St Michael Triumphs Over the Devil (Bartolomé Bermejo, 1468) National Gallery
Dear Readers, wherever I am, and whatever I’m doing, my eyes are always drawn towards animals and plants. It doesn’t matter what the ostensible subject matter of an exhibition is, I’ll be the one spotting the dragon, or the beetle, or the clump of daisies. Maybe this is one reason why I have a great liking for the paintings of the 15th Century – in amongst all the saints and angels you might spot a dog or a butterfly, as with my great favourite, the Venetian artist Carpaccio. However, the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo was a new discovery for me. He is known to have painted only twenty pictures in his lifetime (1440 – 1501) and the National Gallery in London currently has an exhibition of seven of his paintings, six of which have never been seen in the UK before. I stood in front of ‘St Michael Triumphs Over the Devil’ for about ten minutes.
I adore the combination of virtuoso realism combined with dark imagination. Have a look at the armour, for example. I love the sheen, the setting of the jewels, and the texture of the velvet. I feel as if I could walk up and give the breastplate a quick rap.
Detail of the breastplate (National Gallery)
Detail of the shield (National Gallery)
But the devil is something else. He reminds of me of an angler fish rather than the more typical lizard, but there is something rather horrible about the bird-like talons with the insect-like forearm. The devil also has butterfly wings that look rather like those of a meadow brown. The devil’s breastplate has it’s own set of fishy eyes, and a second set of teeth. All in all, it looks as if Bermejo has conducted some ghastly ‘Island of Dr Moreau’ experiment, and the devil is the ghastly result.
Dragon detail (National Gallery)
Most of the people viewing the paintings of this period would have been illiterate, and so this art was instructional as well as decorative. I love the way that the Annunciation is often depicted as a shaft of light piercing the breast of the Virgin, and the way that the saints hold the instruments of their martyrdom with a blithe serenity that belies their terrible deaths.
But combined with the imagination shown in the depiction of the devil, there is very close observation of a whole range of plants, which grow at the foot of the painting. The devil’s feet are surrounded by red poppies (Papaver rhoeas), then, as now, a symbol of death.
Another plant that is sprouting at St Michael’s feet is a thistle: in the Middle Ages, the white sap was seen as emblematic of Mary’s milk.
Close up of the mysterious thistle
I am a bit puzzled by the blue flowers however, and wonder if the plant is actually a southern globethistle (Echinops ritro), a plant that is found in Spain and which may soon feature as a Wednesday Weed.
I also love the contrast between St Michael’s serene, unperturbed face, and the much more realistic face of the patron who financed the work, Antoni Joan. It incapsulates the difference between the divine world of the saints, and the real world of man.
The donor, Antoni Joan
Bermejo was a Spanish painter during a time when all the real ‘action’ was in Italy and Northern Europe. Indeed, he is thought to have been familiar with some of the works that were being created in the Low Countries during this period. But I sense a strong Spanish sensibility in his paintings. Have a look at The Desplà Pietá (1490) below. The idealisation of St Michael, and of the Virgin in previous paintings, is replaced by an unflinching realism that I find very moving.
The Desplà Pietá (1490)
And how about St Jerome’s lion, curled up in the corner? He reminds me, again, of Carpaccio’s depiction of St Jerome bringing his lion home, to the chagrin of the other monks. In Bermejo’s image there is a fly on the nose of the lion, so have a look if you visit the exhibition.
St Jerome and the Lion (Vittore Carpaccio 1502)
And so, there it is, a combination of exquisitely detailed natural features and toothy devils, of grey flesh and cuddly lions. It feels as if Bermejo almost couldn’t resist stuffing his paintings with more and more ‘stuff’. Maybe he was a show-off, or maybe he just wanted to include all the things that he could see, and most of the things that he could imagine. If you have time and you’re in London, go and have a look (the exhibition is free). It’s on until the end of September.
Dear Readers, anyone who has ever visited a tropical butterfly house will have come across lantana. There are about 150 species, but the one that’s mostly seen is Lantana camara, otherwise known as Spanish Flag. It comes in a wide variety of colours – the orange one shown above seems to be the commonest. The flowers change colour as they mature, leading to multicoloured umbels – in the plant above they varied through apricot to tomato-red, with the lighter-hued blooms being the ones that have not yet been pollinated. There are many, many varieties, including the rather more demure one below.
One thing is for sure: these plants are a butterfly magnet. They form part of a genus of 150 different species in the Verbena family, and are native to tropical regions of the Americas and Africa: I saw Lantana growing wild when I was in Costa Rica. A wide range of butterfly and moth species feed on the flowers, especially swallowtails and birdwings, skippers and brush-footed butterflies such as the glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) of Central America, shown below.
Glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) on lantana (Photo One)
Furthermore, the seeds of lantana are loved by birds, and herein hangs a tale. Lantana is considered a noxious weed in many parts of the world where it has been introduced, notably Australia, South Africa and some parts of Asia. It has also become naturalised in the warmer parts of North America. Because the leaves of the plant are toxic to herbivores, most grazers and browsers won’t eat them (and become sick if they do). Meantime, the birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds in their droppings. Among the species that eat the seeds are the superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) of Australia;
Male superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) (Photo Two)
and the endemic Mauritius Bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus)
In Australia, lantana has become so prevalent that various insect controls have been tried in order to reduce its vigour. Of the thirty species introduced, some have become problems in their own right. The rather handsome Mexican lantana bug (Aconophora compressa) was brought to Australia in 1995, in the hope that it would munch its way through the plants that it was named after. Alas, the lantana bug has extensive and varied tastes, and has eaten many plants that were not supposed to be on the menu, including the popular ornamental trees fiddlewoods (also from the Americas), which are related to lantana. The case of the lantana bug led to much greater testing of the appetites of proposed bio-remedial species: this insect was tested with 62 species to see if it ate any of them, but fiddlewoods were not included.
So, lantana continues to run riot in many parts of the world where there are no pests to contain it, though I was cheered to hear that the swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is one of the few mammals that can eat the leaves without keeling over.
Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor (Photo Six)
I was also happy to hear that in some places in Australia, lantana is actually increasing biodiversity. In urban green spaces, it provides nesting cover for birds such as the fairy wren in the absence of native species that will do the same thing, and so provides a refuge for these attractive little birds to reproduce. Urban areas are not pristine habitats, as a brisk walk around East Finchley will show: we have plants from all over the world here, and the insects and birds take advantage of the longer flowering period and range of different microhabitats. It’s a very different thing in an endangered habitat. As Stace says in his book ‘Alien Plants’:
‘In disturbed native forests, Prickly Lantana can quickly become the dominant understorey species, disrupting succession and decreasing biodiversity. At some sites, infestations have been so persistent that they have completely stalled the regeneration of rainforests for more than three decades‘.
A plant out of its own habitat, without the native pests that keep in check, can quickly become an environmental disaster. Plus, lantana produces chemicals in its roots that check the growth of other plants. In areas with cold winters, the plant doesn’t survive, but if I was planning on growing it, I would choose one of the sterile varieties that are available that don’t produce fruit.
Lantana growing in an abandoned citrus plantation in Israel (Photo Seven)
Lantana leaves have been used medicinally for a wide range of complaints, including malaria, tetanus and rheumatism. They are also believed to be efficacious in cases of snakebite. In India, where lantana is particularly invasive in mountain regions, local people have been making furniture from the plant, as it is considered a good substitute for traditional materials such as bamboo. Because of the toxicity of the lantana, the furniture is also not eaten by termites and beetle larvae. In an IUCN report, it indicates that using lantana in this way has increased income and productive work days for the villagers who are involved. The problem now is a shortage of people with skills to create the furniture.
Lantana furniture (Photo Eight)
Now, have a look at the image below and see if you can guess who it’s by.
At first glance, I thought it was a photograph, but subsequent research revealed that the image, called ‘Tithorea harmonia in Lantana’ from 2009-10, is actually a faithful reproduction in oils of a photographic image. And I was very surprised to find that the artist was Damien Hirst. Of this series of paintings that aim to reproduce photographs, Hirst says;
“I want you to believe in them in the same way as you believe in the ‘Medicine Cabinets‘. I don’t want them to look clever, but to convince you. I’m using painting to produce something that looks like a bad quality reproduction – the painting process is hidden as it is in my work ‘Hymn’, which looks like plastic, but is bronze underneath.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: Hirst has long been fascinated by butterflies and other insects, and has used them extensively in his art. Usually, it hasn’t ended very happily for them, as in the image below, where real dead butterflies are stuck onto gloss paint (to be fair, I believe that Hirst acquired them when they were already dead).
For Boys and Girls (Damien Hirst 1989-92) (Photo Ten)
To me, his relationship with animals has always been strictly functional – he uses them to prove a wider philosophical point, as in his famous piece ‘A Thousand Years’, where maggots hatch, feed on a cow’s head and are killed in an Insect-o-cuter. Another exhibit at Tate Modern in 2012 featured live butterflies who hatched, flew around and died, next to an exhibit of the gloss paint and dead butterfly paintings. And then, of course, there was the shark.
‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) (Photo Eleven)
It’s interesting how Hirst has gone from being the Enfant Terrible with the shark in a tank to someone who reproduces photos in oil paints, but he has never been afraid to experiment and to change. I suppose that his early work, in particular, is difficult to ignore – I saw his ‘Mother and Child Divided’ in an exhibition in Oslo in the ’90’s, and found it both fascinating and deeply distressing. For me, he sums up everything that is wrong with our attitude to the rest of the living world; everything is there to be plundered and used for our entertainment. But for others the fact that he raises these questions is part of his appeal. He has always been polarising: for some, the most interesting of the Young British Artists of the 1980’s, for others a cynical showman. I would be very interested to hear what you think!
Mother and Child (Divided) (Damien Hirst 1993)(Photo Twelve)
And finally, a poem. I can’t tell you how much I love this work by Grace Paley, especially her evocation of ‘sadness and hilarity’. I know exactly how that feels, having been alternately laughing and weeping for most of the past six months.
Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais utricae) on buddleia
Dear Readers, this year I did the Butterfly Conservation Trust Big Butterfly Count for the first time. Sadly, it was a windy day, and all I spotted were two small whites and a painted lady, but it did give me a taste for standing next to a buddleia and seeing who turns up. So, this weekend I was in Somerset, and my Aunt Hilary’s garden was sporting an unusual variegated buddleia with deep purple flowers. It was a warm, sunny day, and so I decided to wait and see how many different species I could spot if I didn’t have a time limit.
First up were the red admirals (Vanessa atalanta). They seemed quite combative on occasion, pursuing one another but I am not sure if their intentions were aggressive or libidinous. What is lovely about them, however, is that once they are feeding you can approach them very closely without them seeming to be the slightest bit disturbed.
Red admirals are unmistakable when their wings are open, but one way of identifying them when their wings are closed is by the pale yellow blotch at the top of the hindwing, which you can see in the photo below. I love the chocolate-brown velvet of their wings, with those tomato-red markings.
The red admirals looked mint-fresh. Some of them could be visitors from mainland Europe – the main ‘fall’ of these migrants is in May and June, but it continues all summer. These migrants lay eggs as they head north, and by this time of year some adults will be emerging from their chrysalises. These new adults may hibernate in sheds or lofts, or they may head south again.
The caterpillars feed on nettles, and they sew the leaves together with silk – keep an eye open if you have a nettle patch nearby. The larvae are black spikey fellows with a yellow line along the side, but it can be difficult to tell them apart from those of other species, such as the small tortoiseshell and peacock. My Guide to Garden Wildlife book by Richard Lewington suggests growing a container full of nettles, ideally at different stages of growth, in a warm, sheltered spot.
For a long time, there was a belief that the name ‘red admiral’ was a corruption of ‘red admirable’. However, it was found that the name ‘admiral’ is much older, and the generally accepted explanation now is that the ‘admirals’ were butterflies that had patches of white or yellow in their upper wings, which reminded the viewer of the ensign raised when an admiral was on board a ship, which had white patches in the corners.
Red admirals were also often believed to reference the flames of hell: it is said that a ‘red butterfly’ was hunted as a witch in the north of England and the Borders. We are fortunate that these days we can largely enjoy the natural world without demonising it.
Then, a single small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) turned up. These are not as common as the red admirals, and had something of a bad year last year, so it was good to see one. Part of the problem may be a parasite, a little fly called Sturmia bella. It lays its eggs on nettles, and these are then ingested by the caterpillars (who are sociable creatures, unlike those of the red admiral, which lead solitary lives), and you may spot a web full of tiny black larvae, again on nettle. When the eggs hatch, they eat the unfortunate larva from the inside out. The parasite is surviving over winter more often, so this could be another side effect of climate change.
Small tortoiseshells have a characteristic resting posture, with their wings angled downwards as if they were wearing a cloak.
The males are said to be territorial, and any passing females will be hotly pursued. However, this one was just tetchy to begin with, chasing off the red admirals until finally s/he seemed to realise that it wasn’t worth the expenditure of energy, and settled down to feed.
Those blue spots along the edges of the wing are pretty much diagnostic for the small tortoiseshell, though its orange-ish colour means that it’s sometimes mistaken for the painted lady. I love that in Germany the small tortoiseshell is known as ‘the little fox’.
And then, an unmistakable butterfly, the comma (Polygonia c-album). No other butterfly in the UK has those ragged wings, and yet this is an energetic, fast-flying creature, and it took me quite a while to get a photo of one. It was worth it, though. It looks like a sliver of Baltic amber.
The comma suffered a considerable set back during the 19th century – its caterpillars largely fed on hops, and with the decline in the beer industry it lost most of its foodplants. At one point, it was thought to be limited to the Welsh Border counties. However, the adults started to lay their eggs on nettles, and the butterfly has staged something of a comeback. ‘Our’ comma is probably hatched from a spring-laid egg: these butterflies are much lighter in colour than those who have hibernated over winter.
The name ‘comma’ comes from a white mark on the underside of the wing (which you can just about make out on the photo below).
So, after all these colourful insects (all of them are known as vanessids) we move on to the sparrows of the butterfly world, the satyrids. First up was a speckled wood (Parage aegeria). This chap wasn’t interested in feeding from the buddleia: he gets most of his nectar from honeydew secreted onto leaves by aphids, and this explains the way that he was licking these rather raggedy leaves.
These are really woodland butterflies ( I’ve written about them before here) but it was good to see one in the garden. The eggs are laid on long grass, as are those of many other butterflies, so in addition to your bucket of nettles it’s good to leave a corner of the lawn unmown. When I’ve watched speckled woods before, they’ve been very aggressive, spiralling up into the air to attack other passing males, but this one seemed very peaceable, so maybe it was too late in the year to be bothered.
Below we see a female meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) (the females tend to be lighter in colour than the males, but both have the characteristic eyespots). These are the commonest butterflies in the UK and exist in huge colonies on grassland. It’s another creature that lays its eggs on long grass, and the caterpillar is hairy, green and very difficult to see when it adopts its characteristic pose against the stem.
So, it’s clear that a patch of buddleia will attract many butterflies, but increasingly it’s being realised that we need to grow plants for the insects to lay their eggs on too, and for their caterpillars to feed upon. Things like nettles and long grass may make for a more untidy garden, but it’s no use having butterflies on the wing if they can’t reproduce. In my ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas, he recommends doing your research first to see what animals are likely to already be in the area – there’s no point in growing a foodplant for a creature that has never been seen locally. Also, have a look at what environments are close by – our little patches of ancient forest in East Finchley are where the great spotted woodpeckers and jays that visit my garden live for most of the time. Personally, I’m hoping for speckled wood in my garden, because I know that they live locally, and I am lucky to have several mature trees.
But it is also useful to have nectar-rich plants for hungry migrants such as painted ladies and red admirals, and seeing these insects makes me happy, which is reason enough to grow them as far as I’m concerned. As I look out of my office window, I can see the last flowers on the buddleia in the front garden swaying in the wind, and a bumblebee trying to land. The honeybees from the local allotment are feeding happily, and a red admiral just flew away, flapping to gain height and get over the roof of the house. There is a lot to be said for just stopping and staring, and seeing what’s going on. Nothing is better for slowing down that monkey-mind that so many of us suffer from these days, and for grounding us back into the present.
Dear Readers, at first glance I thought that this rather attractive plant was yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris), but the centre of each flower tells me that it’s its cultivated cousin, dotted loosestrife (which is named after the orange dot at the bottom of each petal). I should have guessed because this patch was growing not alongside a pond, but behind my Aunt Hilary’s shed, and dotted loosestrife is much less picky about the dampness of its habitat. It is an attractive member of the primrose family, and was first introduced to the UK in 1658 from south east Europe. By 1853 it had cut loose from its garden setting and is still spreading, being particularly common in the south east and on the west coast of the UK. In Stace’s book ‘Alien Plants’, it is number 22 in the top 30 most frequently found alien plants in East Sutherland in Scotland,
All Lysimachia species are named in honour of Lysimachus, an ancient king of Sicily who is said to have cured a mad ox by feeding it a member of the genus. Dotted loosestrife is not closely related to purple loosestrife, but both names refer to the belief that the plants are powerfully medicinal, particularly for ailments of the mind.
Although dotted loosestrife can grow into quite a substantial patch, Stace notes that individual plants appear not to set seed, indicating that it needs to be cross-pollinated. However, it can spread by tiny rhizomes, and is hence often moved from one place to another by the dumping of garden waste (the RHS has dotted loosestrife on its list of ‘thugs’). This is the case with many other plants as well, and those of you who are regular readers will have heard me complain before about the species that pop up in my little local patch of ancient woodland, Coldfall Wood. However, dotted loosestrife seems like a relatively well-behaved ‘weed’, unlike its purple namesake who has been running riot in the wetlands of North America ever since it was introduced.
There is one species of bee in the UK which uses Lysimachia species in a most unusual way. The Yellow Loosestrife bee (Macropis europaea) harvests not only the pollen from the flowers of yellow loosestrife (and occasionally dotted loosestrife), but also the oil that that the plant produces from special glands. The oil is used by the female to waterproof the tunnels within which she lays her eggs: these are usually made in damp soil, so it’s important water doesn’t ooze in and drown the larvae. These little insects can therefore nest safely in areas that are much too waterlogged for other bees.
This is a rare insect, but it can be found in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, so if you live in Eastern England keep your eyes peeled! It will be on the wing for a few more weeks, until early September.
The plant is also used as a foodplant by the caterpillars of many moths, including the V-pug (Chloroclystis v-ata), so called for the dark ‘V’-shaped marks on its wings.
V-Pug (Chloroclystis v-ata) (Photo Two)
Interestingly, my ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book (by Adrian Thomas) has introduced me to a Lysimachia that I hadn’t come across before: he describes the gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) as a ”much undervalued’ nectar plant for butterflies and for bees. And very attactive it is too, with flowerspikes up to a metre tall.
And finally, a poem. John Clare has been a favourite here on Bugwoman’s Adventures in London, for his close observation of the countryside around him, for his wanderings, and for the sad story of his final descent into insanity and his incarceration. I love this work by Susan Kinsolving, a new poet to me, who somehow threads Clare’s own perceptions into this poem. The way that the enclosing of England echoes Clare’s own fate is deeply moving.
The open-field system would end. Every acre was enumerated
in a way John Clare could not comprehend. Why should footpaths
have fences, streams be made straight, why fell trees, wall a field
and lock it with a gate? No longer could he drink from Eastwell
the bubbling water was penned by scaffolding. No Trespassing
at every turn, posted over scurvy-grass, loosestrife, vetch,
clover, and fern. Clare doffed his cap and wept for his right to
in chicory, thistle, briony and buttercup, he’d always been at
Or coming upon a gypsy camp (fires and tambourines!) he’d
his fleabane, borage, parsley, some beans. Once again the
had lost to the well-to-do, those new proprietors of blackberry,
nettle, toadflax, and meadow rue. Clare questioned his sanity,
a familiar hell, but tramped on to say his farewell to mallow,
oxlip, and pimpernel. He knew this ramble was one of his last;
field, farm, and forest would be enclosed. The open world was
Dear Readers, I am currently reading Joe Harkness’s ‘Bird Therapy’, which describes how the author found birdwatching to be a solace following a breakdown. I am finding it inspirational, because it not only tells the author’s story (which is fascinating), but is also full of lots of practical advice. Harkness has structured the book around the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ which have been endorsed by the mental health charity MInd. They are: to connect, to take notice, to give, to keep learning and to be active. The author points out that these five things are intrinsic to birdwatching, and it also felt like a helpful way for me to think about my relationship to my blog.
I have long thought that contact with nature is deeply healing: one problem with the way that most of us live these days is that we are lonely and disconnected from the world around us in a way that even our grandparents weren’t. Before I started this blog, I couldn’t have named more than half a dozen of the ‘weeds’ that grow in the garden. Trees were a mystery. The great benefit of Bugwoman the Blog is that it has been an incentive to actually go out and use my senses, and one thing that has delighted me to excess is that I have learned to identify the calls of some of the birds that surround me. There is a meditative quality to sitting in the garden and just listening that is deeply calming, and there is something exciting about hearing a bird that I haven’t heard before. I thought that, today, I would share with you a few of the experiences that have raised my spirits over the past few years. Do let me know what birdsong has meant to you!
It was a wet Easter Friday morning in 2015, and I was trudging around Coldfall Wood, my head full of worries. Already Mum and Dad were unwell, and I felt thoroughly weighed down. It took a good half an hour before I noticed the birdsong. It was a virtuoso performance, with each refrain being repeated several times, urgently. I could hear another bird answering some distance away. Finally, I managed to actually spot the bird. It was the first song thrush that I had ever noticed, and I was entranced. I stood and listened with rain pouring off my kagoule, all alone in the wood, and for a few moments everything stopped. A few years later a songthrush visited me in the garden, but it is that song in the wood that I remember – I know that I marched out of the woods with my heart lifted.
Song thrush (Turdus philomelos) visiting in the garden
The song thrush was a new bird to me, but the robin is ubiquitous. Yet, I feel as if I have spent the first fifty years of my life paying no attention what so ever to the bird’s song. In Coldfall Wood, in spring, you pass from one songster’s territory to another, without ever being out of earshot of that tumble of melody. Furthermore, robins sing with such gusto and confidence that they will carry on even while you stand underneath ‘their’ tree. Although robins sing all year, they are never so vocal as in spring. I filmed the one below in March, when the year had already turned towards the sun, although we humans might not have noticed.
A sound that I always find exciting is not really a song – it’s the soft ‘tseep’ contact call of a flock of long-tailed tits as they clamber like miniature monkeys through a shrub. If you’ve never heard it (and it’s one of those sounds that you need to ‘tune in’ to ) you can have a listen here. Once I hear it, though, I have to stop and look around. My very best experience of these birds was in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, when I unexpectedly came upon this little group. Newly fledged ‘bumbarrels’! If there is a more adorable bird in the UK I have yet to meet it.
And finally, there is the song that tells me that, for many birds, the hard work of the year is almost over. Every May, there is a morning when I am woken up by the feeding calls of dozens of fledged starlings, all waiting for their poor patient parents to feed them. The first time I heard it, I had to rush to the window to see what on earth was going on, what with all the wheezing and squealing. I love the way that the birds come every year, and I wonder if the local starlings remember that there is always food here. That sense of continuity, of the wheel of the seasons still turning, is reassuring, especially in these tumultuous times.
But I couldn’t leave this subject without mentioning the healing effects of birdsong, even when the birds are not present. Long-time readers of this blog might remember that my mother was hospitalised at Christmas when she came to visit me in London back in 2016. The Whittington Hospital in North London saved her life, and she lived for another two years, during which time she celebrated her sixtieth wedding anniversary to my dad. Here is what I wrote about it at the time.
‘It used to be that hospital wards were full of flowers, the stink of lilies and gently decomposing chrysanthemums rising above the smell of antiseptic and hospital cooking. But now, all plants are banned ‘for hygiene reasons’. Probably the nurses are so overworked that they don’t have time to cope with browning foliage and wilting poinsettias. But I can’t help thinking that something alive and beautiful is as important for healing as drips and antibiotics. Mum’s bunker looked completely sterile. But I had underestimated her.
At Christmas dinner, I had handed out some crackers that I’d bought from a wildlife charity. Each one contained a card that, when opened, released a snippet of bird song. The game was to guess which bird was singing – nightingale, blue tit, wren? Mum had put the cards in her bag. When the very important Consultant and his two trainees came along to see how she was doing, she produced one of the cards and pushed it into the Big Man’s hand.
‘Open that’, she said.
He looked at her askance, and opened the card. The sound of a song thrush in full-throat filled the bare room, flooding the place with the sound of woodland wildness.
The consultant’s face changed. He closed the card and opened it again. He turned to the two trainees.
‘I know you want to go home’, he said to them, ‘But listen to this!’
And he ‘played’ the song again, before closing the card and handing it back to Mum with a bow’
Dear Readers, there can’t be many late-summer plants that attract as many insects as the cardoon, a massive Mediterranean thistle that is suddenly very popular in bee-friendly flowerbeds. You might know it as the globe artichoke, and you would be right: the cultivated variety of the plant, Cynar cardunculus var scolymus, has been systematically bred for larger, juicier flowerbuds, while the cardoon was grown more for its edible stems. There are now many decorative varieties of the plant , and with its architectural grey foliage and fist-sized flowers there are few more imposing things to stick at the back of the border.
The cardoon has a long and illustrious history as an edible plant. It was mentioned by the Greek writer Theophrastus who lived during the fourth century BCE. It was also popular with the Romans and the Persians, and was eaten in many places in medieval and early modern Europe. It was taken to North America by settlers during the colonial era, and can also be found in Argentina and Australia (it is considered an invasive weed in both countries). However, it fell out of favour throughout most of its range and by the twentieth century it had become rare, except in a few regions.
In North Africa the leaves and stems are often added to couscous, but it really comes into its own in Lyonnaise cuisine, and in the recipes of Navarre and Aragon in Spain. Only the tenderest, innermost leaves are considered edible, and these are traditionally blanched by being surrounded by earth to keep the light out. This reminds me somewhat of the ‘forced rhubarb’ of Yorkshire, though here the plants are grown in sheds in the dark to achieve the same ends. Sadly, the blanching is now more often achieved by wrapping the plant in black plastic.
Some people do eat the buds, in the same way that you might eat baby globe artichokes, but when I look at the wild plant this seems like a daunting prospect. The stems of the cardoon are also covered in small painful spikes, which need to be removed, although some commercial varieties have been bred without them.
The wild cardoon (Photo One)
The buds can, however, be used for cheesemaking, as can the pistils of the flower: they contain a kind of vegetable rennet which helps to coagulate the milk. Both Spanish and Portuguese cheesemakers use cardoon for this purpose.
The Torta del Casar cheese of Spain, made with cardoon rennet (Photo Two)
Queijo Serra da Estrella cheese from Portugal (Photo Three)
The cardoon is also an ingredient of the Spanish national dish Cocido madrileño, a substantial dish made with chickpeas, meat (usually pork) and vegetables. Traditionally, this is eaten in three parts: first the stock, with some noodles added, then the vegetables and pulses, and then the meat. The dish was originally called adafina, and was a staple of the Sephardic Jewish community, without the pork but with eggs. It was valuable because it was cooked very slowly, and therefore didn’t need to be attended to during Shabbat. Sadly, the growth in anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jewish population during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries led to the dish incorporating pork, as a way for Christians and converted Jews to prove that they weren’t Jewish. The history of cuisine is so often a history of the peoples who originated it.
Cocido Madrileño (Photo Four)
In New Orleans, the stems are traditionally served battered and fried on the altars on the Feast of St Joseph (19th March).
St Joseph’s Day Altar with fried cardoons (Photo Five)
Of course, I couldn’t leave the subject of the culinary uses of cardoon without mentioning the alcoholic beverages that it is associated with. The Italian liqueur Amaro uses cardoon as a principle ingredient, but if you really want an artichoke hit, there is a drink that I saw being quaffed in Venice: cynar spritz. The cynar is made with globe artichoke rather than cardoon, but it seems to appeal to the Venetians, who have a taste for the bitter rather than the sweet. Maybe it’s all those blessed tourists and cruise ships that tend them towards the darker side of life. At any rate, on any sunny evening you will see Venetian matriarchs of all ages knocking this back (along with bright orange Aperol spritz, which always reminds me of Lucozade, at least in colour) and discussing the abominations of the age, and who can blame them?
Cynar liqueur. Imbibe at your own risk (Photo Six)
Cardoon has also come to the attention of the biofuel industry, and in Sardinia, the site of an old petrochemical factory is being turned into a biorefinery which which will take the oil from the thistle seeds and turn it into bioplastics. It is planned to use the rest of the plant too: the biomass can be turned into high-protein flour and animal feed, and during the flowering season it’s hoped to create cardoon honey. As you can see from the photos, there is no shortage of bees waiting to take advantage of those enormous flowerheads.
In my ever-helpful ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas, Cynara species are described as some of the most useful plants for the August to November season, just when the queen bumblebees are fattening up and the honeybees are gathering in their stores for the winter. However, he does mention that, as it can grow to 2.5 metres tall and have a spread of the same dimensions, it probably needs a large garden. Like most Mediterranean plants, it loves full sun and a well-drained soil. I fear that I am going to have to admire it in other people’s gardens for the time being. I have tried to grow it in mine, but it languished droopily and finally succumbed.
So, what impact has the cardoon had on the arts? I was delighted to find this still life by Spanish painter Felipe Ramirez from 1628, which is currently in the Prado in Madrid. Note the blanched stems of the cardoon, looking for all the world like celery after it has been in the fridge for a little too long. The francolin is a kind of quail. We know absolutely nothing else about Snr Ramirez, but this painting lives on. I love the way that he has captured the bloom on the grapes, and the blemishes on the cardoon.
Still Life with Cardoon, Francolin, Grapes and Irises by Felipe Ramirez (1628) (Public Domain)
There is, however, speculation that Ramirez was a student of the master of Spanish still life painting (known as ‘bodegones’, meaning, ‘from the bodega (a storeroom or tavern), Juan Sánchez Cotán. He was working in Toledo in the seventeenth century, and raised ordinary everyday things, such as fruit and vegetables, to the status of objects to be artistically appreciated. This appeals to my own sensibility – everything is worth paying attention to, and I know that when I was taking a drawing class, I fell in love with everything that I turned my charcoal to, particularly the imperfections that made a carrot or an apple or a bottle individual and unique.
Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables by Juan Sanchez Cotan (circa 1602) (Public Domain)
And finally, a poem. I have been so busy thinking about bees that I forgot that goldfinches love thistle seeds of all kinds, and the cardoon must provide a bumper crop. Here is a poem from the London Magazine by Peter Anderson. I love the sense of the morning after the night before amidst the ruins of Rome.
Dear Readers, I was planning to do the Big Butterfly Count this morning, but when I stepped out of the front door it became apparent that any self-respecting butterfly would be hiding under a substantial leaf to keep dry. However, half a dozen garden snails (Cornus aspersum) were gently gliding around on the wet stones, and so I sat down on the front step to watch them. I was much taken by the delicate tracery of burgundy-brown and caramel on the shell of each individual, the colours enhanced by the drizzle. What, I wondered, were the advantages and disadvantages of having a shell (after all, slugs manage without one)? Why did the shells seem to curl in the same direction on every snail in the garden? And does the shell tell us anything about the life of the individual snail? I reach for my New Naturalist ‘Slugs and Snails’ by Robert Cameron to see if he has any answers, and several hours later, I emerge, amazed.
The shell of snail performs two main functions: it protects its owner against predation and it acts as a shield against drying out. On the downside, however, a shell requires energy to build, and energy to transport. Slugs and snails are the only molluscs who don’t live in water: a water snail doesn’t have to contend with gravity in the way that a land snail does, because the liquid helps to support it. So, we have to assume that the costs of having a shell are offset by the value of not being eaten quite so regularly, and the value of not drying to a frazzle every time there’s a heatwave.
The garden snail comes originally from the Mediterranean, and there is little doubt that it was brought to the UK (and lots of other places) by the Romans, who enjoyed eating them. The climate of the snail’s native range would historically have been much hotter and drier than Northern Europe (though all bets are off with climate change), which may explain the robust shell, especially when compared to our smaller and more delicate native snails. Traditionally, the garden snail was a creature of the warmer parts of the UK because it couldn’t survive the harsher winters ‘oop north’. Watch this space, however.
The vast majority of garden snails have what is known as ‘dextral chirality’. This means that the mouth of the shell is on the right when viewed from above, and the ‘coil’ of the shell runs clockwise if viewed from the centre. The most important organs of the snail are within the shell, and they are in torsion: if the shell is ‘dextral’, the lung, stomach etc will be twisted in the opposite direction. Chirality is inherited from the mother snail, and in most species, including the garden snail, any individual unfortunate to be born with the opposite ‘twist’ will be unable to mate, owing to the way that these hermaphrodite creatures need to ‘line up’ in order to shoot one another with their ‘love darts’. The sex life of the garden snail probably needs a blogpost all to itself.
Incidentally, snails can do something directly that most animals have to rely upon microorganisms to achieve: they seem to manufacture the enzyme cellulase, which digests the fibrous cellulose that makes up the structure of plant cells. And, while we’re on the subject of eating, the garden snail is one of the few mollusc species in the UK that eats some live plant material (most of the others are detritivores and munch up dead and rotting leaves). Young snails appear to have a particular taste for new growth. However, Robert Cameron does point out that the damage done by garden snails is a tiny proportion of the damage done by the field slug (Deroceras reticulatum) so we can probably cut them a little slack.
The shell of a snail starts with a layer called the periostracum. This is the shiny, tortoiseshell-like ‘stuff’ that I was admiring earlier. It is made of proteins which resemble those that make our fingernails. It is, however, relatively delicate, and all that creeping under stones and rubbing up against flowerpots will soon remove it. Elderly snails can look rather bleached and dull, unlike those polished youngsters that are hanging about under my buddleia. Apparently garden snails who live on sand dunes are literally ‘sand blasted’.
The strength of the shell, however, comes from the lamellar layer, which is formed from several layers of calcium carbonate, laid in opposite directions much like the alignment of the layers in plywood. Calcium carbonate is not as ‘expensive’ for the animal to deposit as protein: Cameron points out that if 5% of the shell is made of protein, that has taken about 50% of the energy to make the whole shell. Unfortunately for the snail, calcium can be difficult to find:the snail eats soil in order to get the materials that it needs, and snails living on limestone have thicker shells than those living on acid soils. Snails might also been seen eating rocks, bones or even the shells of other snails in order to top up their calcium – I distinctly remember that I once saw the skeleton of a dead sheep that was absolutely covered in snails, and now I know why. There may be no snails at all in the most acidic environments, such as heather moors or sphagnum moss, but of course there will be plenty of slugs who don’t have to worry about such things.
Once the snail has reached adulthood, it may use the calcium carbonate from its shell for other things, such as the shells of its eggs, which can be relatively hard in some species.
One of the saddest sounds of a wet day is the muted crunchy ‘pop’ of a snail that’s been accidentally trodden upon. It’s clear that snails are not impregnable in spite of all that effort, but I was cheered to hear that, in the presence of sufficient materials, a snail can regenerate its shell, provided the damage is not too great. Indeed, you can sometimes spot a snail bearing a tatty, misshapen shell which looks as if it was stuck together with a glue stick. Ladies and gentlemen, what you see before you is a battered molluscan warrior, so respect is due. But wait! I just discovered this article which tells the worried pet owner how to repair the shells of any injured domesticated snails. Truly, the internet is an endless cornucopia of wonders.
The main advantage of a snail shell, however, seems to me to be the protection that it provides against drying out. It’s been estimated that a garden snail loses 8% of its body weight per hour while crawling around, which explains the huge number of snails that I find hiding in the overhanging lips of my garden containers when the weather gets hot. Snail shells are pretty much impermeable, and many snails can seal themselves up completely to wait for happier, damper times.
Incidentally, research across Europe has shown a clear correlation between the proportion of slugs to snails and the dampness of the climate: in Cyprus only 9% of land molluscs are slugs, whereas in lucky old Ireland it’s 31% (thanks again to Robert Cameron Fig 62 page 99). The benefit of having a shell, especially in hot dry climates, appears to be largely about keeping the fluid levels up so that the creature can survive, rather than protection against predators. When the climate is coolish and dampish, slug diversity and numbers increase.
Garden snail (Cornus aspersa)
I have always had a soft spot for snails. I love the way that their eye-stalks extend and contract independently, and I love the way that they ooze gracefully across the patio. I know that they can be a pest in the garden, but I suspect that they also do a fair bit of cleaning up. And on a wet night I will sometimes look up from my book to see a snail climbing up the window, silhouetted by the street light and looking for all the world like some kind of molluscan angel, ascending to heaven. The author and poet Munia Khan wrote
“The intriguing placidity from the slothful pace of a snail is truly very peaceful. Our world is in need of this calmness to pacify itself”
Dear Readers, when I rented my very first flat, I had no garden. Instead, I became obsessed with house plants. I bought a packet of mixed coleus seeds, and soon there was no corner of the living room or kitchen that didn’t have a gaudily-leaved plant sitting on it. Friends, neighbours, even the postwoman were not safe from having a plastic pot thrust into their hands. What with all the pinching out of the top shoots and the constant watering, it was a busy summer. Sadly, my coleus soon grew leggy in spite of all my ministrations, and they showed a determination to produce their pale-lavender flower spikes (which marked the end of their lives) that was too much for my hard-working, hard-partying ways. Suffice to say that the following year I grew spider plants instead.
But today, as I walked through Regent’s Park, I grew nostalgic. For a sudden splash of colour in a bedding scheme, it’s hard to beat the sheer variety of the coleus, and I suspect that they are good value for money too. Although they are not beloved by pollinators, like other plants, they are also remarkably pest free. Plus, the variety is astonishing. Here are just some of the coleuses (coleii??) that I spotted yesterday:
Lime green with red veins
Burgundy with a yellow edge
But then I realised that I had no idea whatsoever what a coleus actually was, and there is still some scientific confusion about the plant. It is agreed that the most commonly cultivated variety, previously known as Coleus blumeii, is now known as Plectanthrus scutellarioides. It is a member of the Lamiaceae or deadnettle family, and one common name is ‘painted nettle’. In the ‘wild’, this species is native to a swathe of countries from India in the west to Australia in the south and east. It is a woodland plant which even when not cultivated displays a wide variety of leaf colours and shapes. Here is the ‘original’ plant (here naturalised in Puerto Rico). The small purple-blue flowers look very familiar.
‘Wild’ coleus (Photo One)
Coleus arrived in Europe in 1851, and the US by 1877, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that breeders realised the plant’s colourful potential. By the 1980s the plant was the tenth most important bedding crop in the US. It is a great, cheap, low-maintenance choice for municipal beds, and as anyone who has ever grown them will know they are very easy to propagate by cuttings. Although the plants like high temperatures, their colours are brightest in shade, which is the opposite of my experience with most variegated plants, who need sunshine to keep their colour. Apparently it can be grown as a perennial in colder climates where it shows less tendency to bolt, but in the UK most coleus are used as annual bedding and, as this chromolithograph from the turn of the last century illustrates, it has been this way for a long time.
A chromolithograph of a botanical carpet bedding with a colorful butterfly by Federick William Burbridge (1847-1905). Digitally enhanced from our own original plate. (Photo Two)
Apparently the plant has psychotropic effects, and is used as a hallucinogen by the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico (their shamans also use psilocybin and Salvia divinorum to conjure visions and enable psychic journeying). I am somewhat surprised as the plant is not native, but it has been very widely naturalised in the Caribbean and Central/South America.
I was fascinated to find that people who grow the ‘wasabi coleus‘ (which has plain acid-green leaves) and the ‘chocolate mint’ coleus (as you might have guessed, brown leaves with green edges) wondered if the plant might taste like their names. The answer, of course, is ‘no’, though it’s a nice idea. There are, however, some species of coleus that are edible, and I’m indebted to the Dave’s Garden website for pointing this out.
One is the ‘country potato’, a group of three coleus species (with Plectranthus rotundifolius being the most important) that are native to Africa but have more recently been grown in southern Asia as well. Their food value comes from their tubers – these are said to be blander than a ‘real’ potato and they are normally used as a subsistence crop, though in Burkina Faso they are milled to produce flour.
Country potato tubers (Plectranthus rotundifolius) (Photo Three )
The other coleus species, Indian coleus( Plectranthus barbatus) is grown, as the name suggests, in India, partially because the root is edible and can be used in pickles, but mainly because the plant contains a chemical compound called forskolin. This has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine, and is sometimes marketed as as a diet aid, because it is believed to burn fat. There is currently no scientific evidence to support this idea, although there are several studies that are looking into the possible medical uses of this plant and several other Asian coleus (you can find extensive information here).
The flowers of Indian coleus (Plectranthus barbatus) (Photo Four)
Now, as you know I am fascinated by the superstitions that grow up around plants. For the coleus, I have had to turn east to the plant’s home range, and here it appears that to have a plant in the house may a) attract bankruptcy, b) attract fire (probably because of the plant’s flame-coloured leaves or c) attract poverty if it starts to bloom in the winter. Coleus is also believed to take revenge on its owner if it isn’t looked after properly. All in all I seem to have had a flat full of trouble, which I then visited on all my friends and relatives. Goodness! Maybe it’s best kept as a bedding plant after all, though to be fair the article that also points out that the coleus has ‘a powerful positive energy and can bring success in business’. I find it difficult to believe that such a bright and cheerful-looking plant can bring many disasters.
And here is a rather fine poem by Richard Swanson, who lives in Wisconsin. Who among us hasn’t tried to protect our garden from the inevitable onset of winter? Some of us (ahem) have been known to sneak out in the soon-to-be-frozen garden with buckets to protect the frogspawn from the promised frost, regardless of what the neighbours think….
We’re frantic, trying to save them, our summer’s offspring, our garden children.We’re cloaking the roses with deer hunter ponchos, spreading old denim shirts on pumpkins, capping Swiss chard with grocery store bags. Maybe — can’t go there but we will — we’ll sneak out Heather’s prom dress to shield a squash vine.The neighbors recoil at our refugee draping. Who cares! We’ll pretend we’re rich eccentrics, beyond the rules of normal behavior.
We’re hauling in pots, that begonia, this foxglove, a coleus now in an armchair.
The cats, displaced, are spooked. We’re their mewling hiss, not their meow.
Begging forgiveness, out the door we go, on one more rescue mission.
Dear Readers, I used to work in the Smithfield area but hadn’t been back for ages, so I decided that the area was ripe for a re-visit. As I stepped off the number 17 bus, the smell of the place drifted back to me; Smithfield is London’s wholesale meat market, and I remember the distinctive smell of blood from the carcasses that are processed here. Smithfield Meat Market was the site of slaughter of over 74,000 cattle and a million and a half sheep per year , right up to the 1850’s. Animals were driven via Highgate and Islington from all over the country: animals too weak to walk the past few miles were often killed in Highgate, which used to have a preponderance of butcher’s shops (and pubs for the drovers to ‘wet their whistle’).The raised pavements in these areas were to prevent the smart ladies and gentlemen from getting their clothing soiled by all the dung from these benighted creatures.
Smithfield was second only to Tyburn as the site of many executions, including the Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler and the Scottish knight Sir William Wallace, of Braveheart fame. Swindlers and forgers were boiled to death in oil here in the 15th Century. In short, the amount of human and animal misery that these stones have witnessed should surely have left their mark. Peter Ackroyd, that august chronicler of the Capital, believes that certain places in the city retain their character in spite of attempts at modernisation. It will be interesting to see if this plays out in the Smithfield area.
There is an extraordinary amount of building going on. I spend a lot of time trying to get my bearings, and on every corner there seems to be a chap in a high-vis jacket and a hard hat, shouting about deliveries into a mobile phone. Many of the old buildings remain, after a fight to retain them, and the Museum of London is due to be relocated here at 2021. There is lots of modernisation but I also read recently that it is planned that the meat market, along with Billingsgate fish market (currently in Poplar) and Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market (in Leyton) will all be relocated to Barking. What will happen to the remaining Smithfield buildings remains to be seen.
The entrance to the Grand Avenue at Smithfield
A Smithfield Dragon – symbol of The City of London
However, this is all very well, but I am really here to investigate an interesting new project in the little park in West Smithfield. Wayward Plants is an organisation that, among other things, has been organising the ‘adoption’ of unwanted house plants from events such as the Hampton Court Flower Show, which can only be a good thing. In Smithfield, they have put up a ‘greenhouse’ called ‘The House of Wayward Plants’. This is a pun on the ‘Wardian Case’, which was very popular as a way of displaying and growing ferns during the Victorian era: you might remember that I have written about ‘fern mania’ or ‘pteridomania’ during this time, when whole areas were denuded of (sometimes rare) ferns by eager collectors. My first sight of the ‘House’ was from behind a human drinking fountain,
And when I got a proper view of it, I realised that two chaps were sitting on the table inside having their lunch. They agreed that it was a most excellent spot for sandwich munching, especially when it was raining.
As you might expect, the planters are full of ferns – maidenhair and male fern and our old friend hart’s tongue fern.
There is a programme of events being held in the House of Wayward Plants, including botanical drawing, gardening and music. I suspect that our diners may sometimes have to find an alternative spot for their sarnies.
The Smithfield gardens hold another surprise, however. They are very proud of their Caucasian Wingnut trees, who are in full flower at the moment. In spite of sounding like something that the Monty Python team would invent, these are magnificent trees, competing very well with the huge London plane trees that would normally dominate the space. I would have said that I had never seen one before, but in ‘Street Trees of London’, Paul Wood points out that there is a heavily pruned example in Islington, where I lived for eight years. It all goes to show how easy it is to just walk past things rather than paying them any attention.
Flowers of the Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia)
The tree comes originally from the Black Sea, and is native to the Caucasus (as you might expect) – the notice on the railings says that they come from Iran. The notice also mentions that you shouldn’t try to grow a Caucasian Wingnut in your garden, because it can grow to over 30 metres tall and has a dense, spreading canopy. I also rather like the fissured bark.
Onwards! I decide to have a wander through the grounds of St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Looking down the road, I can see the figure of Justice from the roof of the Old Bailey.
There is also a truly awful example of what The Gentle Author has dubbed ‘ghastly Facadism’ – developers seem to think that they’re doing their duty by preserving the front wall of a building whilst knocking up a dreadful generic glass office block (or some ‘luxury flats’) behind it. I have no idea what was here before, but I suspect that what replaces it will not be as interesting as what was there originally. It sometimes feels as if we are losing this part of London faster than we can fight the applications.
There is a restful courtyard in the middle of the hospital complex, with some sympathetic pollinator plantings and a fine fountain.
This is one of the oldest parts of London, still full of winding medieval streets. There are two churches which are associated with the hospital and the parish, St Bartholemew the Less (which is actually in the church grounds) and dates back to the 12th century, and St Bartholemew the Great, which was founded as an Augustinian friary in 1123.
St Bartholemew the Great
This hasn’t stopped the building of one or two strangely unsympathetic buildings, however.
And as I wend my way through, I can’t resist finishing my walk with a visit to the planting at the Barbican, just to see how it’s settling in. As usual, I’m not disappointed. I’m especially pleased with how the waterside planting is going, Even on this dull day, there are plenty of bees and hoverflies about.
And so, it’s time for my sandwich and a flat white. I am a little underwhelmed by the Wayward Plants greenhouse (though the idea is fascinating, and I am pleased with the ‘recycled plants’ idea). However, I have seen my first Caucasian wingnuts, and am pleased to have reminded myself of the byways of Smithfield. London is endlessly fascinating, and you can find interesting plants in the most unlikely places.