Wednesday Weed – Freesia

Dear Readers, when I was at the nursing home last week, visiting my Mum who is dying, the staff nurse was talking about how they could make the room a little more peaceful.

“We can put in softer lighting and gentle music”‘ she said, “and some candles, maybe some scented ones…”

“Not the scented candles!” I said, “I wouldn’t want Mum’s last thoughts to be about how much she hates the smell of jasmine…”

And indeed, Mum has something of a dislike of many scented products, especially since she became ill. Things that she’d previously loved have become overwhelming. But there is one flower that may still work, at least in its natural form, and that is the freesia. Its light perfume isn’t overbearing and thuggish, but insinuates itself into the mood of the room without any drama.

There are 16 species of freesia, all of them from Southern Africa and most from Cape Province, home of so many unique plants. The one that we buy comes from a  hybrid between two species, Freesia refracta and Freesia leichtlinii which was made in the 19th century, and a more recent addition of Freesia corymbosa which gives us the pink and blue forms.

Photo One by Makoto hasuma [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Freesia refracta (Photo One)

Photo Two from http://pza.sanbi.org/freesia-leichtlinii-subsp-alba

Freesia leichtlinii (Photo Two)

Photo Three by User:BotBln [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Freesia corymbosa (Photo Three)

Although there are many freesia-scented toiletries and perfumes on the market, nothing that I have smelled comes close to the scent of the plant itself. It is often used in wedding bouquets, and my mother wanted some for hers back in 1957, but was told that, as her wedding was in September, there would be none available. She did, however, get some beautiful sugar paste ones on the cakes made for the 60th Wedding Anniversary celebration back in September 2017, so she got them in the end.

Cakes from Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party in 2017. Note the freesias!

Nowadays, you can get freesias pretty much year round, and most of the blooms are produced from some eighty suppliers in the Netherlands, bulb capital of Europe.

Freesia can be grown from seed, but is actually a bulbous plant, a member of the crocus subfamily. In their native habitat, freesias are usually pollinated by solitary bees. Their period of dormancy underground may be a protection from the grassland fires that are a common feature of the fynbos, or Cape Floral Kingdom, where they originated. For all their apparent delicacy these are tough plants.

The flowers of freesia are edible, and I rather like the idea of a freesia and lemon tisane, as described on the Garden Eats website here.

In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the freesia represented trust, and in the US is apparently the flower to use to celebrate a couple’s seventh wedding anniversary. If you wondered what you were meant to be sending on the other years, have a look at the list here. I am somewhat disappointed that there are no suggestions for an eighteenth wedding anniversary, as mine is coming up next year. Looks like I’ll have to wait until my twentieth.

And now, a poem. Here is one by Robert Henry Forster, a poet who took the garden and the more ‘domesticated’ plants as his last subject. He was Northumbrian born and bred, and I imagine that the colour and scent of the freesias in his greenhouse were even more welcome in the teeth of northern gales than they are here in London. This example of his work is a big bowl of custard of a poem, as comforting as bed socks and Heinz tomato soup. It’s just what I need at the moment, what with the Winter Solstice coming on. On some days, it barely feels as if the sun gets above the horizon before it slips back into bed.

The Greenhouse in Early April, by Robert Henry Forster (1867 – 1923)

I
Still do the garden’s half-awakened beds
Wait for the passing of the wintry cold;
But in this fairy palace we behold
The sheltered blossoms lift their comely heads.
Fragrance the newly opened Freesia sheds
From its white trumpets with the splash of gold;
And here the Polyanthus doth unfold
Its blooms, and colour with gay colour weds,
Colours of brilliant or of subtle hue;
Bright orange with fair yellow for its mate;
Pale yellow margined with a fairy blue;
Crimson and gold in almost regal state;
Soft pink and brown, ethereal to view,
Matched with a yellow not less delicate.

II
And here, most faithful of all blossomed friends,
The Primulas their witchery display.
Spring will depart and summer pass away,
But for these happy flowers one summer ends
Only when Nature’s operation sends
The next succeeding summer’s opening day:
In drear December they will still be gay,
As though for winter they would make amends.
So should true friendship be,-a constant thing
In sunshine or beneath a gloomy sky,
Not waking only with the breath of spring
And ready at the winter’s touch to die,
But bright and helpful and encouraging
When days are dark and other comforts fly.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Makoto hasuma [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two from http://pza.sanbi.org/freesia-leichtlinii-subsp-alba

Photo Three by User:BotBln [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Travelling Home

Mum and Dad on their wedding day 61 years ago

Dear Readers I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the last things. During this past year I have watched so many things fall away from my parents, but these  events are rarely marked because we don’t realise that they are final at the time The last time that Dad was able to do the Guardian Quick Crossword. The last time that Mum was able to enjoy solid food. The last time that Mum could walk, or go to the toilet on her own, or enjoy ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The last time that she said my name.

When I last reported on Mum and Dad’s progress, they had just moved into a nursing home, and Mum in particular was raging about what she considered her incarceration. It was a dreadful time. We didn’t have the care in place to send her home, and she was so ill that no amount of care would have been enough, but she was determined not to settle at the nursing home. On one occasion she called the police to get her out. She fought with the staff about everything from taking her medication to having a bath.

It is no exaggeration to say that I was in despair, though I was also secretly proud of her. She has a long tradition of being defiant. If there was a complaint to be made at a restaurant, or if an unfortunate scammer rang up to try to get her credit card details, she was ready for the challenge. One man who insisted that he was from Sky Television and wanted Mum to divulge her bank account number ended up calling Mum a ‘very nasty woman’ and putting the phone down in high dudgeon. Given her track record, there was no way that my mother was going ‘gently into that good night’.

Gradually, she got to know some of the nurses and to accept care from them. But it wasn’t long before Mum was sick again. She has an ailment called a pseudo-blockage, in which the whole of her digestive system comes to a halt, causing nausea, stomach pain and bloating. Sometimes this is a result of another disease such as cancer, or diverticulitis, or Parkinson’s disease, and sometimes it’s just a result of old age. Mum had five days in hospital, at the end of which time the hospital said that they could do nothing more for her, and that she was too frail for any investigative tests. She was sent back to the nursing home, and I went to visit her.

I saw one of the carers who had previously tried to look after Mum when she was at her feistiest.

‘She’s like a different woman’, said the carer. ‘She’s totally prepared to let me look after her now’.

‘Is that a good thing?’ I asked.

The carer squinted and considered.

‘No, ‘ she said. ‘Probably not’.

I went in to see Mum. Her head was bent to one side like a bud on a stalk. She was complaining about a head ache, and said that her arm hurt, and her neck hurt.

The nurse gave her some oral morphine. They were planning to use a morphine patch if Mum’s condition came back, which the hospital had assured them it would. And so, without even noticing, we were now into palliative care, which treats the symptoms of the severely ill whilst recognising that they will never get better.

Mum was still fairly lucid, but she was in pain. The doses of oral morphine came closer and closer together. There was talk of a patch that released morphine into the blood stream.

At one point, Mum opened her eyes and said

‘Someone is helping me’.

‘Who, Mum?’ I asked. I wondered if it was her mother, dead at 64 years old of a heart attack.

‘I don’t know’, said Mum, and closed her eyes again.

When I left Mum, I said ‘I love you’, as I always do.

‘I love you’, she said, and then, as I got to the door, ‘I love you’, again.

On Monday I get a call telling me that the pseudo-blockage has come back, that Mum is in increasing pain and that they are going to start Mum on a syringe driver that releases a regular amount of morphine directly into her bloodstream. The nurse tells me that this usually indicates that we are talking about weeks of life left, not months. It could even be days, though it’s difficult to say for sure.

On Wednesday I jumped onto the train to go to Dorchester to spend a few hours with Mum.

Mum hasn’t really eaten solid food since mid-July, and her face is returning to the planes and angles that it had when she was a young woman. Her skin is stretched thin over her cheekbones, and her cat-green eyes have a kind of febrile light, when they are open. Her mouth has fallen in and the nursing staff are using big, lemon-scented cottonbuds impregnated with glycerine to keep her lips and tongue from cracking. They wash her, and offer her milk which is the only food left that she can tolerate. They are like handmaidens caring for an elderly priestess. There is something stately about Mum now, something ancient as if carved out of stone.

At first, Mum is groaning, and Dad is trying to interpret the noises that she is making. The nurses come in to replace her morphine syringe and gradually the groaning stops. When Dad goes for lunch, I have a chance to sit and hold Mum’s hand.  I see her take three or four breaths and then pause for what seems an interminable time before taking the next one. I can  see the vibration of her labouring heart beneath her nightshirt.

People talk about a dying person ‘letting go’ or ‘giving up’, but it seems to me that what is going on is a tussle between the different parts of person, with some systems closing down and others wanting to hang on. It is complicated, this business, and different for everyone. It seems like hard, private work.

It is surprisingly quiet in the room – no nurses, no television, just the sound of birds in the tree outside. I tell Mum that I love her, that she is surrounded by so much love. I tell her that my brother and I will look after Dad if she’s not around. I tell her that my brother and I will look after one another too.

She squeezes my hand, though it could just be a spasm.

I tell her that I’m going to feel pretty bloody silly if next time I come in, she’s running around the room.

I cry a bit. And then all is peaceful again.

A week ago, Mum said ‘I love you’.  She said it twice. These might be the last words that I ever hear from her, because I sense that she is labouring away in some place too deep for words. But whatever happens next, those words will be enough.

 

Wednesday Weed – Winter Daphne

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me this week – I have a cold and am feeling a bit sniffly and sorry for myself, so I thought I would write about a plant that couldn’t be closer to home. I have a Daphne in a pot right next to my kitchen door, and when it flowers in January the delicious scent wafts up every time I go out to top up the bird feeders.

Daphne odora is native to China but soon spread to Japan and Korea.It grows best in acid soil, hence its being confined to a terracotta pot in my garden. The leaves are evergreen, and in my variety they are gold-edged. The plant is a member of the Thymelaeaceae, a large and varied family of some 898 species including lacebark trees and paper bush (Edgworthia). Daphne has a reputation as a delicate, short-lived garden plant, at least in the UK – it can grow into a substantial shrub, but generally has a life of only 8 to 10 years. Mine is fairly happy after five years in its pot, and I am keeping my fingers crossed. However there is a legend that says that if you tell another gardener that your Daphne is doing well, it will die, so please close your ears to my boasting.

Photo One by Miya [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Daphne odora in flower (Photo One)

This plant really is all about the perfume. Its Korean name means ‘thousand-mile scent’, and its Latin species name means ‘sweet-smelling’. Even my little shrub can make me stop in my tracks when it is in full flower.According to the A Wandering Botanist website, the following legend explains the plant’s Chinese name:

According to an early Chinese herbal, a monk fell asleep below a cliff on Lu Mountain (Lu Shan) in Jiangxi Province. In a dream he smelled a fragrance so strong and memorable that he recalled it clearly when he awoke. He climbed up the mountain to find the source of the odor, finding Daphne odora. He called the plant “sleeping scent” (shuixiang). which has changed over time to the similar-sounding name lucky scent (ruixiang). 

But not everything about Daphne is sweet. All species of Daphne are poisonous: the sap may cause skin irritation, and the berries (if they appear) may, according  to the Poison Garden website

‘…. cause vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and a burning sensation in the mouth. Larger doses add to these shivering, dilation of the pupils, convulsions and damage to the oral passages and the intestine’.

Interestingly, the sap was used to give young women rosy cheeks as it irritated the skin.

There is one recorded case of Daphne poisoning in a child, from 1887, and this related to a four year-old eating the berries of Daphne mezereum or spurge laurel. In 1950 a seven year-old was taken ill after eating some of the leaves. Generally the taste of the berries is too acrid to encourage much ingestion, though they do look rather like redcurrants. My little shrub has never produced any berries, but here are some on a Daphne mezereums so that you can see what they look like.

Photo Two by Jeffdelonge [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Daphne mezereum berries (Photo Two)

The name ‘Daphne’ comes from the jGreek legend of Daphne and Apollo. Daphne was a water nymph, who was pursued by Apollo. Just before he caught her, she appealed to her father Poseidon, who turned her into a laurel tree (Laurus nobilis). The Greek word for laurel is ‘Daphne’, hence the general confusion. Here we can see Daphne transforming into a tree in her haste to get away from Apollo. Women generally came off worst in any encounters with the gods of antiquity.

Photo Three by By Architas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70138441

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini (1622-25) (Photo Three)

I rather like this more modern take by  Iris Le Rutte in Oldenburg, Germany.

Photo Four by Anaconda74 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

‘Daphne im Wind’ by Iris Le Rutte, 2011 (Photo Four)

And for our poem this week, here is a piece by the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950). I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with her poetry: I am not that struck by this piece (although it obviously fits our topic of the week), but see what you think.

Daphne

Why do you follow me?—
Any moment I can be
Nothing but a laurel-tree.

Any moment of the chase
I can leave you in my place
A pink bough for your embrace.

Yet if over hill and hollow
Still it is your will to follow,
I am off;—to heel, Apollo!

And yet, I never fail to be moved by this one. I think it sums up the rage that often accompanies death, and is so rarely expressed.

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the
world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Miya [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Jeffdelonge [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Photo Three by By Architas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70138441

Photo Four by Anaconda74 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.

It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.

Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.

An imperfect photo of a  nuthatch (as my photos usually are 🙂 )

But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.

I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.

Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.

A coppiced area in Big Wood

As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.

The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.

The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Quince

Flowering quince (Chaenomeles x superba)

Dear Readers, whenever you read a book about winter-flowering shrubs, flowering quince is sure to be one of the top five. It is, however, a confusing plant. For one thing, it isn’t the ‘true’ quince (Cydonia oblonga), although it is related to it. All quinces flower, so there is nothing unusual in the fact that this one is in bloom. It is also known as the Japanese quince, which is a little closer to the mark as all Chaenomeles come from the Far East, but the true Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is rarely grown in gardens. In short, the common names for the plant do nothing but pile confusion on top of confusion. However, I forgive all this because, in a chill, sunny day earlier this week, this plant was by far the prettiest thing in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

One feature of the flowering quince is that the flowers emerge directly from the stalk, before the leaves. It was the first time that I’d seen a pink variety – the ones in the County Roads here in East Finchley are normally the orange-red variety.

Photo One from https://www.flickr.com/photos/conifer/38844133980

Orange-red flowering quince (Photo One)

Flowering quince also has the virtue of being quite a spiny plant (it is a member of the Rose family after all) and I have seen it combined in hedges with such well-armed shrubs as Pyracantha. It is quite often ‘persuaded’ into miniaturisation as a bonsai.

Let us not completely overlook the fruits either. They are hard, sour and small, though this is ameliorated somewhat after the first frost. However, they can be used as a substitute for lemon juice, or turned into jelly, much as crab apples are. The Grown to Cook website has a recipe for Japanese quince jelly with star anise, and the photos are lovely too.  In Japan the fruit is known as karin or flower pear, and commands a high price, so if you have one of these shrubs in your garden I’d have thought it would be worth harvesting the fruit to see what you can do with it. Some websites recommend combining it with apples to offset its astringency. Note that it is also extremely high in pectin, so helps with the set of jams and jellies.

Photo Two from http://www.growntocook.com/?p=36

Quince jelly on bread. Yum! (Photo Two)

In Japan, the fruit of flowering quince is also used to make cough and sore throat remedies. The botanist James Wong mentions that for Japanese people, Chaenomeles cough sweets take the place of our honey and lemon. He also mentions that Russian scientists introduced the plant to the Baltic states as a source of vitamin C – the fruits have a slightly higher level than lemons – and so the plant is sometimes known as ‘Baltic lemon’.

What I love about flowering quince, though, is that element of surprise. In late spring, when everything is bursting into bloom, you might not notice this plant. But in winter, when the only competition is the acid yellow flowers of Mahonia, it is breathtaking. It was eulogised by one Miss Twamley who, in a poem called ‘The Romance of Nature’, refers to the flowers as ‘fairy fires’

‘That gleam and glow amid the wintery scene
Lighting their ruddy beacons at the sun
To melt away the snow…..’

Flowering quince features extensively in the art of Japan. Here, for example, is the artist Watanabe Seitei’s painting ‘Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry’ – I love that the flowering quince in the image looks so similar to the one that I saw.

Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry by Watanabe Seitei (Shotei) 1906 (Public Domain)

Now, as you know I usually include a poem at this point, but this week I am going to break convention by directing your attention to the (very) short story ‘The Japanese Quince’ by John Galsworthy. What on earth is going on here? I have some thoughts, but I’d be delighted to hear yours, if you have the time and the energy during this pre-Christmas rush…

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Japanese_Quince

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.flickr.com/photos/conifer/38844133980

Photo Two from http://www.growntocook.com/?p=36

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, Walthamstow Wetlands is the largest urban wetland in Europe, and opened to the general public earlier this year. I have been eager to visit it, but wanted to pick a time when it wasn’t too crowded. What better day, then, than a grey blustery November day? There are no less than eleven reservoirs here, and so we decided to concentrate on the southern part of the reserve, walking to the Coppermill Tower past the East Warwick reservoir, and then looping back past Reservoir 1.

The Engine Room cafe and shop

The reserve is still an operational Thames Water site, providing 3.5 million people with water every day. However, it is surprisingly peaceful. It is also home to two listed Victorian industrial buildings, and there are many pieces of paraphernalia relating to the site’s main purpose – moving water from A to B. The Engine Room (above) housed the pumping machinery relating to the reservoirs, and is now a cafe ( I can recommend the orange polenta cake), interpretation centre and shop.

Further into the reserve is the Coppermill. It has the most extraordinary Italianate tower attached to it, which served no earthly purpose that I  could see other than being decorative. The mill was powered by the Coppermill stream, and between 1808 and 1857 it produced the power to turn copper ingots into pennies and halfpennies. In the fourteenth century it was used to grind corn, in the 1670’s it produced gunpowder,in the 1690’s it rolled paper, and during the 1700’s it was used to work leather, and generate linseed oil. In the 1850’s the mill was purchased by the East London Water Authority, and used to pump water during the building of the reservoirs. These days, its milling and pumping days are over, but it is still used as an operational hub for Thames Water.

The Coppermill

But what, you might ask, of the animals? Walthamstow Wetlands is a prime spot for moulting  tufted duck, for example; over two thousand of them choose the reservoirs as a haven during this vulnerable time of the year. I always loved the way that tufted ducks dive with a wake of bubbles, and bob back up to the surface like corks.

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

The site is also home to a sizable proportion of North-Western Europe’s northern shoveler ducks. These are such handsome birds, especially the drakes with their mix of russet and bottle-green, and their golden eyes. They are such easy ducks for the beginner to identify too, with their over-sized bills, which they swish through the water as they sieve out the tiny invertebrates that they feed on.

Northern shoveler (male ) (Anas clypeata)

Male and female shoveler duck

There are also, of course, some of the usual suspects. Coots are already fighting over territory, though you’d think with all these reservoirs to choose from there would be plenty of room. Canada geese graze beside the more formal, raised reservoirs. They look particularly splendid silhouetted against the sky.

The increasingly common Egyptian geese also like this area – a little family wandered over to us to see if we had anything in our pockets, the male uttering his characteristic wheezy call.

A mute swan drifted up the Coppermill stream, and reminded me of the time that I was walking to catch my train to work at stupid o’clock. I heard the sound of rustling wings, looked up, and seven mute swans flew overhead, just above the rooftops. I was transfixed. Sometimes, nature can turn an ordinary day into something with an almost mythical quality.

Walthamstow Wetlands is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for herons too – it has one of the five best heronries in the country. I saw many herons flying past, but the nests, which are enormous, are abandoned at this time of year. I must make sure to pay a visit in the spring though. Young herons look more like dinosaurs than almost any bird I can imagine.

The heronry on the island in Reservoir Two, surrounded by cormorants

 

At this time of year, the heronries are largely home to cormorants. Up to 100 pairs breed every year, down from 300 pairs in the early 2000’s. This is not a bird much beloved by anglers, and neither is the heron. On the other hand, the chaps (and they seemed to all be chaps) who were sitting in their olive-green tents and dipping their fishing rods into  Reservoir One seemed to be a peaceable lot, not much given to getting annoyed about any avian competition. Long may this happy state continue!So all in all I was extremely impressed by Walthamstow Wetlands. I saw a lot of things that I didn’t manage to photograph, including an extremely friendly goldcrest who was working the needles of the gorse bushes beside Reservoir One, and a flock of long-tailed tits in the same area. But there is so much more to see! There are reputed to be kingfishers everywhere, plus as the winter goes on all kinds of waterfowl will drop in. There are water rail ( a ‘bogey bird’ for me, inasmuch as I have heard it many times but have never actually seen more than a few red toes before they disappeared into the reeds). And there are sometimes bearded tits. Who could resist? I shall make a return visit to Walthamstow Wetlands very soon.

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) (Photo One)

Completely Unapologetic Plug

I would like to recommend ‘Birdwatching London‘ by David Darrell Lambert as an excellent guide to the many places in the Capital for birdspotting. A great resource whether you live here or are just visiting. I would also like to put in a plug for the Natural History Bookshop, a tremendous online shop for all things nature-related, from books to moth traps to microscopes.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Christmas Rose

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

Dear Readers, it might seem a bit early to start talking about all things Christmas-related, but the flowers of the Christmas rose are so striking that I couldn’t resist. Spotted in a window box on the County Roads in East Finchley, they are not roses at all but hellebores, members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). That the Latin species name for this plant (niger) means ‘black’ when the flower is pure white is a little confusing, but it probably refers to the roots. The word ‘Helleborus’ comes from the Greek words ellos, meaning ‘fawn’ and bora, meaning ‘food’  – I love the idea of young deer munching upon it, although some commentators remark that it is deer resistant. The grazers would have to be careful though, because, like all hellebores, Christmas rose is poisonous, though probably less so than some other species. Handling the seeds can cause skin irritation as well. It is also toxic to dogs and cats, so be careful if you have pets and want to bring the plant indoors.

In spite of its poisonous nature, Christmas rose has been used medicinally, as a purgative following poisoning, and as a antihelminthic (a new word to me) for parasites in children. Too much hellebore, however, and it’s quite possible to kill the child. It has also been used as a laxative. I would strongly advise leaving it to look pretty in the garden in the dark early months of the year rather than adding it to a sandwich.

In the wild, Christmas rose is an Alpine plant, found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. I suspect that the flowers will be rather smaller in the wild than in our gardens. This can be a difficult plant to grow, preferring humus-rich soil and dappled shade, and disliking acidity, but when it’s happy, it’s delightful.

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Christmas rose in the Austrian Alps (Photo One)

Traditionally, Christmas rose was said to have arisen from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to the infant Christ. It often isn’t in flower by Christmas, but may be bursting forth by 6th January, which was Christmas Day under the old Julian calendar. Obviously the ones that I photographed hadn’t got the memo about their flowering date.  It is also believed that standing on powder made from the roots of a Christmas rose will make you invisible, which is a splendid idea, what with Christmas coming and all those crowds to navigate. Should you have the urge to dig a Christmas rose up you should, according to Pliny, make sure that you are not spotted by an eagle, because the bird will swoop down and cause your death (an unlikely event in East Finchley but then I’m extremely risk averse). Pliny also suggests that, having scanned the sky for any birds of prey, you should draw a circle around the plant, face east and offer up a prayer before picking up your spade.

No other luminary than Charles Darwin, with his usual close attention, noticed something unusual about the change in the Christmas rose once it’s pollinated. The pure white flower goes green, and its shape changes, as can clearly be seen in the photo below, where the blooms show the various stages of the change, from top to bottom. I’m not sure whether this a plant strategy to deter insects from trying to pollinate a flower that is already impregnated, or just a sign, as Darwin thought, that the plant colour is related to the production of nectar which is not required once the bloom has fulfilled its purpose. Of course, it could also be both. Nature is nothing if not complex and interconnected.

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The fruit of the Christmas rose (Photo Two)

Although Christmas rose has no scent, that hasn’t stopped an Italian perfume company from knocking up a perfume that purports to smell like the flower. However, the bottle is very pretty, and the aroma includes lilac, jasmine and fig, so it’s probably very pleasant. On the other hand, having loved ‘smellies’ all my life, I find that, as I get older, I find most of them  faintly nauseating. I feel very sorry for anyone who has a more sensitive nose than mine, and also for the many people who find being in close contact with strong smells, even pleasant ones, overwhelming. Not that this is a new problem. My Dad, who was a bus conductor in his young days, said that the smell of women’s perfume on the top deck was sometimes so strong that it made his stomach turn.

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail

Christmas rose toiletries from Erbaflor (Photo Three)

And here is a rather lovely poem by Michael Newman, published online by Acumen magazine.It seems to me to sum up the unexpected quality of plants that bloom in the midwinter. They always feel so precious, for being so rare.

Winter Colour

Blush-shy,
The flower rises
From the soil,
Then opens into white apparition,
Helleborus niger,
The Christmas Rose.

On such a grey and rain-rotten day,
I welcome this affirmation

Of unbridled joy:

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail