Monthly Archives: December 2014

Wednesday Weed – Yew

Happy New Year to all my readers – may 2015 bring you peace, health and inspiration, and may you encounter remarkable plants and animals to intrigue, delight and fascinate you.

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…..

The Totteridge Yew

The Totteridge Yew (Taxus baccata)

I have always felt a little melancholy at New Year. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, and I no longer drink alcohol, both of which make me uneasy in situations of forced jollity and large crowds. Or maybe it’s because January feels more like a time for staying in bed, preferably with an excellent novel and a bowl of syrup pudding and custard, than a time for taking up jogging and eating kale. I feel a little out of step with the current need to be happy and shiny and full of vim on all occasions, and it’s difficult to escape a sneaking suspicion that I am some kind of alien as I watch the end-of-year shenanigans unfold.

So to give myself some perspective I went to see the oldest living thing in London with my long-suffering husband, John. This magnificent Yew tree lives in St Andrew’s churchyard in Totteridge, a twenty-minute bus ride from East Finchley. It has seen at least two thousand New Year’s days come and go, and is still full of fresh growth and vigor. To ensure its health, a team from Kew Gardens visited some thirty years ago and did a little judicious pruning and shoring up of the centre of the plant, which invariably becomes hollow as the plant ages.  The trunk is over twenty-six feet in circumference, and the wood is remarkable. In some places, it looks almost as if it is encrusted with sea creatures.

IMG_0935In others, there are little interstices which form homes for spiders and other invertebrates.


Yew is often found in churchyards. In some cases, it was deliberately planted to provide wood for longbows, but in this and many other cases, the tree long predates the church (there has been some kind of ecclesiastical building here since about 1250). It is very likely that the church was built on a site that was already sacred to the people of the area, and that the tree, then a stripling of just over a thousand years old, would have been locally important as a site for ritual and for meetings. Later, it was a site for the gathering of the Hundred, the medieval equivalent of the Magistrate’s court. In 1722, a baby was found under the tree, and was named ‘Henry Totteridge’ and made a ward of the parish.


Part of the reason for the longevity of Yew is that it is very slow-growing, and some scientists believe that the trees could reach ages of four to five thousand years. The Totteridge Yew is one of ten trees in the UK that date back to before the tenth century. Yew is very resistant to the fungal diseases which can cause the death of other trees by infecting the spot where a branch has dropped off. The tree can also regenerate from cut surfaces and from the base of the trunk even when it is of advanced years.

Yew berry (By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Yew berry (By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Yew has a long association with pagan rites and beliefs, perhaps because, like Holly, it is evergreen, long-lived and bears berries. The oldest wooden artifact ever found in Europe, a 450,000 year-old spearhead found in Clacton-on-Sea, is made of Yew.   All parts of the Yew are poisonous, except for the red flesh on the berry. A chief of the ancient Celtic tribe the Eburones (the ancient word for Yew was Eburos) killed himself by ingesting a toxin from the Yew tree rather than submitting to the Romans. It is known to be poisonous to horses, and the foliage, in hot weather, can produce a gas which is said to cause hallucinations. This same chemical, however, can be used to produce a drug for use in breast cancer, and for a while pharmaceutical companies were traveling the world, looking for substantial Yew forests to buy and destroy. What is new to science is often long-known by local peoples, however, and Yew has long been used by Himalayan people as a treatment for breast and ovarian cancer.



This is not the first time that Yew has been subject to a threat of over-harvesting. Its wood is perfect for the making of longbows, and in the fifteenth century compulsory longbow practice for all adult males was introduced. This depleted the supplies of these slow-growing trees so profoundly that Richard III introduced a ‘tax’, insisting that every ship bringing goods to England had to include ten bowstaves for every tun of goods. During the sixteenth century the supply of Yew dwindled to such an extent that there was none to be had in Bavaria or Austria. The habit of planting Yew trees in churchyards to ensure future demand may have begun during this time.

Yew trees have a dark, sombre aspect to them and yet, as one of our few native conifers, they provide some greenery when the other leaves have fallen. Their red berries provide a useful source of food for the birds, and I have often watched Goldcrests working their way through the needles with their needle-sharp bills, searching for any hibernating insects or badly-hidden cocoons. I shall be keeping my eyes and ears open in future for the high-pitched piping calls of these birds. Goldcrests are the smallest birds in the UK, with each one weighing less than a two-pence piece.

Goldcrest (By Missy Osborn from New Forest, England (GoldCrest  Uploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Goldcrest (By Missy Osborn from New Forest, England (GoldCrest Uploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

There is something about spending time outdoors that soothes the soul, and this is particularly true, I find, when I am in the company of a tree of such remarkable character as the Totteridge Yew. It has experienced so much in its long life that my mind is fairly boggled when I think about it. It was already a thousand years old when the Normans came with their stone masonry and castle-building and taste for wine. How many babies have been borne past it in their mother’s arms for Christening, how many young couples have passed under its branches on their wedding day, how many sombre coffins have been carried under the lych-gate to the freshly-dug graves that surround it? Once, people came up to the church on foot or in horse-drawn carts, where now they swoosh past in cars. If only it could tell me what it has seen. As I go, I rest my hand for a moment on that smooth, rose-pink bark, as I suspect so many have done before me. I feel a sense of calm descend, as if I have been holding my breath for a week, and have finally let it out.

Dear Readers, I am occasionally castigated by your good selves for designating a particular plant as a ‘weed’. People have been roused to fury by my inclusion of Feverfew and Yarrow, Holly and Ivy as ‘weeds’, and I understand how for many people (including me) these plants are helpmates and sources of wonder rather than problematic. You can imagine, then, how nervous I am about including that most venerable of plants, the Yew tree, as a ‘Wednesday Weed’, let alone the oldest Yew in London. However, my point is this: no plant is quintessentially a ‘weed’ – this is a purely human label. There is not a single plant that I have included in this series, from the fecund  Duckweed to this week’s remarkable conifer, that doesn’t have much to fascinate and amaze the keen observer. Our urge to classify the natural world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ is what got us into the mess that we’re currently in in the first place. We need to understand the connections between things, even the most commonplace of ‘weeds’, in order to make sensible decisions about everything from the plants in our gardens to the future of the planet. Every week, I learn more about my local environment, but I have also glimpsed the limitless depths that I have yet to understand.  This blog has made me humble, which I have grown to think is the only sensible reaction to the complexity and beauty of the natural world.

The Occasional Visitor

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

I always think of Greenfinches as the cargo planes of the finch world, compared to the Concord-like elegance of the Goldfinches and Chaffinches who normally visit the garden. Greenfinches are heavy-set birds with jutting brows, which makes them appear ‘a bit  ‘ard ‘, as my London relatives would say. Add to this the weighty beak, and the Greenfinch’s dominance on the birdfeeders, and you have a bird of some substance. This little chap dropped in a few days before Christmas, and was gone before I could get my camera properly  focused, as you will no doubt notice.

IMG_0827These creatures are not the psychedelic green of the parakeets – they are more towards the khaki end of the spectrum. However, in the early light when these photos were taken, the bird has a kind of unearthly glow. The yellow feathers in the wing help to identify the bird, which otherwise might be mistaken for a particularly well-fed female sparrow.

IMG_0830Greenfinches are common in some people’s gardens, but not in mine. I am always much cheered when one puts in an appearance. I would love to see the ‘butterfly’ display of the male, who uses exaggeratedly deep, slow wingbeats in order to impress the females with his strength and powers of endurance, but I have not (yet) been lucky enough. Mark Cocker, in ‘Birds Britannica’, describes how the display is accompanied by ‘a liquid twittering song, and often terminates in a drawn-out sneezing note’. Definitely something to watch out for once spring arrives.


This bird has been known as the ‘GreenFynche’ since about 1400.  It was so common in London at the turn of the century that the birds were trapped by the thousands, and sold in the shops on Seven Dials for a few pennies each. I am always puzzled that people eat these creatures – surely there is barely a mouthful of food on each of those little bodies? But then, as we know, all kinds of songbirds are a delicacy even today, and many of our migratory birds fall prey to the taste for such food in Malta and Cyprus and many other Mediterranean countries.

In recent times Greenfinches have become much more common in suburban areas than in agricultural areas, staying fiercely loyal to particular birdtables, and relishing the abundance of Leylandii hedges for roosting and nesting. For many years they have been in the top ten commonest birds in the RSPB’s annual bird survey. However, there has been a falling off recently due to an outbreak of Trichomonosis, a protozoan disease which has already killed off over a third of the Greenfinches in affected areas. This is yet another reason to ensure that feeders are cleaned regularly, and if you are interested in more details, there is information from the RSPB website here.Fortunately, the Greenfinch in my garden seemed full of vim, ready to fight off any delicate Chaffinch or dandy-ish Goldfinch.

It is a real pleasure to walk to the kitchen, bleary-eyed and in need of a cup of tea, and to suddenly be jolted into action by the sight of an unfamiliar visitor on the bird feeder. Much as I love my ‘regular’ birds, I am also delighted when someone unusual turns up. After all, isn’t the festive season about providing hospitality to wanderers of all descriptions?


Wednesday Weed – Holly

Happy Christmas/Winter Solstice/Hanukkah/Holidays to all my readers. Thank you for your comments, support and kindness this year. I look forward to finding many more ‘weeds’ and natural wonders for us to share in the year to come…..


Common Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

‘Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the crown’. Could there be a better plant than the noble Holly with which to celebrate Winter Solstice and Christmas? The Holly King is said to rule from Midwinter to Midsummer, carrying life through the winter in his leaves, until the Oak King takes over for the rest of the year. Right into the twentieth century, people would use small Holly trees as Christmas trees, rather than the fir trees that we use today, and most of us will still have some Holly in the house at this time of year, even if it’s only in the form of a plastic sprig on top of the Christmas pudding. In England, there is a tradition of growing it close to the house to protect those inside from evil spirits, whilst in Ireland it is grown away from the house so as not to disturb the fairies that live in it. It is also said to deter lightning, and so alcohol vendors would set up their stalls under Holly at markets, hence the large number of pub names that include a reference to Holly.

Holly is one of the few plants that survives deep in the uncoppiced parts of Coldfall Wood, where it is too dark for other vegetation to thrive. For thousands of years, many different species of Holly grew in a habitat known as the Laurel Forest, which was wet and dark, and which covered most of Europe. However, as the climate dried out only Ilex Aquifolium, the plant that we know as Holly, survived and prospered in the new Oak and Beech forests. Most of the Laurel Forests had died out by the end of the Pleistocene, ten thousand years ago.

The plant above was the first one that I’ve ever seen in flower, and led me to think about Holly reproduction. Although the plant is often associated in folklore with the male principle (as opposed to Ivy, which represents the female principle), the flowers can be either male or female. A female plant will need pollen from a male plant in order to produce the berries. What puzzles me a little is that the flowers are meant to be produced in May, when there are pollinators about, but my photograph was taken on the sixteenth of December. I suspect this is yet another sign of the confusion that climate change is creating in the natural world, much like the snowdrops that I saw in full bloom a few weeks ago, or the crocuses already flowering in a neighbour’s garden. Without bees to carry the pollen, these flowers are doomed to blush and fade, unconsummated. There is an old tradition of putting a sprig of Holly berries onto a beehive on Christmas Day to wish the bees ‘Merry Christmas’. Who would have dreamed that it would be equally possible to adorn it with a sprig of Holly flowers?

Here, the male Holly flowers are at the top, the female flowers (which will turn into berries) at the bottom. File courtesy of GB. Wiki.

Here, the male Holly flowers are at the top, the female flowers (which will turn into berries) at the bottom. File courtesy of GB. Wiki.

Gulls Crows Holly Coldfall Wood 003The berries contain three to four seeds, each of which takes two to three years to germinate. Holly is a plant which grows slowly – it doesn’t start to flower until it’s over four years old (sometimes as old as twelve), and an individual shrub can live to be five hundred years old. A mature Holly can be ten metres tall, but most are much smaller than this.

Gulls Crows Holly Coldfall Wood 006What a boon to wildlife Holly is! My parents have a mature Holly tree which is about six metres tall, and at the slightest sign of trouble all the local sparrows fly into it, turning it into a mass of chirping. The spines on the leaves require quite a lot of energy for the plant to produce, so, as it grows above the level of grazing creatures the leaves become smoother. Ironically, Holly was cultivated as fodder for cows and sheep until the eighteenth century, and the smoother leaves at the top of the tree were obviously preferred, so it seems as if there was no escape from being gobbled up.

There is an old tradition that if Holly foliage is brought into the house, both the ‘He-Holly’ (the prickly leaves) and the ‘She-Holly’ (the smooth leaves) must arrive at the same time, otherwise the partner whose leaves are brought in first will dominate for the rest of the year. There is also a tradition that bad luck will come down the chimney on Christmas Eve if the Holly is hung up before the Mistletoe (who presumably takes offence). I have a big box of Holly and Mistletoe in the shed, awaiting the arrival of my mother so that we can decorate together. Who knew that it was going to be such a complicated business? At least all the leaves and the two species will arrive together, so hopefully we’ll avoid upsetting anyone.


See how the leaves here are becoming less spikey than those in the previous pictures.

The ‘berries’ of the Holly (technically Drupes for my botanist friends) are very tough and bitter early on in the year. However, they are softened by the frosts, and become more palatable to the many birds and rodents that eat them, and by doing so help to spread the seeds through the forest. I put some Holly berries on the bird table, and they were gone by the following morning, so this might be a good use of any Holly decoration that is still in good condition by Twelfth Night.

IMG_0570Holly is one of the ‘original’ plants of the British Isles, with a history longer than that of human habitation here. It is no wonder that such a wealth of folklore and traditions have grown up around it. Its shiny, evergreen leaves and blood-red berries do seem to be holding the secret of life during these short, dark days, and it stands as protector and food-source to so many small birds and shy rodents. In winter-time, the Holly really is a kind of king.

For this post, I am grateful to the wonderful Poison Garden website, and to Plant Lives, another source of endless fascination. And I am eternally grateful to Richard Mabey for Flora Britannica, surely the most informative text on the folklore and traditions of British plants ever compiled.

A Peaceful Hour

IMG_0806Dear Reader, the run-up to Christmas has been especially chaotic this year. My mother had a stroke a few months ago, so there have been lots of trips backwards and forwards to Dorset, where she lives. On every visit Mum looked better and stronger, and I was looking forward to Mum and Dad’s trip to to stay with me in London, where they would spend Christmas being pampered and stuffed full of food. Then, last week, she was back in hospital with a suspected heart attack. It looked as if Christmas would have to be cancelled. But, praise be, it turned out that Mum had not had a heart attack after all, so Christmas was back on again as planned. Well, as you can imagine all this has left me in  something of a tizzy, and rather behind with my festive plans. Friday morning saw me fighting my way through the sharp-elbowed hordes on Oxford Street in my rush to catch up.  By the time I got home, I knew that only one thing would calm my ‘monkey mind’, and that was to spend an hour sitting in the kitchen, just watching the birds through the window. I wanted to share them with you all, so that maybe you can have a few minutes of peace too.

How beautiful these creatures are, and how frantically they attack the bird feeders. December 21st is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the birds are desperate to pack in as much food as they can in order to survive another long, cold night.

IMG_0734This male Chaffinch has been hanging around the garden for a couple of weeks now. He looks plump, but is very sluggish, and a close look at his feet and legs shows that he has some kind of fungal infection. This has put me on red alert with regard to feeder hygiene, so I’m cleaning them regularly to try to prevent it being passed on to the other birds. So far it seems to have worked, as the rest look very spry. But I do feel sorry for him. He isn’t ill enough to let me catch him and see if a vet can help, but he clearly isn’t well.

IMG_0739The Goldfinches are around all day, and are looking very spruced up. I love the Byzantine black and white feathers on their wings, and their cherry-red faces. There can be up to a dozen in the garden at any time. They seem to coexist happily with the Chaffinches, without too many squawking matches. The same can’t be said for the Starlings, however.

IMG_0747At this time of year, I can see why these birds are called Starlings – their iridescent plumage looks like the Milky Way. Once upon a time, Starlings were migratory, but more and more stay put all year round now, especially in cities, where the temperatures are slightly higher and there is plenty of food around. They are easily the most argumentative creatures in the garden.

IMG_0760Once the Collared Dove appears, the finches retreat to a safe distance, but not for long – they will feed quite happily from the other side of the feeder. This particular bird is very dominant, and will chase away the other doves. He is only ‘trumped’ when a Woodpigeon arrives, and even then gives place reluctantly.

Then, there are the Tits.

IMG_0763They are so hard to photograph properly – they remind me of bees, here for a second and then off again. They will never hang around on the feeder to eat. With them, it’s all ‘grab and go’. This Blue Tit had snatched a seed, but then headed off into the hedge to eat it.

IMG_0767This Coal Tit was even faster. It’s a miracle that I got a photograph at all.

IMG_0811And this is a very fine Great Tit, eyeing up the bird table from next door’s cherry tree.

Now, this cheered me up a lot.

IMG_0775This is the first House Sparrow I’ve (partly) seen for quite a while, so it’s good to know that they’re still around. Only last week I was mourning the decrease in their numbers, but here, at least, there is still one, and probably more that I haven’t seen.

I noticed some other birds turning over the dead lilac leaves and rummaging amongst the shales.

IMG_0756IMG_0792The resident Blackbirds are the only pair in the garden, but it will be interesting to see how long they are alone for. In winter, Blackbirds become much more tolerant of other members of their species, and often birds appear from other parts of the country, and even mainland Europe. I once saw twenty-four blackbirds in the single acre of Culpeper Community Garden in Islington, and I’ve seen a dozen in my tiny garden when it’s snowing. But for the moment, these two are alone, and, having eaten every rowan berry and crab apple on my juvenile trees, are now down to foraging in the undergrowth. I’m hoping they make take a shine to the organic pomegranate that I’ve seeded and put on the bird table. Nothing but the best for my visitors!

IMG_0815I was very pleased to see this Dunnock as well. This shy, mouse-like little bird has the sex life of a Borgia, and I shall doubtless do a whole blog post about their shenanigans next year. Suffice it to say that in the spring everything goes bonkers. The male entices the female to copulate by showing her his armpit (something that rarely works in the human world). He undergoes a complete character transformation, sitting at the top of a tree and singing his rather underpowered song with all the gusto he can muster. The female, however, is something of a free spirit, and will mate with a whole variety of males if she can get away from her ‘husband’. There are excellent reasons for this behaviour, as there invariably are in nature, and as soon as I see the Dunnocks in the garden getting excited I shall sally forth with an explanation.

IMG_0813And, it being almost Christmas, it was perfect to see this bird eyeing up the pomegranate.

IMG_0778There are few birds more confiding than the Robin, and a walk through Coldfall Wood is often interrupted by the appearance of a strident little ball of orange energy erupting from the holly. They are around all year, but I seem to notice them more in winter, when their chief activity is finding food. A male and female Robin will often have territories that are next to one another in the winter. In the spring, they’ll merge their landholdings in order to provide enough food for their nestlings. In winter, it’s back to separate areas. Having access to a food source is as important for Robins as it is for all the other birds in the garden, and in a hard winter it can really impact on how many survive.

So, after my hour I felt relaxed and ready to jump back into the cooking, wrapping and card writing, with a fresh sense of perspective and a renewed lightness of heart. I wish the very same for all of you.


Wednesday Weed – Yarrow

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…..

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

As I squelched womanfully around the edge of the playing fields at Coldfall Wood on Monday, I was forcefully reminded that most of the soil of London is clay. The whole area was a slippery, claggy mass. I could have picked up a handful and thrown myself a pot. A Golden Retriever hurled himself into a large puddle, and a crow hopped down to check out the new water features that had appeared after the previous night’s heavy rainfall.

IMG_0718I was looking for something interesting to share with you all. Something with berries, or interesting foliage. Something that hadn’t either disappeared or turned into a twig. And then I spotted these, flowering amongst the brambles on the sunlit side of the fields.

IMG_0731Yarrow is a plant of the northern hemisphere, which grows in Europe, Asia and North America. It gets its Latin name, Achillea,  from the Iliad – Achilles was said to have been taught the use of yarrow by his centaur teacher, Chiron, and to have always carried some with him into battle to staunch bleeding. Everywhere that it grows it has a long history of use as a medicinal herb. Some of its other names, such as Woundwort and Sanguinary, reflect its traditional use as a bloodclotting agent, but the flowers and leaves have also been used for everything from phlegmatic conditions to menstrual cramps. Humble the plant may be, but it seems to be a veritable medicine chest, and is even said to increase the efficacy of other herbs when it is used in combination with them.

In Asia, the dried stalks of Yarrow are used as part of the I Ching divination process, and in North America the Navajo use it for toothache and earache.

IMG_0730 I associate Yarrow with areas of old grassland, where its delicate leaves form an important part of the sward, but quickly learned that it had an important role in the health of our agricultural land. Before we contracted our current mania for monoculture, Yarrow always formed part of the meadow’s plant community – it has extremely deep roots, which make it resistant to drought and helpful in cases of soil erosion, plus the leaves (which can also be eaten by humans) are rich in minerals and good for grazing animals. These days, it seems to be something of an outlier, growing at the edges of fields where the turf is allowed to grow a little longer.

IMG_0726The list of beneficial qualities goes on. Yarrow is excellent for companion planting because it attracts pollinators such as hoverflies who will eat many plant pests. Starlings use it to line their nests, and it has been shown to reduce the parasite load that the nestlings have to bear.

IMG_0728In the wild, Yarrow grows in three colour variations – white (as below), pale pink and dark pink. Many cultivated varieties exist, and are indeed ‘bee-friendly’, though not, I suspect, as ‘friendly’ as the original plant.


Pale Pink Yarrow (  © Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Pale Pink Wild Yarrow ( © Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

The name ‘Yarrow’ is said to come from the Anglo-Saxon word gearwe, which means ‘to prepare’ or ‘to be ready’. Many practices concerned its ability to ward off evil – it was burned on St John’s Eve (23rd June). This coincides with the Summer Solstice, so may be another case of a Christian holiday overlaying a much older tradition. Also at the Solstice, a bundle of Yarrow would be tied over a child’s cradle, or over the entrance to the house, to ensure good luck in the coming year.

As usual, I am gobsmacked. This unobtrusive little plant has had a millenium-long relationship with human beings all over the world. These days, most of us (including me) scarcely give it a second glance. Pushed to the edge of the field like so many plant species, it flowers on , even on an iron-hard December day. It makes me sad that so much of the plant lore that our grandparents would have known is being lost. It is so important that we recognise our place in a community that is made up of land, plants and animals, not just humans. In the meantime, the Yarrow waits on.

 © Copyright Ian Cunliffe and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

© Copyright Ian Cunliffe and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.



Where Have All The Sparrows Gone?

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

When I was a little girl growing up in Stratford in the East End of London, the soundtrack to a trip to the park was the monotone chirping of House Sparrows. They had only one call, and they used it to express everything from agitation to anger, from amorous intention to outright disdain. They hopped around my feet when I went to feed the ducks in Victoria Park, and skipped between the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. But the best place of all to see sparrows was in St James’s Park, where an elderly homeless man stood at one end of the main bridge, his outstretched hands and arms covered in the birds. Sometimes they landed on his head, or pecked seed from his beard. He reminded me a little of St Francis of Assisi, for, in addition to the sparrows,  he had squirrels and various waterfowl clustered around his feet, and an audience of pigeons watching the action from the low fences that aimed to keep tourists off the lawns.

A few weeks ago, a walk in St James’s Park yielded not a single sparrow.

IMG_0673I occasionally get House Sparrows on my feeders in the garden, but I took these photos on a recent visit to see my parents in Dorset. They have a flock of at least thirty sparrows who spend all day flying in and out of the ten-foot high beech hedge and, at this time of year, emptying a bird feeder of seed every single day. I suspect that the hedge and the bird food are key to their survival – they have a place to roost, nest and feed and, if the beech mast fails, there is always a plentiful supply of sunflower seeds on tap.


Sparrows are the ultimate ‘little brown jobs’. They are not brightly coloured like tits or finches, they are not melodious like blackbirds. And yet, there is a subtle beauty to their mottled wings, and much to admire in their toughness and adaptability.

IMG_0670Sparrows nest and roost communally, and spend all day foraging as a group. Studies done many years ago show that in any flock, there will be a bird who acts as vanguard and is the first to fly down to a new food source. If he (and it is normally a ‘he’) isn’t immediately pounced upon by a cat, the other birds will follow. The bold bird who descends first is likely to have more mating success than the others, so it isn’t a purely altruistic move. In male sparrows, the darker and larger the black patch on the face and throat, the more testosterone the bird packs, and the more attractive he is to females.

IMG_0663The decline of the House Sparrow is deeply alarming, because if we can lose these, the commonest of birds when I was a girl, what chance is there for rarer creatures? In his book ‘The Birds of London’, Andrew Self offers this statistic. In 1925, there were 2603 sparrows in Kensington Gardens. In 2005, not a single bird was counted.

IMG_0675Many reasons are cited for their decline. Because sparrows nest communally, they need eaves or hedges or crevices, things amply provided by old factories and barns, and Victorian houses. The trend towards building with glass and steel in the capital has made many birds homeless. Furthermore, sparrows are extremely loyal to the place where they were fledged – many birds don’t travel more than a mile from this spot during their entire lives. When their homes are demolished, the birds may just disappear through want of a spot to rest their heads and raise their babies.

IMG_0666Another reason may be the loss of the old bombsites and other areas of wasteground which used to provide food for the birds. They are very partial to some of my favourite Wednesday Weeds, like Shepherd’s Purse and Groundsel. Furthermore, during the breeding season they also eat insects, and are very adept at catching them – I watched them hawking for mosquitoes in Innsbruck this year. The loss of these brownfield sites also diminishes their invertebrate food, and maybe has an impact on the number of chicks that they are able to raise.

Unfortunately, space is at such a premium in London that many gardens have also been disappearing under concrete, to provide parking spaces or just because people have no time to garden. In a report titled ‘London – Garden City?’, it was found that hard surfacing  (which also has an impact on flooding) has increased by some 26% over the past 8 years, and ‘vegetated surfaces’ (lawns, beds and trees) have decreased by 12% in the same period. All this has an impact on the plant and insect food available for many creatures, not just sparrows.

Fortunately, some of the more enlightened councils are developing ‘sparrow-friendly’ plots in their parks and greenspaces, like the one below. There is one in Whittington Park in Archway, and the variety of annual and perennial ‘weeds’ is not only attractive but a real magnet for all kinds of pollinators, so the whole natural community benefits.

Some London parks have been growing sparrow-friendly plants (George Rex [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Some London parks have been growing sparrow-friendly plants (George Rex [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am troubled by the decline of the sparrow. It has happened during my lifetime and, as an Eastender myself, it seems particularly sad that the ubiquitous ‘cockney sparrer’ is now, if not as rare as hen’s teeth, certainly an uncommon sight. I am much heartened, though, by the way that so many people in London (and elsewhere) are becoming aware of their impact on the environment, and are trying to do something to make recompense. People are putting out birdfeeders, growing plants for pollinators, putting up nestboxes. Is it too little, too late? Possibly. But from these little seeds, surprising things can grow. It is astonishing how much people can change things when they really want to.

Shakespeare has Hamlet say that ‘there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’. Maybe, the fall of the sparrows of London will serve as a wake-up call for all of us.

Wednesday Weed – Cherry Laurel

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…..

Cherry Laurel ( Prunus laurocerasus)

Cherry Laurel ( Prunus laurocerasus)

Just lately, I have been noticing a rather handsome evergreen shrub in the midst of the oaks and hornbeams of Coldfall Wood, and also in the cemetary next door. A quick look through my plant guides tells me that this is Cherry Laurel, described by Oliver Rackham as one of the seven ‘villains’ – alien plants that appear in woodland. For those of you interested in who the other six might be, the list includes Rhododendron, Sycamore, Ground-elder, Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed. However, Rackham considers that only Rhododendron is a real ‘villain’ – all the rest become part of the forest flora rather than overwhelming it. This is a relief, as Cherry Laurel provides a welcome burst of fresh green when most other plants are leafless.

Cherry Laurel 2The leaves of Cherry Laurel are gently serrated, and the veins are very well-defined, making it easy to identify. When crushed, the leaves smell of almonds, because they contain prussic acid (cyanide). They were once used in insect-killing bottles to dispatch invertebrates that were destined for a collector’s display case. However, the smell led to it being used as a substitute for almond essence during the eighteenth century with mixed results, as reported on the wonderful Poison Garden website. Most people are unaware that this plant can be poisonous.

Cherry Laurel 4Cherry Laurel is a popular garden plant and spreads by suckering, so it is no surprise that, tired of the confines of a suburban plot, it advances into the wild. However, it can also be spread by birds, who love the berries, and I suspect that this is how my woodland specimens have arrived.

Cherry Laurel berries, growing on a shrub at Stanford University

Cherry Laurel berries, growing on a shrub at Stanford University

In spring, the upright flower spikes attract a lot of pollinators, and have a sweet, heady scent that some people love, and others can’t abide.

An ornamental Cherry Laurel with flower spikes (By Karduelis (Rize-Çayeli) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

An ornamental Cherry Laurel with flower spikes (By Karduelis (Rize-Çayeli) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Cherry Laurel came originally from the area around the Black Sea, probably arriving in the UK in the 16th century. It has also been part of the flora of North America for hundreds of years, and in the US this plant is known as the English Laurel. This is ironic as the plant is not only not English, but it also isn’t a laurel at all, but a member of the rose family. However, its leaves are increasingly being used for funeral wreathes instead of the more traditional leaves of the bay tree (Laurus nobilis), so maybe if you call a plant something long enough, it will take on the roles associated with its name. The wreath that honours the bust of Sir Henry Wood during the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall is made from the leaves of the Cherry Laurel.

Cherry Laurel 7In spite of its toxicity, several types of caterpillar are said to feed on the leaves, including the Poplar Hawkmoth, and all the specimens that I’ve seen show signs of insect depredation. So, through its plentiful nectar and pollen, berries and foliage, Cherry Laurel provides a feast for the creatures of the woodlands that it colonises. This plant may be alien and invasive but, in East Finchley at least, it gives back as much as it takes.


The Crows of Coldfall Wood

Crows 9I have always loved crows. There is nothing delicate about them, nothing melodic or dainty. They are big rambunctious bruisers, adaptable and ready to feed on anything. Two crows are omnipresent outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken at the top of my road, and have brought up a whole brood on chips and the remains of Bargain Buckets. On Friday morning, a pair of crows were perched alongside the southbound platform at East Finchley station, eyeing up a dead rat between the tube lines and trying to decide how long it was until the next train.

Coldfall Wood has a large population of crows – I once counted thirty quartering the playing fields, stopping occasionally to hammer the frozen ground with their chisel-shaped beaks.

Gulls Crows Holly Coldfall Wood 013But on Monday, the woods were filled with sunshine, which gradually increased to a kind of crescendo that lifted my spirits.







As usual, I was walking with my camera, wondering what the story would be for this week’s blog. Because there is always a story, I just have to recognise it. Maybe it was the wren, picking his way through the coppiced wood?

Wildlife Photographer of the year?

Wildlife Photographer of the year?

And then my camera battery started flashing red, and I decided that I would give up and head home. I crossed the bridge over the Everglades winter pond, and something made me look through the trees to where the stream tumbles through and over the tree roots.

Crows 15Crows were gathering in the shallow pools. They seemed a little nervous. Then, one of the crows ducked her head under the water and started to bathe.

Crows 11The water flew up like a liquid fire-work, the sun catching the droplets as they cascaded down.

Crows 10The other crows picked through the debris for food, or waited patiently for their turn.

Crows 16 It seemed like a ritual, something that the birds did regularly for reasons that went beyond just keeping their plumage clean, and I felt as if I shouldn’t be seeing it. There are some things that are not ours to look at, and sometimes creatures just have to be left alone.

Crows 3The inequality of our relationship with other animals is clear – we use them more or less as we feel fit. But it is difficult to look into the bold stare of a crow and not recognise that there is ‘someone’ there. And where does it lead us, this recognition? If it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, a little guilty, inclined to put my camera away and leave the birds to complete their bath in peace, surely that’s no bad thing.

Crows 14
























Wednesday Weed – Snowberry

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…..

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

I have spotted this shrub in several places in East Finchley – in Cherry Tree Wood, in the cemetery and here, in a lane that I discovered a few months ago.  At this time of year, its berries glow with such an intense white that they almost seem to be phosphorescent.

Snowberry 2This North American shrub was introduced into the UK in 1817, and it has an interesting history. It was often planted on grand estates to provide cover and food for grouse, pheasant and partridge and is described by Oliver Rackham as a ‘gamekeeper’s plant’. Other birds, such as blackbirds, will eat the berries if nothing else is available. In its native North America, however, the fruit is eaten by bears, bighorn sheep and white-tailed deer, and pocket gophers dig their burrows underneath it.

A pocket gopher (Yellowstone National Park; Gillian Bowser; 1990)

A pocket gopher (Yellowstone National Park; Gillian Bowser; 1990)

Snowberries are toxic, but their extreme whiteness (which has led to the alternative name ‘corpseberry’) seems to put people off from tasting them. Indeed, in some Native American traditions, the berries are the preferred food of the dead. However, it has also been widely used by many peoples of North America, as a medicine for humans and horses. The wood of the Snowberry was believed by the Nez Perce tribe to protect infants from ghosts if woven into their cradles. Thompson Indian babies were washed with a soap made from Snowberry, and people of the Makah tribe believed that it would deflect witchcraft if the leaves were chewed and swallowed. There is a rich folklore attached to this plant in its native land, demonstrating yet again that even plants which we disdain as poisonous may be used if (and only if) the people working with them have a deep understanding of their chemical properties.

The plant reproduces via its berries (the seeds being spread by birds and other animals), and also via suckering, so it spreads easily, and I’m sure that the plant in these photos had crept under the fence from the neighbouring gardens.

Snowberry 5The berries have a very hard coating, which means they can lay dormant for up to ten years, just waiting for the time to be right to germinate. Apparently, they make a satisfyingly loud crack when stamped upon, and the seeds inside look like snow. I might experiment with this if I can find a quiet corner and an unloved single snowberry to test.

In Shropshire,  the plant is known by the delightful name ‘Lardy Balls’. Lard was sold in the market incased in pigs bladders, which looked like big white balls. This is rather less romantic than ‘ghostberry’ or ‘waxberry’, which are other alternative names for the plant.

In spring, the bush has attractive but unobtrusive pink flowers, which are popular with bees – this plant is, after all, a member of that pollinator-magnet, the honeysuckle family.

By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Snowberry is unique in the UK in having waxy-white berries – the only plant that I can think of that even comes close is the Mistletoe. It has an eerie quality, especially when seen as the sun  is going down on a winter’s evening. I am trying to pay a little more attention to how plants make me feel when I spend time with them, and with Snowberry I sense a kind of quiet patience, as if the plant is just waiting to be recognised for its sterling qualities. Or maybe that’s something that we all secretly long for. Whichever it is, I have grown very fond of this North American immigrant, thriving so far from home.