Monthly Archives: May 2023

Wednesday Weed – Trailing Bellflower(s) Revisited

Dalmatian Bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana)

Dear Readers, how could I resist this splendid display of Dalmatian Bellflower, tumbling over an original Victorian tiled path? There are actually two types of Bellflower that have made themselves at home in North London and other parts: this one from the Dalmatian mountains of Croatia, and the one below, Serbian Bellflower, from the Dinaric Alps in Serbia. As you can see, both are Alpine plants, very at home in cracks and crevices, and every bit as pretty as anything you could buy in the garden centre. The Dalmatian species is less pointy, more deeply coloured and a bit more vigorous, while the Serbian plant is a delicate little star-shaped thing. I love them both, although they don’t seem to attract quite as many bees as you might expect (in spite of what I might have thought in my original piece). Still, they help to cover the most unlikely places with greenery, and that makes them welcome in my book.

Botanists know them as ‘port and posh’ after their Latin names, which is certainly less of a mouthful than their full species designation.

Here’s what I had to say in my original post, back when we were all young and enthusiastic back in 2014.

Trailing Bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)

Trailing Bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)

When I am exploring the half-mile around my house, I am regularly surprised by some new plant that I haven’t noticed before. This week, however, I found a whole new lane that I’d not stumbled across previously, leading from Baronsmere Road to Cherry Tree Wood.

The building development in East Finchley sometimes leaves interesting lanes and snickleways....

The building development in East Finchley sometimes leaves interesting lanes and snickleways….

In this weedy little track, with garden sheds and walls on either side, I found this patch of Trailing Bellflower, with its lilac-blue flowers enhanced by perfect raindrops.

Campanula cropped

Trailing Bellflower comes from the Dinaric Alps – these are the parts of the Alps that were part of the former Yugoslavia, and you can sometimes see the plant referred to as Serbian Bellflower. As we’ve seen before, mountain plants, with their tolerance of poor, thin soil, often do very well in urban environments. This plant is a relatively recent introduction – it first came to the UK in 1931, and was first recorded in the wild in 1957.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 001Isn’t it funny how, once you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere? On a trip to Tufnell Park, I found a patch of Trailing Bellflower peeping out from amongst the ivy.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 002The name ‘Bellflower’ doesn’t seem very appropriate for this plant – ‘Starflower’ seems more descriptive of those five-petalled blooms. However, in the photo below, you can see a stem with two flowers on it on the right hand side. Viewed from here, the flowers look like hats for  fairies.

Toilet Insects Campanula Finches Squirrel 030There seems to be some debate as to whether Trailing Bellflower is palatable or not. On the lovely website Plants for a Future the leaves are described as ‘a little tough’, but the flowers ‘have a pleasant sweet flavour and make a decorative addition to the salad bowl‘. They would certainly look very pretty nestled amongst some winter leaves. However, as this is a popular plant with pollinators, and as it flowers later than most, I would be inclined to leave most of the flowers where they belong.

As I left the lane, I spotted another patch of Trailing Bellflower, which had made itself at home amongst the stone stairs of an impressive entrance:

Trailing Bellflower 4aAs I was standing there, an elderly gentleman paused to let me take my photograph.

“Are you interested in Victorian architecture?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “but today I’m more interested in the plants”. With a burst of enthusiasm, I explained that this was Trailing Bellflower, and told him probably more than he either wanted or needed to know about the habits, history and ecology of the plant.

He shook his head, a little sadly I thought.

“I see them,” he said, “but I don’t know any of the names”.

You don’t have to know the name of something to appreciate it – in fact, sometimes the urge to identify what a plant or animal is can get in the way of really looking at what you’re seeing. But being able to put a name to a Trailing Bellflower does add a depth, a way of seeing plants both individually and as part of an ecosystem. In fact, my walks to the greengrocer are often now something of a mantra.

“Chickweed, groundsel, shepherd’s purse.

