Monthly Archives: August 2018

Wednesday Weed – Hibiscus

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Red Heart’ (also known as Tree Hollyhock)

Dear Readers, is it just my imagination or has there been a sudden burst of enthusiasm for hibiscus as a garden plant? Once upon a time I had to travel to the Mediterranean to see these exotic beauties in full flower, but on a wet Sunday afternoon I found no less than three different plants in the environs of the County Roads in East Finchley, and very splendid they were too. I suspect that the climate change induced warmer temperatures are suiting them very well, for this plant comes originally from southern Asia, with its long warm summers. Hibiscus arrived in the UK in the 16th century, and was at first thought to be unable to survive frost. Later, it was realised that although individual buds might be affected by sub-zero temperatures, the shrub itself was frost-hardy.

Hibiscus syriacum is part of a genus of several hundred species belonging to the mallow family, or Malvaceae.  In the UK the plant is also known as the Tree Hollyhock, but in the US it is also known as Rose of Sharon, a name that in the UK refers to a bright yellow member of the St John’s wort family. Yet again, we find ourselves divided by a common language, and I give huge thanks to Linnaeus for his system of nomenclature that enables us all to understand what we’re talking about.

I love the way that hibiscus flowers open, the petals swirling around as they open like a ballerina pirouetting.

Photo One by By JeedaGhazal - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

A hibiscus flower opening….(Photo One)

Many hibiscus species (mainly the red ones) are pollinated by hummingbirds or sunbirds, but our plant, originating in China, is not. It is both self-fertile (i.e. each flower contains both male and female parts) and capable of being pollinated by insects, chiefly bees, who are attracted more for the plentiful pollen than for the nectar. Each flower only opens for a day, but in a good year the shrub will be covered in blooms for weeks, providing plenty of opportunity for pollen-hungry invertebrates.

Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of South Korea, where it is known as mugunghwa, from the word ‘mugung‘ meaning ‘eternity’ or ‘inexhaustible abundance’. In the South Korean national anthem, reference is made to ‘Three thousand ri (about 1,200 km, the length of the Korean peninsula) of splendid rivers and mountains covered with mugunghwa blossoms’. It is not surprising that Hibiscus syriacus became the national flower after Korea gained its independence from Japan in 1945.

Photo Two from

The Emblem of the President of South Korea, showing a hibiscus blossom (Photo Two)

The leaves of Hibiscus syriacus are said to be a good substitute for lettuce, though a little mucilaginous. The buds are said to resemble okra (not necessarily a good thing in my opinion, but each to their own).  The flowers are edible, although it’s the dark red flowers of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that are more usually used to make hibiscus tea. I must admit to getting a bit irritated with the way that so many herbal fruit teas use hibiscus as their first ingredient in order to bulk it out – I find the rather astringent flavour overwhelms everything else. You can also get hibiscus syrup, again, normally made from Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.  The ingredient is having something of a ‘moment’ in trendy restaurants at the moment, and to be honest I will be delighted when the moment has passed, and we can get back to normal food, like charcoal bread or aubergine icecream.

Photo Three from City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons

Hibiscus-Poached Rhubarb,Garden radishes,Belgian endive,ruby beet essence and toasted hazelnut ‘Génoise’ (Photo Three)

As you might expect, such a structurally-interesting flower has attracted many artists. I rather like this still-life by Dutch artist Nicolaes van Veerendael, painted some time between 1660 and 1691, and proving that a Hibiscus syriacus just like the one around the corner from me was flowering quite happily in the Netherlands over 300 years ago. Incidentally, the picture sold at Christies for £92,500 in 2014.

Hibiscus,parrot tulips, carnations, a rose, and iris, snowballs and other flowers in a vase on a partially draped stone ledge with a garden tiger moth by Nicolaes van Veerendael (Public Domain)

And for our poem, I rather liked this, by American poet Jim Ballowe who is, quite rightly, Artist of the Month for August 2018 at the Center for Humans and Nature website. Do have a look at his other work, too.

Remember that in North America Hibiscus syriacus is known as ‘Rose of Sharon’ and is thought to be the plant referred to in the Song of Solomon.

Lessons from the Garden

                         for Ruth 


The garden doesn’t give a fig for Solomon 

any more than we know what he meant when he said

that kisses are sweeter than wine. The white fly

sucking at the belly of sweet potato leaves

pauses to ponder neither sex nor text.

Remember that piece of fluff, that ancient ephemera

circling the Rose of Sharon, settling awkwardly

at last in the sun-warmed bird bath, 

how determined it was to continue on the wing again 

after we plucked it from its futile folly?

Think how the Rose of Sharon greets spring as a dead stick,

then revels through summer days in a pink pregnancy,  

each night dropping its spent blooms  

nestled like newborns curled in silk blankets.



In a month of spiders, butterflies, and hummingbirds,

in days of asters, mums, and Autumn clematis,

in sun-harsh hours cascading into velvet nights,

in lapsed minutes the sumac takes to redden,

the unexpected forever happens, and we,

thrilled to see the intricate web, the floating color,

the darting shadow, the many-petaled flower,

the diminishing light, are reassured by nature’s tricks,

the existent summer’s ephemeral exit,

fall’s hovering presence awaiting embrace,

geometrical designs in crisp skies,

the unmasking of trees, the sense of humor behind it all,

a stage whisper, the thought that we too

share this scene, waiting to go on.

Jim Ballowe

Photo Credits

Photo One by By JeedaGhazal – Own work, CC BY 4.0,

Photo Two from

Photo Three from City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


The Accidental Garden

Common Carder Bumblebee buzz-pollinating Bittersweet

Dear Readers,what a week it’s been! As you may remember, Mum was finally admitted to hospital last Friday with what we thought was an infection. However, once she’d had a CT scan it appeared that something more sinister was going on. She seemed to have an obstruction in her digestive tract, and for a few terrifying days we were afraid that she might have to have an operation to remove whatever was causing the blockage. In her weakened state, and given her medical condition, this was the last thing that anyone wanted.

Mum gave her consent to the operation if it proved to be necessary, but was extremely indignant that she was asked if she wanted to be resuscitated if anything went wrong.

‘Of course I want to be resuscitated!’ she said to me later as she told me about the encounter.  ‘After all, I haven’t got anything else wrong with me!’

Well, this is open to question, but who wouldn’t admire such a fighting spirit?

Fortunately, the surgeon took a look at  the scan and decided to play a waiting game. And so poor Mum was Nil by Mouth from last Friday until Wednesday this week. I took the train to Dorset County Hospital to see how she was getting on, and she was seriously disgruntled.

‘I’m never coming to this hospitall again’, she said.. ‘I’ve been sitting in this chair all day, and they won’t let me get back into bed’.

I tried to explain that this was because they were trying to ease the pressure sore on the small of her back, and also that they were going to bring her a cup of tea which she couldn’t drink laying down, but to no avail. When Mum has a bee in her bonnet it’s normally a pretty large bee.

And then yesterday we were delighted to learn that what had appeared to be a blockage was actually the result of a chemical inbalance, probably because of her infection, dehydration and various other factors. She is now eating ice-cream and yoghurt and drinking tea, and seems well on the road to recovery.

On the other hand,  at the moment she is also completely unable to bear any weight on her legs. Maybe this is just weakness after the infection, or maybe it is some new ‘thing’, because no sooner has one thing been knocked on the head than something else puts in an appearance. It’s like some game of medical Whack-a-mole.

However. I have been at home for a few days, have caught up on my sleep, have applied unguents to the horrible stress-related rash that was turning me into the Elephant Woman, and have had time to wander around the garden and admire all the things that are popping up that I’ve had nothing to do with planting at all.

Dear Readers, I  am something of a ramshackle gardener at the best of times. When a new plant first appears in the garden, I am loathe to just pull it out until I know what it is, and sometimes identification takes a while. However,  such tardiness can breed the most spectacular results with regards to wildlife.

Take the bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) that is clambering all over my fence, for example. This year it has grown into a splendid vine and has flowered for months, producing great bunches of bright red berries which the birds may or may not be interested in later in the year. The plant is outcompeting my honeysuckle, and has already defeated a clematis. But what can I do? It is literally abuzz with common carder bumblebees, who buzz-pollinate the flowers. There are at least a dozen of them at a time and their high-pitched buzzing the very sound of summer for me.


The superabundance of bees and other pollinators means that the vine is also studded with spiders. Most of the arachnids are not big enough to cope with a full-sized bumble at the moment, and so when a bee flew into the web of a garden spider earlier today, the spider rushed over and cut it loose before the bee could completely destroy all the hard work that went into making it.

Garden orb spider (Araneus diadematus)

Incidentally, the appearance of garden spiders that are big enough to notice means that summer is ripening into autumn. Earlier in the year there are just as many spiders but they are tiny, so they escape our gaze.

Another surprisingly effective wildlife plant is Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum). Again, this just popped up around the pond without so much as a by-your-leave. I have cut it back a bit this year, but it is still vigorous and extremely popular with the bees and butterflies. Round about now the seeds are starting to appear, and I should really blitz it before I have hundreds of seedlings all over the garden, but I don’t have the heart while most of the plants are so pretty and in full flower.

Great Willowherb and honeybee

I have already waxed lyrical about the bird-planted sunflowers and their value to pollinators, so I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that, like many daisies, it is useful for all kinds of bees and hoverflies, and those huge flowers will be useful for finches later on.

Carder bee on sunflower

Last year, the birds were kind enough to plant some flax, which is not only exquisite in its own right, but valuable for small flies too. This year it was the sunflowers. Who knows what they’ll plant next year?

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

But the largest plants that have appeared from nowhere in my garden, and the ones that are the most useful of all my ‘weeds’ are the two twelve-foot high buddleias in the front garden. Why the most useful? Because my back garden faces north, and so is only insect-friendly for part of the day, whereas the front garden faces south and so is thronged with bees and butterflies all day.

In  order to be friendly to the neighbours I cut the buddleia back as soon as it starts to encroach on the pavement, which means that it flowers for much longer than normal. This year, they came into bloom at the start of July and are still full of flowers in late August. Many different kinds of pollinators use it during the day, and at night it’s full of moths.

The buddleia a few years ago. It’s much bigger now!

Finally, even non-flowering plants that appear in the garden can have their uses. By the side of my pond there is a large pendulous sedge. These can be something of a pest as they self-seed everywhere, but they are extremely useful as cover for newly-emerging baby frogs, and adult frogs seem to enjoy their protection too.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

Of course, not every plant that I tolerate in the garden reciprocates my good manners. I should not have been so kind to the herb bennet, for example, which is now absolutely everywhere. The brambles in the very back of the garden are now arcing over into the seating area, looking for somewhere to root. And the bindweed is becoming positively impudent. But on balance, there is something to be said for being generous when a stranger pops up in the garden. After all, it is often a plant ideally suited to the conditions that you’ve created, something that will thrive when the expensive item that you bought at the garden centre will pull up its roots and go south as soon as you turn your back. If it isn’t Japanese Knotweed or duckweed, I’d say give it a chance. You never know which creatures will crop up to take advantage of it.

Wednesday Weed – Sunflower

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Dear Readers, you may have read about how the bird-sown sunflowers in my garden cheered me up last week. I’ve subsequently become even more fascinated with them, with their geometrical patterns, their usefulness to both pollinators and humans, their rhythms and the way that they have inspired artists.

First things first. The sunflower that we know comes originally from North America, where it was planted on the north side of fields by some Native American groups as the ‘Fourth Sister’ to the more well-known ‘Three Sisters’ of squash, corn and beans. The seeds are extremely nutritious, and the oil that can be extracted from them is high in Vitamin E and low in saturated fat. The birds in my garden have been somewhat spoiled with their diet of hulled sunflower seeds, and now turn their beaks up at anything else. They are delicious for humans too, and I can recommend using them as a sprinkle on salads if they are toasted and given a few dashes of soy sauce.

What about that seedhead, though?

The head of a sunflower is not composed of one big flower, but of a myriad tiny ones, arranged in a series of interlocking spirals. These are called ‘disk florets’ (the ‘petals’ are called ‘ray florets’). In the photo below, you can see some tiny actual petals protruding. Each one of the disk florets will, if pollinated, become a sunflower seed.

A closer view of the fused petals of each disk floret

Each floret is orientated towards the next one at an angle of approximately 137.5 degrees – this is known in geometry as the ‘golden angle’, and it results in a series of spirals that are successive Fibonacci numbers.  At this point my head explodes (maths not being a strong point) but for those of you who are fascinated by these things, here’s a diagram. Note that each number is the sum of the two previous ones (so 1+1 =2, 2+1 = 3, 3+2 = 5 etc). What it actually means is that each disk floret is at a slightly different angle to the one next to it, so the florets are packed in as tightly as it is mathematically possible for them to be. This maximises the amount of seeds that the plant will eventually produce.

The marriage of mathematics and nature can produce some truly beautiful offspring.

Photo One by By 克勞棣 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A diagram of a Fibonacci spiral (Photo One)

And now to another feature of sunflowers. It is often believed that the sunflowers follow the sun: that is, they are heliotrophic, following the path of the sun through the sky. However, this is not absolutely true. Sunflower buds start in the morning facing the rising sun, and end it facing west (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), a movement synchronised by the sun (though it will continue in cloudy weather or if kept in constant daylight).

However, the ‘adult’ flowers always face east, towards the rising sun, as shown in the photo below: here, you can see the sun blazing away behind the flowers.

Photo Two by By shirleybolling2005 - Flickr: D40 726, CC BY 2.0,

Sunflowers facing away from the late afternoon sun (Photo Two)

The most likely reason for this is that it warms up the plant early in the morning,  and helps it to attract more pollinators. The sunflowers in my garden are visited by carder bees, hoverflies, and honeybees, to name but a few.

Carder bee on sunflower

In addition to their use as a food/oil crop, sunflowers can be used for phytoremediation (removal of dangerous chemicals from the soil) and rhizofiltration (removal of radioactive material from water). Sunflowers were used to remove strontium-90 and caesium-90 from a pond after the Chernobyl disaster and have been used in a similar way following Fukushima. It seems that all of nature is trying to rebalance and clear up our mess.

Because of their ease of cultivation, sunflowers are often the first thing grown by children, and some schools have sunflower-growing competitions. The plants in my garden are a modest metre tall, probably because my plot is north-facing, but in  2016 Suttons Seeds ran a competition for the tallest sunflower. The winner was Valerie Briggs, with a 4.60 metre plant.

Photo Three from

Valerie Briggs’s award-winning 4.6 metre tall sunflower (Photo Three)

When I look at a sunflower I can never work out what came first. Did we look at a sunflower and decide that that was what the sun looked like, or did it happen the other way round? After all, the sun is a bright ball in the sky without any ‘petals’, but many children draw the sun exactly like a sunflower head.

Child’s drawing of the sun and a bird (Public Domain)

However, what is clear is that the sunflower has inspired many artists of all ages and degrees of talent. Van Gogh, of course, painted them during a time of rare optimism  while he was waiting for the arrival of his friend, the artist Paul Gauguin. Newly invented pigments meant that he could experiment with different shades of yellow and ochre, and he went at it with enthusiasm, as shown in this letter to his brother Theo:

I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers.”

Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (Vincent van Gogh , 1888) (Public Domain)

Van Gogh thought of the sunflower as being ‘his’ flower:

“It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’. You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.”

Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (Vincent van Gogh 1888) (Public Domain)

In return, Gauguin painted Van Gogh painting sunflowers:

Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (Paul Gauguin, 1888) (Public Domain)

I like to think of sunflowers as being a source of happiness for Van Gogh, a man who had vanishingly few good times in his troubled life. There is something about them that always makes me smile, for sure. Maybe it’s because they are so much bigger than most members of the daisy family, and make me feel correspondingly smaller and more childlike. Maybe it’s that buttery colour, and their complicated relationship with the sun. But for me, it’s also because there seems to be something dogged about the plant, something that is determined to keep going up and up. It’s conjured in this poem by Frank Steele. I hope you enjoy it.


You’re expected to see
only the top, where sky
scrambles bloom, and not
the spindly leg, hairy, fending off
tall, green darkness beneath.
Like every flower, she has a little
theory, and what she thinks
is up.   I imagine the long
climb out of the dark
beyond morning glories, day lilies, four o’clocks
up there to the dream she keeps
lifting, where it’s noon all day.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By 克勞棣 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two by By shirleybolling2005 – Flickr: D40 726, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three from




Bugwoman on Location – One Hell of a Week in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, I was  visiting my Aunt Hilary in Somerset last Saturday when I received a call about my elderly Mum in Dorset. Outside Hilary’s window, a flock of fledgling sparrows was gathering in the shrubs and carrying on a conversation that seemed comprised of a single note, uttered with different degrees of urgency. But on my mobile phone, I hear that Mum is in a sorry state, vomiting, feverish and getting on and off the commode every twenty minutes. Paramedics were called in the morning, but had deemed her not ill enough to be admitted to hospital so she was at home, distressed and with Dad not able to help much because of his own infirmities.

When the carer visited again on Saturday afternoon Mum had worsened and the carer called 111. She was informed that a doctor would be with her within two hours. Two hours passed. The carer called again, and was told it would be another two hours. The carer was so worried that she called 999 at 8 p.m. I asked her to call me when the paramedics arrived, however late it was. They arrived at 12.50 a.m. and again didn’t admit Mum to hospital, in spite of a day spent vomiting and passing water every twenty minutes.

I should back up a little here, and explain. For you or I, a urinary tract infection or a bout of norovirus is unpleasant, but usually clears itself in a few days after a dose of antibiotics for the former, and starvation/lots of fluids for the latter. For someone like Mum, with heart failure, diabetes, COPD and a whole host of other stuff, a simple infection can quickly turn into something nasty like sepsis, or at best can cause her condition to deteriorate quickly. But Mum’s vital signs were still good, and so there was not enough cause to admit her.

At 5 a.m. the doctor arrived and gave her some antibiotics and some tablets for the nausea. It’s hard to take tablets when you have nausea, but she managed it somehow.

On Sunday morning I grabbed a taxi from Broadway in Somerset to Milborne St Andrew in Dorset. My taxi driver was a delightful chap in a top hat and shorts. I sat in the front seat and we drove through the rain, while he told me about his life: how he was an engineer and inventor by trade, and how he’d almost succeeded in getting funding for his master project, a way of helping the companies who fill in potholes to operate in the rain. I was happy to let him ramble on with his tales of lasers and oil on surface water and the difficulties of gauging the depth of a pothole when the light is being refracted. It took my mind off the situation that I was walking into.

I  got to the house and walked into Mum and Dad’s bedroom. Mum was half asleep. She didn’t have her teeth in, which always makes her look about 105 years old, and changes her voice. She hadn’t eaten, or taken any of her medication, because she felt too sick. She was burning up with fever, but said she felt a little better since starting the antibiotics. Her green eyes looked enormous in that little white face. I helped her onto the commode and realised how very weak she was. I’d no sooner got her settled into bed than she wanted to get out again. She was too hot, then too cold. By Monday morning Dad had decamped to the living room to sleep in his reclining chair because Mum was so restless, and I was starting to get a bit frazzled. I know how awful that feeling of a UTI is, the way you want to keep going to the toilet even when there’s nothing left in your bladder. I also began to understand how hard it is to keep lifting someone off a bed onto a commode, and then get them back into bed when they can do almost nothing to support their own weight. However strong your core muscles are (thank you, pilates!) sometimes the angles that you have to get into to lift someone put a terrible strain on your back.

On Monday the diarrhoea started, but I’ll pass over that quickly. The doctor popped in to visit her, and pronounced her vital signs acceptable. She still wasn’t taking any of her medications and what we now recognise as withdrawal was kicking in: some of her  medications are addictive, and without them she was starting to shake and become even more agitated.

On Monday night she needed assistance twice an hour. I would go to bed for half an hour’s shuteye and be roused instantly by sounds from Mum’s bedroom – the sound of the door banging against the bedside cabinet, a sure sign that she was trying to get up, or her cries for help. She would usually have already swung her legs out of bed and was laying at a most uncomfortable angle, which explained the urgency of her cries. No matter how many times I asked her to call out before she started moving, she was determined, even in her weakened state, to be independent. I sensed this was a recipe for disaster, and I was right.

At 1 o’clock in the morning I heard an even more desperate cry for help, and went into the bedroom to find her on the floor. There is no way that Dad and I could lift her back on to the bed, and besides I really wanted the paramedics to take another look. I dialled 999 and explained the situation, and they called me back to get all the details. They warned me that they were extremely busy, and that it might take a while for the paramedics to get to us, because the situation wasn’t life-threatening. I completely understand.

We covered Mum in blankets, tried to get her comfortable with some pillows and turned the heating up. Dad and I took it in turns to sit in the bedroom to keep her company.

Mum wasn’t happy.

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘I’ve got to get up’

‘I’m cold’.

‘I’m too hot’

‘Can you put a pillow behind my head’.

‘Can you take that pillow away it’s hurting me’

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘Somebody help me, please’

‘I want to get up’

‘Can’t you help me to get up?’

There is nothing worse than that feeling of helplessness, which so easily transforms into a kind of rage. I found myself getting inpatient with Mum, and close to tears. I went outside and sat on the bench in the dark to calm myself down.

A tawny owl called from very close at hand, a wild, otherworldly cry. It reminded me of someone calling out from the other side of a great divide,urgent and distressed.

Of course, this suited my mood perfectly, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the owl, who might have been in an excellent frame of mind for all I knew.

The paramedics finally arrived at 4 a.m., got Mum back into bed in a jiffy and, whilst worried about her, didn’t find enough warning signs to admit her to hospital.

I heard one of them say ‘How on earth is she managing?’

‘She isn’t normally like this’, I said. ‘She’s normally mobile enough to get about in the bungalow with her walker’.

And this is another problem – when you don’t know the patient, you may assume that she is always confused, or unable to get about, because you have no baseline to go by. It’s why I make sure to tell hospital staff that although Mum is a little forgetful, she doesn’t usually hallucinate or talk absolute rubbish.

And so Monday faded into Tuesday, and Wednesday. Several times I had to call on a lovely carer who lives locally to help get Mum back into bed when she got herself into a position where I couldn’t lift her on my own. I got better at getting her to and from the commode, but she was getting weaker and weaker. We managed to get her to eat some custard and a little porridge, and she was drinking lots of milk, but it obviously wasn’t enough. She was back on her medication, and at least had stopped shaking. Nurses popped in from time to time to check her blood sugar and see how she was doing.

The doctor visited while Mum was asleep. He took her blood sugar and her blood pressure, and she didn’t stir. He looked at her with concern.

‘I wonder if this is a turning point?’ he said. ‘She’s always been such a fighter. I’ve never seen her like this before’.

‘She’s still a fighter’, I said. ‘You might be surprised’. I was taken aback by the flare of anger that I felt.

Later, when Mum was a bit more alert, I opened the blinds so that she could see the garden, and I heard her call for me. I went in, and sat on the bed beside her.

‘Are they sparrows in the gutter opposite?’ she asked. ‘What are they doing?’

I leaned down so that I could see things from Mum’s eye-level, and we both called out as we saw a spray of water fly into the air.

‘They’re having a bath’, we said, and settled back to watch. When I looked down again, Mum was asleep.

On Friday, I had to leave to go home. I had had about three hours sleep in four days. I was bursting into tears over every little thing. I arranged for carers to be in the house for most of the time. I trialed some overnight adult diapers for when the carers couldn’t be there, because I didn’t want Mum getting out of bed when there wasn’t anyone to help her. I thought Mum would object because of the lack of dignity, but I think it’s a sign of how unwell she felt that they came as something of a relief, and they seemed to be comfortable and effective.

I sat by her bedside and held her hand.

‘I’ve got to go, Mum, but I’ll be back soon’, I said.

‘Don’t worry’, she said, ‘I’m getting better. You go home and don’t worry’.

And then I really did cry, which wasn’t very helpful.

‘Earlier on this week, I was laying here thinking that I was 83 and I’d had a good innings’, she said.

‘Mum, you’re only 82’, I said.

‘Oh!’ she said, and smiled one of those toothless grins that I’ve become so familiar with this week, ‘You’ve given me back a year, thank you!’

She thought for a minute.

‘Maybe I’m not ready to go just yet’, she said.

And so I left, and got on a train, and by the time I got to Bournemouth I got a call from the carer who said that she’d called the paramedics again and this time they were going to admit Mum to the hospital. I spoke to one of them, a chap called Alan.

‘Her vital signs are not bad, but there’s obviously something wrong so we’re going to admit her and see if we can get to the bottom of it’, he said.

I could have kissed him.

My train carriage wasn’t busy and so I spent the rest of the journey looking out of the window and being occasionally gripped by paroxysms of crying. It feels as if I am rebounding from one crisis to another, being pinged about like the ball in a pinball machine. I am encouraging the parents to think about getting a live-in carer, but Dad says having someone else in the house would drive him mad, and Mum only wants to do that if they can buy a bigger bungalow, which is completely inpractical – moving is stressful enough if you’re well. I feel as if they are one step away from disaster the whole time, and as if my whole life is on hold because I am trying to keep this little boat afloat by sheer willpower.

I get back to London, walk through to the kitchen, and see this.

The finches have been planting sunflower seeds, and this one has come into bloom while I’ve been away. And here I am crying again, because it is such a cheerful, hopeful plant, and I could almost believe that it’s looking through the window to welcome me back, and to tell me that everything will be well. And the cat comes down the stairs miaowing, and the buddleia that I was planning to cut back this weekend has a second flush of bee-covered flowers. I feel something in me that has been unanchored for days settle and grow still.

I will get through this, whatever it takes.


Wednesday Weed – Water Plantain

Water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica)

Dear Readers, just before the heatwave finally broke I went for a walk in Coldfall Wood with my friend J, and noticed this extraordinary seedhead projecting above some elegant, long-stemmed leaves. How delicate water plantain is! It is growing in the now dried-up bed of the seasonal pond, where the water level has gone up and down by several feet in the past few months. At the moment the pond bed is a mass of bistort and water mint, with the water plantain and some bulrushes providing a bit of height. This is a far cry from the scene in January.

The seasonal pond in Coldfall Wood in January this year

I have just missed the main flowering of the water plantain, but the flowers are tiny, pinkish-white, and usually only open after midday. There is something rather Sputnik-like about the arrangement of the flowers on their spikes, and the closed buds resemble clenched fists. All this reminds me of the social realist Russian paintings of the Soviet era, and indeed there is a Russian connection. Water plantain is native to most of Europe and Asia and northern and central Africa, but in Russia the powdered root is said to be a cure for rabies, giving the plant the alternative name of ‘mad dog weed’. In some parts of the world it is also said to be a cure for snakebite.

Illustration by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman (Public Domain)

It is said to be anti-allergenic and protective of the kidneys and urinary tract.

The crushed dried leaves (to avoid the problems of blistering mentioned earlier) have been used as a poultice to relieve pain during breast-feeding in both humans and other mammals, and in Chinese Traditional medicine (where it is known as Xe Zie) it is believed that the plant can help with all aspects of fertility and childbirth.

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Water plantain flower (Photo One)

The plant is not closely related to plants such as ribwort plantain but is a member of the Alismataceae or water-plantain family. In addition to its place in Russian medicinal lore, it is known as ‘Leaf of Patrick’ in Ireland, and is reputed to ward off fairies. The leaves are, however, said to cause blisters if bruised. The genus name Alisma is said to come from the Celtic word for ‘water’.

Photo Two by By Bff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The elegant leaves of water plantain (Photo Two)

Ruskin took an interest in the ratio of the flower stalks of water plantain to one another, and used this to illustrate his theory of Gothic architecture. He also believed that the curve of the water plantain leaf represented a model of ‘divine proportion’, one of those shapes on which ‘God has stamped those characters of beauty which He has made it man’s nature to love’.

Photo Three from

An illustration of a water plantain flower stalk by John Ruskin (Photo Three)

Water plantain have been used as food by the Kalmucks of Russia and China, who boiled the roots to get rid of the bitterness and toxicity of the plant. The Iroquois of North America drank a tea made from the leaves to give them extra energy (the plant is widely naturalised in the New World).

Now, at this point I normally share a poem, or a painting, but this week I want to share something completely unrelated to water plantain. As my friend and I left the pond and headed up through the wood towards home, our eyes were drawn to a tiny heart-shaped plaque at the root of a tree. When I read what was written on it, I was instantly drawn back to the pet funerals of my own childhood. I often roped in my unfortunate little brother – once we had a ceremony for a moth that had died after hatching from its chrysalis and being unable to find somewhere to expand its wings properly. I well remember that we buried it in a matchbox under a fragment of bathroom tile, upon which was scrawled, in purple crayon,

‘Died before he could live. RIP’.

RIP Moonlight. And blessings on the child who loved her pet enough to bury here in the woods. Grief is grief, and who is to say that the death of an animal is trivial?  I have had my own heart broken often enough, and so, I suspect, have many other people.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Bff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three from



Bugwoman on Location – A Common Ground at Tate Britain

Dear Readers, the Tate has ‘form’ when it comes to installations that combine gardening with art. Who can forget the raised beds of ‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern, a most frustrating exhibit which missed a number of opportunities to illuminate the varied habitats around London. So, I was hopeful but not overly optimistic when I went to visit ‘A Common Ground’ on Monday. This is what the gallery says about it:

It seems like a lovely idea, but I too have ‘form’ when it comes to community gardens. I was treasurer at Culpeper Community Garden in Islington for several years, and I know that the idea of a pop-up community garden is almost an oxymoron – these places take years of slow growth to build up both the garden itself and the community that supports it. People need to get to know one another, and the plants need tender loving care to establish themselves.

And so it proved. Most of the beds housed plants that were not in the best of health. The poor old sweet peas had withered away to nothing. The large white butterfly caterpillars were having a delightful time and had eaten nearly all the cabbage seedlings to a stump.

Large White (Pieris brassiceae) caterpillars

Some plants were doing well, especially the ones in the greenhouse, where a lone shy young man was potting up some seedlings.

There were various forms of squash bursting forth, a homage to an installation called ‘The Squash’ by Anthea Turner, which takes place in the gallery itself. Someone wearing a squash on their head poses among the artworks, as we all gawp and take photos. What a job.  I cannot imagine how hot the performer has been during the last few weeks.

Hokkaido squash

‘The Squash’ by Anthea Hamilton

The raised beds themselves have a certain geometric elegance, but I can’t help thinking that runner beans would have been nice. Like so many edible plants they are elegant in their own right. As it is, the sweet peas are just not cutting it, though some broad beans are giving it their best shot.

Some plants are doing very well: there are some splendid hollyhocks and sunflowers.

There are a couple of beds which combine pollinator-friendly herbs and vegetables with plants such as verbena for the bees, and these are doing pretty well.

There are even fountains that are triggered by the human voice. I  wondered how these worked, but I think the idea is that you sit down for a chat and then  the fountain gurgles into life. My friend S and I were eventually loud enough to get one to work, and very exciting it was too.

But sadly there was no one for us to have a chat to. The young lad in the greenhouse didn’t want to talk, and that’s fine – not everyone who comes to a garden comes to socialise, and any community garden should allow for both the quiet and the extrovert. But there was nobody else. I suspect that it’s very different on Saturday when there are events (last week’s demonstration of Caribbean vegan cooking sounds particularly intriguing), but all in all I think the problem is intrinsic to the very nature of the project. Gardens take time and investment, and many gardeners wouldn’t want to spend time on something that will disappear at the end of October. This is a bit sad, as I’m sure this could be a very productive garden even in this period of time if it was looked after.

Also, community gardens are usually full of volunteers who live within walking distance, school children, pensioners, folk who have time to spare for whatever reason. The garden here could be the same, but I have a suspicion that by the time people get to know about the garden, it will be time for it to close.

I would have been fascinated to know a bit more about the kinds of fruit and vegetables that are being grown too: for example, there was a label for Yacon, a kind of tuberous South American daisy, but it was impossible to tell which plant it referred to, which was frustrating.

The questions that ‘A Common Ground’ ask are well worth considering. How does a garden bring people together? What can we learn from one another by growing and eating plants, side by side? What happens in those social interactions where people are working on a  common task? Unfortunately, my visit today makes me think that local people are not really engaged with this project, for all the reasons of time and location that I’ve mentioned previously. It frustrates me to see happy caterpillars munching on lovingly planted cabbages, and sweetpeas turned to brown paper for want of watering. My dad, who had an alllotment for most of his life, would have been horrified.

I shall pop back for a second look later in the year, just to see if things have gelled into something more coherent. But for today, this was a pleasant and interesting walk, nothing more.





Wednesday Weed – Verbena Bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, what a strange plant this is, with its stiff stems and heads of tiny purple-pink flowers! I until a few years ago it was a relative rarity in London gardens, and I can see why – the flowerheads are small for the size of the plant, which can grow up to six feet tall. But then the other day I saw some planted with grasses and Japanese anemones, and I finally appreciated its delicate beauty. Plus, it is a great late summer plant for butterflies, and as so many people are trying to do their bit for wildlife these days it has grown in popularity. Finally, it is drought-tolerant, and we all need a bit of that in London, what with it being nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Verbena bonariensis in Muswell HIll, with grasses….

The name ‘Verbena’ means ‘sacred bough’, but this refers to Verbena officinalis or Vervaine, a plant used for medicine and for sacred ritual from the Druids onwards and introduced to the UK in the Stone Age. You can see the family resemblance in the photo below, especially the stiff stems.

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at

Vervaine (Verbena officinalis) (Photo One)

‘Bonariensis’ means ‘from Buenos Aires’, indicating that the plant originated in South America. It has naturalised in the warmer parts of North America and is considered a noxious weed in some states.

In the US, the plant is known as ‘purpletop’ or ‘South American vervaine’. It seems strange to me that the plant doesn’t yet have a common name in the UK, considering how popular it’s become. In their book on Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael J. Crawley call it ‘Argentine Vervaine’, so maybe this will catch on. However, a new variety of the plant, which is smaller with larger flowers, is known as ‘Lollipop Verbena’ so maybe this is the name that will stick.

Photo Two from

Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ (Photo Two)

In ‘Alien Plants’, Verbena bonariensis is described as being one of the UK’s fastest spreading non-native plants. It certainly loves to self-seed and, as it gives height to plantings in supermarket car parks and municipal beds it’s easy to see where the spread is coming from. Plus you can grow it from seed, which saves lots of money, no small thing if you’re a cash-strapped council. I foresee fields of ‘purpletop’ in our future.

Medicinal uses for the plant seem to be few and far between, at least in Europe. One site describes it as useful for love potions. Another mentions how their dog seems to love eating it. Humans, however, do not appear to eat the plant in any form that I can find. I suspect that it might be useful as a dried flower, and Alys Fowler describes the blackened seed heads as ‘most arresting’. But if you have a patch of the garden in full sun, you might want to grow the plant just to see which insects turn up.

Photo  Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

With honey bee (Photo Three)

With Skipper butterfly (Public Domain)

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at

With red admiral butterfly (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at

With monarch butterflies in North America (Photo Five)

I always have a bit of a problem with what to plant for once my buddleia and lavender have finished, and I am thinking of getting a raised bed for my south-facing front garden, to replace the selection of pots that I currently have – even with daily watering the plants have suffered this year, and I think they might stand a better chance in deeper soil. I suspect that some Verbena bonariensis will definitely feature after the display of insects above, especially if I can grow it from seed. It’s good to have a gardening project to consider when I have so much else going on. It’s difficult to dwell on dark thoughts when leafing through a seed catalogue.

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0  ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Photo Six)

And so to a poem, and what a sock in the eye this one is, especially as we all pant in the grip of a heatwave that is longer than any I can remember.

‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry‘……

Anthropocene Pastoral by Catherine Pierce

In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.

Early spring everywhere, the trees furred

pink and white, lawns the sharp green

that meant new. The sky so blue it looked

manufactured. Robins. We’d heard

the cherry blossoms wouldn’t blossom

this year, but what was one epic blooming

when even the desert was an explosion

of verbena? When bobcats slinked through

primroses. When coyotes slept deep in orange

poppies. One New Year’s Day we woke

to daffodils, wisteria, onion grass wafting

through the open windows. Near the end,

we were eyeletted. We were cottoned.

We were sundressed and barefoot. At least

it’s starting gentle, we said. An absurd comfort,

we knew, a placebo. But we were built like that.

Built to say at least. Built to reach for the heat

of skin on skin even when we were already hot,

built to love the purpling desert in the twilight,

built to marvel over the pink bursting dogwoods,

to hold tight to every pleasure even as we

rocked together toward the graying, even as

we held each other, warmth to warmth,

and said sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry while petals

sifted softly to the ground all around us.

Photo Seven by By frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven

Photo Credits

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at

Photo Two from

Photo Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons at

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by  frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bugwoman on Location – A Dilemma

Dear Readers, here I am again in Milborne St Andrew. It’s fair to say all is not well with the parents – since I last wrote about what has been going on, Dad has been in and out of hospital for short stays twice. He is currently at home, though he insists that, while he was in hospital with pneumonia, Mum moved house to somewhere that looks exactly the same, with the same address and phone number. Apart from that he is fairly cheerful, but he is losing weight and is very frail and unsteady. I am trying to remedy this with a constant supply of ‘rocky Magnums’ – chocolate-coated ice cream bars with flaked almonds on the outside.

On Wednesday he took a tumble, but was rescued by a lovely neighbour with tremendous upper body strength, who was able to hoist him back into a vertical position.

Mum is stressed, depressed and increasingly forgetful. She abhors her new custom-made reclining chair (although it is doing wonders for her back) and has summoned the chair company by leaving a message to say that she hates the new chair, the new settee, and even Dad’s new chair, although Dad is actually very happy with it.  The technician is coming to have a look on Tuesday, and I just hope he’s wearing a tin hat. Although Mum might be little (and getting littler), she is fierce.

And so, you can imagine my delight when I sat on the bench outside their house to get a breather from all the excitement and noticed a wasp flying around my bare legs. I watched it idly, wondering how long I could linger until I was summoned again, and then I noticed another wasp. And another. I levered myself up  and had a look at the air brick in the wall under the bench.

Oh dear.


I have a lot of respect for wasps, and their role in the ecosystem. If you watch the movie carefully, you can see a wasp entering the nest on the right hand side, carrying what is either a grub or a lump of peach. I have watched wasps hunting for caterpillars on my sprouting broccoli, their eyes like searchlights. I’ve watched them tugging and pulling until the caterpillar loses its grip, and then fly off with the grub hanging from their undercarriage like a bomb.

In other words, if it had been my house, I would probably have left them alone.

But this is not my house. Mum had a very bad reaction last time she was stung by a wasp (many years ago), and is terrified of them. Although they were not coming into the house, their flight path was right across the area that Mum and Dad cross when they are getting into the car, and I could easily see one of them falling if a wasp flew near them. And so I called a local pest controller, who was there within a couple of hours, and who sprayed some insecticide into the nest.

‘Keep the windows closed for a couple of hours, because they’ll be cross now’, he said.

As well they might be, under the circumstances.

And I know this wouldn’t be a dilemma for many people because, for them,  humans come ahead of animals, especially where vulnerable family members are concerned. But I have often talked about how easy it is to exterminate creatures, instead of living alongside them, and there is something about the killing of an entire colony, with all its complexity and richness that makes me feel uncomfortable. If I had to make the same decision again I would still reach the same conclusion, but my heart would be as heavy as it was this time. Sometimes there is no right answer, just the least worst solution.

Back indoors, I gave Mum an Exotic Fruit Solero, which is flavoured with mango and passion fruit. This is not the healthiest food but at the moment, I’m just glad that the parents are eating something with lots of calories. Mum unwrapped it gingerly, gave it a lick, then another. She paused to consider the lolly for a moment.

‘Who’d have thought’, she said, ‘that at 82 I’d discover a whole new taste sensation?’

Mum and Dad’s current predicament has broken me open. I cry secretly when I see Mum and Dad’s former carer, who is regrowing her hair following chemotherapy, and who has the sweetest, most beautifully- formed head under her cap of fuzz.  I cry at the dead woodpigeon that I found in Mum and Dad’s garden, her eyes closed as if she was just asleep, and then I cry some more at the witless baby woodpigeon bumbling around on the lawn as if death were just a fairy story, and everything is going to live forever. And then I wipe my eyes and put my shoulders back, and get on with what needs to be done, like carers have always done, because there is respite in action. There’s something about making gravy or peeling potatoes or sliding a perfect pancake onto a warmed plate that soothes the soul, makes me feel as if I’m doing something to balance the scales that are tilting towards darkness.

I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but I do know that we need more Solero moments, more pancakes, more roast potatoes. We need the scent of roses and the cool softness of a breeze through an open window. We need fresh clean cotton sheets and the sound of jackdaws chuckling outside. These small moments of pleasure are what make the difference to a life, even if they aren’t remembered. Just because Mum and Dad’s short-term memory might be in tatters doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy things in the moment.




Wednesday Weed – Acanthus (Bear’s Breeches)

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis)

Dear Readers, what a striking plant this is, with its dark brown bracts and gently striped white flowers! Although it does grow wild in some parts of the UK (and was probably introduced from Italy in the 16th Century), in East Finchley it is confined to gardens. It is what many gardening books call an ‘architectural plant’, which generally means something strident and upstanding, but Acanthus has played a part in the architecture of the Classical world in a much more direct way. The leaves of the plant are magnificent in their own right, as you can see from the photograph below. The name ‘Acanthus’ comes from the Greek for ‘thorn’, probably because of the spiky leaves and seed capsule, but the species name ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’, maybe to distinguish this plant from it’s much spikier relatives. I assume that the name ‘bear’s breeches’ comes from the way that the flowers look like trouser legs protruding from the bear-coloured bracts, but why it is also sometimes called ‘oyster plant’ I have no idea.

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

Bear’s breeches leaf (Photo One)

The leaves were the inspiration for the top part of the Corinthian columns (the Capital) used in Greek buildings from the  5th Century BCE. The design is attributed to the architect Callimachus, who is said to have seen Acanthus leaves growing around some statuary on a grave and been struck by the beauty of the accidental arrangement.  As the plant is widespread throughout the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that it became synonymous with this particular era and style.

Photo Two by By Cimoi [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0  (], from Wikimedia Commons

Corinthian column from the Grand Moszue in Kairouan, Tunisia (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0,

Wild Acanthus growing amidst the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome (Photo Three)

Virgil states that Helen of Troy wore a dress embroidered with Acanthus leaves, and I suspect that she looked very good in it, though if legend is to be believed she’d have looked good in a jute sack.  William Morris was also very taken with the leaves as a design for his fabrics and wallpaper.

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at

Acanthus leaf wallpaper by William Morris (Photo Four)

The design became so widespread that it even reached the post boxes of England during the Victorian era. No wonder that, in the Language of Flowers, an Acanthus means ‘art’.

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0,

A Penfold-design post box in Cambridge (1866-79) with Acanthus leaf motif on the top (Photo Five)

Acanthus is what is known as entomophilous (or ‘insect-loving’), and is pollinated by big, heavy insects such as bumblebees, who are the only ones strong enough to force their way into the flower. The plant also spreads by means of its rhizomes, and can be quite invasive in the right conditions. It is a remarkably unfussy plant, happy in shade or in drought, and it certainly packs a punch appearance-wise. I need to have a garden about three times as large as my current one to accommodate all these plants that I keep finding out about.

Medicinally, the leaves were used as a poultice for burns and scalds, sprains and dislocations. Tea made from the leaves was also used to soothe digestive and urinary upsets.

I can find no references to anybody (except snails and slugs) eating the leaves, though they don’t appear to be poisonous either. Better to stick to that bag of curly kale, I think.

And finally, here’s a poem, to balance the Ted Hughes that I posted a few weeks ago. This is by Sylvia Plath. I suspect she might have invented the word ‘Acanthine’, and this poem is a remarkable evocation of Plath’s father, who died when she was eight years old. You could say that she searched for him, in vain, for the rest of her life.

The Colossus by Sylvia Plath

I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.
Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.


Photo Credits

Photo One by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Cimoi [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0,