Monthly Archives: December 2015

Wednesday Weed – Creeping Comfrey

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…..

Creeping Comfrey(Symphytum grandiflorum)

Creeping Comfrey(Symphytum grandiflorum)

Dear Readers, while I was passing All Saints’ Church on Durham Road in East Finchley today, I noticed that, despite everyone’s efforts, the Creeping Comfrey had crept back along the fence that edges the church garden. A few years ago there was a whole bed of the plant, its red buds and cream flowers nodding under the assault of what seemed like a hundred bees. It is a glorious plant, but one that has something of a tendency to take over. Last time I looked, someone had dug it up. But not, apparently, all of it, because here it is again, flowering in December ( a whole three months early).

IMG_5039I have written previously about Common Comfrey which is a much taller, rangier plant. This little chap only grows to about 40 centimetres tall, and, as my Harrap’s Wild Flower guide states, ‘spreads aggressively via sprawling leafy runners that root at the nodes’. The buds are a pinky red colour, which soon turns to creamy-white bells. I wonder why, though, it was called ‘grandiflorum’? It is to my mind a most modest little plant, and one that I am tempted to try to grow under the trees in my north-facing garden where nothing much thrives. It is often seen in churchyards (as here) and in shady places, so maybe it would feel right at home.

IMG_5041Unlike Common Comfrey, this plant is originally from the Caucasus and was first grown in gardens in the late 19th Century. By 1898 it had ‘jumped the fence’ and was growing in the wild. Like Common Comfrey, however, it can be used as a green manure, or rotted down as a liquid fertilizer, and there seems to be some agreement that the leaves can be used for external poultices for sprains and other injuries – after all, one vernacular name for the whole of the comfrey family is Knitbone, as the root was once grated and used as a kind of Plaster of Paris.

Another name for Creeping Comfrey specifically is ‘Cherubim and Seraphim’, maybe because  the fat pink buds  look like cherubs, and the white flowers resemble the robes of angels. . So, another appropriate ‘weed’ for the festive season!

IMG_5038Creeping Comfrey is such a useful plant that it has spawned a number of ‘domesticated’ varieties, such as ‘Hidcote Blue’ and ‘Goldsmith’, pictured below. As usual, though, I confess to preferring the unadulterated version. We constantly think we can improve on nature, and we are so rarely right.

This will be the last post before 2016 headbutts its way through the door. I wish you all a happy, healthy and inspired New Year, and hope that it brings you what you most need. See you next year!

Leonora Enking -

This variety is called ‘Goldsmith’ – see the photo credit below.

By Lotus Johnson

‘Hidcote Blue’ – see photo credits below

Photo Credits

Goldsmith variety – Leonora Enking –

Hidcote Blue variety – By Lotus Johnson

Fostered Felines and an Unexpected Gift



Dear Readers, although I usually write about the wildlife outside my house, today I would like to share some tales with you about the creatures that we actually select as our companions. My husband and I began to foster cats for Cats Protection back in 2008, because for me a house without a pet is not a home, but our garden-less flat wasn’t the best environment for housing a cat permanently. Fostering involves taking cats into your home and looking after them until they are ready to be re-homed. Sometimes the cats that we looked after were sick. Sometimes they were young or vulnerable, and needed some confidence-building. On one occasion we gave sanctuary to a creature who had no idea how to behave around human beings at all (see Snowball below). During our five years of fostering we looked after nearly 80 cats, and learned a lot about non-attachment, about how every cat is different, and how tolerant it was possible to be in the face of feline bodily fluids. We also developed a clear idea of the kind of cat that we’d want to adopt when we eventually had a house with some outside space (and at this point the Universe gave a little chortle). So, here, in no particular order, are some of the cats that were in our care, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months.



Billy had suffered a horrible abscess on his head through fighting with another cat – he was a harem-scarum tomcat, a real bruiser. But after being neutered he settled down into home life and would head-butt you so hard when he wanted to be stroked that woe betide your best clothes if you happened to have a mug of tea in your hand. We developed a love for these big male ex-strays, who were so full of character and seemed to want to make the most of their new environment. We were sure that this was the kind of cat that we would eventually adopt.



Snowball was the most beautiful and most acrobatic cat that we ever fostered. He was pure white, deaf and lethal. If you ventured downstairs in your dressing gown he would pounce from behind cover and rip your bare legs with his needle-sharp claws. As he couldn’t hear your screams he presumably wondered why your mouth was opening and closing while you tried to prise him off. I still bear the scars from making the mistake of reaching out to pet him when he snuggled up next to me on the sofa. We worked with an animal behaviourist to try to reduce his ‘boredom aggression’, but no amount of tiring him out by playing with him would completely eliminate his bad behaviour. Eventually he was adopted, with full disclosure, by a man who didn’t mind wearing Wellington boots over his pyjamas in the morning, which just goes to show that there’s an owner out there for every cat if you wait long enough. When we waved Snowball goodbye it was with tears of relief rather than the usual sadness. I later heard that Snowball had taken to wandering, and was regularly retrieved from locations more than 2 postcodes away from where he lived. I doubt that he made old bones, but I don’t doubt that he lived his life as a semi-wild animal in just the way he chose.



Little Colette was rescued from a house fire – in fact the cat carrier in which she was saved was melted like a Salvador Dali painting. She smelled of smoke for days, and also had a brutal flea infection. She made a quick recovery, however, and was soon off to her new home, where hopefully they’d made sure the wiring wasn’t a death-trap.



Felix came to us with his little sister Irene, and he was an unmitigated show-stealer. Whenever there was something interesting going on, he was there, and poor Irene was relegated to the sidelines. If she was being stroked, he would barge his way in. If you put down 2 dishes of food, he wanted both of them. It was decided to re-home them separately, and you never saw a happier cat than Irene when her brother went off to his new home.



Galaxy came to us with a terrible throat lesions, an allergic reaction to his vaccinations and a general air of depression. Mother cats who are not vaccinated can pass calicivirus onto their kittens, which leaves them with a lifelong tendency to throat and mouth inflammation. Galaxy’s throat was so painful that there was some talk of putting him to sleep if the situation didn’t improve, and so we spoilt him horribly. He slept on the bed, in spite of his snoring. He got all the best food. We put up with his outrageous flatulence. And, lo and behold, he gradually improved, and was finally (after a year) re-homed with a wonderful lady who gave him venison and wild boar at Christmas, and didn’t mind him sleeping in her potted plants on the patio. He lived for another five years, and was so cherished that he frequently featured on his owner’s Christmas cards.



Honey was a most unfortunate-looking cat. She was as round as a beach ball and had a most disapproving expression (not helped by her moustache). However, she was an affectionate cat, and would sit beside you, purring like an idling engine. If you didn’t stroke her, she would reach out with one paw and place it on your arm until you produced the desired caresses. If they stopped, she would pause for a moment and then apologetically reach out again. Eventually she found a home with someone who could see past her unfortunate looks to the characterful creature beneath.


Mocha (aka Fat Boy)



Mocha and Latte were described to us by the people at the cat shelter as ‘the Cappuccino Kits’ but they arrived as two lively adolescent lunks, with all the social graces of a troop of teddy boys. One afternoon, Latte decided to run up our full-length sitting room curtains, and, before I could stop him, Mocha tried to do the same. Unfortunately, Mocha was twice the weight of Latte and so the entire curtain rail, complete with an enormous chunk of plaster, came out of the wall, leaving a cloud of dust. Suffice to say that they were both in hiding for at least five minutes before they ventured out to inspect the damage.





And talking of adolescent lunks, Mork and Lee were our two first teenagers, and were a whole heap of trouble. Lee was forever jumping out of open windows, hiding on the top of bookcases and, on one occasion, getting into the washing machine.

Aaargh! Don't try this at home...Lee in the washing machine.

Aaargh! Don’t try this at home…Lee in the washing machine.

Mork was the most affectionate cat we ever had, and the first that would sit on your shoulder while you went about your housework (though he never did learn how to wash up or do anything useful). Mork and Lee were the first cats that we truly fell in love with, and we were heartbroken when they eventually found a wonderful new home. It’s safe to say that we were careful about not becoming too attached in future.

Tabby Kit

Tabby Kit

And this is Tabby, a lynx in miniature. Look at the size of those paws! He grew to be enormous, and was the gentlest kitten we ever looked after, happy to lie in your arms like a baby.



Rosa and the family

Rosa and the family

Mostly White

Mostly White

Stripey Tail

Stripey Tail

Rosa was the only cat who gave birth to her kittens in our house. And what an event it was! We had prepared several places for the big event, but of course she had her babies squeezed between the bookshelf and the radiator, on the 4th November. On the 5th November there was a Guy Fawkes party in the street, with deafening explosions and shouting and general carry-on, but she stayed firm despite it all. When the kittens first came out from their hiding place after a few weeks, she spent a lot of time trying to corrall them by tapping them with her front feet, like a footballer trying to dribble the ball, but eventually she gave up and let them start to explore. We felt like proud parents, and were most indignant when the shelter folk described them as ‘long-bodied and short-legged’. Harrumph!

Stripey Tail emerging for the first time

Stripey Tail emerging for the first time



Seymour was another big tom-cat, but he had a condition called Horner’s Syndrome, a condition which makes one eye droop, and is often related to lesions of the nervous system. Hence, he wasn’t expected to have a long life. He spent his first day with us hiding in his covered litter-tray, and it was only after I reached in to stroke him and he started to purr that I realised that he was just frightened and confused. He was always very careful with the many flights of stairs in the flat, and I’m sure that he couldn’t focus properly. As is often the case with the most damaged of cats he was very easy to love, and I was very happy when he was re-homed by someone who knew that his prognosis wasn’t good, but wanted to make his life as happy as it could be.

Which brings me on to Rosie.



We looked after Rosie when her owners went away on holiday. She was a cat with quite severe disabilities – she couldn’t stand up, and had to be helped to her litter tray a couple of times a day. She would always call and let you know when she wanted to go, which was generally at the human-friendly times of 8.00 am and 6.00 pm. She was a very perky cat, interested in everything that was going on, and loved to sit on the sofa next to you, or to be picked up for a cuddle. She also loved other cats, but they generally knew that there was something wrong with her, and so would avoid her. Until, that is, her owner adopted another little cat who had been through the most horrific abuse I’d ever heard of. He loved Rosie on sight, and would cuddle up with her in her basket – maybe she reminded him of his mother, or maybe he just recognised another cat that wasn’t able to deal with the world around her on her own. At any rate, the two of them were a comfort to one another throughout their lives.

So, dear readers, having read this far, what do you think happened when we finally decided to adopt? Was it a big tough tomcat, full of personality and affection?

Umm, no.

Our last two foster cats were a brother and sister: a big tough tom, and an extremely shy little female cat. The big tough tom was adopted out to Gerrard’s Cross (the richest area in the UK by the way), to a man who owned a stable full of show jumpers, a wood, a stream, and who didn’t mind if his cat wanted to sleep on the bed. This just left the female, who, up to then, had spent her whole time hiding behind the sofa.

John and I wondered who, on earth, would ever adopt a cat who never showed herself. The months went on. Nobody wanted a very ordinary little black and white scaredy cat. And yet, we’d started to notice that she wasn’t such a scaredy cat any more. She liked to be brushed, for just a minute or so at first. Eventually, she would demand to be brushed, and complain when you stopped.

Then, she started to jump on the bed when we were reading at night.The remarkable thing was that she would jump off as soon as we put the lights out, and would never come into the bedroom until she heard us talking.

And finally, she had no interest at all in going out into the garden. In the living room, she would hunt scraps of tissue paper, foil wrappers and invisible microbes, but she was quite content to watch the birds from a window-sill.

We stopped thinking about her in terms of ‘who else will adopt this cat if we don’t?’ and started to realise that, for us, she was ideal. She wouldn’t hunt and kill the creatures in my garden. She respected our sleep time. She didn’t have any strange problems with food. She did rip the sofa to shreds, but then it was old anyway.

So, Gentle Reader, we adopted her, and put away all notions of the cats that we thought we wanted, in favour of the one that we actually did. She is seven years old this year, and gets more outgoing and friendly every day.

Every animal has a personality. If we can understand this with our pets, I wonder why we find it so hard to acknowledge that wild animals might be the same?

Willow. The perfect cat.

Willow. The perfect cat.


Wednesday Weed – Yellow Archangel

IMG_5049Every 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…..

Dear Readers, on this last Wednesday before Christmas it was impossible to resist the temptation to feature a plant with a Biblical theme. And what should I find growing in the car park behind All Saints Church on Durham Road in East Finchley than a patch of Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon argentatum). There are two forms of this plant: the one in the photograph with the silvery patches on its leaves is the cultivated variety, but the green-leaved variety is a native plant, and an indicator of ancient hedgerows and woods. However,  the silver-leaved garden variety is also cropping up in much wilder settings, such as the hedgerow behind my Aunt Hilary’s house in Somerset. In fact, the cultivated variety of the plant is now on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it illegal to grow it in the wild. The problem is that it spreads rapidly, and can impact on other, less robust plants. In the picture below, however, it seems to be fairly well integrated with the Goosegrass and the Wild Garlic (not that you would want to go petal to petal with either of these two bruisers).


Yellow Archangel in flower in Somerset last year.

The flowers of Yellow Archangel, as with all of the dead-nettles, are exquisite when viewed up close. They have co-evolved with the bees that pollinate them- the ‘hood’ of the plant bows down when a heavy insect lands, anointing the animal’s back with pollen, while the lower lobe acts as a landing platform. It amuses me to think how upset many Victorians were when evolution began to clarify the relationship between flowers and pollinators: previously, it was thought that the beauty of blossom was all about appealing to the human senses. In fact, as we now know, it’s all about ensuring the continuance of both plant and bee, an exquisite relationship that has developed over millenia. We are not the centre of the universe, after all.

"Gele dovenetel DSCF3599" by Teun Spaans - Self made picture. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons -

Yellow Archangel in flower – Photo credits below

The Latin species name for Yellow Archangel, galeobdolon, means ‘to smell like a weasel’, as apparently this is what the scent of the crushed leaves resembles. The plant also has the vernacular name of ‘Weasel Snout’.  I have never had the opportunity to catch a whiff of weasel, and I suspect that they are few and far between in my north London half mile territory. Nevertheless, here is a picture of one, because it’s Christmas, and what a gift this bright-eyed little predator is.

"Mustela nivalis -British Wildlife Centre-4" by Keven Law - originally posted to Flickr as On the lookout.... Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -

Common Weasel (Mustela nivalis). Photo credit below.

Yellow Archangel is closely related to both White Dead-nettle and Red Dead-nettle, but Culpeper tells us that for ulcers and sores, Yellow Archangel is more efficacious than the others.

Why Archangel, though? This name is used for many of the dead-nettle varieties, and Richard Mabey suggests that this may be because the plants have no stings. I wonder if there is also something rather angelic about the shape of the flowers, if you squint a little. I particularly love the Glaswegian name for the garden variety with its silver leaves – ‘Aluminium Archangel’. This sounds to me like a name for a piece of civic sculpture, maybe like the one below, at the N1 shopping centre in Angel, Islington.

By Chris McKenna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Angel Wings sculpture in front of the N1 shopping centre in Angel, Islington. Sculpture by Wolfgang Buttress and Fiona Heron. Photo credits below.

So, dear readers, by the time I publish my next piece Christmas will be over for another year. I wish those of you who are celebrating time to rest and reflect and recharge in the midst of the maelstrom that the festive season has become, and to all of you I send my hopes for a peaceful spirit, an inspired heart and a healthy body with which to meet the year ahead.

Photo Credits

Yellow Archangel in flower – “Gele dovenetel DSCF3599” by Teun Spaans – Self made picture. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons –

Wonderful Weasel – “Mustela nivalis -British Wildlife Centre-4” by Keven Law – originally posted to Flickr as On the lookout…. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

Angel Wings Sculpture – By Chris McKenna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A Tale of Two Trees

The 'Starling Tree' opposite Bedford Road in East Finchley

The ‘Starling Tree’ opposite Bedford Road in East Finchley

Dear Readers, when my friend A mentioned that she called the London Plane tree opposite Bedford Road in East Finchley ‘the starling tree’ I had to investigate. So, last week I set out to see this phenomenon. The tree is by far the tallest on this part of the High Road, and it is a permanent hub for the local starling population. There are always a few in residence, chortling and whistling and wheeling around in friendly mini-murmurations.  But why, I wondered?

IMG_5022Well, the very height of the tree is likely to be a factor. From up here, the starlings must have a literal ‘birds-eye view’ of the goings on in all the back gardens along the County Roads. No wonder the birds appear before I’ve even finished putting out the suet pellets.

IMG_5020A second factor must be that magnificent unpollarded crown. There is plenty of room for everybody, and if a crow turns up (as one did when I was watching the tree) you have plenty of room to harass him from a safe distance. Plus, starlings love the company of their own kind, and there is roosting and perching space for hundreds of birds here. I do wonder if it will remain as popular when the council turn their attention to it for the inevitable pollarding.

IMG_5016Finally, there is the question of location. This plane tree is directly opposite a low-rise housing estate that was built on the site of a massive bomb explosion in 1940 which demolished everything on either side of the road. Hence, the tree is not crowded by shops or houses, as other nearby trees are, and has plenty of light and room to expand. The question in my mind is whether the tree actually predates the bomb – plane trees of a similar size in central London date back to Victorian times. If so, it has had a remarkably charmed life. And, if home for a human is a place where they feel safe, and from where they launch themselves for their daily activities, then this tree is home for the East Finchley starling population, who use it as a hub for socialising and food-spotting during the day and who, I strongly suspect, roost in it at night.

Not all trees, however, are so lucky.

IMG_5031How I wish I’d taken a picture of this tree in its full glory, as it leaned at a 45% angle towards Budgens, threatening to brain whoever walked under it. And how I wish something had been done to correct this eccentricity before it became intolerable for safety reasons. When we look at the severed stump, we can see how the tree has compensated for the early damage by putting on elliptical rings every year.

IMG_5034As we all know from our school biology classes, you can read a tree’s age from its rings, but as with most things in real life, it ain’t as easy as it sounds. Certainly, identifying clear rings on this trunk would be very difficult. And yet, we can make out the inner circle of heart wood, which forms when the cells in the trunk are no longer used to transport water from the roots to the leaves, and become a structural support instead. I am also intrigued by the very dark circle in the heart of the stump, which looks almost as if a proper ring of bark formed, and was then grown over. Or is this a relic of some traumatic or unusual event? All I do know is that, just as the wrinkles on a beloved face tell us something about a person’s life, so these rings have all the history of this tree, if someone with enough skill could read them. However,  I suspect that they will need to do so quickly, because it’s only a matter of time before someone with a stump grinder razes what remains of this tree back to the ground, and it will be as if all those tons of leaf and bark and wood never existed at all.

But, what is this?

IMG_5031 (2)At the base of the amputated stump, a few hopeful twigs are in bud and, left alone, I have no doubt that a shrub would spring from the roots of the dead parent tree. What resilience plants show, in the face of destruction, and people too – I imagine the despair of the people of East Finchley when they left their air-raid shelters and saw that half their town was gone. And yet, all living things push on, because that is the only alternative to death and despair. In these midwinter days, when it’s dark by 4 o’clock, it’s good to remember that we only a few days away from the gradual returning of the light.

Wednesday Weed – Common Gorse

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…..

Common Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

Common Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

Dear Readers, a few years ago my husband and I went on holiday to  Jersey. The weather was glorious, and  one of my strongest memories is of the tropical coconut scent of the waist-high gorse that grew on the clifftops, and the sound of the ripe seedpods popping. So imagine my surprise at finding a small cluster of plants in flower on a rainy day in north London. Although there is a saying that ‘when the gorse is in flower, kissing’s in season’ I suspected that the plants would surely take a break in December, but no. And what a joy it is to see those butter-yellow flowers speckled with raindrops among all the mud and dying foliage of other, less enterprising plants.

IMG_5000Common gorse is a member of the Fabaceae or pea family, and like all members of its family helps to fix nitrogen in the soil and so to improve fertility. As a long-living, hardy, native plant, it has been used for a variety of purposes. Some relate to its prickliness – it can make a very effective hedge, spiky and long-lasting. Washing can be hung out to dry on gorse bushes, the spikes acting as pegs. Chopped gorse has been used as a mulch over germinating peas and beans to deter pigeons and mice. And the impenetrable thickets that the plant forms are great habitat for all manner of small mammals and nesting birds.

Despite its coarseness and abundance of spines , gorse has been used as food for cattle and horses, especially in north Wales where other sources of fodder may have been hard to come by. The plants are usually bruised in gorse-mills to soften them before being fed to the livestock. Humans have eaten gorse too – the pickled buds can be used like capers, and the flowers can be added to vodka or gin to flavour the spirit.

Pliny stated that branches of gorse could be placed in a stream in order to capture any particles of gold in the water, an ancient version of gold-panning.

IMG_5006Gorse has also had a long association with fire. It was used as firewood, particularly for baking, and was so popular that bye-laws were instituted to ensure that not too much was taken – Richard Mabey reports that under the 1820 Enclosure Act, the parishioners of Cumnor Hurst were allowed to harvest as much gorse ‘as they could carry on their backs’. In spite of its tough nature, gorse is not completely frost-hardy, and a particularly vicious winter can put paid to great tracts of the plant on open ground. It was therefore necessary to husband it as a resource, and to take only what was needed. Sustainability is not a new idea at all, but for most of the history of mankind has been seen as an obvious necessity. It’s only recently that we seem to have developed the idea that natural resources are never-ending.

Once burned, the ashes from gorse were used as an excellent fertilizer, or mixed with clay to form soap.

Gorse is normally a plant of open grassland (the very word ‘gorse’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘gorst’, meaning wasteland) and as such is subject to fires caused either accidentally (by lightning strike) or by deliberately in order to clear the land of old gorse bushes. As a fire-climax plant, gorse is adapted to these occurrences, and responds by putting out new green shoots, which can be used as softer fodder. In the right conditions, a single gorse bush can live for over 30 years.

IMG_5001In spite of its long flowering season, gorse has always been associated with the spring, and with the return of the sun. Gorse fires were set on the hillsides in at spring equinox, and burning brands of the plant were carried around the cattle herds to ensure their good health for the following year.  In Ireland, gorse was said to protect against witches, and it was also said that if you wore a sprig of gorse you would never stumble. In Scotland, it is said that Edinburgh will fall if the gorse does not come into flower. In Dorset and Somerset, however, it was unlucky to bring a sprig of the plant indoors, as if you did so a coffin was sure to follow shortly in the opposite direction. It is the sure sign of a plant that has been our companion for a long time that such a variety of beliefs has sprung up.

IMG_4999For me, gorse means heat, and skylarks singing, and a lizard skittering across a sandy path. It was not something that I expected to see today, one of those Sundays when the sun barely seems to get above the horizon before it sinks down again, exhausted. But what a joy it was to see those golden buds, and to remember that summer afternoon, something that I hadn’t thought about for years. My personal history seems to be written in plants and animals, each of them a talisman of a time and place.

Resources used in this post:

Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey – the best compendium of plant lore every published in my opinion. Endlessly interesting.

The Plant Lives website by Sue Eland – a gathering together of worldwide plantlore. Especially useful where plants have become naturalised  outside the UK, and are being used by local people

The A Modern Herbal website – all manner of medicinal, culinary and other uses for British plants.

The Wild Service Tree


Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)

Dear Readers, when I was in Cherry Tree Wood last week I made a point of popping by to visit an old friend, the Wild Service Tree that grows next to the cafe. It is so easy to overlook trees, for all their size,  and indeed I would have walked right past this if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by Brenna Boyle of Wild Capital when we were on a wildlife walk (an experience that I can heartily recommend if you want to learn about London’s plants and animals). But once identified, a Wild Service Tree  is very distinctive, with its extraordinary criss-cross bark. This one also bears a little red triangular badge, which shows that it is under a Tree Preservation Order, and so should be protected from the worst excesses of over-enthusiastic council tree surgeons.

IMG_4983Never common, these trees are seen as being an indicator of ancient woodland, because they rarely disperse far from their parent tree – in his magisterial book ‘Woodlands’, Oliver Rackham describes the problem. The fruits (of which more below) are probably designed to be dispersed by birds, but for hundreds of years either the wrong birds have eaten them, or the seeds are not carried away. Rackham speculates that maybe the tree co-evolved with a bird that is no longer resident in the UK, or is extinct. So, when you see a Wild Service Tree, you can be fairly happy that it’s a relative of a tree that grew very nearby.

As Cherry Tree Wood was once part of the Bishop of London’s hunting grounds (as was Coldfall Wood) it is a reminder that this spot has not always had tennis courts, a children’s playground and regularly-graffitied public toilets. The Mutton Brook is said to arise somewhere in the wood (behind the aforementioned public toilets judging by the iris-covered bog behind them), and once upon a time deer and boar were killed amongst the oaks and the hornbeams. Maybe the ancestor of this tree was there when bugles were blown and hounds scuffled amongst the fallen leaves.

IMG_4985The Latin species name of the Wild Service Tree, torminalis, means ‘good for colic’, and the fruits, sometimes called ‘chequers’ were used as a remedy for this affliction. More to the point, though, the fruit was used to flavour a ratafia (another new word). This is a drink made by marinating berries or fruit in some kind of spirit – think of cherry brandy or (my favourite) sloe gin. This may account for the number of English pubs called ‘The Chequers’, though some folk also think it might refer to the pattern on the bark. And there’s me thinking that these hostelries were named for an innocent board game.

"Sorbus torminalis Weinsberg 20070929 5" by Rosenzweig - Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

The fruit of the Wild Service Tree – Photo credit below.

The fruit is said to be too astringent for today’s tastebuds, and is described as only being edible when over-ripe and allowed to become almost rotten, a process known as bletting. This is also used with wild fruits such as medlars and rowan berries. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes the taste of Wild Service berries as being:

‘…not quite like anything else that grows wild in this country, with hints of apricot, sultana, overripe damson and tamarind, and a lightly gritty texture’.

Actually, that sounds like a perfect fruit for a Christmas pudding to me. I wonder if anyone has ever tried it?

Unfortunately, summers in the UK are rarely warm enough for the Wild Service Tree to produce much fruit, and it tends to reproduce by suckers instead. However, there are exceptions: Richard Mabey describes a tree at Parsonage Farm, Udimore, in East Sussex, which has a 13-foot girth and in a good year bears two tons of berries.

"Mespilus germanica 01" by Takkk - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Some bletted medlars – photo credit below.

The leaves of a Wild Service Tree resemble those of a maple, though they also look to me like inverted angels.

"Sorbus torminalis leaves kz" by Kenraiz - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Wild Service Tree leaves (photo credit below)

In spring, the tree produces flowers which look very similar to those of my garden Whitebeam (not surprising, as they are closely related)

"Alisier torminal" by Jeantosti at French Wikipedia - photo by Jeantosti. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Wild Service Tree flowers (photo credit below)

Why, though, is this tree called the Wild Service Tree? There are a number of possibilities. One is that the word Service is a corruption of the Roman word for beer, cerevisia (which will be recognised by anyone who has ever asked for ‘dos cervesas por favor’ in a Spanish bar), and that the berries were used to flavour this beverage. Richard Mabey thinks not, however, and disputes that there is any link between this plant and beer. He believes that the word Service relates to the Old English word Syfre. And, to my delight, I discover that there is an Old English- Modern English translation site on the internet, so I put in the word Syfre. And here’s what it says:

clean pure chaste sober not giving way to appetite or passion abstinent temperate circumspect

What a perfect description of this tree as it stands quietly alone, bedecked with white flowers or golden leaves. It seems like a serious tree to me, one not given to frivolity or nonsense, for all that its fruit has probably engendered such behaviour in generations of drinkers. I love that it is growing next to the footpath here, sinking its roots into the London clay that it prefers to all other soils. There are reminders of the history that we share with plants and animals everywhere we go.

IMG_4987Photo credits:

The fruit of the Wild Service Tree – “Sorbus torminalis Weinsberg 20070929 5” by Rosenzweig – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Bletted medlars – “Mespilus germanica 01” by Takkk – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Wild Service Leaves – “Sorbus torminalis leaves kz” by Kenraiz – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Wild Service Flowers – “Alisier torminal” by Jeantosti at French Wikipedia – photo by Jeantosti. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer





Wednesday Weed – Stinking Hellebore

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…..

Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Dear Readers, last week I was surprised to find a specimen of Stinking Hellebore growing next to a bus stop on Fortis Green Road in East Finchley. What was this exotic-looking plant doing in such a prosaic environment? With its palmate leaves reaching out to tug at my ankles, and its pale green shoots, it looks like a small but friendly alien. It is unlikely that this is a truly ‘wild’ plant – most likely it is a garden escape – but it is also native  to the south-east of England. Whatever its status, it is a very fine plant, and one with many interesting characteristics.

IMG_4967Stinking hellebore is a member of the buttercup family, which is more clearly seen when the plant is in bloom.

"Helleborus foetidus0" by Kurt Stüber [1] - part of Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Stinking hellebore in flower – Photo credit below

The flowers contain up to ten nectaries, glands which produce nectar. Yeasts live in these nectaries, and raise the temperature of the plant, which enables the perfume which attracts insects to the blooms to be more easily diffused into the surrounding air. A hellebore containing a high density of these yeasts can be up to 7 degrees centigrade warmer than a plant with no yeast. Stinking hellebore is the first plant where such a relationship has been observed – usually plants which increase their temperature, such as the Cuckoo Pint, use chemical reactions within the plant itself. As the plant is a very early bloomer (some have recently been spotted in flower already in the south of England) it is a very welcome source of sustenance for all manner of early-flying pollinators, and maybe the temperature difference between it and the surrounding frigid air acts as a kind of homing beacon.

IMG_4973You might expect that the flowers of this plant would smell unpleasant, but in fact the plant is named for the smell of its crushed foliage, which is variously described as ‘pungent’ ‘unpleasantly mousy’, and ‘beefy’. It has a fine array of names alluding to its unfortunate perfume, including Dungwort and Stinkwort. However, it also has the rather obscure name of Setterwort. This appears to refer to the practice of ‘Settering’ which was used when cattle had boils or abscesses, and a thread made from the root of stinking hellebore was drawn through the infected area to draw out the pus. Maybe the chemicals in the root acted as a kind of antibiotic?

Stinking hellebore is also a traditional remedy for worms although, as the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White wrote:

Where it killed not the patient, it would certainly kill the worms; but the worst of it is, it will sometimes kill both“.

It was especially dangerous when ingested by children. If lucky, the worms would be expelled from the child, but if the poison only resulted in the parasites retreating to the child’s stomach, a second dose might be administered, with fatal results.

In the ever-fascinating Poison Garden website, John Robertson describes how hellebores contain a substance called protoanemonin, which can cause skin problems. One incident involved someone who placed some nearly ripe hellebore seedpods in their back pocket and then drove for two hours to get home. The unfortunate person had serious blisters as a result of juice from the plant seeping through two layers of clothing. Clearly, this is a plant that needs to be handled with care.

IMG_4971John Robertson also describes how digging up a hellebore can be dangerous for your health. According to Pliny, if an eagle spots you engaged in such a task, the bird will cause your death, unless you draw a circle around the plant, face East and offer up a prayer before continuing with your spadework. One can only speculate as to how such legends grow up, but, having never seen anything bigger than a buzzard in the skies over East Finchley, I imagine that any hellebore transplanters will be relatively safe, though you might want to offer up a prayer just in case.

IMG_4972As one of the ‘baneful plants’ of witchcraft, Stinking hellebore is a plant that should be taken seriously – it is even said that Alexander the Great died from hellebore poisoning. However, it also has mystical associations, and is sometimes included as one of the ingredients of the ‘Flying Ointment’ that enabled witches to fly. It is also said to confer invisibility. And there can be no doubt whatsoever that to a hungry, cold queen bumblebee, emerging from hibernation on an unnaturally mild winter day, its nectar can be a life-saver. In my cold, shady, north-facing garden I think a few thickets of Stinking hellebore might be just the ticket to give some winter wildlife interest. I will let you know how I get on!

Photo Credit

Stinking hellebore in flower – “Helleborus foetidus0” by Kurt Stüber [1] – part of Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

All other content copyright Vivienne Palmer

Dreys and Jays


IMG_4975Dear Readers, I woke up on Friday feeling overwhelmed , both by all the preparations for Christmas and by an unexplained pain in my ankle, which has made walking, my usual stress-alleviation technique, difficult. But nonetheless I decided to take a gentle meander into Cherry Tree Wood for the first time in a few months. The place is looking a little unkempt at the moment, as many parks do in winter. The pavilion, which was going to be turned into a café but where the project now seems to be on hold, is literally falling down. There are empty beer cans by some of the benches. But the oak trees and hornbeams are still full of copper-coloured leaves, and there are squirrels everywhere. The search for nuts is on everyone’s mind. Squirrels sit comfortably among the tree roots, turning the acorns with their little hands and nibbling away. In the trees, two squirrels are growling at one another, tails thrashing. A toddler in a little padded suit staggers, arms outstretched, towards one squirrel, who looks at him warily, and bounds away when the child is within touching distance. The squirrels at the entrance to the park are particularly bold, and I suspect that packets of peanuts have been involved in previous encounters.

IMG_4992As I walk further into the forest, I find another, smaller squirrel in the top branches of a hornbeam. He seems to be stalking a blue tit. I find this very interesting, not least because I’m fairly sure that the blue tit is aware of the squirrel and seems unperturbed. I know that squirrels will occasionally take birds’ eggs and fledglings, but I’ve never seen one trying his luck with an adult before. And yet, here we are. The blue tit lets the squirrel get within a bound, and then flies off. I wonder if the squirrel ever gets lucky? All that protein would be a fine meal for a small rodent.

The blue tit is interested in other things, however. At the top of the tree is a drey, a squirrel nest, and the blue tit is pecking through it, probably for the insects and parasites that shelter there. The little bird is tossing the leaves aside and doing a fine job of gradually dismantling the squirrel’s shelter from the bottom up.

If you squint, you can just about make out the blue tit - he's left of centre. Look for the yellow bit.

If you squint, you can just about make out the blue tit – he’s left of centre. Look for the yellow bit.

A swoop of round wings, a flash of black and white and pink, and a jay arrives. It too is after the acorns. A squirrel complains when the jay starts to root around at the base of an oak tree, and I suspect that it has buried some of its winter stash there. All the grumbling in the world won’t deter a jay, however, and it carries on picking out the nuts and carrying them away, to bury them somewhere else. No wonder, in the spring, that there are little oak trees popping up all over the place. The scene is the same in my garden, where the jays, having been absent all summer, are now appearing as soon as I put out any peanuts. Do they have a sixth sense, I wonder, or am I under constant surveillance?

A jay in my garden last week

A jay in my garden last week

Intellectually I know that there are inter-dependencies in any plant and animal community, but there were links here that I had never thought of before. I did not know that squirrels ever hunted adult birds, or that jays stole the hidden acorns of the squirrels, or that blue tits dismantled squirrel dreys. Everyone is opportunistic, everyone is just trying to get by. And the shifting patterns of advantage and disadvantage are constantly being redressed by some living thing or another. Maybe the overall beneficiaries are the oak trees, as their seeds are carried away from the overwhelming shade of the adult tree and into better, lighter surroundings. Who knows? I do know that for forty minutes the pain in my ankle went completely unnoticed, and I walk off to catch a bus into town with a happy sense of well being and equanimity. We can only do what we can do to make a celebration a happy one, and we cannot control everything – there is too much complexity. Sometimes, we just have to trust in the providence that looks after squirrels, blue tits, jays and oak trees.

Wednesday Weed – Ribwort Plantain

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…..

Leaves of Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Leaves of Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Dear Readers, as we get into wintertime it becomes rather more challenging to find plants for the Wednesday Weed, especially as I have already covered more than a hundred of the botanical wonders that can be found within half a mile of my house. But it is also a time when overlooked leaves can suddenly be seen as other foliage dies away. Thus it was that, during my time at East Finchley Station car park a few weeks ago, I first noticed the bright leaves of Ribwort Plantain.

IMG_4939There are five species of Plantain in the UK, but Ribwort Plantain is one of the commonest. Its leaves are a dead giveaway – my Harrap plant guide describes them as:

‘strap-shaped to long-oval, tapering gradually to the stalk, with 3-5 bold, parallel veins’.

IMG_4917 (2)I could find none that were still flowering, but the blooms are immediately recognisable.

"Plantago lanceolata P6200323 箆大葉子、ヘラオオバコ" by 膀胱眼球胎 - 膀胱眼球胎. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Ribwort Plantain in flower (photo credit below)

The flower heads are a source of food for finches and other small birds during the winter time, and for butterflies and moths in the summer – many wildlife gardening books suggest leaving a patch of these plants to grow in the lawn as a handy waystation for these creatures. However, in his very interesting book No Nettles Required, Ken Thompson explains how, during a survey undertaken in Sheffield, it was easier to persuade people to grow a container full of stinging nettles in their gardens than to sacrifice a corner of the lawn and leave it unmown. Lawn aficionados , in my experience, love to have an expanse of smooth green sward, however much hard work it might be to create and maintain this effect. However, a little corner of Ribwort Plantain and longer grass provides a much enriched habitat for all kinds of animals.

The flowers have also been used as a replacement for conkers: the long stem enables each participant to whack the other person’s flowerhead until it comes off. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how the game holds remnants of history:

‘In Kent this game is known as ‘dongers’ and in Scotland (along with the plant itself) as ‘Carl Doddies’: ‘Carl and Doddie are diminutives of Charles and George, and the game is an obvious reminder of the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and King George III trying to knock each other’s heads off’.

On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland describes how another old name for the plant is Kemps, probably a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word Cempa, or soldier, and most likely a result of this children’s game. Maybe it reminded the little darlings of battering one another with maces.

Bob Embleton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ribwort plantain flower seen from above. Photo credit below.

Ribwort plantain is a native, and has acquired a whole raft of medicinal uses. The Permaculture website describes how the plant has been used for respiratory, urinary and middle ear complaints. However, it pays most attention to the plant’s use as for wounds and insect bites:

‘Simply gather and chew a couple of good looking leaves, then apply the ‘spit poultice’ to the afflicted area. Bleeding stops very quickly, and broken flesh is rapidly sealed together, due to the astringency of tannins, and the soothing mucilage. Plantains are mildly anti-septic, so they also help prevent infection. In addition, these plants are really useful against insect bites and stings, especially for children. Once again, chew or scrunch up the leaves until you get the juices flowing, then apply.’

As with dock, ribwort plantain is such a widespread plant that it can almost always be found nearby, with the exception of areas of very acid soil. It is an indicator of agricultural areas in the pollen record, as it is a great lover of grassland and disturbed soils. As such, it has often found its way into the cooking pot. The leaves are said to taste slightly like mushrooms, and as usual you could add them to salads, but for the more adventurous there is a recipe for Aubergine and Avocado Bake with Ribwort Plantain here . And what a delightful website this is! I would heartily recommend a browse if you fancy Sea Purslane Hummous or Tansy Pancakes.

IMG_4940Finally, I cannot leave the subject of Ribwort Plantain without mentioning the Nine Herbs Charm. This was an Anglo-Saxon incantation to be used when someone had been wounded or poisoned. The verse on Plantain goes as follows (taken here from the Odin’s-Gift website):

And you, Plantain, mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.
May you likewise withstand poison and infection
and the loathsome foe roving through the land.

I love the idea of this wayside plant being creaked over by chariots and snorted over by bulls (though to be absolutely botanically accurate, Ribwort Plantain is much less tolerant of trampling than its cousin, Greater Plantain (Plantago major) which will no doubt be the subject of a future Wednesday Weed). And more than this, I love the way that this humble, modest plant was called the mother of herbs, and was recognised as a powerhouse of healing. I suppose that we were more observant of and more grateful to the natural world when we couldn’t just go to Boots for a tube of Savlon or call for an ambulance.