Bugwoman on Location – One Hell of a Week in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, I was  visiting my Aunt Hilary in Somerset last Saturday when I received a call about my elderly Mum in Dorset. Outside Hilary’s window, a flock of fledgling sparrows was gathering in the shrubs and carrying on a conversation that seemed comprised of a single note, uttered with different degrees of urgency. But on my mobile phone, I hear that Mum is in a sorry state, vomiting, feverish and getting on and off the commode every twenty minutes. Paramedics were called in the morning, but had deemed her not ill enough to be admitted to hospital so she was at home, distressed and with Dad not able to help much because of his own infirmities.

When the carer visited again on Saturday afternoon Mum had worsened and the carer called 111. She was informed that a doctor would be with her within two hours. Two hours passed. The carer called again, and was told it would be another two hours. The carer was so worried that she called 999 at 8 p.m. I asked her to call me when the paramedics arrived, however late it was. They arrived at 12.50 a.m. and again didn’t admit Mum to hospital, in spite of a day spent vomiting and passing water every twenty minutes.

I should back up a little here, and explain. For you or I, a urinary tract infection or a bout of norovirus is unpleasant, but usually clears itself in a few days after a dose of antibiotics for the former, and starvation/lots of fluids for the latter. For someone like Mum, with heart failure, diabetes, COPD and a whole host of other stuff, a simple infection can quickly turn into something nasty like sepsis, or at best can cause her condition to deteriorate quickly. But Mum’s vital signs were still good, and so there was not enough cause to admit her.

At 5 a.m. the doctor arrived and gave her some antibiotics and some tablets for the nausea. It’s hard to take tablets when you have nausea, but she managed it somehow.

On Sunday morning I grabbed a taxi from Broadway in Somerset to Milborne St Andrew in Dorset. My taxi driver was a delightful chap in a top hat and shorts. I sat in the front seat and we drove through the rain, while he told me about his life: how he was an engineer and inventor by trade, and how he’d almost succeeded in getting funding for his master project, a way of helping the companies who fill in potholes to operate in the rain. I was happy to let him ramble on with his tales of lasers and oil on surface water and the difficulties of gauging the depth of a pothole when the light is being refracted. It took my mind off the situation that I was walking into.

I  got to the house and walked into Mum and Dad’s bedroom. Mum was half asleep. She didn’t have her teeth in, which always makes her look about 105 years old, and changes her voice. She hadn’t eaten, or taken any of her medication, because she felt too sick. She was burning up with fever, but said she felt a little better since starting the antibiotics. Her green eyes looked enormous in that little white face. I helped her onto the commode and realised how very weak she was. I’d no sooner got her settled into bed than she wanted to get out again. She was too hot, then too cold. By Monday morning Dad had decamped to the living room to sleep in his reclining chair because Mum was so restless, and I was starting to get a bit frazzled. I know how awful that feeling of a UTI is, the way you want to keep going to the toilet even when there’s nothing left in your bladder. I also began to understand how hard it is to keep lifting someone off a bed onto a commode, and then get them back into bed when they can do almost nothing to support their own weight. However strong your core muscles are (thank you, pilates!) sometimes the angles that you have to get into to lift someone put a terrible strain on your back.

On Monday the diarrhoea started, but I’ll pass over that quickly. The doctor popped in to visit her, and pronounced her vital signs acceptable. She still wasn’t taking any of her medications and what we now recognise as withdrawal was kicking in: some of her  medications are addictive, and without them she was starting to shake and become even more agitated.

On Monday night she needed assistance twice an hour. I would go to bed for half an hour’s shuteye and be roused instantly by sounds from Mum’s bedroom – the sound of the door banging against the bedside cabinet, a sure sign that she was trying to get up, or her cries for help. She would usually have already swung her legs out of bed and was laying at a most uncomfortable angle, which explained the urgency of her cries. No matter how many times I asked her to call out before she started moving, she was determined, even in her weakened state, to be independent. I sensed this was a recipe for disaster, and I was right.

At 1 o’clock in the morning I heard an even more desperate cry for help, and went into the bedroom to find her on the floor. There is no way that Dad and I could lift her back on to the bed, and besides I really wanted the paramedics to take another look. I dialled 999 and explained the situation, and they called me back to get all the details. They warned me that they were extremely busy, and that it might take a while for the paramedics to get to us, because the situation wasn’t life-threatening. I completely understand.

We covered Mum in blankets, tried to get her comfortable with some pillows and turned the heating up. Dad and I took it in turns to sit in the bedroom to keep her company.

Mum wasn’t happy.

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘I’ve got to get up’

‘I’m cold’.

‘I’m too hot’

‘Can you put a pillow behind my head’.

‘Can you take that pillow away it’s hurting me’

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘Somebody help me, please’

‘I want to get up’

‘Can’t you help me to get up?’

There is nothing worse than that feeling of helplessness, which so easily transforms into a kind of rage. I found myself getting inpatient with Mum, and close to tears. I went outside and sat on the bench in the dark to calm myself down.

A tawny owl called from very close at hand, a wild, otherworldly cry. It reminded me of someone calling out from the other side of a great divide,urgent and distressed.

Of course, this suited my mood perfectly, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the owl, who might have been in an excellent frame of mind for all I knew.

The paramedics finally arrived at 4 a.m., got Mum back into bed in a jiffy and, whilst worried about her, didn’t find enough warning signs to admit her to hospital.

I heard one of them say ‘How on earth is she managing?’

‘She isn’t normally like this’, I said. ‘She’s normally mobile enough to get about in the bungalow with her walker’.

And this is another problem – when you don’t know the patient, you may assume that she is always confused, or unable to get about, because you have no baseline to go by. It’s why I make sure to tell hospital staff that although Mum is a little forgetful, she doesn’t usually hallucinate or talk absolute rubbish.

And so Monday faded into Tuesday, and Wednesday. Several times I had to call on a lovely carer who lives locally to help get Mum back into bed when she got herself into a position where I couldn’t lift her on my own. I got better at getting her to and from the commode, but she was getting weaker and weaker. We managed to get her to eat some custard and a little porridge, and she was drinking lots of milk, but it obviously wasn’t enough. She was back on her medication, and at least had stopped shaking. Nurses popped in from time to time to check her blood sugar and see how she was doing.

The doctor visited while Mum was asleep. He took her blood sugar and her blood pressure, and she didn’t stir. He looked at her with concern.

‘I wonder if this is a turning point?’ he said. ‘She’s always been such a fighter. I’ve never seen her like this before’.

‘She’s still a fighter’, I said. ‘You might be surprised’. I was taken aback by the flare of anger that I felt.

Later, when Mum was a bit more alert, I opened the blinds so that she could see the garden, and I heard her call for me. I went in, and sat on the bed beside her.

‘Are they sparrows in the gutter opposite?’ she asked. ‘What are they doing?’

I leaned down so that I could see things from Mum’s eye-level, and we both called out as we saw a spray of water fly into the air.

‘They’re having a bath’, we said, and settled back to watch. When I looked down again, Mum was asleep.

On Friday, I had to leave to go home. I had had about three hours sleep in four days. I was bursting into tears over every little thing. I arranged for carers to be in the house for most of the time. I trialed some overnight adult diapers for when the carers couldn’t be there, because I didn’t want Mum getting out of bed when there wasn’t anyone to help her. I thought Mum would object because of the lack of dignity, but I think it’s a sign of how unwell she felt that they came as something of a relief, and they seemed to be comfortable and effective.

I sat by her bedside and held her hand.

‘I’ve got to go, Mum, but I’ll be back soon’, I said.

‘Don’t worry’, she said, ‘I’m getting better. You go home and don’t worry’.

And then I really did cry, which wasn’t very helpful.

‘Earlier on this week, I was laying here thinking that I was 83 and I’d had a good innings’, she said.

‘Mum, you’re only 82’, I said.

‘Oh!’ she said, and smiled one of those toothless grins that I’ve become so familiar with this week, ‘You’ve given me back a year, thank you!’

She thought for a minute.

‘Maybe I’m not ready to go just yet’, she said.

And so I left, and got on a train, and by the time I got to Bournemouth I got a call from the carer who said that she’d called the paramedics again and this time they were going to admit Mum to the hospital. I spoke to one of them, a chap called Alan.

