Category Archives: London Invertebrates

Wednesday Weed – Tansy

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

Dear Readers, I have been looking for tansy, with its tiny yellow pom-poms, for several years. It is common, but not in the back streets of East Finchley, and so I have had to go a little further afield, to Walthamstow Wetlands, where it grows in abundance. Many of its vernacular names refer to the shape of the flowers – bachelor’s buttons in Somerset, yellow buttons in some parts of Scotland, and bitter buttons in Morayshire, where the ‘bitter’ is said to refer to the taste of the plant.

Tansy is considered by some to be native to the UK, and by others to be an ancient introduction. It has been used for a wide variety of medicinal uses: Vickery’s Folk Flora recounts how a wineglass full of tansy infusion every morning was said to be a cure for worms, and the leaves were a cure for ‘the pip’, a parasite of chickens and young turkeys that lodged in the windpipe of the animals. Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica relates how tansy was once eaten in a kind of omelette to kill off the ‘phlegm and worms’ which were a result of the fish diet eaten during the forty days of Lent. From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries a ‘tansye’ was any kind of pancake or omelette flavoured with bitter herbs. One of my favourite foraging websites, Eat Weeds, has a recipe for a tansy and spinach pancake here which is adapted from a book written in 1788. You can also find a more modern recipe for Rose and Almond Tansy Pudding with Butternut Squash Icecream here.

The leaves were used as an aid to fertility by young couples in Cambridgeshire eager to start a family: because tansy was much eaten by rabbits, those symbols of fecundity, there may have been a kind of sympathetic magic going on. On the other hand, young women who lived on the Fens would chew tansy to procure a miscarriage, and the oil is said to be an efficient abortifacient.

The aromatic leaves were also used as a strewing herb on the stone floors of houses in the Shropshire countryside, and their smell is said to deter the infamous Colorado potato beetle, and so it is sometimes used as a companion planting in North American potato fields. Tansy oil is an effective insect repellent, but not as effective as DEET, though I doubt that tansy oil will burn a big hole in your camera case.

The Tansy Green pub in Bolton was named by local people after the large number of tansies which grew in the field before the housing development was built there. I think it is crying out for a pub sign with a painting of the plant, but it seems to be very popular with the community.

Photo One from https://whatpub.com/pubs/BOL/087/tansy-green-bolton

The Tansy Green Pub in Bolton (Photo One)

Tansy is also the main foodplant of the Nationally Rare tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis), a leaf beetle with iridescent coppery-green wingcases so pretty that the Victorians are said to have used them as sequins. Sadly, the poor old tansy beetle is now limited to a 30km stretch of the River Ouse in York: it spends all its time on or around tansy, and as it isn’t known to fly, if a patch disappears it has to walk to the next one (so not much chance of it turning up at Walthamstow Wetlands under its own steam). The amount of tansy in the UK is in decline due to a variety of factors, not least of which is the rise of Himalayan balsam, which crowds out many other species. The Tansy Beetle Action Group are hot on the case however, doing everything from removing the aforementioned Himalayan balsam to making sure that landowners who are clearing ragwort because of its perceived danger to grazing animals know the difference between this plant and tansy. And I have just noticed that the acronym for the group is TBAG. Well done!

Photo Two by By Geoff Oxford - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13290854

Tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis) (Photo Two)

The larvae of the tansy beetle pupate underground, and this presents a number of problems: the area where they now live floods regularly in the winter, but there seems to be a very low mortality during hibernation, and so the pupa must be able to survive substantial periods of complete inundation, with no access to oxygen at all. When they emerge as adult beetles, they are prey to everything from birds to spiders, but they may also contain the volatile oils from the tansy plants that they eat, making them an unpleasant mouthful. I like the photo below, showing the pinch-marks on the wingcases of the beetle where a bird has picked it up and then thought better of it.

Photo Three by By Zakhx150 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61186472

Somewhat battered tansy beetle (Photo Three)

The work of TBAG reminds me of an article that I read by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian this week. He talks about how overwhelming the problems of the world can be, and how difficult it is to feel as if you’re making any kind of difference. The antidote to this, in his view, is to pick something local that you feel strongly about and that you can get involved in. This feels true to me: we can spread ourselves so thinly over all the things that are wrong that we end up raising our anxiety levels to fever pitch and making no difference at all. It’s something to think about for sure. We do not, individually, have unlimited resources, but if everyone got involved in something that they cared about and worked together to make it better, who knows what we could achieve?

