Wednesday Weed – Field Bindweed

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…..

Field Bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis)

Field Bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis)

Dear Readers, I have previously written about Hedge Bindweed, which is the big white-flowered vine that is currently trying to infiltrate my garden over the back fence. But today, I wanted to sing the praises of a smaller, more delicate flower. If I saw it in the garden centre, with its candy-pink and white flowers, I would be very tempted to buy it. Unfortunately, it is designated as a ‘weed’, and although not quite as enthusiastic as its large-blossomed cousin, it can certainly cover a fair area in a short period of time.

IMG_7608I spotted this example at Woodberry Wetland, a brilliant new nature reserve in north London that I shall be writing about soon. But it is also happily growing through the brambles in the cemetery, so within my half-mile ‘territory’. It is a native plant to the UK, but was introduced to North America, as far back as 1739. It probably arrived in the New World amidst contaminated grain seed, but it has made itself very much at home, and is considered a serious Invasive Species there. It is very difficult to eradicate as the seeds can lay dormant for up to 20 years, and are often spread far afield by birds. Plus, like so many of the Convulvulus family, it has fragile roots which break easily. As the plant can grow from the tiniest fragment, this is not a happy situation if you were hoping to be Bindweed free. I speak from experience when I say that if you turn your back for a second, the little fingers of bindweed will wrap around your plants and head skyward, turning well-behaved borders into a tangled mass.

IMG_7609But, truly, what exquisite flowers this plant has. The pink and white pattern has always reminded me of a striped Venetian glass goblet, and it must also have struck a chord with the Brothers Grimm, because here, in full, is a short story about this plant.

Once upon a time a waggoner’s cart which was heavily laden with wine had stuck so fast that in spite of all that he could do, he could not get it to move again. Then it chanced that Our Lady just happened to come by that way, and when she perceived the poor man’s distress, she said to him, “I am tired and thirsty, give me a glass of wine, and I will set thy cart free for thee.” “Willingly,” answered the waggoner, “but I have no glass in which I can give thee the wine.” Then Our Lady plucked a little white flower with red stripes, called field bindweed, which looks very like a glass, and gave it to the waggoner. He filled it with wine, and then Our Lady drank it, and in the self-same instant the cart was set free, and the waggoner could drive onwards. The little flower is still always called Our Lady’s Little Glass.

IMG_7610I note that field bindweed has been used for a variety of purposes in North America. The Okanagan-Colville tribe(from southern British Columbia and northern Washington state) very sensibly used the stems of the plant to tie up small game so that it could be easily carried home. The Pomo tribe used a decoction of the plant for period pains, and the Navajo used it for spider bites. In the UK, it has been used as a mild diuretic and laxative.

Edible uses for the plant are few and far between, maybe because the plant contains a number of potentially toxic alkaloids. However, the Eat the Weeds website mentions that the plant is eaten in some countries, usually after being boiled first. Rather more pleasantly, it mentions that in some regions of Spain, the flowers are sucked for their sweet nectar.

IMG_7608In the comments section of The Cottage Smallholder website post on Bindweed,  there are some interesting thoughts on how field bindweed was once used as a cottage garden plant, in particular to cover things buildings, such as outside toilets, which weren’t very attractive. There are also many thoughts on the plant’s laxative properties, so possibly there is some sympathetic magic going on here! But one thing that is also clear is that field bindweed is a plant of disturbed soil, a real opportunist, and something which helps to protect bare soil when it’s first exposed. I wonder if the seeds at Woodberry Wetlands have been waiting for years for their moment in the sun, and have appeared following the making of the paths and earth banks in the reserve. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Stages of Cruelty by Ford Madox Brown

Stages of Cruelty by Ford Madox Brown (1857) (Public Domain)

Now, as you know I do like to shoehorn some culture into the Wednesday Weed wherever possible, so here, for your delectation, is a painting by Ford Madox Brown, a Pre-Raphaelite painter who, by a delightful coincidence, is buried is St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I go for my fox-watching. In the painting above, a rather nasty child is seen chastising her bloodhound by walloping it with a stem of love-lies-bleeding. The young woman on the stairs is supposed to be the same child at a later point in her life, and she is being cruel to her poor suitor who languishes behind her. And, clambering around the banister is a rather botanically-inaccurate depiction of bindweed. The meaning of this plant in the Victorian Language of Flowers? ‘Extinguished Hopes’.

Interestingly, there is a truth here: children who are cruel to animals frequently end up being cruel to humans, and indeed this kind of behaviour is, these days, a ‘red flag’ for social workers and teachers. I find it fascinating that this has been recognised for so long, and yet I often see the tormenting of animals being explained away as  ‘children being children’. For sure, sometimes children are just too young to understand that an animal is a separate being with feelings of its own, but sometimes the behaviour is symptomatic of something more sinister. Maybe we would have a few less abominable adults  if sadism was recognised as the unacceptable thing that it is when people were young enough to be changed.

Madonna and Child by Vincenzo Malo (1630s)

Madonna and Child by Vincenzo Malo (1630s) (Public domain)

I’m reluctant to leave my study of this pretty plant on such a sad note, however, so here is a painting of the Madonna and Child by Vincenzo Malo, a Flemish painter who worked with Rubens. Here, the Madonna holds a sprig of bindweed in her hand, which represents her steadfastness to God’s will, and her charity. Plants can change their meanings for humans from age to age, from culture to culture, and yet they just carry on doing what they need to do to survive, in spite of our strange upheavals and crises. I think that one of the reasons that I love ‘weeds’ so much is their resilience in the face of change. They really are the unsung heroes of the plant world.

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

 

Bugwoman on Location: Kew Part Two – What’s Good for the Bees

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Honeybee on Globe Artichoke flower

Dear Readers, last week  I wrote about how my friend J and I visited the water lilies and lotuses at Kew Gardens, and all the interesting things that we found out about them. But the other big theme of the visit was pollinators, and bees in particular. August can be a tricky month in the garden – all the spring flowers are long gone, and everything can be looking a bit tired. What plants are the bees and hoverflies and butterflies using now?

At Kew there is one magnificent border called the Great Broad Walk Border, which at 320 metres is the longest double herbaceous border in the world. Great drifts and swathes of flowers stretch on both sides of the path, in shades of yellow and orange, pink and purple, blue and white. Who could resist a slow meander along this magical road? Certainly not Jo and I, and as a result I ended up with mild sunburn, but it was a small price to pay.

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Hoverfly on Achillea

What impressed me most about this array of plants was that every single one had some wildlife value. There was bright yellow Achillea, a close relative of the humble yarrow, which was swarming with hoverflies – the flat ‘platforms’ of the flowerheads, which contain hundreds of individual flowers, are attractive to flies and beetles who do not have the specialised knowledge and mouthparts to deal with the bells and cups and tubes of other plants. Bronze fennel was another favourite with these humble pollinators, again because its nectar and pollen are easily accessed. There seems to be a trade-off between ease of access and quality and quantity of food, however: the more difficult a plant is to pollinate, the better the reward for the pollinator has to be.

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Bumblebee on Globe Artichoke (with honeybee just coming into land)

The huge purple flowers of globe artichokes were also favourites, particularly with bumblebees, who can force their way between the tightly-bunched petals to get to the nectar. I always forget that these vegetables are members of the thistle family, at least until I look at them close up and realise that the part that we eat is the seedhead of the plant. I am trying to grow a globe artichoke in my garden, but I fear that the spot is not sunny enough – thistles of all kinds do like a blast of sunshine.

Bees on Cirsium atropurpureum

Bees on Cirsium atropurpureum

There were also some of my favourite thistles, a variety called Cirsium atropurpureum, which I used to have in the garden but has now faded away. The bees used to be found in the middle of the flowers in a kind of nectar swoon, and they were doing the same here. I wonder if there is some benefit to the plant in having the bumblebees stay for an extended period? On balance, I suspect that they would rather that the bees did their stuff and moved on, but who knows.

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Bumblebee on Coneflower

Bees on Rudbeckia

Bees on Rudbeckia

Bumblebee on aster

Bumblebee on aster

Prairie plants of all kinds have become very popular over the past few years, and with good reason. The huge cushions of pollen in Echinacea and Rudbeckia attract honey and bumblebees, and there are some lovely single chrysanthemums and asters. I am particularly fond of asters – they can provide food for bees right into the autumn, when everything else has had enough, and their delicate star-like flowers are striking counterpoints to the changing foliage around them.

Bumblebee on Salvia

Bumblebee on Salvia

And finally, let’s not forget the benefits of Salvia of all kinds. Bees just seem to love it.

The Hive installation

The Hive installation

So, it seems as if Kew is taking bees seriously, and nowhere more so than in an installation that combines art and science, called ‘Hive’. From a distance, Hive looks like a mesh of silver metal, floating like a cloud or swarm above a small hill. Close up, it becomes apparent that it’s a lattice of aluminium tubes, and as you walk into it you can hear the whole thing vibrating with a low hum. Lights inside the structure glow and subside, seemingly at random. But actually, the whole installation is wired up to a real bee hive behind the scenes, and the sound and lights are reacting to the levels of activity in the hive. On a hot day, the metal thrums busily as bees come and go, waggle-dance and feed their young. On a cold, wet day, I imagine that it is much more subdued.

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At the bottom of the installation there are listening posts. You are instructed to take a wooden stick from the top of the post, put one end of the stick between your teeth and the other into a slot on the post, cover your ears, and listen. You can hear a commentary explaining what the sounds that you hear are: in one, it’s two queen bees threatening one another, a kind of low vibration mixed with clicks and quacks. It is well worth doing this, and then standing back and watching full-grown men and women with sticks between their teeth listening to something inaudible to everyone else. It feels a little like Candid Camera (for those of you old enough to remember it).

IMG_7589And of course, we wanted to go in search of real bee hives. The one that is linked to the installation is hidden away behind the scenes, but in the student garden, which is tucked away in a corner, there is a working hive. This is safely fenced off to prevent any unwanted human/bee interactions, but it’s close enough to see the bees waiting on the launch pad, perhaps to determine from the other bees where the best nectar is. It’s known that many bees will be ‘loyal’ to a particular patch of plants until they are all finished: after all, it makes much more sense for bees to continue to visit a known site with plenty of food than to be forever looking for new ‘spoils’. Bumblebees in particular are extremely efficient at working out the best combination of route, distance and nectar availability to maximise the amount of food that they bring back.

So, it seems that Kew is certainly doing its best for pollinators of all kinds, and I for one am delighted. Astute choice of plants can make all the difference between a garden that is lifeless, and one that is full of bees and butterflies. It’s great to see a world-renowned garden such as Kew taking this on board in such a whole-hearted way. I salute them.

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

Wednesday Weed – Lesser Burdock

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…..

Lesser burdock (Arctium minus)

Lesser burdock (Arctium minus)

Dear Readers, the ‘wildflower meadow’ area in the cemetery continues to provide a healthy harvest of vigorous and unusual ‘weeds’. This plant is a member of the daisy family, and at first glance it looks like just another thistle. However, if you take a close look at the base of the flower head you will see a fine mass of little hooks.

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These hooks are used by the plant when the seedhead is ripe: they cling to the fur of any passing animal, and stay there until the animal (or their owner) grooms them out, which will probably be a fair distance away from the original plant. If you’ve ever walked through a patch of the dried ‘burs’ wearing a woollen skirt (or accompanied by a golden retriever) you will know all about their sticking power. In fact a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, got the idea for Velcro from just such a walk. So many of our ideas for new materials and gadgets come from the natural world,

The burs are also notorious for trapping small creatures, especially birds – on the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland reports how a stormy petrel was rescued from the embrace of this plant, but only after the poor creature had become trapped by his wings, body and feet. You can see how a mouse or finch might end up completely entangled.

Seedheads just about ready to attach themselves

Seedheads just about ready to attach themselves

Lesser burdock is a native plant (there is a bigger species, called predictably greater burdock (Arctium lappa) which is an ancient introduction). Although many native plants feature in ancient rituals and folklore, lesser burdock is interesting in having such a ceremony still extant. On the second Friday in August, there is a ‘Burry Man’ parade in Queensferry which has been happening since at least 1687. The ‘Burry man’ is completely covered in burs (except for the flowery hat on his head and his feet) and he goes from house to house, receiving gifts and a number of ‘drams’ as he goes. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how the costume is made from patches of cloth, each stuck with up to 500 burs which have been gathered by local people and left to dry out. The costume more or less holds itself together, such is the sticking power of the seedheads, and it takes about two hours to cover the unfortunate Burry man. Once in the costume, it isn’t possible to get out of it, so one of the requirements is definitely a strong bladder, plus an ability to withstand the inevitable irritation of the bur ‘hooks’ piercing through the cloth and causing some measure of discomfort. The total perambulation around South Queensferry takes nine hours and, what with the heat, the whisky and the aggravation of the costume it takes a man who is determined to uphold this ancient costume to complete the course.

By Oliver Benton - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37795655

The 2013 Burry Man at South Queensferry, Scotland (Photo One – see credits below)

The origins of the Burry man probably have their roots in much  more ancient practices, and one interesting idea, again from Flora Britannica, is that the figure of the Burry man was a kind of scapegoat – in Buckie on the Moray Firth, a Burry man paraded through the streets when the fishing season was bad, to bring better luck to the fishing. It may be that the hooks of the burs reminded people of fishing hooks, so there was maybe a kind of sympathetic magic going on.

In Anatolia, the burdock is said to be protective against the evil eye, and a motif that symbolises the plant is sometimes woven into kilims (rugs). With its many flowers, it also symbolises abundance.

By Chiswick Chap - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46631044

Burdock Kilim Motifs (Photo Two – see credits below)

IMG_7725Like all members of the thistle family, the flowers of lesser burdock are very popular with bees (like the common carder bumblebee above). The roots and shoots are also eaten by humans: although the burdock in dandelion and burdock cordial is nowadays imported from eastern Europe as a flavour essence, it was originally taken from the roots of this plant. It was also used to make a kind of beer.If you fancy having a go at lesser burdock stirfry, there is a recipe here, but note that burdock is a biennial, and only the first year roots are considered suitable. In other words, if your plant already has flowers and burrs, you are too late.

IMG_7717Lesser burdock has a variety of uses in traditional medicine. It is considered to be a diuretic, a disphoretic ( a substance that causes sweating) and an excellent blood purifier. Burdock root oil is also said to be a fine scalp treatment.

IMG_7732All in all, I am very impressed with lesser burdock. It has been used medicinally and for food, it is a key part of one of the few ancient folk rituals that are still being performed in the UK, and it provides nectar at a time of the year when many other plants are waning. Furthermore, it was the inspiration for velcro, which does everything from fasten my parents’ shoes now that laces are too difficult, and keeps the front of my waterproof secure when there is a downpour. The burs might be a bit too ‘sticky’ for comfort sometimes, but it seems to me that this is a small price to pay for the pleasure of its company. And I am aware that the area where it grows in the cemetery is likely to be completely ‘exfoliated’ shortly, and all the perennials and biennials will be destroyed, so I am making the most of this most eccentric of ‘weeds’, because it will soon be gone. Though I do wonder how many dog walkers will be transporting its children to the most distant parts of the cemetery and beyond. I shall look with interest to see where else this plant might ‘crop up’.

Photo Credits

Photo One : By Oliver Benton – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37795655

Photo Two : By Chiswick Chap – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46631044

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location: Kew Part One – A Waterlily Extravaganza

A talking tree?

A talking tree?

Dear Readers, last Friday my friend J and I went to Kew Gardens, which is usually an oasis of serenity in the hubbub of the city. However,  it is the school holidays, and so we were greeted at the front entrance by a man on stilts, dressed as a tree. He looked rather like Groot from that exemplary film ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, but he had rather more to say for himself.

He looked at J’s legs. She was bare-legged and wearing sandals.

‘Oh,’, he groaned, ‘Your roots are exposed! I would get some water on them if I was you’.

In spite of his enormous size and scary appearance, he had a great way with children, who didn’t seem the slightest bit afraid of him.

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Having bid our woody friend farewell, we moved on to the Water Lily house. This is a fine Victorian building, all cast iron and glass, and was built for the huge Victoria water lilies that were brought back from the Amazon. However, these plants didn’t do so well here and were moved to the Princess of Wales Conservatory (of which more later). The house is now home to many Nymphaea water lilies (plants of this genus are the ones we often see growing wild in the UK). I had no idea that they came in so many colours: there were purple ones with yellow middles, pale pink and red ones, magenta ones.

IMG_7480IMG_7485IMG_7490Water lilies are fascinating plants – they are largely thought to be amongst the earliest flowering plants, as their various organs are not as diverse or specialised as in later plants. Some of them are pollinated by beetles, and they do this by first attracting the beetles with a heavy, spicy scent. They then close so that the beetles are trapped overnight and get covered in pollen, In the morning they release the prisoners so that they can do the same in a different flower the following night. Flowers that are pollinated by beetles (which is called cantharophily, another new word to me) tend to have large, open, dish-shaped flowers, lots of pollen, and have their ovaries well hidden from the jaws of their pollinators.

IMG_7494I was fascinated by how clean the water was in the Water Lily house – I had thought that, in the humid atmosphere, there would be plenty of opportunities for algae to grow. However, there are apparently fish in the water, which help to keep it clean, and the staff at Kew also dye the water black with harmless food colouring – this explains how pristine it all looks.

IMG_7491We headed over to the Princess of Wales Conservatory to have a look at the Victoria water lilies. When we got there, there was a crowd watching two workers who were in waders amongst the lilies, pulling out any rotting vegetation. It makes me feel a little guilty that I’m not doing the same in my pond, but then it is a lot warmer in the glasshouse. The leaves really are enormous, and when the Victoria Waterlily was first brought to the UK, there were publicity photos of a small child sitting quite happily on one of the lilypads, like a human frog. I don’t have a photograph of this, but I do have one of a woman standing on a lilypad at the Missouri Botanical Garden for your delectation.

Victoria waterlilies in the Princess of Wales Conservatory

Victoria waterlilies in the Princess of Wales Conservatory

A woman standing on a Victoria Waterlily pad, courtesy of Missouri Botanical Gardens. There is a towel and a piece of wood on the pad to protect it.

A woman standing on a Victoria Waterlily pad, courtesy of Missouri Botanical Gardens. There is a towel and a piece of wood on the pad to protect it.

Alongside the lilies there was another plant that looked vaguely familiar.

Lotus (Nelumbo sp.)

Lotus (Nelumbo sp.)

This is the Lotus, the sacred flower of Buddhist and Hindu tradition. I love the watering can seedheads, and the way that the petals gradually unfold to reveal the flower’s beauty. Although it lives in a similar habitat to the waterlily, and superficially resembles it, there is only a very distant relationship between the two plants.

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Lotus leaves are extremely water-resistant, and have given their name to a self-cleaning mechanism called ‘the lotus effect’. The leaves have a quality called ‘superhydrophobicity, which means that water droplets cannot cling to the surface, and take any dirt with them when they drop from the plant. This ability has been analysed by scientists, and used as a coating for such things as roof tiles and paint. The ‘lotus effect’ itself was first noticed as far back as the Indian classic work the Bhagavad Gita (probably written in the fifth to second century BCE), which just goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=364500

A Lotus leaf showing its extreme hydrophobicity. Photo One – see credit below.

By William Thielickewebsite: More pictures and bionics.contact: w.th {replace this part with an "@"} gmx.de (I would appreciate if you tell me where you use my media) - own work, Hamburg, Germany., GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3189313

Computer graphic of a lotus leaf, showing the way that water droplets pick up dirt and pollution. Photo Two – see credits below

Like the water lilies, lotus flowers emit a scent to attract insects to pollinate them, but they are also able to regulate their temperature, which increases the strength of the aroma, and also supplies the insects with a warm, cozy home on which to feed and breed.

By T.Voekler - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8142220

Lotus in bloom (Photo Three – see credits below)

With their roots in the mud and their perfect unstained flowers, it is no wonder that in Buddhism lotus blossoms symbolise purity of speech, mind and body rising above the attachments and desires of the unenlightened state. Lotuses seem to me to be full of a kind of august dignity. The fact that individual plants can live for over a thousand years and that a seed 1300 years old was successfully germinated in 1994 adds to the impression. What stately plants both waterlilies and lotuses are!

And the Princess of Wales Conservatory had one more surprise to hand.

A water dragon...

A water dragon…

There on a rock was a Chinese water dragon, a kind of lizard. He looked completely unperturbed by all the visitors who were taking his photograph, and was much more interested in a hidden rival, who he was threatening by bobbing his head up and down. On my return home, I did some research and discovered that there are nine of these creatures living ‘free-range’ in the conservatory, keeping down the numbers of pests and roaming and breeding happily away. I suspect that they are the happiest lizards in London.

Photo Credits

Photo One – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=364500

Photo Two – By William Thielicke. Website: http://william.thielicke.org/  for more pictures and bionics. Contact: w.th@ gmx.de – own work, Hamburg, Germany., GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3189313

Photo Three – By T.Voekler – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8142220

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea

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…..

Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

Dear Readers, you may often see this sweet pea lookalike scrambling amongst the buddleia between railway lines, or erupting from wasteland beside electricity substations. Here in East Finchley, it is often seen  in more weed-friendly front gardens, and if it cropped up in mine I would certainly leave it, pretty plant that it is. Unlike the ‘domestic’ sweet pea, this plant has no scent and is a perennial with a preference for clay soil, largely because although it likes full sun, it requires moisture, which heavier substrates provide. Although in its wild form it is sometimes considered to be a weed, there are also cultivated varieties which are marketed as ‘everlasting sweet pea’. It seems that the dividing line between ‘pest’ and ‘garden plant’ is even more blurred with this plant than with other species.

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The ‘peas’ of other members of the Lathyrus genus cause a kind of poisoning called Lathyrism, which causes paralysis of the larynx, excitability, paralysis of the lower limbs and eventual death. Lathyrus sativus, or the grass pea, has been a famine food in several countries, and during the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon resulted in the deaths of many poor people, as documented by Goya in the woodcut below. The cultivated sweet pea causes a slightly different kind of poisoning, which attacks the connective tissue. Although there is no evidence to suggest that broad-leaved everlasting pea has been implicated in any such nastiness, I’d certainly be very reluctant to ingest any parts of this plant, although I have seen the flowers described as edible.

'Because of the grass pea' - this aquatint by Goya shows a woman already crippled by the effects of eating grass pea porridge as a famine food.

‘Because of the grass pea’ – this aquatint by Goya shows a woman already crippled by the effects of eating grass pea porridge as a famine food.

Broad-leaved everlasting pea first appeared in cultivation in the UK by the fifteenth century, and had ‘escaped’ by 1670. I am curious as to why it was originally ‘imported’ – many early plants were brought here because of their medicinal properties, or their value as food plants or flavourings, but this plant has none of these benefits, at least as far as I’m able to ascertain. I wonder if its combination of tolerance of clay soils and nitrogen fixing abilities made it a good choice as a ‘green manure’ for improving soils? On the other hand, maybe it was brought here solely by virtue of its hardiness and attractiveness. It certainly attracted the attention of such artists as P.J.Redouté, who is  perhaps better known for his nineteenth century paintings of old-fashioned roses.

Swallowtail Garden Seeds (https://www.flickr.com/photos/swallowtailgardenseeds/14913883105)

Lathyrus latifolius by P.J. Redoute (1833) (Photo One – see credit below)

So, next time you are sitting on a crowded train heading out of London Bridge or Waterloo stations, have a look at the mass of ‘weeds’ growing at the junctions between the lines. I can more or less guarantee that somewhere there will be a neon-pink tangle of broad-leaved everlasting pea brightening up the place. It’s amazing what you can spot during a commute. It’s almost worth bringing your binoculars.

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Photo Credits

Photo One – Swallowtail Garden Seeds (https://www.flickr.com/photos/swallowtailgardenseeds/14913883105)

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

August Fox Update

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Male fox cub

Dear Readers, I must confess that I rather like walking in the rain. The cemetery is always quiet: people still need to be buried or cremated, but there are fewer dog walkers and youngsters on mopeds, and the folk that are there are hurrying through. But the biggest advantage is that the foxes are much more relaxed: they almost seem to know that people don’t like getting wet, and so they sit around, watching us rushing past with our umbrellas and our sou’westers, sniffing the air to see if we’ve brought any food.

IMG_7458The adult foxes that I have grown used to seeing seem to have disappeared at the moment: whether they’ve found another source of food, or are simply feeding at a different time, I don’t know. But I have seen two new foxes, both tall and skinny, as if they’re wearing stilts. I know that the resident vixen was lactating, and so I’m thinking that these animals are probably two of her cubs.

Female fox cub ( I think)

Female fox cub ( I think)

I am almost sure that the one in the photograph above is a little vixen –  she seems shyer than the cub in the earlier photographs. She looks skinny, but in perfect health – her tail is fine and bushy, her eyes are clear, and she still has the slightly fuzzy coat of the cub. I love the way that her coat blends with the fallen horse-chestnut leaves here. She watches me from a safe distance, and if I try to get closer, she disappears into the gravestones and brambles at the edge of the path.

Female cub

Female cub

The cub that I think is her brother is a much scruffier little animal. I spotted him today sitting out in the open in the rain, having a good old scratch. This, of course, is not a good sign.

Male cub having a good old gnaw at his tail. Time for the mange medication....

Male cub having a good old gnaw at his tail. Time for the mange medication….

He seems, on the face of it, to be a bit smaller and skinnier, and generally mankier than his sibling. He spent a long time biting at himself, and I will be medicating his sandwiches as from tomorrow. But what a character he is!

IMG_7469It’s always interesting to see caution and curiosity play out in the expression of an animal. This little guy (for indeed, he is a guy) really didn’t want to go. Maybe he’d never seen a camera-wielding middle-aged woman standing in the rain before.

And then, as if to make sure, he had a good old sniff of the air.

IMG_7470Well, I didn’t pass muster, because after one inhalation he disappeared. I don’t suppose it will be the last time that I see him, though. Things are never dull in the cemetery, even on a rainy day.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Star-headed Liverwort

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…..

Star-headed Liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha)

Star-headed Liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha)

Dear Readers, while I was doing my walk around the County Roads last week, I spotted this strange plant growing at the base of the wall outside Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was immediately very puzzled. What on earth was it? I looked through my flower books, and decided that I needed some help to identify it. Within ten minutes of posting the photos on the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page, someone had pointed out that it wasn’t a wild flower at all, but a liverwort. So, welcome to my first ever Wednesday Liverwort!

Liverworts have been around for much longer than flowering plants: fossil evidence dates back some 470 million years, and they were probably the first plants to colonise dry land. Unlike ‘normal’ plants, their tissues are not divided into roots, stems and leaves: instead there is a mass called a thallus. In star-headed liverwort, the top layer of the thallus, which is exposed to the sun,  is where the photosynthesis happens, and the lower level is used for storing the sugars that the plant needs to grow.

In the photo below, the thallus is the green leafy stuff, and this is what does the day-to-day work of the liverwort. However, I want to talk first about the strange sucker-like ‘cups’ that stud the thallus.

The thallus of the liverwort, and the 'cup-shaped receptacles'

The thallus of the liverwort, and the ‘cup-shaped receptacles’

These ‘cup-shaped receptacles’ are called gemmae cups. These are used in asexual reproduction: each cup holds a mass of cells which, when detached from the parent plant, can form a whole new, genetically identical plant to the parent. These ‘gemmae’ are detached by rainfall (or, given their position at the foot of the wall, by dog or human urine I suspect).

But what about the ‘stars’?

The stars are the female sexual organs of the plant

The stars are the female sexual organs of the plant

Each of the ‘stars’ (called an archegonium) contains an egg cell, and is the female sexual organ of the plant. In star-headed liverwort, the individual plants are either male or female, so ‘she’ will be waiting for sperm from a male plant. In the photo below, you can see the male plants amongst the female plants – the sexual structures (or antheridia) are the flatter, more flower-like objects. The plants in this photo should be able to reproduce sexually, but, with no sign of male structures for my local plant, I fear it will be down to asexual reproduction if it wants to go forth and multiply. How handy, though, to have a back-up solution to the age-old problem of passing on your genes!

By J.F Gaffard Jeffdelonge at fr.wikipedia (photo by Jeffdelonge) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The male structures are the flower-like organs distributed amongst the ‘stars’ (Photo One – credit below)

If you find yourself fascinated by the sex-life of star-headed liverwort, there is a fascinating blog by a biologist who is working with this species, and trying to discover what it is that made this species such an early coloniser of dry land. There are lots of photos, and even a film. Well worth a look.

So, liverworts have found a variety of solutions to the problem of reproduction, which may explain why they are so successful. There are few habitats that don’t have an array of these plants. Star-headed liverwort has three different subspecies, with the one that I found, sp. ruderalis, being predominantly found in man-made or disturbed habitats. It is said to be a serious ‘weed’ of pot plants, especially in nurseries,  but can also be found in the usual urban sites: cracks in the pavement, brickwork, footpaths etc.

It is a significant earlier coloniser of sites which have been burned, and in the US has been known to completely cover land after a forest fire, helping to minimise the effects of soil erosion. Furthermore, it only subsists for two to three years after the initial event, and has no effect on the subsequent growth of other plants. It seems to act as a kind of safety blanket, allowing the soil to recover and holding it together.

What a tough plant it is, and almost always unnoticed.

IMG_7361Why, though, are liverworts called liverworts? The thallus was thought to have the texture and shape of liver, and the Doctrine of Signatures (whereby the shape, smell or colour of a plant was thought to be a sign from God about what it could be used for) indicated that it would therefore be useful in the treatment of jaundice and other such conditions. The whole liverwort group are sometimes known as ‘hepatics’ for this reason. There is also a flowering plant called Hepatica (and rather pretty it is too) that was also used in the treatment of the liver because of its three-lobed leaves.

By Roymartinlindman - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31815328

Hepatica nobilis. Definitely not a liverwort. (Photo Two – credit below)

So, I am a new convert to the liverwort appreciation society. The average ‘weed’ goes unnoticed amongst us, but these plants are even more discreet. And yet, they were one of the first green things that ever grew on the rocks of our barren land, and they have been doing this for longer than any other plant. If I had a hat, I would definitely doff it to the star-headed liverwort. It is indeed a star.

By Manfred Morgner (ka-em-zwei-ein) - selbst, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=205516

Photo Three – credit below

Photo Credits

Photo One – By J.F Gaffard Jeffdelonge at fr.wikipedia (photo by Jeffdelonge) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two – By Roymartinlindman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31815328

Photo Three – By Manfred Morgner (ka-em-zwei-ein) – selbst, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=205516

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