Archive for July, 2013

July 30, 2013

A Spring Break

30 July 2013

Did you see the Springwatch special on butterflies and moths? It was great to see them brought to people’s attention and some good information imparted. If you are in Dorset and want to see butterflies, remember the Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation organises butterfly walks – see the website for info. Talking of Spring…..

Two years ago I had a very silly Spring. Hastening out the back door at the end of March to get on with things in the garden, I tripped, fell with my foot over the metal strip at the bottom of the door frame and broke four bones in my foot. I was hobbling around using a zimmer frame (boy, does that make you feel old!) and could only get upstairs on my bum – and all this with an electician working in the house and the roof being re-thatched. The first time I made it outside, the thatchers gave me a cheer!

It got still sillier with two requests from the national Butterfly Conservation to use my garden for filming – being quite close to the HQ means I’m handy. So I had one session on BBC Breakfast show, with the Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation, Martin Warren, and another with an independant film crew doing a piece for Allan Titchmarsh’s “Love your Garden”.  Both times it rained, and the BBC filming was so early in the day they had to bring in lights!

BBC filming in my garden. The gentleman to the right of the cameraman is Martin Warren, CEO of Butterfly Conservation, and the presenter at the far end is Tim Muffet. I'm the one under the brolly with the foot in plaster!

BBC filming in my garden. The gentleman to the right of the cameraman is Martin Warren, CEO of Butterfly Conservation, and the presenter at the far end is Tim Muffet. I’m the one under the brolly with the foot in plaster!

At least by the time Spun Gold TV visited, it was June and things were rather greener, and I’d progressed to crutches, but it still rained…

Film crew from Spun Gold TV with conservationist, Charlotte Uhlenbroek.

Film crew from Spun Gold TV with conservationist, Charlotte Uhlenbroek.

There is another link to butterflies here, which I’ll tell you about in the next post. Clue – it’s to do with what Charlotte is holding in her hand below…

Charlotte telling us about the life cycle of butterflies.

Charlotte telling us about the life cycle of butterflies.


July 25, 2013

Unexpected frogs

25 July 2013

I’m still feeling a bit grotty, so for the foreseeable future, I’m dropping this blog down to a post every third or fourth day. Apologies, but I’ve got to ease the load – I’ve got an underlying health problem (fibromyalgia) which is rather unforgiving.

In the recent hot weather, things in the greenhouses have been needing a lot of water. I went up to the top greenhouse the other day, noticed things were flagging and grabbed the watering can to dunk it into the waterbutt. I’d actually got it into the water before I noticed there was something floating on top of the water, which proved to be a large frog! I was worried it was dead – there is no way it could have got out of the butt with the water as low as it was, so it would have become exhausted from swimming. The movement of the water, however, caused it to wave its legs, so it was obviously alive – hurrah! I grabbed an empty flowerpot and scooped him out, putting the pot on its side with him still inside – he sat there looking a bit dazed (if a frog can look dazed), so I left him to a bit of peace and quiet. Checking on him later, he’d hopped out and under the table, and has now disappeared, so hopefully he has recovered.

Top greenhouse, showing water butts either side of the door

Top greenhouse, showing water butts

The butts outside the greenhouse are very useful. Though I’ve got a hose running right up the garden, the tap is near the house, so if you see something that needs watering, it’s a long trek back down to turn the water on; and, anyway, I think it is best to save as much water locally as possible. We don’t keep the original tops on them, but have fashioned wooden lids, hinged at the back, so filling the watering can is as simple as flapping up the lid, and dunking the can. How the frog managed to get in is a bit of a puzzle, but I can only think he somehow got up onto a table that is round the back of the greenhouse, just out of sight in the photo, via all the greenery, and from there managed to get in the gap under the lid and fall in.

Water in open containers in the garden is always a potential danger to wildlife, so I’ll look at what I can do to avoid this happening again. I’ve already learned the lesson with the watering cans I leave in the greenhouse: I picked one up one day, filled it from the butt and tried to use it, only to find the water was only coming out very slowly. Suspecting a snail up the spout – a regular occurence, I tipped the can upside down and banged it on the ground. To my surprise, not one but two frogs fell out – both seemingly unharmed.

The other frog trap in the garden is the cold frame, round the back of the greenhouse; I cleared it out in mid-summer once, to find seven frogs of varying sizes in there. I think the big ones could get out, but the small ones probably couldn’t, so there is now a frog ramp in the form of a plank of wood sloping from ground level to the top of the front.

Providing water for creatures in the garden is one of the most wildlife-friendly things you can do, so please create some sort of water feature, no matter how small – just make sure things can get out as well as get in. It doesn’t  have to be sophisticated: when we first moved in, there were no water butts outside the greehouse, so an old washing-up bowl caught a bit of water; going up there one day, my husband found a newt in the bowl – the first newt we saw here. Having built a pond, we now see 30+ most years, but I don’t think they’d care if the pond was just a giganitic washing-up bowl – though I’d rather not do the washing up if it was!

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July 21, 2013

Eryngium for butterflies and bees

21 July 2013

Apologies again – another four-day instead of two-day gap in posts. I’m still feeling a bit under the weather, which also means I’m not getting out in the garden to see things to talk about – and it’s VERY hot out there at the moment, too!

I’m a plantaholic. I firmly believe in the mantra that you should find out what grows in your garden and grow lots of it, but it’s an endless journey finding out what will grow here, and there are always more plants to try, which is wonderful. Occasionally, I see a plant somewhere and get that “must have” feeling, and one such plant was Eryngium ‘Oliveranium’.

Eryngium 'Oliveranium' with bee

Eryngium ‘Oliveranium’ with bee

I can’t actually now remember whether I saw it in the flesh (if plants can be described that way) or in a catalogue, but I was really taken by it. It is one of the bluest of the erynguims (also called Sea Hollies) and not only has blue flowers, but the stems go blue as they age, too. The flowers are actually multiple ones in the lump in the middle – the outside bits are bracts, and jolly nice they are too, if a bit prickly.

 I’ve had three goes at growing it, undeterred by two failures partly because the plant should suit my soil and partly because the problem was probably largely down to me not keeping other stuff from smothering it and possibly to not giving it good enough drainage. Third time, with a very robust plant from Elizabeth MacGregor nurseries, was lucky, and I’ve now added two more plants to get a good show. It is said to be one of the easier ones to keep going over winter, the key, as with so many plants, being very good drainage – it can take the cold, but not having wet roots.

I knew these sea hollies were good for bees, but I am delighted to see that they are also attracting butterflies: I wandered out with the camera today and caught both a Meadow Brown and a Small Tortoiseshell on them.

Eryngium 'Oliveranium' with Meadow Brown (left) and Small Tortoiseshell (right)

Eryngium ‘Oliveranium’ with Meadow Brown (left) and Small Tortoiseshell (right)

So it seems you can have your Eryngium and your wildlife too – give it a go.

July 13, 2013


14 July 2013

I’ve caught some of the Hampton Court Flower show on TV this week, and was very pleased to see Rachel de Thame pointing out that a lot of roses are not very good for insects because they have too many petals, but that the single varieties are good for wildlife.

I’m not a grower of bush roses – they take up too much room for too short a display, and look rather ugly inbetween flowerings. I do, however, like ramblers/climbers. The difference between ramblers and climbers, by the way, is that ramblers will usually only bloom once in a season, while climbers will repeat flower, though there tend to be less flowers at one time than you will find on a rambler. My ramblers are in full flower at the moment and looking magnificent – I’m not sure what’s doing it, but this is one of the most floriferous years I’ve known, for all flowers.

One rose I’ve got is rosa polyantha grandiflora – a multisyllabic name for a very simple rose. I’ve got it growing on a trellis, for which it’s really too big, but I like it for both its flowers and hips later in the season. You can see that there are a number of branches heading for the sky – these will be the shoots on which the flowers will come next year, so one of the jobs for later in the year is selecting which to keep and tying them horizontal (or as close as possible), as this encourages flowering. It’s not a job I look forward to – it’s quite a thorny rose!

Rose polyantha grandiflora

Rose polyantha grandiflora

The other one which is going at full blast is not a single flowered rose: it was here when we moved in . It does, however, smell lovely, and the waft of scent around our back gate is very welcome. You can see from the photo below that I’ve got a clematis growing through it; my theory was that this would flower after the rose had finished, but it hasn’t worked out that way – I’m not complaining, I rather like it as it is. It is called Félicité-Perpétue.

Rose Félicité-Perpétue

Rose Félicité-Perpétue

Roses can be good for insects – single flowers allow access to nectar/pollen and the hips can be good food for the birds in autumn (not all roses set hips, so do your research). Whether you equally welcome the rose sawfly, whose caterpillars munch their way through the leaves is another matter – I’m OK with them: they are good food for the blue tits.

July 12, 2013

How to identify your butterfly – time of year

12 July 2013

Apologies I missed a blog – have had a virus which drained me of all energy.

One of the things you don’t realise when you are new to looking at butterflies is that each species only flies for a certain length of time each year, and the months in which they fly each year are fairly consistent. A few butterflies may be seen almost throughout the year, notably the Brimstone, which is only absent in the very depths of winter. Others are very limited in the time they spend in the adult stage: each Silver-studded Blue, for example (not a butterfly which you will find in your garden) only lives for 4-5 days.

Male Silver-studded Blue. Photo by Ken Dolbear.

Male Silver-studded Blue. Photo by Ken Dolbear.

This can be a great help in identification. If you see a blue butterfly in March or April it has to be a Holly Blue – none of the other blues are on the wing at this time. If you see a white butterfly in April, it is more likely to be a Green-veined White or an Orange Tip than a Large or Small White – the latter may be on the wing, but are much less numerous, judging from my experience in my garden. With the most common butterflies in the brown family, the Meadow Brown is out before the Gatekeeper – this year, the first Meadow Brown reported to the Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation’s website was 19 June, but the Gatekeeper didn’t turn up until 11 July. Most identification guides will show you the flight period of the adult, so use this information when you are trying to identify a butterfly you have seen.

Don’t forget size is important too – see my article on the subject. The Silver-studded Blue above is tiny, with a wingspan of about 30mm, wheras the Meadow Brown’s wingspan is around 50mm.

I’ve just had the first Meadow Browns in the garden; I haven’t got a photo of them yet, but the shot below is one of my favourite ones from several years ago.

Two Meadow Browns on an echinacea flower

Meadow Browns on an echinacea flower

July 8, 2013

Dragonfly excitement

8 July 2013

I’ve been having an exciting time with the odonata in my garden the last few days – that is, dragonflies and damselflies.

We’ve been seeing Broad-bodied Chasers around for a little while now – see my article on 14 June. I wasn’t, however, aware they were breeding in the pond until I was scooping blanket weed out a few days back (a daily job if I want to be able to see anything) and found I’d got a dragonfly larva which was so broad that it had to be one of this species. Then today, I’ve actually seen a female laying in the mud on the edge of some reed roots – she was hovering, bending her abdomen forward and jabbing the egg into the mud, then repeating the process numerous times.

A dragonfly question that has been puzzling me is why we haven’t seen any Southern Hawkers emerge from the pond in the last couple of years, when previously they had been regulars, usually going up around the end of May. We know they laid last year, because we say the female doing so: she laid both on the greenery around the edge of the pond, and into cracks in the bark of two logs we’ve got by the bench to serve as tea mug holders.

Southern Hawker female laying eggs 1 September 2012

Southern Hawker female laying eggs 1 September 2012

To my complete delight, we have just had two come out, which we know because we’ve just found the empty cases, which remain clinging to the reeds in a slightly eerie way (see photo below). We guess they were just later than usual, unless they are a different species: in theory you can tell from the empty cases, but you have to be an expert to do it.   I know there are still at least five large larvae in the pond, so hopefully we’ll see evidence of more emerging.

Empty case of dragonlfly larva on pond reed

Empty case of dragonlfly larva

I also spotted another dragonfly in the garden – one I’ve not seen before. I think its a Common Darter female (see below). I am finding some smaller larvae in the pond, but I’m not expert enough to tell what they are, or even whether they are of a smaller species, or are just younger: like butterflies, dragonflies do all their growing in the larval stage, so they start small and get bigger, periodically shedding their skin.

Common Darter Dragonfly

Common Darter Dragonfly

We are also getting Large Red Damselflies, and another turquoise species, which I must see if I can find a name for. If you are seeing dragonflies, do report them to the Dorset Dragonfly Group. And if you possibly can, have a pond in your garden – they may well come.

July 6, 2013

More Scabious Flowers for Butterflies

6 July 2013

I’ve got four different varieties of  scabious-type flowers in the garden, besides the knautia macedonica I covered on 4 July – see that post also for notes on their use for butterflies and moths.

The most common colour for scabious is blue, but in the wild it veers towards purple. In the cultivated varieties, work has been done to cross-breed to produce purer blues. The largest-flowered scabious I know is scabiosa caucasica, and one of the best blues is ‘Fama blue’, the flowers of which reach about 15″ (37cm). I grew this from seed a couple of years ago, and the plants are starting to become well established, though they never look very robust, or like they can produce the large flowers they do – the flowerhead is 3″ (8cm) across. If you look at the close-up of the flower, below, you can see why butterflies and moths like it: it is nice and open, so they can stand on it comfortably and dip their probiscus into each individual floret for the nectar. The photo on the right is of a much smaller scabious: I think it is one called ‘Butterfly Blue’, which seems very appropriate; these flowers only grow to about 8″ (20cm) high.

Left: flower of scabious 'Fama blue'. Right: Small blue scabious.

Left: flower of scabious ‘Fama blue’. Right: Small blue scabious.

I also have two yellow-flowered scabious, very similar in flower, but not in size. The big on is BIG: going by the name of cephalaria gigantea, the flowers, which are just coming out, reach 5-6′ (up to 2m). Thinking about it, I don’t remember many butterflies showing interest in it, but it is definitely liked by bees if you look carefully, there is one on the flower to the right of the picture. The smaller yellow one, which is probably Scabiosa columbaria subsp. ochroleuca (I can’t even remember how I got the first plant) seems quite variable in height, varying from 15″ to 36″ (38cm to 1m) but it is a very slender, great for tucking in amongst other flowers.

Left: Tall yellow cephalaria gigantea. Right: Small yellow scabious.

Left: Tall yellow cephalaria gigantea. Right: Small yellow scabious.

The vast majority of scabious won’t grow in acid soils, but there is one that does: jasione, also known as sheep’s-bit scabious. I’ve grown it in a pot, and it’s a pretty little plant, a bit like a small devil’s-bit scabious (see 4 July post for photo of dbs).

July 4, 2013

Scabious Flowers for Butterflies

4 July 2013

There are a lot of scabious-type flowers, many of which are classed in the scabiosa family, but some of which are put in other familes.  All the ones I know will be used by butterflies, and probably moths, for nectar, and a dozen or more moths use various varieties as foodplants for their catepillars. They all have pin-cushion shaped flowers (some flatter than others) on long, wiry stems.

There are several scabious found in the wild: I’m just growing some field scabiousn but it hasn’t flowered yet, so I can’t report on it, but I have got devil’s-bit scabious, and this makes a good garden plant; in the wild it tends to be found in damper meadows, but in the garden it seems pretty tolerant of most non-extreme conditions. Like all scabious, the leaves stay low, and the flowers are much higher, but in this version even the flowers only get to about 18″ (45cm) at most. In the wild, devils-bit scabious is the food plant of the Marsh Fritillary, which is a beautiful butterfly – I’ll give you a photo of it below, not taken by me. Unfortunately, you won’t get the Marsh Frit in your garden, no matter how much devil-bit scabious you grow – it needs specialised conditions.

Marsh Fritillary - photo by Mark Pike

Marsh Fritillary – photo by Mark Pike

The first of the cultivated varieties I’ve got, as in the right-hand photo below, is knautia macedonica; this comes in either pastel shades of pink and mauve, or a deep red; you can judge the height of the flowers from comparing them to the foxglove: they are quite tall, but very airy, so they don’t block the view of the plants behind them very solidly. There is a version of the dark red one called ‘Mars midget’, which I’ve just grown from seed, so hopefully it will flower this year.  We had a couple of goldfinches on our knautia only yesterday –  feeding on the flowerheads setting seed.

Left: Devil's-bit scabious flower with a Comma butterfly. Right: the mauve-coloured bobbles of knautia macedonica.

Left: Devil’s-bit scabious flower with a Comma butterfly. Right: the mauve-coloured bobbles of knautia macedonica.

I’ll continue the scabious story in the next article, but you cannot go wrong growing any variety of this very easy-going plant. The garden varieties are widely available, and it is getting easier to buy the wild ones – do remember it’s against the law to dig up wild plants, though you can take some seed. Happy growing!

July 2, 2013

How can half a butterfly fly?

2 July 2013

Writing the last article, on heliotrope, reminded me of a photo I’ve got from years ago, of three Small Whites on heliotrope. It is memorable because the butterflies were in such a tatty state – in fact, I’m not even positive they are Small Whites: there is so much damage to their wings that the main identifying mark on the top of the wing is not visible. A Small White will just have a dash of black across the tip of its forewings, wheras the Large White has a mark with extends further down the side of the wing – you can see examples at

Three very tatty Whites on heliotrope

Three very tatty Whites on heliotrope

The two pictures below are both of Red Admirals. The one on the left shows very clearly how the butterfly has been grabbed by a bird, but how it managed to get away and go about its business: if the bird had grabbed its body, it would have been dead. The photo on the right shows bird damage, but also illustrates how faded old butterflies can look. The colour on the butterfly’s wings is created by huge numbers of microsopic scales, which may have pigment, but which will also reflect light in a particular way, creating what we perceive as colour. A butterfly looks worn because it has lost scales throughout its life, so the colours become dull and the butterfly almost transparent in places.

Red Admirals showing signs of bird damage and wear

Red Admirals showing signs of bird damage and wear

I’m not sure just how much wing a butterfly has to lose before it can’t fly – the Speckled Wood below, photographed last year, barely seems to have any rear wings at all, but was flying very competently. There are advantages to not having the “consciousness” that we humans boast about: if you have no concept that you cannot fly, you continue to do so until it really is physically impossible. A good lesson to learn.

Speckled Wood seen flying in the garden last year, despite having lost most of its hind wings.

Speckled Wood seen flying in the garden last year, despite having lost most of its hind wings.