Tansy has also been used historically as a dye-plant, yielding a very pretty bright yellow result as you can see in the blogpost from Gage Hill Crafts in Vermont here. Tansy is widely naturalised in North America, and was used in the burial of the first president of Harvard University, Henry Dunster, in 1659 – he was laid to rest wearing a tansy wreath, and the coffin was packed with the plant. When the burial ground was moved over two hundred years later, in 1846, Dunster’s remains were easily identified because the plants had retained their shape and scent.

Photo Four from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=264055

Photo Four

The name ‘tansy’ is thought to derive from the Greek word Athanathon, meaning ‘immortal’, possibly because the flowers do not wilt when dried, or because the leaves have been used (among their myriad other uses) to preserve meat. On the other hand, it is also one of the many plants that are said to induce a death in the family if planted in the garden. However, in Greek mythology, tansy is said to have been given to the youth Ganymede, who was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle – the herb made the human boy immortal, so that he could become cup-bearer to the Gods. Ganymede’s father was paid off with some ‘heavenly horses’ and the only creatures to have really missed him seem to have been the hounds who were with him when he was carried away – they are often depicted howling at the sky. Mythology tries to make sense of the randomness of fate, and to explain the inexplicable. I wonder if there ever was a prototype for Ganymede, and what actually happened to him?

The Abduction of Ganymede by Eustache Le Sueur (circa 1650) (Public Domain)

And here is a poem. I love how Blunden evokes those long summer evenings, and conjures up those men of few words who did so much to shape the world around them, and who passed unremarked except by those who loved them. If looked at with attention, is there any such thing as an ordinary life?

Forefathers

by Edmund Blunden (1896 – 1974)

Here they went with smock and crook,
Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade,
Here they mudded out the brook
And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
Harvest-supper woke their wit,
Huntsmen’s moon their wooings lit.

From this church they led their brides,
From this church themselves were led
Shoulder-high; on these waysides
Sat to take their beer and bread.
Names are gone – what men they were
These their cottages declare.

Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew,
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.

On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.

Unrecorded, unrenowned,
Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
But I know you not within –
There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.

Like the bee that now is blown
Honey-heavy on my hand,
From his toppling tansy-throne
In the green tempestuous land –
I’m in clover now, nor know
Who made honey long ago.

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://whatpub.com/pubs/BOL/087/tansy-green-bolton

Photo Two by By Geoff Oxford – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13290854

Photo Three by By Zakhx150 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61186472

Photo Four from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=264055

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Bladder Campion

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)

Dear Readers, a trip to Walthamstow Wetlands on Saturday provided me with no less than three potential Wednesday Weeds, a tremendous haul considering that we are now heading into autumn, and finding plants that I haven’t written about before becomes something of a challenge. So, to kick off this week, here is one of the last remaining bladder campion flowers,  blowing in the wind. The ‘bladders’ can be popped, and often were as a childhood game in various parts of the country: in Somerset and Wiltshire the plant is known as ‘poppers’, and in Kent they were called ‘Thunderbolts’, which seems a bit of an overstatement. Vickery’s Folk Flora lists dozens of other names for the plant, including ‘cowmack’, from the north of Scotland, as bladder campion was thought to be an aphrodisiac for cows, ‘making them desire the bull’. In Dorset, it was known as ‘white-flower-of-hell’ as it was thought to be deadly poisonous – in fact, the plant is edible, as we shall see. Finally, to continue the bovine theme, on the Isle of Wight the plant is known as ‘bull-rattle’, probably because of the sound made by the dried calyxes. I listened closely to this little patch, but could hear narry a sound. Bladder campion is a member of the Caryophyllaceae, or pink family, and is closely related to red campion, ragged robin and the various catchflies. It is native to Europe, although it is also widely naturalised in North America. Incidentally, the name ‘bladder campion’ has been used for the white campion (Silene latifolia) in the US, which is why Latin names are so useful.

Bladder campion has found itself on the menu in several parts of Europe. In Cyprus it is eaten for its green leaves and shoots, and you can buy bunches of the plant, sold as Tsakrostoukkia  or Strouthouthkia in the market. In Italy, it can be found in risotto, especially in the Veneto and Friuli regions. But it’s in Spain where it features most prominently, with people known as ‘collejeros‘ who pick the leaves (‘collejas‘). You need an awful lot of those tiny narrow leaves to make a dish of ‘widower gazpacho’ (gazpacho viudo), which features flatbreads served with a bladder campion stew.

Photo One by By Xufanc - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10397418

Chickpea and bladder campion stew (Photo One)

Bladder campion is also one of the favourite plants of the froghopper, and in Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey points out that the herbalist John Gerard called it the ‘Spatling poppie’, ‘in respect of that kind of frothie spattle, or spume, which we call Cuckow spittle, that aboundeth in the bosom of the leaues of these plants, then in any other‘. The adults are very attractive-looking insects, and are true bugs, which makes them one of my favourites.

The flowers are also said to be clove-scented, especially at night (though I associate this feature more with white campion (Silene latifolia)). They are pollinated largely by moths, who can reach inside that long calyx.

Photo Two by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21298493

Red and black froghopper (Cercopis vulnerata) (Photo Two)

I wondered if the medicinal uses for bladder campion might include treatments for cystitis or for other urinary complaints, but it seems that the Doctrine of Signatures (the belief that plants indicated what they should be used for by their physical appearance) does not seem to stretch as far as this plant. However, it has been used medicinally, as a soothing ointment for skin complaints, and as a treatment for sore eyes. In Norway, the plant was used as a cure for constipation, and was surely preferable to some of the alternatives mentioned, such as chewing horse-harness leather or eating mouse droppings.

Like all members of the family, the roots contain saponin, which is a soap substitute, and bladder campion appears to have been used for this purpose in Finland at least.

In my search for folklore related to bladder campion, my new-found favourite Finnish website also mentions that the plant is best used ‘for spells by untouched young men and maidens‘. And here is a rather delightful story, by VenetiaJane on Twitter:

In legend, an idle youth , Campion, was employed by Minerva to catch flies, placing them into a bladder bag to feed her owl. One day she found the lazy boy taking a nap so she transformed him into the white flower that we know today as bladder campion, or flycatcher‘.

Photo Three by By D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8007825

Photo Three

Now, in my search for some interesting paintings relating to this plant, I found the artist and illustrator Joris Hoefnagel. Have a look at the lovely page below, showing a bladder campion, a b broad bean and an opium poppy – a most unlikely combination, but such an accurate and loving depiction. Hoefnagel was one of the last illustrators to illuminate manuscripts (which were largely being replaced by books), and his drawings of plants and animals were a major influence on the Flemish still-life artists who were to follow.

Joris Hoefnagel (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 – 1600)
Opium Poppy, Bladder Campion, and Broad Bean, 1561 – 1562; illumination added 1591 – 1596, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 16.6 × 12.4 cm (6 9/16 × 4 7/8 in.), Ms. 20 (86.MV.527), fol. 69
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 20, fol. 69 (Public Domain)

And finally, of course, a poem. This one is by Fleda Brown, former Poet Laureate of Delaware. I love the way the image of the bladder campion flower segues into a blimp. For my readers not familiar with Horatio Alger, he was an author who wrote stories about impoverished boys who work hard to escape poverty and are rewarded by some extraordinary act of generosity by a rich person. I suspect that this is poem is mostly about hope, and its limitations.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Xufanc – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10397418

Photo Two by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21298493

Photo Three by By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8007825

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Black Bindweed

Black Bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus)

Dear Readers, it always makes me happy to find a ‘proper’ weed, one that I haven’t seen before but which is extremely common. Black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) is not actually a bindweed, but is a member of the Polygonaceae or knotweed family, and can be told from its close relative Russian Vine by its heart-shaped leaves, and smaller, less flamboyant flowers. This one has popped up at the top of my road, and is half-heartedly climbing up the drain pipe, although its natural habit is more prostrate. One possibility for its appearance in this very urban spot is that it’s an ingredient in bird food, and has been deposited here by a passing finch.

Black bindweed is an annual, and is thought to be a Neolithic introduction to the UK – one of its vernacular names is ‘wild buckwheat’, and and the seeds have been found in Bronze Age middens. The plant was probably sown with food crops such as barley, and harvested at the same time. The last meal of Tollund Man, a 2000 year-old corpse found in Jutland in 1950 included the seeds of black bindweed, along with barley, linseed and wild pansy. The man had been hanged, it is believed as a sacrifice to the goddess of spring, and he was then thrown into a peat bog, which preserved his body. There is a great peacefulness in his face, which I hope means that he didn’t suffer, poor soul.

The head of Tollund Man (Public Domain)

Black bindweed is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, and grows most commonly on disturbed land throughout its range. It is a most adaptable plant, and can grow up to an altitude of 3600m in the Himalayas. It is a much better behaved plant than some of its relatives, however: we have already mentioned Russian vine,  but another member of the genus is our old favourite Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Black bindweed can cause some problems, however: it is classified as an invasive weed in North America, and can cause damage to the cutters of harvesting machines if there is a heavy infestation in a field.

 

The seeds of black bindweed are a major food of the grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the UK’s native partridge. This species is on the Red List of endangered birds, largely because it is a bird of hedgerow and field margin, habitats that have been much reduced over the past fifty years. The bird has the largest egg clutch of any UK bird, with a record of 19 eggs in a single nest. Fortunately, the chicks are able to run around from birth, and grey partridge can be seen in ‘covies’, small groups of up to twenty individuals. If disturbed the birds will run rather than take to the air, which explains why the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) was introduced as game bird, it being rather more inclined to take flight. During the breeding season, the male grey partridge is said to have a call rather like a key being turned in a rusty lock.

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy - Grey partridge - Neusiedl - Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39980478

Grey partridge (Perdix perdix) (Photo One)

The plant is also the foodplant of the Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Laconobia oleracea), which is one of the most splendidly descriptive species names that I know.

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from https://butterfly-conservation.org/moths/bright-line-brown-eye

Bright-line Brown-eye moth(Lacobia oleracea) (Photo Two)

It is also the foodplant of the rare black-bindweed case-bearer micro moth (Coleophora therinella) a most intriguing insect whose larvae create tiny portable cases that they live in until they pupate. The adult moths have wingspans of only 13-16mm, so they are very easy to miss.

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from https://www.norfolkmoths.co.uk/micros.php?bf=5610

Black-bindweed case-bearer moth (Coleophora therinella) (Photo Three)

And so, I find that my ‘new’ weed has actually been intertwining its stems with our lives for thousands of years. And, while this poem is not directly about black bindweed, it is about Tollund man, and about our dark, interconnected history in these small islands. Heaney wrote an excerpt from this poem in the visitor’s book at the Aarhus museum where Tollund man was on show. The way that he interweaves this sacrifice from the Bronze Age with the deaths in the Troubles is masterly. If you want to hear him read the poem, there is a link here.

Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Grey partridge – Neusiedl – Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39980478

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from https://butterfly-conservation.org/moths/bright-line-brown-eye

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from https://www.norfolkmoths.co.uk/micros.php?bf=5610

 

 

The Shell of the Snail

Garden snail (Cornus aspersum)

Dear Readers, I was planning to do the Big Butterfly Count this morning, but when I stepped out of the front door it became apparent that any self-respecting butterfly would be hiding under a substantial leaf to keep dry. However, half a dozen garden snails (Cornus aspersum) were gently gliding around on the wet stones, and so I sat down on the front step to watch them. I was much taken by the delicate tracery of burgundy-brown and caramel on the shell of each individual, the colours enhanced by the drizzle.  What, I wondered, were the advantages and disadvantages of having a shell (after all, slugs manage without one)? Why did the shells seem to curl in the same direction on every snail in the garden? And does the shell tell us anything about the life of the individual snail? I reach for my New Naturalist ‘Slugs and Snails’ by Robert Cameron to see if he has any answers, and several hours later, I emerge, amazed.

The shell of snail performs two main functions: it protects its owner against predation and it acts as a shield against drying out. On the downside, however, a shell requires energy to build, and energy to transport. Slugs and snails are the only molluscs who don’t live in water: a water snail doesn’t have to contend with gravity in the way that a land snail does, because the liquid helps to support it. So, we have to assume that the costs of having a shell are offset by the value of not being eaten quite so regularly, and the value of not drying to a frazzle every time there’s a heatwave.

The garden snail comes originally from the Mediterranean, and there is little doubt that it was brought to the UK (and lots of other places) by the Romans, who enjoyed eating them. The climate of the snail’s native range would historically have been much hotter and drier than Northern Europe (though all bets are off with climate change), which may explain the robust shell, especially when compared to our smaller and more delicate native snails. Traditionally, the garden snail was a creature of the warmer parts of the UK because it couldn’t survive the harsher winters ‘oop north’. Watch this space, however.

The vast majority of garden snails have what is known as ‘dextral chirality’. This means that the mouth of the shell is on the right when viewed from above, and the ‘coil’ of the shell runs clockwise if viewed from the centre. The most important organs of the snail are within the shell, and they are in torsion: if the shell is ‘dextral’, the lung, stomach etc will be twisted in the opposite direction. Chirality is inherited from the mother snail, and in most species, including the garden snail, any individual unfortunate to be born with the opposite ‘twist’ will be unable to mate, owing to the way that these hermaphrodite creatures need to ‘line up’ in order to shoot one another with their ‘love darts’. The sex life of the garden snail probably needs a blogpost all to itself.

Incidentally, snails can do something directly that most animals have to rely upon microorganisms to achieve: they seem to manufacture the enzyme cellulase, which digests the fibrous cellulose that makes up the structure of plant cells. And, while we’re on the subject of eating, the garden snail is one of the few mollusc species in the UK that eats some live plant material (most of the others are detritivores and munch up dead and rotting leaves). Young snails appear to have a particular taste for new growth. However, Robert Cameron does point out that the damage done by garden snails is a tiny proportion of the damage done by the field slug (Deroceras reticulatum) so we can probably cut them a little slack.

The shell of a snail starts with a layer called the periostracum. This is the shiny, tortoiseshell-like ‘stuff’ that I was admiring earlier. It is made of proteins which resemble those that make our fingernails. It is, however, relatively delicate, and all that creeping under stones and rubbing up against flowerpots will soon remove it. Elderly snails can look rather bleached and dull, unlike those polished youngsters that are hanging about under my buddleia. Apparently garden snails who live on sand dunes are literally ‘sand blasted’.

The strength of the shell, however, comes from the lamellar layer, which is formed from several layers of calcium carbonate, laid in opposite directions much like the alignment of the layers in plywood. Calcium carbonate is not as ‘expensive’ for the animal to deposit as protein: Cameron points out that if 5% of the shell is made of protein, that has taken about 50% of the energy to make the whole shell. Unfortunately for the snail, calcium can be difficult to find:the snail eats soil in order to get the materials that it needs, and snails living on limestone have thicker shells than those living on acid soils. Snails might also been seen eating rocks, bones or even the shells of other snails in order to top up their calcium – I distinctly remember that I once saw the skeleton of a dead sheep that was absolutely covered in snails, and now I know why. There may be no snails at all in the most acidic environments, such as heather moors or sphagnum moss, but of course there will be plenty of slugs who don’t have to worry about such things.

Once the snail has reached adulthood, it may use the calcium carbonate from its shell for other things, such as the shells of its eggs, which can be relatively hard in some species. 

One of the saddest sounds of a wet day is the muted crunchy ‘pop’ of a snail that’s been accidentally trodden upon. It’s clear that snails are not impregnable in spite of all that effort, but I was cheered to hear that, in the presence of sufficient materials, a snail can regenerate its shell, provided the damage is not too great. Indeed, you can sometimes spot a snail bearing a tatty, misshapen shell which looks as if it was stuck together with a glue stick. Ladies and gentlemen, what you see before you is a battered molluscan warrior, so respect is due. But wait! I just discovered this article which tells the worried pet owner how to repair the shells of any injured domesticated snails. Truly, the internet is an endless cornucopia of wonders.

The main advantage of a snail shell, however, seems to me to be the protection that it provides against drying out. It’s been estimated that a garden snail loses 8% of its body weight per hour while crawling around, which explains the huge number of snails that I find hiding in the overhanging lips of my garden containers when the weather gets hot. Snail shells are pretty much impermeable, and many snails can seal themselves up completely to wait for happier, damper times.

Incidentally, research across Europe has shown a clear correlation between the proportion of slugs to snails and the dampness of the climate: in Cyprus only 9% of land molluscs are slugs, whereas in lucky old Ireland it’s 31% (thanks again to Robert Cameron Fig 62 page 99). The benefit of having a shell, especially in hot dry climates,  appears to be largely about keeping the fluid levels up so that the creature can survive, rather than protection against predators. When the climate is coolish and dampish, slug diversity and numbers increase.

Garden snail (Cornus aspersa)

I have always had a soft spot for snails.  I love the way that their eye-stalks extend and contract independently, and I love the way that they ooze gracefully across the patio. I know that they can be a pest in the garden, but I suspect that they also do a fair bit of cleaning up. And on a wet night I will sometimes look up from my book to see a snail climbing up the window, silhouetted by the street light and looking for all the world like some kind of molluscan angel, ascending to heaven. The author and poet Munia Khan wrote

“The intriguing placidity from the slothful pace of a snail is truly very peaceful. Our world is in need of this calmness to pacify itself”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

 

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A Patch of ‘Water Weeds’

Where has the pond gone?

Dear Readers, during my sojourn in Austria the water plants have grown up with much enthusiasm.  Alongside the meadowsweet that I wrote about last week, there is hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife, and a patch of greater willowherb. The whole area is literally buzzing: it’s in one of the few constantly sunny areas in my north-facing garden, and, inspired by a wonderful Country Diary by Mark Cocker in the Guardian this week, I decided to ‘hang out’ for a bit and see what I could spot.

First things first. Most of the butterflies in this year have been of the white or blue species, so a flash of orange was a delight. The hemp agrimony seems to be a favourite with all winged creatures, who sink into those raggedy flowerheads in a kind of ecstasy. I had to wait a few minutes for the butterfly to open her wings, though the underside has a subtle beauty of its own.

Waiting….

And then the sun came out, and I was rewarded.

Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)

Once the wings are open, it reveals those double eye-spots, which tell me that this is a gatekeeper (or hedge brown). I can tell this is a female because the male has a dark band across his forewings. The photo doesn’t do justice to the caramel colour of those wings. Gatekeepers are one of the latest flying of the butterflies, with new broods taking to the air from late June to the end of August.

Photo One by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42061149

Male Gatekeeper (Photo One)

If you wanted a reason for not mowing the lawn, the caterpillars of this species would provide one. The female drops her eggs among grasses such as cock’s foot, timothy and common couch, and the caterpillars feed at night, pupating in the dried vegetation and emerging during the following year. Your grass could also support the caterpillars of speckled wood, ringlet, wall and meadow brown, small skipper and brown argus. I gave up my lawn to replace it with a pond, but I notice that grass is creeping back, nonetheless.

Photo Two By foxypar4 on Flickr - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6312839

Cock’s foot grass (Dactylis glomerata) (Photo Two)

Timothy grass (Phleum pratense) (Public Domain)

The bumblebees also like the hemp agrimony, but seem to marginally prefer the purple loosestrife, and the dark red buddleia that has just come into blossom. I should point out that the latter is meant to be a dwarf variety, but is already six feet tall.

A very smart white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)

How to tell a white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) from a buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)? It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because the ‘buff-tail’ of the latter is often white. In my book ‘Garden Wildlife’ by Richard Lewington (which has the most wonderful illustrations), the white-tailed bumblebee is described as having ‘clean’ yellow banding. whilst the buff-tail is said to have ‘dirty’ yellow banding.The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a very useful website containing identification charts for all the common British species, and you can find it here.

Both are extremely common, the queens of both species appear as early as February on a warm winter day, and both are ‘nectar-robbers’, with short tongues that make it difficult for them to access plants with longer corolla. As a result, bumblebees of both species will cut a tiny hole in the base of flowers such as penstemon and salvia, and drink the nectar without doing any pollination.

It really comes as no surprise to me that bumblebees have learned to circumvent the carefully-evolved defences of flowering plants. I always think of them as the Einsteins of the insect world, and recent research has proved me right (though who knows what might be found if other insects were so closely observed). Bumblebees have solved the ‘travelling salesman’ problem, calculating the most efficient route between plants to maximise the amount of nectar collected and minimise the calories expended to get it. They’ve even been taught to ‘play golf’ in order to get food, which the researcher considers an example of tool use. All this from a creature that doesn’t have what we understand as a ‘brain’. Who knows what we might discover if we really paid attention?

There are plenty of honeybees about too. Our local allotments have a number of hives, and I suspect that the lavender in the front garden, and the bog plants at the back, are a major draw. There has been a lot written about honeybees and their potential demise just lately, but let’s not forget that the pollinator community is much greater and more diverse than just this one species, iconic and important as it is.

And then there are the hoverflies, so rarely noticed and yet so omnipresent. This one is a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), our commonest hoverfly, yet I had never noticed the metallic shine on its thorax, which looks almost like liquid copper. For all you hoverfly enthusiasts out there, I can recommend ‘Britain’s Hoverflies’ by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris, an absolute labour of love.

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus)

The colour of the marmalade hoverfly is very variable, and seems to depend on the temperature when the larvae are maturing – in hot temperatures, the adult will be predominantly orange, but if it’s cold, they can be almost black. The larvae themselves are voracious eaters of aphids, especially those found on cereal crops and cabbages. They might not be as elegant as lacewings or ladybirds, but they are possibly even more important.

Sometimes swarms of marmalade hoverflies arrive from southern Europe, and the media is fond of filling the summer doldrums with reports of ‘wasps’ terrorising the gardens of England. The reporting of all things insect-related in the papers, and on social media, is often enough to make me bash my head against the wall.

The final ‘spotting’ of my 15 minutes was this ‘muscular’ little hoverfly, Siritta pipiens, which has the common name of ‘thick-legged hoverfly’, for obvious reasons. With those enormous ‘thighs’ it could be a candidate for an insect body-building competition. This creature is both common and widespread, and yet I had never noticed it before. Apparently the males are very territorial and will conduct battles in which they push one another backwards and forwards much like a pair of miniature water buffalo.

Syritta pipiens, a very muscular hoverfly…..

And so, I spent a very interesting 15 minutes with the insects. There is nothing like sitting peaceably among the bees and butterflies and hoverflies to give one a sense of perspective. It brings me a sense of being part of something much larger than just my small, transient concerns, and that is very welcome at the moment, as life gently moves on, whether I want it to or not. If you are feeling out of sorts, or dissociated, or generally confused, I can recommend sitting next to some flowering plants and just noticing who turns up. You might just be surprised.

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Dear Readers, it was such a delight to get back from Austria on Saturday, and to find the meadowsweet that I planted by the pond two years ago in flower. What a splendid plant this is! It has a honeyed scent that reminds me of hay, and it attracts all manner of hoverflies. The buds are almost square, and then the seed heads remind me of those fondant sweets that you can buy in posh places like Fortnum and Masons.

Twisted seedheads plus hoverfly….

Although the garden as a whole has gone completely berserk during this past couple of years, I am very pleased with this spot, where the meadowsweet mixes with hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and some self-seeded greater willowherb. It is a-buzz with bees and other pollinators, and they are all at head height so I can get a really good look. The fly above, for example, with his/her rather muscular ‘thighs’ reminds me of a mini weighlifter.

Anyhow, to return to meadowsweet. Although the plant likes damp places (and is often known as ‘queen-of-the-meadow’, the name might refer to ‘mead’ , as the flowers were used to flavour many kinds of drinks. It was also used as a strewing herb on floors and in mattresses. In my new favourite book, Vickery’s Folk Flora, it mentions that it was sometimes used on the floors of outside toilets, to disguise the smell.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey mentions that different parts of the plant have different scents: he describes the basic scent of the plant as being like marzipan, tinged with musk and honey in the flowers, but with the sharpness of pickled cucumber in the leaves. Mabey mentions that one ‘cynical namer’ believed that this was the difference between ‘courtship and matrimony’, but he was obviously married to the wrong person.

In spite of its sweet scent, Meadowsweet is yet another of those herbs that it was thought to be unlucky to bring into the house. One of these days I shall compile a list of all the wildflowers that are cause death and bad luck just by being picked and stuck in a vase. One alternative name for meadowsweet was ‘old man’s pepper’, with ‘old man’ being a name for the devil in many parts of the UK. Sniffing meadowsweet with too much enthusiasm was also thought to bring on fits.

In Wales, it is not only considered unlucky to bring it into the house (‘if a person falls asleep in a room where many of these flowers are placed, death is inevitable’), but it is also though to be dangerous to fall asleep in a field where there is an abundance of meadowsweet. However, there is also a legend in Wales that the magicians Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet, and called her Blodeuwedd, or ‘Flowerface’. She was created to be the wife of Lleu, who was cursed to never be able to marry a human wife, but had other ideas, and arranged for him to be murdered. This was no easy task:

Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing how he may be killed, since he cannot be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. He reveals to her that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass. With this information she arranges his death’.

However, Lleu is nursed back to health by the magicians who created Blodeuwedd in the first place, and she is turned into an owl for her pains. It just goes to show that crime never pays.

The legend was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s 1967 young adult novel ‘The Owl Service’, which explores what it mean to be Welsh, the class divide and the eternal power of stories. Well worth a read, even if you’re way past being a ‘young adult’.

Photo One by By E. Wallcousins - 'Celtic Myth & Legend', Charles Squire,, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29984364

Blodeuwedd meeting Gronw, the man who will kill her husband (Photo One)

Here, though,  I’d like to back up a little and give some basics on the plant. Meadowsweet is native to the UK and can be found in damp spots throughout Europe and western Asia. It is also naturalised in some parts of North America. It is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) which I would never have guessed, though the leaves do look a little rose-like.

The plant contains salicin, which is related to salicylic acid (aspirin) – in fact, the drug was named from the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Having just returned from Austria, I was interested to learn that the Austrians make a tea with meadowsweet, and use it for the treatment of painful conditions such as rheumatism and gout.

The Bronze Age burial sites of three humans and one animal at Fan Foel in Carmarthenshire, Wales, have contained the remains of meadowsweet, probably used as a strewing herb, and the signature of the plant has also been found in grave goods in Scotland from the same period, probably as a result of meadowsweet being used to flavour wine that was buried alongside the dead.

Meadowsweet has a reputation as a dye plant – the roots are supposed to give a black dye when used with a copper mordant (fixative). The genus name ‘Filipendula‘ relates to the way that the root tubers hang off of the fibrous roots (the Latin word means ‘hanging thread’). To read about various experiments using different parts of meadowsweet with different mordants, have a look at the wonderful ‘Wool Tribulations’ blog here 

Photo Two from http://wooltribulations.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-trial-of-meadowsweet-plant-dye-on.html

The author of ‘Wool Tribulations’, Fran Rushworth, has created some great effects from using meadowsweet (Photo Two)

In addition to its obvious attraction for hoverflies, the leaves of meadowsweet are munched upon by no fewer than 16 species of moths, including the magnificent emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). How excited I would be if one of these turned up!

Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340

Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Three)

The caterpillars are pretty magnificent too.

Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK - Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12704087

Emperor moth caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Four)

The leaves of meadowsweet can also be injured by the meadowsweet rust gall, which is a fungus which chemically induces a bright orange swelling on the mid rib of the leaf. It can cause serious problems in young plants, so I shall keep an eye open. The last thing I want is for my newly established meadowsweet patch to keel over.

Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7040901

Meadowsweet rust fungus (Triphragmium ulmariae) (Photo Five)

And, of course, a poem. For those of you who haven’t come across the Scottish poet and writer Kathleen Jamie, I can heartily recommend her books ‘Findings and  ‘Sightlines’, and her poetry collections ‘The Tree House’ and ‘The Overhaul’. I love her for many reasons, not the least of which was her piece about Robert MacFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’, called ‘A Lone Enraptured Male‘. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here. It made me roar with laughter and nod in agreement (and I speak as someone who loved MacFarlane’s recent book ‘The Underland’.

And here is her poem.

Tradition suggests that certain of the Gaelic women poets were buried face down.
So they buried her, and turned home,
a drab psalm
hanging about them like haar,

not knowing the liquid
trickling from her lips
would seek its way down,

and that caught in her slowly
unravelling plait of grey hair
were summer seeds:

meadowsweet, bastard balm,
tokens of honesty, already
beginning their crawl

toward light, so showing her,
when the time came,
how to dig herself out —

to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.

Photo Credits
Photo One by By E. Wallcousins – ‘Celtic Myth & Legend’, Charles Squire,, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29984364
Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340
Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK – Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12704087
Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7040901

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