Monthly Archives: June 2019

Bugwoman on Location – Alpacas

An Alpaca

Dear Readers, a lot of therapy animals visit Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester, but there are none more unlikely than this pair of alpacas. The last time they visited I missed them, but on Monday my timing was perfect. I was sitting with Dad, who was munching on a custard tart and enjoying a ‘frothy coffee’ (one shot decaff latte – the last thing we want is for Dad to be any more hyperactive than he currently is) when a pair of alpacas were brought in by their handler. They had just been shorn and looked adorably naked. Plus they have the tiniest little feet considering how big they are.

Dad was instructed to stroke the handsome creature on the neck, and he did his best although it’s difficult to follow instructions when you aren’t as in control of your body as you once were, and your memory is shot. But the alpacas were very forgiving, and their handler was adept at reading their body language and moving them on if they were getting nervous or uncomfortable. I am sure that they are strong enough to vote with their (tiny) feet if anything happened that they didn’t like.

Dad has always loved animals (our house was full of pets when we were children) and although he isn’t quite sure who I am (though his face always lights up when he sees me) he remembered seeing the alpacas on a previous visit. He could not take his eyes off them. These moments are so precious and I was so glad that I was there to witness his pleasure.

I asked the handler about whether they were keeping the alpacas for wool, but apparently not: they have a herd of 34 animals at the moment, and when they are sold they either go as pets, or, occasionally, as guard animals for herds of sheep. Alpacas have a deep and abiding antipathy to all canids, and will kick dogs or foxes who trespass on their territory. Don’t let that innocent face fool you – alpacas can nip, kick and occasionally spit, although it is unusual for this to be aimed at humans. Certainly, these two were perfectly behaved (and regularly rewarded with nibbles), even after one lady resident asked if they were some kind of hunting dog.

I often wonder what goes on in Dad’s mind these days. When I visited on Monday he was very calm and happy, but at the weekend he apparently phoned the police to tell them that two people had been murdered and were buried under the patio. The police had to come out to make sure that this hadn’t actually happened, although it was always unlikely as there is no patio. So, when Dad told me with great glee that the home had been ‘crawling with coppers’ he gave me no indication that they were only there because he’d called them. It certainly livens things up for everyone.

At first, I wondered if it was something that Dad was watching on television that was triggering his fantasies, but now I think that he is trying to make sense of what is going on. Mum is gone, and so she must have been kidnapped or murdered, because nothing else would keep her away from him. For a while, he thought that Mum was jealous because other women were helping him to shower and dress, and so she wasn’t answering the phone when he called. And yet he sat beside me at the funeral, and at a recent memorial service at the home, and at the time he knew that she was dead. It’s as if his brain now has many rooms with no interconnecting corridors, and he can hold several paradoxical thoughts simultaneously, without the slightest sense of contradiction.

On Tuesday I popped in to see him before I headed home (we’re off to Austria this weekend so it was a flying visit) and when he spotted me he threw his arms open.

‘I’ve been waiting for you!’ he said, as we embraced. He is so thin these days. He eats everything and enjoys his food, but he is losing weight. He is too frail for any invasive tests and so we are just taking it day by day, checking that he is eating and drinking and as happy as he can be under the circumstances. We sit down and I make a cup of tea and he has another custard tart and a coffee.

And then I get up to go.

‘I’ll walk down to the station with you and we can get on the train and go and see Mum’, he said. ‘But don’t walk too fast because I’m not as quick as I used to be’.

The station is a quarter of a mile away and mostly uphill,  just to mention the most unimportant reason why he couldn’t leave the home to travel to London to see his wife (or his mother, it’s never quite clear).

‘Oh Dad’, I said, ‘You don’t really want to do that do you? It’s pouring with rain for one thing’.

‘But Mum’s in the hospital and she’ll want to see me’, he said.

And now it gets tricky because if I tell him that Mum’s dead, and then get my suitcases and go, he’ll be even more upset and confused than he is now. Furthermore, it’s not as if this terrible news will ‘stick’.

‘I’ll tell Mum where you are Dad, ‘ I say, ‘And she loves you and she knows you love her’.

He gets up to come with me. If I let him see the code to the lift, which enables him to leave the home, that will be something that he probably will remember.

I catch the eye of one of the carers.

‘Do you want to come with me and have a cup of tea, Tom?’ she asks.

‘No thank you, I just had one’, he says, following me down the corridor.

I give him a firm hug and a kiss and tell him that I’ll see him soon. He stands, swaying and a little unfocused, watching as I get into the lift and head downstairs. As the doors shut, I hear the carer ushering Dad back into the living room. His world has shrunk, largely, to his room and to the communal areas on the second floor. If he feels trapped it’s because he is: for his own safety, for sure, but he chafes against the restriction. He was always such an intrepid man, and I suspect that in his head he still is, solving crimes and stumbling upon nefarious goings on.

I am reading a wonderful book about homing pigeons (which I will discuss further when I’ve finished it), but one thing that has stayed with me is that, if you want your pigeons to improve their times, you need to make sure that they only see their partners when they get back from a race. For them, ‘home’ is not just a physical place, but their loved ones. For Dad, Mum was ‘home’ for 62 years. He may well be looking for her for the rest of his life.

It’s not until I’m on the train that I start to cry.

Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….

Wednesday Weed – Cabbage Palm

Cabbage Palm (Cordyline australis)

Dear Readers, the cabbage palm is a plant that I have always been a little snooty about. For much of the year it just stands there, with its big leathery leaves, and looks rather out of place. But this year, this one in the County Roads of East Finchley has burst forth with three huge inflorescences. I stood there with my camera, breathing in the sweet scent and watching dozens of honeybees flying about, and realised that I had been completely wrong. This is a very fine tree indeed.

The cabbage palm is endemic to New Zealand, where the largest known tree is estimated to be over 400 years old, and has a height of 56 feet and a circumference of 30 feet. The fruit that follows the flowers is the favourite food of the New Zealand pigeon or kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), who is also endemic. I am fascinated by New Zealand and its unique wildlife, and I think that I shall have to visit at some point!

Photo One by By Duncan - originally posted to Flickr as Kereru, CC BY-SA 2.0,

New Zealand Pigeon/Kereru (Hemiphaga novaseelandiae) (Photo One)

The flowers are eaten by the kakariki or New Zealand parakeet, a very attractive small parrot. I wonder if our ring-necked parakeets will start to recognise the plant as a source of food? They have certainly already developed a taste for spring blossom.

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

Karakiri (Red-crowned parakeet)(Cyanophorus novaezelandiae) eating cabbage palm blossom (Photo Two)

Cabbage palms grow in a variety of habitats in their native country, with different varieties occupying different niches. However, young plants are not frost-hardy (which means that it is limited as to altitude) and need open spaces to thrive – they will not survive if they are overtopped by other plants. The seedlings need a lot of water, and so the plant is not found on steep hills or among sand dunes unless there is underground water. The cabbage palm also needs fertile soil, and when European settlers first arrived in New Zealand they would use the presence of cabbage palms to indicate where to set up their farms and homesteads. This is probably why the ‘jungles of cabbage trees’ described by those settlers no longer exist – these days, cabbage palms are much more likely to be individual trees.

The nectar from the cabbage palm has compounds that make it attractive to moths as well as to bees, and I have seen our local tree surrounded by fluttery figures on a warm night. Bees use the nectar to stoke their developing hives, Each stalk on a cabbage palm bears a flower on alternate years, so there tends to be a heavy flowering every other year, and a bumper crop every three to five years. I suspect that this is a bumper year. One inflorescence can carry up to 40,000 seeds which are rich in linoleic acid (an important compound in the egg-laying of birds). Given that young plants need open space to grow well, it’s no wonder that the plant has developed to have its seeds transported away by the New Zealand pigeon, who will hopefully deposit it a good long way away from its parent (with a handy parcel of fertiliser to boot).

Much as the oak tree is a ‘mother tree’ to many British species, and constitutes a whole ecosystem in itself, so the cabbage palm is home to a whole variety of other species. Epiphytes such as orchids, ferns such as our old friend the Asplenium  and a whole fieldguide full of lichens and liverworts live on the plant.

The gold-striped gecko (Woodworthia chrysosiretica) scuttles over the bark, and New Zealand bellbirds nest under the leaves

Photo Three by By Sid Mosdell from New Zealand - Bellbird, CC BY 2.0,

New Zealand Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) (Photo Three)

Long-tailed bats roost in the hollow branches.

Photo Four from

Long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus) (Photo Four)

In winter the leaves are an excellent hiding-place for the weta, a giant flightless cricket and one of the largest insects in the world.

Photo Five by By Mary Morgan-Richards - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Cook Strait Giant Weta (Deinacrida rugosa) (Photo Five)

There are nine species of insects who are only found on the cabbage palm in New Zealand, including the cabbage tree moth (Epiphryne verriculata) which eats nothing else. The adult is camouflaged so that it can hide on the dead leaves of the plant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stripey moth.

Photo Six by By Dan Kluza -, CC BY 2.0,

Cabbage tree moth (Photo Six)

As you might expect from a plant that has been so utterly entwined with the other inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maori people have a long relationship with the cabbage palm. The stems and rhizomes are rich in natural sugars, and were steamed in earth ovens to provide a sweet substance called kauru that was used to sweeten other foods. It was easily stored for long periods, and is said to taste like molasses.

The cabbage palm groves attracted thousands of pigeons, and the Maori would trap and eat these birds – they were often so fat that they couldn’t fly.

The fibre from the leaves was incredibly tough, and especially resilient in seawater, being used to make anchor ropes and swings. They were also used to make protective trousers for when people were travelling in the high country of the South Island, home to the prickly spear grasses.

Medicinally, different parts of the plant were used for everything from diarrhoea to colic.

Children using a swing made from Cordyline fibre (Public Domain)

Although the cabbage palm rarely sets seed in the UK, individual plants do often seem to appear in the ‘wild’ – the plant is the fifteenth commonest ‘alien’ plant in London according to Stace and Crawley’s book ‘Alien Plants’. In the Isles of Scilly, the cabbage palm is used as a shelter for the bulb fields, and it is generally a plant of the milder south west of England, where it is sometimes known as the ‘Torquay Palm’. I see that there has recently been a thinning out of the various ‘palm’ trees of Torquay by the local council, with a concomitant furore. Let’s hope that all is well by the start of the summer season.

There are also cabbage palms on the west coast of Ireland, a similarly mild spot.

 A cabbage palm in a front garden in Torquay

In its native land, the cabbage palm has been threatened by a variety of pests and diseases. In 1987, populations of the plant sickened and died, often within a year of the first symptoms being noticed. Sudden Decline was eventually found to have been caused by a bacterium transmitted by a non-native sapsucking insect, the passion vine hopper, and there is some hope that the disease is lessening. However, individual cabbage palms are sometimes victims of what has been named ‘Rural Decline’. When the forests of the plant were originally cleared, individual specimens were left as shelter for livestock. Unfortunately, said livestock ate the seedlings and rubbed against the bark, eventually damaging the tree beyond hope of survival. Rabbits, possums and even horses also have a liking for the sweet stems and fruit. The cabbage palm’s richness as a source for other organisms seems to be hastening its demise in New Zealand, though the population is still at a healthy level at the moment.

Furthermore, the cabbage palm is very widely cultivated, both as a pot plant and as ‘bedding’ in many council flowerbeds. It is strange to think that this most individual of plants, so firmly embedded in the country from which it comes, is pretty much unremarked. I am looking at the cabbage palm with much more respect these days. What a very fine plant it is!

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Duncan – originally posted to Flickr as Kereru, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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

Photo Three by By Sid Mosdell from New Zealand – Bellbird, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four from

Photo Five by By Mary Morgan-Richards – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Six by By Dan Kluza –, CC BY 2.0,


Bugwoman on Location – Dale Chihuly at Kew Gardens

Sapphire Star by Dale Chihuly (2010)

Dear Readers, this week I went to Kew Gardens with my friend J to see the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures. I visited Kew for Chihuly’s previous exhibition in 2005 and remember sharing the photos with Mum, so it was bittersweet, but then everything seems to have the flavour of remembrance this year. Still, it is impossible to be melancholy in the presence of these sculptures, which blaze with colour and life even on a dull day with rain threatening. The first sculpture, ‘Sapphire Star’, looks as if it is about to explode, the transparent glass on the outside held in by gravitational pull of the heavier blue centre.

I knew little about Chihuly, other than that he is considered to be the absolute master of blown glass, so here is a potted history. He was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, to a Hungarian/Czech father, and a Swedish/Norwegian mother. His brother was killed in a navy flight-training accident in 1957 and a year later, his father died of a heart attack aged 51, leaving Chihuly and his indomitable mother alone. Chihuly started his studies in art and interior design in 1960 but he was soon frustrated, and travelled extensively in Italy and the Middle East. His first experiments in glass were in a weaving class in 1963, where he incorporated glass shards into textiles, but he didn’t blow his first glass until 1965. In 1966 he joined the first ever glassblowing course in the United States, at the University of Wisconsin.

Glass had become Chihuly’s primary source of artistic expression, and he went from strength to strength, winning a Louis Comfort Tiffany grant to extend his studies. He became the first American to ever work in Murano in Venice. He taught glass blowing and art for many years at a variety of alternative colleges, closing one down to protest the American involvement in Cambodia in 1970. Throughout his life he collaborates with other artists, and in the 1970’s begins his environmental pieces, designed to be placed outside.

While in England in 1976 he suffers a catastrophic car accident, which leaves him with 256 stitches in his face and a permanently damaged right leg and ankle. He is also blinded in his left eye. Undaunted, he returns to the US to take up his role as head of the Department of Glass at Rhode Island School of Design. For the first time, some of his pieces are bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which introduces him to a much wider public.

Photo One by By Bryan Ohno - Chihuly Studio photography collection, Seattle, Washington, CC BY 3.0,

Dale Chihuly (Photo One)

In 1977 Chihuly starts to experiment with the organic forms that have informed his work ever since. In 1979, however, he damages his shoulder in a bodysurfing accident, and gives up the role of personally blowing all his glass. Going forward, his works are a collaboration between his vision and technical skill, and those who actually do the physical labour. He has mentored many of the up and coming glass artists in the world, and is incredibly prolific, with several exhibitions in different parts of the world every year. One of which, of course, is the one that I’m at Kew to see.

The influence of the natural world on Chihuly’s work is everywhere evident, but it is the natural world transformed – everything is bigger, brighter, more colourful than the original. It feels a little as if Disney’s ‘Snow White’ was seen by someone on LSD.  And yet, I was definitely cheered up by Chihuly’s pieces – the sheer exuberance and colour lifts the spirits however Eeyore-ish one is feeling. And with some of them, I was actually left speechless. Like the new installation in the recently refurbished Temperate House, for example.

Who could fail to be moved by the beauty of the colours and the skill involved? And indeed the Temperate House is Chihuly central, with sculptures outside…

and inside….

I think the sculptures are at their most effective when they mirror the surrounding plants, as in the red example above, or in the green and yellow sculptures in the accompanying pond.

I am not quite so sure about the mass of white shapes in the other corner, though I do like that they reference beluga whales.

One installation is a little bit off the beaten track, in the Japanese garden. It’s called Niijima Floats.

Niijima Floats (2010)

The spheres remind me of playing marbles when I was a little girl, and I like how varied and understated they were. The gravel is scraped into a circle around each piece, and the whole thing has a serene, surprising aspect, as if a giant has been playing marbles and has just stepped outside for a moment. I could have looked at it endlessly.

I rather liked this piece too, which is called Neodymium Reeds and Turquoise Marlins, the ‘Neodymium’ referring to the rare-earth metal that is used to produce the incredible lavender colour (which the photo hardly does justice to). The pieces are arranged on either side of King William’s Temple, which was built in 1837 and contains images of British victories from Minden in 1759 to Waterloo.

But my very favourite place in the whole of Kew is the small, hot, usually crowded Waterlily House. Whenever I visit the plants seem at the very pitch of perfection, and I can only imagine the work that it takes to keep them that way. But this time it has been ‘invaded’. Take a look.

And how beautiful these white and glass forms are. Yesterday, I was gobsmacked by them, overwhelmed by their presence. And yet. Have a look at the waterlilies and lotuses that shared the pond with them.

Lotus flower and seed pod



Waterlily (Nymphaloides indica)

I don’t know, maybe I’m being a curmudgeon, but there is something about some of Chihuly’s work that seems to overwhelm rather than complement. It says ‘look at me’ rather than ‘look at us’. And sometimes, that bright, brashness is just what I want and need, and I don’t care that it punches me in the nose.

But as I get older, I feel like there is a bit too much over-confidence, and not enough hesitancy. I am becoming an admirer of the subtle, the nuanced, the uncertain. Maybe that’s why I liked the ‘marbles’ piece more than the piece in the waterlily house, or some of the other more colourful, assertive works.

If you have a chance to visit the exhibition, do – Kew is always such a delight, and the trees in particular are splendid at the moment. Plus I had no idea that Kew had active badger setts, which cheered me up no end. And do let me know what you think. There is no doubt in my mind that Chihuly is a master of his art, an innovator and a mentor, and I admire him tremendously. But I think I would like his work more if it didn’t overwhelm the plants quite so much. Maybe that’s why I have no problem with his pieces in places like the lobby of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Context is everything.

Photo Two by Rod Allday / Chandelier in the rotunda of the V & A museum

Chandelier in the rotunda of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Bryan Ohno – Chihuly Studio photography collection, Seattle, Washington, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two by Rod Allday / Chandelier in the rotunda of the V & A museum

Wednesday Weed – Columbine

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

Dear Readers, this seems to have been a particularly good year for columbines.They are the quintessential cottage garden plant, but I was surprised to discover that the small flowered blue form, as seen above, is a native. Because various forms of columbine are grown so frequently in the garden it’s hard to determine what the actual range of the plant is, but Aquilegia, a genus of about 70 species, are found throughout the northern hemisphere. Aquilegia vulgaris seems to like calcium-rich soils, woodland areas and damp grassland, and is most common in the south and west of the UK – I found the flowers in the photos today in Somerset and Dorset.

Columbine has many, many local names. Most refer to the shape of the flowers: my Vickery’s Folk Flora tells me that the plant is known as ‘Doves-in-the-ark’ in Somerset; the name ‘Columbine’ comes from the Latin word for dove, ‘columba‘, with the inverted flower being said to resemble five doves clustered together. In Yorkshire it’s called ‘Fool’s hat’, a reference to flower’s resemblance to a jester’s cap. In Wiltshire it bears the name of ‘Granny-jump-out-of-bed’, possible because the petals resemble a skirt, though why granny was wearing her clothes in bed would probably make a story all on its own. ‘Aquilegia’ means ‘eagle-like’, and this is because the petals are supposed to look like an eagle’s claw.

The wild form of columbine is usually dark blue, though it can also be found in pale pink and white. However, the ‘domesticated’ forms come in a huge variety of colours and flower shapes. Here are a selection: first, the cultivar ‘Magpie’

Photo One by By JJ Harrison ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

‘Magpie’ cultivar (Photo One)

Then this rather pretty blue cultivar

And this pink one….

Pink flowered columbine (Public Domain)

And a double-flowered one for good measure.

Double-flowered columbine (Public Domain)

What is interesting about the structure of the columbine, however, is that it is the spurs at the back of the flower hold the nectar. The length of these structures varies from species to species, but in all wild plants the spurs have evolved to match the bird or insect that pollinates it. In California, Aquilegia pubescens (also known as the Sierra columbine) is a high-altitude plant that has white flowers, and spurs up to 5 centimetres long. The plant is pollinated by hawk moths, insects with a liking for white-flowered plants and with a tongue long enough to reach the nectar.

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

Sierra columbine (Aquilegia pubescens) (Photo Two)

At lower altitudes, from Alaska to Baja California is the crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa). Its red colour and much shorter spurs are a giveaway that its main pollinators are hummingbirds (most red-flowered wild plants were originally bird-pollinated). In between there are a whole host of hybrids between the two species, illustrating the way that the plant is adapting to the chief pollinators in each area. The process illustrates the way that plants and pollinators are locked into a dance of evolution, with each dependent on the other.

Photo Three by Dcrjsr - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

The transition from Aquilegia pubescens to Aquilegia formosa (Photo Three)

Photo Four By Walter Siegmund (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) (Photo Four)

For anyone who would like a closer look at the structure of the columbine flower, I recommend the UK Microscopy website, which has many fascinating insights. One of these days I shall treat myself to a microscope, maybe for my fast-approaching sixtieth birthday – I love the way that a close-up view reveals so many wonders. But in the meantime I shall keep going to UK Microscopy for my high-magnification fix.

In the UK, columbine is a good bee plant, and is a nice choice for a woodland garden. It attracts mainly long-tongued bumblebees, and as seven of these species are considered endangered, it is well worth popping a few columbines into your understorey (should you have one). The bumblebee with the longest tongue in the UK is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), who has a tongue which can reach 2 cms long and is hence a match for any native columbine. My advice is to avoid the highly-bred fancy cultivars, and go for the dark blue natives.  Plus, you don’t have to worry about isolating individual cultivars or even species in order to get them to ‘come true’ – as we have seen, columbines hybridize at the drop of a hat.

Photo Five by Roo72 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Bee pollinating columbine (Photo Five)

There seems to be some debate over whether Aquilegia vulgaris (‘our’ columbine) is poisonous – they are members of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and are closely related to monkshood (Aconitum napellus), described as ‘the most toxic wild plant in Britain’. Some sites described the roots and stems as being toxic, and on the Poison Garden website, the dark columbine (Aquilegia atrata), which is native to northern Europe, is said to have been used to cause miscarriage. However, there are no recorded cases of poisoning, and it is often a favourite in children’s gardens because of its interesting flowers and bee-attracting properties. Plus, certain Native American tribes have long eaten the flowers, which I imagine are very sweet due to the concentrated nectar that they contain.

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) used the plant medicinally as a treatment for swollen glands, and it was also used to hasten childbirth. As with most herbal remedies, the dosage and the wisdom and understanding with which the plants were used has been largely lost, to all of our detriment.

Many species of moth caterpillar munch upon the poor old columbine, and one of them is the saddleback looper, the larva of The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). The moth is not particularly exciting to look at, but I include it here because I have learned that the word ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semicircular indentations along the edge’ in heraldry. You’re welcome.

Photo Six by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Adult male Engrailed moth (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Six)

A plant which has been grown in the UK since the 13th century is bound to have attracted some folklore, and one story is that lions ate columbine in order to give themselves strength – it was said that, to get the courage of a lion, all you needed to do was to rub the plant over your hands. However, if you are female and someone gives you a bunch of columbine, this is an indication that you are said to have ‘flexible morals’, and I think you would be well within your rights to summon up the courage of a lion and ‘clip them round the ear’ole’ as my Dad used to say.

And, of course, a poem or two. When I looked for ‘Columbine poems’,  I found many, many works about the school shooting at Columbine, a great outpouring of grief and rage and questioning. But I was most intrigued by, firstly, this work by Melissa Stein, who we encountered a few weeks ago writing about lily of the valley.

Dear Columbine, Dear Engine

by Melissa Stein

Dear columbine, dear engine.
Mere water will force a flower
open. Then with a touch
the beautiful intact collapses
into color filament and powder.
It’s all my fault. All hands on deck
to help collect what’s spilled.
That could be me beneath
a bridge. Torn up beside the road,
a bloat of skin and fur.
Afloat in bathtub, clean,
blue-lipped, forgiven. Face-down
in the snow. Why do you
imagine these terrible things?

asks my mother, or her
ghost. Because the paper’s
crisp and white. Because
no slate’s unwritten.
Because the ant that scaled
this flower head
has nowhere else to go.

And to end on a less distressing note, here is Emily Dickinson. There is a fine blogpost here by someone who is reproducing Emily Dickinson’s garden, and what a lovely idea that is.

It’s Father’s Day here today as I write, and for some reason this poem made me think of my mother. See what you think.


by Emily Dickinson

Glowing in her bonnet-
Glowing in her cheek-
Glowing is her Kirtle-
Yet she cannot speak.

Better as the Daisy
From the summer hill
Vanish unrecorded
Save by tearful rill-

Save by loving sunrise
Looking for her face.
Save by feet unnumbered
Pausing at the place.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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

Photo Three by Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY 4.0,

Photo Four By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five by Roo72 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Photo Six by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Bugwoman on Location – Crossrail Place Roof Garden

Dear Readers, I am intrigued by the number of new imaginative green spaces that are springing up in Central London. Not long ago I popped in to see the roof garden at Fenchurch Street , and I was most impressed. However, I have been hearing great things about the roof garden at Canary Wharf. and so on a wet day earlier this week I took the Jubilee Line to Docklands, and popped in for a look.

The garden is part of the Crossrail (now the Elizabeth Line) station, a project which, as we know, is well behind schedule. When completed, the trains will arrive on Level Four of the station, below the shops and restaurants and the garden. The architecture is typical of its designer Norman Foster and Partners, who was responsible for the Great Court at the British Museum and the new Kings Cross Station. What is particularly interesting however is that large sections of the roof  of the garden are open to the elements (you can see an aerial photograph here. I had a chat with the gardeners who told me that this makes it quite a challenging space, with very differing levels of moisture and humidity. However, it looked absolutely splendid when I was there.

The planting design is based around the kinds of plants that would originally have arrived in the docks, either as food plants or as ‘stowaways’ – there is sugar cane and banana, tea, coffee and black pepper.  The garden is  divided in two, with plants from the east on one side of the main path, and plants from the west on the other. This could make for a right old jumble, but actually it is a lovely place to stroll through, and the plants are in excellent condition.

Rodgersia, palms and ferns

Bottlebrush plant

I was pleasantly surprised at how quiet it was at 10 a.m., though the gardeners told me that it is rammed at lunchtime. There are restaurants at either end, and a performance space called Giant Robot. There is a space for cookery lessons, and it was advertising sessions on Cuban and Persian food. By the time I left there were lots of London Mums from a dozen different cultures, walking their toddlers along the paths. It is a surprisingly child-friendly space, with lifts and escalators taking you down to very swish toilets with bright red glass doors.

But what is so lovely about this place is that, unlike more enclosed spaces, it is full of birdsong – the full-throated warbling of a blackbird, and the bell-like chimes of a flock of goldfinches, feeding on the seeds of the American Sweet Gum tree.

I loved the tree ferns too, such imposing plants.

There is some fine bamboo in a variety of greens and yellows.

And the roof frames some very unusual views of all the glass and steel buildings that surround the garden.

The calls of gulls can be heard too, and I watched one herring gull harassing a crow – gulls nest on some of the flat roofs and rafts in the old docks, and can recognise trouble when they see it.

So my advice is to go to the gardens early, avoid lunchtime and the evenings if you want a quieter experience, but do go and have a look. I suspect that it will be very attractive when some of the leaves change colour later in the year, and I have rarely seen a garden where the plants are so well looked-after. And who knows what other animals will move in? I saw several bees and hoverflies, all enjoying the plentiful flowers.

So, if you are in London and want to visit Crossrail Place Roof Garden I would definitely make a detour to see it. I suspect it will be much busier once Crossrail actually happens, so don’t hang around! It’s only a five minute trot from Canary Wharf Station, and you could catch the whizzy Docklands Light Railway from Bank or Tower Gateway or Stratford. Try to sit at the front to get the full ‘rollercoaster’ experience.

I have always thought of Docklands as being a soulless realm of men in suits, but it really is developing, finally, into something else. I  was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was, and by the variety of people who were enjoying it. London never ceases to surprise me.



Wednesday Weed – Foxglove

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Dear Readers, I can never get past my mental image of a fox tiptoeing around the garden wearing pink ‘gloves’ on each foot when I look at this plant. The allusion goes right back to the Anglo Saxon, when it was known as ‘foxes glova‘, and the Latin name digitalis means ‘finger-like’. In some parts of the country it is also known as fairy gloves. I remember putting the spent blooms on my fingers and drawing little faces on them when I was a child, and Richard Mabey reports how, by leaving the stem of each flower intact, they can be turned into ‘claws’. In Vickery’s Folk Flora, there are many tales of children using the flowers as tiny balloons, holding each end of the flower and pushing the ends until they popped. It was also considered a great game to capture a bumblebee inside one of the flowers, and to delight in its frantic buzzing. In the Forest of Dean, foxgloves were known as ‘snowpers’, and a favourite admonition to a noisy child was ‘Shut thee chops; thee bist like a bumble bee in a snowper’. Certainly these always feel like the most playful of plants, and from memory they seemed to be in full bloom at just about the time that the school holidays started.

Foxgloves are certainly having their moment ‘in the sun’ (though they are actually woodland flowers and most varieties don’t thrive without some shade). Every time I go to the garden centre there seem to be new varieties in every shade of cream, apricot, white and pink. They are biennials, bulking up during year one and producing flowers in year two. They self-seed enthusiastically, and are beloved by bumblebees. Digitalis purpurea is native to most of temperate Europe, but is also naturalised in many parts of North America. It is, rather counter-intuitively, a member of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae) which has been muchly enlarged of late.

White foxgloves in my garden

The story of foxgloves, however, is most closely associated with its toxicity and its medicinal properties. The leaves of foxglove were long used as a diuretic against dropsy (fluid accumulation), but it was also known that foxglove was toxic, and that giving the wrong dosage could be fatal. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how it was a study of the plant’s usage by botanist and physician William Withering that created the split between traditional herbalism and modern pharmacology.

Withering realised that the principal action of foxglove was on the heart, slowing and strengthening its beat and hence, in dropsy, stimulating the kidneys to clear fluid from the body. He also noted that the leaf could be useful in cases of heart failure. However, he insisted on carefully measured doses of the dried leaf, and was aware that too high a dose could cause the heart to falter and cease. Over time, the foxglove’s key active ingredient, digitalis, was isolated and purified, and is used today (as digitoxin and digoxin) for heart conditions. Incidentally, if you have an elderly relative taking either of these drugs who seems to be in a habit of falling, do check that the drug is not lowering blood pressure too much. Dad had six falls in as many months until a junior doctor checked his medication and realised what was happening.

These days, the chemicals for medication are largely prepared from imported leaves of a European foxglove, Digitalis lanata. However, during both World Wars the leaves were gathered and dried by members of The Womens’ Institute, just to make sure that there was an adequate supply. In 1941 the women of the Oxfordshire Women’s Institute collected enough foxglove leaves to provide 350,000 doses of the drug (enough to treat 1,000 patients for a year). Never underestimate a group of woman on a mission.

Although the plant is very poisonous, it is also emetic, which means that you are likely to vomit before suffering the worst cardiac effects. However, it was used as a salad ingredient by someone trying to murder their husband (in Colorado in 2010). The husband realised that the salad tasted bitter, but thought it was one of these antsy-fancy new leaves that are all the rage (I can relate). He suffered a gastrointestinal upset but survived, and his wife was sentenced to four and a half years in jail.

In the Vickery book mentioned earlier, it seems that foxglove was also used for a deeply sinister purpose: the killing of unwanted children. There are several folk legends indicating that foxglove is poisonous to ‘fairies’, and it was used as a test to see if a sickly child was a changeling ( a fairy child who had been exchanged for the original human child) in both County Leitrim and Caernarvonshire, the latter as recently as 1857. A child was given a small dose of foxglove, and it was believed that if the child was human, it would survive, whereas if it was a fairy it would die. It would not take a very large dose to kill a child, especially one who was already ill.  Vickery comments that

Thus it seems that the use of foxglove (and other ordeals to which supposed changelings were subjected) might have been an acceptable method of infanticide which enabled families to rid themselves of sickly offspring‘.

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

Photo One

The poisonous nature of the plant doesn’t put off the caterpillars of the foxglove pug moth (Eupithecia pulchellata), who feed on the internal parts of the flowers, after sewing them shut with silk. Both moth and caterpillar are unassuming in appearance, but for sheer ingenuity I think they deserve a brief moment of fame here.

Photo Two by user janenannierocks at, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. - This image is uploaded as image number 3702949 at, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0,

A foxglove pug (Eupithecia pulchellata) (Photo Two)

And now, a picture. Regular readers will know of my fondness for Vincent Van Gogh, who loved flowers of all kinds so much that I believe he saw into their innermost nature. The portrait below shows Dr Paul Gachet, a homeopath and medical doctor, who took care of Van Gogh following his release from the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, and was with the artist for the last few months of his life. Following an inauspicious start, Van Gogh grew to love Dr Gachet, describing him as ‘a true friend, something like another brother’. The portrait shows Dr Gachet with a bunch of foxgloves, probably as an indication of his medical background. Van Gogh painted two versions of the picture, and said that:

“I’ve done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done… There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later”.

Six weeks later, Van Gogh shot himself in the woods surrounding Dr Gachet’s home.

In 1990 the painting was bought by Ryoei Saito, chairman of the Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co, for $82m, making it the world’s most expensive painting at the time. The 75 year-old businessman was so fond of the painting that he threatened to have it cremated with him. When Saito died in 1996, the painting seems to have been sold, but the new owner suffered financial problems and sold it on again. Like so many masterpieces, it is probably now in a vault somewhere, or in a secret private collection.

Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) (Public Domain)

And of course, a poem. Here is ‘The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves’ by Anne Stevenson, which manages to combine close observation with a sly humour.

The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves

Because hairs on their speckled daybeds baffle the little bees,
foxgloves come out to advertise for rich bumbling hummers,
who crawl into their tunnels-of-delight with drunken ease
(see Darwin’s chapters on his foxglove summers)
plunging over heckles caked with sex-appealing stuff
to sip from every hooker its intoxicating liquor
and stop it propagating in a corner with itself.
And this is how the foxflower keeps its sex life in order.
Two anthers—adolescent, in a hurry to dehisce—
let fly too soon, so pollen lies in drifts around the floor.  
Along swims bumbler bee and makes an undercoat of this,
reverses, exits, lets it fall by accident next door.  
So ripeness climbs the bells of Digitalis, flower by flower,
undistracted by a Mind, or a Design, or by desire.

In eight pages of The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London, 1876: 81–88), Charles Darwin describes an experiment he began in June 1869 among the fox- gloves of North Wales, this just one of his thousands of experiments demonstrating the superiority of cross-fertilization and throwing light on the origin of sexuality.
Photo Credits
Photo One by By i_am_jim – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Two by user janenannierocks at, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. – This image is uploaded as image number 3702949 at, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0,

Settling Back

Dear Readers, I am now home for eighteen whole days, which is my longest stay in East Finchley for at least a year. But before I tell you about London, I want to give you an update from my latest visit to Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester. Dad was chatting away to a new chap  when I arrived at the home. P had been in the forces and had lived abroad extensively, and, as Dad travelled a fair bit when he was a gin distiller, they were gently ‘one-upping’ one another with tales of jaunts abroad. I have learned that while people with dementia don’t always get their facts in perfect order, there is normally a kernel of truth in what they say however confused they are, and I have no doubt that P had lived in the Far East, and had learned Japanese.  P had a postcard from his daughter which he was showing to everyone who came in. Dad had been planning to write a letter to me, my brother and Mum, and had started to write it on one of the handkerchiefs that I bought him, but when I asked him about it he’d forgotten what he wanted to write. I was surprised both that he could still spell my name, and that he could still write. I’ve left him with a pad and some pens in case the urge to write strikes him again.

Dad’s face absolutely lights up when I walk in, and it’s one of the greatest joys of my life. I tell him when I’m going to visit him, but he always forgets. This time, he grabbed my hand and kissed it.

‘I didn’t know you were going to come in’, he said, and cried.

Dementia has made Dad more emotional, gentler. He has developed a taste for Portuguese custard tarts and ‘frothy coffee’, and it touches me how much he enjoys both of them. I thought that maybe he would be upset by the unusual behaviour of some of the other residents, but he seems completely at ease with them, and sometimes tries to help if someone has ‘lost’ something or seems particularly distressed.

One lady asked if I’d seen her daughter, and I told her that I hadn’t seen her today, but I was sure she’d  be in soon (she visits her Mum very regularly).

‘She’s the best girl in the world’, said the lady, and I had to go outside because that was what Mum always said about me.

One of the guys, B, used to be a London taxi driver and hasn’t lost any of the repartee. One of the carers asked him if he liked children.

‘I like children but I couldn’t eat a whole one’, he said.

When I popped in on Wednesday to have breakfast with Dad and to say goodbye, he was all geared up to ‘walk into town and have a look at a secondhand car’. I know that Dad misses driving, but while I’m sure he could do the mechanics of driving, he wouldn’t know where he was going. Fortunately, the home had organised a trip to the local market, and Dad was going to help choose some plants for the garden.

‘We’ll have a look at the cars if we can find any’, said the carer.

Initially I was really disconcerted at the degree to which I needed to lie to Dad about what was going to happen, and yet the alternative is so much more distressing and painful for him. No one is going to tell him that he will never own a car or drive again, and so the constant promise of it in the future keeps him calm and happy. There was a positive spring in his step as he headed off with his zimmer frame to get his jacket on, and I know that once he’s in the market he’ll be distracted by all the minutiae of tomato varieties and which geraniums are best.

As I waved goodbye, all the other residents waved as well. It really is a little family.

And yet when I got back to London, I was having a coffee and got into a chat with a lady who had a little dog. We talked about pets for a bit, and then I mentioned that I was just back from visiting with my Dad who has dementia. She sympathised, and then, as she was getting up to go, she turned and said

‘Oh, I do hope it doesn’t drag on too long for you’.

And yet again I was lost for words. I know that dementia is a terminal and progressive disease, but really? I think not just about my dad, but about all the people in the home that I’m getting to know, and I know that not only do they have a quality of life that makes it worth living, but that they are still valuable, loving human beings. This is the fourth time in the past six months that someone has suggested that my Dad and his friends would be better off dead, and that I must be hoping for such a speedy outcome. What does it say about our society that we can wish the oldest and most vulnerable people in it dead? My Dad is teaching me lessons about compassion and patience and understanding every single day.

And so, I really needed the solace of the garden when I got home, and all kinds of things were going on.

Take the fabulous cabbage palm (Cordyline australis) next door, for example. This year it is carrying three whole spikes full of flowers which are constantly abuzz with honeybees. I went outside to take a photograph and realised how sweet-smelling it is. No wonder the bees love it.

Outside the back door, I notice that everything is hideously overgrown, and that the pond is turning into a bog as fast as I can pull things out. However, some yellow flag irises are flowering for the first time this year. I can’t even remember planting them, so maybe they came with something else. This will certainly be something for the dragonfly larvae to climb up, and I check every day just in case.

And I love the way that the sunlight touches the water. The pond is absolutely full of frogs of all sizes this year, from adults to tiny new froglets the size of my fingernail. They are hanging around a lot later this year too, so maybe being so overgrown isn’t such an absolutely bad thing.

My white foxgloves are flowering, and the Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower is covered in bumblebees.

And so is the mock orange, which is just finishing but which is still headily-scented.

But there has been one disaster. The box moth caterpillars have been particularly vigorous this year – last year I managed to trim the bush back in the spring and get rid of most of the damage, but this year they have killed the bushes completely. I shall be cutting them back, digging them out and planting something else. I even spotted one of the caterpillars walking nonchalantly across the path a few days ago, probably en route from one bush to another. This is a pest that has marched through the  country over the past ten years, although the adult moth is rather lovely. I spotted the first one I’d ever seen at the Barbican Centre in London in 2015, but it was noticed in private gardens in 2011. It has probably arrived in imported box plants (the moth comes originally from East Asia) and while it can be treated with nematodes if caught in the early stages, the advice from RHS Wisley is to plant something else. Climate change is making the environment much more pleasant for the moth, and I suspect that we are going to have to adapt too. Privet, anyone?

RIP to my box bush.

Adult Box Worm Moth (Cydalima perspectalis)

And, in more exciting news, we are going to get our external decorations done. It’s been more than ten years, and the paintwork is, shall we say, a bit on the dodgy side. The scaffolding is up, but the best news is that I have bought this.

A sparrow nesting box

Sparrows like to nest communally, and so I have this little terrace of nestboxes that I have persuaded the decorator to put up for me while he’s on the scaffolding. Sparrows have already been investigating the eaves but have never stayed, so I am very hopeful that maybe next year they’ll take up residence. And if they don’t, maybe somebody else will. And once that’s done, I shall be looking into getting the garden back into some kind of order. I need to move my centre of gravity back east from Dorset, and start getting back into my own life. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

Roxanne geranium in the garden