Monthly Archives: July 2020

Friday Book – The Hidden Life of the Fox by Adele Brand

Dear Readers, if you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’m a confirmed foxophile (not sure if that’s a word) so when my friend A lent me this book I couldn’t wait to dive in. My previous go-to work on foxes was ‘Fox Watching – In the Shadow of the Fox’ by Martin Hemmington, who had been rescuing and rehabilitating foxes in the UK for over 25 years, and who was the founder of the National Fox Welfare Society (NFWS). What I loved about the latter book was the author’s close observation of foxes, both in the wild and when under his care, and his obvious deep passion and empathy for them. ‘Fox Watching’ was going to be a hard act to follow.

‘The Hidden World of the Fox‘ ranges more widely. Brand is a mammal ecologist, and has led research in five countries. She brings a scientist’s eye to many fox controversies, and there were many things here that I didn’t know. She roundly debunks many of the ideas about fox deterrence, for example: why would male urine frighten an urban fox when they spend all their days hanging around our streets? And why would lion dung from the zoo frighten a fox when, in many countries, foxes rely on top predators to kill prey too big for them to manage, so that they can scavenge the remains later? You might think that lion dung would attract foxes rather than deter them.

Interestingly, Brand points out that the one thing that might work, if consistently applied, is one of the sprays such as Scoot which disguise the scents that foxes use to mark their territories. A fox without a territory is in constant danger of attack by other foxes, and can never rest, so this might persuade the animal to move on.

Quite why you’d want them to move on is a mystery to me, however.

A young vixen in St Pancras and Islington cemetery. My favourite British wild mammal.

Brand also explores the ‘human/fox interface’. We have, of course, impinged on the fox’s territory, rather than the other way round, and it’s interesting to see how intolerant we are of the mess that foxes undoubtedly create if rubbish is not suitably binned. In a study that Brand conducted in London, over 33% of Londoners apparently said that they disliked foxes, largely because of their scats, the way they could scatter the contents of a dustbin bag over half the street, and the way that they dug up garden plants, stole anything left in the garden and murdered inadequately-housed rabbits. A surprising number of people were also afraid that the foxes would kill their cats and mutilate their children. I am being a bit flippant here: I have had a dog-fox visit who was so tame that he would cheerfully have come into the house, and there is one case of twin infants being bitten by a fox who entered the room that they were sleeping in.

Dog Fox in my garden last year.

Brand has very clear guidelines on interactions with foxes, and with people who are afraid of foxes, or dislike them:

  • Do not hand-feed them, or allow them to come into the house
  • If you are going to put a small amount of food out for them, put it a distance from the entrance to the property
  • Do not deny that foxes can cause problems, but make people aware of the efficacy of products such as Scoot
  • Do not assume that all fox bite stories are either untrue or the fault of the people bitten

A reason for overfriendliness that I don’t remember Brand writing about (though I might have missed it as the book has no index), is toxoplasmosis: this parasite is known for making its hosts reckless, and certainly Martin Hemmington thinks that it might be responsible for all kinds of peculiar behaviour. In rats, toxoplasmosis has been shown to make the animal less afraid of cats (the parasite is passed on in the droppings of carnivores). There was even a study that showed that humans with toxoplasmosis (occasionally picked up from cleaning out the cat litter tray) are more likely to be involved in road accidents, both as pedestrians and as drivers. It’s easy to imagine that an infected fox might wander into a basement floor through an open door and, maybe smelling the milk on an infant’s breath, start to look for the source.

Young fox

Another point where Brand and Hemmington differ is on the whole subject of treating mange with homeopathy (often Psorinum 30c). Hemmington’s charity actually provides free homeopathic treatment for foxes with mild mange: you might remember that I spent some time treating a vixen with mange in our local cemetery by lacing jam sandwiches with homeopathic drops.

Brand points out that

‘Psorinum 30c has become a major feature of many charities’ anti-mange efforts. It is much easier to obtain than Ivermection because a vet does not need to prescribe it. Unfortunately, that is because homeopathic treatments are medically inert: they are a discredited invention from the eighteenth century that has become a multi-million-pound industry‘.

She does, however, point out one possible beneficial side-effect:

It is possible that homeopathy can have an unintended benefit; by putting out regular food with the dose, a home owner may support the fox’s general health and assist its fight against the disease‘.

She also points out that:

Once mange progresses beyond the early stages, many foxes suffer a terminal deterioration of their symptoms. But in others, the condition reverses. The bare blotchy skin patches and lesions remain, but the mites die, and the fox gradually heals‘.

I had little faith that using Psorinum 30c would do any good, being something of a homeopathy sceptic: I know that acupuncture, herbalism, reflexology and a host of other alternative medicine techniques can have positive value, but the scientist in me baulks at homeopathy. However, the little vixen that I was treating did improve over the course of the summer, and whether it was the jam sandwiches or the homeopathic medicine, that was a good result. The one great thing about homeopathy is that it is guaranteed, at the very least, to do no harm, unlike the many medicines given to humans and animals that have long-lasting and sometimes serious side effects.

The fox I was treating in March 2016

So, I enjoyed Brand’s book – she has an obvious objectivity and a scientific approach, and she casts her net rather wider than Hemmington does in his book. But I didn’t love it. The focus seems to be more on the relationship between humans and foxes, particularly in urban areas, rather than the foxes themselves. I found the lack of an index really frustrating. The book seems to fall into the hinterland between a scientific study and a personal account, and so, for me, it doesn’t fulfill the promise of either approach. But any work that seeks to help us understand our wild neighbours and their habits is to be warmly welcomed. I look forward to seeing what Brand does going forward. Foxes need all the friends they can get.

The dog fox from the cemetery

The vixen waiting patiently for her dinner

A New(ish) Cat and the Joy of Shieldbugs

Dear Readers, this magnificent black cat has been visiting the garden ever since lockdown started. He wanders down the side entrance, and I can always tell that he’s coming because the blue tits and the robins start their chorus of chinking and tsicking. He gets to the corner and has a quick look to see if anyone is there. If I’m having my coffee, he proceeds a little more carefully .  If I think he’s looking too predatory I will stand up abruptly and that’s enough to send him elsewhere for half an hour. If he looks relaxed, I’ll watch him as he strolls around ‘his’ domain and plonks himself down in the sun.

Photo through the kitchen window (not cleaned since lockdown, sorry!)

I love cats, and yet at certain times of the year I will discourage them from the garden whenever I see one (apart from Bailey of course. I think a bird could land on his back and he’d pay no attention). When the new fledglings first appear, I am hypervigilant. If there’s been a particularly cold snap and the birds are too hungry to take their usual care I will be keeping an eye open for hidden felines (though it’s much harder for them to hide when there isn’t so much foliage). I love cats, but I have no illusions about the damage they do.

I do think that prey animals know whether a cat is in hunting mode or not, though. My Mum’s enormous fat old cat, Snuggles, could lay on the patio surrounded by sparrows and they would ignore him. When I was in India I noticed that a tiger in plain view was not seen as a problem while everyone could see it and keep their distance. There sometimes seems to be an uneasy truce between predator and prey, a fine balance that it only takes a twitch of the tail or a tightening of concentration to disturb. There are so many dramas played out every day in an average garden, and lockdown has given me the chance to tune in to some of them.

What a beautiful, beautiful cat though. It is a pleasure to watch him.

And now, for something completely different. I was asked to identify some insects earlier this week by Mrs K over at Old Yarns and Woolly Thoughts She had found some unusual creatures under one of her strawberry leaves and wondered what they were.

First instar Green Shieldbugs (Palomena prasina) (Thanks to Mrs K for the photo)

I recognised them as shieldbugs, and with the help of the Insects and Other Invertebrates of Britain and Europe Facebook group we were able to identify the species – green shieldbug (Palomena prasina). I had one of these in my kitchen a few years ago – when they grow up they are very fine critters indeed.

Shieldbugs are ‘true’ bugs (I know in the US all insects are often known as bugs). A true bug feeds on the juices of plants or animals, and has specially adapted mouthparts to enable it to puncture its ‘victim’. It’s a varied family, with aphids and bedbugs being the villains of the piece, while pond skaters and water boatmen are all over the pond during the summer. I have written about froghoppers and their cuckoo-spit several times, but had no idea that we have a cicada species that lives in the New Forest.

Shieldbugs are named for the shape of their carapaces, but also have the less flattering name of ‘stinkbug’ – if handled they can produce a noisome chemical that is described, in Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, as smelling like ‘rancid marzipan or mouldy almonds’. As anyone who watches Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot knows, the smell of bitter almonds is never a good sign, as it usually indicates cyanide. These bugs are probably poisonous little mouthfuls,

The green shieldbug, like all shieldbugs, goes through a wide variety of forms before it reaches adulthood – each one is known as an ‘instar’, and the shieldbug moults up to half a dozen times after it hatches. The mother green shieldbug lays three or four batches of eggs, each in a hexagonal shape, as you can see from Mrs K’s photograph above. Once the youngsters hatch, they stick together for protection – they produce what’s known as an aggregation pheromone, a chemical which encourages them to stay close. However, if danger does appear they instantly produce a dispersion pheromone, which causes them to run away from one another.

Photo One from https://www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/idcards/life_stages.html

The different instars of the green shieldbug (Photo One)

The green shieldbug does feed on blackberries, raspberries and green beans, but the insects are rarely found in large numbers, and, to my mind at least, are best admired and left alone. There is a new kid on the block, the southern green shieldbug (Nezara viridula), who turned up in Kings Cross in London at Camley Street Nature Reserve in 2003, and there are some concerns that this little chap might be more voracious than the native species. So far the species hasn’t been spotted further north than Barnet, but it’s probably worth keeping an eye open for.

Photo Two by Rison Thumboor from Thrissur, India / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Southern green shieldbug nymphs (Photo Two)

The adult southern green shieldbug has clear wings, as compared with the green shieldbug (in my photo of the insect on my kitchen worktop above, you can see that it has amber-coloured wings), but it also has three white spots on the thorax which are pretty much diagnostic.

Photo Three by Katya from Moscow, Russia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Adult southern green shieldbug (Nezara viridula) (Photo Three)

I can’t leave the subject of shieldbugs without mentioning the parent bug (Elasmucha grisea). While most insects lay their eggs and do a runner, the female parent bug crouches over her brood of eggs for two to three weeks – the number of eggs laid seems to depend on the body -size of the female. She protects them by making threatening movements towards any interlopers and, if all else fails, she will produce the almondy defensive chemicals mentioned above.

When the eggs hatch, the nymphs stay close together and feed on their eggshells – if one of them strays, the female reaches out with her antenna and guides them back to the shelter of her body. Once they start moving around to feed, the female stays in close attendance, keeping them together. The youngsters hatch asynchronously, and as the larger nymphs move away from the female they join up with others to form mixed groups – it’s been shown that these groups have a much better survival rate than individuals.

Finally, and most amazingly, adult females will sometimes join up and jointly guard all of their eggs and nymphs, with no favour shown to their own youngsters. Pairs of females seem to have the highest nymph survival rate of all. Teamwork in bugs! Who knew. Every single day I am astonished by what I discover for this blog.

Photo Four by By Bj.schoenmakers - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40664722

Parent bugs (Elasmucha grisea) joint guarding eggs (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Aiwok - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15551532

Single parent bug guarding eggs (Photo Five)

Well, I don’t know about you but shieldbugs have really gotten my attention now. I’m not the first person either: in Bugs Britannica, Peter Marren describes a book called ‘The Shieldbugs of Surrey‘, which gives helpful tips on keeping shieldbugs in captivity (not that I’m advocating such a thing of course). I find this utterly charming, probably because it’s just the kind of thing that I might have written when I was bug-smitten as a youngster.

‘If a fat bug refuses to eat, then it is probably close to a moult. If a thin bug does not eat, then there’s something wrong with the food….if a bug is running around wildly, then it may be in need of a drink….Sometimes a bug may be found lying on its back and waving its legs in the air. This is nothing to worry about….the creature may just be stuck’.

Photo Six by Line Sabroe from Denmark / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Green shieldbug eggs just before hatching. Look at all the little faces! (Photo Six)

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/idcards/life_stages.html

Photo Two by Rison Thumboor from Thrissur, India / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Three by Katya from Moscow, Russia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Photo Four by By Bj.schoenmakers – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40664722

Photo Five by By Aiwok – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15551532

Photo Six by Line Sabroe from Denmark / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Wednesday Weed – Beetroot

Beetroot found next to Muswell Hill Playing Fields (see this post)

Dear Readers, as a child I had a horror of the beetroot cubes that were served as part of our school dinners. There was something about the texture of the vegetable, the sharpness of the vinegar, the lurid-pink ‘juice’ that contaminated everything else that made me feel slightly nauseous. We were meant to eat everything on the plate (which contributed to my brother’s life-long hatred of steak and kidney pudding)  but one day I just couldn’t, so I told the dinnerladies that, with some regret, I would have to decline the beetroot because I was allergic to it.

I remember seeing them look at one another with some puzzlement, because allergies were not much discussed in 1968. Furthermore, ‘allergy’ was not a word that an eight year-old was supposed to know.

I got off on that occasion, and I seem to remember that the point wasn’t pushed subsequently. The sensible thing to do would have been to ask Mum if I was actually allergic, but I don’t think the school ever did.

These days I am much more inclined towards beetroot, not least because it comes in so many forms, and because, roasted or raw, it is actually quite delicious.

Photo One by By © Jörgens.mi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57857779

Chioggia beetroot. Look at the candy stripes! (Photo one)

Photo Two by By © Jörgens.mi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57857829

Yellow beetroot (Photo Two)

All beetroots descend originally from sea beet (Beta vulgaris ssp maritima) which is found all over the coastal areas of the UK and Ireland (though it is notably absent from the more northern parts of Ireland). All of the cultivated beet varieties descend from this one humble salt-marsh plant: not just our salad beetroot, but sugar beet (which produces the vast majority of the sugar that we eat) and also, to my surprise, chard (where we ignore the root and eat the leaves and stem instead). As you might expect from a plant that grows in a marine environment, most varieties of beet are tolerant of salty soils. They prefer cooler temperatures, though chard is said to be happier at a higher temperature than the root vegetable varieties.

Photo Three by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris ssp maritima) (Photo Three)

Beetroot is really one of ‘the’ cold climate crops – it has helped us to get through many winters, and it’s no surprise that eastern Europe has produced some of the most interesting recipes. Bortscht is a case in point – this beetroot soup has many variations (not all of which contain beetroot incidentally). Apparently, it would originally have been made with hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), and it’s the Russian word for this plant (borsch) which gives it its name (although the more usual English spelling, borscht, comes straight from Yiddish). It can be served hot or cold, with potatoes or smetana (a type of sour cream), with meat or fish or as a purely vegetarian soup. It forms part of the ritual traditions of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Jewish faiths, and the original ‘borscht’ recipe is claimed by several cultures.

Photo Four by By Brücke-Osteuropa - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7284301

Russian borscht (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By uk:Користувач:Kagor - uk:Файл:Borsch- 020.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19218448

Ukrainian borscht (Photo Five)

Photo Six by By Michał Lech - https://pixabay.com/pl/jedzenie-potrwawa-catering-78222/ archive copy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45817399

Polish Christmas Eve borscht with mushroom dumplings (Photo Six)

However, these soups all still seem to have rather too much obvious beetroot in them for my taste, and so my preferred method of getting some of the red stuff into my diet is by making a beetroot and chocolate cake, for which there are multiple recipes on the web (though I have a great fondness for the Nigel Slater recipe here). I have found that many vegetables disappear into cake, providing moistness and a streak of colour but nothing more assertive – carrots are an obvious choice, but courgette and squash have also worked very nicely for me. Do not, under any circumstances, try it with swede though. The results are like something that Satan might serve up at afternoon tea.

Photo Seven from https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/beetroot_chocolate_cake_82388

Chocolate beetroot cake (Photo Seven)

Beetroot also has a long history of medicinal use (though its habit of turning urine red can cause considerable alarm to the unprepared – there is actually a word for this, beeturia). It has been used as a treatment for constipation since Roman times, and Apicius gave no less than five recipes for beetroot soups to be used as a laxative. Tests on beetroot have shown that it can have an positive effect on the reduction of  hypertension.

In the UK, according to the site Plant Lore, beetroot wine was used as a cure for asthma, chilblains, earache and, apparently, snake bites.

The intense red colour of beetroot was used historically to colour wine, and it is still used as a food-colouring for things like tomato paste and breakfast cereal.

Flowers on ‘my’ beet plant

Beetroot is one of those vegetables (like brussel sprouts) that polarises people – you are either a fan or a hater, it seems. But would our attitudes change if we remembered that beetroot has a reputation as an aphrodisiac? The ancient Greeks believed that Aphrodite, goddess of love, ate beetroots to make herself more beautiful. The Romans believed that eating beets and drinking beetroot juice could enhance sexual performance,  and there were frescoes of beets in the Lupernar brothel in Pompeii (though all the images of the frescoes that I can find are much too X-rated for these august pages). English folklore has it that if a man and a woman eat from the same beetroot, they will fall in love. Beetroot juice has also been used as a hair dye and as a cosmetic to brighten up pale cheeks and provide a substitute for lipstick.

The actual harvesting of beetroot has long been a heavy, back-breaking job, however, and I like this painting by Leon Wyczółkowski , one of the leading Realist painters of the interwar period in Poland. You can almost smell the soil and the wood smoke, and feel the cold in your chapped hands.

Beet Harvest II by Leon Wyczółkowski (Public domain)

And finally, a poem. I love this vignette by Pauline Prior-Pitt, who moved from Hull to North Uist in 1997 and who started writing poems in her thirties. I feel that it sums up the way that we can’t judge people by appearances, and how exchanges are often more complex than they appear.

Meeting at the Mobile Library Van by Pauline Pitt-Prior

In your muddy coat, you stroll up from your croft;
choose two biographies.

And I’m not sure you’ll want
to look at poetry; am surprised

when the pirate behind your fiery eyes
lets me help you choose a Douglas Dunn
to add to your collection.

Quick as a dog you’re down at the loch side,
showing me your veg patch,
hidden from storms inside peat stacked walls.

“Bloody deer have eaten all my greens.”

You ask if I like beetroot, tug up
two huge globes covered in mud.
Each one must weigh at least a pound.

And I’ve been waiting for this windy day
to open windows wide,

chopping the beets with onions and Bramleys
adding sugar, spice, and vinegar
and slowly simmering them together.

And I’m thinking, six jars of chutney
are more than a fair exchange

for the poetry I chose for you to relish.

Photo Eight by Meal Makeover Moms at https://www.flickr.com/photos/34168666@N07/14438107217/

Beetroot pickles (Photo Eight)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By © Jörgens.mi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57857779

Photo Two by By © Jörgens.mi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57857829

Photo Three by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Photo Four by By Brücke-Osteuropa – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7284301

Photo Five by By uk:Користувач:Kagor – uk:Файл:Borsch- 020.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19218448

Photo Six by By Michał Lech – https://pixabay.com/pl/jedzenie-potrwawa-catering-78222/ archive copy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45817399

Photo Seven from https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/beetroot_chocolate_cake_82388

Photo Eight by Meal Makeover Moms at https://www.flickr.com/photos/34168666@N07/14438107217/

 

Sunday Quiz – An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles – The Answers!

Thick-legged flower beetle on ragwort

Dear Readers, Fran and Bobby Freelove have won the gold star again with 15/15 in the quiz, closely followed by FEARN, Anne and OKthislooksbad with 13/15. All of the the 13/15-ers got number 6 (the harlequin ladybird) and number 10 (the 16-spot orange ladybird) the wrong way round, which looking at the photos is not surprising :-). One way to id a harlequin is that it always has tiny indents at the bottom of the wing covers, and believe it or not, this photo was the clearest that I could find (though not halfway clear enough, obviously!) I hope you enjoyed the quiz, and very well done everybody, you did a splendid job. Because you’ve all done so well, if you pop a request for the next quiz in the comments I shall consider it kindly. 

Dear Readers, I hope you enjoyed this week’s quiz – I must say I really enjoyed looking at the photographs of these extraordinary insects, so varied and so exquisite (even the ones that munch on my lavender and eat other people’s lilies). Did you have a favourite? I have to say that the golden-bloomed longhorn beetle struck me as particularly gorgeous, but I have a great fondness for every single one. When I was growing up, we used to have stag beetles in our ‘summer room’ (aka cheap conservatory) and when Dad took us to watch the speedway at Hackney, the air would be full of cockchafers. Let’s do everything that we can to support these extraordinary animals.

Photo One by Bruce Marlin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

1) d) Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela campestris)

Photo Two by George Chernilevsky / Public domain

2) n) Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus)

Photo Three by Salicyna / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

3) j) Lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii)

Photo Four by Hectonichus / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

4) a) Rosemary beetle (Chrysolina americana)

Photo Five by Galwaygirl / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

5) l) Devil’s coach-horse (Staphylinus olens

Photo Six by spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

6) m) Harlequin ladybird ( Harmonia axyridis)

Photo Seven by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

7) c) Bloody-nosed beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa)

Photo Eight by By André Karwath aka Aka - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=875749

8) h) Click beetle (Athous haemorrhoidalis)

Photo Nine by By I, Chrumps, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2521547

9) b) Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)

Photo Ten by Ben Sale from UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

10) i) 16-spot orange ladybird ( Halyzia 16-guttata)

Photo Eleven by Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

11) k) Sexton beetle (Nicrophorus vespillo)

Photo Twelve by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

12) g) Vine weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus)

Photo Thirteen by Ryan Hodnett / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

13) f) Thistle tortoise beetle (Cassida rubiginosa)Photo Fourteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)14) o) Cockchafer/May bug ( Melolontha melolontha)

Photo Fifteen by Siga / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

15) e) Golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle (Agapanthia villosoviridescens)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Bruce Marlin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

Photo Two by George Chernilevsky / Public domain

Photo Three by Salicyna / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Photo Four by Hectonichus / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Five by Galwaygirl / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Six by spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Seven by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Eight by By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=875749

Photo Nine by By I, Chrumps, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2521547

Photo Ten by Ben Sale from UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Eleven by Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Twelve by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Photo Thirteen by Ryan Hodnett / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Photo Fourteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Fifteen by Siga / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Sunday in the Garden and Some Thoughts on Sun Beetles

Fledgling starling

Dear Readers, the fledgling starlings are gradually reappearing in the garden: I must admit to missing their bickering and general shenanigans. They have a distinctly half and half look to them at the moment – the head on this one is still very juvenile, but its body is acquiring the iridescent plumage and the ‘stars’ that give the bird its common name. The head and upper parts are likely to remain brown right through the bird’s first winter, only changing in the spring.

As the bird comes into breeding condition it will become darker in colour with fewer breast spots, and the beak changes from black to yellow. There will be a blue flush at the base of the bill if the bird is male, a rosy flush if it is a female (it’s very handy to have a species colour-coded!)

Next to the starling, a squirrel is eating a ridiculous quantity of sunflower seeds. Looking at her belly, I suspect that she has her second babies of the year on the way, or already in the nest.

Mrs Squirrel

Mrs Squirrel’s stomach

I’m looking forward to seeing the new youngsters when they emerge, they were so much fun last time.Looks like the robins have been busy too. This will be their second brood of the year.

Baby robin amongst the jasmine flowers

An adult robin sat in the lilac ticking away, but the fledgling seemed oblivious as it chased mealworms and refused to pay attention. The adult seems as if he or she is currently going through the moulting process, and has a generally threadbare look. I’m sure they’ll be glad when all this feather-shedding nonsense is over and done with.

Anxious adult robin

And finally, I have been noticing how the butterflies seem to visit the garden in waves. For a few days there were gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus) everywhere, but now there seems to be a little storm of holly blues (Celastrina argiolis). In the spring the butterfly lays its eggs on holly, as you might expect, but in summer it turns its attention to ivy – I must check the ivy that is sprawling over the shed to see if there are any eggs or caterpillars. It is the most delicate little beauty, and it’s said to prefer honeydew to nectar, though it makes an exception for the hemp agrimony. I love those big dark eyes, and the bands on the antennae.

Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus)

Now, my beetles quiz yesterday made me think about when I was a child and used to root around in our East London garden with my mother’s cutlery, looking for insects. Some of my favourites were the little metallic beetles that used to scurry about, especially on sunny days. Dad always called them ‘sun beetles’, and said that they were good for the garden because they ate all the ‘baddies’.

It turns out that, as usual, Dad was right – the adult beetles eat creatures such as the apple maggot and the soybean aphid, and they are being put to work in orchards and fields to help with pest control. It makes me sad that he’s not here for me to tell, he’d be well chuffed. But gradually, I find that I’m remembering the good times with Mum and Dad rather than all the illness and misery of their last few years, and I’m also remembering them as my parents, rather than as the subjects of my care. As usual, the natural world seems to help me to knit them together again in my memory as whole, unique human beings. In my mind’s eye I remember the sun beetles running over the clods of earth like drops of mercury, while Dad rests on his spade and wipes the sweat from his eyes with a brown, muscular forearm. I look up at him from where I’m perched on a stone, trying to mark some ants with watercolour paint so that I’ll recognise them next time I meet them, and I feel utterly safe and contented. Dad’s calmness in the face of everything in the natural world, his curiosity and his gentleness have soaked into me like so much badly-needed rainwater. What gifts he gave me.

 

 

Sunday Quiz – An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Thick-legged flower beetle on ragwort

Dear Readers, I hope you will not mind that, for the second week in a row, I am featuring insects as the subject for the quiz – I am called ‘Bugwoman’ after all! The quote in the title comes from the British evolutionary biologist J.B.S Haldane, who said;

“If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.”

There are over 400,000 species of beetle that we know about, and they constitute 25% of all known animal life-forms, so it seemed appropriate that they should have a moment in the spotlight. In the quiz below, I’ve tried to choose beetles whose names and body-shape might give you a clue: they are all from the UK, but I’m sure that wherever you are in the world you might have something similar. Anyhoo, have a go!

Beetles

Match the photo to the name. So, if you think photo 1) is a Rosemary beetle, your answer is 1)a).

Good luck!

a) Rosemary beetle (Chrysolina americana)

b) Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)

c) Bloody-nosed beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa)

d) Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela campestris)

e) Golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle (Agapanthia villosoviridescens)

f) Thistle tortoise beetle (Cassida rubiginosa)

g) Vine weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus)

h) Click beetle (Athous haemorrhoidalis)

i) 16-spot orange ladybird ( Halyzia 16-guttata)

j) Lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii)

k) Sexton beetle (Nicrophorus vespillo)

l) Devil’s coach-horse (Staphylinus olens)

m) Harlequin ladybird ( Harmonia axyridis)

n) Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus)

o) Cockchafer/May bug ( Melolontha melolontha)

Answers will be published on Tuesday, so if you want to be ‘marked’, put your answer in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Monday. If you don’t want to be influenced by people who’ve answered before you, I suggest you do that old-school thing and write your responses down first :-). And even if you don’t feel confident to ‘go public’, have a go! You might be surprised by what you already know.

Onwards!

Photo One

1)

Photo Two by George Chernilevsky / Public domain

2)

Photo Three by Salicyna / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

3)

Photo Four by Hectonichus / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

4)

Photo Five by Galwaygirl / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

5)

Photo Six by spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

6)

Photo Seven by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

7)

Photo Eight by By André Karwath aka Aka - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=875749

8)

Photo Nine by By I, Chrumps, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2521547

9)

Photo Ten by Ben Sale from UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

10)

Photo Eleven by Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

11)

Photo Twelve by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

12)

Photo Thirteen by Ryan Hodnett / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

13)

Photo Fourteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

14)

Photo Fifteen by Siga / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

15)

 

Breakfast in the Garden

Huge buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) on bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara)

Dear Readers, I love to take a leisurely breakfast in the garden when I’m not working – it’s interesting to sit alongside the other creatures as they start their day. The table is close to the bittersweet and honeysuckle: I planted the latter but the former just appeared, and has proved to be so popular with wildlife that I’ve let it stay. The low-pitched buzzing of the bees as they arrive, followed by the high-pitched whizzing sound as they buzz-pollinate the flowers has been a source of much delight to me. I was most intrigued to see an enormous queen buff-tailed bumblebee attempting to buzz-pollinate one of the flowers – she was about as big as my thumb to the first joint, and I’m guessing that she’s fattening up before finding somewhere to hibernate. She certainly seems like a well-fed individual to me. For a size comparison, there’s a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) below, and a quick video of some buzz-pollinating.

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) with Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

I’ve mentioned before that the birds are noticeable by their absence, but I have continued to put out the live mealworms, and they’ve all disappeared (though part of me hopes that some of them have escaped into the undergrowth). However, today I noticed a tiny movement in the jasmine, and for once I actually had the camera ready.

I have heard wrens lots of times in the undergrowth, but rarely see them, and they are very hard to capture on film as they are so active, always bobbing about and intensely wary.

I suspect this one is a youngster – it still looks a little fluffy and has the yellow skin at the base of the beak which helps the adults know where to stick the caterpillars. I’m glad to know that the mealworms are providing a readily-available source of protein, as most young garden birds in the UK are fed on insects, even if they’ll be gramnivorous as adults.  As we know, wrens punch well above their weight in terms of the decibels that they produce. This one had no sooner landed and picked up a few mealworms than it zipped back into the lilac, scolding at the top of its voice.

And what could the reason be? It appears that my cat, usually terrified to venture outdoors, had decided that now was a perfect time to take a hesitant stroll around the patio. Readers, meet Willow – she’s fourteen this year so looking a little scruffy but apart from high blood pressure she’s doing very well. She was rescued when she was three, and was a real scaredy cat when she arrived as a foster cat with her brother, who was a real bruiser. When he was rehomed (much to her relief) she really started to blossom, and we decided that she was the cat for us. She is pretty much perfect (says the proud mother).

Willow

So, after a brief tour the cat heads back indoors, and it’s time for me to go indoors too, but not before sussing out the butterfly that’s landed on the hemp agrimony. The twin eyelets on the upper wing tell me that it’s a gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), and furthermore it’s a female – the male has a dark band across the upper wings.

Now, for all you citizen scientists in the UK it’s the Big Butterfly Count at the moment – it started last Friday so I’m a bit remiss, but it runs until 9th August so there’s still plenty of time. You can download an app for your phone from the link above, or go old-school and use a chart. And this year you can record as many times as you like – all you need to do is watch a specific patch for 15 minutes and record what you see. This is a relief for me because I get different butterflies at the front of the house (buddleia and lilac) from in the back garden (at the moment, hemp agrimony and honeysuckle mainly), and I suspect my lovely patch alongside Muswell Hill Playing Fields will have yet more species. I think it’s been a bumper year for butterflies and moths, so let me know what you find, and I will post on the subject some time next week. Have fun, everybody!

Friday Book – ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’ by Nick Hunt

Dear Readers, like many of us I have been working my way through my reading pile during lockdown, and this book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’ by Nick Hunt, has been such a pleasure. Partly it’s been the joy of reading about travel at a time when the furthest I’ve been is Hampstead Heath, but it’s also because Hunt has introduced me to all sorts of things that I’d never thought about.

Firstly, why is it that in the rest of Europe there are so many named winds? In the UK there is only one, the Helm, which is an extremely local phenomenon . If we go onto mainland Europe we find the Foehn of the Alps, the Mistral of southern France, the Bora of the Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic Sea, and the Halny of Slovakia and Poland.

Hunt decides to go and find four of these, starting with the Helm which blows from the east over the top of Cross Fell in the northern Pennines. It was described by the Reverend William Walton as producing

‘ ..a loud noise like the roaring of distant thunder; and it is carefully avoided by travellers in that district ….as being fraught with considerable danger‘.

A sign of an approaching Helm wind is the Helm Bar, an unusual cloud formation ‘polished smooth on the underside, that wallows above the top of the range in an otherwise empty sky‘.

Hunt is full of hope on his first trip, but is soon to be disappointed:

Twice I thought I heard a roar that might be the wind picking up, but in this I was disappointed too: the first turned out to be an HGV on the A66, and the second a black bull bellowing in a field’.

Hunt turns out to be an entertaining and enlightening guide to the winds of Europe: in previous theologies the winds were gods, and they each have their own characters. The Bora, for example, is a clean, clarifying wind, and the author has many adventures en route to finding it. He starts his journey in Trieste, which is one of the ‘mouths’ of the wind, where the cold air bottled up from the north east erupts over the Karst plateau and through gaps in the mountains. The city is immensely proud of the wind, which seems to be in contrast to its otherwise rather prim, melancholy nature:

Every guidebook I’d read, every article, every internet travel forum, mentioned the Bora as a kind of local celebrity, invariably listed alongside the city’s other famous visitors – Casanova, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, Stendhal, James Joyce – but far more wild, melodramatic and frequently returning. Much is made of the ropes and chains slung along pavements at intersections for people to cling on to on Bora days – many have been removed as people kept stealing them for souvenirs- and shops sell postcards of flying hats, uplifted skirts and pedestrians bent at forty-five degree angles. The Bora is, as Morris says, ‘fundamental to Trieste’s self-image’.

Photo One by By Angusprain - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15269321

The Bora on the Molo Audace in Trieste (Photo One)

Sadly, hats remain firmly on heads and skirts remain demure during Hunt’s time in Trieste, so he heads south, through Slovenia, to another ‘mouth of the wind’, Senj.

Photo Two by By Roberta F., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18336862

Effect of the Bora in Senj, Croatia (Photo Two)

The Bora, named for Boreas, god of the north wind, is largely seen as a cleansing wind,

‘Burja (Bora) is a healthy wind. People who live on the Kras (Karst) are strong. In the wind, they grow thick skins’.

This is in strong contrast to the Foehn, the wind of the Alps that Hunt looks for next. It has a reputation as a wind that makes people sick with depression, and there is even a name for the disorder; Föhnkrankenheit. . In Liechtenstein, a lady in the tourist office describes how the wind makes her feel:

‘I get very bad headaches’, said the buxom lady behind the desk in flawless English. ‘They start a day before each Foehn. You can feel the pressure in the air. Oh God, I cannot stand it’.

Hunt feels the full effect of this himself:

A nameless apprehension gnawed at me, a feeling that somehow, something had gone extremely wrong. I thought of the journey still to come, and felt only exhaustion. The rucksack-pain in my shoulders, and the boot-pain in my feet: I simply wanted them to stop. I was sick of this restless travelling, of endlessly meeting and parting from people. I was sick of the mountains, the valleys, the light: I was sick of wind. But mostly I was sick of myself. What the hell was wrong with me? I had come all this way to meet the Foehn, and now that I had found what I wanted – or it had found me – I felt completely wretched.

And then a lightbulb went on in my head. This was how I was meant to feel. ‘

Maybe the effect is because, unlike the Bora, the Foehn is a hot wind, known in Alpine regions as ‘the snow-eater’ because it can melt snow in a matter of hours. It is also a terrible spreader of fire, and Hunt mentions several instances of whole villages being reduced to ashes because the Foehn carried the sparks from one building to another.

Photo Three by By Depunity - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58262284

What causes a Foehn wind (Photo Three)

And finally, Hunt goes in search of the Mistral, following the Rhône river south from Valence to the Crau country, on the east of the river. The Mistral is associated both with mystery and with madness, and one particular kind of madness seems to crop up on every walk that Hunt does: a deep fear of the other. On every walk, he has a discussion of some kind about immigrants, but on the Mistral walk he stays overnight with a French- Algerian man who is living in Avignon:

He had lived in England for a year , ‘by the sea in a house which was called Mistral.This is the French word for the wind…..’ I nodded and said nothing. ‘In that house I felt at home. I felt so free in England. You can go to a nightclub wearing what you like,  you can even go in your pyjamas and no one will stare at you. In France it’s different. Especially in the Midi,  they will not let me into a nightclub even if I put on a suit, because of my skin. They see my clothes, they say ‘come in’, they see my face, they say ‘no thanks’. People in Provence are very small in the mind’.

Photo Five by By Nick Stahlkocher - Stahlkochers collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=909719

Oak bent by the Mistral in Sardinia (Photo Five)

I’d have to say that there are plenty of people in England who are also very ‘small in the mind’, but the theme is one that continues to appear wherever Hunt goes, much to his discomfiture. However, not all his encounters are so difficult: he talks to some extremely interesting people, such as the man in Trieste who runs a ‘Museum of the Bora’, and has a collection of jars of other samples of the wind from all over the world. Then there are the people who descend on a mountain hut in the Dinaric Alps with brandy, cheese, bread and meat and throw an impromptu all-night party in the midst of the Bora.  The walks manage to thread together science, history, the natural world, geology, and the intensely personal. His final few pages on the Mistral reach a kind of catharsis that is rare in writing of this kind, and I found myself intensely moved. He is camped on the bare plain of the Crau country, and night, and the Mistral, have come.

‘Deprived of sight, I could only feel. The world was simplified even more. It was just the Mistral and me.

The dry tide ebbed towards the sea, and I was just another rock caught within its current. For the first time on these walks I understood – for a second at least – what was actually going on around my body, under my skin; the molecules of air rushing from high pressure to low pressure, with their cargo of charged ions, righting an atmospheric balance knocked off kilter. What felt like violent, tearing force was actually the restoration of peace; what felt like furious motion an attempt to reach stillness’.

What a wonderful book this was – I cannot recommend it highly enough. And I would love to know if you have a local wind where you live, and if they seem to have an effect on the culture, or on the mood, of the people who experience it. I am positively wind-powered at the moment!

Incidentally, Nick Hunt also co-wrote one of my favourite recent books, ‘The Parakeeting of London‘, which explores the history of our feral parakeets and discovers that the attitudes towards them are nearly as diverse as the humans who observe them.

Photo Six By SiefkinDR - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3443498

The bell tower of the church of La Cadiere d’Azur is open to allow the Mistral to pass through (Photo Six)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Angusprain – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15269321

Photo Two by By Roberta F., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18336862′

Photo Three by By Depunity – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58262284

Photo Five by By Nick Stahlkocher – Stahlkochers collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=909719

Photo Six By SiefkinDR – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3443498

 

A Visit From The King of the Cats

Dear Readers, I allowed myself a whole half hour in the garden before the third part of my Zoom Away Day today. What a pleasure it was to see a Big Cat drinking from the pond! I have written about Bailey before – he is a magnificent creature who lives a few houses up the road from me. This year he will be eighteen years old and so he is a little slower and more arthritic than he was when we first moved in, but he is still a Very Fine Cat Indeed.

Bailey has previously drunk water in our kitchen direct from the tap, but today he seemed in the mood for something more ‘natural’. I suspect he is getting a bit deaf, because he didn’t turn a whisker when I crouched down to take his portrait. Or maybe he just doesn’t care. He has always been a most implacable cat, who knows exactly what he wants and where he’s going, regardless of other cats or humans.

He still has the world’s loudest miaow, and after a drink he made it very clear what he wanted.

Sadly, i have a very nervous little cat of my own these days, and so Bailey is no longer allowed in the house. He used to wander in and sit in the armchair for hours. Today, he just looked a little put out, and went to a sunny corner of the garden for a doze.

It is always sad when we see those we love, human or animal, becoming slower and older, but there is a kind of beauty to it too. There is something dignified and thoughtful about this cat, and we could learn much from his calm demeanour and direct but gentle ways. There is no doubt that he is in the autumn of his years, but he is still undeniably himself, a cat with his own way of doing things and no desire to change. I wish for all of us such a peaceful twilight.

 

Wednesday Weed – Mugwort – An Update

Dear Readers, I have what is officially known as ‘the week from hell’ this week, with another two half-days of Away Day and a whole gamut of ‘stuff’ to sort out. So, having been most intrigued with the mugwort that I found last week, I thought I’d give my post another airing. And, so that you don’t think I’m slacking off completely, here are a few new photos from the weekend. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Dear Readers, it is always a pleasure to write about a very common and widespread ‘weed’, especially one that may have slipped under our radar. So it is with Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), a member of the Daisy (Asteraceae) family. It has sprays of little, unobtrusive flowers, deeply-cut leaves that look silver underneath, and it is said to be faintly aromatic, though as usual I forgot to check out the scent.

Mugwort looks like a quintessential ‘weed’ – not the kind of thing that you’d want to pop up in your garden for its good looks. Indeed, Richard Mabey reports that in Lancashire it’s known as ‘Council Weed’ because it always seems to appear after the local council have sprayed everything else. And yet, it was once known as Mater Herbarum (the Mother of Weeds) and is one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons:

‘Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.’

Medicinally, it seems to have been mainly used in two ways: to ease period and childbirth pains, and to lessen the shaking of ‘the palsy’. It was thought in Wales that a bunch of the plant tied to the left thigh of a woman in labour would ease her distress, though the plant had to be removed immediately after delivery to prevent haemorrhage.  The dried leaves were used to ease ‘hysterical fits’, and were also thought to be a cure for epilepsy. It was probably these  medicinal properties that resulted in it being imported into the UK in ancient times (it’s native to mainland Europe, Asia, North Africa and Alaska, and is naturalised throughout North America).

One of Mugwort’s alternative names is ‘Poor Man’s Tobacco’, and the dried flowers have been smoked by young people since time immemorial. Smoking the plant is said to cause vivid dreams. As if being an intoxicating drug wasn’t enough, it has also been used to flavour beer (much like ground ivy), and some think that this is where the name ‘mugwort’ originated, beer being drunk from a pottery mug in those days rather than a glass. If you would like to have a bash at creating your own Mugwort beer, there’s a recipe here.And if you get very keen, there’s a recipe for an ancient gruit beer here: gruit beers predate hops, and so are closer to what our medieval ancestors might have glugged down, just before they fell, singing, into a hedge.

An alternative reason for the name might be that ‘mug’ is a variant on the old word ‘mouchte’, meaning moth – the leaves have long been thought to be efficacious against clothes moths.

In Cornwall, the leaves were used as a tea substitute when ‘real’ tea grew too expensive during World War ii. It is also used as a culinary herb for stuffing roast goose on St Martin’s Day in Germany, although as it is  closely related to that bitterest of herbs, Wormwood, I suspect it may be an acquired taste. Mugwort is used extensively in Korean and Japanese cuisine, but  the plant they use is not ‘our’ mugwort. Some members of the genus Artemisia are much more bitter in flavour than others.

Mugwort has a long association with St John the Baptist, and with travellers. The saint was said to have worn a girdle of the plant for protection when he was in the wilderness, and stuffing your shoes with mugwort is said to be a talisman against everything from fatigue to being attacked by wild beasts. In Holland and Germany, the plant was gathered on St John’s Eve (23rd June) as a protection against misfortune in the year to come. I note that this is very close to the Summer Solstice, and may be yet another example of the blending of Christian and Pagan beliefs.

You might think that the Latin name for Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, links the plant back to Artemis/Diana, the goddess of hunting in Greek and Roman traditions. However, there is some thought that it is actually named after Artemis II of Caria, a botanist, medical researcher and naval strategist who died in 350 BC. She managed to hold off the navy of Rhodes, who advanced on the little island of Caria because they thought that a female ruler would be easy to defeat. She soon showed them their marching (sailing) orders. However, she is best known to history as the woman who drank her dead husband’s ashes in a goblet of wine every day as an act of extravagant mourning. The fact that her husband was also her brother adds a salacious frisson to the whole tale. Many artists took to their brushes to depict this scene, rather than her naval victories.. Women are so much less threatening when they’re imbibing their husbands and looking mournful. Especially when their blouse is dropping off.

Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of her Husband (attributed to Francesco Furini, circa 1630- Public Domain)

And to end, here is one of the last poems of Edward Thomas. I don’t recall the honeycomb smell of ‘mugwort dull’, but there is something about this work that captures that moment, poised between summer and autumn, between hope and despair, that I feel in my bones. I’ve read it once, and then again. It haunts me. Strange days, indeed.

The Brook

Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.
Last Poems, 1918.