Dear Readers, like many places in the UK, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery seems to have been trialling ‘no-mow May’ in some of lawns, and very pretty it looks too. I love the buttercups and ox-eye daisies that are left standing in this area, and I’m sure the pollinators appreciate it too. It must be hard managing the cemetery, where the needs of mourners must come first but there’s also a responsibility to the wider community, and to the creatures that use the many habitats that it provides.
Sadly, the hinoki cypress in the woodland grave area finally toppled during Storm Eunice a few months ago – I suspect that it has been more or less dead for several years. I do love the seed capsules, though – they remind me of armadillos.
And just to prove that I never notice anything, I suddenly realised that this magnificent tree, also in the woodland grave area, is a tulip tree!
I shall have to pay more attention going forward.
There is an awful lot of plastic in the cemetery, with all manner of plastic flowers, plastic decorations and general plastic bits and bobs. So I rather liked these ceramic flowers – they will hopefully stay put, rather than blowing all around the cemetery, and maybe they’ll be less attractive to the foxes who are always moving things about.
And how I love the extravagant fluffy heads of the salsify. Some are still in bud, and some have finished, but at every stage they are extraordinary. I always think that the buds look like someone trying to make a goose ‘shadow’ with their hand to entertain some children.
In the wooded areas, the speedwell is coming into flower. I love the intense blue-lilac flowers.
And the hogweed has taken over from the cow parsley now. What a boon it is to little pollinators of all kinds! Just look at the mass of little flies on this flowerhead.
And here is a St Marks fly coming into land…notice those dangly legs, which are so characteristic of this genus. This group of flies is very important for pollinating all manner of open-headed flowers such as hogweed, but also some of our garden plants, such as Achillea.
And it’s not just flies taking advantage of the bounty. This handsome bumblebee is an Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), which tends to be about from as early as March.
You can tell an Early Bumblebee by the ginger colour at the end of its abdomen, as nicely illustrated below.
And finally, here’s another type of fly, a hoverfly (probably one of the Eristalis genus). These are such underrated pollinators, and their behaviour can be fascinating – some adult males hold three-dimensional territories close to spots where females might be feeding, for example. And they are such dapper insects, especially the bee and wasp mimics with their intricate patterns in black, yellow and orange. This photo also gives us a chance to admire the irregular petal shape on the hogweed – I imagine that the flowers close to the centre have the shortest petals, while those around the edge of the inflorescence have more room to grow.
So, it was a lovely walk, with much to admire for those inclined to dawdling, something I seem to do more and more as I get older. No longer do I want to zip along at speed, intent on my destination. The whole notion of ‘pottering’ gets more and more inviting. There are so many little things to enjoy, and they are so easily missed.
Dear Readers, I have been fascinated by street trees for a while, and just recently it’s become very topical on my street. A tree has been taken down, and the residents have been asked to pick from a list of possible replacements. I was rather taken aback (and somewhat delighted) by the sheer ambition of the trees selected, and so this week, I thought we could combine a quiz and some feedback. Firstly, just match the photograph to the species, as usual. Then, if you were going to have a new street tree, which of these would you choose, and why? Feel free to chip in even if you don’t want to do the quiz. I have my own thoughts, which I’ll share next week.
Here is a view of the street in autumn…
Crab Apple in East Finchley
…and in spring, just so you can get the general idea 🙂
Okies, so on to the trees. There are only 6 of them so that should make for a nice easy quiz this week. Just match the name to the photo, and pop your answers in the comments by 5 pm UK time on Saturday 5th June, along with any thoughts on which one we should choose if you have any. I will remove your entry as soon as I see it.
So, if you think that the tree in photo A is Amelanchior arborea, the serviceberry, your answer is 1) A)
Amelanchior arborea var Robin Hill (Serviceberry/Shadbush)
Prunus fruticosa var Globosa (European Dwarf Cherry – Globe form)
Vertically-tilted metamorphic rocks near Carn Eighe, Scotland (Title Photo)
Dear Readers, this week Claire and Fran and Bobby Freelove both had a go at the quiz. Claire got an extremely creditable 9 out of 10, but our winners this week are Fran and Bobby Freelove with 10 out of 10 – well done! Let’s see what I can come up with tomorrow….
Dear Readers, you might remember that when I’m at the garden centre (in this case the brilliant Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green), I am always inclined to let the pollinators, in particular the bumblebees and hoverflies, tell me what they are enjoying, and today was no exception. So, to start with, here are some bumbles on the perennial wallflower – I nearly always have a Bowles Mauve variety somewhere in the garden, but the yellow one above seemed to be doing rather nicely too.
I had never thought of candytuft (Iberis) as being particularly good for bees, but these bumbles seemed to have formed a different opinion. One bumblebee was so in love with the plant that she nearly got in the car with us. And who knew that the plant was yet another member of the cabbage family? I suppose those four-petalled flowers should have given it away.
I am seeing a lot of unusual varieties of foxglove about this year, such as this golden one. I am wondering if it’s a perennial – it always seems a bit cheeky to sell ‘ordinary’ foxgloves in flower, as of course they are biennial and will finish once they’ve flowered. On the other hand, they might self-seed, which is always nice. Foxgloves are always a favourite with bumblebees, and these were positively a-buzz with them.
Apologies for the terrible photo, but bees of all kinds adore thistles, and this Cirsium atropurpurea is always a favourite. When they grew in my garden, I used to find bumblebees which seemed to have fallen asleep in the flowers. Sadly, I’ve found them very short-lived, although I do love them.
It’s a real shame that there isn’t a ‘crap insect photos’ Facebook page, to match the ‘crap bird photos’ page that already exists. Nonetheless, this seems to be a red-tailed bumblebee (my second this week) on an astrantia, another favourite and one that is fairly shade-tolerant.
The Mexican fleabane is much-loved by smaller bees and hoverflies. I’ve bought some for my south-facing windowboxes, so let’s see how it gets on. In case you’re wondering, there is a honeybee right at the bottom, just right of centre.
And Delosperma is another plant for the windowbox, and another plant that i had to prise away from the optimistic hooky feet of a bumblebee as big as my thumb joint. Let’s hope that the bees in East Finchley like it as much as the bees in Bounds Green do. It’s a succulent and so it should be fairly tolerant of the sun-baked conditions.
There are some rather gorgeous bright orange geums around at the garden centre, very striking and popular with the smaller bees.
There are some new varieties of perennial cornflower this year, including these white and magenta versions. All of them were much visited by bees of all kinds.
And finally, there was scabious – this has got to be the most popular plant of all. The wild version of the plant, field scabious, is an absolute boon for polllinators of all kinds, and I have a few from last year just coming back in my window boxes. I couldn’t resist getting one large plant, covered in buds, for the big pot at the front of the house though. This one is ‘Mariposa Blue’, and very stately it looks too.
So I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and for once I was a tiny bit restrained. Sunshine Garden Centre is my favourite garden centre ever – it has a great cafe, an amazing variety of plants, and incredibly helpful and cheerful staff. If you’re ever at a loose end in North London, I really recommend it. And they deliver if you live locally-ish, so you don’t have to stagger onto the bus with an entire greenhouse under your arm. Plus they do a discount for over-60s. What’s not to like?
Dear Readers, a few weeks ago I wrote about the spring display next to East Finchley Station, created by the N2 Community Gardeners. Well, as I was walking past yesterday I found myself attracted, as if by a magnet, to these magnificent bearded irises. I have never seen them in such a lovely shade of blue. Sadly, a few of them had been beaten down by the hailstorm that we had on Wednesday, but nonetheless they are beautiful.
As I admired the irises, various bumblebees whooshed past en route to the hardy geraniums, which are so attractive to bees.
And can anybody help me out with this plant, that was also proving very attractive to the pollinators? I’m thinking some kind of salvia, but I’m happy to be corrected. It doesn’t help that the photo is a bit blurred because of the blustery winds.
There was also some lambs-ears (Stachys byzantium) which might well attract some carder bees, who will use the hairs from the plant’s furry leaves to line their nests. The little pink flowers are not the most flamboyant but the plant as a whole has a most unusual form which I rather like.
Another plant that called to me right across the car park was the Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium) – It is so white that it really did shine like a patch of snow. This is such a forgiving plant, and it seems to be thriving in this difficult spot.
There is a wilder patch with an elder tree in the corner of the garden, close to the station offices – I heard a wren calling here, and a blackbird was singing merrily from the roof of the station. I’m fairly sure that it nested in the elder or thereabouts last year, so it was most reassuring to see that the birds (or some blackbirds at any rate, it being difficult to tell them apart) was still here.
So, yet again I salute the N2 Community Gardeners – this tiny difficult patch punches above its weight in terms of beauty, but also provides so much in the way of food for invertebrates and cover for birds. It really does include our whole community, not just the people who create it, and those who admire it at the start and end of a busy day, but all the invisible creatures beavering away to create our soil and pollinate our food. I shall be extremely interested to see what the summer brings forth.
Dear Readers, we were walking down from Black Horse Road station towards Walthamstow Wetlands this morning when we heard the sound of a bird calling for its mother on the other side of the busy road. There was a lone fluffy gosling on the pavement, looking confused and heading towards the traffic. Aaargh! A van was bearing down on the youngster as s/he considered what to do next. Fortunately the driver was very sweet and stopped to see what would happen, rather than proceeding on his way at speed.
Then the bird’s mother arrived, and the two of them teetered on the kerb. They needed to go back towards the reservoir but there was a big metal fence for at least a quarter of a mile. The gap between the uprights was big enough for the gosling to get through, but the mother was too big. You could see her confusion as she tried to decide which way to go. We decided to follow at a safe distance to try to coax them along to where the entrance was, and to try to stop them running into the road.
At the other end of the pavement a cyclist actually stopped so as not to cause any more problems.
Several times the mother tried to get through the fence but was too big. And then, light seemed to dawn. She flew over the fence, much to the gosling’s distress, but then s/he seemed to get the message, and scurried through the gap to re-unite with the adult goose.
Phew! Too much drama too early in the morning is all I can say, and too early on a grey, windy, rainy morning. But it was very heartening to see how complete strangers worked together to try to keep a tiny bundle of fluff safe. I felt very heartened by the whole thing.
It was a very blustery day, but look, the swifts have arrived. Sadly it’s too blowy to hear their calls, but you hopefully get the general idea.
Incidentally, I have just joined a Facebook group called ‘Crap Bird Photos’ which I heartily recommend if you fancy a laugh. I am thinking of submitting the one below, but I’m not quite sure if it’s crap enough. Their standards of crappitude are very high. In fact, the photo shows a magnificent heron, but I doubt that you would ever know.
Anyhow, we had a lovely walk along the edge of the East Warwick Reservoir. There are gulls nesting on the island, terns fishing, shelduck and pochard everywhere, and if it hadn’t been quite so inclement (plus my friend needed to get home for work) we’d no doubt have been a bit more adventurous.
But still, there were some intrepid large red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius), which I haven’t noticed in London before – I love those copper tails, they have the same hue as an Irish setter. They seem to be very partial to the knapweed.
And so, what an exciting, if brief, visit to Walthamstow Wetlands. I’m so lucky to be able to visit during the week, when it isn’t too busy, and it is such a biodiverse and interesting place. You never know what you’re going to see, and I so recommend it if you’re a Londoner. Their list of birds is also very interesting – recently there was a hobby, a hawk that specialises in catching dragonflies, and a cuckoo has been heard, again a rarity in London. You used to have to travel all the way to Rainham Marshes or the wetlands at Barnes to get such variety, so make the most of a reserve that’s on the Victoria line and easily accessible to anyone in Central or East London.
Dear Readers, when I spotted this potato-y, tomato-y-looking plant close to Walthamstow Wetlands last week, I was a little puzzled as to what it was. Fortunately a quick glance at my Harrap’s Wildflower Guide was enough to guide me to identifying it as black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), an annual/short-lived perennial plant native to great swathes of Europe and Asia.
Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum)
Although, like other members of the nightshade family, black nightshade is poisonous, it has also been used both for food and for medicinal purposes. However, there is a problem – black nightshade is an extremely varied plant, and some botanists refer to the Solanum nigrum ‘complex’, meaning a group of closely related species which hybridise and so make identification extremely difficult. One easy way to tell this plant from the much more dangerous deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is that although the berries of both plants are black, those of deadly nightshade are borne singly, and those of black nightshade are held in bunches.
Black nightshade berries (Photo Two)
Like all nightshades, the berries of black nightshade contain a poison called solanine, which in this species can cause diarrhoea and vomiting in both humans and livestock, though it is rarely fatal. The unripe berries are thought to be the most poisonous parts of the plant. This doesn’t stop a rather impressive bird, the Great Bustard, from eating the berries and dispersing them, particularly in its stronghold in central Spain. This magnificent bird also used to roam the grasslands of the UK, until the last wild bird was shot in 1832. There is, however, a thriving population on Salisbury Plain, where the danger of being blasted by a tank or mown down by machine gun fire has presumably deterred the egg hunters and poachers who might otherwise have targeted it.
Great Bustard (Otis tarda) (Photo Three)
It might seem strange that this ‘dangerous’ plant has been so widely used as a food plant, but as it grows prolifically and easy the ripe berries and leaves have been harvested and eaten for millenia. The berries are said to taste of liquorice and and melon, and the well-boiled leaves are used in quiches, served with Ugali (a form of cornmeal) in Kenya, and mixed with other bitter greens in the horta of Greece. In Ethiopia, the leaves fill the gap in the year before the corn is harvested.
Clearly, this is one of those plants which are considered dangerous in much of Western Europe and North America, and yet it is eaten all over the world by those who know when to gather the berries and leaves and how to prepare them. On the Plant Lore website, the author recounts the story of a contributor who
“..talked to a Philippino man in Finsbury Park, who was gathering tips/shoots of black nightshade, he told me they used it in cooking as a flavouring for chicken! “[London, N1, February 1997]
Clearly, we have much to learn.
The ripe berries are eaten all over Africa and Asia, and in South Africa they are used to make a jam called Nastargal Konfyt. No wonder that this species is sometimes known as ‘blackberry nightshade’.
Nastergal (Nightshade) jam (Photo Four
As with many poisonous plants, black nightshade also has a long history as a medicinal plant. In Europe it was considered a ‘dangerous remedy’ but it was used extensively as a narcotic, to induce sweating, and as a painkiller. In traditional Indian medicine it is used for all these purposes, plus as a treatment for stomach complaints and fever. It has been used as a treatment for ulcers and tuberculosis as well. Interestingly, some recent studies suggest that extracts from the plant could be useful for stomach ulcers and also possibly for some cancers. It is clearly extremely chemically active, and it will be interesting to see if anything beneficial is discovered.
And finally, a poem. The only link to our plant is the title, but still I found it moving. I remember times when I have broken, but couldn’t tell you exactly why. And the fact that this is set in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, somewhere that I hoped to visit but that now could well be off limits for the rest of my life, moves me further. See what you think.
In Saint Petersburg, on an autumn morning, having been allowed an early entry to the Hermitage, my family and I wandered the empty hallways and corridors, virtually every space
adorned with famous paintings and artwork. There must be a term for overloading on art. One of Caravaggio’s boys smirked at us, his lips a red that betrayed a sloppy kiss
recently delivered, while across the room the Virgin looked on with nothing but sorrow. Even in museums, the drama is staged. Bored, I left my family and, steered myself,
foolish moth, toward the light coming from a rotunda. Before me, the empty stairs. Ready to descend, ready to step outside into the damp and chilly air, I felt
the centuries-old reflex kick in, that sense of being watched. When I turned, I found no one; instead, I was staring at The Return of the Prodigal Son. I had studied it, written about it
as a student. But no amount of study could have prepared me for the size of it, the darkness of it. There, the son knelt before his father, his dirty foot left for inspection. Something broke. As clichéd
as it sounds, something inside me broke, and as if captured on film, I found myself slowly sinking to my knees. The tears began without warning until soon I was sobbing. What reflex betrays one like this?
What nerve agent did Rembrandt hide within the dark shades of paint that he used? What inside me had malfunctioned, had left me kneeling and sobbing in a museum?
Prosto plakat. Prosto plakat. Osvobodi sebya said the guard as his hands steadied my shoulders. He stood there repeating the phrase until I stopped crying, until I was able to rise.
I’m not crazy, nor am I a very emotional man. For most of my life, I have been called, correctly, cold. As a student, I catalogued the techniques, carefully analyzed this painting for a class on the “Dutch Masters.”
Years later, having mustered the courage to tell this ridiculous story, a friend who spoke Russian translated the guard’s words for me: “Just cry. Just cry. Free yourself.” But free myself from what, exactly?
You see, I want this whole thing to be something meaningful, my falling to my knees in front of a painting by Rembrandt, a painting inspired by a parable of forgiveness offered by a father to his lost son.
But nothing meaningful has presented itself. Even now, after so much time has passed, I have no clue what any of this means. I still haven’t figured out whether or not I am the lost son or the found.
Dear Readers, every year there’s something in the garden that does exceptionally well. Last year, if you remember, we had the angelica, which turned into something of a triffid before subsiding under the sheer weight of the flowers. But this year it’s the climbing hydrangea. Just look at it! And right outside the kitchen door too. It has a very faint but sweet smell, and although the main ‘flowers’ on the flowerheads are sterile, the other blooms produce masses of pollen, which the bumblebees are very keen on.
For anyone with a murky dank corner (I have several) this is pretty much the perfect plant. It doesn’t need a trellis as little roots come out directly from the stems, rather like the legs on a millipede, but it doesn’t intrude into the brickwork in the way that ivy and some other climbers do. Yesterday a pair of robins were hopping about in it, so I hope they’re thinking about popping in a nest. And the sheer abundance of it is really cheering me up, even though it’s a dark and dismal day.
I love the way that gardens have rhythms, with plants reaching a pitch of perfection one year, and having a rest the next. It takes my breath away sometimes. How important it is to just find the time to stop and look at such glory! I feel like inviting everyone round to admire this plant, which has pumped so much sheer biomass out of a little hole in the patio.
And I should say (very quietly) that I don’t usually like hydrangeas much, having rubbished them mentally as being no good for the bees. But this one certainly is, and so are some other species: the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)…
Smooth hydrangea (Photo One)
and the panicled hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculatus) in particular. I remember this latter plant because not only do the bees love the pollen, but the leaf-cutter bees used to cut perfect half-circles out of its leaves.
Hydrangea paniculata var grandiflora (Photo Two)
Anyhow, I was wondering if you have a star plant on your patch, or one that you always admire when you see it, What brings a bit of botanical joy to your week? I wish I could package up my hydrangea and share it with you all, but in the absence of a Star Trek-style transporter system, I guess the blog will have to do…
Vertically-tilted metamorphic rocks near Carn Eighe, Scotland (Title Photo)
Dear Readers, I am currently revising for my final exam in my Open University degree, which takes place on Monday 13th June. Gosh, we’ve covered a lot of ground this year! We’ve spent time on everything from quantum theory to genetics, from chemical bonding to frictional forces, and my head is in a right old spin. However, this weekend I have been revising my earth sciences, and in particular rocks, something that I knew little about until this year. Look at these splendid Scottish rocks, for example! They were created many miles under the surface of the earth by a combination of intense heat and pressure, and have eventually come to be visible as the rocks around them have been eroded. Not only that, but they’ve been swivelled through 90 degrees from the horizontal to the vertical. The earth is such a dynamic system, but the changes are so gradual that it takes millions of years to see them.
It might not surprise you to hear that many, many plants and animals have the word ‘rock’ in their names, so for this week’s quiz, all you have to do is name the plant or animal pictured below, which has the word ‘rock’ in their common name. To make it just a bit easier, I will put asterisks where the words that aren’t ‘rock’ should be – after all we haven’t had a quiz for a while so I will try to restrain my sadistic urges. Pop your answers in the comments, and I will disappear you as soon as I see you.
I’m going to publish the answers next Sunday (May 29th), so please submit your answers by 5 p.m. on Saturday May 28th if you would like to be marked.
Dear Readers, for the past few days I’ve been hearing the wheezy calls of young starlings as they chase their parents around the garden begging for food. There doesn’t seem to have been the enormous influx that there has been in past years, when I’ve been worried that the neighbours will complain about the racket, but numbers seem to be growing steadily day by day. As these wide-eyed innocents gaze around, wondering why all the other birds have flown away and failing to notice a creeping a cat, I feel a particular kinship with them as I, too, am starting to venture out after two years of lockdowns and being careful.
Today, for example, I am off to the theatre to see ‘Straight Line Crazy’ at the Bridge Theatre. It’s about Robert Moses, the man who tried to redesign New York, and the lead role is played by Ralph Fiennes, so it should be good. You can have a look at the link below.
But I find myself a bit anxious. After so long avoiding crowds, I’m going to be in the middle of one, for two hours and fifty minutes. I don’t think it’s so much about Covid (after all, I’m triple-vaxxed and have actually had the disease) as it is about social contact. I feel as if my world has shrunk over the past few years, and to ratchet it open is actually a little painful, like going back to the gym after a long break. My trip to Canada helped, but somehow getting back to ‘normal’ at home feels more difficult.
Still, I am a great believer in not letting our worlds become smaller if we don’t have to. It feels like finding a balance at the moment. I am still wearing a mask on public transport, and will do so in the theatre, as much to protect others as to protect myself. I do think that the current wave of covid has whistled through the UK, but I also think that there are new variants waiting in the wings. I do intend to get back into the world, but I also want to be prudent. I would love to hear what’s happening where you live, and how you’re negotiating any return to the new normal. In the UK I have the distinct feeling that the pandemic has been declared over and we are all just trying to work out what the best thing to do is, which will vary widely according to circumstances.
On a more personal level, we have a weeks’ worth of Away Days coming up shortly. This will involve actually meeting people in person, and I fear that my social skills will have atrophied while I’ve been happily interacting on Zoom. There are people in my wider team that I’ve never met in the flesh, and the thought of discussing work-related stuff with them for the best part of three days is frankly a bit overwhelming. And being an introvert, the thought of ‘fun’ activities fills me with horror. It’s not that I don’t like being with people, it’s just that with lots of folk all having Fun I often feel like the odd one out – I’m much better getting to know a small number of people well. I crave meaningful connection, and I find that hard to achieve in a big group. But I am trying to have an open mind, and to not let my anxiety get in the way. I intend to take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time. I imagine there will be things that are enjoyable and stimulating, and things that are rather less so, but at the very least I will learn about my colleagues and about myself, and that’s no bad thing. Is anybody else negotiating a return to face-to-face activities? How are you doing? Is it fun, or do you want to crawl back to bed and pull the covers over your head? Or, like the young starlings, are you emerging happily back into the light?