Bugwoman on Location – The Survivor

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica 'Vegeta')

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’)

Dear Readers, this magnificent elm tree, over 100 feet tall, was for a long time the only surviving elm tree in Westminster. It is estimated to be about 150 years old, and was probably planted as a sapling in the grounds of the parish church of St Marylebone. Unfortunately, the church was so badly damaged during bombing in World War II that it had to be demolished, so now the tree finds itself marooned on the pavement outside a tiny Garden of Rest.

img_9680As I stand under the tree and lean back to take my photo, I become aware of what an enormous organism this is, dwarfing the people under it. It has the a presence, a sense of individuality that I often recognise when I spend time with old trees. And this one is a survivor twice over, because not only did it escape the German bombs, it was also somehow bypassed by the Dutch Elm Disease of the 60’s, which killed over 25 million trees in the UK alone.

img_9684Dutch Elm Disease had been in the UK since the 1920’s, but this was a mild strain of the micro-fungus which causes the disease, and which usually just killed a couple of branches. The fungus is carried by bark beetles, who normally do only minimal damage when their grubs dig tunnels through the bark. Unfortunately, the 1960’s brought a much more dangerous strain, carried into Europe in a consignment of logs from North America. As the fungus enters the wood, the tree reacts by plugging up the xylem that brings nutrients and water to the leaves. Gradually whole sections of the plant die off, and so the leaves that bring nutrients to the rest of the plant fall, and the tree starves. Over 75% of all the elm trees in the UK died.

Elms that have been incorporated into hedgerows survived the fungus, which only really starts to impact on the tree when it grows above 5 metres. However, all over the country the giant elms, the preferred nesting trees of rooks, succumbed. Among them was the largest elm ever recorded in the UK, the Great Saling Elm, with a girth of 6.86 metres and a height of 40 metres. The elms in the paintings of John Constable are also mostly gone.

By John Constable - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149396

John Constable ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden (1823 version) (Photo One – see credit below)

This tree has been our companion since at least classical times: the Linear B lists of military equipment found at Knossos mention that the chariots were made of elm wood, and elm was used by medieval bowmen if yew couldn’t be found. The Romans also used elm saplings as supports for their grapevines: the ancients spoke of the marriage between the elm and the vine. As Ovid put it,

‘ulmus amat vitem, vitis non deserit ulmum’ (the elm loves the vine, the vine does not desert the elm)

Elm wood was hollowed out to make many of London’s underground waterpipes, and to make lock gates on the canals. The original Tyburn Tree was a huge elm, before it was replaced with a gallows. And Seven Sisters in north London originally referred to a stand of seven elm trees, referred to in the mosaic by Hans Unger on the platform of the tube station. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called ‘The English Elms’ about this very subject:

Seven Sisters in Tottenham,

long gone, except for their names,

were English elms.

 

Others stood at the edge of farms,

twinned with the shapes of clouds

like green rhymes;

or cupped the beads of the rain

in their leaf palms;

or glowered, grim giants, warning of storms.

 

In the hedgerows in old films,

elegiacally, they loom,

the English elms;

or find posthumous fame

in the lines of poems-

the music making elm-

for ours is a world without them…

 

to whom the artists came,

time after time, scumbling, paint on their fingers and thumbs;

and the woodcutters, who knew the elm was a coffin’s deadly aim;

and the mavis, her new nest unharmed in the crook of a living, wooden arm;

and boys, with ball and stumps and bat for a game;

and nursing ewes and lambs, calm under the English elms…

 

great, masterpiece trees,

who were overwhelmed.

To hear her read her poem, have a look at the link here.

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two - see credit below)

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two – see credit below)

I noticed that wire had been twisted around the trunk of the Marylebone Elm, I suspect as a support for Christmas fairy lights. This is something of an indignity, but I suspect that the tree is less perturbed than I am. I sometimes think that we treat trees with such disregard because we can’t imagine that they are living things because they are so large, and live on such a different timescale from us. Certainly, we seem to view them with all the compassion that we would extend to to a lamp post. And yet, I have cried hot tears at the callous cutting down of trees, and at the disrespect that we show them, and it seems I am not the only one: in Sheffield recently, two ladies were arrested for trying to prevent the cutting down of their local street trees, an event which commenced at 4.30 a.m. to try to avoid public outcry.

img_9685But, at least the Marylebone Elm is still in good health, and the buds are just appearing. Soon, there will be the crisp, veined leaves, and then the yellowing into another autumn.

img_9677

By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The strange flowers of the English elm (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (see credit below)

elm-leaf-231855Although the Dutch Elm disease problem has never gone away, there have been thousands of new plantings of the trees, including some in W1, the postcode of the Marylebone Elm . Elms are complicated trees, with many subspecies and varieties, and some have more resistance than others. Plus, as already noticed, small trees can survive as saplings or in hedges for many years. The elm is still here, under the radar, still providing nesting places for blackbirds and food for over 82 species of insects, including the white-letter hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds only on elms. The numbers of the butterfly were much reduced by the death of their foodplant, as you might expect, but they are now fighting their way back.

By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) (Photo Five – see credit below)

The giant elm of Marylebone seems strangely out of place these days, slotted in among the buildings as if every last inch of space that it takes up is begrudged. And yet, here it still stands, a survivor of fire and destruction, and of the insidious fungus that destroyed so many of its compatriots. It reminds me of that generation of people who survived the trenches and saw untold horrors, and yet who just got on with it. And that is what living things do, given half a chance – they carry on, until they can’t. May the Marylebone Elm carry on for many years to come.

img_9672 Credits

Photo One (Constable) – By John Constable – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149396

Photo Two (Seven Sisters Mosaic) –© Copyright Oxyman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three (Elm Flowers) – By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Elm Leaves) – By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (White-letter hairstreak) – By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

I discovered many of the elm facts included in this blogpost in this article by James Coleman at The Londonist, and very informative it is too.

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Winter Aconite

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…..

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Dear Readers, last year I decided to finally get my act together and plant some woodland bulbs. With the help of my husband I planted snowdrops and cyclamen, lily of the valley and bluebells, and some winter aconite. I had been hoping for a carpet of spring colour. Instead, I have exactly two winter aconites, and a small early crop of stinging nettles. Whether the squirrels have had the lot or they’re just late is anybody’s guess. So I was particularly pleased to spot this fine collection of yellow beauties in a church yard in Camden, not far from Regent’s Park.

img_9660Winter aconites are a member of the buttercup family, but they always remind me of tiny saffron waterlilies. In Suffolk (where they seem to be particularly abundant) they are known as ‘choirboys’ because the ruff of leaves rather resembles the neckline of a choirboy’s costume.  The plant came originally from southern Europe and was apparently first introduced to the UK in 1596. By 1838 they were recorded in the wild, and are now seen in churchyards and verges, usually close to human habitation. However, there is a legend that winter aconites only grow where the blood of Roman soldiers was spilled, which implies that either the plants are time-travellers, or they were here a lot earlier than their documented first appearance. This Roman connection was a source of inspiration for the crime novelist Dorothy L.Sayers, who moved close to a Roman camp at Bluntisham, near Cambridge when she was a little girl, and was delighted by the winter aconites. When her father told her the story, her interest in ancient Rome was triggered. Although better known for her Sir Peter Wimsey detective novels, she became something of a classicist, and would explore this in her non-fiction work ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’, which advocated a return to the skills of logic, grammar and rhetoric. I can’t help wondering if, with the current level of political argument, she might have had a point.

img_9662Winter aconites are not actually members of the Aconite family but on the ever-informative Poison Garden website, John Robertson explains that the leaves look like those of the true aconites. This might also be why the plant has a reputation for being poisonous: all buttercups are poisonous to a degree, but true aconites, such as Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) are among the most toxic plants in the garden. I have only been able to find two documented cases of death through winter aconite poisoning, The first was an elderly German dachshund with a history of plant ingestion. The other is from the Plant Lives website, and mentions the death, in 1822, of the unfortunate Mrs Gorst, who is said to have  harvested winter aconite tubers after mistaking them for horseradish. Suffice it to say that eating decorative garden plants is never a great idea for any creature, human or otherwise.

img_9657As one of the earliest flowering of all  bulbs, winter aconite is a real boon in a woodland garden (or would be if it actually grew). They are known as spring ephemerals, because they take advantage of the light that filters through to the forest floor before the foliage appears on the trees, and disappear later in the year. In this, they mimic their close relative, the lesser celandine. Even snow does not deter the winter aconite. For the rest of the year, the plant hides beneath the leaf litter as a bulb, waiting for its moment of glory when everything else is still dormant.

winter-linge-892279Winter aconite has inspired a number of artists, including Sir Stanley Spencer, more famous for his figurative paintings involving his home village of Cookham. Here is a painting that he made on commission for the wife of the local vicar, the Reverend Canon Westropp. It was sold at Bonhams in 2013 for £51,650, and I suspect that this might have been a bargain. Spencer had always made studies of local flora to include in his landscape paintings, but the floral paintings were small and sold well. Spencer worked on some of these paintings between his more famous works, and seems to have taken a great deal of care over them: he commented that one of his plant pictures, ‘Magnolias’, was ‘as good as anything that I’ve ever done’. There is certainly a lot of love in ‘Winter Aconites’, painted in 1957, towards the end of Spencer’s life (he died in 1959).

https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20776/lot/69/

Winter Aconite by Stanley Spencer (Photo One – credit below)

And I would like to finish with a poem, because that’s always a good way to finish in my experience. The poet Freda Downie, who died in 1993, was born in Shooter’s Hill, evacuated to Northamptonshire, returned to London in time for the Blitz, left when it finished and with impeccable timing was brought back to London in time for the V1 and V2 rockets. I love her poem Aconites, which feels just right for this time of the year, and even mentions a blackbird.

“Winter holds fast,
But a little warmth escapes like sand
Through the closed fingers.
The error is annual and certain,
Letting the pygmy flowers
Make their prompt appearance
Under creaking trees.
They stand with serious faces, green ruffled,
As prim as Tudor portraits.


In the west
The greys and gleam slide in the wind
And only the descended blackbird
Augments the intrepid yellow.”

img_9670Photo Credits

Photo One (Winter Aconites by Stanley Spencer) https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20776/lot/69/

Freda Downie’s poem was published on the Greentapestry website here

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

Feed The Birds

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Dear Readers, last week my friend J and are were in the bird food aisle at our local garden centre. How confusing it all is! There is food for finches, food for robins, food for sparrows and food for tits. I didn’t notice any food for pigeons or squirrels, so maybe I am the only person in the world who is happy to have them come to visit. What did strike me was how cynical a lot of this is, and how much money people might spend to keep all their avian charges happy. Don’t do this, people! Let me share with you the food that I normally have available in the garden, and who benefits from each kind.

Sunflower hearts

Sunflower hearts

Firstly, seeds. Cheap seed is full of filler and husks. The birds don’t mind it, but probably half to two-thirds of it goes to waste. It’s worth paying out for the best seed that you can afford. My preference (or rather the birds preference) is for sunflower hearts. These are eye-wateringly expensive, but are taken by all the finches, the woodpigeons, the collared doves and the house sparrows. And also the squirrels, of course. I hope you’ll enjoy this short film, taken during Storm Doris yesterday.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder

Peanuts

Peanuts

My second food is whole peanuts, but only from August through to the end of January – there is evidence that if fed to baby birds, the nuts can choke them. If I have peanuts, I can watch the acrobatics of the squirrels, but even more delightfully, I can expect visits from the jays. How the word gets round that the nuts are out, I have no idea, but there we go.

RSPB's buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available :-)

RSPB’s buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available 🙂

My third food is some form of suet, normally suet pellets. RSPB do a nifty variety called buggy nibbles, which apparently contain the remains of insects as well. The starlings adore this stuff, and many of the other birds will also take it, particularly the blue, great and coal tits that are regular visitors, and the long-tailed tits that occasionally breeze past. Another seasonal visitor is the greater spotted woodpecker who hammers away at the suet feeder like Michelangelo wielding a chisel. If I put it on my ground feeder or makeshift bird-table everyone eats it – the blackbirds, the woodpigeons and the collared doves. The foxes will also pop by once in a while for a feed, as, unfortunately, do several cats. I suppose that suet is animal fat, after all.

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it

img_9624

Mealworms

The next foods are ‘optional extras’, because I have no children and so can afford to indulge my garden visitors, who will not need supported through university and rarely require nappies. I normally have some dried mealworms, which I scatter on the garden for the robin and dunnock, and mix with the suet. If you really want to see some spectacular ‘bird action’ you could try live mealworms, which you can buy from one of my favourite companies, Wiggly-Wigglers. I have stopped using them because I couldn’t bear to send all those little wrigglers to their deaths, which is just pure hypocrisy because I seem to be able to overcome my moral doubts when they’re already dead. Some people recommend that the dry ones are soaked in water first, which might be a good idea in the breeding season. They are the number one most loved food in the garden and last for about twenty minutes.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

And lastly, I’m currently feeding something that the RSPB have developed called ‘Bird Granola’. It’s a mixture of suet, seeds and mealworms, and the birds have gone crazy for it. Like all suet products (including the buggy nibbles mentioned previously) it can dry to a solid lump if it gets wet, and can also turn a patio into a skating rink.

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

I also feed things like leftover grated cheese (beloved by the wrens), chopped apples and pears that are past their best (on the ground or bird table, for the blackbirds and any other thrushes that pop in), leftover cake (no icing) and things like rice if it hasn’t been salted. I had good results with some stuff called Flutter Butter (again from Wiggly Wigglers) – you get a jar of ‘peanut butter’ that you can hang up, and which is very popular with the tits. Normal nut butters are too salty for birds, however.

Robin picking over the leftovers

Robin picking over the leftovers

There are also things that I never bother with.

  • Nyjer seed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be the thing that the finches love, but in my garden they much prefer the sunflower seeds
  • Anything in a net – birds get horribly injured when they get tangled up in the mesh. I do sometimes put out suet balls, but always in a proper feeder
  • Bread (not much nutritional value generally)

I honestly think that you could get away with putting out sunflower seeds, suet pellets and some chopped apples/grated cheese, and get a very fine range of species if everything else is in place. And what is everything else?

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Water – I have the pond (as you know) but I also have a bird bath. It’s surprising how much the birds like to bathe, particularly in winter.

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Blue tit in the lilac

Blue tit in the lilac

Somewhere close to the feeders for the birds to perch. I’m lucky (or lazy) because my garden is fairly overgrown, but birds do like to grab something from a feeder or bird table and then retreat to safety. This is worth thinking about when you position your feeding station or table – the spot needs to be open enough so that next door’s cat can’t hide close by, but close enough that the birds don’t feel exposed to airborne predators liked sparrowhawks. I think that  little birds in particular are very attuned to the presence of birds of prey, and they are much commoner than you’d think – I once looked out of my kitchen door and found a sparrowhawk eating a pigeon on the step outside.

Fluffed-up starling

Fluffed-up starling

This is, of course, a very personal view: the birds that visit the garden will depend on where you live, and how urban (or otherwise) your area is. My garden is suburban, twenty minutes from central London by tube, but it benefits from having two scraps of ancient woodland and a huge Victorian cemetery nearby. My parent’s bird feeder at their home in Dorset is monopolised delightfully by the house sparrows who make their nests in their ten-foot tall beech hedge. My friend J was recently visited by a pair of parakeets. I am visited by lots of chaffinches, who are rarely seen in the garden of my friend A, who only lives around the corner. And if you live in the US or Canada or Australia, your guests will be very different. But there is something in many of us that derives great pleasure from helping our feathered neighbours. For me, it’s a small thing that I can put back – we have taken so much in terms of habitat for nesting and opportunities for feeding with the growth of our cities and the intensification of our agriculture. And whose heart doesn’t lift when a flock of long-tailed tits drop by in a chorus of contact calls, or a jay descends on the birdtable in a flash of blue? These moments can give us an instant of wonder and a surge of connection with the world around us.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that the song ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins always leaves me with a lump in my throat. It’s sentimental, sugary-sweet, and these days any old lady selling bird food on the steps of St Pauls would be hauled off for a night in the cells. And yet I still find myself wiping away a surreptitious tear. See what you think.

‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

Wednesday Weed – Hart’s Tongue Fern

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…..

Hart's Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

Dear Readers, during a walk along through the lanes of Somerset a few weeks ago I was amazed by how subtropical the hedgerows looked. Everywhere the long, green leaves of hart’s tongue fern were decorating the path, bringing a welcome touch of shiny emerald enthusiasm to the otherwise browning foliage.  A field of snowdrops didn’t go amiss, either.

img_9553The hart’s tongue fern is a member of the Asplenium or spleenwort family, a group of over 700 mostly tropical species. This fern is the only UK species with long, strap-like leaves, which become wavy at the edges as the plant grows older – the name ‘hart’s tongue’ refers to their similarity (in shape though not, we hope, in colour) to the tongue of a young red deer stag. The plant likes shallow soil and is often found growing among the roots of trees and bushes, or in cracks in walls. You can also buy it from many garden centres, and a healthy specimen is a most attractive plant, though they do become rather dog-eared in time (as do most of us).

Hart’s tongue fern is a common plant in the UK, especially in the south-west of England which is where I found this colony. It is native plant of the northern hemisphere, but is rare in the US, occurring in isolated populations, with the American subspecies being classified as Endangered (at least until the current government de-lists it along with all the other lifeforms covered by the Endangered Species Act, but that’s another story).

By Linda Swartz - http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/images/hartstonguefern/asplenium_scolopendrium_americanum_hab_lg.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12221569

The rare American hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium v. americanum) Photo One (see credit below)

Why spleenwort, though? Well, as we remember from our discussion of the male fern a few weeks ago, ferns do not produce seeds, or indeed flowers, but instead produce spores. Those of the hart’s tongue fern are very distinctive, producing rows of chocolate-coloured spores on the underside of the leaves, which are shed between August and March. In the photo below, the spores have already gone, but the marks of the sporangia that would have contained them are very clear. The whole ensemble puts me in mind of those lime-flavoured sweets with chocolate filling that I used to munch as a child, but maybe I’m just sugar-deprived. Anyhow, the shape of the sporangia reminded medieval peoples of the shape of the spleen, which indicated to them that the plant was good for treating ailments of this organ via the Doctrine of Signatures (already discussed several times, such as in this piece on nipplewort)

Apparently the lines of dark brown reminded whoever named the plant of a centipede, as scolopendrium is the Latin name of this invertebrate.

The spores of the hart's tongue fern.

The empty sporangia of the hart’s tongue fern.

According to A Modern Herbal, hart’s tongue fern is useful for liver diseases of all kinds, and for hardness and stoppings of the spleen. The herbalist Culpepper mentions that

‘The distilled water is very good against the passion of the heart, to stay hiccough, to help the falling of the palate and to stay bleeding of the gums by gargling with it’.

Many years before Culpepper, Galen gave it in infusion for dysentery and diarrhoea, and in country areas in the UK it was used in an ointment for burns and scalds.

img_9561One rather lovely story about hart’s tongue fern explains one of its alternative names, godshaer. The story tells that, during his wanderings, Jesus become tired, and lay down beside a stream, resting his head on a pillow of hart’s tongue fern. When, refreshed, he awoke and moved on, he left two of his hairs embedded in the plant and, if you break the stipe (the rib in the middle of the leaf) you will find two black ‘hairs’ (actually vascular bundles). If only I had known this story when I was in Somerset I would have given this a go, so feel free to investigate if you pass a plant in your travels (though do apologise to the poor fern first).

img_9564The Ainu people of Japan mix hart’s tongue fern with tobacco and smoke it. And the physicians of Myddfai in Wales recommended it particularly for women:

“If you would always be chaste, eat daily some of the herb called hart’s tongue, and you will never assent to the suggestions of impurity.”

Well, harrumph to that. At my age I need all the suggestions of impurity that I can get. But I digress.

img_9555And finally, does anyone eat this plant? In North America, young ferns known as fiddleheads are a great delicacy. However, some ferns contain carcinogens, or substances that cause Vitamin B1 deficiency, so this eating ferns is not an activity for the reckless. However, our old friend Robin over at the Eat Weeds website has gone where the brave fear to tread, and his recipe for Buttered Hart’s Tongue Fiddleheads is here.

img_9561When I talked about male fern in a previous Wednesday Weed, I mentioned a craze in Victorian times for collecting ferns, called pteridomania. I am very glad that I wasn’t born during this period, for I imagine that you couldn’t walk around a drawing room without sweeping a glass dome full of ailing ferns off of a side table with your bustle. Furthermore, even if you were working-class there was always some Victorian gentleman artist at his easel,  capturing your slightly grubby, poverty-stricken beauty as you tried to go about your work. So here, for your delectation, is The Fern Gatherer by Charles Sillem Lidderdale (1831- 1895). Is that a tiny hart’s tongue fern grasped in the over-worked hand of this maiden? I do believe it is.

By Charles Sillem Lidderdale - Bonhams, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17926598

The Fern Gatherer by Charles Sillem Lidderdale (1831 – 1895) (Photo Two – credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (American hart’s tongue fern) – By Linda Swartz – http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/images/hartstonguefern/asplenium_scolopendrium_americanum_hab_lg.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12221569

Photo Two (The Fern Gatherer) – By Charles Sillem Lidderdale – Bonhams, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17926598

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.

 

 

 

 

Blackbird

img_9593

To have a garden is to be regularly reminded about death. As I was clearing away the stalks of hemp agrimony last spring, I found the frail, headless corpse of a male blackbird, its decapitation a strong indication that it had been brought down by a sparrowhawk. It weighed heavily in my hand, for I knew this particular bird.

img_9584 At twilight he would cling on to next door’s rooftop television aerial and and pour out his mellifluous song, the notes trickling down like honey. Later, there might be some kind of upset in the bushes, and his maniacal alarm call would set off everybody else. But he was also subtle. I once walked past him in semi-darkness as he sat in the lilac bush, and heard him making a soft ticking call, like a feathered clock. Apparently this call is used to deter other males from roosting in the blackbird’s territory overnight, but it sounded to me as if he was trying to comfort himself, like a lone child whistling in the dark.

And then, after his death, there was a year without blackbirds and darkness fell without serenade. But this year, they are back, in force.

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

There is at least one adult male, a female, and a young male. The young males have a charcoal black and dark brown livery in their first year, and this chap is regularly seen off by the adult male. But the youngster is determined, and I often see him sitting in the whitebeam tree, shuffling his feathers and looking around anxiously. Although blackbirds are ostensibly monogamous, and mate for life, a study has shown that up to 17% of offspring are not fathered by the female’s partner, so maybe the youngster is just waiting for his chance.

Adult male blackbird

Adult male blackbird

The garden is the adult male’s territory, and in the morning I often see him picking over the patio, or throwing leaves aside in a search for little insects and other titbits. His beak is as orange-yellow as a crocus, and this colour is thought to be an indication of dominance and health: in experiments, male blackbirds react more strongly to orange beaks than to yellow ones, and are largely indifferent to the black bills of first year males. Someone should tell my blackbird that he’s meant to leave the young guys alone.  At any rate, only his mate is tolerated: as soon as he sees another blackbird, the male bows, fluffs himself out, sometimes lets out a semi-hysterical cackling war cry and flies directly at the offending bird. He seems to spend a large proportion of his time in this way. I hope he has the energy left for child-rearing later in the year.

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Female blackbird (Photo One – credit below)

I wonder about the female, too. Blackbirds mate for life, but it could be that she has taken up with this dashing gallant following the death of her previous partner. On the other hand, as blackbirds try to hold the same territory for life, and I saw no blackbirds at all for a year after the death of the male, this could be a completely new pair. The female spends a lot of her time feeding at the moment – egg-laying and chick-rearing is highly expensive in terms of energy, and she’ll need every morsel she can find. Plus, she builds the nest by herself, sometimes in thick undergrowth, sometimes in a shed, sometimes in the most unlikely places, such as a pair of unloved wellington boots or, as I once saw on Orkney, in the radiator grille of an abandoned car. They sometimes seem a bit clueless in the spots that they choose, and many, many nests fail due to predation. Mind you, round here you’d need a gun emplacement and barbed wire to keep the cats out, so any chicks that get to the fledging stage are doing well. Blackbirds apparently have different alarm calls for cats ( a ‘chook-chook-chook’ call) and for aerial predators like the sparrowhawk (a ‘seeeee’ call which is difficult to locate).

The last three crab apples just about to disappear....

The last three crab apples just about to disappear….

Blackbirds are ground feeders – I occasionally see the male perched cockily on my bird table, but they can’t manage the other feeders. They do love berries, however, and work their way through the haws and the hips with great enthusiasm. As I was watching today, the male ate the last of the crab apples, but these are not favourites: sweet and juicy fruit is much preferred, not just by blackbirds but by most thrushes. I once put out some grated apple for a fieldfare who had been downed during a snowstorm, and it was much appreciated. I often throw out apples and pears that are past their best – once they’re all brown and bruised they’re ideal thrush food.

By Downloaded from http://www.randolphcaldecott.org.uk/rhymes.htm Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10102568

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ cover (Photo Two – credit below)

Blackbirds are woven into our childhoods and our folklore. Take the popular nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, for example:

‘Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocketful of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing

Wasn’t this a dainty dish

To set before a king?’

Because blackbirds were (and still are) so common, they would have been a handy addition to the diet in hard times, but the pie here sounds like a more extravagant affair. Just as married couples sometimes release doves or butterflies at their nuptials, so there was a fashion for slapping a pie crust on top of some cowering birds so that they would burst forth when the lid was cut. I only hope that the blackbirds made their way towards the sky and escaped.

Incidentally, the ‘four calling birds’ of The Twelve Days of Christmas probably refers to ‘Colly (Coaly) birds’, i.e. blackbirds.

img_9584Last night, I stood by the window as dusk fell and the fading sunlight turned all the bricks of East Finchley rose-red. And there, back on the television aerial, was the blackbird, vibrating with song. Listening to him, all my worries fell away. I was reminded of Edward Thomas’s poem, Adlestrop:

‘And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’

A flock of starlings rolled overhead, on their way to their roost in one of the big plane trees on the High Road, and the last twitterings of a charm of goldfinches faded into silence. And I thought about blackbirds, and their short, unremarked lives, and the struggles, both human and animal, that surround us everyday. But also the joy. We must never forget the joy.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Female Blackbird) – By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Nursery Rhyme Cover) – By Downloaded from http://www.randolphcaldecott.org.uk/rhymes.htm Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10102568

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Stinging Nettle (Part Three)

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…..

img_9523Dear Readers, you might think that something as full of poisonous barbs as a stinging nettle would be a most unlikely choice for turning into fabric. But in fact, the plant’s stems are used to produced bast fibre – this is the inner layer of the stem of the plant, and it produces a flexible material suitable for turning into cloth. This is also the part of the flax and hemp plants that are used for fabrics. In stinging nettles, it has the great advantage of not reducing the wearer to a mass of boils.

By derivative work: Curtis Clark (talk)Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg: Ryan R. McKenzie - Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4722197

In this diagram, the area labelled ‘BF’ is the part of the stem that is used for producing textiles (Photo One – credit below)

In order to get to the bast fibre layer, however, the plant has to go through a process called retting (another great new word for my collection). Bundles of nettle stems are submerged in water for between 8 and 14 days, during which time the plant absorbs water, bursting the outer layer and making the bast fibre easy to extract. The time needs to be judged carefully, however: if submerged for too long you end up with an extremely useful but smelly fertiliser, rich in nitrogen, magnesium, iron and sulphur and great for encouraging leafy growth.

Once the fibre has been extracted, the textiles can be created. People have been wearing nettle clothes for at least 2000 years, and why not – the plants grow everywhere with very little encouragement or the use of pesticides, and they make a decent replacement for cotton or linen. Indeed, during the First World War, German uniforms were made from nettles following a cotton shortage.

In Scotland, nettles were used for bed sheets and tablecloths. Sue Eland’s Plantllives website has an extensive section on stinging nettle, and reports how the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) describes the use of the fabric:

‘I have slept in nettle sheets, and dined offa nettle tablecloth, and I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.’

More recently, a number of experiments have been done into the use of nettles for clothing: De Montfort University has created some rather pretty dresses, but my chief question here is how on earth do they stay up? Or on? Clearly they weren’t designed by a woman. But I digress, as usual. There is also a bright pink nettle bikini worn by a lady in boots, but I shall spare you. Enough to say that nettle fabric is due for a comeback, and indeed many companies are already interested in producing it.

Nettle leaves can be used to produce a greenish-yellow dye, and the roots produce a yellow one. Truly this plant is a generous one.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8692782.stm

Nettle dresses created by De Montfort University. (Photo Two -credit below)

As you might expect for a plant with such polarising qualities, there is a huge volume of folklore concerning nettles. Stinging nettle was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons, which was believed to ward off evil. It was also one of the five bitter herbs that are eaten by Jewish people during the Feast of Passover.

In Yorkshire the plant was used in exorcism ceremonies. Frogs could be kept from beehives (I had no idea that this was a problem) and flies from larders by hanging up a bunch of the plant. A child’s eyesight could be improved if you blew through a leaf into the affected eye. Fever could be cured if a nettle (preferably growing in a shady area) was grasped and uprooted whilst intoning the name of the patient and their parents – a kind of trial by ordeal, where the suffering of the person who went through the ritual was used to benefit the sick person.

img_9524The stinging properties of nettles were also used in the treatment of ailments such as rheumatism, the counter-irritant properties of the blisters and the heat produced being seen as a way to alleviate the symptoms.

In Buddhism, the yogi Milarepa reached enlightenment while living in a Himalayan cave and subsisting on a diet of nettle soup, which turned his skin green. At one point he was offered meat, but when he saw that some of it was being consumed by maggots, he understood that it was not fair to deprive the insects of their food, and went back to the nettles. After many trials, he became an influential and revered Buddhist teacher, and if you want to read about his long and eventful life, you can find the full story here.

“Maintain the state of undistractedness and distractions will fly off.
Dwell alone and you shall find a friend.
Take the lowest place and you shall reach the highest.
Hasten slowly and you will soon arrive.
Renounce all worldly goals and you shall reach the highest goal.”

By Sarah Lionheart, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2823766

Statue of Milarepa from the Helambu Valley of Nepal (Photo Three – credit below)

And so, our tour of stinging nettles has taken us from an alley in East Finchley to the mountains of the Himalayas. I can think of few plants that have been as useful to us, but also as reviled. For some, the nettle has been food, medicine, clothes and a source of inspiration. For others, it’s a spiteful and pernicious perennial weed, to be rooted out at all costs. F.Scott Fitzgerald once said that ‘The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function‘, and this is often so true of our relationships with the natural world. Stinging nettles sting, but may also treat rheumatism. They love to grow in our gardens, but provide a home for peacock butterflies. No person is perfectly good, or perfectly bad, and yet we still manage to love one another, and it’s the same with the plants and animals that we share our world with. Let us make some room for the nettle, as we hope that others will make room for us, prickly and astringent as we may be.

Photo Credits

Photo One (nettle stem) – By derivative work: Curtis Clark (talk)Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg: Ryan R. McKenzie – Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4722197

Photo Two (Nettle dress) – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8692782.stm

Photo Three (Milarepa) – By Sarah Lionheart, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2823766

 

 

 

The Story of a Cold

By No machine-readable author provided. Robin S assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1867087

A rhinovirus, or common cold virus. The dark areas are protein spikes, which help the virus to adhere to and penetrate cells. (Photo One – see credit below)

Dear Readers, this week I have been suffering from a rather pernicious head cold, which has laid me low and prevented me from exploring my half-mile territory. A commonplace experience (the average adult will suffer from two to four colds every year), but it got me thinking. What causes a cold? How do our typical symptoms (sore throat, runny nose, raised temperature, sneezing) relate to the infection? And what, if anything, can we do to prevent the disease, and to treat it once we have it? I am full of questions, and have tried to find some answers. If you are a doctor, a virologist, a nurse or indeed anyone who can add to my knowledge of this fascinating subject (which is pretty much everybody), please feel free to chip in.

To start at the beginning: colds are caused viruses. A virus is not technically ‘alive’ – some scientists think of them as being on the edge of life – because they fail two crucial tests  – they are not made up of cells, and they do not perform many of the key requirements of life, such as respiration, digestion or excretion.  When a virus is outside of a host, it is known as a virion, and is made up of only two or three elements – a strand of genetic material (DNA or RNA) and a layer of protein that protects it (known as the capsid). Some viruses also have a layer of lipid (fat) on top of the capsid. Viruses are tiny – an average virus is only one-hundredth the size of a bacteria – and it wasn’t until the age of the electron microscope that we began to understand their myriad forms.

By Deposition authors: Gutsche, I., Desfosses, A., Effantin, G., Ling, W.L., Haupt, M., Ruigrok, R.W.H., Sachse, C., Schoehn, G.;visualization author: User:Astrojan - http://www.rcsb.org/pdb/explore/explore.do?structureId=4uft, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50091685

The measles virus (Photo Two – credit below)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdcglobal/14723720857

Ebola Virus (Photo Three – credit below)

The main virus that causes the common cold is a kind of rhinovirus (rhino meaning ‘nose’, as in rhinoceros (‘nose horn’)). 99 varieties of rhinovirus have been identified so far, and they share an icosahedral (twenty-faceted) shape. They are tiny viruses, just one tenth of the size of a smallpox virus. The best temperature for them to reproduce is about ten degrees colder than human body temperature, which may be one reason why they generally set up operations in the nose – the constant flow of cold air keeps this part of the body colder than others. Plus, it might also explain why colds seem to be commoner in the winter, and after people have become chilled.  But this is not the whole story.

Colds are spread by sneezing, coughing and contaminated surfaces . And from September onwards, when children go back to school, any parent will be under siege from the many diseases of their little ones. With their under-developed immune systems, children catch up to 8 colds per year, and I suspect it sometimes feels as if it’s just one long bout of sniffling. If you travel on public transport you are bombarded with other people’s explosive sneezes and hacking coughs. Plus in winter we huddle together indoors and contaminate one another.  Really, it’s a wonder that any of us make it through to the summer without a cold.

Incidentally, the virus moves fast: it can start its work of adhering to our cells within 15 minutes of entering our nose, and over 50% of individuals who encounter the virus will be thoroughly infected within two days.

By Hillary https://www.flickr.com/photos/lamenta3/4334144802

One way through a cold is to cuddle it – toy common cold viruses (Photo Four – Credit Below) The viruses are made by Giant Microbes, who have a wide range of neurons, bacteria and viruses for sale http://www.giantmicrobes.com/uk/

But what happens when we are infected with a virus? A virus’s sole aim in life is to reproduce, and to do that it needs your cells. The virus bonds with a cell, using the proteins on its capsid to infiltrate the cell membrane. Once in, it hijacks the cell’s genetic material, and produces many copies of itself. Eventually, the cell lyses (explodes) and all the new viruses are thrown into the body, to go hunting for more cells to damage. However, a cell sends out distress signals to our immune system using chemicals called cytokines and chemokines. The first response is inflammation, which explains why the first thing that I usually know about an infection is a sore throat.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/hey__paul/7714734358

An embroidery of the common cold virus showing the proteins about to latch onto a cell. Lovely work from Hey Paul Studios (Photo Five – credit below)

Other symptoms of a cold are also caused not by the virus itself, but by our body’s response to the infection. Take fever, for example.The role of fever in illness is controversial, but one school of thought suggests that a rise in temperature (triggered by those cytokines) speeds up some of the body’s protective chemical reactions. In the case of a cold, we can also see how the rhinoviruses would be inconvenienced by having the body temperature go up.You could argue that by taking drugs that reduce your fever, you are prolonging the duration of the cold. However, some of us are in a position to lay about and recover naturally, and some of us have to drag ourselves off to work or risk losing our jobs or letting people down, so taking the Night or Day Nurse medication is basically down to pragmatic concerns.

By James Gathany - CDC Public Health Image library ID 11162, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6701700

Look at those aerosol droplets go !Photo Six (credit below)

Similarly, colds produce a very unpleasant runny nose, again due to the inflammation caused as a response to the virus by the cytokines – our noses produce mucus to sooth the damage, as I can testify. Couple this with sneezing (a response to the irritation caused by the inflammation) and we have a perfect system for spreading the cold virus. A typical sneeze can produce 40,000 droplets, each one full of happy virions looking for a new home. The advice these days is to sneeze into your elbow if you can manage the manoeuvre in time. Certainly, sneezing into your hand is a great way of spreading it to your fellow commuters or classmates, as the virus can survive outside the human body for three days in the correct conditions. It’s a good reason for washing your hands after travelling, and for trying to make sure that you don’t rub your eyes, bite your nails or suck your thumb.

By http://wwwihm.nlm.nih.gov/ihm/images/A/27/712.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21321786

Poster on the cost of the common cold from World War Two (Photo Seven – see credit below)

The common cold has been with us forever, I suspect: the first recorded mention of the disease is in the Eber papyrus, the very first ‘medical textbook’ which was written in  ancient Egypt. However, what we can do about it remains uncertain. Prevention of the infection by handwashing is important, but the jury is out on Vitamin C, echinacea, and garlic. Some of you may be old enough to remember the Common Cold Unit, which was set up to investigate the disease in 1946. It was possible to go for a ‘holiday’, all expenses paid, the price being your infection with a common cold virus. It finally shut in 1989, and the only therapy that proved at all efficacious in reducing the duration and severity of symptoms was the use of zinc gluconate lozenges, so this might be worth trying if you feel a cold coming on. For me, it’s all about drinking lots of hot fluids, resting as much as my work schedule will allow, and keeping lots of tissues on hand. Most of us now recognise that going to the doctors is a waste of time and only exposes ourselves and other people to further infection. Fortunately the medical profession, in the UK at least, is much less likely to give out antibiotics for a viral infection than it was in previous decades, which will hopefully help to reduce the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There are, however, situations when a cold can lead to something much worse. In the very young, the very elderly or those who are immunocompromised, a cold can be a harbinger of pneumonia, as in the rather chilling poster below. For most of us, a cold is a minor inconvenience, but for others it can be devastating. This is one reason why I never visit my parents if I have a streaming cold – for people with COPD or other respiratory problems, the last thing they need is to be infected with my rhinoviruses. Prevention really is better than cure.

By WPA artist "G S Jr" - Via http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98516749/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7894761

A poster from 1937, advising those with colds to visit their doctors (Photo Eight – credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Rhinovirus) – By No machine-readable author provided. Robin S assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1867087

Photo Two (Measles virus) – By Deposition authors: Gutsche, I., Desfosses, A., Effantin, G., Ling, W.L., Haupt, M., Ruigrok, R.W.H., Sachse, C., Schoehn, G.;visualization author: User:Astrojan – http://www.rcsb.org/pdb/explore/explore.do?structureId=4uft, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50091685

Photo Three (Ebola virus) – by CDC Global https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdcglobal/14723720857

Photo Four (Toy Cold Viruses) – Photo by Hillary https://www.flickr.com/photos/lamenta3/4334144802

Photo Five (Embroidery of Common Cold Virus) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/hey__paul/7714734358

Photo Six (Sneeze) – By James Gathany – CDC Public Health Image library ID 11162, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6701700

Photo Seven (Cost of the common cold) – By http://wwwihm.nlm.nih.gov/ihm/images/A/27/712.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21321786

Photo Eight(Shark poster) – By WPA artist “G S Jr” – Via http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98516749/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7894761

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!