Monthly Archives: October 2020

‘More Than Weeds’ – A London Natural History Society Talk by Sophie Leguil

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Dear Readers, you might have noticed that, since the lockdown, people have been looking at the plants and animals in their neighbourhoods with new eyes. As we patrol our local ‘territories’, many of us are starting to wonder what the plants making their presence felt at the base of walls and amidst the pavement slabs are, and some people, including Sophie Leguil, have been chalking their names next to them, so that we’ll know what we’re looking at.

Well, none of this is any surprise to me: since I started the Wednesday Weed in 2014 I have become great friends with the plants in my neighbourhood, and any walk in Bugwoman’s company is likely to involve a litany of botanical and vernacular names as I pass my pals. So it was with great pleasure that I joined the latest in the London Natural History Society’s online talks, this time about ‘Pavement Plants’. You can watch the talk on Youtube here.

Sophie Leguil is the woman behind ‘More Than Weeds‘, an organisation that aims to help us be more aware of the plants that surround us in the city, and encourages us to record what we find on sites such as the BSBI(Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland)’s website. She is a very engaging and knowledgable speaker, and we covered a lot of territory in our thirty minutes. We started with a history of ‘weeds’, and Sophie showed a picture of Canary Wharf where, apart from a few tightly pruned beech shrubs, there was no life at all – not a hillock of moss, not a scrap of lichen. Historically, weeds became a ‘problem’ when we first domesticated plants, and realised that there would usually be some interlopers in our fields or grain stores. More recently, however, weeds would have grown prolifically in our cities, and some of the street names reflect this: there is a ‘Nettle Street’ in Paris, for example, and this was no doubt a back alley where humans would go to urinate, nettles being very fond of phosphate and nitrogen.

Some people profited from the weeds: Sophie showed an illustration of the ‘Groundsel Man’, who gathered groundsel and chickweed and sold it to wealthy city dwellers for them to use as food for their caged birds. However, by the nineteenth century people were beginning to see weeds as ‘noisome’, and there were various home-grown recipes for weed-killer, some including prodigious quantities of sulphur. By the twentieth century there was ‘Eureka’, a weed-killer containing arsenic. And then, of course, we were into the whole array of chemical herbicides, such as glyphosate.

The great bonus of the lockdown has been that the chap who usually wanders along the street with a tank of weed-killer on his back, spraying everything on the pavement, has not been seen, and so the ‘weeds’ are proliferating. And what a joy they can be!

Incidentally, it is illegal in the UK to use chalk to mark walls or pavements, but more power to the chalkpeople, who are highlighting the wild plants around us and bringing so much happiness to those who had gone ‘plant-blind’.

Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian and Handout

Some councils are becoming more enlightened on their spraying policy: Hackney is making weeding-free areas, has banned glyphosate and is moving towards more targeted weeding rather than the blanket blitz that most councils go in for. Lambeth plans to phase out glyphosate by 2021. But alas the rest of the councils are still in full-on plant-murder mode, and intend to do what they’ve always done. Fortunately, campaigns such as Sophie’s ‘More Than Weeds‘, and Plantlife’s Road Verges Campaign are at least awakening people to the importance of ‘pavement plants’.

Why are they important, though? Well, for one thing they are an extremely useful resource for our embattled insects. 76% of insect species only feed on one plant family, so they are specialised creatures, threatened when their foodplants disappear. Fortunately, our roadside plants are extremely varied – on one survey, Sophie found 62 species of plants from 26 different families. And with the insects come the birds who feed on them. We might get excited about rewilding when it comes to beavers and white-tailed eagles, but how about the creatures at the bottom of the food chain? As I know from my own garden, it’s surprising what turns up if you have a variety of plants, and aren’t overly tidy.

Sophie also makes the point that many weeds are associated with the amelioration of pollution – ribwort plantain is known to reduce the presence of heavy metals in the soil, while an ivy screen was shown to reduce nitrogen dioxide pollution by 24-36% and particulate pollution by 38-41%. Plus, plants make soil when they die and are broken down, and this helps to absorb run-off and even surface flooding.

I think that if we don’t start seeing ourselves as part of the natural world, rather than separate from it, we really will be in for a shock. Historically we have lived alongside plants and animals because we didn’t have a choice: before mechanical methods for sieving grain, for example, we couldn’t get rid of the corncockles and the cornflowers that hid amongst the seed. How ironic that these days we want nothing more than a wildflower meadow in the back garden! But maybe, just maybe, people are starting to realise how much abundance surrounds us, given half a chance, even in the city.

