The magic of butterflies…

The Peacock’s spectacular pattern of eyespots evolved to startle or confuse predators, make it one of our most easily recognised and best-known species.

As a child, the very name ‘butterfly’ sounded magical, while the beautiful insects themselves seemed too bright and too delicate to be real. I can remember standing in our garden and being mesmerised by their fluttery flight and marvelling at how many there were flitting around on a big purple bush, the colours all so vivid. With hindsight, I think I was probably looking at a buddleia, which, as we all know, is a real magnet for butterflies.

I can remember looking for Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies, these were the three types that loomed large in my childhood repertoire… those plus the dreaded Cabbage White that my Mother was not at all keen to see near her vegetables! This year, I haven’t seen many butterflies around and I assume it’s due to the late wet Spring followed by this amazingly hot Summer. Sadly, like bees, butterflies are struggling.

Butterflies are the equivalent of the ‘canary in a coal mine’, an indicator of the health

The Painted Lady – a long-distance migrant, which causes the most spectacular butterfly migrations observed in Britain and Ireland.

of our environment. The most familiar British butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell are becoming increasingly uncommon. Sadly, this is as a result of habitat loss and many other species are declining at an alarming rate as well. None of this bodes well for other wildlife as butterflies are part of a complex food chain upon which we humans ultimately rely for our own survival.

But all is not lost and there’s plenty we can do to help butterflies and there are some excellent informative websites giving advice on how to garden for butterflies. The Butterfly Conservation website is particularly good. Butterflies will visit any garden, however small if they can feed on suitable nectar plants and a well thought out garden can attract many species of butterfly. Nectar provides butterflies and moths with energy to fly and find a mate. In spring, it helps butterflies refuel after winter hibernation or a gruelling journey to Britain from southern Europe or Africa. In autumn nectar helps them to build up their energy reserves so they have the best chance of surviving hibernation or the journey back to warmer climes. Another way to help butterflies is to allow them to breed in your garden – only with the right food plants can they lay the eggs of the next generation.

Tips on how to attract butterflies:

Swallowtail butterfly – today, it flies only in the major river valleys of the Norfolk Broads, where it breeds on milk parsley, a scarce wetland plant.

  • Butterflies like warmth so choose sunny, sheltered spots when planting nectar plants.
  • Choose different plants to attract a wider variety of species. Place the same types of plant together in blocks.
  • Try to provide flowers right through the butterfly season.
  • Prolong flowering by deadheading flowers and mulching with organic compost
  • Don’t use insecticides and pesticides – they kill butterflies and many pollinating insects as well as ladybirds, ground beetles and spiders.

I wrote a blog a couple of months ago extolling the virtues of butterflies in crafting – so useful for covering up any little slips – and stunning in their own right taking centre stage on a card, especially when used in 3D. Just type ‘butterfly’ into the search box on my craft website and you’ll see lots and lots of gorgeous butterfly dies and papers to inspire you!

Butterfly facts:

  • The pretty frilly edged Comma is the ‘come back kid’ of butterflies. In severe decline in the twentieth century, it is now widespread in southern Britain and its range is expanding northwards.

    Where does the name ‘butterfly come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says it is from Old English butorflēoge, butter-fly. Another possible source of the name is the bright yellow male of the Brimstone, another is that butterflies were on the wing in meadows during the spring and summer butter season while the grass was growing. I think I like the last one best!

  • Butterfly or moth? Nearly all butterflies fly during the daytime, have relatively bright colours, and hold their wings vertically above their bodies when at rest. The majority of moths fly by night, are often well camouflaged and either hold their wings flat or fold them closely over their bodies.
  • You will find butterflies right across the world – except Antarctica – and there are some 18,500 species.
  • Many butterflies migrate for long distances. It has recently been shown that the British Painted Lady undertakes a 9,000-mile round trip in a series of steps by up to six successive generations, from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle.
  • Butterflies navigate using a time-compensated sun compass. They can see polarized light and can navigate even in cloudy conditions.
  • Butterflies in their adult stage can live from a week to nearly a year depending on the species.
  • Adult butterflies consume only liquids, ingested through the proboscis. They sip water from damp patches for hydration and feed on nectar from flowers, from which they obtain sugars for energy, and sodium and other minerals vital for reproduction. Several species of butterflies need more sodium than that provided by nectar and are attracted by sodium in salt and that’s why they sometimes land on people, attracted by the salt in human sweat.

Top image: Adonis Blue – this beautiful species of butterfly is found on southern chalk downland.

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Dowsing – discredited medieval practice, or useful skill?

Dowsing on Dartmoor!

As you probably know by now, I am interested in traditional remedies and ancient beliefs. I like to keep an open mind and try and discover whether things might be true or not, rather than just dismissing them out of hand. I’ve always been fascinated by dowsing, or water divining, and was reminded to look into this ancient practice last week when I drove past a sign for a dowsing convention in deepest Dartmoor! Actually, given it is such an ancient and fascinating landscape, I shouldn’t have been that surprised… What did surprise me, once I started looking into it, is that there is no scientific evidence that dowsing works – I had always thought there was.

Dowsing is a type of ‘divination’ used to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites and many other objects and materials without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsers, or water witchers, claim that their divining rods cross over when the presence of water is detected below ground. It is regarded as a pseudoscience after numerous studies showed it was no better than chance at finding water.

A Y-shaped twig or rod, or two L-shaped ones — individually called a dowsing rod, divining rod or witching rod — are usually used for dowsing. The scientific explanation for what happens when people dowse is that ‘ideomotor movements’ – muscle movements caused by subconscious mental activity – make anything held in the hands move. It looks and feels as if the movements are involuntary.

Dowsing has been around for a long time and originated in Germany in the 16thCentury. In 1662, dowsing was declared to be ‘superstitious, or rather satanic’ by a Jesuit, Gaspar Schott, though he later noted that he wasn’t sure that the devil was always responsible for the movement of the rod! Nothing like sitting on the fence! In the South of France in the 17th century, it was used in tracking criminals and heretics. Its abuse led to a decree of the Inquisition in 1701, forbidding its employment for purposes of justice.

And there you have it – a bit of a cranky practice with no place in today’s world. But hold on a minute… in 2017, 10 of the 12 water companies in the UK admitted they are still using dowsing despite the lack of scientific evidence for its effectiveness! This discovery was made by the science blogger Sally Le Page after her parents reported seeing an engineer from Severn Trent Water “walking around holding two bent tent pegs to locate a pipe” near their home in Stratford-upon-Avon. The disclosure prompted calls for the regulator, OFWAT, to stop companies passing the cost of a ‘discredited medieval practice’ on to their customers. Extraordinary!

Some water companies, however, insisted the practice could be as effective as modern methods. Sally Le Page asked Severn Trent why it was still using divining rods to find pipes when there was no evidence that it worked. Replying on Twitter, the company said: “We’ve found that some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.” Well, that’s all right then!

Photo credits:

Top image:
Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/91c89d”>Visual Hunt</a>

Water witcher: 
Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/author/8f7aff”>State Library and Archives of Florida</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/6ba9d8″>Visual Hunt</a> / <a href=”http://flickr.com/commons/usage/”> No known copyright restrictions</a>

Woodcut: 
Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/author/b0d021″>Jeff Dray</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/f771b4″>VisualHunt</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”> CC BY-SA</a>

Group dowsing: 
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

 

 

 

 

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Perfect drying weather!

We have been enjoying some terrific weather down here in Devon, and I think most of the rest of the country has too. It has been what my Mother would have called ‘perfect drying weather’ – warm and sunny but with just enough breeze to move the washing about on the line.

There are lots of positives to working from home (although quite a few minuses too!) and being able to hang washing out – and being around to take it in if it starts raining – is most definitely a positive. I always find it an immensely uplifting chore, in fact hardly a chore at all. The smell of fresh line-dried bed linen is definitely high on my list of ‘top smells’! It is also, of course, a very great deal better than drying them in a cash-guzzling tumble drier. If it does start to rain, don’t despair, it is claimed that rainwater acts as a fabric conditioner.

I was thinking about washing lines the other weekend (yes, I know, I am a sad person…) when I was at a lovely local garden event. Alongside plant stalls and garden ornaments were lots of stalls selling upcycled, recycled and traditional products, including one that was selling the old-fashioned ‘wooden dolly’ clothes pegs. Instant nostalgia trip for me! I can remember my Mother using these pegs and having a dolly made from one of them – such a simple toy, a little headscarf, painted face and bit of cloth for a dress wrapped around the peg. I’m not sure granddaughter Grace would thank me for one of them, but hey, we enjoyed our simple pleasures back then!

Another stall at the event was run by a young lady who had very cleverly recycled some old metal garden chairs into unusual planters. She had planted Sempervivum, or house leeks, within the decorative metalwork. Sempervivums are survivors by nature and originate in mountainous and arid regions of southern Europe and North. Their succulent leaves arranged in rosettes enable them to survive for long periods without water as they store it in their thick leathery leaves. This makes them useful plants for containers that get only occasional water, to fill crevices in the rock garden and to create imaginative arrangements with very little soil. Perfect for this unusual and very pretty planting idea – very clever I thought!

What a clever and attractive idea!

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The merry merry month of May!

Forgive me if I am repeating myself… but I LOVE May! It is the month when spring reaches its zenith and summer just starts to sneak in with (hopefully!) some extra warmth…

This year has been very odd with a horribly cold and wet early spring meaning the poor trees and plants seem to have gone into overdrive to get established and then produce their blossom over a very short period of time in an attempt to catch up. Not only does this show the adaptability of Mother Nature, it has also resulted in some spectacular amounts of blossom. As the saintly Monty Don said on Gardener’s World last week, he has never seen so much blossom in his lifetime – and he is in his early 60s. Amazing – the blossom I mean, not his age!

Wisterias are looking as if they will swamp entire buildings and the scent is just amazing! Fruit trees burst into a great froth of blooms – and then seemed over in a flash. All sorts of wildflowers have been flowering together, resulting in some gorgeous colour mixes and amazing vistas. Bluebells, while prolific this year, have run into the emergence of the ferns. The new bright green ferns shooting up among them are diluting their magnificent purple/blue colour somewhat. Different – but no less stunning.

Not knowing much about it, I can only assume the effect on insects and wildlife will be equally ‘rearranged’ by this topsy-turvy weather. I’ve heard more cuckoos this year than I have before and there seem to be a great many swallows about… which I guess must mean more insects thanks to the masses of blossom! And so it goes around.

As long as mankind doesn’t interfere too much with its chemicals and denuding of the countryside, we can rely on Mother Nature to sort it all out for herself. If only other problems in the world could be managed in the same way

PS. Just had to add that I thought the flowers at the royal wedding were absolutely stunning! The entrance to St George’s Chapel was fantastic! What did you think?

 

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Hail king cauliflower!

Cauliflower is one of those vegetables that seem to be back in vogue all of a sudden due, in part, to some bad publicity. It recently hit the headlines when a supermarket received criticism for selling ‘cauliflower steaks’ (thick slices to you and me!) for more than the cost of buying a whole cauliflower! A case of ‘clever’ marketing – and the need for the consumer to shop sensibly, if ever there was one.

In these days of trying to eat more healthily and to consume less meat, the cauliflower has got quite a lot to offer. In my youth, I was not a fan. It was usually served soggy and grey having been overcooked or slathered in a tasteless cheese sauce. It’s only recently that the dear old cauli has been recognised as having a lot more potential.

I think its texture has much to do with its resurgence – it is substantial and can stand up to pickling, pan frying, roasting and even barbecuing. You can marinade it whole and roast it for a rather impressive looking vegetarian meal, or go completely the other way and break up the florets into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles couscous to create cauliflower ‘rice’. This is a really clever option as it creates a low calorie, healthy, low-carb meal or side dish and has only about a quarter of the carbohydrates of traditional rice.

While cauliflower has a distinctive taste, it also takes up other flavours well. I particularly like it in a curry as the florets stay firm and it tastes great with curry spices. The idea of steaks is a clever one – cutting big slabs of cauliflower and then cooking them in oil and herbs creates a lovely main course. Cauliflower cheese, when made properly – pre-cooked cauli mixed into a rich cheese sauce and then sprinkled with extra cheese and browned under the grill – is a super comfort food.

Cauliflowers are available pretty much all year round, which makes it extra useful when so many other veg have given up for the winter. Predictably, supermarkets demand their cauliflowers white and pristine but look out for cheaper creamier coloured ones from a greengrocer or farmers’ market. As long as they are clean and firm, they are perfectly fine. Of course, cauliflowers don’t only come in white… there are purple and orange varieties and the stunning looking Romanesco with its lime green pointy florets that look like some clever architectural design. It’s not strictly a cauliflower but is closely related.

Sadly, growing them yourself is not that easy and you need to be a pretty dedicated veg grower to succeed. They need plenty of space, a rich soil and then a cage or netting to try and keep cabbage white butterflies and greedy pigeons away! It’s one of those veg, like sweet corn and asparagus, that I find it easier to just buy when I fancy them. But if you want to have a go at growing them, you’ve still got a few weeks to get them planted. You’ll find lots of advice on how to grow them online, as ever the RHS website has it covered.

 

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