Monthly Archives: March 2020

Wednesday Weed – Yellow Corydalis Revisited

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Dear Readers, I will shortly be jetting off on an adventure for my sixtieth birthday which will involve travelling to a part of the world that I’ve never visited before. But, while I am away, I thought I would revisit some of the ‘weeds’ that grow in my street in East Finchley. The piece below made its debut in October 2014. What a lot has happened since then! This is still a favourite plant, and in spite of many, many sprayings of weedkiller it is still present on the wall in the picture (though the graffiti is gone). It is, like many ‘weeds’, originally an alpine plant, but has been known in the UK as a garden plant since 1596. Mortared walls are a very specific environment, and few native plants have learned to colonise a habitat with sparse soil, high pH and a lot of exposure. In fact, some of the plants that we now think of as native (such as ivy-leaved toadflax ) came originally from the rocky places of mainland Europe.

In London, it is now the twentieth most common alien plant, putting it just behind trailing bellflower and just ahead of horse chestnut. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace describes how the black, shiny seeds of yellow corydalis are covered with an ‘oil body’ which ants are fond of – they often carry the seeds into their nests for future sustenance, and the seeds germinate once the oil has been consumed, a very handy symbiotic relationship.

Stace also makes some interesting comments about the relative affluence of housing and the alien ‘weeds’ that pop up. When I lived in Islington I was forever peering into the basements of the attractive Georgian houses round about, and these were often a mass of yellow corydalis, pale-lilac trailing bellflower, and baby trees-of-heaven or sycamore, all pushing up uninvited. On the other hand, the house that I lived in when growing up in Stratford had no basement and no front garden (and indeed, no bathroom and an outside toilet), but was often infiltrated by groundsel and sow-thistle, which Mum and Nan would pull up as soon as they showed their innocent heads for fear of what the neighbours might say. You don’t have to go very far in London to see a completely different array of plants, and I find it fascinating how local they can be. Where, for example, can I find some pellitory-of-the-wall, a plant that I’ve been dying to write about? If you live in London, give me a shout and I might come visit with my camera when I get back from my Secret Trip.

Anyhow, here were my thoughts six years ago. See what you think!

Just as the cold nights are coming in,  Yellow Corydalis is putting on a last display of its yellow tubular flowers, which remind me  of the muzzles of Chinese dragons. It grows very happily in this dark corner, and the lack of soil seems to present no problem – after all, this is a plant which came originally from the Alps and is therefore well adapted for infiltrating its tiny roots into the gaps in ramshackle walls and footpaths. As it has been recorded in the wild in the  UK since 1796, however, I think we can consider it as being at home. Yellow Corydalis 003

The plant is a member of the Fumitory family, and I was delighted to discover that the word ‘Fumitory’ comes from ‘Fumus terrae’ – Smoke of the Earth, in tribute to the fineness of the foliage. The leaves remind me a little of the Maidenhair Fern that I had as a houseplant when I was a student. That too, was one tough plant, surviving beer, cigarettes, being accidentally upended and, on one sad occasion, being pooed in by the newly acquired kitten. Yellow Corydalis is also tough, putting up with all manner of pollution and trampling, and still bouncing back. It is also poisonous, but doesn’t have the seductive qualities of many toxic plants, with their delicious-looking red berries and interesting seeds.

Yellow Corydalis 006This is one of those plants that is so attractive that, if it were not for its omnipresence in the scabbier spots of the capital, would undoubtedly be on sale in garden centres. As usual, once something is designated as a ‘weed’, it is seen, in general, as having no redeeming features whatsoever. Here at the Wednesday Weed, of course, we have no truck with such silliness.

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

This plant flowers more prolifically and grows more vigorously than anything else in the alley by the side of my house, and I am grateful to it for covering up the extremely uninspiring concrete path and the gravelly bit at the bottom of the fence. Plus, it provides cover for the froglets as they make their long and dangerous journey out into the big wide world. I could spend a lot of money buying ‘shade tolerant plants’ and be wholly disappointed with the results. Sometimes, we fail to see the beauty of what’s right there in front of us in our perverse desire for improvement and novelty. Certainly I’ve been guilty of grubbing up perfectly happy native plants and replacing them with showier organisms who were miserable from the second that they were planted, and faded away to a few pathetic leaves by the end of the season. But not this time! I am learning from nature, and it will be a life-long endeavour I’m sure. If something is perfectly adapted to its environment, covered in yellow flowers and dainty foliage,  why not treasure it?

A frog corridor?


Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery

Eva Jospin, Foret Palatine 2019-20

I do love an exhibition that centres on the natural world, and way that artists have responded to it. ‘Among the Trees’, which just opened at the Hayward Gallery on London’s Southbank, aims to ‘bring together artworks that ask us to think about trees and forests in different ways’. I found the show a bit of a jumble of ideas, trying to cram a bit too much into a few small spaces, but there is some great stuff here, and lots of food for thought.Take Eva Jospin’s ‘Foret Palatine’ for example. The sculpture takes up an entire wall, and looks like a forest from a (rather Grimm) fairy tale. What makes it fascinating is that it is made entirely from cardboard – trees made out of trees. Few things here are exactly what they seem.

I love sculpture, and there are several interesting examples here. ‘Cold Moon’, by Ugo Rodinone, is one of a series of twelve casts of ancient trees, between 1500 and 2000 years old. This particular cast is from an olive tree, twisted and contorted by years of sun, wind and water. It’s beautiful in the way that an elderly person’s face is beautiful, shaped by the experiences of their lives.

Cold Moon (2011) Ugo Rondinone

This work is called ‘Plastic Tree II’, by Pascale Marthine Tayou, from Cameroon. The artist likes to work with the juxtaposition of natural and man-made materials, and between the living and the artificial. This is a bright and happy piece, but like several pieces here, it feels as if it misses the mark a bit – surely something so dangerous as single-use plastic shouldn’t be so joyful? Or maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon. It has been known.

I rather liked the piece below, however. It’s by the German artist Mariele Neudecker, and it’s called ‘And Then the World Changed Colour: Breathing Yellow’. The sculpture is in a tank, underwater – close up, you can see the bubbles appearing along the branches. It is lit with an unearthly queasy yellow-green light, and I felt as if I was being invited in, but that the invitation would not necessarily be to my advantage. This was something that I could have looked at for a long time. There is a sense of the ‘drowned world’ about it that seems appropriate considering the way that it doesn’t seem to have stopped raining since about October.

There are lots of paintings too, old school though they are. Here is a piece by American artist Kirsten Everberg called ‘White Birch Grove, South (After Tarkovsky). The piece was inspired by Tarkovsky’s film ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, in which the birch forest is a place of both enchantment and entrapment for young Ivan. I found the painting claustrophobic, and the longer I looked, the more human faces and eyes I was able to see. The trees feel like soldiers, or lost spirits.

The natural resilience of trees was illustrated in a series of photos taken by Zoe Leonard, of trees in New York City. The bark of these trees is growing through and around the fences that confine them, absorbing and covering the barbed wire and the mesh. The result is a scar, but an honourable one.

In another photograph by Rachel Sussman (who has a series of photos of ancient trees in the exhibition) we see an old friend: the Jomon Sugi, a Japanese Cedar estimated to be between 2000 and 7200 years old. It is interesting to see the twisted thorny twig fence, probably intended to protect the tree from the inevitable souvenir hunters.

I really liked these two paintings as well. What appears at first to be a simple depiction of a rainforest scene becomes, on closer study, an incredibly detailed depiction of the ecosystem. The artist, Abel Rodriguez, is an elder of the Nonuya people, who live on the Cahuinairi river in the Colombian Amazon.  He learned everything he knows about plants and animals from his uncle, and taught himself to draw. In the 1990’s, he and his family had to leave the region due to armed conflict, but he has continued to make images of his forest home, showing the landscape in different conditions and at different times of year.

There were also two video installations. I was intrigued by Jennifer Steinkamp’s animated trees, which sway and grow and drop their leaves in spite of being made of nothing but pixels. A whole year is compressed into three minutes, but this feels a bit like the way we’re going – artificiality and speed seem to be everything.

Jennifer Steinkamp’s Blind Eye

The exhibit that I enjoyed most, though, was the giant horizontal spruce tree depicted by Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Horizontal-Vaakasuora. This is a real tree, and the soundtrack is full of the sounds of the wind and the chirping of birds. The decision by Ahtila to show the tree on its side was a practical one: few venues would have a room high enough to show the tree vertically. Cutting it into sections means that the tree sways in different directions and at different rates, meaning that every time you think you are watching something ‘real’, there is a disconnect and it becomes clear that you are not.

