A Street Tree Harvest

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Dear Readers, the man a few doors along from me gets very frustrated with the crab apple street tree outside his house. In October and November you can see him sweeping up all the rotten fruit , and if you pause he will explain why he hates it.

  1. The fruit, when freshly fallen, is as hard as a ball-bearing, just waiting to catch out the unwary.
  2. The fruit quickly degenerates into a squishy mush, which is even more slippery  than the ball-bearing stage, and is rather unpleasant to walk on even if you don’t fall onto your derriere.
  3. If you leave the rotten and fermenting fruit, it attracts clouds of drowsy wasps.
  4. While the fruit is still on the tree, it attracts noisy and badly-behaved parakeets who add to the mess with their droppings.
What are you looking at?

A noisy and badly-behaved parakeet

Fruit trees as street trees can be problematic, because the fruit is attractive to all kinds of creatures that some people wouldn’t want on their doorstep.  I have no problem with the poor wasps, who are imbibing the last sweet thing that they’ll ever taste, and who could blame them for wanting to get a bit tipsy after a hard year of caterpillar-catching and grub-grooming. And I don’t have a problem with the parakeets either, who bring a touch of exotic beauty to the street.

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But then there’s the mess. It’s not a problem, generally, with cherry trees, because the fruit appears early and the thrushes and blackbirds eat every last morsel. But the autumn fruits can be something of a problem. After all, how much crab apple jelly can anybody eat? And even the more edible fruits can prove difficult to handle in their sheer abundance and generosity.  When I went on a street tree walk earlier this year, I visited a group of sand pear trees whose fruit was so succulent and heavy that it was bombarding the pavement and any cars that were parked underneath with a deluge of sticky-sweet puree. As you might remember from that piece, half the street wanted the trees cut down, and the other half wanted them preserved. Peace broke out when it was decided to do something radical and harvest the fruit to be turned into perry (the pear-based version of cider). It’s almost as if we have forgotten what fruit trees were originally planted for.

https://bugwomanlondon.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/img_0622.jpg?w=370&h=659

A sand pear tree off Holloway Road in North London

I was very heartened to read in Time Out this week that a group of people are harvesting the apples from street trees, and trees growing on public land, to make cider and to give the fruit to foodbanks and organisations that prepare meals for isolated people. Although crab apples are not immediately edible(at least for humans), tons of perfectly good fruit are wasted every year because nobody picks it. There must be a better, more connected way to bring the hungry together with their food, and to make good use of nature’s bounty, and there are a lot of interesting experiments going on to do just that.

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The fruit on my garden crab apple – popular with the thrushes (when everything else has been eaten)

And it occurs to me that where a tree is just plain messy at certain times of the year, it wouldn’t hurt me to dig out my broom and give the man who lives a few houses down a hand. It’s so easy to become territorial in a row of houses, and to think that your responsibility ends at the edge of your garden wall. That might be strictly true, but it’s not a community I’d want to live in. When we had snow a few years ago, my husband cleared a path not just in front of our house, but for a good distance in either direction. He grew up in Canada and knows how to clear snow, but also recognises that it’s easier for some of us to do heavy work than it is for others. And yes, I know the old story that you can be sued if you clear your snow and someone falls over anyway, but from my research that seems only to apply if you’ve done something really stupid (like try to wash it away so that it freezes into an ice-rink).

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So, as autumn turns into winter, and the sun seems to be low on the horizon all day, I’m determined to be more aware of the bounty around me. There are some handy maps that you can use, in London at least, to look out where your local fruit trees might be, and to keep an eye open for any seasonal bonanzas – here, for example, is one for Hackney, provided by the organisation Hackney Harvest. For a general map of street trees in London, have a look here: you can enter your postcode, and it will tell you what’s growing in your area. All the usual provisos about health and safety apply, but I’d be willing to bet that if you passed by some of these trees in the autumn, the fruit would be literally dropping off. Wash it well though, you know how keen some councils are on spraying things.

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I’ve written before about how ‘plant-blind’ many of us have become. Whereas a generation or two back plants were in relationship with us, whether as medicines, or food, or as food for the imagination, nowadays it’s so easy to barely notice them. Writing the blog has opened my eyes a bit, but there is still so much more to notice and to learn about. I have grown to love the diverse plant community around my home, and to value it for the way that it roots me in place, and in history. If you are feeling a bit stale or lacklustre, put on your coat and hat and gloves and go for a fifteen minute walk. I guarantee that, if you walk slowly and pay attention, you’ll see something that piques your interest and takes you out of yourself. And maybe you’ll even find something to take home and turn into a crumble.

