Category Archives: London Reptiles

An Autumn Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Parasol mushroom

Dear Readers, autumn in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery means a wealth of fungi. The cemetery is now open during the week as well as at weekends, so today I went for a walk with my friend A to see what was popping up. This parasol mushroom was a particularly fine specimen (though a closer look revealed that some little creature had been nibbling at the gills underneath, but there were lots of white fungi of various kinds. You need to be very sure about what you’re doing before you start nibbling at them, however tasty they look. I could imagine some of these bubbling away in garlic butter and finished with a touch of parsley, but personally wouldn’t dare to eat them. How about you, readers? Do you forage for mushrooms yourselves?

On the way to the cemetery, we were briefly detained by this rather unusual oak. It’s a street tree with a very upright habit – from a distance you’d almost think it was a larch. However, I suspect that it’s actually a ‘normal’ English Oak (Quercus robur) but of an upright variety known as fastigiata (otherwise known as the Cypress Oak, and becoming increasingly popular as a a council planting.

The oaks in the cemetery itself are frequently heavily infested with spangle galls, such as those in the photos below.  These galls are caused by the gall wasp Neuroterus quercusbaccarum. The wasp ‘persuades’ the plant to develop the outgrowth of tissue that covers and protects the egg and then the developing larva. In the autumn the galls fall to the ground around the oak tree, and the young wasps overwinter before emerging in the spring to lay their own eggs, normally on the leaves on the lower limbs of the tree because the wasps are poor fliers. Although they look unsightly, the gall wasps appear to live in relative harmony with the oak trees, and do no lasting damage.

Deep in the woody area of the cemetery we found this impressive sessile oak (Quercus petraea) with its surprisingly thin, elegant stems. I usually think of oaks as being robust, thick-set trees, but they can be lithe and graceful too.

And we are coming into the season for the Raywood ash trees to put on a show. These are a variety of the Caucasian ash tree (Fraxinus angustifolia ssp oxycarpa ‘Raywood), also known as the Claret ash. The variety originated in Australia but during the 1970s to 1990s it was a very popular street tree. Sadly, as Paul Wood reports in his book ‘London’s Street Trees – A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, Raywood ashes have a habit of unexpectedly splitting apart, not a great characteristic for a tree that comes into such close contact with people. Furthermore, it doesn’t respond well to pollarding, becoming ungainly. I shall make a point of appreciating these trees while we have them – their autumn colour is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will also have resistance to the ash dieback that is going to kill most of our native ash trees.

Some of the cedars of Lebanon are in flower: I always get confused between the cones and the flowers, but these seem to be the male flowers, just cracking open to release their pollen. The female flowers are smaller and green-coloured and, if pollinated, will eventually turn into the barrel-shaped cones that are so familiar.

‘My’ swamp cypress hasn’t turned rust-brown yet, but it has produced some round, green cones. The tree got its leaves very late in the spring, so I think we’ll have to be patient for the autumn colour,

We spotted this young woodpigeon pecking about – it hasn’t developed the white flash on its neck yet. Plus I think all immature pigeons and doves spend a while ‘growing into’ their beaks (much as I had to grow into my size 8 feet, which looked a bit daft until I grew to 5 foot 11 inches tall – at that point it seemed rather important to have big feet, otherwise I’d have fallen over).

On the way out of the cemetery, we were rather surprised when A suddenly spotted a dead animal bird of some considerable size laying beside the Payne mausoleum. It turned out to be a small white goose, maybe from the allotments that border the cemetery. I have spared you a photo of the ex-goose, but suffice it to say that it was definitely demised. Was it taken by a cunning fox, or did it fly into some solid object and meet an untimely end? At any rate, it was a most surprising thing to spot on an autumn walk. We alerted the cemetery staff, and no doubt the corpse has been removed by now. Life and death are everywhere in a graveyard, and not always in the way that you’d expect.

Bugwoman on Location: Kew Part One – A Waterlily Extravaganza

A talking tree?

A talking tree?

Dear Readers, last Friday my friend J and I went to Kew Gardens, which is usually an oasis of serenity in the hubbub of the city. However,  it is the school holidays, and so we were greeted at the front entrance by a man on stilts, dressed as a tree. He looked rather like Groot from that exemplary film ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, but he had rather more to say for himself.

He looked at J’s legs. She was bare-legged and wearing sandals.

‘Oh,’, he groaned, ‘Your roots are exposed! I would get some water on them if I was you’.

In spite of his enormous size and scary appearance, he had a great way with children, who didn’t seem the slightest bit afraid of him.


Having bid our woody friend farewell, we moved on to the Water Lily house. This is a fine Victorian building, all cast iron and glass, and was built for the huge Victoria water lilies that were brought back from the Amazon. However, these plants didn’t do so well here and were moved to the Princess of Wales Conservatory (of which more later). The house is now home to many Nymphaea water lilies (plants of this genus are the ones we often see growing wild in the UK). I had no idea that they came in so many colours: there were purple ones with yellow middles, pale pink and red ones, magenta ones.

IMG_7480IMG_7485IMG_7490Water lilies are fascinating plants – they are largely thought to be amongst the earliest flowering plants, as their various organs are not as diverse or specialised as in later plants. Some of them are pollinated by beetles, and they do this by first attracting the beetles with a heavy, spicy scent. They then close so that the beetles are trapped overnight and get covered in pollen, In the morning they release the prisoners so that they can do the same in a different flower the following night. Flowers that are pollinated by beetles (which is called cantharophily, another new word to me) tend to have large, open, dish-shaped flowers, lots of pollen, and have their ovaries well hidden from the jaws of their pollinators.

IMG_7494I was fascinated by how clean the water was in the Water Lily house – I had thought that, in the humid atmosphere, there would be plenty of opportunities for algae to grow. However, there are apparently fish in the water, which help to keep it clean, and the staff at Kew also dye the water black with harmless food colouring – this explains how pristine it all looks.

IMG_7491We headed over to the Princess of Wales Conservatory to have a look at the Victoria water lilies. When we got there, there was a crowd watching two workers who were in waders amongst the lilies, pulling out any rotting vegetation. It makes me feel a little guilty that I’m not doing the same in my pond, but then it is a lot warmer in the glasshouse. The leaves really are enormous, and when the Victoria Waterlily was first brought to the UK, there were publicity photos of a small child sitting quite happily on one of the lilypads, like a human frog. I don’t have a photograph of this, but I do have one of a woman standing on a lilypad at the Missouri Botanical Garden for your delectation.

Victoria waterlilies in the Princess of Wales Conservatory

Victoria waterlilies in the Princess of Wales Conservatory

A woman standing on a Victoria Waterlily pad, courtesy of Missouri Botanical Gardens. There is a towel and a piece of wood on the pad to protect it.

A woman standing on a Victoria Waterlily pad, courtesy of Missouri Botanical Gardens. There is a towel and a piece of wood on the pad to protect it.

Alongside the lilies there was another plant that looked vaguely familiar.

Lotus (Nelumbo sp.)

Lotus (Nelumbo sp.)

This is the Lotus, the sacred flower of Buddhist and Hindu tradition. I love the watering can seedheads, and the way that the petals gradually unfold to reveal the flower’s beauty. Although it lives in a similar habitat to the waterlily, and superficially resembles it, there is only a very distant relationship between the two plants.


Lotus leaves are extremely water-resistant, and have given their name to a self-cleaning mechanism called ‘the lotus effect’. The leaves have a quality called ‘superhydrophobicity, which means that water droplets cannot cling to the surface, and take any dirt with them when they drop from the plant. This ability has been analysed by scientists, and used as a coating for such things as roof tiles and paint. The ‘lotus effect’ itself was first noticed as far back as the Indian classic work the Bhagavad Gita (probably written in the fifth to second century BCE), which just goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Lotus leaf showing its extreme hydrophobicity. Photo One – see credit below.

By William Thielickewebsite: More pictures and {replace this part with an "@"} (I would appreciate if you tell me where you use my media) - own work, Hamburg, Germany., GFDL,

Computer graphic of a lotus leaf, showing the way that water droplets pick up dirt and pollution. Photo Two – see credits below

Like the water lilies, lotus flowers emit a scent to attract insects to pollinate them, but they are also able to regulate their temperature, which increases the strength of the aroma, and also supplies the insects with a warm, cozy home on which to feed and breed.

By T.Voekler - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Lotus in bloom (Photo Three – see credits below)

With their roots in the mud and their perfect unstained flowers, it is no wonder that in Buddhism lotus blossoms symbolise purity of speech, mind and body rising above the attachments and desires of the unenlightened state. Lotuses seem to me to be full of a kind of august dignity. The fact that individual plants can live for over a thousand years and that a seed 1300 years old was successfully germinated in 1994 adds to the impression. What stately plants both waterlilies and lotuses are!

And the Princess of Wales Conservatory had one more surprise to hand.

A water dragon...

A water dragon…

There on a rock was a Chinese water dragon, a kind of lizard. He looked completely unperturbed by all the visitors who were taking his photograph, and was much more interested in a hidden rival, who he was threatening by bobbing his head up and down. On my return home, I did some research and discovered that there are nine of these creatures living ‘free-range’ in the conservatory, keeping down the numbers of pests and roaming and breeding happily away. I suspect that they are the happiest lizards in London.

Photo Credits

Photo One – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – By William Thielicke. Website:  for more pictures and bionics. Contact: – own work, Hamburg, Germany., GFDL,

Photo Three – By T.Voekler – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!












Bugwoman on Location – New River Walk, Islington

IMG_6738Dear Readers, last week I had not one but two visits to the dentist, and his clinic happens to be just around the corner from the New River Walk. So, I took the opportunity to disappear into this magical path, which was once the last part of a system of watercourses  that, from the 1600’s, brought water all the way from Hertfordshire to Sadlers’ Wells in North London. These days, the water mostly stops at the reservoirs in Stoke Newington, but a final trickle wends its way between the posh mansions of Canonbury, and the council houses along the Essex Road. To go through the gate is to leave the traffic noise and pollution of the city, and to enter a watery, cool, hidden world.

IMG_6739IMG_6764You might think that such an urban environment would be devoid of life but, just like the waterholes in Africa, it actually concentrates creatures who depend on streams and ponds. For example, it is very popular with moorhens.

IMG_6754 IMG_6746 IMG_6749There seemed to be a small family of moorhens every twenty metres or so, the babies at that wheezy stage where they are actually independent but still don’t like to be far away from their mother. I have to say that one thing I adore about moorhens and coots is their outsize feet. They always remind me of clowns, managing their super-sized digits. These long toes help them to spread their weight when they’re walking on weeds, and are even more pronounced when the chicks have just hatched, and look like black cotton-wool balls with giant spiders attached to each leg.

IMG_6750 IMG_6752As I walked along, I noticed that all the birds were either asleep or grooming. It was just that kind of lazy, summery day.

Young Mallard

Young Mallard

IMG_6771IMG_6776But maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so relaxed. I noticed a ginger cat sunning itself on the opposite bank, but when I looked more closely I realised that this creature was no cat.

IMG_6765Foxes seem to be popping up everywhere. Or maybe they’ve always been there, and I’ve just got my eye in now?

Islington council have put up some nest boxes (the sturdy concrete kind that deters squirrels and woodpeckers) and at least one was inhabited by a family of blue tits.

IMG_6785I love the eager little face peering out, but wonder how on earth the nestling got so high up in the box, and fear that he is standing on the heads of his less athletic siblings. I saw the parent birds fly in and out several times, so there are plenty of caterpillars about.

As I got towards the end of the path, I saw a man on a bike slow down, stop, look at a floating straw bale in the water (presumably put there to help clean up the water), and then pedal off. So, of course I slowed down for a look as well.

IMG_6768Yes, what I’d glanced at briefly and taken for a baby moorhen was in fact a terrapin.

IMG_6794I think that this is a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta), and I fear, judging by the size of him, that he may have been living here for a while. In the 1980’s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started a craze for pet terrapins, which many parents found themselves unable (sadly) to resist. Unfortunately, most people didn’t realise that terrapins are messy eaters, can be smelly if not cleaned out often enough and, worst of all, they have the audacity to grow bigger every year. Many of the reptiles found themselves liberated into rivers and ponds once they were no longer small and cute, and were found, in fact, to be live animals, not toys, with a propensity for grumpiness and a rather sharp bite.  The film was reprised last year, and I suspect that a second wave of terrapin buying might have been encouraged. The red-eared terrapins that were the main victims last time are now banned from import, but several of their close relatives can still be purchased. Maybe this chap was one of those. At any rate, he seems happy enough at the moment, and maybe his sheltered situation and the abundance of food (there is one spot where ducks are regularly fed more bread than they can possibly eat) has seen him through the winters. I hope so, somehow. There is little evidence that an occasional terrapin does any harm, and no evidence that they are able to breed in this country, even if by a miracle they meet up with a friend of the opposite sex. If this chap lives out his remaining lonely days in the sunshine, I for one won’t begrudge him his fate.

IMG_6767 It never fails to impress me how many secret places they are even in the busiest parts of London where, if you walk quietly and keep your eyes and ears open, you are bound to see something surprising, something that will take your mind off an impending dentist appointment and put all your worries on hold for a few sweet minutes. If you walk through these municipal gates, you may find a kind of enchantment.

IMG_6795Oh, and I almost forgot. The foxes are fine, as the photos below attest.

IMG_6725 IMG_6730I did, however, notice some very strange insect behaviour yesterday. There is a patch of cherry laurel, standing in full sun but without any flowers whatsoever, yet it was the hub of a lot of bee excitement, both bumblebees and honey bees. They seemed to be drinking or licking something from the undersides of the leaves, though when I turned the leaves over, I couldn’t see anything, or taste anything (I am definitely going to poison myself one of these days, but hopefully only mildly). Are the insects finding some water, I wonder, or are they (as my friend the beekeeper suggested) picking up honeydew from aphids? If anyone has any idea, do please tell! I am most intrigued.

IMG_6830 IMG_6836All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use, but please attribute and link to the blog, thank you!