‘Her vital signs are not bad, but there’s obviously something wrong so we’re going to admit her and see if we can get to the bottom of it’, he said.

I could have kissed him.

My train carriage wasn’t busy and so I spent the rest of the journey looking out of the window and being occasionally gripped by paroxysms of crying. It feels as if I am rebounding from one crisis to another, being pinged about like the ball in a pinball machine. I am encouraging the parents to think about getting a live-in carer, but Dad says having someone else in the house would drive him mad, and Mum only wants to do that if they can buy a bigger bungalow, which is completely inpractical – moving is stressful enough if you’re well. I feel as if they are one step away from disaster the whole time, and as if my whole life is on hold because I am trying to keep this little boat afloat by sheer willpower.

I get back to London, walk through to the kitchen, and see this.

The finches have been planting sunflower seeds, and this one has come into bloom while I’ve been away. And here I am crying again, because it is such a cheerful, hopeful plant, and I could almost believe that it’s looking through the window to welcome me back, and to tell me that everything will be well. And the cat comes down the stairs miaowing, and the buddleia that I was planning to cut back this weekend has a second flush of bee-covered flowers. I feel something in me that has been unanchored for days settle and grow still.

I will get through this, whatever it takes.

 

Wednesday Weed – Water Plantain

Water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica)

Dear Readers, just before the heatwave finally broke I went for a walk in Coldfall Wood with my friend J, and noticed this extraordinary seedhead projecting above some elegant, long-stemmed leaves. How delicate water plantain is! It is growing in the now dried-up bed of the seasonal pond, where the water level has gone up and down by several feet in the past few months. At the moment the pond bed is a mass of bistort and water mint, with the water plantain and some bulrushes providing a bit of height. This is a far cry from the scene in January.

The seasonal pond in Coldfall Wood in January this year

I have just missed the main flowering of the water plantain, but the flowers are tiny, pinkish-white, and usually only open after midday. There is something rather Sputnik-like about the arrangement of the flowers on their spikes, and the closed buds resemble clenched fists. All this reminds me of the social realist Russian paintings of the Soviet era, and indeed there is a Russian connection. Water plantain is native to most of Europe and Asia and northern and central Africa, but in Russia the powdered root is said to be a cure for rabies, giving the plant the alternative name of ‘mad dog weed’. In some parts of the world it is also said to be a cure for snakebite.

Illustration by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman (Public Domain)

It is said to be anti-allergenic and protective of the kidneys and urinary tract.

The crushed dried leaves (to avoid the problems of blistering mentioned earlier) have been used as a poultice to relieve pain during breast-feeding in both humans and other mammals, and in Chinese Traditional medicine (where it is known as Xe Zie) it is believed that the plant can help with all aspects of fertility and childbirth.

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043864

Water plantain flower (Photo One)

The plant is not closely related to plants such as ribwort plantain but is a member of the Alismataceae or water-plantain family. In addition to its place in Russian medicinal lore, it is known as ‘Leaf of Patrick’ in Ireland, and is reputed to ward off fairies. The leaves are, however, said to cause blisters if bruised. The genus name Alisma is said to come from the Celtic word for ‘water’.

Photo Two by By Bff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7862977

The elegant leaves of water plantain (Photo Two)

Ruskin took an interest in the ratio of the flower stalks of water plantain to one another, and used this to illustrate his theory of Gothic architecture. He also believed that the curve of the water plantain leaf represented a model of ‘divine proportion’, one of those shapes on which ‘God has stamped those characters of beauty which He has made it man’s nature to love’.

Photo Three from http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/painting/ruskin/drawings/7lamps12e.html

An illustration of a water plantain flower stalk by John Ruskin (Photo Three)

Water plantain have been used as food by the Kalmucks of Russia and China, who boiled the roots to get rid of the bitterness and toxicity of the plant. The Iroquois of North America drank a tea made from the leaves to give them extra energy (the plant is widely naturalised in the New World).

Now, at this point I normally share a poem, or a painting, but this week I want to share something completely unrelated to water plantain. As my friend and I left the pond and headed up through the wood towards home, our eyes were drawn to a tiny heart-shaped plaque at the root of a tree. When I read what was written on it, I was instantly drawn back to the pet funerals of my own childhood. I often roped in my unfortunate little brother – once we had a ceremony for a moth that had died after hatching from its chrysalis and being unable to find somewhere to expand its wings properly. I well remember that we buried it in a matchbox under a fragment of bathroom tile, upon which was scrawled, in purple crayon,

‘Died before he could live. RIP’.

RIP Moonlight. And blessings on the child who loved her pet enough to bury here in the woods. Grief is grief, and who is to say that the death of an animal is trivial?  I have had my own heart broken often enough, and so, I suspect, have many other people.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043864

Photo Two by By Bff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7862977

Photo Three from http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/painting/ruskin/drawings/7lamps12e.html

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – A Common Ground at Tate Britain

Dear Readers, the Tate has ‘form’ when it comes to installations that combine gardening with art. Who can forget the raised beds of ‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern, a most frustrating exhibit which missed a number of opportunities to illuminate the varied habitats around London. So, I was hopeful but not overly optimistic when I went to visit ‘A Common Ground’ on Monday. This is what the gallery says about it:

It seems like a lovely idea, but I too have ‘form’ when it comes to community gardens. I was treasurer at Culpeper Community Garden in Islington for several years, and I know that the idea of a pop-up community garden is almost an oxymoron – these places take years of slow growth to build up both the garden itself and the community that supports it. People need to get to know one another, and the plants need tender loving care to establish themselves.

And so it proved. Most of the beds housed plants that were not in the best of health. The poor old sweet peas had withered away to nothing. The large white butterfly caterpillars were having a delightful time and had eaten nearly all the cabbage seedlings to a stump.

Large White (Pieris brassiceae) caterpillars

Some plants were doing well, especially the ones in the greenhouse, where a lone shy young man was potting up some seedlings.

There were various forms of squash bursting forth, a homage to an installation called ‘The Squash’ by Anthea Turner, which takes place in the gallery itself. Someone wearing a squash on their head poses among the artworks, as we all gawp and take photos. What a job.  I cannot imagine how hot the performer has been during the last few weeks.

Hokkaido squash

‘The Squash’ by Anthea Hamilton

The raised beds themselves have a certain geometric elegance, but I can’t help thinking that runner beans would have been nice. Like so many edible plants they are elegant in their own right. As it is, the sweet peas are just not cutting it, though some broad beans are giving it their best shot.

Some plants are doing very well: there are some splendid hollyhocks and sunflowers.

There are a couple of beds which combine pollinator-friendly herbs and vegetables with plants such as verbena for the bees, and these are doing pretty well.

There are even fountains that are triggered by the human voice. I  wondered how these worked, but I think the idea is that you sit down for a chat and then  the fountain gurgles into life. My friend S and I were eventually loud enough to get one to work, and very exciting it was too.

But sadly there was no one for us to have a chat to. The young lad in the greenhouse didn’t want to talk, and that’s fine – not everyone who comes to a garden comes to socialise, and any community garden should allow for both the quiet and the extrovert. But there was nobody else. I suspect that it’s very different on Saturday when there are events (last week’s demonstration of Caribbean vegan cooking sounds particularly intriguing), but all in all I think the problem is intrinsic to the very nature of the project. Gardens take time and investment, and many gardeners wouldn’t want to spend time on something that will disappear at the end of October. This is a bit sad, as I’m sure this could be a very productive garden even in this period of time if it was looked after.

Also, community gardens are usually full of volunteers who live within walking distance, school children, pensioners, folk who have time to spare for whatever reason. The garden here could be the same, but I have a suspicion that by the time people get to know about the garden, it will be time for it to close.

I would have been fascinated to know a bit more about the kinds of fruit and vegetables that are being grown too: for example, there was a label for Yacon, a kind of tuberous South American daisy, but it was impossible to tell which plant it referred to, which was frustrating.

The questions that ‘A Common Ground’ ask are well worth considering. How does a garden bring people together? What can we learn from one another by growing and eating plants, side by side? What happens in those social interactions where people are working on a  common task? Unfortunately, my visit today makes me think that local people are not really engaged with this project, for all the reasons of time and location that I’ve mentioned previously. It frustrates me to see happy caterpillars munching on lovingly planted cabbages, and sweetpeas turned to brown paper for want of watering. My dad, who had an alllotment for most of his life, would have been horrified.

I shall pop back for a second look later in the year, just to see if things have gelled into something more coherent. But for today, this was a pleasant and interesting walk, nothing more.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Verbena Bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, what a strange plant this is, with its stiff stems and heads of tiny purple-pink flowers! I until a few years ago it was a relative rarity in London gardens, and I can see why – the flowerheads are small for the size of the plant, which can grow up to six feet tall. But then the other day I saw some planted with grasses and Japanese anemones, and I finally appreciated its delicate beauty. Plus, it is a great late summer plant for butterflies, and as so many people are trying to do their bit for wildlife these days it has grown in popularity. Finally, it is drought-tolerant, and we all need a bit of that in London, what with it being nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Verbena bonariensis in Muswell HIll, with grasses….

The name ‘Verbena’ means ‘sacred bough’, but this refers to Verbena officinalis or Vervaine, a plant used for medicine and for sacred ritual from the Druids onwards and introduced to the UK in the Stone Age. You can see the family resemblance in the photo below, especially the stiff stems.

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at https://www.flickr.com/photos/74738817@N07/28519290812

Vervaine (Verbena officinalis) (Photo One)

‘Bonariensis’ means ‘from Buenos Aires’, indicating that the plant originated in South America. It has naturalised in the warmer parts of North America and is considered a noxious weed in some states.

In the US, the plant is known as ‘purpletop’ or ‘South American vervaine’. It seems strange to me that the plant doesn’t yet have a common name in the UK, considering how popular it’s become. In their book on Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael J. Crawley call it ‘Argentine Vervaine’, so maybe this will catch on. However, a new variety of the plant, which is smaller with larger flowers, is known as ‘Lollipop Verbena’ so maybe this is the name that will stick.

Photo Two from https://www.crocus.co.uk/plants/_/verbena-bonariensis-lollipop-pbr/classid.2000017445/

Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ (Photo Two)

In ‘Alien Plants’, Verbena bonariensis is described as being one of the UK’s fastest spreading non-native plants. It certainly loves to self-seed and, as it gives height to plantings in supermarket car parks and municipal beds it’s easy to see where the spread is coming from. Plus you can grow it from seed, which saves lots of money, no small thing if you’re a cash-strapped council. I foresee fields of ‘purpletop’ in our future.

Medicinal uses for the plant seem to be few and far between, at least in Europe. One site describes it as useful for love potions. Another mentions how their dog seems to love eating it. Humans, however, do not appear to eat the plant in any form that I can find. I suspect that it might be useful as a dried flower, and Alys Fowler describes the blackened seed heads as ‘most arresting’. But if you have a patch of the garden in full sun, you might want to grow the plant just to see which insects turn up.

Photo  Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

With honey bee (Photo Three)

With Skipper butterfly (Public Domain)

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davehamster/3896579963

With red admiral butterfly (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photofarmer/272560745

With monarch butterflies in North America (Photo Five)

I always have a bit of a problem with what to plant for once my buddleia and lavender have finished, and I am thinking of getting a raised bed for my south-facing front garden, to replace the selection of pots that I currently have – even with daily watering the plants have suffered this year, and I think they might stand a better chance in deeper soil. I suspect that some Verbena bonariensis will definitely feature after the display of insects above, especially if I can grow it from seed. It’s good to have a gardening project to consider when I have so much else going on. It’s difficult to dwell on dark thoughts when leafing through a seed catalogue.

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Photo Six)

And so to a poem, and what a sock in the eye this one is, especially as we all pant in the grip of a heatwave that is longer than any I can remember.

‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry‘……

Anthropocene Pastoral by Catherine Pierce

In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.

Early spring everywhere, the trees furred

pink and white, lawns the sharp green

that meant new. The sky so blue it looked

manufactured. Robins. We’d heard

the cherry blossoms wouldn’t blossom

this year, but what was one epic blooming

when even the desert was an explosion

of verbena? When bobcats slinked through

primroses. When coyotes slept deep in orange

poppies. One New Year’s Day we woke

to daffodils, wisteria, onion grass wafting

through the open windows. Near the end,

we were eyeletted. We were cottoned.

We were sundressed and barefoot. At least

it’s starting gentle, we said. An absurd comfort,

we knew, a placebo. But we were built like that.

Built to say at least. Built to reach for the heat

of skin on skin even when we were already hot,

built to love the purpling desert in the twilight,

built to marvel over the pink bursting dogwoods,

to hold tight to every pleasure even as we

rocked together toward the graying, even as

we held each other, warmth to warmth,

and said sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry while petals

sifted softly to the ground all around us.

Photo Seven by By frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven

Photo Credits

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at https://www.flickr.com/photos/74738817@N07/28519290812

Photo Two from https://www.crocus.co.uk/plants/_/verbena-bonariensis-lollipop-pbr/classid.2000017445/

Photo Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verbena_bonariensis_with_a_bee.JPG

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davehamster/3896579963

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photofarmer/272560745

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by  frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bugwoman on Location – A Dilemma

Dear Readers, here I am again in Milborne St Andrew. It’s fair to say all is not well with the parents – since I last wrote about what has been going on, Dad has been in and out of hospital for short stays twice. He is currently at home, though he insists that, while he was in hospital with pneumonia, Mum moved house to somewhere that looks exactly the same, with the same address and phone number. Apart from that he is fairly cheerful, but he is losing weight and is very frail and unsteady. I am trying to remedy this with a constant supply of ‘rocky Magnums’ – chocolate-coated ice cream bars with flaked almonds on the outside.

On Wednesday he took a tumble, but was rescued by a lovely neighbour with tremendous upper body strength, who was able to hoist him back into a vertical position.

Mum is stressed, depressed and increasingly forgetful. She abhors her new custom-made reclining chair (although it is doing wonders for her back) and has summoned the chair company by leaving a message to say that she hates the new chair, the new settee, and even Dad’s new chair, although Dad is actually very happy with it.  The technician is coming to have a look on Tuesday, and I just hope he’s wearing a tin hat. Although Mum might be little (and getting littler), she is fierce.

And so, you can imagine my delight when I sat on the bench outside their house to get a breather from all the excitement and noticed a wasp flying around my bare legs. I watched it idly, wondering how long I could linger until I was summoned again, and then I noticed another wasp. And another. I levered myself up  and had a look at the air brick in the wall under the bench.

Oh dear.

 

I have a lot of respect for wasps, and their role in the ecosystem. If you watch the movie carefully, you can see a wasp entering the nest on the right hand side, carrying what is either a grub or a lump of peach. I have watched wasps hunting for caterpillars on my sprouting broccoli, their eyes like searchlights. I’ve watched them tugging and pulling until the caterpillar loses its grip, and then fly off with the grub hanging from their undercarriage like a bomb.

In other words, if it had been my house, I would probably have left them alone.

But this is not my house. Mum had a very bad reaction last time she was stung by a wasp (many years ago), and is terrified of them. Although they were not coming into the house, their flight path was right across the area that Mum and Dad cross when they are getting into the car, and I could easily see one of them falling if a wasp flew near them. And so I called a local pest controller, who was there within a couple of hours, and who sprayed some insecticide into the nest.

‘Keep the windows closed for a couple of hours, because they’ll be cross now’, he said.

As well they might be, under the circumstances.

And I know this wouldn’t be a dilemma for many people because, for them,  humans come ahead of animals, especially where vulnerable family members are concerned. But I have often talked about how easy it is to exterminate creatures, instead of living alongside them, and there is something about the killing of an entire colony, with all its complexity and richness that makes me feel uncomfortable. If I had to make the same decision again I would still reach the same conclusion, but my heart would be as heavy as it was this time. Sometimes there is no right answer, just the least worst solution.

Back indoors, I gave Mum an Exotic Fruit Solero, which is flavoured with mango and passion fruit. This is not the healthiest food but at the moment, I’m just glad that the parents are eating something with lots of calories. Mum unwrapped it gingerly, gave it a lick, then another. She paused to consider the lolly for a moment.

‘Who’d have thought’, she said, ‘that at 82 I’d discover a whole new taste sensation?’

Mum and Dad’s current predicament has broken me open. I cry secretly when I see Mum and Dad’s former carer, who is regrowing her hair following chemotherapy, and who has the sweetest, most beautifully- formed head under her cap of fuzz.  I cry at the dead woodpigeon that I found in Mum and Dad’s garden, her eyes closed as if she was just asleep, and then I cry some more at the witless baby woodpigeon bumbling around on the lawn as if death were just a fairy story, and everything is going to live forever. And then I wipe my eyes and put my shoulders back, and get on with what needs to be done, like carers have always done, because there is respite in action. There’s something about making gravy or peeling potatoes or sliding a perfect pancake onto a warmed plate that soothes the soul, makes me feel as if I’m doing something to balance the scales that are tilting towards darkness.

I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but I do know that we need more Solero moments, more pancakes, more roast potatoes. We need the scent of roses and the cool softness of a breeze through an open window. We need fresh clean cotton sheets and the sound of jackdaws chuckling outside. These small moments of pleasure are what make the difference to a life, even if they aren’t remembered. Just because Mum and Dad’s short-term memory might be in tatters doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy things in the moment.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Acanthus (Bear’s Breeches)

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis)

Dear Readers, what a striking plant this is, with its dark brown bracts and gently striped white flowers! Although it does grow wild in some parts of the UK (and was probably introduced from Italy in the 16th Century), in East Finchley it is confined to gardens. It is what many gardening books call an ‘architectural plant’, which generally means something strident and upstanding, but Acanthus has played a part in the architecture of the Classical world in a much more direct way. The leaves of the plant are magnificent in their own right, as you can see from the photograph below. The name ‘Acanthus’ comes from the Greek for ‘thorn’, probably because of the spiky leaves and seed capsule, but the species name ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’, maybe to distinguish this plant from it’s much spikier relatives. I assume that the name ‘bear’s breeches’ comes from the way that the flowers look like trouser legs protruding from the bear-coloured bracts, but why it is also sometimes called ‘oyster plant’ I have no idea.

Photo One by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15808180

Bear’s breeches leaf (Photo One)

The leaves were the inspiration for the top part of the Corinthian columns (the Capital) used in Greek buildings from the  5th Century BCE. The design is attributed to the architect Callimachus, who is said to have seen Acanthus leaves growing around some statuary on a grave and been struck by the beauty of the accidental arrangement.  As the plant is widespread throughout the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that it became synonymous with this particular era and style.

Photo Two by By Cimoi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Corinthian column from the Grand Moszue in Kairouan, Tunisia (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3846707

Wild Acanthus growing amidst the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome (Photo Three)

Virgil states that Helen of Troy wore a dress embroidered with Acanthus leaves, and I suspect that she looked very good in it, though if legend is to be believed she’d have looked good in a jute sack.  William Morris was also very taken with the leaves as a design for his fabrics and wallpaper.

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/25665188540

Acanthus leaf wallpaper by William Morris (Photo Four)

The design became so widespread that it even reached the post boxes of England during the Victorian era. No wonder that, in the Language of Flowers, an Acanthus means ‘art’.

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125504

A Penfold-design post box in Cambridge (1866-79) with Acanthus leaf motif on the top (Photo Five)

Acanthus is what is known as entomophilous (or ‘insect-loving’), and is pollinated by big, heavy insects such as bumblebees, who are the only ones strong enough to force their way into the flower. The plant also spreads by means of its rhizomes, and can be quite invasive in the right conditions. It is a remarkably unfussy plant, happy in shade or in drought, and it certainly packs a punch appearance-wise. I need to have a garden about three times as large as my current one to accommodate all these plants that I keep finding out about.

Medicinally, the leaves were used as a poultice for burns and scalds, sprains and dislocations. Tea made from the leaves was also used to soothe digestive and urinary upsets.

I can find no references to anybody (except snails and slugs) eating the leaves, though they don’t appear to be poisonous either. Better to stick to that bag of curly kale, I think.

And finally, here’s a poem, to balance the Ted Hughes that I posted a few weeks ago. This is by Sylvia Plath. I suspect she might have invented the word ‘Acanthine’, and this poem is a remarkable evocation of Plath’s father, who died when she was eight years old. You could say that she searched for him, in vain, for the rest of her life.

The Colossus by Sylvia Plath

I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.
 
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.
 
Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
 
A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
 
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
 
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15808180

Photo Two by By Cimoi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3846707

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/25665188540

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125504

The Long Hot Summer

Shed London Plane Bark

Dear Readers, as I was walking home from East Finchley Station earlier this week, I was hit on the head by a chunk of bark from a London Plane tree. No damage was done, but it did get me thinking. As you might know, London has been in the grip of a heat wave for the past six weeks – there was one brief thunderstorm while I was in Austria, but apart from that everything is bone dry. What, I wondered, was the effect of these hot, dry conditions on the plants and animals in East Finchley? And so, smothered in Factor 50 and clutching my camera, I headed out to find out.

Superficially, the plane trees on the High Road are looking splendid as always.

And it’s at this point that I wish I paid more attention when conditions were normal, for what I’m going to write on this page is much more anecdotal than scientific. The plane trees do seem to have shed a lot of bark, but is this usual for the summer, or is it a sign of stress? And if it’s stress, is it simply lack of water, or has the hot weather increased the amount of air pollution – bark shedding is the way that the plane tree gets rid of noxious substances.

I take a little trip through Cherry Tree Wood to see what’s going on there. Last time I was here, the Cow Parsley was in full flower. Not any more.

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) seedhead

The fallen stems criss-cross the understorey in the wood. Soon they’ll be providing hibernating places for solitary bees, and fertilising the forest floor.

And blackberries are ripe before the end of July. This autumn fruit has taken advantage of the warm weather to get a move on and ripen. I ate a few handfuls, even though they were surprisingly tart. That’ll teach me to be greedy.

Blackberries, already ripe

The ground is baked hard, making it difficult for any creatures that eat worms. No wonder the mealworms that I put out in the garden are so popular.

Many of the young ash trees are losing their leaves already – once trees are established, their roots can tap into very deep water, but saplings rely more on surface water. All the more reason to water any young street trees on your street, folks! I am off out to water the Amelanchior canadensis that was planted a year or so ago as soon as I’ve finished writing this piece.

Ash grove

An established oak tree has more access to water. It has survived worse than this drought.

The cleavers has turned into corn-coloured lace.

Cleavers (Gallium aparine)

I pop along to the bird-cherry trees to see how the ermine moth caterpillars are doing. They’ve pupated, and are all cuddled up together in their little white cocoons. I couldn’t see any holes indicating that they’ve emerged yet, so I put the cocoons back where I found them.

Bird cherry ermine moth cocoons

The trees are showing their stress in other ways too, besides wilting and shedding bark: many leaves are under insect attack, a sure sign that their defences are not as strong as usual.

In good news, however, I have never seen as many butterflies and moths as this year. My garden has featured about 12 species so far, and the buddleia outside is being regularly visited by bees and butterflies. It is very important to water these plants even if you don’t water others – if the plant doesn’t have enough water, the nectar will dry up. As bees and butterflies get both food and water from nectar, it’s vital that they have access to it.

There have been a number of pieces in the press about feeding bees and butterflies with sugar water – in fact there was a fake David Attenborough page on Facebook recommending a strange device made out of bottle tops. My general advice is: don’t. It’s great to provide plain water for insects, preferably in a shallow tray filled with pebbles so they don’t drown themselves. Nectar is a very complex substance, but many insects will collect sugar water in preference because we make it easy for them to harvest, with a detrimental effect on the larvae back in their nests.

The only exception is if you find a ‘grounded’ bee – sometimes they run out of energy because they can’t find enough ‘fuel’ in the form of nectar. Early in the season you will sometimes see freshly emerged queen bees on the pavement, unable to fly, and in this case you could offer her some sugar water on a spoon to give them a quick boost. At this time of year, if you want to help a grounded bee, I would place her on a nectar-rich flower such as a buddleia, and she will revive if lack of food is her problem.

And finally, back to my garden, where the pond has never been so low. You can see about eight inches of the pond liner. Normally the frogs have left by now, but this year they’re sitting tight. My pond is basically frog soup.

And finally, an update on the parents. Dad was admitted back into hospital on Saturday, but came out again on Monday. He was returned to the house in a private ambulance, and was well chuffed.

‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Frequent Flyer’ he said.

Whatever else is happening, Dad hasn’t lost his sense of humour.