Wednesday Weed – Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Dear Readers, it was such a delight to get back from Austria on Saturday, and to find the meadowsweet that I planted by the pond two years ago in flower. What a splendid plant this is! It has a honeyed scent that reminds me of hay, and it attracts all manner of hoverflies. The buds are almost square, and then the seed heads remind me of those fondant sweets that you can buy in posh places like Fortnum and Masons.

Twisted seedheads plus hoverfly….

Although the garden as a whole has gone completely berserk during this past couple of years, I am very pleased with this spot, where the meadowsweet mixes with hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and some self-seeded greater willowherb. It is a-buzz with bees and other pollinators, and they are all at head height so I can get a really good look. The fly above, for example, with his/her rather muscular ‘thighs’ reminds me of a mini weighlifter.

Anyhow, to return to meadowsweet. Although the plant likes damp places (and is often known as ‘queen-of-the-meadow’, the name might refer to ‘mead’ , as the flowers were used to flavour many kinds of drinks. It was also used as a strewing herb on floors and in mattresses. In my new favourite book, Vickery’s Folk Flora, it mentions that it was sometimes used on the floors of outside toilets, to disguise the smell.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey mentions that different parts of the plant have different scents: he describes the basic scent of the plant as being like marzipan, tinged with musk and honey in the flowers, but with the sharpness of pickled cucumber in the leaves. Mabey mentions that one ‘cynical namer’ believed that this was the difference between ‘courtship and matrimony’, but he was obviously married to the wrong person.

In spite of its sweet scent, Meadowsweet is yet another of those herbs that it was thought to be unlucky to bring into the house. One of these days I shall compile a list of all the wildflowers that are cause death and bad luck just by being picked and stuck in a vase. One alternative name for meadowsweet was ‘old man’s pepper’, with ‘old man’ being a name for the devil in many parts of the UK. Sniffing meadowsweet with too much enthusiasm was also thought to bring on fits.

In Wales, it is not only considered unlucky to bring it into the house (‘if a person falls asleep in a room where many of these flowers are placed, death is inevitable’), but it is also though to be dangerous to fall asleep in a field where there is an abundance of meadowsweet. However, there is also a legend in Wales that the magicians Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet, and called her Blodeuwedd, or ‘Flowerface’. She was created to be the wife of Lleu, who was cursed to never be able to marry a human wife, but had other ideas, and arranged for him to be murdered. This was no easy task:

Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing how he may be killed, since he cannot be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. He reveals to her that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass. With this information she arranges his death’.

However, Lleu is nursed back to health by the magicians who created Blodeuwedd in the first place, and she is turned into an owl for her pains. It just goes to show that crime never pays.

The legend was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s 1967 young adult novel ‘The Owl Service’, which explores what it mean to be Welsh, the class divide and the eternal power of stories. Well worth a read, even if you’re way past being a ‘young adult’.

Photo One by By E. Wallcousins - 'Celtic Myth & Legend', Charles Squire,, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29984364

Blodeuwedd meeting Gronw, the man who will kill her husband (Photo One)

Here, though,  I’d like to back up a little and give some basics on the plant. Meadowsweet is native to the UK and can be found in damp spots throughout Europe and western Asia. It is also naturalised in some parts of North America. It is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) which I would never have guessed, though the leaves do look a little rose-like.

The plant contains salicin, which is related to salicylic acid (aspirin) – in fact, the drug was named from the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Having just returned from Austria, I was interested to learn that the Austrians make a tea with meadowsweet, and use it for the treatment of painful conditions such as rheumatism and gout.

The Bronze Age burial sites of three humans and one animal at Fan Foel in Carmarthenshire, Wales, have contained the remains of meadowsweet, probably used as a strewing herb, and the signature of the plant has also been found in grave goods in Scotland from the same period, probably as a result of meadowsweet being used to flavour wine that was buried alongside the dead.

Meadowsweet has a reputation as a dye plant – the roots are supposed to give a black dye when used with a copper mordant (fixative). The genus name ‘Filipendula‘ relates to the way that the root tubers hang off of the fibrous roots (the Latin word means ‘hanging thread’). To read about various experiments using different parts of meadowsweet with different mordants, have a look at the wonderful ‘Wool Tribulations’ blog here 

Photo Two from http://wooltribulations.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-trial-of-meadowsweet-plant-dye-on.html

The author of ‘Wool Tribulations’, Fran Rushworth, has created some great effects from using meadowsweet (Photo Two)

In addition to its obvious attraction for hoverflies, the leaves of meadowsweet are munched upon by no fewer than 16 species of moths, including the magnificent emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). How excited I would be if one of these turned up!

Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340

Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Three)

The caterpillars are pretty magnificent too.

Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK - Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12704087

Emperor moth caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Four)

The leaves of meadowsweet can also be injured by the meadowsweet rust gall, which is a fungus which chemically induces a bright orange swelling on the mid rib of the leaf. It can cause serious problems in young plants, so I shall keep an eye open. The last thing I want is for my newly established meadowsweet patch to keel over.

Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7040901

Meadowsweet rust fungus (Triphragmium ulmariae) (Photo Five)

And, of course, a poem. For those of you who haven’t come across the Scottish poet and writer Kathleen Jamie, I can heartily recommend her books ‘Findings and  ‘Sightlines’, and her poetry collections ‘The Tree House’ and ‘The Overhaul’. I love her for many reasons, not the least of which was her piece about Robert MacFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’, called ‘A Lone Enraptured Male‘. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here. It made me roar with laughter and nod in agreement (and I speak as someone who loved MacFarlane’s recent book ‘The Underland’.

And here is her poem.

Tradition suggests that certain of the Gaelic women poets were buried face down.
So they buried her, and turned home,
a drab psalm
hanging about them like haar,

not knowing the liquid
trickling from her lips
would seek its way down,

and that caught in her slowly
unravelling plait of grey hair
were summer seeds:

meadowsweet, bastard balm,
tokens of honesty, already
beginning their crawl

toward light, so showing her,
when the time came,
how to dig herself out —

to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.

Photo Credits
Photo One by By E. Wallcousins – ‘Celtic Myth & Legend’, Charles Squire,, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29984364
Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340
Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK – Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12704087
Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7040901

Bugwoman on Location – The Panoramaweg

View of the Seenplatte from Hochgurgl, Austria

Dear Readers, when I go for my annual trip to Obergurgl in Austria, there is always one day when the cloud is so low that the scenery disappears behind a veil of mist. I rather enjoy these days – the sound is muffled, the walkers are few, and familiar scenes become mysterious. We always call these days our ‘panoramaweg’ days, in tribute to the information boards at popular tourist sites which set out the view that we should be seeing, with the mountain peaks named and the paths and ski-runs clearly marked, all completely invisible behind an interminable blanket of grey. Sometimes the clouds lift, sometimes they don’t, but we always keep our fingers crossed and head out anyway.

Heading up in the Hochgurgl lift

The walk we’re doing today is from the middle station of the Hochgurgl lift, back to Obergurgl. It’s a pleasantly varied walk, involving mountains, bogs and forest. We are greeted on arrival by the usual bunch of cows. Unusually, this time the calves are running with their mothers – in the village, the calves seem to be separated almost as soon as they’re born. And for a few moments the cloud lifts.

There is a positive posse of snowblowers already for action during the winter season. This year, there was a snowfall of several metres in May, and as noted in last week’s post, the vegetation is well behind where it should be. I wonder what will happen to the skiing industry as natural snow becomes less and less predictable? This valley earns the vast majority of its income in the winter season. Everything is changing, and we seem ill-equipped to deal with it.

And then the cloud rolls back in. The alpenroses (actually a type of azalea) are just coming into flower – some years they have already finished by the tme we arrive.

And I have always been fond of this chap.

As we turn the corner towards the boggy bit of the trail, we are confronted by a most unusual sight. There are several cars and vans parked beside the track. There is a man wearing only swimming trunks under a massive fur coat. My husband tells me that there was also a woman in swimwear but for some reason I didn’t notice. There are cameras and one of those white umbrellas that photographers use.

Clearly, no one told the photographer what the weather forecast was.

As no shooting was going to take place any time soon, we ambled on down the path, stopping only to take a photo of a rather splendid hat that is presumably going to be utilised when/if the cloud lifts.

The ponds along the track, which are sometimes dried up by this time of year, are full of water, and even contain a few tadpoles.

We march on upwards through the mist. We can hear the jangle of bells in the distance, but are unsure whether they come from particularly acrobatic cows, goats or the long-eared Italian sheep that graze here. Finally we find out as we see a little family of sheep silhouetted against the skyline. They are unusually skittish and gallop off up the mountainside, though I suspect that the rustle of a lunchpack would soothe their nerves.

Onwards! The next part of the path leads into the Konigstal, a particularly difficult valley (from the point of view of someone still recovering from a sprained ankle). It was a popular spot for smugglers crossing into Austria from Italy – they brought tobacco, sheep, furs, and even tea. There is still a customs hut at the top of the Konigstal, and I suspect that many a backhander was passed over – how else could someone drive an entire flock of sheep past, even at dead of night?

On the way we pass some black vanilla orchids. I’ve seen about four species of orchids this year, and I know that many more pop up later in the season. This place really is a botanist’s dream.

Black vanilla orchid (Nigritella nigra)

To cross the Konigstal you have to go a long way into the valley, and to keep your fingers crossed that the bridge is still there. One year it wasn’t, and we ended up wading across. It’s always a relief when it looms into view.

There is a lot of snow about this year, and where it’s melted back there are the alpine snowbells. These are the first flowers to appear once the snow is gone, and they take advantage of the lull before the other plants, overwhelm them. I love the fringes on the ‘cups’, and think of them as the quintessential Alpine flower. They only grow above 900m and are normally seen just after the snow melts.

Snow in the Konigstal

Alpine snowbells (Soldanella alpina)

From now on the walk is one long descent, through the pine forest and eventually to Obergurgl. The clouds appear to be lifting a bit (or we’re getting lower) (or both).

We can hear the constant calls of nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) above the trees – these are a kind of jay, and are responsible for planting a lot of the pines, as they bury the pine nuts for winter sustenance and often don’t eat all of them. They are rambunctious birds and at this time of year often have youngsters in the nest, but they are also shy and difficult to photograph. So here is a photo taken by someone with infinitely more patience than I have (and probably a better camera too)

Photo One by Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3708573

Spotted Nutcracker (Public Domain)

I love this part of the path, where the smell of pine resin rises and the walking becomes a little easier. The sun finally comes out, persuading us to take off our waterproofs.

There are gentians of some kind along by the path – probably trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis) though they seem a tiny bit pale. I am holding out hope that they are the slightly rarer Clusius’s gentian (Gentiana clusii). I really must get a better book for ID of Alpine flowers – does anyone have any recommendations?

Clusius’s  gentian?

And finally, Obergurgl heaves into view. I cannot believe the amount of building work that is going on this year (we have a morning coffee every day and admire the different cranes and lorries that are operating on the Edelweiss and Gurgl hotel and the new conference centre). But from here, all is peaceful, and we are starting to look forward to a Radler (shandy) or an Almdudler ( a traditional herbal drink which tastes like a cross between ginger beer and green tea).

We climb up again to cross the final waterfall before heading down into the village. One year we were staying here and learnt that a woman at another hotel was terrified of heights and also of crossing running water. The whole holiday must have been purgatory for her. I can only imagine that she was very poorly advised.

The penultimate leg of the walk…

And finally we meander into the village through a mass of meadow plants, including this magnificent clover. There must be a dozen different clovers and vetches in the fields around Obergurgl and this year I’ve been able to enjoy them for the whole fortnight: normally the first cut of the meadows has been at the end of the first week in July, but this year the weather just hasn’t been good enough, though the hay trucks are starting to roll now.

And so tomorrow we will be heading home after another holiday in Obergurgl. It’s hard to explain how much this place means to me – it seems to be quintessentially healing for the mind and the body. I always come back to London feeling refreshed, and this year is no exception. I still have challenges to face, and no doubt all sorts of things will be waiting for me at home, but I feel better able to deal with them. And now, it’s off for a final apfelstrudel. Tschuss!

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Petunia

Petunias on East Finchley High Street

Dear Readers, petunias are popping up in the hanging baskets and pots of East Finchley. I must confess that I have never been a big fan of the plants, but the great thing about the Wednesday Weed is that it’s made me question everything that I’ve ever known. After all, what is a petunia, and how has it become so popular? What is it related to? Do any insects like it?

Well, petunias come originally from South America – there are about 20 separate species. The plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes tobacco, tomato and potato, and their name ‘petunia’ comes from the word ‘petun’, meaning ‘tobacco’, in the local Tupi-Guarani language. The Maya and the Inca believe that the plant has the ability to ward off underworld monsters, and there is a belief that petunias bring happiness to a house. They are certainly the most generous of plants, pouring forth their blooms for months at a time. No wonder they are many people’s first choice for a hanging basket.

Photo One by By ElenaSchifirnet - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15124646

Floral Arrangement in Columbus, Ohio (Photo One)

The ‘domesticated’ petunia is a hybrid between two species, Petunia axillaris (the white moon petunia) and Petunia integerifolia (violet petunia). The white moon petunia has a sweet smell which has been inherited by some forms of the cultivated petunia, while the violet petunia is said to be used as a hallucinogen in Ecuador, giving a sensation of flying.

Photo Two by By Magnus Manske - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7398799

White moon petunia (Petunia axillaris) (Photo Two)

Petunia integorifolia from Edward’s Botanical Register 1833 (Public Domain)

The cultivated petunia is known as Petunia x atkinsonii. Incidentally, this is an example of a nothospecies – a new word to me, so I had to investigate. A nothospecies is a hybrid between two plants in the same genus, as here. If a plant is a hybrid between two plants of different genuses, it’s known as a nothogenus. Who knew? Certainly not me, who has enough trouble finding two matching socks at the moment.

Anyhoo, back to the petunia. It seems to tolerate drying out better than some other plants, which makes it ideal for the exposed environment of a hanging basket. It isn’t overfond of conditions that are too damp or shady – it is said to need at least five hours of full sunshine every day. It pairs beautifully with pelargoniums (which need similar conditions) and there is definitely a petunia for every colour scheme. There are the ones which are divided into segments:

..the ones where the edge of the petal is a different colour from the middle…

the ones with defined veins in the petals…

Grandiflora petunia ‘Blue Daddy’ (Public Domain)

and my favourite, the ones that look like starry skies….

Photo Three by By EliasTheHorse - I took it on a flower's shop., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74372553

‘Starry Night’ petunia (Photo Three)

One definite disadvantage of the petunia from my point of view is that, pretty as it is, it doesn’t seem to attract many insects. All the species bar one are pollinated by insects, and rumour has it that petunias are sometimes visited by hummingbird hawk moths, as evidenced by several photos.

Photo Four by David Short from Windsor, UK [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Hummingbird hawkmoth popping in for some petunia nectar (Photo Four)

Being a plant of hanging baskets, the seeds of petunia are often scattered far and wide, and the seedlings can sometimes be seen popping up in the cracks in the pavement during the following spring. The paving stones by the side of pubs are a particularly good spot – some pubs pride themselves on their floral displays, and there are several in London that really exceed expectations. Perhaps the finest is the Churchill Arms in Kensington, which spends £25,000 a year on its floral display, and very fine it is too.

Photo Five from https://secretldn.com/churchill-arms-flower-pub/

The Churchill Arms in Kensington (Photo Five)

Allegedly, petunia flowers are edible, though no one seems to get very excited about them. I was a little disappointed to see that the ‘Petunia Bowl’ salad that I found online was an homage to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in which two thermonuclear missiles turn into a whale and a bowl of petunias) and actually contains no petunias, though as there is some thought that the petals might be poisonous it’s probably just as well.

Now, here’s a fascinating thing. A couple of caterpillar larvae do eat the flowers of petunias, and both are serious pests of agricultural crops. One, the corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea) is the second most serious insect pest in the USA, munching its way through corn, tomatoes, cotton and a dozen other plants. Not only does it decimate plants but, most unusually for a moth, the caterpillar will also eat other insects.

Photo Six by By cyanocorax - https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyanocorax/2901626664/in/set-72157607594253502/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7096670

Corn Earworm (Helicoverpa zea) larva (Photo Six)

The  other species that feeds on petunia is the cabbage looper caterpillar (Trichoplusia ni) which, as its name suggests, normally prefers brassicas, red cabbage in particular. As this is a vegetable that I find it hard to get excited about, I am prepared to give this little chap rather more garden-room. Plus, it does that ‘inch worm’ walk that I found so appealing when I was a child.

Photo Seven by By Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia, United States - This image is Image Number 1327034 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7038081

Cabbage looper ‘looping’ (Trichoplusia ni) (Photo Seven

Now, in a study by the scientists at United States Department of Agriculture in Peoria, Illinois, it has been found  that when the caterpillars of both species were fed on bi-coloured petunias like the one below, they much preferred the white sections to the coloured ones. When given no choice but to eat the blue bits, they put on much less weight, and a much higher proportion of the larvae died. The hypothesis is that this is due to the natural anthocyanins in the blue petals, which act as a natural insecticide. Such pigments are energetically expensive for a plant to produce, but of course these plants have been bred rather than emerged through natural selection. The question is whether these pigments could have a wider application, and how much effect they would have if they could be bred into food crops. Fascinatiing stuff.

Bicoloured petunias, similar to the ones fed to the caterpillars.

And here’s a poem. I’ve had to read it once or twice to get under its skin, but it’s worth it. I regret that I hadn’t come across Bob Hicok before – he was born in 1960 in Michigan, and had worked for years in the automotive industry before he discovered his gift for poetry. He is most famous in the US for his poem series about the shootings at Virginia Tech. Someone commented that “Hicok’s meditations… do not allow us to turn away from the act of violence, neither from the person who committed the act, nor from the ironies of survival.” See what you think.

The semantics of flowers on Memorial Day

Historians will tell you my uncle
wouldn’t have called it World War II
or the Great War plus One or Tombstone
 
over My Head. All of this language
came later. He and his buddies
knew it as get my ass outta here
or fucking trench foot and of course
sex please now. Petunias are an apology
for ignorance, my confidence
that saying high-density bombing
or chunks of brain in cold coffee
even suggests the athleticism
of his flinch or how casually
he picked the pieces out.
Geraniums symbolize the secrets
life kept from him, the wonder
of variable-speed drill and how
the sky would have changed had he lived
to shout it’s a girl. My hands
enter dirt easily, a premonition.
I sit back on my uncle’s stomach
exactly like I never did, he was
a picture to me, was my father
looking across a field at wheat
laying down to wind. For a while,
Tyrants’ War and War of World Freedom
and Anti-Nazi War skirmished
for linguistic domination. If
my uncle called it anything
but too many holes in too many bodies
no flower can say. I plant marigolds
because they came cheap and who knows
what the earth’s in the mood to eat.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By ElenaSchifirnet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15124646

Photo Two by By Magnus Manske – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7398799

Photo Three by By EliasTheHorse – I took it on a flower’s shop., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74372553

Photo Four by David Short from Windsor, UK [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Photo Five from https://secretldn.com/churchill-arms-flower-pub/

Photo Six by By cyanocorax – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyanocorax/2901626664/in/set-72157607594253502/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7096670

Photo Seven by By Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia, United States – This image is Image Number 1327034 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7038081

Bugwoman on Location – The Meadows of Obergurgl

Dear Readers, this has been the year of falling down. I have fallen down, for no apparent reason, outside the post office, outside the nursing home, outside the newsagent. A week before Mum died, I fell over spectacularly while walking to the dentist. On every occasion there has been no apparent reason for the tumble – no uneven pavement, no obvious trip-hazard. One minute I am vertical, and the next I am not.There are lots of explanations – weak ankles, stress, distraction – but the one that seems truest to me, the one that I feel in my heart, is that I have been carrying a lot and my body would really like me to just stop.

Well, two days before I was due to leave for Obergurgl for my annual holiday, I was sitting on the sofa, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and knitting, when John rang to tell me there was a fox outside. I sprang up but my foot had gone dead, and so I fell over with a mighty crash and a distinct crunch. By the time John got in, there was an egg-sized swelling on my foot and I was shaking with shock.

Well, after a trip to A and E for an X Ray it was clear that ‘all’ I’d done was torn a few ligaments, and so we decided to go on  holiday, and to take it easy. And take it easy I have. Yesterday we went for a little walk in the meadows (followed by plum cake at the top of a mountain that was reached via a chairlift), and it was a real treat to just meander along, noticing the plants and insects.

But first, you have to squeeze through all the building work. I feel so sorry for anyone who has never been to Obergurgl before. How the heart must sink at the sight of all the cranes and scaffolding and concrete mixers! This year, the Edelweiss and Gurgl is getting yet another face lift, the village hall has been demolished to make way for a bigger venue and there are no less than two underground car parks being built. Last year a crane managed to knock the  weathercock off the church spire, and to be honest I don’t give it much chance of staying there for the whole of this year either. The trouble is that the summer season is so short (snow lays late and comes early this high up) that everyone is desperate to get stuff done by the beginning of the winter season, when most of the money for the year is made. It’s hoped that the new village hall will attract conferences during the summer, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed too – we’ve seen the number of hotels open in the summer fall from eleven to three, and if it gets much worse I suspect the place won’t open until ski season.

Fortunately after only a five minute meander through the crashes and bangs of the building sites,  you can be skipping (or in my case hobbling) among the most beautiful alpine flowers you can imagine. There were a few new species for me to notice this year as well – it feels as if everything is at least a week later than usual, and there is plenty of snow on the higher altitude walks (yet another good reason for not rushing to do anything strenuous).

Obergurgl ‘improvements’. Much like Rome, it will be lovely when it’s finished

But cross the river, and you have this.

The main colour of the meadow is yellow – dandelions, yellow rattle, different kinds of daisy. We underestimate the importance of flies as pollinators, but every flowerhead is full of them. Lady’s Mantle forms a large part of the underlayer of the meadow.

Different forms of wild cranesbill are everywhere, making puddles of purple.

There are more flies and some ichneumon wasps on  the Queen Anne’s lace.

And here are some Alpine poppies, the first that I’ve ever seen. I think that these chaps might be Rhaetian poppies (Papaver alpinum ssp rhaetium), a specialist of the Central and Southern Alps. I was so delighted that I did an ill-advised little dance. I was even more pleased when I spotted that one of them had a most conspicuous spider lurking among the petals.

Further along the path, there were even some bright orange poppies, a colour variant of the same species.

On we went. My foot didn’t seem to hurt, but later in the walk I noticed that my boot was rubbing on  my lower leg. It seems that the swelling in my foot had decided to move north, and when I got home my foot was more or less a normal shape but I now had a new set of bruises higher up. I was tempted to include a photo but I thought I’d spare you all the horror. After all, you might be eating.

I am always so impressed by the range and variety of insect life that lives in the meadows here, a testament to the lack of pesticides and to the way that the hillsides are managed – they are cut twice, once early in the summer, and once at the end. This preserves the biodiversity by making sure that the perennial weeds like dock and nettle don’t get a foothold. The yellow rattle helps too by keeping the richness of the soil down – most mountain  meadow plants thrive on  thin, depleted soils, which is one reason that some of them make excellent ‘weeds’ when they arrive in cities.

And here is a beetle, another underrated pollinator, on a cranesbill. I suspect that s/he is some kind of longhorn beetle, but haven’t been able to ascertain the species. Do give me a shout if you know!

And then I spotted another new species of plant for this year – alpine clematis (Clematis alpina). This has usually finished flowering by the time we arrive, so it was a real pleasure to see it this year.I really love its delicate lilac-blue colour, and rather shy, droopy flowers.

By this time I was feeling a bit droopy too, so it was a short hobble to the chairlift for reviving coffee and cake. And today, my foot and leg are feeling much more like their normal selves. Fortunately there are storms forecast, so I foresee another day of plant watching and taking it easy. There is nothing like a minor injury for making you stop and take stock.

I was a little worried about coming back to Obergurgl – it was while I was here, a year ago, that my Mum’s final decline began, and also it became clear that Dad wasn’t just ‘a little confused’ but had full-blown dementia. i thought that being in the same place might allow memories to surface that I’ve been trying to avoid. And this is exactly what has happened. But it feels as if the only way out is through, somehow – if I don’t feel what I need to feel now, it will only ambush me in future. And there is something about the landscape here, the mountains,the sound of the river, the nesting house martins and the cuckoos calling in the pine forest, that holds me. I sense that there is nothing new in what I feel, nothing that hasn’t been witnessed before. Nothing that I can’t survive.

Wednesday Weed – Caper Spurge

Dear Readers, I am always delighted when I find a ‘real’ weed that I haven’t written about before, and here is a doozy – Caper Spurge (Euphorbia Lathyrus) is a statuesque spurge, with leaves that start off long and narrow with a prominent white mid-rib, and end up more oval as they get near to the flower. It is the seed capsules that give the plant its name, however: they look deliciously toothsome, but sadly, like all parts of the plant, they are poisonous, oozing a blueish, latex-like sap if damaged.

Flower and seed capsule of caper spurge

Caper spurge is inherently a plant of the southern Mediterranean, Northern Africa and southwards right through to China, but it is thought to be an ancient introduction to the UK, and is often grown in gardens. Why, I wonder, was it introduced? Medicinally it has often been used as a purgative, but more intriguingly, it was also thought to deter moles. Vickery’s Folk Flora points out that this belief has given the plant the alternative names of mole-plant and in German it is known as maulwurfvertreiker or ‘mole deterrent’. However, the plant grows best in sandy soil where worms are scarce. As moles are fond of dining on earthworms it may be this, rather than the caper spurge, that explains the lack of ‘the little gentleman in black velvet’.

There is also a belief in Germany that the plant ‘keeps little mice away’.

In Somerset, the plant is said to be a deterrent to badgers because they dislike the sap – again, in Vickery’s Folk Flora, someone explains that you ‘have to keep breaking the stems’ to get the sap to flow.

Another explanation for the name ‘mole-plant’ is that the caustic sap might have been used to burn away ‘moles’ or beauty spots from the faces of those who considered them an impediment. Many euphorbias were used to treat warts in this way, so it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely.

And while we’re on the subject, here is a photo of a mole, probably the commonest British mammal that no one has ever seen (though we’ve all seen the results of their labours). Incidentally, other ways to keep moles out of the garden include ‘never speaking of them’ (much as you are not meant to mention ‘the Scottish Play’ to an actor), putting sardines in their runs (which would keep me out of the garden as well, though probably not the foxes and cats) and leaving hessian bags of human hair around the garden. Personally, I think I’d rather have the moles.

Photo One from https://www.wythamwoods.ox.ac.uk/article/mole-talpa-europaea

European mole (Talpa europea) (Photo One)

To return to the theme of caper spurge’s medicinal uses, Richard Mabey explains how the plant is found on the now uninhabited island of Steepholm in the Bristol Channel, along with the only colony of wild paeony (Paeonia mascula) in the UK and many other medicinal herbs such as henbane, coriander, wild leek, greater celandine and alexanders, all Mediterranean plants. Between 1166 and 1260 a community of Augustinian monks lived on the island, and it is likely that they planted a ‘physick garden’ in the equable oceanic climate. Certainly, Chaucer knew of caper spurge as ‘katapuce’ (mentioned in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale), and of its laxative properties, and Charlemagne insisted that it be grown in all herbal gardens in case anyone was ever in need of a good purge (the name ‘spurge’ comes from the Latin ‘expurgare’ which should give us a clue).

The sap was also used by beggars in medieval times who were in need of some additional sympathy – applied to the skin, it can cause extremely impressive blisters. One can only wonder at the depths of deprivation that made people to resort to such things. You most certainly do not want to get the sap in your eye, or onto any other ‘delicate parts’ – there are a lot of stories about chaps doing the weeding without gloves and then going to the toilet, followed by a rushed trip to Accident and Emergency when the effects of the sap became apparent.

Although caper spurge is toxic, goats will eat it, and the toxin can then be passed on via their milk. However the sap from caper spurge is also being considered as a possible biofuel, as it is extremely rich in hydrocarbons, and the plant will grow in relatively salty soils which are inhospitable to other plants so there would be little competition with food crops. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Melvin Calvin (1911-1997) (who discovered the Calvin Cycle of photosynthesis) estimated that cultivated caper spurge could produce 10-50 barrels of oil per acre per year, but whether there would be damage to the delicate coastal ecosystems involved remains to be seen.

Those fat little seed capsules, while not to be mistaken for capers, are entertaining in their own right: when ripe, they explode, catapulting the seeds for several metres. The seeds also float, and can be transported downriver if they happen to land in a suitable stream. Fortunately they are not particularly competitive, and are usually overwhelmed by more vigorous plants unless they happen to land in the perfect spot. They are now naturalised in many parts of the world, but do not appear to have become too overwhelming. In North America the plant is sometimes known as ‘gopher spurge’, so I wonder if this comes from a belief that, in addition to moles, mice and badgers, the plant discourages other mammals. And here is a photo of a gopher, just because I have never seen one. Those are extremely impressive incisors, I must say.

Photo Two by By LeonardoWeiss - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12937639

Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) (Photo Two)

And finally, here is a titbit that I found while looking around for a poem on caper spurge. The artist John Northcote Nash (1893 -1977), was the younger brother of the WWI artist Paul Nash, but his creative endeavours took him in the direction of botanical woodcuts. In his wonderful book ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees‘, the late Roger Deakin (gone much, much too soon), wrote about Nash’s masterpiece, ‘Poisonous Plants: Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect‘ (1922)

In a review of an edition of Nash woodcuts published in Hortus in 1988, Ronald Blythe writes:

‘His garden was always plentifully supplied with henbane, hemlock, monk’s hood, foxglove, meadow saffron, spurge laurel, datura, caper spurge, herb Paris, Helleborus foetidus and other such species which he had often been found staring at, much as one might at a murderer. He was proud, not only of their robust growth, but of their capabilities, and I have often watched him cast a wary eye over the gaunt reaches of the henbane. Gardens were not entirely benign places to him: they contained their darker moments.”

I think that any garden, closely observed, is awash with birth, life, death and decay, and that is, of course, exactly how it has to be. So many gardeners (myself included) have spells of railing against the unfairness of it all, when a heron eats a frog or a much-loved plant succumbs, or the slugs seem overwhelming. The foxglove feeds the bumblebee, and the caper spurge sits there innocently until you break a stem and rub your eye. Nature is not hell, but nor is it Disneyland.

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.wythamwoods.ox.ac.uk/article/mole-talpa-europaea

Photo Two by By LeonardoWeiss – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12937639

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Alpacas

An Alpaca

Dear Readers, a lot of therapy animals visit Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester, but there are none more unlikely than this pair of alpacas. The last time they visited I missed them, but on Monday my timing was perfect. I was sitting with Dad, who was munching on a custard tart and enjoying a ‘frothy coffee’ (one shot decaff latte – the last thing we want is for Dad to be any more hyperactive than he currently is) when a pair of alpacas were brought in by their handler. They had just been shorn and looked adorably naked. Plus they have the tiniest little feet considering how big they are.

Dad was instructed to stroke the handsome creature on the neck, and he did his best although it’s difficult to follow instructions when you aren’t as in control of your body as you once were, and your memory is shot. But the alpacas were very forgiving, and their handler was adept at reading their body language and moving them on if they were getting nervous or uncomfortable. I am sure that they are strong enough to vote with their (tiny) feet if anything happened that they didn’t like.

Dad has always loved animals (our house was full of pets when we were children) and although he isn’t quite sure who I am (though his face always lights up when he sees me) he remembered seeing the alpacas on a previous visit. He could not take his eyes off them. These moments are so precious and I was so glad that I was there to witness his pleasure.

I asked the handler about whether they were keeping the alpacas for wool, but apparently not: they have a herd of 34 animals at the moment, and when they are sold they either go as pets, or, occasionally, as guard animals for herds of sheep. Alpacas have a deep and abiding antipathy to all canids, and will kick dogs or foxes who trespass on their territory. Don’t let that innocent face fool you – alpacas can nip, kick and occasionally spit, although it is unusual for this to be aimed at humans. Certainly, these two were perfectly behaved (and regularly rewarded with nibbles), even after one lady resident asked if they were some kind of hunting dog.

I often wonder what goes on in Dad’s mind these days. When I visited on Monday he was very calm and happy, but at the weekend he apparently phoned the police to tell them that two people had been murdered and were buried under the patio. The police had to come out to make sure that this hadn’t actually happened, although it was always unlikely as there is no patio. So, when Dad told me with great glee that the home had been ‘crawling with coppers’ he gave me no indication that they were only there because he’d called them. It certainly livens things up for everyone.

At first, I wondered if it was something that Dad was watching on television that was triggering his fantasies, but now I think that he is trying to make sense of what is going on. Mum is gone, and so she must have been kidnapped or murdered, because nothing else would keep her away from him. For a while, he thought that Mum was jealous because other women were helping him to shower and dress, and so she wasn’t answering the phone when he called. And yet he sat beside me at the funeral, and at a recent memorial service at the home, and at the time he knew that she was dead. It’s as if his brain now has many rooms with no interconnecting corridors, and he can hold several paradoxical thoughts simultaneously, without the slightest sense of contradiction.

On Tuesday I popped in to see him before I headed home (we’re off to Austria this weekend so it was a flying visit) and when he spotted me he threw his arms open.

‘I’ve been waiting for you!’ he said, as we embraced. He is so thin these days. He eats everything and enjoys his food, but he is losing weight. He is too frail for any invasive tests and so we are just taking it day by day, checking that he is eating and drinking and as happy as he can be under the circumstances. We sit down and I make a cup of tea and he has another custard tart and a coffee.

And then I get up to go.

‘I’ll walk down to the station with you and we can get on the train and go and see Mum’, he said. ‘But don’t walk too fast because I’m not as quick as I used to be’.

The station is a quarter of a mile away and mostly uphill,  just to mention the most unimportant reason why he couldn’t leave the home to travel to London to see his wife (or his mother, it’s never quite clear).

‘Oh Dad’, I said, ‘You don’t really want to do that do you? It’s pouring with rain for one thing’.

‘But Mum’s in the hospital and she’ll want to see me’, he said.

And now it gets tricky because if I tell him that Mum’s dead, and then get my suitcases and go, he’ll be even more upset and confused than he is now. Furthermore, it’s not as if this terrible news will ‘stick’.

‘I’ll tell Mum where you are Dad, ‘ I say, ‘And she loves you and she knows you love her’.

He gets up to come with me. If I let him see the code to the lift, which enables him to leave the home, that will be something that he probably will remember.

I catch the eye of one of the carers.

‘Do you want to come with me and have a cup of tea, Tom?’ she asks.

‘No thank you, I just had one’, he says, following me down the corridor.

I give him a firm hug and a kiss and tell him that I’ll see him soon. He stands, swaying and a little unfocused, watching as I get into the lift and head downstairs. As the doors shut, I hear the carer ushering Dad back into the living room. His world has shrunk, largely, to his room and to the communal areas on the second floor. If he feels trapped it’s because he is: for his own safety, for sure, but he chafes against the restriction. He was always such an intrepid man, and I suspect that in his head he still is, solving crimes and stumbling upon nefarious goings on.

I am reading a wonderful book about homing pigeons (which I will discuss further when I’ve finished it), but one thing that has stayed with me is that, if you want your pigeons to improve their times, you need to make sure that they only see their partners when they get back from a race. For them, ‘home’ is not just a physical place, but their loved ones. For Dad, Mum was ‘home’ for 62 years. He may well be looking for her for the rest of his life.

It’s not until I’m on the train that I start to cry.

Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….

Wednesday Weed – Cabbage Palm

Cabbage Palm (Cordyline australis)

Dear Readers, the cabbage palm is a plant that I have always been a little snooty about. For much of the year it just stands there, with its big leathery leaves, and looks rather out of place. But this year, this one in the County Roads of East Finchley has burst forth with three huge inflorescences. I stood there with my camera, breathing in the sweet scent and watching dozens of honeybees flying about, and realised that I had been completely wrong. This is a very fine tree indeed.

The cabbage palm is endemic to New Zealand, where the largest known tree is estimated to be over 400 years old, and has a height of 56 feet and a circumference of 30 feet. The fruit that follows the flowers is the favourite food of the New Zealand pigeon or kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), who is also endemic. I am fascinated by New Zealand and its unique wildlife, and I think that I shall have to visit at some point!

Photo One by By Duncan - originally posted to Flickr as Kereru, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7903580

New Zealand Pigeon/Kereru (Hemiphaga novaseelandiae) (Photo One)

The flowers are eaten by the kakariki or New Zealand parakeet, a very attractive small parrot. I wonder if our ring-necked parakeets will start to recognise the plant as a source of food? They have certainly already developed a taste for spring blossom.

Photo Two by By Duncan Wright - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3020473

Karakiri (Red-crowned parakeet)(Cyanophorus novaezelandiae) eating cabbage palm blossom (Photo Two)

Cabbage palms grow in a variety of habitats in their native country, with different varieties occupying different niches. However, young plants are not frost-hardy (which means that it is limited as to altitude) and need open spaces to thrive – they will not survive if they are overtopped by other plants. The seedlings need a lot of water, and so the plant is not found on steep hills or among sand dunes unless there is underground water. The cabbage palm also needs fertile soil, and when European settlers first arrived in New Zealand they would use the presence of cabbage palms to indicate where to set up their farms and homesteads. This is probably why the ‘jungles of cabbage trees’ described by those settlers no longer exist – these days, cabbage palms are much more likely to be individual trees.

The nectar from the cabbage palm has compounds that make it attractive to moths as well as to bees, and I have seen our local tree surrounded by fluttery figures on a warm night. Bees use the nectar to stoke their developing hives, Each stalk on a cabbage palm bears a flower on alternate years, so there tends to be a heavy flowering every other year, and a bumper crop every three to five years. I suspect that this is a bumper year. One inflorescence can carry up to 40,000 seeds which are rich in linoleic acid (an important compound in the egg-laying of birds). Given that young plants need open space to grow well, it’s no wonder that the plant has developed to have its seeds transported away by the New Zealand pigeon, who will hopefully deposit it a good long way away from its parent (with a handy parcel of fertiliser to boot).

Much as the oak tree is a ‘mother tree’ to many British species, and constitutes a whole ecosystem in itself, so the cabbage palm is home to a whole variety of other species. Epiphytes such as orchids, ferns such as our old friend the Asplenium  and a whole fieldguide full of lichens and liverworts live on the plant.

The gold-striped gecko (Woodworthia chrysosiretica) scuttles over the bark, and New Zealand bellbirds nest under the leaves

Photo Three by By Sid Mosdell from New Zealand - Bellbird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21871769

New Zealand Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) (Photo Three)

Long-tailed bats roost in the hollow branches.

Photo Four from https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/bats-pekapeka/long-tailed-bat/

Long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus) (Photo Four)

In winter the leaves are an excellent hiding-place for the weta, a giant flightless cricket and one of the largest insects in the world.

Photo Five by By Mary Morgan-Richards - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70677446

Cook Strait Giant Weta (Deinacrida rugosa) (Photo Five)

There are nine species of insects who are only found on the cabbage palm in New Zealand, including the cabbage tree moth (Epiphryne verriculata) which eats nothing else. The adult is camouflaged so that it can hide on the dead leaves of the plant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stripey moth.

Photo Six by By Dan Kluza - https://www.flickr.com/photos/72744226@N00/5398604491, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65837571

Cabbage tree moth (Photo Six)

As you might expect from a plant that has been so utterly entwined with the other inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maori people have a long relationship with the cabbage palm. The stems and rhizomes are rich in natural sugars, and were steamed in earth ovens to provide a sweet substance called kauru that was used to sweeten other foods. It was easily stored for long periods, and is said to taste like molasses.

The cabbage palm groves attracted thousands of pigeons, and the Maori would trap and eat these birds – they were often so fat that they couldn’t fly.

The fibre from the leaves was incredibly tough, and especially resilient in seawater, being used to make anchor ropes and swings. They were also used to make protective trousers for when people were travelling in the high country of the South Island, home to the prickly spear grasses.

Medicinally, different parts of the plant were used for everything from diarrhoea to colic.

Children using a swing made from Cordyline fibre (Public Domain)

Although the cabbage palm rarely sets seed in the UK, individual plants do often seem to appear in the ‘wild’ – the plant is the fifteenth commonest ‘alien’ plant in London according to Stace and Crawley’s book ‘Alien Plants’. In the Isles of Scilly, the cabbage palm is used as a shelter for the bulb fields, and it is generally a plant of the milder south west of England, where it is sometimes known as the ‘Torquay Palm’. I see that there has recently been a thinning out of the various ‘palm’ trees of Torquay by the local council, with a concomitant furore. Let’s hope that all is well by the start of the summer season.

There are also cabbage palms on the west coast of Ireland, a similarly mild spot.

 A cabbage palm in a front garden in Torquay

In its native land, the cabbage palm has been threatened by a variety of pests and diseases. In 1987, populations of the plant sickened and died, often within a year of the first symptoms being noticed. Sudden Decline was eventually found to have been caused by a bacterium transmitted by a non-native sapsucking insect, the passion vine hopper, and there is some hope that the disease is lessening. However, individual cabbage palms are sometimes victims of what has been named ‘Rural Decline’. When the forests of the plant were originally cleared, individual specimens were left as shelter for livestock. Unfortunately, said livestock ate the seedlings and rubbed against the bark, eventually damaging the tree beyond hope of survival. Rabbits, possums and even horses also have a liking for the sweet stems and fruit. The cabbage palm’s richness as a source for other organisms seems to be hastening its demise in New Zealand, though the population is still at a healthy level at the moment.

Furthermore, the cabbage palm is very widely cultivated, both as a pot plant and as ‘bedding’ in many council flowerbeds. It is strange to think that this most individual of plants, so firmly embedded in the country from which it comes, is pretty much unremarked. I am looking at the cabbage palm with much more respect these days. What a very fine plant it is!

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Duncan – originally posted to Flickr as Kereru, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7903580

Photo Two by By Duncan Wright – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3020473

Photo Three by By Sid Mosdell from New Zealand – Bellbird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21871769

Photo Four from https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/bats-pekapeka/long-tailed-bat/

Photo Five by By Mary Morgan-Richards – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70677446

Photo Six by By Dan Kluza – https://www.flickr.com/photos/72744226@N00/5398604491, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65837571