20 December 2015
This week's post is going to be a simple, straight-down-the-barrel, amateur naturalist one. There will be no underlying themes, or thoughtful conclusions. Just a quick glance at a bit of seasonal nature, then that's 2015's blog done and dusted, and we can relax back to watching Christmas TV and eating mince pies.
This is a caterpillar. A very luminous caterpillar. No filters were applied.
13 December 2015
6 December 2015
The term ‘ecoliteracy’ is threaded through the nature conservation discussion. Many grant applications site the improvement of eco literacy as justification for their projects. Wildlife charities say the environment is being depleted because the public are not ecoliterate.
Too true I say. Look at this destructive example of hedge management I came across this Sunday walk. Looking at the savaged stumps do you think any care was taken? Forethought? Horticultural training? Awareness of consequences?
29 November 2015
As you know I find subjects to write about by simply walking out into Garden65. It won't be long before the question 'What's that?' has popped up and sent me scurrying back to Wikipedia.
The other day I stepped out of the front door to go Christmas shopping and come face to face with this tiny centipede wriggling on a stump not two feet from the front door. It is as though Nature had flung a challenge. “Go on, call yourself a nature blogger, see what you can do with this then.”
22 November 2015
If we don't count the occasional introduction of garden centre plants there are only two times of the year I do some proper Gardeners Question Time type of gardening. One in spring when young weeds are suddenly everywhere, and then now, in November, when the dead and dying need tidying away.
This season's visitation also involved the digging up of the 'what was I thinking?' plants.
17 November 2015
"Rolled in yellow light. Wading through carpet in slippers as heavy as hiking boots. Surrounded by hissing appliances. The television whispers to the low watt light. The PC sings with the central heating.
Entombed in warmth, biscuited, enveloped in cushions. Maslow’s needs met, Witchy rages at her privilege. Gifted with all, her blood slumbers, her arse grows fat, and her neurones numb.
15 November 2015
|River Mersey at West Didsbury|
So it wasn't the named storm Abigail, but an unnamed blob (scientific term) of rain that caused England's rivers to flood.
Hoping for some drama to enliven a suburban weekend I stomped down to the Mersey, and was gratified to find it had indeed over spilled its allotted embankments and was sitting sulkily across the pathways.
12 November 2015
11 November 2015
7 November 2015
Like the mycelium in this image I have many hyphae probing for nutrients in the soil of the internet. I mean I'm always on the look out for new places to find new information about the natural world.
A session on Twitter usually begins by following a hyperlink to a newspaper article, then the opening of a new tab to find the author's own webpage, that usually leads to their own blog. In amongst the writing may be a reference to another expert, and then the whole circuit begins again via bursts of Amazon browsing, and the rush to Tescos to get a new printer cartridge to print out that 20 page pdf.
4 November 2015
|The Mersey on a Dull Sunday Afternoon|
31 October 2015
A short Witchy story, inspired by recent trips to Manchester Museum. I'm afraid it doesn't have any useful nature tips in it, it's just a bit of seasonal fluff.
"Witchy stepped away from the screaming children and their cheese sandwiches and went to sit out under the wide blue sky. In a rare instance of misjudgement she had decided to visit the museum at half-term.
29 October 2015
The world appears to be a miserable place these days, full of horror, institutional irresponsibility, and unstoppable change. At least this is the story the news media likes to tell us.
I’m trying hard to avoid the news. When it comes on the radio I turn it off; the only newsprint I read is the weekend magazines. And then there is Twitter. It is a full time job searching for cheerful or even neutral accounts, and then Unfollowing the angry ones. My most recent Follow is BinkyBear. Little does he know a middle-aged woman looks to him as the saviour of her mental health. (I know, I'm losing it)
27 October 2015
I’m glad I’m a mother. When I was a young woman I didn’t know what I wanted to be. There was no grand plan or searing ambition. What I was certain of though, was that I wanted to have children. I didn’t want to be married, just to be a mother. The early reading of Greer did for any romantic notions of marriage (if only I had walked that particular talk). Deep in my bones I was sure I would love children of my own.
25 July 2015
The blue heat of Kephalonia seems a world away now. Manchester, and Britain, continue to uphold their watery grey reputation.
While on holiday I read Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals'. I thought I could relate better to the carefree life he lived on Cyprus if I read his stories in a similar environment.
One of the characters he met was Mrs Kralefsky, the bedridden elderly mother of his tutor. She gave him intriguing advice on the nature of different flowers species. I wonder if you agree with her ...
16 July 2015
7 July 2015
22 June 2015
19 June 2015
10 June 2015
|Lady's Mantle in the dye pot|
Dyeing again. This time giving Lady's Mantle, Alchemilla, a whirl.
Not surprisingly it produces a yellow, so we shan't linger on the dyeing aspect.
Let's give some thought to those beads of water that linger on her leaves.
7 June 2015
This post is a cautionary tale travelling from the heights of Mount Olympus via some impassioned Decadent poetry, with a detour to the Deep South of the American Civil War, to end ignobly with a snarling dog.
It begins mundanely with a bored housewife picking snails off the leaves of a globe artichoke. I wonder, she muses, if these leaves can produce a dye. Within a couple of hours she had the answer: yes, they can, an impressively deep yellow.
In her little world this is an exciting discovery. She looks up the scientific name of the artichoke to see if it belongs to a family of other plants who may be similarly generous.
After a long cessation, O Venus, again are you stirring up tumults? Spare me, I beseech you, I beseech you. I am not the man I was under the dominion of good-natured Cynara. Forbear, O cruel mother of soft desires, to bend one bordering upon fifty, now too hardened for soft commands:
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion
To weave another thread we can take a detour to Vivien Leigh's heaving bossom.
The author Margaret Mitchell was touched by the "far away, faintly sad sound" of the line.I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind
But this has nothing to do with Artichokes.
Back to the scientific name Cynara scolymus
And here the romance comes to a juddering end.
'Cynara' is an amalgam of the Latin word for canine and the Old Greek word for dog, 'kyon'. The 'scolymus' element relates to words such as spiny and thistle. These descriptive words are referencing the dogs tooth like spines on the stem of the plant.
|Dog Tooth Spines on Artichoke|
Plus Pesky Snails
So we seem to have been led down the wrong path. Artichokes are not associated with a mistreated woman, but sharp dog teeth. Our English word artichoke probably comes from its original Roman (latin) name for cardoon, a similar vegetable.
The caution here is to beware what you read. If something gets repeated enough it becomes fact. 'According to Greek myth' is a phrase best taken with a pinch of salt.
3 June 2015
The above gleeful tweet popped up on my Twitter feed - chance of migrant moths on Thursday night in the South East. Presumably this will be due to a warm front (hurrah) coming up from Africa and Spain sweeping moths along with it.
On 30th May they posted this:
As I understand it millions of moths appear in the UK each year, mostly in the autumn. We are at the edge of their climatic limit, in that during cold years fewer arrive, but it seems their appearances are increasing which may be proof of global warming (or global weirding). They don't necessarily come here to breed as migratory birds do. They may lay eggs but survival of our cold, wet winters is unlikely. Having said that some colonies are surviving such as the Clifden Nonpareil moth in Dorset.
To watch the migration wave as it happens you can follow this Twitter account @MigrantMothUK, or look at the flight arrivals page of Atropos, a UK journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts. Being a dragonfly specialist sounds even more romantic than moths. Think of the jewel colours and the sun glinting on crystal clear water. Dreamy.
Back to the moths. The Bordered Straw moth is quite commonly caught.
I am getting slightly anxious at the low numbers of any insect in Garden65 this year. I haven't been out setting traps or doing anything scientific but I'm getting the impression there are fewer bees and hoverflies. Even the pond skimmers look lonely. Hopefully there is a natural cause like a wet spring, rather than a woman-made reason like not growing enough insect friendly plants. Either way it is reassuring to know natural cycles on a continental scale are still providing excitement to dedicated lepidopterists.
27 May 2015
|Mating Flies on Naturally Dyed Cloth|
I've been raiding local parks for greenery: Buttercups, Butterbur, Hawthorn and Willow, to name a few.
It is quite a furtive operation. There is the initial reconnaissance sweep of an area, head down, suddenly stopping at seemingly random places to fondle a plant. Then there is the brandishing of garden pruners and determined gathering of armfuls of leaves. Followed by the stomp back home through suburban streets with rustling plastic bags stuffed with weeds.
Each outing is an exercise in embarrassment. What do other park users think I'm doing? Once when I was picking up autumn leaves a woman came up to me. When I said I was going to use them for natural dyeing her face suddenly lightened as understanding dawned. 'You're a teacher, aren't you?' she said. I nodded in agreement and she went off reassured she had slotted me into a socially acceptable role.
I think I'll use that explanation if I'm asked again. I did try to describe to two men walking their Staffies what I was going to do with the bag of dandelions I was carrying, but it got horribly complicated and they went away with the idea I was a fashion designer.
Regardless of needing a succinct justification of what I'm doing, there is a worry that taking 'wild' plants from parks is not allowed. True, it is mostly weeds that I target, but sometimes its leaves from a tree, or municipal flowers.
I do worry that someone might challenge me about the ethics of the practice. It can't be denied that I'm destroying or damaging the plants and this impacts on their surrounding ecosystems. If I'm taking flowers from a plant it wont develop its normal amount of seeds or berries. I've eyed up elderflower flowers, but would it be wrong to prevent the development of elderberries?
Even the harvesting of ugly weeds deprives insects of food sources for their larvae. And I'm always fishing out insects and spiders from the hot water the plants eventually get simmered in.
It's a concern.
|Hawthorn Flowers Simmering in Dye Pot|
One of the reasons for going on the foraging walk last week was to ask about the legalities, if not the ethics, of taking plants from the 'wild'. Foraging is after all what I'm doing, even though I don't eat the result.
The leader of the walk said it is legal to forage as long as it's for your own use and not for commercial gain.
But then he would do wouldn't he? I think he was referring to foraging in the countryside, but my stomping ground is urban parks. Who owns the parks? Aren't there byelaws about the acceptable uses of parks?
I've done some Googling on the legal aspects, but it is confusing. Here are my findings:
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 covers access to open land. In this there is a list of what you are not permitted to do while you are exercising your right to roam. You are not allowed to light fires, or walk about with an animal other than a dog, or bathe in non-tidal water for example. Picking plants is also restricted:
l) intentionally removes, damages or destroys any plant, shrub, tree or root or any part of a plant, shrub, tree or root
However, I think this Act is talking about larger pieces of land like moorlands, forests and nature reserves. Under this act those gorse flowers I picked from Southwold Common were strictly speaking stolen. Oops.
Maybe issues of access aren't relevant to urban, council owned parks.
And yet, parks aren't common land, which is a very restricted legal concept. A council can prevent people, or an individual person, from going into a park. Those dandelions I pick belong to Manchester Council, or whatever NGO type of organisation they can fob them off to.
Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act you have to have permission to mess about with plants. So although it is safe to assume I am allowed into a park I don't really have permission to take away their plants because I haven't asked.
What is stopping the local police from whisking me off to the cells (apart from having better things to do) is Common Law. This is 'derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.' Customarily then people are allowed to pick the Four F's: fruit, flowers, fungi and foliage.
This is with the understanding that it is picked for personal use and not going to be sold on.
The 1968 Theft Act:
"A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not ... steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward, or for sale or other commercial purpose’
I can relax then. The foraging man was right.
If anyone says I can't nip the tops off those nettles I can reply that I do have a right to them, because this madness is my own personal affair.
Now I've just got to get the ethics worked out, and I'll tackle the political considerations some other time.
|Foraged tulip petals and associated fauna|
24 May 2015
|Foraging for Mushrooms|
The other evening, as the sun sank, and I sipped elderflower wine from a plastic cup, I found myself trapped in a conversation between young people discussing hallucinogenic mushrooms, from which I couldn't extricate myself without appearing impolite ... and square.
Wood chip, apparently. Magic mushrooms grow on the wood chip councils sling under shrubs in car parks. There, how cool am I?
This embarrassing, and yet educational, encounter came at the end of a guided forage walk in Fletcher Moss park.
In my increasing botany mania I found the walk very interesting. It is surprising how many plants are edible. Though that's not to say many are palatable. I think it is more a matter of being able to whisk up an impressive salad for your hipster friends, rather than being able to cook anything delicious. It is also reassuring to know, that come the apocalypse, when supermarkets are overrun by zombies, the local park could help keep starvation at bay.
The list of plants sampled included the old favourites of wild garlic and three cornered leek, but also ground elder and the flowers of oil seed rape. Basically you can nibble the young tops of seemingly any plant. They all more or less taste the same - bitter and peppery. The tendrils of vetch were different, tasting, not surprisingly, like pea shoots.
One of the more challenging plants we sampled was Japanese knotweed. If you strip off the outer skin of young stalks there is a gelatinous layer that is edible. Some people said it was like cucumber. I didn't, but ate it because of the zombies.
Huge amounts of mushrooms were picked, particularly Chicken of the Forest. I am not really interested in fungi - it's weeds that float my boat, so I was surprised how easy it was to find edible mushrooms once you've got your eye in. At the end of the walk the leader (a slim, steely haired man in a bottle green jumper) cooked up the fungi with half a block of butter and some cream. Trusting to his expertise I shovelled some up with a crust of bread. It tasted .... of mushrooms, the kind you'd get in any Aldi store. And sadly I didn't turn temporarily into a zombie.
But, still, it was all together an enjoyable evening.
See the sweet man in the middle? He had bought this walk as a gift for his pregnant wife. Sensibly she refused to come.
17 May 2015
Coincidence is a strange phenomenon isn't it?
Here is my latest brush with it:
This Saturday's Guardian (I think you can guess who I didn't vote for this past election) had a review of a book called 'A Natural History of English Gardening'. Naturally I pounced on it. This book is "one in which the garden is seen as an ecological and cultural system rather than a stage for fashionable designs or horticultural achievements." Yes, definitely my kind of book. Unfortunately at £45 this review is as near as I'll get to seeing the contents of its pages.
As it happens this may not be too much of a loss because I get the impression the author's focus is not on the garden in the cultural context of the normal person. Instead, by cultural system he means 18th century land owners and their ability to send botanists to far corners of the empire to bring back new plant species. Perhaps not my kind of book after all.
However, we are all, rich or poor, human and there was one plant collector I found some sympathies with. The Duchess of Beaufort (remember that name), who had a garden that rivalled the one at the royal palace at Hampton Court, used gardening to help deal with depression.
"When I get into storys of plants," she said, "I know not how to get out."
I understand that.
I put the paper down and went to the Unicorn (a vegan veg shop) in Chorlton. On the street approaching the shop I spotted a pretty weed growing under some trees that I hadn't seen before. Being a shameless plant hunter (give me a brigantine and a merry crew and I'll go get you some plants for your garden) I picked a few flowers and took them home to identify.
The flowers had yellow daisy-like petals, so we are talking of the Asteraceae family, and they had a look of groundsel about them. I went through a couple of flower ID sites online, but they didn't reveal anything. So I resorted to the old fashioned method of using a key system in a book. This pointed to ragwort, but to me ragwort is a big aggressive plant, this one was chirpy and dainty. With an extra boost of some Wiki flicking I got the answer: Oxford Ragwort .
This plant came from the lava fields of Mount Etna in Sicily. Originally it was intended as a garden ornamental but it escaped and famously spread throughout Britain along the clinker trackways of the new railways.
'I have seen them enter a railway-carriage window near Oxford and remain suspended in the air in the compartment until they found an exit at Tilehurst'
Now here is where that coincidence weaves its magic ...
In whose garden was it first grown? The Duchess of Beaufort's of course.
|Mary, Duchess of Beaufort, 1650|
13 May 2015
I love a plantain.
Ribwort, to be precise. Greater always looks like it's been trodden on.
I think it's my spirit weed. It comes to me in my dreams where it gives convoluted, metaphor-rich messages about Truth, Beauty, and The Meaning Of Life.
No, not really. But I do like them.
They are however an ingredient in an Anglo-Saxon magical charm against poisoning. The Nine Herbs Charm is found in The Lacninga, a collection of ancient medical writings and prayers.
Directions are given on how to make a salve with the nine herbs that involve mixing with soap and ash, and boiling up a paste. This isn't a simple recipe though. Once you've made the salve you have to recite a charm to the patient before you apply the remedy.
Sing that charm on each of the herbs thrice before he prepares them, and on the apple also, and sing into the mouth of the man and both the ears and on the wound that same charm before he puts on the salve.
This sounds very shamanistic to me. It opens a window onto our deep roots.
When I think of traditional herbal medicine I first go to an imagine of some sort of Elizabethan proto scientist weighing and distilling. Or maybe I think of a peasant woman who used weeds that grew round her cottage because her mother told her they work, in a chain of practical women doing the best they could. The idea that medicine was applied with set prayers or charms, which is just another word for spells, has previously seemed too Other. Either fantastical, or aboriginal. And yet here's the Anglo-Saxons being not us-a-long-time-ago but Very Different.
And, you, Waybread, mother of herbs, open to the east, mighty within;
carts rolled over you, women rode over you,
over you brides cried out, bulls snorted over you.
All you withstood then, and were crushed;
So you withstand poison and contagion
and the loathsome one who travels through the land.
Given my uncharitable feelings about Greater Plantain, I wonder if this was the species used in the charm.
10 May 2015
Her wings are beautiful - like a sepia ink pen drawing on parchment.
Bees need flexible wings because the don't simply flap up and down but do a sort of figure of eight shape in the air. There might be a post about that somewhere in this blog, but it'll take some rummaging to find it.
The flexibility is provided by a protein called resilin which is found at the junction of the wing veins. It is used by most insects in body parts that need lots of elasticity. Fleas need it to jump. Cicadas use it to make their famous sound, and it is even in the mouths of insects that pump poison into other insects.
It is a miraculous substance that has near perfect elasticity. Experiments have been done on the resilin in dragonfly wings. Even when strained to over twice its original length for two weeks, a dragonfly's resilin tendon snaps back perfectly when the stress is relieved.
The reverse action of compression is also impressive in that about 97% of the energy that’s put into it is returned. Experiments, on fleas this time, show it is not good at storing energy as such. The ability of fleas to jump isn't due to the resilin. Instead, it allows the body to quickly return to its original shape, ready for the next leap.
It is such amazing stuff that scientists are trying to make artificial spinal discs with it to transplant into humans. Being a sufferer of a bad back I can't wait for that to happen.
1 May 2015
This year is developing into The Year of Natural Dyeing. Last year was The Year of Crochet. Before that was The Year of Genealogy. There was once mystifyingly a Year of Yoga.
My enthusiasms generally last a year.
Simmered ivy berries have been successful this year, producing a blue and a pink. The berries from a plant in Sainsbury’s car park (Barberry?) gave a subtle purpley pink, and spring’s purple crocuses deposited a minty green on cotton.
Daffodils and dandelions have turned out to be the flowers that keep on giving. They perhaps not surprisingly, give a golden buttery yellow. The trouble is it doesn’t run out. There is a limit to the amount of yellow fabric even I can use. It is so magical though it feels a waste to throw the dye liquid away. There is a pot of it outside that whispers, ‘Go on. Dunk another’.
The variety of these colours and the inexhaustibility of daffodil yellow have made me wonder what the chemicals responsible are. There is also another, more desperate, question following from that query: ‘... and how can I get them to stick to the cotton?’
Being intelligent readers I am sure you can guess the pigments are Carotenoids and Flavonoids, the chemicals that give colour to fruit and vegetables. Tomatoes are red because of lycopene, a carotenoid; blueberries blue due to flavonoid anthocyanins. You will remember anthocyanins from our experiments with black beans.
The reliable yellow of our generous daffodils comes from a type of carotenoid called zeaxanthin. Pleasingly, the ‘xanth’ bit of that name comes from the Greek for yellow, ‘xanthos’. Bright yellow marigold flowers contain up to 98% of another carotenoid, lutein. And what is the Latin for yellow? Luteus!
Paddling in the shores of organic chemistry is fun. Unfortunately the fading memories I have of chemistry lessons in school during the late 70’s mean I don’t understand the scientific terms. What is a phenolic glycoside? Should I be concerned with covalent bonds? But at least I now have some vague idea of what is going on.
However, the overall lesson from this encounter is more sobering.
These pigment chemicals that are the focus of my latest hobby are essential for health. As an example, zeaxanthin and lutein are found in high concentrations in the eye. In some cases it may be helpful to take them as supplements. Public health authorities (and the Daily Mail) repeat the mantra that we should eat more fruit and vegetables because they contain these vital chemicals which are not only pigments but antioxidants.
Admittedly I don’t follow this advice and rarely eat the full five portions of fruit and veg. I am not worried about this because I think I eat enough to keep ticking over. Yet, what struck me when researching natural pigments is how many are needed by a body to merely function, let alone to blossom into full sparkling health.
During the last few weeks I have been picking individual flowers and weighing them to the nearest gram, then fussing over simmering pots to coax molecules of colour to dye a piece of cloth. Just to satisfy my curiosity and creativity.
Shamefully I don’t take such care over the plants I eat for health. It’s more a matter of frying an onion because it makes the sauce taste better, or adding a stick of celery because the recipe says I should.
I can hear the vegetarians among you yelling at the screen. Of course I know fruit and vegetables are ‘good’ for me, but I never fully comprehended how the organs and living processes in my body rely on the chemicals made available to them by the plants I eat.
Life is precarious.
It is also interconnected. As the more spiritual amongst us may say ‘we are all one’. Absolutely, if a dandelion flower is made up of the same stuff as my eye.
26 April 2015
It is an aggressive dark presence looming on the edges of the garden, threatening to drown everything in its way. But in some ways those Gothic qualities give it an elegant grace that save it from simply being an annoying weed.
Conservation charities generally remove ivy from the old buildings they look after because it can be damaging to weak masonry, but during the Romantic period of the early 19th century a covering of ivy was thought to enhance the appeal of any ruined monastery or castle.
“Where legendary saints and martyrs on the ornamented panes once testified the zeal of the founder and the skill of the artist, the ivy flaunts and the daw builds her nest while to a fanciful eye Nature and Time seem proud of their triumph over the labour and ingenuity of man" William Gilpin 1818