Monthly Archives: March 2018

Public Enemy Number One?

When I was growing up, there was a children’s programme on ITV called ‘Magpie’. The theme tune was an  version of the old folk song about the bird:

‘One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl and four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told’.

And for anyone who wants to glory in their youth, you can find the whole thing here.

In truth, ‘Magpie’ was a little self-consciously trendy for me – I preferred Chris Noakes’s Fair Isle jumpers, and Valerie Singleton’s sensible dresses over on the BBC in ‘Blue Peter’. But the name ‘Magpie’ referred to the bird’s supposed habit of collecting little bits of treasure and taking them back to the nest, and harked back to a time when magpies were valued by farmers for the number of leatherjackets and other insect pests that they ate.

Nowadays, the bird has been so vilified that I doubt that anyone would name a programme after it. When did this happen? How did a common member of the crow family get to be Public Enemy Number One? And what is the truth behind its reputation?

In recent weeks, I have encountered several people who have been doing battle with the bird. In Costa Rica, I met someone who had captured one magpie in a Larsen trap, and had used this as a way to dispatch twelve others who came down to see what was going on. At the weekend I was on a very interesting Field Studies Council birdwatching walk in Regent’s Park, and the appearance of a pair of magpies led to a lively discussion about the bird’s role as a despatcher of songbird eggs and nestlings. In short, the blame for the demise of thrushes and blackbirds, black caps and tits has been laid at the scaly black feet of this noisy hooligan of a bird.

It is true that magpies will take baby birds from the nest, and  destroy eggs, but they are not alone in this. Great Spotted Woodpeckers will peck through a nest box and pull out the pink hatchlings one at a time. I have watched a jay snatch a fledgling starling by the wingtip and lay it open like the pages of a book before pummelling it to death. And don’t get me started on cats. I suspect that it is the sheer visibility of the magpie that makes them so hated. The way that they skip about, their distinctive plumage, their cackling calls and their habit of gathering in gangs, especially when young, means that they are difficult to ignore. And they have increased in numbers, especially in cities where there are more sources of food, and they are (generally) less likely to be shot.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major)

Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

But magpies have been in the British Isles for millenia, and have presumably been eating songbird young for a few months every year for all this time. They are omnivorous, adaptable birds: everything from chips to earthworms is grist to their mill. The RSPB did a study of 35 years of data, and concluded that there was no relationship between the increase in magpie numbers and the decrease in the number of songbirds. Correlation is not causation, as any scientist will tell you.

If we really want to know why our songbirds have declined, why lapwings no longer tumble above our fields, why the call of the curlew and the exultation of the lark are becoming increasingly rare, we need to look for causes more complicated than a single species.

We need to look at the impoverishment of our soils, which no amount of fertiliser will cure. We need to look at the way that those fertilisers are polluting our watercourses.

We need to look at the use of agricultural and garden herbicides, which diminish the range of plants that grow, and hence the diversity of insects upon which those songbirds depend to feed their young.

We need to look at the way that ancient hedgerows have been grubbed up and replaced by fences, because they are cheaper to maintain.

We need to look at the relentless use of pesticides which kills not just the insects that they are aimed at, but the creatures that feed upon them.

Hedgerow in Somerset

Linnet on a barbed wire fence in Milborne St Andrew

We need to look at the destruction of old barns and outbuildings that were once a place to nest, and at the design of newer houses that allow nowhere for these creatures to raise their young or to rest their heads. We need to consider the way that our gardens are paved over and decked out to make room for our cars. And we need to look at our need for tidy garden spaces that are ‘low maintenance’.

Blackbird nesting in an old farm building in Milborne St Andrew

These things are not so simple to sort out. It’s much easier to scapegoat a species that is certainly guilty of occasional nestling murder. But an ecosystem is complicated. Take out the magpies, and I would bet a pound to a penny  that they’ll be back within a year, because these are territorial creatures, and a vacant territory will not stay empty for long.

There is a strong instinct in humans to protect their territory too. I know how furious I have been with a local cat who sits for hours in my garden looking for something to torment. The cat is well-fed, and rarely eats what he kills. The magpie is taking food home for its offspring, or to feed itself. Much as I pity the blackbird or the blue tit, I know that many of them will breed again later in the year. A blue tit can have up to twelve nestlings in a single nest. If every one of those survived, we would soon be up to our waists in balls of fluff. I bow to no one in my urge to keep the more vulnerable creatures in my garden safe, but nature has other urges, and survival is one of them.

Blue tit visiting the suet feeder

So next time a magpie visits the garden, I would invite you to really look at it. Admire the green and purple iridescence of its plumage, that long, ungainly tail. Take the time to look at the relationships between individual birds – a more dominant bird will always sit higher up a tree, and the length of the tail is one clue to how dominant the bird is. Watch when the magpie chicks leave the nest, with their incessant calling for food and their chubby innocence. We do not build a healthy ecosystem by knocking out a major predator, we do it by making sure that all the constituent parts, soil, plants, insects, birds, thrive.

