Dear Readers, I was in the mood for a brisk walk on Saturday – the fog had just cleared but it was a damp, dreary day that didn’t really encourage my usual drifting along. So it was not until I reached the ladies ‘convenience’ on the far side of the cemetery that something finally caught my eye. What was this in the corner of the building? Well, it appears to be a group of hibernating harlequin ladybirds (they are much too large to be any other species). I love the way that the ones in the middle have piled on top of one another for warmth. I am slightly surprised that they haven’t woken up yet, what with it being so mild, but maybe they know something that I don’t. There certainly aren’t many greenfly about yet, and as that’s mainly what they eat, maybe it makes sense to snooze on for a little longer.
There was lots of crow activity today – this magpie was throwing the leaves about in much the same way that a blackbird does. I think it gives an indication of how many invertebrates use the leaf litter as a place to spend the winter, and how important it is to leave at least some leaf piles in the garden.
The crows are super-curious, and are always investigating the graves to see if there’s anything edible. I sometimes see them picking up the artificial flowers and then throwing them over their shoulders as if in frustration. This one eventually flew off with what looked like a chrysanthemum flower. Maybe there are some seeds or insects inside. The magpies will also take shiny objects and fly off with them, so the old adage about magpies being ‘collectors’ still seems to hold true.
The first primroses are starting to emerge…
And there are still some rather damp-looking fungi around.
Mystery fungus! All suggestions welcome.
But what does this hogweed think it’s doing? It’s at least four months too early. It was flowering away in splendid isolation, with not a single fly to pollinate it. There were a few winter gnats around, but as far as I know they don’t act as pollinators. This is a high risk strategy, but as the winters get milder, who knows whether early-flowering plants might be the winners in the end?
And finally, we were accosted by this enormous squirrel. I am 99% sure that she is pregnant, rather than just well-cushioned – I noticed squirrel mating behaviour back in December, so although she’s a bit early, she’s not that unusual. I imagine that there’s lots to eat in the cemetery, so let’s hope that she gets enough nutrition to provide for her kits. She looks in excellent condition.
And so it’s back home, to get stuck into the chemistry module of my Open University degree. Studying the Periodic Table reminds me of why I loved chemistry at school – what an elegant and precise way of starting to understand the material world it is! No doubt I shall be waxing lyrical about it soon. For now, I’m just grateful for the way that science provides a way of asking questions about the world that is calm and rational. It feels like just the bracing intellectual exercise that I need.
Pollen from a variety of common plants: sunflower (Helianthus annuus, small spiky sphericals, colorized pink), morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea, big sphericals with hexagonal cavities, colorized mint green), hollyhock (Sildalcea malviflora, big spiky sphericals, colorized yellow), lily (Lilium auratum, bean shaped, colorized dark green), primrose (Oenothera fruticosa, tripod shaped, colorized red) and castor bean (Ricinus communis, small smooth sphericals, colorized light green). The image is magnified some x500, so the bean shaped grain in the bottom left corner is about 50 μm long. (Photo One)
Dear Readers, I was recently intrigued (and a little disquieted) to learn that people with asthma often suffer attacks (known as bronchospasms) following local thunderstorms, to such an extent that hospitals can be overwhelmed. I know that atmospheric conditions such as pollution can exacerbate many conditions, especially those that affect the heart and lungs, but the link with storms was a new one to me. Whilst my mother always maintained that the prelude to a thunderstorm always brought on a migraine, and my dad’s breathing was clearly worse in London than in Dorset, I was curious to see what was causing ‘thunderstorm asthma’.
Firstly, we need to consider pollen. Pollen contains the precursors to the male sperm of a plant, and needs to combine with an ovule (the female part) in order to germinate. The pollen is protected by a double-layered wall, and in the case of wind-pollinated plants ( known as anemophilous, which literally means ‘wind-loving’) the pollen may also contain an air-sac, to make it more buoyant. Grasses, ferns and many trees are wind-pollinated, and the majority of fungi add to the mix by producing spores. These fine, light particles are what makes life so miserable for hay fever sufferers.
However, one factor in thunderstorm asthma seems to be that many of the people who present at the hospitals are not normally asthma sufferers, though they often have hay fever. And there seems to be little doubt that storms are implicated. This study looked at incidents from the UK, Canada, USA and Australia. The Canadian report noted that emergency admissions for asthma made up between 5 and 17% of the total during thunderstorm periods, as opposed to only 2% normally. In Melbourne, the number of admissions for bronchospasms during two thunderstorms in different years were 154 and 277, compared with a non-thunderstorm count of 26 patients. This can lead to a crisis, with not enough nebulizers or steroids available, as happened in some of the UK events. Unfortunately, one episode of thunderstorm asthma can trigger subsequent attacks in people who had never had asthma before – one doctor believes that such an episode can hypersensitise the lungs, making them constrict in conditions such as cold weather.
So what’s going on? Thunderstorms are intensely active events. At the start of a storm, there’s a substantial updraft of air, which drags pollen, spores and other kinds of particulates up into the clouds. After a storm, there’s a subsequent downdraft as air rushes out of the storm area and back to earth. One theory is that the energy and moisture of the storm is enough to break down the pollen granules, resulting in much smaller particles (including ‘paucimicronic starch grains’ which are a particularly potent allergen). Normally, pollen is trapped by the nasal hairs, which mean that you might get a runny nose and eyes, but your breathing is unaffected. These broken-down particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing asthma attacks even amongst people who have never suffered from them before.
Scientists also think that such particles might be deposited in rain particles, and are then released after the water evaporates (often the way in a summer storm). A final consideration is that the electrical conditions in a storm might charge the broken-down particles in such a way that they are actually attracted deep into the lungs.
So, what to do? Given the possibility of local medical services being overwhelmed, there was some hope that an early warning system might be possible (such as those in the UK which give pollen levels and UV levels) but the situation is, as ever, more complicated. Not every storm causes thunderstorm asthma, and there is a nuanced dance between the location of the storm, the amount of pollen present, the levels of other kinds of pollution and the presence of fungal spores, which are just being recognised as another potential cause. It seems fairly clear that the spores produced by certain kinds of mould (such as the Cladosporium family) and by some plant pathogens (fungi in the Alternaria family, which include a variety of blights and cankers) can already cause hay fever, and are possibly the ‘smoking gun’ in outbreaks of thunderstorm asthma.
Spores of an Alternaria fungus (Photo Two)
It seems that we need a lot more research on what’s going on with asthma and thunderstorms, especially as, with climate change, we’re likely to be getting a lot more of the latter. At the moment, the main advice for asthma sufferers seems to be ‘stay indoors with the windows closed and make sure you’ve got your inhaler’. Meanwhile, there seems to be more awareness in health services globally that thunderstorms can cause more health problems than the occasional lightning strike. Yet again, we can see how closely intertwined human beings are with the planet as a whole, which is always worth remembering.
A public health poster on thunderstorm asthma from Australia (Photo Three)
Dear Readers, I often get a glimpse of a fox in the cemetery, but today we had quite a long encounter with this vixen. She looks in fabulous condition, and was cheerfully trotting around the area at the entrance to the cemetery, sniffing at twigs and occasionally squatting to scent-mark. However, when I got home and looked at the photos properly, it’s clear that she’s had a close encounter with something very recently.
My guess would be that she’s narrowly avoided being run over by a car, poor thing. However, the fact that she’s still alert and moving normally makes me think that it’s probably just a flesh wound. I do hope so. She looks a bit thick around the midriff to me, so it may be that she’s pregnant (or just well-fed, which is another good sign). The main road that surrounds the cemetery is a death trap as the young foxes try to disperse, but fingers crossed that this one will be ok. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that foxes are extraordinarily resilient creatures, and seem to bounce back from things that would fell a human.
I know that people are still feeding the foxes in the cemetery, so she’s in a good place at any rate, and the cemetery security guys have a soft spot for all the wildlife, so they’ll keep an eye on her.
As we walk on, I have a quick look at the swamp cypress to see if it’s getting any spring growth yet. Not much yet, but these things happen very gradually, and I’m sure this cold snap will have put everything back a bit. Next week the temperature is supposed to be up to 59 degrees Fahrenheit at the weekend, which will feel positively spring-like. I’d bet my bottom dollar that it will bring the frogs in my garden out.
Nothing very exciting happening on the swamp cypress
I spotted a rather exciting new grave today, simply by taking a quick detour to the left instead of the right. The memorial is for Francisco ‘Frank’ Manzi, born in 1913 and died in 1962. He was the chairman of the Amusement Trades Association, and appears to have been married to Elizabeth Paolozzi, but only for three months in 1934. Therein hangs a tale, I’m sure. And I couldn’t find any indication of who sculpted the memorial, which is really rather remarkable.
As we took the perimeter path around the edge of the cemetery, closest to the North Circular Road, I noticed that some of the twigs were absolutely covered in lichen. Then I remembered an LNHS talk by Jeff Duckett about the flora of Hampstead Heath, in which he noted that there are lichen which actually thrive on the nitrous oxide from car exhausts. I wonder if this species is one of them? It certainly loves this area, and I haven’t noticed it in anything like as much profusion anywhere else in the cemetery. I have a feeling that this might be golden shield lichen, and if so it’s known to love nitrogen – it’s often found in areas where there are lots of bird droppings which are rich in ammonia. Who knew that being a nature detective could be so much fun?
Someone has put up a little bird house next to Randall’s Path in the cemetery, and I was delighted to see a pair of robins checking it out. In fact, in even more exciting news (for me anyway) I saw a pair of blue tits checking out the bird houses that I’d put up for sparrows last year. They might not meet with the approval of the prospective tenants, but it’s the first interest that anyone’s shown in almost two years, so at least my hopes are raised a little.
I loved this statue too, swathed in ivy and holding artificial flowers.
And also this modern cross, with the red stems of dogwood glowing behind.
The snow has almost gone in some places, but is clinging on in others. The places where it remains are the least trodden, and so the most interesting.
And finally, four graves that caught my eye today. The first is of Thomas Hollyman Nicholls, a despatch rider for the Royal Engineers, who served in the First World War and who finally passed away in 1930 as a result of his war service. I have found some information about his war record, and it seems that he was discharged with heart and lung trouble, caused by being gassed at Ypres. Poor man.
The second is this one, with its beautifully carved anchor and chain. Walter Hugh Price was in charge of a motor boat during the raids on Zeebruge and Ostend, a campaign that ended up costing 200 British lives. However, it wasn’t enemy fire that killed him: according to an article on the history of Friern Barnet (where Price lived), he caught a cold during the raid which turned into something worse, and he actually died on a hospital ship in Dover harbour.
Thirdly, there’s another anchor, this one broken by frost and time. Robert Samuel Nodes was Chief Officer on board HMS Vesuvio when she was torpedoed in 1914. On his pension card, his death in 1916 is described as being due to ‘shock caused by explosion on ship’. In the War Graves records, his death is said to have been caused by ‘acute laryngitis’. On his grave, it says, more explicitly, ‘shell shock’, though I wonder if, at this point, it refers to what we now think of as shell shock (i.e a mental breakdown), or if it means the physical effects of being caught in a confined space when there’s an explosion. Whichever it is, Robert Samuel Nodes died at 27 years old.
And finally, I found the austerity of this grave, with its broken column, rather affecting. John Stuart Alexander was born in Alnwick in Northumberland, and was married to Maria, who was from Scotland. He seems to have been a secretary in a private company, and the 1881 census finds them living in Barnsbury, Islington, at 52 Mildmay Grove. They shared the house with their son, Stuart, who worked as a commercial clerk, and their servant, Mary. John was only 53 years old at this point, and I imagine that dying was the last thing on his mind. However, he did at least leave his widow and son well provisioned: probate records show that he left an estate of £2417 0s 7d, which would have been a sizeable amount in those days. And could there be a better epitaph?
‘He was one of the best of husbands, and the kindest of fathers’.
Dear Readers, what a cold and windy day it was today, made rather worse by my not getting to sleep until 3 a.m. Usually I haven’t been sleeping badly during the lockdown, but on some nights my brain starts racing and won’t stop, and this was one of those nights. Plus in the rush to get out of the door I forgot my trusty hat, so the icy wind seemed to get into the deepest interstices of my ears. Harrumph! It’s fair to say that I wasn’t in the best of moods.
However, there’s always something to see in the cemetery, even though on some days you have to dig deeper than others.
I noticed this angel, with fist raised and trumpet. I would love to see the cemetery through the eyes of someone who didn’t share our iconography. What on earth would they think of all these winged figures, I wonder?
And I found myself completely fascinated by, of all things, the bark on the ash trees. As I’ve mentioned before, there are ash springing up all over the cemetery, and they are by far the most numerous tree, although it’s the stately Victorian plantings that get most of the attention.
On the younger saplings, the bark is smooth and pretty much without blemish.
However, according to The Science Photo Library, the smooth bark of the ash tree is also less acidic than that of many other common forest trees, which encourages the growth of lichens. The pH of the bark also offsets some of the effects of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, making them more amenable to the lichens and to fungi. In fact, 536 different species of lichen have been found on ash trees, and ash dieback will put them in danger too.
My guess is that the lichen is black apothecia (Arthonia) though I am no expert. Some trees also have a marked rusty tone (as this one does), which could be another lichen called pale orange apothecia (Leconora). I shall have to come back with a hand lens and have a proper look. ‘Apothecia’ relates to the cup-shaped fruiting bodies of the lichen.
Marked orange staining on this ash tree.
Ash trees often develop huge scars on their trunks as they get older. My Collins Tree Guide refers to these as ‘erupting black cankers’ that ‘disfigure many trees’. That might be so, but the trees largely seem unperturbed by these scabs.
And having referred to the stately Victorian planting, I rather liked this fine tree, which could not be more conical if it tried. It could be a Western Red Cedar or it could be a Leylandii (which I just discovered is a hybrid between a Western Red Cedar and a Monterey Pine). It just goes to show that even the much maligned Leylandii (if that’s what it is) is fine in the right place. It’s just not a good idea to create a suburban hedge out of it without being prepared to do a lot of trimming.
And here is a fine Scots Pine, which must have looked even more magnificent without the current backdrop of other trees. Now I look at the photo though, do I see the outline of what was once a holly hedge to the left of the tree? In my cemetery guide, it says that it seems that the custodians of the cemetery were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place (at 185 acres it’s the second largest cemetery in London), and seem to have decided largely to keep the more recent areas neat and tidy, letting the rest of it grow wild. Long may it continue!
And here is some more forest statuary – the lady seems to be clasping a palm branch, but I’m not quite sure what the object is to the left. An urn, possibly?
And finally, as we leave, my husband decides to go into the War Graves Cemetery for a quick look. I, however, am distracted (as always), this time by this stump.
Just look at the fine array of bracket fungi that are breaking down what remains of the tree!
I am thinking that the fungus is a variety of forms of the ubiquitous turkeytail (Trametes versicolor) but I’m no expert. I was just very taken by the way that the stump was providing sustenance even as it disappeared. Some red deadnettle was just coming into flower in the shelter of its roots.
I’m guessing that the tree was cut down because of some kind of fungal disease – even the main branches have been cross-hatched with an axe, and even they are providing a home for moss.
And so, feeling slightly less tired and with my head full of questions about lichens and fungi, I head for home. And by the time you read this it will be February! The cemetery is full of singing robins and squabbling blackbirds. Spring is on the way, readers.
Dear Readers, for once the elements were with us for this week’s walk in the cemetery. Things are so bad with the pandemic in London now that we wore our facemasks along the High Road until we were actually in and had room to social distance properly. Not all the pavements in East Finchley are wide enough to avoid getting closer than two metres to other people, and with the hospitals fit to busting, and the new variant apparently anything up to 70% more transmissible than previous ones, it seemed sensible to take every precaution we could think of. The last thing we want to do is to catch the virus ourselves or to inadvertently pass it on to anyone else, and I have to say that the vast majority of people are being extremely careful at the moment. I’m sure there are still a few folk who think that they are immortal, or don’t care enough to protect other people, but they really are few and far between around here.
But to get back to the walk – as we approached the entrance, I noticed that there were bits of car all over the place, and as we rounded the corner it became clear that a vehicle had gone bang into the wall of the cemetery. It’s been very icy around here, but this is a straight road so goodness only knows what happened. I just hope that nobody was seriously hurt.
Once we’re into the cemetery, I make a beeline for the chapel. My friend A told me that she’d spotted an interesting fungus growing from one of a group of plane trees, and her directions were excellent – it only took me about two minutes to find it. Having had a conversation with the experts on the British and Irish Fungi Facebook group, we think it might be the Spectacular Rustgill (Gymnophilus junonius), and what an apt name that is! Apparently it tastes bitter and turns green when you cook it, but I’d have thought that the former fact precluded anyone doing the latter. Anyhoo, this is a very fine fungus, and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.
The crows, squirrels, parakeets and jays were all in abundance today, gathering food and chasing one another. The crows in particular were very evident. The chap below seemed to be about to peck over one of the mourner’s wreaths that has been left out after a service. When he saw me, he folded his wings and hustled away as if to indicate that there was nothing to see here.
There are already primroses in flower in the woodland burial site, which always cheers me up.
And how I love the sunbeams coming through the trees.
The sun is so low that there are places in the graveyard that the sun doesn’t touch at all. I loved this icy stone with its hieroglyphics of fern and moss and seed.
And there is another crow, pecking over the leaves of a conifer to see what s/he can find. Maybe there are some tiny insects trying to hibernate amidst the needles.
And I do love a good reflection in a pothole. Isn’t that what they’re there for?
Last week, someone asked me about people in the cemetery who were buried following the 1918 flu epidemic, and it got me to thinking. I feel as if I haven’t noticed many non-military graves from this period: I found the one below today, but my husband assures me that the worst of the flu would have passed through by November 1919, so probably this person died of wounds or from the effects of gassing. It’s a very interesting question though, and one that I shall think on further.
I love the way that the melting frost lights up every blade of grass, as if each one was holding up a candle at a rock concert. Remember them?
And then, on the way home, I notice this wall.
Look at the moss! The cracks and crevices between the bricks are positively furry with the sporangia, the reproductive bodies. The moss must have found this spot to its liking, and multiplied like billy-ho (this is a relatively new wall). I loved the green and red of the moss against the terracotta stonework. It just goes to show how nature will colonise even the most unpromising of habitats.
Dear Readers, this week’s talk was by David Humphries, Tree Management Officer for the City of London. He has been based in Hampstead Heath for 35 years, and recently won a special award for caring for London’s trees. I was really looking forward to this talk, and I wasn’t the only, as for the first time since the LNHS talks started, this one was sold out! Fortunately, you can still watch the whole thing here, and I’d recommend that you do so, as the photos were fantastic, and I can only capture the merest flavour of the range of the talk.
Humphries is something of a fungiphile: he gave us a quick look at his computer, where he has 22,000 photos of fungi, neatly arranged into 584 folders, one for each species. Most of them were taken on Hampstead Heath, which has over 25,000 trees, and where upwards of 600 fungal species have been recorded. Humphries thinks this is probably because, unlike in 1830 when John Constable painted a view of the Heath that shows it completely bereft of trees, there are now a substantial number of habitats and tree species.
First, we had a quick run through the variety of fungi that can be found in association with trees. There are the perennial bracket fungi such as hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) which persist for years. They form layers, as you can see from the photo below, but these are not necessarily annual – each layer is created when the fungus produces spores, and in one example that Humphries showed us later in the talk, it’s clear that they can be produced on multiple occasions in a single year if the conditions are right.
Incidentally, Otzi the iceman who was retrieved from a glacier in Austria and turned out to be about 5000 years old had some pieces of hoof fungus in his bag – it is used to produce amadou, which can be used as tinder. But as usual I digress.
Hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) (Photo One)
Then there are the annual bracket fungi, such as shaggy bracket (Inonotus hispidus) which produce fruiting bodies and spores and then die every year. They may remain in the same location for many years, and on the photos that Humphries shared you could see the scars of the previous generations on the bark.
Shaggy bracket (Inonotus hispidus) (Photo Two)
However, with so many types of fungi, many looking superficially the same, how to ID them to species level? For some, you have to use microscopy of the spores, but Humphries had some general tips:
Take a slice through the fungus to look at the spore layer and the flesh
Have a look at the spore colour – anything from white to saffron to darkest inky black
Look in detail at the spore layer to see how the tubes from which the spores are released are coloured and shaped – Humphries recommended two useful resources:
If you are looking at a more typical ‘mushroom’, look at the gills and check to see whether they are attached to the stem or not (the word for where gills do form part of the stem is ‘decurrent’, a new word for me!)
Then, we moved on to the three ways in which fungi can be associated with trees.
Parasitic – it was Humphries view that parasitic fungi start to become problematic when a tree is weakened, either. A typical example would be honey fungus (Armillaria mellea)
Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea) (Photo Three)
Saprophytic – fungi that feed on fallen leaves, dead branches etc. They recycle nutrients that would otherwise not be released back into the soil. The earthstar that I found in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery would be an example.
And finally, there are the Mycorrhizal fungi. It’s only recently that we’ve learned what a vital part these fungi play in the health of plants – they form a mutualistic relationship with the roots of trees in this case, vastly extending the range of the roots in return for some of the benefits of photosynthesis. Some very familiar fungi, such as the edible boletus mushrooms and the traditional ‘toadstool’, Amanita muscari, are examples of mycorrhizal fungi. The fruiting bodies can often be seen exactly following the lines of the roots of the trees that are hosting them.
Amanita muscaria (Photo Four)
Humphries has, as you might expect, found some very interesting fungi in Hampstead, and one of the most attractive is the Many-Zoned Rosette (Podoscypha multizonata), of which the UK has about 80% of the European population. This is a rare species, which is being assessed by the IUCN for the Global Fungal Red List, and one reason for its rarity is that it is normally found on veteran oaks in oak pasture, a vanishingly rare habitat in the UK (though as I’m currently reading in Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’, it was probably once much more common. However, Humphries has noticed that the fungus has increased its range of hosts to include beech, hornbeam, lime, red and turkey oak and even horse chestnut, so maybe this bodes well for its future.
As you might expect from someone who is involved in maintaining the health of trees, Humphries has a lot of interesting things to say about the different ways that fungi can infiltrate a tree. There are broadly three colonisation strategies.
The first is fungal-induced dysfunction, as favoured by our old friend honey fungus. Basically, rhizomorphs, which are a ‘rope’ of hyphae (the filaments of the fungi) travel through the soil and colonize a tree which already weakened. Once they’ve found such a tree, they fan out under the bark and infiltrate the vascular system, preventing the tree from transporting water and nutrients. In honey fungus the rhizomorphs are often called ‘bootlaces’ and you can see why.
Honey fungus rhizomorphs (Photo Six)
Secondly, some fungi infiltrate the sapwood when it’s suddenly exposed, whether by storm damage, lightning, injudicious pruning, or, in the case of the poor tree on my road, sudden collision with a skip. Examples include the beefsteak fungus, which at least has the benefit of being edible.
And finally, there are the fungi that are living in the tree already, but which can only proliferate when the tree is weakened (endophytic fungi). These remind me a bit of the bacteria that live happily on our skin for ages, until our immune systems take a knock and then they lurch into action (Staphylococcus springs to mind). An insect attack, storm damage, root rock in high winds can all be starting points for such fungi (one example would be the birch polyphore (Fomitopsis betulinus). Humphries noted how, when a tree is cut down, these fungi can appear remarkably quickly once the sapwood is exposed to the air.
Trees can live quite happily with fungal infestations, sometimes for decades. However, many fungi will eventually cause problems. Some cause white rot, which is where the wood turns white and spongy because the fungus has ‘eaten’ the lignin which provides stability – this is what honey fungus does. Some cause brown rot, which is where the cellulose is ‘eaten’ instead, and the tree becomes brittle – an example of this would be chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). Some trees will eventually be hosts to both. And it isn’t just trees in forests, either.
Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) (Photo Nine)
Humphries mentioned two fungal diseases that are affecting that icon of the capital, the London Plane (Platanus x hispanica). One is Massaria Disease, caused by the fungus Splanchnonema platani. Humphries is of the opinion that this used to largely appear during droughts, but as most street trees have roots that are compacted, and as climate change affects rainfall in unpredictable ways, it has been seen in the UK. It normally causes branch fall in trees over 40 years old.
The second is elbowpatch crust (Fomitiporia punctata). According to the Forest Research UK site, this seems to affect a particular clone of the London Plane which has a propensity to develop weak forks. When infected by the fungus, it can drop whole branches, which is something of a health hazard considering how many there are.
Humphries spent some time explaining how part of his work is assessing trees, and deciding whether or not to save them, and how. There are various techniques that can be used to assess the amount of damage – a microdrill can be used to take a core through the tree without harming it, to see how far any rot has progressed. The whole tree can also be fitted with what sonic tomography receivers, which used sound waves to detect the integrity of the trunk – the photo of the tree in Humphries’s photo makes it look rather as if it’s getting an ECG. And there is much that often can be done, in terms of reducing the wind load that the plant has to bear in storms to prevent it being knocked over, and to support the tree. However, when the worst comes to the worst, the standing wood is endlessly useful for everything from beetles to woodpeckers, and fungi themselves are food for many invertebrates and other creatures (I’ve even watched a fox take a speculative bite out of a puffball.
However, the lockdowns and the increased footfall in Hampstead have caused additional challenges for fungi, and for the people who care about them. The big enemy seems to be compaction of the soil – no one seems to know how much this will damage the underground hyphae of the mycorrhizal fungi, without which many of the trees on the Heath will no longer thrive. Soil health is an issue for all of us, wherever we are, and it’s something to which we pay far too little attention in my view. I worry about the trampling in my local wood, but am also uncertain what we can do about it.
I really recommend this talk. It was stuffed full of information, and some of the photos that Humphries presented were wonderful. I learned so much, and I think I’ll probably watch it again to pick up some of the things that I missed or didn’t understand the first time round. So if you have an hour to spare and are wondering what to do during lockdown, here’s something to keep you entertained (along with all the other LNHS talks). The amazing world of fungi awaits!
Dear Readers, it’s Boxing Day and all those who have been at home, eating turkey and watching Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special on the TV have suddenly burst out of their abodes and headed for the woods. We made the mistake of heading to Highgate Wood ‘for a change’ but it was so packed with people that ‘the dance of two metres’ became trickier and trickier, especially as the paths had been so trampled that there was thick mud on either side. It’s wonderful that people feel such a need to get out into nature at the moment (and I’m one of those people) but it does point up how much of ‘nature’ we’ve lost, when the small areas that remain are so overcrowded.
The love of the woods is clear, as seen by this bench, with its bowl providing water for dogs and its bunch of roses. The inscription reads:
‘I sit here with memories for company
Knowing that if life were moments
we’d all have a good time’.
Sean Hughes (1965 – 2017)
Sean Hughes was born in North London but raised in Ireland – he was a very successful comedian (the youngest ever winner of the Perrier Award for stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival) and was one of the team captains in ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, the TV music quiz (not that that exactly sums up the complete anarchy that characterised the show). He was a vegetarian and a lifelong animal rights activist, but had a long struggle with alcohol, ending with his death from cirrhosis of the liver in Whittington Hospital at Archway in 1917. I remember his cheeky grin and his way with a one-liner, and had no idea that this memorial bench was here. RIP Sean. The doggies love their water bowl.
On we go, side-stepping the runners and choosing paths largely based on which large groups are approaching. I do take a detour to admire some fungi. I’m thinking this is probably not the hairy curtain crust that I spotted in Coldfall earlier this week, but maybe something exciting like Stereum ramaele, which is often found on oak.
Anyhow, just after this point we give up and head into the slightly quieter and wilder environs of Queen’s Wood. For some reason this doesn’t attract quite the footfall of Highgate Wood, I guess because there is no children’s playground or grassy area for little ones to play. I like its slightly eerie atmosphere, and I find myself admiring the way that the trees grow into strange contorted shapes in order to reach the light.
There has been a lot of coppicing here over the years, which has helped to bring light into some of the darker areas. I must definitely come back in spring and see what appears (before it’s trampled into the ground anyhow).
And by one of the entrances there’s a warning as to why dumping garden rubbish can introduce all kinds of plants into ancient woodland. I think that this is probably yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeabdolon ssp argentum), a popular garden plant and one which is widely naturalised in many hedgerows and woodlands across the UK. While the plain-leaved variety of the plant is a native, this variegated garden variety is not and, as it flowers earlier than the native plant it often out competes it. However, I am reserving judgement because I have no idea if the native species grows here, and this is still a useful plant for pollinators. David Bevan, who was the Conservation Officer for Haringey for many years, was relaxed about ‘introduced species’ in his recent LNHS talk, and my instinct is to agree with him.
By this time Queen’s Wood is getting a little busy for my taste as well, and so we head back towards Muswell Hill and home. On our way along Connaught Gardens I spot this street tree, which is covered in pink catkins. I rather think that this is a grey alder (Alnus incana var ‘Ramulis coccineis’) – if so it will have red shoots when spring comes. I must have a wander along and check.
Home we toddle, through Fortis Green, where we meet this very friendly cat. He does that ‘slow blink’ thing that cats do when they’re attempting to be chums, so I stand there like an eejit and do the same until my husband reminds me that it’s lunchtime.
And finally, I notice this single cyclamen in someone’s front garden, glowing like a small candle flame. I know that it’s not a fancy wild one, but it still cheered me up. And then it’s home for toast, and a cup of tea, while we wait for Storm Bella to arrive (70 m.p.h winds! Torrential rain!).
Yep, 2020 has definitely been a year for grabbing pleasures when you find them.
Holly tree growing at the foot of a dead tree in Coldfall Wood
Dear Readers, I don’t know about where you are, but here in East Finchley the rain has been a big feature of the weather for the past few months. Couple that with clay soil and you have a positive quagmire which, while it hasn’t deterred me from Coldfall Wood, has made me a little chary about going out on to Muswell Hill Playing Fields. Why, only the other day I saw a man running in plimsolls and baggy shorts (clearly old school, no lycra at all) come a cropper as he tried to spring like a gazelle over a particularly muddy patch. All was well, but I wouldn’t have liked to be doing his washing. Today, however, I decided that a vast stretch of slippery, squelchy ooze wasn’t going to keep me from my beloved ‘wildflower border’ beside the cemetery, and so off we went, clad in walking boots and optimism.
But first the wood. What a year it’s been for fungi! I am positively tripping over them now I’ve got my eye in. Here is some candlesnuff fungi (Xylaria hypoloxon) growing out of a stump for example. The spores, which are black, can apparently be seen as black smudges on the tree bark, but as this stump is rather damp I think that might not be visible here.
There are some felled branches further into the wood (the tree surgeons have been doing a bit of pruning and tidying up) and they are being gradually broken down by some rather lovely caramel-coloured bracket fungus which has been identified for me as hairy curtain crust (Stereum
And then it’s out across the mud and onto Muswell Hill Playing Fields. It really is a bit of a quagmire, but as with all things there are worse bits and better bits. And soon I’m distracted from the state of the ground by the austere beauty of the plants at this time of year. This shrub was glowing green, and when I got closer I could see why – it’s encrusted with lichens and moss. The branches are miniature habitats of their own. I can imagine tiny spiders patrolling through the ‘leaves’ of the lichen like panthers.
The Japanese Knotweed is a hundred shades of brown and grey. What a dense thicket of stems it forms! I would be amazed if some birds and small mammals didn’t take advantage of it.
But what concerns me a little is that I think it might even be able to outcompete bramble. I’m pretty sure it’s taking over in this part of the ‘border’ between the cemetery and the skateboard park.
There are a pair of alder (?) trees here, and I love the bark and the fruit. Look at all the different lichens on this tree! You might remember a talk that I reported on about the flora of Hampstead Heath by Jeff Duckett, where he mentioned how lichens made a comeback once the Clean Air Acts were introduced in the 1960s. It just goes to show that damage is not always irreversible if we act in time.
Incidentally, I’m not absolutely sure of the ID of this tree, so let me know what you think – the bark looks more birch-like to me, but it’s difficult to tell with all the pretty encrustations.
There are a few last maple leaves on the grass. Both of these look as if they’ve come from a Japanese Maple, and indeed there is a sapling ten metres away. Case closed, I think.
And then it’s a quick slide down a small hill to ‘the wildflower border’ that I fell in love with back in July. There isn’t much in flower now, though there is a single mallow flower, and some white deadnettle in case any bees are about.
But it’s the seedheads that I love. Everything from fennel….
to greater burdock….
to greater knapweed……
to the unexpectedly beautiful seeds of broad-leaved dock.
And maybe it’s no coincidence, but there was a flock of about 20 house sparrows flying between the shrubs and chattering away. At the very least, all the shrubs give the sparrows somewhere for cover and roosting. I wonder if they ever eat the seeds? I know that finches do.
Lots of parakeets about today as well, including this pair who seemed interested in the fruits on the London plane tree, though goodness knows why. We used to use the blessed things for itching powder.
And on the way home, I notice how the weeping willow is already changing colour. I do wonder if, when people plant weeping willows in their garden, they realise quite how big they’re going to get, or how thirsty they are. This one, I suspect, is taking advantage of the drainage ditch next to the fields.
Part of me wants to take a comb to that mane of ‘hair’.
And then it’s off home, for a cup of tea and a clean-up of those muddy boots. It’s always worth getting out for a walk, I find, especially if you can dodge the worst of the showers and stay warm. And as we turn into our street, there was a great tit absolutely singing its head off. Maybe he knows that the year has just turned, the solstice is passed, and spring is on the way.
Dear Readers, it takes more than a torrential downpour to keep me from my weekly visit to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery and so it was that I found ourselves standing under a tree during a deluge. I took the obligatory photo of ‘my’ swamp cypress, and I also managed this splendid shot of a fox as he headed into the undergrowth. Wildlife Photographer of the Year awaits me, I’m sure.
But then it let up a little and so on we (my long-suffering husband and I ) slogged. I noticed lots of blackbirds about, for the first time in a while – some blackbirds spend their summers in other parts of Europe and only overwinter in the UK, and some blackbirds pop in from Scandinavia. At one point a few years ago, when everyone was grounded due to the bad weather, there were no less than eight blackbirds in my back garden, all getting along swimmingly provided I kept the food coming. You wouldn’t see that when the territories are established in the spring.
There was no kestrel in the kestrel tree this week, and I assume that, like all sensible birds, s/he was under cover somewhere, hoping for the worst to pass. But nothing stops the crows, and there was a little gang of them looking shifty by Harwood’s path. They were turning over the leaves very methodically, and I wondered if someone had scattered something for them. But they flew off as we approached, and although I had a good look, I was none the wiser.
I have become fascinated by what I think of as the stumperies in the cemetery – the remains of trees which have been cut down and which are now being gradually eroded by fungi or covered with ivy. There is one close to where the wreathes are left following cremations which has been planted up with succulents and what appears to be a smiley face, though whence this came I have no idea.
Some are sprouting a few annual ‘weeds’ on the top, but I wonder if all those stems at the side might actually sprout when spring comes, I shall have to keep an eye on it.
This one is forming a very nice base for some ivy.
This one is becoming a whole mini-ecosystem, with moss and lichen and turkey-tail fungus.
And while the fungus seems to be eating this stump to pieces, there are also some tell tale holes which could be beetle larvae, but could equally well be caused by the thump of green woodpecker beaks as they drill for ants.
So far, so unspectacular. But then, I spotted what appeared to be a doorknob growing under one of the fir trees off Withington Road (a very muddy and underused path), and here is my highlight of the week.
This is, I believe, an earthstar, and I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s Geastrum triplex, the Collared Earthstar. What I love most about this enigmatic fungus is that I probably only noticed it because it’s pouring with rain – when raindrops hit the ‘ball’ in the middle, spores are sent flying out through the hole in the top. When it’s dry, the ‘petals’ of the earthstar curl up and protect the fruiting body, making sure that the spores aren’t released when conditions aren’t ideal. How I love spotting something that I’ve never seen before! It puts a spring in my step like nothing else.
And so we make our damp, muddy way back to the entrance, where I spot two crows sitting on top of the cedar of lebanon. What are they up to? Well, they appear to be bashing their way into the barrel-shaped pine cones, though whether they are after the pine nuts or the little insects that are attempting to have a peaceful hibernation I have no idea. I am full of admiration for these intelligent resourceful birds. Never underestimate a crow.
St Pancras and Islington Cemetery 1st November 2020
Dear Readers, in the UK we are going to be pretty much locked down again from 4th November. The only difference from the March lockdown appears to be that schools and universities will remain open, though it’s clear that this will push up the transmission rate and may make the lockdown longer. Scientists thought that the original lockdown was loosened too early, and have been calling for a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown since September, so none of this is a surprise, but it’s still terrible news for small businesses of all kinds, for those who will lose their jobs, for the self-employed and above all for the many people who are going to lose loved ones unnecessarily because of the mishandling of the crisis. Let’s just hope that the government get test, track and trace up and running in the interim and that one of the many vaccines being trialled proves effective (though as immunity to the disease seems to run into months rather than years I wouldn’t get too excited just yet).
Meanwhile, I’m relying on my friends in the US to provide something to lift the spirits on 4th November. Keeping everything crossed for you, and for the rest of us too: if nothing else, a change of President would be immeasurably better from a Climate Change point of view, let alone everything else.
Anyhow, there’s nothing like a walk in the cemetery to lift the spirits, I find, and on this damp blustery day there was still plenty to get excited about. Howsabout these fungi, for a start? They were popping up under the Cedar of Lebanon at the entrance to the grounds, and I am hoping that my fungiphile (is that even a word?) friend A will be able to suggest an ID before this blog goes live. The white one looks temptingly edible (though I personally won’t be trying it), the purple one less so. (Update: apparently the purple one is called Amethyst Deceiver, and the other ones are called Shaggy Parasols. Amethyst Deceivers, according to my fungi book, are ‘perhaps the most strikingly beautiful of all very common toadstools, and they certainly do have an ethereal beauty. Shaggy Parasols are edible, but upset some people’s stomachs. This all just reinforces the foragers’ mantra: if in doubt, don’t.)
On we go. A big area of the cemetery is currently closed while they seem to be digging the whole thing over with big yellow digging machines – at the moment it looks like a claggy wasteland, good for a renactment of the Battle of the Somme but not much else. No doubt it will soon be turfed over and available for graves again. It’s a bit of a shame for the masses of goat’s rue that popped up there during the summer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be back.
The Field Maples (Acer campestre) have mostly shed their leaves, as have the sycamores (Acer pseudoplatanus). The Field Maple leaves look very much like those on the Canadian flag, but as I have just discovered, the symbolic leaf shows a ‘generic maple’ with 11 points in the design: a sugar maple (as in ‘maple syrup’) has no less than 23 ‘points’ on its leaf.
Canadian flag with stylised maple leaf (Photo One)
On the ground, the Field Maple leaves are bright yellow, and smaller than those of Sycamore.
More importantly, though, they don’t have those characteristic black-tar fungus spots that I was talking about a few weeks ago.
Sycamore leaf with black tar fungus.
It’s extraordinary how the colour in the leaves breaks down, and once the leaves have fallen it gives the casual observer a chance to see how individual each one is. Some look as if they’ve been spattered by acid rain, while others look as if the icy fingers of Jack Frost have touched them and turned the green to yellow. There is such glory at the end.
Finally, I encountered a most confiding magpie today. Normally I only have to raise my camera and off they go (making me think about the Avian Eavesdropping talk that I mentioned yesterday). This one seemed to be both wary and curious. What handsome birds they are! I love the way that you can really see the iridescence on the feathers. If they were rarer, I’m sure we’d be stunned every time one flew past. As it is, their machine-gun rattle of a call and their blue/green/turquoise/purple plumage doesn’t hazard a second look. If the lockdown has taught me one thing, it’s that I am surrounded by small wonders, if only I stop to look and listen.