Monthly Archives: August 2018

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,