Wednesday Weed – Greater Plantain

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Greater plantain (Plantago major)

Greater plantain (Plantago major)

Dear Readers, sometimes when I stomp around the cemetery or the streets of East Finchley looking for a Wednesday Weed, I become a little downhearted, especially in late October when most of the plants are going to bed for the winter. I was briefly excited by a yellow brassica (and that’s not a sentence that you read every day), but then realised that it was Hoary Mustard and had already featured on the blog. Such are the perils when you’ve already written about 150 weeds in a half-mile radius of your house.

I was briefly distracted by this little chap/chappess, who was intently looking into the grass, probably at some poor rodent. However, s/he loped off without eating anything, so I suspect the mouse made a judicious escape.

img_8376 img_8371And then, after finding one solitary buttercup and a cinquefoil, I was heading home when I realised that although I have written about ribwort plantain, I have never featured its sibling, greater plantain. And what an interesting plant it is!

This is one of those little crushed-looking plants that is always slightly damaged, and yet is very tolerant of being trodden on. Unlike ribwort plantain, its leaves are oval shaped. The flowerspike is described in my Harraps guide as being a ‘rat’s tail’ with short stamens and small, dull, purple anthers.

img_8413-2As you can see from the photos above, although greater plantain is a modest ‘weed’, it is much liked by many insects, who gnaw enormous holes in those ribbed leaves. Amongst the creatures who feed upon it are the caterpillars of the heath fritillary, the wonderfully-named moth called the setaceous hebrew character, and the gorgeous buff ermine, to name but a few.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Heath fritillary (Melitaea athalia) (Photo One – see credit below)

Setaceous Hebrew Character Moth (Xestia.c-nigrum)- Public Domain

Setaceous Hebrew Character Moth (Xestia.c-nigrum)- Public Domain

By Jtaylorfriedman - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Hebrew letter ‘Nun’ after which the Setaceous Hebrew Character was named (Photo Two – see credit below)

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Buff ermine moth (Spilosoma lutea) (Photo Three – see credit below)

It isn’t only caterpillars who eat greater plantain, however. The young leaves can be eaten in salad, and 100 grams contains as much vitamin C as a large carrot. However, because this is a plant which can often be found on footpaths and places where dogs ‘hang out’, I would want to be extremely careful when gathering the leaves. Having said which, if you can find a clean supply of the leaves, you might want to try the technique here, from the rather beautiful Transitional Gastronomy website.

img_8411-2It is, however, as a medicinal plant that greater plantain has most often been used. It is often used as a poultice for stings, wounds, bruises and sores, and I’ve often used it to sooth the hives from nettle stings, something that I learned many years ago from my father. He told me that wherever nettles grew, there would always be a plant to soothe their sting, and indeed there usually is. The leaves contain cooling mucilage, an anti-microbial compound called aucubin and allantoin to promote cell-growth, plus a whole host of other useful chemical compounds. The leaves also contain tannin, which may explain why they are said to be useful in arresting external bleeding. The healing powers of greater plantain are mentioned by Chaucer and by Shakespeare, in Love’s Labours Lost and in Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, it is also said to cure ‘the madness of dogs’, should you have any canines that are inclined to lunacy.

The leaves of greater plantain, with their fibrous veins, have been used in a number of children’s games: Richard Mabey, in ‘Flora Britannica’, relates how one of his contributors used the leaves:

‘I remember we used to pull off the leaves of the ratstail plantain, and from the number of ribs and threads which pulled out and hung down, and by the length of them, that was an indication of how many, and how lengthy, had been the lies that we had told that day’. (Elizabeth Telper, Selkirk, Borders).


In the UK, where it is a native plant, greater plantain was known as ‘Waybread’, and was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons (I have written more about this in my piece on ribwort plantain, see link above). Many legends have sprung up about the plant: a young girl was said to have waited for her lover for so long beside a path that she was transformed into a greater plantain. From that time, it was said that the plant turned into a cuckoo every seventh year, for reasons that seem far from obvious nearly a millenium later. More easily understood is the medieval tendency to include the plant in their art as a symbol of the ‘well-trodden path’ to Christ.

Greater plantain was called ‘White Man’s Footprint’ by native peoples in both North America and Australia, as it seemed that no sooner had the colonists arrived than the plant sprang up along their paths and byways. The seeds of the plant are a common contaminant of cereal crops, and this is probably how it was spread. Each plant can produce up to 15,000 seeds, and of these, at least 60% will germinate. No wonder it is so successful. The plant is mentioned by Longfellow in his epic poem ‘Hiawatha’:

‘Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them

Springs a flower unknown among us,

Springs the ‘White Man’s Foot’ in blossom’.

Much to my surprise, I have discovered that there is also a cultivated variety of greater plantain with shiny chocolate-coloured leaves, called ‘Rubrifolia’. I imagine that it would be perfect for growing in the gaps between paving stones, though I wonder how long it would be before its wild cousin took over.

By User:SB_Johnny - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Plantago major v.rubrifolia (Photo Four – see credit below)

Such a humble plant as greater plantain does not seem an obvious choice for a painting, so it was with delight that I found it playing a starring role in a watercolour picture called ‘The Great Piece of Turf’ by Albrecht Durer, created in 1503. It features many other ‘weeds’ and grasses, such as dandelions and yarrow. I love the way that artists through the ages have been inspired not only by the flamboyant and the unusual, but by the things that are very close to hand. It proves to me that you don’t have to live a life filled with novelty and unusual experiences to find beauty. It’s there already, in our own streets and gardens.

The Large Piece of Turf (Albrecht Durer, 1503)

The Large Piece of Turf (Albrecht Durer, 1503)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Heath Fritillaries) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Hebrew character) – By Jtaylorfriedman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three (Buff Ermine) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four (Purple Plantain) – By User:SB_Johnny – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

The World Tree

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

Dear Readers, as you will know the past few months have been pretty busy, what with my course and going to visit the parents and all. So I suppose it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to see a two-foot tall ash tree sapling poking through the red valerian beside the pond. Even so, it gave me pause to see the fish bone leaves and the charcoal-coloured leaf bud that looks for all the world like a deer’s hoof.

img_8132The ash tree is both loved and loathed. For foresters it has historically been something of a ‘weed tree’ on account of the easy way that the saplings colonise open ground, especially on damp soils. And yet, for Richard Mabey, and for me, it seems to be a healing tree in many different ways. Mabey points out that it is ash that filled the gaps left by the destruction of so many august trees during the storm of 1987. In St Pancras and Islington cemetery, it is ash that proliferates in the many damp and boggy places. And it was ash that filled the gaps left by Dutch Elm disease, something that is now horribly ironic as ash, in its turn, is menaced by disease, of which more later.

Ash tree in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Ash tree in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Ash has also been used in healing ceremonies, right up to the end of the eighteenth century (and possibly even today). In Flora Britannica, Mabey reports on one such ceremony, recorded by Gilbert White. Ash was considered especially efficacious in the case of children born sickly, or with wasted limbs. A young ash would be split in two and the halves held open by wedges. The child would then be passed, stark naked, through the gap. The split tree was then plastered up with loam, and swathed up with bandages. If the two halves grew back together, the cure was said to have worked, but if the two halves remained separate it was considered ineffective.

img_8104In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, ‘the world tree’, is generally considered to be an ash (though some believe it might have been a yew). This was the tree of life, ‘the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread all over the world’. All the sadder, then, that it is diseases and creatures from other parts of the world that now form the biggest of challenges to this most widespread of British trees.

In 2012, a disease known as ‘ash dieback’, caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus was discovered in saplings in a nursery in Buckinghamshire. Although ash dieback is widespread in mainland Europe, killing up to 85% of the ash trees in Poland and devastating the tree in other places too, the UK had continued to import saplings from affected areas. By the time that the disease was recognised, it was already affecting full grown trees in woodland. 100,00 trees and saplings were destroyed, but scientists considered it ‘too little, too late’. Some trees do have immunity to the fungus, but it is estimated that probably 95% of all British ash trees could be killed in the UK, out of a population of 80 million trees. So far, it has been found in 50% of all the 10k squares in England monitored by the Forestry Commission, 16% of those in Scotland and 30% of those in Wales. The first cases have also just been found in Northern Ireland, and the disease is well-established in the Republic of Ireland.

The 2013 UK strategy, announced by Owen Paterson ( the comedy environment minister who claimed that the ‘badgers had moved the goalposts’ during the cull ‘discussions’ for those who don’t remember) was to allow adult trees with ash dieback to stand (because of their wildlife value, and the fact that immunity will never develop if trees are cut down immediately). Young trees would be destroyed, and an additional 250,000 ash trees will be planted to see if the characteristics for immunity can be identified. There is also a monitoring scheme with an app called ‘Ashtag‘ which sounds like as much fun as can be mustered from the situation.

So, what does ash dieback look like? It causes the ‘dieback’ of stems and branches in the crown of mature trees (hence the name of the disease). It also causes distinctive lesions on the stems and branches.

By Sarang - Own work, Public Domain,

Crown dieback in a mature tree (Photo One – see credit below)

By Food and Environment Research Agency - FERA, OGL,

Wilted leaves as a result of ash dieback infection (Photo Two – see credit below)

By Food and Environment Research Agency - FERA, OGL,

Ash dieback lesion (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Fdcgoeul - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Necrotic stems of a five year-old ash tree (Photo Four – see credits below)

And this is what the fruiting bodies of the fungus look like when they have finished their work in the tree.

By Amadej Trnkoczy (amadej) - This image is Image Number 136946 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ash dieback fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus). Photo Five – credit below.

So, it seems that the World Tree is under a greater threat than at any point in its past. Will it be able to come back? Will enough plants have immunity to the worst effects of the fungus? I would like to think so, but I suspect that the timescale of any resurgence will be far longer than my lifetime, and that of anyone else reading this blog. After all, elms have not made a return to the British countryside since they were all but annihilated by Dutch Elm disease in many areas in the 1960’s. There are glimmers of hope: the BBC programme Countryfile showed a report on the effect of using a particular kind of charcoal in the soil around ash trees in February this year. Twenty trees have apparently remained disease-free despite being in the middle of a group of infected trees for the past three years. Let’s hope that this continues – a soil treatment of this kind would be an environmentally friendly way to protect our ash trees.

Sadly, there is one more threat that I have to mention, because although it isn’t here yet, it’s probably only a matter of time. Have a look at this little beauty, and commit it to memory.

By Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - Forestry Archive - Forestry Images, CC BY 3.0 us,

Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) Photo Six- see credits below

This is an Asian beetle which, in its home territory, causes no problems at all. However, it arrived in North America, probably as larvae in packing cases, and has been demolishing trees unhindered ever since. It seems unlikely to me to go unnoticed, as it is a particularly conspicuous-looking creature, even more so when it decides to take flight, whereupon it looks rather like me at a disco circa 1982. There are no other creatures like it in the UK so keep an eye open.

By USDA-APHIS -, Public Domain,

Emerald Ash Borer in all its glory (Photo Seven – see credit below)

All of which brings me back to my dilemma in the garden. Do I really want an ash tree growing next to the pond, however threatened they are? After all, these are substantial plants, which at their biggest can reach 141 feet tall. And I suspect it will be unhappy in a pot. I think this is one of those decisions that I’ll have to defer until I come back from my next secret trip, in which Bugwoman visits one of her favourite places on earth, in the company of a very intrepid 90 year-old lady. But more on this next week….until then, have a good look at any ash trees you meet. We can no longer take them for granted.

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

A very fine old ash tree from the Ardenne (Photo Eight – see credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Crown dieback) – By Sarang – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo Two (Wilted leaves) – By Food and Environment Research Agency – FERA, OGL,

Photo Three (Bark lesions) – By Food and Environment Research Agency – FERA, OGL,

Photo Four (Necrotic stems) – By Fdcgoeul – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Five (Fungus fruiting bodies) – By Amadej Trnkoczy (amadej) – This image is Image Number 136946 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six ( Emerald Ash Borer ) – By Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – Forestry Archive – Forestry Images, CC BY 3.0 us,

Photo Seven (Emerald Ash Borer in flight) – By USDA-APHIS –, Public Domain,

Photo Eight (old ash tree) – By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

All other images and text copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Wall Cotoneaster

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Wall cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

Wall cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

Dear Readers, I suspect that the most contentious part of today’s post will be how the name of this plant is pronounced. Do we go with ‘cotton-easter’, or is it the rather more exotic-sounding ‘cot-oh-knee-aster?’ Well according to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s the latter, preferably with the second syllable voiced as if you’ve just heard that the price of quinoa in Waitrose has doubled overnight. So that’s that cleared up. Incidentally, the name comes from cotone, the Latin for quince, and -aster meaning ‘resembling’ – I suppose that the berries, with their star-shaped ‘ends’, do look a little like tiny quinces.

img_8119There are over 50 species of cotoneaster in cultivation in the UK, but this is probably the most common. It is a great favourite in gardens – the small white flowers are bee-magnets that attract an extraordinary variety of pollinators from the second that they come into bud, and the berries are not only attractive to us, but also to birds. This is a plant that doesn’t need pruning, and is largely trouble-free for the gardener. Unfortunately it is also a frequent escapee, spread by those pesky birds who eat the berries and distribute them all over the place. In my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ it is described as being a dangerous invasive on cliffs and heathland, where it shades out less vigorous plants. In London, it crops up all over the place, and I’ve found cotoneaster seedlings in woodland, on waste ground and even in my own garden.

img_8116Cotoneaster is another member of the rose family (see tormentil last week), and is originally from western China. It was first introduced to the UK in about 1879, was recorded in the wild in 1940 and is said to be ‘still spreading’, though at present it can mostly be found in the south of England.  From the little map in my Harraps Wildflower Guide, it appears that Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset are ‘hotspots’.

img_8121However, there is a native cotoneaster, known in Welsh as the Creigafal y Gogarth “rock apple of Gogarth” (Cotoneaster cambricus) , and found only on the Great Orme peninsula in north Wales. There are only six of this plant left in the wild, with another 11 cultivated from cuttings and seeds. The plant is unique to this habitat, and grows nowhere else. It has a very slow and erratic germination and survival rate (the 11 cultivated plants are the only ones left from 33 originally planted out). The plant was discovered in 1783 and since then has been dug up by collectors, overgrazed by sheep, eaten by rabbits and goats and, the final straw, outcompeted by other species of cotoneaster from local gardens. There is a plan in place to increase the population to 100 plants by 2030, so fingers crossed.

By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The rock apple of Gogarth (Cotoeaster cambricus) – probably the rarest plant ever featured on the Wednesday Weed! (Photo One – credit below)

But, to return to the far more common Cotoneaster horizontalis. You will sometimes find mention of the berries being poisonous, but fortunately the level of toxins is very low, and the berries are rather bitter and powdery,  so the chance of anyone being masochistic enough to eat a sufficient quantity to do themselves a damage is extremely low. Indeed, on the Poison Garden website the author states that even the birds will only eat his cotoneaster berries when everything else is gone. In view of this, it will come as no surprise that I can find no recipes featuring cotoneaster berries, not even a tasty liqueur.

img_8116Having thought that we had nailed down the pronunciation of the name of this week’s plant, I have now come across a poem by Thomas Hardy which throws the proverbial spanner in the works. It’s fair to say that it’s not one of his best works, although it is in an interesting poetical form called a triolet, a French form with a rigid pattern of stress and rhyme. Here it is, in full.

Birds at Winter Nightfall

Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotoneaster
Around the house. The flakes fly!–faster
Shutting indoors that crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone!

So, even accounting for Hardy’s probable West Country accent, we now have a third possible way of saying ‘cotoneaster’ – ‘cot-oh-knee-arster’. Unless Hardy pronounces ‘faster’ as ‘fass-ter’ rather than ‘farster’, which is quite possible. I like the idea of a ‘crumb-outcaster’ – that would be me, in all weathers.

However, my happiest find for this particular Wednesday Weed is some music by the composer David Warin Solomons called ‘Cotoneaster’. Inspired by the bees coming and going from his cotoneaster bush, it’s a rather meditative and peaceful piece, redolent of those first warm days of spring when the flowers open, and the queen bees are stocking up their reserves for the challenges ahead. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Cotoneaster for cor anglais and and guitar, by David Warin Solomons


Photo Credits

Photo One (Native Cotoneaster) – By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


The Fox and the Mourner

img_8066Dear Readers, I am off on an adventure at what is technically known as ‘stupid o’clock’ tomorrow morning, and so I am breaking with my usual habit and posting this on Friday instead of Saturday. The Wednesday Weed will (wi-fi willing) be posted on Wednesday.

Dear Readers, I had a long visit to St Pancras and Islington cemetery on Sunday, and, as usual, I found the human behaviour just as fascinating as that of the animals.  For some, the grave visiting has obviously just become a duty that can’t be shirked – I once saw somebody gently lob a bunch of flowers from their car window onto a grave and then drive off. For others, it’s almost a social occasion, with people gathering by the grave for a chat and a mini-party – this is the case with one lad who died when he was just  a teenager. His mother, still a young woman herself, comes every weekend, and assorted friends and relatives are always sitting next to her on the bench and chatting.

For the newly bereaved, dressed in tell-tale black, it’s the bleakest of times, a period when not even the sun will make an impact. My heart goes out to these people as they trudge along the still-unfamiliar byways of the cemetery, sometimes getting lost. I hope that in time the natural beauty of the place will provide some kind of solace, but for now, the colour is leached out of everything by the enormity of the loss that has been suffered. It always surprises me that the human body can sustain such sorrow without collapsing, but the will to live seems to be strong in us at a cellular level, and while we may wish to die ourselves, our muscles and bones say no, not yet.

Such a soul, wearing a black parka on this warm day, passed me as I walked towards the crematorium. I glanced at her to see if she wanted to speak but she was so deep in her thoughts that she passed without a word. She looked as if the weight of her sadness was physically dragging her down as she shuffled off down the road, too exhausted to even lift her feet. And in her I see all of us at some time in our lives, and though I know that  things will not always seem so overwhelming, her misery touched me deeply. I was brooding when I turned the corner into Sergeant’s Hill, an uphill section of the path that curves right the way up to the dual carriageway, and then loops back.

I am not sure if it was my encounter with the mourner that coloured my perception, but when I saw a lone man walking towards me, I was suddenly on my guard. On this sunny afternoon, with the roar of the traffic in my ears, he seemed like some kind of harbinger. He continued to walk towards me, but then suddenly stopped. I was going to have to walk past him. There was no one else around. Why had he stopped, and why was he looking at me?

And then, I saw the head of a fox less than twenty feet away, peeking round behind a gravestone. The man raised his eyebrows, gesticulated towards the fox and then to the camera around my neck. He was trying to tell me that there was something worth photographing. I apologised internally for all the things I had thought about this poor man, and raised my camera.

img_8071What an endearing animal this was. The fox had the long legs and skinny body of one of this year’s cubs, and I was sure that I’d seen her before over at the feeding station. But she seemed to be adept at finding her own food. There was an area between two graves that had been scratched to pieces – it may have been an ants’ nest, or it could have been a site where the fox had been digging for worms (which make up a surprisingly high proportion of their diet at this time of year). As we watched, the man and I, the fox went to a nearby grave and carried something off – I couldn’t see what it was at the time, but when I looked at my photographs afterwards it was clearly a small mouse. The little fox threw the corpse into the air a few times, then tossed it about with her front paws, until finally chomping it down. All the time she kept her gaze on us, but made no attempt to run away.

img_8073img_8078A young woman walked down the road, tapping away on her phone. She looked up and stopped. Now, three of us were frozen looking at the vixen.

The vixen moved off and crossed the path. I squatted down and she paused, looking at me with nervous interest.

‘Don’t touch her’, said the man.

‘I won’t’, I said. ‘It’s not good for them to get too close to people. Not everybody is kind’.

img_8087The fox moved on in a circle, paused to squat to urinate, crossed the road again and sat down in some bushes less than a metre from the road. That’s when I saw the mourner in the black parka again. She stopped when she saw us. Behind her spectacles, her eyes were bloodshot with crying.

‘How can I get to Lygoe Road?’ she asked.

I pointed her in the right direction – Lygoe Road is one of the main thoroughfares in the cemetery. The fox watched the conversation with interest, even turning her head to look at where I was pointing. Then the lady headed off, no doubt to visit the recent grave of someone that she could barely believe was gone forever.img_8088

I would like to say that she glanced at the fox and that that inquisitive pointed face brought the smallest of smiles, or at least jolted the lady out of her sadness for a split-second. But it was too soon. I doubt that anything could have penetrated her armour at that moment, and I’m sure that numbness is there for a reason, because if we truly felt the extent of our loss, we would surely collapse under the weight of it. But one day, I hope that she will notice a frosted russet face watching her from a hedge, and feel just the smallest of lifts, like the sudden warmth when sun breaks through the clouds. Nothing will ever be the same again, but life goes on, relentlessly, and the call to live is inexorable. As I watched the black-coated shape turn the corner and disappear from view, I wished her strength, and the slow-blooming of hope, and the birth of better days. I wish that for all of us.

All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. The photos on this blog are free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Tormentil

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

Dear Readers, I am always a little puzzled by the plants that grow in the cemetery. On some graves, such as this one, there will be a healthy amount of a particular species, but then it won’t be found anywhere else. Sometimes, it’s obvious that this is because something has been planted deliberately, but on other occasions it’s a native plant such as tormentil, a member of the rose family. Although not uncommon, tormentil is normally found on acid soils, so I am assuming that there’s something about the substrate on this burial place which makes it more suitable for the plant. As the year draws to a close, however, I am delighted to find anything in flower that I haven’t already written about, so I am happy to have a small mystery.

img_8062Tormentil is an unusual member of the rose family because it has only four petals (most of the others have five). It is closely related to the cinquefoils, and like them has leaves that have five leaflets (hence the ‘cinq’ part of the name), although in young leaves two of them appear vestigial. It is a low-growing, creeping plant, but very pretty when looked at closely.

img_8056Tormentil is a very common and widespread plant, with a range that encompasses Europe, Scandinavia and western Asia,  but like so many of the ‘Wednesday Weeds’ I hadn’t really noticed it before, and would probably have passed by it today if it hadn’t been for its late flowering.

Our ancestors used the root of tormentil as a red dye for leather (another name for the plant is ‘bloodroot’), and it is still used to create an artists’ colour called ‘tormentil red’. The dye was used extensively in Scandinavia and in Scotland, and there is a very interesting account of an experiment with tormentil by Jenny Dean here.

By Wolfgang Frisch - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tormentil root (Photo One – see credit below)

Tormentil root contains a lot of tannin (which traditionally was thought to help bind proteins together) and it is also thought to have antiseptic properties, hence tormentil’s honourable role in the treatment of diarrhoea, gingivitis, conjunctivitis and various other ‘itises’. Gargling with a decoction of tormentil root is said to be beneficial for sore throats and mouth ulcers. In Ireland, it has been used to treat scour in cattle, and foot rot in sheep (many thanks to the Herb2000 website for this information). The name ‘tormentil’ is thought to relate to the torments of the diarrhoea and toothache that the plant is said to cure. However, on the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland suggests that the name might come from the Latin word for flatulence, ‘tormina’. I shall leave it up to you to decide which version fits in with your personal philosophy of plant naming. Having done Latin as an O-Level many, many years ago, I rather go with the theory that if the people naming plants could slip in a vulgar joke, they would, but maybe that says more about me than them.

img_8055Although the tannin content of tormentil makes it an unlikely food plant it has, you’ll be delighted to hear, been turned into an alcoholic beverage called Blutwurz in Bavaria. The liqueur is a mere 50% by volume, and is made by macerating the root in alcohol. The resulting liquid is filtered but not distilled to preserve the plant’s medicinal qualities. I would be most intrigued to discover what it tastes like: I suspect that it will be one of those drinks that is ‘good for you’ rather than pleasant to drink. But then, once upon a time I thought that about whisky, and look where that ended up.

By Stefan Penninger (Alte Hausbrennerei Penninger) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Blutwurz (Photo Two – see credit below)

Tormentil makes an appearance in the poem ‘October’ by Edward Thomas, a poet who makes more and more sense to me as I have grown older, and am more inclined to recognise the happiness of a breezy, ‘ordinary’ autumn afternoon. The poignancy of the elm, mentioned in the first line and now practically extinct in the UK, makes me think how much we should value and protect our plants and animals rather than taking them for granted.

The green elm with the one great bough of gold

Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, —

The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,

Harebell and scabious and tormentil,

That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,

Bow down to; and the wind travels too light

To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;

The gossamers wander at their own will.

At heavier steps than birds’ the squirrels scold.

The rich scene has grown fresh again and new

As Spring and to the touch is not more cool

Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might

As happy be as earth is beautiful,

Were I some other or with earth could turn

In alternation of violet and rose,

Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,

And gorse that has no time not to be gay.

But if this be not happiness, — who knows?

Some day I shall think this a happy day,

And this mood by the name of melancholy

Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Tormentil root) By Wolfgang Frisch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Blutwurz) – By Stefan Penninger (Alte Hausbrennerei Penninger) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!





Bugwoman on Location – Autumn in Milborne St Andrew

img_8034Dear Readers, I am a wheelchair ninja. During this past few years I have conveyed both my parents along the endless corridors of hospitals and clinics in three counties. I can get through swing doors without missing a beat (though Dad usually assists by holding them open with his walking stick as we trundle through). I can even manage a wheelchair while carrying two bags and a zimmer frame. But this week I took all this to a new level – I managed to get Mum, in her wheelchair, down to the shop in Milborne St Andrew, the Dorset village which has been their home for the past fourteen years.  My Dad has just had a cataract operation, and is waiting for one on his other eye before he can see well enough to drive, and so Mum has been going quietly stir crazy. So stir crazy, in fact, that she was happy to trust herself to me, even though I am a novice at the art of wheelchair pushing in the great outdoors.

The main problem is that Mum and Dad’s bungalow is on a steep hill. Could I wrangle the wheelchair not only down the incline, but back up it?  On the way to the shop, it was hard work keeping the wheelchair from running away, and so we eased ourselves down with the handbrake on full. After all, I didn’t want Mum careering down the hill with me in hot pursuit like something from Benny Hill. Once we were on the level there was the question of the steep kerbs (the solution, it appeared, was to pull the wheelchair up backwards, rather than stick my knee in Mum’s back in an attempt to lever her over the bump) and the adverse camber which had the wheelchair slipping sideways like a badly behaved shopping trolley. I really think that those in charge of the upkeep of pavements should be strapped into a wheelchair and taken for a little trot around the village before they make decisions about road upkeep.

Then, to my joy, I saw one of the neighbours walking along with his two Newfoundland dogs. They are both the size of Shetland ponies and, from the way the man wrapped the leads around his house and braced himself, I could tell that they were dogs with inquiring minds.

‘Can my Mum say hello to your dogs?’ I asked.

The man’s face was a picture – I could see thoughts of overturned wheelchairs and liability suits running through his mind.

‘This one’s a bit frisky’ he said, as the dog washed Mum’s face with a single lick.

Still, Mum is a great dog-lover, and so being covered in canine saliva was all in a day’s work. When we got to the shop, Mum was greeted like the prodigal grandmother, and as she advanced along the road on the way back, raising her hand in greeting in a manner reminiscent of the late Queen Mother, it struck me that we should really get out for a processional more often. You meet people when you are in a wheelchair that you would not be able to greet from a car.

img_8033When I got home (after a hefty push up hill, encouraged by Mum’s shouts of ‘not much further now’!) I decided to seize the day, and go for a walk around the village. After all, I’d been absent for two months, and who knows what changes had occurred? Well, firstly there were sheep on the little field, and calves further up the hill. How benign these animals seem, and when I looked at the calves I was struck by their different faces and characters. One little calf was laying down when I passed on my walk uphill, and was still there when I came downhill. Others pushed towards the fence to see what on earth I was up to. When scientists announce with some excitement that a species of animal has ‘personality’, I just wonder why they are surprised. I’m sure any farmer, or pet owner, or horse rider, will tell you exactly the same.


img_8020 When I passed the thatched cottages on my way up to Badger Farm, I noticed that there were several birds snatching up the insects that were emerging from the roof. There were a pair of pied wagtails working their way over the  sunny side of the building, and a young spotted flycatcher, my first ever sighting. It had never occurred to me that a thatched roof could be such a resource for birds that are now anxious to fatten up for the winter.

img_8012img_8010img_8016As usual, I heard more birds than I was able to photograph. A  flock of a dozen swallows swooped over on its way south. I heard jackdaws jinking and chuckling, but as soon as I raised my camera they were off – it strikes me that birds in the country have much to fear from anyone carrying something black and metallic and suspicious-looking. And, for about the sixth visit running, I heard the sad mew of a buzzard, and even saw one for a split-second as it glided over the brow of the hill and away. One day, dear readers, I will manage to capture these sights on camera, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

img_8003The hedgerows are chock-a-block with little birds at this time of year. I heard a flock of long-tailed tits as they got stuck into the hawthorn berries. Finches of all kinds were feasting amongst the pyracantha and the rosehips. A dunnock was feeding in the road at a spot where I saw one on a previous visit. There were brambles everywhere, and the translucent red berries of bittersweet. Autumn seems to bring a second burst of energy, as everyone tries to pile on the calories.

img_8028img_8023img_8030The ivy flowers were alive with wasps, feeding on the last sweetness that many of them will ever taste. I admit to being a fan of wasps: I enjoy their elegant yellow-and-black bodies and their deft, needle-sharp flight. They seem to me the embodiment of a predatory animal, much as a shark is, or a tiger. They do what they do, and they do it consummately well. Maybe this is why so many people fear them. But we would do well to show mercy when one gets into a room, for our own sake as much as theirs – apparently an injured wasp sends out a pheromone that acts as a ‘call for back up’ to any other wasps in the area. Indeed, a good friend of mine recalls running from a woody part of the cemetery when she inadvertently disturbed a wasps’ nest. But in a few weeks, all but a few hibernating queen wasps will be gone, and the bodies of the workers will be providing compost for the plants for next year.

img_8046 img_8048As I walked home, every chimney pot and telegraph pole seemed to be the supporting plinth for a singing bird. The starlings are full of verve, their plumage iridescent green and purple in the late morning sun. It might be autumn, but it seems that creatures, like people, refuse to go gently into the cold and peace of winter. Instead, they shout their defiance, throwing it against the indifference of an azure sky and the first freezing nights of the season.img_8053-2

All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Hinoki Cypress

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Cones of the Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa)

Dear Readers, last week I got the news that I had managed to pass my month-long, intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. I had gone into the course knowing that I was disciplined and capable of hard work, and that I had twenty years of teaching IT to fall back on. And all went well until week three of the course, when I managed to fail one of my lessons.

Each of us had to teach nine lessons in all, so, objectively, this was only a small hiccup. But for me it felt little short of catastrophic. There are few things more damaging to the ego than realising that all your experience counts for naught in this particular circumstance, and that you are as much a beginner as the other folk doing the course who have never taught in their lives. Furthermore, these other folk are literally half your age, or younger. And so you can imagine the amount of self-denigration and misery that was going through my brain when I took an hour off to walk through the cemetery. If there had been tin cans to kick I would have been kicking them, but instead I trudged through the falling leaves, head down, noticing nothing until I was midway through the ‘meadow graveyard’ (now a wilderness of dying dock and seeding willowherb) and noticed the strange seed heads of a sad little tree beside the path.

img_7950I had never knowingly seen such intricate, medieval-looking objects before. They reminded me of some iron weapon from Game of Thrones, and even put me in mind of my favourite extinct giant mammal, the glyptodon. By the way, everyone should have a favourite extinct giant mammal. I recommend having a look at a megatherium if the sabre-toothed tiger or woolly rhino or mammoth don’t appeal.

By Pavel.Riha.CB at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A glyptodon (Photo One – Credit below)

It took me a little bit of time to realise that what I was looking at was actually a form of pine cone, belonging to the Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa).  The cemetery is full of magnificent Victorian conifers, including a few sequoias, so I’d grown used to seeing the huge cones scattered on the ground. But this tree was just a baby, less than twenty feet tall. I wonder if it is a seedling from one of the larger trees, and I intend to have a search for its parent when I have time.

By 陳炬燵 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Japanese cypress wood (Photo Two – see credits below)

This little tree is a long, long way from home. Hinoki cypress trees are native to Japan, and can grow up to 35 metres tall, with a trunk a metre in diameter. The leaves are said to have a sweet eucalyptus scent, and to have a crisp white band at the bottom of each leaf, but the leaves on my tree are brown and past their best. The Japanese name for the tree means ‘tree of fire’, and apparently the stands are quick to ignite if they rub together. No chance of that with my  lone tree.

img_7997The bark is said to be reddish, soft and rather stringy, and I would concur.

img_7952There are lots of cultivated varieties (like the one below), some of which are bright yellow, and some of which are sold as dwarf varieties. However, what they really are is slow-growing. Some of these ‘dwarf’ trees have been growing for 140 years in botanical gardens, and are now 15 metres tall. Not something that you’d want on your rockery, I suspect, but then I imagine few of these trees are allowed to achieve their full potential.

Lokal_Profil [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A cultivated variety of Hinoki cypress, ‘Nana gracilis) (Photo Three – see credits below)

Hinoki cypress are also popular bonsai trees. I admire the skill that goes into the modelling of these little trees, but I hate the way that the roots and branches are prevented from growing by wires and pruning. Surely every tree, at some cellular level, wants to reach for the sky, to produce abundant seeds, to feel the rain and the sun on its branches?  Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive. I feel a similar unease concerning  the way that we have bred animals into forms that delight us, but which don’t serve the creature. It seems to me that humans never know when to leave things alone. We love to see what’s possible, and that’s both our strength and our potential downfall. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.

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

Hinoki cypress bonsai (Photo Four – see credit below)

By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Full-grown Hinoki cypress (Photo Five – credit below)

In Japan, the Hinoki cypress is grown for its very high-quality timber. The wood is said to be ‘lemon-scented, light pinkish-brown, with a rich, straight grain, and is highly rot-resistant’. It is used for building everything from theatres to temples, and has been for a very long time: the central wooden pillars in the Buddhist temple Horyu-Ji, in Nara Prefecture, Japan, are said to have been felled in 594.

By 663highland - 663highland, CC BY 2.5,

Pagoda at Horyu-ji, Japan (Photo Six, see credits below)

However, the Hinoki cypress is also, like many other conifers, a major source of hay-fever. The wind-borne pollen is so tiny that it easily gets into the inflamed nasal passages, and in Japan in particular, the reforestation following WWII has led to about 20% of the population suffering from seasonal hay fever. The hay fever industry has grown up simultaneously, selling everything from face masks to air conditioning systems. You can even have your nose laser-treated to desensitise parts of your mucous membrane to the pollen. I haven’t heard of this surgery taking place in the UK, but I can think of a few people who would probably go for it if it was available.

img_7948So I would like to say ‘thank you’ to this small tree with its strange cones, for jolting me out of my introspection. Although my pride had been bruised, my curiosity turned out to be a stronger force, and I returned home with things more in perspective. A little failure is good for the soul, I suspect, and there is much to be said for humility. After all, to try anything new is to risk messing it up, and learning that this is not the end of the world is a valuable lesson. As Samuel Beckett said:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.

Photo credits

Photo One (Glyptodon) – By Pavel.Riha.CB at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Japanese cypress wood) – By 陳炬燵 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three (Cultivated Japanese cypress)- Lokal_Profil [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Bonsai) – By Jeffrey O. Gustafson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five (wild Hinoki cypress) – By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six (pagoda) – By 663highland – 663highland, CC BY 2.5,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!