Author Archives: Bug Woman

Wednesday Weed – Turnip

Dear Readers, when I got these turnips in my vegetable box last week, I admit to being stumped, because of all the roots in the world, this is the one I like least. In Scotland, a ‘neep’ is a completely different animal – in England we’d call it a swede, in the US it’s a rutabaga, and whatever it’s called I’m  rather fond it, especially when mashed and served with ‘stovies’, a delicious mix of leftover meat, potatoes, onions and gravy. In fact, swedes probably merit a blogpost all to themselves, so I shall move on (with regret) for now.

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Rainer Zenz assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

A swede or a neep, depending on where you live (or indeed a rutabaga) (Photo One)

I have a long and unhappy history with turnips, however. Back when I was a young thing and was working in Dundee, I had a blond Adonis of a boyfriend who was very into self-sufficiency. One of the things he grew was turnips, and when they were in season that is basically what we ate. There were turnips and broccoli for lunch (with additional earwigs which we where meant to pick out and put to one side). There was turnip and blackberry jam, following a war-time recipe. There was turnip and blackberry pie with custard made with wholemeal bread flour (don’t ask). There was turnip curry (which at least disguised the taste). Suffice it to say that turnips became my nemesis and I have never willingly or knowingly eaten one since. But here they are, and I am not going to waste the poor darlings.

Anyhow, what is a turnip anyway? Its Latin name is Brassica rapa subspecies rapa, and the wild plant is another of those mustardy cabbage plants with yellow flowers that are so confusing to the amateur botanist.

Photo Two By TeunSpaans - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wild turnip (Brassica rapa) (Photo Two)

The name ‘turnip’ rather charmingly comes from the word ‘turn’ (as in ‘turn on a lathe/make round) and ‘neep’ from napus, the Latin word for vegetable – so, ’round vegetable’. The poet Sappho apparently called one of her lovers Gongýla, which means ‘turnip’, and I have to admit that when I was arranging the vegetables for the photo they reminded me so much of a pair of breasts that I had to turn one of them at an angle to avoid offending anyone’s modesty. Clearly, this lockdown is affecting my brain.


Turnips actually have a double whammy when it comes to food – the green tops can be eaten as a substitute for spinach or chard, although they have a punchier, more mustardy flavour. In fact, some varieties of turnip are grown solely for their greens, and I’m sure that they’re all the better for it – broccoli rabe, bok choy and Chinese cabbage are all actually turnips. The root is apparently milder when cooked (but still, I would argue, not mild enough), but turnips are also often used as animal feed.  In 1700 Viscount Townsend, a Whig statesman, retired to his country house and became involved in agriculture, no doubt to the delight of the local yeomanry. He did, however,  invent a four-year crop rotation system featuring turnips, barley, wheat and clover, and became an enthusiastic proponent of using turnips as a year-round animal feed. Such was his association with the vegetable that he became know as Charles ‘Turnip’ Townsend.

Photo Two By Godfrey Kneller - one or more third parties have made copyright claims against Wikimedia Commons in relation to the work from which this is sourced or a purely mechanical reproduction thereof. This may be due to recognition of the "sweat of the brow" doctrine, allowing works to be eligible for protection through skill and labour, and not purely by originality as is the case in the United States (where this website is hosted). These claims may or may not be valid in all jurisdictions.As such, use of this image in the jurisdiction of the claimant or other countries may be regarded as copyright infringement. Please see Commons:When to use the PD-Art tag for more information., Public Domain,

Charles ‘Turnip’ Townsend (18 April 1674 – 21 June 1738), probably not wearing his gardening clothes (Photo Three)

While turnip greens are high in Vitamins K, A and C. the root is hardly a nutritional powerhouse, containing 14% of an adult’s daily requirement of Vitamin C and rather a lot of water and carbohydrate. Nonetheless, some people have leapt into the fray and tried to make something of it. Its radish-y qualities mean that it is sometimes grated and used in salads. I note that the Good Food recipe site has turnips in marmalade, turnips with duck, crispy salmon with turnip, mandarin and noodle salad and turnip tartiflette . I am going to put my turnips into a red lentil and turnip chilli from one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s books, but as my husband’s stomach can’t tolerate chilli I shall be splashing on the pepper sauce after cooking. If you have any failsafe turnip recipes that don’t taste too much of turnip, do let me know.

Photo Four from

Marmalade glazed turnips (Photo Four)

There seems to be something essentially comedic about the poor old turnip. For example, in an attempt to puncture what’s perceived as the po-faced nature of the Turner Prize ( the UK’s chief prize for ‘modern’ art of all kinds), some wag dreamed up the Turnip Prize. The prize is given to exhibits that display a lack of effort, and which are rubbish, though I also detect a very British love of puns. Some of its winners have included a builder’s hard hat with elf’s pointy ears attached (‘Elfin Safety’), a lump of dough with toy children embedded in it (‘Children in Knead’) and a pole painted black (‘Pole Dark’). The prize is, of course, a lump of wood with a turnip nailed to it.

Nonetheless, the turnip has also played a more serious role in history. During the winter of 1916-17, the German populace were close to starvation. The harvest of the potato, a staple food in the country, failed and this, combined with the Allied blockade, the seizure of farm horses for the army, the diversion of nitrogen fertilizers to make explosives and the lack of agricultural manpower as people were drafted into the army made for a perfect storm. The government attempted to substitute turnips, normally used for animal feed, for the lost potatoes, but turnips have a much lower nutritional value, and mortality, particularly among women, increased by 30% in 1917. Furthermore, it’s believed that the malnutrition also had a lasting effect on the immune systems of those who survived, making them more vulnerable to the so-called Spanish flu pandemic which ravaged the world right after the war. The Germans call this period ‘The Turnip Winter’, and a loathing of turnips lingers to this day amongst the older population.

Strangely enough though, just across the border in Austria, the municipality of Keutsch am Zee features a very splendid turnip on its coat of arms, probably a nod to the agriculture which was the chief source of income for the area until tourism came along.

Photo Five By Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill, AUSTRIA - Source: "Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill"This image shows a flag, a coat of arms, a seal or some other official insignia. The use of such symbols is restricted in many countries. These restrictions are independent of the copyright status., Public Domain,

The Coat of Arms of Keutsch am Zee (Photo Five)

And finally, did you ever wonder what people made Halloween lanterns out of before pumpkins arrived from the New World? Well, again it’s our old friend the humble turnip, though I suspect the larger swede is more often involved. Apparently these lanterns are still made out of turnips on the Isle of Man, and in Ireland and Scotland (so do let me know if the pumpkin has made inroads into lantern-making in your neck of the woods – I do suspect that pumpkins are much easier to carve).

Photo Six By Bodrugan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A traditional Cornish Jack-O-Lantern carved, as I suspected, from a swede (Photo Six)

And so, a poem. How delighted I was to find that Seamus Heaney had written a poem about a turnip snedder, a machine used to slice up the turnips to make feed for the animals. Here is one from Sentry Hill in County Antrim, from an excellent blog by Anne Hailes – well worth a look.

Photo Seven from

Wesley Bonar, Museums and Heritage Officer at Sentry Hill with a turnip-snedder (Photo Seven)

In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,
the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,
it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,
hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter
as winter’s body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate
standing guard
on four braced greaves.
‘This is the way that God sees life,’
it said, ‘from seedling-braird to snedder,’
as the handle turned
and turnip-heads were let fall and fed
to the juiced-up inner blades,
‘This is the turnip-cycle,’
as it dropped its raw sliced mess,
bucketful by glistering bucketful.

Photo Credits

Photo One By No machine-readable author provided. Rainer Zenz assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two By TeunSpaans – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three By Godfrey Kneller –  Public Domain,

Photo Four from

Photo Five By Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill, AUSTRIA – Source: “Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill”This image shows a flag, a coat of arms, a seal or some other official insignia. The use of such symbols is restricted in many countries. These restrictions are independent of the copyright status., Public Domain,

Photo Six By Bodrugan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Seven from

Bird Watching in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

‘My’ swamp cypress


Dear Readers, what a misty, chill, autumnal day it was today (Saturday)! We were slow off the mark for our weekly walk in the cemetery, but when we got there it was extremely quiet – maybe we’d missed all the people who normally come early, or maybe the weather just persuaded people to stay in bed. At any rate, I was happy to visit with the swamp cypress, who is standing in a puddle of copper spent foliage. Just look at the colour!

What was remarkable today, however, was the number of bird sightings. Howabout this kestrel for a start. This little fellow was sitting in an ash tree, watching the ground for mice. He looks a little scruffy but then none of us are all  that dapper at the moment.

He waited around for a good five minutes, then got fed up and headed off, flying sleek and low over the graves. He looked much sleeker in flight than he does here.

There were lots of smaller birds around – mixed flocks of tits, and lots of goldfinches pecking over the ash keys. Ash really does support a lot of different creatures. No wonder it was (probably) the World Tree in Norse mythology.

Goldfinch in the ash tree

And then, the best sighting of the day. I have been hearing green woodpeckers in one corner of the cemetery for weeks but have never got a photo. Finally, I saw one not too far away in a tree.

And I was very pleased with myself until my lovely long-suffering husband piped up.

‘What’s that green bird?’ he asked. ‘Is it a parrot?’

Well, no. About 10 metres away was another green woodpecker. What a splendid bird it is close up, with its red crest, blue eyes and gold tail feathers. This one was thumping about on an anthill, because unlike other UK woodpeckers, it doesn’t eat grubs from tree bark but concentrates on ants. Now I know where the anthill is, I’ll be able to keep an eye open.

Apparently the females have a black moustache, and the males have a moustache with a red centre. I didn’t manage to get any head-on photos to check with this bird. They are surprisingly large too.

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis)

I think that green woodpeckers look a little like dragons, and to be honest I couldn’t have been more delighted if they had been some kind of mythological animal. This one drilled away into the soil for a good two or three minutes as I stood there clicking away. It seems to me that getting outside on a miserable day sometimes brings its own rewards – I imagine that animals are a bit more relaxed when there aren’t so many people about. It certainly cheers me up.

Incidentally, does anyone remember this remarkable photograph captured by Martin Le-May in Hornchurch Country Park in 2015? No photoshop or other nonsense involved.

Apparently Le-May was walking in the park hoping to show his wife a green woodpecker as she’d never properly seen one before, so they both had their cameras and binoculars. What appears to have happened is that the weasel grabbed the woodpecker as the bird hunted for ants. Maybe the mammal underestimated the size of the woodpecker, but then weasels are renowned for punching above their weight. The bird took off, with the weasel presumably trying for a neck bite. Le-May saw the bird throw the predator off, and both went their separate ways.

No such drama for me, fortunately, just a sense of being incredibly lucky to have seen a kestrel and a green woodpecker in one visit.

A buzzard flew over again, this time with about twelve crows in attendance. I can’t help but think that the buzzard roosts in the wood. I wonder if it will nest next year? That really would be something.

And I imagine that the green woodpecker was the greenest bird in the UK until these little guys arrived.

Rose-ringed parakeet (Psitaculla krameri)


I suspect these guys are already looking for tree holes to nest in – they can start breeding as early as January. They certainly like the big old Victorian-era trees in the cemetery. Fortunately, between the cemetery and Coldfall Wood next door, there are a large number of mature trees to choose from, and we seem to be holding on to our populations of cavity-nesters – woodpeckers, stock doves, nuthatches and parakeets. Long may it continue. 

London Natural History Society Talks – Pollinators and Pollination by Jeff Ollerton

Dear Readers, I was really looking forward to this talk – I’ve learned a bit about pollinators and pollination over the years, but Jeff Ollerton has spent his life researching the relationship between plants and the creatures that pollinate them, so I knew there would be much to ponder, and I wasn’t disappointed. If you want to watch the talk for yourself, you can access it (and all the other LNHS talks) from their website here or from Youtube here.

Ollerton starts out by talking about the sheer variety of insect species that pollinate plants in the UK. Of course, we automatically think about honeybees, but they are actually atypical, being larger than most of the other 270 UK bees species (only bumblebees are larger) and having the most complex social structure. The ‘solitary’ bees are probably the most diverse group of bee pollinators, although we know little about the life cycles of some of them.

Hoverflies (of which there are approximately 270 species too) are also important pollinators. Of the 60 species of butterfly and 80 species of moth, not all visit flowers – Purple Emperors, for example, feed only on honeydew and plant sap, and some moth species don’t have mouthparts at all. The Noctuid moths are important pollinators, however, especially of plants such as bramble, though this aspect is rarely studied because they are nocturnal.

Photo One by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Marbled Green (Cryphia muralis) (Photo One)

So, why do insects visit flowers? Different groups come for different reasons. Bees come for nectar and pollen: the first is fuel for themselves, the second protein-rich food for their larvae. Wasps and predatory flies may hang around flowers in order to capture other insects. Beetles and some fly species hope to meet their mates on flowers: who can forget the infamous ‘bonking beetles’ who seem to use blossom as their personal speed-dating site?

A bonking (soldier) beetle( Rhagonycha fulva) not bonking.

Some other insects that visit plants are seed-parasites, but some plants, such as the cuckoo-pint, repay the favour by giving visiting insects no reward at all. Insects are drawn in by the warmth the plant generates and its distinct smell of cowdung – once the insects are inside, they are trapped overnight, get completely covered in pollen, and presumably, once released, visit a different plant the following night.

Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum)


In other countries, a wider range of animals act as pollinators – not just birds and bats, but small rodents, lizards, and even cockroaches. But what makes an effective pollinator? Ollerton had an interesting list of characteristics.

  • The size of the pollinator must be appropriate for the flower – too small and it probably won’t pick up the pollen correctly, too large and it will destroy the flower
  • It must be hairy (or feathery) enough to pick up the pollen
  • It must be abundant enough to transfer the pollen to enough other plants to make reproduction effective
  • It must behave properly on the flower – some bees ‘nectar-rob’ for example, biting a hole in the base of a flower to get at the nectar without actually pollinating the flower
  • It must behave properly between flowers – i.e. it must regularly visit the right kind of flower. if it chops and changes on a whim, the pollen might end up on the stamen of a completely different species.
  • It must not be too keen on cleanliness – this was something I’d never thought about. Honeybees, for example, often groom between flowers, stuffing the pollen into their corbicula (pollen baskets) from where it can’t pollinate any other flowers that the bees visit.

All this means that there are a wide number of criteria that have to be met before effective pollination can take place. And it is extremely important – for one thing, pollination underpins the effective survival of most terrestrial ecosystems, because without plants, there are no animals, and if pollination doesn’t take place, the plants can’t reproduce.

From the point of view of human beings, over 75% of food crops are animal-pollinated, and this produces over 35% of our food overall. Furthermore, crop-pollination has been found to be more effective if there are a variety of pollinators – the famous honeybee only performs about 30% of pollination in the UK, with the remainder being done by wild pollinators.

So, what is the state of wild pollinators? There have been some drastic declines, and there is little doubt that there is at least as much, and probably more, pollinator diversity in suburban and urban gardens than there is in the countryside, largely due to the use of biocides and the destruction of mixed grassland and meadows.

Climate change is also altering the mix of pollinators: bumblebees, which were originally tundra-adapted, are likely to be at risk whilst many of the smaller bees might have an advantage. However, nothing is absolute – the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) arrived in 2001 and is now moving north and west at a rate of knots. This is the bee that is most likely to make its home in a nest box or (as the name suggests) in a tree, and very handsome it is too.

Photo Two By Charles J Sharp - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)(Photo Two)

So, if we want to encourage pollinators in our gardens, what do we need to do? Ollerton has developed a model called the pollinator requirement triangle.

First of all, pollinators require flowers. Some species are specialists – you’ll have noticed this if you ever watch the bees and hoverflies in your garden. In mine, the common carders are especially attracted to the bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) flowers because they have the technique of buzz-pollination down to a T, while the heavier bumblebees like the foxgloves and penstemons. For this reason it’s important to have a diversity of flowers, and to have a long flowering season. Furthermore, it’s good to plant in drifts so that there’s plenty of the same thing for the pollinators to use – you can watch the bees returning again and again to the lavender in the front garden, for example.

Secondly, pollinators require somewhere to aid their reproduction. This can include host plants for larvae, nesting sites, and sometimes specific microhabitats, such as close-cut turf in a sunny  spot for many solitary bees.

Finally, there might be supplementary requirements. Leaf-cutter bees like the leaves of roses or vines, for example, and some carder bees like the woolly leaves of Stachys byzantina. Bumblebee queens need hibernation sites such as mouseholes. The larvae of hoverflies can have a wide range of requirements, including aphids to munch upon. In short, too much tidying up can be a bad thing, which is a great relief to me, scatter-brained gardener that I am.

However, Ollerton’s final comments also give food for thought. A garden should be seen in the context of the area roundabout – a bumblebee can fly for about 2.5 kilometres in search of food. So, what’s in your local area? For me, the presence of remnants of ancient woodland clearly influences the animals that come to the garden – the greater spotted woodpeckers spend most of their time in the wood and pop in to see me when food is short there or when they have youngsters to feed. The same is undoubtedly true of the bats that I sometimes see. What I’ve taken away is the thought that I need to find out more about the pollinators that are in the area naturally so that I can help to support them.

This was a great talk, with much to think about. And I already have an order in for Jeff Ollerton’s new book Pollinators and Pollination. Well worth a read, I think.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Photo Two By Charles J Sharp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Winter is Here

Muswell Hill Playing Fields on Friday Morning

Dear Readers, you know that winter has arrived in East Finchley by the sound of people scraping their windscreens. The thin layer of ice sometimes reveals the secrets of what’s happened overnight – several cars had tiny footprints all over them, presumably where a cat or fox has run over the bonnets and roofs. But why, I wonder? I know that cats sometimes sit on the bonnet because the engine is warm, but maybe these nocturnal animals were just having fun.

As we walked towards Coldfall Wood I saw a fox belt out of the wood, across Creighton Avenue, up the road for a few hundred metres, then back across the road and into someone’s garden. He was a big, hefty fox, and looked as if he could run for miles. I’m already hearing the yips of foxes talking to one another at night, probably preparing for the mating season which kicks off in the next few weeks. That’s the sound of winter for me, echoing across the empty streets on an iron-cold night.

I love the way that the first frosts paint every leaf and seedhead.

The mugwort is a most unassuming plant, but the frost turns it to a mass of silver rockets going off in all directions.

In the woods themselves, some of the overhanging trees along the path by the allotments have been cut down. It’s good that the wood has been left to provide habitat, although sometimes they don’t stay where they’re put. The muddiest bit of the path from the wood to the fields has had an improvised extension built with some pieces of timber. Today everything is delightfully crunchy underfoot rather than claggy and sodden.

The remains of the overhanging tree on the allotment path

Some improvised ‘stepping sticks’ over the muddy path

There’s something about the quality of sound on these clear, crisp, still days. A song thrush is singing in the wood, and as we go out onto the fields the roar of the North Circular seems especially loud. There are a pair of Boston Terriers galloping about, and a fine array of dog coats to admire. I sometimes wonder if their little paws get cold but they seem unfazed. You can see exactly what path everyone has taken, melted into the grass.

And the sun is coming up, and painting the trees with copper.

This Christmas will be my first without Mum or Dad, the first time that I’m not frantically planning a trip to Dorset or organising food and commodes and medical supplies. What a year it’s been, for all of us I suspect. For me personally, I am feeling a kind of settling, as if murky waters are clearing to something simpler. Maybe it’s equanimity, that sense of accepting the things that I can’t change, and being deeply grateful for what I already have. The day will come when a walk in the woods with someone I love will seem like an extraordinary, blessed thing to remember.  Maybe one reason that I write is so that I can recognise how lucky I am now, to be able to crunch across the grass after the first frost, to hear the distant roar of traffic and to smell the hint of smoke from an allotment fire. And maybe another is so that I can try to share it with you, wherever you are in the world. This blog has been a little snippet of sanity for me over the past few years, and never more so than in 2020. Thank you for reading, and for being part of it.


Saturday Quiz – Gathering Together

A Murmuration of Starlings


Dear Readers, as we come out of the National  Lockdown and go straight into a different kind of lockdown here in the UK, I have been thinking about the collective nouns for animals – a flock of sheep or a herd of deer or an idiocy of unmasked tube travellers for example. So this week your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to match the collective noun to the photo of the animal. Simples! All the nouns that I’ve chosen come from at least two verified sources, but they might not always be the one in most common usage.As usual, all answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK on Thursday if you want to be marked, but feel free to play along anyway. If you feel you might be influenced by speedy people who have already commented, write your answers down first!

So, if you think that a group of the first animal is called an exultation, your answer is 1) A.

Good luck!

A) An Exultation

B) A Skulk

C) A Convocation

D) An Unkindness

E) A Clattering

F) A Congregation

G) A Piteousness

H) A Business

I) A Charm

J) A Cete

K) A Sounder

L) A Caravan

M) A Herd

N) An Obstinacy

O) A Clowder

Photo One by Mfield, Matthew Field -, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Two by kallerna, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Three by Mfield, Matthew Field -, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Four by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Five by Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Six by Scott Granneman, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Seven by Ken Billington, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eight by Harry geurts, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Nine by Virginie Moerenhout, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Ten by Paul Resh from Delaware,OH, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eleven by Evelyn Simak / A skylark (Alauda arvensis)


Photo Twelve by גיא חיימוביץ at Hebrew Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Thirteen by Peter Trimming, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Fourteen by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Fifteen by Bombtime, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Saturday Quiz – Rare and Unusual – The Answers

Dear Readers, we had mixed fortunes with the quiz this week, with Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus, Mal from FEARN and the invincible Fran and Bobby Freelove all in joint first with 15 out of 15. Rosalind and her ‘team’ came in second with um 1 out of 15 but I’m going to gloss over that because it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part. Thank you to everyone for having a bash, and I am still mulling over what to do tomorrow so feel free to bribe me in the comments :-). 

Photo One By Rolf Engstrand - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

1) E) Few-flowered Fumitory (Fumaria vaillantii)

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

2) M) Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum)

Photo Three by Mathilde DUVERGER [CC BY-SA], via Tela Botanica, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

3)G) Slender Cotton-grass (Ephiophorum gracile)

Photo Four by HermannSchachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

4) F) Leafless Hawk’s-beard (Crepis praemorsa)

Photo Five by Franz Xaver, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) K) Wild Gladiolus (Gladiolus illyricus)

Photo Six by Björn S..., CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) J) Alpine Catchfly (Silene suecica)

Photo Seven by I, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

7) O) Alpine Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea alpina)

Photo Eight by MurielBendel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

8) D) Whorled Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum verticillatum)

Photo Nine by HermannSchachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

9)H) Upright or Tintern Spurge (Euphorbia serrulata/Euphorbia stricta)

Photo Ten by Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

10) B) Tasteless Water-pepper (Persicaria mitis)

Photo Eleven by Andreaze, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

11) L) Blue Heath (Phyllodoce caerulea)

Photo Twelve by Franz Xaver, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

12) I) Copse Bindweed (Fallopia dumetorum)

Photo Thirteen by Jerzy Opioła, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

13) A) Alpine Rock-cress (Arabis alpina)

Photo Fourteen by Joachim Lutz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

14) N) Early Marsh-Orchid, cream-coloured form (Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp ochroleuca)

Photo Fifteen by Karelj, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

15) C) Ribbon-leaved Water Plantain (Alisma pedunculata)

Photo Credits

Photo One By Rolf Engstrand – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by Mathilde DUVERGER [CC BY-SA], via Tela Botanica, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by HermannSchachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Franz Xaver, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Björn S…, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by I, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eight by MurielBendel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by HermannSchachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


This Week’s Highlights from New Scientist – Missing Bones, a Godzilla Wasp and a Rare Deepsea Squid

Photo One by By Didier Descouens - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Toumaï (Shahelanthropus tchadensis) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, back in 2001 the bones of an ancient ape-like creature were recovered from the deserts of Chad by a Frenchman, Alain Beauvilain, and three Chadians, Adoum Mahamat, Djimdoumalbaye Ahounta, and Gongdibé Fanoné, working on an expedition run by Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers. I mention the name of the whole team because so often the local guides, scientists and anthropologists who are integral to a discovery get shunted to one side when it’s reported.

The creature they found was over seven million years old, far older than other human relatives, and the question was, did this animal walk on two legs like a modern-day human, or four legs like a gorilla or chimp? If it was bipedal, that would make it the world’s oldest known hominid. If not, it probably wasn’t that closely related to us.

One way to find out is to look at the way that the bones of the neck support the skull, but sadly these weren’t found. Another is to look at the bones of the leg, such as the femur, one of which was found and photographed by a student, Aude Bergeret-Medina. The bone showed a distinct bow-shape, which made it resemble  that of a chimp, and would indicate that bipedalism was unlikely. However, when Bergeret-Medina looked for the femur, it had gone missing. There was nothing published about this find until this year, and the scientists have been on tenterhooks ever since 2001.

The creature was named ‘Toumai’, from the Dazaga language of the region. It means ‘hope of life’ and is given to children born before the dry season, when food is hard to find.

Brunet and his colleagues have always maintained that Toumai did walk on two legs. Bergeret-Medina has recently published a paper based on the photos of the missing femur, which say that the creature most likely walked on four legs. A colleague of Brunets (Frank Guy) has published another paper (not yet through peer review) which maintains that a ridge on the skull does indicate bipedalism.

So, I would like to go out on a limb here and without accusing anyone of skullduggery, suggest that the world of ancient hominid remains is every bit as competitive and Machiavellian as anything the Borgias dreamt up. And if you also think those puns are too bad to be deliberate, you’d be wrong.

You can read the whole article here.


In other news, a tiny parasitic wasp (Microgaster godzilla) has been found to hunt underwater for the caterpillars that it uses as hosts for its larvae. The caterpillars of the Elophila turbata moth live near the surface of the water in cases that they create out of pieces of plant. You might think this would deter the moth, but no. The female taps the surface of the water with her antennae to locate the caterpillars and then dives under the water to harass the caterpillar until it leaves its protective case. Once exposed, the wasp lays eggs on the poor larva, and goes about her business. The eggs will hatch and munch the caterpillar from the inside in that delightful way that parasitic wasp larvae have.

The Japanese team at Osaka Prefecture and Kobe University worked with Jose Fernandez-Triana at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes in Ottawa to make this discovery, and named the wasps ‘godzilla’ after the way that they emerged from the water, which reminded the scientists of the iconic monster. Personally I think it’s a bit of a stretch, but this is extraordinary behaviour for a flying insect.

Godzilla in a scene from the film. © Toho Co. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

And the full article, including a short film of the hunting wasp,  is here.

And finally, how about this extraordinary creature? This bigfin squid (Magnapinna) was found more than 2 kilometres under water in Australian waters. The squids have large fins that make them nearly as wide as they are long, and long, thin tentacles. The squid have long tentacles that have tiny suckers on them and are retractable. One squid was 1.8 metres long, of which 1.68 metres was tentacle. You can see them in action here. The scientists think that they saw at least five individual squid, which is good news for sure.

Photo Two By NOAA -, Public Domain,

“Squid with ten foot tentacles seen at 1900 m on dive 3633 at Atwater Valley site. courtesy: Andy Shepard (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two By NOAA –, Public Domain,



Wednesday Weed – Carrot

Photo Seven by nanao wagatsuma, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Baby Carrots (Photo Seven)

Dear Readers, as you might know, when winter comes around it gets harder and harder to find wild plants to write about, and even garden plants are thin on the ground. So, when the going gets tough I generally think of my stomach, and as I have a fridge full of fancy carrots at the moment, I decided to share this most cheap and cheerful of vegetables with you.

As you probably know, carrots are descended from the elegant wild carrot (Daucus carota), one of my very favourite plants. I love the little ‘nests’ that appear before the flower opens, and the way that some flowers have a single red one in the middle that looks like an insect and attracts pollinators.

However, the tiny though intensely carroty-flavoured root of the wild plant has been turned into a giant. The name ‘carrot’ is thought to derive originally from the Indo-European word ‘ker’, meaning ‘horn’. In Old English carrots and parsnips are lumped together as ‘mork’ (meaning edible root), probably because carrots were usually white at this time.

Indeed, carrots were not always bright orange – the trend towards ‘rainbow carrots’ (which include purple and orange ones, yellow ones, and pale orange ones, to name but a few) shows that the vegetable is full of possibilities. There is an ongoing argument about whether carrots ended up orange to honour the Dutch flag and William of Orange or whether the orange varieties were just easier to store and grow. What is clear is that the carrot that we eat today probably originated in Persia, which Wikipedia describes as ‘the centre of diversity for the wild carrot’. Over time, the plant was selectively bred for the sweetness and size of its root, and it was soon being eaten all over the world. It pops up in Spain in the 8th century, China in the 14th (these days China grows 45% of all the carrots in the world) and Japan in the 18th. By then it had also been carried to the New World by settlers, and John Aubrey was describing it as being grown in the UK in 1688. What a lot of travelling for a humble root!

Photo One By Stephen Ausmus - This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K11611-1 (next)., Public Domain, by

A carroty rainbow (Photo One)

I’m sure you will not need me to describe the many culinary uses of carrots. My Mum loved them in a stew with onions and pearl barley. I developed a taste for the intensely sweet Indian dessert gajar halva, which I always argue is actually healthy, in spite of the ghee and sugar, because surely it contains one of my five-a-day fruit and vegetable portions if I eat enough of it?

Photo Two By Prerna Jaddwani - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Gajar halwa (carrot halva) (Photo Two)

And furthermore, although you might think that munching on a carrot raw would be the best way to get all those vitamins (especially betacarotene (a form of Vitamin A), in fact we only absorb 3% of this micronutrient from the uncooked vegetable. This goes up to a whacking 39% if the carrot is pulped, cooked and if fat is added. Carrot cake anyone?

Photo Three By -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Carrot Cake (Photo Three)

Do let me know how you enjoy your carrots (if indeed you do). In fact, I have never met anyone who actively disliked carrots – parsnips, turnips and brussel sprouts might be the work of the devil to some people, but most folk can at least tolerate a carrot.

And here, in a throwback to my original wild carrot post, I would like to share with you again the delights of the Carrot Museum, and in particular its post on ‘Flutenveg‘ – a group of people who make music out of root vegetables. To hear what a tarantella played entirely on carrots sounds like, have a listen. You won’t be disappointed!

Photo Four from

A 24 Carrot Quartet (from Flutenveg) (Photo Four)

Anyhow, back to some serious questions. Carrots are rich in Vitamins A, C and K, but do they actually help you to see in the dark? This was apparently a myth that was propagated during World War II by the Royal Air Force, to help to explain the success of the pilots during night skirmishes: this was actually due to improvements in radar technology, but the RAF obviously didn’t want the Germans to catch on. Carrots are also much enjoyed by many other nocturnal animals (such as rabbits) and you don’t see them tripping over twigs so it was probably a small leap of logic for most people to assume that it would help them too. Plus, which child wouldn’t want to see in the dark? What a super power that would be.

Photo Five by By J Ligero & I Barrios - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) looking very perky (Photo Five)

Now, I can’t leave the subject of carrots without referring to the nemesis of all gardeners who like to grow this vegetable – carrot fly (Chamaepsila rosae). This insect lays its eggs in the soil, and the larvae burrow into the carrots, using them for food and shelter. I can just imagine the bad language on harvesting. However, all is not lost (apparently) because the female carrot fly is a very low flyer, and if you build a stockade about two feet high all around your carrots, she will fly headlong into it, sit there dazed for a few moments and then buzz off to torment someone else.

But what if your carrot crop is more extensive, and a stockade more effort than you want to provide? Well the carrot fly also has a keen nose (or at least sense of smell as she has no nose that I can see). If you can confuse her with strong-smelling plants such as sage, rosemary, garlic and onions, the damage may be at least limited, plus you’ll have something nice to serve with your unperforated carrots.

Gardeners, do let me know what has worked for you. We had limited success with our flea beetle prevention measures but maybe we’ll do better with this.

Photo Six by By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Carrot fly (Photo Six)

And anyway, it turns out that too many carrots really will turn you orange (maybe that’s the problem with a certain ex-president of the US) – you can end up with carotenosis. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

And finally, a poem. I rather like this poem by Ada Limon: it seems to sum up the frustration of being ‘a good girl’ and conforming to everyone’s idea of what you should be. See what you think.

I Remember the Carrots by Ada Limón

I haven’t given up on trying to live a good life,
a really good one even, sitting in the kitchen
in Kentucky, imagining how agreeable I’ll be –
the advance of fulfillment, and of desire –
all these needs met, then unmet again.
When I was a kid, I was excited about carrots,
their spidery neon tops in the garden’s plot.
And so I ripped them all out. I broke the new roots
and carried them, like a prize, to my father
who scolded me, rightly, for killing his whole crop.
I loved them: my own bright dead things.
I’m thirty-five and remember all that I’ve done wrong.
Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented
the contentment of the field. Why must we practice
this surrender? What I mean is: there are days
I still want to kill the carrots because I can.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Stephen Ausmus – This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K11611-1 (next)., Public Domain,

Photo Two By Prerna Jaddwani – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three By, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four from

Photo Five by By J Ligero & I Barrios – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Six By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Seven by nanao wagatsuma, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Sunny Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, after last week’s trudge through a downpour it was lovely to see some sun this week. The cemetery was positively abuzz with people tidying up the graves after the mud and leaves of the past few weeks, and I was even lucky enough to bump into my friend A who had found some most interesting fungi.

The crows were out in force, and even they seem more relaxed when the weather is not as unwelcoming.

I popped over to the woodland burial area to see ‘my’ swamp cypress, and very fine it looked too. Isn’t it funny how sometimes we’re just drawn to particular plants? I honestly love this tree, even though it bears a passing resemblance to Chewbacca from Star Wars.

And look at this beautiful bark, it looks as if someone has given the trunk a good old polish with a chamois leather. The photo doesn’t do justice to the high gloss effect, and I can’t wait to pop back in spring to verify my ID.  I’m thinking that it’s Tibetan Cherry (Prunus serrula), and a very fine example it is too.

Tibetan Cherry (Prunus serrula) (Fingers crossed)

I have a kind of mental block about the difference between the English Oak and the Sessile Oak, even though I have posted about it here on the blog – as soon as I’m out and about, I know that one has stalked leaves and unstalked acorns, and the other has the reverse, but I can’t remember which is which. I took some photos of the leaves on this tree, and as they appear to have stalks I am going to say that it’s a sessile oak. Feel free to correct me :-).

There is another fine batch of fungi popping up in the grass – I am relying on my friend A for a rough ID, as my closest guess would be some way off.

There are still a surprising number of plants in flower – there’s prickly oxtongue, Oxford ragwort and lots of yarrow, with its tiny white flowers, all set off by the leaves of cow parsley and what looks rather like chervil.

And as we stroll back, it suddenly hits me how many of the smaller trees in the cemetery are ash. Look at all these. All of the many-stemmed grey-trunked trees are ash. What will happen if and when ash dieback takes hold, and so many of them are gone? In other parts of the cemetery there are some large ashes too. Maybe I’ll write to the Cemetery Management people and see what their plans are.

On one of the woodier paths, a woodpigeon seems to have met with an untimely end, though the feathers on these birds are so loosely attached that they can sometimes escape even with the loss of a few primaries. Certainly there’s no actual corpse.

As we walk back towards home, via the overgrown Tram Path (there used to be a tram in the cemetery for shuffling the coffins about) we come across two chaps with magnifying glasses, cleaning cloths, water sprays and a bucket. I ask them what they’re up to, and a tale unfolds. It appears that they are looking for the grave of a music hall performer, A. P. Hollingsworth, who died in 1865 and is thought to be buried in the cemetery. They have tracked the possible grave site down, and are now cleaning up the overgrown memorials at the side of the track. How I wish I’d asked what their connection was! But we shall see next time we go if they’ve managed to restore Mr Hollingsworth to his former glory. The cemetery is full of mysteries, every stone representing a life lived and now largely forgotten. I cheer inwardly every time a story is unearthed and remembered.

A Walk in Bluebell Wood

Bluebell Wood as seen from Winton Avenue

Dear Readers, the talk by David Bevan about North London’s ancient woodlands gave me the impetus I needed to go and rediscover Bluebell Wood, a tiny fragment of oak and hornbeam forest just behind the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green. I love the way that you discover this wood at the end of a suburban street, as if by magic.

Although it’s called Bluebell Wood, there haven’t been any bluebells for years, apart from the odd hybrid that’s jumped over a garden wall. I seem to remember seeing wood anemones there a good ten years ago, but I could have been hallucinating.

As you can see from the map, it borders some rather fine allotments (last time we were here they had an open day and were selling tea and cake). Ah, those were the days. At the moment, the lockdown means that even if you can find someone prepared to sell you a beverage, you can’t stand around and drink it because it’s takeaway only. Let’s hope that it helps to bring the R number down so that we don’t get a massive spike before the vaccination programme kicks off.

But as usual I digress.

The oaks in Bluebell Wood are largely sessile oaks (Quercus petraea). In this species, the leaves have stalks and the acorns mostly don’t, while the English oak (Quercus robur) has it the other way round, with stalkless leaves and stalked acorns. You might think that they would hybridise, but according to my Collins Tree Guide this is unusual, as the sessile oak flowers a fortnight after the English oak. It might be interesting to see what happens as climate change confuses things.

I love this time of year, as the leaves fall away to reveal the shape of the trees. And I loved the caramel colour of the hornbeam leaves below, as they twist and contort.

Hornbeam leaves (Carpinus betulus)

There is quite a lot of hazel in the understorey too, probably because the wood seems a lot more open than some of the other woods.

There were a few indignant squirrels, who are no doubt willing the hazel to put on a growth spurt so they can have a break from eating endless acorns.

Two young women are sitting socially-distanced on a huge log, while their dogs, a Shiba Inu and a ‘bitzer’ (as my Dad would have said – ‘Bits of this and bits of that’ in other words) run around in the leaves in a kind of canine ecstasy. This week I read that smelling the scents of other dogs actually releases serotonin in the doggy brain, making it all the more important to let them have a good sniff when they’re out for their walk.

There’s a very pronounced ditch to the north of the wood, which would have been a way of keeping the commoners’ animals out of the forest (which was another part of the Bishop of London’s extensive estate). In his talk, David Bevan mentioned that the woodland inside the ditch was technically ancient woodland, while the trees that had appeared on the other side were classed as secondary forest. Who knew? Another reason for attending these London Natural History talks.

And then, a quick loop back and out. There was some cherry laurel, but a few ‘exotics’ don’t seem to do any harm. If it was rhododendron it might be more of a concern, as this is much more invasive. I was also intrigued by the bird poo on the lower branches, which implied to me that a bird sits round about regularly. I wonder who, and what they’re doing?

The cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is just starting to show through, ahead of its flowering in May. I love how sweet and green these first leaves look.

On the way to the garden centre we pass a bed with some Roseanne geraniums, still in flower, and a splendid salvia (I’m thinking Amistad?)

Geranium ‘Roseanne’

Salvia (Amistad)

And there’s a whole bed of Mahonia, a real boon for queen bees emerging on the warmer days for a sip of nectar. It smells sweet, too.

Now Readers, I wanted to ask you a question on the subject of Mahonia. I have one rather sad plant in a pot, which has a single stem, a rosette of leaves at the top and some flowers. If I put it into the ground and cut that one stem back, do you think it would produce multiple stems or do you think it would just keel over at the insult? I will not hold you responsible for your advice, I promise.

And finally, here is the pyracantha hedge. I do hope that it attracts birds, in particular waxwings, who are known to frequent supermarket car parks because of these berries. And if a flock does descend, I hope that I somehow find out about it. We’ve had waxwings on one of our street trees several times in the past few years, so I will keep an eye open there too. Fingers crossed.


Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) on street tree in East Finchley