Monthly Archives: April 2016

Interesting Times in the Cemetery

IMG_6104Dear Readers, for some time now the two foxes above have been seen together almost every day. They play together, wait patiently for their jam sandwiches and dog food together, and sometimes groom one another. Occasionally they bicker, but generally all is serene.

IMG_6105The one laying down is completely mange-free, and a beautiful fox – I’ve seen him several times before. The one standing up still has a touch of mange, and is also losing her winter coat, but her skin is definitely improving (so much for my initial scepticism about the homeopathic remedy). She has now developed a limp, so I’ll be putting some arnica on the sandwiches along with the mange remedy. However, she still has quite a turn of speed, so I don’t think her leg is bothering her too much. It isn’t showing any signs of a wound, and it’s not at an unusual angle, so I’m hoping that it will just sort itself out.

When I was in the cemetery with my friend J (another dedicated cat lady like myself) the two foxes were waiting for us, and I had a chance to get quite a few photos. And then, when the vixen moved, I noticed something.

IMG_6108Apologies for the quality of the photo, but I am sure that she has the low-slung look of a mother fox.

IMG_6110 (2)To me, this confirms my initial hunch – the female is lactating, which presumably means that she has cubs back in her earth. No wonder she looks exhausted.

To say I am excited would be an understatement. Excited, and nervous. Cubs are so vulnerable, and this is the middle of a city, after all. But at least this litter will  have lots of people looking out for them – B who feeds the cats, the Dog Unit man and myself to name but three of the small army of folk who seem to spend time watching the wildlife in the cemetery. We shall have to be hopeful that these two will manage to raise their family and, if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get to see the cubs. In the meantime, I am going to be dropping some dog food in addition to the jam sandwiches – lactating females of all species need all the food they can get, if my foster cats are anything to go by. I’m hoping that by just putting out a small amount, it won’t make the foxes dependent, but will help with their energy requirements. They spend very little time hanging around the feeding site (less than 30 minutes a day I’d say), and so they are obviously getting the rest of their food from the usual sources – insects, scavenging, and probably the remains of the lunches of wasteful humans.

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The vixen, with the muzzle of the dog fox just visible behind her

The vixen, with the muzzle of the dog fox just visible behind her

And, to round off my fox report, I looked out of the window last week to see this beautiful creature in the garden. I guess a tiny portion of dog food might be useful for this one, too. I am intrigued by how different every fox’s face is, when you look at it closely. Just like humans, they are all individuals.


Seen in my garden during the week. What a beauty!

The dog fox from the cemetery

The dog fox from the cemetery

The fox from my garden

The fox from my garden

The vixen from the cemetery

The vixen from the cemetery

To read the whole of the fox story so far, with all its ups and downs, follow the links below:

Jam Sandwiches in the Rain


News from the Cemetery

Distressing News from the Cemetery

All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

Wednesday Weed – Snake’s Head Fritillary

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…..

Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

Dear Readers, snake’s head fritillary is my favourite spring bulb. I am exceedingly fond of snakes, and so the strange scaly pattern on the purple flowers enthralls me. I love the elegance of the pure white flowers. I love the nodding heads, which only reveal their beauty if you turn them over.

IMG_6002However, it’s fair to say that the plant has an unfortunate reputation. One alternative name was ‘Leper Lily’, as the flowers are said to be the same shape as the bells that lepers had to carry to announce themselves. Vita Sackville-West called it ‘a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.’  As with many other flowers of a nodding habit, they were said to be hanging their heads in sorrow at Christ’s crucifixion.

Well, harrumph to all that. The fritillary family contains the only truly chequered flowers that I know (but do remind me of others if you can think of them!) Both parts of the Latin name for snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) refer to this feature: the Fritillaria part refers to either the Latin word for dice (fritillus) or (more likely to my mind) the word frittillo, which means a table for chess-playing (thanks to The Poison Garden website for this insight). This is also the root derivation for the name of the fritillary group of butterflies.

By James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Pearl-Bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) (Photo Two – credit below)

The meleagris species name means ‘spotted like a guineafowl’.

By Bob - Picasa Web Albums, CC BY 3.0,

Helmeted Guinea Fowl (Photo One – see credit below)

According to my Harraps Wild Flowers book, snake’s head fritillary were first recorded in the UK in 1578 (they are native to mainland Europe and Asia), but were not reported in the wild until 1736. However, there is a view that the plants are actually native, growing originally on the floodplains that extended from the Rhine and included the Thames before the opening up of the North Sea in about 5500 BC. They are now a plant of unimproved meadow which occasionally floods, a vanishingly rare habitat, and are considered to be Nationally Scarce. Richard Mabey, in ‘Flora Britannica’, mentions a few sites where the plants can be seen in quantity, including North Meadow in Cricklade,Wiltshire. He describes this meadow thus:

North Meadow (now a National Nature Reserve) is an ancient common, and what is known as Lammas Land. Its 44 acres are shut up for hay on 13 February each year until the hay harvest (apportioned by lot) some time in July. On old Lammas Day, 12 August, it become the common pasture of the Borough of Cricklade, and any resident of the town may put up to ten head of horses or cattle on it, or (after 12 September) 20 head of sheep. As far as is known, this system of land tenure has continued unchanged for more than 800 years, and the show at North Meadow may be the best evidence that the fritillary is a native species.’

The fritllaries at North Meadow in Cricklade

The snake’s head  fritillaries at North Meadow in Cricklade

Whatever their provenance, snake’s head fritillaries are certainly widely naturalised in many places, such as here in St Pancras and Islington cemetery, where they are outgrowing their original planting site and heading off in to the woods. I have some in my garden as well, where they don’t seem to mind the clay soil and the shade.

IMG_6003Although the snake’s head fritillary is such an exotic and enigmatic plant, it appears not to have been used medicinally – maybe its association with lepers was too strong for it to be considered useful. It is also poisonous, though there are no accounts of anybody tucking into a bulb and doing themselves a damage as there are with daffodils.  However, the plant is celebrated as the County Plant of Oxfordshire (due to Magdalen College Meadow being an important snake’s head fritillary site), and also as the provincial plant of Uppland in Sweden. And furthermore, it is also celebrated by me. This most curious plant cheers me up whenever I look at it, in much the same way as I am delighted when a new house spider turns up or when I discover an unexpected caterpillar in the lettuce. I find its snakiness a refreshing change from all the wholesome bulbs that are bursting forth at this time of year, and it reminds me that something (or somebody) doesn’t have to be pretty to be beautiful.

IMG_6004Photo Credits

Photo One – By Bob – Picasa Web Albums, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two – By James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

Bugwoman on Location – Out and Back

A farm track around Milborne St Andrew.

The walk there…..

Dear Readers, this week I was in the village of MIlborne St Andrew in Dorset with my parents. Those of you who are regular readers will know that Mum has had some enormous health challenges in the past few months. Dad was also briefly hospitalized last week with a suspected stroke. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to have had any major effects (in fact there was no evidence on the brain scan that a stroke has actually happened), but Dad is having trouble using his left arm and hand, resulting in a lot of frustration at mealtimes, and the occasional rude word. However, both of them are in good spirits and so I decided to take myself off for a walk, to see if I could find anything interesting to share with you all.

Maybe it was my mood, but finding something ‘interesting’ didn’t come easily. The wind rippled through the fields of barley and wheat, making waves as on a green sea, but all I could see was the monoculture, the lack of any other plant interlopers apart from the occasional bluebell growing on the edge of the crops.


There are signs telling me to ‘keep out’ and announcing ‘no admittance’ and chastising me for not cleaning up my dog poo, which seems a bit unkind as I don’t even have a dog.

IMG_6046I walk a bare path up between two fields and the only bird I see is a stray crow. Then I walk the same path back and don’t see anything at all.

The walk back

….and the walk back.

I think that how we see the world depends on how we feel. I had done this self-same walk last month, and found it delightful. I suspect that the quality of my attention wasn’t what it might be. But then, as I decided to turn back, I looked up and saw a kestrel hunting, holding its own against the wind. I watched as it let the wind carry it and then hovered, all attention focused on a tiny square of green. It dropped to have a closer look, then rose again, poised on a pinnacle of air. I was so stunned that I didn’t even raise my camera. And then the bird swooped away, and disappeared behind the trees.

Me not managing to photograph a kestrel

Me not managing to photograph a kestrel

I walked on. I spotted a yellowhammer in the tree, not far from where I saw one on my previous walk. Blackbirds and blue tits flew past with worms and caterpillars in their beaks.

Yellowhammer, at last...

Yellowhammer, at last…

I reached a tiny area of woodland that I’d trudged past on my outward journey without noticing anything at all. But in fact, just below the level of the road there was a miniscule bluebell wood, hemmed in by fields on one side and a hedge and path on the other. From the deep blue colour and the scent I’d say that these were native bluebells, and they were mixed with windflowers and lesser celandine and primroses. Was this tiny spot a remnant of a much larger wood that had somehow, mysteriously, been preserved? I tried to work out how to photograph it but it was too well protected, too difficult to get to, what with the hedge and the ditch and the barbed wire fence and all. And yet, maybe this very inconvenience is what has kept it so diverse and so pristine for all these years.

IMG_6040 IMG_6038 IMG_6037 IMG_6027As I passed the wood and hit the top of the hill, I saw three roe deer feeding in a field that was probably a mile away. One had antlers just growing. Roe are my favourite deer – I love the way that they just disappear into the undergrowth, jumping over bushes by seemingly retracting their legs into their bellies with no effort at all. Even at this distance they seemed to notice me, looking up and sniffing the air. A prey animal must be constantly on the look out, and it is not as if humans are safe to be around. I both understand and hate the way that creatures flee from us – it reminds me of J.A.Baker’s masterwork ‘The Peregrine’, in which he speaks of how humans ‘stink of death’. When I do meet animals who are not afraid of me, all that I can think of is how vulnerable they would be to other humans who might not have such benign intentions.

Distant deer...

Distant deer…

As I head back I notice that one of the houses has symbols of my favourite saint, St Francis of Assisi, and of what I’m fast beginning to think of as my totem animal.


By now, the village is coming into sight. I notice that the house martins are back, flying in giddying circles above the cottages, and a single swallow flies over the wall and on into the garage of the buildings opposite. I wonder how it would be to have a martin’s or a swallow’s nest under my eaves, and imagine how happy I would be to see the owners returning after their long flight north, and  how heart-broken I would be if they didn’t come back. And I puzzle a little over how some people will destroy the nests because of the inconvenient noise and mess. For me, the thought of the confused birds turning anxious circles around the spot where they thought they’d built their nest, the knowledge that there may be eggs to be laid and nowhere to lay them sparks a feeling in my heart that is little short of anguish.

The site of many a martin nest

The site of many a martin nest

As I ponder these thoughts, a starling with a beak full of worms flies up on top of the burglar alarm outside one of the other houses. As I watch, she jumps up into the eaves and I hear the wheezing cries of her nestlings. She leaves the nest at such speed that I’m sure she’s aware of being watched, and doesn’t want to draw attention to the nest site. I notice that the house has been sold, and so there probably won’t be anyone around, at least for a few weeks. When they do move in, I hope that they are as delighted as I would be to have a nest site for this increasingly rare bird, and that they aren’t too worried about the state of their brickwork.

There's an adult starling and a nest under them there eaves...

There’s an adult starling and a nest under them there eaves…

What strikes me most as I head back to make yet more pancakes for the parents, is how this really was a walk of two parts. Maybe it takes a little while for me to get into my stride, to slow my thoughts down enough to notice what’s going on outside. Or maybe, like the wind that’s still rustling the beech hedge, my mind is full of breezes and zephyrs and moments of stillness, ever changing. Like the kestrel, I have to learn to ride my moods, whatever they might be.

IMG_6052All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer

Wednesday Weed – Honesty

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…..


Honesty (Lunaria annua)

Dear Readers, on my way through Coldfall Wood last week, my eye was caught by a group of bright magenta flowers growing beside the stream. When I slithered across the mud to investigate, I was delighted to find a little group of honesty (Lunaria annua) in full flower.  This is another of those plants that has probably escaped, either from the local gardens or from the cemetery, but it has been recorded in the wild since at least 1597 so it is a long-term inhabitant. Its native home is the Balkans and parts of south-west Asia.

IMG_5981Who would have thought that this pretty plant is a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae)? And yet a close look at its flowers give us a clue. All members of this varied tribe have simple flowers with four petals and four sepals, and the cross-like arrangement is what gives the group its alternative name of crucifer.

Honesty is probably more familiar from its seed-pods, whose semi-transparent nature are said to give it its English name. These are very popular in autumn flower arrangements, and also give the plant many of its alternative names: in south-east Asia it’s known as ‘the money plant’ and in the US it is known as ‘silver money’ or ‘chinese money’. In Dutch-speaking countries, however, the plant is known as judaspenning (coins of Judas), an allusion to the thirty pieces of silver Judas was given for betraying Christ. It is fascinating to me how a plant may have a reputation for plain dealing in one culture, and be seen as treacherous in another. Even in the UK, the Plant Lore website reports that in Yorkshire, some people believe that the plant is very unlucky, and won’t have it in the garden or the house, while in Kent it’s known as ‘the devil’s ha’pence’. On the other hand, the Magickal Gardening website reports that keeping one of the ‘coins’ in the pocket will attract good fortune.  I suppose that a plant with such evocative seedpods was going to attract all kinds of beliefs.

By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Honesty seed pods (Photo One – credit below)

In her book ‘Fifty Easy Old-Fashioned Flowers’, Anne M. Zeman tells us that honesty has been used to dress wounds, and as a cure for epilepsy. She also tells us that the roots have been used in salads since the 1500’s. Furthermore, other sources describe how the seeds can be turned into a kind of mustard if mixed with vinegar – this is not surprising when we consider that the cabbage family contains many other plants with this property, including Black and Hoary Mustard.

IMG_5979Honesty, and in particular its seedpods, were very popular in the Art Nouveau movement, as in the illustration by Alfonso Mucha below (part of his 1900 precious stones series).

Via Swallowtail Garden Seed

Alfonso Mucha – Precious Gems series (Topaz) 1900. Photo Two (see credit below)

The Precious Stones series includes Ruby (which features of all things a poinsettia), Amethyst (with some irises) and Emerald (with Tradescantia). Mucha was such a favourite in our house when I was growing up that we had his ‘Moon and Stars’ series framed in the hallway. I have always liked his graceful female figures, and the way that he included plants and other elements of the natural world, even in his posters for theatrical productions and such necessities as Moet et Chandon champagne. If you are ever in Prague, I can recommend a visit to the Mucha museum. Although his paintings are a little too fey for many people’s taste in this more cynical age, I think that there is always room for a celebration of lush beauty and the abundance of nature. In this age of austerity, it’s easy to forget how much there is to be grateful for.

IMG_5984Photo Credits

Photo One – By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – Via Swallowtail Garden Seed

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer



Distressing News From the Cemetery


‘My’ mangy fox, with the healthy fox in the background

Dear Readers, the plot has thickened regarding the foxes in St Pancras and Islington cemetery this week. On Monday, B informed me that she had seen three foxes, two with mange and one without.

‘Blimey’, I said, ‘I’m going to have to buy more jam’. As you know, I’ve been trying to medicate the fox in the photo above with a homeopathic remedy from the National Fox Welfare Society, which I’ve snuck into some jam sandwiches. ‘My’ fox seems to be on the road to recovery, much to my amazement – I’d been very skeptical when I’d started the process. I fairly skipped back to my house, passing en route a lovely patch of fritillaries, which may well crop up in a Wednesday Weed at some point in the future.

IMG_6001The next day, bearing an additional sandwich, I walk down to where B feeds the foxes. I’m a little late and I don’t see B, so I creep down to the feeding spot, behind the grave with the full-sized stone Labrador on it. This unlikely memorial celebrates a man who died rescuing a dog from drowning, and is always adorned with artificial flowers.

A very skinny, mangy fox watches me briefly from the other side of the hedges, and then crosses the path at a trot. I sit down with my camera. This is not ‘my’ fox, but I remember what B mentioned about one healthy fox, and two mangy ones. I see the fox again among the gravestones, just his ears and one bright eye. Then he’s on the move again, looping round behind the bins where the cats live. I sit a little longer. And then he’s back in the hedges, eyeing up the jam sandwiches with obvious longing.

I spot B making her slow progress towards where she feeds the cats. She raises her stick in greeting. I stand up and walk over, leaving the fox to his snack.

‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ says B. I have always liked the way that she looks at me directly, honestly.

‘Ok’, I say.

‘The Dog Unit man said he found a dead fox further up the road’, she says, and pauses. ‘A fox with mange’, she adds.

I have to look away for a moment.

‘What happened?’ I ask.

‘Martin thinks he was run down’, she says. ‘The cemetery people will take the body away’.

‘Where was it?’

B waves her hand vaguely. ‘He just said further up’, she says.

And so it may be that ‘my’ fox is dead. My mind is racing. I wonder if the body is still there, so that I can know for sure which fox has been killed. But then, I know that it’s hopeless. I’m sure that the evidence is already tidied away. Even if I saw the body, would I know?

And how am I going to cope with the unknowing?

'My' mangy fox

‘My’ mangy fox

I am reminded of people whose beloved cats and dogs just disappear, and they never know what happened to them. But a fox is dead. The question is, what am I going to do now?

B can tell that I’m upset, but she carries on fussing over her cats, bending over, pouring the food into their bowls.

‘The thing is’, she says, ‘that we do what we can do. And that’s all we can do. They’re wild animals, after all. They come and go, and live their lives, and one day they’re gone. ‘

She straightens up.

‘A bit like people’, she says.

Her husband and father are both buried in the cemetery, and B visits them every day.

‘Did you see that skinny little fox over there?’ she said. ‘He’s got the mange really bad’.

And of course, my decision is made for me. ‘My’ fox, the one that drew me here, is most likely dead, but there are other foxes here that need help. Am I just going to give up now because all my hopes were pinned on one animal?

There’s a rustle in the brambles and the skinny fox heads off at a brisk trot. His whole tail and hindquarters are bald. He looks back briefly and accelerates his pace, until he is bounding off.

‘I’m down at Mum and Dads next week’, I say to B. ‘Could I leave the medicine with you for a few days?’

‘Of course’, says B. ‘And I’ll see you at the weekend’.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, you will’.

The healthy fox.

The healthy fox.

For the fox story so far, have a look at the posts below:

Jam Sandwiches in the Rain

News From the Cemetery

Fox Update

Wednesday Weed – Hairy Bittercress

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…..

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Dear Readers, this is one of those plants that is so small and inconspicuous that it often goes unnoticed. Yet, at the moment, it is coming into flower at the bottom of every other wall around here in East Finchley. It has popped up in a pot of last year’s hyacinths that I left in the garden too. But until I did a little bit of research I didn’t even know its name, and until I paid it some attention I thought it was shepherd’s purse. Silly me.

IMG_5945Hairy bittercress is a member of the cabbage family, or Brassiceae, and I have been told that it can be used in the same way as mustard-and-cress. Unfortunately, every plant that I have seen locally grows in the splash-zone of the neighbourhood’s numerous dogs, so I haven’t tasted it to find out. The seed pods are said to explode when touched (again, none of the ones that I’ve seen have been so obliging, but then they probably aren’t ripe yet). However, the way that the seedpods send the seeds cascading all over the place has given rise to several of the plant’s other common names, such as flickweed and shotweed. I am delighted to tell you that the technical name for this process is ‘explosive dehiscence’, which is such a wonderful phrase that I shall be seeking ways to slip it into ordinary conversation.

IMG_5956Hairy bittercress is a native plant, and, under its Old English name of stune, is one of the herbs used in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, which was used as a treatment for poisoning and infection. However, the plant is a keen traveller (often hiding away in imported garden plants) and has made itself known in North America. Here, the flowers are an early nectar source for the spring azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) and the falcate orange-tip (Anthrocharis midea).

By Walter Siegmund - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) (Photo One – credit below)

By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Falcate Orangetip butterfly) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Falcate orangetip (Anthrocharis midea). Very like the European orangetip! (Photo Two – credit below)

I wondered a little about why the plant was called the Hairy Bittercress, when it looked remarkably glabrous to me. It is said to be hairy at the point where the leaves join the stem, but as neither of my two pairs of glasses seem to enable me to see this kind of detail, I must take my hand lens next time I’m plant hunting. If you are trying to distinguish this plant from its close relative the wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa) you will need to work out whether the plant has six stamen (in which case it’s Hairy) or four, which is diagnostic for Wavy. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to get a precise identification for a plant. It’s truly one of life’s little pleasures, though flora have a way of hybridizing and otherwise being unruly which makes it much trickier than you would think. Even at the level of tiny plants subsisting in a quarter of an inch of substrate, life is anarchic and unpredictable in a most delicious way.

IMG_5950If you have access to a less polluted supply of hairy bittercress than I do, you can wilt it like spinach (which apparently tames the eponymous bitterness a little), use it in a salad, or turn it into pesto. The Eatweeds website has a recipe for hairy bittercress harissa, for those of us who fancy a bash at North African cooking, and for hairy bittercress and roasted beetroot salad, and I have no doubt that the wonders of the internet will reveal many more uses for this little plant. Its bitterness is said to help with liver detoxification, and in these days of ‘clean eating’ and juice fasts, you could probably do worse than to eat some of your greens in the form of this little chap. My book Flowers of the Field by the Reverend C.A. Johns, which dates to 1913, tells me that the genus name Cardamine comes from the Greek cardio, the heart, and damao, to fortify. Whether this refers to a medical or romantic property of the plant I have no idea, but it has certainly lifted my spirits.

IMG_5955Photo Credits

Photo One – By Walter Siegmund – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Two – By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Falcate Orangetip butterfly) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer


Fox Update

IMG_5919Dear Readers, last time I wrote about my adventures with foxes in St Pancras and Islington cemetery, I had just discovered that B, a lovely lady who feeds the feral cats in the cemetery, also regularly fed the foxes. This was great news, because it meant that I knew exactly where to find them, and where to drop my jam sandwiches with their homeopathic mange remedy. And indeed, between three and four thirty p.m. on any afternoon, you can spot the two foxes waiting for their high tea.

IMG_5793The fox at the front is the one that I’m trying to treat. What intrigues me is that the two foxes play and nuzzle one another, and are not particularly competitive – could they be mates, or siblings? B leaves a variety of foodstuffs that the foxes probably shouldn’t have (doughnuts not being part of a natural diet) but while I was away for a family funeral last week she liberally doused them in mange medicine for me, so I’m not about to complain. Plus, she also leaves them dog food and dog biscuits, so it isn’t dessert all the way.

IMG_5794It is clear that the fox with mange still has mange, but, without wanting to be too optimistic, I do think it’s a bit better, and the picture above was taken almost ten days ago, before I found exactly where to leave the medicated food. The Dog Unit man told me yesterday that he thought that there had been an improvement in the fox’s condition, and he isn’t a sentimental chap so I hope he’s right.


The fox when I first saw him/her

The fox now

The fox now

Is it my imagination, or does the fox’s back end seem a bit furrier, as if some of the fur is growing back? The animal certainly seems a bit brighter. Only time will tell, but I have everything crossed.

It’s fair to say that the fox who doesn’t have mange has grown fairly used to me. He or she often shadows me as I walk around the cemetery, in the hope that I’ve got yet more sandwiches, I suspect. The fox always keeps the same distance between us, but if I stop, he or she will often just sit and wait to see what I’m up to.

IMG_5921IMG_5899 IMG_5893It’s like having a little shadow. I wonder how often we are watched by animals and walk past, oblivious.

In other news, I promised you a picture of the pink hybrid bluebells in Coldfall Wood, and here they are, with some blue ones for comparison.

IMG_5927And the queen buff-tailed bumblebees have been out in force this week, especially in an area of the cemetery which has huge cherry laurels, the size of small trees. This place is sheltered, and the smell of the flowers, like dusty honey, is heavy in the air.

IMG_5806Finally, a most mysterious ‘artwork’ has appeared in Coldfall Wood. Is this to celebrate a birthday, I wonder? It’s rather elegant, I think, though how long it will survive the elements is an open question.

IMG_5932All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer





Wednesday Weed – Bluebell

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…..

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Dear Readers, my first memory of bluebells involves a family outing to Epping Forest when I was six years old. We travelled in our Ford Popular (named Thunderball), an eccentric vehicle that had problems with hills and would grind its way to the top of an incline accompanied by shouts of ‘come on Thunderball!’ from my brother and I in the back.

By Charles01 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Ford Popular, for those of you unfortunate enough to have never encountered one (Photo Two – see below for credit)

When we arrived, we stepped into a wonderland – the bluebells were at their peak and the whole of the forest floor shimmered with a blue so deep it was almost ultra-violet. I seem to remember that my Mum had brought a shopping bag, and we dug up a single clump (a transgression that was not illegal in 1966). When we got home, Mum split them up and planted them in our pocket-handkerchief-sized garden, where they flourished to such an extent that they positively took over. Who could have guessed that, only forty-five years later, bluebell woods would have vanished in many places, victims of development and climate change, and have been ‘corrupted’ by hybridization in others.

IMG_5843At the weekend, I had a chance to compare two distinct bluebell populations. One is in Somerset, in an isolated patch of woodland between fields, where the bluebells are all unashamedly of the native species. The second is in our local North London wood and cemetery, where there is a much greater diversity of plants.

White pollen

White pollen in a classical British Bluebell

Bluish-green pollen in what is probably a hybrid

Bluish-green pollen in what is probably a hybrid, plus note the lighter lilac-blue colour and the more ‘upright’ habit


Note the very deep-blue colour of these native bluebells , and the ‘nodding’ habit of the flowers

The classic way of telling the difference between native bluebells, Spanish ones and hybrids is to turn the little bell of the flower until you can see the pollen. In native plants, the pollen is snowy-white. In Spanish bluebells and hybrids, there is a hint of greenish-blue to the pollen. There are other differences, however. British  bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are typically a darker blue than their Spanish counterparts (Hyacinthoides hispanica). The flowers of our native bluebell nod, and grow along one side of the stem, while the Spanish flowers are much more upright, and grow on all sides of the stem. Furthermore, the petals of the British bluebell are strongly curved back (recurved) at the end of the ‘bell’. The British bluebell also has a much stronger, sweeter smell than its Spanish relative.  So, telling the difference between a pure British bluebell and a pure Spanish one is relatively simple. The problem comes with hybrids (Hyacinthoides x massartiana) , which form a whole spectrum of variation between the two parent species. And this may not be such a bad thing. When I was on a Spring Flower walk at the Natural History Museum, the guide told us that the Spanish bluebell is much more resistant to drought than the British variety so it may be that, as the climate changes, the native bluebell will move north, and the Spanish/hybrid varieties will thrive in drier areas. As he put it ‘Spanish bluebells are better than no bluebells, surely’.

IMG_5875Bluebells have very special bulbs – they have contractile roots, which, as they contract, draw the bulb into deeper, moister soil. This may be why bluebells don’t flourish on the thin chalkland soils of some parts of the south of England. It may also explain why the bulbs often do badly in gardens, as many people who have tried this method of propagation will tell you. As my mother instinctively knew, bluebells really need to be planted ‘in the green’.  I wonder if a tiny relict population of Epping Forest bluebells is still growing in a back yard in Stratford, East London? It would be lovely to think that this is a possibility, though I fear that they vanished under a patio long ago.

IMG_5837Probably half of all the bluebells in the world grow in the British Isles, where they are typically a plant of damp, humus-rich woodland and are an indicator species of ancient woodland. They can also thrive in hedge-bank and pasture,  although large numbers of the plant may indicate that a wood used to stand there that has long been cut down. They cannot live in the acid soil of conifer plantations. Bluebells are largely pollinated by bumblebees, who are often on the wing early, when the plant is flowering. A bluebell wood is a wonder to behold, and, since 1981, the plant has been protected from marauders like my mum by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which can impose a fine of up to £5000 a bulb if someone tries to trade in the plant.However, Richard Mabey believes that such is the value of bluebells for folk (like me) who are trying to establish ‘wild’ gardens that whole woods may be stripped. Ironically, ‘bluebell rustling’ is apparently most common in East Anglia, where the plant is rarest.

The bluebell is such a popular flower that, when the charity Plantlife was looking for ‘Britain’s Favourite Flower’ the bluebell was left off the list because it had already won a previous poll.

Hybrid bluebells, along with some white ones, from the cemetery. I will see if I can find you some pink ones too...

Hybrid bluebells, along with some white ones, from the cemetery (though note that native bluebells can also be seen in a wide variety of colours). I will see if I can find you some pink ones too…

Why, I wondered, was the bluebell known as Hyacinthoides ‘non-scripta’? Richard Mabey comes to the rescue in Flora Britannica, as usual. Non-scripta, meaning ‘unlettered’, is to distinguish the bluebell from the hyacinth, which is said to have the letters ‘AIAI’ inscribed upon its leaves. AIAI means ‘alas’, and was said to have been caused by Apollo lamenting the death of prince Hyacinthus, for whom the hyacinth is named. Now, I just have to check out a wild hyacinth to see if it is ‘lettered’.

IMG_5844The sap from bluebells was used as a kind of glue to secure arrow feathers in the middle ages, and was also used to starch the ruffs of Elizabethan gentlemen, and as a bookbinders’ glue. It was once believed that a distillation of bluebells would prevent the voices of choirboys from breaking. In Plant Lives, Sue Eland recounts several ominous legends about bluebells. A child who goes into the woods to pick bluebells is likely to disappear, whereas an adult will merely suffer the indignity of being led about by a pixie until rescued.

The plant is said to be efficacious against snake-bite (at least, according to Tennyson), and its one major medicinal use is to combat leucorrheoa (which I had to look up, only to discover that it’s vaginal discharge. You’re welcome.)

IMG_5890As beautiful as a bluebell wood is, I didn’t manage to get a photograph that truly reflects the colour of the one in Somerset, or its shimmering, water-like quality. The photo below captures some of this, but maybe Gerard Manley Hopkins summed it up best in his lines in ‘May Magnificat’, where he calls the bluebell the ‘greybell:

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes

By Marion Phillips, CC BY-SA 2.0,

A bluebell wood near Lampeter in Wales (Photo One – see credit below)

There is something about bluebells that makes me nostalgic. I remember the heady days of childhood, and the overwhelming sense of the abundance of the natural world from those expeditions to the woods. I hope that there will still be bluebell woods for our children to enjoy, and much of that depends on the woods themselves being protected.  I would draw your attention to the 63 Ancient Woodlands that are threatened by the HS2 rail line, for example. It seems that we need to be ever vigilant to protect our local habitats, be they bogs or beaches, sand dunes or heathlands. Once they are gone, it will take generations for them to achieve the same biodiversity that they currently have, and whatever ‘reparation’ is offered cannot replace what we have now. Local opposition does make a difference, so let’s keep our eyes and ears open to what’s being planned for our beloved places. You will be surprised how many other people care about them, and how powerful we can be if we work together.

Photo Credits

Photo One – By Marion Phillips, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two – By Charles01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer





Bugwoman on Location – A Spring Walk in a Dorset Lane


Blackbird nesting in an old farm building

Dear Readers, last week I was ‘on location’ in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, spending a week with Mum and Dad. They are both doing very nicely at the moment, and Mum asked me to relay a message of thanks to you all, for your messages of goodwill when she was so ill at Christmas, and also for keeping my spirits up (which indeed you did). So, I add my thanks to hers. If any blog has a kinder or more generous readership than mine I would be amazed.

I decided to take an hour out from making pancakes and soup (not simultaneously, I hasten to add) and went for a walk along Cole’s Lane, which winds up through some new-build cottages and farm buildings and into the fields.  Last time I was here, the House Martins were massing on the roof prior to flying south, and as yet it’s too early for their return. But the bushes are alive with birdsong. Robins are singing  from the laburnums and elders, their little round bodies puffed up with passion. The woodpigeons are singing their soft, crooning verses, and some starlings are ticking and whistling in an old beech tree. The pulse of life has picked up, and the leaves are just coming through, as green and toothsome as baby salad.

The path passes by the cottage where my brother used to live, and then a modern single storey building that looks as if it might have occasional use as a conference centre or meeting place. As usual in the village, there are signs asking people to pick up their dog poo. I don’t know who the anti-social culprits are, but allowing your dog to do its business and not picking it up is number one concern around these parts. Another sign, by the hedgerow on the opposite side of the road, begs people not to pick the daffodils. And there are lots of daffodils, for sure.

IMG_5754Some are the plain golden trumpets that you can buy a bunch of in Sainsburys for a pound. Some are more like the wild flowers, the petals paler than the centre. Some are the colour of plaster and apricots. Pale cream primroses peek out every so often, and in the shadier places there is the liquid sun of lesser celadine, those little golden star-shaped flowers peeking out from amongst the dark-green heart-shaped leaves. In one spot, a little thicket of snowdrops is hanging on, each porcelain flower marked with a green kiss. In short, spring is pouring forth in abundance, and I half expect to see an Easter Bunny.

Then,  something moves by the stone steps leading up to a farm shed. My first thought is ‘rat’! And then I see a white bobbing tail as a tiny rabbit jumps back into the darkness of the open doorway. So, I did see an Easter Bunny!

Spot the ears!

Spot the ears!

I stride on womanfully uphill, and see a dunnock displaying in an hawthorn, raising his wings to display his armpits to a robin, who is unimpressed. I learned recently that the testicles of small birds, like sparrows and dunnocks, increase in size tenfold in the spring. Of course, the testicles are carried inside the birds so we can’t see them, but just imagine the impact of all of that testosterone on such a tiny bird! No wonder they are impetuous and bold. The dunnock, normally a mousey little bird, takes to singing its sweet, thin song from the top of any available bush, regardless of the danger. We have already mentioned the robin. And the wrens are exploding into song all along the hedgerow, so that as I leave each territory and enter the next it’s a constant corridor of sound.

A surprisingly bold dunnock

A surprisingly bold dunnock

The hedgerows themselves are worthy of mention. In some places, the road has been worn away so that it is a good two metres below where the hedge is. I bump into a well-equipped elderly man who is off for a hike – he has walking boots, two sticks,, a rucksack and a GPS. We talk about the hedges, and he agrees that some of them have probably been here since the Domesday Book, marking the edges of people’s land and stopping the wanderings of cattle and sheep. The individual plants might have withered and died, but each would have been replaced as it failed. And what a mixture of plants – hawthorn and yew, hazel and beech, blackthorn and plum, and some newcomers – berberis and mahonia and pyracantha. Each hedge is both a source of food and a shelter, for many little birds like to nest in the thick cover that a decent hedge provides.

Some lichen in one of the older hedgerows.

Some lichen in one of the older hedgerows.

I walk further up the path, passing an old barn (full of rolls of straw and bags of urea pellets),

IMG_5774and, as I come up to some puddles in the road where a tractor has created a convenient pool in the mud, I see a small bird with a blazing golden head. A yellowhammer, a typical bird of farmland and hedgerow. Once these were as common as sparrows, but I don’t remember the last time that I saw one. Their call, often rendered as ‘a little bit of bread and NO cheese’, was echoing around the copse. I looked up and down and roundabout to see if I could get a picture, but the yellowhammer is one of those birds that you see, briefly, flying away from you and into cover. As indeed I saw another twice before I gave up my photographic ambitions, and decided to just enjoy the walk.

By Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) (Yellowhammer - Rutland Water) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A yellowhammer. Not the one I saw, but a yellowhammer nonetheless (Photo One – credit below)

I followed a pair of birds along a little side-lane, as they bobbed about just in front of me, occasionally landing on the fence. They looked very finch-like, but I was sure they weren’t chaffinches. And, finally, when I got a good look I recognised them. They were linnets, the sweet singing birds of many a Victorian ditty, and I had never seen one before. They are the colour of dried thistles and stubble and autumn leaves.

Linnets! (Falls over in a swoon)

Linnets! (Falls over in a swoon)

IMG_5772Though by now, it was starting to cloud over, and I had more pancakes to make (yes, I know Shrove Tuesday was weeks ago but pancakes do contain eggs, which makes them Easter fodder as well).


Aye, the weather’s on the turn….

And so, I retraced my steps, saying hello to the bold dunnock, the singing wrens and the feisty robins as I went. Spring is so full of new hope that it’s difficult not to get caught up in the spirit of the time.


Photo One – By Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) (Yellowhammer – Rutland Water) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer