Category Archives: London Fungi

A Chilly Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

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’.

The Final January Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

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.

A Mellow Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

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.

Spectaccular Rustgill

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.

London Natural History Talks – Trees and Fungi by David Humphries

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.

Photo One by By George Chernilevsky - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10577678

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.

Photo Two by Stu's Images, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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)
Photo Three by Stu's Images, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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.
Photo Four by Amanita_muscaria_3_vliegenzwammen_op_rij.jpg: Onderwijsgekderivative work: Ak ccm, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Photo Five by Lukas from London, England, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Many-zoned Rosette (Podoscypha multizonata) (Photo Five)

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.

Photo Six by Ericsteinert, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Photo Seven by Dan Molter, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica) (Photo Seven)

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.

Photo Eight by Bernie Paquette, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Birch polyphore (Fomitopsis betulina) (Photo Eight)

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.

Photo Nine by Gargoyle888., CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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!

Photo Credits

Photo One By George Chernilevsky – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10577678

Photo Two by Stu’s Images, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Stu’s Images, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by Amanita_muscaria_3_vliegenzwammen_op_rij.jpg: Onderwijsgekderivative work: Ak ccm, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Lukas from London, England, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Ericsteinert, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by Dan Molter, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eight by Bernie Paquette, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by Gargoyle888., CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

A Busy Walk in Highgate and Queen’s Wood

Bark!

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.

 

A Muddy Walk in Coldfall Wood

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.

 

Another Wet Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

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.

Here We Go Again….

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.

Photo One by By Photograph taken by Jared Grove (&lt;a href=&quot;//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Phobophile&amp;amp;action=edit&amp;amp;redlink=1&quot; class=&quot;new&quot; title=&quot;User:Phobophile (page does not exist)&quot;&gt;Phobophile&lt;/a&gt;) with a Nicon Coolpix 3200. - &lt;span class=&quot;int-own-work&quot; lang=&quot;en&quot;&gt;Own work&lt;/span&gt;, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95729">Link</a>

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.

Photo Credits

Photo One by  Jared Grove 

 

 

A Surprise in the Cemetery

Giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia gigantea)

Dear Readers, I am so attuned to looking for litter in our local open spaces that when I first saw this collection of puffball fungi growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, my first thought was ‘who dumped a lot of bits of polystyrene?’ But fortunately, for once this is something entirely natural. Giant puffballs can grow to 4kg in size but these were a lot smaller, and had already been extensively nibbled by something or other – small rodents such as mice and squirrels will often eat puffballs, and I suspect that foxes (of which the cemetery has an abundance) wouldn’t be averse to a mushroomy snack either.

Puffballs are edible, and, fried in butter, they are a delicious addition to an English Breakfast. But, as someone had already been eating these I decided to leave them. Hopefully the critters need them more than I do.

 

Puffballs reproduce by issuing forth a ridiculous number of spores (7 x 10 to the power of 12 according to Wikipedia), which come out of the fungus when it splits, hence the name.

Photo One by By Kalyanvarma - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18500829

Puffball producing spores (Photo One)

There is something so mysterious about fungi, the way that they work unseen, sometimes for years, and then produce these strange fruiting bodies before disappearing again. We are learning more and more about the way that they work in harmony with plants, helping them to absorb nutrients and water, forming a communication network, and breaking down otherwise indigestible material. And yet, they are largely ignored when we talk about endangered species, and it was only in 2013 that fungi were included on the IUCN Red list. Just as we are only scratching the surface of understanding the intricate relationships between bacteria and our own bodies, so we still have very little comprehension of the complexity of the links between fungi and other species. All the more reason to stop messing about with the environment, I’d have thought.

And then, as we turn to leave the cemetery, I hear a crow calling overhead. Crows have a very particular call when they are mobbing something – even though I don’t speak crow, it’s such a clear ‘call to action’ that it always makes me look up. This time, a single crow had taken objection to a sparrowhawk, and there was a fine dog-fight going on.

Crow to the left, sparrowhawk on the right

Crow to the right, sparrowhawk to the left

The crow’s calls didn’t go unanswered – another bird, probably his/her mate, came barrelling in, and between them they chased the sparrowhawk off. I have seen more exciting encounters by listening for excited crows and then looking to see what they’re worried about than I can count – it’s often a bird of prey  but it can also be a heron, or, one one occasion, a poor tawny owl who appeared to be trying to get some sleep. What an excellent tactic for moving predators on, though, and what an example of team work, though I do sometimes feel sorry for the subject of all that cawing and buffeting. 

You can hear the crow alarm call below. Something to listen out for!

The Most Unpopular Tree in Britain?

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus) leaves with Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) fungus

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus) leaves with Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) fungus

When I was walking through Cherry Tree Wood last week I noticed, in amongst the Hornbeam and the Oak, a solitary Sycamore tree. As is usual in these parts, the leaves were covered in the round black scars of Tar Spot fungus, which occurs mostly when the tree is young and shaded by older plants. The fungus makes the leaves look as if a Frost Giant has squeezed each one between an icy finger and thumb. It is almost as if the tree is being punished for its very existence, because the more I read about Sycamore, the more I realise how unpopular it is.

Sycamore 12Sycamore is a member of the Maple family, as its leaf shape shows. At the moment, it is classified as a neophyte, which means a plant that was introduced after 1500. However, there is a name for the Sycamore in Scottish Gaelic (‘Fiorr chrann’) which suggests that the tree was present much earlier than that. However long it has been here, it is a prolific self-seeder, and if you want an instant forest in your back garden, there is a good chance that Sycamore will oblige.

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

Sycamore ‘Helicopters’
(By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

For me, autumn would not be complete without these little whirligigs spiralling down from the trees like some kind of James Bond flying device. But it’s safe to say that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Take John Evelyn, seventeenth century writer, for example:

” The Sycamor…is much more in reputation for its shade than it deserves: for the Hony-dew leaves, which fall early …turn to a Mucilage and noxious insects, and putrifie with the first moisture of the season: so as they contaminate and marr our Walks; and are therefore by my consent, to be banish’d from all curious Gardens and Avenues.” (Quotation from Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey).

This ‘mucilage’ is likely to be the main culprit for the problem of ‘leaves on the line’, which slows up trains every autumn. And the ‘Hony-Dew’ is produced by the extraordinary number of aphids who feed on the tree. The combination of the two can drive gardeners to distraction. Take this posting to the RHS website for example:

“It rains leaves and now sap and insects of all kinds emerge from it. The sap is everywhere and makes all the garden furniture sticky. Birds roost in it and we have piles of you know what everywhere. So bad now that my grandson is not allowed to play in the garden as its just a smelly, sticky nightmare!”

Oh dear. I can see why the Sycamore is not everybody’s favourite.

However, it can be a truly magnificent tree, growing up to 35 metres tall and living for 400 years. The Martyrs’ Tree in Tolpuddle, Dorset, is a Sycamore. In the 1830’s the local farm labourers used to meet under its branches, and formed the first agricultural labourer’s union in England, subsequently being transported to Australia for their pains. It is said that George Loveless, their leader, took a leaf from the tree with him, pressed between the pages of his Bible.

The Martyrs Tree at Tolpuddle, Dorset (Simon Palmer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Martyrs Tree at Tolpuddle, Dorset (Simon Palmer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The insects complained about by the gardener above are, for me, one of the Sycamore’s strong points. Where there are aphids there will be lacewings and ladybirds, blue tits and bats. Richard Mabey points out that the Sycamore has the highest insect productivity by weight of any common tree: 35.8 grams per square metre, compared with 27.76 grams for Oak. This is especially useful in urban areas, where alternative sources of insect food might be hard to come by for airborne feeders such as House Martins and Swifts.

In the spring, the flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for all manner of pollinating insects.

Sycamore Flowers (Albert Bridge [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sycamore Flowers (Albert Bridge [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The leaves are also food for a variety of moths.

Caterpillar of the Sycamore Moth(Acronicta aceris) (By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Caterpillar of the Sycamore Moth(Acronicta aceris) (By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Plumed Prominent moth (Ptilophora plumigera) (By Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, Bugwood.org [CC-BY-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Plumed Prominent moth (Ptilophora plumigera) (By Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, Bugwood.org [CC-BY-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)

In Wales, the wood of the Sycamore is used to make a Love Spoon, which is normally carved from a single piece of wood by a young man to give to his beloved. This was an indication to the bride-to-be’s father that the suitor was competent at woodworking, and was therefore likely to be a good provider, plus the time and effort involved indicated that the lover was serious, not some Jack-the-Lad.

A Love-spoon (By José-Manuel Benito (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Love-spoon (By José-Manuel Benito (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

For some people, the Sycamore is a ‘weed’, the only tree, to my knowledge, to be labelled in this way. Its ‘alien’ origins, its profligacy, its ‘slimy’ leaves and its way of attracting insects have led to a very British disdain. Poppycock, I say. We should be proud of this magnificent tree, and grateful for its shade, its generosity, its graceful flowers and its helicopter seeds. We need more sturdy, long-lived trees like the Sycamore. They help to prevent flooding by soaking up excess water. They purify our air and help to reduce the heat of the city. And with their lifespans of hundreds of years, they provide a way of both remembering our personal transcience and linking us to the history of those who went before us.