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Wednesday Weed – Strawberry Tree

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

Fruit of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

Dear Readers, I spotted this tree in East Finchley cemetery last week and, although it is most definitely not a weed, I decided to indulge myself and find out a bit more about it. After all, it is native to Great Britain (albeit only in a tiny corner of south-western Ireland, where it seems to have survived the last ice age) and is a popular street tree – in ‘London’s Street Trees‘ Paul Wood points out that it can be found in Bermondsey, Haggerston, Vauxhall and Holloway, and that there is even an Arbutus Street in Dalston. The Irish connection gave it its alternate names of ‘Irish strawberry tree’ or ‘cane apple’ (from caithne, the Irish name for the tree). Elsewhere, it can be found around the Mediterranean and Western Europe.

The tree is not related in any way to the strawberry that we have for dessert: in fact, it’s a member of the heather family (Ericaceae), something that can be seen more clearly in the flowers than in the fruits. The tree bears both simultaenously, which makes for an attractive and long-lasting display.

Photo One (Flowers) by By muffinn from Worcester, UK (Ameixial - strawberry tree Arbutus unedo flowers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Strawberry Tree flowers (Photo One)

The fruits are edible, but, much like the avocados that I sometimes buy, they take twelve months to ripen and then spoil very quickly. The species name unedo means ‘I eat only one’, and is attributed to Pliny the Elder. Whether he meant that one was enough, or that one was so delicious that no more were required is open for debate. I now regret that, in the interests of citizen science, I didn’t try one. There were certainly enough of them about.

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The fruit is can be used in a variety of ways: here is a rather attractive crumble cake, for example.

Photo Two (Cake) by By Nzfauna - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39656416

Strawberrry tree crumble cake (Photo Two)

However, as is so often the case, the main use of the fruit turns out to be in the making of alcoholic beverages. In Portugal, the wild fruit is used to make Medronho a 48% proof brandy that is drunk at breakfast to ‘waken the spirits’. In Albania it’s used to make rakia (not to be confused with the aniseed flavoured raki) and can be up to 90% proof. All I can say is that these folk are made of much stronger stuff than me. One glass of prosecco and I’m dancing on the table.

For something slightly less alcoholic, here is a recipe for Irish Strawberry Liquer from the splendid Talk of Tomatoes blog.

The fruit can also be used to make jam, and here is a recipe from the Maremma region of Italy which sounds rather splendid.

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What with its fruit and flowers and evergreen foliage, the strawberry tree is a great tree for a small garden, where every plant has to earn its keep. The flowers are pollinated by bees, birds like the fruit (even if we are wary of it) and it has a variety of ecosystem advantages: it can grow in very poor soil, and helps to stabilise it: it is salt-tolerant, and so useful for coastal gardens:it’s fire-resistant: and the thick leaf-cover helps to protect birds and insects during the winter.

Pliny did, however, note that it should not be kept close to bee-hives, for the nectar gives a bitter flavour to honey.

The strawberry tree forms part of the coat of arms of the Spanish city of Madrid, which shows a bear eating the fruits from the plant. There are still about 230 brown bears in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain, and I love to think of them stretching up to eat the berries. There is some indication that the bears may also eat the fermented fruit and collapse in an alcoholic stupor, much as they do in other places where such bounty is available.

In a complete digression, I remember seeing the paw prints of a sloth bear in a forest in India, and being amazed at how human they looked, just like the bare feet of a small child. These creatures resemble us in many ways.

Photo Three (coat of arms) by By Valadrem (http://valadrem.blogspot.com) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Coat of arms of Madrid (Photo Three)

In Italy, the tree, with its red fruit, white flowers and green leaves (the colours of the Italian flag), was seen as a symbol of the unification of the country during the 19th Century.

Medicinally, the leaves of the  strawberry tree have been used for a wide variety of purposes – they are said to be astringent, diuretic, urinary anti-septic, antiseptic, intoxicant, rheumatism, tonic, and have more recently been used in the therapy of hypertension and diabetes. The leaves certainly contain quercetin, which is an anti-oxidant, and are said to have anti-inflammatory properties.

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Now, I have referred previously to Hieronymos Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, and the way that folk can be seen to be wrestling with strawberries, carrying strawberries, and even eating strawberries. I took it for granted that the fruit in question was from the wild strawberry. However, the painting was recorded in the inventory of the Spanish monarch as ‘La Pintura del Madroño‘ – ‘the painting of the strawberry tree’. Have a  look at those giant fruits and see what you think. I suspect that I was right the first time.

https://bugwomanlondon.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/bosch_hieronymus_-_the_garden_of_earthly_delights_central_panel_-_detail_strawberry.jpg?w=874&h=659

Wild Strawberry or fruit from Strawberry Tree? I think the former….(Public Domain)

And finally to our poem. I am indebted to Greene Deane at the Eat the Weeds website for finding this Irish folk song on the subject of the Arbutus, or strawberry tree. Do pop over to the blog for fascinating information on all things foragable (this may be a new word). Like so many folk songs, it starts well enough, but gets rather less pleasant as we approach the end.

My Love’s An Arbutus

My love’s an arbutus
By the borders of Lene,
So slender and shapely
In her girdle of green.
And I measure the pleasure
Of her eye’s sapphire sheen
By the blue skies that sparkle
Through the soft branching screen.

But though ruddy the berry
And snowy the flower
That brighten together
The arbutus bower,
Perfuming and blooming
Through sunshine and shower,
Give me her bright lips
And her laugh’s pearly dower.

Alas, fruit and blossom
Shall lie dead on the lea,
And Time’s jealous fingers
Dim your young charms, Machree.
But unranging, unchanging,
You’ll still cling to me,
Like the evergreen leaf
To the arbutus tree.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Flowers) by By muffinn from Worcester, UK (Ameixial – strawberry tree Arbutus unedo flowers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Cake) by By Nzfauna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39656416

Photo Three (coat of arms) by By Valadrem (http://valadrem.blogspot.com) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In East Finchley Cemetery

My favourite gravestone

 

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that I’m a great fan of cemeteries. My heart is already given to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with its Victorian trees, tumbledown tombs and colony of feral foxes, but I occasionally like to walk in East Finchley cemetery. This is a much more manicured, controlled space, but it has some spectacular specimen trees, and is a haven for birds.

I spend a lot of time listening as I walk – I find it helps me to tune in to what’s going on. There are lots of conifers: cypresses and spruces, pines and fir trees. They vibrate with the twitterings of small birds. I see goldcrests and long-tailed tits, and hear the scolding of blue tits. None of them stay long enough for me to get a photo, but it’s enough to know that they’re there, working their way through the needles.

There’s the sing-song squawking of ring-necked parakeets, the cackling of magpies, the cawing of ever-present crows. The goldfinches sound like little bells. There’s a flight of finches at the top of one of the big, bare trees, but they’re too far away for me to see what they are. When I get home, I see that they are most probably greenfinches, at least judging from the heavy beaks and the gold wing bar that I can see on one of the wings. These birds were hit very hard by a parasitic disease (Trichomonosis) a few years ago, and the British Trust for Ornithology noted a decrease in the number of gardens who were visited by the birds of 40%. So, it’s cause for celebration if they’re recovering. Fingers crossed.

There’s a theme of wings in the cemetery. Secretly, I always wished that I could fly, and our myths and legends are full of humans who took to the air, from Icarus to the angels. We seem to want the freedom of the air, and perhaps also a release from our heavy, earthbound bodies.

I find the garden of remembrance, where the sound of running water is added to the bird calls. There are still a few last roses in bloom, but mostly they are now well-pruned and dormant, waiting for spring. I sit on one of the benches and wait to see what will happen. Nothing does, except that I notice how the golden of the leaves on some silver birch is offset by the darkness of the firs behind it, and how the yellow foliage on the topiary box bushes make them look as if they’re touched by sunshine.

When I am walking, I often think that something will happen, and then I’ll know that it’s time to go home. There’s often a moment when I think ‘Aha, this what I was meant to see/hear/smell’. I am, I suppose, waiting for a sense of completion, and permission, a sense of closure. But what will it be this time?

I walk along a path towards the crematorium, and am stopped in my tracks by the waves of scent coming from a most modest little bush on one of the graves. I have to stop, bend down, and take a good long sniff. We think we know what a rose smells like, but there are subtle differences: some perfumes have a lemony edge, some are deep and spicy. This little rose is pure floral, essence of rose.

I take a little path along the very edge of the cemetery and, as I meander along, I have a feeling of being watched. Who, or what, is it? And there, perched stock-still on one of the gravestones is a squirrel. I laugh out loud, because he looks so much like a glove puppet. And there he sits, unmoving, as I walk along the path and then away. While every other squirrel scurries away at my approach, this one seems to believe that if he sits still, I won’t see him. As he looks plump and confident, it seems to be a strategy that’s served him well.

Once I’ve laughed with delight, I know that my job here is done and I can head home, but my eyes are attracted (much like a magpie’s) to some bright red fruit on the ground. I have found a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), a member of the heather family. The fruits look delicious, and are apparently edible fresh, although they bruise very easily. I love the tableau that they make amidst the sedum and the grasses.

And then, just as I turn for home, I see a jay perched on another gravestone. How I love these brownish-pink crows with their electric-blue wing feathers.They are everywhere in the cemetery, gathering acorns that they’ll bury for the winter. This one watches me and then flies off on rounded wings, emitting an alarming cackle.

So now I’m surfeited with wonders and can head for home. As I cross the road outside the cemetery I see a 143 bus in the distance and head towards the bus stop at a brisk but sensible trot – I still have my camera round my neck and so I don’t want to do anything foolish like fall flat on my face. Just as I reach the stop the bus pulls away, and I plump down onto a seat, defeated.

An elderly man passes me a few minutes later, and smiles.

‘Next time’, he says, ‘you’ll have to fly’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Scarlet Pimpernel

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

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagalllis arvensis)

Dear Readers, if there is one lesson in life that I should have learned by now, it’s ‘don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today’. When I was in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset last week, I spotted this delightful patch of scarlet pimpernel, every flower open in the sunshine. But, alas, I had milk and rich tea biscuits to buy, and a copy of Woman’s Weekly to pick up, so I hurried past instead of stopping to take a photograph.

For the next three days,  the flowers were closed up tight, what with the fog, and the cold, and the afternoon shadows. And so I’m afraid my photos show them in their ‘coy mode’. However, here is what they look like when they’re in full sun. The plant has alternative names like ‘poor man’s weather glass’ and ‘shepherd’s clock’; the flowers are said to open at 8 a.m. and close at about 2 p.m. unless there’s cloudy or damp weather, in which case they may not bother to put in an appearance at all. I don’t blame them. Now that the clocks have gone back and it’s dark before 5 I often feel like huddling under the duvet with a hot chocolate and a good book.

Photo One (Scarlet Pimpernel flowers) by Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scarlet pimpernel (Photo One)

This plant is a member of the primrose family (Primulaceae) but as far as I know it’s the only  red species. Scarlet seems to be pushing it a bit though – it’s more of an orangey-red. But I am very fond of it – it’s small and unobtrusive, but repays close attention. It’s a plant of arable farmland and seaside environments, such as dunes and cliffs. It is native to the UK and to the whole of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, but has ended up being transported to almost everywhere else in the world, probably with grain crops.

In the Mediterranean area (and, I’ve learned, in some parts of the UK)  there is a rather lovely blue form, which gives rise to yet another alternative name, ‘blue-scarlet pimpernel’.

Photo Two (blue scarlet pimpernel ) by By Zachi Evenor, cropped by User:MathKnight - File:Anagallis-arvensis-Horashim2014-Zachi-Evenor.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39109428

Blue form of scarlet pimpernel (Photo Two)

Despite its demure appearance, however, scarlet pimpernel has a fearsome reputation. It is said that it causes gastroenteritis in dogs and horses, rabbits and poultry, and the seed is said to be poisonous to birds. Fortunately, it also apparently has a very acrid and unpleasant taste, and so most animals avoid it. The plant can also be used as an insecticide (which is probably why it developed the toxins in the first place). However, scarlet pimpernel has also been used medicinally, and in Germany it’s known as Gauchheil (‘Fool heal’) and used to be made into a treatment for those who were melancholy or otherwise mentally indisposed.The  genus name, Anagallis, comes from the Greek ‘to laugh’, and was said to indicate the mood of someone when their depression was lifted.

Of course, many people unfamiliar with this small red flower will be well aware of the novels of Baroness Orczy, who wrote the first of many books featuring The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1905. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a chivalrous gentleman who, with his band of loyal followers (‘ one to command and nineteen to obey’) worked to rescue French aristocrats who were destined for the guillotine. As you might expect from the name, the Scarlet Pimpernel left a flower at the scene of his rescues, and also used the symbol in his correspondence. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Pimpernel himself, you might be familiar with some of the parodies that his derring-do inspired, such as the Bugs Bunny episode featuring The Scarlet Pumpernickel, or the programme ‘Nob and Nobility’ in the third series of Blackadder that featured the eponymous hero’s disgust with the adulation accorded to the ‘bloody Pimpernel’.

Photo Three (Nob and Nobility) by By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28399167

The title card from Nob and Nobility (Photo Three)

This action-packed series of novels was the inspiration for many films and television series and radio plays, with probably the most famous cinematic version being the 1934 film starring Leslie Howard and and Merle Oberon.

Photo Four (Film 1934) by https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9780067

The Scarlet Pimpernel (and very exciting it sounds too) (Photo Four)

A poem from the novel has passed surreptitiously into common usage:

‘We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.’

You might recognise the first line from The Kinks 1966 song ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’.

Anyhow, enough excitement! Let’s get back to the plant.

It was believed that holding scarlet pimpernel in the hand would confer the gift of second sight, and also that the plant could give protection from enchantment and spells. I imagine that much of what we now see as mental illness might have been seen as the effect of witchcraft or demonic possession in earlier times, and so the plant’s use has remained consistent – if you are not ‘in your right mind’ for whatever reason, scarlet pimpernel seems to have been the go-to remedy.

It was used to make ‘pimpernel water’, which was considered to be a remedy for freckles (though as they are rather delightful I hardly think they need a ‘remedy’), and also for rough and discoloured skin.

In spite of their allegedly acrid flavour and rich collection of toxins, the leaves have been used in salads, especially in Germany and France. They certainly look very toothsome, but I would be a bit careful if I was you.

This blog often leads me to some very interesting places. In the search for art associated with The Scarlet Pimpernel, I discovered the wonderful illustrator Luisa Rivera, who is originally from Chile but is now based in London. She has recently illustrated a Spanish language edition of the novel by Baroness Orczy, and the cover illustration is below. For more of her dreamy, folkloric illustrations, have a look here. I particularly like the lady with the owl, but they are all haunting and original.

Photo Five (Cover illustration from The Scarlet Pimpernel) from http://www.luisarivera.cl/la-pimpinela-escarlata/

The Scarlet Pimpernel, illustrated by Luisa Rivera (Photo Five)

And finally, as you might expect, my search for a scarlet pimpernel poem has been somewhat hindered by about five hundred separate references to ‘They seek him here, they seek him there’ etc etc etc ad nauseum. But then, peeping through the rough grassland of the Google ads comes this tiny gem, by the Irish poet Paula Meehan. It’s called ‘Death of a Field’ and I think it’s both deeply poignant and beautifully observed. We need more homes, but let’s not forget what’s lost. To read it, click here. I will be looking out for Paula Meehan in future.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Scarlet Pimpernel flowers) by Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (blue scarlet pimpernel ) by  Zachi Evenor, cropped by User:MathKnight – File:Anagallis-arvensis-Horashim2014-Zachi-Evenor.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39109428

Photo Three (Nob and Nobility) by By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28399167

Photo Four (Film 1934) by https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9780067

Photo Five (Cover illustration from The Scarlet Pimpernel) from http://www.luisarivera.cl/la-pimpinela-escarlata/ 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Cake-Making and Bird Spotting in Milborne St Andrew.

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Dear Readers, it has been something of an exciting week for Mum and Dad. On Sunday, they were walking up the steps to their front door (which have two very sturdy handrails) when it appears that one of them slipped, and the other one tried to save them (the story varies somewhat according to who you talk to). The end result was that they both ended up laying in the front garden, unable to get up. Fortunately Dad had his mobile in his pocket, and was able to ring a) an ambulance and b) one of their neighbours/carers who lives just down the road. Dad had hit his head, and Mum had a bad pain in her hip, but Dad managed to get himself up with some help. Mum, however, was stranded in the garden, because no one wanted her to get up if she’d potentially fractured something. The lovely neighbour wrapped Mum up in blankets and made her as comfortable as possible.

Two and a half hours and several calls to the ambulance service later, an ambulance arrived from Swanage (some distance away), and took Mum and Dad to the hospital for observation. A few hours, an X-Ray and a CT scan later, they were released and got home for a well-earned cup of tea, and a rest.

So it was no surprise that when it came to making this year’s Christmas cake, Mum wanted to supervise rather than stand up and actually make it.

‘And then you’ll know the recipe’, she said, ‘And it can pass on down to you’.

And so I creamed the sugar and butter, taking Mum’s advice and using a fork (‘Much quicker’). I added the eggs and the flour a bit at a time, taking the mixture in for Mum’s approval (‘Add a bit of milk, that looks too dense’). And then in with the fruit (‘Cut the cherries in half!’). And then, into the oven at 140 degrees (‘It’s supposed to take four hours, but it never does, so let’s check on it in two’).

Just enough time for Mum and Dad to have a nap in their reclining chairs, and for me to go out for a walk. The fog had finally lifted, and the sun streamed in through the window of the bungalow.

I felt a bit sad. All these years Mum had been making the Christmas cake, and she prides herself on being the one to bring it to the Christmas feast. It felt like a bit of a defeat, but at least we’d have a cake. I put on my walking shoes. A trot through the countryside always cheers me up.

I noticed a fine spider’s web on the doorway of their house as I went out.

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I headed down towards the church on the other side of the main road through Milborne St Andrew. I had done this walk back in September, before Mum and Dad’s party, and I wanted to see what difference six weeks had made.

The spiders’ webs were thick in the hedges, and so white that I had to check them  to make sure that they weren’t something leftover from Halloween.

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One of the houses is for sale, and very fine it is too. I loved the hanging basket holders, shaped like a wren and a robin. If anyone is looking for a house in Milborne I would definitely have a peep at this one.

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The horses were in the field, as usual.

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But there were some new inhabitants in the field opposite.

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They looked like so many clouds scattered about the hill.

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A rook called out from the top of a tree.

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Last time I did this walk, there was Himalayan Balsam and Comfrey in full flower. But today, the prevalent colour was green, from new nettles and goosegrass and feverfew.

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All the plants by the little river had been cut back, but the hedgerow was alive with wrens and flocks of tits.

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The cabbages on the field on the other side of the track were gone, but something new had already been planted.

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The last of the cabbages, missed in harvesting

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New crop. Of what, I have no idea. Maybe it will be clearer next time I visit.

At last, at the top of the field, I find a few things in flower. There is the odd dandelion and hogweed still blooming, but then there is the ivy. It’s the main nectar source at this time of year and I must have seen a dozen red admirals stopping for a quick sip and then hurrying on as I did this walk, not one of them hanging around long enough for a photo.

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A lonely dandelion

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The Sputnik-shaped flowers of ivy, with a lone honeybee

At the end of the track I stop, and look at my watch. Still an hour and a quarter before the cake needs to be looked at. I have three choices: right, diagonally right, and left. I decide to go up the hill to the right, and just see where it goes.

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The first thing I notice is how hot it is on this south-facing hedgerow – I’m sorry I’ve worn a scarf. And then I notice the sound of insects, a persistent drone every time I get close to the abundant ivy. I look around for bumblebees (and do see an enormous queen disappearing back into her hibernation burrow in the grass) but the noise is actually coming from some hoverflies.

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This is a drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), and its resemblance to a male bumblebee is supposed to give it some measure of protection from predators. It certainly sounds like a bee, although its big eyes and shiny body are much more fly-like. It loves farmland: the larva is known as a ‘long-tailed maggot’, and it thrives in nutrient-rich, polluted water, which can often be found where there is nitrate run-off. The larva breathes via a breathing tube, which is how it got its name. The adult lives on nectar and is one of the few hoverflies that can be found all year round. A tough creature, indeed.

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A drone fly on yarrow. In this photo you can just about make out the rust-coloured patches on the fly’s ‘hips’ which identify it as Eristalis pertinax

And then I look up.

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I have been waiting for years to actually get some photos of a buzzard (Buteo buteo). They are not rare in Dorset, but I still find them magnificent as they ride the thermals, searching for a rabbit to pounce on or a carcass to investigate. They are adaptable animals, able to hunt for themselves or scavenge, and they’ve even been seen marching over a ploughed field and pulling up worms.

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This one is an adult (you can tell from the mostly cream-coloured underwings). Last time I did this walk I got a distant view of three buzzards, an adult and two juveniles. Today, it was just this one bird, effortlessly soaring over the fields, changing direction with the merest twist of a tail. I wondered if it was enjoying its freedom now that the fledglings were off-hand. There certainly seemed to be a kind of joy in its flight.

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I realise that the track isn’t actually going to give me a short-cut home, and so I turn to retrace my steps. At the bottom, I decide to take a chance on another track, which seems to head back towards Milborne.

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And who is this handsome chap/pess, perched on the telephone wires?

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I wonder if it’s some kind of thrush, but it’s not until I get home that I am able to blow the photo up and identify this as my first ever meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis). How do I know? Well, the general look of the bird, but the clincher for me was the description of the bird as having a ‘long back claw’. Furthermore, the bird is described as ‘near-threatened’. I have a new spring in my step.

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I pass a derelict barn hidden  in the woods. How I would love to explore it! I bet it’s home to bats, or owls.

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The farm buildings and machinery are a playground for pied wagtails and sparrows.

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And a horse looks like he or she wants a chat. Or an apple.

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I know I’m nearly home when I see the stag on Stag House, a private dwelling that was once the house of a Mr Cole. The stag was a gift from Earl Drax, for ‘support during an election campaign’. The Drax estate is still a major land owner in these parts.

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As I reach Mum and Dad’s house, the smell of baking cake and mixed spice reminds me that I’ve had no lunch. I put my key in the door, and something catches my eye. The sunshine is low, shining through the spider’s web that I spotted on the way out. It is making rainbows.

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It reminds me that there is always more than one way to look at a situation. Looked at one way, this is a simple spider’s web. With a tilt of the head, it becomes magical, a scintillating interplay of colour and light.

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I am sad that Mum is no longer well enough to make the Christmas cake on her own, but how good it is to work together to create something. I am reminded that I don’t know everything, and that I could, if I chose, be a little less inclined to try to do everything for Mum and Dad, as if they were helpless. Instead, I could allow myself to receive the many things that they still have to offer – wisdom, experience, love.

The cake looks as if it will be delicious. We’ve pricked the top so that Mum and Dad can feed it with brandy over the next month, until I return in December, and then we’ll put on the marzipan and the icing. Together.

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Wednesday Weed – Mare’s Tail

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

Mare’s tail (Equisetum arvensis)

Dear Readers, during a long-overdue walk through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last week, I spotted some mare’s tail (Equisetum arvensis) growing on a single grave. I wonder what the conditions were to produce such a crop, but only on this one site? Truly, the ways of the plant kingdom are a mystery, although I note that mare’s tail was once said to be an indicator of underground water. The cemetery is studded with such streams, so perhaps this is an explanation

At first glance mare’s tail resembles grass or a rush, but closer inspection shows that it is actually a living fossil that has been in existence for over 100 million years. Its structure is unique to this family of plants, with a whirl of spikey ‘leaves’ around each stem. Back in the good old days of the Carboniferous period, mare’s tail could grow into a magnificent tree 30 metres tall, and the fossils from these plants can sometimes be found in coal deposits, for Equisetum species formed a large part of this fossil fuel. These days Equisetum plants are of more modest stature, but are still worth a close look, because nothing else like them still exists. The giant dragonflies that I mentioned in my post last week would have been very familiar with these plants.

Photo One by By Alex Lomas - Equisetum arvense, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44451880

The branching stems of mare’s tail (Photo One)

In German, mare’s tail is known as Zinkraut or tin-herb, because the stems contain silicate, absorbed from the soil in a way that is very unusual in plants. Mare’s tail is useful as an abrasive and cleaning-agent for metal, especially tin, and another English name is scouring-rush. A member of the Equisetum family is used in Japan in the last stage of woodworking, producing a finer finish than any sandpaper.

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron - Self shot by mobile phone, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2935195

In this micoscopic view of an Equisetum, the white dots are the silica nodules that produce the abrasive effect (Photo Two)

This is one of those plants that looks very different as the seasons pass, and this is because it produces two different kinds of growth. In spring, the fertile shoots look more like fungi than plants: in fact although I’m familiar with the summer foliage of mare’s tail, I was completely flummoxed by the buds when I visited Canada last year. These are what enable the plant to reproduce, but don’t photosynthesise.

Photo Three by By F. Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring mare’s tail buds (Photo Three)

As the year goes on, the plant develops photosynthetic foliage, both to survive and to create the conditions for reproduction during the following spring. Both kinds of shoot come from a complicated network of rhizomes under the soil.

Photo Four by By MPF (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lush summer mare’s tail foliage (Photo Four)

But by autumn, all that’s left are a few of the main whorls of stems.

The plant proved to be an inspiration to the father of logarithms, John Napier. I remember using my logarithmic tables for O level Maths way back in 1976, but these days I imagine it’s all done with computers, and logarithms have gone the way of the slide rule. As you will probably remember, a logarithmic scale is a nonlinear way of describing something which has a very wide range of values. For example, the Richter Scale for measuring earthquakes is a logarithmic scale: an earthquake with a value on the Richter Scale of 6 is ten times stronger than one with a value of 5.

Napier noticed the way that the nodes on the mare’s tail got closer together as they approached the tip of the plant. That’s difficult to see on the older plants in my photos, but have a look at these fresh young greater horsetails, and you’ll see what caught his eye. I love the way that patterns in nature influence both scientists and artists.

Photo Five by By Rror (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Greater horsetail – note how the black lines (the nodes) are much further apart at the bottom of the plant than at the top (Photo Five)

Incidentally, Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) reports that in some places, mare’s tail is known as ‘Lego Plant’ because it comes apart at the nodes, and can be put back together again. It can also be used as a fungicide – mare’s tail boiled in water has been used with some success against rose mildew.

In herbal medicine only the photosynthetic summer parts of the plant are used, usually as an astringent or for the treatment of nosebleed.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that mare’s tail is sometimes considered to be a most pernicious weed. The RHS describe it as a plant that is ‘ is an invasive, deep-rooted perennial weed that will spread quickly to form a dense carpet of foliage, crowding out less vigorous plants in beds and borders’. Those rhizomes have got a lot to answer for! The RHS notes that simply pulling the plant up will just make things worse, as the plant can regenerate from the tiniest bits of root, (although if you are going to attempt this, the best time is when the fertile shoots appear in April) and suggests a range of chemical options. It also suggests battering the plant with a rake before applying the weedkiller, which could be therapeutic if nothing else. I have rather a ‘live and let live’ attitude to perennial weeds in my garden, which involves pulling them up or cutting them back if they get too enthusiastic, but tolerating them in small numbers. Life is too short for all-out war, surely.

I have been unable to find any works by the Old Masters (or indeed Old Mistresses) of mare’s tail, but here is an illustration of the Cretaceous period, featuring a most splendid equisetum on the right hand side, plus various assorted reptiles sunning themselves on the bank. I note some Gingko trees as well, which could well be another Wednesday ‘weed’ at some point in the future. You’ll note that my definition of ‘weed’ is becoming more and more expansive as I tick off the actual ‘weeds’ in my half-mile territory. Well, after almost four years I have already featured nearly 200 of the little darlings.

Evolution in the past by Knipe (Public Domain)

And for the poem? I have a humdinger this week by Anne Stevenson, who traces the path from mare’s tail through coal to the mining communities that extracted it and are now gone. As you know, I don’t cut and paste poems from living writers, because this is how they earn their crust. But please do click through here to read the poem, which is full of wonders. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Alex Lomas – Equisetum arvense, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44451880

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron – Self shot by mobile phone, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2935195

Photo Three by By F. Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By MPF (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by By Rror (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Certain Hush

Dear Readers, there is a feeling of urgency in the autumn that differs from the tumult of the spring. In autumn, it’s all about fattening up, putting on the layers of insulation that will fuel a migration, or get a small, inexperienced fledgling through the winter. The feeders are busy from first light, with half a dozen  collared doves queued up on the branches of the whitebeam while the woodpigeons hog the feeder. And then, earlier this week, I looked out of my upstairs window and there was not a single bird in sight. Except one, on the roof ridge of the houses opposite.

 

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Sparrowhawk. What boldness it takes to just sit there, in full view. Those yellow feet look so tiny from this distance, but I know from a previous encounter with a  bird very like this one how her talons are used to hold down and pierce her prey while her curved beak plucks out the feathers and rips into the flesh. No wonder the garden was so quiet.

I have noticed that the appearance of a predator sends a certain ripple through the ether. In India, you could track the tiger through the forest by the chorus of barks and squeals as each deer and each langur spotted him, the sound getting louder and louder as he got nearer. Like the sparrowhawk he was utterly unconcerned, walking out onto the path, turning to look at us and then spraying urine on to a nearby tree as if to say ‘that’s what I think of you lot’. And then he sashayed away up the path at his own pace, and he never looked at us again.

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Tiger in Panna National Park

 

I imagine the birds buried deep in the shrubs. Do mothers teach their nestlings to stay silent when that shadow is seen against the skyline? I notice no alarm calls. No one wants to draw attention to themselves.

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I am remembering a few things that separately made no sense. A few weeks ago I noticed the soft dusty impression of a bird the glass of my writing-room window. There were lots of feathers on the ground, under my kitchen window. Had a panicked bird crashed into the pane and stunned itself, making it easier for the sparrowhawk?

The hunter looks around. She seems to have all the time in the world. No hawklings in the nest at this time of year – she is hunting for herself.

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What is stirring? What tiny motion alerts her? We know that birds of prey have eyes that are alert to the smallest rustling and excellent hearing. Maybe she is not even hunting, but just scanning her territory. I watch her for a while through the binoculars. The wind ruffles her feathers a little. I raise the camera to take a few photos, though I don’t hope for much through my dirty windows (well, I can’t get the window cleaner in until the spiders have moved on).

And then, two things happen.

A feral pigeon flies at the window out of nowhere, and swerves at the very last second to avoid the glass.

And the sparrowhawk swoops.

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And then both disappear.
Within two minutes, the doves are back on the feeder, and a swarm of long-tailed tits is clambering through the hawthorn with a chorus of soft tseeping calls. It’s as if every bird is discussing their close escape, and celebrating that they are still here.
And that, of course, is anthropomorphism, but I make no apology for it. We evolved from non-human ancestors, and everything that we are had its roots in them. I know what it is to feel my heart beat a little more quickly at the sound of heavy footsteps behind me on a dark winter’s evening, and to utter a sigh of relief when the door shuts securely behind me. I would be arrogant to assume that, of all the animals on this planet, humans are the only ones to experience such feelings. We are all on this little blue boat together, and there is more capacity for joy and grief than people alone can muster.