Perforated St John’s Wort. One of 27 varieties of St John’s Wort, all good for insects with their bright, open flowers, this one is easy to identify- look at the flowers and there may be small black dots on the petal-edges, but pick a leaf and hold it up to the light and you all see many small transparent glands that are definitive. Crush a leaf or stem and blood-red sap with a foxy smell will be released. It was this last characteristic which made this plant associated with many myths and magic properties. When the pagan mid-summer feast was replaced by the Feast of ST John the Baptist, this plant was named after him, the sap representing his bloody murder. You can see the Perforated St John’s Wort along hedgerows, woodland glades and waste ground- it is still used to treat wounds, burns and skin conditions and makes a beautiful burnt-orange cream or oil. Its Latin name is Hypericum and it is used still to treat low mood and depression. However, it has long been associated with magic– A poem of 1400 includes “St John’s Wort doth charm all witches away, if gathered at midnight on the Saint’s Holy Day, Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower, No thunder nor tempest will then have the power, to hurt or to hinder your houses, and bind round your neck a charm of similar kind”. In Wales, families would use sprigs to assess the life
Perforated St John’s Wort
Perforated St John’s Wort
Perforates St John’s Wort
expectancy of family members. Each would hang a sprig overnight from a beam and the sprigs that looked best in the morning would have the longest life. Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Nativity Chant’: “Trefoil, Vervain, John’s Wort, dill, hinders witches of their will”. In the dreadful practice of accusing women of witchcraft a handful could be stuffed in the accused mouth as it was believed to force a confession. Conditions: Warm sun and cloud. Temperature: Max 21 Min 13 C.
Day-flying Moths: The Clearwings do not look like moths but they are: this one is fairly common- the Scorpion Clearwing, named not because it has a sting (it is harmless) but because the male, pictured here, has a red, up-turned abdomen that is actually the clasper with which it grasps the female when mating. Clearwing moths are transparent because they don’t have overlapping scales on their wings. There are several species in the UK. The male Scorpion Clearwing can be killed by the female after mating so usually brings a meal of the dead flies and carrion to feed on to placate the female when it arrives to mate.Sometimes it works! Conditions: Very wet and gloomy. Temperature: Max 15 Min 11 C.
Wild Angelica, one of the most attractive of he Carrot family, can reach a height of 8 feet and is loved by many insects. You can, of course, get a garden variety too. In the wild, Angelica loves damp places, stream edges, and woods. The only thing it could be mistaken for really is Hogweed but the leaves of Angelica smell sweetly. The umbels are often pink-tinged and are more delicate and ‘frothy’, and often more rounded than the flatter Hogweed. Angelica stems are virtually hairless, ridged and hollow and of course the garden variety can be crystallised and used on cakes and sweets. The stems are usually purplish and have big sheathes where the leaves emerge ( these occur on Hogweed too). The plant yields a good yellow dye and the seeds can be dried and used like fennel or aniseed, or to flavour liqueurs. The 17th Century botanist and herbalist Culpeper of how a liquid made like a tissane
from Angelica “applied to places pained with the gout or sciatica doth give a great deal of ease”. Just to find a great patch of this majestic plant is a pleasure. Conditions: Humid and cloudy. Temperature: Max 27 Min 15C.
Centaury: This is another of my favourite wild flowers, which can be found along woodland rides, scrubland, and areas of shorter grass. You may pass it by, as the delicate and unusual coloured pink flowers, held on flusters at the tip of slender stems, close when cloud cover is high and open best in strong sunlight. However it is unmistakable when you do spot it. It is named after the centaur Chiron, who, legend has it, was healed by the Centaury when shot by a poisoned arrow. Whatever you think of the legend, these stories show how long a plant has been valued for its healing properties. Centaury is also one of the 15 ‘magical herbs’ and was used for exorcism. Robert Bridges writes of it, in ‘The Idle Flowers’. ‘Pale Chlora shalt thou find, Sun-loving Centaury’. Conditions: Sun after heavy rain. Temperature: Max 20 Min 10C
Juvenile Finches of all our four regular Finch visitors to the garden feeders are turning up now. In case you aren’t sure how to identify them, here are photos. The young Greenfinch has a slightly speckle chest and the yellow wing-bar like the adult but both male and female juvenile Greenfinches are pale coloured. Later, as you can see, the males especially will become much stronger green, the female slightly olive-brown. Young Goldfinch already have the black and white ‘ladder’ marking on their wings and the gold wing-bar but lack any of the striking head colours- male and female adult Goldfinches are hard to tell apart, unless you see one feeding on Teasel seeds later in the year- only the male has a long enough bill to get at the seeds. Both male and female juvenile Chaffinches are similar in markings to the adult female, except softer in tone, and the males go on to develop the adult blue, pink and green markings seen in the photo. Similarly, the juvenile Bullfinches are both similar in colour to the females but lacking the black cap of both adult males and females. The males, of course, will go on to develop the wonderful rosy chests, and grey and white backs that show in the photos. Conditions: Grey and mild with a sudden shower or two. Temperature: Max 21 Min 13C.
