Monthly Archives: April 2015

Wednesday Weed – Borage

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…..

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Dear Readers, not far from where I live is a road called The Bishop’s Avenue, which has been in the news recently. It is home to some of the most enormous, pretentious, overblown dwellings in the country (guide price for one recently – £45 million). Furthermore, many of the houses are barely used, being retained as boltholes by people with lots of money who live in the more volatile parts of the world. Some of the properties are literally falling down which is obscene when you consider how many people are desperate for a home of their own. The Bishop’s Avenue exemplifies everything that is bad about what’s happening to the city that I love. But, as many of the houses continue their slow disintegration into ruin, the verges and wasteland that surround them are becoming increasingly fascinating to those with an interest in plants, and the way that they colonise newly-available spaces.

So it was that anyone waiting at the traffic lights on Sunday would have seen me positively dancing about with delight, because there, amongst a positive scrum of opportunistic plants, was a single Borage.


A lonely Borage

Why do I love Borage so much? Well, it is bright blue, and furry, and has an exquisite pointed flower that reminds me of a hummingbird. It is the plant par excellence for bees – not only is it so full of nectar that if you nibble a bloom it gives you a little hit of sweetness, but the nectar replenishes itself within two minutes of being drained. Furthermore, it is a member of my very favourite plant family (yes, I know you aren’t supposed to have favourites, but hey), the Boraginaceae, which also includes Comfrey in its many forms, Green Alkanet, Viper’s Bugloss, Lungwort and all the Forget-me-nots.

IMG_1997Borage has been in cultivation in the UK since at least 1200 – its leaves and flowers were much used as a herb, and were included in fruit cups for their cucumber flavour. It was first recorded in the wild in 1777. It is used as a vegetable in many places along the Mediterranean, where it is a native plant, and also in the ‘Green Sauce’ of Frankfurt.

Frankfurter 'Green Sauce' with potatoes

Frankfurter ‘Green Sauce’ with potatoes

Borage is also the richest known plant source of GLA (Gamma-linolenic Acid). The ‘Starflower Oil’ that can be purchased in chemists is made from Borage. Traditionally, it was used as a cure for melancholy, and also as a supplement for women suffering from PMS or menopausal symptoms. Borage leaves have also been used as a poultice for swellings, in the same way as those of its cousin, Comfrey.

It is also said to be an excellent companion plant, distracting tomato worms from their preferred hosts, and, of course, attracting a host of pollinators.

Borage is a wonderful plant for bees. It has the alternative names of ‘bee bread’ and ‘bee flower’, and these are apt descriptions.

Bee on Borage, by Angela Sevin (

Bee on Borage, by Angela Sevin (

Bee approaching borage, by Ferran Pestana (

Bee approaching borage, by Ferran Pestana (

I am fast running out of space for plants in my north-facing back garden, but it seems to me that I’ll have to have a pot of borage in my front garden, where it gets the sun and the bees can enjoy it. After all, who knows how long the wild plant that I saw will have to enjoy its moment of flowering? It can’t be too long before some developer plonks a twenty-bedroomed house on top of it.




The Bird That Runs Down Tree Trunks

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Dear Readers, I like to think of myself as someone who is hopeful, but realistic. So, when I see those boards at the entrance to a nature reserve, describing all the wildlife that is lurking beyond the gate, I prepare myself for disappointment. Animals have a habit of moving around and not being where you expect to see them. Plants may not be in bloom, or may disappear completely. So whenever I’m told that there are nuthatches about, I breathe a long sigh. They are my nemesis. I have heard them many times. What I’ve never managed to do is to actually see them. So, when I was in Coldfall Wood last week and saw a small bird flash past and land in a tree down by the Everglades, I was not expecting him to stick around for some photographs. But, I was wrong!

IMG_1937 (2)Nuthatches are not uncommon birds – there are approximately 220,000 breeding couples in the UK, and they have a range from Portugal all the way to Japan. However, they are difficult to spot. You are much more likely to hear one – have a listen to the audio section on the RSPB page here. And one facet of their behaviour is unmistakable. Nuthatches are the only British birds that can run both up and down tree trunks – if you see a small bird hopping downwards, it’s a nuthatch.

Nuthatch heading down a tree trunk (By Jyrki Salmi from Finland (Eurasian Nuthatch) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nuthatch heading down a tree trunk (By Jyrki Salmi from Finland (Eurasian Nuthatch) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Notice how nuthatches have a very wide stance - they don't hop up the tree with their feet together like woodpeckers. It's all part of the 'jizz' of the bird, the combination of factors that make identification possible (By Smudge 9000 (Flickr: Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Notice how nuthatches have a very wide stance – they don’t hop up the tree with their feet together like woodpeckers. It’s all part of the ‘jizz’ of the bird, the combination of factors that make identification possible (By Smudge 9000 (Flickr: Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Like Treecreepers and Woodpeckers , nuthatches forage beneath the bark of trees for their food, although they also eat seeds and, as you might expect, nuts. The bird jams an acorn or a hazelnut into a crevice in bark and bashes away at it with his ‘hatchet’-shaped bill. During the winter, the birds will cache nuts for use later on, and will hide them in plant-pots and window boxes, under stones, beneath bark and anywhere else that seems appropriate. Tests have shown that they can remember where they’ve left their caches for thirty days, which is impressive when I consider that some days I can barely remember where I’ve left my tube pass.

In the winter, nuthatches are another bird that might join a ‘feeding flock’ of finches or tits, but in the spring, the birds pair up for breeding.

Two nuthatches!

Two nuthatches!

Nuthatches are said to be monogamous, but, as in most things to do with the natural world, it ain’t that simple. A German study showed that ten percent of the chicks in the study area were fathered by a male who was not part of the ‘couple’, usually from an adjacent territory. Nuthatches are quite sedentary birds who need good quality woodland (which is increasingly short supply), and maybe the odd ‘illicit’ liaison helps to keep the gene-pool mixed up.

IMG_1942 (2)

Nuthatches are yet another cavity nesting bird that lives in the wood – last week we talked about the Stock Doves that need hollow trees to nest, and when you add in the woodpeckers and the parakeets, it’s clear that the housing problem is about as acute as it is in the rest of London. However, having found a hole, nuthatches will make the entrance smaller if it’s too big, creating mortar from mud until way into the nest is a tight squeeze. The mud sets hard enough to deter even a woodpecker. Away from the nest, the nuthatch’s major predator is the sparrowhawk, that silent, round-winged killer of woodland birds. As usual, though, the major problem for nuthatches is the destruction of their habitat, another reason to be glad for the preservation of ancient woodland remnants like Coldfall.

IMG_1941 (2)Exploring Coldfall Wood reminds me of being in love. To start with, it was all about the obvious things – the scent of woodsmoke, the marsh marigolds, the parakeets squawking. But with every walk, I am noticing something different – the moods of the wood in rain and mist, the way the sounds change with the season, the arrival of some creatures and the departure of others.  Sometimes, the wood seems closed and unyielding, unwilling to share anything, and then I know that I have to be patient, and put in the time to really pay attention. At other times, the place seems abundant, full of wonders, with a new song bursting forth from every shrub, a new plant blooming under every tree. I never know what’s going to be happening when I set out, and I am starting to relax into the mystery of it all. Just as you never truly know another person, however long you live with them, so I will never know this few hectares of woodland. And that is the wonder of it .








Wednesday Weed – Marsh Marigold

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…..

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Dear Readers, most of the flowers of early spring are rather delicate, pastel-coloured plants, subtle and self-effacing. Well, this could never be said of the Marsh Marigold, which has burst forth across the muddy riverbeds of the Everglades in Coldfall Wood like a positive wash of sunshine.

IMG_1971Also known as Kingcup, Marsh Marigold is not a marigold at all – the name comes from Mary Gold, and refers to its use in medieval churches as a tribute to the Virgin Mary –  but a buttercup. And what a buttercup! I love the slight shininess of the petals, the exuberance of the gently-opening stamen, and the way that hoverflies seem to fall onto them in a positive swoon of appreciation for their generosity.

IMG_1968Although you might think that its sheer tropical boldness implies that this plant hales from warmer climes, it is in fact one of the most ancient of our native plants – Richard Mabey speaks of how, unlike most flowering plants, it survived the glaciations of the last ice age, and flourished in the marshy meltwaters. Its longevity as part of the plant community of these islands is reflected in its wide variety of vernacular names: Mayblobs, Mollyblobs, Water-blobs and, my personal favourite, The Publican. I guess that these names reflect the solidity of the plant, and the sense of hospitality that comes with the abundance of bright flowers. Once, when there were more meadows and cattle wallows, this plant must have been by far the boldest and most obvious sign that spring had finally come, more so than the delicate primroses and lesser celandine and wood anemones. It is like a great trumpet-blast of optimism wherever it grows.

IMG_1969 The plant has a special place in the hearts of the citizens of the Isle of Man, where many plant rituals survived for much longer than in mainland Britain. Marsh Marigolds were strewn on doorsteps on May Eve, and it is brought into the house as a symbol of spring, and as a way of blessing the house. In England, there was also a belief that it was protective against malignant fairies and other little folk of bad intent, and  Marsh Marigolds would be picked on the evening of 30th April and dropped through every letter box to dissuade the fey folk from any mischief. Cattle were also garlanded in Marsh Marigolds as a protection against the evil eye, even though it is actually poisonous to cattle.

IMG_1972In Latvia, Marsh Marigold is known as Gundega, a word that means ‘burning fire’. This is presumably because of the dermatitis that can be caused by handling the plant – like all buttercups, some people have an adverse reaction to its sap. In spite of this, it has had some culinary uses – Queen Victoria is said to have enjoyed boiled mutton with ‘capers-with-a-difference’, the difference being that the ‘capers’ were the buds of Marsh Marigold. To confuse matters somewhat, in North America, where the plant is native in the north-east, it is sometimes known as Cowslip, and the leaves were cooked by early settlers as a vegetable, in spite of the plant’s poisonous nature.

IMG_1970The Iroquois also used this plant as an antidote to someone who had imbibed a love potion. My source, the ‘Plant Lives‘ website, states that it seemed to make the lovestruck swain ‘very sick’. I suspect this would rather have taken the shine off of any passionate feelings that they might have been developing.

What is particularly magical to me about Marsh Marigold is the way that, after flowering, it completely disappears. I have one in my pond, and every year I am anxious in case it doesn’t grow, so complete is its vanishing act. And then, in just a few weeks, the juicy green leaves appear, followed by the fat round buds, and eventually the butter-coloured flowers. Of course, this is the way of many plants, but it is the one that I am always most relieved to see. It feels as if, on some level, the great pulse of the world is still working.



The Unnoticed Pigeon

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

Dear Readers, it is always worth checking out what at first glance may appear to be a Woodpigeon or a Feral Pigeon, because it may in fact be a Stock Dove, to my mind one of the prettiest of Britain’s native doves. There are a pair of them in Coldfall Wood at the moment, and I was delighted when I spotted them.

How can you tell that they are, in fact, Stock Doves? For a start, they do not have the characteristic white neck marks, or underwing flashes, of the Woodpigeon. Close to, you can also see that they have dark eyes which give them a gentle expression – Woodpigeons have a somewhat icy glare, and feral pigeons have red eyes. Furthermore, Stock Doves have a broken black line on their wings, and don’t have a white rump. What they do have is an iridescent patch of blue green on their necks.  Below is one of the illustrations from the Crossley ID Guide, which has been made freely available for us bird-loving bloggers ( a very generous gesture I feel).

Stock Doves (notice also the woodpigeon centre left for comparison) (By Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Stock Doves (notice also the woodpigeon centre left for comparison) (By Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

IMG_1904 (2)Stock Doves are not rare (there are approximately 270,000 breeding pairs in the UK), but the UK has over 50% of the total European population, and so they are accorded Amber conservation status by the RSPB. This compares with over 5 million pairs of woodpigeons, and a million pairs of collared doves. They are undoubtedly under-recorded, and are generally rather shy, not allowing themselves to be approached as closely as the other members of the family.

The name ‘Stock Dove’ does not refer to their status as food birds (though they have been used as such), but from the old English name for a tree trunk, post or stump – Stocc. This is because they nest preferentially in hollow trees, although they have had to diversify since Dutch Elm Disease caused the demise of their favourite tree, and have been found nesting in everything from rabbit warrens to ivy-covered walls to church spires. All hollow trees are fiercely contested these days, with woodpeckers, parakeets and owls all fighting for the same nest holes. In ‘Birds Britannica’ Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey recount how this self-effacing bird has been known to

“…attack jackdaws, break the leg of or even kill a little owl, and scrap violently with neighbours”.

The Stock Dove may look cuddly but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one. However, dead trees are generally allowed to stand in Coldfall Wood, and it may be that this pair have managed to stake out a suitable tree. I shall watch with interest to see if there are any juvenile birds later in the year.

IMG_1907 (2)The song of the Stock Dove is also rather more subtle than that of other pigeons: it reminds me a little of a long-jumper’s run up, or maybe a frog calling from the bottom of a well. It’s certainly a tentative sound, easily lost against the squawking of parakeets, the shouting of wrens and the calls of great tits.

IMG_1903 (2)Although the Stock Dove has historically been considered a country bird, in recent years it has been making increasing excursions into the suburbs and even central London. In the early spring, the birds gather in flocks to find food, and a group of over 1200 was counted in the Maple Cross area in 2009, followed by 912 birds in 2010. In ‘Birds of London’, Andrew Self remarks that these are ‘possibly the highest gatherings of these birds ever seen in the UK’. As agricultural land becomes an increasingly hostile environment for many creatures, maybe the ‘encapsulated countryside’ in our cities is becoming a safer, more welcoming option. I know that I never cease to be astonished by the sheer variety of the plants and animals that I find in my half mile territory.

Wednesday Weed – Green Alkanet

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…..

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

Dear readers, if the county plant of London is the Rose-Bay Willowherb, then the Postal Code Plant of East Finchley must be the Green Alkanet. As I wander the streets, it seems to be obligatory to have at least one of these hairy-leaved beauties peering out from under the Buddleia, or popping forth boldly from the bottom of a fence. And yet, I cannot remember it from my childhood in East London, so I wonder if it has a preference for the heady heights of North London.

IMG_1883It is, in fact, a member of the Borage and Comfrey family, and, as you might expect, is popular with bees, especially early in the season when there isn’t much else about. Its leaves survive right through the winter, hence its Latin moniker, sempervirens, which means ‘always green’.

IMG_1887Green Alkanet was introduced into gardens in 1700, and was first recorded in the wild in 1724, so it has been with us for a long time. It is a true Londoner inasmuch as it can’t abide acidic soils, and so the cold, claggy clay of the capital suits it down to the ground (literally). It is a very hairy plant – the stems are hairy, the lavender buds are hairy, the leaves are hairy (and sometimes feature white spots as well). It is readily attacked by rusts (as in the specimen above). All in all, it is something of a bruiser, a street-fighter of a plant whose toughness belies its delicate flowers.

IMG_1888‘Alkanet’ is an interesting word, thought to derive from the Arabic word for the plant-based red dye Henna. The word is also the root of the names of Dyers’ Bugloss (Alkanna tinctoria) and Common Bugloss (Anchusa arvensis), to which Green Alkanet is closely related. In fact, Anchusa is derived from the Latin word for paint. The  books that I’ve read seem to agree that a red dye can be extracted from the sturdy root of the plant, and the WildflowerFinder website, which has a special interest in plant chemistry, goes further, suggesting that the extracts from the root can be used to make a purple or burgundy dye, with alkaline compounds being used to increase the blue pigment, and acid ones turning it red again. There is also a strong suggestion elsewhere that the plant was deliberately introduced to provide dyes for cloth, being cheaper than true Henna, which is extracted from the Henna tree (Lawsonia inermis).

The Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis)

The Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis)

Green Alkanet has several other uses – the flowers are apparently edible, and I can just imagine them frozen into ice-cubes and clinking away in a gin and tonic. Being a member of the comfrey family, the leaves can also be composted, or rotted down to provide liquid fertiliser. But it’s as a plant for pollinators that it finds its true vocation, the white heart of the flower acting as a target for all those thirsty early bees. It is yet another of those plants that we would be delighted with if we planted it deliberately, but which is undervalued because it’s just a ‘weed’. It seems as if we find it difficult to appreciate the beauty that comes to us for free, like grace.


The Tree Spirit

Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

Dear Readers, I already knew that there were Treecreepers in Coldfall Wood. Last year, I spotted a tiny bird with a curved bill high up in an oak tree, scraping its head back and forth through the bark, but it was only there for a second before it flew away. This bird was the first Treecreeper that I’d ever seen in my fifty-five years on earth, yet this is not a rare species – there are estimated to be over 200,000 territories in the UK. They are well camouflaged, small and unobtrusive, but, once spotted, they can be very relaxed around quiet humans.

IMG_1877I saw this bird on Good Friday, the same day that I spotted the Song Thrush. I was walking back through the damp forest, feeling very pleased with myself, when there was a blur of wings and I realised that a Treecreeper was perched on a tree less than five metres away. What busy birds they are! This one flew to the base of the trunk and started to work his was up, methodically exploring the bark with that delicate half-moon beak for grubs and beetles and spiders. Once he got to the canopy he flew away. I congratulated myself on getting a couple of photos so that I could share him with you, and was admiring my handiwork on the screen at the back of the camera when he suddenly appeared again, on another tree which was even closer. This time, I got some film of him, though I apologise in advance (as usual) for the wobbliness. I do hope that you aren’t prone to motion sickness.

You might wonder why I am so sure that this bird is a male. Well, I’m not certain, but a Finnish study found that male Treecreepers tend to use the lower part of the trunk to feed (as this one was), whilst females use the higher areas. I imagine that this means that a pair don’t waste time covering the same area. Efficiency is important when there are vulnerable nestlings to feed.

Treecreepers are in a bird family of their own, but they are closely related to Nuthatches. They have stiff tails (like Woodpeckers) which enables them to prop themselves up against the bark. They are also very widespread, covering an area from Japan to Ireland, and with an estimated world population of 20 million birds. This makes it all the more astonishing that most of us have never seen one, but then their backs look like lichen-tangled wood. It’s their erratic, jerky movement that gives them away, that and their silvery white bellies, exposed briefly as they fly.


A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Aigas, a Scottish estate which hosted wildlife-watching and writing courses. The Californian Redwood trees, which were planted in the grounds during Victorian times, were used as roosting places by the Treecreepers. The birds hollowed themselves out little sleeping niches in the soft bark, each about the size of a hard-boiled egg. Once, we took a walk around a roosting tree after dark with a torch, and found several birds, slumbering peacefully with their bottoms and tails protruding. Treecreepers also nest in shallow depressions in the tree trunks, often under a curtain of loose bark. This set me to wondering. In the Cemetery that abuts the wood, there are a number of Redwoods. Would I see any signs of Treecreeper activity there?

Redwood trunk from St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Redwood trunk from St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, featuring lots of little depressions and niches

Possible nesting/roosting site for Treecreepers?

Possible nesting/roosting site for Treecreepers?

Well, I’m no expert so I wasn’t sure if the depressions in the trunk were made by Treecreepers or some other creatures, but whoever had made them had lined them up to face the rising sun, and the first warmth of the new day. I can imagine how welcome those sun rays would be after a long, cold night.

During the winter, Treecreepers can sometimes be found associating with flocks of tits, and it’s always worth surveying such groups carefully to see if there are any unusual birds in amongst them. However, it’s been found that the Treecreepers don’t share the food of the flock, and forage on their own – they are probably just benefiting from the extra eyes and ears of the other birds. Treecreepers strike me as being quite happy to keep themselves to themselves wherever possible.

Treecreeper nest (James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Treecreeper nest (James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In the spring, the Treecreepers pair up, and the female lays her five to six eggs, which are white with pink speckles. The babies are altricial (which means that they are completely helpless, unlike precocial birds which are fairly well developed at birth), so the parents have to work very hard to get them to the fledgling stage as quickly as possible. Their world is full of dangers – squirrels (both red and grey), woodpeckers, crows and martens will all eat the eggs and nestlings.  This is why the split foraging technique, where male and female search different parts of a tree, is so important. In coniferous forests, ants compete with the Treecreepers for their invertebrate food, and Treecreepers have learned to spend less time on trees which have large ant populations.

Treecreeper eggs ("Certhia familiaris MWNH 1434" by Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Treecreeper eggs (“Certhia familiaris MWNH 1434” by Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

As I walked home from my trip to Coldfall Wood I was delighted to have been able to spend a few minutes with the Treecreeper. These birds remind me of forest spirits, elusive but ever-present, watchful and serious. It was a privilege to see them. I feel as if I will never get to the bottom of my half-mile territory, because there is always something new to see or learn. And I’m sure that this is true of any half-mile territory. The world truly is full of wonders.



Wednesday Weed – Cowslip

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…..

Cowslip (Primula vernis)

Cowslip (Primula vernis)

Dear Readers, on April Fool’s Day I headed out to a new cemetery with my botanical friend, to see what we could find. Unlike St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, which has bramble tangles and secret, woody places, East Finchley Cemetery is well manicured and full of splendid Victorian memorials, like the ones below.

IMG_1808IMG_1811So, we were not hoping for much in the way of wild flowers. A man was wandering around in a desultory fashion, waving a leaf blower in spite of no leaf having the audacity to fall on those bowling-green lawns. The noise was ear-splitting. In an attempt to get away from the racket, we headed ‘off-piste’ to explore an area behind a row of well-tended graves, and there we found our reward.

IMG_1800Cowslips are not the first primulas to come into flower – the Common Primrose has that honour. But what a splendid plant it is. Each stem can hold up to thirty blooms, which seem to erupt in a yellow fountain. The pale, soft green of the calyx sets off the gold of petals and the five apricot-coloured  spots at the heart of the flower. The plant is said to smell of apricots too, but as usual I forgot to check this out. If you see some, have a good sniff and let me know.

IMG_1802Once upon a time, our fields and meadows were full of Cowslips – the name refers to them being found amongst cowpats. People made cowslip wine, and for a most excellent recipe, described by one Mr Moxon as ‘right good’ back in 1764, have a look here. The path of a bridal couple was strewn with cowslips, and young women wove them into their hair on May Day. But, as with so many of our country wildflowers, they were soon to be pushed to the margins by changes in agricultural practices. Old grassland was ploughed up, meadows drained, and everything was sprayed with herbicide, including some field margins and roadsides. The ‘freckle-face’ of the Cowslip was soon a rarity, and so was the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, whose caterpillars feed on Cowslip.

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)

So, it was a great pleasure to find this cowslip here, lonely as it was. Cemeteries and churchyards are sanctuaries for all manner of wild plants and animals, and more and more of these sites are being managed with this in mind. And we are not as laissez-faire with the chemicals as we once were, which is just as well, bearing in mind their effects on everything, from bees to humans, who came into contact with them.

Cowslips are woven into the history of the British Isles. Shakespeare mentions it in The Tempest, as the bed of Arial:

‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.’

John Milton also writes of the plant, in his Song of a May Morning:

‘Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowering May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.’

Spring flowers must have been welcomed with a very special kind of relief, in the days when you could never be sure if your winter supplies would last until the warm weather returned. To me, the Cowslip is a sign that the world has turned towards the sun again, but in earlier, harder times there must have been a feeling of joy that the cold and the dark had been survived. No wonder May Day was such a celebration.

IMG_1803Cowslips have also been used for their medicinal properties, as you might expect from a plant that has grown beside us for so long. It was believed that a lotion made from Cowslips would remove wrinkles and freckles, with maybe an indication of the old ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ – the plant has little orange freckles in its flowers, so maybe it will help us to remove them! It was believed to be sedative, to be good for coughs and for rheumatic pain, and no less a person than Hildegard of Bingen recommended using the leaves to make ointment.

Occasionally, a red-flowered Cowslip is found, and there is a belief that this is because the seed was planted upside down. How you would know which way up it was supposed to go puzzles me somewhat, but the plant is very different in its red form, bold and defiant.

Red-flowered Cowslip ("Red flowered cowslip" by User:Jasper33 - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Red-flowered Cowslip (“Red flowered cowslip” by User:Jasper33  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The Cowslip is considered a magical plant in other ways, too. The Cowslip is supposed to be able to open the doors of caves filled with hidden treasure. To dream of a Cowslip is a sign of unexpected good luck. In the language of flowers, it symbolises ‘comeliness and willing grace’. And furthermore, it is, apparently, the birthday flower for 22nd September, which is my wedding anniversary.

No wonder I love it, and was so delighted to see it so unexpectedly last week. I hope that it will continue its fightback, and that soon our churchyards and field-edges and ‘waste ground’ will be full of it.

A Cowslip carpet in Cambridgeshire - paths have been made around the meadow to protect the plants. (© Copyright Bob Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

A Cowslip carpet in Cambridgeshire – paths have been made around the meadow to protect the plants.(© Copyright Bob Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)



The First Fine Careless Rapture

IMG_1866Good Friday was, as the Irish say, ‘a soft day’. The Scots have a different word for it: ‘dreich’. I could hear the rain pattering on the skylights as I lay there in the grey early morning, but still, I had to get up, to leave my warm bed and head out to the woods. I had a feeling that something was going on there, and I didn’t want to miss it.

IMG_1846The rain seems to soften some things, and to bring others into relief. The greens of moss and leaf leap out, new-washed.

IMG_1836At first, there was so much bird song that it was like a mess of wool that I needed to untangle. I picked out the wren and robin, the blue tit and the great tit. I put the crow and the parakeet to one side. Still, something was new, something I hadn’t noticed before. A Green Woodpecker yaffled and I named him. But what was it, this new song?

I walked on, trying to identify the source. Everywhere, there was the sound of water.

But then, I saw who was singing.

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Undeterred by rain, he was throwing his song into the treetops. Weight for weight, Song Thrushes have one of the loudest of all bird calls.

In his poem ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, Robert Browning talks of the Song Thrush:

That’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over

Lest you should think he never could re-capture

The first fine careless rapture!

And, listening to the bird, I could see what Browning meant: each phrase is repeated, as if the bird is riffing on a theme, trying things out. Indeed, in Mark Cocker’s ‘Birds Britannica’, he points out that an individual bird has about 100 different phrases to choose from, which the bird seems to do at random. Some song elements may be passed down from one generation to the next. But there were some notes in the song of this bird that reminded me of everything from the sound of a dustcart reversing to a mobile phone tone, and I wondered if he picked up inspiration from a variety of places. I thought that I could even hear the sound of parakeets and other birds woven into the Song Thrush’s song.

As with so many birds, Song Thrush numbers have declined by about two thirds in the past twenty-five years, and the London birds were also down by thirty-five percent. The RSPB has the Song Thrush on its Red List of birds that need urgent conservation action.  In the capital, though, numbers have been increasing during this century. Coldfall Wood seems to suit them – it’s wet enough along by the streams for them to find the invertebrates that they eat, and the mature trees provide lots of nesting and roosting spots. One thing that we can all do for Song Thrushes is to cut out the slug pellets  – Song Thrushes are great eaters of snails, and use a special stone, called a Snail Anvil, to hammer into the shells. I shall be keeping an eye open to see if I can spot one.

A Song Thrush's Anvil (Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Song Thrush’s Anvil (Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Song Thrushes are sometimes confused with Mistle Thrushes, but one easy way to tell them apart is that the blotches on the Song Thrush’s chest look like arrowheads, whilst those of the Mistle Thrush are more circular. The Song Thrush is also much smaller, but I find this difficult to gauge unless you have the two species lined up next to one another, like felons in an identity parade.

I went on my way, through the rain.

What is it about the sound of this bird that lifts the heart? It feels as if it’s woven into my subconscious. Although I’m not aware of ever having listened to a Song Thrush before, it feels familiar, like an ancestral memory. Some days, I could fall on my knees lamenting for all the creatures we have lost, for the habitats destroyed and the oceans that we are poisoning. This song reminds me of how much we still have to protect and to fight for.






Wednesday Weed – Red Dead-nettle

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 Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)

In East Finchley, all the Red Dead-nettle plants seem to have come into bloom at exactly the same time. Where last week there was just a clump of leaves, this week there are those tiny magenta-pink flowers, each one a complicated combination of long throat (corolla) and upper and lower lip. They seem designed to encourage a foraging bee to take a sip of nectar, with a handy landing-platform provided by the lower lip, and the stamen poised to gently tap the insect on the back, as if administering a blessing. It is also a source of pollen, especially for Queen bumblebees who are looking for food for their new offspring. This is reflected in the name given to the plant in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire – ‘Bumblebee flower’.

IMG_1764However, like many plants, Red Dead-nettle is not dependent on bees to reproduce. It can self-pollinate if times are hard, and ants have been observed dispersing the seeds by carrying them into their nests as food, where some of them will germinate before being eaten. A quick look at the Garden Organic website tells me that a single Red Dead-nettle can produce 27,634 viable seeds if there isn’t any competition from other plants. Such abundance! This is not surprising, as unlike its close relative White Dead-nettle, which is a perennial, Red Dead-nettle is an annual, and so has only one chance to pass on its genes. As with many things in nature, it’s lucky that not every seed or egg is able to reach adulthood or we’d soon be buried under a positive carpet of furry leaves and pink flowers.

IMG_1768Red Dead-nettles are plants of disturbed soils, but they are not tolerant of trampling, so they often crop up just at the edge of footpaths or other open spaces. Although it is native to continental Europe, it is thought to have been brought to the UK during the Bronze Age – remains of the plant have been found in deposits of wheat and barley from this period. It has since travelled widely with its human compatriots, and is hence found in North America and New Zealand too. Unlike many ‘weeds’ however, this is not an especially vigorous plant, and so it is not generally considered to be a problem. In addition to its value to pollinators, it is also useful for humans: the leaves and flowers can be eaten as a salad vegetable, and if you want to experience the delights of Dead-nettle and Chilli Soup or, indeed, Dead-nettle Beer, you can have a look here.


As we have seen before, the medicinal uses of plants often depend on their appearance, and Red Dead-nettle is no exception. Because of its colour, Nicholas Culpeper, the fifteenth century herbalist, considered it efficacious for any problems relating to the blood, especially menstrual problems. It’s also believed that the crushed leaves will help to staunch blood flow, which is useful if you are ever unlucky enough to walk through a particularly vengeful bramble patch en route to your destination. I also note that it is sometimes used as a treatment for piles, although Lesser Celandine is more commonly referred to as the ‘go-to’ plant for such afflictions.  Beware, however: Red Dead-nettle also has a reputation as a laxative, and, whilst browsing through the various ‘wild food’ websites on the internet I noticed several people referring to cramps and diarrhoea. So, the word here, as everywhere, is caution. On the other hand, if you have a pet tortoise, Red Dead-nettle seems to be a fine food for them.

IMG_1771Sometimes, it’s possible to find a more unusual flower tucked in amongst the Red Dead-nettle. This is the Cut-Leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum). Described as ‘easily overlooked’, you can see why. The main difference between this plant and Red Dead-nettle is that, as you might expect from the name, the leaves are less rounded and more deeply toothed.

Cut-leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum)

Cut-leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum) (By Fer55 (Own work) [GFDL ( via Wikimedia Commons)

Red Dead-nettle is also has an angelic alternative name – Purple Archangel. It is argued that this is because the plant comes into flower around the time of the feast of the Archangel Michael, which is on 8th May. However, the plants that I saw today are obviously having a bit of calendar trouble if this is the case. Maybe there is something about the flowers which looks a little ethereal and heaven-bound. For the bumblebees, at least, they are manna.

By Beentree (Own work) [GFDL (

By Beentree (Own work) [GFDL (