Monthly Archives: September 2019

Bugwoman on Location – The Search for Green

Dear Readers, I have just completed week three in my new job. The office is based in the heart of the City, round the corner from Bank and Cannon Street stations, and this is my usual lunchtime view. Note the strange skyscraper on the horizon – a friend of mine was once convinced that the country was being taken over by Owl People, and cited this (and the MI6 building at Vauxhall) as proof. Personally, I think that the Owl People might make a much better job of it all.

Anyhow, it’s fair to say that the City is bustling, fast-paced and impersonal. It makes me feel like a very small frog in a very large pond, and so I decide to do what I always do in these circumstances – try and find something alive to ground me. So, this week I explored the little area between Cannon Street and King William Street, and found some very strange things.

Right opposite the office is St Stephen Walbrook church, a most magnificent edifice. But does it have a churchyard? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.

The tower of St Stephen Walbrook.

The churchyard

Like so many spots around here, it is completely hemmed in by office buildings. This is a nice, calm, peaceable place to have a read and a think, though. It is also blessed with vast beds filled with liriope, which seems to be the plant du jour around these parts. They have the alternative name of ‘lily-turf’. Who knew?

A liriope-fest

There is a rather uninspiring modern concrete pond at the other end of the churchyard, with a dead box moth floating in it. I’m not sure that this bodes well for the hedges next year. What a pretty moth it is! I was most taken with it when I first spotted it at the Barbican, but this year there were clouds of them. The species seems to have taken to the UK with great enthusiasm, and our topiary will never be the same.

You can only exit the churchyard through the front gate – there is a very modern office block at the back of the space, but pedestrians are not allowed to walk through the atrium. There is so much private space in the City these days – I was slightly concerned that wandering about with my camera would attract some unwanted attention from the security guys who are everywhere, but I made sure that I was always taking my photos from public space.

On the way out, I spotted that Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans, was buried in St Stephens. He was also one of the original patrons of the Terence Higgins Trust (which campaigns on issues around HIV and provides services for people with the disease), and was at one point the chair of the Mother’s Union. He was a man of good conscience, and goodness knows that we need more people like him.

On the way out of the churchyard I am alarmed by this sign.

I suspect it relates to this very impressive metal fire-escape which is presumably lowered in the event of fire. I wouldn’t want to be underneath it, for sure.

I wonder if there is any other green space to be found, and the answer is ‘yes, but not for the likes of you’. There are several gardens and green spaces, all of them private.

There is at least some more liriope and some Japanese anemones to offer something for the pollinators though.

And then, I spot this.

And to the left of the sign is a small ornate wrought-iron gate. And it’s open. Well, that’s all I need.

In we go. My first surprise is that there is astroturf instead of a lawn.

And then, what on earth is this?

It appears that most of the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and that what remained was used by French Huguenots until 1820, when the rest of the church was demolished. The only part that still remains is the tower on the corner, to which I paid absolutely no attention, being distracted by the trees and the statuary. But here it is, indeed.

Photo One by By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The remaining tower of St Martins Orgar church (Photo One)

The churchyard is said to have been around since 1250, but I shall have to make the most of my visit, because, as I suspected, it is actually in private use – the very fancy picnic chairs and table should have given me a clue. I am guessing that the gate is left open so that the people who work in the office building behind the churchyard can have access. Still, at least I was able to have a quick look, and any place with astroturf is not going to do my soul good – I can just imagine the earthworms choking underneath.

It feels distinctly as if every non-human creature in the City has been squeezed into the smallest interstices between the glass and steel. Trees peer out, lean over, see themselves reflected in the mirror but can’t see one another. Maybe it’s just my mood, but it feels as if it’s a microcosm of what’s going on everywhere. However, I am determined to find somewhere a bit wilder, with a bit more room for nature. Watch this space for my meanderings.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Wednesday Weed – Tree Houseleek (Aeonium)

Tree Houseleek (Aeonium arboretum )

Dear Readers, when I wandered past my local retirement home last week I was stopped in my tracks by this magnificent succulent, which was poking its face through the fence. I am often impressed by what the residents grow in their small, west-facing gardens – one lady is growing potatoes in a bucket, while someone else is specialising in pelargoniums. This plant, however, is endemic to the floral biodiversity hotspot that is the Canary Islands – of 1600 species of plant, 680 are found naturally nowhere else in the world.  On the volcanic soils of its homeland (where it is known as the Bejeque),  the Aeonium develops into a ‘sub-shrub’, and has green leaves and bright yellow flowers. In case you wonder, as I did, what on earth a ‘sub-shrub’ is, the answer appears to be ‘a bush’.

I also wondered where the ‘houseleek’ name came from, for both this plant and for its smaller relatives. Apparently the word ‘leac’ in Anglo-Saxon meant ‘plant’, so the name literally means ‘house-plant’. I suspect that these exotic beauties have been kept indoors for a long, long time, if only because exposure to the elements in the UK normally means the end, at least for the more sub-tropical species.

Photo One by By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A wild tree houseleek on Gran Canaria (Photo One)

There are many ‘domesticated’ varieties of the plant: you might be familiar with the green version, where the leaves are edged with scarlet.

Photo Two by By Philipp Weigell - picture taken by Philipp Weigell, CC BY 3.0,

The green and red version (Photo Two)

There is also a variegated version, like this one from the Exotic Gardens in Monaco.

Variegated version (Public Domain)

I have always had a soft spot for succulents as house plants: when I was a child they seemed so exotic to me, and I loved the way that you could break off a plantlet, stick it in a pot, and away it went. Sadly, I also learned that you could kill them with kindness: too much water and their shallow roots rotted, their leaves turned to mush and a favourite plant was suddenly very much an ex-plant. But with a little neglect (and a regular inspection for white-fly) they flourished. Mum would sometimes rescue the plants from her office – as soon as a plant looked ragged the plant-care company would throw it away, but Mum often came home with an enormous succulent in a black bin bag.

‘All it needs is a little love and attention’, she’d say, and within a few monts it would be magnificent. We didn’t have a lot of room in our little house in the East End, but we surely had some fine house plants.

Aeoniums are part of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) which includes not only exotics like our plant, but Alpine flowers such as the Sempervivums or sedums. What they share are adaptations for preventing waterloss: in both semi-arid areas and mountainsides there is often thin soil (which allows water to flow away quickly) and exposure (which means that the sun and wind make a plant prone to dehydration). Aeoniums have thick leaves which store moisture and resist desiccation, and these leaves can curl up if the conditions are too hot or dry, resulting in something that looks a little like a globe artichoke. Once they flower they often die, which is why it’s worth potting up a few baby plants while the plant is still growing.

Mountain Houseleek (Sempervivum montanum)

In general, Aeonium plants cannot survive frost, but there are some naturalised populations in the Scilly Islands, where they take advantage of the balmier temperatures.

Now, I didn’t expect to find that this plant was edible, but I did find a rather interesting Youtube video, where the author eats the leaves of wild-harvested Aeonium arboreum that s/he finds on the coastline in Chile in a salad with tomato and cucumber (the plant is naturalised widely in many parts of the world where the climate is favourable). The spring leaves are apparently also used medicinally, principally for heart and liver problems. You can find the whole video here and very interesting it is too, especially on the subject of why the Canary Islanders only seem to have used the plant for medicinal purposes rather than as food (short answer – when you have bananas and mangoes why would you eat succulents?)

And finally, a poem. It’s rare that I read one that makes me laugh out loud, but this one did the trick, though I fear this is not its intention. The poet, John Gray (1866 – 1934), was romantically involved with Oscar Wilde ( he was possibly the inspiration for the character of Dorian Gray). He may also have been in a dalliance with the Arthur Edmonds of the dedication, who was Gray’s co-worker at the Confidential Enquiry Branch of the Civil Service.  Gray was part of the Aesthetic movement, and I can imagine him sitting at his desk, head in hand, a bouquet of lilies dying gently on the shelf behind him. He ended up as a Catholic priest, so at least this was only a passing phase.

In the poem, the ‘metal Burns’ is thought to be a bronze statue of the poet that stands in Victoria Embankment Gardens in London. And what a work this poem is! I love the ‘leprous daisies’ and particularly the ‘foul child’ – there is such a sense of languid distaste for all things wholesome and pure that I find myself reaching for the absinthe. And yes, the link with our poor plant is tenuous to say the least, though it is at least a ‘houseleek’. You try finding a poem about Aeonium and see where it gets you  :-).

by John Gray

To Arthur Edmonds

Geranium, houseleek, laid in oblong beds
On the trim grass. The daisies’ leprous stain
Is fresh. Each night the daisies burst again,
Though every day the gardener crops their heads.

A wistful child, in foul unwholesome shreds,
Recalls some legend of a daisy chain
That makes a pretty necklace. She would fain
Make one, and wear it, if she had some threads.

Sun, leprous flowers, foul child. The asphalt burns.
The garrulous sparrows perch on metal Burns.
Sing! Sing! they say, and flutter with their wings.
He does not sing, he only wonders why
He is sitting there. The sparrows sing. And I
Yield to the strait allure of simple things.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Philipp Weigell – picture taken by Philipp Weigell, CC BY 3.0,





Planning the Garden – Dry Shade

Dear Readers, as you will know I have been very neglectful of my poor garden during the past few years. But in the last few weeks there has been a flurry of cutting back and digging up (the box bushes were so well munched by box moth that it wasn’t worth keeping them) and so I am at the point of planning what to plant to keep the critters and the humans happy in the years to come.

My garden falls into two parts. It is north-facing, with heavy clay soil, and to add to the challenges, the left-hand side is extremely dry, with several medium sized trees, while the right-hand side is dominated by the pond. The garden has always been something of a challenge, but this time I am going to give it some serious thought. What can I plant that will thrive, look good, have a long season and keep the bees and other invertebrates happy? Here are my thoughts on the dry-shade part so far. Feel free to interject :-).

On the shrub front, I only really have room to add one plant, and so I am going for Oregon grape (probably Mahonia aquifolium). I have grown this before and know that it likes clay soil. My wildlife reason is that it is often the only thing in flower when queen bumblebees emerge during mild winters and early spring. I will need to plant it closer to the house, where it gets at least some sun – you can plant all the nectar-rich flowers that you like, but if the shade is too deep you will not attract very many insects.

Mahonia aquifolium

On the perennial front, my garden has long lacked hellebores, and I intend to make up that deficit this year. My Gardening for Wildlife book by Adrian Thomas mentions christmas rose but I might also look at our native species, such as stinking hellebore.

I will definitely be avoiding the pretty double-flowered varieties, which have less value for the creepy-crawlies. Hellebores are, again, early flowerers, which is a bonus.

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

I am hearing good things about some varieties of Heuchera (Coral Bells) as wildlife plants, which surprises me a little as I have always thought of them as pretty but useless. If you have any experience with this plant, do let me know. My book recommends Heuchera ‘Firefly’ in particular, but there are so many varieties these days that it makes my head spin. I have always had a penchant for the ones with lime-green foliage, especially when paired with the chocolate-brown ones. I think they remind me of the chocolate-lime sweets that I used to eat when I was a child.

Photo One by Ghislain118 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Heuchera sanguinea ‘Firefly’ (Photo One)

And then there is lungwort, or Pulmonaria. I love the way that the flowers change colour on this plant as each bloom is pollinated, and the spotted leaves remind me of a leopard. It’s another lovely woodland plant.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis)

Hardy geraniums will feature, of course. I already have a mass of dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) but it finishes very early in the year, and I need another plant to take up the baton. My book recommends Geranium x macrorrhizum (or Balkan cranesbill), and I noticed this doing very well in my Aunt Hilary’s garden, so I suspect it will be soon be popping up in mine! There are several varieties, with ‘Ingwerson’s Variety’ winning an RHS Order of Merit.

Photo Two by Muséum de Toulouse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) (Photo Two)

Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Ingersen’s Variety) (Photo Three)

For ground cover, I am thinking of some dead-nettles, probably Lamium maculatum, although I’ve had mixed experiences with it in the past – I think my dry shade is possibly too dry in parts even for this bruiser! I shall plant it in somewhere with a bit more sunshine this time, and am probably going to mulch everything this year as well.

Photo Four by MurielBendel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Lamium maculatum (Photo Four)

On the bulb front, I am addicted to fritillaries, and shall pop in a few more this year.

Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

There is a company in the UK called Farmer Gracy which does all manner of intriguing, and they have a remarkable selection of fritillaries that I’ve never heard of. It is the kind of website that makes one positively salivate, so be warned to hide your credit card before you pop in. I am tempted by several, including Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers’. There is also a green variety. Now that I am a working woman, maybe I’ll indulge…

Photo Five from

Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers (Photo Five)

Photo Six from

Fritillaria persica ‘Ivory Bells’ (Photo Six)

And of course, no woodland garden would be complete without some foxgloves. Mine self-seeded last year, but of course they won’t flower until 2021, being biennials, so maybe I’ll find some plants that will flower this year, so that I’ll then have a succession.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

And finally, a plant that I’ve never grown but which always seems like a pollinator-magnet is honesty . It has those lovely pink flowers, transparent seed cases in the autumn, and again it self-seeds. I shall definitely have a go this year.

Honesty (Annua Lunaria)

So, that’s the plan at the moment. I am considering various other plants (grape hyacinths, squill, snowdrops), but I will soon be running out of room (my garden is not enormous in spite of my ambitions!). Next week I shall be considering what to plant in and next to my pond, which is looking more like a muddy puddle than an oasis of calm at the moment, but if you have any thoughts on dry shade plants that have done well in your experience, do let me know. I haven’t actually bought anything yet!

Wednesday Weed – Damson

Damsons at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley

Dear Readers, my local greengrocer, Tony’s Continental on the High Road in East Finchley, London, is my go-to spot for unusual produce. Some fruits and vegetables come in and out of season at such a rate that you might miss them if you blink. And now is the season for plums of all kinds: the golden-skinned Victoria, the olive-coloured greengage, and our subject today, the night-hued damson. Unlike other plums, the damson errs on the side of astringency, giving it a mouth-puckering flavour that, when tamed down a bit with something sweet, makes it one of my favourite subjects for jam.

The name ‘damson’ is thought to come from the name ‘damascene’, meaning ‘Plum of Damascus’, and one theory suggest that the plant came to the UK with the Romans. Certainly damson stones have been found at some Roman sites during archaeological digs. Damsons are probably a domesticated variety of a subspecies of the wild plum known as the Bullace, and their full species name is Prunus domestica subspecies insititia variety damascena. Wild damsons occasionally pop up in hedgerows or on woodland edges, but all wild plums are extremely variable and difficult to identify. The fruit of the damson is dark indigo, with a slight bloom of pale blue and sometimes with small patches of rust. The ones in the photo below remind me of Europa, the moon of Jupiter, although I’ll admit that they are rather more ovoid. Damsons are, as anyone who has attempted to make jam with them will tell you, of the ‘clingstone’ variety – this means that the flesh clings to the stone, making them something of a pain to prepare for jam. However, many cooks boil them up intact and remove the the stones at the end, once the fruit is pulped and split. The stones are said to impart a subtle almond flavour, largely due to the small quantity of cyanide that they contain.

Photo One by By Jonathan Billinger, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Damson on the tree (Photo One)

Europa (from NASA – Public Domain)

At one time, damsons were an extremely popular food crop – they are said to be the only plums planted north of Norfolk, and were used extensively for commercial jam-making. The plants were also used as hedging in orchards to protect more delicate trees. They were taken to North America by English settlers in the eighteenth century and were thought to thrive better in the local conditions than other plum varieties. In some places, such as Idaho, the plant naturalised and can be found growing wild.

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

Damson Flowers (Photo Two)

With its dark colour, it’s no surprise that damsons were reputed to have been used in local dyeing industries. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how a variety of damson called the ‘Edlesborough Prune’ (from a village near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire) was used to provide dye for the Luton hat trade, while the ‘Aylesbury Prune’ was unique to the village of Weston Turville, and was used as a dye on the straw plaiting that was a cottage industry at the time. However, contemporary experiments with using damsons as a dye have been rather disappointing in terms of the colours produced – see this post from Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour for example. One conclusion is that the fruit was probably used primarily for eating, with only damaged fruit being used for dye as a side line. Another is that the ‘damson’ used for dyeing might have been a completely different plant, or that there might have been some trick to extracting the colour. It is clear, however, that there are a multitude of different, very local varieties of wild plum with varied characteristics. What a treasure of genetic diversity they could be!

Now, to return to the subject of jam. I have three books on preserving (my cookbook collection is only outnumbered by my collection of field guides and nature books) and they all have a different approach to this fruit. In ‘Five Seasons of Jam’, Lillie O’Brien suggests making a virtue of the damson’s high pectin content to make damson ‘cheese’ (a bit like quince paste). This also has the added benefit that the fruit is cooked with the stones in and then sieved, avoiding all that tedious stoning. In my second book, ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’ by Diana Henry, there is a gratifying concentration on alcohol, with a recipe for damson and gin jam (the damsons are cooked with the stone in, and these are then skimmed off). She also has a recipe for damson gin, which is very similar to sloe gin, one of my all-time favourite tipples. This involves piercing each damson with a skewer, but it produces a most delicious, warming drink that I associate with winter and with Christmas in particular. In my final book, ‘The Modern Preserver’ by Kylee Newton, there is a recipe for damson and orange jam. Kylee suggests using the preserve instead of raspberry jam in a Bakewell tart, a thought that gets my mouth watering. Apparently damsons also freeze well, so I think I shall have to rush to Tony’s and get a bag full for one of those days when I’m not run off my feet. Making jam is a most meditative and gratifying process, but it does take a bit of time.

Incidentally, damson wine was once a common drink in England: a nineteenth century source stated that ‘good damson wine is, perhaps, the nearest approach to good port that we have in England. No currant wine can equal it.'(Damson Wine”, in Hogg and Johnson (eds) The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman, v.III NS (1862), 264)

A display of damson jam from the Beamish Museum Co-Op (Photo Three)

Now, in my research for this piece I came across the most delightful website, called ‘Damson Plums‘ by Daiv Sizer. They moved into a house with an old damson tree in the garden, and were immediately smitten by the abundance of the fruit and the low-maintenance required by the plant. Daiv has created a complete guide to everything damson related, including history, recipes and the culture surrounding the plant. I had no idea that it had featured in so many poems by so many authors, from last week’s favourite Seamus Heaney to Shakespeare and Chaucer. The fruit also appears several times in the books of George Eliot, and in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’ the character Suke Damson, a wild and buxom village maiden, is seen by one critic as being ‘the juicy plum is ripe for Fitzpier’s plucking’ (Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Bronte, Eliot and Hardy, by Eithne Henson). But for this week’s poem I shall return to another favourite, Edward Thomas. Thomas wrote this poem in 1915 while he was in Essex, teaching map-reading to officers. He had been encouraged to sign up (although he was a mature man who didn’t need to enlist) after reading his friend Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Less Travelled’ – Frost intended the poem to be a way of gently mocking Thomas’s indecision during their woodland walks, but Thomas took it much more seriously. In 1917 he died at Arras in France, having been shot through the chest. Rarely can a piece of poetry have had such a devastating effect.

There’s nothing like the sun

There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said –
Or, if I could live long enough, should say –
‘There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.’
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.

– Edward Thomas






Bugwoman on Location – Alexandra Terrace, Dorchester

Alexandra Terrace starts just below the tree….

Dear Readers, when I visited Dad in his nursing home in Dorchester this week he was in very high spirits.

‘I’m called ‘Captain Tom’ now’, he announced, to my befuddlement.

All soon became clear. There had been a group boat trip from Weymouth to Portland and back, and Dad had been in charge of the steering for most of the way. He sat in the captain’s seat, and sailed the boat on the correct course (‘to the right of the yellow buoy!’), to much applause. He was a bit put out that he wasn’t allowed to keep the captain’s hat, but I hope to be able to find a substitute somewhere on the internet. Dad was absolutely delighted with himself, and so was everybody else.

Dad always loved any means of transport. He was always fiddling with motorbikes when he was a young man, and our first transport as a family was a motorbike and side car. Later we had the cars: Thunderball the Ford Popular, Sunshine the Ford Consul. A few days before he went into the nursing home, Dad took his Toyota ‘out for a spin’. I thought about stopping him, but realised that this might be the last chance he ever had to experience the joys of a country lane, and the freedom of his own transport.

Little did I know that he’d have the chance to ‘drive’ a boat full of elderly folk with dementia.

I have a feeling that if I sat Dad down in the driving seat of a car he’d know exactly what to do, and would be safe as far as the actual steering of the vehicle went. He just wouldn’t remember where he was, or where he was going. He still sometimes asks the staff if they’ll take him out to buy a second-hand car.

I love that he had this adventure, and that he had a chance to feel useful and competent again. I have been so obsessed with what Dad has lost that I sometimes forget what he is still capable of.

And so I left the nursing home feeling strangely lifted, and decided to detour via Alexandra Terrace, one of Dorchester’s many lanes and alleyways. It passes a Grade Two listed terrace of eight mid-nineteenth century houses, but what fascinates me are the little patches of garden outside. I have no idea if they are owned by the people who live in the houses, or if they’ve just ‘arrived’.

From Trinity Road, the view is most unprepossessing.

But I do love a brick wall, and the plant and animal communities that live there. There are ferns and spiders….

Ferns and a spider and moss

There is ivy-leaved toadflax, one of my favourite wall-weeds with its three-lobed flowers

And there are even some attractive bolts to stop the whole edifice from falling apart…

There is some buddleia, and therefore there are some pollinators, mostly hoverflies.

And there is a statue of a German shepherd dog that has seen better days. It reminds me of when I was a child and used to put my toy animals in amongst the dahlias in the summer, only to find them looking gaunt and traumatised later in the year.

I was very impressed by this crimson glory vine (Vitis coignetiae), whose leaves were almost as bit as my hand. I have been watching it through the seasons, but I love the way that the colour is just beginning to change, and the way that, in the second photo, the bunched stems are holding a feather. I shall have to pop back next month to see if the plant lives up to its name.

And as usual, when I slow down and start to breathe instead of dashing about with a to-do list the size of the Domesday Book, I notice things. I can feel myself coming home to myself. Going to see Dad is always a little stressful, because I don’t know how he will be. Sometimes, like this time, he is happy and laid back. Other times he will be agitated about something, and will want me to take him home. But a slow walk, with my camera as an excuse to pay attention, always helps me to focus.

I can smell that autumn is well underway, and see it too, in the many, many spiders who have emerged, in the state of the foliage, in the dampness in the air and filming the leaves of the montbretia.

The seedheads of the opium poppy look ready to pop, but the flowers of the snowberry are just emerging. It is that tenuous time of year, the tipping point when we could be in for a burst of late summer, or the first whispers of winter.

It feels that way with Dad, too. He will be 84 this year and yet he seems healthier than he has in years: he is finally putting back some of the weight that he lost, his COPD seems stable, and even mentally he seems to have reached a plateau. If you didn’t know him you might even wonder if he had dementia, but then, as I turn to leave the nursing home, he asks me to make sure that I tell Mum (who died in December) how well he steered the boat.

‘ I will, Dad’, I say. Though I have a feeling that she already knows.

And when I visit the following morning before I head back to London, he gets up after a few sips of the ‘frothy coffee’ that I brought him, and gently tells me that he’ll see me soon, but he’s off to have his shower. And off he goes, completely at home. It’s bittersweet, after all those years of looking after him and Mum, to realise that he doesn’t need me to care for him any more. For a second it reminds me of how it must be when your child runs into school without looking back for the first time.

My days of being a carer truly are over, though I will never stop caring. Now it’s up to me to decide what to do with the rest of my life.

Wednesday Weed – Black Bindweed

Black Bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus)

Dear Readers, it always makes me happy to find a ‘proper’ weed, one that I haven’t seen before but which is extremely common. Black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) is not actually a bindweed, but is a member of the Polygonaceae or knotweed family, and can be told from its close relative Russian Vine by its heart-shaped leaves, and smaller, less flamboyant flowers. This one has popped up at the top of my road, and is half-heartedly climbing up the drain pipe, although its natural habit is more prostrate. One possibility for its appearance in this very urban spot is that it’s an ingredient in bird food, and has been deposited here by a passing finch.

Black bindweed is an annual, and is thought to be a Neolithic introduction to the UK – one of its vernacular names is ‘wild buckwheat’, and and the seeds have been found in Bronze Age middens. The plant was probably sown with food crops such as barley, and harvested at the same time. The last meal of Tollund Man, a 2000 year-old corpse found in Jutland in 1950 included the seeds of black bindweed, along with barley, linseed and wild pansy. The man had been hanged, it is believed as a sacrifice to the goddess of spring, and he was then thrown into a peat bog, which preserved his body. There is a great peacefulness in his face, which I hope means that he didn’t suffer, poor soul.

The head of Tollund Man (Public Domain)

Black bindweed is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, and grows most commonly on disturbed land throughout its range. It is a most adaptable plant, and can grow up to an altitude of 3600m in the Himalayas. It is a much better behaved plant than some of its relatives, however: we have already mentioned Russian vine,  but another member of the genus is our old favourite Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Black bindweed can cause some problems, however: it is classified as an invasive weed in North America, and can cause damage to the cutters of harvesting machines if there is a heavy infestation in a field.


The seeds of black bindweed are a major food of the grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the UK’s native partridge. This species is on the Red List of endangered birds, largely because it is a bird of hedgerow and field margin, habitats that have been much reduced over the past fifty years. The bird has the largest egg clutch of any UK bird, with a record of 19 eggs in a single nest. Fortunately, the chicks are able to run around from birth, and grey partridge can be seen in ‘covies’, small groups of up to twenty individuals. If disturbed the birds will run rather than take to the air, which explains why the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) was introduced as game bird, it being rather more inclined to take flight. During the breeding season, the male grey partridge is said to have a call rather like a key being turned in a rusty lock.

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy - Grey partridge - Neusiedl - Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Grey partridge (Perdix perdix) (Photo One)

The plant is also the foodplant of the Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Laconobia oleracea), which is one of the most splendidly descriptive species names that I know.

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from

Bright-line Brown-eye moth(Lacobia oleracea) (Photo Two)

It is also the foodplant of the rare black-bindweed case-bearer micro moth (Coleophora therinella) a most intriguing insect whose larvae create tiny portable cases that they live in until they pupate. The adult moths have wingspans of only 13-16mm, so they are very easy to miss.

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from

Black-bindweed case-bearer moth (Coleophora therinella) (Photo Three)

And so, I find that my ‘new’ weed has actually been intertwining its stems with our lives for thousands of years. And, while this poem is not directly about black bindweed, it is about Tollund man, and about our dark, interconnected history in these small islands. Heaney wrote an excerpt from this poem in the visitor’s book at the Aarhus museum where Tollund man was on show. The way that he interweaves this sacrifice from the Bronze Age with the deaths in the Troubles is masterly. If you want to hear him read the poem, there is a link here.

Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Grey partridge – Neusiedl – Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from



All Change and a Handsome Visitor

Dear Readers, those of you who follow this page regularly will know that it’s been a difficult year. My Mum died in December. My Dad’s dementia has gotten worse, and he is now in a nursing home. For the two previous years I had been travelling up and down to Dorset to look after the pair of them, and was pretty much unable to work, both because of the emotional toll and because I knew that I couldn’t be reliable – an emergency could, and did, erupt at any moment.

It took six months after Mum’s death before I could even contemplate getting myself back into the world of work, but back in July the perfect opportunity arose. An organisation that is working with 98 cities worldwide to combat the climate emergency, C40, was looking for a part time reporting accountant, using exactly the software that I’ve been teaching and working with for twenty years. And on Monday I started work. It has been a lonely couple of years, and it is good to have colleagues, and to feel part of something again.

It’s strange, but in the midst of my elation at a whole new adventure I feel a little disloyal to Mum and Dad somehow. It’s hard to explain, but I feel as if, by getting back to my own life, I’m leaving them behind. And this is the first time that I’ve made a major life change without having Mum and Dad to talk to. It’s true that they often didn’t understand the finer nuances of all the techie stuff that I was doing, but they were always 100% on my side, delighted for me if I seemed happy, angry on my behalf if I was having a rant. And now Mum is gone. But I shouldn’t underestimate Dad. He was delighted when I told him that I had a new job, even though he wasn’t quite sure who I was. And if he’s forgotten about it, hopefully he’ll be delighted all over again when I see him next week and tell him how my first week has gone.

Incidentally the Bloomberg building, where I’ll be based when not working from home, is the most sustainable office building in Europe. Well worth having a look here.

I should also add, as required by Bloomberg’s social media policy, that any views expressed on this blog are my own, and shouldn’t be taken as representing the views of Bloomberg or C40.

Anyhow, the other effect of getting the job has been to make me look around at the house and garden and shake my head in amazement. How did everything get so overgrown and grimy? I guess that’s what two years of neglect will do for you! What was most striking was that the garden was not only a jungle, but the oak steps to the shed were rotten through, with all kinds of interesting fungi. It was only a matter of time before one of us went right through the wood whilst carrying a laundry basket full of underwear, so it has to be fixed. As a result, the garden is full of piles of rotting wood, and I’m wondering where to put a woodpile.

On Thursday I got up early to open the side door so that the builders could get in, and came face to face with a very handsome dog fox. What a surprise! And what was even more delightful was that, after an initial bout of wariness, he decided to hang around for a chat.

Not sure….

He sat in next door’s garden for a while, making up his mind about my intentions.

And then he hopped back into my garden to check out the pond.

He has a little bit of an eye infection, poor thing, but is otherwise in splendid health. I suspect that he might be one of the foxes who has stolen a boot from a bag of rubbish that was put out last week, and which keeps turning up in the garden. I put it away, and the next night it’s back out again.

Fox play things

Anyhow, this chap was in no rush to go, and sat patiently while I took endless portraits. Sometimes, foxes that are this confiding have toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease which makes them bolder, but maybe he’s just learned that humans can be useful. It always feels like such a privilege to have a wild animal so close.

And then I decided to go back indoors, but as I went through the kitchen door I looked around and he was about to follow me in! Well, this was a step too far, as my poor cat would have been horrified. But I couldn’t resist him, and so I threw out a small handful of dried food for him. I might have made a rod for my own back, but we’ll see. Who could resist him?

And here is a short film of him in full-on chomping action. Goodness only knows what the background noise is, probably my fridge, though it sounds as loud as a leaf blower.

Events like this seem so magical to me. It isn’t the first time that we’ve had foxes in the garden, but to spend time with one feels such a privilege. For those few moments I’m not worrying or planning or organising, I’m just being. There are so many stories even in a suburban garden – animals going about their lives, plants growing, fungi infiltrating an oak sleeper one mycelia at a time – and they have the ability to make me forget everything else. Plus, just as I was hungry for connection at work, I feel lost if I don’t make time to get out into nature and renew my connections there. For me, it is the cure for most of what ails me.


Wednesday Weed – Globe Thistle

Globe Thistle (Echinops sp.)

Dear Readers, I have always loved thistles, both for the way that they attract a wide range of pollinators, and for their extraordinary flowers. I know that not all gardeners are so impressed, and I’m sure if I’d been inundated with creeping thistle I might feel the same way. However, thistles seem to having their moment in the sun in UK gardens, with everything from cardoons to melancholy thistles popping up all over the place. It’s no wonder, then, that globe thistles were much favoured in Regent’s Park this year. I can’t help thinking that the fact that the plant is currently being marketed as ‘the blue hedgehog thistle’ might also be raising its popularity, although as ‘echinops’ is Greek for ‘hedgehog’ at least it comes by the name honestly.

The flowers of the globe thistle remind me of the Dale Chihuly exhibition that I went to at Kew Gardens recently, especially his sculpture ‘Sapphire Star’.

Sapphire Star by Dale Chihuly at Kew Gardens

It isn’t until I looked at the photograph of the flowerhead closely that I could clearly see how the globe is made up of long-throated individual flowers. The plant attracts honeybees and bumblebees, butterflies and shield bugs, beetles and hoverflies. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas suggests three species that are particularly good value for insects: Echinops ritro, Echinops bannaticus (which is the one in the photographs) and Echinops sphaerocephalus, a Russian species with whitish flowers. Some gardeners do mention that they have a spot of bother with the plants self-seeding themselves all over the garden, especially as the flowerheads look so sculptural and are often left over the winter for the birds.  All globe thistles are native to Europe, Central Asia and Africa as far south as the mountains north of the tropics, and are part of the daisy family Asteraceae.

White echinops

The young leaves of the globe thistle are apparently edible, though the Plants For a Future website only gives it a 1 out of 5 for edibility. The leaves are extremely spikey so I imagine they’d have to be very young indeed to be toothsome. In Asia Echinops species have historically been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, including the treatment of skin complaints, sexual problems, issues around breast-feeding and to kill internal parasites. In Morocco it has long been considered helpful during and after childbirth: a decoction of the roots was said to aid the expulsion of the placenta.  In Egypt it is used to treat high blood pressure. In short, the different species of Echinops have been used for many of the medical problems that beset humans, and it would be interesting to know how efficacious they are.

In an interesting paper on healing and the folklore of the saints in Russia, Valeria Kolosova explains that the globe thistle Echinops sphaerocephalus is known as ‘Adam’s Head’, and that flowers placed under the pillow are said to prevent a child from having nightmares. The resemblance to a head is also thought to indicate the plant is efficacious against headaches.

As you might remember, I sometimes find that a plant is the ‘birthday flower’ for a particular day. I discovered that Echinops is the flower for the 18th August, and also, finally, where the information comes from: Thomas Ignatius Forster (1789 – 1860) was a botanist, naturalist, poet, balloonist and practical joker who spent a lot of time trying to convince the world that there had once been a monastic calendar of ‘birthday flowers’. To read the whole story (and another interesting piece about the Victorian language of flowers) have a look at this publication by the RHS here.

And now, some poetry. I read with interest that in 2000 the Chelsea Physic Garden had a poet-in-residence, Sarah Maguire, who had also been a professional gardener. Maguire didn’t just want to do a few writing workshops, but instead ‘nested’ complementary poems amongst the plants in the beds that had been planted not for their aesthetic value, but because the plants they contained were related to one another. Many of these plants had not been written about by poets, so Maguire used a process of association. Under the Echinops, for example, she placed John Clare’s poem about a hedgehog:

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge,
Or in a bush or in a hollow tree;
And many often stoop and say they see
Him roll and fill his prickles full of crabs
And creep away; and where the magpie dabs
His wing at muddy dyke, in aged root
He makes a nest and fills it full of fruit,
On the hedge bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
And whistles like a cricket as he goes.
It rolls up like a ball or shapeless hog
When gipsies hunt it with their noisy dog;
I’ve seen it in their camps — they call it sweet,
Though black and bitter and unsavoury meat.

Maguire subsequently published an anthology of poems about plants, ‘Flora Poetica – The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse’. However, the state of the world impelled her to found the Poetry Translation Centre, which aimed to;

‘..assemble small groups of linguists, poets, and impassioned readers to produce readable and enjoyable English renditions of poems written in non-English languages. The intended result was equally simple: at a time when an entire people were being demonized to suit geopolitical interests and corporate balance sheets, silence was no longer an option, and translation, Maguire believed, was the “opposite of war,” and she waged that fight just as ruthlessly as the merchants of death she so deeply detested‘. (André Naffis-Sahely from World Literature Today)

Maguire died, aged 60, in 2017, having been the first poet sent to Palestine and Yemen by the British Council, and had been the only living English-language poet with a book in print in Arabic. What a loss to us all.