Monthly Archives: July 2019

Wednesday Weed – Hollyhock

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Dear Readers, if there is any plant that shouts ‘English Country Garden’ louder than the hollyhock, I have yet to find it. This stand of plants in Dorchester, close to Dad’s nursing home, was abuzz with bumblebees, who were rolling about in the pollen like puppies. At first glance the flowers remind me very much of those of the mallow, which is not surprising because hollyhocks belong to the same family, the Malvaceae.

The most commonly domesticated hollyhock, Alcea rosea, came originally from south-western China, and has been grown in the UK since at least the 15th Century. It is thought that it was given its name by the herbalist William Turner, who called it the holyoke. The name comes from the Middle English ‘holy‘ (meaning ‘blessed’) and the Anglo Saxon word ‘hoc‘ meaning ‘mallow’. It is unclear whether the plant was brought to England as an ornamental, or because of its medicinal properties – the genus name ‘Alcea‘ comes from the Greek word Alceos, meaning ‘to cure’. Like many members of the mallow family, the hollyhock was believed to have emollient qualities and was used for everything from sore throats and bladder inflammation to soothing the chapped and cracked hooves of horses.

One subspecies that may have been imported specifically for its decorative properties, however, was the ‘black’ hollyhock, Alcea rose nigra. Plants with flowers this dark were rare, and I imagine that a specimen would have been quite a talking point. The earliest record of this plant is from 1629, and hollyhocks in general were very popular right up until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Photo One by By Øystein Hellesøe Brekke - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Black hollyhock (Alcea rosea nigra) (Photo One)

Sadly, a rust fungus that affects hollyhocks spread from South America to affect the plants worldwide, and the plant more or less ceased to exist in English gardens until the 1930’s, when it became popular again. Now it is a favourite in many gardens, both in Dorset (where I was positively tripping over them) but also in East Finchley and roundabouts. It is rather splendid, but am I alone in also finding it an untidy plant? It often seems to have crispy, browning leaves and is more often lopsided than not. Still, I can forgive it anything because of the enthusiasm with which it is approached by the aforementioned bumblebees, who seem to go into a kind of ecstasy in the flowers. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife‘ book advises staking the plant and growing it in moist but well-drained soil (always a tricky combination to pull off).

A pollen-covered bumblebee

As usual, my book recommends avoiding any double-flowered hollyhocks, amusing as they look with their puffball flowers. One double variety, ‘Chater’s Double’, was developed by the eponymous Chater in Essex in the 1880’s ( and I am very indebted to the ‘Harvesting History‘ website for all this fascinating information). Amazingly, this variety is still available and a packet of seeds from Marshalls will put you back only £1.99. However, do grow some more ‘straightforward’ hollyhocks as well. The bees will thank you.

Photo Two from

Chater’s Double Hollyhock (Photo Two)

In the West Country, your hollyhock leaves may be munched upon by the caterpillar of the mallow moth (Larentia clavaria), a rather understated but nonetheless elegant moth. Like many British moths, this species needs to be looked at closely to appreciate how beautiful the different bands of colour are, and how they help the moth to camouflage itself.

Photo Three by By Donald Hobern - originally posted to Flickr as Larentia clavaria, CC BY 2.0,

Mallow moth (Larentia clavaria) (Photo Three)

The caterpillar is one of the usual little green critters, but I’m sure it would be worth a look next year if you have hollyhocks in the garden. The adult moth flies from August right through to November if the weather is mild enough.

Photo Four by By J. Pohjoismäki -, Copyrighted free use,

Mallow moth caterpillar (Photo Four)

Incidentally, there are about 60 species of hollyhocks belonging to the genus Alcea, all of them from Europe or Asia. There is a single hollyhock species in North America known as the streambank wild hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis), and very pretty it is too.

Photo Five by By Unknown -, Public Domain,

Streambank wild hollyhock (Ilimana rivularis) (Photo Five)

‘Our’ hollyhock was, and is, a popular garden plant in North America, however. The Living History Farms website tells me that hollyhocks were often grown near the outhouse in Victorian times, so that ladies wouldn’t have to ask for the toilet but could simply look for the hollyhocks. The same source tells me that Thomas Jefferson was very partial to hollyhocks, and grew some in his garden at Monticello (or rather, his gardeners did).

In Japan, a hollyhock flower was incorporated into the seal of the Tokugawa shogunate, who ruled the country from 1603 to 1867. The plant still has resonance as a cultural symbol today.  There is a football team known as the Mito Hollyhock, whose seal shows three stylised ‘hollyhocks’ surrounded by a dragon. There is some discussion over whether the plant shown is actually a hollyhock, and I must admit that I am struggling to see the resemblance to the flowers, though maybe what is being portrayed is the leaves.

Photo Six by By Source, Fair use,

Logo of the Mito Hollyhock football team (Photo Six)

There is, however, a hollyhock festival (Aoi Matsuri) which is held in Kyoto every year. It dates back to the sixth century BCE, and is thought to have originated as a response to a series of natural disasters and epidemics. A lavish procession, decorated with hollyhock leaves (thought to ward off natural disasters) wends its way through the city to two shrines, where respects are paid to the deities. The event also features horse archery, which drew such huge crowds in the seventh century that the display was banned for a time. There are also some very impressive floats covered in hollyhock flowers.

Photo Seven by By Japanexperterna, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Man carrying what looks like a very heavy float featuring hollyhock flowers at the Aoi Matsuri festival in Kyoto (Photo Seven)

Hollyhock petals, especially those of the darker varieties, are said to be useful as dyes, so for this I turn to the Wooltribulations website, which has been a source of fascinating information before. The author certainly has a lot of fun with the flowers, both from her own plants (which are not as cooperative as they might be) and with some donated by a friend. She mentions that an Indian article on dyeing with hollyhock used ultrasound rather than heat to get the colour to ‘take’, which is a fascinating idea. Suffice to say that a whole range of hues were produced, including this absolutely lovely lavender-blue. If anyone is going to tempt me to plant hollyhocks, or to try dyeing, it would be this lady.

Photo Eight from

Wool dyed with hollyhock petals (Photo Eight)

As you might expect, hollyhocks were a favourite with Victorian era painters. Here is a delightful portrait by Charles Courtney Curran, from 1902. This looked so English that I was startled to find that Curran was actually an American. That’ll teach me to make assumptions.

Hollyhocks and Sunlight (Charles Courtney Curran, 1902) (Public Domain)

And here is another painting, this time by Frederick Carl Frieseke, an American Impressionist painter who spent most of his time in France. He lived for many years in Giverny, though he was not a friend of Monet, and said that if he was influenced by anyone, it was Renoir. The woman with the Japanese parasol is probably modelled upon his wife.

Hollyhocks (Carl Frederick Frieseke, 1912-1913) (Public Domain)

But I think that I actually like this painting, by Danish painter Anthonore Christensen (1849 – 1926), is probably my favourite. The artist has made the flowers the stars of the show, and she has a delicate style which made her one of the leading floral ‘portrait painters’ of her time. The best botanical painters not only observe closely, but also seem to bring out the ‘personality’ of the plants that she depicts. I feel as if I know these hollyhocks, with their buds bursting and their leaves starting to turn brown.

Anthore Christensen, Hollyhocks (1894) (Public Domain)

And now, lovely readers, for a poem. How much do I love this? Really a lot. I remember hearing a tale from a birdwatcher friend of mine, who told me that if you put on red lipstick, and filled your mouth with sugar water, hummingbirds would come and kiss you (not in the UK obviously, where you’d be waiting for a very long time). It always sounds rather unhygienic, particularly for the poor hummingbirds, but this work, by Galway Kinnell, reminded me of the scenario. I hope you enjoy it, and forgive the fact that its relationship to hollyhocks is strictly tangential.

Telephoning In Mexican Sunlight

 Talking with my beloved in New York
I stood at the outdoor public telephone
in Mexican sunlight, in my purple shirt.

Someone had called it a man/woman
 The phrase irked me.
 But then
I remembered that Rainer Maria
Rilke, who until he was seven wore
dresses and had long yellow hair,
wrote that the girl he almost was
"made her bed in his ear" and "slept him the world.
I thought, OK this shirt will clothe the other in me.

As we fell into long-distance love talk
a squeaky chittering started up all around,
and every few seconds came a sudden loud 
 I half expected to find
the insulation on the telephone line
laid open under the pressure of our talk
leaking low-frequency noises.

But a few yards away a dozen hummingbirds,
gorgets going drab or blazing
according as the sun struck them,
stood on their tail rudders in a circle 
around my head, transfixed
by the flower-likeness of the shirt.

And perhaps also by a flush rising into my face,
for a word -- one with a thick sound,
as if a porous vowel had sat soaking up
saliva while waiting to get spoken,
possibly the name of some flower
that hummingbirds love, perhaps
"honeysuckle" or "hollyhock"
or "phlox" -- just then shocked me
with its suddenness, and this time
apparently did burst the insulation,
letting the word sound in the open
where all could hear, for these tiny, irascible,
nectar-addicted puritans jumped back
all at once, as if the air gasped.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Øystein Hellesøe Brekke – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two from

Photo Three by By Donald Hobern – originally posted to Flickr as Larentia clavaria, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four by J. Pohjoismäki –, Copyrighted free use,

Photo Five By Unknown –, Public Domain,

Photo Six by By Source, Fair use,

Photo Seven by By Japanexperterna, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Eight from


Bugwoman on Location – A Bittersweet Visit

Some splendid hollyhocks near my Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester

Dear Readers, as you might remember, my Dad is in a nursing home in Dorchester. He has vascular dementia, and so when I go to see him it’s impossible to guess in advance how he’s going to be. Last time, he decided he really wanted to come home with me on the train, and I had to trick him to make sure that he didn’t follow me to the station. But this time, he was waiting for me when the lift doors opened.

‘I saw you coming up the road, so I thought I’d bring your Dad over to the lift’, said the carer. ‘And then I thought, maybe you weren’t coming straight here!’

But I was, and there was Dad. He looks so suave these days, and actually much smarter than he was when during his last few years at home, when his beard and hair ran rather out of control.

I delivered the coffee and custard tart that I always bring, and Dad brought me up to speed.

‘We had some music across the road’, he said, ‘it went on for 24 hours!’

I’d noticed the marquees on the way in.

‘Was it good? ‘ I asked.

‘Marvellous’, said Dad. ‘There were seventy thousand people there’.

And I have to smile at this point. Had the carers taken a minibus full of folk to Glastonbury? But actually, Dad was always an exaggerator. His tales of his travels abroad – the anaconda that he saw in Venezuela that were 50 feet long, the steaks that were the size of a dining room table – used to keep my brother and I amused for hours when we were callow teenagers. But now, I love him for his desire to still tell an impressive story, to keep his audience enthralled. And unlike some people, who tell these tall tales in order to trick people, I’m convinced that Dad has always believed what he’s saying. I wish that he had realised that he was quite remarkable enough, this man who left school with no qualifications at 14 but who was soon travelling the world making gin for United Distillers, speaking Spanish and mixing with all manner of people. People ‘like us’ didn’t do those things, but Dad did.

At Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary ‘Do’, I was talking to one of my cousins, who was a little boy when Dad started travelling abroad.

‘I always thought of him as being a bit like James Bond’, he said, ‘Jetting off with his suitcase to places I’d never heard of. I was always so proud to have such an exciting uncle’.

I don’t think Dad ever understood the impression that he made, not just on my cousin, but on all of us. For me, he made foreign travel seem possible, something desirable and something achievable. He was always so curious, and touchingly innocent. Once, at a hotel in Venezuela, a woman with a small child approached him. Dad chatted away to her, but was surprised when the waiter he had befriended called him over for a phone call. When Dad got up, the waiter gently told him that the woman was a prostitute. I remember how Dad kept shaking his head when he told us the story.

‘But she had a little boy with her’, he kept saying. ‘I thought she just wanted someone to talk to’.

Holm Oaks outside the nursing home

When I went back to the nursing home on the following day, Dad was a bit more agitated.

‘All the presents are gone!’ he said.

He’d given me a list of things to buy – a clock, some chocolate, polo mints, a razor, a hair brush. Things do go for a walk in home sometimes: usually Dad just puts things down and forgets them, whereupon some of the other residents pick them up. One lady has an eye for any neglected cups of coffee, which she swoops upon with the skill of a Dickensian urchin.

I showed Dad the many things I’d bought, and he was distracted for a minute, but still worried about the ‘presents’. I had noticed that his room was a bit bare. Then, he stood up to go to the toilet, and grabbed one of the red-framed walkers that was ‘parked’ nearby.

‘Don’t fall over!’ said M. She is one of the residents, and is constantly worried about other people tripping or needing something.

‘I’ll look after him, M’, I said, as I steadied Dad for the short trot to the toilet.

‘My husband died’, she said. ‘Good man. Worked hard’.

‘I’m sorry’, I said, as I always do. M and I usually have a chat about her husband while I’m in. But then she tells me something that I hadn’t heard.

‘We were in the Salvation Army’, she says. ‘In Bridport. We all sang. My brother played the trumpet’.

And then M gives the sweetest smile in the world, and for a second she reminds me of my Mum.

And then Dad is back, and he’s delighted.

‘I found the presents!’ he says.

And there, under the seat of the walker, are all Dad’s treasures: a couple of photos, a hair brush, a clock, my postcard from Obergurgl.

So I ask him if he wants me to put them back in his room, and he does. At least he’ll have multiple iterations of the things he needs, which should last him till I visit again.

I  pop back in the morning for one last visit before I head home. Dad had a bad night – one of the new residents had wandered into his room in the middle of the night (ironic since this is what Dad was doing for months). He was semi-clothed and groggy when I came in, and didn’t even look at me. One of the carers was ‘sorting him out’, and so I sat and drank my coffee while I waited for Dad to come back. When he appeared, he looked much more spruce, but didn’t seem to recognise me – he walked straight past, to the consternation of the staff nurse.

‘Tom, there’s your daughter there!’ she said, steering him back towards me.

He stops, and looks at me as if he knows that I’m someone he knows, but can’t remember who. And then he brightens.

‘You’re beautiful!’ he says.

‘So are you, Dad’, I say.

And I know that this is one of those moments that I’ll remember when things get tough. It feels like a gift, just as Mum telling me she loved me before she died was a gift. I am trying to get past my fear of what is happening to Dad, so that I can appreciate and respond to the person who is  still here. My fear makes me rush around to sort things out, when it would be better if I just sat and listened and became calm, so that that calmness could permeate Dad too. Sitting can be the hardest thing of all, and yet I believe that it often does the most good. Presence and attention can be the best gifts of all.


Wednesday Weed – Agapanthus

Agapanthus in full flower on the County Roads in East Finchley

Dear Readers, there appear to be fashions in plants, just as there are in most other things, and in the south-facing gardens of Bedford Road in East Finchley there is pot after pot of Agapanthus. Some of the pots are elegant in Majorelle blue, which nicely highlights the sky blue of the flowers. There are lots of bees about too, which always makes me happy. My  book ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ says that only a few cultivars are actually liked by pollinators, however, so if you’re thinking of getting some I would apply the Garden Centre test – watch to see which ones the bees visit, and go for one of those. In my experience, plants which are closest to the original wild plant always work better than those which have been ‘messed about with’, so I’d go for a blue one, rather than the pink and white ones that seem to be popping up. There is a Dutch grower who specialises in Agapanthus if you want to have a look at some of the varieties that are available. And do let me know your experience! I always think of this blog as a communal effort.

Also known as ‘blue lily’, ‘African lily’ or even ‘Lily of the Nile’ (although the plant isn’t actually a lily at all),  Agapanthus plants in the UK are normally of the Agapanthus praecox species, which comes originally from Natal and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The very name ‘Agapanthus’ comes from the Greek for ‘love flower’, and there is a lot to love about the plant: it can live for up to 75 years, can withstand drought, wind and frost down to -15 once established, and flowers for a long time. The young shoots need to be protected from slugs and snails but once an agapanthus is ‘up and running’ you’re in business. I really like these plants en masse in a border – they echo the colour of the spring bluebells. The plants grow from a rhizome, which resembles a piece of ginger, and which helps to store water when there isn’t much about.

I didn’t expect to find that Agapanthus was a naturalised species, but as usual I find myself surprised. In the Isles of Scilly, the Agapanthus has taken to the local sand dunes with great gusto – maybe the light soil and sunny conditions remind the plant of its home, and as it spreads via rhizomes it can quickly establish itself. It also appears to have be naturalised in Australia and New Zealand – in the former, it was widely planted in municipal beds because it was drought-tolerant, but this now seems to have been discontinued, although it is apparently a popular cemetery plant in the Antipodes, probably because it is relatively low maintenance.

In its native South Africa, the Xhosa people believe that the Agapanthus helps to enhance the well-being of pregnant women, who drink a tea made from the plant during their third trimester, and wear a necklace of dried Agapanthus root during pregnancy to protect the baby. When the baby is born, it is bathed in a solution of Agapanthus, which is believed to make the infant strong and healthy. For the Zulu people, the plant is used to cure a whole variety of ailments, including heart conditions, paralysis, colds and flu. The leaves are plaited into bandages for tired feet. However, the Agapanthus root is thought to be purgative if ingested, according to an interesting study of poisonous plants in New Zealand, though eating a few flowers or leaves was not thought to do much harm. There is also some thought that the sap may cause skin irritation in susceptible people.

Agapanthus is also traditionally used to ward off thunder, though there is plenty about in East Finchley today. I think the plant should pull its socks up.

It will probably come as no surprise that a plant as beautiful as the Agapanthus has inspired artists – Claude Monet painted the plant in his garden at Giverny many times. Monet spent the last years of his life here, following the death of his second wife and his son. In 1926, Monet himself died of lung cancer and at his funeral his long-time friend, George Clemanceau, removed the black cloth that had been draped over his coffin and, saying ‘no black for Monet!’ replaced it with a floral one.

Agapanthus (Claude Monet 1914 – 26) (Public Domain)

Waterlilies and Agapanthus (Claude Monet 1917) (Public Domain)

Agapanthus (unfinished) (Claude Monet 1917) (Public Domain)

And just to end on a classy note, here is a poem by Pam Ayres. She was such a feature of my childhood, with her works including ‘I wish I’d looked after me teeth‘ ( to get the full effect, you should hear her reading it herself here). Ayres lives with her husband in the Cotswold and has a small holding with rare breeds of farm animal. She is also patron of several animal welfare organisations and sanctuaries, and her love for creatures is very clear in her poems.

Dog Gardening Poem

I  love to do the gardening,

I roll on the acanthus,

Do flops across the echinops,

And trash the agapanthus.

Ah yes, this reminds me of trying to do any serious gardening with our family dog Spock when I was growing up.

But Ayres also has a serious side. I really love this poem. See what you think.


Don’t lay me down in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall

Where the dust of ancient bones has spread dryness over all.

Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold

Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.

There kindly and affectionately plant a native tree

To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.

The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way

To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.

To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done

I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the Sun.

A Patch of ‘Water Weeds’

Where has the pond gone?

Dear Readers, during my sojourn in Austria the water plants have grown up with much enthusiasm.  Alongside the meadowsweet that I wrote about last week, there is hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife, and a patch of greater willowherb. The whole area is literally buzzing: it’s in one of the few constantly sunny areas in my north-facing garden, and, inspired by a wonderful Country Diary by Mark Cocker in the Guardian this week, I decided to ‘hang out’ for a bit and see what I could spot.

First things first. Most of the butterflies in this year have been of the white or blue species, so a flash of orange was a delight. The hemp agrimony seems to be a favourite with all winged creatures, who sink into those raggedy flowerheads in a kind of ecstasy. I had to wait a few minutes for the butterfly to open her wings, though the underside has a subtle beauty of its own.


And then the sun came out, and I was rewarded.

Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)

Once the wings are open, it reveals those double eye-spots, which tell me that this is a gatekeeper (or hedge brown). I can tell this is a female because the male has a dark band across his forewings. The photo doesn’t do justice to the caramel colour of those wings. Gatekeepers are one of the latest flying of the butterflies, with new broods taking to the air from late June to the end of August.

Photo One by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Male Gatekeeper (Photo One)

If you wanted a reason for not mowing the lawn, the caterpillars of this species would provide one. The female drops her eggs among grasses such as cock’s foot, timothy and common couch, and the caterpillars feed at night, pupating in the dried vegetation and emerging during the following year. Your grass could also support the caterpillars of speckled wood, ringlet, wall and meadow brown, small skipper and brown argus. I gave up my lawn to replace it with a pond, but I notice that grass is creeping back, nonetheless.

Photo Two By foxypar4 on Flickr - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Cock’s foot grass (Dactylis glomerata) (Photo Two)

Timothy grass (Phleum pratense) (Public Domain)

The bumblebees also like the hemp agrimony, but seem to marginally prefer the purple loosestrife, and the dark red buddleia that has just come into blossom. I should point out that the latter is meant to be a dwarf variety, but is already six feet tall.

A very smart white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)

How to tell a white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) from a buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)? It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because the ‘buff-tail’ of the latter is often white. In my book ‘Garden Wildlife’ by Richard Lewington (which has the most wonderful illustrations), the white-tailed bumblebee is described as having ‘clean’ yellow banding. whilst the buff-tail is said to have ‘dirty’ yellow banding.The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a very useful website containing identification charts for all the common British species, and you can find it here.

Both are extremely common, the queens of both species appear as early as February on a warm winter day, and both are ‘nectar-robbers’, with short tongues that make it difficult for them to access plants with longer corolla. As a result, bumblebees of both species will cut a tiny hole in the base of flowers such as penstemon and salvia, and drink the nectar without doing any pollination.

It really comes as no surprise to me that bumblebees have learned to circumvent the carefully-evolved defences of flowering plants. I always think of them as the Einsteins of the insect world, and recent research has proved me right (though who knows what might be found if other insects were so closely observed). Bumblebees have solved the ‘travelling salesman’ problem, calculating the most efficient route between plants to maximise the amount of nectar collected and minimise the calories expended to get it. They’ve even been taught to ‘play golf’ in order to get food, which the researcher considers an example of tool use. All this from a creature that doesn’t have what we understand as a ‘brain’. Who knows what we might discover if we really paid attention?

There are plenty of honeybees about too. Our local allotments have a number of hives, and I suspect that the lavender in the front garden, and the bog plants at the back, are a major draw. There has been a lot written about honeybees and their potential demise just lately, but let’s not forget that the pollinator community is much greater and more diverse than just this one species, iconic and important as it is.

And then there are the hoverflies, so rarely noticed and yet so omnipresent. This one is a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), our commonest hoverfly, yet I had never noticed the metallic shine on its thorax, which looks almost like liquid copper. For all you hoverfly enthusiasts out there, I can recommend ‘Britain’s Hoverflies’ by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris, an absolute labour of love.

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus)

The colour of the marmalade hoverfly is very variable, and seems to depend on the temperature when the larvae are maturing – in hot temperatures, the adult will be predominantly orange, but if it’s cold, they can be almost black. The larvae themselves are voracious eaters of aphids, especially those found on cereal crops and cabbages. They might not be as elegant as lacewings or ladybirds, but they are possibly even more important.

Sometimes swarms of marmalade hoverflies arrive from southern Europe, and the media is fond of filling the summer doldrums with reports of ‘wasps’ terrorising the gardens of England. The reporting of all things insect-related in the papers, and on social media, is often enough to make me bash my head against the wall.

The final ‘spotting’ of my 15 minutes was this ‘muscular’ little hoverfly, Siritta pipiens, which has the common name of ‘thick-legged hoverfly’, for obvious reasons. With those enormous ‘thighs’ it could be a candidate for an insect body-building competition. This creature is both common and widespread, and yet I had never noticed it before. Apparently the males are very territorial and will conduct battles in which they push one another backwards and forwards much like a pair of miniature water buffalo.

Syritta pipiens, a very muscular hoverfly…..

And so, I spent a very interesting 15 minutes with the insects. There is nothing like sitting peaceably among the bees and butterflies and hoverflies to give one a sense of perspective. It brings me a sense of being part of something much larger than just my small, transient concerns, and that is very welcome at the moment, as life gently moves on, whether I want it to or not. If you are feeling out of sorts, or dissociated, or generally confused, I can recommend sitting next to some flowering plants and just noticing who turns up. You might just be surprised.



Wednesday Weed – Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Dear Readers, it was such a delight to get back from Austria on Saturday, and to find the meadowsweet that I planted by the pond two years ago in flower. What a splendid plant this is! It has a honeyed scent that reminds me of hay, and it attracts all manner of hoverflies. The buds are almost square, and then the seed heads remind me of those fondant sweets that you can buy in posh places like Fortnum and Masons.

Twisted seedheads plus hoverfly….

Although the garden as a whole has gone completely berserk during this past couple of years, I am very pleased with this spot, where the meadowsweet mixes with hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and some self-seeded greater willowherb. It is a-buzz with bees and other pollinators, and they are all at head height so I can get a really good look. The fly above, for example, with his/her rather muscular ‘thighs’ reminds me of a mini weighlifter.

Anyhow, to return to meadowsweet. Although the plant likes damp places (and is often known as ‘queen-of-the-meadow’, the name might refer to ‘mead’ , as the flowers were used to flavour many kinds of drinks. It was also used as a strewing herb on floors and in mattresses. In my new favourite book, Vickery’s Folk Flora, it mentions that it was sometimes used on the floors of outside toilets, to disguise the smell.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey mentions that different parts of the plant have different scents: he describes the basic scent of the plant as being like marzipan, tinged with musk and honey in the flowers, but with the sharpness of pickled cucumber in the leaves. Mabey mentions that one ‘cynical namer’ believed that this was the difference between ‘courtship and matrimony’, but he was obviously married to the wrong person.

In spite of its sweet scent, Meadowsweet is yet another of those herbs that it was thought to be unlucky to bring into the house. One of these days I shall compile a list of all the wildflowers that are cause death and bad luck just by being picked and stuck in a vase. One alternative name for meadowsweet was ‘old man’s pepper’, with ‘old man’ being a name for the devil in many parts of the UK. Sniffing meadowsweet with too much enthusiasm was also thought to bring on fits.

In Wales, it is not only considered unlucky to bring it into the house (‘if a person falls asleep in a room where many of these flowers are placed, death is inevitable’), but it is also though to be dangerous to fall asleep in a field where there is an abundance of meadowsweet. However, there is also a legend in Wales that the magicians Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet, and called her Blodeuwedd, or ‘Flowerface’. She was created to be the wife of Lleu, who was cursed to never be able to marry a human wife, but had other ideas, and arranged for him to be murdered. This was no easy task:

Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing how he may be killed, since he cannot be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. He reveals to her that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass. With this information she arranges his death’.

However, Lleu is nursed back to health by the magicians who created Blodeuwedd in the first place, and she is turned into an owl for her pains. It just goes to show that crime never pays.

The legend was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s 1967 young adult novel ‘The Owl Service’, which explores what it mean to be Welsh, the class divide and the eternal power of stories. Well worth a read, even if you’re way past being a ‘young adult’.

Photo One by By E. Wallcousins - 'Celtic Myth & Legend', Charles Squire,, PD-US,

Blodeuwedd meeting Gronw, the man who will kill her husband (Photo One)

Here, though,  I’d like to back up a little and give some basics on the plant. Meadowsweet is native to the UK and can be found in damp spots throughout Europe and western Asia. It is also naturalised in some parts of North America. It is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) which I would never have guessed, though the leaves do look a little rose-like.

The plant contains salicin, which is related to salicylic acid (aspirin) – in fact, the drug was named from the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Having just returned from Austria, I was interested to learn that the Austrians make a tea with meadowsweet, and use it for the treatment of painful conditions such as rheumatism and gout.

The Bronze Age burial sites of three humans and one animal at Fan Foel in Carmarthenshire, Wales, have contained the remains of meadowsweet, probably used as a strewing herb, and the signature of the plant has also been found in grave goods in Scotland from the same period, probably as a result of meadowsweet being used to flavour wine that was buried alongside the dead.

Meadowsweet has a reputation as a dye plant – the roots are supposed to give a black dye when used with a copper mordant (fixative). The genus name ‘Filipendula‘ relates to the way that the root tubers hang off of the fibrous roots (the Latin word means ‘hanging thread’). To read about various experiments using different parts of meadowsweet with different mordants, have a look at the wonderful ‘Wool Tribulations’ blog here 

Photo Two from

The author of ‘Wool Tribulations’, Fran Rushworth, has created some great effects from using meadowsweet (Photo Two)

In addition to its obvious attraction for hoverflies, the leaves of meadowsweet are munched upon by no fewer than 16 species of moths, including the magnificent emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). How excited I would be if one of these turned up!

Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Three)

The caterpillars are pretty magnificent too.

Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK - Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0,

Emperor moth caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Four)

The leaves of meadowsweet can also be injured by the meadowsweet rust gall, which is a fungus which chemically induces a bright orange swelling on the mid rib of the leaf. It can cause serious problems in young plants, so I shall keep an eye open. The last thing I want is for my newly established meadowsweet patch to keel over.

Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith - Own work, Public Domain,

Meadowsweet rust fungus (Triphragmium ulmariae) (Photo Five)

And, of course, a poem. For those of you who haven’t come across the Scottish poet and writer Kathleen Jamie, I can heartily recommend her books ‘Findings and  ‘Sightlines’, and her poetry collections ‘The Tree House’ and ‘The Overhaul’. I love her for many reasons, not the least of which was her piece about Robert MacFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’, called ‘A Lone Enraptured Male‘. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here. It made me roar with laughter and nod in agreement (and I speak as someone who loved MacFarlane’s recent book ‘The Underland’.

And here is her poem.

Tradition suggests that certain of the Gaelic women poets were buried face down.
So they buried her, and turned home,
a drab psalm
hanging about them like haar,

not knowing the liquid
trickling from her lips
would seek its way down,

and that caught in her slowly
unravelling plait of grey hair
were summer seeds:

meadowsweet, bastard balm,
tokens of honesty, already
beginning their crawl

toward light, so showing her,
when the time came,
how to dig herself out —

to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.

Photo Credits
Photo One by By E. Wallcousins – ‘Celtic Myth & Legend’, Charles Squire,, PD-US,
Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK – Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0,
Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith – Own work, Public Domain,

Bugwoman on Location – The Panoramaweg

View of the Seenplatte from Hochgurgl, Austria

Dear Readers, when I go for my annual trip to Obergurgl in Austria, there is always one day when the cloud is so low that the scenery disappears behind a veil of mist. I rather enjoy these days – the sound is muffled, the walkers are few, and familiar scenes become mysterious. We always call these days our ‘panoramaweg’ days, in tribute to the information boards at popular tourist sites which set out the view that we should be seeing, with the mountain peaks named and the paths and ski-runs clearly marked, all completely invisible behind an interminable blanket of grey. Sometimes the clouds lift, sometimes they don’t, but we always keep our fingers crossed and head out anyway.

Heading up in the Hochgurgl lift

The walk we’re doing today is from the middle station of the Hochgurgl lift, back to Obergurgl. It’s a pleasantly varied walk, involving mountains, bogs and forest. We are greeted on arrival by the usual bunch of cows. Unusually, this time the calves are running with their mothers – in the village, the calves seem to be separated almost as soon as they’re born. And for a few moments the cloud lifts.

There is a positive posse of snowblowers already for action during the winter season. This year, there was a snowfall of several metres in May, and as noted in last week’s post, the vegetation is well behind where it should be. I wonder what will happen to the skiing industry as natural snow becomes less and less predictable? This valley earns the vast majority of its income in the winter season. Everything is changing, and we seem ill-equipped to deal with it.

And then the cloud rolls back in. The alpenroses (actually a type of azalea) are just coming into flower – some years they have already finished by the tme we arrive.

And I have always been fond of this chap.

As we turn the corner towards the boggy bit of the trail, we are confronted by a most unusual sight. There are several cars and vans parked beside the track. There is a man wearing only swimming trunks under a massive fur coat. My husband tells me that there was also a woman in swimwear but for some reason I didn’t notice. There are cameras and one of those white umbrellas that photographers use.

Clearly, no one told the photographer what the weather forecast was.

As no shooting was going to take place any time soon, we ambled on down the path, stopping only to take a photo of a rather splendid hat that is presumably going to be utilised when/if the cloud lifts.

The ponds along the track, which are sometimes dried up by this time of year, are full of water, and even contain a few tadpoles.

We march on upwards through the mist. We can hear the jangle of bells in the distance, but are unsure whether they come from particularly acrobatic cows, goats or the long-eared Italian sheep that graze here. Finally we find out as we see a little family of sheep silhouetted against the skyline. They are unusually skittish and gallop off up the mountainside, though I suspect that the rustle of a lunchpack would soothe their nerves.

Onwards! The next part of the path leads into the Konigstal, a particularly difficult valley (from the point of view of someone still recovering from a sprained ankle). It was a popular spot for smugglers crossing into Austria from Italy – they brought tobacco, sheep, furs, and even tea. There is still a customs hut at the top of the Konigstal, and I suspect that many a backhander was passed over – how else could someone drive an entire flock of sheep past, even at dead of night?

On the way we pass some black vanilla orchids. I’ve seen about four species of orchids this year, and I know that many more pop up later in the season. This place really is a botanist’s dream.

Black vanilla orchid (Nigritella nigra)

To cross the Konigstal you have to go a long way into the valley, and to keep your fingers crossed that the bridge is still there. One year it wasn’t, and we ended up wading across. It’s always a relief when it looms into view.

There is a lot of snow about this year, and where it’s melted back there are the alpine snowbells. These are the first flowers to appear once the snow is gone, and they take advantage of the lull before the other plants, overwhelm them. I love the fringes on the ‘cups’, and think of them as the quintessential Alpine flower. They only grow above 900m and are normally seen just after the snow melts.

Snow in the Konigstal

Alpine snowbells (Soldanella alpina)

From now on the walk is one long descent, through the pine forest and eventually to Obergurgl. The clouds appear to be lifting a bit (or we’re getting lower) (or both).

We can hear the constant calls of nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) above the trees – these are a kind of jay, and are responsible for planting a lot of the pines, as they bury the pine nuts for winter sustenance and often don’t eat all of them. They are rambunctious birds and at this time of year often have youngsters in the nest, but they are also shy and difficult to photograph. So here is a photo taken by someone with infinitely more patience than I have (and probably a better camera too)

Photo One by Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Spotted Nutcracker (Public Domain)

I love this part of the path, where the smell of pine resin rises and the walking becomes a little easier. The sun finally comes out, persuading us to take off our waterproofs.

There are gentians of some kind along by the path – probably trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis) though they seem a tiny bit pale. I am holding out hope that they are the slightly rarer Clusius’s gentian (Gentiana clusii). I really must get a better book for ID of Alpine flowers – does anyone have any recommendations?

Clusius’s  gentian?

And finally, Obergurgl heaves into view. I cannot believe the amount of building work that is going on this year (we have a morning coffee every day and admire the different cranes and lorries that are operating on the Edelweiss and Gurgl hotel and the new conference centre). But from here, all is peaceful, and we are starting to look forward to a Radler (shandy) or an Almdudler ( a traditional herbal drink which tastes like a cross between ginger beer and green tea).

We climb up again to cross the final waterfall before heading down into the village. One year we were staying here and learnt that a woman at another hotel was terrified of heights and also of crossing running water. The whole holiday must have been purgatory for her. I can only imagine that she was very poorly advised.

The penultimate leg of the walk…

And finally we meander into the village through a mass of meadow plants, including this magnificent clover. There must be a dozen different clovers and vetches in the fields around Obergurgl and this year I’ve been able to enjoy them for the whole fortnight: normally the first cut of the meadows has been at the end of the first week in July, but this year the weather just hasn’t been good enough, though the hay trucks are starting to roll now.

And so tomorrow we will be heading home after another holiday in Obergurgl. It’s hard to explain how much this place means to me – it seems to be quintessentially healing for the mind and the body. I always come back to London feeling refreshed, and this year is no exception. I still have challenges to face, and no doubt all sorts of things will be waiting for me at home, but I feel better able to deal with them. And now, it’s off for a final apfelstrudel. Tschuss!



Wednesday Weed – Petunia

Petunias on East Finchley High Street

Dear Readers, petunias are popping up in the hanging baskets and pots of East Finchley. I must confess that I have never been a big fan of the plants, but the great thing about the Wednesday Weed is that it’s made me question everything that I’ve ever known. After all, what is a petunia, and how has it become so popular? What is it related to? Do any insects like it?

Well, petunias come originally from South America – there are about 20 separate species. The plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes tobacco, tomato and potato, and their name ‘petunia’ comes from the word ‘petun’, meaning ‘tobacco’, in the local Tupi-Guarani language. The Maya and the Inca believe that the plant has the ability to ward off underworld monsters, and there is a belief that petunias bring happiness to a house. They are certainly the most generous of plants, pouring forth their blooms for months at a time. No wonder they are many people’s first choice for a hanging basket.

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

Floral Arrangement in Columbus, Ohio (Photo One)

The ‘domesticated’ petunia is a hybrid between two species, Petunia axillaris (the white moon petunia) and Petunia integerifolia (violet petunia). The white moon petunia has a sweet smell which has been inherited by some forms of the cultivated petunia, while the violet petunia is said to be used as a hallucinogen in Ecuador, giving a sensation of flying.

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

White moon petunia (Petunia axillaris) (Photo Two)

Petunia integorifolia from Edward’s Botanical Register 1833 (Public Domain)

The cultivated petunia is known as Petunia x atkinsonii. Incidentally, this is an example of a nothospecies – a new word to me, so I had to investigate. A nothospecies is a hybrid between two plants in the same genus, as here. If a plant is a hybrid between two plants of different genuses, it’s known as a nothogenus. Who knew? Certainly not me, who has enough trouble finding two matching socks at the moment.

Anyhoo, back to the petunia. It seems to tolerate drying out better than some other plants, which makes it ideal for the exposed environment of a hanging basket. It isn’t overfond of conditions that are too damp or shady – it is said to need at least five hours of full sunshine every day. It pairs beautifully with pelargoniums (which need similar conditions) and there is definitely a petunia for every colour scheme. There are the ones which are divided into segments:

..the ones where the edge of the petal is a different colour from the middle…

the ones with defined veins in the petals…

Grandiflora petunia ‘Blue Daddy’ (Public Domain)

and my favourite, the ones that look like starry skies….

Photo Three by By EliasTheHorse - I took it on a flower's shop., CC BY-SA 4.0,

‘Starry Night’ petunia (Photo Three)

One definite disadvantage of the petunia from my point of view is that, pretty as it is, it doesn’t seem to attract many insects. All the species bar one are pollinated by insects, and rumour has it that petunias are sometimes visited by hummingbird hawk moths, as evidenced by several photos.

Photo Four by David Short from Windsor, UK [CC BY 2.0 (]

Hummingbird hawkmoth popping in for some petunia nectar (Photo Four)

Being a plant of hanging baskets, the seeds of petunia are often scattered far and wide, and the seedlings can sometimes be seen popping up in the cracks in the pavement during the following spring. The paving stones by the side of pubs are a particularly good spot – some pubs pride themselves on their floral displays, and there are several in London that really exceed expectations. Perhaps the finest is the Churchill Arms in Kensington, which spends £25,000 a year on its floral display, and very fine it is too.

Photo Five from

The Churchill Arms in Kensington (Photo Five)

Allegedly, petunia flowers are edible, though no one seems to get very excited about them. I was a little disappointed to see that the ‘Petunia Bowl’ salad that I found online was an homage to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in which two thermonuclear missiles turn into a whale and a bowl of petunias) and actually contains no petunias, though as there is some thought that the petals might be poisonous it’s probably just as well.

Now, here’s a fascinating thing. A couple of caterpillar larvae do eat the flowers of petunias, and both are serious pests of agricultural crops. One, the corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea) is the second most serious insect pest in the USA, munching its way through corn, tomatoes, cotton and a dozen other plants. Not only does it decimate plants but, most unusually for a moth, the caterpillar will also eat other insects.

Photo Six by By cyanocorax -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Corn Earworm (Helicoverpa zea) larva (Photo Six)

The  other species that feeds on petunia is the cabbage looper caterpillar (Trichoplusia ni) which, as its name suggests, normally prefers brassicas, red cabbage in particular. As this is a vegetable that I find it hard to get excited about, I am prepared to give this little chap rather more garden-room. Plus, it does that ‘inch worm’ walk that I found so appealing when I was a child.

Photo Seven by By Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia, United States - This image is Image Number 1327034 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service., CC BY 3.0,

Cabbage looper ‘looping’ (Trichoplusia ni) (Photo Seven

Now, in a study by the scientists at United States Department of Agriculture in Peoria, Illinois, it has been found  that when the caterpillars of both species were fed on bi-coloured petunias like the one below, they much preferred the white sections to the coloured ones. When given no choice but to eat the blue bits, they put on much less weight, and a much higher proportion of the larvae died. The hypothesis is that this is due to the natural anthocyanins in the blue petals, which act as a natural insecticide. Such pigments are energetically expensive for a plant to produce, but of course these plants have been bred rather than emerged through natural selection. The question is whether these pigments could have a wider application, and how much effect they would have if they could be bred into food crops. Fascinatiing stuff.

Bicoloured petunias, similar to the ones fed to the caterpillars.

And here’s a poem. I’ve had to read it once or twice to get under its skin, but it’s worth it. I regret that I hadn’t come across Bob Hicok before – he was born in 1960 in Michigan, and had worked for years in the automotive industry before he discovered his gift for poetry. He is most famous in the US for his poem series about the shootings at Virginia Tech. Someone commented that “Hicok’s meditations… do not allow us to turn away from the act of violence, neither from the person who committed the act, nor from the ironies of survival.” See what you think.

The semantics of flowers on Memorial Day

Historians will tell you my uncle
wouldn’t have called it World War II
or the Great War plus One or Tombstone
over My Head. All of this language
came later. He and his buddies
knew it as get my ass outta here
or fucking trench foot and of course
sex please now. Petunias are an apology
for ignorance, my confidence
that saying high-density bombing
or chunks of brain in cold coffee
even suggests the athleticism
of his flinch or how casually
he picked the pieces out.
Geraniums symbolize the secrets
life kept from him, the wonder
of variable-speed drill and how
the sky would have changed had he lived
to shout it’s a girl. My hands
enter dirt easily, a premonition.
I sit back on my uncle’s stomach
exactly like I never did, he was
a picture to me, was my father
looking across a field at wheat
laying down to wind. For a while,
Tyrants’ War and War of World Freedom
and Anti-Nazi War skirmished
for linguistic domination. If
my uncle called it anything
but too many holes in too many bodies
no flower can say. I plant marigolds
because they came cheap and who knows
what the earth’s in the mood to eat.

Photo Credits

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

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

Photo Three by By EliasTheHorse – I took it on a flower’s shop., CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four by David Short from Windsor, UK [CC BY 2.0 (]

Photo Five from

Photo Six by By cyanocorax –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Seven by By Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia, United States – This image is Image Number 1327034 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service., CC BY 3.0,

Bugwoman on Location – The Meadows of Obergurgl

Dear Readers, this has been the year of falling down. I have fallen down, for no apparent reason, outside the post office, outside the nursing home, outside the newsagent. A week before Mum died, I fell over spectacularly while walking to the dentist. On every occasion there has been no apparent reason for the tumble – no uneven pavement, no obvious trip-hazard. One minute I am vertical, and the next I am not.There are lots of explanations – weak ankles, stress, distraction – but the one that seems truest to me, the one that I feel in my heart, is that I have been carrying a lot and my body would really like me to just stop.

Well, two days before I was due to leave for Obergurgl for my annual holiday, I was sitting on the sofa, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and knitting, when John rang to tell me there was a fox outside. I sprang up but my foot had gone dead, and so I fell over with a mighty crash and a distinct crunch. By the time John got in, there was an egg-sized swelling on my foot and I was shaking with shock.

Well, after a trip to A and E for an X Ray it was clear that ‘all’ I’d done was torn a few ligaments, and so we decided to go on  holiday, and to take it easy. And take it easy I have. Yesterday we went for a little walk in the meadows (followed by plum cake at the top of a mountain that was reached via a chairlift), and it was a real treat to just meander along, noticing the plants and insects.

But first, you have to squeeze through all the building work. I feel so sorry for anyone who has never been to Obergurgl before. How the heart must sink at the sight of all the cranes and scaffolding and concrete mixers! This year, the Edelweiss and Gurgl is getting yet another face lift, the village hall has been demolished to make way for a bigger venue and there are no less than two underground car parks being built. Last year a crane managed to knock the  weathercock off the church spire, and to be honest I don’t give it much chance of staying there for the whole of this year either. The trouble is that the summer season is so short (snow lays late and comes early this high up) that everyone is desperate to get stuff done by the beginning of the winter season, when most of the money for the year is made. It’s hoped that the new village hall will attract conferences during the summer, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed too – we’ve seen the number of hotels open in the summer fall from eleven to three, and if it gets much worse I suspect the place won’t open until ski season.

Fortunately after only a five minute meander through the crashes and bangs of the building sites,  you can be skipping (or in my case hobbling) among the most beautiful alpine flowers you can imagine. There were a few new species for me to notice this year as well – it feels as if everything is at least a week later than usual, and there is plenty of snow on the higher altitude walks (yet another good reason for not rushing to do anything strenuous).

Obergurgl ‘improvements’. Much like Rome, it will be lovely when it’s finished

But cross the river, and you have this.

The main colour of the meadow is yellow – dandelions, yellow rattle, different kinds of daisy. We underestimate the importance of flies as pollinators, but every flowerhead is full of them. Lady’s Mantle forms a large part of the underlayer of the meadow.

Different forms of wild cranesbill are everywhere, making puddles of purple.

There are more flies and some ichneumon wasps on  the Queen Anne’s lace.

And here are some Alpine poppies, the first that I’ve ever seen. I think that these chaps might be Rhaetian poppies (Papaver alpinum ssp rhaetium), a specialist of the Central and Southern Alps. I was so delighted that I did an ill-advised little dance. I was even more pleased when I spotted that one of them had a most conspicuous spider lurking among the petals.

Further along the path, there were even some bright orange poppies, a colour variant of the same species.

On we went. My foot didn’t seem to hurt, but later in the walk I noticed that my boot was rubbing on  my lower leg. It seems that the swelling in my foot had decided to move north, and when I got home my foot was more or less a normal shape but I now had a new set of bruises higher up. I was tempted to include a photo but I thought I’d spare you all the horror. After all, you might be eating.

I am always so impressed by the range and variety of insect life that lives in the meadows here, a testament to the lack of pesticides and to the way that the hillsides are managed – they are cut twice, once early in the summer, and once at the end. This preserves the biodiversity by making sure that the perennial weeds like dock and nettle don’t get a foothold. The yellow rattle helps too by keeping the richness of the soil down – most mountain  meadow plants thrive on  thin, depleted soils, which is one reason that some of them make excellent ‘weeds’ when they arrive in cities.

And here is a beetle, another underrated pollinator, on a cranesbill. I suspect that s/he is some kind of longhorn beetle, but haven’t been able to ascertain the species. Do give me a shout if you know!

And then I spotted another new species of plant for this year – alpine clematis (Clematis alpina). This has usually finished flowering by the time we arrive, so it was a real pleasure to see it this year.I really love its delicate lilac-blue colour, and rather shy, droopy flowers.

By this time I was feeling a bit droopy too, so it was a short hobble to the chairlift for reviving coffee and cake. And today, my foot and leg are feeling much more like their normal selves. Fortunately there are storms forecast, so I foresee another day of plant watching and taking it easy. There is nothing like a minor injury for making you stop and take stock.

I was a little worried about coming back to Obergurgl – it was while I was here, a year ago, that my Mum’s final decline began, and also it became clear that Dad wasn’t just ‘a little confused’ but had full-blown dementia. i thought that being in the same place might allow memories to surface that I’ve been trying to avoid. And this is exactly what has happened. But it feels as if the only way out is through, somehow – if I don’t feel what I need to feel now, it will only ambush me in future. And there is something about the landscape here, the mountains,the sound of the river, the nesting house martins and the cuckoos calling in the pine forest, that holds me. I sense that there is nothing new in what I feel, nothing that hasn’t been witnessed before. Nothing that I can’t survive.

Wednesday Weed – Caper Spurge

Dear Readers, I am always delighted when I find a ‘real’ weed that I haven’t written about before, and here is a doozy – Caper Spurge (Euphorbia Lathyrus) is a statuesque spurge, with leaves that start off long and narrow with a prominent white mid-rib, and end up more oval as they get near to the flower. It is the seed capsules that give the plant its name, however: they look deliciously toothsome, but sadly, like all parts of the plant, they are poisonous, oozing a blueish, latex-like sap if damaged.

Flower and seed capsule of caper spurge

Caper spurge is inherently a plant of the southern Mediterranean, Northern Africa and southwards right through to China, but it is thought to be an ancient introduction to the UK, and is often grown in gardens. Why, I wonder, was it introduced? Medicinally it has often been used as a purgative, but more intriguingly, it was also thought to deter moles. Vickery’s Folk Flora points out that this belief has given the plant the alternative names of mole-plant and in German it is known as maulwurfvertreiker or ‘mole deterrent’. However, the plant grows best in sandy soil where worms are scarce. As moles are fond of dining on earthworms it may be this, rather than the caper spurge, that explains the lack of ‘the little gentleman in black velvet’.

There is also a belief in Germany that the plant ‘keeps little mice away’.

In Somerset, the plant is said to be a deterrent to badgers because they dislike the sap – again, in Vickery’s Folk Flora, someone explains that you ‘have to keep breaking the stems’ to get the sap to flow.

Another explanation for the name ‘mole-plant’ is that the caustic sap might have been used to burn away ‘moles’ or beauty spots from the faces of those who considered them an impediment. Many euphorbias were used to treat warts in this way, so it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely.

And while we’re on the subject, here is a photo of a mole, probably the commonest British mammal that no one has ever seen (though we’ve all seen the results of their labours). Incidentally, other ways to keep moles out of the garden include ‘never speaking of them’ (much as you are not meant to mention ‘the Scottish Play’ to an actor), putting sardines in their runs (which would keep me out of the garden as well, though probably not the foxes and cats) and leaving hessian bags of human hair around the garden. Personally, I think I’d rather have the moles.

Photo One from

European mole (Talpa europea) (Photo One)

To return to the theme of caper spurge’s medicinal uses, Richard Mabey explains how the plant is found on the now uninhabited island of Steepholm in the Bristol Channel, along with the only colony of wild paeony (Paeonia mascula) in the UK and many other medicinal herbs such as henbane, coriander, wild leek, greater celandine and alexanders, all Mediterranean plants. Between 1166 and 1260 a community of Augustinian monks lived on the island, and it is likely that they planted a ‘physick garden’ in the equable oceanic climate. Certainly, Chaucer knew of caper spurge as ‘katapuce’ (mentioned in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale), and of its laxative properties, and Charlemagne insisted that it be grown in all herbal gardens in case anyone was ever in need of a good purge (the name ‘spurge’ comes from the Latin ‘expurgare’ which should give us a clue).

The sap was also used by beggars in medieval times who were in need of some additional sympathy – applied to the skin, it can cause extremely impressive blisters. One can only wonder at the depths of deprivation that made people to resort to such things. You most certainly do not want to get the sap in your eye, or onto any other ‘delicate parts’ – there are a lot of stories about chaps doing the weeding without gloves and then going to the toilet, followed by a rushed trip to Accident and Emergency when the effects of the sap became apparent.

Although caper spurge is toxic, goats will eat it, and the toxin can then be passed on via their milk. However the sap from caper spurge is also being considered as a possible biofuel, as it is extremely rich in hydrocarbons, and the plant will grow in relatively salty soils which are inhospitable to other plants so there would be little competition with food crops. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Melvin Calvin (1911-1997) (who discovered the Calvin Cycle of photosynthesis) estimated that cultivated caper spurge could produce 10-50 barrels of oil per acre per year, but whether there would be damage to the delicate coastal ecosystems involved remains to be seen.

Those fat little seed capsules, while not to be mistaken for capers, are entertaining in their own right: when ripe, they explode, catapulting the seeds for several metres. The seeds also float, and can be transported downriver if they happen to land in a suitable stream. Fortunately they are not particularly competitive, and are usually overwhelmed by more vigorous plants unless they happen to land in the perfect spot. They are now naturalised in many parts of the world, but do not appear to have become too overwhelming. In North America the plant is sometimes known as ‘gopher spurge’, so I wonder if this comes from a belief that, in addition to moles, mice and badgers, the plant discourages other mammals. And here is a photo of a gopher, just because I have never seen one. Those are extremely impressive incisors, I must say.

Photo Two by By LeonardoWeiss - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) (Photo Two)

And finally, here is a titbit that I found while looking around for a poem on caper spurge. The artist John Northcote Nash (1893 -1977), was the younger brother of the WWI artist Paul Nash, but his creative endeavours took him in the direction of botanical woodcuts. In his wonderful book ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees‘, the late Roger Deakin (gone much, much too soon), wrote about Nash’s masterpiece, ‘Poisonous Plants: Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect‘ (1922)

In a review of an edition of Nash woodcuts published in Hortus in 1988, Ronald Blythe writes:

‘His garden was always plentifully supplied with henbane, hemlock, monk’s hood, foxglove, meadow saffron, spurge laurel, datura, caper spurge, herb Paris, Helleborus foetidus and other such species which he had often been found staring at, much as one might at a murderer. He was proud, not only of their robust growth, but of their capabilities, and I have often watched him cast a wary eye over the gaunt reaches of the henbane. Gardens were not entirely benign places to him: they contained their darker moments.”

I think that any garden, closely observed, is awash with birth, life, death and decay, and that is, of course, exactly how it has to be. So many gardeners (myself included) have spells of railing against the unfairness of it all, when a heron eats a frog or a much-loved plant succumbs, or the slugs seem overwhelming. The foxglove feeds the bumblebee, and the caper spurge sits there innocently until you break a stem and rub your eye. Nature is not hell, but nor is it Disneyland.

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two by By LeonardoWeiss – Own work, CC BY 3.0,