Dear Readers, few things make me happier than the first hairy-footed flower bees. They often arrive before the end of March, and they have a great fondness for my flowering currant bush. The males are unmistakable – they have white faces, as if they’ve run head-first into some putty. And look at the length of that tongue! I love the way that they fly around with their tongues out, like little knights about to head into a joust.
The hairy-footed flower bee (or Anthophora plumipes to give the correct name) is generally an early riser – my Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Stephen Falk suggests that the males can be on the wing as early as mid February, though they’d have been blown about rather roughly if they’d put in an appearance in February this year. The males are said to appear two to three weeks before the females, who are jet black but have russet hairs on their legs and collect pollen, unlike the chaps who are just after the nectar and some lurve. I did spot a female this morning, but as usual she was too speedy for me – the males seem to hover and hang around a lot more, while the females are very purposeful. There is a suggestion that the males hold territories around desirable flowers, so now that I have a few days off I can spend some time watching them.
The nests are usually made in crumbling brickwork and sometimes in chimneys, which is one reason why the females will sometimes appear indoors.
In the photo below you can just make out the white hairs on the last pair of legs, which indicates to me that they should be ‘hairy-legged’ rather than ‘hairy-footed’. Maybe that’s a bit too Morecombe and Wise for the apiphiles out there.
And they were not the only bees either; there were a couple of honeybees on the plant-whose-name-I’ve-forgotten. Remind me, readers! It’s evergreen with white or green flowers, and I have a couple strewn about the garden.
The ratio of leaf to flower on the potted grape hyacinths is gradually improving, plus I suddenly realised that they were fragrant, something I’d never noticed before. I think once they’ve gone over I’m going to liberate them from their pots and plant them around the pond to provide some cover.
And look, the fritillaries are coming into bloom!
And the wood anemones. Please turn a blind eye to the guano if you can. I think I’m going to get nappies for the visiting birds, they have no manners at all.
The marsh marigold is doing very well, and if the water in the pond gets much lower I am going to have to tip out the frogspawn. A lot of it looks as if it will be hatching soon, though.
And here is my one and only self-sown lesser celandine. I’ve got some way to go before the garden is as full of golden flowers as the cemetery is, but there you go, it’s a start. I might regret ever bewailing their rarity, I know.
And finally, here are a few more shots of the hairy-footed flower bees. I am very pleased with this flowering currant, but the one next to the pond is looking very sad this year, I’m not sure what’s wrong with it. I think I’ll let it flower, cut it back a bit and then give it some TLC. I’m not sure how long they live, but I know I’ve had it for ten years, so it deserves a bit of a rest. Any way, let’s see. A garden is a perpetual work in progress, and none the worse for it.
Dear Readers, you might think that the trees that form part of an ancient woodland nature reserve would be safe from being cut down, except when it’s essential for the management of the area. Sadly, as I have learned, you would be wrong. Trees are often felled in urban areas because they are blamed for damage to nearby housing, even when the houses are built after the trees are fully grown, and even when such housing is extended right up to the treeline.
Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know how passionately I care about the few small areas of ancient woodland that remain in North London, in particular Coldfall Wood. At only 14 hectares it provides a home for 26 species of breeding birds (including the lesser spotted woodpecker and song thrush, both Red List species), 2 species of bat, 106 species of beetle (including three Nationally Notable species), 56 species of spiders and 3 species of pseudoscorpion.
Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing in Coldfall Wood
Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata) in Coldfall Wood
Two nuthatches – Coldfall Wood
Stock Dove (Coldfall Wood)
Treecreeper (Coldfall Wood)
One of the species recorded is the very rare Lesser Glow Worm (Phosphaenus hemipterus).
However, being a rare ecosystem brings limited protection when insurance companies become involved. A local householder has been having subsidence problems with an extension that was built ten years ago. A number of two-hundred year-old oaks have already been destroyed without the knowledge of the local Friends group, whose role is to liaise with the council and to protect the wood. The plan was to fell a further seven trees on 1st March, even though the loss of the other trees hasn’t improved the situation. Fortunately we were able to get the felling postponed, but the trees still aren’t safe.
Coldfall Wood August 2020
Speckled Wood butterfly
Our local Council, Haringey, is under pressure from the insurance company (AXA) to fell the trees – the council can be found to be negligent if it doesn’t act, and can be forced to pay for any works deemed necessary. However, there are lots of reasons other than trees that can cause subsidence to occur, including the soil composition, the geography of the area and the adequacy of the foundations of the building, and none of them have been explored. Our question is this: if cutting down a number of mature oak and hornbeam trees didn’t solve the subsidence problem, how will removing further trees help? Where does it end?
Water mint (Mentha aquatica) next to the seasonal pond, Coldfall Wood August 2020
There is a meeting on 5th March at the council to discuss a strategic approach to the problem, and we hope that this will at least allow for further research into the causes of the subsidence. However, we also have a petition asking for the felling to be stopped, which has over 50,000 signatures already (link below). We are angry that trees and the habitat that they represent are considered so expendable at a time when councils, corporations and our national government all claim to be working to alleviate climate change. There is so much talk about protecting the environment, and yet greenspaces have never been under so much pressure. While we want to work constructively with the council and with the insurers, we have no intention of allowing the destruction of these trees.
The by-line for this blog has always been ‘ Because a community is more than just people’. That community includes the trees that provide much of the oxygen that we breathe, that shade us in the summer and that provide a home for hundreds of other species. If we don’t act now to give them the protection that they deserve, then when?
The link to the petition is here. Please feel free to sign and share. I shall let you know how we get on.
Coldfall Wood 7.30 p.m. August 4th 2020
Photo One By Urs Rindlisbacher – Majka GC, MacIvor JS (2009) The European lesser glow worm, Phosphaenus hemipterus (Goeze), in North America (Coleoptera, Lampyridae). ZooKeys 29: 35–47. doi:10.3897/zookeys.29.279, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8770508
Dear Readers, Christmas was pretty much cancelled for lots of people yesterday at 4 p.m. in the UK, just as most people had stocked up on food for the people who were allowed to travel to see their relatives for five days over the holidays. Instead, in areas with Tier 4 (pretty much all of the south-east including London) no household mixing is allowed (unless you have formed a support bubble) and everything except essential retail is closed. In other parts of the country, 2 households can mix on Christmas Day only. If you’re in Tier 4 you shouldn’t travel to lower tiers, but of course everyone jumped onto a train or into a car and headed off to escape the lockdown which started at midnight last night. My heart goes out to everyone who had made plans and wanted to finally be with the ones they loved after this terrible year. The numbers of cases are frightening, though. My main ire is with the powers that be, who have ignored calls from scientists for London to be completely locked down since October. Only a few days ago, Boris Johnson was mocking Kier Starmer when he called for household mixing restrictions to be cancelled.
Anyhow, here we are. For me personally it makes very little difference, what with having no parents left. We were planning a quiet Christmas, and that’s exactly what we’ll have. I am planning to get out for a walk whenever the weather cooperates even a tiny bit, however, and so today we found ourselves back in East Finchley Cemetery (which confusingly is largely owned by Westminster City Council). Maybe it’s this Westminster connection rather than the Barnet one which makes it such a posh place – everywhere is well manicured and there are a plethora of graves with extravagant headstones. Angels and Celtic crosses abound.
I found this headstone particularly interesting – I’ve not seen anything like it before. The wheel at the bottom looks like a Buddhist symbol for the wheel of reincarnation, but I’m not sure about the boss in the middle – could it be a lotus? Let me know if you have any thoughts, I haven’t included the details of the person buried because there weren’t any clues, and also I try not to be too personal out of respect.
There is some very fine carving, particularly of plants, as in the headstones below. What patience must have been required to create them!
But what I like most are the ones that are intensely personal. Have a look at this cricket-themed gravestone, for example.
And who was ‘Harry’? And why is this all that is on his gravestone? Did his family run out of money to put more details, or was his name all that you needed to know about him? So many mysteries….
And then there is that magnificent Italianate crematorium which is still largely fenced off, and probably will be until the pandemic is over.
But look at the trees! This is the home of some fine Cedars of Lebanon, some of which are covered in pine cones this year.
A gnarled and ancient-looking tree has what looks to me very much like home for a woodpecker – I will have to check it later in the year to see if anyone has taken up residence.
Small flocks of redwings go twinkling away as soon as I get within a hundred metres. Was there ever a shyer thrush? I am even prouder of my devastatingly good portrait captured in the other cemetery yesterday.
I am very fond of this fine angel who is one of a row of very fine tombs beside the entrance. I think that the ivy rather enhances the overall effect.
But before I forget, here is a rather surprising sight. It’s 46 degrees and the middle of December, and yet, on Bedford Road in East Finchley, two bumblebees are collecting pollen from Mahonia- these are not queens, but workers. The nests of buff-tailed bumblebees sometimes survive throughout the winter these days – normally all the adults except the queens, who hibernate, die. But you can clearly see the pollen in the leg baskets in the second photo – a queen at this time of year would just be gathering nectar to keep herself fed until she started laying eggs in the spring. These workers still have a nest to go back to, and if we don’t have severe weather, who knows but that they might survive right through? The impacts of climate change are unpredictable, for sure.
Dear Readers, was there ever a creature more maligned than the poor old False Widow spider? If the newspapers were to be believed, they are ravaging folk all over the country, taking chunks out of small children and wrestling dachshunds to the ground. Well, I must be as brave as that woman in Game of Thrones with the dragons, as I have three visible in my kitchen at the moment, one on the ceiling and two in the corners of the sash windows outside. A single bite can be enough to make you lose a limb, apparently, and back in 2013 four schools in East London were closed while they dealt with an ‘infestation’ of False Widows. To be frank, I suspect the children were in much more danger from the pesticides used than the spiders themselves. If you hear the sound of distant harrumphing, that’s probably me.
So, to get to the nitty-gritty – do these spiders bite? If cornered, yes, and the female bite is said to be worse than the males. Is it painful? Yes, and there might be local swelling. A few very unlucky people might go on to have that bite become infected, and some people might also have an allergic reaction. Is that a reason for killing every spider that you see? Absolutely not. Make sure that children know not to pick up small creatures that are just going about their business, and chances are everyone will be fine.
If you can bring yourself to look closely at the spider above, you’ll see that the eyes are lit up like little headlights – spiders have a ‘tapetum lucidum’, a membrane behind the eyeball that reflects the light. I have to say that I find that rather cute, but I can see why others might struggle.
This spider is a chap – you can see by those two things that look like jaws but are actually what are known as pedipalps, and are used to transfer sperm to the female. Also, the males tend to be a bit more slim-line than the females, who look like Maltesers with legs attached.He should have no shortage of possible mates, because the ones outside look pretty much like ladies to me.
Now, I was just about to have my windows cleaned, but I fear I might have to wait for a bit. I have been known to block up the spider’s lair with a piece of polystyrene in an attempt to preserve them during the process, but as most window cleaners use power jets these days I wouldn’t want to risk it with these lovelies. The Noble False Widow builds a little tubular retreat, which is why old-fashioned sash windows are so popular: they also build a pretty unimpressive web (at least when compared to the lovely ones in my garden) but the silk used is extremely strong. In spite of those shining eyes, False Widows are very short-sighted (a condition with which I can sympathise) and they mainly respond to vibration. I should say that the poor little soul on the ceiling did flinch when I took a flash photograph of him though, so they definitely don’t like sudden bright light.
That short-sightedness might also account for all the stories of spider bites as well, though I do wonder how come people are coming into contact with a creature that mostly lives in cracks and holes. It’s not likely to be lurking in your washing or snuggling up in the duvet. But like all creatures, it should be respected just in case.
A much clearer photo of a Noble False Widow (Photo One)
False Widows are not native to the UK – they come originally from the Canary Islands and Madeira, of all places, and they will no doubt be delighted that our climate is warming up. It’s believed that they arrived in 1879, and one was noticed by the Reverend Hamlet Clark of Torquay (and what a fine name that is). Presumably the spider arrived in a shipment of something or other (window frames possibly) and from there it has gone on to become one of our commoner spiders.
We do have our own native species of False Widow (Steadota grossa), but as you can only tell the difference between this and the spider in my kitchen by harpooning one and dissecting its genitalia, I’m going to pass.
Uk False Widow spider (Steatoda grossa) (Photo Two)
So, I shall watch my little community of spiders with some interest over the weeks and months to come. The males, sadly, only live for a year, but the females are good for three years if no one sits on them or sprays them with pesticide. During that time they will cheerfully munch their way through any errant flies, clothes moths, gnats or midges that venture indoors: indeed, my chap with his ramshackle web on the ceiling has already caught half a dozen small invertebrates. And things will get very exciting if the male actually gets on the same side of the window as one of the females, as the ladies can be very grumpy (though not normally murderous). I shall keep you all posted.
Dear Readers, today was such a perfect autumn day – cold but not too cold, bright sunshine, not a breath of wind – that I wanted to share it with you all. My weekly walk in the cemetery, normally taking the same route, is like taking a snapshot every seven days – it’s extraordinary how quickly things change. The Rayford ash trees that I photographed a fortnight ago have faded, but the silver birches and the maples are coming to the height of their beauty.
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) (I think!!)
Silver birch (Betula pendula)
There were redwings in the yew bushes, too fast for me to photograph (this time), and crows everywhere.
The damp soil has enticed down this Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), who is digging for worms, though not doing the version of ‘River Dance’ that you occasionally see (have a look at the one that I spotted in Dorchester below).My Crossley Bird Guide tells me that today’s gull is a third-year one – you can tell by the amount of black on the bill, the ‘eye makeup’ and the dark feathers in the tail. I am always impressed by birdwatchers who specialise in gulls – they have quite the job, what with all the variations between ages and subspecies. Incidentally, the name for a gull enthusiast is a larophile. Just so you know.
We skitter up the hill beside the stream quietly, because I once nearly tripped over a dozing fox here. The ground falls away to a part of the cemetery that is very difficult to access, being bordered by water on one side, and a steep escarpment plus some Japanese knotweed on the other (and you’d definitely need a machete to get through that lot, though it looks rather pretty as it gets its autumnal colour).
Japanese knotweed in autumnal glory
The Michaelmas Daisies that I noted last time have almost gone over, but there’s still some bristly oxtongue to keep this massive queen bumblebee happy. She is probably taking advantage of the sunshine to top up her sugar reserves, and I’m so glad that there’s something for her to eat.
And while there are no foxes, I notice that one of the gravestones is absolutely covered in little dusty foxy footprints. I wonder if cubs play here when no one’s looking?
We walk on along Harwoods Path, where spider silk is streaming from the trees, and little winter gnats are rising from the grass to mate.
The ginkgo has lost all its leaves. Whether they dropped simultaneously or over the whole week I shall never know.
And for some reason I have never noticed the Lombardy poplars before – they are planted in a few places in the cemetery, and certainly have a kind of austere uprightness that reminds me of a Dutch landscape painting.
I noticed a buzzard flying overhead, and then notice that it’s being harried by a crow. I’m under the trees by now so getting a photo is difficult, especially when my camera battery chooses this moment to expire. Photographer friends, why is that do you think? I almost think there is a camera-battery-elf with a mischievous nature. By the time I’m reloaded, the buzzard, now harried by half a dozen crows, has disappeared over the horizon. This the third time in as many weeks that I’ve seen one, though. I wonder if they are roosting in one of the big trees?
Today, my eye has been caught by so many things that it’s been difficult to choose what to show you. For example, I finally realised that the tree that I’d been curious about is a sweet chestnut (hardly Sherlock Holmes levels of deduction, you might think, but then it has been a very, very long year). I am pleased to see that the leaf-miners that are wreaking havoc with the horse chestnuts opposite don’t seem interested in this species.
Sweet chestnut leaves. Like horse chestnut leaves, but not quite.
And finally, I would like to leave you with this little tree, glimpsed through the yews on Harwood’s Path. Just a little maple, I think, but backlit it looks as if its leaves have been hammered out of copper. There is such a variety of plants and animals in the cemetery that it almost deserves a naturalist-in-residence, but then I fear that such a person might not want the wild bits to be dug up to accommodate more graves. I noticed that the grass where I found the fungi last week has been mown, and all the mushrooms (or at least the fruiting bodies) are gone, but then this is a place that is primarily for the mourners, and I suppose that care of the ecosystem must be some way down the list. Still, on balance this is an amazing place, with plenty of room for all its inhabitants, living and dead, plant and animal. Let’s hope that it’s able to stay that way.
Male Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) (Photo One)
Dear Readers, in my lifetime there have been some remarkable changes in our wildlife. Mostly it’s bad news, with species declining and disappearing, but this year, as people have spent more time at home and in nature, there have been reports of many insects which seem to be be increasing. Some of them, such as oak processionary moths and harlequin ladybirds can cause problems for our native wildlife, but many just seem to fit in and go about their business as if they’ve always been here.
The hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) is a cracking insect, which has a 40mm wingspan and is a pretty accurate hornet mimic. There had been only two reported sightings by 1940 but since then it has become much more common, and with climate change warming things up it has been advancing north in the UK. It is migratory, arriving here from the Mediterranean in August and is usually gone by October. I saw one in the garden a few days ago, and very spectacular it was too, all clad in gold and copper. The males have a much narrower gap between the eyes than the females do.
The larvae of the hornet hoverfly live in the nests of hornets and wasps, where they act as cleaners and are tolerated by their hosts.
Female hornet hoverfly (Photo Two)
And how about this beauty, which was popping up on my Facebook Insect ID pages about twice a day through the earlier part of the summer?
Jersey Tiger Moth (Photo Three)
We aren’t sure whether this very attractive day-flying moth is just a resident, or if its numbers are swollen by immigrants from mainland Europe (or even the Channel Islands, as you might expect from the name). It is listed as Nationally Scarce but if this year was anything to go by it is definitely increasing. Having seen just one, in Mum and Dad’s garden in Dorset, until this year, I then saw several every day for about a month. I was very excited as one of the foodplants is hemp agrimony, of which I have an abundance. However, I am still not seeing any caterpillars or leaf damage, so maybe my moths are just visiting. Definitely one to keep an eye open for, though: although it’s largely confined to the southern parts of England at the moment I suspect that it too will gradually make its way north as things warm up.
Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)
And who could forget the ivy bees (Colletes hederae)? If you have any ivy in flower near you, it’s worth having a look for these little guys, who could easily be mistaken at first glance for honeybees except that they are much stripier and gather the pollen onto their hairy legs rather than into a proper ‘basket’. They are solitary bees, although they may make their nest tunnels in the same area, forming a conglomeration of thousands of individuals. The ivy bees are among the last of the bees to appear, and very fine they are too. They were first recorded in the UK in 2001 and have made themselves very at home by taking advantage of a niche that our native bees seem to have missed.
Ivy bee (male) Photo Four
And finally, the southern small white butterfly (Pieris mannii) might not even be here yet, but it is knocking on the door. Originally from south-eastern Europe, it has been advancing north-west at a rate of over 100km a year, and in 2019 it was recorded in Calais, so the race is on to identify the first one to land in the UK.
The trouble is, how on earth do you tell that you’re looking at a southern small white and not a large white, a small white or a green-veined white? It’s largely to do with the black ‘spot’ on the upper wing, which in the southern small white is more of a concave square. Here is a very handy identification chart designed by Chris van Swaay of the Dutch charity De Flinderstichting.
Southern small white compared to other white butterflies (Photo Five)
It’s pretty clear that the butterfly will turn up on the south coast first but of course it could have been here for ages, fluttering about incognito with all those other white-winged insects. Keep your eyes peeled, bugpeople! The caterpillars feed only on candy tuft (Iberis sempervirens) and Greek bladderpod (Allyssoides utriculatum) so I suspect that they won’t be breeding here very much until they widen their tastes, but the first step is usually to arrive as a summer visitor. It will be very interesting to see what happens next. What’s clear is that the whole of nature is in flux, and while there will be many losers some creatures and plants will thrive in this strange new world.
Dear Readers, one thing that going for a daily walk before work has taught me is the restorative power of having something pretty to look at. Although the front gardens on my street are tiny, I love the effort that people have put into making them attractive. Here are a selection spotted in about two minutes.
I love the imaginative use of the gap in the brick wall here. Every season there’s something new.
I do love pampas grass. I know it’s a bit retro, but I love seeing the finches ripping bits off for their nests. This one has had lots of babies though, unfortunately.
This hebe is my number one plant within walking distance if I’m looking for late or early bumblebees.
I do love an imaginative use of pots.
Tutsan is really popular around these parts: a close relative of St John’s wort, it seems to flower forever.
And there are some fine apples and crab apples starting to appear.
Then it’s across the road to the Cherry Tree estate – these houses are later (1920s and 30s) with bigger front gardens, and some of them are gorgeous.
I thought that this fabulous plant might be a rhodichiton, but I’m sure one of you lovely people can let me know for sure 🙂
And I love this garden with its pond and little willow. Trees like goat willow are very important for early pollinators – I was wondering about getting a Kilmarnock willow for the garden for this very reason.
And the hibiscus this year! This garden has a blue one and a white one, and very fine they are too, so unexpected in a suburban road in North London.
And then it’s off to Cherry Tree Wood for a quick romp around the tennis courts and back to the main road. I am intrigued by this plant, which is growing very well. I am thinking Common Orache (Atriplex patula) but will have to go in closer for a proper look at the leaves. I am always hoping to find those Old English pot herbs Good King Henry(Chenopodium bonus-henricus) or Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) but no luck yet. What excellent Wednesday Weeds they would make!
Then it’s off to my favourite weed-spotting site, the unadopted road between the wood and Baronsmere Road. One thing that is doing very well is the Russian vine (Mile-a-minute plant) Fallopia baldschuanica). Well, what can you expect of a close relative of the dreaded Japanese Knotweed? I see that it also goes by the name of Bukhara Fleeceflower. Who knew?
I spy some evening primrose flowers, beloved by moths and a member of the willowherb family.
Lots of Japanese anemones are out too, a very reliable autumn plant in these parts, and tolerant of shade too.
When I get to the High Street, I see that the traffic light on the corner has been completely demolished. Usually a passing lorry just clips it until it is at a 45 degree angle, but this must have been a rather more substantial collision. As usual we’ll just have to be careful crossing the junction -pedestrians are definitely at the bottom of the pecking order in London generally, and at this crossing in particular.
And then it’s home. The buddleia outside my house are all but finished (although every time I think about cutting them back they throw another half-dozen flowers). What they do have is lots of honeydew on their leaves, which means that our little black and yellow friends the wasps are all over the plant, licking up the sugar. Methinks the pruning is going to have to be done with a watchful eye and great care. Fortunately it’s raining at the moment, so by the time I get to it maybe the problem will have eased a bit. Otherwise, wish me luck!
Dear Readers, I have been looking for tansy, with its tiny yellow pom-poms, for several years. It is common, but not in the back streets of East Finchley, and so I have had to go a little further afield, to Walthamstow Wetlands, where it grows in abundance. Many of its vernacular names refer to the shape of the flowers – bachelor’s buttons in Somerset, yellow buttons in some parts of Scotland, and bitter buttons in Morayshire, where the ‘bitter’ is said to refer to the taste of the plant.
Tansy is considered by some to be native to the UK, and by others to be an ancient introduction. It has been used for a wide variety of medicinal uses: Vickery’s Folk Flora recounts how a wineglass full of tansy infusion every morning was said to be a cure for worms, and the leaves were a cure for ‘the pip’, a parasite of chickens and young turkeys that lodged in the windpipe of the animals. Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica relates how tansy was once eaten in a kind of omelette to kill off the ‘phlegm and worms’ which were a result of the fish diet eaten during the forty days of Lent. From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries a ‘tansye’ was any kind of pancake or omelette flavoured with bitter herbs. One of my favourite foraging websites, Eat Weeds, has a recipe for a tansy and spinach pancake here which is adapted from a book written in 1788. You can also find a more modern recipe for Rose and Almond Tansy Pudding with Butternut Squash Icecream here.
The leaves were used as an aid to fertility by young couples in Cambridgeshire eager to start a family: because tansy was much eaten by rabbits, those symbols of fecundity, there may have been a kind of sympathetic magic going on. On the other hand, young women who lived on the Fens would chew tansy to procure a miscarriage, and the oil is said to be an efficient abortifacient.
The aromatic leaves were also used as a strewing herb on the stone floors of houses in the Shropshire countryside, and their smell is said to deter the infamous Colorado potato beetle, and so it is sometimes used as a companion planting in North American potato fields. Tansy oil is an effective insect repellent, but not as effective as DEET, though I doubt that tansy oil will burn a big hole in your camera case.
The Tansy Green pub in Bolton was named by local people after the large number of tansies which grew in the field before the housing development was built there. I think it is crying out for a pub sign with a painting of the plant, but it seems to be very popular with the community.
The Tansy Green Pub in Bolton (Photo One)
Tansy is also the main foodplant of the Nationally Rare tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis), a leaf beetle with iridescent coppery-green wingcases so pretty that the Victorians are said to have used them as sequins. Sadly, the poor old tansy beetle is now limited to a 30km stretch of the River Ouse in York: it spends all its time on or around tansy, and as it isn’t known to fly, if a patch disappears it has to walk to the next one (so not much chance of it turning up at Walthamstow Wetlands under its own steam). The amount of tansy in the UK is in decline due to a variety of factors, not least of which is the rise of Himalayan balsam, which crowds out many other species. The Tansy Beetle Action Group are hot on the case however, doing everything from removing the aforementioned Himalayan balsam to making sure that landowners who are clearing ragwort because of its perceived danger to grazing animals know the difference between this plant and tansy. And I have just noticed that the acronym for the group is TBAG. Well done!
Tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis) (Photo Two)
The larvae of the tansy beetle pupate underground, and this presents a number of problems: the area where they now live floods regularly in the winter, but there seems to be a very low mortality during hibernation, and so the pupa must be able to survive substantial periods of complete inundation, with no access to oxygen at all. When they emerge as adult beetles, they are prey to everything from birds to spiders, but they may also contain the volatile oils from the tansy plants that they eat, making them an unpleasant mouthful. I like the photo below, showing the pinch-marks on the wingcases of the beetle where a bird has picked it up and then thought better of it.
Somewhat battered tansy beetle (Photo Three)
The work of TBAG reminds me of an article that I read by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian this week. He talks about how overwhelming the problems of the world can be, and how difficult it is to feel as if you’re making any kind of difference. The antidote to this, in his view, is to pick something local that you feel strongly about and that you can get involved in. This feels true to me: we can spread ourselves so thinly over all the things that are wrong that we end up raising our anxiety levels to fever pitch and making no difference at all. It’s something to think about for sure. We do not, individually, have unlimited resources, but if everyone got involved in something that they cared about and worked together to make it better, who knows what we could achieve?
Tansy has also been used historically as a dye-plant, yielding a very pretty bright yellow result as you can see in the blogpost from Gage Hill Crafts in Vermont here. Tansy is widely naturalised in North America, and was used in the burial of the first president of Harvard University, Henry Dunster, in 1659 – he was laid to rest wearing a tansy wreath, and the coffin was packed with the plant. When the burial ground was moved over two hundred years later, in 1846, Dunster’s remains were easily identified because the plants had retained their shape and scent.
The name ‘tansy’ is thought to derive from the Greek word Athanathon, meaning ‘immortal’, possibly because the flowers do not wilt when dried, or because the leaves have been used (among their myriad other uses) to preserve meat. On the other hand, it is also one of the many plants that are said to induce a death in the family if planted in the garden. However, in Greek mythology, tansy is said to have been given to the youth Ganymede, who was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle – the herb made the human boy immortal, so that he could become cup-bearer to the Gods. Ganymede’s father was paid off with some ‘heavenly horses’ and the only creatures to have really missed him seem to have been the hounds who were with him when he was carried away – they are often depicted howling at the sky. Mythology tries to make sense of the randomness of fate, and to explain the inexplicable. I wonder if there ever was a prototype for Ganymede, and what actually happened to him?
The Abduction of Ganymede by Eustache Le Sueur (circa 1650) (Public Domain)
And here is a poem. I love how Blunden evokes those long summer evenings, and conjures up those men of few words who did so much to shape the world around them, and who passed unremarked except by those who loved them. If looked at with attention, is there any such thing as an ordinary life?
Here they went with smock and crook, Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade, Here they mudded out the brook And here their hatchet cleared the glade: Harvest-supper woke their wit, Huntsmen’s moon their wooings lit.
From this church they led their brides, From this church themselves were led Shoulder-high; on these waysides Sat to take their beer and bread. Names are gone – what men they were These their cottages declare.
Names are vanished, save the few In the old brown Bible scrawled; These were men of pith and thew, Whom the city never called; Scarce could read or hold a quill, Built the barn, the forge, the mill.
On the green they watched their sons Playing till too dark to see, As their fathers watched them once, As my father once watched me; While the bat and beetle flew On the warm air webbed with dew.
Unrecorded, unrenowned, Men from whom my ways begin, Here I know you by your ground But I know you not within – There is silence, there survives Not a moment of your lives.
Like the bee that now is blown Honey-heavy on my hand, From his toppling tansy-throne In the green tempestuous land – I’m in clover now, nor know Who made honey long ago.
Dear Readers, a trip to Walthamstow Wetlands on Saturday provided me with no less than three potential Wednesday Weeds, a tremendous haul considering that we are now heading into autumn, and finding plants that I haven’t written about before becomes something of a challenge. So, to kick off this week, here is one of the last remaining bladder campion flowers, blowing in the wind. The ‘bladders’ can be popped, and often were as a childhood game in various parts of the country: in Somerset and Wiltshire the plant is known as ‘poppers’, and in Kent they were called ‘Thunderbolts’, which seems a bit of an overstatement. Vickery’s Folk Flora lists dozens of other names for the plant, including ‘cowmack’, from the north of Scotland, as bladder campion was thought to be an aphrodisiac for cows, ‘making them desire the bull’. In Dorset, it was known as ‘white-flower-of-hell’ as it was thought to be deadly poisonous – in fact, the plant is edible, as we shall see. Finally, to continue the bovine theme, on the Isle of Wight the plant is known as ‘bull-rattle’, probably because of the sound made by the dried calyxes. I listened closely to this little patch, but could hear narry a sound. Bladder campion is a member of the Caryophyllaceae, or pink family, and is closely related to red campion, ragged robin and the various catchflies. It is native to Europe, although it is also widely naturalised in North America. Incidentally, the name ‘bladder campion’ has been used for the white campion (Silene latifolia) in the US, which is why Latin names are so useful.
Bladder campion has found itself on the menu in several parts of Europe. In Cyprus it is eaten for its green leaves and shoots, and you can buy bunches of the plant, sold as Tsakrostoukkia or Strouthouthkia in the market. In Italy, it can be found in risotto, especially in the Veneto and Friuli regions. But it’s in Spain where it features most prominently, with people known as ‘collejeros‘ who pick the leaves (‘collejas‘). You need an awful lot of those tiny narrow leaves to make a dish of ‘widower gazpacho’ (gazpacho viudo), which features flatbreads served with a bladder campion stew.
Chickpea and bladder campion stew (Photo One)
Bladder campion is also one of the favourite plants of the froghopper, and in Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey points out that the herbalist John Gerard called it the ‘Spatling poppie’, ‘in respect of that kind of frothie spattle, or spume, which we call Cuckow spittle, that aboundeth in the bosom of the leaues of these plants, then in any other‘. The adults are very attractive-looking insects, and are true bugs, which makes them one of my favourites.
The flowers are also said to be clove-scented, especially at night (though I associate this feature more with white campion (Silene latifolia)). They are pollinated largely by moths, who can reach inside that long calyx.
Red and black froghopper (Cercopis vulnerata) (Photo Two)
Like all members of the family, the roots contain saponin, which is a soap substitute, and bladder campion appears to have been used for this purpose in Finland at least.
In my search for folklore related to bladder campion, my new-found favourite Finnish website also mentions that the plant is best used ‘for spells by untouched young men and maidens‘. And here is a rather delightful story, by VenetiaJane on Twitter:
‘In legend, an idle youth , Campion, was employed by Minerva to catch flies, placing them into a bladder bag to feed her owl. One day she found the lazy boy taking a nap so she transformed him into the white flower that we know today as bladder campion, or flycatcher‘.
Now, in my search for some interesting paintings relating to this plant, I found the artist and illustrator Joris Hoefnagel. Have a look at the lovely page below, showing a bladder campion, a b broad bean and an opium poppy – a most unlikely combination, but such an accurate and loving depiction. Hoefnagel was one of the last illustrators to illuminate manuscripts (which were largely being replaced by books), and his drawings of plants and animals were a major influence on the Flemish still-life artists who were to follow.
Joris Hoefnagel (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 – 1600) Opium Poppy, Bladder Campion, and Broad Bean, 1561 – 1562; illumination added 1591 – 1596, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment Leaf: 16.6 × 12.4 cm (6 9/16 × 4 7/8 in.), Ms. 20 (86.MV.527), fol. 69 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 20, fol. 69 (Public Domain)
And finally, of course, a poem. This one is by Fleda Brown, former Poet Laureate of Delaware. I love the way the image of the bladder campion flower segues into a blimp. For my readers not familiar with Horatio Alger, he was an author who wrote stories about impoverished boys who work hard to escape poverty and are rewarded by some extraordinary act of generosity by a rich person. I suspect that this is poem is mostly about hope, and its limitations.
Dear Readers, it always makes me happy to find a ‘proper’ weed, one that I haven’t seen before but which is extremely common. Black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) is not actually a bindweed, but is a member of the Polygonaceae or knotweed family, and can be told from its close relative Russian Vine by its heart-shaped leaves, and smaller, less flamboyant flowers. This one has popped up at the top of my road, and is half-heartedly climbing up the drain pipe, although its natural habit is more prostrate. One possibility for its appearance in this very urban spot is that it’s an ingredient in bird food, and has been deposited here by a passing finch.
Black bindweed is an annual, and is thought to be a Neolithic introduction to the UK – one of its vernacular names is ‘wild buckwheat’, and and the seeds have been found in Bronze Age middens. The plant was probably sown with food crops such as barley, and harvested at the same time. The last meal of Tollund Man, a 2000 year-old corpse found in Jutland in 1950 included the seeds of black bindweed, along with barley, linseed and wild pansy. The man had been hanged, it is believed as a sacrifice to the goddess of spring, and he was then thrown into a peat bog, which preserved his body. There is a great peacefulness in his face, which I hope means that he didn’t suffer, poor soul.
The head of Tollund Man (Public Domain)
Black bindweed is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, and grows most commonly on disturbed land throughout its range. It is a most adaptable plant, and can grow up to an altitude of 3600m in the Himalayas. It is a much better behaved plant than some of its relatives, however: we have already mentioned Russian vine, but another member of the genus is our old favourite Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Black bindweed can cause some problems, however: it is classified as an invasive weed in North America, and can cause damage to the cutters of harvesting machines if there is a heavy infestation in a field.
The seeds of black bindweed are a major food of the grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the UK’s native partridge. This species is on the Red List of endangered birds, largely because it is a bird of hedgerow and field margin, habitats that have been much reduced over the past fifty years. The bird has the largest egg clutch of any UK bird, with a record of 19 eggs in a single nest. Fortunately, the chicks are able to run around from birth, and grey partridge can be seen in ‘covies’, small groups of up to twenty individuals. If disturbed the birds will run rather than take to the air, which explains why the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) was introduced as game bird, it being rather more inclined to take flight. During the breeding season, the male grey partridge is said to have a call rather like a key being turned in a rusty lock.
Grey partridge (Perdix perdix) (Photo One)
The plant is also the foodplant of the Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Laconobia oleracea), which is one of the most splendidly descriptive species names that I know.
It is also the foodplant of the rare black-bindweed case-bearer micro moth (Coleophora therinella) a most intriguing insect whose larvae create tiny portable cases that they live in until they pupate. The adult moths have wingspans of only 13-16mm, so they are very easy to miss.
And so, I find that my ‘new’ weed has actually been intertwining its stems with our lives for thousands of years. And, while this poem is not directly about black bindweed, it is about Tollund man, and about our dark, interconnected history in these small islands. Heaney wrote an excerpt from this poem in the visitor’s book at the Aarhus museum where Tollund man was on show. The way that he interweaves this sacrifice from the Bronze Age with the deaths in the Troubles is masterly. If you want to hear him read the poem, there is a link here.
Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney
Some day I will go to Aarhus To see his peat-brown head, The mild pods of his eye-lids, His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by Where they dug him out, His last gruel of winter seeds Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for The cap, noose and girdle, I will stand a long time. Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him And opened her fen, Those dark juices working Him to a saint’s kept body,
Trove of the turfcutters’ Honeycombed workings. Now his stained face Reposes at Aarhus.
I could risk blasphemy, Consecrate the cauldron bog Our holy ground and pray Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed Flesh of labourers, Stockinged corpses Laid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth Flecking the sleepers Of four young brothers, trailed For miles along the lines.
Something of his sad freedom As he rode the tumbril Should come to me, driving, Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands Of country people, Not knowing their tongue.
Out here in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home.