Monthly Archives: December 2017

Wednesday Weed – Red-Hot Poker

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…..

Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia uvaria)

Dear Readers, this week I was delighted to spot this red-hot poker growing in a garden in Muswell Hill, and looking about as exotic as any plant has a right to do. I love the way that the orange colour complements the red brick wall of the rather splendid house behind it, and the way that the flowers were beaded with rain didn’t hurt either.

In its native South Africa, this plant is known as torch lily, and the flowerheads can reach up to five feet in height.Red-coloured flowers are often bird-pollinated, and in South Africa sunbirds are common visitors, but in the UK bumblebees also love the long trumpet-shaped flowers.

Photo One by By Alandmanson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Malachite sunbird (Nectarinia famosa) on red hot poker (Photo One)

The Table Mountain Beauty butterfly (Aeropetes tulbaghia) also pollinates the flower, particularly in the Fynbos region of South Africa, and is unusual in preferring red flowers over the usual paler blooms. In his lovely blog ‘The Fynbos Guy’, the author mentions that wearing a red shirt will result in you being ‘buzzed’ by these beautiful insects.

Photo Two by The Fymbos Guy at

A Table Mountain Beauty (Aeropetes tulbaghia) Photo Two

The plant has been introduced all over the world: in the New World, orioles and hummingbirds have taken a shine to it, and in Australia it has become something of an environmental hazard to the native wild plants. It is clump-forming and vigorous, and I can imagine how it could easily dominate in a fragile habitat.

Photo One by By Toby Hudson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Clump of red hot pokers on Lake Jindabyne in Australia (Photo One)

Red-hot pokers belong to the subfamily Asphodeloideae , which includes such plants as aloes and asphodels. There has been much debate about where exactly the plant belongs, however, and it is something of a puzzle. It certainly doesn’t share much of a superficial resemblance to its close relatives: it’s not a succulent, like the aloes, and it doesn’t have the flowers of the asphodels. What defines the subfamily is a chemical compound called anthraquinone, which is used in laxatives and in batteries. I suspect you’d have to be very careful to make sure you were taking the correct version of the compound.

As you would expect for such a stunning plant, there are many cultivated varieties, in a range of colours. However, it’s the gradation of colour that gives the plant its common name, pale yellow at the bottom through to peachy-red at the top. The other colours don’t have the same effect, pretty as they are. I suspect that they may not have the same hardiness either: we’ve had snow and sub-zero temperatures for several days here in London, but the Muswell Hill plant is still going strong. Once established, red-hot pokers have a reputation as being tough plants to kill, but an article in The Telegraph suggests that although Kniphofia was popular before the Second World War, many interesting varieties of red-hot poker were  destroyed during the Dig For Victory campaign, when people dug up their flower gardens to grow food. It’s interesting to see that it is now back ‘in fashion’.

By the way, the tricky Latin name Kniphofia is pronounced ‘Nee-FOF-ee-a’ and is named after Johann Hieronymous Kniphof, an 18th century German physicist and botanist.

Photo Three by By Mork the delayer at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Kelly using CommonsHelper., Attribution,

A yellow kniphofia. Pretty, but not a red-hot poker (Photo Three)

In South Africa the nectar-filled blooms are sometimes eaten by humans, and are said to taste like honey.

Medicinally, the flowers of some Kniphofia species have been used to repel snakes and an infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest disorders. In Zimbabwe the powdered roots of Kniphofia are mixed with food to treat infertility in women.

In Lesotho, the plant was considered to be a charm against lightning, and was therefore grown close to habitation. However, in the UK at least one person believes that they are unlucky according to the Plant Lore website, and according to Plant Lives, it’s believed that if red-hot poker flowers in the autumn it means a death in the family. Then again, my Mum believes that green is an unlucky colour, and my Nan believed that putting new shoes on the table would bring misfortune, so I guess there’s always something.

It strikes me that superstitions grow from our fundamental need to explain either bad luck (in order to prevent it from happening again) or good luck (to make sure we get more of it). But this behaviour is not limited to humans. In some of his experiments, the behaviourist B.F Skinner provided pigeons with food that dropped out of a container at purely random intervals. He noted that the pigeons would repeat the behaviour that occurred when the food arrived in an attempt to get more. So, if a bird happened to be preening when a pellet dropped, it would preen obsessively to see if it could generate more food. Many other species of animal, from pigs to dogs to poor imprisoned primates, demonstrate the same tendencies. I wonder if this is the root of all religion: the need to find a reason for our mixed fortunes in a volatile, uncertain world.

But, as usual, I digress.

Now, as you know I like to finish my pieces with an artwork, or a poem, or preferably both, and this week my search has led me back to Les Murray (I featured his poem ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ in my piece on lucerne a few months ago). What a remarkable poet he is! As you know, I don’t cut and paste the complete poems of living authors, but here is a taste of ‘The Cowladder Stanzas’ from ‘New Selected Poems’. For the rest of it, you (and I ) will need to buy the book.

The Cowladder Stanzas

Not from a weather direction

black cockatoos come crying over

as unflapping as Bleriot monoplanes

to crash in pine tops for the cones.


Young dogs, neighbours’ dogs

across the creek, bark, chained

off the cows, choked off play, bark

untiring as a nightsick baby, yap

milking times to dark, plead

ute-dancing dope-eye dogs.


Red-hot pokers up and out

of their tussock. Kniphofia flowers

overlapping many scarlet jubes

form rockets on a stick.

Ignition’s mimed by yellow petticoats.


Like all its kind

Python has a hare lip

through which it aims its tongue

at eye-bursting Hare.

And if this hasn’t whetted your appetite for more of this precise, explosive poetry, nothing will.

Photo Credits

Photo One by  Alandmanson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by The Fymbos Guy at

Photo Three by By Mork the delayer at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Kelly using CommonsHelper., Attribution,







Bugwoman on Location – The Best Laid Plans

Clematis seedheads in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, you may remember that last week I reported that Mum had been stricken down with a chest infection, but seemed to be on the mend, and was at least not in hospital. Well, on Sunday I phoned Mum and Dad, and realised that Dad had succumbed to the same bug. Add to this the fact that one of their lovely carers is currently struggling with her own health emergency, and that the washing machine has broken irreparably, and the only feasible course of action was to leap on a train and head down to Milborne St Andrew on a rescue mission.

Flint nodule from wall in Milborne St Andrew

And so, I have been on tea-making/cooking/washing machine wrangling/cleaning/medicating duty for the week, and have been trying to persuade Mum and Dad that they need some additional help while their carer is sorting out her own crisis. I have met with some resistance (understatement) because they love their current carers, and would rather not have to deal with anyone else. Plus, Dad in particular is sanguine about the future, which is lovable but occasionally infuriating. For example, on the coldest day of the week I returned from the walk that I am about to describe, only to find that the enormous wheelie bins had been put on the kerb for the dustbin men. Yes, in spite of barely being able to breathe, Dad had wrangled them outside, in -5 degrees of wind chill.

I love that Mum and Dad are so determined to be independent. I think that their sheer cussedness and determination is what’s kept them going so far. I just worry myself sick about them. But they are of sound mind, and I don’t want to be one of those children who railroads their parents into doing things that they don’t feel comfortable with. So, on Thursday, while they were having a nap, I wrapped myself up and went out for a walk.

The sun was so low on the horizon that for half the walk I could barely see where I was going.

Bugwoman’s shadow….

I stomped along Chapel Road, and stopped as a flock of blackbirds erupted from one of the gardens. What could have brought these normally solitary birds together? I inhaled a deep lungful of sweet apple scent, and realised that the kind house owner had left the windfalls for the birds.

And it wasn’t just blackbirds who were ready to feed – I also spotted my first redwing of the year.

Onwards I trudged, feeling my anxiety ease with every step. I even made the mistake of thinking it was warmer than I’d thought. Hah! I was to discover the error of my ways when I walked back, into the wind.

A mole had been very busy in the ex-cabbage field, and the soil was the colour of cocoa. These little animals are very common, and yet I’ve never caught a glimpse of one. How busy they are, turning the soil and munching on the worms and leatherjackets.

Earlier in the year, I’d passed a dry stream bed, and speculated that maybe it was a winterbourne – a river that only runs in the winter. It seems that I might have been right. Many villages in Dorset are called Winterbourne something, such as the nearby Winterbourne Whitechurch.

Over a stile, and then a decision on which of three paths to take. In the mood of Robert Frost, I decided to take the one less travelled, diagonally up hill and into a little copse of trees. The low sun burnished the dry thistles into something softly miraculous.

At the top of the hill was the path through trees, which looked strangely menacing compared with the open field. But somehow I wasn’t ready to turn back yet, and so up I went.

And when I came out on the other side, there was a view of another cabbage field, and a single wind turbine.

Back I go, and immediately realise that it’s colder than I thought.

I pause at a sign before the wood. I have not heard shots here, and so I don’t think that I’m in danger of being peppered with pellets. Plus, I am wearing a bright red (and very unsuitable) coat, so I should at least be obvious. I know that shooting things is part of country life, but I confess that I loathe it, especially when it’s done for sport and the dead creatures are not even eaten. Still, you could argue that at least a pheasant has had a decent life before it meets its end, unlike a factory-farmed chicken or pig.

I’m out into the field again, and heading home. I spot the sheep from my last walk on a field across the way.

The tractor ruts are full of water, necessitating some clever manoeuvering to keep my feet dry. At least I’m wearing suitable walking shoes.

I fall in love with this dancing bush. It looks to me like a couple in the middle of a tango, and rather reminds me of the Fred and Ginger House in Prague….

The Fred and Ginger House, Prague.

It’s becoming colder, and I notice that some of the water in the ruts here is frozen. A pied wagtail is picking over the puddles, and the hedgerow is full of goldcrests and long-tailed tits. As usual, I don’t get a photo of them, but the wagtail is very obliging, flying along just a few feet ahead of me as I pick my way through the muddy morass.

Pied Wagtail

There is a huge bonfire in the wood to the left of the path as I turn for home, and I soon realise why. You might remember that last time I reported on this walk, I mentioned a very fine dilapidated barn in some woodland. Well, most of the woodland is now gone, and the logs are stacked up. I walked through a veil of woodsmoke, which lingered in my hair (and probably my lungs) for the rest of the day.

As I got to the brow of the hill, I noticed how some of the trees have previously been heavily coppiced, but have now grown into trees.

Notice all the tree trunks growing up from one horizontal trunk

It occurs to me that this was maybe once a hedgerow, or at least a piece of ancient woodland coppiced for firewood, which has been allowed, over many years, to grow freely. On the other side of the path, a hedgerow is still maintained, and I was struck by the similarity in the pattern of growth, but on a miniature scale. It would take me a lifetime to be able to truly read this landscape, but I am determined to learn while I can.

Part of the hedgerow

And as I passed another modern barn, I noticed the moon rising.

How serene it looked above the trees.

Underneath an abandoned farm building, a piece of old machinery was burnished with late afternoon light.

I had seen a few starlings roosting earlier, but now the big oak tree was full of twittering, whistling birds bedding down for the night.

And in the field opposite, the very last rays of the sun seemed to blessing a pair of horses.

And so I walk briskly home as the light fades and the wind picks up, chilling my face and making me yearn for a centrally-heated living room and a cup of tea. The parents are both asleep in their reclining chairs. Dad’s chest is wheezing gently, while Mum’s is distinctly more crackly. I put the kettle on, knowing that regardless of how deeply asleep he is, Dad will launch into alertness for our daily watching of ‘Pointless’. I am filled with such a rush of love for the pair of them that I’m brought to the edge of tears. I have to learn to relax into the uncertainty of the situation, and not try to control every decision (hard as that is for someone who thrives on making things happen). Sometimes, it’s best to just listen and trust that, in the words of Julian of Norwich:

‘All shall be well,

and all shall be well,

and all manner of things shall be well’.