Monthly Archives: June 2016

Wednesday Weed – Red Clover

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…..

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

Dear Readers, to truly appreciate some plants you need to get down on your hands and knees and really study them. The flowers of red clover are so complicated, so gently unfolding, and so delicately coloured that if they grew at eye level I’m sure we would be more impressed than we are. As I watched this little patch of clover in the cemetery the blooms were continually fumbled by bumblebees, who seemed almost drunk on the nectar. Ah, there are many reasons to love clover of all kinds, but its generosity to pollinators is a long way up the list. And as a child I would sometimes pull the petals from the flowers for the little drop of sweetness at the heart. Nowadays, I’d be a bit more careful about whether the area had been sprayed with biocides.

IMG_7036Red clover is native to the whole of the UK, Europe and Western Asia, and has been naturalised in most of the rest of the world. It is a fodder crop, and, as another member of the nitrogen-fixing pea family, it is often used as a green manure. I love the way that the tousle-headed flowers brighten up a wildflower lawn – in the photo above you can see the clover hanging out with blue self-heal and black medick, and it is often a companion to white clover, birds-foot trefoil and many other plants.

IMG_7027Red clover is said to have a variety of medicinal properties. One, I notice, is as an aid to the symptoms of the menopause. If I’d known this, I’d maybe have collected some from the cemetery as a remedy for my hot flushes. As a young woman,  I was completely unprepared for the infernal character of the average hot flush, and the way that they can very effectively destroy that ‘sleeping’ nonsense for four or five years. Fortunately, I am now through the worst (says she, fingers crossed), and am looking forward to the focus and energy that everyone promises me on ‘the other side’ once my oestrogen has been offset by a hearty dose of testosterone. Never underestimate the power of a post-menopausal woman with a bee in her bonnet, that’s what I say.

IMG_7030You can make a very pleasant tea from red clover flowers. On the Roscommon Acres website, they have gone several steps further and made red clover jelly and red clover wine, though it sounds as if the main benefit is the colour that the blossoms provide rather than the taste. I got rather excited about a cocktail called Red Clover which was on the Absolut Vodka website, but sad to say it contains no red clover at all. On the other hand, red clover lemonade sounds, and looks delicious – have a look at the photos on the Adventuress Heart blog. Just the thing for a summer’s evening. I might even try it myself.

IMG_7033To finish, I would like to include this poem by John Clare. A labourer by birth, Clare composed some of the most closely-observed nature poems ever written. He was a troubled man, who suffered from depression, alcoholism and who was several times incarcerated in an asylum. Here is his poem about our Wednesday Weed. The description could have been written yesterday.

To a Red Clover Blossom

Sweet bottle-shaped flower of lushy red,
Born when the summer wakes her warmest breeze,
Among the meadow’s waving grasses spread,
Or ‘neath the shade of hedge or clumping trees,
Bowing on slender stem thy heavy head;
In sweet delight I view thy summer bed,
And list the drone of heavy humble-bees
Along thy honey’d garden gaily led,
Down corn-field, striped balks, and pasture-leas.
Fond warmings of the soul, that long have fled,
Revive my bosom with their kindlings still,
As I bend musing o’er thy ruddy pride;
Recalling days when, dropt upon a hill,
I cut my oaten trumpets by thy side.

John Clare (1793 – 1864)

Bugwoman on Location – A Walk in Milborne St Andrew


Hogweed seedhead

Hogweed seedhead

This week, I was in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, with my parents. As usual, I have been making pancakes and cooking casseroles, but on Wednesday I went out for a walk, to see what was going on in the village. I headed on down towards the Londis shop, passing a man walking with two Newfoundland dogs, and, further along, a little blind cat. Milborne seems to be a place where disabled pets are welcomed – there is a man here who has a blind dog, and I’ve seen a dog with three legs as well. I love it when people recognise that a pet who is ‘different’ in this way can be just as splendid a companion, and live just as happy a life, as one with the full complement of legs or eye.

Bumblebee on purple toadflax outside my parents' bungalow

Bumblebee on purple toadflax outside my parents’ bungalow

Whenever I come to Milborne, I realise that I need to slow down. My brusque, speedy London ways cut no mustard here. It’s important to say hello to people, to spend the time of day, to make sure that you acknowledge any greetings from passing cars. In a small place, people rely on one another, and keep an eye on what’s going on. This can be either claustrophobic or comforting, according to your temperament and state of mind. Mum and Dad consider themselves very lucky to have moved to such a friendly place, and it certainly suits them very well.

IMG_6984One thing that is always prominent in Milborne at this time of year is the red valerian. This should be the village’s designated flower, for it is popping up everywhere, not only in the standard red, but also in pink, white, and in a rather fetching pale pink. It peeks out from old walls, churchyards, and cracks in the pavement. All I need to see now is a hummingbird hawk moth (as occasionally witnessed by my mum in her garden, where the valerian even grows out of the drains) and my life will be complete.

IMG_6985There are also patches of that most ephemeral of flowers, the poppy. Last year, Mum and Dad’s garden was full of it, but this year it seems to have moved up the road. I also saw it in the area of Milborne known as Little England, a collection of old cottages and more modern houses that runs along behind the main road. Milborne is a ‘real’ village, not chocolate-boxy, but full of a variety of folk. As a result, it still has a shop, a post office, a school and a pub, and long may this continue.

IMG_7014I stop just before the shop because I hear a flurry in the apple tree, and get a quick glimpse of a newly-fledged collared dove. It’s only half the size of an adult bird, and has a ridiculously long beak. One glance is all I get, and then the bird rustles away into the foliage. The way that baby birds scramble about in the branches reminds me that the ancestors of birds were probably arboreal, climbers rather than fliers.

Newly fledged collared dove

Newly fledged collared dove

I cross the road, and pass the statue of a stag that stands outside one of the houses. This has been a cause of some controversy. At one point, I seem to remember, the stag was painted pink. On another occasion, someone painted his testicles pink, which outraged the village so much that questions were asked at the parish council . Today, the stag is a uniform raggedy white colour, and the house is for sale, again . I wonder if whoever buys the house realises the nature of the local monument that they will be purchasing? One can only hope that they have no plans for any stag-related psychedelia.

IMG_7025I walk on up to St. Andrew’s Church, founded in 1069.

IMG_6986This is one of my favourite spots in Milborne. The churchyard is a designated wildlife area, and the air is so clean that all manner of lichens thrive on the headstones.

IMG_6997IMG_6995IMG_6993In the churchyard opposite, a view over the adjoining field shows the house martins swooping and chirruping over the thistles as they hunt for insects in the humid air. I love these black and white wanderers, and I hope that, much as we dislike a damp summer, it will provide rich pickings for them.

One of Mum’s best friends, a lady called Pat Tribe, was buried here in 2012. Her simple headstone, which simply gives her name, her dates (1941 to 2012) and the words ‘With God’, is the epitome of the woman herself: straightforward, devout, no nonsense, the very heart of her community. I know that she would approve of this spot, close to the church which she served faithfully for so many years. It is a hard fact that, as we get older, our friends fall away. All the more reason to love them while they are here.

IMG_6988I decide to follow the path from the church that runs alongside the little river upon which Milborne St Andrew stands. There are springs and streams all over the place here, one of which caused a flood at the end of Mum and Dad’s road a few years ago, effectively sealing them in. Recent roadworks seemed to have tamed the rivulet, but I do worry for the houses that back onto the existing stream.

IMG_7009When I peer into the stream I see that it is garlanded with water crowfoot, a kind of buttercup that grows actually in the water. I have some in my pond which has produced exactly one flower so far. The stuff in Milborne was doing much better. I love the white and yellow flowers, the way that they carpet the surface of the running water.

IMG_7008IMG_7005I was so impressed that I  accosted a besuited man who was coming out of the village hall with a clipboard under his arm.

‘ I was just admiring your water crowfoot’, I enthused.

‘Were you indeed?’ he said, backing away with a worried expression.

Ah well, even in a village as friendly as Milborne St Andrew, it’s possible to overdo it.


Dear Readers, since I wrote this piece, the UK has voted to leave the EU. Whilst the metropolitan areas (including the paradise that is East Finchley) voted to Remain, nearly everywhere else (except Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar) voted to Leave. The area where Mum and Dad live voted overwhelmingly to leave, which was no surprise, judging by the bright red ‘Leave’ posters which were every bit as ubiquitous as the valerian. As this is a largely rural area, which receives extensive farm subsidies from the EU, it feels a lot like the turkeys voting for Christmas, but there we go. We live in ‘interesting’ times here in the moment, and I, for one, am deeply concerned about the divisions that this whole process has exposed, and the uncertainty of what lies before us. But I also know that, while 50% voted to Leave, 48% of us voted to Remain, because of our vision of this country as an inclusive, generous place, working with other nations rather than in splendid isolation. And that vision is not going to go away because of a single vote, however drastic the consequences.

On another note, poor Mum managed to have a bad fall on the very night of the Referendum (and no, it wasn’t a Brexit protest) and is currently in Dorchester Hospital, wearing a rather horrible collar that she’ll have to wear for the next six to eight weeks. She’s possibly fractured a bone in her neck, but we may not know about that till she’s seen a specialist, which may be next week. So, she’s ok, but not delighted with this turn of events. Hopefully, she’ll be out of hospital soon, and fortunately my brother is doing all the legwork at the moment. It really feels as if everything is out of joint at the moment, nationally and personally. We will all need to make ourselves ‘comfortable with uncertainty’ in the weeks and months to come.

Wednesday Weed – Rhododendron

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…..


Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum)

Dear Readers, the ostentatious blooms of the rhododendron are popping up all over St Pancras and Islington cemetery, and can be spotted in great profusion on the Kenwood estate of Hampstead Heath. What remarkable plants they are! Their blossoms come in all shades of blue, white and pink, and because they are shade-tolerant, they are happy to grow in the understorey of woodland. Once established, their leathery leaves shade out everything else, and the plant grows into great thickets that bulldoze aside anything more delicate (which is pretty much everything). Although they prefer acid soil, they are happy to give more or less anything a go, and frequently outgrow their space. As it says in my copy of Harrap’s  Wild Flower guide, ‘the control and removal of rhododendron is a major headache for conservation managers’. And yet, on a warm day last week, the blooms of one plant were full of bees, and the sculptural flowers were back-lit by the sun. Was ever a shrub so beautiful, and yet such a problem?

