Monthly Archives: September 2021

Farewell to Somerset

Dear Readers, it has been a melancholy couple of days. You might remember that, until a few years ago, we would regularly visit my husband’s aunt H in Somerset. I’ve done several pieces about her garden, and about the hedgerows and countryside round about her house. But a few years ago H moved into a care home, and in February this year she passed away. Between Covid and everything else, this is the first time that we’ve been to the house, and it is still so full of her spirit that I half expected her to bustle over to the doorway as she always did.

The house is cold and damp these days, and we have the responsibility to clear the house and to try to make sense of the papers that she’s left. H was a great one for history, both of the local area and of her extended family, and there is lots of painstaking work, but not in any order that we can work out. There are albums of family photographs, most of them unlabelled or cryptic. There are some silhouettes of family members, but who is who I shall have to leave up to wiser heads to work out. All in all there are lessons here for all of us: prosaic ones about writing down where and of whom a photograph was taken, and more existential ones too. H had already started to clear out her things, and many aspects of her life had already been taken care of, but we always think that we have more time, and one sad day that won’t be true. It certainly makes me think of my cupboards and drawers, and I wonder what would happen if someone had to suddenly make sense of them? I feel a whole lot of tidying and sorting coming on.

And so the house has been full of people talking about the estate, and about what has to go to the dump and what might be worth selling, but for me, it’s the napkin on the table, still in its napkin ring, that speaks. It’s the bottle of water in the bedroom, to be used to take the many tablets that H needed while she was still at home. And most poignantly of all, it’s the crumpled Do Not Resuscitate order in the pocket of her fleece. In the end, H passed away peacefully, secure in her faith. At 93 years old, she had served her community for the whole of her life, and was admired and loved by many. One of her friends described her as ‘a force of nature’, and so she was. The house is very empty without her.

Wednesday Weed – Canna Lily

Canna ‘lily’

Dear Readers, I was so taken by the range of Canna Lily cultivars on show at the cemetery last week that I thought I’d try to find out a bit more about them. The first thing to say is that they are not members of the lily family at all: there have been lots of arguments about what they actually are, but at the moment they are in their own family, the Cannaceae, which is in the order Zingiberales. In plain English this means that their closest relatives are plants such as ginger, banana, arrowroot, heliconia and birds of paradise. What splendid plants they are! It is generally now agreed that there are twelve actual wild species of Canna, and many, many cultivars, as you’ll see from the photos here.

Canna are New World plants, with species growing from the southern USA down to northern Argentina. They need 6-8 hours of  sunlight per day to thrive, and in most temperate areas the rhizomes are lifted over winter, or protected in some other way. Wild plants can grow to a height of 2-3 metres, but the garden varieties are generally much smaller.

What surprised me most when researching this piece is the extraordinary range of uses to which Canna Lilies have been put, not just in their native range, but across the world. I had thought that its primary use was as an ornamental, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Canna indica, or Achira, is an example of a wild Canna Lily that comes originally from South and Central America, but is naturalised much more widely. Its starchy roots have been used for food by indigenous peoples for millennia, and it was also used by the Spanish colonists. In a totally unexpected twist, it was much admired by the people of China and was planted as an ornamental food crop, with the roots being used to provide much needed sustenance during the Great Chinese Famine of the 1950s and 1960s. Since then it has been very widely planted as a source of starch, noodles, white wine and ethanol, largely because the pests that eat it in its native range are absent from China. The Chinese are also combining starch from the plant with polyethylene to make biodegradable plastic.

Across its native range, all parts of the plant have been used for human or animal consumption, with the leaves being used as fodder, the shoots as a vegetable, and the young seeds as an addition to tortilla. In Vietnam the starch from the Canna Lily is used to make cellophane noodles known as miēn dong.

In other countries to which it has been introduced, however, Canna indica has become a rampant plant pest, especially in South Africa and in some of the Pacific Islands.

Photo One by Stephencdickson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Canna indica/Achira (Photo One)

The seeds of the Canna Lily have been put to various uses. They have been turned into jewellery, and have formed elements of various musical instruments, such as the Kayamba, from Réunion. This type of instrument is known as an idiophone, and is formed of tubes made from sugar cane or bamboo filled with seeds, in this case from the Canna Lily.

The seeds are also said to produce a purple dye.

Photo Two By David Monniaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A kayamba (Photo Two)

Medicinally, Canna is used for such a huge range of complaints, from bruises and cuts in Nigeria to fever in Gabon, from whooping cough in the Congo to painful breasts in Côte d’Ivoire, from dropsy in India to headaches in South East Asia. Note that all of these uses are from countries where Canna Lily is not native. In Costa Rica the plant is used as a diuretic, and in South America it also has an association with the treatment of various ‘women’s problems’.

Canna has also played an important role in the detoxification of wetland habitats – in a Turkish experiment documented in the magazine ‘Environment International’, Canna was found to remove 98% of the ammonia nitrogen in the waste water set up during a period of one year. There is clearly much more to this stunning plant than just its looks.

In the wild, Canna Lilies have very specific relationships with a whole range of pollinators, varying from hummingbirds and bats in their native range to sunbirds in Africa. They also form alliances with bees, who need to use a technique similar to buzz pollination in order to get the pollen to be released. Sadly, in the UK they seem to be bereft of insect visitors (though do let me know if you’ve spotted any) – the red, coral, orange and yellow colours of the flowers, while undoubtedly enhanced by cultivation, generally indicate that the plant is trying to attract birds rather than insects.

This isn’t to say that they are unloved by all invertebrates though: as mentioned a few weeks ago, I was very intrigued by this leaf damage on a Canna Lily. Then someone helpfully explained that it was the result of a snail or slug nibbling a hole in the leaf while it was still curled up.

In the New World Canna Lilies are much molested by the Larger Canna Leafroller (Calpodes ethlius). As the name suggests, the caterpillars of the butterfly roll the leaves around themselves and then secure the ‘nest’ with thread. Apparently this damage can be ‘distressing to the gardener’. The butterfly also lays its eggs on related species such as arrowroot, which I imagine is also distressing to the farmer.

Photo Three By leppyone - Brazilian Skipper, CC BY 2.0,

Larger Canna Leafroller (Photo Three)

It comes as no surprise to me either that Georgia O’Keefe became fascinated by the flowers of the Canna Lilies that she saw when she visited Lake George, New York with Arthur Stieglitz in 1918. These paintings were seen by many male art critics as being depictions of female genitalia, something that made O’Keefe herself extremely cross:

Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”

I just think that the pictures are beautiful. it’s also very interesting to see O’Keefe’s style change between from a fairly literal interpretation in  1919 to the glorious semi-abstraction of 1924.

Photo Four By Georgia O'Keeffe - High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Public Domain,

Red Canna (1919) by Georgia O’Keefe (Photo Four)

Photo Five By Georgia O'Keeffe -, Fair use,

Red Canna by Georgia O’Keefe (Photo Five)

And finally, a poem. I think this sums up the manic, over-the-top quality of cannas – they always seem a little bit too much to me, with their stripy leaves and their sunset-coloured flowers. I would love to see them ‘slurped by ruby-throats’, a kind of hummingbird, as in Diane Dees poem. I found it on the Old House Gardens website, where there are lots of rather lovely things to peruse.

“Canna Mania,” by Diane Dees

(for Scott K.)

Antique cannas startle me in the garden.

Bold leaves of bronze, olive finely striped,

green blades with vermillion veins, paint-box

blooms of sunrise and sunset, peaches and melons.

Watermelon-red slurped by ruby-throats

buzzing frantically around ancient rind.

Scarlet/yellow harlequin pinwheel,

random pats of butter streaked by Devon cream,

technicolor leopard skin,

lozenges of orange, orpiment flames.

sometimes Monet, often Rothko;

Victorian madness, sprouting across time,

mine for the price of a rhizome

Canna lily

Photo Credits

Photo One by Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three By leppyone – Brazilian Skipper, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four By Georgia O’Keeffe – High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Public Domain,

Photo Five By Georgia O’Keeffe –, Fair use,



The US Embassy, Nine Elms, London

The US Embassy, designed by Kieran Timberlake

Dear Readers, after my visit to Battersea Power Station last week we headed back to the brand new tube station, only to find that it was closed because of flooding at Kennington. This doesn’t augur very well, as it hadn’t been raining – Transport for London explained that the piece of line between Charing Cross and Battersea Power Station has been electrified in one chunk, so any problems will cause delays right along this stretch. Sigh. Nevermind, every cloud has a silver lining, in this case a chance to have a closer look at the Kieran Timberlake-designed US Embassy at Nine Elms. The cube shape and interesting ‘kites’ (made of the same material that covers the Eden Centre in Cornwall) that cover the façade are supposed to reflect the ‘transparency, openness and equality’ of the US Government. Some more cynical observers did point out that it seems to be surrounded by a moat, although this is apparently also part of the ecological design of the building.

The pond/moat

I rather liked it, actually, though what I liked even more was the planting around the outside. Some of the trees are just going red, and I suspect that in a month or so there will be an echo of the ‘fall colour’ so beloved of New Englanders everywhere.

The ‘prairie planting’ here is heavy on the grasses, with flowering plants peeping through.

And someone has actually managed to get the flowering rush to flower, which is more than I seem able to do.

Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus)

Apparently there are different themed gardens within the Embassy itself, reflecting the different habitats to be found in the USA. I shall have to get myself accredited and pop in for a visit with my camera, though getting past the chaps with the machine guns might be a small challenge.

But wait, what is this, joining two apartment buildings opposite the embassy?

This is the Sky Pool, and it’s 35 metres above the ground. Holy moly. It makes my spine curl just looking at it. It is ten metres long and required all kinds of engineering brilliance to take account of the movement between the two buildings, the wind, and the need for cleaning and maintenance. The acrylic which forms the pool is 36 centimetres thick at the bottom and 18 centimetres thick at the sides, which doesn’t seem that much when you think about the weight of the water that it must be holding.

I’m sure that swimming in this pool must be a truly magical experience, but it isn’t one that’s available to everyone – the residents in the affordable housing in the development at Embassy Gardens can see the pool but can’t use it, even if they pay extra. Too many housing developments in the UK have this kind of segregation between the people in the ‘posh part’ of the estate and those in the (slightly cheaper) part. At Embassy Gardens, the residents of the affordable housing even have to use separate entrances and are not allowed to use not only the pool but the gym and various other facilities. Developers and management committees shouldn’t be allowed to get away with these kinds of segregation – it fosters even more division than is already present. I would love to think that an exhausted nurse could have a swim in that pool after a shift, or that a care worker could dabble her toes in the water and admire the view. As I get older I have less and less tolerance for this kind of nonsense. What kind of world to we want to live in?

The Parakeets of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was a grey and gloomy day today – it felt as if everything was poised on the edge of the long slope down to winter. We’re just past the Equinox, and there was that sense of things pausing and gathering their strength after the hubbub of spring, and brief rest of summer. So it was an unexpected joy to see a group of parakeets conversing in a bare tree.

I think that what we have here is as a group of young males, probably recently fledged, who are finding their way around their territory – certainly I’ve seen nesting parakeets in Coldfall Wood which is next to the cemetery, and I suspect that they nest here too.

A fine view of that Rose Ring

I love how social and vocal these birds are, they always seem to be on the verge of over-excitement like toddlers at a birthday party. And how incongruous they look here in the cemetery, like clowns at a wake. 

And then they were off, flying as straight as darts for some unknown destination, chattering all the while.

And then there were just the crows keeping sentinel.

The Japanese Knotweed flowers look like pearl teardrops now, very delicate and pretty, unlike the plant itself which continues on its mission to take over the top part of the cemetery.

And this little chap was zipping about – it looked so much like a hornet that it almost convinced me for a minute, but it is in fact our old friend the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria).

And while the red clover is still in flower…

…and the evening primrose is pumping out flowers, one after another…

The horse chestnut leaves really are on their last legs, with many already crisped up and dropped to the floor. I do wonder at what point the battle between the leaf-miners and the horse chestnut will start to affect the trees long-term – surely losing their leaves early every year can’t be good for the long-term health of the tree? What does give me hope is that there have been reports of blue tits picking out the caterpillars, and bush crickets also preying on the larvae and the adult moths, so fingers crossed that equilibrium is reached at some point.

Sunday Quiz – Seedy!

By Sheila Sund from Salem, United States (Dandelion center) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Dandelion (Title Photo By Sheila Sund from Salem, United States  )

Dear Readers, there aren’t many flowers about at this time of year but there are certainly a lot of seedheads. Have a look at the photos below and see if you can match them to the species.

Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Friday 1st October please (and how can we possibly nearly be in October? It’ll be Christmas next). I’ll publish the answers on Saturday 2nd October. As usual I will attempt to disappear any answers promptly so that they don’t influence those who come later, but I don’t always spot them, so you might want to write your answers down first if you’re easily influenced (like me).

So, if you think the seedhead in the first photo is wild carrot, your answer is 1) A.

Onwards, and good luck!


A) Wild Carrot (Daucus carrota)

B) Salsify (Tragopogon pratensis)

C) Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

D) Honesty (Lunaria annua)

E) Rosebay Willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium)

F) Field Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

G) Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

H) Nigella/Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)

I) Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

J) Lucerne/Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

K) Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

L) Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

M) Curled Dock (Rumex crispus)

N) Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa)

O) Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera)

1) (Photo by Mick Lobb)

2). Photo by H. Zell

3) Photo by Frank Vincentz

4) Photo by Stephen Hurst

5) Photo by Evelyn Simak

6) Photo by Frank Vincentz

7) Photo by Jamain

8) Photo by M. Kunz, Willingen

9) Photo by H. Zell

10) Photo by Edoddridge

11) Photo by Evelyn Simak

12) Photo by Martin Ludlam

13) Photo by MilanIlic553

14) Photo by Kenneth Allan

15) Photo by Eowyn Cwper





Sunday Quiz – Animals in Art-The Answers

‘Dignity and Impudence’ by Sir Edwin Landseer

Dear Readers, we had a very close race for the top spot this week, with Fran and Bobby Freelove and Anne both getting 15/15 for getting all the artists right. However, I’m going to hand the top spot to Anne this week, for recognising that the little unicorn horn on the rhino’s withers is an artistic embellishment not present on the real animal. Let’s see what challenge I can come up with tomorrow!

  1.  ‘Whistlejacket’ by George Stubbs

2. The painting is ‘St Augustine in His Study’ by Vittore Carpaccio. One theory about the pensive expression is that St Augustine has just had a revelation that the friend to whom he is writing, St Jerome, has died.


3. This is by Albrecht Dürer. The little unicorn horn between the rhino’s shoulders doesn’t exist on the real animal, but that didn’t stop artists from including it for the next hundred years.

4. This Portrait of a Stag is by Spanish painter Diego Velásquez


5. ‘The Goldfinch’ was painted by Carel Fabritius, and Donna Tartt (who wrote The Secret History in 1992) followed up with The Goldfinch in 2014.


6. ‘A Horse Frightened by Lightning’ is by Théodore Géricault. His most famous picture is probably ‘The Raft of The Medusa’.


7. Katushika Hokusai is more famous for ‘The Great Wave’ and for ’36 Views of Mount Fuji’, but I love this painting, ‘Tiger in the Snow’. It was painted when the great man was eighty-nine years old.


8. ‘Rocky Mountain Sheep’ was painted by John James Audobon. His master work was ‘Birds of America’, an attempt to paint all the birds of America in life-sized images, hence the enormous size of the pages.


9. ‘Lying Cow’ is by Vincent Van Gogh


10. ‘The Aqueduct of Morro Velho, Brazil, 1873’ was painted by intrepid biologist and explorer Marianne North. There is a gallery dedicated to her work in Kew Gardens, London.


11. This was painted by Paul Gauguin – the picture is called ‘Still Life with Three Puppies’


12. ‘The Foxes’ was painted by Franz Marc. Have a look at his extraordinary images of blue horses and other animals if you get a chance.


13. This painting, ‘Coronation Cockatoo’ is by Stanley Spencer, more famous for his paintings of his home town of Cookham, in particular ‘The Resurrection’.


14. This is by M.C. Escher, famous for his prints of impossible staircases among other things.


15. ‘Rabbit on a Train’ is by Michael Sowa. I think the rabbit has just finished the school term and is happily going home to see his family.

BTW, I also really like the Michael Sowa paintings below. What do you think – enigmatic or just weird?

February by Michael Sowa

Kohler’s Pig by Michael Sowa

Specht by Michael Sowa



At Battersea Power Station

Photo Credit – John Bolitho

Dear Readers, there are many iconic buildings in London, but Battersea Power Station has had a more chequered history than most. It was designed as a ‘cathedral of power’, like the building that now houses Tate Modern, and the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was drafted in in the latter stages of construction to give it an Art Deco feel. Battersea Power Station is actually two power stations housed in the same location – Battersea ‘A’ was built in the 1930s and Battersea ‘B’ in the 1950s.

This was a coal-fired station, with over a million tonnes of coal delivered from Wales and the North East by barge every year, and very dirty and polluting it was too, although it was one of the first power-stations in the world to use ‘scrubbers’ to wash the sulphur dioxide from the flue gases. Alas, the effluent was then washed into the Thames, where it was found to be more polluting to the water than the gases would have been to the atmosphere. At its peak in 1965 Battersea Power Station provided 1500 Gigawatt Hours of energy to London, and the waste heat from the generation was heating homes in the Churchill Gardens Estate in Pimlico that I visited on my Pimlico Tree Walk a few weeks ago. It was strange to see the tower of the old Pimlico District Heating Undertaking from the south side of the river.

The Churchill Gardens Estate from the south bank

In 1977 the building featured on the album cover for Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’. I had always assumed that the pig suspended  between the chimneys was done by some kind of pre-Photoshop trickery, but no, there was an actual inflatable pig who was tethered to the South Chimney. The pig managed to break away in a gust of wind and ‘flew’ into the Heathrow airport flight path, whereupon it was tracked on its journey by police helicopter. The pig eventually landed in Kent, no doubt to everyone’s relief. ‘Animals’ is loosely based on Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, though it’s a critique of Capitalism rather than Stalinism. The shenanigans in the years after the station’s closure make that rather ironic.


The power station was closed in 1986 – it was too expensive to run, and the building was falling into disrepair. There then followed nearly forty years of disputes about what was to be done with it. It was Grade II listed in 1980 by the Environment Minister, Michael Heseltine, but I remember passing the power station on the way from Waterloo for many years, watching as it looked more and more decrepit. At one point it was going to be a theme park, then various property companies considered developing the site, but realised that it would be too expensive. The chimneys in particular were a problem – years of toxic, corrosive smoke had damaged them, but Battersea without its chimneys was just not going to be accepted by Londoners.

At various points, Battersea Power Station was going to be turned into a theme park, a shopping mall, a biomass generator and energy museum, an urban park and a football stadium for Chelsea F.C. Companies pulled out, companies went into liquidation, and things looked pretty bleak. However, in 2012 the site was purchased by a Malaysian consortium. The plans include:

‘…. the restoration of the historic Power Station itself, the creation of a new riverside park to the north of the Power Station and the creation of a new High Street which is designed to link the future entrance to Battersea Power Station tube station with the Power Station’ (Wikipedia)

And so, when I heard that the new Northern Line extension to Battersea Power Station was opening this week, I decided to go along, just to make sure that they were doing everything properly.

The new station is what you might call ‘neo-industrial’ if you wanted to invent a whole new school of architecture. It reminds me of some of the Jubilee Line stations, but these were designed when there was a lot more money about for flourishes and inventiveness.

There is one piece of art above the ticket machines that changes colour.

Outside there’s an interesting roof and a view of the power station.

Battersea Power Station Station 🙂

No inflatable pigs today!

Incidentally, the chimneys are like-for-like replacements after the originals were found to be beyond repair. Two huge cranes that used to move the coal from the barges, and the Art Deco interior of the power station will be restored.

There is lots of quasi-Piet Oudolf prairie planting about.

And there also seems to be a liking for corten steel, which is already rusted. I rather like it too, mainly because I love the deep orange and chestnut colour.

It also blends beautifully with the colour of the Power Station bricks.

The apartments start at £1.1m for a one bed, and go up to £8.5m for a three-bedroom, three bathroom penthouse with a terrace. Blimey! The more expensive flats seem to have at least half of one of those long cathedral windows, from which you’d currently get a view of an extensive building site and the Battersea helipad from which you could presumably make a quick getaway if the urge came upon you.

Opposite there is another suite of apartment buildings that remind me a little of the Fred and Ginger building in Prague, though without the same degree of quirkiness.

There was some more prairie-planting here, and also a group of blonde women with a photographer – I wondered if this was for some images of the flats with attractive people sipping wine, knocking up a salad, looking wistfully out of their full-length windows at the view of London etc etc.

Apparently this is the first time that you’ve been able to walk down to the Thames from the Power Station site as a member of the public since the Power Station was commissioned. You can get an Uber Boat along the river for a mere £7.30 per person ahem. It seems a shame that it isn’t on the main TFL River Boat network. Another piece of shenanigans is that the whole site is in Zone 1 on the tube network, whereas other places which are actually closer to the centre are in Zone 2. One wonders if a deal was done with the property developers to make their homes more desirable.

There are various restaurants and coffee bars on what’s described as . The one that we chose was obviously not geared up for the increase in traffic since the tube station opened, as it was one of the Fawlty-Toweresque occasions when getting a Flat White takes longer than going to Brazil and actually picking the beans, but as all restaurants are facing such challenges with staffing at the moment I shall not name and shame them. Hopefully things will get better over time.

There used to be peregrines nesting at here, and I do believe that I caught a glimpse of one. Fingers crossed! There’s also a thriving colony of starlings on one of the gantries.

Yet more prairie-planting! It’s obviously all the rage!

So it’s nice to be able to get close to Battersea Power Station and admire it from close up. What I’m really looking forward to is getting a look at the inside of the building – it appears that there will be retail outlets inside, so presumably they’ll let the public in to spend their hard-earned dosh. There will also be a riverside park, and it will be interesting to see what they do with that. There’s a new theatre in the railway arches next to the site, and I hope there will be room for some quirky shops and restaurants, not just chains. Let’s see what happens next.

A Sunny Walk at the Sunshine Garden Centre

Oops, I accidentally posted this again, readers! I wish WordPress would make it a bit more difficult to publish. Anyhoo, here’s the complete post, and sorry for any confusion…

Dear Readers, we have certainly picked a good couple of weeks for our holiday – after a damp day on Sunday the weather looks pretty good for the rest of the time, so today we took a bus trip to the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green, North London. I really love this place – the staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and it always has a great range of plants. Today I was really looking for plant supports for my hemp agrimony, but as usual I couldn’t resist some of the other plants. Just as well we were travelling on the bus, which meant there was a limit to what I could buy. When I visit with my friend J, who has a people-mover with plenty of room for plant passengers it’s very easy to get carried away.

Just look at this lot! What looks like rows of lettuce is in fact a fine array of different Heuchera cultivars, some in dark purple, some in lime green, some bright yellow and some with coral-coloured leaves. They don’t have enough pollinator-appeal for my small garden, where every plant needs to punch above its weight, but they looked very pretty nonetheless, and are very versatile.

We sat outside the café with a cup of coffee and a scone (just one between us in a rare display of self-control). The waitress is a nurse in her other life, and is currently working at a flu-jab clinic. Everyone is apparently asking what is happening with the covid boosters, but of course the people who have to administer them are the ones who are the last to know when the vaccine is arriving and what the procedure is meant to be.

‘If only I had Boris’s private number’, she said. ‘I’d get them all to ring him up’.

And what a fine solution that would be.

In the end I bought three white hellebores, which will hopefully be happy under the lilac tree.

