31 October 2013

Halloween Butterflies

Untidy Spider Web

It being Halloween I was going to write a post about the veil slipping between the two worlds, why our ancestors felt the dead came back to haunt us in Autumn, and make other profound observations on the meaning of life.

Instead I'm going to talk about a more cheery topic: butterflies.

As I sat in the garden this morning composing sentences around the funerary rights of Neolithic ancestors (a fascinating topic perhaps left for another post) three large butterflies swooped around the last remaining buddleia flowers.

Were they the spirits of the dead?

red admiral butterfly

Probably not.

These large hairy butterflies are Red Admirals, which are one of the few species still flying in October.

Did you know they aren't native butterflies? Gasp! Don't tell UKIP.

They come over from Europe in spring, lay their eggs, hang around for a bit, then start flying back in late summer. Which means there are increased numbers of them down south this time of year.

Unfortunately, some try to hibernate here, but it is too cold and they invariably perish.

These three better get a shift on then. France is a long way down.

29 October 2013

Olympic Flowers Revisited

In August I mentioned the stunning wildflowers planted in Fog Lane Park (see here). I would have expected them to have disappeared by now and to be a pile of rotting vegetation, but no, they continue to shine.

The person who designed the mix of seeds is obviously very clever. While the summer poppies have died down, now in autumn the black-eyed susans have taken over to give a beautiful yellow display.

I think the seeds may have come from a company called 'Pictorial Meadows'. It was founded by Professor Nigel Dunnett and is part owned by the University of Sheffield. These were the people responsible for the famous planting schemes around the Olympic Park.

And yet, they will eventually fade into memory. This is probably an annual mix of flowers designed to last one year. If any self seed next year they will be dominated by the more vigorous native weeds.

It's worth remembering that however natural and easy this mass of flowers looks, it is really an artificial construction as ordered and planned as the 20th century rose garden it replaced.

Interesting point to ponder: what is the difference between the eras, where one admires roses and the other cornflowers? 

I've enjoyed the cheeky conceit of sowing unruly, untidy plants in formal rectangular beds within an urban park, but unfortunately the effect is just a temporary dream.

Talking of which, what of the nuts planted in November last year? (post about them here)  Have they produced a harvest for the local people?

No. They are still sticks.

Intriguingly, someone has removed the plastic sleeves from some of the sticks - and then dumped them. I wonder if the motive was horticultural or aesthetic. Either way leaving the plastic in a pile reveals someone of very little brain.

23 October 2013

Not What You Think

close up of worm cast

It's OK - its not what you think it is ... although it is 'droppings'.
(Would have been a very tiny dog if it was!)

It is, of course, a worm cast.

A couple of weeks ago a rash of worm casts appeared in the lawn (god, look at the state of my lawn - it's no Centre Court is it?)

Which made me wonder why now?

It seems worms are sensitive creatures that need environmental conditions to be just right, and autumn provides just those conditions - not too wet or dry, not too cold or hot. Now is the time they become most active, looking for a mate and laying eggs.  Late spring and summer they dig deeper in the soil and become quieter.

Spiders do their mating in autumn too (see last post). Do they need cool, moist conditions too?

The casts themselves are full of nutrients, with 5x more nitrogen, 7x more phosphates, and 11x more potassium than the surrounding upper 6 inches of soil. There is also 40% more humus. So perhaps it would be a good idea to collect any worm casts on your lawn and sprinkle them on the compost in pots, if a little fiddly.

20 October 2013

Adventurous Spiders

Perhaps it's a bit late for a spider post. The autumn web building phase is coming to an end, but last week I got entangled in one slung across the front door so I think it's not too late to revisit these seasonal monsters.

Actually it was a mildly amusing story: the web and its fat-bodied maker were very big.  I shouldn't have missed it, but I was fumbling with car keys and composing the shopping list and suddenly rebounded of a long spoke thread which extended from the porch down to a shrub right across the doorway. Having frantically checked there were no spiders in my hair I recovered my composure and spent a minute, like a suburban David Attenborough, studying the spider finish making her web. [btw can you name a woman naturalist that I could have used there? Kate Humble doesn't count] Then I carefully ducked under the construction and trundled on my way, reminding myself to remember to duck back under when I got home again. Sadly when I got back from trawling the aisles of Tesco to gather food for the now somewhat depleted family the lady and her web had gone ... but the post had been delivered ... the postman must have blundered through.

Which is funny because the Daily Mail recently reported a postman refusing to deliver a letter because a spider was in the way,

 He'd left a note and took the letter back to the debot. The next day another postie (who added the word 'What!!' to the envelope) was brave enough to get past.

Obviously Mancunian postman are made of tougher stuff. Or just oblivious to the world around them.

On the subject of webs, do you remember the spiders who went into space in the 1970's? I bet Blue Peter did a report on them.

Two common garden spiders called Arabella and Anita were given a fly to eat then put into tiny cannisters and launched into orbit. The idea was to see how zero gravity affected web building. The answer was it didn't. They built perfectly normal shaped webs. Unfortunately although the astronauts fed them beef they both died of dehydration. Which I would say is an interesting outcome. Who knew spiders needed to drink?

I'm not sure if this is Arabella or Anita

Another web-based experiment produced more worrying outcomes.

In the 1990s they fed spiders different drugs and looked at the shape of webs the poor spaced out spiders made.

As you can see, we really should cut back on our cafe-going habit. Caffeine appears to be more lethal than any other drug. Sally recently suggested I take up smoking, perhaps I will take her advice and give marijuana a try. ;-)

And another spider web anecote ... if you want to attract a spider out of hiding the best method is to vibrate an electric toothbrush on the web.  The man who discovered it finished his report with some useful advice:

The sonic electric toothbrush tested was a Colgate 360o Surround, which vibrates 20,000 times a minute (333 Hz) and runs on a replaceable AAA battery. Boots sell this model for £4.09 but they are often on offer at £2.79 – a bargain. Do not be tempted by cheaper vibrating toothbrushes from pound shops (e.g. DR. Fresh Velocity), they do not work nearly as well.

18 October 2013


Yes, Garden65 is making a return appearance on the interweb stage. I was going to retire her, given she had got to 18 months old (a long time for one of my projects) and was shedding readers like an autumnal tree drops its leaves. I'm guessing there are currently 4 of you out there, and an intermittent mother.  However, the echoing void of my current empty-nest status has highlighted the need to have something to fuss over.  Hence Garden65's creaky resurrection.

Today's post is about my recent attempts at foraging. This is a nice topic for this return to blogging because the word 'forage' means to wander for food or provision, and is not the communication with friends (via a blog) a food for the soul?

So ...

I had a fantastic time in Fletcher Moss picking rosehips and hawthorn berries. They are the most beautiful vibrant red, and were surprisingly easy to pick. Rose and hawthorn shrubs are scattered throughout the park area, but the hedges around the cow field were more or less entirely made of rose and hawthorn plants. This is no doubt because they both have long thorns to discourage animals from pushing through, but I couldn't help wondering if in times past they were also planted because they grow edible berries and medicinally useful leaves. Today do we see the pretty flowers and berries as merely a lucky coincidence and only of visual value?

Rosehip Syrup Recipe

chopped rosehips

The syrup is made with the same steps as you would make a jam: cook the fruit then add sugar. BUT the purpose of using rosehips is to preserve the vitamin C content. During the war people were encouraged to make this syrup because citrus fruits were in short supply. The problem is that vitamin C is water soluble, and I would imagine also easily lost in high temperatures. Consequently you must avoid boiling the hips for too long.

First you need to chop the rosehips up. Which is difficult because they are so tough. I read one blogger's food blender struggled so much that it blew up!  I more modestly used a knife.

Hairs from inside hip on knife used to chop them

At first I thought the hips were producing an oil because my fingers were silky smooth, but then realised  the huge amount of tiny hairs from the inside of the hips were producing a slippery effect. Eventually they got a bit itchy as well.

Cross section of rosehip

To reduce the amount of time the rosehips are in water you boil up the pan of water first then put them in and only boil/simmer for 15 minutes.

You then sieve out the liquid using a jelly bag or muslin. I used a couple of Liz Earle cloths. And then repeat the process again.

Boil the final amount of liquid to reduce its volume then add sugar, but only do this final sugar boiling for 5 minutes. I made the mistake at this stage of being so concerned about losing vitamin C that I didn't boil enough, so my syrup is really a rather thick liquid, but still, 'tis made.

rosehip syrup and hawthorn tincture
Rosehip syrup in background., hawthorn tincture in foreground

I'm putting the syrup on my breakfast cereal in the hope I'm getting a massive dose of vitamins, but really it's only a matter of faith, it hasn't been verified in a laboratory and there is no bodily proof. I'll be cross if I get a cold though.

Hawthorn Tincture

Drying hawthorn berries
Aren't they lovely?

Now, the syrup may be delivering some nutrition but at the expense of increased sugar intake, and that's something I really should avoid, what with the biscuit eaten with the coffee and the late night 'I deserve it' chocolates, so my next recipe had to be sugar free.

At first I tried Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's haw-sin sauce. It's a nice easy recipe, but goodness it smelt bad! It smelt like foxes and all the nefarious activities that take place under a hedgerow. Reader, I chucked it.

The next idea is Hawthorn Tincture. This involves soaking the berries in vodka for 3 weeks.

The red colour disappears during the soaking

Hawthorn Tincture

Hawthorn is good for the heart. Unusually for old herbal remedies this effect is acknowledged by scientists, although they haven't isolated the active chemical yet. Anecdotally a friend of mine said his mother was cured of angina by taking hawthorn tincture.

Sounds like its potent stuff ... trouble is I haven't got any heart problems. I only made this because I had a load of berries to use and I do like boiling things up on a quiet afternoon.

I've now got a bottle of strange tasting vodka to get through. If you know someone with heart problems let me know and you can have it.