Monthly Archives: September 2016

Wednesday Weed – Hinoki Cypress

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…..


Cones of the Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa)

Dear Readers, last week I got the news that I had managed to pass my month-long, intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. I had gone into the course knowing that I was disciplined and capable of hard work, and that I had twenty years of teaching IT to fall back on. And all went well until week three of the course, when I managed to fail one of my lessons.

Each of us had to teach nine lessons in all, so, objectively, this was only a small hiccup. But for me it felt little short of catastrophic. There are few things more damaging to the ego than realising that all your experience counts for naught in this particular circumstance, and that you are as much a beginner as the other folk doing the course who have never taught in their lives. Furthermore, these other folk are literally half your age, or younger. And so you can imagine the amount of self-denigration and misery that was going through my brain when I took an hour off to walk through the cemetery. If there had been tin cans to kick I would have been kicking them, but instead I trudged through the falling leaves, head down, noticing nothing until I was midway through the ‘meadow graveyard’ (now a wilderness of dying dock and seeding willowherb) and noticed the strange seed heads of a sad little tree beside the path.

img_7950I had never knowingly seen such intricate, medieval-looking objects before. They reminded me of some iron weapon from Game of Thrones, and even put me in mind of my favourite extinct giant mammal, the glyptodon. By the way, everyone should have a favourite extinct giant mammal. I recommend having a look at a megatherium if the sabre-toothed tiger or woolly rhino or mammoth don’t appeal.

By Pavel.Riha.CB at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A glyptodon (Photo One – Credit below)

It took me a little bit of time to realise that what I was looking at was actually a form of pine cone, belonging to the Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa).  The cemetery is full of magnificent Victorian conifers, including a few sequoias, so I’d grown used to seeing the huge cones scattered on the ground. But this tree was just a baby, less than twenty feet tall. I wonder if it is a seedling from one of the larger trees, and I intend to have a search for its parent when I have time.

By 陳炬燵 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Japanese cypress wood (Photo Two – see credits below)

This little tree is a long, long way from home. Hinoki cypress trees are native to Japan, and can grow up to 35 metres tall, with a trunk a metre in diameter. The leaves are said to have a sweet eucalyptus scent, and to have a crisp white band at the bottom of each leaf, but the leaves on my tree are brown and past their best. The Japanese name for the tree means ‘tree of fire’, and apparently the stands are quick to ignite if they rub together. No chance of that with my  lone tree.

img_7997The bark is said to be reddish, soft and rather stringy, and I would concur.

img_7952There are lots of cultivated varieties (like the one below), some of which are bright yellow, and some of which are sold as dwarf varieties. However, what they really are is slow-growing. Some of these ‘dwarf’ trees have been growing for 140 years in botanical gardens, and are now 15 metres tall. Not something that you’d want on your rockery, I suspect, but then I imagine few of these trees are allowed to achieve their full potential.

Lokal_Profil [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A cultivated variety of Hinoki cypress, ‘Nana gracilis) (Photo Three – see credits below)

Hinoki cypress are also popular bonsai trees. I admire the skill that goes into the modelling of these little trees, but I hate the way that the roots and branches are prevented from growing by wires and pruning. Surely every tree, at some cellular level, wants to reach for the sky, to produce abundant seeds, to feel the rain and the sun on its branches?  Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive. I feel a similar unease concerning  the way that we have bred animals into forms that delight us, but which don’t serve the creature. It seems to me that humans never know when to leave things alone. We love to see what’s possible, and that’s both our strength and our potential downfall. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.

By Jeffrey O. Gustafson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Hinoki cypress bonsai (Photo Four – see credit below)

By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Full-grown Hinoki cypress (Photo Five – credit below)

In Japan, the Hinoki cypress is grown for its very high-quality timber. The wood is said to be ‘lemon-scented, light pinkish-brown, with a rich, straight grain, and is highly rot-resistant’. It is used for building everything from theatres to temples, and has been for a very long time: the central wooden pillars in the Buddhist temple Horyu-Ji, in Nara Prefecture, Japan, are said to have been felled in 594.

By 663highland - 663highland, CC BY 2.5,

Pagoda at Horyu-ji, Japan (Photo Six, see credits below)

However, the Hinoki cypress is also, like many other conifers, a major source of hay-fever. The wind-borne pollen is so tiny that it easily gets into the inflamed nasal passages, and in Japan in particular, the reforestation following WWII has led to about 20% of the population suffering from seasonal hay fever. The hay fever industry has grown up simultaneously, selling everything from face masks to air conditioning systems. You can even have your nose laser-treated to desensitise parts of your mucous membrane to the pollen. I haven’t heard of this surgery taking place in the UK, but I can think of a few people who would probably go for it if it was available.

img_7948So I would like to say ‘thank you’ to this small tree with its strange cones, for jolting me out of my introspection. Although my pride had been bruised, my curiosity turned out to be a stronger force, and I returned home with things more in perspective. A little failure is good for the soul, I suspect, and there is much to be said for humility. After all, to try anything new is to risk messing it up, and learning that this is not the end of the world is a valuable lesson. As Samuel Beckett said:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.

Photo credits

Photo One (Glyptodon) – By Pavel.Riha.CB at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Japanese cypress wood) – By 陳炬燵 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three (Cultivated Japanese cypress)- Lokal_Profil [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Bonsai) – By Jeffrey O. Gustafson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five (wild Hinoki cypress) – By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six (pagoda) – By 663highland – 663highland, CC BY 2.5,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!





At Conker Time

img_7954As I walked through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery earlier this week, I came across the shed leaves of a horse chestnut tree, and a windfall of conkers. Some were new and mahogany-coated. Others had been crushed by cars, revealing their white, mealy interior. Some were still partly wrapped in their spiky green coats, and looked like half-open eyes. And as I photographed them, I suddenly remembered Auntie Mary.

Auntie Mary wasn’t a ‘real’ auntie at all: she was my maternal grandmother’s sister, whatever title that bestows. And yet we knew her better than we knew some of our official aunties. I can easily bring to mind her toothless grin, her thin dark hair held back by a hairgrip, her National Health glasses, the way she shambled around, shoulders hunched.

It was said that when she was a child, a boy had picked Mary up and swung her around while she screamed with delight, until suddenly his grip slipped and everything fell silent. Mary struck her head on the kerb, and was never the same again. These days, we would say that she had Learning Disabilities. When she was growing up, it was whispered that she was Simple.

img_7961And simple she was, in many ways. Mary never learned to count or to read or write. Her chief role was as wheelchair-pusher for my great-grandmother, who was crippled with polio. And yet, it would be a mistake to say that Mary didn’t understand what was going on.  When she was sent out to the corner shop to buy cigarettes, she remembered exactly what coins she had handed over, and what she got back. There was many an occasion when Mary was cheated, and my nan marched her back to the shop to say exactly what had happened. Faced with such evidence, most shopkeepers confessed to a mistake and returned the money. It was a trick that they didn’t try twice.

Mary was a generous soul with the little that she had. She loved the tiny chocolate-covered toffees that you could buy at the newsagents. Unfortunately, so did our mongrel dog, Sally. Sally would sit beside Mary and gaze up at her. Mary would resist for a few minutes, but then relent.

‘Alright!’ she would say, ‘But just one’.

And she would take out the paper bag that she had folded and folded until it was tight shut, and unfold it, and take out a single toffee the size of a bean, and give it to Sally, who would chomp it down in a tenth of a second. Mary would screw up the bag again and put it back in her pocket, but the dog was unrelenting. Mary would heave a huge sigh and take out the bag again.

‘This is the Last One’ she would say. But it never was.

Mum maintains that the dog had more of the sweets than Mary ever did.

img_7958Mary lived with Great Gran and Nan and Mum for years, but there came a point where it was all too much. Nan couldn’t look after a huge woman in a wheelchair and her own disabled sister any more. Great Gran went into one home, and Mary into another.

As was Mary’s way, she just got on with it. The home was in a mansion in Chigwell with rolling lawns and huge horse chestnut trees. We would go to visit, and play Banker with Mary. This easiest of card games involves breaking the pack into piles and betting on which pile will have the highest card. It’s pure luck, and Mary loved it, as did my brother and I – I was eight, and my brother was six, and so we were all pretty much at the same level. Mary’s glee when she won was infectious, and somehow she always won, probably because she wouldn’t let us stop until she had.

img_7964Mary was never loud or badly behaved, but the same could not be said of the other inhabitants, who were sometimes in the last stages of dementia. The screaming and the erratic behaviour of some of the ladies frightened my brother and I, and when it all got too much Dad would take us outside. In my memory it was always a damp autumn afternoon, and we would rustle about under the horse chestnut looking for conkers. The glint of the polished nuts shining amongst the fallen leaves, the faint smell of bonfires, our shrieks of excitement as we found yet another conker – these are the things that I associate with those last days, with the white mansion behind us and the lawn falling away. We would collect a whole shopping  bag full of conkers and bear them away. Strangely, I can’t recall playing conkers more than once or twice – it always seemed like a violent and dangerous game, in spite of Dad’s enthusiasm. I do remember sticking pins into the chestnuts and turning them into little temporary animals, before they were all tidied away in time for Christmas.

img_7967Mary went into hospital for a cataract operation one day. Something went wrong, and she died, never coming round from the anaesthetic. Apparently there was something wrong with Mary’s heart that had never been diagnosed. The staff at the hospital, and at the care home, were griefstricken.

What is a life worth, I wonder? It seems to me that the hole that is left in the web when someone dies is a bigger indicator of someone’s value than any money accrued or status acquired. Mary’s simple soul had drawn people and animals towards her like a magnet. She never created a great work of art or became a person of power and prestige, but she lived her life with joy, and never knowingly did harm to a living soul. The world would be a better place if we all lived so gently.


Wednesday Weed – Dog Rose

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…..

Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

Dog Rose (Rosa canina) back in June

Dear Readers, it seems only a few weeks since I took some photos of the dog rose in bloom in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, but the date on my camera says mid-June. How fast time goes, especially as you get older! When I walked around the cemetery today, the roses had been replaced by a harvest of rose hips, more than I have ever seen. When the redwings and fieldfares get here ( and I do believe I spotted one flying over this afternoon) they are going to have a feast.

Rose hips today

Rose hips today

The dog rose is by far the commonest wild rose in most of England and Wales, so common in fact that it’s often seen as a bit of a prickly-stemmed nuisance. And yet it has a delicate beauty all of its own, with its pale pink to white flowers and that lovely tuft of stigma in the centre.

img_7043I wondered if the dog rose was the model for the white rose of the House of York, but the always-informative Richard Mabey says no: the rose used by Richard III was apparently a hybrid of the native field rose (Rosa arvensis) and the damask rose (Rosa x damascena). Apparently no common briar was going to be selected as the symbol of a noble family, which is rather a shame in my view. If I had a coat-of-arms, I think I would incorporate teasel, dandelion, green alkanet and comfrey, with a fox rampant to top it all off, and maybe a pigeon.

img_7984Why ‘dog rose’, though? There are several theories about the etymology of the name. For some, ‘dog’ means ‘worthless’ – in other words the plant was a poor relative of the blousy cultivated roses that were all the rage.  However, an alternative explanation suggests that it was believed that the root was a cure for the bite of a wild dog, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was used in this way.


Mabey tells of an old riddle passed on from gardener to gardener, to enable them to identify the different kinds of native roses at an early stage. The one that identifies the dog rose goes as follows:

On a summer’s day, in sultry weather,

Five brethren were born together.

Two had beards and two had none,

And the other had but half a one.

Did you get it yet? No, me neither. But the riddle refers to the sepals of the dog rose – the green parts that enclose the bud before it opens, and which gently peel back to allow the flower to develop. In the dog rose, two of these have a ‘fringe’, two are smooth, and one has a fringe, but only on one side. The sepals in the photo above are not clear enough for me to check this out, but I will have to put a note in my diary to remember next year. I love these pieces of ancient lore – there’s always a frisson of excitement when I realise that something has been handed down to me from hundreds of years earlier, like a handshake from the past.

img_7989I have talked about the value of rose hips as a source of vitamin C before, in my post about sweetbriar, but the hips of dog rose have been used even more widely as the plant is so much more common and widespread. It was planted in Victory Gardens in the US during the Second World War, and is used to make a sweet wine in Bulgaria, amongst other places.

I was delighted to read that in Slovenia in the 1950’s, a soft drink called Cockta was manufactured in an attempt to provide the population of what was then Yugoslavia with a new  soft drink. As Coca Cola was not sold in the region, it was felt that there was a gap in the market that a beverage made from locally grown plants could fill. Even today, Cockta is sixth in a list of the 25 biggest brands in Slovenia. I must say that it sounds rather delicious. Even today, I remember the taste of Delrosa Rosehip Syrup from when I was a child. What could be nicer than the same thing with bubbles?

