Dear Readers, it has been a difficult couple of weeks. A fortnight ago, my Dad was rushed into hospital with a suspected heart attack and chest infection, which turned into blood poisoning. For a few days he was delirious and didn’t even know who my Mum was, after 58 years of marriage. It is so hard to watch the people that you love suffer, and to feel so helpless, and my heart went out to my Mum, who is not well herself. But praise be for antibiotics, because after ten days in hospital my Dad was well enough to come home, and is now gradually getting back to his usual wry, patient self.
And so it was a rather wrung-out, raw Bugwoman who took herself off to Coldfall Wood to see what had been going on in her absence. And after about fifteen minutes, I started to notice the extraordinary mix of flora that is coming into bloom along by the stream. First of all, there was this plant.
This is Himalayan Honeysuckle which, as the name suggests, is native to the Himalayas and south west China. I’ve noticed it a few times, not just in Coldfall but in Highgate Wood as well. It is also known as Flowering Nutmeg, and is considered invasive in Australia. Here, it doesn’t seem to be a particular problem, though it does grow to about 8 feet tall, and has bamboo-like stems that could, at a pinch, be mistaken for old friend Japanese Knotweed. Further along by the stream, the whole plant had collapsed, and I wondered if it had been unmercifully attacked. In fact, my plant books tell me that when the plant reaches a certain height, it faints away like a Victorian Lady who has glimpsed some naked male pectorals, and then regrows from the roots.
Right opposite the Himalayan Honeysuckle there was an unexpected snack, in the form of a little stand of Raspberries. It’s easy to forget that these plants are natives, and indeed the only time that I ever contracted a tick was when I was standing up to my armpits in a patch of wild yellow raspberries in Scotland. I assume that the plants here have been transported from the gardens on the road above by the stream. At any rate, I have to say that the one in the middle of the photo was absolutely delicious, and that there is something about sun-warmed fruit that does wonders for the spirit.
It surprises me how quiet it can be in the wood during the day, when most people are at work, the dog walkers have largely been and gone, and the children are all in school. The only bird song came from the Song Thrush, which is sad, because it means that he hasn’t been successful in finding a mate this year – Song Thrushes stop singing when they are paired up, unlike most birds who will continue to defend their territory with sound.
There were lots of insects about: a tiny capsid bug stayed long enough to get a photograph before flying away. Capsid bugs are ‘true’ bugs, insects that use tubular mouthparts to bore into a plant and suck its sap. Aphids are the best known ‘real’ bugs, but most go about their business unremarked, doing little damage and living out their life cycles without us even knowing what they are. If I looked hard enough, I would be willing to bet that there are insect species here that are unknown to science, as there are in most suburban gardens. For a great insight into the sheer biodiversity that is all around us, I recommend ‘Wildlife of a Garden – A Thirty Year Study’ by Jennifer Owen.
Entangled with the other plants was that distinctive scrambler, Woody Nightshade, or Bittersweet. Later in the year, it will have bright-red berries that are extremely poisonous, but also very bitter – the author of the Poison Garden website, John Robertson, has bravely tasted a couple, just so that we don’t have to . One look at the flowers will tell a gardener that this is a member of the same family that gives us tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, the Solanaceae. This family also provides us with Deadly Nightshade, but that is a small price to pay for chips and pasta al arrabiata.
There are several bushes with bright yellow flowers and rather attractive blushing berries along by the stream. I took one look, and thought ‘these have escaped from nearby gardens’. And indeed, maybe they have, but the story is a little more complicated than this.
Tutsan is actually a native plant, a member of the St John’s Wort family. Its name is said to come from toute saine meaning ‘all-healthy’, and it is mentioned in Culpeper’s 1653 Herbal as being useful for gout and sciatica, and for healing burns. So, while these individual plants might have escaped, this is a plant with a long and venerable wild history. Which just goes to show how much there is to learn every time I step outside, and how things are never exactly as they seem.
I turn for home.
What a delicate and yet upright little plant this is, another favourite of herbalists, particularly John Gerard, the seventeenth-century plant healer. This is a common plant but I had never noticed it before, so I was delighted to add another species to my list of Deadnettles. A large bumblebee was obviously enjoying it as I arrived, and it reminded me that plants don’t have to have large, showy flowers to be full of nectar.
I was nearly out of the wood when it gave me another gift.
When this insect first landed, I thought that it was an ichneumon wasp or somesuch, but in fact it is a very handsome beetle. The larvae spend up to three years maturing in rotting wood, and then emerge, fresh-minted like this one. The beetle visits the flowers of cow parsley and Queen Anne’s lace (and helps to pollinate these plants in the process), finds a mate and the cycle begins all over again. And indeed, I managed to get just this single shot before the beetle lurched into the air again and headed off on his reproductive quest.
So, I headed back home, renewed by more than just my filched raspberry. There is something about walking in familiar places and deepening our knowledge of them that reminds me of the process of building a friendship, or even a marriage. We see the loved one in all moods and all weathers. Sometimes, as today, the whole wood feels open and generous. Other days, the wood seems closed and morose, and I need to be patient until I see what it is she needs me to see. I have never had such a relationship with a place before, and yet it feels as true as many human partnerships that I’ve had, and truer than some. I would recommend the slow burn of getting to know somewhere profoundly, over years or decades, especially in our fast-paced, easily-distracted, superficial society. We should all have a place that has become part of our heart.