Saturday 30 June 2012

Basil is an easy herb to grow

Flowering Basil

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a very popular herb used in Mediterranean cuisine. Although it originates in India and needs a subtropical or tropical climate to grow outdoors, it can, nevertheless, be grown in the UK in the summer and as a potted plant or under glass.

Pesto Sauce
Basil is a very aromatic herb and is best used fresh but the leaves can also be dried for storage. It goes very well with tomato dishes of any type and is excellent as a herb used to add flavour to pizzas and the sauces for pasta. It is the main ingredient for Pesto sauce. This popular sauce used to be made with a pestle and mortar to grind up the ingredients but today a blender or food processor makes the job much easier.

Growing Basil
Basil grows well enough in pots and window boxes and can be bought as small plants or started from seed. It will reach as much as 2 ft under ideal conditions but is usually a lot shorter. Basil is a half-hardy annual. It produces spikes of small white flowers that are carried in whirls. The leaves of basil are bright green and release their perfume if lightly brushed. There are plenty of great books available about growing herbs.

A culinary and medicinal herb
Basil is one of many culinary and medicinal herbs from the Sage and Mint family or Lamiaceae.  Indeed, besides being a valuable herb for using in the kitchen it also has its uses in herbal medicine because it has antidepressant, antiseptic and soothing properties. The fresh leaves are said to be a remedy for insect bites and stings too. An infusion of the plant taken with honey is a treatment for colds. The essential oil of Basil is used in perfumery and in aromatherapy.

Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda

Lord Vishnu
Coming from India, it is perhaps not surprising to find that Basil is regarded as sacred to Lord Vishnu in the Hindu religion. It is often planted in temple gardens and offered at holy shrines to the god. Basil is also used in funerals when a leaf is placed on the chest of a corpse after the head of the dead body has been washed in Basil water. In Asian countries it is often planted and scattered on graves.

Basil varieties
There are many varieties of Basil, such as Dark Opal with purple leaves and cerise-pink flowers, and Purple Ruffles with purplish leaves with crinkly leaves. Bush Basil (O. b. Var minimum) is also known as Greek Basil. It is a short and bushy plant not growing higher than 12 inches in height but it has very aromatic foliage and tiny white flowers. These varieties hybridise readily if not kept apart.

Basil was first brought to Britain in the 16th century and it was used then as a strewing herb, due to its strong aromatic properties. Today Basil is one of the most commonly grown herbs and is very easy to grow from seed. It is a great choice for a kitchen herb garden. If you are thinking of growing your own herbs then Basil should definitely be on your list.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Monday 25 June 2012

Exotic pets in captivity – the good and bad side

Panther Chameleon male

There is a definite attraction in keeping exotic pets but whilst there is a booming trade supplying these animals there is both a good and a very bad side to the business. What is positive about this is that many people really do love and care for the creatures they have in captivity, but this comes at the expense of all those millions that die after being captured in the wild and are kept and transported in very bad conditions. The ones that end up on sale are often a minority that survived, although many are captive bred which is fair enough.

The appeal of tropical and exotic animals is often because they are very colourful, unusual or just plain cute to look at. Chameleons come into all these categories. The number of people interested in these strange reptiles can be seen by the millions of views videos on Youtube get for the creatures. The Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) from Madagascar is one of the most popular species, coming as it does in dazzling shades of vibrant blue, brilliant red and vivid green. These strange reptiles have become so popular there is a range of books about them.

It is all well and good if people look after their exotic pets but so often this is not done. Even with the best intentions many tropical animals are very hard to keep in captivity and many grow very large.  Some reptiles such as alligators, iguanas and snakes, such as pythons, end up getting released into the wild. In some cases non-native animals set up breeding colonies and become invasive species at the expense of creatures that are already living there. There are many examples of this. The American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) is a notable one because it eats smaller creatures including endemic species of frog and other amphibians.

Slow Loris female

Some species of exotic animal are actually being brought close to extinction due to the demand for them. The Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang) is one such creature, and it is usually subjected to horrific cruelty too. The animal has a venomous bite and so to make them safe collectors and dealers pull out or clip out their teeth using no anaesthetic and leaving the terrified animals bleeding badly and subject to infections. All of this, just because they look ‘cute,’ and can make some money for some poor villager in Indonesia or other part of Asia where they live.

Many species owe their survival to being kept in captivity where they are successfully bred. Such is the insanity of the modern world that it really is true that some types of animal are safer in the care of humans than living in the wild.

Zebra Pleco. Photo by Birger A

Habitat destruction is a major threat to so many animals and plants today. The black and white Zebra Pleco (Hypancistrus Zebra) catfish from Brazil is one fish that may end up surviving only because of its looks that have made it popular with tropical fish-keepers. It lives only in a limited area of the Xingu River and if the Belo Monte Dam is built the conditions this fish needs will be destroyed.
Père David's Deer (Elaphurus davidianus) is a deer from China that only survived because of a captive herd that all living animals of this species are descended from. It is extinct in the wild.

It is very easy to say that all wild animals belong back in the wild but it is not that simple. In some cases, such as the deer mentioned above, the species would no longer be alive if they had not been kept by humans. 

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Is the "Chemtrail era" about to end? JazzRoc thinks so!

Contrails above cloud as seen from a plane

Like me, you probably wish we could return to the days gone by with blue skies and white fluffy clouds and none of this white hazy sky that is caused by the trails planes leave behind? You have probably heard about the conspiracy theory that claims that persistent contrails are “chemtrails” and you may even believe this. Millions do!

These trails are said by chemtrail-believers to contain all manner of toxic substances, and many think they are part of some Secret Government plot to cull the human population. It is said that the elements Barium and Aluminium/Aluminum are in these trails. Well, I have just had some wonderful news from my good friend Tony Duncan aka JazzRoc, who says that the ongoing debate and all the hoopla associated with it will be coming to an end. Tony explains it this way: 

"Finally, the "chemtrail era" is about to END. The next generation of air traffic control equipment will be IN EVERY PLANE. This means that aircraft will exchange information about the HUMID AIR (which is the cause of persistent trails in the first place) in order to be able to ROUTE THEMSELVES AROUND IT. And that'll be the end of that.

William Thomas and Clifford Carnicom
JazzRoc is a scientist and former aviation engineer and knows what he is talking about. Several years back He got involved in a big way on the Internet because he was posting on many websites and forums debunking the term chemtrail. It was him that got me to see how crazy this belief system was and is. Yes, I admit that I used to believe in the chemtrail conspiracy. I was accepting what I had read in NEXUS magazine and elsewhere and believing what people like William Thomas and Clifford Carnicom were saying. 

In recent times a film by G. Edward Griffin entitled What in the World are They Spraying? has been doing the rounds and adding to the worldwide fear and paranoia about chemtrails and a Secret Government. But I can understand why people accept this propaganda. I believed my own eyes that were showing me the skies messed up by trails that lasted hours and that crisscrossed and ended up spreading into a whitish haze.

Sun Halos
I had also witnessed sun halos in the white cloud mess the skies often became. This was a new atmospheric phenomenon I had not seen before. I blamed it on chemtrails. But then JazzRoc asked me if I knew what made up the halos around the Moon. Of course, I did. I knew they were created by water vapour that can form minute ice crystals. It was a moment of realisation. I joined the dots and saw that halos in the day must be caused the same way. Not by particles of Barium or Aluminum but by ice crystals, by frozen water vapour. This was what was in the trails, which were contrails all along, and not chemtrails.

Sun Halo

HubPages and Myspace
I announced that I had changed my belief about this matter at HubPages and at Myspace and was met with a barrage of chemtrail-believers and conspiracy theorists trying to reconvert me to this belief or making ridiculous claims about me saying I had been “got at,” “drugged,” or “hypnotised.”  In the meantime, JazzRoc had been deleted from YouTube and there were all manner of crazy claims being circulated about him saying he worked for the CIA, was a "Secret Government employee" and a "disinformation agent".  At that time he was working part-time as a community gardener in the Tenerife resort of El Médano. I knew the truth but the ‘true-believers’ persisted in their delusions not just about Tony and myself but also about the contrails they call chemtrails.

Bard of Ely in 2007 with Stop Chemtrails t-shirt

No more Chemtrails
And so if JazzRoc is right, after many years of arguing about this matter with chemtrail-believers who hold onto their belief as avidly as an ardent member of a cult or religion, I will be really delighted if this is true and the day will dawn that we will no longer be seeing our skies messed up by the air traffic that causes the trails and cirrus cloud to form. Imagine that - no contrails, no chemtrails, no more arguments! Chemtrails will have been stopped! 

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Monday 18 June 2012

The Death’s-head Hawk Moth is a very strange insect

Death's Head Hawk Moth

You may have seen the Death’s-head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos) in Silence of the Lambs. Because of its scary appearance and reputation this very large and very strange insect was included in publicity for this very successful thriller starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster
You see, this massive hawk moth has the spooky image of a skull on its thorax, and its horizontally banded body reminds us of the ribs of a human skeleton. Add to this the fact that the Death’s-head hawk Moth can squeak when alarmed and that its huge caterpillar can make clicking sounds, and it is not surprising that there are many superstitions surrounding this insect.

These moths are migrants from southern Europe and North Africa and sometimes arrive in the UK, where although it’s a very rarely seen species, it sometimes breeds and lays its eggs on potato plants. The Death’s Head Hawk Moth also lives in Tenerife and on the other Canary Islands.

 Death’s Head Hawk Moth caterpillars can also eat plants in the Solanaceae or nightshade family and often feed on Datura species such as the poisonous Thornapple (Datura stramonium). Plants in the Verbena family, including the subtropical shrub Lantana (Lantana crocea), can also be eaten, as can the Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) and other shrubs in the Bignoniaceae.

Death's Head Hawk Moth caterpillar (yellow version)

The finger-length caterpillars come in three different colour variations. There is a brown form that matches the colouring of twigs and woody stems, a yellow caterpillar with purplish stripes on its sides and a green larva with striped sides too. If disturbed the click their mandibles.

Death's Head Hawk Moth caterpillar (brown type)

The caterpillars pupate in soil and leaf litter and hatch out after a few weeks in warm conditions. In Britain it is too cold in the winter months for the pupae to survive and so the moth is not resident in the UK. 

Pupa of the Death's Head Hawk Moth

The adult moths only have short proboscises so cannot feed from many types of flowers and instead they take tree sap and also steal honey from beehives. It is said that the moth’s scent deters the bees from attaching them when the insects are carrying out a raid. The hawk moths squeak when feeding on honey too. Perhaps they make this noise because they are enjoying their stolen food or maybe to scare off the bees? 

You can find out much more about hawk moths in the excellent book Hawk Moths of the World.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Help frogs, toads and newts with a garden pond

A pair of Common Frogs 

Do you like frogs? I do and have done since I was a little boy. In my childhood days, tadpoles were a common sight in ponds in parks, gardens and in fields in the countryside but sadly that is not the case today.
Most amphibians are presently under threat with fast declining populations. Habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and herbicides, Climate Change, deaths caused by traffic on roads, and the chytrid fungus are all taking a heavy toll. So we all need to do what we can to help in the conservation of frogs, toads, newts and salamanders.

Most amphibians need water to breed in. They gather in ponds, lakes, canals and wherever they can find enough freshwater suitable for their needs. This means that if you have a garden then you can make a significant contribution in helping the local populations of frogs, toads and newts by having a garden pond.

When I lived on the Ely estate in Cardiff I made a pond using an old bath that someone had thrown away. It had been thrown out and into a rubbish skip in the street I lived in but I saw a use for it so salvaged it. I dug a big enough hole in the lawn area of my back garden and put the bath in place. I got a plug to stop water getting out, filled it up, added some large rocks so that anything that fell in could climb back out, and got some water plants from a local pond.

Common Frogs
Within just a few years I had a thriving colony of Common Frogs (Rana temporia) and Palmate Newts (Lissotriton helveticus) using the home I had given them as a place to breed. It was wonderful seeing them gather there each spring. I know my efforts inspired others to have a go too because as many as four families in Ely that I know and that knew about my conservation efforts, now have ponds in their back gardens, all of which have frogs and newts breeding in them.

Pond in my friend Jane's garden

If I could achieve this with just an old bathtub, think what can be done with a proper pond! You can buy ready-made pools from garden centres or create a pond using waterproof sheeting to line it.  The bigger the pond you make the better it is for attracting and supporting amphibian species.  

Great Crested Newt
In the UK, the very rare and endangered Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) only uses very big ponds or lakes, and the Common Toad (Bufo bufo) also likes larger sources of freshwater to breed in.

Having a pond in your back garden is likely to attract pretty Dragonfly species as well. The larvae or nymphs of these insects are predators and will eat tadpoles and baby newts but no need to worry about that. There will probably be too many this is nature’s way of keeping the balance.

A pond becomes a place that will provide a focal point in your garden and is a real help in the conservation of amphibians and other aquatic and semi-aquatic wildlife. Why not get a good book on Backyard Wildlife and find out what else you can do to create you very own nature reserve?

Find out how to build a frog pond here at the Save the Frogs website

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Butterfly gardening means the right flowers and food plants too

Monarch butterflies reared on a balcony

Everyone loves to see pretty butterflies in their gardens and flying around wherever they live or travel to but sadly very many species are dropping in numbers fast.  Habitat destruction, pesticides and herbicides, as well as Climate Change are all taking their toll.

Fortunately many people who want to help with the conservation of nature and to do their bit, are getting interested in gardening for butterflies. This is a wonderful idea because these beautiful insects need all the help they can get.

A lot of people think that having plenty of colourful flowers and flowering trees and shrubs like the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) will help, and this is true, up to a point. You see, whilst it is vitally important to provide nectar-bearing flowers for the adult butterflies to get their food from, we also need to provide food plants for the mother butterflies to lay their eggs on. If this is done it can work very well because the butterflies that have been attracted to your garden because of the flowers, will stick around to lay their eggs if they can see the right food plants also growing there.

If the right plants are grown in sufficient quantities you may well end up with an ongoing breeding population of various types of butterfly in your own garden. In the UK, Europe, North America and other countries where Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) grow, having a clump of this plant growing in your garden is a wonderful help to the butterflies because many species have caterpillars that feed on it.  For example, the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), Peacock (Inachis io) and Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterflies all use the Stinging Nettle as a food plant.

Red Admiral at rest

In countries where the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) lives these magnificent insect can be attracted and encouraged to breed by simply planting any of the many species of Asclepias that can be easily obtained by searching on the Internet, or maybe from a garden centre near where you live.  Here in Tenerife the Scarlet Milkweed or Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is the species that is grown in gardens and parks here.  The easiest way to get seeds is to buy them on Amazon. If you don’t have garden even just a balcony or terrace will do, if you cultivate the plant in pots. I managed to have as many as 50 adult butterflies emerge in the same week after the caterpillars had fed on Milkweed I had grown on my balcony.

Monarch caterpillars

If you have a wild part of your garden then make sure you leave plenty of grass to grow in it. You may be surprised to know that there are very many of the Brown butterfly family (Satyrinae), such as the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) and the Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), that come into this category.  The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) is another butterfly in this group with a caterpillar that feeds on grasses.
Blue butterflies often like grassy lawns that are allowed to have wild flowers growing in them. Birds-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is the food plant for some species of these pretty little butterflies. 

Here in Tenerife the African Grass Blue (Zizeeria knysna) has actually benefited from the lawns that people have in gardens and for hotels and other resort developments.  This is because these lawns often have the weed White Clover (Trifolium repens) growing amongst the grass and their caterpillars can feed on this plant as well as on Oxalis species.

White Clover patch that supports a colony of African Grass Blue butterflies

And of course it is not just butterflies that need the right food plants for their caterpillars because moths too need specific plants for their larvae to feed on.  If you really want to help the butterflies and moths in your area it is a good idea to get a good insect book that will tell you what each species needs and then to cultivate these plants in your garden.

Good luck with your efforts at butterfly gardening and I hope you end up seeing far more of these beautiful creatures where you live! 

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Monday 11 June 2012

Discovering the Kei Apple

Kei Apple. Photo by Steve Andrews

How I discovered the Kei Apple
I first came upon the Kei Apple whilst wandering around the El Botanico gardens in Puerto de la Cruz on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. I didn’t know it by name then but needed to find out what it was. I was accompanied by my friend Gill and both of us were suddenly struck by a wonderful fruity aroma that filled the warm air. 
We discovered that it was coming from a tree very near to where we were in the gardens. Its branches were laden with fruit and some had fallen on to the ground below. These fruit were golden yellow and reminded me of small apples.

Of course I picked one up and smelled the amazing aroma. I decided to take it home with me in order to see if I could identify it online and find out more about this tree and whether the fruit were edible. They certainly smelled like they should be! I made a note of the Latin name which was Dovyalis caffra that luckily was on a label underneath the tree.


More about the Kei Apple

The Kei Apple, which is what the tree we had found was, is actually named after the River Kei in South Africa. This is where the tree grows in the wild and its range also extends up into the neighbouring African region of Tanzania. The Kei Apple is perhaps not commonly known as an edible fruit but the tree has nevertheless been introduced into many subtropical parts including countries bordering the Mediterranean, and the States of Florida and California in the south of the US.
The Kei Apple belongs to the Flacourtiaceae family and the tree is also known as the Umkokola. I think Kei Apple is easier to remember though so that will do for me.

 A small evergreen tree, the Kei Apple has branches covered and protected by spines and it reaches some 6-9 metres in height. It is excellent for use as a hedge when pruned, and this is why it was originally brought to Australia. It is well suited to a hot and dry climate being both drought and salt resistant

The Kei Apple has both male and female trees. They have very small flowers in the axils of the tree’s leaves. According to Wikipedia, some female trees are actually parthenogenetic and can produce fruit without being fertilized with the male tree’s pollen in the usual way. Kei apples can be produced in such great numbers tha they actually weigh down the branches of their parent tree.
The Kei Apple is most often grown from seed, and several of these are produced in each fruit. They can be propagated by taking hardwood cuttings. However, Kei Apple saplings take around four years before they are at a size where they can flower and bear fruit of their own.
The Kei Apple is often cultivated as an ornamental tree for parks and gardens. Its pleasantly aromatic fruit contain vitamin C and although they are edible they are very acidic and are too sour for many people’s palates.
Jams and Jellies
Kei Apples can, however, be used to make delicious jams and jellies, or as an ingredient in chutneys. The apples can be eaten raw but, as already noted, many people find they taste far too sharp. Sugar or honey can, of course, be used to sweeten the fruit.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Monday 4 June 2012

Winter drought on Mt Teide. January 2012

Tenerife is still suffering an ongoing drought having not had anywhere near the normal rainfall last autumn or in  the winter months. The island depends on the storms that normally occur at these seasons to fill up the reservoirs and small number of ponds and to soak the ground so the plants can all grow. It simply didn't happen this time around.

Here I am filmed up on Mt Teide, the highest mountain in Spain, in January 2012, talking about the terrible state of the highland vegetation there. Much of it was dying or dead and crumbled to dust in your hands.

The media here for some unknown reason failed to report on this climatic disaster until over a month later. People I spoke to that live on the island thought I was making too much of a big deal about this. They told me it would rain in February and all would be OK. It didn't!

My report on the unusual winter drought was published in Tenerife News, making me, as far as I know, the first serious news report on the subject. Since then a few other news stories have gone out about the problem. It is sad that it is the worst winter drought in 50 years.

Apparently sometimes you get no rain or very little in the autumn and early part of the winter but then in the New Year the thunderstorms arrive and make good for the lack of rain until then. It is very unusual for there to be no rain in the autumn followed by none in the winter too!  This is a very serious problem, not only for farmers, but also for much of the varied and unique flora and fauna of the island of Tenerife.

Because Mt Teide is so high the rain falls as snow up there. It is usually capped in gleaming white from November onwards, sometimes as late as may of the following year but not this time. The one place you can normally count on having a White Christmas in the Canary Islands didn't have one, and visitors to Tenerife over the winter months did not get to see the majestic mountain arrayed in a white mantle that can be seen easily from the windows of planes approaching the island.

The unique, and in some cases, very rare plants that grow high on Mt Teide may well be drought resistant to cope with the extreme climatic conditions experienced up there but they are not adapted to withstand drought for this length of time. They normally get a very hot and dry spell in the summer but this is followed by autumn rains that help to rejuvenate them but sadly these rains never came.

 Ponds in the village of Erjos that usually fill up in autumn and winter with enough water to carry them through the summer months did not get their seasonal top up. These ponds, which form a unique wildlife haven for water birds, frogs and aquatic insects such as dragonflies and water-beetles, were drying up as early as March. Even tough vegetation like brambles that grow around the ponds have suffered very badly and are dried up and gone brown in the heat. Where tadpoles could normally be seen in large numbers a cracked and barren expanse of dried mud baking in the sun meets the eye.

It is impossible to say how badly hit the wildlife of the island has been by this drought and we can only hope and pray for some equally very unusual summer rainfall, and as much as possible is wanted, if not by the tourists, but by the farmers and the animals and plants that live on the island.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.