Monthly Archives: January 2018

Wednesday Weed – Wild Garlic

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…..

Wild Garlic (Ramsons) (Allium ursinum)

Dear Readers, during a very wet walk in Somerset last week, I was delighted to see that the wild garlic is already putting in an appearance. I couldn’t help myself – I had to stop and pluck a leaf and take a little nibble. I love the delicate flavour of wild garlic, but by spring the whole of this lane will have a distinct whiff of allium, and the leaves will be topped with a froth of white flowers.

Photo One (garlic flowers) by By Kurt Stüber [1] - caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5352

Wild garlic in flower (Photo One)

I was delighted to learn that the species name, ursinum, comes from the brown bear’s habit of digging up the bulbs and eating them. I suppose if you’re walking through the woods and get a blast of onion breath it might be your cue to head up a tree at speed. Wild garlic often grows alongside bluebells, and both are known as indicators of ancient woodland (woodland that existed before 1600) – both plants spread slowly, and so if they are present in a wood, it means that the wood has been there for a considerable period of time.

Photo Two (ancient woodland) by By No machine-readable author provided. Naturenet assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=134686

Bluebells, wild garlic and hazel in ancient woodland on the Isle of Wight, UK (Photo Two)

Wild garlic is also known as ramsons (often misremembered as ‘ransoms’) or buckram, and is native to the UK and to the rest of Europe and Asia. The Old English root name for the plant, hramsa, appears in place names such as Ramsbottom and Ramsey Island, which I had previously thought related to sheep rather than a plant. It can indeed be an invasive little number (indeed, the vernacular name ‘ramsons’ comes from the same root as ‘rampant’), and when I was treasurer at Culpeper City Garden in Islington, I remember how we were inundated with the stuff for a season. Our lovely volunteers managed to dig most of it out, but it was very hard work.

It appears that I took a chance with my nibble, as it has been known for people to mistake the poisonous leaves of the lily-of-the-valley or the arum lily for the edible leaves of our plant. The scent test (rubbing the leaf and smelling the fingers to check for the garlicky smell) is a good way of identifying an individual plant but won’t help with subsequent plants. Fortunately, once the flowers are out everything is clear. Unfortunately, by this time the flavour has changed from ‘subtle’ to ‘brash’.

There is a limit to how much of the plant anyone wants to take home, although it has been growing in popularity as a culinary ingredient just lately, and it sometimes feels as if I’m tripping over wild garlic pesto every time I go to a posh restaurant. However, it’s not just about the pesto, as you will see from the fine selection of recipes here.

I was interested to find out that the plant has also been used as fodder, although like most members of the onion family it taints the milk produced by the cows and goats who feed on it. In Switzerland, garlic-scented butter made use of this natural feature, and was apparently quite popular. I am reminded of an episode from ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy, where the cows eat wild garlic in the orchard and ruin their milk, so Tess and Angel Clare end up working together with the rest of the village to clear the plant. Hardy is not my favourite author, but I do love the set pieces that he creates, and I must admit that since spending so much time in Dorset with my parents I am warming to his descriptions of the countryside and the people and animals that live there.

Wild garlic pesto

Like most alliums, wild garlic also has a whole raft of medicinal properties: it is antibacterial, and is said to be the best of all the onion and garlic family for lowering blood pressure (unless you’ve let it get out of hand in your garden of course). A 17th Century saying has it that if you :

Eat leekes in Lide (March) and ramsins in May,
And all the yeare after physitians may play.

Wild garlic was also a useful source of Vitamin C, and was said to have been taken to many parts of Europe by the Vikings: in Finland, it was planted at the ports and around the harbours to make it easy to pick and take on board. It was believed by the Vikings to protect against the evil eye, and of course we know how useful garlic is against vampires.

For my poem this week, I’ve chosen one by the Welsh poet Leslie Norris, who died in 2006. His poem honours fellow poet Edward Thomas, whose poems conjure the British countryside, wild garlic and all.

Ransoms
(for Edward Thomas)What the white ransoms did was to wipe away
The dry irritation of a journey half across
England. In the warm tiredness of dusk they lay
Like moonlight fallen clean onto the grass,And I could not pass them. I wound
Down the window for them and for the still
Falling dark to come in as they would,
And then remembered that this was your hill,

Your precipitous beeches, your wild garlic.
I thought of you walking up from your house
And your heartbreaking garden, melancholy
Anger sending you into this kinder darkness,

And the shining ransoms bathing the path
With pure moonlight. I have my small despair
And would not want your sadness; your truth,
Your tragic honesty, are what I know you for.

I think of a low house upon a hill,
Its door closed now even to the hushing wind
The tall grass bends to, and all the while
The faroff salmon river without sound

Runs on below; but if this vision should
Be yours or mine I do not know. Pungent
And clean the smell of ransoms from the wood,
And I am refreshed. It was not my intent

To stop on a solitary road, the night colder,
Talking to a dead man, fifty years dead,
But as I flick the key, hear the engine purr,
Drive slowly down the hill, I’m comforted.

Leslie Norris (b. 1921 d.2006)

Photo Credits

Photo One (garlic flowers) by By Kurt Stüber [1] – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5352

Photo Two (ancient woodland) by No machine-readable author provided. Naturenet assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=134686

 

 

 

 

 

 

…And Home by Tube

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Dear Readers, when I left you last week I had just disembarked from the bus and was making my way towards Tate Modern, on the other side of the Thames. The quickest way is across the Millenium Bridge, which rises like a whale’s back and seems to float across the brown water. From here, it looks almost ethereal, suspended by a delicate tracery of cables.

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However, I was not expecting the Arctic wind that hit me as I started to cross. It sang in the cables, it chilled my face into a rictus grin, and I even had to take my hat off in case it was lifted off my head in a gust and deposited in the water. I stopped briefly in the middle of the bridge for the obligatory picture of Tower Bridge, and then made my way very briskly to the south bank. I confess, I was a little afraid – I felt as if it would be very easy to be blown over the edge, and the Thames looked both very choppy and a long way down.

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I did stop again for another obligatory photo. This one, of St Pauls ‘balanced’ on the bridge is a mainstay of many a suite of holiday pictures, I’m sure.

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And then it was off to Tate Modern, so that I could thaw out a little. The building is home to a pair of peregrine falcons and their young every year, but nobody was around today.

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I was here to see an exhibition by a pair of Russian installation artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Their exhibition is called ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future’, and there is a theme of escape, of flying and of angels. In one exhibit, you peer into a room in which there is a hole in the ceiling and a kind of sling, as if someone has been catapulted into space – it’s called ‘The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment’, and it was created in 1985.

Ilya Kabakov The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment

But my favourite was this one, at the end of the exhibition – a rickety scaffold where a tiny figure reaches out his hands to an angel. It’s called ‘How to Meet an Angel’ and dates from 1998.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov How to Meet an Angel

If you’re in London and you want to see it, you will need to leave now, because it finishes on 28th January.

Fortified with coffee, I head off home, stopping first to look back at the new extension to Tate Modern, which looks a bit ziggurat-ish to me. There is a viewing gallery at the top, from which you can look right into the living rooms of the very expensive flats opposite, which has caused some discomfort to those who live there. I think I might be looking at installing some blinds on that side of my apartment if I was discomforted (the planning permission for the extension had been granted before the flats were even built), rather than demanding that the viewing gallery be shut down, but there we go.

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On the way back to Southwark Station, I took a walk through the gardens at the base of the aforementioned luxury flats. They are rather cleverly designed, as the space is extremely shady, but plants, carefully chosen, are thriving. I always make a mental note when I walk through, as I too have a very shady garden.

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Sarcococca (Christmas Box)

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Some fine ferns and mind-your-own-business used imaginatively between the tiles

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Hebe, rocks, silver birch

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The obligatory bronze statue of a family. It looks as if Henry Moore met Picasso and the two decided to disagree…..

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Some gorgeous red berries, let me know if you can identify the plant!

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Dogwood

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So much of our public space is not public space anymore….

As I approach the station, I notice a couple of things that I hadn’t seen before. One is the exuberant Lord Nelson pub. It was recently voted the Best Pub in Southwark by readers of The Londonist website, and apparently it’s even more fun inside. It has a menu of 20 different kinds of burger, including six veggie options.

 

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And then there’s this. Why is there a statue of a dog feeding from a pot on the corner of Union Street and Blackfriars Road?

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Well, it’s a recreation of a shop sign that the twelve year-old Charles Dickens used to see when he was on his way to work at the blacking factory.

‘My usual way home was over Blackfriars Bridge and down that turning in the Blackfriars Road which has Rowland Hill’s chapel on one side, and the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot over a shop door on the other.’

The statue is by Michael Painter, an artist and sculptor who has worked at Windsor Castle and St Paul’s Cathedral, and is made of elm wood. It even has its own Twitter account, for those of you who are Twitter-minded.

Onwards, then, to Southwark Station, which is on the Jubilee Line. From the outside it doesn’t look particularly impressive, but it is one of my favourite tube stations.

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As you leave the station, you ascend into a shiny blue dome, which reminds me a little of a planetarium. The glass wall is made of 660 individually cut pieces of blue glass, and was designed by Alexander Beleschenko. One lovely thing about the Jubilee Line stations in central London is that they are architecturally very interesting, and embodied a kind of exuberance that I fear the Crossrail stations will not. But maybe I’ll be surprised. I hope so.

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And there is also a feeling of space and light, an industrial edge coupled with the feeling of being on a cruise liner.

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And so, out by bus and home by tube, down to the river and back again. London is such an extraordinary city (and yes, I know I’m biased, being born and bred here). I wouldn’t swap it for anywhere in the world, partisan that I am. But I do love walking in the country as well, as next week’s post is likely to reveal…..

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Winter-Flowering Heather

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…..

 

Winter-Flowering Heather (Erica carnea)

Dear Readers, some plants just look at home in dank, drizzly weather, and the winter-flowering heather at my Aunt Hilary’s house in Somerset was bejewelled with raindrops when I spotted it this weekend. Each of the bell-shaped blooms seemed to be clutching its own crystal beach-ball of water, and the contrast of the magenta anthers to the pale pink petals was a lovely surprise.

Heathers (or ‘heaths’) are indeed plants of acid heathland, and there are several native varieties which can be found all over the West Country, and of course in their heartland in Scotland. This winter-flowering species comes originally from the mountainous areas of south and central Europe, where it grows amongst the conifers and on the rocky slopes. It is less of a calcifuge (acid-lover) than many of the other species, which means it will tolerate a much greater range of soil types. This burst of colour in the middle of the greyness of January is welcomed by many gardeners, and many early-rising bumblebee queens in need of a burst of nectar to keep them going for the rest of the winter.

Photo One by By Heinz Staudacher - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63328580

Close up of Erica Carnea flowers (Photo One)

The name ‘Erica’ actually means ‘heath’ in Ancient Greek, while the species name carnea means ‘flesh-pink’, probably also the derivation of the name ‘carnation’. As with carnation, however, winter-flowering heathers now come in a wide variety of colours, from white through to darkest pink. You may also find the plant with the earlier name of Erica herbacea. Tis the same plant! Life is most confusing sometimes.

Surprisingly enough, the motherlode for heather species is not the damp uplands of Northern Europe, but the sunny fynbos area of South Africa, where there are no less than 690 species of Ericas. Have a look at this post here, showing the sheer variety of shapes, colours and sizes. It’s enough to make me start saving up for a plane ticket to the Cape. Wednesday Weed from the fynbos, anyone? in the meantime, here are a few examples.

Erica abietina (Public Domain)

Erica verticillata (Public Domain)

Erica nevillei (Public Domain)

Well, after that blast of sunshine, let’s go back to considering our winter-flowering heather. One question that occurred to me was ‘if this is a winter-flowering plant, who pollinates it?’ Aside from the aforementioned bumblebee queens, no self-respecting insect is going to be about in January. However, this is a plant with a very long flowering season, and it will quite likely still be flowering in March and April, when things warm up and the daylight increases. And, in mountainous areas, the pollinators will be up and about as soon as they possibly can, because the season is so short.

One interesting article that I found suggested that, unlike most heathers, which are largely fertilised by honeybees (hence heather honey), the winter-flowering heather seems to be more adapted for the long proboscises of butterflies, particularly the painted lady (Vanessa cardui). This is an abundant species in the Alps in early summer for sure, and I have seen it feeding on heather myself, so maybe the author of the article here has a point. What are your observations, gardening friends?

Photo Two by By Michael Apel (photo taken by Michael Apel) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The exquisite painted lady (Vanessa cardui) showing off its proboscis (Photo Two)

And for those of you with winter-flowering heather in the garden, keep an eye open for the caterpillars of the true lover’s knot moth (Lycophotia porphyrea).

Photo Three by By This image is created by user Han Derks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. - This image is uploaded as image number 2581108 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.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 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20588445

True lover’s knot caterpillar (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia - Lycophotia porphyrea, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4935147

True lover’s knot (Lycophotia porphyrea) (Photo Four)

Now, while we’re on the subject of true lover’s knots and such, you might be as interested (and surprised) as I was to find that the flowers of winter-flowering heather apparently have a similar effect to Viagra. An Independent article from 2007 describes how stocks of the plant were selling out at Wyevale Garden Centres, A spokesperson explains:

At first, it was just a trickle of inquiries, but now stores are virtually being besieged each weekend. We have had men buying dozens of the plants and, at one store in Croydon, there were men old enough to know better fighting over the last remaining trays.”

And what a picture that conjures up! As does the one below:

It’s amazing. My husband has never shown any interest in gardening before, but now he’s out there night and day fussing over his heathers. Frankly, I preferred it when he left the garden to me and wasn’t so frisky.”

For a further description of how to actually turn the innocent blooms of the winter-flowering heather into a love potion, you can read the whole article here. Note that includes the mention of quality full-strength vodka.

Note also that the byline of the article is just before 1st April 🙂

Sadly, I can find no mention of actual medicinal uses for this particular plant, though our native heathers have a whole raft of applications, from cough medicine to the making of heather beer. I shall save those stories until I am lucky enough to stumble over a native heather, so watch this space!

Heather (and quite possibly this species) was sacred to the goddess Venus Erycina (the name means ‘of the heather). She was the Sicilian goddess of love, so maybe the Viagra link is so outlandish after all. Her cult was transmuted into respectability in Rome, and she was worshipped by respectable Roman matrons at a temple on the Capitoline Hill, and at another temple outside the boundaries of Rome by ‘common girls’ and prostitutes.

Photo Five by By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36650506

A coin showing Venus Erycina from 57 BCE (Photo Five)

As you know, I like to round off my celebration of a Wednesday Weed with a poem if I can find one.  I found these verses by Maria Grace Saffrey, a Baptist poet who died in 1858,  very moving, in spite of my not being a conventional Christian. For the whole poem, click here.

Nature his faithfulness can tell

Where hath he left his work undone?

The dew-drop on the heather-bell

The burning pathway of the sun

Alike the constancy record

Of Him who is Creation’s Lord

 

Forsaken seem’d the winter flower

Before she felt the breath of spring:

But then he sent the dewy shower,

With sunbeams on the morning’s wing;

And all her summer bloom shall say

He watch’d her in the wintry day.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Heinz Staudacher – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63328580

Photo Two by By Michael Apel (photo taken by Michael Apel) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by user Han Derks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. – This image is uploaded as image number 2581108 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.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 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20588445

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia – Lycophotia porphyrea, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4935147

Photo Five by By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36650506

 

 

 

A Bus Trip to Tate Modern….

Dear Readers, I have always loved taking the bus. My father was a conductor on the trolley buses that used to ply their trade in London in the ’50’s and early 60’s, and I remember him remarking how much he hated going upstairs to collect the fares: the combination of cigarette smoke and perfume was nauseating, especially first thing in the morning. But there were happy memories too: Mum would often get the bus when Dad was ‘conducting’ and would sit and watch him running up and down the stairs and being cheerful and pleasant to everyone. Who knows if love was born on the number 25 bus between Stratford and the West End? I can think of much worse starts.

However, it was some trolley bus rails that nearly caused Mum and Dad’s relationship to come a cropper in the early days. Dad had bought a tandem bicycle, and the loving couple were taking it for a (wobbly) spin when it somehow got caught in the groove between the metal rails. The bike crashed to the ground, and Mum and Dad fell off. On picking himself up, Dad went over and retrieved the bike while Mum was still laying there, dazed. When ‘asked’ about his priorities, he said

‘Well, the bike might have got run over’.

Yes indeed. But Mum soon put Dad straight, and, a few years later they were married, as they still are sixty and a bit years later.

So you can see that I have acquired my love of buses honestly. I would always rather take the bus than the tube if I have time, because it helps me to see how the different parts of London fit together. Plus, there is always something going on outside to attract the attention. So, today,  I decided to take a trip to Tate Modern on the bus. I take the 263 to Archway, and then the 17 to St Pauls, where I can walk over the Millenium Bridge. Thanks to the new Hopper fare I only pay once, which is very gratifying. And I have such plans for taking photos through the window as the bus crawls slowly down the Archway Road! Unfortunately, there is no traffic, and so the bus speeds along and photography, already a challenge what with the dirty windows and the bright, bright sunshine, becomes a game of ‘snap and hope for the best’.

So, here is what I managed to capture.

Some tiles on the front of a group of rather run-down houses. Once upon a time, I suspect that they were rather grand.

This is known locally as ‘the suicide bridge’, as it’s a place where folk in the deepest despair come to end their lives. I wonder why the powers-that-be can’t make it more difficult for people to do this? Although, to be fair, I haven’t walked over it for a long time, so maybe there are some measures in place.

In other news, the view as we go under the bridge soon turns into one of the finest in London…The view starts to open up….see how tall The Shard is compared to everything else!

And if you look carefully, you can see my destination, St Pauls Cathedral.

Off the bus at Archway, and I have about 20 seconds to get a snap of the street trees that were planted recently. One of the stone pines looks very unhappy, maybe it’s the pollution, but the other trees seem to be doing well.

My husband swears that I have a little friend called ‘The Bus Fairy’ who produces a bus whenever I get to a stop. It certainly worked today, as a 17 pulled up before I could say ‘Blimey,  it’s freezing’ (which it was). There was a determined Arctic breeze, and I was to meet it full on later.

A young chap was taking advantage of the downhill to use his skateboard. Be careful, young chap!

Many of the trees are not only trussed up in fairy lights, but have solid municipal nest boxes attached to their trunks. I’m assuming that the boxes are reinforced to prevent squirrels, rats and woodpeckers from getting in, but I do wonder how many little birds would choose this particular spot to rear their young, so close to buses and general urban vibrance. Also, what’s with the miscellaneous bits of tin foil? You do get a different view of the world from the upper deck, that’s for sure.

The roofs of the older bus shelters become micro-habitats in their own right, places for birds to drink and for little creatures to breed. The newer bus shelters have convex roofs so that the water runs off. Much less interesting.

We turn onto Caledonian Road, and pass a most splendid example of what The Gentle Author calls ‘Facadism’ – the way that developers preserve the front of a building, whilst tearing down everything else. If you look closely you can see that a one-brick thickness of the original building has been attached to what looks like a very mediocre modern construction.

‘Facadism’ – look at the right hand edge to see how the old front has been attached to the new building

And it looks as if London has been taken over by an epidemic of cranes.

Cranes seen from Caledonian Road, with the BT tower and the tower of St Pancras

The crane, looking rather like a prehistoric animal

A ‘ghost sign’ on Euston Road

There are some truly remarkable plane trees in this part of London. I am always intrigued by the way that they seem to carry their seeds all year round.

London Plane seedheads

At the bottom of Gray’s Inn Road, there are some enormous London planes which lean out over the road at a most alarming angle.

And just in case the bus driver didn’t notice them, there are signs attached to some of these behemoths.

A dragon marks the edge of the City itself.

And then we turn the corner, and St Pauls shows itself, but gradually. It is so enormous, compared to the buildings round about, that it can only be seen in its full glory when you are very close.

And even in these hallowed grounds, there are nest boxes.

And now, it’s time to cross the Thames and head to Tate Modern. But for that, dear readers, we’ll have to wait till next week.

Wednesday Weed – Dogwood

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate.  Who knows what we will find…..

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

Dear Readers, every gardening magazine  has a section on ‘winter colour’ in September (along with instructions on bulb planting), and one of the plants that is always mentioned is the dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). This is a shrub which is native to the UK and most of Europe and western Asia, and it is largely grown for the colour of its stems in winter – the species name sanguinea  meaning ‘bloody’ rather gives the game away. It is the youngest growth which has the brightest colour, and in many municipal parks and gardens the plant is cut right down to a few inches every year. There are many cultivated varieties of dogwood, with stem colour varying from crimson red to sunset orange.

Dogwood for sale in the garden centre last week.

However, dogwood is more than its stems. Although the white flowers are not particularly showy, the berries (sometimes called dogberries) are irresistible to birds, one reason that I don’t butcher my shrub every year. In fact, some organic gardens grow dogwood as a way of keeping the thrushes from the soft fruit, as it’s said that they prefer dogberries to any other fruit. I shall have to see if my bush proves to be interesting to our avian friends when it gets a bit bigger.

Photo One (Dogwood berries ) by Sten Porse - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92313

Dogwood berries (Photo One)

According to Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ the name ‘dogwood’ is not disparaging (unlike, say ‘Dog’s Mercury’), but comes from the name ‘dagwood’, a ‘dag’ being a wooden skewer. This is borne out by some of the other common names, such as ‘prickwood’. When the prehistoric man Otzi was discovered on the borders of Austria and Italy, he was carrying arrow shafts made of dogwood and viburnum, and an axe with a handle made of yew. He was estimated to have been buried in about 3400 BCE, and was approximately 45 years old when he met his violent death. The story of the discovery, and of what has been ascertained about Otzi’s way of life, is a fascinating one. Furthermore, the fact that the body is in a museum in Italy and not in Austria is still a source of some disgruntlement in Austria to this day.

Photo Two (Otzi reconstruction) by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi

Reconstruction of Otzi the Ice Man from the Museum of the South Tyrol in Bolzano, Italy (Photo Two)

Dogwood is mentioned in classical literature: in the Aeneid, Aeneas finds a haunted copse of dogwood and myrtle, and when he breaks off branches to make an altar, the dogwood bleeds black blood.

There is also a legend that Christ was crucified on a cross made of dogwood, and that the flowers became cruciform as a result.

Finally, it’s said in the UK that when the dogwood flowers, there will be no more frosts.

Photo Three (Dogwood flowers) by By Kurt Stüber [1] [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

Dogwood flowers (Photo Three)

Dogwood bark and berries both contain natural tannins, which make them both unpalatable, and useful as emetics. The plant has also been used as a treatment for rabies (hydrophobia), which may have been due to a misunderstanding of the derivation of its name. A solution made from the bark has been used by veterinarians to treat mangy dogs.

The fruit of dogwood was also used to produce a dye called Vesica green, until it was replaced by more exciting substitutes such as, er, arsenic. For a rather wonderful account of how THAT particular decision went down, have a look at the Racked website here.

Dogwood is one of the many foodplants of the larvae of the green hairstreak butterfly. As this is a) the UK’s only green butterfly, and b) as its Latin name means ‘beautiful eyebrow’ I thought that we should have a photo. What a delightful creature!

Photo Four (Green Hairstreak) by By Charlesjsharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39829980

Green hairstreak (Callophrys rubra) (Photo Four)

And, to return to the subject of ‘winter fire’, here is a wonderful poem by American poet Hyam Plutzik, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who died at the age of 50 in 1962. This really touched a chord in me, and I hope it does the same for you.

Because the Red Osier Dogwood

Because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter lightning,
The retention of the prime fire
In the naked and forlorn season
When snow is winner
(For he flames quietly above the shivering mouse
In the moldy tunnel,
The eggs of the grasshopper awaiting metamorphosis
Into the lands of hay and the times of the daisy,
The snake contorted in the gravel,
His brain suspended in thought
Over an abyss that summer will fill with murmuring
And frogs make laughable: the cricket-haunted time)—
I, seeing in the still red branches
The stubborn, unflinching fire of that time,
Will not believe the horror at the door, the snow-white worm
Gnawing at the edges of the mind,
The hissing tree when the sleet falls.
For because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter sentinel,
I am certain of the return of the moth
(Who was not destroyed when an August flame licked him),
And the cabbage butterfly, and all the families
Whom the sun fathers, in the cauldron of his mercy.

Photo Credit

Photo One (Dogwood berries ) by Sten Porse – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92313

Photo Two (Otzi reconstruction) by By Thilo Parg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35621968

Photo Three (Dogwood flowers) by By Kurt Stüber [1] [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

Photo Four (Green Hairstreak) by By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39829980

 

 

A Tale of Two Birds

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Dear Readers, it is not often that you find Bugwoman bounding out of bed before it’s even light, but a few mornings ago I was roused from my slumber by a strangely familiar sound. The dawn chorus has already started here in East Finchley, but most mornings it’s the sweet song of the robin, and the ‘teacher, teacher’ call of the great tit, and that’s it. However, on Thursday there was another, very loud song. I lay there trying to work out what it was. Not blackbird for sure. And gradually, I remembered the words of Robert Browning, from his poem ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’:

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!’

And indeed, it finally clicked that what we had in the garden was a song thrush. It took me a few days of listening to finally get some shots, but here, for your delectation, is this fine bird, announcing his presence to the County Roads.

Once upon a time, every suburban London lawn would have had some song and mistle thrushes among the blackbirds, scouting for earthworms, but no longer – the song thrush is now on the RSPB’s Red List. It is estimated that song thrush numbers in the countryside were down by two-thirds between 1950 and 1995, largely due to intensive farming, the removal of hedgerows and the degradation of soil, leading to a reduction in the number of earthworms (this last, incidentally, is bad news for all of us, not just song thrushes). However I was heartened to see this bird so close at hand today. There is often one singing his head off in Coldfall Wood, but I have never had one come to visit the garden before.

For those of you who haven’t heard a song thrush sing (and my attempts to capture this myself have been outwitted by squealing starlings and the rumble from the North Circular Road), here is a link.

It appears that ‘my’ bird is attempting to establish a breeding territory, and is singing both to attract females, and to warn other males off. I hope he has more luck than the Coldfall Wood song thrush, who continued to sing all through the summer a few years ago, a sign that he hadn’t yet found a mate.

One song thrush habit that has always intrigued me is their habit of creating a ‘snail anvil’ – a spot that is used for hammering the shells of snails, so that they can extract the unfortunate mollusc. Along with hedgehogs, frogs and toads, song thrushes used to be important agents in the control of snails and slugs, but apart from frogs, all of these creatures appear to be in decline (and slug pellets are thought to be part of the problem). All I can say is, come back! My frogs have no chance of keeping up with all the slimy critters in my garden. I am hoping that the song thrush is a promising sign.

The beginnings of a possible snail anvil?

Now, when I was in Tony’s Continental this week, I got into a conversation about the pied wagtail. S/he was first spotted when we had some snow a few weeks ago, marching about in typical perky fashion outside Kentucky Fried Chicken , but s/he has since been spotted in various locations, largely involving the food outlets of the High Road. I am delighted to say that s/he has moved away from the fast food (and potential cannibalism) of KFC and is now munching on discarded gozleme outside the Turkish cafe Yasar Halim, and picking up chips outside the Paradise Fish Restaurant. Lots of people seem to have noticed the bird, who is always alone. I feel as if we are all rooting for a future mate for the little loner.

https://bugwomanlondon.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/img_2544.jpg?w=846&h=635

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Like many wagtails, pied wagtails are partial to wet environments, and can often be found hanging around sewage farms and river banks. In Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, it’s suggested that many of their vernacular names, such as ‘nanny washtail’ and ‘Polly dishwasher’ may have arisen because, in the days when women washed their clothes out of doors, these birds may well have been constant companions, and maybe the rhythmic motion of their tails reminded the women of what they were doing themselves.

These birds have a long history of interrelationship with humans. In Birds Britannica, one man reported that

‘I work for the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson, Fareham, in Hampshire, and we had a family of pied wagtails nesting in the barrel of an 1894 battle cruiser gun’.

Another person related this incident:

‘When waiting at my local car wash, I noticed a pair of pied wagtails flitting in and out. They were eating the dead insects washed from the front of each car. Most surprisingly, they wouldn’t touch any insect from a car that had received the full wax treatment’.

Wise birds indeed.

Although wagtails are often seen as solitary birds, this is not the case when it comes to roosting, and an enormous roost of over 3000 pied wagtails has been long established on O’Connell Street in Dublin.The warmth of inner-city areas seems to attract these small, vulnerable birds, and I hope that the East Finchley bird has either found a warm place to spend the night, or is flying off to roost with lots of friends elsewhere.

Photo One by Redgannet at http://redgannet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/where-did-all-these-wagtails-come-from.html

Pied Wagtail roost at Heathrow Terminal Five (Photo One by Redgannet – see below for link)

And to round off this story of two birds, here is a poem by Thomas Hardy that seems to capture the very nature of the wagtail.

Wagtail And Baby
by Thomas Hardy

A baby watched a ford, whereto
A wagtail came for drinking;
A blaring bull went wading through,
The wagtail showed no shrinking.
A stallion splashed his way across,
The birdie nearly sinking;
He gave his plumes a twitch and toss,
And held his own unblinking.
Next saw the baby round the spot
A mongrel slowly slinking;
The wagtail gazed, but faltered not
In dip and sip and prinking.
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.

 

Much like the baby, I too  ‘fell a-thinking’. The East Finchley wagtail seems delightfully unconcerned by people, waiting until the very last moment to fly, but I’ve noticed that in Dorset, the second I raise my camera to take a picture everyone flaps off in a panic. I suspect that in the hunting/shooting/fishing West Country, animals have learned that a human raising a metallic object is not at all a good thing, and behave accordingly. In ‘The Peregrine’ by J.A. Baker, a strange masterpiece but a masterpiece nonetheless, he talks of how humans ‘stink of death’. I fear that, for most animals, this is absolutely true.

Photo Credit

Photo One by Redgannet at http://redgannet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/where-did-all-these-wagtails-come-from.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Pieris

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…..

