Monthly Archives: October 2014

Wednesday Weed – Nipplewort

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…..

Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)

Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)

Dear readers, when I was photographing Trailing Bellflower last week, I found this elegant plant growing amongst the nettles in a mysterious  lane that the developers seemed to have overlooked. The long, graceful stems are surmounted by delicate yellow flowers, which seem to balance like trapeze artists.

Nipplewort 4 bp

This is Nipplewort, a native British plant which grows in disturbed land of all kinds. I hadn’t noticed it in East Finchley before, but of course, so many of the Wednesday Weeds were invisible to me before I got my plant-spotting eyes into focus.

The leaves of Nipplewort can be eaten in salads and, along with Chickweed and Shepherd’s Purse, it forms part of the Japanese Festival of Seven Herbs  (Nanakusa-no-sekku), where a porridge of fresh, local plants is eaten on January 7th.

The Seven Herbs

The Seven Herbs (By Blue Lotus [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nipplewort got its name from the shape of its closed buds.

The buds look a bit like nipples

The buds look a bit like nipples

There was, in medieval times, a belief that God indicated how a plant should be used by creating a specific ‘sign’ encoded in its leaves or flowers. Hence, Eyebright, which is said to resemble an eye, was used for treating styes and eye infections. This idea is known as the Doctrine of Signatures  – the idea that each plant had a signature that could be read by a herbalist. Because of the resemblance of its buds to nipples, Nipplewort has been used as a treatment for breast ulcers, cracked nipples and for drying up milk.

Nipplewort 7 BPI suspect that ,  although the ‘signature’ was said to come from God, the idea is much more ancient than that, dating back to pre-Christian times, when there was no need for a divine intercessor as the plants could speak directly to us, if we had ears to here.

It seems somehow appropriate that, on this sunny late autumn day, I was looking at a plant that was associated with motherhood. As I took these photos I had no idea that a cloud of troubles was forming overhead, or that by the end of the week I would be sitting at a hospital bed, holding my mother’s hand as she recovers from a stroke which has damaged her eyesight. But it gives me great comfort to think back to that patch of bright yellow flowers, the buzzing of bees in the ivy above, the Trailing Bellflower peeping from under the fence. It reminds me that everything is always in flux, blooming and falling fallow, and that I am part of that process. I need to  bow with the wind, to drink in the sunshine, to accept the dark times and to let go of the delusion that I can control anything important.

Nipplewort (Carl Axel Magnus Lindman [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nipplewort (Carl Axel Magnus Lindman [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)









Street Trees and Stink Pipes

Rowan cropped

Rowan. The pruning could do with some improvement…

I have written previously about the big London Plane Trees on East Finchley High Street, so this week I decided to concentrate on the smaller, more decorative trees that adorn the pavements of the Country Roads. And what characters they are! The trees often look as if they’ve been attacked by a cack-handed individual wielding a chainsaw, although it maybe that local urchins broke branches off when the plants were young and they’ve never recovered.

Crab Apple Cropped

Crab Apple – another victim of pruning rage?

The poor tree above always reminds me of a wood nymph trying to fight her way out of a tree-trunk. Why the tree has ended up in the shape that is is anybody’s guess, but it’s fair to say that a little more loving care and attention early on might have lead to a more pleasing shape.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 012

A rather more attractive Cherry tree

Most of the street trees in the area belong to the Sorbus family – we have rowans and cherries, crab apples and the occasional pear. They have proven to be a big hit with the local woodpigeons and, in the autumn, the Fieldfares and Redwings often stop off at the more fruitily-endowed plants to fuel up. However, the humans are often rather less impressed, shaking their heads as they sweep up the fallen crabapples and cursing as they slip on the squashed berries.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 020Once, I saw one of the rowan trees bursting with Waxwings. That was a sight that made my winter.

So, what makes a good street tree?

The plant should be slow-growing, and long-lived – you don’t want to be replacing it every few years. It should be resilient – pollution resistant, with tough wood and the ability to withstand the vagaries of the English climate. It should be a suitable shape – you don’t want people to be whacked in the face with a branch every time they pass by.

