Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

The Street Trees of Archway Part One

Japanese Pagoda Trees (Styphnolobium japonicum) outside Archway Station

Dear Readers, we are surrounded by street trees but they go largely unnoticed, flowering and fruiting and developing autumn foliage without so much as a glance from us as we hurry past. Yet our built environment would be so much poorer without their shade and freshness, and so would our wildlife. I was very excited to find that, in Paul Wood’s new book ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, there are a number of walks to follow. One of them is in Archway, just a mile or so down the road from East Finchley. And so, on a day of volatile weather, I took myself down the hill to explore this familiar place with a new focus.

The area outside the station is newly pedestrianised, and there are a variety of young trees, including some Japanese Pagoda trees. Wood points out that these are easily identified by the green bark on the new growth.

Note the green bark on some of the twigs

This tree is a member of the pea family, and, when it’s all grown up, it may have racemes of white flowers. I say ‘may’ because you can wait 30 years for a tree to flower. In the meantime, it has soft, feathery foliage and an elegant, graceful habit. The tree is Chinese rather than Japanese, and in Chinese legend it is believed to attract demons. Let’s hope that this isn’t the case, as the area around the station attracts many lost souls as it is.

By Penarc - naturalezaysenderos.com - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sophora_japonica_(1).jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44138116

The flowers of the Japanese Pagoda Tree (in case you can’t wait for thirty years to see them) (Photo One – see credit below)

In fact, the space around Archway has been somewhat ‘tarted up’ over the past year. All the bus stops have moved, a source of considerable irritation to folk like me who haven’t worked out where the 143 goes from. Also, a cycle lane runs right across the middle of the pedestrianised area, so we will see how that works out.

Newly modernised blocks around Archway (pedestrianised area to the bottom left)

Japanese Pagoda Tree. Is the cage to keep the demons in, or out?

Following the route in the book, I head along Junction Road. Here, I see a splendid example of all the things that street trees have to put up with.

A pit a metre deep has been dug around this tree, and this is currently full of bits of yellow plastic drain pipe, drinks cartons and cigarette ends. No one was working there when I visited, so I will be interested to see how long the poor tree remains with some of its roots exposed. Plus, there is a lot of traffic here, so the plant also has to contend with a lot of pollution. No wonder London Planes are the trees of choice for so many of London’s big roads, what with their resilience and the way that they regularly shed their bark, along with any unpleasant chemicals.

I turn left onto St John’s Grove and there, towards the junction with Pemberton Road, I see two Dawn Redwoods (Metasequioa glyptostroboides).

I must have walked past these trees on my way to the Cat Protection shelter on Junction Road hundreds of times when I was a fosterer, and yet not noticed them. Dawn Redwoods come from a single Chinese forest, where there are less than 5000 individual trees left, and they were only discovered by scientists back in 1946. In its native Lichuan the plant is known as the Water Fir.  It is related to the Giant Redwoods, and though not quite as much of a goliath as these trees it can still grow to 200 feet. It is unusual in being deciduous, and has a light, delicate appearance. It came as a surprise to me to see a tree that is classified as Endangered in the wild is doing well just off the Holloway Road, but then life is full of surprises.

Foliage of the Dawn Redwood

Looking back down Pemberton Road, I see that the council tree surgeons have been hard at work.

The pollarded plane trees always look to me as if they are raising their fists to the sky in fury. They appear to be almost indestructible, however.

Pollarded tree coming into leaf

Paul Wood explains that the main reason that trees are pollarded is prevent the tree from becoming too large. A big tree is a thirsty tree, and it may drink up all the water in the soil. This is known to lead to subsidence, a particular problem, I imagine, in the hilly environs of Islington. If the trees are pollarded every three years, then a court will most likely throw out any claims by a householder, on the basis that the tree always takes the same amount of water. At any rate, although the pollarding looks ugly, it seems to only encourage the trees (at least if the behaviour of my whitebeam following its pruning eighteen months ago is anything to go by – every time it’s cut back, it grows through more vigorously).

Onwards! I cross Holloway Road, and head along St John’s Villas, the scene of much tree-related drama a few years ago.

Sand Pear trees (Pyrus pyrifolia)

There are seven Sand Pear trees in this street, an unusual choice of fruit tree, as they  produce particularly large and abundant fruit. In 2007 there was a particularly splendid crop of fruit. As no one knew what to do with it, the pears splattered onto residents’ cars and turned the pavement into a slippery mess. This highlights one of the problems of fruit-bearing street trees – if no one harvests the fruit, the result can be piles of fermenting crab apples or rotting plums. On my street, a neighbour spends much of the time in autumn sweeping up slushy crab apples. At any rate, in St John’s Villa some residents wanted the trees cut down, while others were ready to link arms to protect them. In the end, the council agreed to harvest the pears, and some of the residents took to making perry, a kind of pear cider. A win/win solution for everyone, I’d have thought! When I visited the road was quiet, except for the chirping of baby blue tits from one of the nest boxes, so it seems that the Pear Wars have come to an end, at least for now. For more on this story, have a look at Paul’s blog here.

As I walked along Prospero Road, I was literally led by the nose to the most beautiful show of jasmine and climbing hydrangea I’ve seen in a long time. It perfumed the air for tens of metres in every direction. I only wish that this blog were scratch and sniff, I’d love to share it with you.

On the corner of Lysander Grove, Wood points me to another unusual tree, the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Remember the name, because we will meet another of these trees next week.

This elm is largely resistant to Dutch Elm Disease ( I posted about the English Elm here ) and has a kind of splendid grace and poise. It seems to be very popular for Bonsai, but I rather like it as a ‘proper’ tree, bringing a touch of elegance to a North London Street corner.

During a mistaken detour along Lysander Grove, I spot an over-enthusiastic Clematis montana, sharing its beauty with everyone. I wonder where it will end up? Crouch End at this rate.

Once back on the correct path, I see the most splendid green roof on top of a garage, full of red campion and ox-eye daisies. Well done, that home owner! It goes to show that even a small space can provide some beauty and interest.

The garage green roof

Up past the Village Garage on Cressida Road (yes, there’s a Shakespearean theme in these parts), and there are two Photinia ‘Red Robin’ trees. What a shame that I’ve missed the height of their flowering. I must pop back when they’re in their autumn colour. Photinia are much more often grown as shrubs, but these two are very striking in their tree form. The plant is a member of the rose family and is related to the apple: the fruit is said to be popular with birds such as thrushes and waxwings, a good example of how valuable street trees can be for wildlife.

Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’

And now, as I hit the halfway point of my walk, I look back towards the towers of Canary Wharf, with the pyramid of One Canada Square reflecting the fleeting sunshine. I had no idea of the sheer variety of the street trees here, and the walk has thrown up a number of surprises. As I head towards what Wood describes as ‘one of the street tree hotspots of London’, Dresden Road, I wonder what else I will find.

London friends, if you want to know what the street trees are in your area, have a look at this map. It’s not perfect, but put in your postcode and see what’s on your streets….

Photo Credits

Photo One (Japanese Pagoda Tree flowers) – By Penarc – naturalezaysenderos.comhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sophora_japonica_(1).jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44138116

Paul Wood’s fascinating blog is here, much recommended.

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – The Escapees

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me as I relate the tale of two intrepid capybaras, now behind chicken-wire at the High Park Zoo in Toronto. For those of you who have never made the acquaintance of the world’s largest rodent (the males are about the size of a retriever), these creatures normally live in South America, and are usually found in wetland areas, where they graze on water plants and provide a perch for all manner of birds.

By Charlesjsharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44204277

White-throated kingbird utilising capybara (Photo One – see credit below)

In May 2016, a pair of capybaras were delivered to High Park Zoo from Texas. The zoo already had one capybara, named Chewy,  but these rodents live in groups of up to twenty in the wild. However, Chewy didn’t have company for long, as both capybaras escaped within 24 hours, and disappeared into the 400 acres of surrounding parkland. And who can blame them? The park is studded with ponds and lakes and shrubbery. Given a choice between a lawn surrounded by goggling passersby and the peace of a secluded stream, I know which I’d go for.

https://twitter.com/JohnTory/status/735530295580086273/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theglobeandmail.com%2Fnews%2Ftoronto%2Fcapybara-escape%2Farticle30126980%2F

Chewy, the original capybara, with Toronto mayor John Tory (Photo Two – credit below)

There were frequent sightings of the two capybara, as they eluded all manner of techniques to recapture them, from food bait to recordings of capybara calls. The pair, instantly dubbed ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ were spotted all over the park, enjoying their freedom.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/capybara-live-toronto-video-1.3628334 (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Capybara on the loose (Photo Three – credit below)

Not since Rob Ford was Toronto mayor has the city had such international coverage – the story even made The Guardian, and memes popped up everywhere….

https://twitter.com/AmyfStuart/status/735108951138766849/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=about%3Asrcdoc

Via Amyfstuart on Twitter – full link below

But the capybaras’ freedom was not to last. One was recaptured after 19 days, by using a trap baited with corn and fruit. The other was to remain free for two months, but was eventually caught too.

However, there is a coda to this story.

Earlier this year, the female capybara gave birth to three pups. When I saw them, they were frolicking in the sunshine, chasing one another around the pen while Bonnie looked on. Clyde (or was it Chewie?) sat by the fence unperturbed, inasmuch as anyone can judge. But I couldn’t help feeling sad. It could have been an environmental disaster if the capybara had stayed on the loose and taken to the waterways of Canada, but more likely the animals would have been killed by cars, or dogs, or would not have survived the Canadian winter. Bonnie and Clyde were deliberately bred to be incarcerated, rather than being taken from the wild. And yet, how we love an escapee – the peacock that wakes up an entire village every morning, the eagle that breaks out of her cage, the tales of strange carnivores wandering on Exmoor. In our hearts, we know that what we do to animals is not what they would choose, if they were given an option. And yet our desire to be close to them, to see them, to pet them, is more important to us than what the animal wants most, which is get on with his or her life unmolested. We are not creatures who are prepared to rein in our desires, whatever the result for our animal neighbours. I wonder if it will eventually cost us the earth.

Photo Credits

Photo One (capybara with kingbird) – By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44204277

Photo Two (Chewie with Toronto mayor John Tory) – https://twitter.com/JohnTory/status/735530295580086273/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2F www.theglobeandmail.com%2Fnews%2Ftoronto%2Fcapybara-escape%2Farticle30126980%2F

Photo Three (capybara on the loose) – http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/capybara-live-toronto-video-1.3628334  (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Photo Four (Capybara in car) – https://twitter.com/AmyfStuart/status/735108951138766849/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=about%3Asrcdoc

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Bugwoman on Location – A Walk in the Woods at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Dear Readers, there is something about the woodland and wetland area at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, just outside Toronto, that reminds me of a Disney film. No sooner did my friend M and I reach the entrance on Wednesday when birds, chipmunks and squirrels appeared from all directions. It’s been a cold, wet week here, and today was the first day with any sunshine, and hence any people. No wonder we were mobbed by hungry critters.

Nuthatch

Chickadee

M had brought a bag of birdfood for chickadees and nuthatches with her, and the birds certainly recognised it. At one point, she was even visited by a female downy woodpecker. There’s something about the slight scratch of those tiny feet on my fingers that moves me: how trusting these creatures are, and how brave.

A female downy deciding whether to join the feast.

And of course the chipmunks don’t want to miss out: it’s astonishing how much food they can get into their cheekpouches. They remind me of Hammy, my pet hamster, who was capable of stuffing an entire small carrot into her mouth.

I hadn’t been to the woods in the spring before, and I loved the variety of woodland plants that are emerging. The coltsfoot is almost finished.

M showed me the mayapple, which I’d never seen before. The green ‘apples’ which you can see in the photo below are the flower buds, with the ‘apples’ being produced later in the year. The green pods are poisonous, but apparently they can be eaten in small quantities when they go yellow. Native Americans use the fruit as an emetic, and as a worming agent.

May Apple

I was fascinated by the range of woodland plants: the diversity seemed much greater than in a similar UK wood. The trout lilies were in full flower: they are named for their speckled leaves, not for their delicate yellow flowers. They don’t flower for their first 4-7 years of life, and spread very slowly: a single colony of trout lilies can be 300 years old. They rely upon ants to spread their seeds (normally they reproduce via their corms), and each seed has a special structure called a eliasome (a new word for my collection). The eliasome is a fleshy overlay full of fat and protein which the ants take home to feed their larvae. As trout lilies like their seeds to be buried very deeply, this works well: the ants eat the eliasome and discard the seed, which may eventually germinate.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum)

But the highlight for me was the trilliums.

Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

I don’t think that I have ever seen a flower so white. This is another very slow-growing plant, which might take ten years to become big enough to flower (there seems to be a strong relationship between the surface area of the leaves, and the flowering time). Like the trout lily, the trillium is normally spread by ants, but can also be distributed by white-tailed deer, as the seeds survive the deer’s digestive system and can  be deposited, in a handy pile of fertilizer, some distance from the original colony.

As the name suggests, trillium is a plant of threes: three petals, leaves in a set of three, three stigma, six stamen in two whorls of three. It is the Provincial Flower of Ontario, and so I was especially pleased to see a plant that is so specific to the area. I  loved the deep venation on the leaves and the petals, and the way the blooms glowed in the semi-darkness of the under storey. In a few weeks they will be gone for another year, but what a way to herald the spring.

The Canada Geese has already got on with breeding, and there were several territorial scuffles in the tea-coloured water. These geese seem to be largely unloved, but I rather like them for their feisty nature and opportunistic intelligence. You would not want to get on the wrong side of one, but hey, we had enough grain for everyone, so we passed unhindered.

And then we saw a Carolina Wood Duck in a tree. Although many of us have seen the documentaries where ducklings leap from the hole in the tree trunk where the mother duck has made her nest, it’s still a bit of a shock to see one perching precariously on a branch.

Female Carolina Wood Duck sussing out a nest site

Everywhere we went, it seemed that birds were courting. There were the usual red-winged blackbirds.

There were some very fine brown-headed cowbirds, the first that I’ve seen: the females lay their eggs in the nests of other species of birds (much like the European  cuckoo), However, unlike the cuckoo, who mainly parasitises warblers, the brown-headed cowbird has been recorded laying its eggs in the nests of over 220 species, including hummingbirds and raptors. As the female can lay up to 36 eggs in a season I imagine that the failure to thrive of some nestlings is not the end of the world: the house finch, for example, feeds its young a vegetarian diet, which is not suitable for a cowbird, and I cannot imagine that a hummingbird would make an effective foster parent either. However, many of the cowbirds do survive, a testament to maternal instinct.

Incidentally the brown-headed cowbird is another icterid, like the red-winged blackbird and the grackle, as mentioned in my last piece about Collingwood.

Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)

And so, as my visit to Canada draws to a close, I wanted to leave you with one of the finest birds of the region, the cardinal. I love that blast of red among the fresh new leaves of spring.

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

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Bugwoman on Location: Collingwood, Ontario, Canada

Grackle

Dear Readers, I have been to Canada enough times now to not feel completely at a loss. I don’t fluff up my feathers when Canadians stand on the right and the left of the escalator (unlike Londoners who are obligate ‘stand on the right, walk on the left’ -ers). I usually go to the correct side of the car when I’m a passenger. I have realised that most Canadians don’t add ‘eh’ to the end of every sentence. But, more profoundly, I am starting to recognise some of the birds and plants that I see, and it’s this, more than anything, that helps me to feel at home. However, a trip to Collingwood, a town on the shores of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, reminded me of how much I still have to learn.

We stayed with Rosemary and Linda, my husband’s aunts, and their bird feeder attracts all kinds of interesting creatures. Take the magnificent grackle, for example. What a splendid bird, and nobody’s fool, I’m sure. We have no grackles in Europe, and so they are always a treat, especially in the spring when the males are at their most iridescent.

Two grackles….

The bird feeder attracts American goldfinches as well: the black and white patterns on the wings are reminiscent of the European goldfinch, but the citrus-yellow plumage and black crest of the male are very different.

Male American Goldfinch…

…and female American goldfinch

And we have no equivalent of a cardinal in the UK. I am always surprised at how large they are: I am expecting a finch-sized bird, but they are larger, and showier, and altogether more splendid. The male and the female always arrived together, and I loved their soft, whistling calls to one another.

Female cardinal….

…and male cardinal

And then a mourning dove popped in to see if there was anything on offer. What tiny doves these are, much smaller than the collared doves at home.

Mourning Dove

I was surprised to see large flocks of blue jays as well: I’d assumed that these were more solitary birds, but during a walk along the lake shore later in the day we spotted a flock of at least thirty birds.

Blue jay

In the UK, we have only two sparrow species, but North America is much more richly endowed with these ‘little brown jobs’, and very pretty they are too.

Song sparrow ( I hope)

And some creatures are rather more familiar. There are European house sparrows…

and the grey squirrels take great pleasure in shaking their tails at Linda and Rosemary’s dog Charlie. Charlie can contain himself for a while, but his patience is not never-ending and eventually he has to bark at them. Not that they seem to care much. They can tuck away a good inch of the sunflower seeds in the feeder at one sitting.

A squirrel telling Charlie who’s boss…

A squirrel tucking into sunflower seeds. He seems to be easing out of his thick winter coat.

Charlie facing off with the squirrel (on the rock)

But the wildlife in Collingwood isn’t just about the bird feeder. We took Charlie for several walks along the shore. Georgian Bay is a magnet for wildlife – there is the lake itself, the reed beds, the woods and the shoreline to provide food and shelter for all manner of creatures. We spotted a muskrat and a passing osprey (and on neither occasion was I fast enough with the camera) but here are some of the things that we did spot.

Male Red-winged blackbird

You cannot move for red-winged blackbirds, calling and displaying and clowning around. They are not closely related to European blackbirds, which are thrushes: they are Icterids (the name means ‘jaundiced ones’), and the group includes the new world orioles, the grackles and the bobolink. I saw a female red-winged blackbird, and didn’t even recognise what she was, so different is she from the male.

Female red-winged blackbird

The lake shore is full of dogwood and rushes, which makes it an ideal spot for displaying males.

And the male grackles look splendid in the sunshine too, more like birds of paradise than ‘jaundiced ones’…

The woods at the lake edge are full of sweet violets, and the smell reminds me of those chalky parma violet sweets that you used to be able to buy. The scent is both delicious and cloying, with an undertone of decay – Linda said that it reminded her a little of manure, and she’s right. A little of the smell goes a long way.

Banks of sweet violet

We had hoped to see a turtle of some description: there are snapping turtles and spotted turtles, and possibly painted turtles, but not a turtle did we see apart from this one.

The area where this chap has been ‘planted’ apparently used to be a popular spot for the living turtles to lay their eggs, but I guess they won’t be doing that here anymore. The irony does not escape me, nor many of the Collingwood residents.

However, we did see this magnificent chap or chappess, so all is not lost for the herpetological residents of the lake. I do believe that s/he might be a Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) but feel free to correct me.

And then, on our last afternoon before heading to the skyscrapers of Toronto, we visited John and Jo’s house. They have a stream running through their back garden, and it is the most serene spot, perfect before a return to the hubbub.

Coltsfoot

The grass is studded with coltsfoot (which I had never thought of as being a woodland plant, but which is thriving here).

A fallen log is crumbling away and is ‘mother’ to all manner of plants and mosses, some planted deliberately, some just welcome visitors.

There are toad lilies and bloodroot (which reminded me of our wood anemones) and the trillium is just about to bloom.

Toad lilies

Bloodroot

Trillium

And while we were eating some very fine scones on the deck at the back of the house, a hairy woodpecker flew onto the tree opposite and started working away on the bark. I’ve mentioned before that the black and white barring and red cap of the European greater spotted woodpecker reminds me of a painting by Mondrian, and this is just as true of this Ontario native. There is something special about a woodpecker, and seeing it in good company, on a warm, sunny day, makes it even better.

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Bugwoman on Location – Spring in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, I like to have A Project when I go to visit Mum and Dad in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, and for my April visit there was much ado about their 60th Wedding Anniversary party in September. We have found a wonderful venue which is actually available on the correct day, so now I’m in full-on Party Organiser mode. There are so many decisions to be made between Menus A, B and C, not to mention the design of the invitations and the colour of the flowers on the table. Then there’s the problem of finding the same harpist that Mum and Dad had at their fiftieth wedding anniversary party. And, of course, as you know my parents are not in the first flush of youth (they’ll be 82 this year), and neither of them are in the best of health either. So my urge to get as much sorted out in the shortest possible time runs counter to their desire for a gentler pace.

Mum says that if I just relax a bit, it will all fall into place. My question is, what place exactly will it fall into? Getting the balance right between being a pain-in-the-butt organisational shaper, and a laissez-faire slacker is proving tricky. I am full of anxiety. What if the people that they want at the party find out about it too late, and so can’t come? What if the harpist has retired? Should the invitation be a card or just a single sheet? I feel myself turning into the wedding anniversary equivalent of Bridezilla, and that will never do. After all, the important thing is that Mum and Dad enjoy themselves, and my being a bully is the last thing that’s required. And so I decide to take a familiar walk through the village and up to the farmland above to see what I can see, and to give myself a bit of perspective.

What I see first are lots of delightful weeds. Many of them are new to me, although I recognise them from my plant books. There is masses of corn salad with its small lilac flowers, which look almost pale blue against the foliage. There is some lipstick pink ramping fumitory. There is some ground elder, which is a surprisingly attractive plant until it takes over your garden. And there is a white plant with the tiniest of flowers arranged in a spike like a tiny orchid. And all this is before I even get out of the village proper and start climbing the hill.

Corn Salad

Ramping fumitory

Presently unidentified tiny white plant (now identified as thyme-leaved speedwell.)

I notice that the woodpigeons are displaying. A bird launches itself into the air with a sharp clap of the wings, ascends and then slides downwards as if on an invisible rollercoaster. The jackdaws are chuckling, and the wrens are belting out their strident songs from every bush.

As I turn away from Milborne, the first field that I see is full of oilseed rape. A member of the cabbage family, this plant has completely changed the face of English agriculture in the past fifty years, and it continues to increase in popularity ;the oil is having a renaissance as a healthy cooking oil with a high smoking point, and it is also used for biofuels. Oilseed rape is so yellow that it seems to sear the eyeballs, but each individual plant is rather elegant, at least at this time of year.

Oilseed rape

The hedgerow is full of chirping sparrows, and I pause for a long time to try to catch sight of a robin that is singing from within a berberis bush. I look up and down, peering through the branches and twigs, but as far as I can see it’s the plant that’s animate, with a voice of its own.

The hedges on either side of the road here are completely different. The one on the left is full of blackthorn and hawthorn, the one on the right is more decorative, with forsythia just going over and berberis, mahonia and quince. The birds don’t seem to care which one they sing from, but there is lots of feeding activity in the left hand hedge, where the ivy berries are proving very popular.

Ivy berries in the left-hand hedgerow….

Berberis in the right-hand hedgerow

I pass an old, corrugated-roofed farm building which has become an ecosystem in its own right, with the ivy covering the upper levels and moss growing like a pelt over the damper lower slope. A blackbird erupts from the foliage in a frenzy of complaint, tilts its tail and disappears back into a hedge.

A roofy ecosystem….

The ground opens out here, and I realise that I can pick out a sound that I’d not heard before; a skylark is singing in a tumble of notes  and whirrs and scales. I strain to find it and there, against a white sky, is a tiny black dot. I try to find it again but all I can see are the floaters in my eyes, like so many protoplasmic blobs.

I walk on, past the muddy puddle where I saw yellowhammers drinking last year. This year, there are heavy, hieroglyphic footprints in the drying soil.

On the other side of the path is a field full of stubble, and it occurs to me how different the geology is here. In London, it’s all about the clay, but here there are flint geodes on the soil, like misshapen eggs. The knapped flints are part of the vernacular architecture of Dorset, embedded into walls of all kinds, and I can imagine how someone would have picked up the stones, measuring them in the hand, before placing them in the mortar. The first few inches of soil influences everything about an ecosystem, from the microorganisms to the birds and mammals, and so it seems a shame that soil is so often worked until it is no more than dust. Our ancestors would have known better, I’m sure, leaving the land to recover rather than working it until it had no more to give. We think of history as being a tale of relentless improvement but history tells us no such thing.

Flint geodes…

I walk down past a tiny secluded wood, fenced in on all sides and impossible to enter. However, through a few gaps in the foliage I can see the whiteness of windflowers against the indigo-blue of English bluebells and the butter yellow of Lesser Celandine. This tiny fragment probably once extended for miles, but at least this is still here. It is a pleasure to peep through the hawthorn and barbed wire to see the woodland flowers growing undisturbed.

Wood anemones and English bluebells in a tiny fragment of ancient wood

And so, as the sun comes out at last, I must head back down to the village. I pass a quartet of eager walkers heading up the hill, all men of a certain age with strong legs and clear eyes and maps of the area in transparent plastic map cases. We wish one another good morning, and I tell the leading chap about the little wood with the flowers, and the skylark. I suspect that they are men on a mission, however, rather than idle dreamers like me, though bluebells have been known to stop many people in their tracks.

And so I return home, calmer and more optimistic and definitely less beset with fonts and floral displays. And when I download the photos from my camera, I find this.

Yellowhammer!

You might remember that last year, I spent almost an hour trying to get  a photo of a yellowhammer for you all, and failing. Today, I just took a quick snap of a couple of birds on a telephone wire, and here is a yellowhammer for all to see. Trying too hard is often counterproductive. Maybe Mum is right, and there’s a lot to be said for letting things fall into place after all.

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Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

On a Thursday lunchtime, the streets around London Bridge station are mobbed with folk heading for Borough market to pick up their artisan coffee and hog-roast sandwiches, but just a few hundred yards further on is the garden of the Crossbones graveyard, a place of pilgrimage for many and a space for quiet contemplation amidst the traffic, human and vehicular.

It is  said that the site was originally a medieval burial ground for the sex-workers, or ‘Winchester Geese’ who worked in the area, and who were required to be buried in unhallowed ground. I went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in the 1990’s which showed a variety of skeletons, and told what could be learned from their condition. One of the bodies, exhumed from Crossbones,  was of a woman estimated to be 16-19 years old, only 4 foot 7 inches tall, and with well-advanced syphilitic lesions of the skull. I remember being haunted by the delicacy of her bones as she lay exposed in a glass case. I have always been simultaneously fascinated by what these remains can tell us, and appalled at what feels to me like desecration. I imagine that the young woman now lays in a vault in the Museum of London – the circular building in the middle of the roundabout there is an ossuary, full of historical bones.

The site was subsequently used as a pauper’s graveyard. Over 15,000 people too poor to afford burial were buried here, many of them children under a year old. The graveyard itself fell into disuse after 1853, at which point it was said to be absolutely full of remains, with one body thrown on top of another.When the site was used for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990’s, 142 bodies were disinterred, among them the young woman mentioned above.  The ribbons attached to the memorial gates of the site record the parish records for some of the people buried at the site.

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2,1725’

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

‘Mary Ann Jupp, Silver Street, Age 4 months’

People also attach remembrances of those who have died more recently, so that the gates are covered with tokens of those who are no longer on this earth.

Inside the garden there is a quiet space, where the rattle of trains en route to London Bridge is interspersed by the flapping of a wood pigeon’s wings and the song of a blackbird.

The entrance to the garden is via an elegant ‘goose’s wing’ shelter. There is a feeling of hopefulness and renewal, as the plants break into flower and the bees go about their work once again.

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

The willow tree was positively abuzz with honeybees collecting pollen to feed the larvae back in the nest. I love the little orange ‘baskets’ on their legs. It just goes to show that even in such an urban spot, insects will be attracted if we grow the right plants.

There were some other excellent pollinator plants in the garden as well.The early spring bees were all over the periwinkle, but were a bit too fast for me to get a photograph.

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

The brunnera was doing a great job of attracting pollinators as well – this is a great woodland plant, and mine is just popping up again in my garden (though it’s well behind this one).

Brunnera macrophylla

The green men statues are honoured at a ceremony in the autumn giving thanks for nature’s generosity.

The boards at the end of the site shows a map of the area in medieval times, and two poems taken from the ‘Southwark Mysteries’, a contemporary Mystery play written by local author John Constable, and performed by 50 professional actors and a cast drawn from the local community, at the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral in 2000, and again in 2010. The plays, with their ribaldry and boisterous nature, attracted a great deal of controversy, as you can read here. However, the overall message of the production was that no one is beyond redemption, and I’d have thought that this was something that was intrinsic to Christian belief. In 2007, before the garden was officially ‘a garden’, one of the on-site security guards, Andy Hulme, began to construct ‘the invisible garden’ behind the gates and shrine which were at that time the main focus of the site. One of his works was the Pyramid, into which seeds have been scattered over the years. One side of the pyramid is covered in oyster shells from Borough Market – oysters were once the food of poor people, washed down with gin or stout. Many of the people buried in the graveyard would have eaten them.

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

The most moving part of the garden though, for me, was the shrine behind the gates. A statue of the Virgin Mary tenderly cradles a goose, surrounded by flowers and tokens, and by broken chains. For many people, the statue also represents the Goddess, and it is typical of the inclusivity of Crossbones that, if you look, you will find symbols of many faiths. The principle here is divine love, whatever form it comes in.

The garden is currently leased from Transport For London (who recognise its role as public space) and is managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust and the Friends of Crossbones, who provide volunteers to open the garden between 12 and 2 pm on weekdays, and for a longer period at weekends. The garden is free to enter, but do sign the visitors book on your way out – when the usage of a space is recorded, it’s much easier to protect it from the ‘powers that be’. There have been many times in its history when Crossbones has been under threat.

Crossbones role as a memorial garden for the outcast dead is what makes it unique.  We are all just one mental illness, one financial catastrophe, one crushing bereavement, one addiction away from becoming outcasts ourselves. And in a city where everything moves too fast, and follows the money too enthusiastically, it is easy for people to be left behind. Only by including everyone can a city or a community thrive, and Crossbones is a powerful symbol of those who were not, and are not, included. Ceremonies of remembrance are held on the 23rd of each month at 7 p.m., not just for those buried in the garden but for all our outcast, dead and alive.

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Bugwoman on Location – The Survivor

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica 'Vegeta')

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’)

Dear Readers, this magnificent elm tree, over 100 feet tall, was for a long time the only surviving elm tree in Westminster. It is estimated to be about 150 years old, and was probably planted as a sapling in the grounds of the parish church of St Marylebone. Unfortunately, the church was so badly damaged during bombing in World War II that it had to be demolished, so now the tree finds itself marooned on the pavement outside a tiny Garden of Rest.

img_9680As I stand under the tree and lean back to take my photo, I become aware of what an enormous organism this is, dwarfing the people under it. It has the a presence, a sense of individuality that I often recognise when I spend time with old trees. And this one is a survivor twice over, because not only did it escape the German bombs, it was also somehow bypassed by the Dutch Elm Disease of the 60’s, which killed over 25 million trees in the UK alone.

img_9684Dutch Elm Disease had been in the UK since the 1920’s, but this was a mild strain of the micro-fungus which causes the disease, and which usually just killed a couple of branches. The fungus is carried by bark beetles, who normally do only minimal damage when their grubs dig tunnels through the bark. Unfortunately, the 1960’s brought a much more dangerous strain, carried into Europe in a consignment of logs from North America. As the fungus enters the wood, the tree reacts by plugging up the xylem that brings nutrients and water to the leaves. Gradually whole sections of the plant die off, and so the leaves that bring nutrients to the rest of the plant fall, and the tree starves. Over 75% of all the elm trees in the UK died.

Elms that have been incorporated into hedgerows survived the fungus, which only really starts to impact on the tree when it grows above 5 metres. However, all over the country the giant elms, the preferred nesting trees of rooks, succumbed. Among them was the largest elm ever recorded in the UK, the Great Saling Elm, with a girth of 6.86 metres and a height of 40 metres. The elms in the paintings of John Constable are also mostly gone.

By John Constable - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149396

John Constable ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden (1823 version) (Photo One – see credit below)

This tree has been our companion since at least classical times: the Linear B lists of military equipment found at Knossos mention that the chariots were made of elm wood, and elm was used by medieval bowmen if yew couldn’t be found. The Romans also used elm saplings as supports for their grapevines: the ancients spoke of the marriage between the elm and the vine. As Ovid put it,

‘ulmus amat vitem, vitis non deserit ulmum’ (the elm loves the vine, the vine does not desert the elm)

Elm wood was hollowed out to make many of London’s underground waterpipes, and to make lock gates on the canals. The original Tyburn Tree was a huge elm, before it was replaced with a gallows. And Seven Sisters in north London originally referred to a stand of seven elm trees, referred to in the mosaic by Hans Unger on the platform of the tube station. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called ‘The English Elms’ about this very subject:

Seven Sisters in Tottenham,

long gone, except for their names,

were English elms.

 

Others stood at the edge of farms,

twinned with the shapes of clouds

like green rhymes;

or cupped the beads of the rain

in their leaf palms;

or glowered, grim giants, warning of storms.

 

In the hedgerows in old films,

elegiacally, they loom,

the English elms;

or find posthumous fame

in the lines of poems-

the music making elm-

for ours is a world without them…

 

to whom the artists came,

time after time, scumbling, paint on their fingers and thumbs;

and the woodcutters, who knew the elm was a coffin’s deadly aim;

and the mavis, her new nest unharmed in the crook of a living, wooden arm;

and boys, with ball and stumps and bat for a game;

and nursing ewes and lambs, calm under the English elms…

 

great, masterpiece trees,

who were overwhelmed.

To hear her read her poem, have a look at the link here.

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two - see credit below)

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two – see credit below)

I noticed that wire had been twisted around the trunk of the Marylebone Elm, I suspect as a support for Christmas fairy lights. This is something of an indignity, but I suspect that the tree is less perturbed than I am. I sometimes think that we treat trees with such disregard because we can’t imagine that they are living things because they are so large, and live on such a different timescale from us. Certainly, we seem to view them with all the compassion that we would extend to to a lamp post. And yet, I have cried hot tears at the callous cutting down of trees, and at the disrespect that we show them, and it seems I am not the only one: in Sheffield recently, two ladies were arrested for trying to prevent the cutting down of their local street trees, an event which commenced at 4.30 a.m. to try to avoid public outcry.

img_9685But, at least the Marylebone Elm is still in good health, and the buds are just appearing. Soon, there will be the crisp, veined leaves, and then the yellowing into another autumn.

img_9677

By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The strange flowers of the English elm (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (see credit below)

elm-leaf-231855Although the Dutch Elm disease problem has never gone away, there have been thousands of new plantings of the trees, including some in W1, the postcode of the Marylebone Elm . Elms are complicated trees, with many subspecies and varieties, and some have more resistance than others. Plus, as already noticed, small trees can survive as saplings or in hedges for many years. The elm is still here, under the radar, still providing nesting places for blackbirds and food for over 82 species of insects, including the white-letter hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds only on elms. The numbers of the butterfly were much reduced by the death of their foodplant, as you might expect, but they are now fighting their way back.

By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) (Photo Five – see credit below)

The giant elm of Marylebone seems strangely out of place these days, slotted in among the buildings as if every last inch of space that it takes up is begrudged. And yet, here it still stands, a survivor of fire and destruction, and of the insidious fungus that destroyed so many of its compatriots. It reminds me of that generation of people who survived the trenches and saw untold horrors, and yet who just got on with it. And that is what living things do, given half a chance – they carry on, until they can’t. May the Marylebone Elm carry on for many years to come.

img_9672 Credits

Photo One (Constable) – By John Constable – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149396

Photo Two (Seven Sisters Mosaic) –© Copyright Oxyman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three (Elm Flowers) – By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Elm Leaves) – By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (White-letter hairstreak) – By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

I discovered many of the elm facts included in this blogpost in this article by James Coleman at The Londonist, and very informative it is too.

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!