Monthly Archives: November 2015

Beech Hedge


Mum and Dad’s beech hedge (Fagus sylvatica)

Dear Readers, when I was visiting my parents’ house in Dorset this week for my mother’s 80th birthday, the peace of the autumn was disrupted by the whine of the hedge-trimmer. My parents have the most spectacular beech hedge surrounding their little bungalow, fully twelve feet high and three feet thick, and every year Ian the tree surgeon comes to cut it for them. This is a two day job, involving standing on scaffolding to reach the top, and trimming the sides with meticulous care, for Ian is a perfectionist, and by the end the hedge would grace any stately home. However, I think even Mum and Dad’s hedge will have to wait a while before it can match the Meikleour beech hedge in Blairgowrie, Scotland. This one was planted in 1745, and is said to grow towards heaven because the men who planted it were killed at the Battle of Culloden. It is the longest and tallest hedge on earth, reaching 100 feet tall and 1/3rd of a mile in length. Furthermore, unlike my parents’ hedge, this one is only trimmed once every ten years.

"620-250 Year old Beech Hedg" by MichaelDFowler - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

The Meikleour beech hedge (Photo credits below)

Beech is one of the few deciduous trees that carries its leaves all year, a phenomenon known as marcescence ( how I love finding a new word – I shall be trying to slip this one into the conversation for the rest of the week). It’s thought that the retention of these leaves may make the spring buds less palatable to grazing animals, and indeed beeches which are pruned (an act which must surely feel to the plant like particularly heavy browsing) are most inclined to keep their leaves. Whatever the reason, one of the distinctive sounds of November for me is the gentle rustling of the browning foliage as it clings to the twigs and interstices of the hedge.

Birds love the beech hedge. It is a valuable roosting place for them, providing more cover during the cold winter nights than a leafless haven might do. Indeed, the noise of sparrows was positively deafening today as I left Mum and Dad’s house to travel down to London. In the spring, the sparrows, wrens and blackbirds all nest in the branches, safely tucked away from predators.

IMG_4958When Mum and Dad first moved into the house, their first thought was to cut the hedge down. It makes some parts of the bungalow quite shady and secluded. But a neighbour advised them against it.

‘The prevailing wind comes right down the hill’, he said. ‘I’d stick it out for the winter and see what you think in the spring’.

The hedge stayed.

IMG_4964In my garden, I also have a mixed hedge, with beech as a large component. In the spring, I love the way that the new leaves unfurl through a gossamer-like covering, as if they were wrapped in cobwebs. I love the deep chocolate brown of the leaves, and the way that they fade to copper, and yellow, and lime-green. My sad little hedge has not yet produced any nuts, nor will it for a while: a beech may produce some beechmast, as the fruits are called, at ten years of age, but will need to be at least thirty before they are produced in any quantity. Even then they will be occasional, rather than regular, events: the production may be related to hot, dry summers, but even so the beechmast is rarely produced for two years in a row. When it does appear, however, it is a bonanza for everything from badgers to squirrels, tits to finches. Some of the seeds will, of course, be buried, leading to the development of new beech seedlings in the spring.

"European Beech" by photo en:User:MPF - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Beech mast (Photo credit below)

There is some debate about the origins of beech in the UK. Some think that it arrived in the south of England about 2000 years after the English Channel was formed, and that it was carried here by Neolithic people, who probably used the nuts for food. Others suggest that the plant predates this. Officially, the plant is described as native in the south of England and south-east Wales, and as ‘widely planted’ elsewhere. The nuts can be pressed to make oil, although this doesn’t seem to have taken off in the same way that Hazelnut oil has. The leaves, when young, can be eaten, and can also be turned into an alcoholic drink called Beech-leaf noyau. If you fancy having a go, there’s a recipe for Beech Leaf Gin here, though my dad, an ex-gin distiller for Gordon’s Gin, would no doubt be horrified.

IMG_4963The timber from beech trees was largely used for firewood – in Roman times, it was used to supply the fuel for ironworks. However, one specialised use of the wood was for the manufacture of chairs, and a specialised company of these carpenters, called bodgers, existed in High Wycombe right up until the early years of the twentieth century. These men lived in hovels in the beech woods, and made the chair legs for the Windsor Chair, so-called because it was sold by dealers in Windsor. The bodger felled the beech trees (he would buy a stand of trees from an estate), cut it into chair leg sized pieces, and turn the wood on a lathe to produce the part required. The legs would then be left to stand, or season, until ready to be turned into furniture. Each man could turn out 144 legs a day. However, for working six days a week, ten hours a day, he was likely to earn only £1.50 per week. I wonder if this combination of high productivity and low wages led to the use of the word ‘bodger’ as a description for someone with more enthusiasm for DIY than ability.

"Windsor Chair Sack Back Armchair cr". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia -

A Windsor chair (Photo credit below)

A beech tree was often seen as a safe haven in storms, because it was protective against lightning. It was also said that no harm would come to anyone sheltered under its branches, and that any prayers uttered there would ascend straight to heaven, unhindered. How appropriate that, when turned into a hedge, beech becomes the protector not only of houses, but of all the small creatures who might otherwise be buffeted by wind and weather. It seems to cradle all things, big and small, in its rustling, brown-leaved branches.

IMG_4956Photo Credits

Meikleour Hedge – “620-250 Year old Beech Hedg” by MichaelDFowler – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Beech mast – “European Beech” by photo en:User:MPF – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Windsor Chair – “Windsor Chair Sack Back Armchair cr”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia –

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer



Wednesday Weed – Perforate St John’s-wort

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…..

Perforate St John's-wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Perforate St John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Dear Readers, last week I was exploring the car park at East Finchley tube station when I came across a plant that was entirely new to me – Perforate St John’s-wort. My copy of Harrap’s Wild Flowers describes it as ‘abundant, and by far the commonest St John’s-wort’. This may be so, but it’s fair to say that it’s a retiring and delicate plant, easily overshadowed by the more assertive ‘weeds’ that grow in the same habitat. It is easy to see that it’s a member of the same family as Rose of Sharon and Tutsan – it has five petals, a shaving-brush of stamen, and that butter-yellow colour that is so characteristic of the family. If you break a flower-bud, a reddish-purple liquid is produced.

IMG_4919But why on earth is it called ‘Perforate’? If we look closely at the leaves, we can see that they are covered in tiny translucent ‘windows’. These are resin glands, and are said to be responsible for the ‘foxy’ smell of the species, though I was not inclined to molest the small number of plants that I discovered to find out.

IMG_4935 (2)

By Matt Flavin

A great shot of the translucent spots from underneath – photo credit below.

Although this is a new plant to me, it is a native of Europe and Asia and has a long history of interaction with humans. Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) describes how, since prehistoric times, this plant was burned on the Midsummer Day Fires that were set all over the country. It was believed that these fires would purify communities and crops, and Perforate St. John’s-wort was one of the ‘sun-herbs’ which were thrown into the fire, probably because its yellow colour was thought to strengthen the power of the sun, while the smoke from the fires protected the fields against more malevolent summer manifestations, such as drought and wildfires.

Another story, attributed to the peoples of both the Isle of Man and the Isle of Wight is that if you accidentally stood on Perforate St-John’s-wort at night, you would promptly be carried off on a fairy horse from which you could not dismount until sunrise. By then, you could be anywhere, and would need to find your own way home. I find this such a delightful idea that I was almost tempted to creep back to the car park at dead of night with a thermos flask, some sandwiches and an Oyster card, just to see what would happen.

IMG_4927Later, as has so often been the case, the plant was absorbed by Christianity – the Feast of St John the Baptist is on June 24th, and so this pagan plant was renamed as a Christian one. The genus name Hypericum is supposedly derived from the Greek words Hyper (above) and eikon (holy picture), to describe the way that the plants were hung above icons on St. John’s day to protect the house against the evil eye. In a combination of the pagan and Christian uses of the plant, the flower-buds were gathered on 24th June, crushed and steeped in olive-oil, to produce a blood-red liquid that was called ‘Blood of Christ’ and was used for anointing.

IMG_4925The reason that most of us have heard of St John’s-wort, however, is because of its use as an anti-depressant. Reviews of the use of the plant have regularly indicated that it is more effective than a placebo for patients with major depression, as useful as standard anti-depressants in mild to moderate depression, and that it has fewer side-effects. It should be noted, however, that the studies performed in German-speaking countries (where herbal medicine is an accepted part of many treatment regimes)  returned much more positive results than those conducted in the US (where there is more reliance on synthetic medicines) (for more details see here). There is no doubt that this is a medicinally active and potent plant, and should therefore (as with all plant remedies) be treated with respect – it decreases the levels of oestrogen in the body by speeding up the rate with which the hormone is metabolised, and so may decrease the efficacy of the contraceptive pill. It may cause photosensitivity, and is also associated with aggravating psychosis and mania in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I do note, however, that all these are also potential side-effects of many standard anti-depressants. I suspect that the main danger of this plant is using it alongside conventional anti-depressant drugs, and hence doubling up the dose of psychoactive chemicals. It also interacts with many other medications, including statins and HIV treatment protocols. Even so, it is given several pages on the website of Mind, the main UK mental health charity, and many people swear that using Perforate St John’s-wort has given them relief from the symptoms of anxiety and depression. So much power in a plant discovered at the back of a car park in North London!

By Prof. Dr. Thomé, Otto Wilhelm ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit below.

As with so many plants that I have discovered through The Wednesday Weed, Perforate St John’s-wort has proved to be a problem in countries to which it is not native, especially Australia and the US. It is poisonous to grazing livestock if ingested in large quantities (indeed in Russia it is known as Zveroboi, or ‘beast-killer’), and some of the side-effects suffered by humans, such as photosensitivity and mania, are exhibited in animals unfortunate enough to have dined extensively on the plant. It is said that one of the effects of the plant is to make the suffering animal run in circles, resulting in strange ‘crop-circles’. The poisoned animal may be terrified of water, or may become so obsessed with it that it drowns. Fortunately, in places in which it is native it is unusual to see Perforate St.John’s-wort growing in anything like the quantities needed to cause these effects, but see the photo below of the plant growing in Australia for an idea of how densely-packed it can become.

By Peripitus (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Perforate St. John’s-wort in Belair National Park, Australia. Photo credit below

What a remarkable plant this is. Its chemical composition means that it can both cure and poison, relieve distress and cause suffering. Of all the plants that I’ve featured on The Wednesday Weed, it is the one that has given me the most pause for thought. Modern Western society largely despises the healing power of plants, and is disrespectful of their undoubted power to heal or harm. In many places in the world, only a manufactured drug is considered efficacious, even though it may be originally derived from plants. Thank goodness for the people all over the world who are curious and knowledgeable about their botanical heritage, and who are working to preserve this priceless information for generations to come. Now, we just need to make sure that we also preserve the plants themselves.

Photo Credits

Perforated Leaves – By Matt Flavin

Illustration of Perforate St John’s-wort – By Prof. Dr. Thomé, Otto Wilhelm ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Field of Perforate St.John’s-wort in Australia – By Peripitus (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer


Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey

The Plant Lives website curated by Sue Eland

In East Finchley Station Car Park

IMG_4945Dear Readers, we often underestimate the power of small spaces. Today, I decided to have a look at the car park beside East Finchley Station. It’s an unpromising area, with a steep embankment beside the tube lines themselves, and then lots of small isolated areas of greenery. To the right is the red-brick MacDonalds training centre (though the good people of East Finchley fought off the possibility of an actual MacDonalds) and the back of the Diploma Court apartment complex. I wasn’t hoping for much in the way of biodiversity, but, not having a car, I had never had cause to visit. I just hoped that my camera-wielding presence wasn’t going to cause any problems in these security-conscious times.

The N2 Community Garden

The N2 Community Garden

As I walked towards the car park, I discovered that someone had been busy on the minute strip of steeply-sloping, partially-shaded ground by the station wall. There were two tiny vegetable gardens, one mostly empty, the other showing a good harvest of rainbow and swiss chard. There was a little sign saying ‘No Litter’, next to a discarded coffee cup, and another sign saying ‘N2 Community Garden’.

A vegetable bed in the N2 Community Garden

A vegetable bed in the N2 Community Garden

IMG_4896I was delighted to see how insect-friendly this little plot of land was, though whether by direct design or by restraint when ‘weeding’ I’m not sure. There was borage, still in flower at this late stage of the year, white and red dead-nettle, hardy geraniums and ivy, and a Mahonia, already a mass of spiky sherbet-yellow flowers. Whatever time of year they emerge, queen bumblebees will find something to feed on here. What a good job this tiny garden is doing.

IMG_4901 IMG_4899 IMG_4903 IMG_4904 IMG_4898I marched on into the car park itself. The tube trains rattle into the station every few moments. Nearly every parking space is taken. What a barren place it looks! And yet, there are tiny islands of green, full of ribwort plantain and purple toadflax, dandelions and feverfew, nipplewort and thistles.

IMG_4908 IMG_4909And, as I got close to the back of Diploma Court I could see where the municipal planting of pyracantha, probably for security purposes, was pouring over the fence in a sea of red and orange and yellow. Tangled up amongst all the primary colours were the black berries of ivy. This is a feast for thrushes of all kinds, from blackbirds to fieldfares to redwings, and, if we’re lucky, even waxwings if they pay us a visit this year.

IMG_4916 IMG_4915 IMG_4914 IMG_4913By the pay machines, little hummocks of moss were turning the smallest pieces of detritus into soil in those spots where cars didn’t crush everything. Tiny buddleia plants were emerging from every chink in the tarmac carpet. I had a sudden flash forward to a world when cars didn’t exist, and the plants had taken over – would this space be a honey-scented buddleia forest? It seemed the most likely immediate progression.

I marched on. I passed the sub-station with its menacing hum, as if it contained a huge swarm of electric hornets. I counted three signs warning of the danger of death from electrocution in the space of ten feet of wall. But at the bottom of the protective chain-link fence, a clump of Herb Robert was still in full flower.

IMG_4936 IMG_4943At the very back of the car park, there was a ramshackle collection of more ribwort plantain and pruned buddleia. But there was also another plant, strangely delicate for this hard-bitten area. Its flowers were five petalled, bright yellow and full of fluffy stamen which reminded me of Tutsan or Rose of Sharon. It shook gently in the breeze. I had never seen it before, but I have a feeling that I’m looking at a species of St. John’s Wort, famous for its anti-depressive properties and a most worthy candidate for a Wednesday Weed all of its own.

A mystery St John's Wort...

A mystery St John’s Wort…

I head back to the High Street. I note that the N2 Community Garden folk have hung baskets full of flowering heather on the tree.


And above us, about to fire into Cherry Tree Wood, is the Archer, his bow drawn back, his brow furrowed as he searches for the deer that used to walk here, but that are long gone. Yet, I have the feeling that the power of life to survive in the most hostile of conditions, and to adapt when those situations change is the lesson here. In a week which has seen so much human-induced misery, it is good to remember that our troubles, overwhelming as they seem to us, do not count for much at all when seen against the greater power of leaf and seed.


Wednesday Weed – Daisy

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…..

Daisy (Bellis perennis)

Daisy (Bellis perennis)

Dear Readers, when I was a small girl I was prone to what were euphemistically called ‘bilious attacks’. These resulted in plenty of sleepless nights for my poor mother, and lots of changing of the bedsheets. What I remember most from these episodes is a cool hand on my forehead, and my mum singing the following song.

‘Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do.

I’m half-crazy, all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage.

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle made for two’.

This always seemed to do the trick, and I wonder if my mother sung it with a certain relish because she and dad did, indeed, have a tandem bicycle when they were courting. Once when they were riding it in Stratford Broadway, it got stuck in the tramlines and both my parents fell off. Mum never forgot that Dad went to pick up the bike before he rescued her, but all must have been forgiven. After all, they were married, and I had arrived.

IMG_4844Is there anything more homely, more gentle and more ubiquitous than a daisy? It’s often the first flower to show its face, and the lawn in front of the flats next to the cemetery has hundreds still in full bloom in early November. It is a flower of childhood, of a more innocent time. I remember making daisy chains on hot summer days, and adding the flowers to the bunches of buttercups and grasses that my brother and I picked when went to ‘the country’ for the day (often Waltham Abbey or Buckhurst Hill).

"William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Daisies (1894)" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau - This file is lacking source information.Please edit this file's description and provide a source.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

“William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Daisies (1894)

Daisy is a corruption of the phrase ‘Day’s Eye’, as the plant closes at night and opens during the day time. Its Latin name, Bellis perennis, is said to mean ‘Pretty Everlasting’. And at a time when flower names for girls are coming back into fashion (I’ve heard quite a lot of calls for ‘Lily’ and ‘Poppy’ in my local coffee shop) surely it can’t be too long until Daisy makes a comeback. It was, after all, the name of the heroine in The Great Gatsby, and is also the name of one of my closest friends.

IMG_4836Daisies have also been used medicinally. Roman slaves who were accompanying surgeons into war picked sackfuls of daisies – the juice was extracted and used to soak the bandages that bound up the spear and sword wounds. One interpretation of the Latin name of the plant suggests that the Bellis does not relate to prettiness, but rather to war (as in belligerent and bellicose). It interests me that this plant, so closely associated with innocence, may have such a war-like connection.

In Austrian medicine, the plant is used as a tea for respiratory and gastrointestinal purposes. The flowers have also been used to garnish salads and desserts, though I’d advise against picking them from areas where they may have been subjected to herbicides and dog-contamination. Daisies may look pretty, but they are also tough, and grow in some of the most polluted places in our urban areas.

IMG_4837Although each ‘daisy’ looks like a single flower, they are in fact a collection of small, tightly packed individual flowers or florets – this arrangement is known as a capitulum. The bright yellow centre contains ‘disc-florets’, which are surrounded by elongated petal-like ‘ray florets’. If you look closely at the photo below you can see that some of the disc-florets are opening, revealing their flower-like character. Our simple daisy turns out not to be so simple after all.

"Bellis perennis white (aka)" by André Karwath aka Aka - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons -

Daisy flower – not one big flower, but a collection of disc-florets and ray-florets. Photo credit below

Photo Credits

Daisy flower close-up at the end of the post  – “Bellis perennis white (aka)” by André Karwath aka Aka – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons –

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

A New Squirrel

An autumn drey

An autumn drey

Dear Readers, one of the delights of autumn is that, once the leaves come off, I can see what’s been going on in the whitebeam tree in the garden. This year, what has been revealed are two and a half squirrel dreys, which are great balls of dead leaves, normally stuck into the V at the conjunction of two or more branches. They can be used as nests, for mothers with babies, or as overnight shelters. Those built by young squirrels are less secure than those built by experienced adults, and indeed one of the dreys in my garden is already disintegrating. However, the one in the picture is still very much inhabited.

As you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time away from my house during the past few months, so it was a real pleasure to be able to top up my own bird feeders on Friday. While I was in the shed, I heard the rustle of dead leaves and the skitter of nails on bark. I peered outside to see two young squirrels skidding down the tree trunk. They saw me, thumped onto the roof of the shed and bounced off into next door’s garden, leaving me stunned at their sheer turn of speed.

This morning, I saw a tabby cat, ears back and tail between its legs, galloping across the garden, hotly pursued by what looked like one of yesterday’s squirrels. A magpie was also put to flight unceremoniously. When all the predators were put to flight the squirrel retired to the tree, where s/he growled and flicked her tail for a few moments. And then, s/he settled down and started the job of clearing all of the nuts out of the new terracotta feeder that I bought a few weeks ago.

IMG_4856I don’t think I’ve ever seen a squirrel with such an extraordinarily long tail. It seems to stream behind like a pennant. And there is a lot of streaming to be done, because no sooner have the peanuts been raided than the squirrel heads off to bury them under the yew bush. Grey squirrels have been known to pretend to horde food if they think another squirrel is watching, going through all the motions of digging a hole but then retreating to actually cache the nuts elsewhere. This implies that squirrels have a ‘theory of mind’, – they can intuit what another animal is thinking. This is a great hurdle that scientists and philosophers expect animals to jump over before they can be admitted to the realm of animals worth paying attention to. As more and more animals are shown to have this attribute, no doubt we’ll soon have to find some other way of differentiating ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom.

IMG_4868Grey squirrels will also ‘scatter-horde’ – this means that they will hide their food temporarily in a location close to the food source, and will later dig it up and bury it in another location. This enables them to take advantage of a sudden rich source of food (like a recently-filled terracotta bird-feeder for example) without having to waste time finding a hiding-place for it. Grey squirrels do not hibernate deeply, and so will emerge whenever they need food. It’s been shown that the squirrels have a very good spatial memory, which is just as well as they may make several thousand caches during each season. As some of these nuts and seeds will not be needed and will germinate, they also play a role in spreading plants from one location to another. They will also dig up bulbs (especially tulips) and plant them elsewhere, leading to some surprising emergences and absences during April and May.

IMG_4871I know that some people won’t share my view, but i rather like being visited by squirrels. Yes, they eat ridiculous quantities of expensive sunflower seeds, but I have found that they prefer the rather cheaper peanuts, and so they now have a supply of these all for themselves. Like all wild animals, they can be messy and anarchic by our standards, but then life is messy and anarchic and unpredictable, and we kid ourselves if we think we’re ever truly in control of anything.  When I watch their ceaseless vigilance and hectic activity, I’m reminded that for the squirrel the finding and caching of food is a life-or-death activity, but that my solving a database issue or sorting out my malfunctioning printer is not. Time spent in the company of plants and animals is truly balm for the over-heated brain.






Wednesday Weed – Bittersweet

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…..


Bittersweet (Solanum dulcanara)

Dear Readers, many years ago I lived in a flat which looked out onto Wanstead Flats, an area of ancient common land in east London. Cows used to graze there during the spring and summer, and they  occasionally wandered into my tiny front garden, where they ate all the daffodils and tore out the winter-flowering pansies. If I threw open my front door to remonstrate they merely raised their heads, blossoms dangling from their jaws and a look of complete indifference on their faces. Sometimes they would make their sedate way up the side of the block to the car park and back ‘garden’, which was a mass of concrete split occasionally by thistles and dandelions, and even these would be mulched down by my bovine visitors. The only plants that survived were the brambles tumbling onto my ‘patio’ from the house next door, and the great knotted thickets of Bittersweet that scrambled through it.


Bittersweet (or Woody Nightshade) can be found in most woodlands and looks like some exotic vine, with its purple and canary-yellow flowers, and translucent cerise berries. Its leaves are said to smell of burnt rubber.  It is a member of the Solanum genus, which includes tomatoes, aubergines and potatoes, but also Deadly Nightshade, for which this plant is sometimes mistaken, although the berries of Deadly Nightshade are black.

David Hawgood [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) berries. Photo credits below

The red berries of Bittersweet look delicious, but John Robertson, the author of my go-to blog on ‘dangerous’ plants The Poison Garden, states that they have an extremely bitter taste, which does not become sweet regardless of the length of time that they are chewed. A nine year-old girl did die of what appeared to be Bittersweet poisoning in 1948, but she must have been either very hungry, or, as Robertson speculates, have had an impaired sense of taste in order to eat enough for a fatal dose. However the Modern Herbal website suggests that the name Bittersweet refers to the taste of the root and stem rather than the berries. I wonder if the berries merely look as if they should be sweet, and in fact taste disappointingly bitter? The species name ‘dulcamara’ means ‘sweet-bitter’, and maybe this is the simplest explanation.


The genus name, ‘Solanum’ is said to have derived from the Latin phrase for ‘ease’ or ‘solace’, and it has been suggested that the plants were used for their sedative properties. Another name for the plant, ‘Felonweed’, refers to its use for abscesses of the fingers or toes (known as whitlows these days, but formerly known as felons). Bittersweet has also been used for a variety of skin conditions, including eczema and scrofula.

In the UK, a garland of Bittersweet used to be hung around the necks of sheep who were suspected by their shepherds to be under the ‘evil eye’, and horses that appeared to be ‘hag-ridden’ were given a necklace of Bittersweet and Holly. In Lincolnshire it was pigs who were protected with Bittersweet. Writing about this, I find I have a lump in my throat as I think about the days when farm animals were seen as individuals, with needs and personalities, rather than as the generic production units that they have so often become today. This attention to the needs of the animals in our care, this strange tenderness, still lingers on in small farms and in wild places, but has no place in an intensive pig unit or a battery farm or a mega-dairy. So many animals pass from farm to plate not only ungarlanded, but unregarded, their short, miserable lives a testament to our ability to separate ourselves from the creatures that surround us, and to our tendency to inflict things on others just because we can.

But, as usual, I digress.


Bittersweet – unripe berries

ittersweet wasn’t seen as protective only for animals. It is a native plant in the UK, but is also found in northern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. I have mentioned the Plant Lives website before, and in her entry on Bittersweet, Sue Eland mentions that the plant is found

‘on the third collarette of Tut’ankhamun’s third coffin, and shows the fruit threaded on strips of date palm’.

The collar appears to have been made up of red Bittersweet berries and blue glass beads and it seems that the Egyptians also had a tradition in which the plant was protective.

There is something about Bittersweet that makes me think that it not to be messed with. Of course, when we comment on the ‘personality’ of a plant it is more likely to be about how we see it at the time than about the plant itself, but still. The more time I spend with plants, the more I am convinced that they are not just a green back-drop to our everyday lives, but are rather more active than their sedentary nature would give us to suppose. There is much to be gained by regarding our botanical neighbours as members of our larger communities rather than as ‘things’ to be exploited or ignored. After all, without plants we would have no oxygen, no food and no atmosphere. A little respect seems a small price to pay.

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara). Photo credit below

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara). Photo credit below

Photo Credits

Deadly Nightshade berries by David Hawgood [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bittersweet illustration “Illustration Solanum dulcamara0” by Kurt Stüber – Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz1885, Gera, Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer

In Defence of Wasps

IMG_4710Dear Readers, I doubt that there are few insects that are more loathed than the wasp. As I walk through the park during late summer I can guarantee that I will pass by a picnic where a panicked mother is snapping a teatowel at a circling yellow-and-black marauder, while the children scream in contagious panic. At least one bus journey a year will be livened up by the presence of a wasp throwing itself against the window in an effort to escape while someone tries to squash it with a rolled-up Daily Mail. Indeed, Chris Packham, the BBC presenter, says that one of the questions that he is asked most often is ‘What are wasps for?’, as if every living thing was only here for our delectation. I would like to argue that wasps actually perform a very important function in the ecosystem, and furthermore that they are largely peaceable and fascinating creatures. I say this even though my mother was stung on the neck by one in 1968 in Epping Forest and reacted so badly that she looked like the Elephant Woman for several days. She has forgiven wasps for their misbehaviour, and therefore so can (most) of the rest of us, though I make an honourable exception for those of my readers who suffer from anaphylatic shock on contact with insect stings. I quite understand that you do not want to spend time in the company of anything yellow and black and six-legged, and I am sure I would be exactly the same.

IMG_4716During most of their lives, wasps are carnivorous animals. A few years ago, I had a sprouting broccoli plant in a pot in the garden, and, as is the way with these things, I forgot about it and it bolted. It seemed to attract a lot of butterflies and other insects, however, and so I left it along.  Soon, a cabbage white butterfly had laid her eggs, and a few days later the leaves were being eaten by a mass of tiny caterpillars. As I sat and drank my tea in the evening, I noticed that a wasp was patrolling the plant, flying slowly round and round it almost like a helicopter using a searchlight. When she spotted a larva, she grasped it with her jaws and tried to pull it from the leaf, while the victim hung on literally for its life with the suckers at the back of its body. Sometimes the wasp won, and flew off with her bounty dangling below her. Other times, the caterpillar managed to resist her efforts, and she would move on to some slightly smaller, punier example. In the space of one cup of tea, the wasp might find and remove two or three caterpillars. Multiply that by the 5,000-10,000 workers in a Common Wasp nest, and you have a remarkable number of crop-damaging, leaf-munching larvae that do not survive to destroy our cabbages, broccoli and other vegetables.

IMG_4715By the autumn, nests are starting to go into decline, with lots of workers but not many babies. When there are wasp larvae in the nest, they produce a kind of honeydew to feed the workers, which provides them with carbohydrate and sugar. Once there are fewer larvae, the workers go elsewhere to find this, and this is why they are found around picnics and outdoor eating areas. I find that they are especially attracted to beer (please don’t ask me how I know this), and when we were in holiday in Slovenia the wasp traps were baited with the local brew. The wasps would fly into a bright yellow plastic container with a narrow neck, and would drown in the fluid within, creating a terrible wasp soup. I found that if I poured a few drops of beer into a saucer, the wasps would come and feed from that without bothering me, and would eventually buzz rather haphazardly away into the nearby trees to sleep off their hangover. Surely this is a more benign way of co-existing with our fellow creatures than luring them to their death?

IMG_4712The black-and-yellow colouration of wasps is a clear, unmistakable message that the insect is dangerous. Or at least you’d think so, if it weren’t for the many thousand of completely harmless insect species who have ‘nicked’ their livery. The perfectly benign hoverflies below may live a little longer because other creatures will think twice before tackling them – this is what’s known as Batesian mimicry, because the hoverflies are not actually dangerous, and are essentially ‘bluffing’. Incidentally, how can you tell a wasp from a hoverfly? A hoverfly doesn’t have a ‘waist’ – let’s not forget that a corset used to be known as a ‘waspie’. Plus, of course, hoverflies hover, while wasps drone about purposefully.



Another hoverfly

Another hoverfly

And yet another hoverfly

And yet another hoverfly

All of this is not, of course, to deny that wasp stings hurt. Having accidentally trodden barefoot on a wasp a few years ago, I can testify that it is surprisingly excruciating, rather like being unexpectedly stabbed with a red-hot needle. Spare a thought, then, for Justin O.Schmidt, of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Unit in Arizona. He has compiled the Schmidt sting pain insect by allowing himself to be stung by the majority of the Hymenoptera family (which includes bees, wasps and ants). His index goes from 1, where the insect sting is totally ineffective when applied to humans, up to 4 for the most painful interactions. The wasps found in the UK only get a measly score of 2, and you need to tangle with a Tarantula Hawk or a Bullet Ant before you get up to the heady heights of a 4. The Tarantula Hawk, as the name suggests, stings tarantula spiders with her 1/4 inch-long stinger, in order to paralyse them before she lays her egg on them. Schmidt described her sting as ‘blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric’. She is a rather beautiful and placid insect, however, and I can only imagine that Schmidt disguised himself as a hairy eight-legged arachnid to induce her hostility.

"T-Hawk stinging organ" by Rankin1958 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Tarantula Hawk Sting – Photo Credits below

The most painful sting of all, however, comes from the Bullet Ant. This was given a 4+ score by Schmidt, who described it as ‘”waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours”. At this point, the occasional vexations of my day job as an IT trainer pale into insignificance, compared to the tribulations of a Hymenoptera sting researcher. Let us take off our (metaphorical) hats to Mr Schmidt, who has undertaken this investigation so that the rest of us don’t have to.

"Paraponera clavata" by © Hans Hillewaert. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons -

Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata). Photo credits below.

But, to return to the humble (and relatively painless) UK wasp. The two most common species seen are the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) and the German wasp (Vespula germanica), which are practically indistinguishable in the field unless you are able to get a close look at the wasp’s face, a daunting task with such an active insect. If you do manage to get that close, and see three little black dots on the yellow ‘forehead’ of the wasp, you are looking at a German wasp. And what an extraordinary and endearing face it is, viewed close-up. In ‘Bugs Britannica’, Peter Marren and Richard Mabey relate how Aristotle believed that wasps had ‘few virtues and no soul’, unlike bees. And yet, looking at this photograph I find it difficult to believe that this is a worthless creature. She may not give us honey, but she is the custodian of our cabbages, the sentinel of our cauliflowers and the guardian of our broccoli, and for this, surely, she should be given some respect and allowed to go on her way unsquashed and unmolested. I cannot believe that this planet is not big enough for both of us.

"Vespula germanica01" by ©entomart. Licensed under Attribution via Commons -

The face of a German Wasp (Vespula germanica) – notice the three black dots. Photo credits below.

Photo Credits

Tarantula Hawk Sting – “T-Hawk stinging organ” by Rankin1958 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Bullet Ant – “Paraponera clavata” by © Hans Hillewaert. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons –

Face of German Wasp – “Vespula germanica01” by ©entomart. Licensed under Attribution via Commons –

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer.




Wednesday Weed – Fox-and-cubs

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…..

Fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca)

Fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca)

Dear Readers, rarely does the common name of a plant reflect so accurately its nature as with this member of the Asteraceae or daisy family. With its copper-coloured petals and tight groupings of buds, Fox-and-cubs clearly brings to mind a vixen and her youngsters. I was pleased to find it in full bloom on the unadopted road close to my house in East Finchley, especially because, of all the ‘wild’ daisies hereabouts, it’s the only orange one, and so is relatively easy to identify.  Note also the hairy stem and the lack of leaves apart from in a rosette at the base.

IMG_4703Fox-and-cubs comes originally from the Carpathian mountains, and we have noticed before how often plants that are used to the harsh conditions of drought, ultra-violet light and thin soils that are encountered at altitude find themselves at home on our city wastelands. The plant was first seen in the UK in 1629, and was recorded in the wild in 1793. It is a close relative of our native Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum), and in some places forms a hybrid. In London it is usually a garden escape, although its light, fluffy seeds can transport the ‘cubs’ a long distance from their mother.

Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mouse-eared Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). For photo credit, please see below.

Fox-and-cubs has a variety of other vernacular names. ‘Devil’s Paintbrush’ is wonderfully descriptive. ‘Orange hawkweed’ is obvious. However,  I find myself very puzzled by one of the others: ‘Grim-the-collier’. I have read several explanations for the name, including one which says that the plant resembles a collier’s beard because of the tiny black hairs on the buds.

The buds have tiny black hairs, but is this enough to establish a link with the mining industry?

The buds have tiny black hairs, but is this enough to establish a link with the mining industry?

To add further to the confusion, a play called ‘Grim the Collier of Croydon’ was published in 1662, in which the titular Grim is a kind and simple-hearted soul who finally wins the hand of his sweetheart in marriage after the intercession of a small devil. The first question that sprang to my mind was why we would be having colliers in Croydon, but apparently it was the one of the centres of the coal trade in the seventeenth century. Of course, this brings me no closer to understanding the link between the play and the plant. Could the actor who played Grim have been a red-head, I wonder? And did the play-going public make a link that has stuck for 400 years? Well, maybe not, because there is an earlier reference in a herbal by Gerard going back to 1633 in which the plant is called ‘Grimme the Collier’, which suggests that the play was based on a story which was already extant then. Who knows? Suffice to say that this interloper was already familiar enough to have a very English name just a few years after it arrived.

IMG_4706As with so many of the plants that I feature, the arrival of Fox-and-cubs in other parts of the world has not been treated with unalloyed joy. It is on the noxious weeds lists of of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and parts of British Columbia. It is on the quarantine list in Australia, and is a noxious weed in Tasmania. Part of the problem is that it reproduces not only via its seeds, but also vegetatively by runners, like a strawberry. On the other hand, like so many members of the daisy family it is very attractive to pollinators. It seems to be liked very much by hoverflies, but is also visited by bees. This last is something of a puzzle, because orange and red flowers are almost invisible to these insects. However, there is evidence that Fox-and-cubs also features ultra-violet patterns which make it able to be seen. Certainly, it is a plant that is often added to green roof seed mixes, both to give a splash of russet to the colour palate and because it reproduces so readily and looks after itself so easily. I must confess that it is one of my favourite ‘weeds’, one that always cheers me up when I find it peeping out from a mass of grass, or forming part of an alpine meadow. Orange is such a rare colour in nature that we should treasure it whenever we find it.

Photo Credits

Photo of Mouse-eared Hawkweed is by Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos are copyright Vivienne Palmer.