Monthly Archives: July 2016

Flâneuse-ing on the County Roads

IMG_7356Dear Readers, for many years I have been intrigued by the idea of the Flâneur. This was a 19th century French character, invariably male, who would wander around a city wearing a top-hat and carrying a cane, and was described as a ‘connoisseur of the street’. He would get into all kinds of adventures and encounters, and would have a thoroughly interesting time. However for women, it was somewhat different.  In her new book ‘Flâneuse – the (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities’, Lauren Elkin records how women doing exactly the same thing as the Flâneur could be subject to harassment and suspicion, and were sometimes accosted or even arrested. Nonetheless, I strolled forth intrepidly (though without top-hat and cane) to explore the County Roads here in East Finchley.

The County Roads are a set of six roads, built at the turn of the twentieth century, and they are all named after old English counties: Lincoln, Leicester, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford and Durham. They are a jumble of different Victorian/Edwardian styles, and vary from the ornate to the simple, from the grand to the (relatively) humble. What they all have, however, are front gardens, and for a naturalist like myself, that’s good enough. Who knows what I might see? I was especially intrigued to see how the pollinators were getting on, and what was attracting their interest.

My first step was right outside my front door, to admire my giant buddleia. It is true that it needs yet another prune, but I’m reluctant to get rid of those enormous racemes of flowers just yet. Plus, the more I hack at it, the larger it grows. Yesterday afternoon, it largely attracted honeybees.

IMG_7353Onwards! I head down to the High Road and, as if for the first time, notice what a strange shape the London Plane trees are after their pollarding. Each one appears to be trying to accommodate the buildings around it. Apart from the peculiar topiary effect, however, they are looking very healthy at the moment, though we could do with some rain – my water butt has run dry for the first time since we installed it five years ago. Every night the clouds gather and then dissipate away over Muswell Hill. Who knows what we have done to anger the gods.IMG_7362IMG_7385If bumblebees could vote with their many little hooked feet, I’m sure they would put their crosses down for lavender. The County Roads are very obliging in this respect, and there is a fine patch at All Saint’s Church on Durham Road, while many individual houses have handsome stands of the plant.

IMG_7373IMG_7374Although modern roses are not a favourite, the ones that are closer to the wild type attact some attention.

IMG_7371On another note, the bollard on the corner of Leicester Road is still not fixed (or maybe was fixed and got walloped again). Is there a gremlin here that attracts collisions?

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Lesser-spotted bollard

Alongside some very splendid cultivated sweet peas, there are some stands of a wild cousin, Broad-leaved Everlasting Peas (Lathyrus latifolius), and very pretty it is too.

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Broad-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

I stop to congratulate a man who is two-thirds of the way up a ladder, re-painting some of his plasterwork cornice. He nearly falls off with shock, but recovers himself to say how much he loves these old buildings and the little details that make them different from one another. I couldn’t agree more.

Someone is having much more luck with Nepeta (Cat Mint) than I did. I planted mine in a pot, and came downstairs to find that I had apparently grown a cat, though it just turned out to be some stoned feline who had crushed it in his frenzy, and who gazed at me with a demented expression.

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Honeybee on catmint (Nepeta).

It's no good trying to look innocent.

Evil cat-mint destroyer in pot.

Evil cat-mint destroyer

It’s no good trying to look innocent, though you are a very fine cat indeed.

I stopped to view a particularly wildlife-friendly garden that met with full Bugwoman approval. It had verbena and nicotiana (for the moths), some sedum just ready to come into flower, an interesting yellow vetch and all manner of other delights. I stopped to photograph it when, dear reader, I was finally accosted, by a lovely lady with a bunch of lavender from her allotment in her hand. She asked me if I was Bugwoman, and so of course I could not demur. Then another lovely lady approached, and I was introduced to her too. My cover was blown! Maybe I should create a Bugwoman costume, perhaps with dangly antennae and wings, though it might be difficult to handle the camera with extra legs.

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Sedum – a great plant for autumn pollinators

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Verbena bonariensis and nicotiana, amongst other pollinator-friendly delights

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Honeybee on Verbena boniarensis, a great bee and butterfly plant

Now, East Finchley readers, have you noticed our magnificent pigeons? We have our fair share of the normal blue-grey birds, and very fine they are too. But we have more than our share of birds which are partially white, and also ones that have a pinky-grey colouration, which is known as ‘red’ in the trade, I think. Huntingdon Road has its own resident pair of red birds, which I fear is due to the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner, and concomitant rubbish which is strewn at that end of the street (in spite of the litter bin). (Don’t get me started).

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A red pigeon about to indulge in KFC chips

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One of many pied pigeons in East Finchley

As I loop up towards the corner of Bedford and Durham Road, I stop to look at the fennel growing in one of the gardens. All of the umbellifers (plants with flat, multi-flowered blooms like Cow Parsley and Hog Weed) are pollinated by insects smaller than bumblebees: all kinds of flies, wasps, honeybees and beetles. It is thought that flies, in particular, are not so skilled at pollination, and don’t have the ability to cope with the complicated flowers that bumblebees do, so they tend to prefer single flowers, and lots of them.

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Little and Large….

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Ichneumon wasp on fennel

And some surprisingly complicated flowers can be ‘cracked’ by bumblebees, who really are the brains of the pollinator world. It’s been shown that, given sufficient incentive, they can tell the difference between human faces, so a passion flower is easy-peasy.

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Bumblebee on passionflower

As I make my last turn around the County Roads, the sound of cawing alerts me to the fact that the crow family have reproduced successfully again. Earlier, one of the parent birds was trying to persuade a fledgling to come down and eat a suspiciously new-looking slice of bread that they had filched. By the time I returned, the adult was watching as the youngster pecked about in the gutter of a nearby house, looking for food.

Parent crow

Parent crow

Fledgling

Fledgling

Dear Readers, I had a very fine walk around the County Roads, and I wasn’t arrested once. Even in a built-up area there is lots to see and enjoy. I would like to leave you with a brief clip of the bees feeding on a particularly lovely patch of lavender, where the heat of the sun was bringing up the scent, and the lazy droning of the insects (only partially obliterated by a plane heading home to Heathrow) made me wish that I had brought a deckchair with me. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. There is so much more ‘nature’ in a city than people often think.

 

Wednesday Weed – Weld

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…..

Weld (Reseda luteola)

Weld (Reseda luteola)

Dear Readers, a few weeks ago I discovered this plant growing on the edge of the playing fields next to Coldfall Wood, and I was so intrigued that I thought it deserved a Wednesday Weed all to itself. When I saw it for the first time, it reminded me of of the tip-tilted tail of a curious cat, albeit a yellow one, so how could I resist? Plus, it is the first member of the mignonette family to grace the blog. The plant often grows in places where the soil has been disturbed, as here – the ground was turned over when some additional drainage measures were implemented last year. Who knows how long these seeds have been waiting for the correct conditions for germination?

IMG_7145Weld is an ancient introduction to the UK from Eurasia, and was probably planted because it produces a bright yellow dye (its other common names include Dyer’s Weld and and Dyer’s Rocket). In its native Iran, it is the commonest plant dye for use in carpets. It is one of our earliest dye plants, in use from the first millenium BC. Mixed with the blue dye from woad (Isatis tinctoria) it made Lincoln Green, much beloved by Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

Robin Hood with Sir Guy by Louis Rhead, 1912

Robin Hood with Sir Guy by Louis Rhead, 1912

The whole plant was used, and the yellower the flowers, and the thinner the stems, the better the dye. I can’t help thinking that the little crop that I saw would have been perfect, although plants that grow on sandy soils are preferred to those that grow on moist clay soils, such as here in London.

IMG_7141The plant was the dye of choice for the clothes of ordinary people, but could also be used to dye silk (this is how it was used by the Vikings). To produce sufficient quantities, it was grown commercially in the south-east and in Yorkshire, and was sometimes planted alongside corn and barley. Such was the demand for weld that the plant had to be imported from France during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.

In the UK, the use of weld as a dye came to an end at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when artificial means of colouration were created. However, in Egypt the plant, known as Reseda, is still harvested in large quantities as a dye for tapestries.

By Glennweiss - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47596752

Wool dyed with reseda at Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Giza, Egypt, 2016 (Photo One – see credit below)

The dye from weld was also used as an ink, and as a paint – to make it permanent, it was precipitated with chalk. Many medieval manuscript artists used it as a substitute for gold when they were illuminating their texts. It was also used to provide the yellow colour in tapestries and carpets, much as it is today.

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry (1495-1505) - The yellows are from weld, the blues from woad, the reds from madder.

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry (1495-1505) – The yellows are from weld, the blues from woad, the reds from madder (Photo Two – see details below)

Medicinally, it is said to have been a ‘last-resort’ for the plague, and was also used as a poultice for snake bite and insect stings, although it is apparently a ‘hot’ herb, like radish and horseradish, though it is unrelated to either. It appears to largely go uneaten, or at least I can’t find any recipes. It seems to be one of those plants that has one main human use, and that is to dye things.

IMG_7136However, weld is also a popular plant with pollinators: bees seem to love it, but it is also a favourite of flower beetles, like the little chap above.

IMG_7140I am intrigued by how many craftspeople are using wild plant dyes in their work these days. In her wonderful blog Wool – Tribulations of Hand Spinning and Herbal Dyeing, Fran Rushworth experiments with weld, and finds that it produces a remarkably strong and attractive yellow dye. We are rediscovering so many fascinating things about our local plants – it’s as if we are meeting up with old friends. For so much of our history we have been in direct relationship with the environment, and now so many of us are lost, wandering in a world we don’t understand. Foraging for food or for other purposes often means that we not only get a greater knowledge of what’s going on around us, but also that we have a vested interest in preserving it.

Photo Credits

Photo One – By Glennweiss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47596752

Photo Two is in the public domain – the tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute, and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

 

Ordinary Plants

IMG_7286Dear Readers, this week I made my first visit to the cemetery for three weeks, and started off with a look at the ‘Woodland/Meadow Burial Site’. It’s safe to say that this is not working out as planned. Instead of the biodiverse mixture of wildflowers that was no doubt expected, there is a mass of dock and thistle, bindweed and coarse grass. Of course, this is not bad news for everyone.

IMG_7299 IMG_7288IMG_7287Few garden plants are the draw that these ‘weeds’ are, and the thistles seem to attract the greatest range of flying insects, from honeybees to bumblebees to hoverflies. They are everyone’s favourite pit stop. Of course, not everyone wants creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) in their garden, but the much better behaved Cirsium rivulare ‘atropurpureum’ is a great substitute, and I can vouch for its wildlife credentials. I have often seen bees who seem to be asleep in the flowers, and I suspect that they are just overcome with the nectar.

Jean Jones https://www.flickr.com/photos/flamingparrot/9076478089

Cirsium rivulare ‘atropurpureum’ (Photo One – Credit below)

Butterflies seem to be partial to some thistle  nectar, too.

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Female Meadow Brown butterfly (Maniola jurtina) – the male has much less pronounced eyespots. The caterpillars have probably fed on the grasses around here.

Another much underrated source of nectar for bumblebees in particular is bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). Again, no one would want this in their garden, but look.

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Common carder bumblebee exiting a bindweed flower.

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) heading skywards

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) heading skywards

And as I was trying to persuade the bees to stay still long enough for a photograph, I noticed someone else….

IMG_7319Flower crab spiders (Misumena vatia) are much commoner than you’d think, and the females (like the one in the photograph) can change colour over a period of days to match their surroundings – I remember reports of a butter-yellow spider sitting on a daffodil. This spider is too small to catch a bumblebee (and hid when one approached), but a hoverfly would be possible, I suspect.

IMG_7326Crab spiders, like jumping spiders, have excellent eyesight, and a lot of patience. When an unsuspecting fly of the right size happens past, the spider will grab it in its unholy embrace and inject it with her powerful venom. Her method of escape appears to be to bunch up her legs and ascend rapidly into the undergrowth on a zip wire of silk.

Ready for launch!

Ready for launch!

What a fruitful piece of land this is. I have no doubt that soon, as the many signs in the area promise, the whole lot will be razed, turned over and replanted, with an (un) healthy dose of weedkiller thrown in as well. I imagine that when people were promised a ‘woodland/meadow burial ground’ they did not expect six feet high docks and a preponderance of thistles.

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Notice the spider-silk threaded between the thistles…

If the area does eventually ‘succeed’, hopefully it will be even better. A mixture of wildflowers, with different flowering times, will be as great a draw as these ‘weeds’, and may even attract a greater variety of pollinators. However, it’s always interesting to note that what might seem pretty to us is of no consequence whatsoever to bees and butterflies, who are simply interested in the quality and amount of the nectar and pollen on offer. I look forward to seeing what comes next, and hope that, next year, the flying insects of East Finchley will be even happier than they are today.

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White-tailed bumblebee(Bombus lucorum)

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Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

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Male Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) – only the male has the yellow band on the thorax

Leaving the Woodland burial area, I passed a bed of cosmos, and this was an enormous hit with the bumblebees too. Most pollinators greatly prefer an area with only one flower type: there is some evidence that while bumblebees can learn the structure of up to three kinds of plants, that’s pretty much the limit of their memories. It’s much more efficient for them to have lots of one species of flower about, so that they don’t have to keep changing their behaviour. This cosmos bed really fits the bill.

IMG_7307IMG_7302Turning up into Upper Road, a heavily wooded area with lots of Victorian graves, I noticed how, in just a few weeks, the leaf miners had gone to work on the horse chestnut trees. I hope that the blue tits, who are already learning how to pick the caterpillars out of the leaves, will be the eventual beneficiaries of the increase in these ‘pests’, because although they don’t kill the trees directly, they must surely weaken them.

Horse chestnut leaves showing leaf miner damage

Horse chestnut leaves showing leaf miner damage

IMG_7309And then I was heard a very odd sound. It was a wheezing call, a little like a mewing, coming from high up in one of the trees. I followed it into a dark and shady spot, and stood there for half an hour trying to see who was being so noisy. I didn’t see the bird itself, but I did see an adult kestrel fly into the tree, and then out again. So, it seems that there are fledgling kestrels about, which is great news (though not for any mice). Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a photo, and furthermore I had my foot bitten by a rather impressive insect of unknown species. Nobody can say that I don’t suffer for my ‘art’.

A great spot for listening to young kestrels. And getting bitten by insects.

A great spot for listening to young kestrels. And getting bitten by insects.

And for those of you who have been following the story of the foxes in the cemetery, they are about but are keeping rather a low profile at the moment – lots of young foxes are leaving their dens, and it’s all causing a bit of social mayhem. But for those of you who are feeling fox-deprived, here’s one of the youngsters, taken before I left for Austria. What a little beauty.

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Photo Credits

Photo One: Jean Jones https://www.flickr.com/photos/flamingparrot/9076478089

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use for non-commercial purposes, but please attribute, and link back to the blog. Thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Common Mallow

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…..

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Dear Readers, what a handsome plant common mallow is! There are several specimens growing in an area of the playing fields next to Coldfall Wood that was turned over to improve drainage last year. With their twisted buds and prominent stamen it is easy to see their relationship to their more enthusiastic cousins, the hollyhocks.

IMG_7129The plant has several English vernacular names that refer to cheese – ‘Cheesecake’ is one, and ‘Pick Cheese’ is another. But why? Apparently because the fruit is a ‘doughnut-shaped ring of nutlets’ according to my Harrap’s ‘Wild Flowers’, and because these seeds resemble a whole cheese. Children have been known to eat the seeds, which apparently have a bland, mealy taste.

By Ferran Turmo Gort https://www.flickr.com/photos/fturmog/1402925498

The ‘cheese-like’ fruit of the common mallow (Photo One – credit below)

Common mallow is an ancient introduction to the UK, having a native range that includes the whole of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and spreads as far east as Mongolia. The pollen from the plant has been found in a Roman excavation in Bearsden, close to Glasgow, and it is known that the leaves, flowers and seeds were eaten by the Romans, both as food as a kind of preventative medicine – Pliny said that a daily dose would make you immune to all diseases (many thanks, yet again, to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for this information). Mabey speculates that, as the pollen is only found at the Roman levels of the excavation, the plant may well have been cultivated by the legion.

Both the leaves and roots of common mallow contain a lot of gelatinous mucilage, which has been used in ointments for burns and wounds, and as a generally soothing tonic for inflammation and irritation. The leaves also contain a lot of iron and vitamins.

IMG_7143You might wonder if there was an association between the Mallow family and Marshmallows, and indeed there is: the now nationally scarce Marsh Mallow (Althea officinalis) was probably the source of the original sweet, which was made from its roots. Nowadays, marshmallows are typically made with gelatin, sugar and water, coated in corn starch.

On the Permaculture website , there are many references to uses of common mallow as food. In both Hebrew and Arabic, the local name of the plant translates as ‘bread’, and when Jerusalem was under siege in 1948 it was an important famine crop. Some Israelis still prepare Ktzitziot Khubeza, a patty made of mallow leaves, breadcrumbs, eggs and spices on Independence Day (6th May), or may incorporate the plant into a soup. There is an interesting article about the history of the mallow in Israeli cuisine here.

IMG_7133You can also use the seeds from common mallow as a partial replacement for egg white in meringues. Again, from the Permaculture website:

‘The seed pods can be substituted for most of the egg white if wanting to make mallow meringues. Simply boil up the peeled seed pods using 3 parts water 1 part seed pods, and reduce the liquid by half. For every half cup of liquid add one egg white, ¼ tsp of cream of tartar, some vanilla and castor sugar, then whip it up until foamy and stiff, just like meringues.’

Incidentally, for those of us who would like to reduce our reliance on animal products, I was recently reading that meringue can be made from the water that chickpeas are canned in (called aquafaba). Who would have dreamed of such a thing? I haven’t tried any recipes yet, but I am intrigued. After all, what could be cheaper than something that would normally be thrown away? For anyone else who is interested, here is a link to all kinds of pavlovas, pies and macarons that can apparently be knocked up for almost nothing. Wonders will never cease, indeed.

Anyhow, back to common mallow.

IMG_7131Common mallow was also said to be one of the plants traditionally incorporated into May Day garlands. This puzzles me a little, as these days the plant’s flowering season doesn’t now really kick off until June. Did it bloom earlier in previous centuries, or was it a rare component that was appreciated all the more for its scarcity? Who knows. It certainly has a rather exotic look, with its purple striped flowers.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

And finally, in ‘Flora Domestica, Or, The Portable Flower Garden’, by Elizabeth Kent and Leigh Hunt (written in 1831), there is this on the subject of the common mallow:

‘The common Mallow of this country must be familiar even to London readers; it is ‘an amiable plant, generally to be found in spots neglected by mankind’.

By which, gentle reader, we can deduce both that the average Londoner was considered to be a bit of a klutz with regard to noticing the natural world even then, and also that the plant was found in urban areas, and may have been considered something of a ‘weed’. Some things change, and some things stay very much the same.

Photo Credits

Photo One – By Ferran Turmo Gort https://www.flickr.com/photos/fturmog/1402925498

All other photos free to use and share for non-commercial purposes, but please credit Vivienne Palmer and link to the blog. Thank you!

Bugwoman on Location – A Bit of a Surprise

IMG_7238When I threw back the curtains on Thursday morning, it was to see that the hills closest to Obergurgl (Austria) had been sprinkled with snow, and the higher peaks had disappeared completely behind a curtain of white cloud. In all my years of coming here, I have never seen snow so late. The locals say that it isn’t ‘unknown’ to get snow in July – after all, this is the highest parish in Austria, and snow can fall at above 2000 metres at any time of the year. But still, there is a novelty to looking out of the window onto a winter wonderland.

IMG_7237Our neighbours at breakfast are ecstatic. The lady can’t wait to get up above the snow line.  Her enthusiasm is both touching and exhausting as she bounces off, dragging her long-suffering husband behind her although he hasn’t quite finished his boiled egg. After they’ve left, the restaurant seems very quiet.

IMG_7234We wander off to get a coffee, and I take photos of the church, and the local hills. I often wonder what the village is like in the winter, and this is just a little taster. During this holiday we have talked to several people who have come to Obergurgl to ski, and to me it sounds like hell. The figures speak for themselves. 450 people actually live in the parish of Obergurgl. In the winter, a further 1500 workers arrive to service the 4500 visitors who can be here at any one time. There are tales of two hour queues for the pizzeria, and of discos that go until the wee small hours. In other words, it wouldn’t suit a tired old introvert like me. I love the peace and quiet here, the chance to hear myself think.

IMG_7241We  head up in the lift to the Hohe Mut.As we rise, the hills and rocks become whiter and whiter. Everything is monochrome. The path that we walked earlier this week is a black scar against the snow. Icicles hang under the rocky outcrops, and all sensible marmots are bedded down in their burrows for the day. Near the top, everything whites out, and we are almost into the lift station before we really see it.