We mulch, compost, use organic matter. We plant hedges and perennials that are good for pollinators and other insects. We lay off the pesticides and herbicides. We try to build spots suitable for nesting, roosting, sheltering. We provide a water source. We don’t cut everything back at the first sign of untidiness. Gradually, our gardens become havens for all sorts of creatures, and the drama of life plays itself out under our noses, in all its joy and occasional brutality. We cannot do everything, but if we are lucky enough to have a garden, we can do this.

Wednesday Weed – Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias ssp Wulfenii)

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…..

Euphorbia characias ssp wulfenii

Dear Readers, last week I went on a birdwatching day organised by the Field Studies Council in Regent’s Park, and as is my wont I got there early. So, I sat in the Rose Garden and, although the roses are mere twigs at this time of year, I became very intrigued by the euphorbias. They seem to launch themselves from their woody stems like rockets.

Also, the flowers are very strange. I had never noticed their structure before, with the ‘buds’ protruding like the eyes of Martians. What’s going on?

Well, first things first. The Euphorbiaceae is a huge family of plants which vary from trees to shrubs to succulents to ‘herbs’ like our plant, and many are known as spurges. The sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) is a very common UK plant of wasteland and pavements, which featured as a Wednesday Weed several years ago. ‘True’ euphorbias have a milky, poisonous sap (which is why it’s important to wear gloves and to avoid rubbing your eyes (or indeed any delicate parts)) if you’re working with the plant. Incidentally, the colourful Crotons (those houseplants with leathery, multi-coloured leaves) are also members of the family, but their sap is said to be innocuous.

That poisonous sap has long been used for the treatment of warts, skin tags and other ‘skin excrescences’, and some species of euphorbia are under investigation as a treatment for herpes, so there you go. The name ‘spurge’ is from the same Latin root as ‘purge’, implying that the toxic properties of the plant might have been used to cause vomiting, and the genus Euphorbia is named for the Greek physician Euphorbus (50 BC – 23 AD) who considered the plant to be useful as a laxative.

It is also said that throwing a sack of chopped-up euphorbia into a pond will kill all the fish without poisoning their flesh. This seems like a very lazy way to go fishing to me. I am also sure that my frogs would not approve.

Photo One by By Karl Thomas Moore - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60359378

The innocuous croton (Photo One)

Now, back to that strange flower. It’s known as a cyathium, and is a kind of ‘false flower’. The cup at the bottom contains a single central female flower which is stalked and looks rather like a pea (see photo below) and several male flowers ranged around it, plus some crescent-shaped nectaries. The things that look like petals are actually bracts, or specialised leaves which support and protect the inconspicuous reproductive parts. All in all, it makes for a very unusual structure, but one which appears to be both attractive (the bracts retain their colour for a long time) and effective for the plant (Mediterranean spurge is a notorious self-seeder).

As you might expect from its name, Mediterranean spurge is a plant of hot, dry places (this subspecies is found from Southern France all the way to Anatolia).  It is drought and salinity tolerant, and although in its native range it often grows a long way from the sea, it sounds to me like an ideal seaside-garden plant. I do however note that it is not fond of breezy weather, so maybe this is the catch. If any of you are fortunate enough to have such a thing, do let me know what your experience is!

Now, finally I am indebted to the wonderful  Squirrelbasket blog for finding this poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Admittedly, it’s about the woodspurge (Euphorbia amaglyoides), but the Mediterranean woodspurge also has ‘a cup of three’, and I think the poem hits on some truths about grieving – that our minds may cling to something that we’ve seen in nature as a kind of lifeline, and also the way that our senses can be heightened to a painful extent.

The Woodspurge
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind’s will,–
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,–
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,–
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Karl Thomas Moore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60359378

 

 

 

 

Some Very Resilient Frogs

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following the blog regularly will know that I have a great fondness for frogs – their arrival in my garden pond signals the start of spring as far as I’m concerned. That first ‘plop’ as I head out to the shed after dark is as evocative as the first crocus. I pause, looking around to see if I’ve imagined it, and if I stay still long enough, I might hear the trill of the male frog’s song. At first, the sound is almost apologetic, but as the days go on, more and more male frogs appear, until there is a veritable chorus in the shallow end.

The male frogs have largely spent the winter tucked up in a bed of dead leaves and silt at the bottom of the pond. Where the females come from is a little more uncertain. To start with, it’s a bachelor party, but this year, after a few days of gradually rising male frog numbers, I saw one female sitting on a flat stone, while twenty tiny frog heads gazed up at her adoringly.

‘Don’t go in the water, girl’, I muttered as I past by on my way to top up the bird feeders.

But lust will have its way, and not an hour later I peered into the pond to see a large female frog with a male clasped to her back, tumbling over and over in the water while several other males tried to get in on the action. It’s no fun being the first female in the pond, for sure.

Then, I spotted a female with a single male riding on her back. The pair of them were sitting under the lilac bush, unperturbed. What to do? Were they lost, or was the female just seeking a break from all the action? They were certainly vulnerable to cats and, after dark, to the foxes. I picked them up and was, as always, surprised by the strength of those muscular legs as they tried to kick their way to freedom. I gently lobbed them both back into the pond. I hope the female frog will forgive me.

And so the frog breeding season was going along merrily until the temperature plummeted. We had a week of the coldest temperatures that I remember since I moved to East Finchley eight years ago. The pond froze solid. Every day I broke the ice, every day it had frozen again within a couple of hours. My only consolation was that no one had actually produced any frogspawn yet. When I broke the ice I would occasionally see a completely torpid frog at the bottom of the pond. When the temperature goes below freezing amphibians often go into stasis.

When the weather broke, it took a few days for the frogs to revive, and then they came back with great enthusiasm. More and more frogs came to the party. They started to lay great quantities of frogspawn in the shallower parts of the pond. One favourite area was on top of some reeds that I’d cut back – maybe the prickly stems afford the eggs some protection. Once frogspawn is laid, the other frogs seem to take a shine to the same area – maybe if there are thousands of tadpoles in one place, it increases the chances of ‘your’ youngsters being missed in the case of predation. Oh, everything was going swimmingly (sorry)!

And then, the temperatures plummeted again, and we got another bout of snow. What to do this time?

Froglife, the UK amphibian charity, had an emergency post on its website, stating that any spawn laid above the water line would be vulnerable to ‘winterkill’ if it froze. The advice was to take the spawn and put it into an unheated shed or similar for the duration of the coldspell. The problem was the location of the frogspawn in my case – it was so entangled with the reeds that it would have been impossible to remove it.

And then I came up with what I hoped would be a solution.

My birdfood comes in some very irritating, unrecyclable plastic buckets, which I’ve been storing for some unspecified future use. Their moment had arrived! I plonked the buckets over the piles of frogspawn that I could see, immersing the lip of the bucket below the water line. My hope was that even if the surrounding water froze, there would be a small temperature difference which would prevent the frogspawn from freezing.

On the face of it, it seems to have worked. Today, the frogs are back hard at it, and the mound of spawn is as large as I’ve ever seen it in the garden.

I wonder if there’s a maximum number of frogs that the pond will support, and if after that the population will collapse? A few years ago we had ‘the great frog massacre’, in which piles of dead frogs were left by the side of the pond, but so far this year I’ve only seen one poor deceased amphibian. This is very lucky, as judging by the fox footprints all over the frozen pond last week, we have frequent and active vulpine visitors.

So, hopefully soon we will have tadpoles, followed by the hopping of many, many tiny feet. At the moment the pond is delightfully clear and I am preparing for my annual battle with the duckweed. The duckweed nearly always wins, but I intend to hold it off as long as possible.

We owe so much to frogs.  Who knows how many millions of these creatures have been used as subjects in school biology labs and university science projects? And yet, when I spend a bit of time beside the pond it becomes obvious that each frog has a different character – some are bold, some are shy, some are aggressive, some are quick to withdraw from a fight. They are resilient, driven creatures, and even two bouts of sub-zero temperatures haven’t dampened their enthusiasm to pass on their genes to the next generation. And in my garden, no one will pull them from the water and experiment on them for the sake of getting a grade in an examination. I had never really thought of a garden pond as a sanctuary, but I suppose in a way it is.

Now I just need to get the pond declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest so that I can protect it in perpetuity :-).

 

Wednesday Weed – Camellia

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

Camellia japonica

Dear Readers, it might seem strange to be in love with a plant, but I am enraptured with the white camellia that lives in a pot right outside my back door. I have tried to create a shade garden in the dreary north-facing side return there, and Dad gifted me with this plant several years ago. I know that it isn’t good for pollinators (my usual reason for planting something).  I know that in a bad year, the blossoms go brown almost before they’ve opened because of cold weather or rain. But still, I find it exquisitely beautiful, with its shiny green leaves and sunburst of yellow stamens in the centre of all that ivory-white.

Every time I see it, it reminds me of Dad. I think of how he taught me to transplant seedlings, picking them up with his big brown hands and handling them with such tender care. It makes me sad to think that, because of the neuropathy in his hands, he can now barely handle a knife and fork, though he would be the last one to dwell on such things. He deals with things by getting on with it does my Dad, and he doesn’t seem to think about what he used to be able to do. Everyone copes with things differently, but this is his way, and it seems to work for him. My parents come from a class and a generation when it wasn’t done to analyse things too much, because what was the point?  No one outside your immediate family and community was going to help.

The camellia is also known as the Rose of Winter, and in the mountainous areas of its native China, South Korea and Japan it blooms between January and March. In my back garden, its buds open from mid March onwards, although the snow that we’ve had this week will be slowing it up a bit.

In Japan, the flower is pollinated by the Japanese white-eye, a small bird.

Photo One by DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/)

Japanese white-eyes courting (Zosterops japonicus) (Photo One)

Most camellia species need acidic soil, hence the fact that my plant is growing in a pot – the clay in my garden would certainly not be to the plant’s taste. There are, however, a few Vietnamese camellias that live in the limestone karst area of the country, and which are more amenable to alkaline soils.

Vietnam is also home to the endangered yellow camellia, Camellia chrysantha. Apparently breeders have been trying for years to get a yellow camellia which also flowers abundantly, and even in China and Japan they have largely failed – the yellow species tend to have small, downward-facing flowers, and to be extremely picky about where they grow.

Photo Two by By self - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3720312

Camellia chrysantha, the yellow camellia (Photo Two)

As you will know, the garden camellia is closely related to Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, and tea can be made with the leaves of Camellia japonica. For the full details of how to do it, have a look at the Taurus Rising blog here. However, as a synopsis, you need to pick the youngest three leaves at the top of a stem, rub the leaves between your hands to crumble them, and then sort out the stems from the leaves. The crumbled leaves are left for a couple of days and are moved around periodically to aerate them before they are dried in a low oven. The conclusion was that the resulting brew was pretty high in caffeine, and ‘delicate’ in flavour – the authors thought that the leaves could have been left for a few more days to mature and deepen the taste.

Personally, I still want my camellia to grow, so will wait a bit longer before I start nipping off the stem tips. Camellias grow fast (up to 30 cm a year) and can live a long time (there are camellias in Portugal that are thought to be 460 years old). In time, they can turn into a magnificent tree – there are a couple in a front garden in Tufnell Park that are absolutely gob-smacking, as tall as the second storey window and covered in red and pink blooms every spring. I don’t have a photo of those trees, but the one below, from Hyde Hall in Essex, gives you an idea.

Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Camellia tree at RHS Hyde Hall (Photo Three)

Or you can torment your camellia until it becomes a bonsai if you’re that way inclined. As I’ve mentioned before, I admire the skill and persistence that it takes to create a miniature tree like this, but I feel a kind of empathy for the plant, who surely ‘wants’ to be ten metres high.

Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese camellia as a bonsai (Photo Four)

The flowers of the camellia have been used in herbal medicine to treat various blood-related ailments, and are also widely reported to be mixed with sesame oil as a salve for burns and scalds. I was always taught not to plaster burns with creams, but there you go. The seeds of the related species Camellia oleifera are used to create a cooking oil that is very widely used in Southern China, and apparently you can do the same with Camellia japonica.

In Japan, the Emperor carried a staff made from camellia wood to fend off the evil eye, and flowers are said to represent business success, virtue, happiness, fidelity, luxury, tastefulness, & a life concluding in the ease of retirement. In China, the flower is said to represent the union of male and female, with the petals representing the female principle, and the green calyx representing the male. Typically, when a flower falls the calyx remains on the stem, but in camellias both fall away together. It is said that both male and female attributes are needed for wholeness (as in yin and yang) and I’m not going to argue with that.

The flowers of the camellia have always been seen as expensive, rare, and slightly decadent. Probably the most famous literary representation of the plant is La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas. It tells the story of a young man in love with a courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, who is dying of consumption. In real life, the courtesan was Marie Duplessis, Duma’s lover. In the novel, Marguerite gets her epithet ‘the lady of the camellias’ because she wears a red camellia when she is menstruating (and hence unavailable) and a white one the rest of the time. The book rapidly became a play, and then the opera La Traviata. In the cinema, the role of Marguerite has been played by actresses as varied as Greta Garbo, Theda Bara (the original ‘Vamp’) and Isabelle Adjani.

Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) - [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18170161

Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in the 1936 film ‘Camille’ (Photo Five)

As you might expect, in the pictorial arts the camellia has been a great favourite with Dutch still life painters. However, I also like the elegant depictions of the plant from China and Japan, such as this painting by Lu Ji from the sixteenth century.

Pheasant and Camellia shrub by Lu Ji (Public Domain)

Finally, for our burst of poetry this week, I’d like to present two poems. The first, by American poet Carol Snow, is short and simple, at least at first glance.

Tour

Near a shrine in Japan he'd swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.

Or — we had no way of knowing — he'd swept the path
between fallen camellias.

—Carol Snow

The second is by French writer Honore de Balzac, and it seems to reinforce that theme of the camellia as a hothouse flower, suitable only for ballrooms and to grace the hair of beautiful women.

The Camellia

In Nature’s poem flowers have each their word

The rose of love and beauty sings alone;

The violet’s soul exhales in tenderest tone;

The lily’s one pure simple note heard.

The cold Camellia only, stiff and white,

Rose without perfume, lily without grace,

When chilling winter shows his icy face,

Blooms for a world that vainly seeks delight.

Yet, in a theatre, or ball-room light,

I gladly see Camellias shining bright

Above some stately woman’s raven hair,

Whose noble form fulfills the heart’s desire,

Like Grecian marbles warmed by Phidian fire.

For me, the camellia is a symbol of endurance, flowering in the earliest part of the year, before even the daffodils have gotten going. It asks for little, and gives so much. And it will always represent my father’s love, and his persistence, and his uncomplaining straightforwardness. It is the first thing that I see when I step into the garden from the kitchen, and it never fails to make me smile and feel grateful. It might be a ‘lily without grace’ to Balzac, but it’s full of grace for me.
Photo Credits
Photo One by Photo One by DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/)
Photo Two by By self – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3720312
Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18170161

Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica – Monteverde

Female green-crowned brilliant hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula) photo by Lesley

Dear Readers, on a day when the weather in London is so cold that I’ve put plastic buckets over the frogspawn in my pond in case the water freezes, it’s a real pleasure to think back to the last part of my holiday in Costa Rica. The final stop was the cloud forest around Monteverde in the central part of the country. These areas are not called ‘cloud forest’ for nothing: it was surprisingly cool, and we were relieved when we got to our hotel to see that we had duvets on the beds instead of the usual sheets. There was also a fine example of towel art.

We started off with a canopy forest walk in Selvatura. In truth, I’d been a bit worried about this: as I’ve gotten older my head for heights has disappeared. I’m fine walking up and down the mountain tracks in Austria, but present me with one of those bridges with a see-through metal grid to walk across, and you might find me wobbling a bit.

Photo One from By Comrogues from San Francisco, California (Selvatura) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A hanging bridge from Selvatura (Photo One)

What would happen if I froze halfway across, and was unable to move on? Would I have to be rescued by a handsome Costa Rican? Would he have to winch me up into his helicopter? Anyway, moving swiftly on, when we arrived and actually saw the bridges, it seemed that I was not the only one with a problem. At least half of us spent the next few hours walking briskly across the bridges, eyes front, hanging on to the rails on both sides. Our guide, Walter, was Very Disappointed with us.

‘The idea is to see the different levels of the canopy’, he said. ‘You could stop and look and see what you could see’.

Yes, that would be lovely, but stopping and looking was an impossibility, because then I would notice that I was 240 feet above the ground.

We had clearly let him down, but at least no helicopters were involved.

Every so often there was a scream as someone shot by on a zipwire hanging from the very top of the canopy. And good luck to them, I say. I was just glad when bridge number eight was completed and we were back on solid ground. It had gotten a little easier as we’d gone along, and I was glad that I’d done it, but still. I was looking forward to the next day when we would go for a nice, normal walk through the forest.

Begonia involucrata( ( think) – Angel Wing begonia

One thing I didn’t expect to see in a cloud forest in Costa Rica was a wild begonia, but they were everywhere. While it doesn’t surprise me to see the bromeliads and the ferns, I suppose I’d never given a thought to where our humbler houseplants come from, but here they were.

And here is another plant that I didn’t expect to find:

Bizzie lizzie (Impatiens walleriana)

This plant is an East African native, but the plant as we know it ‘escaped’ in Costa Rica many years ago. One of these wildlings caught the eye of Claude Hope, an American horticulturalist living in Costa Rica. It was he who turned the plant in to the popular bedding plant that it was until very recently, when downy mildew caused its downfall. This one was living very happily in a shady spot, much as it did in gardens on both sides of the Atlantic.

Our walk was brought to a halt by the presence of a very confident coati mundi, snuffling along the roadside and ignoring us all. He had a damaged front paw, but was otherwise in lovely condition. He spent so much time with his head down that getting a shot of his face was impossible (for me, anyhow).

Costa Rica has raccoons, oppossums and coati mundi, and seems to manage without shooting any of them. Take note, governments everywhere. You don’t have to massacre your wildlife.

There are a fine array of red-flowered plants, just waiting for a hummingbird to pop along to pollinate them. The red shrimp plant has its stamens positioned so that they tap the hummingbird on the back of the neck and deposit some pollen while s/he is feeding, like the Queen dubbing a Knight with her sword.

Red shrimp plant (Aphelandra sp)

More Aphelandra…

We spent some time looking into the fist-shaped holes in the banks of the forest. These are made by tarantulas, and by the look of it the place must be a positive tarantula party-zone after dark. One of the guides found a hole with a resident, and shone his torch in so we could get a glance of a shy spider’s bum. I decided not to take a picture to preserve the creature’s privacy. They are largely self-effacing creatures, with no desire for publicity.

I remember visiting the Bug Museum in Victoria, Canada when I was on my honeymoon, and getting the chance to hold a tarantula. The poor thing actually cringed when I gently stroked its abdomen, and it taught me two things. One – never again to handle a creature that didn’t want to be handled unless it was in danger and needed to be moved. Two – I had married the right person – my husband is not comfortable around insects, and yet took me to a place full of hissing cockroaches and giant millipedes so that I could enjoy myself.

Photo Two from https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlestilford/3884161756

Costa Rican Zebra Tarantula (Photo Two)

We walked to a look out point, where we could look out over the trees without feeling vertiginous. The wind nearly blew us over when we came out of the cover of the forest, but there was a patch of blue sky ‘just large enough to make a sailor’s breeches’ in the distance, and the weather cleared within a few hours.

The cloud forest trees are hung with moss and lichens, which are making the most of the damp, humid atmosphere. Each tree is its own ecosystem, with its branches hung with epiphytes and bromeliads, and its trunk smothered in vines.

We met a rather attractive giant millipede climbing up one of the trunks. It had a rather trilobitic look to it, I thought ( and I do believe that ‘trilobitic’ is a new word)

However, compared to the giant millipedes of West Africa, this creature is decidedly medium-sized.

Giant millipede from Cameroon. I rest my case.

Incidentally, millipedes are herbivorous and do not bite. Centipedes are carnivorous, and some of the larger tropical ones have the most painful bites in the animal kingdom, so it’s as well not to get them muddled up.

When we arrived back at the bottom of the trail, we had a rest at the cafe, which has put up some hummingbird feeders. Seven different species come to drink the nectar, along with some very large wasps and an occasional bat. It was such a privilege to sit and watch these jewel-like birds zapping in and out. They are mightily feisty for such small creatures, and you wouldn’t want to make one cross I suspect – some of them are armed with beaks longer than their bodies, and although these have evolved largely to enable them to feed from specific flowers, the birds are not averse to skewering an opponent.

Female green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula)

Male violet sabrebill (Campylopterus hemileucurus)

And so, it was time to return to our hotel, and almost time to go home. But I had one last treat in store. On a walk around the hotel grounds with my camera, I spotted this fine bird, who posed on top of a streetlight for a good ten minutes. S/he is a blue-crowned motmot, and apparently spends lots of time sitting around and scanning the area for the lizards and frogs and large insects that s/he eats. What you can’t see in the photo is the rather splendid tail, which is bald apart from two round areas of feathers at the end. These are swung in a pendulum-like motion, giving the bird the alternative name of ‘clock bird’.

Blue-crowned motmot (Motmotus motmota)

And so, it was time to head back to the UK. Costa Rica is a great introduction to the treasures of Central and South America, with its well-functioning tourist infrastructure, friendly people and wealth of natural treasures. It feels like a place that should be supported in its endeavours to be ecologically and socially responsible, a small country with a big heart. We have much to learn from Costa Rica about the right way to build a community. I hope that, one day, I’ll be back to explore the Pacific coast, home of the jaguar and the macaw. In the meantime, adios Costa Rica, and gracias.

Photo Credits

Photo One from By Comrogues from San Francisco, California (Selvatura) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Charles Tilford at https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlestilford/3884161756

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Ageratum

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…..

Ageratum conyzoides

Dear Readers, as I looked out of the window of the coach as we travelled through Costa Rica, I noticed that some of the fields had a gentle lilac haze, as if fairy smoke were wafting upwards.

‘Blimey’, I thought to myself, ‘those plants look for all the world like the Ageratum that’s in municipal flower beds all over London’.

And indeed it is. Later in the holiday I went for a walk on my own, fell down a hole, got bitten by an ant and then discovered a tiny plot of this plant, growing where a tree had fallen over and the sun could penetrate. It is not a fussy plant, apart from requiring a little sunlight, and in Vietnam it is known as ‘pig shit’ because it often grows around pig sties. It’s also known as Billy Goat Weed. This is a plant that leads many lives: as a native beauty in Costa Rica and other parts of Central America, as a domesticated space-filler in the UK, and as an invasive weed in Africa, Asia, and North America.

I love that a plant that usually hangs out with alyssum and blue lobelia in front of a statue of some Great Colonial Gentleman is actually native to Costa Rica, where it’s known as Santa Lucia, and is believed to bring great good fortune. As the Tico Times explains, if someone gives you a bouquet of the plant at New Year, and you put some of it in your wallet, you will never be short of cash. The name Ageratum means ‘non-ageing’, which refers to the long-life and prolific flowering of the plant.

There are lots of species of Ageratum, and lots of cultivars too – the popular one around these parts is ‘Blue Mink’. It is an inoffensive and hard-working annual, and I love the softness of the colour, especially when compared with the brasher bedding plants that are available. Ageratum is a member of our old friends the Asteraceae, or daisies, and so the flower is actually a conglomeration of lots of smaller ‘florets’ – disk florets in the velvety centre of the plant, and ray florets forming the ‘flower’.

Fluffy Ageratum flowers (public domain)

 

Fluffy as it looks, though, Ageratum is not without its problems. It can cause liver lesions and tumours, and there was a mass poisoning incident in Ethiopia in 2005. 118 people were affected, with a 38% fatality rate. It was eventually found to be due to some Ageratum growing in the village well – the plant was used to dry the cooking implements that the women washed there, and it was also used to cover the pans to protect the contents from flies. Interestingly, despite its toxicity the plant is used medicinally to treat dysentery, malaria and many other tropical diseases across both its native and its introduced range, but it is more commonly turned into an insecticide. It can also be used to treat worms, but I suspect that in this case the cure is much worse than the disease. All this makes me think that people who get to know the plant are able to prepare it in ways that reduce its toxicity.I note that there are some sites which seem to think that the flowers are edible, but I will stick to violets, thank you very much.

Photo One by https://www.flickr.com/photos/krolcarol/

Ageratum in bud (Photo One)

While I was looking for images for this piece, I found the vintage seed packet below (go to the link under the photo credit if you collect such things). It made me sigh a little with nostalgia, for I remember when seed packets had paintings of the plants that were expected to burst forth from the seeds, rather than photographs. As I am considering my seeds for this year, it also reminded me that the saying ‘every seed a plant’ is a little optimistic, at least when it’s me that’s doing the planting. Either nothing comes up, or everything does, and then I have the job of thinning out which goes against the grain, because don’t they all deserve to live? I sometimes think that I don’t have the iron spine required of a gardener, what with my toleration of slugs and my lack of ruthlessness.

Photo Two from https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/573349750/seed-package-lone-star-seed-co-ageratum?ref=related-5

Vintage Seed Packet (Photo Two)

And for this week’s poem, how about this one by William F Dougherty, an American poet and someone that I hadn’t come across before. This one takes a couple of readings, but I love the image of the broken vase, and it reminds me very much of my visits to the cemetery.

A Promise to Keep by William F Dougherty

I promised her the garden’s glory:
marigold’s monarchal blooms,
ageratum’s lavender fuzz, the
grainy beards of coxcombs’ plumes;
sturdy zinnias, salvia’s flames,
snapdragons, and tiger lilies: raw
cuttings from home to grace a stone
in final, promissory awe.

Crystal-needled frost struck and drained
the promised flowers brown; left them
in rows of shriveled heads to nod
on gallows of each blackened stem.
I bought chrysanthemums and filled
her navy vase with bronze and gold
clusters to decorate the grave—
my quaking hand let slip its hold.

The vase discharged against a stone
and shattered, as if the cobalt night
had cracked again: the fragments gemmed
my gold bouquet with bluish light.
The flowers lost—love left unsaid—
planted in my repentant sleep
the seeds to start a garden of words
where love and promises will keep.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Carol Krol at https://www.flickr.com/photos/krolcarol/

Photo Two from https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/573349750/seed-package-lone-star-seed-co-ageratum?ref=related-5

William F Dougherty’s poem, and others by him, can be found here

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica – Arenal

Dear Readers, after the watery world of Tortuguero we headed inland to the volcanoes of the Arenal area. Mount Arenal itself was originally a huge draw for tourists – they could sit on their hotel verandahs in the evening and watch the lava trickling down. Sadly, as a live volcano ages, the crater deepens, and so no one has been able to see lava for a while. As a result, the many many hotels have had to be creative, and the one that we stayed at made a big feature of its thermal pools.

It also made a point of featuring the volcano everywhere, as in my Volcano dessert. It was only a ball of ice cream with a conical biscuit cover and some strawberry sauce, but it looked very impressive nonetheless.

We arrived after dark, but the following morning the clouds had cleared, and we saw this:

Mount Arenal now has nine separate craters (each new eruption changes the morphology of the area), and you can see how the volcano is emitting steam. Tourists are (very sensibly) not allowed to go walking up to the summit in case they get scalded to death/knocked on the head by exploding rocks/mown down in a stream of lava. Nonetheless, several tourists were killed when an unlicensed guide decided that it would be fun (and probably lucrative) to take them up for a look a few years ago. Stupidity and greed are unfortunately universal (as are generosity, responsibility and kindness, though they don’t get such extensive press).

John and I decided to go for an early morning walk around the extensive grounds of the hotel instead of risking immolation, and spotted some crested guans in one of the ornamental trees. It is always a privilege to see such wild creatures so close up. They seemed mildly curious, but kept a decent distance.

A crested guan (Penelope purpurascens)

On the way back down the hill, I stopped to look at, and film, some leaf-cutter ants. They are a delight as they go about their business, harvesting great chunks of twig and leaf and taking them back into their nests. As I was filming, I sensed that I was being watched. I looked up to see an attractive young couple dressed for the spa.

‘What are they?’ asked the chap.

‘Leaf-cutter ants’, I said. ‘Do you want to know about them?’

My temptation is always to launch into a full lecture, but age has taught me that a) people are sometimes not interested and b) they often know more than I do, so I tend to be more careful than I was.

However, on this occasion, they both gave a kind of interrogatory shrug, which I interpreted as meaning ‘tell me in brief, but I am on my honeymoon you know’.

So I told them quickly about what the ants were doing, and how they grew fungus on the plant material.

‘So,’ I said with a flourish, ‘really they’re farmers!’

And then, the young man spoke up, and I was somewhat taken aback.

‘Can I ask how you know all this stuff?’ he asked.

Well. How do I know all this stuff?

‘I’m passionately interested in it, and so it just kind of sticks’, I said, with rather less eloquence than I’d have hoped. But it seemed to do the trick.

‘Good answer!’ said the chap, and then the two of them sashayed off to loaf around in the springs and no doubt drink martinis.

I do wonder about his question, though. Was he accusing me of ‘fake news?’ Did he not know how people found about stuff? Or was he just surprised that I knew about ants?

I really should have a ‘Bugwoman’ business card to hand out, to legitimize my interest in things buggy.

Lounging about in a thermal pool was not for us, however. We were off on a river trip. The nearby Rio Frio is an extremely biodiverse river, and we were going to get the chance to explore it. The boat was as usual kitted out with what seemed like garden chairs, but it had a roof (a fine feature when it can bucket down with rain with little warming) so we were delighted. Its captain, Herman, took us for a brief spin in the shallow part of the river, which was full of wood storks and a couple of roseate spoonbills. While the wood storks have fleshy, vulture-like heads and are in shades of black and dun and dirty white, the spoonsbills are cerise, a most exceptional colour. They were smaller than I expected, but at one point they started to skim the water with side to side sweeps of their bills. Mangrove swallows skimmed alongside the boat, their feathers iridescent purple and green.

Wood storks (Mycteria americana)

Roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

We had heard howler monkeys before on the trip, but this time we had a chance to see a little group feeding. Every Costa Rican male has got the howler monkey’s call down pat, and Herman and Walter both tried to engage the heavy-set male howler in conversation. However, he was a taciturn individual and, after a few grunts, turned his attention back to food. When one of them jumped to another tree, the others thought about it for a few minutes, and then followed. Seeing these creatures free in the trees makes me regret the impoverished lives that captive monkeys live – there is no human-provided substitute that can make up for the loss of the variety and sheer scope of their wild lives.

Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata)

Male mantled howler

Herman was a gentle and considerate captain, and we moved slowly and carefully from one bank to another. We came upon a group of white-faced capuchins in a date palm, and were able to approach to within ten metres. One of the monkeys looked up and bared his teeth at us in a threat display, so we came no closer. The monkey continued to dissect the tastiest morsels from the dates, and a few others became visible. They are so attentive and concentrated as they feed, their hands are so delicate and precise that they reminded me of jewellers, selecting the right stones for their pieces and then preparing them in an appropriate way. It was our only time with this species on the trip, but they are very charismatic – they are called ‘the apes of Central/South America’ and they have a intelligence which shines through in their nut-brown eyes. When you meet the eyes of one of these creatures you are definitely encountering a ‘person’, a being with thoughts, needs and a personality, not just some generic ‘monkey’. I suspect this is true of all sentient creatures, if we only took the time to look.

White-throated capuchin monkey (Cebus capuchinus) (Courtesy of Ian Brett)

Capuchin Monkey1 Feb 18

A busy capuchin (thanks to Lesley)

Capuchin Monkey Feb 18

Photo courtesy of Lesley

In the UK, you wait for a long time to see a kingfisher, but here they were everywhere, along with the elegant anhingas (a type of cormorant that swims with just its neck exposed) and a bird called a sun grebe, which is not closely related to ‘ordinary’ grebes, and which only rarely dives (unlike your standard grebe, which waits till you’ve focused your camera before disappearing for ten minutes).

Male Amazon kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona)

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)

Sun Grebe (Heliornis fulica)

And there on the bank was a very relaxed crocodile. With so many fish and birds and frogs and the occasional clumsy monkey to munch upon, no wonder s/he was grinning

But what I loved most of all was a fine view of a sloth. We’d seen a sloth before, of course, but as we rocked about on the boat and got our binoculars focused, it became clear that she was not on her own.

Can you see those tiny sloth ‘hands’ ? What a warm and cosy home for a new baby, wrapped up in his or her mother’s fur. What a heart-warming sight.

All too soon it was time to head back to the bus. A trip that took us two hours as we meandered up river took us just fifteen minutes as we cruised back. But what a ride! We were lucky to see so much, and to have such knowledgeable and sensitive guides. As we ate our rice and beans afterwards, we all agreed that it was one of the highlights of the trip.