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.


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.


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.


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.


White-tailed bumblebee(Bombus lucorum)


Honeybee (Apis mellifera)


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.


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!

9 thoughts on “Ordinary Plants

  1. londoninheritance

    Hi Vivienne. Sorry for the lack of response to your comment on the blog a number of weeks ago. Hope you enjoy the Euston tour. No I did not get the Queen Anne’s Place tour as the times when tickets were available did not fit in with work.

    I bet the temperatures here in London are a further surprise after the snow you had in Austria. I was in Battersea Park last Tuesday on the hottest day of the year. Not a day to be out walking and I bet your foxes are more intelligent and are seeking some shady cover.

    Always look forward to reading your posts – a very different view of London to that I normally look for so really good to get a different perspective.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks, David! And yep, it’s a bit warm for comfort. The foxes are hiding out in the bushes and playing hide and seek with me, so all I’m seeing at the moment are some orange ears and a bushy tail as they head off into the brambles.

  2. vornster

    I never knew that about bees and a limited number of species to pollinate – how interesting! And you’re making me feel guilty for all the bindweed I ripped up at the allotment last week…!

  3. Toni Gallwey

    Hello, this is just to say that I read a book recently by Alan Bennett about a woman who is now buried in the cemetery. The book was called The Lady in the Van. It was really interesting and showed a very human side to Alan Bennett.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Toni, I’ve read the book, but didn’t make the connection with the cemetery. I shall have to see if I can find the Lady…thanks for letting me know!


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