Wednesday 12 March 2014

Nature's Original Pharmacy

The first leaf on the Grapevine

I think that I detect a break in the clouds so let us venture forth and see what we can find. We get between 300 and 500 mm of rain down here in this corner of the island and most of it falls between mid November and mid March. It is at this time of the year that nature begins to yawn and stretch in earnest in preparation for the busiest time of the year, the spring. 

Evidence of this can be found right outside the front door; the first budding leaves appeared on the grapevine at the end of last week. They are getting earlier each year which seems to coincide with my observations that our winters are becoming shorter and wetter and our summers longer and drier.

Budding olives
Let’s take a stroll through the olive groves down into the gully and see if we can find some more examples of spring on its way. The olive trees themselves are now starting to bud and soon the ground will be carpeted with their tiny cream flowers, gradually turning brown and making the courtyard look like a plate of egg fried rice. 

Cretan Weed Clearance Operative
“Ah, good morning Giorgo how are you?” This gentleman trying to control two unruly puppies, a five year old child and a goat is my neighbour and owner of this grove which he refers to as his pharma or farm.  He ploughs between the trees and plants rows of vegetables. Other farmers leave the space fallow. Nobody locally uses herbicides or pesticides and there is a very good reason for this. The uncultivated land is the ‘small farm’ or pharmakia, the origin of the word pharmacy, and herbs and wild vegetables are still collected on a daily basis by all of us round here.

Cretan Viper's Grass and Soft-winged Flower Beetle
As you can see as we walk down along the gully’s edge many of the wild plants at this time of year are yellow. The flower head contains both the pollen producing and receiving apparatus that the plant needs to reproduce. As this pollen is transferred from plant to plant by insects in many cases, the bright yellow colours show up particularly well against the mass of greenery that the surrounding plants are generating in their early stages of growth.  It pays to advertise as we say in our human world. This Cretan Viper’s Grass is a good example, it has attracted one of the Soft-winged Flower beetles.

Here’s another common yellow flower. It’s a Sow-thistle. If you were to pick it then you’d find that it produces a milky sap. People used to believe that female pigs ate these to help them produce milk for their litters, hence the name. In truth they probably just liked the taste. It is quite closely related to lettuce and the young leaves are nice in a salad. In Europe it has been used in traditional medicines to treat liver problems. It is closely related to the Dandelion which has been shown to have hepatoprotective (liver protecting) properties.

Sow-thistle Aphids
Taking a closer look I see that it is not just pigs and humans who like Sow-thistles. The stem is covered in aphids. Aphids are related to bees, wasps and ants and this particular species only feeds on Sow-thistles. They need to make the most of it, the ladybirds (ladybugs in American English) will be emerging soon and they love a feast of aphids. Incidentally, ladybirds (or ladybugs if you prefer) are neither birds nor bugs: they are beetles.

Leaf-miner Flies (larvae and adult) and Hoverfly
Continuing our inspection take a look at these lower leaves with the white scribbling all over them. These are made by the larvae of leaf-miner flies. They’ll soon emerge into their adult stage, tiny little flies just a couple of millimetres long. There’s another type of fly: a hoverfly sitting on one of the larger leaves. They are important pollinators and that is how this marvellous pharmacy keeps going. The plants produce food and shelter for the insects, the insects pollinate the plants. The plants and insects are eaten by larger animals which later die and feed a whole host of animal life. These take the nutrients they need from the corpses, pass the rest back into the soil and these in turn are taken up by the next generation of plants. So the cycle continues provided we don’t break it with agricultural chemicals but as I say, we don’t do that in these parts and so we have this wonderful ‘pharmakia’ on our doorstep. There are herbs for cooking and healing, natural insect repellents, plenty of healthy foodstuffs and of course olives. All the basics of the much lauded Mediterranean diet. Oh look, young fennel – maybe we’ll have fish for dinner tonight.

There's so much to see and talk about at this time of year and never enough room on the blog so I'll add a little gallery of flowers, birds and butterflies on the  Naturalists Group page.

Until next week - happy hunting.

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Thanks this week to  Michael Geiser at the Coleoptera Group for help with the Soft-winged Flower Beetle.

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