Category Archives: Uncategorized

Wednesday Weed – Water Plantain

Water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica)

Dear Readers, just before the heatwave finally broke I went for a walk in Coldfall Wood with my friend J, and noticed this extraordinary seedhead projecting above some elegant, long-stemmed leaves. How delicate water plantain is! It is growing in the now dried-up bed of the seasonal pond, where the water level has gone up and down by several feet in the past few months. At the moment the pond bed is a mass of bistort and water mint, with the water plantain and some bulrushes providing a bit of height. This is a far cry from the scene in January.

The seasonal pond in Coldfall Wood in January this year

I have just missed the main flowering of the water plantain, but the flowers are tiny, pinkish-white, and usually only open after midday. There is something rather Sputnik-like about the arrangement of the flowers on their spikes, and the closed buds resemble clenched fists. All this reminds me of the social realist Russian paintings of the Soviet era, and indeed there is a Russian connection. Water plantain is native to most of Europe and Asia and northern and central Africa, but in Russia the powdered root is said to be a cure for rabies, giving the plant the alternative name of ‘mad dog weed’. In some parts of the world it is also said to be a cure for snakebite.

Illustration by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman (Public Domain)

It is said to be anti-allergenic and protective of the kidneys and urinary tract.

The crushed dried leaves (to avoid the problems of blistering mentioned earlier) have been used as a poultice to relieve pain during breast-feeding in both humans and other mammals, and in Chinese Traditional medicine (where it is known as Xe Zie) it is believed that the plant can help with all aspects of fertility and childbirth.

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043864

Water plantain flower (Photo One)

The plant is not closely related to plants such as ribwort plantain but is a member of the Alismataceae or water-plantain family. In addition to its place in Russian medicinal lore, it is known as ‘Leaf of Patrick’ in Ireland, and is reputed to ward off fairies. The leaves are, however, said to cause blisters if bruised. The genus name Alisma is said to come from the Celtic word for ‘water’.

Photo Two by By Bff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7862977

The elegant leaves of water plantain (Photo Two)

Ruskin took an interest in the ratio of the flower stalks of water plantain to one another, and used this to illustrate his theory of Gothic architecture. He also believed that the curve of the water plantain leaf represented a model of ‘divine proportion’, one of those shapes on which ‘God has stamped those characters of beauty which He has made it man’s nature to love’.

Photo Three from http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/painting/ruskin/drawings/7lamps12e.html

An illustration of a water plantain flower stalk by John Ruskin (Photo Three)

Water plantain have been used as food by the Kalmucks of Russia and China, who boiled the roots to get rid of the bitterness and toxicity of the plant. The Iroquois of North America drank a tea made from the leaves to give them extra energy (the plant is widely naturalised in the New World).

Now, at this point I normally share a poem, or a painting, but this week I want to share something completely unrelated to water plantain. As my friend and I left the pond and headed up through the wood towards home, our eyes were drawn to a tiny heart-shaped plaque at the root of a tree. When I read what was written on it, I was instantly drawn back to the pet funerals of my own childhood. I often roped in my unfortunate little brother – once we had a ceremony for a moth that had died after hatching from its chrysalis and being unable to find somewhere to expand its wings properly. I well remember that we buried it in a matchbox under a fragment of bathroom tile, upon which was scrawled, in purple crayon,

‘Died before he could live. RIP’.

