Monthly Archives: May 2019

Wednesday Weed – Lily of the Valley

Lily-of-the-valley(Convallaria majalis)

Dear Readers, I have found such comfort lately in the scent of lily-of-the-valley. One day, while I was wandering in Dorchester and trying to decide what to do after a visit to Dad in the nursing home, I found a tiny garden behind St Peter’s Church. I sat on a wall in a tucked-away corner, and the perfume from these small, shy flowers wafted up and distracted me from my sadness. There is something about some smells that can restore us to the here and now and fill us with a kind of ecstasy. No wonder many religious orders use incense to heighten the senses, though for me honeysuckle or rose would do just as nicely.

And one of the things that I found when I was clearing out Mum and Dad’s bungalow was the Bible that she carried on her wedding day, 62 years ago, and the satin bookmark hung with artificial lily-of-the-valley flowers. I note that Kate Middleton followed Mum’s example when she was married to Prince William in 2011, though she was lucky enough to be able to afford the real thing. As she was married in April, well before the plant’s normal flowering time, I imagine they were greenhouse grown.

The Bible that Mum carried at her wedding, complete with lily-of-the-valley flowers

Mum and Dad on their wedding day, 21st September 1957

Photo One by By The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg: Magnus Dderivative work: Blofeld Dr. (talk / cont) - The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

William and Kate’s wedding (Photo One)

Some people find that lily-of-the-valley sets up home in their gardens and is impossible to get rid of – the plant spreads by rhizomes and each colony is clonal, though it does also set seed. It is a native in the UK and across Europe and Asia, and there is even a colony in the Eastern United States, though its origins are open to question. Richard Mabey notes that in the south and east of the UK it favours ancient woodlands on sandy, acidic soils, whereas in the west and north it grows in limestone woods. Wherever it grows it likes shade, and so you would think it would do well in my garden, but, so far, not a bit of it. I shall have to have another go this autumn.

The lily of the valley which grows in St Leonard’s Forest near Horsham is said to have sprung up from the blood of a dragon killed by St Leonard, so maybe this is what my garden is lacking: both a dragon and a saint to come and deal with it.

Although in the UK peak flowering for lily-of-the-valley is in June, in France, where it is known as muguet, it is associated with May Day, and is given as a gift. My new favourite read, Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora, has this story:

“…..during the Second World War, when her home in Bignor, Sussex, was being used as a ‘secret house’ for French Resistance workers, Barbara Bertram recalled that amongst the embarrassing number of presents that the workers brought, perhaps the one she valued most was a bunch of lily of the valley which she found on her breakfast plate one May Day:

‘They had been picked in France the night before, following the charming French habit of giving Our Lady’s Tears on the first of her month’ (Vickery’s Folk Flora pg 423)”

The flower is also worn by participants in the annual Furry Dance in Helston, Cornwall. Gentlemen wear it the right way up, on the left, while ladies wear it upside down, on the right. It is worn by dancers, bandsmen, officials and by those who are ‘Helston-born’. I note from the film here that the bandsmen also often tuck it into their hats, no doubt to keep it out of the way of trombones and French horns.

However, Vickery also points out that lily of the valley is one of those plants that it is considered fatal to bring into the house. There are so many plants that apparently cause destruction on crossing the threshold that it’s a wonder that we ever put anything into a vase. However, lily of the valley is poisonous, so those innocent-looking waxy flowers and the red berries that follow them do need to be treated with a modicum of respect. There is only one recorded case of poisoning in the UK from 1989, when a family of four ate the bulbs under the misapprehension that they were onions (something that has also happened with daffodils). The symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning are similar to those caused by digitalis from foxgloves – the heart beat slows, and heart failure can occur. To add to the fun, the plant contains saponins which can cause gastrointestinal poisoning. This didn’t go unnoticed by Walter White in Breaking Bad, where it was used as a naturally occurring poison.

All of this hasn’t prevented lily of the valley being used as a medicinal plant: with the roots used as a diuretic and the leaves as a poultice for bruises and abrasions.

The scent of lily of the valley has not gone unnoticed by perfumiers, and it was incorporated into Diorissimo, produced by Christian Dior. Dior adored the flower, and it featured on his stationary and in his garden. It is, however, very difficult to produce a perfume from the plant as it contains no essential oils, so any scents that bear its name are likely to be artificial. Although it was first created in 1956 Diorissimo, with its other notes of ylang-yland, amaryllis, boronia and jasmine, continues to be a favourite, and was apparently much loved by Diana, Princess of Wales.

Lily of the valley was associated with the Second Coming of Christ in the Christian tradition,and in the language of flowers it is said to signify the return of happiness. It certainly kicked me out of the doldrums when I spotted it last week, and it seems to be seen by most people as a most hopeful little plant. I am rather with Elizabeth Gaskell on this: in ‘Wives and Daughters’ she writes that:

“I would far rather have two or three lilies of the valley gathered for me by a person I like, than the most expensive bouquet that could be bought!”

And so, to a poem. Well, two poems actually. One is so disconcerting that I wondered about including it, but I think that it is so evocative and unexpected that it’s worth a read. There’s an interesting analysis of it here.

Lily of the Valley by Melissa Stein

In the lake bodies shift
with the currents. Waterskaters
traverse their tapestries. On the bank
grow plants that no longer have names.
Some have tongues to catch the feet
of flying things. Two shoes lie
on the bank as well. A child’s shoes.
A girl’s. Can you see her, dirty dress,
dirty soles? The arms that held her?
In a convulsion of tenderness
that wasn’t tenderness. In a fever
that wasn’t fever. In this heat
the lily of the valley exudes
such sweetness a man can’t think.
All you want to do is stop up
those pealing mouths. Those white
white skirts, unutterably clean.