So, ‘Among the Trees’ is well worth a look, even though it is a bit of a jumble. Some have commented that it doesn’t say enough about the relationship between trees and human beings, and how that relationship has lost its way. Others have said that the exhibition feels ‘scattergun‘. For me, it feels as if someone has said ‘let’s put together a lot of varied and interesting work about trees’ without any overweening view of what those works should say. It sometimes feels as if the exhibits are shouting at one another across the gallery, but there is much to enjoy here. I could sit and watch the horizontal tree for half an hour and feel better at the end of it, for one thing.

Among the Trees‘ is at the Hayward Gallery until 17th May.


Wednesday Weed – Giant Honey Flower

Giant Honey Flower (Melianthus major)

Dear Readers, I am being completely self-indulgent this week. I was so taken by this plant when I walked past it at the Business Design Centre in Islington that I had to find out some more about it. I have never seen anything quite like it: look at those flowers, which remind me of feather dusters or possibly one of the late Ken Dodd’s tickling sticks.

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

Statue of Ken Dodd with his tickling stick at Liverpool Lime Street station (Photo One)

Giant Honeyplant comes originally from South Africa (home to so many interesting plants) where it is known as kruidjie-roer-my-nie (herb touch me not) in Afrikaans. It is a member of the Francoaceae family, a wholly new family to me – another member of the group are the Bridal Wreathes from Chile, which are also splendid plants but are clearly not quite as extravagant as our Wednesday Weed.

Photo Two by By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Bridal Wreath (Francoa sonchifolia) (Photo Two)

Now, our plant looks fairly inoffensive sitting outside the Business Design Centre, but in South Africa it is apparently also known as ‘Smellyanthus’, for the  distinctive musky odour of the flowers. However, the crushed leaves are also said to have the perfume of salted peanut butter, which is surely a good thing? South African readers, help me out here! At least the plant doesn’t smell of liquorice which would be the end of the story as far as I’m concerned. I suspect that the cold, wet, windy weather that we’ve been having doesn’t encourage any odours, pleasant or otherwise, to reveal themselves to my poor cold nose. I shall have to have another sniff when/if summer comes.

In the UK, the plant is usually grown for its rather beautiful foliage: popular TV gardener Monty Don says that he has had a specimen for many years that has never flowered, so I don’t know how ‘my’ plants have been persuaded into bloom (probably by being raised in a greenhouse I imagine). They need lots of water but also free-draining soil (so no chance for me then), and are said to not be frost-hardy. Mr Don recommends cutting the plant back hard in early spring rather than trying to nurse them through the winter, and says that new shoots will pop up like magic.

Photo Three by By JMK - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three

In South Africa the bright red flowers are bird-pollinated, as so many blooms of this kind are. Sun birds are particularly fond of the copious nectar, and a female or juvenile bird is pictured below getting stuck in.

Photo Four by By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE - Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalibeus) female or juvenile on Honey Flower (Melianthus major), CC BY-SA 2.0,

Southern double-collared sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus) on giant honey flower (Photo Four)

I cannot resist showing you what the male looks like too.

Photo Five from By Mikegoulding - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Male double-collared sunbird (Photo Five)

For all this musky honey and peanut butter, however, giant honey flower is poisonous: it contains bufadienolides, named for the Bufo genus of toads (which includes our European toad, Bufo bufo). The skin of toads exudes a toxic slime which means that animals that pick up one of the amphibians in the hope of a quick meal often back off, foaming at the mouth and clawing at their jaws. The chemical in giant honey flower acts directly on the heart, causing tachycardia, or fibrillation, or a lethal heart attack. Goodness. As if this wasn’t enough, it also contains cardiac glycosides, which are also found in foxgloves (hence digitalis) and lily-of-the-valley.

However, the black nectar that is fed on by sunbirds is also feasted on by bees, and the Plants Africa website mentions that it makes good honey. The plant has also been used extensively in African traditional medicine, for abscesses and boils, sore throats and backache, painful feet and aching joints. It is also considered a cure for snake bite. Being toxic presumably means that the plant has a lot of active chemical compounds, and maybe local people have learned to harness the power of the plant. Anyone without such skills should be definitely be wary.

And finally, a poem. This is by Sean Borodale, a poet that I haven’t come across before, but I really like his work: this poem is from Bee Journal, a year in the life of an apiarist. . When I read about this honey, I think of the black nectar oozing from the flowers of Melianthus major. Although from a sunnier place, I wonder if it, too, would have a feral tang.

12th November: Winter Honey by Sean Borodale

To be honest, this is dark stuff; mud, tang
of bitter battery-tasting honey. The woods are in it.

Rot, decayed conglomerates, old garlic leaf, tongue
by dead tastes, stubborn crystal, like rock. Ingredients:

ivy, sweat, testosterone, the blood of mites. Something
in this flavour surely.

Had all the clamber, twist and grip
of light-starved roots, and beetle borehole dust.

Deciduous flare of dead leaf,
bright lights leached out like gypsum almost, alabaster

Do not think this unkind, the effect is slow
and salty in the mouth. A body’s widow in her dying

It is bleak with taste and like meat, gamey.

This is the offal of the flowers’ nectar.
The sleep of ancient insects runs on this.

Giant’s Causeway hexagons we smeared on buttered toast
or just the pellets gouged straight from wax to mouth.

Try this addiction:
compounds of starched-cold, lichen-grey light. What else seeps

Much work, one bee, ten thousand flowers a day,
to make three teaspoons-worth of this
solid broth
of forest flora full of fox. Immune to wood shade now.

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two by By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By JMK – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE – Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalibeus) female or juvenile on Honey Flower (Melianthus major), CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Five from By Mikegoulding – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Dorchester – A Walk by the River, and a visit to ‘Spain’

How much is that doggie in the window?

Dear Readers, this week I was in Dorchester, visiting my Dad. Regular readers will know that he has vascular dementia, and that he is in a wonderful nursing home. I am grateful that I can be so confident that he is being looked after, but nonetheless I am always filled with trepidation when I go to see him, as I never know whether he will be wide awake and full of stories or out for the count. To ease my nerves before a visit, I have taken to having an early morning walk before I pop into the home. For this visit, I explored part of the ‘Walks’ and took a wander down by the land that used to be the water meadows.

But first, I spot a doggie in the window. I remember my Mum singing the song to me when I was a little girl, and so seeing this hound made me smile. He or she was less impressed when I got my camera out, however, and so I hurried on, past the ‘Top O’ The Town’ roundabout and along the ‘Walks’.

There is a statue of Thomas Hardy on the corner. You are never allowed to forget that ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ was set in Dorchester and indeed, in January I am lucky to get a bed in my favourite B&B because it is taken over by a professor and group of Hardy students from the US. There is a pub called Hardys, and many plaques about the town commemorating the author and his works. I rather prefer Trollope meself, but I do confess to a lasting fondness for Jude the Obscure, with its unforgettable child character ‘Little Father Time’ who murders his sibllings and himself, and leaves a message ‘Done because we are too menny’, an incident that teeters on the very edge between gothic horror and black comedy. For me anyway.

And here is a close-up of Hardy with his hat.

The walks were originally the boundary of the old Roman city of Durnovaria (and I pass the remains of a Roman town house, currently off limits to the public while some restoration work is done). During the English Civil War, the walls were fortified again: Dorchester was a hotbed of Puritanism but found it expedient to change sides several times during the conflict, earning it the title ‘the southern capital of coat turning’. However, in Victorian times the tops of the Walks were levelled and trees were planted, providing the splendid shady avenues that we see today.

There are some Victorian walls studded with the local flints, and I love the way that these so easily turn into rock gardens.

Lesser celandines nestle in the crooks of the tree roots.

And there are some lush patches of the cuckoopint that I noticed last time I was here, though still no flowers.

I cross the road and head steeply downhill towards the river Frome – this is where I finished my walk last time I was here. There is a plaque giving a bit of history about the area: the land round about was once flooded seasonally to provide a much longer season of grass, In Dorset, the water was diverted from the meadows back into the river in late February and early March so that sheep could graze. Once the sheep left, the fields were flooded again until it was time for the hay crop to be harvested, after which cows were put onto the fields again. The key factor was that the water was kept moving, so it didn’t form stagnant pools that might damage the grass, but instead encouraged it to thrive.  The pond below, known as John’s pond, was part of the system for regulating the water, but might also have been used as a sheep dip. The water from the Frome and its tributaries also powered a number of mills up and down the river. It all seems like a most sensible and sustainable way of using the natural cycles of ebb and flow to make the most of the land without destroying it. What a shame we no longer do this: only 3% of the UK’s ancient meadows survive.

John’s Pond

Hatches for diverting water out of the Frome and into John’s Pond

The ‘water meadows’, no longer routinely flooded

I stride on down the path, but as usual things start to catch my eye, and my pace slows. Look at the fresh new growth on this willow, for example.

And as I tune in, I notice birds singing heartily about every ten metres. I have not been paying attention and concluded that they were robins. Not so! These are male chaffinches, and they are vigorous songsters, belting out their message of desirability with raised crest and open bill.

Male chaffinch

I even captured a snippet of song.

I cross the Blue Bridge (built in 1877) and pause for a moment to watch the water tumble underneath. There is plenty of it: folk that I’ve spoken to say they can’t remember a winter like it, with so much rain. This, I fear, is the pattern of things for the south of England under global warming, at least as far as we can tell: wet, mild winters and hot, humid summers.

The Blue Bridge

I like this little bridge too, and the way that it makes a perfect circle with its reflection. Bridges like this were once used by horse-drawn vehicles to bring the hay in, but this seems rather too narrow for such an enterprise.

I am also training myself to focus on reflections, they can turn a churned-up muddy pathway into something rather magical.

In the field opposite there are some magnificent specimen trees, presumably spared because they provided shade for sheep or cattle in summer. Some older trees might also have provided a spot for the farmer and his team of plough animals to have a rest and eat their lunch. I love it when they’re left, although I imagine with the larger farm machinery that some people have now they can be a bit of a pain. In an online forum where I was asking about this, nearly all the respondents said that they would leave the trees in their fields because they loved to see them. There is hope, people.

And at the end of the walk I find a field full of sheep, with many of them happily resting under a tree. Maybe the roots provide a bed for animals as well as for lesser celandine.

And look at this magnificent semi-wild bed at the bottom of the lane, full of primroses and narcissi, winter heliotrope and cuckoo pint, forget-me-nots and ferns.

Back I go towards Dorchester. I meet a very nice lady who is walking her dog, and she tells me that the locals are currently fighting a plan to build 250 houses on the water meadow site. We need new homes, I know, but building them on an area which is at the confluence of three separate streams seems ludicrous in view of all the flooding that we’re currently having. Doesn’t anybody care, or is it all just about making a quick buck?

And then it’s back along the lane…...past this cut branch, which reminds me a bit of a screaming face in profile…

and back to the centre of Dorchester. When I get into the nursing home, Dad is sitting up looking very dapper. I notice that he’s very breathless, though – he has COPD, and has had one chest infection after another this year. I had been planning to take him out, but then I notice that today is Spanish Day in the home. We decide to have lunch in the home, sitting at the nice table for two looking over the gardens. Spanish music is playing, but for Dad, Spanish music can only ever be Julio Iglesias. After all, he spent more than ten years travelling to and working in Spain, so he knows what he’s on about.

‘What do you think of the music, Tom?’ asks J, one of Dad’s favourite carers. She is wearing a flower in her hair in honour of the occasion.

Dad grimaces and considers being polite, then decides against it in favour of honesty.

‘It’s a bit ropey’, he says.

‘Never mind’, says J, plonking down a bottle of white wine and bottle of red wine. ‘This’ll cheer you up’.

Dad looks at the wine.

‘Pinot grigio’, he says to me. ‘That’s not Spanish, it’s Italian’.

This dementia journey is quite a thing. Dad isn’t quite sure who I am, but he knows when he wine isn’t Spanish.

Fortunately, he likes it when it’s served, in plastic wine glasses with tops and bottoms that snap together.

‘I’m going to take that bottle back  to the room’, says Dad with a twinkle.

‘I think it’s for everyone, Dad’, I say.

‘Most of them won’t want any’, he says, looking around at the rest of the residents. He has a point. Many of them are asleep, everyone is on medication and a lot of folk gave up drinking a long time ago. Fortunately J comes round to provide a second glass and all is well.

We have soup with paprika and chickpeas and spinach, chicken with actual black olives, and. most delightful of all, a churros, though with the chocolate inside rather than for dipping. I eat the lot, and Dad makes a good fist of it.

‘They’ve put Syb in a separate room’, says Dad. Sybil was my Mum, who died in 2018. Dad hasn’t mentioned her for ages.

‘Have they, Dad?’ I ask. It’s painful when he talks about Mum like this, but for me rather than for him. I wait to see what he’ll say next.

‘And I can’t seem to find her’, he says. But then he throws his hands up in his typical gesture of stoical acceptance. ‘I’ll see her eventually’, he says. ‘But now, I need to go to the toilet’.

We walk back to his room.

‘Do you want me to wait?’ I ask.

‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m going to the toilet and then I’m going to have a rest’.

After a three-course meal and two glasses of wine, that’s how I feel too. I love that he dismisses me so gently, and that he isn’t concerned when I go. Gradually I am learning to be with this new way of being – nothing to do, no problems to fix. It’s a bit like relaxing into a hot bath, just letting go of my preconceptions and being with Dad wherever he is in the moment, joining him there. It’s a hard lesson for someone like me, who is so determined to try to control everything, but it’s a good one. I enjoy being with Dad, seeing the world through his eyes.

J told me a lovely story. Her Mum is very sick, and she had to take a few days off. When she came back to the home, the first thing that Dad asked her was ‘how’s your Mum?’ Dad has so little memory for the day to day, but he remembered that she had been distressed, and cared enough to ask. It’s so important not to make assumptions about what someone with dementia can and can’t understand. Being with Dad requires me to use all my faculties – my empathy, my imagination and my creativity – and I know that he is trying to connect and make sense of the world too. Strangely, this time with him might be the period when I most get to know the real Dad, the man that he’s been trying to cover up all these years, in all his late glory. It is a privilege to have the opportunity.

Wednesday Weed – Heavenly Bamboo

Heavenly bamboo (Nandina)

Dear Readers, I have always loved bright colours, and I come by it honestly: my Mum was always clad in shades of pink or turquoise or purple right up until the last months of her life. But she used to get very frustrated, because what she could buy was often largely dictated by what was ‘in fashion’.

‘It’s all mucky colours’ she would complain when the shops were full of camel and beige and taupe. She had a particular loathing for khaki, because it combined the attributes of ‘being green’ (an unlucky colour apparently), being militaristic (if there was one thing that Mum loathed it was an epaulette or a pair of cargo pants) and being neither green nor brown.

And what, you might ask, has this to do with heavenly bamboo? Well, there are fashions too in garden plants, and for many people, what they buy is limited to what the garden centre has in. Not everyone goes to specialist nurseries, or trusts the quality of the plants that they can buy online, and so if the garden centre is wall to wall petunias/Clematis montana/heavenly bamboo, then that is what they will have to buy.

In this past week, I have been falling over this plant in a variety of locations – in the gardens of East Finchley, in the municipal beds of Islington and in the planting at Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross. It is undoubtedly an attractive plant, but what, I wonder, is making it so ubiquitous? And does it have any of the pitfalls of ‘true’ bamboo (some varieties of which can take over your entire garden while you are hanging out the washing).

First things first. As mentioned in a previous post, heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo at all, but a member of the barberry (Berberis) family. It comes from East Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan, and its Latin name ‘Nandina‘ comes from the Japanese word ‘nanten‘, or ‘domesticated’. It has indeed been grown as a garden plant in Japan for hundreds of years, and there are many cultivars: the early spring foliage is pink in colour in some varieties, and it can also display scarlet autumn colour, which makes it a plant that punches well above its weight in a small garden. It arrived in the UK in 1804 but seems to have only become popular as a garden plant in the last few years – I don’t remember it at all when I was growing up, but feel free to correct me, as always!

Photo One from CC BY-SA 3.0,

Heavenly bamboo – spring foliage (Photo One)

Another reason for growing this plant might be its berries, which look most inviting, but herein lies a problem. Heavenly bamboo is toxic to birds and animals – the fruit contains compounds that can decompose to hydrogen cyanide, and in North America, cedar waxwings, those voracious gobblers of berries, have been poisoned by the plant, where it is often used to provide rabbit and deer-proof fencing. To read about one such incident, have a read here. I hope that we don’t start using the plant so extensively here in the UK, because I would fear for our berry-eating birds such as fieldfares and redwings, plus our occasional visitors the Bohemian waxwings. Fortunately, at the moment we tend to stick to pyracantha for municipal planting which has no such problems.  For my North American readers, suggested alternatives to heavenly bamboo include American beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana) and Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and there are some other ideas (plus a good explanation of why waxwings are particularly threatened by this plant) in the article here.

Heavenly bamboo is also considered to be an invasive plant in several parts of Florida and other southern states of the US. In spite of its toxicity birds often spread the seeds (presumably it’s only toxic if lots of berries are eaten) and the plant has rhizomatous roots that spread vigorously in the right conditions. It’s yet another example of a plant that is revered in its native habitat, and becomes a right old pain in the backside when it’s introduced somewhere else.

Photo Two by By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wild heavenly bamboo (Photo Two)

In Japan and in China, heavenly bamboo is a plant associated with New Year – the foliage and berries are brought into the house and placed on the domestic altar. The stems were put around the necks of children to ward off whooping cough, and the plant was often grown close to the house to ward off fire and to bring good luck, and near to outdoor wash basins to ward off the evil eye. In Japan, it was said that if you shared your nightmares with heavenly bamboo, it will protect you from your darkest fears. More pragmatically, in China the stems have been used to make chopsticks. 

Medicinally, all parts of heavenly bamboo have been used by practitioners, particularly for coughs, asthma and malaria. I note with some interest that it was also used to ‘quieten drunkards’, which is quite an attribute. It was also used as an antidote for food poisoning from fish, although that does feel a little bit ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ for my liking. The berries are also said to enhance virility, presumably if they don’t kill you first. You can read all about the medicinal uses of the plant on Steven Foster’s Herbalblog, and very interesting it is too.

I was rather intrigued by another use for heavenly bamboo, which is exclusively Japanese. For over 250 years, ‘snow hares’ or ‘snow bunnies’ have been made out of snow, with ears made from the leaves and eyes made from the berries of the plant. The results are very cute, as you can see. They were often made for ‘snow viewing parties’, along with other sculptures, in a similar vein to the snow men that we build but originally rather more formally. The advantage of something so small is that it can be brought into the house to be admired too.

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Snow bunnies (Photo Three)

If you look at the picture below you will see a snow hare in the bottom left of the painting, which is from Utagawa, Toyoharu, who lived from 1735-1814. The painting was probably made in 1772-4. There is a very interesting blog about the derivation of the ‘snow hare’ and its importance in Japanese and Asian folklore here.

Snow viewing party (Utagawa, Toyoharu, 1735-1814- painted 1772-4) (Public Domain)

Now, at this point I would usually be looking for a painting to share with you all, and, as you imagine, there are many lovely portrayals of heavenly bamboo, usually weighed down with snow and with innocent birds feasting on the berries (let’s hope they aren’t going to eat too many). But instead, howsabout this. This is a Noh costume, probably worn by an actor depicting an upper class woman, and dating to the second half of the eighteenth century. It is decorated with depictions of books (suggesting the rise in literacy of the period) and yes, those auspicious heavenly bamboo branches. Just look at that beautiful embroidery. I am awestruck.

Now, try as I might I cannot find us a poem this week, but as I think we’re all in need of as much beauty as we can muster, here are some more exquisite objects. Firstly, there is a fan depicting heavenly bamboo and two little flying insects (Bugwoman approves, of course). It was made in the first third of the Eighteenth century, by Jiang Tingxi, who lived from 1669 to 1732. Then there is a second fan, displaying a rather less happy outcome for at least one of the invertebrates but there’s nature for you. The fans came in a beautiful case, and are part of the Harvard Art Museums collection.

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First Fan showing heavenly bamboo and flying insects (Photo Four)

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Second Fan. Oh dear. (Photo Five)

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The fan case. What a beautiful set of objects (Photo Six)

Whenever I despair of the stupidity, cupidity and sheer cruelty of human beings, our short-sightedness, our inability to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming evidence, our fearfulness and small-mindedness, two things help. Firstly, I think on the kindness and bravery of ‘ordinary’ human beings, who are often overcoming personal difficulties of the most extreme kind while seeking to make the world a better place for the rest of the extended community, human and animal alike. And secondly, I look at the beautiful things that people have made over the centuries and I feel the act of generosity that goes into any creativity, the way that people have always wanted to share their unique vision with others, and how greatly the world has been enriched and enlarged by these acts. Maybe, just maybe, we are not finished yet.

Photo Credits

Photo One from CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three from

Photo Four from

Photo Five from

Photo Six from