Tag Archives: mullein

A thug on the Lamb’s Ears

I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air.  The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide.  The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot.   Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain.  It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.

Pair of wool carder bees
Male (left) and female wool-carder bees having a rest. One leaf has been well “carded”.


The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina).  It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers.  It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.

From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him.  Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression.  He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes.  He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear.  His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily.  It feels like he is looking for something.  And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking.  Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it.  I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground.  But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.

All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear.  She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female.  When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again.  Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her.  One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.

This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying.  The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees.  Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels.  Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below).  Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used.  If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres.  Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen.  The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.

So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.

Male wool carder bee
Male wool-carder bee – look at his spines.


Male wool carder bee in flight
Male wool-carder bee in flight


Anthidium manicatum mating pair
Wool-carder bee – mating pair


Wool carder bee collecting fibres
Female wool-carder bee collecting fibres


Wool carder bee gathering fibres together
Leaning back gathering fibres together


Wool carder bee flying off with fibres
Female wool-carder bee in flight with ball of fibres


Possible female anthidium
Female wool-carder bee


Male wool carder bee showing spines
Male wool-carder bee


Bumblebee on Lamb's Ear
A brave bumblebee feeding from the lamb’s ears


A blackbird, some old apple trees and a deserted bench – the garden in November

It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

From River by Joni Mitchell

It’s only a week or so until the shortest day and, in the town, the Christmas lights have been twinkling merrily since late November. Shop windows struggle under the weight of gifts and expectation and there has been an outbreak of Christmas Fayres in local schools and nearby villages. Totnes will soon host its own festive late-night shopping events. Perhaps all this brashness and brightness is an antidote to the greyness handed out by the recent weather.

Rainbow over Totnes
A rainbow over Totnes church with the Leechwell Garden in the foreground (November 3rd 2014)


My overriding impression this November was a lack of sunshine although there must have been some to produce the rainbow captured in the photograph. We also had our first frosts, waking up to white roofs, and on other days we were buffeted by heavy rain and strong winds which finally disposed of the leaves. The view from my kitchen window changed during the month to one dominated by bare branches.

Crab apple
A detached crab apple and “friend”


Decaying crab apple
A mouldy crab apple


Blackbird on crab apple tree
The predator


Down in the Leechwell Garden, November was a time of seeds and fruits. I remarked a month or so ago on the “almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red”, the crab apples. I wondered how these would mature and I now have my answer. By November they were looking distinctly worse for wear and the “green tinged with red” had transmuted to a sickly yellow-orange. Some fruits had fallen off altogether and some were rotting, having been attacked by predators. I discovered the identity of one of the predators as I stood under the tree with my camera. A blackbird landed above me, took a casual peck at one of the fruit and flew off in disgust.





The blackbird may also have been responsible for damage to some chunky overripe rose hips nearby. The same bird will probably be back, when the time is right, to sample the berries offered by a cotoneaster. The shrub already seemed to be spreading its arms to make the berries more accessible.

Chaenomeles fruit and bottle
Fruit of flowering quince, and bottle.


Beneath one of the flowering quinces I found three golden fruit lying on the ground near the old stone wall. Whether they were just overripe or whether the blackbird had been at them, I don’t know. They looked very tempting but I am told that to humans the fruit are unpalatably bitter unless cooked. I deliberately left the bottle in the picture as it highlights one of the problems faced by a public garden. Whereas most people enjoy and respect the Leechwell Garden, a few people see nothing wrong in lobbing a bottle over the wall as a means of convenient disposal.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the blackbird. It has to get its food somewhere and there is an interesting biological chain beginning with sunlight falling on leaves, this energy leading via photosynthesis to tree growth and eventually to fruit which are eaten by the blackbird. Pollinators have a role in there as well. These chains and their relationships feature strongly in the nature writing of Mark Cocker, recently compiled in a new book (Claxton – Field notes from a small planet). Cocker sees the calls of swifts and swallows as a transmutation of “insect protein converted through the birds’ digestive system into the music”. Should I see the chiding call of the blackbird as a transmutation of the photosynthetic activity in the leaves of the crab apple tree?

Fruit on spindle tree
Fruit of spindle tree


Ginkgo tree
Ginkgo glowing


Down in the shadier part of the Garden, the spindle tree continued to light the way. In September, I commented on the shocking pink fruits. By early November, these fruits had opened to reveal bright orange seeds and more gaudiness. By the end of the month, only the pink seed casings remained, looking like tiny ornate lampshades. Another splash of temporary colour came from the ginkgo tree which glowed briefly as though a switch had been flicked and then promptly lost all its leaves.

Mullein flower and hover fly




Bloody cranesbill
Bloody cranesbill




Even this late in the year a few plants seem determined to try to give us colour. Among these survivors were the mullein, still painted in splashes of yellow, some rosemary showing new mauvish-blue blossom and a bloody cranesbill with its small magenta flowers . A borage also had a few blue flowers but they didn’t look properly formed.

Leechwell Bug House

The Leechwell Garden was, for many years, an orchard so it seemed fitting that three apple trees were planted late in the month. Two dessert varieties popular in the 19th century, Laxton’s Superb and Ribston Pippin were planted together with a James Grieve, “the classic Scottish cooking apple” but, in my experience, very good eaten raw. The three varieties seem to have been chosen partly to allow cross pollination but they will need the insects, especially the mason bees from the bug house, to do their bit in the spring.

Deserted bench
The deserted bench. The cup etc surely tell a story ……


Birches, shaggy ink caps and a wagtail: the October garden

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.

(From Robert Frost’s poem October)


Norway Maple in Autumn
The Norway Maple with its orange crown


The beginning of October brought tangible change with alternating periods of heavy rain and cheerful sunshine. I suppose the weather had to shift but I’d got used to the warm and dry. More rain followed and when the remnants of hurricane Gonzalo passed through I saw airborne leaves, gutter-filling leaves and now rotting leaves. It still felt unseasonably mild but despite this, nature moves forward, the flowers have mostly gone and, from my kitchen window, I watched the gradual change in colour as each tree moved ahead but at its own pace. One belligerent punk of a tree (a Norway Maple) tried hard to shock by putting on a bright crown of orange foliage.

Mullein in October
The continuing new growth on the mullein


Honeybee on Mullein
A honeybee enjoying the mullein flowers


Down in the Leechwell Garden I continued to wonder at the tenacity of a mullein which, despite the season, was now a tangled mass of new flowering stems. The fresh, lemon-yellow flowers proved popular with the honeybees now that other forage is becoming scarce.

Mrytle 1
Myrtle: flowers, fruits and leaves

I also discovered a largish evergreen shrub, a myrtle, by one of the old stone walls. It was the brilliant white flowers that first caught my attention, their long yellow-tipped stamens bursting from the petals like a bonfire-night rocket lighting up the sky. The myrtle’s cloak of small, glossy, dark green leaves was complemented by many immature fruits in a variety of colours from pink to green to black. Crushed myrtle leaves emit a eucalyptus-like smell and the berries and leaves are widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking.

A fig tree clothes a large part of the ancient stone wall


Perhaps because of the dearth of flowers, I have spent some time this month looking at the grove of young trees planted near the three mature silver birches. These are a mixture of willows and birches and their height allowed me to look closely at their leaves and fruits. The young birches divide in to two groups, one still covered with large ovate green leaves, the other rapidly losing their smaller, yellowing, diamond-shaped leaves.

Himalayan Birches 1
Four himalayan birches (willows behind)


Himalayan Birch bark
Himalyan birch bark with apricot coloured lenticels


Himalayan Birch bark peeling
Peeling bark on a himalayan birch

The green-leafed birches impress for another reason – their slender, smooth trunks with luminous white bark, characteristic of the Himalayan Birch. On a dull day, the pale, narrow trunks seem to shimmer like ghosts in the gloom. On the upper parts of these trees the bark is peeling away like old wallpaper on a damp wall and, in the past, this white paper-like bark was used for writing Sanskrit scriptures and texts.

Himalayan Birches
Brownish-red markings on one himalayan birch

One of this group of birches also has crazed patterns of dark, brownish red superimposed on the white bark. I didn’t know that Himalayan Birches showed this kind of patterning and it makes me slightly uneasy about my identification.

Male catkins on Himalayan Birch
Male catkins on himalayan birch


Himalyan Birch female fruit and leaf
Seed head on himalayan birch

Around the branches, signs of reproduction and renewal abound. A few chunky male catkins are already present showing their prominent helical structure overpainted in washes of brown and green. In the spring, these catkins will become the familiar pendulous structures brimming with yellow pollen waiting to fertilise the female flowers as they emerge with the new leaves. But the tree hasn’t finished with this year’s cycle and some mature female seed heads are still waiting to discharge their seeds.

Young silver birch
Young silver birch showing reddish pink bark and many mature seed heads

The second group of young birches share many of the features of the three mature silver birches, particularly the foliage. Confusingly, the bark shows varying shades of pink, red and brown but my tree identification book tells me this is typical for young silver birches. New leaf buds are still very small as are the male catkins but this year’s mature female seed heads are very prominent. They fall apart easily if touched, releasing hundreds of seeds.

Male and female fruits on Silver Birch
Seed heads and new male catkins on silver birch

You may already know this, but the birch tree is a Celtic symbol of growth, renewal, stability etc and in Finnish sauna culture, participants gently beat themselves with leafy fragrant boughs of silver birch!

Shaggy Ink Caps
Shaggy Ink Caps

This month’s mild, damp weather has been good for fungi. On the 22nd I came across three fine upstanding shaggy ink caps (Caprinus comatus), also known as Lawyer’s Wig fungi because the bell-shaped cap develops flaking scales that protrude. These ink caps are edible although, I am told, they lack a very distinctive flavour. If you intend to eat them, pick and consume them young as they deteriorate rapidly. They should not be confused with the egg-shaped common ink cap which is poisonous in combination with alcohol.

Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail (from a distance)


Writing this diary takes me fairly regularly to the Leechwell Garden. On my visits, there has always been something to look at in the Garden, something to remark on, with one exception: birds. Why do I see so few birds, I don’t have an answer. So, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter an interesting bird this month as I walked away from the Garden towards the Leechwell. I saw the bird ahead of me as its flight traced an arc from the water to the wall above. When it reached the relative safety of the wall, it bounced about before settling; its habitual tail flicks and sleek shape told me immediately that this was a wagtail. I could see flashes of lemon yellow so this was most likely the resident, water-loving grey wagtail. It was there again a few days later. So, there are some birds about!

Autumn sculptures
Some “autumn sculptures” I found in the Garden one day.