Some really creative Troll street art by @davidzinn_art
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The Mysterious African Wading Rat

Photo One fromhttps://www.newscientist.com/article/2256702-rat-that-uses-whiskers-to-hunt-underwater-prey-is-really-four-species/ by Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum
The African Wading Rat (Formerly known as Colomys goslingi) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, many of you were so convinced that it was April 1st when I reported on tardigrades last week that I thought I’d give another unlikely creature its moment in the spotlight today. The African Wading Rat was formerly thought to be just one species (Colomys goslingi), but recent studies have found that there are at least four different species, found from Liberia to Kenya.

However, the interesting thing about the African Wading rat is that it hunts for its food (insects, small fish and the occasional tadpole) in streams and rivers. This is most unusual behaviour for a rodent. Furthermore, it uses its long whiskers to sense the presence of prey by draping them on the surface of the water. And, finally, it apparently strides into the water with its ‘stilt-like feet’. What’s not to love?

Photo https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-African-rodent-Colomys-goslingi-Thomas-and-%2C-(-Parey/de568cae8f2f0089e3c37d801b87275cdebda889 from
Photos from the 1907 Wading Rat study (Photo Two)

Until recently, the main study of these rodents seems to have been in 1907, hence the quality of the photos above. The wading rat was seen using its whiskers to hunt for tadpoles (sorry to any of my frog-loving readers). Unfortunately the rodents were then killed and their stomach contents examined to see that they ate, well, tadpoles. Thank goodness for the more observational approach taken by most scientists today.

We have no idea how many wading rats there are, where they live or what they get up to, but the scientists who discovered how varied they are are obviously concerned about all the usual things – deforestation, political strife and mining. And their closest relative is none other than the Ethiopian amphibious rat (Nilopegamys plumbeus), known to science from a single animal found in the 1920s. The animal lived close to the source of the river Little Abbai in North-Western Ethiopia, but the area has long been degraded by over-grazing, and is now apparently completely destroyed. From the one specimen that we have, it’s clear that the rat was extremely well adapted for the aquatic life, with enlarged back feet to help with swimming and a dense coat to keep it warm in the water.

Photo Three fromhttps://www.globalwildlife.org/lost-small-mammals/
Ethiopian aquatic rat (Nilopegamys plumbeus) (Photo Three)

Furthermore, both the Ethiopian and the African species described above seem to have large brains compared to other rodents of a similar size. In creatures like raccoons, the areas of their brains associated with their sensitive hands are much enlarged, so maybe the ‘whisker area’ of these animals’ brains is particularly well-developed: they have a lot of complex processing to do when they’re trying to find and catch their aquatic prey.

There have been two attempts to find the Ethiopian aquatic rat, but no luck so far. It’s probably worth asking the local people (if that hasn’t happened already) as they are usually the ones who know what animals can be found where. At any rate, let’s hope that the wading rats that are going about their business all over Africa don’t end up disappeared in the same way as their Ethiopian cousin. We need all the biodiversity that we can get.

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2256702-rat-that-uses-whiskers-to-hunt-underwater-prey-is-really-four-species/ by Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum

Photo Two from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-African-rodent-Colomys-goslingi-Thomas-and-%2C-(-Parey/de568cae8f2f0089e3c37d801b87275cdebda889

Photo Three from https://www.globalwildlife.org/lost-small-mammals/

Notes From an Open University Course – Sustainable Development

Dear Readers, I don’t know about you but I get a bit fed up with the way that the term ‘sustainability’ is banded about these days. Everyone from Big Pharma to the manufacturers of concrete talk endlessly about how their products are ‘sustainable’ without seemingly giving any thought to what this actually means. Much as ‘natural’ and ‘green’ are terms totally without any actual legal meaning, so we have a general sense that something that is ‘sustainable’ must be a good thing. No wonder many of us are so tired and cynical about the ‘greenwash’ that is everywhere, and no wonder we are also very confused.

Let’s take a quick whizz back to 1987 and a meeting of the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission after the chair, the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland. The aim of the Commission was to attempt to define ‘sustainable development’. In the process, they had to try to square the circle between developed countries, who were trying to protect the environment while also protecting their burgeoning economies and the lifestyles of their electorates, with the needs of developing countries who wanted better lives for their people. The formulation arrived at was:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs‘.

Well, it was nice that everyone could agree with this (very flexible) statement, but in effect it enabled everyone to kick the ball of what it actually meant into the long grass for a generation.

What sustainable development actually means is contained in the Venn diagram at the top of the page. It has to factor in three areas: the economy, the people affected by it, and the environment. You only have to look at the diagram to sense the enormity of the issue. Sustainable development can only happen when the environment is able to bear what is happening (after all, sustainable in effect means that things are in a steady state, not deteriorating). It must be economically viable. And thirdly, it must be equitable.

What a tremendous aspiration this is! And you only have to think about it for five minutes to spot the problems. Who decides what the environment can bear? It’s clear that the planet is currently overwhelmed with a whole range of problems, but for much of the population it’s business as usual. Equity between people is a vanishingly rare phenomenon in human history, even though studies show that the most equitable societies have more happy people (not just the poorest but also the richest). And who decides what is ‘economically viable’?

Well, let’s hope that at some point we’re able to work it out, preferably before the whole place becomes uninhabitable for humans. There are some truly wonderful projects happening out in the world: my text book mentions a non-governmental organisation called Shidhulai that works in Bangladesh. They have boats equipped with solar panels that move about the Sunderbans, where road transport is very difficult, and they supply households with recharging facilities for household electricity needs, as well as a floating school and healthcare facilities. The schools are especially important in raising levels of female literacy. The solar-charged lamps that they provide displace kerosene lamps, improve air quality and health in people’s homes and are used by night-fishermen, allowing them to earn more and work in greater safety. You can read more about this project, and many others, here. And do have a look – it’s so easy to just fall into despair these days, but the ingenuity and determination of human beings to make things better should never be underestimated.

Floating school run by Shidhulai in Bangladesh – see above for link to website.

An Autumn Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, today’s walk in the cemetery, snatched before the rain started, was a positive feast of fungi. Have a look at these sulphur tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare). I love the way that in one small patch we have fungi that are newly emerged, in their prime, starting to fade and some that are positively melting away.

I suspect that they are growing along the root line of some of the horse-chestnuts and oaks nearby, as they are strongly associated with deciduous woodland. Alas, they are also poisonous, so they will not be accompanying anyone’s cooked breakfast.

Further along I see this large round leathery fungus. It looks puffball-ish but the flesh is orange rather than white. It’s always difficult to identify these organisms, but even more so when one has absolutely no clue.

And then there is this chocolate-brown fungus with its slightly pimply top.

I love the way that the fruiting bodies of fungi just appear as if from nowhere – there’s none of the slow emergence of buds that you get with a plant. I remember when we moved from Stratford in the East End to the leafy streets of Seven Kings in Essex, we had a fairy ring in the lawn that popped up literally overnight. It was almost as exciting as our first hedgehog, or the day the apple tree fell over, but I digress. I found mushrooms magical then, and I still do today. I just wish I knew more about them.

Still, as we’re now in Tier Two lockdown in London I should have plenty of time to learn. This is undoubtedly the strangest year of my life (so far). 2020 saw my 60th birthday, an extraordinary trip to Borneo where we were surfing just ahead of a wave of lockdowns, the death of my Dad, the pandemic, and the start of a whole new challenge with my Open University degree. It has been a time of extraordinary anxiety and grief for me, but also a time for reflection, for considering what really does make a life worth living. More than anything, though, it feels like a hiatus, a liminal time between what was, and what will be. I would love to know how you are all doing in these peculiar, stressful times.

Onwards!

It’s fair to say that the holly and the ivy are both doing very well this year.

The woods are full of jays, and the inevitable squirrels.

And look at these fantastic trees! These are a variety of ash called ‘Raywood’ (Fraxinus angustifolia ssp oxycarpa), introduced from Australia in 1925 and now commonly planted for that stunning autumn colour.

Let’s hope that it has some resistance to the ash dieback disease which is killing native ash trees in the UK. I always have a good look at the ashes in the cemetery to see how they are doing, and to wonder at their strange, scarred trunks.

Further along the path, I hear a distinctive mewing sound – if you ever watch ‘Midsomer Murders’ you’ll hear it whenever there are shady goings-on in the woods, even though the bird that makes it is a buzzard, more a creature of open fields in my experience. I am always surprised that birds as magnificent as this make such a meek little call. And then I realise that there are two buzzards! They seem to be becoming established in these parts, which is very exciting. However, sure enough, within a few minutes a whole platoon of crows is up and in full-on harassment mode. You’d have to feel sorry for the poor old buzzards.

Buzzards (right) harassed by crow (left). It’s all go in East Finchley, I can tell you!

And then we wander uphill to where the Japanese Knotweed forms an impenetrable barrier between the cemetery and Muswill Hill Playing Fields, at least to humans. The little birds seem to love the plant, with dunnocks and robins all popping in and out, and I notice little tunnels at the base where the foxes are weaving through. It clearly isn’t all bad. And there’s a lovely patch of Michaelmas daisies which, even on this cold, grey day, is a buzz with late Common Carder bees and a rather splendid bee-mimic hoverfly.

Common carder on Michaelmas daisy
Bee-mimic hoverfly (Poss Eristalis horticola)

These bee-mimic hoverflies are extraordinary – they fly like bees, they feed like bees and some even move their abdomen in a particularly bee-like way. Alas, they cannot disguise the fact that they have only two wings when bees have four, and also flies have very short, stubby antennae, while bees have ‘elbowed’ antennae that bend in the middle and are clearly visible. Still, this late in the year I am cheered up by the site of any flying insect, and these Michaelmas daisies are delightful too – I love the way that the centre of the flower changes from yellow to red as it gets older, something I’d never noticed before.

And then, as the sky darkens and we head to the exit, I hear the familiar sound of a parakeet and see this chap perched at the top of a conifer, yelling his head off. Goodness only knows what he wanted, but he wasn’t shy about asking for it. There is still something so strange about seeing a parrot in North London, even though I see them every morning at 8 a.m. sharp as they fly over the rooftops en route to Hampstead Heath. They do cheer me up though, with their vibrant colour and air of always being slightly over-excited. Good luck to them!

Saturday Quiz – Technical Body Parts

Dear Readers, we probably all know that these amazing structures are antennae, but what about if I asked you where you’d find a speculum on a bird? Or what elytra are? Well, as you were all so brilliant last week I am upping the ante this weekend. Match the photos to the terms listed below, and pop your answers into the comments by 5 p.m.(UK time) next Thursday if you want to be marked. As usual, if you don’t want to be influenced by the very speedy people who tackle the quiz, write them down old-school on a piece of paper first.

So, if you think what’s shown in photo 1 are some pedipalps, your answer is 1) a)

Onwards! And good luck….

a) Pedipalps

b) Seta (plural Setae)

c) Cremaster

d) Supercilium

e) Scutellum

f) Elytron (plural Elytra)

g) Annulations

h) Speculum (pl.Specula or Speculums)

i) Alula (pl Alulae)

j) Halteres

k) Gonydeal spot

l) Pinaculum (pl. Pinacula)

m) Spiracles

n) Orbital ring

o) Corbiculum (plural Corbicula)

Photo One fromhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/gerwinfilius/2761155136/
1) What’s a bird’s eyebrow called?
2) What’s that little sticky-out thing on the upper edge of the wing?
Photo Three fromCC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89791
3) Wingcases?
Photo Four fromBy Laisverobotams at Lithuanian Wikipedia - Originally from lt.wikipedia; description page is/was here., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2932137
4) How about the bit in the circle?
5) What’s that little dumbbell thing at (3) called?
Photo Six by Dean Morley from https://www.flickr.com/photos/33465428@N02/5124628204
6) What are those peanut-shaped things called (this is a shot of an Indian Moon Moth caterpillar)
Photo Seven byBy Keven Law from Los Angeles, USA - Happy Feathery Friday....., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22481760
7). What’s that blue patch on the wing called?
8) What’s the name of the red spot on the lower bill?
9) And what’s the name of the ring around the eye?
10) What a hairy caterpillar! But what are the hairs called?
11)…and what’s the name for the pore from which the hair appears?
Photo Twelve by Boaz Ng fromhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/62331198@N06/12946289964/
12) What’s the name of the black ‘hook’ that enables the pupa to attach itself to a surface?
13) What’s the structure on the leg that’s used to hold pollen called?
14) What are those two ‘boxing gloves’ either side of the spider’s head called?
15) And finally, what are the stripes on this spider’s legs called?

Saturday Quiz – Unleaving – The Answers

Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) at the back of the Guildhall in the City of London)

Dear Readers, I thought this was a tough quiz but I was obviously wrong because Fran and Bobby Freelove, FEARN, Ringgi, Sarah and Christine all got 15 out of 15 correct! Or more likely you are all just brilliant. I shall have to think up a real stinker for Saturday. Thank you all for having a bash!

Stop the press! I missed seeing Sylvie’s answer in the comments, and she got 15 out of 15 as well, so well done Sylvie!

Photo One by Liz West from https://www.flickr.com/photos/53133240@N00/49486708/ Ash
1)d) Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
Photo Two by Peter O'Connor from https://www.flickr.com/photos/58414938@N00/8251708423/ Beech
2) i) Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
Photo Three by AnemoneProjectors / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) English Oak
3)h) English Oak (Quercus robur)
Photo Four by By Famartin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47084964 Weeping willow
4)e) Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)
Photo Five by Stefan.lefnaer / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) Alder
5)f) Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
Photo Six from https://botanicwalk.blogspot.com/2017/10/field-elm.html English elm
6)j) English Elm (Ulmus minor)
Photo Seven from the Trees for Cities website https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/the-mysterious-story-of-the-london-plane-tree
7)c) London Plane (Platanus × acerifolia)
Photo Eight by Famartin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) hawthorn
8)o) Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Photo Nine by Rosenzweig / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) Wild Service Tree
9)m) Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)
Photo Ten by Leonora (Ellie) Enking at https://www.flickr.com/photos/33037982@N04/5133784330/in/photostream/
10)n) Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
Photo Eleven by Marija Gajić / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) Sycamore
11)l) Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)
Photo Twelve by Ninjatacoshell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
12)a) Horse Chestnut ( Aesculus hippocastanum)
Public Domain (Ginkgo biloba)
13)b) Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
Photo Fourteen by By Rosser1954 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74704802 Silver Birch
14)k) Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Swamp cypress
15)g) Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Liz West from https://www.flickr.com/photos/53133240@N00/49486708/

Photo Two by Peter O’Connor from https://www.flickr.com/photos/58414938@N00/8251708423/

Photo Three by AnemoneProjectors / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Photo Four by By Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47084964

Photo Five by Stefan.lefnaer / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Photo Six from https://botanicwalk.blogspot.com/2017/10/field-elm.html

Photo Seven from the Trees for Cities website https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/the-mysterious-story-of-the-london-plane-tree

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

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

Photo Ten by Leonora (Ellie) Enking at https://www.flickr.com/photos/33037982@N04/5133784330/in/photostream/

Photo Eleven by Marija Gajić / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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

Photo Thirteen – Public Domain

Photo Fourteen by By Rosser1954 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74704802

Photo Fifteen – Bugwoman’s own!

Tardigrade!

Photo One fromhttp://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150313-the-toughest-animals-on-earth

Dear Readers, I hope you will forgive an extremely speedy blog today – we are in the middle of all kinds of shenanigans at work, with two people including our Finance Director on maternity leave and someone else on holiday, but nonetheless I am taking ten minutes to tell you the latest news on the super-heroes of the microscopic world, the tardigrades, or water-bears. There are about 1300 species of tardigrade (the name actually means ‘slow-stepper’) and they can be found anywhere from the tops of mountains to the super-heated vents of underwater volcanoes, from the Amazon rainforest to the Antarctic.

Individual species have developed a whole range of ‘superpowers’. Some can survive temperatures close to absolute zero (-272 degrees Centigrade): some can live through a few minutes of exposure to temperatures as high as 151 degrees Centigrade (although they are not as immune to being boiled as they are to almost everything else). They can go into a state of suspended animation when they are completely dehydrated, and can survive in this condition for up to 30 years. They can survive levels of radiation 1000 times higher than any other animal (largely because they have a special protein which protects their DNA from damage) and have even survived, unprotected, in the cold vacuum of space.

And this very morning, it turns out that tardigrades can also protect themselves from damaging ultraviolet light by creating a fluorescent shield. While a poor worm died in less than five minutes after exposure to the intense levels of UV light, the tardigrades ( a new species previously unknown to science) survived for over an hour until the experiment ended. Some bright spark (pun intended!) is now hoping that they can somehow use this skill to create a sunshield for humans.

A glowing tardigrade (from New Scientist article referenced above)

And now that we’ve found all this stuff out, maybe we can stop torturing these poor little critters. I think they’ve done quite enough to earn a quiet life, eh.

And if you’re as enamoured with these micro-beasties as I am, you can even buy a plush version. Who needs a teddy when you’ve got a tardigrade?

Photo Credits

Photo One from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150313-the-toughest-animals-on-earth

Wednesday Weed – Rowan

Rowan (Mountain Ash) (Sorbus aucuparia)

Dear Readers, if there is a better tree than the rowan for a small garden, I have yet to hear of it. In spring, it’s covered in frothy white blossom.

Photo One By Kenraiz - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083172
Photo One

In summer, its leaves are filmy and cast little shadow. In the autumn it’s often covered in berries, and its leaves turn to a variety of orange/copper/scarlet shades. Plus, the berries will stay on the tree through the winter, unless they are all gobbled up by birds.

Photo Two By Eeno11 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5029715
A roadside Rowan in County Wicklow, Ireland (Photo Two)

Rowans are native from Madeira and Iceland right the way to Northern China. They tolerate poor soil, and one of the pioneer species that pop up when a new habitat becomes available. Their good manners and graceful appearance have made them a popular choice for a street tree, with one road in Archway planted with just this species.

Rowans in Archway

However, just as the only problem with dogs is that they don’t live as long as we do, so it is with the rowan. In his excellent book ‘London’s Street Trees’, Paul Wood suggests that 25 years is a ‘good innings’ for a rowan, after which another tree will have to be planted in its place. So, this street could conceivably lose all its rowans at once.

The North London trees look surprisingly tall for what is often a stunted little tree. However, there is one individual tree in the Chilterns which is 28m tall, quite a height for a rowan.

Apart from its year-round attractiveness, the rowan is a most excellent tree for wildlife. You might be lucky enough to see waxwings munching on the berries, and redwings and fieldfares are also big fans, along with blackbirds.

Bohemian waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

35 different species of butterfly and moth caterpillar are also associated with the rowan, from the rather dandy leopard moth (Zeuzera pyrina) to the beautiful brocade (Lacanobia contigua)

Photo Three by By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7195872
Leopard moth (Zeuzera pyrina) (Photo Three)
Photo Four by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6986929
Beautiful Brocade (Lacanobia contigua) (Photo Four)

Rowan has a rich folklore: it used to be planted as a protection against witches, and in parts of Scotland there is still a taboo against cutting down a rowan tree, especially when it is close to houses. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey stresses that it’s the wood of the tree that is seen as potent, rather than the berries:

‘Rowan boughs were hung over stables and byres in the Highlands, used for stirring cream in the Lake District and cut for pocket charms against rheumatism in Cornwall’.

The poet Kathleen Raine and the author Gavin Maxwell (of Ring of Bright Water fame) had a most difficult relationship: passionate and all-encompassing on her side, rather more utilitarian on Maxwell’s side, as he was gay and Raine couldn’t accept this. On one occasion, when Maxwell had brought a lover home with him , Raine went to the rowan tree outside Maxwell’s house on the West Coast of Scotland and cursed him:

Let Gavin suffer in this place, as I am suffering now.

Shortly after this, Maxwell’s pet otter Mijbil was run down and killed (partly as a result of Raine letting the animal off its lead). Raine always believed that her curse had called something evil down upon Maxwell’s head and never forgave herself, though Maxwell, generously, forgave her. Then Maxwell’s house burned down. It seems that there might be rather more to the power of the rowan than we give it credit for. Leastways, it’s probably best not put such things to the test.

I recently acquired a rather lovely book called ‘Scottish Plant Lore – An Illustrated Flora‘ by Gregory J. Kenicer. In it, he describes how shepherd girls would usually drive their sheep with a staff made from Rowan wood, and how in Strathspey livestock were made to pass through a hoop made of rowan in the morning and evening, as a charm against black magic. It was also noted that rowan trees often grew around standing stones, and that one eighteenth century writer, Lightfoot (1777) thought that these might have been the remnants of trees planted by the druids who used to gather there.

Photo Five by Brian Turner / Rowan Tree on Feinn Loch - Kilmelford
Rowan Tree on Feinn Loch, Kimelford (Photo Five)

Now, you might be tempted to do something clever with the berries of the rowan, and indeed they are edible (though like so many things they are said to be better after frost). They contain very high levels of Vitamin C (good) but are also high in tannins (bad). The most common use is to turn them into a jelly that can be eaten with cold meats or cheese, but look! Here’s a recipe for rowan Turkish delight. I include it in honour of my poor old Dad, who loved the stuff, and who could get himself covered in powdered sugar faster than anyone I ever met.

Incidentally, the eattheweeds website is a most excellent source of inspiration for anyone who forages. There are some really imaginative ideas.

Photo Six by https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/rowan-recipe-turkish-delight
Rowan Turkish Delight (Photo Six)

Medicinally, the berries have been prescribed for stomach complaints and to staunch bleeding – I suspect that the tannins have a lot to do with any perceived efficacy. Be careful though, as some sources suggest that the berries can be poisonous.

The leaves have been used to make remedies for sore eyes, asthma, rheumatism and colds.

Photo Seven from https://foragerchef.com/rowanberries/
Photo Seven

Now, as previously mentioned, the wood of rowan is thought to be the most potent part of the plant, so it comes as no surprise that when I search for ‘rowan wood’ I find a plethora of wands, walking sticks and amulets made from the material. But what an attractive timber it is! One sculptor in wood described it as his ‘favourite wood for turning’.

There also seem to be a wide variety of Harry Potter-themed items made out of rowan, but having only read the first volume in the series (and that decades ago) I’ll have to rely on you to tell me what the possible connections are.

Photo Eight By Per Grunnet - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61399948
Freshly cut rowan wood (Photo Eight)

Incidentally, the word ‘rowan’ is thought to come from an Old Norse word meaning ‘to redden’, probably a reference to the berries (though at this time of year it occurs to me that it could also refer to the leaves). And I had totally forgotten that the rowan is mentioned in the lovely Scottish folksong ‘Mairi’s Wedding’:

Red her cheeks as rowans are,

bright her eyes as any star,

fairest of them all by far,

is our darling Mairi.

Gosh, this almost has me dancing. Have a listen here and see if you can avoid jiggling about.

And, to end with, a poem by Seamus Heaney. He decided on the last line after he heard an interview with Fionn mac Cumhaill, the legendary Irish figure, who, when asked what the best music in the world was, replied ‘the music of what happens’.

Song by Seamus Heaney

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083172

Photo Two By Eeno11 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5029715

Photo Three by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7195872

Photo Four by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6986929

Photo Five by Brian Turner / Rowan Tree on Feinn Loch – Kilmelford

Photo Six by https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/rowan-recipe-turkish-delight

Photo Seven from https://foragerchef.com/rowanberries/

Photo Eight By Per Grunnet – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61399948

A Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Variegated Holly tree with ivy stems

Dear Readers, for the first time in weeks I was able to go for a walk in our local cemetery today – we’ve been away for several weeks, and last week it rained so much that I started on Ark construction in the garden. Today was breezy-ish and cold-ish but off we went. The first thing I noticed was this fine holly tree, and it took me a second to realise that its furry trunk was probably a result of a spot of ivy removal.

And here is one of those headstones which looks at a cursory glance as if it has a dollar sign on it. This is in fact the initials IHS, standing for the first three letters of Jesus Christ’s name in Greek. The emblem is known as a Christogram, and is often found on the tombs of people originally from Ireland who are buried in the cemetery. I first noticed this symbol in East Finchley Cemetery and, as is often the way of things, once I’d noticed it I saw it everywhere.

And here is the burial place of Henry Croft, the original ‘Pearly King’. The Pearly Kings and Queens are an East End tradition dating back to the 1920’s. Croft was born in a Victorian workhouse in 1861, and, while working as a road sweeper, became inspired by the costumes of the costermongers that he used to see (a costermonger is someone who used to sell fruit or vegetables from a handcart in the street). The costermongers often sewed pearl buttons on to their trousers and jackets to make themselves look a bit fancier, but Croft went one better, attaching buttons to every available surface. He used to dress as ‘the pearly king’ in order to raise money for the poor, orphaned, disabled and destitute, but soon so many people wanted him to attend events as an attraction that he asked other people to make ‘pearly’ costumes and become pearly kings and queens themselves. There were 400 Pearly Kings and Queens at his funeral in 1930 (though, as their website sadly laments, there are fewer now). Looking at the faces on the website I really do see the faces of ‘my’ people – my Mum’s family were from Stratford, my Dad’s folk from Bow, and so my roots are in the East End. Maybe I should get my sewing needles out and become a Pearly? I could certainly knock up a few button bugs on my jacket.

Photo One from https://pearlysociety.co/
Present Day Pearly King and Queens at an event in 2019 (Photo One)

There used to be a very fine statue of Henry Croft on his grave, but it was vandalised so many times that it has now been removed to the crypt of St Martin in the Fields Church on Trafalgar Square.

Photo Two from https://pearlysociety.co/henry-croft
Statue of Henry Croft (Photo Two)
Sycamore leaves with tar spot fungus

Now, I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with the tar spot fungus which seems to adorn nearly all the sycamore trees at this time of year. Its Latin name is Rhytisma acerinum, and it is a type of sac fungus, or Ascomycete – many of the group are pathogens, but it also contains the penicillin fungus so they aren’t all bad.

In the spring, the spores of the fungus are released into the air from the infected leaves of the previous year. They are slightly sticky, and cling to the fresh green leaves, entering through the stomata (the pores through which the plant breathes). The infection causes the area around the fungus to cease to photosynthesise, causing the yellow patches that you can see in the photo. Gradually, the fruiting bodies, known as apothecia, form, and it’s these structures that cause the black colour of tar spot. A badly-infected leaf may fall from the tree a bit earlier than it would otherwise do, but the tree as a whole doesn’t seem to be weakened or adversely affected. In this, the plant and the fungus seem to have reached a sort of balance.

Photo Two by By Debivort, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=865503
An apothecia (fruiting body of an Ascomete fungus) (Photo Two)

It used to thought that tar spot couldn’t thrive in conditions where there was a lot of sulphur dioxide (such as city streets) because urban sycamores seemed relatively unaffected. But then, some bright spark realised that in cities, the leaves carrying the spores are usually swept up pretty promptly, so the tree is not re-infected every year, unlike in forests and cemeteries where it’s an annual event. Just goes to show that correlation is not causation.

Acorn bonanza

I’ve been saying for a while that this looks like an absolutely bumper year for acorns, and also for conkers by the look of things. Certainly the cemetery is full of squirrels. This one was so busy collecting nuts that he didn’t even notice us.

And then I noticed another animal crossing the path

It’s actually most unusual to see a cat in the cemetery, though you’d think it would be paradise. There are dogs and foxes too, of course. This one looks pretty young to me.

Anyhow, we sized one another up at a distance, and then the cat went on his merry way, and so did the squirrel. It sometimes feels like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with all the critters.

So, it was good to be back in the cemetery. For all that some of it is busy at the weekend, the overgrown bits are still thinly populated (by living people anyway). It’s perfectly possible to wander and not see anyone, and, if you ignore the constant hum of the North Circular Road in the background, you can still hear the birds. It’s a place to slow down and contemplate, and even though it’s still closed to the public during the week, I love that I can go there at the weekend. On a good day I can hear and see jays, long-tailed tits, green woodpeckers and nuthatches, not to mention an occasional goldcrest, and that makes me happier than almost anything else I can think of.

Invertebrate Poetry

Photo One by © Nevit Dilmen / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Pond-skater (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I woke up at 5 a.m., as I sometimes do, I found myself thinking about poetry, and about how often invertebrates are used to stand in for all kinds of human attributes and experiences. I adore W.B Yeats, as much for the way that the lyricism of his work begs to be read out loud as anything – think of ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death‘ or the most misquoted poem of the Twentieth Century, ‘The Second Coming‘. But you might not be quite so familiar with this, ‘Long-Legged Fly’. Three perfect visual images, linked by the idea of the fly. Actually, a pond skater is not a fly, but I forgive him.

Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

And how about this, from Fleur Adcock, who lives in East Finchley. I love the way that this poem starts from a five year-old and a snail, and opens out into the question of how mothers are seen, what kindness is, and how we try to protect our children from the realities that they will soon encounter.

Kindness to Snails

For a Five-Year-Old
Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it.  You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Photo Two by Retiredplayboy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Philippine orange tarantula (Orphnaecus philippinus) (Photo Two)

And finally, how about the tarantula? I rather love this poem by Thomas Lux, especially the last few stanzas.

Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy 

THOMAS LUX

For some semitropical reason   
when the rains fall   
relentlessly they fall

into swimming pools, these otherwise   
bright and scary
arachnids. They can swim
a little, but not for long

and they can’t climb the ladder out.
They usually drown—but   
if you want their favor,
if you believe there is justice,   
a reward for not loving

the death of ugly
and even dangerous (the eel, hog snake,   
rats) creatures, if

you believe these things, then   
you would leave a lifebuoy
or two in your swimming pool at night.

And in the morning   
you would haul ashore
the huddled, hairy survivors

and escort them
back to the bush, and know,
be assured that at least these saved,   
as individuals, would not turn up

again someday
in your hat, drawer,
or the tangled underworld

of your socks, and that even—
when your belief in justice
merges with your belief in dreams—
they may tell the others

in a sign language   
four times as subtle
and complicated as man’s

that you are good,   
that you love them,
that you would save them again.

So, over to you Readers. Do you have a favourite poem that is loosely invertebrate-themed? I’m sure there must be lots of bee and butterfly and moth poems out there. I’d love to read them!

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Nevit Dilmen / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

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