Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Skin of the Earth

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Mosses are all around us.They form a green grid between the paving slabs, slather the bark of trees, pop up in our lawns and yet they are either barely noticed or considered a nuisance.  However, moss is invaluable, for many reasons. It is one of the first plants to colonise bare land following a natural disaster, and helps to hold the scanty soil together in places where it would otherwise just be washed away. It holds water and nutrients, and provides an ecosystem for the small creatures that bigger animals feed on – springtails, tardigrades and all kinds of other invertebrates.

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Moss grows in inhospitable places where other plants would struggle to gain a foothold. All they need is a little water now and again. Note how the mosses here are growing in the concavities in the rock.

Last week, I went to a talk given by Fred Murphy, a moss expert at the Natural History Museum. We went out into the Wildlife Garden, which contains all manner of habitats in a tiny space. He explained to us that mosses (and liverworts) are collectively known as Bryophytes. They are different from other plants because they don’t have mechanisms for transporting water and nutrients around (the xylem and phloem that I remembered from my O Level Biology classes), and they don’t have true roots, so they have to live in environments that are damp for at least some of the time. Hence, the mosses in your lawn probably indicate poor drainage.  They also don’t have flowers or seeds: instead they have spores. But although they are sometimes described as ‘primitive’  they have been around in this form for a very long time, probably at least 470 million years, and have been remarkably successful.

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The UK is a moss ‘hot spot’. It has over 1100 species, 8% of all the mosses in the world, which is not bad for such a tiny country. On the other hand, our flowering plants are a rather pathetic bunch compared with those in similar habitats in continental Europe – we have only 8% of the plants that they do. Why is this? Fred explained that the last Ice Age had killed off a lot of our flora, scouring it from the face of the land. The mosses, though, were much tougher, and the damp, cold conditions suited them. Although superficially similar, all you need to identify 700 out of the 1100 species is a simple x10 hand lens. Plus, you are never really alone when you’re a moss-spotter because they pop up everywhere.

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Mosses and lichens on a fence-rail in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Everywhere, that is, except where there is a lot of atmospheric pollution. The Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum is right next to Cromwell Road, one of the main routes out of London and into the West Country. It is used by a lot of buses and taxis, all of them belching out diesel fumes and particulates. Furthermore, there are several sets of traffic lights, and starting and stopping a vehicle causes a burst of pollution. Because of this, many of the mosses that grow in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I took many of these pictures, would not survive. The absence of certain species of mosses is an indicator that the air quality is not good for anything that breathes it.

Acrocarp mosses look like tiny trees, and are upright in habit

Acrocarp mosses look like tiny trees, and are upright in habit

There are two main kinds of moss. Some, like the one above, are called Acrocarps – they look like tiny upright tufty trees, and are slightly more ‘primitive’ than the creeping, sprawling Pleurocarps like the one below.

 

Pleurocarp, with ash key and unidentified plant

Pleurocarp, with ash key and unidentified plant

All mosses need water in order to reproduce. They produce both sperm and eggs, and the sperm needs to swim across the mat of moss (the leafy bit is known as the Gametophyte) in order to reach the female parts of the plant. Once there, a capsule is produced (the Sporophyte), and it is these that we sometime see rising like the heads of a dinosaur from the green sea of the moss.

Moss gametophyte (the leafy bit) and sporophyte (the capsules containing the spores)

Moss gametophyte (the leafy bit) and sporophyte (the capsules containing the spores)

The capsules are sealed tight with little rows of teeth, which are sensitive to the weather conditions, and which will open, sometimes explosively, when the spore inside the capsule is ripe. In some mosses, the spore is catapulted up to eight inches away from the plant, a phenomenal distance when you consider how tiny the plant is.

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The tiny green capsules are visible below – they look like miniature grapes

Moss has a number of uses for human beings, as well as for the environment. It is a major component of peat, which as we know is used for fuel, for compost and in the whisky industry. It is used in floristry, where its ability to absorb up to twenty times its weight in water makes it a useful medium for keeping cut flowers fresh. However, Fred did mention that sometimes great boulders of moss are simply taken from Beech woods, where sometimes they have taken hundreds of years to grow. I am reminded of Theodore Roethke’s poem.

Moss-Gathering, by Theodore Roethke

To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top, —
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had commited, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.

IMG_1686Moss was used as a first-aid dressing for the wounds of soldiers during the First World War, where it was considered to be more hygienic than many of the bandages that were available. It has also been used traditionally for bedding, for nappies and for menstruation, and for insulation, both in the walls of longhouses and inside clothing – Otzi, the Iceman found in the Alps who was estimated to have died 3300 years ago, had moss-lined boots.

IMG_1668In the rural UK, Fontinalis antipyretica, which grows in rivers and absorbs a lot of water, was used to put out fires (‘antipyretica’ means ‘against fire’)

Fontanalis antipyretica

Fontanalis antipyretica

Looked at closely, moss seems to me to be a world in miniature, a little forest of fronds where ferocious spiders and mites prowl, where capsules erupt and raindrops are held like little ponds. It truly is one of the unnoticed things that holds the world together.

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Wednesday Weed – Loddon Lily

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…..

Loddon Lily (also known as Summer Snowflake) Leucojum aestivum

Loddon Lily (also known as Summer Snowflake) Leucojum aestivum

Dear readers, most of the plants that I write about in the Wednesday Weed are not unusual: they are the kind of flowers that might crop up in any urban area, and are all the more precious for their resilience and unexpected beauty. But I was astonished to be led to this plant by my botanical friend. It was growing in a damp corner of St Pancras and Islington cemetery, all on its own and far from any graves. Known as Loddon Lily or Summer Snowflake, you might initially mistake it for a Snowdrop with its white flowers, each petal kissed with green. But a closer look shows that the structure of the flower is quite different.

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The petals of the Loddon Lily are all of equal length.

"Snowdrop 'Viridi-Apice'" by Schnobby - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snowdrop_%27Viridi-Apice%27.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Snowdrop_%27Viridi-Apice%27.jpg

The petals of the Snowdrop feature three long petals, and three short ones (“Snowdrop ‘Viridi-Apice'” by Schnobby – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

There are two species of Snowflakes in the UK: the Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum), which is not native and which normally has only one flower head per stem, and the Loddon Lily (or Summer Snowflake), which has multiple heads and is generally considered to be native, although it is also cultivated, which complicates matters somewhat.  The plant is named for the river Loddon in Berkshire – the seedpods of the plant can inflate, which means that they can be dispersed by streams and rivers, and accounts for the thick stands of Loddon Lily on the riverbank. The plant is so beautiful that it is the County Plant of Berkshire – Geoffrey Grigson, who wrote a book called ‘The Englishman’s Flora’ (1958) amongst many, many other works on natural history, described the Summer Snowflake thus:

‘White flowers hanging in severe purity from long stems’.

Who knew that we even had County Plants? To find out what yours is (if you live in the UK), have a look at the Plantlife site here and click on your area. IMG_1650One thing that gave me a little pause when I came to investigate this plant was that it was in flower in mid-March. All my books tell me that it shouldn’t come into flower until April or May. As usual, the plant appears not to have read them. However, my botanists’ group was unanimous in their identification of the plant, and some reported early flowering in their ‘patches’ too. Maybe our mild winter (in the south of the UK at any rate) has encouraged the plants into early bloom. This is much appreciated by the early bees that are just about beginning to appear now.

Hairy-footed Flower Bee and Summer Snowflake ("Hairy-Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) on Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum)" by Charlesjsharp - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hairy-Footed_Flower_Bee_(Anthophora_plumipes)_on_Spring_Snowflake_(Leucojum_vernum).JPG#/media/File:Hairy-Footed_Flower_Bee_(Anthophora_plumipes)_on_Spring_Snowflake_(Leucojum_vernum).JPG

Hairy-footed Flower Bee and Summer Snowflake (By Charlesjsharp – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The inside of the Loddon Lily flower is a combination of white, green and gold. Notice that you can see the green mark inside the flower as well as outside (another thing that distinguishes it from the Snowdrop).

IMG_1644According to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, the Summer Snowflake has been used to adorn church altars, and in the May Day celebrations, though there is some evidence that the cut flowers have an obnoxious smell. Best to leave them where they are, I think. It’s sad how often blooms that look wonderful on the plant turn to sad, wilted objects when they’re picked.

IMG_1651Summer Snowflake has not escaped the attentions of the pharmaceutical industry. In Bulgaria, it is harvested on an industrial scale to extract a chemical called Galanthamine, used to make drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. A scientific study by L. Georivaa has shown that the bulbs which contain the chemical also contain a very variable range of other helpful compounds, and recommends the better management of wild populations and the careful cultivation of the plants, both to ensure a sustainable supply and to provide time to look at the other uses that these compounds might have. You might think that this would be common sense, but as we know, there is a universal tendency by big business to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Let’s hope that we can develop a reciprocal relationship with this elegant plant, whereby we make use of its gifts without wiping it off whole swathes of the planet. It doesn’t seem a lot to ask.

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Waterloo Station

IMG_1604Dear Readers, when I was at Waterloo Station last week waiting for a train, I was very impressed by the cheek of the local pigeon population. No sooner had I found a seat than a bird descended to peck over the rubbish left by the previous occupant. Before long, s/he was joined by a couple of friends. The man clearing the tables half-heartedly waved them away, but they were back within seconds, clearing up the almost invisible crumbs left behind.

IMG_1609What always worries me about urban pigeons is that they are often in a very sorry state. The first bird to arrive was in excellent condition. His feathers were smooth, his orange eyes were bright and, most importantly, his feet were perfect.

IMG_1603IMG_1602But this couldn’t be said for the other two birds.

IMG_1610IMG_1614I have always been curious about why feral pigeons end up in such terrible condition. There are several theories: bacterial infection, chemicals used to deter the birds from landing on prized stonework, or even hereditary diseases. But one look at these individuals and it’s quite clear that what’s happened here, at least, is that the feet have become entangled in some kind of thread. This will tighten, attract other rubbish and infections, and eventually lead to the loss of toes or even the whole foot. How they become so enmeshed in the first place is another question.

IMG_1616I suspect that some of it occurs when pigeons attempt to land in places protected by fine netting. This is used to dissuade the birds from roosting or nesting on buildings, or to protect garden crops. They may pick up some thread when they pick through litter as well – something as fine as a human hair is enough to cause damage. Add to that the ‘anti-pigeon’ chemicals which are used to dissuade the birds from landing, and the sticky coffee spills that they often trudge through, and this is enough to form a kind of terrible shoe that will make it more and more difficult for the bird to preen or even to walk.

IMG_1618I suppose the question is, does anybody care? Most of our public spaces operate a kind of Arms War against pigeons. Let’s have a look at some of the anti-pigeon measures here in the station.

Extremely ineffective model hawk on top of the cafe at Waterloo

Extremely ineffective model hawk on top of the cafe at Waterloo

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A fine array of anti-pigeon spikes

More anti-pigeon spikes. With a baby pigeon sitting behind them.

More anti-pigeon spikes. With a baby pigeon sitting behind them.

About thirty years ago, my mother was sitting in Finsbury Square in London having her lunch. As usual, she was sharing it with the pigeons. One had thread tangled around one of its feet. As my mother watched it hobbling about, she felt that she had to do something. She had a pair of nail scissors in her bag, but being on the verge of retirement she was not quick enough to catch the bird. Plucking up her courage, she approached a besuited chap sitting on a nearby bench.

“Excuse me,” she said, “but that poor pigeon is all tangled up. If you could just hold it for a minute, I could cut the thread off very easily. Will you help me?”

He looked at her for a long minute, as if trying to work out if she was serious.

“Touch that?” he said. “You must be mad”.

And so, in a single exchange, we see that the world is divided into those who think of pigeons as living creatures, and those who think of them as ‘feathered rats’.

There are some vets who will help feral pigeons, should you find a bird that needs help, and there is also Dove and Pigeon Rescue, which has a lot of useful information not just about feral pigeons, but also about collared doves, woodpigeons and our rarer native species.

Feral pigeons remind me of Dickensian urchins, always alert to an opportunity. In Waterloo, they wait amongst the anti-pigeon spikes, watching one another and snatching up the smallest, briefest chance of food. They are marginal in every sense, unloved and unwanted. We love most things with wings: angels, cherubs, robins, eagles, even doves. But pigeons are an exception. Maybe, as we flap at them with our newspapers and shove them away with our feet, we’re seeing our own worst fears – of being outcast, homeless and forced to hassle for a living.

I was once on a bus travelling along Euston Road, when it came to a sudden halt. There in the middle of the road was an elderly lady. She wore plastic bags over her sandals, and was shouting to herself, occasionally stopping dead to harangue some invisible enemy. But circling over her head was a flock of pigeons, accompanying her as she walked like an aerial guard of honour. When she finally slumped on to a bench, they descended around her as she pulled bread from her pockets and began to feed them, gesturing at particular birds and admonishing others. As the bus pulled away, I looked back to see her finally settling back, her face calm, as the birds pecked around her feet. I had no doubt that the pigeons knew her, just as she knew them, and that there was a kind of fellowship between them. We are all just struggling animals, trying to survive the vicissitudes of life, but it takes a hard-earned wisdom to recognise the fact.

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Wednesday Weed – Lesser Celandine

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

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Dear readers, my last visit to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery involved an unexpected detour. One of the heavily wooded paths in the older part of the graveyard was blocked by a massive fallen beech tree. As my friend , as agile as an anorak-clad mountain goat, clambered over the branches and found a way through, I slid down a muddy incline,into the middle of this mass of heart-shaped leaves. A little investigation showed that this was Lesser Celandine, normally one of the earliest woodland plants to flower. Gilbert White, the nature diarist of Selborne, records it flowering on 21st February, but mine were still not in bud in early March. However, one of the plant’s vernacular names is Spring Messenger, which gives some indication of its precocity.

Lesser Celandine in flower (By Alvals (Own work) [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)

Lesser Celandine in flower (By Alvals (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The plant is a member of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family. This is a group which prefers damp habitat,  which may explain why the  Latin meaning of Ranunculus is ‘little frog’. Like many buttercups, It can certainly spread when in the right situation. The tubers easily break off from the roots in disturbed situations, such as cemeteries which are trampled by eager middle-aged lady plant hunters. A subspecies, Ranunculus ficaria bulbifer, produces little bulblets at the junction of its leaves, which can be accidentally transported by walkers, dogs and wildlife. In its native range (the whole of Europe and West Asia)  it grows where few other plants can survive and is more of a boon than a problem. However, it is yet another ‘weed’ which is described as ‘invasive’ in other places. For example, it has been imported to North America, where its early flowering and spreading habit means that it can smother more ephemeral native plants.

Lesser Celandine advancing across the forest floor.

Lesser Celandine advancing across the forest floor.

The name ‘Celandine’ is interesting. In the UK, there is the Lesser Celandine and the completely unrelated Greater Celandine, which will undoubtedly be a subject for a future post, as there is a great mass of it growing at the side of my house (I like to have a few ‘weeds’ up my sleeve in case domestic emergency or sheer laziness stop me from walking in the woods or the cemetery). Just to say here that the name Celandine derives from Chelidon, the Greek name for the swallow. This works for Greater Celandine, which flowers at about the same time as the swallows arrive, but Lesser Celandine flowers much earlier. I suspect that someone back in antiquity got confused because the flowers of both plants are yellow, and look superficially similar. Either that or, as Richard Mabey suggests, the plant was seen as a kind of ‘vegetable swallow’, a harbinger of spring.

Flower of the Greater Celandine. Doesn't look much like that of Lesser Celandine to me (By Alvesgaspar (Own work (own photo)) [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)

Flower of the Greater Celandine. Doesn’t look much like that of Lesser Celandine to me (By Alvesgaspar (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

IMG_1493Now, let us return to the Doctrine of Signatures. As you might remember, this was a belief that God had put a sign on plants that were useful to human beings. The buds of Nipplewort, for example, are shaped like nipples, and so the plant was said to be good for all kinds of things related to breast feeding. Have a look at the picture below, in particular the roots of the plant, and see if you can guess what Lesser Celandine was said to be good for.

Do those roots remind you of anything?

Do those roots remind you of anything?

One of Lesser Celandine’s alternative names was Pilewort, and it was used to treat hemorrhoids. In Germany, it is known as Scurvygrass, and was harvested because its leaves are rich in Vitamin C. As it appears so early, it must have been a blessing to eat something green just as winter was coming to a close, and the cupboard was bare. In Russia, the dried herb is also used for a variety of ailments.

Wordsworth loved Lesser Celandine, and wrote three poems about it. This is part of my favourite of the three, which sums up a little how I feel about all the ‘weeds’ that I write about every week.

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit !
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost show they pleasant face
On the moor and in the wood,
In the lane; — there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ‘t is good enough for thee.

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

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

Wordsworth wanted the Lesser Celandine to be depicted on his tomb, as it was his favourite flower. Unfortunately, the stone mason carved images of the Greater Celandine, which is not, as we’ve seen, the same thing at all.

Note the 'wrong' Celandine on the right hand side of the monument. (John Salmon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Note the ‘wrong’ Celandine on the right hand side of the monument. (John Salmon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

 Richard Mabey, in his magisterial ‘Flora Britannica’, notes that Wordsworth made the following field note about the Lesser Celandine.

‘It is remarkable that this flower, coming out so early in the Spring as it does, and so bright and beautiful, and in such profusion, should not have been noticed earlier in English verse. What adds much to the interest that atttaches to it is its habit of shutting itself up and opening out according to the degree of light and temperature of the air’.

And this is exactly what the plant does. Wordsworth was a great walker and observer of nature and, although unfashionable at the moment, had a deep love of his local area and of the plants and animals that lived there. He was a man with a big heart, and a great and enduring spirit, as so many poets are, but he was also modest and reclusive, How appropriate that he should have been so fond of this little, unobtrusive flower.

Lesser Celandine flowers closing as the sun sets ( © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Lesser Celandine flowers closing as the sun sets ( © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

 

The Liminal Frog

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Common Frogs (Rana temporaria) in amplexus

Frogs are mysterious creatures, neither land-living nor water-dwelling, but a bit of each. For a long time we didn’t know exactly what they were. In 1694, in France, it was described as ‘an insect that commonly lives in marshes’. Until the late nineteenth century, they were classified as reptiles, and it was only fairly recently that they were grouped as amphibians – animals which need water in which to breed, but which may live on dry land for the rest of the time. Frogs are certainly associated with damp conditions, which they need to prevent their skins from drying out, but they can be found quite a distance from water once the breeding season is over.

All through the winter, the male frogs have been hibernating, either in piles of deadwood, or under my wooden raised path, or in the sediment at the bottom of the pond. Then, one morning, I’ll look out of my bedroom window to see a cat sitting next to the water, taut with attention, and I’ll know that spring is coming, and the first frogs have woken up.

IMG_1210The male frogs emerge first, and wait around for the females to show. These are more likely to hibernate outside the pond – very sensibly because, as we’ll see, once they’re in the water they’ll be extremely popular.

The male frogs develop special bulges on their thumbs called ‘nuptial pads’. These help to hang onto the female during mating, and seem to have some kind of modified mucous gland inside, although there is no evidence that I’m aware of that they actually ‘stick’ to the females. No, grabbing and hanging on to a female (called ‘amplexus’) seems to be down to brute force and perseverance.

 

A splendid illustration of a nuptial pad, courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A splendid illustration of a nuptial pad on an Edible Frog (Pelophylax esculentus), courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The male frogs sing to attract a female, and on a warmish spring night I can hear the little calls while I’m washing up. Once a female has arrived, it’s every frog for himself. Usually, a relaxed relationship seems to develop. The female carries the male everywhere, and gets on with her day to day business. She is often full of spawn, but it might take her weeks to decide where, and when, to lay her eggs. As soon as she does so, the male frog releases his sperm, and the spawn is fertilised.

Two relaxed frogs waiting for a happy event.

Two relaxed frogs waiting for a happy event.Note how plump the female is! Hopefully it will be any day now.

Sometimes, however, things go wrong.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

This froggy sandwich has been going on for several days, and none of the participants seem very happy. Look at that tangle of limbs! My heart goes out to the frog in the middle.  I have rarely seen so much pushing and shoving outside of a Northern Line tube train at rush hour. Frog hands are shoved under frog chins, legs kick and the whole group goes round and round in circles. I managed to capture one such attempt at resolving the situation. If you turn your sound up, you will even hear them singing.

There is much about frogs which is decidedly human in appearance. Their long, muscular legs and elegant fingers have something of the supermodel about them, whilst their big eyes and down-turned mouths always look a little disappointed to me, as if life has not turned out at all as they expected. And for many frogs, dissected in school labs, used in experiments or thrown, legless into a bucket after their limbs have been harvested for cuisses de grenouille, this would be a reasonable conclusion to come to. But for millions of other frogs, living out their lives in the relative peace of back gardens, lakes and ponds across the country, spring is a glad season, full of sex and excitement. It’s followed by a chance to retreat back into the undergrowth and do nothing more strenuous than munch on slugs and flies for the rest of the year. Happy is the garden with resident frogs, chilly-skinned, golden-eyed, and unchanged for 200 million years.

By Bernie (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

By Bernie (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

Much of today’s information came from ‘Frog’ by Charlotte Sleigh, one of the wonderful Reaktion series on the cultural history of different species. Highly recommended!

Wednesday Weed – Teasel

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…..

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

On a grey, damp day at the end of February, I went with my friend Ann to see what weeds I could find in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. A stream runs along the far north-eastern edge of the area and there, silhouetted against the sky, we found the unmistakable seedheads of the Teasel.

IMG_1369Teasel, for all its grass-like appearance, is in fact a member of the Scabious family, and like scabious, it has a lot of wildlife value – I have seen whole families of goldfinches dangling from the stems and pulling out the seeds, and in summer, the flowers are loved by bees and other pollinators.

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/34739556@N04/14773481592/)

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/34739556@N04/14773481592/)

The Teasel flower itself is remarkable. In July, a band of flowers opens around the middle of the head, as below:

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (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)

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (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)

Then, gradually, the band separates into two ‘stripes’, one moving up the seed head, the other moving down.

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence )

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

For some truly beautiful close-ups of the Teasel, have a look at the photos by Brian Johnston here.

A close relative of ‘our’ teasel, Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus sativum) was extensively used in the  textile industry. The plant was used to ‘raise the nap’ on woollen fabric, particularly for such delicate jobs as treating the green baize covering on billiard tables (and indeed they are still used for this purpose, having proved to be the most efficacious way of performing this task). For anyone who would like to know more about the process, and about the history of baize, I can heartily recommend the Pegs and Tails website, which is full of arcane and interesting facts and photos.  The seed heads were attached to a machine such as the Teasel Gig below, from the Somerset Levels.

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Dried teasel head ("Teasel" by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) - Own work. )

A single dried teasel head (“Teasel” by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) – Own work. )

By the twentieth century, the Teasel gigs had been largely replaced by metal combs. However, many weavers still swear by the Teasel heads – they don’t tear the cloth as metal items sometimes do, and are, of course, cheaper to grow or to harvest. And the Wild Teasel that I saw in the cemetery has also had its part to play – though the spines are weaker than those of Fuller’s teasel, they have still been used for gently carding wool, a process that ‘teases’ out the separate threads for spinning.

Fuller’s teasel was taken to Virginia in the USA by the early settlers for their woollen industry, although there it has proved to be something of a thug. It can grow surprisingly tall given half a chance.

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In a winter garden, or in floristry, Teasels also have a kind of sculptural majesty, especially in autumn, where the low sunlight shows them to their best advantage.

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

One very interesting feature of the teasel is that when young, the leaves of the plant form a kind of continuous cup, which holds water when it rains. This prevents insects from climbing up the stem, and drowns a good number of those who try. There is some evidence that the insects that are thus left rotting are absorbed by the plant, in a form of partial carnivory – plants that have such ‘food’ seem to have a larger seedset than those who don’t.

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant ("Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant (“Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s also interesting that this is the very water that is said to have rejuvenating powers: it has also been used to remove freckles, and as an eye bath for those suffering from hay fever.

IMG_1370The structure of the Teasel seed head fascinates me. It looks a little like a small hedgehog, or some kind of many-spiked sea creature. It doesn’t surprise me at all that there is an Irish belief that a teasel head left on a grave will distract the Banshees, who will use it as a hairbrush. It is one of those plants which look almost otherworldly, a spiky character full of strange secrets and a most particular beauty.

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum  Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

A Web of Sound

IMG_1537Dear readers, when I walk into Coldfall Wood my head is often full of ‘stuff’. What to cook for dinner? How I should deal with an awkward work situation? How to project manage my parents’ accessible bathroom, where work starts next week? Some days, I think I could walk past a dragon without noticing.

Coldfall Wood Dragon Tree

Coldfall Wood Dragon Tree

But on Thursday, when I got to the coppiced area of the wood, I finally woke up and noticed that there was something new. The whole area was bursting with song.

IMG_1548

The wood was a-thrum with bird-music. If I listened carefully, I could pick out not only the robins and the wrens, singing enthusiastically from the hedges,  but the churring call of blue tits, and the ‘teecher, teecher’ call of the great tit. Parakeets flew through at speed, cackling. A magpie was racketing like a machine gun, and a green woodpecker flew past, laughing. The longer I listened, the more I could hear. It was like gently relaxing into a warm, deep bath of sound.

Having enjoyed the ebb and flow of birdsong for half an hour, I wanted to capture something of this experience for you.In the little video below, you can see one robin, but also hear another and a wren in the background.

The wrens, however, were impossible for me to film. They would pop up onto a dead tree stump for twenty seconds and then disappear, only to pop up somewhere else. The photograph below is the best that I could manage, and that after almost an hour of listening, watching and, occasionally, swearing.

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Yes, there is a wren here somewhere

But for your delectation, here are some much nicer pictures by my photographer friend John Humble.

Wren (copyright John Humble)

Wren (copyright John Humble)

Wren (copyright John Humble)

Wren (copyright John Humble)

I love the way that song seems to explode out of the throat of the wren. If he were an opera-singer, he would be hoarse in no time. There are over eight million pairs of wrens in the UK, making them our commonest breeding bird by far and yet, apart from these brief weeks of boldness they seem to exist on the periphery of our vision, disappearing as soon we become aware of a movement.  When not singing, the male makes several ‘cock’s nests’, ‘starter homes’ which are built to impress the females. If a female likes his work, she will mate with him and finish off the nest to her own exacting standards. In this way, the male may be able to have several females within his territory, all looking after his offspring. With so much to gain, it’s no wonder that he’s such an energetic singer.

As I walked on through the wood, I could feel that the pulse of life here had quickened. Two parakeets were mating on a tree branch. The woodpeckers were at it as well. Everything seemed to be in a hurry. There is evidence that more experienced birds of many species mate and breed early in the year – they often already have a partner and a nest site. If the season is bad and their first brood fails, they have time for another. In a very good year, they’ll maybe breed twice. Certainly, considering that it’s only just the beginning of March no-one is hanging around here. Every little feathery body seems to be trembling with lust.

Robin (copyright John Humble)

Robin (copyright John Humble)

I got to the stream at the middle of the wood, sat down on a damp log, and decided to just record the scene. There are robins and a wren singing in the background, plus the constant roar of the North Circular road and a squirrel nearly falling out of the tree at about ten seconds in. Never let it be said that you don’t get drama on Bugwoman’s Adventures in London.

I so enjoyed my time in the woods that, just before sunset, I popped back to see what else I could find. I walked up by the stream again, to find this robin still staking his territorial claim. I cannot imagine how many calories he must have to eat to keep up this performance from dawn till dusk, and sometimes even beyond it – a bird singing at night in the city is almost certainly a robin.

But what surprised me most, on this return visit, was the behaviour of the crows. Normally they are the most chatty of birds, cawing at one another constantly, as if commenting on everything that happens. But this evening, they were wheeling over the allotments without a sound, as if in stealth mode. I have had a sense of ritual with them before, and here it was again.

I do a lot of research for my pieces here on Bugwoman – it’s very important to me not to misinform my readers. I adore books and appreciate the vast amount of work that goes into them. And yet, sometimes what I read in books doesn’t tally with what I see. Crows, for example, are not meant to be social creatures, and yet in Coldfall they gather in huge groups, and communicate with one another all the time, either by call or by body language or by some other signal. In the end, there is much to be said for not relying solely on received wisdom. The world is endlessly new and full of surprises. All we have to do is put down our ‘stuff’ and notice.