Here is a brief introduction to a few common WillowHerbs. Rosebay Willowherb is the best known- it is also called Fireweed because, as well as all the waste ground and hedgerow sites it grows on profusely, it grows readily where fires have been. The Great or Hairy Willowherb prefers damper spots but is also common, with its larger and sparser open flowers and white centres. I like its common name, Codlins and Cream, named after the old, rosy English apple, Codlin. The Enchanters Nightshade, which has possibly my favourite name of all common wild flowers, is not a nightshade but a willowherb. The Enchanters Nightshade can become a bit of a problem in gardens but I love its delicate, tiny flowers and the whole plant is only about 6 inches/15 cm’s tall, and grows in the shade of woods, hedgerows etc. Disappointingly for something which has such an intriguing name no one can really find a reason for it to be called this, either in folklore or witchcraft, and even the great 17th century herbalist Gerard could not get enthusiastic about any uses for it- although the Austrians used to make a tea rom it! Conditions: Drizzle and cloud with some showers. Temperature: Max 11 Min 7C.
For the past few days, adult Great Spotted Woodpeckers have not just been coming to our fat feeders to feed themselves, but absolutely stuffing their beaks and flying off to their nearby nest in the neighbouring Roe Wood, to feed their young. Yesterday, for the first time the season, a juvenile turned up to be fed. This is a good time to tell male, female and juveniles apart if you don’t already know, which I appreciate many will. Male adults have a red nape-patch and female adults don’t, though they both have red under their rumps.Juveniles, both male and female, have a red cap until hey moult in autumn. They also have paler and less defined black and white markings at first (see photos). Great Spotted Woodpeckers have sophisticated adaptations to prevent getting concussion when they continuously hammer at solid trees to make their nest-holes or to find buried grubs and larvae inside trees. There are complex shock-absorbers where their bills join their skulls. Their other notable adaptation is that their tongues are coiled round the back of their skulls and uncoil rapidly like a spring when they need to harpoon their prey down a deep burrow inside a tree. These very long, sharp tongues can reach 40mm beyond the end of her beaks! Conditions: Cool and cloudy, light showers if we are lucky and sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 14 Min 7C.
Last night I did the first Moth survey in the garden this year, with my very home-made Moth Trap. Apart from listening to and seeing a lovely Tawny Owl, which calls close-by every night and last night I watched as it sat briefly on our chimney top (when it was too dark to photograph), and watching Pipistrelle bats skimming through the garden, feeding, but no Moths turned up while I sat outside. However, this morning there were several including a couple of beauties in or on the ‘trap’ that I haven’t seen in the garden before. Today’s photos are of the most common Hawkmoth in England- the huge (up to 9cm wing-span) Poplar Hawkmoth. The caterpillars of these feed of poplars, of which we have several, willows and aspen. The moths rest with their
abdomen raised, and flash reddish patches on their underwings to deter predators. (Moths attracted to Moth Traps fly off in the morning, undamaged). Conditions: Very blustery day but a welcome few showers in the morning. Temperature: Max 17 Min 9C.
Loo out for Great and Blue Tits gathering food for their young. The females will have laid an energy-sapping eggs a day, between about 8-12 on average, after expending energy building the nest. She will then pull feathers from her abdomen to create a bald ‘brood patch’, to maximise the heat being transferred to her eggs, which she will turn and move so they get access to her warmth. She will be fed by the male but also need to make forays outside to fed. After about two weeks the eggs should hatch. Then all will depend on the availability of food, which for these Tits is predominantly Oak Tortrix caterpillars (see photos). This is becoming more precarious with climate change. as Oak Trees are coming into leaf earlier. Tits have tried to compensate- since the 1960’s they are laying their eggs on average about 8 days earlier but emergence of caterpillars also depends on temperature and weather which is increasingly variable. If they can find them, each hatched chick will need about 100 caterpillars a day for around twenty days, before they fledge. In the past,
Blue Tit with Oak Tortrix caterpillar for young
Great Tit with Oak Tortrix caterpillar fr young
these Tits mostly nested in Oak or mixed woodland where the preferred food is most available, which explains why the nests there successfully raise more young than those in garden nest-boxes, on average, although nest boxes do help a wider based population, especially woodland and scrub is reduced by development. Conditions: Dry with cloud. Temperature: Max 16 Min 8C.
Oak (also known as Green) Longhorn Moth- We saw many of these Longhorn moths (and the antennae of the males really are long, like Mr Tickle’s Arms!) swarming round the fresh green leaves of some Sessile Oaks up on Wincobank Hill, Sheffield, site of one of the only Roman Forts that is now found so close to a city (no visible remains really). There are a few day-flying Longhorn Moths- this one is
Oak Longhorn Moths
Male Oak Longhorn Moth
Male Oak Longhorn Moth
luminescent in the sunlight and was fascinating to watch. We didn’t see mating but if a female (shorter horns) flies near, a male clings onto her and mates mid-air. The larvae live in the leaf litter beneath the trees and they wrap themselves in old leaf litter, like a sleeping bag, for winter before emerging and really dancing in the sun as these were. Conditions: Hot, still, sun and cloud Temperature: Max 23 Min 9C.