Teasel: This is a common, easily recognisable and easily grown wild plant of dampish wayside, field-edge and disturbed ground. This plant is valuable for wildlife and has been used by humans for hundreds of years. In its first year this biennial consists of a rosette of dark green leaves covered with bumps and spines. In the second year, the stems grow quickly and the distinctive flower-heads appear from July, with a ring of mauve flowers around their centre. As these die, circles of flowers open up both above and below them, providing food for many bees over a long period. They are good flowers on which to identify and photograph bee-species because bees take time methodically
Goldfinch on Teasel
feed on the circles of flowers. In autumn the seed heads provide food for birds, including male finches.The seed heads last all winter, looking attractive and great during frosty weather, or cut to bring inside. If you have the space, they are good for wildlife gardening, though prolific self-seeders so either cut the heads before they seed or dig up the rosettes of first-year plants, easy to spot. The use of the heads in the wool industry, for ‘teasing’ (carding, combing) wool fibres to clean and arrange the strands before spinning are what gives us the name ‘Teasel’. The fine hooks on the seed-heads were so effective they weren’t replaced by steel combs until the 20th century. Their ability to create a fine, even nap on baize and similar wool-based materials also led to them being used in making the cloths for snooker tables, hats etc. Nothing has ever been designed to match this ability and they are still the chosen ‘tool’ for some fine, specialist material. Napped cloth was important also for drivers of horse drawn coaches, as the nap guided the rain don the cloak and away, helping keep the driver dry in heavy rain. Conditions: Very hot and sunny. Temperature: Max 33 Min 11 C.
Burdock: This common plant of waste ground and wayside grows to a few feet high and is very obvious by this time of year. It is loved by insects but was also used a great deal by our ancestors. The long tap root was a staple in the past, roasted like we cook parsnips, tasting nutty apparently. The root was also used medicinally, especially for coughs and colds. In addition country people would lightly ferment the roots of this plant and the even more commonly available dandelion, to make a drink which, in carbonated form, is now commercially available of course as
‘Dandelion ad Burdock’. As the flowers die back, the hooked burrs cling easily to anything that brushes past– you might be familiar with the tricky task of trying to remove the hundreds of hooks from your dog, or your jumper! However, a Swiss inventor thought more laterally and was inspired by this plant to invent the invaluable Velcro. Conditions: Light cloud and breeze. Temperature: Max 16 Min 12 C.
Yarrow and Sneezewort.Yarrow is a very common wild plant, and a ‘pioneer species’, which means it is one of the first plants to colonise waste ground. Unless you keep a very tidy lawn, you are likely to have the fronds of young leaves in your grass, too. Its Latin name “Achillea Millefolium” refers to two aspects of this plant. Achillea references the legend that claims Achilles used the plant to staunch the wounds he receives in battle. Millefolium refers to the ‘thousand-leafed’ highly cut leaves that are so distinctive. The fact that this plant has been used for millennia as a healing plant is also shown by its presence in 60,000 year-old burial sites of Neanderthals. The plant is strongly scented when crushed, is rich in oils
Yarrow leaf- Millefolium
and has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, being used in herbal medicine treat a wide range of conditions, especially intestinal and ulcer-related. It produces a yellow-green dye and the young leaves can be used in salads. The plant attracts many insects which makes it, or its different coloured garden varieties (‘Achillea’) very useful in wildlife gardens.The closely related but much rarer Sneezewort (see photo) has larger flowers and uncut leaves, but is also frequented by many species of insects. It was used to induce rather than prevent sneezing! Conditions: Cloud, light rain and strong breezes. Temperature: Max 19 Min 12C.
Five years ago almost to the day, when I was down in Catsfield, East Sussex, where I was born, I went and sat at the bottom of a field, early one morning, among the brambles. I knew there was a fox crossing from the top corner to the diagonally opposite corner some days so I wondered if I could get to see it and maybe get a photo or two. After a couple of hours on a wobbly stool, with just a bottle of water for company, and the sun getting too hot I was about to give up. I gave myself another ten minutes, and then another as one does when you can, but nothing had stirred.As I sat I kept adjusting the camera for the light changes. As I was about to pack up, I caught sight of an agitated Crow in my peripheral vision and the rest of the story is told by the photos. It says something about nature-watching I think- sometimes you see nothing but if you know a little about the habits of wildlife, and you look, sometimes it pays off. This time I struck very lucky. I remember days like this when I don’t see what I go looking for, but even then it is rare to see nothing of interest.Conditions: Sun, cloud and breeze Temperature: Max 23 Min 11C.
Hoverflies: There are over 280 species of Hoverfly in the UK, many of them without common names. They all do good in our gardens, farms and wild areas- the larvae eat many pests including voraciously devouring aphids, so they are a great organic pest control! The adults’ feeding habits result in large-scale pollination of crops and garden flowers. They vary enormously in size, shape and colour and many mimic Bees and Wasps. However they don’t harm humans as they mimic in order to appear to predators as though they will sting or taste unpleasant. Here are a few of the ones that are easier to identify- the ways to tell flies from Bees and Wasps are: their eyes cover almost the whole of their head, they have one pair of wings, not two, and they have short antennae. If you can teach children the difference that is really helpful, since they have no need to be afraid of Hoverflies, but rather to welcome them and enjoy learning to spot more and more varieties. This sort of mimicry is called “Batesian Mimicry”. named after Bates who identified it in 1862. Conditions: Another blustery day of sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 16- Min 12C.
Shepherd’s Purse– this small, common wild flower of waste ground, grassland and path edges is very easy to identify, once you tune in, because of the shape of the seed-pods, from whence it got its name. It has a bare stem, a few inches/cm’s tall growing from a basal rosette of leaves, a small cluster of white flowers at the top of the flower stalk and, as it develops, the definitive heart-shaped seed-heads, which, as they ripen, show the shape of seeds like the pennies in a purse. All parts of the plant are edible though it is so small that it probably only makes sense to pick and eat the flower heads as you go on your walks! The fascinating thing about this plant, I think, is the way it was used in the First World War and by country folk before that. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and a poultice of the leaves was used to staunch bleeding and cover, and thereby treat wounds.The roots were
Shepherd’s Purse Seed Heads
The eponymous Shepherd’s Purse seed-heads
also used to be used a a ginger substitute. Conditions: Hot, dry, with cloud and sun. Temperature: Max 20 Min 11C.
Lords and Ladies, Cuckoo Pint (rhymes with mint) and Wild Arum were all names we gave this poisonous plant where I grew up, in Sussex. The root of this plant was used in Elizabethan times to starch ruffs and collars, despite giving the laundresses highly irritated skin from the chemicals contained in all the plant. However it is the fascinating way it has evolved to be fertilised that has always interested me. The spadix (central dark column– see photos) gives off a smell of rotting meat which attracts tiny flies to it. The spathe (the green cowl at the back, is slippery and the flies slip down into the hidden chamber beneath. There they are trapped by infertile male ‘hairs’ and any pollen they are carrying from a previous plant fertilises the female, lower part inside the chamber (which later becomes the poisonous berries. This fertilisation triggers the hairs to wither, allowing the flies to escape. On the way out they pick up pollen from the fertile male anthers which they then deposit on the next plant they visit. ‘Pint’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘pintle’ which was the word for penis, and this obvious resemblance has led to many colourful local names for this plant!
How do bees know when it is worth visiting a flower for nectar? Bees and other insects have co-evolved with flowers for millennia. If you have ever closely watched Bees working a patch or a head of flowers, you will have seen them hovering around individual flowers before deciding which flower to land on and feed from. Some very clever research (involving artificial flowers and electrical charges) has shown that they
Fuschia, White-tailed Bumblebee
Honey Bee, Alexanders
Carder Bee exploring Pulmonaria
respond to an electrical charge as they circulate and explore. The bees are picking up on an electrical charge that is emitted by the flowers, a charge which gets higher when their nectar chambers are empty and lessen as they re-fill. So, a Bee can distinguish a flower that has enough nectar to make a visit worthwhile, as well as when the chambers are filled again, hence, as you watch, you will see them revisit a rejected flower a little later!Conditions: Cool and sunny. Temperature: Max 16 Min 11C.
Small White Butterfly- by the crinkled, crumpled nature of this Small White’s wings, I think it must have been fairly newly emerged from the chrysalis, and nectaring on Scabious. One of the ‘Cabbage Whites’ this one does not create as much damage to brassicas as its cousin the Large White but its largely yellow-green caterpillars with pale yellow dots along its side, (lacking the black markings of the Large) do damage crops
Newly emerged Small White nectaring on Scabious
Small White, still crumpled from emerging from its chrysalis
, especially as they are so ubiquitous in their range, and have two broods per summer. An ill-informed introduction of this species to Melbourne in 1939 and its subsequent spread led lepidopterists to work out that an adult Small White can travel 100 miles its short lifetime, compared to most butterflies which travel only a mile or two. (This makes the 100 miles a day of the Painted Lady, which I looked at recently, even more astonishing). Conditions: Breezy and cloudy. Temperature: Max 21 Min 13C.
Late summer butterflies, like the ones in the drawing, need our flowers as much as those in the spring and early summer. This year is one of the rare years for a mass migration of beautiful Painted Lady butterflies. These amazing insects don’t overwinter here in any form. They migrate from North Africa, travelling about 100 miles a day and can reach as far north as the Shetlands. They need the nectar of Lavender, Knapweed, Thistles, Sedum and other late flowers to fill up on the way, much as we fill up a car at a petrol station. While we usually get some Painted Ladies through the country, a mass migration involves far more– the last mass migration was in 2009 when an estimated 11 million Painted Lady butterflies came and you should see them wherever you are in the UK this year.
. Conditions: Very warm and dry. Temperature: Max 27 Min 15C.