Author Archives: Bug Woman

Home Again

Dear Readers, two weeks isn’t very long, but how things can change! As I stagger off the train after my fortnight in Austria, laden down with sweaty laundry and in need of a cup of tea and a cuddle with the cat, my mood is much brightened by how splendid East Finchley station is looking.  I suspect that those good folk at the N2 Community Garden have been hard at work. A range of containers in pastel colours are chock-full of plants and buzzing with bees.

And there is even more fun to be had once you’re through the ticket barriers.

The banner is made of buttons, and I love the upcycling of the boots and the globe. It goes to show that, with a bit of imagination, many things can be transformed from useless to useful.

Well, once the laundry was on and the tea was drunk and the cat was cuddled, I headed off to see what else was going on. The little garden beside the station was looking particularly splendid.

I adore the seedheads on the alliums, they remind me of a firework display, but without all those annoying bangs.

My old friends the opium poppy seedheads are growing fat.

The Florence fennel is a huge draw for bees and hoverflies.

The marjoram is proving popular too.

Furthermore, some of the plants are making a bid for freedom and are advancing along the gutter towards the coffee stand. And who can blame them?

Buddleia and fennel making a bid for freedom

Across the road, outside the children’s nursery, the lavender is in full bloom, while the fine Victorian building that used to house the GLH taxi company now stands forlorn behind a plywood barricade, waiting for its imminent demolition.

I wrote in the Wednesday Weed this week about my discovery of a patch of lucerne on Park Hall Road, but I am still amazed today. Where on earth did it come from? It certainly gave me lots to think about.

But then, as I walk home, I look up and am for a moment extremely excited. What on earth is this?

Well, I once saw a red kite drifting over Durham Road, but I have never seen a condor in East Finchley, and obviously I haven’t seen one this time either. I am a little puzzled though.

My guess is that the kite is to deter pigeons, although I would have thought that the four-inch pins around the edge of the roof would have been deterrent enough. Still, this is an imaginative and humane solution, and it seems to be working, as the pigeons are all still hanging out on the roof of the Bald-Faced Stag. I’m not sure whether this fine bird would provide a lightning rod in the event of a thunderstorm, so perhaps if there are any physicists out there someone could tell me. In the meantime, the bird soars on, perhaps dreaming of the Andes and surveying the streets for a defunct llama to eat. I would hate to be the one to tell him that the best he can hope for around here is some Kentucky Fried Chicken.









Wednesday Weed – Lucerne

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Lucerne( Medicago sativa sativa)

Dear Readers, I am sometimes astonished at the plants that crop up in East Finchley. Where do they come from? How did they get here? One particular ‘weed’ hotspot is a little bed outside the corner house on Park Hall Road. One month it’s full of cleavers, the next it’s full of thistles, and this week, it’s full of lucerne.  And very pretty it is too, in its many shades of lilac and purple.

Lucerne is a member of the Fabaceae family, which includes peas, vetches and clovers, and if you look at the flowers you can see the characteristic lower ‘lip’. The leaves are in groups of three, but the most characteristic feature is the tightly-curled seedpod, which spirals around itself like one of those wacky Carsten Holler helter-skelters that were at Tate Modern a few years ago. The name ‘lucerne’ is said to have come from the Latin ‘lucerna’ or lamp, which makes me wonder if there were oil lamps that resembled the shape of the seedpod.

By Philmarin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lucerne Seedpods (Photo One – credit below)

Kirsteen at

Photo Two (Credit below)

Lucerne was introduced to the UK in the 17th century as a fodder crop, and is otherwise known as alfalfa (which is from the Arabic name for the plant). It probably came from south west Asia, and was first noted in the wild in the UK in 1804. The plant was first cultivated in ancient Iran, and in a fourth-century book about agriculture, Palladius notes that it can be cut four to six times in 12 months, and that a quarter of a hectare of lucerne will feed three horses for a whole year. Palladius also notes that fresh lucerne should be fed sparingly to cattle, who may develop bloat, and indeed domestic animals have a paradoxical relationship with the plant, sometimes developing photosensitivity and jaundice. However, it is a major source of hay and silage for cows and horses, particularly in North America, where in Arizona and Southern California a single field can be cut up to twelve times in a year.

It has never been much used for human food in the West, with most people encountering it as alfalfa sprouts. It was used as famine food during the Spanish Civil War, but in China the young leaves are used as a salad vegetable.

By Thesupermat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (Credit below)

Incidentally, anyone getting excited at the plants’ Latin species name (sativa) should note that, although lucerne was used unsuccessfully as an ingredient in cigarettes, ‘sativa’ simply means ‘cultivated’.

Like most members of the pea family, lucerne is a magnet for bees. There is a story that lucerne could not be grown commercially in the US until the honeybee was introduced to the country (it is not native north of Mexico), and pollination became possible. It is often the case that introduced plants do not become a problem if their pollinators do not arrive – Dave Goulson, who wrote the wonderful book ‘A Sting in the Tale’ describes how Tree Lupins only became problematic in Australia once the bumblebee arrived. I always find it interesting how these complex webs of life change when one of the elements is missing.

Indeed, there is a problem with the pollination of lucerne. When Western honeybees visit a lucerne flower, they are knocked on the head by the keel of the plant, which transfers the pollen. Neither you nor I would like to be hit on the head every time we went to work (though I’ve been employed at places where every day felt a bit like that was what was happening). So, the honeybees take to nectar-robbing – piercing the side of the flower to get at the nectar store without being walloped. Unfortunately this does not result in the pollination of the plant.

To avoid this happening, the beekeepers employed to pollinate the lucerne fields use a high proportion of young, innocent bees, who have not yet become jaundiced and cynical by their daily experiences. However, young bees are also not as expert at performing their tasks. Also, the bees quickly suffer from a protein deficiency induced by only eating lucerne pollen, which is missing one of the key amino acids.

By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Honey bee on lucerne (Photo Four – see credit below)

One answer is to use alfalfa leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata) to do the pollination. These solitary bees, native to Europe,  produce no honey, but are very efficient pollinators of lucerne. They are transported in hollow plastic tubes, which they fill with leaves and use to raise their young. These are the bees of choice in the Pacific Northwest, with the poor old long-suffering honeybee being used in California.

By Pollinator at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

Alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata) (Photo Five – see credit below)

In parts of the US lucerne is used as an insectary, a nursery for all kinds of predatory insects, and is often interspersed with cotton. The various ladybirds and lacewings and wasps that hatch in the lucerne go to work on the grubs that would otherwise eat the cotton. In return, the lucerne is harvested in strips to avoid killing the entire insect population.

Lucerne is a very drought-hardy plant -it has a root-system that can penetrate almost 50 feet to find ground-water. It can live for more than twenty years, but the plant is autotoxic – lucerne seeds cannot grow where there is already lucerne, and so crop rotation needs to be practiced. Like all members of the pea family, the roots contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which means that it improves the soil. As such, it was the most widely grown fodder crop in the world in the early 2000’s, with over 436 million tons grown, not just in North America but in China, Russia, Europe and Argentina. In 2009 over 74 million acres of the planet were used to grow lucerne. Not satisfied with this, the biotech giant Monsanto developed a GMO version of the plant that was resistant to glyptosate. This meant that fields could be sprayed with Round Up, which would obliterate all the ‘weeds’ but spare the lucerne. There has been a long-running court case in the US about the use of this plant, with many concerns about the possibility of cross-contamination with non-GMO lucerne. You can read all the gory details here, but suffice to say that Monsanto appears to have won, as usual.  Whilst here in Europe we tend to be cautious about GMOs, there are far fewer restrictions in the US. I shall watch with interest to see how this all plays out. I am not anti-science, but it seems to me that obliterating biodiversity in this way runs counter to the health of the environment. I sometimes wonder at what point we will stop messing with delicately poised ecosystems. As the Buddha once said, we are children playing in a burning building.

So, generations of domestic animals have been fed on this delicate ‘weed’ that has appeared, surprisingly, on a London street. And when I go hunting for a poem about lucerne, I find this by Les Murray, the extraordinary Australian poet. ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ is not an easy read, but I don’t think I have ever read a poem that imagines so sensitively what it would be like to be an animal. Have a look, and let me know what you think!

Photo Credits

Photo One (Lucerne Seedpods) – By Philmarin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Carsten Holler Slides) – Kirsteen at

Photo Three (Alfalfa sprouts) – By Thesupermat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Honeybee on lucerne) – By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five (Leafcutter bee on lucerne) – By Pollinator at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

Bugwoman on Location – A Walk in the Ferwalltal

Dear Readers, after our rather easy and domestic walk to the Sahnesturberl last week, this week we’re trying the slightly more difficult trails. But nothing should be attempted without a cappuccino and a biscuit with ‘Otztal’ on it. There are limits.

There are five valleys all leading away from Obergurgl, and today we were aiming for the Ferwaltaller, one of the more difficult areas to reach. If you look at the photograph above, you can see our path leading up away from the service road. As is usual, it zig-zags backwards and forwards across the slope, so that every time you think you’ve reached the summit, you discover there’s a bit more climbing to do. Still, off we went….

After about twenty minutes stiff climbing, we stopped for a break, and to admire the hills on the other side of the valley. This area is called the Seenplatte, and is part of the national park. There is no skiing development there, and so it is much wilder, and snow lies in pockets for a long time. One of these days I’ll be in good enough shape to attempt it, but my knees are a bit dodgy this year.

The cable car is just a little dot below. I love the way that its shadow seems to hang from it.

I like to look back and see how far we’ve already come. In the foreground above there are the last of the alpenroses, the diminutive rhododendrons that have just stopped flowering here. Obergurgl had a very hot June, and so there are marmots everywhere, but never when I have my camera unfortunately.

A male chaffinch makes his presence felt in the arolla pine trees below.

There are butterflies and moths everywhere. Six-spot burnet moths fizz about, like red blurs.

I’ve noted before that the butterflies love salt, and can  often be found in swarms on any kind of fresh dung. But I didn’t know that they’d feed from sweaty humans as well. My husband had a particularly friendly Meadow Brown.

And so we walked on up, and crossed under the chairlift which they are testing for the winter. Every chair is weighted down with a dozen filled water canisters. The air was filled with beeping from the machinery and cursing in Austrian by the operators. But soon we were far away from all such goings-on.

This is the start of the Ferwalltaller – a stream runs through it, and also a strange clay pipe half-buried in the bank. Who knows what it’s for? But the worst of the climb was over, and we could start to enjoy the scenery.

There are some boggy areas, squelchy with moss and dotted with these white-flowered succulents which I think are a kind of saxifrage. The seedheads of the mountain avens (Geum montanum) remind me of little clematises.

The spiniest thistles (Cirsium spinosissimum) are just coming into ‘flower’. From a distance they look as if each one has been touched with an individual sunbeam.

Close up, however, they are most unprepossessing, and are largely pollinated by clouds of alpine flies. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

The weather forecast for the day was decidedly dodgy, and so, as the clouds started to gather, we decided to head for home. It’s possible to feel very exposed out here in the mountains when there are storms forecast. The official advice if caught in a storm (of which there have been several in the last few days) is to separate yourself from anything metal (i.e. your walking poles), avoid any trees , large boulders or other ‘prominences’, and lay on the ground on top of your rucksack. I figured that this would be a most undignified position to be in, and so we made all reasonable haste to get back down to the village, hotly pursed by most unpromising thunderheads.

And when we got back to village level, it was to discover that the wind had dropped, the sun had come out, and all was delightful. And so there was nothing for it but to return to the Edelweiss and Gurgl hotel for an Eiscaffe (coffee and icecream with whipped cream on the top). What a tough life I have.

On Saturday, we head back home. I cannot wait to see what’s happened in the garden. I think a machete might be in order so that  I can get to the shed.

In the meantime,  here is a question for you all. What on earth do you think this machine does? It was parked on the road and looked like some kind of alien. I’m thinking some kind of road-sweeping, but do let me know if you have a more imaginative answer…..


Wednesday Weed – Dwarf Mallow

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta)

Dear Readers, I found this tiny plant in the grass in front of our local children’s nursery. It is so small and delicate that it’s hard for me to believe that it’s a close relative of the stonking great pink mallow in my back garden, but indeed it is, for this is the dwarf mallow (Malva neglecta). It is an ancient introduction, possibly brought here by the Romans. So many plants arrived with the Romans (everything from radishes to walnuts) that I sometimes imagine them skipping along Watling Street scattering seeds in all directions. Why this little plant would be one of them I have no idea, but it was probably an interloper, maybe arriving with harvested seed and setting up home when it was planted.


All of the mallows have been used widely for medicinal purposes (herbalists call the mallows ‘innocents’ because they have no bad qualities), and the name ‘Mallow’ and genus name Malva come from the Greek word Malakos, meaning soft and soothing. Dwarf mallow has been used to make salves and lotions for bruises, inflammation and insect bites (the herbalist Gerarde said that it was ‘good against the stinging of scorpions, bees, wasps and such’), and as a treatment for lung and urinary complaints. The plant is said to be better than common mallow (Malva sylvestris) for these purposes, but the creme-de-la-creme of mallows for medicine is the marsh mallow (Althea officinalis). Dwarf mallow is also described as an excellent laxative for small children, though here, as in all matters medicinal, extreme caution is advised.


The leaves of dwarf mallow are edible, though most foraging websites mention that the mucilaginous quality of the leaves, which make them so effective in treating bruises and skin problems, is rather unpleasant when the leaves are cooked. So, in other words, if you don’t like the slimy quality of okra, you’d be better eating dwarf mallow raw. However, as I mentioned in my post on common mallow, if the leaves are steeped in water the resulting fluid can be used as an egg white substitute in meringues and souffles, which seems like a minor miracle to me. It can also be used as a binding agent in vegan cookery, as in this recipe for Mallow Leaf and White Bean Burgers.

One potential problem is that dwarf mallow seems to concentrate nitrates for fertilizer in the leaves, so be careful where you harvest from.

The round fruits are said to look like tiny cheeses (and in Yorkshire were known as ‘fairy cheeses’) and are full of nutritional value, though a bit on the small side in this species. On the other hand, they were used in a dormancy experiment and apparently germinated after a hundred years, so there can be no doubt that they are well protected and full of everything that a plant might need to grow when the conditions are right.

By Stefan.lefnaer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A dwarf mallow ‘cheese’ (seedhead) – Photo One (see credit below)

I must add a small note of sadness here as well. Just along from the nursery where the dwarf mallow is growing was the car park for GLH, the cab company. The wall along the front was full of willow herb and ragweed, and there was a fine buddleia growing at the front. Well, the building has been sold to erect some new flats. I’m all for affordable housing, as you know, but more than a thousand local people objected to the design of the building on the basis of its design, the risk of over-development and the way that the project added to the chronic traffic congestion in the area (there is no on-site parking) and this was completely ignored by Barnet Council.  All the weeds have been sprayed, and a man was erecting a plywood hoarding with a door in it. As he stepped through to the demolition site and shut the door behind him, it reminded me of how much seems to be going on behind closed doors at the moment. Let’s hope that there’s still a way to moderate this most grandiose design.

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

The proposed flats on East Finchley High Street (Photo from The Archer)

Photo Credit

Photo One (Mallow seed head) – By Stefan.lefnaer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



Bugwoman on Location – A Walk to the Sahnestuberl

Large Copper (Lycaena dispar) on yarrow

Dear Readers, today I would like to take you on one of my favourite early holiday walks in Obergurgl, Austria. It isn’t very rugged, or very challenging, though as I arrived with a sore throat and cough, and as the sole of one of my boots has decided to drop off, it was quite challenging enough. I love it because of the sheer variety of terrain, from meadow to pine forest to scree to mountain hut. I also love it because it has some uphill and some downhill, and so my muscles can start to get into the swing of things.

The village of Obergurgl

Here is the view back to the village at the end of the first climb. Obergurgl is at the end of the Oest valley, which is one reason why we love it – it doesn’t have through traffic, the curse of many an alpine village, and it is the epicentre of numerous side valleys. One of the glories of the surrounding hills are the meadows, at their very best at this time of year, just before the first hay cut. And I am in my element – the sheer variety of insects makes my head spin.

A very fine ichneumon wasp

Bright pink yarrow!

Flies are important pollinators in the Alps, but these two are thinking of other things…

Hoverfly on rampion

Clouds of butterflies descend on the dusty paths to feed on the salts in animal droppings, whirling up as we pass.

We look to see what cows are about, and as usual there are some fine Highland Cattle, who seem to do very well in spite of the Austrian summers being considerably warmer than the Scottish ones.

And then it’s on into the woods. These are mostly Arolla pines, and at this time of year you can hear the local jay, the spotted nutcracker, leading the fledglings through the branches. The youngsters make a call a bit like a car alarm.

By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Spotted nutcracker (Photo One – see credit below)

The woods are cool and quiet after the meadows, apart from the occasional sound of cow bells from the Tyrolean blue cattle that graze here, and the roar of motorbikes from the road below. Many biking folk choose to go into Italy via the Timmelsjoch pass, just half a kilometre from where we are walking, and there is also a Motorcycle Museum beside the tollroad.

Soon we reach a little lake called the Pillersee, which has a most attractive duck house in the middle, though I have never seen a single duck take advantage of it. You might think that this would be an ideal spot to stop for a sandwich, but be careful, gentle traveller! On our last visit, we stopped here for the time it took to eat a cheese sandwich (approximately four minutes in my case) and I acquired 12 mosquito bites. My husband didn’t get one. I have recently read that mosquitoes prefer people who have Type O blood, and as my husband has Type A maybe this is the explanation. Or it could just be that I was sweatier than he was. Anyhow, take this as a warning, and glance at the duck house while rushing past at speed.

Just a little further on, we found a patch of early flowering orchids popping up among the buttercups. There are lots of orchids here. In fact, the whole flora is so diverse and plentiful that it makes me weep for our intensively managed, vanishing meadows  in the UK. Nearly all the plants here can also be found at home, but I rarely see such variety.

Then, it’s over a moderately scary bridge. There are a variety of scary bridges in these parts – there’s a delight in bridges that you can see through, which doesn’t help my slight vertigo.

However, this is as nothing compared to the new suspension bridge, just opened on Thursday, over the nearby Gurgler glacier. Methinks I will be giving this one a miss.

Copyright Berger and Brunner

The new Obergurgl suspension bridge (Photo Two – credit below)

Once over the bridge, we walk alongside the glacial river which is in full spate at this time of year, making it difficult to hear. The plants along the path are lush and green, with lots of meadow cranesbill.

Soon, we come to a much more substantial bridge, below the main road, which is protected from avalanches and landslides by a rather attractive ‘avalanche gallery’.

The rocks roast beside the river, and there are very few plants – tiny willows and rosebay willowherb survive in the flood zone, but that’s about it.

But now we are nearly at the Sahnestuberl, which bakes the best cakes in the valley in my opinion. We always come at least once, and sometimes twice.

The very welcome sight of the Sahnestuberl

Last year’s cat is still in residence.

And here is the cake of the day. Apple cake. Note the two forks. We’re not greedy.

Four minutes and thirty seconds later. And no, we didn’t fight.

So, my throat is now better (thanks to some very fine throat lozenges), I have new boots (after spending a week patching the old ones up with glue I decided that they really were done for), and we have another week here in Obergurgl. Who knows what we will get up to this week?

Photo Credits

Photo One (Nutcracker) – By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Photo Two (New Suspension Bridge) – Copyright Berger and Brunner



Wednesday Weed – Enchanter’s Nightshade

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) (Photo by Shona Mackintosh)

Dear Readers, sometimes there’s a strange synchronicity about the Wednesday Weed. When I had lunch with my friend S earlier this week, she mentioned a plant with tiny white flowers that was taking over her garden. She sent me the photo above, and I was very puzzled. Then, on my way to teaching an English class in Wood Green, I saw a huge patch of exactly the same plant, mixed in with some black medick.


Thanks to some help from some botanists on the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page, it was identified as Enchanter’s Nightshade. And a very confusing plant it is too. For a start, it isn’t a nightshade at all, but yet another willowherb. It is a native plant but, as my friend has noticed, it can be a very persistent garden weed. However, Richard Mabey finds a subtle beauty in this modest plant, and notes how the flowers are ‘mounted like butterflies on pins’. He describes how many parts of the plant, from the leaves to the stamen to the petals, grow in pairs.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Enchanter’s Nightshade flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

By Willow (Own work) [GFDL (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Enchanter’s Nightshade demonstrating its ‘persistent weed’ characteristic (Photo Two – see credit below)

The Latin name for this plant, Circaea lutetiana, links it to Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs so that he wouldn’t leave her island. According to Virgil, she could turn men into lions and wolves as well. This humble little plant was thought to be her ‘charm’. When I was a child, I longed to be able to talk to the animals, but turning the people who bullied me into pigs and cows would have been just as gratifying. There is much wish-fulfillment in some myths, and a great fear of the secret powers of women. Even today, I can think of a few men who would be able to do much less harm if they were four-legged animals without opposable thumbs, but then I wouldn’t wish their company on the rest of the creatures.

The species name ‘lutetiana’ comes from the Latin name for Paris, which was sometimes known as the ‘Witch City’, according to Wikipedia. However, Witchipedia thinks that the name refers to the character of Paris from the Iliad. Curiouser and curiouser.

In the painting below, Circe seems to have transformed a woman into an animal as well, judging by the lionesses. Also, her jumper seems to have fallen off.


Circe by Wright Barker (1889) (Public Domain)

Strangely, though, in spite of its fascinating name, enchanter’s nightshade does not appear to have a wide variety of medicinal uses. It is used to make herbal tea in Austria (which figures, as the plant has a high concentration of tannins). Where it is mentioned as a cure, the active part appears to be the berries of the plant but, not being a true nightshade, the plant has burrs rather than berries. A case of mistaken identity, I fear.

However, it was used in an aphrodisiac potion in the Highlands of Scotland, which would be slipped into the unsuspecting chap’s evening tipple. I am sure that much merriment ensued.

By Kristian Peters -- Fabelfroh 14:54, 10 November 2005 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The burrs of enchanter’s nightshade (Photo Three – credit below)

I can find no edible uses for enchanter’s nightshade, although when I was identifying the plant, one of the botanists mentioned that it had a pronounced peppery taste.

To return to Circe and her ability to transform men into animals: I wonder if there is a deeper suggestion here that, rather than taking the tale literally, we are meant to question if all men are animals under the skin, with just the merest skim of ‘civilisation’ on top? How easy it is in these troubled times to see the more ‘bestial’ of our instincts coming to the fore. There is more than a hint of this in Louise Gluck’s poem ‘Circe’s Power’.

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.

I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Undisciplined life
Did that to them. As pigs,

Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.

Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw

We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,

I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think

A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you

I could hold you prisoner.

However, if we are going to claim that our aggression and violence came from animals, we have to acknowledge that so did our capacity for love and compassion. There are many scientists now looking at the altruistic behaviour of animals, the development of culture and the lengths that non-human animals will go to to look after one another. We can’t have it both ways, as if our ability to make war came from our primate ancestors while our ability to sacrifice ourselves was sprinkled on us by angels. We are part of a continuum, remarkable as our species is, and we can’t disown our heritage. The gap between us and the intelligent, resourceful, affectionate pig is not as big as we  think.

Circe and her swine (Briton Riviere, 1896) (Public Domain)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Flower close-up) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Patch of enchanter’s nightshade) – By Willow (Own work) [GFDL (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (enchanter’s nightshade burrs) – By Kristian Peters — Fabelfroh 14:54, 10 November 2005 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Infestation

Dear Readers, I am off to Austria at what is officially known as ‘stupid o’clock’ tomorrow, so here is my Saturday blog on Friday night. Wednesday Weeds will continue as normal for the next few weeks, but my Saturday blogs may have a Tyrolean feeling…..

Dear Readers, going to  Canada for two and a half weeks in April is not ideal from a gardener’s point of view. When I came back, the garden had turned into a jungle, the pond had become a bog, and I have been fighting to get things roughly back under control every since. And now we’re off to Austria for another two weeks, and there’s some rainy weather forecast. I shall have to hone the machete for our return.

It’s not just that everything has grown, either. Growing is fine. What if the bramble at the back of the garden is now dangling over, heavy with blackberries? What if the hedge, trimmed only last year, is now too high for me to reach and I have to send my husband out with a step-ladder? What if, in spite of the sterling work of the man who comes to look after the cat, the pond is a more-or-less complete carpet of duckweed? These are all things that can be remedied with a bit of sweat and a pair of secateurs or a net.

No, what worries me are the uninvited guests.

Take a look at my great willowherb. I have allowed a fine stand of it to grow next to the pond, because the bees love it, and its bright pink flowers are cheerful. However, I doubt that we will get many flowers at all this year, because a tiny seamstress has been at work. The leaves of almost every shoot have been stitched lovingly together, turning each bud into a fat purse.

My great willowherb in happier days….

The ‘purses’ are so well sewn up that it’s actually quite difficult to open them, and when I do, it’s clear that there’s somebody at home.

Mompha epibiella caterpillar, snug as a bug

So, this little chap is a caterpillar. There is a vast group of tiny moths ( called micro-moths) who go about their business largely unnoticed. Some of them are so small that they can make their homes between the layers of a single leaf – you can often see their trails wandering about in plants like sow-thistle. Horse chestnuts in the UK have their own delightful leaf miners, which are turning the leaves brown even as I speak.

Slightly larger micromoth caterpillars make their homes by stitching leaves together, burrowing into stems and buds or eating their way into roots. They can be polyphagous (which means they eat lots of plants) or much more picky. Some live only on birches, some on roses, and some only on willowherbs. My gut feeling is that the culprit in my garden is Mompha epilobiella, a rather drab moth which specialises in  the Epilobium (willowherb) family.

By Donald Hobern (Flickr: Mompha epilobiella) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mompha epilobiella (Photo One – see credit below)

When I say ‘drab’, however, it’s more a reflection on me than the moth. Here is the same species, spread-eagled as a specimen (poor thing). The wings are edged with long ‘hairs’ called cilia – these interlink in flight to give a bigger surface area for lift, and make the moth appear to be trailing clouds of glory. How intricate these tiny creatures are. I think that calling any living thing ‘drab’ indicates a failure of attention on my part.

By Michael Kurz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (], via Wikimedia Commons

Specimen Mompha epilobiella (Photo Two – credit below)

The caterpillars are protected while they are at their smallest and juiciest in their bivouac of leaves. Other members of the Mompha family also like willowherbs, but will mine the leaves rather than stitching them together, or live in the stem, so there is no direct competition. I do wonder why the blue tits haven’t worked out what’s going on, as they are highly intelligent little birds, but maybe it’s too much effort when there are other exposed caterpillars about. The caterpillars are also protected from the various wasps who would love to feed them to their offspring. What a successful strategy for such a small, otherwise defenceless creature.

Av Stainton -, Public Domain,

An 1873 drawing of a Mompha epilobiella caterpillar (Photo Three – credit below)

However, when the caterpillars pupate and drop to the soil, they are at their most vulnerable to attack from the wasps who couldn’t penetrate their leafy sanctuary. Those that survive will overwinter as adult moths, ready to launch into another campaign as soon as the weather warms up. However I fear that they will have to search elsewhere: I was planning to pull up the willowherb this year because I can no longer see the pond from the house, and plant something a bit more low-growing. There is no shortage of willowherb around here, so I feel only slightly guilty. I had hoped for elephant hawk moths, but when you plant a wildlife garden you really do have to be ready for whatever turns up.

In North America, great willowherb is a noxious weed, and there has been some excitement at the arrival of Mompha epilobiella. It’s hoped that the moth will keep the willowherb under control (and I suppose that the arrival of a natural predator, even an alien one, might be a cause for rejoicing). However, the local parasitic wasps have already discovered that the pupae make a delightful home for their larvae, illustrating how the arrival of non-native species can cause a whole series of unexpected effects.

When we tend a garden, what we are really doing is facilitating a whole host of living things, providing opportunities for them to thrive. And boy, do they take advantage of what we do. We slightly disrupt or add to one part of the complex web of relationships, and the next thing we know we’re inundated. It will be interesting to see what happens as the summer moves on – will the willowherb bounce back, or will it languish? Will I see lots of new tiny parasitic wasps? And when I clear the willowherb area, what will come into the garden to feast on whatever I plant next? Life is certainly full of surprises.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Live moth) – By Donald Hobern (Flickr: Mompha epilobiella) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Specimen) – By Michael Kurz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (drawing of caterpillar) – Av Stainton –, Public Domain,