Author Archives: Bug Woman

Heads Up!

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

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


Herring Gulls Are Even Brainier Than I Thought….

Adult Herring Gull (By Scottmliddell (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

Herring Gull in flight (By JalilArfaoui (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday Weed – Fringecups Revisited

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


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

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

Fringecups flowers (Photo By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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

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


Older Fringecup flowers, rapidly turning red("Tellima grandiflora 07469". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

Older Fringecup flowers, rapidly turning red(“Tellima grandiflora 07469”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

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

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

Fringecups growing in my garden.

Fringecups growing in my garden.

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

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



Whale Stories

Orca porpoising in Hood Canal, USA (Photo by By Minette Layne from Seattle, Washington, USA – Single breaching orca (cropped), CC BY 2.0,

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

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

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

Orcas breaching close to Unimak Island in the Aleutians, Alaska (Photo by By Robert Pittman – NOAA (]), Public Domain,

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

Bowhead whale breaching off the Alaska coast (Photo By Bering Land Bridge National Preserve – bowhead-1 Kate Stafford edit, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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

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

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

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

Bowhead whale ‘spyhopping’ off the Sea of Okhotsk (Photo By Olga Shpak –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Dark and Shady Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And They’re Here…

Dear Readers, it’s a little later than usual but the starlings are starting to fledge, and as usual there are frantic parents all over the bird table, and youngsters who, when all the other birds fly off, stay put and look around as if they don’t understand what all the kerfuffle is about, which indeed they don’t. Today it was the magnificent black cat, Bear, who lives across the road, and who often makes an attempt to catch the birds, though he usually doesn’t manage it. It’s a sad fact that the dense undergrowth that makes the garden so attractive to birds also provides multiple hiding places for felines, but then there are lots of pairs of eyes on the watch, so most birds escape most of the time.

I adore cats, but there are clearly too many of them around these parts, and they take a terrible toll of our wildlife. Keeping them in at dawn and dusk would help a bit, as would wearing a collar with a bell, though some cats learn to move very stealthily even when they have one (and of course cats can get strangled if the collar isn’t quick release). My cat is an indoor cat through choice, largely because she’s terrified of all the other cats that move through the garden, but going forward I think I would only have indoor cats, in an attempt to take at least one predator out of the equation. Of course, some cats are also daft old things that don’t take birds or other small mammals, like my Mum’s cat Snuggles who would doze on the lawn with small birds hopping within paws-length and never a feather ruffled, so you can’t tar all cats with the same brush. Nonetheless, many of them do what they instinctively need to do, and it’s yet another threat to our beleaguered birds and small mammals, to go alongside intensive farming, avian flu, urbanisation etc etc.

Still, here are the starlings raining down on the bird table. Note the poor sparrow bullied out of the way early on.

And then these two turned up.

Historically feral pigeons haven’t visited the bird table, but just lately these two have taken ownership, although the starlings can still be a match for them en masse.

The big brown pigeon is quite something, and I can’t work out whether he has a full crop or is in some way unwell – he was certainly feeding well, and flying normally, but he does look a bit odd. Still, I suppose that I only put food on the bird table occasionally now, so we’ll see what happens over the next few weeks. And I am also keeping an eye on the magpies, who still seem to be around their nest in the whitebeam, though I’ve seen no sign of offspring yet. It will be interesting to see what happens as more starlings fledge and attract all manner of predators (including corvids and sparrowhawks) to the garden.

What a Strange Year….

Cuckoo spit on the lavender

Dear Readers, I don’t know what’s going on where you live, but here in East Finchley, after a very wet and cold spring, all sorts of things are positively busting out, including the froghoppers. I have never seen so much cuckoospit in my life – not only is it all over the lavender, but it’s also on the catmint and the poor old asters, where it seems to be taking quite a toll (though I suspect some of this is actually the slugs). Generally, cuckoospit looks a little unsightly but doesn’t cause any harm, and is soon gone – the ‘spit’ is a protective layer for the rather cool little bug (a true bug in this case) who lives inside. You can read all about it here (and I note that 2014 was apparently another very good year for froghoppers), and for anyone interested in the plant disease Xylella (spread by froghoppers, but according to the RHS not yet detected in the UK as at 2023) I did a piece here.

And then I’m worried about the buddleia (as usual). It starts off so pristine, but already the black aphids have arrived and are damaging the leaves, some of which are shiny with honeydew already – not a complete disaster, as honeydew is the favourite food of several butterflies, including the holly blue that I saw last week.

Holly blue

However, this yellow discolouration is new – I’m thinking possibly a virus of some sort, or eelworm or something else exciting. Any thoughts, gardening friends?

All in all, though, I am not unhappy with how things are going. I know the green alkanet has run amok, but look at the happy pollinators.

And there’s a mint moth hiding in the nettles…

And the Bowle’s mauve perennial wallflower is doing really well…

And there is not a spare square inch for any more plants. Although that probably won’t stop me from buying some :-).

Red List Twenty One – Nightingale

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhychos) Photo by Bernard Dupont

Dear Readers, I have never knowingly heard a nightingale, and yet this bird is deeply linked to our ancestral memory – English folksongs regularly rhapsodise about the sound of the bird, and I particularly like this rendition of ‘The Sweet Nightingale‘ by Jackie Oates. Clearly Keats was familiar with the bird, and his poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ was written on hearing the bird on or close to Hampstead Heath, just a mile from where I live And yet, I’ll bet I’m not the only person who has never heard this little brown migratory bird, a little bigger than a robin, which used to fill the air with sweet music. Have a listen below – this was recorded in Suffolk by the aptly-named Antony Wren.

And this is also a UK recording, by David Bissett. You get a whole 8 minutes of song in this one (plus some woodpigeons in the background for good measure)

Nightingales are migratory birds, arriving in the UK about now, so if you hear a bird singing in coppice or shrub there’s a possibility that it could be a male nightingale setting up his territory. Alas, these days it’s more likely to be that other nocturnal singer, a robin, and very glad of him we are too. However, the nightingale, unlike the robin, has very particular requirements, and these are not being met, resulting in a 92% drop in the number of nightingales breeding in the UK since 1970.

At the Knepp Estate (famous also for its turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies), an attempt has been made to identify exactly what the nightingales need in order to settle and breed. Historically they have been birds of coppiced woodland, but at Knepp it was found that what they preferred (as to what they used in extremis) were dense hedgerows and scrub – mixed hedgerows 8 to 14 metres deep were developed, containing a preponderance of blackthorn to keep many predators out, and the number of nightingale territories has increased from 7 to 34, an amazing success story. In 2021, over 40 singing males were heard. Previously, much of the blame for the fall in the number of nightingales had been attributed to problems during migration, and I’m sure that’s part of the story (after all, the birds fly across the Sahara desert to be here), but the provision of suitable habitat seems to indicate that if the conditions are right, they’ll stay.

The experiment at Knepp makes an interesting point. Here’s what their website says:

“Nightingale territories are usually found in habitats associated with woodland and woodland edge, with coppiced woodland being particularly important historically. Their dramatic decline is thought to be in response to changes in woodland management and intense deer pressure, resulting in the loss of low, dense under-storey vegetation. Surveys over the last 30 years, however, have identified scrub – such as in the Southern Block at Knepp – as being particularly important habitat for nightingales, providing suitable habitat structure for up to twice as long as coppiced woodland. The fact that scrub is rarely tolerated in the modern landscape has no doubt contributed significantly to the nightingale’s decline.

But it also demonstrates how we can be deceived by our own observations and received wisdom. We think we know the preferences of a certain species but forget that in our depleted landscape we may be observing it at the very limit of its abilities – not where it wants to be at all, but where it is clinging on for dear life. The potential of process-led projects like Knepp, where nature is allowed to reveal herself rather than be dictated to by human management, is enormous. It allows us to observe what species like nightingales really want and that, in turn, will help us to plan for their conservation in the future.

I find this all very heartening. I am all for actually observing what’s going on with curiosity and empathy  – animals and plants have much to teach us about what they actually want and need, if we are not too hung up on our own stories about what they should require. I would love to hear the nightingale in real life, even if I have to make a trip to Knepp to hear it, but how much more wonderful it would be if we could make a home for them all over the south of the country.

As usual, John Clare’s keen eyes noticed where the nightingale likes to make her nest nearly 200 years ago. I love the kindness of this poem, and his sympathy with the mother bird. If everyone could share his sense of being part of nature, rather than outside it, I suspect we would not be having quite so many conversations about how nature-depleted we are.

The Nightingale’s Nest

Up this green woodland ride let’s softly rove
And list the nightingale – she dwelleth here.
Hush! let the wood gate softly clap – for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn and eve, nay, all the live-long day
As though she lived on song – this very spot,
Just where that old man’s beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road and stops the way,
And where that child its bluebell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails.
There have I hunted like a very boy
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns
To find her nest and see her feed her young,
And vainly did I many hours employ:
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where these crimping fern leaves ramp among
The hazel’s underboughs – I’ve nestled down
And watched her while she sung – and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy
And feathers stand on end as ’twere with joy
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs – the happiest part
Of Summer’s fame she shared – for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ;
But if I touched a bush or scarcely stirred
All in a moment stopped – I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush
And at a distance hid to sing again,
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves.
Rich ecstasy would pour its luscious strain
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs,
For cares with him for half the year remain
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast,
While nightingales to Summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees and Winter’s nipping wrongs
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen; her world is wide.
– Hark! there she is, as usual, let’s be hush,
For in this blackthorn clump if rightly guessed
Her curious house is hidden – part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs;
For we will have another search today
And hunt this fern-strown thorn-clump round and round,
And where this seeded woodgrass idly bows
We’ll wade right through; it is a likely nook.
In such-like spots and often on the ground
They’ll build where rude boys never think to look.
Aye, as I live, her secret nest is here,
Upon this whitethorn stulp – I’ve searched about
For hours in vain – there; put that bramble by.
Nay, trample on its branches and get near
– How subtle is the bird; she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles, and now near
Her nest she sudden stops – as choking fear
That might betray her home – so even now
We’ll leave it as we found it – safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See; there she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears – our presence doth retard
Her joys and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird; may no worse hap befall
Thy visions than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall,
For melody seems hid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home – these harebells all
Seems bowing with the beautiful in song,
And gaping cuckoo with its spotted leaves
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest. No other bird
Uses such loose materials or weaves
Their dwellings in such spots – dead oaken leaves
Are placed without and velvet moss within
And little scraps of grass – and scant and spare
Of what seems scarce materials, down and hair,
For from man’s haunts she seemeth nought to win.
Yet nature is the builder and contrives
Homes for her childern’s comfort even here
Where solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places – Deep adown
The nest is made an hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lies her curious eggs, in number five,
Of deadened green or rather olive brown
And the old prickly thorn bush guards them well.
And here we’ll leave them still unknown to wrong
As the old woodland’s legacy of song

Photo by cheloVechek / talk, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


The Royal Entomological Society’s Insect Week

Small Damselfly (Ishnura posita) Photo by Benjamin Salb/Royal Entomological Society

Dear Readers, the Royal Entomological Society’s Insect Week runs from 19th to 25th June this year, with all sorts of interesting events, but to get us in the mood, here are some of my favourite photos from the 2022 photography exhibition. I am always astonished at the detail that these photographs manage to pick up, and the strange beauty of some of the images. I’m not sure why we get so excited about life on other planets when there is such variety so close at hand.

To see more details about these photos and more, have a look here.

Spotted tiger beetle (Photo by Benjamin Salb, RES)

Ashy Mining Bee (Photo by Rory Lewis RES)

Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) Photo by Raymond J. Cannon/RES

Male Orange Tip Butterfly (Photo by Sarah Perkins/RES)

Twin-lobed deerfly (Photo by Marc Brouwer/RES)

Beautiful Antlion(Euroleon nostras) (Photo by Dennis Teichert)

Wednesday Weed – Prickly Sowthistle Revisited

Sowthistle display outside The Village Green pub in Muswell Hill

Dear Readers, I mentioned earlier this week that the sowthistle appears to have gone berserk all over North London, but even I was surprised at this impressive display in a windowbox outside the Village Green pub on Fortis Green Road in East Finchley. The pub has recently been taken over and I suspect that the owners have more things to worry about than what’s going on outside. Plus, in a way this is spectacular – I almost walked past it because it’s so abundant, so full of flowers that you could almost think it was deliberate. Anyway, if I was this particular sowthistle I think I’d be aiming to set seed as quickly as possible before anybody noticed, so that my babies could colonise every crack in the pavement between here and East Finchley.

Anyhow, here is what I wrote about prickly sowthistle back in 2017. Do scroll on down to the bottom for the most incredible poem by Sylvia Plath, one which I’d completely forgotten until I looked again at this post today. See what you think.

Prickly Sowthistle (Sonchus asper)

Dear Readers, I wanted to find a ‘proper’ weed for you this week, and here it is. Way back when I started this blog, one of the very first plants I wrote about was Smooth Sowthistle and I have been looking out since then for the prickly variety. I shouldn’t have needed to look very hard because goodness knows it’s everywhere in the UK except for in the very far north of Scotland, but it has proved elusive until today. How delighted I was to find it lurking in a little alleyway close to Fortismere School here in East Finchley, and how surprised all the passersby were to see me taking its portrait.

The diagnostic basal lobe

First things first. Both sowthistles are members of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family. Both have yellow flowers, though those of the prickly species are said to be darker in colour.  Both bleed white sap, but that of the prickly sowthistle quickly turns a dirty orange colour, while that of the smooth sowthistle takes longer. However, the leaves of the prickly sowthistle are decidedly more thistle-like, and where the leaves emerge from the stem there is a kind of rounded prickly spiral called a basal lobe (see above). The leaves are also shinier and darker green. I would hazard an opinion that the prickly sowthistle is a slightly more handsome plant than it’s smooth relative, but not by much.

A rather sad smooth sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

Both sowthistles are native,and both are annuals. They are extraordinarily tough plants and require next to no soil to produce an extraordinary quantity of biomass, and a fine crop of seeds. There is one in the tree pit just up the road from my house that must be nearly a metre tall. How I admire these city-dwellers for their resilience in tough times! No amount of drought, dog urine, litter or polluted rain puts them off their stride. They remind me of Dickensian urchins, cheeky and adaptable. The only thing that slows them up is a biannual dousing with weed-killer, administered by a man from Barnet Council with a backpack full of biocide and a hose. He wears ear-buds so that he can listen to music while he sprays, but no face mask to protect his lungs, and no gloves to protect his skin. I fear that the chemicals are more prone to damage him than the plants for, although the weeds wither and die, they or their offspring are generally back within the month.

Of the two species the prickly sowthistle is, surprisingly, the one that is preferred for eating – luminaries such as Rose Gray of the River Cafe are said to have gathered the fresh young leaves in March and April for salads. According to Pliny, Theseus was treated to a dish of sow-thistles before he headed off to fight the Bull of Marathon. The plant was also fed to lactating sows (hence the name) to encourage their milk production – the white sap was thought to be indicative that this was the best use for the plant. In fact, many grazing animals love sowthistle, although farmers generally view it as a pernicious weed. In Germany, it is believed that a fleeing  hare can hide safely under the leaves of sowthistle as the plant will protect the animal (hence another alternative name for the plant, ‘hare-lettuce’).

The older leaves of sowthistle are often decorated with the white tracery of leaf-miners – usually these are the tiny caterpillars of micromoths that live between the two layers of the leaf and spend their lives munching little tunnels. I often wonder what leads to the shapes of the patterns – did the caterpillar meet another caterpillar coming in the opposite direction and have to back up? The filigree is rather attractive, I think, if not particularly advantageous to the plant. Other moth species eat the leaves and the buds, and the plant invariably attracts lots of aphids, which make it useful for attracting predatory insects such as ladybirds and lacewings.

Prickly sowthistle with a few late blackfly.

Amongst the moths that feed on prickly sowthistle are the Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata), whose caterpillars feed on the buds and flowers:

Photo One by By User:Fvlamoen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata)

the grey chi (Antitype chi) whose caterpillar feeds on the leaves:

Photo Two by By André Karwath aka Aka - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Grey chi moth (Antitype chi)

and the rather elegant shark moth (Cucullia umbratica). Although most UK moths are not as brightly coloured as their tropical counterparts, they have a subtle and delicate beauty that repays close attention.

Photo Three (Shark moth) by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Shark moth (Cucillia umbratica)

Prickly sowthistle has a wide native range, encompassing Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, and has been imported into North America, probably with grains used for food. Across its native range it has been used medicinally as a poultice for wounds and skin complaints, though many herbals consider smooth sowthistle to be slightly more efficacious.

As I feared, the common-or-garden nature of the poor old prickly sowthistle has meant that it has not featured widely in art. Even the Sowthistle Fairy of our old friend, Cicely Mary Barker, is standing on a smooth sowthistle, not a prickly one (have a look at those basal lobes, friends).

Photo Four (Flower Fairy) by Jan Willemsen (

Sowthistle Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

Nor is there a superabundance of sowthistle poetry. However, I hope you’ll forgive the tenuous link to this extraordinary poem by Sylvia Plath. After all, sowthistle was fed to lactating pigs, as we know. Maybe it was also used to fatten them up.


God knows how our neighbor managed to breed
His great sow:
Whatever his shrewd secret, he kept it hid

In the same way
He kept the sow–impounded from public stare,
Prize ribbon and pig show.

But one dusk our questions commended us to a tour
Through his lantern-lit
Maze of barns to the lintel of the sunk sty door

To gape at it:
This was no rose-and-larkspurred china suckling
With a penny slot

For thrift children, nor dolt pig ripe for heckling,
About to be
Glorified for prime flesh and golden crackling

In a parsley halo;
Nor even one of the common barnyard sows,
Mire-smirched, blowzy,

Maunching thistle and knotweed on her snout-
Bloat tun of milk
On the move, hedged by a litter of feat-foot ninnies

Shrilling her hulk
To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast
Brobdingnag bulk

Of a sow lounged belly-bedded on that black
Fat-rutted eyes
Dream-filmed. What a vision of ancient hoghood

Thus wholly engross
The great grandam!–our marvel blazoned a knight,
Helmed, in cuirass,

Unhorsed and shredded in the grove of combat
By a grisly-bristled
Boar, fabulous enough to straddle that sow’s heat.

But our farmer whistled,
Then, with a jocular fist thwacked the barrel nape,
And the green-copse-castled

Pig hove, letting legend like dried mud drop,
Slowly, grunt
On grunt, up in the flickering light to shape

A monument
Prodigious in gluttonies as that hog whose want
Made lean Lent

Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint,
Proceeded to swill
The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking

Sylvia Plath

Photo Credits

Photo One (Broad-barred white moth) by By User:Fvlamoen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Grey chi moth) by By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Three (Shark moth) by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four (Flower Fairy) from Jan Willemsen (