Monthly Archives: August 2015

A Dapper Bird

European Coot (Fulica atra)

European Coot (Fulica atra)

Dear Readers, one of the sad things about my half mile territory is that it doesn’t contain any lakes, or indeed any ponds except for the one in my garden. So when the urge to seek out waterfowl takes over, I have to head for Hampstead Heath, which has a fine selection of water bodies (though whether they will be quite as grand when they’ve finished their controversial dam project is anybody’s guess). One of the most dapper and austere of the birds to be found here is the European Coot, a member of the rail family. It is an easy bird to identify, all sooty-black except for that white beak and frontal shield, and is probably most well known for being ‘as bald as a coot’. However, when you actually look at the creature, this doesn’t really make sense. It’s the front of their faces which are white, not the tops of their heads. I am indebted to the Hedgeland Tales website for pointing out that one of the Old English meanings of ‘bald’ was ‘streaked or marked with white’, and this makes much more sense. It may also be that the name of the Bald Eagle was referring to its whiteness, not its lack of hair. Or indeed feathers.

Most other rails, such as the Moorhen and Water Rail, are shy, retiring, good-mannered birds, tip-toeing around as if anxious not to offend. But one look at the glaring red eyes of the coot should tell you that this is a bird of passion. While all is mostly peaceful at this time of year, the Coot is not a bird to be messed with.

IMG_4181It doesn’t take much to upset a coot.You will often notice them laid out flat in the water, heading towards something on the other side of the pond like a small feathery torpedo. They are extremely territorial birds during the breeding season, and a pair will defend their little patch of water against all comers – dogs, humans, swans, ducks, but most especially other coots. An outbreak of explosive clucks and squawks heralds the onset of hostilities. They fight with wings, beaks, and with their enormous, fascinating feet.

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Coots 1c Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Coots 1c Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s take another look at those feet.

By Emőke Dénes (WWT London Wetland Centre) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Emőke Dénes (WWT London Wetland Centre) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Whereas birds like ducks have full webbing between their toes, birds like coots have ‘partial webbing’, so there is an extended flap of skin surrounding each joint. This enables them to spread their body weight over floating vegetation and mud, and to improve their swimming speed. These are birds which are absolutely at home in the water, but much less so in the air – although the coot is better able to fly than, say, a moorhen, it still takes to the skies reluctantly, with much splashing and flapping. Many members of the family are totally flightless, which led to the extinction of some species once they encountered man and his long-time companions – rats, cats, dogs and pigs. One such is the Chatham Rail, wiped out in New Zealand by the end of the 19th Century.

Chatham Rail (Cabalus modestus)

Chatham Rail (Cabalus modestus)

The Eurasian Coot, however, is doing very well. It has a range which includes the whole of the Old World and Australasia. In the UK, the RSPB estimates that there are approximately 190,000 birds, with 31,000 breeding pairs. And, with a clutch size of up to ten eggs, and a propensity to produce 2 or 3 broods a year, you might think we would soon be wading through an ill-tempered sea of coots, pecking at our ankles and spoiling our shoe polish with their big flappy feet.

Coot feeding chicks ("Sothöns-6". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soth%C3%B6ns-6.JPG#/media/File:Soth%C3%B6ns-6.JPG)

Coot feeding chicks (“Sothöns-6”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soth%C3%B6ns-6.JPG#/media/File:Soth%C3%B6ns-6.JPG)

However, in the breeding season it seems that everything likes a mouthful of fluffy baby coot. Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed gulls are particularly partial. Pike and heron take a few. The babies drown themselves, get tangled up in angler’s paraphenalia and get themselves lost. But by far the biggest danger to little coots, I regret to say, is other coots. Adult birds will destroy eggs and kill chicks that get too close to their own brood. But unfortunately the sheer pressure of so many babies can also turn their own parents into furies. A chick which begs too much may be pecked on the head by its mother so often that it gives up and dies of starvation. Some may even be killed. Gradually, the brood reduces to a size that the parents can handle, and where there were ten baby coots, there may eventually be only one or two. And in the great scheme of things, this is probably just as well, though you would need a heart much harder than mine not to be upset at the sight of chicks being gradually reduced to hopelessness and eventual death.

The lucky survivors ("Eurasian coots - juveniles with adult" by Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.auCanon 20D + Canon 400mm f/5.6 L - Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eurasian_coots_-_juveniles_with_adult.jpg#/media/File:Eurasian_coots_-_juveniles_with_adult.jpg)

The lucky survivors (“Eurasian coots – juveniles with adult” by Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.auCanon 20D + Canon 400mm f/5.6 L – Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eurasian_coots_-_juveniles_with_adult.jpg#/media/File:Eurasian_coots_-_juveniles_with_adult.jpg)

In spite of all of this, however, I find coots fascinating birds. They are much more outgoing and confident than your average rail (when did you last see a Moorhen fighting a Black-headed Gull for a crust)? Their social dynamics are fascinating, and they have a kind of urban, bustling attitude which means that they punch well above their weight on the average boating lake. Our parks would not be the same without the clinks and plinks of coots arguing amongst themselves. Quieter, yes. But definitely not the same.

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Wednesday Weed – Large-flowered Evening Primrose

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…..

Large-flowered Evening Primrose (Oenothera glazioviana)

Large-flowered Evening Primrose (Oenothera glazioviana)

Dear Readers, during the day Evening Primrose can appear to be a rather shambolic plant. Its flowers, which emerge gradually and advance up the stem, can seem limp and unkempt, and the effect is of a plant which is lank and ‘weedy’.

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Large-flowered Evening Primrose outside my Aunt Hilary’s house in Somerset

And yet, as darkness falls, the plant undergoes a transformation. The flowers raise their heads and open their petals, so that they can be pollinated by the moths that are attracted to their faint perfume. I was fascinated by the difference between the day-time flower and its night-time exuberance, and I’m not the only one – for a photo sequence showing how the blooms go from closed to fully open in ten minutes, have a look at Rob’s Flowers.

Because it attracts nocturnal insects, Evening Primrose is also a great plant if you would like to be visited by bats, something I would certainly recommend. Nothing beats sipping a glass of something cold on a summer evening while the flittery shapes of pipistrelles swoop past.

IMG_4124A quick look at the design of the plant gives us a clue to its family: Large-flowered Evening Primrose is not a primrose, but yet another member of the Willowherb family.The stigma of Evening Primrose flowers is an ‘X’ shape, as you can see in the photo above. This particular species of Evening Primrose also has red sepals (the part of the flower that protects the bud), as you can see in the photo below.

IMG_4099The Evening Primrose family probably originated in Central America and Mexico, but it is a plant that hybridises extremely easily, and produces many variations. This species was introduced to the UK as a garden plant in the seventeenth century, but was seen ‘in the wild’ very shortly after this. It is a primary coloniser of disturbed land, and indeed one popped up beside my pond last year following my attempts at renovation. It is a biennial plant – in the first year, there will just be a rosette of leaves, followed by the flowers in year two. However, it doesn’t seem to be persistent – it is quickly out-competed by other plants. Its delicate appearance is matched by its ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ habit, so, like so many things, we need to appreciate it while it’s here.

IMG_4097The genus name of the Evening Primroses, Oenothera, may come from the Greek for ‘Donkey Catcher’, which is a little puzzling as the plants are native to the New World, which had no wild horses prior to the Spaniards. The family name for all the Willowherbs, Onagraceae, also has an equine connection: it means ‘food of the Onager’, an onager being a handsome and athletic species of Asiatic wild ass, which in the wild can run at up to 64 mph. As it has been hunted nearly to extinction, I suspect that these days it has very little chance to graze on willowherbs of any kind.

A captive onager, with no Willowherbs in sight...("Rostov-on-Don Zoo Persian onager IMG 5268 1725" by Alexxx1979 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rostov-on-Don_Zoo_Persian_onager_IMG_5268_1725.jpg#/media/File:Rostov-on-Don_Zoo_Persian_onager_IMG_5268_1725.jpg)

A captive onager, with no Willowherbs in sight…(“Rostov-on-Don Zoo Persian onager IMG 5268 1725” by Alexxx1979 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rostov-on-Don_Zoo_Persian_onager_IMG_5268_1725.jpg#/media/File:Rostov–Don_Zoo_Persian_onager_IMG_5268_1725.jpg)

The reason that most of us have heard of Evening Primrose, of course, is because it is a source of Gamma-linoleic acid, or GLA. Evening Primrose oil was originally used by Native Americans to treat ‘swelling of the body’, and became a popular folk-remedy in Europe, known as ‘the King’s Cure-all’ However, it has been a controversial plant, having been taken off the list of recommended drugs for dermatitis back in 2002, and rejected by the American Cancer Society as a treatment for cancer or, indeed, anything else. However, I remember taking Evening Primrose capsules for PMT when I was younger, and thinking that it helped, though whether this was Primrose or Placebo is open to discussion. There are also studies showing that GLA may help with neuropathic pain. It does act as a blood-thinner, however, so anyone who is already taking such medication should proceed with particular care.

IMG_4084The roots of Evening Primrose can be boiled and eaten, and the buds are also said to be edible. If you would like some recipes for Evening Primrose Fritters, and for Roasted Winter Vegetables including Evening Primrose root, have a look at the wonderful Sacred Earth website here, and do let me know how you get on! However, Evening Primrose is not a common plant in my half-mile territory, and so I will be leaving it for the moths, and the bats that feed on them.

The Pigeons of Bunhill Fields

Dear Readers, it is of course a law of nature that if I am going to accidentally publish a post before it is ready, many of the photographs will be ‘wrong’. If you received an earlier version of this post, apologies. Hopefully this one will be a little easier on the eye.

There are places in London where the past butts so hard against the present that it’s difficult to keep a grip on both. One of these places is Bunhill Fields, a burial ground tucked away between City Road and Old Street. People have been interred here since the Fourteenth Century, but it is most famous for its Eighteenth and Nineteenth burials of dissenters. John Bunyan is buried here, and so, it is thought, is William Blake. Whilst Bunyan has a fine white tomb with his effigy peacefully resting on top, for Blake there is just a stone, stating that he is thought to be buried somewhere in the graveyard, along with his wife. Some red and white gladioli in a vase stand beside the memorial, in modern-day remembrance of this most eccentric and visionary man, who conversed with angels in his garden, and who saw more clearly than most the connections between the different parts of creation.


The graves here are so old that they have been fenced off to prevent visitors from damaging them. But the main route through the graveyard, on an August weekday lunchtime, is full of office workers going to and fro, clutching their takeaway salads from Pret a Manger and chatting on their mobile phones. Some take a detour to the green behind the Fields, and find themselves a bench beneath the London Plane trees. Others are cutting through at speed. No one is looking at the graves. Perhaps they’ve seen them all before and know how historic this site is. Perhaps they’ve a deadline waiting for them back at their desks, and this is the only leafy-green spot that they’ll see until they pack up this evening.


As usually happens, I am putting down my rucksack and pulling out my camera when a woman with a clipboard approaches. Do I have a kind face, or is there something in my expression that tells her that I am a loiterer rather than a dasher? At any rate, she is from the City of London Authority, and wants to know what I am doing in Bunhill Fields so that she can classify my visit. No doubt all this data is used to consider the worthiness of an open space. Maybe it opens up the world of grants and other funding. The woman shows me a list of reasons for visiting the Fields. Sadly, none of them exactly match what I’m doing here.

‘I am here’, I announce, ‘to photograph the pigeons’.

She is flummoxed. After a moment she makes a decision.

‘I’ll put that down as ‘Other”, she says.

What I am actually doing is taking some photographs of the individual pigeons in the flock that lives here. While it’s tempting to think that all pigeons are the same, they are in fact extraordinarily varied in plumage. I wanted to capture some of that variation, and to have a think about why it might be.

There are two kinds of pigeon colouration which are so common as to be considered ‘normal’. One of these is the ‘Blue Bar’. These birds have two distinct bands on their wings, though the colour of these bands can vary. These are the closest to the wild pigeon, the Rock Dove (Columba livia) from which all pigeons are descended. These often seem to me to be the healthiest looking pigeons as well, though I’m unsure how these facts are related.

Two Blue Band pigeons

Two Blue Bar pigeons

The other very common pigeon pattern is the Chequered. Instead of bands on the wing, this type is mottled, usually in shades of dark grey.

Chequered pigeon

Chequered pigeon

I walk on to the green and sit down on a bench. There are about twenty pigeons walking optimistically about, giving the sandwich-munching office-workers a sneaky look as they gallop past, then circling back at the slightest sign of messiness or engagement.

I notice that the birds seem to form sub-flocks, hanging about with other birds that look like them. There are some birds, for example, which show variations on the theme of rust and grey. Technically, these are called ‘Red’ birds and they are very attractive to look at – the rusty colour can infuse their whole breast, or be a kind of patina on top of a basic dove-grey. Three of them follow one another about, and hang hopefully around a man who is eating a cheese baguette whilst talking on his mobile phone. I notice that they approach from behind the bench and snatch the crumbs from behind. Clever birds!

Red pigeon in stealth mode

Red pigeon in stealth mode

I wonder about this colour segregation as well. I read that pigeons prefer to mate with birds who resemble their parents, so maybe this helps to ‘set’ particular patterns. And if the birds are related, that explains why they seek out one another’s company.

Another frequent colourway is the Black bird. There were several of these in the flock, but, surprisingly, I spotted two birds who were all black except for their white wing feathers. One of these birds had a white blaze on the  head as well. He or she looked very exotic, a most unlikely feral pigeon. Maybe these two were siblings.

Black pigeon

Black pigeon

Two almost-Black pigeons, with interesting white wing feathers.

Two almost-Black pigeons, with interesting white wing feathers.

As I sat and watched, I noticed that the pigeons would often fly off as one, heading for another likely source of food on the other side of the green. As they rose, some of them would slap their wings audibly. I’d always thought that this was a warning, or a display. Here, though, I came to the conclusion that it was a way of telling the other birds that a food source had been discovered – on hearing the ‘slap’ other birds would fly up and join the flock which flew directly to the food source.I have noticed before, in Waterloo Station for example, that the birds are acutely conscious of one another’s behaviour, and if one bird flies down to a source of food, the others will follow suit, even if they can’t see food from their perch. But something different seemed to be going on in Bunhill Fields. Alerting other pigeons, even unrelated ones, to food seems almost altruistic, but then if every bird does it, everyone benefits. There is so much about these ubiquitous creatures that we don’t yet understand. I can almost feel a PhD subject coming on.

I had lots of photographs by now, and so I decided to head back, against the tide. But as I drew level with a tomb, I noticed two pigeons courting on top of it. A Red male and a Blue Bar female were ‘kissing’, fencing with their beaks. Then, the male started to groom the female’s head and neck, while she closed her eyes. Finally, he stepped on top of her and, wings flapping, got down to business. I realised that taking photographs of pigeons mating was probably not very seemly, although the participants didn’t seem to care. And as the stream of humanity passed by, oblivious, the next generation of pigeons was conceived. I’m sure that William Blake would have been delighted.

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Wednesday Weed – Spear-leaved Orache

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…..

Spear-leaved Orache (Atriplex prostrata)

Spear-leaved Orache (Atriplex prostrata)

Dear Readers, today I took a walk to Muswell Hill Playing Fields, which are on the edge of Coldfall Wood. Earlier this year, there were several areas which turned into quagmire, the claggy mud coming up to the top of the dog-walkers’ wellington boots. As a result, the council sent in some heavy machinery to dig out the worst areas and replace the soil. Well, I have no idea exactly what they replaced it with, but both areas are now three feet deep in a very impressive selection of ‘weeds’. At the head of the rush are great stands of Annual Mercury and Redshank and some Pale Persicaria, plus some Scented Mayweed , but there are also some very fine Spear-leaved Orache (Atriplex prostrata).

IMG_3986This is an annual, native plant, a member of the Amaranthaceae family which includes Goosefoots, Oraches and many seaside plants. Spear-leaved Oraches are often found on the strand-line on beaches and on seawalls – like many other members of their family,  they have a very high tolerance for salt. But they are also found on disturbed soil, and you don’t get much more disturbed than completely replaced.

To distinguish Spear-leaved Orache from the many other members of the family (which includes the edible plants Good King Henry and Fat Hen), have a look at the leaves in the photo above. If the ‘spear’ shape is has a completely flat bottom edge, so that it looks rather like a triangle, you are most likely looking at a Spear-leaved Orache. Apparently the whole plant can turn red in autumn, so I will make sure to check.

IMG_3989 The meaning of the word ‘Orache’ comes from the same root as the plant’s Latin family name, Atriplex, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary the meaning of both words is unknown. However, in A Modern Herbal, the word is said to be a corruption of Aurum, which means gold, and in this context referred to the use of the seeds, boiled with wine, to cure yellow jaundice. The plant is also said to be a cure for gout.

IMG_3987Let’s return to this question of salt for a moment. Whilst some members of the Orache/Goosefoot family are merely salt-tolerant, others are halophyles, which means that they positively enjoy salty environments. Amongst them are the Glassworts, better known to us as Samphires.

European Samphire (Salicornia europaea) (“Salicornia europaea MS 0802” by Marco Schmidt [1] – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salicornia_europaea_MS_0802.JPG#/media/File:Salicornia_europaea_MS_0802.JPG)

These are specialised plants, with thick, spongy leaves which retain water against the harsh winds and exposed conditions of coastal areas. And the leaves also absorb salt. I remember being on a field trip to the Thames estuary back when I was a youngster, and biting into the toothsome green stems of some samphire that we found. This was long before it had become a fashionable accompaniment to fish in West End restaurants, and I was amazed, town child that I was, that something so delicious could just be picked from the side of a path. Of course, as one of my readers pointed out a while back, ‘weeds’ are not only often good food in their own right, they are also the ancestors of so many of the plants that we eat these days – without wild carrot, and wild turnip, without wild strawberries and raspberries, we would not have the familiar fruit and vegetables in our greengrocers and supermarkets.

What is interesting to me is that even Spear-leaved Orache, which is not as well-adapted to coastal conditions as other members of the family, will change its habit if it finds itself beside the seaside. Here in North London, it grows erect, but on the seashore it will collapse and grow outwards instead of up, a much better adaptation to windy places. Plus, its leaves can become much fleshier, to help it to retain water. It is astonishing to me how variable some plants can be, and how over a few generations they can change themselves to be successful, taking advantage of whatever is happening. Anyone who doubts the reality of evolution should probably experiment by harvesting some Spear-leaved Orache seeds from a single plant, and planting some in their garden and some at the seaside, It would be interesting to see how long it would take them to start to differentiate.

The Flying Ants

Dear Readers, just as I was leaving Mum and Dad’s house in Dorset last week, I happened to glance down at the path. From a crack in the concrete black ants were bubbling out like lava. All of them seemed agitated – the small workers dashing about haphazardly, antennae waving, whilst much bigger winged ants made their way to the tops of the grass stems before launching themselves into flight. A few smaller winged ants were also about, loitering at the edge of the action. In short, it was what we as a family always call ‘The Day of the Ants’.

I first noticed this phenomenon when I was a child and lived in a tiny house in Stratford. On a humid, hot day in August, when we had the front and back door open to get a breeze in spite of the smell from the glue factory on the Carpenter’s Road about a mile away, our living room was suddenly inundated by ants. I noticed some climbing up the wall, some on the window frame, some crossing the floor. With each new one spotted I can still remember the growing prickle of fear.

‘There’s another one!’ I squeaked, spotting a particularly fat ant walking above the armchair.

In truth, there were probably only a couple of dozen. However, much as I loved insects outside the house, I had the feeling of being overwhelmed, as if it might never stop. Maybe more and more ants would come in until they coated everything in a glistening black layer. I could feel the hysteria rising.

‘And another one!’ I shrieked, pointing with a trembling finger.

My mother knew exactly what to do.

‘Don’t be so silly!’ she said, sharply. ‘They’re only ants. They’ll go soon’.

I was a serious child who prized herself on being ‘grown-up’. Silly had the same effect as a bucket of water over the head. I pulled myself together, and found that I was actually more intrigued than scared. What was going on here?

This phenomenon is known as a ‘nuptial flight’. In the nest, the large winged ‘virgin queen’ ants and the smaller winged males may have been waiting around for the correct weather conditions for weeks. Their development was probably a result of changes in the chemical signals produced by the resident queen – maybe the colony had reached a size where it was desirable to split, or maybe the current queen has reached the end of her life. But when the air is hot, still and humid, these winged ants will leave the nest, in order to mate and, if luck is with them, found a new colony. Often, many colonies in the same area ‘swarm’ on the same day, but it doesn’t happen in just one 24-hour period – a nest may swarm more than once, or not at all, and it will happen at different times in different parts of the country. So, The Day of the Ants IS really The Days of the Ants.

The ants pour out of their home nests in great numbers – as with the hatching of sea turtles, the result is to overwhelm any predators, who, try as they might, can’t kill them all. And what predators! Everything from other ant species, spiders and beetles to swifts, house martins, crows and starlings will eat these fat, nutritious insects. They are a late summer protein bonanza, especially for birds like swallows, who have a long journey ahead of them.

Once the females are away from their home nest, they produce a pheromone to attract males – this is to avoid inbreeding with their ‘brothers’. They mate in flight, and this is the only flight that they will ever make. The males die off very quickly, and the females lose their wings when they return to the ground, often biting them off themselves. I remember the gutters in Stratford being peppered with the shards of torn, discarded wings, as if someone had smashed the windows of a doll’s house.

The new queens, virgin no longer, will now look for somewhere to make their nest. Although nobody likes ants in their cupboards or sugar bowl, they help to aerate the soil, and can be fearsome predators of other small insects (though their habit of farming aphids doesn’t always endear them to gardeners). If she is successful, the female ant will retire below the ground and will lay eggs for up to fifteen years, without ever seeing the sun again. All of the new worker ants that emerge are a result of her single mating on that late summer day.

When I came home from shopping a few years ago, I noticed that the queen ants were starting to emerge from the pavement outside my house. Most of the time I only see the ants when they’re carrying aphids from one part of my buddleia to another – they love the honeydew that the green and blackfly produce, and look after them as if they were little cows. They will even try to protect them from marauding ladybirds, though the ladybirds usually win. But on this day they were everywhere, pouring out of the gaps between the paving stones. I went inside, put my shopping away and went back out, to see two small boys with fly swats in their hands having a great time killing the queen ants outside my house. They looked up when I opened the door.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘We are killing these flies’ said one.

‘They aren’t flies’, I said. ‘Look again’.

They looked.

‘They look like big ants with wings’, volunteered the older boy.

‘They are big ants with wings’, I said. ‘They’re queens. They are flying off to find a new home, and when they find a new one they will go underground, and they will never, ever fly again.’

‘I didn’t know that’, said the older boy, shifting from foot to foot, though whether through embarrassment or guilt I have no idea.

‘So are you going to leave them alone now?’ I asked.

‘I s’pose so’, he said. ‘Bye’.

And with that the pair of them ran up the street, no doubt spooked by the mad lady, and the ants could go about their dispersal with only the usual predators to contend with. These were not bad children – they were only playing, and like most youngsters they were probably imitating their parents. I do believe that if children understand the stories of the animals that surround them, they are much less likely to randomly do them harm, and that goes for the rest of us, too.


Wednesday Weed – Goat’s Rue

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…..

Goat's Rue (Galega officinalis)

Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis)

Dear Readers, while I was walking in the Playing Fields at the edge of Coldfall Wood a few weeks ago, I saw a plant that I didn’t recognise. This in itself is not so strange – of the plants that surround me, I know only a tiny fraction, though my knowledge is improving all the time. But this plant looked like a member of the pea family, but grew like a bush. It was all on its own, and had delicate mauve flowers. How had I missed it before?

IMG_3670I hurried home to my plant books, and discovered that I was looking at Goat’s Rue. It is a member of the pea family, and is a naturalised species – it was first introduced from the Middle East by 1568 and was found in the wild by 1640. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how it is extremely common around Sheffield, and how it might have spread:

‘A Sheffield miner told me that he remembered his father recounting how in the early part of this century horticultural traders used to work the poorer parts of the city suburbs selling garden plants which only just merited that description. They were aggressive species like tansy, Michaelmas daisy, feverfew and goat’s rue, all of which have naturalised widely in the city. He recalled his father purchasing Japanese knotweed and how friends were invited round to marvel at the spotted stem and attactive foliage and how the plant was later divided up for exchange’.

However, as I have started to delve into the history of Goat’s Rue, I have come to realise that this is no ‘ordinary’ weed. In fact, I’m starting to think that there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ weed, but this one is extraordinary. It’s Latin name, Galega, means ‘to bring on milk’, and it was used to increase milk supply in a variety of domestic animals, hence its common name. Nursing human mothers have also used the herb for this purpose, and a quick look on the internet shows that supplements containing this plant are available, along with recommendations for dosage using the whole plant. Personally, I would be extremely careful about using any plant that is known to have toxic effects (see below).

IMG_3674What fascinates me most, however, is Goat’s-Rue’s long association with the treatment of diabetes. One of the chemicals in the plant was long known to reduce blood-sugar, but the compounds themselves were toxic – they are said to cause ‘tracheal frothing, pulmonary oedema, hydrothorax, hypotension, paralysis and death‘. However a chemist, George Tanret, identified a slightly less toxic compound from the plant called galegine, and this was used as the basis for treatments during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The drug that is currently used to treat Type 2 diabetes, Metformin, is a synthesised form of the chemical that was discovered in Goat’s Rue, with the toxicity taken out. With two parents and a brother who all have diabetes, it makes me humble to look at this plant and realise that without it, they might not have had access to the drug that helped, initially at least, to keep their conditions under control. In a short paper in ‘Practical Diabetes International’ by C.J. Bailey and C Day, the authors have this to say:

Postscript of ironies

There are several ironies about metformin. In our high-tech era of drug discovery and development this first-line treatment for type 2 diabetes is little removed from a herbal remedy of the middle ages. Despite its chemical simplicity and detailed investigation, metformin continues to evade a complete exposé of its cellularactivity. While endless pharmacovigilance has monitored the safety profile of metformin, its natural ancestor,G. officinalis (known as Professor Weed in the USA) is a Class A Federal Noxious Weed in 35 states of America, and appears on the database of poisonous plants.’

IMG_3672This is not the only way that Goat’s Rue has been used. It has been used as a worm treatment for domestic animals, and also to treat plague victims. In the first case, I can imagine that its toxicity was a way of killing the parasites, providing the dosage was managed properly and didn’t kill the animal as well. As to the poor plague victim, I suppose that death by poisoning was the least of their worries.

The name ‘Goat’s Rue’ has been explained as either the result of its use to encourage milk production, or because of the unpleasant smell of its bruised leaves. I don’t find either of these ideas particularly conducive – I’d have thought that  a goat would be happy to be producing more milk for its kids (though admittedly not if it was stolen to feed humans), and the leaves don’t smell particularly goaty to me. But there we go. The reasons are lost in the proverbial mists of time. The North American nickname for the plant, Professor Weed, is said to be because it was originally introduced as a forage weed by the professorial body at the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station. Not only was it found to be less toothsome to the grazing animals than alfalfa, but it also ‘went native’ with a vengeance, hopping over the fence and spreading all over those wide open spaces. When a report that it had killed some sheep in Europe came in, an eradication programme which removed over 90% of the plant took place. Since then, it has bounced back, and the battle goes on.

IMG_3671Goat’s Rue has also been used as a replacement for rennet during cheese-making (and in fact yet another alternative name for the plant in the north of England is ‘Cheese-Rennet’). It is said to be useful if you are bitten by a snake. And, in experiments that no doubt resulted in the deaths of hundreds of mice, it has been shown to reduce obesity. Was there ever a poisonous plant with so many uses? And, furthermore, so many names?

In German folklore, Goat’s Rue is known as one of the Holy Hay plants, along with Sanfoin and Alfalfa. This is because it was said to be one of the plants laid in the manger in Bethlehem. When Jesus was laid down amongst the hay, it is said to have spontaneously burst into flower. And, whatever your religion, what a lovely image this is to end with.

 

 

An Ordinary Butterfly

Dear Readers, one of the commonest and most familiar of the butterflies in our gardens at this time of year is the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). While I was staying with my parents in Dorset this week I found a number of them visiting the buddleia bush, and was surprised both at how confiding they were, allowing me to get within a few inches of them, and how tattered and worn they looked. Some had so much wing damage that I was surprised that they could fly at all.

It isn’t surprising that these creatures look a little tired – most of them have made a migration all the way from central Europe to the UK to breed. Recently, however, some Red Admirals are hibernating in our garages and sheds, and the milder British winters mean that they can survive, making them a rare beneficiary of climate change. They are now officially a native species, after all their long history of presence in this country. In the autumn, some butterflies will make the journey in reverse, and have been spotted gathering over the White Cliffs of Dover just like migratory birds. In spite of their fragile appearance, these are tough, determined insects.

On arriving in the UK, a female Red Admiral will waste no time in finding a patch of nettles and depositing a single green egg at the growing tip of each one. They look a little like sea gooseberries to me, perfect and delicate, and will hatch after about a week.

