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.

Wednesday Weed – Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Dear Readers, at this time of year there are few vines that are exquisitely coloured as good old Virginia Creeper. It can carpet whole walls, turning them into a vision of scarlet and russet, lime green and gold, before the leaves drop off and everything returns to normal. Unfortunately, in the UK it is far from its original home in North America, and is a Schedule 9 species – this means that it is illegal to plant Virginia creeper in the wild, and if planted in a garden it is expected that ‘reasonable measures will be taken to confine (the plant) to the cultivated area to prevent their spreading to the wider environment’. The problem is that it can quickly swamp other plants and in particular it can pull down saplings and young trees. I know this from personal experience – the demure little vine that was planted next to my shed rapidly found a way to infiltrate through the window and out through the door in one direction, and to choke the crab apple in the other direction. To say that it is enthusiastic would be an understatement. Virginia creeper first arrived in the UK in 1629, and seems to have been covering our walls and stately homes ever since.

The RHS in collaboration with the charity Plantlife have produced a very handy guide to gardening without using invasive species – you can download it from here.

Photo One by

Virginia creeper (Photo One)

The generic name ‘parthenocissus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘virgin ivy’ – whether this is how the plant got the name ‘Virginia creeper’ or if the Greek name was derived from the English one remains to be seen. Certainly the plant is found in the state of Virginia in the United States so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. The species name ‘quinquefolia’ means ‘five-leaved’, and, if you’re in North America, this is one way of distinguishing the plant  (which has five leaflets on each lea) from poison ivy, which has only three. However, the leaves of Virginia creeper do contain tiny needles of calcium oxalate – these are known as raphides, and can cause blistering and irritation in susceptible people.

Raphides are produced in response to a surplus of calcium in the soil, and are found in a wide variety of plant species. They may help to support the plant structurally, but they may also have evolved as a protection against herbivorous animals who might otherwise snack on the leaves: those vicious little needles help to speed toxins produced by the plant into the soft tissues of the mouth and throat.

Photo Two by By Agong1 - Own work, CC0,

Raphides at x600 magnification (Photo Two)

Virginia creeper produces attractive dark blue berries in the winter, which become apparent once the leaves have dropped off. These are enjoyed by birds, but contain very high levels of oxalic acid, which can be poisonous to humans (though I suspect that this substance would make the fruit very unpalatable).

Photo Three by By Ragesoss - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Virginia creeper berries (Photo Three)

Different climbing plants use different methods to gain a bit of height. My climbing hydrangea produces roots along its stem to help it cling to my north-facing wall, and clematis and bindweed use their stems to encircle and embrace any nearby vegetation. Virginia creeper, however, uses little adhesive pads that remind me superficially of geckos’ feet.

Photo Four by By JMK - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Those little adhesive pads…(Photo Four)

But why do plants climb at all? The great advantage of being a climber is that you don’t have to waste a lot of energy growing a structural support such as a trunk – you can find a tree that’s already done all the work (or a rock or telegraph pole or wall) and use that as a way of accessing light and keeping your tender growing shoots out of the way of passing herbivores. Many climbing plants originated in tropical areas, where dense vegetation meant that they had to be able to grow even in relative darkness, until they reached a height where they could ‘see’ the light. In ‘The Encyclopfdia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences (Volume 2)’ edited by Cara Linn Daniels and C.M. Stevans, the symbolic meaning of Virginia Creeper is said to be ‘I cling to you in both sunshine and shade’. And yes, Encyclopaedia is spelt with an ‘f’ in this case.

Darwin was intrigued by climbing plants, and wrote a book about them:  he concluded that

It has often been vaguely asserted that plants are distinguished from animals by not having the power of movement. It should rather be said that plants acquire and display this power only when it is of some advantage to them; this being of comparatively rare occurrence, as they are affixed to the ground, and food is brought to them by the air and rain.’

And so it is with the Virginia creeper: in my garden, it is not until the leaves start taking on their autumn hues that I can appreciate how far and how fast it has grown in the course of a season.

Photo Five By Broly0 - Own work, CC0,

A cheeky leaf emerging in spring (Photo Five)

Virginia creeper has been used as a treatment for urinary disorders and in the treatment of malaria. It was also part of the medicine used by the Navajo in their nine-day long Mountain Chant Ceremony, which is held at the end of winter, and is considered to be a healing ceremony, not only for individuals who may be sick but for the whole of the Navajo universe.

Now, you might think that a plant as cheerily as gaudy as an autumn Virginia creeper would not inspire dread. Dear readers, I present to you a painting by Edvard Munch, entitled ‘Red Virginia Creeper’.

‘Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900) by Edvard Munch (Public Domain)

The whole house seems to have been dipped into a pot of blood, while the young man appears to be frozen in existential dread. The tree has been viciously pollarded, the path looks like frozen mud, and the sky is leaden grey. Goodness. All in all, it isn’t a cheerful scene, though is that a marigold that I see in the bottom left-hand corner? One can but hope.

According to the Edvard Munch website, Munch was in a relationship with the daughter of a wealthy wine-merchant at the time that this work was painted: Virginia creeper is a member of the vine family. Furthermore, Munch apparently dreaded the ‘entanglement of marriage’. I suspect that one could lose many cheerful hours trying to work out exactly what Munch’s paintings mean. Suffice it to say that the red hues of the Virginia creeper did not lighten his mood one jot.

Photo Six from

Virginia creeper on the New Inn pub (Photo Six)

And finally, a poem. Here is ‘Creeper’ by John Updike, the ninth in a ten-poem sequence published in The New Yorker back in 2009. Updike died in January 2009, and there is much in this poem that is valedictory. ‘Quite quits’ indeed. May we all meet our ends with such a sense of contentment.

Creeper by John Updike

With what stoic delicacy does
Virginia creeper let go:
the feeblest tug brings down
a sheaf of leaves kite-high,
as if to say, To live is good
but not to live—to be pulled down
with scarce a ripping sound,
still flourishing, still
stretching toward the sun—
is good also, all photosynthesis
abandoned, quite quits. Next spring
the hairy rootlets left unpulled
snake out a leafy afterlife
up that same smooth-barked oak.

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two by By Agong1 – Own work, CC0,

Photo Three by By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by By JMK – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five By Broly0 – Own work, CC0,

Photo Six from

Autumn in East Finchley

Crab Apple in East Finchley

Dear Readers, while much of the UK is based to receive a month’s worth of rain in a single day tomorrow, East Finchley is basking in November sunshine. I have had to disinter my faux-fur hat from under a pile of shoes at the bottom of the wardrobe and dig out my polo neck, but it’s worth it for a chance to trot around the County Roads and see what’s going on. What is largely going on is a whole lot of leaves. This crab apple is distributing its largesse all over the pavement, and I rather liked the juxtaposition with a puddle.

Plus there are still a few crab apples left on the tree, waiting for the parakeets to find them.

Some trees are not a hundred percent happy with losing their leaves, it seems, and hang on to a few stragglers.

Many starlings no longer fly off to Africa in the autumn – why would they, when our gardens  are stuffed to the gunnels with goodies? But sometimes I see them all lined up on a television aerial and wonder if they are experiencing zugunruhe, a fantastic word meaning ‘migratory restlessness’. What do you think? I have certainly sensed an increase in urgency in the birds, but I was putting it down to the colder weather, longer nights and the fact that natural foods, such as berries and nuts, are beginning to run out.

Starlings. Watching for someone to fill up the bird feeder, or wondering if they should be flying south?

My Virginia creeper had a bit of a scalping earlier this year, but no doubt it will recover in 2020. In the meantime, this one is magnificent.

And although my friend A is getting a bit fed up with her tamarisk, I do think it looks rather fine in the early November sunshine.

I was delighted to spot some coleus in a window-box, although as they’re just about to flower I doubt that  they’ll be around for much longer.

And there is a positive hedge of rosemary. It’s too cold to get much scent from it at the moment, but I have no doubt that when it warms up in spring it will be a pleasure to brush up against it. As it is, it reminds me a little of a mammoth.

And this is a very splendid tree, with more than a touch of sumac about it.

This young tree on East Finchley High Road looks quite different depending on whether the sun has kissed it or not.


Given a peck on the top of the head

As I wander along the High Road I notice a pair of jackdaws in the tree outside Sainsburys. These are relatively recent arrivals to N2, but have been breeding. This pair took off to the other side of the road, no doubt to have a better view in the case of anyone dropping some chips or dumping their kebab into an unattended bin.

Onwards! There is a very fine cotoneaster bush that glows so brightly that it stops me in my tracks.

I say hello to what is possibly my favourite tree in the County Roads – I love how it has twisted over the years to avoid growing through the bedroom windows or into the garage (with more than a little bit of human assistance I’m sure).

I am rather taken by the coloured glass in the upper windows of some of the older houses around here. It gives a rather jaunty air to these otherwise quite serious houses, what with their names and dates and all….

I notice a ginkgo that hadn’t come to my attention before. The tree is reputed to drop all its leaves on one night, leaving it standing shivering in a puddle of sunshine, but this one hadn’t got the memo. Maybe it depends on how abruptly the temperature drops.

And here is what I think of as a typical East Finchley pigeon. We seem to have a lot of birds with white primary feathers, or white bodies, and I suspect one particular male has been extraordinarily successful with the ladies.

By now it’s getting decidedly chilly, so I decide to head for home. This evening I am dropping my little cat off at the vet to have a heart scan tomorrow – she appears to have a heart murmur and we’ve ruled out all the usual things. She’s eating and drinking and seems generally happy, so I’m not too concerned, but her blood pressure is through the roof, and we need to find out why. So please keep your fingers crossed if you have any digits to spare. It would be good to not have to worry for a bit.

But the County Roads have one more surprise for me, and it’s hiding in plain sight. Some of the houses have very intricate plaster work around their doorways and windows, and I hadn’t really paid attention, assuming that it would be the usual fruit and leaves. And indeed this is what some houses have.

But some of them have little faces.

And this one appears to have a cherub kissing a cat.

All this really makes me want to know more. Did the different builders have different patterns for the plaster panels? I shall have to do some research and see what’s going on. I love that, even after living here for ten years and walking about regularly with my camera, there is still always something new to see. It’s lovely to travel, but it’s great to be back in my home territory.




Wednesday Weed – Pumpkin

Pumpkin (Curcubita pepo)

Dear Readers, on the days after Halloween the streets of East Finchley are strewn with sad pumpkins. They have had their moment of glory, illuminated as they were with tea-lights or candles, and now they are just waiting to be thrown into the garbage or popped into the compost bin. With any luck, their innards will have been turned into soup or pie-filling, and in some inventive households even the seeds will have been roasted. Sadly, the edible parts of most carved pumpkins end up in the bin. At least they will rot down in landfill, unlike the many plastic skeletons and skeins of artificial cobwebs that adorn every tenth hedge in these parts. If I sound  a little curmudgeonly, it may be because it seems like every celebration these days is a reason for buying tat, and having cleared out Mum and Dad’s bungalow this year, I know how much of it ends up in landfill, for all our best intentions.

Pumpkins as a Halloween tradition are a relatively new thing  in the UK: in some parts of the country, turnips and mangoldwurzels were used to make lanterns for Halloween, but the whole caboodle of trick or treating, dressing up as a werewolf and eating bucketloads of chocolate has gradually developed over the past few decades. Pumpkins are originally from North America, and are a symbol of harvest time and Thanksgiving: this might explain why there are so many recipes for pumpkin pie, pumpkin stuffing and a thousand other pumpkin-based foodstuffs on US and Canadian cookery websites. When Starbucks starts selling its ‘pumpkin spice latte’ it’s time to start thinking about buying Christmas cards, though I was relieved that a ‘pumpkin spice latte’ actually tastes of cinnamon rather than pumpkin.

Not all Halloween pumpkins are edible!

Pumpkins are members of the squash family, but their flesh is unusually rich in Vitamin A and beta-carotene, in spite of being 92% water. They are amongst the oldest domesticated plants, with fragments that are between 5,500 and 7,000 years old being found in Mexico. The pumpkin has both male and female flowers, and throughout history the plant was pollinated by the squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa). The species has especially hairy legs, an adaptation to help carry the extra-large pollen particles that the pumpkin produces, but, like so many bees, it has been affected by the broad-spectrum pesticides used in commercial agriculture. Honeybees have been used in some places to replace the native bees, although studies have shown that the squash bee is much more efficient. In other areas the plants now have to be pollinated by hand. The range of the bee exactly matches that of the native range of the pumpkin and related squash species, so the insect and the plant have evolved together over millions of years.

Squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa). Note the hairy legs! (Public Domain)

We’ve talked about recipes made from the flesh of pumpkins, but whenever I go to Obergurgl in Austria, there are desserts which feature both pumpkin seeds and a heavy, fruity green oil made from them. In particular, there is an ice-cream sundae which features ‘brittle’ made from the seeds, and a sauce featuring the oil, which is often described as coming from Styria, a region in the south-east of the country. It is surprisingly delicious, with a nutty taste. The seeds themselves are often dried and salted as a snack.

Photo One by Wolf32at - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pumpkin seed oil (Photo One )

When I went to the RHS Autumn Show a few years ago, there was an exhibit showing various autumn vegetables. One of them was a pumpkin that was easily the size of a Mini Cooper. I thought that maybe it was a one-off, but soon discovered that the heaviest pumpkin ever grown was from Belgium, and weighed in at over two and a half thousand pounds. Giant pumpkin growers recommend horse manure, enhanced ‘green’ compost, frequent watering, and hoisting your pumpkin onto a pallet while it’s still small enough to handle. Dedicated giant pumpkin growers cosset their ‘babies’ for months at a time, refusing to take holidays during the growing season. There is also a trick to making sure that the plant doesn’t grow so quickly that it snaps its stem – if it does, it’s game over. You need a patch of ground at least 15 by 20 feet to grow your pumpkin, so let’s hope you either have a country estate or an allotment. If you’re lucky, you might get one to grow to the size of one of these beauties.

Photo Two by David.politzer - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Giant pumpkins at a weigh-in in Ohio, 2009 (Photo Two)

One thing that you wouldn’t want to do with these giants, however, is throw them through the air. The smaller specimens seem to be fair game, however, for there is a tradition in the USA of ‘pumpkin chucking’ – firing pumpkins into the air with catapults, trebuchets or even cannons. As ‘pumpkin chucking’ is a bit of a mouthful, it is often known as ‘pumpkin chunking’, and such festivals usually take place after harvesting season. The Guinness Book of Records states that the longest ‘throw’ featured a pneumatic cannon with the dubious name of ‘Big Ten Inch’, which managed to propel an innocent pumpkin for over a mile and a half in the Moab Desert, Utah, in 2010. I only hope that no innocent person or jack rabbit was under the pumpkin as it landed – certainly no fatalities have been recorded, although a woman member of the TV production staff covering the 2016 event was hit in the head by a chunk of metal when one of the air cannons exploded. I note that insurance companies are reluctant to cover the events, for obvious reasons.  The pumpkin must be whole on leaving the throwing device for the attempt to count, and for this reason thicker-skinned varieties of the plant are preferred. This also presumably increases the risk of serious injury if you should happen to be under a flying pumpkin when it reaches the end of its journey.

All in all, I never cease to wonder at what human beings (mostly of the male variety) will get up to when left to their own devices.

Photo Three by Kevin D. Hartnell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pumpkin fired from a trebuchet in Ohio. You’re welcome. (Photo Three)

So, you can carve pumpkins, eat them, grow them to a ridiculous size, or fire them through the air. They also have a long tradition of medicinal use, for humans and for other animals. Pumpkin puree is said to be a good treatment for digestive upsets in dogs and cats, and raw pumpkin fed to chickens during the winter is said to prolong the egg-laying period. In humans, pumpkin was used to treat intestinal worms and urinary infections by Native American peoples, and the seeds of a closely related pumpkin species, Curcubita moschata (or butternut squash) were found to be efficacious in the treatment of tape worms in a Chinese study.

More East Finchley pumpkins

Sometimes, when I write about a particular plant, the very name of it starts to look a little odd with repetition. So it is with pumpkin. I can no longer look at the word without thinking that means a diminutive pump. Actually, the word derives from the Greek ‘pepon‘, meaning ‘large melon’, and, as is the way with these things, it evolved: in France, it became ‘pompon‘, in English ‘pompion‘, and then ‘pumpkin‘ in the US, where the word presumably became the accepted one across the Anglozone. Nowadays, most people recognise the big orange squash with the green top as a pumpkin, though in Australia the word apparently still means any winter squash. Let me know if this is true, Antipodean friends!

Photo Four By Infrogmation of New Orleans - Photo by Infrogmation, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A fine pile of pumpkins in New Orleans (Photo Four)

And finally, a poem. When I was in my early twenties, I worked for a while on a city farm in Dundee. It was my job to get up at the crack of dawn to feed the animals, and if ever I was late and hungover, the whole lot of them would start bellowing as soon as I turned the corner. I rather like this work by James Whitcomb Riley, because it brings back to me that feeling of being the only person in the world who is awake, and the peace that falls as the animals tuck into their breakfast. The farm being in Dundee there was often plenty of frost about, too. And it makes me nostalgic for those days of blackberry picking and jam making and harvest home. When we had an allotment, I remember Mum dealing with a glut of tomatoes with a glint in her eye, sleeves rolled up and apron on. ‘I should have been a frontierswoman, I’d have been good at that!’ she said. And indeed she would have.

When the Frost is on the Punkin

by James Whitcomb Riley (1849 – 1916)

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover over-head!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’ ’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! …
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me—
I’d want to ’commodate ’em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Photo Credits

Photo One by Wolf32at – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by David.politzer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three by Kevin D. Hartnell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four By Infrogmation of New Orleans – Photo by Infrogmation, CC BY-SA 3.0,





At Halloween

Dear Readers, when I first moved to East Finchley I decided to take on Halloween as a project. I carved pumpkins. I bought bags of palm-oil free sweets. I found some  chocolate money that was so convincing that one small boy broke down in tears when he discovered it wasn’t real. Nothing really prepared me for the onslaught, though. In year one, I had to run to the greengrocers twice to stock up on supplies because so many children had visited. In year two, I thought I was prepared but gave up counting after 45 separate groups had rung the doorbell. By this stage I was sitting on a chair in the hall because I didn’t have time to get to the sofa before there was another party of witches or warlocks at the door.

But this year I am battening down the hatches. It’s not that I’ve turned into a grinch, but after the year that I’ve had, I feel a much closer connection with Samhain, the night when the veil that separates our world from that of our beloved dead is at its thinnest. In some traditions, people set places at the table for those who have gone, and this feels so right to me that I might even do it. At the very least, I want to make some time for contemplation and remembrance. As the sun sets, I spend some time just watching the garden.

The pace of the year has speeded up perceptibly. We are regularly visited by a young squirrel who is much less skittish than usual, though no less acrobatic.

The starlings fly in in huge numbers – when I arrive home after work, I sometimes see a couple of dozen sitting on the television aerials, whistling and chattering to one another, and no doubt complaining that the feeders are empty.

Some chaffinches have appeared, and some goldfinches, though whether they are local birds or Scandinavian visitors I have no idea. I love the mothy fluttering of the chaffinches, and the dapper black and white wing patterns on the goldfinches.



Mum loved birds. The last time that she visited me at Christmas, a great-spotted woodpecker turned up, and I tried to help her to see it through the binoculars. Her whole body swayed backwards and forwards as she tried to focus – she had peripheral neuropathy in her feet, which meant that she found balance difficult. To this day I’m not sure if she saw the bird or not, though she said that she had.  But then Mum was like that, never wanting to be a nuisance or to take up too much of somebody else’s time.

I thought that I knew about grief, but I had no idea. Some days, I feel as if I am carrying a rucksack of bricks. Sometimes, I have brain fog and can look at a spreadsheet and see nothing but hieroglyphics. Last week, a lovely young woman that I’ve been working with on a project mentioned that she was looking forward to spending Christmas with her mother, and it hit me that I would never, ever sit and open Christmas presents with mum again. I would never watch her dozing in an armchair with her paper hat askew. I would never see her take a plate of blinis and smoked salmon and capers and sour cream and meticulously arrange every forkful so that it held a little bit of each.

Time moves inexorably on. The leaves turn, the chaffinches are back,  the mediocre Christmas lights are already up on East Finchley High Road, waiting for some celebrity to come along and turn them on in a few weeks. When I was at the Royal Academy this week, I noticed that the Christmas lights on Bond Street are peacock-themed this year, and for a split second I wondered how I could get Mum from my house to see them, until I remembered.

Outside the light is fading, and there’s the excited hubbub of children’s voices. Nothing that has happened to me this year is outside of the normal. Elderly parents become ill and eventually pass away. It is the natural order of things. I have a job now, and my life is becoming more my own, after all those years of worrying. On the outside, you’d think I was doing fine, and so I am, mostly. But there are days when I could smash every piece of crockery in the kitchen with a hammer. It feels as if there isn’t any act large enough or dramatic enough to encompass how I feel, and so I soldier on, putting one foot in front of the other even when I don’t care one tiny bit where the road is going.

It seems to me that grief is a strange switchback of a process, with meanders and chicanes. It is not linear or logical. I can be distraught at 11 o’clock and elated by 11.30. I know that what helps me sometimes is not the cure on another occasion. Sometimes I want to wrap myself up in a blanket and watch Masterchef. Sometimes, I want to make carrot pancakes with hummous and crunchy vegetables for dinner. Always, I want to see what the plants and animals are up to, and this is my most consistent, most reliable cure.

Last week, I was putting the rubbish out, in tears, in the dark, when I felt a shadowy movement, and there, on the wall, was the fox. He walked past me and would have wandered into the house if I hadn’t discouraged him, so he sat down, had a quick scratch, and waited. I had nothing in the house but dried cat food, so I threw him a handful, and, as I sat on the step three feet away from him, he crunched through most of it, before disappearing under the door to the garden and going on his way. Such confidence! And I’m pleased to announce that his eyes have cleared up since the photo below, taken a few weeks ago.

For once, I didn’t reach for my camera. Seeing the fox took me out of me head, and my sorrow, and plonked me back into my body, and into the here and now. It occurred to me how much Mum would have loved the fox, and I felt as if I was seeing him for her. She lives on in me, both literally in my genetic make-up but also in the things that she bequeathed: my talent with knitting needles, my love of reading and writing, my skill with a white sauce. She is there in my gestures and my turn of phrase. She is both utterly, irreparably gone, and as close to me as the shape of my eyes. And as the streetlights flicker on, I know that this loss will become woven into my life, part of a larger, continuing story. I just need to be patient, and let the grief do what it needs to do.

Wednesday Weed – Echinacea

Echinacea purpurea

Dear Readers, this weekend I was at the Bridge Theatre, a new-ish venue founded by Nicholas Hytner, formerly head of the National Theatre. As a venue it had pluses and minuses. Pluses included plentiful ladies toilets (for once) and an auditorium with great sound and excellent sightlines. Downsides included only one hand dryer in each loo, and a cafe with very few tables – most of the seating was on those perching seats which are a trap for the unwary, or those very low three-legged stools that always make me think I should be leaning into the side of a patient, hay-munching Fresian.

However, I digress. We had some time to kill and so I dragged my husband, in the drizzle, through the gardens of Potters Fields.  A potter’s field is usually a pauper’s graveyard, and one of my favourite places in the world, Crossbones Graveyard, is nearby. However, this Potters’ Field appears to have been just that – an area where potters settled in the 17th and 18th Century. The gardens  have been designed by Piet Oudolf, one of my favourite designers – I love those drifts of prairie-style flowers and grasses. At this time of year, however, it’s mainly brown seedheads and rather sad blooms.

And, as we move into the season of the common cold, it seemed appropriate to concentrate this week on one of the plants most commonly invoked as a cure for the sniffles. Echinacea, or purple coneflower, forms part of so many cold remedies these days that I fear Holland and Barrett would go bust if it was proved not to be effective. The plant comes originally from the grasslands of eastern North America, and was used extensively by Native American peoples, though not particularly as a cold remedy: it was thought to be efficacious for the treatment of wounds, burns and insect bites. The root was chewed to alleviate toothache, and it was taken internally as an analgesic. . A specimen of the plant was sent to Thomas Jefferson by Lewis and Clark in 1805, and it was described as ‘Mad Dog Plant’, with the packing list stating that it was

highly prized by the natives as an efficacious remidy in the Cases of the bite of the rattle Snake or “Mad Dog.”

Echinacea was also used by native peoples to treat coughs and sore throats, but this seems to have been something of a sideline. 

There have been many studies on the efficacy of echinacea, but the problem has been that they have used different parts of the plant, and often different species (there are ten species of echinacea). However, the conclusion overall from the Cochrane Review, as reported by the BBC Futures team, was that using echinacea might reduce your chance of catching a cold by between 10% and 20% if taken at the first onset of sniffles. I wrote about the common cold a while back, and the one thing that I would advocate is zinc gluconate, taken at the first inkling of a tickly throat. I always have some in the house just in case.

A potential problem with echinacea as a drug is that stimulating the immune system is not always a good thing, particularly for people with auto-immune conditions such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. In the US, the National Institute for Health advises people with these illnesses not to take echinacea. In 2012 the NHS also recommended not using echinacea for children under 12, because of the small risk of a severe allergic reaction.

One thing that echinacea is definitely good for, however, is the bees and the butterflies. The plant is a member of the daisy family, and as such the ‘flower’ is composed of hundreds of tiny plantlets, some forming the petals and others forming the ‘cone’ that the plant is named for, and the flowerheads are long-lived (as those in Potters Fields prove). The flowers attract the Vanessid butterflies (red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells), and many species of bee, especially bumblebees. My Gardening for Wildlife book suggests that the plant needs full sun and well-drained soil, but that it should be kept well-watered in summer. The seed heads may also attract finches and blue tits.

Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) on echinacea (Public Domain)

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) on echinacea (Public Domain)

Incidentally, the name ‘echinacea’ comes from the some root as a plant we looked at a few weeks ago, echinops: it means ‘hedgehog’ and refers to the shape of the ‘cone’ in the middle of the flower.

There are many cultivated varieties of echinacea, some of which are trying to persuade the plant to lose its ‘shuttlecock’ appearance – the reflexed petals are seen as being to the detriment of the flower’s appearance. For me, this is one of its strong points – I rather like that pincushion look, and the way that the centre of the bloom is the star of the show. If it had ‘ordinary’ petals, wouldn’t it just look rather like any large single daisy? Stop messing about, people! The plant below is an example of an echinacea where the reflexed petals have been modified. See what you think.

Photo One by James St John at

Echinacea purpurea ‘Leuchstern’ (Bright Star) (Photo One)

And finally, a poem. This one is rather tangential to our subject (which is not unusual), but I was very taken by it. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz became the lover of (and eventually married) the artist Georgia O’Keefe. He was obsessed by her, and particularly her hands, taking many photos of them. The poet Barbara Rockman imagines a letter from O’Keefe to Stieglitz, in which she explains exactly who she is. I feel as if Rockman has somehow conjured the spirit of O’Keefe in these few lines. See what you think.

Hands (1919) Alfred Stieglitz (Metropolitan Museum of Art) (Public Domain)

Letter from Georgia O’Keefe to Alfred Stieglitz on Seeing His Photograph of Her Hands

By Barbara Rackman from to cleave

October 4 1919

Be calm, Alfred. No,
I am a plain woman. I rinse dishes,
pull weeds, and unleash the dogs on dirt trails.
I sleep in a narrow bed. I rise early.
These are hands that mix paint,
decipher sky. With these hands
I scratch my head at the improbable.
I twist them under my breasts in sleep.
Fisted against my stomach they fly
from my body in dream. Hands
at the tips of wings, Alfred.
How you splayed my fingers,
insisted I caress the absent forelock,
empty sockets, each stone molar,
imagining the horse’s rough tongue.
I want nothing of death, Alfred, nothing
of absence. These elegant hands cup seeds,
cut back echinacea, snip herbs for the sauce.
They tug knotted shirts from a basket, shake them
into light, clamp them to the line with bleached pins.
What can a man know of a woman’s hands?

Photo Credits

Photo One by James St John at





















The New Bee on the Block

Ivy bee (Colletes hederae)

Dear Readers, there is something about spotting a ‘new’ species of animal or plant that always makes my pulse race, especially when it’s one that I’ve been looking out for for a while. So it was on Saturday, when a birthday visit to the National Archives at Kew with my husband to see an exhibition about the Cold War had the unexpected bonus of a splendid stand of ivy flowers in the grounds. They were abuzz with all manner of hoverflies, some wasps and the usual honeybees, but then I noticed that some of those ‘honeybees’ had distinctive black and yellow-striped abdomens. There was also something about the way that the pollen was gathering in the hairs on the legs, rather than being neatly tucked away into the proper ‘basket’ that I’d expect to see on a honeybee. At last! I’d spotted an ivy bee, and it wasn’t long before I had my eye in and saw several dozen. The photos this week were taken with my phone as I hadn’t expected to ‘get lucky’, so please forgive the quality.

First things first. Ivy bees were first spotted in the UK in 2001, and since then have been steadily advancing north – their range includes most of Europe, as far south as Cyprus. They are on the wing in late autumn when the ivy flowers, and it is used as a source of pollen and nectar. Ivy bees are solitary bees – they don’t congregate in communal nests, but have build nest tunnels, although the bees may nest in the same small area, sometimes creating conglomerations of thousands of individual nests. These are the last of the British bees to emerge – I have noted before that the emergence of solitary bees seems to be in strict sequence. In my garden, the first to appear is the hairy-footed flower bee in early spring, followed by the ashy mining bees. I intend to pay closer attention next year to see who pops out when.

The ivy bee males emerge first, and hang around the nest tunnels looking for females. The first females to turn up may be mobbed, with lots of males attempting to mate – this phenomenon is known as a ‘mating ball’. Once mated, the female will head off to excavate a nest tunnel, lining it with a cellophane-like substance that she produces from her salivary glands. This substance is water-proof and contains a fungicide, which helps to protect the pollen and nectar that she gathers from ‘going bad’. This is important because she will lay her eggs on the food that she’s collected, and they won’t hatch until the following summer.

Another hazard for the female ivy bee is that a beetle has evolved a sophisticated method of feeding its own larvae at the expense of the young bees. The ivy bee blister beetle (Stenoria analis) lays its eggs close to the nesting tunnels of the ivy bees. These hatch into larvae known as triongulins because of the three claws on their feet. The newly-hatched male ivy bees approach these larvae, and behave in a very peculiar way, sometimes attempting to mate with them. It’s thought that this might be because the triongulins produce a pheromone that mimics the smell of a female. The small individual larvae also clump together in a way that may resemble the shape of a bee, though looking at them individually this seems rather unlikely. Once the male comes close enough, the triongulins will ‘hop on’ and wait for the next stage of their extraordinary journey.

Photo One by By Slimguy - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Ivy bee blister beetle (Stenoria analis) (Photo One)

The male ivy bee, now festooned with beetle larvae, will eventually find a ‘real’ female to mate with, and in the blink of an eye will transfer to her. They will ride back to the female’s nest tunnel, hop off and imbed themselves in the wall, allowing themselves to be sealed in with all that lovely nectar and pollen and, sadly, with the bee egg. The triongulin eats the egg first and then gobbles up all the supplies. If more than one beetle larva ends up in the same nest, one of them will eat the other one too. In the following summer, a new beetle emerges, and the cycle begins all over again.

Photo Two by By Pjt56 --- If you use the picture outside Wikipedia I would appreciate a short e-mail to or a message on my discussion page - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Ivy bee with lots of little ‘hangers on’ (Photo Two)

I am always amazed at the complexity of the relationship between parasites and their hosts. It must be such an ‘arms race’ for each species involved, each one evolving new ways of outwitting the other. According to my Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, it appears that the ivy bee blister beetle currently only parasitizes ivy bees in the Channel Islands rather than on mainland Britain. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to arrive on the South Coast. I find myself hoping that this attractive little bee will have at least a few years to enjoy the ivy flowers without being harassed.

So, if you have any ivy flowers around, do take a closer look at those ‘honeybees’. In my local area my favourite ivy ‘shrub’, which used to harbour a bumblebee nest, has been cut right back, so no chance of any ivy bees there. Ivy is a remarkable resource for all kinds of pollinators in the late autumn when everything else has died back, and a fine place for birds to nest in the spring. I do realise that it can be a menace when it’s climbing a wall, but I would put in a plea for gardeners to leave it where it isn’t causing a major problem. The ivy bees will love you for it.

Photo Three by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Male ivy bee (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Slimguy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two by By Pjt56 — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three by By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,