Monthly Archives: December 2016

Wednesday Weed – Oval-leafed Privet

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…..

Oval-leaved privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

Oval-leaved privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

Dear Readers, many years ago I used to commute to the Netherlands for work. Every Sunday I would catch the last plane into Rotterdam Airport, where the cleaners were mopping the floors, and the security guards were jingling their keys, all ready to lock up. The taxi would take me through the frozen countryside but, as we got into the city itself, the warm glow of light from the uncurtained windows of every flat and house were a constant source of fascination. The interiors were stylish, and there were often families gathered at a perfectly dressed table for their evening meal. Admittedly, I only got the quickest glimpse, but there never seemed to be an overflowing waste-bin, or a pile of clutter on a chair. I loved the openness of this attitude, the generosity of it, as if people were saying ‘Here we are, do have a look if you’re interested’.

It’s fair to say that we do things differently where I live. The hedges of the County Roads in East Finchley are truly a wonder to behold. It’s not surprising: our front gardens are tiny and so every passerby can look into our front rooms if they are so minded. So, to provide a bit of privacy, many people have gone for the hedge option. In these parts, the plant of choice seems to be the oval-leafed privet. When I was on ‘Wednesday Weed’ patrol yesterday, I realised that I had never noticed that these hedges bear tiny black berries at this time of year (though I had noticed the sickly-smelling white flowers in the spring). I had always thought of privet as being rather a boring plant (when I thought of it at all). So, what is the story of the oval-leafed privet?

By No machine-readable author provided. MPF assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=983049

Spring privet flowers (Photo One – credit below)

Oval-leafed privet originated in Japan and Korea. We do, in fact, have a native privet, Ligustrum vulgare, which has narrower, smaller leaves than the plant pictured here, but the majority of plants used for hedging in the UK are of the oval-leafed variety, maybe because of its more abundant flowering and fruiting.

img_8929It seems as if every plant that I write about these days is poisonous, and privet is no exception. The RHS website considers it to be ‘somewhat poisonous’ (which is not overwhelmingly helpful). A quick run around the internets has articles which state that privet hedge cuttings can be dangerous for horses, goats, sheep, cattle, hens and rabbits. Another website mentions that the berries are poisonous if eaten by dogs. All in all, it seems that the berries should be left on the bush, for the thrushes that enjoy them ( the plant is in the British Trust for Ornithology’s guide to berries for birds).

img_8925A wide variety of moth caterpillars enjoy a meal of poisonous privet leaves, however. As I love the names of moths almost as much as the moths themselves, a small selection are pictured below.

By Ben Sale from UK ([1669] Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria) (Photo Two, credit below)

By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806463

The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Three – see credit below)

By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=290444

The V-Pug (Chloroclystis v-ata) Photo Four(credit below)

Perhaps the most spectacular of the privet-feeding moths, however, is the privet hawk moth, a creature of satanic beauty which can produce an alarming hissing sound by rubbing the segments of its abdomen together. Do not attempt to replicate this at home unless you want to spend Christmas in traction.

By Gaudete [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Adult privet hawk moth (Sphinx ligustri) (Photo Six – credit below)

The caterpillar of the privet hawk moth is a delightful lime-green creature with lilac and white side stripes and a sticky-up tail like a terrier. It would be worth growing a privet hedge for the chance of a sight of one of these little chaps.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachel_s/2829915165

Privet hawk moth caterpillar (Photo Seven – see credit below)

Although the privet hedge is one of the quintessential symbols of suburbia, it turns out to be quite a useful thing, if not cropped indiscriminately. It provides roosting and nesting sites for birds, flowers for pollinators, berries for thrushes and leaves for big fat green caterpillars. Privet hedges thrive in polluted environments, and may even help to protect us from the gases and dust produced by cars.  And it also provides opportunities for creative pruning, and for the more energetic among us to let rip with the power tools. Plus, who wants to be washing net curtains all the time? Much better to have a living barrier to the prying eyes of the curious public or, at the very least, something for them to talk about.

How I understand the owner of this plant. There comes a time when the power tools lose their novelty value, and the step ladder is just that bit too short.

How I understand the owner of this shrub. There comes a time when the power tools lose their novelty value, and the step ladder is just that bit too short.

Photo Credits

Photo One (privet flowers) – By No machine-readable author provided. MPF assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=983049

Photo Two (Common Emerald) – By Ben Sale from UK ([1669] Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (The Engrailed) – By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806463

Photo Four (The V-Pug) – By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=290444

Photo Four (Privet Hawk Moth) – By Gaudete [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (Privet Hawk Moth Caterpillar) – by Rachel_S (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachel_s/2829915165)

All other blog content free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute to me, Vivienne Palmer, and link back to the blog, thank you!

Bugwoman on Location – A Winter Walk in Milborne St Andrew

img_8804I knew that the night had been a cold one from the way that the heating boiler lurched intermittently into life, the radiators clicking and jolting as the hot water gurgled through their veins. But it wasn’t until next morning, when I couldn’t get the top off of the composting bin because it had frozen shut, that I realised exactly how cold.

Through the window, I could see that the rosehips were wearing halos of ice, and the slats in the dark blue fence were rimed with frost. A destroying angel had pointed her finger at the geraniums next door, and they had collapsed. She had touched the leaf edges of other, hardier plants with a delicate brush, painting traceries of white along the veins. The lawn crunched under my feet and, as I left the bungalow and headed out along the pavement, every indentation held a milky puddle.

img_8805I didn’t want to walk too far: the sun had risen but it was bitterly cold, and I was fighting a throat infection. So I stopped to take a picture of a rook silhouetted against the sky on one of the roof tops, and then pressed on. I was heading for a sad little farm gate just along the road, surrounded by weeds and discarded farming equipment. I had a feeling that it would be worth pausing there for a few minutes to let the calm seep back into my bones.

img_8790I was in Milborne St Andrew visiting my parents and, while there are no immediate crises, there is always the question of whether there will soon be one. Dad has a bad cough, Mum has a potential UTI. We’d been out and about, buying a new bed (Mum took a tumble out of the old one because of the inadequate mattress) and looking at carpet (because the old, cream bedroom carpet had taken a dropped cup of coffee too many). We’d been out to dinner at an inn where we had been the only customers, and the standard of the meal was evidence as to why. Add into that some computer support, a fair bit of cooking and general troubleshooting, and it was clear to me that I needed to recharge for half an hour. It’s been my experience that just being still and patient and keeping eyes and ears open is a fine cure if I’m overwrought or anxious.

I cross the road to the farm gate, and take a few minutes to tune in. This really is an unprepossessing spot: there’s a pile of logs, a fine stand of teasel, some of the ubiquitous farm sacks and pieces of orange twine, a copse of hazel and hawthorn. But there’s also a little stream that winds past the shrubs and the gate, and disappears into the estate of fine cottages next door.

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img_8801I can see and hear that the branches of the hawthorn are full of little birds: there is the chirruping of sparrows, the wheezing of starlings, the tinkling of goldfinches and the occasional irruption of an angry blackbird. I lean over the fence and can see that the birds are waiting on twigs above the stream to bathe.

img_8815I am always surprised by the joy that birds take in bathing, even when the temperature is below zero. But there they are, bellyflopping into the water, ducking and flapping and shaking themselves. Perhaps the importance of keeping feathers in good condition is even more marked when the weather is cold, and insulation is vital. Or perhaps they just enjoy it. At any rate, whole flocks of birds are ‘utilising the facilities’, a noisy, enthusiastic rabble.

img_8817img_8813Closer to me, goldfinches are flitting down to a shallow ‘beach’ on the other side of the stream, taking a few mouthfuls of water and throwing their heads back to swallow before flying back to the safety of the shrub, and then off. Something tells me that these are migratory birds, just arrived from Scandinavia, and on their way to somewhere else, with no time to hang around. They seem to be in perpetual motion, anxious to be off, a bit like my Dad when he has a doctor’s appointment and the car to take him to the surgery hasn’t arrived yet.

img_8798The water at the sides of the stream is a little bubbly, as if there is some kind of mild pollution. Nitrate run-off and other water contamination is widespread in the countryside, pouring off of the fields where crops have been fertilised or sprayed with biocides, but hopefully this is neither of these things. I hop over a stile (no mean feat in my long coat) and walk along the shady, overgrown path for a few yards until I can see the stream more clearly. Here, where the sun hadn’t yet touched the water, there is a filigree of icy lace along the bank, a thousand individual shards that are melting back into water even as I watch. I wonder what has fashioned each pattern: some combination of the shape of the bank, the currents in the water, or a stray piece of weed or stalk of grass seems to have changed the structure of each shape.

img_8821 img_8819I turn to walk home, and pause to look at the stand of teasel between the gate and the road.

img_8808I love these seedheads with their myriad facets and their alien appearance, and so, it seems, do the travelling goldfinches. I notice that one of the seedheads is bobbing up and down, and realise that a goldfinch is grasping the stem with his claws, turning his head this way and that to pluck out the individual seeds. He weighs the plant down, and when he flutters to the next plant the teasel head bounces back up. The goldfinch is soon joined by another bird, and then another, the gold bands on their black wings fluttering between the plants until something spooks them, and they fly off into the bushes beyond. There is no time of year when it is more important to feed the birds: this year’s youngsters may not yet have worked out how to keep themselves alive when it gets cold enough to freeze the ground. And the way that birds of all kinds are attracted to the water reminds me to make sure that the ice on the garden pond and in the birdbath is broken so that they can get fresh water.

img_8842 img_8844So, I head for home, only mildly frozen myself. A collared dove preens a wing with a long stroke of his foot, while he stands on top of a roof that is golden with lichen. A starling whistles from a telephone line. The puddles outside the house are starting to thaw around the edges. The beauty of this time of year is ephemeral, and it’s been worth dragging myself out of bed, and out of the house, to see it.

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