Red Admiral Egg (Egg By Tristram [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the caterpillar emerges, it wraps the leaf around itself as protection – you will often find whole patches of nettles with these little caterpillar cigarillos. They will enlarge the parcels each time they shed their skin, which is usually five times. The mouths of the newly-emerged young are so small that they can’t eat right through the leaf, just scraping away the outer layer. But as they grow, they become more voracious, cutting perfect half-circles through the edge of the leaf with each toss of their heads. Caterpillars are basically eating machines: while their preferred food plant is stinging nettle, they will sometimes munch through hops and pellitory of the wall. The caterpillars of the Red Admiral are spikey little black things, completely different to their elegant parents.

A fine Red Admiral caterpillar (note the silk at the top left hand corner) (By Lamiot, from Gilles San Martin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A fine Red Admiral caterpillar (note the silk at the top left hand corner) (By Lamiot, from Gilles San Martin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Once the caterpillar has reached the requisite size, after about four weeks, it will start to pupate. This is a process that has bewitched human beings ever since they realised that the lumpy, earthbound larva becomes a butterfly. It is extraordinary to me that all the material required for the transformation exists not only in the body of the caterpillar but in the egg itself. The germ of everything that is needed to make wings and antennae and compound eyes is already there. The one part of the caterpillar that remains relatively unaltered during the process are those six little legs at the front that turn into the long elegant legs of the butterfly. Everything else seems to be utterly changed.

When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, it stops eating. It draws together several leaves to make a silk tent, and then spins a silk holdfast for itself, called a cremaster. And then, the skin splits, and something new emerges, and dries. Where there was frantic movement, there is a pregnant stillness. The pupa is beautifully camouflaged, easy to overlook. But inside, something new is happening, and after two to three weeks, the adult emerges.

Red Admiral Chrysalis (Red Admiral pupa ("Chrysalis-butterfly-vulcan-chrysalide-papillon-vulcain-vanessa-atalanta-2" by Emmanuel Boutet - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chrysalis-butterfly-vulcan-chrysalide-papillon-vulcain-vanessa-atalanta-2.jpg#/media/File:Chrysalis-butterfly-vulcan-chrysalide-papillon-vulcain-vanessa-atalanta-2.jpg)

Red Admiral Chrysalis (Red Admiral pupa (“Chrysalis-butterfly-vulcan-chrysalide-papillon-vulcain-vanessa-atalanta-2” by Emmanuel Boutet – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chrysalis-butterfly-vulcan-chrysalide-papillon-vulcain-vanessa-atalanta-2.jpg#/media/File:Chrysalis-butterfly-vulcan-chrysalide-papillon-vulcain-vanessa-atalanta-2.jpg)

The Red Admiral is not a rare butterfly, but it is a very fine one, in its livery of chocolate brown and vermillion. There is much debate as to whether the ‘Admiral’ is a corruption of ‘admirable’, or a reference to the ensign flown on ships when the admiral was aboard. In France, however,  it is known as ‘le vulcain’, after the blacksmith of the gods. Its appearance in many European paintings may indicate temptation, with the crimson and smoky-grey wings being seen as reminiscent of the fires of hell. What a weight of symbolism for a butterfly to bear! And sometimes it might have led to the butterfly’s destruction, as there are old stories of a ‘red butterfly’ that was hunted in the north of England and the Borders as a witch.

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Portrait of Margharita Gonzaga (Antonio Pisanello 1440)

In truth, of course, the Red Admiral is a harmless creature and attractive creature, with no demonic intentions that I can detect. As an adult, the Red Admiral seems to have a liking for buddleia and thistles in particular, and is one of the last butterflies to still be on the wing in autumn – it is often seen feeding on windfall plums and apples. I have a great fondness for the damaged, faded creatures that are currently on the wing. They’ve probably crossed mountain meadows and fluttered across twenty-six miles of salt-water. They’ve maybe survived the attentions of birds and dragonflies, and have lost their bright-painted colours on the way. But by now, they have probably reproduced, and will soon be joined by their splendid, new-minted, perfect offspring. Who could begrudge these elderly insects their pleasure in nectar, or in basking in the sun?


Sources this week include Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, and The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham, both full of fascinating information.