Author Archives: Bug Woman

Bugwoman on Location – Alexandra Terrace, Dorchester

Alexandra Terrace starts just below the tree….

Dear Readers, when I visited Dad in his nursing home in Dorchester this week he was in very high spirits.

‘I’m called ‘Captain Tom’ now’, he announced, to my befuddlement.

All soon became clear. There had been a group boat trip from Weymouth to Portland and back, and Dad had been in charge of the steering for most of the way. He sat in the captain’s seat, and sailed the boat on the correct course (‘to the right of the yellow buoy!’), to much applause. He was a bit put out that he wasn’t allowed to keep the captain’s hat, but I hope to be able to find a substitute somewhere on the internet. Dad was absolutely delighted with himself, and so was everybody else.

Dad always loved any means of transport. He was always fiddling with motorbikes when he was a young man, and our first transport as a family was a motorbike and side car. Later we had the cars: Thunderball the Ford Popular, Sunshine the Ford Consul. A few days before he went into the nursing home, Dad took his Toyota ‘out for a spin’. I thought about stopping him, but realised that this might be the last chance he ever had to experience the joys of a country lane, and the freedom of his own transport.

Little did I know that he’d have the chance to ‘drive’ a boat full of elderly folk with dementia.

I have a feeling that if I sat Dad down in the driving seat of a car he’d know exactly what to do, and would be safe as far as the actual steering of the vehicle went. He just wouldn’t remember where he was, or where he was going. He still sometimes asks the staff if they’ll take him out to buy a second-hand car.

I love that he had this adventure, and that he had a chance to feel useful and competent again. I have been so obsessed with what Dad has lost that I sometimes forget what he is still capable of.

And so I left the nursing home feeling strangely lifted, and decided to detour via Alexandra Terrace, one of Dorchester’s many lanes and alleyways. It passes a Grade Two listed terrace of eight mid-nineteenth century houses, but what fascinates me are the little patches of garden outside. I have no idea if they are owned by the people who live in the houses, or if they’ve just ‘arrived’.

From Trinity Road, the view is most unprepossessing.

But I do love a brick wall, and the plant and animal communities that live there. There are ferns and spiders….

Ferns and a spider and moss

There is ivy-leaved toadflax, one of my favourite wall-weeds with its three-lobed flowers

And there are even some attractive bolts to stop the whole edifice from falling apart…

There is some buddleia, and therefore there are some pollinators, mostly hoverflies.

And there is a statue of a German shepherd dog that has seen better days. It reminds me of when I was a child and used to put my toy animals in amongst the dahlias in the summer, only to find them looking gaunt and traumatised later in the year.

I was very impressed by this crimson glory vine (Vitis coignetiae), whose leaves were almost as bit as my hand. I have been watching it through the seasons, but I love the way that the colour is just beginning to change, and the way that, in the second photo, the bunched stems are holding a feather. I shall have to pop back next month to see if the plant lives up to its name.

And as usual, when I slow down and start to breathe instead of dashing about with a to-do list the size of the Domesday Book, I notice things. I can feel myself coming home to myself. Going to see Dad is always a little stressful, because I don’t know how he will be. Sometimes, like this time, he is happy and laid back. Other times he will be agitated about something, and will want me to take him home. But a slow walk, with my camera as an excuse to pay attention, always helps me to focus.

I can smell that autumn is well underway, and see it too, in the many, many spiders who have emerged, in the state of the foliage, in the dampness in the air and filming the leaves of the montbretia.

The seedheads of the opium poppy look ready to pop, but the flowers of the snowberry are just emerging. It is that tenuous time of year, the tipping point when we could be in for a burst of late summer, or the first whispers of winter.

It feels that way with Dad, too. He will be 84 this year and yet he seems healthier than he has in years: he is finally putting back some of the weight that he lost, his COPD seems stable, and even mentally he seems to have reached a plateau. If you didn’t know him you might even wonder if he had dementia, but then, as I turn to leave the nursing home, he asks me to make sure that I tell Mum (who died in December) how well he steered the boat.

‘ I will, Dad’, I say. Though I have a feeling that she already knows.

And when I visit the following morning before I head back to London, he gets up after a few sips of the ‘frothy coffee’ that I brought him, and gently tells me that he’ll see me soon, but he’s off to have his shower. And off he goes, completely at home. It’s bittersweet, after all those years of looking after him and Mum, to realise that he doesn’t need me to care for him any more. For a second it reminds me of how it must be when your child runs into school without looking back for the first time.

My days of being a carer truly are over, though I will never stop caring. Now it’s up to me to decide what to do with the rest of my life.

Wednesday Weed – Black Bindweed

Black Bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus)

Dear Readers, it always makes me happy to find a ‘proper’ weed, one that I haven’t seen before but which is extremely common. Black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) is not actually a bindweed, but is a member of the Polygonaceae or knotweed family, and can be told from its close relative Russian Vine by its heart-shaped leaves, and smaller, less flamboyant flowers. This one has popped up at the top of my road, and is half-heartedly climbing up the drain pipe, although its natural habit is more prostrate. One possibility for its appearance in this very urban spot is that it’s an ingredient in bird food, and has been deposited here by a passing finch.

Black bindweed is an annual, and is thought to be a Neolithic introduction to the UK – one of its vernacular names is ‘wild buckwheat’, and and the seeds have been found in Bronze Age middens. The plant was probably sown with food crops such as barley, and harvested at the same time. The last meal of Tollund Man, a 2000 year-old corpse found in Jutland in 1950 included the seeds of black bindweed, along with barley, linseed and wild pansy. The man had been hanged, it is believed as a sacrifice to the goddess of spring, and he was then thrown into a peat bog, which preserved his body. There is a great peacefulness in his face, which I hope means that he didn’t suffer, poor soul.

The head of Tollund Man (Public Domain)

Black bindweed is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, and grows most commonly on disturbed land throughout its range. It is a most adaptable plant, and can grow up to an altitude of 3600m in the Himalayas. It is a much better behaved plant than some of its relatives, however: we have already mentioned Russian vine,  but another member of the genus is our old favourite Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Black bindweed can cause some problems, however: it is classified as an invasive weed in North America, and can cause damage to the cutters of harvesting machines if there is a heavy infestation in a field.


The seeds of black bindweed are a major food of the grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the UK’s native partridge. This species is on the Red List of endangered birds, largely because it is a bird of hedgerow and field margin, habitats that have been much reduced over the past fifty years. The bird has the largest egg clutch of any UK bird, with a record of 19 eggs in a single nest. Fortunately, the chicks are able to run around from birth, and grey partridge can be seen in ‘covies’, small groups of up to twenty individuals. If disturbed the birds will run rather than take to the air, which explains why the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) was introduced as game bird, it being rather more inclined to take flight. During the breeding season, the male grey partridge is said to have a call rather like a key being turned in a rusty lock.

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy - Grey partridge - Neusiedl - Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Grey partridge (Perdix perdix) (Photo One)

The plant is also the foodplant of the Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Laconobia oleracea), which is one of the most splendidly descriptive species names that I know.

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from

Bright-line Brown-eye moth(Lacobia oleracea) (Photo Two)

It is also the foodplant of the rare black-bindweed case-bearer micro moth (Coleophora therinella) a most intriguing insect whose larvae create tiny portable cases that they live in until they pupate. The adult moths have wingspans of only 13-16mm, so they are very easy to miss.

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from

Black-bindweed case-bearer moth (Coleophora therinella) (Photo Three)

And so, I find that my ‘new’ weed has actually been intertwining its stems with our lives for thousands of years. And, while this poem is not directly about black bindweed, it is about Tollund man, and about our dark, interconnected history in these small islands. Heaney wrote an excerpt from this poem in the visitor’s book at the Aarhus museum where Tollund man was on show. The way that he interweaves this sacrifice from the Bronze Age with the deaths in the Troubles is masterly. If you want to hear him read the poem, there is a link here.

Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Grey partridge – Neusiedl – Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from



All Change and a Handsome Visitor

Dear Readers, those of you who follow this page regularly will know that it’s been a difficult year. My Mum died in December. My Dad’s dementia has gotten worse, and he is now in a nursing home. For the two previous years I had been travelling up and down to Dorset to look after the pair of them, and was pretty much unable to work, both because of the emotional toll and because I knew that I couldn’t be reliable – an emergency could, and did, erupt at any moment.

It took six months after Mum’s death before I could even contemplate getting myself back into the world of work, but back in July the perfect opportunity arose. An organisation that is working with 98 cities worldwide to combat the climate emergency, C40, was looking for a part time reporting accountant, using exactly the software that I’ve been teaching and working with for twenty years. And on Monday I started work. It has been a lonely couple of years, and it is good to have colleagues, and to feel part of something again.

It’s strange, but in the midst of my elation at a whole new adventure I feel a little disloyal to Mum and Dad somehow. It’s hard to explain, but I feel as if, by getting back to my own life, I’m leaving them behind. And this is the first time that I’ve made a major life change without having Mum and Dad to talk to. It’s true that they often didn’t understand the finer nuances of all the techie stuff that I was doing, but they were always 100% on my side, delighted for me if I seemed happy, angry on my behalf if I was having a rant. And now Mum is gone. But I shouldn’t underestimate Dad. He was delighted when I told him that I had a new job, even though he wasn’t quite sure who I was. And if he’s forgotten about it, hopefully he’ll be delighted all over again when I see him next week and tell him how my first week has gone.

Incidentally the Bloomberg building, where I’ll be based when not working from home, is the most sustainable office building in Europe. Well worth having a look here.

I should also add, as required by Bloomberg’s social media policy, that any views expressed on this blog are my own, and shouldn’t be taken as representing the views of Bloomberg or C40.

Anyhow, the other effect of getting the job has been to make me look around at the house and garden and shake my head in amazement. How did everything get so overgrown and grimy? I guess that’s what two years of neglect will do for you! What was most striking was that the garden was not only a jungle, but the oak steps to the shed were rotten through, with all kinds of interesting fungi. It was only a matter of time before one of us went right through the wood whilst carrying a laundry basket full of underwear, so it has to be fixed. As a result, the garden is full of piles of rotting wood, and I’m wondering where to put a woodpile.

On Thursday I got up early to open the side door so that the builders could get in, and came face to face with a very handsome dog fox. What a surprise! And what was even more delightful was that, after an initial bout of wariness, he decided to hang around for a chat.

Not sure….

He sat in next door’s garden for a while, making up his mind about my intentions.

And then he hopped back into my garden to check out the pond.

He has a little bit of an eye infection, poor thing, but is otherwise in splendid health. I suspect that he might be one of the foxes who has stolen a boot from a bag of rubbish that was put out last week, and which keeps turning up in the garden. I put it away, and the next night it’s back out again.

Fox play things

Anyhow, this chap was in no rush to go, and sat patiently while I took endless portraits. Sometimes, foxes that are this confiding have toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease which makes them bolder, but maybe he’s just learned that humans can be useful. It always feels like such a privilege to have a wild animal so close.

And then I decided to go back indoors, but as I went through the kitchen door I looked around and he was about to follow me in! Well, this was a step too far, as my poor cat would have been horrified. But I couldn’t resist him, and so I threw out a small handful of dried food for him. I might have made a rod for my own back, but we’ll see. Who could resist him?

And here is a short film of him in full-on chomping action. Goodness only knows what the background noise is, probably my fridge, though it sounds as loud as a leaf blower.

Events like this seem so magical to me. It isn’t the first time that we’ve had foxes in the garden, but to spend time with one feels such a privilege. For those few moments I’m not worrying or planning or organising, I’m just being. There are so many stories even in a suburban garden – animals going about their lives, plants growing, fungi infiltrating an oak sleeper one mycelia at a time – and they have the ability to make me forget everything else. Plus, just as I was hungry for connection at work, I feel lost if I don’t make time to get out into nature and renew my connections there. For me, it is the cure for most of what ails me.


Wednesday Weed – Globe Thistle

Globe Thistle (Echinops sp.)

Dear Readers, I have always loved thistles, both for the way that they attract a wide range of pollinators, and for their extraordinary flowers. I know that not all gardeners are so impressed, and I’m sure if I’d been inundated with creeping thistle I might feel the same way. However, thistles seem to having their moment in the sun in UK gardens, with everything from cardoons to melancholy thistles popping up all over the place. It’s no wonder, then, that globe thistles were much favoured in Regent’s Park this year. I can’t help thinking that the fact that the plant is currently being marketed as ‘the blue hedgehog thistle’ might also be raising its popularity, although as ‘echinops’ is Greek for ‘hedgehog’ at least it comes by the name honestly.

The flowers of the globe thistle remind me of the Dale Chihuly exhibition that I went to at Kew Gardens recently, especially his sculpture ‘Sapphire Star’.

Sapphire Star by Dale Chihuly at Kew Gardens

It isn’t until I looked at the photograph of the flowerhead closely that I could clearly see how the globe is made up of long-throated individual flowers. The plant attracts honeybees and bumblebees, butterflies and shield bugs, beetles and hoverflies. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas suggests three species that are particularly good value for insects: Echinops ritro, Echinops bannaticus (which is the one in the photographs) and Echinops sphaerocephalus, a Russian species with whitish flowers. Some gardeners do mention that they have a spot of bother with the plants self-seeding themselves all over the garden, especially as the flowerheads look so sculptural and are often left over the winter for the birds.  All globe thistles are native to Europe, Central Asia and Africa as far south as the mountains north of the tropics, and are part of the daisy family Asteraceae.

White echinops

The young leaves of the globe thistle are apparently edible, though the Plants For a Future website only gives it a 1 out of 5 for edibility. The leaves are extremely spikey so I imagine they’d have to be very young indeed to be toothsome. In Asia Echinops species have historically been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, including the treatment of skin complaints, sexual problems, issues around breast-feeding and to kill internal parasites. In Morocco it has long been considered helpful during and after childbirth: a decoction of the roots was said to aid the expulsion of the placenta.  In Egypt it is used to treat high blood pressure. In short, the different species of Echinops have been used for many of the medical problems that beset humans, and it would be interesting to know how efficacious they are.

In an interesting paper on healing and the folklore of the saints in Russia, Valeria Kolosova explains that the globe thistle Echinops sphaerocephalus is known as ‘Adam’s Head’, and that flowers placed under the pillow are said to prevent a child from having nightmares. The resemblance to a head is also thought to indicate the plant is efficacious against headaches.

As you might remember, I sometimes find that a plant is the ‘birthday flower’ for a particular day. I discovered that Echinops is the flower for the 18th August, and also, finally, where the information comes from: Thomas Ignatius Forster (1789 – 1860) was a botanist, naturalist, poet, balloonist and practical joker who spent a lot of time trying to convince the world that there had once been a monastic calendar of ‘birthday flowers’. To read the whole story (and another interesting piece about the Victorian language of flowers) have a look at this publication by the RHS here.

And now, some poetry. I read with interest that in 2000 the Chelsea Physic Garden had a poet-in-residence, Sarah Maguire, who had also been a professional gardener. Maguire didn’t just want to do a few writing workshops, but instead ‘nested’ complementary poems amongst the plants in the beds that had been planted not for their aesthetic value, but because the plants they contained were related to one another. Many of these plants had not been written about by poets, so Maguire used a process of association. Under the Echinops, for example, she placed John Clare’s poem about a hedgehog:

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge,
Or in a bush or in a hollow tree;
And many often stoop and say they see
Him roll and fill his prickles full of crabs
And creep away; and where the magpie dabs
His wing at muddy dyke, in aged root
He makes a nest and fills it full of fruit,
On the hedge bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
And whistles like a cricket as he goes.
It rolls up like a ball or shapeless hog
When gipsies hunt it with their noisy dog;
I’ve seen it in their camps — they call it sweet,
Though black and bitter and unsavoury meat.

Maguire subsequently published an anthology of poems about plants, ‘Flora Poetica – The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse’. However, the state of the world impelled her to found the Poetry Translation Centre, which aimed to;

‘..assemble small groups of linguists, poets, and impassioned readers to produce readable and enjoyable English renditions of poems written in non-English languages. The intended result was equally simple: at a time when an entire people were being demonized to suit geopolitical interests and corporate balance sheets, silence was no longer an option, and translation, Maguire believed, was the “opposite of war,” and she waged that fight just as ruthlessly as the merchants of death she so deeply detested‘. (André Naffis-Sahely from World Literature Today)

Maguire died, aged 60, in 2017, having been the first poet sent to Palestine and Yemen by the British Council, and had been the only living English-language poet with a book in print in Arabic. What a loss to us all.







Bugwoman on Location – The National Gallery

St Michael Triumphs Over the Devil (Bartolomé Bermejo, 1468) National Gallery

Dear Readers, wherever I am, and whatever I’m doing, my eyes are always drawn towards animals and plants. It doesn’t matter what the ostensible subject matter of an exhibition is, I’ll be the one spotting the dragon, or the beetle, or the clump of daisies. Maybe this is one reason why I have a great liking for the paintings of the 15th Century – in amongst all the saints and angels you might spot a dog or a butterfly, as with my great favourite, the Venetian artist Carpaccio. However, the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo was a new discovery for me. He is known to have painted only twenty pictures in his lifetime (1440 – 1501) and  the National Gallery in London currently has  an exhibition of seven of his paintings, six of which have never been seen in the UK before. I stood in front of ‘St Michael Triumphs Over the Devil’ for about ten minutes.

I adore the combination of virtuoso realism combined with dark imagination. Have a look at the armour, for example. I love the sheen, the setting of the jewels, and the texture of the velvet. I feel as if I could walk up and give the breastplate a quick rap.

Detail of the breastplate (National Gallery)

Detail of the shield (National Gallery)

But the devil is something else. He reminds of me of an angler fish rather than the more typical lizard, but there is something rather horrible about the bird-like talons with the insect-like forearm. The devil also has butterfly wings that look rather like those of a meadow brown. The devil’s breastplate has it’s own set of fishy eyes, and a second set of teeth. All in all, it looks as if Bermejo has conducted some ghastly ‘Island of Dr Moreau’ experiment, and the devil is the ghastly result.

Dragon detail (National Gallery)

Most of the people viewing the paintings of this period would have been illiterate, and so this art was instructional as well as decorative. I love the way that the Annunciation is often depicted as a shaft of light piercing the breast of the Virgin, and the way that the saints hold the instruments of their martyrdom with a blithe serenity that belies their terrible deaths.

But combined with the imagination shown in the depiction of the devil, there is very close observation of a whole range of plants, which grow at the foot of the painting. The devil’s feet are surrounded by red poppies (Papaver rhoeas), then, as now, a symbol of death.

Another plant that is sprouting at St Michael’s feet is a thistle: in the Middle Ages, the white sap was seen as emblematic of Mary’s milk.

Close up of the mysterious thistle

I am a bit puzzled by the blue flowers however, and wonder if the plant is actually a southern globethistle (Echinops ritro), a plant that is found in Spain and which may soon feature as a Wednesday Weed.

Photo One by By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Southern globethistle (Echinops ritro) (Photo One)

I also love the contrast between St Michael’s serene, unperturbed face, and the much more realistic face of the patron who financed the work, Antoni Joan. It incapsulates the difference between the divine world of the saints, and the real world of man.

St Michael

The donor, Antoni Joan

Bermejo was a Spanish painter during a time when all the real ‘action’ was in Italy and Northern Europe. Indeed, he is thought to have been familiar with some of the works that were being created in the Low Countries during this period. But I sense a strong Spanish sensibility in his paintings. Have a look at The Desplà Pietá (1490) below. The idealisation of St Michael, and of the Virgin in previous paintings, is replaced by an unflinching realism that I find very moving.

The Desplà Pietá (1490)

And how about St Jerome’s lion, curled up in the corner? He reminds me, again, of Carpaccio’s depiction of St Jerome bringing his lion home, to the chagrin of the other monks. In Bermejo’s image there is a fly on the nose of the lion, so have a look if you visit the exhibition.

St Jerome and the Lion (Vittore Carpaccio 1502)

And so, there it is, a combination of exquisitely detailed natural features and toothy devils, of grey flesh and cuddly lions. It feels as if Bermejo almost couldn’t resist stuffing his paintings with more and more ‘stuff’. Maybe he was a show-off, or maybe he just wanted to include all the things that he could see, and most of the things that he could imagine. If you have time and you’re in London, go and have a look (the exhibition is free). It’s on until the end of September.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,







Wednesday Weed – Lantana

Lantana camara

Dear Readers, anyone who has ever visited a tropical butterfly house will have come across lantana. There are about 150 species, but the one that’s mostly seen is Lantana camara, otherwise known as Spanish Flag. It comes in a wide variety of colours – the orange one shown above seems to be the commonest. The flowers change colour as they mature, leading to multicoloured umbels – in the plant above they varied through apricot to tomato-red, with the lighter-hued blooms being the ones that have not yet been pollinated. There are many, many varieties, including the rather more demure one below.

One thing is for sure: these plants are a butterfly magnet. They form part of a genus of 150 different species in the Verbena family, and are native to tropical regions of the Americas and Africa: I saw Lantana growing wild when I was in Costa Rica. A wide range of butterfly and moth species feed on the flowers, especially swallowtails and birdwings, skippers and brush-footed butterflies such as the glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) of Central America, shown below.


Photo One by By Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields - Belgiquistan - United Tribes ov Europe - the wings-become-windows butterfly., CC BY-SA 2.0,

Glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) on lantana (Photo One)

Furthermore, the seeds of lantana are loved by birds, and herein hangs a tale. Lantana is considered a noxious weed in many parts of the world where it has been introduced, notably Australia, South Africa and some parts of Asia. It has also become naturalised in the warmer parts of North America. Because the leaves of the plant are toxic to herbivores, most grazers and browsers won’t eat them (and become sick if they do). Meantime, the birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds in their droppings. Among the species that eat the seeds are the superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) of Australia;

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Male superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) (Photo Two)

and the endemic Mauritius Bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus)

Photo Three by By Josh Noseworthy - Mauritius Bulbul, CC BY 2.0,

Mauritius bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus) (Photo Three)

In Australia, lantana has become so prevalent that various insect controls have been tried in order to reduce its vigour. Of the thirty species introduced, some have become problems in their own right. The rather handsome Mexican lantana bug (Aconophora compressa)  was brought to Australia in 1995, in the hope that it would munch its way through the plants that it was named after. Alas, the lantana bug has extensive and varied tastes, and has eaten many plants that were not supposed to be on the menu, including the popular ornamental trees fiddlewoods (also from the Americas), which are related to lantana. The case of the lantana bug led to much greater testing of the appetites of proposed bio-remedial species: this insect was tested with 62 species to see if it ate any of them, but fiddlewoods were not included.

Photo Four by By James Niland from Brisbane, Australia - Lantana TreehopperUploaded by Lymantria, CC BY 2.0,

Lantana bug (Aconophora compressa) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Vinayaraj - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ornamental fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum) (Photo Five)

So, lantana continues to run riot in many parts of the world where there are no pests to contain it, though I was cheered to hear that the swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is one of the few mammals that can eat the leaves without keeling over.

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

Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor (Photo Six)

I was also happy to hear that in some places in Australia, lantana is actually increasing biodiversity. In urban green spaces, it provides nesting cover for birds such as the fairy wren in the absence of native species that will do the same thing, and so provides a refuge for these attractive little birds to reproduce. Urban areas are not pristine habitats, as a brisk walk around East Finchley will show: we have plants from all over the world here, and the insects and birds take advantage of the longer flowering period and range of different microhabitats. It’s a very different thing in an endangered habitat. As Stace says in his book ‘Alien Plants’:

In disturbed native forests, Prickly Lantana can quickly become the dominant understorey species, disrupting succession and decreasing biodiversity. At some sites, infestations have been so persistent that they have completely stalled the regeneration of rainforests for more than three decades‘.

A plant out of its own habitat, without the native pests that keep in check, can quickly become an environmental disaster. Plus, lantana produces chemicals in its roots that check the growth of other plants. In areas with cold winters, the plant doesn’t survive, but if I was planning on growing it, I would choose one of the sterile varieties that are available that don’t produce fruit.

Photo Seven by By RickP 12:16, 3 May 2006 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Lantana growing in an abandoned citrus plantation in Israel (Photo Seven)

Lantana leaves have been used medicinally for a wide range of complaints, including malaria, tetanus and rheumatism. They are also believed to be efficacious in cases of snakebite. In India, where lantana is particularly invasive in mountain regions, local people have been making furniture from the plant, as it is considered a good substitute for traditional materials such as bamboo. Because of the toxicity of the lantana, the furniture is also not eaten by termites and beetle larvae. In an IUCN report, it indicates that using lantana in this way has increased income and productive work days for the villagers who are involved. The problem now is a shortage of people with skills to create the furniture.

Photo Eight from

Lantana furniture (Photo Eight)

Now, have a look at the image below and see if you can guess who it’s by.

Photo Nine from

Photo Nine

At first glance, I thought it was a photograph, but subsequent research revealed that the image, called ‘Tithorea harmonia in Lantana’ from 2009-10, is actually a faithful reproduction in oils of a photographic image. And I was very surprised to find that the artist was Damien Hirst. Of this series of paintings that aim to reproduce photographs, Hirst says;

“I want you to believe in them in the same way as you believe in the ‘Medicine Cabinets‘. I don’t want them to look clever, but to convince you. I’m using painting to produce something that looks like a bad quality reproduction – the painting process is hidden as it is in my work ‘Hymn’, which looks like plastic, but is bronze underneath.”[2]

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: Hirst has long been fascinated by butterflies and other insects, and has used them extensively in his art. Usually, it hasn’t ended very happily for them, as in the image below, where real dead butterflies are stuck onto gloss paint (to be fair, I believe that Hirst acquired them when they were already dead).

Photo Ten from

For Boys and Girls (Damien Hirst 1989-92) (Photo Ten)

To me, his relationship with animals has always been strictly functional – he uses them to prove a wider philosophical point, as in his famous piece ‘A Thousand Years’, where maggots hatch, feed on a cow’s head and are killed in an Insect-o-cuter. Another exhibit at Tate Modern in 2012 featured live butterflies who hatched, flew around and died, next to an exhibit of the gloss paint and dead butterfly paintings. And then, of course, there was the shark.

Photo Eleven from

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) (Photo Eleven)

It’s interesting how Hirst has gone from being the Enfant Terrible with the shark in a tank to someone who reproduces photos in oil paints, but he has never been afraid to experiment and to change. I suppose that his early work, in particular, is difficult to ignore – I saw his ‘Mother and Child Divided’ in an exhibition in Oslo in the ’90’s, and found it both fascinating and deeply distressing. For me, he sums up everything that is wrong with our attitude to the rest of the living world; everything is there to be plundered and used for our entertainment. But for others the fact that he raises these questions is part of his appeal. He has always been polarising: for some, the most interesting of the Young British Artists of the 1980’s, for others a cynical showman. I would be very interested to hear what you think!

Photo Twelve from

Mother and Child (Divided) (Damien Hirst 1993)(Photo Twelve)

And finally, a poem. I can’t tell you how much I love this work by Grace Paley, especially her evocation of ‘sadness and hilarity’. I know exactly how that feels, having been alternately laughing and weeping for most of the past six months.

I went out walking
in the old neighborhood
Look! more trees on the block   
forget-me-nots all around them   
ivy   lantana shining
and geraniums in the window
Twenty years ago
it was believed that the roots of trees
would insert themselves into gas lines
then fall   poisoned   on houses and children
or tap the city’s water pipes   starved   
for nitrogen   obstruct the sewers
In those days in the afternoon I floated   
by ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island   
then pushed the babies in their carriages   
along the river wall   observing Manhattan   
See Manhattan I cried   New York!
even at sunset it doesn’t shine
but stands in fire   charcoal to the waist
But this Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day
I walked west   and came to Hudson Street   tricolored flags   
were flying over old oak furniture for sale
brass bedsteads   copper pots and vases
by the pound from India
Suddenly before my eyes   twenty-two transvestites   
in joyous parade stuffed pillows under   
their lovely gowns
and entered a restaurant
under a sign which said   All Pregnant Mothers Free
I watched them place napkins over their bellies   
and accept coffee and zabaglione
I am especially open to sadness and hilarity   
since my father died as a child   
one week ago in this his ninetieth year

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields – Belgiquistan – United Tribes ov Europe – the wings-become-windows butterfly., CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By Josh Noseworthy – Mauritius Bulbul, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four by By James Niland from Brisbane, Australia – Lantana TreehopperUploaded by Lymantria, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Five by By Vinayaraj – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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

Photo Seven by By RickP 12:16, 3 May 2006 (UTC) – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Eight from

Photo Nine from

Photo Ten from

Photo Eleven from

Photo Twelve from


Standing and Staring

Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais utricae) on buddleia

Dear Readers, this year I did the Butterfly Conservation Trust Big Butterfly Count for the first time. Sadly, it was a windy day, and all I spotted were two small whites and a painted lady, but it did give me a taste for standing next to a buddleia and seeing who turns up. So, this weekend I was in Somerset, and my Aunt Hilary’s garden was sporting an unusual variegated buddleia with deep purple flowers. It was a warm, sunny day, and so I decided to wait and see how many different species I could spot if I didn’t have a time limit.

First up were the red admirals (Vanessa atalanta). They seemed quite combative on occasion, pursuing one another but I am not sure if their intentions were aggressive or libidinous. What is lovely about them, however, is that once they are feeding you can approach them very closely without them seeming to be the slightest bit disturbed.

Red admirals are unmistakable when their wings are open, but one way of identifying them when their wings are closed is by the pale yellow blotch at the top of the hindwing, which you can see in the photo below. I love the chocolate-brown velvet of their wings, with those tomato-red markings.

The red admirals looked mint-fresh. Some of them could be visitors from mainland Europe – the main ‘fall’ of these migrants is in May and June, but it continues all summer. These migrants lay eggs as they head north, and by this time of year some adults will be emerging from their chrysalises. These new adults may hibernate in sheds or lofts, or they may head south again.

The caterpillars feed on nettles, and they sew the leaves together with silk – keep an eye open if you have a nettle patch nearby. The larvae are black spikey fellows with a yellow line along the side, but it can be difficult to tell them apart from those of other species, such as the small tortoiseshell and peacock. My Guide to Garden Wildlife book by Richard Lewington suggests growing a container full of nettles, ideally at different stages of growth, in a warm, sheltered spot.

For a long time, there was a belief that the name ‘red admiral’ was a corruption of ‘red admirable’. However, it was found that the name ‘admiral’ is much older, and the generally accepted explanation now is that the ‘admirals’ were butterflies that had patches of white or yellow in their upper wings, which reminded the viewer of the ensign raised when an admiral was on board a ship, which had white patches in the corners.

Red admirals were also often believed to reference the flames of hell: it is said that a ‘red butterfly’ was hunted as a witch in the north of England and the Borders. We are fortunate that these days we can largely enjoy the natural world without demonising it.

Then, a single small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) turned up. These are not as common as the red admirals, and had something of a bad year last year, so it was good to see one. Part of the problem may be a parasite, a little fly called Sturmia bella. It lays its eggs on nettles, and these are then ingested by the caterpillars (who are sociable creatures, unlike those of the red admiral, which lead solitary lives), and you may spot a web full of tiny black larvae, again on nettle. When the eggs hatch, they eat the unfortunate larva from the inside out. The parasite is surviving over winter more often, so this could be another side effect of climate change.

Small tortoiseshells have a characteristic resting posture, with their wings angled downwards as if they were wearing a cloak.

The males are said to be territorial, and any passing females will be hotly pursued. However, this one was just tetchy to begin with, chasing off the red admirals until finally s/he seemed to realise that it wasn’t worth the expenditure of energy, and settled down to feed.

Those blue spots along the edges of the wing are pretty much diagnostic for the small tortoiseshell, though its orange-ish colour means that it’s sometimes mistaken for the painted lady. I love that in Germany the small tortoiseshell is known as ‘the little fox’.

And then, an unmistakable butterfly, the comma (Polygonia c-album). No other butterfly in the UK has those ragged wings, and yet this is an energetic, fast-flying creature, and it took me quite a while to get a photo of one. It was worth it, though. It looks like a sliver of Baltic amber.

The comma suffered a considerable set back during the 19th century – its caterpillars largely fed on hops, and with the decline in the beer industry it lost most of its foodplants. At one point, it was thought to be limited to the Welsh Border counties. However, the adults started to lay their eggs on nettles, and the butterfly has staged something of a comeback. ‘Our’ comma is probably hatched from a spring-laid egg: these butterflies are much lighter in colour than those who have hibernated over winter.

The name ‘comma’ comes from a white mark on the underside of the wing (which you can just about make out on the photo below).

So, after all these colourful insects (all of them are known as vanessids) we move on to the sparrows of the butterfly world, the satyrids. First up was a speckled wood (Parage aegeria).  This chap wasn’t interested in feeding from the buddleia: he gets most of his nectar from honeydew secreted onto leaves by aphids, and this explains the way that he was licking these rather raggedy leaves.


These are really woodland butterflies ( I’ve written about them before here) but it was good to see one in the garden. The eggs are laid on long grass, as are those of many other butterflies, so in addition to your bucket of nettles it’s good to leave a corner of the lawn unmown. When I’ve watched speckled woods before, they’ve been very aggressive, spiralling up into the air to attack other passing males, but this one seemed very peaceable, so maybe it was too late in the year to be bothered.

Below we see a female meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) (the females tend to be lighter in colour than the males, but both have the characteristic eyespots). These are the commonest butterflies in the UK and exist in huge colonies on grassland. It’s another creature that lays its eggs on long grass, and the caterpillar is hairy, green and very difficult to see when it adopts its characteristic pose against the stem.


So, it’s clear that a patch of buddleia will attract many butterflies, but increasingly it’s being realised that we need to grow plants for the insects to lay their eggs on too, and for their caterpillars to feed upon. Things like nettles and long grass may make for a more untidy garden, but it’s no use having butterflies on the wing if they can’t reproduce. In my ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas, he recommends doing your research first to see what animals are likely to already be in the area – there’s no point in growing a foodplant for a creature that has never been seen locally. Also, have a look at what environments are close by – our little patches of ancient forest in East Finchley are where the great spotted woodpeckers and jays that visit my garden live for most of the time. Personally, I’m hoping for speckled wood in my garden, because I know that they live locally, and I am lucky to have several mature trees.

But it is also useful to have nectar-rich plants for hungry migrants such as painted ladies and red admirals, and seeing these insects makes me happy, which is reason enough to grow them as far as I’m concerned. As I look out  of my office window, I can see the last flowers on the buddleia in the front garden swaying in the wind, and a bumblebee trying to land. The honeybees from the local allotment are feeding happily, and a red admiral just flew away, flapping to gain height and get over the roof of the house. There is a lot to be said for just stopping and staring, and seeing what’s going on. Nothing is better for slowing down that monkey-mind that so many of us suffer from these days, and for grounding us back into the present.