Monthly Archives: March 2016

Wednesday Weed – Mock Strawberry

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…..

Mock strawberry (Duchesnea/Potentilla indica)

Mock strawberry (Duchesnea/Potentilla indica)

Dear Readers, I confess that I found this little plant outside of my half-mile territory – it was growing on a mossy wall at the edge of Hampstead Heath – but I was so intrigued by it that I thought I’d share it with you. I was very puzzled when I found it: it was clearly some kind of strawberry, but the flower was bright yellow, and it wasn’t in any of my plant guides. So, off I went to my friends at the UK Wildflower Facebook group, who recognised it as mock strawberry within about thirty seconds.

IMG_5714Mock strawberry is not the same as barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) or wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca).

Walter Isack / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) (Photo One – credit below)

By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) Photo Two (credit below)

As you can see, although the leaves are very similar the flowers of both our native strawberries are white, with a much larger gap between the petals in barren strawberry. Mock strawberry is native to Asia (hence one alternative name of Indian Strawberry), and so it is another garden plant that has ‘escaped’. According to the Plant Lives website, it was introduced to the UK in 1804, and there was a craze for using it in hanging baskets during the Regency period of 1810 to 1820. I can well imagine how pretty it would have looked, and how enthusiastically it would have fallen from its lofty perch and headed off into the undergrowth.

Mock strawberry does have ‘strawberries’, although these are said to taste like a rather insipid watermelon. However, on the ever-interesting Eat the Greens website, Green Deane considers that maybe the fruits are suffering from ‘negative exaggeration’ – they look so palatable that it is a disappointment when they taste a little bland. Deane describes how the leaves can be used as a pot herb, or as a pleasant tea when dried. The berries can be used to make a jelly or jam, and to stretch other berries when making preserves. Plus, it can be a useful ground cover plant in the garden (though here I might incline more to using wild strawberry, because I have a passion for the intensely flavoured berries).

By Kurt Stüber [1] - part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fruit of the mock strawberry (Photo Three – credit below)

The mock strawberry is listed as a noxious weed in many parts of North America and Europe, and also on vulnerable islands such as Reunion. This is in part due to its modes of reproduction. The plants have both male and female flowers, and so are ‘perfect’ – capable of self-pollination if there are no pollinators around to encourage genetic diversity. However, like other members of the strawberry family, it can extend its reach by ‘runners’, which erupt as baby plants a good distance from the ‘parent’. So, when times are hard the mock strawberry can go in search of nutrients without the original plant moving an inch.

IMG_5716All parts of the plant have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it is known as she mei – snake strawberry – because snakes make their nests amongst the leaves. It has been used to treat tumours, inflammation, diarrhoea and vaginal bleeding.  Western studies have been investigating the uses of the plant too, and a recent study showed that the plant has anti-inflammatory properties, whilst another looked at its potential as an immunostimulant in the treatment of cancer  

Another human use for mock strawberry is as a pesticide – it has a long history in Asia of being used not only to cure malaria, but also to kill mosquitoes who might carry the disease (though I’ve yet to discover what part was used, and how). What a useful plant this is, even though its fruits might not be altogether to human taste.

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mock strawberry in flower (Photo Four – see credit below)

Nearly all of the websites that I’ve visited to research this plant state that it was used in India as an offering to the gods. However, as exactly the same sentence seems to be replicated in each one, it may be that it’s one of these factoids that chases round and round the internet without my ever being able to get to the bottom of the story, which I find rather frustrating. I would love to be able to share the details of where, how and why it featured in such ceremonies, if indeed it ever did, and if any of my readers can enlighten me (and the rest of us) I would be delighted to hear from you!

By Botanical Register, vol. 1: t. 61 (1815) [S. Edwards] -, Domena publiczna,

Photo Five – credit below.

Photo Credits

Photo One – Walter Isack / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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

Photo Three – By Kurt Stüber [1] – part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four – By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five – By Botanical Register, vol. 1: t. 61 (1815) [S. Edwards] –, Domena publiczna,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer


News from the Cemetery

IMG_5777Dear Readers, after a week in Dorset with my parents (about which more next week) I was eager to get out into the cemetery to see what was going on (for the back story to this post, have a look here and here). My lovely friend A had taken over my jam sandwich duties while I was away, but had only seen the tail end of a fox disappearing into the brambles. So, on Good Friday, I dropped off my jam sandwich at the usual spot and was heading off when I saw the fox above, who ran between the graves and attempted to hide himself behind this rubbish bin. I rather think that it might be ‘my’ mangy fox.

'My' fox?

‘My’ fox?

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

Who knows. If it is ‘my’ fox, he looks a little better, but I couldn’t see the relevant side of the animal to judge how the mange was doing.

We walked on a little further. What a beautiful evening it was, and, according to the weather forecast, the last decent day of the four-day bank holiday. The shadows are so long at this time of year, the birdsong so loud that I felt as if I was walking in a dream. And then, we turned a corner.

IMG_5778A miniature panther was patrolling the cemetery, and he was not alone.

IMG_5751There is a small colony of feral cats who live in the cemetery, and who are cared for by a fine London lady. I shall call her B. She has long white hair and blue eyes the colour of forget-me-nots. Every day, she visits her husband’s grave, and then comes on to leave food for the four identical (to me, at the moment) jet black moggies. She told me that one of them, Boris, is an unneutered tom that no one has managed to catch, and that he is always getting into fights. I shall be keeping my eyes open for Boris.

Of course, the food doesn’t only attract the cats.

Who is this sneaking away in the background?

Who is this sneaking away in the background?

B knows my little mangy fox, and says that he often waits patiently until she moves away, and the cats have had their fill – they are more than a match for any fox who tries to push in. And so, now I have a new place where I can leave a jam sandwich, in the knowledge that it has some chance, at least, of reaching the intended diner.

Which is just as well, because as we walked back past the place where I’d left the medicated food, I noticed someone enjoying it who was not the intended recipient.

IMG_5781And as I watched, the last piece was carried off to be enjoyed in peace.

IMG_5782It seems no one can resist a jam sandwich.

Wednesday Weed – Blackthorn

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…..

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) on Hampstead Heath on Saturday

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) on Hampstead Heath on Saturday

Dear Readers, what a pleasure it is to see the blackthorn in full flower. The English name of the plant describes it well for anyone uncertain what it looks like – the twigs and branches are black or dark grey, and the plant has thorny side shoots. Each of the flowers has many long, elegant stamens which give the blossom a speckled appearance. Such a mass of flowers is a boon for early insects of all kinds, from hoverflies to honeybees. In some traditions, the signal for the start of Imbolc, the time of Celtic  spring rituals, was the blooming of the blackthorn.

IMG_5745I must confess to a personal attachment to this plant. In its other incarnation as the sloe, blackthorn forms the basis of one of my favourite tipples, sloe gin. My father worked for many years as a distiller for Gordon’s Gin. In those days, the recipe for the gin was a closely guarded secret (the details were held in a locked safe), and only a few people knew how to make up the concentrated flavour that would be used to create the spirit. As a result my father, who left school at fourteen, ended up flying all over the world, working in distilleries in Spain, Jamaica, and in the middle of a jungle in Venezuela. He had many adventures, including being confined to quarters during a State of Emergency in Jamaica, being knocked over by an earthquake in Venezuela, and flying first class with Peter Wyngarde, the diminutive mahogany-toned star of the TV show Jason King. I credit my dad with imbuing me with a love of travel, and the belief that it was possible to  have an interesting and fulfilling life regardless of where you start.

By Allan warren - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Peter Wyngarde (Photo One – credit below)

And what has all this to do with blackthorn, I hear you plead? Well, Gordons made a limited number of bottles of sloe gin, which, heavily diluted with lemonade, was one of my first introductions to the delights of alcohol. I still love a glass at Christmas today (though minus the lemonade). It is possible to make the drink at home, though the process involves gathering basketfuls of the astringent purple-blue fruits, and individually pricking every one to allow the juices to colour and flavour the gin that you pour all over them. At Gordon’s, they had a special machine for pricking the sloes, which I believe were harvested in Scotland. And a very fine drink it was too.

The juice from the berries has also been used as a dye – apparently it initially turns cloth a reddish colour, but after several washings this turns to a permanent pale blue.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sloes! (Photo Two – see photo credits below)

Humans are not the only creatures with a taste for blackthorn, however. It is a recommended source of food for the caterpillars of the rare Black and Brown Hairstreak butterflies, as well as numerous moths.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Black hairstreak (Satyrium pruni) (Photo Three – credit below)

By Hectonichus - Own work, CC0,

Brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae) (Photo Four – see credit below)

The eggs of the brown hairstreak are laid directly onto the stems of the blackthorn, and it’s well worth having a look to see if you can see any next time you are passing by a bush. They are quite distinctive, though at a distance you might mistake them for lichen, or bird droppings. Once the caterpillars emerge, they are extremely well camouflaged and feed only at night.

By Gilles San Martin - Flickr: Thecla betulae egg, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Egg of the butterfly Thecla betulae on a Prunus spinosa twig (Photo Five – credit below)

And for your delectation, here are some of the other insects whose larvae may be found feeding on blackthorn:

By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The small emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Six – see credit below)

By ©entomart, Attribution,

Brimstone moth (Ophithograptis luteolata) (Photo Seven – see credit below)

By Donald Hobern - originally posted to Flickr as Esperia oliviella, CC BY 2.0,

The Concealer Moth (Dasycera oliviella) whose caterpillar, unusually, eats dead blackthorn wood (Photo Eight – see credit below)

As so many creatures depend upon it, it is a good thing that blackthorn has been used as a cattle-proof hedge since at least medieval times. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how crossing the blackthorn with the cultivated plum tree can produce ‘thorns more than two inches long and tough enough to penetrate a tractor tyre’, so I can well see how even the most ambitious cow would admit defeat.

The wood is described by Cobbett as being ‘precisely the colour of the Horse Chestnut fruit and, as smooth and bright, needs no polish’. Blackthorn wood has been used as a material for walking sticks, and was traditionally the wood used for Irish shillelaghs (clubs), because it was less prone to cracking than other materials. The wood was seasoned with lard and put up a chimney to season, which gave it its black colour. The normal weight of the stick was about two pounds, but a ‘seasoned club’ had the hitting end filled with molten lead. You would not want to attempt to mug someone carrying one of these sticks, for sure.

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

Some very fine shillelagh (Photo Nine – credit below)

Although it was a rather mild day when I spotted the blackthorn in blossom at the weekend, it is said that the plant may come into flower during a period of bitter winds following a ‘false spring’ – a ‘blackthorn winter’. As with many plants that bear berries, plentiful fruit was also believed to be indicative of a harsh winter to come:

‘many sloes, many cold toes’

IMG_5742The bark has been used as an intestinal tonic, and also for tanning – it turns leather a reddish-brown colour. It seems that this plant, which shares such a long history with us, has been useful to us at every turn.

I like to try to find some artistic or poetic reference to my Wednesday Weed, and this week I have found this portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite Marie Spartali Stillman, arguably the greatest woman artist of the movement. The painting shows the Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, a character from Dante’s poetry, and she is described as ‘a heartless lady dressed in green’. She is holding a branch of blackthorn, and I wonder what it symbolises: her wintery coldness, her thorny nature, or even her purity? Her enigmatic gaze is giving nothing away. I love that the painting features not only the blackthorn, but that the flowers in the Madonna’s hair are hellebores, and that ivy twines amongst the dried oak leaves above her head.

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman(1884). Currently in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman(1884). Currently in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (Photo Ten – credit below)

Spartali Stillman lived in England for her whole life, first in Clapham and then on the Isle of Wight. She studied under Ford Madox Brown (who is buried in ‘my’ cemetery) and was a model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Julia Margaret Cameron and Burne-Jones, amongst others. She also had an extensive sixty year career of her own, which included major exhibitions in both the UK and the US. Yet I had never heard of her. It seems that, as so often, a woman’s work is buried in obscurity while her male compatriots are famous names. I am  fortunate to live in an age where such works can be discovered with a simple internet search, uncovering a whole world of beauty that I can share here. It is easy to criticise the web, and yet it enables us to make connections that I cannot imagine would have been so easily made any other way. Who knew that a post on blackthorn would take me so far?


Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ and Sue Eland’s ‘Plant Lives‘ website are my constant companions for the Wednesday Weed.

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

Photo Two – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four – By Hectonichus – Own work, CC0,

Photo Five – By Gilles San Martin – Flickr: Thecla betulae egg, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Six – By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Seven – By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Eight – By Donald Hobern – originally posted to Flickr as Esperia oliviella, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Nine – By Samuraiantiqueworld – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Ten – By Marie Spartali Stillman – Source 2nd upload: 1st upload:, Public Domain,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer


IMG_5674Dear Readers, every day for the past fortnight I’ve been visiting St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in an act of faith. I’ve been carrying a jam sandwich laced with a homeopathic  remedy, in an attempt to try to help a poor mange-ridden fox that I spotted a few weeks ago. And it appears that someone, at least, has been enjoying the unexpected sweet treat, because when I arrived on Tuesday I heard a scuffle, and saw a fox run, turn, and sit. I crouched down and managed to get a few photos, but it was clear, sadly, that this was not ‘my’ fox.

Tuesday's fox

Tuesday’s fox

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

I hadn’t realised how individual the faces of foxes were, but one look at the two animals above and it’s clear that they are as different as those of two humans.

I showed the fox my plastic bag full of jam sandwich, and walked very slowly to the mossy, primrose-covered mound where I always put the food down. The new fox melted away into the undergrowth, but by the time I got back to the road and turned, s/he was already back.   The low sun lit up the animal’s fur, turning it into copper and frost. For a few seconds, we were both transfixed. Then the fox gathered up the whole sandwich (which was cut into twelve pieces) and disappeared.

IMG_5681So, it seems that it is at least a fox that is taking the food (rather than crows, magpies and woodpigeons) but  I have no way of knowing if ‘my’ fox ever manages to get it. I have a fantasy that ‘my’ fox is a vixen who is being fed by this fox, but it’s very unlikely. I’ve been reading up about mange, and it appears that often it’s the less dominant animals, who are already more stressed, who are most affected by the disease. I’m hoping that if I go to the cemetery regularly I may learn more about the habits of the individual animals, and maybe I’ll be able to target my ‘offerings’ more effectively. Plus, I have allies!

As I was walking back through the cemetery, the Dog Patrol vehicle drew up alongside me.

‘Madam’, said the driver, ‘I have two questions. Firstly, may I ask what you’re taking photos of?’

‘Oh, the birds and plants and the occasional fox’, I said. ‘I know you’re not allowed to take photos of the graves’.

This is a bye-law, and I think it makes sense for more recent graves – no one wants their personal sorrow plastered all over someone’s blog. I’m not sure about those that are covered in ivy and long -neglected, but there you go.

The Dog Patrol man grinned.

‘Great!’ he said, ‘So, can I ask you what camera you recommend, because I want to take some photos of the wildlife meself’.

And so we had a long discussion on the merits of Canon vs Nikon, and the Dog Patrol man told me of some very unusual occasional visitors to the cemetery, which I hope to be able to share with you as soon as they cooperate. He also told me about some of the places where the foxes ‘hang out’, so I may be able to spot ‘my’ fox at some point in the future.

However, it is not all good news in East Finchley. I got a message from one of the Friends of Coldfall Wood that something was amiss with the stream. I grabbed my camera and headed down, to find that the water of the stream was an unpleasant blue-green colour, something that reminded me of my experiments with copper sulphate when I was doing my chemistry O-level many decades ago.

IMG_5696IMG_5685IMG_5702The local council has been informed, but at the moment we have no way of knowing what is causing the discoloration. . Much of the water coming into the stream runs off from the roads in the area, and it collects pollutants from many different places, which is one reason why a reed-bed was planted – the species used, Phragmites australis, helps to filter out unwanted nutrients and chemicals in the water. Generally the water runs clear, so I hope we can get to the bottom of what’s happening.

It seems that I am having to learn many lessons about what I can and can’t control at the moment. Something is still murdering frogs in my garden, and yet, if I hadn’t built a pond, there wouldn’t be any frogs, or tadpoles, at all. The ‘wrong’ fox is eating at least some of my jam sandwiches. And now, someone has polluted the river in ‘my’ wood. I could spend my entire life in a state of high dudgeon and heightened blood pressure. But instead, I shall try to grow some more early-spring cover so it isn’t so easy for predators to pick off my frogs. I shall carry on with the jam sandwiches, but try to find out if there’s a more intelligent way to distribute them. And I shall work with my pals at Friends of Coldfall Wood to see what we can do about the pollution issue.

And in the meantime, I shall keep my eyes open for the moments of beauty that are all around me, every day, if I only pay attention.

Dusky the Cemetery Cat


Dusky the Cemetery Cat


A crow outside my office window

A crow outside my office window

Blackthorn on Hampstead Heath today

Blackthorn on Hampstead Heath today

A tufted duck

A tufted duck




Wednesday Weed – Bulrush

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…..

Bulrush (Typha latifolia)

Bulrush (Typha latifolia)

Dear Readers, at this time of year the most dramatic plants in the Everglades in Coldfall Wood are the bulrushes. They sway in the wind, their dried leaves susurrating as if they are whispering to one another and, when the water level is as high as it currently is, they add an otherworldly air, as if they are relicts of a drowned world.

IMG_5634In the UK, the bulrush is also known as common reed mace, but the plant has a very wide native distribution, from Africa and Asia through to North America. It is not, however, the plant that the cradle of the baby Moses was found in – this is most likely to have been the paper reed (Cyperus papyrus).The bulrush is an ‘obligate’ wetland species, which means that it is always found alongside water, though it prefers the depth to be no greater than 2.6 feet. It is also fond of water with high levels of nutrients, which means that it does very well in places where there is run-off from roads and farms, and can be used for bio-remediation in polluted areas.

IMG_5618The flowerheads of the bulrush are so familiar that it takes a moment to realise how extraordinary they are. The female flowers are the fat, cigar-shaped objects that sit around for months and finally erupt into a mass of fluffy seeds. The male flowers form a lighter-coloured pyramid on top of the female flowers – in the photo above, you can see the spikes on the plants to the left where the male flowers have already gone. The photo below shows both male and female flowers – male flowers are ‘staminate’, female flowers are ‘pistillate’.

By Marshman at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Male and female bulrush flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

In the UK, bulrushes have not been used for medicinal or culinary purposes, or indeed for anything much at all except for adding a touch of drama to flower arrangements (or at least, this is all I could discover – feel free to put me right!) In North America, however, the plant (known there as reedmace or cattail) was much more widely used. A quick look at the Plant Lives entry on Typha latifolia reveals the following ways that the plant facilitated daily life:

  • It was used ceremonially in both rain and sun dances by different Native American tribes
  • The root was used to caulk canoes
  • The leaves were used to make winter roofing that kept out both rain and snow
  • Many tribes used the leaves to weave baskets
  • Everything from raincoats to skirts was also made from the leaves
  • The down from the female flowers was used to stuff pillows
  • The down was also used as a weapon by the Chippewa tribe, in the belief that it would blind enemies if it was thrown into their faces
  • The roots were ground and eaten by many tribes, and the first European settlers to North America were introduced to this food by the Native Americans that they met
  • The male pollen was made into porridge and flour, and formed part of the staple diet of the Dakota and Chippewa tribes
  • Young shoots and stems were also eaten
  • Medicinally, it was used as a medicine for horses by the Iroquois, and was very widely used for human skin diseases.

Not bad for one plant! In fact, ‘Backwoods Home’, a North American website on self-sufficiency, describes Typha latifolia as ‘the super Wal-Mart of the swamp’. Anyone trying to survive on their wits in the wilderness would be well advised to keep an eye open for a patch of bulrushes, because, as the author of the piece above states, the plant provides food during any season, whether via its roots, its shoots (known as ‘Cossack asparagus’ because they were much favoured as wild food in Russia) or the young male flowerhead which can apparently be eaten like corn on the cob.

IMG_5620What intrigues me a little is how in the UK we seem to have ignored such a useful plant. Maybe there were other plants that could fill the same needs, without any wading into bogs and streams.  Who knows. What I do know is that I will be looking at it with a new-found enthusiasm and respect though, growing where it does, I doubt that I will be paddling out to see what its roots taste like any time soon.


Photo One – By Marshman at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

All Change in Bugwoman’s Garden


The whitebeam tree, pre-trim. The squirrel drey in the top right was uninhabited.

Dear Readers, every five years I have some work done in the garden that fills me with trepidation. My whitebeam and hawthorn trees are very beautiful, but are also a bit big for a smallish suburban garden, and so I ask the tree surgeons to come in and give them a good trim. I know it sounds strange, but I feel guilty about it every time, and always apologise to the trees in advance, and try to explain what’s going to happen. I know that both trees will take a while to recover, and that the birds will be confused about where their favourite perching places have gone. But, nonetheless, if I want to preserve good neighbourly relationships, and also to get maximum light to the (north-facing) garden, it has to be done, and early in the year before anything has really started to grow.

So, the tree surgeon Michael, and his sidekick Scott, arrived, and Michael spent the next six hours in the whitebeam. In the pouring rain. He is something of an artist, taking a drawing of the tree before he starts, and preserving its character and shape as he goes (something that some of the guys employed by the council could do well to learn, though I have no doubt that those poor souls are up against a ferocious timetable). And this is the result.

IMG_5669Not pretty at the moment, I know, but all the fundamental features of the tree are still there. And he’s even left me some branches to hang the bird feeders on, which is very important. The chaffinches and collared doves and robins were very upset at their absence, but I think they’re happy again now.


The robin has just learned how to use the bird feeder!


Male Chaffinch



By the time Michael went home, he was absolutely dripping wet. I do hope he doesn’t come down with some evil disease as a result.

And in the evening, an annual event occurred. As the drizzle continued, a little army of heads popped up in the pond. It was as if they’d been waiting for the temperature to go up a few degrees.

There had been a few males around for several weeks, but no frogspawn. And yet, when I got up, all this had been laid in one night.

IMG_5650The frogs seem to like the shallow end of the pond, and once one female has laid her eggs, everyone else tries to lay theirs on top. At first, each egg seems pumped full of fluid, fit to burst, but over time the eggs seem to lose their rigidity and become softer, eventually releasing the tadpoles into the pond.

IMG_5656I had never noticed frogs’ eyes before. I love the almond shape and the golden iris.

IMG_5664IMG_5665There is something so benign about that gaze, so utterly harmless.

IMG_5663And yet, something has killed one frog per night ever since they started to breed. I find their little corpses, hands together as if in prayer, their white bellies exposed. They seem to have one tiny bite behind the head. Usually, they aren’t eaten, but today I found one that had been partly dismembered. It could be a cat, a fox, or even a crow (though I suspect that they scavenge the dead ones rather than hunt the live ones). But still, there are probably a hundred frogs in the pond at the height of the season, all so intent on breeding that everything else is an afterthought. No wonder their croaking and squirming and skirmishing attracts the attention of predators. It would be strange if it didn’t.

And, while this is not a cat blog, or a dog blog, I do have to share two photos with you this week. One is of my cat, Willow, who is under the impression that she is a panther.

IMG_5643And the other is of a dog that I met in Coldfall Wood. This little one might be a ‘toy dog’ but he has the heart and spirit of a Newfoundland. I salute you, sir! He was undaunted by the sudden increase in depth and volume of the Everglades pond, and was determined to go swimming. His owner told me that he often tries to stalk the ducks, who can see him coming a mile off and fly just when he comes within sniffing distance. I only hope that his owner had a fine collection of towels. This was one very wet dog.

IMG_5613 IMG_5612

Wednesday Weed – Primrose

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…..

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Dear Readers, those of you who read Saturday’s post will know that I’m spending a lot of time in our local cemetery at the moment, which gives me plenty of time to admire the primroses that are just coming into bloom. They seem to favour sites where the graves themselves have practically disappeared, and have mostly, I’m sure, spread from a couple of primroses planted when the ground was first turned and the headstones, now long-gone, first erected. Close to where I first spotted the fox sunning himself there are hundreds of primroses, poking their heads through the moss and dead leaves like so many eager fishes.

The late Oliver Rackham suggested that primroses will only really prosper where the soil is rich, and where there are higher than average levels of mineral nutrients. If this is so, maybe the primroses are taking advantage of the recycling of the bodies of those who died so long ago. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey notes that the Victorians often planted primroses on the graves of children, which adds a note of melancholy to those patches of prettiness.

IMG_5585The name ‘primrose’ means ‘first rose’, referring to the way that the plant is one of the first spring flowers to come into bloom (though it is not, of course, a rose, being a member of the Primulaceae family). This family includes, to my surprise, such dissimilar plants as cyclamen, pimpernels and creeping jenny.

Primroses come in many different forms, as anyone who has visited a garden centre lately will know. The popular, brash polyanthus is a cross between the native primrose and primula veris, the cowslip. How all those reds and blues came to be is anybody’s guess, but there is a fair amount of diversity even among wild plants. The yellow ‘eye’ in the centre of the plants above can be found in native primroses, but may also have been bred for. There are also occasional ‘rhubarb and custard’ primroses amongst the cream and yellow ones, which I can only imagine have popped up by themselves, over time.


Note the pink primroses!

A fine selection of polyanthuses. Or polyanthi. Who can say?

A fine selection of polyanthuses. Or polyanthi. Who can say?

April 19th is Primrose Day, which makes me happy because it is also my brother’s birthday. A bouquet of primroses is placed on Disraeli’s statue outside Westminster Abbey, because these were the politician’s favourite flower. They are also strongly associated with Easter, and, along with daffodils and chocolate eggs, seem to be a popular component of presents over the season. Primroses are also the county flower of Devon.

IMG_5589As I mentioned in last year’s post about the Cowslip, primroses come in two forms: Pin flowers and Thrum flowers. For pollination to be successful, it needs to be between flowers of different forms. Each plant will be either a Pin plant or a Thrum plant. In this way, the plant ensures that it cannot pollinate itself, a fact that helps to ensure diversity.

Thrum form of primrose (via wiki)

Thrum form of primrose (via wiki)

Pin form of primrose

Pin form of primrose

The leaves and flowers of primroses are said to be edible – certainly the blooms would make a lovely addition to a spring salad (maybe with some English asparagus if there’s any about). In The Ecologist, there’s a lovely (and very honest) article about the joys of cooking with something as delicate as a primrose flower by Susan Clark, and the end result is a primrose meringue nest drizzled with primrose honey, which sounds absolutely delightful. Do have a look at the article here. It made me roar with laughter.

A delicious dish called ‘primrose pottage’ was made from rice, honey, almonds, saffron and ground primrose flowers, and very delicious it sounds too.

The flowers can also be used to make primrose wine, which sounds like one of those drinks that you  pack in a picnic basket and drink under a fine old oak tree while the bees buzz languidly past. Well, I can dream. Most of my picnics involve knocking over the wine, noticing that the cream has gone off, being visited by curious and very muddy cows and suddenly realising that one of those cows is actually, well, a bull.

However, before you rush out with a wicker trug, wearing your best bonnet, to gather primrose flowers, note that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it illegal to pick wild primroses or remove them from the wild. Best to get planting in your back garden I think, though as you need 350 primrose petals to make 5 litres of wine I hope you have an extensive acreage.

IMG_5586The primrose also has a long history as a medicinal plant. A Modern Herbal explains that, for Pliny, the primrose was almost a panacea for the treatment of paralysis, rheumatism and gout. Culpeper described how the leaves ‘made as fine a salve to heal wounds as any I know’. Another renowned herbalist, Gerard, notes that primrose tea, ‘drunk in the month of May is famous for curing the phrensie’. So next time you are visited by the phrensie, you know what to do.

IMG_5584So, as I go on my nightly visits to the cemetery for jam sandwich distribution, I am much heartened by the companionship of the primroses, which seem to glow in the half-light. I walk back from my mission, scuffing through the dead leaves and watching the wood pigeons fighting over the ivy-berries. And all along the way, the primroses edge the path, and extend off in every direction. If this is Shakespeare’s ‘primrose path of dalliance’, I am all for it.







Jam Sandwiches in the Rain

IMG_5567Dear Readers, when I was in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last week, I noticed a fox resting on a mossy mound in the late winter sunshine. The foxes here are truly wild creatures, apt to melt away into the undergrowth as soon as they see a human, so I was surprised to see this one in daylight.

IMG_5569I am always delighted by the appearance of a fox, whether he is trotting up the street after opening all the food-waste bins ( a recently acquired skill) or here in the cemetery. But it wasn’t until I got home and looked closely at my photographs that I realised that this particular fox has a problem.

IMG_5571A quick glance at the fox’s rear-end shows that he has a horrible case of sarcoptic mange. This is not unusual in town foxes, and some veterinarians believe that it might be so prevalent because of the stress and poor nutrition that urban animals are prone to. Believe it or not, according to the fox charities that I contacted (details below) this is a relatively mild case. Left untreated, however, it is likely to get worse.

IMG_5570Sarcoptic mange (also known as scabies) is caused by a microscopic mite, which burrows into the skin, causing hair-loss and irritation. The biting and scratching at the affected area can give rise to skin infection and also encourages the mites to spread, which can ultimately be fatal. Foxes can tear themselves apart trying to deal with the intense itching, to the extent that they no longer eat or drink. This is an infernal parasite, and one which is all too common.

If this was a fox that visited my garden, it might be worth working with one of the fox charities to see if it could be trapped and treated with the pharmaceuticals that are normally used – Stronghold to kill the mites, and a wide-spectrum antibiotic to sort out the infection. But there is no way that anyone will set a trap on public land, when anything from the wrong fox to a cat to somebody’s pet dog could be caught. Nor could the drugs just be left around for the fox to find, as they are dangerous to nursing and pregnant animals, and can even be poisonous.

Which brings me to homeopathy.

IMG_5568I will admit to being a homeopathy skeptic. I believe in the efficacy of herbal treatments, acupuncture, and many other ‘alternative’ therapies, but I find it difficult to believe that a solution so dilute that the active ingredient may be only a few molecules can be helpful. But be that as it may, I know that, used with foxes, a homeopathic remedy ( Arsenicum album and sulphur 30c) has proved to be extremely efficacious in treating mange. It isn’t clear why, but there is a theory that it supports the immune system of the fox, enabling the animal to resist the worst effects of the infection. It is completely harmless to other animals, and can be used without concern even amongst pregnant or lactating animals.

And so, for the past few days, I have been trudging down to the cemetery and depositing a jam sandwich, cut into 15 tiny pieces and containing exactly four drops of the homeopathic remedy, on the mossy knoll where I last saw the fox. And some days, it’s been a bit of a wild and windy walk, with a huge hail storm on Wednesday, and a relentless drizzle on Thursday. But there are compensations.


IMG_5597When faced by all the human and animal tragedy in the world, I feel overwhelmed. I have no idea where to start. There is misery at home and abroad, and everything cries out for help. In the midst of all this, I feel helpless, useless. But this is one tiny thing that I can do. Will it work? Who can say. I do know that every last scrap of the sandwich is eaten, though whether by ‘my’ fox or some other creature I don’t know.

I feel that there is something  worthwhile just in the act of witnessing, of noticing that a fellow creature is suffering, of trying to help. Compassion is a muscle that has to be exercised, and I know, for myself, how easy it is for it to atrophy. I often feel so loaded down with my own worries that I’m reluctant to take on even the smallest element of somebody else’s troubles. And yet, when I’ve finished this piece, I’ll put on my trainers and stride out, through the mud in Coldfall Wood and onwards, a jam sandwich in my pocket, knowing full well that I’m probably on a fool’s errand, but heading off just the same. This fox has crept in under my defences and looks at me with his amber eyes, challenging me not to look away.

IMG_5570 (2)Fox Charities

The Fox Project is based in Kent, and works in southern England, but will give advice if you contact them wherever you are based.

The National Fox Welfare Society is a great source of help and information, and also sends out free homeopathic treatment for mange (though I recommend providing a donation if you can afford it)

Wednesday Weed – Garden Grape Hyacinth

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…..

Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)

Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)

Dear Readers, this is, of course, a garden plant which pops up all over the place in churchyards and close to habitation, but what a pretty one! The tiny flowers, each the colour of lapis lazuli, are delicately fringed with white, and remind me a little of old-fashioned lady’s bloomers. The name ‘muscari’ comes from the Greek word muskos and refers to the scent, although it is not to everyone’s taste – another name for the garden grape hyacinth is ‘starch hyacinth’, as some people thought that it smelled like wet laundry.

Grape hyacinths are not technically hyacinths at all, but belong to the same family as asparagus, bluebells and lily of the valley. Like bluebells, they will spread far and wide if the conditions are to their liking, and in my experience they are some of the easiest of bulbs to persuade to naturalise and to come back year after year. Plus, they provide an early source of nectar for pollinators, and I have often seen them visited by early solitary bees and hoverflies.

By This photo was taken by Ryan Bushby(HighInBC) with his Canon PowerShot S3 IS. To see more of his photos see his gallery. - en:Image:Syrphid fly on Grape hyacinth.jpg uploaded 18:23, 29 March 2007 by en:User:H, CC BY 2.5,

Hoverfly on grape hyacinth (Photo One – see credits below)

What I did not know, however, was that in addition to the garden grape hyacinth that we see everywhere, the UK has its own native grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum). This is a very rare plant, found mainly in Breckland, and has flowers that are a deep dark blue, almost black. The smaller, bluer flowers at the top are sterile.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey tells of one important site for Muscari neglectum at Lakenheath in Suffolk, a place now know mostly for its air-base. One area of grassland which was full of native grape hyacinths was levelled to make concrete areas for storing bombs. When the site was dismantled in the 1960’s the plants returned, and until the 1970’s, when the area was once again flattened for housing, thousands of the bulbs flowered every year. Suffolk locals apparently call the plants ‘grey parsons’, and if you try to say grape hyacinth with a Suffolk accent, you’ll see why.

© Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons

Our native grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum) Photo Two, credits below.

The garden grape hyacinth is a native of the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece and Turkey to the Caucasus (hence the species name armeniacum). In Greek and Italian cookery, the bulbs are considered a delicacy (although they are poisonous), and are either preserved or pickled in oil after being boiled. I wonder if they are used like pickled onions, to add a certain savour to cheese or cooked meat? According to the ever-interesting Plant Lives website, grape hyacinth bulbs are believed to stimulate appetite.

IMG_5555So, this little bulb, which cheerfully goes about its business with little intervention from us is a real winner in pots or containers, or at the edge of a bed of daffodils. However, in the famous Keukenhof bulb gardens in the Netherlands, they celebrate the  garden grape hyacinth by creating a ‘blue river’  which meanders  through the park, edged here by white narcissus. A bit over the top, for sure, but breathtaking nonetheless. I think I must redouble my efforts with bulbs next year.  If only mine looked these, I would be a happy woman.

By Tom Jutte

The blue river at Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands. Photo Three – credit below


Photo One – By This photo was taken by Ryan Bushby(HighInBC) with his Canon PowerShot S3 IS. To see more of his photos see his gallery.

Photo Two – © Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three – By Tom Jutte

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer