Author Archives: Bug Woman

Wednesday Weed – Goldenrod

Goldenrod (Solidago sp, probably canadensis)

Dear Readers, I’d been noticing this member of the daisy family growing in swathes alongside the railway line from Dorset to Waterloo, and was interested to come across it again in Trent Park in North London. Then, I saw some in the US during my recent visit to Monterey Bay. Goldenrods are largely native to North America, and are a family of some 120 species which look remarkably similar to one another, and may sometimes hybridise. In the UK, Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a popular garden plant and I would guess makes up a large part of the wild population here, though there is a native goldenrod too (Solidago virgaurea).

Goldenrod in the UK is largely a plant of wasteland and railway embankments, thriving on the bright sunlight and shallow soil. It is extremely popular with pollinators, who seem to love the racemes of tiny yellow flowers. The nectar produces a clear and spicy honey when not mixed with nectar from other plants.

Photo One by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Cryptic Bumblebee (Bombus cryptarum) on European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) (Photo One)

Goldenrod is sometimes blamed for causing hayfever, but this is more likely to be the result of ingesting the pollen of ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) which blooms at the same time in late summer. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, and the plant is largely pollinated by insects: ragweed is wind-pollinated, so the pollen is light. However, handling the plant can cause skin irritation, and a 1998 report  suggested that goldenrod (along with chrysanthemums and other members of the daisy family) caused such severe dermatological reactions that florists handling the plants on a daily basis were forced to change careers.

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Goldenrod and asters (Photo Two)

The leaves of goldenrod were once seen as a possible source of rubber by none other than scientist and inventor Thomas Edison. The idea was taken up by Henry Ford, and the tyres on the the Model T Ford that were given to Edison were made from goldenrod. Ford was concerned about the need to continue with rubber production during the Second World War, when many sources of the substance were cut off, and it seemed that goldenrod might produce a viable substitute, as the leaves contain approximately 7% rubber. However, the material produced was tacky, with low tensile strength, and so the experiment was abandoned.

Goldenrod does, however, have a distinguished history as a medicinal plant, particularly with regard to the treatment of kidney and urinary problems.

American goldenrod at Zmudowski State Beach

The young leaves and seeds of goldenrod have been used by Native American peoples as food, and a tea can also be made from the leaves or flowers (after the Boston Tea Party the plant was used to make ‘Liberty Tea’ to replace the tea that could no longer be obtained).

I was led slightly up the garden path by a US recipe for ‘eggs a la goldenrod’. It was described as ‘eggs on toast with gravy’. Turns out the ‘gravy’ would be called a ‘white sauce’ here in the UK, with the word ‘gravy’ reserved for the brown meaty stuff that’s poured over your roast dinner. Also, the recipe contains not a jot of the plant goldenrod. Two nations divided by a common language, indeed.

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Eggs a la goldenrod (Photo Three)

Goldenrod can also produce a dye, and the site here shows the amazing range of colours that can be created just by adding different chemicals. Dyeing is such an interesting subject, and such an outlet for creativity. I shall have to give it a go one of these days…

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Different dye colours produced from goldenrod (Photo Four)

Goldenrod does not just produce food for pollinators, but is also much liked by flies and parasitic wasps, whose larvae create galls just below the buds to protect themselves while they grow. Alas, some fishermen in North America have caught on to this and extract the larvae from their fortifications to use them as bait. Some woodpeckers and other birds have also learned this trick, and can be seen tappity-tapping until they’ve made a hole and can claim their prize, a valuable source of protein during the winter months.

Black-capped chickadee getting to work on a goldenrod gall (Public Domain)

Goldenrod is the state flower of Kentucky, Nebraska and South Carolina, and used to be the state flower of Alabama until it was replaced with the camellia. For many North American schoolchildren, its flowering indicates the end of the holidays, and time to get back to school. In the UK I can remember how the ‘Back to School’ signs in the windows of our local Co-op department store used to make my stomach shrink into my shoes. I hope that children these days have a happier experience of their educational establishments.

More US goldenrod

A patch of goldenrod growing outside your door is supposed to be a sign of sudden good fortune. On the other hand, goldenrod is yet another of those plants that superstitious folk in the UK will not allow inside the house. It is a wonder that anything floral gets past the front door in some abodes. Maybe just a few leaves would be safer if you are going to a dinner party. Or forget the flowers altogether and bring copious quantities of wine.

And as winter approaches, I am much taken by this poem by Bliss William Carman (1861 – 1929), a poet from New Brunswick in Canada that I hadn’t come across before. See what you think.

The Ghost-Yard of the Goldenrod by Bliss William Carman

WHEN the first silent frost has trod
The ghost-yard of the goldenrod,
And laid the blight of his cold hand
Upon the warm autumnal land,
And all things wait the subtle change
That men call death, is it not strange
That I— without a care or need,
Who only am an idle weed —
Should wait unmoved, so frail, so bold,
The coming of the final cold!

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1850’s cabin in North Carolina with goldenrod (Photo Five)

Photo CreditsPhoto One by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Monterey Bay

Dear Readers, I was due to travel on the 3rd of September, and on the 2nd September I was still not sure if I was going. Mum was in hospital, and Dad had had the paramedics out again for a chest infection. But suddenly everything seemed to settle down. Did I dare take a whole week out from the drama at home? I certainly needed it. I wasn’t sleeping. I was crying at the slightest little thing. I had broken out in a hideous rash. In short, I was on the verge of not being able to cope at all.

‘Go!’ said my brother. ‘I’ll handle things here’.

And so I went to the other side of the planet, to Monterey Bay in California, for a Naturetrek tour. I arrived in a flurry, my head still full of carer timetables and hospital visiting times and contingency plans. And then, I was out on the water, looking towards a grey horizon on a sea that was so calm that it felt as if the boat was bobbing about on liquid metal. The sea fret clouded my glasses and frizzed my hair, and the fog numbed the sound of the engine.

It can look so lifeless, the sea. But Monterey Bay is a cetacean hotspot, where cold upwellings from deep undersea trenches provide a feast of krill for the largest animals on earth, and all the smaller ones too. From that cold water comes the hottest blood in the ocean.

At first the sightings were fleeting. A long grey back broke the water, accompanied by a fountain of steam some thirty feet high. A blue whale, accompanied by her calf, was crossing the Monterey Bay superhighway. From our view in the boat she looked big, but the photograph below shows her true scale – blue whales grow to some 90 feet long here, though the longest ever recorded was 108 feet long.

Blue Whale swimming away from the boat (photo courtesy of Discovery Whale Watch and Slater Moore Photography)

Blue whales are remarkable animals, but because of their immense size they don’t go in for the acrobatics of their smaller relatives, the humpbacks, who measure a mere 50 feet long. There is a population of some 3000 humpbacks in the Monterey Bay area, and watching them made me wonder at their strength, their complexity and their sheer otherworldliness. Even after spending some twenty hours in their company in the course of a week I am still not quite sure if they were a dream, or if I actually saw them. Fortunately, there are photos.

It’s not uncommon to see a humpback ‘breaching’, or throwing itself out of the water. Scientists still don’t know why they expend the amount of energy required to heave that 30 ton body out of the water, but presumably it’s important. There has been speculation that it’s for communication (the noise of the splash carries for miles, and it’s been noted that when one whale breaches, another many miles away may do the same thing when the sound wave hits). Is it for exercise? Young whales seem to do more breaching, but maybe that’s just because they can. Or is it for sheer exuberance?

Incidentally, the angle of the photo below makes the whale look much closer to the boat than s/he actually was. The company that we used for the trips, Discovery Whale Watch  was very respectful of the rules around whalewatching in the area: whales were always given plenty of room, approached from the side rather than from behind, and the engine was cut when we were around the animals. In all the cases that I observed the whales carried on doing exactly what they were doing before we arrived.

Humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

We also saw the extraordinary sight of a mother and calf breaching at the same time – was the mother teaching the youngster how to do it?

Mother and calf humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Generally, when humpbacks breach they land on the back of their heads, which are bony, rather than doing a belly flop. Look at the length of those pectoral fins! When people first found the bones of humpback whales in the Americas, they took one look at those huge ‘hands’ and thought they must be looking at the skeletons of giant angels.

Another humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Humpbacks often feed communally on the huge shoals of anchovy that gather in the Bay to feed on the krill. We watched them blowing a circle of bubbles to make sure that the fish were pushed into a tight ball, before opening their mouths en masse and swallowing swimming pool-sized gulps of fishy water. I’ve watched scenes like this on Blue Planet, but never dreamed that I’d have a chance to see it in real life.

It’s hard to capture the excitement of seeing so many whales together. It felt such a privilege, as animal encounters always do to me. It is so easy to for me to become embroiled in my particular challenges and dramas, but seeing something like this wipes the mind clean until all that is left is a sense of wonder.

Humpbacks lunge feeding (Photo by Peter Dunn)

As the whales fed they were joined by sealions and pelicans, shearwaters and terns, until the whole sea was boiling. The biologist onboard pointed out that if the sealions started jumping, the whales were often going to surface right beneath them, and so it proved. Sometimes the whales seemed to get irritated with all the other creatures and made a trumpeting sound that reminded me of a baby elephant. It must be crowded under the surface with  all those other animals trying to muscle in.

And how quickly the whales gobbled up the anchovies! Sometimes, all that remained were a few sad silvery scales bobbing  beneath the boat. The feeding frenzy also gave us humans the dubious pleasure of smelling ‘whale breath’, which resembles a combination of flatulence and halitosis. I guess that if you live on a diet of krill you must need powerful stomach bacteria to deal with it all.

Sealions feeding above Humpback whales (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And as if this wasn’t enough, on several occasions we were joined by a superpod of several hundred Common Dolphin. They love to ride the bows of the boat, and the hashtag bites on their backs are a token of how determined each one is to claim the front spot.

Common dolphins riding the bow of the boat (Photo by Peter Dunn)

There are lots of explanations for why dolphins jump, too. Is it a dominance display, or a way of communicating? Probably both, but to me it also looks like a whole lot of fun.

Common dolphin jumping (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And when I got back to the land (which seemed to heave slightly under my feet) and gazed out to sea, I was left with a sense of profound mystery. In some ways whales are so similar to us (they are mammals after all), but when I think about their lives underwater, their songs, their epic migrations and their bonds with one another that might be maintained over many years and over hundreds of miles, I am astounded. To think that we share the planet with such creatures fills me with awe, and gratitude, and humility.

Humpback pectoral (Photo by Peter Dunn)

The majority of the photographs this week were taken by one of our guides on the trip, Peter Dunn. It was wonderful to be able to just watch and appreciate these remarkable animals without having to worry about whether I was getting the perfect shot. Sometimes, the camera comes between me and what I’m looking at, but this time I could relax into the experience. Thanks, Peter!

The photo of the blue whale with our boat was taken by Slater Moore, using a drone. In case you are worried about this causing disturbance to the wildlife, I should point out that it was used for less than ten minutes during a four hour cruise, and at no point was it flown close to birds or smaller sea mammals who might have been disturbed by the noise. Have a look at Slater’s website for some other remarkable photographs.

Wednesday Weed – Guelder Rose

Berries of the Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)

Dear Readers, there are some plants which are exquisite in every season. Take the guelder rose, for example. At this time of year, it is dripping in shiny red berries. As the year progresses, the leaves turn to shades of red and copper.

Photo One by © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Guelder rose in autumn (Photo One)

And in the summer, the plant has flowers that resemble those of a lacecap hydrangea.

Photo Two by © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Guelder rose flower (Photo Two)

Guelder rose is actually not a rose at all, but is a member of the Moscatel family (Adoxaceae) which includes other viburnums and elders. It is native to a broad swathe of Europe, northern Africa and central Asia,and a related plant, Viburnum trilobum which is native to North America is thought by some botanists to be a subspecies of ‘our’ guelder rose.

The plant is one of the national flowers of Ukraine, where it is known as Kalyna, and the red berries are associated with fertility, health and, in Slavonic pagan beliefs, with the birth of the universe. ‘Oh, the red viburnum in the meadow’ was a marching song of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. ‘Kalyna’ also referred to the hymen, and the bride’s bloodied nightshirt which was paraded in front of the guests on her wedding night as proof of her virginity was called a ‘kalyna’. It’s safe to say that guelder rose has a deeply symbolic value in Ukraine, becoming synonymous with the nation and with its people. The berries of the plant turn up everywhere, including on these rather fetching boots.

Photo Three from http://zhzh.com.ua/news/2008-10-09-448

Ukrainian Guelder Rose boots (Photo Three)

The name ‘guelder rose’, however, is thought to refer to the Dutch province of Gelderland, from where a popular cultivar of the plant, the snowball tree, originated.

Photo Four by Fulvio Spada from Torino, Italy - Snowball flowers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40586982

‘Snowball tree’ cultivar of the guelder rose (Photo Four)

Those red berries look delicious, and are indeed favourites of thrushes and the bullfinch.

Photo Five by By Людмила Голуб [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Fieldfare on guelder rose (Photo Five)

Humans can eat them too, in small quantities, although they are reputedly very acidic, and prone to causing diarrhoea. If used at all, they are generally turned into jelly to accompany cheese and cooked meats. In keeping with our Ukrainian theme, you can find a recipe for guelder rose jam here. The berries have also been turned into brandy and even into a cocktail.

Photo Four from http://ukrainian-recipes.com/guelder-rose-jam.html

Guelder rose jam (Photo Four)

One alternative name for guelder rose was ‘cramp bark’, and an infusion was used to treat all kinds of cramps and muscle spasms, including menstrual cramps and the symptoms of lockjaw (tetanus).

In Scandinavian mythology, guelder rose was called water elder, and the water spirit, known as the Nix, was said to wait under the plant and play enthralling music. When someone stopped to listen, they would be grabbed and pulled under the water unless they already had a sprig of the plant in their pocket.

Photo Six by By Theodor Kittelsen - 2. Nasjonalmuseet: No.21. kittelsen.efenstor.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1340906

Nokken (Water Spirit) by Theodor Kittelsen (1904) (Photo Six)

And now to a poem. There is something in this one that puts me in mind of the train journey from London to Dorset, where my parents live, and of the interminable hours spent looking out of the window, lost in thought and yet suddenly brought back by horses running in the New Forest, the sea, a field of loosestrife and golden rod. And, of course, guelder rose.

England, or the continent I had in mind when I came here by Eireann Lorsung
for Caroline
Every bird is a sister of mine—can you believe
I never saw horses running
before I came to this island,
and nothing but their own good sense keeps them
from falling into the ocean?
At the edge of your country
along traintracks that run from Devon
to Cornwall, someone
set up a howl and it’s been going
longer than we remember,
or our mothers
remember, or their mothers.
Where else could a woman turn
into flowering rosebush? All
so peripheral, the crooked edges maps show—
the limit is sensate here
where I can never travel all night
and the next day—
what brings me is what bound you,
a piece of cloth in tatting thread and colors
I found here—loosestrife, sorrel, the guelder rose,
wood anemone—a tapestry
barring girlhood to one
field, long stripe of a neighbor’s plow turning
land just over the woven branches: earth
to earth.
The sandwich cart rattles by, you stack
cups on a tray. Meanwhile, unobtrusively, the air
diffuses particles, the sky is pinked.

This earth. This shining in the sea.

(first published online as a winning poem in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize; also published in Her Book)

Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music For Landing Planes By (2007) and Her Book (August 2013), both from Milkweed. Other work appears or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Burnside Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Two Serious Ladies, The Collagist, and Bluestem. She edits 111O and co-runs MIEL, a micropress

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Photo Two by © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Photo Three from http://zhzh.com.ua/news/2008-10-09-448

Photo Four by Fulvio Spada from Torino, Italy – Snowball flowers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40586982

Photo Five by By Людмила Голуб [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by By Theodor Kittelsen – 2. Nasjonalmuseet: No.21. kittelsen.efenstor.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1340906

A Scented Walk in the County Roads

A Victorian Stink Pipe on Durham Road, East Finchley

Dear Readers, I was hoping to satisfy your curiosity as to my whale-related whereabouts this week, but the truth is that there has been so much activity that I’ve had not a second to compose something for you. So, I  hope you will forgive me and enjoy this piece that I wrote back in June for just such an occasion as this. Next week all will be revealed!

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that summer in the city can seem to be a feast of rather unpleasant smells. There’s the smell of fat from Kentucky Fried Chicken when the wind is in the right direction, the ripe whiff of uncollected organic rubbish, and a slight scent of diesel. At least we aren’t still assailed with the perfume of sewage that used to be wafted skywards by the stink pipe pictured above. However, a leisurely ramble along the County Roads in East Finchley can present the perfume connoisseur with a veritable feast of pleasant scents, intensified by the humid atmosphere and the hot concrete.

Rose in All Saints Church garden

For example, who can resist the scent of a full-blown rose? Actually, there is wide variation in the scent of roses, from the floral via citrus to musk and even chocolate. This rose reminded me of classic floral with an overtone of lemon, and I could have stood there with my nose in it for an hour if the pose hadn’t been killing my back. These roses are not so popular with pollinators, though, who prefer the more lightly-scented single flowers of the Rosa rugosa species.

White rose in All Saints Church garden

And then there is jasmine. There are some splendid example on the County Roads, including the one that’s clambering over my friend A’s fence. Not everyone likes jasmine, as I’ve mentioned before – it is a waxy, sweet scent, a bit redolent of decay and decadence. I am convinced that Edgar Allen Poe would have been a fan. Today the scent seemed to come in pulses like a heartbeat.

Jasmine

And, surprisingly, some lucky person had a hedge of classic honeysuckle. It was going over a little, but there was still a trace of the honeyed perfume. It always reminds me of walks along hedgerows in the West Country as a child, with moths and bats rising over my head. Some of the showier varieties of honeysuckle have no smell at all, and I marvel at the breeding that could remove the key factor of a plant’s attraction in favour of a change of colour.

Some plants need a little encouragement to reveal their scent, like these splendid rosemary bushes, interwoven with spider webs. I love the spicy, resinous smell of this group of herbs, although I know many people who think that it’s a bit overwhelming and dominates the dishes that it’s used in.

Rosemary

And in the same family, of course, there is lavender, the bee flower par excellence at this time of year. The bushes in my front garden reveal their scent as I brush past them to get in at the front door. This year I must remember to dry some.

Lavender

And as I walk into the house for some much-needed shade, I smell honey so strongly that it’s as if someone has opened a pot of the stuff and warmed up a few spoonfuls in a saucepan. I pick up the buddleia flower and inhale. No wonder the bees and butterflies love it so much. It’s absolutely delicious. But I suspect that the smell of buddleia will always remind me of my mixed emotions during this troubling year, and will bring me both the wistful pleasure of remembering my parents, and the stomach-knotting sense of dread that seems to accompany every phonecall and visit. A scent can become subliminally linked to a set of emotions, and we often don’t realise the link until we breathe in a lungful of a long-forgotten perfume and it all comes rushing back. Smell bypasses our conscious processes and catapults us into the past, whether we want to go there or not.

Buddleia

It is said that the sense of smell is closely wired to the most ancient part of our brain, and it certainly seems to have a way of reaching past our consciousness and accessing our emotions directly.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Small Balsam

Small Balsam (Inpatiens parviflora)

Dear Readers, on Bank Holiday Monday I went for a walk on Hampstead Heath, and I discovered this new ‘weed’ growing in the woods alongside the path. I think it must be a relatively recent arrival because I have never noticed it before, and it is quite distinctive, with its primrose-yellow flowers and orange pollen. It is spreading at quite a rate, and seems to be out-competing the enchanter’s nightshade that used to grow prolifically in the dry shade here.

Small balsam is a member of the busy lizzie family, something that is not obvious until you have a look at the buds, to the right of the photo below. It is also closely related to Himalayan balsam, that scourge of riverbanks/great plant for pollinators depending on your view, although this is a much more delicate plant.

There is some debate about how small balsam originally got to the UK from it’s original habitat, the damp woodlands of Russia and Central Asia. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley discuss the various theories. One is that it was imported accidentally with Russian timber in the mid 19th century – small balsam is the only plant thought to have arrived and thrived in the UK in this way. Another is that the seeds were imported along with buckwheat which was used as feed for gamebirds. It’s also difficult to rule out contamination from fly-tipping of horticultural waste, especially at the edge of woods. Whatever route the plant took, it is certainly very happy now.

Small balsam is hermaphroditic, which means that it can self-pollinate, but it is largely pollinated by hoverflies, who dance in the dappled sunlight from the trees above, patrolling their three-dimensional territories and occasionally darting down for some sustenance.

As I was taking photographs of the small balsam a young woman with the most delightfully mud-covered small dog stopped for a chat. She told me that she had been on a herbal walk on the Heath some months ago, but had forgotten most of what she’d been told. I sympathised: my memory is so full of medical appointments and other organisational imperatives that relate to my elderly parents that I can barely remember how to get dressed in the morning. However, it’s surprising how the discovery of a new plant, and furthermore one that I can almost identify with confidence, concentrates the mind and lifts the spirit. For a few minutes I felt almost normal, as opposed to just about hanging on.

Small balsam leaves are apparently edible if cooked in one change of water, and they can also be used as a treatment for ringworm, nettle stings and warts. It seems that they can also be used as a treatment for an itchy scalp. I am always a little nervous when a plant that kills things (such as the fungus that causes ringworm) is also said to be edible, so as always caution is advised. Plus, as this seems to be a plant of the forest edge it is liable to contamination by passing dogs, especially on the Heath where at least one pooch seems to be de rigour.

The seeds are also said to be edible, but good luck with collecting them – as with all members of the family, touching the ripe seed pods will send the seed cascading into the air, one reason that an alternative name for balsams is ‘touch-me-nots’ (and that the generic name ‘Impatiens’ literally means ‘impatient’.

The caterpillar of the balsam carpet moth (Xanthorhoe biriviata) feeds on all kinds of balsam, and is unusual in having three different colour forms.

Photo One by By Léo-Paul Robert - Self-scannedDie Raupen und der Maler – Léo-Paul Robert, Stiftung Sammlung Robert, Biel, ISBN 3-9522989-4-8, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39694661

The different colour forms of the balsam carpet moth caterpillar (Photo One)

The moth itself is a handsome creature, striped in shades of rust, chocolate and cream.  The one in the photo below has kindly posed him/herself against a white wall for maximum impact.

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=795705

Balsam carpet moth (Photo Two )

And as my photos are not quite up to scratch this week, here is a great photo showing the delicate tracery of burnt-orange and blood-red on the ‘throat’ of the flower.

Photo Three by ArtMechanic [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Small balsam flower (Photo Three)

The path alongside the wood where the small balsam grows is now shadowed on the other side by a massive fence and a lime hedge. Behind it is one of the largest houses that I’ve ever seen. I only know this because, at various times in its construction, us commoners could get a glimpse through the gaps in the hoardings, to see such things as a swimming pool complete with metal tubular slides from the first floor into the water. On the other side of the fence, folk who have arrived on the bus and puffed their way up the hill walk their elderly stiff-legged terriers, and mothers push their prams en route to the ice cream van. Beneath the fence, a mysterious stream flows out, crosses the path and trickles down into the wood, right where the small balsam is growing, and I wonder if the wet conditions have changed the ecosystem just enough for the plant to thrive. It reminds me that no matter how much people isolate themselves from the community that they live in, they are still part of it, and impact upon it. Whether they care, or are happy in their own little bubble, remains to be seen.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Léo-Paul Robert – Self-scannedDie Raupen und der Maler – Léo-Paul Robert, Stiftung Sammlung Robert, Biel, ISBN 3-9522989-4-8, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39694661

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=795705

Photo Three by ArtMechanic [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Uncomprehending

Dear Readers, last week I was summoned to the shed and told to ‘bring my camera’ by my husband, who was out topping up the bird feeders. We have several metal containers to keep out the vast array of rodents who pop in for a snack, and a plastic swing bin to top them up.

Well, someone had had an adventurous few days. It is probably a week since we last opened the bin, and in the meantime, a woodmouse had jumped in and had been unable to scramble out again.

The poor creature was fairly portly, but s/he must also have been desperately thirsty, and terrified.

How long had s/he been in the bin, desperately trying to get out, jumping up again and again, trembling every time s/he heard us rummaging about in the shed? What did s/he understand about the situation? It must have been   as incomprehensible as it would be for us if we were captured by aliens and taken up to the mothership.

Animals are so extraordinarily present, so embodied compared to us. They are fully absorbed with whatever they are doing, be it laying in the sun, or stalking a bird, or hiding from a fox. I suspect that their emotions are absolute, and what gripped this mouse was absolute terror. But as always with animals at the mercy of humans, there was a kind of acceptance about this creature, as if s/he was asking me what was next. I see a similar look in the eyes of domestic animals being transported to the slaughter house.

I took one or two more photos of the little mouse and then I let them go under the hedge. A quick leap and a few seconds of scuffling and s/he was gone. I hope s/he found a drink, and a place to hide and recover after their ordeal.

All paths seem to lead back to what’s going on in Dorset with my parents, and this was no exception. I was talking to the staff nurse about my mother, and she remarked that she thought of my mum as a little dormouse, all curled up in her bed and slow to wake. And when I went to visit earlier this week, there she was, snug as the proverbial bug. I sat down next to her and held her hand.

‘Mum’, I said quietly.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

She roused and looked at me with an expression of utter incomprehension and  fear.

‘Who is it? ‘ she said.

‘It’s me, Mum’, I said.

