• Shepherd’s Purse: The Protocarnivore On Your Doorstep

    Shepherd’s Purse: The Protocarnivore On Your Doorstep

    As I was walking home, a delicate plant growing en-masse around a tree pit caught my eye. With long stalks bearing tiny heart-shaped seed pods along its length ending in a cluster of small white flowers, it looked rather cute and innocuous. 

    Cue my eccentric plant lady urge to crouch down and take some close up photos for your viewing pleasure:

    What I’d found is Capsella bursa-pastoris, a plant commonly known as shepherd’s purse because the seed pods supposedly resemble the drawstring purses of old. It turns out the shepherd’s purse is a unique protocarnivorous plant, which means it is capable of trapping and killing insects much like the famous Venus Flytrap. However, unlike their carnivorous cousins, they lack the ability to directly digest nutrients from their prey.

    For the shepherd’s purse, its prey of choice are nematodes. Seeds of the shepherd’s purse release a sticky mucilage during germination that attracts and ensnares nematodes, killing them and in so doing, enriching the soil. In a study published on Nature, researchers observed the killing spree in action and found that seedlings grown in soil containing nematodes thrived, growing much stronger and taller than their counterparts. Next time you see a particularly flourishing patch of shepherd’s purse, you’ll know that you’re probably seeing the results of a nematode massacre.  

    Intriguingly, the same study mentions that shepherd’s purse along with some of its fellow Brassicaceae family members have demonstrated similarly deadly effects with mosquito larvae in previous studies. Upon exposure to dampened seeds, researchers observed impressive mortality rates in excess of 90%! Those charming seed pods aren’t so innocent after all . For unwitting invertebrates, they are heart-shaped parcels of doom.

    For humans, shepherd’s purse isn’t lethal or toxic. In fact, it is by all accounts quite an appetising vegetable, with a peppery flavour profile. Unlike the US and Europe where it is widely perceived as a weed, it is cultivated throughout much of Asia. In China, it is known as jìcài (荠菜) and used for cooking in Shanghai and the surrounding area, featuring in soups, porridges and dumpling fillings. I found a great recipe for pork and jìcài dumplings (I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks and sounds delicious so I know exactly what I’ll make if I ever have some fresh shepherd’s purse to hand).

  • Shroom Discovery Spotlight: Suillelus queletii

    Shroom Discovery Spotlight: Suillelus queletii

    Let me tell you about one of my favorite mushroom finds from last year – Suillelus queletii, also known as the Deceiving Bolete!

    Location spotted: on a grass island in the middle of a road in a residential area of Epping. On the same island were lime trees (Tillia x europaea).

    When: September 2022

    In my experience, grassy verges and roundabout islands are excellent places to go mushroom spotting. These pockets of nature are usually overlooked, but their low profile means that any mushrooms can grow in peace without the usual risk of being kicked over.


  • The Hidden World of Lichen: A Surprisingly Gastronomic History

    The Hidden World of Lichen: A Surprisingly Gastronomic History

    When I picture what extraterrestrial life would look like, I imagine that it would look quite similar to the many eccentric presentations of lichen. It can take on numerous forms and colours; sometimes vaguely plant-like, at other times reminiscent of a mould or coral. I’ve always loved finding lichen on walks, picking up colourful encrusted twigs from the forest floor to take a closer look. However, I didn’t know very much about it at all until recently, mostly thanks to Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life, which spends considerable time delving into the mysterious inner workings of these strange organisms.

    Lately, in classic Baader-Meinhof fashion, I’ve started seeing lichen absolutely everywhere. I was looking down at the pavement and noticing hundreds of circular patches that looked a bit like pieces of colourful chewing gum flattened into the ground. Upon closer inspection, I was chuffed to find that there were several species of lichen flourishing on the paving stones, so I took out my phone and tried to get some decent photos.