Category Archives: Uncategorized

Uncomprehending

Dear Readers, last week I was summoned to the shed and told to ‘bring my camera’ by my husband, who was out topping up the bird feeders. We have several metal containers to keep out the vast array of rodents who pop in for a snack, and a plastic swing bin to top them up.

Well, someone had had an adventurous few days. It is probably a week since we last opened the bin, and in the meantime, a woodmouse had jumped in and had been unable to scramble out again.

The poor creature was fairly portly, but s/he must also have been desperately thirsty, and terrified.

How long had s/he been in the bin, desperately trying to get out, jumping up again and again, trembling every time s/he heard us rummaging about in the shed? What did s/he understand about the situation? It must have been   as incomprehensible as it would be for us if we were captured by aliens and taken up to the mothership.

Animals are so extraordinarily present, so embodied compared to us. They are fully absorbed with whatever they are doing, be it laying in the sun, or stalking a bird, or hiding from a fox. I suspect that their emotions are absolute, and what gripped this mouse was absolute terror. But as always with animals at the mercy of humans, there was a kind of acceptance about this creature, as if s/he was asking me what was next. I see a similar look in the eyes of domestic animals being transported to the slaughter house.

I took one or two more photos of the little mouse and then I let them go under the hedge. A quick leap and a few seconds of scuffling and s/he was gone. I hope s/he found a drink, and a place to hide and recover after their ordeal.

All paths seem to lead back to what’s going on in Dorset with my parents, and this was no exception. I was talking to the staff nurse about my mother, and she remarked that she thought of my mum as a little dormouse, all curled up in her bed and slow to wake. And when I went to visit earlier this week, there she was, snug as the proverbial bug. I sat down next to her and held her hand.

‘Mum’, I said quietly.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

She roused and looked at me with an expression of utter incomprehension and  fear.

‘Who is it? ‘ she said.

‘It’s me, Mum’, I said.

She stared at me for a moment, and I thought that she still didn’t know. But then she visibly relaxed and squeezed my hand.

‘Of course it’s you, I’m just being silly’, she said. ‘But I have had a very peculiar day’.

She proceeded to tell me how her day had been broken up into little shards of time and space.

‘I was having my breakfast and then it wasn’t there. Someone was shaking my shoulder and then the physiotherapist was here, but he was on his own so he couldn’t do much because I still can’t walk. And then you were here’.

Some of this is being in hospital, of course – both Mum and Dad lose touch with reality when they’re on a ward. Some of it is being tired. Some of it though is failing cognition.

Will there come a point when she won’t recognise me at all? And if that comes, will she recognise at least that I’m someone who loves her and doesn’t mean her any harm?

I push that thought away, and start to feed her a homemade creme caramel, her favourite. After two minutes she grabs it herself, and eats the lot. This is good news, for sure.

The staff nurse tells me that Mum is now medically fit to leave hospital, but still can’t stand unaided, and so they are going to transfer her to a community hospital in Wareham, where she’ll get the rehab that she needs. It’s a place with only one ward and relaxed visiting hours, so hopefully she’ll get a bit more attention than is possible in a busy hospital.

I go home to dad, who is still under the impression that Mum is his mother for a lot of the time. Initially we kept trying to explain the situation, and I do still try to help him understand who is who. He is really shocked if I tell him that his Mum died over twenty years ago, and it almost seems cruel to do so, but it’s breaking my mother’s heart.

‘Oh’, he says, suspicious. ‘If you say so’.

And yet he remembers exactly where the doctors surgery is when we visit later in the week, directing the carer there and telling her to slow down as we trundle through Milton Abbas as there’s a 30 mile per hour limit. Dad is itching to drive, but we have deterred him so far, because he has been so poorly with his chest and his confusion. I have a feeling though that if he sat in a car all those automatic reactions would take over and he would be fine. He was always an excellent driver, and gets so cross with us when we try to dissuade him from popping to the shops in the car.

‘Driving is my life!’ he says, in a burst of unaccustomed eloquence. ‘I promise I won’t drive if I don’t feel well enough. You don’t need to worry!’.

But worry I do, of course, because it’s ingrained now. However, I have to recognise that my span of control is limited, and that Dad is still a power to be reckoned with, even if half the time he has no idea that I’m his daughter. He was always a great bull of a man, stubborn and single-minded and, whatever else is happening to him, that remains unchanged. As with Mum, I think it’s that cussedness that’s enabled them to survive so far. It’s such a narrow line between giving them the respect that they deserve as my parents and as human beings, and trying to keep them safe. Do let me know if you’ve managed to walkthat tightrope without falling off regularly, I could do with some tips!

And next week, I am walking away from it all for a whole week and a bit. I am going a long way away to have an adventure that has been booked for a long, long time. My brother is going to look after the situation with the carers and the parents, and I am going to switch my phone off for hours at a time. Watch this space over the next few weeks for Bugwoman on Location in a very interesting place 🙂

And here’s a clue….

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Sunflower

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Dear Readers, you may have read about how the bird-sown sunflowers in my garden cheered me up last week. I’ve subsequently become even more fascinated with them, with their geometrical patterns, their usefulness to both pollinators and humans, their rhythms and the way that they have inspired artists.

First things first. The sunflower that we know comes originally from North America, where it was planted on the north side of fields by some Native American groups as the ‘Fourth Sister’ to the more well-known ‘Three Sisters’ of squash, corn and beans. The seeds are extremely nutritious, and the oil that can be extracted from them is high in Vitamin E and low in saturated fat. The birds in my garden have been somewhat spoiled with their diet of hulled sunflower seeds, and now turn their beaks up at anything else. They are delicious for humans too, and I can recommend using them as a sprinkle on salads if they are toasted and given a few dashes of soy sauce.

What about that seedhead, though?

The head of a sunflower is not composed of one big flower, but of a myriad tiny ones, arranged in a series of interlocking spirals. These are called ‘disk florets’ (the ‘petals’ are called ‘ray florets’). In the photo below, you can see some tiny actual petals protruding. Each one of the disk florets will, if pollinated, become a sunflower seed.

A closer view of the fused petals of each disk floret

Each floret is orientated towards the next one at an angle of approximately 137.5 degrees – this is known in geometry as the ‘golden angle’, and it results in a series of spirals that are successive Fibonacci numbers.  At this point my head explodes (maths not being a strong point) but for those of you who are fascinated by these things, here’s a diagram. Note that each number is the sum of the two previous ones (so 1+1 =2, 2+1 = 3, 3+2 = 5 etc). What it actually means is that each disk floret is at a slightly different angle to the one next to it, so the florets are packed in as tightly as it is mathematically possible for them to be. This maximises the amount of seeds that the plant will eventually produce.

The marriage of mathematics and nature can produce some truly beautiful offspring.

Photo One by By 克勞棣 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38708516

A diagram of a Fibonacci spiral (Photo One)

And now to another feature of sunflowers. It is often believed that the sunflowers follow the sun: that is, they are heliotrophic, following the path of the sun through the sky. However, this is not absolutely true. Sunflower buds start in the morning facing the rising sun, and end it facing west (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), a movement synchronised by the sun (though it will continue in cloudy weather or if kept in constant daylight).

However, the ‘adult’ flowers always face east, towards the rising sun, as shown in the photo below: here, you can see the sun blazing away behind the flowers.

Photo Two by By shirleybolling2005 - Flickr: D40 726, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21999817

Sunflowers facing away from the late afternoon sun (Photo Two)

The most likely reason for this is that it warms up the plant early in the morning,  and helps it to attract more pollinators. The sunflowers in my garden are visited by carder bees, hoverflies, and honeybees, to name but a few.

Carder bee on sunflower

In addition to their use as a food/oil crop, sunflowers can be used for phytoremediation (removal of dangerous chemicals from the soil) and rhizofiltration (removal of radioactive material from water). Sunflowers were used to remove strontium-90 and caesium-90 from a pond after the Chernobyl disaster and have been used in a similar way following Fukushima. It seems that all of nature is trying to rebalance and clear up our mess.

Because of their ease of cultivation, sunflowers are often the first thing grown by children, and some schools have sunflower-growing competitions. The plants in my garden are a modest metre tall, probably because my plot is north-facing, but in  2016 Suttons Seeds ran a competition for the tallest sunflower. The winner was Valerie Briggs, with a 4.60 metre plant.

Photo Three from https://hub.suttons.co.uk/blog/general/tallest-sunflower-competition-2016

Valerie Briggs’s award-winning 4.6 metre tall sunflower (Photo Three)

When I look at a sunflower I can never work out what came first. Did we look at a sunflower and decide that that was what the sun looked like, or did it happen the other way round? After all, the sun is a bright ball in the sky without any ‘petals’, but many children draw the sun exactly like a sunflower head.

Child’s drawing of the sun and a bird (Public Domain)

However, what is clear is that the sunflower has inspired many artists of all ages and degrees of talent. Van Gogh, of course, painted them during a time of rare optimism  while he was waiting for the arrival of his friend, the artist Paul Gauguin. Newly invented pigments meant that he could experiment with different shades of yellow and ochre, and he went at it with enthusiasm, as shown in this letter to his brother Theo:

I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers.”

Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (Vincent van Gogh , 1888) (Public Domain)

Van Gogh thought of the sunflower as being ‘his’ flower:

“It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’. You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.”

Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (Vincent van Gogh 1888) (Public Domain)

In return, Gauguin painted Van Gogh painting sunflowers:

Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (Paul Gauguin, 1888) (Public Domain)

I like to think of sunflowers as being a source of happiness for Van Gogh, a man who had vanishingly few good times in his troubled life. There is something about them that always makes me smile, for sure. Maybe it’s because they are so much bigger than most members of the daisy family, and make me feel correspondingly smaller and more childlike. Maybe it’s that buttery colour, and their complicated relationship with the sun. But for me, it’s also because there seems to be something dogged about the plant, something that is determined to keep going up and up. It’s conjured in this poem by Frank Steele. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunflower

You’re expected to see
only the top, where sky
scrambles bloom, and not
the spindly leg, hairy, fending off
tall, green darkness beneath.
Like every flower, she has a little
theory, and what she thinks
is up.   I imagine the long
climb out of the dark
beyond morning glories, day lilies, four o’clocks
up there to the dream she keeps
lifting, where it’s noon all day.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By 克勞棣 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38708516

Photo Two by By shirleybolling2005 – Flickr: D40 726, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21999817

Photo Three from https://hub.suttons.co.uk/blog/general/tallest-sunflower-competition-2016

 

 

 

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