Monthly Archives: November 2016

Wednesday Weed – Spindle

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…..

Spindle (Euonymus europaea)

Spindle (Euonymus europaea)

Dear Readers, this week I am definitely cheating. I did deliberately plant some spindle in the native hedge in the garden, and this year it has flowered and set seed with some vigour, so I decided that I wanted to share it with you. Because, well, orange seeds and cerise seed pods are so extravagant that they look almost tropical against the dark twigs and yew foliage of the rest of the garden. And because I don’t know about you, but I could do with a burst of carnival colour to lift the ennui that seems to have settled about my head like a damp woollen blanket.

img_8778Spindle is a native plant which was cultivated in the past to provide hard, resilient wood for objects such as knitting needles, bird cages, pipes and, unsurprisingly, spindles for spinning. Nowadays it is used to provide high quality charcoal for artists and is also used by gardeners for its autumn seed pods and seeds, and for its foliage. The flowers are rather small, but are good sources of nectar and pollen – the Woodland Trust website mentions that they are particularly popular with St Marks Fly, a rather dangly insect that hovers over the heads of walkers on Hampstead Heath in great clouds for a few days every year. St Mark’s Day is on 25th April, which should also be peak blooming season for the spindle. We always think of bees when people mention pollinators, but flies do a lot more pollinating than they’re given credit for. The flowers of spindle are hermaphrodite, which means that they are capable of self-pollinating if there aren’t any insects about. However it happens, the result of the pollination is the pink, four-compartmented seed capsules in the photo above.

By AnemoneProjectors (Flickr: Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Spindle flowers (Photo One – see credits below)

St. Marks Fly (Bibio marci) (Photo Two – credit below)

Those orange seeds are, however, poisonous (causing symptoms similar to those of meningitis), and so is the wood. On the Poison Garden website John Robertson mentions that there are no documented cases of death through ingestion, but that there has been one case of problems arising through working with the wood, so I would suggest that care is taken not to inhale the sawdust. The seeds are said to have a ‘loathsome smell and bitter taste’ which I imagine would put most humans off but not, apparently, goats (according to the sixteenth century botanist and herbalist John Gerard). In some parts of Africa the sap from spindle was used as an arrow poison.

Because of its poisonous nature, the plant has largely been used in tiny doses as a purgative, and a decoction, with vinegar, has been used to treat mange in goats and cattle, and head lice in humans. A yellow dye can be produced from the seeds, though A Modern Herbal describes the effects as ‘fugitive’.

img_8780One other problem that I’ve noticed, and which John Robertson also mentions, is that spindle is a positive aphid magnet. Maybe it’s the soft, toothsome green leaves that do it. At any rate, it will look splendid at the beginning of April and will be eaten down to a stub by mid May if I don’t pay attention. I suspect that these aphids then spread out in search of other things to eat. Companion planting is probably the answer. However,if not completely defoliated by insects,  spindle can become a reasonably-sized shrub, as in the photo below.

By Wzwz - Own work, CC0,

Spindle tree (Photo Three see credit below)

Spindle has a whole host of negative folklore surrounding it. The genus name Euonymus comes from Euonyme, the mother of the Furies, after whom the plant was named due to its irritant properties (though I’d have thought that if you came to the attention of the mother of the Furies it would be rather more serious than mere irritation). It was said that if spindle flowered early, it signified an outbreak of the plague. Because it was used for toothpicks and also for ox-goads, it has an alternative English name of prickwood. To cap it all, the plant can be used as an ingredient in gunpowder. In fact, you might think that spindle is a thoroughly bad lot.

But then, I turn to ‘The Language of Flowers With Illustrative Poetry’ written by one Forget-Me-Not in 1835 and edited by one Mr Frederick Shoberl. In it, the author reflects that if you give someone a nice big bunch of spindle twigs (hopefully with intact rose-pink seedcases and vivid orange seeds), the message that the happy recipient should take from this gift is that ‘Your Charms are Engraven on My Heart.’ And very nice too! Provided, I imagine, that as you are composing a thank you letter to be written on your lavender-scented writing paper,  you don’t mistake one of the fallen seeds for an orange Tic-Tac, at which point a visit to A&E is strongly recommended.

img_8783Photo Credits

Photo One: (spindle flowers) – By AnemoneProjectors (Flickr: Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two: (St. Mark’s Fly) –

Photo Three: (Spindle Tree) – By Wzwz – Own work, CC0,

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





Bugwoman on Location – At the Barbican

img_8695Dear Readers, this week I paid a visit to the Barbican Centre to see Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and while I was there I thought I would pay attention to how this masterpiece of Brutalist architecture works for wildlife. You might think that the concrete and towers would be inimical to life of any kind, but a lot of work has been done to make it more appealing for humans and animals. In the photo above, you can see how the expanses of water have been softened by the addition of reedbeds, and in my dreams I imagine spotting some bearded tits passing through (no, this is not an unkind reference to hirsute young men) or a heron standing quietly, waiting to catch one of the truly enormous fish who sometimes surface with a disconcerting splash. There are also some sunken gardens, which are inaccessible to mere visitors but which look rather intriguing (you can see them to the left of the lake).



A number of waterbirds appreciate the habitat. There are dozens of moorhens and coots, and a fine assembly of mallards nibbling at the algae on the stonework, and exploring the leaves that have fallen onto the water.



One of the surprising things about the Barbican is the way that it wraps around some of the much older buildings of the City of London. It flows around St Giles Church, for example, which was rebuilt after being badly damaged in the Blitz. The church is partnered by a fine weeping willow and what I think is a silver birch.

St Giles Church

St Giles Church

Pigeons normally roost on the old Roman walls and the actual Barbican gatehouse, but today there was a keep fit class going on, with athletic businessmen running around in circles and using the benches to strengthen their thigh muscles. I considered taking a photo of them for your delectation, but it hardly seems fair to capture people at their most sweaty and dishevelled. I certainly wouldn’t like it myself. Plus, I’m not sure that taking photographs of people without their permission is entirely ethical, especially if you intend to share those photos with a wider audience. But, I know that I might be rather old-fashioned in my view about this, and as usual I digress.  Onwards!

img_8708 img_8710The moments ticked by before the 1.30 performance of my play, and so I crossed to the other side of the lake. It was a chill day, and so there weren’t many people eating outside, but those who were were very popular with the usual suspects.

Black-headed gull

Black-headed gull

img_8728img_8726img_8721And so, with some reluctance, I headed into see the play. I settled down to watch the ramifications of ancient Britons and their problems with Rome, and winced at the casual misogyny of some of the characters. I eventually got my head around the sex-change of Cymbeline into a woman. I enjoyed the performances and the music. And yet, I was increasingly restless.

Do you ever get the feeling that you should be somewhere else?

At the interval, I decided to go and have a look at the flowerbeds which had been planted up for pollinators last year. I wondered how they looked now that winter was here, and I could easily get back in time for the second half.

img_8739img_8743 img_8745And here, for your delectation, is a view of the grasses dancing.

I checked my watch. Five minutes to get back for the second half! And then I noticed something. In a flurry of sulphur and ashes a small bird arrived by the pond under one of the buildings. It seemed full of urgency, and I was worried that it had hurt one of its feet, although this didn’t interfere with its bounding flight. And all the time that long tail wagged. The name ‘grey wagtail’ doesn’t begin to describe the brightness of this bird, even in the fading light.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)

img_8764In the breeding season the grey wagtail is found by fast-running water, but in winter it can be found alongside any kind of stream or pond. It struck me that, in creating a variety of habitats including this shallow lagoon under one of the buildings, the Barbican gardeners had made a beacon to call in all kinds of animals. Who knows how useful this tiny man-made spot might be to this bird?

The wagtail pond.

The wagtail pond.

Well, that was the second half of Cymbeline done for. How could I leave while this bird was here?

img_8760The City of London has very little green space, and so the churchyards and gardens and planted areas take on an even greater significance. As places for creatures to rest, and to feed, they can save lives. In fact, wintering grey wagtails often return to the same spot year after year and so this pond takes on an even greater significance. I have applauded the transformation of the Barbican gardens before, and I do so again here. And it gives me inspiration. With winter coming on, who knows what difference a water feature, or a berry-bearing tree, or some early-flowering plants might make to some weary migrating bird, or emerging queen bumblebee?

And, to end, here is a tiny film of the grey wagtail that I managed to take. Apologies for the wobbliness and the brevity, but I hope it gives you a small taste of what I saw amidst the grey concrete and the windy walkways of the Barbican. If we provide for wildlife, it will come.

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

Wednesday Weed – Cornflower

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…..

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)

Dear Readers, I was flabbergasted when I found these flowers last week. I was in Whittington Park, just off Holloway Road, and decided to take a detour past an area which has been planted up to encourage sparrows. From a distance, I could see a faint blue glow amongst the dead and dying foliage.

img_8679When I got close, I could see that there were several cornflowers in full bloom. What a treat! They are normally summer flowers, so why they are bursting forth in November I have no idea. How exquisite they are. I had never really looked at the flowers properly before, but when I did, I noticed that they are actually comprised of a ring of small bellflowers. The colour is as blue as any flower gets.

img_8674The cornflower is an ancient introduction and is traditionally a plant of arable ground, introduced in the Iron Age from mainland Europe. However, improved seed cleaning and widespread use of herbicides meant that this plant has declined from 263 sites to just 3 in the past fifty years. This has also been the fate of many grain-field ‘weeds’, such as poppy, scentless mayweed, corncockle and field marigold. It’s true that many organisations are now trying to reintroduce these plants by using seed mixes, but Clive Stace, in his book ‘Alien Plants’, points out that originally these plants would have produced a patchwork effect in a field, with some areas blue, some white, some red and some yellow according to the microconditions of the habitat and the way that the field was managed. The best that we seem able to create these days is a mix of plants where no one kind predominates, probably because we either meddle too much, or because we leave too well alone. The effects that used to happen as a byproduct of the way that we managed land are now lost to us.

This is not to say, however, that cornflower was not something of a pest in the cornfields of old. When grain was harvested by sickle the tough stems were said to blunt the blade, hence one of the plant’s many alternative names, ‘Hurt-sickle’. Even the poet John Clare wrote of the cornflower as ‘troubling the cornfields with their destroying beauty’. It was clear that, as Mabey says, it would soon ‘get its comeuppance’. In today’s search for ever higher productivity, there seems to be no place for a plant which interferes with return on investment.

img_8673Cornflowers are members of the daisy family (Asteraceae) and are annuals. The seed has a long life in the seedbank, and Mabey reports how some seeds which had been buried in the 1930’s germinated in the 1990’s.  It has a wide variety of vernacular names, which is characteristic of a plant that has lived with us for a long time: here are just a few of the English language names collected by Sue Eland on her Plant Lives website.

‘Blue blaw, Blue blawort, Blueblow, Blue bobs, Bluebonnet, Bluebottle,
Bluebow,Blue button, Blue-cap, Blue centaurea, Blue centaury, Blue jack, Blue poppy,
Blue sailors, Blue tops, Bobby’s buttons, Bottle-of-sorts, Break-your-spectacles, Brooms
and brushes, Brushes, Bunk.’

Another alternative name for the plant is ‘Bachelor’s Button’ – it was said that if a flower placed in a button hole survived, the young man wearing it would marry his current sweetheart. It’s also said that bringing the plant indoors will make bread turn mouldy.

In ‘Flora Britannica’, Richard Mabey tells of how, on the 50th Anniversary of VE Day, world leaders laid posies of their national flowers around a large globe. Posies of cornflowers were laid by representatives from France, Germany, Estonia, Belarus and Czechia, an indication of how well-loved this ‘weed’ is across its whole range.

img_8666Not surprisingly, the blue colour of the cornflower attracted many who wanted to extract the pigment. It can be used as a dye for linen, as ink and as watercolour paint (by pounding the centre of the flowers in a mortar). It has apparently also been used to colour perfume and, surprisingly, wine. The flowers are used in potpourri for their colour, and very pretty they are too. Sue Eland mentions that cornflowers were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and that they retained most of their colour even though they were interred over 3000 years ago.

By Rillke, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cornflowers prepared for use (Photo One – see credit below)

It is no wonder that a plant so vivid should have a variety of medicinal uses. It has a long history in the treatment of tired and sore eyes: cornflower was considered to be the tincture of choice for blue eyes, while greater plantain was better for brown eyes. It was considered efficacious against the poison of scorpions, and the juice was said by Culpeper to ‘quickly solder up the lips’ of a wound. It was also considered to be good for mouth ulcers and sores.

Incidentally, the genus name of the plant, Centaurea, comes from the belief that the centaur Chiron taught mankind the benefit of healing wildflowers (when he wasn’t teaching Achilles, Ajax, Peleus, Hercules and practically every other hero of the classical world).

img_8671Having ascertained that cornflowers have medicinal uses, my mind naturally turned to that most perennial of questions – can you eat it? And I soon found the most intriguing recipe for Calendula and Cornflower Fudge, and if anyone makes any I would love to hear how it turns out – it certainly looks scrumptious. And how about a cornflower cocktail to go with it? Sounds like a perfect afternoon to me.

It will come as no surprise to learn that cornflowers have featured in the work of many artists, what with that spectacular colour and all. So, here is ‘Cornflowers’ by Sergei Ivanovich Osipov, a rather splendid still life painted in 1976.

By Sergei Ivanovich Osipov - С. В. Иванов,, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cornflowers by Sergei Ivanovich Osipov (Photo Two – see credit below)

And here is Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Cornflowers’, painted in 1890

'Wheatfield with Cornflowers (1890) - Vincent Van Gogh (Public Domain)

‘Wheatfield with Cornflowers (1890) – Vincent Van Gogh (Public Domain)

But, to return to young men and cornflowers, here is Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man with Cornflower’. I love the mischievousness of this, and the way that the young man’s eyes echo the colour of the flower.

Portrait of a Young Man with Cornflower (1890) - Vincent van Gogh (Public Domain)

Portrait of a Young Man with Cornflower (1890) – Vincent van Gogh (Public Domain)

But I would like to end with a portrait by the Russian artist Alexey Venetsianov. I knew nothing about him prior to finding this painting, but was intrigued to learn that while painting peasants and people of ‘the lower orders’ was something that artists often did when they were looking for a romanic and picturesque subject, Venetsianov went out of his way to teach people from poor backgrounds to paint. When he was given the title of ‘Court Painter’ by Tsar Nicholas I, Venetsianov used the salary that he obtained to ensure that tuition at his art school was practically free. He even had some students who were serfs, which was unheard of at the time, when such people were considered as little more than beasts of burden. So,  here is his painting ‘Peasant Girl with Cornflowers’, in honour of his generous spirit and his good heart.

'Peasant Girl with Cornflowers' by Alexey Gavriloch Venetsianov (1820's) (Public Domain)

‘Peasant Girl with Cornflowers’ by Alexey Gavriloch Venetsianov (1820’s) (Public Domain)

Photo Credits

Photo One – By Rillke, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – By Sergei Ivanovich Osipov – С. В. Иванов,, 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!

Hidden in Plain View

img_8609-2Dear Readers, I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been a hard week. Every new day has brought news of hatred and bigotry. People that I know and love on both sides of the Atlantic are angry and frightened about what’s happening, and what might happen. What is there to uplift the heart? Outside my window, the birds are going about their business as usual, bickering on the bird feeders. The collared doves in particular are using my garden as a breakfast bar, and last week I counted fourteen birds in the whitebeam tree waiting for their turn. I wondered what would happen if I increased the shutter speed on my camera to try to capture them in flight. And, although the results are far from perfect (I should definitely clean my kitchen window for one thing), I wanted to share them with you.

img_8612-2In the wing we see the perfect meshing of beauty and efficiency. The bird above is about to take-off and we can see the way that the wings are concave to increase lift on the downstroke. The few raised feathers on the bird’s ‘shoulder’ are called the alula, and are attached to what would, in other animals, be the ‘thumb’. This enables the bird to get greater lift at low speeds without stalling. The extended fan shape of the primary and secondary feathers on the edges of the wing maximise its area. Everything works together to enable the bird to take off. This happens all around us, every day, but at speeds too fast for us to normally see.

img_8619Here we can see a bird taking off in a hurry, swivelling its body and, again, increasing its wing volume to make sure that it doesn’t stall. Oh, and in the background a squirrel is attempting to dismantle the bird feeder. They have learned how to unscrew the metal perches that attach the plastic feeding spots to the tube, so that the seed pours out onto the tray and they can hoover it up at will. Clever squirrels!

img_8613-2Wings are strong but surprisingly flexible structures. Individual primary and secondary feathers can be controlled by muscles attached to the fine, hollow bones. Look at the angle of the individual feathers on the right hand wing, which have been separated to allow airflow over each one for maximum control. The fanning out of the tail feathers also slows the bird down as it comes into land.

img_8615-2It doesn’t take much to disturb the collared doves, unfortunately: a slammed door, a sudden movement, and they’re off, wheeling and flapping. They can fly perfectly well without making the ‘flap’ sound, so I think it’s often an alarm signal to the other birds. Collared doves don’t seem to have any kind of flock structure, and are monogamous, so maybe the noise is meant mainly for their mate.

img_8620I always found collared doves to be subtle birds, both in their colouration and their behaviour. They were just ‘there’ and I have gotten used to them being around. But these photos have really made me look at them again.So, lastly, I want to share with you my favourite image. It is ‘noisy’ and could have been sharper, I know. But there is something about the glory of those wings that fills me with awe and takes me out of my anxious brain for a few moments. The hamster wheel of ‘what-ifs’ stops. Dear Readers, let’s pause, feel the earth beneath our feet and be aware of our living, breathing world. It will provide solace and strength, if we let it.

img_8628-2All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Mind-Your-Own-Business

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…..

Mind-Your_Own_Business aka Baby's Tears aka Mother of Thousands (Soleirolia soleirolii

Mind-Your-Own-Business aka Baby’s Tears aka Mother of Thousands (Soleirolia soleirolii)

Dear Readers, seldom have I been so delighted to stumble across a Wednesday Weed than on this very drizzly Monday morning. I was meeting my friend A for a walk, but before we set off she took me to her garden to have a look at this plant. It had started off, innocently enough, in the cracks between some paving stones, but was advancing across her lawn with joyous abandon. I knew that one of its names was ‘mother of thousands’ (not to be confused with the succulent of the same name) but other than that the plant was a mystery , so I was pleased to find that it has a variety of vernacular names. The one that most British people seem to know it by is mind-your-own-business, with the alternative names of ‘angel’s tears’ and ‘baby’s tears’ probably referring to the tiny circular leaves (and the tears of gardeners as they try to get it out of their lawns without destroying the grass). It is also known as ‘the Corsican curse’, because this is where the botanist Joseph-Francois Soleirol first found it, though the plant is native to the whole of the northern Mediterranean region.

img_8646To look at, you might think that Mind-your-own-business is the terrestrial version of duckweed, but no. The plant is a member of the nettle (Urticaceae) family, surprisingly, and it is commonest in southern England and Ireland. It likes shady, damp places, such as the soil under shrubs or between the cracks in walls, and it is often found in churchyards, though in some places it can even grow semi-submerged as a bog plant. It is also a popular plant for vivariums (where reptiles and amphibians are kept) and you can buy it as a house plant too – it is especially fond of the humid atmosphere of bathrooms and kitchens.  It was introduced to cultivation in  the UK in 1905, and was living in the wild by 1917.

Pots of Mind-your-own-business (here called Helxine, its old Latin name).

Pots of Mind-your-own-business (here called Helxine, its old Latin name).

One reason for the epic spreading ability of mind-your-own-business is that the plant roots at the nodes on the stem, as well as spreading by seed. The flowers are tiny, and each plant produces both male and female flowers, so is capable of self-pollination if all else fails. It is defined as one of the Royal Horticultural Society’s  ‘thugs’ because of the difficulty of eradicating it once it gets its roots under the table. For those of you who would like to try, the link for what to do is here. Read it and weep.

Female Flowers (Photo One – credit below)

©2011 Dean Wm. Taylor, Ph.D. This image has a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) license. If you have questions, contact Dr. Dean Wm. Taylor deanwmtaylor[AT]

Male flowers (right hand side) (Photo Two – credit below)

I have looked in vain for mentions of the edible and medicinal qualities of this plant, but it seems that no one has yet discovered any. However, I rather admire its ability to grow where nothing else will, and feel that maybe this is a feature rather than a bug. I think it looks rather pretty under a tree, dotted with cyclamen.

Doc Chewbacca on Flickr (

Mind-your-own-business and cyclamen (Photo Three – credit below)

Or how about creating a giant’s head and covering it in mind-your-own-business, as here in the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall?

By Rob Young from United Kingdom (Giant's Head / The Lost Gardens of Heligan) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mind-your-own-business forms the green ‘skin’ of the Giant’s Head in the Lost Gardens of Heligan (Photo Four – see credit below)

Or maybe just create a cobblestone wall for it to thrive in?

Mind-your-own-business enjoying a cobblestone wall (Photo Five – credit below)

For such a tiny plant, mind-your-own-business has an unexpectedly ambitious and tenacious nature. It grows where few other plants can survive, and, like mosses and liverworts, provides an additional habitat for tiny insects and other invertebrates. Having no lawn, I am tempted to plant it myself! Maybe I have a friend who could dig some up for me…

Photo Credits

Photo One – Male Flowers: by Tico Bassie (

Photo Two – Female Flowers: ©2011 Dean Wm. Taylor, Ph.D. This image has a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) license. If you have questions, contact Dr. Dean Wm. Taylor deanwmtaylor[AT] 

Photo Three: ‘Lawn’ and cyclamen: Doc Chewbacca on Flickr (

Photo Four: Giant’s Head: By Rob Young from United Kingdom (Giant’s Head / The Lost Gardens of Heligan) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five: Cobblestone Wall: by Tico Bassie (

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








‘Animality’ at the Marian Goodman Gallery. And Some Foxes

'David's Squirrel - Clark Expedition' (2012) by Mark Dion with 'The Elephant' (1996) by Balthazar Burkhard

‘David’s Squirrel – Clark Expedition’ (2012) by Mark Dion with ‘The Elephant’ (1996) by Balthazar Burkhard

Dear Readers, I had never heard of the Marian Goodman Gallery until a few days ago and, on waking up to the news that Donald Trump had won the US Election, I felt a need for some distraction. And so I went to see the Animality exhibition, which explores the ways that we relate to animals, and comes up with a lot of questions but not many answers. Nonetheless, the questions themselves have bothered me for a long time, so it’s good to see that I’m not the only one.

Take the enormous eviscerated plush squirrel in the first room, for example.

img_8564Titled ‘David’s Squirrel – Clark Expedition’ and made by Mark Dion, an artist who uses a lot of scientific presentations in his installations, the squirrel is enormous, and ‘dead’. There is no such thing as a David’s Squirrel, but it seems to me representative of the questions raised when scientific curiosity and living creatures intersect. I think of the bird artist Audobon, who has an enormous conservation legacy in the US but who, during his lifetime, made his famous paintings from dead birds that he had shot and then strung up in ‘life-like’ poses.

By, Attribution,

Bobwhite (Virginia Partridge) (1825) James John Audobon (Photo One – Credit below)

Much more recently there is the case of Dave the giant earthworm, discovered in Cheshire and shipped off to the Natural History Museum in a plastic box, only to be euthanized and added to the museum collection. Animals have much to fear from our thirst for knowledge, and our cold hearts.

Onwards! In the entrance lobby there is a small sculpture of a boy and a slug. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the noble slug has been immortalised in this way.

Dawn, Fig 2 (2016) by Elmgreen and Dragset

Dawn, Fig 2 (2016) by Elmgreen and Dragset

Is the child contemplating the slug with wonder, or horror? The slug is just going about its molluscan business. Maybe this is about our total inability to comprehend what the lives of other animals are like. The boy looks at the slug, the slug looks for his breakfast, and neither are any the wiser.

img_8567In the corner, a pink octopus looks on, and we look back. It seems that we are separate from the natural world: we gaze at it, we dissect it, and we do what we like with it.


Pink Octopus by Carsten Holler (the maker of the tubular metal slides at Tate Modern a few years ago….)

Upstairs, though, the boundaries between humans and animals begin to breakdown. Roe Etheridge’s photographs of farm animals in a sanctuary are simply titled with the animals’ names.

'Joy'(2014-16) by Roe Ethridge

‘Joy'(2014-16) by Roe Ethridge

'Mark Jnr and Kayli' (2014-16) by Roe Ethridge

‘Mark Jnr and Kayli’ (2014-16) by Roe Ethridge

When I look at these photos, I am no longer looking at ‘a’ goat, I’m looking at Joy, an individual with likes and dislikes. I love work that is particular, rather than generic. I love work that honours what it looks at.

And then, there are the pieces that cross over, that point out that we are animals too, and that what separates us is not as pronounced as we would like to think. Take these two ‘column sculptures’ by Stephan Baukenhol, each one made out of a single piece of wood.

img_8580img_8583img_8581img_8582Am I alone in finding the combination of human body and animal head rather appealing? These figures wear their strangeness very lightly: they are poised, relaxed, thoughtful. They look as if they could hop down off their plinths and wander off around the gallery. As a species, we have been fascinated by creatures that are chimeras, neither human nor animal, since we could first create representations. It seems that we haven’t lost the wish to experience life as someone else, to get back under the skin of the creatures that we share the world with. We try and try to understand, whether through art or science, and yet these other worlds remain elusive. Maybe it we stopped trying so hard and had a bit more respect, we would have more success.

And, in other news, foxes have been spotted in the cemetery…

img_8534This is one of this year’s dog cubs, and very fine he’s looking too, though he has a bit of a limp at the moment. Foxes seem prone to injuring their feet and legs, I suspect it’s all that shimmying over garden walls that causes the problem. It generally doesn’t seem to last very long before they’re moving properly again, but I have the arnica drops out just in case.

img_8462And here is the original dog fox, the father of this year’s cubs, and a bold, calm creature. He was watching me put out my jam sandwiches and seemed remarkably unperturbed by all my messing about and cursing as I dropped forks and dog food and the camera at one point.

