Monthly Archives: December 2015

Dreys and Jays


IMG_4975Dear Readers, I woke up on Friday feeling overwhelmed , both by all the preparations for Christmas and by an unexplained pain in my ankle, which has made walking, my usual stress-alleviation technique, difficult. But nonetheless I decided to take a gentle meander into Cherry Tree Wood for the first time in a few months. The place is looking a little unkempt at the moment, as many parks do in winter. The pavilion, which was going to be turned into a café but where the project now seems to be on hold, is literally falling down. There are empty beer cans by some of the benches. But the oak trees and hornbeams are still full of copper-coloured leaves, and there are squirrels everywhere. The search for nuts is on everyone’s mind. Squirrels sit comfortably among the tree roots, turning the acorns with their little hands and nibbling away. In the trees, two squirrels are growling at one another, tails thrashing. A toddler in a little padded suit staggers, arms outstretched, towards one squirrel, who looks at him warily, and bounds away when the child is within touching distance. The squirrels at the entrance to the park are particularly bold, and I suspect that packets of peanuts have been involved in previous encounters.

IMG_4992As I walk further into the forest, I find another, smaller squirrel in the top branches of a hornbeam. He seems to be stalking a blue tit. I find this very interesting, not least because I’m fairly sure that the blue tit is aware of the squirrel and seems unperturbed. I know that squirrels will occasionally take birds’ eggs and fledglings, but I’ve never seen one trying his luck with an adult before. And yet, here we are. The blue tit lets the squirrel get within a bound, and then flies off. I wonder if the squirrel ever gets lucky? All that protein would be a fine meal for a small rodent.

The blue tit is interested in other things, however. At the top of the tree is a drey, a squirrel nest, and the blue tit is pecking through it, probably for the insects and parasites that shelter there. The little bird is tossing the leaves aside and doing a fine job of gradually dismantling the squirrel’s shelter from the bottom up.

If you squint, you can just about make out the blue tit - he's left of centre. Look for the yellow bit.

If you squint, you can just about make out the blue tit – he’s left of centre. Look for the yellow bit.

A swoop of round wings, a flash of black and white and pink, and a jay arrives. It too is after the acorns. A squirrel complains when the jay starts to root around at the base of an oak tree, and I suspect that it has buried some of its winter stash there. All the grumbling in the world won’t deter a jay, however, and it carries on picking out the nuts and carrying them away, to bury them somewhere else. No wonder, in the spring, that there are little oak trees popping up all over the place. The scene is the same in my garden, where the jays, having been absent all summer, are now appearing as soon as I put out any peanuts. Do they have a sixth sense, I wonder, or am I under constant surveillance?

A jay in my garden last week

A jay in my garden last week

Intellectually I know that there are inter-dependencies in any plant and animal community, but there were links here that I had never thought of before. I did not know that squirrels ever hunted adult birds, or that jays stole the hidden acorns of the squirrels, or that blue tits dismantled squirrel dreys. Everyone is opportunistic, everyone is just trying to get by. And the shifting patterns of advantage and disadvantage are constantly being redressed by some living thing or another. Maybe the overall beneficiaries are the oak trees, as their seeds are carried away from the overwhelming shade of the adult tree and into better, lighter surroundings. Who knows? I do know that for forty minutes the pain in my ankle went completely unnoticed, and I walk off to catch a bus into town with a happy sense of well being and equanimity. We can only do what we can do to make a celebration a happy one, and we cannot control everything – there is too much complexity. Sometimes, we just have to trust in the providence that looks after squirrels, blue tits, jays and oak trees.

Wednesday Weed – Ribwort Plantain

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…..

Leaves of Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Leaves of Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Dear Readers, as we get into wintertime it becomes rather more challenging to find plants for the Wednesday Weed, especially as I have already covered more than a hundred of the botanical wonders that can be found within half a mile of my house. But it is also a time when overlooked leaves can suddenly be seen as other foliage dies away. Thus it was that, during my time at East Finchley Station car park a few weeks ago, I first noticed the bright leaves of Ribwort Plantain.

IMG_4939There are five species of Plantain in the UK, but Ribwort Plantain is one of the commonest. Its leaves are a dead giveaway – my Harrap plant guide describes them as:

‘strap-shaped to long-oval, tapering gradually to the stalk, with 3-5 bold, parallel veins’.

IMG_4917 (2)I could find none that were still flowering, but the blooms are immediately recognisable.

"Plantago lanceolata P6200323 箆大葉子、ヘラオオバコ" by 膀胱眼球胎 - 膀胱眼球胎. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Ribwort Plantain in flower (photo credit below)

The flower heads are a source of food for finches and other small birds during the winter time, and for butterflies and moths in the summer – many wildlife gardening books suggest leaving a patch of these plants to grow in the lawn as a handy waystation for these creatures. However, in his very interesting book No Nettles Required, Ken Thompson explains how, during a survey undertaken in Sheffield, it was easier to persuade people to grow a container full of stinging nettles in their gardens than to sacrifice a corner of the lawn and leave it unmown. Lawn aficionados , in my experience, love to have an expanse of smooth green sward, however much hard work it might be to create and maintain this effect. However, a little corner of Ribwort Plantain and longer grass provides a much enriched habitat for all kinds of animals.

The flowers have also been used as a replacement for conkers: the long stem enables each participant to whack the other person’s flowerhead until it comes off. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how the game holds remnants of history:

‘In Kent this game is known as ‘dongers’ and in Scotland (along with the plant itself) as ‘Carl Doddies’: ‘Carl and Doddie are diminutives of Charles and George, and the game is an obvious reminder of the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and King George III trying to knock each other’s heads off’.

On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland describes how another old name for the plant is Kemps, probably a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word Cempa, or soldier, and most likely a result of this children’s game. Maybe it reminded the little darlings of battering one another with maces.

Bob Embleton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ribwort plantain flower seen from above. Photo credit below.

Ribwort plantain is a native, and has acquired a whole raft of medicinal uses. The Permaculture website describes how the plant has been used for respiratory, urinary and middle ear complaints. However, it pays most attention to the plant’s use as for wounds and insect bites:

‘Simply gather and chew a couple of good looking leaves, then apply the ‘spit poultice’ to the afflicted area. Bleeding stops very quickly, and broken flesh is rapidly sealed together, due to the astringency of tannins, and the soothing mucilage. Plantains are mildly anti-septic, so they also help prevent infection. In addition, these plants are really useful against insect bites and stings, especially for children. Once again, chew or scrunch up the leaves until you get the juices flowing, then apply.’

As with dock, ribwort plantain is such a widespread plant that it can almost always be found nearby, with the exception of areas of very acid soil. It is an indicator of agricultural areas in the pollen record, as it is a great lover of grassland and disturbed soils. As such, it has often found its way into the cooking pot. The leaves are said to taste slightly like mushrooms, and as usual you could add them to salads, but for the more adventurous there is a recipe for Aubergine and Avocado Bake with Ribwort Plantain here . And what a delightful website this is! I would heartily recommend a browse if you fancy Sea Purslane Hummous or Tansy Pancakes.

IMG_4940Finally, I cannot leave the subject of Ribwort Plantain without mentioning the Nine Herbs Charm. This was an Anglo-Saxon incantation to be used when someone had been wounded or poisoned. The verse on Plantain goes as follows (taken here from the Odin’s-Gift website):

And you, Plantain, mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.
May you likewise withstand poison and infection
and the loathsome foe roving through the land.

I love the idea of this wayside plant being creaked over by chariots and snorted over by bulls (though to be absolutely botanically accurate, Ribwort Plantain is much less tolerant of trampling than its cousin, Greater Plantain (Plantago major) which will no doubt be the subject of a future Wednesday Weed). And more than this, I love the way that this humble, modest plant was called the mother of herbs, and was recognised as a powerhouse of healing. I suppose that we were more observant of and more grateful to the natural world when we couldn’t just go to Boots for a tube of Savlon or call for an ambulance.