Dear Readers, I have always been interested in the edges of things, the places where one landscape bleeds into another, and so this morning I took a walk along the edge of Muswell Hill Playing Fields. Before the lockdown this would have been full of people playing football, walking their dogs, flying kites and picnicking, but today there was a handful of pooches illicitly chasing the crows, a couple of runners and us, puffing along on our daily exercise. The Fields are bordered on one side by the cemetery and on another by the woods, so there is a fair variety of things to look at.
Look at this sapling horse chestnut, for example. I love the way that the leaves unfurl and turn into loose shuttlecocks. When the tree is older there will be those ‘candle’ flowers that look so exotic close up, with their long stamen and carmine centres. According to my Collins Tree Guide, the middle of the flower starts off yellow and goes red after pollination. Sadly, by about July the tree’s leaves are likely to already be turning crisp and brown, having been mined by a tiny moth caterpillar. If the tree is particularly unlucky, it may also suffer from horse chestnut leaf blotch fungus. Such diseases weaken a tree, but don’t usually kill it. There was some evidence that blue tits were learning to eat the moth caterpillars, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that some ecological balance is soon reached.
There are lots of ash trees in the cemetery, many of them self-seeded, but this one has ‘escaped’ onto the edge of the fields. I love the way that the buds of ash look like the sooty-black hooves of tiny deer. I have learned so much about my local environment through writing this blog, and through the people that I’ve gotten to know through it: a friend mentioned the hoof comparison and it stuck, so that I can now instantly recognise an ash when I see one. We learn through metaphor, through making the connections between what we already know, and what we are trying to understand. I love that sense that we are able to constantly enlarge our mental territory, just by pushing on through the undergrowth.
This plant has always puzzled me. It grows in swathes along the edge of the playing fields, in shades from butter-yellow to palest cream. It is definitely a brassica, but which one? My suspicion is either oilseed rape (Brassica napus) or wild turnip (Brassica rapa). Both have waxy green foliage, and the leaves ‘hug’ the stems, but in rape the buds are higher than the flowers on the flowerhead, producing a ‘domed’ effect. In wild turnip, the flowers overtop the buds, leaving a little dimple. Goodness only knows what’s going on with these – I shall have to have a proper look next time I’m there. Whichever they are, they are going strong and seem to be increasing.
I remember as a child being enchanted by the fields of acid-yellow oilseed rape when we went for a drive in the country. How beautiful they looked against the green trees and the blue sky! However, when they moved to the country, Mum hated the stuff because she always said that it had a strong smell. I have to say that I never noticed, but then Mum always was sensitive to these things. Has anyone else noticed?
It certainly makes a pretty picture alongside the cow parsley.
Now, unless I’m mistaken this little tree is a crack willow (Salix fragilis) – the shiny green foliage and the very long fruits seem indicative to me. This tree grows elsewhere in the damp places in the wood, and so I’m not surprised to see it here. What an elegant plant it is! Left alone it can grow to about 20 metres tall, but its sideshoots often break (hence the name ‘crack’ willow). Fortunately, the broken twigs can take root easily and, as the plant often grows alongside water, this forms a handy way of colonising the whole river bank. The catkins are very popular with bees, who collect the pollen for their developing broods.
I think of elder as the quintessential ‘edge’ plant, growing in hedgerows and in the places where woods thin out to meet open ground. There is an elder right at the very entrance of Coldfall Wood, and I think it might be at the very limit of its tolerance for shade. I love those big, open clusters of white flowers, beloved by hoverflies and, more recently, by those with a taste for elderflower cordial, which has become Quite the Thing here in the UK. If the flowers are left along you will end up with heavy dangling bunches of elderberries, which are full of vitamin C. I suspect that elder kept our elders healthy for many millenia.
And finally, at the start of May, the May (or hawthorn) blossom is out in abundance, spreading its slightly sickly sweet vaguely fishy smell out on the warm air. Hawthorn is another plant which gives multiple gifts – it supports a whole range of invertebrates, the blue tits in my garden have been plundering my hawthorn for caterpillars, and in the autumn the blackbirds will be gobbling up the haws.
And finally, here among the Japanese knotweed is a dock that is in absolutely pristine condition. Later in the year it will look blotched and tatty – so many insects and fungi feed on it that it inevitably looks like something the cat dragged in. And yet, at the moment, I think it looks rather magnificent. My guess is that it’s broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) because the leaves are only very slightly wavy at the edges (unlike the inventively-named curled dock (Rumex crispus) which has something of the Mobius strip about its foliage. However, I will have to wait for the summer to be sure. If it sends up great spikes of rusty-red branched flowers, I was right. Anything else, and it’s back to the drawing board (or to Harrap’s Wild Flowers in this case).
And so we head home as one of us has a nine a.m. team call (and one of us is free to write their blog). On the way, I notice the crows, who are socially distanced and are pecking for earthworms – it was very wet yesterday so their lives have been made a bit easier. i watch as an over-excited young dog tries to catch a crow, who only flies up at the very last minute, before settling down again just far enough away for the dog to keep a vestige of hope in its little canine heart. So many animals like to tease dogs that it seems a bit unfair – I’ve seen squirrels taunting them, crows chasing a greyhound and once, in India, some Hanuman langurs jumping down from a tree, slapping a poor sleeping hound and bouncing back into the branches before the dog could even look round. What is that about, I wonder? Dogs are so intelligent but they also have a kind of innocent naivete that other intelligent creatures seem to take as carte blanche to be hooligans.
Incidentally, when I was growing up I was taught that crows were anti-social creatures, hanging out in pairs. If I saw a lot of black crows together, they were undoubtedly rooks. However, I think it’s different in the cities, where there is abundant food – I regularly see a dozen crows bathing in the stream in the woods for example, and I pass a park in Hackney where there are hundreds of crows. There is a scientific study going begging on urban corvids, I’m sure. What have you noticed? I wonder if this is just a London thing, or if, like many animals, crows in cities lose their territoriality. And I further wonder if, with food being scarcer during the lockdown, things will change.