Monthly Archives: December 2021

Wednesday Weed – Christmas Cactus

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera x truncata)

Dear Readers, I used to have a bright pink Christmas cactus, that I nurtured for many years until, finally, someone overwatered it and it died. So I was very happy to see a fine selection in the Sunshine Garden Centre this week, and even happier when my lovely friend Jo bought me some as a Christmas present. I love the flowers on these plants – they always look to me a little like a bird leaping into the air. And with the array of buds on this one, I’m hoping that it will be flowering for quite some time.

Plus, I not only got a festive red cactus, but a white one…

and a magenta one, to match this extraordinary magenta cyclamen that I saw.

All cacti (with the exception of Rhipsalis baccifera, which has somehow found its way to Africa) are New World plants, but Christmas cacti are classified as forest cacti. These plants are very different from their desert relations: forest cacti are epiphytic, which means that they grow on the branches of trees or cracks in a rock face in their rainforest homes.  They get water from the humidity of the air or rain, and their nutrients come from organic debris that accumulates around their roots. They therefore hate being waterlogged, as in their native environments the water would just wash away. They live in dappled sunlight, and air circulation around them is also good. All this means that they have to be kept in free-draining soil, and yet like to be sprayed or kept on wet pebbles to keep the humidity up. You often see Christmas cacti in hanging baskets for just this reason – it’s a way to make sure that they get the air circulation that they need, while at the same time being able to spray them for humidity, and admire them from all angles.

In the wild, Schlumbergera grow at altitudes of up to 700 metres (2300 feet) in south-eastern Brazil, and there are six to nine wild species. In Brazil, Christmas cacti can form sizeable shrubs of up to four feet tall. The plants have no leaves, but their modified stems enable them to photosynthesise. The flowers are adapted to be pollinated by hummingbirds (hence the wild-type plant is red, a colour easily visible to birds). Hummingbirds also act to transfer the seeds from one tree to another – as in the post about mistletoe a few weeks ago, the birds wipe their bills to remove the sticky seeds after feeding on the front, hence moving the cactus to a nice new home.

There are two main ‘families’ of Christmas cactus that you’re likely to come across in the stores at this time of year. My plant is Schlumbergera truncata. How can I tell? Mainly because the stems are extremely ‘pointy’ (hence one alternative name of ‘crab cactus’…

and the pollen is yellow.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)

However, you can also find Schlumbergera x buckleyi in the shops. It is a hybrid of Schlumbergera russeliana and Schlumbergera truncata. The stems of this plant are much less ‘prickly’, and the pollen is bright pink.

Photo One by By Schlumbergera_truncata_02.JPG: Lestat (Jan Mehlich)derivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) - Schlumbergera_truncata_02.JPG, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Softer, more rounded stems, pink pollen = Schlumbergera buckleyi. (Photo One)

And here’s something rather lovely – the flowers of a Christmas cactus opening in a time-lapse sequence.

Christmas cacti have been cultivated in Europe since about 1818, with the first hybrid varieties appearing in the mid 1850s. They were very popular in the late Victorian period, but by 1900s they had fallen out of favour, and many varieties were lost. It’s funny how there are fashions in house plants – when I was growing up, everyone had spider plants and aspidistra, and these days these are something of a rarity. However, Christmas cacti staged a comeback: by the 1950s they were popular again, with breeders particularly keen on plants that flowered profusely and which also had more of an upright habit than the trailing habit of the wild plant (though I have noticed that most Christmas cacti revert to a more horizontal growth pattern once they mature). They also started to develop plants with different coloured flowers, such as this yellow one, Gold Charm, which is pretty but infertile.

Photo Two by By Maja Dumat - Weihnachtskaktus (Schlumbergera truncata)Uploaded by uleli, CC BY 2.0,

‘Gold Charm’, a very unusual yellow Christmas cactus (Truncata group) (Photo Two)

However, colour can be problematic in cultivated varieties: it’s been found that the eventual hue of the flowers is influenced by the temperature during bud formation. A plant that might produce white or yellow flowers can be persuaded to produce pink or red-tinged ones instead if the temperature is above 57 degrees Fahrenheit, and plants that are already pink or red will produce much darker-coloured flowers. Iron is also said to influence flower colour.

If I look after my Christmas cacti properly, they can turn in to really magnificent plants – they don’t like being repotted, they don’t like sitting in water, but apart from that in my experience they are really easy-going plants. You can also propagate them pretty easily by breaking off one of the stem segments after the plant has flowered, letting it dry out for a week  and then potting it up in cactus compost. In this way, a Christmas cactus can be almost immortal, as it will live on its clones even after the parent plant has died. And I have read several stories of Christmas cacti that are decades old, and some which are advancing into their hundreds. I rather like this story of ‘A Christmas Cactus Named Junior‘ by Kathy Keeler at ‘The Wandering Botanist’ for example. ‘Junior’ is certainly looking good after his adventures!

There is a Brazilian legend that a small boy in a Brazilian village prayed for a sign that Christmas had come, and in the morning all the rainforest plants had broken into flower on Christmas Day. Sadly, in Brazil Schlumbergera flowers in May and is in fact known as the ‘May Flower’. Blooming botanists, ruining all the stories.

But here is a poem by Gaia Holmes, discovered in the online version of The Stylist magazine of all things. Gosh, I like this a lot, probably because it makes me uneasy, and that is exactly what this time of year does to me too – the darkness that gathers around all the light and sparkle, like wolves waiting just outside the glow of the fire. Not very festive, I know. Anyway, see what you think, lovely people. There is always a Christmas cactus to admire, with its fantastical flowers and leap of faith.

Shadow Play by Gaia Holmes 

He came in winter
when the house was always dark,
brought red Christmas cacti
fire-crackering from their pots
and a suitcase full of candles,
thickened my gloomy rooms
with light.
I met the shadows he bred
without caution
and did not complain
when he followed me to my bed.
Outside, frost had edged the world
with spite.
The city foxes were howling,
cracking their teeth on the ice.
The sharp scent of January scared me.
His big hands cast wolves on the walls.
Fear made me knot myself
around him.
He had a bristled chin
and smelled of fathers.
‘Tell me a story,’ I said
and he told me how lust
could turn an angel
inside out.

Published in Where The Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes, Comma Press, £9.99,

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Schlumbergera_truncata_02.JPG: Lestat (Jan Mehlich)derivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) – Schlumbergera_truncata_02.JPG, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Two by By Maja Dumat – Weihnachtskaktus (Schlumbergera truncata)Uploaded by uleli, CC BY 2.0,


The Patter of Tiny Feet

Dear Readers, I have always been very fond of millipedes. Unlike centipedes, which are carnivorous and can have a ferocious bite, millipedes are detritivores, munching through dead wood and reprocessing all kinds of rotting plant material. I found this one, bumbling along in broad daylight when I was in Cameroon in 2011. What a very fine beast it is! And not completely unprotected from attack either – the body fluids are acrid and cause acute irritation to the mouth and eyes. Most predators have learned this, but one of our baby chimps gave one a bite, and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

I am always reminded, when I watch a millipede in motion, of my Dad’s exhortation never to think about running downstairs when you’re doing it because you’ll almost certainly fall over.

The sound of the crickets and other insects in the background of this video really takes me back to West Africa. Ah, travel! I remember that…..

Now, ‘my’ millipede clearly has a lot of legs – typically, the animals have two pairs of legs for each body segment. I’m calculating about 50 body segments, which gives about 200 legs. But as you might have read, scientists have (finally) discovered a millipede that has more than a thousand legs, so it actually lives up to its name.

A female Eumillipes persephone with 330 segments and 1,306 legs. The millipede species was found deep underground in Western Australia. Photograph: Paul E. Marek (Taken from The Guardian)

The millipede was actually found by researchers carrying out an impact assessment in a gold mining area in Western Australia, at a depth of between 15 and 60 metres. This is unusual for millipedes; most are surface dwellers, though some do live in caves. The animal has 1306 legs and its length and slenderness is thought to help it manoeuvre underground, where it will need to wriggle through crevices and negotiate tight spaces. With all those legs, part of the creature’s body can be upside down while other parts are the right way around, according to the study’s leader, Paul Marek In fact, the millipede can probably be moving in up to eight different planes at once, which is mind-blowing to me. Like many creatures who live all their lives in the darkness, it is a pale, blind creature. I find it rather moving that it’s named after Persephone, who spent half her life in Hades with the Lord of the Underworld, and was only rescued for half of the year by her mother Demeter’s perseverance. However, I suspect that the millipede is perfectly adapted to its dark, damp home, and wouldn’t thank us for moving it!