Yellow corydalis, green alkanet, dandelion.

Trailing bellflower, nettle, feverfew.

Canadian fleabane”.

 

 

 

 

 

At Last!

Dear Readers, I don’t know about you but it’s been a bit of a silent spring in these parts – after the arrival of the hairy-footed flower bees in April and May, I have mostly been seeing honeybees and nothing else. Where are my favourites (yes, I know you aren’t supposed to have favourites), the bumblebees? So today I was delighted to see this furry blob – I got a better look at it than any of my photos show, and I’m fairly sure it was an Early Bumblebee (Bombus praetorum) (yellow stripe, black stripe, yellow stripe, orange-y bum). Apparently they can be on the wing from February, but not this year I suspect, with our long, cold spring. They are important pollinators of soft-fruits, but this one rather liked the green alkanet and the cat mint (which, typically, a cat has sat upon, squashing half of it flat).

There is a Facebook page called ‘Crap Bird Photography’ which gives me endless amusement (and indeed I have submitted some of my masterpieces and have gotten the requisite number of laugh-y emoticons). If only there was a ‘Crap Insect Photography’ page! I have so many that I could start one all on my own.

Looking at the bee below I think there must have been two bumblebees, this one is quite clearly a common carder (Bombus pascuorum), a little ginger bee with a long flight season – they are often the last bumbles on the wing in late autumn.

And there is another tiny bee with a white face that I’m eager to get a photograph of, but I shall wait until I’m sure of the id before I post.

In the meantime, my twenty minutes in the front garden has lifted my spirits and got the crick out of my back. Now, back to my different modes of photosynthesis revision. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, anybody?

 

In The Pond

Dear Readers, my lovely husband has had another bash at reducing the duckweed in the pond, and I think it’s now down to abou 50% cover so I can actually see what’s happening with the tadpoles. What a lot there are this year! It’s difficult to get a proper portrait of the little wigglers, but here are a couple of attempts.

The one on the right looks to me as if his or her back legs are on the verge of busting out. How strange it must be to be a tadpole and to completely change from a legless aquatic vegetarian to a four-legged carnivore in the space of just a few months. Goodness knows it’s hard enough with the stages of life that us humans go through, and we don’t (completely) change our body shape, although we do seem to acquire extra dimensions in some places. At least we don’t suddenly find ourselves wide-mouthed and grinning on a lilypad, and the diet of flies and slugs would be a bit wearisome.

I was also struck by the difference in size between the different tadpoles – sometimes, some tadpoles will overwinter in the pond and turn into frogs in the spring, while others will go hell for leather and become frogs before the autumn. I guess that the variation means that at least some will survive, whatever the weather conditions, but the smaller ones will be at risk of being cannibalised by their larger brothers and sisters.

And after all, this feels like such an annual miracle. I have no idea where the frogs lived before the pond arrived, or where they go to when they leave the pond (some do stay to hibernate on the bottom, but goodness knows where the rest go. It’s been lovely to take a break between my DNA transcription and my protein translation, but now it’s back to work for another hour. Progress is being made but however well you plan, it never seems enough, at least for a perfectionist like me, who doesn’t know when to stop. Onwards!

Ten Minutes in the Garden

Large Red Damselfly in the garden

Dear Readers, it has been the most glorious weather for the past few days, and my heart is filled with sympathy for all the young people who are huddled over their text books and trying to revise. I know that we always have examinations just as the weather is at its most blissful, but it doesn’t get any easier as you get older, I can tell you. I remember doing my accountancy exams and throwing the books across the room on at least one occasion (tort law if my memory serves me). Still, I did at least manage a brief break in the sunshine, and it fills me with great joy that these insects are out and about, in spite of the duckweed in the pond and the very strange spring weather.

The males seem to emerge first and wait around in the undergrowth for some females to put in an appearance. They are so delicate, especially when they fly and the sun catches their wings, but they certainly put up a fight if they sense competition. There was a cloud of holly blue butterflies too, and one very determined-looking large white butterfly. As is usual when I’m meaning to be doing something else, I feel a great urge to tidy up the pots, or drag out some more duckweed, or even, as a dear friend of mine once did when trying to avoid some unwanted task, to clean the kettle flex.

Still, today I have not only revised the structure of the cell (bacterial, plant and animal), the theory of natural and sexual selection, mitosis and meiosis and a great raft of Mendelian genetics, but I have also reminded myself of the wonders of bird migration. If I had a bit more energy I would wax lyrical, but actually I think I’m going to pour myself a cold drink and go damselfly-spotting. Only twelve days to go, and I’ll be a free woman. Cheers!

Om Nom – A Very Nice Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant

Dear Readers, I sneaked out from my revision for lunch with my lovely friend J this lunchtime, and as I warned you things are going to be a bit random on Bugwoman for the next week or two, so I thought I’d share this lovely place with you. It’s not only a restaurant but a yoga centre, and it’s also a charity which provides one meal in the developing world for each meal eaten in the restaurant (Charity Commission link here) They are also dog-friendly, which my friend’s little dog was very happy about.

There’s a large glass atrium (which can be a bit warm if you’re a lady of a certain age as J and I both are) and also a cooler bit inside. But the key thing is the food, the vast majority of which is either vegan or can be made vegan, with a few vegetarian courses too, and lots of gluten-free options. Did I mention that South Indian cuisine is one of my favourites in the world? The masala dosa ( a spicy potato-filled crepe with coconut chutney and vegetable curry) is delicious, and my friend raved about her jackfruit biriyani. And, just in case you think that all sounds a bit frugal, the vegan chocolate cake and chocolate brownie with vegan ice-cream was exceptionally tasty. There was also a vegan mango lassi. There is so much choice and my vegan friend, who usually ends up eating a bad risotto or a plate of vegetables when she goes out was nearly overwhelmed. You can have a look at the menu here. Believe me, for Islington this is very good value, especially for the very swanky new Islington Square, which is where the old Post Office used to be.

Photo from https://www.islingtonsquare.com/shop/omnom/

So, honestly, with vegan food as good as this, who needs meat (note that where it mentions chicken etc on the menu they’re using plant-based meat alternatives)? I will certainly be back. I’d like to put in a word for the mint and lime tea too, a combination that I’d not come across previously and will probably be trying to replicate at home. And finally, the staff are welcoming, efficient and helpful. This is a lovely place, a one-off and somewhere with a conscience. If you’re in London, it’s well worth a visit. 

 

Heads Up!

Dear Readers, two pieces of news today. First up, I was sitting in the garden yesterday when I heard a blue tit calling – there has been one yelling its head off for the past few weeks, but like an  eejit I never thought to look up at the bird box that we put up a couple of years ago. Holy moly, it looks as if someone is actually at home. I am very excited, but will also be keeping my hopes under control – up there the blue tits should be safe from all but the most intrepid cat (knowing the ones around here I wouldn’t be surprised to see one piloting a small hang glider), but the magpies have made their nest in the tree opposite and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they clocked this arrangement. Anyway, fingers crossed and I will keep you posted.

My second piece of news is that I have exams on the 8th and 9th of June, for my Cellular Biology and Biology of Survival courses, and so my posts may be shorter/more ‘science-y’ between now and then. I did my revision timetable yesterday (rather later than planned) and was somewhat surprised by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that there is still to do, so I expect to be a bit frazzled by the time June 10th comes round. Nonetheless I shall soldier on valiantly. I have really loved these two courses, though I will never do two simultaneously again – there’s much more work when it’s two individual subjects than when it’s one big course, even though it’s the same number of credits overall. Keep your fingers crossed, lovely readers! After this I am looking forward to getting out and about a bit and finding a few more things for you to read about, so stay tuned….

 

Herring Gulls Are Even Brainier Than I Thought….

