Monthly Archives: March 2019

Bugwoman on Location – Collingwood, Ontario

One of these swans is not like the others….

Dear Readers, it’s always such a pleasure to arrive in Canada and to spend some time in Collingwood, Ontario before heading down to the hurly-burly of Toronto. On Sunday, I went for a walk with my husband’s aunt L and their soft-coated wheaten/schnauzer mix Charlie. Most of the bay was frozen, and so the waterfowl were huddled together. There were lots of mute swans (Cygnus olor) with their bright orange bills, but right in the middle was a slender, black-billed swan. It was my first sight ever of a wild trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) and I was immediately taken with how elegant and self-possessed the bird appeared. Furthermore, he had a bright yellow wing tag, and so we could identify him as T29.

The internet is a wonderful thing, and I was able to ascertain that T29 was born to parents K09 and 038 who nest near Chatsworth. His parents and six of his siblings moved on to Port Credit, near Burlington, but T29 did not, and was spotted with his sibling  T28 in Thorold. Now, T29 seems to be on his own, and is tolerated by the mute swans. Occasionally he bobs his head and calls, and I hope that some other trumpeters soon fly over and he can join them. However, trumpeter swans don’t breed until they are 5 to 7 years old, with some swans waiting until they are in their late teens. Like other swan species they normally mate for life, so it makes sense to wait for the right partner to come along.

In this of course, as in all things, I am reminded of Mum and Dad, and their 61 year marriage. ‘Till death us do part’ was accurate in their case, as it is with most swans (although ‘divorces’ are not completely unheard of). I once asked Mum what she thought the secret of a long happy marriage was, and she thought for a few moments.

‘There’s a lot of luck involved’, she said. ‘You’re a completely different person at 40 from how you were at 20. If you’re lucky, you’ve both changed in ways that your partner can cope with. Otherwise, it can be very tricky’.

And I’m sure she’s right. I hope that life is simpler for swans than for humans, and that they have less personality change to worry about.

But back to the trumpeter swan. Its beak is the longest of any waterfowl, and they also have a very long neck, which is not curved like that of the mute swan. They are also noisy birds, as their name would suggest (the Latin buccinator means ‘trumpeter’). See if you can pick out the sound of the trumpeters in amongst the Canada geese in the video below.

Yet the sound of trumpeter swans wasn’t heard in Ontario for over a hundred years – the bird was driven to extinction in the province by hunting and habitat destruction. Unlike the more tolerant mute swans, trumpeters breed in wild marshland where they will be undisturbed by humans, a habitat which is becoming harder and harder to find. Fortunately, in 1982, a biologist named Harry Lumsden set about a project to reintroduce the bird to its former heartland by rearing eggs taken from trumpeters in Western Canada (if an egg is taken from a nest at the right time, the mother will often lay another egg, leaving the original one free to be reared elsewhere). The birds were then released on wetlands across Ontario. Over 500 were released in the twenty-five years of the project, and there are now almost 2000 wild birds. Many of them can be seen at the original Wye Marsh site, where they overwinter before moving north to breed.

Trumpeter at Wye Marsh

So, it is always a pleasure to see a new species, but I was even more delighted to spot these geese. At first glance I thought that they were snow geese, but a closer look at the field guide revealed them to be Ross’s geese (Anser rossii), a very attractive small goose that breeds in northern Canada and normally overwinters as far south as Mexico. I figure that these two were downed by the cold weather, and will soon be heading much further north.

Ross’s geese (Anser rossii)

My misidentification of them as snow geese was, I think, forgivable ( I blame the jetlag), but they are about 40% smaller, and have a softer, rounder appearance. Also, they have grey colouration at the base of their bills, and much shorter necks. This pair kept a very low profile, avoiding any interaction with the other waterfowl. It seemed clear to me that they didn’t plan to hang about, and indeed, on the day that we headed to Toronto they disappeared.

It’s difficult to describe the subtle delight of gradually getting to know the birds of a different country. I recognised the call of the first red-winged blackbirds who had arrived to claim their territories, and the pair of cardinals on the bird-feeder felt like old friends. I know that it is only the tip of a massive ornithological iceberg, but it feels like a good start. During this period of my life when so much has changed, I love the way that Canada is beginning to feel like a second home. There is so much to love about its wild places and its kind, generous people.

Wednesday Weed – Seville Oranges

Dear Readers, you may will be worrying about the state of my mental acumen at the moment. It’s very clear that the two jars above are definitely not weeds. They do, however, contain one of my favourite seasonal ingredients, Seville oranges. These strange, bitter, seed-filled fruits appear in December and are gone by February – indeed, what with Mum’s death and Dad’s deterioration, I managed to grab the very last of the fruit in Tony’s Continental on East Finchley High Street. It’s surprising to me that many customers buy Seville oranges to eat, and have to be gently advised that this isn’t a good idea by the kind folk in the shop. I suppose that marmalade making is a bit of a faff, but the result lasts all year (well, if you don’t give it all away) and there is such a pleasure about the long process of it, the cutting up of the rind and the testing of the set. It is one of those things that I always do at the start of the year. I was in two minds this time, because of course Mum was always a key beneficiary, but in the end I found it comforting rather than distressing. Let’s never underestimate the soothing powers of cooking, and of ritual.

Photo One by By Genet at de.wikipedia - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12761671

Seville oranges (Citrus x aurantium) (Photo One)

It takes quite a leap of imagination to go from the knobbly, parsimonious Seville orange to those jars of golden unctuousness, but someone must have decided to put it to the test a long time ago. The fruit is high in pectin, which helps with the set of the marmalade. It is actually grown in Spain, particularly Andalusia, so for once the popular name is actually correct. The fruit has been shipped to the UK from Portugal and Spain since at least 1677, the date of the first extant recipe for ‘marmalet’.

But what actually is it? It’s believed that the Seville orange is a cross between two other varieties: Citrus maxima, otherwise known as the pomelo, gives the fruit its sourness, and Citrus reticulata, the mandarin orange, gives it its orange colour. These two fruits, along with several other varieties of citrus, are the ‘parents’ of all of the rapidly multiplying tribe of tangerines, nadacotts, pink grapefruit and clementines that grace our shelves. Most have been bred for sweetness, ease of peeling and juiciness. The Seville orange stands out as a fruit of grumpiness and character in this good-mannered company.

Incidentally, the Seville orange’s sourness puts it in the same category as grapefruit when it comes to dangerous interactions with some drugs, such as those used for chemotherapy and to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs. At least no sensible person will be drinking Seville orange juice, and I suspect that unless you are a real fan of marmalade the risk is quite low, though I would check with your doctor if you are tempted to indulge.

 

Photo Two by By Ananda - uploader's creation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=457650

Pomelo (Citrus maxima) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By 4028mdk09 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25423079

Mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata) (Photo Three)

Seville oranges probably arose naturally in south western Asia, particularly Vietnam, where the growing of an orange tree is said to bring happiness. The plants were exported all over the world by Arab traders, who loved to use them in their courtyards for their fragrance and their golden fruits. Most famously, more than 14,000 of the trees line the streets of Seville, and I imagine that the scent of the flowers is heavenly, though getting dunked on the head by a toppling, overripe orange might also be a hazard.

Photo Four by © Jared Preston

Seville oranges growing in the gardens of the Alcazar in Granada (Photo Four)

The Moors cultivated them in Spain from at least the Tenth Century, and there are wild groves of the plant in Florida and The Bahamas which were brought there by the Spanish. And no wonder. Although the fruit is used for marmalade, it has a multitude of other uses.

  • You can use the peel to flavour liqueurs such as Triple Sec, Curacao (where a special subspecies of the Seville orange is grown for precisely this purpose) and my personal favourite, Grand Marnier.
Photo Five by Kuriosatempel - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68214466

Two bottles of Grand Marnier. That will do nicely! (Photo Five)

  • The peel is used to flavour gingerbread and other desserts throughout the Nordic region. A Finnish Easter dish called Mammi looks particularly enticing.
Photo Six by By No machine-readable author provided. Strangnet 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=644547

Mammi (Finish Easter Dessert) (Photo Six)

  • In Greece, Cyprus and Albania the fruit is an important component of spoon sweets – tasty preserves which are served on a spoon, usually with a strong Greek or Albanian coffee and sometimes cheese.
Photo Seven by Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60773137

A sour cherry spoon sweet (Photo Seven)

