Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Comfrey Grove

IMG_6584Dear Readers, if you were to sneak into St Pancras and Islington Cemetery via the broken fence in Coldfall Wood, you would soon find yourself gazing at a jungle of comfrey, which has sprung up in the past few weeks. It is in a quiet, sheltered, almost eerie spot, not far from the hulks of two rusty abandoned cars, which are gradually being reclaimed by the brambles. It feels like the kind of place where something unexpected could happen at any moment, an unpermissioned, edgy spot. Just the kind of area that I like, in other words.

IMG_6540The air is sultry – the comfrey grove is such a sun-trap, and the plants grow with a tropical vigour. Bees drone from blossom to blossom like miniature bomber planes. Because of their deep, bell-shaped flowers, comfrey plants are mostly used by heavier bee species, such as bumblebees, who have the heft to shoulder their way into get the nectar. I spotted common carder bumblebees, tree bumblebees and buff-tailed bumblebees. At this time of year, you are more likely to see worker bees: the queens are now underground, laying eggs.


Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)

The tree bumblebees seem to have a particularly aggressive approach to the flowers, vibrating away with a loud buzz when they enter the bloom. I wonder if this is a way of shaking the pollen loose? Certainly this is a technique that bumblebees use when pollinating tomatoes. In his wonderful book ‘A Sting in the Tale’, bumblebee expert Dave Goulson explains how, in Australia, there are no bumblebees, and importing them could be a biohazard, so tomatoes have to be pollinated by hand. It amazes me how I take the simplest of biological processes for granted.

IMG_6560As I stood in this sunny spot, I noticed the butterflies. Orange tips, brimstones, small whites and speckled woods circled one another in dizzy figures-of-eight. These are fierce creatures, defending their territories and trying to persuade females to mate. I watched as one orange tip chased off anything that came close – not only butterflies, but hoverflies and bluebottles too. So much energy, for something so fragile! They were also very tricky to photograph, and at one point I nearly fell into a nettle patch while pursuing a brimstone. I was completely absorbed in what was going on around me, something I’ve noticed before – when I’m watching wildlife, it’s as if the endless chatter in my head dies away. I become something that watches, listens, notices, wonders. It’s a deeply meditative, concentrated state.

Speckled wood

Speckled wood

Small white escaping stage left

Small white escaping stage left


And another small white…


And an orange-tip…..

And then, a tiny white dog exploded out of the undergrowth in a skitter of claws, followed by an anxious middle-aged lady owner. She shrieked and I shrieked and then we laughed in embarrassment.  I felt as if I’d been dropped back into my body from a great height. I hung around for a little longer, but the moment was gone. Time to move on.

IMG_6574As usual, I headed over to see the foxes, and spent some time ‘hiding’ behind a gravestone to get a few photos for you. The foxes are absolutely not fooled, but I do think they’re getting used to me as a bearer of jam sandwiches.


Over-exposed fox....

Over-exposed fox….

IMG_6591But there is some other exciting news too. In a tall fir tree close to where I watch the foxes, I’ve been hearing the sound of baby birds for the past week. Yesterday, I noticed a hole in the trunk.

IMG_6595And by standing outside the gents toilets in the chapel opposite for twenty minutes, with my biceps nearly dropping off from the strain of holding the camera, I finally got this blurred shot.

Great Spotted Woodpecker nest!

Great Spotted Woodpecker nest!

Yep, there is a brood of Great Spotted Woodpeckers about ten metres from my fox-watching site. They sound healthy, and a couple of times I just made out a little head as a nestling looked out for his mum and dad. A lady was filling up her watering can as I was trying to take my photo, and she was delighted to hear about the nest. She comes to visit the grave of her son, and spends a lot of the weekend sitting and talking to him.

‘I love it here’, she said. ‘Some graveyards are so manicured and boring. But here there are the foxes, and the birds, and the butterflies. I spend all day here in the summer, telling my son the news and watching the bees’.

IMG_6454So many people come to the cemetery to commune with their dead loved ones, to sit and have a little chat and to make sure that the departed are kept up to date with the news. It is said that someone is not really gone while they live on in the memories of those who loved them, but there is also something here about trying to make sure that those who have died are still included in the day to day life of the family and community. This would come as no shock in many cultures where ancestors are revered, and it seems to me that it satisfies a profound human need.  We are connection-making creatures, and death is the most extreme severing of all, so no wonder that we seek to stitch the realms of the living and dead back together. I know how much comfort it can give to those who remain, and who among us knows enough to say that it doesn’t also bring comfort to those who have gone?



Wednesday Weed – Lady’s Smock

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…..

Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Dear Readers, who would have thought that this delicate, pale-rose flower is a member of the Cabbage family, like the hairy bitter-cress that we looked at a few weeks ago? Yet, a close look at the four-petalled flowers in their typical cross (crucifer) shape is enough to give us a clue. I found these plants in several of the damper places in the cemetery, where they seem to have popped up like meerkats. Often, they are combined with speedwell and buttercups, and the colours make me catch my breath. I wish I could meet every one of you for a wildflower walk among the tombstones at the moment, there is a wonder around every corner.

Dame's violet and speedwell....

Lady’s Smock and speedwell….

Lady’s smock is a native plant and has many alternative names: cuckooflower (probably because it flowers at the same time as the return of the cuckoo), fairy flower and milkmaids. The petals of the buds are resemble a skirt, and so make it easier to see where the ‘smock’ part of the name might have come from. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey suggests that there might also be a more lascivious connotation to the word, with about the same meaning as ‘a bit of skirt’, and wonders if there might be a reference to what went on in the spring meadows.

However, Lady’s Smock also, confusingly, has an association with the Virgin Mary, and yet another alternative name is ‘Our Lady’s Smock’. This refers to the seamless white robe that Mary made for Jesus, and which was worn by him on Good Friday. It fascinates me how the bawdy references to a plant at one point in its history can be overlaid with biblical symbolism later, but how the two meanings often continue, side by side.

By No machine-readable author provided. Svdmolen assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Note the appearance of the buds (Photo One – credit below)

The name ‘fairy flower’ probably came from the belief that the plant was sacred to the fairies, and so was unlucky if brought indoors. It was not included in May Day garlands for the same reason. It was also believed that picking the plant could create thunderstorms, and might attract adders. The real beneficiary of leaving the plant alone, though, is the orange-tip butterfly, who prefers lady’s smock and garlic mustard to any other plants. If you look closely at this time of year, you might be able to spot the caterpillars, though they are very well camouflaged.

By H. Krisp (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Orange tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) caterpillar (Photo Two- see below for credit)

Like most members of the Brassica family, Lady’s Smock has  been used as food – the leaves are said to have a strong peppery flavour , and in fact the Latin name ‘cardamine’ refers to Water cress, which has a similar taste. The Badger Bushcraft website  uses Lady’s Smock  to make a fiery condiment. On the ‘Eat the Weeds’ website, the leaves are combined with another recent favourite, three-cornered garlic, to make a side salad. Most of the brassicas seem to have some food value, much as their big domesticated cousins do. In fact, I suspect that these wild plants might have more concentrated goodness in them, having not been ‘messed about with’ for added sweetness or for a longer shelf life. Indeed, it has been reported that the leaves of lady’s smock have five times the vitamin C content of a lemon.

IMG_6508Medicinally, lady’s smock has a long history of use for convulsions and epilepsy, and also has an association with the treatment of gynecological problems. Culpeper recommends using the plant, in its fresh state, for gallstones, scurvy and upset stomachs. On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland relates how a powder was created by roasting the plant on a pewter dish. This powder was then kept in bottles which must have leather, rather than cork, stoppers, for reasons that are lost in antiquity.

IMG_6266As you might expect, a plant that flowers in the spring and which has been native to these islands for thousands of years has been honoured in a fair amount of poetry. Shakespeare features it in ‘Love’s Labours Lost:

‘When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady’s smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he: ‘Cuckoo,
Cuckoo, cuckoo’! Oh word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear’.

This verse refers to the way that the cuckoo was thought to signal that a husband had been betrayed (cuckolded) by his wife, and it seems that this innocent little flower has a long tradition of being associated with infidelity: in ‘The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry’, edited by Lucy Hooper, including the plant in a bouquet is said to be an indication of ‘paternal error’. What with all this business about smocks and meadows it all feels decidedly like one of those paintings of peasants being unruly by Pieter Brueghel.

'The Peasant Wedding' by Pieter Brueghel the Younger via Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons

‘The Peasant Wedding’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger via Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons

This is my third year of writing ‘The Wednesday Weed’ every week, and it has now reached the point where, as I walk through the cemetery, I am seeing old floral friends come into flower and wane. The lesser celandine is almost finished now, the bluebells have grey husks where their flowers once were, but the red campion is in full flower, and the hogweed is waiting for its moment just as the cow parsley is at its greatest glory. The rhythm of the seasons is both subtle and obvious, but walking the shady lanes and verdant grasslands here has brought it home to me that I need to take that photograph, smell that blossom, listen to that chiff-chaff, right now, because in a few weeks it will be gone. Carpe diem indeed.

Photo Credits

Photo One – By No machine-readable author provided. Svdmolen assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two – By H. Krisp (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer










Coming Home to East Finchley

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

Dear Readers, for most of last week I was in Dorset with my parents (who are both doing very nicely at the moment). So, when I got home I decided to take myself for a walk around the ‘hood. The first thing I noticed, on stepping out of my front door, was that the snails have been eating the petals from my pot of Ox Eye Daisies. Now, I have no problem with molluscs, but this was a bit cheeky, especially as one baby snail was snuggled up asleep in the middle of one of the now semi-bald flowers, probably replete from his midnight snack. Others were hiding under the leaves, and had found a spot under the rim of the pot. I collected all of them and tossed them into the lavender bush.

IMG_6470Whether they’ll make the journey back or content themselves with the dead vegetation that they now find themselves reclining upon remains to be seen, but I suspect that this is only the first skirmish in a long-running battle. Where oh where are the hedgehogs when you need them? I would also exchange my queendom for a bevy of toads, who are more resistant to dessication than frogs and could therefore maybe live in the south-facing front garden. Unfortunately, many of them were killed off by those little blue slug pellets that gardeners took a shine to a few years ago. You can never kill just one species without leaving a big hole in the ecosystem.

Onwards! I decided to give you all a break from Coldfall Wood and the Cemetery (though I will give you a fox update at the end of this blog, once I’ve been myself and found out what’s been happening) and to head for Cherry Tree Wood. The first thing I notice is that the lovely people from N2 Community Garden have made a little plot next to the children’s nursery, and opposite the station.

IMG_6353Already there is a blaze of colour: bright orange poppies, the magenta of Bowle’s Mauve wallflowers, a bright red Heuchera (I think), a purple geranium and some white alyssum. What a lovely, bright-coloured plot for the toddlers and their mothers to look at on their way to and from the nursery! As I passed, a man was cutting the grass, and taking care to avoid the marigolds.

IMG_6358 IMG_6357 IMG_6355 IMG_6354The Wood itself is already in its first flush of green.

The entrance to Cherry Tree Wood

The entrance to Cherry Tree Wood

The cow parsley and hawthorn are in full flower, the latter filling the air with its feral, fishy scent.


Hawthorn Blossom

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

There is an enormous plot of dusky cranesbill, which surprises me because I’m sure that it wasn’t here last year, and I wonder if someone has been a-scattering with seeds. If so, they made a good choice – the plant is both native and a popular bee plant, and the purple flowers are a great foil for the pale blue of the forget-me-nots and the white of the umbellifers.


Dusky cranesbill

There is bird song everywhere: a flight of long-tailed tits peeping their contact calls, the ‘teacher, teacher’ calls of great tits, the buzzing of blue tits, the outrage of blackbirds.

My one long-tailed tit photo. They are so speedy, and so hyperactive!

My one long-tailed tit photo. They are so speedy, and so hyperactive!

But one bird, which is silent, is turning over the leaves, and I recognise a mistle thrush, surely one of the ones that I saw last year. When I arrive at the other side of the wood, I see a second mistle thrush, with its beak full of worms. It looks as if they have a brood somewhere, and this makes me so happy. Mistle thrushes used to be common in every park, but have become less and less so in recent years. Big, bold birds, I love the way that they run, listen, and stab their prey. It’s easy to forget that ‘predators’ include the blackbirds and robins that hang around our gardens, or even the tiny blue tits. Even mostly gramnivorous birds may turn insectivorous at this time of year – I remember seeing house sparrows hawking for flies a few summers ago.


Mistle Thrush

I also did a spot of tidying up while I was in the woods: my friend A always takes a carrier bag with her, and I have taken to doing the same. Some young people had built a little den, which is fine, provided they’re using dead branches and not destroying the trees. There was also a fine collection of soft drink cans, which I put in the litter bin.


A den….I’m hoping that these branches had already come down during the high winds of the past couple of weeks


Cans in need of a tidy-up. Maybe it’s not ‘cool’ to put them in one of the many litter bins?

I struggle to understand why someone would come all the way to the wood to dump this, though.

I wonder what happened to the table top?

I wonder what happened to the table top?

On the way back, I decide to have a quick look at the N2 Community Garden beside the station itself. Last time I wrote about this, I was berated on Twitter by someone who maintained that ‘if I was honest, I would accept that it was full of weeds’. Well, one woman’s weed is another woman’s wildflower. At the moment, the plot is full of forget-me-nots and white deadnettle, the latter a nectar source for bumblebees – I saw two species in the ten minutes that I was there. Chard and beans are growing in the vegetable plots, a clematis montana is wending its way through the wire fence, and love-lies-bleeding and centaurea are in full flower, along with dill, the first leaves of wild strawberry and garlic mustard.

IMG_6407 IMG_6408 IMG_6411 IMG_6414 IMG_6416 IMG_6417 IMG_6418 While I am taking photos, I hear the soft wheezing call of a baby bird, and catch the briefest of glimpses of a young robin. In the branch of one of the shrubs there is what I think is a failed long-tailed tit nest. It could also possibly be something that someone has hung up to provide nesting material for the birds, but I tend towards the first interpretation. Do write in the comments below if you know one way or the other.

A failed long-tailed tit nest?

A failed long-tailed tit nest?

Long-tailed tit nests are delicate, stretchy structures, manufactured from moss and grass and dead leaves, bound together with spiders’ webs. This one looks as if it might have incorporated some dog-fur or thistledown as well.  A completed nest looks something like a weaver bird’s nest, perfectly camouflaged, with a downward pointing opening. I once found a deserted nest and was amazed by how stretchy it was, like putting my hand into a magic glove. This one is only half completed, and probably just as well – it’s a very public spot for a nest, and one all too easy for cats to get into. I have noticed before that long-tailed tits can put a ridiculous amount of energy into nest building in the most inauspicious of sites, like the pair that part-built a nest in a viburnum bush in a public square in Islington, right behind a bench much frequented by drinkers and courting couples.

IMG_6423I very much enjoy the little patches of colour that the N2 Community Gardeners bring to East Finchley. I like the informality of their plots, and the abundance of wild and ‘domesticated’ plants. While others might prefer a more structured, formal ‘look’, I think that there is much to be said for serendipity, for happy accidents. There is also much to be said for growing plants that actually like the conditions that they are presented with, rather than insisting on species which would be much happier in somewhere shadier or with lighter soil. And from my visit this morning, the bees and the birds are happier with this approach too. If it were not classified as a ‘weed’ I’m sure that many of us would be planting white deadnettle, both for the subtle beauty of its flowers, and for the way that the bees preferred it to anything else on the plot. Planting a garden that includes everyone, not just humans, is what a real ‘community garden’ is all about.

Later in the afternoon, I headed off to the cemetery, where I found a happy crow bathing in one of the bowls that are used to carry water to the graves when visitors are washing down the stones or watering the flowers.

IMG_6435 IMG_6433And I also found the foxes. The dog fox who is part of a pair was laying happily on his usual tombstone, waiting for his sandwiches. And shortly after I saw the vixen and the other dog fox. So, all is well here, which is always a relief after a few days’ absence. How strange that I seem to think that if I visit every day, things are less likely to happen. Or is it just that I fear returning to the cemetery to receive bad news? I know that to love something or someone, just as I love these foxes, is to be constantly vulnerable – they are wild animals after all, and I have no control over what happens to them. But would I swap my unease and potential distress for indifference? Absolutely not. All love has an edge of fear, but without it we might as well be dead.

IMG_6438All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Feel free to use with attribution,and with a link to the blog.


Wednesday Weed – Common Dog Violet

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana)

Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana)

Dear Readers, I wanted to feature the dog violet as a Wednesday Weed before it finishes flowering. There is a fine bed of it in the cemetery, stretching back between the trees for about 30 metres, and it gives the whole area a purple-blue haze.

IMG_6167Identifying violas to the species level is actually very difficult, but I have gone along with this being Common Dog Violet because, as its name suggests, it is our commonest species, and because several diagnostic features are right: for example, the ‘spur’ at the back of the flower is lighter than the petals in this species, and the lines on the lower petal, the ‘nectar guides’, are very pronounced. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, there were thought to be over forty species and subspecies of violets, including many hybrids, but in his New Flora of the British Isles, the inimitable botanist Clive Stace has trimmed it back to twenty eight species, sub-species and hybrids.

IMG_6175What a delicate, pretty flower this is. Often it peeps out from below a hedgerow and if you weren’t paying attention it would be easy to miss it. It is a native plant, and has been a feature of our poetry for centuries. Perhaps the most famous mention of the violet is in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’:

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania some time of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight:
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.’

And I must admit that I felt tempted to have a little doze in the cemetery when I spotted the violets, the sun was so warm and the buzzing of bees so soporific. But artists have also identified something melancholy about the violet, maybe because of its perceived shyness, and its brief flowering period. My favourite Shakespeare violet quote is  from Hamlet, when Ophelia, driven mad by our hero, says to the assembled, horrified company that:

‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.’

Although I am not a great lover of Wordsworth’s poetry (too many weeks spent studying ‘The Lyrical Ballads’ for my A Levels I fear), I do find his poem ‘The Lost Love’ very moving. I think we can all identify with the final lines.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove:
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the eye!-
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!’

IMG_6174Many of the folkloric associations of the violet have to do with its assumed modesty. One of the goddess Diana’s nymph companions was changed into a violet to protect her from being ravished by Apollo. In the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ they represent delicacy in love. It is also said that violets bloomed wherever Orpheus put down his lute.

So, why ‘dog’ violet? It is thought that this is to distinguish this plant from the perfumed ‘sweet violet’ (Viola odorata), which I have not yet managed to find. It is this scented species which has been used in perfume-making since medieval times, and I well remember that when we used to holiday in Devon as children, every gift shop had a heady aroma of ‘Devon Violets’ perfume, which was inclined to give my mother a migraine. There were also violet-flavoured sweets, and a violet liquer (which was a violent violet colour) called ‘Parfait Amour’. These days, I limit myself to a box of rose and violet creme chocolates at Christmas, though I can scoff the lot in under an hour if left alone with them.

IMG_6179Many of the medicinal uses of violets relate to the Sweet Violet, but according to The Modern Herbal website, Culpeper refers to the leaves of all species as being useful in a poultice for inflammation, and to relieve ‘pains in the head through lack of sleep’. An infusion of the flowers and leaves is said to assist with the symptoms of throat complaints, including cancer.  The root is said to be extremely emetic and purgative. Mixing thirty-six violet leaves with melted lard is said to produce an ointment which can be used for swollen neck glands.

If violets are to be used for flavouring then Sweet Violet will be used, but the flowers of Common Dog Violet can be used to pretty-up salads, or, crystallised with egg white and sugar, to adorn cakes. I’m not sure if the cake below quite sums up the delicate effects that I’m sure can be achieved but hey, I’d eat it.

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

A chocolate cake with candied violets (Photo One – credit below)

As we might expect, the violet has also been part of the work of many artists. It is included in the garden of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestry, made in Flanders in the sixteenth century. Here, it is symbolising modesty, as usual.

The Lady and the Unicorn, from the Musee de Moyen Age, Paris. The violets form part of the meadow beneath the feet of the Lady and her various creatures.

The Lady and the Unicorn, from the Musee de Moyen Age, Paris. The violets form part of the meadow beneath the feet of the Lady and her various creatures.

By the time of Manet, it was being used for its colour and form rather than for its symbolic value. In the picture below, I love the juxtaposition of the flowers against the red fan, and the lavender-edged writing paper. I also enjoy the way that the flowers are seen here against the darkness. I remember that Napoleon scattered Josephine’s coffin with the flowers of violets.

Edouard Manet - Bouquet of Violets

Edouard Manet – Bouquet of Violets

And, to link back to the association of violets with death and sorrow, have a look at this Magritte picture, titled ‘La Grande Guerre’ (‘The Great War’), from the Magritte Gallery The face of the woman is replaced by a posy of violets, such as one might throw onto a coffin.

How intent we are on attaching symbolic value to flowers, which are actually the fierce face of a plant’s determination to reproduce itself. And how interesting that a violet can be a symbol of melancholy, of modesty, and of the dreaminess of a summer evening, all at the same time.


Photo Credits

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

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer

Beetles and Butterflies and Birds. And Foxes.

Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii)

Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii)

Dear Readers, when I first met my husband he was not very interested in animals. He hadn’t had pets as a child, and was much more interested in ancient history than birds and bugs. But see what fifteen years of marriage can do! I am now interested in dusty ruins (in fact we went on holiday to Libya before that particular situation went, as we Brits say, pear-shaped) and earlier this week, John called me downstairs to identify this little red beetle.

‘It’s squeaking!’ he said, in hushed tones, as the beetle disappeared under his watch strap. And indeed it was making tiny irritated noises. I have tried my best to capture them for you, but to no avail. The video is below, but you’ll have to take my word for it that our little insect friend was complaining.

My gardening friends will no doubt recognise this creature with a shudder. With the  Latin name Lilioceris lilii and the common name ‘lily beetle’ one can be under no illusions when it comes to this insect’s choice of dinner.This is rather a shame as, in its smart red and black livery, this is a most handsome beetle.

IMG_6247Lily beetles lay their eggs not only on lilies, but also on fritillaries and Solomon’s Seal, and indeed I saw one (maybe even the same one) on the seed head of one of my snakes’ head fritillaries. Such gratitude! The female will lay several hundred eggs on the stems and leaves of her chosen plant, and the larvae slowly munch away, covering themselves in sticky black excrement as a protection. I should definitely have flicked the one that I ‘rescued’ into the bamboo at the back of the garden, where at least it would have had a longer walk/fly before it could start to munch my plants.

IMG_6257It has been a generally good week for insects, what with all the sunshine and the temperatures in the 20’s. In the cemetery, I spotted a comma butterfly sunning itself on a white road marking. Fortunately the road is very little used, because I saw a butterfly doing the same thing on Wednesday and Friday. As the males set up fiercely-contested territories, it could easily be the same one each time. I’ve gotten to the point where I look for him, and am disappointed if he doesn’t show up. This is a species which is on the wing early, and relies on dandelions and sallow catkins for food, another reason why they favour the cemetery which has the splendid crop of the former. Like Red Admirals and Peacocks, apparently the Comma likes rotting fruit in the autumn. I think I shall have to put out some ageing plums as an experiment.

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

I’ve seen orange-tips, speckled woods and both small and large white butterflies on the wing this week. In the front garden, there was this lovely holly blue feeding on the green alkanet, which is proving to be as good a butterfly flower as anything I’ve planted on purpose. I could have saved myself a small fortune in garden plants and just encouraged the ‘weeds’. Although the female does lay her eggs on holly, she may also lay them on ivy, dogwood or pyracantha. The adults prefer to feed on honeydew left by aphids but as it’s a little too early for them yet (in my garden at least) they force themselves to make do with nectar, poor things.

Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus)

Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus)

The other big news of the week in the garden is that the baby starlings are out of the nest, and eating what seems like their own body weight in mealworms and suet pellets every day. The one on the bird table below is getting the hang of feeding him or herself, but still prefers mum or dad to feed him/her. The racket is quite alarming: the whitebeam tree sounds like it’s full of folk with some kind of wheezing disease when all the babies are calling at the same time.

IMG_6286IMG_6291And of course, I couldn’t close without an update on the foxes. I saw the dog fox and the vixen today, and also got a quick glimpse of the other male fox. The vixen seems to have her limp back, so I must definitely pick up some arnica, and she might also have a very mild eye infection – how I’m going to do anything about that I have no idea. Both the dog foxes look relaxed and happy and healthy.

I haven’t seen any cubs yet, though the Dog Unit man does tell me that he found a dead cub by the crematorium. I don’t know whether to be pleased that there definitely are cubs, or upset because one of them has met with an accident, so I shall have to be both. Mortality is horribly high among young animals of all kinds, and foxes are no exception – even in a relatively benign environment such as the cemetery, baby animals can meet with all kinds of mishaps as they explore the world. Nature is very unforgiving of the smallest mistake, and the fact that humans drive around the cemetery as if it were a race track rather than a place of contemplation doesn’t help. The Dog Unit man is planning a crack down on the speed demons this week, and I’m only sorry that I’m down in Dorset with my parents until Fridaay and won’t be around to see him in action. B is going to medicate the foxes for me, so I’m all set. Who knows what the story will be when I get back?

The vixen waiting patiently for her dinner

The ‘other’ dog fox watching me through the undergrowth

The vixen waiting for her jam sandwiches

The vixen waiting for her jam sandwiches

The vixen's very relaxed mate

The vixen’s very relaxed mate

Can I smell jam?

Can I smell jam?


Oh lord, are you still there, camera-person?


The other dog fox waiting till the vixen and her mate have finished.

Wednesday Weed – Three-cornered Garlic

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…..

Three-cornered Garlic (Allium triquetrum)

Three-cornered Garlic (Allium triquetrum)

Dear Readers, every so often a plant that I haven’t noticed before seems to be popping up absolutely everywhere, and this is the case with three-cornered garlic (also known as three-cornered leek). I first noticed it in the cemetery, where it was growing happily on the graves alongside the artificial roses, but then I saw it popping up along the edge of a wall by All Saints’ Church, and growing in some of the gardens in the County Roads here in East Finchley. It’s easy to miss because it looks rather like a white bluebell, but the giveaway is the stem, which is sharply triangular, like a long green Toblerone bar. The leaves have a faint but unmistakable onion/garlic flavour, as you would expect from an allium and if you turn them over, they have a deep ridge in the centre, which some people compare to the keel of a ship. Finally, the flowers have a fine green stripe, which is another indicator for the species.

IMG_6142Three-cornered garlic was introduced from the Mediterranean basin by 1759, and has been naturalising ever since, especially in the south-west. It is described in many places as ‘invasive’, and certainly it appears to take off like a rocket when in the right position. But it has numerous good qualities.  As you might expect of a plant with a garlicky taste, it can be used for a wide variety of culinary purposes . On his ‘Eat The Weeds’ website, Robin Harford has a recipe for Wild Greens with Spiced Tahini Rice, which includes not only three-cornered garlic but also ground elder and herb bennet, both of which can be a right royal pain in the backside if they get a grip in the garden. If this doesn’t appeal, you can knock up some Three-cornered Garlic Hummus. And finally (and this would be perfect because the Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis) is just coming into flower in the cemetery), you could make Lady’s Smock and Three-cornered Garlic Salad. Robin is of the opinion that the plant is the closest wild equivalent to Chinese Chives, which can be expensive and difficult to obtain,  so three-cornered garlic is a very handy free substitute.

I also think the pretty flowers would make a lovely addition to a leafy spring salad.

IMG_6141I find it a little bit amusing that this ‘invasive weed’ is one of the plants featured on the Borough Market website. Borough Market is a high-end food market close to London Bridge station, which sells all manner of delicacies, from native oysters to wild mushrooms. You can read a few more recipe suggestions here  but I suspect that it would be a lot cheaper to knock up some three-cornered garlic pesto yourself if you have any growing nearby. Certainly one way to cope with plants which outgrow their welcome is to turn them into lunch. However, should you have a pet tortoise, this is one of the plants that the Tortoise Table website recommends that you don’t feed to your reptile, on the basis that plants that grow from bulbs are not suitable fodder. Plus, who wants a shelled companion with onion breath? Though I suppose it would be easy enough to run away.

By John5199 (Sulcata Tortoise (5)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A speedy tortoise….(Photo One, credit below)

But enough of this silliness. From a medicinal point of view, three-cornered garlic is believed to have the same attributes as other alliums (the sulphur compounds which give onions and garlic their flavour are thought to act as a liver and blood tonic), though to a lesser extent. Interestingly, if there is (unusually) no sulphur in the soil, all allium species lose their flavour. The juice is said to act as a moth repellent, though I suspect that the onion scent might act as a person deterrent too. Furthermore, the whole plant is said to repel insects and moles. Personally, I would love to have a visit from a mole, but then I don’t have a lawn to worry about.

IMG_6139Three-cornered garlic has taught me a very valuable lesson. I had walked past the little stand of flowers above and completely ignored them because I thought they were white bluebells, or Loddon Lily. In a way, i was stereotyping them: ‘white bell-like flowers, long leaves, must be something I already know’. If I had stopped to really get to know them, to look at the stem and the leaves, and, most of all, to give them a sniff, I would have known that this was something different. As in all things, I need to pay attention to what’s in front of me, rather than just sticking it in a category and forgetting about it. The world is much more subtle and varied, more diverse, than I ever realised.



The Cemetery Is Not Just About Foxes…..

A new fox!

A new fox!

Dear Readers, today I am going to share sightings of some of the other animals and plants that live in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, but I thought I’d start with a fox update. We have a new fox visiting the feeding area, and what a handsome animal s/he is: this one is a loner, a little bigger than the dog fox who usually visits with the vixen. They all arrive at about the same time, so I’m fairly certain that the vixen is getting her share of the medicated sandwiches and the dog food that I’m distributing during the cubbing season. No sign of cubs yet, but it’s a real joy to see these three animals, and to note that although the vixen is still skinny, she definitely seems to be getting her fur back, and her limp has pretty much gone.

The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

So, with this week’s fine weather as a spur to action, I decided to do a complete circumnavigation of the cemetery. There is one long road that winds along the top edge of the cemetery, parallel to the North Circular road, and so haunted always by the rumble of traffic. And yet, where the path is lined with big old trees, the noise level drops away dramatically. I spotted young magpies in the trees, squawking and arguing, and an adult bird flying from headstone to headstone.

IMG_6217As I draw alongside a stand of conifers, I look through the trees and see that there is a purple haze all along the path and blanketing some of the graves. I can’t resist going off piste for a look. The ground is soft and mossy, and there are violets everywhere –not the violas and pansies that I see on so many of the graves, but real wild dog violets. Each individual face is so tiny and shy, and yet here there is an ocean of them. I have never seen so many in one place. What is it about this particular spot that makes it so perfect? Who knows. I find myself kneeling on the ground, taking photograph after photograph. It’s been such a time of rushing about that I’ve forgotten how nice it is to make time to really look.

IMG_6172IMG_6176As I walk north, I pass another  area that is glowing, this time in royal blue – the bugle is in flower. What an interesting plant this is! The leaves and stem of this variety are  a deep chocolate brown, and the flowers are the deepest lavender blue. The individual blooms remind me slightly of the ‘bunny rabbits’ on an antirrhinum, and the bees love them, forcing their way between the petals and then droning away to the next flower like a fleet of miniature bomber planes. I lay down on the warm grass to take some photos, and all I can hear is the buzzing, the sound of the birds and the constant roar of the North Circular Road.

IMG_6187IMG_6189As I walk back to the path, a black cat walks out of the wood. He isn’t one of B’s little collection of four – this is a much slinkier cat, who obviously hasn’t been feeding on chicken legs and Sheba. He glances at me, blinks once, and bounds through the grass and over a fence into the houses beyond. It is like a brief meeting with a miniature black panther.

A mysterious black cat

A mysterious black cat

I turn right at the top of the path. By now I am alongside the road, separated only by a six foot wire fence and a verge on either side. The speed and noise and fumes of the traffic are constant, with the occasional rumble of an articulated lorry. But on my side of the fence there are hawthorn trees and a great stand of garlic mustard, its grass green leaves looking as fresh as salad. And looping around it is an male orange-tip butterfly. Soon the females will emerge, mate with the males and lay their eggs on this plant, so it was good to see so much of it, looking so healthy.

IMG_6210 IMG_6208 IMG_6228I walk on, turning right, back down the hill. I pass a big wall covered in plaques remembering the dead. There are vases of flowers and pot plants all along the wall beneath, big blousy orange lilies and yellow chrysanthemums. Here, the headstones are all the same, granite with a black plaque in the middle, and they have none of the charm of the angels and urns in the rest of the graveyard. I hope that the place doesn’t turn into somewhere regimented and manicured. It seems that we take up more room than we should even after we’re dead.

I detour through another area of tombstones, and am astonished to see, on one grave, a four-foot tall statue of an Egyptian cat. Well, I’m not supposed to take photos of graves, but surely they can make an exception for something so surprising. The grave belongs to a man who died in 1971 so it’s not some Victorian artefact. There are lots of references to the Sun God, and I sense that the man buried here was a lover of ancient religions, something of a pagan. It moves me to find the cat here, gazing out over the graveyard with the same imperious expression as one of Beryl’s cats.


One of B's cats

One of B’s cats

I circle back to check on the foxes, and find that every scrap of food has gone. I say hello to  the Dog Unit man and to B, who is feeding Boris the cat and cleaning her husband’s grave. The German Bee Man pops in as well – last year he had so much success with the bees on his allotment that he ended up with twenty hives, but this year it’s been a cold, wet start. We chat for a while, and then I head back. It’s a luxury not to be shivering or soaked, both of which have happened in the past week.

There is a kind of peace to something that happens regularly, be it writing or exercising or knitting or meditating. I have tried many different places to write, for example, but always end up back in Costa Coffee on East Finchley High Street, because I’ve written there so often that the very air feels imbued with inspiration and commitment . Equally, I’ve been going to the cemetery pretty much daily for a couple of months now, and that just feels natural, too – I feel the tension in my shoulders relax as I walk through the gates. There is always something to see, if I pay attention. Some days I go in through the front gate, and out through the front gate, and the round trip takes about 30 minutes. Other days, I wander for an hour or more, keeping my eyes open for the stories of the day, because there are always stories, and that’s what I want to share. It occurs to me that I enjoy my fox postings because they’re telling an open-ended story, one which could continue for as long as I’m alive and well enough to be able to report on it. And what of all the other lives and stories here? There’s a novel in it, for sure. Who knows where it will all lead.


Wednesday Weed – Goldilocks Buttercup

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…..

Goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus)

Goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus)

Dear Readers, I am sure that when you were children many of you, like me, will have picked a buttercup and held it under your chin to see if you ‘liked butter’, a most nonsensical way to carry on but an experience which, in these parts at least, seems to be almost universal. However, you would have difficulty performing the exercise with this buttercup, which I noticed in the cemetery last week. Although it has the leaves of a buttercup, and although the buds look familiar, the flowers are very strange. The petals look somehow stunted, as if they’ve been nibbled off by a famished caterpillar. And yet, it appears, this is a characteristic of the Goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus), a plant in which almost every flower is deformed.

IMG_6125Why ‘Goldilocks’, I wondered? Well, the species name auricomus literally means ‘golden-hair’, so maybe the English name is an exact transliteration. Or, as someone suggested, maybe its woodland habitat put people in mind of the fairy story. Whatever the reason, it is a strange and delicate plant, all stem and stamen.

IMG_6138This species loves chalk (technically, it is a calcicole, another new word!) I was therefore surprised to find it growing in the heavy clay of the cemetery. However, every patch that I’ve found has appeared directly on top of a grave, so maybe something in the planting medium is subtly different, enabling the buttercup to thrive.

The Goldilocks buttercup reproduces asexually (known as apomixis) – it sets seed without need for cross-pollination, and every new plant is a clone of the parent. This means that there can be unique local populations, known as agamospecies, and several hundred of these have been identified in mainland Europe, though, as far as I know, no one has looked into the situation in the UK yet. Our growing expertise with genetic analysis has opened a whole can of worms with regard to plants. Once, a dandelion was a dandelion, but now there are known to be 40 endemic microspecies in the UK alone. It seems that no sooner do we clear up one mystery than hundreds more present themselves. Still, what an exciting time to be a geneticist!

IMG_6127The Goldilocks buttercup is native to the UK, and has a range that extends from Greenland (where it is sometimes found growing in the damp places beside waterfalls) right the way through northern Europe and Russia, and then into Alaska and the Western US. For this reason, the plant is sometimes known as the Greenland buttercup. However, it is slow to spread locally, and is seen as an indicator of ancient woodland. Were these buttercups growing in the woods that pre-date the cemetery, I wonder?

IMG_6152I wonder, too, about those deformed and missing petals. As the plant reproduces asexually, maybe the need to attract insects for pollination is not as strong as in other buttercups. Could it also be because, as each plant is a clone, any damaging genes will perpetuate themselves? In his book ‘Vegetable Teratology’, Maxwell T. Masters mentions that in damp woodland settings, the Goldilocks buttercup tends to have small, distorted petals and luxuriant leaf growth, but in more arid sites the petals are more complete, the leaves smaller. It’s almost as if the plant has a ‘growth budget’, which it expends according to the situation in which it finds itself. At any rate, the lack of petals doesn’t seem to have done these plants any harm, as they were growing in some numbers in the shade of the old hornbeams, surrounded by their close relatives the Lesser Celandines (Ranunculus ficaria).

IMG_6122What an unusual plant this is! I am used to seeing flora with all manner of galls and discolourations, their leaves nibbled and mined by their insect hosts (as are some of the leaves in the photograph below). I am familiar with the range of colours that can occur within even a small population of the same plant. And yet, I have never come across one before with distorted or absent petals through no obvious external cause. It just goes to show that nature is full of surprises.

IMG_6152All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer