Monthly Archives: August 2019

Wednesday Weed – Coleus

Coleus in Regent’s Park

Dear Readers, when I rented my very first flat, I had no garden. Instead, I became obsessed with house plants. I bought a packet of mixed coleus seeds, and soon there was no corner of the living room or kitchen that didn’t have a gaudily-leaved plant sitting on it. Friends, neighbours, even the postwoman were not safe from having a plastic pot thrust into their hands. What with all the pinching out of the top shoots and the constant watering, it was a busy summer. Sadly, my coleus soon grew leggy in spite of all my ministrations, and they showed a determination to produce their pale-lavender flower spikes (which marked the end of their lives) that was too much for my hard-working, hard-partying ways. Suffice to say that the following year I grew spider plants instead.

But today, as I walked through Regent’s Park, I grew nostalgic. For a sudden splash of colour in a bedding scheme, it’s hard to beat the sheer variety of the coleus, and I suspect that they are good value for money too. Although they are not beloved by pollinators, like other plants, they are also remarkably pest free. Plus, the variety is astonishing. Here are just some of the coleuses (coleii??) that I spotted yesterday:

Lime green with red veins

Burgundy with a yellow edge

Autumnal red

But then I realised that I had no idea whatsoever what a coleus actually was, and there is still some scientific confusion about the plant. It is agreed that the most commonly cultivated variety, previously known as Coleus blumeii, is now known as Plectanthrus scutellarioides. It is a member of the Lamiaceae or deadnettle family, and one common name is ‘painted nettle’. In the ‘wild’, this species is native to a swathe of countries from India in the west to Australia in the south and east. It is a woodland plant which even when not cultivated displays a wide variety of leaf colours and shapes. Here is the ‘original’ plant (here naturalised in Puerto Rico). The small purple-blue flowers look very familiar.

Photo One by By Bjoertvedt - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48784530

‘Wild’ coleus (Photo One)

Coleus arrived in Europe in 1851, and the US by 1877, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that breeders realised the plant’s colourful potential. By the 1980s the plant was the tenth most important bedding crop in the US. It is a great, cheap, low-maintenance choice for municipal beds, and as anyone who has ever grown them will know they are very easy to propagate by cuttings. Although the plants like high temperatures, their colours are brightest in shade, which is the opposite of my experience with most variegated plants, who need sunshine to keep their colour. Apparently it can be grown as a perennial in colder climates where it shows less tendency to bolt, but in the UK most coleus are used as annual bedding and, as this chromolithograph from the turn of the last century illustrates, it has been this way for a long time.

PhotoTwo by Raw PIxel from https://www.flickr.com/photos/vintage_illustration/43332091102

A chromolithograph of a botanical carpet bedding with a colorful butterfly by Federick William Burbridge (1847-1905). Digitally enhanced from our own original plate. (Photo Two)

Apparently the plant has psychotropic effects, and is used as a hallucinogen by the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico (their shamans also use psilocybin and Salvia divinorum to conjure visions and enable psychic journeying). I am somewhat surprised as the plant is not native, but it has been very widely naturalised in the Caribbean and Central/South America.

I was fascinated to find that people who grow the ‘wasabi coleus‘ (which has plain acid-green leaves) and the ‘chocolate mint’ coleus (as you might have guessed, brown leaves with green edges) wondered if the plant might taste like their names. The answer, of course, is ‘no’, though it’s a nice idea. There are, however, some species of coleus that are edible, and I’m indebted to the Dave’s Garden website for pointing this out.

One is the ‘country potato’, a group of three coleus species (with Plectranthus rotundifolius being the most important) that are native to Africa but have more recently been grown in southern Asia as well. Their food value comes from their tubers – these are said to be blander than a ‘real’ potato and they are normally used as a subsistence crop, though in Burkina Faso they are milled to produce flour.

Photo Three by By Manojk - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17497669

Country potato tubers (Plectranthus rotundifolius) (Photo Three )

The other coleus species, Indian coleus( Plectranthus barbatus) is grown, as the name suggests, in India, partially because the root is edible and can be used in pickles, but mainly because the plant contains a chemical compound called forskolin. This has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine, and is sometimes marketed as as a diet aid, because it is believed to burn fat. There is currently no scientific evidence to support this idea, although there are several studies that are looking into the possible medical uses of this plant and several other Asian coleus (you can find extensive information here).

Photo Four by By mauroguanandi - https://www.flickr.com/photos/mauroguanandi/3197358136/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11878867

The flowers of Indian coleus (Plectranthus barbatus) (Photo Four)

Now, as you know I am fascinated by the superstitions that grow up around plants. For the coleus, I have had to turn east to the plant’s home range, and here it appears that to have a plant in the house may a) attract bankruptcy, b) attract fire (probably because of the plant’s flame-coloured leaves or c) attract poverty if it starts to bloom in the winter. Coleus is also believed to take revenge on its owner if it isn’t looked after properly. All in all I seem to have had a flat full of trouble, which I then visited on all my friends and relatives. Goodness! Maybe it’s best kept as a bedding plant after all, though to be fair the article that also points out that the coleus has ‘a powerful positive energy and can bring success in business’. I find it difficult to believe that such a bright and cheerful-looking plant can bring many disasters.

And here is a rather fine poem by Richard Swanson, who lives in Wisconsin. Who among us hasn’t tried to protect our garden from the inevitable onset of winter? Some of us (ahem) have been known to sneak out in the soon-to-be-frozen garden with buckets to protect the frogspawn from the promised frost, regardless of what the neighbours think….

First Frost Night
by
Richard Swanson
We’re frantic, trying to save them,
our summer’s offspring, our garden children.We’re cloaking the roses with deer hunter ponchos,
spreading old denim shirts on pumpkins,
capping Swiss chard with grocery store bags.
Maybe — can’t go there but we will — we’ll sneak out
Heather’s prom dress to shield a squash vine.The neighbors recoil at our refugee draping.
Who cares! We’ll pretend we’re rich eccentrics,
beyond the rules of normal behavior.

We’re hauling in pots, that begonia, this foxglove,
a coleus now in an armchair.

The cats, displaced, are spooked.
We’re their mewling hiss, not their meow.

Begging forgiveness, out the door we go,
on one more rescue mission.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Bjoertvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48784530

PhotoTwo by Raw PIxel from https://www.flickr.com/photos/vintage_illustration/43332091102

Photo Three by By Manojk – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17497669

Photo Four by By mauroguanandi – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mauroguanandi/3197358136/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11878867

Bugwoman on Location – A Trip to Smithfield

Animal trough in West Smithfield

Dear Readers, I used to work in the Smithfield area but hadn’t been back for ages, so I decided that the area was ripe for a re-visit. As I stepped off the number 17 bus, the smell of the place drifted back to me; Smithfield is London’s wholesale meat market, and I remember the distinctive smell of blood from the carcasses that are processed here.  Smithfield Meat Market was the site of slaughter of over 74,000 cattle and a million and a half sheep per year , right up to the 1850’s. Animals were driven via Highgate and Islington from all over the country: animals too weak to walk the past few miles were often killed in Highgate, which used to have a preponderance of butcher’s shops (and pubs for the drovers to ‘wet their whistle’).The raised pavements in these areas were to prevent the smart ladies and gentlemen from getting their clothing soiled by all the dung from these benighted creatures.

Smithfield was second only to Tyburn as  the site of many executions, including the Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler and the Scottish knight Sir William Wallace, of Braveheart fame. Swindlers and forgers were boiled to death in oil here in the 15th Century. In short, the amount of human and animal misery that these stones have witnessed should surely have left their mark. Peter Ackroyd, that august chronicler of the Capital, believes that certain places in the city retain their character in spite of attempts at modernisation. It will be interesting to see if this plays out in the Smithfield area.

There is an extraordinary amount of building going on. I spend a lot of time trying to get my bearings, and on every corner there seems to be a chap in a high-vis jacket and a hard hat, shouting about deliveries into a mobile phone.  Many of the old buildings remain, after a fight to retain them, and the Museum of London is due to be relocated here at 2021. There is lots of modernisation but I also read recently that it is planned that the meat market, along with Billingsgate fish market (currently in Poplar) and Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market (in Leyton) will all be relocated to Barking. What will happen to the remaining Smithfield buildings remains to be seen.

The entrance to the Grand Avenue at Smithfield

A Smithfield Dragon – symbol of The City of London

However, this is all very well, but I am really here to investigate an interesting new project in the little park in West Smithfield. Wayward Plants is an organisation that, among other things, has been organising the ‘adoption’ of unwanted house plants from events such as the Hampton Court Flower Show, which can only be a good thing. In Smithfield, they have put up a ‘greenhouse’ called ‘The House of Wayward Plants’. This is a pun on the ‘Wardian Case’, which was very popular as a way of displaying and growing ferns during the Victorian era: you might remember that I have written about ‘fern mania’ or ‘pteridomania’ during this time, when whole areas were denuded of (sometimes rare) ferns by eager collectors. My first sight of the ‘House’ was from behind a human drinking fountain,

And when I got a proper view of it, I realised that two chaps were sitting on the table inside having their lunch. They agreed that it was a most excellent spot for sandwich munching, especially when it was raining.

As you might expect, the planters are full of ferns – maidenhair and male fern and our old friend hart’s tongue fern.

There is a programme of events being held in the House of Wayward Plants, including botanical drawing, gardening and music. I suspect that our diners may sometimes have to find an alternative spot for their sarnies.

The Smithfield gardens hold another surprise, however. They are very proud of their Caucasian Wingnut trees, who are in full flower at the moment. In spite of sounding like something that the Monty Python team would invent, these are magnificent trees, competing very well with the huge London plane trees that would normally dominate the space. I would have said that I had never seen one before, but in ‘Street Trees of London’, Paul Wood points out that there is a heavily pruned example in Islington, where I lived for eight years. It all goes to show how easy it is to just walk past things rather than paying them any attention.

Flowers of the Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia)

The tree comes originally from the Black Sea, and is native to the Caucasus (as you might expect) – the notice on the railings says that they come from Iran. The notice also mentions that you shouldn’t try to grow a Caucasian Wingnut in your garden, because it can grow to over 30 metres tall and has a dense, spreading canopy. I also rather like the fissured bark.

Onwards! I decide to have a wander through the grounds of St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Looking down the road, I can see the figure of Justice from the roof of the Old Bailey.

There is also a truly awful example of what The Gentle Author has dubbed ‘ghastly Facadism’ – developers seem to think that they’re doing their duty by preserving the front wall of a building whilst knocking up a dreadful generic glass office block (or some ‘luxury flats’) behind it. I have no idea what was here before, but I suspect that what replaces it will not be as interesting as what was there originally. It sometimes feels as if we are losing this part of London faster than we can fight the applications.

There is a restful courtyard in the middle of the hospital complex, with some sympathetic pollinator plantings and a fine fountain.

This is one of the oldest parts of London, still full of winding medieval streets. There are two churches which are associated with the hospital and the parish, St Bartholemew the Less (which is actually in the church grounds) and dates back to the 12th century, and St Bartholemew the Great, which was founded as an Augustinian friary in 1123.

St Bartholemew the Great

This hasn’t stopped the building of one or two strangely unsympathetic buildings, however.

And as I wend my way through, I can’t resist finishing my walk with a visit to the planting at the Barbican, just to see how it’s settling in. As usual, I’m  not disappointed. I’m especially pleased with how the waterside planting is going, Even on this dull day, there are plenty of bees and hoverflies about.

And so, it’s time for my sandwich and a flat white. I am a little underwhelmed by the Wayward Plants greenhouse (though the idea is fascinating, and I am pleased with the ‘recycled plants’ idea). However, I have seen my first Caucasian wingnuts, and am pleased to have reminded myself of the byways of Smithfield. London is endlessly fascinating, and you can find interesting plants in the most unlikely places.