The cubs are gradually dispersing and, although I’ve seen the vixen, she’s not stuck around long enough for a photo. Suffice to say that the whole family seem to be doing well. And in about month, the whole cycle will be starting all over again! How on earth can it be November already?

The Marian Goodman Gallery is free, and well worth a look. ‘Animality’ continues until 17th December.

Photo Credits

Photo One – Audobon Painting – By, Attribution,

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


Wednesday Weed – Sweet Alyssum

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…..

Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)

Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)

Dear Readers, once upon a time you could not pass an English town hall without seeing a Union Jack made out of red geraniums, blue lobelia and white sweet alyssum, and the latter is still one of the most popular bedding plants in the country. After all, what’s not to like? It flowers abundantly from spring through to the first frosts, is low-growing and non-invasive, and has a sweet smell which many people compare to honey.The Wikipedia entry for the plant describes it as ‘the superhero of annual plants, with unparalleled drought and heat-resistance properties’.  The plant was first recorded in our gardens in 1722, and from the wild in the UK by 1807. Its original habitat, as the Latin species name suggests, was the beaches and dunes of the Mediterranean, and sweet alyssum has made itself at home in many coastal areas in the south of England. However, it is also a very adaptable plant, and can be found in many sheltered places, including the decidedly non-maritime streets of East Finchley.  Of the two specimens in my photographs, one comes from the N2 Community Garden plot in front of the children’s nursery opposite the station, and the other one has appeared at the bottom of a wall further up the High Street.

img_8541Also known as sweet alison or just alyssum, this plant is a member of the cabbage-family – its four petals, arranged into a cross (cruciform) shape might have given me a clue if I’d been paying attention. The stamens are bright yellow, and the whole plant has a great freshness to it. Although I’ve never seen it at the seaside I can well imagine the plant waving its head in the sea breeze. It is an invaluable bedding plant for gardeners, as those little white flowers attract many tiny wasps and hoverflies, which can make short work of your carrot flies and cabbage white caterpillars. For some lovely photos of alyssum used in companion planting, have a look at the Tenth Acre Farm website here, you won’t be disappointed.

img_8552Being a member of the cabbage family means that the leaves of the plant are edible, and are described as having a ‘peppery, cress-like taste’. The flowers are also said to be pleasant to eat, and I can imagine them adding a welcome pungency to a salad. The Eat The Weeds website says that the flowers also candy well, which I imagine means somehow coating them in liquid sugar or caramel. In my experience, there are few foods that caramel doesn’t improve.

img_8538The Alchemy Works website lists some interesting medicinal uses for this plant in its native range. Sweet alyssum was said to be used in the treatment of rabies (the name alyssum breaks down to a-lyssum, meaning ‘without madness’). In Afghanistan the plant is used for nervous disorders, and in Spain it is considered a diuretic and valuable source of Vitamin C (historically, it was used to treat scurvy).

img_8557Dear Readers, I have sometimes been something of a snob when it comes to what I plant in my garden – I tend towards plants that are difficult to get hold of, problematic to raise and temperamental in the extreme. However, just as in my life I have discovered that drama and emotional fireworks are no substitute for steadfast love and loyalty, so I am beginning to think that tried and trusted plants might be a better bet for my north-facing plot than some of the primadonnas that I am currently favouring. In the language of flowers, alyssum means ‘worth beyond beauty’, and I am thinking that a tough little plant like this, with its attraction to predatory insects, might be just the thing for the shallow, semi-shaded area around my pond. My father gardens by planting what is likely to be happy in the location that he has chosen, and he loves plants that thrive without needing to be cosseted like prize Pekingese dogs. I think, at 56 years old, I am finally realising that he’s right.

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

The World of Wasps

Common wasps (Vespula vulgaris) on ivy flowers

Common wasps (Vespula vulgaris) on ivy flowers

Dear Readers, when I was in Somerset last week I was astonished at the number of wasps feeding on ivy flowers outside my Aunt Hilary’s home. The Sputnik-shaped blooms were fairly abuzz with the insects, and it wasn’t until I mentioned it to my Aunt that I realised that I must have been standing a few feet from a nest which the wasps had made in her shed wall. It just goes to show that, provided you don’t interfere too closely with them, wasps are not as aggressive as is sometimes thought.

I have always been fascinated by wasps. In the spring, when I sat at the end of the garden, I would sometimes hear the tiniest of scraping noises. Eventually, I tracked it back to a queen wasp, gnawing at the wooden sleepers that surround the area in order to find material for her nest. I counted twenty separate trips made by a single queen in a fifteen minute period on one warm April morning. The queen starts by building a stalk, called a petiole, which serves as an entrance passageway. She smears this with a chemical that repels ants (who would otherwise eat it). She builds a single hexagonal cell, surrounded by six others, and continues to add to the structure. When she’s built 20-30 cells, she lays an egg in each one, and goes a-hunting for food to nurture the larvae when they’ve hatched. Meantime, the larva, who are hanging vertically in the bottomless cells, have to wedge themselves against the walls to avoid falling out, probably not the best way to spend your developing years.

By Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark (Vespula vulgaris) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wasps’ nest late in the season (Photo One – see credit below)

Once the first wasp larvae hatch into workers, the queen settles down to lay more eggs, and will soon lose her power of flight. The workers forage for food for the larvae and the queen, and for wood to make paper to expand the nest. There is not the detailed breakdown of duties that there are in some other social insects, but it has been noted that it’s the younger, faster workers who do the foraging, while the older insects stay at home and guard the nest. In the context of wasps, a worker is ‘old’ at two weeks. The queen, too, will be dead by the end of the year – queens do not overwinter in this country, so it’s the new queens who are out and about in the autumn.

Wasps feed themselves on sweet stuff, such as nectar, but the larvae need protein, and so wasps are extraordinarily adept hunters. I once watched one circling the stem of a cabbage plant. When she spotted a tiny green caterpillar she grabbed it behind the head and tried to prise it from a leaf, while the poor larva held on with its suckered feet. A tug-of-war ensued that went on for several seconds, the wasp buzzing furiously as it flew back and forth, until, finally, the caterpillar was prised loose and carried away, held below the wasp’s body like a bomb below a B52.

By Robert Goossens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A wasp prepares to butcher a horse fly (Photo Two – see credit below)

I also remember eating a salmon sandwich in the cafe outside Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath. A wasp came to investigate and, after a few moments, determined that a morsel of salmon was ‘food’. She cut a long slice from the top edge, and flew away with it, returning a few moments later. As I watched, she systematically cut up the fish. Another wasp popped in for a visit but couldn’t work out what to do with the salmon, and flew off. Then ‘my’ wasp returned for another helping.

I was fascinated by this small insight into wasp behaviour. Firstly, what mechanism was the wasp using to identify something as alien as a chunk of salmon as food? Secondly, why was she able to cut it up so efficiently when her sister couldn’t? Does this imply that wasps, like bees, can learn? It would not surprise me in the least. There have been lots of recent investigations into the intelligence of the more good-natured bumblebee, but to my knowledge no one has been studying these aspects of wasps.

Queen wasp feeding on honeydew

Queen wasp feeding on honeydew

As spring turns into summer, the nest continues to grow in size – a mature nest may contain as many as 8000 individuals. However, once it reaches its maximum, the workers, probably triggered by failing pheromones from the queen, start to build cells that will hold new queens. These are located at the entrance to the nest and, as the workers feed the first larva that they encounter first, it could be that a queen wasp is made simply by the volume of food that she is fed.Certainly there is evidence that when several queens arise in a single nest, it’s the biggest, most well-fed one that usually triumphs. A plump queen is more likely to survive the winter hibernation period than her skinnier rivals, so she has an obvious advantage in passing on her genes.

When I was watching the wasps last week, I noticed one particularly splendid wasp licking an ivy leaf. From her size, I could tell that she was a new queen, freshly emerged from the nest,  and from her behaviour I surmised that she was licking up the honeydew left by aphids on the ivy leaf (though she could also have been drinking dew). By early November the original queen is probably dead, so there are no larvae to feed, and no need to go hunting for protein. Instead, it’s every worker for herself, and so the ivy flowers are valuable fuel. None of these ‘ordinary’ wasps will last the winter, however – they will all be dead after the first frost. The nest breaks up, and will normally not be re-used (though the new queen might build a nest close to the original site, or even within the old nest). This is probably to avoid a proliferation of  parasites.

Common Wasp (Queen)

Common Wasp (Queen)

Looking closely at the new queen, I was struck by the complexity of her jagged mouthparts, the elegance of those smoked-glass wings, and also that she was rather hairy, something that isn’t obvious when a wasp is just flying past. The pattern on her face tells me that she is a common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) rather than a German wasp (Vespula germanica) – the latter wasps have three little dots above their mouthparts rather than the ‘T’ shape that we see here. Both of these wasps are very common in the UK. If you happen to find an old nest, note that German wasps tend to construct using sound wood, which makes their nests a uniform grey. Common wasps, like the queen on the ivy, use rotten or fallen wood, which makes their nests more variable in colour.

By Tim Evison, Denmark (User:tpe) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Face of a common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) (Photo Three – see credit below)

German wasp (Vespula germanica) (Public Domain)

German wasp (Vespula germanica) (Public Domain)

In North America, the yellow-jacket, which was long thought to be the same species as the European common wasp (Vespula vulgaris), was discovered to be a different species (Vespula alascensis), mainly on the basis of dissection of their genitalia. It seems to be one of those cases of a widespread animal developing into a new species once it’s become isolated. For anyone who would like to read further details of the decision and the minutiae of vespid sexual organs, I am linking to the paper here.

img_8489For most of the year, we don’t really notice wasps much – it’s not until their numbers increase and they go on the hunt for sugar that they start to ‘make a nuisance’ of themselves. But I have a deep hatred of the wasp ‘lures’ that you see in public gardens, including the cafe at Kenwood. These are filled with sugar water, encouraging the wasps to enter. Once in, they can’t get out and simply drown, creating a hideous wasp ‘soup’ that appals me. It seems like a poor reward for the way that they keep down the numbers of ‘pest’ species that would otherwise be munching through our food plants. I have found that putting a small saucer of beer at the other end of the table often keeps the wasps occupied while the humans are drinking, and that modelling sensible behaviour to young children is a great way to keep them calm and unmolested. And yes, I know that some people are genuinely terrified of wasps, and that some people can go into anaphylactic shock from a sting: you have my utmost sympathy. I just think that, generally, we should avoid killing other living things if there’s a more compassionate, creative solution. It doesn’t seem a lot to ask.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Wasps’ nest) – By Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark (Vespula vulgaris) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Wasp and Horsefly) – By Robert Goossens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (Portrait of Common Wasp) – By Tim Evison, Denmark (User:tpe) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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



Wednesday Weed – Cyclamen

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…..

Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium)

Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium)

Dear Readers, I have always loved cyclamen – there is something about the way that the petals stream ‘backwards’ that remind me of the wings of a bird as it lands. At this time of year you can see lots of naturalised cyclamen in hedgerows, parks and other dryish places (the photos this week were taken in my Aunt Hilary’s Somerset garden). The plants have been showing their cherry-blossom flowers in the UK since 1597(they are originally from the area around the Mediterranean), and have been here long enough to acquire a vernacular name – ‘Sowbread’. There are variations on this name in several of the European countries from which the plant came: ‘pain de porceau’ in France, for example – and this is presumably because the pigs ate the tubers when they were rooting in the woods in autumn.

img_8471At first glance, it’s difficult to imagine what plant family cyclamen belong to, but if you look into to the lower part of the flower, where the stamens are, you’ll see that it looks rather like the middle of a primrose. And this is the family to which cyclamen has finally been allocated, after a brief flirtation with the Myrtles, a most unlikely place for this plant to end up. Genetics has solved a lot of strange taxonomical anomalies: when I was growing up, giant pandas and red pandas were placed in a family together, even though they shared few obvious similarities. What a relief when geneticists discovered that giant pandas were exactly what they looked like –  bears – and popped them back with the rest of the family. Though I imagine it made no difference whatsoever to the pandas, who just carried on munching the bamboo.

img_8479There are 23 species of cyclamen in total, but the one that is naturalised in the UK is Cyclamen hederifolium. One reason that the plant is so valuable in a garden is its very late flowering: the leaves and flowers die back completely during the spring and summer (probably a mechanism for avoiding the worst of the Mediterranean heat) and then reappear, almost miraculously,  in the autumn. The leaves themselves are exquisite, heart-shaped and patterned in cobweb-white and the palest of green, and the species name ‘hederifolium’ means ‘like the leaves of the ivy’. I can see the resemblance. ‘Cyclamen’, incidentally, comes from the Greek word for ‘circle’. Many sources rather prosaically mention that this is because the tubers are round, but I wonder if it is because of the way that cyclamen appear, flower and disappear in a circle of life. As they can be remarkably long-lived plants (up to a hundred years) I wonder if they seemed both mysterious and eternal.

img_8475Although the flowers are usually pink, there is occasionally a white one.

img_8473The tubers of cyclamen were used in a variety of ways. In ‘A Modern Herbal’,  it is suggested that a tincture of the root, applied as a liniment, would cause ‘purging of the bowels’ (so stand well back!) Juice from the root is said to be poisonous to fish, and an ointment made from the tuber is said to expel worms. All in all, the action of the plant seems to have been about getting various things out of the body which shouldn’t be there.

img_8523Given that the root of cyclamen has such purgative qualities, and that it also contains saponin, a most unpleasant-tasting chemical, I was surprised and pleased to find that there is one recipe which uses cyclamen leaves rather as vine leaves are used in dolmades in Greece. The History of Greek food website is a great source of information on the uses of many of the foods of this area, and for a Fava Stuffed Cyclamen Leaves recipe, just click here.

img_8520From Sue Eland’s ‘Plant Lives’ website I learn that, in the language of flowers, cyclamen is said to represent voluptuousness, diffidence and goodbye, a rather difficult combination to carry off I would have thought. A small cake made from the plant and baked will cause paroxysms of love in whoever eats it. The plant is said to offer protection from the ‘evil eye’ (and its close relative, Cyclamen persica, has been a house plant for centuries), but if a pregnant woman stepped over a cyclamen it was believed to cause miscarriage. If it appears in your dreams, it is a sign of calamity. All in all, it appears that you never know where you are with a cyclamen.

img_8523When I was in Hilary’s garden, I should have hunkered down and had a sniff of the cyclamen, for the pink ones, at least, are said to have a sweet scent. Here is Walter Savage Landor (1775 – 1864) on the cyclamen:

‘Thou Cyclamen of crumpled horn

Toss not thy head aside;

Repose it where the loves were born

In that warm dell abide.

Whatever flowers, on mountain, field,

Or garden, may arise,

Thine only that pure odor yield

Which never can suffice.

Emblem of her I’ve loved so long,

Go, carry her this little song. ‘

img_8474As you might expect, the unusual form of the cyclamen made it a favourite with still life painters, such as the remarkable Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, who worked in the Netherlands during the 17th Century.

'Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase' by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1621)

‘Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase’ by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1621)

However, they have also inspired more recent painters. Koloman Moser, whose painting is below,  was a member of the Viennese Secessionists, a group that included Klimt. The plant was to be a big influence in Art Nouveau generally, with its love of the natural world and the exotic. And I can see why people were influenced to record the fleeting beauty of cyclamen. To see those flowers, poised as if to take flight, amongst the fallen leaves of autumn is to experience a brief moment of wonder.

'Cyclamenstock' by Koloman Moser (1868-1918)

‘Cyclamenstock’ by Koloman Moser (1868-1918)

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