Monday, 11 May 2015

The Ladder Snake is aptly named because of the ladder markings on its back

Ladder snake (Elaphe scalaris) Photo by Pascal Dubois

The ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris) is an attractive harmless snake found in Portugal, Spain, southern France and some parts of Italy. It is also found on Menorca but is thought to have been introduced there. 

The ladder snake is in a group of snakes known as “rat snakes” because they have a tendency to feed on rodents. It is also known as Elaphe scalaris, which is the genus the other rat snakes are in.
The ladder snake takes its name from the dark markings between two blackish parallel lines down its spine that look like the rungs of a ladder. 

The ladder snake is more highly coloured when young when this patterning really stands out.  These juvenile snakes are a yellowish or pale brown in colour with the ladder marking in a contrasting black. There are dark markings on the sides and belly of these snakes too but the colours fade as they grow older.

Young Ladder Snake Photo by Steve Andrews

Adult ladder snakes reach around 160 cm and are mainly a dark brown or greyish for their main colouration.

Ladder snakes can be found in a variety of habitats, including scrub-land, clearings in forests, orchards and vineyards. These reptiles also have a liking for stone walls in which they can hide and hunt their prey. They also frequent rocky ground where there are plenty of boulders.

Ladder snakes feed on mice, shrews, small rats, birds, lizards, spiders and some other insects. Young snakes take small lizards and baby rodents, and also have a liking for spiders and grasshoppers. Adult ladder snakes will hunt birds in their nests by climbing into bushes and trees. Ladder snakes are active by day and night. 

Female ladder snakes lay between four and 24 eggs. The mother snakes will remain with the baby ladder snakes for a few days.

The ladder snake is in the Colubridae family of snakes, many of which are also non-venomous. The ladder snake will bite in defence, however, and will hiss if captured.

Because the ladder snake has a very wide distribution and lives in many habitats it is not regarded as in any current danger. Its conservation status is of Least Concern. Some ladder snakes become road casualties though, and the danger of getting run over by traffic is serious threat to many other types of reptile and amphibian.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Black Mustard is an edible wild flower it is easy to forage for

Black Mustard Photo by Steve Andrews

Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) is a very common and widely distributed edible plant in the cabbage family Brassicaceae. It is easy to find on waste ground in late spring and early summer because its bright yellow flowers catch the eye and it grows in clumps. 

Black Mustard comes from the Mediterranean area of southern Europe and is thought to be native to parts of Asia too, where it has been used in cooking for thousands of years. Black Mustard, which can reach over two metres in height, though is usually much shorter, is found in the UK and many other parts of the world where it often grows as a weed. It is frequently found growing along pathways and in waste places. 

Black Mustard on waste ground. Photo by Steve Andrews
Black Mustard has a spicy flavour that is a bit like cabbage but mostly like the mustard we are familiar with and use to spice up and add some heat to our foods - mustard on hot-dog sausages, for example.

Mustard is made from the ground seeds of the plant that are made into a paste. The mustard seeds can also be used a spice and as an ingredient of curries or savoury dishes. 

Brassica nigra. In Public Domain
The Black Mustard seeds ripen in August and September but gathering them in quantity though can take a long time and a long time getting them out of the seed-pods they form in. It is much easier to buy mustard from the grocery store or the seeds that can often be found on sale in the spices section.

Best-selling author Richard Mabey, in his classic guide to foraging Food For Free, suggests that we “Try pressing a pinch of seeds into the cheese on the top of Welsh rarebits before cooking.” He also recommends the young leaves as an addition to salads or cooked as a green vegetable. Black Mustard is cooked as greens in Ethiopia.

The yellow flowers can be added to salads too but I like to munch on them when out walking.
Black Mustard has medicinal properties too. The ground up seeds have been mixed with honey and used to treat coughs in eastern Europe. In eastern Canada it was also used as a remedy for respiratory problems. The ground seeds were made into a paste with flour and water and this was applied to the chest or back of a person suffering from a bronchial infection.

Black Mustard is one of the easiest plants to find when out foraging and its distinctive taste will help in its identification.