20 July 2010

blackcurrant sage and thieving bees

I made a prediction earlier in the year that the most asked question come summer would be "what is that bush with those red flowers?".  I was right, but then it is the same each year and I know that "those red flowers" are winners.
To answer the question, it is Blackcurrant Sage, Salvia microphylla.  Growing into a loose mound of rather brittle stems, a metre high and across, and covered with bright red flowers from May to December it is a great plant for a well drained position.  There are a number of varieties available, this is, I believe, 'Kew Red'.  All are very tolerant of drought and poor soil and while preferring full sun seem quite happy in part shade.  Supposedly they are not very hardy but do come through most winters unharmed (but only if well drained).   The older stems protect the heart of the plant from the worst of the frost so I cut them hard back in spring only after growth has started - before winter can be the death of them.  Unpruned they grow much wider and untidier.

Native to Mexico, it has evolved flowers perfect to be pollinated by hummingbirds - the anthers and stamens protrude from the top of the flower to dab on, and take off, pollen from their feathered  foreheads.  Here it proves a surprisingly good source of nectar for bumblebees, surprising because the beakless bees cannot reach the nectar from the front of the flower, their tongues aren't long enough and the flower is tight-lipped.

To get round this the bees bite small holes halfway down each bloom and they feed from the flowers without pollinating them in exchange.  It is interesting that all the holes seem to be gnawed into the right hand side of each flower and that the hole maker isn't the only bee to use each hole, many bees will visit each prepared bloom and fly directly to the hole to feed - obviously the nectar guides, the markings on flowers that are visible in the ultra-violet spectrum that bees use, are ignored as unnecessary and they don't waste time trying the front door.  Sneaky thieving bees. 

19 July 2010

sanding sir digby

The benches in the garden have been looking increasingly grubby so over the next few sessions the Sunday Workers will be giving them some much needed attention.  Some of the benches were varnished long ago and this has not stood up well to the thousands of backsides gracing them over the intervening years while others have lost their sparkle under layers of particularly persistent city grime.  Earlier in the year one bench received a soapy water and scrubbing brush quick fix but it was clear this wouldn't be quite enough of a treatment to bring them back to their best.
Here is the Sir Digby bench, released from it's chains for treatment.
Here are Peter and Pauline chatting as they sand off the dirt.
"Get back to work!"
(Look at that sun! I am hiding in the shade looking busy)
Here is Delia getting to grips with the grime on Louis Green.

I have to admit it is rather a grim task, all dust and dirt and blisters, but the persistence of the group does pay off - they are tenacious!  A few coats of linseed oil to feed and protect the wood (this doesn't flake like a varnish) and Sir Digby is clean and bright and once again ready for bums.
The clouds of dust floating about reveal the hidden webs of spiders and it is apparent just how many  are busy spinning in the garden. 
I read it is meant to be good year for spiders so I'm sure to be enjoying them as they hang mid-web in early autumn.  More on them then but in the meantime do be glad you're not a fly.

9 July 2010

fissle fan

I am a big thistle fan.  I like their big fat rosettes of spiny leaves in winter.  I like their unapologetically pushy growth in spring.  I like their open angular structure and their un-pickability, but most of all I like their shaving brush flowers in violet and mauve.  I am told all too often by visitors that they are 'weeds, weeds, weeds', but this falls on deaf ears, generally they are not too weedy for our purpose (though one is) and the benefits outweigh any difficulties.

The garden is home to three species of thistle, two biennials and one rampaging perennial.  All are good plants for wildlife and the flowers in mid to late summer are a treat for bees and butterflies.

The Musk Thistle, Carduus nutans, is a spiny whopper growing from a big over-wintering rosette to 1/1.5m.  The candelabra of branches needs no staking and each branch ends in a single fat 'artichoke' bud armed with ferocious spines.  The buds open into great big violet brushes - perfect bee-beds for bumblebees to nestle in.

Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, is less statuesque and only grows to 1m here.  It has finer spines and narrower leaves, this gives a lighter feel to the plant.  The round, densely spined buds open into pale violet pompoms over a long season.

Both of these produce lots of seeds that spread on thistle-down parachutes.  This could be a problem in some gardens.  I find that here, with seed hungry birds and an army of molluscs munching away seedlings and with lots of competition for space in the beds they only manage to reproduce themselves enough to please me.  They are easily removed if needs be.

The Creeping Thistle, Cirsium arvense, is the bad penny in the bunch.  It is fiercely invasive, spreading far and wide underground - the roots can go down metres and spread yards in a single season - and it seeds like crazy.  Unbranched relatively spineless metre high stems are topped with clusters of small undistinguished mauve flowers - bees love them none the less for this - but the stems have weak ankles and they often fall over before flowering.  In spite of the potential for it to take over it is a foodplant for a number of species - fat-legged beetles develop inside its stems - so it just earns a place.  I try to nip off the flowers before seed is shed to prevent it's spread and the colony is restricted to the wildlife area and walnut mound by the regular mowing of the grass around it.   

I am a thistle fan.  

I like their spiny violet ways and the summer squeals from bin-users caught an unwary jab in the back of the hand.  Can you see licky bees in powder puff happiness and tell me you're not a fissle fan too?


Flitting round the garden at the moment are lots of Azure Damselflies, Coenagrion puella, in bright blue and iridescent green - around the ponds they are in a mating frenzy.  

(Damselflies are often mistaken for dragonflies but they are simple to tell apart, damselflies are smaller and when at rest fold their wings vertically - dragonfly wings are held stiffly horizontal)  

They begin their lives in the ponds as wingless aquatic nymphs, ugly little monsters with ferocious extendable jaws, they hunt small water creatures in the depths.  After a year hunting and growing the nymph matures in early summer, it climbs up a plant stem out of the water, the skin splits along the back and out emerges the winged flying adult.  The males are bright blue and the females green with an iridescent sheen.  The adults feed on small flying insects like mosquitoes.  To pair the male grips hold of the female's neck using a special clasper at the tip of his abdomen to hang on.  To mate the female bends her abdomen under and up to the males body.
 photo: Bohringer Freidrich         
After mating the pair fly together in tandem from floating leaf to floating leaf and the female uses her flexible abdomen to reach under the leaves to lay individual eggs.  In their pond the goldfish follow them eagerly, splashing about as they devour the freshly laid eggs.   
The males appear to stand stiffly 'on guard' while the female is busy laying down below and when approached too closely will drag the female into the air for a quick getaway.  I am disappointed in my 'up periscope' observations as I read the male hangs on simply to prevent other males mating with the female.
There are unidentified red damsels in the garden too.  They are proving far too quick for me and after working up a sweat chasing them about in the heat will be sitting in the shade till the weather cools.  We will all just have to imagine what they could be for the time being.