3. The Pen Room, & Tyria jacobaeae.


6th June 2005. While browsing the web in search of a detailed map showing the course of the River Rea (which flows through Birmingham) we got side-tracked and ended up looking at the web-site of The Pen Room. For most of the 19th century, Birmingham was the centre of the manufacture of pen nibs. I mean, the world centre of that industry. It has been estimated that, in the late 19th century, around 50% of everything that was written, was written with pen nibs made in Birmingham! Fanciful? Possibly. But anyhow, there is a small (but really marvellous) Museum of Pen Nibs in Birmingham. So if you ever come here, don’t fail to visit it! Entry is free, and you will surely spend a pleasant hour or so there, as I did today. Check it out at: www.penroom.co.uk.


But while I was looking for somewhere to tether my bicycle, I noticed this gay & luxuriant clump of Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) growing around a street sign near the Pen Room, which is in the old ‘Jewellery Quarter’ of Birmingham, very near the city centre.  This was also interesting to us. On the one hand, it is a sinister, poisonous plant that, if eaten by livestock – particularly horses and cattle –, can cause grave illness and even death. On the other, it is also the larval food-plant of the attractive Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae), an unmistakable day-flying species, which has striking deep red hind wings of ‘metallic’ lustre.  Ragwort is ‘banned’ under The Weeds Act, 1959. I remember it from my childood, though, well before 1959. You would often see it covered (in due season) with the caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth. Brightly banded with black and orange stripes, they proclaimed by this warning colouration that they contained the alkaloids they had absorbed from the Ragwort, and that birds and other predators would find them distasteful. Come to think of it, presumably the bright colouration of the moth – and the fact that it flies by day - must also give the same signal to possible predators. Still, the Ragwort is a hardy plant, as this photo. illustrates, and can find a foothold even in built-up, industrial areas of a large city. Perhaps I should go back, from time to time, and check whether any Cinnabar moth larvae can be found on this clump? (Note added 5th May 2006: I didn’t, of course!)


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Location changed 22nd August 2007.