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

Cockta Cocktail, anyone? (Photo One – credit below)

Any plant that has lived alongside us for as long as dog rose is bound to have a range of superstitions associated with it. It was once believed that a late-flowering branch of dog rose presages an outbreak of plague, and also that any plans made within earshot of a dog rose are bound to go astray. During the month of June, when the dog rose is usually in flower, it was dangerous to the flowers come too close to the eyes as it would cause blindness. If you were accidentally bashed about the ears with the blossom, the result would be painful earache. I would love to rewind history and see how exactly these beliefs grew up. Was it just by association, or by rumour, or was there a kernel of truth to some of these stories? My mind is sometimes fairly boggled, although a lot of the things that we currently believe will no doubt seem equally odd to the generations that come after us (if we haven’t totally screwed up the entire planet by then, of course).

img_7946In Austrian traditional medicine dog rose hips are used to treat kidney complaints and infections, and recently an extract of rose hip has been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of painful osteoarthritis. What a boon it would be if this could be explored further. Arthritis has been a scourge of humanity for as long as we have existed, so anything that helps to alleviate its symptoms without the side effects of so many painkillers would be a wonderful thing.

img_7942The rose hip is, of course, the fruit of the rose – each hip contains hundreds of tiny seeds. What I didn’t realise was how long these seeds to take to germinate – those of the dog rose need to go through two cold winter periods before they will rouse themselves into action. But the hip itself contains tiny hairs which can be used as itching powder – just as well my brother and I didn’t realise this when we were children, or the results might have been most irritating.

Finally, I cannot leave the subject of the dog rose without noting that in Sweden they make a sweet soup from the hips, called Nyponsoppa. This is apparently a combination of dried rose hips, potato flour (to thicken), sugar and water, and the mixture is eaten with vanilla ice cream and little almond biscuits. Sadly the vitamin C content, which is destroyed when the soup is boiled, is much reduced, but I must say it looks rather tasty. However, I shall be leaving the rosehips in the cemetery (and, indeed, the ones in my garden, to the thrushes, and to any passing waxwings. Normally hedges are cut before the hips get a chance to develop, so it’s a treat to see them. I shall be keeping watch to see who comes to visit..

By Johan Jönsson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A lovely bowl of Nyponsoppa with almond biscuits (Photo Two – credit below)

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two: By Johan Jönsson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!



Late Summer Fox Update

img_7930Dear Readers, as you know I’ve been hard at work on my CELTA qualification for the past month. I’m delighted to say that the course is now finished, and I should hear whether I’ve passed or not early next week (though I think they would have told me if I was in any danger of failing). However, for the past month my fox watching time has been severely limited – my friend B has been medicating and feeding the foxes as usual, and I’ve been popping in at the weekend to see how they’re doing.

Dog fox in mid August

Dog fox in mid August

On an early visit I was distressed to see that the dog fox appeared to have been in a fight – he had bite marks on his haunches, and seemed a little subdued, though he was moving without obvious signs of pain. It’s a time of year when families are breaking up and young foxes are looking for new territories, but the wounds could also have been caused by a close encounter with a dog. Although people are supposed to keep their animals on a lead in the cemetery, it’s surprising how many just folk just let their dogs run all over the graves, as if the place was just a big park rather than the last resting place of over a million souls.

img_7659The adolescent cubs were just as gangly and curious as ever, though, and the mange problem seemed to be better. So, although I was concerned about the dog fox, there was little either B or I could do. He certainly wasn’t going to sit around while we dressed his wounds.

On a later visit, things were looking much better.

img_7916I caught a glimpse of the dog fox running past with a dead bird in his mouth – it was about blackbird-sized. I always underestimate how omnivorous these animals are: I also saw one nibbling on the blackberries that are just emerging. B reported that she hadn’t seen them so often at the feeding site, so this is another indication that it’s summertime, and the living is (relatively) easy. I was pleased to see that the bites (you can’t really see them in the photo above) are pretty much healed.

img_7923Another of this year’s cubs is still hanging around – cubs, especially vixens, don’t necessarily disperse until the winter really gets going, and the breeding season starts again. The siblings are often very rowdy though, and judging by the yelps and squeals coming from my garden at night, they are beginning to get rather irritated with one another.

The dog fox reappeared after finishing off his avian appetiser, and he and the cub  stared at me for a while, as if trying to work out why I was standing there with my camera. What I was doing, it later transpired, was being a feeding source for the biting flies that hang around the feeding site – there were four bites on a single vein on my foot and another great lump on my ankle by the end of the evening. That’ll teach me not to wear socks on my fox expeditions.

img_7925My admiration for the foxes grows and grows – they are tough, adaptable, intelligent and enigmatic. No wonder they are the most widespread predator in the world (apart from us, of course). Their success is down to the way that they can make the best of almost any situation. I’m glad that I’ll have a bit more time now to get back to the cemetery and see how they are all doing. I’ve missed them, and the little community of humans who gather there, a lot.

img_7926All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute to me, and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Snapdragon

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…..

Antirrhinum majus growing at the bottom of a wall in the County Roads, East Finchley

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) growing at the bottom of a wall in the County Roads, East Finchley

Dear Readers, this is obviously a garden plant, rather than a wild one, but it is one of the first flowers that I remember being able to identify when I was a child. When I was little, we visited our grandmother who lived in Forest Gate every week, and would often play in the garden. The flowers from the snapdragon were great fun: my brother and I would pick up blooms that had just dropped and chase one another around the garden with them, ‘snapping’ as we went. I also noticed the way that the bumblebees would hang on the bottom ‘lip’ of the flower before wriggling their way in. When they came out, they often had powdery pollen on their backs from the dangling stamen. It was my first lesson in the way that a plant is often structured perfectly to match the insect that visits it.

IMG_7912This particular plant is growing in a tiny crack at the bottom of a wall just up the road from where I live in East Finchley. Although the leaves are stunted and diseased, the flowers are full-size, and it’s clear that the plant has put all its energy into reproduction. I hope that its ‘children’ find a more fruitful place to grow than it has.

Antirrhinum majus comes originally from the area around the Mediterranean, and has changed remarkably little from its wild ancestors.

By User:Haplochromis - Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,

Wild snapdragon growing in a wall in Thasos, Greece (Photo One – credit below)

By Taken by Carsten Niehaus (user:Lumbar). - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This is Antirrhinum majus sb linkianum, from Western Portugal (Photo Two – credit below)

In its native range, snapdragon is a perennial, but in the UK it’s more often treated as an annual or biennial, as it often doesn’t survive the winter. As a cultivated plant, it has been bred in a tremendous range of colours, from white through to the darkest red, with yellow, lavender and pink varieties also being easy to obtain.

A fine selection of snapdragons (Photo Three – credit below)

The shape of the bloom is the obvious reason for the antirrhinum’s common name of ‘snapdragon’ – even its Latin name means ‘like a snout’. Something which I hadn’t noticed was the similarity of the seed capsules to little skulls, which gives the plant a Gothic air much in contrast to its sunny summer personality.

A single antirrhinum seed capsule. Well, I never. (Photo Four – see credit below)

The genetics of the snapdragon was studied by both Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin himself. It was noticed early on, for example, that a cross between a red-flowered plant and a white-flowered plant produced a pink-flowered plant which carried both the red and white-flower gene. Antirrhinums are also incapable of pollinating themselves, and this may explain their extraordinary variability, which has been a source of much study amongst geneticists for over a hundred years.

IMG_7911Snapdragon flowers are often included on lists of ‘edible flowers’, but my source of all things ‘weed’ related, Eat The Weeds, says that the flavour is pretty poor.  It is also said that an edible oil can be extracted from the seeds, and is used in Russia as cooking oil.

The snapdragon is said to be protective against witchcraft and the evil eye, and anyone who anoints themselves with antirrhinum oil is said to be destined for fame.

Medicinally, the plant has been used in poultices for growths and tumours.

The flowers can be used to produce a green dye.

IMG_7910Something I have personally noticed over the past few years is that snapdragons seem to be becoming a much more popular florists’ flower.  A bunch of garden-cut snapdragons will certainly last for a long time in a vase, and the flowers are very attractive. Apparently florists seek out the longer-stemmed varieties, because they add more height to an arrangement.

If  I had a south-facing garden I would grow a lot more snapdragons. The bumblebees love them, they flower for ever, and there is a colour to suit anyone. Plus, they remind me of old-fashioned cottage gardens like that of my Grandmother, where  I chased my brother around the garden with a snapdragon flower amidst roses and marigolds, beans and tomatoes. It reminds me that a garden can be both productive and beautiful.

