Late flowers, fruit and caterpillars

It’s nearly November, but the nasturtiums are still flowering prolifically.

Nasturtium flower
Nasturtium flower

There are even a few caterpillars of the white butterflies still chomping away optimistically on the nasturtium leaves

Large white butterfly caterpillar
Large white butterfly caterpillar

Earlier this year (April) I was given some seeds for Alpine Strawberries and I planted them without much care or expectation. They have thrived under this neglect and have been fruiting since August; perfect timing to complement the end of my main strawberry crop. The fruits aren’t quite as nice as the true wild strawberries (which fruit here in June), but they’re very nice nevertheless.

Alpine strawberry
Alpine strawberry

Another gift that thrives from neglect is a clump of Miscanthus x giganteus I was given years ago. This is the hybrid Miscanthus that is used by farmers as an energy crop, but it works well as a backdrop or screening plant in a garden. It grows from nothing to eight feet tall each year and flowers very late (but not usually this late). The dead stems will usually stand the winter and provide a favourite spot for insects and spiders to shelter in during the colder months.

Miscanthus x giganteus flower
Miscanthus x giganteus flower

I chop the Miscanthus stems down each spring and then use the stems as a handy alternative to bamboo canes for all kinds of things around the garden. To keep the clump under control, I just mow over the spikes of new growth that try to grow where they’re not wanted.

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Red-headed house sparrow

Amongst the dozens of sparrows and their babies around at the moment, I keep spotting this one which has a bright orange head.

House sparrow with pollen-dyed head feathers
House sparrow with pollen-dyed head feathers

It looks quite funny, and I’m not sure what’s happened to it, but most likely (according to a quick Google) it has had its feathers dyed as a consequence of feeding on phormium flowers: the orange colour being phormium pollen.

Henbane

All parts of henbane are very poionous. Nevertheless, for centuries it has been used as a treatment and cure for various ailments. And it remains in use for medicinal purposes to this day.

As a poison, one of the best known victims of henbane was the wife of Dr Crippen: he is said to have used an extract of the plant to kill her.

Henbane flower, June 2014, Anglesey
Henbane flower, June 2014, Anglesey

Some people find henbane flowers attractive. They’re certainly fascinating in a slightly ghoulish kind of way:) It’s a biennial plant which can be grown from seed, preferring a light, calcareous soil. But you really must be ultra-cautious if you do grow it: it’s poisonous to pets and livestock too, not just humans; and some books even claim that just sniffing its bruised leaves can cause you to faint.  Indeed one of the Welsh names for the plant is Llewyg yr Iar – meaning to make hens faint.

Crocus

Finally the sun shone and the crocuses that had been standing sullenly with their petals stubbornly shut opened.  And don’t they look beautiful:)

crocus flower

Spring flowering crocuses need to be planted in autumn or winter to flower the following spring. But if you fancy something a little different, the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) flowers in late autumn. You can plant them towards the end of this summer and hope for flowers and your own saffron harvest before Christmas. Harvest sounds like a bit of a grand word for such a small thing: each flower has three stigmas – they’re the threadlike part known as the spice saffron – that’s the harvest.

 

Snowdrops: late arrivals and an aid against Alzheimers

Usually, you hear about mild winters leading to early flowers. But many flowers, including snowdrops, need a certain amount of cold before they’ll flower. It’s called a vernalisation requirement.

These snowdrop doubles are growing on a trail in the forest. Snowdrops are widely naturalised throughout the UK, but they're not considered "native".
These snowdrop doubles are growing on a trail in the forest nearby. Snowdrops are widely naturalised throughout the UK, but they’re not considered “native”.

In this corner of north Wales, the winter has been so mild that the snowdrops in my garden haven’t even flowered yet. Up until now, we haven’t had a “proper” frost this winter – just the lightest touch; not even enough to stop the nasturtiums from growing. Consequently, the snowdrops haven’t had their dose of cold and are not ready to flower. In previous years, they have flowered as early as Boxing Day. An alternative name for snowdrops is Candlemas Lilies and Candlemas is on the 2nd of February. So, although their flowers seem late to me, my snowdrops are probably actually quite close to their traditional flowering time.

The science behind how plants measure temperature and keep track of the coldness they’ve felt is quite amazing and the subject of much research.

Snowdrops are steeped deeply in folklore. They are thought to be both a symbol of eternal hope and of bad luck; a sign of purity and of impending doom. Mainly, it seems they’re lucky if you leave them growing, but will bring bad luck if you pick them, and more especially if you pick them and bring them into your home.

Snowdrops have attracted much scientific interest because one of their active components, galantamine (named from the Latin name for snowdrop family – Galanthus ), seems to be able to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. Galantamine is also found in other bulbs related to snowdrops. In Wales, daffodils are being cultivated to produce galantamine.

Traditionally people have said to propagate snowdrops by division whilst they are still flowering. However, these days it is more usual (and better for the plants) to divide them when they are dormant. The habit of dividing them whilst the flowers were still visible was linked to the value that people placed on the various snowdrop cultivars (of which there are more than 500!): as these are identified mainly by the patterns on their flowers, having the flowers visible ensured purchasers were receiving the type of snowdrop they sought.

You can also grow snowdrops quite easily from seed, but, if you are after a particular flowering pattern it’s unlikely to come true from seed.

Aristolochia baetica / birthwort flowers

Aristolochia baetica flowers. This species of Aristolochia is native to southern Portugal, Spain and north Africa.
Aristolochia baetica flowers. This species of Aristolochia is native to southern Portugal, Spain and north Africa.

Aristolochia plants have been used for centuries in traditional medicine. However, their active component – aristolochic acid – is known to be carcinogenic and several studies have linked use of the plant in herbal medicines with cancer.

Aristolochias are sometimes known as birthwort and/or Dutchman’s pipe vines.

The large-leaved Dutchman’s pipe vine (Aristolochia macrophylla) is often grown as a low-maintenance climber and is a useful (but deciduous) plant to use for screening in planting schemes.

Ivy flowers and honey bees

A honey bee on a cluster of ivy flowers
A honey bee on a cluster of ivy flowers

Autumn flowering ivy is much loved by honey bees. It is also popular with lots of other pollinating insects, especially flies and wasps. Later in the year, the flowers will give way to the dark purpley-black berries that blackbirds love to eat.

But, in a garden, ivy can also be incredibly destructive. Ivy has aerial roots, it doesn’t just twine and scramble over  things, it actually grows roots into them. Consequently, it can cause extensive and costly damage to walls and roofs.

Ivy grows quickly and seeds freely. So, if you do have it in your garden, or are thinking of introducing it to benefit wildlife, think carefully about where you will site it and how you will manage it. If you grow it up the front of a building, make sure you keep it clipped to stop it getting into the roof and also make sure that all the brickwork and pointing are completely sound too, otherwise the ivy roots will grow into the structure of the building.

Ivy, rather like Leylandii hedges, is often a source of conflict between neighbours, so be mindful of any impact your ivy might have on your neighbours’ fences, walls, buildings, etc.

An alternative late autumn nectar source for bees could be a late flowering honeysuckle. In my experience, with a honeysuckle and an ivy side-by-side, the honeysuckle is much more popular with our native bees who completely ignore the ivy. Conversely, the honey bees from hives down the road love the ivy and completely ignore the honeysuckle. The honeysuckle will keep flowering well into November, and sometimes right through to January or February, depending how harsh the winter is.