Wednesday Weed – Mango

Dear Readers, my Mum often used to get ‘stuck’ on a particular foodstuff, which she would eat daily for weeks. One year it was an apple with a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Another year it was those ‘fruit corner’ yoghurts. Then there was the time of the Solero ice lollies (tropical fruit flavour only if you please). But at some point she was introduced to the delights of a ripe mango, and that was it. She bought them by the boxful, and the sound of slurping and licking of fingers was often a bit much for the more delicate among us. How she loved them!

And then one day the inevitable happened (just after I’d sourced a box of Alphonso mangos, naturally). As usual, Mum cut one as close as she could to the skin on either side of the stone, cut the flesh into cubes, and after the first nibble she looked up, astonished.

‘You know,’ she said, ‘I think I’ve gone off of these’.

And that was that. Never a mango crossed her lips again.

So when I was presented with a red mango in my fruit and veg box today, it brought back so many memories. But sad to say, I have never had a really good ripe mango in the UK since the days of getting them for Mum. Are they storing them differently, I wonder? They seem stringier and more insipid than I remember them, and like so many other things they go from as hard as a shot putt to rotten without any intervening period. When I’ve been travelling, though (remember those days?) I have been party to some exquisite mangoes, ripened gently on the tree in someone’s garden and picked at the perfect moment.

Mango is an Asian fruit, and is the National Fruit of India, and National Tree of Bangladesh.  There are 27 edible species. The most familiar to us, and the most commonly cultivated, is Mango indica. All mangoes are in the cashew family (Anacardiaceae).

Photo One By Ram Kulkarni - Photograph taken by a digital camera, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14897964

Fruits and flowers of Alphonso mango (Photo One)

Tropical mangoes (such as those from the Philippines) are typically yellow, while sub-tropical mangoes, from the cooler parts of India, are usually red and green, like my fruit. The world’s highest selling cultivar, Tommy Atkins, is liked because of (guess what) its transportability, long shelf life and ease of handling. Personally I much prefer Alphonsos, but there have been problems with importation, due to fear of bringing in, among other things, ‘non-European fruit flies’. The EU ban was lifted in 2015, but I well remember the 2014 ‘year without Alphonsos’. The season is short, but the fruit is remarkably lacking in the stringy fibres of other cultivars. India has a large number of different varieties, but exports very little – the Indian people very sensibly eat their mangoes themselves. The goddess Ambika is traditionally shown sitting under a mango tree, after all.

Photo Two By G patkar at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10899806

Alphonso mangos (Photo Two)

Photo Three By Y.Shishido - http://pipimaru.dyndns.org/india_2004/index.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365739

The goddess Ambika sitting under a mango tree in the Ellora Caves, Maharashtra, India (Photo Three)

I love mangoes in desserts, and one of my favourites is mango shrikhand, a thick, creamy south Indian delicacy made with thickened yoghurt, cardamom, saffron, pistachios and mango. Oh my goodness! I used to go to a restaurant called Diwana on Drummond Street in Euston for their vegetarian food but in particular for the shrikhand. There’s a recipe here How could you resist?

Photo Four from https://www.manjulaskitchen.com/mango-shrikhand/

Photo Four

Incidentally, when mangoes were first discovered by the West, they were largely eaten as pickles, because they would rot before they could get there. So, the first taste of a mango was likely to have been a sour, pungent, hot affair, rather than the sweetness that we associate with them – there’s what looks like a great recipe here. Amchoor, or mango powder, is another popular ingredient in South Asian food, and adds a similar sourness.

Now, as you might expect, mangoes are not only eaten by humans, and lots of animals are involved in the dispersal of those giant seeds. In Florida (where the Tommy Atkins comes from) deer, squirrels and raccoons all eat the fruit. In tropical zones parrots, hornbills and lorikeets enjoy them, and monkeys and apes will eat them by the bucketload. Fruit bats also have a particular liking for a ripe mango. As the seed can happily survive a trip through an animal’s alimentary tract (if the seed is small enough and the animal is large), the seedlings often pop up a long distance from the ‘mother plant’, which is presumably why the fruit is so tasty. Elephants also eat mangoes, and in this they probably take on the role of the extinct gomphothere, which was also involved in the distribution of avocado seeds.

Photo Five By Unic - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24434273

Gomphothere statues in Osorno, Chile (Photo Five)

What pollinates a mango, though? The flowers are plentiful but very simple in design, so it might come as no surprise that the main pollinators appear to be flies, along with solitary bees, some beetles and even ants. In fact, in India a method of attracting flies that was trialled involved hanging bags full of rotten fish or mutton from the tree branches. Although mango flowers are actually hermaphroditic, fruit production was much higher when the plant was cross-pollinated by insects.

Photo Six from http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/trec/2018/06/21/378/

Different mango pollinator species (Photo Six)

As you might expect from a plant that has grown in the company of humans for such a long time, mango has been used for an extraordinary range of medical purposes. Here is an excerpt from a paper on the National Library of Medicine website.

Studies indicate mango possesses antidiabetic, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, cardiotonic, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory properties. Various effects like antibacterial, anti fungal, anthelmintic, anti parasitic, anti tumor, anti HIV, antibone resorption, antispasmodic, antipyretic, antidiarrhoeal, antiallergic, immunomodulation, hypolipidemic, anti microbial, hepatoprotective, gastroprotective have also been studied. These studies are very encouraging and indicate this herb should be studied more extensively to confirm these results and reveal other potential therapeutic effects. Clinical trials using mango for a variety of conditions should also be conducted.

And here’s me thinking that mangoes are just tasty! The texture of the fruit of a good mango always screams ‘moisturising’ to me, and if only I could stop myself from eating them I might try plastering them all over my face to see if they help with my dry skin. This is probably not a good idea – some people have a very bad allergic reaction to mango flesh so maybe best to stick to the Oil of Ulay (though my Mum had a reaction to that too!)

And here, finally, a poem, by the inimitable Mary Oliver, who is up there with my top five favourite poets. I love the way that she shifts from the experience of eating the fruit to something else entirely.

The Mango by Mary Oliver

One evening
I met the mango.
At first there were four or five of them
in a bowl.
They looked like stones you find
in the rivers of Pennsylvania
when the waters are low.
That size, and almost round.
Mossy green.
But this was a rich house, and clever too.
After salmon and salads,
mangoes for everyone appeared on blue plates,
each one cut in half and scored
and shoved forward from its rind, like an orange flower,
cubist and juicy.
When I began to eat
things happened.
All through the sweetness I heard voices,
men and women talking about something—
another country, and trouble.
It wasn’t my language, but I understood enough.
Jungles, and death. The ships
leaving the harbors, their holds
filled with mangoes.
Children, brushing the flies away
from their hot faces
as they worked in the fields.
Men, and guns.
The voices all ran together
so that I tasted them in the taste of the mango,
a sharp gravel in the flesh.
Later, in the kitchen, I saw the stones
like torn-out tongues
embedded in the honeyed centers.
They were talking among themselves—
family news,
a few lines of a song.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Ram Kulkarni – Photograph taken by a digital camera, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14897964

Photo Two By G patkar at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10899806

Photo Three By Y.Shishido – http://pipimaru.dyndns.org/india_2004/index.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365739

Photo Four from https://www.manjulaskitchen.com/mango-shrikhand/

Photo Five By Unic – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24434273

Photo Six from http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/trec/2018/06/21/378/

January in the Garden

Dear Readers, the first day back to work after a fortnight off is always a little bit anxiety-provoking, at least for me. What will have turned up in my Inbox while I’ve been off, eating rose and violet creams and watching episodes of 1970s favourite ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ (don’t ask). But my Inbox turns out to blissfully free of crises (at least so far), and so I spend a few minutes actually in the garden. Not many though, as it’s starting to sleet, the wind is enough to blow your wig off and I don’t want to deter the poor hungry birds. Have a look at the bittersweet berries though! So glad I didn’t cut them back.

And at least now I know where the squirrels are hanging out. I interrupted one eating my grape hyacinth bulbs yesterday and s/he wasn’t the slightest bit perturbed when I banged on the window. They have that ‘who, me?’ look down to a T.

Next door’s shrubs are in full flower – the hebe has been going since May. Just look how windy it is! Very alarming. No wonder all the bees are staying tucked up in bed.

Not so the starlings though. They practically live in my garden these days, as my budget for suet pellets is blown every month. I have two whole sacks on order, but of course they’re delayed what with Covid, and the poor old Royal Mail struggling to keep up. However, I do have a final tub of live mealworms. This starling almost seems to know it.

And while I’m on the subject, spring isn’t really that far away – look at the buds bursting out everywhere! These are on my lilac, but nearly all the shrubs are starting to stir.

So, out I go into the cold and wet to pop out some mealworms onto the bird table. The scene is like something from Alfred Hitchcock.

But once I’ve put the food out, and they’ve got their courage up, it’s chaos for about three minutes.

And then it’s all gone. I just hope the suet turns up soon. Those starlings will be outside with placards if I don’t find something to feed them.

New Scientist Highlights of 2020 – Part Two

Photo by Gerry Matthews (Alamy) from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2255352-coronavirus-lockdown-changed-how-birds-sing-in-san-francisco/

White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, before we finally say goodbye to 2020, here are a few final stories from New Scientist that caught my eye.

The first is pandemic-related, as nearly everything seems to be at the moment. White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucphrys) were found to be singing differently during the Covid lockdown in San Francisco, and scientist Elizabeth Derryberry, from the University of Tennessee, wondered how, and why.

The birds were found to be singing more quietly and at a deeper pitch – it’s known that birds react to the low-frequency background drone of traffic and air conditioners by singing not only louder, but at a higher frequency so that they can be heard over the racket. The noise level in San Francisco had dropped by a full 7 decibels, and so the birds seem to have reverted to their older, sexier songs – birds actually seem to prefer deeper sounds (think Barry White as opposed to Tiny Tim). If you go to the full article here, you can hear both birdsongs. The scientist says that ‘they sing like they used to thirty years ago’. I suppose this is both sad, but also hopeful – birds and other urban animals seem to be so much more adaptable than we thought.

Photo Two by By Ra'ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra'ike) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4540111

Skeleton of cave bear showing enormous sinuses! (Photo Two)

But not all animals are able to adapt. The prehistoric cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) that used to weigh over 1000 kilograms, and existed alongside our present-day brown bears (Ursus arctos), probably became extinct because they had over-large sinuses. Who knew? These huge animals, who disappeared about 24,000 years ago, lived on a largely plant-based diet. When the ice-ages made vegetation difficult to come by, the cave bears couldn’t switch to a meat-based diet, because their sinuses meant that they could only chew food with their back teeth, while carnivores typically cut up their food with their incisors and canines at the front. The brown bears had smaller sinuses, and hence could switch from a herbivorous to a carnivorous diet.

But why have such big sinuses in the first place? They are thought to play an important role in gas-exchange during hibernation, allowing the bears to hibernate for longer. However, as the poor cave bears wouldn’t have been able to fatten up due to the lack of plant food, they probably starved while they were sleeping. It was one of those evolutionary trade-offs that failed.

You can read the whole article here.

Photo Three from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2229070-hagfish-tie-their-bodies-into-complicated-knots-to-escape-tight-spots/

Pacific hagfish (Photo Three)

Hagfish are extraordinary animals. Early ancestors of the eel, they have four times as much blood compared to their volume as any other fish, four hearts and only half a jaw. When trapped by a predator or accidentally stuck in a tight spot, they throw complex knots and shapes in an attempt to escape. Because this is a very slippery fast-moving process, it’s taken modern technology and a slow-motion camera to decipher what’s going on. Now, scientist Theodore Uyeno has discovered that the animals prefer more complex knots – the hypothesis is that the simpler ones may be more uncomfortable because the loops are so tight.

So, 45 percent of the time the hagfish do a trefoil knot:

Photo Four from By Jim.belkAnimation: MichaelFrey (talk) - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75360346

Trefoil knot (Photo Four)

33% of the time they do a figure-of-eight knot…

Photo Five by By Lucasbosch - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17249329

Figure-of-eight knot (Photo Five)

and 4% of the time they manage a three-twist knot, the only animal able to do so (Moray eels can knock up a knot, but nothing this complicated). Kompologists rejoice!

Photo Six by Original: Jim.belk Animation: MichaelFrey, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Three-twist knot (Photo Six)

And finally, how about this little creature with its ‘hats’?

Photo Seven by Alan Henderson at Cover Images. Photo from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632881-200-weird-caterpillar-uses-its-old-heads-to-make-an-elaborate-hat/

Uraba lugens caterpillar – the moth is also known as the ‘gumleaf skeletoniser’ (Photo Seven)

Each ‘hat’ is the moulted skin of the caterpillar’s head – they moult up to thirteen times before they metamorphose into moths, and from the fourth moult on, each ‘hat’ stays stuck. You can see how the size of the head gets bigger from the top down, as the larva munches on eucalyptus leaves: an alternative name is the ‘gumleaf skeletoniser’ because the foliage is eaten right back to the veins.

The ‘hats’ seem to fulfil a useful purpose: biologists have watched the caterpillar using them to swat away predators, and they may also serve to distract a curious bird who will hopefully peck at the wrong ‘head’. You can read the whole article here.

And so, dear readers, onwards and into 2021. Who knows what those scientists will discover next?

Photo Credits

Photo One by Gerry Matthews (Alamy) from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2255352-coronavirus-lockdown-changed-how-birds-sing-in-san-francisco/

Photo Two By Ra’ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra’ike) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4540111

Photo Three from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2229070-hagfish-tie-their-bodies-into-complicated-knots-to-escape-tight-spots/

Photo Four By Jim.belkAnimation: MichaelFrey (talk) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75360346

Photo Five  By Lucasbosch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17249329

Photo Six by Original: Jim.belk Animation: MichaelFrey, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by Alan Henderson at Cover Images. Photo from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632881-200-weird-caterpillar-uses-its-old-heads-to-make-an-elaborate-hat/

The First Cemetery Walk of 2021

Dear Readers, our first walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery this year saw us getting some glorious weather for a change – this week it has felt as if the sun hasn’t really risen above the horizon, so some brightness was most welcome. The birds seemed to feel it too – this ring-necked parakeet was uncharacteristically obliging as s/he posed in this horse chestnut tree and munched the buds. I see that Defra are talking about culling parakeets, but only in areas where they are new. They are well-established around here, so hopefully they’ll be safe. Personally, I think that with everything else that’s going on, shooting a few parakeets should be low down on the agenda but there’s  no stopping some folk.

Elsewhere, the ash trees were a-twitter with goldfinches, who kept up a constant babble of contact calls that could be heard even over the traffic noise.

There were redwings everywhere, and they were being shy, as usual.

I must have counted twenty blackbirds, probably newly arrived from cooler parts of the continent – although it was long thought that blackbirds didn’t migrate, it’s now known that they often rear their young in one place, and over-winter somewhere else, with one bird spending every summer in a Devon garden and every winter in the south of France. In the winter the birds are much less aggressive and territorial, especially where there’s plenty of food, but they also seem shyer. Not one stood around long enough for a photo.

Fortunately, the moss is a lot more obliging, and on some of the older graves there is a whole miniature ecosystem.

I can just imagine all the tiny creatures slithering and creeping through the ‘jungle’ in search of safety, or prey. And look how the sun catches the moss sporophytes (the ‘flowers’ of the moss).

We have been walking different paths over the last few weeks, and every trip I find another new interesting grave. How about this one, for example?

Gillian Elinor was a bit of a late starter, having given up education to look after her children. However, she was nothing if not determined – she did her A-levels part time, followed by a degree in English and Art History at Birkbeck, followed by a Masters in the USA. Her first teaching job was at the Polytechnic of North East London (now UEL) where she started, at the age of 40, with a one day a week appointment. She stayed for 20 years, for the last 5 of them holding the post of Head of the Arts Department at the University of East London, and devoted many years of her life to the subject of women in the arts. She brought the African and Asian visual arts archive to the university, and was a founder member of Feminist Arts News and was heavily involved in the  Women Artists Slide Library. In 1987 she was joint editor of Women and Craft, published by Virago. She was also involved in the Women’s Art Group in Education, which sought to disclose how few women there were in academic posts.

In her later years, Elinor moved away from the visual arts and became more interested in poetry. Her headstone is an elegant and rather beautiful tribute to her dedication to the recognition of the talents of women, so many of whom are still unsung.

My husband is particularly interested in the war graves in the cemetery: there is a ‘proper’ war graves area, but many are scattered about, often hidden amongst the trees, although all of them have bright, well-scrubbed new headstones, dating from the hundredth anniversary of WW1. This week we found this one; the graves of those who were in the Navy when they died often have more details than those from other services, as in the one below.

A little bit of research shows that Able Seamen Dennis Watts died of ‘illness’ after the war, on 9th March 1946. H.M.S Orlando appears to have been a shore-based HQ on the Clyde in Greenock, sometimes also known as a ‘secret facility’. The trail goes cold at this point however (unless I want to shell out another £180 a year for Ancestry.com). What a sad loss of a human being, though, at only 22 years old.

And this one actually brought me to tears.

George W. Dell was killed at the land-based centre H.M.S Christopher, which was again in Scotland, and was a base for training personnel to use the anti-submarine and patrol boats which were on constant watch around the coast. There are no details, but the lad was only 19. We can only imagine the sorrow with which his parents, back in Barnsbury, Islington, received the news.

That heartfelt message ‘Just one of many – but he was ours’ echoes down the years. I’m sure that the people who are losing their loved ones in the pandemic are just as intent that those that they’ve lost shouldn’t just become another statistic, but should be remembered as the unique individuals that they were. When I read that Joe Biden is planning a remembrance event for 19th January in the US, the day before his inauguration, it makes me think how much we will need something similar when this is finally under control.

But finally, I had never noticed this very elegant little figure before. I am not sure if she is the Virgin Mary, or another saint, but I love how precise and neat she is, with that air of austerity that I usually associate with Japanese sculpture. I think she will be someone that I’ll look out for on future visits.

And finally finally, here are a few more goldfinches, because you can never have too many 🙂

 

 

Saturday Quiz – 2020 Vision

Cyclamen missing from last week’s post!

Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! And to round it off nicely, and ease us into 2021,  here is a ‘simple’ plant ID quiz. Each photo comes from a Wednesday Weed of the corresponding month. All you need to do is to ID the plant. Good luck! The answers will appear next Friday morning UK time (8th January 2021), so if you want to be ‘marked’, please get your responses into the comments by Thursday 7th January at 5 p.m. I will ‘unapprove’ any answers when I see them, so that they don’t distract other quizzers, but to be certain of not being influenced I would still write your answers down first.

