Monday 10 September 2012

Bladder Campion - a common edible plant

Bladder Campion

An edible wild flower

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) is a common wild flower in the Pink and Campion family (Caryophyllaceae). It has attractive white flowers carried in inflated bladders, hence its name, and it is of importance as an edible wild plant that can be gathered by foragers.
Bladder Campion grows in many parts of Europe, in the UK, and is also found throughout North America where it is often considered as a weed.

Bladder Campion described

Bladder Campion grows in grassy places and reaches 1-2 ft in height. It is a perennial plant that can often be found along the sides of pathways, roadsides and at the edges of fields. It is a dainty-looking wild flower when in full bloom.
In the UK it flowers between June and August and produces distinctive flower-heads that are easily identifiable due to the inflated calyxes that form the bladders which the plant gets it name from. After flowering its tiny brown seeds are contain in seed-capsules inside the bladder-coating which shrivels with age.

Bladder Campion in the kitchen

Bladder Campion has been a popular free food in parts of Spain and the leaves of the plant were even collected for sale as "collejas." The collectors were known as "collejeros" and they had to gather a sizeable amount of the greens to make their efforts worthwhile.

The young leaves and tender shoots are good in salads but older leaves are usually cooked by frying or boiling. They can also be added to soups, stews and omelettes.

Cooked chickpeas with Bladder Campion greens. Photo by Xufanc.

"Gazpacho viudo" (Widower gazpacho) is the name of a soup made in the La Mancha region of Spain. This gazpacho is made by stewing the leaves and it is served with flatbread. The reference to widower is because this soup was traditionally only eaten when times were hard and food was scarce.
Bladder Campion leaves and young shoots can be cooked with chickpeas to make a stew known as "potaje de garbanzos y collejas," with scrambled eggs as "huevos revueltos y collejas" and simply cooked and served with rice, or "arroz con collejas" as the dish is known in Spanish.
According to Wikipedia, the plant is popular too in Crete where it is called "Agriopapoula" (Αγριοπάπουλα), and the leaves and shoots are eaten after browning in olive oil.
Richard Mabey gives the Bladder Campion a B category as an edible plant in his forager's Bible Food For Free. This is an excellent book if you want to learn about the wealth of fruits, nuts, wild flowers, herbs and fungi that can be found in the countryside and are safe to use in the kitchen. And there is more useful information on foraging here.
Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday 8 September 2012

The Grey Dagger and Dark Dagger moths

Grey Dagger (Acronicta psi) by M. Virtala

The Dark Dagger and Grey Dagger
The Grey Dagger (Acronicta psi) and Dark Dagger (A. tridens) are two British moths that look almost identical as adults but very different as caterpillars. Both moths have curious black dagger markings on their fore-wings, hence their name.
The Grey and Dark Dagger moths are also found throughout Europe, the Near East and many parts of Asia. They are in the Noctuidae, a very large family of moths that are also known as "Noctuids", "Owlets" and "Millers." Many species look very similar and there is often confusion in identifying them.
Strangely the Dark Dagger is often the paler in colour than the Grey Dagger. But the real natural mystery is why the two moths look so alike and yet their larvae are so different?

The Grey Dagger

The Grey Dagger is thought to be the commoner of the two species but this is not certain due to the confusion with identification of the adult insects. The only way of determining which moth is which is by examination of the genitalia by an expert on moths.
The Grey Dagger's fore-wings are a pale to a blackish grey and the dagger-like markings are also thought to resemble the Greek letterpsi ψ and this is how it was given its scientific species name. The hind-wings are a dirty grey but generally not as pale and as white as those of the male of the Dark Dagger. The wingspan is 34-45 mm. The adult moth feeds on nectar.
The Grey Dagger flies in June and overwinters in the pupa stage in a fairly flimsy cocoon that is spun under loose bark. The caterpillars usually feed on Hawthorn but also can eat, Blackthorn, Plum, Pear, Apple, Sallow and Birch. It has also been reported feeding on Pyracantha and is often found in gardens with fruit trees and ornamental shrubs.
It is a pretty creature with a bright yellow line down its back, black-edged red spots along each side and a raised hump on ring four of its body. It is far more colourful than the rather dowdy adult moth although the adult's black dagger markings add to its charm.

Grey Dagger caterpillar in Public Domain

The Dark Dagger

The Dark Dagger moth is found in England and Wales, and though present in Scotland and Ireland is thought to be not at all common in either. It is also distributed throughout Europe from Fennoscandia to the Balkans and down into Italy and Turkey. The species is found as well in Russia and as far over as China, Korea and into Japan.

Dark Dagger by M. Virtala

The Dark Dagger flies in June and July, and in captivity a second brood in October is sometimes produced. The caterpillar of the Dark Dagger feeds from August to October and is found on Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Rowan, Buckthorn, Plum, Pear, Apple, Birch and Sallow.
It does not have such a high hump as the related Grey Dagger's caterpillar, nor does it have a bold yellow line down its back. The larva of the Dark Dagger is black with a broad reddish stripe along it back in the middle and one other on each side. The middle stripe is interrupted with white and has a small black hump on the fourth ring and another broader one on the eleventh. The caterpillar, like that of the Grey Dagger has numerous hairs sprouting from its body as well.

Dark Dagger caterpillar by Lilly M

Like the Grey Dagger it overwinters as a pupa in a silken cocoon that it spins under loose bark. It is reported that it can sometimes spend two winters in this stage.
The Dagger Moths are well worth looking out for although you are more likely to see the colourful caterpillars.
Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Concert for Ocean Aid is an idea

Plastic rubbish on a beach

An idea based on Live Aid and Band Aid
I don't know about you but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the appalling way the clean-up and stopping of the leak was handled really depressed me. I still cannot stop thinking about all the billions of sea birds, turtles, dolphins, fish and other marine creatures that will have lost their lives because of this tragedy, and the damage to the coast and marshland, as well as to the livelihoods of people who live in the States affected, is immeasurable.
Besides the ongoing ecological disaster, there is the very serious danger being caused by marine pollution by plastic. David de Rothschild sailed across the Pacific Ocean on 2009 on a catamaran made entirely from used plastic bottles and called the Plastiki. One of the main purposes of his expedition was to raise awareness of the pollution of the oceans by plastic waste.
All over the world people who are disgusted by what has happened to our seas are saying something must be done. I have been thinking deeply about it all and have come up with an idea based around the success in the past of the Band Aid charity single and the more recent Live Aid rock and pop concerts.

Ocean Aid the concert

The original idea for Band Aid had been hatched by Sir Bob Geldof, who with the help of Midge Ure, had assembled a collection of pop and rock singers to lend their talents to a charity single entitled Do They Know It's Christmas? It was recorded and released under the collective name of Band Aid.

Bob Geldof

It swiftly became a number one single. Singers involved included Bono from U2, Boy George, George Michael, Bananarama and Paul Young.
From this in 1985, Live Aid followed on and in 2005 there was Live 8. These massive charity concerts featured appearances by a host of internationally famous pop and rock stars and were screened worldwide so were seen by billions of people.
If such events could be organised to help benefit the starving and poor people of the world then why not a similar effort being made to raise awareness about the dangers to our oceans and to raise funds for their protection?
As to where the money raised would go that would have to be worked out. There are activist groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd that work on marine environmental campaigns but there are many more organisations that are concerned with keeping the oceans as they should be. Perhaps a new one could be set up inspired by the growing need for something to be done to protect the oceans and their ecosystems?
It is not just plastic pollution and the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that is killing marine life. Overfishing, bottom trawling and over-acidification of the seas are all wreaking havoc too. Because the water is becoming too acid coral reefs are disappearing and along with them go the complicated and very beautiful ecosystems of life that depend on them.
Anyway, having come up with the idea I did a bit of "Googling" to see if the term Ocean Aid was already being used. I was very pleased to find that a team of people have thought like me and that Ocean Aid 2010 had already been organised.
That doesn't stop a much bigger global event or series of concerts at stadium-sized venues to also happen though. An Ocean Aid single could be written, recorded and released and possibly to be followed by an album of songs written specially for it. The concert or concert series could all be recorded both as sound recordings and as visual footage that could be broadcast on worldwide TV and sold later as DVD releases.
Then there would be Ocean Aid merchandising. The possibilities are endless.
I am sure very many stars from the world of pop and rock music would be only too glad to be involved in this. Film stars and other celebrities could appear on stage at the concerts too as special guests.
It would of course be a lot of work organising all this that I have outlined here, but it has all been done before and to great success. I am presenting here the seed of the idea.
What is needed now is Sir Bob or someone else with the celebrity status and power to make this happen! Now are we going to make this happen? Who can help?
Ocean Aid links
·        David de Rothschild's supporters and fans on Facebook
Facebook site for David de Rothschild's supporters and fans
·        The Plastiki Expedition
The Plastiki, a boat made from 12,500 Plastic bottles, sailing from San Francisco to Sydney on a mission to showcase waste as a resource and highlight plastic pollution.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

How do spiders build their webs?

Garden Spider in web

So how do spiders do it?
I have been studying nature all my life and am still totally amazed by spiders. I am astounded by what they do. Their webs are a miracle I am sure you will agree?
There is a Garden Spider female with a web hanging over my balcony and I have wondered how she created it. The balcony is around 14 ft wide, and I know that having measured it, but somehow the spider has lines to both walls and another to the ceiling, as well as one to the balcony railings.
She is suspended in space with at least 6 ft between the one wall and the centre of her web. There is something like a 40 ft drop below into a car-park.

To weave a web

Apparently the spider puts out a line of silk that may be carried by the breeze to a nearby wall, trunk, twig, leaf or other solid surface. As soon as it hits the spider senses this and runs down it as well as creating another thread to make the connection stronger.
I have never seen this myself whilst observing spiders in the wild but have seen it captured on film in a presentation by David Attenborough so I know this is how it is done. It has been filmed in time-lapse and speeded up so we can view the process.
The spider creates other main lines below and to the side of the web and then starts filling in the rest of it around the central hub point. The spider uses as many as six different types of thread to create its work and there can be as much as 60 metres of thread in a single web. This is how the orb-weavers go about it and they make fantastic webs with intricate webbing and precision.
An orb-weaver can complete making a web within an hour after it has created the basic lines to hold it in place. Some orb-weavers make a new web every night.
Orb-web spiders make their webs under the cover of darkness for obvious reasons. They are a lot less likely to be seen moving about then, whereas in the daytime a hungry bird might spot them.
I love to see spider webs when they are covered in dew-drops. They look really magical glistening in the sunlight of an early morning, as if they weren't already magical enough!
In the UK there are lots of Garden Spiders about in late summer and early autumn. The females can be recognised by their larger size. They have a white cross on the back of their bodies too.
There are other types of webs including tunnel webs that do not appear so complex but the system of spinning a web is pretty miraculous I think even if some sorts of webs do not look as attractive to the human eye. And then there are spider types such as the Hunting Spiders, Crab Spiders and Wolf Spiders that do not build webs but rely on their hunting skills to catch their prey.

Tent-web spiders

In Tenerife where I am living we have a very common spider which is one of the tent-web spiders. Cyrtophora citricola tends to live in communities of males and females. They spin large sheet-like webs that they drape over foliage and hence the name "tent-web."

Tent-web Spider

The females spin cocoons in which they lay their eggs and these hang in the middle of their webs where they can stand guard over them.
This particular species, which is also found in the other Canary Islands and in Africa, tends to spin its webs in clumps of Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-barbarica) and in the massive spiky leaves of the Century Plant (Agave americana). Living like this presumably offers the spiders some protection from predators and humans too! Many people are scared of spiders and kill them but I think they are amazing little animals!
Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.