The biodiversity of Australia is extraordinary, and there are many unique creatures there waiting to be discovered. I just hope that the habitat of this invertebrate, the first millipede worthy of the name, will be preserved – at present the mining company are not planning to target this particular area. One does wonder, though, how many species disappear before we even have a chance to find out about them.

A Pre-Christmas Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, during last week I did a post in which I categorically stated that the robin was the only UK bird that sang during winter. Well, trust nature to prove me wrong because when I was in the cemetery on Saturday, a number of song thrushes were singing their heads off, and very nice it was too, though they normally wouldn’t kick off until the end of January/beginning of February. According to my newsletter from the British Trust for Ornithology, this phenomenon is being observed all over the south of England – our unseasonably mild winter (so far) seems to have persuaded the song thrushes that the worst is over, and they can start advertising for a mate. Let’s hope they’re right.

I love the song of these birds – I am always reminded of Robert Browning’s poem ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ –

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

And indeed that’s what the song thrush seems to do – each one has a set of phrases that seem to delight him, and he repeats them a few times, then moves on to something else. Each song is individual, and yet each is distinctively the song of the species. This is a recording of a song thrush in Coldfall Wood from a wet Good Friday in 2015.

The song thrush wasn’t the only bird that was about in abundance. A flock of about 30 goldfinches flew from tree to tree, their calls like little bells.

And the robins were still belting it out.

The crows and magpies and jays are everywhere. I rather liked this crow, silhouetted against the sky. Goodness only knows what he or she has found to eat.

But changes are afoot. A whole swathe of underbrush and forest has been cut to make room for more graves, and the smouldering pyre has been burning for over a week, with a fire engine in attendance last week. People do like to burn things, especially at this time of year. I am very glad that I don’t live down wind. I have always thought that I wanted to be buried, as I see it as a less polluting way to recycle myself (not until I’m actually dead though, please), but I am wondering if cremation could actually turn out to be more sustainable, in spite of the smoke. It certainly takes up less room.

But, in other more cheerful news, look at this!

A car crashed into the cemetery wall in January this year, causing significant damage to the wall, which I suspect is listed.

And now some beautiful stonework has repaired the wall back to its former glory. It must have been hard getting all this organised in the middle of a pandemic, but here it is. Well done to whoever repaired it, it looks like a lovely job.

And finally, I am throwing myself on your collective brilliance, as usual. Does anybody have a notion what this shrub might be? I didn’t want to risk getting mown down by a bus to get a bit closer, but will get myself better organised if no one has an id. It looks very spectacular.

Maybe I should just incorporate the photo into next week’s quiz :-).

Sunday Quiz – Christmas Trivia

Photo One from

(Photo One)

Dear Readers, as Christmas is nearly upon us, this week we have a simple trivia quiz. Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. on Thursday 23rd December please (one day earlier than usual), and I will let you know the results on Christmas Eve. As usual I will remove your answers as soon as I see them.

This year I am going to run a 12 Days of Christmas Quiz. Each day between Christmas and January 5th there will be a post very loosely based on the old song, the 12 Days of Christmas, and a question to go with it, for you to enjoy at your leisure. I will give you more details on the day, but hopefully it will be fun (and won’t close until Friday January 7th so you’ll have lots of time to play when the festivities are over if you prefer).

But here’s today’s quiz. Onwards!

Question One

Have a listen to this and tell me what Christmas-related animal is making this sound.

Question Two

What sex is this holly bush?

Holly berries by the River Lagan by Albert Bridge

Question Three

If you saw this bee buzzing about in the autumn, which Christmassy plant is likely to be nearby?

Photo by Charles Sharp

Question Four

The world record for the number of brussels sprouts eaten in one minute is held by Linus Urbanec of Sweden. How many did he eat?

Question Five

Which popular Christmas vegetable was so liked by the Roman Emperor Tiberius  that he accepted it as part of the tribute paid to Rome by Germany?

Question Six

Why is a robin called a ‘red breast’ when it’s actually closer to the colour orange?

Question Seven

Which unfortunate bird was hunted on St Stephen’s Day in Ireland and on the Isle of Man until recent times?

Question Eight

What Christmas animal makes this sound?

Question Nine

Which is the only nut (much loved at Christmas) that contains significant amounts of Vitamin C?

Question Ten

And finally, which Christmas bird is making these sounds (and why are you unlikely to hear them these days?)

Sunday Quiz – Musical Christmas Critters (and Plants) – The Answers!

The Schrankogel, a mountain in the Stubai Alps in Austria (Photo by Henk Monster)

Dear Readers, congratulations this week go to Sharon and to Fran and Bobby Freelove for 100% correct answers, well done to everyone! We will have a ‘normal’ quiz tomorrow, but I have something up my sleeve for Christmas, so watch this space. And I hope you enjoy the Christmas play list…..

Song Lyrics

1.There’ll be no more sobbin’ when he starts a throbbin’ his old sweet song.

Robin – When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob,Bob, Bobbing Along.There are lots of versions out there, the most famous probably being by Al Jolson, but here’s one by Doris Day which is particularly jaunty.

2. Oh the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer

Holly and Ivy – this is a traditional carol, so here’s a rather nice version from the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

3. Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight

Chestnuts, turkey, mistletoe and reindeers from The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You), sung by several people but for me, the very best version is by Nat King Cole, who makes it all seem effortless…

But this version by Ella Fitzgerald is fantastic too. What a voice. It’s making me all misty-eyed.

4. The child is a king, the carolers sing
The old has passed, there’s a new beginning
Dreams of Santa, dreams of snow
Fingers numb, faces aglow

Mistletoe and a ‘tree’ from ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ by Cliff Richards. This is a bit of an ear worm so beware 🙂

5. You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous xxxxxx of all?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer of course. There are hundreds of versions out there, but for a funky one, here are The Temptations. You’re welcome.

6. Little xxxxx, little xxxxx
On the dusty road
Gotta keep on plodding onward
With your precious load

Little donkey! This seems to have been done by Vera Lynn and the Beverley Sisters among others, but here’s a version by Gracie Fields. Youtube is a wonderful thing.

7. Have a happy holiday
Everyone dancin’ merrily
In the new old-fashioned way

Mistletoe,holly, a tree and pumpkin (in a pie, but still….) This is from ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, most famously sung by Brenda Lee, though I see that more recently(ish) Mel and Kim got in on the act.

8. Shadows painting our faces

Traces of romance in our heads
Heaven’s holding a half-moon
Shining just for us
Let’s slip off to a sand dune, real soon
And kick up a little dust.

Camel and Cactus, from ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ by Maria Muldaur. Whatever happened to her, I wonder? This is actually a pretty cool song.

9. Fare you well my dear, I must be gone
And leave you for a while
If I roam away I’ll come back again
Though I roam ten thousand miles, my dear
Though I roam ten thousand miles.

A turtle dove and yet another tree :-). This is from ‘Fare Thee Well’ (The Turtle Dove) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and very lovely it is too. I’ll accept any choir.

10. You know I’m such a fool for you
You got me wrapped around your finger
Do you have to let it linger?
Do you have to, do you have to, do you have to let it linger?

The Cranberries, with the irreplaceable Dolores O’Riordan. What a voice. What a loss.


The Winter Dawn Chorus

Dear Readers, in the midwinter mornings just before dawn, you might hear an unexpected trilling coming from the tree tops. To me, the song sounds almost like shards of ice twinkling to the ground. And where, in spring, the voice would be joined by a whole chorus of other birds, at this time of year all you’ll hear, if you listen closely, is an answering voice from a hundred feet away, where another bird of the same species is also singing. It’s one of the sweetest sounds of winter, up there with carol singers and the wind sighing in the trees.

The robin is an outlier, a bird who holds a winter territory when everyone else has given up on that stuff and decided to share. Tits and finches gather in mixed flocks, blackbirds that hate the sight of one another in the spring will gather to eat windfall apples with a bare minimum of skirmishes, and a general warm glow of fellow-feeling pervades the garden. But robins are not going to let their summer territories lapse just because it’s cold. What often happens is that a male and female robin will have adjoining territories during the winter, which they will each defend from all comers, including one another. In spring, as the hormones rise, they make their peace, join their territories, and raise their youngsters together.

