Category Archives: London Invertebrates

At the Garden Centre

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

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

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

It seems that Dad is back on National Service.

‘Did he, Dad?’ I said.

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

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

Then he looks thoughtful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cirsium atropurpureum.

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

Bowles mauve perennial wallflower – in hairy pots!

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

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

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

Hairy-footed flower bee on Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower

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

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

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

Ajuga (Bugle)

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

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

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

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

Aquilegia

A Golden-Eyed Visitor

Green lacewing (Chrysoperla carnea)

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

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

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

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

Lacewing eggs (Photo One)

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

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

Green lacewing larva (Photo Two)

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

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

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

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

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

Giant lacewing (Osymlus fulvicephalus) (Photo Three)

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

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

Photo Credits

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

 

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

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

Wednesday Weed – Winter Honeysuckle

Winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

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

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

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

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

Hatfield House (Photo One)

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Honey by Anna Akhmatova

Translated by Jo Shapcott

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

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

Photo Credits

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

 

Coming Home at Last

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

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

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

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

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

Michaelmas daisies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Small Balsam

Small Balsam (Inpatiens parviflora)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balsam carpet moth (Photo Two )

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

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

Small balsam flower (Photo Three)

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

Photo Credits

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

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

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

The Accidental Garden

Common Carder Bumblebee buzz-pollinating Bittersweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Garden orb spider (Araneus diadematus)

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

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

Great Willowherb and honeybee

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

Carder bee on sunflower

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

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

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

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

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

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

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

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

Bugwoman on Location – A Common Ground at Tate Britain

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

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

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

Large White (Pieris brassiceae) caterpillars

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

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

Hokkaido squash

‘The Squash’ by Anthea Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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