Monthly Archives: April 2017

Bugwoman on Location: Collingwood, Ontario, Canada

Grackle

Dear Readers, I have been to Canada enough times now to not feel completely at a loss. I don’t fluff up my feathers when Canadians stand on the right and the left of the escalator (unlike Londoners who are obligate ‘stand on the right, walk on the left’ -ers). I usually go to the correct side of the car when I’m a passenger. I have realised that most Canadians don’t add ‘eh’ to the end of every sentence. But, more profoundly, I am starting to recognise some of the birds and plants that I see, and it’s this, more than anything, that helps me to feel at home. However, a trip to Collingwood, a town on the shores of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, reminded me of how much I still have to learn.

We stayed with Rosemary and Linda, my husband’s aunts, and their bird feeder attracts all kinds of interesting creatures. Take the magnificent grackle, for example. What a splendid bird, and nobody’s fool, I’m sure. We have no grackles in Europe, and so they are always a treat, especially in the spring when the males are at their most iridescent.

Two grackles….

The bird feeder attracts American goldfinches as well: the black and white patterns on the wings are reminiscent of the European goldfinch, but the citrus-yellow plumage and black crest of the male are very different.

Male American Goldfinch…

…and female American goldfinch

And we have no equivalent of a cardinal in the UK. I am always surprised at how large they are: I am expecting a finch-sized bird, but they are larger, and showier, and altogether more splendid. The male and the female always arrived together, and I loved their soft, whistling calls to one another.

Female cardinal….

…and male cardinal

And then a mourning dove popped in to see if there was anything on offer. What tiny doves these are, much smaller than the collared doves at home.

Mourning Dove

I was surprised to see large flocks of blue jays as well: I’d assumed that these were more solitary birds, but during a walk along the lake shore later in the day we spotted a flock of at least thirty birds.

Blue jay

In the UK, we have only two sparrow species, but North America is much more richly endowed with these ‘little brown jobs’, and very pretty they are too.

Song sparrow ( I hope)

And some creatures are rather more familiar. There are European house sparrows…

and the grey squirrels take great pleasure in shaking their tails at Linda and Rosemary’s dog Charlie. Charlie can contain himself for a while, but his patience is not never-ending and eventually he has to bark at them. Not that they seem to care much. They can tuck away a good inch of the sunflower seeds in the feeder at one sitting.

A squirrel telling Charlie who’s boss…

A squirrel tucking into sunflower seeds. He seems to be easing out of his thick winter coat.

Charlie facing off with the squirrel (on the rock)

But the wildlife in Collingwood isn’t just about the bird feeder. We took Charlie for several walks along the shore. Georgian Bay is a magnet for wildlife – there is the lake itself, the reed beds, the woods and the shoreline to provide food and shelter for all manner of creatures. We spotted a muskrat and a passing osprey (and on neither occasion was I fast enough with the camera) but here are some of the things that we did spot.

Male Red-winged blackbird

You cannot move for red-winged blackbirds, calling and displaying and clowning around. They are not closely related to European blackbirds, which are thrushes: they are Icterids (the name means ‘jaundiced ones’), and the group includes the new world orioles, the grackles and the bobolink. I saw a female red-winged blackbird, and didn’t even recognise what she was, so different is she from the male.

Female red-winged blackbird

The lake shore is full of dogwood and rushes, which makes it an ideal spot for displaying males.

And the male grackles look splendid in the sunshine too, more like birds of paradise than ‘jaundiced ones’…

The woods at the lake edge are full of sweet violets, and the smell reminds me of those chalky parma violet sweets that you used to be able to buy. The scent is both delicious and cloying, with an undertone of decay – Linda said that it reminded her a little of manure, and she’s right. A little of the smell goes a long way.

Banks of sweet violet

We had hoped to see a turtle of some description: there are snapping turtles and spotted turtles, and possibly painted turtles, but not a turtle did we see apart from this one.

The area where this chap has been ‘planted’ apparently used to be a popular spot for the living turtles to lay their eggs, but I guess they won’t be doing that here anymore. The irony does not escape me, nor many of the Collingwood residents.

However, we did see this magnificent chap or chappess, so all is not lost for the herpetological residents of the lake. I do believe that s/he might be a Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) but feel free to correct me.

And then, on our last afternoon before heading to the skyscrapers of Toronto, we visited John and Jo’s house. They have a stream running through their back garden, and it is the most serene spot, perfect before a return to the hubbub.

Coltsfoot

The grass is studded with coltsfoot (which I had never thought of as being a woodland plant, but which is thriving here).

A fallen log is crumbling away and is ‘mother’ to all manner of plants and mosses, some planted deliberately, some just welcome visitors.

There are toad lilies and bloodroot (which reminded me of our wood anemones) and the trillium is just about to bloom.

Toad lilies

Bloodroot

Trillium

And while we were eating some very fine scones on the deck at the back of the house, a hairy woodpecker flew onto the tree opposite and started working away on the bark. I’ve mentioned before that the black and white barring and red cap of the European greater spotted woodpecker reminds me of a painting by Mondrian, and this is just as true of this Ontario native. There is something special about a woodpecker, and seeing it in good company, on a warm, sunny day, makes it even better.

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Wednesday Weed – Bugle

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…..

Bugle (Ajuga reptens)

Dear Readers, I have been most remiss in my visits to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery this year. Apart from one trip just after Christmas, I have barely been past the place. Partly it’s work, partly it’s visiting the family, partly it’s a kind of post-Christmas doldrums. Plus, I have gotten my self into a state of mind where, if I’m not visiting every day, I feel embarrassed to visit at all. The phrase ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’ could have been invented for me. But today, Easter Monday, I went for a walk with my husband, and I was so glad that I did, because the flowers this year are extraordinary. There are stands of bugle all along the damper, shadier paths. They always look rather upright and martial to me, and there is a faint metallic sheen  to their leaves, but their common name is, according to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, nothing to do with the musical instrument. but more to do with cylindrical glass beads called ‘bugles’ – maybe they were often made in a blue colour reminiscent of the flowers. Another theory is that it is a corruption of the Latin name ‘ajuga’, which means ‘without yoke’, and could refer to the missing ‘uppper lip’ of the flowers.

The ‘yoke-less’ flowers of bugle (Public Domain)

In Germany, there is a belief that bugle can cause fires if brought into the house, so maybe the gunmetal notes of their foliage reminded people of how easy it is to cause a spark.

I love getting a different perspective on plants, and, if you look down on a bugle plant, it has a much softer, fluffier appearance. The blue and white flowers look like little men in  nightshirts, and the opening buds are surrounded by a red-mauve ‘fur’. It’s not surprising that many ‘domesticated’ varieties of this plant are now available, many of them taking the metallic-tinged leaves and turning them to full-on bronze with the power of genetics. As usual, I still find myself preferring the original version.

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

Ajuga reptans atropurpurea (Photo One – see credit below)

Bugle is a member of the Lamaiaceae, or dead-nettle family, and is a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies. The hairy-footed flower bees were enjoying it in the cemetery this morning, and it’s known to be a primary nectar source for the pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne). Bugle is so important to the adults of this rare species (which also requires a mosaic of bracken and grasses for its caterpillars to be successful) that land management for the species recommends using cattle rather than sheep, as the latter are not averse to eating bugle.

By Iain Lawrie - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33507212

Pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) (Photo Two – Credit below)

Bugle has had a variety of medicinal uses: it is known as ‘Carpenter’s herb’ because it is said to be able to stem bleeding, Culpeper was very impressed by the herb, recommending that it be made into a drink for internal use and an ointment for wounds and bruises. In fact,

‘it is so efficacious for all sorts of hurts in the body that none should be without it’.

I note that a tea made from bugle is said to be very useful for those suffering from ‘an excess of drink’. I shall just leave this here for future reference.

The young shoots of bugle are apparently edible, but as this is such a small plant, and so valuable to wildlife, I would be tempted to leave it alone. Various websites also describe it as poisonous, but if so it must be very mild – none of the other dead nettles are toxic. Some have mentioned that the plant has a narcotic effect, which is not so strange when you consider that catmint (Nepeta) is a member of the same family, and look what it does to cats.

By T (too much cat mint Uploaded by snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cat sleeping in catmint (Photo Three, see credit below)

All in all, bugle is a most elegant and attractive plant. Even so, I was impressed by the flower display that I found online, which features bugle along with Asian elderberry and perennial geranium. I love how this wildflower holds its own against the big hitters that surround it.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomronworldwide/16891727343

Ikebana by Ron Frazler (Photo Four – see credit below)

Now, you might not be surprised to hear that Cicely Mary Barker, the creator of the Flower Fairies, has a Bugle Fairy, and a Bugle Fairy poem.

Cicely Mary Barker’s Bugle Fairy

The Bugle Fairy
At the edge of the woodland
Where good fairies dwell,
Stands, on the look-out,
A brave sentinel.

At the call of his bugle
Out the elves run
Ready for anything,
Danger or fun,
Hunting or warfare,
By moonshine or sun.

With bluebells and campions
The woodlands are gay,
Where bronzy-leaved Bugle
Keeps watch night and day

And whatever you think of the Flower Fairies, I do think that Cicely Mary Barker was a keen observer of the plants, and had a good eye for their ‘characters’. As I walked in the cemetery, which was indeed laced with bluebells and spotted with campions, it wasn’t too hard to think of the bugle as ‘keeping watch’.

Bugle and bluebells

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two (Pearl-bordered fritillary) – By Iain Lawrie – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33507212

Photo Three (Cat in catmint) – By T (too much cat mint  Uploaded by snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Ikebana) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomronworldwide/16891727343

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Right Place, Right Time

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

Dear Readers, I am off to Canada at stupid o’clock on Saturday morning, so I am posting this on Friday evening in order to gain a few precious moments of sleeping time. Normal service will be resumed on my arrival on the other side of the Atlantic.

Dear Readers, sometimes luck is on our side. As I walked home along the County Roads on Sunday, something made me look up at some birds perched on a TV aerial. They were whistling to one another in a way that wasn’t right for a starling, the usual occupants of these elevated vantage points.

Waxwing calls

And then, I realised that one of the birds was gobbling down berries from the tree on the corner, and had to run down the road to my house and grab a camera before the visitors disappeared. Because, gentle readers, these were waxwings, and I’ve only seen them once before, during the harsh winter of 2010, when they visited this self-same tree.

Waxwings are Scandinavian visitors, who ‘irrupt’ into the eastern UK when the berries fail in the northern taiga. I was surprised to see them so late in the year, but relieved that there was still some food for them: by now, passing redwings have often stripped the street trees. A single waxwing can eat 1000 berries in a single day, so they tend to frequent places like supermarket carparks where the hedging is often of plants like cotoneaster or pyracantha. In Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey point out that the birds have been recorded defecating every four minutes as well, which I imagine would produce a very colourful abstract painting beneath any trees that they were feeding from. They can  metabolise the alcohol in fermenting fruit, but may become intoxicated, flying into walls and crashing into snowbanks. Couple this with their punkish quiffs and ‘fur-coat’ plumage, and their Goth-style eye-makeup, and you have a bird which is as eccentric and exotic as any late-night reveller in Soho.

The birds get their name from what looks like a blob of red sealing wax on their secondary feathers, which you can just about see in the photo below.

The red ‘waxy’ feather tips on a bird about to be ringed and released (Public Domain)

Although this is still a scarce species for the UK, sightings are becoming more common. The largest flock ever recorded was 367 birds at Lakeside Shopping Centre in 2011 (where I suspect there must be a multitude of berry-bearing bushes), and in 2005 160 birds were spotted in the trees around Warren Street Station in central London. It goes to show that you can see the most extraordinary birds even in the busiest and most congested parts of the city. It’s a good reason for always making sure that you look up (but please don’t fall down an open manhole-cover in the process).

Previously, the birds would make landfall in Scotland and work their way south, munching up berries en route. Sometimes, if there is a plentiful supply, they will stay in the area for a few days, but these beauties are always on the move. In ‘The Birds of London’, Andrew Self points out that recently, the waxwings have been coming straight to southern England, which may account for the more frequent sightings in the capital these days. Wherever they came from, my tiny flock stayed for a brief sojourn of about ten minutes, before flying off in a chorus of whistles towards North Finchley (though they did put in an appearance every day until Friday).

The Latin name for waxwings, Bombycilla, means ‘silk-tail’, and refers to that soft, silky plumage which seems more like a pelage than a coat of feathers. The bird is sometimes called the Bohemian waxwing, and this is more of a reference to its exotic appearance than any claim on the Bohemian region. When I was growing up, all you had to do to be considered Bohemian was wear a shawl, smoke French cigarettes or use eye-liner. I think you’d have to try a bit harder these days. The species name garrulus does not, as you might think, come from any inclination for chattering, but because the bird was thought to resemble a jay. I can see that the soft beige-pink colour is similar, but otherwise I think spectacles are in order.

You might think that this beautiful visitor would be a pleasure for anyone, but in the past, their arrival in winter coincided with outbreaks of cholera and plague, and the birds were thought to bring the illnesses, which led to the Dutch and Flemish name for the species, ‘Pestvogel’. They also ate the juniper berries which were thought to prevent these diseases, which would not have made them popular.

My North American readers might be more familiar with the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum),  a slightly smaller, more yellow bird. The Bohemian waxwing is generally found a little further north in Canada than the cedar waxwing, but there is some overlap, so any lucky Canadian readers might get to see both species as they travel back and forth from their wintering grounds to their breeding areas (the birds, not the Canadians).

By Jason Quinn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20683290

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) (Photo one – see credit below)

Waxwings are not considered an endangered species, in spite of flying drunk and endangering themselves by eating snow contaminated with salt and antifreeze. They breed in the taiga forests and the high northern plains, where they eat berries and midges (and heaven be praised for the latter). But they are still relatively unusual in the UK, and whenever I see them, I am forced, like the Ancient Mariner, to grab passersby with my bony hand and force them to have a few moments impromptu birdwatching. They’ll thank me for it later, I’m sure they will.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Cedar Waxwing) – By Jason Quinn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20683290

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Wednesday Weed – Windflower

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…..

Windflower (Anemone nemorosa)

Dear Readers, it has been my great pleasure to spot this exquisite plant twice in one week. On Wednesday, I saw it in a tiny fragment of woodland in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, when I was visiting my parents, and on Thursday I found a tiny patch in Coldfall Wood, part of my East Finchley ‘territory’. This plant spreads by less than six feet every hundred years, and so is a reliable indicator of ancient woodland – the plant’s seed is rarely fertile, and so it relies on root growth in order to propagate.

Windflowers and English bluebells in a tiny fragment of ancient wood in Milborne St Andrew

Windflowers are also known as wood anemones, grandmother’s nightcap, and, for more than one small child, ‘wooden enemies’.  It is said to have a sharp, musky scent on a warm day, which has led to another obsolete local name of ‘smell foxes’. The plant belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), and is native to the UK.

Although it’s a woodland plant, windflower comes into flower early while the tree canopy is still not extensive, like so many other plants in the family (winter aconite and lesser celandine come to mind). Windflower does not like deep shade, and the flowers will only open fully in sunshine, which is when their chief pollinators, hoverflies, are about. It is an ephemeral beauty, in flower for a short season and then disappearing until the next year. What a good reason for a brisk April walk in the woods! In the language of flowers, wood anemone stands for brevity, expectation and forlornness, so is probably not something that you want to pop into a bouquet for your beloved. Not unless you want a clip round the ear’ole, as my Dad used to say.

The troubled nineteenth century poet John Clare was ever a close observer of the plants and animals around him, and described the windflower thus:

‘What pretty, drooping weeping flowers they are!

The clipt-frilled leaves, the slender stalk they bear

On which the drooping flower hangs weeping dew!

How beautiful through April time and May

The woods look, filled with wild anemones!

And every little spinney now looks gay

With flowers mid brushwood and the huge oak trees.

John Clare, Wood Anemone

I wondered why the plant was called ‘windflower’ (and anemone means ‘wind’ in Greek). Greek legends believed that the flowers were the harbingers of the windy season of early spring, and Pliny stated that the plant only opened on windy days. The plant was also believed to have sprung from the tears of Aphrodite as she wept for the death of Adonis.

Like so many plants, the windflower has been considered a symbol of both good and bad luck. It was a symbol of sickness for the ancient Egyptians, and the Chinese consider it a flower of death. On the other hand, the Romans believed that if it was picked while saying ‘I gather this against all diseases’ and then tied around an invalid’s neck, it would provide a certain cure.

The plant contains a variety of toxins, and is poisonous to humans and livestock – Linnaeus mentions how cattle kept indoors over the winter would sometimes harm themselves by bolting down anemone leaves as soon as they got out of the barn. However, I can find no recent authenticated cases of anyone or any creature being harmed by a surfeit of windflowers, so I suspect that you would need to munch a lot of them.

Historically, the plant has had a variety of medicinal uses, such as treating headaches, ‘tertian agues’ and gout, along with leprosy, eye infections and ‘malignant and corroding ulcers’. Most of the treatments involved either ointments or chewing the roots: the latter would, I suspect, be most unpleasant, as the toxins in the roots are powerful irritants. Maybe it was a kind of ‘ordeal by plant’, at the end of which the sufferer would feel better because at least his mouth wasn’t on fire anymore. Anyhow, gentle readers, I advise you against any such activity, if only because the root you’d be chewing could have taken many, many years to grow.

I love the delicacy of these flowers. If you look at the petals closely, you can see a tracery of faintest lilac, and the butter-yellow stamen are a contrast to the green carpel in the middle of the bloom. They are snowy-white against the gathering gloom, racing to complete their life cycle before the leaves on the hornbeams and oaks above them shut out the light until autumn. They would be just the thing in my garden, as I usually say at the end of a Wednesday Weed. What a pity my garden isn’t ten times larger, so that I could accommodate all my new favourites!

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Bugwoman on Location – Spring in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, I like to have A Project when I go to visit Mum and Dad in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, and for my April visit there was much ado about their 60th Wedding Anniversary party in September. We have found a wonderful venue which is actually available on the correct day, so now I’m in full-on Party Organiser mode. There are so many decisions to be made between Menus A, B and C, not to mention the design of the invitations and the colour of the flowers on the table. Then there’s the problem of finding the same harpist that Mum and Dad had at their fiftieth wedding anniversary party. And, of course, as you know my parents are not in the first flush of youth (they’ll be 82 this year), and neither of them are in the best of health either. So my urge to get as much sorted out in the shortest possible time runs counter to their desire for a gentler pace.

Mum says that if I just relax a bit, it will all fall into place. My question is, what place exactly will it fall into? Getting the balance right between being a pain-in-the-butt organisational shaper, and a laissez-faire slacker is proving tricky. I am full of anxiety. What if the people that they want at the party find out about it too late, and so can’t come? What if the harpist has retired? Should the invitation be a card or just a single sheet? I feel myself turning into the wedding anniversary equivalent of Bridezilla, and that will never do. After all, the important thing is that Mum and Dad enjoy themselves, and my being a bully is the last thing that’s required. And so I decide to take a familiar walk through the village and up to the farmland above to see what I can see, and to give myself a bit of perspective.

What I see first are lots of delightful weeds. Many of them are new to me, although I recognise them from my plant books. There is masses of corn salad with its small lilac flowers, which look almost pale blue against the foliage. There is some lipstick pink ramping fumitory. There is some ground elder, which is a surprisingly attractive plant until it takes over your garden. And there is a white plant with the tiniest of flowers arranged in a spike like a tiny orchid. And all this is before I even get out of the village proper and start climbing the hill.

Corn Salad

Ramping fumitory

Presently unidentified tiny white plant (now identified as thyme-leaved speedwell.)

I notice that the woodpigeons are displaying. A bird launches itself into the air with a sharp clap of the wings, ascends and then slides downwards as if on an invisible rollercoaster. The jackdaws are chuckling, and the wrens are belting out their strident songs from every bush.

As I turn away from Milborne, the first field that I see is full of oilseed rape. A member of the cabbage family, this plant has completely changed the face of English agriculture in the past fifty years, and it continues to increase in popularity ;the oil is having a renaissance as a healthy cooking oil with a high smoking point, and it is also used for biofuels. Oilseed rape is so yellow that it seems to sear the eyeballs, but each individual plant is rather elegant, at least at this time of year.

Oilseed rape

The hedgerow is full of chirping sparrows, and I pause for a long time to try to catch sight of a robin that is singing from within a berberis bush. I look up and down, peering through the branches and twigs, but as far as I can see it’s the plant that’s animate, with a voice of its own.

The hedges on either side of the road here are completely different. The one on the left is full of blackthorn and hawthorn, the one on the right is more decorative, with forsythia just going over and berberis, mahonia and quince. The birds don’t seem to care which one they sing from, but there is lots of feeding activity in the left hand hedge, where the ivy berries are proving very popular.

Ivy berries in the left-hand hedgerow….

Berberis in the right-hand hedgerow

I pass an old, corrugated-roofed farm building which has become an ecosystem in its own right, with the ivy covering the upper levels and moss growing like a pelt over the damper lower slope. A blackbird erupts from the foliage in a frenzy of complaint, tilts its tail and disappears back into a hedge.

A roofy ecosystem….

The ground opens out here, and I realise that I can pick out a sound that I’d not heard before; a skylark is singing in a tumble of notes  and whirrs and scales. I strain to find it and there, against a white sky, is a tiny black dot. I try to find it again but all I can see are the floaters in my eyes, like so many protoplasmic blobs.

I walk on, past the muddy puddle where I saw yellowhammers drinking last year. This year, there are heavy, hieroglyphic footprints in the drying soil.

On the other side of the path is a field full of stubble, and it occurs to me how different the geology is here. In London, it’s all about the clay, but here there are flint geodes on the soil, like misshapen eggs. The knapped flints are part of the vernacular architecture of Dorset, embedded into walls of all kinds, and I can imagine how someone would have picked up the stones, measuring them in the hand, before placing them in the mortar. The first few inches of soil influences everything about an ecosystem, from the microorganisms to the birds and mammals, and so it seems a shame that soil is so often worked until it is no more than dust. Our ancestors would have known better, I’m sure, leaving the land to recover rather than working it until it had no more to give. We think of history as being a tale of relentless improvement but history tells us no such thing.

Flint geodes…

I walk down past a tiny secluded wood, fenced in on all sides and impossible to enter. However, through a few gaps in the foliage I can see the whiteness of windflowers against the indigo-blue of English bluebells and the butter yellow of Lesser Celandine. This tiny fragment probably once extended for miles, but at least this is still here. It is a pleasure to peep through the hawthorn and barbed wire to see the woodland flowers growing undisturbed.

Wood anemones and English bluebells in a tiny fragment of ancient wood

And so, as the sun comes out at last, I must head back down to the village. I pass a quartet of eager walkers heading up the hill, all men of a certain age with strong legs and clear eyes and maps of the area in transparent plastic map cases. We wish one another good morning, and I tell the leading chap about the little wood with the flowers, and the skylark. I suspect that they are men on a mission, however, rather than idle dreamers like me, though bluebells have been known to stop many people in their tracks.

And so I return home, calmer and more optimistic and definitely less beset with fonts and floral displays. And when I download the photos from my camera, I find this.

Yellowhammer!

You might remember that last year, I spent almost an hour trying to get  a photo of a yellowhammer for you all, and failing. Today, I just took a quick snap of a couple of birds on a telephone wire, and here is a yellowhammer for all to see. Trying too hard is often counterproductive. Maybe Mum is right, and there’s a lot to be said for letting things fall into place after all.

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Wednesday Weed – Elephant’s Ears

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…..

Elephant’s ear (Bergenia crassifolia)

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me this week as I write about a plant that is a favourite here in East Finchley, especially in the municipal flower beds outside Budgens and Amy’s Hardware Store. It has all the characteristic survival attributes required for this harsh environment: a resistance to pollution, to insect pests, to drought, to wind, and to being peppered with upended cardboard coffee cups and cigarette butts. Through all this, it flowers majestically, and in a variety of colours too.

There are only ten species of Bergenia in all the world, and they live in a great swathe of land that takes in Afghanistan, the Himalayas and China. I have noticed before that many ‘weeds’ come from the scree slopes and high altitudes of this region (such as buddleia, for example). Drought enhances the leaf colour of Bergenia, and you can often see delightful hues of scarlet and crimson in those big, fleshy, moisture-retaining leaves (which give the plant its vernacular name). It is also known as pigsqueak, because of the noise produced when the leaves rub together, and heart’s leaf bergenia because some romantics think the leaves are heart-y rather than elephant-y. Incidentally, the leaves are also said to be disliked by slugs and snails, which makes them a shoo-in for my garden when I get my act together.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rhgardens/5084544465

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’. Look at those gorgeous leaves! (Photo One – credit below)

Elephant’s ear is part of the Saxifrage family, a huge conglomeration that includes plants as diverse as astilbes, heuchera, rodgersia (a great waterside plant) and (not surprisingly) saxifrages. Although the stems resemble those of rhubarb, bergenia is not closely related to the variety that we eat, which is a member of the buckwheat family. The leaves have been used as a tea substitute owing to a high proportion of tannin.

Members of the Bergenia genus are known as Kodiya or Pashanbeda in Ayurvedic medicine, and are used particularly for the treatment of kidney diseases. They contain a chemical called Bergenin, and there is some evidence that this can inhibit crystal formation, which may assist with the breaking-up of kidney stones.  Bergenin is also said to be useful for bolstering the immune system.

Bergenia was named for the German botanist and doctor Karl August van Bergen back in 1794. He published an enormous book about German flora,  but his chief claim to fame seems to have been an essay about the rhinoceros. The title of the work is ‘Oratio de rhinocerote, quam habuit cum tertium deponeret rectoratum‘. I have run this through Google translate, and the closest that it can up with is Rhinocerote address from which it had deposited with a third rectoratum. I am so nervous about what this might possibly mean that I think I will leave it here, though if any classical scholars could assist with what this means I would be most grateful.

Herr Bergen’s Rhino Essay (Public Domain)

Something that I had not thought about was how tactile the leaves of Bergenia are, but my research this week took me to a book called ‘Garden for the Blind‘ by Kelly Fordon, which is a collection of short stories, and gets splendid reviews. In it, the author writes about how one of the characters has been left in the Touch Plants area, which contains:

‘…silky lamb’s ears, sharp agave, cinnamon fern, curly mint, heartleaf bergenia, horehound and tunic flower’.

What a delicious ensemble of plants, varying from the wooliness of the lamb’s ears to the delicious smoothness of the bergenia, and the scent on the fingers of mint and cinnamon fern. There are so many ways to appreciate a species that do not involve the eyes, from the rattling of bamboo canes to the scent of honeysuckle and the taste of lemon balm, but touch is the one that I most often forget.

I remember that when my Nan had pneumonia and was at death’s door, my mother brought her some tulips. My Nan roused enough to reach out and brought the tulips to her lips, for their smoothness and delicious coolness. Children and the very old know that they have a body and (at least) five senses, and often experience the world in a vivid way, unfiltered by the busyness and preconceptions of the rest of us. How good it would be to stop and caress a bergenia leaf, or to really smell the lilac once in a while.

The smooth leaves of bergenia

Photo Credits

Photo One (bergenia leaf colour) – from Rosehill Gardens https://www.flickr.com/photos/rhgardens/5084544465

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My Manners are Tearing Off Heads (Ted Hughes)

Dear Readers, sometimes death visits the garden. It’s inevitable, I suppose – the number of birds feeding there is a magnet for a predator. Usually I just find the evidence – the sad body of a blackbird with his head removed, a sea-foam of feathers under the hedge, and once two tiny limp dove’s feet. But on Sunday last week death came for a longer visit, in the form of a female sparrowhawk, who killed a collared dove with icy efficiency and then dismembered it on the garden path.

She stood on the corpse, plucking great mouthfuls of feathers and throwing them away with a jerk of the head. Occasionally, she’d lift her foot and scratch her beak to get rid of the fluff. Every few seconds, she’d look up and around with those manic yellow eyes, before getting back to work. Her talons, like black steel hooks, were deeply embedded in the breast of her prey, and the bare legs kept her a little above the gore.

After a few minutes she started to feed, ripping at the meat, all the time looking around. I really wanted her to turn, and eventually she did, so I could get a look at her chest feathers, barred in white and chocolate brown. Her tail feathers looked a little sad and ragged, but she was generally in good condition. And she was bold, too. At one point she heard the lady next door come outside to hang her washing up, and the bird looked around and froze. But after thirty seconds she went back to her meal.

As the sparrowhawk fed, the garden fell silent, except for the blue tits who are nesting next door. They were frantic, and their whirrs and peeps of alarm sounded like a soundtrack to the sparrowhawk’s tearing and rending. The great predators of the world are attended by an envelope of sound, that travels with them as they move about, like the trumpets of courtiers.

I felt bad about the dove. They come to the garden because I feed them, and this should be a safe place for them. But the sparrowhawk might be incubating eggs, or have nestlings, and needs to live too. Plus, although it matters not to the poor dead prey, this is a wild bird, not some domesticated cat entertaining itself. Sparrowhawks have been killing other birds for millenia. Maybe this is the kind of death that an animal can understand, unlike the many endings that we visit upon them, with our guns and poison and traps and laboratories, our slaughterhouses and factory farms and many forms of ‘entertainment’. It was at least an honest death, one animal to another, for simple reasons.

I went upstairs to change my camera battery, and when I came back the hawk was gone, and so was the dove: the sparrowhawk must have carried off its carcass to enjoy in a more peaceful spot. The feathers were still drifting and settling in the breeze of her departure. And in her place there was a hawk-shaped absence, a delay in the return to normality, as if the bird had carved a space in the universe, and the atoms were reluctant to rush back in. Not a single dove or pigeon came to the whitebeam tree for the rest of the day, but today they are on the seed feeder again, pragmatic as all wild animals are. If the hawk fed yesterday, maybe she won’t need to feed today.

Wednesday Weed – Forget Me Not

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…..

Forget Me Not (Myosotis sylvatica)

Dear Readers,

It’s a funny old life being an IT consultant. It’s a life that I’ve chosen because it gives me lots of flexibility (which I need to write, and to spend time with Mum and Dad), but, as my husband says, it can be rather ‘bumpy’. I can spend weeks sailing along working a couple of hours a week and wondering where the next crumb is coming from, only to suddenly have the gift of an impossible deadline, a mountain of work, and the possibility of being solvent again.

Such, dear readers, is my life at the moment. I have 50 huge complicated reports to convert in the next five days, and there is at least ten days of work.

So, I was not going to go far to find a Wednesday Weed, because I didn’t have time – I feel rather like a koi carp coming up for a gulp of air and then heading back to the depths of the silty pond. But look what I found!

Yes, growing in a corner of the garden by the hosepipe, there is a forget-me-not. As this is a plant that prefers damp places, I suspect that its location is no accident. I confess to never having really looked at one before, and what an oversight. I love the egg-yolk yellow middle, and the way that the edges of the petals form a kind of sunray pattern around it. It’s a member of the Borage family (yet again), and so the tiny buds bear that characteristically different colour from the open flower. And now I’ve noticed it in the garden I see it everywhere, popping up along the edges of paths and self-seeding in the flowerbeds.

The original name for forget-me-not was scorpion grass, apparently because of the curled nature of the flowerheads. I suppose I can see what they’re on about, though they look rather more pangolin-y than scorpion-y to me.

Richard Mabey argues that the name ‘forget me not’ is not as old as you might think: the name doesn’t crop up in Shakespeare, or in Chaucer, and first pops up in a poem by Coleridge, ‘The Keepsake’. On the other hand, that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, mentions that it is first used in English in 1398 by King Henry IV, and is a literal translation of the German word for the flower, Vergissmeinnicht. In the course of my investigations, I have discovered that to translate word for word from one language to another has its own verb, ‚’to calque‘. So there we go, another new word (to me at least).

There are many legends about how the forget me not got its name, most of them revolving around a creation legend in which God/a god is naming all the creatures and plants that he’s brought into being. A little blue flower cries out the equivalent of ‘Oi mate, howsabout me? Forget me not please!‘ and so the name has stuck. In a variation, God was giving the flowers their colours, and did forget about the forget me not, so had to give it a tiny piece of sky to make up for it. In medieval times the plant was a symbol of constancy and good faith, and this suits it, I think: there is something so humble and yet so bright about this inconspicuous little plant.

Forget me nots come from two places: Western Eurasia and New Zealand. How interesting that the two groups of species should come from such geographically distant areas! The plants have since spread to more or less everywhere: there are 74 recognised species, but over 500 variations on a theme, and the plant hybridises quite happily. There are over a dozen species in the UK, and this one is I think the commonest variety, the wood forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica).

You can buy packets of forget me nots and scatter them hither and thither in the garden, but to me they seem to be the quintessential wildflower, growing where they fancy in drifts of azure. They are an unexpected and often undeserved gift. I think Christina Georgina Rossetti had in about right in her poem ‘A Bed of Forget Me Nots’:

Is love so prone to change and rot

We are fain to rear forget-me-not

By measure in a garden plot? —

I love its growth at large and free

By untrod path and unlopped tree,

Or nodding by the unpruned hedge,

Or on the water’s dangerous edge

Where flags and meadowsweet blow rank

With rushes on the quaking bank.

Love is not taught in learning’s school,

Love is not parcelled out by rule;

Hath curb or call an answer got? —

So free must be forget-me-not.

Give me the flame no dampness dulls,

The passion of the instinctive pulse,

Love steadfast as a fixed star,

Tender as doves with nestlings are,

More large than time, more strong than death:

This all creation travails of —

She groans not for a passing breath —

This is forget-me-not and love.

But, dear readers, before I descend into the depths of Excel once more, I had to share with you a second poem, by none other than the man described as ‘the world’s worst published poet’, Mr William McGonagall of ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ (and you can read that masterwork here).  I shall leave it to you to decide if this tale of love is even better. To get the full effect of the irregular metre, you might want to read it out loud. But let it be said that I am a great admirer of McGonagall, for all his poetical disadvantages. I love his confidence, and his self-belief, and his preparedness to put his work in the public domain even if he wasn’t exactly Shakespeare. He apparently had no concerns with the critics’ opinion of his work, and he inspired the wonderful Spike Milligan. And  in addition, his middle name was Topaz.  I’m sure, if he was alive today, he would write  a very splendid blog, though I fear that the 140 characters of Twitter would have defeated him completely.

Forget-Me-Not

A gallant knight and his betroth’d bride,
Were walking one day by a river side,
They talk’d of love, and they talk’d of war,
And how very foolish lovers are.

At length the bride to the knight did say,
‘There have been many young ladies led astray
By believing in all their lovers said,
And you are false to me I am afraid.’

‘No, Ellen, I was never false to thee,
I never gave thee cause to doubt me;
I have always lov’d thee and do still,
And no other woman your place shall fill.’

‘Dear Edwin, it may be true, but I am in doubt,
But there’s some beautiful flowers here about,
Growing on the other side of the river,
But how to get one, I cannot discover.’

‘Dear Ellen, they seem beautiful indeed,
But of them, dear, take no heed;
Because they are on the other side,
Besides, the river is deep and wide.’

‘Dear Edwin, as I doubt your love to be untrue,
I ask one favour now from you:
Go! fetch me a flower from across the river,
Which will prove you love me more than ever.’

‘Dear Ellen! I will try and fetch you a flower
If it lies within my power
To prove that I am true to you,
And what more can your Edwin do?’

So he leap’d into the river wide,
And swam across to the other side,
To fetch a flower for his young bride,
Who watched him eagerly on the other side.

So he pluck’d a flower right merrily
Which seemed to fill his heart with glee,
That it would please his lovely bride;
But, alas! he never got to the other side.

For when he tried to swim across,
All power of his body he did loss,
But before he sank in the river wide,
He flung the flowers to his lovely bride.

And he cried, ‘Oh, heaven! hard is my lot,
My dearest Ellen! Forget me not:
For I was ever true to you,
My dearest Ellen! I bid thee adieu!’

Then she wrung her hands in wild despair,
Until her cries did rend the air;
And she cried, ‘Edwin, dear, hard is out lot,
But I’ll name this flower Forget-me-not.

‘And I’ll remember thee while I live,
And to no other man my hand I’ll give,
And I will place my affection on this little flower,
And it will solace me in a lonely hour.’

Adieu, Gentle Readers, until I surface on the other side of my reports, refreshed and rather more financially well-off.

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An Unexpected Visitor

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

Dear Readers, just when I think that I’ve spotted every species of bird who is likely to visit the bird table, someone new drops by. And so it was on a sunny evening this week, when I glanced out of my upstairs window to see a jackdaw pecking up the suet pellets. This is the first time I have ever seen a jackdaw in the garden: they are rare birds in London, though when I visit my parents in Dorset they are everywhere, chuckling away and playing above the roofs. I have always been fond of Jackdaws: they are intelligent and adaptable birds, the smallest of the UK’s crows, and they would have been a familiar sight in central London at the end of the nineteenth century. They have often been described as ‘ecclesiastical birds’ because of their habit of nesting in church towers: up to 1889 they bred at St Paul’s Cathedral, and they were also nesting in St Michael’s Church near the Bank of England at this time.  In Wales Jackdaws were considered to be sacred because of their religious nesting places: the birds were said to be ‘shunned by the devil’.  Alas, these days they avoid most of London. There have been various theories as to why, but the usual double-whammy of unavailability of habitat and food is probably to blame. Jackdaws would have eaten grain that was meant for the horses that were once prevalent in the city, and would have used the hair and wool from the many domesticated animals that were driven down to Smithfield to line their nests. I wonder if it is coincidence that the one place in London where jackdaws are regularly seen is Richmond Park, with its herds of deer.

I find the jackdaw a most handsome bird. I love the frosty cape around his neck, and the bouncy way that he jogs about: while crows always remind me a little of Prince Charles as they walk around with their metaphorical hands clasped behind their backs, jackdaws have much more of the Tigger about them. But most of all I love those ice-blue eyes. The naturalist W.H.Hudson described them as ‘small malicious serpent-like grey eyes’ but I can only think that he looked with a jaundiced attitude. To me, the eyes of a jackdaw show a sharp intelligence, and a clarity of intention. This bird had just noticed me standing at the bedroom window with my camera, and was trying to decide if I was a threat or not.

Evidently the suet pellets won over immediate flight. This was a hungry bird, and most of the contents of the bird table ended up on the patio, where the starlings and squirrel made short work of them.

Jackdaws are certainly very chatty birds, and will imitate human speech if they’re in the mood, or sufficiently well rewarded. An ancient Greek and Roman adage was that ‘swans will sing when jackdaws are silent’, meaning that well-informed people will have their say once the foolish folk have ceased their gabbling. In Czechia, there is a belief that if jackdaws quarrel, war will follow. A jackdaw on the roof can mean either a new arrival or a death, depending on where you are in the country. In short, superstition follows this bird as it does so many others, and I am reminded of the Buddhist proverb: ‘Good luck, bad luck, who knows?’

Jackdaws are normally seen in flocks, but  pair for life within this group. A pair will stay together even after multiple cases of breeding failure. Single birds are at the absolute bottom of the pecking order (as noted by Konrad Lorenz in his book King Solomon’s Ring) but if a bird finds a new mate, his or her status depend on that of their partner. As I watched the bird in my garden, I was feeling a little sorry that he or she was on their own. And then something disturbed him or her and a second jackdaw emerged from under the bird table as they both flew off together. Call me a tired old romantic, but it warmed my heart.

There is something very special about witnessing a new visitor to the garden, especially when you’ve been feeding for years and think you’ve seen everything. Hah! Nature has a way of puncturing such pomposity.  I  sometimes think that I haven’t even begun to notice the secret life of my garden, let alone understand it. There’s enough in this little spot of ground to keep me busy for the rest of my life.

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