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