Monthly Archives: July 2014

Wednesday Weed – Groundsel

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…..

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) (and is that a roach or a dog-end in the top right of the picture, I wonder?)

What a non-descript, retiring little plant Groundsel is. Slightly droopy (especially in the hot weather we’re having in London at the moment), it lurks in the toughest corners of the urban environment, at the bottom of walls and in the smallest of cracks. But this is one tough plant. The Groundsel photographed here is growing in a spot which was blitzed with weed-killer about six weeks ago (much to my annoyance). Dog pee, blazing sun, tiny amounts of soil and huge amounts of pollution daunt it not. The name ‘Groundsel’ comes from the Old English for ‘Ground Swallower’, and it has advanced to all four corners of the globe, probably because its seeds have been mixed in with food crops.

The light, hairy seeds of the Groundsel can travel a long way....

The light, hairy seeds of the Groundsel can travel a long way….

Richard Mabey points out that the ‘Senecio’ part of the Latin name for Groundsel comes from the word for ‘Old Man’. With its seeds attached, the seedhead looks rather like Einstein’s hairdo, but when they are all gone, it looks like the (somewhat dimpled) head of a bald man.

I remember feeding my budgie on Groundsel and Chickweed, and it is said to  persuade rabbits to feed when nothing else works. In ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams, one of the wisest rabbits was named Groundsel, which is maybe a nod to the animals’ dietary preferences.  The seeds are also taken by sparrows and finches – I tend to forget that, before birdtables came along, wild birds did perfectly well finding food for themselves. Indeed, once upon a time a certain proportion of ‘weeds’ such as Groundsel were happily tolerated in our fields, and so there was plenty for birds to eat in rural areas. These days, the fields are less biodiverse than our gardens, and so the birds that are left come to us. For an agricultural approach to groundsel (otherwise known as ‘blasting it off the planet), have a look at the approach taken by Dow AgroSciences here, and weep.

Groundsel Blog 2Groundsel is a favourite food of Cinnabar and Flame-Shouldered Moths, and the Ragwort Plume Moth. In fact, the plants of the Groundsel family (which includes the Oxford Ragwort and various types of Fleabane) support an extraordinary number of butterflies and moths, and a partial list is included here

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar By joost j. bakker [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar By joost j. bakker [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Flame-shoulder moth By picture taken by Olaf Leillinger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Flame-shoulder moth By picture taken by Olaf Leillinger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

So, the main habitats of this ancient weed are now our city streets and brownfield sites, our railway sidings and wastelands. This is why these sites can be so important, particularly for insects. At least on a derelict site, there are unlikely to be regular applications of insecticides and herbicides. Our greatest biodiversity is not found in ‘the countryside’ anymore, but in those marginal areas that have not (yet) been developed. It’s important to remember that a Cinnabar Moth caterpillar doesn’t care what an area looks like, just that it has enough to eat. For some more information about Brownfield sites, and why they are important to insects , I can recommend this article from Buglife, a charity worthy of support by anyone who cares about our invertebrate neighbours.

Groundsel blog 3





The Underwater Jungle

Pond Skater

Pond Skater

The calm surface of the pond in my garden hides all manner of creatures, and once in a while, I like to take a look to see how everyone is getting on, and who has turned up. There is nowhere in the garden that illustrates so easily the different levels of the ‘web of life’, and a short spell of pond dipping often turns up all kinds of creatures.

Starting at the top, I found some pond skaters. What voracious predators they are – they can detect the slightest tremor in the surface of the water through their legs, and can move at extraordinary speed when some poor unfortunate insect ditches into the pond. Often, half a dozen will head towards the source of the commotion at once, and then all of them will puncture their prey with their long, sharp mouthparts. They are the closest animals in the garden to wolves, and are, to me, just as graceful, although they skate on the surface tension rather than lope through the pine forest.

The common backswimmer is another predatory bug which is said to be able to puncture the skin of an unwary human. Last year I found lots of the pallid, blue-eyed nymphs, which are miniature versions of the adults, but haven’t seen any yet this year.

Water Boatman

Common Backswimmer

This seems to have been a pretty good year for frogs – certainly every netful of water had half a dozen tadpoles in it. I find it interesting that they develop at such different rates – one of the tadpoles above is just starting to develop the buds of the back legs, whilst the other one has fully developed limbs. Whilst most tadpoles complete their life cycles during a single year, it has been observed that some tadpoles actually survive the winter as tadpoles, becoming adults in the following spring.  It’s a risky strategy – an adult frog is much more likely to survive a cold winter than a tadpole – but on the other hand, if the tadpole does survive, it will have the jump (pun intended!)on all the rest of the frogs who are still hibernating when the spring comes.

Once the front legs start to develop, the tadpoles turn from a vegetarian to a carnivorous diet, and are so able to turn the tables on some of the smaller creatures that may have been snacking on them earlier in their lives. Dragonfly and beetle larvae will eat small tadpoles, and even the backswimmers and pond skaters are not averse to preying on injured individuals, so I imagine them heaving a sigh of relief as they metamorphose.





Not everything in the pond is a predator, however:

Water Hoglouse

Water Hoglouse

A while ago, I wrote a piece about woodlice, and here in the pond I find their water-living relatives, the water hoglice. They bumble about in the debris at the bottom of the pond, helping to recycle all the leaves that seem to find their way in however meticulous I am about skimming them off. A handful of dead leaves is home to thousands of the creatures, varying in stature from the size of a grain of rice to the length of a fingernail. They always seem to me to be on a mission from which they are loathe to be distracted, as they bustle through the water. The females, like female woodlice, carry their eggs about with them in a brood pouch under their bodies.

Now, have a look at this little film.

What we have here, somewhat to my surprise, is a leech. Fortunately, this is not the gigantic bloodsucking leech found in the tropics,  but an inoffensive little leech that probably doesn’t suck blood at all, but lives instead by ingesting tiny invertebrates. I didn’t notice it at first, because it  compressed itself into the shape of a seed or twig.

Compressed leech

Compressed leech

But soon it was off, looking for cover rather than prey I suspect (notwithstanding the alarm of the tadpole in the little film)

Extended leech

Extended leech

However, the commonest large (ish) creatures in the pond are definitely the snails.

Tadpoles and snails

Tadpoles and snails

All of the round shapes that you can see here are baby snails. Unless the pond is actually frozen, there are always some adult snails, swimming blithely through the water on their backs or munching away at the algae at the side of the pond. I have Great Pond Snails, Wandering Pond Snails and Dwarf Pond Snails, and the pond seems to suit them very well, if the volume of eggs that the Great Pond Snails lay is anything to go by:

Great Pond Snail Eggs

Great Pond Snail Eggs

These gelatinous caterpillar-shaped objects are actually the egg masses of the Great Pond Snail, and will no doubt contribute further to the molluscan presence in the water, and serve as a source of food for the pond skaters, common backswimmers, young frogs and dragonfly nymphs.

My pond is a source of surprise and delight to me. Who knew that I had leeches? This might not be everybody’s idea of a happy Saturday discovery, but it fills me with joy that so many different kinds of living thing can be found right here in London, in a little back garden. We are surrounded by so many wonders, all we need to do is make a little bit of space of them and they will come.




Wednesday Weed – Balm

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…..

Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Gentle reader, I think I am going to give up planting anything deliberately, because the plants that arrive ‘voluntarily’ are so varied and interesting. That’s my excuse, anyway. I have been waiting for this plant to flower so that I could find out what it was, but all I needed to do was gently rub a leaf between finger and thumb to inhale the delicious smell of lemon. Somehow, I have ended up with an enormous clump of Balm (also known as Lemon Balm) next to the Comfrey and the Buddleia.