  • Seville oranges are used extensively as a side dish for charred meat and fish dishes in Iraqi and Iranian cuisine , and is also used as a salad dressing.
  • In Belgium, Seville orange peel is one of the ingredients of Witbier, or ‘White beer’,
  • I watched an episode of the Netflix cookery series ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’, in which the chef Samrin Nosrat travelled to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Seville oranges are used extensively in the cuisine here in preference to other sources of sour flavours (such as vinegar). In particular it is used in the pork dish Cochinita pibil, in which the meat is marinated in the bitter orange juice, seasoned with annatto (an orange-red condiment) and then roasted in a banana leaf.
Photo Seven by By Popo le Chien - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51463785

Cochinita pibil (Photo Seven)

After all that food you might be glad to hear that essence of bitter orange has been marketed as a dietary aid and appetite suppressant, but hold your horses – some of the chemicals in the fruit act to raise heart rate and blood pressure, which is not desirable if you have circulatory problems of any kind. The supplements have been linked to stroke, angina and ischaemic colitis. Best to just lay off the marmalade, I think.

The Seville orange tree has also been used as a rootstock to grow the sweeter varieties, to make soap and as the material for Cuban baseball bats. The essential oil is also widely used in toiletries and perfumery.

Seville orange trees in the courtyard of the cathedral in Seville (Public Domain)

And now I find myself getting quite hungry. The only thing to do is, of course, to head downstairs for some toast and marmalade. But here is a poem that sums up the communal nature of marmalade making in many villages and towns all over the world.

The Makings of Marmalade

Gillian Allnutt

unripe oranges in silk-lined sacks
sow-bristle brushes
china jugs of orange-washing water
one big bowl
pith-paring knives, one for each woman
a mountain of sugar, poured slowly
a small Sevillian well
songsheets against the tedium, in parts
pine cones for burning
silver spoons for licking up the lost bits
a seven-gallon pot
a waxed circle, a sellophane circle, elastic
small pieces of toast

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Genet at de.wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12761671

Photo Two by By Ananda – uploader’s creation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=457650

Photo Three by By 4028mdk09 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25423079

Photo Four by © Jared Preston

Photo Five by Kuriosatempel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68214466

Photo Six by By No machine-readable author provided. Strangnet 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=644547

Photo Seven by Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60773137

So That’s Where the Birdfood Went

Dear Readers, I have noticed that the suet pellets and worms and ‘birdy granola’ that I’ve been putting into the ground feeder has been completely demolished every single evening. Someone has been eating the stuff with a thoroughness that no beaked creature could possibly manage. I even had a suspicion that it had all been licked clean. I was blaming the local cats, but then I noticed this handsome creature, munching through it in a leisurely fashion in broad daylight.

When foxes are seen during the day it’s often an indication that they aren’t very well, and so are having to take more risks in order to get food. This one has a poorly left front paw. When I saw him for the first time ten days ago he could barely put any weight on it at all, but by later this week it seemed to be a little better. Foxes are very prone to spraining their limbs, and if this is the fox that I’ve disturbed in the garden on previous occasions, he thinks nothing of jumping six feet onto the shed roof and making his getaway. The leg looks ‘normal’ to me (i.e. nothing is at a strange angle) so I’m hopeful that he will soon be completely fighting fit again. He seems otherwise in very good condition, with no sign of mange or injuries.

Foxes are such exquisite-looking animals that I always feel privileged to see them in the garden. This one hoppity-hopped down to the pond for a drink, watched the frogs with some interest and then investigated under the wooden steps. I’m sure that there are all manner of small creatures lurking under there, and I half expected him to pop up with a wood mouse in his jaws, but all was well for the rodents. Foxes are true omnivores: the local ones seem to have a special fondness for Kentucky Fried Chicken. As the KFC is at the end of the road, the foxes seem to enjoy carrying the chip packets and chicken-wrappings that they find into the side return, leaving them for me to find in the morning. As I think that KFC is an abomination this is a particular trial. But the foxes will also eat anything from bulbs to earthworms, rodents to small birds, and, of course, bird food. I was also holding them responsible for the great frog massacre of a few years ago, but maybe I am wrong on that count. At any rate, this fox seemed to realise that the frogs were not particularly edible, and left them to it.

And so the fox wandered off, through the hedge, past the shed, behind the seating area at the back of the garden and off. I hope that his paw continues to improve, and I wonder if he is provisioning for a vixen holed up somewhere and already pregnant? Suet pellets are expensive, but they’re cheap if they attract animals as handsome and interesting as this. Maybe I’ll start putting down a tiny bit of dog food, just so the fox has something species-appropriate to munch. I have a feeling, though, that all he’ll do is eat the suet and the dog food. Does anyone else feed their foxes? I don’t want to alter the animal’s natural behaviour (foxes that are too dependent on one food source, or too trusting of human beings, often come to a bad end) but I want to give him a little extra support while his damaged leg is recovering. All advice welcomed!

Wednesday Weed – Holm Oak

Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex)

Dear Readers, a pair of stately holm oaks stand outside Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester. I remember being surprised by them on the very first day that Mum and Dad arrived, and thinking that I had never seen an evergreen oak before. Little did I know that the south west of England is a hotspot for this plant. It comes originally from the Mediterranean, and was one of the southern European trees planted on the Mamhead Estate in Devon by Sir Thomas Balle, who also introduced ‘cork, ilex, wainscot, oak, Spanish chestnut, acacia, and other species of exotic trees’ (Britton and Bayley ‘The Beauties of England and Wales’ (1803)). It is now seen as a dangerous alien invader which is accused of damaging biodiversity. In theory, it is not fully frost hardy, and so shouldn’t be able to get too far north. However, with climate change it has recently popped up as far north as Cumbria.

There is a high concentration of holm oaks around St Boniface Down near Ventnor in the Isle of Wight, and on the coastal sand dunes near Holkham in Norfolk. Both of these are vulnerable habitats but, as the acorns are spread by jays, rooks and grey squirrels, who bury them to provide sustenance during the winter, it’s difficult to see how they can be completely controlled. The big danger is in that extensive, evergreen canopy, which shades out other plants. There is, however, a DEFRA plan in place to keep an eye on the spread of the species and to take action as necessary. In ‘Alien Plants‘ by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley, it’s noted that holm oak also spreads along the side of railway lines, probably being buried in the soil of the embankments by those pesky squirrels.

There are also two holm oaks featured in ‘The Great Trees of London‘ by Jenny Landreth, one in Fulham Palace Gardens and one in Valence Park in Beacontree, not far from where I used to live.

There are two subspecies of holm oak: one has bitter acorns, and grows from northern Spain and France to Greece, and the other has sweet acorns and grows in southern Spain and North Africa. These can be very long-lived trees: the ones on the Mamhead Estate are still there after over two hundred years, and there is a grove of the trees in Malta that are said to be between 500 and a thousand years old. The tree can grow to massive size, with one in County Wexford in ireland being over 20 metres tall with a spread of 43 metres. These are fine trees, with dense shade from the holly-like leaves (which is what gives the tree its name – ‘holm’ is an old word for ‘holly’). I imagine that people will enjoy sitting on the seat under the pair beside the nursing home once the weather gets warmer. As the nursing home used to be a maternity hospital, I can also imagine people pushing their prams into the welcoming coolness of the shade.

In its native regions, holm oak is one of several trees that are used in the creation of truffle orchards or truffieres. The tree has an association with the mycorrhizal fungus which produces truffles as its fruiting body, whilst the fungal ‘roots’ help to increase the amount of moisture and nutrients that the tree can extract from the poor, drought-prone soil that it grows on. Back in 1790 a Frenchman named Pierre II Mauleon decided to try planting acorns from oak trees which were known to have hosted truffles. It takes some 7-10 years for the fungus and the tree to establish themselves, but Monsier Mauleon was patient, and his experiment was eventually successful. In the nineteenth century, much of the area where the Phylloxera virus had destroyed the grapevines was turned, instead, to truffle production.  Today, truffles are grown in many parts of the world, although the connoisseur considers that the Perigord truffle is the best of the bunch. Personally, I find that a little truffle goes a very long way (which is just as well considering how expensive it is).

Black Perigord truffle (Public Domain)

The acorns from holm oak are food for the free-range black Iberian pig, and is said to be one of the elements that flavours their meat. Jamon iberico, a distinctive ham, can be produced only from this breed of pig, and is always produced from wild-foraging animals.

Photo One by By comakut - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1578308

Iberian pigs (Photo One)

The wood from holm oak is hard and tough, and has been used in the manufacture of everything from wagons (as described by Hesiod back in 700 BCE ) to wine vessels. It is also used for charcoal and firewood in its native range.

Holm oak is also very amenable to being used for hedging, and for pruning into formal shapes. The Armed Forces Memorial in Staffordshire is surrounded by 50 holm oaks which have been pruned into cylindrical shapes, echoing the tumulus-like design of the memorial itself, which honours over 16,000 servicemen and women who have been killed in the line of duty since the end of the Second World War.

Photo Two by By Bs0u10e01 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17051613

Armed Forces Memorial in Staffordshire (Photo Two)

It is, of course, impossible for me to divorce this particular tree from the memories that I have of the nursing home, of Mum’s last days and of my Dad’s rapidly deterioration due to vascular dementia. The two trunks remind me of what a pigeon pair Mum and Dad were, and how lost Dad often seems without her. And so, this poem by Stevie Smith, included in her final collection before her death, seems particularly fitting, in its simplicity and lack of sentimentalism.

Grave by a Holm Oak

Stevie Smith

You lie there, Anna,
In your grave now,
Under a snow-sky,
You lie there now.

Where have the dead gone?
Where do they live now?
Not in the grave, they say,
Then where now?

Tell me, tell me,
Is it where I may go?
Ask not, cries the holm-oak,
Weep, says snow.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By comakut – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1578308

Photo Two by By Bs0u10e01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17051613

They’re Back Again….

Yep, it’s that time of year again. My pond is full of hooligans singing all night and having sex. Of course, the male frogs have been here all along, resting in the mud at the bottom of the pond. The females generally spend the winter elsewhere, in crevices between the stones or under the oak sleepers that make up the steps down to the bottom part of the garden (there’s more than a metre drop between the back of the house and the end of my plot). But come spring, the water is full of hopeful little faces.

I am a great admirer of  frogs’  legs. They are just built for jumping, and have all the elegance of those of a ballet dancer. Whenever I have held a frog (usually when rescuing it from an over-curious cat or trying to remove it from an area of heavy foot-traffic) I have been surprised by how strong they are – all that pent-up energy in that clammy little body. Incidentally, amphibians generally don’t like being handled because it damages their delicate skin, whereas lizards and snakes, if used to humans, seem to quite enjoy the warmth that they borrow from our bodies.

As usual there seem to be more males than females, which can lead to the females being rather more popular than is optimal for their well-being. I have heard of so many males attaching themselves to a female that she drowns. My pond is not quite that much of a free-for-all, but there are a few menage a trois where I’m sure the female would rather be in a pair.

I think this is probably why this pair were out of the pond, sitting on the sidelines. The male has little say in the matter, but actually I am a bit worried about him – he seems to have blisters on his back which are hopefully just frogspawn but could also be herpes – this is not transmittable to humans, and doesn’t appear to harm the animal (except for marring his exceptional good looks). He also looks rather bloated but it might be that he just puffed himself up to sing, or he may be suffering from a hormonal imbalance that causes water to flow into his body. This also seems to right itself over time. For anyone wondering how I have suddenly become a frog veterinarian, the Froglife website has the answer to every frog question that has ever occurred to me.

The female is an extraordinary shade of chestnut – common frogs come in a wide range of colours, but this is exceptional.

I am giving my pond a bit of a squinty look this year, and trying to decide how much of a clear-out to give it in autumn. Last year it was completely neglected, what with Mum and Dad being so sick and all, and although we have done a bit of a tidy up of the reeds and other peripheral plants, I know that the water-lilies need dividing and there must be a fair bit of ‘stuff’ on the bottom. As it’s nearly a metre deep I’m going to need some waders for sure. Anybody else out there with a pond? I’d love to know what your routine is.

I remember how excited I was when the pond was first filled with water back in 2011. First it went green overnight. Then a host of midges suddenly appeared. And then, three days after it was built, I heard a ‘plop’ and there was my first frog. Where on earth had s/he come from? As far as I know there is not a water feature for half a mile. According to Froglife, if there are ponds within a 1000 metre radius they should turn up of their own accord, so I guess that’s what happened. Also, frogs normally only spend the breeding season in water, and the rest of the time hiding in vegetation or compost heaps, so the whole area could have been alive with frogs just waiting for some water to turn up.

Froglife also say that garden ponds are often now the most important redoubts of the common frog. Agricultural ponds and waterways are often polluted with nitrates and phosphates, and although frogs aren’t as sensitive to this as the common toad, they much prefer cleaner water. I love the thought of the pond hosting another generation of frogs, and I must say that it has brought me as much pleasure as anything I’ve done in the garden, for all the wrestling with duckweed and blanket weed over the years. If you have any room in the garden, and are wondering what to do this year, I would recommend popping in a pond. You never know who is going to turn up!

 

Wednesday Weed – Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis)

Berberis (Berberis darwinii)

Dear Readers, there are some garden shrubs that only come into their own on a sunny day, when the light illuminates their flowers as if they were little lanterns. I confess that I rarely gave Berberis a second look until last week, when it was positively glowing. This particular one, in Fortis Green, was laden down with flowers on a cold February day. Later in the year, it will produce small purple berries, and its evergreen foliage is attractive all year round.

The plant was indeed ‘discovered’ by Darwin in South America, during the voyage of The Beagle in 1835. It had been known by the indigenous people of Patagonia since prehistoric times, however: they used the berries as a valuable autumn food source. It was soon a popular garden plant, but in some places it has become something of a threat to indigenous ecosystems: in New Zealand, it is listed on the National Pest Plant Accord, where it joins a whole gang of ‘thugs’ such as pendulous sedge  and rhododendron.

One way to tackle an invasive plant is, of course, to eat it. The Wilderness blog recommends turning the berries into a jelly to eat with cold meat or cheese. The berries of Berberis vulgaris are what we buy as barberry in Middle Eastern delicatessens, and they have a startlingly sour flavour – if you’ve been cooking from the books of Yotam Ottolenghi you’ll find that they crop up all over the place.

The berries are also popular with birds, as seen in this painting by Jacques le Moynes de Morgues, a French artist who travelled to the New World in the sixteenth century and returned with exquisite pictures of the flora, fauna and people that he found there.

Linnet on a Spray of Barberries by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533 -1588) (Public Domain)

The plant is a member of the Berberidaceae family, which includes 18 genera and about 700 species, the most familiar of which are the mahonias. Many berberis are spiny, which makes them a popular choice, along with pyracantha, for municipal hedging. However, historically berberis was seen as a problematic choice by farmers: the plant can harbour a rust fungus that also infects wheat. The UK has a native berberis, Berberis vulgaris, which was a popular hedgerow plant until this link was discovered in the nineteenth century. The shrubs were grubbed up, taking away the sole foodplant of a native moth, the barberry carpet moth (Pareulype berberata). By the 1980’s the moths were reduced to a single site, and it seemed likely that they would become extinct. The story has a happy ending, however: captive populations of the moth were maintained, and, when rust-resistant wheat was developed and the shrubs were replanted, these were released into the wild again. The Barberry Highways Group consists of various organisations (including Dudley and Bristol Zoo, Butterfly Conservation and British Waterways) who are working together to restore the habitat of this vanishingly rare creature. Unfortunately, the caterpillars of this moth show little interest in the tough leaves of ‘our’ berberis , and are inextricably linked to the fortunes of Berberis vulgaris. Let’s hope that its population continues to grow. If you want to read more about the conservation effort involved in protecting this species, there is a paper here which makes for a most interesting read.

Photo One by By J.F. Gaffard - J.F. Gaffard, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=426579

Berberis vulgaris flowers (Photo One)

Photo Two by Jean.claude [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

An adult Barberry Carpet Moth (Pareulype berberata) (Photo Two)

Barberry carpet moth caterpillars (Public Domain)

Incidentally, another rare moth, the Scarce Tissue Moth (Hydria cervinalis) has taken a shine to Darwin’s Barberry, and is well worth watching out for.

Photo Three by By Olei - Self-published work by Olei, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=793545

Scarce Tissue moth (Hydria cervinalis) ( PhotoThree)

All berberis species contain a compound called Berberine, which is considered to have antibacterial properties, especially for the urinary system and for dysentary. The root is said to be useful as a tonic, and also provides a bright yellow dye, which has been used to colour leather and tint hair.

And a poem, by Rainer Maria Rilke no less. This is about the common barberry with its red berries, but still. I think that it is a kind of plea to live fully, not to ‘die before you die’. Let me know what you think, gentle readers.

Already ripening barberries grow red,

Already ripening barberries grow red,
the aging asters scarce breathe in their bed.
Who is not rich, with summer nearly done,
will never find a self that is his own.

Who is unable now to close his eyes,
certain that many visages within
wait slumbering until night shall begin
and in the darkness of his soul will rise,
is like an aged man whose strength is gone.

Nothing will touch him in the days to come,
and each event will cheat him and betray,
even you, my God. And you are like a stone,
that draws him to a lower depth each day.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems from the Book of Hours

Photo Credits

Photo One by By J.F. Gaffard – J.F. Gaffard, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=426579

Photo Two by Jean.claude [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Photo Three by By Olei – Self-published work by Olei, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=793545

A Golden-Eyed Visitor

Green lacewing (Chrysoperla carnea)

Dear Readers, as far as many invertebrates are concerned, our homes are just big warm caves. Lots of species will hibernate with us: butterflies such as peacocks will often sleep the winter away in our lofts and garden sheds, and ladybirds, especially the newly arrived harlequin species, will occupy cracks and crevices in enormous numbers. But until I saw this one I had forgotten that some species of lacewing also spend the cold months tucked up in our houses. This one attracted the attention of my cat, and she chattered and jumped about until I realised that there was something to get excited about. I managed to get a few photographs while the poor insect waved its long antennae and gave every appearance of being nervous.

Lacewings are members of the Neuroptera, or ‘nerve-wing’ family, which also contains predators such as antlions and mantidflies. The ‘nerve-wing’ refers to the tracery of veins in those elegant wings.

I have always been partial to lacewings: I love their red-gold eyes, which are super-tuned to the colour green, enabling them to find just the right fresh growth on which to lay their delicate eggs. These eggs are laid over a period of nights, with 2 to 5 eggs being deposited at a time, until her entire cache of several hundred eggs has been distributed.

Photo One by Karz09 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Lacewing eggs (Photo One)

The eggs soon hatch into one of the most ferocious-looking larvae in the insect world. A single larva can eat up to 10,000 aphids during its lifetime, and it has been used for biological control in glasshouses, as it will eat mealybug and white fly with equal enthusiasm. It can consume entire colonies of aphids, but is not immune to a spot of cannibalism if the greenfly run out. Although the larva has poor sight and hearing, they are very sensitive to touch: they walk up and down the stems of plants swaying their head from side to side until they encounter an unsuspecting aphid, which is seized in those impressive jaws. The larva then injects the unfortunate prey with a digestive chemical so strong that the internal organs of the bug are liquidised within 90 seconds. A lacewing larva is the kind of  creature that makes me glad that I am nearly six feet tall and that it is only the size of my little finger nail.

Photo Two by By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11350127

Green lacewing larva (Photo Two)

Adult lacewings flitter about, eating nectar and honeydew, and attempting to attract a mate. They have excellent hearing, and have been found to use this to detect the hunting calls of bats and to drop out of the sky to avoid being eaten. In Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, it mentions that one way to catch a lacewing that you want to remove is to put your hand a few inches underneath the insect and to then wave your hand close to the lacewing. The insect should just fall into your hand and remain quiet for a few moments so that it can be released.

To find a suitable partner, they use a technique called ‘tremulation’ – they vibrate their abdomens, and these tremors pass through the ground and alert any available single lacewings in need of a mate. Both male and female will take part in a duet, which is described by the Royal Entomological Society as ‘an essential prerequisite to mating’.

Although lacewings look so elegant, they have the alternative name of ‘stinkflies’, because of their habit of excreting if handled (and who can blame them). At least adult lacewings are able to excrete: larvae, for some evolutionary reason, are lacking a functioning anus, and so they save up all their excreta until they moult for the last time, and then produce a single gigantic poo. Who knew? Apparently Neuroptera experts can identify the species from this pile of excrement, and good luck to them.

There are 43 species of lacewings in the UK, and, whilst the green lacewing is the one that we’re all most familiar with, there is a giant lacewing (Osymlus fulvicephalus) that loves damp, neglected corners of the garden, of which I have a superabundance at the moment. It is also very fond of willowherb, which I also have. I shall be keeping an eye open to see if I can spot this floppy-winged critter and will report back if I have any luck.

Photo Three by Pierre Bornand at https://www.flickr.com/photos/kahhihou/39305300850

Giant lacewing (Osymlus fulvicephalus) (Photo Three)

What a splendid creature the lacewing is! From those elegant eggs through the ferocious larva to the golden-eyed adult, it is fascinating at every stage. It is very welcome to share my house during the winter, and to deposit lots of little larvae all over the plants in the garden in spring.

And I am obviously not the only one. Consider this poem by Australian poet Diane Fahey. It is a fine and fitting tribute to this most fascinating of invertebrates.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Karz09 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

 

Photo Two by By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11350127

Photo Three by Pierre Bornand at https://www.flickr.com/photos/kahhihou/39305300850