Category Archives: London Invertebrates

Wednesday Weed – Columbine

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

Dear Readers, this seems to have been a particularly good year for columbines.They are the quintessential cottage garden plant, but I was surprised to discover that the small flowered blue form, as seen above, is a native. Because various forms of columbine are grown so frequently in the garden it’s hard to determine what the actual range of the plant is, but Aquilegia, a genus of about 70 species, are found throughout the northern hemisphere. Aquilegia vulgaris seems to like calcium-rich soils, woodland areas and damp grassland, and is most common in the south and west of the UK – I found the flowers in the photos today in Somerset and Dorset.

Columbine has many, many local names. Most refer to the shape of the flowers: my Vickery’s Folk Flora tells me that the plant is known as ‘Doves-in-the-ark’ in Somerset; the name ‘Columbine’ comes from the Latin word for dove, ‘columba‘, with the inverted flower being said to resemble five doves clustered together. In Yorkshire it’s called ‘Fool’s hat’, a reference to flower’s resemblance to a jester’s cap. In Wiltshire it bears the name of ‘Granny-jump-out-of-bed’, possible because the petals resemble a skirt, though why granny was wearing her clothes in bed would probably make a story all on its own. ‘Aquilegia’ means ‘eagle-like’, and this is because the petals are supposed to look like an eagle’s claw.

The wild form of columbine is usually dark blue, though it can also be found in pale pink and white. However, the ‘domesticated’ forms come in a huge variety of colours and flower shapes. Here are a selection: first, the cultivar ‘Magpie’

Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5516707

‘Magpie’ cultivar (Photo One)

Then this rather pretty blue cultivar

And this pink one….

Pink flowered columbine (Public Domain)

And a double-flowered one for good measure.

Double-flowered columbine (Public Domain)

What is interesting about the structure of the columbine, however, is that it is the spurs at the back of the flower hold the nectar. The length of these structures varies from species to species, but in all wild plants the spurs have evolved to match the bird or insect that pollinates it. In California, Aquilegia pubescens (also known as the Sierra columbine) is a high-altitude plant that has white flowers, and spurs up to 5 centimetres long. The plant is pollinated by hawk moths, insects with a liking for white-flowered plants and with a tongue long enough to reach the nectar.

Photo Two by By Dcrjsr - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10776732

Sierra columbine (Aquilegia pubescens) (Photo Two)

At lower altitudes, from Alaska to Baja California is the crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa). Its red colour and much shorter spurs are a giveaway that its main pollinators are hummingbirds (most red-flowered wild plants were originally bird-pollinated). In between there are a whole host of hybrids between the two species, illustrating the way that the plant is adapting to the chief pollinators in each area. The process illustrates the way that plants and pollinators are locked into a dance of evolution, with each dependent on the other.

Photo Three by Dcrjsr - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50586172

The transition from Aquilegia pubescens to Aquilegia formosa (Photo Three)

Photo Four By Walter Siegmund (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5491242

Crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) (Photo Four)

For anyone who would like a closer look at the structure of the columbine flower, I recommend the UK Microscopy website, which has many fascinating insights. One of these days I shall treat myself to a microscope, maybe for my fast-approaching sixtieth birthday – I love the way that a close-up view reveals so many wonders. But in the meantime I shall keep going to UK Microscopy for my high-magnification fix.

In the UK, columbine is a good bee plant, and is a nice choice for a woodland garden. It attracts mainly long-tongued bumblebees, and as seven of these species are considered endangered, it is well worth popping a few columbines into your understorey (should you have one). The bumblebee with the longest tongue in the UK is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), who has a tongue which can reach 2 cms long and is hence a match for any native columbine. My advice is to avoid the highly-bred fancy cultivars, and go for the dark blue natives.  Plus, you don’t have to worry about isolating individual cultivars or even species in order to get them to ‘come true’ – as we have seen, columbines hybridize at the drop of a hat.

Photo Five by Roo72 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Bee pollinating columbine (Photo Five)

There seems to be some debate over whether Aquilegia vulgaris (‘our’ columbine) is poisonous – they are members of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and are closely related to monkshood (Aconitum napellus), described as ‘the most toxic wild plant in Britain’. Some sites described the roots and stems as being toxic, and on the Poison Garden website, the dark columbine (Aquilegia atrata), which is native to northern Europe, is said to have been used to cause miscarriage. However, there are no recorded cases of poisoning, and it is often a favourite in children’s gardens because of its interesting flowers and bee-attracting properties. Plus, certain Native American tribes have long eaten the flowers, which I imagine are very sweet due to the concentrated nectar that they contain.

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) used the plant medicinally as a treatment for swollen glands, and it was also used to hasten childbirth. As with most herbal remedies, the dosage and the wisdom and understanding with which the plants were used has been largely lost, to all of our detriment.

Many species of moth caterpillar munch upon the poor old columbine, and one of them is the saddleback looper, the larva of The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). The moth is not particularly exciting to look at, but I include it here because I have learned that the word ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semicircular indentations along the edge’ in heraldry. You’re welcome.

Photo Six by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806463

Adult male Engrailed moth (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Six)

A plant which has been grown in the UK since the 13th century is bound to have attracted some folklore, and one story is that lions ate columbine in order to give themselves strength – it was said that, to get the courage of a lion, all you needed to do was to rub the plant over your hands. However, if you are female and someone gives you a bunch of columbine, this is an indication that you are said to have ‘flexible morals’, and I think you would be well within your rights to summon up the courage of a lion and ‘clip them round the ear’ole’ as my Dad used to say.

And, of course, a poem or two. When I looked for ‘Columbine poems’,  I found many, many works about the school shooting at Columbine, a great outpouring of grief and rage and questioning. But I was most intrigued by, firstly, this work by Melissa Stein, who we encountered a few weeks ago writing about lily of the valley.

Dear Columbine, Dear Engine

by Melissa Stein

Dear columbine, dear engine.
Mere water will force a flower
open. Then with a touch
the beautiful intact collapses
into color filament and powder.
It’s all my fault. All hands on deck
to help collect what’s spilled.
That could be me beneath
a bridge. Torn up beside the road,
a bloat of skin and fur.
Afloat in bathtub, clean,
blue-lipped, forgiven. Face-down
in the snow. Why do you
imagine these terrible things?

asks my mother, or her
ghost. Because the paper’s
crisp and white. Because
no slate’s unwritten.
Because the ant that scaled
this flower head
has nowhere else to go.

And to end on a less distressing note, here is Emily Dickinson. There is a fine blogpost here by someone who is reproducing Emily Dickinson’s garden, and what a lovely idea that is.

It’s Father’s Day here today as I write, and for some reason this poem made me think of my mother. See what you think.

Columbine

by Emily Dickinson

Glowing in her bonnet-
Glowing in her cheek-
Glowing is her Kirtle-
Yet she cannot speak.

Better as the Daisy
From the summer hill
Vanish unrecorded
Save by tearful rill-

Save by loving sunrise
Looking for her face.
Save by feet unnumbered
Pausing at the place.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5516707

Photo Two by By Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10776732

Photo Three by Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50586172

Photo Four By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5491242

Photo Five by Roo72 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Photo Six by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806463

Wednesday Weed – Foxglove

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Dear Readers, I can never get past my mental image of a fox tiptoeing around the garden wearing pink ‘gloves’ on each foot when I look at this plant. The allusion goes right back to the Anglo Saxon, when it was known as ‘foxes glova‘, and the Latin name digitalis means ‘finger-like’. In some parts of the country it is also known as fairy gloves. I remember putting the spent blooms on my fingers and drawing little faces on them when I was a child, and Richard Mabey reports how, by leaving the stem of each flower intact, they can be turned into ‘claws’. In Vickery’s Folk Flora, there are many tales of children using the flowers as tiny balloons, holding each end of the flower and pushing the ends until they popped. It was also considered a great game to capture a bumblebee inside one of the flowers, and to delight in its frantic buzzing. In the Forest of Dean, foxgloves were known as ‘snowpers’, and a favourite admonition to a noisy child was ‘Shut thee chops; thee bist like a bumble bee in a snowper’. Certainly these always feel like the most playful of plants, and from memory they seemed to be in full bloom at just about the time that the school holidays started.

Foxgloves are certainly having their moment ‘in the sun’ (though they are actually woodland flowers and most varieties don’t thrive without some shade). Every time I go to the garden centre there seem to be new varieties in every shade of cream, apricot, white and pink. They are biennials, bulking up during year one and producing flowers in year two. They self-seed enthusiastically, and are beloved by bumblebees. Digitalis purpurea is native to most of temperate Europe, but is also naturalised in many parts of North America. It is, rather counter-intuitively, a member of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae) which has been muchly enlarged of late.

White foxgloves in my garden

The story of foxgloves, however, is most closely associated with its toxicity and its medicinal properties. The leaves of foxglove were long used as a diuretic against dropsy (fluid accumulation), but it was also known that foxglove was toxic, and that giving the wrong dosage could be fatal. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how it was a study of the plant’s usage by botanist and physician William Withering that created the split between traditional herbalism and modern pharmacology.

Withering realised that the principal action of foxglove was on the heart, slowing and strengthening its beat and hence, in dropsy, stimulating the kidneys to clear fluid from the body. He also noted that the leaf could be useful in cases of heart failure. However, he insisted on carefully measured doses of the dried leaf, and was aware that too high a dose could cause the heart to falter and cease. Over time, the foxglove’s key active ingredient, digitalis, was isolated and purified, and is used today (as digitoxin and digoxin) for heart conditions. Incidentally, if you have an elderly relative taking either of these drugs who seems to be in a habit of falling, do check that the drug is not lowering blood pressure too much. Dad had six falls in as many months until a junior doctor checked his medication and realised what was happening.

These days, the chemicals for medication are largely prepared from imported leaves of a European foxglove, Digitalis lanata. However, during both World Wars the leaves were gathered and dried by members of The Womens’ Institute, just to make sure that there was an adequate supply. In 1941 the women of the Oxfordshire Women’s Institute collected enough foxglove leaves to provide 350,000 doses of the drug (enough to treat 1,000 patients for a year). Never underestimate a group of woman on a mission.

Although the plant is very poisonous, it is also emetic, which means that you are likely to vomit before suffering the worst cardiac effects. However, it was used as a salad ingredient by someone trying to murder their husband (in Colorado in 2010). The husband realised that the salad tasted bitter, but thought it was one of these antsy-fancy new leaves that are all the rage (I can relate). He suffered a gastrointestinal upset but survived, and his wife was sentenced to four and a half years in jail.

In the Vickery book mentioned earlier, it seems that foxglove was also used for a deeply sinister purpose: the killing of unwanted children. There are several folk legends indicating that foxglove is poisonous to ‘fairies’, and it was used as a test to see if a sickly child was a changeling ( a fairy child who had been exchanged for the original human child) in both County Leitrim and Caernarvonshire, the latter as recently as 1857. A child was given a small dose of foxglove, and it was believed that if the child was human, it would survive, whereas if it was a fairy it would die. It would not take a very large dose to kill a child, especially one who was already ill.  Vickery comments that

Thus it seems that the use of foxglove (and other ordeals to which supposed changelings were subjected) might have been an acceptable method of infanticide which enabled families to rid themselves of sickly offspring‘.

Photo One by By i_am_jim - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68449634

Photo One

The poisonous nature of the plant doesn’t put off the caterpillars of the foxglove pug moth (Eupithecia pulchellata), who feed on the internal parts of the flowers, after sewing them shut with silk. Both moth and caterpillar are unassuming in appearance, but for sheer ingenuity I think they deserve a brief moment of fame here.

Photo Two by user janenannierocks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. - This image is uploaded as image number 3702949 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20563006

A foxglove pug (Eupithecia pulchellata) (Photo Two)

And now, a picture. Regular readers will know of my fondness for Vincent Van Gogh, who loved flowers of all kinds so much that I believe he saw into their innermost nature. The portrait below shows Dr Paul Gachet, a homeopath and medical doctor, who took care of Van Gogh following his release from the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, and was with the artist for the last few months of his life. Following an inauspicious start, Van Gogh grew to love Dr Gachet, describing him as ‘a true friend, something like another brother’. The portrait shows Dr Gachet with a bunch of foxgloves, probably as an indication of his medical background. Van Gogh painted two versions of the picture, and said that:

“I’ve done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done… There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later”.

Six weeks later, Van Gogh shot himself in the woods surrounding Dr Gachet’s home.

In 1990 the painting was bought by Ryoei Saito, chairman of the Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co, for $82m, making it the world’s most expensive painting at the time. The 75 year-old businessman was so fond of the painting that he threatened to have it cremated with him. When Saito died in 1996, the painting seems to have been sold, but the new owner suffered financial problems and sold it on again. Like so many masterpieces, it is probably now in a vault somewhere, or in a secret private collection.

Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) (Public Domain)

And of course, a poem. Here is ‘The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves’ by Anne Stevenson, which manages to combine close observation with a sly humour.

The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves

Because hairs on their speckled daybeds baffle the little bees,
foxgloves come out to advertise for rich bumbling hummers,
who crawl into their tunnels-of-delight with drunken ease
(see Darwin’s chapters on his foxglove summers)
plunging over heckles caked with sex-appealing stuff
to sip from every hooker its intoxicating liquor
and stop it propagating in a corner with itself.
And this is how the foxflower keeps its sex life in order.
Two anthers—adolescent, in a hurry to dehisce—
let fly too soon, so pollen lies in drifts around the floor.  
Along swims bumbler bee and makes an undercoat of this,
reverses, exits, lets it fall by accident next door.  
So ripeness climbs the bells of Digitalis, flower by flower,
undistracted by a Mind, or a Design, or by desire.
Notes:

In eight pages of The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London, 1876: 81–88), Charles Darwin describes an experiment he began in June 1869 among the fox- gloves of North Wales, this just one of his thousands of experiments demonstrating the superiority of cross-fertilization and throwing light on the origin of sexuality.
Photo Credits
Photo One by By i_am_jim – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68449634

 

Photo Two by user janenannierocks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. – This image is uploaded as image number 3702949 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20563006

Settling Back

Dear Readers, I am now home for eighteen whole days, which is my longest stay in East Finchley for at least a year. But before I tell you about London, I want to give you an update from my latest visit to Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester. Dad was chatting away to a new chap  when I arrived at the home. P had been in the forces and had lived abroad extensively, and, as Dad travelled a fair bit when he was a gin distiller, they were gently ‘one-upping’ one another with tales of jaunts abroad. I have learned that while people with dementia don’t always get their facts in perfect order, there is normally a kernel of truth in what they say however confused they are, and I have no doubt that P had lived in the Far East, and had learned Japanese.  P had a postcard from his daughter which he was showing to everyone who came in. Dad had been planning to write a letter to me, my brother and Mum, and had started to write it on one of the handkerchiefs that I bought him, but when I asked him about it he’d forgotten what he wanted to write. I was surprised both that he could still spell my name, and that he could still write. I’ve left him with a pad and some pens in case the urge to write strikes him again.

Dad’s face absolutely lights up when I walk in, and it’s one of the greatest joys of my life. I tell him when I’m going to visit him, but he always forgets. This time, he grabbed my hand and kissed it.

‘I didn’t know you were going to come in’, he said, and cried.

Dementia has made Dad more emotional, gentler. He has developed a taste for Portuguese custard tarts and ‘frothy coffee’, and it touches me how much he enjoys both of them. I thought that maybe he would be upset by the unusual behaviour of some of the other residents, but he seems completely at ease with them, and sometimes tries to help if someone has ‘lost’ something or seems particularly distressed.

One lady asked if I’d seen her daughter, and I told her that I hadn’t seen her today, but I was sure she’d  be in soon (she visits her Mum very regularly).

‘She’s the best girl in the world’, said the lady, and I had to go outside because that was what Mum always said about me.

One of the guys, B, used to be a London taxi driver and hasn’t lost any of the repartee. One of the carers asked him if he liked children.

‘I like children but I couldn’t eat a whole one’, he said.

When I popped in on Wednesday to have breakfast with Dad and to say goodbye, he was all geared up to ‘walk into town and have a look at a secondhand car’. I know that Dad misses driving, but while I’m sure he could do the mechanics of driving, he wouldn’t know where he was going. Fortunately, the home had organised a trip to the local market, and Dad was going to help choose some plants for the garden.

‘We’ll have a look at the cars if we can find any’, said the carer.

Initially I was really disconcerted at the degree to which I needed to lie to Dad about what was going to happen, and yet the alternative is so much more distressing and painful for him. No one is going to tell him that he will never own a car or drive again, and so the constant promise of it in the future keeps him calm and happy. There was a positive spring in his step as he headed off with his zimmer frame to get his jacket on, and I know that once he’s in the market he’ll be distracted by all the minutiae of tomato varieties and which geraniums are best.

As I waved goodbye, all the other residents waved as well. It really is a little family.

And yet when I got back to London, I was having a coffee and got into a chat with a lady who had a little dog. We talked about pets for a bit, and then I mentioned that I was just back from visiting with my Dad who has dementia. She sympathised, and then, as she was getting up to go, she turned and said

‘Oh, I do hope it doesn’t drag on too long for you’.

And yet again I was lost for words. I know that dementia is a terminal and progressive disease, but really? I think not just about my dad, but about all the people in the home that I’m getting to know, and I know that not only do they have a quality of life that makes it worth living, but that they are still valuable, loving human beings. This is the fourth time in the past six months that someone has suggested that my Dad and his friends would be better off dead, and that I must be hoping for such a speedy outcome. What does it say about our society that we can wish the oldest and most vulnerable people in it dead? My Dad is teaching me lessons about compassion and patience and understanding every single day.

And so, I really needed the solace of the garden when I got home, and all kinds of things were going on.

Take the fabulous cabbage palm (Cordyline australis) next door, for example. This year it is carrying three whole spikes full of flowers which are constantly abuzz with honeybees. I went outside to take a photograph and realised how sweet-smelling it is. No wonder the bees love it.

Outside the back door, I notice that everything is hideously overgrown, and that the pond is turning into a bog as fast as I can pull things out. However, some yellow flag irises are flowering for the first time this year. I can’t even remember planting them, so maybe they came with something else. This will certainly be something for the dragonfly larvae to climb up, and I check every day just in case.

And I love the way that the sunlight touches the water. The pond is absolutely full of frogs of all sizes this year, from adults to tiny new froglets the size of my fingernail. They are hanging around a lot later this year too, so maybe being so overgrown isn’t such an absolutely bad thing.

My white foxgloves are flowering, and the Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower is covered in bumblebees.

And so is the mock orange, which is just finishing but which is still headily-scented.

But there has been one disaster. The box moth caterpillars have been particularly vigorous this year – last year I managed to trim the bush back in the spring and get rid of most of the damage, but this year they have killed the bushes completely. I shall be cutting them back, digging them out and planting something else. I even spotted one of the caterpillars walking nonchalantly across the path a few days ago, probably en route from one bush to another. This is a pest that has marched through the  country over the past ten years, although the adult moth is rather lovely. I spotted the first one I’d ever seen at the Barbican Centre in London in 2015, but it was noticed in private gardens in 2011. It has probably arrived in imported box plants (the moth comes originally from East Asia) and while it can be treated with nematodes if caught in the early stages, the advice from RHS Wisley is to plant something else. Climate change is making the environment much more pleasant for the moth, and I suspect that we are going to have to adapt too. Privet, anyone?

RIP to my box bush.

Adult Box Worm Moth (Cydalima perspectalis)

And, in more exciting news, we are going to get our external decorations done. It’s been more than ten years, and the paintwork is, shall we say, a bit on the dodgy side. The scaffolding is up, but the best news is that I have bought this.

A sparrow nesting box

Sparrows like to nest communally, and so I have this little terrace of nestboxes that I have persuaded the decorator to put up for me while he’s on the scaffolding. Sparrows have already been investigating the eaves but have never stayed, so I am very hopeful that maybe next year they’ll take up residence. And if they don’t, maybe somebody else will. And once that’s done, I shall be looking into getting the garden back into some kind of order. I need to move my centre of gravity back east from Dorset, and start getting back into my own life. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

Roxanne geranium in the garden

Cuckoo Spit and Xylella – The Story So Far

Cuckoo Spit on the lavender in the front garden

Dear Readers, I am a member of several garden wildlife and insect groups online, and during this past week I have seen a rise in questions along the lines of ‘ I have cuckoo spit on my lavender, should I hose it all off? Is there any way to get rid of it? Are we on the verge of Armageddon?’ As someone who is entranced with the miracle of these annual foamy masses and the insects that make them, I figured that someone had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, and so they have. Reports that have superficially demonised the froghopper have appeared on the BBC and in most major and local newspapers, and I am frankly bewildered by the lack of knowledge shown. Science is often complicated, and it’s sometimes easy to read a headline and panic. So here is what is happening, as I understand it, and here is what we should be doing.

  1. What is cuckoo spit?

Cuckoo spit is produced by the nymph of the froghopper, a ‘true bug’ which feeds on the sap of plants such as lavender and rosemary. The froth is a protection for the toothsome youngster: it is produced from the insect’s excreta, and is turned into froth by the creature passing air through its anus. As I put it in my original piece on froghoppers here,

‘The foam is the only protection that Froghoppers have, and schoolchildren are always delighted by how it’s made. The bug sucks up the sap from its chosen plant, excretes what’s left, and blows air through it – so, it lives in a house built from faeces, and created by flatulence. What youngster could resist such a story? I’m surprised that they’re not all queueing up to be biologists as we speak.’

2. Do froghoppers do any harm?

The RHS website says that froghoppers rarely cause any real damage to plants, and can be left unmolested. I concur. My lavender has been a-froth with froghoppers for years, and is still splendid.

Froghopper nymph denuded

3. So why all the sudden fuss?

A bacterial disease known as Xylella fastidiosa, first discovered in the US in the 1890’s, is on the move. It turned up in Brazil at the end of the 20th Century, was in Europe by 2013 and has been advancing at a surprising pace. It was previously thought to be confined to warm areas such as the olive plantations of Greece, but in the past few years it has been found in France and Germany. Xylella works by blocking the uptake of water to the plant, and can be devastating – it has been identified in over 560 species of plant worldwide. In the UK, trees such as the oak and plane are thought to be most at risk. The RHS and DEFRA have been putting plans in place to arrest the spread of the disease if (or more likely when) it arrives. It is not, as far as we know, here yet.

The disease is probably going to arrive in the UK via a plant imported by a garden centre or tree nursery.  – the most recent outbreak of the disease was in Oleander, a popular garden plant in this country. However, once here it could be transmitted via sapsucking insects such as the froghopper. Although froghoppers are homebodies and don’t usually move more than about 100 metres during their lifetimes, they can be carried much further by the wind.

Photo One by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38317620

An adult froghopper (Philaenus spumarius) waiting to ping away. It is a very froggy-looking creature! (Photo One)

4. Why all the requests to report cuckoo spit?

This is pre-emptive. It’s hoped that by building up a picture of where froghoppers are at the moment, it will be easier to understand exactly when the insects are active and the extent of their range.  I will be reporting my froghoppers to the iRecord site below, which can be used to report other critters too, and is very useful for getting a picture of what’s around in your local area. You will need to set up an account, and then you are looking for a ‘project-specific record’ – the project is ‘xylem-feeding insects’, and the common cuckoo spit froghopper’s Latin name is Philaenus spumarius. There is a useful pictorial guide here, just in case you have one of the other two common British species.

https://www.brc.ac.uk/irecord/

5. What is being done to fight the disease?

Certain EU regulations are already in place to control the spread of the disease: this is from the Henry Doubleday website.

  • All plant importers have to show evidence that their plants are sourced from areas that are free from Xylella.
  • Proposed imports of host species such as plane, elm and oak plants must be pre-notified to the UK plant health authorities to enable inspection This will allow a sequence of spot checks at the UK borders.
  • Other regulations are in place that restrict movements of specified host plants from the infected region of Apulia in southern Italy, and from countries outside the EU, to reduce the risk of entry.

However, if it did become established in the UK, control would focus on the targeted removal of host plants and management of the vector insects’ habitats. An outbreak (as opposed to an isolated incidence) would mean eradication of all possible hosts within 100m of the outbreak and very tight restrictions on commercial plant producers or garden centres within 10km of the outbreak for 10 years.

In other words, this is an extremely strong incentive to garden centres to ensure that their plants are properly sourced.

Photo Two by By I, Pompilid, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2260500

Oleander infected by Xylella (Photo Two)

6. What plants does DEFRA consider are most at risk?

In addition to the oak and plane, there are a whole range of other plants who would be endangered by Xylella.

  • Acer rubrum L.
  • Catharanthus roseus (L.) G.Don
  • Citrus sinensis (Linnaeus) Osbeck
  • Coffea L.
  • Gramineae Adans., Nom. Cons.
  • Medicago sativa L.
  • Morus rubra L.
  • Nerium oleander L.
  • Platanus occidentalis L.
  • Prunus L.
  • Prunus persica Batsch
  • Quercus rubra L.
  • Ulmus americana L.
  • Vaccinium L.
  • Vinca minor L.
  • Vitis L.
  • Woody plants
  • Liliaceae (family)
  • Citrus

7. What are the symptoms of Xylella?

Unfortunately, Xylella can look rather like many other diseases. The Forestry Commission says that:

‘The visible symptoms on plane, maple (Acer), oak and elm trees include leaf scorch, sometimes also with dieback of twigs and branches. The characteristic leaf symptoms which are visible in summer include browning at the leaf margins (but not along the main veins), and there is often a yellow edge to the browned areas.’

I suspect that concrete identification can only be achieved by scientists with microscopes. The bacteria produces many different species-specific syndromes, varying from oleander leaf scorch to citrus variegated cholorosis to olive quick decline syndrome. You will have noticed that many of the plants attacked are important food crops, often intensively grown and lacking in genetic diversity. There is much to be said for proper husbandry and stocking, and for the preservation of different varieties of plants, for just this situation.

The bacteria works by blocking the xylem, the main water-transport system of the plant. If only a few vessels are affected, the plant might be asymptomatic but still a carrier of the bacteria. If it is planted elsewhere and subsequently fed upon by a froghopper, the bacterium can be spread to another plant. The infected plant can also transmit the disease if it is grafted to a healthy plant.

Photo Three by Alexander Purcell, University of California, Bugwood.org - [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Pierce’s disease, caused by Xylella, on citrus (Photo Three)

8. Do we have to worry now? Should I be hosing off my froghoppers and burning my lavender?

No. As mentioned above, the reporting of cuckoo spit is pre-emptive. Our froghoppers are currently completely innocent, and will hopefully remain uninfected with Xylella. I think it is a hopeful sign that DEFRA and other bodies are getting on the case now, in unison with the EU, in order to head this threat off at the pass before it gets to the UK. We have already lost our elms, are likely to lose most of our ash trees, and our horse chestnuts are under siege every year. Let’s hope that this will be one disease that doesn’t get a grip.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38317620

Photo Two by By I, Pompilid, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2260500

Photo Three by Alexander Purcell, University of California, Bugwood.org – [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

At the Garden Centre

Dear Readers, I spent the early part of this week in Dorset, visiting my dad. As regular readers will know, he has vascular dementia, and is living in a nursing home in Dorchester. His face breaks into a huge smile when I walk into the lounge, although I am convinced that he doesn’t know exactly who I am. Still, when I give him the Polo mints and Dairy Milk chocolate that I’ve bought he gathers them up with glee. Sometimes, I think that we are like Russian dolls, with all our previous selves hidden inside us. When I look at his face, I can see the cheeky schoolboy that I never knew.

However, Dad is, in his head, a bit older than a schoolboy.

‘The Captain came in to see us yesterday’, he said, ‘and told us not to worry because we don’t have dress parades here’.

It seems that Dad is back on National Service.

‘Did he, Dad?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Dad says, ‘And we went out for a dance yesterday and we were dancing until 3 o’clock in the morning!’

This actually has a kernel of truth – the residents have a form of music and movement that some of them enjoy. Dad normally sleeps through it, but seems to have embraced it with gusto this week.

Then he looks thoughtful.

‘This might sound wicked’, he says, ‘But I really miss your Mum’.

And I have no doubt that, for a moment, he’s actually thinking about the right person.

‘I miss her too, Dad’, I say. We sit in silence for a minute. Then Dad breaks the silence.

‘That woman over there is a real pain’, he says.

And so it goes on. On one level, Dad is well aware that Mum is dead. On another, he’s a young man in his twenties with his life in front of him. You could get whiplash trying to keep up. One minute he’s making me roar with laughter, and thirty seconds later he’s breaking my heart.

When I mention, at breakfast in my hotel, that my Dad has dementia, the man at the next table opines that if he gets dementia, he’d like someone to ‘take him out and shoot him’.

I do wish that people would think before they implied that my father would be better off dead. Dad has dementia, and isn’t the same as he was, but that says nothing about his quality of life. He still enjoys things. He still laughs. He still ponders and is curious. He isn’t in physical pain, or in mental anguish. I am fairly sure that it is worse for me, watching Dad change, than it is for Dad, who doesn’t remember how he was. He seems to have reached a kind of equanimity, for now. I know that this might change, but I am confident that he wouldn’t want to be shot.

I said none of this to the man at the table. But I shall be ready next time someone says something like it, bearing in mind that no one says such a thing to be unkind. I think dementia speaks to our deepest fears of losing ourselves and becoming dependent, and there is a kind of existential terror in such statements. Nonetheless, I think it is also a reflection on how we value ourselves, and one another. A person with dementia is no less lovable, or less valuable, than anyone else. Dementia challenges us be with the person that we care about in their world, to see things through their eyes, and to love them in all their various moods and incarnations. My father is not the same as he was, but I have never loved him more.

When I get home, I need something to raise my spirits. What with Mum’s death, Dad’s situation and the prospect of selling the family bungalow looming on the horizon I am exhausted and a little heartsick. So, my lovely friend J picks me up and takes me to the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green for some plant therapy. And what an exciting visit it is!

The picture at the top of the piece shows a new self-watering system for walls called Wonderwall. If only I had a wall to hang them off of, I would be in business! Each set of twelve individual planters costs about £40 so it’s not cheap, and I suspect that someone handy could knock up something very similar for much less. However, I can imagine it being a boon for a small garden or even a balcony. If it was planted up with pollinator-friendly plants it could be abuzz for months. I have to tear myself away though, because I’ve spotted something else.

Cirsium atropurpureum.

When I first planted up the garden, I had several of these thistles. Sadly, they died off after a couple of years, but while I had them they were the most desirable plants in the whole garden. Bees used to literally faint into the flowers. They are impossible to resist.

Bowles mauve perennial wallflower – in hairy pots!

Regular readers will know that I always have some Bowles mauve perennial wallflower in the garden – it is in flower all year round, and the bees love it. The added bonus here is that they are supplied by the Hairy Pot Plant Company, who sell their plants in coir pots that can be put directly into the ground. There is so much plastic in your average garden centre, and this seems like an excellent way of cutting back – how ever many times I reuse my pots, I always end up with a great teetering tower of them in the shed.

Common primrose with hairy-footed flower bee (Anthora plumipes)

I usually let the bees lead me to the best plants, rather than relying on the ‘pollinator friendly’ bee sign on the label. The garden centre is full of hairy-footed flower bees (Anthora plumipes), one of the first solitary bees to emerge in the southern UK. The females are jet black, like one above, and the males are tawny with a distinctive white face. They sometimes fly around with their tongues sticking out, which adds to their charm.

Hairy-footed flower bee on Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower

I am excited to see that the hairy pots seem to contain nothing but excellent pollinator plants.

Pulmonaria and Lamium with yet another hairy footed flower bee. This female has a big splotch of pollen on her thorax.

There is pulmonaria, with its flowers that go from blue to pink following pollination. The Lamium is basically domesticated dead nettle, but is another splendid bee plant. There is some very pretty bronze-leafed bugle (Ajuga reptens).

Ajuga (Bugle)

I bought some foxgloves last year, but couldn’t resist a few more…

And how about these? You might have noticed that the lesser celandine is in full flower at the moment. I didn’t realise that there was a cultivated variety, but this is rather splendid with its chocolate-brown foliage. I was musing aloud about whether the plant was as invasive as its wild cousin, and one of the Garden Centre workers suggested that it was ‘vigorous’. To be honest, I don’t mind if something is ‘invasive’ in my north-facing, claggy soiled, heavily treed back garden, but I have resisted this plant so far. Let’s see how strong my resolve is.

Lesser celandine ‘Brazen Hussy’. What a splendid plant….

And so I stagger to the checkout with a trolley full of plants and a head full of planting plans, and realise that for a whole hour and a half I haven’t thought about Mum, or Dad, or decluttering the bungalow. Instead, I feel a sense of possibility that I haven’t felt in a while. For a second, I feel almost guilty. And then I remember that I got my creativity from my mother, and my love of nature from Dad, and I know that they would want me to live according to those two principles. I often feel completely stuck, as if I’m buried up to my waist in mud, but something still calls me , step by faltering step, back into life.

Aquilegia

A Golden-Eyed Visitor

Green lacewing (Chrysoperla carnea)

Dear Readers, as far as many invertebrates are concerned, our homes are just big warm caves. Lots of species will hibernate with us: butterflies such as peacocks will often sleep the winter away in our lofts and garden sheds, and ladybirds, especially the newly arrived harlequin species, will occupy cracks and crevices in enormous numbers. But until I saw this one I had forgotten that some species of lacewing also spend the cold months tucked up in our houses. This one attracted the attention of my cat, and she chattered and jumped about until I realised that there was something to get excited about. I managed to get a few photographs while the poor insect waved its long antennae and gave every appearance of being nervous.

Lacewings are members of the Neuroptera, or ‘nerve-wing’ family, which also contains predators such as antlions and mantidflies. The ‘nerve-wing’ refers to the tracery of veins in those elegant wings.

I have always been partial to lacewings: I love their red-gold eyes, which are super-tuned to the colour green, enabling them to find just the right fresh growth on which to lay their delicate eggs. These eggs are laid over a period of nights, with 2 to 5 eggs being deposited at a time, until her entire cache of several hundred eggs has been distributed.

Photo One by Karz09 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Lacewing eggs (Photo One)

The eggs soon hatch into one of the most ferocious-looking larvae in the insect world. A single larva can eat up to 10,000 aphids during its lifetime, and it has been used for biological control in glasshouses, as it will eat mealybug and white fly with equal enthusiasm. It can consume entire colonies of aphids, but is not immune to a spot of cannibalism if the greenfly run out. Although the larva has poor sight and hearing, they are very sensitive to touch: they walk up and down the stems of plants swaying their head from side to side until they encounter an unsuspecting aphid, which is seized in those impressive jaws. The larva then injects the unfortunate prey with a digestive chemical so strong that the internal organs of the bug are liquidised within 90 seconds. A lacewing larva is the kind of  creature that makes me glad that I am nearly six feet tall and that it is only the size of my little finger nail.

Photo Two by By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11350127

Green lacewing larva (Photo Two)

Adult lacewings flitter about, eating nectar and honeydew, and attempting to attract a mate. They have excellent hearing, and have been found to use this to detect the hunting calls of bats and to drop out of the sky to avoid being eaten. In Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, it mentions that one way to catch a lacewing that you want to remove is to put your hand a few inches underneath the insect and to then wave your hand close to the lacewing. The insect should just fall into your hand and remain quiet for a few moments so that it can be released.

To find a suitable partner, they use a technique called ‘tremulation’ – they vibrate their abdomens, and these tremors pass through the ground and alert any available single lacewings in need of a mate. Both male and female will take part in a duet, which is described by the Royal Entomological Society as ‘an essential prerequisite to mating’.

Although lacewings look so elegant, they have the alternative name of ‘stinkflies’, because of their habit of excreting if handled (and who can blame them). At least adult lacewings are able to excrete: larvae, for some evolutionary reason, are lacking a functioning anus, and so they save up all their excreta until they moult for the last time, and then produce a single gigantic poo. Who knew? Apparently Neuroptera experts can identify the species from this pile of excrement, and good luck to them.

There are 43 species of lacewings in the UK, and, whilst the green lacewing is the one that we’re all most familiar with, there is a giant lacewing (Osymlus fulvicephalus) that loves damp, neglected corners of the garden, of which I have a superabundance at the moment. It is also very fond of willowherb, which I also have. I shall be keeping an eye open to see if I can spot this floppy-winged critter and will report back if I have any luck.

Photo Three by Pierre Bornand at https://www.flickr.com/photos/kahhihou/39305300850

Giant lacewing (Osymlus fulvicephalus) (Photo Three)

What a splendid creature the lacewing is! From those elegant eggs through the ferocious larva to the golden-eyed adult, it is fascinating at every stage. It is very welcome to share my house during the winter, and to deposit lots of little larvae all over the plants in the garden in spring.

And I am obviously not the only one. Consider this poem by Australian poet Diane Fahey. It is a fine and fitting tribute to this most fascinating of invertebrates.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Karz09 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

 

Photo Two by By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11350127

Photo Three by Pierre Bornand at https://www.flickr.com/photos/kahhihou/39305300850

Wednesday Weed – Winter Honeysuckle

Winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima)

Dear Readers, it is strange how suddenly I am brought up short by remembering. Today, as I was mooching home from Muswell Hill, looking for a Wednesday Weed,  I inhaled a breath of lemony sweetness from this rather bedraggled-looking shrub. Instantly, I was transported to another place and time: my father, walking around the garden centre with me when I was in my mid-twenties, and suggesting plants for my first garden.

‘Winter honeysuckle’, he said. ‘Doesn’t look like much, but the smell in the winter….’

He tailed off, always being a man of few words. How he loved to garden: for most of my childhood we had an allotment to supplement our food, and I remember his big brown hands, picking up the tiny seedlings and transplanting them into pots. He was the one I went to for anything to do with plants.

Now, he doesn’t know who I am, or what day it is, but it makes me wonder if, when spring comes, he will still know how to plant seeds, how to dig over a bed. I shall be asking what’s possible at his nursing home. He is so lost, what with the recent death of my mother, but there is something about soil that always brings me home, and maybe it will do the same for him.

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is one of those plants that makes up for its complete lack of aesthetic interest during the spring and summer by pumping forth its extraordinary perfume during the coldest months of the year. Its flowers are small and lack the showiness of the vine honeysuckles, and yet, looked at closely, they have a kind of elegance, what with their super-long stamens and delicately fluted petals.

Furthermore, I was not the only one who was attracted by their scent.

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Two bumblebees were busily working the flowers. It’s a mild day, but it is only the 6th January, so I was intrigued. I think that they are most likely worker bees, which indicates that there is an active nest still in progress – normally the nest dies and the queen hibernates, only starting to produce eggs and worker bees in the spring. A combination of warmer temperatures and the increasing number of gardeners growing winter-flowering plants such as this honeysuckle, Mahonia and winter-flowering heather means that nests can be viable throughout the year.

It did my heart good to see these insects foraging today. I love the way that the hang on to the flowers with their hook-like feet, and the way that they comb themselves so as to deposit all the pollen into the pollen baskets (corbicula) on their hind legs. I like the way that they go so energetically about their business, completely unperturbed by me and my camera. For a few minutes I was enraptured, and that’s a very fine state to be in.

Winter honeysuckle is also known as ‘kiss-me-at-the-gate’ and ‘sweet breath of spring’. It comes originally from China and was introduced to the UK by the plant hunter Robert Fortune, the chap who stole tea plants from China and took them to India for the East India Company in 1848. The plant was introduced to the UK in 1845, and to the US in a few years later. Winter flowering honeysuckle was certainly grown at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire by the Marquess of Salisbury during this period, and if you’re looking for an interesting day out just a few miles from London, I would recommend a visit. The gardens were originally laid out by no other than John Tradescant the Elder (for whom the genus Tradescantia is named), and the house was the home of several Tudor monarchs, including Elizabeth I.

Photo One by By Allan Engelhardt - Hatfield House, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4585384

Hatfield House (Photo One)

The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I can be seen in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House. It is attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1600-1602.(Public Domain)

Whilst winter honeysuckle has not established itself in the wild in the UK, it has become a problem in some parts of the USA, particularly in the east and, for some reason, in Utah. Lonicera species do seem to have a habit of jumping ‘over the fence’ given half a chance – there’s a box-leaved honeysuckle in Coldfall, my local wood, which probably came from a bird who had eaten a berry in a municipal car park, where the plants are commonly used. And while a bird might happily eat the berries of winter honeysuckle, we shouldn’t, as they are said to be toxic. The leaves can also cause dermatitis.

Although I can find no specific mentions of winter honeysuckle being used medicinally, its genus name Lonicera comes from the German botanist and herbalist Adam Lonicer (1528 – 1586), who published a book called the Krauterbuch in 1557. The book contained information about the uses of hundreds of plants and had a particular interest in distilling, something that my Dad, who worked as a gin distiller for over twenty years, would have loved.

And here is a poem. It is a translation of a work by the Russian dissident poet Anna Akhmatova, by the British poet Jo Shapcott. Here is the background:

This translation was commissioned by the Southbank Centre for a celebration of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in 2004. poet Jo Shapcott writes of the commission ‘I was given Akhmatova’s most famous poem, ‘Wild Honey’, to work on. I stayed as close as possible to the tight beautiful images she creates for the first half of the poem. In the second half she uses the figure of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands in front of the people. I changed him to George Bush, reasoning (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) that she might have spoken more freely if she could; and since I live in a more open time and place, then I should.’

Wild Honey by Anna Akhmatova

Translated by Jo Shapcott

Wild honey smells like freedom,
dust – like a ray of sun.
Violets – like a girl’s mouth,
and gold smells like nothing.
Honeysuckle smells like water,
and an apple – like love.
But finally we’ve understood
that blood just smells like blood.

And in vain the president from Texas
washed his hands in front of the people,
while cameras flashed and correspondents shouted;
and the British minister tried to scrub
the red splashes from his narrow palms
in the basement bathroom, outside
the strangers bar, in the Palace of Westminster.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Allan Engelhardt – Hatfield House, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4585384