Bridal bouquet with white antirrhinums (Photo Four - credit below)

Bridal bouquet with white antirrhinums (Photo Five – credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One: By User:Haplochromis – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Two: By Taken by Carsten Niehaus (user:Lumbar). – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three: Stock Photo from Pixabay

Photo Four: La Ajala on Flickr

Photo Five: Public Domain: By [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos and content copyright Vivienne Palmer. All images free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


The Weed of Hercules

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Dear Readers, during my trip to the Olympic Park a few weeks ago I was astonished to notice an eight-foot tall Giant Hogweed standing on the bank of the canal next to the Aquatic Centre. I saw ‘astonished’ because the area does not want for gardeners, and also because this is not a shy demure plant of the kind that I usually write about. No, this plant is a pirate, with flower heads the size of dinner plates and a potential height of up to 18 feet tall. It is also not something that you want to have around if you have children, or anyone vulnerable, for this is that unusual thing: a plant that lives up to the hype.

Those of you old enough to remember the 1980’s might remember a programme featuring, I think, Esther Rantzen, in which the full horror of Giant Hogweed was revealed. The plant’s  sap contains chemicals  called furocoumarins, which are released when the plant is damaged, whether through strimming when the plant is young, or through being macheted down when mature. Children are particularly attracted to the plant because of its extraordinary size – it makes even an adult feel as if they are in Land of the Giants – and the hollow stems invited use as a blowpipe. Unfortunately, the sap, whilst initially appearing to cause no problems, actually changes the structure of the skin if it touches it. If that skin is exposed to sunlight, the result can be as minor as a rash, or as extreme as severe, lymph-filled blisters that may require hospitalisation. Furthermore, the skin will erupt again whenever exposed to sunlight.  Although there have been many ‘scare stories’ in the media about perfectly innocent plants, for this one it seems that many of the claims are justified. For a full and detailed picture of what’s been happening with the plant, I recommend our old friend The Poison Garden  website, where all things Hogweed-ish are discussed. There is also an excellent section on this website about identification of Giant Hogweed, and how to tell the difference between it and the Common Hogweed (Heracleum spondylium). Incidentally, Common Hogweed (which is very common as its name might suggest) also contains furocoumarins, but seemingly at a much lower concentration than its giant relative. I would also suggest protective measures if you are strimming a patch of this plant.

Incidentally the band Genesis, who were responsible for introducing both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins to an unsuspecting public, included a song about Giant Hogweed on their Nursery Crymes album. For your delectation, here is a live rendition from 1973. You’re welcome.

Des Colhoun [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Giant Hogweed flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

The Latin name ‘Heracleum mantegazzianum’ refers firstly to Hercules (probably because of the plant’s outrageous size) and then to Paolo Mantegazza, a nineteenth-century anthropologist who may have been the first person to extract cocaine from the coca plant. The plant is originally from the Caucasus, and was introduced to the UK by the Victorians, who were rather taken with how pretty it was, and what a fine show it made alongside the lakes and rivers of their estates. Alas, as is often the case, the plant did not stay where it was put, which will be of no surprise to the readers of this blog. It can now be found in North America, New Zealand and most of Europe. Although the seeds are rather heavy (as you might expect of something this size) and fall close to the parent, they can be easily transported on the soles of the shoes of the unwary, and I wonder if they can also survive falling into water and being carried that way. Certainly I have no idea how on earth the Olympic Park specimen turned up.

© Copyright Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A Giant Hogweed bud. Don’t get too close now….! (Photo Two – credit below)

Getting rid of Giant Hogweed is an expensive and difficult business. Nothing short of full-body cover and protective glasses will do. Seeds are viable for up to seven years, and so annual spraying in the spring (with all its concomitant health and environmental hazards) needs to be take place. As John Robertson explains in The Poison Garden, the only alternative to spraying is to completely replace the topsoil, which can cost many thousands of pounds that councils currently don’t have.

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The magnificent Giant Hogweed (Photo Three – credit below)

I had a momentary dilemma about what to do about the Giant Hogweed. It is a truly magnificent plant, and in its native lands it probably goes about its business unmolested, as presumably local people know what it is, and how to deal with it. But here, in London, next to the most popular swimming pool in the capital? I sent the Olympic Park team an email telling them I’d spotted Giant Hogweed, and they emailed back to say that they will remove it. Do I feel as if I betrayed a true wonder of the natural world? Yes. But people, especially children, will be curious about the plant, and will not know about the danger that it represents. For once this particular Giant Hogweed really does meet the definition of a ‘weed’ – the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Four (credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One – Des Colhoun [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two – © Copyright Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three – By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four – © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Wednesday Weed – Hedgerow Cranesbill

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…..

Hedgerow Cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum)

Hedgerow Cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum)

Dear Readers, this is one of those ‘weeds’ that has probably been popping up all around me for years, but which I have only noticed since I started the blog. There is scarcely a walk that goes by that doesn’t involve me coming to an abrupt halt, peering down, and rubbing my chin in perturbation. It isn’t hard to see that this little plant is some kind of geranium, but the leaves, which look rather like butterfly wings, are the dead giveaway.

IMG_7832Hedgerow cranesbill is from southern Europe, was first recorded in the UK in 1762, and is ‘still spreading’ according to my Harraps Wild Flowers. A cultivated variety of the plant, called ‘Bill Wallis’, is lauded to the skies on various gardening websites for its vigorous flowering, so I wonder if these plants are truly ‘wild’ or have hopped over a garden fence. Whatever the reason, they are to be found all over East Finchley. If you should wish to purchase some ‘Bill Wallis’, or indeed to have a look at it, there is a link to a nursery who sells it here, and very pretty it is too.

IMG_7834There seem to be no traditional medical uses for this little plant, but there have been several studies on the efficacy of some of the chemicals that it contains against Leishmaniasis, a tropical protozoan disease spread by sandflies. There are 12 million people infected in 98 countries, and between 20,000 and 50,000 people die every year as a result of this scourge.  As the parasite is now immune to many of the usual treatments, it would be great news if hedgerow cranesbill were to be efficacious.

IMG_6908It doesn’t appear that many humans have tucked into hedgerow cranesbill for their dinner, but it is a popular bee plant, in spite of the small size of the flowers – there seems to be little correlation between the size of a bloom and how much the pollinators enjoy it. Plus, the long, long flowering season is a bonus – I took the photo above in mid-June, and this plant is still covered in blossoms.

It is also used as a food plant by the larvae of the brown argus butterfly (Aricia agestis), which  has a fascinating lifecycle – the caterpillar produces a secretion which attracts ants, who then act as a kind of praetorian guard as the larva goes about its business.

By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Brown argus butterflies (Photo One – see credit below)

So, here you have it. Hedgerow cranesbill is a small, easily overlooked flower that may be feeding the larva of butterflies, and may one day be used to cure one of the scourges of the developing world. Be it ever so modest, it may contain all kinds of hidden secrets.

IMG_6909Photo Credits

Photo One – By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.



Bugwoman on Location- The Olympic Park, Stratford


Dear Readers, I wanted to let you know that at the moment I am right in the middle of a very intensive four-week CELTA course. CELTA is a qualification that will enable me to teach English as a foreign language, and I am planning to volunteer to work with refugees and asylum seekers when I complete the course (if I pass). All free English language courses have been cut by councils as they struggle to manage their budgets, and many people who have just arrived here cannot afford to pay to learn the language, so I would like to help. So, in other words, I have not been able to respond to your comments as quickly as I usually do, but believe me I have read every one, and they have kept me going when the assignments are piling up :-). The course finishes on the 16th September, and if you hear some cheering on the breeze, that’ll be me! In the meantime, here is a piece about my old home town, Stratford in East London.

When I was growing up, the area between Stratford Station and the river Lea was a wasteland of brambles, railway tracks, small industrial units and canals. Nobody ever went there if they could avoid it, because why would you? From the platforms at the station I would occasionally spot a fox skulking amongst the rosebay willowherb, and once there was a kestrel hovering above the clinker, but largely it was a ‘brownfield site’, unwanted and unloved.

And then came the Olympics.

Today, I finally went back to Stratford to see what had been done here. Of course, I remember the 2012 Olympics and the television shots of the Aquatic Centre and the Stadium, but I’d never seen them in real life. I can see the Arcelor-Mittal tower from the streets of Muswell Hill, but I’d never stared up at it. And so, as I walked out of Stratford Station and ambled through the vast glass halls of the Westfield Centre, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of the place.

The first thing that you see is the stadium, which is now hung with banners welcoming West Ham football club. It seems strange that Upton Park, the basic, hang-dog stadium that was home to West Ham since its inception, is now empty and silent. This place is huge, and also unfinished: for the Olympics it had an athletics’ track around the edge, which meant that the audience was a long way away from the action. This has now been remedied, and the stadium will be ready for the new season. I imagine that it will often be partially full, because it’s enormous, but the transport links are extraordinary: Stratford now has not only the Central line and links to Liverpool Street, but the Jubilee line, the Docklands Light Railway and the Overground, and shortly it will have Crossrail. All in all, poor old Stratford is definitely now on the map.

IMG_7745Across from the stadium is the Aquatic Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, who also did the Birdsnest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. What a boon to the local neighbourhood this is. I remember going swimming in Romford Road baths, in the echoing Victorian rectangle that was the main pool. This new place is popular, and enormous, and state-of-the-art.

IMG_7741There are lots of other things too: you can rent a swan pedalo to go up and down the canal. There are boat trips in a barge. There are restaurants, both in the park and in Westfield. Stratford now has John Lewis and a Waitrose! Blooming hell. It’s come a long way from the draughty, miserable shopping centre that replaced Angel Lane and most of the little shops. The lady who serves me soup in John Lewis tells me that apparently even this sixties eyesore is booming, because people buy stuff on their way to and from the Olympic Park.

IMG_7828But, me being me, I want to know what’s being done for the wildlife. Although this area might have felt unloved in the past, it was a refuge for animals, and the new park feels tidy and manicured. At first I am inclined to be pessimistic – the verges are planted with typical ‘prairie plants’ like rudbeckia and Echinacea, plants that seem to pop up everywhere these days. But as usual, the trick is to be patient.

IMG_7827I start taking some photographs, and my eye is caught by some young wagtails feeding in the grass. I notice that there are islands of clover, carefully mown around, to provide food for bees and caterpillars. This is a good start. Some youngsters on bikes are taking advantages of the paths and stairways to practice on their mountain bikes, and I wonder if there isn’t a ‘proper’ bike track somewhere, maybe over near the Velodrome.

IMG_7759I spot some Giant Hogweed on the opposite bank of the canal, and am delighted. It seems like an anarchist in a field of fairies. How has it escaped the control of the gardeners, I wonder? After all, it can cause blisters and all sorts of nonsense. I rather love it, and take some photos because I fear that it will not be around for long.

IMG_7797I plonk down on a bench opposite the prairie planting, and think. The degree of change in this area is very disorientating, and there are new tower blocks everywhere. To my right is the Arcelor-Mittal tower. This was twisty enough before they added an undulating silver tube to the outside. You can now pay to slide in this tube from the top of the tower to the bottom. Needless to say, they would need to pay me to get me to do anything so daring.

IMG_7799It takes me a while to notice that there is a small flock of birds in amongst the chrysanthemums and daisies in the border opposite, such is my reverie. But when I hear the little bell-like calls, I realise that there are twenty or thirty goldfinches feeding on the seedheads of the grasses and thistles. I love to see birds feeding naturally, and these birds are so athletic, hanging upside down to get the seeds out and clinging to the stems as they blow about in the breeze. In this way, this border is definitely working: as migratory birds pass through (and they often follow waterways such as the Lea) this will be a valuable source of food for them, just as the brambles and grasses that used to grow here were. The past has been swept away, but the lessons have not been completely lost.


IMG_7788I walk on towards the Lea itself, passing an empty carpark. A young woman in a hijab and tracksuit pounds past. Here, the borders are wilder, more overgrown: yarrow and poppies mix with sedum to form a swathe of seedheads and flowers. I am trying to get a picture of all this when, in my peripheral vision, I see a brown bird flying fast and low over the top of the plants. It disappears behind a tree, and I walk along the path, wondering where it could have gone. And then I see it, sitting on top of a wooden hut – a kestrel.

IMG_7812I take a couple of long shots, wondering how long it will sit there. Then, I notice that folk are walking past right below it, oblivious. The bird watches them go, unperturbed. I wonder if it will be as relaxed around me? So I approach it, taking a few photos every few steps, expecting it to fly at any moment, but it sits. It sees me, but it doesn’t care. I am able to get within ten metres of it, close enough to see the bars of black on its chestnut wings, its huge black eyes, the yellow skin at the base of the hooked bill. It is still sitting there when I decide that it has been patient enough, and turn to leave it. People are still walking past, buried in their conversations or their phones. I want to tell them that the bird is there, but in the end I decide not to. You can never tell what is important to people, and what their reactions to nature will be. And somehow, this feels like a present from the past.

IMG_7819Everything might have changed, it says. But there are still kestrels here.

IMG_7821All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.