Flowers and moths lend a hint of the Mediterranean to Totnes

A cluster of red valerian flowers

Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens.  In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream.   This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century.  It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold.    Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.  

Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar.  Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).  Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September.  A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds. 

A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths.  On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well.  Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum.  When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.

There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.

A short video of one moth on a windy day
Large white butterfly nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth moving between flowers with its proboscis coiled up (you may need to enlarge the picture to see this)

7 thoughts on “Flowers and moths lend a hint of the Mediterranean to Totnes”

  1. Wonderful video, Philip. I love the hummingbird hawk moth! That is a species unfamiliar to me. And the red valerian is beautiful, too. How exciting for you to have this magical creature gracing your garden. We have had multiple dozens of hummingbirds in our garden on a daily basis. I am not exaggerating. Something is different, and I suppose I should wonder if climate has affected the migratory pattern. It’s a phenomenal gift to me, although I’m making nectar by the gallons! I have a hummingbird-friendly landscape, but I have to augment with my own supply. 🙂

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  2. Thanks Debra, glad you liked it. I have not seen a hummingbird since I lived in California but people say that the bird and the moth are uncannily similar. How wonderful for you to have so many hummingbirds in your garden, I look forward to something on your blog about them!!

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