Monthly Archives: October 2016

Bugwoman on Location: The Animals of Venice (Part Two)

img_8255Dear Readers, when my 89 and a half year-old friend M and I were in Venice a few weeks ago, it was impossible not to notice that the Venetians appear to have a thing about lions, particularly winged ones.

Pensive lions....

Pensive lions….

Imperial lions....

Imperial lions….

Distressed lions….

Bronze lions who may or may not be Phonecian

Turkish bronze lion from 300 BC

The winged lion is the symbol of  Venice, and is associated with St Mark. The story goes that when Venice was first founded, it was felt that it needed a saintly relic to consolidate its position as a new power. The body of St Mark was stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and was smuggled out under some pickled pork so that the Muslim guards could not find it. This was something of a coup for Venice – other cities might have a saint’s finger, or a piece of the Holy Cross, but Venice was the only place with a whole saint. The symbol of the lion may be a reference to a legend that the saint was thrown to the lions, who refused to eat him. In many images and statues in Venice, the lion is holding a book with the words ‘Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus’ said to be the words of an angel heralding St Mark, which means ‘Peace to thee, Mark, my Evangelist’. The rest of the quotation, so well-known to Venetians that it is rarely shown is ‘Hic requiescet corpus tuum’, meaning ‘ here your body will rest’, which is rather handy under the circumstance.  Where the lion is shown with his wings around his head, as in the image below, it is said to be ‘ in moleca’, or in the form of a crab, especially appropriate for the symbol of such a watery place.

Terrifying lions.....

Lion ‘in moleca’

When I first came to Venice, there were lots of little live lions around, in the form of stray cats. In 2009, we came across a positive ‘cat city’ in front of a church, lovingly built from wooden boxes so that the cats could have shelter in the cold weather, and with dozens of saucers of cat food and water left out.

The 'cat city'

The ‘cat city’

Since then, there has been an attempt to control the numbers of cats by neutering them, and the cats that I saw this time were pampered animals with collars. One ginger cat ran happily along the path in front of us, over two bridges and finally in through a cat flap on an august Venetian front door. On one of the smaller canals to the north, we found a little blind cat sitting behind the window grilles, soaking up the sun in complete safety. But of the scrawny, sad, runny-eyed creatures of sixteen years ago, we saw not a single one.

Little blind cat on the Fondamenta Della Sensa, soaking up the late autumn sun

Little blind cat on the Fondamenta Della Sensa, soaking up the late autumn sun

There are also a surprising number of dogs in Venice. This year, there seem to be inordinate numbers of French Bulldogs, including one adorable chubby puppy waiting for the vaporetto on Murano. Dachshunds abound, as do all kinds of indeterminate mongrels. On the Cannaregio canal, where we were staying, a dog seemed to be as essential as a wheeled shopping basket, and you could guarantee to see the same dogs and owners going for a morning constitutional at the same time if you happened to look out of the window. The lack of earth and green spaces seem to deter these water-dogs not a  whit as they happily trot on and off of vaporettos and in and out of water taxis. Their owners are, largely, good about collecting and disposing of the inevitable consequences of owning a live animal, and I would say that these Venetian hounds have an interesting life, with lots of opportunities to bark at seagulls and sniff the behinds of their neighbours.

There is one kind of dog, however, which seems unchanged since the days of the artist Carpaccio, back in the sixteenth century. Carpaccio is my favourite Venetian artist, because he packs so many details of ordinary Venetian life into his paintings, and because, of all the Venetian artists, he seems the most humorous and ebullient.

Miracle of the Holy Cross by Vittore Carpaccio

Miracle of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge by Vittore Carpaccio – notice the little white dog in the gondola on the right

vittore_carpaccio_miracolo_della_croce_a_rialto_01-2

This is a little scruffy white dog, that the artist depicts in several of his paintings, and which you can see jauntily inspecting the fondamenta on any morning. In fact, one of these dogs is shown in a painting that I always visit when I go to Venice, as if it were an old friend. It is at what I always call the School of the Dalmatians (more properly the Schuola di San Georgio degli Schiavoni), which features many of Carpaccio’s greatest works.

There is  a ‘Saint George and the Dragon’, which includes bits of dead bodies and frogs and toads and lizards.

Vittore Carpaccio - St George and the Dragon (1502)

Vittore Carpaccio – St George and the Dragon (1502)

There is a painting of St Tryphon exorcising a demon from a young woman – the demon is a very small dragon/donkey cross, who looks rather disgruntled at being exposed.

Vittore Carpaccio - St Tryphon and the Basilisk (1502)

Vittore Carpaccio – St Tryphon and the Basilisk (1507)

There is the painting of St Jerome bringing the lion that he has befriended in the wilderness back to the monastery, and all the monks fleeing in terror like so many winged creatures.

Vittore Carpaccio - St Jerome and the Lion (1509)

Vittore Carpaccio – St Jerome and the Lion (1509) Was there ever such a gentle and inoffensive lion?

But as much as I love all of these works of art, and look forward to visiting them, only one painting in this room moves me to tears, every time. A monk is in his study, writing a letter, when he looks up as if suddenly realising something. Experts now think that the monk is St Augustine, and that he has been granted a vision that the friend that he is writing to, St Jerome (the man with the lion in the previous picture) has died. But what makes the picture for me is the small, scruffy white dog sitting on the floor, looking at his master with puzzlement. Across all those years, it speaks to me more eloquently than any of the works of the othergreat artists because who doesn’t recognise the scene – the moment of dawning truth, the dog who knows something is wrong, but has no way of understanding what is happening, or what he can do to comfort his master. The painting speaks to me of love, and loss, and of the way that animals are so often silent witness to our most private moments.

Vittore Carpaccio - The Vision of St Augustine (1509)

Vittore Carpaccio – The Vision of St Augustine (1509)

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

Wednesday Weed – Creeping Buttercup

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…..

Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

Dear Readers, in the spring the cemetery is positively awash with buttercups of all kinds. But by the autumn, only a few creeping buttercups are left, and are all the more precious for their rarity. In a whole raft of foliage in a clearing, there was just one solitary plant in flower. This is the only common species of buttercup that is likely to still be putting forth blooms in October, but to seal the identification it’s worth noting that the sepals (the green parts which once contained the bud) are spreading, and the stalk of the plant is grooved.

img_8398As its name suggests, creeping buttercup spreads by runners that root to form new plants. It prefers wet soil (Ranunculus means ‘little frog’) and my father taught me to be careful in areas with lots of buttercups if I wanted to avoid getting my feet wet. The plant is native in the UK and to the rest of Europe, North Africa and Asia, but has been spread to other parts of the world, often as an ornamental plant, and is now sometimes considered a nuisance. One of its vernacular names is ‘Sitfast’, and that’s exactly what it does. The Royal Horticultural Society website suggests various ways of getting rid of the plant, which is said to indicate a need to ‘improve soil structure’. If you put the words ‘Creeping Buttercup’ into Google, the majority of the entries are on how to eradicate the plant from your land or garden, and the Garden Organic website has just one alternative name for the plant – ‘Devil’. On the other hand, I would have thought that it would have been a sunny addition to bog gardens and the damper places on a plot – I have a few around the pond, and rather like their bright little flowers, as do the smaller hoverflies, who are apparently attracted not just by the yellowness of the petals, but by their shininess too.

I, Jörg Hempel [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Creeping buttercup (Photo One – see credits below)

Like all Ranunculi, creeping buttercups are mildly poisonous.However, when the plant is crushed (for example by the teeth of an enthusiastic cow) one of its chemical compounds, Ranunculin, is changed to an acrid, unpleasant tasting yellow oil called Protoanemonin which is enough to deter the hungriest of grazers. The plant loses its toxicity when dried, so there is no hazard from hay.  Lots of creatures eat the seeds, from house sparrows to earthworms, and rodents sometimes store them for winter consumption – no wonder this is a plant that appears everywhere! Partridges, wood pigeons and pheasants are also fond of the seed, which can survive a journey through the gut, and chickens and geese are said to enjoy the leaves. In short, this common plant helps to feed all kinds of animals.

By No machine-readable author provided. Prazak assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (credit below)

In spite of their toxicity and unpleasant taste. both the leaves and the boiled roots of creeping buttercup have been eaten by humans, though I imagine more as famine food than with any pleasure.

The plant has also been used medicinally, in a poultice for rheumatism and in Ireland as a cure for jaundice (the yellow colour of the plant possibly suggesting its use). However, for most people the primary ‘use’ of any buttercup is for the childhood game of holding it under the chin to see ‘if you like butter’ – a yellow reflection indicating that you do. The ever-informative Eat The Weeds website features an explanation for why the flower always produces a yellow reflection: it relates to the structure of the cells in the epidermis of the petals, and of course is more to do with attracting pollinators than any dairy-related preferences. For all the details, see here and scroll down.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=157004

Photo Three – see credit below

However, the most prominent memory that I have around buttercups is a song by The Foundations called ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, which was a hit in 1968. How I remember listening to Family Favourites on the radio, and singing along when this came on. My childhood (I was born in 1960) seems to have been punctuated by these cheery recordings: ‘Flowers in the Rain’ by The Move, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ by Manfred Man. What a rush of nostalgia washes over me when I hear these songs now! And how interesting that all of them have a theme relating to the natural world. Perhaps I was indoctrinated by music at an early age. So, for your delectation, here are some of the sounds of my caterpillar years. I hope you enjoy them.

‘Build Me Up, Buttercup’, by The Foundations

‘Flowers in the Rain’ by The Move

‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks

‘Pretty Flamingo’ by Manfred Mann

Photo Credits

Photo One – I, Jörg Hempel [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two – By No machine-readable author provided. Prazak assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=157004

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-c

Bugwoman on Location: The Animals of Venice (Part One)

img_8314Dear Readers, last week I took a trip to my favourite city in the world (after London of course), with my intrepid 89.5 year-old friend, M. M had mentioned that she had a yearning to see Venice ‘one last time’ and, as I’ve spent many happy weeks there over the past ten years, and really enjoy M’s company, we decided to take a chance on a visit. Last time M. visited, she had an unfortunate stumble when she was rushed off of a vaporetto, and ended up with twenty stitches in her shin and a rather exciting ride in a speedboat ambulance across the lagoon. We were determined that nothing so unfortunate was going to happen this time, and indeed it didn’t.

Casa  Tre Archi

Casa Tre Archi – our apartment was on the top floor

For the past four visits, I have rented an apartment with a company called Visit Venice: it’s on the Cannaregio canal, which is much quieter than ‘the main drag’ around St Marks, and it gives me a chance to shop and cook, which I enjoy. I was a little worried that M would have trouble with the precipitous staircase, but she managed it like a trouper, as she did all the other steps and trip hazards of the city. Indeed, her turn of speed when we wanted to visit a 12th Century basilica on Murano that was due to close in 20 minutes was such that I had to hurry to keep up.

But surely such a watery, stony, cramped environment would be somewhat bereft of animals? Well, dear readers, what it lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in opportunism, for I have seldom felt every mouthful of croissant being watched so carefully. If you sit by the canal with a panini, you will soon be accosted by all manner of seabirds. Huge menacing yellow-legged gulls stand on the mooring posts, eyeing up your mozzarella with a calculating look.

img_8326The smaller black-headed gulls swoop like sea-swallows. Pigeons peck at your feet, some of them with interesting patterns of iridescent and white feathers on their necks, and sometimes a cheeky sparrow will land on the back of a chair and consider, with tilted head, whether he can make an assault on your half-empty plate.

img_8318In short, all the usual seaside suspects are here, and if you want to examine gull behaviour I can recommend a coffee next to the fish stand by the Guglie Bridge, where you can witness every possible gull tactic, from distraction (one gull struts along at the front of the counter while another gull is pulling squid from a bucket at the back), ambush (one gull steals a sardine and is then chased until he drops it by a bigger, older gull) and subterfuge (a gull sneaks underneath the fish stand and pulls at a fish until it falls off, unnoticed).

Egrets can sometimes be seen patrolling the edges of the quieter canals, watching for the tiny fish that eat the algae on the steps that are used by the gondoliers, or picking at the crabs that haunt the hollow places. They are not averse to using the gondolas themselves as a perch.

img_8312img_8311Venice is located on some of the main migratory routes from Europe into Africa, and so it was no surprise that there were many flocks of starlings heading south. Men in camouflage gear often puttered quietly out into the lagoon at first light, sometimes with a little dog standing at the bow, nose twitching, as if it was already possible to smell the scent of wild duck. And as we stood on the Tre Archi bridge one evening, a man pointed skyward, and we all watched as a flock of birds flickered overhead, on their way to warmer climes. I am always moved by these vast movements of animals from one place to another  and mentally bid them good luck as they run the gauntlet of hunters and starvation, ill winds and sudden freezes. May they reach safe harbour, may they prevail.

img_8280

But most of the biodiversity of Venice is tucked away out of sight. You are never more than a few steps from a canal here, and the sound of water slapping against stone, the sun dancing on ripples, is the quintessence of this place. It all seems somehow unreal, like a dream, at least until the chug of a waterbus or the mewing of a gull brings you back to reality.

img_8251The walls of the canals quickly become home to algae and snails and all manner of invertebrates, who are in turn eaten by crabs and fish. Each waterway, each set of steps, becomes its own microhabitat, washed by the tide twice a day like any stony beach. In general, the water is cleaner than it has been for years – although Venice has a reputation for being a smelly place, I have never noticed this (although in fairness I do visit out of season – the combination of crowds, mosquitoes and heat in high summer are a bit more than I care do deal with). There is even talk of the lagoon becoming a destination for divers  who want to explore the many wrecks and the undersea communities that have grown up around them. img_8319For animals, I suspect that the whole of Venice is a kind of stony island, full of wasteful creatures who aren’t too careful where their crusts end up. It always interests me to think about how a non-human would view a city, and somehow nowhere is this clearer than in that magnet for everyone who visits Venice, the Piazza of St Marks. There are some of the most important historical sights in Europe crammed into this space, and yet, for the seagulls, these matter not. Yellow-legged gulls cruise around the mosaics of the Basilica, circle the campanile, and terrify the small children who are attempting to feed the pigeons. All our works are nothing more than a potential perch and, probably, a bit of a nuisance. There is a Venice that is navigated by the birds, and a Venice that is visited by us, and these two cities are superimposed, one on the other, just as there is a ‘dog’ Venice, and a ‘cat’ Venice, and a Venice as experienced by small children. The Venice of a sailor or a gondolier must be very different from Venice as loved by a rather scruffy middle-aged insect fan and her 89 and a half year-old friend. How interesting it would be to bring all these experiences together! It makes my head spin to think about it.

img_8355img_8358img_8357All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Greater Plantain

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

Greater plantain (Plantago major)

Greater plantain (Plantago major)

Dear Readers, sometimes when I stomp around the cemetery or the streets of East Finchley looking for a Wednesday Weed, I become a little downhearted, especially in late October when most of the plants are going to bed for the winter. I was briefly excited by a yellow brassica (and that’s not a sentence that you read every day), but then realised that it was Hoary Mustard and had already featured on the blog. Such are the perils when you’ve already written about 150 weeds in a half-mile radius of your house.

I was briefly distracted by this little chap/chappess, who was intently looking into the grass, probably at some poor rodent. However, s/he loped off without eating anything, so I suspect the mouse made a judicious escape.

img_8376 img_8371And then, after finding one solitary buttercup and a cinquefoil, I was heading home when I realised that although I have written about ribwort plantain, I have never featured its sibling, greater plantain. And what an interesting plant it is!

This is one of those little crushed-looking plants that is always slightly damaged, and yet is very tolerant of being trodden on. Unlike ribwort plantain, its leaves are oval shaped. The flowerspike is described in my Harraps guide as being a ‘rat’s tail’ with short stamens and small, dull, purple anthers.

img_8413-2As you can see from the photos above, although greater plantain is a modest ‘weed’, it is much liked by many insects, who gnaw enormous holes in those ribbed leaves. Amongst the creatures who feed upon it are the caterpillars of the heath fritillary, the wonderfully-named moth called the setaceous hebrew character, and the gorgeous buff ermine, to name but a few.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=450148

Heath fritillary (Melitaea athalia) (Photo One – see credit below)

Setaceous Hebrew Character Moth (Xestia.c-nigrum)- Public Domain

Setaceous Hebrew Character Moth (Xestia.c-nigrum)- Public Domain

By Jtaylorfriedman - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4398695

The Hebrew letter ‘Nun’ after which the Setaceous Hebrew Character was named (Photo Two – see credit below)

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Buff ermine moth (Spilosoma lutea) (Photo Three – see credit below)

It isn’t only caterpillars who eat greater plantain, however. The young leaves can be eaten in salad, and 100 grams contains as much vitamin C as a large carrot. However, because this is a plant which can often be found on footpaths and places where dogs ‘hang out’, I would want to be extremely careful when gathering the leaves. Having said which, if you can find a clean supply of the leaves, you might want to try the technique here, from the rather beautiful Transitional Gastronomy website.

img_8411-2It is, however, as a medicinal plant that greater plantain has most often been used. It is often used as a poultice for stings, wounds, bruises and sores, and I’ve often used it to sooth the hives from nettle stings, something that I learned many years ago from my father. He told me that wherever nettles grew, there would always be a plant to soothe their sting, and indeed there usually is. The leaves contain cooling mucilage, an anti-microbial compound called aucubin and allantoin to promote cell-growth, plus a whole host of other useful chemical compounds. The leaves also contain tannin, which may explain why they are said to be useful in arresting external bleeding. The healing powers of greater plantain are mentioned by Chaucer and by Shakespeare, in Love’s Labours Lost and in Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, it is also said to cure ‘the madness of dogs’, should you have any canines that are inclined to lunacy.

The leaves of greater plantain, with their fibrous veins, have been used in a number of children’s games: Richard Mabey, in ‘Flora Britannica’, relates how one of his contributors used the leaves:

‘I remember we used to pull off the leaves of the ratstail plantain, and from the number of ribs and threads which pulled out and hung down, and by the length of them, that was an indication of how many, and how lengthy, had been the lies that we had told that day’. (Elizabeth Telper, Selkirk, Borders).

img_8410-2

In the UK, where it is a native plant, greater plantain was known as ‘Waybread’, and was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons (I have written more about this in my piece on ribwort plantain, see link above). Many legends have sprung up about the plant: a young girl was said to have waited for her lover for so long beside a path that she was transformed into a greater plantain. From that time, it was said that the plant turned into a cuckoo every seventh year, for reasons that seem far from obvious nearly a millenium later. More easily understood is the medieval tendency to include the plant in their art as a symbol of the ‘well-trodden path’ to Christ.

Greater plantain was called ‘White Man’s Footprint’ by native peoples in both North America and Australia, as it seemed that no sooner had the colonists arrived than the plant sprang up along their paths and byways. The seeds of the plant are a common contaminant of cereal crops, and this is probably how it was spread. Each plant can produce up to 15,000 seeds, and of these, at least 60% will germinate. No wonder it is so successful. The plant is mentioned by Longfellow in his epic poem ‘Hiawatha’:

‘Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them

Springs a flower unknown among us,

Springs the ‘White Man’s Foot’ in blossom’.

Much to my surprise, I have discovered that there is also a cultivated variety of greater plantain with shiny chocolate-coloured leaves, called ‘Rubrifolia’. I imagine that it would be perfect for growing in the gaps between paving stones, though I wonder how long it would be before its wild cousin took over.

By User:SB_Johnny - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1447568

Plantago major v.rubrifolia (Photo Four – see credit below)

Such a humble plant as greater plantain does not seem an obvious choice for a painting, so it was with delight that I found it playing a starring role in a watercolour picture called ‘The Great Piece of Turf’ by Albrecht Durer, created in 1503. It features many other ‘weeds’ and grasses, such as dandelions and yarrow. I love the way that artists through the ages have been inspired not only by the flamboyant and the unusual, but by the things that are very close to hand. It proves to me that you don’t have to live a life filled with novelty and unusual experiences to find beauty. It’s there already, in our own streets and gardens.

The Large Piece of Turf (Albrecht Durer, 1503)

The Large Piece of Turf (Albrecht Durer, 1503)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Heath Fritillaries) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=450148

Photo Two (Hebrew character) – By Jtaylorfriedman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4398695

Photo Three (Buff Ermine) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Photo Four (Purple Plantain) – By User:SB_Johnny – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1447568

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

The World Tree

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

Dear Readers, as you will know the past few months have been pretty busy, what with my course and going to visit the parents and all. So I suppose it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to see a two-foot tall ash tree sapling poking through the red valerian beside the pond. Even so, it gave me pause to see the fish bone leaves and the charcoal-coloured leaf bud that looks for all the world like a deer’s hoof.

img_8132The ash tree is both loved and loathed. For foresters it has historically been something of a ‘weed tree’ on account of the easy way that the saplings colonise open ground, especially on damp soils. And yet, for Richard Mabey, and for me, it seems to be a healing tree in many different ways. Mabey points out that it is ash that filled the gaps left by the destruction of so many august trees during the storm of 1987. In St Pancras and Islington cemetery, it is ash that proliferates in the many damp and boggy places. And it was ash that filled the gaps left by Dutch Elm disease, something that is now horribly ironic as ash, in its turn, is menaced by disease, of which more later.

Ash tree in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Ash tree in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Ash has also been used in healing ceremonies, right up to the end of the eighteenth century (and possibly even today). In Flora Britannica, Mabey reports on one such ceremony, recorded by Gilbert White. Ash was considered especially efficacious in the case of children born sickly, or with wasted limbs. A young ash would be split in two and the halves held open by wedges. The child would then be passed, stark naked, through the gap. The split tree was then plastered up with loam, and swathed up with bandages. If the two halves grew back together, the cure was said to have worked, but if the two halves remained separate it was considered ineffective.

img_8104In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, ‘the world tree’, is generally considered to be an ash (though some believe it might have been a yew). This was the tree of life, ‘the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread all over the world’. All the sadder, then, that it is diseases and creatures from other parts of the world that now form the biggest of challenges to this most widespread of British trees.

In 2012, a disease known as ‘ash dieback’, caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus was discovered in saplings in a nursery in Buckinghamshire. Although ash dieback is widespread in mainland Europe, killing up to 85% of the ash trees in Poland and devastating the tree in other places too, the UK had continued to import saplings from affected areas. By the time that the disease was recognised, it was already affecting full grown trees in woodland. 100,00 trees and saplings were destroyed, but scientists considered it ‘too little, too late’. Some trees do have immunity to the fungus, but it is estimated that probably 95% of all British ash trees could be killed in the UK, out of a population of 80 million trees. So far, it has been found in 50% of all the 10k squares in England monitored by the Forestry Commission, 16% of those in Scotland and 30% of those in Wales. The first cases have also just been found in Northern Ireland, and the disease is well-established in the Republic of Ireland.

The 2013 UK strategy, announced by Owen Paterson ( the comedy environment minister who claimed that the ‘badgers had moved the goalposts’ during the cull ‘discussions’ for those who don’t remember) was to allow adult trees with ash dieback to stand (because of their wildlife value, and the fact that immunity will never develop if trees are cut down immediately). Young trees would be destroyed, and an additional 250,000 ash trees will be planted to see if the characteristics for immunity can be identified. There is also a monitoring scheme with an app called ‘Ashtag‘ which sounds like as much fun as can be mustered from the situation.

So, what does ash dieback look like? It causes the ‘dieback’ of stems and branches in the crown of mature trees (hence the name of the disease). It also causes distinctive lesions on the stems and branches.

By Sarang - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41997941

Crown dieback in a mature tree (Photo One – see credit below)

By Food and Environment Research Agency - FERA, OGL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22575980

Wilted leaves as a result of ash dieback infection (Photo Two – see credit below)

By Food and Environment Research Agency - FERA, OGL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22575980

Ash dieback lesion (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Fdcgoeul - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9376734

Necrotic stems of a five year-old ash tree (Photo Four – see credits below)

And this is what the fruiting bodies of the fungus look like when they have finished their work in the tree.

By Amadej Trnkoczy (amadej) - This image is Image Number 136946 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31020776

Ash dieback fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus). Photo Five – credit below.

So, it seems that the World Tree is under a greater threat than at any point in its past. Will it be able to come back? Will enough plants have immunity to the worst effects of the fungus? I would like to think so, but I suspect that the timescale of any resurgence will be far longer than my lifetime, and that of anyone else reading this blog. After all, elms have not made a return to the British countryside since they were all but annihilated by Dutch Elm disease in many areas in the 1960’s. There are glimmers of hope: the BBC programme Countryfile showed a report on the effect of using a particular kind of charcoal in the soil around ash trees in February this year. Twenty trees have apparently remained disease-free despite being in the middle of a group of infected trees for the past three years. Let’s hope that this continues – a soil treatment of this kind would be an environmentally friendly way to protect our ash trees.

Sadly, there is one more threat that I have to mention, because although it isn’t here yet, it’s probably only a matter of time. Have a look at this little beauty, and commit it to memory.

By Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - Forestry Archive - Forestry Images, CC BY 3.0 us, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10909814

Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) Photo Six- see credits below

This is an Asian beetle which, in its home territory, causes no problems at all. However, it arrived in North America, probably as larvae in packing cases, and has been demolishing trees unhindered ever since. It seems unlikely to me to go unnoticed, as it is a particularly conspicuous-looking creature, even more so when it decides to take flight, whereupon it looks rather like me at a disco circa 1982. There are no other creatures like it in the UK so keep an eye open.

By USDA-APHIS - http://www.hungrypests.com/img/the-threat/emerald-ash-borer/small/EmeraldAshBorer6.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41430027

Emerald Ash Borer in all its glory (Photo Seven – see credit below)

All of which brings me back to my dilemma in the garden. Do I really want an ash tree growing next to the pond, however threatened they are? After all, these are substantial plants, which at their biggest can reach 141 feet tall. And I suspect it will be unhappy in a pot. I think this is one of those decisions that I’ll have to defer until I come back from my next secret trip, in which Bugwoman visits one of her favourite places on earth, in the company of a very intrepid 90 year-old lady. But more on this next week….until then, have a good look at any ash trees you meet. We can no longer take them for granted.

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12225193

A very fine old ash tree from the Ardenne (Photo Eight – see credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Crown dieback) – By Sarang – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41997941

Photo Two (Wilted leaves) – By Food and Environment Research Agency – FERA, OGL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22575980

Photo Three (Bark lesions) – By Food and Environment Research Agency – FERA, OGL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22575980

Photo Four (Necrotic stems) – By Fdcgoeul – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9376734

Photo Five (Fungus fruiting bodies) – By Amadej Trnkoczy (amadej) – This image is Image Number 136946 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31020776

Photo Six ( Emerald Ash Borer ) – By Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – Forestry Archive – Forestry Images, CC BY 3.0 us, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10909814

Photo Seven (Emerald Ash Borer in flight) – By USDA-APHIS – http://www.hungrypests.com/img/the-threat/emerald-ash-borer/small/EmeraldAshBorer6.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41430027

Photo Eight (old ash tree) – By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12225193

All other images and text copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Wall Cotoneaster

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…..

Wall cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

Wall cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

Dear Readers, I suspect that the most contentious part of today’s post will be how the name of this plant is pronounced. Do we go with ‘cotton-easter’, or is it the rather more exotic-sounding ‘cot-oh-knee-aster?’ Well according to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s the latter, preferably with the second syllable voiced as if you’ve just heard that the price of quinoa in Waitrose has doubled overnight. So that’s that cleared up. Incidentally, the name comes from cotone, the Latin for quince, and -aster meaning ‘resembling’ – I suppose that the berries, with their star-shaped ‘ends’, do look a little like tiny quinces.

img_8119There are over 50 species of cotoneaster in cultivation in the UK, but this is probably the most common. It is a great favourite in gardens – the small white flowers are bee-magnets that attract an extraordinary variety of pollinators from the second that they come into bud, and the berries are not only attractive to us, but also to birds. This is a plant that doesn’t need pruning, and is largely trouble-free for the gardener. Unfortunately it is also a frequent escapee, spread by those pesky birds who eat the berries and distribute them all over the place. In my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ it is described as being a dangerous invasive on cliffs and heathland, where it shades out less vigorous plants. In London, it crops up all over the place, and I’ve found cotoneaster seedlings in woodland, on waste ground and even in my own garden.

img_8116Cotoneaster is another member of the rose family (see tormentil last week), and is originally from western China. It was first introduced to the UK in about 1879, was recorded in the wild in 1940 and is said to be ‘still spreading’, though at present it can mostly be found in the south of England.  From the little map in my Harraps Wildflower Guide, it appears that Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset are ‘hotspots’.

img_8121However, there is a native cotoneaster, known in Welsh as the Creigafal y Gogarth “rock apple of Gogarth” (Cotoneaster cambricus) , and found only on the Great Orme peninsula in north Wales. There are only six of this plant left in the wild, with another 11 cultivated from cuttings and seeds. The plant is unique to this habitat, and grows nowhere else. It has a very slow and erratic germination and survival rate (the 11 cultivated plants are the only ones left from 33 originally planted out). The plant was discovered in 1783 and since then has been dug up by collectors, overgrazed by sheep, eaten by rabbits and goats and, the final straw, outcompeted by other species of cotoneaster from local gardens. There is a plan in place to increase the population to 100 plants by 2030, so fingers crossed.

By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The rock apple of Gogarth (Cotoeaster cambricus) – probably the rarest plant ever featured on the Wednesday Weed! (Photo One – credit below)

But, to return to the far more common Cotoneaster horizontalis. You will sometimes find mention of the berries being poisonous, but fortunately the level of toxins is very low, and the berries are rather bitter and powdery,  so the chance of anyone being masochistic enough to eat a sufficient quantity to do themselves a damage is extremely low. Indeed, on the Poison Garden website the author states that even the birds will only eat his cotoneaster berries when everything else is gone. In view of this, it will come as no surprise that I can find no recipes featuring cotoneaster berries, not even a tasty liqueur.

img_8116Having thought that we had nailed down the pronunciation of the name of this week’s plant, I have now come across a poem by Thomas Hardy which throws the proverbial spanner in the works. It’s fair to say that it’s not one of his best works, although it is in an interesting poetical form called a triolet, a French form with a rigid pattern of stress and rhyme. Here it is, in full.

Birds at Winter Nightfall

Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotoneaster
Around the house. The flakes fly!–faster
Shutting indoors that crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone!

So, even accounting for Hardy’s probable West Country accent, we now have a third possible way of saying ‘cotoneaster’ – ‘cot-oh-knee-arster’. Unless Hardy pronounces ‘faster’ as ‘fass-ter’ rather than ‘farster’, which is quite possible. I like the idea of a ‘crumb-outcaster’ – that would be me, in all weathers.

However, my happiest find for this particular Wednesday Weed is some music by the composer David Warin Solomons called ‘Cotoneaster’. Inspired by the bees coming and going from his cotoneaster bush, it’s a rather meditative and peaceful piece, redolent of those first warm days of spring when the flowers open, and the queen bees are stocking up their reserves for the challenges ahead. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Cotoneaster for cor anglais and and guitar, by David Warin Solomons

img_8118

Photo Credits

Photo One (Native Cotoneaster) – By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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

 

The Fox and the Mourner

img_8066Dear Readers, I am off on an adventure at what is technically known as ‘stupid o’clock’ tomorrow morning, and so I am breaking with my usual habit and posting this on Friday instead of Saturday. The Wednesday Weed will (wi-fi willing) be posted on Wednesday.

Dear Readers, I had a long visit to St Pancras and Islington cemetery on Sunday, and, as usual, I found the human behaviour just as fascinating as that of the animals.  For some, the grave visiting has obviously just become a duty that can’t be shirked – I once saw somebody gently lob a bunch of flowers from their car window onto a grave and then drive off. For others, it’s almost a social occasion, with people gathering by the grave for a chat and a mini-party – this is the case with one lad who died when he was just  a teenager. His mother, still a young woman herself, comes every weekend, and assorted friends and relatives are always sitting next to her on the bench and chatting.

For the newly bereaved, dressed in tell-tale black, it’s the bleakest of times, a period when not even the sun will make an impact. My heart goes out to these people as they trudge along the still-unfamiliar byways of the cemetery, sometimes getting lost. I hope that in time the natural beauty of the place will provide some kind of solace, but for now, the colour is leached out of everything by the enormity of the loss that has been suffered. It always surprises me that the human body can sustain such sorrow without collapsing, but the will to live seems to be strong in us at a cellular level, and while we may wish to die ourselves, our muscles and bones say no, not yet.

Such a soul, wearing a black parka on this warm day, passed me as I walked towards the crematorium. I glanced at her to see if she wanted to speak but she was so deep in her thoughts that she passed without a word. She looked as if the weight of her sadness was physically dragging her down as she shuffled off down the road, too exhausted to even lift her feet. And in her I see all of us at some time in our lives, and though I know that  things will not always seem so overwhelming, her misery touched me deeply. I was brooding when I turned the corner into Sergeant’s Hill, an uphill section of the path that curves right the way up to the dual carriageway, and then loops back.

I am not sure if it was my encounter with the mourner that coloured my perception, but when I saw a lone man walking towards me, I was suddenly on my guard. On this sunny afternoon, with the roar of the traffic in my ears, he seemed like some kind of harbinger. He continued to walk towards me, but then suddenly stopped. I was going to have to walk past him. There was no one else around. Why had he stopped, and why was he looking at me?

And then, I saw the head of a fox less than twenty feet away, peeking round behind a gravestone. The man raised his eyebrows, gesticulated towards the fox and then to the camera around my neck. He was trying to tell me that there was something worth photographing. I apologised internally for all the things I had thought about this poor man, and raised my camera.

img_8071What an endearing animal this was. The fox had the long legs and skinny body of one of this year’s cubs, and I was sure that I’d seen her before over at the feeding station. But she seemed to be adept at finding her own food. There was an area between two graves that had been scratched to pieces – it may have been an ants’ nest, or it could have been a site where the fox had been digging for worms (which make up a surprisingly high proportion of their diet at this time of year). As we watched, the man and I, the fox went to a nearby grave and carried something off – I couldn’t see what it was at the time, but when I looked at my photographs afterwards it was clearly a small mouse. The little fox threw the corpse into the air a few times, then tossed it about with her front paws, until finally chomping it down. All the time she kept her gaze on us, but made no attempt to run away.

img_8073img_8078A young woman walked down the road, tapping away on her phone. She looked up and stopped. Now, three of us were frozen looking at the vixen.

The vixen moved off and crossed the path. I squatted down and she paused, looking at me with nervous interest.

‘Don’t touch her’, said the man.

‘I won’t’, I said. ‘It’s not good for them to get too close to people. Not everybody is kind’.

img_8087The fox moved on in a circle, paused to squat to urinate, crossed the road again and sat down in some bushes less than a metre from the road. That’s when I saw the mourner in the black parka again. She stopped when she saw us. Behind her spectacles, her eyes were bloodshot with crying.

‘How can I get to Lygoe Road?’ she asked.

I pointed her in the right direction – Lygoe Road is one of the main thoroughfares in the cemetery. The fox watched the conversation with interest, even turning her head to look at where I was pointing. Then the lady headed off, no doubt to visit the recent grave of someone that she could barely believe was gone forever.img_8088

I would like to say that she glanced at the fox and that that inquisitive pointed face brought the smallest of smiles, or at least jolted the lady out of her sadness for a split-second. But it was too soon. I doubt that anything could have penetrated her armour at that moment, and I’m sure that numbness is there for a reason, because if we truly felt the extent of our loss, we would surely collapse under the weight of it. But one day, I hope that she will notice a frosted russet face watching her from a hedge, and feel just the smallest of lifts, like the sudden warmth when sun breaks through the clouds. Nothing will ever be the same again, but life goes on, relentlessly, and the call to live is inexorable. As I watched the black-coated shape turn the corner and disappear from view, I wished her strength, and the slow-blooming of hope, and the birth of better days. I wish that for all of us.

All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. The photos on this blog are free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!