When I wrote that last post, about the Papa Rema valley, how could I have forgotten this?
It might have been suddenly discovering again the Italians and their search for Albania that drove it out of my head, even though it’s weighed quite heavily on my mind ever since May 2019. When I saw these dead shrubs, quite high up in the valley, I knew immediately what had happened. It’s the work of the box moth caterpillar, recently arrived in Europe, which has killed all the boxes in parts of London. Box hedges and box balls, topiary patiently sheared and trimmed for years, all gone. In Lambeth, I heard, they were wiped out in a matter of days. Mine were killed more slowly: having just about survived the first attack in 2019 and begun to grow back, they were finished off the following year. But we accept such plagues, maybe because gardening is such an unnatural business. Up at G., in the big garden, they fought it with time and money. A biological control has been developed which uses parasites to kill the caterpillars, but it has to be sprayed on thoroughly once a fortnight all through the growing season, and it’s not cheap.. Most garden centres have stopped stocking box, and most gardeners have turned to euonymus and yew or given up altogether on sculptural neatness.
At St John’s we’re not sure what to do. It looked as if all the boxes would die, but in the end most have survived, and towards the end of last year we had only a scattering of caterpillars, not a plague. The box hedges though look ridiculous, like neat terraced streets after an air raid. Naturally, informal gardens with a wide variety of plants stand up much better to pests and diseases. Eggs and baskets.
And anyway, they’re only gardens! The devastation around Papa Rema was more upsetting. Every single box, and there were thousands, was dead. The splendid bio-diversity of the area was little consolation. Above about 800 metres box was a dominant shrub in the sub-storey beneath the trees, and higher up above the tree line, as I saw later on the other side of the mountain, it becomes even more important. (I suspect it has increased in numbers following deforestation.) Maybe higher up the winters are too cold for the caterpillars. I wrote to the national park after I got home – they’re monitoring the situation, the pests were only established in a few places, and there’s not a lot they can do.
At St John’s one day I saw one of our newly returned sparrows pull a caterpillar out of the hedge, drop it on the ground, peck cautiously at it like a two year old with a yucky vegetable, and leave it. They obviously don’t taste good. Or might the birds grow to like them?
To conclude, a more cheery picture from the other side of the mountain:
I took this picture for the splendid aubrieta, but you can see a juniper shoot and a few sprigs of still healthy box (top right).