinct, and was, in fact, a moth new to science. It was named Tachystola mulliganae in Mulligan’s honour, and she couldn’t be more pleased.

Since then, she’s found 25 moths in several other locations in Ealing, but how it arrived in the UK is a mystery. It’s likely that the moth larvae or eggs were brought in with some plants from Australia, but it probably happened fairly recently as the moth is only known from a limited geographical range. Though the question is, would we know? There are not that many dedicated and regular observers of moths, though maybe the thought of finding a moth new to science could be an encouragement.

And let’s not forget the amazing Jennifer Owens, who monitored the wildlife in her suburban Leicestershire garden and discovered six species of parasitic wasp that were new to science, and 20 species of insect that hadn’t been reported in the UK before. Her book ‘Wildlife of a Garden – a Thirty-Year Study'(currently out of print)  is a fascinating insight into what can appear in a garden that wasn’t designed just for wildlife, but also for fruit, veg and flowers for the humans who enjoyed it. And who knows what’s going on even in a modest urban patch? Eyes peeled, people! You could be the next person to have a plant or critter named after you.

Wednesday Weed – Cotoneaster Revisited

Probably the Hollyberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster bullatus)

Dear Readers, when I first wrote about cotoneaster back in 2016, I was very much thinking of the small-leaved hedging variety that is so popular here in the County Roads. However, I am now tripping over them everywhere, including in various woodlands where they are making themselves at home. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley list no less than 12 different species of Cotoneaster, of which the Wall Cotoneaster (described below) is the most commonly found. The authors describe how Entire-Leaved Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster integralis) and Himalayan Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster simonsii) seem to be the most inclined to bad behaviour: the former smothers limestone cliffs and turf, while the former prefers heathland in the far northern reaches of Scotland. The culprits, I fear, are our friends the birds, who gobble up the berries and deposit the seeds elsewhere. 

In all, there are 85 species of Cotoneaster in the wild in the UK, 82 of which are actual species and 3 of which are hybrids. No wonder it’s difficult to tell them apart! These plants are popular with bees, hoverflies and birds, so I can see why they’re so widely planted. In urban areas I think that they greatly cheer up our streets and car parks and public spaces, and I can even forgive the odd intrusion in the edges of our local woodlands. I can see how they’d be much more of a problem in a Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

Anyhow, let’s see what I thought back in 2016.

Dear Readers, I suspect that the most contentious part of today’s post will be how the name of this plant is pronounced. Do we go with ‘cotton-easter’, or is it the rather more exotic-sounding ‘cot-oh-knee-aster?’ Well according to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s the latter, preferably with the second syllable voiced as if you’ve just heard that the price of quinoa in Waitrose has doubled overnight. So that’s that cleared up. Incidentally, the name comes from cotone, the Latin for quince, and -aster meaning ‘resembling’ – I suppose that the berries, with their star-shaped ‘ends’, do look a little like tiny quinces.

img_8119There are over 80 species of cotoneaster in cultivation in the UK, but this is probably the most common. It is a great favourite in gardens – the small white flowers are bee-magnets that attract an extraordinary variety of pollinators from the second that they come into bud, and the berries are not only attractive to us, but also to birds. This is a plant that doesn’t need pruning, and is largely trouble-free for the gardener. Unfortunately it is also a frequent escapee, spread by those pesky birds who eat the berries and distribute them all over the place. In my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ it is described as being a dangerous invasive on cliffs and heathland, where it shades out less vigorous plants. In London, it crops up all over the place, and I’ve found cotoneaster seedlings in woodland, on waste ground and even in my own garden.

img_8116Cotoneaster is another member of the rose family (see tormentil last week), and is originally from western China. It was first introduced to the UK in about 1879, was recorded in the wild in 1940 and is said to be ‘still spreading’, though at present it can mostly be found in the south of England.  From the little map in my Harraps Wildflower Guide, it appears that Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset are ‘hotspots’.

img_8121However, there is a native cotoneaster, known in Welsh as the Creigafal y Gogarth “rock apple of Gogarth” (Cotoneaster cambricus) , and found only on the Great Orme peninsula in north Wales. There are only six of this plant left in the wild, with another 11 cultivated from cuttings and seeds. The plant is unique to this habitat, and grows nowhere else. It has a very slow and erratic germination and survival rate (the 11 cultivated plants are the only ones left from 33 originally planted out). The plant was discovered in 1783 and since then has been dug up by collectors, overgrazed by sheep, eaten by rabbits and goats and, the final straw, outcompeted by other species of cotoneaster from local gardens. There is a plan in place to increase the population to 100 plants by 2030, so fingers crossed.

By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The rock apple of Gogarth (Cotoeaster cambricus) – probably the rarest plant ever featured on the Wednesday Weed! (Photo One – credit below)

But, to return to the far more common Cotoneaster horizontalis. You will sometimes find mention of the berries being poisonous, but fortunately the level of toxins is very low, and the berries are rather bitter and powdery,  so the chance of anyone being masochistic enough to eat a sufficient quantity to do themselves a damage is extremely low. Indeed, on the Poison Garden website the author states that even the birds will only eat his cotoneaster berries when everything else is gone. In view of this, it will come as no surprise that I can find no recipes featuring cotoneaster berries, not even a tasty liqueur.

img_8116Having thought that we had nailed down the pronunciation of the name of this week’s plant, I have now come across a poem by Thomas Hardy which throws the proverbial spanner in the works. It’s fair to say that it’s not one of his best works, although it is in an interesting poetical form called a triolet, a French form with a rigid pattern of stress and rhyme. Here it is, in full.

Birds at Winter Nightfall

Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotoneaster
Around the house. The flakes fly!–faster
Shutting indoors that crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone!

So, even accounting for Hardy’s probable West Country accent, we now have a third possible way of saying ‘cotoneaster’ – ‘cot-oh-knee-arster’. Unless Hardy pronounces ‘faster’ as ‘fass-ter’ rather than ‘farster’, which is quite possible. I like the idea of a ‘crumb-outcaster’ – that would be me, in all weathers.

However, my happiest find for this particular Wednesday Weed is some music by the composer David Warin Solomons called ‘Cotoneaster’. Inspired by the bees coming and going from his cotoneaster bush, it’s a rather meditative and peaceful piece, redolent of those first warm days of spring when the flowers open, and the queen bees are stocking up their reserves for the challenges ahead. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Cotoneaster for cor anglais and and guitar, by David Warin Solomons


Photo Credits

Photo One (Native Cotoneaster) – By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


Red List Twenty Two – Goldeneye

Dear Readers, there has been at least one of these glorious sea ducks present at Walthamstow Wetlands on several occasions this year, but every time I visit I manage to miss him. What a treat it would be to see one! Goldeneyes breed in a few places in Scotland, but mostly they are winter visitors, and they are Red Listed because the wintering population has dropped by 55% from the mid 1990s. What is going on? It isn’t altogether clear: the best interpretation (for the ducks themselves, if not for birdlovers in the UK) is that the Goldeneyes are ‘short-stopping’ during their migration – if the winters are getting warmer in Europe, they may well choose to migrate for a shorter distance, to somewhere a bit closer to home. On the other hand, it may be that habitat disturbance, hunting and the ingestion of lead bait used by anglers is actually decreasing their population. Let’s hope it’s the former.

The Goldeneye’s rather unusual scientific name means roughly ‘bull-headed clanger’. You might remember that Alexander the Great’s horse was called ‘Bucephalus’, which wasn’t a compliment. These ducks have tennis-ball shaped heads and apparently no neck, which only adds to their appeal, to me at least’. But how about that ‘clanger’ bit? Well, here are five males and a female during their courting display. See what you think. This was recorded by Alan Dalton just outside Stockholm in Sweden.

They also have wingbeats that sound as if they had a Doppler effect built in  – recorded here by Uku Paal in Estonia.

But if all that splashing and general carry-on in the first soundclip has gotten you intrigued, have a look at some Goldeneyes during their courtship display here. The film starts off with one reason why Goldeneyes might be getting rarer. Who’d be a female duck? Though the whole display is extraordinary to watch, and it has a strange combination of tenderness and testosterone.

Male Goldeneye displaying (Photo by Andrew Reding https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32817183454)

One conservation success with these birds has been that the tiny Scottish breeding population, which was in single figures in the 1970s, has now increased to over 200 pairs. This may well be because these are ducks that will nest in nest boxes – as soon as this was realised, nest boxes went up in prime sites close to water and lo and behold, more Goldeneyes bred. There were some worries about predation by pine martens, and competition from Mandarin ducks, but so far the population seems stable.

Common Goldeneye images from the ever wonderful Crossley Guide https://crossleybooks.com/species/common-goldeneye/

And finally, how about that James Bond film, Goldeneye? You might know that Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica was called ‘Goldeneye’, and that he was a keen birdwatcher. But is there a link? In fact the name came from a wartime intelligence operation, which was actually designed by one Commander Ian Fleming, who travelled to Gibraltar to set up the plan. The fear was that there would be an alliance between the Germans and Franco in Spain, and Operation Goldeneye planned to leave some operatives in place in Gibraltar if this occurred, so that they could coordinate sabotage missions and ensure communications were received by the Allied forces. In the event, no such alliance occurred.

This does beg the question of who named the Operation ‘Goldeneye’ in the first place. Could it have been named after the duck? I wonder if Fleming had a hand in naming it. I guess we will never know.

Fleming’s Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica (Photo by By Banjoman1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15532437)



Beating Japanese Knotweed – How Are We Doing?

Psyllid bug Aphalara itadori(Photo from CABI website)

Dear Readers, on my Open University course we are currently exploring the world of invasive species, and none arouses my interest more than Japanese Knotweed. I’ve written about this plant before, back in 2015, but I wondered how things were going with the biological controls that were suggested to tackle the plant.

For those who haven’t had the mixed pleasure of encountering this plant, Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was imported to the UK as an ornamental by those pesky Victorians. Once here, it decided that it liked the place so much that it has set up shop in many areas, including the edges of Muswell Hill Playing Fields. The plant is actually sterile (there are no male plants in the UK), but the roots spread easily, and the smallest fragment of root can generate a whole new thicket. It is extremely difficult to eradicate, requiring either systematic digging out of every fragment of root for years, or multiple dosing with glysophate. It’s true that Japanese ladies harvest the tender tips and eat them, but you’d need an awful lot of foragers to deal with this lot.

Japanese Knotweed on Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Attention turned to the possibility of finding a biological control for the plant. The scientists had genetically analysed the Japanese Knotweed in the UK, and discovered that it came from a small area near Nagasaki. In the wild, Japanese Knotweed lives on volcanic soil and is a resilient and determined coloniser of these sites, so it’s no wonder that it likes the disturbed soil where it’s often found in the UK.

Once the plants’ genetic inheritance was established, it was a case of investigating what was preying upon it, and then testing the predators to ensure that they had a very tight preference for Japanese Knotweed. The best candidate was a ‘true’ bug (in the sense of being an insect that sucks sap), Aphalara itadori (pictured above). It was chosen because the scientists at CABI (The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International) identified it as the ‘bug most likely to’ cause substantial damage to Japanese Knotweed, without transferring its affections elsewhere once the host plant was demolished.

Large scale releases of the insect have taken place under licence since 2015, but results have been mixed. The adult insects overwinter in vegetation near the Japanese Knotweed, and prefer pine trees, which can present problems if there aren’t any nearby. At several sites the bugs did survive the winter anyhow, but long-term establishment and reproduction seem to be a problem.

However, in 2019 a different bug was found eating Japanese Knotweed in the Murakami district of Japan, and there are high hopes that this insect will prove to be a bit hardier in the field. It’s currently being tested to ensure that it only eats what it’s supposed to eat, and to investigate its life cycle in detail. It will be interesting to see if this insect proves to be a better biological control than the previous bug.

Psyllid nymph damage on Japanese Knotweed (CABI)

Another possibility is a fungal pathogen that causes leaf spot on the plant in its native Japan. It would be much too risky to release this as a whole organism, but work is on hand to develop a mycoherbicide: this would use the active fungal ingredient, which has been treated to prevent it from reproducing or spreading. If it works, it could be sprayed onto Japanese Knotweed without any impact on any surrounding plants, or on the waterways that it often grows along. Let’s see how this turns out.

Japanese Knotweed leaves infected with leaf spot fungus

The nineteenth century was a time when the Victorians were cheerfully moving plants and animals from one place to another without any thought for what was going to happen if their ‘finds’ established themselves elsewhere. Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed are just three of the plants that have escaped, with serious detrimental effects on habitats and native flora. There’s nothing wrong with any of these plants per se – they all have their charms and their uses as part of their native habitats. But having seen how Japanese Knotweed can completely screen out all the other plants that it grows with it’s clear that something has to be done, and in general I’d rather it wasn’t spraying with Round-Up. On the other hand, I also have an instinctive worry about fighting fire with fire. Let’s hope that all the research into the insects and fungi that are currently being mentioned with regard to Japanese Knotweed has been thorough enough to prevent unanticipated problems.

Another fine stand of Japanese Knotweed

Nature’s Calendar – 2nd – 6th December – Robins Defend Winter Territories

A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren. 

Dear Readers, although my garden is quieter in winter than in spring, it’s not completely lacking in bird song. Robins are unusual amongst British birds because they hold both autumn/winter and spring territories. In the winter, the territories are smaller, and in many cases male and female robins hold adjoining ‘patches’, which are amalgamated when the warmer weather comes, and testosterone levels rise. Nonetheless, the robin in my garden was most indignant when a small flock of sparrows visited today, and s/he (for it is impossible to tell) tried to see the whole gang of them off. Sparrows are not so easily distracted however, and the robin left sitting indignantly in the climbing hydrangea while the sparrows gave the gutters a good going-over.

One way that robins defend their territories from other robins is by singing. Have a listen to this. You can see the bird listening out for another robin and then responding. On some winter days, if you listen carefully, you can hear how you are walking out of one territory into another as you travel along. Such energy!

In her piece on robins in ‘Nature’s Calendar’, Kiera Chapman points out that the breast of the robin is not really red, but is closer to orange. Alas, the word for ‘orange’ arrived with orange trees in the late fifteenth century (from the Sanskrit ‘naranga‘) – before that, things that we would now describe as orange in colour were designated as red or yellow. So it was with Robin Redbreast. I guess that Robin Orange-breast doesn’t have quite the same satisfyingly alliterative quality.

And so, if you’re up early on these dark mornings and hear someone singing, chances are that it’s a robin. And there’s something about it that always makes me feel less grumpy at getting up on a cold and frosty morning. I think I might buy the robins some Christmas mealworms. After all, at this time of year they need all the help that they can get.

At The King’s Arms in Dorchester

Dear Readers, when I first started visiting Dorchester (from about 2001 when Mum and Dad moved nearby) I often passed the King’s Arms with a sense of real sadness. This is the hostelry where Thomas Hardy set some of the scenes from The Mayor of Casterbridge ‘ (anyone who’s ever visited ‘Dorch’ will know that it’s Hardy Central), but the King’s Arms stayed decrepit and unloved for years. Then, about seven years ago there were signs that something exciting was happening – scaffolding went up, plaster was repaired, there were builder’s vans outside more or less constantly, and a great sense of excitement was in the air. And then, of course, the pandemic struck, just after the new King’s Arms had opened. I feared for the worst, but how splendid it looked!

Parts of the King’s Arms date back to the 16th Century but most of it was rebuilt in the early 19th Century, giving it an elegant Georgian charm (true of so much of Dorchester). In the 20th Century it was owned by a series of breweries and private entrepreneurs, before finally going into receivership in 2015. It was bought by the Stay Original company  who specialise in refurbishing and preserving historic pubs and hotels. A lot of the restoration involved removing what the new owners describe as ’20th Century Tat”, including false ceilings and carpet covering a Victorian encaustic floor. The public areas really are lovely, as you can see.

This is the Casterbridge Room, said to be where Hardy wrote ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ (from King’s Arms website)

As regular readers know, I’ve been staying at Westwood House, a Bed and Breakfast opposite the King’s Arms, but it was closed for this visit so I decided to try out the King’s Arms. It really is a delightful place. I was a bit worried about noise, what with it being a busy restaurant and pub, but I asked for a quiet room and got one towards the back and side of the building, so not only was there no noise of people enjoying themselves (yes, my middle name is clearly Scrooge) but there wasn’t any traffic noise either. And as the temperature didn’t get above zero, it was lovely to just pile downstairs in the evening for my dinner, which was excellent. It’s rare that I want to eat all of the main course options, but I wished I was staying for a week to eat my way through the lot. Portobello Mushroom suet pudding, anybody? I can’t remember the last time I saw a suet pudding on a menu (and this was vegetarian too). Plus they had a Winter Kir cocktail, with prosecco, Cointreau and orange. Just as well I didn’t have far to stagger.

It made my heart a little bit sad that I never had the chance to bring Mum and Dad to the King’s Arms, they would have loved it, especially the sticky toffee pudding with date ice cream. But I ate it for them, and remembered how Dad would rub his hands together with joy when he really liked what he was eating, and how Mum would always make sure she put a little bit of everything on her plate onto her fork so she got the full range of tastes with every bite. And I realised that I do both of those things. The things we inherit from our parents don’t just live on in our DNA, they live on in our expressions and our tastes, the ways that we do the smallest of things. It’s not just through the obvious things that they live on.

Not sticky toffee pudding but it will have to do!

So that’s two excellent places to stay in Dorchester – Westwood House is about half the price but doesn’t have the extra facilities, so it’s a bit of a balancing act. I’m sure I’ll be back to both.

The website for the King’s Arms is here.




A Snowy Visit to Dorchester

Dear Readers, with excellent timing my visit to Mum and Dad ‘s grave coincided with the coldest weather so far this year, and there were snow flurries alll the time that I was sorting out the cyclamen. I was planning on giving the headstone a good old scrub, but under the circumstances I think Mum and Dad would have let me off until next time. Incidentally, does anyone have any advice on the best way to clean the stone up without either damaging it or poisoning the soil/plants? I’m going to ask the stonemason, but you lovely people will probably be quicker.

Mum always loved Christmas, and I know she’d have appreciated the cyclamen. I just hope that they’re hardy enough to survive the cold.

For the first time ever, some other people were visiting ‘their’ grave. They were accompanied by a young black Labrador Retriever called Jasper, and what a lovely dog he was! Mum always loved Labs, and I remembered how eager she was to pat any canine that came within reach, so I had a pat on her behalf. I do love a nice, solid dog. Jasper had to be dissuaded from stealing a teddy that was on one of the graves (because after all, all teddies belong to dogs as everyone knows). Apart from that one infraction, he was a very good dog indeed.

The little crab apple nest to Mum and Dad’s grave looks as if it’s hung with baubles at this time of year. It makes me very happy.

And the beech leaves next to the graveyard are twirling down. I love how coppery they are at this time of year.

There are a few new hedges too, one in the churchyard…

And one in the village – it was first laid in 2021, but I’m only just noticing it now. Hedges are so valuable for wildlife, and there are some in the village that probably date back to medieval times. It’s nice to see some new ones too!

I walk alongside the tributary of the River Frome that flows here – I’ve rarely seen it so high. It winds between the buildings here before disappearing across a field. This part of Dorset is threaded with streams and rivers, and Milborne St Andrew was and still occasionally is, subject to flooding – I remember Milborne being all but cut off from the main road to Dorchester and Blandford for several months a few years ago.  All the more strange that one of many housing proposals under consideration by the council is to build properties on the old water meadows in Dorchester, which still flood regularly.

I have a great fondness for this wall, which is covered in ivy-leaved toadflax and ivy. I love the way that the ivy is making a kind of espalier up the plasterwork.

And finally, look at these ‘baubles’ on the passionflower. They look just like little golden eggs.

And now I’m back in Dorchester, with the wet snow falling outside the window. Let’s hope it doesn’t settle and stop me from getting home tomorrow!

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – December Updated

December 2022

Dear Readers, well here we are, and this feels like the fastest year in recorded history. My Mum really was right that things speed up as you get older. And it looks as if we could be in for a bit of snow this week, here in the UK, which is always a mixed blessing – lots of fun if you’re young and mobile, not so much if you find it difficult to walk on ice or snow. But hey, the Christmas lights are being switched on, the shops are full of Christmas songs, and the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg are omnipresent. Let’s see what’s going on!

Things to Do

A brief visit from a brambling in the garden

  • Have a look at the plant catalogues and sites online, early December (before the Christmas mayhem starts) and after the Big Day are great times to think about what’s worked and what hasn’t, and to start making some plans. If money is tight, seeds are always a good bet for cheering the place up, and if you or someone you know is a member of the RHS you can get up to 15 packets of seeds gathered from their gardens for a tenner.

Plants for Pollinators

  • The RHS’s plant for December is Mahonia, and I can see why – it flowers for a long time in the middle of winter, it smells great, and although it’s an awkward, spiky plant it’s very forgiving of heavy soil, shade and neglect. In particular they are recommending Mahonia japonica, but I’ve seen bees on the other varieties too.


  • Winter-flowering honeysuckle should still be in flower, along with stinking hellebore, and gorse may be in flower too.

Bird Behaviour

  • December is the moment when all sorts of unusual birds might pop into the garden if there’s bad weather – I only ever see siskins when it’s snowing, for example (they’ve become ‘snow birds’ to me.

Siskins in the snow in 2017

  • The first winter for many birds is the crucial time – if they can get through to spring, they will probably go on to breed. It can be a sad time, though, with many birds succumbing to cold and lack of food, especially those who don’t visit gardens. This is a peak month for finding dead birds in the garden (though with bird flu this year, it’s been terrible for many areas)
  • That song that you hear on an iron-hard morning is probably a robin – robins establish their pair bonds during December (normally), although they won’t actually breed until the spring. How do you know that you’ve got a pair of robins? If they’re feeding within a few metres of one another without beating one another up.
  • If you’re able to get out to some wetlands, December is the best month to see goldeneye ducks, surely some of the most handsome of our winter visitors.

Common Goldeneye – Photo by S. Bern at https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbern/

  • Similarly, if you’re close to the Wash or Morecombe Bay, the number of knots (small wading birds) can put on a show that’s every bit as exciting as the more well-known starling murmurations, as they take to the air to avoid the incoming tide that covers the mudflats where they feed. You can have a look at a lovely film of them here. Worth a trip to Norfolk, I think!
  • The bad weather seems to bring wagtails into closer contact with people too – there’s a pied wagtail that I only ever see in bad weather outside our local Kentucky Fried Chicken, and there was a grey wagtail beside the pond a few winters ago. These birds prefer to be close to water in the summer, but the pied wagtail in particular is spending more time in town, and there are massive roosts in the street trees in some parts of the country.

Pied wagtail in East Finchley

Grey wagtail at the Barbican of all places

Same grey wagtail

Plants in Flower

  • Precious few, but around these parts (North London) you might see hazel catkins, winter jasmine with its yellow flowers, witch hazel, some varieties of daphne with their exquisite scent, and the 365 days-per-year flowers of the daisy family and yarrow.

Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • The tiny muntjac deer is inconspicuous for most of the year, but with the foliage so sparse you might catch a glimpse in December. There are rumours of a muntjac in East Finchley, so watch this space!

  • If you look at a London plane tree, you should see that it has its very own Christmas baubles, in the shape of the round fruits (technically called achenes). The fruits are full of tiny seeds that are prone to irritate the nasal passages of anyone with hayfever, but for now they just hang there, looking festive
  • Look out for masses of hibernating snails (bless them), all sealed up in their shells and just waiting for the warmer weather. I often find them tucked away under the overhanging edges of my cheaper flower pots. Slugs, on the other hand, bury themselves away underground.
  • Cemeteries are great places to look for hibernating ladybirds, who often find the crevices in old gravestones or tombs a perfect place to hide from the weather. Some, however, seem to like the public conveniences – not so picturesque, but presumably a few degrees warmer.

Blurred photo of harlequin ladybirds hibernating in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery toilets. You’re welcome 🙂

  • It’s not a good time of the year for mothing, but you might see December moths attracted to light – they don’t feed at this time of the year (so don’t have to worry about flowers) but they are looking for a mate.


December moth (Poecilocampa populi) Photo by By Walter Schön – http://www.schmetterling-raupe.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2822349

  • Very few UK animals turn white in the winter, but if you’re out and about you might, if you are very, very lucky, see a stoat that’s turned into an ermine (i.e. white with a black tip to the tail). I recently saw a ceremonial robe edged with ermine, and there must have been the skins of fifty of these little animals, judging by the tail tips.

Stoat (Ermine) in winter – Photo by By Mustela_erminea_winter.jpg: Steven Hintderivative work: Guerillero (talk) – Mustela_erminea_winter.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14519034

  • Another animal that goes white is the mountain hare, now only found in the Highlands and parts of southern Scotland, the Peak District and a few islands. The animal was widely culled as a threat to grouse moors (don’t get me started) but this was banned in 2020. Hopefully this will give this enigmatic animal time to recover.

Mountain hare in winter coat . Photo by Bouke ten Cate

  • The December full moon is on 27th December, and is known as the Oak Moon, the Full Cold Moon or the Moon After Yule.


  • 7th December – Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights) begins at sundown
  • 22nd December – Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year)
  • 25th December – Christmas Day
  • 26th December – Boxing Day/St Stephen’s Day
  • 31st December – New Year’s Eve


Nature’s Calendar – 27th November – 1st December – Teasel Brush Silhouettes

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren. 

Dear Readers, it might appear that I’ve become teasel-obsessed, but clearly I’m not the only one! In Nature’s Calendar, Lulah Ellender has an interesting piece on teasels. While I was familiar with some of it (see the ‘Wednesday Weed’ piece below), I had no idea that teasels had so many vernacular names, from ‘barbers’ brushes’, ‘donkey’s thistle’ and ‘brushes and combs’ to ‘Venus’s basin’ because of the way that the water gathers in the little ‘bowls’ at the bottom of the leaves. I had been intrigued by thoughts that the plant was on its way to insectivory, because one study showed that plants with drowned insects in the ‘basins’ did better than others. Ellender points out that a second study hasn’t borne this out, though, so more research is needed!

And here’s a poem by John McCullough, written in 2008. I remember seeing something very similar to this in Dorset when I used to visit Mum and Dad – the teenagers wreaking havoc through the quiet rural lanes, so full of energy that it felt as if they might burst. The ‘quivering teasel’ really reminds me of how the plant stands as a sentinel in a variety of unloved, damp places – ditches swamped with Himalayan balsam and rusting farm detritus, those strange rubble-y piles beside gates where something was dumped and is slowly returning to the soil.

In humid months, at the estate’s unwatched edge
the boys hook up for an after-hours cigarette

before trashing field gates. Dazzle of white Reeboks, bling,
practised geezer-laughs rev-revving

with the engines of graffiti tagged bangers.
Customised stereos thump out this week’s garage,

the race kicking off in a blizzard of chalk dust,
a bouncing charge up the crumbling, fossil-built rise.

Death and dew ponds can’t stop them while they swerve
past quivering teasel, conquer the bone ridge’s turn,

skeins of wool lifting from gorse as banners
for the night’s whooping, fist-raising winners.

Further off, the crews unite for a slow drift, melt into hills
but leave the empty sky with headlamp trails:

blazing ghosts still performing their necessary work,
still scribbling their names on the dark.

And now, here’s a revisit of my Wednesday Weed on teasel, from (gosh) 2015.

On a grey, damp day at the end of February, I went with my friend Ann to see what weeds I could find in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. A stream runs along the far north-eastern edge of the area and there, silhouetted against the sky, we found the unmistakable seedheads of the Teasel.

IMG_1369Teasel, for all its grass-like appearance, is in fact a member of the Scabious family, and like scabious, it has a lot of wildlife value – I have seen whole families of goldfinches dangling from the stems and pulling out the seeds, and in summer, the flowers are loved by bees and other pollinators.

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/34739556@N04/14773481592/)

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/34739556@N04/14773481592/)

The Teasel flower itself is remarkable. In July, a band of flowers opens around the middle of the head, as below:

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Then, gradually, the band separates into two ‘stripes’, one moving up the seed head, the other moving down.

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence )

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

For some truly beautiful close-ups of the Teasel, have a look at the photos by Brian Johnston here.

A close relative of ‘our’ teasel, Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus sativum) was extensively used in the  textile industry. The plant was used to ‘raise the nap’ on woollen fabric, particularly for such delicate jobs as treating the green baize covering on billiard tables (and indeed they are still used for this purpose, having proved to be the most efficacious way of performing this task). For anyone who would like to know more about the process, and about the history of baize, I can heartily recommend the Pegs and Tails website, which is full of arcane and interesting facts and photos.  The seed heads were attached to a machine such as the Teasel Gig below, from the Somerset Levels.

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Dried teasel head ("Teasel" by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) - Own work. )

A single dried teasel head (“Teasel” by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) – Own work. )

By the twentieth century, the Teasel gigs had been largely replaced by metal combs. However, many weavers still swear by the Teasel heads – they don’t tear the cloth as metal items sometimes do, and are, of course, cheaper to grow or to harvest. And the Wild Teasel that I saw in the cemetery has also had its part to play – though the spines are weaker than those of Fuller’s teasel, they have still been used for gently carding wool, a process that ‘teases’ out the separate threads for spinning.

Fuller’s teasel was taken to Virginia in the USA by the early settlers for their woollen industry, although there it has proved to be something of a thug. It can grow surprisingly tall given half a chance.

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In a winter garden, or in floristry, Teasels also have a kind of sculptural majesty, especially in autumn, where the low sunlight shows them to their best advantage.

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

One very interesting feature of the teasel is that when young, the leaves of the plant form a kind of continuous cup, which holds water when it rains. This prevents insects from climbing up the stem, and drowns a good number of those who try. There is some evidence that the insects that are thus left rotting are absorbed by the plant, in a form of partial carnivory – plants that have such ‘food’ seem to have a larger seedset than those who don’t.

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant ("Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant (“Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s also interesting that this is the very water that is said to have rejuvenating powers: it has also been used to remove freckles, and as an eye bath for those suffering from hay fever.

IMG_1370The structure of the Teasel seed head fascinates me. It looks a little like a small hedgehog, or some kind of many-spiked sea creature. It doesn’t surprise me at all that there is an Irish belief that a teasel head left on a grave will distract the Banshees, who will use it as a hairbrush. It is one of those plants which look almost otherworldly, a spiky character full of strange secrets and a most particular beauty.

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



The Years Roll Past, But Love Never Dies

Dear Readers, Sunday was Mum’s birthday and this year she would have been 88 years old.  My brother sent me a photo of the family gathered for Mum’s birthday dinner at a local pub in 2016. We had booked a table at the restaurant  but sadly, though they took our reservation, when we rolled up the place was in darkness. Much hammering on the door resulted on it being opened, and the beleaguered woman who answered it was horrified that we were in our glad rags and expecting dinner. Nonetheless, she made us welcome, and the few staff who were there went into the kitchen and knocked us up something with chips, which we ate in solitary splendour. They even turned on the Christmas tree lights. Looking at the photo now, I’m struck by how pale Mum and Dad both look – by this point, life was a constant stream of hospital stays and antibiotics and steroids for chest infections. But if I could see which way the compass was pointing, I chose to ignore it. After all, Mum and Dad had both survived so many illnesses that would have killed lesser mortals that I fully expected that that would continue to be the case.

This was just a month before Mum and Dad came to stay with me in East Finchley for  Christmas, and Mum ended up nearly dying of a chest infection in Whittington Hospital. In 2017, Mum and Dad celebrated 60 years of marriage, but in 2018 Mum died, followed by Dad in 2020.

I have the scarf that Mum is wearing in the photo in my wardrobe, along with so many other things that she made. Every so often, I pull something out and wear it. It feels as if she’s giving me a hug. She taught me so many things – how creativity is sometimes easier if you share what you make with other people, be it a scarf or a piece of writing. How everybody is interesting in their own way. And most importantly of all, how to be kind, and how to put aside judgement and work on the basis that everyone is doing their best. I don’t always manage it, but she makes me want to try, even now.

And here is the piece that I wrote last year, and here is the piece that I wrote in 2019, the year after her death. It’s interesting to see how grief morphs and changes as the years go by. We are never truly ‘over it’, but somehow joy returns, and the memories of the last awful years no longer overshadow all the good times.

And, as I said last year, I am sending love out to everyone who finds this season painful. There will be people reading this who have lost someone close to them this year, and for whom this will be the first Christmas without their loved one. Be gentle with yourself. Do what you need to do. Don’t strive for perfection, there’s no such thing under the sun. Follow the old family traditions where they bring comfort, but be prepared to ditch them if they no longer make sense, or are too painful. Grief is a process that never truly ends, and there is no right way to feel or not to feel: don’t let anybody tell you something different.

Mum at the Royal Oak pub in Milborne St Andrew 2012