Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Coltsfoot is a Wort

Coltsfoot or Colt's Foot (Tussilago farfara) is a strange looking plant, with its flowers resembling a dandelion stuck on an asparagus shoot. From February through to April this perennial sends up flowers that pre-empt leaf growth on upright leafless scaly stems. They are often found in patches with linking underground rhizomatous growth. I've found two patches this week near my home, one in an arable field amongst a crop for pheasant cover (see image), and the other on a roadside/woodland edge.

The plant has a number of alternative common names, including Coughwort. 'Wort' is often used as part of old names for plants with a medicinal use by combining it with the part of the human body they were believed to provide a cure or health benefit. So Coughwort was used as a cough remedy, Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) for sore nipples and Pilewort (Lesser Celandine) for guess what! Of course there was often very little evidence of medicinal benefits and was often simply based on the plant having the appearance of a body part, such as Spleenwort. However Coltsfoot does appear to contain some interesting chemicals, including 'tussilagone' with an anti-inflammatory action(*), which is of pharmacological interest. So maybe some of those medieval herbalists were on to something with Coltsfoot.

*Hwangbo, C., Lee, H.S., Park, J., et al. (2009) The anti-inflammatory effect of tussilagone, from Tussilago farfara, is mediated by the induction of heme oxygenase-1 in murine macrophages. International Immunopharmacology, 9 (13-14): 1578-1584

Monday, 15 March 2010

Japanese invader

In our first year at Pinfold cottage we were rather suprised by the emergence of one particular plant. In February last year appeared what resembled giant boils on the southern bank of the garden stream. These rapidly opened up and transform into baby cauliflower-like flowers (see picture), attracting early woodland insects. These we soon learnt were the forerunners of the even bigger leaf parts of Giant Butterbur (Petasites japonicus). As the latin name implies, these plants originate from Japan, being introduced to Great Britain. They have since become naturailsed, preferring damp places on roads and riversides, characterised by there huge leaves up to 1 metre across. The banks of our woodland garden are therefore ideal for this plant to proliferate and so did require some management last year.

In their native country the flowers are prized for their flavouring to miso soup and soy sauce, whilst the flowering stems can be eaten cooked(1). The leaf stalks can also be boiled and eaten like rhubarb; hence its other common name, Bog Rhubarb (1). It has also been used as a traditional medicine for a number of conditions going back to the Middle Ages for the plague, and more recently for migraine (2), having been the subject of clinical trials. But be careful before you try any self-remedies as the extraction of active ingredients (mainly from the roots) is complex.
Other uses include using the large leaves as an umbrella (hence its name from the Greek word for a large brimmed hat, the Petasos) or wrapping up butter (before the days of refrigeration), and the leaf stalks as walking sticks.

(1) Plants for a Future website -

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Roe'd Deer

I was driving home with the family last weekend on the A1 in Yorkshire when I spotted a deer (Roe Deer, Capreolus capreolus) run onto the carriageway in front of traffic. Several cars braked and swerved, but it quickly leapt over the central reservation and across the opposite carriageway. It appeared just luck that it was not hit by a car, and so I can only assume that it was in some panic to take such a reckless risk. Indeed it seemed full of adrenalin as it continued its mad dash almost in parallel with us as we continued south. Obvious to us was its white rump which apparently expands when alarmed by raising the relevant hairs.

The Forestry Commission estimate the number of Roe Deer in the UK at about half a million; quite a comeback from its extinction in England during the 18th century. This recovery from remnant populations in the Scottish Highlands has been facilitated by reintroductions. However a survey conducted by the Highways Agency in 1998 concluded that there were 20'000 to 42'000 road traffic accidents involving deer per annum. They also estimated that each human injury accident cost approximately £50'000 to the economy. Since deer populations have shown continued steady growth over recent years, this must be a growing concern for everyone. There are therefore many measures to reduce such incidents, including fencing, roadside reflectors and signage at known crossover deer routes. Of course we can all take our own action to reduce the likelihood by adopting a more defensive driving approach; in our case we were seconds from a potential multi-vehicle pile up.

A little further on I spotted a weasel on the verge, which along with the many other wildlife observations I experience whilst driving, reminded me how versatile wildlife is in adapting to man's encroachment on their habitat, and how opportunistic some species can be. Perhaps we can all show a bit more consideration in the way we drive, and thereby reduce wildlife and human tradegy.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Don’t knock Dunnocks

I’ve been watching a group of Dunnocks (Prunella modularis) over the last few days feeding near our birdtable and noticed how frequently there are three individuals. This bird, also known as the Hedge Sparrow, is rather shy and retiring and so often over looked. But as they say, you need to keep an eye on the quiet ones! It is closely related to the Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris) which inhabits the French Pyrenees and other accentor species which live primarily in mountain habitats. Indeed the Dunnock is a montane bird over much of its European distribution. So what is doing in our gardens?

Now I also recall from my childhood reading about this bird being an unusual bigamist – each female courts two male escorts. My bird books indicate that it is a bit more complicated than this with various ratios of male to female when it comes to the mating game. However research has found that a female has more reproductive success if she has more than one male (polyandry), usually two, helping her with the brood. There is usually one dominant male (the ‘alpha’) and a subordinate. But to the casual observer it is usually impossible to know that all this gamesmanship is being played out, particularly as the sexes are near identical in appearance. It does lead the question of whether other birds show similar behaviour, and interestingly there is evidence to support this, such as with the Alpine Accentor.

Other research (*Langmore et al.) has shown that when female Dunnocks are under competitive pressure for breeding with other females they increase their testosterone levels and this prompts more singing to compete for males. Again a bit of a physiological/behavioural sex reversal.

....And then to complicate matters further, the Dunnock is also prey to the crafty Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), laying its similar speckled egg in the host nest for the Dunnocks to raise as an obese protégé.

Perhaps not such a dull life for this little brown bird, having descended from the mountains with its strange sexual behaviour.

* Langmore, N.E., Cockrem, J.F. and Candy, E.J. (2002) Competition for Male Reproductive Investment Elevates Testosterone Levels in Female Dunnocks, Prunella modularis. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 269 (1508):2473-2478