Alder Leaf Beetle

Last week I was reading a blog post by “Bug Woman” all about the Alder Tree. I really enjoy her posts and this one got me thinking and it inspired me to finally put pen to paper again, as it were. So thank you Bug Woman!

The Woodland Trust describe the alder as a “Swamp dweller, water lover”. Consequently, it grows very well in our gardens, as the hospice is built on clay with very shallow soil and poor drainage. When it rains hard, as it has almost continuously for several weeks, we get puddles and boggy areas all over the grounds. Unlike Bug Woman, who has always liked the native alder, I am not so keen! I find them rather unkempt and uninspiring. They seem to be often growing at strange angles, maybe due to the shallow soil. And when it has been windy (ie Storm Ciara and Dennis) I find dozens of snapped branches scattered around and thousands of the small cones that they bear. The alder creates extra work for me!

For the last couple of weeks I have been clearing an area that I have not touched in the last 4 years. It has always been overgrown and the brambles were encroaching into the wildflower garden.

I have been putting it off for far too long, so I decided to go for it. The job has been very unpleasant, with hundreds of brambles to be removed. I also thinned out the alder and willow saplings that were growing all over the place. I’m pleased with the result.

When tidying around one of the alders I noticed a small beetle, hiding under some moss at the base of the tree.

I had seen this beetle before, for the last two summers, and I have even photographed it. But despite looking, I couldn’t identify it. After reading Bug Woman’s blog on the alder tree, I decides to google ‘alder beetle’, and low and behold there it was – the Alder Leaf Beetle (Agelastica alni). What really surprised me was that the Alder Leaf Beetle was considered to be extinct in the UK for 60 years, between 1946 and 2003. Then in 2004 it was found in Manchester and is now on the increase in the NW of England.

The beetle itself is about 7mm long and dark blue in colour. As its name suggests, it feeds on the leaves of the alder tree from the end of spring and all through the summer, often causing quite a lot of damage. It overwinters in the soil at the base of the tree before emerging in spring when it produces new larvae that also feed on the leaves. Here are the beetles last summer, eating some leaves…

So despite it causing quite a lot of unsightly, but harmless, damage, I am excited about having this rare species in our garden. And for this reason I am glad that we have lots of alder trees.

It has been a long time since I have blogged, for which I am sorry. But shortly after my last post on the kingfisher sighting (which I saw again only last week), my wife, Sam, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. This was a huge shock for us, and completely unexpected. Thankfully it has not spread, and thanks to the wonderful NHS, the tumour has been fully removed. Sam is now receiving some precautionary chemotherapy, but is considered cancer free and is expected to make a full recovery.

Just after Sam’s operation was the annual NW in Bloom Awards Ceremony. I am pleased to announce that we received an “Outstanding” award – the highest you can get. I was really chuffed and grateful to all my regular volunteers.

The crocuses and daffodils are now out and I am about to plant lots of snowdrops for next year. I am just hoping and praying for some better weather!

Until next time,

XXX

WARNING: Fish thieves at work

There have been two recent episodes of fish thieves at work at the hospice.

The first incident happened about a month ago. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera to capture the two culprits on film. They were young men with large fishing nets, trying to steal the fish from our ponds. Luckily, a nurse saw and challenged them, at which point they ran off. How anyone could nick a few fish from a hospice pond I do not know.

The second incident happened yesterday. Luckily, this time I was able to get my camera to take some photos of the felon. Anyone watching me must have thought I was going a bit nuts as I crept around taking photos of the offender. The offender did notice me getting closer and just moved elsewhere on the pond. In total I spent about fifteen minutes creeping around. Here he is….

I felt very privileged to have spent fifteen minutes with a kingfisher. I had very fleetingly seen one before at the hospice, but nothing like this. He, or she, didn’t seem that bothered by my presence.

I think that I mentioned kingfishers in a blog the last time I saw one. They are a bird that means a lot to me. For me, they are a sign of hope, that there is something better to come. They are a glimpse of brilliance in a world that can be dark and very tough. The beautiful orange on its breast and the iridescent blue on its back. Wow, it’s something special!

I was buzzing after I saw it and able to forgive it for probably stealing our smaller fish. Maybe it was only trying to eat the water boatmen and other bugs, which they will also eat, but I suspect it had fish for tea.

I knew I had to blog about kingfishers today, because when you experience something so special you can’t keep it to yourself.

Enjoy!

Just For The Smell Of It

One of the many pleasures in my life is to stick my somewhat large nose inside a flower and slowly breathe in,  just for the smell of it! That feeling when you smell a beautifully scently flower is just divine. Equally, the disappointment when a flower that you think is going to smell delightful, but in fact smells of nothing at all, is also great.

I can rarely resist having a quick sniff of the flowers whilst I am at work. It was whilst I was doing some pruning today that I started to wonder what my favourite flower smell is. There are many to pick from, but here are a few. You’ll have to scroll down to see my favourite.

Lavender has got to be up there with the best, with its fresh, calming, floral and balsamic aromas. I can’t help but rub a flower between my fingers when I walk past. This bee seems to be pretty happy.

There are many varieties of lavender, but this French lavender smells equally good.

I adore the smell of roses. When planting the roses last year I made sure that each of the five varieties had a strong fragrence to compliment their good looks.

Lady Emma Hamilton
Charlotte

My boss has a rather strange, and a bit controversial, favourite smelling plant. He loves the Helichrysum Italicum plant, AKA the curry plant. Now I’ve been struggling a bit to describe the aromas of plants. What words do you use to describe the smell of a rose in comparison to lavender? Well the smell of the curry plant is dead easy to describe… CURRY! Many people cannot bear it, whilst others love it. It isn’t my favourite, but equally I don’t hate it.

Helichrysum Italicum

Other favourites of mine, which I don’t have photos of, are jasmine, freesias and sweet peas, with their delicate floral aroma. Mum used always to grow sweet peas and cut them daily to make small little posies for the kitchen table.

Before I reveal my favourite, I have some photos of flowers I took today at the hospice, but which have almost no smell. Maybe don’t need to be fragrant because of their visual beauty.

Rudbeckia
Sunflower
Verbena bonariensis

And now to my favourite fragrant flower. They probably aren’t what you’d expect (unless I’ve mentioned it in a previous post!). They are…. drum roll please….

Marigolds

Marigolds! Not perhaps the prettiest of flowers, although they do add some great colour. And yes, they are a bit flouncy and prone to be eaten by slugs. But their incredibly strong, citrusy aroma reminds me of days gone by and of hot, dry summers (chance would be a fine thing).

So there you have it. Marigolds top my list of favourite smelly flowers. What’s top of your list? Please let me know!

The Painted Lady

Until two weeks ago, if asked what a “Painted Lady” was, I would probably have answered by describing the Mona Lisa or some other similar painting of a woman. That was until I read an article by my friend Bob Gilbert all about the Painted Lady butterfly. It is not a particularly uncommon butterfly, with sightings every year. However, every ten years or so, there is a mass influx of these butterflies arriving in Britain. And 2019 is one of those years. It is an amazing butterfly in that it migrates from North Africa and the Middle East to Britain and northern Europe, and has been sighted as far north as the Arctic Circle. Some of these butterflies then manage to migrate back down to Africa, covering over 7,500 miles in their annual migration. It is believed that they use the sun to navigate. Nature is truly amazing!

Well, two days ago I noticed a flutter of butterflies congregating on a bed of Verbena bonariensis at the front of the hospice. I counted at least 25 of these beautiful creatures. They have distinctive orange, brown and black-tipped wings with white black and white spots. Sometimes the colours look a bit faded, but on this day they didn’t. They were feeding on the mass of purple flowers. Everytime a car went past, or someone got too close, they would all flutter off, flying around for a couple of seconds before descending again. It was quite a sight, and one noticed by a lot of the visitors. I managed to get some photos…

Painted Lady

Painted Lady on Verbena

Painted Lady Feeding

The Painted Lady isn’t the only butterfly spotted at the hospice. Last week a group from the Oaks Day Centre did a short butterfy survey in the gardens. They spotted seven species in total, including a ‘Green Veined White’. And the previous week, a photographer from Wigan Council spotted a ‘White Letter Hairstreak’, which is apparently a rare butterfly that feeds off elm trees.

It is very exciting that the gardens are attracting a wide variety of wildlife. They are hopefully being encouraged by the supply of food, be it wildflowers, cultivated flowers or the provision of bird seed. I recently worked out that this year we will have supplied over 300kg of bird seed to the local birds. We have lots of species coming to the feeding stations, including recently bullfinches. What a beautiful bird. Sadly no photo taken by me, but here’s one I found freely available!

black gray and orange bird

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Another creature that I have seen recently is the money spider, or to give it it’s proper name the red spider mite. It is tiny (less than 1mm) and I suspect that no-one else at the hospice has spotted them. But I did when the sun was out and they were scuttling around on the flags. It is widely considered to be a pest because they like to suck the sap from the leaves of plants. But I like them because they remind me of my first primary school where they could be seen the school’s limestone walls. Here’s a very grainy photo!

Money Spider

The roses that I planted just before last Christmas, and which were inspired by my Dad, have been beautiful in recent weeks. I picked ones which had a strong fragrance and they haven’t disappointed. Unfortunately I can’t send the smell through the internet, but I can send a picture. This one is called ‘Munstead Wood’.

Munstead Wood

I will try to get some more photos of them for the next blog. I have recently been working in one of our courtyard gardens that has become very overgrown. It is not quite finished yet, but when it is I will blog about it.

Until then, much love, Jim and all the Painted Ladies! X

Signs of Spring

The hospice garden is a haven for wildlife. This week I have been rewarded by seeing frogspawn for the first time in 2019. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as last week I saw a frog hopping along towards the pond. When I approached it to get a photo, it stopped in the middle of a clump of crocuses, as if inspecting them!

Frog inspecting crocuses

The frog and the crocuses, as well as the 20°C temperatures, were harbingers of spring. It is such an exciting time for gardeners when the garden springs back to life. First, the snowdrops, then the dafs and crocuses, soon it’ll be the tulips showing off their finery. But back to the frogspawn I had discovered. Whilst observing it, the thought crossed my mind that it was a huge volume of spawn for such a small creature. How could that possibly be and why had this not crossed my mind before? So it was off to Google to try and find out.

March is the usual month for UK frogs to mate, although it can be as early as January if there is a warm period, and much later if a cold snap kills off any earlier spawn. The males are the first to head back to the pond where they were born, where they start croaking to attract one or more females. Once he has attracted a mate he grips her from above with his forearms in an embrace called ‘amplexus’. She will then start laying the spawn which is fertilized by the male. This process lasts several hours or even a couple of days, during which she can lay several thousand eggs. The fertilized eggs sink to the bottom of the pond. The surrounding jelly, which is made up of various carbohydrates and proteins, then starts absorbing water, causing the spawn to swell significantly. These clumps, which are often the size of a grapefruit, then become bouyant and float to the surface where they merge with other clumps forming a large mat of spawn. This is what I discovered in the hospice pond.

Frogspawn

If there is a frost, the spawn on the surface can freeze and the embryos killed. After about three weeks the remaining embryos hatch out of spawn as tadpoles, eating the nutritious jelly in the process. As a child I remember being so excited when the tadpoles hatched from the frogspawn that we had collected in a bucket. Life as a tadpole is pretty tough, with the vast majority not becoming adult frogs. Many are eaten by predators such as dragofly larvae, water boatmen or newts, with only 10% transitioning into frogs. And even then survival is difficult, coping with the hopefully hot, dry summer followed by the cold winter. Those that do survive the winter will emerge from their hideout in spring to start the cycle all over again. And this is what I have joyfully witnessed this last couple of weeks.

I also witnessed another sign of spring this week. The guys from the council came to cut the grass – three weeks earlier than last year. I just love it when the grass has been mowed, especially when I have just cut new edges into all the flowerbeds.

Grass cutting

Spring is a busy time in the garden, trying to do all those jobs that you won’t have time to do once all the weeds start going mental. So I have been cutting back the dogwoods – a job that always makes me slightly sad because they still look like they are in their prime. I have, however, kept a lot of the stems and put them in vases. The pale green leaves are now emerging, contrasting with the bright red stems. Another job I did was to polish the silver – the silver birch. The bark was covered in a green algae, which I removed with a cloth and a bucket of soapy water. You can just about see the result in the photo above.

Sadly the warm temperatures seem to have disappeared for a bit, and it is pouring with rain. At least it gives me a bit of time to sit at the computer to write this post. Til next time, “Happy Gardening”!