21 May 2010

bee but no bumble

Since the earliest flowers opened at the end of winter there have been bees busily working the flowers in the garden.  Lots of small glossy black bumblebees and lighter coloured, hairier ones and I was stumped as neither  appeared on the bumblebee ID chart.
Watching the black bees feed at the flowers it was obvious what extraordinarily long tongues they had, perfect for the tubular flowers of the early comfrey, and the pollen baskets on their back legs stood out bright orange.  The lighter coloured ones were patrolling territories around patches of flowers, just like Wool Carder bees, but instead of pouncing on intruders aggressively as these do it was clear they were intent on mating with the black intruders - Wool Carders don't appear until June and I was confused.         With these characteristics noted an internet search followed.  
Turns out they are not two species of bumblebees at all but instead are Hairy Footed Flower Bees, Anthophora plumipes.  Aside from their lovely name I discovered they nest in holes in walls and other cavities, constructing cells from particles of soil, prefer deep-throated flowers and defend themselves with their large and hairy middle feet (love that!).  The lighter coloured males do patrol flowers on the look out for willing females but they don't chase off other species - though they will try it on with them.  I read they are easily recognised as not being bumblebees by their colour - there are no black bumblebees, by their flight pattern, quick and full of stops and starts - bumblebees fly slow and steadily, and by the shrillness of their 'buzz' (this last seems rather subjective, for me a buzz is a buzz).  
Here is a male, shrilly buzzing as he feeds on blue comfrey flowers.
They will all be gone soon until next year as they only fly from March to late May, wisely leaving the scene before aggressive Wool Carder males appear eager to club them to death with their spike-pronged tails.  Can't say I blame them.       

20 May 2010

everyone wants to know...

what this is.
It is Abutilon vitifolium, in full bloom with a great display of silky violet flowers.  It is a quick growing, drought tolerant shrub, this plant has grown to 2m in two years, for full sun and well drained soil and opens the first of its crop of  flowers in mid spring, continuing for at least a couple of months.  
I can't remember which form we have - the label is somewhere - but all are good.  Their is a lovely white form called 'Veronica Tennant' that is widely available but I do prefer the darker shades.  I read they are not the hardiest of shrubs but I know of one growing in a cold Yorkshire garden in badly drained clay so they can't be that tender.  They are not long lived but are easy to root from cuttings and easy from seed. The only problem with them is that the wood is very soft and they are easily broken by strong winds in exposed situations - or by being planted too close to railings.  
This poor misshapen fellow flowering cheerfully at the North end has been repeatedly ripped to pieces by drug-rooters needing a rooting stick so has never really had a chance to get going.  Blighters! 

under lions and unicorns

St Georges Church, Bloomsbury, has a spire draped with a lion and a golden horned unicorn.  Luckily this attracts the attention upwards so it was easy to miss the sad state the hard winter had left the planters in (if you were a passer-by).  For Nicolette, working in the office, it was all too obvious and she got in touch to see if we could help.   
Last year the church had new planters installed and these were filled with a range of summer flowering perennials edged with small box plants.  The box plants had established well but the perennials had proved not to be and a fine crop of Sticky Willy and nettles had taken their place, their seeds lying in wait in the topsoil used to fill the planters.  Nicolette informed me that most of the previous plants had been brightly coloured sun-worshippers such as gaillardias, so it isn't surprising that the  combination of a cold winter, a shady position and claggy topsoil had done for them.  It only gets an hour or so of sun here and is open to the public, suffering from the usual West End silliness, so the replacement planting was chosen to be tough, reliable in shade and give a quick bit of colour for the summer ahead.

The Clean Sweep Group usually works in the garden on Wednesdays but with the garden still full well after lunch ("ain't you got jobs to go to?!") it made sense for us to work off site at the church.  Doug and Zoe first cleared out the weeds, roots and all, and gave the soil a good trowelling to loosen it.  The large concrete trough holding a large clump of crocosmias, these rapidly increase and starve themselves into non-flowering, was weeded, dug over and most of the crocosmia were removed.  The box hedge was given a trim to tidy it and encourage it to thicken - it will - box is tough.  A dead rose was removed and then the new plants went in.
The rose was replaced with a Winter Box, Sarcoccocca, an evergreen shrub with great winter fragrance.

The perennial plants chosen for the containers were; 
Geranium macrorrhizum - scented leaves, pink flowers, 
Anemone hupuhensis Praecox - good foliage, pink flowers, 
Euphorbia robbiae - evergreen leaves, green flowers, 
Phalaris arundinacea Feesey - bright white variegated grass, 
Stipa arundinacea - clumping grass, orange in winter,

and to give colour this summer fuschias and busy lizzies were inter-planted - these both do better in bright shade than in sun and will keep going to the frosts of autumn.  A few Mirablis roots were tucked in, these prefer sun but should manage to give something even here - but only after four o'clock.
In the concrete planter the crocosmias still dominate their end but the new additions are all vigorous and will soon claim their spaces.  With a feed the crocosmias should return to flowering but if not the foliage will still contribute and contrast well with the euphorbia's glossy rosettes, the geranium's cut leaves, the big 'hands' of the anemone and the bright white striped elegance of the phalaris.
It looks a bit sparse at the moment and the plants have that shocked look of the newly planted but given a big cheer they will soon pick themselves up, fill out and brighten this corner.  So if you are passing...

19 May 2010

here be dragons

Today while remonstrating quietly with myself about the plant spacings in the new beds  (its crowded in there) a bit of sparkle coming from the wheelbarrow cabbage flowers caught my eye.  Hanging from the flower stem like some strange fruit was a large dragonfly in complementary tones of gold, yellow and brown with light reflecting off its transparent wings.  These large and distinctive insects are strong flyers and can easily travel long distances so it is not unusual to see them in the garden but it is rare to get such a close look at one, they are wary and alert with lightening fast reactions and have the ability to fly forwards, backwards and any which way so despite my running willy-nilly I am usually unable to get close enough to identify them.
This one was easily identified by its distinctive wide abdomen as a female Broad-bodied Chaser, Libellula depressa, (the males are blue), probably newly emerged from the pond and resting after her maiden flight.  I have seen these in the garden each year since the wildlife pond was completed a few years ago and think they probably established from larvae introduced with the pond plants but they are known to be colonisers of new ponds and may have arrived of their own accord.  I am looking forward to watching its darting flight as it hunts round the garden for flying insects (do I just imagine the clatter of those cellophane wings?) and I fully expect to crick my neck jerking my head this way and that trying to keep it in view.  I did this before and doubt I've learnt my lesson yet.    

12 May 2010

lace and the wartkiller

Pictured growing either side of the narrow path at the north end are two species of wildflowers that teeter on the weed divide.  Both have persisted despite years of mild persecution and regular ripping out to rescue swamped lovelies from beneath them.  My efforts have been half hearted as both are very pretty and I always forget to cut them down before they ripen seed - both produce vast quantities - so they easily move themselves round the garden to escape my clutches.  At the moment, fresh and in flower, they delight me so I fully expect to forget to cut them down again. 
Flowering on metre high stems are the delicate white umbels of Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, a common hedgerow plant that grows countrywide.  It grows a thick taproot topped with a low clump of finely cut 'parsley' leaves.  In its second year a flowering stem shoots up, usually unnoticed until the lacy white flowers open and then suddenly it is obvious swaying in the breeze.  It has a small footprint, is not overly aggressive to neighbours and is short-lived - but it will seed everywhere.  It is great source of nectar and pollen for hoverflies and makes a reliable display each May.  There is a dark leaved form that is widely available called Ravenswing that has dark brown/purple foliage and stems.  This is lovely but I'm not sure it is lovelier - we do not have it.    
Beneath the lacey white flowers of the Cow parsley is a sprawling clump of scalloped leaves and clear yellow flowers.  This is Greater celandine, Chelidonium majus.  I lean towards it being a nuisance as it is  a vigorous coloniser of new ground - every bit of turned soil will sprout rafts of its seedlings that rapidly outgrow anything else.  Easily recognisable from the moment it germinates (and it is up early) it confounds eager weeders by simply breaking off from its own roots.  That satisfying cleared piece of earth, still full of tiny roots, will soon re-cover itself as soon as a back is turned.  The plant itself is sprawling, swamping neighbours with brittle stems that break to drip bright orange, caustic, finger staining sap - it was traditionally used to burn off warts.  But it has redeeming features - I always get asked 'what is that pretty flower?', it is early in flower and continues for months, is bright and cheerful and will grow in shade or sun or damp or dry and is buzzing with bees.  It is a 'can't beat 'em, join 'em' type of weed - I shall think differently later in the year but for now i will enjoy it and instead focus my attention on the rampaging Sticky Willy elsewhere.

11 May 2010


On top of the dry wall in front of the office grow a group of wild cabbages, Brassica oleracea.  Growing wild on seaside cliffs they are the ancestors of domestic cabbages.  They are not first raters for a garden but they manage to produce loose heads of lush blue-green leaves on a dry diet of dust so earn a place, both as a wildlife foodstuff and as a result of seed-filled Welsh holiday pockets.  The leaves are thick and fleshy with a grey bloom and are bitter, tough and nearly inedible.  This won't put off the Cabbage White caterpillars that will appear later in the season, feeding ravenously on the leaves and gnawing them down to stalks.  The thick layer of caterpillar faeces scattered then will make this corner stink to a sulphurous high heaven - the caterpillars store the cabbage sulphur compounds in their bodies as an effective chemical deterrent against predators.  The cabbages will soon re-grow from their stinking state of collapse but this is all yet to come. 
At the moment they are flowering and I like them.  Above the leaves sway stems of pale yellow flowers, simple with just four petals they are unsurprisingly typical of the cabbage family, and they should be in flower for a good few weeks yet.  I have tasted the flower shoots too expecting something milder and mustardly edible in a Chinese flowering greens type of way.  They are as unpleasant as the leaves.   

In a planted wheelbarrow, still hanging on from last year, a few small purple domestic cabbages are also flowering.  These looked good last year with their rich purple leaves contrasting with the bright yellow Bidens accompanying them.  They are very pretty with the soft yellow flowers opening atop dark red-purple stems. It is interesting that the purple of the leaves and stems colours the centre of each flower but doesn't extend into the petals themselves.  The caterpillars won't get these.  They are off to the compost heap within days.