And here is another difference from most birds – both female and male robins sing, and as they are identical to look at, I have no idea which sex my robin is. I can hear another robin answering though, and so maybe they will get together in the spring and raise some youngsters, as they did last year.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

And here, for your delectation, is my robin singing. You might want to keep your eyes closed to avoid sea sickness (no time for a tripod!). And if you’re out and about before first light, maybe take a moment to see if you can hear a robin singing, just for a second. I swear that it does the heart good.


Tree of The Year 2021

The Kippford Hawthorn (Tree of the Year 2021) Photo by Drew Patterson

Dear Readers, the Tree of the Year competition has been held annually by the Woodland Trust since 2016, and this year’s winner is this weathered hawthonr, growing all alone on a beach in Kippford, Dumfries and Galloway,  Scotland. There can be little doubt about the direction of the prevailing wind here! The poor tree has had cars bashing into it, generations of children climbing it, and the nominator, Drew Patterson, has photos of his grandmother and grandfather standing in front of it. It’s a fine example of a tree with lots of character, and this is not unusual for this competition, as we shall see.

The Woodland Trust collects nominations from the four countries of the UK, and a shortlist is compiled by a panel of independent experts. I especially like that the winning tree ‘wins’ a cheque for £1000, which can be spent on anything from remedial works to a special plaque explaining the tree’s importance. The winning tree is also entered into the European Tree of the Year competition.

Here are a few of the previous winners. In 2020 we had ‘The Survivor Tree’, a rowan which used to be the only tree in a completely deforested area, the Carrifran Valley in the Scottish Borders. Since the photo was taken over 700,000 trees have been planted, many by volunteers, in an attempt to restore and rewild the forest.

The Survivor Tree, winner of the 2020 Tree of the Year (Photo by By Aiden Maccormick, ScotlandBigPicture – and

In 2019 the award went to a somewhat statelier tree, the Allerton Oak in Calderstones Park, Liverpool. It’s thought to be over a thousand years old, and to have been the setting for a medieval hundred court ( a ‘hundred’ was part of a shire, an administrative division of the country). It was also said to have been damaged in a gunpowder explosion in 1684!

The Allerton Oak, winner of the 2019 Tree of the Year (Photo by Sue Adair)

In 2018 the prize went to Nellie’s tree – actually a group of three beech trees that were grafted together in the shape of a letter ‘N’ by a man who wanted to impress Nellie, his girlfriend, in about 1920. The trees, which can be found near to Aberford, West Yorkshire, have since become a popular site for marriage proposals,

Nellie’s tree, winner of the 2018 Tree of the Year (Photo by Christine Johnston)

In 2017 the winner was the Gilwell Oak, which is in the grounds of the Scout Association in Gilwell Park, Essex. It’s said to be one of the many, many hiding places of Dick Turpin, a notorious highwayman who has hidden in the branches of at least 50% of the trees in Southern England, and  at least 95% of the basements of London pubs. It is a truly magnificent English Oak (Quercus robur) and is thought to be 450 – 550 years old. For a long time, Scouts who had completed their training were given acorns carved from fallen branches of the Gilwell Oak as a token of their success.

The Gilwell Oak, winner in 2017 (Photo by David Nash)

And finally, in 2016 the winner was the Brimmon Oak, an English Oak tree from Newton, Powys, Wales. It grows in a field that has been farmed by the same family since 1600, but in 2015 it was scheduled to be felled as part of the construction of the Newton Bypass. The farmer organised a petition to save the tree, which garnered 5000 signatures and was presented to the Welsh Assembly. As a result, the tree was saved, and went on to come second in the European Tree of the Year, the best placing so far for any UK tree.

The Brimmon Oak (Photo by Penny Mayes)

And so there have been a wide variety of trees in the Tree of the Year award – some threatened, some locally famous, some just well-loved. As an exercise in raising awareness of the trees that surround us it seems to be a great idea. Next year I shall post a link so that we can all vote!

Wednesday Weed – Juniper

Photo One by Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Juniper (Juniperus communis) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when the ice ages carpeted the British Isles thousands of years ago, it spelled the demise of many plants that are still common in mainland Europe (though to be fair, we are one of the world’s moss and liverwort hotspots!) We were left with only two tough native conifers – the Scots pine and this plant beloved of gin-drinkers everywhere, juniper. This is the most widespread of all conifers, growing in the temperate Northern Hemisphere right around the globe. More locally, I have seen several used as low growing structural plants in the front gardens of East Finchley, but left to its own devices, juniper can reach a height of 10 metres and live for up to 200 years. It is a spiky, tough plant, a member of the Cypress family, and is much beloved by many birds who rely on it for dense cover (such as the goldcrest, firecrest and black grouse) and for its berries (fieldfares, redwings, blackbirds and ring ouzels).

Just to digress here for a moment, the smell of gin reminds me of when my Dad, a gin distiller who made Gordon’s gin, used to take us to visit the distillery, then on Goswell Road. The area where the ingredients for the flavouring were kept always had that medicinal twang of juniper, along with mace, orris root and lots of other things that were part of the secret recipe. It seemed like a magician’s laboratory, with the massive vats towering above us. It was a bonded warehouse, which meant that it was subject to very strict regulation and frequent inspections, but that didn’t stop some of the warehousemen from trying to steal the raw gin – one had a go by attaching hot water bottles inside his trousers and filling them with the alcohol. Sadly, it was so strong that it ate through the rubber, and the would-be smuggler was left with wet legs and no job.

Historically, gin was seen as a drink for women (hence ‘mother’s ruin’) and Hogarth’s engravings showed it as a drink of the poor and dissolute. It had a strong reputation as a substance which could bring on an abortion,  which didn’t help. In Lothian, a juniper-induced miscarriage was known as ‘giving birth under the savin (juniper) tree.

By the time Dad was making it, gin had become rather more chic, and these days you can’t move for artisan gins and small producers knocking out various limited-edition products.I recently saw that Gordon’s are making a zero-alcohol gin. Dad would have been horrified.

William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, (1750-1751)

Anyway, back to juniper. This is a dioecious plant, which means that there are male junipers and female junipers. Only the females have the berries, while the males have these interesting ‘pollen cones’. The berries take more than a year to ripen (well, the plant does grow in some very cold places) and so you can often see the green unripe and the blue ripe berries on the same bush, as in photo one above.

Photo Two by Bff, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Male pollen cones (Photo Two)

Native plants often come with a whole raft of folklore, and juniper is no exception. It was thought to deter the devil and any witches who might be hanging around, and it was hung from the lintel on May Day and especially at Halloween. In Mediterranean areas it was believed that if a witch saw a branch of juniper she would be compelled to stop and count the needles, so hopefully that would give the inhabitants time to leave. If you dreamed of gathering juniper berries in winter, you would prosper, and the berries themselves could signify the birth of a baby boy. And then, courtesy of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, there is the miracle of the juniper bush.

Burning juniper wood gives off a strongly aromatic smoke, and this was used to cleanse houses of evil spirits every year, and when the Black Death came, houses and their inhabitants were sometimes fumigated at the same time. In Scotland, the inhabitants were then revived with whisky (and very sensible too).

It’s also believed that when Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus were on the run from Herod’s murderous soldiers, their exhausted donkey was hidden by a helpful juniper tree, so there is even a Christmas connection. In some parts of Italy, juniper is hung in stables and cattlesheds to protect the animals within, and when settlers moved to the US, the custom went with them – some coffeeshops even prepare a festive juniper-flavoured latte. Well, it makes a change from the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latter.

Photo Three by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Juniper seedling (Photo Three)

And finally, a poem. I have chosen the second stanza from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’, because I think it is a masterpiece that rewards attention. It is never completely teased-out, but it contains such breath-taking moments. There are layers on layers here, but I think you can take it just as it is and let the visions form in your head. The first four lines are worth the price of entry! You can read the whole thing here.

Ash Wednesday by T.S Eliot (Part 2)

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Bff, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Jolly Green Visitor

Dear Readers, when I put up a peanut feeder I was hoping for nuthatches, or even jays, but a ring-necked parakeet is bright enough to cheer up any November afternoon. They are always such a surprise, and at one point there were two of them in the garden (which is 100% more than have ever been here simultaneously in the past). I apologise for the quality of the photo but I was so stunned that I didn’t rush to get my camera and my husband was reduced to snapping the visitors on his phone. Our kitchen window is also filthy because I have been reluctant to cause harm to the spiders who hibernate in the window frame. Being married to me is clearly a bed of roses.

I suspect that Mr/Mrs Parakeet was attempting to dismantle the wire on the nut feeder – they are such dextrous birds, and I fully expect to come downstairs one morning to see a massive hole and no peanuts.

They really are extremely green, but some folk in London are being visited by other colour morphs of the bird, like this yellow one…..

Yellow morph ring-necked parakeet (Photo by Bernard Spragg, New Zealand)

…or this powder-blue one…

Blue morph ring-necked parakeet (Photo by Tanya Dropbear)

These colours do very occasionally appear in the wild, but birds that look like these are probably escaped pets or aviary birds. And when you see the fun that they have in the gardens and woods of East Finchley, careering through the trees like hooligans, scaring the life out of the wood pigeons and making the suburbs ring with their squawking, I can only admire their panache.

What you lookin’ at?

A December Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it can all feel a bit bleak in the UK at this time of year – the days are still getting shorter, the weather is often grey and the trees are leafless. But even so, if you look closely enough there are still signs that beneath the surface, plants are alive and fuelling up for the spring.

The ash trees are full of buds. I’ve mentioned before that they always look to me like the hooves of tiny deer. It will be a while before the tree bursts into flowers and then into leaf, but the sap is still running and the tree is just biding its time.

I found this lovely film showing a year in the life of an ash tree on the Woodland Trust site – do have a look, it’s gorgeous.

And then there are the horse chestnuts. They have a triumvirate of distinctive sticky buds, and the secretion covering the buds has been investigated in this paper, which found that it protected the developing leaves and flowers against differences in temperature during the autumn, spring and winter, against both water loss and excessive water penetration, and against UV rays. It was also surprisingly sticky throughout all these changes in conditions, which made it a substantial deterrent to insect pests.  Quite a substance! And it’s no wonder that scientists interested in biomimicry are investigating it as a possible non-toxic, robust adhesive.

The Woodland Trust has also done a short film on a year in the life of a horse chestnut tree. I like that it doesn’t shy away from the leaf damage done by the horse chestnut leaf miner, which seems to be pretty much universally present these days. Still, these trees are robust and seem to soldier on regardless.

It’s not just the trees who are indicating that they’re still full of vigour. Look at the cow parsley leaves, already showing through the leaf litter! There are lots of lesser celandine leaves starting to poke through too, and some winter heliotrope.

The snowberry comes into its own at this time of year, with the white berries shining bright against the dark background. In my experience, these are the fruits least liked by birds – maybe they don’t associate the whiteness with edibility, or maybe they are just low in food value. Still, the plant is good cover when it’s fully leafed (it was originally imported as cover for game birds).

And the ivy flowers have turned into little sputniks. Soon they will be the black berries beloved by wood pigeons and other birds. Every ivy-covered tree  seems to explode with the clatter of wood pigeon wings as I pass.

The conifers are full of small birds. I hear and identify the calls of several goldcrests, but I haven’t managed to get a decent photo yet. Still, here’s what they sound like (uploaded from my Birdnet app, which I can’t recommend highly enough). You can hear the rumble of the North Circular Road in the background.

And here’s what the little darlings look like. They are the UK’s smallest bird, weighing from 4.5 to 7 grams, and are members of the kinglet family, so my North American readers might be familiar with some of their relatives.

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) by Gail Hampshire

It’s not just the goldcrests who are active though – small birds of all kinds need to be on the lookout for food during every daylight hour, just to survive through the hours of darkness, especially during a cold snap. This blue tit was probably looking for tiny invertebrates amongst the leaves at the top of this conifer.

Meantime, ‘my’ swamp cypress has passed its peak and is beginning to look a little threadbare…

…and in the category of ‘things that I hadn’t noticed before’ I spotted that one of my favourite crab apples appears to have two trunks. Was this a bit of misplaced pruning when the plant was young, I wonder, or is it an example of a graft? The tree seems all of a piece when in leaf though. Let me know what you think.

This is the same tree in flower back in March this year.

And finally, I hadn’t noticed this baby Scots pine before, planted all on its own in a new part of the cemetery. It’s already getting that windblown look that I associate with the tree, but it will be a while before it reaches the dizzy heights of some of its older neighbours.

Scots pine

And so, although we’re ten days away from the winter solstice on 21st December, there are already signs of the spring to come. Everything is waiting for the starting gun of the longer days, although the weather in January and February can be hard for plants and animals alike. Still, it’s good to realise that nature is ticking away in the background, never stopping.