Little Things…

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)

Dear Readers, it’s funny how ‘weeds’ seem to appear in the garden in waves. Earlier this year, I was inundated with cleavers, or goose-grass. But as I sat in the garden this evening, sipping a cup of tea at the end of the work week, I thought that I had never seen so much herb robert, or noticed how delicate and pretty it is. True, it smells of mice, or burning tyres, depending on your sense of smell. True, it’s a bit of a thug. But how pretty it is, with those soft pink flowers, furry stems and lacy leaves!

As the plant grows, the foliage and stems turn fiery red – you can just see the colour changing in the photo above. It’s been used medicinally for nose bleeds and headaches, to ease tummy upsets and even as a mosquito repellent. Deer and rabbits can also be deterred from their nibbling by the smell of the plant. It’s also known as bloodwort, though I’m not sure if this is because of its late-summer colour, or because of the nosebleed connection.

Not all the flowers are pink, either: I found one plant that was lily-white, blooming away in a dark corner. Herb robert is a great plant for a shady area, and rather underappreciated, I think.

White herb robert

While I was admiring the herb robert, though, a very familiar noise drifted into my consciousness. There was a strange wheezing sound, and looking into the cherry tree next door, I saw my first fledgling starling of the year.

Young starling waiting to be fed.

No doubt the next few days will follow the usual pattern. To start with, the youngsters are completely hopeless, expecting their parents to pick up the suet pellets and feed them. But the patience of mum and dad wears thin very quickly: first of all they start flying away from their youngsters with a harried expression. Then they leave them parked in various trees for longer and longer periods of time. The hungry fledglings soon start to peck at everything that looks remotely edible, and eventually the garden is filled with gangs of marauding adolescent starlings, who squabble and get into all sorts of trouble. I fear that the cats and corvids who visit the garden may soon be having a lot of fun. Infant mortality is high, especially as young starlings have no sense of danger – every year I fish one out of the pond, and spend time on high alert for predators, though I can’t save them all. But nonetheless, many survive to join the growing flock of starlings. I love the idea that some of the birds visiting the feeders now might be the great great great grandchildren of the starlings who first found that there was food available in the garden. Will there soon be an East Finchley murmuration, I wonder, to replace the great clouds of birds that used to mass over St James’s Park and Leicester Square? I can but dream.

Where’s my dinner?


19 thoughts on “Little Things…

  1. Anne

    Spring is so naturally associated with new life, births and hatchlings that I pinched myself in wonder the other day to see a spotty Olive Thrush being fed by its parent on the ground and later two Hadeda Ibis chicks trailing a parent while they were sussing out the ground for food. We haven’t seen starlings here for a few weeks and yet – very oddly – I watched a Cape Weaver with a strip of grass in its beak. “It’s the wrong time of the year to build your nest” I called after him, but he disappeared.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I remember seeing a village tree absolutely full of the nests of weaver birds when I was working on the chimpanzee project in Cameroon. I loved the whole notion of a ‘village tree’…

  2. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    Baby Starlings, our favourite time of the year. We love when you get so many in a bird bath that they don’t fit in. They nest at the bottom of the garden without fail every year so for them it’s like having a ‘fly by’ restaurant. We can’t keep up with the feeders now, filling them up twice a day, so we dread what it will be like when the babies are down, but they’re so worth it.

    1. Fran &Bobby Freelove

      Just as we posted this to you i had a whole lot of babies down, immediately one went in the pond and swam round and got stuck behind the stones at one end, i just managed to get it’s foot and pull it out, a dramatic start to the big outside world!

  3. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    Just as we posted this to you we had a whole load of babies down. One immediately went in the pond, swam round and got stuck behind all the rocks at the end, i just about managed to grab it’s foot and pull it out. A very dramatic start to the big outside world!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      They are just utterly hopeless. I just saw one hanging upside down by one foot from a twig. They just about managed to clamber back up.

  4. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    The smell of herb robert always reminds me of my dad’s garden. Whenever I went back I’d invariably spend a few hours trying to tidy up his garden. Herb robert grew in the crack between the path by the side of his house and the house itself. I’d pull it up but it always came back again. Though it was not as bad as another plant (sorry, I can’t recall its name), but it would appear every Spring, by the score, in one part of the garden. It grew to about 8 to 10″ high and had beautiful purple flowers. For 2 weeks the garden looked fabulous but for the rest of the year it was just like overgrown grass, with long slender leaves. I’d pull it out in handfuls, bulbs and all, but it was just as prolific the following year. My dad said you could never get rid of it. And this was on a part of the garden which had a (slightly old and worn I admit) membrane covered in stones. But it’s the smell of the herb robert which will always be in my memory.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Oh, it’s funny how a particular smell brings back memories, isn’t it. I seem to remember that herb robert is called stinking bob in some places in the country, and that the smell is associated with thunderstorms. I wonder what the purple flower was?

      Your Dad sounds like an amazing man, I remember some of your stories about him….

      1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

        Well, that’s funny, because my dad was called Bob. 😊 His first names were Ranville Robert, but he insisted on being called Bob. And, yes, he had a few interesting experiences in his life, which we eventually got out of him and are all now documented in his book. πŸ˜†

  5. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    The locally-famous ‘starling tree’, one of the huge old plane trees lining the High Road, has just been fiercely pollarded, which will send the starlings to all the neighbouring rooftops and gardens. Expect a mass invasion!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I only just noticed that – I know the plane on the corner of Creighton Avenue was pollarded in spite of their being a crow’s nest in it. The trees do need to be pollarded, although Paul Wood in London’s Street Trees points out that a lot of it is to avoid the councils being held liable for subsidence claims if the roots become invasive.

  6. Ann-marie Wright

    I remember some years ago when a juvenile starling fell down our bricked up chimney. After I had knocked a hole large enough in the air brick with a hammer and chisel my 3 year old daughter and I retired to the hall to watch it make a beeline for the open french windows. A lovely sight.
    We also have much herb robert in the garden, but I do love the colours of it.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Welcome, Ann-marie! How wonderful that you rescued the starling, and what a valuable lesson for your daughter. I still remember the way my mum and dad would both catch any bees that flew into the house in a glass and gently take them outside. I think if you learn to respect other animals at an early age, it never leaves you.


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