Monthly Archives: January 2017

East Finchley’s River – The Mutton Brook (Part Two)

img_9451Dear Readers, last week I left you as I was just about to cross Falloden Way, a busy road that channels traffic through Hampstead Garden Suburb and onto the North Circular Road. For most of the route so far I’d been able to hear the robins singing and the sound of the brook, but for the next stretch it was all about the rumble of traffic. I was most disconcerted by the sign above: what was polluting the stream? Was it just the continual run-off from the road, with all the concomitant petrol spills and diesel oil, or something worse? I know that in Coldfall Wood a lot of the pollution was due to misconnections of household appliances such as washing machines, so I was pleased to see that the Brent Catchment Project are looking at such events along the Mutton Brook.  It also looked to me as if it was a spot where the river floods, at least by the sight of the decaying sandbags at one side of the bridge under the road, but if I want to check, I can look at the government’s Flood Information Service website here.

img_9452The river continues along this side of Falloden Way for a couple of hundred yards, and there is a path on the east bank so at least I didn’t need to walk alongside the traffic. But this is a rather unloved stretch of the stream, with broken-down fences and crumbling walls.

img_9457img_9460And then the stream heads back under the road, and I find that I have to retrace my steps back to where I originally crossed the road. Just as well that I am wearing my Fitbit, so all this extra activity at least counts for something.

img_9462 img_9464 img_9465As I trudge along to rejoin the river, I am stopped in my tracks.

img_9469Someone has built a narrow garden full of all kinds of found objects and idiosyncratic delights.

img_9470img_9471I wonder if robins or blackbirds ever nest in the boots and beermugs? I must make a pilgrimage in the spring to find out.

img_9472Every pot and pan has been placed with as much love as a bowerbird expends when he builds his bower. I would love to meet the gardener, I suspect that we would be kindred spirits. It was well worth crossing the road for. And as I walked on, I passed a magnificent squirrel who watched me with no concern at all. I half-expected him to ask me a riddle as I passed.

img_9476And then the river reappeared, and it seemed to have a touch of joie de vivre about it. Maybe it was glad to have some land between it and the road again, for it travels inland here.

img_9477 img_9480And who is that standing on a rock in the middle of the stream but a grey wagtail, husbanding his stretch of the waterway. I had briefly spotted one in the earlier part of the walk, but this one stayed around long enough for me to get a couple of (inadequate) photographs. I love the sulphur-yellow undersides of these winter visitors to our brooks and rivulets.

img_9485It is still very cold. There are places (rather like my back garden) that the sun never touches, and which still crunch underfoot in the afternoon. You can see exactly where the warm spots are just by looking at where the frost still sits.

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img_9504I follow the stream on until it gets to Henlys Corner, a major crossroads with turnings towards Temple Fortune and Golders Green, and to Finchley Central. I have to leave the river, cross four lanes of traffic and then descend again, for the last stretch of the walk.

Over the bridge....

Over the bridge….

img_9496

….and back to the Mutton Brook

According to my map, another underground stream joins the Mutton Brook here. I look up the hill, and sure enough, there’s another manhole cover, of a most interesting shape.

img_9499 img_9498And on I go, still accompanied by robins and the sound of running water.

And it appears that I am not the first person to have passed by recently either.

img_9507And soon, I walk under another tunnel, where the sound of water drops and the play of sunshine on the tiled roof makes it feel almost like the courtyard at the centre of a riad (or at least, it might feel like that if it wasn’t a few degrees below zero).

img_9508When the end comes, it’s  almost an anti-climax, except that yet another robin is trilling his watery song in the sunshine.

img_9509The Mutton Brook joins the Dollis Brook, and the two together become the River Brent, which eventually becomes part of the Thames.

img_9511

The Mutton Brook (foreground) joins the Dollis Brook coming in from the right to become the River Brent.

And so, I’ve walked the Mutton Brook from end to end, from its ambiguous beginning to its final merging. I can heartily recommend a river-led adventure as a source of unexpected delights, and as  a way to really learn the character of a body of water, and how it changes along its length. I had always taken water for granted, and yet it is mysterious, emerging where it will and, as much as we like to try to control it, volatile in its moods. There is much to contemplate when walking by a river, however humble.

All 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 – Alpine Grevillea

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…..

img_9376

Alpine Grevillea (Grevillea alpina) ‘Olympic Flame’

Dear Readers, during my walk along the Mutton Brook last week I encountered this extraordinary plant growing in Hampstead Garden Suburb. I had never seen anything quite like it before. The leaves resembled a conifer, the flowers looked rather leguminous, and the pink colour of the blooms was a pleasant shock to the retina on a frosty morning. In other words, what on earth was it? Fortunately two of my readers, Mr Baldwin Hamey (or rather, his botanically-minded friend) and Ms Anne Guy were able to identify it as a Grevillea, and once I found out what it was, I had to do some further investigation. It turns out that this plant is a long, long way from home, and that it has some very interesting attributes.

img_9375The Grevillea genus contains about 360 species, all of them from the Antipodes (mostly Australia, but a few in New Caledonia, Sulawesi and New Guinea). All of them are endemics, meaning that they grow wild nowhere else in the world. The shapes of the flowers are extraordinary: an alternative name for this species is ‘cats claw’, but there are also many ‘spider flowers’.  Grevillea alpina comes from Victoria and parts of New South Wales. The flowers come in many colours and five different shapes, but the ‘Olympic Flame’ variant has this delightful combination of lollypop pink and snowy white. In their native land, the plants are mainly pollinated by birds, honeycreepers to be specific.

T. Gerus (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgerus/15564100412)

Brown Honeyeater feeding on Grevillea (Photo One – see credit below)

Blue-faced honeyeater (Public Domain)

Blue-faced honeyeater (Public Domain)

Plants which are bird-pollinated tend to have bright red or pink flowers, and no perfume – most birds (with the exception of kiwis and some vultures) have a poorly-developed sense of smell, so there is no point in the plant using scent to attract them. In the UK, bees may also feed from the flowers, but are able to do so without pollinating the plant, which has not evolved to work with such small creatures – a case of ‘something for nothing’ for the insects. The flowers are also eaten by parrots, who don’t do much for pollination either but are completely charming.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoom_eric/171175004

Rainbow lorikeet about to enjoy a Grevillea flower (Photo Two – Credit below)

Grevilleas are very nectar-rich, something which the aboriginal people of Australia have long recognised – the nectar can be shaken onto the hand for a quick burst of sweetness and energy, or added to a wooden vessel called a coolamon with some water to make a refreshing drink when on the move. The coolamon is made by moulding the bark of a hardwood tree over a fire to shape it as required. In the picture below, the vessel is lined with paperbark to provide a comfortable bed for a new baby, but for fluids the two halves of the coolamon would have been secured together. I am always in awe of the ability of indigeonous peoples everywhere to make the most of the plants that they find in their environment, and their understanding of the ebb and flow of the natural world that surrounds them.

Should you be tempted to try the nectar of a Grevillea, however, I would advise you to desist, as some of the commonly cultivated Grevilleas contain cyanide.

By Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.auCanon 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 - Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=445560

The coolamon here is the bark-lined vessel at the top left of the picture. It can be used to carry everything from newborns to water (Photo Three – credit below)

Grevilleas are named after Charles Francis Greville (1749 – 1849), who developed the harbour at Milford Haven in south Wales, but, more relevantly for this discussion, was the first person to persuade the Vanilla Orchid to flower in the UK. He was good friends with Sir Joseph Banks, who was involved with the Botany Bay colony during its inception, and who has a genus of plants of proteas, the Banksii, named after him too. The ships that brought the convicts to Botany Bay would return home laden down with the best of the flora and fauna that Australia had to offer. The first of the Grevillea plants arrived in 1825, and were hugely popular. However, the conditions for growing these plants are completely different from those present in their original home, and so only a few species can tolerate living outdoors, and even then they are notorious for succumbing to overly wet conditions.

By George Romney - http://thepeerage.com/p41634.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17078291

Charles Francis Greville (Photo Four -see credit below)

So, dear Readers, I hope you will forgive me for including such an exotic plant in the Wednesday Weed. I have seldom been so astonished by a winter-flowering plant – it was a little like spotting an escaped wallaby, or espying a koala in the weeping willow. I must make a trip to Australia one day: the flora and fauna are unique, and illustrate so well how evolution can come up with extraordinary forms. In the meantime, I will be keeping an eye on this grevillea, and will no doubt now notice hundreds more, as is the way of things.

Photo Credits

Photo One  (Honeyeater) – T. Gerus (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgerus/15564100412)

Photo Two (Lorikeet) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoom_eric/171175004

Photo Three (Coolamon) – By Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.auCanon 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=445560

Photo Four (Charles Francis Greville) – By George Romney – http://thepeerage.com/p41634.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17078291

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!

 

 

East Finchley’s River – The Mutton Brook Part One

Cherry Tree Wood, 18th January 2017

Cherry Tree Wood, 18th January 2017

A few weeks ago it occurred to me that, at the grand old age of nearly 57, I have never walked along a river from its source to its end. I have always wanted to do this with one of the great rivers of the world: the Nile, say, or the Orinoco, or the Amazon. Or, failing that (and I’m sure there are logistical reasons why you can’t actually walk the length of any of the rivers mentioned), I would like to walk the Thames. Well, not much chance of that at the moment either. So, how about a much more local stream?

The Mutton Brook is East Finchley’s own river. It is said to ‘arise in Cherry Tree Wood’, though previous visits had left me a little puzzled about that. Then, it flows through Hampstead Garden Suburb and skirts the edge of Temple Fortune before meeting up with the Dollis Brook and becoming the River Brent, which empties into the Thames. Today being a bright, cold day, I decided to follow the river as far as the Dollis Brook, and just see what I could see. I left behind my pith helmet and took my camera and a copy of an old map of the Suburb to help with navigation.

Well, the first challenge is finding where exactly the Mutton Brook arises. Cherry Tree Wood is notoriously prone to dampness and becomes a bog with little encouragement: the Summer Festival of a few years back had to be cancelled because of the quagmire, and watercress used to be grown in the stream. The theory is that it was called the Mutton Brook because drovers bringing their animals to slaughter at Smithfield would water their sheep here. But where is it within the wood? There is no obvious brook anywhere. My guess is that the river starts somewhere behind the tennis courts.

img_9360

This area is always damp, and there are often flag irises growing, along with other bog plants.

img_9361You can follow a path of muddy puddles right along the edge of the wood itself, past the football fields. This morning, some areas give an ominous creak when I stand on them, as if the ice will break and I will be plummeted into the mud below. A man slides backwards and forwards on one of the more extensive puddles, and so does a small, hairy dog.

img_9363But the clear evidence of the stream is hidden away. I have missed it numerous times when I’ve been in the wood, and it was only the sound of running water that alerted me to it today. Beside the tube line, surrounded by undergrowth and a green metal fence, a stream runs down a concrete culvert, and is directed sharp left under the embankment. It’s the last time it will appear above ground for over a mile.

img_9370

My first definite sight of the Mutton Brook, as it’s channelled under the tube line at East Finchley

img_9371I have an old map of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which clearly shows that the Mutton Brook reappears on a road called Vivian Way. I cut round behind the station, passing along Edmund Walk and emerging into an area of Tudor-themed suburb houses. There are some magnificent weeping willows in the middle of the green here, and I wonder if they are tapping into hidden water.

img_9374I always find interesting garden plants in the suburb, and today is no exception. There is a lovely frosted knot garden, and a very interesting legume – if anyone knows what it is, do tell me!

img_9377 img_9375When I get to Vivian Way, I can find no sign of the poor old Mutton Brook. The green, where it is supposed to run, comprises a lot of grass, three birch trees and a hungry blackbird.

img_9378There is, however, a huge manhole cover plonked down in the middle of the area, and it occurs to me that maybe the stream has been taken underground here, but can still be inspected via this access point. The manhole cover itself is a miniature garden, moss on one side, lichen on the other.

img_9381

One side of the manhole cover.....

One side of the manhole cover…..

....and the other side

….and the other side

I am always surprised by how quiet the Suburb is during the day, especially after the relative bustle of East Finchley. I’m sure that this calm was something that the architects of the scheme wanted to achieve, and I know that there is a thriving community here. However, there is something a little spooky about it too. In my entire walk I saw only a handful of people.

I cross the main road, and head up Norrice Lea. The synagogue and the Jewish school are here, and there are usually security guards, as there are outside the nursery school that I pass later. It distresses me that this should be necessary, but I understand the need. I try to look as inoffensive as a middle-aged woman carrying a camera can look, but just before I get there I notice the Mutton Brook has emerged from underground and is tumbling under my very feet.

img_9385To follow it, I have to head into Lyttleton Playing Fields, where a small Chinese man is doing his morning tai chi in spite of the cold. I find the stream behind the tennis courts (again). On the other bank there are some rather fine mansion blocks, but it’s a sad little river here: confined between beaten up pieces of wood and crumbling concrete walls, and smelling slightly of sewage.

img_9388 img_9392The banks are mainly bramble and cherry laurel, and there is rubbish bobbing along. At one of the bridges (and at several other points along the brook) there is clear evidence that it occasionally floods, and that the banks subside – I’m very careful not to get too close to the edge along this part of the stream, as there are several places where the soil has fallen in, and I don’t want to follow.

img_9394There are some magnificent oaks and hornbeams along this stretch, their branches stretching over the path like tentacles.

img_9403 img_9397Shortly, I come to Kingsley Way: the brook  leaves the playing fields and flows on into a little ornamental park. There is a measuring device here which I find very puzzling. It looks as if it measures the depth in metres, but it has ‘63’ in red letters at the top. This is about the same height as the bridge, which could well be 6.3 metres from the base. But how high does the river actually rise? I must pay attention and see how often, and how badly, the Mutton Brook misbehaves.

img_9404Once the brook emerges from under the road, it takes on a completely different character.  The stream meanders through a narrow channel, burbling to itself as it goes. There are some fine specimen trees here, and a robin seems to be singing from every one.

img_9411 img_9412The grass is still frozen, and crunches underfoot. A French Bulldog in a jumper goes careering past, dead leaves flying around him. And as I get to the end of the park, where the river goes under another bridge, I am stopped in my tracks by a delicious smell. There are two viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ shrubs, and the scent is divine, even on this freezing day. The pink flowers on the bare branches against the bright blue sky remind me of a Japanese print.

img_9419 img_9415By now, I am cold and in need of a loo. And so I cross Meadway, and stop for a coffee in Cafe Toulouse in Market Place. And very fine coffee it is too. This is a favourite stopping-off place for walkers and mums and friends, and I can see why. I love that it’s called ‘Toulouse’ not because of a fondness for France, but because it’s on the site of a former public toilet.

My walk takes me into another little park, where the Mutton Brook still wanders along in a decidedly civil manner. I sense, however, that it is getting more ambitious.

img_9431img_9432Once past the tennis courts it becomes wider and wilder. I watch the woodpigeons scuffling through the leaf litter, and observe a robin having a titanic battle with a very resistant earthworm.

img_9436 img_9442 img_9443Who knew that earthworms could put up so much of a fight?

The river is nearly invisible behind the brambles now, and when I go to see if I can see it, I find a fine patch of cyclamen leaves.

img_9448I can hear the water, but it’s nearly drowned out by the roar of traffic from Falloden Way, a sound that will be my constant companion from now until pretty much the end of the walk. I steel myself to cross the main road, and see where the stream goes next. But for that, gentle readers, you will need to wait until next week.

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 – Male Fern

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…..

img_9356

Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

Dear Readers, on a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in January it was hard to find any wild plants to write about for the Wednesday Weed. I was half-tempted to feature the Amaryllis which is doing splendidly in a pot in my writing room, but I can hardly say that I didn’t plant it deliberately. And so I wandered out to the recycle bin and spotted this sad little specimen of male fern, doing its best against the slugs and the darkness and the damp. It has popped up beside a doormat that I keep meaning to throw out, and it provided a welcome hint of fresh green.

img_9351Ferns have an otherworldly, alien quality to them. They propagate by spores, rather than by flowers and seeds. At one point in earth’s evolution they were the dominant plants, first appearing during the Carboniferous about 360 million years ago. Dragonflies with 30 inch wingspans flitted among their fronds, and two-foot long scorpions hid in their shade. In short, walking through a fern-forest during this period would have been a rather alarming experience.

img_9357The names of the parts of the fern leaf are enigmatic. The stalk is the stipe. The mid-rib is the rachis, as it is in a bird’s feather. Most elegantly of all, an emerging fern, curled up like a caterpillar, is named ‘crozier’ after the bishop’s staff.

By Rror - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4072985

The unfurling crozier of a lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) (Photo One – Credit below)

You may be wondering why this plant is called ‘male fern’. It appears that when it was named, it was felt to be the partner of a different species, the ‘lady fern’ (pictured above). The male fern was ‘robust in appearance and vigorous in growth’, while the lady fern was altogether more demure. You might argue that it’s this kind of gender stereotyping that’s gone a long way to making a mess of the world, but then I suspect the plants were named a very long time ago.

An alternative name for male fern is ‘worm fern’, which may be a reference to those curly croziers. However, the root of the plant was also used as a remedy for worms (an antihelmintic, another great new word for my collection). Was this because it was actually efficacious (it contains a substance called flavaspidic acid) or was it because the appearance of the worm-like fronds was considered to be an indication from God of what the plant was meant to be used for? Quite probably a bit of both, I suspect. These days, in the West at least, parasitic worms are on the decrease, and there are other remedies if you do contract them.

Incidentally, there are currently some fascinating studies on the effects of infestation with parasites and positive effects on the immune system. There are some indications that asthma, IBS, arthritis and MS symptoms can all be alleviated where the patients have been deliberately infected with different kinds of worms. The Wikipedia page here is a good overview, but New Scientist has a number of interesting articles on the subject. It seems that our fondness for hygiene, while generally a good thing, might have a number of deleterious side effects.

Onwards!

img_9353If you are not infected with worms, you might still want to seek out a male fern. According to folklore, it can make you invisible, a most useful attribute when trying to avoid your boss or indulge in some shady activity. Apparently anyone carrying it will be rendered imperceptible to the naked eye. I tried it with a few fronds plucked during the deluge but was still clearly visible (and wet). And then I read some more. Apparently, it’s the fern seeds that make you invisible. Ferns, as mentioned above, don’t have seeds. Therefore, if you find some they must be invisible and will ergo make you invisible too. Just like me not to read the small print. Plus, the seed was meant to be gathered on Midsummer’s Eve, along, it appears, with the rest of the plant (see below).

The root of the plant is known as ‘St John’s Hand’, and, if harvested and dried by a bonfire on Midsummer’s Eve is said to provide a powerful protection against any kind of misfortune, from ghosts and the evil eye to illness and bad luck. It’s said that Genghis Khan carried this charm on his person at all times, and it certainly worked for him. The trick is to tie five pieces of the root together in a hand shape, with the stem of the fern as the ‘wrist’. There’s a fine picture of one here.

If this were not enough, male fern can also be used in a potion to make a man fall in love.

By No machine-readable author provided. Valérie75 assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A much more magnificent specimen of male fern than the one in my back garden….(Photo Two, credit below)

During Victorian times there was a positive craze for ferns, as described by author  Dr Sarah Whittingham FSA in her book ‘Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania’. It may well have been triggered by Wordsworth et al, who waxed lyrical about ferns in The Lyrical Ballads. Here, Wordsworth is discussing the royal fern, Osmunda regalis, which grew in the Lake District.

‘Many such there are,
Fair Ferns and Flowers, and chiefly that tall Fern
So stately, of the Queen Osmunda named;
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode,
On Grasmere’s beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.’

I studied the Lyrical Ballads for my A-Levels back in 1978 and even that degree of immersion didn’t win me over to their charms – I still find them vaguely irritating (though I’m very happy to hear from you if you love them. I am not beyond convincing). But regardless of the cause, pteridomania led to a trend for fern patterns on wallpaper and porcelain, china and plaster. Native species were driven to the edge of extinction by Victorian collectors who were keen to imprison plants in their indoor glasshouses, called ‘Wardian Cases’. These were essential as the air pollution from coal fires would otherwise lead to the death of the plants.

A Wardian Case (Public Domain)

A Wardian Case (Public Domain)

These days, we have moved away from using ferns as indoor or garden plants, in spite of their great suitability for dark rooms, or those with humid atmospheres. But I am starting a one-woman drive to bring back the fern. In a north-facing garden, with two narrow, dark alleys, the ferns not only survive, but thrive. Their leaves offer a splendid green counterpoint on dark winter days. And if one day a two-foot long scorpion appears from under a frond, or a giant dragonfly flits past, I shall be delighted. I’m not called Bugwoman for nothing, y’know.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Croziers) – By Rror – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4072985

Photo Two (Male Fern) – By No machine-readable author provided. Valérie75 assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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!

 

 

 

 

 

After Christmas in the Cemetery

img_9246Dear Readers, I visited St Pancras and Islington Cemetery during the week after Christmas, there seemed to have been an irruption of artificial poinsettia. It was the first choice of the many people who had come to visit the graves of their loved ones during this most poignant season of the year. And now, as the wind shook the bare branches and the sun shone down indifferently, the red ‘flowers’ added a somewhat incongruously festive air to the place.

Some of the artificial plants are pretty convincing, others less so. But it is interesting how this plant, originally from Mexico, has a long association with Christmas. A Mexican legend tells how a small girl called Pepita was too poor to bring a gift to the statue of the baby Jesus in her church. An angel appeared, and told her to gather weeds and place them at the altar. Beautiful scarlet flowers grew from these humble plants and turned into poinsettias. The star-shaped leaf clusters are said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour is, of course, the blood of Christ.

img_9238img_9247img_9236img_9235The red part of the poinsettia is not, as we know, the flower – the flower is the rather insignificant mass of tiny buds in the centre of the plant, imitated rather well in the photograph above, I think. The red ‘bits’ are modified leaves, called bracts. These days we can see white, pink and variegated versions of the plant, but I think I prefer the red ones, largely because I love it when the green leaves start to go red and the veins stand out scarlet against the emerald.

But among all the plastic flowers, there was some real life going on. Although January is the middle of winter for us humans, the starting gun has already sounded for many birds. The trees and bushes were full of robins singing, blackbirds chucking and great tits making a right old racket.

img_9239img_9240The width of the band of black on the chest of a great tit is related to testosterone levels, as is the black bib under the chin of a male house sparrow. The wider the band (or the bigger the bib) the more aggressive and dominant the bird is. A Spanish study showed that, in Spain, great tits with a wide black band do better in the forest (the bird’s natural habitat) whereas birds with a narrower band (indicating a more cautious attitude) do better in the cities. But things are rarely so simple. In the Spanish birds, the narrower band also seemed to be linked to a more curious and thorough temperament, surely an advantage when there are lots of novel opportunities to be investigated. I shall leave you to decide on the possible nature of the little chap above.

img_9253In the UK at this time of year there seem to be big gangs of young magpies about. There was a group of four or five in the cemetery while I was having my walk, and they were a noisy, rambunctious lot, harassing a pair of crows and then turning their attentions to terrifying some jays. I once watched a group of twenty in an Islington square as they forced some crows to abandon their nest. Fortunately, the crows hadn’t yet laid any eggs, and the magpies soon departed to annoy someone else. I imagine that this is pre-breeding behaviour, which will cease once everyone is paired up and has their own eggs to worry about.

One of the cemetery kestrels watched on serenely.

img_9269I first spotted this bird on top of a hawthorn bush. It has endless patience, making the occasional reconnaissance flight across the gravestones and then returning to sit and watch. I know that there are lots of small rodents here( after all, I watched a young fox eat a dead one back in the autumn) and the fact that the cemetery supports a pair of kestrels presumably means that they are fairly good at finding them. I always get a thrill when I see a kestrel; they may be small but they have the enigmatic nature of all predators, a kind of self-assurance that I find very moving. Don’t they know how wicked we have been to them, historically and currently?

img_9268Kestrels also eat small birds, and so the superabundance of berries and rose hips this year, which will attract thrushes and other small avians, will help too.

A bush absolutely heaving with rose hips

A bush absolutely heaving with rose hips

img_9257But by now I was getting cold, and even I had seen enough poinsettias for one day.

img_9265And so I turned for home, stopping only to wish a very under-dressed man clutching a can of beer a Happy New Year. He was shivering with cold, but strolled off briskly into a wooded area to finish his drink. The cemetery is a magnet for lost souls of all kinds, and my heart went out to him. When I worked in a night shelter in Dundee, Christmas was always the hardest time of year: so many of the people there had lost contact with their families. It was often hard to work out whether the families had gone because of the drink, or the drink had started because of the families. But whichever it was, it was a time of great distress and soul-searching and, often, remorse. No one is born to end up in a cemetery in a tattered shirt, with drink the only available solace.

But, to end on a more cheerful note, I circled round to see my favourite non-living creature in the cemetery, the Egyptian Cat. I’ve written about him or her before  but I wanted to see how s/he was looking during the festive season. And I was not disappointed.

img_9272What a magnificent outfit! I am more in love than ever.

Now, some of you will, I’m sure, be wondering about the foxes. Truth is, I’ve not seen any for the past month or so: this is the season for young foxes to disperse, and for adults to turn their thoughts to sex. My friend B has been leaving out the medication, and all the food is being eaten, but the foxes can afford to wait until after dark to eat it, and we get booted out of the cemetery at four p.m. However, the days are getting longer, and I’ve no doubt that soon they’ll be putting in an appearance again. You will be the first to know, lovely readers!

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Wednesday Weed – Mexican Orange Blossom

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…..

Mexican Orange Blossom (Choisya ternata)

Mexican Orange Blossom (Choisya ternata)

Dear Readers, in early January it is a delight to find any plant in flower, let alone one with a sweet smell and abundant waxy-white flowers. So, I was very pleased to find some Mexican Orange Blossom (Choisya ternata) in full bloom on Durham Road. The plant should not be confused with Mock Orange (Philadelphus species): Choisya is a member of the Rue family, which includes all the citrus trees, Skimmia (a stalwart of any garden centre) and of course Rue itself, much used as a medicinal. What all of these plants have in common is an abundance of essential oils which can be used in everything from perfume to cookery to the aforementioned medicines. The homeware company Diptyque sells a candle scented with Choisya if you happen to have £42 going idle just after Christmas. It is described as ‘sparkling, bitter-sweet and appealing’. I do wonder if they sell any unappealing candles: maybe ‘Cabbage’ or ‘Trainers’ or ‘Slurry’ in case you want to give a present to someone that you don’t very much like. Although the flowers are sweetly fragrant, the essential oils in the leaves are described on the Horticulture Week website as having a ‘pungent, rather unpleasant smell’, so perhaps an ‘unappealing’ candle could be made from Choisya after all.

img_9280As the name suggests, Mexican Orange Blossom comes originally from the southern states of  North America through to most of Mexico.  The plant was ‘discovered’ by Alexander von Humboldt during his South American voyages, though I imagine it was already well-known to  the indigenous peoples of the area. Humboldt named the plant Choisya after the Swiss botanist Jacques Choisy (1799 – 1859). He was a Swiss clergyman who contributed to the 17 volume ‘Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis, an attempt to record all the known seed plants in the world.The plant arrived in the UK in 1825 and was initially a plant of hothouses and orangeries. These days it seems perfectly happy outside, even in mid-winter.

img_9281One puzzle about Mexican Orange Blossom is that it very seldom sets seed. The plants encountered by Humboldt are now thought to have been cultivated examples – apparently truly wild Mexican Orange Blossom is very rarely encountered, and it might be that the plant is a hybrid. Certainly, the plants for sale in garden centres in the UK are grown from woody cuttings. What a puzzle! Apart from straightforward Choisya ternata, shown in my photographs, you can also find several varieties, though none of them apparently flower as enthusiastically as the original plant, and are less likely to give a second flush.

By Wouter Hagens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Choisya ‘Aztec Pearl’ (Photo One, credit below)

Sten [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Choisya ‘Sundance’, a yellow-leaved variety (Photo Two, see credit below)

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‘Ordinary’ Choisya

Experiments have been made into the medicinal uses of the plant, which has been included in the Mexican Pharmocopeia for its anti-spasmodic and stimulant properties. In Mexican folk medicine, the plant is used to treat a condition called ‘nervios’, which seems close to the Western conditions of anxiety and depression.  It has been investigated by scientists for possible anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory effects, and as a painkiller, and it seems that these studies have been promising. ‘Studies in Texan Folklore’ by Thomas Meade Harwell mentions that orange-blossom tea was thought to be good for heart ailments if taken before retiring in the evening. It seems that Choisya might, like so many plants, be a mini-medicine cabinet all on its own.

img_9276I rather like Mexican Orange Blossom. Once established (as a youngster it is prone to slug and snail attacks) it provides a valuable and long-running source of nectar-rich flowers for pollinators, and a delightful scent when you brush past. The yellow-leaved varieties can give a pop of colour in the darkest of winter days. I do wonder sometimes if plants miss the warmer summers of their native countries at some cellular level, but the ones around here are doing very well. Seeing a plant with such an abundance of flowers at this time of year certainly put a spring into my step.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Choisya Aztec Pearl) – By Wouter Hagens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Choisya Sundance) – Sten [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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!

Bailey, King of the Cats

img_9221Dear Readers, as I have mentioned before, this is not a cat blog. However, I feel that this week I have to pay obeisance to a particular feline who was so much part of welcoming us when we first came to East Finchley, and who still pays us an occasional visit today. His name, as we eventually discovered, is Bailey, and he is the undisputed King of the local cats.

img_9207Back in 2010, when we were first looking for somewhere to live in East Finchley, my husband was walking along the pavement on his way home from work when he was knocked down by a speeding cyclist. My husband hit his head on the kerb and was rushed to hospital with a massive gash on his temple, and a short-term memory of approximately two minutes. When I rushed to A&E to see him, the conversation went something like this:

Nurse walks into the room.

My husband shakes her hand, and introduces himself. Hearing her Australian accent, he asks ‘Are you from Sydney?’

‘No’, says the nurse, ‘Melbourne’.

She walks out of the room and comes back thirty seconds later.

My husband shakes her hand, and introduces himself. Hearing her Australian accent, he asks ‘Are you from Sydney?’

‘No’, says the nurse, ‘Melbourne’.

Repeat ad infinitum.

My husband did remember that I was someone important to him, but not exactly who I was. On the other hand, he did remember the names of the two cats that I owned when I first met him. I shall leave you to ruminate on his priorities.

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Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that when I finally saw the house that was to be our home, my husband was at home recovering, and I took my friend J with me (as she is always up for ‘neb’ as my northern friends say). We were standing on the patio and listening to see if the noise from the North Circular Road was too loud to tolerate when a white apparition jumped over the fence, yowling, and threw himself on his back to have his belly scratched. Yes, this was our welcome to the neighbourhood.

img_9226Once we had moved into our house, the mysterious fluffy visitor continued to pay us regular visits. In the morning, he was immaculately groomed. By the afternoon, he was usually covered in twigs and dead leaves. Whenever he arrived, he would walk in, plonk himself down in the most convenient chair, and go to sleep. It was rather comforting, having him there while I worked away at my computer. Who was he, and where did he belong? His visits got longer and longer, and eventually we checked the tag on his collar. His name was Bailey, and he lived about ten houses up the road. If we carried him home he would jump out of our arms on his doorstep, but he seemed unable to work out where his house was if his paws were on the pavement. We were, in effect, his personal taxi service.

img_9224

On one supposedly Bailey-less occasion, I was working in the office when I heard Bailey’s owner  H berating him from the front garden.

‘Bailey!’ she said, ‘Come down from there and stop making a show of yourself’.

And then came a familiar howl.

I went downstairs to find Bailey balanced on the top of the eight-foot high doorway that leads to my back-garden, his face wrinkled in distress. He appeared to be unable to get himself down. His cries were pathetic.

Two youngsters from the local school passed by, and looked at him with worried expressions.

‘It’s Bailey’,  they chorused, for the cat is a local celebrity.  ‘Is he stuck?’.

‘No he blooming isn’t’, said H, ‘He’s just being dramatic’.

But fuss or not, he wasn’t moving. My husband arrived home from work to find me tottering on a dining-room chair and trying to retrieve an enormous fuzzy animal from the top of a rickety fence. Being six-feet two inches tall, he was able to remedy the situation quickly and efficiently, and so it was that Bailey was returned home.

img_9223The thing about Bailey is that he thinks he’s human. When he strolls through the garden, the birds and squirrels look up briefly and then carry on, because it’s clear that there’s as much chance of him chasing them as there is of me prowling through the hawthorn on all fours. He gets intensely frustrated when people don’t understand what he wants. All this sitting in the sink, for example, was meant to inform me that he wanted to drink from the tap. Of course.

Bailey isn’t allowed to come indoors at our house any more, because as you might remember we now have a very shy little cat who is completely freaked out by the presence of others of her species. But Bailey has taken to disappearing from his house for days on end, so when he turned up at our house on Sunday we felt we had to take him in until H got home. We confined him to the kitchen, where he sat in the sink glowering, as if the kitchen was his (rather inadequate) fiefdom. It was just like the old days. And when H and her daughter arrived to carry him home, it was as if his servants had arrived with a sedan chair and a fine plump cushion, as befitted his aristocratic status.

Where have you been?

Where have you been?

It is clear that we never really own a cat. They have their own views of how the world should be, and nothing we do will ever change them. It is also clear that every cat is an individual, with his own preferences and habits, foibles and tastes. Every cat has personality, but some personalities, and some cats, are much bigger than others. As Samuel Pepys said of his own cat: ‘He is a very fine cat indeed’.

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