Wednesday Weed – Himalayan Honeysuckle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Himalayan Honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa)

Dear Readers, this is a most strange and exotic shrub that seems to naturalise easily in the woodlands of north London – there is one in Coldfall Wood, and another by the bus stop on Highgate Hill. It is a plant much used by gamekeepers as cover for their pheasants, just like that other common shrub, Snowberry, although the pheasant keepers of East Finchley are rather few and far between. A more likely explanation is that the tasty dark-red berries, which appear in early autumn, are eaten by birds and spread through defecation. The bushes can often be seen under popular perching spots, which adds some weight to the theory.

By Kurt Stüber [1] - caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5419

Himalayan Honeysuckle berries (Photo One – credit below)

As the name suggests, the plant comes from the Himalayan region and South West China. It is not strictly speaking a honeysuckle, as these belong to the genus Lonicera, though it is in the same family. The flowers, with their reddish-purple bracts and white flowers, have a distinctively fleshy quality.  Some people also refer to it as the shrimp plant, and I can see why. The foliage varies from lime-green to greenish-yellow, with the latter being a popular buy at garden centres.

Himalayan Honeysuckle (Lonicera formosa)

Unfortunately, poor old Himalayan Honeysuckle has been declared a noxious weed in New Zealand and Australia,  and is a problem in the Azores, the Canary Islands and Madeira. In the UK  it is, in truth, a rather sorry-looking plant if the conditions are not ideal. It quickly becomes etiolated and flabby, the flowers often don’t reach their full potential, and I suspect that although it often ends up in woods, it would be much happier perched on a mountain side exposed to full sun. It is not thought to be particularly invasive in the UK, where an occasional speciman pops up but does not go on to dominate the area, and it probably provides a welcome boost for the birds.

Himalayan Honeysuckle is also known as flowering nutmeg and as toffee berry, and on the ‘Of Plums and Pignuts‘ blog, Alan Carter refers to it as ‘the king of instant consumption’. He calls it the treacle tree, and I cannot better his description of the taste of the berries:

‘No plant in the forest garden divides opinion like leycesteria: you either love or hate its startling mixture of molasses sweetness and bitter aftertaste’

I find myself very sorry that I have never tasted any, and must keep an eye on the one in my garden to remedy this oversight. I am also reminded of Fergus the Forager’s recipe for Himalayan Honeysuckle Fig Rolls. However, Fergus does also mention that, much like figs, the berries might have what one might politely describe as a ‘loosening effect’ on the bowels, so take it easy, friends! However, I cannot resist including a picture of the completed pastries. I would gobble them up in no time.

https://i2.wp.com/fergustheforager.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/himalay7.jpg

Himalayan Honeysuckle Fig Rolls, courtesy of Fergus the Forager (Photo Two – full credit below)

Humans and birds might like the fruit, but the caterpillar of the Vapourer moth ( Orgyia antiqua), a creature of the most catholic of tastes, has taken to the leaves of Himalayan honeysuckle with great enthusiasm.The caterpillar has glands containing a toxin at their rear end, and can sometimes become a pest in UK cities, with contact resulting in an unpleasant rash. What a beauty though, a cross between a toothbrush and a sunburst. The adult moth is rather less striking, although the antennae are splendid.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318635

Vapourer moth caterpillar (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Ben Sale from UK - [2026] The Vapourer (Orgyia antiqua), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43756718

Adult Male Vapourer moth (Photo Four – see credit below)

This species has the most interesting life cycle. The female is wingless and emerges from her cocoon, ‘calling’ to the male by releasing a pheromone. The male finds the female, mates with her, and then she lays her eggs on the cocoon that she’s just emerged from.

By Grmanners - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4109719

Male and female Vapourer moth mating (Photo Five -see credit below)

I love how the eggs look like tiny mushrooms.

By Beentree - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2980292

Vapourer eggs (Photo Six – credit below)

In Northern India and Nepal, a paste from the leaves of Himalayan honeysuckle is used as a cure for head lice and dandruff. It has also been used as an anti-helmintic (cure for worms) in Nepal. The roots of the plant form part of a traditional Chinese medicine remedy for acute cystitis.

So, Himalayan honeysuckle seems to me a most underrated plant, with its strange, pendulous flowers, its toffee-flavoured berries and its gangly habit. It always reminds me a little of a shy version of Audrey, the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors, although I’m sure that, unlike Audrey, this plant would always preface its demands to ‘feed me, Seymour!’ with a ‘if you don’t mind’. What do you think?

Andy Bowman (Photographer) from the Cathedral School Production, 2016 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/prideoftheirish/31082314036)

Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors (Photo Seven – Credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Berries) – By Kurt Stüber [1] – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5419

Photo Two (Fig Rolls) – http://fergustheforager.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/himalay7.jpg

Photo Three (Caterpillar) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318635

Photo Four (Male Moth) – By Ben Sale from UK – [2026] The Vapourer (Orgyia antiqua), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43756718

Photo Five (Moths mating) – By Grmanners – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4109719

Photo Six (Moth eggs) – By Beentree – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2980292

Photo Seven (Audrey) – Andy Bowman (Photographer) from the Cathedral School Production, 2016 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/prideoftheirish/31082314036)

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – The Blue Shed

Dear Readers, this week I have been in Milborne St Andrew  in Dorset with my parents, trying to help them to deal with the heat. For my Australian and many of my North American readers, I’m sure that my complaining about 90 degree temperatures will be met with a hearty chortle, but for folk with breathing difficulties, even these levels of warmth can cause problems. Plus there was no relief even at night. The fan was on full blast, windows were opened and closed according to where the sun was, lots of drinks were imbibed, and Mum and Dad spent most of the time resting. And so, we got through it, and even got the invitations for the 60th Wedding Anniversary party out, and the menu chosen. Progress was made, in spite of everything.

And one late afternoon, when everyone was dozing, I found a seat in the shade in the back garden next to the blue shed, and decided to stay put and see what I could see.

I love the weathered paintwork on this shed. There is something beautiful about the way that the wood is beginning to show through, and the dance of shadows across the slats.

The shed props up a cotoneaster, and a ceanothus has draped itself over the roof.

I am determined to sit on this seat, like Buddha, until I am….well, if not enlightened, at least lightened. A buzzard wheels across the sky, and just as I get it focused in my camera it folds its wings and dives, disappearing behind the bungalow roofs. And so, I start off feeling disappointed. How often I regret what I didn’t manage to capture on camera, instead of being grateful for what’s right under my nose. So, I settle down again, and decide to look properly.

Take the cotoneaster, for example. The flowers are gone, and instead the berries look like tiny apples, patrolled by ants.

A hoverfly rests in the shadows, flexing her abdomen, though there are no eggs that I can see. Maybe this female is resting from being chased by males every time she tries to feed. A visit here makes my heart very vulnerable. Maybe it’s because I  do things at the pace of two not-very-well 80 year-olds, and all the feelings I can cover up with busyness at home catch up with me. I find myself overwhelmed with tenderness for something as simple as a fly, resting in the shade.

The sparrows are hunting for insects in the ceanothus. They are insectivorous at this time of year, instinctively knowing that their youngsters need protein to grow. They are argumentative and tetchy, and I wonder if the heat bothers them as well. I have promised to get the parents a birdbath, I think it would supply hours of entertainment for everyone, feathered and unfeathered.

Something lands on the shed door. I have only a second, but this one I do catch on camera, albeit badly. A ruby-tailed wasp(Chrysis rubii)! And look at the size of her shadow. She was probably looking for a nest-hole to lay an egg. These are solitary wasps, quite rare in the UK and so I was very lucky to spot one, even for a second.

Ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis ruddii)

And here is a much better photo so you can see what I was getting excited about. There are twenty-odd species of ruby-tailed wasp in the UK with differing patterns of red, blue and green.

Kentish Plumber (https://www.flickr.com/photos/plumberjohn/28089262520/)

A very fine ruby-tailed wasp (Photo One – Credit below)

And looking more closely at the shed, it seemed it was a habitat for lots of other creatures, too. There were red velvet mites gliding over the surface – these are relatives of spiders and scorpions, and while some species are detritivores, this species is predatory, galloping across the blue wooden plains in search of other even smaller animals to eat.

Red velvet mite (Eutrombidium sp.)

I wonder who has made their home in the keyhole?

There is a ribbon of gossamer under the eaves.

And an intrepid snail, one of the humbug- coloured ones that seem to out-number all the others in the garden.

The soundscape is a combination of someone power-washing their patio, the cockatiel across the way getting very excited at being out of doors, jackdaws chuckling and the puffed-up cooing of collared doves as they chase one another backwards and forwards across the garden.

And then, as I hear the familiar theme tune of Pointless, the TV quiz show, coming from the house, I gather up my camera and head back up the path. I always watch Pointless with Dad – I am a little in love with Richard Osman, plus we always like to see how many answers we can get (much easier now Dad has had his cataracts done and can actually see the screen). We are formidable General Knowledge foes, and I am not at all put out when Dad gets more questions right than I do. Not at all put out. Seriously.

But as I get to the kitchen door, a flash of red shoots past me. Glory be. A Scarlet Tiger. How I love those delta wings, and the way that the moth only reveals his scarlet under wings and abdomen in flight.

Scarlet Tiger (Callimorpha dominula)

The next day, Mum is trying on a few jackets that she’s bought online to wear for the party. She had a fall in May, and pain in her hip is added to the pain from the osteoarthritis in her back. She shuffles to the bedroom, tries on the jacket, and looks out of the window.

‘I can’t even get outside to cut some roses for my bowl’, she says, and, turning her head away, sobs silently and fiercely.

‘Oh Mum’, I say, uselessly.

And then she gathers herself together.

‘I’ll be alright,’ she says, ‘don’t worry’.

‘You could feel better tomorrow’, I say.

‘Yes, I might’, she says, wiping her eyes, straightening herself up, looking in the mirror. She can’t decide between the two jackets.

‘Get both of ’em’!’ shouts dad from the living room.

‘You know,’ says Mum, ‘I think I will’.

And I cut roses from the garden  and put them in the glass bowl that Mum found in the charity shop, and give thanks for having legs that work, and for the fortitude of my mother, a diminutive woman warrior shaking her spear against despair.

Photo Credit

Photo One (Ruby-tailed wasp) – by the Kentish Plumber (https://www.flickr.com/photos/plumberjohn/28089262520/)

 

Wednesday Weed – Lady’s Mantle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

Dear Readers, green-flowered plants are so unusual that when I find one, I have to stop to admire it. This plant has popped up in my garden after a long absence, and so I wanted to give it its moment in the spotlight.  Lady’s Mantle  is such a charmer, with its clouds of tiny flowers and crinkled leaves that grow out from the stem like little fans. In fact, it’s the leaves that give it the link to ‘Our Lady’, as they are thought to resemble her cloak. After a shower the leaves (which are highly water-resistant) hold the drops of water like little jewels, but the plant will also produce the liquid itself in times of high humidity, as explained by Rosamund Richardson in her lovely new book ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’:

The early morning ‘dew’ is there even on dry days, and isn’t dew at all but moisture porduced by the plant itself, exuded by a process called guttation (in conditions of high humidity when water cannot be lost from the leaves as vapour, water is forced out through the breathing pores or stomata in the leaves’.

In cases such as this, the water appears along the edge of the leaves, as in photo one below, and I can add the word ‘guttation’ to my rapidly-expanding list of botanical terms.

Whether the water is made by the plant or arrives via the clouds, the liquid was thought to have magical properties: alchemists used it in their experiments to change base metal into gold (hence Alchemilla) and it was also thought to be an aphrodisiac.

The water can also be used by thirsty butterflies and other invertebrates.

By Alek RK https://www.flickr.com/photos/alex-rk/32314184

An example of guttation (Photo One – see credit below)

By Mom the Barbarian - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1167587

Dew on the leaves of Lady’s Mantle (Photo Two – see credit below)

Richardson reports that in France the plant is known as herbe a la vache, because the magic water from the plant is one of the ingredients of a medicine given to sick cows by the elf doctor. It appears therefore that France has a National Elf Service for farm animals.

Unlikely as it seems, lady’s mantle is part of the rose family. This particular species (known as soft lady’s mantle) was introduced to British gardens from the Carpathians in 1874, and was first recorded in the wild in 1948. We have a native Alchemilla, called Alpine Lady’s Mantle, which is restricted to the north of Scotland, and a further 12 native species. Like brambles and dandelions, lady’s mantle is apomictic, which means that it sets seed without fertilisation, and therefore all the plants in a particular area are clones. It is an amazement to me that botanists ever get to the bottom of such things – brambles have an estimated 334 microspecies.

The plant has a long history as an ingredient of lotions for skin complaints, especially for women whose complexions had been ravaged by smallpox or acne. It is also said to be good for wrinkles, so I am looking at the patch in my garden with some interest. It was also used to stem bleeding and for various gynecological preparations,  to aid childbirth and to protect from miscarriage. It has hence long been seen as a female plant, and one of its alternative names is ‘woman’s best friend’. Culpeper suggests that it can be used in a cream to reduce the size of ones breasts, and it is also recommended by other herbalists for ‘swollen’ breasts, so I shall leave these suggestions right here for the well-endowed in that department.

The leaves can be eaten in salads when young, and can also provide a green dye for wool. it is a favourite of flower arrangers and, because of its long flowering period and unusual green flowers, Sarah Raven suggests combining it with a daisy like Erigeron (Mexican fleabane) for a very decorative informal border.

The leaves are the foodplant of the caterpillar of the Red Carpet moth (Xanthorhoe decoloraria).

By Tocekas - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4009546

Red carpet moth (Xanthorhoe decoloraria) (Photo Three – see credit below)

As you know, I like to end my Wednesday Weed with a poem, so here is one by James Inglis Cochrane from his book ‘Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems’ written in 1853. In it, he decries the loss of knowledge of the properties of plants, and mourns the passing of earlier, quieter, more contemplative times. The notion of a ‘too busy, mammon-loving age’ hits the nail firmly on the head too. He went on to knock up a translation of Homer’s Iliad into English hexameters, and is buried in a cemetery in Edinburgh, where I hope that he found the peace that he seems to crave in his poem.

Our Lady’s Mantle !

When I musing stray In leafy June along the mossy sward,

No flower that blooms more fixes my regard

Than thy green leaf, though simple its array;

For thou to me art as some minstrel’s lay,

Depicting manners of the olden time,

When on Inch Cailliach’s isle the convent chime

Summoned to Vespers at the close of day.

Tis pleasant ‘mid the never-ending strife

Of this too busy, mammon-loving age,

When Nature’s gentler charms so few engage,

To muse at leisure on the quiet life

Of earlier days, when every humble flower

Was known to all, and cherished as a dower.

Credits

Britain’s Wildflowers by Rosamund Richardson is a really lovely book, packed with folklore and all manner of interesting information about the plants that surround us.

Photo One (guttation) – By Alek RK https://www.flickr.com/photos/alex-rk/32314184

Photo Two (dewdrops) – By Mom the Barbarian – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1167587

Photo Three (Red Carpet) – By Tocekas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4009546

 

Accidental Beauty

Dear Readers, this week I have been filled with rage, horror and sadness at the unfolding tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. The completely needless deaths, the cynicism of those in power and the divide between rich and poor in the capital in particular and the country in general has made me feel physically sick. I look at the photographs of the dead and missing, and I see everything that makes London rich and meaningful to me: the handsome Syrian man who had finally reached ‘safety’, the woman sitting in her tiny sitting room like a queen surrounded by the beautiful things that she had made and scrimped to buy, the elderly man sitting serenely with his grandchildren. I donate, I sign petitions, I look at the faces of the refugees that are in my English class and I know that it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

And then, I walk. Because unless I reconnect to the real world around me, I can feel myself starting to grow thin and tattered, and I need to be strong. I have people who depend on me, and things that I believe in, and I need to have my feet on the ground in order to  serve them.

Community is not just some abstract concept, though the way that the word is sometimes bandied about might make you think so. For me, it starts with the soil under our feet and the plants that grow in it, and the creatures that visit it. Each garden  has its own style, the inhabitants of the houses announcing their particular tastes and preferences through the things that they plant, and the things that they allow to remain. The grace and beauty of an area comes often through the accidental juxtaposition of different elements, the way that things just ‘happen’.

The lavender is in full bloom outside my front door. This year I thought that it had grown too  woody and was thinking of replacing it. Then the bees came.

A few days ago, I came back from the shops and a little girl had paused outside with her Mum. She was counting the bees.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!’ she shouted, her voice rising higher with every bee spotted. ‘They’re so happy!’

And so, I think the lavender is reprieved, again. Bees like a lot of flowers, all of one kind. They can remember up to three different ‘designs’ of flower type, but when they encounter a fourth, one of them has to go. I sometimes think that humans can’t hold too many paradoxical ideas in their heads at the same time either, so it doesn’t do for us to feel superior.

I note that there are several very interesting plants just coming into flower. The Passionflower is said to include the crown of thorns,the nails and the scourge from Christ’s crucifixion.

Passionflower

The solanum is a member of the nightshade family.

This jasmine is exquisite, and flowering much better than mine which produces masses of leaves and nary a flower in my north-facing garden.

But wait, what is this? Has the summer of love returned to East Finchley? I feel my spirits lift.

What a very fine camper van. I hope that the inhabitants will wear their tie-dye teeshirts and loons to keep the ambiance consistent.

I particularly like the sign in the window.

Further along the road is my favourite hebe: I would say that it flowers for ten months out of twelve, and is a go-to pitstop for early emerging queen bumblebees, and those in need of a snack in the winter. I do hope that the owner of the house knows how much the plant is appreciated, and how valuable it is.

I cross the road to have a look at where someone has planted up the tree pit on the corner. I love these acts of unnecessary kindness. Goodness knows we need it, and cosmos is another great choice for pollinators.

The air is heavy with the sickly-sweet smell of privet flowers.

There is a big patch of a yellow-flowered daisy-like plant, possibly a santolina – always a favourite with hoverflies, who can’t cope with the complicated flowers of lavender and foxglove.

And goodness, haven’t hydrangeas come a long way? I remember when they were big, blousy flowers in blue or pink, according to the soil. I have a climbing hydrangea in my back garden, and in five years it has reached the level of the loft on the second floor. But look at these! Truly East Finchley is a hydrangea hotspot. I’ll forgive them for having no wildlife value whatsoever.

Oh, I spoke too soon. Look, somebody loves them.

I love the accidental beauty of some of the paths, where yellow corydalis and ferns, bellflower and green alkanet have created something as pretty as anything you could create on purpose.

There is one garden that is different from all the others around here, and I stopped to admire it.

I was taking some photographs of the Queen Anne’s Lace (Cow Parsley) when the owner of the house walked up to the front door.

‘What a lovely garden!’ I said, ‘I love how fresh it looks’.

The man looked a bit sheepish.

‘I keep telling my son to tidy it up’, he said, gesticulating at the bits and pieces that were laying about, and which I hadn’t even noticed.

‘I think it’s gorgeous’, I said, but he wasn’t convinced. And so I’m glad that I have a few photos of it in all its glory, before the strimmer gets into action.

I love these glass birds, nesting in a terracotta pot.

And a bank of trailing rosemary provides a home for lots of spiders, judging by the webs.

A blackbirds sings from a chimney pot, but then the air is filled with the racketing of a helicopter. The sound always fills me with a sense of foreboding. Helicopters mean a terrorist attack, or a terrible accident, . But then it veers away, and peace returns, and the blackbird is still singing.

At the corner of the road is a huge ceanothus (California lilac) bush, absolutely alive with bees. There are clouds of hoverflies, and each one seems to be laying claim to a few inches of flower. They may, in fact, be males, each one guarding some flowers in the hope that when a female comes to feed they’ll be able to ‘persuade’ her to mate. I took a short film to give some idea of the hectic activity.

And then, I spotted this lovely front garden.

This is just my kind of garden – a mixture of plants, not too tidy, full of life. The front door opened and I complimented the owner on her quirky choice of plants.

‘It’s a happy accident!’ she said. ‘Most of them have self-seeded, or just appeared’. And she told me about when her cat caught a pipistrelle bat (fortunately unharmed, and subsequently released) and when her son took a picture of a local fox asleep on her shed roof. When the picture was enlarged, it revealed her cat sitting happily next to it.

I am reminded that this week is the anniversary of the murder of MP  Jo Cox, with her famous quote that ‘we are far more united than the things that divide us’. She was right, of course. But  we should recognise cynicism and venality and disdain when we find it, for the sake of the most vulnerable, the people who are ignored and treated with contempt, the people who may have lost their lives for the sake of a few pounds more expenditure on fire-proof cladding.  There are so many experiences, so many different perspectives and stories, so much richness that is never reflected because it doesn’t fit with the way that the media moguls and the powerful view the world. I hope that things are changing, that Grenfell Tower will be the point at which people say ‘never again’.  I look forward to the music that will arise when all of us are heard.

 

Wednesday Weed – Tutsan

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find….

Tutsan in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, some plants seem much too exotic for a damp north London wood, and so finding tutsan growing amidst the pendulous sedge is always a real surprise. In spite of appearances, tutsan is a native plant, though the fact that lots of people grow it as a garden plant can cause much confusion. It is normally a plant of woods in the west of England but has certainly become established in Coldfall Wood, where it starts to flower  a month or so after the Marsh Marigold has finished.

Tutsan

.The berries of tutsan start off like little apples, but over time they become black, and are much favoured by birds. There is some debate about whether the fruit is poisonous to humans, or simply inedible. The fuzzy flowers remind me of a close relative, the Rose of Sharon (Hypericum calycinum) which has a positive firework display of stamens, and which is another popular garden plant.

By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5523268

Rose of Sharon (Hypericum calycinum) (Photo One – see credit below)

The name ‘Tutsan’ is thought to come from the French phrase toute saine, which literally means ‘all-healthy’. This is thought to be a reference to its healing powers: Culpeper considered it good for sciatica and gout, and to aid the healing of burns, with the leaves being used for all of these purposes. He also thought it good for the healing of wounds:the plant

“stays all the bleedings of wounds, if either the green herb be bruised, or the powder of the dry be applied thereto”.

The Portuguese also used it as a diuretic, and as a treatment for jaundice.

The antiseptic properties of the leaves were also used as a cheese preservative: according to the author of ‘The Domestic Encyclopedia’ (1802), A.F.M. Willich, tutsan leaves

have from experience been found to possess considerable antiseptic properties. They ought, however, to be employed only when moderately dry, in which state they should be placed upon, or at the sides of the cheese, in an airy situation.”

By Nova - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2576968

Flowers and berries (Photo Two – credit below)

Other names include Sweet Amber (for the pretty yellow flowers) and, in Wales, Dail y Beiblau, or Bible Leaves, as the sweet-smelling leaves were used as bookmarks in the Bible that every household would have.

Richard Mabey describes the dried leaves as having ‘an evocative, fugitive scent, reminiscent of cigar boxes and candied fruit’ (Flora Britannica), and says that they were being used as Bible markers in parts of Somerset up to the Second World War.

Eric Hunt (https://www.flickr.com/photos/39312862@N00/38762639/)

Photo Three (credit below)

As it is so well-behaved in its native range, I was surprised to find that, in Australia and New Zealand, Tutsan is considered a noxious weed. I suppose that, as is so often the case, a plant that has lots of creatures to munch upon it at home will go a bit berserk when it isn’t to the taste of woodland marsupials and forest birds. In New Zealand a moth and a small beetle have been approved as agents of biological control: the caterpillars of the moth, a British native ( Lathronympha strigana), feeds on the leaves of all Hypericum species, so hopefully there aren’t any in New Zealand that the country wants to preserve.

By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20886829

Lathronympha strigana (Photo Four – credit below)

The beetle is a member of the Chrysolina genus, which also includes the lovely but voracious rosemary beetle, though from the pictures on the website, the species chosen is a rather rotund little black chap, whose larvae make short work of the berries. To see why such controls might be needed, have a look at the photos from the New Zealand Environmental Protection Agency here. The damper climate of New Zealand seems to have enabled tutsan to move out of the forests and onto the hillsides, where it has morphed into a triffid.

ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fully ripe tutsan berries (Photo Five – see credit below)

I was able to find several mentions of tutsan as a healing plant in literature. The Tudor poet Michael Drayton (1563 – 1631) includes the plant amongst a positively stellar cast of medicinal plants in his celebration of the British Isles, The Poly-Olbion. No, I’d never heard of it either, but Samuel Johnson liked it enough to include it in a collection of early poets. Here, our hero is gathering herbs to cure a migraine (megrim):

And in some open place that to the sun doth lie,

He fumitory gets, and eye-bright for the eye;

The yarrow, wherewithal he stops the wound-made gore;

The healing tutsan then, and plantane for a sore

And hard by them again he holy vervaine finds

Which he about his head that has the megrim binds.

In some ways, tutsan seems to me to be a plant that we’ve forgotten about. We’ve heard of yarrow and eye-bright, plantain and vervaine (verbena) but I bet that not in one in a hundred could identify wild tutsan (including me before I started this blog). And yet, another of its names is ‘balm of the wounded warrior’, and there is a legend that the berries sprang from the blood of dead Vikings. Maybe it’s time that we paid it a bit more attention.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Rose of Sharon) – By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5523268

Photo Two (Flowers and Berries) – By Nova – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2576968

Photo Three (Flowers, berries, raindrops) – By Eric Hunt (https://www.flickr.com/photos/39312862@N00/38762639/)

Photo Four (Moth) – By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20886829

Photo Five (Berries) – ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Unexpected Spider

Large house spider (Tegenaria gigantea) on bathroom mirror

Dear Readers, some people have mentioned that they have a degree of cognitive dissonance on realising that Bugwoman writes so little about invertebrates, and I can see what they mean. I can only recall one post on true bugs (the one that I did ages ago about Cuckoospit and froghoppers).Other small creatures, such as bees and woodlice and butterflies and slugs, make occasional appearances, but I am not really living up to my name. So when this magnificent house spider (Tegenaria gigantea) appeared on the glass medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom, I decided that she had to feature in a post.

I have no idea what she is up to. As you can see, she has built a web right across the opening  between the two glass doors. How she even managed it amazes me: she was slipping and sliding as soon as she stepped off of the silk. Normally, a house spider makes a sheet behind some furniture, or, in the case of my parents, inside their Tiffany uplighter, and then sits underneath with a foot poised on the web, waiting for the slightest vibration of some unfortunate ant or beetle. The web is not sticky, so the spider relies on speed to capture its prey, subdue it with a venomous bite and truss it up for later. My spider was therefore most unfortunate in her choice of site. I would like to say that the pristine state of the upstairs bathroom made it her only option, but in fact there were dozens of spots where she could have prepared her trap and not been noticed for years.

Sadly, I had to move her on: for one thing, my husband needed to get his shaving soap out of the cabinet. I was amazed at how strong the spider silk is, giving a palpable resistance as I separated the doors. And the spider was undaunted as well, hanging on and caressing the glass with one hopeful leg.

She looks absolutely enormous in these pictures, I realise, but at full stretch she was only about the length of my index finger. I know that, for some of you, that will be quite big enough. But there was a kind of elegance about her, svelt creature that she was. I suspect that the way that house spiders move is a major cause of fear: they have a kind of silent, inexorable, mechanical advance that invites a shudder if you are that way inclined. Of course, it’s the male house spiders advancing across the carpet in search of mates in autumn that cause most trouble. I well remember my grandmother dropping a hot water bottle on one when I was a child, surely the most unusual demise of any spider. As house spiders hold the speed record for true spiders (1.83 mph) she must have had most excellent hot water bottle depositing skills.

For anyone interested in the various creatures that share our homes, I can heartily recommend Richard Jones’s wonderful book ‘House Guests and House Pests – A Natural History of Animals in the Home’. He points out that house spiders were cave and forest dwellers long before there were houses, and that their predatory instincts are just as beneficial in maintaining the ecological balance in our homes as they are in ‘the wild’. If we made sanctuaries for spiders deliberately, who knows how the ant/fly problem might be ameliorated? I could create little houses that fitted into the spaces by the skirting board – Twentieth Century Modern ones would have tiny concrete cantilevered overhangs, and the Victorian ones could have bay windows and stained glass. I can just imagine how happy the house spiders would be as they moved in.  I’m sure that there’s a whole new business opportunity here, but sadly not for me, as no one in my family is as tolerant of our eight-legged friends as I am. In the end, I picked up this fine lady in my hand, and deposited her gently out of the window, where I watched her run under the eaves to set up another, hopefully more sensible, web. And at last my husband can get back to shaving. That stubbly look is so unflattering in anyone who isn’t George Clooney.

And for those of you with a few minutes to spare, can I recommend this story by David Sedaris, about his encounter with a house spider? It made me laugh until I cried.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Flax

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Dear Readers, this mysterious plant has popped up in my East Finchley garden, in two locations. Both are directly under a bird feeder. At first I was a little puzzled, as I only ever feed my birds sunflower seeds, but then it occurred to me that ‘my’ birds are probably a little more promiscuous in their feeding habits than I give them credit for. Because this delightful blue flower is flax, or linseed, and is a popular ingredient in many seed mixes. Plus, it can obviously survive a journey through a bird’s digestive tract.

I was lucky to get some photographs of the plant this morning, because by this afternoon the petals on all of these flowers had dropped off, something that Richard Mabey notes in Flora Britannica. We have two native flax plants: the delightfully named fairy flax (Linum catharticum) and pale flax (Linum bienne), but this one is an ancient introduction which is known only as a cultivated plant, and seems to have arrived in the UK in the middle ages. The species name ‘usitatissimum’ means ‘really, really, really useful’, and so it is, because the plant not only produces the fibre needed for linen, but its seeds are linseeds, used not just for bird food but also for a wide variety of human requirements.

Firstly, the linen link. Humans appear to have been using flax to produce cloth since the paleolithic age 30,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians considered the plant a symbol of purity, and priests wore garments woven from the fibre. Mummies were preserved in linen cloth. Roman ships had billowing sails made from flax. In later years, Flanders became the centre of linen production, and it pre-dated cotton as the most important fibre crop in North American for many years. However, by the twentieth century 90% of all linen production came from northern Russia, as cotton production became cheaper. Artificial fibres further put a dent in the linen market.

The past ubiquity of the material is marked in English by the way that we used phrases like ‘bed-linen’, even though these days our sheets are more likely to be made of cotton.

However, as I sit here on a Sunday afternoon typing away, I am wearing a linen dress. In spite of the fact that it gets rather crumpled, the fibre is one of the most comfortable for hot summer weather, certainly much preferable to the various man-made options.  I love that it breathes, especially important when you are of a ‘certain age’ and a little prone to ‘feeling the heat’.

When I look at flax, my first question is where the blooming hell does the fabric come from? This is not a plant that wears its usefulness obviously. However, a little research tells me that the fibre comes from the bast, which is a layer just below the surface of the stem. The fibre apparently looks just like blonde hair (hence ‘flaxen-haired’). It is stronger than cotton fibre, but less elastic. The finest threads can be used to make lace or damask, or even (the height of luxury) linen sheets. Coarser grades can make rope or canvas. The fibre itself can be turned into paper for banknotes, cigarette papers or even teabags.

Flax is harvested in a brief window of time when it begins to turn yellow. Too early, and the seed and fibre are underdeveloped: too late and the fibre begins to degrade.

By Emile Claus - Own work (photo by Georges Jansoone, User:JoJan, photo: 2008-08-20), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4653832

‘Flax Harvesting’ by Emile Claus (1904) (Public Domain)

The plant is pulled up  by the roots (it’s an annual crop anyhow) and left to dry, before going through a series of processes. Retting involves rotting away the unwanted parts of the stem so that the fibre can be extracted. You can do this by throwing the flax into a pond, but this produces relatively low quality results and, as anyone who has produced comfrey or nettle fertilizer by this method can attest, the smell is appalling. The very finest quality fibre is produced by leaving the flax in a field and allowing the dew to gradually rot away the unwanted parts.

The fibre then needs to be separated from the rest of the plant. I  love that one of these processes is called ‘heckling’, and involves combing the stems with ‘heckling combs’ which look rather more like instruments of torture.

By Kozuch - Own work (Own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8040921

A very fine heckling comb (Photo One – see credit below)

The flax seeds, or linseeds, are having something of a renaissance as a health food at the moment, especially as a source of omega -3, 6 and 9 acids, B vitamins and minerals. They are  high in protein, and are said to be beneficial for lowering cholesterol. They are also full of fibre, although eating too many can apparently be a source of bowel obstruction, so don’t go making any linseed pasties, people. If you would like the health benefits of flax seeds without any danger of toilet troubles, you can also buy flax seed oil, which may work rather better in a smoothie. There can be little doubt of its nutritional value, and so there is no surprise that a company which has crowdfunded to finance a new meal replacement product would have included it as part of its formulation.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Soylent.

By JohnnyBGoode11 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57280293

Soylent. With a name like that, how could it fail? (Photo Two – see credit below)

Much like Slimfast, Soylent is intended to be a meal replacement for slimmers, but unlike Slimfast it is intended for hipsters and trendy folk. The liquid has had various formulations that have included algal oil and algal flour in addition to flax seed oil and canola. There have been various reports of ‘gas adaptation problems’ and gastrointestinal upsets, but the key problem appears to have been the taste. Here are some reviews:

“like someone wrung out a dishtowel into a glass”

“my mouth tastes hot and like old cheese”

“homemade nontoxic Play-Doh

However, my chief worry (she says while jumping up and down) is this: did no one ever see the science fiction film Soylent Green? In which the meal replacement that everyone ate was made from REAL DEAD PEOPLE? Either the manufacturers didn’t know what the food in Soylent Green was made from, or it’s irony gone Too Far.

But, as usual, I digress. Here is an orange cranberry flaxseed muffin to take the taste away.

http://www.yogurtland.com/category/dessert/cakes/page/4/

Orange Cranberry Flaxseed muffin (Photo Two – credit below)

Linseed oil has also been used in a wide variety of products and manufacturing processes. It dries slowly, is not brittle once it has dried, and is very hydrophobic. It’s been included in artists’ paints, is a key ingredient of putty, and is a beautiful treatment for wood, allowing the grain to shine through. It is used to season a cricket bat, and to enhance the beauty of a lute.

Furthermore, it’s a key ingredient in linoleum. Who knew? I suppose the name should have given it away. Linseed oil is used to bind the various materials (such as cork chippings or wood dust) that make up the flooring material. When I was growing up, every kitchen and bathroom in a working-class London home was floored with ‘lino’ – it was water-resistant, cheerful, easy to clean and relatively hard-wearing. In the 1970’s it was largely replaced with PVC floor-covering, but is making a comeback because it is more environmentally friendly.

A fine example of mid-century lino flooring (Public Domain)

Now, to revert to the description above of preparing flax so the fibre can be removed, and linen woven. Irish linen is the best in the world, and so there is no surprise in my mind that one of Ireland’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, has a poem about the process of retting the plant, and about so much else too. I hope that you enjoy it.

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Credits

Photo One (Heckling comb) – By Kozuch – Own work (Own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8040921

Photo Two (Muffin) – http://www.yogurtland.com/category/dessert/cakes/page/4/

Poem by Seamus Heaney – http://www.inspirationalstories.com/poems/death-of-a-naturalist-seamus-heaney-poem/

All other blog content free to use and share, but please link back to the blog, thank you!