First toad of 2017

It’s been an unusually chilly winter here with lots of frosts. Today was feeling mild at around 10C and certainly damp – just the right conditions to entice this toad out from its winter resting place.

A common toad making its first foray of the year.

Fumitory – a welcome ‘weed’

I’ve always thought fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) to be a very pretty little plant and I’m happy to have it as a ‘weed’ in the garden.

Fumitory climbing through rosemary

It’s true that fumitory does seed freely and it can sprawl over a large area. It also has tiny little tendrils that clasp around anything it touches meaning that if you do choose to weed it out, you might well pull out other things you didn’t mean to too. But, it isn’t a greedy feeder, it is only an annual, and its roots are shallow and easy to pull up if you want or need to.

However, fumitory has many positive aspects that make it worth keeping: first of all, it’s pretty! Secondly, bees like it – although its flowers are so slender it’s not a first choice for many. It also has a long history as a medicinal herb, with lots of beneficial properties – from helping you sleep and chasing away nightmares, to curing all kinds of skin ailments. And, what’s more, it is recognised as an indicator of good soil quality – so if you have fumitory, you can be happy that it’s recognising that your soil is nice:)

Ragwort and the Cinnabar moth

This strikingly coloured moth is the Cinnabar moth. The plant it is on is common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea – which is looking a bit tatty as it has recently been mowed). Ragwort is the principal food plant for the caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth. The caterpillars are equally striking, but they are striped black and yellow.

Cinnabar moth on ragwort
Cinnabar moth on ragwort

In the UK, there are few plants that excite such heated debate as ragwort does. Sadly, the debate is generally more heated than considered.

Ragwort, like very many plants, does contains naturally occurring “toxins”: specifically, pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These alkaloids are produced by vast numbers of plants. The alkaloids make the plants taste bitter and unpalatable, thus deterring herbivores from eating them.

The risk from ragwort comes when it is dried and mixed in with a hay crop – then animals are less able to detect the bitterness and also unable to sort out the different herbage and forage and consequently more likely to ingest ragwort (or any other undesirable plants).

So, ragwort does have some risks, but it also has lots of benefits, including being a food plant for dozens of insects, including several endangered species. It isn’t a plant that warrants a knee-jerk panic reaction, but a considered assessment of its potential risk and benefits in any given situation.

In 2010, the Welsh Government published new guidance on ragwort control. This Code of Practice presents a surprisingly balanced analysis of the ragwort situation, as well as guidance on control strategies as and when appropriate. It is freely available for download from the Welsh Government website.


Eristalis tenax – the drone fly

The larvae of many hover flies are beneficial in the garden, because they feed on aphids. Eristalis tenax, the drone fly, is one of our commonest hover flies, but its larvae aren’t so useful: they are the so-called  “rat tailed maggots”, living in water and feeding on microscopic things they find there.

You might see them sometimes, in a pool, or a forgotten bucket of water, with their “tails” poking up to the surface of the water.

Eristalis tenax - the drone fly

Nevertheless, even if the larvae aren’t particularly useful, the fly itself is still an important pollinator and a very welcome visitor.

Eristalis tenax - the drone fly - on a dandelion
Eristalis tenax – the drone fly – on a dandelion

Dandelions are great for attracting hover flies of many types, so it is worth keeping a few. If you’re worried about seeds, pick the flowers before they turn to seed-clocks and throw them in the bin, or on a fire, don’t put them in the compost heap!

Horsetails – Equisetum

Amazing as they may be, horsetails aren’t a plant wanted in most gardens. They’re incredibly tough: that is part of what has helped them to survive for millions of years, but it’s also part of why they’re so difficult to deal with in a garden situation.

Nevertheless, they are fascinating plants. Our UK species, Equisetum arvense, has two distinct forms: a pale, non-photosynthesising but fertile spore-bearing stem comes first and lasts for only a few days. These are just beginning to appear now in this area. As they first start to appear you could almost mistake them for a type of fungus.

This is the fertile horsetail stem just emerging (it looks a little like an ink cap mushroom at this stage)
This is the fertile horsetail stem just emerging (it looks a little like an ink cap mushroom at this stage)
A few hours later, the fertile stems look like this. The spores are released from the cone structure at the top of the stem.
A few hours later, the fertile stems look like this. The spores are released from the cone structure at the top of the stem.

The fertile stem is followed by a sterile, but photosynthetic, green stem that lasts through the summer. The initial fertile stems often go unnoticed because of their bland colouration and slender shape. The plants are spread by their spores and also vegetatively by their rhizomes (they don’t flower or have seeds).

Garden Organic has a useful factsheet about horsetails and their management (i.e. how to get rid of them) in organic systems.

Chemical control products are available, but even they need repeated applications over several years.

Horsetails are potentially poisonous to humans and livestock. However, livestock would have to ingest a significant quantity of plants before damage would occur: it isn’t a plant to panic about from that perspective.

For humans, although they are poisonous, they are also edible…but care needs to be taken in their preparation. See the Plants for a Future database for more information on this. Personally, I wouldn’t eat them (for one thing, their name sounds too much like ‘a queasy tum’ which is off-putting in itself!), but in some countries, they’re considered a delicacy and have a long culinary history.

If you have got horsetails and you want to get rid of them, you need to accept it is going to need quite a long term strategy. And if you employ a gardener and they tell you differently, be very skeptical!