Adult Herring Gull (By Scottmliddell (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Readers, I have written before about how intelligent I think herring gulls are, and how we underrate their brains at our peril. But a study of the birds by Franziska Feist at the University of Sussex has shown that they are even more attuned to human behaviour than we knew.

The experiment was all about crisps. Feist and her colleagues presented crisps in either blue or green packets to groups of herring gulls, and then sat down about 5 metres away. The observer then either just sat and watched, or pulled a packet of crisps out of their bag and started to eat them.

When the experimenter was eating crisps, the gulls approached the packets 49 percent of the time, compared to 19% when the observer was just sitting around. But when the observer was eating crisps(and this is the clincher for me), the birds pecked the packet which was the same colour as the one that the observer was eating from 95 percent of the time.

Herring Gull in flight (By JalilArfaoui (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

So, this appears to indicate that a) the food choices of this group of herring gulls can be influenced by what humans are eating and b) that it isn’t in this case just about the type of food, but that they even take the colour of the packaging into account, to make sure that they are eating ‘our’ food. I find this astonishing, and you can read the whole article here.

This increasing attunement to the way humans behave is probably coupled with the way that herring gulls have changed their habits, from being largely coastal to coming inland and feeding from landfill sites. They nest on flat roofs everywhere, and are often seen to be a menace, in spite of the fact that they are declining and are on the IUCNs Red List of endangered birds in the UK. We are fast becoming their main source of food, so no wonder they are paying more attention to the finest nuances of our behaviour. The effect of all that junk food on the gulls themselves would be interesting to monitor.

Incidentally, a 2019 study showed that gulls are much less likely to steal your chips if they think you are watching them – only 26 percent of a sample of gulls touched the food if they were being stared at, and they took 20 percent longer to approach than if the experimenter was busy doing something else. So if you don’t want to be ambushed and chipless, it pays to be diligent, as it does in most situations. I wonder if the rise of the smartphone could be correlated with the increased success of herring gulls stealing food? Now that would be an interesting study.

And here is one of my favourite short films, of a herring gull ‘puddling’ for worms and then announcing  their presence with a most gratifying ‘long call’. Just look at that intelligent expression! These are extraordinary birds, well worth our attention.

Wednesday Weed – Fringecups Revisited

Dear Readers, you might remember me mentioning that I’d found some fringe cups growing in the garden at the weekend, so I thought it might be the moment to resurrect this post, from 2015. And here is a small treat – an extract from a poem by Sandra McPherson, published in New York in 1988. I think it’s rather lovely.

Fringecups

Of a green so palely, recessively matched to the forest floor,
one asks if they will turn a color
for they could hardly fade more.
Around them, buttercups spread witheringly bright.

But there can be a deep pink sign of aging
on a cup’s curled edge.
And when its style calves and the ovary splits,
one drop of cucumber-scented water sprinkles the fingernail.

Fringecups flowers (Photo By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10698214)

And now, let’s zip back to 2015 and see what I had to say then….

Dear Readers, during a walk in Coldfall Wood last week, I was surprised to see a stand of Fringecups alongside the stream. They are a member of the Saxifrage family, although they look very different from the others, with their strange green-pink flowers peering like giraffes over their neighbours. They are the sole member of their genus, and as such are somewhat out on a limb: most saxifrages are five-petalled, open-flowered plants, although a few do share the long stem of the Fringecup. As the flowers grow older, they start to change from greenish-white to pink, and even to red.

IMG_2385

Older Fringecup flowers, rapidly turning red("Tellima grandiflora 07469". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tellima_grandiflora_07469.JPG#/media/File:Tellima_grandiflora_07469.JPG)

Older Fringecup flowers, rapidly turning red(“Tellima grandiflora 07469”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tellima_grandiflora_07469.JPG#/media/File:Tellima_grandiflora_07469.JPG)

This is a plant that my North American readers might recognise, as it is a native of the north-western corner of the continent, including Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Alberta and British Columbia. It is a plant of woody, shady, wet places, and in my garden at least the bees are very fond of those unassuming flowers.

IMG_2379Here in the wood, they have certainly made themselves at home. They mix happily with the nettles, the violets and the marsh marigolds, and keep themselves largely to themselves. It is not difficult to see how it has made the leap into ‘the wild’ – I have it in my own garden, and there are many varieties for sale. Its tolerance of shade is a great point in its favour in many people’s eyes.

Fringecups growing in my garden.

Fringecups growing in my garden.

I think that this looks like a fairy-tale plant, ethereal and delicate. The flowers look as if they could be hats for pixies, and, indeed, there is a Canadian folktale that elves ate Fringecup in order to improve their night vision. The First Nation Skagit people used Fringecup to make a tea for treating many illnesses, including loss of appetite.

IMG_2384In many of the books that mention Fringecups, there is a reference to its fragrance. I have to admit that this was not something that I’d noticed so, in the interests of research, I went down to the garden to have a sniff. And there it is, a faint hint of sweetness, as fragile as the scent left on a  silk scarf. This is a modest plant of strange and elusive beauty, which only reveals itself if you have the time to stop and look.

IMG_2386

 

Whale Stories

Orca porpoising in Hood Canal, USA (Photo by By Minette Layne from Seattle, Washington, USA – Single breaching orca (cropped), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3351306)

Dear Readers, two whale-related stories today. First up, Orcas (Orcinus orca) have managed to sink three boats in the Straits of Gibraltar since 2020 (though out of more than 500 encounters that’s not bad odds). The whales appear to target the rudder of the boat, charging it until it’s broken or bent. But why? One theory is that the attacks stemmed from something that happened to a particular female whale, White Gladis. The author of a study on the whale attacks, Alfredo López Fernandez, believes that the whale suffered a traumatic event – either a collision with a boat, or possibly entanglement in illegal fishing nets. Since then, she started to attack the boats, and other whales have copied her – in at least one encounter, the sailors involved believed that a female whale was teaching her offspring to charge their boat.

Another theory is that this behaviour is just a fad – the whales are just playing, and certainly they show no interest once the boat has stopped. They don’t appear to be trying to target the humans (and their behaviour with prey animals such as seals, where they band together to topple a seal resting on an ice floe into the water) shows that they are able to devise complicated tactics to get at ‘food’ if they want to.

However, whales attacking boats that they believe have harmed them has a history – grey whales were known as ‘devil fish’ at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries, because mother whales would ram any whaling boats that they saw (and quite right too). Maybe the orcas really do see boats as a threat. However, this isn’t good news for them – the Iberian population of orcas is only 39 individuals, and ramming a boat can be more dangerous for the whale than it is for the humans. Let’s hope that the whales come to a decision that it isn’t worth the hassle soon – orcas are extraordinary creatures, and the world would be much worse off without them.

Orcas breaching close to Unimak Island in the Aleutians, Alaska (Photo by By Robert Pittman – NOAA (http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Quarterly/amj2005/divrptsNMML3.htm]), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1433661)

And now onto the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus). This cetacean can live to be over 200 years old, and weighs in at a sleek 80,000 kilograms, give or take a few grams. Scientists would expect such a large animal to have a higher rate of cancer than smaller creatures, simply because they have so many more cells, each of which could potentially become cancerous. However, like many other large animals, the rate of cancer in these animals is much lower than expected, something known as Peto’s paradox.

Bowhead whale breaching off the Alaska coast (Photo By Bering Land Bridge National Preserve – bowhead-1 Kate Stafford edit, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44326238)

Not only do the whales have more copies of genes that suppress cancer, but they are also much more able to repair the DNA damage caused by exposure to carcinogens, ageing etc. The repairs are also much more accurate than those that occur in other animals, including humans, cows and mice. Alas, although we now know what happens to bowhead whales, we can’t just generalise from their mechanisms to ourselves, but it does cast an interesting light on why these marine creatures can live to such an advanced old age. In 2007, a bowhead was found dead with a type of harpoon manufactured between 1879 and 1885 still embedded in its body ( a sad inditement of our troubled relationship with these remarkable animals), which meant it was approximately 130 years old. However, since then a whale aged 211 was found, and the Australian national science agency, CSIRO, estimates that the natural lifespan of a bowhead is about 268 years.

You can read all about bowhead whales and their remarkable ability to avoid cancer here.

Also, another factoid. The bowhead whale has the largest mouth of any animal, measuring almost a third of the length of its body (they grow to about 50 feet long), and the baleen in its mouth (the structures that are used to filter out the plankton on which this giant feeds) is about 10 feet long. And it has the thickest blubber of any animal, with a maximum thickness of 19.5 inches.

Traditionally, bowheads have been hunted by indigenous peoples around the Arctic Sea, and a small number of whales are still taken every year (67 individuals, or .05 of the Bering Sea population). However we might feel about this, now that commercial whaling pressure has been removed, there is also growth in the number of whales in many other parts of the bowhead’s range, so I am allowing myself to feel the tiniest bit of cautious optimism, in the face of realism about climate change, seabed drilling, pollution etc etc etc. Maybe these tough, long-lived animals have more in their DNA than ‘just’ cancer resistance, and I’m sure that there is much more that we can respectfully learn from them.

Bowhead whale ‘spyhopping’ off the Sea of Okhotsk (Photo By Olga Shpak – http://ria.ru/earth/20140219/995484804.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33130137)

A Dark and Shady Corner

Dear Readers, I’m sure many ‘proper’ gardeners would throw up their hands in horror at the sight of the side return to my house but I must admit that I rather like it. My garden is north-facing, but this little narrow sliver between my house and my neighbours seems to have become a ‘weed sanctuary’, a home for all the commonest ‘weeds’ of East Finchley, and, in my view, nothing that I could plant would ever thrive as well.

So, what do we have? First up is Greater Celandine, a member of the poppy family, and a more cheerful plant you couldn’t wish for, even though it is poisonous. It was believed to be a cure for warts, and as my maternal grandmother was a great curer of carbuncles and skin complaints of all kinds, it will always have a place in my garden.

Then there’s Yellow Corydalis, a member of the fumitory family. I love the flowers but I have a particular fondness for those wispy, delicate leaves. This is another common North London weed, most often seen growing out of tiny crevices in a wall.

And then there’s our old friend Herb Robert, the first plant that I ever did a Wednesday Weed about back in 2014. It’s a cranesbill (or species geranium), its leaves smell of burning rubber, and the leaves and stem turn to bright red – it made the railway lines at East Finchley station look very fine a few years ago. I just love it.

And peeping out below the Herb Robert in the first photo is some Green Alkanet, although this is happier in the sunnier conditions in the front garden.

And then there are a few plants that have ‘blown in’ – these tend to be at the sunnier, garden end of the side return. I love these forget-me-nots, planted about three metres away but now making themselves at home here. The original plants were from my dear friend J, and so I always think of her when I see them.

And finally, how about these? This is Tellima, otherwise known as fringecups – I originally planted some right at the other end of the garden, where they did rather badly (I think it was too dry under the whitebeam). And now they’re back, and a happy bumblebee was feeding from the rather inconspicuous but nectar-heavy flowers.

At one point I was planning on getting some containers to plant up along the side of the house, but for now I think I’m going to let it be. It can be a bit tricky to walk along in the height of summer, but how pretty it looks with all its pink and yellow and blue. And last year an enormous white foxglove pinged up next to the hosepipe, so it’s always full of surprises. So, while the garden may not win any Gardens Illustrated awards, it makes me (and the creatures that I share the garden with) happy, and that’s good enough for me.