Porcelain Fungus, Oudemansiella mucida

Porcelain Fungus, Oudemansiella mucida

Porcelain Fungus, Oudemansiella mucida. Photograph by Vanna Bartlett.

Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly this year. In the last week of September it was still summer, then temperatures became more seasonal and we had some rain at last. With autumn came fungi.

On Monday we walked through the woods at Felbrigg Hall in North Norfolk. This is where I saw my first Porcelain Fungus (Oudemansiella mucida) several years ago. It was high up in a Beech tree but nonetheless the shiny white fruit bodies were unmistakable (see some great photos here). This time, however, we were lucky enough to find the fungus on a Beech stump and we could admire it in all its shining, slimy glory.

Porcelain Fungus can be found throughout northern and central Europe (see UK distribution) and grows on dead or dying Beech trees, or on dying Beech branches. Autumn is the time of year to see it. Sometimes it is very plentiful and the fruit bodies can cover an entire tree.

Porcelain Fungus is very slimy and its specific name, mucida, refers to the layer of transparent mucus that covers the fungus’ cap. The genus Oudemansiella contains between 15 and 42 species, depending on which classification system is used, and is named after the Dutch mycologist Cornelius Anton Jan Abraham Oudemans (1825–1906). Other English names for Porcelain Fungus include Poached Egg Fungus and Slimy Beech Cap.

The fungus is edible, though I haven’t tried it yet. It has the advantage of not looking like anything else, but if you do decide to try it, remove the mucus first. John Wright (in the River Cottage Mushrooms Handbook, which I have recommended before) describes how he was converted to eating this fungus. The mucus should be washed off and tough stems removed and then the caps can be sauteed. Apparently the flavour is “surprisingly rich”. The Wild Food UK website says Porcelain Fungus has a “good mushroomy taste”.

Porcelain Fungus fights off competing fungi by producing fungicides called strobilurins. (The name comes from Strobilurus tenacellus, the Pinecone Cap, which is where the compounds were first isolated. The Pinecone Cap uses strobilurins to stop competing fungi from growing on the pine cones on which it grows.)

According to an article in Pest Management Science entitled ‘The strobilurin fungicides‘ (D. Bartlett et. al 2002), commercially produced strobilurins were first sold in 1996 and sales totalled approximately $620 million in 1999, representing over 10% of the global fungicide market.

In the UK, DEFRA produces a fact sheet on strobilurins, ‘Use of Strobilurin Fungicides on Cereals‘ and The American Phytopathological Society has produced ‘QoI (Strobilurin) Fungicides: Benefits and Risks‘ on its website, which explains how the fungicides are applied. Strobilurins work by blocking electron transport in mitochondria so that they can no longer produce energy. Since their introduction in agriculture, some fungi have become resistant to strobilurins, so they are now used more sparingly, often in conjunction with other chemicals. (See also ‘Resistance Management is Essential with Strobilurin Fungicides‘.)

Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum

Peacock on Hemp Agrimony

Peacock butterfly feeding on Hemp Agrimony

As summer reaches its end Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, is coming towards the end of its flowering period. It is one of the glories of the summer, with frothy, pinkish flower clusters that appear from July to September and are often covered in insects, especially butterflies and hoverflies.

Hemp Agrimony (sometimes given a hyphen: Hemp-agrimony) is a native of the British Isles and other parts of Europe. It is a perennial herb and is found on base-enriched soils in a wide range of damp or wet habitats. Hemp Agrimony grows along the edges of ponds, lakes, canals and rivers and in fens, damp meadows and wet woodland. In some places it can also be found in dry woods, on hedge banks or on waste ground. It is more coastal further north but its range extends to Ireland and parts of Northern Scotland (see map).

A member of the Daisy family, Asteraceae, Hemp Agrimony is a bushy plant with flat-topped heads of numerous tiny pink flowers. (There are some great photographs of the plant on the Wildflower Finder website.) The flowers are followed by fluffy white seeds in autumn, which are spread by the wind. Hemp Agrimony’s trifoliate leaves, which have long, toothed leaflets, are attached in pairs to a reddish stem, which can grow between one and two metres tall. The name ‘Hemp Agrimony’ comes from the leaves’ resemblance to those of Hemp (Cannabis sativa). This resemblance is only superficial and Hemp Agrimony does not contain the cannabinoids that are found in Hemp (a member of a separate family, the Cannabaceae, which also contains Hops). Nonetheless, Flora Britannica relates the story of a raid on the Sussex Trust for Nature Headquarters by the Drugs Squad, because someone mistakenly thought the plant was Cannabis.

