Monthly Archives: May 2017

Wednesday Weed – Welsh Poppy

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…..

Welsh Poppy (Meconopsis cambrica)

Dear Readers, I’ve been writing the Wednesday Weed for more than three years now and I’m starting to notice trends and patterns.In East Finchley, and in north London generally,there has been a mass breakout of the delicate Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica), and I could not be happier. This butter-yellow flower is a favourite with pollinators such as hoverflies, and is rather less of a bruiser than the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) that was spotted round the corner in 2015.

As a truly ‘wild’ plant, Welsh poppy is designated as Nationally Scarce, and in Great Britain is found only in shaded rocky places in the hills of Wales, South West England and Ireland. However, it is a regular garden escapee, and seems to prefer the crevices at the bottom of walls that remind it of its wild habitat. It is often spotted with greater celandine and yellow corydalis in these parts – what is it about yellow flowered plants that make them such adventurous ‘weeds’ I wonder?

You might have noticed that the Welsh poppy is a member of the Meconopsis, the same genus as the Himalayan blue poppy, which also loves rocky places. There is some debate about this, as the Welsh poppy is the only member of the group that lives outside of the Himalayas. No doubt the botanists will continue to debate this one for some time to come. The word ‘Meconopsis’ means ‘like a poppy’ from the Greek Mekon (poppy) and opsis (like). And here is a blue poppy, so that you can compare and contrast. My fellow blogger Squirrelbasket has written a great post about the naming of poppies here, well worth a read.

By Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Co-attribution must be given to the Chanticleer Garden. - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Blue poppy (Meconopsis sp) (Photo One – see credit below)

Although it doesn’t just grow in Wales, the Welsh poppy is very much associated with the country, and it is the emblem of Plaid Cymru, though at first glance you might mistake it for that other flower that is so much part of Welsh culture and heritage, the daffodil. One piece of folklore about the plant is that it doesn’t flourish away from Welsh soil. You might think that the Welsh poppies popping up all over East Finchley give the lie to this belief, but actually, studies have shown that these plants descend from ancestors from the Pyrenees, so perhaps there’s something to it after all.

By Source, Fair use,

I spent some time looking for medicinal uses for this plant. In ‘A Druid’s Handbook’, Jon G. Hughes reports that the Welsh name for this poppy is llsiau cwsg, or herb of sleep. However, it was used externally for skin complaints, as it was believed to be poisonous. All poppies are toxic to some extent, but I suspect you’d have to really work at it to do yourself a damage with a Welsh poppy.

I have also been doing some investigation into the palatability of Welsh poppies – after all, poppyseeds are a common ingredient in many cuisines. There is a wonderful blog by Tortoiselady who occasionally feeds the plant to her reptiles, but I have not found any mention of human uses. Tortoiselady also has very useful information on hedgehogs and birds, and she is definitely a person after my own heart. At the moment the garden is more of a sanctuary for damaged and unwanted weeds, plus frogs and fledgling starlings. I wonder if I could start a frog sanctuary? There must be some poor, elderly frogs in need of a retirement home.

One of these days I fully intend to create a bigger animal sanctuary for all kinds of damaged and unwanted creatures, but please don’t mention this to my husband. I haven’t broken the news to him yet.

I should point out that Welsh poppy comes in a rather attractive apricot colour too.

By Svdmolen (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The orange form of Welsh poppy (Photo Two – see credit below)

As you know, I love to finish off with a relevant poem. This one, by Mavis Gulliver, made me cry. I am reluctant to just cut and paste the work of living poets because, after all, this is how they earn their living, and I’m sure it’s also in breach of copyright. So please click here to read about how plants can evoke emotion, and memory. The poem is called ‘Breaking Dormancy’.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Blue Poppy) – By Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Co-attribution must be given to the Chanticleer Garden. – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two(Plaid Cymru logo) – By Source, Fair use,

Photo Three (Orange poppy) – By Svdmolen (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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








The Street Trees of Archway Part Two

Dear Readers, when I left you last week I had reached the highest point of the North London street tree walk from Paul Wood’s new book ‘London Street Trees: A Guide to the Urban Forest‘. As I walked along Cheverton Road I was struck by the fact that there were no street trees on this stretch of road at all. How bare and exposed it felt! But a little further down, the trees started again, and among them was a whitebeam. I have a great affection for these trees, as I have one in my own garden and value its generous shade. I had never noticed before how twisted the trunks often are, as if the tree had followed the sun in tiny circles when it was young and had not managed to untangle itself.

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

A typical twisted whitebeam trunk

There was some building work going on on the other side of the road, and, when one of the builders saw the camera, he danced across the road like an escapee from ‘Fame’. Unfortunately I failed to capture his moves on my camera, and when asked to repeat them he became as shy as a toddler hiding behind his mum. One has to be ready to take a picture at all times.

The view from the other end of Cheverton Road is pretty impressive as well.

However, my path led me away from the twinkling roofs of Canary Wharf, and towards one of London’s street tree ‘hotspots’, Dresden Road.

There were some very fine trees, including this broad-leaved cockspur thorn (Crataegus x persimilis ‘Prunifolia). This is a type of hawthorn, one of my very favourite trees, both for its wildlife value and for the way that it heralds the start of summer. I love the pink pollen.

Not far from the tree there was a very fine cat. He didn’t want to talk at all but if he had I think that his utterance might not have been very polite.

There was beautiful bark on this Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’). It reminded me of the curls from a pencil sharpener.

But what is this fine tree, positively abuzz with bees? My guide tells me that it’s called Bragania or Erect Crab Apple, and that it’s from the Levant, Anatolia, Thrace, and an arc of the higher altitudes through Israel, Lebanon, Syria and western Turkey with a few isolated pockets in Europe. On Mount Lebanon it grows at altitudes of more than 1000 metres. In the Evros Mountains of Greece it was traditionally safeguarded by local communities for its fruit, but may be forced out when the land comes under pressure. How wonderful to see it as part of the international woodland along Dresden Road (which also includes crepe myrtle from the southern USA, a hankerchief tree from China and a Judas tree from the Eastern Mediterranean). The flowers of Bragania remind me a little of rock roses, and several of the trees were in full flower when I walked past last week.

And here is a much more friendly cat. So friendly, in fact, that I had to make a run for it to prevent being followed home. Sorry, puss cat…

I have already remarked on the extraordinary variety of trees in Dresden Road. The next few roads, however, show how a planting of a single type of tree can affect the look and feel of the street.

Lime trees on Gladsmuir Road

The vast majority of the trees on Gladsmuir Road are common limes (Tilia x europea), and how cool they made it seemed. These trees can live in excess of three hundred years, and were the preferred urban planting prior to the London plane, not just in the UK but also in Europe – think of the Unter den Linden in Berlin. The lush vegetation is almost tropical at this time of year, though I wonder how the local car owners like it – the tree is notorious for supporting a fine harvest of aphids, who make a habit of dropping honeydew on anything parked below. I love the flowers, and the scent, but the pollen is one of the worst offenders for hayfever sufferers. What a lovely hiding spot for small birds, however, and for the many insects that I’m sure will enjoy the leaves.

Then it’s a quick trip across the Archway Road (with a brief glance back at The Shard) and into Despard Road, which is also mostly planted with a single tree species, the white-berried rowan(Sorbus aucuparia).

This is a tree with airy, ethereal foliage, and fluffy, short-lived flowers. The tree itself is also short-lived, and is usually on its last roots after 25 years. Wood sees it as a safe, but uninspired choice, although no doubt the berries will be much appreciated later in the year.

And then, finally, to Magdala Avenue, the home of the Whittington Hospital. You may remember that I had cause to spend several painful weeks visiting my mum here in 2015/16, and so it was with trepidation that I retraced my steps. The flowers on the corner are doing very well, while some of the other beds seem to have dried out and reverted to the usual sowthistles and dandelions (not that there’s anything wrong with them, of course!)

But what I’d come to see was right opposite the main entrance. I hadn’t noticed it during those difficult former visits, though I wish I had. This is the champion Chinese Lacebark Elm in the whole of the UK, the tallest one of all. It looks rather delicate for all its height, especially when a police car with its lights flashing is parked just out of the photograph. How many human dramas has this tree witnessed, I wonder: people bringing home their babies, people who have just said goodbye to their loved ones, people who have received a hopeful diagnosis or crushing bad news. People, like me, laden down with bags and paraphernalia as they ease their mothers or fathers into the taxi which will take their frail but grateful bodies home. All this has swirled around this tree and yet there it stands, unmoved. I find solace in the timescale of great trees, their long slow lives, their deep roots and their seasonal cycles. It reminds me that, compared to some of these great organisms, we are as ephemeral as mayflies.

Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

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Wednesday Weed – Laburnum

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…..

Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

Dear Readers, following last week’s investigation of one of the most delicious of plants, I am turning my attention to laburnum (sometimes known as golden chain) which has a reputation as one of the most poisonous. This small tree originally came from southern and central Europe, but was introduced to the UK by 1596. This particular tree was found in the scrubby woodland between the builders’ merchant and Highgate Wood, where it seemed to be doing very well.

Laburnum seeds

Firstly, let’s talk about that dangerous reputation. All parts of the laburnum contain a poisonous alkaloid called cystisine, which is dangerous to humans, horses and cattle. The tree belongs to the Fabaceae, or pea family, and many of the incidents of poisoning occur when children mistake the fresh seedpods for peas. However, on The Poison Garden website, the author can find no accounts of child fatalities from ingesting the seeds during the last century. A 1979 study found 3000 hospital admissions, but this was an estimate extrapolated from cases in the north west of the UK, and the author thought that many of the admissions were because the plant was thought to be dangerous, rather than because of symptoms. There are many cases of children eating the plant, but it seems that generally they recover without medical intervention. One documented fatality, in 2009, involved a 20 year-old man who drank tea made with laburnum leaves and died as a result of cytisine poisoning. However, as John Robertson points out, this rather beautiful tree has suffered out of all proportion to documented cases of poisoning, with parents and grandparents cutting down laburnum trees in their gardens and ignoring much more dangerous plants.

It should be noted that hares and rabbits reputedly find the bark to be a delicacy.

The wood of laburnum has been used for making musical instruments and furniture, and was once used for making bows. The wood from old laburnum trees was known as ‘false ebony’ because it was so dark. These days, it is sometimes used to make garden furniture and barrel hoops. Below, however, is a rather more interesting use of laburnum wood: two spray cans, presumably for creating a higher class of graffiti. The grain of the wood is very beautiful. However, do not use the wood for scratching posts for your cats, as the filings may be ingested during grooming, with unfortunate results, and there is some evidence that exposure to the sawdust can cause ‘constitutional symptoms’ (feeling generally under the weather).

Two spray cans made from laburnum wood (Photo One – see credit below)

There are Laburnum Avenues and Laburnum Roads all over the western world, and indeed even some Laburnum Medical Centres, and in spite of its poisonous nature, it has been used in medications for asthma and whooping cough. Cytisine is also the active ingredient in a smoking cessation drug called Tabex, developed in Bulgaria, and found to be three times more effective than a placebo in helping people to give up. The website for the drug emphasises that cytisine is very close, structurally, to nicotine, but is much weaker, and cites this as the reason for its ‘success’. However, as John Robertson points out on The Poison Garden, this still means that only 31 out of the 370 trial subjects managed to give up, so maybe the best thing to do is not to start smoking in the first place (if you have a Tardis so you can go back in time and knock that Woodbine out of your own mouth).

Dreaming of a laburnum in bloom is said to mean that adversity can be overcome with intelligent effort (if you can muster up such a thing), and in the language of flowers it means forgotten,  pensive beauty. It is the birthday flower for 8th January, though I have no idea how someone decides these things, as any self-respecting laburnum would be sound asleep at this point of the year.

The tree is said to be the influence for Laurelin, the golden tree of J.R.R. Tolkein’s late-published work ‘The Silmarillion’. Although I have read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I would direct the eager reader to the much less read Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, which I personally much preferred. This has nothing at all to do with laburnum, and everything to do with my wanting to suggest an interesting read for those of you inclined towards Gothic fantasy (which I realise may be a small subset of my readership) .

For all its beauty the laburnum is a little tree, on a domestic scale, one that fits into many back gardens. I rather like this poem by Thomas Hood (1799-1845), sentimental as it is: ‘my spirit flew in feathers then’ is a lovely line, and there is, of course, a laburnum.

I Remember, I Remember

I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The vi’lets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,—
The tree is living yet!
I remember, I remember,
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!
I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.


Photo Credits

Photo One (Laburnum spray cans)  –

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

The Street Trees of Archway Part One

Japanese Pagoda Trees (Styphnolobium japonicum) outside Archway Station

Dear Readers, we are surrounded by street trees but they go largely unnoticed, flowering and fruiting and developing autumn foliage without so much as a glance from us as we hurry past. Yet our built environment would be so much poorer without their shade and freshness, and so would our wildlife. I was very excited to find that, in Paul Wood’s new book ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, there are a number of walks to follow. One of them is in Archway, just a mile or so down the road from East Finchley. And so, on a day of volatile weather, I took myself down the hill to explore this familiar place with a new focus.

The area outside the station is newly pedestrianised, and there are a variety of young trees, including some Japanese Pagoda trees. Wood points out that these are easily identified by the green bark on the new growth.

Note the green bark on some of the twigs

This tree is a member of the pea family, and, when it’s all grown up, it may have racemes of white flowers. I say ‘may’ because you can wait 30 years for a tree to flower. In the meantime, it has soft, feathery foliage and an elegant, graceful habit. The tree is Chinese rather than Japanese, and in Chinese legend it is believed to attract demons. Let’s hope that this isn’t the case, as the area around the station attracts many lost souls as it is.

By Penarc - -, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The flowers of the Japanese Pagoda Tree (in case you can’t wait for thirty years to see them) (Photo One – see credit below)

In fact, the space around Archway has been somewhat ‘tarted up’ over the past year. All the bus stops have moved, a source of considerable irritation to folk like me who haven’t worked out where the 143 goes from. Also, a cycle lane runs right across the middle of the pedestrianised area, so we will see how that works out.

Newly modernised blocks around Archway (pedestrianised area to the bottom left)

Japanese Pagoda Tree. Is the cage to keep the demons in, or out?

Following the route in the book, I head along Junction Road. Here, I see a splendid example of all the things that street trees have to put up with.

A pit a metre deep has been dug around this tree, and this is currently full of bits of yellow plastic drain pipe, drinks cartons and cigarette ends. No one was working there when I visited, so I will be interested to see how long the poor tree remains with some of its roots exposed. Plus, there is a lot of traffic here, so the plant also has to contend with a lot of pollution. No wonder London Planes are the trees of choice for so many of London’s big roads, what with their resilience and the way that they regularly shed their bark, along with any unpleasant chemicals.

I turn left onto St John’s Grove and there, towards the junction with Pemberton Road, I see two Dawn Redwoods (Metasequioa glyptostroboides).

I must have walked past these trees on my way to the Cat Protection shelter on Junction Road hundreds of times when I was a fosterer, and yet not noticed them. Dawn Redwoods come from a single Chinese forest, where there are less than 5000 individual trees left, and they were only discovered by scientists back in 1946. In its native Lichuan the plant is known as the Water Fir.  It is related to the Giant Redwoods, and though not quite as much of a goliath as these trees it can still grow to 200 feet. It is unusual in being deciduous, and has a light, delicate appearance. It came as a surprise to me to see a tree that is classified as Endangered in the wild is doing well just off the Holloway Road, but then life is full of surprises.

Foliage of the Dawn Redwood

Looking back down Pemberton Road, I see that the council tree surgeons have been hard at work.

The pollarded plane trees always look to me as if they are raising their fists to the sky in fury. They appear to be almost indestructible, however.

Pollarded tree coming into leaf

Paul Wood explains that the main reason that trees are pollarded is prevent the tree from becoming too large. A big tree is a thirsty tree, and it may drink up all the water in the soil. This is known to lead to subsidence, a particular problem, I imagine, in the hilly environs of Islington. If the trees are pollarded every three years, then a court will most likely throw out any claims by a householder, on the basis that the tree always takes the same amount of water. At any rate, although the pollarding looks ugly, it seems to only encourage the trees (at least if the behaviour of my whitebeam following its pruning eighteen months ago is anything to go by – every time it’s cut back, it grows through more vigorously).

Onwards! I cross Holloway Road, and head along St John’s Villas, the scene of much tree-related drama a few years ago.

Sand Pear trees (Pyrus pyrifolia)

There are seven Sand Pear trees in this street, an unusual choice of fruit tree, as they  produce particularly large and abundant fruit. In 2007 there was a particularly splendid crop of fruit. As no one knew what to do with it, the pears splattered onto residents’ cars and turned the pavement into a slippery mess. This highlights one of the problems of fruit-bearing street trees – if no one harvests the fruit, the result can be piles of fermenting crab apples or rotting plums. On my street, a neighbour spends much of the time in autumn sweeping up slushy crab apples. At any rate, in St John’s Villa some residents wanted the trees cut down, while others were ready to link arms to protect them. In the end, the council agreed to harvest the pears, and some of the residents took to making perry, a kind of pear cider. A win/win solution for everyone, I’d have thought! When I visited the road was quiet, except for the chirping of baby blue tits from one of the nest boxes, so it seems that the Pear Wars have come to an end, at least for now. For more on this story, have a look at Paul’s blog here.

As I walked along Prospero Road, I was literally led by the nose to the most beautiful show of jasmine and climbing hydrangea I’ve seen in a long time. It perfumed the air for tens of metres in every direction. I only wish that this blog were scratch and sniff, I’d love to share it with you.

On the corner of Lysander Grove, Wood points me to another unusual tree, the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Remember the name, because we will meet another of these trees next week.

This elm is largely resistant to Dutch Elm Disease ( I posted about the English Elm here ) and has a kind of splendid grace and poise. It seems to be very popular for Bonsai, but I rather like it as a ‘proper’ tree, bringing a touch of elegance to a North London Street corner.

During a mistaken detour along Lysander Grove, I spot an over-enthusiastic Clematis montana, sharing its beauty with everyone. I wonder where it will end up? Crouch End at this rate.

Once back on the correct path, I see the most splendid green roof on top of a garage, full of red campion and ox-eye daisies. Well done, that home owner! It goes to show that even a small space can provide some beauty and interest.

The garage green roof

Up past the Village Garage on Cressida Road (yes, there’s a Shakespearean theme in these parts), and there are two Photinia ‘Red Robin’ trees. What a shame that I’ve missed the height of their flowering. I must pop back when they’re in their autumn colour. Photinia are much more often grown as shrubs, but these two are very striking in their tree form. The plant is a member of the rose family and is related to the apple: the fruit is said to be popular with birds such as thrushes and waxwings, a good example of how valuable street trees can be for wildlife.

Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’

And now, as I hit the halfway point of my walk, I look back towards the towers of Canary Wharf, with the pyramid of One Canada Square reflecting the fleeting sunshine. I had no idea of the sheer variety of the street trees here, and the walk has thrown up a number of surprises. As I head towards what Wood describes as ‘one of the street tree hotspots of London’, Dresden Road, I wonder what else I will find.

London friends, if you want to know what the street trees are in your area, have a look at this map. It’s not perfect, but put in your postcode and see what’s on your streets….

Photo Credits

Photo One (Japanese Pagoda Tree flowers) – By Penarc – naturalezaysenderos.com, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Paul Wood’s fascinating blog is here, much recommended.



Wednesday Weed – Wild Strawberry

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…..

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Dear Readers, I first discovered wild strawberry when I was a young woman, fresh out of university. I was doing some volunteer work on a city farm in Dundee, Scotland. One of my duties was to take the goats for a walk (as you do) – we had two milking goats, Beatrice, a white toggenburg with distinctive tassels under her chin and Shirley, an anglo-nubian with a bellow like a dying walrus. Both of them had two kids, and so we had a little herd of six. Every day, I took them to a piece of wasteland a hundred yards from the farm, and sat on a pile of masonry while the mothers grazed, and the babies played ‘I’m the king of the castle’. Passersby on the way to the bus station would sometimes stop to survey the scene, and on one occasion a small boy asked me what kind of dogs they were, but generally all was peaceful except for the hum of bees and the occasional groan from Shirley. Sometimes, I would almost doze off, but Beatrice had a habit of resting her forehead against my leg and sighing, as if motherhood was too much, so it wasn’t usually for long. And for sustenance, I had the wild strawberries that grew everywhere. I would even fight the goats for them. The intense flavour of these tiny fruits was concentrated berry sweetness, much finer than anything that I ever grew or bought from a shop. This was a complicated time in life, when I really had no idea at all what I was doing, and yet I remember those summer afternoons with great fondness. The sense of possibility, of choice, was something that I wouldn’t experience again until I was in my fifties.

By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Wild Strawberry in fruit (Photo One – see credit below)

I found the plant twice today, once growing in the wall of the Parkland Walk at Muswell Hill, a disused railway line turned into a nature reserve, and once in the unadopted road here in East Finchley. I suspect that St Pancras and Islington Cemetery will be full of it, too. This is not an ancestor of our garden strawberry, but a species in its own right, and a native of the UK and most of the Northern Hemisphere. Also known as the Alpine Strawberry, the fruit is much prized in other parts of Europe: the Swedes thread the individual fruits onto grass stalks because they are so delicate. I should add here that Ingmar Bergman’s film, called ‘Wild Strawberries’ in English, has a title that translates as ‘wild strawberry patch’ in Swedish, which can mean ‘an underrated gem of a place, often with sentimental or personal value’ according to that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia. I’m glad that I’m not the only person for whom the sight of wild strawberries rekindles memories of times past.

You might expect such tasty fruit to be popular with creatures besides ourselves, and you would be right: deer and all manner of birds love the fruit. William Morris was inspired to create his pattern ‘ The Strawberry Thief’ after seeing a thrush take one from the garden.

By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Strawberry Thief by William Morris (Photo Two – credit below)

For a more realistic depiction of the fruit, we can turn to the still lives of the Dutch Golden Age by artists such as Adriaen Coorte. The ones in the picture below look delicious enough to pluck from the frame and munch right away.

Wild Strawberries by Adriaen Coorte (1665 1707)

The name ‘strawberry’ comes not from the straw which is sometimes placed under the ripening berries of domestic fruits, but from an old past participle of the verb ‘to strew’, describing how the plant spreads itself across the ground by runners. The website ‘A Modern Herbal’ describes many of the plant’s medicinal uses: the leaves were mostly used for conditions such as gout, but the fruit is said to be useful for whitening the teeth (the juice must remain on the teeth for five minutes, and then be washed off with water to which a pinch of bicarbonate of soda has been added). Cut strawberries rubbed all over the skin will help if, like me while I was in Canada, you are unexpectedly afflicted with mild sunburn. This occurred on one of only two bright sunny days that we experienced in two and a half weeks: the rest of the time, you were more likely to need a remedy for rust, so torrential and persistent was the down pour.

The plant has a lively and varied folklore associated with it. In Norse mythology, the goddess Freya  smuggled dead children into her ‘hall’ wrapped in wild strawberry leaves. In Roman mythology, it is associated with Venus. For Christians, it was the plant of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, with the three-part leaves representing the Trinity. However, its sweetness and sultry perfume were thought also to be a source of temptation, as seen in several parts of Hieronymous Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. painted between 1495 and 1505. The left hand panel of this work shows the Garden of Eden, and the right hand panel shows the  Last Judgement. In the central panel, naked humans are shown enjoying largely innocent pleasures, including riding on enormous fish-submarines, and wrestling with gigantic strawberries. This is a work of extraordinary imagination and exuberance, and has been open to interpretation of different kinds from the beginning. Just recently, some scholars have detected a note of irony in his work, but I do wonder if this is just us inflicting our own world view on someone who lived almost 800 years ago.

Detail from central panel

A man using a strawberry as a backpack

Various fruit-related goings-on

It will not surprise you to learn that wild strawberries have inspired a number of poets. One of them is the cartoonist and children’s author Shel Silverstein (1930 -1999), whose poem ‘Wild Strawberries’ is a great example of taking an idea and running with it.

Are Wild Strawberries really wild?
Will they scratch an adult, will they snap at a child?
Should you pet them, or let them run free where they roam?
Could they ever relax in a steam heated home?
Can they be trained to not growl at the guests?
Will a litterbox work or would they leave a mess?
Can we make them a Cowberry, herding the cows,
Or maybe a Muleberry pulling the plows,
Or maybe a Huntberry chasing the grouse,
Or maybe a Watchberry guarding the house,
And though they may curl up at your feet oh so sweetly,
Can you ever feel that you trust them completely?
Or should we make a pet out of something less scary,
Like the Domestic Prune, or the Imported Cherry,
Anyhow, you’ve been warned and I will not be blamed
If your Wild Strawberry cannot be tamed.

However, for a more grown-up poem about the plant,  I would like to honour Helen Dunmore an author better known for her novels but a very gifted poet . I have read many of her books, but one of my favourites is ‘The Siege’, about the 1941-1944 siege of Leningrad. It’s an agonising read, but one of those books that linger in the memory long after they’ve been read. I was deeply sad to learn that the author has terminal cancer, and has written a very considered and moving piece about it here. One of her great strengths as a writer is her use of sensory impressions to draw us in. I am in awe of how she does this. The poem is copyright, but do have a look here . You won’t be disappointed.

Photo Credits

Photo One(Wild Strawberry fruit) – By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Photo Two (The Strawberry Thief) – By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photos of paintings by Adriaen Coorte and Hieronymous Bosch in the public domain.

Credit to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for some of the information in this week’s blog.

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Bugwoman on Location – The Escapees

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me as I relate the tale of two intrepid capybaras, now behind chicken-wire at the High Park Zoo in Toronto. For those of you who have never made the acquaintance of the world’s largest rodent (the males are about the size of a retriever), these creatures normally live in South America, and are usually found in wetland areas, where they graze on water plants and provide a perch for all manner of birds.

By Charlesjsharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

White-throated kingbird utilising capybara (Photo One – see credit below)

In May 2016, a pair of capybaras were delivered to High Park Zoo from Texas. The zoo already had one capybara, named Chewy,  but these rodents live in groups of up to twenty in the wild. However, Chewy didn’t have company for long, as both capybaras escaped within 24 hours, and disappeared into the 400 acres of surrounding parkland. And who can blame them? The park is studded with ponds and lakes and shrubbery. Given a choice between a lawn surrounded by goggling passersby and the peace of a secluded stream, I know which I’d go for.

Chewy, the original capybara, with Toronto mayor John Tory (Photo Two – credit below)

There were frequent sightings of the two capybara, as they eluded all manner of techniques to recapture them, from food bait to recordings of capybara calls. The pair, instantly dubbed ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ were spotted all over the park, enjoying their freedom. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Capybara on the loose (Photo Three – credit below)

Not since Rob Ford was Toronto mayor has the city had such international coverage – the story even made The Guardian, and memes popped up everywhere….

Via Amyfstuart on Twitter – full link below

But the capybaras’ freedom was not to last. One was recaptured after 19 days, by using a trap baited with corn and fruit. The other was to remain free for two months, but was eventually caught too.

However, there is a coda to this story.

Earlier this year, the female capybara gave birth to three pups. When I saw them, they were frolicking in the sunshine, chasing one another around the pen while Bonnie looked on. Clyde (or was it Chewie?) sat by the fence unperturbed, inasmuch as anyone can judge. But I couldn’t help feeling sad. It could have been an environmental disaster if the capybara had stayed on the loose and taken to the waterways of Canada, but more likely the animals would have been killed by cars, or dogs, or would not have survived the Canadian winter. Bonnie and Clyde were deliberately bred to be incarcerated, rather than being taken from the wild. And yet, how we love an escapee – the peacock that wakes up an entire village every morning, the eagle that breaks out of her cage, the tales of strange carnivores wandering on Exmoor. In our hearts, we know that what we do to animals is not what they would choose, if they were given an option. And yet our desire to be close to them, to see them, to pet them, is more important to us than what the animal wants most, which is get on with his or her life unmolested. We are not creatures who are prepared to rein in our desires, whatever the result for our animal neighbours. I wonder if it will eventually cost us the earth.

Photo Credits

Photo One (capybara with kingbird) – By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two (Chewie with Toronto mayor John Tory) –

Photo Three (capybara on the loose) –  (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Photo Four (Capybara in car) –

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Wednesday Weed – Ground Ivy

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…..

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

Dear Readers, one is not supposed to have favourites, either in offspring or pets or, indeed, in the plants that one writes about. Nonetheless, as you’ve probably gathered, I have a great fondness for members of the Borage family. However, in second place would be the dead-nettles, because this common plant repays close attention: the flowers of red dead-nettle and white dead-nettle are exquisite, as are those of the woundworts and claries and the lovely bugle, which I described a few weeks ago. So I hope you will forgive a further foray into the Lamiaceae, because here is ground ivy, a common plant with the most delightful little homunculus-like flowers.

Ground ivy used to be known as ‘the blue runner’ because of the way that it spreads by horizontal runners known as ‘stolons’. It is sometimes considered a veritable pest, and has been carried to many parts of the world because of its medicinal and edible uses (of which more later). But, like so many in the family, it is much favoured by wild bees, especially the smaller solitary bees that appear early in the year, such as the hairy-footed flower bee (pictured below feeding on ground ivy’s close relative, bugle).

By © pjt56 --- If you use the picture outside Wikipedia I would appreciate a short e-mail to / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0,

Male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) Photo One – credit below

Ground ivy is not, as we know, an ivy – the name probably refers to the shape of the leaves. Some of its other names, such as alehoof and alegill (guiller is a French word meaning ‘to ferment  ale), hint at one reason for the plant’s wide distribution: it was used to clarify, flavour and extend the keeping qualities of beer. It was used in preference to hops until the 1600’s, and this might explain why it pops up in many cottage gardens in the UK and on the Continent. If anyone would like a recipe for the beer, I refer you to the Barefoot Foods website, although do take note that the author says that the second time he tried to make beer with ground ivy, the carboy exploded. Don’t let that put you off.

The plant has also been used as a substitute for rennet in cheese-making.

The young leaves of ground ivy have often been used as a pot-herb, or in salads, but for my more adventurous readers, I recommend the Eatweeds website, where you can find a recipe for ground ivy tempura   and indeed for lesser celandine and ground ivy stew. For this second recipe, however, you’ll have to get a move on, as the former plant has more or less finished flowering around here. Maybe tofu marinated in ground ivy instead?

Ground ivy has had a variety of medicinal uses. In the ever-wonderful Plant Lives website, Sue Eland describes how, in North America, painters used to drink ground ivy tea as a preventative and a cure for the lead poisoning that they contracted as a result of their trade. The Cherokee used it for colds, measles and rashes on babies. It has been considered a treatment for eye ailments as far back as the physician Galen (c 130 – 200 CE) and has been used for headaches, jaundice, lung infections and asthma. The plant is, however poisonous to animals if eaten in large amounts, and as usual, caution is advised unless you are sure what you are doing.

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

A close-up of that exquisite flower (Photo Two – credit below)

 Although ground ivy may be poisonous to cattle, some folklore suggested that it was able to protect cows against sorcery, and in some parts of the world, the first milking was done through a ground ivy wreath, which must have been something of a challenge. It was apparently one of the plants that, if made into the shape of a cross, could be used to identify witches, though I have no idea how. As a middle-aged, somewhat eccentric woman with a cat, I am extremely glad that I live in an age when my strange activities don’t garner more suspicion than the odd tut-tut.

With all the many uses of ground ivy, it’s no wonder that it pops up in The Cries of London, which was one of the Poems on the Underground a few years back. I wonder if people bought the ground ivy for salad, or for making a medicine for sore eyes, or for a batch of beer that they were brewing? We shall never know.

The Cries of London

Here`s fine rosemary, sage and thyme.
Come buy my ground ivy.
Here`s fetherfew, gilliflowers and rue.
Come buy my knotted majorum, ho!
Come buy my mint, my fine greenmint.
Here`s fine lavender for your cloaths.
Here`s parsley and winter=savory,
And hearts-ease, which all do choose.
Here`s balm and hissop, and cinquefoil,
All fine herbs, it is well known.
Let none despise the merry, merry cries
Of famous London-town!Here`s fine herrings, eight a groat.
Hot codlins, pies and tarts.
New mackerel! have to sell.
Come buy my Wellfleet oysters, ho!
Come buy my whitings fine and new.
Wives, shall I mend your husbands horns?
I`ll grind your knives to please your wives,
And very nicely cut your corns.
Maids, have you any hair to sell,
Either flaxen, black or brown?
Let none despise the merry, merry cries
Of famous London-town!


Photo Credits

Photo One (Hairy-footed flower bee) – By © pjt56 — If you use the picture outside Wikipedia I would appreciate a short e-mail to / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two (Close-up of flower) – By Rasbak (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bugwoman on Location – A Walk in the Woods at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Dear Readers, there is something about the woodland and wetland area at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, just outside Toronto, that reminds me of a Disney film. No sooner did my friend M and I reach the entrance on Wednesday when birds, chipmunks and squirrels appeared from all directions. It’s been a cold, wet week here, and today was the first day with any sunshine, and hence any people. No wonder we were mobbed by hungry critters.



M had brought a bag of birdfood for chickadees and nuthatches with her, and the birds certainly recognised it. At one point, she was even visited by a female downy woodpecker. There’s something about the slight scratch of those tiny feet on my fingers that moves me: how trusting these creatures are, and how brave.

A female downy deciding whether to join the feast.

And of course the chipmunks don’t want to miss out: it’s astonishing how much food they can get into their cheekpouches. They remind me of Hammy, my pet hamster, who was capable of stuffing an entire small carrot into her mouth.

I hadn’t been to the woods in the spring before, and I loved the variety of woodland plants that are emerging. The coltsfoot is almost finished.

M showed me the mayapple, which I’d never seen before. The green ‘apples’ which you can see in the photo below are the flower buds, with the ‘apples’ being produced later in the year. The green pods are poisonous, but apparently they can be eaten in small quantities when they go yellow. Native Americans use the fruit as an emetic, and as a worming agent.

May Apple

I was fascinated by the range of woodland plants: the diversity seemed much greater than in a similar UK wood. The trout lilies were in full flower: they are named for their speckled leaves, not for their delicate yellow flowers. They don’t flower for their first 4-7 years of life, and spread very slowly: a single colony of trout lilies can be 300 years old. They rely upon ants to spread their seeds (normally they reproduce via their corms), and each seed has a special structure called a eliasome (a new word for my collection). The eliasome is a fleshy overlay full of fat and protein which the ants take home to feed their larvae. As trout lilies like their seeds to be buried very deeply, this works well: the ants eat the eliasome and discard the seed, which may eventually germinate.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum)

But the highlight for me was the trilliums.

Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

I don’t think that I have ever seen a flower so white. This is another very slow-growing plant, which might take ten years to become big enough to flower (there seems to be a strong relationship between the surface area of the leaves, and the flowering time). Like the trout lily, the trillium is normally spread by ants, but can also be distributed by white-tailed deer, as the seeds survive the deer’s digestive system and can  be deposited, in a handy pile of fertilizer, some distance from the original colony.

As the name suggests, trillium is a plant of threes: three petals, leaves in a set of three, three stigma, six stamen in two whorls of three. It is the Provincial Flower of Ontario, and so I was especially pleased to see a plant that is so specific to the area. I  loved the deep venation on the leaves and the petals, and the way the blooms glowed in the semi-darkness of the under storey. In a few weeks they will be gone for another year, but what a way to herald the spring.

The Canada Geese has already got on with breeding, and there were several territorial scuffles in the tea-coloured water. These geese seem to be largely unloved, but I rather like them for their feisty nature and opportunistic intelligence. You would not want to get on the wrong side of one, but hey, we had enough grain for everyone, so we passed unhindered.

And then we saw a Carolina Wood Duck in a tree. Although many of us have seen the documentaries where ducklings leap from the hole in the tree trunk where the mother duck has made her nest, it’s still a bit of a shock to see one perching precariously on a branch.

Female Carolina Wood Duck sussing out a nest site

Everywhere we went, it seemed that birds were courting. There were the usual red-winged blackbirds.

There were some very fine brown-headed cowbirds, the first that I’ve seen: the females lay their eggs in the nests of other species of birds (much like the European  cuckoo), However, unlike the cuckoo, who mainly parasitises warblers, the brown-headed cowbird has been recorded laying its eggs in the nests of over 220 species, including hummingbirds and raptors. As the female can lay up to 36 eggs in a season I imagine that the failure to thrive of some nestlings is not the end of the world: the house finch, for example, feeds its young a vegetarian diet, which is not suitable for a cowbird, and I cannot imagine that a hummingbird would make an effective foster parent either. However, many of the cowbirds do survive, a testament to maternal instinct.

Incidentally the brown-headed cowbird is another icterid, like the red-winged blackbird and the grackle, as mentioned in my last piece about Collingwood.

Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)

And so, as my visit to Canada draws to a close, I wanted to leave you with one of the finest birds of the region, the cardinal. I love that blast of red among the fresh new leaves of spring.

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

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Wednesday Weed – Greater Stitchwort

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…..

Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)

Dear Readers, what a sweet and delicate plant this is. I usually see it in the hedgerows of the West Country, when I go to visit my parents or my aunt Hilary, but it puts in an occasional appearance in the woodier areas of St Pancras and Islington cemetery as well. I love the way that the petals seem to be paired like bunny ears (very appropriate for just after Easter), and the flamboyant yellow stamen. Who would have thought that this plant is closely related to the much more modest chickweed? The Carophyllaceae family also contains red campion and a variety of other sea spurreys, mouse-ears and sandworts. Each flower is a miracle of construction, and the smaller blooms are well worth a look with a magnifying glass or hand lens.

For such a demure looking plant, greater stitchwort has a number of peculiarities. Its species name, holostea, means ‘entire bone’, and refers to its brittle stems, which have given it vernacular names such as snapcrackers and snapdragons. Even more impressively, it apparently fires off its seeds with an audible pop, leading to names such as ‘pop-gun’. The elegant blooms, perfect for popping into a lapel, gave it the name ‘poor man’s buttonhole’.

There are a variety of explanations for the  name stitchwort. One is that the plant was used as a herbal remedy for the kind of stitch that you get when you run rather too vigorously for the bus. The herbalist Gerard mentions that it was drunk with wine along with ‘powder of acorns’ for just this kind of ailment. However, in some parts of the country the flower has yet another name, ‘addersmeat’, and it has been pointed out that ‘stich’ is German for sting – the plant was thought to be efficacious against the bite of venomous reptiles.

Whatever you are gathering your stitchwort for, bear in mind that it is also a thunder flower, thought to bring on storms if picked. So you might want to consider how quickly you can run with your stitch.

By the way, the website  has a charm which can be chanted in the event of being afflicted:

‘In the days of the old Saxon leechdoms it was customary against a stitch to make the sign of the cross, and to sing three times over the part:

“Longinus miles lance?inxit dominum:
Restet sanguis, et recedat dolor!”

“The spear of Longinus, the soldier, pierced our Savior’s side:
May the blood, therefore, quicken: and the pain no longer abide!“‘

So now you know what to do next time you’re doubled-up.

Greater stitchwort is said to be edible, although I very much like the comment on one foraging website, after some intrepid soul had tried it in her salad;

‘Mate! It’s like eating grass!’

So there. Maybe it’s better floated in a gin and tonic, or even left as a nectar plant for one of its biggest fans, the wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapsis), a rare and dainty insect. Spotting a bed of greater stitchwort with some of these creatures flitting above it would be a treat indeed.

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

Wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapsis) (Photo One – see credit below)

And to round off, here’s an evocative poem by Michael Longley, one of my very favourite poets.

The Ice Cream Man

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road

And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.

I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren

I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,

Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,

Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,

Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,

Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

You can hear Michael Longley read his poem here

Photo Credits

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

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