Monthly Archives: March 2017

Wednesday Weed – White Comfrey

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…..

White Comfrey (Symphytum orientale)

Dear Readers, I am often surprised by what ‘pops up’ in the gardens of East Finchley. White comfrey is not a rare plant, but this individual, leaning through the fence of my friend A’s garden, is the only one that I’ve come across in my half-mile ‘territory’, and it has no friends nearby. Where do these plants come from? Has it been lurking in the soil for ages, just waiting for its chance? Or did the seed (described rather rudely in my Harraps Guide to Wildflowers as being ‘dull, with minute warts’ ) blow in from some distance? Which ever is the case, there it stands, as lonely as a cloud.

I have talked about Common Comfrey and Creeping Comfrey in previous posts, and as you might have gathered, I have rather a ‘thing’ for the whole Boraginaceae, a group that includes everything from lungwort to forget-me-nots. Who could resist these plants, with their plentiful food for bees and their varied medicinal uses? Clive Stace describes white comfrey as being ‘surely the most beautiful of it’s genus’, and notes that it is well distributed due to its ‘persistent roots and fertile nutlets’. Who could resist a plant with fertile nutlets, I ask myself, it sounds like just the thing for a vegetarian brunch, maybe with some fried tomatoes and mushrooms.However, some of the sites that I have looked at that sell white comfrey refer to it ‘not spreading, but gently self-seeding’, which could be weasel words in my view: I suspect that once you have one white comfrey, you might find yourself with nutlets to spare.

And in case you wondered, each comfrey flower has four nutlets (seeds), which are heart-shaped and dark-brown in colour.

White comfrey (also known as ‘soft comfrey’) was introduced into cultivation in this country in 1752, and was found in the wild by 1849. It comes originally from north western Turkey, Russia and the Causcasus. White Comfrey can be told from common comfrey by its snowy white flowers (those of common comfrey are creamy-coloured). The flowers discolour rather quickly, unfortunately, as in the plant above.

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

White Comfrey growing at Hadrian’s Wall (Photo One – see credit below)

Symphytum, the genus name for comfrey, and the name comfrey itself (from the Latin verb confevere), both mean ‘to grow together’, a reference to the plant’s long use in poultices for fractured and broken bones – an old country name for the plant is ‘knit-bone’. However, as far as I can ascertain, white comfrey is not one of the species best suited for medicinal work – for that, we need common comfrey. It’s a case of a rather ‘weedier’ plant having the edge when it comes to healing.

By Denis.prévôt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

White comfrey, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, published in 1912 (Photo Two – credit below)

As you know, I like to weave in some poetry when possible for my Wednesday Weeds, and this week it’s the turn of Walter de la Mare. I was brought up with some of his poetry for children, and although some of it now makes my teeth ache, I rather like this one, both for its pun on the word ‘weeds’ and for the contented present life of the widow. I would love to make a garden like this one.

A Widow’s Weeds

A poor old Widow in her weeds
Sowed her garden with wild-flower seeds;
Not too shallow, and not too deep,
And down came April — drip — drip — drip.
Up shone May, like gold, and soon
Green as an arbour grew leafy June.
And now all summer she sits and sews
Where willow herb, comfrey, bugloss blows,
Teasle and pansy, meadowsweet,
Campion, toadflax, and rough hawksbit;
Brown bee orchis, and Peals of Bells;
Clover, burnet, and thyme she smells;
Like Oberon’s meadows her garden is
Drowsy from dawn to dusk with bees.
Weeps she never, but sometimes sighs,
And peeps at her garden with bright brown eyes;
And all she has is all she needs–
A poor Old Widow in her weeds.

Queen Victoria with John Brown by Edwin Landseer, late 1860’s (Photo Three – Credit below)

Well, not exactly a poor old widow, but a fine example of mourning dress nonetheless. And the phrase ‘widow’s weeds’ got me thinking. Is there any etymological relationship between the weeds of a widow, and the weeds that pop up here every Wednesday?

Well, sadly, no. ‘Weeds’ as in ‘Widow’s Weeds’ comes from the Old English word waed, meaning garment. It was first recorded in 888, but by 1297 it referred to the clothing of a particular kind of occupation or station in life: you could talk about a priest’s ‘weeds’ or a beggar’s ‘weeds’ for example. By 1595 it is used only for the dark mourning clothing of widows, and this is the only sense in English in which we still use the phrase.

‘Weed’ as in ‘plant’ comes from Old English ‘weod’, meaning herb or grass, and only later becoming pejorative.

I sometimes think we should restore the old habit of mourning clothing, because it provided some indication that the person wearing them might be feeling vulnerable, and I like to think that people would behave accordingly. I do remember, however, my mother remarking that when she was wearing black after her mother died back in the 1970’s, some idiot still told her to ‘smile’ when she walked past. I believe she ‘cleaned him’ as they say these days. Don’t get me started on blokes who believe they should have dominion over women’s faces as well as everything else.

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

A fine crop of white comfrey (Photo Four – see credit below)

And talking of my mother reminds me that, when I was a child, she used to recite the poetry that she had learned by heart to me. She had many favourites, but since we were talking about Walter de la Mare earlier, I shall share with you a rather eerie poem, which still makes a little shiver run down my back.

The Listeners

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house


Photo Credits

Photo One (white comfrey at Hadrian’s Wall) – © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Two (white comfrey plate) – By Denis.prévôt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (Queen Victoria) – by Lisby (

Photo Four (White Comfrey) – By Cwmhiraeth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Deep in Their Roots All Flowers Keep the Light (Theodore Roethke)

Spring in the County Roads

Dear Readers, I was at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on Wednesday, watching a production of Twelfth Night. My first inkling that something was wrong was when I switched on my phone during the interval. As soon as the screen burst into life, I was inundated with messages from my husband and friends.

‘Are you all right?’

Of course, what could possibly go wrong at Twelfth Night (apart from some rather weak comedy of course)?

But soon it became clear that a terrorist attack had taken place on Westminster Bridge and at Westminster itself. People were dead. Someone was in the Thames. Parliament was in lock down.

When I left the theatre, Waterloo Bridge was a chain of red double-decker buses, bumper to bumper, and a crocodile of commuters trudged past, trying to find an alternative way home. Overhead, the helicopters droned like heavy bees.

It all felt all too familiar. I had been visiting the Tower of London with my sister-in-law and her eight-year old daughter when the tube bombings of 7th July 2005 happened. The whole transport network, tubes and buses, was closed down, and the working population of London  took to the streets to walk home, blinking like moles above ground. I remember the wail of sirens as ambulances screeched past, the women walking in their stockinged feet, high-heels in hand.

And years earlier, picking my way through barricades in the City of London after the IRA bombs, the crunch of broken glass underfoot and the window blinds in the Nat West tower flapping like sails.

And later, leaving the station and feeling a juddering through my feet and up into my stomach that could only be an explosion, and hearing that a bomb had been set off at Canary Wharf, five miles away as the raven flies.

And when it feels as if the ground has moved, there is nothing for it but to slow down, to breathe, to return to the familiar. And so today, the day after the Westminster attacks, I walk around my local streets to see what can be seen. I need to move at the pace of a small child, and allow myself to be intrigued.

What, for example, is eating my nettles and green alkanet? It seems too early for a caterpillar but there he is, not sure whether to curl up or not.  I am glad that I showed mercy to the nettles, and will leave them now for this creature to feed on.

I turn left, and notice the violets scattered amongst the broken Victorian paths and popping up at the bottom of walls. I love their strange, five-petalled faces, the purple stripes against the lilac throat, like landing lights for bees. Where have the violets come from? I cannot remember seeing them last year, but today they are everywhere. There is one particularly big patch a few houses up, and I wonder if this is the motherlode, and all the others are downwind, the seed scattered and taking root.

I turn into Bedford Road. There is a particularly fine double-fronted house with two massive trees outside, and the steep, tiered garden is full of woodplants: green hellebore and lungwort, and a bush covered in yellow flowers that look like the blooms of miniature daffodils.

Across the way is some green alkanet coming into bloom. For the first time, I notice that the early flowers are purple or even pink, turning blue as they age, just as the flowers of lungwort do, and I am reminded that green alkanet and lungwort are closely related. In fact, there will be many things on this walk that remind me of the borage family, and what a boon it is.

I’m feeling steadier already.

Some asplenium ferns are growing from a wall further up the road, and I am reminded of the ones that I saw in Somerset, and had never seen in London before. Another thing about walking slowly is that it enables me to make connections, in time and place. For a second I can see a tiny part of the complex web that holds all of us together, for, deny it or not, we are all much more closely related than we think.

The Camellias are in full bloom, and how glorious they look! But the rain will mar their perfection, and never was a flower more easily ripped from its stem. They are a brief glory, but a glory nonetheless.

One house has an enormous plaster pineapple as a gate post. I have always loved it, while having no idea at all what it means. It looks a little big for this particular house, and I would love to know if it was originally on the gatepost of some local mansion. But for now, I just admire it and move on.

The white comfrey outside my friend A’s house is doing very nicely – the flowers are such a brilliant white that I have to turn down the exposure on my camera to get any kind of photo. That whiteness only lasts for a brief time, though, before it’s stained with brown.

The waxy blossoms of the magnolia are just about to erupt and one house has a magenta magnolia with buds that look like elegant hands.

Some twittering on Durham Road makes me look up, and there are a pair of blue tits working their way along a gutter, along with a goldfinch. I suspect that little insects sometimes turn up here, maybe trapped with the dead leaves. At this time of year the tits are so busy. One has taken to pecking at the blossoms on my skimmia, though whether for nectar or invertebrates I have no idea.

The lesser celandine is popping up everywhere.

Outside the church on Durham Road there is a big patch of creeping comfrey. A few years ago this was almost completely eradicated, but here it is again. The blooms start off with a red throat, which goes blue as the flower matures, and they are a magnet for hairy-footed bees and bee flies and bumblebees, even on a cold, breezy day like today.

I always look at the little microhabitats at the bottom of trees. The chickweed is in full bloom already, with its flowers like little stars. The blossom from the early-flowering cherry trees blows along the pavement.

There is one magnificent twisted cherry tree on Leicester Road, that looks as if it could have come from a Japanese vase. It arches over the garage and out over the road as if in a complex yoga pose. I nearly get run down taking a picture from the middle of the road. Such are the dangers of trying to be intrepid in East Finchley.

There is a particularly fine forsythia bush, too.

I am rather taken by the early flowers of yellow corydalis, when they are cream-coloured with a kiss of pale green. Later, they turn sunshine yellow, which is not quite so elegant.

And for the first time I notice the tiny flowers of a laurel, erupting from bunched fists into four tiny chocolate petals.

I turn for home, and can’t resist a final photo of the moss on a nearby wall, the capsules reminding me of the head and neck of a swan, a world in miniature.

And my final, final picture, of rosemary in flower, each bloom a little homunculus, orchid-like in their beauty.

When Death’s trumpet blares from every headline, I need to remember that this is only part of the story. We get so caught up in our own stories, our tragedies and our triumphs,  that we forget that there are different stories to be told.  Other living things are getting on with their lives, preparing for the next cycle of seeds and eggs and frantic gaping mouths, just as they always have. There is such tenderness in the soft shoot of a violet, and yet it has pushed through concrete to get to the light. Life is ferocious and it will not be denied, and I do believe that our urge towards the light is much stronger than our need for the darkness, however much it might sometimes seem otherwise. In the words of Theodore Roethke, that great, vulnerable, brave poet:

‘Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.’

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Wednesday Weed – Forsythia

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…..

Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)

Dear Readers, at this time of year the gardens of East Finchley are graced with great bursts of gaudy custard-yellow flowers, borne on bare stems. This is forsythia, the early-flowering shrub of choice in large areas of London, because of its reliability and its love for the capital’s claggy clay soil. It can be pruned into a neat shrub, allowed to grow into a tree 3-4 metres high, or  can be cut into a bush. It is tolerant of more or less anything. Viewed from my upstairs window, it looks as if there are little patches of sunshine breaking out everywhere. I welcome forsythia’s  boisterous good spirits at this time of year, but it is a plant that seems to polarise people: here, for example, is a piece by James Alexander Sinclair on the Gardeners’ World website. It seems he doesn’t like it much (and there is some British understatement for you):

Spring is in the air. Birds are tweeting. Comfortable nests are being flung together. Plants are sprouting. Frogs are croaking lasciviously. Daffodils are flowering away with nothing less than gusto and the gloom of February fades into distant memory.

There is however one big fat buzzing fly in the ointment. A plant that I have come to dislike with an almost irrational fervour. A plant that glares forth from innumerable gardens throughout the land. A plant whose impact is the equivalent of being socked hard round both ears with a large salami. A plant which sets my teeth on edge and sucks the joys of spring right out of my soul.

I have confessed to this before and have tried to work on this character defect, but to no avail. I think that forsythia (no matter how beautifully photographed) is just about the most horrible shrub in the world. There. I’ve said it…….

The flowers do not last long (which is a mixed blessing) and are succeeded by really, really, really boring foliage.

I will, if pushed, ‘hug a hoodie’ or even ‘snuggle a snail’ but I just cannot learn to ‘love a forsythia’.

Well, now we all know where Mr Alexander Sinclair stands. What do you think?

Forsythia on the left, mimosa on the right

Forsythia is a member of the Olearaceae or Olive family, and the hybrid that is most grown in British gardens was discovered in the Gottingen Botanical Gardens in Germany in 1898. The plant is sometimes found naturalised in the UK, and spreads by creating new plants when the roots touch the ground.

By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Forsythia growing in the wild in Heidelberg, Germany (Photo One – see credit below)

Forsythia was named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth, who created the first rock garden in England and who is also the great grandfather of Bruce Forsyth, formerly host of The Generation Game and latterly Strictly Come Dancing. The Generation Game was a Saturday evening must-see when I was growing up, and featured two families doing battle via using a potter’s wheel, Irish dancing or some other talent. At the end, the winning family would get everything that they could remember from a parade of consumer goods that passed them on a conveyor belt in 30 seconds. It always included a ‘cuddly toy’. What innocent days!  I can never get over the strange alleyways through which this blog leads me.

William Forsyth (Public Domain)

By SqueakBox at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

Bruce Forsyth (Photo Two – see credit below)

I was rather surprised to discover that the pretty flowers of forsythia have been used in a variety of culinary ways: here, for example, is a recipe for forsythia syrup from the Pure Traditions website. As I can detect almost no scent from the plant, and a nibble at the petals doesn’t reveal any particular flavour, I wonder what the syrup tastes of? If you make some, do let me know.

And even though this is not a cat blog I couldn’t resist the picture below, mainly because the picture reminds me of Felix, one of my very favourite foster cats. You’re welcome, cat lovers.

Forsythia and a very fine cat indeed (Public Domain)


One story that I have been chasing round and round the internets is a belief that forsythia flowers contain lactose. This would be most unusual, as this is normally only found in milk, but there seem to be several studies that suggest that the pollen of the plant does contain up to 25% lactose, or at least the component parts of the sugar. It’s thought that the sugars might play a part in protecting the buds of the plant from frost damage. On the other hand, there are several other studies which have failed to isolate the chemical. The whole discussion is making my head hurt, so I will just leave it here. In Chinese medicine, Forsythia suspensa, a close relative of our forsythia,  is used to treat problems of ‘mammary welling-abscesses’, and is generally thought to be useful for problems around breast-feeding.

You might be interested to know that we have just missed the 2017 Forsythia Festival, held in Forsyth, Georgia, in the second week of March. I particularly regret missing the Retro Eighties Night, and the visit from Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. As we couldn’t be there, here’s a taste of what we missed (though I imagine that Mr Noone looks a bit older these days)

As my regular readers know, I love to finish off a piece with a painting or a poem, and this week I’ve found two! First up  is American poet Billy Collins, one of my very favourite poets. It’s taken from the Poem A Day blog.

Forsythia – Billy Collins 
It caught my eye a while ago, lit up
against the gloom of the woods
in the corner of a wild field,
the pulsing color of caution.
And now that I have spent a little time
on this stone wall watching its fire
flare out of the earth
I begin to think about the long chronicle of forsythia
how these same flowers have blazed
through the centuries,
roused from the ground by the churning of spring.
I would rather not look around the next
corner of the year to see how this will die,
its lights going out,
its bare, arcing branches
waving like whips in the bitter wind.
So I sit facing the past,
letting my feet dangle over the wall,
beating time against stone with my heels
as the long gray clouds roll over me.
Remember how Arnold by the Channel
thought of Sophocles who must have heard
the same shore-sounds long ago,
walking by the edge of the Aegean?
Well, I am holding in the palm of my thoughts
all the others who once were stopped,
like me, by this brightness,
this sulfuric cry for help:
women in tunics, women gathered by a well,
men in feathers, men swimming by a river,
all speaking languages I will never know,
saying the different words for its color
as I feel the syllables of yellow form in my mouth
and hear the sound of yellow fill the morning air.


And here, from the The Herald, is ‘Old Woman in a Forsythia Bush’ by the Scottish poet, Vickie Feaver. How this speaks to me now that I’m getting older – ‘the long dark corridors of another winter’ indeed.

Old Woman in a Forsythia Bush

Bright bush of yellow stars

reaching out to me with long

bowed wands, among fields

ringing with blackbird songs;

where lambs, licked into life

by sheep’s rough tongues,

leap like ballet dancers,

impossibly high, as if hung

on strings of a great puppeteer

who dangled me when young,

exciting me to strip of vest

and bra to celebrate spring;

and, now I’m old, whose arms

have dragged me through the long

dark corridors of another winter

to sit on this sunny seat, among

starry stems of forsythia,

buoyant again, as if sprung

from my body and floating

above it, like a seed flung

from the grey head of dandelion.

Photo Credits
Photo One (Wild forsythia ) – By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two (Bruce Forsyth) – By SqueakBox at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,
All other blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

On a Thursday lunchtime, the streets around London Bridge station are mobbed with folk heading for Borough market to pick up their artisan coffee and hog-roast sandwiches, but just a few hundred yards further on is the garden of the Crossbones graveyard, a place of pilgrimage for many and a space for quiet contemplation amidst the traffic, human and vehicular.

It is  said that the site was originally a medieval burial ground for the sex-workers, or ‘Winchester Geese’ who worked in the area, and who were required to be buried in unhallowed ground. I went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in the 1990’s which showed a variety of skeletons, and told what could be learned from their condition. One of the bodies, exhumed from Crossbones,  was of a woman estimated to be 16-19 years old, only 4 foot 7 inches tall, and with well-advanced syphilitic lesions of the skull. I remember being haunted by the delicacy of her bones as she lay exposed in a glass case. I have always been simultaneously fascinated by what these remains can tell us, and appalled at what feels to me like desecration. I imagine that the young woman now lays in a vault in the Museum of London – the circular building in the middle of the roundabout there is an ossuary, full of historical bones.

The site was subsequently used as a pauper’s graveyard. Over 15,000 people too poor to afford burial were buried here, many of them children under a year old. The graveyard itself fell into disuse after 1853, at which point it was said to be absolutely full of remains, with one body thrown on top of another.When the site was used for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990’s, 142 bodies were disinterred, among them the young woman mentioned above.  The ribbons attached to the memorial gates of the site record the parish records for some of the people buried at the site.

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2,1725’

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

‘Mary Ann Jupp, Silver Street, Age 4 months’

People also attach remembrances of those who have died more recently, so that the gates are covered with tokens of those who are no longer on this earth.

Inside the garden there is a quiet space, where the rattle of trains en route to London Bridge is interspersed by the flapping of a wood pigeon’s wings and the song of a blackbird.

The entrance to the garden is via an elegant ‘goose’s wing’ shelter. There is a feeling of hopefulness and renewal, as the plants break into flower and the bees go about their work once again.

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

The willow tree was positively abuzz with honeybees collecting pollen to feed the larvae back in the nest. I love the little orange ‘baskets’ on their legs. It just goes to show that even in such an urban spot, insects will be attracted if we grow the right plants.

There were some other excellent pollinator plants in the garden as well.The early spring bees were all over the periwinkle, but were a bit too fast for me to get a photograph.

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

The brunnera was doing a great job of attracting pollinators as well – this is a great woodland plant, and mine is just popping up again in my garden (though it’s well behind this one).

Brunnera macrophylla

The green men statues are honoured at a ceremony in the autumn giving thanks for nature’s generosity.

The boards at the end of the site shows a map of the area in medieval times, and two poems taken from the ‘Southwark Mysteries’, a contemporary Mystery play written by local author John Constable, and performed by 50 professional actors and a cast drawn from the local community, at the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral in 2000, and again in 2010. The plays, with their ribaldry and boisterous nature, attracted a great deal of controversy, as you can read here. However, the overall message of the production was that no one is beyond redemption, and I’d have thought that this was something that was intrinsic to Christian belief. In 2007, before the garden was officially ‘a garden’, one of the on-site security guards, Andy Hulme, began to construct ‘the invisible garden’ behind the gates and shrine which were at that time the main focus of the site. One of his works was the Pyramid, into which seeds have been scattered over the years. One side of the pyramid is covered in oyster shells from Borough Market – oysters were once the food of poor people, washed down with gin or stout. Many of the people buried in the graveyard would have eaten them.

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

The most moving part of the garden though, for me, was the shrine behind the gates. A statue of the Virgin Mary tenderly cradles a goose, surrounded by flowers and tokens, and by broken chains. For many people, the statue also represents the Goddess, and it is typical of the inclusivity of Crossbones that, if you look, you will find symbols of many faiths. The principle here is divine love, whatever form it comes in.

The garden is currently leased from Transport For London (who recognise its role as public space) and is managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust and the Friends of Crossbones, who provide volunteers to open the garden between 12 and 2 pm on weekdays, and for a longer period at weekends. The garden is free to enter, but do sign the visitors book on your way out – when the usage of a space is recorded, it’s much easier to protect it from the ‘powers that be’. There have been many times in its history when Crossbones has been under threat.

Crossbones role as a memorial garden for the outcast dead is what makes it unique.  We are all just one mental illness, one financial catastrophe, one crushing bereavement, one addiction away from becoming outcasts ourselves. And in a city where everything moves too fast, and follows the money too enthusiastically, it is easy for people to be left behind. Only by including everyone can a city or a community thrive, and Crossbones is a powerful symbol of those who were not, and are not, included. Ceremonies of remembrance are held on the 23rd of each month at 7 p.m., not just for those buried in the garden but for all our outcast, dead and alive.

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Look Who’s Been Interviewed on Cabbieblog This Week

I was asked to take part in ‘The London Grill’ on Cabbieblog, and I was delighted to contribute. This is a blog by a real London cabbie, and what he doesn’t know about London isn’t worth knowing. The blog is full of fascinating tales, intriguing facts and London trivia of the highest quality. Pop over and have a look….

Wednesday Weed – Procumbent Yellow Sorrel

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…..

Procumbent Yellow Sorrel (Oxalis corniculata)

Dear Readers, in my search for a Wednesday Weed I have written about some tiny plants: chickweed, shepherd’s purse and hairy bittercress all come to mind. But this tiny survivor, with its chocolate-coloured heart-shaped leaves, almost escaped my attention. It was inching its way along the edge of a wall, accompanied by general detritus and some busy black ants, and seemed far too dainty for a city environment, but there it was.

Later in the spring, it will have bright yellow, five-petalled flowers, but for now it’s just a bracelet of leaves. They aren’t always as dark-coloured as in my plant, as you can see from the example below.

I, Uwe W. [CC BY-SA 2.0 de ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Procumbent yellow sorrel in flower (Photo One – see credit below)

It seems hard to imagine, but this miniscule plant is apparently a ferocious weed given half a chance. It fires its seeds explosively (leading to a German name that translates as ‘red jumping clover’) and it also roots at the stem nodules, spreading laterally. It will grow from a tiny stem fragment, and so is hard to eradicate. Because it is so inconspicous, it is often introduced into the garden in the soil that surrounds plants purchased from garden centres, and this is thought to be a popular route for several other related species, such as the least yellow sorrel(Oxalis exilis) from New Zealand and the upright yellow sorrel (Oxalis stricta) from North America. Once here, yellow sorrels seem to be able to thrive in the merest teaspoonful of  soil.

Not an ideal plant habitat.

Procumbent yellow sorrel is also known as creeping wood sorrel, or as sleeping beauty. It was already a weed in Somerset in 1585, but it is so ubiquitous that its area of origin is unknown, though it is thought to be from the Old World. It is now the 24th commonest alien weed in London (out of a list of 30 such plants) according to my copy of  ‘Alien Plants’ by Clive Stace – it is just beaten to 23rd place by michaelmas daisy, but gets in above red valerian in 25th place. In number one position is…….buddleia! Out of those 30 ‘weeds’ I have covered 18 in the Wednesday Weed, so I have some ideas now for other plants I should look out for.

But I digress, as usual.

There are apparently many medicinal uses for procumbent yellow sorrel: it has been used as a cure for intestinal worms, as a treatment for cancer and to stop vomiting. That it has also been used as an insecticide should give us a heads up that this is a potentially poisonous plant: it contains oxalic acid, which in vast quantities can cause kidney damage and gout. However, as the Oxalic Acid website says, the only plant which contains enough of this substance to cause a problem is rhubarb, and then you’d have to eat an estimated eleven pounds of the leaves (not the stalks) to get a lethal dose.

By picture taken by Olaf Leillinger - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Two (credit below)

There are a lot of recipes for sorrel out there on the internet, but one problem is confusion with that other sorrel, Rumex acetosa, a member of the dock family and the usual chief ingredient of Sorrel Soup. I shall have to do a separate post on ‘proper’ sorrel when I next find some in the cemetery, but in the meantime, do not waste your time picking those tiny purple leaves. It will take you about three hours to get enough (if you can find them) and I fear that, in East Finchley at least, the chance of dog contamination is astronomically high.

However, in India (where the plant is known as Changeri)  the leaves are used seasonally in salads and, like all wood-sorrels, they do have a slightly acidic, lemon-like taste. Maybe they would work as a sprinkling of oh so trendy micro-greens if you could find a clean source. They would certainly be very pretty.

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

Sorrel Soup with egg and croutons. Not made with procumbent yellow sorrel. Sorry. (Photo Three – see credit below)

As you might know, I am a great lover of words, and this whole post had me pondering about the word ‘sorrel’. We know that it’s used for two separate kinds of plants, but it’s also used to describe the coppery chestnut colour of a horse. This gives me a chance to share one of my favourite paintings, ‘Whistlejacket’ by George Stubbs. Whistlejacket is undoubtedly a sorrel horse, and I love that Stubbs has depicted him without the usual bridle and saddle and rider. This feels like a true portrait of an animal as an individual, rather than as something owned and being used as a status symbol, though this is what the horse was. Stubbs seems to reach over the head of his owner, and to see the horse as a ‘person’. All great art, I would argue, alerts us to the particular, and allows us to make connections to our own lives.

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs (Public Domain)

But why ‘sorrel’? One theory is that is nothing to do with our little plant, but is because of the colour of the ripe seedheads of that other sorrel, the member of the dock family. I shall leave you to decide if this is credible or not.

By NPS / Jacob W. Frank: Denali National Park and Preserve - Sheep SorrelUploaded by AlbertHerring, CC BY 2.0,

Flowerhead of common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) (Photo Four – Credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Yellow procumbent sorrel flowering in paving crack) – I, Uwe W. [CC BY-SA 2.0 de ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Yellow procumbent sorrel in flower) – By picture taken by Olaf Leillinger – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Three (Sorrel soup) – By Michał Sulik (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Common sorrel) – By Michał Sulik (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], 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!






They’re Back…..

There are many signs of spring. The first time that I get up at 6.30 catch a train to Dorset and it’s not pitch dark. The first time that I notice the snowdrops in the garden. The increased urgency in the song of the blackbird, the way that the blue tits and robins seem to have paired up. The lambs in the fields, and the slight softness of the air. The way that my husband has started to need his hayfever medication. But for me, early spring only starts with the sound of a plop in the pond, and the first small heads gathering at the shallow, stony end. It’s not until the first frog croaks that spring is truly on its way.

You can hear it most clearly in the evening, when the other sounds have died down. The frogs suck air into their bodies, so that they swell up, and then let the air out. Each species has a different call. In the tropics, the song of the frogs can be almost deafening, and the ‘spring peepers’ of North America don’t do a bad job either. The common frogs in my garden are a little more discrete, almost as if they feel embarrassed to be making such a fuss. But as the females are attracted to the loudest and longest ‘croaks’ they soon get over their hesitation.

The males acquire a greyish-blue tinge during the mating season, and also develop handsome white throats, which help to emphasise their appearance when calling. They also develop ‘nuptial pads’ on their ‘hands’ which help them to grip the females. When I took the photographs, there only appeared to be one female in the pond, but the huge quantity of frogspawn that has appeared since makes me think that there have been other visitors.

The male frogs tend to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of the pond, so that they can be on the spot when the females (slightly larger and allegedly browner/redder in colour at this time of year) appear. The females are more inclined to hibernate away from the pond, and seeing the way the males behave when one makes an appearance makes me think that they are absolutely right. A lone female can be absolutely mobbed by eager males, who are in a frenzy of lust. I have been watching the frogs from my upstairs window as they clamber over the heaps of frogspawn and attempt to attach themselves to anything that moves. One male frog even entered the water riding piggyback on a female, but he was soon booted off by a bigger, tougher frog. The male frogs take two years to reach breeding age, so every year counts.

Last year, the death toll was staggering in my pond. There was a heap of dead frogs under the hedge on several mornings, whether fished out by a cat, or taken as a stash for a fox, or even plucked out by a crow or magpie, I have no idea. This year, fortunately, I have not seen any casualties so far – I decided not to cut back the dead waterplants around the pond until spring, so maybe this has given them a bit more cover. Anyway, I am keeping my fingers crossed that this happy situation continues.

The fresh-laid frogspawn is always delightfully turgid, as if it’s going to burst at any moment, and I love seeing the tiny tadpoles already developing in the jelly. The outer layer of the spawn gradually breaks down, so that the tadpoles are released into the water after about two weeks. In the meantime, it’s fortunate that almost no warm-blooded predators like a snack of frogspawn, although there are videos of cats tucking in on the internets, and I have known of ducks who would visit a pond once a year to tuck into the eggs.

I have one rather idiosyncratic frog in the pond at the moment. One of his eyes is cloudy, and I’m sure that he’s blind on that side. It doesn’t seem to bother him as he croaks away as part of the froggy chorus, but I suspect it will make him more vulnerable to predators. I just hope that he manages to breed – I always have a soft-spot for the underfrog.

It’s no wonder that frogs have long been symbols of fertility. The ancient Egyptians had a frog goddess called Heqat, and I can well imagine that the annual flooding of the Nile brought a great chorus of frogs, signalling another year of good harvests.

By Daderot - Daderot, CC0,

Statue of Heqat, the Frog Goddess, from pre-Dynastic Egypt (approximately 2950 BCE) (Photo One – Credit Below)

The Chinese frog spirit Ch’ing-Wa Sheng is associated with good luck and prosperity in business, but many cultures also have proverbs about frogs such as ‘sitting in the well, looking to the sky’, which means a person who knows little of the world and has a very limited outlook. I much prefer the delightfully characterful Japanese frog in the illustration below, who looks as if he has had too many worms for dinner.

Frog and Mouse by Getsuju, a Japanese artist of the Edo period (Public Domain)

The presence of frogs signals the great rush to breed that is taking place all around us at this time of year. We tend to think that spring kicks off in April, but by then many animals will already have bred. We humans are a little on the sleepy side with regard to what’s going on around us, but frogs have a limited window to get on with passing on their genes – they are cold-blooded, and the tadpoles need the water to be warm for them to mature, something that can take a good few months in these unpredictable times. In fact, when I reared some tadpoles in a tank a few years ago, they matured a good month earlier than the ones in the much colder waters of their natal pond. So I wish my frogs success in their breeding, avoidance of predators and disease, and a warm summer. The world would be a much sadder place without the annual frog chorus.

Photo Credit

Photo One (Heqat the Frog Goddess) – By Daderot – Daderot, CC0,

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.













Wednesday Weed – Lungwort

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…..

Lungwort(Pulmonaria officinalis)

Lungwort(Pulmonaria officinalis)

Dear Readers, the lungwort is in full flower in several locations around my ‘territory’ at the moment, and the early-emerging queen bumblebees are delighted. And, actually, so am I, for this is one of my favourite plants. I love the jaguar-spotted leaves  – in one story, Mary is supposed to have been a little careless while feeding the baby Jesus, hence one of the alternative names for lungwort, ‘Mary-spilt-the-milk. I also love the way that the flowers start off pink and gradually move through lilac to blue (hence ‘Jacob’s Coat’). Plus, the plant is a member of the Boragaceae or borage family, which includes the exquisite blue borage itself, and good old ‘bone-knit’, comfrey. All of these are medicinal plants of great antiquity, and are also all beloved by pollinators. You can’t go far wrong with a borage.

img_9741The word ‘officinalis’ in a plant’s species name means that this was the ‘official’ cure for a condition. The combination of the shape of the leaves and those white spots was thought to be an indication that the plant could be used to cure spots on the lungs, catarrh, and coughs. The slightly hairy leaves are mucilaginous, which implied that they would soothe such conditions, and the usual treatment was to use the leaves in a tea. These days their primary use seems to be as a novel, early-flowering plant in a woodland garden.

img_9748The way that the flowers change colour is certainly very fetching, and I can’t help thinking how lovely they would be in a child’s garden. But what makes the flowers change colour as they grow older? A pigment in the petals changes from acidic (pink) to alkaline (blue) during the plant’s life, and this may occur once the plant is pollinated, or may simply be a result of age. The younger pink flowers have much more nectar and pollen than the blue ones. Does the colour act as a signal to the bees, telling them which plants are worth feeding from? Several studies have indicated that this might be the case.  Retaining the blue flowers also means that the overall display is much more visible from a distance than if the older flowers just dropped off.

img_9744The caterpillars of Ethmia pusiella feed only on lungwort, or its close relative the gromwell. As an adult, the moth reminds me of one of those appaloosa horses that popped up in the cowboy movies of my youth.

By José Ramón P. V. - Flickr: Ethmia pusiella IMG_1060, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Ethmia pusiella (Photo One – credit below)

Below we see two colour forms of the moth and an upwardly-mobile caterpillar feeding on gromwell, a close relative of lungwort.

By Curtis -, Public Domain,

Ethmia pusiella (From John Curtis’s work ‘British Entomology’, printed in 1824-29)

In The Language of Flowers, edited by Frederic Shoberl in 1835, lungwort is listed as the plant of the Feast Day of St Leander on February 27th. St Leander was a Spanish saint who died in 600 AD, worn out by his work with the Visigoths. Why the connection with lungwort, I have no idea, except that this is, as we’ve noticed, an early-flowering plant, and one which is native to the whole of Europe and western Asia. it is not, however, native to the UK, arriving here in 1597 (probably as a medicinal) and bursting forth into our woody places by 1793. Some of its showier varieties are also popular garden plants, and indeed the ones that I’ve spotted are undoubtedly garden escapes, or deliberately planted. If you prefer flowers that are white, or more brightly coloured than those in the picture, they can easily be bought online or in your garden centre. However, beware: lungworts love to cross-pollinate, and your subsequent plants may return to the motley of the original.

img_9746Although the leaves look rather inedible, they have been used in salads, and on her website ‘The Backyard Patch Herbal Blog’, Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh recommends using the rather slimy cooked leaves as a replacement for okra. She has some interesting recipes for the plant on her website here.

I was also delighted to discover that lungwort had a whole day for itself in the French Revolutionary  Rural calendar, used from 1789 to 1805, and for 18 days during the Paris Commune of 1871. All the months were had 30 days each, starting from the autumn equinox, and were named for the weather around Paris. Each week had ten days. The naming of the individual days in what was known as the Rural calendar was intended to turn the eyes and hearts of agricultural people away from all these Saints Days, and towards the more secular beauties of the countryside. Every tenth day was named for a farming implement, so the tenth day  of Brumaire (in October) was Charrue, or plough. Every fifth day was named for a common animal, so the fifth day of Brumaire was Oie, or goose. And in between came the plants. Lungwort crept in on the 19th day of Pluviose (20th January to 18th February), as ‘Pulmonaire’, and here is an attractive lady coping with the inclement weather of the month.

By Tresca, Salvatore (Graveur) – Lafitte, Louis (Dessinateur du modèle) -, Public Domain,

Pluviose in the French Revolutionary Calendar (Photo Two – credit below)

I rather like the idea of having days named after plants and animals. My birthday, as it turns out, would have been named for the spurge-laurel (which has not yet featured as a Wednesday Weed) and if you would like to check out your own birthday, just for the fun of it, you can find all the details here.

There is much to love about lungwort. The incredible colour-changing flowers with their messages to the bees, the white-spotted lung-shaped leaves, the February flowering and the possibility of using the plant to replace okra, surely the most demonic vegetable ever invented (with the possible exception of the jerusalem artichoke). I have tried and failed to grow it in my garden many times, probably because, according to Monty Don, it will be very prone to mildew if it dries out in the summer. Maybe I will try again, with a watering can to hand.

img_9738Photo Credits

Photo One (moth) – By José Ramón P. V. – Flickr: Ethmia pusiella IMG_1060, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two (Pluviose) – By Tresca, Salvatore (Graveur) – Lafitte, Louis (Dessinateur du modèle) –, 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 Survivor

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica 'Vegeta')

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’)

Dear Readers, this magnificent elm tree, over 100 feet tall, was for a long time the only surviving elm tree in Westminster. It is estimated to be about 150 years old, and was probably planted as a sapling in the grounds of the parish church of St Marylebone. Unfortunately, the church was so badly damaged during bombing in World War II that it had to be demolished, so now the tree finds itself marooned on the pavement outside a tiny Garden of Rest.

img_9680As I stand under the tree and lean back to take my photo, I become aware of what an enormous organism this is, dwarfing the people under it. It has the a presence, a sense of individuality that I often recognise when I spend time with old trees. And this one is a survivor twice over, because not only did it escape the German bombs, it was also somehow bypassed by the Dutch Elm Disease of the 60’s, which killed over 25 million trees in the UK alone.

img_9684Dutch Elm Disease had been in the UK since the 1920’s, but this was a mild strain of the micro-fungus which causes the disease, and which usually just killed a couple of branches. The fungus is carried by bark beetles, who normally do only minimal damage when their grubs dig tunnels through the bark. Unfortunately, the 1960’s brought a much more dangerous strain, carried into Europe in a consignment of logs from North America. As the fungus enters the wood, the tree reacts by plugging up the xylem that brings nutrients and water to the leaves. Gradually whole sections of the plant die off, and so the leaves that bring nutrients to the rest of the plant fall, and the tree starves. Over 75% of all the elm trees in the UK died.

Elms that have been incorporated into hedgerows survived the fungus, which only really starts to impact on the tree when it grows above 5 metres. However, all over the country the giant elms, the preferred nesting trees of rooks, succumbed. Among them was the largest elm ever recorded in the UK, the Great Saling Elm, with a girth of 6.86 metres and a height of 40 metres. The elms in the paintings of John Constable are also mostly gone.

By John Constable - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

John Constable ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden (1823 version) (Photo One – see credit below)

This tree has been our companion since at least classical times: the Linear B lists of military equipment found at Knossos mention that the chariots were made of elm wood, and elm was used by medieval bowmen if yew couldn’t be found. The Romans also used elm saplings as supports for their grapevines: the ancients spoke of the marriage between the elm and the vine. As Ovid put it,

‘ulmus amat vitem, vitis non deserit ulmum’ (the elm loves the vine, the vine does not desert the elm)

Elm wood was hollowed out to make many of London’s underground waterpipes, and to make lock gates on the canals. The original Tyburn Tree was a huge elm, before it was replaced with a gallows. And Seven Sisters in north London originally referred to a stand of seven elm trees, referred to in the mosaic by Hans Unger on the platform of the tube station. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called ‘The English Elms’ about this very subject:

Seven Sisters in Tottenham,

long gone, except for their names,

were English elms.


Others stood at the edge of farms,

twinned with the shapes of clouds

like green rhymes;

or cupped the beads of the rain

in their leaf palms;

or glowered, grim giants, warning of storms.


In the hedgerows in old films,

elegiacally, they loom,

the English elms;

or find posthumous fame

in the lines of poems-

the music making elm-

for ours is a world without them…


to whom the artists came,

time after time, scumbling, paint on their fingers and thumbs;

and the woodcutters, who knew the elm was a coffin’s deadly aim;

and the mavis, her new nest unharmed in the crook of a living, wooden arm;

and boys, with ball and stumps and bat for a game;

and nursing ewes and lambs, calm under the English elms…


great, masterpiece trees,

who were overwhelmed.

To hear her read her poem, have a look at the link here.

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two - see credit below)

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two – see credit below)

I noticed that wire had been twisted around the trunk of the Marylebone Elm, I suspect as a support for Christmas fairy lights. This is something of an indignity, but I suspect that the tree is less perturbed than I am. I sometimes think that we treat trees with such disregard because we can’t imagine that they are living things because they are so large, and live on such a different timescale from us. Certainly, we seem to view them with all the compassion that we would extend to to a lamp post. And yet, I have cried hot tears at the callous cutting down of trees, and at the disrespect that we show them, and it seems I am not the only one: in Sheffield recently, two ladies were arrested for trying to prevent the cutting down of their local street trees, an event which commenced at 4.30 a.m. to try to avoid public outcry.

img_9685But, at least the Marylebone Elm is still in good health, and the buds are just appearing. Soon, there will be the crisp, veined leaves, and then the yellowing into another autumn.


By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The strange flowers of the English elm (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (see credit below)

elm-leaf-231855Although the Dutch Elm disease problem has never gone away, there have been thousands of new plantings of the trees, including some in W1, the postcode of the Marylebone Elm . Elms are complicated trees, with many subspecies and varieties, and some have more resistance than others. Plus, as already noticed, small trees can survive as saplings or in hedges for many years. The elm is still here, under the radar, still providing nesting places for blackbirds and food for over 82 species of insects, including the white-letter hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds only on elms. The numbers of the butterfly were much reduced by the death of their foodplant, as you might expect, but they are now fighting their way back.

By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) (Photo Five – see credit below)

The giant elm of Marylebone seems strangely out of place these days, slotted in among the buildings as if every last inch of space that it takes up is begrudged. And yet, here it still stands, a survivor of fire and destruction, and of the insidious fungus that destroyed so many of its compatriots. It reminds me of that generation of people who survived the trenches and saw untold horrors, and yet who just got on with it. And that is what living things do, given half a chance – they carry on, until they can’t. May the Marylebone Elm carry on for many years to come.

img_9672 Credits

Photo One (Constable) – By John Constable – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Photo Two (Seven Sisters Mosaic) –© Copyright Oxyman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three (Elm Flowers) – By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Elm Leaves) – By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (White-letter hairstreak) – By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

I discovered many of the elm facts included in this blogpost in this article by James Coleman at The Londonist, and very informative it is too.

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!







Wednesday Weed – Winter Aconite

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 Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Dear Readers, last year I decided to finally get my act together and plant some woodland bulbs. With the help of my husband I planted snowdrops and cyclamen, lily of the valley and bluebells, and some winter aconite. I had been hoping for a carpet of spring colour. Instead, I have exactly two winter aconites, and a small early crop of stinging nettles. Whether the squirrels have had the lot or they’re just late is anybody’s guess. So I was particularly pleased to spot this fine collection of yellow beauties in a church yard in Camden, not far from Regent’s Park.

img_9660Winter aconites are a member of the buttercup family, but they always remind me of tiny saffron waterlilies. In Suffolk (where they seem to be particularly abundant) they are known as ‘choirboys’ because the ruff of leaves rather resembles the neckline of a choirboy’s costume.  The plant came originally from southern Europe and was apparently first introduced to the UK in 1596. By 1838 they were recorded in the wild, and are now seen in churchyards and verges, usually close to human habitation. However, there is a legend that winter aconites only grow where the blood of Roman soldiers was spilled, which implies that either the plants are time-travellers, or they were here a lot earlier than their documented first appearance. This Roman connection was a source of inspiration for the crime novelist Dorothy L.Sayers, who moved close to a Roman camp at Bluntisham, near Cambridge when she was a little girl, and was delighted by the winter aconites. When her father told her the story, her interest in ancient Rome was triggered. Although better known for her Sir Peter Wimsey detective novels, she became something of a classicist, and would explore this in her non-fiction work ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’, which advocated a return to the skills of logic, grammar and rhetoric. I can’t help wondering if, with the current level of political argument, she might have had a point.

img_9662Winter aconites are not actually members of the Aconite family but on the ever-informative Poison Garden website, John Robertson explains that the leaves look like those of the true aconites. This might also be why the plant has a reputation for being poisonous: all buttercups are poisonous to a degree, but true aconites, such as Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) are among the most toxic plants in the garden. I have only been able to find two documented cases of death through winter aconite poisoning, The first was an elderly German dachshund with a history of plant ingestion. The other is from the Plant Lives website, and mentions the death, in 1822, of the unfortunate Mrs Gorst, who is said to have  harvested winter aconite tubers after mistaking them for horseradish. Suffice it to say that eating decorative garden plants is never a great idea for any creature, human or otherwise.

img_9657As one of the earliest flowering of all  bulbs, winter aconite is a real boon in a woodland garden (or would be if it actually grew). They are known as spring ephemerals, because they take advantage of the light that filters through to the forest floor before the foliage appears on the trees, and disappear later in the year. In this, they mimic their close relative, the lesser celandine. Even snow does not deter the winter aconite. For the rest of the year, the plant hides beneath the leaf litter as a bulb, waiting for its moment of glory when everything else is still dormant.

winter-linge-892279Winter aconite has inspired a number of artists, including Sir Stanley Spencer, more famous for his figurative paintings involving his home village of Cookham. Here is a painting that he made on commission for the wife of the local vicar, the Reverend Canon Westropp. It was sold at Bonhams in 2013 for £51,650, and I suspect that this might have been a bargain. Spencer had always made studies of local flora to include in his landscape paintings, but the floral paintings were small and sold well. Spencer worked on some of these paintings between his more famous works, and seems to have taken a great deal of care over them: he commented that one of his plant pictures, ‘Magnolias’, was ‘as good as anything that I’ve ever done’. There is certainly a lot of love in ‘Winter Aconites’, painted in 1957, towards the end of Spencer’s life (he died in 1959).

Winter Aconite by Stanley Spencer (Photo One – credit below)

And I would like to finish with a poem, because that’s always a good way to finish in my experience. The poet Freda Downie, who died in 1993, was born in Shooter’s Hill, evacuated to Northamptonshire, returned to London in time for the Blitz, left when it finished and with impeccable timing was brought back to London in time for the V1 and V2 rockets. I love her poem Aconites, which feels just right for this time of the year, and even mentions a blackbird.

“Winter holds fast,
But a little warmth escapes like sand
Through the closed fingers.
The error is annual and certain,
Letting the pygmy flowers
Make their prompt appearance
Under creaking trees.
They stand with serious faces, green ruffled,
As prim as Tudor portraits.

In the west
The greys and gleam slide in the wind
And only the descended blackbird
Augments the intrepid yellow.”

img_9670Photo Credits

Photo One (Winter Aconites by Stanley Spencer)

Freda Downie’s poem was published on the Greentapestry website here

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

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