Monthly Archives: July 2015

Bugwoman on Location – The Old and The New


Conventional planting on Islington Green, North London. This replaced alliums, grasses and verbena. I’m not sure what caused the outbreak of conventionality, maybe budget cuts?

Dear Readers, municipal plantings in parks and public areas used to be the same wherever you were in the country. There would be regular ranks of blue lobelia and red geraniums, edged with white alyssum. Sometimes, the bolder councils would inject some double-flowered marigolds and petunias, and, if they were really going for broke, they might throw in a few bronze-leaved cannas, with big blousy golden flowers. Sadly, none of these plants have much to offer bees and other pollinators. And if you pop down to Islington Green in London today, you will see exactly the kind of planting that  I’m talking about.


This kind of planting stays in place for a few months, while bees and butterflies investigate and, disappointed, move on to something that will actually feed them. And then, one day, the plants will be pulled up and thrown in the compost, to be replaced with winter-flowering pansies and primroses. When summer returns, the whole ritual will happen all over again.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Some containers of bedding plants add a certain joie de vivre to any garden, and these plants are hardy, long-flowering and low maintenance. The problem comes when city councils, in particular, miss the opportunity to do something a bit more pollinator-friendly. In London, where the gardens are small and the areas of concrete seem never-ending, bees regularly fall starving out of the sky. So on this bright July morning, I went to see what was being done to improve things.

My first stop was Whittington Park, on Holloway Road. My friend Penny tells me that Adolf Hitler is partly responsible for this park, because it is built on the remains of two whole streets that he bombed to bits during the Second World War. But it’s been Islington Council who have turned it into the rather remarkable spot that it is now.

On Holloway Road itself, there are two great swathes of perennial plants, most of them bee and butterfly-friendly.

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The blue spikes of eryngium mix with grasses and sunflowers and crocosmia and daylilies. The mauve of Verbena bonariensis stands out against the terracotta-coloured wall of the shop next door.

And in the middle of all this is a four-foot tall model cat, covered in sedum. This is in honour of Dick Whittington’s cat. Dick was a real person, but has become the stuff of legend. No one knows how ‘real’ the cat was, but I choose to believe in his existence, because it makes me happy to think of man and cat having adventures together.  It is said that Dick, as a very young man, fled his job as a scullion in the country and headed towards London , where the ‘streets were paved with gold’, along with his cat who was a renowned ratter.  It is from close to here that Dick, lonely, exhausted and broke,  is said to have been considering going back home  when he heard the bells of London saying ‘Turn again, Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London’. And so he turned and, together with his faithful cat, headed into the Capital and made his name and his fortune and did, indeed, become Lord Mayor.


What is lovely about Whittington Park is that it is a fully-functioning community resource. There’s an outdoor gym and a football pitch. There’s a nursery and a lovely playground for children. There’s a pond, where some pond-dipping was going on, and a skateboard park.

And there’s also a fenced-off area of wildflowers, which was originally an RSPB experiment to encourage house sparrows. Today it’s much used by bees and hoverflies, and also by a variety of birds who eat the seeds of the thistles and docks. In short, there is something here for everyone, human or animal, and in a very small space too. It just goes to show that wildlife-friendly planting doesn’t have to mean that the whole place turns into a jungle of nettles and bindweed.




Onwards! I jump onto a bus, and then another bus, and finally I arrive at the Barbican. This was previously another site full of red salvia and pots of agapanthus – pretty but sterile. But a few weeks ago, I noticed that it had had a makeover, so I wanted to revisit. And what a transformation it is. All of the beds at the entrance to the complex have been turned into a gravel garden. There are red-hot pokers and scabious and gaura and bee-friendly plants of many types. And it’s working! I saw honeybees and bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies. At the moment some areas look a bit bare, as the plants are young, but I have no doubt that it will end up looking like an enormous prairie. It blends in well with the ageing Brutalist concrete towers around it, and people were sitting amongst the flowers, eating their sandwiches and relaxing. It’s a bold move to change the planting like this: some people hate the informal look of this kind of bed, and think that it seems ‘weedy’ and unkempt. So kudos to whoever did the Barbican design for sticking to their guns and not taking the easy route.





There is a place, of course, for any kind of plant design. Furthermore, it is much better to have a formal garden than no garden at all. Insects don’t much care whether your plants are native or non-native, and in a city there’s little chance that you’re destroying a pristine habitat by sticking in a couple of lantana. But looking at the drifts of flowers in Whittington Park and at the Barbican, it seems to me that with a bit of imagination we create wonderful spaces, which work for all members of the community, including the ones who aren’t human. My worry is that, with the budget cuts to local councils, the chance for innovation and creativity is restricted, even though a bee-friendly planting doesn’t have to cost more than a standard one. There is nothing like being ‘up against it’ to put a brake on new ideas, because there is no margin for error. Fortunately, these two parks already exist, and will hopefully be a beacon for other councils and other areas. What a boon it would be for all the creatures that pass through them.


Wednesday Weed – Buddleia

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…..

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Buddleia (Buddleia davidii)

Dear Readers, when two wild Buddleia plants started to grow in my front garden, I had no idea that they would be quite so enthusiastic. The one next to the front gate wallops everyone who tries to get to the front door with a whippy bloom-covered stem, which is particular fun when it’s been raining. The one by the wheelie bins is at least ten feet tall.

Apologies for the rain drops on the photo, it's been pouring down all morning...

Apologies for the rain drops on the photo, it’s been pouring down all morning…

But now that the lavender has finished flowering, it is the number one favourite of the pollinators around here. Have a look at this lot. The plant is also called Butterfly Bush, as I’m sure you know, and although I haven’t caught any photos of visiting Lepidoptera, it’s loved by every species from Cabbage White to Red Admiral.

IMG_3710 IMG_3708 IMG_3712 IMG_3711 IMG_3706Once the flowers have gone over, I will give both plants a healthy prune, and we’ll be able to access our house without having to go through a mini Tough Mudder assault course to get there.

IMG_3717Buddleia (Buddleia davidii) is originally from the mountainous areas of Hubei and Sichuan provinces in China, and was introduced to the UK when it was planted in Kew Gardens in 1896. It is named for the Basque missionary and explorer Father Armand David, who was the first European to see the Giant Panda, and who, in addition to his church duties, found time to identify no less than 63 species of mammal, 65 species of birds and and hundreds of species of plant which were previously unknown to Western science. In honour of his work, several species were named after him, including a very rare Chinese deer, which is known as Pere David’s Deer in the west. Several of the deer, which  were extinct in the wild,and survived only in the Emperor’s garden, were smuggled into Europe, including one animal which was ‘rescued’ by the good Father himself. As it turned out, it’s just as well that he did, because during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 all the animals remaining in China were slaughtered and eaten. The European animals were brought together at Woburn Abbey, and bred so successfully that eventually some animals were able to be reintroduced back into China, a rare conservation success story.

Pere David's Deer (Elaphurus davidianus) ("Elaphurus davidianus 02" by DiverDave - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elaphurus_davidianus_02.JPG#/media/File:Elaphurus_davidianus_02.JPG)

Pere David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus) (“Elaphurus davidianus 02” by DiverDave – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elaphurus_davidianus_02.JPG#/media/File:Elaphurus_davidianus_02.JPG)

But, back to Buddleia. It’s a member of the Figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), a diverse group which includes such plants as Mullein and that little white-flowered plant you often see in garden centres, Bacopa. The grey-green leaves can look a little tatty late on in the season, but the glory of the plant are its flowers, long inflorescences of purple, lilac or white flowers which smell intensely of honey. I remember passing a boarded-up lot in Whitechapel, and being stopped mid-step by the sound of bees and the extraordinary perfume coming from behind the hoardings. When I peered through a gap, I could see a veritable Buddleia forest, the plants about twelve feet high, the blossoms bowed down under the weight of bees. No doubt this site is a block of luxury flats now, but then it was the equivalent of an East End watering hole for pollinators, and no doubt a refuge for other creatures too.

IMG_3707Each individual flower is ‘perfect’ – this means that it contains both male and female parts. The tiny seeds are very undemanding, requiring only the smallest patch of soil to germinate, and, like Oxford Ragwort Buddleia is likely to have spread along railway lines, its seeds caught up in the slipstream of trains. When I used to commute into Liverpool Street Station in London, the grim trackside was lit up with bush after bush of Buddleia, and as we pulled into the station, past the blackened Victorian walls which lined the route, an occasional shrub could be seen growing from a tiny crack in the brick work. I am sure that the poor soil and exposed location is similar to the scree slopes for which the plant was originally adapted. In its native environment, it has been christened ‘the Harbourage of Tigers’, but in my locality it is more likely to be cover for a neighbour’s cat.

Despite looking in all my usual books and perusing the internet, I could find no references to medicinal or culinary uses for Buddleia, and yet I have a feeling that in its native habitat those enormous sweet-smelling flowers must have been used for something – maybe to sweeten wine, or to make jam, or to adorn houses to keep evil spirits away. At the very least they are surely the favourite flower of some benevolent bee goddess, who will have her work cut out looking after her subjects at the moment, what with the sneaky reintroduction of neonicotinoids to the UK and the general decline in pollinator habitat. I imagine that she is polishing up her sting at this very moment.

IMG_3718I have several varieties of Buddleia in my garden – I am trying a few dwarf Buddleia in my containers, and also have a yellow-flowered variety where the blooms are spherical. But nothing attracts the interest of insects like these wild ones. They fill a gap at the end of the early summer-flowering plants, and before the late summer Sedum and Michaelmas Daisies really get going. I was interested to read that Butterfly Conservation recommends the planting of Buddleia in gardens as a nectar source, even though the plant has no value as a food plant for caterpillars, such is its value to adult insects. However, I would question the need to plant it, as if you live in an area where Buddleia grows wild, some will almost certainly turn up and save you the expense. If you are worried about your single plant turning into a Buddleia forest, note that the seed only ripens in the spring, so dead-heading and autumn pruning should keep it under some kind of control. If not, the seedlings are very easy to pull up. When I am Queen, I shall provide everyone with a Buddleia seedling to pop into their garden or grow in a pot, so that the bees and butterflies, for a few weeks at least, will have a honey-scented corridor of flowers to make their lives a little easier. In the meantime, if you don’t have one already, maybe you could consider finding one yourself? I guarantee you will have some very grateful six-legged visitors.

 

 

 

 

The Little Visitors

Dear Readers, early last Sunday morning I was shuffling about in my kitchen and sipping a cup of tea when I had the feeling that I was being watched. I peered out of the window. There were no birds, no cats. All was still, the sun just touching the top of the whitebeam tree. And then I chanced to look down, and, sure enough, a small face was peering at me over the edge of the patio.


How alive it seemed, this little creature, all twitching whiskers and bright eyes. It surveyed the scene, its small pink paws poised on the wooden beams beside the pond. It disappeared, and then popped back up again. And furthermore, it was not alone.


It seems, dear Readers, that while I have been away a mother Brown Rat has given birth to some babies in my garden. For a while I tried to convince myself that these little creatures were mice, but no, the small ears and blunt muzzles tell me that they are, in fact, Rattus norvegicus. And what a good time they were having, hoovering up the fallen mealworms from the bird table. It seemed to me that their mother had picked a perfect spot to raise her family – relatively safe from predators, warm, dry and right next to a food source.

The Brown Rat is the most successful mammal on earth (after humans), present on every continent except Antarctica. It shadows us wherever we live, though it is rarely seen. It could be argued that it has also sacrificed more for our well being than any other mammal, as the Brown Rat is the same species as the laboratory rat, and has hence been the victim of more varied torments than any other creature I can think of. If you have ever had a pet rat (and they can make delightful playmates, with a tremendous sense of fun) you have also been in contact with a Brown Rat. But there is no denying that these animals can be a vector for several diseases, including Weil’s Disease and Toxoplasmosis, and that they are associated in our minds with everything that is unclean and sordid.

At this point, I sense rising horror in some of my readers. After all, are rats not public enemy number one, a source of disease, thoroughly disgusting creatures who deserve to be eradicated on sight? Or have ‘seagulls’ taken their place this year?


Dear Friends, it seems to me that if we make a wildlife garden, we cannot be altogether sure what wildlife will turn up. And if we are a little too generous with the bird food, it is not surprising that all manner of opportunistic, intelligent creatures pop in to take advantage. I fear that the amount of food I’ve provided recently hasn’t taken into account the fact that many birds are now in moult and hence not visiting gardens very much. There is also a lot of natural food about, which most birds will take in preference to anything I can provide. And so, these little chaps are taking up the slack.

Now, I make it a rule not to kill anything that turns up in my garden, be it aphid or slug, snail or harlequin ladybird. Or, indeed, rat. But even if I did have a more ferocious turn of mind, can you imagine what would happen? Any animal control company would put down poison to kill these youngsters and their mother. And then, what happens if a fox, or a cat, or a dog eats the corpses? We don’t have many owls around here, but in the country, rat poison is the number one reason for the death of Barn Owls. We do have all manner of corvids and birds of prey, who are not averse to a spot of scavenging, who could also be killed. And anyhow, we are too quick to turn to death as a tool of species management. I am not an absolutist about these things, but in almost every case I’ve ever come across, there is a better solution to the problem of an animal in the wrong place than killing it.


Nearly all of our ‘pest’ animals increase their populations in response to our messiness. Pigeons, seagulls, rats, mice, will all become more noticeable in response to unemptied bins, food which is not kept securely and general litter-dropping. Plus, for some of these creatures we are taking their normal food – we have stripped the fish from the sea, for example, and seagulls are now stealing our ice cream and chips. So, I will cut back on the amount of food that I leave in the garden, not in order to starve my new rodent family, but to persuade them to disperse. There are always a few rats around, but they are normally invisible, unnoticed. It’s only when they binge-breed that they become a problem.

So, the baby rats ran around the patio for a while, and then suddenly noticed that they were being watched. One sat up on his back legs for a moment, eyes bulging as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. After all, for a fortnight there has been very little activity at my house, and maybe they were starting to think of the garden as their own. And then, both the rats bolted back under the path, and I haven’t seen them since. Have they already moved on? Has one of the many cats around here put an end to their short lives? Or are they keeping a low profile, emerging during the night to tidy up the garden? Whichever it is, I send them a salute,  from one opportunistic, adaptable, inventive species to another. All of our lives are so short, so fraught with troubles and worries that it’s hard to deny another creature a few moments in the sun.

Wednesday Weed – Creeping Thistle

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…..

Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense)

Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense)

Dear Readers, no sooner was I back in London following my holiday in Austria, than I galloped down to Coldfall Wood to see what had been going on. And it seemed as if everything had burst into flower while I was away, and was now finishing its reproductive cycle. For most animals and plants, it’s already autumn – summer might be just beginning for us, but the woods are silent, the queen bumblebees are already looking for hibernation spots, and these Creeping Thistles were already mostly transformed into puffy seedheads. But many insects are still appreciating their bounty – thistles seem to be amongst the most valuable plants for pollinators.

White-tailed bumblebee

White-tailed bumblebee

Small Skipper butterfly

Small Skipper butterfly

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Honeybee

I imagine that few people would choose to cultivate Creeping Thistle, in spite of its wildlife benefits – like Groundsel or Sow Thistle, it’s one of those plants that looks a bit ramshackle and unkempt on the best of days. Furthermore, it is considered an ‘injurious weed’ in the UK, where it is native, and a ‘noxious weed’ in most countries to which it has been introduced. In Canada, it is known as ‘Canada Weed’, which is surprising as it is an alien species. The name ‘Creeping Thistle’ might imply a shy, diffident plant, but actually refers to the way that the plant surreptitiously takes over a field.

IMG_3688The problem is that Creeping Thistle is just too successful. It forms what are known as ‘Clonal Colonies’, like the one in the picture, where the roots send up multiple shoots and stifle anything else growing in the area, extending its range by up to 6 metres per year. It also sends out cloud upon cloud of fluffy seeds, although only 3% of these are viable, so the main ‘problem’ is with the rhizomes rather than the flowers.It is safe to say that it is not popular with humans, though other creatures may beg to differ.

Goldfinch feeding on Creeping Thistle ("Carduelis carduelis2" by photo MPF - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_carduelis2.jpg#/media/File:Carduelis_carduelis2.jpg)

Goldfinch feeding on Creeping Thistle (“Carduelis carduelis2” by photo MPF – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_carduelis2.jpg#/media/File:Carduelis_carduelis2.jpg)

The leaves of Creeping Thistle have been used as animal fodder for centuries, usually after being crushed to remove the prickles. The young leaves and stems have also been eaten by humans. The seeds are up to 22% oil, which can be extracted and used as cooking oil or to fuel oil-lamps, though I would imagine that it would be hard work for a small return.

IMG_3690Medicinally, Creeping Thistle has been used by the Mohican and Abnaki tribes for worms, by people in Northern India for fluid retention, and in the north of England, the stems have been used to treat cramp.

IMG_3686So, here we have the Creeping Thistle, a plant that is too generous with its roots and seeds  for gardeners and farmers, but which is a boon for birds and insects. Here on the edge of Muswell Hill Playing Fields, just beside Coldfall Wood, it is a-buzz with all manner of creatures, and  doing no harm at all. And, as the word ‘Thistle’ goes right back to Old English, I imagine that it has been a cause of back-breaking work for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We might just as well rub along as best we can.

Bugwoman on Location – The Last Day in Obergurgl

IMG_3586There has been much talk this week about water and boulders, so it seems appropriate that on our last day we take a walk beside the river Gurgl, as it runs from Obergurgl down to Solden. When we start the day, at the little hamlet of Zwieselstein, it’s already running along at a fair clip, full of the sediment that turns it a milky grey.

IMG_3589Later in its journey, the Gurgl turns into a category 4 white-water rafting river, but no one tries to navigate these waters. For one thing, it’s full of enormous, house-sized boulders.

IMG_3592For me, rocks like this have a kind of personality, albeit one that’s developed slowly, over millennia. This path is full of them, each with their own community of plants.

IMG_3595IMG_3596And what a cool, green path this is on a hot, humid day. I don’t know of anything else like it around here.

IMG_3598There is one tiny spot of grey beach, and someone has built themselves a little tepee amongst the boulders.

IMG_3601From the cliffs on the opposite side of the river, I see a beetle-browed face looking out.

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Can you see the face?

We climb up over a promontory, into an area where the sun breaks through

IMG_3637IMG_3639And then,  it’s down a hill, and back into ‘civilisation’.

IMG_3641The Rosebay willow-herb is in full flower, as perhaps it might be along the edges of Coldfall Wood.

IMG_3646And as we cross a bridge, the waters from another stream join the Gurgl – the waters run alongside one another for a while, brown against grey.

IMG_3645Here in Solden, they have a penchant for covered bridges. Some are traditional…

IMG_3643..and some are modern.

IMG_3651And, as the Gurgl runs fiercely down the valley, to meet up with the river Inn (from which Innsbruck got its name) and than the Danube, and, finally, the Black Sea, so I must say goodbye to this place, for this year at least. Our two weeks has gone just as quickly as the river has, but I have loved sharing them with you. And now, I feel the itch to be back in my own bed, with my own things around me, and to see what’s been going on in my half-mile territory. So, after the fun of flying back into Gatwick tomorrow and lumping all our luggage home to East Finchley, I look forward to reporting back with the Wednesday Weed on 22nd July.

Until then, thanks for your support!

Bugwoman on Location – Something New

IMG_3531Dear Readers, yesterday we went for a walk in the Ferwalltaller, the last of the four valleys that lay directly above Obergurgl. Suffice to say that it was very, very hot, and very steep, and we both drank a pint of Applesaft gespritz (apple juice with soda water) when we finished. But look what has arrived, in the last few days – a brand new lamb, with umbilical cord still attached. She is much smaller than all the other young sheep, so I think she was born up here.

IMG_3535I love how her legs look too long for her body, and how her mother is keeping an eye on her. I also love how these sheep follow anyone with a walking pole, in the hope of a bite of sandwich.

Mr Bugwoman pursued by sheep

Mr Bugwoman pursued by sheep

One of the sheep has found the perfect answer to overheating – try laying down in a patch of snow.

IMG_3524But, that was yesterday. Today, we decided to take it a bit easier and get the bus up to the Tiefenbach glacier. The road climbs up to 2820 metres above sea level, and passes through a tunnel blasted out of the mountain which is nearly 2 miles long. When you get there, there is a very fine carpark, and restaurant, and cable car (as usual). At this time of year, the glacier itself looks a bit exhausted and grimy. It’s the only spot in the Oetzal valley where you could still do a spot of skiing if the urge came upon you.

A bit of glacier next to the car park

A bit of glacier next to the car park

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The entrance to the tunnel through the mountain

We board a cable car, and head up to the top. While all these ski slopes and restaurants and car parks feel like a desecration of the mountains, you don’t have to look far to see what a tiny proportion of the Austrian Alps are used for these purposes, and how much remains untouched.

IMG_3559IMG_3558The Austrians seem to love inducing vertigo in their tourists. Well it works for me. No way I’m walking out on that thing…

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Just call me Wusswoman….

And for any cable car enthusiasts, here is the Top Station

IMG_3568And some cable cars…

IMG_3570So, once we’d wandered round and admired the scenery, we headed back down for lunch. I ended up with Germknodel mit vanille sauce – in other words, an enormous dumpling filled with prune puree, with poppyseeds on the top and some custard. Well, as I’m vegetarian, it was that or chips. And look at these very fine curtains, showing Alpine scenes!

IMG_3573So, we headed back down into the village of Solden, or ‘Sin City’ as it’s known in these parts due to its Table Dancing establishments (two, open only in winter) and its bars. These are something of a shock after Obergurgl, which prides itself on its clean and healthy living. Having said which, this is still rural Austria. I imagine that the goings-on are relatively tame.

A table-dancing establishment

A table-dancing establishment

A table-dancer

A table-dancer

As we sit sipping a coffee, we notice a cortage of Porsches parked up opposite.

IMG_3578The drivers get out for a chat. From here, there are only two routes – into Obergurgl (and then out again because that’s where the road runs out) or over the Timmelsjoch pass, with its 28 hairpin bends, into Italy. I imagine that they’ll be off for a pasta lunch.

Off we go!

Off we go!

I wish them luck with trying to keep their yellow/black/white/black/yellow colour order when they have to get past buses/cyclists/motorbikes on those twisty roads. Oh, and yesterday a lorry got stuck going over the Timmelsjoch so no-one could get past in either direction for six hours. The idea of driving a convertible, with the wind in your hair, and the reality of being stuck behind an articulated lorry round 28 hairpins is something to consider.

So, we head for home, and pass this sculpture, made entirely out of bits of scrap metal, outside one of the hotels.

Scrap metal Ibex

Scrap metal Ibex

IMG_3585I love the ingenuity that takes things that would otherwise be thrown away, and makes something beautiful out of them. And, as I haven’t seen an ibex on this visit, it’s good to see an  image of one.

Tomorrow is our last day in Obergurgl. How can two weeks have past so quickly?

 

Wednesday Weed from Obergurgl – Yellow Rattle. And a Mountain Tale.

Awned Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus glacialis)

Awned Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus glacialis)

Dear Readers, as I have been walking amongst the Alpine meadows here in Obergurgl, one plant has appeared over and over again – Yellow Rattle. In some places, it forms a lemon mosaic amongst the clover and the vetches and the many other flowers.

IMG_3386If it looks a little familiar, it’s maybe because the UK also has two species of Yellow Rattle, Rhimnanthus minor and Rhimnanthus angustifolius.

Yellow rattle (Rhimnanthus minor) ("Yellow-rattle close 700" by Sannse - en.wikipedia.org: 19:07, 5. Jun 2004 . . Sannse (Talk) . . 700x925 (197710 Byte) (Yellow-rattle ). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellow-rattle_close_700.jpg#/media/File:Yellow-rattle_close_700.jpg)

Yellow rattle (Rhimnanthus minor) (“Yellow-rattle close 700” by Sannse – en.wikipedia.org: 19:07, 5. Jun 2004 . . Sannse (Talk) . . 700×925 (197710 Byte) (Yellow-rattle ). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellow-rattle_close_700.jpg#/media/File:Yellow-rattle_close_700.jpg)

All of the plants look superficially like a yellow Deadnettle, but they perform a very different role in maintaining the biodiversity of grasslands, one that has made gardeners with dreams of a meadow in their front garden pay out for Yellow Rattle seeds and plug plants. For this inoffensive-looking plant is a hemi-parasite – it is able to photosynthesize, but obtains at least some of its nutrients and water from the roots of other plants.

IMG_3389Here in Obergurgl, it means that the Yellow Rattle ‘preys’ on coarse grasses, nettles and perennial weeds like dock, much reducing their vigour and giving the other plants a chance. UK gardeners are realising that it does much the same thing in their own gardens, hence the sudden market in plants. Sadly, in the wild in the UK Yellow Rattle is somewhat in decline, a victim of the prevailing attitude that the only good meadow is a monoculture.

The plant is a member of the Figwort family, which includes such diverse species as Speedwells, Foxglove and our old friend, Ivy-leaved Toadflax. Why only Yellow Rattle has taken up the parasitic lifestyle is a mystery, but it certainly increases the range of plant species here. I would be very interested to know if any of my gardening readers have tried planting it, and what the results were!

Incidentally, the plant is known as Yellow Rattle because the black seeds rattle away in the seed cases. The plant is an annual which sets seed early in the year, before the first mowing up here in the mountains, and is hence ready and waiting when spring comes round again.

Now, Readers, let me tell you a true mountain story. Yesterday, a group of walkers set out, with a long-established mountain guide, to walk the path from the Tieffenbach glacier down into the village of Vent, which is next door to the Obergurgl valley. Amongst them were the two other couples staying at our hotel. It’s a long downhill walk, across snow and sometimes ice, but this was a well-equipped group who were used to such things. To me, it sounds like several hours of hell, but each to our own. Anyhow. They started to inch along a precipitous, snow-covered pass. As one of the women walked under an eight foot tall boulder which was half blocking the pass, she slipped on some ice, slid down the hill and scraped her leg. As everyone was helping her, the next man in line passed under the boulder, touching it with his hand, and, as he too slipped and fell down the hill, the boulder, which may have been in place for thousands of years, uprooted itself and started to roll down the slope towards the man. Everyone screamed as the boulder bounced and careered towards the prone man. A guide ran down the hill, at considerable risk to himself, but with little hope of getting their before the boulder did. And then, the boulder struck a tiny rock, less than a foot high, rocked forward, rocked back, and settled in its new position, just a few metres from where the man still lay.

I heard all this from the couples at breakfast this morning. The man who fell has some cuts and bruises and a sprained shoulder, but is otherwise ok.  The woman who saw it all happen was still in shock.

“I have never been so close to a disaster before”, she said, her eyes brimming. “The stone that stopped the boulder was so tiny. We couldn’t believe it when the boulder stopped rolling. It could all have been so different. There was no way that the man would have survived if that thing had landed on him.”

And so, dear Readers, I leave you to draw whatever moral, or none, you’d like to from this tale. For me, there’s some satisfaction in the notion of a little stone stopping a great juggernaut of a boulder. But maybe that’s just me.