IMG_6901Who would have thought that this showy flower is part of the Ericaceae (the heather family)? And yet, its liking for acid soil is a clue. Rhododendron species (the word comes from the Greek for ‘rose tree’) are found mainly in Asia, but there are also some native species in the Appalachians in the US. The one that is found most often in the UK, Rhododendron ponticum, was native prior to the last ice age, which wiped it out: it was reintroduced in 1763 (it is now native to Europe east of Georgia, right through to northern India and the Himalayas), and was first recorded wild in western Europe (Spain) in 1894. It is probable that it made its escape from some of the great Victorian estates and gardens, and can now be found dominating many woodlands.

IMG_6902To return to the bumblebees: it’s lucky that we rarely eat bumblebee honey, because that produced from rhododendron nectar can be poisonous. causing a dangerous drop in blood pressure in any human eating a sufficient quantity of the stuff. This is because rhododendrons contain a toxin called grayanotoxin. There are several accounts of the effects of rhododendron poisoning on troops in classical literature – Xenophon mentions the ‘odd behaviour’ of Greek soldiers who had been feasting on honey made from the rhododendrons that surrounded a village where they were billeted in 401 BC, and casualties were noted amongst Pompey’s forces after they ate honey that was left for them by Pontic soldiers – literally a ‘honey trap’. More recently, there were reports of eleven similar cases in Istanbul in the 1980’s. 

Honeybees don’t seem to be attracted to the flowers (at least in the plants that I’ve seen), maybe because the plant grows in heavy shade, and bumblebees are more tolerant of low temperatures than honeybees are. However, if honeybees do collect the nectar it also seems to be toxic to them, causing death within hours. This makes the chance of humans dying from rhododendron poisoning seem rather unlikely these days, as the bees would not have much time to contaminate their honey stocks. Furthermore, on the Poison Garden website, John Robertson mentions a belief that the toxicity of honey made from rhododendron decays over time, reducing yet further the chance of becoming ill. This is just as well, as a description of the symptoms of honey poisoning refer to its hallucinogenic and laxative effects.  It seems typical of the paradoxical nature of the plant that it is so beautiful, and yet also fatal to some of those who feed on it.

IMG_6814In spite of the grayanotoxins, many insects will eat the leaves of rhododendron, especially if there’s nothing else available. In their native India, such beauties as the caterpillar of the Indian Moon Moth (Actias selene) will tuck in happily.

CC BY-SA 2.5,

Indian Moon Moth (Photo One – see credit below)

By No machine-readable author provided. Kugamazog~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0,

Indian Moon Moth caterpillar. What very fine jaws! (Photo Two -credit below)

The plant also features in art and literature. Those of you who have girded your loins for a reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ may remember that Molly Bloom was courted among the rhododendrons:

“the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me”

An arbour scattered with rhododendron petals in Howth (Photo Three - credit below)

An arbour scattered with rhododendron petals in Howth (Photo Three – credit below)

The beauty of the flowers has also inspired artists, amongst them the Belgian Symbolist painter Leon Frederic, who included them in his painting ‘Rododendron in Bloei’. The scene reminds me of the many intimate interior scenes of the Dutch masters, and I wonder what exactly  the little girl is doing. Is she in a reverie as she looks at the intricate structure of the flowers, or is she, more pragmatically, wondering if it needs a drink? I remember how deeply I fell in love with individual plants when I was a child, and how distressed I became if they didn’t thrive. I once planted some cabbage seedlings with my father on our allotment, and nearly had a breakdown when they became infested with caterpillars. What should I protect, the baby butterflies or the baby cabbages? I seem to remember that my father quietly sorted out the problem when my back was turned with a hearty application of insecticide (well, it was 1968 and we knew no better). I was delighted with the recovery that my cabbages made after what seemed to my mind like divine intervention, rather than the paternal variety.

I also can’t help thinking that, in view of its adventurous and enterprising spirit,keeping one’s rhododendron in a pot is probably an extremely good idea.

Leon Frederic (1856 - 1940) - 'Rododendron in Bloei' Rododendron in bloei

Leon Frederic (1856 – 1940) – ‘Rododendron in Bloei’

Photo Credits

Photo One – CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Two – By No machine-readable author provided. Kugamazog~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0,

Photo Three – By MIchael Foley. Find this photo here:

Leon Frederic photo – in public domain

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use or share, but please attribute and include a link to the blog.



The Gravel Gardens of East Finchley Station

IMG_6872Dear Readers, when I was waiting for a tube train earlier this week I noticed a strange red haze decorating the railway tracks that run between the north and south-bound platforms . What was it, I wondered?

Herb Robert

Herb Robert

As I peered over the edge of the platform I realised that the scarlet haze comes from the changing foliage of hundreds of Herb Robert flowers, who have self-seeded happily all over the gravel. I know from my own garden that these plants are tough and shallow-rooted, so it’s no surprise that they like the bright conditions here. But what else was growing?