Hemp Agrimony has sometimes been used medicinally and the Modern Herbal and The Herbal Resource websites list uses including purifying the blood and treating jaundice, fevers and influenza. However, the plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids and these can cause liver damage, so beware! (Also see my post about Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, from March 2012.)

Eupatorium cannabinum has several other English names as well as Hemp Agrimony and Hemp-agrimony, including Raspberries and Cream (from the appearance of the flowers), Ague Weed (from its use in treating fevers), Holy Rope, St. John’s Herb, Sweet Mandulin, Sweet-Smelling Trefoil, Thoroughwort, Waterhemp and Water Maudlin.

If you have a damp and sunny or partly shaded area in your garden, Hemp Agrimony is worth growing. The related Eupatorium purpureum, from North America, known as Joe Pye Weed, has darker flowers and is also a good choice for gardens. It looks especially good with other late-flowering perennials, such as Rudbeckia and Helenium.

Purple Hairstreak butterfly on Hemp Agrimony

Purple Hairstreak butterflies usually stay up at tree top level, but this one has been tempted down by Hemp Agrimony.

Buddleja (a.k.a. Buddleia) – the butterfly bush

It’s nearly a month since I wrote my last blog post, because the weather has been sunny and warm and I’ve spent quite a bit of time out and about looking for butterflies and other insects. I have photographed many of these on Buddleja bushes in various parts of Norfolk. It is not surprising that the most commonly grown species, Buddleja davidii, is known as the Butterfly Bush.

Red Admiral butterfly on Buddleija

Red Admiral butterfly on Buddleija davidii

I tend to spell Buddleja with an “i” – “Buddleia” – and this was the spelling I grew up with. However, Linnaeus used the spelling Buddleja and this has now been adopted as the correct spelling. The genus Buddleja is in its own family, the Buddlejaceae, and the name was given to commemorate the Reverend Adam Buddle (1662–1715), an English cleric and botanist who spent much of his life in East Anglia.

Buddleja davidii comes from China and is one of a number of shrubs in the genus. It grows easily in gardens, preferring a sunny spot, though even in shade its tall branches can grow up into the sun within a season. Flower spikes are produced in July, August and September at the top of the same season’s growth. The flowers are strongly scented and can be a bit overpowering on a hot sunny day. Outdoors they are pleasant but in a vase indoors their presence rapidly overpowers and I’ve only tried them as cut flowers once, for about an hour.

Left to its own devices, a Buddleja davidii bush can grow very large. New shoots grow outwards and upwards each year and soon the flowers are about fifteen to twenty feet (4 – 6 metres) tall and too tall to see any insects (especially butterflies) that are attracted to them. It is a good idea to prune the bushes every year, to about a foot (30cm) from the ground. This can be done in autumn or early spring – I cut mine in March. Cut stems can be used as hardwood cuttings in winter, if you want to propagate. They are very easy to grow: I use my Buddleja sticks to mark rows of seedlings on my allotment and a few of these markers sprout leaves every year! Cuttings are a good way to produce plants with the same flower colour as the parent, if you have a cultivar you particularly like. Buddleija davidii produces copious seed in the south of Britain, but the resulting plants will usually have pale mauve flowers.

Since Buddleija davidii self-seeds so readily, it can become a very invasive plant in urban areas and on waste ground or on railway tracks. The species was introduced to Kew Gardens in 1896 and was growing in the wild in the UK by the 1920s. In 2008 DEFRA estimated that Buddleja costs the British economy £961,000 per year, because it damages old buildings and has to be cleared from railway tracks. Maybe this isn’t entirely bad: a Buddleja seeded into our chimney on our previous house and cost us money (bad for us) but it also provided employment to a local handyman (good for him and the local economy). Butterfly Conservation have produced a very sensible Position Statement about Buddleja davidii, which suggests ways to use the plant to encourage butterflies without it becoming a nuisance. The RSPB also give advice, including alternative plants for attracting butterflies. I find that Verbena bonariensis is especially attractive to butterflies, even when a Buddleja davidii is in flower right beside it.

Buddleja davidii is also an invasive species in some other parts of the world and is banned in some parts of the United States. On her Toronto Gardening All Year Round blog, Rosemary Waigh recommends some alternative plants for attracting butterflies in the United States and Canada.

Buddleja seeds are appreciated by birds but if you’re concerned about the plant spreading, you can remove the spent flowerheads when they turn brown, which also makes the plant flower longer. (Seeds don’t develop until late winter.) If you prune some bushes in autumn and some later in spring you will also prolong the flowering season.

There are other, more refined, varieties of Buddleja. Buddleja x weyeriana is the name given to hybrids between Buddleja davidii and the spring flowering “Orange Ball Tree”, Buddleja globosa. Flowers of B. x weyeriana are intermediate between the two parents, but the flowers are produced slightly later than Buddleja davidii. Flower colour varies, so it’s a good idea to look for one in nursery or garden centre in August, so you can see the flowers before buying. Variety ‘Sungold’ is one of the loveliest, with clear yellow flowers. We grow a form with a mix of mauve and yellow in the flowers, perhaps a variant of ‘Moonlight’. Ours attracts butterflies and bees just like B. davidii. Growth and pruning are like B. davidii. Not everyone is a fan – the late Christopher Lloyd wrote that B. x weyeriana “combines the worst features of both parents in a sickly orange, pink and mauve vomit.” I think that was very unkind, but you can decide.

Buddleja globosa flowers in early summer and for this reason I have rarely seen butterflies on the blooms, though the flowers have plenty of nectar and are loved by bees. The shrub needs very little pruning.

Bumblebees on Buddleja globosa

Bumblebees on Buddleja globosa

We also grow Buddleja alternifolia. This is an elegant plant, though it can grow as big as any other Buddleja (3 metres high and 4 metres across). It has smaller, alternate leaves which look a bit like willow, and elegant arches of pale mauve flowers. The flowers are produced on the previous year’s shoots in late spring, so pruning is very different from Buddleja davidii. As with B. globosa, bees like the flowers. The species is not invasive in the UK.

Buddleja alternifolia

A fine specimen of Buddleja alternifolia, in the Bishop’s Garden in Norwich.

There is a lot of other interesting information on different species and varieties of Buddleja on the web. I can recommend the The Telegraph’s article “The Butterfly Effect: blossoming buddleia” and the Urban Butterfly Garden and The Buddleia Garden websites. The Plants for a Future website reports no known uses of Buddleja for human food or medicine, but the flowers can be used to make dyes.

Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca

Tufted Vetch
A month ago I wrote about our wildflower meadow and at the time of writing it was predominantly white. A month later, the Wild Carrots are still in flower but the southern half of the meadow is now purple with Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca. All this comes from a single plant, though I notice it has set seed and there is a much smaller plant to the north.

Tufted Vetch is a member of the Pea family (Fabaceae) and is a scrambling perennial herb that dies down completely in the winter. Indeed, this spring I wondered if I’d lost the plant, as I could find no sign of it when most of the other wild flowers in the meadow started to grow. I needn’t have worried – the plant is in rude health. It started to flower at the end of June and will continue into August. After it has flowered, four to eight seeds will be produced per pod. Each pod has a distinctive nail or claw-like tip.

My plant came in a pot but Tufted Vetch is found in most parts of the British Isles, in hedgerows, road verges, woodland edges, scrubby grassland and on river and canal banks. It can also be found in permanent pastures and hay meadows, provided these are cut late in the season after the plant has set seed. It doesn’t like permanently wet soil but grows in drier parts of marshes and fens. Outside Britain, Tufted Vetch occurs throughout Europe, in Greenland and in Asia as far east as Japan. It has been introduced to North America, where it is naturalised from Canada to South Carolina, including Minnesota. (It is sometimes considered to be invasive.) Its other English names include Cow Vetch, Bird Vetch, Blue Vetch and Boreal Vetch.

Tufted Vetch needs the support of other plants and it scrambles up their stems, using tendrils. But its leaves are fine enough to allow light to reach the plants that provide its support. I love Tufted Vetch’s single-sided clusters of blue-violet flowers and so do bees, especially the Brown-banded Carder Bee, Bombus pascuorum.

Bombus pascuorum on Tufted Vetch

Bombus pascuorum (Brown-banded Carder Bee) on Tufted Vetch

Tufted Vetch can be used as a green manure or as a forage crop for cattle and, like other members of the Pea family, the plant has root nodules which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Budgerigars and other pet birds are apparently fond of the seed and foliage.

According to the Plants For A Future website Tufted Vetch’s seeds can be eaten when cooked (boiled or roasted) and the leaves and young stems can be eaten if cooked. The leaves can also be used to make a tea. The plant can promote lactation – the technical name is “galactogogue“.

If you’d like to grow Tufted Vetch, it is quite easy to grow from seed. The tough seed coat inhibits germination, so you may need to be patient, or you can scarify the seed to speed things up.

Our Wildflower Meadow

Meadow in mid June 2016. (The yellow flower at the front is Cat’s-ear, which was already in the lawn.)

When we moved house just over three years ago the garden was empty, almost literally. The previous owners didn’t like gardening and the back garden was mostly lawn.

Within days we had started to create a garden – this was a much higher priority than making changes to the house. By the end of the first summer we had several flowerbeds, a gravel garden, a greenhouse and a pond. The next step was to make the lawn a bit more exciting, by creating a small wildflower meadow, just nine feet (nearly three metres) long and six feet (nearly two metres) wide. We chose a sunny spot towards the end of the garden.

I started work in August 2013 by removing the turf. Removing turf reduces the fertlity of the soil and this helps to prevent the grass from becoming too lush once your meadow establishes itself. If you take the turf up and lightly disturb the soil and then leave it for several weeks, you should be able to remove the resulting crop of weeds by hand and then sow your wildflower seeds. But the summer of 2013 was very dry and I found that nothing germinated until I sowed my wildflower seeds on 8th September and watered them in.

clear ground

September 2013: I removed the turf and sowed the wild flower seeds.

I sowed a wildflower seed mix for sandy soils from Emorsgate Seeds. It is a good idea to know what soil type you have, as different mixes are available for different soils but if you’re not sure, you can choose a general purpose wildflower mix.

A wildflower mix for a meadow includes grasses such as Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), Crested Dogstail (Cynosurus cristatus) and Smaller Cat’s-tail (Phleum bertolonii). These are very beautfiful and add to the meadow’s interest to humans and wildlife alike.

As the meadow grew I also added container grown plants in ones and twos, such as Lesser and Greater Knapweeds (Centaurea nigra and C. scabiosa), Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris), Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca). I also moved some Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) from the allotment to one corner of the meadow.

This is now the meadow’s third summer and it has changed every year.

In the first summer poppies dominated. They weren’t in the seed mix but the soil’s seed bank. They were extremely pretty and actually benefitted the slower growing perennials in the seed mix by acting as a nurse crop, proving protection to the growing seedlings.

mostly poppies

Early June 2014: Mostly poppies, plus a clump of transplanted Oxeye Daisies.

In the second summer the poppies mostly died out but the flowers from the seed mix more than made up for this loss, especially the airy red-green dock flowers of Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and a mass of Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), the latter proving very popular with various beetles. Common Red Soldier Beetles (Rhagonycha fulva) actually preferred these heads to those of Bishop’s Flower (Ammi majus), the star of the previous summer.

This year more plants from the seed mix have matured: Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) is in flower and there are recognisable plants of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), which will flower later in the summer or next year. Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta) and Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) have established themselves from seed and the Oxeye Daisies have spread throughout the meadow.

meadow July 2015

Mid July 2015: Wild Carrot and Bird’s-foot Trefoil in the meadow. The border in the background is also in full flower, giving the illusion that the meadow is larger than it is.

Every time we walk around the garden we do at least a couple of circuits of the meadow, looking at the flowers and the insects they attract. Apart from a pond (which is even better), creating a small wild flower meadow (or a big one if you have room) is one of the best ways of attracting wildlife to a garden.

I expect the meadow to continue to develop over the years. Once established it requires very little maintenance, other than a cut at the end of summer with a pair of shears, removing the cuttings after a couple of days. Removing the cuttings keeps the soil fertility low, which is especially important on heavier soils, otherwise coarser grasses and vigorous weeds can become established. Last year I cut half the meadow but left the other half as shelter for hibernating invertebrates and frogs, and because the dead heads of the Wild Carrots were so lovely.

On our allotment (also on sandy soil) we established a much larger wildflower meadow over ten years ago. This supports insects such as the Six-spot Burnet moth and Long-winged Coneheads. It also has a self-supporting population of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), which is a hemiparasite on grasses and restricts their vigour. I tried to establish Yellow Rattle in the meadow in the garden in autumn 2014 but only a few plants grew last year. I will probably try again: if I do I will need to create some open spaces with bare soil within the meadow to encourage it to establish. I would need to sow the seed in autumn, as it needs a period of winter chill in order to germinate.

Yellow rattle in the meadow on the allotment, June 2016.