Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bugwoman on Location – A Bog Blog

IMG_2660Dear Readers, a few weeks ago I discovered, to my astonishment, that London is home to several peat bogs. What on earth are they doing here? I associate them with the bleak, wet, windswept north-western coast of Scotland, or with parts of Ireland. But as I read further, I found that peat bogs were once widespread across the whole of the country. However, as land has been drained for building and for industry, and as the peat was dug out for fuel and latterly for compost, these habitats have dwindled to a few sites. The best are in the south of the capital, but on Bank Holiday Monday I decided to explore the bog closest to my home patch, Rowley Green Common at Arkley in the London Borough of Barnet. This tiny patch of bog is said to be home to Star Sedge, Nodding Bur-Marigold and Lesser Spearwort, although this early in the year I was not holding my breath.

Star Sedge (Carex echinata) (By Franz Xaver (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Star Sedge (Carex echinata) (By Franz Xaver (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua) (By Malte (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua) (By Malte (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Lesser Spearwort (Ranunculus flammula) ("RanunculusFlammula4" by Christian Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Lesser Spearwort (Ranunculus flammula) (“RanunculusFlammula4” by Christian Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

You would think that a bog would be a fairly easy thing to find, if only because you would suddenly find yourself up to your knees in mud. But no. There is a problem in this nature reserve, and it is that the areas of bog are gradually being colonised by other plants, like willow saplings for example.

IMG_2684Still, there are some open, boggy areas if you follow the less-trodden paths.


I love bogs: there is something about their claggy serenity that piques my imagination. I would not be surprised to see a green figure made entirely of sphagnum moss emerge from the sediment and dance amongst the reeds. However, he would have a problem here, there being no obvious sphagnum moss at all.

Sphagnum moss

Sphagnum moss (“Sphagnum.flexuosum” by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sphagnum moss is the building block of a bog. As you might remember from a previous post about moss, it can absorb large quantities of water, like a sponge. This helps to keep the water table high, normally making bogs wetter than their surroundings. Layers of moss and other water plants grow on top of the sphagnum, and the lower layers slowly decay and turn into peat, at a rate of only two millimetres a year. The mossy mounds that we see in bogs are a result of this process. Here in Rowley Green, I saw only one such mound, stranded high and dry amongst the brambles, though there were probably more hidden from view.

IMG_2670In the past, the boggy area here was much larger – until World War Two the area was kept open by grazing cattle, preventing the encroachment of the scrub and forest. Small-scale gravel extraction also opened a series of ponds, which helped with the boggy environment. But now, this little patch of wetland is under siege on all sides. To one side, there is a golf-club, with a huge, dark cherry-laurel and rhododendron hedge along the boundary with the reserve.

Golf Club boundary

Golf Club boundary



Furthermore, there is a huge rhododendron growing right in the middle of one of the boggy areas.

IMG_2674We tend to think that forests and bogs and heathlands can be left to look after themselves, but most kinds of habitat have a desire to move on. Every pond, in its heart, wants to become a bog. Grassland wants to become a forest. The only reason that it doesn’t is because there is some resource constraint or very particular environmental factor, or because humans intervene. In Coldfall Wood, coppicing has changed the environment and increased the number of species that will survive. Here in Rowley Green Common, it will take some active management to make sure that this little bog doesn’t disappear altogether, along with the unusual species of plant and invertebrate that depend on it. It reminds me of the importance of local Friends groups who keep an eye on their local wild spaces – Hertford and Middlesex Wildlife Trust seem to have Rowley Green as part of their remit, but they have a huge area to look after. In all our time at the reserve, we didn’t see a single other person. Ironically, although an unvisited reserve may be good for the plants and wildlife, it might also mean that no one cares enough to save it when things start to go wrong. And surely the only peat-bog in Barnet is worth saving.


Walking along the edge of the golf course in Rowley Green Common nature reserve

To read more on the Peat Bogs of London, have a look at this excellent piece by the London Wildlife Trust.




Wednesday Weed – Ivy-leaved Toadflax

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…..

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

Of all the things that grow in our cities, I have a soft spot for the ones that make their homes in walls. There’s something about these plants,  clinging onto life in such a dry, sun-baked, inhospitable situation that fills me with admiration. On Sunday, I found a whole wall full of Ivy-leaved Toadflax. Tiny plants were growing on the top and then seeding right down to the bottom, like a kind of botanical candle-wax. Once I got home, I started to do some research and discovered, to my delight, that the plant is designed to do just this: when in flower, the blooms turn towards the light, but once the flowers are over, it becomes ‘negatively phototropic’ – in other words, the seed heads bend away from the light, to deposit their seeds into darker places, like cracks or the shadow at the bottom of a wall. When I find out something like this, I want to rush out into the street, stand by a patch of Ivy-leaved Toadflax and tell everybody who passes about what a fascinating plant it is. Fortunately, my blog enables me to do this without being arrested.

On the top of the wall....

On the top of the wall….

...trickling down the wall...

…trickling down the wall… the bottom of the wall. the bottom of the wall.

Toadflaxes are a member of the Figwort family, which also includes such plants as Mullein, Foxglove and Antirrhinums. However, the trick to identifying a toadflax is to look at the lower ‘lip’ of the flower – this is called the Palate (because it guards the ‘throat’ of the flower), and is formed of two lobes.

Looked at up close, the flowers of Ivy-leaved Toadflax are remarkably complex. The two-lobed 'lower lip' is indicative that this is a toadflax. (By The original uploader was Sannse at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Looked at up close, the flowers of Ivy-leaved Toadflax are remarkably complex. The two-lobed ‘lower lip’ is indicative that this is a toadflax. (By The original uploader was Sannse at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Ivy-leaved Toadflax was brought to the UK from southern Europe in the early seventeenth century, and was said to have originated in the packing material of some statues that were imported from Italy to Oxford, hence its alternative name of ‘Oxford Weed’. It was a very popular addition to the walled gardens that were being built everywhere at this time but, in the way of things, it didn’t take long before it was advancing over the walls of inhabited places all over the country. Other vernacular names include ‘Mother of Thousands’ and ‘Travelling Sailor’, which attest to its colonising zeal. It covered the walls of Kenilworth Castle so vigorously that yet another name for it is ‘Kenilworth Ivy’. There is a lovely description of Ivy-leaved Toadflax in medieval times on the Highbury Wildlife Garden website:

“In Reading the Landscape of Europe, May Theilgaard Watts calls it Runes-de-Rome: “This plant is a part of every medieval city wall’ in France. “Clinging to the massive masonry that lifts Chateaudun above the Loire Valley, it undoubtedly felt the breath of molten lead poured on the enemy from the apertures above and received many a misdirected arrow from below.”

The plant seems to like the scabbiest, most broken-down walls, maybe because these contain the greatest variety of crevices and cracks. Richard Mabey notes that it is ‘virtually unknown in natural habitats in this country’.

IMG_2593In its native Italy, Ivy-leaved Toadflax is known as ‘the plant of the Madonna’. It is also said to be edible: it is described in old herbals as ‘anti-scorbutic’, which means that it is high in vitamin C, and has been eaten in salads. Its flavour is described as being similar to cress. I can imagine that those little flowers would look very pretty too, although taking them would mean depriving the bees of their nectar – like most plants with ‘snapdragon’-shaped flowers, it is insect-pollinated.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax growing alongside the A6 between Matlock and Bath ( © Copyright Mick Garratt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Ivy-leaved Toadflax growing alongside the A6 between Matlock and Bath (© Copyright Mick Garratt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

This leaves me with just one question. Why is a Toadflax called a Toadflax? The answer is lost in history, but one explanation is that the flower looks like the wide-mouthed face of a toad. Another is that the flower looks like a whole toad! There is also a theory that toads liked to shelter amongst the leaves, which, as they also like the crevices in drystone walls, seems to me the likeliest of the explanations. At any rate, having noticed Ivy-leaved Toadflax, I am now seeing it everywhere, and will certainly tell you if I spot any toads.

Does this look like the face of a toad to anyone? I'm struggling to see it, I must admit....(By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Does this look like the face of a toad to anyone? I’m struggling to see it, I must admit….(By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)



Something of a Kerfuffle


A fine collection of Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) fledglings

Dear Readers, have a look at the photograph above and see how many fledgling starlings you can count. This is one branch of my Hawthorn tree, and on Thursday this week it was a heaving, wheezing mass of babies. Every year, the youngsters emerge en masse and I am always touched that the parents bring them to my garden, though I suspect the neighbours are not so impressed with the noise and mess and general kerfuffle from dawn till dusk.

IMG_2573When they first leave the hollow tree that has been their home for the first few weeks of their lives, the fledglings seem wide-eyed with wonder. They follow their parents to the hawthorn tree, and sit there waiting for something to eat. While they wait, they investigate. The urge to peck anything that looks remotely edible reminds me of the way that human babies investigate everything mouth-first.

IMG_2511IMG_2514 The fledglings spend a lot of time looking up hopefully, and wheezing every time an adult hoves into view. How the adults identify which baby is theirs is one of those mysteries of nature, but each youngster is as distinctive to his or her parents as our babies are to us.

IMG_2516The adults, strangely enough, seem rather relaxed. Do they know that the most frantic part of their job is over, and that soon their offspring will be independent? Or are they just exhausted and having a breather?

IMG_2466I have been in this house since the autumn of 2010, and every spring brings this flush of new life. I like to think that some of these birds are the youngsters of previous years, who are bringing their own fledglings to a reliable source of food. Feeding wild creatures is a big responsibility – although animals will find alternative sources of food if we suddenly stop providing for them, they are very vulnerable at times when they need extra supplies, such as now, or during a cold winter.  I always have some food on offer, but try to adjust the quantities according to need. An added incentive for year-round feeding is that starlings are a Red List species – according to the British Trust for Ornithology, their numbers have dropped by 80% nationally since the 1970’s. One reason for this is that fewer fledglings survive, possibly due to the difficulty in finding food during our drier summers, so I like to make sure that there is always some food available.

IMG_2520 (2)In a week or so, the fledglings will have learned to feed themselves, and will start to disperse. The frenetic pace in the garden will die down, and things will go back to normal. But for now, the hawthorn tree reverberates to the sound of hungry youngsters, and the starlings have left their ‘mark’ all over the garden furniture. My bird food budget is well and truly blown, and the man who delivers the suet pellets has probably developed a hernia from lifting all the heavy boxes. But there is something about this great burst of animal fertility that fills me with hope. In spite of everything that we are doing to mess things up, some things are still working.


Wednesday Weed – Fringecups

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…..

Fringecups (Tellima grandiflora)

Fringecups (Tellima grandiflora)

Dear Readers, during a walk in Coldfall Wood last week, I was surprised to see a stand of Fringecups alongside the stream. They are a member of the Saxifrage family, although they look very different from the others, with their strange green-pink flowers peering like giraffes over their neighbours. They are the sole member of their genus, and as such are somewhat out on a limb: most saxifrages are five-petalled, open-flowered plants, although a few do share the long stem of the Fringecup. As the flowers grow older, they start to change from greenish-white to pink, and even to red.


Older Fringecup flowers, rapidly turning red("Tellima grandiflora 07469". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

Older Fringecup flowers, rapidly turning red(“Tellima grandiflora 07469”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

This is a plant that my North American readers might recognise, as it is a native of the north-western corner of the continent, including Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Alberta and British Columbia. It is a plant of woody, shady, wet places, and in my garden at least the bees are very fond of those unassuming flowers.

IMG_2379Here in the wood, they have certainly made themselves at home. They mix happily with the nettles, the violets and the marsh marigolds, and keep themselves largely to themselves. It is not difficult to see how it has made the leap into ‘the wild’ – I have it in my own garden, and there are many varieties for sale. Its tolerance of shade is a great point in its favour in many people’s eyes.

Fringecups growing in my garden.

Fringecups growing in my garden.

I think that this looks like a fairy-tale plant, ethereal and delicate. The flowers look as if they could be hats for pixies, and, indeed, there is a Canadian folktale that elves ate Fringecup in order to improve their night vision. The First Nation Skagit people used Fringecup to make a tea for treating many illnesses, including loss of appetite.

IMG_2384In many of the books that mention Fringecups, there is a reference to its fragrance. I have to admit that this was not something that I’d noticed so, in the interests of research, I went down to the garden to have a sniff. And there it is, a faint hint of sweetness, as fragile as the scent left on a  silk scarf. This is a modest plant of strange and elusive beauty, which only reveals itself if you have the time to stop and look.



A Work in Progress

Me aged about four with my nan.

Me aged about four with my nan.

Dear Readers, I grew up in Stratford, in East London. Five of us crammed into a two-bedroom house with an outside toilet, no bathroom, and a pocket handkerchief-sized garden. And yet, it was that little garden which first triggered my interest in insects. I spent hours digging in the dirt with spoons that I’d smuggled from the cutlery drawer. I reared woolly bear caterpillars in a plastic box, tried to create woodlouse habitats under concrete slabs and marked the backs of passing ants with watercolours from my paintbox. I was a permanently messy child, with scuffed knees and dirty fingernails, in spite of the attempts by my mum and nan to keep me more or less lady-like. In a way, I was a pioneer of wildlife gardening before the term had even been invented, because the more invertebrates there were in the garden, the better I liked it. Once, I rescued some milky, sticky eggs that I found and put them into the damp course under the living room window. When we were suddenly inundated by enormous yellow slugs a few weeks later, I kept very quiet.

As I grew up, I didn’t have much access to a garden. I was in student digs, and then in a variety of rented accommodation. Some people seemed able to create a floral paradise wherever they were, but not me. I was always on the move, always too easily distracted. A bout of serious depression in my thirties didn’t help. For a while, I had a few pots on a first floor balcony and got most of my access to nature from the community garden down the road.  And then, in my fifties, we moved into our house in East Finchley, and things started to change. For the first time, I could settle down, with a garden of my own. It felt safe, finally, to become a gardener.

My garden in May

My garden in May

When we moved in, our house had a very typical family garden – rectangular lawn, patio, shed. But I wanted so much to turn it into something that was friendlier for wildlife. We don’t have children, and so there was no need for somewhere to play football or badminton. We decided that, as this is the kind of thing that we would only do once, we would get someone to help us with the design of the garden, and with the heavy work of digging out a pond to replace all the grass. I figured that if the garden had ‘good bones’ it would be more difficult for me to mess it up. I am still a novice, trying things out, messing things up, forgetting to do things and doing them at the wrong time. But, thankfully, nature is very forgiving.

View of the left-hand side of the garden, with white lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

View of the left-hand side of the garden, with white lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

The plants on the left hand side of the photo above were already there when I moved in –  white-flowering lilac, hawthorn and  whitebeam. How lucky I am to have some mature trees! However, the garden is north-facing, and as the trees grow, the area underneath becomes increasingly shady. In particular, the lilac has turned into a monster, almost a small glade of trees in its own right. It has an evergreen, white clematis scrambling through it, which provides some sustenance for early Bumblebee queens, but I’m sure I could do more. Does anyone have any experience of renovating such an august shrub? I know that if I’m going to try to help it renew itself, it needs to be right after flowering, so I’d better get a move on.

The hawthorn is in full flower at the moment

The hawthorn is in full flower at the moment

The hawthorn is attracting a mass of insects and small birds, who spend best part of the day pecking through the flowers for caterpillars.

Bowles Mauve - perennial wallflower

Bowles Mauve – perennial wallflower

One of the plants that works hardest in the garden is the Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower. I put it in over three years ago. In all that time, there hasn’t been a day when there hasn’t been at least a few flowers on it. Bees of all kinds seem to love it, it needs no care, and my only fear is that at some point it will run out of steam. In the meantime, I appreciate its generosity every day when I look out of my kitchen window.

The pond.

The pond, complete with self-sown Greater Willow Herb

The pond is the single most interesting thing in the garden. Frogs lay their eggs in it, dragonflies and damselflies hover over it, water boatmen swim in it and everything drinks from it, from foxes to blackbirds to dunnocks to a wide range of neighbourhood cats. There is always something going on. It has reached a stage now where, provided we remove most of the leaves and excess water plants in the autumn, it is self-maintaining. If you have any space at all, even a balcony with room for a bucket, I would recommend putting in some water. You will be amazed what turns up.

Another picture of the pond. Can you tell I'm in love?

Another picture of the pond. Can you tell I’m in love?

I also have a lot of bird feeders – 2 for seed, 2 for suet, 2 for nyger, and a bird table that looks as if it was cobbled together by Heath Robinson. They’ve been very useful for attracting the birds into the garden, but I’m pleased to see that they spend a lot of time foraging for natural food in the trees and shrubs at this time of year.


My Heath Robinson bird table.

My Heath Robinson bird table in front of the rampant lilac bush and the Bowles Mauve.

I’ve also managed to squeeze in a mixed hedge – yew, beech, hazel, hawthorn and spindle.I’ve been cutting this back in the autumn to encourage it to get thicker, but I think it will be a while before it gets thick enough for anybody to nest in it. Again, it does much better in the part of the garden where it is not under the whitebeam. The poor spindle is nearly always eaten half to death by aphids, particularly (you guessed it) in the darker part of the garden.

The hedge, looking back to the house.

The hedge, looking back to the house.

As you might expect, I am unfazed by weeds. I have a wide variety, from the usual nettles and dandelions to comfrey, Mexican fleabane, pendulous sedge, herb bennet, yellow corydalis, green alkanet, forget-me-knot, and elecampane. I have a huge stand of Greater Willowherb which is so good for the bees that I can’t help letting it get bigger every year. I have bramble and bindweed trying to find their way in from the back of the garden, and I do confess to encouraging these to curb their ambitions with a pair of secateurs. What intrigues me is that many of these plants can be found locally, in the wood or the cemetery, and I wonder how unique the mixture of ‘weeds’ is to any particular locality. Certainly, if something grows wild nearby, it is more likely to turn up. I have a view that, if not too ‘over-managed’, our gardens can become extensions of nearby habitat, rather than completely different ones. It makes sense to support the wildlife that is already living in an area, rather than asking it to adapt to a completely new set of plants.

I also have an eight-foot tall volunteer cherry tree, courtesy of the one next door. My garden is becoming a forest.

The 'volunteer' cherry tree.

The ‘volunteer’ cherry tree.

Of course, not everything in the garden is rosy. Especially the poor Rosa rugosa which I planted underneath the whitebeam in a moment of madness. It reaches out with its poor attenuated stems for the sunlight and produces, oh, maybe three flowers a year. If I was a bit more confident about it surviving, I would move it, but now is obviously not the time.

One of the few flowers on my poor rose bush

One of the few flowers on my poor rose bush

I am so lucky to have a garden again, and believe me, I am grateful every day that I have a chance to enjoy it. . There is always something going on, some new creature appearing or an unidentified plant popping up. But every garden is a work in progress. If you are also lucky enough to have a garden, what things have you tried that have helped your local wildlife? Do you have any advice on north-facing gardens, or working with heavy clay soil? If you don’t have a garden, have you tried containers, or guerilla gardening? Or what have you observed in your local park? I would love to know what your number one plant for pollinators is, for example, or if you’ve had any success with bug-hotels or nestboxes. I truly believe that observant gardeners and dog-walkers and runners and allotment-holders have a deep pool of knowledge that should be tapped for the benefit of our wildlife, and that we have so much to learn from one another.

Blackbird in the rain ...

Blackbird in the rain …


Wednesday Weed – Greater Celandine

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…..

Greater Celandine (Chelidon majus)

Greater Celandine (Chelidon majus)

Dear Readers, a few weeks ago we had a look at Lesser Celandine, that delicate flower of shady woodland with the heart-shaped leaves and the daisy-like flowers. Today, the Greater Celandine is popping up all over my garden. It has seeded itself in one of my terracotta pots, taken up residence by my side-door and is giving the Yellow Corydalis a run for its money in my side return. In short, this is a much bolder plant than its namesake, a plant of bright light and poor soil.

IMG_2312Lesser and Greater Celandine are from completely different plant families. Lesser Celandine is a  buttercup, but Greater Celandine is a poppy. Like all of the poppy family, the plant has four petals. It also has a distinctive bright orange, latex-like sap, which is poisonous and irritating to the skin.

Greater Celandine has bright orange sap. It's poisonous, too...

Greater Celandine has bright orange sap. It’s poisonous, too…

The petals drop off at the mere touch of a hand, it seems, and the seedpods develop at a startling rate.

IMG_2311Greater Celandine was named for the Swallow (Chelidon), as it is said to bloom when they arrive, and to fade when they leave (unlike the Lesser Celandine, which is finished before the birds even turn up). There was also an ancient legend that Swallows used the flower to restore the sight of their fledglings. Why the babies needed their sight restored in the first place is lost in history, but it was believed to be useful for human eye complaints.Putting such an astringent substance into the eyes would seem to be counter-intuitive, but on the wonderful Poison Garden website,  John Robertson has an explanation:

‘……in Anglo-Saxon Medicine, M. L. Cameron explains that, when being used as an eye salve, recipes including celandine require it to be heated skilfully to become lukewarm. It is mixed with honey and the heating must take place in a brass or copper pot. The heating reduced the irritant nature of the celandine and the honey and copper salts from the pot were bactericidal so the remedy may have had some efficacy. The heating needed to be done skilfully to avoid burning.’

What the latex is useful for, however, is the curing of warts. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey states that only Comfrey and Feverfew have more statements of efficacy from the people who contributed to the volume. It has also been used for toothache (by no less a person than Queen Elizabeth I) and as a purgative.

Under the Doctrine of Signatures (which we have discussed before, here and here), the bile-coloured sap was said to give an indication that the plant could be used for liver disorders. However, in 1999 ten people were admitted to hospital with acute hepatitis following the ingestion of a remedy made with Greater Celandine. This is an indication of the need to be extremely sure what you are doing before experimenting with the powers of the plant kingdom.

IMG_2309For all its long history of medicinal use, Greater Celandine is not a native plant: along with Fallow Deer, Horse Chestnuts and central heating, it is believed to have been introduced by our old friends, the Romans. However, it has made itself very much at home with us, and is seldom found far from human habitation, like a kind of floral House Sparrow. For reasons that escape me, it is the birthday flower for October 9th, by which time it will be well and truly asleep for the year. However, for the time being it is in its prime, and I advise any readers who have not had a good look at it to stop to admire its bright little face. It’s enough to cheer up any wait at the bus stop.




Bugwoman on Location – Somerset

IMG_2075Dear Readers, when I was in Somerset last weekend, I decided to go for a walk along the hedgerow in Broadway, a village close to Ilminster. I have always been intrigued by these country paths – they hold such a mixture of plants and animals, and there is a kind of peace about them, a sense of their posterity. In this lane, for example, the level of the field is a good six feet above the level of the path, giving some idea of how it has been worn away over the years. The plant community at the base of the hedge is a splendid mixture of cow parsley and bluebell, bush vetch and stitchwort, cuckoo pint and nettle.


Cuckoo pint


Bush vetch


Greater Stitchwort


Bluebells, greater stitchwort and dandelions


Rough Chervil. Or Cow Parsley. I should have checked the leaves….

A symphony in green

A symphony in green

The hedge is hawthorn on one side, hornbeam on the other. It is tangled with honeysuckle and guelder rose. A tree has been allowed to grow at some points – this was largely as a reference point, for the days when people ploughed by horse. One of the trees is full of mistletoe.

Mistletoe in one of the trees that have been allowed to grow in the hedge.

Mistletoe in one of the trees that have been allowed to grow in the hedge.

A tree that's been allowed to grow in the hedgerow - maybe a ploughing mark?

A tree that’s been allowed to grow in the hedgerow – maybe a ploughing mark?

As I got to the bottom of the lane, the path passes a small cottage. This, my aunt Hilary tells me, is where the village cobbler used to live. The road was named ‘Paul’s Lane’ after him.

I climb a dozen steps to look into the field beside the hedgerow. Here I see some creatures that I’m fairly sure don’t live in my half-mile territory back in East Finchley.

IMG_2197IMG_2189 (2)When I was a child, I visited Wanstead Park with my little brother and parents. While we were walking through the wood, there was a rustling in the undergrowth. I stooped down to see a rabbit looking back at me. And right there and then I fell in love, not just with rabbits but with a world that has such creatures in it. It never occurred to me that a humble city child would be able to see such an animal, in the wild. Blessings on my parents’ heads for taking me out into the few unspoilt places that were available in East London.

I still feel a little excited at the sight of a rabbit, even now.

IMG_2181Just next to the field is the stream. There is a corner of unspoilt meadow there, too small to grow anything on. It was a riot of forget-me-nots and cow parsley and wild garlic.

IMG_2144The stream is a temperamental creature. At this time of year, she trickles along, bothering nobody. In a wet winter, the lower concrete part of the road is covered, and you have to use the upper bridge. Sometimes, even that is perilously close to being swamped.

IMG_2141I looked up and down the stream in the hope of seeing a kingfisher. It seemed like a perfect place for them, but today it was not to be. Maybe another day.

IMG_2140IMG_2142Now, the path enters the wood. Already, through the trees, I could see the distinctive nests of the rookery.

IMG_2167It was raining now. I tramped on, wiping the raindrops from my camera, though not altogether successfully as you’ll see from the film. The sound of the rooks was loud in the still air, and there was a constant traffic of birds flying in and out. One bird stole a stick from an unoccupied nest, and headed off to his or her own. I wondered how long the rookery had been in place? In John Lister-Kaye’s recent book ‘Gods of the Morning’ (which I recommend), he tells of how the rookery on his land has been in constant use since at least the 1860’s. It will be here until some developer decides that the land is ripe for a crop of new houses, though the risk of flooding is maybe what has protected this little patch of ancient woodland so far.

I walk past the rookery, remembering my very first visit to Broadway fifteen years ago. I walked along this path with my husband-to-be and was amazed by the smell of green garlic. It was a warm day, and the scent seemed to rise like mist from the plants on either side. I had truly never noticed Wild Garlic (or Ransons as they are sometimes known), but I could not avoid their presence here. Today, they are in full flower. I wish they would invent a way of putting smells on the internet, so that I could share it with you. And what a boon it would be to recipe websites! But I digress. For now, we’ll just have to look.

A Somerset footpath. Look at all that wild garlic!

A Somerset footpath. Look at all that wild garlic!

Wild Garlic

Wild Garlic

The rain is coming harder now, so I head for home. It’s interesting the things that you notice when you reverse your direction. The first hawthorn flowers are bursting from bud in the hedgerow, and the ferns are unfurling.

The darling buds of May

The darling buds of May

The unfurling of fern

The unfurling of fern

As the rain patters on the hood of my raincoat, I find myself looking forward to a cup of tea, and an hour’s knitting. And, as I walk into the garden, I see one last rabbit, amongst the forget-me-nots. What a great way to end my expedition.

IMG_2071 (2)

Dear Readers, since I took this walk in the lanes of Somerset, we have had a General Election. I believe that the party now in power is the most antithetical to the natural world that we have ever had . But this is no time to despair, for there is too much at stake. We will need to be vigilant, and vocal, and brave in defence of our communities, both human and non-human. We will need to work together, to learn from one another, and to listen. I do not know what our particular challenges will be, but I do know that we will need to be ready. Our rookeries, our rivers, our hedgerows, our ancient woodlands, our city greenspaces and our little patches of wild flowers, our badgers, our foxes, our rare spiders and our dragonflies will not protect themselves.







Wednesday Weed – Garlic Mustard

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…..

Garlic Mustard or Jack-by-the-Hedge (Alliaria petiolata)

Garlic Mustard or Jack-by-the-Hedge (Alliaria petiolata)

I am finding Garlic Mustard everywhere at the moment – in the cemetery, along the edge of the allotments, everywhere that is damp and shady. I also found it in the hedgerows of Somerset, where it seems very at home, peeking out from a mass of bluebells, nettles and stitchwort, and living up to its alternative name of Jack-by-the-hedge.  Its leaves are a most toothsome shade of pale green, and smell slightly of garlic when crushed. The four-petalled flowers are in a cross or  ‘cruciform’ shape (hence ‘crucifers’): this is an indicator that we are dealing with a member of the Brassica, or cabbage family. Many of this family share Garlic Mustard’s pungency: some have that familiar school-dinners sulphur smell when squashed or cooked, and other have the stronger notes of mustard or horseradish. Human beings appear to have been using Garlic Mustard to spice their food for a very long time: seeds of the plant were found in pots that are over 6000 years old, along with mammal and fish remains, suggesting that some kind of stew had been made with Garlic Mustard as a flavouring. The plant has much higher Vitamin A and Vitamin C levels than most commercially-grown fruit and vegetables (8,600 units/100g and 190 mcg/100g respectively), and so would have been an excellent choice as a pot-herb or flavouring.

IMG_2041The mustard flavour is not there for our benefit, of course. Deer seem to dislike the taste, and so it goes largely unforaged. However, the scent attracts the midges and hoverflies that are its main pollinators. It is also the foodplant of the Orange-tip Butterfly caterpillar, and the long green larvae particularly like the seed pods of the plant. The caterpillars  seem to be perfectly matched, in shape and colour,  to the seedpods, which are their favourite part of the plant.

Orange-tip butterfly caterpillar (By jean-pierre Hamon (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Orange-tip butterfly caterpillar (By jean-pierre Hamon (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Garlic Mustard later in the year - look how closely the seedpods resemble the caterpillar! ("Alliaria petiolata - garlic mustard - desc-flowers buds seedpods". Licencja: CC BY-SA 3.0 na podstawie Wikimedia Commons -

Garlic Mustard later in the year – look how closely the seedpods resemble the caterpillar!

I saw my first Orange-tip butterflies today, jousting above a patch of Garlic Mustard. I shall have to go back later to see if I can see any eggs. They are the colour of barley-sugar, as elegant as the butterfly that made them.

Orange-tip butterfly egg (By Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Orange-tip butterfly egg (By Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Orange-tip butterfly (By Michael H. Lemmer ( Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Orange-tip butterfly (By Michael H. Lemmer ( Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

In the UK, Garlic Mustard is part of a mix of woodland flora, and behaves like a responsible part of the plant community. In eastern North America, however, it has become something of a problem plant. In the UK, 69 species of insect feed on the plant, but across the Atlantic nothing does. Occasionally, butterflies that are related to our Orange-tip lay their eggs on the plant, because it looks similar to native crucifers, but the larvae sicken and die. Deer mostly disdain Garlic Mustard, as they do here. Furthermore, the plant seems to produce chemicals which inhibit the growth of other plants. This chemical warfare doesn’t happen in the plant’s natural range, possibly because defences have evolved to keep everything in balance. However, I note that Garlic Mustard was first imported to America as a food plant in 1800, and wonder whether it has always been a problem, or if something else has changed which has made it more vigorous than it was previously? As always, these things are not simple.

However, it’s fair to say that the plant is being given a run for its money. There are Garlic Mustard Pulling competitions, where different areas compete to see how much of the plant they can eradicate. There are many recipes online for tasty ways to use Garlic Mustard once you’ve pulled it up: here is a Garlic Mustard Roulade  and here we have some Garlic Mustard Hummous. Both of these sound rather good, and would be fun if you have a superabundance of the plant. More drastic measures include the application of herbicides such as glyphosate, and even use of controlled fires.  But I suspect that, in the end, the plant and its environment will come to some kind of accommodation, even if the timescale is one that humans will find it rather difficult to live with. Having taken a living thing from its normal habitat for our own purposes, we are now left with the consequences of our actions. Let’s hope that the remedy doesn’t prove worst than the disease.

Garlic Mustard growing in North Eastern England ( © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Garlic Mustard growing in North Eastern England (© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)





Green and Gold

Dear Readers, I am off to Somerset today and may not have internet access, so I am publishing my Saturday blog on Friday. Have a good weekend!

St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

On Tuesday, I went for a walk with a good friend. She is reeling from a series of unexpected bereavements and yet, like me, she derives comfort from walking in the semi-wilderness of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery’s Victorian greenery. There, amongst the bluebells and the blackbirds there is a sense of perspective. For all the grief that death causes, it is, in the end, just a way of recycling the elements that came originally from the hearts of stars. Nothing is ever truly created or destroyed, just transmuted into another form. The materials that made us become speckled wood butterflies and cowslips, thrushes and hoverflies.

IMG_2016As we walked along one of the paths, a marble tomb set with vases of bright red fabric roses glowed out. There was certainly no missing them – they were beacons amongst the softer creams and golds and blues of the real flowers. I am not personally a great fan of artificial blooms, but I am not standing in judgement. They speak to those of us who are still alive. They say ‘the people beneath these tombstone have not been forgotten’. They say ‘someone cares about this tomb’.

Of course, the people in the other tombs may not have been forgotten either. It might just be that their relatives and friends prefer other forms of remembrance – that moment when a certain song plays on the radio, or a photo on a mantelpiece, or a hushed conversation when someone remembers something the departed did. Some grave-visiting is a form of public celebration. Some of it is a ritual. Some of it, for some people, is a way of communing with the person who’s gone.

We came across one grave which was almost invisible under plants, photos, ornaments, ribbons. I remembered that this was the grave of a woman who died in her thirties, back in the 1980’s. Every week, her widower comes to tend the grave, to have a conversation with her, and to feed the foxes with the remains of his sandwiches. How extraordinary, this love that has lasted for thirty years since the last ‘real’ words between these two.

On another grave, a red rose in a pot, fallen on its side and dry as a bone. Sometimes, people don’t even take the plants out of their cellophane wrapping. My friend picked it up, looked at it. We spotted one of the many downpipes at the end of the path.

“I’m going to sort this out”, she said. She ripped the cellophane from around the pot, and threw it in the bin. Then she put the plant under the water and waited until it was well soaked.

“I reckon that’ll do alright”, I said. The plant was on the edge of giving up, but not quite.

My friend put it back at the side of the grave, wedging it upright with a stone.

“I hope so”, she said.

We both straightened up and looked around.

IMG_2024It had brightened up. And along the edge of the main path through the cemetery was a sea of yellow flowers: it was the largest gathering of dandelions in bloom that I had ever seen in my life, each one a little sun. Bees buzzed lazily over them, collecting the pollen they needed to raise their babies. How extraordinary nature is when left to herself! I rejoiced that the people who managed the cemetery weren’t intent on blasting every ‘weed’ into submission.

IMG_2025On we went, passing the fresh green leaves and four-petalled flowers of Garlic Mustard, the shy purple faces of Dog Violet.

IMG_2040I saw something fly out from the woods and land on a tombstone.

IMG_2031“Green woodpecker!” I said, digging out my camera. The bird was a long way away, and it was going to be hard to get a shot. As you can see.

“Where?” said Jo.

“On that last tombstone”, I said.

“Blimey missus, you’ve got good eyes”, she said. But really, it’s just that when you have a passion for something, you are alert for the slightest glimpse of the beloved.

The bird looked around and then jumped down onto the ground.

IMG_2034I could see it hammering away at something in the grass. We crept closer. A car went past. Green Woodpeckers are shy, and I was sure that we wouldn’t be able to get too close, but the bird ignored the vehicle. We advanced a little further. The bird still seemed perfectly relaxed.  And then, finally, it startled and flew up, into the trees.

When we got to where the bird had been, I saw what he had been hammering at.

IMG_2038There was the raised dome of an ants’ nest, and in it were three or four deep holes. I remembered that Green Woodpeckers love ants, but didn’t realise that they would try to dismantle a nest to get at them.

The holes, in the hard ground, were a good inch deep. I was impressed. Just as a Great Spotted Woodpecker hammers into wood, so a Green Woodpecker turns the same instinct groundwards.

We turned to head for home. We walked along a mossy path, past ground covered with the last of the Lesser Celandine. Every so often, we turned up the face of a bluebell to check the colour of the pollen – white for the English Bluebell, bright turquoise for the Spanish one. They were mostly English. And, as we did this, I heard a bird alarm call that I didn’t recognise. It was a deep, loud tick, almost like the sonar used by dolphins to detect their prey. And then, a small grey bird wearing what looked like a jet-black fur hat flew out of a sycamore sapling and into an ivy-covered tree.

“Blackcap”, I said, and what followed were a few bursts of liquid, melodious song, all the more beautiful for being so brief, and for being followed so suddenly by silence.

What better resting place than here amongst the bluebells, serenaded by blackcaps? And what better way of restoring ones spirits than a walk around this peaceful resting place?

Cemetary and Parakeets 007