There are other points to consider, too. Native trees, such as the Rowan, will support more animal life, and will make a bigger contribution to biodiversity. Some trees will also provide human food – pears and cherries, apples and even crabapples, which could be harvested by and used in the community. In fact Fruit City have produced a map showing the location of all the fruit trees that they’ve so far identified in London, so that if you are inclined, you can go and harvest your own food, rather than it all going to waste.

Of course, in some places people have gone further – the Incredible Edibles project in Todmorden, Yorkshire, has planted fruit and vegetables all over the town, in municipal flowerbeds, in parks, in the Fire Station, in schools. The produce is available for everyone to harvest, and because it is a community venture, with many people involved, folk by and large take what they need, and put back what they can in terms of labour. Many of these plants are also great for pollinators and other wildlife, so everybody wins. Our street trees don’t have to be purely decorative, they can make a much bigger contribution to the whole community, animal and human.

Now, when I first came to East Finchley, I noticed this on Durham Road.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 027And on Twyford Avenue, I found this.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 026These are very puzzling objects. They show no evidence of ever having had lights attached. Someone did tell me that they had air-raid sirens attached to them during the Second World War, but a little research has shown that they are, in fact, Stink Pipes.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 022These were used in Victorian times to carry the delightful smells from the sewers  up into the air, where they would assail only the nostrils of sparrows, and would be carried away on the light London breezes. Some, like the ones in East Finchley, follow the line of ‘interceptor sewers’ that feed eventually into the Northern Outfall Sewer, but there are also lots in south and west London, and they can be spotted in any area with Victorian sewers. Once noticed, a stinkpipe can be picked out at fifty paces, so do let me know if you’ve spotted any in your location. Maybe we can create a map, to go along with the (rather more useful) one of the London fruit trees.

So, it seems that our pavements are full of underutilised trees, and unnoticed Victorian street furniture. Who knows what else we will discover?

Wednesday Weed – Trailing Bellflower

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…..

Trailing Bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)

Trailing Bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)

When I am exploring the half-mile around my house, I am regularly surprised by some new plant that I haven’t noticed before. This week, however, I found a whole new lane that I’d not stumbled across previously, leading from Baronsmere Road to Cherry Tree Wood.

The building development in East Finchley sometimes leaves interesting lanes and snickleways....

The building development in East Finchley sometimes leaves interesting lanes and snickleways….

In this weedy little track, with garden sheds and walls on either side, I found this patch of Trailing Bellflower, with its lilac-blue flowers enhanced by perfect raindrops.

Campanula cropped

Trailing Bellflower comes from the Dinaric Alps – these are the parts of the Alps that were part of the former Yugoslavia, and you can sometimes see the plant referred to as Serbian Bellflower. As we’ve seen before, mountain plants, with their tolerance of poor, thin soil, often do very well in urban environments. This plant is a relatively recent introduction – it first came to the UK in 1931, and was first recorded in the wild in 1957.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 001Isn’t it funny how, once you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere? On a trip to Tufnell Park, I found a patch of Trailing Bellflower peeping out from amongst the ivy.

Bellflower Ivy Street Trees 002The name ‘Bellflower’ doesn’t seem very appropriate for this plant – ‘Starflower’ seems more descriptive of those five-petalled blooms. However, in the photo below, you can see a stem with two flowers on it on the right hand side. Viewed from here, the flowers look like hats for  fairies.

Toilet Insects Campanula Finches Squirrel 030There seems to be some debate as to whether Trailing Bellflower is palatable or not. On the lovely website Plants for a Future the leaves are described as ‘a little tough’, but the flowers ‘have a pleasant sweet flavour and make a decorative addition to the salad bowl‘. They would certainly look very pretty nestled amongst some winter leaves. However, as this is a popular plant with pollinators, and as it flowers later than most, I would be inclined to leave most of the flowers where they belong.

As I left the lane, I spotted another patch of Trailing Bellflower, which had made itself at home amongst the stone stairs of an impressive entrance:

Trailing Bellflower 4aAs I was standing there, an elderly gentleman paused to let me take my photograph.

“Are you interested in Victorian architecture?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “but today I’m more interested in the plants”. With a burst of enthusiasm, I explained that this was Trailing Bellflower, and told him probably more than he either wanted or needed to know about the habits, history and ecology of the plant.

He shook his head, a little sadly I thought.

“I see them,” he said, “but I don’t know any of the names”.

You don’t have to know the name of something to appreciate it – in fact, sometimes the urge to identify what a plant or animal is can get in the way of really looking at what you’re seeing. But being able to put a name to a Trailing Bellflower does add a depth, a way of seeing plants both individually and as part of an ecosystem. In fact, my walks to the greengrocer are often now something of a mantra.

“Chickweed, groundsel, shepherd’s purse.

Yellow corydalis, green alkanet, dandelion.

Trailing bellflower, nettle, feverfew.

Canadian fleabane”.






Hanging Around the Public Toilets

The newly-renovated toilets of Cherry Tree Wood

The newly-renovated toilets of Cherry Tree Wood

Dear readers, using the public toilets in Cherry Tree Wood was once something of an ordeal. A visit was only to be undertaken in extremis, such was the dilapidation of the paintwork and the condition of the sanitary ware, not to mention the complete lack of toilet paper. Imagine my delight today to see that the building has been freshly painted, the lavatories repaired and everything in place for tidiness and hygiene. Of course, the urchins of East Finchley were not going to let it remain in this condition for long.

The tribes of East Finchley make their mark...

The tribes of East Finchley make their mark…

But as I looked around those clean, white-washed walls, I couldn’t fail to notice that some other creatures were also making themselves at home, mere weeks after the renovation was finished.



Another kind of Cranefly

Another kind of Cranefly

There are three hundred and twenty-nine species of craneflies in the UK, and when I was growing up, I can truthfully say that they were the only living things that I was afraid of. There was something about those long, thready legs and the way that they lurched through the air at head height that filled me with a visceral horror. Once, an enormous cranefly came into the house. In my memory, it is at least the size of my hand. My gallant brother swotted it with a newspaper, and that was that. Or it was until half an hour later, when there was a rustling from the wastebin, and the cranefly reappeared, slightly dishevelled but unmistakably alive. My brother and I screamed and belted upstairs until my mother had dispatched the poor creature for the second time.

These days, I feel sorry for my juvenile reaction, for craneflies are the most inoffensive of creatures, with no bite, no sting, and a strange dangly vulnerability that I find rather touching. Seen under a microscope, their heads are fascinating, a cross between a horse and a walrus. My swatting days are definitely over.

Head of a cranefly "Crane Fly - (Tipula)" by Thomas Shahan - Crane Fly - (Tipula).

Head of a cranefly “Crane Fly – (Tipula)” by Thomas Shahan – Crane Fly – (Tipula).

Looking around, I noticed another little creature perched on a cubicle wall. Thank goodness nobody came in to find a middle-aged woman with a camera hunched inside a public toilet with the door open.

Window Fly (Sylvicola fenestralis )

Window Gnat (Sylvicola fenestralis )

It is interesting to think of this animal, a Window Gnat,  as being in the same family as the Cranefly. The Diptera, or true flies, comprise over 6670 species in the UK alone, with new species being found all the time – it’s quite possible that there’s a new species flying around in your garden at this very minute. Window gnats are usually associated with wet areas, as their larvae live in water, and are particularly common in sewage farms. For a moment, I wondered what they were doing indoors, but then I remembered….

A fine home for baby Window Gnats...

A fine home for baby Window Gnats…

It’s said that a local stream, the Mutton Brook, rises in Cherry Tree Wood, and it looks to me as if something is rising right next to the toilets.

As you might expect, something is lurking in the corner to make a meal of all these flies….

Daddy Long Legs Spider Pholcus phalangiodes

Daddy Long Legs Spider Pholcus phalangiodes

A few weeks ago, we talked about Harvestmen, and it’s interesting to see the difference between those creatures and this true arachnid. You can see that its body is clearly segmented, unlike the oval body of the Harvestman. The Daddy Long Legs Spider makes a very random, open web, usually in a corner of a cellar or other building, and if disturbed will vibrate up and down at astonishing speed until it is just a blur of agitated spiderdom. This one was much too happily settled for me to want to upset it, and a quick look at its larder shows what a successful spot it has chosen.

A full store cupboard

A full store cupboard

But this was not the only spider in the building. Just as I was about to leave, I noticed something rather beautiful.

Spider Shedding its skin (Nesticus cellulanus)

Spider Shedding its skin (Nesticus cellulanus)

This spider has just completed ecdysis (moulting). The little brown ghost image hanging in the web is the spider’s old skin. It has unpeeled itself like someone getting out of a tight wetsuit and is recovering, in all its newly painted glory. Nesticus cellulanus is a spider of dark, damp habitats, and I can’t help wondering how happy it is with all this new paintwork. However, now that it has moulted I’m sure that it will find itself a nice dreary corner and will start to feel at home again.

I had now been hanging around the public toilets for over an hour, so decided that I’d better make a move before some well-meaning passerby contacted the police. On the way out, I paused for a moment at the entrance to the Gents to take a picture of this lovely little moth:

Mouse Moth (Amphipyra tragopoginis )

Mouse Moth (Amphipyra tragopoginis ) *

This is a Mouse Moth. It is, of course, mouse-coloured, but it also runs rather than flies when disturbed, a little like a rodent. No doubt it was drawn to the lights around the building, but it is very visible against all that white paint. I only hope that it manages to survive until darkness comes.

As I walked away, into the rather more conducive surroundings of Cherry Tree Wood, it struck me that there are ecosystems everywhere, in the most unlikely of buildings. As soon as we create something, plants and animals move in. We move through worlds, all unaware, watched by a thousand eyes.

*Moths are notoriously difficult to identify, especially when they’re worn like this one, so if any of my entomologist friends want to correct me on my identification, I would be delighted.


Wednesday Weed – Chickweed

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…..

Chickweed Flower BPWhen I was growing up, we had a blue budgerigar called Fella. He lived in a cage on our sideboard for his entire life. For most of the time, he seemed to be happy enough, as far as we could tell, although I suspect that keeping a single bird when, in his native Australia, he would have been a member of a flock thousands strong was tantamount to cruelty. Still, these were days when most people didn’t think about these things: we did our best to be kind to the animals that we kept, without ever considering whether we should have kept them at all.

Every so often, Fella would flap his wings frantically, sending a cloud of feathers and bird shit all over the carpet and driving the dog into a frenzy of barking.

‘He’s having a mad half-hour’, we would say, trying to shush the dog and sweep up the debris.

But what I remember is that occasionally, I would bring Fella some Chickweed from the garden. I remember the tilt of his head as he pulled it through the bars, the look of concentration on his face as he peeled off the leaves, the way that he used his beak with great gentleness and delicacy.  In such a stultifying life, I wonder if the Chickweed was a highpoint, something that gave him a sense of the world outside the bars, a tiny piece of the wild that he would never experience.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

The Chickweed is coming into flower again at the bottom of the street trees on my road. It forms a kind of green ruffle, covering the chicken bones from the KFC and the cigarette ends. The leaves are so green, the flowers so tiny and star-like that it seems like a last taste of spring in the midst of October. The plant is a member of the same family as Ragged Robin and Red Campion, and, as you might expect from its name, it is popular with chickens as well as budgerigars.

In the spring, Chickweed is considered good eating by humans too, and may turn up amongst the salad leaves at fancy restaurants. It’s also the foodplant of the caterpillars of this beautiful moth:

Yellow Shell moth (Camptogramma bilineata) "Camptogramma bilineata" by Eric Steinert - photo taken by Eric Steinert near Munich, Germany. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Yellow Shell moth (Camptogramma bilineata) “Camptogramma bilineata” by Eric Steinert – photo taken by Eric Steinert near Munich, Germany.

Chickweed also has a reputation for being an anti-inflammatory, especially when turned into an ointment. The water in which Chickweed has been boiled is said, when sipped, to be a cure for obesity, and can also help with the symptoms of rheumatism.

In her wonderful website Plant Lives, Sue C.Eland describes how Chickweed undergoes what is known as ‘The Sleep of the Plants’ – at night, the leaves curl over any new shoots to protect them from the cold, like a chicken snuggling her chicks under her wings.

Chickweed 2 BPChickweed also has a line of hairs on its stem that all point in one direction. These channel dew into a pair of leaves where the water is absorbed and helps to hydrate the plant in times of drought – as the plant often grows in exposed, disturbed areas, this extra fluid must be very useful.

You can just make out the hairs on the stem in this lovely shot by By Kenraiz Krzysztof Ziarnek (Own work)

You can just make out the hairs on the stem in this lovely shot by By Kenraiz Krzysztof Ziarnek (Own work)

As we go on this journey of exploration together, I am constantly surprised by the memories that these plant and animal companions unearth, and  what a new dimension being aware of them brings to my life. Going to the shops means pausing to see what is growing, and often involves a quick about-turn to collect a camera or a plant guide. Having a conversation with a neighbour may mean suddenly swivelling on a heel to watch an unfamiliar flock of birds pass overhead. The flora and fauna  that surrounds me is giving me roots, helping me to find my home here. The least I can do is to acknowledge and to celebrate them, in all their surprising and inspiring variety.




The Finches of East Finchley

Male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

I live in the suburb of East Finchley, on the Northern line in London. I am only  twenty minutes from the centre of town and my environment is very urban, with buses ploughing up and down the High Street and the occasional sound of police car sirens. However, the word ‘Finchley’ is said to come from Anglo-Saxon, meaning ‘place of the finches’ and is an indication of Finchley’s much more rural past. This week, the place has certainly been living up to its name. Furthermore, I finally got paid for my business trip to Prague, so I have treated myself to a new camera. I am having so much fun with it that I can scarcely contain myself, but for everyone’s sake, I shall try to, in case I outstay my welcome.

Female Chaffinch (top left), Male Chaffinch (top right) and Goldfinch (bottom right)

Female Chaffinch (top left), Male Chaffinch (top right) and female Goldfinch (bottom right), plus Coat Tit exiting top left…

Firstly, the Chaffinch. What elegant birds they are, with their fluttering, moth-like flight, long tails and smokey colours. The female Chaffinch is sometimes mistaken for a female sparrow, but the white patches on the ‘shoulders’ and the double white wingbars are a dead giveaway. Plus, no self-respecting Chaffinch ever said ‘chirp’. The females say very little, and the males say ‘pink’, as if telling the world what colour they are. In fact, the word ‘Finch’ comes from the Old English ‘Fink’, which is what a Chaffinch’s call sounds like.

During the breeding season, however,  the repetitive ‘pink-pink’ call is joined by a song, described by Mark Cocker in Birds Britannica as being likened by one ornithologist to  ‘a cricketer’s run-up to the wicket, with the cadence as the bowling action’. The bird can repeat the call up to six times a minute, and up to three thousand times a day, and to hear it just click here and play the wonderful British Library recording. This call, and the voracity with which the bird sang, led to the male Chaffinch being used for singing competitions in the East End of London right through to the end of the nineteenth century. Two male Chaffinches would be placed in cages next to one another, usually in a smokey pub, and would start to sing as soon as they saw one another. The winner would be the bird who made the most repetitions of his call in the time allowed. In addition to losing their freedom, these little birds would sometimes also be blinded, in order to inure them to distraction and to increase their dependence on their owners. Fortunately this particular cruelty no longer takes place in the UK, although within living memory people would trap wild finches (particularly Goldfinch and Chaffinch) to crossbreed them with canaries. These birds were called ‘mules’, and would sometimes retain the bright plumage of their wild parents, coupled with the trilling song of the canary, and were readily available for purchase in pet shops.

Male and Female Chaffinch and Goldfinch BP

Female Chaffinch, Male Chaffinch, Female Goldfinch

The latin name of the Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, means ‘celibate finch’. This is probably because, whilst most finches can be seen in groups even during the breeding season, Chaffinches tend to be territorial while they are nesting, and to fight off any other Chaffinches who try to muscle in. Unlike other finches, Chaffinches feed their young on insects, and so they will protect the particular trees and bushes that harbour them. Other finches, who eat seeds, have to range far and wide in order to find enough, and so they don’t need all this territorial nonsense, and are rather more sociable.

Goldfinch and Chaffinch 3 BPIn the winter, though, this territorial behaviour breaks down. Finches from Scandinavia turn up in the UK, fleeing the much harsher winter, and form into flocks. When the temperature drops and the hours of daylight become fewer, the birds stand more chance of finding food if they hang around together, and even the Chaffinches forget about keeping themselves to themselves, and gather, sometimes in enormous numbers.

Now, let’s talk about the Goldfinch.

Goldfinch BPLook at the long, tweezer-like bill of this finch, and compare it to the more all-purpose appendage of the Chaffinch. Goldfinches love the seeds of teasel and thistle (the Latin name for the finch, Carduelis carduelis, derives from the word for thistle), although here the bird is making do with sunflower seeds. I remember watching a ‘charm’ of Goldfinches working over a stand of thistle-heads like a troop of monkeys, hanging from the stalks, making their tinkly calls to one another, their wings flashing saffron as they flew from one plant to another. And then, as soon as they’d arrived, they were gone.

Goldfinch Adult and Juv BP At the bottom of the picture above, you can see a (somewhat blurry) juvenile Goldfinch: as yet there are no red, white or black markings on the head, but the gold bars on the wings are a signature.

Goldfinch and Male Chaffinch BP

Male Chaffinch and Female Goldfinch

Now, have a look at the Goldfinch above. You need a good view, but it is possible to tell the sex of a Goldfinch from the red markings on its face. If the red patch seems to cut through the eye, the bird is a female. If it extends behind the eye, the bird is a male. Usually. Though as any birder will tell you, things are not always straightforward, especially when it’s pouring down with rain and you have a two-second glance of a Goldfinch from a murky hide, with someone’s elbow in your ear and someone else munching through tuna sandwiches and a packet of crisps.

Male Goldfinch

Male Goldfinch (By JJ Harrison ( (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Goldfinch is also a bird which features in over five hundred medieval and Renaissance paintings, often with Mary and the infant Jesus. It was believed to have health-giving properties, and I have lost track of the number of images I’ve seen of chubby infants with unfortunate Goldfinches on strings. In the picture below, two toddlers molest a Goldfinch.

Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch "Raffaello Sanzio - Madonna del Cardellino - Google Art Project" by Raphael - oAFhnMjj7HippQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch “Raffaello Sanzio – Madonna del Cardellino – Google Art Project” by Raphael – oAFhnMjj7HippQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Here, Tiepolo shows the Virgin and Child plus Goldfinch:

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And here, a fifteenth century artist, whose name is lost to us, paints the Madonna and Child with a Goldfinch.

By Unknown Master, Italian (active around 1450 in Tuscany) (Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Unknown Master, Italian (active around 1450 in Tuscany) (Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why the Goldfinch? Probably because of its association with thistles (and hence the Crown of Thorns), and also because of its red face – the Robin is said to have acquired its red breast through plucking the thorns and puncturing itself, and maybe the Goldfinch was seen to have been similarly helpful. But, if we dig deeper, the Goldfinch was seen as a fertility symbol long before Christianity: Pliny has described how the bird was linked with the Roman deity Juno, goddess of light, childbirth and fertility. It’s likely that the symbolisim of the Goldfinch has been co-opted several times, from original Pagan beliefs, via Juno and then to the Virgin Mary. What a weight of history for this acrobatic, autumnally-coloured, enchanting little bird to carry.

Chaffinch and Goldfinch BP 4As autumn wears on, it’s well worth taking a close look at any flocks of finches that turn up on the feeders. Sometimes, much rarer birds, such as Siskins, Bramblings, Redpolls and Linnets get mixed into the general bonhomie, and if I spot any I will definitely share them with you. But, really, when people say that British birds are boring, just point them in the general direction of these two gorgeous species. They were flying here when my house was a twinkle in a builder’s eye, and when there was a gibbet at the bottom of the road, and for many thousands of years before that. With our help, maybe they’ll be sparkling like little suns for many years to come.






Wednesday Weed – Yellow Corydalis

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…..

Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Just as the cold nights are coming in,  Yellow Corydalis is putting on a last display of its yellow tubular flowers, which remind me  of the muzzles of Chinese dragons. It grows very happily in this dark corner, and the lack of soil seems to present no problem – after all, this is a plant which came originally from the Alps and is therefore well adapted for infiltrating its tiny roots into the gaps in ramshackle walls and footpaths. As it has been recorded in the UK since 1796, however, I think we can consider it a native.Yellow Corydalis 003

The plant is a member of the Fumitory family, and I was delighted to discover that the word ‘Fumitory’ comes from ‘Fumus terrae’ – Smoke of the Earth, in tribute to the fineness of the foliage. The leaves remind me a little of the Maidenhair Fern that I had as a houseplant when I was a student. That too, was one tough plant, surviving beer, cigarettes, being accidentally upended and, on one sad occasion, being pooed in by the newly acquired kitten. Yellow Corydalis is also tough, putting up with all manner of pollution and trampling, and still bouncing back. It is also poisonous, but doesn’t have the seductive qualities of many toxic plants, with their delicious-looking red berries and interesting seeds.

Yellow Corydalis 006This is one of those plants that is so attractive that, if it were not for its omnipresence in the scabbier spots of the capital, would undoubtedly be on sale in garden centres. As usual, once something is designated as a ‘weed’, it is seen, in general, as having no redeeming features whatsoever. Here at the Wednesday Weed, of course, we have no truck with such silliness.

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

This plant flowers more prolifically and grows more vigorously than anything else in the alley by the side of my house, and I am grateful to it for covering up the extremely uninspiring concrete path and the gravelly bit at the bottom of the fence. Plus, it provides cover for the froglets as they make their long and dangerous journey out into the big wide world. I could spend a lot of money buying ‘shade tolerant plants’ and be wholly disappointed with the results. Sometimes, we fail to see the beauty of what’s right there in front of us in our perverse desire for improvement and novelty. Certainly I’ve been guilty of grubbing up perfectly happy native plants and replacing them with showier organisms who were miserable from the second that they were planted, and faded away to a few pathetic leaves by the end of the season. But not this time! I am learning from nature, and it will be a life-long endeavour I’m sure. If something is perfectly adapted to its environment, covered in yellow flowers and dainty foliage,  why not treasure it?

A frog corridor?


The Fox

Fox 003Last night was full of surprises. My husband opened the front door and a frog leapt in and jumped onto my foot. It was only after I’d picked it up and popped it back into the pond that I realised that maybe it was trying to disperse, to leave its home and strike out for pastures new. I could imagine its initial befuddlement, followed by a weary sigh as it started the long hop to freedom all over again.

I went back inside. John picked up the recycling to take it to the wheelie bin and then I heard him whispering (very loudly).


Cropped Fox 2And there he was, less than ten feet away, hoovering up the suet pellets from the bird table.

What a bold animal he was! We both stood and watched him for a few minutes, as he rooted about and licked up the food. I wondered if he would stay for a photo, and he did. I wondered if I dared risk the flash, and he was completely unconcerned.

Fox 004At this time of year, young foxes are leaving their mothers and trying to find their own territories. This fox, however, was so confident that I felt sure that he was an adult. There was a hard-bodied, muscley quality to him, a wary intelligence. He was thin but not skinny, and his fur was in good condition. I wondered if I would recognise him again by the darker patches of fur on his back.

Cropped FoxThere are about ten thousand foxes in London. Where, I wonder, do they all go during the day? Where do they make their dens? How does a creature that is larger than a cat keep such a low profile for most of the time? I just know that, for me, a visit by a fox is still a surprising event, something that gives me a frisson that only a sparrowhawk can match.

Last year, there were a number of stories about foxes biting toddlers and babies. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London said that they were ‘a growing problem’ and urged councils to do more about ‘pest control’. He said he would also be happy if someone wanted to create a ‘London Fox-Hunt’, though we can hope that, on this at least, he was joking. I suspect that, as usual, the ‘fox problem’ is a result of inadequately wrapped food-rubbish (certainly the debris from the Kentucky Fried Chicken at the top of our street keeps a number of crows, pigeons and foxes very happy), and people forgetting that foxes are wild animals. The worst thing we can do to any creature is, unfortunately, to hand-feed it, or to encourage it to come too close.

We yearn for connection with undomesticated creatures. I know how much I want to stroke a fox, to know what his fur feels like, to feel the dome of his head beneath my hand. But even if the animal would tolerate this (and chances are I’d become another ‘fox bite casualty’), I  know that this desire is all about me, not about what the animal wants, or needs. It’s one thing to help an animal in distress, or to provide it with food when things get tough. It’s another to impose ourselves upon it. And so, giving silent thanks for the fox’s tolerance of our whispering and flashing, we went back indoors, and watched as he finished feeding and headed back up the side of the house, to jump over an eight-foot fence, and continue his evening patrol.

In the morning, we found that the fox had ripped open a bag of compost and deposited a big scat right in the middle. It’s almost as if he’s reclaiming this territory, making it clear whose garden it is. After all, foxes trotted here before the houses were built, and the way humanity is going, they’ll be making their dens in the rubble of the terraces after we’ve gone.

Wednesday Weed – Smooth Hawksbeard

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…..

Smooth Hawksbeard 2

Smooth Hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris)

Last Friday, I went for a walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with my friend Jo.  At this time of year there are lots of plants putting in a last burst of enthusiastic flowering. We found a whole patch of Comfrey in full blossom, attended by the last of the Queen bumblebees who are fattening up before they hibernate. And we also found several patches of Smooth Hawksbeard, one of those ‘yellow compositae’ that are so numerous and so tricky to identify, what with all the Hawksbeards and Hawkbits and Catsears and Dandelions.

Smooth Hawksbeard 3This is one of those plants that we take for granted. There are so many yellow-flowered weeds around, blossoming from the first dandelions (who often seem to appear as soon as the snow disappears) to the sow thistles and groundsel who, especially in cities, never seem to stop in even in the depths of winter. But a close look reveals how pretty it is, with its blunt-petalled flowers and long, hairless stems.

Smooth Hawksbeard 1There are no great stories told about Smooth Hawksbeard, or at least none that I can find. I am even unable to tell you why it, and the other members of the family, are called Hawksbeards. What I do know is that the sunny presence of this unremarked little plant cheered us both up greatly, and that the hoverflies were delighted to find it in flower.

As I was researching this piece, I was also very happy to find another person who appreciated London’s weeds – the artist, Michael Landy. You might know him from his project ‘Breakdown’ where he meticulously catalogued, dismantled and destroyed all of his 7227 possessions, in public . I remember watching him going about this task in a defunct branch of C&A on Oxford Street. However, his weed drawings are called ‘Nourishment’, and here’s what the Tate website has to say about them:

“The etchings are all meticulous, life-sized studies of individual weeds the artist found growing in the street. Landy has described why he was drawn to these ‘street flowers’. He has said, ‘they are marvellous, optimistic things that you find in inner London … They occupy an urban landscape which is very hostile and they have to be adaptable and find little bits of soil to prosper’ (quoted in Buck). Weeds are hardy, thriving in often inhospitable conditions with very little soil, water or direct sunlight. They grow between paving stones or on waste ground in the city, tenaciously asserting themselves despite being overlooked by the majority of passers-by. Landy collected a number of these plants and took them back to his studio where he potted and tended them, making studies of their structures including detailed renderings of roots, leaves and flowers.”

To see his etchings of Smooth Hawksbeard and many other Bugwoman favourites (Herb Robert, Groundsel, Shepherd’s Purse) just click here.

I hereby dub Michael Landy as a honorary Weed Warrior.