Monthly Archives: February 2016

Looking for Jenny Wren

Dear Readers, as this week my own photography is completely pants (technical term) I have collaborated with my friend John Humble, who has provided some of the photos below. You might remember John from his wonderful fox photos in my Foxycology post last year. I am delighted to be working with him again.


Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). My photo, though nothing to write home about….

Dear Readers, according to the RSPB there are approximately nine million breeding pairs of wrens in the UK. Yet, this is a bird that is far more often heard than seen – indeed a walk in Coldfall Wood, especially in the newly-coppiced area, can feel like walking along a corridor of ferocious wren-song, each bird announcing their territory with a new burst of enthusiastic music. Weight for weight, the song of a wren is louder than that of a cockerel, and can be heard up to half a mile away on a still day. But in spite of their loudness and their commonness, it’s unusual for me to actually see a wren in the garden.

So, it was a rare treat when I actually saw a wren picking over the debris under my jasmine on Wednesday. The bird spent a whole five minutes tossing aside dried leaves and turning over twigs before it flew off into the hedge. It was so tiny that it seemed more like a large, buzzing insect than a bird ( an adult wren weighs about the same as a pound coin). And yet, what wrens lack in size they certainly make up for in personality.

A pert wren ( photo by my friend John Humble)

A pert wren (Photo One, by John Humble)

Wrens have been given the pet name of Jenny Wren which, like Robin Redbreast, seems to be a term of affection. However, as we shall see, this endearment has not saved this tiny bird from our brutality.   It is likely that the name ‘wren’ comes from the Old English word wrenna or woerna, both of which seem to have an underlying reference to lasciviousness, possibly because the male wren is unusual in having several ‘wives’ (though there may also be an insinuation that that pert, erect tail gives an indication of the bird’s wantonness) . In Germany the wren is known as Zaunkonig, the king of the hedge. In Dutch, it is winterkoninkje, or little winter king. Both names point to the apparent boldness of the wren, though in Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker points out that the bird’s attitude is more one of total indifference to us. We are just large, rather clumsy mammals who happen to lurch into the wren’s line of sight every so often, though we are very useful for providing nest sites.

By Sonja Kübelbeck - own picture --Kuebi 16:31, 5 May 2007 (UTC), CC BY-SA 3.0,

A mother wren and four nestlings (Photo Two – see credits below)

The male wren builds several ‘starter-home’ nests in his territory – the average number is 6.3, though Mark Cocker mentions one Dutch bird that made 40 in 4 years. He then sings to attract a female. She will select the best of the nests and line it with moss and feathers, lay the eggs and rear the young with no help from the male, who is no doubt exhausted what with all that nest-building and singing. What is remarkable is the range and variety of nest sites selected. Again, from Birds Britannica:

……sites have included the base of a magpie’s nest occupied by kestrels, the floral cross on a church pulpit (the bird lining it with moss taken off the lectern) and inside the mouth of a prize pike hanging on a garage wall. Noise and movement are no deterrent whatsoever. Young wrens were successfully reared from a nest right next to a circular saw (just 8 inches/19 cm away) in use eight hours a day, while the young and eggs of another pair made a twice weekly journey from Kent to Covent Garden on the running board of a lorry‘.

Wren (photo taken by John Humble)

Wren (Photo Three by John Humble)

Yet, although the wren uses the housing opportunities that we provide, it is a bird that does not rely on us at all. It does not visit bird tables or frequent feeders. It does not use our nest boxes to nest in (though in very cold winters the birds may roost together in them – the record is 63 wrens in one box). When there is snow on the ground and the earth is frozen, this insectivorous bird may have slim pickings, and the wren population may fall precipitously, though some people swear that hard cheese, grated under a hedge, may sometimes be taken by the desperate birds. And yet, the species bounces back, probably because each of the female wrens in a territory can rear up to 8 fledglings if conditions are good.

By Murat Acuner -

Photo Four – Credit Below

Fossil records tell us that wrens have been in the UK since before the last Ice Age. A bird which has lived alongside us for such a long time might be expected to have garnered a certain amount of legend and symbolism, and this is certainly true of the wren. Aesop tells how the eagle and the wren had a competition to see who could fly highest. The wren hid in the eagle’s feathers and, when the larger bird grew tired, the wren flew out above him, winning the bet. For Aesop this was a sign that cleverness could beat brawn, but it set the tone for the idea that there is something sneaky about the wren.

In Celtic mythology the bird, which is one of the few that sings even in mid-winter, was seen as a symbol of the past year, and this might be the reason for several ceremonies in which a wren is killed on or around the winter solstice.

The bird also garnered an unfortunate reputation for treachery – a wren was supposed to have betrayed Irish soldiers fighting against the Vikings by pecking on a drum and waking the Vikings up. A wren is also said to have given away the whereabouts of St Stephen by singing from a branch of the hedge in which he was hiding from his persecutors. As a result, many countries have a ‘wren ceremony’ on or about the 26th December (St Stephen’s Day). These days, no bird is killed, but in the past a wren would have been harried to death and its limp little corpse carried around the village on a pole, while the ‘Wren Boys’ begged for alms.

By National Library of Ireland on The Commons - December 26Uploaded by oaktree_b, Public Domain,

Wren Boys parading in Dingle, Ireland, on St Stephen’s Day (26th December) Photo Five – see credits below

Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, chose this for her subject for her Christmas poem last year: here is a sample. For the full poem, with some wonderful illustrations, have a look here. No wrens were harmed in the making of this poem, which is just as it should be.

Hedge-bandit, song-bomb, dart-beak, the wren
hops in the thicket, flirt-eye; shy, brave,
grubbing, winter’s scamp, but more than itself –
ten requisite grams of the world’s weight.

And here’s the craic: that the little bird
had betrayed a saint with its song,
or stolen a ride on an eagle’s back
to fly highest; traitor and cheat.

But poets named it Dryw, druid and wren,
sought its hermit tune for a muse;
sweethearts thought it a foolproof blessing for love.
Which was true for the wren? None of the above.


As usual, Birds Britannica by Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker has been invaluable for this post. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

John Humble provided photographs One and Three. I am delighted to be collaborating with him again.

Photo Two : By Sonja Kübelbeck – own picture –Kuebi 16:31, 5 May 2007 (UTC), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four: By Murat Acuner –

Photo Five: By National Library of Ireland on The Commons – December 26 Uploaded by oaktree_b, Public Domain,


Wednesday Weed – Mahonia

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…..

Mahonia aquifolium

Mahonia aquifolium

Dear Readers, there is no doubt at all that Mahonia (or Oregon Grape as it is often known) is largely a plant of parks and gardens, but I found this individual right on the edge of Alexandra Park and the north London Parkland Walk, where it appeared to be making a break for freedom. It is originally a plant of North America, and is named after ‘the first nurseryman in America’, Bernard McMahon (1775-1816) who curated the plant collection of explorers Lewis and Clark. The plant arrived in the UK in 1823. By 1874 it could be found in the wild, and it is sometimes deliberately planted as cover for game birds (much as snowberry was). With its spiny evergreen leaves, yellow flowers and, later, its bloom-covered blue berries, it is one of those plants that has some interest in every season. It also seems to tolerate clay soil, and so there are some very fine examples of the plant in East Finchley.

IMG_5349The plant has a lot going for it as food for animals. It is recommended by many organisations as a food-source for early emerging bumblebee queens and solitary bees. The flowers have a rather pleasant smell too. The berries are liked by blackbirds and mistle thrushes. The leathery leaves are also, surprisingly, a food plant for moths such as the Bright Line Brown Eye (once again, I am in love with the names of moths) and the Peppered moth.

By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Bright Line Brown Eye moth caterpillar….(Lacanobia oleracea) (Photo One – credit below)

By ©entomart, Attribution,

…and when it’s all grown up (Photo Two – credit below)

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Peppered Moth (Biston betularia – white form) (Photo Three – credit below)

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Peppered moth (Biston betularia – black form) Photo Four (credit below)

However, mahonia is not only food for visitors to the garden – the ‘grapes’ have been used as human food. In North America, many native tribes ate the berries raw, whilst some turned them into jams and jellies, and others dried them. Should you have a superabundance of mahonia in your garden and an urge to knock up some preserves, you can find all the details you need at the Backwoods Home website. However, as many tribes people only ate the berries as a last resort, we can maybe assume that, whilst a useful source of vitamins, they are not as palatable as you might hope.

By The original uploader was Meggar at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mahonia berries (Photo Five)

The wood of mahonia is bright yellow, and produces a dye of the same colour, while the berries produce a purple one. Richard Mabey notes in Flora Britannica that one young boy used the juice from the ‘grapes’ as very convincing fake blood. One can only imagine how much the child’s mother appreciated his inventiveness.

IMG_5456Mahonia has also long been used for everything from gastritis to syphilis by the native peoples of North America, and  there have also been some promising recent studies into its use in the treatment of psoriasis. Indeed, much as I hate to publicise it,  mahonia medicine has even made the hallowed pages of the Femail section of the Daily Mail. Why it’s in the ‘Femail’ section goodness only knows. As far as I know, men get psoriasis too. But it’s probably just as well not to get me started on gender differentiation in the media. We could be here all day.

IMG_5454And there is one more thing to mention about mahonia. Some plants react when touched – the ‘Sensitive plant’ or mimosa is one example. We had one in a pot when we were children, and I remember how the poor plant would behave when we touched it, the individual leaves creeping together as if terrified and then the whole ‘branch’ collapsing . How we laughed, spawn of Satan that we were. Well, New Scientist reports that more than 100 species of plants have touch-sensitive stamen, and that mahonia is one of them. On the Digital Botanic Garden website, there are photos of the stamen contracting after being touched – the theory is that this helps to force pollen onto the legs of any visiting insects. This is a remarkably quick reaction, taking less than a second in warm weather. We often think of plants as being slow-moving organisms, but the more I learn about them, the more I realise that they are intensely reactive beings, responding to their environment with great rapidity when necessary. Let’s never underestimate our flora. They’re a lot more dynamic than we give them credit for.


As usual, I’d like to credit Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ and Sue Eland’s ‘Plant Lives‘ website for providing invaluable information.

Photo Credits

Photo One – By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Three – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five – By The original uploader was Meggar at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer

Bugwoman on Location – Tate Modern revisit, and a walk along the Thames

Back at Tate Modern on Friday 19th February

Back at Tate Modern on Friday 19th February

Dear Readers, you may remember that last year I visited the latest Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern in London. Called ‘Empty Lot’, it’s by Abraham Cruzvillegas, and comprises dozens of triangular planters, each filled with soil from different parts of London. Some contain material from allotments, some from parks, some from gardens, but none of the ‘plots’ are labelled, so it’s a little frustrating not to know which soil is from where. The containers are watered, and lighting is provided, but nothing is planted, so whatever grows will come from the seed bank that was there when the installation was created.

IMG_5397As you can see, some of the triangles have produced a reasonable crop of plants, but some are completely barren. Another frustration for me is that you can’t walk among the beds, but I managed to get an idea of what has grown up in some of them during the four months since I was here last.



Stinging nettle...

Stinging nettle. Or maybe even small nettle?

A member of the carrot family....

A member of the carrot family and a discarded water bottle

Some sad nasturtiums reaching for the light....

Some sad nasturtiums reaching for the light….

So far, so much as expected. If I’d been a betting person, I’d certainly have put money on dandelions and nettles cropping up. But wait, what is this?

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum)

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum)

Springing forth from several of the beds was a fine crop of black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). Why on earth this should be so numerous is anybody’s guess. Unless, of course, I am looking at some potato plants. Maybe any gardeners could hazard a guess? These plants look a little more delicate than the potato seedlings that I remember from my youth, but then the light conditions may have rendered them a little etiolated. Maybe the only solution is to break into Tate Modern after dark with a spade and do a spot of digging.

Black nightshade or poorly reared potato?

Black nightshade or poorly reared potato?

The exhibition finishes on 3rd April, much to my frustration – a few more months would have seen any spring flowering plants coming into bloom, and would have made identification easier. But still, this is art, not science. Unfortunately. On the UK Wildflowers Facebook page, someone suggested repeating the experiment but with labels, and with soil taken from all over the UK, and with correct lighting levels. What a glorious sight that would be!

Anyhoo, I had forgotten that it was half-term, and by this time the place was mobbed with eager small culture-seekers. You couldn’t get into the cafe for the massed ranks of prams and little ‘uns. So, I decided to go for a walk along the Thames,  heading back towards Waterloo.

The magic of bubbles - outside Tate Modern

The magic of bubbles – outside Tate Modern

St Pauls

St Pauls

The Millennium Bridge, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie

The Millennium Bridge, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie

An elderly man sat on a bench just past the gallery, and produced a carrier-bag full of crusts for the pigeons, which they hoovered up in ten minutes. No wonder they look so sleek and well-fed around here.

Thameside Pigeons

Thameside Pigeons

There are so many small treasures along this one mile walk. Take the lanterns, which, although called ‘Dolphin lights’, are actually said to represent sturgeon, though they don’t much look like them, either. The lights on the north side of the river date from 1870 and were designed by George John Vulliamy, but the ones on the south bank are replicas, made to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

IMG_5473And on some parts of the embankment railings there are veritable miniature forests of moss.

IMG_5467It’s easy to forget that the Thames is a tidal river, and that sometimes little miniature beaches appear. The lettering on the embankment below, almost hidden in the algae, says ‘Welcome to Paradise’. I don’t know if there is ever dry land here, or if someone wrote the message from a boat. Very intriguing.

The lettering says 'Welcome to Paradise'.

The lettering says ‘Welcome to Paradise’.

And here is one of the little beaches, being pecked over by the usual suspects.

IMG_5497The Thames is a great location for gull-watching – you never know who is going to turn up. But the commonest birds at this time of the year are the black-headed gulls, who ride the waves breast down and tail up, like paper boats.

IMG_5471They are not averse to picking over what the tide brings in either. To my surprise, most of it seems to be organic matter – branches and weed – although of course there are also plastic bottles and other tat. The Thames is still full of surprises -everything from Roman coins to clay pipes to Delftware. A man wearing a woolly hat was standing on the beach, mobile phone clamped to his ear, spade upright beside him in the sand. I wonder what he found?

IMG_5492A family just along the path had brought out their lunches, and were immediately besieged with pigeons at their feet, and gulls perching on the railings, watching every mouthful with a beady eye. When people walked past they flew up in a flurry of paper-white wings, squealing and chuckling. It’s not wise to show these arch-scavengers a crust unless you’re serious, because they are not above distraction tactics, and will nick half a sandwich as soon as look at you. They, along with squirrels, are the animal equivalents of Dicken’s urchins, innocent looking but with petty crime on their minds. And yet, watching the gulls against a backdrop of olive-green water and the warm stone of St Pauls, they looked more like angels.

IMG_5527 IMG_5528Onwards! And just before the National Theatre there was a fine group of gulls perched on the railings – three black-headed gulls and a young lesser black-backed gull. You could argue that this was a combination of beauty and the beast, for the lesser black-backed gull is twice the size of his companions, and bears a beak meant for butchery rather than for picking things over. Still, this is a young gull, with speckled wings, not yet ready for the piracy of his adulthood. He stands quite companionably with his smaller companions as they preen their feathers and keep an eye open for biscuits. I get quite a few photos of the little group as they sit there peaceably while the endless stream of tourists walk past. The birds have the disinterested look of  market-stall holders who have already sold enough for the day, and are watching the world go by without comment.

IMG_5516IMG_5515And then, the lesser black-backed gull unfurls his wings and, unhurriedly, lifts his pink feet from the railing and leans into the wind, which carries him off across the river. He lands on the prow of an ancient barge, and settles himself. Maybe he is dreaming of hot-dogs. Or maybe his mind is as clear as water.


Information on Dolphin lights from the excellent ‘Memoirs of a Metro Girl‘ website.

All photos this week copyright Vivienne Palmer

Wednesday Weed – Cow Parsley

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…..

Cow Parsley (Anthriscum sylvestris)

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)

Dear Readers, how can it be that I have been doing the Wednesday Weed for two years, and yet have never described a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae)? It’s not as if I don’t pass these plants often, as cow parsley grows freely in Cherry Tree Wood, and Coldfall Wood.  Today, however, just one plant was in flower along the Parkland Walk, a most intriguing north London path that stretches from Highgate to Finsbury Park along the route of a disused railway line.

IMG_5343Cow parsley is also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, though in Flora Britannica Richard Mabey is of the opinion that this is a rather contrived name, possibly imported from North America, where the plant is widely naturalised. It is also known as Mother Die, a rather sinister title. It may be that this relates to a belief that bringing the plant into the house was unlucky, but more likely it is because although the Apiaceae contain the relatives of many of our food crops (including carrot, parsnips and celery), it also contains some of the most poisonous plants in the UK, such as hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort. In other words, it’s probably wise not to go eating the roots of this family (or indeed any other part) unless you are 100% confident of what you are doing. This may explain another regional name for cow parsley, ‘keck’ – my dictionary states that it is a 17th century name meaning ‘nausea’ or ‘disgust’. It seems that mis-identification in the carrot family has been causing problems for centuries.

IMG_5338The leaves of cow parsley look rather like those of ‘real’ parsley and chervil, and indeed they are said to taste sharper than chervil, with a hint of carrot. I would be inclined to leave them alone, if I were you. They are also said to form a good mosquito repellent, but again, beware – the leaves of the giant hogweed look somewhat similar (though it would be difficult to mistake cow parsley for something with stems 10cm thick) and can cause burns.

IMG_5339It always puzzles me when, as here, a single plant has burst into flower, months before its neighbours (cow parsley normally flowers in May in great abundance, as you can see below). So, Is there something about this particular spot that encourages precocity – maybe richer soil, or more light? Or is it something genetic? If the latter, this early-flowering would be a good illustration of the kind of variation that might give a plant an evolutionary advantage in the right conditions. At any rate, this plant has certainly got a jump on its many, many neighbours. Let’s just hope that there are some hoverflies around soon to pollinate it, or all its efforts will have been in vain.

By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cow parsley in full flower (Photo One – credit below)

In spite of the superstition surrounding the plant, it is popular with flower arrangers, and to my surprise I discovered that it has been ‘improved’ and several varieties can be bought. Here, for example, is ‘Ravenswing’, with black foliage.  Is it more beautiful than the plant in its natural state? I shall leave it for you to judge.

By Megan Hansen -

Cow parsley ‘Ravenswing’ (Photo Two – see credit below)


Cow parsley in its natural state

As you might expect, this attractive plant has inspired artists, including Elizabeth Sonrel, who lived from 1874 to 1953 and who painted in the Art Nouveau style. Below is her painting ‘Our Lady of the Cow Parsley’. It reminds me very much of the paintings of the seaasons by Mucha that used to adorn the walls of our family house. Only a pedant would point out that the flowers look rather more like Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) than cow parsley, but if you’re looking for a pedant, you’ve come to the right place.

Elisabeth Sonrel's 'Our Lady of the Cow Parsley'

Elisabeth Sonrel’s ‘Our Lady of the Cow Parsley’

The Latin species name for cow parsley, ‘sylvestris’, usually means ‘of the woods’, and it is often found in the less shady parts of a forest, along a path or ride. However, it is an adaptable plant, found en masse beside hedgerows and walls, a frothy sheet of delicate white in spring. Each solitary flower is a modest little five-petalled thing, but a single plant can have up to five thousand individual flowers. No wonder beetles and hoverflies and dance flies can often be seen clambering over the flowerheads, giddy with nectar and coated in pollen. And in case you’ve never seen a dance fly before, there’s a photo of one below. The name ‘dance fly’ comes from their erratic movements in flight. Also known as ‘dagger flies’ because of their sharp protruding mouthparts, many of these flies are predators on other insects, and perform an invaluable role in keeping insects that we find pestiferous under control. So, in all our justified concern for bees, let’s not forget these other, less charismatic creatures, who make our lives easier without being noticed at all.

By Leviathan1983 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A Dance Fly (Empis tessellata) on cow parsley (Photo Three – photo credit below)

Just Passing Through

Hmm. Maybe I'll leave the boardwalk for another day....

Hmm. Maybe I’ll leave the boardwalk for another day….

Dear Readers, we have had a lot of rain here in London over the past few weeks. In fact, we’ve had a lot of rain this winter full stop. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when I took a walk in Coldfall Wood last week, I found that ‘The Everglades’ had the highest water level that I’d ever seen. Normally, it looks like the photo below.

The pond is fed by several streams and, as the soil is a claggy, slippery clay, the water is slow to drain away. And the transformation of what is usually a bog into a decent sized lake attracted a creature that I have not seen previously in my half-mile ‘territory’.

IMG_5300A mallard drake and duck (you can just see her in the background) had popped by to check out the new facilities. Now, there is no shortage of mallards in the UK – there are an estimated 710,000 over-wintering here from Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe – but nonetheless it is the first time that I’ve seen them here. Did they notice the water as they were flying past, and decide to check it out? They were certainly more skittish and nervous than the average boat-pond mallard, who would drown his granny for a mouldy crust (or so it sometimes seems).

IMG_5308For many of us, our earliest close contact with birds was when, as toddlers, we were taken off to  ‘feed the ducks’. I remember being knocked over and trampled by the rubbery feet of a Canada goose , and the sharp scrape as a mute swan’s beak nearly took my fingers off, but I still loved distributing my largesse to these (in my mind) starving creatures. It was probably my first experience of being compassionate to non-human animals, and I remember being intent on making sure that every bird got his/her share of the shopping bag full of crusts.

Today, we know that bread is actually bad for wildfowl who are usually herbivorous by nature, and the Canal and River Trust is advising that we feed the birds defrosted frozen peas and sweetcorn instead, but when I was growing up the ducks on Wanstead Flats got white sliced bread and an occasional stale Madeira cake.  Apparently we feed six million loaves a year to ducks and geese, so I am not surprised that bird charities also advise that we ‘exercise portion control’, though as many of us have problems with the size of our own meals I suspect that we will continue to err on the side of generosity.

IMG_5312I love the green iridescent head of the male mallard, and the shiny violet-blue patch on the wing of the female (known as a speculum). Mallards are birds that would be more appreciated if they were rarer. I like to stand back sometimes and  to imagine myself into a state of prelapsarian innocence in which I’d never seen a mallard before. What a wonder it would be!

By Bauer, Erwin and Peggy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mallard drake in flight (Photo One – credit below)

In Birds Britannia, Mark Cocker relates how many of our common phrases are related to the duck (in Victorian times, the mallard was known as ‘the wild duck’). There’s ‘water off a duck’s back’, and ‘nice weather for ducks’. There’s the duck in cricket (probably because a nought resembles a duck’s egg), and ‘a dead duck’. A friend of mine at school used to refer to anyone who was behaving pathetically as looking like ‘a dying duck in a storm’. Yep, ducks have been quaking through our subconscious subliminally for years. No wonder we take them for granted.

IMG_5315The question was, though, would this pair stay? My mind drifted off to thoughts of fluffy ducklings puddling through the bye-ways of the pond. But when I visited again a few days later, there was no sign of the mallards. Maybe there were just too many people and dogs about, but I wonder if the ducks spotted the many, many crows who hang out in the woods, and realised that their eggs and hatchlings would be at too high a risk of predation. I was somewhat downhearted, but there was compensation, as there always is.

Green woodpecker

Green woodpecker

As I slipped along the muddy footpath by the side of the stream, I saw an olive-green bird with a red cap undulate through the air and land by the fingerpost bridge. I was too far away to get a good photo, but it could only be one bird – a green woodpecker. I’d heard them yaffling away for a few weeks, but this was the first time I’d gotten a semi-decent view.

IMG_5327I am always surprised by these birds. They look too exotic for a wood in East Finchley. But here this one was, looking around and taking a drink. I do wonder how two species of woodpecker (we have great spotted woodpecker too), stock doves and parakeets all manage to find enough dead trees to nest in, for only a hollow tree will do for all these species. The management of the wood, with dead trees being allowed to stand unless dangerous, helps to provide the habitat for these birds. As in any garden or park, the desire to be too tidy is anathema to wildlife.

IMG_5330And so, Coldfall Wood continues to throw up surprises. I never know what I’m going to see when I open those creaky gates and start to explore. I do know that to see things takes time, and patience, and that I need to engage all my senses, not just my eyes. For that, I need to go alone, or with a patient companion, who doesn’t mind standing in the cold peering into a bush while I fiddle with my camera settings. I do know that I always come home inspired, my understanding of my ‘territory’ expanded, and with a new astonishment at the variety of plants and animals that it’s possible to find close to home. For anyone who is downhearted or lost or generally fed up with the state of the world, I can recommend a little stroll around a park, or garden, or even a few minutes spent scanning the sky with binoculars. The sight of so many other creatures going about their business has a way of providing perspective, of taking us out of our own heads and letting us see that we are part of something much bigger. And that, in a world which encourages us to be so self-absorbed, can be as refreshing as a cold drink on a hot day.

Photo Credit

Photo One – By Bauer, Erwin and Peggy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer



Wednesday Weed – Early Crocus

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…..

Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus)

Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus)

Dear Readers, close to the entrance of Coldfall Wood there is a tiny patch of Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus). How fragile this plant is, and yet how strong! It has burst through the hard-packed clay soil, sometimes lifting whole twigs and stones in its urge to reach the sunlight.

IMG_5282There are two very similar species of crocus that you are likely to see naturalised in the UK. The Dutch or Spring Crocus (Crocus vernus) looks similar to the Early Crocus, but it has a mauve or purple ‘throat’ which is never lighter in colour than the flowers themselves.

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

Spring/Dutch Crocus (Crocus vernus) – notice the mauve ‘throat’ to the flowers. (Photo One – see credits below)

‘Tommies’ are native to Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, and were named for the botanist Muzio G. Spirito de Tommasini (1794-1879), who was Mayor of the city of Trieste. They are relatively late arrivals, first cultivated in 1847, and not recorded in the wild until 1963, although this may have been due to confusion  with the Spring Crocus. The plant naturalises easily in lawns and churchyards, and there is a fine patch in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, which has no doubt grown from a handful of bulbs planted on a grave.

IMG_5288You might not think it to look at them, but crocuses (or, indeed croci) are part of the Iris family. The name is thought to derive from the Sanskrit word for ‘saffron’ (kunkuman) although it is the autumn crocus (Crocus sativus) that produces this spice, not these spring-flowering species. They do have the most intense yellow pollen, however, and you can see how the name has arisen.

IMG_5276In Greek mythology, Crocus was a human youth in love with a nymph called Smilax. Apparently irritated by his audacity, the gods turned Crocus into, well, a crocus. Smilax was turned into either a yew tree or bindweed, depending on your source. The Greek gods were certainly a touchy bunch.

IMG_5269In the financial world, a ‘crocus’ is a company or sector which recovers quickly after an economic downturn. The waxy cuticle helps it to survive even when there is late frost or snow on the ground, so you can see how the comparison has developed. Vasile Cotovanu

‘Tommies’ under snow (Photo Two – See credits below)

As I researched this piece, it became apparent that the poor old crocus had been the focus of some truly execrable poetry. Certainly, its bravery in sticking its petally head above the soil into the teeth of a snowstorm has been extensively celebrated, to the extent that Sherman Alexie, the editor of New American Poetry 2015, has this to say:

None of us ever needs to write another poem about crocuses, or croci, or however you prefer to pluralize it. Trust me, we poets have exhausted the poetic potential of the crocus. If any of you can surprise me with a new kind of crocus poem then I will mail you one hundred dollars.’

But, wait! I wonder if Mr Alexie has ever read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem ‘Spring’. I have to confess to loving this. It made me laugh out loud at the unexpectedness of the last few lines, for all their curmudgeonliness.  And if Ms Millay were still alive, I think she would deserve her prize.


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.


Ruth Fainlight’s powerful, disturbing piece on crocuses would surely also be a contender for a new way to look at the plant. I hadn’t come across the poet before, but I shall certainly be reading more of her work.

These crocuses are appalling:
pale, bare, tender stems rising
through the muddy winter-faded turf,

shivering petals the almost luminous mauve
of lurid bruises on the frightened faces
and naked bodies of men, women, children

herded into a forest clearing or
towards a siding where a train has halted
and the trucks are waiting.

But perhaps there is much to be said for ending with a poem that was chalked on a blackboard at Des Moines High School for all the children to learn. The sight of crocuses, for me, means that the world is still turning, in spite of all the things we are doing to it. The clock of the seasons ticks on, however erratically.

Daffodils and tulips
impatient underground
in March sent up a crocus
to have a look around.

She yelled, “It still is winter,
there is frost on everything.”
But a passerby who saw her said,
“A crocus!  It is spring!”

Photo Credits

Photo One – By Franz Xaver (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two –  By Vasile Cotovanu

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

Bugwoman’s Second Annual Report

Grey Heron at London Zoo

Grey Heron at London Zoo

Dear Readers, another year has come and gone, and here’s a chance to reminisce about the plants and animals that I’ve seen over the past twelve months, starting with this fine heron, hanging around with the penguins at London Zoo in February 2015. Since the photo was taken, the zoo staff have planted artificial herons around the pool, which seem to have had little deterrent effect. Maybe the penguins will just have to learn to share their herrings.


In March, I was introduced to the world of moss during a talk at the Natural History Museum, and was delighted to discover that the UK was a European moss and liverwort hot spot. My Wednesday Weed explorations included the discovery of some spring snowflakes in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, along with some teasel. I am always impressed by how biodiverse this burial ground is. Churchyards and cemeteries are underrated as places where plants and animals can get on with their lives away from human interference.


Spring Snowflakes

Spring Snowflakes

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

March also saw the annual frog orgy in the pond. I am still waiting for all the amphibian excitement to kick off for this year, but I am usually alerted to the fact that the frogs have woken up by the presence of one or two cats who spend hours staring into the water as if it were a television.

IMG_1579IMG_1210April was a bird bonanza. I spotted a green woodpecker in the cemetery, drilling into an anthill with his chisel of a beak.

IMG_2034There were nuthatches, stock doves, song thrushes and even a treecreeper in Coldfall Wood.



Stock Dove

Stock Dove



Song Thrush

Song Thrush

Meantime, the borage was in flower on The Bishop’s Avenue.



May saw Oxford Ragwort being featured, and what a nest of wasps I stirred up with this plant. What a controversial ‘weed’ it turned out to be, with folk who want complete eradication because it occasionally poisons livestock on one side, and people who want it to be preserved for its entomological value on the other).

IMG_2697May also included a visit to a vanishing bog, and a Wednesday Weed featuring ivy-leaved toadflax, a plant that drops its seeds into cracks in the wall by turning its bloom in the correct direction.

The vanishing bog at Rowley Green Common

The vanishing bog at Rowley Green Common

Ivy-leaved toadflax

Ivy-leaved toadflax

In June, I visited the newly-opened ‘In With the Spiders’ exhibit at London Zoo, and found some very impressive arachnids, though whether they or the very nervous people who walked through it were the most entertaining it’s hard to tell.

Golden Silk Orb Weaver female (Nephila edulis)

Golden Silk Orb Weaver female (Nephila edulis)

June’s highlight for me was my first ever discovery of a bumblebee nest in a patch of brambles on an unadopted road close to my house. I actually did a little jig of delight when I realised what I’d found. There is nothing to beat a spell of aimless wandering if you want to find something new and interesting.

IMG_2901I also examined two patches of Japanese Knotweed close to the playing fields behind Coldfall Wood, and explored the history of this nefarious ‘weed’. As I write, one patch is being eradicated, and I am intrigued to know exactly what is going on. I hope to report back soon.

Japanese Knotweed

Japanese Knotweed

July saw me in Obergurgl, Austria for two weeks. A land of plants, butterflies  and, um, cake.

Orange-tip butterfly - a familiar face!

Orange-tip butterfly – a familiar face!

Apricot cake with cream. Still warm from the oven...

Apricot cake with cream. Still warm from the oven…

On my return, it seemed that some new neighbours had moved in, but strangely enough I haven’t seen a single rat since that day.

IMG_3659I also had a visit to some municipal planting sites in Islington and the Barbican, to see what can be done when a council decides to improve the wildlife value of its public gardens.

Planting on Holloway Road by Islington Council

Planting on Holloway Road by Islington Council

Planting at the Barbican by City of London

Planting at the Barbican by City of London

In August, I witnessed the mass exodus of winged ants, a phenomenon that I’d known about since childhood but had never researched before.

081315_1447_TheFlyingAn4.jpgI also made a field-trip to Bunhill Fields, to observe the pigeon flock there. Again, the people were every bit as interesting as the birds.

IMG_4046September saw the departure of the house martins, and also my departure to Canada for a fortnight. I saw chickadees, red-winged blackbirds and monarch butterflies, and spent time with some wonderful family and friends. I met up with several folk who I had previously only known from Facebook, and they were just as interesting, warm-hearted and generous in real life as they’d appeared in cyberspace, which just goes to show what a force for good the internet can be.

House Martins preparing to head south for the winter

House Martins preparing to head south for the winter





Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird



In October, I visited the newly installed ‘Empty Lot’ by Abraham Cruzvillegas at Tate Modern. This featured containers of soil taken from all over London, and some of them were already beginning to sprout. I will make a return visit before the exhibition closes, to see how the plants are getting on. At the time I was worried that the silly timescale (October to March) would not give most of the plants any time to flower, plus the lighting looked inadequate for proper growth. I hope I’m proved wrong.

'Empty Lot' at Tate Modern

‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern

I also celebrated the superabundance of spiders last autumn, which continued well into what we would normally think of as ‘winter’.

IMG_4576In November, I celebrated a very impressive squirrel, enthused about  the beauty of the beech hedge, and had a Twitter-spat with someone about the exact definition of a weed, following a piece praising the little community garden at East Finchley station. Suffice it to say that there was plenty of harrumphing going on.


The N2 Community Garden

The N2 Community Garden

December started just like any other winter month. I found some stinking hellebore and some gorse in bloom, and discussed the starling tree on East Finchley High Street.

Stinking Hellebore

Stinking Hellebore

Common Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

Common Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

The Starling Tree

The Starling Tree

I also temporarily transmogrified Bugwoman’s Adventures in London into a cat blog.

Tabby Kit

Tabby Kit





But by January, I chose to share with everybody that my 80 year-old mother was in hospital, extremely ill with sepsis and pneumonia. My post on the subject elicited some of the kindest and most thoughtful comments I’d ever had, and I will always be grateful for everyone’s support during this time.

IMG_5116So, here we are, full circle.  I love the variety of people who come together here, united by a  delight in the natural world, and a desire to look after it. This year, I am participating in a course called Identiplant, which I hope will help unlock some of the secrets of accurately identifying the plants around me (I still find the Daisy family confusing, what with all those Hawkbeards and Hawkbits), and I hope to be able to share some of that knowledge with you all. I aim to explore my half-mile territory with even greater zeal, and to wander further afield to see what else is going on. In short, this year I hope to go deeper, to uncover the unnoticed and the ignored, and to set forth like a true adventurer into the wilds of East Finchley, notebook in one hand and A to Z in the other. I hope you’ll come with me.







Wednesday Weed – Daffodil

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…..

The paradoxical daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)

The paradoxical daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)

Dear Readers, is there any plant more ubiquitous or more recognisable at this time of year than the daffodil? I spotted this fine collection of yellow trumpets outside the flats on the corner of Church Lane in East Finchley, and, with their ‘heads’ all pointing in the same direction they remind me of nothing so much as a flock of flamingos during their mating ritual.

By Pedros Szekely -, CC BY 2.0, $3

Some very fine James’s Flamingos (Photo One – see credit below)

Some single-minded daffodils

Some single-minded daffodils

The problem with daffodils is that, although they are native plants, and do still grow in the wild (although to nothing like the extent that they used to, as we shall see) they are also planted just about everywhere. And I can see why. They are so emblematic of spring, so cheerful in their yellow finery and such a relief as the winter days start to lengthen that they bring a smile to the most miserable of faces.

So, what does a truly wild daffodil look like?

By Meneerke bloem (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wild daffodils in the Ardennes (Photo Two – credit below)

The truly wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus pseudonarcissus) has a single flower on every stem, creamy white petals and a darker yellow trumpet. Where it likes the habitat, it can be very prolific – think of Wordsworth’s ‘host of golden daffodils’. An area around the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border used to be called ‘The Golden Triangle’ and in the 1930’s the Great Western Railway ran ‘Daffodil Specials’ from London, so that people could walk among the flowers and buy bunches to take home. The daffodils were an invaluable source of early spring income for those who farmed the land on which they grew, and for the casual labourers that were employed to pick them.

These days, wild daffodils seem to occur in very discrete areas – as Richard Mabey points out in Flora Britannica, they can be found in parts of south Devon, pockets of the Black Mountains in Wales, the Sussex Weald, Farndale in Yorkshire and the Lake District (for a list of wild daffodil sites, have a look at the Wildlife Trust list here.) But there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the distribution of the populations – daffodils are not fussy with regard to habitat (as anyone who has grown them can attest) and perfect habitat is sometimes shunned. Could it be that the popularity of the daffodil as a plant for cutting has led to it being artificially spread to some areas and not to others? I suspect we shall never know.

IMG_5245Daffodils are also known as Lenten Lilies, as they start to appear roughly when Lent occurs – this year it starts on February 10th, so the plants here are a little early. However, although for us they are such symbols of spring, it was also believed in some parts of England that bringing daffodils indoors was unlucky (probably because to some eyes, the plants appear to be hanging their heads in shame). In particular, no chicks or ducklings would survive on a farmstead where the daffodils were brought inside the house, maybe because of the sense of a link between the golden colour of the flowers and the yellow fuzz of the baby birds. In Wales, however, where the daffodil is the national flower, the first person to spot a plant in bloom would be set to receive more gold than silver during the coming year. Other folklore included the belief that pointing at a daffodil would prevent it from coming into bloom. To dream of a daffodil is said to indicate that love and happiness is on the way.

It is clear that daffodils have a somewhat mixed folkloric reputation, though they are currently being rehabilitated through their association with the Marie Curie Cancer Care Trust – many of us have had reason to be thankful to the carers and nurses of the organisation, who help to support those with cancer and their families. In this context the daffodil is a symbol of hope and kindness. However, daffodils were said to be the plants that Persephone was gathering when she was snatched by the lord of the underworld, and they were also said to grow in Hades, on the banks of the river Styx. In many cultures they have been grave flowers, so there is no escaping their association with death and loss.

IMG_5240What is little known about daffodils is that they are poisonous. The bulbs contain two alkaloids and a glycoside, and on The Poison Garden website (my go-to site for anything to do with ‘dangerous’ plants), John Robertson explains how most poisoning occurs when people mistake the bulbs for onions. As little as half a bulb is sufficient to cause a severe stomach upset but, as most cases resolve themselves quickly, daffodil poisoning is rarely a cause of hospitalisation. The website has some wonderful stories of how poisoning occurs, including the one below:

In September 2009, a visitor to this site sent details of her experience of daffodil poisoning. Her mother-in-law gave her a bag of ‘mystery vegetables’ which included some daffodil bulbs. It was only after she had used them in a family meal and all three of them had begun to vomit that she listened to an answerphone message from her mother asking if she had planted the daffs yet and realised what had happened. She sought medical advice and the family ended up spending several hours, of a holiday weekend, sitting in the hospital ‘just in case’.’

Well, one of the joys of writing this blog is all the things that I find out as I research my pieces. I will make certain to keep the daffodil bulbs and the onions separate, and I heartily advise you to do the same.

Incidentally, the leaves are also poisonous, and there was an incident in Bristol in 2012 when a Chinese supermarket was stocking bunches of daffodils in bud, and the shoppers were mistaking the plants for Chinese Chives. Around ten people were treated in hospital. Clearly, narcissi are not plants to be messed with.

Just because a plant is poisonous, however, does not mean that it doesn’t have medicinal uses. One of the alkaloids in daffodils, galantamine (also present in snowdrops) is currently being researched as an early stage treatment for Alzeheimer’s Disease. It has been found that galantamine is present in much higher concentrations when the plant is grown at altitude, and so 120 acres of daffodils have been planted in the Black Mountains in Wales to see if it is possible to harvest the chemical in an economic way (ten tons of daffodil bulbs are required to produce one kilogram of galantamine). At £600 per ton, this could be a useful source of income for beleaguered Welsh hill farmers, whilst at the same time providing help for the sufferers of this infernal disease. Let’s hope so. For further details, have a look on the Joint Nature Conservation Council website here.

IMG_5236Daffodils are probably too common to be truly appreciated – there is none of the sense of awe that stumbling across a bluebell wood or a bank of snowdrops has. And yet, it has not always been so. Have a look at the painting by Vincent van Gogh, below. It has a hallucinatory quality, that sense of walking through a world transformed by abundant and unexpected beauty. There is something precious about the butter-yellow of a daffodil emerging from its papery shroud and turning its face to the sun. Like all common things, it is worthy of a little more attention than we usually bestow upon it.


Vincent van Gogh – Undergrowth with Two Figures

Photo Credits

Photo One – By Pedros Szekely –, CC BY 2.0, $3

Photo Two – By Meneerke bloem (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer