Monthly Archives: August 2017

Wednesday Weed – Purple Loosestrife

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…..

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Dear Readers, I have long grown purple loosestrife in my pond – its cerise flowers provide a welcome jolt of colour at the end of the summer, plus the bees love it. But this week, I spotted some in the newly-landscaped boating pond on Hampstead Heath, and so I decided that this interesting plant needed its ‘moment in the sun’.

It is a native plant, and as such has developed a whole range of relationships with other members of the ecosystem. In the UK, the leaves are eaten by the larvae of the golden and black-margined loosestrife beetles (Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla).

Photo One (Beetle larva) - By Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Archive, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, -, CC BY 3.0,

Black-margined loosestrife beetle (Galerucella calmariensis) larva (Photo One – credit below)

The roots are munched upon by the loosestrife root weevil (Hylobius transversovittatus), who is eating a leaf in the photo, just to prove its adaptability.

Photo Two (Weevil) - CC BY-SA 3.0,

Loosestrife root weevil (Hylobius transversovittatus) (Photo Two – credit below)

And as if this was not enough, the flowers are eaten by the larvae of the loosestrife flower weevil (Nanophyes marmoratus) a most delightful little furry chap. I must admit to having a great fondness for weevils, with their ‘trunks’ and the way that their antennae stick out from the sides of their ‘noses’. And this is even allowing for the tremendous damage that vine weevils have occasionally done to my container plants.

Photo Three (Flower weevil) - By Siga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Loosestrife flower weevil (Nanophyes marmoratus) (Photo Three – credit below)

What I think all this proves is that no plant is an island – the relationships between a flower and the creatures that feed on it can be extraordinarily complex. Indeed, all the insects mentioned above have been used as biological controls in places such as Canada and the USA, where the plant has reached pest proportions, squeezing out all manner of native plants. The advantage of the insects mentioned above is that they are so specialised that they prefer purple loosestrife even to other plants in the same family, so (in theory) there is no danger that they’ll go rogue.

Photo Four (Cooper Marsh) - By Saffron Blaze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Purple loosestrife in the Cooper Marsh conservation area, near Cornwall, Ontario, Canada (Photo Four – see credit below)

In the UK, purple loosestrife is largely kept under control by its insect companions, and so it forms part of a tapestry of plants (except where it is outcompeted by newcomers like Himalayan Balsam, but that’s another story).

Let’s take a brief moment to admire its beauty. Plants of the Lythrum family include the pomegranate and the crape myrtle. What distinguishes all these plants is that the petals often appear crumpled, as if someone had scrunched them up.

In the autumn, the leaves turn bright red, adding a last blaze of colour.

Photo Five (autumn) CC BY-SA 3.0,

Loosestrife in autumn (Photo Five – credit below)

‘Loosestrife’ is a literal translation of the Greek name for the plant. It has long been believed to have a calming effect: in classical times, it was believed that ‘if placed on the yoke of inharmonious oxen, it will restrain their quarrelling’ (thanks to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for this titbit). The name of the family, Lythrum, means ‘blood’, and ‘salicaria’ means ‘willow-like’, referring to the leaves. Individual plants have a very  elegant, attenuated appearance.

In the area around the Caspian Sea, the roots of purple loosestrife were used to tan leather, and it can also dye the hair blonde. The flowers produce a red dye with which to colour confectionary, and the leafy shoots have been eaten as a vegetable. For those with an abundance of the  plant, here is a recipe for Creamy Braised Purple Loosestrife and Mushroom Risotto. I note that it requires 2 litres of rabbit, quail or chicken stock, but I’m sure vegetable stock would do the trick.

Purple loosestrife also has a long and distinguished history as a medicinal plant, particularly in the treatment of diarrhoea and dysentery, and as an eye-wash. It is also said to be just the thing should you have a bout of the quinsy. I am fascinated by some of these older diseases: whilst my grandmother would probably have known what quinsy was, I had no idea, so off I went to do some research, and it turns out that when he was a child, my younger brother had a bout of this disease. Quinsy is a particularly nasty complication of tonsillitis, when an abscess forms between a tonsil and the back of the throat. If the abscess grows large enough, it can even affect breathing. I suspect that these days these things are picked up more quickly, but I can imagine how, in the days before antibiotics, something like this could fatal. As purple loosestrife seems to have a mild anti-bacterial effect, it might be that gargling with it was efficacious.

Purple loosestrife features in  John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia floating downriver towards her watery end. If you look at the right-hand side of the picture, you can clearly see a fine stand of purple loosestrife.

John Everett Millais – Ophelia (Public Domain)

A close-up of the purple loosestrife (Public Domain)

The justification for their inclusion is that ‘long-purples’ are mentioned in Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.


Now, some botanists have suggested that the ‘long purples’ are not purple loosestrife at all, but early-flowering orchids, which also like damp, boggy places, and which like all orchids have tubers that resemble testicles. This would explain the ‘grosser name’ apparently given by those ‘liberal shepherds’. How interesting that the word ‘liberal’ in Shakespeare’s time meant ‘licentious, promiscuous and coarse’ (thank you to the Shakespeare’s Words website), in addition to its current meanings. Words slip and slide from one definition to another over time in a most interesting way. As usual, I digress.

As to which plant Shakespeare was actually referring to, I doubt that we will ever know for sure.

Incidentally, Millais’ painting originally included a water vole paddling along beside Ophelia, a  delightful addition even if it did rather distract from the tragic nature of the scene. Even without  the water vole, it received a most mixed reception when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852, with one critic saying that it reminded them of ‘a dairymaid in a frolic’. Ruskin went even further, objecting to the Surrey location, and saying:

‘Why the mischief should you not paint pure nature, and not that rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise?’

Ah well. Suffice it to say that these days the Pre-Raphaelites are back in fashion, and the painting, exhibited at Tate Britain, is worth at least £30m.The model, Elizabeth Siddons, caught a shocking cold through being immersed in a bath for several days. The water was originally heated with oil lamps, but Millais was so engrossed in his painting that he didn’t notice, and presumably poor Lizzie was too in awe to mention that she was getting hypothermia (she was only 19). Her father attempted to sue Millais for £50 for medical expenses, but eventually settled for ‘a lower sum’.

And, as you know, I like to end my piece with some poetry, and here is a most interesting piece by the travel writer Robert Byron . I would add that I would wish this for all children, not just sons. I would also add that I disagree with some of it, as you’ll see from my comments at the end. As an added ‘bonus’ (depending on your Royalist or Republican tendencies) you can hear the Prince of Wales read it here.

All These I Learnt

by Robert Byron

If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit. He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs’ mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot. He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd’s purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes. He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat’s beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady’s bedstraw and lady’s slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills – dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample veitches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog. By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel. In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall see that family of capitalists, peacock, painted lady, red admiral and the tortoiseshells, uncurl their trunks to suck blood from bruised plums, while the purple emperor and white admiral glut themselves on the bowels of a rabbit. He shall know the jagged comma, printed with a white c, the manx-tailed iridescent hair-streaks, and the skippers demure as charwomen on Monday morning. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue – glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky – and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet. He shall see death and revolution in the burnet moth, black and red, crawling from a house of yellow talc tied half-way up a tall grass. He shall know more rational moths, who like the night, the gaudy tigers, cream-spot and scarlet, and the red and yellow underwings. He shall hear the humming-bird hawk moth arrive like an air-raid on the garden at dusk, and know the other hawks, pink sleek-bodied elephant, poplar, lime, and death’s head. He shall count the pinions of the plume moths, and find the large emerald waiting in the rain-dewed grass.

All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe. Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!

To finish, much as I like the piece above, I would add that ‘demure’ is not a word that I associate with charwomen on any day of the week, nor indeed with women, full-stop. I should add that I once had a blind date with a chap with no visible social graces or interesting conversation and who had forgotten to bring his wallet when the time came to pay the bill. As we were leaving, he gave me a quizzical look and said ‘I don’t think we should meet again. I thought you’d be more demure’.

If I’d been any less demure he’d have been flat on his back on the pavement, seeing stars, but the best I could manage was ‘Suits me fine’.

Oh, and incidentally, I don’t agree that town-dweller lacks ‘intimate content’ either. I think it’s all in the attention, and the patience, and the willingness to learn, wherever you live.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Beetle larva) – By Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Archive, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, –×512/0022078.jpg, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two (Weevil) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three (Flower weevil) – By Siga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Cooper Marsh) – By Saffron Blaze – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five (autumn) CC BY-SA 3.0,

Bittersweet and the Bee

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) with Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Dear Readers, there is a special pleasure when you witness something in your garden that you have previously only read about in books, or seen on TV. So it was with me last week. I’ve been away a lot during the past few months, and had only just noticed that, among my clematis and honeysuckle, a vigorous bittersweet plant had grown up. I’ve written about this member of the tomato family before, but hadn’t had the pleasure of spending any time with  it at home. I think it’s rather attractive, and its berries are splendid. I rarely have small visitors who might be tempted to eat them, and so I’ve decided to leave them and see what the birds make of them.

Bittersweet berries

On a warm afternoon last week, I noticed a high-pitched buzzing sound coming from the bittersweet. Half a dozen common carder bees were feeding from the purple and yellow flowers. These are among our most widespread and common bumblebees, little ginger insects that lack the handsome warning stripes of other members of their family. They always strike me as particularly single-minded creatures, unlikely to be deterred by middle-aged ladies with cameras sneaking up on them.

My question was, why are they all over the bittersweet? There were much more splendid nectar sources about, and common carders are ‘long-tongued’ bumblebees, which means that they can extract nourishment from many kinds of flowers.

Nonetheless, they ignored the honeysuckle.

They ignored the dwarf buddleia (though the honeybees were enjoying it).

No, all they wanted was the bittersweet, and it seemed that what they wanted was the pollen. Bees collect nectar for energy, but pollen has the protein that enables young bees to build strong muscles and wings.

The trouble is, the pollen in all members of the Solanaceae (as I mentioned in my post on tomatoes earlier in the week) is hidden inside the anther, the long yellow cone in the centre of the flower. In his book ‘A Sting in the Tale’, Dave Goulson describes this structure as ‘an inverted pepper pot’ that needs to be shaken to release the pollen.

And this is what the bees were doing. They grasped the yellow cone with their jaws, and madly vibrated their wings, collecting the pollen as it dropped out. This is known as ‘buzz-pollination’ or ‘sonicating’ and only some bee species have learned how to do it. Bumblebees are often thought of as the Einsteins of the bee world, and so it’s no surprise to me that they should have picked up this skill.

Here is a common carder bee in action. Sadly, I don’t think my camera microphone is sensitive enough to have picked up the buzzing, but do go and observe any tomato plants or other solanums that you have. You can see how the special hairs on the bee’s legs are packed with food – this species mixes the pollen with nectar to make a slightly wetter substance that is easier to transport.

Of course, as the bee moves from flower to flower, she cross-pollinates the plant.

There were so many common carders that I wondered if they had a nest nearby, maybe even in the garden. It’s known that the species will fly up to 450 metres from its nest site, which is a lot bigger than my plot, but still implies that the nest is somewhere in the County Roads here in East Finchley. All bees have to balance the energy required to find food (flying is an exhausting business) with the quality and amount of food found, and so a small bee like a carder is likely to have a smaller range. It just points up the importance of having nectar and pollen-rich flowers in the garden – you never know when a bee who is running out of fuel will be rescued by your plants.

What would a common carder nest look like? ‘Carder’ bumblebees are so-called because they comb (‘card’) together moss and grass to form a covering for the nest, which is usually hidden under a hedge, in long grass or just below the soil surface. In this, they differ from other, larger bees who use the vacated homes of small rodents – a study showed that if you sprayed some tunnels in the earth with ‘essence of mouse’ the bumblebees were much more likely to set up their nest.

In the photo below, the moss has been gently pushed to one side to reveal the goings on below. All bumblebee nests look much more haphazard than the perfect hexagonal cells of honeybees, but they are also much smaller – a common carder nest will have up to 200 individuals, as opposed to the thousands in a honeybee nest.

Incidentally, bumblebees do also make honey, which is kept as a short-term food store in case of bad weather. There is no need to make the quantity that honeybees do, as the nest does not survive from one year to the next.

Photo One (common carder nest)By Panoramedia (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Common Carder nest (Photo One – credit below)

In a complete digression, I discovered that one tiny UK bee, Osmia bicolour, makes her nest in an empty snail shell. I can’t find a photo of the British species doing this, but here is a close relative, Osmia ihotellerei, sorting out her new house.

Photo Two (bee nesting in snail shell) By Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Osmia hotellerei making her nest in a snail shell (Photo Two – credit below)

I should enjoy the visits of the common carders while I can, however. The worker bees and drones and the original queen will be dying, the nest falling into disrepair, as winter approaches – ,most nests are finished by September. Many of the bees visiting my bittersweet will be young queens, feeding up before they go into hibernation. You might see them patrolling areas of rough ground, looking for a good site to crawl into until spring, when the whole cycle begins again. Until then, I shall be watching my bittersweet with interest, and thanking it for enabling me to see this fascinating behaviour in my own back garden.

It just makes me curious about what other wonders are happening every day, unnoticed.

Photo Credits

Photo One (common carder nest) – By Panoramedia (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (bee nesting in snail shell) – By Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday Weed – Tomato

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…..

Dear Readers. as I was walking along a road in Muswell Hill last week, I nearly tripped over my own feet in surprise (when said appendages are a size 8, this isn’t hard to do). There was a tomato plant growing out of the wall. And by the lamp post opposite, there was another one.

So, today I popped back to take some photos. A black-clad waiter was rolling a cigarette and watching with some interest.

‘It’s a tomato’, he said helpfully.

‘But how did it get here?’ I pondered aloud. ‘Did someone drop a kebab and the tomato seeds from the garnish took root?’

He took a puff.

‘The vegetable wholesaler stops here to deliver to the restaurants’, he said, ‘And sometimes he just leaves trays of stuff here,  especially if it’s gone bad’.

Aha. Mystery (probably) solved.

When I started the Wednesday Weed, I suspected that I might sometimes find herbs – a stray mint plant, or a rogue rosemary, or a tenacious thyme. But I had no idea that I’d be finding vegetables (though technically, as any schoolchild will tell you, the tomato is a fruit). Still, this is an opportunity not to be missed, for sure.

As you can tell from the flowers, tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are members of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family. There are several wild solanums in the UK, including bittersweet and, of course, deadly nightshade. However, the family contributes many foodplants, such as the potato (probably my favourite vegetable), the chilli and the sweet pepper.

The tomato itself originated in the Andes, and the name means ‘fat thing with navel’ in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The species name, lycopersicum, means ‘wolf peach’ – it was believed that deadly nightshade could turn humans into werewolves, and so the big, fat, red tomato must have been seen as a super-sized version.

I could not be more delighted with these two facts if I tried.

By Ewan at

Lovely tomatoes (Photo One – credit below)

The Spanish brought the tomato to Europe following their conquest of South America with the first recorded instance being in Italy in 1531. However, tomatoes were initially believed to be poisonous, and so were grown initially as ornamental plants, with the first culinary use not being noted until the seventeenth century. Tomatoes were not popular with the peasant population either, as they were not particularly filling, and I can imagine that the first varieties were sour, unpleasant little things. A few hundred years later, we are tripping over tomato recipes, not only from Italy but also from the rest of Europe, and even the UK has grown to love that old perennial, tomato ketchup.

Incidentally, the Italian name for the tomato, pomodoro, comes from ‘Pomme d’oro’, or ‘apple of gold’ – there is some evidence that the first imported tomatoes were yellow, not red.

By Scott Bauer / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., Public Domain,

Photo Two (Credit Below)

Although not a big consumer of tomatoes, China is by far the largest exporter of the plant, exporting 31% of the world total of 171 million tonnes. This is followed by India, and then the US.

The tomato was the first ever genetically modified organism offered for sale, with the ‘Flavr Savr’ variety being offered for sale between 1994 and 1997 in the US. It was designed to have a longer shelf life. Much of the deterioration in flavour and texture of the tomatoes offered for sale now is down to the need to have the fruit ripen uniformly, and this has led to a reduction in the natural sugars that give the fruit its taste. So often these days, the tomatoes look delicious, and taste of exactly nothing. Many of my cookbooks recommend giving tomatoes a miss during the winter months and using tinned ones instead.

I remember the tomatoes that my father grew on his allotment as a very different taste experience. The best way to eat a tomato is fresh off the vine on a day when the sun has warmed the fruit, and concentrated all that lovely flavour. There is also a special smell to a tomato just after the green leaves in the ‘navel’ have been plucked – someone once told me that a Scottish tomato always smells of mint.

By Lufa Farms [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tomatoes in a greenhouse (Photo Three – credit below)

For the fruit to develop, the flowers need to be pollinated, and herein lies a tale. In their native South America, tomatoes are pollinated by a species of sweat bee, which did not make the crossing to Europe. Fortunately, bumblebees of various kinds took up the challenge. The pollen is in the inside of the pistil, the long structure at the centre of the flowers of tomatoes and other solanums, and the bees learned that they needed to vibrate against this for the plant to release its bounty. This process is known as ‘buzz pollination’ or ‘sonicating’, and I will have more to say about this in my blog on Saturday. In the meantime, if you have any tomato plants that are still in flower, have a listen to the bees when they visit – you can distinctly hear them buzzing away vigorously.

By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! - Buzz Pollination (Sonication), CC BY-SA 2.0,

An American bumblebee sonicating (Photo Four – see credit below)

The problem is, what do you do if you want to grow tomatoes, but don’t have any bumblebees? In Australia this is a major problem – there are companies who want to import bumblebees, but if they escape into the ecosystem there is no telling what problems might be caused. There is a trial using native Australian bees, but they will have to work out what to do with the flowers, so only time will tell. In the meantime, across the world, low-paid workers are cross-pollinating tomatoes with the help of a vibrating wand. Of the many jobs that it’s possible to do, this must be one of the strangest, not to mention the most labour intensive, because each individual flower needs to be treated. To see how all this works, have a look at the short film about the Vegibee, a handy garden pollinator aid. No guffawing at the back, please.

It will not surprise you that tomatoes have played a part in regional culture. La Tomatina, a Spanish festival, involves lots of semi-dressed people hurling over a quarter of a million tonnes of tomatoes at one another. And playing draughts with them, if the photo below is to be believed. It seems like a chronic waste of food to me, unless the tomatoes are already past their peak.

By flydime - La Tomatina (25.08.2010) / Spain, Buñol, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Tomatina Festival (Bunol, Spain) (Photo Five – credit below)

As my husband is Canadian, I would also like to celebrate the fact that the tomato is the Official Vegetable (‘Fruit!’ I hear you say) of Ontario, and that 15th July has been designated Tomato Day under the Tomato Act of 2016.

Someone getting ahead of the game with regard to Ontario’s Tomato Day (Public Domain)

As you might expect, the tomato has featured in many still life paintings, what with its attractive colour and variety of forms. Here is one by Luis Egidio Melendez,painted in the late 1700’s and featuring the aubergine, another member of the Solanaceae family.

Still Life with Tomatoes and an Aubergine by Luis Egidio Meléndez [Public domain]

Here is Van Gogh’s ‘Still Life with Mackerel, Lemons and Tomatoes’ from 1886 and very delicious it looks too.

Van Gogh – Still Life with Mackerel, Lemons and Tomatoes (1886) (Public Domain)

And here is a take on the fruit by Japanese artist Kanae Yamamoto from 1918.

Tomatoes by Kanae Yamamoto (1918) – Public Domain

What each painting seems to emphasize, in its own way, is the redness and the shiny skin of the tomato, but strangely, it’s the ones in the Yamamoto painting that I want to bite into. What do you think?

And in case you didn’t already fancy a tomato salad, here’s a poem by the sublime Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet murdered in hospital by the Pinochet regime following the coup in 1973. He had told his wife that he wanted to be reincarnated as an eagle and, when a friend visited their old home following Neruda’s  death, he found an enormous eagle in the living room. Which may, of course, be a coincidence.

‘the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.’


Ode To Tomatoes by Pablo Neruda
The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.


Photo Credits

Photo One (Lovely Tomatoes) – By Ewan at

Photo Two (A Handful of Tomatoes) – By Scott Bauer / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., Public Domain,

Photo Three (Tomatoes in a greenhouse) – By Lufa Farms [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Buzz Pollination) – By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! – Buzz Pollination (Sonication), CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Five (The Tomatino Festival) – By flydime – La Tomatina (25.08.2010) / Spain, Buñol, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Bugwoman on Location – The Season Turns in Somerset

Queen bee on buddleia

Dear Readers, I was in Somerset last weekend with Aunt Hilary, and there is no doubt that we are at the still point of the year, between the fervour of spring and the frenetic activity of autumn. Although it’s high summer for us, for many birds and most insects the focus of the year has shifted from reproduction to feeding up for the winter. Take this bee, for example. She is a queen buff-tailed bumblebee, as big as the first joint of my thumb, and she droned sedately past my ear, as stately as a battleship coming into harbour. In a week or so she will be in hibernation in a mouse hole or under a shed, and she won’t emerge until late spring, unless the weather is mild enough for her to pop out for a shot of nectar. All the more reason to have some mahonia or other winter-flowering plants in the garden.

After all the flowers of spring the predominant colour is green, and everything is looking a little tired and dusty. Leaves are nibbled by caterpillars or mined by leaf-miners. There is a hush, only broken by the peeping of young blue tits who, with their yellow and brown plumage, look like photo-shopped versions of the adults.

In the hedgerow, however, there are the startling red berries of cuckoo-pint. They look more like satanic excrescences than anything edible, which is just as well, as, although not dangerously poisonous, they can cause irritation of the mouth and apparently taste disgusting. It was also believed that touching the plant could make you pregnant (at least if you were female), so this must have acted as a deterrent. But at this point in the year they glow like beacons, fiery and unexpected.

I make a point of walking up to the gate of the fields that I pass, to see what I can see. What I saw in this field was a group of three heifers. One of them looked up and came towards me on her stocky little legs, her hooves sinking into the ground. Such a weighty creature she was, and so curious with her stiff white eyelashes and huge oil-black eyes. I smelt her sweet breath when she huffed out at me in confusion. But between us was a single stranded electric fence, and so I backed away, not wanting her to hurt herself. Which is ironic when we consider where she is eventually headed.

I walk on, and then up to the footpath that crosses another field. The grass here reminds me of an animal’s pelt, rippling in the breeze. It cries out to be stroked.

And way off in the distance I see something white, so I walk towards it. I am intercepted by a lady with a very young, very large chocolate-brown dog. The way she grabs him when she sees me coming towards her makes me think he is a boisterous dog and indeed he is, though somewhat thwarted by one of those leads that loops around his mouth, and maybe gives his owner more control. At any rate, he is just inexperienced in the ways of humans, and so after a stiff talking to from his owner he moves on, reluctantly, without knocking me flat on my backside. I continue on towards the white ‘thing’.

And what it is is a very large fluffy white feather. I wonder who it belonged to? Part of me is hoping for a barn owl, but who knows. It is certainly a feather for insulation, not flying, and what a beautiful thing it is, so perfectly designed to trap heat in every filament.

I turn back, and walk on. The cherry laurel by the stream is full of fruit, and the stream itself needs to be negotiated by the bridge after the rain from earlier in the week.

As I leave the main lane and turn left, I notice that someone has been strimming vigorously, for the wild garlic and the brambles and the ferns are mostly reduced to stubble, which makes for an easier but much less interesting walk. However, there is always something to see for someone who makes a profession of wandering slowly, and. lo and behold, i notice that the lardy balls of the snowberry come out at the same time as the flowers.  And very pretty the flowers are too. Snowberry was originally used as cover for game birds such as pheasants, and is now thriving all over the place. Just as well that insects rather like the flowers.

But what is this? The insect with the stripey wings is a scorpion fly, with a long proboscis designed for poking into the bodies of dead and dying insects. It is also partial to human sweat but I was ok, because as we know, horses sweat, men perspire, but ladies merely feel the heat.

And then it was time to turn for home, but before I came indoors I took time to admire the buddleia which is heavy with flowers and the scent of honey.

When I took a quick look under the eaves of Hilary’s cottage, I spotted no less than eight house martin nests. As I stood there quietly, I could hear the babies peeping away, and every few minutes an adult would erupt from the nest, or scythe back in. How wonderful these older houses are, with their nooks and crannies to house a spider or a bird, their outhouses full of swallow nests and wood mice. How I  love it when  people will put up with a bit of temporary mess to accommodate another soul in need, be they human or non-human.

And, just to round things off, look who was sleeping in the garden when I got home….

But not for very long. As soon as the fox heard that we were back,  s/he perked up, stretched, yawned, and sauntered off over the shed roof, a leggy young creature with apparently not a care in the world. The hardships of the spring are over, and the brief breathing space of late summer is here. Rest, creatures, and conserve your strength. You’ll need it in the days to come.

Wednesday Weed – Wargrave Pink (Hardy Geranium)

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…..

Geranium x oxonianum

Dear Readers, it is interesting to see a plant that is actually in the process of escaping the garden and becoming ‘wild’. This little pink flower, a variety of hardy geranium known as Wargrave Pink (Geranium x oxonianum), is all over the entrance to Cherry Tree Wood, and can be found quite happily growing among the commoner ‘weeds’ such as dock and annual mercury. It has largely finished flowering but fortunately I got a few photos after a rain storm a few weeks ago. It seems to thrive in the dry, semi-shaded areas at the feet of the hornbeams and oaks, much as the blue hardy geraniums are happy at the feet of my whitebeam tree.

Like Montbretia, Geranium x oxonianum is a hybrid of two species: Geranium endressi, or Endre’s  Cranesbill….

By Meneerke bloem - Own work, GFDL,

Geranium endressii (Endre’s Cranesbill) Photo One (credit below)

and Geranium versicolour (Pencilled Cranesbill)

Geranium versicolor (Pencilled cranesbill) (Photo Two, credit below0

If you look at the picture below, you can see both the pink colour and the faint veining of the plant’s ‘parents’.Apparently, the plant was ‘found’ in the greenhouses of Waterer, Sons and Crisp in 1930, which implies that it came about accidentally. Waterer, Sons and Crisp was a company of nurserymen which was formed in 1676. In 1914 the company got into financial difficulties (probably not unrelated to the war, and the call-up of many of the staff), and so it merged with the Wargrave Plant Farm in Buckinghamshire, which is probably the reason for name ‘Wargrave Pink’. The nursery still continues today, specialising in azaleas and rhododendrons.

The name ‘Geranium’ comes from the Greek word for crane, geranos, and this also gives us the English name ‘cranesbill’. Both titles come from the appearance of the fruit capsule of some species, such as the bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) seen below. The fruit capsule springs open and the five seeds are thrown some considerable distance.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Seedhead of Geranium sanguineum (Photo Three, see credit below)

Incidentally, although those bright red flowers that adorn the window boxes of Austrian chalets are also known as geraniums, they are more correctly pelargoniums (although they are members of the same family as ‘our’ plant). Pelargonium flowers have a different structure – while geraniums have five equal petals, pelargoniums have two upper petals and three lower petals that  are different.

Rose Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) – Public Domain

Hardy geraniums seem like very demure little plants to me, unlikely to inspire passion. And yet, in my search for interesting links to the plant, what do I come across but the poem ‘The Geranium’ by  Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It tells of dalliance in a woodland where geraniums bloom (species unspecified, but if you read the poem you will see that botanical accuracy is the last thing on the poet’s mind). Be warned that it is very explicit, so please don’t read on if you’re likely to be offended (though I also found it very funny). I can guarantee that you will never have read a flower poem quite like it. Here it is.

So, now that you’ve recovered, let me tell you a little about Mr Sheridan.

Portrait of a Gentleman, Half-Length, in a Brown and White Stock, a Red Curtain Behind, (oil on canvas) by Hoppner, John (1758-1810);. The sitter has traditionally been identified as Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816).); Photo © Christie’s Images; English, out of copyright

Sheridan was born in Ireland in 1751, and made his name as a playwright – his plays include ‘The Rivals’ and ‘School for Scandal’, both comedies of manners. ‘The Rivals’ includes the character of Mrs Malaprop, a woman forever using the wrong words in her attempts to sound more intellectual than she actually is, and a mainstay of comedy ever since. I have a distinct memory of a very similar character invented by the estimable Les Dawson.

Les Dawson as Ada Shufflebottom. Oh, how we laughed when I was a child….(Photo Four – credit below)

Anyway, back to Sheridan. His private life was eventful. In 1772 he fought two duels with the same man, Captain Thomas Matthews, who had written an article defaming the  character of his wife-to-be. The first duel was bloodless and Matthews was forced to beg for his life and sign a retraction. However, Matthews then challenged Sheridan to a second duel. Sheridan wasn’t obliged to agree but, well, his honour was now in question.  In this second duel, both parties were injured, Sheridan seriously – he ended it with a sword sticking out of his breastbone, and his face beaten to a pulp. Matthews (who I think we can agree is the villain of the piece) fled in a carriage. Sheridan was not expected to survive, but somehow pulled through,

No sooner was Sheridan recovered than he married the lady in question, Elizabeth Ann Linley. Sheridan had no money of his own, and so they lived on the dowry in some style, entertaining their fashionable friends and generally making something of a splash. Mrs Sheridan was painted by Gainsborough, no less, some ten years after the marriage.


Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Thomas Gainsborough (1782) (Public Domain)

In 1778 Sheridan bought out David Garrick’s share of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In 1809 the theatre burned down. On being encountered in the street watching the fire with a glass of wine in his hand, Sheridan is reported to have said ‘A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine at his own fireside’

Sheridan also had a long career as a Whig politician. He sympathised with the French and American revolutionaries, and was said by William Pitt and Edmund Burke to have made ‘the greatest speech ever made, ancient or modern’ when he called for the impeachment of the Governor of India, Warren Hastings, for corruption. Clearly his eloquence in persuading ‘the lovely Susan’ in ‘The Geranium’ could be put to many uses.

Domestic bliss was elusive, however: Elizabeth had a son with Sheridan, and a daughter with her lover, Lord Fitzgerald. Elizabeth died soon after the birth of her second child, and Sheridan continued to care for both children. The child herself died, aged eighteen months in 1793. Sheridan married again, but died in 1815, heavily in debt. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The Prince of Wales himself is said to have lamented ‘Poor Sherry!’ on hearing of his death.

So, what is the relationship between the witty Sheridan of ‘School for Scandal’, a man who was said to have never been coarse in his speech, and the author of’ The Geranium’? The poem was never published in his lifetime, but Sheridan certainly had a reputation as a man who could scarcely be alone in a room with a woman without trying to ‘seduce’ her (and I wonder exactly what ‘seducing’ involved in the 18th Century, especially if the woman was a servant and the man was a Member of Parliament). He seems to have been a lustful, rambunctious man, determined to drain life’s wine to the lees.

Incidentally a line from the poem, ‘All my body glows with flame’ turns up in a Bob Dylan song, the theme to a film called ‘Tell Ol’ Bill‘. Rather than a song of desire fulfilled, it’s a song of desolate loneliness and despair.

I know which one I prefer.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Endre’s Cranesbill) – By Meneerke bloem – Own work, GFDL,

Photo Two (Pencilled Cranesbill) – By Meneerke bloem – Own work, GFDL,

Photo Three (Cranesbill Seedhead) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four (Les Dawson) –


Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day

Dear Readers, I had great plans for the blog today, but the deluge started. As I sat in Costa Coffee and looked out at grey skies and slick pavements, I felt a bit down and hopeless. But then, I started to notice the effect that the rain had on everything, and so, with apologies to Wallace Stevens and his poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, I’ve found 26 ways of looking at a rainy day.

1.Grey skies and rain make all the colours look brighter. The reds of the buses and the yellow of the AA van are almost startling. The traffic cones that Affinity Water have put along our road (lead water pipes have been discovered, oh joy) positively pop with brightness.

2. Raindrops form a constantly changing geometric pattern of interlacing circles and bubbles and tiny explosions.

3. Rain really highlights the terrain, the slopes and ridges and the long down-hill towards the tube station

4. The rain also highlights the places where vehicles have parked on the pavement, breaking the paving stones and creating the ideal home for miniature ponds and lakes.

5.People walk faster, but give one another little smiles and eye-rolls. ‘British summer, eh’. You can never go wrong with the weather. A month and a bit ago, we were all moaning about the heat. Today, I have the heating on. In August.

6.You can hear the shape of things by listening to the rain. I remember a radio programme where a chap who was blind said that he loved the rain, because he could ‘see’ the shape of the bushes and trees in the garden. I shall have to try that out, but I love the sounds of tyres in the rain, and the rain on the roof and the windowlights. In Cherry Tree Wood, you could hear the raindrops hitting the leaves.

7.Rain brings up all the smells – there is a word, ‘petrichor’ for earth after rain.  And I wish I could share the smell of these roses with you.

8. The rain brings out all the colours of the bark on the plane trees on the High Road, and the ornamental trees on the County Roads.

9. The rain paints the trees and houses, making it clear exactly where it falls.

10. The rain emphasises out the muscularity of the trunks of the hornbeam trees.

11. I love that some people ignore the rain, and go running anyway. In fact, when I used to run I loved the wet days most of all, the splashing through puddles and the splat of my footsteps, and the fact that I got soaking wet but was going to have a shower anyway.

12. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro talks about the way that the rain ‘washes all the scum off the streets’. He was talking metaphorically, but it does clean our streets up for sure. Look at how clean and new the nettles look after their bath.

13. I love that you can sometimes get a perfect reflection in a raindrop.

14. Reflections on a wet pavement are a whole other area of interest. Each car has its own upside-down double attached to its wheels. The awning at Tony’s Continental (the best greengrocer on the High Street in my opinion) looks even more splendid when reflected on wet paving stones.

15. The reflection of traffic lights on a wet surface blurs them romantically.

17. Where do the insects hide during the rain? A big raindrop can knock a butterfly off course or disrupt the busyness of a bee. As the rain (briefly) eased, all kinds of insects reappeared.

17.The rain doesn’t put the birds off, that’s for sure – the starlings bathe, and the crows are still looking for chips in the gutter outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I should tell them that their dietary habits are cannibalistic, but I doubt that they’d listen.

18.Some people have wonderful rainwear, like the lady completely encased in a yellow poncho who just popped into Costa Coffee. Practical and bright.

19.You see more grown-ups in Wellington Boots, and that’s not a bad thing. It always makes me think of the seaside.

20.Generally, people drive more slowly and carefully, as if suddenly aware that they are piloting a ton of metal through a world filled with creatures made of flesh and bone.

21 .My water butts will be full, ready for this ‘drought’ that we’re supposed to be having.

22. Leaves are both waterproof, and designed for rain to run off and fall where it’s needed, the soil beneath the plant.

23. The rain brings out the snails. And I have a great fondness for snails, in spite of their bad behaviour.

24. Walking in the rain when you don’t have to feels a bit anarchistic, but (whisper it) it can be fun. Children know this, we seem to have forgotten it. Best save any puddle-jumping for a quiet spot, though. I get enough funny looks as it is.

25. People walk closer together, sharing umbrellas, holding one another’s arms. We could all do with walking a bit closer together.

26. Tomorrow is meant to be dry and sunny. Let’s make the most of the rain while it’s here.

Wednesday Weed – Montbretia

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…..

Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora)

Dear Readers, Montbretia (also known as crocosmia)  is popping up all over East Finchley. It’s a popular garden plant but it has also naturalised in many parts of the country, particularly the south-west of England where Mum and Dad live. It is a hybrid of two plants: the Valentine Flower or Falling Stars (Crocosmia aurea):

Photo One (Valentine Flower) - By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Valentine Flower (Crocosmia aurea) (Photo One – credit below)

and Pott’s Crocosmia (Crocosmia pottsii).

Photo Two (Pott's crocosmia) - By peganum from Small Dole, England (Crocosmia pottsii tall form) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Potts Crocosmia (Crocosmia pottsii) (Photo Two – see credit below)

Both of these are splendid South African flowers, members of the Iridaceae or Iris family, and they were combined by the plant breeder Victor Lemoine in France in 1879. The thing about the montbretia that we’ve grown to know and love is that it quickly spreads to form the clumps that are much appreciated in the garden, but rather less so in the wild places of Dorset or Devon, Anglesey or Sutherland (where it is the fourth commonest alien plant, after sycamore, ground elder and lady’s mantle).  In ‘Alien Plants’ by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley, it’s noted that although the plant can set seed, it spreads more often by means of horizontal rhizomes (underground stems), and that the plant seems to prefer the damp climate of our Atlantic coasts. To see how dense a carpet it can create, have a look at the troll’s head from the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall (below) – the troll’s hair is entirely formed of Montbretia.

Photo Three (Troll's head) - by Webheathcloseup

Troll’s head with Montbretia hair (Photo Three – credit below)

Montbretia is also a remarkably resilient plant, which survives being thrown out by gardeners. When I’m in Coldfall Wood, I’m often horrified by the garden waste which is just thrown over the fences of the houses that surround it. I’m sure people don’t realise the harm that can be done by this random ‘fly-tipping’ of plant material. It’s true that the woods are not as ecologically sensitive as some habitats, being full of aliens already, but it would be nice if we could preserve what we still have.

Montbretia seems to come in two colours: the orange and yellow variation that Mum and Dad have, and a much more scarlet version. I always thought that flowers of this colour were largely pollinated by sunbirds and hummingbirds, but a bumblebee was burying itself in the flowers when I was observing earlier this week, so it is clear that insects have learned how to take advantage of the pollen and nectar.

The Latin name Crocosmia might lead you to think that this plant is a member of the crocus family. However, it comes from the Greek words for ‘saffron-odour’ – the dried leaves are said to smell like saffron when immersed in hot water. The name ‘Montbretia’ comes from the name of a French botanist A. F. E. Coquebert de Montbret (1780–1801).

One advantage that Montbretia has over other plants is that it is very tolerant of, and may even prefer,  high rainfall (hence its love of the west coast). Certainly, after a day of unremitting rainfall last week, the plant looked positively cheery.

I expected to find no medicinal uses for Montbretia as we know it -after all, the plant didn’t even exist until 1879. However, Pott’s Crocosmia, one of the ‘parents’, is a Zulu medicinal plant called Undwendweni, used to treat infertility (and thanks to 21stCenturyNaturalist for the information).  Valentine flower (Crocosmia aurea), the other ‘parent’ is used to treat dysentery and diarrhoea.

Valentine flower blooms can be used to produce a yellow dye for use as a food colouring.

In Papua New Guinea, where Montbretia is a recent ‘alien invader’, the crushed leaves are used as a treatment for a head cold by being sniffed like snuff.

I am always surprised at where my research for this blog takes me. Meet HMS Montbretia, a Flower-Class Corvette.

Photo Four (HMS Montbretia) - By Royal Navy official photographer, Tomlin, H W (Lt) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

HMS Montbretia, seen from the deck of HMS Vervain (Photo Four – credit below)

These ships were built for the Allied Forces during World War Two and were used specifically as anti-submarine convoy escorts. All of them were originally named after flowers, so we have HMS Convolvulus and HMS Coriander, among others. I note that those made in other countries were often named something more belligerent – the Canadian navy had ‘Cobalt’ and ‘Drumheller’ for example.

These were relatively slow, lightly-armed ships, intended to be quick to produce. They were mostly built in the smaller shipyards around the country, as the larger ones were already at full capacity.  They were, however, very ‘wet’ boats: you couldn’t get from the front to the back without being drenched, and by 1941 they held twice as many crewmen as they were designed for, with men sleeping on lockers and tabletops. They were also known as ‘the Pekingese of the seas’ because it was said that they would ‘roll in wet grass’ – they wallowed so badly that even experienced seamen succumbed to nausea.It would have been a tedious, wet, uncomfortable assignment, especially as there was no room for fresh food so the sailors subsisted on hard tack and bully beef, just like in the good old days of the Royal Navy. Nonetheless, the convoys largely got through, and the Flower-class corvettes were a major reason why.

HMS Montbretia was built in Paisley in 1940, but in 1941 the Royal Navy sold her to the Norwegian navy. On the 18th November 1942 she was torpedoed by a German U-Boat with the loss of 48 lives.

Last week, I went to see the film ‘Dunkirk’ and so the thought of men lost in the cold, dark sea is especially vivid to me. By a strange coincidence, I had seen ‘The Tempest’ at the Barbican during the same week, and so I would like to leave you with Ariel’s song from the play.

Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Everything is in flux, everything is connected: a botanist combines two South African plants that are now flourishing on the west coast of Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic where HMS Montbretia met her end. Metal hewn from the earth is made into a ship to serve in the wars of men, and that same ship is now probably a reef, busy with fish. One day we, too, will return to our constituent minerals and our atoms will make other creatures and plants. Nothing is wasted, if we take the long view. And some days, i find that strangely comforting.


Photo Five (The Tempest) - by Plum Leaves (

Edmund Dulac’s illustration for Ariel’s song from The Tempest (1908) (Photo Five – see credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Valentine Flower) – By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Pott’s crocosmia) – By peganum from Small Dole, England (Crocosmia pottsii tall form) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (Troll’s head) – by Webheathcloseup

Photo Four (HMS Montbretia) – By Royal Navy official photographer, Tomlin, H W (Lt) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (The Tempest) – by Plum Leaves (

Bugwoman on Location – Coming Home

Coming home….

Dear Readers, this week I thought I’d share my train ride from Mum and Dad’s home in Dorset back to the Big Smoke in London. I’ve taken one picture at each station, through the window (because heaven help any one who gets off – there would have been many pictures of my train disappearing out of the platform with all my luggage on it). I start from Moreton (down in the bottom left hand corner) and end up at Waterloo.

Before I start, however, here is a brief interlude on the party planning for Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary in September. We now know pretty much who is coming, and people are starting to let me know their menu choices. We met with the events manager at the hotel who is very obliging, so now we have Deadlines and such. There is some debate over whether or not to have a champagne toast after the main course and before dessert, with Dad saying this is what normally happens at Weddings, not Anniversary parties, and Mum and I  saying that there is never a wrong time for a champagne toast. I suspect we shall have our own way in the end. The flowers are sorted (roses, freesias, whatever else is in season), the table decorations and layout are agreed and the harpist is booked. In short, I am planning it like a military operation, minus the amphibious landing craft and trebuchets, though I shall have these in reserve in case of any shenanigans.

And then, there is the  vexed question of presents. Mum and Dad maintain that they Don’t Need Anything and even if they did, it would be rude to ask. On the other hand, lots of people have asked me what they should buy for Mum and Dad. I maintain that if you don’t give people some hints, they will get what they think. So, we have (finally) agreed that I will let the guests know that their presence is present enough, but if they do want to get something, we’ll go for garden centre gift vouchers. That way, Mum and Dad will have something to look forward to after the party, when I suspect their spirits might slump a bit after all the excitement. The autumn is a great time to buy perennials and get them planted, and every time they look at the plants, they’ll be reminded of their special day. An outing to the garden centre, plus lunch, will be just the tonic required to restore optimism I hope.


Anyhow, back to my train journey. Dad gave me a lift to Moreton station, the first time he’s felt able to drive there for over five years, so it just goes to show that even when someone is in their eighties they can still recover from illness – it’s not an inexorable, one-way decline. And as I was standing on the platform, I noticed this fluffy character. I love the antennae, and the ‘furry’ legs. And then it was time to throw myself onto the train and settle back for the two and a half hour ride with my sandwiches.

Moreton Station – a white ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda)

The journey from Moreton to Waterloo is wonderfully varied. The first part goes through farmland, with Jacob’s sheep grazing in the fields and deer nibbling at the bushes. The trackside vegetation is a mix of self-seeded sycamore, and buddleia. Lots and lots of buddleia.


Wool Station – a cheeky buddleia.

The first station is Wool, presumably named for it’s sheep-farming heritage. Today, it is the closest stop to Bovington army camp and the world-renowned Tank Museum. More importantly,  it’s home to Monkey World, a sanctuary which, despite its name, mainly specialises in rescued chimps and orang-utans from the despicable tourist photography trade in Europe and Asia. Some of these creatures arrive at the sanctuary completely bald from stress, and the last member of their species that they saw was probably their mother. Recently, Monkey World rescued a large number of capuchin monkeys from a research centre in South America, and they also have many small monkeys who were previously kept as pets. I only wish my friend Robin had been here long enough to visit it, though we’d probably never have got her home again.

I think that the buddleia pictured above has something of the dirty old man about it, but maybe that’s more a reflection on the sad state of my psyche.



Wareham – more buddleia.

Wareham – some broad-leaved ever-lasting pea

Wareham is the next stop. It was probably founded by the Saxons, and is a great spot for anyone wanting to tour Dorset, with Studland Bay and the Purbeck Hills close to hand, and the Jurassic Coast (where Mary Anning found her fossil ichthyosaurus) close by. On a more sinister note, it was one of the spots where the notorious Judge Jeffries held his Bloody Assizes following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, and five rebels were hung, drawn and quartered on the West Walls of the town. I had no idea that this barbaric practice was still going on in the seventeenth century.

And a note to for the poor traveller; Wareham is the only spot on this stretch of line that you can get a cab, in the event of your train misbehaving. As my journey to Dorset was delayed by over three hours (thank you, Woking signals) this can be extremely useful. The company I used was called Elysium Taxis, and although the ride did not remind me too much of the resting place of dead heroes, it was certainly extremely efficient and friendly.

Wareham station itself is a little bleak, but it’s always nice to see some interesting ‘weeds’ bursting forth, as seen above.

Holton Heath

Ribwort Plantain at Holton Heath

Holton Heath is the next stop, and the only plant life visible was some ribwort plantain on the other side of the chain-link fence. I wonder why one plant has grown twice as tall as the others? Is it genetic, or is there some source of water or food here?

Holton Heath was the site of the Royal Navy Cordite Factory during both the First and  Second World Wars – cordite is a propellant used in guns, and replaced gunpowder. One of the key ingredients is acetone, and to make this requires a source of starch, usually grain. As grain ran short during 1917, local children were asked to gather horse chestnuts (conkers) as an alternative source. They were so ardent that eventually six enormous grain silos were filled with the chestnuts that the children had gathered.

However, such dangerous manufacturing lead to accidents, with the worst being in 1931, when an explosion occurred in a nitroglycerin preparation chamber, killing 10 and injuring 19. Three buildings were destroyed and a storage tank was ruptured, spilling sulphuric acid in to the area. The explosion, which occurred at 10.45 am, was heard 20 miles away and people working outdoors 2 miles away were knocked over by the blast wave. Houses situated on the main road approximately 1 mile from the blast suffered extensive damage.

These days, Holton Heath is a ghost town, with industrial units and razor wire. I have never once seen anyone get on or off the train at Holton Heath, and the wind whistles through the grass and the ribwort plantain.


Sycamore keys at Hamworthy

On we go to Hamworthy, another ‘ghost stop’ where tall, self-planted sycamore trees are heavy with their fruit. This was an Iron Age settlement, and is situated on a peninsula, making it ideal for ferries and cargo to France, Jersey and the isle of Wight. A rather elegant new bridge has opened recently, to work alongside the existing bridge, and ensure that traffic can always get from Poole town centre to the ferry port.

Photo One (Bridge) - By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Twin Sails bridge at Hamworthy (Photo One – see credit below)


Groundsel at Poole station

As you head to Poole station, you pass wetlands and sailing ponds with gigantic plastic swans on them, but at the station itself my spirits were barely lifted by some struggling groundsel and a few leaves of grass. There wasn’t even a seagull. The train meanders through the middle of town, and you can gaze out at some of the most expensive real estate in the world (on Sandbanks in Poole), and also see the mixture of holiday-makers and locals waiting patiently for your train to pass so that they can get on with their shopping.


Ironwork at Bournemouth station

For the traveller, the fine Victorian station of Bournemouth is important because this is where the refreshments trolley boards. Sure enough, I had some sandwiches, but  this is where you can avail yourself of what passes for coffee on South West Trains. Plus, the driver changes over, so I had five minutes to survey the scene. They certainly don’t want any pigeons nesting here: I have rarely seen such prolific anti-pigeon measures, though I suspect that from the occasional feathers and droppings some such avian trespassers haven’t read the rules.

But how my heart lifted at the sight of a few weeds who had, miraculously, managed to find a root-hold. Life will always find a way, I see.

Buddleia on the roof at Bournemouth station

A fern making itself at home on a ledge

Another happy fern at Bournemouth


The next part of the ride is through the New Forest, which is neither New (it probably dates from about 12,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age) nor a Forest (being mostly heathland these days). However, it was William the Conqueror who called the area the Foresta Nova, and reserved it for hunting purposes.  It is one of the largest remaining tracts  of unenclosed land left in south-east England, and ponies, pigs and other domestic animals still have the right to roam here. It is a biodiversity hotspot, and I often see grazing roe and red deer from my train window. Several of the villages and towns on my route are in the New Forest, and there seems to be a new enthusiasm for making the stations pretty.

Tub at Christchurch Station

Here is a splendid tub at Christchurch station – the town has one of the oldest populations in England (with 30% of its residents being over 60). Maybe a preponderance of people with time on their hands makes for a pretty platform. However, they have strong competition from the folk just along the line at New Milton.

New Milton

New Milton – winning the prize for the prettiest station so far. But is it my favourite?

New Milton dates back to the arrival of the railway in 1888. It, and the surrounding villages, were the centre of the seaborne smuggling trade, and a detachment of armed ‘Coast Guards’ were stationed here to try to stop them. These days, we think of the main job of the coast guard as being the rescue of folk who drift away on their lilos or of fishermen who get into trouble in heavy weather, but in those days they literally ‘guarded the coast’. Some of the offshore sea routes were actually named after the main smuggling families. I Imagine it was a time of intrigue and double-dealing. These days, it’s all a bit more sedate.


Some floral decoration at Brockenhurst

At last, a seagull

Brockenhurst is the most popular stop in the New Forest – you can hire a bike here, there are many small hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, and lots of walking trails start here. However, they need to pull their socks up with the floral decoration, as I would say that New Milton and Christchurch are currently in the lead. The town itself has a long military tradition, with a hospital for Indian and New Zealand soldiers wounded in the First World War. The woods around Brockenhurst were used for jungle training for soldiers destined for the Pacific during the Second World War. I imagine they weren’t much of a substitute for the environment that the soldiers were soon to face.

Photo Two (wounded soldiers) - PD-US,

Wounded New Zealand soldiers on the platform at Brockenhurst station during the First World War (Photo Two – credit below)

Photo Three (trainees in the woods) - By Oulds, D C (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer - is photograph A 27308 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

Trainees learning jungle tactics in woods around Brockenhurst (Photo Three – credit below)


I was at university at Southampton. It wasn’t a particularly happy time for me: I missed my home and family. Also, it was the first time that I realised that I was a different class from everyone around me: one of the ‘posh’ girls told me that ‘when I first heard you speak, I thought you were common, but actually you’re ok’. Gee, thanks. But it was nice to see happier students sitting at the station, although their floral decoration could definitely do with some work.

Floral decoration at Southampton station

Southampton Airport Parkway

Strangely enough, though, the planting that I like most is at Southampton Airport Parkway. Someone has taken a tiny strip of ground behind the fence and in front of the boxes for the telephone exchange, and has turned it into a little spot of insect heaven. Technically, i suppose it isn’t even in the station, but hey.

The guerrilla garden at Southampton Airport Parkway


Ah, Winchester. How prosperous. How pretty. How august. But what on earth is happening on your station platform? Surely there is room for a pot or two.

I must admit to having a dislike for Winchester, having been knocked into a bramble patch by a completely naked man whenIi was a student here back in the early eighties, but I am prepared to be converted. Just sort out some pollinator-friendly plants and I’ll reconsider, I promise.

Some nice pillars, but no planting at Winchester station


I rather like this planting at Basingstoke. I am wondering what on earth the fruit is? Could it be nectarines, or is it just some small, colourful apples? Help me out here, gardening friends.

A splendid bed at Basingstoke station

Although we think of Basingstoke as a new town, it is probably on the site of an Anglo-Saxon village settled by ‘the people of Basa’, Basa being the tribal leader. The word ‘stoke’ probably derives from the word for a stockade.

Clapham Junction

And now, I’m eight minutes from Waterloo and, if all goes well, about forty minutes from East Finchley. Clapham Junction is the busiest station for trains (though not passengers) in the whole of Europe, with 200 trains passing through per hour. However, what it is not is plant friendly. There are some isolated buddleia plants, and a few sad weeds, who look as if they have been sprayed (this is often the case if the plants would impede the progress of the trains). However, maybe the seeds from the willowherb below will find more inviting ground – there are huge drifts of them all the way along the edge of the lines.

A sorry willowherb at Clapham Junctiion

The Entry into Waterloo

It’s funny. You’d think I’d love the countryside, and yet my heart lifts at the sight of the building work on the way into Waterloo station and the little glimpses of the London Eye. I’d like to share a few of the final moments of the journey with you below. And then, I’m off. Home, a cup of tea and my husband await!

Photo Credits

Photo One (Bridge) – By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two (wounded soldiers) – PD-US,

Photo Three (trainees in the woods) – By Oulds, D C (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer – is photograph A 27308 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

Wednesday Weed – Knotgrass

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…..

Knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare sp)

Dear Readers, you will know by now that I love investigating the most common and overlooked of ‘weeds’, and this week’s subject is what my American friends would call ‘a doozy’. Knotgrass is popping up all over East Finchley at the moment, straggling from between paving stones and emerging from cracked concrete. It has a sprawling, nonchalant habit, tiny flowers and a jointed stem that reminds me a little of bamboo. But as usual, there is more to knotgrass than meets the eye.

Knotgrass is a member of the Polygonaceae, a family that includes redshank, Japanese knotweed and Russian vine . The name ‘Polygonaceae’ derives from the Greek phrase meaning ‘many knees’ – if you look at the stem of knotgrass you can see lots of little ‘joints’ or nodes. I learned with some delight that the Middle English name for this plant is ‘ars-smerte’ – it was once used in a lotion for haemorrhoids, and as many of the plants in this family are hot and peppery, I think we can imagine the reason.

Although knotgrass is a relatively uninteresting plant to the casual observer, I would draw the attention of anyone with a magnifying glass to the flowers and buds, which are rather delightful.

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

Knotgrass flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

As you will know, I am often flabbergasted when I am researching my ‘weeds’ and today is no exception. In his novel ‘The Man Who Laughs’, Victor Hugo tells of how ‘artificial dwarves’ were created by Spanish child-buyers or Comprachicos. Hugo compares their work of deliberate mutilation to those who create bonsai trees. The Comprachicos stunted the growth of the children   “by anointing babies’ spines with the grease of bats, moles and dormice” and using drugs such as “dwarf elder, knotgrass, and daisy juice”, in order to create tiny people who could be sold as entertainment at court, or as beggars. Although there is some question about how accurate Hugo’s depiction of these practices was, Shakespeare certainly knew that knotgrass had a reputation in this regard. Here is a description of the diminutive Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Get you gone, dwarf;
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;

And here, in a play by Beaumont and Fletcher, the Coxcomb says that they

Want a boy

Kept under for a year on milk and knotgrass‘.

The illustration below is of the Hermia scene described above in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, painted by none other than William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), the man who created the extraordinary pictures of machines that have led to any ingenious, Wallace and Gromit-esque contraption being described as being ‘Heath Robinson’.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (illustration by William Heath Robinson) (Public Domain)

And here, for your delectation, is the William Heath Robinson Naval Cloud Dispeller.

William Heath Robinson (Naval Cloud Dispeller) (Public Domain)

But I digress, as usual.

You might think that knotgrass looks most unappetising, but it has been used as food all over the world (the plant seems to be pretty much universal).In Vietnam, the plant is known as rau đắng, and is used in a hot and sour stew called Canh chua, which looks most delicious.

By Jason Hutchens - Flickr: Canh Chua, CC BY 2.0,

Canh chua (Photo Two – see credit below)

Several foragers mention that the young leaves can be used in salads, and that the seeds can be milled into flour (knotgrass is closely related to buckwheat). You would need a lot of patience and a clean supply of the plant for either of those activities, however: because of its low-growing habit and preference for paving stones, knotgrass is frequently trampled underfoot and peed upon by dogs, neither of which makes it particularly appetising.

I do wonder if the species name of the plant, aviculare, refers to small birds being partial to the seeds, though. They look just about the right size for goldfinches.

By Stefan.lefnaer - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A knotgrass seed. You’d need a few for a loaf, that’s for sure….(Photo Three – credit below)

I did learn that the plant has a single taproot which can penetrate to nearly four feet, which makes it very drought-resistant, another desirable attribute in an exposed city plant. It is also said to be rich in zinc.

In Turkey, the plant is known as Madimak, and here is a recipe from the Turkish Yummies website

Generally, knotgrass has been seen as a famine food, something to get people through when nothing else was available. It is, however, seen as food by many insects, including the bloodwing moth, whose caterpillar tries to camouflage itself as a thorny twig.

By Bj.schoenmakers - Own work, CC0,

Bloodwing (Timandra comae) caterpillar (Photo Four – see credit below)

By Marcello Consolo at

Adult Bloodwing (Timandra comae ) (Photo Six – credit below)

As well as being used for piles, knotgrass has been used as a diuretic, and for the treatment of urinary tract infections. It is an antihelminthic (I love this word – it means that it can be used to expel parasitic worms), and has been used to break down mucus when people have lung and throat infections.

You might think that such a small and humble plant would not have made much of an impact on poets (except for its child-shrinking abilities, of course). But here is Keats, in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’:’

A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
       All garlanded with carven imag’ries
       Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
       And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
       Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
       As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
       And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
       And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.


And here is Oliver Wendell Holmes from his poem ‘The Exile’s Secret’

Who sees unmoved, a ruin at his feet,
The lowliest home where human hearts have beat?
Its hearthstone, shaded with the bistre stain
A century’s showery torrents wash in vain;
Its starving orchard, where the thistle blows
And mossy trunks still mark the broken rows;
Its chimney-loving poplar, oftenest seen
Next an old roof, or where a roof has been;
Its knot-grass, plantain,–all the social weeds,
Man’s mute companions, following where he leads;
Its dwarfed, pale flowers, that show their straggling heads,
Sown by the wind from grass-choked garden-beds;
Its woodbine, creeping where it used to climb;
Its roses, breathing of the olden time;
All the poor shows the curious idler sees,
As life’s thin shadows waste by slow degrees,
Till naught remains, the saddening tale to tell,
Save home’s last wrecks,–the cellar and the well?

‘Man’s mute companions’, indeed. But I sometimes wonder if they would still speak to us, as they used to, if we paid them more attention.

By Dalgial - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six (Credit below)


Photo Credits

Photo One (knotgrass flowers) – By Dalgial (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Vietnamese hotpot) – By Jason Hutchens – Flickr: Canh Chua, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three (knotgrass seed) – By Stefan.lefnaer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four (Bloodwing caterpillar) – By Bj.schoenmakers – Own work, CC0,

Photo Five (Adult bloodwing) – By Marcello Consolo at

Photo Six (Knotgrass) – By Dalgial – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,