Monthly Archives: November 2017

Wednesday Weed – Japanese Aralia

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…..

Japanese Aralia(Fatsia japonica)

Dear Readers, as I walked home  through Muswell Hill on a cold Sunday morning, I was surprised to hear the sound of buzzing, and to see not one but three bumblebees feeding from these sputnik-shaped flowers. Japanese aralia is an exotic, but as more and more bumblebee nests are surviving the winter it has become a valuable source of nectar and pollen. A  glance at the flowers put me in mind of ivy, which is not surprising as both are members of the Araliaceae family, and there is at least one hybrid between  this plant and an ivy.

Fruit of Japanese Aralia

The genus name ‘Fatsia’ comes from an old Japanese word for ‘eight’, and if you look at the leaves you’ll see that they usually have eight ‘fingers’ (though they can have seven, or nine). As you might guess from this, the plant is native to southern Japan and South Korea. The Japanese name for the plant is ‘Yatsude’, meaning ‘eight-hand’. Whatever the number of lobes, the leaves are evergreen, shiny, and rather attractive. However, as you can see in the photo below, even evergreens may have an ‘autumn’, when older leaves turn yellow and drop off – I have a viburnum in a pot which did this this year, to my horror. However, it’s now doing well, so I can breathe again.

A Fatsia leaf (one of the eight lobes is hidden, honest!)

Japanese aralia is a great plant for shady conditions and heavy soils, and so it should be a shoo-in for my north-facing, claggy-soiled garden, if only I had a bit more room. However, I have a very dark side-return which is currently home to potted camellias, a daphne and a climbing hydrangea, so maybe I will find a spot for one here (they’re hardy down to -14 degrees, so hopefully that should be ok). I am somewhat tempted by this new variety, though in my experience you’re often better off with the old faithfuls.

Fatsia japonica 'Spiders Web'

Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ (Photo One)

I absolutely see the point of raising native flowers in some habitats: I have friends in the US and in Australia who do this, and I think that there’s a real need to support wildlife by growing the plants that evolved with them to be the perfect source of food and shelter. In London, though, there are already so many foreign species that I think it’s a case of deciding which will benefit creatures such as pollinators when no native plants are in flower, or available as food for larvae. For example, winter-flowering plants such as Mahonia and Fatsia fill a feeding gap for over-wintering bumblebee queens and for the nests that survive these days.

IMG_2356

Although Japanese aralia is sometimes known as the castor-oil plant, it is not related to the actual castor-oil plant (Ricinus communis), although the leaves are similar. This is important for several reasons, particularly because the ‘true’ castor-oil plant is extremely poisonous. You will sometimes find Fatsia japonica labelled as ‘false castor-oil plant’, to add to the confusion. This is why Latin names are so important -at least we all know that we’re talking about the same thing.

In Japan, the shoots of Fatsia japonica are harvested and used as a vegetable, and very tasty they look too…

By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9781610

An actual castor-oil plant(Ricinus communis) (Photo Two)

Japanese aralia has been used as an anti-inflammatory in Japan and Taiwan, and hence in the treatment of such conditions as osteoarthritis and rheumatism. In folklore those huge eight-pointed hand-shaped leaves were thought to repel devils, and the plant was grown on the north side of the house from whence these enemies were thought to come (though as this is presumably also the coldest side it seems like a bit of a risk for the plant.).

IMG_2364

Dear Readers, last week I described how the ginkgo trees in Japan were among the few to survive the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and today I found this photo essay on the effects of those bombs. And here is a photo of the shadow of Fatsia japonica leaves left on a telegraph pole following the flash from the bomb at Hiroshima. What happened to the plant eventually is not recorded. At a time when the idea of nuclear war, so long considered unthinkable, has become a ‘viable option’ for some leaders of the Free World, it’s as well to stop to consider what it really means. Some of the other photos in the essay show exactly what happens when you drop a nuclear device on other human beings.

shadow2.gif (107026 bytes)

This photo was taken by the US Army following the bombing of Hiroshima. Note the shadow of the leaves on the telegraph pole.

And, following the disaster at Fukoshima, Japanese poets have also been concerned with the effects of the radiation released by natural forces. In the collection ‘Reverberations from Fukushima: 50 Japanese Poets Speak Out’, Setsuko Okubu, who lived in Fukushima, considers the effect of this devastating event on her home:

In “To My Home,” Setsuko Okubo affirms, “Our prime blessing is brought by the soil..inherited and guarded.” In the first and last stanzas, the repetition of the names of wild plants they used to gather serves as a litany.

To My Home

Butterbur sprouts, five-leaf aralia, fatsia sprouts, bracken, and parsley.
When the mountains are ready
for the sprouting of plants,
the rice fields are dug, and the fields are cultivated,
calves are born,
horses are pastured,
and chickens lay eggs.
It’s a season full of life.
In the fall
Ears of rice rustle.
The smell of rice heralds the harvest.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Then, “In a twinkle it vanished../ life-taking radiation —/ contaminated my home”

We had to slaughter the cows that we had tenderly watched over.
We abandoned our racehorses that we had raised with the utmost care,
left our houses, fields, and livestock, and evacuated.
We drift from shelter to shelter as refugees.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Spring has rolled around again.
Butterbur sprouts, five-leaf aralia, fatsia sprouts, bracken, and parsley.
They are waiting to be picked
on the desolate land.

My heart goes out to people everywhere who have to leave everything that they know and leave their homes, whether through natural disaster or war, drought or famine. It sometimes seems as if the whole world is on the move, and this will only increase as climate change makes areas uninhabitable. Building walls against others is no solution. We need to learn to live with people who are different from us, and we need to learn fast. We have always been the adaptable ape, and I hope this will stand us in good stead in the future, though some days I despair. But not today, because the bees are feeding on the Japanese aralia, and will go home with full stomachs to survive another day.

IMG_2348

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sunlight on the Garden

IMG_2310

Last night, the wind roared down the chimney. It sounded like a playful giant blowing over the rim of an enormous milk bottle. And in the morning, the plane trees on the High Road had been stripped of all but the most recalcitrant leaves. I sometimes wonder if the leaves enjoy their first and last moments of freedom, released from the shackles of branch and twig to dance in the air and skitter down the pavement.

I was away all weekend in Somerset, for a series of events to celebrate Aunt Hilary’s 90th birthday. Everyone that I spoke to told me how Hilary had been the first person to welcome them to the village when they arrived, the first person to help them find their feet in the community. At the afternoon tea party, there were little bunches of fuchsias and hebe and rosemary on the tables, and half a dozen ladies from the village had made scones and brownies, fruit cake and sandwiches. There was such warmth in the room, and in this it reminded me of Mum and Dad’s party.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting

Aunt Hilary and Bugwoman discussing life.

Without wanting to be (particularly) morbid, it seems to me that moments of happiness and celebration are more and more important as I, and the people that I love, grow older. To anyone contemplating arranging an event, a holiday, a special evening with someone that they care about, I’d say ‘do it,’ however stressful the organisational process is. It’s the memories that count, not material things. My writer friend Dianne Crumbaker has been thinking along similar lines, as you can see here.

How can we evaluate a life, judge it as well-lived?  I’m not sure why we were put on this earth, but I’m very sure that part of it must be to be of service, to use our skills and talents for the greater betterment of other people and the earth as a whole.  It makes me wonder how I can give back to my local community, how I can make a difference. I have such a fear of committing to things that I can’t carry through because I might have to do something to help Mum and Dad. It’s a conundrum, to be sure.

This morning I stood in my kitchen, and marvelled at how a finger of sunlight was touching  the beech leaves in the hedge until they glowed copper and gold. The sun burns along the narrow alleyway by the side of the house like a laser. I took a photo, and then took some of the starlings. At the top of the hawthorn and whitebeam the sun shines more gently over the house, and the birds reflect the light. They chortle and chat away, raising their crests and whistling continuously while eyeing the contents of the bird table and checking for cats. And then they descend like thunderbolts, tossing suet pellets and mealworms in all directions.

IMG_2318

IMG_2312

I look back at the hedge, and already the sun has moved on. Except, of course, that it hasn’t. We have. The world is turning under my feet, even though I can’t feel it, and the angle of the alleyway to the sun has changed in just a few moments. I have rarely been brought up so sharply by the realities of time and space. We are moving on, inexorably, getting older, travelling at thousands of miles per hour even while we’re doing nothing more exciting than taking pictures of birds through our cobwebby windows on a Thursday morning.

IMG_2327

How quickly a lifetime goes, each slice of time followed by another, and then another. By the time I’ve taken some pictures of the goldfinches, the earth has turned further, and the sun is no longer on the hedge at all. A wren runs across the steps to the pond as quickly as a mouse. A neighbour’s cat rushes across to the pond and tries to extract a late frog, who dives just in time. The cat licks his paw and gazes around as if slightly embarrassed.

IMG_2329

IMG_2342

All night I was worrying about Mum, who has a terrible cough. The doctor is hoping that antibiotics and steroids will be enough to keep a potential infection under control, but I fear another hospital stay is on the cards, and there’s the question of looking after Dad in her absence. The parents  can pretty much manage when there are two of them (with the help of their carers), but things break down quickly if there’s only one at home. And then, as I watch that slot of golden sunlight travel across the garden, it occurs to me that trying to control fate, trying to negotiate with the gods, is as pointless as trying to keep a leaf on a tree, or attempting to stop the world from turning. I feel myself rooting down into acceptance. What will be, will be, and all I can do is ride the season, the squalls and the bitter cold and the sudden, blessed gifts of sunshine.

Update: it seems that I was too pessimistic about Mum’s chest infection – she seems to be improving, and so far is still at home, taking her steroids and antibiotics and drinking lots of tea. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday Weed – Ginkgo

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…..

Ginkgo (Maidenhair) tree in East Finchley cemetery

Dear Readers, my visit to East Finchley cemetery last week was the gift that just keeps on giving. I felt that this venerable tree deserved more than a few lines in a longer piece, and so this week I want to look at the ginkgo, a popular street and cemetery tree here in North London, and yet one which I have often hurried past. Before anyone gets over-excited, this is quite clearly not a ‘weed’ by any normal definition, but have you ever tried finding a ‘weed’ in mid-November which, after nearly four years of weekly posts, hasn’t been covered? Flexibility will be required from hereon in, I suspect.

Gingko is immediately identifiable from its leaves. No other living tree has fan-shaped foliage, but fossilised ginkgo leaves have been found from 270 million years ago. The tree existed at the same time as mare’s tail, which was a Wednesday Weed a few weeks ago, but, unlike that plant, poor ginkgo really is the last of its kind. There is nothing else alive that is remotely like it.

Once I spotted one ginkgo, I found them everywhere: at the end of Archway Road, in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and on Durham Road. But they are, in some ways, problematic. Ginkgo trees have separate sexes ( the technical term is dioecious), but each sex has some disadvantages as a street tree. The female trees produce a fruit which looks a little like an apricot (the name ‘ginkgo’ is said to come from a misspelling of the Japanese name for the plant, which means ‘silver apricot’) but if this falls and starts to rot, it is said to produce a smell that combines the odour of vomit with the stench of rancid butter. The pollen of the male trees, which naturally produce no fruit, is highly allergenic, and so not good for hay fever sufferers. Nonetheless, the tree is beautiful enough for groundskeepers everywhere to keep planting it.

Incidentally, among its many peculiarities is the fact that the male ginkgo produces sperm which is covered in tiny mobile hairs that enable it to move. In this, ginkgo is similar to mosses and algae, but completely different from flowering plants. It has several adaptations to a time before these competitors came along: for example, it grows very quickly to a  height of about 10 meters before extending any side shoots, which was probably because most plants at this time were ferns and horsetails, and so the need was to get as high as possible as quickly as possible, and then to shade out everybody else.

Photo One (Fossil gingko) by By User:SNP(upload to en:wikipedia) ; User:tangopaso (transfer to Commons) (English Wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

A fossilised gingko leaf from the Eocene (56-33.9 million years ago) (Photo One)

Not only is the ginkgo a very ancient species, but individual trees are both resilient and long-lived. Six ginkgos which were within 2 kms of the epicentre of the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast survived, and are given the honorable name of ‘hibakujumoku’, or ‘survivor trees’.

At the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto shrine in Japan a giant ginkgo which had stood beside the staircase since the creation of the building in 1063 finally collapsed in 2010. A botanist who examined it declared that the trunk had rotted. It was thought that that was the end, until both the original tree stump and a piece of the tree planted nearby started to produce a fine crop of new leaves.

Ginkgo-reborn-2.jpg

Never write off a ginkgo! (Photo Two)

If you go into any chemist, you are likely to see herbal preparations with pictures of that distinctive fan-shaped leaf on the box. It is often marketed as a way of delaying the effects of old age, perhaps because the tree itself is so sprightly, and we hope to acquire some of its characteristics. It is said to be beneficial for macular degeneration, dementia, forgetfulness generally, ‘post-menopausal cognitive decline’ ( I guess that’s when I start a sentence and have no idea what I meant to say by the time I get to the end), post-stroke recovery, arterial disease and tinnitus. Oh that it did half of what it says on the packet, but sadly scientific trials have all currently drawn a blank. There is also some fear that if you are taking a blood-thinner such as warfarin or coumadin, overdoing it with the gingko will result in rather thinner blood than you were hoping for. On the other hand, Chinese doctors have been using ginkgo since 2800 BC, so I refuse to lose hope. The plant is certainly full of interesting chemicals such as amentoflavone (which can inhibit the uptake of certain medications) and ginkgolic acid, which is highly allergenic, so maybe these can be turned from ‘the dark side’.

IMG_2290

You might think that there would be nothing edible to be found on a ginkgo tree, what with all that talk of the smell of the fruit, but the seeds of the ginkgo (once the smelly stuff is removed) are a traditional food in both China and Japan. In particular, they form part of a celebratory dish called ‘Buddha’s Delight’ which is served at Chinese New Year, a time when a vegetarian diet is thought to bring good luck. And very tasty it looks too.

Boeddha's_Delight.jpg

Whilst researching this piece, I came across this painting by the Japanese artist Watanabe Shotei, and promptly fell in love with it. I like the way that the crow is framed, and the way that the autumn-yellow ginkgo leaves are scattering as she flies through them. This is very different from his other, more formal work, and I think that it sums up the mischievousness of the bird as it ploughs through the august foliage. Or maybe it’s just me.

Bloemen_en_vogels_door_Seitei

Flower and bird by Watanabe Shotei (Public Domain)

And finally, there is a belief that even in the shedding of its leaves, the ginkgo is not like other trees. Whilst the oak leaves and the maple leaves drop off one at a time, all the leaves from a ginkgo are said to fall in one night. I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence of that happening with the trees that I know, but maybe this is the case in harsher climates. The poet Howard Nemerov had this to say on the subject:

Late in November, on a single night

Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees

That stand along the walk drop all their leaves

In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind

But as though to time alone: the golden and green

Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday

Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What strange communication occurs between these ancient trees, I wonder, and what complex combination of chemical signals would give rise to such a thing? The more I learn about trees, the less I know.

 

A Street Tree Harvest

IMG_2308

Dear Readers, the man a few doors along from me gets very frustrated with the crab apple street tree outside his house. In October and November you can see him sweeping up all the rotten fruit , and if you pause he will explain why he hates it.

  1. The fruit, when freshly fallen, is as hard as a ball-bearing, just waiting to catch out the unwary.
  2. The fruit quickly degenerates into a squishy mush, which is even more slippery  than the ball-bearing stage, and is rather unpleasant to walk on even if you don’t fall onto your derriere.
  3. If you leave the rotten and fermenting fruit, it attracts clouds of drowsy wasps.
  4. While the fruit is still on the tree, it attracts noisy and badly-behaved parakeets who add to the mess with their droppings.
What are you looking at?

A noisy and badly-behaved parakeet

Fruit trees as street trees can be problematic, because the fruit is attractive to all kinds of creatures that some people wouldn’t want on their doorstep.  I have no problem with the poor wasps, who are imbibing the last sweet thing that they’ll ever taste, and who could blame them for wanting to get a bit tipsy after a hard year of caterpillar-catching and grub-grooming. And I don’t have a problem with the parakeets either, who bring a touch of exotic beauty to the street.

IMG_2304

But then there’s the mess. It’s not a problem, generally, with cherry trees, because the fruit appears early and the thrushes and blackbirds eat every last morsel. But the autumn fruits can be something of a problem. After all, how much crab apple jelly can anybody eat? And even the more edible fruits can prove difficult to handle in their sheer abundance and generosity.  When I went on a street tree walk earlier this year, I visited a group of sand pear trees whose fruit was so succulent and heavy that it was bombarding the pavement and any cars that were parked underneath with a deluge of sticky-sweet puree. As you might remember from that piece, half the street wanted the trees cut down, and the other half wanted them preserved. Peace broke out when it was decided to do something radical and harvest the fruit to be turned into perry (the pear-based version of cider). It’s almost as if we have forgotten what fruit trees were originally planted for.

https://bugwomanlondon.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/img_0622.jpg?w=370&h=659

A sand pear tree off Holloway Road in North London

I was very heartened to read in Time Out this week that a group of people are harvesting the apples from street trees, and trees growing on public land, to make cider and to give the fruit to foodbanks and organisations that prepare meals for isolated people. Although crab apples are not immediately edible(at least for humans), tons of perfectly good fruit are wasted every year because nobody picks it. There must be a better, more connected way to bring the hungry together with their food, and to make good use of nature’s bounty, and there are a lot of interesting experiments going on to do just that.

IMG_2296

The fruit on my garden crab apple – popular with the thrushes (when everything else has been eaten)

And it occurs to me that where a tree is just plain messy at certain times of the year, it wouldn’t hurt me to dig out my broom and give the man who lives a few houses down a hand. It’s so easy to become territorial in a row of houses, and to think that your responsibility ends at the edge of your garden wall. That might be strictly true, but it’s not a community I’d want to live in. When we had snow a few years ago, my husband cleared a path not just in front of our house, but for a good distance in either direction. He grew up in Canada and knows how to clear snow, but also recognises that it’s easier for some of us to do heavy work than it is for others. And yes, I know the old story that you can be sued if you clear your snow and someone falls over anyway, but from my research that seems only to apply if you’ve done something really stupid (like try to wash it away so that it freezes into an ice-rink).

IMG_2309

So, as autumn turns into winter, and the sun seems to be low on the horizon all day, I’m determined to be more aware of the bounty around me. There are some handy maps that you can use, in London at least, to look out where your local fruit trees might be, and to keep an eye open for any seasonal bonanzas – here, for example, is one for Hackney, provided by the organisation Hackney Harvest. For a general map of street trees in London, have a look here: you can enter your postcode, and it will tell you what’s growing in your area. All the usual provisos about health and safety apply, but I’d be willing to bet that if you passed by some of these trees in the autumn, the fruit would be literally dropping off. Wash it well though, you know how keen some councils are on spraying things.

IMG_2307

I’ve written before about how ‘plant-blind’ many of us have become. Whereas a generation or two back plants were in relationship with us, whether as medicines, or food, or as food for the imagination, nowadays it’s so easy to barely notice them. Writing the blog has opened my eyes a bit, but there is still so much more to notice and to learn about. I have grown to love the diverse plant community around my home, and to value it for the way that it roots me in place, and in history. If you are feeling a bit stale or lacklustre, put on your coat and hat and gloves and go for a fifteen minute walk. I guarantee that, if you walk slowly and pay attention, you’ll see something that piques your interest and takes you out of yourself. And maybe you’ll even find something to take home and turn into a crumble.

IMG_2292

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Strawberry Tree

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…..

Fruit of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

Dear Readers, I spotted this tree in East Finchley cemetery last week and, although it is most definitely not a weed, I decided to indulge myself and find out a bit more about it. After all, it is native to Great Britain (albeit only in a tiny corner of south-western Ireland, where it seems to have survived the last ice age) and is a popular street tree – in ‘London’s Street Trees‘ Paul Wood points out that it can be found in Bermondsey, Haggerston, Vauxhall and Holloway, and that there is even an Arbutus Street in Dalston. The Irish connection gave it its alternate names of ‘Irish strawberry tree’ or ‘cane apple’ (from caithne, the Irish name for the tree). Elsewhere, it can be found around the Mediterranean and Western Europe.

The tree is not related in any way to the strawberry that we have for dessert: in fact, it’s a member of the heather family (Ericaceae), something that can be seen more clearly in the flowers than in the fruits. The tree bears both simultaenously, which makes for an attractive and long-lasting display.

Photo One (Flowers) by By muffinn from Worcester, UK (Ameixial - strawberry tree Arbutus unedo flowers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Strawberry Tree flowers (Photo One)

The fruits are edible, but, much like the avocados that I sometimes buy, they take twelve months to ripen and then spoil very quickly. The species name unedo means ‘I eat only one’, and is attributed to Pliny the Elder. Whether he meant that one was enough, or that one was so delicious that no more were required is open for debate. I now regret that, in the interests of citizen science, I didn’t try one. There were certainly enough of them about.

IMG_2287

The fruit is can be used in a variety of ways: here is a rather attractive crumble cake, for example.

Photo Two (Cake) by By Nzfauna - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39656416

Strawberrry tree crumble cake (Photo Two)

However, as is so often the case, the main use of the fruit turns out to be in the making of alcoholic beverages. In Portugal, the wild fruit is used to make Medronho a 48% proof brandy that is drunk at breakfast to ‘waken the spirits’. In Albania it’s used to make rakia (not to be confused with the aniseed flavoured raki) and can be up to 90% proof. All I can say is that these folk are made of much stronger stuff than me. One glass of prosecco and I’m dancing on the table.

For something slightly less alcoholic, here is a recipe for Irish Strawberry Liquer from the splendid Talk of Tomatoes blog.

The fruit can also be used to make jam, and here is a recipe from the Maremma region of Italy which sounds rather splendid.

IMG_2284

What with its fruit and flowers and evergreen foliage, the strawberry tree is a great tree for a small garden, where every plant has to earn its keep. The flowers are pollinated by bees, birds like the fruit (even if we are wary of it) and it has a variety of ecosystem advantages: it can grow in very poor soil, and helps to stabilise it: it is salt-tolerant, and so useful for coastal gardens:it’s fire-resistant: and the thick leaf-cover helps to protect birds and insects during the winter.

Pliny did, however, note that it should not be kept close to bee-hives, for the nectar gives a bitter flavour to honey.

The strawberry tree forms part of the coat of arms of the Spanish city of Madrid, which shows a bear eating the fruits from the plant. There are still about 230 brown bears in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain, and I love to think of them stretching up to eat the berries. There is some indication that the bears may also eat the fermented fruit and collapse in an alcoholic stupor, much as they do in other places where such bounty is available.

In a complete digression, I remember seeing the paw prints of a sloth bear in a forest in India, and being amazed at how human they looked, just like the bare feet of a small child. These creatures resemble us in many ways.

Photo Three (coat of arms) by By Valadrem (http://valadrem.blogspot.com) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Coat of arms of Madrid (Photo Three)

In Italy, the tree, with its red fruit, white flowers and green leaves (the colours of the Italian flag), was seen as a symbol of the unification of the country during the 19th Century.

Medicinally, the leaves of the  strawberry tree have been used for a wide variety of purposes – they are said to be astringent, diuretic, urinary anti-septic, antiseptic, intoxicant, rheumatism, tonic, and have more recently been used in the therapy of hypertension and diabetes. The leaves certainly contain quercetin, which is an anti-oxidant, and are said to have anti-inflammatory properties.

IMG_2285

Now, I have referred previously to Hieronymos Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, and the way that folk can be seen to be wrestling with strawberries, carrying strawberries, and even eating strawberries. I took it for granted that the fruit in question was from the wild strawberry. However, the painting was recorded in the inventory of the Spanish monarch as ‘La Pintura del Madroño‘ – ‘the painting of the strawberry tree’. Have a  look at those giant fruits and see what you think. I suspect that I was right the first time.

https://bugwomanlondon.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/bosch_hieronymus_-_the_garden_of_earthly_delights_central_panel_-_detail_strawberry.jpg?w=874&h=659

Wild Strawberry or fruit from Strawberry Tree? I think the former….(Public Domain)

And finally to our poem. I am indebted to Greene Deane at the Eat the Weeds website for finding this Irish folk song on the subject of the Arbutus, or strawberry tree. Do pop over to the blog for fascinating information on all things foragable (this may be a new word). Like so many folk songs, it starts well enough, but gets rather less pleasant as we approach the end.

My Love’s An Arbutus

My love’s an arbutus
By the borders of Lene,
So slender and shapely
In her girdle of green.
And I measure the pleasure
Of her eye’s sapphire sheen
By the blue skies that sparkle
Through the soft branching screen.

But though ruddy the berry
And snowy the flower
That brighten together
The arbutus bower,
Perfuming and blooming
Through sunshine and shower,
Give me her bright lips
And her laugh’s pearly dower.

Alas, fruit and blossom
Shall lie dead on the lea,
And Time’s jealous fingers
Dim your young charms, Machree.
But unranging, unchanging,
You’ll still cling to me,
Like the evergreen leaf
To the arbutus tree.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Flowers) by By muffinn from Worcester, UK (Ameixial – strawberry tree Arbutus unedo flowers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Cake) by By Nzfauna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39656416

Photo Three (coat of arms) by By Valadrem (http://valadrem.blogspot.com) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In East Finchley Cemetery

My favourite gravestone

 

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that I’m a great fan of cemeteries. My heart is already given to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with its Victorian trees, tumbledown tombs and colony of feral foxes, but I occasionally like to walk in East Finchley cemetery. This is a much more manicured, controlled space, but it has some spectacular specimen trees, and is a haven for birds.

I spend a lot of time listening as I walk – I find it helps me to tune in to what’s going on. There are lots of conifers: cypresses and spruces, pines and fir trees. They vibrate with the twitterings of small birds. I see goldcrests and long-tailed tits, and hear the scolding of blue tits. None of them stay long enough for me to get a photo, but it’s enough to know that they’re there, working their way through the needles.

There’s the sing-song squawking of ring-necked parakeets, the cackling of magpies, the cawing of ever-present crows. The goldfinches sound like little bells. There’s a flight of finches at the top of one of the big, bare trees, but they’re too far away for me to see what they are. When I get home, I see that they are most probably greenfinches, at least judging from the heavy beaks and the gold wing bar that I can see on one of the wings. These birds were hit very hard by a parasitic disease (Trichomonosis) a few years ago, and the British Trust for Ornithology noted a decrease in the number of gardens who were visited by the birds of 40%. So, it’s cause for celebration if they’re recovering. Fingers crossed.

There’s a theme of wings in the cemetery. Secretly, I always wished that I could fly, and our myths and legends are full of humans who took to the air, from Icarus to the angels. We seem to want the freedom of the air, and perhaps also a release from our heavy, earthbound bodies.

I find the garden of remembrance, where the sound of running water is added to the bird calls. There are still a few last roses in bloom, but mostly they are now well-pruned and dormant, waiting for spring. I sit on one of the benches and wait to see what will happen. Nothing does, except that I notice how the golden of the leaves on some silver birch is offset by the darkness of the firs behind it, and how the yellow foliage on the topiary box bushes make them look as if they’re touched by sunshine.

When I am walking, I often think that something will happen, and then I’ll know that it’s time to go home. There’s often a moment when I think ‘Aha, this what I was meant to see/hear/smell’. I am, I suppose, waiting for a sense of completion, and permission, a sense of closure. But what will it be this time?

I walk along a path towards the crematorium, and am stopped in my tracks by the waves of scent coming from a most modest little bush on one of the graves. I have to stop, bend down, and take a good long sniff. We think we know what a rose smells like, but there are subtle differences: some perfumes have a lemony edge, some are deep and spicy. This little rose is pure floral, essence of rose.

I take a little path along the very edge of the cemetery and, as I meander along, I have a feeling of being watched. Who, or what, is it? And there, perched stock-still on one of the gravestones is a squirrel. I laugh out loud, because he looks so much like a glove puppet. And there he sits, unmoving, as I walk along the path and then away. While every other squirrel scurries away at my approach, this one seems to believe that if he sits still, I won’t see him. As he looks plump and confident, it seems to be a strategy that’s served him well.

Once I’ve laughed with delight, I know that my job here is done and I can head home, but my eyes are attracted (much like a magpie’s) to some bright red fruit on the ground. I have found a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), a member of the heather family. The fruits look delicious, and are apparently edible fresh, although they bruise very easily. I love the tableau that they make amidst the sedum and the grasses.

And then, just as I turn for home, I see a jay perched on another gravestone. How I love these brownish-pink crows with their electric-blue wing feathers.They are everywhere in the cemetery, gathering acorns that they’ll bury for the winter. This one watches me and then flies off on rounded wings, emitting an alarming cackle.

So now I’m surfeited with wonders and can head for home. As I cross the road outside the cemetery I see a 143 bus in the distance and head towards the bus stop at a brisk but sensible trot – I still have my camera round my neck and so I don’t want to do anything foolish like fall flat on my face. Just as I reach the stop the bus pulls away, and I plump down onto a seat, defeated.

An elderly man passes me a few minutes later, and smiles.

‘Next time’, he says, ‘you’ll have to fly’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Scarlet Pimpernel

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…..

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagalllis arvensis)

Dear Readers, if there is one lesson in life that I should have learned by now, it’s ‘don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today’. When I was in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset last week, I spotted this delightful patch of scarlet pimpernel, every flower open in the sunshine. But, alas, I had milk and rich tea biscuits to buy, and a copy of Woman’s Weekly to pick up, so I hurried past instead of stopping to take a photograph.

For the next three days,  the flowers were closed up tight, what with the fog, and the cold, and the afternoon shadows. And so I’m afraid my photos show them in their ‘coy mode’. However, here is what they look like when they’re in full sun. The plant has alternative names like ‘poor man’s weather glass’ and ‘shepherd’s clock’; the flowers are said to open at 8 a.m. and close at about 2 p.m. unless there’s cloudy or damp weather, in which case they may not bother to put in an appearance at all. I don’t blame them. Now that the clocks have gone back and it’s dark before 5 I often feel like huddling under the duvet with a hot chocolate and a good book.

Photo One (Scarlet Pimpernel flowers) by Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scarlet pimpernel (Photo One)

This plant is a member of the primrose family (Primulaceae) but as far as I know it’s the only  red species. Scarlet seems to be pushing it a bit though – it’s more of an orangey-red. But I am very fond of it – it’s small and unobtrusive, but repays close attention. It’s a plant of arable farmland and seaside environments, such as dunes and cliffs. It is native to the UK and to the whole of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, but has ended up being transported to almost everywhere else in the world, probably with grain crops.

In the Mediterranean area (and, I’ve learned, in some parts of the UK)  there is a rather lovely blue form, which gives rise to yet another alternative name, ‘blue-scarlet pimpernel’.

Photo Two (blue scarlet pimpernel ) by By Zachi Evenor, cropped by User:MathKnight - File:Anagallis-arvensis-Horashim2014-Zachi-Evenor.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39109428

Blue form of scarlet pimpernel (Photo Two)

Despite its demure appearance, however, scarlet pimpernel has a fearsome reputation. It is said that it causes gastroenteritis in dogs and horses, rabbits and poultry, and the seed is said to be poisonous to birds. Fortunately, it also apparently has a very acrid and unpleasant taste, and so most animals avoid it. The plant can also be used as an insecticide (which is probably why it developed the toxins in the first place). However, scarlet pimpernel has also been used medicinally, and in Germany it’s known as Gauchheil (‘Fool heal’) and used to be made into a treatment for those who were melancholy or otherwise mentally indisposed.The  genus name, Anagallis, comes from the Greek ‘to laugh’, and was said to indicate the mood of someone when their depression was lifted.

Of course, many people unfamiliar with this small red flower will be well aware of the novels of Baroness Orczy, who wrote the first of many books featuring The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1905. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a chivalrous gentleman who, with his band of loyal followers (‘ one to command and nineteen to obey’) worked to rescue French aristocrats who were destined for the guillotine. As you might expect from the name, the Scarlet Pimpernel left a flower at the scene of his rescues, and also used the symbol in his correspondence. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Pimpernel himself, you might be familiar with some of the parodies that his derring-do inspired, such as the Bugs Bunny episode featuring The Scarlet Pumpernickel, or the programme ‘Nob and Nobility’ in the third series of Blackadder that featured the eponymous hero’s disgust with the adulation accorded to the ‘bloody Pimpernel’.

Photo Three (Nob and Nobility) by By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28399167

The title card from Nob and Nobility (Photo Three)

This action-packed series of novels was the inspiration for many films and television series and radio plays, with probably the most famous cinematic version being the 1934 film starring Leslie Howard and and Merle Oberon.

Photo Four (Film 1934) by https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9780067

The Scarlet Pimpernel (and very exciting it sounds too) (Photo Four)

A poem from the novel has passed surreptitiously into common usage:

‘We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.’

You might recognise the first line from The Kinks 1966 song ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’.

Anyhow, enough excitement! Let’s get back to the plant.

It was believed that holding scarlet pimpernel in the hand would confer the gift of second sight, and also that the plant could give protection from enchantment and spells. I imagine that much of what we now see as mental illness might have been seen as the effect of witchcraft or demonic possession in earlier times, and so the plant’s use has remained consistent – if you are not ‘in your right mind’ for whatever reason, scarlet pimpernel seems to have been the go-to remedy.

It was used to make ‘pimpernel water’, which was considered to be a remedy for freckles (though as they are rather delightful I hardly think they need a ‘remedy’), and also for rough and discoloured skin.

In spite of their allegedly acrid flavour and rich collection of toxins, the leaves have been used in salads, especially in Germany and France. They certainly look very toothsome, but I would be a bit careful if I was you.

This blog often leads me to some very interesting places. In the search for art associated with The Scarlet Pimpernel, I discovered the wonderful illustrator Luisa Rivera, who is originally from Chile but is now based in London. She has recently illustrated a Spanish language edition of the novel by Baroness Orczy, and the cover illustration is below. For more of her dreamy, folkloric illustrations, have a look here. I particularly like the lady with the owl, but they are all haunting and original.

Photo Five (Cover illustration from The Scarlet Pimpernel) from http://www.luisarivera.cl/la-pimpinela-escarlata/

The Scarlet Pimpernel, illustrated by Luisa Rivera (Photo Five)

And finally, as you might expect, my search for a scarlet pimpernel poem has been somewhat hindered by about five hundred separate references to ‘They seek him here, they seek him there’ etc etc etc ad nauseum. But then, peeping through the rough grassland of the Google ads comes this tiny gem, by the Irish poet Paula Meehan. It’s called ‘Death of a Field’ and I think it’s both deeply poignant and beautifully observed. We need more homes, but let’s not forget what’s lost. To read it, click here. I will be looking out for Paula Meehan in future.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Scarlet Pimpernel flowers) by Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (blue scarlet pimpernel ) by  Zachi Evenor, cropped by User:MathKnight – File:Anagallis-arvensis-Horashim2014-Zachi-Evenor.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39109428

Photo Three (Nob and Nobility) by By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28399167

Photo Four (Film 1934) by https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9780067

Photo Five (Cover illustration from The Scarlet Pimpernel) from http://www.luisarivera.cl/la-pimpinela-escarlata/