Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Summer Walk in Coldfall Wood

054Dear Readers, it has been a difficult couple of weeks. A fortnight ago, my Dad was rushed into hospital with a suspected heart attack and chest infection, which turned into blood poisoning. For a few days he was delirious and didn’t even know who my Mum was, after 58 years of marriage. It is so hard to watch the people that you love suffer, and to feel so helpless, and my heart went out to my Mum, who is not well herself. But praise be for antibiotics, because after ten days in hospital my Dad was well enough to come home, and is now gradually getting back to his usual wry, patient self.

And so it was a rather wrung-out, raw Bugwoman who took herself off to Coldfall Wood to see what had been going on in her absence. And after about fifteen minutes, I started to notice the extraordinary mix of flora that is coming into bloom along by the stream. First of all, there was this plant.

Himalayan Honeysuckle (Leycesteri formosa)

Himalayan Honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa)

016This is Himalayan Honeysuckle which, as the name suggests, is native to the Himalayas and south west China. I’ve noticed it a few times, not just in Coldfall but in Highgate Wood as well. It is also known as Flowering Nutmeg, and is considered invasive in Australia. Here, it doesn’t seem to be a particular problem, though it does grow to about 8 feet tall, and has bamboo-like stems that could, at a pinch, be mistaken for old friend Japanese Knotweed. Further along by the stream, the whole plant had collapsed, and I wondered if it had been unmercifully attacked. In fact, my plant books tell me that when the plant reaches a certain height, it faints away like a Victorian Lady who has glimpsed some naked male pectorals,  and then regrows from the roots.

Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)

Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)

Right opposite the Himalayan Honeysuckle there was an unexpected snack, in the form of a little stand of Raspberries. It’s easy to forget that these plants are natives, and indeed the only time that I ever contracted a tick was when I was standing up to my armpits in a patch of wild yellow raspberries in Scotland. I assume that the plants here have been transported from the gardens on the road above by the stream. At any rate, I have to say that the one in the middle of the photo was absolutely delicious, and that there is something about sun-warmed fruit that does wonders for the spirit.


019It surprises me how quiet it can be in the wood during the day, when most people are at work, the dog walkers have largely been and gone, and the children are all in school. The only bird song came from the Song Thrush, which is sad, because it means that he hasn’t been successful in finding a mate this year – Song Thrushes stop singing when they are paired up, unlike most birds who will continue to defend their territory with sound.

A Capsid Bug

A Capsid Bug

There were lots of insects about: a tiny capsid bug stayed long enough to get a photograph before flying away. Capsid bugs are ‘true’ bugs, insects that use tubular mouthparts to bore into a plant and suck its sap. Aphids are the best known ‘real’ bugs, but most go about their business unremarked, doing little damage and living out their life cycles without us even knowing what they are. If I looked hard enough, I would be willing to bet that there are insect species here that are unknown to science, as there are in most suburban gardens. For a great insight into the sheer biodiversity that is all around us, I recommend ‘Wildlife of a Garden – A Thirty Year Study’ by Jennifer Owen.


Woody Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)

Entangled with the other plants was that distinctive scrambler, Woody Nightshade, or Bittersweet. Later in the year, it will have bright-red berries that are extremely poisonous, but also very bitter – the author of the Poison Garden website, John Robertson, has bravely tasted a couple, just so that we don’t have to . One look at the flowers will tell a gardener that this is a member of the same family that gives us tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, the Solanaceae. This family also provides us with Deadly Nightshade, but that is a small price to pay for chips and pasta al arrabiata.

063Now, what would you think if you saw the plant below?

Garden Escape, or Native Plant?

Garden Escape, or Native Plant?

There are several bushes with bright yellow flowers and rather attractive blushing berries along by the stream. I took one look, and thought ‘these have escaped from nearby gardens’. And indeed, maybe they have, but the story is a little more complicated than this.


Tutsan, or Sweet Amber (Hypericum androsaenum)

Tutsan is actually a native plant, a member of the St John’s Wort family. Its name is said to come from toute saine meaning ‘all-healthy’, and it is mentioned in Culpeper’s 1653 Herbal as being useful for gout and sciatica, and for healing burns. So, while these individual plants might have escaped, this is a plant with a long and venerable wild history. Which just goes to show how much there is to learn every time I step outside, and how things are never exactly as they seem.

I turn for home.

024But what’s this?

Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica)

Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica)

What a delicate and yet upright little plant this is, another favourite of herbalists, particularly John Gerard, the seventeenth-century plant healer. This is a common plant but I had never noticed it before, so I was delighted to add another species to my list of Deadnettles. A large bumblebee was obviously enjoying it as I arrived, and it reminded me that plants don’t have to have large, showy flowers to be full of nectar.

I was nearly out of the wood when it gave me another gift.

Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata)

Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata)

When this insect first landed, I thought that it was an ichneumon wasp or somesuch, but in fact it is a very handsome beetle. The larvae spend up to three years maturing in rotting wood, and then emerge, fresh-minted like this one. The beetle visits the flowers of cow parsley and Queen Anne’s lace (and helps to pollinate these plants in the process), finds a mate and the cycle begins all over again. And indeed, I managed to get just this single shot before the beetle lurched into the air again and headed off on his reproductive quest.

So, I headed back home, renewed by more than just my filched raspberry. There is something about walking in familiar places and deepening our knowledge of them that reminds me of the process of building a friendship, or even a marriage. We see the loved one in all moods and all weathers. Sometimes, as today, the whole wood feels open and generous. Other days, the wood seems closed and morose, and I need to be patient until I see what it is she needs me to see. I have never had such a relationship with a place before, and yet it feels as true as many human partnerships that I’ve had, and truer than some. I would recommend the slow burn of getting to know somewhere profoundly, over years or decades, especially in our fast-paced, easily-distracted, superficial society. We should all have a place that has become part of our heart.


Wednesday Weed – Opium Poppy

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…..

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Dear Readers, the streets of East Finchley are currently populated by a most exotic invader, and not a recent one either. Opium Poppy has been grown in the UK since at least the Bronze Age, and is widely naturalised in our towns and villages.The ‘wild’ plant has a lilac flower, as in the photo above, but garden varietals include blooms in red, pink and white, and even double-flowered varieties. However, Opium Poppy It is easily recognised by its greyish, waxy (glaucous) foliage, its heavy-headed buds and its distinctive seed capsule, which is a wonder in itself.


The Opium poppy is the root source of all the opiate drugs, including morphine, heroin, and codeine. It is the most effective painkiller for extreme pain that we have, and also one of the most addictive.  Its very name means ‘sleep-giving poppy’. The drug is harvested both by making slits in the seed-case and extracting the latex, and via ‘poppy straw’, which is the dried plant minus the seeds. Very little of the active ingredient is produced in the UK climate, but I did once have a boyfriend who optimistically grew a patch of the plants, lovingly  harvested the sap, smoked it and then threw up for two days, so let that be a lesson to us all. Please note that it is also ambiguously illegal to grow it in the USA (for an interesting story about Michael Pollan’s 1997 experience with Papaver somniferum click here ), and totally illegal in Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and the UAE.

IMG_3005What a complicated history this plant has! The ancient Sumerian and Minoan peoples both knew of the medicinal and psychoactive properties of the plant. Much later, during the period 1830-1860, Britain flooded China with Indian-grown opium during the Opium Wars. This happened because Britain had a hunger for Chinese silks, porcelain and tea, but the Chinese were largely self-sufficient and needed no British goods. The balance of payments deficit alarmed the British, and so they started to export the drug into China. As the number of addicts grew, the Chinese Government started to impound the opium without compensation to the British.  This quickly escalated into war, by the end of which the Chinese markets had been ratcheted open, there were an estimated 12 million opium addicts in China, and the British had much improved their trade deficit.

IMG_3006Cultivation of the plant worldwide is complicated by the fact that it can be grown either for the illegal narcotics trade, or for the legal pharmaceutical trade. Indeed, a recent initiative by the International Council for Security and Development, called ‘Poppy for Medicine’ has suggested that poppies could be grown by Afghan villagers for medicinal purposes. Afghanistan is historically reliant on the income from opium generated by drug-trafficking, and also, ironically, has a shortage of opiate medicines for its own population. If controlled properly, the growth and harvest of poppies could help to alleviate both these problems, as it has done in areas of India and Turkey where the same strategy has been implemented.

IMG_3007Opium poppies also have less contentious uses. They produce the poppy-seeds for rolls and loaves, and for some truly delicious Eastern European confections, such as this Polish poppyseed cake. However, beware: a television programme called Mythbusters illustrated that someone could fail a drugs test after only two poppyseed bagels, even though the seeds have no narcotic effect. Certainly something to watch if you are a sportsperson.

Makowiec (Polish Poppy Seed cake) (By Silar (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Makowiec (Polish Poppy Seed cake) (By Silar (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

As you might expect, a plant as powerful as the Opium Poppy has a wealth of folklore, and the wonderful Poison Garden website is a treasure-trove of facts. Here, I shall just pick a couple of my favourites:

  • Vampires are compelled to count poppyseeds if they come across them, so if you are ever pursued by such a creature just scatter a handful of seeds about to ensure you can make your getaway.
  • The phrase ‘hip’ (as in ‘cool’) is not so ‘hip’ anymore, but it came from the phrase ‘being on the hip’, i.e. lying on one’s side smoking opium in an opium den.
  • Hiding poppyseeds in a bride’s shoe will make her infertile
  • Scattering poppyseeds around the bed on St Andrew’s night would ensure a dream of one’s future husband
  • Eating a cake made with poppyseeds on New Year’s Eve would provide abundance for the year to come.

IMG_3000It interests me that the sedative effects of morphine on humans are not shared with other members of the animal kingdom. Cats in particular can become more excited rather than less when treated with the drug, and it is used with caution by vets with other creatures too. For people, though, the drug seems to fit our chemistry like a key to a lock, and this is what causes the dependency that can be such a terrible curse. Few plants that I’ve written about have such a capacity to help us, or to destroy us, according to the wisdom with which we use it. It is an unexpectedly powerful plant to find growing on a suburban street in North London.


A Knotty Problem

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)

Dear Readers, a few weeks ago I was alerted to the presence of Japanese Knotweed growing beside the playing fields which border Coldfall Wood. A worried person had reported the plant to Haringey Council, because he was concerned that it would spread into the wood itself. It was reported that children were using its stems as swords, and that ‘Japanese’ ladies were taking cuttings. Naturally, I had to see this botanical phenomenon for myself.

IMG_2943Once I’d found it, I could not believe that I’d missed it. There are two stands of the plant, one bordering the cemetery, the other close to some houses on the other side of the playing fields. Each stand is about three metres tall, but what amazes me is how dense it is – the bamboo-like stems erupt within centimetres of one another, forming something that resembles a panda’s breakfast. Nothing can grow where Japanese Knotweed grows, I’m sure.

How can you identify Japanese Knotweed? Its leaves are described as ‘shield-shaped with a flat base’.

IMG_2937The stem is hollow, and flecked purple-red. Older stems become very clearly striped, which perhaps accounts for its name in Chinese Medicine (Huzhang – Tiger Stick).

IMG_2931It flowers in late summer, and has tiny spikes of white flowers. These are the female flowers – male flowers are unknown in the UK. This does not stop the plant from spreading, however, as we shall see.

Japanese Knotweed in flower (By MdE (de) (own photo) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese Knotweed in flower (By MdE (de) (own photo) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons)

The most distinctive feature of Japanese Knotweed, however, is its rhizome, which is a kind of root which sends out new stems and stalks. If you dig some up, it looks a little like ginger, but the inside is orange, and it is said to snap like a carrot. It is this rhizome which enables the plant to form thickets, and which means that it is so tenacious – it can regenerate from any tiny piece which is left behind.

Someone having fun with a Japanese Knotweed rhizome (Klarerwiki [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Someone having fun with a Japanese Knotweed rhizome (Klarerwiki [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons)

As I stood and looked up at the Japanese Knotweed ‘forest’ that was growing, I could easily see how it could block waterways, out-compete all other plants and be a nightmare to get rid of. The rhizomes can also occasionally cause structural damage, which led to a period of hysteria by mortgage companies who refused to lend to home-owners with the plant in their garden, or in a neighbouring garden. This prompted the following response in a 2012 report by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, who described Japanese Knotweed as ‘being treatable and rarely causing severe damage to the property”:

“There is a real lack of information and understanding of what Japanese knotweed is and the actual damage it can cause. Without actual advice and guidance, surveyors have been unsure of how to assess the risk of Japanese knotweed, which can result in inconsistent reporting of the plant in mortgage valuations. RICS hopes that this advice will provide the industry with the tools it needs to measure the risk effectively, and provide banks with the information they require to identify who and how much to lend to at a time when it is essential to keep the housing market moving.”

—Philip Santo, RICS Residential Professional Group ( 05 Jul 2013 (2013-07-05). “RICS targets the root of Japanese Knotweed risk to property”.


As a result of this, many lenders relaxed their criteria, and are now mainly concerned with the plant if it is growing within 7 metres of the property. If so, it will ask for a guarantee of elimination. Many companies are now offering ‘Knotweed Solutions’ and a warranty to vouch for the extermination of the plant.Property Care Association chief executive Steve Hodgson, whose trade body has set up a task force to deal with the issue, said:

“Japanese knotweed is not ‘house cancer’ and could be dealt with in the same way qualified contractors dealt with faulty wiring or damp.”

By the way, I suspect that trying to get rid of a well-established plot of Japanese Knotweed by yourself would be back-breaking and probably ineffective, plus the remains of the plant are classified as ‘Controlled Waste’, which requires disposal at registered Landfill sites.

IMG_2940The normal way to get rid of Japanese Knotweed involves a massive dose of herbicide, followed by lots and lots and lots of digging and sieving. However, there are alternatives.  In Haida Gwaii, islands to the extreme north-west of Canada with a rare and beautiful flora, they have been experimenting with the application of sea-water to the plant, which is said to be showing promising results. Here in the UK, a Japanese aphid (Aphalora itadori) which preys specifically on Japanese Knotweed was released back in 2010. It seems to be establishing itself well, and although I am nervous about ‘fighting fire with fire’ in this way, so far there seem to have been no detrimental side-effects.

Japanese Knotweed is not new to the UK – it was first introduced in 1825 as a garden plant, and was first recorded in the wild in 1886. As I turn to my trusty Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey, I discover that it was a great favourite with Victorian gardeners, although they tended to plant it in their plantations and by their streams as it was too vigorous for any smaller space. Alas, it was a plant with ambition, and by 1900 was growing wild in London. By the 1960’s it was everywhere, from Lands End to the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis. In Cornwall it is known as ‘Hancock’s Curse’ because it was originally planted in the garden of a Mr Hancock. Everywhere it is discovered it seems to generate a frisson of alarm, much as if John Wyndham’s Triffids had turned up. And yet, like all plants, Japanese Knotweed is not an unalloyed monster, just a plant that has found itself in a habitat that is to its liking, and which is taking advantage of the fact.

IMG_2941One way of keeping it under better control might be to do what the Japanese ladies who selected some ‘cuttings’ were probably doing, and that is to eat it. The plant is in the same family as sorrel and rhubarb, and the young shoots can be used to make pies or jam (though it is recommended that the shoots are under a foot tall when picked, so you’ll need to be quick!) In Dyfed in Wales, the leaves are used like spinach, and in Swansea the children suck the sap from the stems, and call the plant ‘Sally Rhubarb’. There is a fine selection of recipes for Knotweed here but if you are foraging, do take care not to spread the plant in anyway, and to make sure that any waste parts of the plant are disposed of properly (i.e not thrown into your compost bin 🙂 )

It should not be forgotten that Japanese Knotweed is also a valuable plant for pollinators, and is useful for beekeepers because it flowers late into the year, when many other plants have past their prime. The honey is said to taste like a mild form of Buckwheat honey, which is not surprising as Buckwheat is another member of the family that includes the Japanese Knotweed.

IMG_2939In Chinese traditional medicine. the plant is used for treating some heart conditions, as a laxative (let’s not forget that it is a cousin to rhubarb), and as a tonic. Some research has shown that it may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease, and it is a useful source of vitamins A and D. Like rhubarb, it also contains a lot of oxalic acid, which can aggravate rheumatism and kidney stones, so it should be used with discretion.

So Japanese Knotweed, like any plant, is not a thug without any redeeming features. In its original habitat, I suspect that it was a graceful, useful plant, and maybe it could be here, too.Few organisms are entirely heroes or villains, and it is often our lack of knowledge that makes us consider them so. There is no substitute for a little research, and for taking a deep breath before demonising anything, plant or animal.

Wednesday Weed – Scented Mayweed

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…..

Scented Mayweed (Matricaria chamomilla)

Scented Mayweed (Matricaria chamomilla)

Dear Readers, there are a large number of white daisy-like plants in flower at the moment, but the combination of a faint pineapple-scent and a ‘squashy’ receptacle (the round yellow bit) tells me that this is Scented Mayweed. It is one of a large family of plants which have the word ‘chamomile’ included in either their common or Latin names – ‘Chamomile’ comes from the Greek for ‘Earth-Apple’, which seems to be a reference to its fruity scent. Scented Mayweed is also known as German Chamomile, and is an annual plant of bright, open places, often with disturbed soil. ‘True’ or Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) has a stronger scent, and is a rare perennial plant of damp turf and sandy, mildly acid soils. There has been a lot of confusion about these plants, but both have been used for their extensive medicinal and cosmetic applications. I was pleased to see Scented Mayweed in the Unadopted Road in East Finchley last week for another reason – its open flowers are very popular with pollinators such as hoverflies.

IMG_2843Scented Mayweed is described as an ‘Ancient Introduction’, which means that it arrived before 1500 (in this case from the warmer parts of mainland Europe and northern Asia). It has a venerable history: garlands of this flower were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and it is included in the herbal traditions of no less than 26 countries. It has been used for many things: as a tea for relaxation, as an insecticide, as an anti-inflammatory and for digestive disorders. No wonder it arrived in the UK – it sounds as if it would have been an indispensable part of any healer’s medicine kit. It does contain a small amount of a poisonous chemical called coumarin, which could cause nausea and vomiting, and on the Plant Lives website it warns that this is what will happen if the flowers are boiled for ‘more than seven minutes’.  It can also be an allergen for those susceptible to hay fever, which is one reason why my husband doesn’t drink chamomile tea – he finds it sets him to sneezing.

IMG_2842Scented Mayweed produces a yellow dye, which is used in many cosmetic products for blonde hair. It is also a perfumery ingredient: the oil which contains the distinctive pineappley smell is dark blue, and is called Azulene. I am indebted to the Fragrantica website for this information, which also contains the interesting fact that Chamomile is a keynote in Dior’s Fahrenheit for Men.

IMG_2841In the book by Beatrix Potter,Peter Rabbit’s mother gave him a cup of chamomile tea to help him after his ordeal on Farmer MacGregor’s farm, and what a wise thing this was. When I’m feeling anxious, I find that chamomile tea helps me too. What I had never done was make the link with Scented Mayweed. Plants have such a lot to teach us, if we have ears to hear, and curiosity, and that most wonderful resource, the Internet.



An Unadopted Road

IMG_2896Dear Readers, in the middle of East Finchley there are a number of what are called ‘unadopted roads’. These are strange little snickleways which are not the responsibility of the council or of the Highways Commission. In theory, they ‘belong’ to houses that front onto them, but this one has only the back gates of properties, so it is unclear who should be looking after it. In some places, the patches around the garages and back fences have been planted up with garden flowers, to the detriment of the wild plants – I turned up my nose at one patch of paeonies and pyracantha. In other places the brambles, ivy and nettles grow wild.The road might be unadopted, but it has been taken to the hearts of many weeds and creatures.

I was planning to write about Cherry Tree Wood this week, but once I was in the unadopted road, and having found a patch of bramble which was just about to open, I found myself detained by the sheer number of insects. First up was a metallic green Flower Beetle. I tend to forget how important insects which aren’t bees can be in pollination.

Flower Beetle (Oedemera lucida)

Flower Beetle (Oedemera lurida)

We also tend to forget that flies are pollinators too. There was a wide selection of hoverflies, some of them spending up to half an hour on a single blossom, others restlessly dashing about. So much biodiversity in one tiny spot!


This rather fine hoverfly is, I think, Eupeodes luniger, a migratory species from southern Europe. Who would have thought that such a small insect could fly so far?

IMG_2851IMG_2865IMG_2875IMG_2895And then, there were the ladybirds. This one is a Harlequin, which was recently described as the UK’s fastest invading species. It is rather larger than our native species and, if you get close enough, you can see that it has two little dimples at the back of the wingcases. Although it is accused of out-competing other species, it is now so well ensconced that I doubt if anything will shift it, plus it eats aphids and all kinds of other pests in preference to more valuable insects. We will have to wait and see how things pan out.


Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)

Another Harlequin ladybird - they are very variable in colour.

Another Harlequin ladybird – they are very variable in colour.

But it’s not all Harlequins. I also found a larvae of our largest native Ladybird, a 7-Spot. Maybe when there is enough food, the different species can coexist, and there were certainly plenty of aphids around. The larvae are just as predatory as the adults, and they always remind me of little tigers, prowling through the foliage.


7-Spot Ladybird larva.

As I stood there with my camera, I was passed by:

  • A white van that was using this tiny road as a cut-through, and was probably doing his chassis a damage as he went
  • A man with a small dog, who let it crap on the path and then hurried past while I was busy photographing a creature. Shame on you, sir!
  • A very nice woman who lived in one of the houses, and who explained about the road’s unadopted status.

But as I stood there, I realised that I could hear buzzing, over and above the occasional passing bee. It led me to a huge bank of ivy, which was growing over a fence. I watched as bumblebees flew into and out of the foliage. On the way out, they flew like small furry bullets. On the way in they were more hesitant, as if trying to find their way, or even as if they were checking out if it was safe.

It dawned on me slowly – I’d found my first ever bumblebee nest! These are White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum). I’d always wanted to find one, and harbour dreams of a nest in my garden, but this was the next best thing.

In the spring, Queen bumblebees come out of hibernation, and look for somewhere to make a nest. This is often a deserted rodent nest. The Queen gathers pollen from whatever plants are available, and uses this to build a ball, onto which she lays her eggs. She also collects some nectar to sustain herself and the larvae, and puts this into a ‘honey pot’ out of wax. Then she broods the first eggs: bumblebees can control their body temperature through a considerable range, and can keep the eggs at a temperature of 25C even when it’s cold outside.  When the eggs hatch, she will be the sole provider for the larvae until they pupate and emerge as workers, which is why it is so important that there are early spring flowers for food. Once the workers leave the nest, they can start to forage, and the Queen’s responsibility is now mainly about laying more eggs. Bumblebee nests are much smaller than those of honeybees, with a maximum of 400 individuals, but this still requires a lot of pollen and nectar. As most of the bramble flowers were still closed, I wondered what the bees were feeding on. I didn’t have to walk far to find out. IMG_2924IMG_2925The Pyracantha bush that I’d been so sniffy about when I’d walked past it earlier was just ten metres from the nest, and was full of bumblebees. What a great illustration of the importance of providing pollinator-friendly plants in our gardens. I’m sure that this one plant is making a great difference to the number of larvae that the bees can feed, and to  their rate of growth. Plus, even in poor weather the bees will  be able to nip out for sustenance. The Pyracantha is filling the gap until the brambles opened fully, even if it was planted more with a view to security than to invertebrates.

As I walked back along this unprepossessing little track, I thought about all the things that go on around us that we don’t notice. I could easily have missed the bumblebee nest if I hadn’t slowed down to take some photos, and hadn’t noticed that tell-tale buzzing. I am often in such a rush, but if I settle down and really pay attention, there are fascinating things happening all around me, and around all of us. It’s a lesson to me of the value of slowing down.

Wednesday Weed – Broad-leaved 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…..

Broad-leaved Willowherb (Epilobium montanum)

Broad-leaved Willowherb (Epilobium montanum)

Dear Readers, I am always surprised at what turns up along the dark, gravelly path that leads to the side entrance of my house. Yellow corydalis, greater celandine, forget-me-not, buddleia, Mexican fleabane, Canadian fleabane, sow thistle and chickweed all put in an appearance, but this is the first time that I have spotted this little beauty – Broad-leaved Willowherb (Epilobium montanum). I have a garden full of Great Willowherb, but this plant passed me by. It has a delicate, shy habit that means that it is often overlooked but once I’d noticed it, I realised that it was everywhere.

IMG_2815The plant has four, deeply-notched mauve-ish petals, and the stigma in the centre form a distinctive four-lobed shape. The leaves are rounded at the bottom (hence the ‘broad-leaved’), and are practically stemless.  Like most of the other willowherbs, it’s native.

Note the notched petals and the stigma, which are ways of identifying the plant (By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Note the notched petals and the stigma, which are ways of identifying the plant (By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

IMG_2813As with all the willowherbs, the soft leaves seem irresistible to insects, and the plant that I used for identifications was covered in enthusiastic greenfly. However, the genus is also subject to the depredations of some larger creatures, such as the caterpillars of the Small Phoenix:

Small Phoenix (Ecliptopera silaceata) (By Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark (Ecliptopera silaceata) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Small Phoenix (Ecliptopera silaceata) (By Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark (Ecliptopera silaceata) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

the Striped Hawkmoth:

Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica) ("Sphingidae - Hyles livornica-1" by Hectonichus - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica) (“Sphingidae – Hyles livornica-1” by Hectonichus – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

and, most spectacularly, the Elephant Hawkmoth and the Small Elephant Hawkmoth, shown below:

Small Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila porcellus) ("Deilephila porcellus-01 (xndr)". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

Small Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila porcellus) (“Deilephila porcellus-01 (xndr)”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons )

Plants of the Epilobium genus have long been used as a treatment for prostate and urinary complaints, and indeed a company which manufactures supplements made from willowherb has taken the genus name of Epilobium  for its company name (note that this is not an endorsement).  Although the showier members of the family are the ones most often used in herbal medicine, Broad-leaved Willowherb was singled out in an Austrian study as having a stronger effect than the others. While there is a lot of interest in Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurveda, herbal medicine in the West is still seen as something of a niche area. Maybe this is because when something grows all around us, it’s difficult to make money from it.

I love Rosebay Willowherb and Great Willowherb.  I admire the way that they can take over a spot of damaged and derelict land and turn it into a sea of cerise. But this little plant lurks in the interstices of the city, at the bottom of walls, in the crevices and the dark places, cheering them up with its mauve flowers and graceful habit. And, when the time is right, it fires its fluffy seeds with just as much vigour as its bigger relatives. It might be little, but it’s a plant with ambition.

Seeds of Broad-leaved Willowherb just waiting to emerge (By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Seeds of Broad-leaved Willowherb just waiting to emerge (By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Bugwoman on Location – ‘In With The Spiders’ at London Zoo

009Dear Readers, when I read that London Zoo had created Europe’s first walk-through spider house, I naturally had to go and have a look. I am fascinated by spiders, and I was also intrigued to see if any actual conservation work was going on. Whilst I believe that most animals suffer as a result of incarceration, I suspect that, if well kept, invertebrates might be an exception. Plus, anything that helps humans stop killing spiders has got to be good for everybody.

The first exhibit features a typical UK spider scenario:

003Yes, there’s a House Spider, located as usual next to the plug hole. I did wonder whether there were a series of spiders who were each star for a day, or if it was the one unfortunate individual who spent his life disgusting the visitors.

There are numerous species of spider here: there is a tank set up for a Fen Raft spider, one of the UK’s most endangered species. The keeper that I talked to told me that the spider had produced several egg sacs already in her previous home, and they that hoped that she would do the same in the exhibit,  so that the youngsters could be reared and used to repopulate their original habitat in the  Norfolk Broads. Thumbs up to that!

Fen Raft Spider with spiderlings. One of our rarest spiders ("Dolomedes fimbriatus". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Fen Raft Spider with spiderlings. One of our rarest spiders (“Dolomedes fimbriatus”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

There was also a very splendid centimetre-long jumping spider with bright blue jaws. I couldn’t get a photo as he was jumping about trying to catch a bluebottle, but this is a male of the same species. I love that the English name for the species is Daring Jumping Spider.

Phidippus audax (also known as the Daring Jumping Spider) ("Phidippus audax male" by Opoterser - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Phidippus audax (also known as the Daring Jumping Spider) (“Phidippus audax male” by Opoterser – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

Then, it was into the walk-through part of the exhibit.


The exhibit holds two species of Orb Web (Nephila) spiders: the Golden Orb Web Spider (Nephila inaurata madagascariensis) from Madagascar and the Golden Silk Orb Weaver (Nephila edulis) from Australia and New Guinea. Both, as you might guess, spin a kind of golden silk, which has been used to make clothes such as the cape below, made from the silk of the Madagascan species.

"Spider silk cape" by Cmglee - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Spider silk cape” by Cmglee – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

This is a female Madagascan spider, and what a fine creature she is. She reminds me rather of a licorice allsort.

027As in most spiders, the females are much larger than the males (up to 30 times in the case of this species). The largest female had a leg-span roughly the size of my hand. All of the spiders were very sedentary, sitting happily on their webs and being fed with waxworms, although the keeper told me that there had been a flurry of excitement a few days earlier when the unluckiest bluebottle in Britain managed to fly into the only spider house in Europe.

Adolescent Golden Orb Web Spider

Adolescent Golden Orb Web Spider

As we watched, however, one adolescent female Golden Orb Web managed to force another off of her web, and away from her waxworm. It was interesting to see how conflicted the winner was – she would take a few bites, then turn to check on whether her rival was creeping up on her, then turn back to the food. It might be anthropomorphic to ascribe such human feelings as nervousness to an invertebrate, but the keeper told me that she’d noticed that some invertebrate individuals were bolder than others, and that they had their preferences and character traits just like more ‘advanced’ animals. So, maybe it’s not such a daft notion. After all, there would be an evolutionary advantage to have personality variation, just in case the environment changed to favour creatures with a particular set of behaviours.

Golden Silk Orb Weaver female (Nephila edulis)

Golden Silk Orb Weaver female (Nephila edulis)

The Golden Silk Orb Weaver is less brightly coloured than its Madagascan relative. It has a dough-coloured body with little dimples in the abdomen, and dark red legs. The web is so tough that in New Guinea, the fishermen make nets out of it. This particular individual had recently shed her skin, and so was looking very new-minted. The keeper had found her shed skin, called an exuvia, and it looked like a perfect crumpled spider. I imagine it takes quite a while to extract those long legs from their outworn armour. Incidentally, all spiders do this, and you can often find exuviae in cobwebs.

Shed skin of Golden Silk Orb Weaver

Shed skin of Golden Silk Orb Weaver

Of course, the people-watching in the spider house was as good as the spider-watching. A group of primary school children came in while I was taking photos, and I was very impressed with how sensible they were. In my experience, youngsters often take their cues from how the adults are, and the female keeper in the spider house was calm and enthusiastic.

I have long been interested in the whole notion of femininity and fear of insects and other invertebrates. I have seen more wasps swatted, more spiders stamped on and more perfectly innocent beetles crushed at the behest of ‘terrified’ girlfriends than in any other circumstance. I am not talking here about genuine arachnophobia, which I know can make people’s lives an absolute misery, and for which I have the utmost sympathy *. I also understand that if you live in a country which is home to dangerous spiders, you might be inclined to take action first and ask questions later.  I’m talking about the kind of uncontrolled, slightly affected reaction that demands that someone step in and get rid of a harmless creature whose only crime is to have more than the usual number of legs. I am always a bit taken aback by how proud some folk are of their prejudices. I talked to the young woman who was serving in the zoo coffee shop, who announced that she hated all spiders, and would swat them on principle.

“But why? ” I asked. “After all, we’d be ankle-deep in flies if we didn’t have any spiders”.

She gave a delicious little shudder.

“I just don’t like the way they look”, she said.

Now, lots of people don’t like how spiders look. I cannot imagine a creature that is more physically different from us. There is nothing cuddly about spiders, nothing child-like or furry (unless you count those hairy legs). It’s OK not to like them. It’s the random swatting that gets me.  My eighty year-old mother, who is not very mobile and who really doesn’t like spiders very much at all always removes the spiders using a handy spider-catching device on a stick and puts them outside, and if she can do it, so can the rest of us.

I’d like to think that the kind of education that the children who visited received might help them to live and let live when they see a spider advancing across the great plain of the kitchen floor. I’d also like to point out that if you have a spider reserve in your house, you are less likely to have all kinds of household pests. I suspect that if someone could find a spider that specialised in catching and killing clothes moths,  a great enthusiasm for indoor spiders might develop. But in the meantime, if you are interested in spiders, the new London Zoo exhibit is a great place to watch some truly impressive specimens.

Little male and big female. The male is so small that the females can't be bothered to eat them.

Little male and big female. The male is so small that the females can’t be bothered to eat them.

* If you are spider-phobic, and live within reach of London, can I suggest that you have a look at London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme? I’ve heard very good things about it from a number of ex-phobics, and the keeper in the Spider Exhibit told me that one of the women who now handles tarantulas for the ‘Meet the Creature’ sessions was too terrified to even look at a photo of a spider prior to going on the course.


Wednesday Weed – Oxford Ragwort

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…..

Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus)

Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus)

Dear Readers, Oxford Ragwort is one of those plants whose roots are so deeply entangled with humankind as to be rare outside of urban and industrial areas. Unusually, its path to freedom is well documented, and yet again Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey can be our guide. It was first planted in the botanical gardens of Oxford University, having been reputedly gathered from the rocks of Mount Etna. We have noted on several occasions that plants of mountain habitats often make excellent city dwellers, as they have a built-in tolerance for poor, scant soil and bright, dry, exposed situations. Furthermore, the genus name ‘Senecio’ refers to the way that the air-borne seeds resemble the white hair of an elderly person.  So, with its tolerance for city streets and its wind-carried seeds, it was tailor-made for urban colonisation. By the 1830s its seeds had wafted on to the old walls of Oxford, but it was soon provided with a mechanism for a much more ambitious journey. Like Buddleia, it was greatly aided by the railways, in this case particularly the Great Western. Oxford Ragwort loved the clinker beds by the side of the track, which maybe reminded the plant of its volcanic home, and its downy seeds were carried along in the slipstream of the passing steam engines. And so it advanced through England and Wales, providing a cheerful yellow chorus for mile after mile of the route. Indeed, on a recent trip to Surrey it seemed as if the whole trackside was a great flowerbed of Oxford Ragwort.

IMG_2579I have a great personal fondness for Ragwort, which dates back to the days when Bugwoman was Bug-girl. I was forever trying to rear caterpillars, and was particularly attracted to the yellow and black larvae of the Cinnabar moth. What child could resist these tiger-striped beauties? I found three, and spent the whole summer finding Ragwort for them to feed on. When, eventually, they turned into conker-coloured chrysalises, I put them in a big sweet jar containing twigs for them to climb up on when they emerged. I then put the jar into the cool darkness of the coal bunker under the stairs, and checked on them every single day.

Caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth ("Tyria jacobaeae qtl1" by Quartl - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth (“Tyria jacobaeae qtl1” by Quartl – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The bright colouration of the caterpillar is a bit of a giveaway that the insect is poisonous, and it acquires this poison from its foodplant, which is any species of Ragwort that it can get its diminutive jaws into. The plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can damage the liver of humans and some mammals, but it is these very chemicals which apparently excite the caterpillars, according to a study of ‘gustatory responsiveness‘. There has been a great deal of excitement in the UK recently about Ragwort being poisonous to horses. This is true, but a call to eliminate the plant altogether would be a disaster not just for the Cinnabar moth, but for the 150 other species of insect which eat it or feed on its nectar. For a measured response to the debate, I recommend this website, which lays out the issues for both horse and insect enthusiasts, and those lucky people who are both.

One day, I opened the door to the coal bunker to find that, responding to some innate signal, my moths had emerged. Two of them were hanging from the twigs, their wings like blood-streaked black velvet. One, however, had not made it. It had got trapped between the edge of the jar and the twig, and had died without its wings opening.

Adult Cinnabar moth ("Tyria jacobaeae-04 (xndr)" by Svdmolen - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

Adult Cinnabar moth (“Tyria jacobaeae-04 (xndr)” by Svdmolen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons )

This was an early introduction to the unfairness of life. How could this creature have made it all the way to the door of adulthood and then died? The occasion called for a ritual, and so I dragooned my poor younger brother into a moth funeral. I put the moth into a matchbox lined with cotton wool, while my sibling did the hard work of digging a grave. We solemnly processed the ten feet from the back door to the graveside. I intoned a few words while my brother looked solemnly on. Then, we laid a tombstone which consisted of a tile from the recent demolition of our fireplace. On it, in wax crayon, were scrawled the words:

‘Born only to die’.

I was a child of Victorian sensibilities, as you can see.

My little brother aged about 4 in 1966. What a long-suffering sibling he was. And is.

My little brother aged about 4 in 1966. What a long-suffering sibling he was. And is.

When I see Ragwort, I am instantly reminded of those days of childhood, when time stood still at the sight of a caterpillar scraping endless half-circles from a leaf and when a small ritual seemed the only way to right the world when something went wrong. I still feel most truly myself when I am totally absorbed in the goings on of a plant or an animal – time seems to fall away, along with all my mundane concerns. The phrase ‘inner-child’ makes many people cringe, and yet I think that all of us are like Russian Dolls, with our earlier versions still alive and sometimes kicking. To me, there is nothing wrong with that non-judgemental state of child-like wonder, when we have no preconceptions but truly ‘see’. I’m sure it’s a better tonic than anything the doctor could prescribe, and with no side-effects other than a new bounce in the step and a softer, more open heart.