Dear Readers, it isn’t until I reach the water that I really start looking upwards. There are few places in central London where you can get a good view of the clouds, but as I start walking along the Thames on my way to the nature reserve at East India Dock Basin, I am struck by the ever-changing tumble and fluff of this late-winter sky. I stand for a bit, watching it change minute by minute, and am entranced.
A plane taking off from London City Airport, plus the Emirates Cable Car, the only one in London
It’s a brisk day, and I can almost hear the groaning of the ropes that once tethered ships to the quayside here, and the chink of rigging. It’s all in my imagination though, as although East India Docks could once handle 250 ships at a time (and played an important part in the construction of the Mulberry Harbours that were used during the D-Day landings), they have been closed since 1967.
Earlier than this, the wharf just along from the dock was the embarkation point for ships taking settlers to Virginia in 1606. Three small ships, the Godspeed, Susan Constant and the Discovery made the voyage with 105 people on board. It was an eventful trip, including periods when the ships were becalmed, and a mutiny by one Captain John Smith, who later married Pocahontas. The settlers founded Jamestown, but suffered famine, disease, and attacks by the local population – by 1609 only 60 of the original travellers were left. However, Captain John Rolfe arrived in 1610 bearing tobacco seeds, and the colony prospered when these were found to do well in the climate.
While the memorial is rather striking, I was more moved by the remaining wharfside furniture, now overgrown with moss and wildflowers.
The crows were playing in the breeze, plucking at one another’s feathers and generally being hooligans. Not a thing gets past them.
And here we are!
There is a little copse of alder and blackthorn, with the cow parsley already coming into flower and robins singing from every tree.
And then the basin opens up. I wonder if the birds will be nervous, but not a bit of it. There are mudflats, and shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) are sieving the water and looking for little bits of edible stuff. These are magnificent ducks, and they have a rather lovely call – my Crossley Guide describes it thus:
‘Quite noisy, the female making a series of belly laughs with a sarcastic ring, often accompanied by the fast, breathy whistles of the male‘.
The most noticeable noise, however, is the wailing and complaining of the black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). These gulls are never ‘black-headed’, even in summer when their plumage features a chocolate-brown balaclava, but in mid-winter they simply have a little half-circle of black where you might expect their ears to be. At this time of year there’s a whole spectrum of ‘headgear’.
But I have really come to see one particular species. One of my very favourite ducks is the common teal (Anser crecca), and in midwinter up to 400 roost here at night. I am hoping that there will be a few stragglers this morning, and so there are. It’s hard to get a decent picture of a teal, because they are not known as ‘dabbling ducks’ for nothing – those little heads are down most of the time, so it’s difficult to get a photo of the russet, green and gold feathers on the head of the male, and the subtle beauty of the body feathers.
I walk around the edge of the basin, and am much taken by some of the industrial history. Here are the only listed lock gates in London, for example,
And here is one of the beacons lit on 31st December 1999 to mark the new millenium.
There is a stand of palm trees in the middle of a disused car park, which I find a little confusing.
And the less than illustrious history of the Docklands is illustrated on the wall behind.
But as I walk around I get a better view of the teal. It does my heart good to know that this little bit of London is being reclaimed by the wildlife, providing a haven for bird travellers on their way north and south.
On the other side of the basin, a young heron is standing by the reeds, surrounded by stray plastic sheeting.
As I get to the end of the path, I turn back to see the panorama of water and cranes and new buildings rising and dereliction.
And a shelduck heads across the pond, trailing a long contrail like a passing plane.
I adore these little local nature reserves. They seem manageable, somehow: much as I love Walthamstow and Woodberry wetlands they are full day trips with lots of walking and lots of people. East India Dock Basin, and its neighbour Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, feel like the kinds of places where you can sit in one place and take in everything. Maybe as I’m getting older, I am preferring to deep dive rather than skim the surface, and a small ‘patch’ makes that easier. I just know that I’ve had a couple of hours here, and am already a little bit in love with the place. Maybe one day I’ll come back at 3 p.m. on a darkening winter afternoon, and see if the tales of the roosting teal are true.
Dear Readers, I do not consider myself to be a fussy eater, but if I have a nemesis in the confectionary world it is liquorice (or licorice if you are North American). When I was a child I remember peeling all the sugar paste off of my Liquorice Allsorts and leaving that unholy black stuff for my mum, who loved it. The very worst were those sweets that not only contained liquorice but were coated in aniseed, my second most-hated sweetmeat ingredient. I take my hat off to anyone who actually enjoys them, you must have the stomach and tastebuds of a megatherium.
Liquorice Allsorts (Photo One)
Megatherium americanum (Photo Two)
So, it was during my visit to Coal Drops Yard last week that I find myself thinking about liquorice, for the first time in many, many years. The plant that intrigued me was the Chinese species Glychorriza yunnanensis, but like all of the liquorice plants its Latin genus name means ‘sweet root’. The species normally used to create the sweets is British or American Liquorice (Glychorriza glabra), and it is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae) – as I mentioned last week, the seedheads of ‘our’ plant reminded me of a giant clover, but the ‘real’ liquorice plant looks even more leguminous.
All of the liquorice plants contain a substance called glycyrrhizin, which can cause adverse effects if more than 2mg of the pure active ingredient are eaten in a day. The chemical can wreak havoc with your blood pressure and give you diarrhoea – unfortunately it is one of the substances sometimes used as a purgative (along with senna and rhubarb) by those with anorexia/bulimia (see here for a most interesting article). Glycyrrhizin is 30 times as sweet as sugar, and so there is actually very little of it in liquorice sweets, with aniseed being used to produce most of the flavour, so you would have to eat a lot before you were poisoned (though a 56 year-old woman was admitted to hospital with muscle failure after eating 200g of Pontefract cakes (of which more later)).
I once had a spell working in the Netherlands (Rotterdam to be precise) and liquorice-flavoured sweets were a great favourite. Most reception desks had a bowl of wrapped sweeties to munch on while you waited to be admitted to the offices of the great and the good and many times I was caught out, throwing what I thought was a mint into my mouth only to discover that it was most definitely not. The worst occasion involved a salty-liquorice hard candy which I subsequently learned was called a zoute drop. I had just discovered my mistake when I spotted the Finance Director descending in a glass lift like some kind of corporate angel. There being no time to deposit the sweet in a plant pot or wrap it in a tissue, I just had to swallow it. My face must have been a picture.
The romance of business travel is much overstated in my opinion.
If you are unfortunate, you may also come across salty liquorice in the Nordic countries.
Swedish salty liquorice (Photo Three)
In many cultures, the root of the liquorice plant is eaten without any preparation, as a breath-sweetener and an aid to digestion. I imagine that chewing on the fibrous bit of the plant gently releases the sweetness, but without the danger to the teeth. In the UK the first liquorice sweets were probably the Pontefract cakes made in Yorkshire: Spanish monks apparently brought the plant to Rievaulx Abbey near Thirsk, and the confectionary is still known as ‘Spanish’ in the area. Have a look at these little tarry tablets of pure hell. You’re welcome.
Pontefract cakes (Photo Four)
In the wild, British liquorice grows in a great swathe of Eastern Mediterranean countries, right the way through Central Asia and as far east as Mongolia. It loves well-drained soils and sunshine, and if cultivated, is harvested three years after planting. For a long time it was used as a flavouring for tobacco, particularly pipe tobacco. Our ‘insurance man’, Mr Sawtell, used to visit the house once a month to collect the payments on Mum and Dad’s life insurance, and I remember that his teeth were worn into a perfect inverse-V shape by his constant pipe smoking. I also remember a certain sickly-sweet smell to the miasma that hung around him constantly, these being the days before worries about passive smoking (or indeed active smoking). I wonder if that is one of the factors in my life-long loathing of this apparently innocuous substance?
Pipe tobacco (Photo Five)
Liquorice is also used as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine, being believed to harmonize the different elements of a prescription. Some studies consider it effective in the treatment of psoriasis-related infections and in the killing of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with stomach ulcers. It could possibly also be useful in the treatment of Hepatitis C.
And now, a poem. As we have seen, liquorice was once grown commercially in Yorkshire, but those days are largely gone (though one intrepid farmer decided to plant some liquorice to provide ‘chewing sticks’ for visiting children back in 2012). However, that lover of British Amazons Sir John Betjeman was moved to write about wooing one of his paramours in a liquorice field. The results are much what you’d expect from this poet who had a remarkable sense of rhythm and rhyme, even though, for me, he never really rose above the whimsical. I do love the line about the sturdy, flannel-slack’d legs however. It’s not that easy to find rhymes for ‘Pontefract’.
The Licorice Fields at Pontefract by John Betjeman
In the licorice fields at Pontefract My love and I did meet And many a burdened licorice bush Was blooming round our feet; Red hair she had and golden skin, Her sulky lips were shaped for sin, Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d The strongest legs in Pontefract.
The light and dangling licorice flowers Gave off the sweetest smells; From various black Victorian towers The Sunday evening bells Came pealing over dales and hills And tanneries and silent mills And lowly streets where country stops And little shuttered corner shops.
She cast her blazing eyes on me And plucked a licorice leaf; I was her captive slave and she My red-haired robber chief. Oh love! for love I could not speak, It left me winded, wilting, weak, And held in brown arms strong and bare And wound with flaming ropes of hair.
The roof at Coal Drops Yard, designed by Thomas Heatherwick
Dear Readers, it would be fair to say that Kings Cross, so long a combination of railwaylands, derelict buildings, architectural gems and dodgy kebab shops, has become something of a chichi destination. Take Coal Drops Yard, for example. There is an Alain Ducasse chocolate shop, an outpost of designer outlet Wolf and Badger and a branch of Miller Harris, the upmarket perfume emporium, on the site of what were once the warehouses for coal from South Yorkshire, transported to the station by train and then distributed via the Regent’s Canal. Bagley’s nightclub was also here, and many a loud and leery night was experienced here by a younger version of Bugwoman. But these days, I am here with camera in hand to give the landscaping a once over, before retreating to the relative affordability of East Finchley.
First things first though. I wanted to see what had happened to the gasholders that were once such a feature, just along the canal. The metal frames were carted off to North Yorkshire for restoration, and have now been reinstated. Three of the gasholders have been converted into luxury flats, while the fourth is left as just a frame, with a ‘park’ inside. Standing inside is a rather disconcerting experience – mirrors multiply the metalwork, and amplify and distort the landscape.
Someone clearly appreciates the park as a backdrop, as the grass is scattered with red rose petals, maybe from a wedding photographic session.
The flat conversions look very luxurious, as indeed they might ( I note that one is on the market, with Savilles, for £2.75m). But surely they must be very small, and awkwardly shaped? There are allegedly 145 flats in these three gasholders, and not a jot of affordable housing. Some folk, methinks, have more money than sense. Though if you work at Google it’s just a short jog to work, as the company is headquartered just across the canal.
However, I am here to look at the planting, and I find it very interesting, in a Piet Oudolf, swathes of grasses kind of way. I do like a seedhead at this time of year, and there are some truly spectacular ones on offer here. I would argue, however, that one of the loveliest plants that I saw was the magnificent alder tree on the other side of the canal – I was so impressed that it was my Wednesday Weed last week. This is a tree completely in keeping with its boggy, workaday surroundings, and none the worst for it.
Alder ( Alnus glutinosa) catkins and cones, Kings Cross London
But back to the actual gardens. Acclaimed plantsman and garden designer Dan Pearson was responsible for the choice of plants – he has form in Coal Drops Yard, having created an installation called ‘Colourstream’ last year. Pretty, but not much here for pollinators, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a moral duty to help invertebrates when given an opportunity like this in a public place.
‘Colourstream’ from Coal Drops Yard last year, designed by Dan Pearson Studios (Photo One)
Still, Dan Pearson’s planting has more than made up for this with his planting in the gardens themselves, as you can see from the images on his website here, giving an impression of what it will all look like when it’s grown up a bit. At the moment, it’s still full of interest. There are several varieties of witch hazel, with its highly-scented, spidery flowers.
Lavender-blue irises are unpeeling their petals, exposing the tiniest hint of the egg-yolk yellow at their heart.
There are some magnificent seedheads. These below remind me of the reedmace in the pond, but I’m happy to be told otherwise, so don’t be shy!
And look at these truly magnificent thorns. I thought that this was something desperately exotic, maybe from Australia, but I am now persuaded that it might be a winged-thorn rose (Rosa sericea subsp omeiensis). This variety is known as ‘pterocantha’, which might mean ‘winged thorn’ (think ‘pterosaur’ and ‘pyracantha’). The plant is grown specifically for its thorns, which apparently glow scarlet when backlit. Who knew? It apparently also has small white flowers and bright red hips, so it is definitely a plant for all seasons. It looks more like razor wire than any plant I’ve ever seen, and might be just the thing if burglars are regularly hopping into your garden and pyracantha hasn’t put them off.
The king (or queen) of the seedheads though is probably this plant – Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis). This is a member of the pea family, and the flowers look rather like giant mauve clover. If you had a big enough garden it would be worth growing just for that mass of brown, spiky seedcases though – they remind me of a cross between an ancient weapon, a hedgehog and a Sputnik. They were rustling most delightfully in the pre-Storm Dennis wind too, reminding me that a garden can be a complete sensory experience.
Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis)
To round off the experience I decided that I would have a proper look in Coal Drops Yard. As usual, my eyes were drawn to the plants, and in particular the pots of heavenly bamboo (Nandina). Contrary to the name, this is not a bamboo but a member of the barberry family. What I love is the combination of bright crimson berries and the delicate foliage, and I’m not the only one – the plant seems to be having a ‘moment’ in the County Roads of East Finchley where I live, with several peeking out of pots and hedges.
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina)
And so, it’s time to wend my way back to Kings Cross station and to head home. Overall, I’m pretty impressed with what’s going on at Coal Drops Yard and round about – there are some interesting and unusual plants with year-round interest, and it certainly makes a change from alyssum and lobelia. I shall have to take a trip back in a month or so to see how it’s all developing, and to admire some of these plants in their summer garb.
And somehow, I manage to avoid buying anything in the shops. Sometimes, a bit of time spent with plants is more satisfying than anything that money can buy.
Alder ( Alnus glutinosa) catkins and cones, Kings Cross London
Dear Readers, last week I was in Kings Cross, scouting about for a blogpost on the landscaping that has been done around the old gasholders and the new Coal Drops Yard, when I spotted this magnificent alder on the opposite side of the canal. It was absolutely dripping with catkins and tiny cones, and it reminded me how much I have always liked this native tree. I remember watching the blue and great tits feeding on the cones of an alder in Culpeper Garden in Islington: it was the first time that I’d noticed how the two species portioned out the tree, with the blue tits seeming to stick to the more delicate twigs and the great tits going for the cones on the more robust branches. It might not be the most elegant tree, nor the most august, but as it is a pioneer that grows in boggy ground which most other trees wouldn’t endure, it will always have a place in my heart.
Alder foliage (Photo One)
The buds and young leaves of alder are sticky, and the bark exudes a thick resin, hence the Latin species name ‘glutinosa’. The tree is a member of the birch family (Betulaceae), and it is found across Europe, Central Asia and North Africa. It has been introduced to North America, New Zealand and Australia but because it can thrive in waterlogged and nutrient-poor soils, it is not usually seen as a major problem. The main reason for alder’s resilience is its symbiotic relationship with a fungus, Frankia alnii, which forms nodules on the plant’s roots and fixes nitrogen from the air in a form that the plant can use, in return for the carbon produced by the tree. This relationship improves the fertility of the soil, making it available to other plants.
Alder ‘nodules’ caused by symbiotic fungi Frankia alnii (Photo Two)
However, the seedlings of alder cannot survive overshadowing and so, as the wood that the alder and its fungal ‘friend’ have helped to create becomes more extensive, the alder itself is limited to the forest edges, or to the places which are too wet for other trees to grow. This kind of wet woodland is known as a ‘carr’ (which comes from the Old Norse ‘kvarr’, meaning ‘swamp’).
Alder carr in Germany (Photo Three)
As you might expect from a tree that already has a healthy relationship with one fungus, there are several other species that are also only associated with alders. One is Russula alnetorum, with its magenta cap and pure white underside.
Russula sp (Photo Four)
Another is the Alder Roll-Rim, which to my untutored eye has a decidedly chanterelle-ish look about it. This is why you should never send me out foraging for fungi.
There is even a fungus, catkin cup (Ciboria amentacea), that grows only on the fallen catkins of alder and willow. Don’t they look like the most exquisite miniature wine glasses? Truly, the world is full of wonders.
Catkin cup (Ciboria amentacea) growing on a fallen alder catkin (Photo Six)
But sadly, another fungus has been having a most deleterious effect on the poor old alder – Phytophthora alnii, a recently evolved species, causes a lethal rotting disease, and has been spreading across Europe. It sometimes seems as if all of our trees are under constant threat from pathogens, which makes the need for better plant hygiene in nurseries and when shipping plant products even more important. Although the native alder is not a popular street tree the Italian alder, a close relative, is, especially in the City where the pollution, poor quality of the soil and general disturbance require a robust and resilient tree. Let’s hope that our alders, wild and ‘tame’ are able to survive this latest onslaught.
An alder infected by the Phytophthora alnii fungus (Photo Six)
Alder is extremely useful to wildlife – we have seen how birds eat the cones, but the tree also attracts over 140 species of leaf-eating insect, and the caterpillars of many moths and butterflies feed on the tree, including the delightfully-named alder kitten (Furcula bicuspis) which is a most attractive moth.
Alder kitten (Furcula bicuspis) (Photo Seven)
Humans have also used alder extensively. The wood from alder trees is often used in marshy conditions: many of the piles under the city of Venice are made of alder timber, and the Roman engineer Vetruvius mentions that the causeway across the marshes of Ravenna was also made from the tree. The wood is not particularly hard, so it has also been used for coppicing, charcoal making (particularly for use in gunpowder factories) and for paper. However, alder is also the wood of choice for the bodies of most Fender Stratocaster guitars, both because of its tonal qualities and because the light colour of the wood means that it can take a variety of finishes. If you are thinking of buying an electric guitar and aren’t sure what wood to get it in, there’s an interesting article here, though I suspect that the biological origin of something like a guitar is often overlooked (I certainly hadn’t given it much thought until now).
A Fender Telecaster guitar with alder body (Photo Eight)
Alder was also said to be the wood of choice for woodworm larvae, and so branches of the tree were sometimes brought into houses so that the insects could munch harmlessly away on their favourite food instead of gnawing their way through the weight-bearing beams.
The various parts of alder produce a variety of different dye colours: the catkins produce a green dye, which has been associated with the ‘Lincoln green’ hue of the clothing of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The bark contains a high degree of tannin, and can be used to dye clothes brown. The fresh-cut wood can produce a pinkish dye: when the tree is injured the exposed wood quickly turns brownish-red and looks as if it is bleeding, which may be why there is an Irish legend that it is unlucky to pass an alder tree when on a journey.
The photo below shows wool dyed with madder (orange), weld (yellow) and alder (brown).
Wool dyed with weld (yellow), madder (orange) and alder (brown) from Medieval Wools (see below for link) (Photo Nine)
Medicinally, the bark has been used in a decoction to treat burns, inflammation and sore throats. It was believed that alder leaves placed into the shoes before a long walk would soothe tired feet (and alder wood was also used to make clogs in the industrial North of England during Victorian times). The bark has also been used as a toothpaste. In the Alps, peasants would warm up bags of alder leaves and use them to relieve the pain of arthritis during the long, cold winter nights.
Although in the UK the alder is often viewed as something of a ‘weed tree’, it featured in one of the most important works of the Dutch Golden Age of landscape painting. ‘The Avenue at Middelharnis’ by Meindert Hobbema was created in 1689, and is thought to be an extremely accurate portrayal of this avenue of alders, which were planted in 1664. This was an unusual departure for Hobbema, who usually painted idealised landscapes made up of several different locations. The man working amongst the saplings on the lower right of the painting is also unusual – there had previously been a sense that these landscapes had just sprung into being, rather than being intensely man-made. Hobbema was largely thought to have stopped painting some twenty years before this work was made: he had a lucrative job as a ‘wine-gauger’, someone who collected the taxes on locally-produced wine. This is a particularly successful late work, described by the American Dutch art specialist Seymour Sleve as ‘the swan song of Holland’s great period of landscape painting which fully deserves its high reputation’. I am not a great fan of landscape painting, but there is something rather enigmatic about this work – it beckons me on, between those rather lanky alders, towards the church.
The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) (Public Domain)
And oh, how happy I am to find this poem by Seamus Heaney, with which to end my celebration of the alder. To hear the man himself reading the poem, click here. How deeply he loved the land that he grew up in, and how poignantly it comes through in his work.
PLANTING THE ALDER
For the bark, dulled argent, roundly wrapped And pigeon-collared.
For the splitter-splatter, guttering Rain-flirt leaves.
For the snub and clot of the first green cones, Smelted emerald, chlorophyll.
For the scut and scat of cones in winter, So rattle-skinned, so fossil-brittle.
For the alder-wood, flame-red when torn Branch from branch.
But mostly for the swinging locks Of yellow catkins.
Photo Four By This image was created by user Irene Andersson (irenea) at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.You can contact this user here. – This image is Image Number 197907 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18254339
Dear Readers, with the audit at work over and my period of full-time work at an end, I was able to head west to Dorchester to visit Dad. I have been so anxious about work this past few weeks that it was a relief to get back to some sort of normality – I think that I have been so worried and upset about Mum and Dad over the past few years that the slightest stress plunges me into a state of nervous agitation. I did read somewhere that once your cortisol levels have been consistently raised it takes a very long time for them to return to normal, and so I suppose that’s why these basically trivial concerns have loomed so large. While the rational part of me knows that no one is going to die if I’ve done something wrong in the audit preparation, my body still thinks that maybe someone is actually going to die if the salary calculations are out. And then there’s that pesky perfectionism again. What would it feel like, I wonder, to drop all pretence that I can control everything? The very thought makes me anxious and so I shelve it, for now.
I get to the nursing home, and Dad is nowhere to be seen. I go to his room and there he is, curled up on the bed like a baby, deeply asleep. He is just finishing a course of antibiotics, and they generally knock him for six.
I go to my bed and breakfast, unpack, watch an episode of ‘Escape to the Country’ for light relief, and head back. Dad is still asleep. It’s a pleasure to see him sleeping so peacefully though – for years he’s been a very agitated sleeper, I think because he was worried about Mum, who had a habit of falling out of bed.
And so it’s back to the bed and breakfast, and more television. Strangely enough, although it’s good to rest, it doesn’t actually help with the anxiety, which is there in the background, searching for something to be anxious about. Whenever I find something it’s like an electric shock of fear – heart racing, mouth dry, sometimes even a cold sweat.
Next morning, I decide that what I need more than anything else before I pop into see Dad again is a walk, so I head down the High Street to the riverside walk that we discovered at Christmas. I want to see where it goes, and how it connects to the rest of the town. It’s freezing cold but bright and breezy after the storms of the past few days.
The white stag, a remnant of the old inn that once stood on the site, marks the spot where I turn left and onto the path.
The white stag
The water is high, and rushing along, and there is no handrail, which adds a pleasant frisson of jeopardy. After all, if I tumbled in I would have more to worry about than our procurement policy. There is a handsome gothic angel sitting on top of the wall opposite, head in hands. I wonder if I would have noticed it if my current state of mind wasn’t so peculiar.
There were a few mallards here in December, but now the breeding season is in full swing. One duck is being pursued by three drakes, and very sensibly escapes onto the bank to avoid their attentions.
Further along the stream I notice another duck swimming as hard as she can into the current, two drakes behind her. The flow of the water is dragging her back towards them, and I think that she can’t get up the momentum to fly away. I wonder what genetic accident has made the ‘courtship’ of these animals so brutal – females are often injured and sometimes even drown during what looks to me like a gang-rape. Surely this can’t be beneficial for the species as a whole?
Duck swimming into the current, hotly pursued by drake.
And then there are what I think of as the ‘smug married’ ducks, who have found a partner and are all paired up already. They are dozing peacefully in the water-plants by the side of the stream, occasionally opening one lazy eye to watch the shenanigans going on all around them, and if that’s not a metaphor for something I don’t know what is.
I take a detour through the tiny nature reserve even though I can clearly see that the boardwalk has turned into a ‘road to nowhere’.
The boardwalk through the nature reserve
I have noticed how each local area seems to have a weedy ‘spirit’ and around here it’s definitely the cuckoo-pint. The damp woods are bursting with them, mostly the native British species (Arum maculatum) with its bright green leaves, but a few examples of the Italian species (Arum Italicum) as well. It will be interesting to pop back in the summer to see it in flower. I love that this species generates its own heat to attract insects to pollinate it. All the old scientific certainties (about what is and isn’t ‘cold-blooded’ for example) continue to fall away as we learn more and more.
Leaves of British cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)
Leaves of Italian cuckoopint (Arum italicum)
And there are the heart-shaped leaves of that spring ephemeral lesser celandine, with its yellow flowers just appearing here in the shade, though already in full bloom at Dorchester South station.
I love the reflections. It’s possible, just for a moment, to lose track of what is up and what is down, what is real and what is a mirror image.
And then it’s back onto the main path, where someone has provided some bird feeders, and the sparrows are taking full advantage.
I follow the stream on around the back of the deserted prison, which is still waiting to be redeveloped. There is a path on the bank opposite which is no longer accessible to the public, and I see that a whole meadow of snowdrops has sprung up. It seems to me more beautiful for its isolation, and I am reminded that I was going to buy some bulbs in the green this year, having had minimal success with snowdrop bulbs planted in the autumn.
As usual, I notice that I have slowed down enough to start to use all of my senses now. I am taken with the sound of the water as it rushes past a wall and narrows into the smaller stream, and I see how the swirls of the water eddy out and around, each one similar but subtly different.
I notice the red stems of the dogwood in the scrappy woodland next to the path.
And, buried in the woodland I notice the yellow paintwork of some ancient and semi-derelict machinery, the seat torn, rust showing through. How expensive it must have been to buy, and how strange that someone would just leave it to become a pile of scrap metal.
Ahead, I see a low stone three-arched bridge, and some sluices for controlling the flow of the water from one stream to another – I have now reached a confluence of at least three streams. To my immediate right, water has been diverted from the stream running ahead.
The path continues to a junction where I can follow the river left or right, and next time I think I might head right and see where that goes to. But today, I need to head back to the nursing home to see if Dad is mercifully awake, and so I head uphill and away from the river for today.
When I get to the nursing home, Dad is sitting in his favourite seat, next to the nurse’s station. It often takes me a second to recognise him – I think I am still expecting to see the bearded Dad with an Elvis Presley quiff who was his previous incarnation, rather than this frail, clean-shaven man with a side-parting. But he recognises me, or at least knows that I’m someone. His face brightens and that is worth everything.
We decide to go out for a coffee, and I get Dad wrapped up and pop his new hat on his head. Then we find a wheelchair, and off we go. Dorchester is a fairly hilly place, and so it’s an extremely good upper body workout. I was hoping to take Dad to the pub for lunch, but he wants to get back for lunch at the home. I suppose I should be happy that he feels so comfortable there, and wants to preserve his routine.
As we joggle across the cobbles, I notice that the hat has shifted so Dad can’t see a thing. I adjust it.
‘Thank you’, he says, ‘I thought the lights had gone out’.
We sit in the coffee shop, and Dad decides he doesn’t like the coffee. He eats a Portuguese custard tart with great enthusiasm though, and watches the usual stramash as people try to maneuver their prams through the maze of tables and chairs.
‘They could do with one less table in here’ he says, sagely.
And then it’s time for lunch, so we head back to the home. Today it’s chicken pie, and we chat with one of the other residents who has terrible arthritis in her hands but doesn’t seem to have dementia (though it can be hard to tell). Dad tells her that he’s going to have an operation on his hip. If he is, that’s the first that I’ve heard of it. He also tells us that he was in France last week. I think this unlikely, but when I have a chat with the staff nurse I discover that, no, he isn’t having any kind of surgery, but that, actually, the France thing is semi-true – the middle floor has been done up to look like a cruise ship, and every month they have a themed day for a particular country, with appropriate food and music and activities. Last week it was France, and it’s something of a bonus that Dad,who will probably never travel abroad again, thinks he’s been across the Channel.
I try to tell Dad that he isn’t going to have an operation, breaking my usual habit of meeting him where he is rather than imposing what’s ‘real’.
‘So, I’m not having the operation today’, he says.
‘You’re not having an operation at all, Dad’, I say.
He thinks for a minute.
‘Well, it’s good to know that i’m not having it today. I’m sure they’ll take me down when it’s time’.
I give up. It’s time to go and do some shopping for Dad (Polo mints and some kind of after-shave balm with no alcohol).
‘I’ll be back again later on Dad’, I say as I head off on my errands.
And he turns to the other resident and says
‘Yep, she’s going to be in to bore me to death for the next few days’.
And, strangely enough, I see something of the old Dad in this. He used to hate to be ‘crossed’ or argued with, and prided himself on the way that he would ‘get someone back’ if they upset him. I wonder if he was annoyed because I had tried to put him right about the operation?
‘Oh Dad!’ I said. I was about to say something cutting and sarcastic, but what’s the point?
‘Only joking’, he said, in a way that was also typical Dad.
Much as I loved both my parents, they weren’t saints. But with Dad, his determination not to be bested has probably been an asset when I balance everything up. And I know he loves me, because his heart is on show now in a way that he would never allow before he had dementia.
Now, I just have to think of an extremely non-boring outing for next time that I visit. Maybe sky-diving or something.
Dear Readers, today I was searching for a new weed in East Finchley Station car park. I don’t know how you spend your Saturdays, but for me a plant hunt in a relentlessly urban setting, with tube trains whistling past my ear and the steady thrum of an emergency generator forming an interesting soundscape is as close to heaven as I can imagine. This is mainly because the auditors finished their work yesterday, and although they had many, many comments, none of them related directly to anything that I’d done. Hooray! Life can resume some vestige of normality, and nothing is more normal than peering at a tiny plant and realising that, humble as it is, this is one of the most scientifically important organisms of the past century.
Thale cress is a brassica (as was our hairy bittercress last week) and on the surface of it, there is nothing much to report. It is a winter annual, with a rosette of dark green, hairy leaves, and a long waxy stem bearing tiny white flowers. The ‘hairs’ on the leaves are called trichomes, and are interesting because in thale cress, each one is a single cell.
Scanning electron micrograph of trichome: a leaf hair of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), an unique structure that is made of a single cell (Photo One)
However, what makes thale cress so important is that it was the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced: its small size, short life-span and relatively simple genetic structure made it perfect as a model organism in scientific research. It also has remarkably little ‘junk’ DNA. Because it was (relatively) easy to map the genome of the plant to its appearance and behaviour, thale cress is used for experimentation in laboratories all over the world, leading to a much better understanding of flower and leaf development, light sensitivity and circadian rhythms. In spite of being self-pollinated, the plant is also surprisingly diverse, with over 750 naturally occurring varieties world-wide, and over 40 in the UK alone.This has led to a variety of commercial applications being suggested, from increasing the speed at which oranges develop to encouraging plants to produce more Omega-3 acid – this article by Peter Marren is a fascinating look at the different ways in which this humble ‘weed’ could be used.
Of the many discoveries that were made using thale cress as a model, one of the most intriguing to me is that the roots of a plant seem to channel light to their roots, where there are light sensitive cells that need illumination in order to grow.
Thale cress has also landed on the moon – the Chinese Chang’e-4 lander brought the plant in a closed environment together with silk worm caterpillars and potato seeds. In theory, the three organisms should be a microcosm, with the silk worms producing carbon dioxide for the plants, and the plant producing oxygen, provided, of course, photosynthesis can take place.
Thale cress is named after Johannes Thal, the botanist who first described the plant in 1573. Thal discovered it in the Harz Mountains in Germany, and thale cress does seem to be another of those mountain plants that does well as a weed, surviving light, infertile soil, a high degree of exposure and risk of drought. It is a pioneer species, and I suspect that one reason that I’ve never paid it any attention before is because it is also ephemeral – with such a short lifespan it will be here one day and gone tomorrow. It is apparently sometimes used as a salad ingredient, but presumably it grows larger in less hostile environments, because you’d be a long time picking a bowl full in East Finchley station.
I found thale cress rather difficult to photograph – my camera really doesn’t like white flowers (they nearly always end up appearing overexposed) and my knees really don’t like crouching down for too long (poor old thing that I am). But for some really splendid pictures of this humble plant, have a look at the Wildflower Finder website. To whet your appetite, here is an example:
Thale cress (Photo Two)
Medicinally, thale cress has been used in Indian traditional medicine to treat mouth sores and inflammation of the throat. However, scientists looking at the bacterial communities that live on the surface of the leaves of the plant have found that some of the bacteria are producing a substance that deters the growth of other bacteria – a novel antibiotic. If this proves to also be effective against the bacteria that cause disease in humans and animals, it would be a tremendous advance in the search for new methods of combatting infection. Many of our current antibiotics are becoming less and less effective as bacteria acquire immunity to them, so we need all the help we can get.
Now, thale cress is not a particularly beautiful plant. Monet preferred water lilies for some reason, and Van Gogh turned his nose up at the thale cress and went for sunflowers and irises instead. But there are some remarkable scientific photographs of thale cress, showing the intricate beauty of its structures.
Electon microscope photo of thale cress flower (Photo Three)
Thale cress flowers – the blue areas show where fatty acids are produced ( a possible source of plant-based Omega 3 oils) (Photo Four)
Anther of a thale cress plant (Photo Five)
How beautiful the tiny details of this plant are when viewed close up! And this is the point at which I would normally produce a poem. However, for the first time I can report that this plant actually is a poem. In 2003, a group of geneticists from Icon Genetics managed to encode a line from Virgil’s Georgics into the DNA of the line of thale cress that they were working with. The line was ‘Nec vero terrae ferra omnes omnia possunt‘ or ‘Nor can all of the earth bring forth all fruit alike‘. However, this was not a simple artistic act, but a way of copywriting the whole genetically modified organism – if it was ‘stolen’ it could be identified by the poem encoded into each of its genes. For more on this, and on the work of poet Christian Bok, who is attempting to encode a poem into a bacteria that will change and replicate as reproduction occurs, have a look here.
Thale cress is the fruit fly or laboratory rat of the plant world. It has been analysed and reorganised to produce plastic, to glow in the dark, and to produce oil . It is certainly something of a wonder plant, but while normal selective breeding (which humans have done for millenia) has limitations imposed by the genome of the organism, we are now swapping genes from one organism to another, sometimes for good, humanitarian reasons but often just because we can. I am no Luddite, but it seems to me that our technology may be running ahead of our ability to decide on the ethical implications of our discoveries. I believe that science can save us, but I also believe that we need to think through what the results of our experimentation mean. Looking at this tiny plant, so unassuming that it has taken me over six years to notice it, I wonder what other secrets it may hold, and what they will lead to. I only hope they will be used for everyone’s benefit, rather than to make profit for a few bloated corporations, naïve as that hope may be. It is long since time to cooperate rather than compete.
The Order of Service from my Mum’s memorial service.
Dear Readers, it is the sixth anniversary of Bugwoman’s Adventures in London and, coincidentally, a year since Mum’s memorial service in Milborne St Andrew. What a year it’s been! My life has changed in all sorts of ways that I couldn’t have envisaged twelve months ago – I am now working, Dad is settled into his care home much better than I could ever have hoped, and I now have my TFL senior railcard so that I can commute to work for free. Of course, being sixty wasn’t logically surprising, but it was a bit of a shock to the system, particularly as I still feel about thirty. This year has been about being carried on in the flow of life even when I wanted to cling on to the bank. I feel like one of those trees that grows around a fence post – I won’t ever ‘get over’ the things that happened to my parents, but I might learn to accommodate them.
In February I paid a visit to the splendid Borough Gardens in Dorchester while I was visiting Dad, and was very taken by some of the trees and the immaculate grandstand. Dad often comes here when the weather is warm enough and, when I read this post, I remember how hard it was at first to come to terms with the ‘new Dad’ who had emerged since Mum died, and the dementia started to take hold.
And last year, we visited John’s Mum and Aunts in Canada. In Collingwood we spotted a beautiful trumpeter swan in amongst all the mute swans, the first time that I’d ever seen one.
Trumpeter at Wye Marsh
But when I got back to England, it was to find that I had some wildlife of my own. A heron was systematically eating all my frogs (and, as I now know, had stabbed through the lining of the pond). It was my first Mother’s Day since Mum died as well, so I was feeling in a reflective mood.
The work of the N2 Community Gardeners at East Finchley Station
Bowles mauve perennial wallflower – in hairy pots!
And, finally, it was Mum’s interment, on a beautiful day when the air was full of the songs of robins.
Mum with her quilt
June saw a visit to Kew to see the Dale Chihuly exhibition. I had mixed feelings about some of the pieces, though I loved it overall, and it was a splendid day. It also saw Dad visited in the care home by an alpaca, which was a source of some fascination and consternation for both of them.
Fortunately it brightened up a bit as the fortnight went on, and we had a splendid walk through the flower meadows, one of the highlights of my year.
The meadows of Obergurgl
When I got back from Austria, I went to see Dad. It was something of a bittersweet visit, as they often are, with Dad seeming calm one minute, agitated the next. But however he is, I am always so glad to see him. The way his eyes light up when he sees me, even though he doesn’t have the faintest idea who I am, melts my heart. However he is, he’s still my Dad.
Next week, we’ll have a look at the second half of the year. What a lot of ground we’ve covered!
Dear Readers, what a week it’s been! Between getting the pond cleaned, and preparing for the visit of the auditors next week I have hardly had a minute to breathe. On Saturday we were helping our aged auntie to clear out her house in Somerset – she is 92 years old and moved into a care home last year, but still wants to go through her possessions herself, as is her prerogative. Nonetheless, I was delighted to find the hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) in flower on top of a wall in Muswell Hill – for me it has always been a harbinger of spring, even though it has tiny flowers only a few millimetres long. I love those globular leaves (I’m sure that’s not the correct botanical term), and the way that the plant pops up on top of walls or in the few grains of soil at the edge of the pavement. I took a few photos and headed home rejoicing.
Until, that is, that I realised that I’d already written about hairy bittercress back in 2016. Alack! I have no time to find a new weed. I could attempt to pull the wool over your eyes and tell you that this is in fact wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa), but to be sure I would have had to dissect the flower to see if it had 6 stamens (wavy) or 4 stamens (hairy) and I didn’t do that. So, in reprise, here are a few of the things that I love about bittercress, regardless of its hirsuteness or degree of undulation.
Firstly, like many other crucifers (for although small this is indeed a cabbage), the bittercress has seeds which can be ‘fired’ with a touch – the scientific name for this is ‘explosive dehiscence’, which delighted me in 2016 and still delights me four years later. Apparently, the seeds can be fired up to 16 feet, and bittercress has even been observed using its ballistic ability to wallop approaching caterpillars, although whether this is coincidence or intention I would not like to say. When the auditors have finally left I am going to amuse myself by giving every other bittercress that I meet a gentle flick, just in case the seeds are ripe. I suspect that this method of seed distribution helps a little annual plant to give its offspring their best start in life, away from the shade and resource requirements of the parent. I suspect that many human parents might wish that they could do the same.
Secondly, bittercress is one of the Anglo-Saxon’s Nine Herbs Charm, which was a treatment for poisoning and for infection. The charm included mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), cockspur grass (or, according to some commentators, betony), bittercress, plantain, mayweed, nettle, crab-apple, thyme and fennel. The charm is recorded in an Anglo-Saxon medical collection called the Lacnunga, and the manuscript is preserved at the British Library – you can actually see it, and turn the pages, here. What a treat! According to that source of all wisdom, Wikipedia:
At the end of the charm, prose instructions are given to take the above-mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice. Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg – both before and after the prepared salve is applied.
Further, the charm directs the reader to sing the charm three times over each of the herbs as well as the apple before they are prepared, into the mouth of the wounded, both of their ears, and over the wound itself prior to the application of the salve.
I love that our commonest ‘herbs’ were included in the charm; people were familiar with them and their properties, and their ubiquity was no obstacle to their usefulness. It gives me heart that foraging for personal use is coming back, though I fear that, where our ancestors were attuned to what was available when, and how much of a certain plant it was appropriate to take, we may not necessarily all have those skills. Still, anything that makes us take notice of the plants and animals around us, and helps us to recognise and respect them is surely a step in the right direction.
Some foragers say that bittercress can be used a salad ingredient or a pot herb but, as I mentioned in my original post, it should be gathered from an unpolluted source. Plus, the leaves are so tiny that I can’t help wondering if it’s worth all the effort. If you are forever making bittercress pesto, do let me know! I was very happy to find this poem from the Incredible Edibles Todmorden site, which makes me think that maybe there is more to bittercress as a food ingredient than I figured. For those of you who don’t know about Incredible Edibles, it is a wonderful project in Yorkshire, which started with the idea of using public space in the town to grow fruit and vegetables for everyone to use. The naysayers were convinced that a few folk would do all the growing, and a few lazy folk would do all the eating, but instead it has been an extraordinarily successful project which has brought people together, provided fresh food for folk who would not otherwise have been able to afford it, and taught a whole range of gardening and cooking courses. It is positively heartwarming. Here is a link to the project site, and here is the poem about bittercress by Judy Kendall:
‘seeds like a weed
tastes nearly like watercress, like rocket
nutty peppery bittercress‘
And finally, a poem. This is not directly about bittercress, but it sums up how I feel about ‘weeds’,their stoicism and their secret power. For ‘God’ I would put ‘hope’ or ‘nature’ or ‘spirit’, but maybe, in the best of all worlds, they all come to the same thing.
Dear Readers, in this past few weeks my boiler broke, the washing machine gave up, and the pond….well, the pond has been refusing to fill up for several months, but I have been trying to pretend that it’s just because we’ve had a hot summer, not much rain etc etc. However, a few weeks ago even I had to admit that something was wrong. A lovely young woman from Women With Waders came out for a look and shook her head sadly.
‘Have you, by any chance, been visited by a heron?’ she inquired.
‘Oh dear’, she says. ‘We find that they often stab right through the lining’.
That’s the trouble with a wildlife pond. The wildlife is, shall we say, wild.
Anyhow, on a cold crisp day last week the Women With Waders team turned up, armed with hoses and wheelbarrows and, most importantly, a pump and some shovels.
First step was to empty the pond water into a massive tank so that, although we’d have to top up with tap water, we at least had some of the original stuff. As the water level went down, the level of sludge became apparent. It went onto the garden, where it will weather down into some nice fertilizer over time. Fortunately, it hadn’t yet become anaerobic, because at that stage it absolutely stinks.
And as the water level went down, there they were – 5 or 6 clean stabs right through the lining. It was the heron what did it, clearly. But not just the heron. There were some tiny indentations in the liner: the larvae of caddis flies, who make a casing for themselves out of little bits of twig and stones, are fond of gnawing at the rubber, and can go right through it given enough time. We’ve patched up all the damage, but let’s see how it goes. I see a new liner in my future in a few years.
And then there were the frogs. They were unhappy at being moved, but it wasn’t for long. In the end, we counted 55 big frogs and one teeny tiny little one.
A wide array of unhappy frogs
It’s not until you see a lot of frogs together that you realise how varied they are, in colour and in size. This lot vary through darkest green, olive, russet and golden. I am relieved to see that they survived the depredations of the heron, because it seemed to me that he had eaten the lot.
The plants were cut back and repotted, and we decided that the bulrushes had been a mistake, what with them taking over the pond and all, so we’ve upped the irises instead. It all looks very neat and tidy.
And I even have a geum!
The frogs were popped back into their new, cleaned up home. They sat around for a minute and then disappeared back to the bottom of the pond. It all looks a bit bare at the moment, so I might have to buy a few pondside plants to give the mating frogs a bit of cover. But it does feel as if things are gradually coming under control again – my boiler is fixed, the washing machine is chugging away downstairs, and soon, the frogs will be singing. Spring is on the way. Now, if I can just get through next week’s audit in one piece, I shall be a happy woman.