Monthly Archives: July 2015

Bugwoman on Location – Old Friends

IMG_3227Dear Readers, today we set off on one of our favourite walks. We headed downhill into the valley to the right of the photo, known as the Rotmoos. At the far end there is a gradually retreating glacier, and this leaves a large area of terminal moraine, rocky strata where only the toughest of plants and animals can survive. But at the entrance to the Rotmoos is a much kinder area, with bogs and a more varied flora.

As we headed down, we met up with our first old friends- Long-eared sheep. They graze up here and across all the mountain valleys until the end of September, when they are driven back home. ‘Home’ normally includes Italy, but for the first time in decades the Italians are unable to pasture their sheep here because there has been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth. I’m sure many of us remember how devastating this terrible disease was when it hit the UK, and my heart goes out to the Italian farmers who are coping with it. May it be quickly brought under control, for the sake of humans and animals.

Long-eared sheep

Long-eared sheep

IMG_3235So, here we are at the entrance to the valley. I have never seen so many of what my biology used to call ‘yellow compositae’ – in other words, dandelions and hawkbits, nippleworts and Leopards-bane, Ragwort and Groundsel. But I am keeping an eye out for another old friend.



A holiday in Obergurgl is not complete without a marmot sighting, and, as we walked down, one galloped right across our path. But it wasn’t until we were eating our hotel-provided lunchpack that we got a  proper look. For my North American animals, this is a rodent about the size and build of a groundhog. This one was looking particularly sleek and happy, and didn’t even bother to whistle when he saw us, which is most unusual – normally the slopes ring with the irritated cries of marmots.A marmot giving a proper warning whistle will stand on his back legs and then bow down as he does so, as if worshiping the mountain peaks opposite. The marmots’ main predator is the eagle, so they watch the skies with all the intensity of a meerkat on an anthill. But they also need to get on with eating before the winter comes and so some of them become indifferent to humans. It is illegal to shoot animals in the Oetz National Park, which is where Obergurgl is located, but every hotel has a fine collection of stuffed animals and mounted deer skulls to show that this wasn’t always the case.

Onwards! And here are yet more old friends.

Haflinger horses

Haflinger horses

I consider these Haflinger horses to be some of the most beautiful in the world. As they stood on the opposite shore of the glacial river that tumbles through the valley, their manes and tails stirring in the breeze, they looked like creatures of legend, made of bronze and gold. They are ‘owned’ by the family Scheiber, who own pretty much everything in the Oetz valley, from the cement works to the biggest hotel to the car hire company, but for most of their lives these horses roam free, brought in only for the winter.

As we head up the valley towards the glacier, the plant life begins to change.

Spiniest Thistle (Cirsium spinosissimum)

Spiniest Thistle (Cirsium spinosissimum)

I love that this plant is called the Spiniest Thistle, and wonder if there is also a Spinier and Spiny species to complete the set . The Spiniest Thistle certainly lives up to its name – every surface is covered in sharp protuberances. It is an unprepossessing plant, with its yellowish-white flower, and its attendant swarm of tiny flies, but it does point to an interesting fact. In the higher altitudes of the Alps, nearly all the plants are pollinated by flies, rather than by bees and butterflies.

Lots of plants grow in cushions once we start to get into the moraine itself – the big danger here is desiccation, and being close together helps to preserve water. This Moss Campion was actually much pinker than it appears in the photo here – many of the flowers are intense in colour, almost as if reacting to the UV rays.


Moss Campion (Silene acualis)

And here is a real find. Remember Ivy-leaved Toadflax from the Wednesday Weed? Here is the Alpine version. In shades of violet and orange, it’s a delight, hiding amongst all the grey rocks. The flower is exactly the same shape as that of its urban cousin.

IMG_3268Reluctantly, we head for home. It’s important to pace yourself when you’re middle-aged and out of shape, and the walk back to the hotel has some horrible downhills on service roads before we can get our Almdudler (a herbal brew that we’ve become rather fond of over the years).

The way home.

The way home.

But there is one last small treasure. Just coming into flower at the edge of the bog are some Spring Gentians. They are the bluest things I have ever seen, so blue that they almost hurt to look at. No photo will ever do them justice.

Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)

Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)


Bugwoman on Location – The Meadows of Obergurgl

IMG_3178Dear Readers, one of the glories of Obergurgl is the meadows that surround it. I have never been to a place with such a variety of plants, and because the growing season is so short here, everything seems to burst into flower at once.

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)


Hairy Thyme (Thymus praecox)


Golden Cinquefoil (Potentilla aurea)

All the flowers above were growing in full sun. In the shady areas, the flora is completely different.


Wood Cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum) and Umbellifer (possibly Wild Angelica)

Need I say that the meadows are full of insects? I have never seen such a diversity of butterflies and day-flying moths, flies and beetles. Insecticides are not used here, and the meadows are so steep and awkwardly shaped that most are still cut down by sickle, usually in mid-July. The sheer number of species of plants and animals speaks volumes for such a regime. I have a dream that one day our road verges and roundabouts, field edges and derelict land, will be as welcoming and varied as these fields. Enough with the monoculture and the Round-up, I say.

Orange-tip butterfly - a familiar face!

Orange-tip butterfly – a familiar face!

As we headed uphill, I noticed a tumbledown shed.

IMG_3202But what was this emerging from underneath?

IMG_3200I am not sure if there are honeybee hives in the shed, or if this is a wild swarm that has made itself at home. Either way, these insects will have a varied and interesting diet for the next few months.

And not all the cattle in this area are Tyrolean Greys.

IMG_3188One of the local farmers keeps a small herd of Highland Cattle. He started about ten years ago with three cows, and now has about fifteen animals, including some of this year’s calves. This breed is admirably suited to the cold weather, and seem to be coping quite happily with the very un-Alpine heatwave that we’ve had for the past few days.

IMG_3189So, after a somewhat sweaty but extremely enjoyable walk, we ended up at the Sahnestuberl, a rustic mountain hut whose name means ‘cream-making house’. And while I generally disapprove of people taking photos of their food when they could be eating it before it gets cold, I hope you’ll forgive me just this once…

Apricot cake with cream. Still warm from the oven...

Apricot cake with cream. Still warm from the oven…

And while I was tucking into my cake, a butterfly was feeding from the salt on the handle of my walking pole. It’s nice to know that someone else is benefiting from all that toiling uphill.



The Grey Cows of the Tyrol

IMG_3126Dear Readers, I was awoken this morning by the sound of cow bells. I looked out of the window to see this small herd of Tyrolean Grey Cattle being driven out to pasture. During the night, they live in this barn, right in the middle of the village.

IMG_3168Then, every morning they return to the pastures that at this time of year are full of wild geranium and birdsfoot trefoil, buttercups and daisies. They are a most handsome breed, and an endangered one: there are only 4000 Tyrolean Grey Cattle left, which is unfortunate as they are hardy and self-sufficient creatures, and can thrive during the short season and extreme conditions of the Alps. Furthermore, they have been around for over a thousand years, grazing these very pastures.

IMG_3136They are phlegmatic beasts, and if they are sitting in the middle of a path chewing the cud you will most certainly have to tiptoe around them, as there is no way that they are getting up. Indeed, why should they? They are too busy making milk and putting on weight, for these cattle are used both for the dairy products that they provide, and for their meat.

IMG_3137The calves come in a variety of colours, from darkest charcoal to cream, but all have a rather attractive ginger topknot.

IMG_3139 I can’t help but think that the life that these cattle lead is as close to ideal as it can be for a domestic animal – the freedom to wander, the company of others, a warm place to sleep and a fine herbal pasture to graze. I  only wish that the other creatures that we eat could enjoy the same conditions, rather than the hell of a factory farm or a feedlot. If we choose to kill in order to eat, it seems to me that the least that we owe those who feed us is a decent life, even if it costs us more financially. After all,  the cost to the animal is everything that they have. IMG_3135

Bugwoman on Location – Obergurgl, Austria

IMG_3004Dear Readers, I wonder if you would like to come on holiday with me? Today I am off to Obergurgl in the Austrian Tyrol, a place I’ve been visiting since the 1990’s. It’s the highest parish in Austria, at 6,330 feet above sea level, and every year we spend a day or two feeling slightly breathless and light-headed as we acclimatise. Half a dozen valleys spread out from here, and the flora and fauna are spectacular.

IMG_0309trimmedIMG_0242IMG_0074IMG_2946trimmedIt’s so high up the weather can be very unpredictable – it started to snow shortly after I took the photo of the marmots. On the other hand, you can be sunburned very quickly with the high UV light. You never know what you’re going to get, so you need to pack for everything from blizzards to heatwaves. And the three real essentials are some good books, some knitting and the travel scrabble, because this is not a place with a lively night-scene. For that, you can head down to the strip clubs of Solden if you don’t mind walking eleven miles 🙂

The locals are mostly friendly…

IMG_0320trimmedThough it can get a bit crowded.

IMG_0343But mostly, it is the place that I love most in the world (next to London and East Finchley, of course).

IMG_0175IMG_2968Sadly, the village feels to me as if it is gradually closing down as a summer destination. In winter, it’s a popular ski resort  and this is the time when the family-run hotels make most of their money. As the proprietor of our favourite hotel told us, during ski-season people will drink a couple of bottles of wine per table at dinnertime, but in the summer it’s a glass of beer and an early night. The hotel that we usually stay at is closed this year, and so is the biggest hotel, the Edelweiss. After all, who would want to work all year round if they could make enough money in six months? So, this year could be our last visit to this enchanted place. I would love to share it with you over the next few weeks, so that you can see why it means so much to me. I will try to make the Wednesday Weed a plant that it’s possible to see in the UK (even if not in East Finchley) but I also want to show you what makes this place so unique.

Of course, if there are technical difficulties when I get to Austria you might have to wait for the photos when I get back :-). I’ve been promised WiFi at the hotel, but who can say what will actually be available? This is the mountains, after all.

Normal East Finchley service will be resumed with the Wednesday Weed on Wednesday July 22nd.

Wednesday Weed – Redshank

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…..


Redshank (Persicaria maculosa)

Dear Readers, this is a plant that most people would automatically think of as a ‘weed’. I found it growing at the base of a tree on my road in north London, and recognised it by the black blotches in the middle of the leaves (‘maculosa’ means ‘spotted’), and by the little hairs on the ochrea. I love learning new botanical words, and so I am glad to share with you that the ochrea is the tube that surrounds the stem where the new leaves emerge.

Note the black 'thumb-marks' in the middle of each leaf, and the slightly hairy ochreae (my favourite new word!)

Note the black ‘thumb-marks’ in the middle of each leaf, and the slightly hairy ochreae (my favourite new word!)

Some of the stems are red, hence the common name for the plant. This is a native perennial and a member of the same family as Japanese Knotweed (the Polygonaceae). It is rarely found far from human activity, and seems to flourish on our footpaths, by the sides of canals, and on cultivated land. It is said to hate lime, and to prefer acid peaty soils, but the one growing on the London clay that I saw seemed to be doing well regardless of what my plant book says.

IMG_3114So, what uses have been made of this inoffensive little plant? It is said to be good for treating rheumatism and, although not native to the US, the Iroquois tribe soon discovered its properties and used concoctions of Redshank for joint pain. They also rubbed the plant on their horses because it was believed to keep flies at bay. The Cherokee used it to treat pain and some urinary complaints, and, closer to home, it has also been used as a source of a yellow dye. In Ukrainian medicine, the plant is used for haemorrhoids and uterine bleeding, and also for colitis. It seems to me to punch above its weight in terms of benefits to humankind. So why, I wondered, does the plant have the alternative name of Useless? I found the answer on the ever-informative Plant Lives website. Here is what the author, Sue Eland, has to say:

‘In Christian lore one of the popular legends tells how Christ’s blood fell on the leaves of the plant as it grew at the foot of the Cross and this caused the dark triangular marks on the leaves. Another accounts for this marking by a very sad little story in which it was described how the Virgin Mary habitually prepared a special ointment from redshank and could not find any of the plant when she needed it. Later she came across some when her need was no longer urgent and in her annoyance not only relegated redshank to the status of a weed but also left an impression of her finger on the leaf. It was said that from then on the plant was the only one for which there was no use.’

I do wonder if this story was also the source of another alternative name for Redshank, which is Lady’s Thumb.


Redshank is said to be edible, but bland. However, it is a rich source of vitamins and minerals, as most wild plants are. There are apparently reports that eating it can cause photosensitivity (i.e. a tendency to burn in even moderate sunlight), and as it contains oxalic acid, like all the rest of its family, I would beware if you have a tendency to kidney stones.  I personally won’t be picking any Redshank from my road, where the bottoms of the trees are regularly sprayed with weedkiller and visited by dogs, but in case you fancy a recipe, here is one from the rather wonderful Eatweeds website: Redshank and aubergine spring rolls. Bon Appetit!