Balm and Soldier Fly 002I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that you can use Balm to flavour everything from custard to soft drinks, or that it can be used to make a tea which helps to reduce anxiety. I was interested to find out that it seemed to reduce the damage done by persistent low-level radiation when given as a tea to people who worked in a hospital radiology department. You can even use it to make wine.

As usual, I am mystified as to where the plant came from. Most free-living colonies came originally from herb beds, and I imagine that someone in the surrounding gardens was growing some Balm, and it has escaped. I am not complaining, and neither are the bees. Although the flowers are tiny, the pollinators love them, and that alone is a good reason for making some space for it.

In the photo below, we can see how a bee sees a Balm flower. The first image is in normal light, the second in ultraviolet, the third in infrared.

You can see how in the middle picture, the centre of the plant is darker, which helps to direct the bee to where the action is. Many plants would look completely different if we could see them as a bee does.

Balm and Soldier Fly 004Well, it seems that summer really has arrived. I shall have to sit in my garden chair, watch the bees, and have a glass of something cold with a few Balm leaves in it to give a delicious tang of lemon. Cheers, everyone!

Elecampane and the Leaf-Cutter Bee

Elecampane Blog 5

Elecampane (Inula helenium)

Two years ago, a very peculiar plant appeared in my garden. It had large, heart-shaped leaves, and it grew and grew, until it was four feet tall. Then, it developed tight, sunflower-like buds, which took ages to open. When they finally did, I was a little disappointed. It was a scruffy plant, with long, tatty petals, and the centre rapidly went from sunshine-yellow to a murky brown colour. I had no idea at all what it was. Some mutant garden flower, maybe? One sunny day, I was sitting next to the plant with my Flower Key open, when I discovered that it was called Elecampane.

Elecampane blog 4I read that I was in the company of a very venerable plant. It is originally from Asia, but has been in the UK since before 1492, so this makes it an honorary native. It is also known as Horseheal, because it was extensively used in veterinary medicine. It was a sacred plant to the Celts, who knew it as Elfwort, and the Romans believed that it had sprung from the tears of Helen of Troy. The root was used both as a sweetmeat and as an effective cure for pulmonary disorders such as bronchitis and emphysema.

I looked at the plant with a new respect, and wondered how it had arrived in my garden. I have never seen it growing anywhere in the surrounding parks and gardens, and it was certainly not here when I arrived. But, here it is. And furthermore, its yellow flowers were attracting a creature that I’d not noticed before.

Elecampane blog 1Wriggling around in the pollen at the centre of the bloom was a Patchwork Leaf-Cutter Bee (Megachile centuncularis). These bees do not have pollen sacs on their legs like honeybees and bumblebees, and so they rub their abdomen onto the flower so that the pollen sticks to the thick yellow hairs on their underside. This is the only plant in my garden that they currently visit.

Elecampane blog 6Once, in the early spring, I was sitting in Culpeper Community Garden in Islington when I saw a leafcutter bee flying through the air, carrying a rolled-up leaf underneath it. These leaves are used to line the tunnels where the bees lay their eggs. They lay the female eggs first, in the inner part of the nest, and then the male eggs. The male eggs emerge first, so that they are ready and waiting for the females when they fly forth.

By Bernhard Plank - SiLencer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, CC-BY-SA-3.0-de ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Bernhard Plank – SiLencer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, CC-BY-SA-3.0-de ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Until then, I had no idea that we had leafcutter bees in the UK – I always thought of them as rather exotic tropical insects. But here they were, cutting neat circles out of the wisteria and rose leaves.

Leaf showing where a Leafcutter Bee has been at work

Leaf showing where a Leafcutter Bee has been at work – “Leafcutting 1 6431” by Pollinator (talk). – Image taken by me, released under GFDL Pollinator). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

What a series of happy accidents! First, a completely new plant appears in the garden, and then a new insect arrives to feed on it. There are lessons here for me about not being too tidy, and about growing a variety of different kinds of flowers – none of the other bees are keen on this plant, just as the honeybees have a marked preference for the Great Willowherb, and the bumblebees love the foxgloves. But above all, it reminds me to pay attention, and to be open and patient when new plants appear. It would have been so easy to just dismiss the Elecampane as ugly, and pull it up, and then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of seeing the leafcutter bees, and they would have lost a valuable source of pollen. And these days, as we know, pollinators need all the help they can get.

Elecampane blog 3




Wednesday Weed – Great Willowherb

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…..

Great Willowherb (Epibilium hirsutum)

Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum)

This plant popped up in my garden a couple of years ago, and has made itself very at home around the pond. On a sunny day, my garden has taken on the air of the neglected meadows around the Lea Valley. This may not be the look I originally intended, but Great Willowherb seems so at home here that I am reluctant to replace it with something less local.

The tallest of these plants is six feet high!

Great Willowherb with Purple Loosestrife and Hemp Agrimony

On a windy day, it sways back and forth with leafy grace, providing a moving target for the many bees and hoverflies that seem to love its pink flowers with their white stamen.

Great Willow Herb blog Bee 3The plant has the common name of ‘Codlins and Cream’, because it is said that the flowers smell of stewed fruit, but this is not something that I’ve noticed, even when I gently crush the petals. However, I am hoping that one day I will find one of these on the plant:

Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar

Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar

The leaves of the Great Willowherb are a favourite with the caterpillars of the Elephant Hawkmoth, and I spend a lot of time looking at the lower leaves and stems of my little stand of the plant. No luck yet, but be sure I will let you know if I ever do find any! In the meantime, I shall enjoy watching the bees visiting a plant whose flowers are at my eye-level.

Great Willow Herb Blog 5



Bugwoman on Location – Innsbruck

The second of an occasional series in which Bugwoman investigates the urban wildlife of other cities.

A Green Wall Lizard - not something I ever see in London!

A Green Wall Lizard – not something I ever see in London!

This week, I have been on holiday in the Austrian Alps, and decided to visit Innsbruck, the unofficial capital of the Tyrol. I found this lizard at the Alpenzoo, which is in the mountains just above the city, and which specializes in Alpine fauna. As usual, I was much more interested in the animals who had occupied the zoo of their own free will than those who were behind bars, and so I spent a lot of time watching the lizards sunbathing and arguing about who owned which rock.

A Common Wall Lizard - I think the concrete must have been hot as this creature has raised its feet...

A Common Wall Lizard – I’ve caught this one as it ran away from another lizard, it has its little feet in mid leap…

When I wasn’t searching the walls for lizards, I was watching the sparrows who had set up house in the zoo. They had made their nests under the eaves of the newly-built aquarium building:

A comfy sparrow's nest

A comfy sparrow’s nest

They used the pond for drinking water:

The main outdoor pond of the aquarium provides plenty of drinking and bathing water

The main outdoor pond of the aquarium provides plenty of drinking and bathing water

Furthermore, the Aquarium was right next to the cafe, so the sparrows were soon all around us, checking out the Sachertorte…

Alpenzoo 014 blogAlpenzoo 013 BlogHowever, the sparrows weren’t just after crumbs. They were also hawking for insects just like flycatchers, and were extremely acrobatic, flinging themselves into the air to catch mosquitoes and flies. I have often noticed that, when there are babies in the nest, sparrows cease to be purely gramnivorous (grain-eating) and start to seek out more protein-rich foods. In London Zoo,for example, I’ve seen them stripping the meat from the bones in the vulture cage, .

If there were no croissant-crumbling visitors or flying insects, the sparrows could always ‘borrow’ the food from the other animals:

The sparrows 'borrowing' food from the pigs

The sparrows ‘borrowing’ food from the pigs

But although I enjoyed watching the sparrows and the lizards, and although the Alpenzoo is a very well-run zoo, I still find it hard to spend time with animals in captivity. Here, for example, are a pair of ravens in the ‘Ravenry’ at the zoo:

Captive Ravens

Captive Ravens

I had seen wild ravens in one of the valleys only the previous day, and watched them fly and tumble over the pine trees, making their distinctive cronking call to one another. They are the very spirit of remote places, and their incarceration in the midst of their wild brethren seemed cruel and unnecessary. After all, if you wanted to see a wild raven you didn’t have to travel far. At one point, a raven landed in the trees a hundred metres away, and started to call.

Alpenzoo 020 blogThe captive ravens started to call back:

Am I alone in wondering about the role of zoos? I accept that some do pioneering work in conservation (I’m thinking of the Gerald Durrell zoo in Jersey in particular), and some become sanctuaries for animals when their native habitat is destroyed. But I think zoos often overstate their education and conservation roles, and simply become ‘Cabinets of Curiosity’, places where people can gawk and point and pull faces at animals without learning a single thing that will change their attitude to that creature in the wild.

I speak as someone who has always loved being close to animals, being able to see them, hear them,  smell them. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve wanted this to be on more equal terms – I find the thrill of seeing a bird on my birdtable, or a fox in my back garden, much more soul-satisfying than the same creature in a cage, where it has no choice but to interact. I feel that encounters with animals are a privilege, not a right, and that before we take away a creature’s freedom we should be very, very sure that we are doing it in the interests of that animal, not just to increase our visitor figures and our profit.

Wednesday Weed – Feverfew

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…..

Sunspurge and Feverfew 005

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

I am delighted to have spotted this plant at the corner of the workshop at the end of my road. Flowering away, minding its own business, is the plant that has been described as the ‘aspirin of the medieval world’. Feverfew, as its name suggests, was used for all kinds of colds, coughs and infections, and for general aches and pains. Even more excitingly, it has been proved to be extremely efficacious in the treatment of migraine, In a study of 270 migraine-sufferers, over seventy percent reported that their symptoms were significantly decreased after nibbling only one leaf a day for three months, whilst a third seemed to have eradicated their attacks altogether. If only I had known about this when I was growing up – my mother suffered from terrible, debilitating migraines, and it would have been interesting to see if this common, overlooked little plant would have helped her.

Sunspurge and Feverfew 004Even if it wasn’t so medicinally useful, this would be a welcome plant – it has a sunny, cheerful aspect, and certainly brightens up the rather prosaic corner of this small industrial site. As I stood on the pavement in my fluffy slippers, taking some photos, I was a source of some amazement to the workmen coming and going. One of them stopped, looked at me, looked at the plant and ruminated on what would be an appropriate comment. Eventually, it came.

‘It took us ages to grow that, you know’, he said, with the jolly sarcasm of the North London Geezer. I patted him on the arm.

‘You did a lovely job’, I said.



The Golden Moth


Clothes Moth Adult

Late last night, as I was cleaning my teeth, I noticed a tiny creature dancing on the dark red towel that was hanging above the radiator. I put my glasses on and leaned in for a closer look. The insect looked rather like a splinter of golden wood as it flew a few inches, stopped, flew up again. It appeared to be such a simple, inoffensive animal, but appearances can lie. This was a clothes moth, and he was unlikely to be on his own.

Clothes moths come in a variety of species. In this kind, only the male can fly for any distance. He emerges from a chrysalis and immediately starts to hunt for a female. The way that he does this is by scent – the female produces a pheromone, and he is drawn inexorably towards it. The females seem reluctant to fly : they wait for a male to turn up. Once they’ve mated, the female lays her eggs in a place where there will be lots of food.

The larvae have expensive tastes. They like wool, particularly cashmere or the fine material of an expensive suit. They seem to be attracted to spots on the fabric where there are traces of the organic – sweat or urine or dropped food. The babies munch away and voila, where you used to have your favourite jacket, you now have a doily.

They are also very partial to wool carpets and rugs. We had a particularly bad infestation when we lived in Islington, which could be traced back to some left-over scraps of Axminster that were left in the little attic at the top of the house. From there, the golden army had spread throughout the rest of the house.


By Aiwok (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The little moth on my towel continues to hop from one spot to another. When we realised that we had an infestation, we were advised to buy some pheromone traps, to see the size of the problem. These exuded the smell of female clothes moth. On the first day, over a hundred males were caught on the sticky surface of the trap. Some still waved an antenna or a leg. What could I do? I squashed those who still seemed to be alive, to end their suffering, but I felt uncomfortable, unkind. The next step was to blast the house with chemicals, which I was deeply reluctant to do but did anyway, because there seemed to be no alternative.

When animals ‘invade’ our houses, we often have a sense of disgust, almost panic. Creatures that are supposed to be ‘out there’ are ‘in here’ with us. But they are not just in the house because they like our company, or have anything against us personally, though it might feel like that on a visceral level. They are here because we have, albeit inadvertently, set up conditions for them to thrive, provided them with an opportunity. The way that we live has opened the door for them, whether it’s the flour beetles in the badly-stored flour, the mice munching on our dropped biscuit crumbs, or the moths in our wardrobes.

Clothes moths thrive where clothing is stored, not where it is worn. It takes time to generate a sizable infestation. This implies that there are clothes which are rarely, if ever, used, areas where nobody ever goes. A beautiful jacket that is no longer worn will become a haven for moth larvae, because it is never cleaned, never inspected, never enjoyed. It just hangs there, being eaten.

There are lots of theories about why clothes moths have made such a comeback recently. The winters are milder, houses are heated and are less draughty. But when I see moths in my home, I feel that they are bringing a different message.

The moths are telling me that I have too much stuff, that I am holding onto clothes that are neither in regular use, nor packed away securely to await their appropriate season. They are telling me that I am clinging onto things that I no longer need, and which might be useful to other people. They tell me what I already know – I am needlessly complicating my life. I need to simplify.

The little moth flies off. He is the only one that I’ve seen so far, but I know what I must do. Tomorrow, I will clear through the wardrobe, make sure my craft supplies are put away properly, do the laundry, send things for dry-cleaning. I will check carefully for signs of moth-damage. I will reduce what i have to what I actually intend to wear, and will find a way to recycle or dispose of the rest.

And when I look at the contents of my wardrobe, realise that I can actually see what clothes I have, I will feel much freer than I have for a long time.



Wednesday Weed – Sun Spurge

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…..

Sun Spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia)

Sun Spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia)

It was a very short walk to find the Wednesday Weed this week – I noticed this plant one hundred metres from my front door. It’s called Sun Spurge, and I recognised it from when I was a little girl, and used to break the stems so that I could squeeze out the latex-like sap. What a little horror I was! The sap can cause dermatitis, or even temporary blindness if you get it in your eye, but there was something about the thick white liquid that made me respectful of it, even as a child. Children seem to have a better instinct for what is safe and what is dangerous in the natural world than we sometimes give them credit for.

Sunspurge and Feverfew 001Euphorbias are an interesting family, with many cultivated species – their flowers are often green, and so they have an alien, exotic appearance. Sun Spurge is an annual plant of poor, disturbed soil, and once I’d noticed this one, I saw little versions of the plant all the way along the road, but only on the south side – it seems to have a strong preference for hot, dry conditions, hence its common name.

Back to the sap. Many people swear that it will cure warts, but it has been used for other, more private reasons. In Plants Britannica, Richard Mabey mentions that Manx fisherman applied the sap as an aphrodisiac, and that its name in Wiltshire was ‘Saturday Night’s Pepper’. My mind is fairly boggled at how this property of the plant was discovered, and the extent to which this playing around with  toxic substances must have led to disaster. There must have been some unfortunate accidents, as Mabey mentions that sour milk could be used as a cure in the event of overuse.

All I can say is, don’t try this at home.