Dear Readers, 26th November would have been my Mum’s 84th birthday, had she not died in December last year. These firsts are hard, as people who have trodden this path before warned me: on Tuesday I went into work, did fancy things with spreadsheets, cried in the toilets intermittently and went home. And then, when I started to prepare the cabbage for dinner, I heard her voice in my head.
‘Look!’ it said.
And so I did. If Mum had still been alive, she would have called to me from the kitchen, and wouldn’t have given up until I came to see what was interesting. I can remember her in the days when she could still walk, hunched over with scoliosis and poised over a chopping board.
Maybe she’d found a carrot shaped like a pair of crossed legs, or something ruder.
Maybe she was entranced by the glistening magenta seeds inside a pomegranate.
Maybe there was a five-pointed star in the middle of a potato.
Or maybe it was the way that water drops form pure, translucent pearls amongst the indentations and veins of a Savoy cabbage.
She would have gestured at the vegetable with her (always blunt) knife.
‘Can you see it?’ she’d ask.
‘Can I see what?’ I’d say, with a greater or lesser degree of exasperation.
She’d smile enigmatically and wait for me to get it.
And then, like one of those optical-illusion puzzles that change suddenly, I’d see what she saw.
‘There’s a tormented demon in your cabbage’, I’d say, and she’d laugh. She saw characters everywhere – in wallpaper, in the grain of wood, in clouds, in the upturned faces of the pansies in the garden. She would have loved the fuse box that I spotted at Walthamstow Wetlands the other week.
For Mum, the world was full of people that went unnoticed, both in terms of images, and in terms of real folk who are often passed by. It was not unusual for me to meet her somewhere, only to find her sharing a cigarette with a homeless person that she’d made friends with outside the tube station, or ‘chatting’ with a lost tourist who spoke not a word of English. She reached beyond speech to find the common language that we all share: a need for connection, empathy, and beauty. She would compliment a complete stranger if she liked their dress, and once told a very well-dressed young man that the newspaper he was carrying had left a big print smudge on his face.
‘I could tell that he was going to an interview because he looked very nervous and kept checking his A to Z’, she said, ‘and he was very grateful when I told him. And I was right, he was going to an interview!’
Once, in Finsbury Square, Mum noticed a pigeon with its feet wrapped in string much like the one at Waterloo Station above. She had a pair of scissors in her bag, and, with some trepidation, approached a besuited chap at the next bench.
‘Excuse me’, she said, ‘but if you could just get hold of that poor pigeon, I’m sure I could cut it free’.
The guy looked at her with complete incredulity.
‘Madam’, he said, ‘you must be completely mad’.
And so the pigeon remained entangled, and Mum went back to work, sad and exasperated.
‘All he had to do was grab it!’ she told me that evening.
I should add that Mum also brought home many of the house plants from work that the company who looked after them deemed too tatty to grace the office. She would nurse them back to health with great satisfaction.
‘All they needed was a bit of TLC’, she’d say. People, animals and plants flourished under her kind attention, and she taught me that no living thing should ever be treated without respect, or written off. Her passion for the underdog was the thing that I loved most about her, and it was that that propelled me into so many of my own choices in life. She believed that that a community is only strong when there is room for everyone, and so do I.
But truly, Mum saw beauty everywhere. She loved the night sky, and I remember us standing at the back of the bungalow one night, not long before she died. It is very dark in the village, and we stood there, holding hands and looking up. Suddenly, there was a shooting star.
‘Quick, Mum, make a wish!’ I said, and she closed her eyes, and so did I. I wished for her to have better health, and to find peace, and one of those wishes was granted, though not in the way I wanted.
And so, I go on, as we do. But I often find myself trying to get complete strangers to pay attention to what’s around them. I point out a red moon, a flock of waxwings, a pied wagtail trying to find food outside Kentucky Fried Chicken, a robin singing at first light, and when I do I know it’s Mum speaking through me, still.
Dear Readers, I do hope that you’ll forgive the preponderance of tree-based posts over the past few weeks. It’s difficult to find more herbaceous species in the winter, plus I am intrigued by the variety of street trees around my office in the City of London. They are a solace when I’m overcome by the busyness and the sheer number of people, and I have come to see some of them as individuals: the swamp cypress in the Cleary Garden and the Indian bean tree in St Olave’s Court come to mind immediately. They have a lot to teach us about resilience and stoicism, about bending to circumstance and about making the most of resources. Plus, they are extremely good company, quiet, dignified and unlikely to want you to explain your spreadsheet in minute detail.
So, this week I am turning my attention to the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum). It comes from Southern Europe and Western Asia, and is a protected tree in Israel. The Cercis family is a genus in the pea family, Fabaceae, and this should come as no surprise if one looks closely at the flowers. The name ‘Cercis‘ comes from the Greek for ‘weaver’s shuttle’, which refers to the shape of the seedpods (see the photo below).
The one in the photo above cascades out of its bed at the back of the Guildhall, opposite the gardens of St Mary Aldmanbury. The church here was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, rebuilt and then bombed flat in the Blitz in 1940. The remains were taken and reconstructed in the grounds of Westminster College, Missouri as a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill.
The reconstructed church of St Mary Aldermanbury in Missouri (Photo One)
But I digress, as usual. The only other Judas tree that I know of is also related to a ruined church, on Marylebone High Street – it is in the Garden of Rest next to the Marylebone Elm, one of the Great Trees of London. The name ‘Judas tree’ comes from the legend that Judas Iscariot, full of shame after his betrayal of Jesus, hanged himself from a branch of the tree, so I wonder if its appearance in churchyards is a result of its Biblical connotations. The tree is supposed to have turned its flowers from white to red as a mark of its disgrace, although Paul Wood points out in ‘London’s Street Trees’ that many of the cultivars to be found in the Capital have white flowers.
What flowers, though! They burst straight out of the bark, and I look forward to revisiting ‘my’ tree in the spring.
The flowers of the Judas tree (Photo Two)
Sometimes the flowers dangle from the tree, however, and the seedpods certainly do, giving the appearance of little people hanging from the branches if you have a macabre turn of mind. I think that you would have to squint very hard to find that idea plausible. It is also said that if you tell a lie under a Judas tree you will drop dead, which makes a change, as regular readers will know, from dropping dead if you bring the flowers into the house. Yet another source mentions that the tree is a favourite haunt of witches, and that it is dangerous to go near it at night. The tree bears such a lot of negative connotations that it’s no wonder that the one that I saw is bowed over.
Other scholars, however, say that the name ‘Judas tree’ is a corruption of the French name for the plant, Arbre de Judée, meaning ‘Tree of Judea’, an area where the tree is commonly found, so all of the Judas myths might be founded on a misapprehension.
Flowers and seedpods of the Judas tree (Photo Three)
The flowers are pollinated by bees, but yet another folktale tells that the nectar is poisonous, and kills whoever feeds on the flowers. Not so, but handy as a cautionary tale to beware of temptation. In fact, the flowers are edible and are often pickled or thrown into a salad to add a touch of colour. The young leaves can also be eaten in salads.
In North America, the blossom of the closely related redbud trees (Cercis canadensis in the east of the continent, Cercis occidentalis in the west) is often used in the same way, and in fact the redbud is another London street tree, in particular the Forest Pansy variety, with its orange, red and purple foliage. It would be surprising if a city as diverse as London didn’t reflect this in its trees, and a walk around the City can often feel as interesting as a trip to a botanical garden.
An unusual white Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) in Missouri Botanical Garden (Photo Four)
Forest pansy redbud – autumn colour
Now, in the search for references to the Judas tree, I came across the sculptor Michael Winstone. Without understanding for a second exactly what he does, I found his work interesting, with an erotic tinge. What I do know is that each sculpture is based on a computer-scan of the bark of a particular tree, in this case a Judas tree (actually an Eastern redbud, but we’ll let him off). The computer then ‘grows’ this pattern organically, to make a form that is part tree, part human body. Sometimes, the tree itself will have disappeared, but its uniqueness is preserved in digital form. The title of each sculpture gives its exact original geographical location, in this case Forest Row, which appears to be midway between Crawley and Royal Tunbridge Wells.
The city of Istanbul is especially rich in Judas trees (known there as erguvan), and their blossoming heralds the beginning of spring. The purple-pink colour of the buds is reminiscent of the royal purple of the Byzantine emperors, and during Ottoman times the buds were gathered for food and the wood turned into walking sticks. Today, the trees are becoming a major tourist attraction, much like the cherry blossom in Tokyo.
Judas trees flowering in Istanbul (Photo Six)
And now, a poem. There is a lot of poetry about the tree’s association with Judas, but I wanted to commemorate the tree’s origins in the Middle East, where it is best loved and understood. This work is by the much-loved Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, and was written to commemorate his friend Vartan, an Armenian Iranian who was arrested by the Iranian secret police (SAVAK) because of his affiliation to the illegal Communist party. He was tortured in order to get him to reveal the names of his comrades, and the location of a printing press, but remained silent, and died as a result of his injuries. Shamlou had to replace the name ‘Vartan’ with ‘Nazli’ because of censorship concerns until after the Iranian revolution of 1979. As with much poetry written under authoritarian regimes, there is a lot of symbolism here, especially with regard to the coming of spring and the end of winter, but I think it also works on its own merit. See what you think.
Under the window in our house, the old lilac has blossomed. Dispel all your doubts! Don’t wrestle with the ominous Death! Being is better than not being, especially in spring …” Vartan didn’t say a word: Gloriously He suppressed his anger and then went away … – “Vartan, say something! The bird of silence is waiting for the offspring of a horrible death to hatch its egg!” Vartan didn’t say a word: Just as the sun, he rose in the dark, set in the twilight of blood, and then went away … Vartan didn’t say a word. Vartan was a glowing star, momentarily glistened in the dark, and then vanished for good and all. Vartan didn’t say a word. Vartan was a violet: He came into blossom and gave us the good news, “Winter has fallen apart.” and then went away. – “Vartan, spring has arrived and the Judas tree is in flower”.
Judas tree in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris (Photo Seven)
Dear Readers, it saddens me that so many people living in the UK have never seen a truly mature ‘English’ elm (Ulmus procera). Although the tree always had a melancholy reputation (it had a habit of dropping branches without warning, and was a popular wood for making coffins) it seemed such a part of the English landscape, and featured in the paintings of Constable. Actually, the elm was probably introduced by Bronze Age farmers, but we loved it none the less, and thought that it would always be here. But like so many things, we didn’t notice it until it was gone, which was what happened in the 1960’s when Dutch Elm disease arrived, in the form of some Canadian timber intended for use in the small boat industry. This is a fungal disease spread by burrowing beetles: the tree responds to the fungus by plugging up its own veins to prevent the infection, but this also prevents the tree from receiving nutrients and water, and so it eventually dies. Over 25 million trees died in England alone, and France lost 90 percent of its elms. Today, you can see young elms in hedgerows, as the roots aren’t affected and can send up suckers which will reach approximately two metres tall before the fungus kicks in, but mature elms are extremely rare: there is a fabulous specimen on Marylebone High Street, and Brighton is an elm ‘hotspot’, with 15,000 elms: this is partly due to the relative geographical isolation of the town (which is between the English Channel and the South Downs) and partly because a very close eye is kept on the trees, with remedial cutting and pruning occurring at the first sight of any problems.
Which brings me to these trees, reflected in the glass of the Salvation Army building on Queen Victoria Street.
The first thing to say is that these are not straightforward elms: they are New Horizon elms, a cultivar produced by scientists in Wisconsin. They crossed a Japanese elm tree (Ulmus davidianavar Japonica) with a Siberian elm tree (Ulmus pumilla) to produce a tree which rates 5 out of 5 for Dutch Elm disease resistance. In tests, the saplings apparently develop portly trunks in relationship to their height, but these trees seem very elegant to me. It does appear that they are all bending away from the building, which is probably because that wall of glass is preventing the crown from growing symmetrically. Let’s hope that they don’t all topple over.
Despite being named ‘Best New Plant Variety’ by Horticulture Week in 2005, New Horizon has had mixed fortunes in the UK. It appears to grow very slowly compared to other cultivars, and to dislike heavy, water-logged soil (of which London has a profusion). However, it has withstood flooding (just as well I suspect), and in 2017 a group of New Horizon elms in Vauxhall were found to be hosting a population of the white-letter hairstreak ((Satyrium w-album), an endangered butterfly that is completely reliant on the elm tree: the caterpillars feed on the flowers, leaves and fruit, they pupate in a crevice in the bark, and then the adults feed on honeydew secreted by aphids at the top of the tree . When the elms started to die, the butterfly had nowhere to go. What a wonderful thing it would be if the Vauxhall butterflies ‘found’ this little grove and started to use it! You would have to use binoculars to see them, however, as they rarely descend to human height.
White-letter hairstreak (Photo One)
I was unsure about how to identify an elm, but there are a couple of useful signs. The first is that the base of the leaves is asymmetrical, and the leaves themselves are heavily veined, a bit like those of hornbeam.
An elm leaf showing its asymmetrical base
And how about those seeds? They look positively edible, though I wouldn’t advise it.
Elm ‘samara’ (seeds) (Photo Two)
And finally, here are the flowers of an elm tree. In mature trees they are very high up, and so they are unlikely to attract much attention.
Elm flowers (Photo Three)
So, given half a chance maybe one day these trees will elbow the surrounding buildings out of the way, and achieve the massive girth and advanced years of some European elms. One that survived for an estimated 650 years (until it finally succumbed) was the Biscarrose Elm in France, and what a venerable elm it was.
The Biscarrosse Elm (Photo Four)
I couldn’t leave my morning in the City, however, without visiting the swamp cypress in the Cleary Gardens that I wrote about a few weeks ago. When I last saw it it was lime green. Look at it now! It was glowing in the early winter sun. I was so pleased to have caught it before it sheds its needles, and even more pleased when I spotted an enormous queen bumblebee feeding on the ivy. Having been so frustrated at the lack of natural space in my immediate surroundings, it is such a delight to realise that, if I wander a little further, there is more than enough to keep me happy.
Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes) in Monmouth (Photo One)
Dear Readers, I was so taken by the Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes) that I found growing in St Olave’s Court in the City of London last week that I thought I’d investigate a bit further. This is a magnificent street tree, with its enormous leaves, striking bean pods and extraordinary flowers, and you may sometimes see the golden-leaved cultivar ‘Aurea’, which adds another element to the tree’s attractiveness with its lemon-hued foliage. It is such an unusual plant that I can’t believe I’ve never paid it any attention before. Apparently the bean pods are sometimes used by children as a sword/light sabre substitute, and I can see why.
Indian Bean Tree ‘Aurea’, showing off those beans (Public Domain)
Indian bean trees, or catalpas, come originally from the southern states of the US, and one of their alternative names is ‘cigar tree’. The photo above shows why. The name ‘catalpa’ might derive from the Muskogee word ‘kutuhlpa’, which means ‘winged head’ – inside the beans are winged seeds which will spin away in a breeze to find a new growing site. Once landed, the trees seem to have a habit of spiralling towards the light, leading to some very eccentric growth patterns. I noted last week that the tree that I saw seemed to be determined to reach the small window of sunshine between the buildings that surrounded it, and some other images show the same determination.
The Indian bean tree in St Olave’s Court
An Indian bean tree in the private gardens of Louvignies castle in Belgium (Photo Two)
The main reason for planting this tree is, however, for its flowers. Goodness. They appear in July, and I shall have to put a date in the diary to remember to go and look. If I told you that one of the closer relatives of the catalpas is the house plant incarvillea, I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised. The first Indian bean tree is said to have arrived in the UK in the eighteenth century, brought here by Mark Catesby, who published the first ever guide to the natural history of the Americas between 1729 and 1747.
Catalpa flowers (Photo Three)
Incarvillea delavayi ‘Snowtop’ (Photo Four)
But what really intrigues me about the Indian bean tree is that, most unusually, it produces nectar in its leaves. I mentioned this in my original post, but something about it had me scratching my head. Producing nectar is expensive for a plant, which is why it is usually a way of attracting insects for pollination, so why would this tree ooze sugar from the veins in its foliage? I had to dig a bit, but a reason finally appeared.
The Indian bean tree’s leaves are the only food of the caterpillar of the catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae). The larvae can completely strip a tree of its leaves, sometimes several times per year. It can be so damaging that the first ever trial of aerial crop dusting was an attempt in 1921 to get rid of the caterpillars from a catalpa farm. The jury seems to be out as to whether the insects actually cause long-term harm to the tree, with some people arguing that the frass from the larvae is such a good fertilizer that on balance the Indian bean tree is not harmed, and others saying that they regularly give their tree a good hose down to stop the worst depredations of the ‘catawpa worm’.
Catalpa sphinx moth caterpillars munching on Indian bean tree leaves (Photo Six)
However, the tree is not without help. Enter the bodyguard ant (Forelius pruinosus). A 2003 study by J.Ness showed that when the caterpillars attacked a catalpa, it started to produce the nectar from its leaves. This in turn attracted the ants who not only enjoyed the sweet treat, but turned their attentions to the caterpillars. Hence, the depredations of the moth were not as bad as they might have been. When in balance, nature seems to have an answer for everything.
Incidentally, the caterpillars are a great favourite as bait for anglers, and in some parts of the US catalpa trees are planted just so that the ‘worms’ can be harvested and used to catch catfish.
Fortunately in the UK we don’t (yet) have the catalpa sphinx hawkmoth, so I think those lovely big leaves are safe for the moment.
The wood of the Indian bean tree was once used for fencing and for furniture making. The tree is sometimes now planted in areas of soil erosion, because the roots can help to hold the soil together, and historically the tree was often planted as a shade tree, close to the house. The huge leaves provide shelter and shade for birds too, although I’m not sure how far they eat those catalpa caterpillars – the tree produces a chemical which will deter most herbivores, and these substances are often bitter and unpleasant, so maybe the caterpillars don’t taste so good.
Baltimore orioles sheltering beneath the leaves of an Indian bean tree, from ‘The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Isles’ by Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749) (Photo Seven)
The beans and bark have been used as a cough medicine and to reduce the symptoms of asthma, and a distillation of the fruit has been used as a cure for conjunctivitis. The roots, however, are very poisonous.
And now, a poem. While the Indian bean tree is very beautiful, many US websites also describe it as what might politely be called ‘a pain in the backside’. The flowers drop off and turn to mush, the beans do the same, occasionally whole branches crack and hang, the leaves are either eaten by catalpa worms or fall and make the paths slippery. And yet. John Ciardi (1916-1986) seems to sum up the dilemma in his poem ‘The Catalpa’, which is not just a consideration of this tree, but of what price we put on the beauty of a moment.
Dear Readers, this week I have mostly been playing with spreadsheets, moving costs from one project to another and then, on receiving subsequent information, moving them back again. It feels like the modern-day equivalent of poor Sisyphus and his stone, but at least any backache I get can be alleviated by going out on the hunt for another bit of green in the City. This week I headed off to Guildhall, where a reader had mentioned that there was a pond. I couldn’t find it at first, and the area in front of the Guildhall itself (which was once the site of a Roman amphitheatre) is relentlessly un-green. It does have some wonderful busts looking over it though, including one of Cromwell looking positively apoplectic.
Although the Guildhall itself dates from 1411, some of the buildings around it are most definitely more modern. The church of St Lawrence Jewry also abuts the site – it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (who also has a bust overlooking the yard)and was so named because of its proximity to the old Great Synagogue which existed just across the way. This area is such a palimpsest of the different layers of history – many buildings were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London, and many more were damaged during the Blitz. You might argue that the building boom in the 1960s also contributed to the general mayhem.
St Lawrence Jewry and the London Police Museum
But where’s the pond? I advance towards the tree in the upper left-hand corner, and voila!
Pond outside St Lawrence Jewry
It has a little bit of a duckweed problem to be sure, but how refreshing to find some water bubbling away in the middle of the City. Whilst we are unlikely to spot any kingfishers, there was a determined London pigeon picking over the leaves in the corner. I had seen him (or her) being shooed away by a young City gent earlier, but this wasn’t going to stop him investigating the leaves in the corner of the pond for something edible. I love how, in the absence of opposable thumbs, pigeons still manage to break their food into manageable chunks.
The seats by the pond are made of stone, and are a bit cold and uncomfortable at this time of year. I thought that, having spotted the pond, I would head back to my spreadsheets but somehow my feet had other ideas.
What was going on here, for example?
This rather sooty row of birches leads down to the gardens of St Mary Aldmanbury. On the way, I pass a Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) – this will be absolutely splendid in springtime, when the pink flowers erupt straight out of the bark. At the moment it’s the leaves that are splendid, with each one seeming to want to variegate in its own unique way. In some, the golden colour seems to be coming from the central vein, in others the leaf is going yellow from the edge inwards, in still others all the veins are picked out in green. The whole tree seems like a hymn to organised chaos. I am finding a lot of trees to fall in love with in the Square Mile.
Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum)
Across the road is Love Lane and St Mary Almandbury Gardens.
I go for a little wander, and discover my second swamp cypress in a fortnight, having never seen one before. This one is dropping its needles and looks frankly unwell. No wonder folk used to take one look at this tree and think that it had contracted a terrible disease.
The gardens themselves have a memorial to two of Shakespeare’s players, Heminge and Condell, who were co-partners with him in the Globe, and who put together the First Folio in 1623, giving away their own rights . Shakespeare had died in 1616 with no plan to publish his plays, so who knows what would have happened if it hadn’t been for them? And then there are the sonnets. Sonnet 73 feels particularly appropriate for this time of year, especially after my personal tribulations during the past twelve months.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou see’st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west, Which by and by black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the death-bed whereon it must expire, Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Somehow I still don’t want to go back to work. Opposite the garden there is an impressive fountain, the water rippling gently over the sea-green glass.
I start to circle back, and the brash modern buildings of the City come back into view, towering over the venerable old ladies of the Mansion House and the Bank of England.
But wait! There is a little alley, and I never could resist one. Surrounded by offices, there is a tiny pocket park. A young woman is having a loud conversation on her phone, and a courier is having a sneaky smoke before he jumps back onto his bike. But it’s this tree that astounds me. It reminds me of a caged tiger, hemmed in but still determined to get out. It has twisted in its confined quarters until it can see the sun, and at the very top there are a handful of pods from last year’s fruiting. The papery leaves are the size of dinner plates, and I realise that this is a very tall Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes), a tree that was introduced back in 1726 from the banks of the Mississippi, and which seems to tolerate the pollution of the City very well. The flowers are said to be remarkable and bloom in July, when everything else has finished. Also, the leaves secrete nectar, a most unusual attribute, and one which probably makes the tree a friend to all manner of pollinators, who will be getting a meal for nothing (thanks to Paul Wood’s ‘London Street Trees’ for the information).
Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes)
The Indian bean tree in St Olave’s Court
And now, I really must be getting back to work, but my spirits are lifted, and even if I have to move the costs in my spreadsheet to another location, I shall not sigh heavily or even raise my eyebrow a fraction. Such is the power of a little spot of green.
Dear Readers, at this time of year there are few vines that are exquisitely coloured as good old Virginia Creeper. It can carpet whole walls, turning them into a vision of scarlet and russet, lime green and gold, before the leaves drop off and everything returns to normal. Unfortunately, in the UK it is far from its original home in North America, and is a Schedule 9 species – this means that it is illegal to plant Virginia creeper in the wild, and if planted in a garden it is expected that ‘reasonable measures will be taken to confine (the plant) to the cultivated area to prevent their spreading to the wider environment’. The problem is that it can quickly swamp other plants and in particular it can pull down saplings and young trees. I know this from personal experience – the demure little vine that was planted next to my shed rapidly found a way to infiltrate through the window and out through the door in one direction, and to choke the crab apple in the other direction. To say that it is enthusiastic would be an understatement. Virginia creeper first arrived in the UK in 1629, and seems to have been covering our walls and stately homes ever since.
The RHS in collaboration with the charity Plantlife have produced a very handy guide to gardening without using invasive species – you can download it from here.
Virginia creeper (Photo One)
The generic name ‘parthenocissus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘virgin ivy’ – whether this is how the plant got the name ‘Virginia creeper’ or if the Greek name was derived from the English one remains to be seen. Certainly the plant is found in the state of Virginia in the United States so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. The species name ‘quinquefolia’ means ‘five-leaved’, and, if you’re in North America, this is one way of distinguishing the plant (which has five leaflets on each lea) from poison ivy, which has only three. However, the leaves of Virginia creeper do contain tiny needles of calcium oxalate – these are known as raphides, and can cause blistering and irritation in susceptible people.
Raphides are produced in response to a surplus of calcium in the soil, and are found in a wide variety of plant species. They may help to support the plant structurally, but they may also have evolved as a protection against herbivorous animals who might otherwise snack on the leaves: those vicious little needles help to speed toxins produced by the plant into the soft tissues of the mouth and throat.
Raphides at x600 magnification (Photo Two)
Virginia creeper produces attractive dark blue berries in the winter, which become apparent once the leaves have dropped off. These are enjoyed by birds, but contain very high levels of oxalic acid, which can be poisonous to humans (though I suspect that this substance would make the fruit very unpalatable).
Virginia creeper berries (Photo Three)
Different climbing plants use different methods to gain a bit of height. My climbing hydrangea produces roots along its stem to help it cling to my north-facing wall, and clematis and bindweed use their stems to encircle and embrace any nearby vegetation. Virginia creeper, however, uses little adhesive pads that remind me superficially of geckos’ feet.
Those little adhesive pads…(Photo Four)
But why do plants climb at all? The great advantage of being a climber is that you don’t have to waste a lot of energy growing a structural support such as a trunk – you can find a tree that’s already done all the work (or a rock or telegraph pole or wall) and use that as a way of accessing light and keeping your tender growing shoots out of the way of passing herbivores. Many climbing plants originated in tropical areas, where dense vegetation meant that they had to be able to grow even in relative darkness, until they reached a height where they could ‘see’ the light. In ‘The Encyclopfdia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences (Volume 2)’ edited by Cara Linn Daniels and C.M. Stevans, the symbolic meaning of Virginia Creeper is said to be ‘I cling to you in both sunshine and shade’. And yes, Encyclopaedia is spelt with an ‘f’ in this case.
‘It has often been vaguely asserted that plants are distinguished from animals by not having the power of movement. It should rather be said that plants acquire and display this power only when it is of some advantage to them; this being of comparatively rare occurrence, as they are affixed to the ground, and food is brought to them by the air and rain.’
And so it is with the Virginia creeper: in my garden, it is not until the leaves start taking on their autumn hues that I can appreciate how far and how fast it has grown in the course of a season.
A cheeky leaf emerging in spring (Photo Five)
Virginia creeper has been used as a treatment for urinary disorders and in the treatment of malaria. It was also part of the medicine used by the Navajo in their nine-day long Mountain Chant Ceremony, which is held at the end of winter, and is considered to be a healing ceremony, not only for individuals who may be sick but for the whole of the Navajo universe.
Now, you might think that a plant as cheerily as gaudy as an autumn Virginia creeper would not inspire dread. Dear readers, I present to you a painting by Edvard Munch, entitled ‘Red Virginia Creeper’.
‘Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900) by Edvard Munch (Public Domain)
The whole house seems to have been dipped into a pot of blood, while the young man appears to be frozen in existential dread. The tree has been viciously pollarded, the path looks like frozen mud, and the sky is leaden grey. Goodness. All in all, it isn’t a cheerful scene, though is that a marigold that I see in the bottom left-hand corner? One can but hope.
According to the Edvard Munch website, Munch was in a relationship with the daughter of a wealthy wine-merchant at the time that this work was painted: Virginia creeper is a member of the vine family. Furthermore, Munch apparently dreaded the ‘entanglement of marriage’. I suspect that one could lose many cheerful hours trying to work out exactly what Munch’s paintings mean. Suffice it to say that the red hues of the Virginia creeper did not lighten his mood one jot.
Virginia creeper on the New Inn pub (Photo Six)
And finally, a poem. Here is ‘Creeper’ by John Updike, the ninth in a ten-poem sequence published in The New Yorker back in 2009. Updike died in January 2009, and there is much in this poem that is valedictory. ‘Quite quits’ indeed. May we all meet our ends with such a sense of contentment.
With what stoic delicacy does
Virginia creeper let go:
the feeblest tug brings down
a sheaf of leaves kite-high,
as if to say, To live is good but not to live—to be pulled down with scarce a ripping sound, still flourishing, still stretching toward the sun— is good also, all photosynthesis abandoned, quite quits. Next spring
the hairy rootlets left unpulled
snake out a leafy afterlife
up that same smooth-barked oak.
Dear Readers, while much of the UK is based to receive a month’s worth of rain in a single day tomorrow, East Finchley is basking in November sunshine. I have had to disinter my faux-fur hat from under a pile of shoes at the bottom of the wardrobe and dig out my polo neck, but it’s worth it for a chance to trot around the County Roads and see what’s going on. What is largely going on is a whole lot of leaves. This crab apple is distributing its largesse all over the pavement, and I rather liked the juxtaposition with a puddle.
Plus there are still a few crab apples left on the tree, waiting for the parakeets to find them.
Some trees are not a hundred percent happy with losing their leaves, it seems, and hang on to a few stragglers.
Many starlings no longer fly off to Africa in the autumn – why would they, when our gardens are stuffed to the gunnels with goodies? But sometimes I see them all lined up on a television aerial and wonder if they are experiencing zugunruhe, a fantastic word meaning ‘migratory restlessness’. What do you think? I have certainly sensed an increase in urgency in the birds, but I was putting it down to the colder weather, longer nights and the fact that natural foods, such as berries and nuts, are beginning to run out.
Starlings. Watching for someone to fill up the bird feeder, or wondering if they should be flying south?
My Virginia creeper had a bit of a scalping earlier this year, but no doubt it will recover in 2020. In the meantime, this one is magnificent.
And although my friend A is getting a bit fed up with her tamarisk, I do think it looks rather fine in the early November sunshine.
I was delighted to spot some coleus in a window-box, although as they’re just about to flower I doubt that they’ll be around for much longer.
And there is a positive hedge of rosemary. It’s too cold to get much scent from it at the moment, but I have no doubt that when it warms up in spring it will be a pleasure to brush up against it. As it is, it reminds me a little of a mammoth.
And this is a very splendid tree, with more than a touch of sumac about it.
This young tree on East Finchley High Road looks quite different depending on whether the sun has kissed it or not.
Given a peck on the top of the head
As I wander along the High Road I notice a pair of jackdaws in the tree outside Sainsburys. These are relatively recent arrivals to N2, but have been breeding. This pair took off to the other side of the road, no doubt to have a better view in the case of anyone dropping some chips or dumping their kebab into an unattended bin.
Onwards! There is a very fine cotoneaster bush that glows so brightly that it stops me in my tracks.
I say hello to what is possibly my favourite tree in the County Roads – I love how it has twisted over the years to avoid growing through the bedroom windows or into the garage (with more than a little bit of human assistance I’m sure).
I am rather taken by the coloured glass in the upper windows of some of the older houses around here. It gives a rather jaunty air to these otherwise quite serious houses, what with their names and dates and all….
I notice a ginkgo that hadn’t come to my attention before. The tree is reputed to drop all its leaves on one night, leaving it standing shivering in a puddle of sunshine, but this one hadn’t got the memo. Maybe it depends on how abruptly the temperature drops.
And here is what I think of as a typical East Finchley pigeon. We seem to have a lot of birds with white primary feathers, or white bodies, and I suspect one particular male has been extraordinarily successful with the ladies.
By now it’s getting decidedly chilly, so I decide to head for home. This evening I am dropping my little cat off at the vet to have a heart scan tomorrow – she appears to have a heart murmur and we’ve ruled out all the usual things. She’s eating and drinking and seems generally happy, so I’m not too concerned, but her blood pressure is through the roof, and we need to find out why. So please keep your fingers crossed if you have any digits to spare. It would be good to not have to worry for a bit.
But the County Roads have one more surprise for me, and it’s hiding in plain sight. Some of the houses have very intricate plaster work around their doorways and windows, and I hadn’t really paid attention, assuming that it would be the usual fruit and leaves. And indeed this is what some houses have.
But some of them have little faces.
And this one appears to have a cherub kissing a cat.
All this really makes me want to know more. Did the different builders have different patterns for the plaster panels? I shall have to do some research and see what’s going on. I love that, even after living here for ten years and walking about regularly with my camera, there is still always something new to see. It’s lovely to travel, but it’s great to be back in my home territory.
Dear Readers, on the days after Halloween the streets of East Finchley are strewn with sad pumpkins. They have had their moment of glory, illuminated as they were with tea-lights or candles, and now they are just waiting to be thrown into the garbage or popped into the compost bin. With any luck, their innards will have been turned into soup or pie-filling, and in some inventive households even the seeds will have been roasted. Sadly, the edible parts of most carved pumpkins end up in the bin. At least they will rot down in landfill, unlike the many plastic skeletons and skeins of artificial cobwebs that adorn every tenth hedge in these parts. If I sound a little curmudgeonly, it may be because it seems like every celebration these days is a reason for buying tat, and having cleared out Mum and Dad’s bungalow this year, I know how much of it ends up in landfill, for all our best intentions.
Pumpkins as a Halloween tradition are a relatively new thing in the UK: in some parts of the country, turnips and mangoldwurzels were used to make lanterns for Halloween, but the whole caboodle of trick or treating, dressing up as a werewolf and eating bucketloads of chocolate has gradually developed over the past few decades. Pumpkins are originally from North America, and are a symbol of harvest time and Thanksgiving: this might explain why there are so many recipes for pumpkin pie, pumpkin stuffing and a thousand other pumpkin-based foodstuffs on US and Canadian cookery websites. When Starbucks starts selling its ‘pumpkin spice latte’ it’s time to start thinking about buying Christmas cards, though I was relieved that a ‘pumpkin spice latte’ actually tastes of cinnamon rather than pumpkin.
Not all Halloween pumpkins are edible!
Pumpkins are members of the squash family, but their flesh is unusually rich in Vitamin A and beta-carotene, in spite of being 92% water. They are amongst the oldest domesticated plants, with fragments that are between 5,500 and 7,000 years old being found in Mexico. The pumpkin has both male and female flowers, and throughout history the plant was pollinated by the squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa). The species has especially hairy legs, an adaptation to help carry the extra-large pollen particles that the pumpkin produces, but, like so many bees, it has been affected by the broad-spectrum pesticides used in commercial agriculture. Honeybees have been used in some places to replace the native bees, although studies have shown that the squash bee is much more efficient. In other areas the plants now have to be pollinated by hand. The range of the bee exactly matches that of the native range of the pumpkin and related squash species, so the insect and the plant have evolved together over millions of years.
Squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa). Note the hairy legs! (Public Domain)
We’ve talked about recipes made from the flesh of pumpkins, but whenever I go to Obergurgl in Austria, there are desserts which feature both pumpkin seeds and a heavy, fruity green oil made from them. In particular, there is an ice-cream sundae which features ‘brittle’ made from the seeds, and a sauce featuring the oil, which is often described as coming from Styria, a region in the south-east of the country. It is surprisingly delicious, with a nutty taste. The seeds themselves are often dried and salted as a snack.
Pumpkin seed oil (Photo One )
When I went to the RHS Autumn Show a few years ago, there was an exhibit showing various autumn vegetables. One of them was a pumpkin that was easily the size of a Mini Cooper. I thought that maybe it was a one-off, but soon discovered that the heaviest pumpkin ever grown was from Belgium, and weighed in at over two and a half thousand pounds. Giant pumpkin growers recommend horse manure, enhanced ‘green’ compost, frequent watering, and hoisting your pumpkin onto a pallet while it’s still small enough to handle. Dedicated giant pumpkin growers cosset their ‘babies’ for months at a time, refusing to take holidays during the growing season. There is also a trick to making sure that the plant doesn’t grow so quickly that it snaps its stem – if it does, it’s game over. You need a patch of ground at least 15 by 20 feet to grow your pumpkin, so let’s hope you either have a country estate or an allotment. If you’re lucky, you might get one to grow to the size of one of these beauties.
Giant pumpkins at a weigh-in in Ohio, 2009 (Photo Two)
One thing that you wouldn’t want to do with these giants, however, is throw them through the air. The smaller specimens seem to be fair game, however, for there is a tradition in the USA of ‘pumpkin chucking’ – firing pumpkins into the air with catapults, trebuchets or even cannons. As ‘pumpkin chucking’ is a bit of a mouthful, it is often known as ‘pumpkin chunking’, and such festivals usually take place after harvesting season. The Guinness Book of Records states that the longest ‘throw’ featured a pneumatic cannon with the dubious name of ‘Big Ten Inch’, which managed to propel an innocent pumpkin for over a mile and a half in the Moab Desert, Utah, in 2010. I only hope that no innocent person or jack rabbit was under the pumpkin as it landed – certainly no fatalities have been recorded, although a woman member of the TV production staff covering the 2016 event was hit in the head by a chunk of metal when one of the air cannons exploded. I note that insurance companies are reluctant to cover the events, for obvious reasons. The pumpkin must be whole on leaving the throwing device for the attempt to count, and for this reason thicker-skinned varieties of the plant are preferred. This also presumably increases the risk of serious injury if you should happen to be under a flying pumpkin when it reaches the end of its journey.
All in all, I never cease to wonder at what human beings (mostly of the male variety) will get up to when left to their own devices.
Pumpkin fired from a trebuchet in Ohio. You’re welcome. (Photo Three)
So, you can carve pumpkins, eat them, grow them to a ridiculous size, or fire them through the air. They also have a long tradition of medicinal use, for humans and for other animals. Pumpkin puree is said to be a good treatment for digestive upsets in dogs and cats, and raw pumpkin fed to chickens during the winter is said to prolong the egg-laying period. In humans, pumpkin was used to treat intestinal worms and urinary infections by Native American peoples, and the seeds of a closely related pumpkin species, Curcubita moschata (or butternut squash) were found to be efficacious in the treatment of tape worms in a Chinese study.
More East Finchley pumpkins
Sometimes, when I write about a particular plant, the very name of it starts to look a little odd with repetition. So it is with pumpkin. I can no longer look at the word without thinking that means a diminutive pump. Actually, the word derives from the Greek ‘pepon‘, meaning ‘large melon’, and, as is the way with these things, it evolved: in France, it became ‘pompon‘, in English ‘pompion‘, and then ‘pumpkin‘ in the US, where the word presumably became the accepted one across the Anglozone. Nowadays, most people recognise the big orange squash with the green top as a pumpkin, though in Australia the word apparently still means any winter squash. Let me know if this is true, Antipodean friends!
A fine pile of pumpkins in New Orleans (Photo Four)
And finally, a poem. When I was in my early twenties, I worked for a while on a city farm in Dundee. It was my job to get up at the crack of dawn to feed the animals, and if ever I was late and hungover, the whole lot of them would start bellowing as soon as I turned the corner. I rather like this work by James Whitcomb Riley, because it brings back to me that feeling of being the only person in the world who is awake, and the peace that falls as the animals tuck into their breakfast. The farm being in Dundee there was often plenty of frost about, too. And it makes me nostalgic for those days of blackberry picking and jam making and harvest home. When we had an allotment, I remember Mum dealing with a glut of tomatoes with a glint in her eye, sleeves rolled up and apron on. ‘I should have been a frontierswoman, I’d have been good at that!’ she said. And indeed she would have.
When the Frost is on the Punkin
by James Whitcomb Riley (1849 – 1916)
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.
They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.
The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover over-head!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!
Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’ ’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! …
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me—
I’d want to ’commodate ’em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!
Dear Readers, when I first moved to East Finchley I decided to take on Halloween as a project. I carved pumpkins. I bought bags of palm-oil free sweets. I found some chocolate money that was so convincing that one small boy broke down in tears when he discovered it wasn’t real. Nothing really prepared me for the onslaught, though. In year one, I had to run to the greengrocers twice to stock up on supplies because so many children had visited. In year two, I thought I was prepared but gave up counting after 45 separate groups had rung the doorbell. By this stage I was sitting on a chair in the hall because I didn’t have time to get to the sofa before there was another party of witches or warlocks at the door.
But this year I am battening down the hatches. It’s not that I’ve turned into a grinch, but after the year that I’ve had, I feel a much closer connection with Samhain, the night when the veil that separates our world from that of our beloved dead is at its thinnest. In some traditions, people set places at the table for those who have gone, and this feels so right to me that I might even do it. At the very least, I want to make some time for contemplation and remembrance. As the sun sets, I spend some time just watching the garden.
The pace of the year has speeded up perceptibly. We are regularly visited by a young squirrel who is much less skittish than usual, though no less acrobatic.
The starlings fly in in huge numbers – when I arrive home after work, I sometimes see a couple of dozen sitting on the television aerials, whistling and chattering to one another, and no doubt complaining that the feeders are empty.
Some chaffinches have appeared, and some goldfinches, though whether they are local birds or Scandinavian visitors I have no idea. I love the mothy fluttering of the chaffinches, and the dapper black and white wing patterns on the goldfinches.
Mum loved birds. The last time that she visited me at Christmas, a great-spotted woodpecker turned up, and I tried to help her to see it through the binoculars. Her whole body swayed backwards and forwards as she tried to focus – she had peripheral neuropathy in her feet, which meant that she found balance difficult. To this day I’m not sure if she saw the bird or not, though she said that she had. But then Mum was like that, never wanting to be a nuisance or to take up too much of somebody else’s time.
I thought that I knew about grief, but I had no idea. Some days, I feel as if I am carrying a rucksack of bricks. Sometimes, I have brain fog and can look at a spreadsheet and see nothing but hieroglyphics. Last week, a lovely young woman that I’ve been working with on a project mentioned that she was looking forward to spending Christmas with her mother, and it hit me that I would never, ever sit and open Christmas presents with mum again. I would never watch her dozing in an armchair with her paper hat askew. I would never see her take a plate of blinis and smoked salmon and capers and sour cream and meticulously arrange every forkful so that it held a little bit of each.
Time moves inexorably on. The leaves turn, the chaffinches are back, the mediocre Christmas lights are already up on East Finchley High Road, waiting for some celebrity to come along and turn them on in a few weeks. When I was at the Royal Academy this week, I noticed that the Christmas lights on Bond Street are peacock-themed this year, and for a split second I wondered how I could get Mum from my house to see them, until I remembered.
Outside the light is fading, and there’s the excited hubbub of children’s voices. Nothing that has happened to me this year is outside of the normal. Elderly parents become ill and eventually pass away. It is the natural order of things. I have a job now, and my life is becoming more my own, after all those years of worrying. On the outside, you’d think I was doing fine, and so I am, mostly. But there are days when I could smash every piece of crockery in the kitchen with a hammer. It feels as if there isn’t any act large enough or dramatic enough to encompass how I feel, and so I soldier on, putting one foot in front of the other even when I don’t care one tiny bit where the road is going.
It seems to me that grief is a strange switchback of a process, with meanders and chicanes. It is not linear or logical. I can be distraught at 11 o’clock and elated by 11.30. I know that what helps me sometimes is not the cure on another occasion. Sometimes I want to wrap myself up in a blanket and watch Masterchef. Sometimes, I want to make carrot pancakes with hummous and crunchy vegetables for dinner. Always, I want to see what the plants and animals are up to, and this is my most consistent, most reliable cure.
Last week, I was putting the rubbish out, in tears, in the dark, when I felt a shadowy movement, and there, on the wall, was the fox. He walked past me and would have wandered into the house if I hadn’t discouraged him, so he sat down, had a quick scratch, and waited. I had nothing in the house but dried cat food, so I threw him a handful, and, as I sat on the step three feet away from him, he crunched through most of it, before disappearing under the door to the garden and going on his way. Such confidence! And I’m pleased to announce that his eyes have cleared up since the photo below, taken a few weeks ago.
For once, I didn’t reach for my camera. Seeing the fox took me out of me head, and my sorrow, and plonked me back into my body, and into the here and now. It occurred to me how much Mum would have loved the fox, and I felt as if I was seeing him for her. She lives on in me, both literally in my genetic make-up but also in the things that she bequeathed: my talent with knitting needles, my love of reading and writing, my skill with a white sauce. She is there in my gestures and my turn of phrase. She is both utterly, irreparably gone, and as close to me as the shape of my eyes. And as the streetlights flicker on, I know that this loss will become woven into my life, part of a larger, continuing story. I just need to be patient, and let the grief do what it needs to do.