RIP Moonlight. And blessings on the child who loved her pet enough to bury here in the woods. Grief is grief, and who is to say that the death of an animal is trivial?  I have had my own heart broken often enough, and so, I suspect, have many other people.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043864

Photo Two by By Bff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7862977

Photo Three from http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/painting/ruskin/drawings/7lamps12e.html

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Acanthus (Bear’s Breeches)

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis)

Dear Readers, what a striking plant this is, with its dark brown bracts and gently striped white flowers! Although it does grow wild in some parts of the UK (and was probably introduced from Italy in the 16th Century), in East Finchley it is confined to gardens. It is what many gardening books call an ‘architectural plant’, which generally means something strident and upstanding, but Acanthus has played a part in the architecture of the Classical world in a much more direct way. The leaves of the plant are magnificent in their own right, as you can see from the photograph below. The name ‘Acanthus’ comes from the Greek for ‘thorn’, probably because of the spiky leaves and seed capsule, but the species name ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’, maybe to distinguish this plant from it’s much spikier relatives. I assume that the name ‘bear’s breeches’ comes from the way that the flowers look like trouser legs protruding from the bear-coloured bracts, but why it is also sometimes called ‘oyster plant’ I have no idea.

Photo One by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15808180

Bear’s breeches leaf (Photo One)

The leaves were the inspiration for the top part of the Corinthian columns (the Capital) used in Greek buildings from the  5th Century BCE. The design is attributed to the architect Callimachus, who is said to have seen Acanthus leaves growing around some statuary on a grave and been struck by the beauty of the accidental arrangement.  As the plant is widespread throughout the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that it became synonymous with this particular era and style.

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

Corinthian column from the Grand Moszue in Kairouan, Tunisia (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3846707

Wild Acanthus growing amidst the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome (Photo Three)

Virgil states that Helen of Troy wore a dress embroidered with Acanthus leaves, and I suspect that she looked very good in it, though if legend is to be believed she’d have looked good in a jute sack.  William Morris was also very taken with the leaves as a design for his fabrics and wallpaper.

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/25665188540

Acanthus leaf wallpaper by William Morris (Photo Four)

The design became so widespread that it even reached the post boxes of England during the Victorian era. No wonder that, in the Language of Flowers, an Acanthus means ‘art’.

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125504

A Penfold-design post box in Cambridge (1866-79) with Acanthus leaf motif on the top (Photo Five)

Acanthus is what is known as entomophilous (or ‘insect-loving’), and is pollinated by big, heavy insects such as bumblebees, who are the only ones strong enough to force their way into the flower. The plant also spreads by means of its rhizomes, and can be quite invasive in the right conditions. It is a remarkably unfussy plant, happy in shade or in drought, and it certainly packs a punch appearance-wise. I need to have a garden about three times as large as my current one to accommodate all these plants that I keep finding out about.

Medicinally, the leaves were used as a poultice for burns and scalds, sprains and dislocations. Tea made from the leaves was also used to soothe digestive and urinary upsets.

I can find no references to anybody (except snails and slugs) eating the leaves, though they don’t appear to be poisonous either. Better to stick to that bag of curly kale, I think.

And finally, here’s a poem, to balance the Ted Hughes that I posted a few weeks ago. This is by Sylvia Plath. I suspect she might have invented the word ‘Acanthine’, and this poem is a remarkable evocation of Plath’s father, who died when she was eight years old. You could say that she searched for him, in vain, for the rest of her life.

The Colossus by Sylvia Plath

I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.
 
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.
 
Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
 
A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
 
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
 
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15808180

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

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3846707

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/25665188540

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125504

The Long Hot Summer

Shed London Plane Bark

Dear Readers, as I was walking home from East Finchley Station earlier this week, I was hit on the head by a chunk of bark from a London Plane tree. No damage was done, but it did get me thinking. As you might know, London has been in the grip of a heat wave for the past six weeks – there was one brief thunderstorm while I was in Austria, but apart from that everything is bone dry. What, I wondered, was the effect of these hot, dry conditions on the plants and animals in East Finchley? And so, smothered in Factor 50 and clutching my camera, I headed out to find out.

Superficially, the plane trees on the High Road are looking splendid as always.

And it’s at this point that I wish I paid more attention when conditions were normal, for what I’m going to write on this page is much more anecdotal than scientific. The plane trees do seem to have shed a lot of bark, but is this usual for the summer, or is it a sign of stress? And if it’s stress, is it simply lack of water, or has the hot weather increased the amount of air pollution – bark shedding is the way that the plane tree gets rid of noxious substances.

I take a little trip through Cherry Tree Wood to see what’s going on there. Last time I was here, the Cow Parsley was in full flower. Not any more.

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) seedhead

The fallen stems criss-cross the understorey in the wood. Soon they’ll be providing hibernating places for solitary bees, and fertilising the forest floor.

And blackberries are ripe before the end of July. This autumn fruit has taken advantage of the warm weather to get a move on and ripen. I ate a few handfuls, even though they were surprisingly tart. That’ll teach me to be greedy.

Blackberries, already ripe

The ground is baked hard, making it difficult for any creatures that eat worms. No wonder the mealworms that I put out in the garden are so popular.

Many of the young ash trees are losing their leaves already – once trees are established, their roots can tap into very deep water, but saplings rely more on surface water. All the more reason to water any young street trees on your street, folks! I am off out to water the Amelanchior canadensis that was planted a year or so ago as soon as I’ve finished writing this piece.

Ash grove

An established oak tree has more access to water. It has survived worse than this drought.

The cleavers has turned into corn-coloured lace.

Cleavers (Gallium aparine)

I pop along to the bird-cherry trees to see how the ermine moth caterpillars are doing. They’ve pupated, and are all cuddled up together in their little white cocoons. I couldn’t see any holes indicating that they’ve emerged yet, so I put the cocoons back where I found them.

Bird cherry ermine moth cocoons

The trees are showing their stress in other ways too, besides wilting and shedding bark: many leaves are under insect attack, a sure sign that their defences are not as strong as usual.

In good news, however, I have never seen as many butterflies and moths as this year. My garden has featured about 12 species so far, and the buddleia outside is being regularly visited by bees and butterflies. It is very important to water these plants even if you don’t water others – if the plant doesn’t have enough water, the nectar will dry up. As bees and butterflies get both food and water from nectar, it’s vital that they have access to it.

There have been a number of pieces in the press about feeding bees and butterflies with sugar water – in fact there was a fake David Attenborough page on Facebook recommending a strange device made out of bottle tops. My general advice is: don’t. It’s great to provide plain water for insects, preferably in a shallow tray filled with pebbles so they don’t drown themselves. Nectar is a very complex substance, but many insects will collect sugar water in preference because we make it easy for them to harvest, with a detrimental effect on the larvae back in their nests.

The only exception is if you find a ‘grounded’ bee – sometimes they run out of energy because they can’t find enough ‘fuel’ in the form of nectar. Early in the season you will sometimes see freshly emerged queen bees on the pavement, unable to fly, and in this case you could offer her some sugar water on a spoon to give them a quick boost. At this time of year, if you want to help a grounded bee, I would place her on a nectar-rich flower such as a buddleia, and she will revive if lack of food is her problem.

And finally, back to my garden, where the pond has never been so low. You can see about eight inches of the pond liner. Normally the frogs have left by now, but this year they’re sitting tight. My pond is basically frog soup.

And finally, an update on the parents. Dad was admitted back into hospital on Saturday, but came out again on Monday. He was returned to the house in a private ambulance, and was well chuffed.

‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Frequent Flyer’ he said.

Whatever else is happening, Dad hasn’t lost his sense of humour.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Selfheal

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)

Dear Readers, my friend J has had some work done in her garden, and a fine crop of selfheal has popped up as if by magic. I love the way that some seeds will bide their time, maybe for years, until the conditions are right for them to germinate. This plant is a member of the dead nettle and mint family (Lamiaceae) and if you look closely, the flowers have the characteristic ‘tongue’ at the bottom, which makes them look almost like tiny orchids.

Selfheal is a widespread plant, growing in Europe, Asia and North America. It can look very different, according to where it grows: in a much-mowed lawn it can be tiny, but alongside a woodland path it can grow to a foot high.

The name ‘selfheal’ indicates that the plant has a variety of medicinal uses. In the UK it has largely been used to treat bruises and cuts (probably one reason for the alternative name ‘carpenter’s plant’, at least if woodwork is something of an ordeal as it has always been for me). The leaves were combined with lard and smeared onto the wound. In Chinese medicine, however, it was considered to be much more powerful, and capable of changing the course of a chronic disease. Even its Latin generic name, Prunella, comes from the German word for a kind of throat infection, known in the UK as quinsy – the plant was said to be able to cure such ailments. These days, it usually blooms away unnoticed, like so many medicinal plants.

Selfheal is edible, and its leaves can be used in a salad or as a pot herb. Unlike many members of the Lamiaceae such as mint and basil,  selfheal has no smell and little flavour, although the young leaves have a fresh green taste, and I can imagine the flowers added to a gin and tonic (but then, I am a distiller’s daughter). In the USA the Cherokee cooked and ate the leaves, and the Nlakapamuk made a beverage from the whole plant.

While I was looking for recipes that contain selfheal, I discovered Prunella cake, an American recipe from the 1930’s, on the Yesterdish website. Unfortunately it doesn’t contain any selfheal (it seems to mainly consist of prunes and sugar), but the icing would have been a delightful purple-blue colour from all the prunes, so maybe that was part of the link with the plant. The author of the website also believes that the name is a hint that the cake is as healthful as the plant, though with all that Crisco I’m not totally convinced.

Selfheal is one of those native plants that you can buy for your garden ( at £3.99 a pop). However, if you want one of those bowling-green lawns with not a blade out of place, you may find selfheal an implacable enemy, what with its self-seeding and spreading rhizomes and all. I would rather find space for such a useful little plant in my garden. Life is enough of a struggle without going to war against the natural world.

And how could I resist the Selfheal Flower Fairy, sorting out the elves and the mice and the frogs with her healing balm?

Photo One at http://www.mapsandantiqueprints.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/p-762-195-248.jpg

The Selfheal Flower Fairy by Cecily Mary Barker(Photo One)

For my poem this week I offer you this extraordinary work by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, one of my very favourite writers. Although Self-Heal is about the west of Ireland, rather than the Troubles in the north, it’s difficult not to read this and consider how an act can spiral into violence and yet more violence. It’s not an easy read.

(Mayo Monologues 3)

I wanted to teach him the names of flowers,
Self-heal and centaury; on the long acre
Where cattle never graze, bog asphodel.
Could I love someone so gone in the head
And, as they say, was I leading him on?
He’d slept in the cot until he was twelve
Because of his babyish ways, I suppose,
Or the lack of a bed: hadn’t his father
Gambled away all but rushy pasture?
His skull seemed to be hammered like a wedge
Into his shoulders, and his back was hunched,
Which gave him an almost scholarly air.
But he couldn’t remember the things I taught:
Each name would hover above its flower
Like a butterfly unable to alight.
That day I pulled a cuckoo-pint apart
To release the giddy insects from their cell.
Gently he slipped his hand between my thighs.
I wasn’t frightened; and still I don’t know why,
But I ran from him in tears to tell them.
I heard how every day for one whole week
He was flogged with a blackthorn, then tethered
In the hayfield. I might have been the cow
Whose tail he would later dock with shears,
And he the ram tangled in barbed wire
That he stoned to death when they set him free.

Photo Credits

Photo One at http://www.mapsandantiqueprints.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/p-762-195-248.jpg

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Viper’s Bugloss

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) by the stream in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, nothing delights me more than finding a plant that my guide describes as ‘common’ but which I have never seen before, and so it is with Viper’s Bugloss. What a fantastic plant it is, with its furry flowers and purple stamen and hairy stems. There is something rather Harry Potter-ish about it, and it looks far too exotic to be a UK native, even though it is.

I found this one growing from a crevice in a wall above the stream in Milborne St Andrew,  and it does seem to have a liking for chalky soils such as those in parts of Dorset. It is a member of the Borage family, and is much loved by pollinators. The name ‘bugloss’ comes from the Greek for ‘ox-tongued’ and refers to the rough texture of the plant. The ‘viper’ bit comes from the way the stamen resemble a snake’s tongue, from the look of the seed head, and from the belief that the plant could cure snakebite (probably another manifestation of the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, whereby it was believed that God had designed the appearance of a plant to indicate what it could be used for).

Photo One by By D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10222992

Viper’s Bugloss flower (Photo One)

Viper’s Bugloss is native to Europe and temperate Asia, and has been introduced to North America, where it is sometimes known as ‘blueweed’ and has become invasive in some parts of the continent.

Photo Two by By Lubiesque [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Viper’s Bugloss alongside a road in Montreal (Photo Two)

The plant contains alkaloids, which are poisonous, although there are no known cases of humans suffering from eating it. Because of its long taproot it can be difficult to remove from pasture, and in 2006 a paper suggested that bulls in Spain died as a result of munching on viper’s bugloss and common ragwort. However, while ragwort gets a very bad press, viper’s bugloss is generally tolerated. I sometimes wonder how and why we get these bees in our bonnets about particular plants whilst ignoring others that, it could be argued, are equally ‘dangerous’. Could the popular press have something to do with it, I ask myself (sarcastically)?

In Australia, a closely related plant (purple viper’s bugloss or Echium plantagineum) is known as ‘Patterson’s Curse’, because it is said to have escaped from the garden of a Mrs. Patterson. After a bushfire in Canberra destroyed all the other pasture, 40 horses are said to have eaten the bugloss and suffered liver failure, resulting in them having to be destroyed.

Photo Three by By Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia (Echium plantagineum plant1) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Purple viper’s bugloss (Echium planagineum) in South West Rocks, Australia (Photo Three)

Viper’s bugloss is such a stunner (in my eyes anyhow) that a number of cultivars have been developed, such as ‘Blue Bedder’ which can be bought from the Royal Horticultural Society shop should you be so inclined. As usual, I rather prefer the species plant, and I suspect that it might be more attractive to pollinators in its original state as well. Why would you want to breed out those bright red stamens? I think we should be told…

Incidentally, you can see here how the buds start off pink and turn blue when the plant is ready to be pollinated, like so many members of the borage family.

Photo Four by https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/139228/Echium-vulgare-Blue-Bedder/Details

Viper’s bugloss variety ‘Blue Bedder’ (Photo Four)

In addition to treating snake bite, the plant is said to be useful for ameliorating fevers, headaches and inflammation, with the best parts of the plant being the leaves that grow close to the ground, directly from the root.

A herbalist named Parkinson noted that

‘the water distilled in glasses or the roote itself taken is good against the passions and tremblings of the heart as also against swoonings, sadness and melancholy.’

which sounds like a good thing. As with all plants, and particularly ones that are known to be poisonous, I would suggest a good degree of circumspection however. Remember those horses in Canberra.

I am off to Austria next week, and I note that in the Tyrol, people were warned against consuming viper’s bugloss because it was said to stimulate sexual desire. Presumably all that fresh mountain air and yodelling was aphrodisiac enough, not to mention the lederhosen.

Many species of bees love viper’s bugloss, including the rather splendid red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

Red-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus lapidarius) (Public Domain)

It is also a favourite foodplant of the migratory Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). These insects come out of their chrysalises in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa before heading north and east to find foodplants for their caterpillars. Fortunately the caterpillars have wide-ranging tastes, from thistles to mallows, but they also love viper’s bugloss. In years when there are not many foodplants close to home, or if a large number of adults have hatched and survived, there may be extraordinary irruptions of the adults in the UK as they arrive en masse: I remember seeing over thirty in one small patch of community garden one morning a few years ago. All the more reason for growing lots of plants for butterflies and bees! The butterflies also have a love for viper’s bugloss as a nectar plant, so it helps both caterpillars and adults.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) (Public Domain)

And as if that wasn’t reason enough to welcome viper’s bugloss to your garden if you get a chance, looky here….

Photo Five by By spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) feeding from viper’s bugloss (Photo Five)

Perhaps the most exciting insect find of all, however, is not particularly spectacular to look at, but is a sign of how our flora and fauna are likely to change with the climate. The viper’s bugloss mason bee (Hoplitis adunca) is a brand new species in the UK and is currently found at only one site, the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park in London. It strongly prefers species in the Echium genus to any other plants and, while it makes its tiny nest in every thing from empty snail shells to old beetle tunnels, at the park it was found nesting in an artificial ‘bee hotel’. Which just goes to show that if you provide lots of habitat in your garden, you never know what will turn up. It also points up the importance of ‘brownfield’ style sites for insects – many prefer these areas, even though they look uninviting to us, because they mimic the Mediterranean conditions of dry, poor soil and exposed, hot places to warm up that these insects are used to.

Photo Six by Thomas Roppenecker at https://www.flickr.com/photos/roppenecker/27613303396

Viper’s bugloss mason bee (Hoplitis adunca) (Photo Six)

I am reminded of the amazing book ‘Wildlife of a Garden – A Thirty Year Study’ by Jennifer Owen, who was a hoverfly specialist and who discovered several species that were completely new to science in her Leicestershire back garden. This was before the current (much welcomed) advent of ‘wildlife gardening’ – she had, by her own description, a very ‘ordinary’ garden with a lawn and flower beds and somewhere to dry clothes, and yet, because she paid attention and recorded the visitors that she had, she was able to list  2673 species of plants and animals. I wonder what the counts for our gardens would be? So many creatures, especially the tiny ones, escape our notice altogether, and that’s without all the ones who whistle through when we aren’t looking. We are surrounded by wonders, and I for one only notice a tiny proportion of them.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10222992

Photo Two by By Lubiesque [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia (Echium plantagineum plant1) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four from https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/139228/Echium-vulgare-Blue-Bedder/Details

Photo Five by By spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Thomas Roppenecker at https://www.flickr.com/photos/roppenecker/27613303396

 

 

A Summer Meander in Milborne St Andrew

Red Valerian, Milborne St Andrew’s ‘village plant’

Dear Readers, I felt some trepidation before this visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.  Dad has never really gotten over the chest infection that he had before Christmas, and he has been on a combination of antibiotics and steroids on and off ever since. He has had a CT scan for his chest and abdomen, because he has also been losing weight. He is due to have an endoscopy soon, but in one of those vicious circles that have become so familiar as Mum and Dad have aged, he needs to be able to breathe sufficiently to go through the ordeal of having a tube stuffed down his throat. In addition, Mum has been in a lot of pain with the arthritis in her knee, and has become increasingly concerned about her failing memory. I was worried about the pair of them, and so it felt even more essential than usual to go for a brief walk in the beautiful Dorset countryside, just to retain a bit of perspective and to recharge my batteries. It seems a little selfish I know, but without this I end up going down a rabbit hole of worry that doesn’t benefit anyone.

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) by the stream

My walk this time was full of surprises. I was passed by a man travelling at some speed on a pink skateboard, not something I usually see on the roads of Dorset. He passed me again when I was taking some pictures at the little stream opposite the village hall, and came to an stylish halt, flipping the skateboard onto its end and then up into his hand.

‘See anything interesting? ‘ he asked. ‘ I saw a water vole here a few weeks ago’.

Well, a fellow nature enthusiast. Turns out that Henry did a lot of work surveying and doing conservation work on Dorset and Hampshire rivers. We shot the breeze on the subject of the importance of river water crowfoot, and he told me that he had also seen a little trout in the stream. I was very happy to have an unexpected nature conversation. I sometimes feel like the Only Naturalist in the Village, but this is far from true.

River water crowfoot, now in full bloom

I walked on, up to the most beautiful thatched cottage with roses around the door. I see that I have neglected to take a photo of this rural idyll, but was very interested in the yellow weed growing in the gutter outside. This is fairly typical of me, as you know.

Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

I cut through a tiny footpath lined with brambles and nettles, and got a hole in my tights for my trouble. But how exquisite the hogweed is! I love every stage of it, from the tightly curled buds to the plate-sized white flowers to the green seedheads. Every hedgerow is full of them, and the hoverflies and bees and beetles are everywhere.

Hogweed buds unfurling

Hogweed in full flower

Hogweed seedhead

There are some very mighty trees around the farm and the church here, horse chestnuts and birches, oaks and limes.

One lime tree had some claw-like galls on the leaves, as if some tiny predator was trying to break through. These are lime nail gall mite, caused by an insect less than .2mm long. During the winter the mite lives in crevices in the bark of the tree, but when the plant comes into leaf the mites move out and start to suck the sap of the fresh growth. The chemicals injected by the insect cause the leaves to produce these strange claw-like outgrowths, within which the parasite grows happy and fat in his or her ‘castle’. When the autumn comes the mites leave en masse, mate, and lay their eggs in the bark, ready to repeat the whole cycle when the spring comes. The galls do not appear to harm the tree, and there is no treatment that will prevent or ‘cure’ them. Better to admire them as the thing of strange beauty that they are.

Lime nail gall (Eriophyes tiliae) on lime leaves

As I stood looking at the galls, I became aware of a luscious sweet smell. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but as I walked to the end of the path, I realised that it was coming in wafts from another enormous lime tree, the branches bowed down with the volume of flowers. I love the combination of citrus and almond in the scent of the lime tree, and this was so heady that I could easily have curled up under the roots and slept, further lulled by the sound of all the bees that were visiting the flowers. It gave me a great rush of peace, and I found myself thinking that, in spite of the way that the aphids that live on the leaves emit showers of sticky honeydew, the lime is a strong contender for my favourite tree.

Lime blossom

The lime tree

I headed down the road, past the vicarage, and stopped to admire the impressive crop of house martin nests under the eaves of the building. The little ‘orcas’ were zipping backwards and forwards like the tireless aerial acrobats that they are. We have been sharing our homes with swifts and swallows and martins for as long as there have been houses, I suspect, and what a rush of joy they must have given our ancestors as intimations that summer was finally here. Sure, they’re messy, but so are the starlings that visit me, and I wouldn’t not have them for the world. It warms my heart when people are generous of spirit and happy to share what they have in such abundance with other creatures.

Look at all those nests! How many can you count?

Onwards! I got talking to the lady who owns this beautiful cottage. She is originally from Dundee (and of course I have very fond memories of that town), and she described the cottage as ‘her pride and joy’. You can see this when you look at it. She described how quiet the village is at night, and how dark – I remember this from a period when I was sleeping with some of Mum and Dad’s neighbours because ‘my’ bedroom was taken over while they put in an accessible shower room. There is a kind of peace in the village that I am not yet ready for, dedicated city woman that I am, but I can definitely see the appeal.

And as I turned for home, I took a few shots of the red valerian that really is the ‘village flower’, popping up in scarlet and lipstick pink and white in every corner of Milborne St Andrew. Whenever I see it, I think of this corner of Dorset, and I keep my eyes open for Hummingbird Hawk Moths. I saw one once, and I have been waiting ever since to see another one.

Yesterday, Mum had an injection in her knee which we have high hopes will help with her pain – she has had cortisone injections with little benefit, but this is a replacement for the fluid that lubricates the joint, and doesn’t have any side effects. And today, I went, in the car, to the local shop because Dad wanted to buy a few cans of beer – Spanish of course, as he worked in Spain for many years when he was a gin distiller. On Monday, Mum and Dad go to the dentist, and then have some new reclining chairs delivered. And so, I leave Dorset in a cautiously optimistic mood. It feels so important to recognise that there are good moments, and it’s important to celebrate and make the most of them. We can’t do much about the future, but we can treasure every precious moment that we have with the people that we love.

Learning to be a starling

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Dear Readers, I have mentioned before that my garden is inundated with fledgling starlings every year. To start with it’s just one or two but by the end of May every bough is bending under the weight of squawling youngsters. When I look up, I see adult starlings with their offspring in hot pursuit. It’s a difficult few weeks for starling parents, to be sure. To start with, the youngsters are completely clueless, standing ankle-deep in food without knowing what it is.

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Somehow the adults seem to know which ‘child’ is theirs, and they only ever feed their own offspring, regardless of the pitiful cries of other youngsters. I wonder if they know by the tone of voice, or by some subtle visual signal? The little ones all look the same to me. Most starling parents seem to have two fledglings on average, though some exhausted parents have managed three – they probably started off with four eggs.  And they might not even be their own chicks – starling mothers will sometimes lay an egg in a neighbour’s nest for them to rear. This makes me wonder if this is part of the evolutionary process by which birds like the cuckoo learned to give up nest-building and chick-rearing altogether.

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During the next few days, the chicks follow hard on the heels of their parents, or wait impatiently on a tree branch for food to arrive. I’ve noticed that they start to peck at anything that looks the slightest bit edible.

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Are unripe rowan berries edible?

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How about hawthorn flowers?

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Maybe this is food?

I suspect that most birds are ‘hard-wired’ to peck, and so, following the example of their parents, will learn what’s edible and what’s not, just as most young animals, humans included, will pick up anything and put it straight in their mouths.

Some of the fledglings are definitely faster studies than others, not just in this question of feeding themselves, but also in paying attention to the social cues of the other birds. I’ve noticed that some youngsters will head off as soon as a much larger bird lands on the bird table, while others have to be practically knocked off of it. Some stay quiet when there’s a mass scatter of the birds to the safety of the trees, while others carry on calling. I suspect that again you could probably track the process of evolution here – the quicker a youngster is on the uptake, the more likely it is to survive to pass on its genes. There is also some evidence that animals in cities that have a variety of threats and opportunities to contend with become more ‘intelligent’ (by our standards) than country creatures – in fact, animals in any particularly challenging environment may evolve to have a wider range of strategies for survival than those who live where food is plentiful. The article here has a number of interesting examples, from mountain chickadees to raccoons.

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Over the next few days, the adult starlings will gradually make their youngsters independent. They will bring less food to them, and take a longer time between visits. They will become more inpatient with infants who follow them, and will sometimes try to escape their demanding offspring. This is a hard period for the fledglings, who will now have to try to fend for themselves – approximately 50 – 80% of all nestlings fledge, but only 20% of these will survive to breed. Everything eats fledgling starlings, from jays, magpies, crows and sparrowhawks to that most dedicated of predators the domestic cat, who takes more fledglings than all other predators put together. At this time of year it’s imperative to bell any outdoor cats, or at least keep them in at dawn and dusk.

The winter will also take its toll – many starlings no longer migrate, especially those in urban areas where there is usually enough food. The fledglings need to learn where to feed, drink and roost now, so that they will be prepared for the colder weather. They offset some of this difficulty by forming into flocks of adolescents, both because many eyes can identify sources of food more quickly, and because the bonds formed now will give them an advantage when they come to breed themselves next year.

The adults will have a brief period of rest and foraging for themselves before they ‘decide’ whether or not to try for a second brood.

I had always thought that the only way of ‘sexing’ adult starlings is by the small patch of colour at the base of the beak, but apparently the irises of the birds are different colours – rich brown in the male, a lighter, more mousey brown in the female. Now all I need is good light and my binoculars handy.

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And soon the hubbub will have died down for another year, as the adult birds moult and everything goes quiet in the garden. At the moment, though, I am awoken every morning at 5 a.m by the sound of young starlings looking for their breakfast. I imagine the neighbours are delighted.