Category Archives: London Invertebrates

Coming Home at Last

Dear Readers, it’s some indication of how the summer has passed that I have not created a post about East Finchley since June. But this morning was so beautiful that I had to go out with the camera for a stroll around the County Roads. I have been so stressed that I have become completely unmoored, and the cure is to walk, slowly, to pay attention, to breathe and to notice. What better place to start than with the plane trees on the High Street, that seem to be holding the sun in their branches? They are the last species around here to come into leaf, and the last to lose those leaves.

The Bald-Faced Stag gazes towards Cherry Tree Wood, as usual.

There are a lot of tropical Fatsia plants in some of the south-facing front gardens on Lincoln Road. The buds look like little green artichokes, bursting into waxy white flowers.

There are lots of members of the daisy family still coming into flower, loosening those tight-fisted buds one petal at a time.

Michaelmas daisies are everywhere, I love the way that the stamens go from yellow to purple as the flower ages.

Michaelmas daisies

A pumpkin left over from Wednesday’s Trick or Treating gives me the side-eye…

And the autumn berries and hips and fruit are set off by the blue sky.

Each burst of colour feels like a small electric shock. I ask myself where the summer went? Since July every waking moment has been spent organising, planning and worrying about my parents. Now that they are in the nursing home I feel redundant, without purpose. This will pass, I know, but at the moment I feel as if all the grief that has been stored up over the warmer months is exposed by the extravagance of autumn. It all feels just a little too much, beautiful as it is.

I spent a few days with Mum and Dad in the nursing home last week. I had a chance to have a good talk with Mum and to take her through what had happened, step by step. She seemed to understand, finally, that we were unable to look after her at home anymore, and that we wanted to carry out her wishes to be with Dad, and to be close to the friends and neighbours  that she loves. She hasn’t mentioned going home since, though I am not optimistic enough to assume that this will be the end of the conversation. But things look better than they did last week, and that is a bonus.

And now, I have to work out what I want to do when I grow up. As I am nearly sixty, I’d better get a move on. And in the meantime, I am walking the streets with my camera, making friends with the local cats.

There is one garden that I really love. It is a tiny space but absolutely full of nicotiana, borage, and other pollinator-friendly plants. There are a few honeybees even on this chilly day – one of the benefits of a south-facing plot is that it warms up the insects and helps the nectar flow. As I watch, I hear a low-pitched humming, and a queen bumblebee as big as the first joint on my thumb appears. Maybe the warmth of the day has roused her from her hibernation, and she needs a snack. The borage shudders and bows under her weight.

I float along to the High Street again. For a whole hour I haven’t been worrying about whether the nursing home are taking dad’s slight chest infection seriously, or what they will do about the fact that he’s now more or less nocturnal and keeps waking mum up. I realise that though I still have a role to play, the day to day care is not something that I need to meddle in. The home is happy for me to phone whenever I want, but I do think that after being so involved for such a long time, I need to step back from the small stuff. The trouble is, it’s a reflex, and it gave my life purpose.

What do I do now, with my one wild and precious life?

Well, one thing seems to be that I take photos of bollards that have been knocked over. The one on Leicester Road is no sooner concreted into verticality than it’s prone again. This cycle must have been repeated a dozen times since we moved to East Finchley in 2010. And there’s a bollard on the High Street that is similarly afflicted. I could extract some cheesy metaphor about persistence and resilience, but actually it seems a bit Sisyphean, a never-ending task that seems to have no more meaning than a grudge match between bad drivers and some long-suffering council workers.

On Bedford Road there is a rather beautiful tree. It is poised like a heron about to take off, one branch flung back and arching over a garage, the other leaning over the pavement and almost kissing the tops of the cars. What a deeply inconvenient being it is, no doubt blocking out the sun from the front windows and depositing leaves in great russet piles. And yet, it is obviously loved, and encouraged, and valued. There is room on these streets for the strange, the unusual, the awkward. I feel at home here. One day it will be my turn, too, to leave. I hope that I will have planned ahead so that the transition will feel like one that was a choice, rather than imposed on me. And in the meantime I hope to make the most of the harvest, and of the glory that it brings.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Small Balsam

Small Balsam (Inpatiens parviflora)

Dear Readers, on Bank Holiday Monday I went for a walk on Hampstead Heath, and I discovered this new ‘weed’ growing in the woods alongside the path. I think it must be a relatively recent arrival because I have never noticed it before, and it is quite distinctive, with its primrose-yellow flowers and orange pollen. It is spreading at quite a rate, and seems to be out-competing the enchanter’s nightshade that used to grow prolifically in the dry shade here.

Small balsam is a member of the busy lizzie family, something that is not obvious until you have a look at the buds, to the right of the photo below. It is also closely related to Himalayan balsam, that scourge of riverbanks/great plant for pollinators depending on your view, although this is a much more delicate plant.

There is some debate about how small balsam originally got to the UK from it’s original habitat, the damp woodlands of Russia and Central Asia. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley discuss the various theories. One is that it was imported accidentally with Russian timber in the mid 19th century – small balsam is the only plant thought to have arrived and thrived in the UK in this way. Another is that the seeds were imported along with buckwheat which was used as feed for gamebirds. It’s also difficult to rule out contamination from fly-tipping of horticultural waste, especially at the edge of woods. Whatever route the plant took, it is certainly very happy now.

Small balsam is hermaphroditic, which means that it can self-pollinate, but it is largely pollinated by hoverflies, who dance in the dappled sunlight from the trees above, patrolling their three-dimensional territories and occasionally darting down for some sustenance.

As I was taking photographs of the small balsam a young woman with the most delightfully mud-covered small dog stopped for a chat. She told me that she had been on a herbal walk on the Heath some months ago, but had forgotten most of what she’d been told. I sympathised: my memory is so full of medical appointments and other organisational imperatives that relate to my elderly parents that I can barely remember how to get dressed in the morning. However, it’s surprising how the discovery of a new plant, and furthermore one that I can almost identify with confidence, concentrates the mind and lifts the spirit. For a few minutes I felt almost normal, as opposed to just about hanging on.

Small balsam leaves are apparently edible if cooked in one change of water, and they can also be used as a treatment for ringworm, nettle stings and warts. It seems that they can also be used as a treatment for an itchy scalp. I am always a little nervous when a plant that kills things (such as the fungus that causes ringworm) is also said to be edible, so as always caution is advised. Plus, as this seems to be a plant of the forest edge it is liable to contamination by passing dogs, especially on the Heath where at least one pooch seems to be de rigour.

The seeds are also said to be edible, but good luck with collecting them – as with all members of the family, touching the ripe seed pods will send the seed cascading into the air, one reason that an alternative name for balsams is ‘touch-me-nots’ (and that the generic name ‘Impatiens’ literally means ‘impatient’.

The caterpillar of the balsam carpet moth (Xanthorhoe biriviata) feeds on all kinds of balsam, and is unusual in having three different colour forms.

Photo One by By Léo-Paul Robert - Self-scannedDie Raupen und der Maler – Léo-Paul Robert, Stiftung Sammlung Robert, Biel, ISBN 3-9522989-4-8, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39694661

The different colour forms of the balsam carpet moth caterpillar (Photo One)

The moth itself is a handsome creature, striped in shades of rust, chocolate and cream.  The one in the photo below has kindly posed him/herself against a white wall for maximum impact.

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=795705

Balsam carpet moth (Photo Two )

And as my photos are not quite up to scratch this week, here is a great photo showing the delicate tracery of burnt-orange and blood-red on the ‘throat’ of the flower.

Photo Three by ArtMechanic [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Small balsam flower (Photo Three)

The path alongside the wood where the small balsam grows is now shadowed on the other side by a massive fence and a lime hedge. Behind it is one of the largest houses that I’ve ever seen. I only know this because, at various times in its construction, us commoners could get a glimpse through the gaps in the hoardings, to see such things as a swimming pool complete with metal tubular slides from the first floor into the water. On the other side of the fence, folk who have arrived on the bus and puffed their way up the hill walk their elderly stiff-legged terriers, and mothers push their prams en route to the ice cream van. Beneath the fence, a mysterious stream flows out, crosses the path and trickles down into the wood, right where the small balsam is growing, and I wonder if the wet conditions have changed the ecosystem just enough for the plant to thrive. It reminds me that no matter how much people isolate themselves from the community that they live in, they are still part of it, and impact upon it. Whether they care, or are happy in their own little bubble, remains to be seen.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Léo-Paul Robert – Self-scannedDie Raupen und der Maler – Léo-Paul Robert, Stiftung Sammlung Robert, Biel, ISBN 3-9522989-4-8, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39694661

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=795705

Photo Three by ArtMechanic [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Accidental Garden

Common Carder Bumblebee buzz-pollinating Bittersweet

Dear Readers,what a week it’s been! As you may remember, Mum was finally admitted to hospital last Friday with what we thought was an infection. However, once she’d had a CT scan it appeared that something more sinister was going on. She seemed to have an obstruction in her digestive tract, and for a few terrifying days we were afraid that she might have to have an operation to remove whatever was causing the blockage. In her weakened state, and given her medical condition, this was the last thing that anyone wanted.

Mum gave her consent to the operation if it proved to be necessary, but was extremely indignant that she was asked if she wanted to be resuscitated if anything went wrong.

‘Of course I want to be resuscitated!’ she said to me later as she told me about the encounter.  ‘After all, I haven’t got anything else wrong with me!’

Well, this is open to question, but who wouldn’t admire such a fighting spirit?

Fortunately, the surgeon took a look at  the scan and decided to play a waiting game. And so poor Mum was Nil by Mouth from last Friday until Wednesday this week. I took the train to Dorset County Hospital to see how she was getting on, and she was seriously disgruntled.

‘I’m never coming to this hospitall again’, she said.. ‘I’ve been sitting in this chair all day, and they won’t let me get back into bed’.

I tried to explain that this was because they were trying to ease the pressure sore on the small of her back, and also that they were going to bring her a cup of tea which she couldn’t drink laying down, but to no avail. When Mum has a bee in her bonnet it’s normally a pretty large bee.

And then yesterday we were delighted to learn that what had appeared to be a blockage was actually the result of a chemical inbalance, probably because of her infection, dehydration and various other factors. She is now eating ice-cream and yoghurt and drinking tea, and seems well on the road to recovery.

On the other hand,  at the moment she is also completely unable to bear any weight on her legs. Maybe this is just weakness after the infection, or maybe it is some new ‘thing’, because no sooner has one thing been knocked on the head than something else puts in an appearance. It’s like some game of medical Whack-a-mole.

However. I have been at home for a few days, have caught up on my sleep, have applied unguents to the horrible stress-related rash that was turning me into the Elephant Woman, and have had time to wander around the garden and admire all the things that are popping up that I’ve had nothing to do with planting at all.

Dear Readers, I  am something of a ramshackle gardener at the best of times. When a new plant first appears in the garden, I am loathe to just pull it out until I know what it is, and sometimes identification takes a while. However,  such tardiness can breed the most spectacular results with regards to wildlife.

Take the bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) that is clambering all over my fence, for example. This year it has grown into a splendid vine and has flowered for months, producing great bunches of bright red berries which the birds may or may not be interested in later in the year. The plant is outcompeting my honeysuckle, and has already defeated a clematis. But what can I do? It is literally abuzz with common carder bumblebees, who buzz-pollinate the flowers. There are at least a dozen of them at a time and their high-pitched buzzing the very sound of summer for me.

 

The superabundance of bees and other pollinators means that the vine is also studded with spiders. Most of the arachnids are not big enough to cope with a full-sized bumble at the moment, and so when a bee flew into the web of a garden spider earlier today, the spider rushed over and cut it loose before the bee could completely destroy all the hard work that went into making it.

Garden orb spider (Araneus diadematus)

Incidentally, the appearance of garden spiders that are big enough to notice means that summer is ripening into autumn. Earlier in the year there are just as many spiders but they are tiny, so they escape our gaze.

Another surprisingly effective wildlife plant is Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum). Again, this just popped up around the pond without so much as a by-your-leave. I have cut it back a bit this year, but it is still vigorous and extremely popular with the bees and butterflies. Round about now the seeds are starting to appear, and I should really blitz it before I have hundreds of seedlings all over the garden, but I don’t have the heart while most of the plants are so pretty and in full flower.

Great Willowherb and honeybee

I have already waxed lyrical about the bird-planted sunflowers and their value to pollinators, so I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that, like many daisies, it is useful for all kinds of bees and hoverflies, and those huge flowers will be useful for finches later on.

Carder bee on sunflower

Last year, the birds were kind enough to plant some flax, which is not only exquisite in its own right, but valuable for small flies too. This year it was the sunflowers. Who knows what they’ll plant next year?

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

But the largest plants that have appeared from nowhere in my garden, and the ones that are the most useful of all my ‘weeds’ are the two twelve-foot high buddleias in the front garden. Why the most useful? Because my back garden faces north, and so is only insect-friendly for part of the day, whereas the front garden faces south and so is thronged with bees and butterflies all day.

In  order to be friendly to the neighbours I cut the buddleia back as soon as it starts to encroach on the pavement, which means that it flowers for much longer than normal. This year, they came into bloom at the start of July and are still full of flowers in late August. Many different kinds of pollinators use it during the day, and at night it’s full of moths.

The buddleia a few years ago. It’s much bigger now!

Finally, even non-flowering plants that appear in the garden can have their uses. By the side of my pond there is a large pendulous sedge. These can be something of a pest as they self-seed everywhere, but they are extremely useful as cover for newly-emerging baby frogs, and adult frogs seem to enjoy their protection too.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

Of course, not every plant that I tolerate in the garden reciprocates my good manners. I should not have been so kind to the herb bennet, for example, which is now absolutely everywhere. The brambles in the very back of the garden are now arcing over into the seating area, looking for somewhere to root. And the bindweed is becoming positively impudent. But on balance, there is something to be said for being generous when a stranger pops up in the garden. After all, it is often a plant ideally suited to the conditions that you’ve created, something that will thrive when the expensive item that you bought at the garden centre will pull up its roots and go south as soon as you turn your back. If it isn’t Japanese Knotweed or duckweed, I’d say give it a chance. You never know which creatures will crop up to take advantage of it.

Bugwoman on Location – A Common Ground at Tate Britain

Dear Readers, the Tate has ‘form’ when it comes to installations that combine gardening with art. Who can forget the raised beds of ‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern, a most frustrating exhibit which missed a number of opportunities to illuminate the varied habitats around London. So, I was hopeful but not overly optimistic when I went to visit ‘A Common Ground’ on Monday. This is what the gallery says about it:

It seems like a lovely idea, but I too have ‘form’ when it comes to community gardens. I was treasurer at Culpeper Community Garden in Islington for several years, and I know that the idea of a pop-up community garden is almost an oxymoron – these places take years of slow growth to build up both the garden itself and the community that supports it. People need to get to know one another, and the plants need tender loving care to establish themselves.

And so it proved. Most of the beds housed plants that were not in the best of health. The poor old sweet peas had withered away to nothing. The large white butterfly caterpillars were having a delightful time and had eaten nearly all the cabbage seedlings to a stump.

Large White (Pieris brassiceae) caterpillars

Some plants were doing well, especially the ones in the greenhouse, where a lone shy young man was potting up some seedlings.

There were various forms of squash bursting forth, a homage to an installation called ‘The Squash’ by Anthea Turner, which takes place in the gallery itself. Someone wearing a squash on their head poses among the artworks, as we all gawp and take photos. What a job.  I cannot imagine how hot the performer has been during the last few weeks.

Hokkaido squash

‘The Squash’ by Anthea Hamilton

The raised beds themselves have a certain geometric elegance, but I can’t help thinking that runner beans would have been nice. Like so many edible plants they are elegant in their own right. As it is, the sweet peas are just not cutting it, though some broad beans are giving it their best shot.

Some plants are doing very well: there are some splendid hollyhocks and sunflowers.

There are a couple of beds which combine pollinator-friendly herbs and vegetables with plants such as verbena for the bees, and these are doing pretty well.

There are even fountains that are triggered by the human voice. I  wondered how these worked, but I think the idea is that you sit down for a chat and then  the fountain gurgles into life. My friend S and I were eventually loud enough to get one to work, and very exciting it was too.

But sadly there was no one for us to have a chat to. The young lad in the greenhouse didn’t want to talk, and that’s fine – not everyone who comes to a garden comes to socialise, and any community garden should allow for both the quiet and the extrovert. But there was nobody else. I suspect that it’s very different on Saturday when there are events (last week’s demonstration of Caribbean vegan cooking sounds particularly intriguing), but all in all I think the problem is intrinsic to the very nature of the project. Gardens take time and investment, and many gardeners wouldn’t want to spend time on something that will disappear at the end of October. This is a bit sad, as I’m sure this could be a very productive garden even in this period of time if it was looked after.

Also, community gardens are usually full of volunteers who live within walking distance, school children, pensioners, folk who have time to spare for whatever reason. The garden here could be the same, but I have a suspicion that by the time people get to know about the garden, it will be time for it to close.

I would have been fascinated to know a bit more about the kinds of fruit and vegetables that are being grown too: for example, there was a label for Yacon, a kind of tuberous South American daisy, but it was impossible to tell which plant it referred to, which was frustrating.

The questions that ‘A Common Ground’ ask are well worth considering. How does a garden bring people together? What can we learn from one another by growing and eating plants, side by side? What happens in those social interactions where people are working on a  common task? Unfortunately, my visit today makes me think that local people are not really engaged with this project, for all the reasons of time and location that I’ve mentioned previously. It frustrates me to see happy caterpillars munching on lovingly planted cabbages, and sweetpeas turned to brown paper for want of watering. My dad, who had an alllotment for most of his life, would have been horrified.

I shall pop back for a second look later in the year, just to see if things have gelled into something more coherent. But for today, this was a pleasant and interesting walk, nothing more.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Verbena Bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, what a strange plant this is, with its stiff stems and heads of tiny purple-pink flowers! I until a few years ago it was a relative rarity in London gardens, and I can see why – the flowerheads are small for the size of the plant, which can grow up to six feet tall. But then the other day I saw some planted with grasses and Japanese anemones, and I finally appreciated its delicate beauty. Plus, it is a great late summer plant for butterflies, and as so many people are trying to do their bit for wildlife these days it has grown in popularity. Finally, it is drought-tolerant, and we all need a bit of that in London, what with it being nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Verbena bonariensis in Muswell HIll, with grasses….

The name ‘Verbena’ means ‘sacred bough’, but this refers to Verbena officinalis or Vervaine, a plant used for medicine and for sacred ritual from the Druids onwards and introduced to the UK in the Stone Age. You can see the family resemblance in the photo below, especially the stiff stems.

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at https://www.flickr.com/photos/74738817@N07/28519290812

Vervaine (Verbena officinalis) (Photo One)

‘Bonariensis’ means ‘from Buenos Aires’, indicating that the plant originated in South America. It has naturalised in the warmer parts of North America and is considered a noxious weed in some states.

In the US, the plant is known as ‘purpletop’ or ‘South American vervaine’. It seems strange to me that the plant doesn’t yet have a common name in the UK, considering how popular it’s become. In their book on Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael J. Crawley call it ‘Argentine Vervaine’, so maybe this will catch on. However, a new variety of the plant, which is smaller with larger flowers, is known as ‘Lollipop Verbena’ so maybe this is the name that will stick.

Photo Two from https://www.crocus.co.uk/plants/_/verbena-bonariensis-lollipop-pbr/classid.2000017445/

Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ (Photo Two)

In ‘Alien Plants’, Verbena bonariensis is described as being one of the UK’s fastest spreading non-native plants. It certainly loves to self-seed and, as it gives height to plantings in supermarket car parks and municipal beds it’s easy to see where the spread is coming from. Plus you can grow it from seed, which saves lots of money, no small thing if you’re a cash-strapped council. I foresee fields of ‘purpletop’ in our future.

Medicinal uses for the plant seem to be few and far between, at least in Europe. One site describes it as useful for love potions. Another mentions how their dog seems to love eating it. Humans, however, do not appear to eat the plant in any form that I can find. I suspect that it might be useful as a dried flower, and Alys Fowler describes the blackened seed heads as ‘most arresting’. But if you have a patch of the garden in full sun, you might want to grow the plant just to see which insects turn up.

Photo  Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

With honey bee (Photo Three)

With Skipper butterfly (Public Domain)

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davehamster/3896579963

With red admiral butterfly (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photofarmer/272560745

With monarch butterflies in North America (Photo Five)

I always have a bit of a problem with what to plant for once my buddleia and lavender have finished, and I am thinking of getting a raised bed for my south-facing front garden, to replace the selection of pots that I currently have – even with daily watering the plants have suffered this year, and I think they might stand a better chance in deeper soil. I suspect that some Verbena bonariensis will definitely feature after the display of insects above, especially if I can grow it from seed. It’s good to have a gardening project to consider when I have so much else going on. It’s difficult to dwell on dark thoughts when leafing through a seed catalogue.

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Photo Six)

And so to a poem, and what a sock in the eye this one is, especially as we all pant in the grip of a heatwave that is longer than any I can remember.

‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry‘……

Anthropocene Pastoral by Catherine Pierce

In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.

Early spring everywhere, the trees furred

pink and white, lawns the sharp green

that meant new. The sky so blue it looked

manufactured. Robins. We’d heard

the cherry blossoms wouldn’t blossom

this year, but what was one epic blooming

when even the desert was an explosion

of verbena? When bobcats slinked through

primroses. When coyotes slept deep in orange

poppies. One New Year’s Day we woke

to daffodils, wisteria, onion grass wafting

through the open windows. Near the end,

we were eyeletted. We were cottoned.

We were sundressed and barefoot. At least

it’s starting gentle, we said. An absurd comfort,

we knew, a placebo. But we were built like that.

Built to say at least. Built to reach for the heat

of skin on skin even when we were already hot,

built to love the purpling desert in the twilight,

built to marvel over the pink bursting dogwoods,

to hold tight to every pleasure even as we

rocked together toward the graying, even as

we held each other, warmth to warmth,

and said sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry while petals

sifted softly to the ground all around us.

Photo Seven by By frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven

Photo Credits

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at https://www.flickr.com/photos/74738817@N07/28519290812

Photo Two from https://www.crocus.co.uk/plants/_/verbena-bonariensis-lollipop-pbr/classid.2000017445/

Photo Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verbena_bonariensis_with_a_bee.JPG

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davehamster/3896579963

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photofarmer/272560745

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by  frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Lavender

Honeybee on lavender (Lavandula augustifolia)

Dear Readers, when we were trying to buy a house in East Finchley almost a decade ago, I sat on the wall outside the house that is now ours. Were we far enough from the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner not to be affected by the rowdiness that sometimes accompanies such establishments? How bad was the noise from the main road? As I sat there, I breathed in the scent from the lavender that had been planted by the current owners, and watched the bees hopping from flower to flower. I realised how lucky I was to be even considering living here, and also that the house was meant to be ours. I am sure that the smell of lavender will always mean this house to me, and will be tied up with the memories of my time here.

Today, those lavender plants have become a veritable field. In truth they’ve become a bit woody and overgrown, but for a few weeks every year they attract every pollinator for miles around. I sat on my wall with the camera this afternoon, and listened to the drowsy hum of the honeybees going about their business, just as I did a decade ago, and it still soothes me. I think of them taking the lavender-scented nectar back to the hives on the allotment a few blocks away, and it makes me smile to think of how delicious it will be.

Every year we take the shears to the lavender once it’s finished flowering, and the next year it comes back with more flowers than ever. I know there are lots of other varieties, but this seems to be the one that is the most robust in the sun-baked Mediterranean climate of my south-facing front yard. Every time I brush past the flowers they release that heady, resinous scent.

Most of the bees that come to visit are busy honeybees or bumblebees, but every so often we get a butterfly. Normally these are large or small cabbage whites, but today I spotted my first small tortoiseshell. These butterflies had a bad year last year – I don’t think I saw a single specimen, so it was great to see this one. They look so unobtrusive with their wings closed, but then they open them, and you get a brief glimpse of tangerine and sky blue.

Wait for it…..

There we go! Small tortoiseshell ( Aglais urticae)

Lavender is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and can be found right across Europe, south west Asia and northern and eastern Africa. It has been taken to many other countries as a culinary herb, and as a source of essential oils. It has been found ‘in the wild’ in the UK since at least 1440 – it was mentioned in a manuscript poem by a horticulturalist called Jon Gardener ( which may have been a pseudonym, a case of someone being named after their occupation, or a fine case of nominative determinism). The plant now finds itself in the top thirty list of alien plants found in London and Berkshire, but not in Sutherland, where presumably it is too cold and wet. I suspect that its range will increase northwards as climate change warms up the country.

There is some discussion about how lavender got its name. Some believe that it came from the Latin word lavare, to wash, perhaps referring to the use of the essential oil in soap and for scenting both people and clothing. Others think that it comes from the Latin word livere, meaning ‘blue-ish’. Both seem feasible to me, and the derivation could well be a combination of the two, equally applicable, words.In Hebrew, the plant is called nard, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon. In Roman times, lavender was sold for 100 denarii a pound, about the same as a month’s wages for a farm labourer.

Today, lavender the plant has given its name to lavender the colour, one of my favourites.

Something that divides people is the use of lavender as a flavouring. I am very fond of floral overtones in food, and a lemon and lavender cake is my idea of heaven. However, it’s easy to be heavy-handed and to end up with a dessert that tastes like soap, just as the over-use of rosewater can result in something that reminds me of a lady’s boudoir. Should you wish to have a bash, however, here is a recipe for lavender and lemon loaf cake.

Lemon and Lavender Loaf Cake (see recipe at link above)

Interestingly, although popular culture has it that the people of Provence have been showering every dish with lavender since time immemorial, the ingredient was not included in books about Provencal cookery at the turn of the 20th century. Lambs were  allowed to graze on lavender to flavour and tenderise their meat, but the inclusion of lavender in ‘Herbes de Provence’ was created in 1970 for the North American market. Thus are legends born.

The production of lavender oil for other purposes is big business: it’s used in everything from soap and shower-gel to fabric conditioner and cleaning products. There are two types of oil, one derived exclusively from the flowers and used in perfumery and aromatherapy, and lavender spike oil, derived from a different species of lavender, Lavandula latifolia, and used as a replacement for turpentine. The world’s biggest producer of lavender is not as you might expect Provence in France, but Bulgaria. There are also some lavender farms in southern England, including Mayfield Lavender in Surrey, a site that I stumbled upon during a walk a few years ago. What a feast for the senses it was!

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Mayfield Lavender Farm (Photo One)

As a medicinal ingredient, lavender is often used to enable sleep and to soothe anxiety (hence the use of lavender oil sachets and pillows filled with the flowers for those with insomnia). It was used in the First World War as an antiseptic for wounds and burns, and has long been used for tension headaches, and as a treatment for parasites. However, the oil is also an endocrine disrupter, and has been linked to breast development in young boys (prepubertal gynecomastia). It is also a strong ingredient which can irritate the skin if used at the wrong concentration. While I like the smell of the flowers, and the taste of the ingredient in food, I much prefer rose as a scent in my soap and lotions. I find lavender a little bit overwhelming.

On the other hand, Cleopatra was said to have seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony by wearing a perfume containing lavender, so if you are in the mood to subdue a dictator this might be just the plant. On St Luke’s Day (18th October), maidens would sip lavender tea and recite this poem:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me,
In my dreams, let me my true love see.”

Furthermore, lavender was one of the ingredients of Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction which was said to protect those who used it against the plague. The ‘Four Thieves’ bit comes after some burglars who were preying on the houses of those who had died of the disease were captured: they gave the recipe in exchange for clemency, saying that it had enabled them to go about their nefarious crimes without catching the plague themselves. There are many different recipes, but all include vinegar mixed with various herbs, such as sage, rosemary and lavender. As these plants have all been used to deter insect infestations, I wonder if bathing in the vinegar deterred the fleas that carried the plague? Often these stories have a tiny kernel of truth.

And here, for our poem of the week, is one by Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who has won both the T.S Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This is the title poem from his 1987 collection ‘Meeting the British’.

Meeting the British

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – At Long Lane Pasture

Dear Readers, on the hottest day of the year so far, my friend A and I ventured forth for a walk around Long Lane Pasture. This nature reserve is just half a mile from my house in East Finchley, but it’s easy to miss, being tucked in beside the North Circular Road and the tube line. Once I was through the unprepossessing gate it was as if I was in some mythical summer from my childhood – although the rumble of the traffic is ever present this is the only reminder that you are in the London Borough of Barnet, not in some meadow in the shires.

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum) beside the main path

There are meadow brown and ringlet butterflies, cabbage whites and the occasional cinnabar moth flitting around the long grass. The flower heads of a yellow buddleia hang opposite the berries of a guelder rose. Wild and garden perennials mix cheerfully together. All that is missing is the chirrup of grasshoppers, which puzzles me – with all this long grass I would expect the place to be deafening. I wonder why there aren’t any?

Seedheads of yellow buddleia (Buddleia x weyeriana)

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

There are some seats under a covered area next to the largest pond, and we sit and enjoy the shade and a drink of water. A moorhen and her chick head for cover, but the dragonflies are relentless. One male emperor dragonfly seems to want to own the entire pond, swooping down to see off all rivals, his wings gleaming in the sun. He always returns to the same reed to survey his kingdom. Occasionally he stoops at a butterfly but in a half-hearted way. This time of year is about breeding.

It is chastening to think ow easily this pasture could have been lost to development. In 1912 it was given to the public as a reserve, but half of it was lost in 1920 when the North Circular Road was built. For years the land was grazed by horses, but in 1999 Barnet wanted to build houses on the site, one of the last scraps of unspoilt green left in the Borough. After a public campaign it was designated as open space, and 2009 the Long Lane Pasture Trust was granted a 25 year lease. I suppose this means that we’ll have to gird our loins for another fight in 2034. I shall be marking it in my diary.

Alder bark ( I think! Feel free to correct me….)

We follow the paths, taking the opportunity to sit on the benches placed in the shade of the trees. In one area, an elm has been planted. A sign tells us that this is a Princeton elm, a hybrid developed in the US to resist Dutch Elm disease, which still kills off any elm saplings ambitious enough to grow taller than about six feet. The sign tells me that a white-letter hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) was spotted in the pasture in 2009: this is vanishingly rare in the UK, as the eggs are laid on the twigs of elm trees, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. When the elms died in the UK, it was pretty much the end for the butterfly as well, so closely was it associated with the tree. The Princeton elm has been planted in the hope that ‘the white-letter hairstreak will make a home here’. I hope so too.

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

A white-letter hairstreak (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

White-letter hairstreak caterpillar (Photo Two)

There are many small ponds on the pasture, many dotted with purple loosestrife and bulrushes. My friend A rescues a cinnabar moth caterpillar from one of them. The irises have just gone over, and there are some strange plants in another of the damper patches. I’m hoping that they aren’t skunk cabbage, an invasive species from North America that can out compete practically anything, but my latest advice is that it’s probably elecampane, a yellow member of the daisy family. I saw some in flower earlier, so this makes sense.

But the best is yet to come. My friend A points out some little webs in the long grass. I take a few photos, and once home I talk to some of my friends on the invertebrate identification groups that I belong to. It appears that the webs belong to nursery web spiders! I am cockahoop. These spiders are free-range hunters, tracking flies and other small insects  through the long grass and pouncing on them like cheetahs. The female carries her egg-sac around with her in her jaws and then, when they are ready to hatch, she weaves the webs that I saw so that her spiderlings are protected while they grow.

Nursery webs….

Apparently, when the male wants to mate with the female (who, as is the way with spiders, is much, much bigger than he is) he presents her with a gift of food while simultaneously pretending to be dead. When she comes over to investigate he apparently springs to his feet, mates with her (presumably while she is absorbed in her dinner) and then runs away as fast as his eight tiny legs will carry him. The ways of insects are strange, but I have known humans who would pursue the same tactics if only they were speedy enough.

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider - Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) carrying her egg sac (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult female nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo Four)

And so we come full circle to the entrance again, having only just skimmed the surface of the wonders that Long Lane Pasture has to offer. I haven’t mentioned the fluty notes of the song thrush, nor the pretty yellow flowers of the meadow vetchling, and I could probably go on all day about the moth population of the grassland. But that will have to wait, because once it gets above 80 degrees in London it’s time for even the mad dogs and English women to get out of the mid-afternoon sun, and into somewhere a little more shady. I shall certainly be back.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider – Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons