Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Quarrelsome Gull

Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

On the first truly frosty day this winter, I headed through Coldfall Wood to the playing fields beyond. I normally view this as a rather bleak area, with little wildlife activity, but my assumptions were challenged by a flock of Black-headed Gulls marching back and forth between the goal-posts, and hammering into the frozen ground in search of worms and grubs. Every few minutes they took flight, disturbed by an eager dog or a intrepid jogger.

Gulls Crows Holly Coldfall Wood 027a Normally when I see Black-headed Gulls, they are skirmishing above a pond or some other water body. Last week, for example,  I watched them on the Boating Lake at Hampstead Heath. They were in an argumentative mood, snatching bread from the Coots, who are no mean pugilists themselves. They landed on the backs  of Mallards to tear the crusts from their beaks, and then proceeded to mug one another. All the time they yelled at one another, shrieking and carrying-on. Their Latin name, Chroicocephalus ridibundus, means ‘Laughing Gull’, although ‘Quarrelling Gull’ might be a better title.

Gulls Crows Holly Coldfall Wood 015aHere on the frozen football field they were much more subdued, however. They quartered the ground methodically, marching back and forth in little groups. Many of the Black-headed Gulls that we see at this time of year are not from the British population, which numbers 140,000 breeding pairs but from the over 2 million birds who arrive when the winter comes. Ringing studies have shown that the migrant birds come from all over Europe, from Finland to Switzerland. Birds are often loyal to their chosen wintering grounds – one bird who overwintered as a juvenile in Molesey in 1936 was ringed, and was subsequently recovered in the same area nineteen years later.

Gulls Crows Holly Coldfall Wood 024a‘Black-headed Gull’ is something of a misnomer,  of course. For most of the year, the birds have just a couple of tiny crescent of dark feathers on their heads. Even in summer plumage, their heads are chocolate brown, not black.

Black-headed Gull in Summer plumage (© Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons)

Black-headed Gull in Summer plumage (© Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons)

Black-headed Gulls, like so many urban birds, are opportunists. They weren’t spotted in London in large numbers until the severe winters of 1880/81, when the Thames started to freeze. Initially, the birds were often shot, but by 1892 the powers-that-be decided that having people discharging firearms around the capital was probably not a good idea. Londoners being Londoners, folk took to feeding the gulls instead, and one chap was noted for selling sprats to feed to the birds.

Black-headed Gull at St James's Park, a good place to see these birds at their piratical best (By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Black-headed Gull at St James’s Park, a good place to see these birds at their piratical best (By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the years went on, the birds advanced up the Thames, and found much to approve of when they reached St James’s Park. There were plenty of handouts during the day, and the birds learned to roost in the trees during the night, the first time that such behaviour had been noted. They also discovered the great reservoirs of London, and used them as roosts. They fed not only on boating lakes and in parks, but at sewage farms, landfill sites and open fields, where they can often, to this day,  be seen following the tractors as they plough. The flash of their silver-white wings against the brown earth makes me think of kinder days, when there was more left over for our fellow creatures.

These days, Black-headed Gulls nationally have an Amber conservation status, a result of a fall in population of 49 percent over the past twenty-five years. This may be due to the closure of the landfill sites which used to provide them with so much food, and may also be caused by the effects of chemical pollutants which reduce their breeding success.

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Black headed gull 2  Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Black headed gull 2 Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Although the status of these gulls is far from clear, their eggs are still much sought-after by chefs. Traditionally, they are eaten hard-boiled with celery salt, but Le Gavroche offered them in a dish described as  Lightly Seasoned Brown Crab with Gull Egg, Peach and New Season Fresh Almonds last year. To collect the eggs a licence is needed, and these are generally only given to people with ‘traditional claims’ – often those who work on large estates which include Black-headed Gull breeding colonies . The Macmillan Cancer Support charity runs a ‘Gulls’ Eggs City Luncheon‘ in the Merchant Taylor’s Hall for City professionals every year to raise funds.

Black-headed Gull eggs (By Algirdas, By Gemma Longman [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Black-headed Gull eggs (By Algirdas, By Gemma Longman [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

While the collectors claim that this is a ‘sustainable practice’ it can surely only put further stress on birds who are already, by their declining numbers, showing that they need to be helped rather than exploited. However, with the eggs being sold for 5.99 GBP each last year, there must be a very lucrative market for them. London Fine Foods describes these eggs as ‘a joy to experience’. Personally, I’d rather experience the joy of one of these:

Chroicocephalus_ridibundus_-Minsmere,_Suffolk,_England_-adult_and_chick-8Books used for this post were Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, and The Birds of London by Andrew Self.

 

Wednesday Weed – White Dead-nettle

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…..

White Dead-nettle (Lamium album)

White Dead-nettle (Lamium album)

Just when everything else is looking a little exhausted, White Dead-nettle is coming into flower. Was there ever a ‘weed’ with such pure white blossoms, or such tender green foliage? I am not surprised that all manner of Dead-nettles are being bred as garden flowers – here, for example, is Lamium maculatum ‘Roseum’…

By Ghislain118 (AD) http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ghislain118 (AD) http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’….

Lamium_maculatum_'Beacon_silver'

By Ghislain118 (AD) http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

and, finally, here is a white variant.

By Hedwig Storch (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hedwig Storch (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One reason for the growing popularity of Dead-nettle variants is that they are excellent ground cover in shady areas – few plants can survive in dry shade, but this is one family that will often thrive in these conditions. I do wonder, though, if the showier varieties have the delicate elegance of the wild plant. Sometimes, the result of breeding for appearance is the loss of value to wildlife – complicated flowers can make the nectar and pollen less accessible to pollinating insects, and sometimes the amount and quality of the food itself is reduced. However, my good friend Jo who has a pink Lamium variety in her garden tells me that it is very popular with bees, so this is not always the case.

White Dead Nettle 4bWhite Dead-nettle is so attractive to bees that an alternative name is ‘Bee Nettle’. As it blooms right into the heart of the winter, it is invaluable for those mild days when hibernating queen bees pop out to top up their nectar stores. Only a heavy bee is able to open the flower in order to get to the food, so this seems to be a case of convergent evolution, where the shape of the plant has evolved to fit one particular group of pollinators.

Lamium_album4_ies

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bees are not the only creatures who appreciate White Dead-nettle – it has been used by humans too, both as food (the young leaves can form part of a salad), and has been used for the treatment of catarrh and dropsy.

White Dead Nettle 2cThe name ‘Dead-nettle’ refers to the fact that this plant, although its leaves superficially resemble those of the Stinging Nettle, does not sting. However, as it often grows amongst Stinging Nettles, White Dead-nettle may benefit from the wide berth that its more assertive relative is given by some grazing animals and insect pests.

White Dead Nettle 4aAn alternative name for White Dead-nettle is ‘Archangel’. This is said to be because it was said to first come into flower on 8th May, St Michael’s day. However, I can’t help but think that it is because of the glowing white of its flowers, and their ethereal shape. Of all the ‘weeds’ that I’ve reported on so far, this one feels to me like the most angelic.

Lamium_album_ENBLA03

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Unpopular Tree in Britain?

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus) leaves with Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) fungus

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus) leaves with Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) fungus

When I was walking through Cherry Tree Wood last week I noticed, in amongst the Hornbeam and the Oak, a solitary Sycamore tree. As is usual in these parts, the leaves were covered in the round black scars of Tar Spot fungus, which occurs mostly when the tree is young and shaded by older plants. The fungus makes the leaves look as if a Frost Giant has squeezed each one between an icy finger and thumb. It is almost as if the tree is being punished for its very existence, because the more I read about Sycamore, the more I realise how unpopular it is.

Sycamore 12Sycamore is a member of the Maple family, as its leaf shape shows. At the moment, it is classified as a neophyte, which means a plant that was introduced after 1500. However, there is a name for the Sycamore in Scottish Gaelic (‘Fiorr chrann’) which suggests that the tree was present much earlier than that. However long it has been here, it is a prolific self-seeder, and if you want an instant forest in your back garden, there is a good chance that Sycamore will oblige.

Sycamore 'Helicopters' (By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sycamore ‘Helicopters’
(By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

For me, autumn would not be complete without these little whirligigs spiralling down from the trees like some kind of James Bond flying device. But it’s safe to say that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Take John Evelyn, seventeenth century writer, for example:

” The Sycamor…is much more in reputation for its shade than it deserves: for the Hony-dew leaves, which fall early …turn to a Mucilage and noxious insects, and putrifie with the first moisture of the season: so as they contaminate and marr our Walks; and are therefore by my consent, to be banish’d from all curious Gardens and Avenues.” (Quotation from Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey).

This ‘mucilage’ is likely to be the main culprit for the problem of ‘leaves on the line’, which slows up trains every autumn. And the ‘Hony-Dew’ is produced by the extraordinary number of aphids who feed on the tree. The combination of the two can drive gardeners to distraction. Take this posting to the RHS website for example:

“It rains leaves and now sap and insects of all kinds emerge from it. The sap is everywhere and makes all the garden furniture sticky. Birds roost in it and we have piles of you know what everywhere. So bad now that my grandson is not allowed to play in the garden as its just a smelly, sticky nightmare!”

Oh dear. I can see why the Sycamore is not everybody’s favourite.

However, it can be a truly magnificent tree, growing up to 35 metres tall and living for 400 years. The Martyrs’ Tree in Tolpuddle, Dorset, is a Sycamore. In the 1830’s the local farm labourers used to meet under its branches, and formed the first agricultural labourer’s union in England, subsequently being transported to Australia for their pains. It is said that George Loveless, their leader, took a leaf from the tree with him, pressed between the pages of his Bible.

The Martyrs Tree at Tolpuddle, Dorset (Simon Palmer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Martyrs Tree at Tolpuddle, Dorset (Simon Palmer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The insects complained about by the gardener above are, for me, one of the Sycamore’s strong points. Where there are aphids there will be lacewings and ladybirds, blue tits and bats. Richard Mabey points out that the Sycamore has the highest insect productivity by weight of any common tree: 35.8 grams per square metre, compared with 27.76 grams for Oak. This is especially useful in urban areas, where alternative sources of insect food might be hard to come by for airborne feeders such as House Martins and Swifts.

In the spring, the flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for all manner of pollinating insects.

Sycamore Flowers (Albert Bridge [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sycamore Flowers (Albert Bridge [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The leaves are also food for a variety of moths.

Caterpillar of the Sycamore Moth(Acronicta aceris) (By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Caterpillar of the Sycamore Moth(Acronicta aceris) (By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Plumed Prominent moth (Ptilophora plumigera) (By Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, Bugwood.org [CC-BY-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Plumed Prominent moth (Ptilophora plumigera) (By Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, Bugwood.org [CC-BY-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Wales, the wood of the Sycamore is used to make a Love Spoon, which is normally carved from a single piece of wood by a young man to give to his beloved. This was an indication to the bride-to-be’s father that the suitor was competent at woodworking, and was therefore likely to be a good provider, plus the time and effort involved indicated that the lover was serious, not some Jack-the-Lad.

A Love-spoon (By José-Manuel Benito (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Love-spoon (By José-Manuel Benito (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

For some people, the Sycamore is a ‘weed’, the only tree, to my knowledge, to be labelled in this way. Its ‘alien’ origins, its profligacy, its ‘slimy’ leaves and its way of attracting insects have led to a very British disdain. Poppycock, I say. We should be proud of this magnificent tree, and grateful for its shade, its generosity, its graceful flowers and its helicopter seeds. We need more sturdy, long-lived trees like the Sycamore. They help to prevent flooding by soaking up excess water. They purify our air and help to reduce the heat of the city. And with their lifespans of hundreds of years, they provide a way of both remembering our personal transcience and linking us to the history of those who went before us.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Cleavers

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…..

Cleavers (Goosegrass) - Gallium aparine

Cleavers (Goosegrass) – Gallium aparine

It is always a pleasure to welcome a representative of  a new plant family to The Wednesday Weed. This week’s star is Cleavers, also known to me as Goosegrass and, when I lived in Dundee, as Sticky Willie. I found it growing in a neglected but fruitful flower bed at the top of Park Hall Road, and was delighted to find that it was in flower in the middle of November.

The four-petalled flowers of Cleavers seem to blossom at any time of year (By Fornax (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The four-petalled flowers of Cleavers seem to blossom at any time of year (By Fornax (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cleavers is a member of the Bedstraw family, which includes a host of small-flowered scrambling plants. The name comes from the medieval use of the plants as bedding material, and Cleavers was used as part of the mixture because the tiny hooks that cover the plant held the contents together, ensuring that the ‘mattress’ thus created didn’t become too lumpy and bumpy.

Cleavers 1As a child, I remember that I delighted in attaching this plant to my long-suffering brother when he wasn’t looking. The sticking-power of this plant is very satisfying, especially if the victim is wearing a woolly jumper or a duffle coat. Indeed, I would sometimes manage to cover my sibling in so much Cleavers that from the back it looked as if Birnam Wood was once again on its way to Dunsinane. Forty-five years later, I am still waiting for the retribution that will surely come my way for such silliness.

Cleavers 3Cleavers is a plant of many, many uses.  When I was in Scotland, we would gather armfuls of Goosegrass to feed to the ducks, geese and chicken that we raised on a city farm. And in Plants Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how a combination of nettles and Herriff (yet another name for Cleavers) was used to make a beverage that resembled ginger beer.

Mabey also relates how the fruits of Cleavers were used by the lacemakers of Bedfordshire to cover the pinheads on their lacemaking cushions.

The fruits of Cleavers

The fruits of Cleavers

In spite of its hairiness, Cleavers is said to be edible if cooked before the flowers appear. But even more astonishing is the fact that Cleavers is in the same family (Rubiaceae) as the coffee plant, and the fruits can be used as a coffee substitute, though I suspect that one would need an awful lot to knock up an espresso.

Cleavers 2Cleavers has been used for a host of medicinal uses: it has been a lymphatic tonic, a poultice for leg ulcers and a mild sedative. Its hairy stems have been used as a sieve for milk into recent times in Sweden. And its roots can be used to produce a red dye – according to the Plant Lives website, when birds eat the root of Cleavers, their bones are turned red.

I have been amazed by the sheer variety of ways that this modest little ‘weed’ has been used. Today, I wonder if city children even know that they can use it to torment their brothers and sisters. We are becoming more and more detached from the world around us, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The plants are still here, just waiting to be noticed.

 

 

 

A Festival of Fungi

Sulphur Tuft (hypholoma fasciculare)

Sulphur Tuft (hypholoma fasciculare)

Dear readers, last week I went for a walk in Coldfall Wood. I was not in a good mood, and scuffled through the dead leaves, occasionally using very bad language as I slipped in the mud. However, it didn’t take long before I realised that I was being watched.

Autumn in Coldfall Wood 027A rather anxious squirrel was peering at me from behind a log, tail twitching. He catapulted me right out of my self-absorption, as I watched him leaping from branch to branch with his mouth stuffed full of leaves. I soon spotted his sleeping quarters, high in an oak tree, and realised that he was preparing for hibernation, and could do without me interrupting him, thank you very much.

Autumn in Coldfall Wood 018Well, after this rodentine intervention I felt much better, and actually woke up to what was happening all around me. Which was that Coldfall Wood was positively busting out with fungi. As is usual, once I’d noticed one kind, I found them every where.

Firstly, I noticed rings of rather non-descript mushrooms emerging from the leaf-litter.

Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis)

Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis)

Something has been feasting on these mushrooms – every single one has munch-marks around the edges, and I’m sure if I visited the wood at night I would be able to see the mice, rats and squirrels having a fungus feast.

Clouded Funnel Clitocybe nebularis 1There is something deeply mysterious about fungi. The way that they spend so much of their lives under the ground and only burst forth into fruiting bodies in  the autumn, when everything else is closing down, fills me a kind of awe.  Until this visit to the woods, I have never given fungi a second thought, but now I was overwhelmed by their bounty.

I remembered a lecture I’d attended by a mycologist, a man with a pepper-and-salt beard and leather elbow patches on his tweed jacket, who told us that fungi were more closely related to animals than plants, that they were responsible for much of the fertility of the soil and that their lives were irrevocably entwined with those of the plants that we rely upon. And yet, he said, until recently fungi had been so neglected that there was not a category for them on the Red List of endangered species.

‘Fungi are becoming extinct before we even know that they exist’, he said. Of course, this is true of many other species, but these invaluable organisms do seem to suffer from a particular level of human indifference. And yet, we ignore them at our peril.

Sulphur Tuft 6Scientists have shown that fungi have a special relationship with plants, known as mycorrhiza. Fungi colonise the roots of their host plant. The fungi receive carbohydrate from the plant, in the form of sucrose and glucose. The plants receive water and minerals, especially phosphorus. The result is that the plants are much less affected by drought, are more able to take up nutrients even in poor soils, and are less affected by toxicity. We are only just beginning to understand these associations, although they have been known about for over a hundred years.

Sulphur Tuft 2At the base of many of the hornbeams, Sulphur Tuft bubbled forth like so much toffee. This is one of our commonest British toadstools, and is said to have a ‘hot, acrid’ taste, though as it is also poisonous I decided it was best not to try this out.

Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

Not all fungi are big and obvious. Take Candlesnuff Fungus, for example. It looks like a little field of white-tipped black candles growing all over this piece of fallen wood.

Trametes versicolour - Turkeytail

Trametes versicolour – Turkeytail

Turkeytail is a kind of bracket fungus, which are amongst the most important agents of wood decay, breaking down the cellulose of dead trees and returning the nutrients to the soil. There has been a lot of coppicing in Coldfall Wood during the past year, and so there are lots of treestumps for the fungi to digest. Furthermore, an ingredient called Polysaccharide-K, which is found in Turkeytail, is said to be potentially useful in the treatment of cancer, though there is no medically approved evidence that the fungus itself is efficacious against the disease.

Where the trunks of the coppiced hornbeam trees were stacked up, they were spotted all over with Black Bulgar fungus.

Black Bulgar - Bulgaria inquinans

Black Bulgar – Bulgaria inquinans

What an interesting fungus this is, with its cup-shaped fruiting bodies of velvety brown and shiny black spores. These spores have been used in the dyeing industry, and I am not surprised – the colour is intense, and I’m sure it would stain very satisfactorily. The tree trunks had only been cut down this year, so it was interesting to me how quickly they had been colonised – practically every single log had a small colony of Black Bulgar swarming over it.

As I walked back through the woods, I discovered two more beauties.

Peppery Milkcap (Lactarius piperatus)

Peppery Milkcap (Lactarius piperatus)

This mushroom was all on its own, glowing creamy-white amongst the leaf-litter. It is said to be edible, although the process is something of a palaver, according to my ‘Illustrated Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools’ from Dorling-Kindersley:

‘L.piperatus can be treated to make it edible. This involves thorough salting, followed by marinating. Prolonged frying of chopped up cubes also more or less removes the acrid taste’.

Hmm. I don’t think I’ll bother.

Jack O Lantern (Omphalotus illudens)

Jack O Lantern (Omphalotus olearius)

Now, I am only a mycological beginner, but if I’m right about the identification of the mushroom  above, it’s one of the few luminous fungi in the British Isles. My hesitation is because this species is normally found in groups, and as far as I can see there are just two fungi growing together on the trunk of this oak tree in the Everglades area of the wood. But if it is a Jack O Lantern, this is what it will look like after dark:

Omphalotus_olearius_33857So, in the space of a few hours, my mood has changed from disgruntlement to mycophilia. I have been bedazzled by the range of forms that fungi take, and gobsmacked at my ignorance of their beauty and variety. This may be my first post on fungi, but I doubt that it will be the last.

PS. Identifying fungi to the species level is extremely daunting. They are individually variable, and many species can only be identified by taking a spore print, or by using a microscope. On my walk I was armed only with my camera, so I have tried my best to be accurate, but am very happy to be contradicted if you feel that I’ve got anything wrong. Just add a comment, and I’d be delighted to learn from you.

Wednesday Weed – Sweetbriar

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…..

Sweetbriar (Rosa rubiginosa) hips

Sweetbriar (Rosa rubiginosa) hips

When I first decided to write the Wednesday Weed, I must confess that I had not given much thought to what would happen in winter, when very few plants are flowering, and many have disappeared altogether. Today, I walked around Coldfall Wood with a heavy heart, looking at the Brambles  and the Ivy   that I have already written about, and wondering what I would find that would be interesting. In some desperation, I slipped along the muddy path into the Cemetery  and realised that there was enough inspiration here for the whole of the winter and beyond.

Autumn in Coldfall Wood 039Tumbling over one of the gravestones was a shrub of Sweetbriar (Rosa rubiginosa). It had no flowers, and barely any foliage, and yet the hips were characteristic – they have very long sepals (the dangly bits at the bottom of the fruit), and when viewed from below, the hips look a little like a cone-headed alien parachuting to the ground.

Hip of Sweetbriar viewed from below (By Schnobby (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Hip of Sweetbriar viewed from below (By Schnobby (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

According to Harrap’s Wild Flowers, there are glands on the stems and leaves which give off a ‘delicious apple-and-cinnamon scent’. How I wished I’d thought to test this out! I will make a return visit soon to see if the plant retains its perfume this late in the year.

Sweetbriar flowers in June and July, and its blossoms are much pinker than those of the commoner Dog Rose.

Sweetbriar with beetle visitor (By Meneerke bloem (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sweetbriar with beetle visitor (By Meneerke bloem (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sweetbriar is the Eglantine of Shakespeare and other early poets, who often contrasted its sweetness with the sharpness of its thorns, as in this poem by Richard Herrick (1591 – 1674).

The Bleeding Hand

From this bleeding hand of mine,
Take this sprig of Eglantine:
Which, though sweet unto your smell,
Yet the fretful briar will tell,
He who plucks the sweets, shall prove
Many thorns to be in love.

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however,  the plant is all drowsy seductiveness:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.”

Sweetbriar in bloom (By Rosa_rubiginosa_mit_einigen_Knospen.jpg: Sebastian Bieber derivative work: Bff (Rosa_rubiginosa_mit_einigen_Knospen.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sweetbriar in bloom (By Rosa_rubiginosa_mit_einigen_Knospen.jpg: Sebastian Bieber derivative work: Bff (Rosa_rubiginosa_mit_einigen_Knospen.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

When I was growing up, rose hips, such as those from the Sweetbriar, were a valuable source of vitamin C, and I remember looking forward to my daily spoonful of Delrosa Rose Hip Syrup. Since the 1930’s it had been known that a cup of Rose Hip pulp had more vitamin C than 40 oranges, and during the Second World War, when citrus fruits were difficult to come by, the Ministry of Health instigated a scheme for voluntary collection of the hips. These were turned into syrup, and distributed to small children. Collection continued until the 1950’s, and the syrup was considered a valuable dietary supplement for many years. Plus, unlike many such products, it was delicious. If you would like to learn more (including how to make your own Rose Hip Syrup), I can recommend the Wartime Recipes website – a real delight. Who could resist Patriotic Pudding (key ingredients potato, fat and carrot?)

Autumn in Coldfall Wood 038The one thing that slightly concerns me about finding Sweetbriar in the cemetery is that it shouldn’t really be here. It tends to be a plant of chalky soils, and is not common anywhere. So, could it be that it was planted by a mourner, wanting to honour a loved one by surrounding them with its scent and its pretty flowers? Whatever the reason, its bright hips have brought back a lot of memories for me this morning, and have reminded me that although there is not the abundance of plant activity in autumn and winter that there is in the warmer seasons, there is still lots to observe, if I take the time to notice.

 

What’s Happening to Our Horse Chestnuts?

Horse Chestnut Tree (Sannse at the English language Wikipedia [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)

Horse Chestnut Tree (Sannse at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

When I was a little girl, we used to go to visit my Auntie Mary, who lived in a Home in Chingford. Auntie Mary had a learning disability, which my great-grandmother always swore was the result of Mary hitting her head on a kerbstone when she was a child, but by the time that I knew her, she was in her seventies.  The Home was a grand house in its own grounds, but the huge, high-ceilinged rooms always had a faint whiff of boiled cabbage and urine about them. Auntie Mary was a cheerful soul, who loved nothing better than playing ‘Banker’, a card game which involved cutting the pack into piles, and betting on which one would  reveal the highest card when turned over. It could go on for hours.  We would play for pennies, and she almost always won, because in spite of her challenges, Auntie Mary always knew exactly how many coins she had, and had an unerring instinct for which was the winning pile. When she was a young girl and was sent out to do the errands, she always knew when people were trying to cheat her, even though she was able to do little about it.

Conkers (By Solipsist (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Conkers (By Solipsist (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

My younger brother and I loved Auntie Mary, with her institutional hair cut and toothless grin, but the place itself scared us. We didn’t understand why someone was always screaming, or why there was an old lady sitting in an armchair, a white strand of spittle dangling from the corner of her mouth. And when things got too much, Dad would take us outside. In the grounds was the most magnificent Horse Chestnut tree. In the winter, there would be conkers. In the summer, the tree would be full of blossom, looking like a Christmas tree covered in candles.

Horse Chestnut blossom 'Candles' - via Wiki, attribution uncertain.

Horse Chestnut blossom ‘Candles’ – by Karel Jakubec.

Horse Chestnut blossom (By William N. Beckon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Horse Chestnut blossom (By William N. Beckon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Poor Auntie Mary, who never asked for a single thing out of life except for the occasional card game and a hug from my father (who she doted on), died unexpectedly following complications from a cataract operation. I never see a Horse Chestnut tree without thinking of her, and so I have been horrified at the state of many of the Horse Chestnut trees that I’ve observed over the past few years. Here, for example, is one that grows just inside Coldfall Wood in East Finchley.

Horse Chestnut in Coldfall Wood

Horse Chestnut in Coldfall Wood

The leaves of the tree have not just turned brown, they have turned to a crisp. Furthermore, although we are now in November, this has been happening for months. Let’s have a closer look at the leaves of another Horse Chestnut that I found further into the wood:

Horse Chestnut Ivy 005Horse Chestnut trees are under siege from several directions. The first is via a fungus called Guignardia aesculi, which was first reported in 1935. It first appears in June, and causes blotches which are often outlined in yellow, as in the leaves above. However, the trees have largely learned to live with this fungus. The real problem is a more recent invader.

Leaf showing infestation by Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner

Leaf showing infestation by Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner

Horse Chestnut Leaf-miner, Cameraria ohridella, first arrived in the UK in 2002. It is a micro-moth, and its caterpillars burrow between the layers of the leaf, usually between the veins – in the photo above, you can see that the leaves have become transparent, with a little black blob indicating a pupa. The new moths emerge in May. The infestation starts at the bottom of the tree and spreads up, causing the leaves to shrivel and turn brown. This leads to early leaf fall. Although this is not fatal, it makes the trees unsightly, and greatly shortens their period of leaf growth. As if this was not enough, the size of the nuts is also reduced, disappointing any children old-fashioned enough to like a game of conkers alongside their online activities.

Adult of Cameraria ohridella. Taken by Soebe in Northern Germany and released under GNU FDL.

Adult Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner. Taken by Soebe in Northern Germany and released under GNU FDL.

Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner pupa 9By Varel from czech wikipedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner pupa 9By Varel from czech wikipedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner Caterpillar (By Claude Debrauer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner Caterpillar (By Claude Debrauer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

So, what can be done? One thing that many local councils are doing is to gather up the fallen leaves and burn them – this will reduce the number of moth pupae that hatch and produce new moths. Birds, especially tits, have been seen eating the caterpillars, and may be responsible for munching up between two and four percent of the insects.

Blue Tit feeding on Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner caterpillars (By Rafał Konieczny (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Blue Tit feeding on Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner caterpillars (By Rafał Konieczny (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the final answer may come from a much smaller predator. There are hopes that parasitoid wasps may find the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner to their liking, and that they will start to increase their numbers as they discover how much tasty protein is lurking between the layers of the leaves. There is also evidence that some trees have immunity to the Leaf Miner, and suffer to a much lesser extent.

Eulophid (parasitic) wasp attacking a caterpillar (not a Leaf Miner in this case) via Stephen Ausmus at United States Dept of Agriculture.

Eulophid (parasitic) wasp attacking a caterpillar (not a Leaf Miner in this case) via Stephen Ausmus at United States Dept of Agriculture.

The Forestry Commission emphasise that there is no reason to destroy a tree with a Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner infestation – although unsightly, the hope is that gradually a balance between predator, prey and natural immunity will develop. There is some evidence that the degree of parasitism is increasing in areas like London, where the Leaf Miner has been present for the longest time.  In the meantime, we will have to wait, and hope that our Horse Chestnut trees are soon healthy and magnificent again, as they were in the days when Auntie Mary was alive.

Lone Horse Chestnut Tree on the Ashridge Estate  © Copyright Paul Buckingham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Lone Horse Chestnut Tree on the Ashridge Estate © Copyright Paul Buckingham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence