On Whales

Dear Readers, the most recent edition of Granta, probably the UK’s leading literary magazine, is featuring travel writing, and the editorial discusses why, in an age of climate change, this has become so much more complicated. The first Granta travel edition was back in 1984, and featured such luminaries as Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. There is a kind of rueful acceptance that those were more innocent, less aware days – the current editor, William Atkins, describes how

the travel writer of myth – Bowie knife in one pocket, Moleskine in another, off to Patagonia – is a stubborn ghost, and even in the 1980s, often came across as a revenant of the 1890s: alarmingly erudite, unflappable, prone to affectionate generalisations, and indistinguishable in all but style from the emissaries of colonial power that went before‘.

A little harsh, but still, there was a sense that only particular people were allowed to write about travel, or indeed about nature – Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful description of ‘the Lone Enraptured Male’ nature-writer, striding across the Scottish hillside,  has stuck for a reason. It is a pleasure to see the writing of people who haven’t very often been heard – women of colour such as Jini Reddy, young people such as Dara McAnulty – becoming popular, and bringing a whole new perspective to our experience of the world. There are so many contradictions and complications involved in writing about our experiences of other places, people and animals, and we will always leave something out. Sadly, it’s the something that we don’t notice and take into account that makes all the difference.

The first piece in Granta is by Bathsheba Demuth, and it’s called ‘On Mistaking Whales’. Demuth travels to Chukotka on the Bering Sea to look for gray whales. The Chukchi and Yupik people who live here have hunted the whales from the shore for centuries, the animal being one of the few sources of protein for those who make their homes on these hard shores. The people are still allowed to hunt 140 gray whales every year, though according to the locals there are not enough skilled hunters to take that many, although the villagers need the meat.

The whales that have made this epic journey may well have begun their lives on the other side of the planet, in the lagoons around Baja California. In 2008 I made my own journey to these shallow seas where the gray whales come to give birth. The ‘friendly whales’ are famous because the calves in particular seem to choose to interact on occasion with people , though always with their mothers watching. One calf we saw was as playful as a puppy, frolicking around the whole boat until she’d seen everyone. On other days, we wouldn’t see a single whale. They were making a decision, for reasons of their own, to interact or not interact. These were whales that were hunted almost to extinction, even in these lagoons where they came for sanctuary. They were known as ‘devil fish’ because enraged mother whales would attack the boats. Now, they come voluntarily to investigate what these strange people in their bright-orange lifejackets are doing. The few days that we spent in the lagoon showed me something that I’m pondering still – the sheer unknowability of another creature’s mind, and how every interpretation I cared to put upon what was going on could only be filtered through my own, twentieth-century, Western mind.

Demuth comes upon a gray whale that has been killed by hunters. The hunters are cutting up the meat; one speaks about how the fat is the only thing that makes his grandmother well. And they talk about ‘stink whales’. In the past decade, the hunters explain, some gray whales have developed a strange smell, like iodine. Sometimes the breath of the animals stinks of it, and the hunters avoid them – those who eat this meat develop terrible diarrhoea, and even the dogs won’t eat it. The hunters surmise that it must be something that the whales are eating, but in January 2019 there is an ‘extreme mortality event’, with 384 gray whales washing ashore from Mexico to Alaska and an estimated 7000 killed so far. Many were emaciated, their stomachs full of a ‘black dough’. The cause could be lack of food due to pollution or climate change affecting the whale’s food supply. It could be directly caused by pollutants. It is almost undoubtedly caused by humans.

Demuth gives talks in the USA to audiences about her experiences with the whales, and has taken to ‘warning people about my carnivorous content’. People are horrified at the photos of the whale killed by the Chukchi hunters, and yet feel somehow divorced from whatever is killing thousands of whales. She quotes one woman as asking ‘Wasn’t it simply too much, too  much to  bear‘?

I should have said: what we call wealthy society exists in a condition that disarticulates appetite and sustenance from their sources, from the beings who make our bones and our homes. Don’t confuse the distance civilisation keeps from death with the end of dying (my emphasis)’. The land where you live, in close focus, might present another way to arrange the fragments of the past into a story’. 

The article doesn’t end with any neat answers, and neither will I. But this was a most thought-provoking piece, and I suspect that this issue of Granta will provide lots more. The title, by the way, is ‘Should We Have Stayed At Home?’ Good question.

The link to the Granta website is here, though issue 157 isn’t up yet. See if you can persuade someone to buy you a subscription for Christmas if you love good writing.

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Stinking Iris

Stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) seeds

Dear Readers, when I was at Camley Street Natural Park a few weeks ago, I was very taken by these splendid seeds. They belong to the stinking iris (Iris foetidissima), so-called because its leaves are said to smell ‘beefy’ when crushed – one of the plant’s alternative names is ‘roast-beef plant’. Furthermore, it’s also known as gladdon, Gladwin’iris and Stinking Gladwin, with all of these names apparently referencing the Latin word ‘gladius’ meaning sword, and referring to the shape of the leaves.

It’s a very pretty, delicate plant when in flower, as you can see.

This is a native plant, found south of Durham, and it is normally found (in my experience) in damp, shady places. It’s said to prefer calcareous soils, but it was doing very nicely on the clay in the reserve. Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) mentions that it’s a plant often found in churchyards, where it was planted not for its modest flowers, but for its bright orange berries, so popular for harvest festival arrangements and grave-top bouquets.

The Plant Lore website mentions that, like other plants with brightly-coloured berries, stinking iris was associated with snakes – in the Isle of Wight it’s known as ‘snakes’ fiddles’. Whether the plant is thought to attract or repel reptiles is something of a mystery. However, the fruits are very popular with birds, particularly blackbirds, who will carry them far and wide.

Much of the detail on medicinal uses of the plant come from Ireland: the leaves can be roasted, sewn together and worn around the neck as a cure for tonsillitis or mumps, and the juice is said to be a cure for dropsy. The plant is poisonous, however, and in Mrs. Grieves ‘A Modern Herbal‘ (published at the beginning of the 20th century), the author describes how stinking iris has been:

“employed for the same medicinal purposes as the Yellow Flag and is equally violent in its action. A decoction of the roots acts as a strong purge. It has also been used as an emmenagogue and for cleansing eruptions. The dried root, in powder or as an infusion, is good in hysterical disorders, fainting, nervous complaints and to relieve pains and cramps.”

So don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Now, here’s an interesting photo, by Patrick Roper, taken in East Sussex. He speculates that ants may play a part in the pollination of the stinking iris, and they certainly seem to be paying a lot of attention to the flower. I haven’t noticed the usual bees and hoverflies on my yellow flag irises, but according to the interwebs bees are still the main pollinators. Nonetheless I think that ants can often be involved in transporting pollen from one place to another, albeit unwittingly.

Stinking Iris flower with ants by Patrick Roper

Of the many moths in the UK, only the caterpillars of the rosy minor (Litoligia literosa) seem to have developed a taste for stinking iris.The camouflage on the adult below is particularly striking.

Photo One by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Rosy Minor moth (Photo One)

And finally, a poem. I love this, by Louise Glück. I’m not completely sure that she’s talking about a stinking iris, but it will do.

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Poems for Autumn Part 2

A very fine crab apple on Huntingdon Road in East Finchley

Dear Readers, there were some lovely suggestions for poems for autumn in the comments, so I thought I’d collect them here. Plus, it gives me a chance to show off some more leaf photos. If you’ve thought of any more favourites, fire away! There’s still time for a few more before I start thinking about winter.

First up, here’s an old favourite, suggested by Anne. I knew the first few lines (as I suspect does every child who was at school in the 60s and 70s) but that doesn’t stop it being very beautiful. I especially like that line about ‘ Thy hair soft-lifted by a winnowing wind’. Time for another look, I think.

To Autumn – John Keats – 1795-1821

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Hornbeam leaves (Carpinus betulus)

Sllgatsby had some lovely, lovely poems, including one by Edna St Vincent Millay. This one reminds me of an autumn visit to Canada, when the fall colour was almost too much to bear. Can you be moved to tears by a bunch of maples? Well, I certainly was.

God’s World by Edna St Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

And how about this one, also suggested by sllgatsby. This is by American poet Sarah Teasdale. It’s the bit about ‘the voices of little insects’ that gets me every time. Of course it does.

September Midnight by Sarah Teasdale

Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
Ceaseless, insistent.

The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer.

Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,
Snow-hushed and heavy.

Over my soul murmur your mute benediction,
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,
Lest they forget them.

Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Sandra Gibson gave a friend a weekly ‘gift’ of a poem for her birthday – what a splendid idea! First up, here’s a poem by Jean Sprackland – I reviewed her books ‘Strands‘ and ‘Those Silent Mansions‘, but wasn’t so familiar with her poetry, something I shall have to remedy.

October by Jean Sprackland

Skies, big skies, careening over in the wind
great shoals of cloud pitching and jostling
in their rush to be anywhere other than here

You hesitate on your doorstep, glance up
and something tugs in your chest, rips free like a leaf
and is sucked up and away. Everything’s

finished here: raw-boned sycamores,
fields scalped and sodden. The houses are shut
and dustbins roll in their own filth in the street

So you would take your chances, risk it all…
You stand for a moment with the keys in your hand
Feeling the hard pull of the sky and the moment passing

I love Maya Angelou’s poetry, but hadn’t come across this one from Sandra’s archive.

Late October by Maya Angelou

Carefully

the leaves of autumn
sprinkle down the tinny
sound of little dyings
and skies sated
of ruddy sunsets
of roseate dawns
roil ceaselessly in
cobweb greys and turn
to black
for comfort.

Only lovers

see the fall
a signal end to endings
a gruffish gesture alerting
those who will not be alarmed
that we begin to stop
in order to begin
again.

And here from Sandra’s treasure trove is a poem by a poet that I hadn’t come across before, Ann Pilling. The last two lines are corkers, for sure.

Weeping Ash by Ann Pilling 2020

It died quietly in the night. If there were death throes
the gale swallowed them; and it fell with care
sideways on to a holly tree which soon bounced back,
we can see the hills now and we have more light.

I will miss all of it, its witchy branches, its long hair,
its stubborn refusal to leaf until spring
had all but passed into summer. Only then
did its long black fingernails unfurl to green.

The logs, stacked up in chequered rows against a wall,
will last several winters. Ash burns well.
In the dark months we can pull up close,
warm our hands at its flame

as those we have loved warm
us when we remember them

And finally, here are two haikus, the first by Gert Loveday of the wonderful Gert Loveday’s Fun With Books website. If you are not familiar with it, and if you love books, hotfoot it over to the site and see what you think. There are in fact two Gerts, and I’m not sure who exactly wrote this one. I love it regardless.

the swish of the broom

sweeping fallen leaves~
the light fades

And finally finally another Haiku chosen by Gert, this one by Saigyo.

even someone

free of passion as myself
feels sorrow:
snipe rising from a marsh
at evening in autumn

Such varied poems, all of them touched with both melancholy and hope. Just right for my current mood, and for the turning year I think. I hope you enjoyed them, and feel free to suggest any more that you like in the comments. The world needs all the poetry that it can get at the moment.

A Grey Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers it might have been grey and overcast, but the autumn colour in the cemetery makes up for any lack of blue skies. The various cherries, crab apples and maples were putting on a very fine show on Saturday, when we went for our usual walk. And it’s the day before Remembrance Sunday, so the memorials to the dead of Islington and St Pancras, and to the soldiers who fell in both world wars, were garlanded with poppies.

‘My’ swamp cypress is starting to put on its autumn cloak of colours, though it will be a few weeks before it reaches a crescendo.

I love the energy that the robins put into defending their winter territories – they are the only birds who are actually singing, as opposed to calling, at this time of year.

I have always wondered why it is that some leaves on a tree fall before others. Is it random? Do the leaves at the tips of branches fall first? Every year I look, and every year I’m more confused. I’m sure there’s a scientific study in there somewhere. Any thoughts, readers? The tree below is clearly a maple of some kind (says she hopefully), probably a field maple though I’m happy to be corrected.

There were crows everywhere today, and they seemed to be mostly interested in turning over the damp turf in the search for worms and grubs. This one, though, clearly has loftier ambitions.

The white deadnettle is still in flower, which will be handy for any passing bees.

I had never noticed how red the stems are on the sycamore leaves either.

And look how red the bramble leaves sometimes turn!

There is a little Japanese maple down by the stream, though whether it was planted or just blown in I don’t know. What is astonishing is the red of the leaves, even as the tree itself is overwhelmed by brambles and nettles.

And the Japanese Knotweed is forming a positive forest along the edge of the cemetery.

The ginkgo leaves are still falling….

And in a small miracle, someone has stood the fallen angel from last week back onto her feet again! No wonder she’s raising a victory salute.

I rather liked this fallen leaf – does anyone else think it looks like a little face? Seeing faces in objects is apparently called pareidolia, and apparently it was once thought to be a symptom of psychosis. These days it’s considered a normal part of the brain’s desire to make sense of things.

A friend told me that this area is where the cemetery cats are buried. I’m glad that they’ve got their own little space. Dusky was the most splendid of moggies and patrolled his/her area with great aplomb. I haven’t seen them for several years.

Dusky the cemetery cat from 2016.

And finally there is a right old brouhaha, and a flock of a dozen ring-necked parakeets flies overhead. They seem to be in a perpetual state of high excitement, shrieking the news at one another and then suddenly flying off, making a complete circle and ending up back in their original tree.

They are not the most peaceable of neighbours, but they are certainly the liveliest.

 

 

Sunday Quiz – Autumn Trees

Autumn trees in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery 13th November 2021

Dear Readers, this week we have a quiz with a twist! First of all, identify the eight trees shown below from their leaves/berries/twigs/buds etc etc. Then, take the first letter of each tree to make a ninth tree. Voila! You are a tree expert.

All answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Friday (19th November) please, and the solution will be published on Saturday 20th November. I think it’s especially important not to look at the comments until you’ve worked out the anagram – I will try to disappear any answers quickly, but there’s sometimes a delay between you posting your replies and me getting a notification.

Onwards!

1)

2)

3)

4)

5)

6)

7)

8)

 

Sunday Quiz – Rare Birds – The Answers

Title Photo by sighmanb, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Capercaillie (Tetrao urugallus) – 174 lekking males in 2019, 49% decrease over 22 years (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, we a great collection of answers this week, with Anne, Fran and Bobby Freelove and Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus all getting 16 out of 16 and Rayna getting 12.5 out of 16, in spite of my confusing things by having two entries at number 5 :-). And this without me making it multiple choice! I must find something trickier for tomorrow, clearly 🙂

1) Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) Photo by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

2) Common scoter (Melanitta nigra) Photo by Jason Thompson, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

3) Turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) Photo by By Yuvalr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16798749

4) Corn crake (Crex crex) Photo by Isle of Man Government, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) a) Common crane (Grus grus) Photo by By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39163967

5) b)  Slavonian grebe (Podiceps auritus) Photo by Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) Red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) Photo by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

7) Mediterranean gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) Photo by Martin Olsson (mnemo on en/sv wikipedia and commons, martin@minimum.se)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

8) Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Photo by Gareth Rasberry, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9) Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) Photo by Radovan Václav from Circus cyaneus | Hen harrier, male, adult, SW Slovakia, Dec … | Radovan Václav | Flickr

10) Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor) Photo by Sanja Šumanović, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

11). Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio) Photo by By Antonios Tsaknakis – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59341129

12) Willow tit (Poecile montanus) Photo by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

13) Bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus) Photo by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

14) Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) Photo by Harvinder Chandigarh, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

15) Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) Photo by Mikils, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

A Few Poems for Autumn….

Dear Readers, I am in a very autumnal state of mind, and so I thought I’d share a couple of autumn poems with you. These were new to me, so I hope you enjoy them too. This first is by Mary Oliver (of course)

An avenue of Raywood ashes in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

And how about this one, by Maggie Smith? The last line really got me.

First Fall

I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark
morning streets, I point and name.
Look, the sycamores, their mottled,
paint-by-number bark. Look, the leaves
rusting and crisping at the edges.
I walk through Schiller Park with you
on my chest. Stars smolder well
into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks,
the dogs paddling after their prized sticks.
Fall is when the only things you know
because I’ve named them
begin to end. Soon I’ll have another
season to offer you: frost soft
on the window and a porthole
sighed there, ice sleeving the bare
gray branches. The first time you see
something die, you won’t know it might
come back. I’m desperate for you
to love the world because I brought you here.

And finally, this one, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. There is such tenderness about it.

Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Do you have a favourite autumn poem? Do share!

In Praise of Climbing Hydrangea

Dear Readers, my climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) is really excelling itself this year. The leaves are shades of custard-yellow and lime, and it’s finally beginning to provide some cover for the nest box in the corner.

This is a dark, damp, murky corner of the garden, but this plant just doesn’t seem to care. In the spring it’s covered with big lacy heads of tiny cream-coloured flowers, and I think they’re rather fine even when they’ve gone over.

But it’s the leaves that have really caught my eye.

And while I’ve been standing there photographing the leaves, lots of small birds have been visiting the newly-filled seed feeder. Here’s a rather blurry chaffinch…

And now a great tit….

And here’s someone I didn’t expect to see using a bird feeder…..s/he did actually snaffle a quick seed, though I imagine the suet would be more to their taste. Does anyone else have robins using their feeders?

Meanwhile, there is one brave marigold still in flower…

And finally, next door’s hebe has come back into flower for about the third time this year. It is such a boon for bumblebees when they decide they need a nectar top-up during the winter.

And so, spending ten minutes away from my spreadsheets was well worth it! And good for my poor old back, too.

Wednesday Weed – Ivy Broomrape

Ivy broomrape (Orobanche hederae)

Dear Readers, I was very excited when I spotted this plant at Camley Street Natural Park in Kings Cross last week. Actually, to be fair I didn’t spot it – it was mentioned on the list of ‘sightings’ by the cafe, but I had to ask the warden where to find it. She was very helpful, and of course once I’d seen it I felt like a right twit because it was everywhere.

Sadly, I’d missed the peak flowering for this most peculiar plant, but this is what it looks like when it’s in its prime – I think it looks like a slightly sinister hyacinth.

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Aroche assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1162590

Photo One

Broomrapes are a fascinating family of parasitic plants, and some are very focussed and prey on only one species, while others are a bit less fussy. They have no chlorophyll of their own, hence their rather ghostly appearance, and so they are completely dependent on other plants for their nutrients. The seeds lurk in the soil until they detect the roots of their host plant. At this point they germinate and send out little roots of their own, which attach to, in this case, the ivy. They remind me of fungi, as they disappear altogether once the flower heads have finished.

The name ‘Orobanche’ means ‘bitter-vetch strangler’, not surprising as some species of broomrape are parasitic on various vetches (members of the Fabaceae or bean family). And while broomrape sounds as if it might refer to the plant’s parasitic nature, in fact it comes from the Latin for tuber, rapum – so broomrape actually means ‘tuber growing on broom’ rather than something more awful.

Ivy broomrape is largely a plant of Central and Northern Europe, though there is a single population in the University of Berkeley’s gardens, in California. There is a persistent rumour that the plant was introduced deliberately to try to control the spread of ivy, itself an alien plant. The consensus seems to be, however, that the parasite doesn’t do long-term or extensive damage to ivy, and certainly in Camley Street the whole understorey of the woods was covered in a lush carpet of green.

Photo Two by By Scott Zona from USA - Orobanche hederaeUploaded by pixeltoo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7513606

More ivy broomrape in flower (Photo Two)

One or two members of the broomrape family can be problematic, however: branched broomrape (Orobanche ramosa) might look as pretty as a picture with its blue flowers, but it is a notorious parasite of food crops such as potatoes and tomatoes, and can cause total crop failure in parts of south-western Europe and North Africa.

Photo Three by By Javier martin - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3864360

Branched broomrape (Orobanche ramosa) (Photo Three)

However, as revenge, humans eat the stems of the bean broomrape (Orobanche crenata) in the region of Apulia in Italy, where the plant is known as sporchia. 

Photo Four by By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6153027

Bean broomrape (Orobanche crenata) (Photo Four)

And here it is cooked, and looking very tasty. You can get the recipe here

Photo Five from https://www.cosedicucina.it/sporchia

Cooked sporchia (Photo Five)

Medicinally, the herbalist Nicolas Culpeper stated that broomrapes could be used as a cure for kidney and bladder stones, normally when decocted in wine. It was also considered efficacious when used in a poultice for ‘fretting ulcers’ and ‘scabby sores’. A strong solution of the flowers was  believed to remove freckles and blemishes.

And finally, a poem. I didn’t expect to find anything on broomrapes, but actually I found two! Here is one by Giles Watson, from a series of poems on plants and their history, folklore and biology. There are some very interesting works on the site here.

Broomrape (Orobanche spp.) by Giles Watson

Blanched as blood-drained flesh,

Broomrapes grow in deepest shade

Despising the sun. Their leaves

Are scales, their racemes rise

From soil, like vampires’ fingers,

The flowers shadowed, bruised

Like vampires’ eyes.

Hidden from sight, roots

Clamp round roots, suck

From the flux of life.

No need to grow green:

Flourish, rather, on others’ juices.

And here is a poem by Fiona Pitt-Kethley, which is rather more about minerals than plants, but fun nonetheless. You can see the stones that she’s writing about here.

The Opal Menilites of Agramón

Fiona Pitt-Kethley

Bright yellow broomrape bursting from the clay,
close to the minerals we’re searching for.
Nothing’s what you’d expect in Agramón.

Blue-grey on grey at first they look discreet
and crisp as sugared almonds in the walls
until we marvel at their varied forms.
This quarry’s the sex-shop of the mineral scene:
Willendorf Venuses, testicles, dicks
beside more toy-like marbles, skittles, ducks
and half-formed pre-pubescent young girls’ breasts.

A heavenly jest, perhaps. Exuberant,
tumescent, waiting in their matrixes.
If stones could speak these ones would say to me:
“Release us on an unsuspecting world…”

Photo Credits

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Aroche assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1162590

Photo Two By Scott Zona from USA – Orobanche hederaeUploaded by pixeltoo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7513606

Photo Three By Javier martin – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3864360

Photo Four By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6153027

Photo Five from https://www.cosedicucina.it/sporchia

Cheeky Rodents….

Dear Readers, yesterday I finally got around to planting up my crocuses and grape hyacinths, and this morning it looked as if every single pot had at least borne the weight of a squirrel. What are they like, honestly? It’s absolutely true that if you design a garden to be attractive to wildlife, you can’t really dictate who will turn up, but when I looked out of the window there was not one, not two, but three squirrels, two of whom appeared to be bonking. I was a bit surprised, but as the mating season is usually between December and February they were only a little bit early. Gestation is 38 to 46 days, so maybe we’ll have some Christmas babies. I’m sure that the plentiful food supply in gardens (including bulbs clearly) helps with their breeding success. Females often breed again in late summer, mating in June/July and producing babies in August/September, just when all the hazelnuts, acorns and beech mast is coming out.

Of course I have replanted my bulbs (which were in pretty deep in the first place I thought). And it’s difficult to be annoyed for long. Plus I’m not sure that they’re actually eating the bulbs – I know that they prefer tulips, and I generally don’t plant those as they aren’t a lot of good for pollinators, pretty as they are.

And then they were back to their usual tricks, i.e. hanging by their tippy-toes to get at the premium sunflower seeds. They are clearly the most acrobatic animals in the garden.

And for anyone who didn’t see it last time, have a look at the videos in this post – they are from the spring of 2020, when we were locked down and spending a lot of time in the garden. If you scroll past the good news on butterflies, you’ll see all sorts of squirrel shenanigans.