Onwards!

January

  1. What species are these small red trees?

February

2. Can you name this tree?

March

3. What plant is this?

April

4. What’s this plant?

May

 

5. What plant is this?

June

6. What’s this plant?

July

7. What’s this plant?

August

8. What’s this plant?

September

9. What’s this extraordinary plant?

October

10. What species are these splendid street trees?

November

11. What root vegetable was used to play this tarantella?

December

12. What is this tropical fruit?

 

 

A New Year’s Eve Walk on Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Dear Readers, if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that beauty can be found by walking slowly and paying attention, even on the coldest and dullest of days. We’ve been avoiding the Fields for the past week or so because the mud was so pervasive and slippery that it was no fun trying to navigate it, but with last night’s freeze everything has turned deliciously crispy. The frost has touched all the seedheads and leaves, painting every detail with icy-white.

Brambles

We skitter down the slope beside the skate park, and then down a further slope to the bottom field. I think of this as ‘my’ wildflower border, though it is a pure accident, it appears. In the spring it was a mass of colour, but now it has a more austere and subtle beauty.

Muswell Hill Playing Fields in June

Each ‘scale’ on the seedheads of the greater knapweed seems to have attracted its own cap of ice.

The greater burdock seeds are iced into something that looks rather like the images of coronavirus that I’m seeing, or maybe a Sputnik (which of course is the name of the Russian vaccine). But they are also perfect examples of evolutionary design, with those hooks that inspired the creator of Velcro. All they need is a large hairy mammal to brush past and transfer them to pastures new.

Aren’t the seedheads of the fennel exquisite? They would be perfect for a winter wedding.

And even the long seedheads of the mugwort are lent an elegance by the ice that they didn’t have when fresh and new.

In this strangely monochrome world I find myself yearning for a bit of colour, however. At the pyracantha hedge on the other side of the field, I hear the familiar breathy call of a redwing. The cemetery in particular is heaving with these birds at the moment, as they pick over the ivy berries, but this little one had stopped for something orange.

This bird from the cemetery yesterday was too far away to get a decent shot, but it was glowing white and red against the ivy foliage.

As we come to the beginning of a new year, I am so glad that I have had a few open spaces to walk in. The birds, insects and plants that I’ve seen have been a real balm for the soul in these dislocating, troubling times. I hope that you have had some access to nature too. Although I managed to have a big birthday trip this year, it’s difficult to see exactly when overseas travel will be safe again. However, it seems to me that there is much to be discovered and marvelled at within a few hundred metres of ones own front door. I will never get to the end of learning about Coldfall Wood and the fields, or the local cemeteries, or even my own back garden, and praise be for that. There is no end of wonder in the world, no end to the connections and relationships that can be made.

I wish you all the happiest and healthiest of New Years. May 2021 bring you everything that you most need.

I-Spy Books – A Trip Down Memory Lane

Photo One from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/471892867199787901/

I-Spy books from the 1950s and 60s (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I was a little girl I was obsessed with I-Spy books – they were a cheap and cheerful way of helping a child to pay attention, especially during a long, dull car trip. The idea was simple – each book had a variety of objects to ‘spy’, with different points according to how rare they were. If you managed to complete a book, you could send it off to ‘Big Chief I-Spy’ and would get a certificate and a feather. I had no idea that Big Chief I-Spy was an actual person, Charles Warrell, who had the original idea and self-published the first few books. He single-handedly managed all early communications with children, but his assistant Arnold Cawthrow took over when Warrell retired, in 1956, and continued as ‘Big Chief’ until 1978. The whole ‘Red Indian’ theme lasted until the early 1970s (Big Chief’s assistants were usually known as ‘Hawkeye’) when David Bellamy the botanist took over as the person who received all the completed books and the obsession with cartoon Native Americans was quietly dropped.

My personal favourite was ‘I-Spy Dogs’ – from an early age I could tell a Welsh Terrier from a Lakeland Terrier, a Norfolk Terrier from a Norwich Terrier (it’s the ears you know), and while I was an obedient little girl when it came to ‘not talking to strangers’ I was known to dash across a busy road, I-Spy Dogs in hand, to ask a bemused adult if their dog was a Sussex Spaniel (100 points!) My little brother much preferred ‘I-Spy Cars’, especially when we were out for a drive in the Ford Consul and he could note down the passing Humbers and Chevrolets. Strangely enough, I wasn’t that interested in the ones about plants and trees, coming to botany later in life, but I was fond of ‘I-Spy in the Country’ with its sheep and goats and tractors.

I am fascinated by some of the earlier titles. I imagine that ‘I-Spy in the Army’ might have been because of National Service – children then were probably much more familiar with people in uniform and army vehicles. You might look a long time to complete ‘I-Spy Country Crafts’ these days, sadly. And what on earth was in ‘I-Spy the Unusual?’ I’m sure that there was a whole social history of the era to be read in these books. And how about ‘I-Spy in Hospital’? I’m sure things have changed a whole lot, but what a good way to occupy a small child who was apprehensive.

In its heyday, there were half a million children who considered themselves part of the I-Spy ‘Tribe’. Some of the books had six print runs to keep up with demand. I remember it getting very competitive, and cries of ‘Mum, he’s cheating’ often emanated from the back of the car. But by 2002 the I-Spy books came to the end of the road. Published at this point by Michelin, it seemed that there was just not the demand anymore, probably coinciding with widespread mobile phone ownership and the rise of video games.

But wait! When I go onto the National History Book Society online shop, what do I find but some snazzy new I-Spy books? From 2016 Harper Collins has been releasing a series of titles, including ‘I-Spy Creepy Crawlies’. How I would have loved this when I was a child! It might even have prised me away from my Papillon and Pekingese obsession ( the Papillon was worth 70 points but every elderly lady had a Pekingese and so it was only worth 20).  One sign of the times is that there is an ‘I-Spy at the Airport’ (though it’s probably not so relevant at the moment). There is an ‘I-Spy Camping’ though, which might hit the spot at the moment. And how about ‘I-Spy Garden Birds’ for a locked-down child who is lucky enough to have a garden?

Photo Two from https://www.waterstones.com/book/i-spy-garden-birds/i-spy/9780008271381

One of the new I-Spy books (Photo Two)

I loved these books. They made me curious about all kinds of things, and once I’d gotten over my dog obsession I branched out into many other subjects. I am tempted to buy one of the books for nostalgia’s sake. Do you still send the books off once they’re completed, I wonder? And how has the point scoring of the afghan hound changed since 1969? I note that the rarest breed, the Shiba Inu, only counts for 20 points, which suggests that the point spread is much narrower than it used to be. Harrumph.

Photo Three from https://www.waterstones.com/book/i-spy-dogs/i-spy/9780008182854

I-Spy Dogs 2020 Style (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/471892867199787901/

Photo Two from https://www.waterstones.com/book/i-spy-garden-birds/i-spy/9780008271381

Photo Three from https://www.waterstones.com/book/i-spy-dogs/i-spy/9780008182854

A Misty Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, what an atmospheric walk we had in the cemetery today! The freezing fog seemed to muffle every sound except the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays. The frost had touched the plants on the more open areas, turning this stonecrop into what looks like a mass of miniature cacti.

We decided to take a slightly different path from the one that we usually do – when there’s no view of the sky it seems perverse to take the route next to the North Circular Road with its constant traffic. So we passed this enormous mausoleum which is the tomb of Ludwig Mond, a German industrialist and chemist who developed a way of extracting nickel from its ore (called the Mond process). He was a benefactor of many scientific institutions, including the Royal Society. The tomb is based on the Temple of Nemesis in Rome, and is Grade II listed.

On we go. I love the underused, overgrown paths through some parts of the cemetery, like ‘Straight Road’ here. To the right, the moss has grown over something. I think it looks rather like a sleeping dog.

A sleeping moss dog?

We pass the grave of poor Percival Spencer, described here as an aeronaut – he was in fact an early adherent of hot-air ballooning. Legend has it that this tomb once bore the effigy of a balloon, but there’s no sign here. Spencer was the third generation of balloonists in his family, and made many cross-Channel crossings. He was the first person to fly a hot-air balloon in India in 1889, and subsequently passed his knowledge on to Ram Chandra Chatterjee, who was the first Indian to fly solo later that month. In the same year, Spencer was the first person to parachute safely in Ireland (one worries somewhat about the unsafe parachute adventures, but history has drawn a veil over those proceedings). After such an exciting life, Spencer’s end was decidedly earth-bound – he passed away from pneumonia at his home in Highbury, aged only 49.

Close by is this splendid headstone – there are a few of these monumental blocks in the cemetery, but none of the others have an artist’s palette on the front. Sadly, the wording is almost gone so I’m unable to tell you who was buried here. My husband thought that the palette was the cartoon figure of a man’s head smoking a cigar, and once you’ve seen it it’s difficult to see it any other way.

Further on I passed this rather cubist piece of tree surgery. I find all the planes and the way that the algae is shading the faces fascinating. The tree itself seems none the worse for the experience, and is already bursting with buds.

Then we pass another very fine mausoleum, this one with gold mosaics and a finely-wrought angel over the door. It’s the tomb of Letizia Melesi who, in 1913, was struck and killed by a taxi cab – this might have been the first road accident. One of the panels at the front shows the poor lady being helped to heaven by an angel while an alarmed taxicab driver gesticulates from his vehicle. The other panel shows Letizia’s husband, Gaetano, praying beside the tomb. All progress comes at a cost, for sure.

Photo One from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

Photo One

Photo Two from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

Photo Two

I think I’ve featured William Alexander Lamond before, but I never fail to be impressed by his statue. He looks almost as if he’s just about to step off his pedestal. He died in 1926, aged just 57, but his loving wife, Helena, lived on until 1961 when she was 95. Whenever I pass, he always has a bunch of flowers in his hand. Someone still loves him, clearly.

By now I’m thoroughly chilled to the bone in spite of the thermals, so we head for home.

But what is this, blooming by the side of the path? Did no one tell this plant that it’s the end of December? Well, this is winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced from Italy in 1806 and known from the wild since 1835. The little flowers are said to be strongly almond-scented, but there are too few of them, and it’s too cold for them to make much of an impression today. Still, if any bumblebee was foolish enough to stick her furry head outside for a quick nip of nectar, at least her search wouldn’t be totally in vain.

Flower of winter heliotrope

Photo Credits

Photo One from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

Photo Two from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

Winter Wonderland – The Answers!

Title Photo by Alan Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Polar Bear (Title Photo)

Dear Readers,  what a splendid showing we had with the quiz this time! It tested everyone to the limit. In third place was Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus with a very respectable 21 out of 31 (I gave an extra mark for anyone getting the blood-thinner question right on the Christmas food section). In second place was Rosalind and her husband with 23/31. But the overall winners were Fran and Bobby Freelove who got an extraordinary 29/31. Well done to all of you, and thank you for taking part, you are all stars as far as I am concerned. 

Winter Wonderland 1 – Winter Trees

Photo One by http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Question One

B) A Scots PIne

Photo Two by© Copyright Richard Law and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Question Two

C) A Yew

Photo Three by © Copyright johnfromnotts and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Question Three

C) Mistletoe

Winter Wonderland 2 – Christmas Plant Folklore

Photo Four by By Tom Ordelman - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2276835

Question 4) C) A specific hawthorn in Glastonbury was believed to flower at Christmas because it grew from a staff planted by Joseph of Arimithea

Photo Five by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35718694

Question Five) D) Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) was believed to flower on Old Christmas Eve (5th January), particularly in the Isle of Man.

Photo Six by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question Six )B) Ivy (Hedera helix) is considered to be unlucky if brought into the house except between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night.

Question Seven) A) Holly is actually known as ‘Christmas’ in Cornwall.

Winter Wonderland 3 – Animal Tracks

Photo Eight By DooferKiin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57543187

Question 8) B) Badger

Photo Nine by © Copyright Michael Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Question 9) D) Fox

Photo Ten by © Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Question 10) A) Otter

Photo 11 by https://www.flickr.com/photos/133222863@N03/32681499362/

Question 11) C) Hare

Winter Wonderland 5 – Rainbow Birds

Photo Twelve By FWS - USFWS website, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10586270

Question 12 Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Photo Thirteen By Almir Cândido de Almeida - https://www.flickr.com/photos/almircandido/4744381560/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11044242

Question 13 Cock of the Rock (Rupicola rupicola)

Photo Fourteen by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38974913

Question 14 Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Photo Fifteen by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 15 Rose-ringed (Ring-necked) Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Photo Sixteen by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 16 Victoria Crowned Pigeon (Goura victoria)

Photo Seventeen by Dawn Scranton from Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 17 Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Photo Eighteen by _paVan_ from Singapore, Singapore, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 18 Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster)

Winter Wonderland 5 – Christmas Food Facts

Photo Nineteen by Jonathunder, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 19 – Parsnips B) Parsnips formed part of the tribute paid to the Emperor Tiberius from Germany

Photo Twenty by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 20 – Brussel sprout D) – Brussels sprouts should be avoided if you take blood-thinning medication due to their high levels of Vitamin K

Photo Twenty One by Muffet, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 21 – Cranberries E) – Cranberry came from ‘Crane-berry’ as the flowers are supposed to look like a long-beaked bird. Also D) – Cranberries too have lots of Vitamin K so should be avoided if you are on blood-thinning medication.

Photo Twenty Two by carol, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 22 – Clementine A) Clementines are named after Brother Clement Rodier who discovered the spontaneous cross between a sweet orange and a Mediterranean mandarin in the garden of his monastery in French Algeria.

Photo Twenty Three by Jean Marconi from Brasil, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 23 – Brazil Nuts C) Brazil nuts have the highest level of dietary selenium of any food.

Winter Wonderland 6 – Christmas ‘Carols’ 

Photo Twenty-Four by Alan D. Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 24 -D)  Polar Bear

Photo Twenty Five by Jan Frode Haugseth, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 25) B) – Rock Ptarmigan

Photo Twenty-Six by dfaulder, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 26) G) – Snow Bunting

Photo Twenty-Seven by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 27) E) – Snowy Owl and chick

Photo 28 by Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 28) A)- Reindeer (the sound you can hear is the tendons in their legs clicking)

Photo Twenty Nine by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 29) C) – Robin. The call is surprisingly easy to muddle up with the snow bunting I think!

Photo 30 by Anya Schlich-Davies at https://imaggeo.egu.eu/view/12674/

Question 30) F) – Arctic Fox cub

Sound Credits

All animals sounds in Winter Wonderland 6 were from the BBC Sound Archive BBC Sound Effects (bbcrewind.co.uk)

Photo Credits

Title Photo by Alan Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo One by © Copyright Peter Bond and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo Two by © Copyright Richard Law and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three by John from Notts – see photo for further details

Photo Four  By Tom Ordelman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2276835

Photo Five By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35718694

Photo Six by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by Bugwoman

Photo Eight By DooferKiin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57543187

Photo Nine by © Copyright Michael Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Ten by © Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo Eleven by Andy Perkins at  https://www.flickr.com/photos/133222863@N03/32681499362/

Photo Twelve By FWS – USFWS website, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10586270

Photo Thirteen By Almir Cândido de Almeida – https://www.flickr.com/photos/almircandido/4744381560/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11044242

Photo Fourteen  By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38974913

Photo Fifteen by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Sixteen by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seventeen by Dawn Scranton from Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eighteen by _paVan_ from Singapore, Singapore, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nineteen by Jonathunder, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty One by Muffet, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Two by carol, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Three by Jean Marconi from Brasil, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty-Four by Alan D. Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Five by Jan Frode Haugseth, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty-Six by dfaulder, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty-Seven by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Eight by Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Nine by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 30 by Anya Schlich-Davies at https://imaggeo.egu.eu/view/12674/

 

Christmas Reading

Dear Readers, this is just a gentle reminder that today is the last day for submitting your answers to the Christmas Quiz if you decided to have a go. I have been removing completed answers from the comments so that they didn’t influence anyone who came after. Answers will be published tomorrow. 

Dear Readers, ever since I was a little girl all I ever really wanted for Christmas was books. However, it’s often hard for non-readers to appreciate this. Mum and Dad, for example, would look at my Christmas list, shake their heads, and buy me something that they wanted to buy me instead. One year it was a leopard-skin print shirt dress. One year it was a pink faux-fur dressing gown. On one semi-successful year they seem to have bought up the entire contents of The Body Shop, and I smelled of Dewberry for the next eighteen months. I was always grateful, even though the aforementioned leopard-print shirt dress was several sizes too big and creased every time I sat down. After all, part of the joy of Christmas is in the giving, and I was always glad that people had loved me enough to buy me something.

This year has been sad in many ways, but goodness, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so happy with my Christmas presents. I think that nature writing in general is having a real renaissance, and so I was delighted to get ‘The Wild Life of the Fox by John Lewis- Stempel, one of my favourite nature writers, with a long history of interesting, prize-winning books behind him. However, I was also lucky enough to get one of the publishing sensations of the year, by Merlin Sheldrake – ‘The Entangled Life’ is a mind-blowing guide to the world of fungi, an area that I’ve become more and more interested in during lockdown, partly due to the infectious enthusiasm of my friend A, who is never happier than when she’s clambering up a muddy bank in search of an elusive mushroom.

And then there’s this book, by an author who is new to me, Marianne Taylor. Long-time readers will know how I love to champion underloved wildlife, and as gulls are so often cast as villains I fully expect to be enlightened and cheered by this book.

Now, aside from books which will be informative and fun to read, I like to have some heavier reading material so that I can educate myself. First on the list is the new book by Jeff Ollerton, whose London Natural History Talk on Pollinators and Pollination was so interesting. This will be one that will require taking notes and highlighting things I’m sure.

And I have recently fallen in love with the British Wildlife Collection – these books are both beautiful and interesting, and range widely across their subject areas. It makes me happy just to look at them. Roll on retirement, when I can really get stuck in!

But finally, here is a very beautiful book. Not one for taking out into the field for sure, but one to dip into, and one that I’m sure will help when the Wednesday Weed returns very shortly.

Each double-page spread features two plant illustrations that are somehow related – often something from a very old flora juxtaposed with a much more recent painting or photograph. The book explores our relationship to flowers in a myriad ways, and makes me constantly question what I held to be true. Much more than just a coffee-table book (though it is extremely beautiful) I can see me poring over it for years.

And so I feel truly blessed in my friends and family this year, and can’t wait to settle down and get stuck in. In truth, if I lived to be 300 there wouldn’t be time to read all the books that I want to read, but what a joy they are! I would love to hear what Santa Claus brought you for Christmas, and how you’re getting on over the holidays. I am always up for a chat.