Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Chizhik-Pyzhik

Siskin (Carduelis spinus) last week.

Siskin (Carduelis spinus) last week.

Dear Readers, it is always a pleasure to spot an unusual visitor to the garden, and an even greater pleasure when I actually have my camera handy. So it was with this lovely male siskin who dropped in for about twenty minutes last week, in the middle of the first bout of very cold weather that we’ve had here in London. I almost tripped over the cat in my excitement, for I know that these birds are usually just passing through, and won’t be seen again until next winter. And what an attractive bird he is, with his black cap and yellow breast. When he flew off, he looked briefly like a mottled canary.

Siskins are members of the finch family, and like most finches have, in their time, been popular cage birds. In The Birds of Norfolk, Henry Stevenson recorded no other finches that

‘…so soon became tame and contented with their new existence’.

The siskin was known to London bird-catchers as ‘Aberdevine’, and they were a premium bird, commanding a higher price than goldfinches or chaffinches on account of their rarity, and of their soft sweet song. Siskins were often crossed with canaries to create ‘mules’ who had the singing power of one parent, and the attractive plumage of the other. Fortunately, these days it’s illegal to trap wild birds in the UK, but this still happens in other parts of the world.

IMG_5195The name ‘siskin’ is said to be an onomatopoeic name, derived from its call. This is described in the Crossley ID guide as

‘Main call a sissy, feeble, sighing dwee with metallic ring: also making sparrow-like calls and song is quiet babbling chatter interspersed with little flatulent buzzes’.

Well, as the bird in my garden was silent, I decided to have a listen to see how accurate the description was. Having listened to the link on the RSPB website here, I can vouch for the dwees and even the sissys, but I am missing out on the flatulent buzzes.

IMG_5186Siskins are residents of most of the UK, mainly due to the spread of conifer  plantations in Wales, Scotland and the north and west of England – the birds’ main diet is the seeds of mature cone-bearing trees. In the rest of the country, including London, they may feed on wild birch and alder seeds as they head through to their breeding grounds, but, since the 1960’s, have increasingly been seen in gardens. We can date this sudden change of habit to the ferocious winter of 1963, when a group of siskins were suddenly spotted in gardens in Guildford, Surrey.In ‘The Secret Lives of Garden Birds’ Dominic Couzens has a very interesting suggestion about why the birds might suddenly have moved into gardens. Back in the 1960’s, most people offered food to birds in red net bags (no longer considered a good idea, as birds easily become entangled in the mesh). The alder seeds that the birds normally eat could, it’s been argued, be seen as tiny little red nets full of seeds. Imagine the surprise of a siskin suddenly noticing what seemed to be the biggest alder basket in the world! It’s a lovely idea but, as Couzens says, impossible to prove.

"Alkottar" by No machine-readable author provided. EnDumEn assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alkottar.jpg#/media/File:Alkottar.jpg

Alder Cones (on the right). Photo One (credit below)

As siskins roost together in flocks, it’s thought that they might share information about food sources, which accounts for some gardens in the north being visited by dozens of the birds. Here in London, we have to make do with the odd pair or individual, but we are very grateful for whoever pops in!

IMG_5191Siskins are known to form pair bonds during the winter months, and to keep to these relationships even when they have a substantial onward migration. For, while some of these birds may make a relatively short journey to Wales or the north of England, ringed birds have been recovered in the far north of Scotland and in Scandinavia. So, the bond between male and female is strong enough to survive a crossing of the North Sea, with all the hazards that this involves. Not bad for a bird that’s smaller than a greenfinch.

"Carduelis spinus female" by Sławek Staszczuk (photoss [AT] hotmail.co.uk) - Sławek Staszczuk (photoss [AT] hotmail.co.uk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_spinus_female.jpg#/media/File:Carduelis_spinus_female.jpg

Female siskin (Photo Two – credit below)

Although in winter siskins can be fairly docile, they are much more secretive during the breeding season – this has led to a German legend that siskins keep a magic stone in their nests that makes them invisible. The birds have also been seen ‘allofeeding’ – this is where adults regurgitate food for more dominant individuals of the same sex, and is very unusual. It’s been speculated that this helps to maintain flock cohesion, and also indicates that there is a dominance hierarchy in the group, rather than just a collection of individuals who are staying together for safety and food location. It’s also an indication that, unlike many other birds, the siskin can store a little extra food intact in the crop, to help to feed them through the night – pigeons can also do this.

Although ‘my’ siskin was a fairly staid fellow, siskins are actually one of the few finches who seem to preferentially feed upside down, like miniature parakeets. This is another indication that the bird you’re looking at is not some unusually plumaged greenfinch, as those chaps are not ones for acrobatics.

Acrobatic Siskin (Photo Three - credit below)

Acrobatic Siskin (Photo Three – credit below)

In St Petersburg in Russia, the siskin has taken on a folkloric aspect. It is called the ‘Chizhik-Pyzhik’, and there is a statue of it near the First Engineer Bridge.

"Chizhik-Pyzhik memorial" by zxc123 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chizhik-Pyzhik_memorial.jpg#/media/File:Chizhik-Pyzhik_memorial.jpg

Memorial to the siskin in St Petersburg (Photo Four – credit below)

The name is used in a Russian folksong, the lyrics of which are below:

Chizhik-Pyzhik, where’ve you been?
Drank vodka on the Fontanka.
Took a shot, took another –
Got dizzy.

Oh dear. The tale goes that the students at the elite Imperial College of Jurisprudence wore uniforms in green and yellow, and so were named ‘Chizhik-Pyzhiks’ after the siskin, which is a common urban bird in the city. The statue itself has been stolen at least three times, probably because, at 11 centimetres tall and weighing less than 5 kilograms, it is a handy size to pop into a holdall and take away for scrap. There are rumours that the next replacement will be in marble, to deter the would-be thieves.

IMG_5202So, it turns out that my brief visitor is a European traveller, a parrot impersonator, a loyal mate and the inspiration for (possibly) the smallest statue in St Petersburg. God speed, little bird. May you have an abundance of pine-seeds and fair passage to your breeding grounds.

Photo Credits

Photo One – “Alkottar” by No machine-readable author provided. EnDumEn assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alkottar.jpg#/media/File:Alkottar.jpg

Photo Two – “Carduelis spinus female” by Sławek Staszczuk (photoss [AT] hotmail.co.uk) – Sławek Staszczuk (photoss [AT] hotmail.co.uk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_spinus_female.jpg#/media/File:Carduelis_spinus_female.jpg

Photo Three –© Copyright Zorba the Geek and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Four – “Chizhik-Pyzhik memorial” by zxc123 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chizhik-Pyzhik_memorial.jpg#/media/File:Chizhik-Pyzhik_memorial.jpg

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

Resources used this week:

The Complete Back Garden Birdwatcher by Dominic Couzens

The Secret Lives of Garden Birds by Dominic Couzens

The Crossley ID Guide (Britain and Ireland) –  Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens

Birds Britannica – Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Dandelion

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…..

Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.)

Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.)

Dear Readers, it is very hard to find a flowering weed in January, but two things are guaranteed. If I find an area of mown public grass, there will be at least a couple of daisies in it. And if I pay attention, I will find a dandelion in flower. This is a ‘weed’ so common that we all think we know exactly what it looks like, what with those toothed leaves (Dandelion is a corruption of ‘dents de lion’) and that starburst of yellow ‘petals’ (each one of which turns out to be a separate flower). Many of us will know that the leaves are edible, and that the name that the French give to the plant, Pissenlit, means ‘wet the bed’, a reference to its diuretic qualities: in fact, it was believed that even smelling a dandelion was enough to bring on a bout of incontinence. However, it turns out that what I knew about the dandelion was only a tiny part of the story of this extraordinary plant.

IMG_5223To start with, if we look up the plant ‘Dandelion’, we will find that although it is often known as Taraxacum officinalis, it is actually a complex of at least 230 microspecies which can only be told apart by experts. 40 of these microspecies are endemic to the UK, which means that they live here and nowhere else in the world. The reason for this is that Dandelions reproduce by something called apomixis – the seeds that are produced in those wonderful dandelion ‘clocks’ are often clones , which means that all the plants in a certain area will be identical, leading to the gradual production of very localised microspecies.

By John Liu [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Dandelion seeds off on an adventure (Photo One – credit below)

In addition to the names mentioned above, the dandelion has some other very fine vernacular names. In Swedish, the plant is known as the worm rose because of the many little insects (thrips) that are often found in the flower head. In Italian, it has the name ‘pisacan (dog piss) because it is found at the side of the pavement, where we might expect canines to scent mark. Many names reflect the dandelion ‘clock’ and its use as a way of telling the time – Richard Mabey reports that the number of breaths needed to remove all the seeds told the hour – and so we have ‘Clockflower’, ‘Fairy Clock’, and ‘Peasant’s Clock’. The plant is also known as ‘Swine’s Snout’, though I am having a bit of trouble working out why this might be. ‘Monk’s Head’ is probably a cheeky reference to the bald seedhead once all the feathery seeds have left.

By Sheila Sund from Salem, United States (Dandelion center) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Monk’s Head?’ (Photo Two – credit below)

Dandelion is seen as the scourge of lawn-lovers everywhere, and as a perennial with a deep tap-root there are all kinds of ways of eliminating it – some suggest pulling up the plant and putting a teaspoonful of salt into the hole. But as you might expect, I disagree – because of their year-round flowering, dandelions are an invaluable source of early season nectar and pollen for bees, and are the food plant of the pearl-bordered fritillary, one of our earliest emerging spring butterflies, and a beauty to boot.

I, Michael Kranewitter [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) (Photo Three – credit below)

The leaves of dandelions have long been used in salads (and are enjoying a revival what with all these new restaurants that celebrate foraging). The root was used as a coffee substitute during the Second World War. But the Plant Lives website also mentions that the people of Minorca believe that they owe their survival to the dandelion after a plague of locusts ate their crops. It is believed that the many medicinal and culinary uses of the dandelion were first recorded in the medieval Middle East (the genus name Taraxacum comes from the Persian name for the plant), and one delicacy, Yublo cake,  contains dandelion buds, rose petals and honey.

IMG_5219Dandelion is also said to be a good plant for growing in orchards: although some bees may prefer it to the flowering fruit trees, later in the year the plant produces large quantities of ethylene, which are said to encourage the fruit to ripen. Some 93 species of insect have been recorded as visiting dandelions, so this is a very fine bank of possible pollinators for the farmer. No wonder dandelions are often encouraged in these situations, and they have extraordinary beauty when seen en masse, as here in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley.

IMG_2025The humble dandelion has even attracted the attention of artists. Here, for example, is a watercolour painting by Albrecht Durer, a most realistic depiction called ‘A Great Piece of Turf’, created in 1503. I love the way that the ‘weeds’ are so lovingly and accurately depicted, as if they needed no adornment or improvement to make them a worthy object of study. And, of course, he was right. Any living thing, regarded with sufficient attention, becomes miraculous.

By Albrecht Dürer - NgELdACk3I8Jkg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, $3

Albrecht Durer – The Large Piece of Turf (1503) (Photo Four – credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One – By John Liu [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two – By Sheila Sund from Salem, United States (Dandelion center) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three – I, Michael Kranewitter [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four – By Albrecht Dürer – NgELdACk3I8Jkg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, $3

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer

 

The Windhover of Coldfall Wood

IMG_5137Dear Readers, last year my interest was piqued by rumours of a mysterious bird of prey, seen in the trees at the edge of the cemetery and in Coldfall Wood. Try as I might, by the time I got to the reported location, the bird had gone. Regardless of the time of day  that I visited the woods, or the length of time that I stood in the undergrowth, in the rain, with my binoculars glued to my spectacles, there was not a feather to be seen.  And then, last week, whilst walking in St Pancras and Islington cemetery in search of Wednesday Weeds, a bird landed in a bare tree less than ten yards away, and stayed there for a good five minutes so that I could get a few photographs.

IMG_5144This is a female Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) – the males are less stripey, and more clearly grey and copper-coloured.

By Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.de, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6542109

Male Kestrel (Photo One – credit below)

And what a versatile little hunter this is! Most of us are familiar with the kestrels that hover over motorways, looking for the slightest rustle of mice in the undergrowth. In rural areas kestrels prey almost exclusively on small mammals, but in cities they shift their attention to sparrows, young pigeons and even earthworms. The decline in the sparrow population in the capital has therefore had a possible knock-on effect on the kestrel population. In his book ‘Birds of London’,  Andrew Self reports that the number of kestrels breeding in the inner city has fallen from 139 pairs in 2000 to 56 pairs in 2010. This is yet another reason to be glad for the sight of this female kestrel, as from memory I think the one sighted by everybody else was a male. Fingers crossed for the patter of tiny-taloned feet.

IMG_5145‘My’ kestrel gave me an occasional glance just to make sure that I wasn’t being too impertinent, but she seemed to be mostly on the lookout for dinner. I was a little worried about her condition – her tail looks most unkempt, and her tameness was more of a cause for concern than celebration. I hope that it was just the damp, cold weather that made her seem a little less sharp than I would have hoped, and not the ingestion of some poisoned rodent.

The name ‘kestrel’ comes from the French crecerelle, meaning ‘rattle’ or ‘harsh voice’, and the Latin tinnunculus comes from the same kind of idea (it means ‘to ring’). Like many birds of prey, the kestrel has a rather metallic, whiny cry, much at odds with its beauty. If you would like to hear it for yourself, have a listen here.

The vernacular name ‘Windhover’ for the kestrel was, of course, the title of  my favourite bird-of-prey poem, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. No poem captures better the way the bird hovers, swings away, hovers again. And, this being Hopkins, this is more than a poem about a bird – he sees Christ in the hover and dive, the Soldier Christ plunging into hell in order to save humanity. Carol Ann Duffy has an excellent interpretation of the poem here.

For full effect, try reading the poem out loud.

The Windhover
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

© Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Male Kestrel hovering (Photo Two – credit below)

Hopkins makes much of the chivalric tradition of falconry in his poem, with his use of the words ‘dauphin’ and ‘chevalier’. In medieval times, different species of birds of prey were owned by different classes of people . Lords and knights might own peregrine falcons or gyrfalcons (the latter imported by the Normans). Common people might have sparrowhawks or goshawks. Only the servant or knave would own a kestrel, these being too small to procure food for their owners. But the craze for falconry was such that almost everybody had a hawk on their hand, even in church. In the illustration below, from the 14th Century Codex Manesse, the falconry is taking place from horseback, and the prey seems to be some rather unfortunate herons.

By Meister des Codex Manesse (Nachtragsmaler I) - http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg848/0024, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=193745

From the Codex Manesse (1305 – 1340). (Photo Three – credit below)

The mortality rate of top predators in all types of animals can be truly shocking. Most kestrels live for less than two years: the mortality rate of fledglings is estimated to be 70%. This little female is a survivor, so far, and is capable of breeding in her first year, if she can find a male, and a nest site. I find my heart going out to her, willing her to succeed. We need more Windhovers, to lift our spirits and to show us the wild ecstasy of flight, the sheer mastery of the air that a kestrel can demonstrate.

IMG_5146Photo Credits

Photo One – By Andreas Trepte, http://www.photo-natur.de, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6542109

Photo Two –   © Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo Three – By Meister des Codex Manesse (Nachtragsmaler I) – http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg848/0024, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=193745

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Winter Flowering Cherry

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…..

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Dear Readers, this plant may seem an odd choice for a Wednesday Weed. For one thing, it is not a ‘weed’ even by my very wide definition and, although it probably originated in Japan, it is unknown in the wild. But on a dark January day, with slushy snow still on the ground and with the bitter wind infiltrating every gap between clothing and skin, it lit up St Pancras and Islington Cemetery like a sprinkle of starlight.

IMG_5148The people of Japan have an enduring relationship with cherry blossom – the fairy Ko-no-hana-sakuya-hime, ‘the maiden who causes the trees to bloom’, is said to waken the dormant trees into blossom by softly breathing on them. These were the trees of Emperors, and much time and effort was spent in selecting the best specimens (cherry trees are capable of great variation) and developing new kinds – the Japanese have had double-flowered cherry trees for over a thousand years. Furthermore, the Japanese knew about the art of grafting one tree onto another since early times, and so could propagate a new and exciting variety by persuading a cutting to grow from the stem of a more mundane tree. This is one reason why many people believe that the Winter Flowering Cherry is a hybrid (probably between the Fuji Cherry (Prunus incisa) and the Weeping Tree (Prunus spachiana) ). In Japan, the trees are doted upon, and some Winter Flowering Cherries can reach a very impressive stature.

By Sakaori (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A pink Winter Flowering Cherry at the front of the Juinji Temple in Koshu, Japan.(Photo One – Credit below)

Cherry blossom was so much tied up with Japanese culture that the trees were sometimes planted in order to  claim occupied territory as Japanese space. The ephemeral nature of the blossoms symbolises mortality in Buddhist teachings, and during the Second World War the Japanese population were encouraged to regard the flowers as the reincarnations of kamikaze fighters – indeed, one kamikaze sub-unit was named ‘the Wild Cherry Blossoms’. That these delicate blossoms could be used for such a militaristic purpose may seem strange to us now, but humans have always co-opted the symbolism of plants and animals and used it to shore up their own ideas.

IMG_5180

Although the fruit of ornamental varieties of cherry is usually inedible, the Japanese pickle the blossoms in plum vinegar. The pickle is used with wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) and with anpan, which is a kind of Japanese doughnut.

"Sakura yu2" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Pickled Cherry Blossom (Photo Two – credit below)

"和菓子PA100093" by Akiyoshi's Room - Akiyoshi's Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

A plate of Wagashi (Photo Three – credit below)

Salt-pickled cherry blossoms in hot water produce a kind of tea called sakurayu, which is drunk at festive events.

"Sakura yu" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

Sakurayu – cherry blossom tea (Photo Four – credit below)

The Latin species name ‘subhirtella’ means ‘slightly hairy’, apparently a reference to the young wood. I shall have to look more closely later in the year to see if the plant has a tendency to shagginess.

IMG_5166

Although it hasn’t been cold here in London, it has felt like a very long winter, and of course we are not out of the dark yet. But it is rather cheering to see something flowering when it should, rather than months early, and if any bee were foolish enough to venture out when it gets a little warmer at least there will be something for it to feed on. I like to think that maybe the collective spirits of all the people buried in the cemetery derive some pleasure from the flowers as well. At the very least, this early cherry blossom is something beautiful for the visitors to the cemetery to gaze upon when their mood is at its lowest. Let us never underestimate the solace that nature can provide.

Photo Credits

Photo One: By Sakaori (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two: “Sakura yu2” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Photo Three:”和菓子PA100093″ by Akiyoshi’s Room – Akiyoshi’s Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

Photo Four: “Sakura yu” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

 

A Nightmare or a Dream?

Not quite what it seems....Dear Readers, spiders have been much on my mind this week, largely because I’ve been staying in Dorset with my mother, who is recovering very nicely from her recent spell in hospital. However, before she was allowed to come home she had some very vivid nightmares (not surprising when you have a major chest infection, sepsis, a blood sugar level of 32 and your INR (blood thickness, which is measured regularly when you’re taking Warfarin ) is >10 when it should be around 2).

‘I dreamed that the hospital was being invaded by giant spiders’, said Mum when I phoned one morning.

‘That must have been scary’, I said.

‘It was,’ she said. ‘I knew that they could only see you if you moved, so I kept absolutely still all night’.

I wondered if a memory of Jurassic Park had crept in at this point. Some spiders have excellent eyesight (jumping spiders in particular) and you wouldn’t have to move for them to catch you. I chose not to share this information with poor Mum.

‘And the nurses were just carrying on as usual’, said Mum. ‘And I said to one of them, ‘how can you keep going when the wards are being invaded by giant spiders? What can we do?’ And she leaned over me and said ‘Just trust in the Lord’.

Well. I’m pleased to relate that no giant spider invasion actually took place, though I can imagine how terrifying a night it must have been. And now Mum has gone home to Dorset, I can share the little chap in the photograph of my kitchen window (above) with you, for, just like the spiders in Mum’s dream,  he is not at all what he seems.

Amaurobius ferox (exuvia) - in other words, the moulted skin of a male Black Laceweaver spider

Amaurobius ferox (exuvia) – in other words, the moulted skin of a male Black Laceweaver spider

After much debate on the British Spider Identification Facebook group, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we’re looking at in the photo is not a live spider, but the ghost of one – the complete exuvia, or shed skin, of the arachnid. This is the last moult of a male spider before he becomes fully mature, and where he is now is anybody’s guess. I wish I had seen him emerging from his skin – getting those long legs out must have been a bit of a struggle. Pretty much any spider that you see that doesn’t move at all is not actually a spider, but the shadow of one. Spiders are particularly vulnerable during ecdysis (moulting) – sometimes they get stuck and can’t free themselves, and sometimes they are pounced upon by predators. I only hope that this one got away to complete his destiny.

Detail showing the palps

Detail showing the palps

How can I tell that this is a male? If you look at the photo above, you will see two club-like protuberances from the spider’s head. These are the palps, and are used by the male during mating. A male spider does not jump onto a female’s back in the manner of a pigeon or a tom-cat, but is much more delicate in his approach. First, he spins a tiny horizontal web, and onto this he deposits a few drops of semen. Then he gathers the liquid up with his palps, where it clings to the hairs that coat them. Finally, when he approaches the female he uses his palps to inseminate her, after going through all the rituals that are prescribed for his particular species. If he can, he will approach a female who has just moulted, as she will be slightly less active and there is less chance of a fatal misunderstanding. For details of one spider courtship that I witnessed, have a look here.

It’s difficult getting down to species level with just an exuvia (shed skin) to go by, but my suspicion is that this chap is a Black Laceweaver (Amaurabius ferox). This is an example of a Cribellate spider – they have a special organ next to the spinners at the back that enables them to produce a very fine silk, which is then combed to woolliness by a special organ on their fourth legs. In his wonderful Collins Field Guide to Spiders, Michael J. Roberts describes the silk produced as being like the ‘smooth’ part of velcro, the hooks being provided by the legs of the unfortunate invertebrates that get tangled up in it.

You might be wondering why this spider is called a Black Laceweaver, when the male is quite clearly a rather pale chap. Well, the female, who is considerably larger and who can pack quite a nip if you handle her, is below. Please ignore all the scare stories in the newspapers about the ferocity of these creatures – they will only bite if severely provoked, and in that case I reckon the provocateur deserves everything that they get. In the battle of human vs spider, the odds are so overwhelmingly on the side of the ape that I have every sympathy with the arachnid.

"Amaurobius ferox fg01" by Fritz Geller-Grimm - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amaurobius_ferox_fg01.jpg#/media/File:Amaurobius_ferox_fg01.jpg

Black Laceweaver female (Photo 1 – credit below)

There are more than 600 species of spider in the UK from tiny Money Spiders to fairly hefty characters like Fen Web Spiders. Most of the time, they don’t live in our houses at all. Those that do often leave traces that we notice once they’ve passed to get on with the next stages of their lives. Sometimes, these remnants can be extraordinarily beautiful. Just have a look at this web, from a ceiling light in Mum’s house. It is as delicate as a Bruges lace handkerchief.

IMG_5127Whichever little creature made it has long since gone, and, I suspect, so will the web once Mum is strong enough to get her feather duster to it. But how extraordinary are the lives of the animals that we share our houses with, and how little we notice them, or know about them. Like dreams, they seem to disappear before we understand them.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Female Black Laceweaver) – “Amaurobius ferox fg01” by Fritz Geller-Grimm – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amaurobius_ferox_fg01.jpg#/media/File:Amaurobius_ferox_fg01.jpg

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Greater Periwinkle

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…..

Greater Periwinkle (Vinca major)

Greater Periwinkle (Vinca major)

Dear Readers, wherever there is a shady patch of woodland in London, you are pretty much sure to find this plant advancing enthusiastically among the tree roots. It is often planted in ‘impossible’ garden sites, where the soil is too heavy, or the shade too dense, and before long it will be peeping under the fence and looking hopefully at the more enticing spaces in your neighbour’s patch. What a bold adventurer it is, unwilling to be contained, and so subtle when not in flower that you are unlikely to notice it until you have a substantial patch.

"Vinca major NS" by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg#/media/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg

The five-fold flower of the Greater Periwinkle (Photo credit (1) below)

The flowers of the Greater Periwinkle are naturally a most delicious lilac-blue, with five petals and an upside-down pentagon in the middle. It has evergreen foliage, and the buds are twisted like screwed-up handkerchiefs before unfurling like ballerinas. The name ‘Vinca’ comes from the Latin vincire, meaning ‘to bind’, but although this plant is a vine it is a creeper and sprawler rather than a true strangler like bindweed. En masse, the flowers look very dynamic to me, like a mass of little revolving windmills.

Forest & Kim Starr [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Greater Periwinkle en masse….(Photo credit (2) below)

Greater Periwinkle was first recorded in the UK in 1597, and is originally from the Mediterranean. However, by 1650 it was seen in the wild, and has not looked back since. Needless to say, it is classified as a noxious weed in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Why the name periwinkle though? Periwinkle is a shade of lilac-blue, but I suspect this may have been named for the plant, rather than the other way around.  Certainly, even in Chaucer’s time the plant was known as the Perwynke.

Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, suggests that because the Periwinkle was used for making funereal and celebratory wreathes, it might have given its name to the Periwig. The wreathes, which resembled the twining habit of the plant, may have reminded people of the   complex ‘periwigs’ worn by fashionable folk in Charles II’s time, and by judges and barristers to this day. I leave it to you to imagine what the wreathes must have looked like if the splendid wig below is anything to go by.

"De Vermont-Largilliere" by Nicolas de Largillière - This file is lacking source information.Please edit this file's description and provide a source.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:De_Vermont-Largilliere.jpg#/media/File:De_Vermont-Largilliere.jpg

A very fine ‘periwig’ indeed – portrait of De Vermont-Largilliere by Nicholas de Largilliere

On the Plantlives website, Sue Eland tells us that in Britain convicted criminals wore garlands of Greater Periwinkle on their way to the gallows, and in Wales it was said that if you dug up a plant which was growing on a grave, you should be prepared to be haunted by the occupant. It has the vernacular name of ‘Sorcerer’s Violet’, for its use as a love philtre, and also its use in exorcism. In Germany, it is known as the ‘flower of immortality’.

The Poison Garden website reports how, in the 16th Century book ‘the boke of secretes of Albertus Magnus of the vertues of Herbes, Stones and certaine beastes’, Greater Periwinkle can be used to produce love between a man and his wife. As the remedy involves powdering the plant, mixing it with leeks and earthworms and adding it to food, I suspect that couples counselling may be more pleasant, if not as efficacious.

Furthermore, Poison Garden reports that the plant is said by the Apuleius Platonicus to be the first plant to choose to:

‘…combat sickness brought on by the Devil, protect against snakes and other wild beasts as well as being an antidote to many poisons. If you carry it with you, you will be prosperous and well received by strangers.’

Photo credit (3) below

Photo credit (3) below

Greater Periwinkle has been used in herbal medicine as an astringent, and for afflictions that involve ‘unnatural’ bleeding, such as piles, nose bleeds and painful/heavy periods.

I was very happy to see this plant in flower in the garden outside the Whittington Hospital where my mother was staying a few weeks ago. It seems to combine both diffidence and vigour, an unusual combination, and it reminded me of the persistence and resilience of living things, even in the unlikely surroundings of a north London hospital, right on a main road, on a blustery January day.

Update on Mum

For those readers who have been following the saga of my Mum’s stay in hospital, I’m pleased to report that she’s home in Dorset and getting better every day! We have carers coming in three times a day at the moment, but I suspect if I don’t watch it Mum will soon be making tea for them instead of the other way round. Thanks to all of you for your support through the past few weeks, it meant a lot to me and to Mum to know that so many folk were rooting for her.

Photo Credits

Photo One – “Vinca major NS” by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg#/media/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg

Photo Two – Forest & Kim Starr [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three – “Vinca major NS” by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg#/media/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg

Real Life

 

IMG_5116Dear Readers, today I would like to share a piece with you that I wrote during my mother’s recent stay in hospital. I know that many of us have loved ones who are unwell for one reason or another, and I was interested in the way that the NHS regards non-human nature. I’ll be back to the normal birds, insects and plants next week.

My mother and father came to stay with me in London this Christmas. All three of us knew it was a risk. Both my parents have the full range of late-onset ailments ( COPD, diabetes, dicky hearts) but this is the only holiday that they get, and, besides, prizing safety above all else means that we gradually retreat into our shells, like hermit crabs, afraid that every shadow is a shore-side bird waiting to gobble us up.

On Christmas morning. Mum was trying to pin one of the brooches I’d bought her onto her jumper, fumbling with the clasp. She sat back and smiled, the filigree butterfly a little skew whiff. Then, I remembered.

‘One last present,’ I said.

I’d almost forgotten the orchid that I’d hidden away in the bedroom. As I walked back downstairs, I looked at the flowers. I am not a great fan of orchids – they have an alien quality that looks sinister to me. And yet, my mother has a gift for coaxing them into flower time and again. This one was pale pink with mauve bruise-like blotches. The mouth of each bloom opened like a man-trap with long, backward-pointing teeth.

‘It’s beautiful!’ said Mum, as I passed it to her.

As I removed the wrapping, one of the flowers detached itself and floated to the ground. I picked it up, feeling the waxiness of the petals. I showed it to Mum.

‘Oh, put it in some water’, she said, ‘I can’t bear to think of it just getting thrown away’.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Won’t it just die anyway?’

But she looked so upset that I found a dish and floated the flower in it. It’s still there now.

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Early on Sunday morning, I heard a rasping whisper from Mum and Dad’s bedroom.

‘I think you need to call someone’, Mum said. ‘I can breathe in, but I can’t breathe out’. I could hear her chest wheezing and crackling from across the room.

An hour later, she was in an ambulance, being given oxygen, heading for the nearest London hospital.

The doctors confirmed that she was 80 years old. They heard the recitation of her health problems, shook their heads over her oxygen levels and the sounds coming through their stethoscopes. They ascertained that at her best she could walk only ten paces without having to stop to gather her breath. They admitted her to the hospital. She was put in a huge room on her own. There were no windows, but there were lots of empty navy-blue storage cupboards, as if this had once been a kitchen but all the appliances had been removed. The fluorescent light gave off a constant background hum. It was like being in the belly of a great machine.

‘I’m not afraid of dying’, said Mum. ‘But it makes me so sad to think that I’ll never walk around Marks and Spencer again, or walk in a park. And I know I’m lucky and there are lots of things that I can still do, but somehow, just now, that doesn’t help’.

Normally I try to protect myself by avoiding what is really being said in these conversations, by trying, like Pollyanna, to look on the bright side. But today, I just sat, and held her hand, and cried with her.

IMG_5085As I walk to the hospital, I notice how bright all the colours seem, as if I’m hallucinating. The thoughts are chasing one another round and round inside my skull, as scratchy as rats. There is a wall alongside me and beyond a wildflower garden, at head height. The low winter sun lights up a patch of trailing bellflower. I see the way that the stamen are casting a hooked shadow on the lilac petals, the way a single raindrop trembles on the edge of a leaf before falling, in what seems like slow motion, onto the soil. And for a moment, I don’t think about Mum at all, and I feel my shoulders relax. I take a deep breath, then another. And then I walk on.

————————————————————————————————————————————-

It used to be that hospital wards were full of flowers, the stink of lilies and gently decomposing chrysanthemums rising above the smell of antiseptic and hospital cooking. But now, all plants are banned ‘for hygiene reasons’. Probably the nurses are so overworked that they don’t have time to cope with browning foliage and wilting poinsettias. But I can’t help thinking that something alive and beautiful is as important for healing as drips and antibiotics. Mum’s bunker looked completely sterile. But I had underestimated her.

At Christmas dinner, I had handed out some crackers that I’d bought from a wildlife charity. Each one contained a card that, when opened, released a snippet of bird song. The game was to guess which bird was singing – nightingale, blue tit, wren? Mum had put the cards in her bag. When the very important Consultant and his two trainees came along to see how she was doing, she produced one of the cards and pushed it into the Big Man’s hand.

‘Open that’, she said.

He looked at her askance, and opened the card. The sound of a song thrush in full-throat filled the bare room, flooding the place with the sound of woodland wildness.

The consultant’s face changed. He closed the card and opened it again. He turned to the two trainees.

‘I know you want to go home’, he said to them, ‘But listen to this!’

And he ‘played’ the  song again, before closing the card and handing it back to Mum with a bow.

After a few days, Mum is moved to a different ward. As usual, she hates it at first – relationship is what Mum thrives on, and in each new location she has to charm everyone all over again. But she does have a window now.

‘At night, I can see all the planes flying over’, she says.

I notice that there’s a spider outside the window. At first I think it’s dead, but then I see that it is on a web, blowing backwards and forwards as the wind buffets the building. I decide not to tell Mum. She isn’t the world’s biggest spider fan. But it makes me happy to see this little note of anarchy in this antiseptic place.

‘At least I can get a breeze here’, says Mum. ‘Though when I was standing up next to the window yesterday they made me get back into bed in case I caught a chill’.

Her temperature is still too high, she is coughing most of the time and she’s pulled her canula out.

‘ I thought I’d be feeling a bit better by now’, she says. ‘But they’ve still got me on that bloody antibiotic that doesn’t work’.

I know that doctors don’t like to be told their jobs, but still.

‘Did you know that Mum’s been hospitalised for Proteus infections several times?’ I ask the doctor when he’s next on his rounds.

‘No’, he says. ‘Maybe we should talk to the people in Metabiotics’.

———————————————————————————————————

Proteus is a super-bug, and Mum probably acquired it in a hospital. Along with MRSA and C.Difficile, it is infecting our clinics and operating theatres. Proteus is so-called because it hides in the body, changing location. There are several variants, many of them immune to one antibiotic, some to several. The use of several antibiotics simultaneously is called Metabiotics.

This is the age of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On a bad day, I feel that we are standing on the threshold of apocalypse. I remember a display I saw about the Jamestown settlers in America. Several of them died from a simple tooth abscess that could not be treated, became infected, and spread through the body.

As we seek to sterilise our homes and hospitals and schools, life is creeping back through the keyhole, pouring under the door, finding the draughty spaces around our windows.

The doctors change the drugs. My mother’s body becomes a battleground. At 3.30 a.m. she rings me.

‘I’m in The Game’, she says. ‘I’m trapped in a room, and they’re murdering people next door, and slaughtering them like animals, and they won’t let me out’.

‘Mum,’ I say, heart racing, ‘You know that none of this is real?’

‘I know’, she says, ‘but I want to get out and they won’t let me go’.

The phone goes dead. I call the ward. After what seems like a year, the nurse answers. I explain the situation.

‘I’ll talk to her’, he says. ‘It’s the drugs’.

The next morning, Mum can’t remember any of it, but her breathing seems better. Then her blood sugar climbs to 32, a dangerously high level. It seems that, somehow, the bacteria are fighting back. This is not going to end any time soon.

On my visit, Mum hands back the cards with the bird songs in them.

‘Take them home’, she says. ‘Keep them safe. They don’t belong here’. And she closes her eyes, a look of concentration turning her face to marble. She is not beaten yet.

IMG_5117

Today, there is finally good news. The blood sugars are under control. Mum’s breathing is improving. Her poor body has fought back again, and if all goes well, she will be out of the hospital in a couple of days.

I am making my peace with the orchid. The buds are clenched fists, but the newly opened flowers are poppy-shaped, like cupped hands, around the soft inner petals. I see that the long, tongue-like leaves have a fine layer of dust.

‘I’d better clean you up’, I say to the plant. ‘Before Mum comes home’.

Update

Mum finally left the hospital on Thursday, and is travelling back home to Dorset with Dad and I on Sunday. She isn’t fully well yet, as might be expected, but she is getting better.I am deeply grateful to all the staff at the Whittington Hospital in north London for their unfailing care of my mum, and for their patience and dedication. The NHS truly is a pearl beyond price.