And, finally, back to my mother, as all roads seem to lead to her at the moment. In her youth she was a delicate, lily of the valley kind of girl, but in her later years she bloomed into someone with a love of vibrant colours, heady, blousy scents and striking textures. This poem by e.e.cummings jumped out at me. Yep, I think this is exactly what Mum’s heaven will be like.

if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses….
& the whole garden will bow

–e.e. cummings

Photo Credits

Photo One by By The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg: Magnus Dderivative work: Blofeld Dr. (talk / cont) – The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg, CC BY 2.0,


Another Year

Fledgling starling

Dear Readers , it seems impossible that I was writing about the new cohort of fledgling starlings a whole year ago, but here we are again. A couple of weekends ago we were woken at stupid o’clock by the insistent, wheezy calls of young starlings, fresh out of the nest and eager to be fed. The sky was alive with parent birds flying fast and low, hotly pursued by their ravenous offspring. I have noted before how the parents ‘park’ their freshly emerged youngsters in a tree, or on the ground, and then fly off to gather food for them. Left to their own devices, even briefly, the youngsters get into all kinds of mischief, and every year there’s something new. For example, I had never seen a starling sunning itself before. This one looked as if s/he was enjoying being able to stretch her wings. Maybe it was a very cramped nest.

Another group decided to bathe in the bird bath.

One fell into the pond and had to be rescued – I fished him out with a leaf-rake and he sat under the hedge looking very bedraggled.

I expected the kerfuffle to attract some predators – in the past I’ve seen fledglings killed by jays, cats and a sparrowhawk. But the afternoon went on, and the parents flew back and forth with mouthfuls of tasty caterpillars and suet pellets. It interests me that the babies will beg from any adult, but the adults are most particular about who they feed. They aren’t going to let all that work of incubating the eggs and feeding the nestlings go to waste now.

The period when the parents look after their offspring is vanishingly short, however. In the course of a few hours, the parents seem to move from feeding their fledglings every ten minutes to returning about once every half hour. I would almost swear that by the end of the day, the youngsters are left largely to their own devices. They certainly seem to pick up this pecking thing pretty quickly. By the end of the week, there were ‘gangs’ of adolescent starlings, but scarcely an adult to be seen. I’m wondering if the adults are just desperate for a break, and to get on with moulting. Nature is nothing if not pragmatic.

How vulnerable the fledglings look, though. I wonder if they feel at all nervous, out in the big wild world? What they seem to resemble most is some Dickensian ingenue, fresh to the Big City and ready to be fleeced by any passing rascal. Let’s hope they’ve learnt at least the minimal street smarts from their parents.

I was extremely surprised by the suddenness of the ‘switch’ in maternal behaviour when I was fostering cats for Cats Protection. We only had one mother cat who gave birth in the house, and this was Rosa.


She was the most diligent mother to her four kittens: they were born on the 4th November and on the 5th November there was a massive firework display outside, complete with house-shaking explosions. I was afraid that Rosa would desert the babies in order to find safety for herself (she was nursing right under the window) but not a bit of it. The kittens were the centre of her life for ten weeks, during which time she fed them, cleaned them, protected them and taught them how to behave.

Rosa with her babies

And then, one morning, one of the kittens tried to suckle and she walloped him with a paw, sending him rolling across the floor. She had been moving away and allowing them to suckle less, plus they were all eating solid food by then, but had allowed them to ‘comfort-feed’. From then on, she was grumpy with the kittens, getting away from them whenever she could. She was extremely affectionate with us, though, and it became clear that she was coming back into heat. It was as if she’d decided that her work on this bunch of kittens was done, and she was getting ready to make some more. The kittens were rehomed soon after this, in pairs so that they wouldn’t be lonely, and once Rosa had been through her heat she was spayed and a new home was found for her too. It was a sharp lesson for me in how unsentimental nature is, and how quickly young animals can be ‘cast out’ to fend for themselves.

Incidentally, it also made me think that most kittens are rehomed much too young – 8 weeks feels too early for me, with ten weeks being the ideal. Mothers still have a lot to teach their kittens before they get fed up with them!

And although this isn’t a cat blog, here are the kittens. We gave them descriptive names so that we ‘wouldn’t get too attached to them’. That went well, as you can imagine.

Mostly White at ten days

Mostly White at five weeks

Stripey at six weeks

Stripey Tail at ten days

Mostly Black at eight weeks

Stripey Tail at 2 weeks

The whole gang…

And, of course, all this makes me think about human mothers and their children. I remember how desperately I wanted to be independent when I was in my teens, how hard I fought to break away from what felt like suffocation to me, though my mother saw it as love and protection.I am sure it’s a battle that is repeated in some form or another in most households, with a greater or lesser degree of heartbreak. And yet, when I did remake my relationship with my Mum when I was in my forties, it was all the stronger because of the previous fracture, because the lines had been largely redrawn. We came back together, tentatively at first, as adults meeting and  appreciating one another as if for the first time. Of course Mum was always my mother, and she always told me to put a coat on when she felt cold, but we had a new and enduring respect for one another. She encouraged me to be a writer, and when I was clearing through her things last week, I discovered a plastic file full of the stories that I’d sent to her, pieces that I don’t even remember writing, and yet here they are.She believed in me long before I believed in myself, and it is probably the greatest gift that she gave me.

When animals insist that their youngsters move on, it’s usually permanent – there frequently aren’t the resources to enable two generations to share the same territory. How lucky we are, as humans, to be able to make those decisions for ourselves, and to have the choice to have a new kind of relationship with our parents once we are no longer dependent upon them. The redrawing of boundaries and the conversations that need to be had can be excruciating, but they do open up new possibilities, if (and only if) both parties are willing to try. This is not to say that some relationships  between parents and children are not too toxic, too damaging, to be redeemed. But we often seem so lonely and exposed, so unprepared for what’s to come. As I have learned, there will be a time when there are no ears to hear the things that we meant to say, and the stories of our parents will go with them into the dust.

As the Buddha said, ‘the problem is, you think you have time’.


Wednesday Weed – Tamarisk

Tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima)

Dear Readers, this seems to be a particularly good year for tamarisk in the UK – the tree above, spotted in a lane in Dorchester, was stunning, but there are some splendid examples in the County Roads in East Finchley as well. I have never seen a flowering plant with so many individual flowers, and according to my new wildlife gardening bible, ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ by Adrian Thomas, it is very popular with bees.A single flower can produce thousands of tiny seeds, each one adorned with a mini-mohican of hairs to aid in dispersal. This profligacy has made it a problem in some parts of the world, as we shall see.

Also known as salt cedar, the name ‘tamarisk’ encompasses a genus of about 60 species of plants. They all come from the drier parts of Eurasia and Africa, and the name ‘tamarisk’ might come from the Tamaris river in Spain. They are extremely salt-tolerant, and hence are often seen in the coastal areas of southern England, where they are used as windbreaks and for their prettiness. The RHS website suggests cutting them back hard after flowering, so that they don’t become spindly and blow over in a gale.

Being desert plants, tamarisks are extremely hardy – they have long tap roots which enable them to access ground water. They can also use their salt-tolerance to diminish competition – they accumulate salt in their foliage which is then deposited in the surrounding soil, making it impossible for other plants to grow. They are also adapted to survive fires. No doubt being in an East Finchley garden is a pleasant change from the normally harsh conditions that the tamarisk is more familiar with.

Photo One - no attribution CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tamarisk aphylla growing in the desert in Israel (Photo One)

Tamarisk was introduced to the US in the nineteenth century as a shade tree and windbreak. In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, it was used as a tool to fight soil erosion on the Great Plains, and it was hoped that it would be able to stabilise the soil, and prevent water loss. The photo below, of a tamarisk tree planted beside the Escalante river in Utah, was taken in 1936. I can well imagine how much people hoped that this plant would help the situation.

Tamarisk tree beside the Escalante river, Utah (Boyd Norton, circa 1936) (Public Domain)

Since then the tamarisk has taken to the desert areas of California and the southwestern US with much enthusiasm, using up the groundwater, making the soil salty and changing the habitat for native plants. There are now vast forests of tamarisk. How far they are a good or bad thing remains to be seen; ecosystems are complex, and humans often rush to change things without realising that a balance might be achieved in time without our intervention. Certainly the rush to rid the desert of tamarisk has seen some drastic measures: programmes have tended to concentrate on cutting the adult trees down and applying herbicide to the stumps. However, as we have seen, the tamarisk produces seeds with great profligacy, and also has roots that pop up everywhere, so this has proved to be something of a losing battle.

A more successful method has been the introduction of the northern tamarisk beetle (Diorhabda carinulata) which comes originally from China. It defoliates the tamarisk, and doesn’t eat anything else, so will die once the tamarisk is gone. Normally the introduction of one alien species to eat another brings all kinds of risks, but this has been tested in the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and seems to have been successful. Removing such a well-established species as the tamarisk will not be easy, and it remains to see what the impact of climate change and other environmental impacts will be: increased sea-flooding, for example, creates conditions that favour the plant.

Northern Tamarisk Beetle (Diorhabda carinulata) (Public Domain)

Fortunately, in the UK there are no equivalent habitats to the arid regions of the US, and so the plant has not become a major invasive here. In fact, it is a foodplant for the tamarisk plume moth (Agdistis tamaricis), a species unknown in the UK until 2007. Like all plume moths, this is an elegant and easily-overlooked creature. You can often see other species of plume moth sitting on the window panes after dark, their wings sticking out at right angles to their bodies. You are unlikely to see this particular species, however, unless you live in Jersey, as so far it hasn’t crossed the rest of the Channel.

Photo Two by Keith Tailby taken from

Tamarisk plume moth (Agdistis tamaricis) (Photo Two)

Photo Three from

Model of a composite Scythian bow (Photo Three)

Tamarisk is mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran, and is said to have been the favourite tree of the god Apollo. It is also often seen in the art of the Scythians, a nomadic people who are thought to have originated in Persia before spreading west into the Crimea, Caucasus and Balkan regions. The Scythians are thought to have used a bow made of ibex horn, sinew and the wood of the tamarisk tree: this made a weapon that was stronger, more flexible and capable of firing an arrow for much greater distances than a wooden bow. This was also the type of bow that the Amazons were depicted as using. Tamarisk wood can be used for many other purposes, including as firewood, though it should be remembered that it burns at a much higher temperature than other timber. This rather splendid statue of the goddess Isis, from the Louvre, is made of gilded tamarisk wood.

Photo Four by Gary Todd from

Statue of the Goddess Isis made from gilded tamarisk wood inlaid with bronze and glass, from the Louvre, Paris (Photo Four)

The tamarisk tree has featured in the art of Judaism, Islam and Christianity – Abraham was said to have planted a tamarisk tree, and in the Quran, the people of Saba were punished by having their garden transformed until it bore only ‘bitter fruits and tamarisk’ by Allah. The tree is also thought to be one possible origin for the idea of ‘manna’ falling from heaven. In some desert regions (including the Sinai), the tree is host to a mealy bug (Trabutina mannipara) which exudes large quantities of honeydew. This would quickly crystallize during the cold conditions overnight, and forms large flakes. Some people have also suggested that the resin of the tree itself could be the source of the legend, though the sugar concentration is much higher once it’s been passed through the guts of the insect, and most people now concur that it was the insect that was the source of the legend. In some countries in the Middle East ‘manna’ is still considered a delicacy.

Sadly, the UK tamarisks seem devoid of any sugar-producing insects, and we shall have to make do with them looking pretty.

Medically, tamarisk has been used for dysentery, snake bite, and as an anti-inflammatory. I can see few uses for it as food for humans, although Sue Eland’s Plant Lives mentions that North American children have eaten the flowers as ‘cedar bread’. I wonder if the salt that the tree metabolizes makes the flowers taste rather like crisps? If you’ve ever munched on any, do let me know.

The American Impressionist Guy Rose(1867 – 1925) seems to have been fascinated by the tamarisk trees that he saw while he had a scholarship in France for two years, and haunting, enigmatic images they are too.

Photo Five from

Tamarisk Trees in Southern France (Guy Rose 1904-1912) (Photo Five)

And, of course, a poem. This is by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. We could all do with some hope at the moment, I’m sure.

Ein Yahav

 A night drive to Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert,
a drive in the rain.
 Yes, in the rain.

There I met people who grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed as barbed wire.

And I said to myself: That's true, hope needs to be
like barbed wire to keep out despair,
hope must be a mine field.

Photo Credits

Photo One – no attribution CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by Keith Tailby taken from

Photo Three from

Photo Four by Gary Todd from

Photo Five from

Empty and Full

The living room before

Dear Readers, this week I have been in Dorset, sorting through the remnants of Mum and Dad’s life in Dorset. There are boxes of photographs, most of them unlabelled but many of them lovingly put into albums. There are bank statements back to the 1990’s (Mum was always meticulous about finances). There are more light bulbs than you’d need to light up the Eiffel Tower, and a pile of canvases that Mum bought but wasn’t well enough to paint on. And then there is the wardrobe full of clothes, the ornaments, the pictures on the walls. If it hadn’t been for Mum and Dad’s lovely neighbours who have done a lot of the leg work on the non-personal stuff I swear I would just have sat in the middle of it all and cried. But instead, I discovered that I was a woman on a mission. To start with I lovingly considered every item, but gradually I became more ruthless, and more able to make snap decisions. Once the bungalow is sold we will be well on the way to having the finances to look after Dad without having to worry, so this was a great incentive. In two days we were ready to get the house clearance firm from Julia’s House, the local children’s hospice, in to take away the things that we couldn’t use or give away. The end result was this.

The living room after!

And as I sat in Mum’s reclining chair, waiting for the mobility aids to be collected, I could feel the personality of the place ebbing away and emptying out. Every time that I’ve walked into the living room I’ve had a strong sense of Mum and Dad’s presence, but now the house is starting to feel like a shell, just waiting for someone else to come along and love it. All that’s left now is Mum’s somewhat unusual choice of wall colour (turquoise in the main bedroom, sky blue in the small bedroom and pink in the living room, as you can see). And on Monday, the decorator comes in to give everything a coat of magnolia, so even that will be gone.

It all makes me very philosophical. A lot of Mum’s precious things have gone to people who will appreciate them. Her quilting material has gone to E, the lady who made Mum and Dad’s cake for their sixtieth wedding anniversary party. The neighbours have been given some of the furniture and ornaments. But even so, a lot of the things that Mum loved will be going to strangers via the hospice charity shop and, despite our best intentions, I’m sure some things will end up in landfill. And it will most likely be the same for me. Many of the objects that we love will fall into the hands of people who won’t know what they meant to us, and who won’t care for them as we did. That is, I fear, the fate of objects, so let us  enjoy them while we can. In Mum’s wardrobe there were pretty things that she’d put away for a special occasion that never came. Let’s make our ‘ordinary’ days a special occasion.

Strangely enough, when I went to sit on the seat outside the bungalow I had a very strong sense of Mum and Dad. They would sit there when they felt well enough and watch the neighbours going by and the children going to and from school. The spot is a real sun trap and so they didn’t sit there for long. But it did get me to thinking about those other things that they own and that won’t be ending up on landfill, their plants. The garden has become a symphony in blue, what with the cerinthe and the bluebells and the forget-me-nots and the perennial cornflowers.

The cotoneaster is abuzz with bees.

The ceanothus is just about to burst into bloom.

And when the man came to mow the lawn, Mum would tell him to go round the daisies rather than cut their heads off, and, bless him, he always did.

And so, I wonder what to take, and here I could do with some advice. How can I take a cutting from the cotoneaster and the ceanothus? Is such a thing even possible? I’m thinking it will be easy enough to take a couple of the cerinthes and plant them before they set seed, but I don’t know how to start with the other two plants. I have been noticing how both the cotoneaster and the ceanothus attract a multitude of bees, and it would be great to have them in the sunny front garden, plus every time I looked at them I’d think of Mum and Dad, and of Milborne St Andrew. Plants are something that do live on, and they have a meaning and existence of their own.

While I was in Dorset I had the chance to spend some time with Dad. He seems very calm and collected these days.

‘This isn’t a bad cruise ship at all’, he said when I popped in. ‘We’ve been to France and Germany. I never know where we’re going to next’.

Dad gestures to one of the carers who happens to have a beard.

‘This is the captain’, says Dad. ‘I’d like to introduce you’.

He tells Adrian, who is one of the carers and happens to have a very nautical beard, that I am his daughter, and I am chuffed that he actually remembers who I am. When my brother popped in, Dad told him that his sister June had been in three times, so I didn’t get any credit for my last visit. Not that I’m bothered (much), but still, it’s nice to be recognised, even if only briefly.

Adrian and I shake hands, and I go to get Dad some cake. There is always cake in the care home, and I do believe that Dad is starting to put on a little weight – he lost nearly three stone during the past eighteen months and was looking most unlike himself. He tucks into the cake with some difficulty, what with his fractured wrist from a fall a month ago and his problems with his shoulder, but he enjoys it hugely. Then he falls asleep, and so I slip out and head to my bed and breakfast.

Things have been moving so fast that I’m not sure that my emotions have caught up yet. I do know, though, that the night after the house was cleared, I slept through the night for the first time in almost nine months. It feels as if things are constantly shifting, and tomorrow I might be distraught again, but at the moment I feel as if I’m adapting to this ‘new normal’ state of affairs, both in terms of selling the bungalow, and coming to terms with Dad’s dementia. I no longer expect him to be the Dad that I remember, but in many ways he is more like himself than he’s been for ages – all the anxiety of the past few years seems to have dropped away and he’s back to the placid, stoical man that he was previously. I am starting to become less anxious myself, and to be able to sit with him and just go with the flow. There is still possibility here, still a sense of things to be enjoyed and company to be kept. I find myself becoming more accepting, and full of gratitude that he is still here.

Dad quality checking the gin in the Gordon’s distillery in 1985 (aged 50)


Wednesday Weed – Oleander

Oleander (Nerium oleander)

Dear Readers, many moons ago I was treasurer for a community garden in North London. We had received some money to make a ‘dry’ (drought-tolerant) garden and we were discussing what to plant.

‘We could go for a Mediterranean theme, with some oleanders’, said one innocent soul.

Everyone around the table positively hissed. Heads were shaken, sighs were uttered and I could  imagine people making a mental Sign of the Cross to fend off the evil of the suggestion.

Our chairperson leaned forward.

‘Don’t you know’, she whispered, ‘that oleander is deadly poisonous! Think of the children!’

And that, dear readers, was the end of that. So I gave oleander very little thought until I saw it poking its head under a hedge in the County Roads today. Is it really as poisonous as everyone thinks?

Well, according  to our old friend ‘The Poison Garden’ website, it is a candidate for ‘the most poisonous plant in the garden, but also the most beautiful’. The website contains the sad story of a giraffe who died after being fed oleander clippings at Tucson Zoo, and also the story of Fudgie, a miniature cow who nearly died after eating the plant, but who survived in spite of having her heart stop twelve times during the time it took her to recover. Every time her heart stopped the vet or toxicologist would apparently restart it by kicking her in the chest, which seems a bit drastic but at least it worked.

Oleander also caused the deaths of two toddlers adopted from a Siberian orphanage and living in California. In their previous lives, the children were said to have had malnutrition, and to have developed pica, a habit of eating inedible objects in order to assuage their hunger. They ate some oleander leaves in spite of the extremely bitter flavour, and both died. Oleander affects the stomach, central nervous system and heart, and 100g is enough to poison an adult horse. Victims of oleander poisoning may be treated with activated charcoal to absorb the toxins and may need to be put on a pacemaker to keep the heart steady during the recovery period.

As if this wasn’t enough, the sap of the plant can cause skin and eye irritation.

In other words, it probably wasn’t the best choice of plant for a community garden frequented by small children.

There is little doubt that this is a very pretty plant, often scented and available in a wide variety of colours. It is part of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae) which also includes the almond-scented frangipani and the periwinkle or Vinca. The family is largely tropical, and many species are poisonous (the Latin name may refer to ‘dog poison). Although we associate it now with the Mediterranean it has been cultivated for so long that no one really knows where it comes from, though south-west Asia has been suggested as a starting point. In their ‘native’ habitat, oleanders grow in stream beds which alternately flood and dry up, and so although the plant is drought-tolerant it also seems resistant to waterlogging.

Oleander growing wild in a dry river bed (Wadi) in Libya (Public Domain)

Small wonder, then, that it has been extensively planted in some parts of the US where these conditions are not unusual – it was used following the devestating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, and Moody Gardens in Galveston is the home of the International Oleander Society, dedicated to the development of new varieties and the preservation of existing ones.

Photo One By WhisperToMe - Own work, CC0,

The first oleander planting in Texas (Photo One)

When it comes to wildlife benefits, oleander is a bit of a mixed bag. Its toxins were originally developed to deter invertebrate pests and grazing animals, and we’ve already seen what happens to the latter. However, as you might expect, some insects do prey upon the plant, and have come up with handy solutions to the poison problem. The caterpillars of the polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) eat only the pulp of the leaves, avoiding the more poisonous ribs. Both caterpillar and moth are stunning, and can be found in the Caribbean and the south of the United States. It is thought that they fed on a plant called the devil’s potato before oleander was introduced to the New World, but it seems that they have pretty much moved over to the ‘alien’ plant.

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! - Polka-Dot Wasp Moth - Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) (Photo Two)

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Caterpillar of the polka-dot wasp moth (Photo Three)

Other caterpillars, including those of the common crow butterfly (Euplora core) and the oleander hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii) incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, making them unpalatable to birds. It is noted that the common crow butterfly in particular almost seems aware of how poisonous it is, as it drifts through the forests of India and takes its time as it wanders from flower to flower. Several butterflies from other families mimic the common crow butterfly, and who can blame them?

Photo Four By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Common Crow butterfly (Euploea core) (Photo Four)

The oleander hawk moth can very occasionally be found in the UK, but it lives mainly in Africa, Asia and, surprisingly, some of the Hawaiian Islands. It migrates and this is how it sometimes ends up in Europe, though it more commonly finishes its journey in Turkey.The caterpillars can grow to almost nine centimetres long, and are a flourescent lime-green colour, again a mark of confidence that no one is going to eat you.

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Oleander hawk moth (Daphnis nerii) (Photo Five)

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

A splendid oleander hawk moth caterpillar (Photo Six)

So, the oleander can be food for a subset of invertebrates who have learned to deal with its toxicity. However, although the flowers look inviting, it’s thought that they are not actually useful for pollinators because they are nectarless, and the blooms receive very few visits from insects, who won’t bother to return often for no reward. The plant does require insect pollination, however, and so to compensate it produces extremely sticky pollen, which allows many flowers to be pollinated from one visit. Nectar is an expensive resource for a plant to produce, and so oleander has found a way of getting insects to visit without ‘paying them back’.

Oleander has cropped up in the work of many artists. Klimt featured it in his ‘Two Girls with an Oleander’ painted in 1892 and rather more naturalistic than his better known ‘gold’ paintings, such as ‘The Kiss’.

Two Girls with an Oleander (Gustav Klimt) (1892) (Public Domain)

My old favourite Vincent Van Gogh painted oleanders when he was staying in Arles in 1888 – he loved the plants because they were ‘joyous’ and ‘life-affirming’.

Oleanders (Vincent van Gogh 1888) (Public Domain)

Oleanders were a popular subject in the frescos and murals of Rome and Pompeii, and so it’s no surprise that the Victorian Orientalist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema should incorporate them into many of his paintings of classical antiquity.

‘An Oleander’ by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1882) Public Domain

So, this is a plant that has fascinated people for millenia. Poisonous but beautiful, with flowers that deceive, it is tough enough to survive drought and flood. Its ability to cope with disaster is nowhere clearer than in Hiroshima, where it was the first plant to bloom after the atomic bomb destroyed the city and is the symbol of the city to this day.

Photo Seven from

Oleander flowering near the Genbaku dome in Hiroshima (Photo Seven)

And this week, something different. I found this article in The Atlantic magazine, and it is about the way that different cultures use language in war situations in order to cope with the situations that they find themselves in. In the Israeli army, “We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” translates as ‘We have two wounded and one dead. We need a helicopter.” It’s a fascinating read. See what you think!  It seems to me that, wherever we come from, we need to find a way of describing the indescribable.

“British soldiers in the field also refer to dead comrades as “T4,” Campbell told me, and to the badly wounded as “T1,” identifying the people in question over the radio never by their names but by a mix of letters and serial numbers. “So it’s ‘Charlie Alpha 6243 is T1,’ not ‘Tom’s lost his legs,’” Campbell said. “You need the jargon so that an 18-year-old can say it and not be overwhelmed by what he’s saying. (My emphasis)” (From The Atlantic. ‘What Military Jargon Says About Armies, and the Societies that they Serve’,Matti Friedman 2016).

Photo Credits

Photo One By WhisperToMe – Own work, CC0,

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth – Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

The Complicated Whitebeam

The flowers on the whitebeam tree

Dear Readers, as the whitebeam (Sorbus aria) tree in my garden is having such a good year, I decided that I’d find out a bit more about it. These are not showy trees, but they have a subtle beauty – the leaves have tiny hairs on the underside which cause them to  flash white in the breeze, hence the name. When the leaves are in bud, they resemble magnolia flowers, and the flowers themselves are exquisite, and very attractive to insects. One reason for this is that whitebeam is a native, and has hence developed a whole range of associations with invertebrates  – the rather delightfully-named red midget moth (Phyllonorycter corylifoliella) mines its leaves, bees feed from the flowers, and birds will eat the berries (which are known as chess-apples in the north of England and, like medlars, are best eaten when nearly rotten). For a detailed recipe on how to make whitebeam jelly, click here.

Photo One by By Stainton -, Public Domain,

Red midget moth (Phyllonorycter corylifoliella) (Photo One)

Photo Two by Photo © Albert Bridge (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Chess-apples (Whitebeam berries (Photo Two)

The whitebeam is sometimes planted as a street tree, and has a rather pleasing domed habit, which makes it look a little like the trees that I used to draw when I was about six. They also have a tendency to twist and follow the sun, which can lead to some interesting effects.

Whitebeam as a street tree on Woodside Avenue, Muswell Hill.

A typical twisted whitebeam trunk

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) in the Whitehall Estate, Archway, North London

Whitebeams are members of the mighty rose (Rosaceae) family, and are closely related to the rowans and wild service trees. Indeed, they interbreed with both of these relatives, and there are  a whole series of microspecies, which may grow only in one rocky crag or tiny local area, and nowhere else in the world. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey lists some of them:

The Arran whitebeam (Sorbus arranensis) grows only on steep streambanks on the Isle of Arran. This is a protected species, and only 283 specimens survived back in 1983.

Arran whitebeam (Sorbus arranensis) (Public Domain)

The least whitebeam (Sorbus minima) grows in a few sites in Breconshire, Wales. At last count there were 730 specimens. In 1947 the tree was endangered by mortar practice, and the MP for the area was able to persuade the army to stop shelling, and is credited with saving the tree from extinction. The main danger now is quarrying, which reduces the available habitat for the plant. All sites are now protected, and there are some least whitebeam trees in the Botanical Garden of Wales.

Photo Three by By Salicyna - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Least whitebeam (Sorbus minima) (Photo Three)

Wilmott’s whitebeam (Sorbus wilmottiana) grows only in woodland and scrub in the Avon Gorge, is on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, and has less than 100 individual trees left.

Photo Four copyright Dr Tim Rich, from

Wilmott’s Whitebeam (Sorbus wilmottiana) (Photo Four)

There are only 22 individual Cheddar Whitebeams (Sorbus cheddariensis). As you might expect from the name, they live only in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset.

Photo Five copyright Libby Houston from

Cheddar Whitebeam (Sorbus cheddarensis) (Photo Five)

But maybe saddest of all is the Ship Rock Whitebeam (Sorbus parviloba) which is known from only one specimen on the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire border. No wonder the IUCN describe it as ‘critically endangered).

Photo Six by Dr Tim Rich from

Ship Rock whitebeam (Sorbus parviloba) (Photo Six)

In general the flora of the UK is much sparser than that of mainland Europe, largely due to our fairly recent Ice Ages, which scoured much of the land clear of flowering plants (though we are a hotspot for mosses and lichens). And yet, we have this incredible diversity of whitebeams – I have only described a small selection of the endemic species above. Just to reiterate, these plants are found nowhere else in the world. Each of these trees is subtly different from the others in terms of growth habit, berry colour and leaf shape, and each one no doubt plays a part in its local environment. Who knew we were home to such riches?

It does make me wonder how my whitebeam ended up in the garden. Traditionally, whitebeams are associated with chalk – in his new book ‘London is a Forest‘ (which I heartily recommend by the way), Paul Wood suggests that ‘it’s almost as if it imbibes so much of the stuff that it seeps out through its leaves’. Whitebeams of all kinds are rare in the wild, especially on clay, and live for 100-200 years. Is it impossible that this tree was planted when the house was built back in 1897? It certainly looks like a tree in its prime to me.

Following on from my musings about what would happen to the garden when I eventually leave, I am almost tempted to apply for a Tree Preservation Order. Trouble is that it would cause all kinds of bureaucratic wrangles if I needed to prune it. Does anyone have experience of this? Do let me know the pros and cons. I’m not planning on going anywhere for a long time, but as we know, humans make plans and God chuckles….

White lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

I have been looking for myths and legends surrounding the whitebeam, and here is a cracker from the Plant Lore website which I suspect might have been made up on the spot by someone’s Dad (much as I told my little brother that a monster would come out of the Belisha Beacon by the zebra crossing and eat him if he didn’t behave himself).

‘Two old ladies told me that their father permitted them to eat the young leaves of whitebeam. These had an almond-like flavour. However, they were permitted to eat only seven at a time as the leaves contained traces of a deadly poison’.

Interestingly enough, the seeds are said to contain Hydrogen cyanide, so maybe Dad was on to something, or was at least being cautious. I might have to pluck up the courage to have a nibble, though the leaves are surprisingly high up and I fear some clambering might be involved.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘folklore’, I couldn’t leave without mentioning the No Parking Whitebeam (Sorbus admonitor).

Photo Seven copyright Dr Tim Rich from

A No Parking Whitebeam (Sorbus admonitor) (Photo Seven)

The first example of this species to come to the attention of botanists was discovered in a lay-by at Watersmeet in North Devon in the 1930’s, with a ‘no-parking’ sign tacked to the bark. E.F Warburg, an eminent plant scientist, knew that it was different from the other local microspecies, the Devon Whitebeam, but it wasn’t until the tree’s DNA was studied in 2009 that it was given species status, and the Latin name ‘admonitor‘ (meaning ‘to tell off’). There are about 100 of these trees, which as we’ve seen almost counts as a healthy population in the world of whitebeams. Let’s hope that its interesting name keeps it in the public eye.

Incidentally, the species name of ‘our’ whitebeam, ‘aria‘, comes from the Latin name ‘aries’, meaning prop or battering ram. The wood is very hard, and was used for axles and shafts until superseded by cast iron. The diarist John Evelyn admired the wood, and used it to panel one of his rooms, and it was also used to make gunstocks.

Photo Eight by By Gaffer206 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cross-section of a whitebeam trunk (Photo Nine)

And, as usual, a poem.  Paul Farley is a poet of the edgelands, and I think he captures the shapeshifter nature of the whitebeam: one of only 33 native trees in the UK, but with a myriad of forms, a plant of parks and gardens but also one found hiding in surprising places. The whitebeam is a tree that invites us to wonder what would be possible if we appreciated what we have.


The sixty-miles-per-hour plants, the growth
that lines the summer corridors of sight
along our major roads, the overlooked
backdrop to Preston 37 miles.
Speed camera foliage; the white flowers
of Mays and Junes, the scarlet fruits of autumn
lay wasted in the getting from A to B.
Hymn to forward-thinking and planting schemes,
though some seem in two minds: the greenwood leaves
are white-furred, have a downy underside
as if the heartwood knew in its heart of hearts
the days among beech and oak would lead to these
single file times, these hard postings
and civilised itself with handkerchiefs.

Paul Farley (2003)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Stainton –, Public Domain,

Photo Two by © Albert Bridge (cc-by-sa/2.0) from

Photo Three by By Salicyna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four copyright Dr Tim Rich, from

Photo Five copyright Libby Houston from

Photo Six by Dr Tim Rich from

Photo Seven copyright Dr Tim Rich from

Photo Eight by By Gaffer206 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wednesday Weed – Perennial Cornflower

Perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana) in the process of escaping….

Dear Readers, it is always interesting to see a garden plant in the actual  process of escaping from the garden. When I got back from Dorset this week I noticed that a perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana) had seeded itself into the wall of the house opposite. It’s quite possible that the next generation will appear somewhere along the street, as, with council cutbacks, the streets of East Finchley are not being swept and ‘de-weeded’ with quite the enthusiasm of yore, and all sorts of plants are popping up in the debris that is left. It is such a striking plant, and is closely related to the cornflower and to our native knapweed (Centaurea nigra). Perennial cornflower, however, is a plant of southern Europe, particularly the mountain areas – another alternative name is ‘mountain bluet’. No wonder the plant is happy in crevices and exposed spots, and is relatively drought-tolerant. I’ve noticed before how many of our ‘alien’ weeds are originally from mountainous areas, which mimic the harsh conditions of our cities, buddleia being a splendid example. Other plants that were originally from mountainous areas include fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca), a bright orange daisy from the Carpathians, and purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea), a delicate purple plant which is very popular with bees and comes originally from the mountains of Sicily.

This may also explain why perennial cornflower is naturalised to a much greater extent in the north east of England than in the south, outside of cities – the climate is cooler, and one thing that the plant can’t stand is being waterlogged, which would rule out some areas in the west.

I love the buds – they look to me as if every sepal is surrounded by little eyelashes. And the colour of the flower is an extraordinary deep lavender-blue, set off by the magenta centre. That deep blue colour originally gave it the name of ‘Great Blue-Bottle’ – it seems to have been introduced to the UK some time in the 16th century, as recorded by the herbalist John Gerard in 1597. He didn’t know quite what to do with it: in its native range, the plant was used as a tea to treat dyspepsia and also as a diuretic. In 1790 the gardener William Curtis wrote that it was a plant that ‘will grow in any soil or situation, some will think too readily‘. The Kew Gardens website describes it as a ‘useful, if somewhat untidy, addition to a herbaceous border‘, which seems a little unkind to me. If you tire of the blue variety, there are also white, pink and mauve cultivars, but as usual my taste tends me towards the original plant. It does feel to me as if it would be lovely in a border with other ‘cottage garden’ plants, such as aquilegia. Do let me know if you’ve been growing it, and what you’ve paired it with.

Photo One from

Centaurea montana ‘Purple Heart’ (Photo One)

Sadly, although perennial cornflower has not become invasive in the UK, it has become a problem in places such as British Columbia in Canada and the Rocky Mountains (where I would expect it to be happy, what with it being a mountain and all). Indeed, if you spot a perennial cornflower in the Pacific Northwest, you can shop it to the authorities by calling the Weeds Hotline. Sometimes, a plant can just make itself way too at home, and as perennial cornflower propagates both by seed and by rhizome it has several ways to spread. It is also believed that ants might feed from the profuse nectar produced by the flowers, and hence accidentally transfer pollen to other plants.

Unfortunately, mountain  habitats are some of the most vulnerable to ‘invaders’, and they are already under stress due to climate change. I can understand why people want to protect what is already there. My local ‘patch’ is urban, and hence such a mish-mash of species and influences that I have the luxury of enjoying plants from all over the world.

Perennial cornflower with forget-me-nots at East Finchley station.

The genus name for perennial cornflower, Centaurea, relates to the belief that the centaur Chiron used cornflowers to treat battle wounds. When I was a child I was fascinated by the animals and half-animals of Greek and Roman mythology, such as Pegasus the winged horse and the centaurs and satyrs. I was a rather lonely little girl, and thought that I’d feel at home with all these strange creatures. I would have been very happy having a centaur as a friend and mentor, and I would have been able to ride into school instead of having to share a car with Judith Barlow who used to encourage her brother to pull my hair (not that I bear grudges of course). Chiron was Achille’s teacher, and so I’d be in interesting company, though Achilles attitude to women could have done with a bit of realignment.

I love how, in the illustration below, Chiron is shown as in full Greek dress with a horse’s back end stuck on as an afterthought.

Chiron the centaur being presented with the infant Achilles to teach (From ‘The Golden Porch – A Book of Greek Fairytales by W. Hutchinson (1914)) (Public Domain)

But, as usual I digress.

The flowers of perennial cornflower are said to be edible, and would certainly add a pop of colour to a salad. They are also a good source of nectar for non-human visitors, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, and feature on the RHS Plants for Pollinators list, which is a useful resource, though of course a perfect pollinator plant in one location might be a dead loss in another. I know that the plants that help bees in my back garden (dusky geranium and bittersweet, for example) would fail in the sun-blasted front garden where the lavender thrives. So much of gardening is trial and error!

And now, for something a little different. The author Maggie Nelson (born 1973), most famous for her memoir ‘The Argonauts’, wrote a series of reflections on the colour blue, called ‘Bluets’. They were written during a period when she was going through a relationship break-up, and also caring for a friend who had been rendered quadriplegic. I find what she has to say both intriguing and challenging.  Here are a few excerpts from ‘Bluets’.

“At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my cv it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette.” 

“Eventually I confess to a friend some details about my weeping—its intensity, its frequency. She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair.” 

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in it’s focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what it’s hue, can be deadly.”

All quotes are from Goodreads. If you want to rush out and buy the book without resorting to Amazon (as I am just about to do), it’s available here. There is a very interesting article about this collection of ‘propositions’ here. And here is a final quote.

“That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.” 

Photo Credits

Photo One from