A plant that is in flower this month is Privet, except we rarely see these blooms because this is used primarily as a hedging plant and will be constantly trimmed which will remove the buds. Left to its own devices Privet will grow into a medium sized tree which will produce frothy, creamy-white blossoms composed of small, tubular flowers. They are attractive flowers with a strong, musky scent which some people find unpleasant. These are followed by black berries which are poisonous to us but relished by birds. Privet, which is distantly related to the Olive, is classed as semi-evergreen because although it will usually retain its leaves throughout the year, it will lose some in a very hard winter. It is a greedy plant that will suck most of the nutrients and water from the soil, so there aren’t many things that will grow well nearby. But it is valuable for wildlife with several species of moth caterpillars feeding on the leaves and when grown as a hedge it provides dense nesting sites for birds.
All the houses in the North London area where I spent some of my childhood and teenage years, had Privet hedges lining the road. On most of them the strip between about one foot and two feet from the ground was bald, completely devoid of leaves; this wasn’t caused by hard winters but by dogs. These were the days when only pedigree dogs were ‘taken’ for a walk. The mongrels, of which there were many, were usually called Rex or Prince except the black ones which were often named after the ‘N’ word; nobody would dream of using that now. These mongrels walked themselves and were let out in the morning, most not to go home until tea-time. They spent their days roaming the streets, chasing cats and cyclists, following the local bitch around and scratching. Fleas were great problem for them and this is where the Privet hedges came in useful. The dogs would press against them and drag their way to the gate post, then turn round and do the other side as they worked their way back. Because these scratching points were in constant use the leaves never got a chance to grow back once they had been rubbed off. Clever dogs!
Another plant associated with itching is the Scabious and this is also in flower this month. It was used to treat scabies, caused by a tiny mite, eczema and other itchy skin problems. Beautiful little flowers, they shine like blue eyes amongst the grass.
Lots of plants were used medicinally in the past and the pharmaceutical industry has derived many modern drugs from them. Digitalis for instance, which is used to treat some heart conditions, originally came from the Foxglove and aspirin from the bark of a Willow tree. Cocaine, which used to be used as a local anaesthetic is made from the leaves of the Coca tree and opium, from poppies, gave rise to the production of heroin, morphine and codeine. Although the cultivated Opium poppy has been developed to produce high levels of the drug, all poppies, even the ones growing by our Norfolk roadsides, contain a little and some people who had eaten bread sprinkled with poppy seeds have tested positive for the drug.
A butterfly which you may see feeding on Scabious is the Large skipper. It contradicts its name by not being very large but is a little bigger than the Small skipper and the Essex skipper. It will also feed on Bramble, which is a favourite, and other flowers. This moth-like butterfly inhabits anywhere with tall grasses and can even be found in urban situations such as parks and churchyards if there are patches where the grass remains uncut. The male Large skipper can be recognised by the dark, diagonal lines on the forewings. These are composed of scent scales which are scattered to attract a female during courtship. He will wait in a sunny spot for her to come by and defend his territory against any passing rival. The female will lay her eggs singly on the underside of a blade of grass and when the caterpillar hatches it will roll its grass blade into a tunnel and spin some silk to fasten it together where it rests until nightfall. It then goes out to dinner feeding on its favourite Cocks foot and other grasses. Like all caterpillars it grows until its skin doesn’t fit anymore and so is shed. It does this several times and each new stage is known as an instar, 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. When half grown in the autumn it will hibernate for the winter and wake up the following spring to carry on feeding and shedding; after pupating for about three weeks the adult butterfly emerges.
There is also a moth caterpillar which rolls leaves to hide in, the Small magpie. This one feeds on nettles and although the very pretty adult is not usually a day flying moth, we sometimes see it if a patch of nettles is disturbed.
A Magpie of a different type, I am sure, was responsible for pulling the nest in the photo out of a plum tree. Magpies watch other birds as they carry nesting material to their chosen place and one had certainly been hanging around watching the female Goldfinch as she worked on this perfect little nest; I noticed that she had used some of the wool from our sheep in its construction. She went on to build again in another tree and successfully reared a second clutch.
The Goldfinch must be one of our prettiest birds and this along with the fact that it also has an attractive song made it very popular as a cage bird in the past; thousands of them were trapped but, thankfully, this is now illegal. Although the male bird doesn’t help build the nest he will bring the female food while she is sitting on the eggs. The incubation period is about two weeks and the young are fed by both parents. Although these birds feed mainly on small seeds such as thistle and teasel (their narrow, pointed beaks are ideal for accessing these) as with many birds the young are also fed on insects. After two to three weeks the chicks will fledge but the adults will carry on feeding them until they become independent. Niger seeds will encourage these beautiful birds into your garden.
Goldfinches feature in many religious paintings and it is said that one was so upset by the crown of thorns which was forced on to the head of Jesus, that it tried to remove it and in doing so was stained by blood. After that, the legend says, goldfinches’ faces became red in honour of the bird’s devotion.
Events to take part in this month include:
- Butterfly day – wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or
- Birds of Cley – Cley Marshes.
- Moths of Cley – Cley Marshes.
- Butterfly & moth wonders – Weeting Heath.
- Open garden – Hoveton Hall.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2017. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org