Monthly Archives: December 2016

Another Year Over….

img_9191Dear Readers, in the midst of the Christmas celebrations I felt an urge to leave the mince pies and the chocolates and get some fresh air. There is something very constraining about the festive season, as if every moment spent without a cracker in one hand and a glass of fizz in the other is wasted, and as much as I love it all, it sometimes gets a bit too much. And so, my lovely husband dragged me off to Cherry Tree Wood, with me complaining bitterly that the potatoes weren’t peeled yet. And I’m very glad he did, because it soon became clear that although the solstice has just passed, all kinds of creatures are just revving up for the new breeding season.

img_9194There was a robin positioned on a twig every ten metres or so, and many were singing their hearts out already.

Now, at this juncture I’d like to ask if any of my UK readers have seen the Waitrose Christmas Advert, with its plucky robin hero? I hope that you will be able to see it wherever you are in the world, although you never know with these things….

Anyhow, this has caused a whole flurry of controversy over here in the UK. Do robins migrate, for example? Well, the answer for most UK robins is ‘no’, though females may head south to Spain and Portugal for a bit of warmth and recreation. However! Some Scandinavian and Russian birds do head south and may overwinter in the UK. These birds are, according to the RSPB, lighter in colour and more nervous than our UK garden birds, because in their native countries they live in woodland, rather than in gardens. So, I guess the tale in the Waitrose advert is of an intrepid northern bird coming to the UK as an immigrant. Who knew a supermarket chain could be so subversive?


The next controversy is because the two birds at the end of the advert are sharing a mince pie and feeding one another. In the words of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Nigel Molesworth, ‘as any fule kno’ robins are intensely territorial and will beat one another up in a frenzy of testosterone-fuelled rage for the slightest incursion. However, it is true that sometimes male and female robins have parallel territories, which they merge in the breeding season, and defend against all comers. Once the youngsters are fledged, the barriers go back up and it’s all-out war again. However, again the RSPB points out that most robins will be paired up by mid-January, so maybe the two in the advert are just getting ahead of the game.

By the way, if you have not come across Nigel Molesworth in your literary investigations, I can heartily recommend ‘The Compleet Molesworth’. You’re welcome.

Nigel Molesworth (created by Geoffrey Willans and drawn by Ronald Searle). A masterpiece! (Photo One – credit below)

At any rate, the robins of Cherry Tree Wood still look like a bunch of singletons. As male and female robins are identical, it’s a puzzle to me how they ever do become ‘friends’, but maybe, like a male and female Klingon, they need to dust one another up thoroughly to get the hormones working.

By Source, Fair use,

Some Klingons about to do what they love best (Photo Two – credit below)

However, for some birds in the wood it’s already time for romance. What are these two ring-necked parakeets up to?

img_9185First of all they investigated what looked to me like a very unsuitable nest hole, as, unless it went back into the branch at a very peculiar angle, all the eggs would have dropped out. Then, with much squawking and carry-on, they started to pluck a tiny twig from the surface of the tree.

img_9187They certainly seem very lovey-dovey, despite the low temperatures, and this is one of the secrets of their success in the UK. Ring-necked parakeets establish their breeding sites earlier than other hole-nesting birds, so by the time the woodpeckers and the stock doves and the nuthatches feel the call to reproduce, many of the suitable sites will already have cranky residents in situ. And while an angry woodpecker is probably a match for an irate parakeet, I imagine the others would head off, defeated. In spite of which, I rather admire their parroty pluck and belligerent attitude. I just hope there’s enough room for everybody.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

And so, another year draws to a close. I hope that all of you have a happy, healthy and inspired 2017, and that the year to come brings everything that you most need in your life. Thank you for reading, for commenting and for supporting my endeavours here. Bless every one of you.

Photo Credits

Photo One – the exquisite Nigel Molesworth –

Photo Two – some delightful Klingons – By Source, Fair use,

All other blog content free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Perennial Wallflower

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…..


Perennial wallflower ‘Bowles Mauve’ (Erysimum x linifolium)

Dear Readers, as you might have noticed this is not a wild plant (though it is widely naturalized in the UK), but it is ubiquitous enough for us to pass it by without stopping to admire its beauty, as if it were a dandelion or a daisy. But this is a stoical and generous flower. I have one in my north-facing garden that has not stopped flowering for over two years. In the spring, the solitary bees and hoverflies visit it, and on mild winter days a bumblebee might drop in for a sip of nectar. It requires not a jot of fuss, but just keeps doing its thing, until one day it flowers itself to death. I wanted to celebrate it here, because, like so many human wallflowers, it is often overlooked in spite of its sterling character.

Perennial wallflower, December 26th 2016, in the N2 Community Garden.

Perennial wallflower, December 26th 2016, in the N2 Community Garden.

Like all wallflowers, perennial wallflower is a member of the cabbage family. The wild ancestor of ‘Bowles Mauve’ and other cultivars comes originally from rocky places in Spain and Portugal. I have already mentioned how attractive it is to pollinators such as bees and flies, but in a University of Sussex study in 2013 it was found to be visited by more butterflies than any other plant in the garden. Take that, buddleia! I imagine that the long flowering period of the plant helps it pick up visitors throughout the whole year.

img_9161It is also the foodplant of a variety of moths and weevils, such as the Garden Carpet…

By ©entomart, Attribution,

Garden Carpet (Xanthorhoe gluctuata) (Photo One – see credit below)

…and this rather delightful weevil, who lives inside the fruits and feeds on the developing seeds.

The lesser of two weevils? (Photo Two – credit below)

Furthermore, it is said to be a food plant of the Spanish Ibex. I love the thought of this most domesticated of plants being fodder for a creature as elusive as an ibex.

By Javier García Diz - Trabajo propio. Own Work., CC BY-SA 3.0,

A very fine Iberian Ibex (Capra pyrenaica) (Photo Three – credit below)

And here is a picture of the wild form of the plant, as found in the Asturias region of Spain. How delicate and pretty it is!

En O Caurel, Lugo, agosto de 2008, © José Luis Porto

Wild Erysimum linifolium (Photo Four – credit below)

I am guessing that the name ‘wallflower’ probably arose because plants of this genus can often be found growing on rocky soil, or at the bottom of outcrops, and they will certainly seed in the crevices at the feet of walls. Human  ‘wallflowers’ probably got their name from the way that they lean against the wall at social gatherings, watching the other more extrovert creatures whilst not joining in themselves. What both kinds of wallflower share is a kind of modesty and shyness which means that they are sometimes undervalued. I have never been without a Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower in the garden since I discovered how useful they are for insects of all kinds, and how delicately pretty they are. If there is one slogan for 2017, it might be ‘plant a wallflower today, and befriend a whole gaggle of bees’.

img_9165Photo Credits

Photo One (Garden Carpet Moth) – By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Two (Weevil) –

Photo Three (Ibex) – By Javier García Diz – Trabajo propio. Own Work., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four ( Wild Perennial Wallflower) – En O Caurel, Lugo, agosto de 2008, © José Luis Porto 

All other blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


Just Before Christmas

img_9116Dear Readers, it’s a grey, blustery day outside, but inside the house Mum and Dad  have just finished tucking into their  mince pies. I’ve been in the kitchen making an orange trifle (the trick is the Cointreau poured generously over torn up madeleines with navel orange segments, orange jelly, amaretto flavoured custard and whipped cream). The starlings are gathering in the whitebeam tree, but they’re nervous – they can see that the bird table is full of suet and worms, but they can also see that someone else is on the ground, eating the suet in the ground feeder.

img_9141This tabby has developed a taste for Buggy Nibbles, and appears as if from nowhere whenever I put them down.

Once the cat has moved on, another regular visitor appears.

img_9123This little chap has been at work collecting every single peanut and then burying them somewhere in the garden.

img_9122img_9132img_9131I have no idea if peanuts can germinate in UK temperatures, but if they can I will have a peanut forest when spring comes. And, although it’s out of focus, I rather like this picture. It turns the squirrel into a kind of grey furry snake.

img_9127A little flock of chaffinches are also clinging on to the branches of the cherry tree next door.

img_9148The patience of wild animals always moves me. So much is at stake every time they risk coming down to feed, and so they wait, bright-eyed, until the odds are in their favour. Some of these chaffinches are this year’s fledglings, so I imagine that they are watching and learning. If a small bird survives its first year, there is a good chance that it will survive to breed. Who would not wish these little ones luck?

img_9152 img_9158Dear Readers, this time last year things were very different. As my regular readers will remember, Mum became very sick with sepsis while she and Dad were staying with me last Christmas, and although none of us realised it at the time, we came close to losing her. But today, as I write, Mum and Dad are dozing in their respective armchairs downstairs, safe from the elements, well-fed and warm. I cannot protect them from everything that may do them harm, just as they couldn’t always protect me when I was a child. But today, with the lights glowing on the Christmas  tree and the wind singing in the chimney, I am, just for a second, lit up myself with how lucky I am to still have them both with me, and to have the chance to care for them. It will not always be so, but, today, I am surrounded by those that I love.

img_9112Wishing a peaceful and happy festive season to all my readers, and hoping for a joyful, healthy and inspired 2017 for you all x

Wednesday Weed – Winter Jasmine

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…..

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

Dear Readers, on this longest night of the year, here is some brightness. There are two yellow-flowered plants that I associate with winter. The first is mahonia, which is in full-bloom in several places in East Finchley at the moment, and which in a recent study was shown to provide early-emerging/over-wintering bumblebees with 69% of their nectar. The second is a plant much favoured here in the County Roads, the winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum).

img_9095Winter jasmine is originally from China and Tibet, where it was ‘discovered’ by the Scottish plant hunter,Robert Fortune, in 1843. Fortune worked for the Royal Horticultural Society and is best known for smuggling tea plants out of the country (which was forbidden by the Chinese government) and installing them in Darjeeling in India. He also recorded the details of the silk industry, and brought many species of plants, including azaleas, roses and chrysanthemums, to the West. Fortune often disguised himself as a Chinese merchant during these escapades, but exactly what he looked like sadly isn’t recorded. Any plant with a species name of ‘fortuneai’ is one that Mr Fortune ‘liberated’ from his host country.

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

Winter Jasmine growing as a tree in the grounds of Nanjing University (Photo One – credit below)

Once in the UK, winter jasmine remained on China time,  flowering from November to March. It is naturalised in France and in some places in the US, and I would not be in the least surprised if it had ‘nipped over the wall’ here in the UK too. The bright yellow flowers appear on the bare stems, giving the plant its species name of nudiflorum (literally, ‘naked flower’).

img_9100Unlike many jasmines, winter-flowering jasmine has no scent. This is either a blessing or a disappointment, depending on your view: I find the scent of jasmine in a confined space rather cloying and unpleasant, like being trapped in a cellar with a marzipan giant. The plant can be turned into a hedge or used as a climber: one of my neighbours has encouraged it to do both, as it scrambles up the wall and turns into a hedge once it hits the ground.

In the language of flowers, winter jasmine is said to be a symbol of elegance and grace, It is also the flower of Epiphany, and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Christian calendar. Because it flowers at a time when not many other plants in bloom, it does catch the eye in a way that it probably wouldn’t in the height of summer, when so many other flowers are competing for attention. I have noticed how much more attention I pay to flowering plants when the days get shorter and any glimpse of life is welcome. Winter jasmine flowers are liked potted sunshine.

img_9096In northern India, the bark of winter jasmine has been used as a burn treatment. It is also said to be a diaphoretic, which I have discovered means ‘to cause perspiration’. As someone who has endured five years of hot flushes and night sweats it’s safe to say that I won’t be needing the medicinal benefits of winter jasmine any time soon.

As you know, I like to broaden my ‘Wednesday Weeds’ into any artistic context that the plant might have had, and so I came across this image.

By Nellie Benson - page, Public Domain,

‘Winter Jasmine’ by Nellie Benson (Public Domain)

This is an illustration from a series of children’s books called the ‘Dumpy Books’ which were published between 1898 and 1904. Nellie Benson did the illustrations for ‘A Flower Book’ by Eden Coybee, and there are many, many pictures in the style above, including one of a child grasping a (most unlikely) yellow carnation. Depending on your tastes, you might find them charming or slightly disturbing. What is a tiny, underdressed child doing standing under a winter jasmine in December anyhow?  There is a touch of late-Victorian coyness about her expression that also worries me. But like all things, we need to take into account the tastes of the time – one has only to read Dickens to know that small, pouting girls with golden curls were all the rage.

Slightly more to my taste is Cicely Mary Barker’s Winter Jasmine Flower Fairy. Note that I said ‘slightly’. I’m more of a Caravaggio and Carpaccio fan myself, as you know. But at least the child here is adequately dressed for the season, and there is a rather fine blue tit. And the infant looks like as if he’s heralding the turn of the year, the moment when the nights start to get shorter. Winter is not yet over: in fact in the Northern Hemisphere the coldest times are yet to occur. But the world is turning its face toward spring, even now.

Image result for winter jasmine flower fairy

Winter Jasmine Fairy by Mary Cicely Barker, from Flower Fairies of the Garden, 1944. (Public Domain)

Photo Credits

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






The Constant Moon

img_9043Dear Readers, my subject this week is not within my half-mile ‘territory’, but out in the darkness of space. However, it always moves me to think that when the moon is full here in East Finchley, it will also be full in Australia and Canada, in Russia and Japan. And this week, it has been a tiny bit closer to us all  than usual, turning it into a ‘supermoon’.

img_9042The moon is in an elliptical orbit around the earth, and its actual distance from us varies from 222,000 to 252,000 miles. When it is closest to us, and  combined with a full moon, the moon is up to 14% larger and 30% brighter than when it is furthest away. This latter condition is known as a ‘micromoon’, but you don’t hear much in the newspapers about that! If you have clear conditions, pop out to have a look at the moon while it’s still almost full, as the next full supermoon won’t be until 3rd December next year, and the moon won’t be as close to us as it currently is until 2034. For anyone who would like to track what’s ‘going on’ with the moon, I recommend the ‘moon phases’ page here. You can enter your city to get local information, although, as I said earlier, the moon is remarkably constant, showing the same face to us all.

img_9054When the moon first rose above the County Roads here in East Finchley it was a stately orange globe, caught in the branches of the rowan trees. However, it soon freed itself and sailed serenely on.

img_9058As is my wont, I grabbed an elderly lady passing with her shopping trolley.

‘Look at the moon!’ I yelled, pointing with a trembling finger.

The lady, to her credit, didn’t bat me off with a rolled newspaper.

‘Ah, that explains it’, she said. ‘I’ve been feeling as batty as a fruitcake all day’.

And indeed, many people believe that the moon affects their moods and their sleep patterns (the word ‘lunatic’ comes from this theory). As the pull of the moon’s tidal effect can be found in a simple puddle, it’s no wonder to me that human beings, who are mostly water after all, are also dragged and released as the moon orbits around our planet. Most scientific studies of the ‘lunar effect’ have shown no correlation between the phases of the moon and human behaviour per se, but there are studies that show that sleep quality is affected adversely by the full moon whether or not the participants can see it, or know about it. So, there are still mysteries here to be investigated.

img_9049As the moon rises, it loses its orange colour and turns white. This is because when the moon is close to the horizon, the sun’s light, which is reflected from the moon, has to pass through a lot of the earth’s atmosphere. As we know, light, although it appears white, is made up of red, blue and green light, and each colour has different wavelengths. The atmosphere ‘scatters’ the blue and green rays, making the moon appear red or orange (a similar effect occurs as the sun sinks below the horizon during a sunset). As the moon rises, its light doesn’t have to pass through such a thick ‘slice’ of the atmosphere, and so it appears silver or white.

The reflected light was so strong that it took quite a lot of fiddling around to get my camera set. At one point I was braced against the window sill in our loft and wondering how long an exposure I could risk.

img_9047What a strange and beautiful thing the moon is. It bears the scars of its volcanic past, and of the many, many meteorites that have hit it, and yet it seems serene as it sails on overhead. For anyone who would like to know where the Sea of Tranquillity, or (maybe more appropriately for 2016) the Sea of Crises is, I would like to share the graphic below, courtesy of Peter Freeman, with the photo of the moon by Glen Rivera. Full credit is at the end of this piece.

By Peter FreimanCmgleeBackground photograph by Gregory H. Revera - Remake of File:FullMoon2010.jpgBitmap from File:FullMoon2010.jpgOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, various ‘seas’, or ‘mare’, were once thought to be full of water. In fact, they were formed by ancient lava streaming from the volcanoes that were active 3.5 billion years ago. The paler patches are known as the ‘highlands’. Then there are the impact craters, many of them named after astronomers. It is estimated that there were over 300,000 asteroid impacts resulting in craters more than 1km wide on the near side of the moon alone. Most of these occurred during the Late Heavy Bombardment period, about 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, a time when the planets of the inner solar system had formed but when there was still plenty of debris flying about. What a terrifying time this would have been, had there been anything sentient around to see it.

What, though, is on the other side of the moon, the secret face that we never see?

By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University - (see also, Public Domain,

The dark side of the moon (Photo Two – credit below)

What an unfamiliar view this is. There are no seas of volcanic lava, no highlands, just a pockmarked jumble of craters. It’s thought that the nearside of the moon was the most volcanically active because of a concentration of heat-producing elements on this side. Although we never see this side of the moon, it isn’t actually ‘dark’ – it is illuminated by the sun once a day. For some unfathomable reason, this rather cheers me up. But there is one place on the moon that never receives sunlight.

By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University - (see also, Public Domain,

The moon’s South Pole (Photo Three – see credit below)

The dark areas to the right of the centre of the photograph form part of the South Pole/Aitken crater, the largest, oldest and deepest crater on the moon, and one of the biggest impacts so far recorded in the whole solar system. Areas of the crater are in perpetual darkness, and the temperature at the bottom has been measured at -397 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest temperature so far recorded by any probe, and colder even than poor old Pluto.

img_9049The science of the moon fascinates me, and yet there is something about it that appeals to a much more instinctive side of my nature. On a business trip to Rotterdam many years ago, I was woken up by what I thought was a floodlight outside my hotel window. I got up, flung back the curtains and came face to face with the biggest, brightest moon that I’ve ever seen, before or since. Maybe it was the surprise, or something deeper, but I found myself sinking to me knees on the carpet, overwhelmed. The moonlight poured through the window and I felt as if I was bathing in it. I looked at my hands and arms, and they were silver. And I stayed there, silent, until the moon passed below the buildings beyond and disappeared, and went back to bed, and when I woke in the morning it felt like a dream, except that the curtains were still pulled open. The moon has inspired awe and reverence for as long as there have been creatures to feel such things. It felt strange but right to be honouring such a tradition.


Photo Credits

Photo One (map of the moon) – By Peter FreimanCmgleeBackground photograph by Gregory H. Revera – Remake of File:FullMoon2010.jpgBitmap from File:FullMoon2010.jpgOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – Far side of the moon – By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – (see also, Public Domain,

Photo Three (south pole of the moon) – By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – (see also, Public Domain,

All other photos and blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!




Wednesday Weed – Hogweed

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…..

Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)

Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)

Dear Readers, when winter comes it’s such a surprise to find anything in flower. What does this Hogweed think that it’s doing? There are no flies to pollinate it, and the ground would be too cold and hard for seeds to germinate anyway. But there it is, in full bloom, with some little green buds ready to burst forth once the main flower has done its stuff.

Hogweed is the smaller cousin of giant hogweed,  which I wrote about here. The flowers are said to smell like pigs, and there is a theory that this is what attracts the flies that are its main pollinators, though the scent was too faint for me to pick up when I gave them a sniff. The species name, sphondylium, means ‘vertebrae’, and is supposed to be because the stem resembles a backbone, though this wasn’t obvious to me. I’m assuming that the spine condition spondylosis comes from the same root word.

img_9029The individual flowers of the hogweed remind me  of happy sailors wearing bell-bottomed trousers. The flower heads are known as umbels, and are flat-topped, providing lots of space for hoverflies and other members of the family. There is one specialist pollinator known as a picture-winged or celery fly (Euleia heraclei), and what a gorgeous little critter it is! The males display on the surface of the hogweed leaves, gyrating their multi-coloured wings and hoping to attract a lady friend. However, the hogweed is a member of the carrot family, and any resultant celery fly offspring are, as the name suggests, pests of vegetables which are part of the same family, such as celery and parsnips.

By Martin Cooper from Ipswich, UK (Celery fly (Euleia heraclei)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Celery fly (Euleia heraclei) (Photo One – credit below)

Hogweed is native to the whole of Europe (except Iceland) and is also found in North Africa. It has a reputation as an aphrodisiac (I read that it also known as the ‘love weed’, which is rather more pleasant than its usual name), and as a treatment for all kinds of gynaecological and reproductive issues. In particular, hogweed powder and hogweed tincture are said to be efficacious, though I do note that the plant is also said to cause and aggravate prostate problems, so, as usual, I would be extremely careful if attempting to use this plant for medicinal purposes. It also contains sap which can cause a rash on exposure to sunlight: in this respect it is nothing like as potent as giant hogweed, but I would still cover up if you planned to strim a patch of the stuff.

img_9035Like many native plants, hogweed has a variety of rather charming vernacular names: Eltrot, Caddy and, my personal favourite, LImperscrimps. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how it has been used in childrens’ games: sometimes the stems are used as swords, and other times those hollow stems were turned, with some ingenuity, into water guns.

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

The hollow stem of hogweed (Photo Two – see credit below)

Hogweed can also be eaten (though never raw because of the caustic properties of the sap). The ever-wonderful Eat Weeds website has a recipe for Sauteed Hogweed Leaf Stalks with Nettles and Wild Garlic – this appeals to me a lot because I can imagine finding all these things in one small patch of ‘waste’ ground. And here are Spiced Hogweed Seed Biscuits! Lastly, the plant has long been used in Eastern Europe as an ingredient in borsch, and so here we have Fermented Hogweed Borsch. The nutritional value of fermented and pickled foods such as sauerkraut are just beginning to be recognised here in western Europe, but they have been a valuable source of vitamins and flavour in other cultures for millenia.

By Brücke-Osteuropa - Own work, Public Domain,

Russian borsch – a soup with as many different recipes as there are people who make it (Photo Three – credit below)

Unfortunately, if you search the internet for hogweed, nearly everything that you find will relate to its giant cousin, which is a much more tabloid-worthy plant. I am just pleased to find something in flower on these grey, windy, cold days. Let’s take comfort in the fact that the winter solstice will soon be here, and then the days will start to get longer again, almost imperceptibly at first. Then, one day we will leave work at 5 p.m. and it will be light outside, and the great axis of the year will have turned one more time. In the meantime, let’s make the most of soup, and slippers, and hot water bottles, the true pleasures of the season.


Photo Credits

Photo One (celery fly) – By Martin Cooper from Ipswich, UK (Celery fly (Euleia heraclei)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (hollow stem) – By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (borsch) – By Brücke-Osteuropa – Own work, Public Domain,

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

Bugwoman on Location – The Squares of Islington

Canonbury Square

Canonbury Square

Dear Readers, I lived in a maisonette in Islington for ten  years at the beginning of the ‘noughties’. There was much to love about the area, but the flat had no garden, just a tiny balcony, too small to stand on. Occasionally a woodpigeon or a butterfly would come to visit, but basically I was without access to all the things that keep me sane. A series of truly awful downstairs neighbours didn’t help, either. There was the air steward with permanent jet-lag and a part-time job as a DJ, who would get going on the decks at 3 a.m. There were the two young women who worked in the media and had a tiny, neglected ‘handbag’ dog who would whine and cry when they left him alone all day. And, finally, there was the alcoholic, drug-addicted ex-banker who would break up his flat in fits of rage in the middle of the night. And so, I took to spending time in the squares of the borough, just in order to retain any kind of equilibrium.

Islington has very little green space, but it does have its squares. In Kensington or Westminster, these would be accessible only by residents of the surrounding houses, but in Islington they are mostly open to the public. Each one has its own unique character.

Canonbury Square

This is the earliest of the Islington Squares, created in 1800. George Orwell once lived on this square, but it’s fair to say that it’s gone a bit upmarket since then.

img_8942 img_8937 img_8950The square itself is in two parts, intersected by a busy road. Like several Islington Squares, it has a stand of palms in the middle. One of these seems to have seeded itself into a crevice in a nearby tree.

img_8978 img_8977 img_8976There are many memorials here. Some are benches, some are even more poignant. Christmas is a very hard time for those who have recently lost their loved ones, and I know of some who would much rather hibernate through the whole festive season. Who can blame them? The relentless emphasis on family togetherness and harmony can be overwhelming.

img_8963 img_8968 img_8971 img_8972The trees in many Islington squares are magnificent. They are mostly august London plane trees, but they provide a fine viewpoint for more recent visitors, such as parakeets.

img_8955 img_8956I noticed one bench that, rather than being in remembrance of a loved one, was a celebration of wine, and a small advert for the beverages of the Loire. Apparently the Loire Valley Wine Company also helped plant the roses, lavender and a small vineyard in the centre of the square.

img_8960Gibson Square

img_8985Gibson Square is in Barnsbury, and is slightly less ‘upmarket’ than Canonbury Square (though when all these houses cost millions of pounds to buy these days, it’s a very fine distinction. But what of these two fluffy panthers?

img_8983 img_8981They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. As did all the other critters in the square.

img_8993 img_8998 img_8992 img_8999And before long, a lady with a wheelie shopper arrived, and was converged upon by all.

img_8997Well, this was a mystery that I couldn’t resist, and so I walked over for a chat.

‘What beautiful cats!’ I said, by way of making conversation. The lady sighed.

‘They’re mine’, she said, ‘But they won’t come indoors during the day, so I feed them over here’.

As usual, the felines had got their human perfectly trained.

We talked for a while about how much Islington had changed. The lady had lived here for her whole life, and wasn’t so chuffed about how things were going.

‘A little boy threw an apple at one of the cats, and when I told him off his parents told me off, and then we had a blazing row’, she said. ‘You can’t say anything to kids these days. I blame the parents. It’s not the kids’ fault’.

So, we nodded sagely about the way of the world, and parted on good terms, with the lady making a hasty getaway ‘in case one of the cats notices me going and follows me and then I’ll have to turn round and try to take her home’.

Lonsdale Square

In the heart of Barnsbury is Lonsdale Square. The houses here are rather different from in the two previous squares: they have a kind of Gothic Revival ‘thing’ going on, and were all built between 1838 and 1845. Simon Rattle apparently has a house here, and Salman Rushdie has a basement flat.

img_9008The square features some huge fir trees, and I spent some time listening in case they’d attracted an errant goldcrest, but no such luck.

img_9013Goldfinches visited the very tops of the plane trees, and a magpie surveyed the area from an aerial. This square always felt rather sinister to me, maybe because so few people visit it. The noise from building work on one of the townhouses eventually drove me away, to my last square. img_9018 img_9017Thornhill Road Garden

The last of my visits, however, was not to a grand square, but to a little scrap of rose beds and slightly neglected bushes called Thornhill Road Garden.

img_9023 img_9021It isn’t the prettiest of the squares, but it was the nearest to where I lived, and the one that I knew best. I found a long-tailed tit nest here, as stretchy as a green glove. I spotted my first ever brambling in one of the plane trees. My husband and I walked circles of this park when we had something important to discuss, like whether to have children. Sometimes, there were benches full of street drinkers enjoying some British Sherry. Often, there were dogs, sometimes dozens of them (this being one of the few squares in the borough where dogs are allowed). But always there was the sound of wind in the trees, and a few moments of peace. And that, above all, is what our green spaces, however small and urban, do for our souls. They reconnect us, and ground us. We need them more than we realise.

img_9002All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.


Wednesday Weed – Oval-leafed Privet

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…..

Oval-leaved privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

Oval-leaved privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

Dear Readers, many years ago I used to commute to the Netherlands for work. Every Sunday I would catch the last plane into Rotterdam Airport, where the cleaners were mopping the floors, and the security guards were jingling their keys, all ready to lock up. The taxi would take me through the frozen countryside but, as we got into the city itself, the warm glow of light from the uncurtained windows of every flat and house were a constant source of fascination. The interiors were stylish, and there were often families gathered at a perfectly dressed table for their evening meal. Admittedly, I only got the quickest glimpse, but there never seemed to be an overflowing waste-bin, or a pile of clutter on a chair. I loved the openness of this attitude, the generosity of it, as if people were saying ‘Here we are, do have a look if you’re interested’.

It’s fair to say that we do things differently where I live. The hedges of the County Roads in East Finchley are truly a wonder to behold. It’s not surprising: our front gardens are tiny and so every passerby can look into our front rooms if they are so minded. So, to provide a bit of privacy, many people have gone for the hedge option. In these parts, the plant of choice seems to be the oval-leafed privet. When I was on ‘Wednesday Weed’ patrol yesterday, I realised that I had never noticed that these hedges bear tiny black berries at this time of year (though I had noticed the sickly-smelling white flowers in the spring). I had always thought of privet as being rather a boring plant (when I thought of it at all). So, what is the story of the oval-leafed privet?

By No machine-readable author provided. MPF assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5,

Spring privet flowers (Photo One – credit below)

Oval-leafed privet originated in Japan and Korea. We do, in fact, have a native privet, Ligustrum vulgare, which has narrower, smaller leaves than the plant pictured here, but the majority of plants used for hedging in the UK are of the oval-leafed variety, maybe because of its more abundant flowering and fruiting.

img_8929It seems as if every plant that I write about these days is poisonous, and privet is no exception. The RHS website considers it to be ‘somewhat poisonous’ (which is not overwhelmingly helpful). A quick run around the internets has articles which state that privet hedge cuttings can be dangerous for horses, goats, sheep, cattle, hens and rabbits. Another website mentions that the berries are poisonous if eaten by dogs. All in all, it seems that the berries should be left on the bush, for the thrushes that enjoy them ( the plant is in the British Trust for Ornithology’s guide to berries for birds).

img_8925A wide variety of moth caterpillars enjoy a meal of poisonous privet leaves, however. As I love the names of moths almost as much as the moths themselves, a small selection are pictured below.

By Ben Sale from UK ([1669] Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria) (Photo Two, credit below)

By ©entomart, Attribution,

The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Three – see credit below)

By ©entomart, Attribution,

The V-Pug (Chloroclystis v-ata) Photo Four(credit below)

Perhaps the most spectacular of the privet-feeding moths, however, is the privet hawk moth, a creature of satanic beauty which can produce an alarming hissing sound by rubbing the segments of its abdomen together. Do not attempt to replicate this at home unless you want to spend Christmas in traction.

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

Adult privet hawk moth (Sphinx ligustri) (Photo Six – credit below)

The caterpillar of the privet hawk moth is a delightful lime-green creature with lilac and white side stripes and a sticky-up tail like a terrier. It would be worth growing a privet hedge for the chance of a sight of one of these little chaps.

Privet hawk moth caterpillar (Photo Seven – see credit below)

Although the privet hedge is one of the quintessential symbols of suburbia, it turns out to be quite a useful thing, if not cropped indiscriminately. It provides roosting and nesting sites for birds, flowers for pollinators, berries for thrushes and leaves for big fat green caterpillars. Privet hedges thrive in polluted environments, and may even help to protect us from the gases and dust produced by cars.  And it also provides opportunities for creative pruning, and for the more energetic among us to let rip with the power tools. Plus, who wants to be washing net curtains all the time? Much better to have a living barrier to the prying eyes of the curious public or, at the very least, something for them to talk about.

How I understand the owner of this plant. There comes a time when the power tools lose their novelty value, and the step ladder is just that bit too short.

How I understand the owner of this shrub. There comes a time when the power tools lose their novelty value, and the step ladder is just that bit too short.

Photo Credits

Photo One (privet flowers) – By No machine-readable author provided. MPF assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5,

Photo Two (Common Emerald) – By Ben Sale from UK ([1669] Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (The Engrailed) – By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four (The V-Pug) – By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four (Privet Hawk Moth) – By Gaudete [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (Privet Hawk Moth Caterpillar) – by Rachel_S (

All other blog content free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute to me, Vivienne Palmer, and link back to the blog, thank you!

Bugwoman on Location – A Winter Walk in Milborne St Andrew

img_8804I knew that the night had been a cold one from the way that the heating boiler lurched intermittently into life, the radiators clicking and jolting as the hot water gurgled through their veins. But it wasn’t until next morning, when I couldn’t get the top off of the composting bin because it had frozen shut, that I realised exactly how cold.

Through the window, I could see that the rosehips were wearing halos of ice, and the slats in the dark blue fence were rimed with frost. A destroying angel had pointed her finger at the geraniums next door, and they had collapsed. She had touched the leaf edges of other, hardier plants with a delicate brush, painting traceries of white along the veins. The lawn crunched under my feet and, as I left the bungalow and headed out along the pavement, every indentation held a milky puddle.

img_8805I didn’t want to walk too far: the sun had risen but it was bitterly cold, and I was fighting a throat infection. So I stopped to take a picture of a rook silhouetted against the sky on one of the roof tops, and then pressed on. I was heading for a sad little farm gate just along the road, surrounded by weeds and discarded farming equipment. I had a feeling that it would be worth pausing there for a few minutes to let the calm seep back into my bones.

img_8790I was in Milborne St Andrew visiting my parents and, while there are no immediate crises, there is always the question of whether there will soon be one. Dad has a bad cough, Mum has a potential UTI. We’d been out and about, buying a new bed (Mum took a tumble out of the old one because of the inadequate mattress) and looking at carpet (because the old, cream bedroom carpet had taken a dropped cup of coffee too many). We’d been out to dinner at an inn where we had been the only customers, and the standard of the meal was evidence as to why. Add into that some computer support, a fair bit of cooking and general troubleshooting, and it was clear to me that I needed to recharge for half an hour. It’s been my experience that just being still and patient and keeping eyes and ears open is a fine cure if I’m overwrought or anxious.

I cross the road to the farm gate, and take a few minutes to tune in. This really is an unprepossessing spot: there’s a pile of logs, a fine stand of teasel, some of the ubiquitous farm sacks and pieces of orange twine, a copse of hazel and hawthorn. But there’s also a little stream that winds past the shrubs and the gate, and disappears into the estate of fine cottages next door.


img_8801I can see and hear that the branches of the hawthorn are full of little birds: there is the chirruping of sparrows, the wheezing of starlings, the tinkling of goldfinches and the occasional irruption of an angry blackbird. I lean over the fence and can see that the birds are waiting on twigs above the stream to bathe.

img_8815I am always surprised by the joy that birds take in bathing, even when the temperature is below zero. But there they are, bellyflopping into the water, ducking and flapping and shaking themselves. Perhaps the importance of keeping feathers in good condition is even more marked when the weather is cold, and insulation is vital. Or perhaps they just enjoy it. At any rate, whole flocks of birds are ‘utilising the facilities’, a noisy, enthusiastic rabble.

img_8817img_8813Closer to me, goldfinches are flitting down to a shallow ‘beach’ on the other side of the stream, taking a few mouthfuls of water and throwing their heads back to swallow before flying back to the safety of the shrub, and then off. Something tells me that these are migratory birds, just arrived from Scandinavia, and on their way to somewhere else, with no time to hang around. They seem to be in perpetual motion, anxious to be off, a bit like my Dad when he has a doctor’s appointment and the car to take him to the surgery hasn’t arrived yet.

img_8798The water at the sides of the stream is a little bubbly, as if there is some kind of mild pollution. Nitrate run-off and other water contamination is widespread in the countryside, pouring off of the fields where crops have been fertilised or sprayed with biocides, but hopefully this is neither of these things. I hop over a stile (no mean feat in my long coat) and walk along the shady, overgrown path for a few yards until I can see the stream more clearly. Here, where the sun hadn’t yet touched the water, there is a filigree of icy lace along the bank, a thousand individual shards that are melting back into water even as I watch. I wonder what has fashioned each pattern: some combination of the shape of the bank, the currents in the water, or a stray piece of weed or stalk of grass seems to have changed the structure of each shape.

img_8821 img_8819I turn to walk home, and pause to look at the stand of teasel between the gate and the road.

img_8808I love these seedheads with their myriad facets and their alien appearance, and so, it seems, do the travelling goldfinches. I notice that one of the seedheads is bobbing up and down, and realise that a goldfinch is grasping the stem with his claws, turning his head this way and that to pluck out the individual seeds. He weighs the plant down, and when he flutters to the next plant the teasel head bounces back up. The goldfinch is soon joined by another bird, and then another, the gold bands on their black wings fluttering between the plants until something spooks them, and they fly off into the bushes beyond. There is no time of year when it is more important to feed the birds: this year’s youngsters may not yet have worked out how to keep themselves alive when it gets cold enough to freeze the ground. And the way that birds of all kinds are attracted to the water reminds me to make sure that the ice on the garden pond and in the birdbath is broken so that they can get fresh water.

img_8842 img_8844So, I head for home, only mildly frozen myself. A collared dove preens a wing with a long stroke of his foot, while he stands on top of a roof that is golden with lichen. A starling whistles from a telephone line. The puddles outside the house are starting to thaw around the edges. The beauty of this time of year is ephemeral, and it’s been worth dragging myself out of bed, and out of the house, to see it.



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