Yellow corydalis

Yellow corydalis

I had never really looked at the material that the tracks were resting on before, and decided to do some research. The substrate is called track ballast, and it comprises crushed stone, which ensures proper drainage and, I read with some interest, helps to keep down the vegetation (though obviously not completely). The stones need to be irregularly shaped so that they lock together – the main purpose of the ballast is to prevent the lateral movement of the tracks. Of course, a yellow corydalis doesn’t know all this, and simply takes the opportunity of a free-draining substrate to take up residence.

Broad-leaved willowherb

Broad-leaved willowherb

Broad-leaved willowherb and Oxford ragwort were everywhere, and there was even the occasional buddleia, though I suspect it will be much reduced in size by the trains which occasionally terminate at East Finchley and use these lines. Some plants were also covered in what looked like oil, which I imagine is something of an occupational hazard when you spend some of your time under a working tube train.


Oxford Ragwort

Now, you all know how I like a new plant and, growing on one side of the north-bound line, I saw a most unusual ‘weed’, which seemed to be attracting bumblebees from all directions.

IMG_6887IMG_6886When I returned home, I discovered that it was Common Figwort (Scrofularia nodusa), a most unusual plant which has brown petals, and which is a candidate for a Wednesday Weed if ever I saw one. You can tell from the shape of the buds where the ‘fig’ part of the name might have come from, and the flowers look tailor-made for bees.

© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Flowers of Common Figwort (Photo One – credit below)

Growing close by was some horsetail, a member of a plant family that dominated the earth more than a hundred million years ago, and still going strong today. Both horsetail and figwort are adapted for wet soils, so I wondered if they were growing in a pocket of run-off from the main part of the track. It fascinates me how a place as barren as a railway line can have different micro-environments, where different kinds of plants flourish.



Tucked in amongst the horsetail was some creeping cinquefoil, which seems to be having something of a bonanza around here in East Finchley at the moment. It’s a member of the same family as the wild strawberry, as you can see from the distinctive five leaflets on each leaf (hence ‘cinquefoil’).

IMG_6882Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that this is a working tube station, and I suspect that soon the weedkiller will be brought in, and this strange gravel meadow wiped out. Indeed, last year I spotted this phenomenon but tarried too long to write about it, and when I finally arrived with my camera the ‘weeds’ had been eradicated. But the seeds, and some of the roots, will remain, and, given a few sunny days, I have no doubt that they will be back, bringing a familiar flush of crimson to the middle-distance. And for now, if you listen carefully during a moment of peace between the tube trains rattling through and the announcements, you can hear the bumblebees humming over the herb Robert flowers, in this most unusual of gardens.

IMG_6871Oh, and I almost forgot! Here are this week’s obligatory fox photos. The foxes are looking so good that I’ve decided to stop administering the mange remedy, in case they develop a tolerance to it: then if they start to look ‘manky’ again I can reintroduce it. I’ll keep providing a token jam sandwich and some dog food so that they keep returning to the feeding site, where I can keep an eye on their progress. But for now, I think it’s ‘job done’!


Is it just me, or does this fox have a very long neck?


Dog fox (vixen’s mate) sunning himself and waiting for jam sandwiches


Little vixen, looking very well!


Dog fox again….

Photo Credits

Photo One© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Wednesday Weed – Red Campion

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…..

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

Dear Readers, there is a ‘wild’  burial site in the cemetery, close to where I feed the foxes. I love this as an idea – I can think of no nicer place to be interred,. One area has been roped off, and it’s full of ox-eye daisies, grasses, speedwell and the pink flowers of red campion. However, it’s not plain sailing all the way, and it’s clear that there’s more work to be done on some of the other parts of area. Here, for example, are some of the docks. Many of them are so enormous that they actually look down on me, like triffids who are just waiting to pull their roots up before they take over the world.

IMG_6798This is the problem for anyone who tries to set up a wildlife meadow. In ‘real life’, these would be mowed regularly, to gather in the hay and to prevent the perennials (like the docks and sow thistles and bindweed) from setting seed. If this is neglected, within a year or two what you have is not a meadow, but scrub, and all the biodiversity disappears. On the other hand, I did see this very splendid red dock weevil, but I think he will need lots of little friends to cope with the sheer volume of dock leaves.

IMG_6481Anyhow, back to the red campion. This is a native plant, and a member of the Caryophyllaceae, the same family that includes chickweeds, stitchworts and pinks. The petals are very deeply notched, and the flowers always look to me like gears from a child’s model engine.

IMG_6812The Latin species name ‘dioica’ indicates that, as with annual mercury, the male and female plants are separate. The male flowers have ten stamen (though some might be buried within the capsule of the plant at any given time), and the female plants have 5 style (which look like little white hooks). The seed capsule has ten strongly down-curved teeth on the edge. I am currently doing the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Identiplant course, for which I had to find ten plants and record how many were male and how many female. In my little sample, there were nine males and one female, which makes me wonder a little about whether there is something in the seed mixes used for ‘meadows’ which favours one sex over another, though I have no idea why this should be.

IMG_6809The genus name, Silene, comes from the Greek god Silenus, who was always drunk, and is often depicted swaying atop a long-suffering donkey. Now, the name Silenus is said to come from the Greek word for saliva, implying that Silenus was not only drunk, but drooling. What a delightful picture! However, the link with the Red Campion is that the female flower is said to produce a foam which helps to capture pollen from visiting insects. I have not seen a bloom doing this, but will keep an eye open and see if I can capture such behaviour on camera if I notice it.

Just to complicate matters, red campion contains a substance called saponin, which has been used in soap-making – indeed another member of the family, Soapwort, has historically been used for just this purpose. Maybe this is another reason for the ‘Silene’ Latin genus name.

'Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs' - Anthony van Dyck. Public Domain.

‘Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs’ – Anthony van Dyck. Public Domain.

Red campion has a variety of alternative names, but one that I like is ‘Bachelor’s Buttons’, referring to the way that the plant was worn as a buttonhole by eligible males. However, it was also said to be one of the flowers that children should not pick, as it was associated with the death of parents – on the Plant Lore website, one person reports that the plant was known to them as ‘mother-and-father-die’. On the Isle of Man, red campion is said to be beloved by the fairies, and so it shouldn’t be picked by humans. The plant is also said to be efficacious in the unlikely event (in the UK at any rate) of being threatened by a scorpion: all you have to do it grab a handy red campion and hurl it at the offending arachnid and he or she will scuttle away. Never let it be said that you don’t learn useful things in the Wednesday Weed.

Dock weevil (Apion frumentarium I think)

Medicinally, the flowers of red campion have been taken in a glass of wine as a treatment for kidney and liver complaints and internal bleeding. The crushed seeds are also said to be efficacious against snakebite, but on the Plant Lore website mentioned above, one lady, from Wales, said that her grandmother was convinced that a snake would come into the house if she brought a posy of the flowers, so it appears that you can’t win.

You might expect that such a bright-faced spring flower would attract the attention of poets, and you would not be wrong. Mary Howitt (1799 – 1888) was the author of ‘The Spider and the Fly’ (parodied by Lewis Carroll in ‘Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland’ as ‘The Lobster Quadrille). She was a most prolific writer, creating over 180 books, and wrote many poems for children. Among them was ‘Summer Woods’ (you can read the whole poem here, and a fine evocation of the joys of the great outdoors it is too).

Come ye into the summer woods;
There entereth no annoy; 
All greenly wave the chestnut leaves, 
And the earth is full of joy.
I cannot tell you half the sights
Of beauty you may see, 
The bursts of golden sunshine, 
And many a shady tree.
There, lightly swung, in bowery glades
The honeysuckles twine; 
There blooms the rose-red campion, 
And the dark-blue columbine.


There are many things to love about Mary Howitt, who had a most full and adventurous life, including relocating to Scandinavia (where she learned Swedish and Danish and proceeded to translate Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales), being friends with the Wordsworths and Charles Dickens,  and meeting the Pope. She was never separated from her husband William, and The Times had this to say about them:

Their friends used jokingly to call them William and Mary, and to maintain that they had been crowned together like their royal prototypes. Nothing that either of them wrote will live, but they were so industrious, so disinterested, so amiable, so devoted to the work of spreading good and innocent literature, that their names ought not to disappear unmourned.’


When I read about the lives of Victorians, I am amazed by the fullness of their lives, and the variety of things that they got up to. However, it would be a mistake to think of them as  exceptional. Every person, if listened to in a sympathetic way and asked the right questions, seems to have had an extraordinary life. We rarely think of our lives as in any way unusual, but if we stop to consider the experiences that we’ve had, the people that we’ve met and loved and influenced, the place that we have in our community and in our family, we might be surprised at the richness and complexity of our existence, the extent of our interconnectedness. In a world that seems to view other living things, including human beings, as expendable, it’s worth remembering how precious every single one of us is. Every single one of us.

Bugwoman on Location – New River Walk, Islington

IMG_6738Dear Readers, last week I had not one but two visits to the dentist, and his clinic happens to be just around the corner from the New River Walk. So, I took the opportunity to disappear into this magical path, which was once the last part of a system of watercourses  that, from the 1600’s, brought water all the way from Hertfordshire to Sadlers’ Wells in North London. These days, the water mostly stops at the reservoirs in Stoke Newington, but a final trickle wends its way between the posh mansions of Canonbury, and the council houses along the Essex Road. To go through the gate is to leave the traffic noise and pollution of the city, and to enter a watery, cool, hidden world.

IMG_6739IMG_6764You might think that such an urban environment would be devoid of life but, just like the waterholes in Africa, it actually concentrates creatures who depend on streams and ponds. For example, it is very popular with moorhens.

IMG_6754 IMG_6746 IMG_6749There seemed to be a small family of moorhens every twenty metres or so, the babies at that wheezy stage where they are actually independent but still don’t like to be far away from their mother. I have to say that one thing I adore about moorhens and coots is their outsize feet. They always remind me of clowns, managing their super-sized digits. These long toes help them to spread their weight when they’re walking on weeds, and are even more pronounced when the chicks have just hatched, and look like black cotton-wool balls with giant spiders attached to each leg.

IMG_6750 IMG_6752As I walked along, I noticed that all the birds were either asleep or grooming. It was just that kind of lazy, summery day.

Young Mallard

Young Mallard

IMG_6771IMG_6776But maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so relaxed. I noticed a ginger cat sunning itself on the opposite bank, but when I looked more closely I realised that this creature was no cat.

IMG_6765Foxes seem to be popping up everywhere. Or maybe they’ve always been there, and I’ve just got my eye in now?

Islington council have put up some nest boxes (the sturdy concrete kind that deters squirrels and woodpeckers) and at least one was inhabited by a family of blue tits.

IMG_6785I love the eager little face peering out, but wonder how on earth the nestling got so high up in the box, and fear that he is standing on the heads of his less athletic siblings. I saw the parent birds fly in and out several times, so there are plenty of caterpillars about.

As I got towards the end of the path, I saw a man on a bike slow down, stop, look at a floating straw bale in the water (presumably put there to help clean up the water), and then pedal off. So, of course I slowed down for a look as well.

IMG_6768Yes, what I’d glanced at briefly and taken for a baby moorhen was in fact a terrapin.

IMG_6794I think that this is a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta), and I fear, judging by the size of him, that he may have been living here for a while. In the 1980’s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started a craze for pet terrapins, which many parents found themselves unable (sadly) to resist. Unfortunately, most people didn’t realise that terrapins are messy eaters, can be smelly if not cleaned out often enough and, worst of all, they have the audacity to grow bigger every year. Many of the reptiles found themselves liberated into rivers and ponds once they were no longer small and cute, and were found, in fact, to be live animals, not toys, with a propensity for grumpiness and a rather sharp bite.  The film was reprised last year, and I suspect that a second wave of terrapin buying might have been encouraged. The red-eared terrapins that were the main victims last time are now banned from import, but several of their close relatives can still be purchased. Maybe this chap was one of those. At any rate, he seems happy enough at the moment, and maybe his sheltered situation and the abundance of food (there is one spot where ducks are regularly fed more bread than they can possibly eat) has seen him through the winters. I hope so, somehow. There is little evidence that an occasional terrapin does any harm, and no evidence that they are able to breed in this country, even if by a miracle they meet up with a friend of the opposite sex. If this chap lives out his remaining lonely days in the sunshine, I for one won’t begrudge him his fate.

IMG_6767 It never fails to impress me how many secret places they are even in the busiest parts of London where, if you walk quietly and keep your eyes and ears open, you are bound to see something surprising, something that will take your mind off an impending dentist appointment and put all your worries on hold for a few sweet minutes. If you walk through these municipal gates, you may find a kind of enchantment.

IMG_6795Oh, and I almost forgot. The foxes are fine, as the photos below attest.

IMG_6725 IMG_6730I did, however, notice some very strange insect behaviour yesterday. There is a patch of cherry laurel, standing in full sun but without any flowers whatsoever, yet it was the hub of a lot of bee excitement, both bumblebees and honey bees. They seemed to be drinking or licking something from the undersides of the leaves, though when I turned the leaves over, I couldn’t see anything, or taste anything (I am definitely going to poison myself one of these days, but hopefully only mildly). Are the insects finding some water, I wonder, or are they (as my friend the beekeeper suggested) picking up honeydew from aphids? If anyone has any idea, do please tell! I am most intrigued.

IMG_6830 IMG_6836All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use, but please attribute and link to the blog, thank you!


Wednesday Weed – Honeysuckle

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…..

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

Dear Readers, for me the heavy scent of honeysuckle conjures up memories of summer holidays when I was a child. There was the time in Pembrokeshire where we walked along a lane so fragrant with the smell of the plant that it felt as if we were drinking it rather than smelling it. As night fell, the bats appeared, flittering above our heads to pick off the cloud of mosquitoes that each member of the family was attracting. The highlight of the evening was when I hopped over a fence to attend to a call of nature and nearly squatted on a hedgehog, but that’s another story.

IMG_6619Then there was the time we stayed in a cottage just outside Carlisle, where the hedgerows were entangled with honeysuckle and old man’s beard. There was a Friesian cow in the field opposite and a few evenings after we arrived,  before our astonished eyes, she gave birth to a little black calf. She licked it clean and it tottered beside her, eventually finding her engorged udder. We went to bed filled with the warm glow of seeing new life being cared for so attentively. The following evening, the farmer took the calf away, and the mother paced and bellowed all that night and the next day, the calf answering from the shed where it had been put with all the other calves. It had never occurred to me, townie that I was, that there was such a high price to pay in suffering for our dairy produce, or that we were taking the food that was meant to feed another species entirely. I think I thought that cows just generated milk for the love it, like the happy cavorting cattle in the Kerrygold adverts that were popular at the time. And so, when I smell honeysuckle, it has an edge of something indecent about it, something decadent. Which is obviously not the fault of the poor plant.

IMG_6617Honeysuckle is a member of the Caprifoliaceae family, which also includes Elder, Snowberry and Guelder Rose. It is a native plant, and is pollinated by long-tongued bees and moths, who are said to be able to pick up the smell from half a mile away – if you watch carefully you can sometimes spot hawkmoths hanging around the flowers. The flowers themselves are like nothing else that one is likely to spot in an English hedgerow, and of course the aforementioned scent is a dead giveaway. I found this specimen in the cemetery, close to where the foxes are fed.

We might expect such an unusual flower shape to have encouraged artists and designers, and indeed it influenced William Morris, who used it as a design in several of his wallpapers and fabrics.

William Morris's Honeysuckle fabric

William Morris’s Honeysuckle fabric

It has also been seen as a plant of great sensuality. Shakespeare mentions it twice in ‘ A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but in ‘Flora Britannica’ Richard Mabey includes a quote from  sixteenth century writer William Bullein, who gets quite carried away with the plants sensuous possibilities:

Oh how swete and pleasaunte is Woodbinde (Honeysuckle), in Woodes and Arboures, after a tender soft rain: and how frendly doe this herbe if I maie so name it, imbrace the bodies, armes and branches of trees, with his long windyng stalkes, and tender leaues, openyng or spreding forthe his swete Lillis, like ladies fingers, emong the thornes and bushes’.

No wonder that a honeysuckle bower was seen as a site for romantic liaisons of all kinds and was associated with faithful love, as in the self-portrait of Peter Paul Rubens below, with his first wife, Isabella Brant.

Peter Paul Rubens - 'The Artist and his First Wife Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower'

Peter Paul Rubens – ‘The Artist and his First Wife Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower’ (circa 1609)

However, the honeysuckle, for all its sweetness, can be a bit of a brute. In forests, it can disfigure young trees as it clambers up them for support, and the twisted branches were used as ‘barley-sugar walking sticks’.

You can see how the honeysuckle would distort the wood into the typical 'barleysugar' shape here. Photo One - credit below.

You can see how the honeysuckle would distort the wood into the typical ‘barleysugar’ shape here. Photo One – credit below.

In the autumn, honeysuckle can provide a fine crop of red berries (which are mildly poisonous to humans, but which are said by the RSPB to provide food for thrushes, blackbirds and bullfinches). How I would love to spot a bullfinch, but no luck so far. If pruned back hard, honeysuckle is said to thicken up to become an ideal nest site, so I shall have to try this with the one in my garden this year, though how to square the pruning with the berry production is a bit of a quandary (all advice gratefully accepted!)

IMG_6617You might think that a plant which smells so sweet would have lots of foodie potential, but apparently not. I have found no recipes, not even for the usual candied flowers. However, it was apparently considered to efficacious in the treatment of eye ailments and for snake bite.

But it is in the folkloric aspect of the plant that my story comes full circle. In some places it was considered to be an unlucky plant that should never be brought into the household: it was said that it could cause sore throats, and that it could give young girls lascivious dreams (and I wonder if the languid scent of the plant was associated with both these phenomena). But in Scotland, it was sometimes gathered on May Day and used to garland the dairy, as a protection for the cows and the milk that they produced. I remember the smell of honeysuckle and climbing roses wafting through my bedroom window in our holiday cottage all those years ago, as the moon shone silver on the coverlet and the cow bellowed until she was hoarse. I doubt that any scent would have given her much solace.

Photo Credits

Photo One © Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Baby Bum Barrels

A young long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

A young long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Dear Readers, sometimes a walk in the cemetery can yield something so exciting that it’s been all that I can do not to publish the photos until today. On Wednesday, when I was wandering between the graves and looking out for new Wednesday Weeds, I gradually became aware of the high-pitched contact calls of a group of long-tailed tits. Normally these little birds are almost impossible to photograph, because they hop from branch to branch like feathered monkeys, but on this day I was in luck, because among the adults there were some youngsters, who promptly parked themselves on a branch not three metres from where I was standing.

IMG_6658With their racoon- masks and red eyes, the fledglings look like tiny avian bandits, but as they sat on the branch, preening and waiting for their parents to bring them some food, they seemed utterly trusting to me, in the way of so many young animals.  Fortunately, they are part of a group of very watchful elders. I counted at least four adults in the group – some of these may be youngsters from the previous brood, who have failed to breed themselves this year and so are helping out with their siblings.

IMG_6662The fledglings often cuddle up together, as if remembering how closely they were packed together in the beautiful nest that their parents built. I found a failed nest close to East Finchley station a few weeks ago, but there’s a photo of a completed one below. It’s made of lichen and cobwebs, moss and feathers. It’s believed that one of the vernacular names of the long-tailed tit, ‘Bum Barrel’, actually refers to the nest.

By nottsexminer (Long Tailed Tit Nest 02.05.11 Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A long-tailed tit nest

There are moments in our lives when time seems to fall away because we are so absorbed in what we’re seeing. After the first few frantic minutes, when I anxiously tried to get some photographs so that I could share this with you, I put my camera down to enjoy the sight of these new creatures. They seemed like the essence of concentrated energy, fizzing and clicking and shuffling their wings. They sat on their twig for an inordinate amount of time, looking around with equanimity, as if everything in the world had been designed especially for them.

IMG_6650Of course, their world is full of dangers, not least the eventual coming of winter. Long-tailed tits barely weigh more than a goldcrest, and like all such small birds is in constant danger of freezing when insect food is rare. However, long-tailed tits try to offset the cold by roosting together, their tails sticking out and their bodies crammed as close as possible. This sociability saves their lives in many cases.

IMG_6672So, these fledglings have had a good start in life, and are surrounded by a supportive extended family, who will help them to learn what it means to be a long-tailed tit. How I wish that all young human creatures had such guardians in their early years, and such support as they grew up, for the world is scarcely less dangerous for them than it is for their feathered counterparts.

IMG_6665And for those of you who have been following the fox story, there is nothing to report this week, other than that all the foxes are present and correct, there are no cubs, and also there is no mange! Just at least three relaxed foxes.

IMG_6686 IMG_6682

I should have kept this one for Halloween! I used flash here (from a distance), but won't be using it again, though it didn't seem to bother the fox.

I should have kept this one for Halloween! I used flash here (from a distance), but won’t be using it again, though it didn’t seem to bother the fox.

All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Please attribute and link to the website if you use them.

Wednesday Weed – Black Medick

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…..


Black Medick (Medicago lupulina)

Dear Readers, last week I was sitting half-hidden behind a gravestone trying to get some photos of the foxes when I saw two of them lope off along a grassy path between the tombstones. I decided to follow them, but of course they had disappeared by the time I’d gotten myself together – they are most elusive for such large animals, and I often sense them watching me with some satisfaction as I lumber past. However, what I did spot was a little patch of this member of the clover family, the intriguingly-named black medick. The citrus-coloured flowers remind me of lemon sherbet.

IMG_6460You might think that the name ‘Medick’ has some reference to the plant’s possible medicinal applications, but apparently not. The plant is closely related to alfalfa, and both are thought to have come from Media, a northern Iranian kingdom mentioned by Herodotus, and now largely lost in antiquity. The word ‘Black’ probably refers to the colour of the seeds.

By S. Rae (

Black Medick seeds (Photo One – see credit below)

Black medick is a common native plant, found in all parts of the country except for the north and west of Scotland. It can also be found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa, and has even made its way to many islands, such as Taiwan and Madeira. It can survive at an altitude of up to 1800 metres, and is cold resistant.  It is a member of the pea and vetch family, and as such it helps to fix nitrogen in the soil, and is a source of nectar for honey, and a useful fodder plant. I love the way that the flowerheads look like complex origami, with each individual flower having that distinctive ‘vetch-y’ look.  It is certainly a plant that repays close inspection.

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The complex flowerhead of the black medick (Photo Two – see credit below)

This little plant, with its trifoliate leaves, is sometimes seen as the original shamrock of St Patrick , though these days this honour is more often passed to the larger, showier white or red clover. The finding of a four-leaved clover is considered especially lucky, as those of us who have scoured a meadow looking for such a thing as children will remember. I have always wondered why a four-leaved clover was seen as such a lucky thing (apart from its rarity, of course), and have read two explanations on the Flora of Castle Warden website. One is that a four-leaved clover grows where a mare has dropped her first foal. The other is that the four leaves stand for faith, hope, love and luck.

Whatever the explanation is, you can identify black medick even when it isn’t in flower by the tiny claw-like projections (mucro) at the centre of each leaf.

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The leaves of black medick (Photo Three – credit below)

Although black medick is a useful plant for cows and sheep, it has a rather convoluted history when it comes to its ingestion by people. There are some worries that it might be problematic for pregnant women, or for anyone who is taking blood-thinners (Warfarin or Coumadin), or for children. However, in Europe the leaves have been eaten as a pot herb, and in North America the seeds have been used to make a kind of flower. The ever-useful Eat the Weeds website has a full run-down on the pros and cons of making your supper from black medick, but on balance I would incline towards leaving it for the bees and the other critters.

IMG_6458Black medick is one of the plants represented in Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies series, and although they are a little whimsical for my taste ( I prefer to think of fairy folk as being more mischievous and wild than the ones depicted here), I love how accurately the plants are represented (the flowers, leaves and seedcases are spot-on). I am also impressed by the butterfly wings on the fairies, which are fair representations of those of a female Large White.

By Sofi (

Mary Cicely Barker’s ‘Black Medick Fairies’ (Photo Four – credit below)

I have used quite a lot of other people’s photos in my post this week, because there has been a lot of strimming and grass-cutting in the cemetery. When I walked the fox-path again, I found myself ankle-deep in dried grass, desiccated buttercup flowers and the crumpled faces of germander speedwell. The black medick is gone, for now. But it’s the cutting of these areas that keeps their diversity, and I have every hope that some plants will rebound, while others will have already set seed. For every area that has been cut, another is re-growing. The starlings and blackbirds are tossing the hay aside in their search for insects, and the bees are moving on to the red clover just flowering in the less tended areas. And me? I’m just thinking that I should not assume that anything will be here forever.

IMG_6459Photo Credits

Photo One – By S. Rae (

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

Photo Three – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four – By Sofi (

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer