Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Beauty of Weeds

 

The tatty passageway by the side of my house

The tatty passageway by the side of my house

Dear reader, please ignore the hosepipe, the bags of compost and the other paraphenalia that are cluttering up the side of my house. In the photo above, Greater Celandine and Yellow Corydalis grow, along with a couple of intrepid Buddleia, in conditions of near total darkness, and the scrappiest, most impoverished soil that you can imagine. They have appeared without any help from me, and have thrived where nothing I’ve ever planted has lasted more than a few weeks . So, what’s the story with weeds?

Many of the weeds in London are ‘aliens’.  Just as London  attracts people from all over the world, so it has a plant population that comes from many countries. Some plants have ‘escaped’ from gardens that they were planted in. Some have survived as seeds in shipping containers full of fruit or in the bellies of airplanes carrying goods from overseas. Some are not just tough but beautiful, and many of them have contributed greatly to the biodiversity of our city streets. I decided to take a walk around the block, to see what was growing in my half-mile territory.

Greater Celandine - a cure for warts?

Greater Celandine – a cure for warts?

Greater Celandine flowers early, with flowers that remind me of a buttercup, even though it is in fact a member of the poppy family. It is  thought to have been introduced by the Romans, who thought of it as a medicinal plant – the orange sap is said to be a cure for warts. It was also said to be a cure for eye infections, but actually it was a surefire way of giving the patient conjunctivitis or worse.

Another great survivor is the Yellow Corydalis.

A Yellow Corydalis surviving in a tiny nook in the wall

A Yellow Corydalis surviving in a tiny nook in the wall

It came originally from the central and eastern Alps, so it isn’t surprising that it is comfortable in a rocky, nutrient-poor home. It was imported as a cottage garden plant, because it has a very long flowering period, but it has jumped over the wall and headed off into the big city. One survey in South Essex found it in eighteen percent of all the walls in that part of the country. And how pretty it is, with its clusters of elongated yellow flowers.

The long, bell-shaped flowers of the Yellow Corydalis

The long, bell-shaped flowers of the Yellow Corydalis

I like to think that maybe the graffiti artist on this wall chose his colour palette to complement the blossoms….

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

Enough of all these yellow flowers! As I approached East Finchley library, I discovered this little beauty growing against the entrance to the car park

Common Field-speedwell

Common Field-speedwell

The Common Field-speedwell is also known as the Persian Speedwell, and it originated in the mountains of the Caucasus and Northern Iran. I am starting to sense a theme – many of the plants that live on our streets were originally from mountainous areas. This makes perfect sense. Mountain soils are impoverished, thin, and subject to extremes of weather – lots of bright sunlight in the short summer, cold and rain for the rest of the year. As far as these plants are concerned, a little crack between paving stones is perfect.

Now, here’s another blue flower.

Green Alkanet - a cheap henna substitute

Green Alkanet – a cheap henna substitute

This is a Mediterranean plant, tough, hairy-leaved and prolific. It produces a red dye from its roots, which is used in southern Europe to colour oil and to deepen the colour of cheap red wine.  It is now one of the commonest ‘weeds’ in my little half-mile patch, but I don’t remember it at all from my childhood in East London – a possible indication of the local nature of many plants, and also the way that plant populations change over time.

I can’t talk about alien plants without giving a nod to the greatest of them all.

Buddleia - a 'Harbourage of Tigers'

Buddleia – a ‘Harbourage of Tigers’

Buddleia is another mountain plant, from the scree slopes of the Himalayas. An early visitor to China reported that the buddleia thickets on shingle beside the Satani river was ‘a famous harbourage for tigers’.I have sometimes passed areas of wasteland where the buddleia has formed honey-scented forests, full of the lazy buzzing of bees. These are unique urban woodlands, magical places. Furthermore, they provide a rich source of nectar, and Buddleia may well be responsible for the survival of many insect species in urban areas

Buddleia was introduced into Europe in the 1890’s by the French missionary Pere David, and imported into the UK a few years later. It has light, airborne seed, and quickly escaped, colonising wasteland and, more particularly, railway lines. Every passing train helped to waft the seeds a little further along the line and the clinker that the railways lines rested on was a perfectly acceptable replacement for the mountain slopes of home. I have seen an eight foot tall buddleia growing from a crack in the soot-soiled walls of Liverpool Street Station, where there could not possibly have been more than a few spoonfuls of soil.

My attitude to any plant that appears in the garden is to let it be, at least initially. I have been blessed with all the plants described here, plus comfrey and elecampane, ivy and dandelion, forget-me-not and great willowherb. It seems to me that the division between weeds and ‘proper’ plants is a purely arbitrary one. If a plant is favoured by wildlife, if it is pretty or interesting, I am happy for it to stay. On a grey drizzly spring morning  the unexpected sight of a butter-bright Celandine can seem like a kind of grace.

 

A Little Visitor

Indoor Woodlouse 007As I threw back the duvet this morning my eye was caught by a tiny movement. A woodlouse was making his way over the hills and valleys of the material, a lost wanderer trying to find a nice stone to hide under. He rested for few minutes, allowing me to take this picture, but then, sensing that he was observed, he galloped away like an Oryx over the sand dunes of the Sahara

Indoor Woodlouse 002I have never found a woodlouse in the house before. Had he wandered onto my shoe when I was looking for woodlice in preparation for yesterday’s piece? Or was he a critic, anxious to point out that there were whole areas of his life that I hadn’t mentioned?

Eventually he paused, and I caught him, took him downstairs and released him into a pile of dead leaves. He pattered away, seemingly unperturbed.

For many cultures, the unexpected appearance of an animal was a sign, an omen, a chastisement or a blessing. I admit to a heart’s leap of joy at seeing this creature so immediately after I’d been writing about him. It’s easy to say that it was a coincidence, and of course it was. But the world is a little larger, a little more generous, if we hold the door open for it being a coincidence and also something more mysterious.

Indoor Woodlouse 003

Turning Things Over

A 'Rough Little Pig'

The Common Woodlouse – his Latin name, Porcellio scaber, means ‘Rough Little Pig’

When I was a child, I loved the woodlice that I found in our tiny backyard. They seemed so inoffensive as they bumbled around, oblivious to the entranced infant crouched above them. I adored them  so much that I dug a pit for them with my toy spade. When it was a crater eighteen inches deep, it was ready to be populated. I gently dropped any woodlouse unfortunate enough to be passing by into it. Surely they would be happy with such five-star accommodation? Every morning, I checked the pit, and every morning it was empty. Woodlice do like dark conditions, but they also like to be tightly enclosed, and the vast empty plains of my pit must have filled them with agrophobia. In my disappointment, I took to keeping a little aggregation of woodlice under my bed in a sandwich box. I chose to keep quiet when they also escaped from this prison. If my mother is reading this, sorry mum.

Woodlice still fascinate me. They are crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters, and are the only members of this group to be able to live on land all the time. Their big enemy is desiccation – they need to be damp in order to breathe, which is why they live under stones and other debris, and is the major reason that they are most active at night, when it is more humid. To keep their eggs and young from drying out, the females have little pouches under their bellies, which they use to hold their eggs and young. When the young emerge, they are perfect copies of their parents. In order to grow, they need to shed their skins. I had never seen this happen, so imagine my delight when I turned over a piece of wood to find this:

Pygmy Woodlouse changing its skin

Pygmy Woodlouse (Trichoniscus pusillus) changing its skin

In order to grow, woodlice have to shed their hard outer skin. This Pygmy Woodlouse has lost the rear part of its old skin, but is still stuck in the head end. I can’t help thinking that this is something of a design flaw: while all the other woodlice are making excellent speed and running away, this one is left , no doubt confused about why it was suddenly so light.

Fortunately, I mean the woodlouse no harm, and am happy to watch the drama unfold. Meanwhile, other woodlice are doing the thing that most woodlice do when they find themselves in peril:

Woodlouse in defensive posture

Woodlouse in defensive posture

Woodlice can roll themselves up, sometimes completely, sometimes in this kind of half-hearted fashion, according to species. This is one reason that they are sometimes called ‘Pillbugs’. To the Medieval mind, the sight of a woodlouse curled up into a pill-shape could mean only one thing – they were meant to be used as pills, for medicinal purposes. Furthermore, because a large infestation of woodlice in a confined space smells of urine, they were soon being prescribed for all manner of kidney and bladder problems. Many apothecaries would have had a jar of dried-up woodlice, collected by a ‘chisleps’ gatherer, who made a living from turning over stones and collecting woodlice. I imagine the delight of the patient, as he is told to take ‘three ounces of woodlice, one pint of fennel water and half a pint of horsradish water, bruise the woodlice, add to the fluid and press out the liquor’. This was said to be an ‘excellent diuretic, sweetener and cleanser of the blood’. I imagine that it required a stomach of steel.

Finally, the Pygmy Woodlouse wriggles free, and heads at speed for the darkness.

The Woodlouse finally wriggles free

The Woodlouse finally wriggles free

Woodlice are completely harmless (unless swallowed in quantity) – they live on rotten wood and detritus, and are some of nature’s great recyclers. Like many animals that eat a lot of cellulose (the main structural component of plants) they need bacteria to help them break this substance down. Unlike other animals, however, they don’t have these bacteria in their stomachs – anything that they eat passes straight through them. Once voided, bacteria can get to work on the waste material, making the elements and trace minerals available to the woodlouse. So, it eats its own droppings in order to access these nutrients, especially the copper that is a key component of its blood.

I look down at the piece of wood that I’ve turned over, but all the woodlice have disappeared. Perched on top like a Viking helmet is the discarded skin of the Pygmy Woodlouse, the last sign of the miniature drama played out here only minutes before. I put the wood back gently, to avoid crushing any of the creatures that have had their lives disturbed by my overweening curiosity. I have learned, at least, not to put them under my bed.

The abandoned skin of the Pygmy Woodlouse

The abandoned skin of the Pygmy Woodlouse

Goings On in the Pond

Male frog waiting for the females to arrive

Male frog waiting for the females to arrive

A week ago, as I headed out to the shed, I heard the smallest of croaks coming from the pond. Just a single ‘ribbit’ and then silence. But that little sound was as much a harbinger of spring as all the crocuses erupting into flower. For it meant that the frogs were waking up.

At first, the males appear. They are smaller than the females, and have spent all winter in the silt at the bottom of the pond. They can breathe through their skin if they are not very active, but as the days lengthen and the temperature increases, they need to come to the surface to breathe. The second sign of spring is the increased interest that the local cats show in the pond. All winter they’ve ignored it, but now they can sit and stare at it for hours. Jarvis is a newcomer: a very fine cat and (fortunately) not one to get his paws wet if he can help it.

Jarvis waiting to play Whack a Frog

Jarvis pretending that he isn’t interested in the frogs. Not at all.

The males are hyped-up. Their hormones start to change in the autumn, so that they are ready for action the instant the weather gets warm enough. While they are waiting, they sing to attract the females, and sometimes attempt to mate with other males. The males make a very particular grunting noise if propositioned in this way, the frog equivalent of ‘try that again and I’ll wallop you’. Once the female has laid her eggs, she will make exactly the same sound if a male tries to grab her again.

Male frog hanging around

Male frog hanging around

Eventually the females turn up – in my garden, females arrived within a day of the males’ serenade. They seem to be able to find their way back to their natal pond by smell, as the combination of the particular plants that grow there seems to be unique for each water body. Once the females arrive, there is a thrashing, roiling orgy of froggy copulation. The males hang on to the females, clasping their front feet together under her armpits in a grasp called ‘amplexus’. This can last for anything from a few hours to several days. Even capturing the frogs for a quick attempt at a picture is not enough to put them off their stride.

Two frogs in amplexus, refusing to be separated even when the paparazzi arrive

Two frogs in amplexus, refusing to be separated even when the paparazzi arrive

The purpose of all of this is so that when the female lays her eggs, the male can fertilize them right away, without any other male getting a chance to do the same. Female frogs are very swollen prior to egg-laying, and look a little saggy afterwards, and no wonder – the mass of eggs being ejected is enormous for such a small animal.

Frogs mating at the edge of a mass of frogspawn

Frogs mating at the edge of a mass of frogspawn

In my pond, the frogs have chosen to lay all of their eggs in the shallow end, where the water barely covers the pebbles. The sun warms the eggs, and hastens the development of the tadpoles inside. Each clump of frogspawn represents one mating, and can contain between a thousand and four thousand eggs.

Frogspawn so far

Frogspawn so far

Frogs are invaluable for the garden. Up to twenty-five percent of their diet is snails and slugs, with caterpillars, gnats, and other insects making up the rest. However, the garden is not always good for frogs. Research shows that they are extremely vulnerable to pesticides, which they both ingest by eating affected insects, and absorb through their skins, which are delicate and porous. Not only are they directly poisoned by these substances, but they also affect the immune system, making the frog more prone to fungal diseases and parasites. It seems ironic that our use of artificial pesticides is killing one of the creatures most able to help the gardener.

The Gardener's Friend

The Gardener’s Friend

The Grey Rapscallion

Fat Boy raids the birdfeeder

Fat Boy raids the birdfeeder

There is one visitor to my garden that never ceases to fill me with admiration for his agility, his opportunism and his sheer bald-faced cheek. Other people might complain that he’s just a ‘rat with a fluffy tail’, that he’s ‘a foreign invader’ and that he steals all their expensive bird-food. Technically, all of this is true – the chap I’m talking about is a rodent (and so are rats), he is originally from the USA, and he is an adept pilferer. But I like him. Ladies and gentlemen, the grey squirrel will always be welcome in my garden.

Take yesterday, for example. I was looking out of the window to see if the combination of pouring rain and sun would conjure up a rainbow (it did).

Aforementioned rainbow (double rainbow in fact!)

Aforementioned rainbow (double rainbow in fact!)

As I headed back to the kitchen, I noticed a rustling in the hornbeam tree in the garden. A grey squirrel was working his way down the branch to where the bird feeder was hanging from a green metal hook about eighteen inches long. I recognised him as the local squirrel Godfather. I’ve christened him ‘Fat Boy’. This might seem unkind but is really a compliment on his plump good looks and spirit of derring-do.

Fat Boy hung on to the branch with his toes and then stretched and stretched until he was hanging upside down like an Olympic gymnast. Then, he turned himself the right way up and hugged the bird feeder amorously. He started to stuff his cheek pouches with expensive premium sunflower seeds (thirty-four pounds for twelve kilos, since you ask). Something must have distracted him, because he then slipped off the feeder, leapt into the bird bath with a mighty splash, and disappeared back up the tree.

Fat Boy, about to fall into a bird bath

Fat Boy, about to fall into a bird bath

This winter has been very mild, but in 2012  we had lots of snow. I made sure that the bird table was topped up, and just as well, because it soon became clear that I had a four-legged visitor. As I stood by the window one lunchtime, I watched as a squirrel tried to climb up the wooden post that forms the base. He would get so far, and then slide back down, but he was not deterred. After half a dozen attempts, he managed to get to the top, and then to reach out a paw to grab the edge of the bird table. He swung there for a second, then managed to get another foot on, and finally hauled up his back end. Then, he sat there, stuffing his face with as much seed and suet pellets and mealworms as he could. The snow was falling, and it looked to me as if he was using his big fluffy grey and chestnut tail as an umbrella, changing the angle so that it always faced into the wind. I couldn’t begrudge him a full stomach when it was so cold and food was so hard to come by.

A squirrel takes advantage of the bird table in the snowy winter of 2012

A squirrel takes advantage of the bird table in the snowy winter of 2012

During the nineteenth century, there were a series of grey squirrel releases in London. Between 1905 and 1907, for example, over a hundred were released in Regents Park. Soon, the grey squirrel was everywhere in the south-east. The well loved red squirrel was becoming rarer and rarer, and of course, the grey squirrel was blamed. However, there is good evidence that two things were more responsible for the demise of the red squirrel: firstly the destruction of the mixed coniferous forest that the red squirrel always favoured, and secondly the advent of squirrel pox. The grey squirrel has good immunity to this disease, but the red squirrel does not. Many naturalists believe that the grey squirrel merely moved in to the niches left by the disappearance of the red squirrel. Furthermore, grey squirrels are more adaptable, and can live in much more degraded habitat than the red squirrel.

In parkland, grey squirrels can proliferate to incredible numbers. I remember a walk in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh with my mother. The squirrels came from all directions as soon as we sat down, perching on the bench beside us with their hopeful little faces, scuttling out from under hedges and sitting up on their haunches whilst surveying us for signs of potential generosity. What they really like are peanuts, preferably still in their shells, and they reach out with cold, scratchy paws to take whatever we offered. The need to feed animals seems to be deeply engrained in us as humans: who hasn’t fed ducks, or pigeons, or even squirrels? They bring us in touch with other lives,  give us a chance to be kind, and to feel part of a greater world outside our own homes and families.  As far as I’m concerned, any creature that can not only survive but thrive in our parks and gardens is welcome to ransack the contents of my birdfeeders. When I created a wildlife garden, I chose not to be too picky about which wildlife turned up.

Coldfall Wood

Coldfall Wood Coppice and Standard

Coldfall Wood, Coppice and Standard

When I enter Coldfall Wood, and close the gate behind me, I feel a little nervous. Forests are deeply embedded in our imaginations as places where little children are thrown into ovens by witches, and  wolves gobble up rosy-cheeked grandmothers. They feel like dangerous places, where bodies are buried. Nothing pleasant happens to women who dare to go into the woods, especially those with nothing to protect them but the binoculars hanging around their necks. But I refuse to be deterred. If there were more women in the woods, there would be less chance of anything happening to them. Plus the most dangerous thing I’ve done today is jaywalk across the High Street. Cars are a much bigger danger than crime, though the papers might want you to think otherwise.

A few paces into the wood, and the noise of the traffic on Creighton Avenue is already muffled. I walk down, past the information board, and along the path that winds between the twisted hornbeam trees. Many of the trees are distorted, writhing up towards the sky . For many years, the wood was managed by coppicing. The hornbeams were cut back every year and the wood used by the local people for firewood. This led to lots of slender, twiggy regrowth, all ready to be cut down again in the following year.

These coppiced trees often grew around a ‘standard’ oak tree. This tree would be allowed to grow and mature while the hornbeams were being cut back, until it, too, would be felled, to make the beams for a fine house, or even for a ship. What moves me is that the people who planted and nurtured this oak tree knew that they would not live long enough to see it harvested. It was a true investment in the future.

Coppicing ceased in the 1930’s, and as a result those spindly hornbeam trees have grown up, their canopies shutting out the sun and starving the forest floor of light. However, in 2006 it was decided to cut back some of the trees to see if it increased the number of species of plants that would flourish. It worked – over a hundred new species appeared, many of them from seed that had lain dormant for decades. One plant, the Slender St John’s Wort, has seeds that can wait two hundred years underground, before bursting through into new light.

Slender St Johns Wort

Slender St Johns Wort

This year, the coppicing is being extended. I examine a sign attached to a tree and, to my delight, I see that Haringey council are using horses to take out the logs, rather than compacting the soil with heavy machinery. I look forward to visiting regularly to see what plants are turning up, and maybe even to getting a glimpse of the horses in action.

As I get to the northern edge of the wood, I hear the sound of crows in the trees.

Hitchcockian Crow

Hitchcockian Crow

I have something of an Alfred Hitchcock moment as I look towards the playing fields, and count thirty of the birds. I had no idea that they were so sociable. In the trees overhead there are easily another forty, all cawing and posturing and chuckling. I suspect that these are young birds, pairing up and making friends.

A murder of crows?

A murder of crows?

I move on. So far I have seen one man with wraparound sunglasses and a red setter, and an elderly lady dragging a shopping trolley through the mud. Suddenly, I hear another call:

A chatty Ringnecked Parakeet

A chatty Ringnecked Parakeet

A ring-necked parakeet has landed on the branch just above me. While people are often sniffy about these foreign ‘invaders’, it seems to me that London is not a pristine environment, but one that is constantly changing and full of opportunities. A city is a hard place to survive in, and climate change will only increase the uncertainties about what can flourish here. Everything is in flux.

Good luck to them, with their lime-green feathers and chattery, sociable flights over my house every night, I say.

And then, I have a surprise.

The 'Everglades'

The ‘Everglades’

This area is often damp and muddy – last time I was here, there was a small pond. Now, there’s a lake. The water comes right up to the edge of the boardwalk, and back in January this too was under water. Two moorhens were bickering in the reeds. The water is the colour of weak tea. As this has been officially the wettest winter on record, it is not surprising that the streams and culverts that normally drain ‘The Everglades’ have been overwhelmed.

So, this tiny wood, sandwiched between allotments, a cemetery, some playing fields and a residential street, is still full of interest. As I leave and walk uphill towards Muswell Hill and a welcome cup of coffee, I think about how easy it is to overlook the pleasures that I  have right on my doorstep, and how easy it is to talk myself out of exploring. I intend to be more intrepid in future.