She stared at me for a moment, and I thought that she still didn’t know. But then she visibly relaxed and squeezed my hand.

‘Of course it’s you, I’m just being silly’, she said. ‘But I have had a very peculiar day’.

She proceeded to tell me how her day had been broken up into little shards of time and space.

‘I was having my breakfast and then it wasn’t there. Someone was shaking my shoulder and then the physiotherapist was here, but he was on his own so he couldn’t do much because I still can’t walk. And then you were here’.

Some of this is being in hospital, of course – both Mum and Dad lose touch with reality when they’re on a ward. Some of it is being tired. Some of it though is failing cognition.

Will there come a point when she won’t recognise me at all? And if that comes, will she recognise at least that I’m someone who loves her and doesn’t mean her any harm?

I push that thought away, and start to feed her a homemade creme caramel, her favourite. After two minutes she grabs it herself, and eats the lot. This is good news, for sure.

The staff nurse tells me that Mum is now medically fit to leave hospital, but still can’t stand unaided, and so they are going to transfer her to a community hospital in Wareham, where she’ll get the rehab that she needs. It’s a place with only one ward and relaxed visiting hours, so hopefully she’ll get a bit more attention than is possible in a busy hospital.

I go home to dad, who is still under the impression that Mum is his mother for a lot of the time. Initially we kept trying to explain the situation, and I do still try to help him understand who is who. He is really shocked if I tell him that his Mum died over twenty years ago, and it almost seems cruel to do so, but it’s breaking my mother’s heart.

‘Oh’, he says, suspicious. ‘If you say so’.

And yet he remembers exactly where the doctors surgery is when we visit later in the week, directing the carer there and telling her to slow down as we trundle through Milton Abbas as there’s a 30 mile per hour limit. Dad is itching to drive, but we have deterred him so far, because he has been so poorly with his chest and his confusion. I have a feeling though that if he sat in a car all those automatic reactions would take over and he would be fine. He was always an excellent driver, and gets so cross with us when we try to dissuade him from popping to the shops in the car.

‘Driving is my life!’ he says, in a burst of unaccustomed eloquence. ‘I promise I won’t drive if I don’t feel well enough. You don’t need to worry!’.

But worry I do, of course, because it’s ingrained now. However, I have to recognise that my span of control is limited, and that Dad is still a power to be reckoned with, even if half the time he has no idea that I’m his daughter. He was always a great bull of a man, stubborn and single-minded and, whatever else is happening to him, that remains unchanged. As with Mum, I think it’s that cussedness that’s enabled them to survive so far. It’s such a narrow line between giving them the respect that they deserve as my parents and as human beings, and trying to keep them safe. Do let me know if you’ve managed to walkthat tightrope without falling off regularly, I could do with some tips!

And next week, I am walking away from it all for a whole week and a bit. I am going a long way away to have an adventure that has been booked for a long, long time. My brother is going to look after the situation with the carers and the parents, and I am going to switch my phone off for hours at a time. Watch this space over the next few weeks for Bugwoman on Location in a very interesting place 🙂

And here’s a clue….

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Hibiscus

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Red Heart’ (also known as Tree Hollyhock)

Dear Readers, is it just my imagination or has there been a sudden burst of enthusiasm for hibiscus as a garden plant? Once upon a time I had to travel to the Mediterranean to see these exotic beauties in full flower, but on a wet Sunday afternoon I found no less than three different plants in the environs of the County Roads in East Finchley, and very splendid they were too. I suspect that the climate change induced warmer temperatures are suiting them very well, for this plant comes originally from southern Asia, with its long warm summers. Hibiscus arrived in the UK in the 16th century, and was at first thought to be unable to survive frost. Later, it was realised that although individual buds might be affected by sub-zero temperatures, the shrub itself was frost-hardy.

Hibiscus syriacum is part of a genus of several hundred species belonging to the mallow family, or Malvaceae.  In the UK the plant is also known as the Tree Hollyhock, but in the US it is also known as Rose of Sharon, a name that in the UK refers to a bright yellow member of the St John’s wort family. Yet again, we find ourselves divided by a common language, and I give huge thanks to Linnaeus for his system of nomenclature that enables us all to understand what we’re talking about.

I love the way that hibiscus flowers open, the petals swirling around as they open like a ballerina pirouetting.

Photo One by By JeedaGhazal - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64783810

A hibiscus flower opening….(Photo One)

Many hibiscus species (mainly the red ones) are pollinated by hummingbirds or sunbirds, but our plant, originating in China, is not. It is both self-fertile (i.e. each flower contains both male and female parts) and capable of being pollinated by insects, chiefly bees, who are attracted more for the plentiful pollen than for the nectar. Each flower only opens for a day, but in a good year the shrub will be covered in blooms for weeks, providing plenty of opportunity for pollen-hungry invertebrates.

Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of South Korea, where it is known as mugunghwa, from the word ‘mugung‘ meaning ‘eternity’ or ‘inexhaustible abundance’. In the South Korean national anthem, reference is made to ‘Three thousand ri (about 1,200 km, the length of the Korean peninsula) of splendid rivers and mountains covered with mugunghwa blossoms’. It is not surprising that Hibiscus syriacus became the national flower after Korea gained its independence from Japan in 1945.

Photo Two from http://www.mois.go.kr/eng/sub/a03/nationalSymbol_3/screen.do

The Emblem of the President of South Korea, showing a hibiscus blossom (Photo Two)

The leaves of Hibiscus syriacus are said to be a good substitute for lettuce, though a little mucilaginous. The buds are said to resemble okra (not necessarily a good thing in my opinion, but each to their own).  The flowers are edible, although it’s the dark red flowers of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that are more usually used to make hibiscus tea. I must admit to getting a bit irritated with the way that so many herbal fruit teas use hibiscus as their first ingredient in order to bulk it out – I find the rather astringent flavour overwhelms everything else. You can also get hibiscus syrup, again, normally made from Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.  The ingredient is having something of a ‘moment’ in trendy restaurants at the moment, and to be honest I will be delighted when the moment has passed, and we can get back to normal food, like charcoal bread or aubergine icecream.

Photo Three from City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Hibiscus-Poached Rhubarb,Garden radishes,Belgian endive,ruby beet essence and toasted hazelnut ‘Génoise’ (Photo Three)

As you might expect, such a structurally-interesting flower has attracted many artists. I rather like this still-life by Dutch artist Nicolaes van Veerendael, painted some time between 1660 and 1691, and proving that a Hibiscus syriacus just like the one around the corner from me was flowering quite happily in the Netherlands over 300 years ago. Incidentally, the picture sold at Christies for £92,500 in 2014.

Hibiscus,parrot tulips, carnations, a rose, and iris, snowballs and other flowers in a vase on a partially draped stone ledge with a garden tiger moth by Nicolaes van Veerendael (Public Domain)

And for our poem, I rather liked this, by American poet Jim Ballowe who is, quite rightly, Artist of the Month for August 2018 at the Center for Humans and Nature website. Do have a look at his other work, too.

Remember that in North America Hibiscus syriacus is known as ‘Rose of Sharon’ and is thought to be the plant referred to in the Song of Solomon.

Lessons from the Garden

                         for Ruth 

                        1

The garden doesn’t give a fig for Solomon 

any more than we know what he meant when he said

that kisses are sweeter than wine. The white fly

sucking at the belly of sweet potato leaves

pauses to ponder neither sex nor text.

Remember that piece of fluff, that ancient ephemera

circling the Rose of Sharon, settling awkwardly

at last in the sun-warmed bird bath, 

how determined it was to continue on the wing again 

after we plucked it from its futile folly?

Think how the Rose of Sharon greets spring as a dead stick,

then revels through summer days in a pink pregnancy,  

each night dropping its spent blooms  

nestled like newborns curled in silk blankets.

 

                        2

In a month of spiders, butterflies, and hummingbirds,

in days of asters, mums, and Autumn clematis,

in sun-harsh hours cascading into velvet nights,

in lapsed minutes the sumac takes to redden,

the unexpected forever happens, and we,

thrilled to see the intricate web, the floating color,

the darting shadow, the many-petaled flower,

the diminishing light, are reassured by nature’s tricks,

the existent summer’s ephemeral exit,

fall’s hovering presence awaiting embrace,

geometrical designs in crisp skies,

the unmasking of trees, the sense of humor behind it all,

a stage whisper, the thought that we too

share this scene, waiting to go on.

Jim Ballowe

Photo Credits

Photo One by By JeedaGhazal – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64783810

Photo Two from http://www.mois.go.kr/eng/sub/a03/nationalSymbol_3/screen.do

Photo Three from City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons