Dear Readers, pansies are one of the few bedding plants that can be found in bloom throughout the winter months, and in spite of all the many, many diseases and pests that they are heir to, they are many people’s first choice for colour in the cold weather. I am always impressed by the way that the plants continue to flower even when there is snow on the ground, although my personal taste leans towards the smaller, more delicate viola-type flowers. In fact, pansies are hybrids of the wild viola (Viola tricolor) , or heartsease, an elegant European wildflower. The distinction between ‘pansies’ and ‘violas’ is hence a tricky one. One American distinction is that ‘pansies’ are plants which have a clear and distinctive ‘blotch’ in the middle, but in general horticulturalists seem to call the larger plants ‘pansies’ and the smaller ones ‘violas’ or even ‘violettas’.
Heartsease (Viola tricolor) (Photo One)
The name ‘pansy’ comes from the French pensée or ‘thoughts’, and the plant is also known as ‘love-in-idleness’ : Shakespeare includes the plant in Ophelia’s bouquet ‘ ‘There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts’.
In German-speaking countries, the pansy’s name means ‘the stepmother’, and the flower is used to illustrate a folk tale, with the large bottom petal being the stepmother, the two petals to either side being the happy, well-dressed daughters, and the top two petals being the sad and bedraggled stepdaughters. We can imagine some kind of Cinderella tale being told, I suspect.
In Italy, the plant is known as ‘flammola’, or ‘little flame’
The development of pansy varieties kicked off in the early nineteenth century, and began in the gardens of Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett, who combined every colour variant of heartsease that she could find. At the same time another aristocrat, James, Lord Gambier, was playing with hybrids of heartsease and other species of viola. It was during his endeavours that the classical ‘face’ of the pansy appeared, and it was introduced to the public in 1839 under the name ‘Medora’. It is those ‘faces’ which have given the pansy some of its more whimsical names: ‘Three faces in a hood’, and ‘Jump up and kiss me’.
The trouble that I have with pansies is that they seem to attract every aphid in the garden. Furthermore, my plants have suffered with mildew (both downy and powdery, and sometimes one followed by the other) and the wretched survivors have then collapsed with stem rot. I sometimes wonder if I am cut out for this gardening lark. On the other hand I have some splendid camellias and my daphne is a sight to behold, so maybe all is not lost.
Apparently the heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ was originally going to be called Pansy, but the name was changed to Scarlett at the last minute, and just as well I think.
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. Pansy O’Hara just wouldn’t have been the same….(Public Domain)
The pansy was thought to be symbolic of humility long before it was linked to love, and I cannot resist the urge to show you this bookbinding embroidered by no other than Elizabeth I for her stepmother Katherine Parr. There are pansies in each corner, and what a fine piece of work it is! This was made when Elizabeth was only eleven. The dedication reads ‘To our most noble and vertuous Quene Katherin, Elizabeth her humble daughter wisheth perpetuall felicitie and everlasting joye‘. I’m rather moved by this. There can’t be many young girls who have had their mother executed by their father, and there seems to be a world of hope for a more stable and loving world in those few words.
Bookbinding made by Elizabeth I for her stepmother Katherine Parr (Public Domain)
Pansies have inspired many artists, including two of my favourite painters, Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. I find the van Gogh painting a little drabber than his usual flower paintings, but then it was created very late in his life (he died 3 years later).
Mand met viooltjes by Vincent van Gogh (1887) (Public Domain)
I absolutely love O’Keefe’s take on a black pansy with forget-me-nots, however.
And now a poem with, I think you’ll agree, one of the most arresting first lines that I’ve read for a long time. This is ‘Wild Pansy’ by Lisa Bellamy, a poet who lives in Brooklyn and who is a member of the Academy of American Poets.
Dear Readers, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Natural History Museum in London. I love the building that houses the collection of over 80 million specimens; it has been described as a ‘cathedral to nature’, and it certainly repays close inspection. The outside is clothed in a mixture of pale blue-grey and golden tiles, and everywhere you look, there are animals and plants. The entrance gate is decorated with reliefs of different creatures, and I particularly liked these rats.
Not to mention these iguanas
And how about this cobra?
I think that you could have a delightful time just looking at the decoration of the building without even going inside. The east wing is decorated with extinct animals, and the west wing with living species, at the request of the Director at the time, Richard Owen. It can be seen as a rebuttal to Darwin – Owen was unconvinced by Darwin’s theory of evolution as it stood, and wanted to show the separation of extant and vanished species, rather than their continuity. We can just enjoy being looked down on by rather menacing pterodactyls and sabre-toothed tigers.
The west wing features a few more familiar creatures, such as this splendid lion.
It’s not always so straightforward, though. The animal below is some kind of extinct mammal, but to the left there is what could easily be a coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish that was thought to be long vanished from the oceans until one was hauled up in 1938.
Preserved coelacanth found off the Comoros islands in 1974 (Photo One)
The decoration inside the museum is just as ornate. In the entrance hall, each niche is decorated with birds who forage up and over the arches.
As you go upstairs, the birds are replaced by monkeys clambering through vines, though they look rather more like little people to me, especially with their unnervingly human hands.
One of the wonders of the Museum is the ceiling of the Hintze Hall, which contains illustrations of plants from all corners of the world. With typical Victorian practicality, these are mostly ‘useful’ plants, such as coffee and the opium poppy.
So, really, what’s not to like? Well, as a child I was always extremely upset by all the dead and mounted animals, frozen in the act of flying and foraging and yet never to move again. On more than one occasion I had to be taken outside because I was so upset. It’s true that I was a tender-hearted child, but I suspect most children are this way, until they become inured to our ordinary cruelty.
I remember the Victorian display below from the first time that I saw it over 50 years ago, and it still disturbs me today.
There are over a hundred separate birds in this case. The work to prepare and mount each of them must have been enormous. The species are not listed, and so this is purely for the delectation of those who stopped to admire it. I have no idea how quickly their colours faded, but the light in their eyes would have gone out quickly enough.
To the Museum’s credit, there are far fewer of these nineteenth century displays than I remember. There are also dodos here, and a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers, last seen in the wild in 1944. Habitat destruction and hunting doomed both these species, and this is all that is left, a few stuffed birds in a glass case.
A pair of Dodos (and a Giant Auk, bottom left)
But, things are changing. The Museum hosts the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which gives visitors another way to view animals and to wonder at their complexity and beauty without harming them (though there is a discussion to be had on ethical wildlife photography as well). Many of the specimens that have already been collected are housed in the Darwin Centre, where they provide invaluable information for scientists, especially with regard to assessing the changes in distribution due to climate change. Existing specimens are also used in the exhibitions on different aspects of animal and plant life, such as the current exhibition on nocturnal animals.
This move away from collecting for the sake of collecting and towards conservation is best exemplified by the change in the entrance hall of the Museum.
Dippy the diplodocus (Photo Two)
Until recently, the entrance hall housed a cast of the bones of Dippy the Diplodocus, and this had been the first thing that visitors saw when they entered the Museum since 1905. However, they have recently gone ‘on tour’ and have been replaced by the skeleton of a young blue whale, who was found stranded in Wexford Bay, Ireland, after being injured by whalers in 1891. The bones have been in storage for all this time, but in 2017 it was decided to replace the dinosaur with the whale.
This is a stunning creature, 25 metres long, and it seemed to gaze down on me as I entered. The work of getting it into the hall was detailed in a recent BBC programme which I watched with great interest, but nothing prepares you for its size and presence. My previous visits to the Museum gave me a sense of voyeurism, as I spent all my time looking at these long-dead creatures. There is something of a challenge about these bones, however. I had the distinct sense of being gazed down upon and evaluated by those empty eye sockets. This is the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet, and we treat the world as if it were our playground and rubbish tip. If the bones could speak, how much rage and sorrow would that voice contain?
Dear Readers, in continuance of my theme of winter-scented plants I was pleased to find a whole front garden full of Christmas box on my travels around the County Roads today. This is a very unassuming plant, as most members of the Buxaceae are, but those little white flowers produce a heady, bewitching scent. It can be so strong in a confined space that I’ve watched people look around in all directions to try to find the source, expecting a much bigger, showier plant. This particular variety, known as ‘Purple Stem’ for obvious reasons, was given a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. I rather liked that the owner of the garden had had the courage of their convictions and had planted the whole place up with the plant. The massed flowers will be useful for any early-emerging pollinators, though any bee unwise enough to show its furry head this morning will find a very chilly welcome.
This particular species of box is named after the estimable scientist and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 to 1911). What a life the man had! He travelled to the Antarctic with the Ross exhibition of 1839-43, performed a geological survey of Great Britain, went to the Himalayas and India (where he probably encountered Christmas box), then on to Palestine, Morocco and the western United States. He, was a close friend of Darwin and was one of the founders of Kew Gardens. In between times he married twice and fathered nine children, though I suspect he had little opportunity to spend any time with them.
Joseph Hooker aged 90 (Public Domain)
In addition to Christmas box, Hooker had several other plants named after him, including this splendid Kashmiri iris, Iris hookeriana.
Iris hookeriana (Photo One)
His name was also used for a snail which lives in sub-Antarctica and is unique because it has no chitin in its shell, and for a rare New Zealand sealion.
Once the flowers are finished, the plant will be covered in black fruit – the genus name Sarcococca comes from the Greek words for ‘fleshy berry’. Birds are said to like the fruit, and the jury is out as to whether they are poisonous to humans. All species of Sarcococca are native to Asia, particularly China and the Himalayas, and are sometimes used in Chinese Traditional medicine. The Wellcome Institute page mentions that Christmas box contains chemicals which attack the leishmaniasis parasite, at least in vitro, which is interesting as one of the Chinese medicinal uses is to attack parasitic worms. Nothing is new under the sun, it seems.
Dear Readers, you might have thought that I would struggle to find a poem for something called Sarcococca hunteriana var digyna and you’d be right. However, I did find the poem below, which refers to a very closely related plant, with all the characteristics of this week’s subject. The poem is by Maureen Boyle (1961), a Northern Irish poet with a fine eye for the natural world. To see more of her work, have a look here, you won’t be disappointed.
Christmas Box by Maureen Boyle
There is honey and chocolate on our doorstep since Christmas—sweet box and coral flower— one on either side. The heuchera with ruffled cocoa-coloured leaves hunkers in the corner but the sarcococca or sweet box is where we step inside by design so that on nights as dark as winter and full of storm we brush the bluff, squat, shrub and boots and coat trail the scent of summer into the hall. Its flowers are what are left of flowers, petals blown away—spindly threads ghostly in the leaves, the odd early blood-berry that follows. Its genus confusa is right—from so frail a bloom a scent so big, as if the bees have nested in it and are eager for their flight.
Photo Two by By Alice Gadea, Pierre Le Pogam, Grichka Biver, Joël Boustie, Anne-Cécile Le Lamer, Françoise Le Dévéhat & Maryvonne Charrier – Gadea, A., Le Pogam, P., Biver, G., Boustie, J., Le Lamer, A. C., Le Dévéhat, F., & Charrier, M. (2017). Which Specialized Metabolites Does the Native Subantarctic Gastropod Notodiscus hookeri Extract from the Consumption of the Lichens Usnea taylorii and Pseudocyphellaria crocata?. Molecules, 22(3): 425. doi:10.3390/molecules22030425 Figure 8A, crooped., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64153076
Dear Readers, you may remember that I visited the planting at the Barbican Centre in London a few years ago, and was very impressed. Today, in an attempt to get back to something like normality, I went to see a matinee of Macbeth featuring Christopher (Dr. Who) Eccleston in the Barbican Theatre but before I settled down I wanted to see how the gardens were standing up, and what they looked like in the most uninspiring month of the year. By January, most gardens are looking a bit tired, and one is lucky to have more than a few things in flower. It’s all about texture, and these plantings have that in spades.
The light at this time of year can be strong but the sun is low in the sky, and this creates all kinds of strange effects between the tower blocks. It’s here that the grasses come into their own. The seed heads look molten, glowing with an unearthly fire. I felt as if my poor parched senses were drinking the beauty in.
The icy wind whistles between the buildings, but there were hardy souls weeding and tidying the beds. I told one man how much I enjoyed the gardens at any time of year, and he pointed out a few things that were in flower, a salvia and a little cranesbill. But strangely enough, it’s the starker delights of bark and twig that appeal to me at the moment.
I found one spot, sheltered from the wind, where I noticed the fur on this frosty-leaved plant. I love the way that each leaf has a centre-parting, like a damp-haired schoolboy.
The euphorbia and the Japanese Anemones are still going strong where they have some protection from the cold.
Because of the way that the sun reflects from the windows, there can be strange, fleeting puddles of light.
There are some big, concrete containers that have been planted with a wildflower mix. I was surprised to see cornflowers and mayweed and yarrow still in bloom. I have seen wildflower plantings in a number of other places, but have my doubts as to the provenance of the plants – near to my house in East Finchley, an area has giant yarrow and the largest-flowered creeping thistle that I’ve ever seen. Possibly these are cultivars, but they look remarkably like the wild plants on steroids. The plants here, though, look pretty much like the real thing.
I used to visit the Barbican regularly at lunchtime (I worked just across the road), and it was a most unimpressive place, with the beds full of regimented primulas and well-behaved geraniums. Today it’s a wild and woolly prairie, full of interest even at this time of the year. When I visit in summer the place is full of pollinators having a pit-stop for nectar and pollen. This is an exposed and variable habitat, where the wind scours the soil and the sun blazes down, but the garden is doing well. It just goes to show what can be done with a bit of imagination.
And Macbeth was pretty good too, with the part of the witches taken by three scary children in identical red dresses, and Christopher Eccleston giving it his all in a northern accent and body armour. I get a bit fed-up with the handbrake turns that the characters take, but I think we have to blame Mr Shakespeare for that rather than the performance. It sometimes feels like one of the few Shakespeare plays that could actually do with being a bit longer to allow for the deterioration in the characters’ states of mind. But still, if you fancy a couple of hours of supernatural goings on, the descent of one of the lead characters into madness and all manner of surprising goings-on, this is your play.
Dear Readers, I have always loved irises, but have never been able to grow them. This surprises me somewhat, as the big yellow flag irises that grow in the wild, damp places of the UK would seem to be perfectly adapted to taking over my pond, but they refuse to do anything other than wither and die. Similarly, whenever, against my better judgement, I buy a bunch of irises for a vase, they turn papery and grey without ever opening. So I was pleased to see these little chaps in full flower in Fortis Green, just round the corner from my house. Their delicate lilac-blue flowers with their custard-coloured tongues were almost shocking against the dead leaves.
Irises are a big, diverse group of plants, and are named for Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. Iris is said to have been a messenger of the gods, and crops up regularly in The Iliad. Like the rainbow, she is said to have linked heaven and earth and would often help intercede on behalf of humans, bringing their prayers to the attention of the gods.
Iris by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1886) (Public Domain)
A minor digression here – I have always been very fond of the paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw – I know that they are deeply unfashionable these days, but I love his depictions of the wet streets of Victorian cities. They are so atmospheric that they seem to beg for a story of dubious goings on at the waterfront, or of ladies shopping before Christmas. See what you think.
Glasgow, Saturday Night by John Atkinson Grimshaw (unknown date) (Public Domain)
Boar Lane, Leeds by John Atkinson Grimshaw (Date Unknown) (Public Domain)
But, back to the iris. The ‘design’ of the flower is an example of a plant that, in its natural state, has co-evolved with the insects that pollinate it. Three of the petals seem to ‘clap hands’ in the centre of the flower (the ‘standards’), with the other three petals curling down like lolling tongues (the ‘falls’). The lower petals form a landing stage for insects, and the shape of the sexual organs means that after pollen is deposited on the back of a bee, it can only be transferred to another flower, rather than pollinating the same one. Of course, the appearance of the flower has been mightily changed by horticulturalists over the years, but this basic structure largely remains, regardless of the colour or size of the bloom.
Parts of an iris flower (Photo One)
A bearded iris ‘Amethyst Flame’ (Photo Two)
Siberian iris is native to Europe and Central Asia, and its range extends as far north as Lake Baikal in Siberia. It is also naturalized in various states of the US and in Ontario in Canada. It was brought to Northern Europe as early 1500 by monks, and was first cultivated in the UK in 1596. It can be found in growing wild in damp, wooded areas, but seems to be slow to spread, unlike many other waterside plants. It grows from rhizomes rather than bulbs, and division seems to be the best way of raising new plants. Vita Sackville-West noted that Siberian irises
‘will do well by the waterside in a fairly damp bed, although it does not like being drowned underwater all year round.’
Maybe this is where I’m going wrong with my irises.
The flowers of this iris have been used to produce yellow cloth by the Tartar people of Western Siberia, and there is lots of information on the Interwebs for those who want to use iris flowers as dye. Medieval illuminators used a colour called iris green, and during my research I have discovered the website ‘Threadborne’ by Wendy Feldberg. She has several posts on using irises of various kinds as dye and as ink, which I found absolutely fascinating. You can have a look here.
The root of the plant is said to be good for coughs, and it is also said that the Chinese made an edible starch from it. ‘The Mysteries of Human Reproduction‘ by Dr. Raymond Bernard mentions that Siberian brides eat the cooked fruit of the Siberian iris before their wedding night to increase fertility. This is probably an improvement over the poor brides of Kamchatka, who apparently eat spiders to create the same effect. Sadly, the rhizome is also apparently poisonous, and handling it can cause dermatitis. As always, caution is advised.
As you might expect, such a splendid plant has inspired many artists, not the least of which, Vincent Van Gogh, is another of my favourites. The painting below shows bearded irises rather than Siberian ones, but hey. I love the way that my eye is drawn to the single white iris on the left, plus that sunny spread of marigolds in the corner. That such a joyful, sun-filled picture could be created by someone who struggled so hard with depression fills me with a kind of hope.
Irises by Vincent Van Gogh (1886) (Public Domain)
And here is a puzzle. As you know, I do like a bit of poetry, so here is ‘Iris’ by William Carlos Williams.
But here’s the thing. You can make perfume from the rhizome of some species of iris – it’s known as orris root, and is incredibly expensive as the root has to be dried for three to four years before being turned into ‘orris butter’, and it has to be protected from fungal and insect attack for all that time. The scent is described on The Perfume Society website as
‘ sweet, soft, powdery, suede-like – rather like violets, which we tend to be more familiar with as a scent‘.
However, I have never come across an iris flower that had a scent. Is it just because mine tend to die as soon as bring them home, as if struck by a ray gun? Or am I missing something? Or is the poet delusional? This was, after all, the man who ate all the plums in the fridge without so much as a by-your-leave, so he might not be completely reliable.
Dear Readers, on Tuesday we went to Weymouth for my Mum’s cremation. We are having a bigger gathering in Milborne St Andrew, where Mum and Dad lived, in February. But Mum wanted to be cremated and, unlike in London where crematoria are ten a penny, in Dorset the nearest one was in Weymouth, a place to which none of us have any connection.
Events like this always put our own choices into the spotlight. My plan is to be buried in a cardboard coffin in a woodland somewhere – I have no worries about insects munching my bones and helping to recycle me. But Mum was never one for creepy crawlies, and she had been graveside on too many cold, rainy days to want to inflict that on us, so cremation it was. She also thought that it was cleaner, somehow, simpler. I think that she missed a trick by not wanting to be fired into the stratosphere in a rocket, like Hunter S Thompson, but there is still something about the thought of her body, which had been the cause latterly of so much pain, being reduced to its simplest elements that I find comforting. I am so glad that we managed to have some of these conversations before Mum died, so that at least some of what she wanted was clear. It’s never too early to have these discussions with those we love. Life is hard enough after you’ve been bereaved without having to second guess what the person who has died would have wanted.
We went for a walk around the town of Weymouth before the service. It is a fine little town, with a working harbour and its own lifeboat. Everywhere, people were going about their business – walking their dogs, mending nets, sitting on benches and gazing out to sea. It’s surprising how often I glimpse Mum in the colour of a stranger’s hair, the way that they walk, a certain tilt of their head. She seems to be everywhere.
The cliffs that make up the Jurassic Coast peered through the early morning mist. Mary Anning found the fossil of an ichthyosaurus not far from here. It is an interesting part of the world. However, all I could think of was those last few weeks with Mum as her life ebbed away, and my mood coloured everything grey. But then I remembered that the day before Mum went into the Nursing Home, an ice-cream van had parked up outside the school opposite their bungalow, and Mum had been able to enjoy one of those Mr Whippy icecreams with a flake in it. I had never noticed an icecream van there before, so it seemed like fate. Mum adored those soft icecream cones, and even without her teeth, she managed to eat it all. There is grace everywhere, but it’s easy to overlook it.
Everything seemed unreal, as if I was in a dream and would soon wake up to find everything as it should be. But as usual, it took nature to bring me back to reality. Perched above a pile of nets was a pair of herring gulls.
They seemed watchful, and I soon realised why. There was a young herring gull picking through the fish scales and guts on the quayside below, and I suspect that he was their chick.
Like all young birds, young gulls seem so witless, so vulnerable. This one looked around, and emitted the most plaintive, sad little cry, half way between a squeak and a wail.
‘Oh’, I said, ‘he’s crying for his mother’.
And then, I realised what I’d said, and finally I could lean on my husband’s shoulder and cry for mine. At last I could be present with what was going to happen, the end of my mother’s physical presence on this world, and I could start the remembering that would be the work of the rest of my life. My mother is always with me, in the shape of my eyes, the length of my fingers, my skill with roast potatoes and my love of colour. There is a particularity about each person who walks this earth which comes into the sharpest focus in the weeks and months after they’ve died. They are unique, and they will never come again, and that is what is so, so hard.
But there is solace, nonetheless, in the universality of death, at least for me. Someone described the loss of a parent as an initiation, and it feels like walking through fire. I will not be the same on the other side, but maybe I will be more compassionate and perhaps even wiser. Grief is the price that we pay for loving with all our hearts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dear Readers, it is strange how suddenly I am brought up short by remembering. Today, as I was mooching home from Muswell Hill, looking for a Wednesday Weed, I inhaled a breath of lemony sweetness from this rather bedraggled-looking shrub. Instantly, I was transported to another place and time: my father, walking around the garden centre with me when I was in my mid-twenties, and suggesting plants for my first garden.
‘Winter honeysuckle’, he said. ‘Doesn’t look like much, but the smell in the winter….’
He tailed off, always being a man of few words. How he loved to garden: for most of my childhood we had an allotment to supplement our food, and I remember his big brown hands, picking up the tiny seedlings and transplanting them into pots. He was the one I went to for anything to do with plants.
Now, he doesn’t know who I am, or what day it is, but it makes me wonder if, when spring comes, he will still know how to plant seeds, how to dig over a bed. I shall be asking what’s possible at his nursing home. He is so lost, what with the recent death of my mother, but there is something about soil that always brings me home, and maybe it will do the same for him.
Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is one of those plants that makes up for its complete lack of aesthetic interest during the spring and summer by pumping forth its extraordinary perfume during the coldest months of the year. Its flowers are small and lack the showiness of the vine honeysuckles, and yet, looked at closely, they have a kind of elegance, what with their super-long stamens and delicately fluted petals.
Furthermore, I was not the only one who was attracted by their scent.
Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)
Two bumblebees were busily working the flowers. It’s a mild day, but it is only the 6th January, so I was intrigued. I think that they are most likely worker bees, which indicates that there is an active nest still in progress – normally the nest dies and the queen hibernates, only starting to produce eggs and worker bees in the spring. A combination of warmer temperatures and the increasing number of gardeners growing winter-flowering plants such as this honeysuckle, Mahonia and winter-flowering heather means that nests can be viable throughout the year.
It did my heart good to see these insects foraging today. I love the way that the hang on to the flowers with their hook-like feet, and the way that they comb themselves so as to deposit all the pollen into the pollen baskets (corbicula) on their hind legs. I like the way that they go so energetically about their business, completely unperturbed by me and my camera. For a few minutes I was enraptured, and that’s a very fine state to be in.
Winter honeysuckle is also known as ‘kiss-me-at-the-gate’ and ‘sweet breath of spring’. It comes originally from China and was introduced to the UK by the plant hunter Robert Fortune, the chap who stole tea plants from China and took them to India for the East India Company in 1848. The plant was introduced to the UK in 1845, and to the US in a few years later. Winter flowering honeysuckle was certainly grown at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire by the Marquess of Salisbury during this period, and if you’re looking for an interesting day out just a few miles from London, I would recommend a visit. The gardens were originally laid out by no other than John Tradescant the Elder (for whom the genus Tradescantia is named), and the house was the home of several Tudor monarchs, including Elizabeth I.
Hatfield House (Photo One)
The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I can be seen in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House. It is attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1600-1602.(Public Domain)
Whilst winter honeysuckle has not established itself in the wild in the UK, it has become a problem in some parts of the USA, particularly in the east and, for some reason, in Utah. Lonicera species do seem to have a habit of jumping ‘over the fence’ given half a chance – there’s a box-leaved honeysuckle in Coldfall, my local wood, which probably came from a bird who had eaten a berry in a municipal car park, where the plants are commonly used. And while a bird might happily eat the berries of winter honeysuckle, we shouldn’t, as they are said to be toxic. The leaves can also cause dermatitis.
Although I can find no specific mentions of winter honeysuckle being used medicinally, its genus name Lonicera comes from the German botanist and herbalist Adam Lonicer (1528 – 1586), who published a book called the Krauterbuch in 1557. The book contained information about the uses of hundreds of plants and had a particular interest in distilling, something that my Dad, who worked as a gin distiller for over twenty years, would have loved.
And here is a poem. It is a translation of a work by the Russian dissident poet Anna Akhmatova, by the British poet Jo Shapcott. Here is the background:
“This translation was commissioned by the Southbank Centre for a celebration of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in 2004. poet Jo Shapcott writes of the commission ‘I was given Akhmatova’s most famous poem, ‘Wild Honey’, to work on. I stayed as close as possible to the tight beautiful images she creates for the first half of the poem. In the second half she uses the figure of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands in front of the people. I changed him to George Bush, reasoning (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) that she might have spoken more freely if she could; and since I live in a more open time and place, then I should.’”
Wild honey smells like freedom, dust – like a ray of sun. Violets – like a girl’s mouth, and gold smells like nothing. Honeysuckle smells like water, and an apple – like love. But finally we’ve understood that blood just smells like blood.
And in vain the president from Texas washed his hands in front of the people, while cameras flashed and correspondents shouted; and the British minister tried to scrub the red splashes from his narrow palms in the basement bathroom, outside the strangers bar, in the Palace of Westminster.
Dear Readers, once I returned to London after having a very subdued Christmas with my Dad, I felt a desperate need to reconnect with both my physical self and the world around me. I have found that grieving involves both a closing down and an opening up – I spend a lot of time with my memories, but I am also vulnerable to the world around me, as if all the emotional bludgeoning of the past few years had tenderised me like a steak.
For example, I was travelling on the tube the other day when a woman got on with a small, elderly dog. He was a grizzled creature, slightly wobbly on his legs, his eyes bulging in their socket, his tongue lolling out as he peered around the carriage. And then he staggered over to me and looked up with an expression of such trust and hope that I started to cry all over his innocent head. Fortunately there are many deranged people on the Northern Line, and so my outburst went unnoticed and unremarked, except by the dog, who tried to lick my tears and wagged his tail so vigorously that he fell over.
And so, the next day, I went to Hampstead Heath for a brisk walk and there, on the boating pond, I saw a cormorant and realised that I had never really seen one before.
Look at that extraordinary frosting on the bird’s head, the red chin! My camera was at the limit of its magnification, but the bird is blue-eyed. In North Norway the bird is considered to be the incarnation of souls lost at sea, whose bodies have never been recovered. Their Latin genus name, Phalacrocorax, is said to mean ‘bald raven’ and the name ‘cormorant’ may be a direct contraction of the Latin ‘corvus marinus, or ‘sea raven’. There’s something about black-plumaged birds, whether crows or cormorants, that awakens the Gothic imagination, and for many people the birds represent the spirits of the departed. Plus, as Adam Nicholson remarks in his wonderful book ‘The Seabird’s Cry‘ , the bird is invoked in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as the very incarnation of Satan:
‘Up he flew, and on the Tree of Life
The middle tree, and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising Death
to them who liv’d.’
Cormorants are regarded by many anglers as direct competition, and in spite of the bird’s protected status it is often illegally killed. This is, as so often, a pointless exercise: if a prime fishing site becomes vacant, other cormorants will move in. Plus, for such a big bird the cormorant’s daily food requirements are quite modest, with each creature requiring less than a kilo of fish. The birds are exquisitely designed to hunt fish underwater, and have jaws which they can dislocate to eat much bigger fish than you’d think, but they spend much of their time perched up, drying their wings and surveying their kingdom with a haughty air. In summer, with babies to feed, the birds catch all the fish that they can but in winter they hunt more strategically, waiting for larger, more torpedo-shaped fish, so as to not waste valuable energy that could be used to keep themselves warm.
The UK has a resident cormorant population of about 9,000 pairs, who live mostly in coastal regions, and who are extremely faithful to their nest sites, building up their nests with twigs year after year. However, in the winter their numbers are swollen by a further 41,000 birds who spend the cold weather on rivers, lakes and reservoirs. There is a huge cormorant nesting site on one of the islands in Walthamstow Wetlands, however, so to see the dinosaur-like nestlings of this remarkable bird, it’s worth bringing your binoculars to north-east London.
Why, though, do the birds spend so long with their wings outspread? Other water birds who dive, such as tufted ducks and gannets, have no need to do this, and indeed some species of cormorant don’t do it either, particularly the wonderfully named Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps bransfielden). There has been much heated debate on the subject in the scientific community, but the conclusion as far as I could see seemed to be that the plumage of cormorants is not as water-repellent as that of some other birds and so, in suitable climates, they need to dry out their feathers before they are able to fly. For our friend the Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag, however, hanging around revealing your wingpits would have the added effect of lowering body temperature due to exposure to the icy blasts of the Antarctic wind, and would not help significantly with the speed of drying, and so the bird sensibly keeps its wings shut. Animal behaviour is often much more nuanced and cued to context than we understand, unless we take the time to really look.
If this posture looks a little familiar, it may be because the cormorant is the model for Liverpool’s emblem, the Liver Bird.
A Liver Bird atop the Liver building in Liverpool (Photo One)
There are actually two Liver birds on the Liver building, but they face away from one another. One was designed to watch the sea (‘our prosperity’) and one to watch the city (‘our people’). The legend goes that if that two birds actually mated and flew away, it would mean the end of Liverpool, and that’s why they are chained to their perches. The birds are officially known as Bella and Bertie, and they are eighteen feet long, ten feet high and each carry a sprig of laver seaweed in their beaks (a pun on ‘Liver’).
In the interests of illuminating a trap for the unwary, I should point out that the ‘Liver’ in ‘Liver birds’ rhymes with ‘fiver’, whereas in ‘Liverpool’ it rhymes with ‘hither’. Go figure.
The Royal Liver Building (Photo Two)
And for any folks ‘of a certain age’, who could forget the weekly antics of The Liver Birds on BBC1, as they tottered around Liverpool in their Afghan coats, mini skirts and knee-length white patent boots, looking for love and trying to cope with the vagaries of work and their social lives? Like so many British comedies of the period, it was very much about class. Beryl, played by Polly James, was the ‘common’ working-class one, and Nerys Hughes played Sandra, who was the more softly-spoken, refined one.
Polly James and Nerys Hughes on the set of The Liver Birds (Photo Three)
The programme ran for 9 series, from 1969 right through to the end of the seventies, and it was a fixture in our household. We watched agog with our dinner plates on our laps (we didn’t really have room for a dining table). If we were lucky, Mum would have made ‘spammy hedgehogs’. This was a pile of mashed potato with spam ‘quills’ and tomato ketchup for eyes. Sometimes we would have eggy sunflowers, which was a fried egg surrounded by chip ‘petals’. My Mum was such a creative person that even a cheap dinner would be transformed into a masterpiece.
But I digress, as usual.
I would like to leave you with a poem by Ted Hughes. I know a lot of Hughes’s poems, and admire the way that he can conjure a creature with a few lines, but I didn’t associate him with humour. However, I find this hilarious. It speaks to me of how humans, adaptable as we are, are actually the clumsiest, most ill-adapted animals on the planet. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…
Happy New Year, Dear Readers! May 2019 be a peaceful, happy, healthy and inspirational one for all of you…
Dear Readers, this plant and I go back a long, long way, to the first garden that I ever owned. When I was in my late twenties I bought a house in Chadwell Heath, to the north-east of London – this was in the days when someone on an average wage in the capital could afford to do such a thing. How lucky I was! But I wasn’t quite so sure of my luck when, one morning shortly after I’d moved in and following heavy rain, I looked out of the upstairs window to see the whole garden under six inches of water. The clay soil was so heavy and compacted that the water had nowhere to drain, and so I had a swimming pool rather than a garden.
What to do? I was completely inexperienced in such things. Fortunately, Dad had bought me a copy of the RHS Guide to Gardening. It had a section on gardening on clay soil, and so I dug a couple of new beds and sought out plants that would tolerate these conditions. One of my first purchases was a silk tassel bush, properly known as Garrya elliptica. All I knew was that the variety I needed was ‘James Roof’, because of its long, graceful male tassels.
Silk tassel bush in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris (Photo One)
These days I might think twice about planting a bush with so little wildlife value – it is wind-pollinated and, outside of its native Oregon and coastal California, there are few invertebrates that feed on the leaves. But how magnificently it grew in my garden! Surrounded by foxgloves in summer and lily of the valley in spring, it presented a picture of elegance right through the year, and helped to soak up some of the dampness in the garden. I hope that whoever moved in after me admired it as much as I did.
Map of range of Garrya elliptica (Public Domain)
Silk tassel bushes are dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants. The male varieties are the impressive ones, however, with the catkins growing up to a foot in length. The leaves of ‘my’ silk tassel bush have a wavy edge, which distinguishes Garrya elliptica from several other species that grow in the same region.
The wavy leaf margins of Garrya elliptica (Photo Two)
The plant was named after the Hudson’s Bay Company secretary Nicholas Garry, who helped the Scottish plant hunter David Douglas in his forays in the western USA. Douglas introduced silk tassel bush to the UK in 1828, and I imagine it was a hit with the Victorians who had a taste for such novelties.
Medicinally, the Pomo Indians used the leaves to make an infusion to treat period pains. The bark and leaves may also have insect-repellent properties.
The berries and leaves can be used to produce a black or grey dye, and I recommend having a look at the website for the Winterbourne Dye Project, where the Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers have been having all sorts of fun with garden plants. You can read about their experiments with silk tassel bush here.
I can’t find any reference to silk tassel bush being edible, though American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are said to like the berries.
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) (Photo Three)
The wood is rather beautiful, but silk tassel bush was never a common plant, and there was no danger of it ever going into mass production. I find it rather interesting that it was also known as ‘quinine tree’, but this seems to be related to the bitter taste of the leaves, rather than to any medicinal properties (quinine, a key ingredient in Indian tonic water, is often seen as a remedy for the symptoms of malaria).
The wood of Garrya elliptica, taken from ‘American Woods’ by Romeyn B Hough (Photo Four)
And this week, I have a little treat for you all. I found this very short animated film about the silk tassel bush, and while I am not sure that it is completely botanically accurate, and while my French is just about good enough to get the general idea of what’s going on, I thought it was absolutely charming. Have a look and see what you think…