Monthly Archives: February 2023

What Is It About the Northern Lights?

Northern Lights above Lendrick Hill in Clackmannanshire, Scotland (Photo by William Starkey, taken in 2016)

Dear Readers, my Mum always wanted to see the Northern Lights. She’d seen a BBC TV programme featuring Joanna Lumley, (and you can watch some of it too here). She never did see it: after their sixtieth wedding anniversary I tried to organise a cruise for them, but Dad wanted somewhere hot and Mum wanted to see the Northern Lights, and so many criteria were designated that it became impossible. Now, I realise that they were both terrified to go so far out of their comfort zones, but they didn’t want to tell me. One of these days, I will find a way to see the Northern Lights myself, and I will see them for Mum and for me.

The Northern Lights (and the Aurora Australis in the south) are the result of particles emitted by the Sun, that are drawn towards the Earth by gravity, but which then bounce off of our atmosphere, releasing energy as light. Normally they just bounce off of the top and bottom of the planet, but when there’s a particularly splendid gust of the ‘solar wind’ we can see them much further south. Incidentally, other planets also have auroras, being subject to the same particle emissions as us – have a look at this photo of the aurora around the poles of Jupiter. Now, that would be something to see.

Jupiter with aurora – photo from Nasa

For now, though, I am keeping my fingers crossed that someone who reads this has actually managed to see the phenomenon from their back garden in the UK – the Northern Lights can often be seen in the Outer Hebrides, or the Shetlands, but it’s much rarer to see them as far south as St Albans (where they appeared on Sunday night), or in Cornwall. You can belong to something called Aurora Watch, which will give you a shout-out if there’s a chance of a sighting (though I didn’t get one, harrumph). The trick seems to be to find the darkest place that you can (something of a trick in North London) and look north. It won’t be as spectacular here as it is in Svalbard, but surely such a rarity is worth a look! You can see some splendid photos of Sunday’s display here.

As with many natural phenomena, the Northern Lights have been seen as harbingers of doom or auspicious signs. If you watch the Joanna Lumley piece, the scientist at the start tells her that it’s very bad luck to whistle at the aurora, in case it notices you and spirits you away. On the other hand, some Native Americans/First Peoples believed that the aurora will carry messages to the dead for you if you whistle to ask them to come closer. And in Japanese culture, it’s believed that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be both lucky and beautiful. In Iceland, it was believed that the the aurora eased the pain of childbirth, but a pregnant woman shouldn’t look at them because she would give birth to cross-eyed children. So if you do get a glimpse over the next few days, you will have a multitude of ways to behave, some more fun than others.

Let me know your Aurora stories, if you have any! And I will be keeping my eyes peeled, and will let you know how I get on, though I think I will have to go a bit further north than Totteridge to see them.

Aurora Borealis May Be Visible Across the UK on Monday Night

The Aurora Borealis in St Albans (Photo by Joel Rabinowitz)

Dear UK Readers, just a quick heads up (ahem) that the Aurora Borealis was visible across much of the UK last night (Sunday), as far south as St Albans and Cornwall – this doesn’t happen very often, and it may well be visible again tonight (Monday), so watch the skies, and let me know if you spot (or have spotted) anything…good luck!


Electric Excitement in the County Roads

Dear Readers, my friend A alerted me to some major roadworks going on in Bedford Road in East Finchley (one of the ‘County’ Roads), and so I toddled down this afternoon to see what was going on. A whole swathe of the pavement is being dug up for what look like cables (though it being Sunday the workmen were on a well-earned day off – they are apparently extremely hard-working and diligent). A grant of £3.4 million has been given to Barnet Council to enable them to roll  out more charging points – at the moment on most streets, there is only one, like the one in the photo above.

The system chosen for this rollout is different to the lamp post charging system – it’s being pioneered by Trojan energy. The charging points appear to be in the equivalent of a manhole cover, and drivers will carry what’s called a ‘Trojan lance’ (no comments about this being an Achilles heel please). The lance fits into the charging point, and then the car is plugged in. I do worry a bit about what happens if some idiot in a heavy goods vehicle mounts the pavement above the charging points, as happened literally five minutes ago while I was writing this piece and noticed a huge delivery van parked diagonally across the entire pavement, but hopefully the manufacturers have thought about this.

The aim is to keep the pavements as clutter-free and accessible to other pavement users as possible, which is laudable considering how difficult it is for anyone in a wheelchair, or with a pram, to negotiate around the various obstacles that currently block the pavement (not including the aforementioned delivery vans). And of course, there are a limited number of lamp posts to plug into, so I see this as a positive step forward, and hope that it’s a success. It’s also very useful in the County Roads because no one here has a front garden large enough to park in – it’s all on street parking, so these charging points will make life easier, and will hopefully encourage more people to switch to electric.

I do see electric cars as a transitional step in the fight against climate change, though, especially in cities. The eventual answer surely has to be safe, clean, accessible and reliable public transport for the majority of journeys – every one getting about in their own car is not a long-term option in terms of resources, whether it’s an electric car or some other kind of individual vehicle. But roll on the electric revolution in the short/medium term, and it’s most pleasing to see some progress being made.

Shenanigans in the Whitebeam

Dear Readers, the magpies have been hanging around quite a lot lately (probably following my bird food preference experiment a few months ago), but today I (belatedly) realised that they appear to be making a nest. They are plucking twigs from the whitebeam, and seem to be weaving them into a rather untidy habitation in the top of the tree. I can’t tell which is the male and which is the female, but one of them spends a lot of time away from the garden gathering twigs, while the other one seems to be trying to tidy it up.

From what I remember, young magpies have to learn how to make a ‘proper’ nest, and it might be several years before they’re successful – these are long-lived birds, and I suspect that what’s happening here is that they are basically ‘playing house’ rather than making a serious breeding attempt. We’ll see over the next few days, but it all looks a bit flimsy and contingent to my eyes. However, I am clearly not a magpie, and in some ways this is an ideal situation, with lots of food available and relative safety, though do note Mr Bear the cat who always takes a lot of interest in whatever is going on.

You can see the comings and goings of the magpies below. The neighbours were less than impressed by the sheer volume of sound that these birds can produce as soon as it gets light, so I suspect I’m going to be very popular over the next few months. Fortunately East Finchley is not the kind of place that is very fond of gathering on someone’s doorstep with pitchforks and lighted torches, but we’ll see as nesting season progresses.

I am actually quite impressed that this pair are finding nesting material for themselves – on several occasions I’ve watched them dismantle the nests of other birds, especially crows and woodpigeons, while the owners of the nests watched helplessly. They really are pirates, and while I have some concerns for any smaller birds who might be thinking of nesting nearby, I also wonder if these magpies will at least keep everybody else off. We’ll have to see. As I’ve said before, when you devise a garden for wildlife, you don’t get to say who can come and who can’t. We could be in for interesting times.

A Molecular Machine

ATP Synthase

Dear Readers, the more that I study Cell Biology for my Open University degree, the more drop-jawed with astonishment I become. At the moment we’re looking at how cells manage the energy requirements of an organism, and an integral part of the process is a ‘molecular machine’ known as ATP synthase. I hope you’ll forgive me geeking out a bit here, because I do love to share a factoid!

As you might remember from your biology lessons, energy is managed by the mitochondria, a kidney-shaped organelle which floats around in the watery interior of the cell. To digress here slightly (and to simplify greatly), it’s believed that mitochondria were once free-living bacteria who, back in the most distant days of the evolution of life, were gobbled up by a larger organism, but which continued to live and eventually became an integral part of all of the more complex organisms (a similar thing happened with chloroplasts in plants).

Anyhow, you might also remember that a substance called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is one of the ‘currencies’ of energy, which we need to do any kind of ‘work’ in the cell, from digestion to growth. When the bonds in ATP are broken (into Adenosine Diphosphate plus a free phosphate) it releases lots of energy that can be used to power other reactions. The downside is that the cell also has to synthesise ATP, so that it has a store of energy to use. This is where ATP synthase comes in.

Studded into the inner membrane of the mitochondria is an extraordinarily complicated ‘molecular machine’ called ATP synthase. This is a complex of many different proteins which are formed into 15 subunits, but what astonishes me most is its structure. If you look at the illustration below, what it shows is that the protein actually has a rotor which spins as protons enter it from a space between the inner and outer membranes of the mitochondria  (shown in red). This happens because there’s a higher concentration of protons (H+)  on one side of the membrane than the other, so the protons try to equalise themselves. The passage of the protons causes all sorts of changes to the shape of ATP synthase, and generate the energy which allows it to ‘grab’ ADP and a phosphate, and to make ATP.

This might sound like a lot of old chemistry, but when you consider that the human body has literally trillions of mitochondria at any time, and that each mitochondria can have anything from 100 to 5000 ATP synthase molecules working away, it feels (to me at least) completely staggering. And this is only one part of the complexity of the cell. It seems extraordinary to me that all this is going on, for the most part invisibly, in every living thing. It’s miraculous that any of us can ever get up in the morning.

For a rather neat little animation showing the process, click here.

Wearing My Wrinkles With Pride

Staphylococcus epidermis – a cause of wrinkles? Photo by CNRI Science Library

Dear Readers, what, you might ask, are these pretty things, that look rather as if they’ve been embroidered onto velvet (and there’s an idea for a novel wall-hanging). Well, it turns out that they’re bacteria known as Staphylococcus epidermis, and that they seem to be associated with a loss of collagen in our skin microbiome. As anyone who’s been watching the TV lately knows, collagen is an ingredient of every other ‘anti-ageing’ cream (the ones that don’t have hyaluronic acid that is), on the dodgy basis that collagen seems to form part of the structure of our skin, and therefore by plastering it on the outside it will do the same thing. Can you tell that I’m a tired old cynic? You wouldn’t be wrong.

However, the question raised by scientist Julie Thornton at the University of Bradford is not a straightforward one. Just because there’s a correlation between collagen loss and the presence of this bacteria (and another one, Cutibacterium acnes (guess what this one is associated with)) doesn’t mean that the bacteria are causing the loss of collagen – it could be that they simply prefer the skin when there’s less collagen in it. A bit ‘chicken and egg’, as Thornton says.

I can see a range of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals companies rubbing their hands together, but Thornton is much more circumspect, suggesting that this should be the starting point for further research into how the skin microbiome influences the production of collagen.

Interestingly, the skin microbiomes of the older volunteers in the study (all aged between 50 and 64) had a higher proportion of antibiotic resistant microbes in their skin samples – whether this is simply because they’ve lived longer, and have therefore had more exposure to antibiotics (especially as they used to be given out like sweeties before we all realised what was happening), or some other factor I don’t know, but I do find it rather worrying. The more we find out about our microbiomes, the more important they become as markers of health and immune response.

Generally, though, I find it interesting that wrinkles are such a cause for concern. I love the fresh, wrinkle-free faces of young women with their glowing complexions, but I’ve also grown rather fond of my face as it’s aged. Its wrinkles show that I’ve lived, and suffered, and survived. They show that I’m resilient, and I love that I have more laughter-lines than frown lines. And honestly, so much of how your skin reacts to ageing is out of your control – it’s your genes, the climate that you grew up in, your exposure to pollution and your life experiences that make the bulk of how your wrinkles will develop. My Mum, who had a much harder life than me, had next to no wrinkles until she was well into her seventies (except for those tell-tale lines beside her mouth that said, as clear as day, that for most of her life she’d been a heavy smoker). And here I am, skin starting to sag, wrinkles around my eyes, and somehow I love my ageing face.   I slap some moisturiser on once a day, but that’s more for comfort than any hope of wrinkle remediation. It somehow feels like there are much more important things to worry about, should I be inclined to worry about something. Embrace your wrinkles with pride, I say. Be a wrinkle warrior.

You can read the full New Scientist article here.

Red List Fifteen – Mistle Thrush

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorous)

Dear Readers, after the relatively exotic delights of last week’s corn crake, this week I wanted to feature a bird that we think of as common, but which has seen a breeding decline of almost 50 percent since the 1960s. The mistle thrush is a big, strong, territorial bird – it’s larger than a song thrush, with round spots rather than ‘arrowheads’, but I think one of its most distinctive features is what my Crossley ID guide describes as a ‘beer gut’. The ‘mistle’ part of the name comes from the bird’s liking for berries, particularly those of mistletoe, but I rather like another name, ‘storm-cock’ – the bird can often be seen in wild and woolly weather, singing with what is described as ‘a far-off, melancholy air’. It also has a distinctive rattling flight call.

It rather sounds as if this bird, recorded in Saxony, Germany by David Kuster, was singing in the middle of a downpour.

And here’s that call – it sounds rather like a very small football rattle (if you’re old enough to remember such things). This one was recorded in Galicia by Jacobo Ramil Millarengo.

Unlike song thrushes, you are unlikely to see a mistle thrush in your garden, but they are often found in parks. There are a pair that nest in East Finchley’s Cherry Tree Wood, where they defend their territory against all comers. The ones in the photos today were spotted in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and very fine they were too, an unexpected delight. At the time, I wrote how Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey recorded how diligently one pair of mistle thrushes defended their nest ‘ ‘driving away sparrowhawk and buzzard, knocking a barn owl off its perch and attacking and killing a jackdaw’. You don’t mess with these guys, for sure.

Mistle thrush in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Mistle thrush in Cherry Tree Wood

This is a bird that it’s worth looking out for now – it starts to nest as early as mid February, so if you see any barn owls being beaten up or jackdaws wrestled to the ground, it might be worth checking to see who the aggressors are. The females build big, messy nests in the fork of a tree.

Why mistle thrushes are in decline seems to be at least in part due to the usual suspects – farmland degradation (especially the grubbing-up of hedgerows which provide food in the winter), a decrease in the number of earthworms, drought and other climatic changes, pesticides, herbicides etc etc etc. It makes the sites that we do have all the more valuable – close to me we have two patches of ancient woodland (Cherry Tree Wood and Coldfall Wood) and a huge cemetery with lots of ancient trees. Let’s hope that these patches of wildness continue to punch above their weight in terms of biodiversity. Suburban areas are fast becoming the last refuge of many animals and plants, strange as it seems, and so it’s even more important to protect them than it has been in the past.

And here, just in case you’re still confused, is an illustration from the Crossley ID guide. The little bird second from the left is a song thrush – see how much more compact it is. No beer belly on a song thrush! Two such similar birds, but so different in character.

And finally, a poem. I love this work by Paul Farley from the wonderful ‘Caught by the River‘ website – that evocation of a time long ago, combined with the sense of menace, and of defiance. The feeling of childhood, and of how things change in a moment. Did I say that I loved this? I really do.

‘Mistle Thrush’ by Paul Farley

3rd November 2019

The first park is always the fastest park,
parked under a cloudless
sky and fastened in memory
with stakes and ropes. The word picnic
is a tablecloth thrown onto the grass
attached to the word green.

The word idyll waits out of earshot.
A faun in the fountain burbles.
There is Sunblest. There is Golden Wonder.
And then, thunder.

Now the park begins bristling under that sky
which has darkened. This is the future.
This is counting towards the sound.
These are the particles rising
like the bead in your cream soda.

This is the mizzy beginning its song
from the top of the highest tree.
This is a drone shot of a thunder god.
This is a dangerous place to be

an I, sings the mizzy—I, a copper crozier.
I, a silver vaulting pole.
I, a suit of platinum armour.
I, a boom of gold.

The mizzy, with its restraining order
on humans, the wariest thrush.
The mizzy, that’s working the park pretty loose.
The day is all coming unstuck.
Where a moment ago you were in a safe place
now there’s distance everywhere you look.

The mizzy will only allow you so close.
The thunder follows the flash.
The words that you’re learning all carry a charge
and attract or repel. Bring it on,
the mizzy sings, holding its nerve,
flying in the face of us.


Wednesday Weed – Camellia Revisited

Camellia japonica

Dear Readers, my camellia has just one flower on it so far (though there are a few hopeful buds), but it’s poignant because it was bought for me by my Dad, who never actually got back to London to see it. Such beautiful flowers, though….and here’s what I said back in 2018.

Dear Readers, it might seem strange to be in love with a plant, but I am enraptured with the white camellia that lives in a pot right outside my back door. I have tried to create a shade garden in the dreary north-facing side return there, and Dad gifted me with this plant several years ago. I know that it isn’t good for pollinators (my usual reason for planting something).  I know that in a bad year, the blossoms go brown almost before they’ve opened because of cold weather or rain. But still, I find it exquisitely beautiful, with its shiny green leaves and sunburst of yellow stamens in the centre of all that ivory-white.

Every time I see it, it reminds me of Dad. I think of how he taught me to transplant seedlings, picking them up with his big brown hands and handling them with such tender care. It makes me sad to think that, because of the neuropathy in his hands, he can now barely handle a knife and fork, though he would be the last one to dwell on such things. He deals with things by getting on with it does my Dad, and he doesn’t seem to think about what he used to be able to do. Everyone copes with things differently, but this is his way, and it seems to work for him. My parents come from a class and a generation when it wasn’t done to analyse things too much, because what was the point?  No one outside your immediate family and community was going to help.

The camellia is also known as the Rose of Winter, and in the mountainous areas of its native China, South Korea and Japan it blooms between January and March. In my back garden, its buds open from mid March onwards, although the snow that we’ve had this week will be slowing it up a bit.

In Japan, the flower is pollinated by the Japanese white-eye, a small bird.

Photo One by DickDaniels (

Japanese white-eyes courting (Zosterops japonicus) (Photo One)

Most camellia species need acidic soil, hence the fact that my plant is growing in a pot – the clay in my garden would certainly not be to the plant’s taste. There are, however, a few Vietnamese camellias that live in the limestone karst area of the country, and which are more amenable to alkaline soils.

Vietnam is also home to the endangered yellow camellia, Camellia chrysantha. Apparently breeders have been trying for years to get a yellow camellia which also flowers abundantly, and even in China and Japan they have largely failed – the yellow species tend to have small, downward-facing flowers, and to be extremely picky about where they grow.

Photo Two by By self - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Camellia chrysantha, the yellow camellia (Photo Two)

As you will know, the garden camellia is closely related to Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, and tea can be made with the leaves of Camellia japonica. For the full details of how to do it, have a look at the Taurus Rising blog here. However, as a synopsis, you need to pick the youngest three leaves at the top of a stem, rub the leaves between your hands to crumble them, and then sort out the stems from the leaves. The crumbled leaves are left for a couple of days and are moved around periodically to aerate them before they are dried in a low oven. The conclusion was that the resulting brew was pretty high in caffeine, and ‘delicate’ in flavour – the authors thought that the leaves could have been left for a few more days to mature and deepen the taste.

Personally, I still want my camellia to grow, so will wait a bit longer before I start nipping off the stem tips. Camellias grow fast (up to 30 cm a year) and can live a long time (there are camellias in Portugal that are thought to be 460 years old). In time, they can turn into a magnificent tree – there are a couple in a front garden in Tufnell Park that are absolutely gob-smacking, as tall as the second storey window and covered in red and pink blooms every spring. I don’t have a photo of those trees, but the one below, from Hyde Hall in Essex, gives you an idea.

Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Camellia tree at RHS Hyde Hall (Photo Three)

Or you can torment your camellia until it becomes a bonsai if you’re that way inclined. As I’ve mentioned before, I admire the skill and persistence that it takes to create a miniature tree like this, but I feel a kind of empathy for the plant, who surely ‘wants’ to be ten metres high.

Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese camellia as a bonsai (Photo Four)

The flowers of the camellia have been used in herbal medicine to treat various blood-related ailments, and are also widely reported to be mixed with sesame oil as a salve for burns and scalds. I was always taught not to plaster burns with creams, but there you go. The seeds of the related species Camellia oleifera are used to create a cooking oil that is very widely used in Southern China, and apparently you can do the same with Camellia japonica.

In Japan, the Emperor carried a staff made from camellia wood to fend off the evil eye, and flowers are said to represent business success, virtue, happiness, fidelity, luxury, tastefulness, & a life concluding in the ease of retirement. In China, the flower is said to represent the union of male and female, with the petals representing the female principle, and the green calyx representing the male. Typically, when a flower falls the calyx remains on the stem, but in camellias both fall away together. It is said that both male and female attributes are needed for wholeness (as in yin and yang) and I’m not going to argue with that.

The flowers of the camellia have always been seen as expensive, rare, and slightly decadent. Probably the most famous literary representation of the plant is La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas. It tells the story of a young man in love with a courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, who is dying of consumption. In real life, the courtesan was Marie Duplessis, Duma’s lover. In the novel, Marguerite gets her epithet ‘the lady of the camellias’ because she wears a red camellia when she is menstruating (and hence unavailable) and a white one the rest of the time. The book rapidly became a play, and then the opera La Traviata. In the cinema, the role of Marguerite has been played by actresses as varied as Greta Garbo, Theda Bara (the original ‘Vamp’) and Isabelle Adjani.

Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) - [1], Public Domain,

Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in the 1936 film ‘Camille’ (Photo Five)

As you might expect, in the pictorial arts the camellia has been a great favourite with Dutch still life painters. However, I also like the elegant depictions of the plant from China and Japan, such as this painting by Lu Ji from the sixteenth century.

Pheasant and Camellia shrub by Lu Ji (Public Domain)

Finally, for our burst of poetry this week, I’d like to present two poems. The first, by American poet Carol Snow, is short and simple, at least at first glance.


Near a shrine in Japan he'd swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.

Or — we had no way of knowing — he'd swept the path
between fallen camellias.

—Carol Snow

The second is by French writer Honore de Balzac, and it seems to reinforce that theme of the camellia as a hothouse flower, suitable only for ballrooms and to grace the hair of beautiful women.

The Camellia

In Nature’s poem flowers have each their word

The rose of love and beauty sings alone;

The violet’s soul exhales in tenderest tone;

The lily’s one pure simple note heard.

The cold Camellia only, stiff and white,

Rose without perfume, lily without grace,

When chilling winter shows his icy face,

Blooms for a world that vainly seeks delight.

Yet, in a theatre, or ball-room light,

I gladly see Camellias shining bright

Above some stately woman’s raven hair,

Whose noble form fulfills the heart’s desire,

Like Grecian marbles warmed by Phidian fire.

For me, the camellia is a symbol of endurance, flowering in the earliest part of the year, before even the daffodils have gotten going. It asks for little, and gives so much. And it will always represent my father’s love, and his persistence, and his uncomplaining straightforwardness. It is the first thing that I see when I step into the garden from the kitchen, and it never fails to make me smile and feel grateful. It might be a ‘lily without grace’ to Balzac, but it’s full of grace for me.
Photo Credits
Photo One by Photo One by DickDaniels (
Photo Two by By self – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) – [1], Public Domain,

Spring is Sprung!

Oh Dear.

Dear Readers, you know that spring has, at least temporarily, sprung when you hear the sound of a frog ‘singing’, only to see that he is involved in a most unseemly wrestling match with two other frogs, all of whom I suspect are males. Dear oh dear. It’s difficult to tell exactly what’s going on, but all of these frogs were about the same size, and the females are usually larger. Maybe they’re just getting into practice for when the females finally arrive. At any rate, it’s always lovely to see them, even though their courtship style is a bit on the rough and ready side. I suppose the breeding season is so short that they have to grab every opportunity. Let’s see how things develop.

This frog had a rather more mannerly approach. I love the way that they hang in the water with just their noses showing, and I always find their ‘hands’ intriguing – so similar to ours, and yet so different! You can tell we were all cut from the same genetic cloth, even though we separated so many millions of years ago.

It was a really beautiful day, with that low winter sun gradually warming up a smidge. I am still very impressed with my one clump of cyclamen.

At the front of the house, the crocuses have really taken off, and there was even a hoverfly and two intrepid honeybees.

And I can hardly wait for the catkins on my Kilmarnock willow to emerge. See how soft and furry they look! No wonder they’re known as pussy willows.

And my little cat (also Willow!) plonked down in a patch of sunlight, and for the first time I noticed that her jet-black fur is gradually going rusty.

Well, I don’t really want to think about it but she, along  with all of us, is gradually getting older. She’s basically extremely healthy, but I notice that she’s slightly more careful when she jumps off the bed, and a little more cautious when she jumps up. After my recent adventures I can’t help thinking that this is only sensible but still, it reminds me that she, and I, aren’t in the first bloom of youth. Still, with age comes the wisdom to think about things before you do them, and that’s no bad thing, for cats or people. And she knows how important it is to find a patch of sun, and to luxuriate in it, something else that I could learn from. Cats are the past masters of seizing the moment. No wonder they were such a favourite with Zen masters.

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – March Update

Loddon Lily aka Summer Snowflake(Leucojum aestivum)

Dear Readers, can it be almost March already? Here in East Finchley it feels like spring is underway, but this isn’t the case for the whole country, and as I know from previous years a sudden cold snap can catch everything and everybody out, so be careful if you’re planning to plant anything tender. I well remember all the frogs laying their eggs a few years ago, only for the pond to freeze solid…

March is an inbetween month – it can be mild, it can be windy, it can pour with rain, it can even snow. But underneath the earth, all kinds of things are stirring, including these lovely Loddon lilies, which look superficially like giant snowdrops. I spotted these in our local cemetery in mid March a few years ago, so clearly the designation ‘summer’ doesn’t apply in the milder parts of the country.

March is also when you might first notice that the nights really are getting shorter – the first time that I used to leave work at 5 p.m. to find that it was still daylight was normally in early March, even before the clocks go forward by an hour on 26th March.

But what else should be going on? Let’s see.

Things to Do

  • The Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens this year features the orchids of Cameroon, and it actually starts on 4th February, so make a note if this is something that you fancy – the last date is 5th March.
  • On Sunday 12th March, the Centre for Wildlife Gardening in Peckham (part of the London Wildlife Trust) is holding a Toad Day, which looks as if it’s lots of fun for all the family.
  • On Thursday 9th March, the London Natural History Society is holding a free virtual talk on ‘Bees and Garden Plants’ by Rosi Rollings – these talks have been of a consistently high quality, and certainly kept me from getting bored during lockdown. Rosi Rollings runs the nursery from which I get all my bee-friendly plants, Rosybee, and has been studying bees for six years. Well worth a look, and a good date for the diary.
  • From the 29th of March there’s this exhibition of dog portraits at the Wallace Collection in London, and very interesting it looks too…

Plants for Pollinators

The RHS’s featured plant for March is lungwort, or Pulmonaria, and very popular with the bees it is too – you might spot an Early bumblebee (Bombus praetorum) which is one of the first bumblebees to set up its nest and start to produce workers. Early bumblebees have two yellow stripes, one on the thorax and one on the top of the abdomen, and a rusty tail. However, in my garden the first bees to really appear in any numbers are the hairy-footed flower bees – the females are jet black, the males gingery with a yellow face, and both are very, very speedy. I would really recommend flowering currant for these guys, they don’t seem to be able to get enough of it. The other plants mentioned include hellebores (though not the fancy double-flowered ones) and good old-fashioned dandelion, which I always tolerate because it’s such a good source of nectar.

Male hairy-footed flower bee on flowering currant

Bird Behaviour

  • March is the kick-off month for many birds to start breeding in earnest. In most populations, the older, more experienced birds will already be paired and will have sorted out a territory, but the timing of producing youngsters is a tricky one – there will need to be food available, otherwise the whole thing will have been in vain. The advantage of early breeding is that if it fails, there will be time for a second brood.
  • Birds that may be laying eggs and starting to incubate in March include tawny owls (as many small rodents are becoming more active now), mistle thrushes (the theory is that by starting early they avoid predation by crows, sparrowhawks etc who might be busy elsewhere and have not yet gotten into nest and fledgling robbing) and rooks. Rooks feed their young mostly on earthworms, and by later in the year the earth will (in a ‘normal’ year) be too hard for them to find them, so rookeries will be abuzz with excitement.

A Somerset rookery in spring, close to my late Aunt Hilary’s house

  • Long-tailed tits, who have been seen in little gangs all through the winter, pair up in March and build their beautiful nests, constructed of moss and spiders’ webs, lichen and feathers. In his book ‘The Secret Life of Garden Birds’, Dominic Couzens points out that those feathers are often taken from chicken coops or even from the carcasses of roadkill, so it’s worth keeping an eye open for long-tailed tits doing peculiar things.
  • Wrens will be singing their heads off – the males build a number of ‘starter homes’ in their territories, and hope that they can entice females to come along, mate with them, finish off the nests and then do all of the chick-rearing. I guess that after all that loud singing, the males haven’t got much energy left for domestic duties.

Long-tailed tit building its nest (Photo by Alan Shearman)

Plants in Flower

In my garden, the first of the fritillaries and grape hyacinths, some shy daffodils, wallflowers, and possibly some scillas. Elsewhere, magnolias spread their magnificence for a few days, the green flowers of stinking hellebore are out, and there might even be some cherry blossom.

Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • Frogs should be mating by now, and you might hear them singing in earnest in the evening (though you have to sneak up on them because the frogs in my garden are very shy). With any luck, there will be the first frogspawn and even the first tadpoles if it’s mild enough. The first pondskaters will be floating on the surface, hoping to spear a stray tadpole before it gets too big. Plants will be growing and insect life will be resurrecting itself. Yay!
  • Fox cubs are usually born in mid-March – as they are born blind and helpless, the vixen won’t leave them, and will be provisioned by the dog fox and any ‘helpers’ that the couple might have (sometimes a son or daughter who hasn’t found a territory of their own).
  • Full moon is on 7th March, and is known as the Chaste Moon, Plough Moon or Lenten Moon.

Holidays and Celebrations

6th March – the Hindu festival of Holi starts at sundown

8th March – International Women’s Day

19th March – Mothering Sunday

20th March – Vernal Equinox – at 21.24, days and nights are exactly the same length, wherever you are in the world, in a rare moment of balance. Moments after this, days in Norway will start to lengthen towards the ‘white nights’ of high summer, while the days in New Zealand will shrink towards autumn and winter. The pagan festival of Ostara, also on 20th March, marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. You can almost feel nature breathing a sigh of relief, as those who have survived realise that they’ve come through winter, and are still here.