Monthly Archives: October 2015

Bugwoman on Location – ‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern

'Empty Lot' by Abraham Cruzvillega at Tate Modern

‘Empty Lot’ by Abraham Cruzvillega at Tate Modern

Dear Readers, earlier this week I took a day off from work and went to Tate Modern to see their latest Turbine Hall installation. This massive space has been home to Olafur Eliasson’s sunset light-show, Carsten Holler’s metal tubular slides, and an enormous red trumpet by Anish Kapoor, which took up the entire hall. This time, however, the art-work is inspired by nature. Called ‘Empty Lot’, it’s by Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas and it consists of dozens of triangular wooden raised beds, each one filled with soil from a different part of London. There are lights positioned seeming randomly about the space, and each bed is watered regularly. However, the beds are not planted: whatever grows there will have been in the soil already. It seemed like an interesting idea, though I was concerned about the time-scale – the installation went in on 6th October, and will be removed on 6th April. As many of the plants won’t come into growth until March, it feels like a lost opportunity. How much better it would have been if it had run from February to September, for example. Nonetheless, I was intrigued.

IMG_4784When I entered the hall, I was disappointed. I had expected to be able to walk between the beds and see them up close. Instead, the beds are on scaffolding, so you can peer down on the ones that are nearest to the viewing platform, but can’t really see what’s happening in the ones that are furthest away. Furthermore, there is no way of telling which beds contain which soil. It would have been interesting to see if there was a difference between north and south London for example, or if the soil taken from industrial sites had different plants from those taken from parks and gardens. It would have been a chance for art and science to meet. Instead, some of the beds have things growing in them, and some do not, and why this might be is anybody’s guess. I harrumphed to myself in best Bugwoman fashion, and almost just walked away.

IMG_4770But then, I had a closer look. Already, some things are emerging. One bed is full of baby thistles.Several have stinging nettles. Some have grass. One bed is entirely full of what look like etiolated nasturtiums, their little round leaves balanced on stems as long as a giraffe’s neck. It’s clear that there isn’t enough light for some of the plants, and I imagine that these seedlings will collapse and die. There were delicious leaves that looked like maidenhair fern emerging from one or two of the beds. Another looked as if it would be populated with willowherb. There was a conker in one bed, and a couple of partially munched apples in another, though whether the fruit had been brought in with the soil or tossed there by a viewer was unclear.




Little thistles?





Any ideas? Looks like maidenhair fern....

Any ideas? Looks like maidenhair fern….

The colour and texture of the soil was also interesting. Some looked like unimproved London clay, claggy and cold. Some was the colour of dark chocolate, and was obviously much improved with compost and mulch. Some had dried out, with a silvery salty sheen on the surface. As with so many things, the more I looked, the more I noticed.

IMG_4772So I suppose the question is, what does it all mean? Some might answer that art is in the eye of the beholder, who can attach whatever meaning they blooming (!) well want. The artist himself has said that we are all, as individuals, ‘empty lots’, where anything might grow or manifest itself. Someone else has mentioned that all the ‘exciting stuff’ in this installation is happening under the surface, as seeds sprout and mushrooms push their little heads up. But although I have frustrations with the work, for me it is a symbol of the sheer irrepressibility of life, which will appear regardless of location. I look forward to a return visit in the spring, to see what has popped up. For all that there may be human interventions – I’m sure people won’t be able to resist seed-bombing the beds closest to the walkways – the real fun will be in seeing what nature herself can do in this unnatural situation.


Wednesday Weed – Russian Vine

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…..

Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschuanica)

Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschuanica)

Dear Readers, I have noticed that when a plant wants to be featured in the Wednesday Weed, it makes its presence felt everywhere, and so it has been with Russian Vine. I first noticed it during my stumbling walk around the fields of Milborne St Andrew a few weeks ago, where it had grown over a fence and was intent on blocking the footpath.

IMG_4598Then, on my journeys back and forth from Surrey (where I am currently ensconced in Sutton Holiday Inn for four nights a week), I peered blearily through the window and realised that the trackside was a tumult of white flowers, tumbling over the back-gardens of Purley and Croydon like a foam-flecked wave. And, finally, when I took a walk along the unadopted road close to my house in East Finchley today, there it was again. I relented. This is a plant that wants its story told, for sure.

IMG_4727What we have here is a garden plant, originally from Asia, and known by such wonderful alternative names as Bukhara Fleeceflower and Chinese Fleecevine. However, most people will be familiar with it as Mile-a-minute plant. Many a gardener has planted one, gone indoors to make a cup of tea and come back to discover that it has taken over the shed and half of the children’s trampoline next door. Its flowers are a source of nectar for pollinators, but it has also been compared to the dreaded Leylandii Cypress for its over-enthusiastic and invasive nature. However, I am reminded that a ‘weed’ is simply a plant in the ‘wrong’ place, and so, while it can be a pain in a small garden, I would rather see Russian Vine along the edge of a railway line than the mass of wire fencing and fly-tipped building materials that it is probably covering.


Russian vine was first introduced to the UK in 1894, and was first discovered ‘in the wild’ in 1936. However, it has been pointed out that the plant is rarely found far from habitation, and that many of these ‘wild’ plants might actually be rooted in gardens, albeit gardens that are ten metres away.


Some of you might be thinking that you’ve heard the genus name Fallopia before in this blog, and indeed you have. Russian Vine is a relative of Japanese Knotweed and can interbreed with it. In the latest book in the superb New Naturalist series, ‘Alien Plants’, by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley, there is a very interesting discussion about how Japanese Knotweed has spread in the UK. In theory, because only female plants are present in this country, the plant shouldn’t be able to reproduce but, of course, it does. It has been found that Japanese Knotweed can hybridise with other species of Knotweed, and also with Russian Vine. Although these latter hybrids (named Fallopia x conollyana in honour of the botanist Ann Conolly who first investigated the genetics of this group) find it difficult to establish themselves, there are now three localities in which they exist, and one was first discoved in Haringey, not far from where I live, in 1987. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports that the hybrid is:

..’more elegant and less aggressive than either of its parents and has leaves shapely enough to make it a serious contender as a garden scrambler or ground-cover plant in the future. In the warm summer of 1993 it was being visited by many different species of native insect’.

Let us be grateful that this new plant seems to be taking on the gentler characteristics of its parents. If it combined the climbing ability of Russian Vine with the truculence of Japanese Knotweed we might have a candidate for a star part in a remake of The Triffids.

Russian Vine doing its 'mile-a-minute' thang...(Photo credit below)

Russian Vine doing its ‘mile-a-minute’ thang…(Photo credit below)

Photo Credits

Russian Vine (final photo on blog): “Fallopia baldschuanica 20050913 640”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

All other photographs are copyright Vivienne Palmer





Dear Readers, long before the time when Trick or Treating became such a big deal in the UK, the big autumn festival was Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November. When I was a child, you could buy tiny fireworks for a couple of pennies each. They had names like ‘Traffic Lights’ and ‘Vesuvius’ and each one would last for about thirty seconds before puttering to a smokey end Our back garden was minuscule, and so my Dad was master of ceremonies for the evening. To start with, he’d light one firework at a time, and we’d stand and watch from the kitchen window. Catherine Wheels were always exciting Dad would nail them to the post that held the washing line, and my brother and I would scream with delight if it fell off and careered across the yard, sometimes trapping Dad in our outside toilet until it stopped sparking and sputtered to a halt. The evening usually ended with Dad standing in the rain, lighting four or five fireworks at once and then ducking back into the toilet to escape the miniature inferno. I can still see him, raindrops dripping from the rim of his trilby, sometimes with a cigarette in his mouth, as he tried to get to the end of the seemingly interminable array of incendiaries we’d managed to buy with our meagre half-crown a week pocket money. That’s love for you.

IMG_4685For some reason, this year as I’ve watched the approach of autumn, I’ve been reminded of the fireworks of my childhood. Gradually the trees light up, one at a time. An otherwise green tree might have the smallest hint of orange one day, and yet by the end of the week it’s aglow. It starts so gently that you might almost think you were still in late August and then, suddenly, there is colour everywhere.

IMG_4661Different colours appear in the leaves for different reasons. As the temperatures fall and the daylight hours lessen, a tree is no longer able to collect enough sunlight for growth. Furthermore,  a tree with its leaves still attached is more likely to be pulled over by the wind, and leaves also cause water loss during a season when much of the water needed by the plant is frozen. Therefore, deciduous trees fall into dormancy during the winter. The leaves, which harvested the sunlight and turned it into food, no longer have enough hours of daylight to sustain themselves.The main chemical which helped the plant to photosynthesise, chlorophyll, is what makes the leaves look green. When this ceases to be produced, the other orange and yellow pigments, normally masked by the green colour, can be seen. These pigments are beta-carotenoids, the same chemicals that make egg yolks yellow and carrots orange, and in some plants these are the dominant pigments all year round – think of some alders and Japanese maples, for example. At the same time as the colour change occurs, a layer of corky cells grow in the stem of each leaf, which causes abscission – the process by which the leaf detaches from the tree.


Red pigments are a different story. These are not hidden by the green pigments of summer, but are produced by the tree when about half of its chlorophyll has been used up. The pigments are called anthocyanins, and they are related to the breakdown of the sugars that the plants need. We can also find these pigments in cranberries, cherries and other fruits. Bright, cold days and chilly, but not freezing nights are thought to encourage the production of these scarlet and purple pigments. In most forests only 10% of the trees contain these pigments to any extent, but in New England and in parts of Canada up to 70% of the trees are full of anthocyanins – maples, sweetgums, dogwoods and oaks are amongst the species which can put on a spectacular show. Where present, these pigments can combine with the newly exposed yellows and oranges of the beta-carotenoids to produce a show of such unworldly beauty that it feels as if you are walking through a hallucinated landscape.

Autumn 2012 at Lake of Bays, Ontario, Canada

Autumn 2012 at Lake of Bays, Ontario, Canada

And when all this is past, we are left with the dead leaves of autumn, a pleasure in themselves as we scuff and rustle through them. The brown and copper shades that are left when everything else has faded are the true colour of the cell walls once everything else has past.


And after that? On the pavements you might see the ghosts of leaves, the shadow-outline that gradually fades like the after-image of the chrysanthemum burst of a Roman Candle. Winter is nearly upon us, but the trees are not going quietly. Just like the night that my dad accidentally set fire to a whole box of fireworks, the trees are putting on an exuberant final show, an over-the-top display of colour as if to make up for the dark, cold, wet nights to come. Let’s take a deep breath of chilly late October air, and enjoy the last great tree-show of the year.

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Wednesday Weed – Spear 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…..

Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Dear Readers, I am cheating a little this week as the photos of the spear thistle that I am including come from a field close to where my parents live, in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset. But as this is a wide-spread and abundant ‘weed’, I’m sure there is some within my half-mile, I just have to find it. Plus, as I discovered it during a walk which included almost falling down a rabbit hole and having to vault a five-barred gate (not so easy when one is an unfit townie who last had to climb over a gate thirty years ago) I was determined to feature it. Never let it be said that Bugwoman doesn’t go the extra mile. Well, half-mile anyway.

IMG_4609And, really, who could resist this plant? Yes, it’s what my plant book calls ‘viciously spiny’. Yes, it’s another one of those ‘Injurious Weeds’ in the 1959 Weeds Act. Yes, it grows in ‘rough and grassy places’. But the flowers are so magenta that they make me squint to look at them, and it is the national flower of Scotland, to boot – it was said to be a warning to landlords and others not to meddle with the privileges of the people. This is a plant that is tough and beautiful at the same time, and is also an absolute magnet for bees and butterflies during the summer, and for finches in the winter.

By Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

European goldfinch on spear thistle (photo credits below)

Even in October, a ladybird was sitting happily on the leaves, basking in the autumn sunshine and not minding the prickles at all.

IMG_4608How can you tell that what you’re looking at is a Spear Thistle, rather than some other less derided plant? Well, the spines on the bracts (the thing that the flower emerges from) are easily as long and sharp as any other thistle, and, in the right light, you can tell that they are tipped with yellow (you can just about see this in the ladybird picture above). The leaves are dark green with a pale midrib (again you can see this in the picture above). Furthermore, the stem apparently has ‘discontinuous spiny wings’, rather like a kraken one imagines. You can just about make them out (I think) in the photo below.

A possible view of the Discontinuous Spiny Wings

A possible view of the Discontinuous Spiny Wings

Spear thistle seems to be particularly fond of old, over-grazed fields, probably because most large animals won’t eat it, and so it survives, in great stands, when everything else has been nibbled down to the roots. It sets seed with great vigour, which is one reason why it made it onto the Weeds Act. However, it does not spread by the roots as creeping thistle does, and is therefore easier to control if you catch it before it those great fluffy clumps of thistledown start to fly past in the breeze.

IMG_4606Spear thistle is a native plant, and so we have had lots of time to get to know it. It has also spread to North America and Australia where it has set up home with typical thistle zeal.  It can be eaten – the stems can be peeled and boiled, and roots of young plants can also be added to a vegetable soup or hotpot, though they are described as tasting ‘bland’. A word of warning, however: they contain a lot of inulin, the same chemical that can make the after effects of eating Jerusalem Artichokes such a noisy, pungent and uncomfortable affair.

IMG_4604The genus name Cirsium is derived from the either the Greek word kirsion (a kind of medicinal thistle found in Greece) or the word kirsos which means a swollen vein. It should come as no surprise therefore that spear thistle has been used to prepare an ointment for piles. It has been used for a whole range of other purposes as well, however, particularly as a decoction for joint pain.

One use that has been picked up on both sides of the Atlantic is as tinder – the fluffy thistledown is an excellent fire-starter. The Cherokee people also used the thistledown to for the flights of their blow darts.

By John Tann from Sydney, Australia (Spear thistle) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Some very fine thistledown (photo credit below)

What is amazing to me, as I continue to hunt out Wednesday Weeds, is how how varied the plants within a single family can be. For example, spear thistle is part of the Asteraceae, or daisy family. Which also includes cornflowers, knapweed, chicory, all the hawkbits and hawkweeds and dandelions and our friend from last week, Bristly Oxtongue. It includes goldenrod, the fleabanes (Mexican and Canadian amongst others), sowthistle, tansy and feverfew. It embraces yarrow and hemp agrimony, fox and cubs and pineappleweed, the mayweeds and chamomile and a whole raft of ragworts. To come to terms with the Asteraceae is a challenge in itself, without all the rest of the plant families. Although in the UK we have an impoverished flora compared to the rest of Europe (the most recent Ice Age did for many of our plant species, though we are blessed with more than our share of mosses and liverworts) there is more than enough to keep the Wednesday Weed going for a good few years. Which is a relief, as every week I find myself more and more enthused about the plant community that’s all around us. There is so much still to discover and learn! Thank you for coming along with me.

Photo credits.

Unless otherwise stated, all photos are copyright Vivienne Palmer.

The Goldfinch photo is by Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The thistledown photo is by John Tann from Sydney, Australia (Spear thistle) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ordinary Beauties

IMG_4651Dear Readers, I have been away from home for most of the past four weeks, and was struggling to find a subject for the Saturday blog this week. Then, I topped up the bird feeders and the subject found me, as it always does if I keep my eyes open. At this time of year, some of the birds are as beautiful as they’ll be at any time until next spring. All these photos were taken through my kitchen window, which is draped with cobwebs and coated with dust (housekeeping not being a strong point), so please forgive me if the quality isn’t quite what it might be.

IMG_4645Just look at the starlings, who are finally coming into their full adult plumage. Their feathers are as iridescent as oil, and they are spangled with the white spots that give them their name. ‘Starling’ means ‘little star’, and each one carries a constellation on his or her chest and back.The birds that are visiting the garden now have survived the dangerous fledgling stage, and are  about to experience their first winter. If they make it through ( and they stand more chance in the town than in the country) they will be breeding again in April next year. And so the world turns.

IMG_4616There was a blue tit on the suet feeder as well. What a bright little puffball this bird is – bright blue, sherbet lemon and olive green. They seem so full of energy and verve, on the go all the time. In order for a bird this small to survive when the temperature falls below zero, they need all the energy-rich food that they can get. It is vital to keep those bird-feeders topped up where possible, so that the birds can put on the fat that they’ll need to survive the cold. The last thing they need to worry about is too many calories – flying is such an energetic activity that they can never have too many while they’re in the wild.

IMG_4658And there were sparrows, too. The back of a sparrow is an exercise in copper and chocolate, and looks like old-fashioned polished mahogany.

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And, as we know, sparrows are becoming scarcer and scarcer. Those of us who have them visit the garden should feel privileged to have a creature in such decline popping by. As with the starlings, these ‘common’ birds are no longer ‘common’, and so when I look at them I feel a special pang. Those of us who have been around for a bit remember when it seemed impossible that they should ever be in danger, and it’s poignant to think of what has already been lost.

IMG_4630Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. Two collared doves are in my hawthorn tree, popping down the berries as if they were sweeties. I wonder if they can taste sweet and sour, because the haws always seem tough and astringent to me. These are birds who have increased greatly in number in my lifetime, and they have a special kind of beauty too, their feathers as soft and grey as clouds. They have a delicate elegance that makes me think that they are most fitted to the genteel suburbs, and indeed they are rarely seen in the centre of town, and are most unlikely to breed there.

IMG_4626In the hornbeam there’s a single hen chaffinch, waiting patiently for the woodpigeons and squirrel to clear off so she can get some sunflower seeds. The calls of finches are the soundtrack for any walk along my road at the moment – the ‘pink,pink’ calls of chaffinches, the more melodious chiming of the goldfinches. It’s a familiar music that makes me feel that I’m at home, finally, even if it’s only a short time until I’m off again. I often feel that absence heightens my senses, makes me see my ‘territory’ anew. And so, although I shall feel weary as I pack my suitcase yet again, I know that wherever I go, there will still be things to be curious about – the song of a bird, a weed by the side of the road, the buzz of an insect. There is always something new to discover, whether on the birdfeeder at home or in an office park. And each new discovery enlarges our sense of the world, and our part in it.


Wednesday Weed – Bristly Oxtongue

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…..

Bristly Oxtongue (Helminthotheca echoides)

Bristly Oxtongue (Helminthotheca echoides)

Dear Readers, this week our subject, bristly oxtongue, is a truly ‘weedy’ weed, a plant of rough ground and disturbed soil. As its name suggests, it is a plant whose leaves are covered in swollen, blister-like spots. From each blister a little hairy hook emerges, which makes it as rough as ‘an ox’s tongue’. As I have never been licked by an ox, I cannot verify the accuracy of the plant’s name, but as that bovine  organ is used for tearing up harsh grasses, I can imagine that it would need something hook-like to give some traction. At any rate, these little blisters are indicative that, amongst all the yellow-flowered members of the daisy family, we are looking at bristly oxtongue.


Close-up of Bristly Oxtongue hairs - photo credit below

Close-up of Bristly Oxtongue hairs – photo credit below

IMG_4563Bristly oxtongue is an ‘ancient introduction’ – this means that it arrived in the UK before 1500. It has also found its way to North America, where it has quickly become a member of the Invasive Weeds lists of several states.  The plant is originally from the Mediterranean, which suggests that it could have arrived into the UK with the Romans, possible secreted away in grain stores. However, there could be another reason that this somewhat unprepossessing plant ended up here, and the clue is in its genus name, Helminthotheca. ‘Helmine’ refers to worms, and while it could be a reference to the shape of the fruit, it is more likely that bristly oxtongue was used as a treatment for intestinal worms. Whether the bristles acted as a kind of internal scouring pad, or whether there was some chemical attribute is unclear.

IMG_4564Bristly oxtongue is so prevalent in Buckinghamshire that it has been given the nickname ‘Milton Keynes Weed’. It is also known as ‘Langley-Beef’, a corruption of the French ‘langue du boeuf’ (oxtongue). Although the young leaves are said to be edible, they look as if they would be rather problematic, what with all those spines and blisters, and I suspect you’d be better off sticking to dandelions for your salad.

IMG_4562Like many plants in the daisy (Asteraceae) family, bristly oxtongue provides nectar for visiting butterflies and moths, and cover and food for many other invertebrates, such as the tiny beetle in the photograph below. This little creature was as shiny as a drop of mercury, and is, I think, some kind of flower beetle – we think of bees and butterflies when we think of pollinators, but flies and beetles also perform an important role.

IMG_4566Why, I wonder, does the bristly oxtongue have bristles in the first place? Most structures of this kind have developed to deter grazing animals, and I suspect that this is part of the story here too. But why is this plant so well protected, compared to all the hawkbeards and dandelions and sowthistles to which it is so closely related? The only clue that I can find is that unlike many other plants in the family, bristly oxtongue has very sparse sap. Anyone who has snapped the stem of a dandelion knows that it will quickly ooze a prolific and rather unpleasant white latex-like liquid, which is surely unpleasant to eat. Maybe the bristles have developed as a deterrent because the sap alone would not be enough. Who knows? But one thing that I do know is that, although the leaves are ugly to our eyes, the flowers, with their stamen like little calligraphy-squiggles, are a welcome food-source for passing creatures of all kinds, who notice them as even as we pass by without a second glance.

Harford's Sulphur Butterfly (a US species) on Bristly Oxtongue. Photo credit below.

Harford’s Sulphur Butterfly (a US species) on Bristly Oxtongue. Photo credit below.

Photo Credits

Leaf hair macro photo by Derek Lilly ( More of his photos here (Jusben on

Harford’s Sulphur Butterfly on Bristly Oxtongue by By Davefoc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Holy Spider

Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)

Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)

Dear Readers, on returning home from a week-long work trip, the first thing I noticed in the front garden was the way that the spiders’ webs were lit up by the late afternoon light. There are two garden spiders (Araneus diadematus) that are making their homes in the buddleia. This is a very widespread and common species – it can be found right through the northern hemisphere, so my readers from North America may also be familiar with these creatures.

The first spider, the large female in the photograph above, is an early riser – by 9 a.m. she has already constructed her web for the day. For most of the time, she lurks on a flowerhead, with one ‘toe’ delicately placed on a strand from the web. The whole structure will vibrate if anything flies into it, and then the spider has to make a decision: ignore it, if the prey is too small, cut it from the web if it’s something dangerous like a wasp, or wrap it up like a burrito for eating later.

IMG_4518A metre away, a much smaller spider has made her web. She rises a little later, and usually sits on her web, rather than in her shelter.

IMG_4521This individual clearly shows the reason that this species is often called the cross spider – there is a lot of variation in colour, but they almost always have a cross-shaped pattern of white dots on their abdomen. This has led to their association with Christianity, and the idea that they are lucky. Lucky indeed is the animal that someone has decided brings good fortune – garden spiders are well tolerated, as invertebrates go, and it’s unusual for someone to kill a spider unless it’s actually in the house. The spiderlings, tiny golden creatures, are often called ‘Money Spiders’ and I remember my grandmother, not one for creepy-crawlies in general, finding a tiny spider crawling on her arm and being delighted, for this was a sign that our financial situation was going to improve.This is a very old and widespread belief: the Spiderzrule website ( a real labour of love by a dedicated arachnophile) shows that in 1507 on a spider on your clothes was an indication of happiness to come:

‘When a man fyndeth a spyder upon his gowne it is a synge to be that daye ryght happye.’

and in 1594, it was not just about happiness, it was about the dosh:

‘If a spinner creepe uppon him, hee shall have golde raine downe from heaven.’

Maybe because they came without any accompanying largesse, house spiders did not receive such a warm welcome in our house when I was growing up – indeed, on one occasion my grandmother dropped her hot water bottle onto a particularly large and hairy spider and flattened it. Whether the unsuspecting creature turned its eight eyes skywards and wondered what this rapidly descending rectangular object was I have no idea, but the method, though effective, was never repeated, largely due to the difficulty of extracting squashed arachnid from a candlewick hot-water bottle cover.

Still, in the garden spiders were welcome, and as a child I spent hours watching them making their webs . After seeing the diligence, skill  and patience with which the spider goes about repairing her handiwork after some enormous clumsy child has fallen through it, I couldn’t help but be filled with admiration, and I am not the only one. Robert the Bruce was said to have gained determination by watching a spider try again and again to complete her web while he was hiding in a cave.

Christianity is not the only religion to have noticed the spider, however. When I visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a building entirely devoid of human or animal representation, there is a spider’s web pattern in one corner. When The Prophet hid in a cave to escape the enemies who were trying to kill him, a spider spun her web across the entrance. When the enemies arrived at the cave, they surmised that no one was inside because the web was unbroken, and so The Prophet was saved.

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I had not watched a spider actually making her web for a long, long time, and so I spent a few minutes this morning watching one in my back garden doing her work. Note how the silk comes from two separate glands, and how the spider uses her right back leg to ‘spin’ the silk into a thread and her left back leg to attach it to the web structure. I wonder if spiders have a kind of ‘handedness’ in the same way that we do – certainly it’s been shown that some species of mammal have a ‘leading paw’ that they prefer to use for certain activities, but I have no idea if anyone has ever looked into this in invertebrates.

It has long been thought that spiders can foretell the weather, and there is some truth in this. A spider sitting in the middle of her web means that the weather is likely to be settled for the next day or so. If the spider disappears to her shelter, this means that the weather is changing. Whether the creatures can sense air pressure, or humidity, or both is still a mystery. Incidentally, although they often look as if they’re vertical, spiders webs are usually at a slight angle, and the spider sits on the underneath side. Garden spiders also normally sit ‘head down’ on their webs.

IMG_4581One spider superstition that is extremely close to my heart is the belief that if a spider is found on a bride’s wedding dress, it will bring good luck for the partnership. When I got married in 2001, I gave my bouquet at the end of the evening to my mother so that she could enjoy the flowers while I was on honeymoon. When she took it to pieces she found, curled up in the middle, a spider. What better omen for the future could there be for someone who’s named themselves ‘Bugwoman’?

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Wednesday Weed – Broad-leaved Dock

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

Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius)

Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius)

Dear Readers, on Sunday I made a brief foray into Coldfall Wood to see how autumn was shaping up – after being away in Canada for a fortnight, and then working away from home for a week, I was eager to fit in a quick visit. The area around the winter pond was full of bulrushes and Michaelmas daisies, but the dominant plant was this one, broad-leaved dock.

I know nothing about docks of any kind, except that they are a) the cure for stinging nettle hives if the leaves are rubbed onto the affected area (my dad assures me that dock always grows close to nettles for just this purpose), and b) that they are long-rooted and hence a nightmare to dig out once they become established. My research for this piece has revealed that the taproot can be up to five feet long, which makes me wish that I’d thought about tackling the dock next to my rowan tree a bit earlier. Like, several years ago.  But here in Coldfall Wood, in the damp claggy soil of the pond, the broad-leaved docks seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Their rusty-red seedheads have a kind of ramshackle beauty about them.

IMG_4549One way to tell broad-leaved dock from the other members of the family is to have a look at the leaves. At the base, they are distinctly heart-shaped – the leaves of most other docks are strap-like. The fresh young leaves can be eaten like spinach, although grazing animals will avoid them, and the taste is said to be unpleasant. Furthermore, the plant is high in oxalic acid, so eating it should be avoided by those prone to kidney stones or joint problems. The leaves have been used to wrap cheese and butter (it is believed that this will keep the food fresher for longer), and adding a few dock leaves to a pot of water is said to make it come to the boil more quickly. This last belief is rather intriguing: when I have more time, maybe I’ll try a scientific experiment in the kitchen to see if there is something about dock that lowers the boiling point of water, or whether throwing anything into a pot of water would work as well – I’ve certainly seen water suddenly boil over when I’ve added salt or oil. The world is full of mysteries, to be sure.

IMG_4538This is a native plant in the UK, but like so many others it can now be found in North America too. Even in the UK it is designated as an ‘injurious weed’ in the 1959 Weeds Act (who knew there was such a thing?), and it is one of five weeds (the others are Curly Dock, Common Ragwort, Spear Thistle and Creeping Thistle) that the Secretary of State can insist are controlled even on private land. We have already mentioned the plants’ deep tap-root, but as it can produce 60,000 seeds wind-dispersed seeds per year, and as these seeds can survive for up to 50 years (due to a chemical that prevents microbial breakdown), I can see how it could be a problem on cultivated land. However, in my experience this is a plant that pops up in damp, claggy, over-grazed fields, where the competing plants have already given up the ghost. The plant is a symptom, rather than a cause.

In spite of it being part of this ‘hall of fame’ however, broad-leaved dock has a variety of medicinal uses, in addition to its efficacy with nettle stings (to which I can personally attest). A tea made from dock root was said to cure boils, and the leaves have been used to soothe burns and abrasions. The Iroquois Indians used a tea made from the plant as a contraceptive (though how successful this was is not known). The seeds have been used as a cure for tuberculosis and stomach infections, and also as a spice, although the recipes that I’ve seen are for curled dock (Rumex crispus) rather than for broad-leaved dock.

IMG_4541Broad-leaved dock is a member of the Polygonaceae family, which includes two other plants that have already been featured on the blog:  Redshank, and Japanese Knotweed. As you can see, it is a family of plants that can be problematic from a human point of view. I prefer to think of them as a family of survivors and opportunists, who will flourish when most other plants would fail. When I look at a stand of broad-leaved dock, I wonder if I am looking at a potential post-apocalyptic plant, one that will be here long after we are all gone. For some reason, I find its resilience strangely reassuring.


A Tale of Two Squirrels


A Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) munching on hawthorn in my London back garden

Dear Readers, I have always been fascinated by the diversity of individuals within a single species. To take one example: why do pigeons come in such a variety of colours? But something that I’ve never quite gotten to the bottom of is why the majority of Grey Squirrels in London, UK, look like the little chap in the photo above and yet Grey Squirrels in Toronto look, well, mostly like the animal below, when they both belong to the same species.

Torontonian Grey Squirrel

Torontonian Grey Squirrel (also Sciurus carolinensis)

Not all the Grey Squirrels in Toronto are black, but from my observations I’d say that they make up at least 80% of the population. In London I have yet to see a black squirrel, although I do know that a tiny population exists.  So why this difference between the two countries? To begin with, I had a little look at genetics. And to make things easier going forward, I’ll use ‘grey squirrel’ and ‘black squirrel’ to refer to the colour of animals of the same species, the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

Two grey-coloured squirrels cannot make a black squirrel – each animal has two copies of the ‘normal’ pigment gene. A squirrel with one copy of the ‘mutant’ black gene and one copy of the ‘normal’ grey gene will be a brown-black squirrel, like the rather handsome creature below.

Black-brown squirrel from Collingwood, Ontarioi

Black-brown squirrel from Collingwood, Ontario

A squirrel with two copies of the ‘mutant’ black gene will be jet-black.

IMG_4442These colourings should not be mistaken for physical features that result from something that happened to the animal. For example, the black squirrel below, seen when I was with my friend Michelle at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Burlington, is jet-black with a white spot on the tail, which may be the result of injury or of some kind of skin damage. Whatever the reason, it gives the squirrel a rather attractive Cruella de Ville look.

IMG_4437 (2)IMG_4438 (2)

So, the question remains: why are squirrels in the UK largely grey, and the squirrels in Ontario (and many other parts of North America) largely black? There are several theories.

One is that the black ‘mutant’ squirrels were actually the prevailing colour variation prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th Century. The animals’ darker colour may have helped to camouflage them in the densely canopied old-growth forests, but when these started to be cut down, the  advantage shifted towards the grey squirrels in many areas. The remnant black populations, such as those in Ontario, may have survived because more of the northern forests remain, but also because black colouration absorbs and retains more of the sun’s heat, meaning that the animals can be more active and find more food during the long, cold Canadian winters.

As you will remember from previous posts, the Eastern Grey Squirrel is an introduced species in the UK, and the vast majority of animals are of the ‘normal’ grey colouration. If we think back to our discussion about genetics earlier, it is likely that any black animals seen are descendants of imported captive animals, rather than the mutation occurring simultaneously in the population. However, having said this, there are now large populations of black squirrels in Stevenage, Letchworth and Hitchin, where they are said to make up fully 50% of the resident squirrels. One further theory concerns female sexual preference: given a choice between a grey male squirrel and one with black colouration, it may be that the females prefer the latter, which would result, over time, in an increase in black squirrels over grey-coloured ones. This is not as unlikely as it sounds – the peacock’s tail, the long neck of the Giraffe-necked Weevil and the extravagant dances of birds of paradise are an indication to the female that the male is healthy, and hearty, and free from parasites – only the most hale of individuals can sustain such extravagant accouterments. So, does the glossy coat of a black-coloured squirrel give a clearer indication to the female that her partner-to-be is in the first glow of health, and will she therefore prefer him, all other things being equal? It will be interesting to see how the squirrel population develops here in the UK. Maybe, one day, London’s squirrels will be as diverse as the humans who surround them.