All Change!

Male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Dear Readers, normally I would be starting to decorate the house and make food for the festive season this week, but Mum and Dad are still unwell. They are both breathless and weak, and the doctor has told them that it will be several weeks before they’re back to ‘normal’. And so we’ve come to the decision that it will be better if they stay in Milborne St Andrew  rather than undergo the stress of the travelling to London and being away from home. So,  John and I will take Christmas to Dorset instead of looking after them here, and much re-organisation has ensued. There have been rooms, trains and taxis to book and, most importantly of all, a supermarket delivery slot to get so that I don’t have to carry three days worth of Christmas food down to Dorset on South Western Railways. And now, with everything in place, I’ve been able to spare a few minutes to look out of the window and see what the rest of the world is doing.

It has been a boisterous, unpredictable couple of days, with the weather varying from warm and rainy to freezing cold with bright sunshine and blustery winds. We even have an outside chance of snow over the weekend. The bird feeders have been close to horizontal on several occasions, depositing seed all over the path. The starlings seem to play in the wind, throwing themselves into the air and careering sideways with every appearance of glee. They sway on the branches, bicker on the feeders and are able to rid the bird table of much larger birds by simply showing up in large numbers and descending on the food. They argue among themselves, but, en masse, they are a formidable opponent.

Starling surveying the bird table and gauging her moment for descent….

I was reminded of the importance of supporting one another today. I was having my usual morning flat white in Costa Coffee on East Finchley High Street when a woman started to abuse the young women behind the counter. From what she was saying it was clear that she had mental health problems, but as the tirade got more and more unpleasant, and as one of the younger targets of the abuse was in tears,  I found myself going over to stand with the baristas. I say ‘found myself’ because I didn’t appear to have much choice – my legs just seemed to carry me there. I had no idea what to say or do, but I didn’t want to simply be a bystander – I’ve been too scared to intervene in situations like this in the past, and have always felt ashamed of myself afterwards. As soon as I got to the counter two other customers got up and stood with the young women too. It was important to me that we didn’t demonise the woman who was ranting away, because she was clearly a troubled soul who was in need of care, so we gently tried to calm her down, and to suggest that if she had problems she should take them up with the manager, and eventually she gave up and left. Did we help? I have no idea. But there is a strength in simply standing together that the starlings seem to know instinctively, and that humans often don’t appreciate.

Collared doves waiting for breakfast

Back in the garden, the collared doves stand guard in the whitebeam above the seed feeder. Every so often they descend to feed and promptly start fighting with one another, but in the tree they seem serene and unconcerned.

The chaffinches are back in force, with their mothy flutterings. I doubt that there is a more elegant British finch, and I never tire of their blush-pink breast feathers and slate-blue heads. The females are less brightly coloured, but are graceful little birds. I  love the way that they swoop and bound over the pond.

Female chaffinch

We have been adopted by a small flock of goldfinches, too. They roost in one of the big plane trees on East Finchley High Street, but during the day they pop into the garden every twenty minutes or so. They are such dapper birds, their pale-grey beaks tipped with charcoal and their faces masked in crimson.

Goldfinch

The black and white feathers on the wings remind me of Mondrian, the artist, and so does this most unusual of visitors. It has been almost a year since I’ve since a woodpecker on the suet feeder, and here he is again, hammering away, propped up with his stiff tail feathers. Last time he was here it was Christmas Day 2016 and I gave Mum the binoculars so that she could see him. She is so small and frail, and she swayed slightly as she raised them to her eyes. She said she saw the bird, but I’m not sure if she did or if she just said it to please me.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

And in good news, Mum and Dad have finally accepted that they need a bit of extra care for a while, and I have found an agency that seems caring and responsive. The new carer starts next week, and I hope that they are nice, and that Mum and Dad like them. Life at the moment seems to be something of a steeplechase, with unexpected obstacles around every corner, but I am hoping that we have at least cleared this one. And in the meantime, I look at the birds, and thank them for the moments of peace that they bring me, and the way that they lift me out of myself with fierce wings.

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Red-Hot Poker

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…..

Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia uvaria)

Dear Readers, this week I was delighted to spot this red-hot poker growing in a garden in Muswell Hill, and looking about as exotic as any plant has a right to do. I love the way that the orange colour complements the red brick wall of the rather splendid house behind it, and the way that the flowers were beaded with rain didn’t hurt either.

In its native South Africa, this plant is known as torch lily, and the flowerheads can reach up to five feet in height.Red-coloured flowers are often bird-pollinated, and in South Africa sunbirds are common visitors, but in the UK bumblebees also love the long trumpet-shaped flowers.

Photo One by By Alandmanson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Malachite sunbird (Nectarinia famosa) on red hot poker (Photo One)

The Table Mountain Beauty butterfly (Aeropetes tulbaghia) also pollinates the flower, particularly in the Fynbos region of South Africa, and is unusual in preferring red flowers over the usual paler blooms. In his lovely blog ‘The Fynbos Guy’, the author mentions that wearing a red shirt will result in you being ‘buzzed’ by these beautiful insects.

Photo Two by The Fymbos Guy at http://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

A Table Mountain Beauty (Aeropetes tulbaghia) Photo Two

The plant has been introduced all over the world: in the New World, orioles and hummingbirds have taken a shine to it, and in Australia it has become something of an environmental hazard to the native wild plants. It is clump-forming and vigorous, and I can imagine how it could easily dominate in a fragile habitat.

Photo One by By Toby Hudson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9374718

Clump of red hot pokers on Lake Jindabyne in Australia (Photo One)

Red-hot pokers belong to the subfamily Asphodeloideae , which includes such plants as aloes and asphodels. There has been much debate about where exactly the plant belongs, however, and it is something of a puzzle. It certainly doesn’t share much of a superficial resemblance to its close relatives: it’s not a succulent, like the aloes, and it doesn’t have the flowers of the asphodels. What defines the subfamily is a chemical compound called anthraquinone, which is used in laxatives and in batteries. I suspect you’d have to be very careful to make sure you were taking the correct version of the compound.

As you would expect for such a stunning plant, there are many cultivated varieties, in a range of colours. However, it’s the gradation of colour that gives the plant its common name, pale yellow at the bottom through to peachy-red at the top. The other colours don’t have the same effect, pretty as they are. I suspect that they may not have the same hardiness either: we’ve had snow and sub-zero temperatures for several days here in London, but the Muswell Hill plant is still going strong. Once established, red-hot pokers have a reputation as being tough plants to kill, but an article in The Telegraph suggests that although Kniphofia was popular before the Second World War, many interesting varieties of red-hot poker were  destroyed during the Dig For Victory campaign, when people dug up their flower gardens to grow food. It’s interesting to see that it is now back ‘in fashion’.

By the way, the tricky Latin name Kniphofia is pronounced ‘Nee-FOF-ee-a’ and is named after Johann Hieronymous Kniphof, an 18th century German physicist and botanist.

Photo Three by By Mork the delayer at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Kelly using CommonsHelper., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16044760

A yellow kniphofia. Pretty, but not a red-hot poker (Photo Three)

In South Africa the nectar-filled blooms are sometimes eaten by humans, and are said to taste like honey.

Medicinally, the flowers of some Kniphofia species have been used to repel snakes and an infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest disorders. In Zimbabwe the powdered roots of Kniphofia are mixed with food to treat infertility in women.

In Lesotho, the plant was considered to be a charm against lightning, and was therefore grown close to habitation. However, in the UK at least one person believes that they are unlucky according to the Plant Lore website, and according to Plant Lives, it’s believed that if red-hot poker flowers in the autumn it means a death in the family. Then again, my Mum believes that green is an unlucky colour, and my Nan believed that putting new shoes on the table would bring misfortune, so I guess there’s always something.

It strikes me that superstitions grow from our fundamental need to explain either bad luck (in order to prevent it from happening again) or good luck (to make sure we get more of it). But this behaviour is not limited to humans. In some of his experiments, the behaviourist B.F Skinner provided pigeons with food that dropped out of a container at purely random intervals. He noted that the pigeons would repeat the behaviour that occurred when the food arrived in an attempt to get more. So, if a bird happened to be preening when a pellet dropped, it would preen obsessively to see if it could generate more food. Many other species of animal, from pigs to dogs to poor imprisoned primates, demonstrate the same tendencies. I wonder if this is the root of all religion: the need to find a reason for our mixed fortunes in a volatile, uncertain world.

But, as usual, I digress.

Now, as you know I like to finish my pieces with an artwork, or a poem, or preferably both, and this week my search has led me back to Les Murray (I featured his poem ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ in my piece on lucerne a few months ago). What a remarkable poet he is! As you know, I don’t cut and paste the complete poems of living authors, but here is a taste of ‘The Cowladder Stanzas’ from ‘New Selected Poems’. For the rest of it, you (and I ) will need to buy the book.

The Cowladder Stanzas

Not from a weather direction

black cockatoos come crying over

as unflapping as Bleriot monoplanes

to crash in pine tops for the cones.

 

Young dogs, neighbours’ dogs

across the creek, bark, chained

off the cows, choked off play, bark

untiring as a nightsick baby, yap

milking times to dark, plead

ute-dancing dope-eye dogs.

 

Red-hot pokers up and out

of their tussock. Kniphofia flowers

overlapping many scarlet jubes

form rockets on a stick.

Ignition’s mimed by yellow petticoats.

 

Like all its kind

Python has a hare lip

through which it aims its tongue

at eye-bursting Hare.

And if this hasn’t whetted your appetite for more of this precise, explosive poetry, nothing will.

Photo Credits

Photo One by  Alandmanson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by The Fymbos Guy at http://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

Photo Three by By Mork the delayer at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Kelly using CommonsHelper., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16044760

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – The Best Laid Plans

Clematis seedheads in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, you may remember that last week I reported that Mum had been stricken down with a chest infection, but seemed to be on the mend, and was at least not in hospital. Well, on Sunday I phoned Mum and Dad, and realised that Dad had succumbed to the same bug. Add to this the fact that one of their lovely carers is currently struggling with her own health emergency, and that the washing machine has broken irreparably, and the only feasible course of action was to leap on a train and head down to Milborne St Andrew on a rescue mission.

Flint nodule from wall in Milborne St Andrew

And so, I have been on tea-making/cooking/washing machine wrangling/cleaning/medicating duty for the week, and have been trying to persuade Mum and Dad that they need some additional help while their carer is sorting out her own crisis. I have met with some resistance (understatement) because they love their current carers, and would rather not have to deal with anyone else. Plus, Dad in particular is sanguine about the future, which is lovable but occasionally infuriating. For example, on the coldest day of the week I returned from the walk that I am about to describe, only to find that the enormous wheelie bins had been put on the kerb for the dustbin men. Yes, in spite of barely being able to breathe, Dad had wrangled them outside, in -5 degrees of wind chill.

I love that Mum and Dad are so determined to be independent. I think that their sheer cussedness and determination is what’s kept them going so far. I just worry myself sick about them. But they are of sound mind, and I don’t want to be one of those children who railroads their parents into doing things that they don’t feel comfortable with. So, on Thursday, while they were having a nap, I wrapped myself up and went out for a walk.

The sun was so low on the horizon that for half the walk I could barely see where I was going.

Bugwoman’s shadow….

I stomped along Chapel Road, and stopped as a flock of blackbirds erupted from one of the gardens. What could have brought these normally solitary birds together? I inhaled a deep lungful of sweet apple scent, and realised that the kind house owner had left the windfalls for the birds.

And it wasn’t just blackbirds who were ready to feed – I also spotted my first redwing of the year.

Onwards I trudged, feeling my anxiety ease with every step. I even made the mistake of thinking it was warmer than I’d thought. Hah! I was to discover the error of my ways when I walked back, into the wind.

A mole had been very busy in the ex-cabbage field, and the soil was the colour of cocoa. These little animals are very common, and yet I’ve never caught a glimpse of one. How busy they are, turning the soil and munching on the worms and leatherjackets.

Earlier in the year, I’d passed a dry stream bed, and speculated that maybe it was a winterbourne – a river that only runs in the winter. It seems that I might have been right. Many villages in Dorset are called Winterbourne something, such as the nearby Winterbourne Whitechurch.

Over a stile, and then a decision on which of three paths to take. In the mood of Robert Frost, I decided to take the one less travelled, diagonally up hill and into a little copse of trees. The low sun burnished the dry thistles into something softly miraculous.

At the top of the hill was the path through trees, which looked strangely menacing compared with the open field. But somehow I wasn’t ready to turn back yet, and so up I went.

And when I came out on the other side, there was a view of another cabbage field, and a single wind turbine.

Back I go, and immediately realise that it’s colder than I thought.

I pause at a sign before the wood. I have not heard shots here, and so I don’t think that I’m in danger of being peppered with pellets. Plus, I am wearing a bright red (and very unsuitable) coat, so I should at least be obvious. I know that shooting things is part of country life, but I confess that I loathe it, especially when it’s done for sport and the dead creatures are not even eaten. Still, you could argue that at least a pheasant has had a decent life before it meets its end, unlike a factory-farmed chicken or pig.

I’m out into the field again, and heading home. I spot the sheep from my last walk on a field across the way.

The tractor ruts are full of water, necessitating some clever manoeuvering to keep my feet dry. At least I’m wearing suitable walking shoes.

I fall in love with this dancing bush. It looks to me like a couple in the middle of a tango, and rather reminds me of the Fred and Ginger House in Prague….

The Fred and Ginger House, Prague.

It’s becoming colder, and I notice that some of the water in the ruts here is frozen. A pied wagtail is picking over the puddles, and the hedgerow is full of goldcrests and long-tailed tits. As usual, I don’t get a photo of them, but the wagtail is very obliging, flying along just a few feet ahead of me as I pick my way through the muddy morass.

Pied Wagtail

There is a huge bonfire in the wood to the left of the path as I turn for home, and I soon realise why. You might remember that last time I reported on this walk, I mentioned a very fine dilapidated barn in some woodland. Well, most of the woodland is now gone, and the logs are stacked up. I walked through a veil of woodsmoke, which lingered in my hair (and probably my lungs) for the rest of the day.

As I got to the brow of the hill, I noticed how some of the trees have previously been heavily coppiced, but have now grown into trees.

Notice all the tree trunks growing up from one horizontal trunk

It occurs to me that this was maybe once a hedgerow, or at least a piece of ancient woodland coppiced for firewood, which has been allowed, over many years, to grow freely. On the other side of the path, a hedgerow is still maintained, and I was struck by the similarity in the pattern of growth, but on a miniature scale. It would take me a lifetime to be able to truly read this landscape, but I am determined to learn while I can.

Part of the hedgerow

And as I passed another modern barn, I noticed the moon rising.

How serene it looked above the trees.

Underneath an abandoned farm building, a piece of old machinery was burnished with late afternoon light.

I had seen a few starlings roosting earlier, but now the big oak tree was full of twittering, whistling birds bedding down for the night.

And in the field opposite, the very last rays of the sun seemed to blessing a pair of horses.

And so I walk briskly home as the light fades and the wind picks up, chilling my face and making me yearn for a centrally-heated living room and a cup of tea. The parents are both asleep in their reclining chairs. Dad’s chest is wheezing gently, while Mum’s is distinctly more crackly. I put the kettle on, knowing that regardless of how deeply asleep he is, Dad will launch into alertness for our daily watching of ‘Pointless’. I am filled with such a rush of love for the pair of them that I’m brought to the edge of tears. I have to learn to relax into the uncertainty of the situation, and not try to control every decision (hard as that is for someone who thrives on making things happen). Sometimes, it’s best to just listen and trust that, in the words of Julian of Norwich:

‘All shall be well,

and all shall be well,

and all manner of things shall be well’.

Wednesday Weed – Japanese Aralia

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…..

Japanese Aralia(Fatsia japonica)

Dear Readers, as I walked home  through Muswell Hill on a cold Sunday morning, I was surprised to hear the sound of buzzing, and to see not one but three bumblebees feeding from these sputnik-shaped flowers. Japanese aralia is an exotic, but as more and more bumblebee nests are surviving the winter it has become a valuable source of nectar and pollen. A  glance at the flowers put me in mind of ivy, which is not surprising as both are members of the Araliaceae family, and there is at least one hybrid between  this plant and an ivy.

Fruit of Japanese Aralia

The genus name ‘Fatsia’ comes from an old Japanese word for ‘eight’, and if you look at the leaves you’ll see that they usually have eight ‘fingers’ (though they can have seven, or nine). As you might guess from this, the plant is native to southern Japan and South Korea. The Japanese name for the plant is ‘Yatsude’, meaning ‘eight-hand’. Whatever the number of lobes, the leaves are evergreen, shiny, and rather attractive. However, as you can see in the photo below, even evergreens may have an ‘autumn’, when older leaves turn yellow and drop off – I have a viburnum in a pot which did this this year, to my horror. However, it’s now doing well, so I can breathe again.

A Fatsia leaf (one of the eight lobes is hidden, honest!)

Japanese aralia is a great plant for shady conditions and heavy soils, and so it should be a shoo-in for my north-facing, claggy-soiled garden, if only I had a bit more room. However, I have a very dark side-return which is currently home to potted camellias, a daphne and a climbing hydrangea, so maybe I will find a spot for one here (they’re hardy down to -14 degrees, so hopefully that should be ok). I am somewhat tempted by this new variety, though in my experience you’re often better off with the old faithfuls.

Fatsia japonica 'Spiders Web'

Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ (Photo One)

I absolutely see the point of raising native flowers in some habitats: I have friends in the US and in Australia who do this, and I think that there’s a real need to support wildlife by growing the plants that evolved with them to be the perfect source of food and shelter. In London, though, there are already so many foreign species that I think it’s a case of deciding which will benefit creatures such as pollinators when no native plants are in flower, or available as food for larvae. For example, winter-flowering plants such as Mahonia and Fatsia fill a feeding gap for over-wintering bumblebee queens and for the nests that survive these days.

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Although Japanese aralia is sometimes known as the castor-oil plant, it is not related to the actual castor-oil plant (Ricinus communis), although the leaves are similar. This is important for several reasons, particularly because the ‘true’ castor-oil plant is extremely poisonous. You will sometimes find Fatsia japonica labelled as ‘false castor-oil plant’, to add to the confusion. This is why Latin names are so important -at least we all know that we’re talking about the same thing.

In Japan, the shoots of Fatsia japonica are harvested and used as a vegetable, and very tasty they look too…

By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9781610

An actual castor-oil plant(Ricinus communis) (Photo Two)

Japanese aralia has been used as an anti-inflammatory in Japan and Taiwan, and hence in the treatment of such conditions as osteoarthritis and rheumatism. In folklore those huge eight-pointed hand-shaped leaves were thought to repel devils, and the plant was grown on the north side of the house from whence these enemies were thought to come (though as this is presumably also the coldest side it seems like a bit of a risk for the plant.).

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Dear Readers, last week I described how the ginkgo trees in Japan were among the few to survive the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and today I found this photo essay on the effects of those bombs. And here is a photo of the shadow of Fatsia japonica leaves left on a telegraph pole following the flash from the bomb at Hiroshima. What happened to the plant eventually is not recorded. At a time when the idea of nuclear war, so long considered unthinkable, has become a ‘viable option’ for some leaders of the Free World, it’s as well to stop to consider what it really means. Some of the other photos in the essay show exactly what happens when you drop a nuclear device on other human beings.

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This photo was taken by the US Army following the bombing of Hiroshima. Note the shadow of the leaves on the telegraph pole.

And, following the disaster at Fukoshima, Japanese poets have also been concerned with the effects of the radiation released by natural forces. In the collection ‘Reverberations from Fukushima: 50 Japanese Poets Speak Out’, Setsuko Okubu, who lived in Fukushima, considers the effect of this devastating event on her home:

In “To My Home,” Setsuko Okubo affirms, “Our prime blessing is brought by the soil..inherited and guarded.” In the first and last stanzas, the repetition of the names of wild plants they used to gather serves as a litany.

To My Home

Butterbur sprouts, five-leaf aralia, fatsia sprouts, bracken, and parsley.
When the mountains are ready
for the sprouting of plants,
the rice fields are dug, and the fields are cultivated,
calves are born,
horses are pastured,
and chickens lay eggs.
It’s a season full of life.
In the fall
Ears of rice rustle.
The smell of rice heralds the harvest.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Then, “In a twinkle it vanished../ life-taking radiation —/ contaminated my home”

We had to slaughter the cows that we had tenderly watched over.
We abandoned our racehorses that we had raised with the utmost care,
left our houses, fields, and livestock, and evacuated.
We drift from shelter to shelter as refugees.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Spring has rolled around again.
Butterbur sprouts, five-leaf aralia, fatsia sprouts, bracken, and parsley.
They are waiting to be picked
on the desolate land.

My heart goes out to people everywhere who have to leave everything that they know and leave their homes, whether through natural disaster or war, drought or famine. It sometimes seems as if the whole world is on the move, and this will only increase as climate change makes areas uninhabitable. Building walls against others is no solution. We need to learn to live with people who are different from us, and we need to learn fast. We have always been the adaptable ape, and I hope this will stand us in good stead in the future, though some days I despair. But not today, because the bees are feeding on the Japanese aralia, and will go home with full stomachs to survive another day.

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The Sunlight on the Garden

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Last night, the wind roared down the chimney. It sounded like a playful giant blowing over the rim of an enormous milk bottle. And in the morning, the plane trees on the High Road had been stripped of all but the most recalcitrant leaves. I sometimes wonder if the leaves enjoy their first and last moments of freedom, released from the shackles of branch and twig to dance in the air and skitter down the pavement.

I was away all weekend in Somerset, for a series of events to celebrate Aunt Hilary’s 90th birthday. Everyone that I spoke to told me how Hilary had been the first person to welcome them to the village when they arrived, the first person to help them find their feet in the community. At the afternoon tea party, there were little bunches of fuchsias and hebe and rosemary on the tables, and half a dozen ladies from the village had made scones and brownies, fruit cake and sandwiches. There was such warmth in the room, and in this it reminded me of Mum and Dad’s party.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting

Aunt Hilary and Bugwoman discussing life.

Without wanting to be (particularly) morbid, it seems to me that moments of happiness and celebration are more and more important as I, and the people that I love, grow older. To anyone contemplating arranging an event, a holiday, a special evening with someone that they care about, I’d say ‘do it,’ however stressful the organisational process is. It’s the memories that count, not material things. My writer friend Dianne Crumbaker has been thinking along similar lines, as you can see here.

How can we evaluate a life, judge it as well-lived?  I’m not sure why we were put on this earth, but I’m very sure that part of it must be to be of service, to use our skills and talents for the greater betterment of other people and the earth as a whole.  It makes me wonder how I can give back to my local community, how I can make a difference. I have such a fear of committing to things that I can’t carry through because I might have to do something to help Mum and Dad. It’s a conundrum, to be sure.

This morning I stood in my kitchen, and marvelled at how a finger of sunlight was touching  the beech leaves in the hedge until they glowed copper and gold. The sun burns along the narrow alleyway by the side of the house like a laser. I took a photo, and then took some of the starlings. At the top of the hawthorn and whitebeam the sun shines more gently over the house, and the birds reflect the light. They chortle and chat away, raising their crests and whistling continuously while eyeing the contents of the bird table and checking for cats. And then they descend like thunderbolts, tossing suet pellets and mealworms in all directions.

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I look back at the hedge, and already the sun has moved on. Except, of course, that it hasn’t. We have. The world is turning under my feet, even though I can’t feel it, and the angle of the alleyway to the sun has changed in just a few moments. I have rarely been brought up so sharply by the realities of time and space. We are moving on, inexorably, getting older, travelling at thousands of miles per hour even while we’re doing nothing more exciting than taking pictures of birds through our cobwebby windows on a Thursday morning.

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How quickly a lifetime goes, each slice of time followed by another, and then another. By the time I’ve taken some pictures of the goldfinches, the earth has turned further, and the sun is no longer on the hedge at all. A wren runs across the steps to the pond as quickly as a mouse. A neighbour’s cat rushes across to the pond and tries to extract a late frog, who dives just in time. The cat licks his paw and gazes around as if slightly embarrassed.

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All night I was worrying about Mum, who has a terrible cough. The doctor is hoping that antibiotics and steroids will be enough to keep a potential infection under control, but I fear another hospital stay is on the cards, and there’s the question of looking after Dad in her absence. The parents  can pretty much manage when there are two of them (with the help of their carers), but things break down quickly if there’s only one at home. And then, as I watch that slot of golden sunlight travel across the garden, it occurs to me that trying to control fate, trying to negotiate with the gods, is as pointless as trying to keep a leaf on a tree, or attempting to stop the world from turning. I feel myself rooting down into acceptance. What will be, will be, and all I can do is ride the season, the squalls and the bitter cold and the sudden, blessed gifts of sunshine.

Update: it seems that I was too pessimistic about Mum’s chest infection – she seems to be improving, and so far is still at home, taking her steroids and antibiotics and drinking lots of tea. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday Weed – Ginkgo

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…..

Ginkgo (Maidenhair) tree in East Finchley cemetery

Dear Readers, my visit to East Finchley cemetery last week was the gift that just keeps on giving. I felt that this venerable tree deserved more than a few lines in a longer piece, and so this week I want to look at the ginkgo, a popular street and cemetery tree here in North London, and yet one which I have often hurried past. Before anyone gets over-excited, this is quite clearly not a ‘weed’ by any normal definition, but have you ever tried finding a ‘weed’ in mid-November which, after nearly four years of weekly posts, hasn’t been covered? Flexibility will be required from hereon in, I suspect.

Gingko is immediately identifiable from its leaves. No other living tree has fan-shaped foliage, but fossilised ginkgo leaves have been found from 270 million years ago. The tree existed at the same time as mare’s tail, which was a Wednesday Weed a few weeks ago, but, unlike that plant, poor ginkgo really is the last of its kind. There is nothing else alive that is remotely like it.

Once I spotted one ginkgo, I found them everywhere: at the end of Archway Road, in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and on Durham Road. But they are, in some ways, problematic. Ginkgo trees have separate sexes ( the technical term is dioecious), but each sex has some disadvantages as a street tree. The female trees produce a fruit which looks a little like an apricot (the name ‘ginkgo’ is said to come from a misspelling of the Japanese name for the plant, which means ‘silver apricot’) but if this falls and starts to rot, it is said to produce a smell that combines the odour of vomit with the stench of rancid butter. The pollen of the male trees, which naturally produce no fruit, is highly allergenic, and so not good for hay fever sufferers. Nonetheless, the tree is beautiful enough for groundskeepers everywhere to keep planting it.

Incidentally, among its many peculiarities is the fact that the male ginkgo produces sperm which is covered in tiny mobile hairs that enable it to move. In this, ginkgo is similar to mosses and algae, but completely different from flowering plants. It has several adaptations to a time before these competitors came along: for example, it grows very quickly to a  height of about 10 meters before extending any side shoots, which was probably because most plants at this time were ferns and horsetails, and so the need was to get as high as possible as quickly as possible, and then to shade out everybody else.

Photo One (Fossil gingko) by By User:SNP(upload to en:wikipedia) ; User:tangopaso (transfer to Commons) (English Wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

A fossilised gingko leaf from the Eocene (56-33.9 million years ago) (Photo One)

Not only is the ginkgo a very ancient species, but individual trees are both resilient and long-lived. Six ginkgos which were within 2 kms of the epicentre of the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast survived, and are given the honorable name of ‘hibakujumoku’, or ‘survivor trees’.

At the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto shrine in Japan a giant ginkgo which had stood beside the staircase since the creation of the building in 1063 finally collapsed in 2010. A botanist who examined it declared that the trunk had rotted. It was thought that that was the end, until both the original tree stump and a piece of the tree planted nearby started to produce a fine crop of new leaves.

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Never write off a ginkgo! (Photo Two)

If you go into any chemist, you are likely to see herbal preparations with pictures of that distinctive fan-shaped leaf on the box. It is often marketed as a way of delaying the effects of old age, perhaps because the tree itself is so sprightly, and we hope to acquire some of its characteristics. It is said to be beneficial for macular degeneration, dementia, forgetfulness generally, ‘post-menopausal cognitive decline’ ( I guess that’s when I start a sentence and have no idea what I meant to say by the time I get to the end), post-stroke recovery, arterial disease and tinnitus. Oh that it did half of what it says on the packet, but sadly scientific trials have all currently drawn a blank. There is also some fear that if you are taking a blood-thinner such as warfarin or coumadin, overdoing it with the gingko will result in rather thinner blood than you were hoping for. On the other hand, Chinese doctors have been using ginkgo since 2800 BC, so I refuse to lose hope. The plant is certainly full of interesting chemicals such as amentoflavone (which can inhibit the uptake of certain medications) and ginkgolic acid, which is highly allergenic, so maybe these can be turned from ‘the dark side’.

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You might think that there would be nothing edible to be found on a ginkgo tree, what with all that talk of the smell of the fruit, but the seeds of the ginkgo (once the smelly stuff is removed) are a traditional food in both China and Japan. In particular, they form part of a celebratory dish called ‘Buddha’s Delight’ which is served at Chinese New Year, a time when a vegetarian diet is thought to bring good luck. And very tasty it looks too.

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Whilst researching this piece, I came across this painting by the Japanese artist Watanabe Shotei, and promptly fell in love with it. I like the way that the crow is framed, and the way that the autumn-yellow ginkgo leaves are scattering as she flies through them. This is very different from his other, more formal work, and I think that it sums up the mischievousness of the bird as it ploughs through the august foliage. Or maybe it’s just me.

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Flower and bird by Watanabe Shotei (Public Domain)

And finally, there is a belief that even in the shedding of its leaves, the ginkgo is not like other trees. Whilst the oak leaves and the maple leaves drop off one at a time, all the leaves from a ginkgo are said to fall in one night. I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence of that happening with the trees that I know, but maybe this is the case in harsher climates. The poet Howard Nemerov had this to say on the subject:

Late in November, on a single night

Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees

That stand along the walk drop all their leaves

In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind

But as though to time alone: the golden and green

Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday

Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What strange communication occurs between these ancient trees, I wonder, and what complex combination of chemical signals would give rise to such a thing? The more I learn about trees, the less I know.

 

A Street Tree Harvest

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Dear Readers, the man a few doors along from me gets very frustrated with the crab apple street tree outside his house. In October and November you can see him sweeping up all the rotten fruit , and if you pause he will explain why he hates it.

  1. The fruit, when freshly fallen, is as hard as a ball-bearing, just waiting to catch out the unwary.
  2. The fruit quickly degenerates into a squishy mush, which is even more slippery  than the ball-bearing stage, and is rather unpleasant to walk on even if you don’t fall onto your derriere.
  3. If you leave the rotten and fermenting fruit, it attracts clouds of drowsy wasps.
  4. While the fruit is still on the tree, it attracts noisy and badly-behaved parakeets who add to the mess with their droppings.
What are you looking at?

A noisy and badly-behaved parakeet

Fruit trees as street trees can be problematic, because the fruit is attractive to all kinds of creatures that some people wouldn’t want on their doorstep.  I have no problem with the poor wasps, who are imbibing the last sweet thing that they’ll ever taste, and who could blame them for wanting to get a bit tipsy after a hard year of caterpillar-catching and grub-grooming. And I don’t have a problem with the parakeets either, who bring a touch of exotic beauty to the street.

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But then there’s the mess. It’s not a problem, generally, with cherry trees, because the fruit appears early and the thrushes and blackbirds eat every last morsel. But the autumn fruits can be something of a problem. After all, how much crab apple jelly can anybody eat? And even the more edible fruits can prove difficult to handle in their sheer abundance and generosity.  When I went on a street tree walk earlier this year, I visited a group of sand pear trees whose fruit was so succulent and heavy that it was bombarding the pavement and any cars that were parked underneath with a deluge of sticky-sweet puree. As you might remember from that piece, half the street wanted the trees cut down, and the other half wanted them preserved. Peace broke out when it was decided to do something radical and harvest the fruit to be turned into perry (the pear-based version of cider). It’s almost as if we have forgotten what fruit trees were originally planted for.

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A sand pear tree off Holloway Road in North London

I was very heartened to read in Time Out this week that a group of people are harvesting the apples from street trees, and trees growing on public land, to make cider and to give the fruit to foodbanks and organisations that prepare meals for isolated people. Although crab apples are not immediately edible(at least for humans), tons of perfectly good fruit are wasted every year because nobody picks it. There must be a better, more connected way to bring the hungry together with their food, and to make good use of nature’s bounty, and there are a lot of interesting experiments going on to do just that.

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The fruit on my garden crab apple – popular with the thrushes (when everything else has been eaten)

And it occurs to me that where a tree is just plain messy at certain times of the year, it wouldn’t hurt me to dig out my broom and give the man who lives a few houses down a hand. It’s so easy to become territorial in a row of houses, and to think that your responsibility ends at the edge of your garden wall. That might be strictly true, but it’s not a community I’d want to live in. When we had snow a few years ago, my husband cleared a path not just in front of our house, but for a good distance in either direction. He grew up in Canada and knows how to clear snow, but also recognises that it’s easier for some of us to do heavy work than it is for others. And yes, I know the old story that you can be sued if you clear your snow and someone falls over anyway, but from my research that seems only to apply if you’ve done something really stupid (like try to wash it away so that it freezes into an ice-rink).

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So, as autumn turns into winter, and the sun seems to be low on the horizon all day, I’m determined to be more aware of the bounty around me. There are some handy maps that you can use, in London at least, to look out where your local fruit trees might be, and to keep an eye open for any seasonal bonanzas – here, for example, is one for Hackney, provided by the organisation Hackney Harvest. For a general map of street trees in London, have a look here: you can enter your postcode, and it will tell you what’s growing in your area. All the usual provisos about health and safety apply, but I’d be willing to bet that if you passed by some of these trees in the autumn, the fruit would be literally dropping off. Wash it well though, you know how keen some councils are on spraying things.

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I’ve written before about how ‘plant-blind’ many of us have become. Whereas a generation or two back plants were in relationship with us, whether as medicines, or food, or as food for the imagination, nowadays it’s so easy to barely notice them. Writing the blog has opened my eyes a bit, but there is still so much more to notice and to learn about. I have grown to love the diverse plant community around my home, and to value it for the way that it roots me in place, and in history. If you are feeling a bit stale or lacklustre, put on your coat and hat and gloves and go for a fifteen minute walk. I guarantee that, if you walk slowly and pay attention, you’ll see something that piques your interest and takes you out of yourself. And maybe you’ll even find something to take home and turn into a crumble.

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