Two Christmas Trees


Dear Readers, I was in Dorchester visiting my Dad this week, and the nursing home is revving up for Christmas. Dad had made me a present – he’d coloured in the drawing above, and had insisted on being given a red pen, because

‘You can’t have a Christmas tree without red balls’.

And who is to argue? Dad had even signed it. He really enjoys doing a bit of colouring in, though I think he regards it as a favour to the carers. After all, how does he find time?

‘I’ve been for tea with the Queen a couple of times this week’ he announced.

‘What’s it like, Dad?’ I asked.

Dad shrugged. ‘It’s a bit boring really’, he said, ‘but I have to keep going because otherwise she gets annoyed’.

Dad is in a good mood today, and is delighted when we get a taxi and head off to the garden centre in Poundbury. The place is like the Tardis – from the outside it looks tiny, but inside there’s a route that goes through a woodland scene with nodding reindeer, a frozen north area with cuddly penguins bobbing up and down, and a whole array of Christmas jumpers. I nearly buy Dad a Christmas pudding hat, but stop myself in the interests of maintaining his dignity, and decide that I’ll get one for me. Dad is, however, pleased with the musical Christmas tie that we get him. He plans to dress up for Christmas lunch, and I hope that this year we’ll all be able to enjoy it a bit more. Last year it was only a week after Mum died, and we were all  shell-shocked.

We head off to the pub across the road, where they are doing pie and mash. Dad rubs his hands together in delight. Unfortunately, it’s a relatively posh pie (i.e. one with shortcrust pastry and chunks of meat) and I think Dad was looking forward to a ‘proper’ pie and mash dinner. As any East Ender knows, you have to have a flat, rectangular pie, with flour and water pastry and a filling of ground beef, with mash that hasn’t got anything fancy like butter in it, and ‘liqor’ – a green parsley gravy made from the water that the eels have been cooked in (for jellied eels). It’s one of those local things that you either grew up with and love, or don’t ‘get’ at all.

Photo One from

Double pie and mash (Photo one)

One of the main London purveyors of pie and mash, Manze’s, sells frozen pie and mash and liqor, and I have a cunning plan to buy some for Dad in the New Year. They have a microwave at the home, so I’m sure it’s possible!

I often wonder what goes on in Dad’s head these days. Have a look at the picture below, which he painted a year ago, not long after he’d gone into care.

It’s a tree with a Robin in it, and in a way it’s rather beautiful – I love the colours, and the way that he’s stippled the leaves and the bark. But there is something amiss with the angle that it’s been painted at. Unless, it strikes me now, it’s a branch coming out of the main tree, in which case it makes a bit more sense. The scientist in me wonders what can be told from these drawings, and if the art of people with vascular dementia (like my Dad) is different from that of folk with Alzheimer’s Disease. But somehow, while Dad’s drawing and colouring is as bright and lively as it is at the moment, I feel as if he’s doing ok.

Dad was always an uncommunicative man, but somehow, since his stroke back in 2003 and then his dementia, his feelings are much closer to the surface. His delight and interest in things is clear, as is his sadness. We are fortunate that he doesn’t get angry very often, and can usually be helped to feel better. One of his favourite carers tells me that when he starts to get agitated (which is normally when he thinks that he should be somewhere else, or that he needs to do something about the ‘lorries’ that he doesn’t own), she tells him that she is his secretary, and he tells her what needs to happen. Just recently, he wanted to get the lorries sorted out for Christmas, and his carer noted it all down and came back half an hour later to tell him that she’d done it. To be with someone who has dementia, it seems to me vital to have imagination, and to be able to play. I am gradually learning to relax into Dad’s world, to go with his train of thought however otherworldly it seems. It takes so little to keep him happy.

What is hardest is when Dad talks about not being able to see Mum. Sometimes it’s because he’s done something wrong (and I can normally persuade him that Mum loves him and isn’t cross with him). This time, it was because ‘Mum and the kids’ were all so spread out geographically, and it just wasn’t possible to organise transport.

‘So I think I’ll just stay here’, says Dad, and I agree that that would be for the best, what with Santa and two reindeer visiting the home tomorrow.

Sometimes, the nurse rings me if Dad’s getting agitated, and he and I have a little chat. Often I’m not quite sure what’s the matter (it might be to do with money, or with Dad’s non-existent haulage business), but I’ve learned that a calming tone of voice and reassurance works best. I got one of those calls last week, and at the end of it, Dad sighed with relief, and said:

‘It’s good to know that I’ve got you to fall back on’.

And my heart just opened.

‘Yep’, I said. ‘You’ve always got me to fall back on, Dad’.

And so he has.

Photo Credits

Photo One from


Wednesday Weed – Acer (Japanese Maple)

Dear Readers, I have always been entranced by the delicate beauty of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) but have never had much success with growing them. My first attempt was on my balcony in Islington, which is a most unhappy location for a woodland plant – the poor thing was alternatively blasted by the wind, baked by the sun and then nearly knocked flat with rain. The leaves shrivelled and fell off, and I soon realised that I’d need to grow something that liked being exposed to the elements. A second attempt, in the heavy clay soil of my current garden, also produced a sad specimen rather than the glorious autumn-hued plant that I saw on the label. Oh well. Recently, I have spent a lot of time admiring other people’s plants instead. Sometimes, one knows when one is beat.

Our local garden centre certainly has a wide range of very tempting cultivars, nearly all of which have the ‘hand-shaped’ leaves which give the plant its species name ‘palmatum’. Japanese maple comes originally not just from Japan but from the areas roundabout too: Korea, China, eastern Mongolia and southeastern Russia. In Japan, the plant has been cultivated for centuries, and has the alternative names of kaede (‘frog-hand’) and momiji (‘baby-hand’). In ‘the wild’, Japanese maple grows as an understorey shrub or small tree in woodland, rarely getting to taller than 10 metres. When mature, the tree has a characteristic dome shape, which is sometimes also emulated in Bonsai.

Photo One by By Rüdiger WölkThis photo was taken by Rüdiger Wölk. Please credit this photo Rüdiger Wölk, Münster.View all photos (large page) of Rüdiger WölkI would also appreciate an email to with details of use.Für Hinweise auf Veröffentlichungen ( oder Belegexemplare bin ich Ihnen dankbar. - photo taken by Rüdiger Wölk, Münster, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Japanese maple showing its characteristic dome-shaped canopy (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Jeffrey O. Gustafson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A +112 year-old bonsai in Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (Photo Two)

Even in the wild, Japanese maple is a very variable tree, with different leaf-forms, habits  and colours. It also hybridises with other species. It is therefore no surprise that there are hundreds of different cultivars of the tree available today, with hundreds of others lost during the years. The photo below gives just some idea of the variety of leaf-forms alone.

Photo Three by By Abrahami - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Japanese maple leaf-forms (Photo Three)

For most people in the UK, the delight of a Japanese maple comes from its autumn leaf-colour. The saplings in the garden centre were largely dropping their leaves, but enough were holding on to get some idea of what the plant would look like in its prime.

I wasn’t aware that you could also grow Japanese maple for its bark colour, in much the same way as you would plant dogwood, but here is a cultivar that I’d never come across before. Apparently ‘coral-bark’ or ‘golden-bark’ Acers are ‘a thing’. I live and learn.

The flowers of the Japanese maple seem to be the least interesting thing about a plant that certainly punches above its weight in all other aspects. The fruit produces a winged seed, or samara, that needs to be stratified(frozen for a time) in order to germinate.

Photo Four by Sten Porse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Japanese maple flowers (Photo Four)

Reading the Royal Horticultural Society website on Japanese maples, I start to see what I’ve done wrong in the past. The trees need shade, which is obvious once you know what their natural habitat is. They also need consistent water conditions, and loathe being water-logged. All this makes me think that maybe I’ll try again, in a container this time. I have a shady garden, after all.

In Japan, the planting of a maple tree indicates that autumn is seen as a friend, as part of the cycle of life. People in North America often make special trips to view the ‘fall colour’, and a similar expedition may be made by Japanese people, although the viewing of the maples has more of a spiritual component: it is seen as a way of communing with nature, and with the spirits of nature. There is a fascinating discussion of this, and of the relationship between the Japanese maple and art, on the prints of Japan website, and I would like to quote just a smidgen here;

Bruce Feiler in his 1991 volume Learning to Bow describes making friends with a Japanese fellow who explained the background and significance of maple viewing to the Japanese: “Certain natural phenomena because of their splendor and singular beauty, developed almost a religious significance in ancient Japanese culture, where Shinto beliefs held that nature was the home of spirits who lived in the water, the land, and the trees. The mysterious transformation of green leaves into fiery reds and frosty yellows around the time of the harvest every year inspired awe among superstitious farmers. Just as a protocol around making tea… or painting calligraphy… so a proper form of viewing nature eventually evolved.” Feiler continued: “According to the Shinto code, the viewer on a proper leaf-viewing excursion should try to achieve a personal communion with the leaves, in a bond akin to the private communication between man and god at he heart of many Western religions. As Prince Genji once wrote to a lover, ‘A sheaf of autumn leaves admired in solitude is like damasks worn in the darkness of the night.’ By entering nature, one hopes to internalize the beauty of the leaves in one’s heart. Man enters nature, and nature, in turn, enters man.”’

The idea of the interconnection between nature and humanity, the notion that we don’t just go to admire the leaves but to internalise their beauty,  seems part of what is missing in our lives these days.

The gardens in Kyoto are especially famous for their beautiful maples, and there is a rather fine little film here, which I guarantee will reduce your resting pulse-rate.

I was surprised to find that Japanese maple leaves are deep-fried and eaten as a snack in Osaka, and have been for at least a thousand years. The ones from the city of Minoh are especially prized – they are preserved in barrels of salt for a year, then dipped into tempura batter. Apparently the tree can also be ‘tapped’ for maple syrup, like its North American relatives, though the sap is not as sugary.

The leaves were thought to have preservative properties, and apples and root vegetables were sometimes buried in them in the belief that they would last longer.

Photo Five by Anja Steindl from

Fried Japanese maple leaves (Photo Five)

And finally, friends, I cannot end this piece without including the poem ‘Japanese Maple’ by Clive James. When I was growing up, he was a constant feature on TV shows such as ‘Clive James on Television’, which introduced the UK to such shows as ‘Endurance’, a kind of Japanese precursor to ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ and possibly even more sadistic. But later, I discovered him as a poet, and a philosopher, and grew to see beyond the ‘larrikin’ exterior to a man of great nuance and sensitivity. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and wrote this poem as a farewell in 2013. He then survived a further six years following an experimental drug treatment, and in an interview described himself as ‘feeling embarrassed’ to still be alive. He died earlier this week, and I  hope that he was able to see his tree aflame against the amber brick.

Japanese Maple by Clive James

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Rüdiger WölkThis photo was taken by Rüdiger Wölk. Please credit this photo Rüdiger Wölk, Münster.View all photos (large page) of Rüdiger WölkI would also appreciate an email to with details of use.

Photo Two by By Jeffrey O. Gustafson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By Abrahami – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Four by Sten Porse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Photo Five by Anja Steindl from




Dear Readers, 26th November would have been my Mum’s 84th birthday, had she not died in December last year. These firsts are hard, as people who have trodden this path before warned me: on Tuesday I went into work, did fancy things with spreadsheets, cried in the toilets intermittently and went home. And then, when I started to prepare the cabbage for dinner, I heard her voice in my head.

‘Look!’ it said.

And so I did. If Mum had still been alive, she would have called to me from the kitchen, and wouldn’t have given up until I came to see what was interesting. I can remember her in the days when she could still walk, hunched over with scoliosis and poised over a chopping board.

Maybe she’d found a carrot shaped like a pair of crossed legs, or something ruder.

Maybe she was entranced by the glistening magenta seeds inside a pomegranate.

Maybe there was a five-pointed star in the middle of a potato.

Or maybe it was the way that water drops form pure, translucent pearls amongst the indentations and veins of a Savoy cabbage.

She would have gestured at the vegetable with her (always blunt) knife.

‘Can you see it?’ she’d ask.

‘Can I see what?’ I’d say, with a greater or lesser degree of exasperation.

She’d smile enigmatically and wait for me to get it.

And then, like one of those optical-illusion puzzles that change suddenly, I’d see what she saw.

‘There’s a tormented demon in your cabbage’, I’d say, and she’d laugh. She saw characters everywhere – in wallpaper, in the grain of wood, in clouds, in the upturned faces of the pansies in the garden. She would have loved the fuse box that I spotted at Walthamstow Wetlands the other week.

For Mum, the world was full of people that went unnoticed, both in terms of images, and in terms of real folk who are often passed by. It was not unusual for me to meet her somewhere, only to find her sharing a cigarette with a homeless person that she’d made friends with outside the tube station, or ‘chatting’ with a lost tourist who spoke not a word of English. She reached beyond speech to find the common language that we all share:  a need for connection, empathy, and beauty. She would compliment a complete stranger if she liked their dress, and once told a very well-dressed young man that the newspaper he was carrying had left a big print smudge on his face.

‘I could tell that he was going to an interview because he looked very nervous and kept checking his A to Z’, she said, ‘and he was very grateful when I told him. And I was right, he was going to an interview!’

Once, in Finsbury Square, Mum noticed a pigeon with its feet wrapped in string much like the one at Waterloo Station above. She had a pair of scissors in her bag, and, with some trepidation, approached a besuited chap at the next bench.

‘Excuse me’, she said, ‘but if you could just get hold of that poor pigeon, I’m sure I could cut it free’.

The guy looked at her with complete incredulity.

‘Madam’, he said, ‘you must be completely mad’.

And so the pigeon remained entangled, and Mum went back to work, sad and exasperated.

‘All he had to do was grab it!’ she told me that evening.

I should add that Mum also brought home many of the house plants from work that the company who looked after them deemed too tatty to grace the office. She would nurse them back to health with great satisfaction.

‘All they needed was a bit of TLC’, she’d say. People, animals and plants flourished under her kind attention, and she taught me that no living thing should ever be treated without respect, or written off. Her passion for the underdog was the thing that I loved most about her, and it was that that propelled me into so many of my own choices in life. She believed that that a community is only strong when there is room for everyone, and so do I.

But truly, Mum saw beauty everywhere. She loved the night sky, and I remember us standing at the back of the bungalow one night, not long before she died. It is very dark in the village, and we stood there, holding hands and looking up. Suddenly, there was a shooting star.

‘Quick, Mum, make a wish!’ I said, and she closed her eyes, and so did I. I wished for her to have better health, and to find peace, and one of those wishes was granted, though not in the way I wanted.

And so, I go on, as we do. But I often find myself trying to get complete strangers to pay attention to what’s around them. I point out a red moon, a flock of waxwings, a pied wagtail trying to find food outside Kentucky Fried Chicken, a robin singing at first light, and when I do I know it’s Mum speaking through me, still.


Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)



Wednesday Weed – Judas Tree

Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum)

Dear Readers, I do hope that you’ll forgive the preponderance of tree-based posts over the past few weeks. It’s difficult to find more herbaceous species in the winter, plus I am intrigued by the variety of street trees around my office in the City of London. They are a solace when I’m overcome by the busyness and the sheer number of people, and I have come to see some of them as individuals: the swamp cypress in the Cleary Garden and the Indian bean tree in St Olave’s Court come to mind immediately. They have a lot to teach us about resilience and stoicism, about bending to circumstance and about making the most of resources. Plus, they are extremely good company, quiet, dignified and unlikely to want you to explain your spreadsheet in minute detail.

So, this week I am turning my attention to the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum). It comes from Southern Europe and Western Asia, and is a protected tree in Israel. The Cercis family is a genus in the pea family, Fabaceae, and this should come as no surprise if one looks closely at the flowers. The name ‘Cercis‘ comes from the Greek for ‘weaver’s shuttle’, which refers to the shape of the seedpods (see the photo below).

The one in the photo above cascades out of its bed at the back of the Guildhall, opposite the gardens of St Mary Aldmanbury. The church here was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, rebuilt and then bombed flat in the Blitz in 1940. The remains were taken and reconstructed in the grounds of Westminster College, Missouri as a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill.

Photo One by By Rangermike at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The reconstructed church of St Mary Aldermanbury in Missouri (Photo One)

But I digress, as usual. The only other Judas tree that I know of is also related to a ruined church, on Marylebone High Street – it is in the Garden of Rest next to the Marylebone Elm, one of the Great Trees of London. The name ‘Judas tree’ comes from the legend that Judas Iscariot, full of shame after his betrayal of Jesus, hanged himself from a branch of the tree, so I wonder if its appearance in churchyards is a result of its Biblical connotations. The tree is supposed to have turned its flowers from white to red as a mark of its disgrace, although Paul Wood points out in ‘London’s Street Trees’ that many of the cultivars to be found in the Capital have white flowers.

What flowers, though! They burst straight out of the bark, and I look forward to revisiting ‘my’ tree in the spring.

Photo Two by By Bouba at French Wikipedia - photo by Bouba, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The flowers of the Judas tree (Photo Two)

Sometimes the flowers dangle from the tree, however, and the seedpods certainly do, giving the appearance of little people hanging from the branches if you have a macabre turn of mind. I think that you would have to squint very hard to find that idea plausible. It is also said that if you tell a lie under a Judas tree you will drop dead, which makes a change, as regular readers will know, from dropping dead if you bring the flowers into the house. Yet another source mentions that the tree is a favourite haunt of witches, and that it is dangerous to go near it at night. The tree bears such a lot of negative connotations that it’s no wonder that the one that I saw is bowed over.

Other scholars, however, say that the name ‘Judas tree’ is a corruption of the French name for the plant, Arbre de Judée, meaning ‘Tree of Judea’, an area where the tree is commonly found, so all of the Judas myths might be founded on a misapprehension.

Photo Three by By Kurt Stüber [1] - part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Flowers and seedpods of the Judas tree (Photo Three)

The flowers are pollinated by bees, but yet another folktale tells that the nectar is poisonous, and kills whoever feeds on the flowers. Not so, but handy as a cautionary tale to beware of temptation. In fact, the flowers are edible and are often pickled or thrown into a salad to add a touch of colour. The young leaves can also be eaten in salads.

In North America, the blossom of the closely related redbud trees (Cercis canadensis in the east of the continent, Cercis occidentalis in the west) is often used in the same way, and in fact the redbud is another London street tree, in particular the Forest Pansy variety, with its orange, red and purple foliage. It would be surprising if a city as diverse as London didn’t reflect this in its trees, and a walk around the City can often feel as interesting as a trip to a botanical garden.

Photo Four by Sballal [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

An unusual white Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) in Missouri Botanical Garden (Photo Four)

Forest pansy redbud – autumn colour 

Now, in the search for references to the Judas tree, I came across the sculptor Michael Winstone. Without understanding for a second exactly what he does, I found his work interesting, with an erotic tinge. What I do know is that each sculpture is based on a computer-scan of the bark of a particular tree, in this case a Judas tree (actually an Eastern redbud, but we’ll let him off). The computer then ‘grows’ this pattern organically, to make a form that is part tree, part human body. Sometimes, the tree itself will have disappeared, but its uniqueness is preserved in digital form. The title of each sculpture gives its exact original geographical location, in this case Forest Row, which appears to be midway between Crawley and Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Photo Five by Omi4DSculpture: Michael Winstone - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

51°5’28”N_0°1’55”E_-_i_(Judas-Tree,_Cercis-Canadensis) (Photo Five)

The city of Istanbul is especially rich in Judas trees (known there as erguvan), and their blossoming heralds the beginning of spring. The purple-pink colour of the buds is reminiscent of the royal purple of the Byzantine emperors, and during Ottoman times the buds were gathered for food and the wood turned into walking sticks. Today, the trees are becoming a major tourist attraction, much like the cherry blossom in Tokyo.

Photo Six from

Judas trees flowering in Istanbul (Photo Six)

And now, a poem. There is a lot of poetry about the tree’s association with Judas, but I wanted to commemorate the tree’s origins in the Middle East, where it is best loved and understood. This work is by the much-loved Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, and was written to commemorate his friend Vartan, an Armenian Iranian who was arrested by the Iranian secret police (SAVAK) because of his affiliation to the illegal Communist party. He was tortured in order to get him to reveal the names of his comrades, and the location of a printing press, but remained silent, and died as a result of his injuries. Shamlou had to replace the name ‘Vartan’ with ‘Nazli’ because of censorship concerns until after the Iranian revolution of 1979. As with much poetry written under authoritarian regimes, there is a lot of symbolism here, especially with regard to the coming of spring and the end of winter, but I think it also works on its own merit. See what you think.

Vartan by Ahmad Shamlou

Under the window in our house, the old lilac has blossomed.
Dispel all your doubts!
Don’t wrestle with the ominous Death!
Being is better than not being, especially in spring …”
Vartan didn’t say a word:
He suppressed his anger and then went away …
– “Vartan, say something!
The bird of silence
is waiting for the offspring of a horrible death
to hatch its egg!”
Vartan didn’t say a word:
Just as the sun,
he rose in the dark,
set in the twilight of blood,
and then went away …
Vartan didn’t say a word.
Vartan was a glowing star,
momentarily glistened in the dark,
and then vanished for good and all.
Vartan didn’t say a word.
Vartan was a violet:
He came into blossom
and gave us the good news,
“Winter has fallen apart.”
and then went away.
– “Vartan, spring has arrived and the Judas tree is in flower”.

Photo Seven by Schezar from New York City, USA [CC BY 2.0 (]

Judas tree in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris (Photo Seven)

Photo Credit

Photo One by By Rangermike at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by Bouba at French Wikipedia – photo by Bouba, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By Kurt Stüber [1] – part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by Sballal [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Photo Five by Omi4DSculpture: Michael Winstone – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Six from

Photo Seven by Schezar from New York City, USA [CC BY 2.0 (]


Hope in The City

New Horizon elms on Queen Victoria Street

Dear Readers, it saddens me that so many people  living in the UK have never seen a truly mature ‘English’ elm (Ulmus procera).  Although the tree always had a melancholy reputation (it had a habit of dropping branches without warning, and was a popular wood for making coffins) it seemed such a part of the English landscape, and featured in the paintings of Constable. Actually, the elm was probably introduced by Bronze Age farmers, but we loved it none the less, and thought that it would always be here. But like so many things, we didn’t notice it until it was gone, which was what happened in the 1960’s when Dutch Elm disease arrived, in the form of some Canadian timber intended for use in the small boat industry. This is a fungal disease spread by burrowing beetles: the tree responds to the fungus by plugging up its own veins to prevent the infection, but this also prevents the tree from receiving nutrients and water, and so it eventually dies. Over 25 million trees died in England alone, and France lost 90 percent of its elms. Today, you can see young elms in hedgerows, as the roots aren’t affected and can send up suckers which will reach approximately two metres tall before the fungus kicks in, but mature elms are extremely rare: there is a fabulous specimen on Marylebone High Street, and Brighton is an elm ‘hotspot’, with 15,000 elms: this is partly due to the relative geographical isolation of the town (which is between the English Channel and the South Downs) and partly because a very close eye is kept on the trees, with remedial cutting and pruning occurring at the first sight of any problems.

Which brings me to these trees, reflected in the glass of the Salvation Army building on Queen Victoria Street.

The first thing to say is that these are not straightforward elms: they are New Horizon elms, a cultivar produced by scientists in Wisconsin. They crossed a Japanese elm tree (Ulmus davidiana var Japonica) with a Siberian elm tree (Ulmus pumilla) to produce a tree which rates 5 out of 5 for Dutch Elm disease resistance. In tests, the saplings apparently develop portly trunks in relationship to their height, but these trees seem very elegant to me. It does appear that they are all bending away from the building, which is probably because that wall of glass is preventing the crown from growing symmetrically. Let’s hope that they don’t all topple over.

Despite being named ‘Best New Plant Variety’ by Horticulture Week in 2005, New Horizon has had mixed fortunes in the UK. It appears to grow very slowly compared to other cultivars, and to dislike heavy, water-logged soil (of which London has a profusion). However, it has withstood flooding (just as well I suspect), and in 2017 a group of New Horizon elms in Vauxhall were found to be hosting a population of the white-letter hairstreak ((Satyrium w-album), an endangered butterfly that is completely reliant on the elm tree: the caterpillars feed on the flowers, leaves and fruit, they pupate in a crevice in the bark, and then the adults feed on honeydew secreted by aphids at the top of the tree . When the elms started to die, the butterfly had nowhere to go. What a wonderful thing it would be if the Vauxhall butterflies ‘found’ this little grove and started to use it! You would have to use binoculars to see them, however, as they rarely descend to human height.

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

White-letter hairstreak (Photo One)

I was unsure about how to identify an elm, but there are a couple of useful signs. The first is that the base of the leaves is asymmetrical, and the leaves themselves are heavily veined, a bit like those of hornbeam.

An elm leaf showing its asymmetrical base

And how about those seeds? They look positively edible, though I wouldn’t advise it.

Photo Two by By Stavast22 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Elm ‘samara’ (seeds) (Photo Two)

And finally, here are the flowers of an elm tree. In mature trees they are very high up, and so they are unlikely to attract much attention.

Photo Three by By Ptelea - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Elm flowers (Photo Three)

So, given half a chance maybe one day these trees will elbow the surrounding buildings out of the way, and achieve the massive girth and advanced years of some European elms. One that survived for an estimated 650 years (until it finally succumbed) was the Biscarrose Elm in France, and what a venerable elm it was.

Photo Four By No machine-readable author provided. Ptelea assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain,

The Biscarrosse Elm (Photo Four)

I couldn’t leave my morning in the City, however, without visiting the swamp cypress in the Cleary Gardens that I wrote about a few weeks ago. When I last saw it it was lime green. Look at it now! It was glowing in the early winter sun. I was so pleased to have caught it before it sheds its needles, and even more pleased when I spotted an enormous queen bumblebee feeding on the ivy. Having been so frustrated at the lack of natural space in my immediate surroundings, it is such a delight to realise that, if I wander a little further, there is more than enough to keep me happy.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Two by By Stavast22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three by By Ptelea – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four By No machine-readable author provided. Ptelea assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain,





Wednesday Weed – Indian Bean Tree

Photo One by geograph-5810580-by-Jaggery

Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes) in Monmouth (Photo One)

Dear Readers, I was so taken by the Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes) that I found growing in St Olave’s Court in the City of London last week that I thought I’d investigate a bit further. This is a magnificent street tree, with its enormous leaves, striking bean pods and extraordinary flowers, and you may sometimes see the golden-leaved cultivar ‘Aurea’, which adds another element to the tree’s attractiveness with its lemon-hued foliage. It is such an unusual plant that I can’t believe I’ve never paid it any attention before. Apparently the bean pods are sometimes used by children as a sword/light sabre substitute, and I can see why.

Indian Bean Tree ‘Aurea’, showing off those beans (Public Domain)

Indian bean trees, or catalpas, come originally from the southern states of the US, and one of their alternative names is ‘cigar tree’. The photo above shows why. The name ‘catalpa’ might derive from the Muskogee word ‘kutuhlpa’, which means ‘winged head’ – inside the beans are winged seeds which will spin away in a breeze to find a new growing site. Once landed, the trees seem to have a habit of spiralling towards the light, leading to some very eccentric growth patterns. I noted last week that the tree that I saw seemed to be determined to reach the small window of sunshine between the buildings that surrounded it, and some other images show the same determination.

The Indian bean tree in St Olave’s Court

Photo Two by By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT - travail personnel, CC BY 3.0,

An Indian bean tree in the private gardens of Louvignies castle in Belgium (Photo Two)

The main reason for planting this tree is, however, for its flowers. Goodness. They appear in July, and I shall have to put a date in the diary to remember to go and look. If I told you that one of the closer relatives of the catalpas is the house plant incarvillea, I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised. The first Indian bean tree is said to have arrived in the UK in the eighteenth century, brought here by Mark Catesby, who published the first ever guide to the natural history of the Americas between 1729 and 1747.

Photo Three by By Le.Loup.Gris - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Catalpa flowers (Photo Three)

Photo Four by Epibase [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Incarvillea delavayi ‘Snowtop’ (Photo Four)

But what really intrigues me about the Indian bean tree is that, most unusually, it produces nectar in its leaves. I mentioned this in my original post, but something about it had me scratching my head. Producing nectar is expensive for a plant, which is why it is usually a way of attracting insects for pollination, so why would this tree ooze sugar from the veins in its foliage? I had to dig a bit, but a reason finally appeared.

The Indian bean tree’s leaves are the only food of the caterpillar of the catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae). The larvae can completely strip a tree of its leaves, sometimes several times per year. It can be so damaging that the first ever trial of aerial crop dusting was an attempt in 1921 to get rid of the caterpillars from a catalpa farm. The jury seems to be out as to whether the insects actually cause long-term harm to the tree, with some people arguing that the frass from the larvae is such a good fertilizer that on balance the Indian bean tree is not harmed, and others saying that they regularly give their tree a good hose down to stop the worst depredations of the ‘catawpa worm’.

Photo Five by By Patrick Coin (Patrick Coin) - Photograph taken by Patrick Coin, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) (Photo Five)

Photo Six from CC BY-SA 2.5,

Catalpa sphinx moth caterpillars munching on Indian bean tree leaves (Photo Six)

However, the tree is not without help. Enter the bodyguard ant (Forelius pruinosus). A 2003 study by J.Ness showed that when the caterpillars attacked a catalpa, it started to produce the nectar from its leaves. This in turn attracted the ants who not only enjoyed the sweet treat, but turned their attentions to the caterpillars. Hence, the depredations of the moth were not as bad as they might have been. When in balance, nature seems to have an answer for everything.

Incidentally, the caterpillars are a great favourite as bait for anglers, and in some parts of the US catalpa trees are planted just so that the ‘worms’ can be harvested and used to catch catfish.

Fortunately in the UK we don’t (yet) have the catalpa sphinx hawkmoth, so I think those lovely big leaves are safe for the moment.

The wood of the Indian bean tree was once used for fencing and for furniture making. The tree is sometimes now planted in areas of soil erosion, because the roots can help to hold the soil together, and historically the tree was often planted as a shade tree, close to the house. The huge leaves provide shelter and shade for birds too, although I’m not sure how far they eat those catalpa caterpillars – the tree produces a chemical which will deter most herbivores, and these substances are often bitter and unpleasant, so maybe the caterpillars don’t taste so good.

Photo Seven from,_from_The_natural_history_of_Carolina..._Wellcome_L0047451.jpg

Baltimore orioles sheltering beneath the leaves of an Indian bean tree, from ‘The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Isles’ by Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749) (Photo Seven)

The beans and bark have been used as a cough medicine and to reduce the symptoms of asthma, and a distillation of the fruit has been used as a cure for conjunctivitis. The roots, however, are very poisonous.

And now, a poem. While the Indian bean tree is very beautiful, many US websites also describe it as what might politely be called ‘a pain in the backside’. The flowers drop off and turn to mush, the beans do the same, occasionally whole branches crack and hang, the leaves are either eaten by catalpa worms or fall and make the paths slippery. And yet. John Ciardi (1916-1986) seems to sum up the dilemma in his poem ‘The Catalpa’, which is not just a consideration of this tree, but of what price we put on the beauty of a moment.

The Catalpa

The catalpa’s white week is ending there
in its corner of my yard. It has its arms full
of its own flowering now, but the least air
spills off a petal and a breeze lets fall
whole coronations. There is not much more
of what this is. Is every gladness quick?
That tree’s a nuisance, really. Long before
the summer’s out, its beans, long as a stick,
will start to shed. And every year one limb
cracks without falling off and hangs there dead
till I get up and risk my neck to trim
what it knows how to lose but not to shed.
I keep it only for this one white pass.
The end of June’s its garden; July, its Fall;
all else, the world remembering what it was
in the seven days of its visible miracle.
What should I keep if averages were all?


Photo Eight By Magnus Manske - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Indian bean tree flower (Photo Eight)

Photo Credits

Photo One by geograph-5810580-by-Jaggery

Photo Two by By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – travail personnel, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Three by By Le.Loup.Gris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by Epibase [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Photo Five by By Patrick Coin (Patrick Coin) – Photograph taken by Patrick Coin, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Six from CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Seven from,_from_The_natural_history_of_Carolina…_Wellcome_L0047451.jpg

Photo Eight By Magnus Manske – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


The Search for Green Part Three

The Guildhall

Dear Readers, this week I have mostly been playing with spreadsheets, moving costs from one project to another and then, on receiving subsequent information, moving them back again. It  feels like the modern-day equivalent of poor Sisyphus and his stone, but at least any backache I get can be alleviated by going out on the hunt for another bit of green in the City. This week I headed off to Guildhall, where a reader had mentioned that there was a pond. I couldn’t find it at first, and the area in front of the Guildhall itself (which was once the site of a Roman amphitheatre) is relentlessly un-green. It does have some wonderful busts looking over it though, including one of Cromwell looking positively apoplectic.


Although the Guildhall itself dates from 1411, some of the buildings around it are most definitely more modern. The church of St Lawrence Jewry also abuts the site – it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (who also has a bust overlooking the yard)and was so named because of its proximity to the old Great Synagogue which existed just across the way. This area is such a palimpsest of the different layers of history – many buildings were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London, and many more were damaged during the Blitz. You might argue that the building boom in the 1960s also contributed to the general mayhem.

St Lawrence Jewry and the London Police Museum

But where’s the pond? I advance towards the tree in the upper left-hand corner, and voila!

Pond outside St Lawrence Jewry

It has a little bit of a duckweed problem to be sure, but how refreshing to find some water bubbling away in the middle of the City. Whilst we are unlikely to spot any kingfishers, there was a determined London pigeon picking over the leaves in the corner. I had seen him (or her) being shooed away by a young City gent earlier, but this wasn’t going to stop him investigating the leaves in the corner of the pond for something edible. I love how, in the absence of opposable thumbs, pigeons still manage to break their food into manageable chunks.

The seats by the pond are made of stone, and are a bit cold and uncomfortable at this time of year. I thought that, having spotted the pond, I would head back to my spreadsheets but somehow my feet had other ideas.

What was going on here, for example?

This rather sooty row of birches leads down to the gardens of St Mary Aldmanbury. On the way, I pass a Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) – this will be absolutely splendid in springtime, when the pink flowers erupt straight out of the bark. At the moment it’s the leaves that are splendid, with each one seeming to want to variegate in its own unique way. In some, the golden colour seems to be coming from the central vein, in others the leaf is going yellow from the edge inwards, in still others all the veins are picked out in green. The whole tree seems like a hymn to organised chaos. I am finding a lot of trees to fall in love with in the Square Mile.

Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum)

Across the road is Love Lane and St Mary Almandbury Gardens.

I go for a little wander, and discover my second swamp cypress in a fortnight, having never seen one before. This one is dropping its needles and looks frankly unwell. No wonder folk used to take one look at this tree and think that it had contracted a terrible disease.

The gardens themselves have a memorial to two of Shakespeare’s players, Heminge and Condell, who were co-partners with him in the Globe, and who put together the First Folio in 1623, giving away their own rights . Shakespeare had died in 1616 with no plan to publish his plays, so who knows what would have happened if it hadn’t been for them? And then there are the sonnets. Sonnet 73 feels particularly appropriate for this time of year, especially after my personal tribulations during the past twelve months.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Somehow I still don’t want to go back to work. Opposite the garden there is an impressive  fountain, the water rippling gently over the sea-green glass.

I start to circle back, and the brash modern buildings of the City come back into view, towering over the venerable old ladies of the Mansion House and the Bank of England.

But wait! There is a little alley, and I never could resist one. Surrounded by offices, there is a tiny pocket park. A young woman is having a loud conversation on her phone, and a courier is having a sneaky smoke before he jumps back onto his bike. But it’s this tree that astounds me. It reminds me of a caged tiger, hemmed in but still determined to get out. It has twisted in its confined quarters until it can see the sun, and at the very top there are a handful of pods from last year’s fruiting. The papery leaves are the size of dinner plates, and I realise that this is a very tall Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes), a tree that was introduced back in 1726 from the banks of the Mississippi, and which seems to tolerate the pollution of the City very well. The flowers are said to be remarkable and bloom in July, when everything else has finished. Also, the leaves secrete nectar, a most unusual attribute, and one which probably makes the tree a friend to all manner of pollinators, who will be getting a meal for nothing (thanks to Paul Wood’s ‘London Street Trees’ for the information).

Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes)

The Indian bean tree in St Olave’s Court

And now, I really must be getting back to work, but my spirits are lifted, and even if I have to move the costs in my spreadsheet to another location, I shall not sigh heavily or even raise my eyebrow a fraction. Such is the power of a little spot of green.