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The End of the Blossom in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Leaves are out on the cherry plum

Dear Readers, on a rather chilly blustery April day it was no surprise to see that most of the blossom on the cherry plums in the cemetery had given up for the year, to be replaced by the familiar magenta-brown leaves. Such are the pleasures of spring – blink and you’ll miss them, so speedily do the changes come at this time of year. But fortunately, as one plant ‘goes over’ so another takes its place.

Wood forget-me-knots and Herb Robert

The forget-me-nots in the woodland grave area are in full swing, but if you look very carefully you’ll see a tiny rose-red flower nearly in the centre, which I think is the first herb Robert flower that I’ve seen this year. Soon they will be everywhere, but as herb Robert was the first ever Wednesday Weed back in 2014 I will always have a soft spot for it, even if it does smell of rubber tyres. No one is perfect after all. And what is this popping up? A euphorbia for sure, and I suspect wood spurge but a ‘domesticated’ variety (Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae). Let me know what you think, readers.

Some cuckooflowers are in full flower further along the walk through this part of the cemetery. I say hello to the swamp cypress but it is still in its winter sleep, so I have spared you yet another photo of twigs. However, I do point out to my long-suffering husband that the cuckooflower (otherwise known as lady’s smock) is a member of the cabbage family and I know that my work is done when he sighs and says ‘I know’.

 

Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis)

I notice this rather strange hairy plant growing alongside some of the graves in the open area next to the main road. I have not the faintest idea what it is, but my pals over on the Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page come back with the news that it is field wood-rush (Luzula campestris) within about 30 seconds. I shall say little about it now, but I feel a Wednesday Weed coming on…

Field wood-rush (Luzula campestris)

The red deadnettle and ground elder is having a right old time of it under some of the horse chestnuts. It’s hard to do justice to these pretty little plants from a distance, but if I lay on my stomach to photograph them I fear that I’ll need a hoist to get me back up again.

And speaking of the horse chestnut, isn’t it coming on well?

The primroses have taken over from the lesser celandine in the more exposed parts of the cemetery

I think these are the female catkins of goat willow, but feel free to correct me! I find catkins rather confusing.

What I told you all was feverfew a few weeks ago turns out to be (ahem) Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus) – not quite sure how I can have mistaken the leaves are clearly very different.

And look at the cherry laurel, just coming into full flower! Once it warms up a bit the bees will be delighted, especially the queen buff-tailed bumblebee that I saw earlier who was attempting to feed from a bunch of artificial flowers. There are quite a few real plants in flower, as we’ve seen, so hopefully she’ll spot them soon. I sometimes wonder if the super-sized and coloured plastic flowers act as a kind of ‘super-stimulus’, enticing bees away from things that will actually feed them. I hope not.

Cherry laurel flowers

I was delighted to see that my mallard mènage a trois were back on the bank of the stream.

The male mallards really are in spectacular condition, even though one of them appears to have no head :-). I have a special fondness for those little curly feathers just above the tail, which appear to be called the ‘sex feathers’ because only the drakes have them. I’m sure they should be called something cuter than that.

And look, the first flowers are appearing on the cow parsley/Queen Anne’s Lace (Anthriscus sylvestris).

For a final treat this week, here are some violets, coming into bloom just as the lesser celandine are finishing. For the next few months it’s just one thing after another, but in a good way for a change. Now if only I could replicate that changing cast of characters in the garden, without any weeks when everything looks a bit ugh, I would be very happy.

 

A Regular Visitor and the Best April Fools Ever?

Dear Readers, you might remember that this little vixen popped into the garden a week ago in broad daylight, and since then she has been a fairly regular visitor. She generally appears at about 5 p.m., hoovers up any suet pellets that I’ve thrown down for the birds and sits in the sun for a bit, watching all the goings on. On Monday she was astonished but not perturbed by the next door neighbours sorting out their garden furniture so that they could have a few friends over for the first time this year, and sat and watched the whole process.

I have taken to throwing out a handful of (organic grain-free) dog food for her, on the basis that the suet pellets can hardly provide a balanced diet. After all, at this time of year she might have cubs somewhere.

She has one patch of bald skin, but it could just be her winter coat growing out rather than mange, fingers crossed.

I love the way that animals come to drink at the pond as if it was a watering hole in the Serengeti. And there are no crocodiles, which is a bonus if the wildlife films of wildebeest crossing the rivers during their annual migration are anything to go by.

And then the neighbours dropped something, which didn’t go unnoticed….

I suspect that one reason that the vixen visits during the day is that the big dog fox comes at night – cats often occupy temporal territories rather than physical ones, so the most dominant cats visit my garden at dawn and dusk (the best time for hunting) while the others are relegated to midday or early afternoon when most creatures are resting. So maybe this little fox is trying to avoid running into trouble. Whatever the reason, I think I might just have doubled my dog food requirements.

And now, as you might know, today is April Fool’s Day. In 1957 the BBC produced what I think is the best April Fool’s joke ever. When you watch it, you need to remember that in 1957 only a tiny proportion of the population had ever eaten spaghetti – it was as exotic as pizza and sushi and all the other things we take for granted these days. Plus, the whole set up is so plausible. What I love most about it is that it isn’t cruel – many April Fool’s Day pranks seem to depend on upsetting someone.

What is most strange about this is that I’m sure I remember it being shown, but it was three years before I was even a ‘twinkle in my mother’s eye’. Maybe it was repeated every year?

Anyhow, see what you think. And let me know what your favourite April Fool’s Day pranks were, if you have such a festival where you live!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVo_wkxH9dU

 

Other People’s Gardens….

Alpine Accentors (Prunella collaris) (Photo by Mike Hawtree)

Dear Readers, in my Magic Animals post last week I asked to hear about the animals that you most enjoy when they visit your garden, and today I have two very different sets of critters for your delectation. First up is Mike, who lives in the beautiful Valais area in Switzerland. Mike blogs at Alittlebitoutoffocus and his posts are always full of splendid photos of flowers and butterflies, so when I find myself pining for the mountains (which has been a frequent occurrence this year) I can pop over and cheer myself up.One bird that Mike sees regularly that we don’t get in the UK is the Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris), a bird closely related to our dunnock, and with a similarly intriguing sex life. The birds hang out in groups of 3-4 females and a similar number of males. The females will attempt to mate with all the chaps, and the males will aim for similar success with the ladies. However, one of the males is likely to be more dominant and so will try to prevent the other males from mating if he can. It all sounds a bit ‘Abigail’s Party’ to me, but it just goes to show that even a non-descript little brown bird can have a whole lot of fun.

Alpine accentor – photo by Mike Hawtree.

And then there’s a bird that I’ve never seen in East Finchley: though it’s a British native, it loves the coniferous forests of Scotland. What a cracking photo this is!

Crested tit (Lolophanes cristatus) Photo by Mike Hawtree

Crested tits survive through the winter by winkling out the insects that  hide in pine cones and in bark. It’s a very distinctive and talkative little bird (allegedly since I have never been lucky enough to hear one  🙁 ) and apparently it is ‘easily approached’. No chance of finding one in my garden, I fear, but how lucky we all are that Mike is a dab hand with the camera.

And now to the other end of the world: Anne blogs every single day from her home in South Africa, and she has a garden bird list that is easily six times the length of mine. Her blog, Something Over Tea, is a fascinating insight not just into the wildlife of the area, but into the community as a whole. And she has some truly spectacular birds visiting her garden – how about this African Harrier Hawk (Polyboroides typus)?

African Harrier Hawk (Polyboroides typus) Photo by Anne Irwin

What a spectacular bird! And apparently it has double-jointed knees, so that it can reach into inaccessible cracks and crannies for prey – it will hang from a weaver bird nest with one foot while searching inside with the other one for nestlings. Its ability to climb and its omnivorous eating habits (it eats the fruit of the oil palm as well as all the usual small creatures) make it a successful and adaptable bird.

I was even more jealous about this visitor, although I can understand that I might be in a minority.

Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) Photo by Anne Irwin

This is a puff adder, responsible for more deaths from snakebite in Africa than any other species. This is for a variety of reasons: it’s a widespread and relatively common snake, it can turn up in heavily populated areas, and apparently it has an ‘aggressive disposition’. When I visited the Kruger, our guide told us that the snake likes to sleep on the paths at night because they’re warmer, which is not good when combined with a local populace who often go barefoot. However, as they have especially long fangs which can penetrate soft leather, even your shoes might not protect you. Nonetheless, like most snakes attacking is a last resort: the snake will puff up and hiss continuously, while deciding whether to strike or to retreat. I love the matter-of-fact way in which Anne describes the encounter:

This Puffadder had been seen in our garden for several days in a row and
then one evening decided to venture into our house. Needless to say it
was bundled out forthwith!’

So there we go. Gardens vary so much from place to place, from country to country, and yet we all love to see the wildlife that visits. If you have photos of creatures in your garden, drop me a line on viv_palmer_1999@yahoo.co.uk and I’ll feature you in one of my future posts. In the meantime, do drop in on Mike at Alittlebitoutoffocus and Anne at Something Over Tea for a taste of drops in to visit gardens in other parts of the world.

Wednesday Weed – Danish Scurvygrass

Danish Scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica)

Dear Readers, I do love finding a ‘proper’ new weed. Danish scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica) is a member of the cabbage family, and used to be found at the seaside, scattered on rocky shores or dangling from cliffs. However, since the 1980’s it has spread along roads that are salted during icy periods, and so it has popped up in the cemetery, right next to where the traffic roars along the North Circular Road. Salt spells the end of the game for most plants, but where they are already adapted to briny coastal conditions they have a great advantage: they can grow where not much else will. And I just learned that the name for a plant or animal that enjoys salty conditions is a halophile, so that’s another new word.

The speed of the traffic wafts the seeds along the road and Danish scurvygrass can often be spotted under the crash barriers in the central reservation of a motorway, and for a view of the plant in all its roadside glory, have a look here.In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how the plant seems to be spreading along main roads at a rate of about 10 to 15 miles per year.

In March and April, its profusion of low-growing, small white flowers can look like a layer of hoar-frost on the edge of the central reservation’

The name of the plant might make you think that it had been brought over by the Vikings but in fact this is a native plant, although Scandinavians might well have chewed on a handful during their voyages because it is very high in Vitamin C. The leaves are tiny though, so you’d need to pick quite a lot to stop your fingernails from dropping out. Pliny the Elder(23-79 A.D) first described a disease that sounds a lot like scurvy and mentioned that there was a Herba Britannica that could cure it. In 1662, the Rev. George Moore suffered so much from scurvy that he devoted himself to the plants that could cure it, publishing Cochlearia curiosa: or the curiosities of scurvygrass ‘ in 1676. There are various species of scurvy grass in the UK, and common scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis) was the one most commonly used medicinally. This species is a real coastal plant, though it is also taking to the (salted) roads in the South West.

Common scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis) on Bear Island in Norway, with Guillemots

What is astonishing is that although the cure for scurvy is fruit and vegetables, this was forgotten over and over again during the history of mankind – in fact it took until 1747 before James Lind, a naval surgeon on HMS Salisbury, conducted trials of different kinds of foods to see which actually worked, concluding that citrus fruits were the best at preventing the disease. Sadly he was ignored, and during the 18th century more sailors died of scurvy than from enemy action. These days scurvy can still be found, even in the UK, particularly amongst those with alcoholism, mental illness or who are suffering generally from malnutrition. In the world as a whole it is a disease of the most desperate, and can frequently be found in refugee camps.

The leaves of Danish scurvygrass are said to taste like horseradish, with a mustardy, peppery flavour, and have featured in the dishes of Rene Redzepi, formerly owner of Noma, voted the world’s best restaurant on multiple occasions. Redzepi forages for food in his native Denmark, so it’s no surprise that Danish scurvygrass should crop up as an ingredient. The buds can also be eaten, apparently, by those who don’t mind their ‘explosive’ taste. As someone who accidentally ate a chunk of wasabi paste the other day and spent ten minutes with their nose on fire and their eyes watering, I think I’ll pass, but let me know how you get on. Several sites describe the plant as ‘an acquired taste’ and having a ‘punch in the face flavour’, and in fact one site actually mentions that it can be used in place of wasabi, or in pesto. However, for sheer fun have a look at this clip from The Social, a Scottish TV show, where you can find out how to incorporate scurvygrass into your bangers and mash. And in case you still have a whole road-side of scurvy grass to use up, here’s a recipe for scurvy grass ale which also incorporates senna pods, surely not a good idea.

The flowers are said to have a sweet smell, at least on South Uist where the plant grows on the cliffs.

And finally, a poem. John Clare had such an understanding of the countryside in which he roamed, and I especially love his attention to the small, unnoticed flowers of hedgerow and field. This poem, by Susan Kinsolving, seems to me to sum up the tragedy of the enclosure of England, and the how the world was changed. It won an Individual award from the Poetry Society of America in 2009, and well-deserved too.

Susan Kinsolving

PARLIAMENT PASSES THE INCLOSING LANDS ACT, 1809

The open-field system would end. Every acre was enumerated
in a way John Clare could not comprehend. Why should footpaths
have fences, streams be made straight, why fell trees, wall a field
and lock it with a gate? No longer could he drink from Eastwell
spring;
the bubbling water was penned by scaffolding. No Trespassing

at every turn, posted over scurvy-grass, loosestrife, vetch,
clover, and fern. Clare doffed his cap and wept for his right to
roam;
in chicory, thistle, briony and buttercup, he’d always been at
home.
Or coming upon a gypsy camp (fires and tambourines!) he’d
share
his fleabane, borage, parsley, some beans. Once again the
labouring-class

had lost to the well-to-do, those new proprietors of blackberry,
hemp-
nettle, toadflax, and meadow rue. Clare questioned his sanity,
fearing
a familiar hell, but tramped on to say his farewell to mallow,
teasel,
oxlip, and pimpernel. He knew this ramble was one of his last;
every
field, farm, and forest would be enclosed. The open world was
past.

 

New Scientist – The Mirror Test

Horse looking in the mirror (Photo by Baragli, P., Scopa, C., Maglieri, V. et al.
Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2271945-horses-may-recognise-themselves-in-a-mirror-hinting-at-self-awareness/#ixzz6ppWpi6L3)

Dear Readers, every time we get a glimpse into the cognition of animals, it seems that we feel a need to raise the bar higher. So it has been with the Mirror Test. In a traditional Mirror Test, an animal is anaesthetised and then a mark is put on a part of the body that can only be seen in a mirror. When the animal revives, it will ‘pass’ the test if it investigates the mark, which scientists believe means that the animal recognises that it sees itself in the mirror, rather than another animal.

Animals that have ‘passed’ this test include great apes, one single Asiatic elephant, dolphins, orcas, the Eurasian magpie and cleaner wrasse, little stripy fish who pick the parasites off of larger fish. Animals that have ‘failed’ include sea lions, a wide variety of monkeys, octopuses and some birds that are renowned for their intelligence, including the New Caledonian Crow (famed for its tool-making abilities) and the African grey parrot (one of which, Alex, had a vocabulary of thousands of words and the ability to sort items into categories by colour or shape). It’s therefore clear that the Mirror Test is not a test of intelligence, but scientists believe that it indicates self-awareness.

So, to the horses. Paolo Baragli of the University of Pisa in Italy released 14 horse one at a time into an area with a large mirror. After an initial period of being aggressive to, or curious about, the horse that they saw in the mirror, Baragli reports that they started to do things like stick out their tongues and watch their reflections as they moved their heads from side to side. When a mark was put on their faces, 11 out of the 14 horses spent time trying to remove it by rubbing their heads.

Pretty conclusive, huh? Not according to the developer of the Mirror Test, Gordon Gallup at the University of Albany in New York. He disagrees that the horses recognised themselves in the mirror before the mark was put on, and none of them used the mirror to look at a part of their body that they couldn’t normally see. For Gallup, this is a fundamental part of the process, that is then verified by the use of the ‘mark’.

There have been many criticisms of the Mirror Test. For one thing, dogs don’t pass, largely because they use their sense of smell and hearing much more than their sense of sight. Cats, predictably, fail because they just aren’t interested. Pigs have passed a version of the test in which they use a mirror to find food, but don’t seem especially interested in looking at themselves. Gorillas have repeatedly failed the test, but this might be because eye-contact is seen as an aggressive act and so the apes tend not to spend much time investigating what looks like another gorilla at first glance.

Furthermore, even in animals where individuals display the ‘correct’ behaviour, others may not. Three Asian elephants were given the mirror test at the Bronx Zoo in 2006 – one of them ‘passed’ but the other two did not. This seems to me to say more about the personality of the elephants involved than their cognitive abilities or sense of self.

It’s very common for humans to set up parameters for a test which animals can then ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, without taking into consideration not only the inner worlds of the creatures being investigated, but their physical abilities and the environment in which they lived. I remember the view of Noam Chomsky, who maintained that humans were the only animals with language ability, and remained unimpressed by the chimpanzees and other great apes who were taught, and used, sign language in the 1960’s, even after the chimps started to make up their own nouns (Washoe, the most famous of these apes, made the phrase ‘water+bird’ on seeing a swan. We insist on dragging animals into our world rather than meeting them where they are, and looking at what’s important to them. Our science often shows a cataclysmic failure of imagination.

Nonetheless, it looks as if horses *might* have passed the Mirror Test, and so can be admitted to the pantheon of creatures who are self-aware. This is probably not, however, news to anyone who has spent any time with these animals.

You can read the whole article here 

Magic Animals

Dear Readers, I’m sure that for all of us there are animals that, when they appear in our gardens or we bump into them during a walk in the countryside, fill us with awe and joy. For example, my garden is regularly visited by foxes at night, but seeing them in broad daylight always sets me up for the day. This little vixen popped in on Thursday morning  for no apparent reason other than to check if there were any suet pellets for the birds that she could hoover up.

Another creature that always makes me run for my camera is the rose-ringed parakeet. No doubt I would be a lot crosser if they visited every day and dismantled my birdfeeders, but as they only stop by about once a year I am more than happy to see them.

Then there is the grey heron who visited for a few days during 2019 and seemed to spend most of his time eating the frogs in the pond. What a shock he was! And how reading this piece takes me back to those days just after Mum had died, and when Dad was still adjusting to life in the nursing home.

 

And while we’re on the theme of unexpected visitors, the sparrowhawk always brings a frisson to the garden. To be confronted by the struggle for life that is taking place every day in the natural world is a challenging thing, but I am still stunned by the audacity and the strength of these birds. This visit in 2017 summed it all up for me…

And finally, I would hardly be Bugwoman without having a love for the insects that visit the garden, especially the more unusual ones. This female Emperor Dragonfly absolutely made my day as she tried to lay her eggs on the wooden steps, and I now have some rotting wood permanently placed in the pond just in case she comes back.

And this beautiful rose chafer beetle made my day in 2020, on a hot August afternoon when it felt as if lockdown would never end.

And how about this beautiful Jersey Tiger moth, now being seen in some numbers every year?

So, over to you readers! What are the animals that make you gasp when they make an appearance? What of your garden visitors make you happiest? Pop your answers in the comments, and let me know if you have photos – I’d love to make a ‘favourite garden animals from around the world’ post in a few weeks. I bet we’ve all got some stories to tell!

 

A Bird-Filled Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Rose-ringed Parakeet in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, I’ve been noticing the gathering pace of spring’s pulse in the cemetery over the past few weeks, but today the signs were everywhere. There was a pair of rose-ringed parakeets in the plane trees close to the chapel, and what a picture they made amongst the tangled branches. The male in the photo above seemed to have a desultory interest in the bauble-like seedheads on the tree, but I could see that he wasn’t very impressed.

His lady friend was on the other side of the tree, about five metres away. They had the air of a long-married pair, surveying their kingdom and trying to decide whether to change the colour of the carpets.

They add such a dash of colour to a dull, still day.

Further along the path, a crow carrying a twig flew into the tree and seemed to be trying to rearrange its burden so that it was easier to carry, before heading off to its nest.

The blossom is really splendid too. Every week I think that it’s at the top of its game, but every week it seems more and more splendid.

I keep thinking that the lesser celandine must  be close to its peak too, but actually I think it’s got a few weeks to go yet. Before I started the blog I wonder if I would even have noticed it, let alone known what it was.

And I’ve grown very fond of this patch of red deadnettle too.

A pair of herring gulls were hanging out near the ant hill, where we’ve spotted green woodpeckers on previous weeks. These two seemed more interested in possible earthworms, and flew off as soon as we got within thirty metres. The bigger the bird the shyer they are it seems.

And then here is something rather exciting, though it might not look it. This is Danish scurvygrass, a member of the cabbage family that has become more common in urban areas because it loves salt, and so thrives in areas where the roads are salted during icy weather. I shall say more in the Wednesday Weed this week, so for now here is a portrait of this unassuming little plant.

And I wonder why some daisies have these bright red petals? They look as if they’ve been snogged by a lipsticked fairy.

There’s some more splendid blossom here too, along with the misty new growth on the trees in the background.

And then here’s a treat. Have a listen to this and see if you know what it is.

Well, sitting at the top of an ash tree was this little chap.

It’s a Eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europeaea) and this one was absolutely singing his head off. Spring is definitely in the air! I’m more used to seeing these birds running along a tree branch rather than sitting boldly on a treetop.

As we cross the stream, we notice that a lot of undergrowth has been cut back, and there are some beehives! Well, there are certainly lots of plants in the cemetery to keep them happy, though I don’t see any activity at the moment.

And then it’s back towards the wild part of the cemetery, past yet more lesser celandine and some more blossom.

And while my heart will always belong to the swamp cypress (who is still looking rather drab at the moment) I think that this tree is sneaking up into my favourites list, if only for its remarkable width to height ratio….

I am much perked up also by my very first violets – there’s an area where they carpet the ground but it’s a bit off our usual route, so I’ll make a special trip next week. Whenever we had a family holiday in the West Country as children, Mum would end up buying something that went by the name of Dorset or Devon Violets – hand cream or talcum powder or something similarly heavily scented. Most of the violets in the cemetery are dog violets so they have no smell, but sweet violets must be really something.

And finally, as we pass the stumpery that I noticed a few weeks ago, I see that it’s crowned by a single parrot tulip. Did someone plant it I wonder, or did it pop up there of its own accord? It seems most incongruous, but very cheering.

And finally, as I walk back along East Finchley High Road I see that the shrubs outside the retirement flats have been pruned. In the middle of one is this object. It looks to me remarkably like a blackbird nest, and yet it’s completely interwoven with shreds of plastic. Some days, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Saturday Quiz – Poisonous Pairs – The Answers!

Title Photo by By Benny Trapp - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12570624

Dear Readers, what a tightly-fought quiz this was! First up, welcome and well done to Oneforestfragment, who got 9/10 for which plant was poisonous and which one wasn’t. Then, for those who also named the plants, we have Mike at Alittlebitoutoffocus with 24.5 out of 30, Claire with 25/30, FEARN with 27 out of 30 and Fran and Bobby Freelove the winners this week with 28 out of 30, so well done everyone! What I’ve done is to give one point for identifying the photo of the  poisonous plant, and then one point for identifying each of the plants. In two cases it turns out that both plants are poisonous to some extent or another, so for fairness I’ve given you a mark which ever one you chose. 

  1. Which of these berries is poisonous, a) or b)?
Photo 1 a by Karelj, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

1) a) Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladona) (Poisonous)

1) b) Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) edible

2) Beautiful fungi, but which can you eat and which will kill you?

Photo 2)a) by Björn S..., CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2) a) Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) edible

Photo 2)b) by Quartl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2) b) Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) Poisonous

3) Two pretty yellow shrubs, but which one could make you sorry that you ever saw it?

Photo 3) a) by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=484033

3) a) Laburnum (Laburnum amagyroides) poisonous

Photo 3) b) by PaleCloudedWhite, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

3) b) Gorse (Ulex europaeus), harmless

4) Bulbs, eh. But which one wouldn’t you want to mistake for an onion?

Photo 4) a) by Dvortygirl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4) a) Daffodil (Narcissus) poisonous

Photo 4) b) by Ɱ, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4) b) Water Chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) edible

5) One of these is edible. One of them will kill you. But can you tell which is which?

Photo 5) a) by Peter O'Connor aka anemoneprojectors from Stevenage, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) a) Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) edible

Photo 5) b) by Eric Coombs, Oregon Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) b) Water Hemlock, (Conium maculatum) poisonous

6) Common in gardens, but rare in the wild. One of these is sometimes known as the most poisonous wild plant in Britain, but which one?

Photo 6) a) by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ee, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26560960

6) a) Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), I thought harmless but apparently the seeds can be poisonous, so you get a mark whichever one you choose here!

Photo 6) b) by Wattewyl (talk), CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) b) Monkshood/Wolfbane (Aconitum napellus), poisonous

7) Lovely green leaves, but which are edible?

Photo 7) a) by Guido Gerding, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

7) a) Lords and Ladies/Cuckoopint (Arum maculatum) poisonous

Photo 7) b) by Dinkum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

7) b) Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) edible

8) Pretty as a picture, but which one is poisonous?

Photo 8) a) by Evelyn Simak / Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) - detail of flower

8) a) Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) poisonous

Photo 8) b) by Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

8) b) Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), harmless

9) Even some of our commonest weeds are poisonous, but which ones?

Photo 9) a) by Ian Cunliffe / Greater Celandine - Chelidonium majus

9) a) Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), poisonous

Photo 9) b) by Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9) b) Yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea), also poisonous!

10) And finally, it’s sometimes the sap that will harm you, especially if you get it in your eye. Always be extra careful after handling which of these plants?

Photo 10) a) by By Sphl - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=790345

10) a) Sunspurge, (Euphorbia helioscopia) the sap is a strong irritant

Photo 10 b) by Greg Hume, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

10) b) Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), harmless and edible.

 

 

 

 

Saturday Quiz – Poisonous Pairs

Title Photo by By Benny Trapp - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12570624

Dear Readers, there are lots of things out there that are poisonous – in other words, if you eat them they will make you ill. The beautiful adder in the photo above isn’t poisonous, but it is venomous (though it’s only likely to be dangerous if you stand on it in your stockinged feet). Have a look at the pairs of photos below. Which one is poisonous, and which one isn’t? One mark for correctly identifying the toxic one out of the pair, with a further two marks up for grabs if you can identify the plants and fungi shown.

I will publish the answers and the scores next Friday (19th March) so get your answers into the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 18th March if you want to be marked. I will unapprove any answers in the comments so that the people who come afterwards aren’t influenced but I’m not always notified by the system instantly, so you might want to write your answers down first and stick to them if you don’t want to be swayed by other people.

Onwards!

  1. Which of these berries is poisonous, a) or b)?
Photo 1 a by Karelj, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

1) a)

1) b)

2) Beautiful fungi, but which can you eat and which will kill you?

Photo 2)a) by Björn S..., CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2) a)

Photo 2)b) by Quartl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2) b)

3) Two pretty yellow shrubs, but which one could make you sorry that you ever saw it?

Photo 3) a) by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=484033

3) a)

Photo 3) b) by PaleCloudedWhite, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

3) b)

4) Bulbs, eh. But which one wouldn’t you want to mistake for an onion?

Photo 4) a) by Dvortygirl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4) a)

Photo 4) b) by Ɱ, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4) b)

5) One of these is edible. One of them will kill you. But can you tell which is which?

Photo 5) a) by Peter O'Connor aka anemoneprojectors from Stevenage, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) a)

Photo 5) b) by Eric Coombs, Oregon Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) b)

6) Common in gardens, but rare in the wild. One of these is sometimes known as the most poisonous wild plant in Britain, but which one?

Photo 6) a) by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ee, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26560960

6) a)

Photo 6) b) by Wattewyl (talk), CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) b)

7) Lovely green leaves, but which are edible?

Photo 7) a) by Guido Gerding, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

7) a)

Photo 7) b) by Dinkum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

7) b)

8) Pretty as a picture, but which one is poisonous?

Photo 8) a) by Evelyn Simak / Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) - detail of flower

8) a)

Photo 8) b) by Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

8) b)

9) Even some of our commonest weeds are poisonous, but which ones?

Photo 9) a) by Ian Cunliffe / Greater Celandine - Chelidonium majus

9) a)

Photo 9) b) by Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9) b)

10) And finally, it’s sometimes the sap that will harm you, especially if you get it in your eye. Always be extra careful after handling which of these plants?

Photo 10) a) by By Sphl - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=790345

10) a)

Photo 10 b) by Greg Hume, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

10) b)

 

 

 

 

Book Review – ‘The Botany of Desire’ by Michael Pollan

Dear Readers, I’m a bit late to the party here: my friends have been raving about ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and this book for quite some time. Indeed, it took one of my friends buying ‘The Botany of Desire  – A Plant’s-Eye View of the World’ for me as a birthday present for me to actually read it. I’ve found it a fascinating read, one of those where you interrupt your partner’s book about the Vietnam War to regale him with facts about the arrival of the apple in the US or the way that prohibition and the war on drugs in the US led to the development of much stronger marijuana in Europe. But, first things first.

The book centres on four human desires, and the plants that encapsulate them. So, firstly we have the story of the apple, which fulfills our need for sweetness, something which seems almost primal. For most of the history of mankind, sweet food would have been a handful of berries in autumn, or a lick of honey when someone was brave enough to knock down a wild bee’s nest. I loved this description of Pollan’s son’s first encounter with sugar – the icing on his first birthday cake.

‘I have only the testimony of Isaac’s face to go by (that, and his fierceness to repeat the experience), but it was plain that his first encounter with sugar had intoxicated him – was in fact an ecstasy, in the literal sense of that word. That is, he was beside himself with the pleasure of it, no longer here with me in space and time in quite the same way he had been just a moment before. Between bites Isaac gazed up at me in amazement (he was on my lap, and I was delivering the ambrosial forkfuls to his gaping mouth) as if to exclaim, “Your world contains this? From this day forward I shall dedicate my life to it.” (Which he basically has done). And I remember thinking, this is no minor desire, and then wondered: Could it be that  sweetness is the prototype of all desire?’

What an interesting question! And from here we have the story of Johnny Appleseed, the Garden of Good and Evil, the way that apples only ‘come true’ from grafting, not from seed, and how varieties fall in and out of fashion.

The second is beauty, and for that we have the tulip. There is an exploration of tulipomania, of course, but also on the whole notion of the ‘broken’ tulip – a virus will cause a particular flower to be coloured in a different way from its neighbours, and in the Holland of the 1630’s, added to its value even though the offsets from the bulb were smaller and weaker than those from other plants. Pollan has some interesting thoughts about why, in the relentlessly mercantile environment of the 17th Century Low Countries, a lust for these extravagant blooms took hold. I found this part interesting, but not as compelling as the apple chapter, probably because I already knew a bit about tulipomania from Anna Pavord’s book ‘The Tulip’.

The next chapter is on the human desire for intoxication, and features marijuana. It starts with the story of Pollan growing some of the plant in his backyard, and suddenly realising that the person dropping off some wood that he’s ordered is actually the local policeman. We investigate the history of marijuana in the US and then in Europe, where selective breeding not just for strength, but also for a particular ‘kind’ of high really got going. And he has a description of that open-eyed wonder that often goes along with smoking pot that made me laugh out loud. Having eaten some vanilla icecream while high, he reports back:

For the first time in your journey on this planet you are fully appreciating Vanilla in all its italicized and capitalized significance. Until, that is, the next epiphany comes along (Chairs! People thinking in other languages! Carbonated water!) and the one about ice cream is blown away like a leaf on the breeze of free association.’

And yes, this just about sums it up.

It is by temporarily mislaying much of what we already know (or think we know) that cannabis restores a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world, and innocence in adults will always flirt with embarrassment’.

Indeed.

But it’s in the final chapter, where Pollan looks at the human desire for control through the lens of the New Leaf potato, a genetically-modified organism which has a pesticide against Colorado beetle actually built in, that some of the most interesting facets of the relationship between humans and plants reveal themselves. So many gardens are a battle between what ‘nature’ wants and what human beings want. Genetically-modified crops seem to Pollan to represent the very pinnacle of this need for control, but he also sees it as an illusion: as one organic farmer says, the bugs will find a way to fight back. Isn’t it our desire to create monocultures that’s the problem, Pollan asks?

To shrink the sheer diversity of life, as the grafters and monoculturists and genetic engineers would so, is to shrink evolution’s possibilities, which is to say, the future open to all of us. “This is the assembly of life that it took a billion years to evolve,” the zoologist E.O.Wilson has written, speaking of biodiversity. “It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes-and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady.” To risk this multiplicity is to risk unstringing the world.’

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking book, and makes me want to read some of Pollan’s other work, especially ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Let me know what you think if you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.

You can buy ‘The Botany of Desire’ in lots of places, but if you’re in the UK the NHBS bookshop is my go-to site, you can find it here.