Wednesday 10 June 2015

Frolicking in the Fennel

Orb Web Weaver, Neoscona adianta

I was sitting in the shade of a myrtle bush the other day, idly watching an Orb weaver spider going about his business and wondering whether it would sit still long enough for a photograph, when my botanist friend Steve Lenton came crunching through the undergrowth, perspiring freely and covered with burrs from plants which were using him as a method of seed dispersal (they often use botanists and similar wandering mammals for this purpose).

“It’s all right for you general naturalists,” he grumbled, “you can just sit there and wait for the wildlife to come to you. If I want to find a new flower I have to go and look for it.”

Of course I refuted this slur entirely but I have to admit that as a hobby nature watching can be as active or inactive as your mood or capabilities dictate. So today I thought we’d take the inactive option and just stretch out in this patch of fennel and wait and see what happens. Make yourself comfortable and I’ll tell you a little bit about this wonderful aromatic plant that is going to be our host for the day.

Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
Not the prettiest of plants perhaps, tall and straggly and soon to have an unruly mop of yellow flower heads, but an amazingly useful one.  To the Romans it was both the herb of sight and good for stomach disorders. To quote the Roman physicians: "semen foeniculi pellit spiracula culi" (or “the fennel seeds make blow the arsehole"). Current wisdom concurs that fennel seeds or tea can relax the intestines and reduce bloating caused by digestive disorders. Nor were they wrong when it came to eyesight. A very mild dilution of fennel seeds makes an effective eyebath and extracts of fennel seed have been shown to have a potential use in the treatment of glaucoma. I’m never without it in the kitchen, the dried seeds keep my fish dishes fragrant throughout the winter but in summer the tiny flowers have a flavour that defies the written word. 

Swallowtail, Papilio machaon
Did you see that? A swallowtail butterfly just touched down on the feathery leaves of the fennel over there. Let’s see if she’s laid an egg. Yes, there it is look. Being such graceful ladies they delicately deposit each pearl like egg singly upon a frond. Different species around the world use various plants, often umbillifers (the plants with flower heads that look like inside out umbrellas) but in these parts they seem to have a particular predilection for fennel. Once hatched the attractive caterpillars have but one aim in life: to eat as much as they can, putting on weight for the great metamorphosis. They’re easy to keep in captivity, just give them air and plenty of food and a stick on which to pupate. You come down one morning and find your caterpillar busily tying itself to the twig and the following day you discover it has disappeared and a chrysalis (as the pupa of a butterfly is called) is there in its place. How long it stays in this state depends on the temperature where you live but down here in the warmth of southern Europe I only have to wait a few days until a bleary eyed, crumpled version of a butterfly emerges to sit in the sun and pump himself up prior to taking to the wing as a fully formed adult.

European Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica
Swallowtails of course are so named because their hind wings are forked like the wings of a swallow as you can see if you turn your gaze towards the grassland over there. Watching these birds is one of the delights of summer as they skim low over the road as you’re driving along with seemingly about as much care for oncoming traffic as the average Greek driver. Then, with the flick of a wing, they veer off suddenly in a magnificent display of aerial acrobatics. They don’t fly particularly fast but their manoeuvrability allows them to catch insects on the wing. Last month they were breeding, their mud pellet nests adhering to the porches of the houses in Ierapetra. An old Greek saying declares that a house is not a home until the swallow builds its nest there. Unfortunately I’m still waiting for mine but I’ve never seen swallows nesting outside of the town. When they’re feeding their young a protein packed caterpillar is a choice item and to a swallow, our youngsters nonchalantly climbing the stalk are just baby food on a stick.

Striped Shieldbug, Graphosoma lineatum italicum
But back to our fennel patch. I expect that you’ve noticed that we have another umbillifer growing in the patch and these are wild carrots. We met them before at the end of April when we visited the Carrot Club. They were in full flower then but now many of them have started to go to seed and they seem to be attracting an inordinate number of striped shield bugs. Now, there are two main versions of this insect, one (Graphosoma lineatum italicum for those who like to know such things) has predominantly black legs and can be found in the eastern Mediterranean region whilst the other (Graphosoma lineatum lineatum) has red legs and lives in central and northern Europe. They have in common black stripes that go from head to tail. A third version (Graphosoma semipunctatum – are you keeping up?) also has red legs but has black dots on the pronotum (the stripes are interrupted across the shoulders in other words) and is exclusively Mediterranean. Then we come to Crete and find a fourth version, thought to be endemic to the island but later found in Turkey, (Graphosoma creticum) which is shorter and fatter and the stripes don’t go all the way to the tail. (There are pictures of all of these on the excellent Italian site Natura Mediterraneo) . The ones we have here, with their heads and shoulders inconveniently buried in the plant, have black legs which makes them Graphosoma lineatum italicum. The little inset picture is one I took earlier and shows him in his full glory as it were. And the reason for this unusual excursion into detailed taxonomy? Fauna Europea, which is attempting to list all land based fauna species in Europe, has no data for Crete regarding the presence of Graphosoma lineatum italicum. Well now we can provide photographic evidence that it is alive and well in Crete and doing very nicely thank you. A small contribution to scientific knowledge perhaps but it just goes to show that anyone can add to the database of world knowledge regarding life on Earth.

Until next week – happy hunting.

See all the pictures including insets in detail on Flickr

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)




  1. Enjoyable as ever but I'm in shock! Fresh tender shoots of fennel with mixed greens, beans, and of course fish. Fennel seeds in stir fry, sauté cabbage and sweet potato, yum. BUT I didn't know you could use the flowers, and the worst thing is I'll now have to wait until next year to try them. Thanks for the tip. X

    1. They're in flower now Yvonne (July 2016) and I had some on my trout salad last night - delicious.


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