Pieris japonica

Dear Readers, this week my plant of choice is one that I have never attempted to grow, though I have admired it in many a front garden. This is Pieris japonica, known as Pieris here in the UK, but with the delightful names Japanese fetterbush or Japanese andromeda in the US (to find out why, read on!). There are seven species in the Pieris genus, and they have a wide distribution through the mountainous areas of eastern North America, eastern and southern Asia and Cuba, though it is the japonica species (which, as the name suggests, comes from Japan, Taiwan and eastern China) that  is the most widely seen here. The plant is a member of the Ericaceae or heather family, and its liking for acid soil is one reason for my not attempting it in the claggy, clay-based soil of London, though I suppose I could try one in a pot.

The close relationship to heather is clearer when the buds open and become little bells. You can see why yet another name for the plant is ‘lily-of-the-valley shrub’. And apparently the chains of flowers were a reminder of the fetters that bound Andromeda to the rock in Greek mythology until she was rescued by Perseus, hence the American names for the plant.

Photo One by By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61727760

Pieris japonica in full bloom (Photo One)

The new spring foliage is often a different colour from the older leaves, and the plant is evergreen, making it a good choice for year-round interest in a small garden.

Photo Two by By Stephencdickson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60112350

New foliage on a Pieris (Photo Two)

For some delightful close-ups of Pieris japonica, have a look at the Microscopy UK page for the plant here, which is full of wonders.

Although not native to the UK, Pieris has become the foodplant of a subtle but elegant moth known as the engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). Incidentally, ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semi-circular indentations along the edge’.

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

The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Three)

Pieris is said to be a good plant for those plagued by visits from hungry deer ( I should be so lucky!), and this may be because all parts of the plant are said to be toxic to animals and to people. The plant has been implicated in ‘mummification of the fetus’ in goats , and honey made from the nectar of the plant can be poisonous (such honey is known as ‘mad honey’, and the same results can be produced when the nectar comes from rhodondendrons).

Apparently the plant features as a poison in the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’, but as I haven’t seen it I can only call upon those who have to see if they remember an appearance. By the strange synchronicity that often attends this blog, I went to see a production of ‘Network’ at the National Theatre yesterday, starring none other than Bryan Cranston, the star of ‘Breaking Bad’. I’d give the show as a whole 3.5/5, but Cranston was outstanding, and it’s worth going just for him (if you can get tickets at this late stage).

Anyhoo, back to Pieris japonica.

As you might expect, there are few recipes that include pieris, and few medicinal uses that I could find, though the plant is apparently used as a pesticide and a parasiticide in its native Japan. However, in the course of researching this post I found a very interesting blog called ‘The Hospice Gardener‘, by a delightful man called Jim Nicholson. He was very much cheered up by a Pieris japonica back in April, and who can blame him? There is so much love in a garden like this, and I’m sure that it brings solace to many, many people. Sometimes a plant’s beauty is more than enough.

It was certainly enough for the people of Japan, for Pieris japonica features in many poems. In 985, a group of Japanese gentlemen were admiring the blossoming Pieris (translated here as Andromeda) and decided to write Wakas (poems of thirty-one syllables designed to capture a moment of fleeting beauty). The event is captured in The Art of Japanese Gardens, by Sandra Kuck.

The first poem was by Otomo no Yaka-Mochi:

The pond water reflects

Even the shadows of blooming Andromeda-

Let me take it carefully

In my sleeve.

Another was by Ikako no Mabito, who wrote:

Under the rocks

The transparent pond water

Has become the bright colour

Of young Andromeda leaves.

Must these things die?

And finally, Prince Mikata no Ohogime conjures up another inhabitant of the garden:

In this, your island

Home of the mandarin duck

I see today also

the Andromeda

blooming.

I don’t know about you, but I can almost see this garden, the red leaves and white flowers of the Pieris reflected in the water and a mandarin duck passing by at a stately pace. There is something about a plant in total harmony with its surroundings, growing in its native land, that feels somehow profoundly right and congruent, like a meadow full of buttercups and ox-eye daisies here in the UK, or a bluebell wood. It’s wonderful that we can pick and choose from plants that are native to other places in the world, and certainly some of them help to prolong the season for our birds and insects, but there is something so special about a natural and complex ecosystem, its parts in harmony with one another. As we all know, however, our climate is changing, and it will be interesting (and probably terrifying) to see how our native habitats change with it. I suspect that it will be the adaptable creatures and plants that survive, and the treasures that thrive in narrow, specific niches that will be lost. Let us hope against hope that the peoples of the world will wake up in time to mitigate at least the worst effects of our presence on this planet.

Photo Four by By Buiobuione - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64085253

Male Mandarin Duck (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61727760

Photo Two by By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60112350

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

Photo Four by By Buiobuione – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64085253