IMG_7240There are men sweeping away the snow, which is about eight inches deep at the top. The children’s playground is covered in snow, and someone has built a little snow man. On the roof of the hut there is a single bird, some kind of baby robin or stone chat. It chirrups pathetically. Has it lost its parents somehow in all the confusion? I look around, but can’t see any other birds.

IMG_7247IMG_7254IMG_7249We go inside where it’s warm, and I have a cup of hot chocolate. There aren’t many other people. Some folk will still decide to walk, I’m sure, but after three solid days of rain and then this snow, it’s too dangerous for us to attempt anything significant. We discuss Theresa May’s reshuffle, and how on earth Boris Johnson is now Foreign Secretary, but fortunately it all seems a little distant. We can see exactly nothing through the window.

IMG_7251Finally, we decide to head back down. Out by the lift, the same little bird is standing all on its own in the snow, chirruping. We didn’t bring our lunch packs up with us, but when John finds a few crumbs and throws them to the bird, it ignores them. I suspect that it is just out of the nest, and would normally still be being fed by its parents. I wonder if this is what climate change looks like – a lost bird calling out in a wilderness of white. Sometimes it takes something small to bring things into focus. We cannot bear the immensity of the world’s problems, but we can relate to a single story, an individual.

IMG_7261As we journey back down through the whiteness, I see that a flock of sheep are moving at speed back down the hill, looking for forage that isn’t frozen. I’ve noticed this before with the domestic animals on the mountains – the horses come down in advance of a storm, and the sheep will stand in patches of snow if the weather gets too hot. The cows are indoors today, so the silence is intensified by the lack of the omnipresent cow bells. Everything is at a standstill, everything is waiting for this cold front to move on so that summer can come back, which it is due to do in the next few days. But by that time, we will be home, and back into the normal run of things.

IMG_7269In truth, it’s time to be going home. I miss my bed, and cooking my own food, and my friends and family. I miss the foxes, and the cemetery, and my garden. But my batteries are recharged, and I’m ready for whatever comes next. That’s the beauty of this place: it forces me to live a bit more in my body, and a bit less in my head. It reminds me that humans are animals, and that we are meant to move, rather than to sit hunched over a computer. And most of all, it reminds me of our relationship to the animals and plants around us, and how interconnected we all are, in London as well as here in the Alps. We are all subjects of nature, however much we deny it.

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Wednesday Weed – Oxeye Daisy

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…..

Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Dear Readers, the oxeye daisies are in full bloom in the cemetery, especially in the area which has been designated for meadow burials. I love the way that they seem to glow (one of their alternative names is ‘Moon Daisy’) and the way that their broad, single flowers are used by all kinds of pollinators, but especially hoverflies.  The Latin name, Leucanthemum vulgare, literally means ‘common white flower’, but in the language of flowers oxeye daisies are said to represent patience. It always seems to me that there is something stoical and unassuming about this plant, and it’s very easy to just pass it by and not notice how exquisitely formed the flowers are.

IMG_7045If you look closely at the photo above, you can see how the yellow middle part of the flower looks rather bulgy and uneven. This is because each of the segments is actually a separate flower – a ‘disc floret’. Each petal is a separate flower too – a ‘ray floret’. Each ‘petal’ is female, but the florets in the middle are hermaphrodite, with both stamen (male) and a style (female). If you examine an oxeye daisy at this time of year, you will see the disc florets erupting, one at a time, to enable pollination, and this is what gives the bumpy appearance. The sex life of a plant is indeed a wonder to contemplate.

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Oxeye daisy is native to Europe and the western parts of Asia, but has been naturalised in North America and Australasia as well. It is common in the Alpine flower meadows of Austria and Switzerland, and in these countries it is believed that hanging it in the home or in a barn would repel thunder. In Somerset in the UK it was associated with Thor, the God of Thunder (though what the folk of Somerset have to do with a Norse god puzzles me somewhat. Maybe those blooming Vikings).

In Scotland, it appears that oxeye daisy (known as ‘gool’) was considered a significant pest (not only in arable fields, but also because if cattle eat the plant it can taint their milk). ‘Gool-riders’ would ride through the parish, and any farmer with an unacceptable number of the flowers in his fields was fined up to 3s 4d or a ‘wedder sheep’, which I think may be a castrated ram (though any sheep-farming readers can correct me!)

Oxeye daisy is also known as Marguerite in some French-speaking parts of the world, after the ‘He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not’ game ‘effeuiller la marguerite’. I suppose that a daisy the size of this one makes it much easier where petal-counting is involved!

Giacomo di Chirico - 'He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not' - 1872

Giacomo di Chirico – ‘He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not’ – 1872. Though I fear that here the lady is using a rose, not an oxeye daisy as you would expect. Maybe she is too grand for such a humble plant.

As with many members of the daisy family (many of which have ‘fleabane’ somewhere in their names), oxeye daisy was believed to deter parasites if it was included in the bedding of domestic animals. It is also said to be useful medicinally, especially in cases of respiratory disease. The plant, if added to ale, was said to be a traditional treatment for jaundice, maybe because of its yellow centre. It was also used in an ointment to treat bruises and rashes, and there’s something logical about those pure white flowers being used for healing.

IMG_6441As a plant which often bursts into flower around the Solstice, oxeye daisy is associated with the feast day of St John the Baptist on 24th June. And as it is one of those plants that goes on and on, it is also associated with St Mary Magdalene, whose feast day is on 22nd July.

My pot of oxeye daisies

My pot of oxeye daisies

It appears that you can also eat oxeye daisies. On the Eden Project website, there is a recipe for Tempura-Battered Oxeye Daisies, which are said to taste a little like pineapple. I suppose that this is not surprising, as I always think that tea made from the chamomile, a close relative, reminds me of the tropical fruit.  And on the Eat The Weeds website there are details for how to pickle the buds, which are said to taste like capers. Maybe this tastiness is what explains the denuded flowers of some of my oxeye daisies, who look as if someone has systematically nibbled off every petal.

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

This is undoubtedly the work of our old friends, the snails (and possibly the slugs as well). I have been fighting a running (or maybe crawling) battle with these molluscan devils all summer. I have a pot of oxeye daisies on my front porch, and every evening I check the rim of the pot, and the surface of the soil, for any sneaky shells. I then toss the miscreants into the lavender, where they will have a long journey back. But every morning, a few more petals seem to disappear. I suppose that they are such tasty morsels that the snails will eat them in preference to anything else. What I really need is a hedgehog, but, in spite of encouragement, I have not seen so much as a prickle. In fact, the last hedgehog that I saw was a squashed one in Somerset last week. I wonder if you can rescue a hedgehog, like you can a cat or dog? There would certainly be lots for them to do in my garden.

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Bugwoman on Location – A Walk Through the Arolla Forest, Obergurgl, Austria

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The path to the Arolla Forest

Dear Readers, I am on holiday in Obergurgl, Austria for two weeks, so, as usual, I thought I would share a couple of my walks with you all. On Monday we went for a hike through the Arolla pine forest, a nature reserve that I can see from my balcony window.This is what I would describe as our first ‘proper’ walk, which means one where we actually break into a sweat, and where I notice that my heart rate, measured on my little Fitbit watch, has gone over 140 beats per minute. I should mention that once it goes that fast, I often demand a breathing break, or find something to look at that means that we stop. Like ‘ooh, an ant!’ or ‘Look at that tree!’ or even, once, ‘that’s a pretty cloud’. However, I think that my daily walks to the cemetery to feed the foxes have helped – the climb today, though tiring, required far fewer ‘ant stops’ than usual.

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Meadow flowers

The trip starts easily enough as we skip through the meadow, and pass over a bridge. The bridge has a little shrine to St John Nepomuk, the local saint and a protector against floods and drowning. I notice that folk have started to attach padlocks to the metalwork to signify their undying love for one another.

IMG_7191 I hope that this doesn’t become too much of a trend, as it can weaken the bridge, but at the moment, it’s just rather sweet.

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Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)

IMG_7207The Alpenroses are gorgeous this year – they are actually azaleas, not roses. Normally by the time we’ve arrived in Obergurgl , they are already past their best. This year they are perfect. We stop on the edge of the forest for some water and some Toblerone (actually Swiss, but it feels like enough of an Alpine treat to indulge in in Austria). A woman in a white beanie hat is sitting on the seat, and we get chatting, like you do. She is watching her husband, who is doing some mountaineering on the rocks opposite. This little area has become very popular with daredevils who like edging around precipitous drops and crossing ravines via terrifying wire bridges, and I am impressed that her husband, who must be sixty if he’s a day, is giving the youngsters a run for their money. It suddenly occurs to me, writing this, that I shall be sixty in a few years. Funny how your impressions of age change as you get older. I have an Auntie who is 88 years old, and refers to a friend in her seventies as ‘a nice girl’.

IMG_7200 IMG_7201We all agree that this mountaineering lark is  ‘not our kind of thing’, however. The husband takes his hand off the rocks to give his wife a cheery wave, and she heads off to meet him at the bottom of the climb. John and I head on up the path.

It’s so cool under the trees. There’s a chiff-chaff singing his heart out way up in the branches. I always wonder why some birds cross from Africa to Austria and stay, while others come all the way to the UK. It also occurs to me that most of the plants that I see here I could also see in Britain, though not in such splendid abundance. Our plants, animals and geology are inextricably linked with those in Europe, and until rising sea levels severed our connection to the continent as recently as 6500 years ago, we were physically joined to the mainland. What a difference that hop, skip and a jump’s worth of water has made to our national attitude.

IMG_7206We carry on up the zig-zag path, hearing the nutcrackers’ calls all around us, but seeing nary a one.By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3708573Spotted Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes) (Photo One – see credit below)

For such big birds, the nutcrackers are very shy, although the evidence of their work is everywhere, in the tiny baby trees that are sprouting randomly at the edge of the wood. Nutcrackers plant the seeds from the pine cones all over the place, and don’t always get around to digging them up, which means that they spread the trees far and wide.  In this particular wood, all the trees are either very old, or very young, which the local naturalists think indicates that there was a forest fire in the 1880’s that took out all but a few of the ancient pines (some of the trees are over 300 years old).

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A baby Arolla pine tree, probably planted by a Nutcracker Jay.

At the top of the wood, we stop for yet more Toblerone and a look around. There is a tiny bog here, full of cotton grass, and dragonflies zip across it, making triangles and quadrilaterals in the sky. There are berry bushes here, growing close to the ground to avoid the worst of the winter weather. You get a wonderful view of Hangerer as well – this is the highest local peak, a fine pyramid against the sky. It’s possible to walk up it (allegedly) but this involves crossing snow fields and, as one of the mountain guides said ‘a degree of exposure’, so we will be admiring it from the ground for the moment.

IMG_7211 A tough last climb brings us to the road, and our first view of the new Schonweisse hut. It used to be a classic Alpine hut, with a big sun terrace, the usual pitched roof and a tiny indoor area, where we would huddle if the weather was particularly inclement. Now, it appears to be a strange glass and shingle box. However, we are glad to see it, whatever it looks like. Inside, it has huge tinted glass windows which frame the incredible view of the Rotmoos valley beyond, but there is less outdoor seating than there used to be. We take a seat inside and, after a bowl of tomato soup with basil pesto, I realise, with some regret, that the berry pancakes that used to be on the menu are gone forever. Still, the food is good, the atmosphere a bit more ‘upmarket’ than it used to be, and the toilets are a lot less basic. Everything changes, I suppose, and there is much to like about this new incarnation. Except for the loss of the pancakes. Maybe I should start a petition.

IMG_7219As we walk back down the hill, we pass a herd of Haflinger horses, mares and some foals. These have to be among the most beautiful horses in the world, with their golden skin and flaxen manes and tails. I love the life that they have in the summer, out here in the mountains, free to wander and eat and behave like horses. They ignore the tourists who want to have their photographs taken with the horses in the background, and I am pleased to see that no one feeds them. Which is just as well, as nothing spoils the relationship between man and horse as much as getting the equines addicted to sugar.

IMG_7230 IMG_7228 IMG_7232So, after this hike I feel as if I’ve got my ‘mountain legs’ back. It takes a walk or two to regain confidence in my ability to get up and down tricky paths, but after all the years we’ve been coming to Obergurgl, we’ve finally worked out a way of making each day’s walk a little more difficult than the one before, so that we reduce the risk of injury or of just knackering ourselves out. It’s very lucky that we can come for two weeks – after a week, I’m just getting into the swing of it all! And there is so much to see and do here, if you like walking. It really is a small slice of heaven.

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View down the Rotmoos valley

Photo Credits

Photo One : By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3708573

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please attribute to me, and link back to the blog. Thank you!