Christmas roses/hellebores

And a giant Japanese anemone, as the small ones don’t seem to be able to cope under the whitebeam, so hopefully this one will be a bit more robust and live up to its invasive nature. So many of the plants that other people refer to as thugs become delicate in my garden and gradually fade away. Fingers crossed!

Japanese anemone

Wednesday Weed – Sweet Chestnut

Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Dear Readers, I confess a great liking for the sweet chestnut tree. It was introduced to the UK by the Romans, who loved its sweet, mealy fruit, and grew it not only for this purpose but also for its timber and perceived medicinal benefits (its Latin name sativa means ‘cultivated by humans’). I love it for its furry fruits, and for those shiny serrated green leaves. The tree can live for several thousand years, and can reach a height of 35 metres.

Sweet chestnut is not closely related to horse chestnut, although the fruits do resemble conkers – sweet chestnuts are members of the Beech family (Fagaceae), while horse chestnuts and buckeyes belong to the soapberry and lychee family Sapindaceae. It just goes to show that superficial differences, such as the ‘hairy’ nut cases and the leaves which spray out like fingers from a central point, do not indicate an actual family relationship.

The bark has a characteristic spiral pattern, which I noted on another sweet chestnut that I saw on Hampstead Heath, and the flowers are in long sprays that are said to smell strongly of frying mushrooms.

Spiral bark on the Hampstead Heath sweet chestnut

Photo One by Viascos, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Sweet chestnut flowers (Photo One)

Incidentally, the sweet chestnut catkins bear both male and female parts, with the female flowers at the bottom and the male flowers at the top. It’s the female flowers that will turn into chestnuts if pollinated. The tree is self-incompatible, which means that it can’t fertilise itself – the tree somehow recognises that the pollen grain from the male part of the plant is of the same genetic make-up as that of the stigma (female organ) of the receiving plant, and stops the process of fertilization. This prevents inbreeding, and is considered one of the most important mechanisms for ensuring the genetic diversity and health of a population. Who knew? Certainly not me. I am astonished pretty much every day.

Now, back to the sweet chestnut fruit itself. This is the quintessential chestnut that you smell cooking on braziers all over London at Christmas time, and very tasty the nuts are too. Apparently Roman soldiers were given chestnut porridge before going into battle, and look how successful they were! The French have a particular fondness for chestnuts (marrons) – they turn up as sweets (marrons glacé) and in Mont Blanc, a dish made from chestnut puree fashioned into vermicelli with whipped cream. Italy and Switzerland both claim the Mont Blanc as ‘their’ dessert, in much the same way that hummous is claimed by at least eight different Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern countries. I think that travelling the countries involved and sampling the dish in each region could easily be turned into a gastronomic travel book and if anyone wants to offer me a book deal to do such a thing I am open to offers once the pandemic is over.

Photo Two by By Honio - Own work, Public Domain,

French/Italian/Swiss/ Mont Blanc (Photo Two)

I thought that marrons glacé were  indisputably French, but apparently Northern Italy, a major sweet chestnut-growing region, also claims them.

Photo Three by By "passamanerie" / flaviab -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Marrons glacés (Photo Three)

Furthermore, in Corsica polenta (or pulenta as it’s called) is made from chestnut flour, and the Corsicans also make sweet chestnut beer. Chestnut flour has no gluten, and so is useful for people suffering from coeliac disease.

Photo Four By Clément Bucco-Lechat - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Corsican chestnut beer (Photo Four)

Historically, sweet chestnut has also been used for timber – like other trees in the Beech family, such as hornbeam, it responds well to coppicing, and produces a good crop every 12 to 30 years. In his book ‘Woodlands’, Oliver Rackham describes how there are possible remnants of Roman chestnut orchards on the edge of the Forest of Dean, but it seems that in the UK chestnut timber was relegated to uses such as hop poles and included in the wattle-and-daub walls of medieval houses. Nonetheless, as noted earlier, if not coppiced these trees can reach an immense size and age. One ancient sweet tree in South Gloucestershire, the Tortworth Chestnut, was called ‘the old Chestnut of Tortworth’ in records from 1150 AD, indicating that it’s over a thousand years old.

Photo Five By Aliasnamesake - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Tortworth Sweet Chestnut (Photo Five)

Medicinally, it’s the leaves of the sweet chestnut that have been used, in particular to cure whooping cough and other ‘irritable and excitable conditions of the respiratory organs’. The belief in the efficacy of the leaves as a treatment for coughs lasted until at least the Second World War, according to the Plant Lore website. Another use for the leaves, also recorded on Plant Lore, was by children playing at running a home – if you strip away the flesh from the leaves they apparently look exactly like fish bones, just the thing for dinner!

And finally, a poem. This is by Thomas James, who was born in 1946 and committed suicide in 1974, a year after this poem was written. I’ve read it over and over, and I see more with every reading, but it still refuses to be nailed down, which is, I think, how it should be with a poem. See what you think, readers.

“The Chestnut Branch” by Thomas James

There is something to be said for darkness
After all. My mother’s hands
Have been full of the dark all winter.

They are hollow boats not going anyplace.
They only pull the blinds
Or gesticulate at some ineradicable star.

Now the backyard unfolds its lacy pleats,
And I bring in a white branch
Because love is the lesson for tomorrow.

Will nothing cure the brightness in these streets?
A million strange petals touch
The panes. Is it a gift of snow?

Is it making up for lack of bandages?
Is it cold, is it hot–
Will it keep, should we put it on ice?

Should my sister sew it into bridal clothes?
Is it lingerie, or just a sheet
To pull across a used-up face?

Will it brighten up the arms of chairs?
It moves. It hurts my eyes.
I am not accustomed to so much light.

It is like waking after twenty years
To find your wife gone and the trees
Too big, strange white growths that flank the street.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Viascos, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two By Honio – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo Three By "passamanerie" / flaviab –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Four By Clément Bucco-Lechat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five By Aliasnamesake – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Goings-On In the Garden

Hoverfly arriving…..

…and feeding

Dear Readers, we were sitting peaceably in the garden on Sunday, gathering strength for our annual hacking-back of the willowherb and hemp agrimony, when my husband, who is becoming quite the naturalist under my twenty-years of nonstop tuition, noticed a wasp behaving in a quite unusual way.

It seemed to be absolutely fascinated by a crack in the patio. It would go underground for a short distance and emerge with something small and white, before flying off. We watched it several times before realising that it was picking out ant larvae or cocoons – occasionally an adult ant would run around frantically, but generally the wasp went about its task unmolested.

In this photo you can just about see that the wasp has something in its jaws, if you squint. Sorry not to have gotten a better picture, but I was enthralled. The wasp kept visiting the whole time we procrastinated over our tea and toast, flying off with its prey three or four times while we watched. What amazing animals they are. How did it even know that there were ants there, and make the link that there would also be larvae (this wasp didn’t seem at all interested in the adults).

And then a robin started singing its heart out from the hawthorn, as if to tell us to get a move on, and so we did.

Following the undignified collapse of the angelica earlier this year, the hemp agrimony and meadowsweet have grown in a multitude of directions, none of them vertical, and so the pond has become very shaded. The frogs were not unhappy about this.

But if I don’t cut things back and clear them out, the pond will become a bog and I won’t be able to get to the shed, so needs must. Next year I think I’ll buy some plant supports so that the hemp agrimony in particular doesn’t flop so much – any recommendations, readers? The plant grows to about four feet tall and is a bit of a thug, so it needs to be robust.

After about 90 minutes work we could finally see all of the pond, and were feeling very pleased with ourselves. This frog, however, reminded me a bit of those shots of mountain gorillas looking back at their deforested hillsides and wondering what on earth happened. I  wonder if s/he’ll notice the snail behind her at some point, and finally prove that frogs are the gardener’s friend, as opposed to just a bunch of freeloaders :-)?

I also love that the seeds from the hemp agrimony make the frog look as if it’s sparkling. I hope that s/he soon gets accustomed to the changed circumstances, and doesn’t sit around looking obvious for too much longer.