Monthly Archives: November 2022

Wednesday Weed – Shepherd’s Purse Revisited

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shepherd’s purse – photo by João Domingues Almeida athttps://flora-on.pt/?q=Capsella

Dear Readers, Shepherd’s Purse is one of the smallest, most inoffensive plants that you’re likely to see growing at the edge of a wall or next to a bollard. I first wrote about in 2014 when I was just starting to blog, and at the time it didn’t seem odd to me that this isn’t considered a native plant – as described below, it’s technically an archaeophyte, thought to have arrived in the UK before 1500. And yet, other small ‘weedy’ plants such as chickweed are accorded full native status. It’s all very puzzling, but greater botanical brains than mine have come to their own conclusions.

What is in no doubt is that Shepherd’s Purse is a very widespread ‘weed’ indeed. In Stace and Crawley’s ‘Alien Plants’, Shepherd’s Purse appears on the top 30 alien plants in London, suburban Bedfordshire and rural East Sutherland, one of only 5 plants to appear in all three lists (the others, in case you’re interested, are Buddleia, Sycamore, American Willowherb and Ground Elder). One reason is that it is an annual that will happily inbreed, giving rise to a whole range of microspecies (30 are listed in Druce’s Plant List of 1998, for example). This is important as the flowers of Shepherd’s Purse don’t attract a whole lot of pollinators, so sometimes the seeds for next year have been self-pollinated. No wonder the plant is so successful.

So, let’s see what I said about the plant eight whole years ago.

Shepherd's Purse

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

Shepherd’s Purse is one of those straggly  white-flowered weeds that grow at the bottom of walls, or in amongst the roots of city trees. It gets its name from its seed-pods, which are shaped like the leather pouches carried in medieval times, hung by draw-strings from the belt. The name also gives a clue to the length of time that it has been in the UK, for this little plant is a long way from home. It originated in Eastern Europe and Asia minor, but has been with us for a long time – it is considered to be an archaeophyte in the UK, which means that it came here prior to 1492. Plants which came along after this date are known as neophytes.

Like many so-called ‘weeds’, Shepherd’s Purse is an annual, and flowers almost all year round, the seed scattering far and wide from those heart-shaped seed pouches.

Shepherd's Purse Seedhead

Shepherd’s Purse Seedhead

There can be several generations of Shepherd’s Purse in a year, and the seeds can also survive for a long time in the soil, making it an ideal plant for an urban environment. When conditions are right, it will proliferate. When times are hard, the seeds will wait for better times to arrive. Once you have noticed Shepherd’s Purse, you will see it everywhere, going about its modest business without any ostentation. Yet, it has been used in a variety of ways all over the world.

Shepherd's Purse (the long straggly plant with the white flowers)

Shepherd’s Purse (the long straggly plant with the white flowers)

Shepherd’s Purse is a member of the cabbage family, and in many parts of the world it is actively grown as a food plant. It is increasing in popularity in this country as a foraged addition to salads, and in Japan is part of a ceremonial barley and rice gruel that is eaten on January 7th (for more details, have a look here). Although in cities it rarely reaches more than a few inches high, in rich soil, or when cultivated, it can grow into a more substantial plant, up to two feet high, with bigger, juicier leaves.

Shepherd’s Purse has also been used medicinally – a tea made from the plant is described as a ‘sovereign remedy’ against haemorrhage, especially of the kidneys. In Germany, the plant has been approved for use against nose-bleeds, pre-menstrual syndrome, wounds and burns. During the First World War, the herb was used in Germany to stop bleeding after other, more conventional remedies became unavailable.

Finally, the seeds of the plant are much loved by small birds, and I have watched sparrows hopping along the wall at the end of my street, pecking up the little ‘purses’.

This inoffensive, useful little plant is all around us, and yet, we have no respect whatsoever for it. This is the scene that greeted me a few days ago when I wandered up to the High Street:

Dying Shepherd's Purse

Dying Shepherd’s Purse and other ‘weeds’

Someone had decided to spray all the little weeds growing at the foot of the wall beside Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m not sure whether it’s the council, or the staff from KFC. I suspect the former – Barnet Council ‘gardeners’ have a zero-tolerance policy towards anything that isn’t a rose bush or a petunia. All these micro-habitats gone. All those seeds poisoned. I just hope that the sparrows have the sense not to eat them.

My one consolation is that I doubt it will be long before the Shepherd’s Purse is back. There will be seeds in the soil, just waiting for the toxins to die down. In the battle between man and plant, my money is always on the plant.

 

 

 

The London Tree Map

Dear Readers, I hope that you’ll forgive a very London-centric post today, but I’ve been playing a bit with the London Street Tree online map, and I thought I’d share it with you so you can play too. You can find it at

https://www.london.gov.uk/programmes-and-strategies/environment-and-climate-change/parks-green-spaces-and-biodiversity/trees-and-woodlands/london-tree-map

And this should take you to the screen above. Now you probably need to zoom in a bit to avoid all the trees just being blobs.

You can enter your postcode in the search box at the top left-hand corner, or you can zoom in yourself…

And once you’re in, hovering over a tree will tell you what it is  – as you can see, the tree on Huntingdon Road below is a Rowan, looked after by Barnet council

What, though, if you’re trying to find a particular species of tree, as I was earlier this week?

First, click on the ‘Hide’ button to get rid of all the trees.

 

Then, click on the tree that you’re interested in. You might remember a while back that I discovered that one of the ‘County Roads’ here in East Finchley was unlike the others, because it had lots of lime trees. And here is the proof, in case I needed any….

So, you can use the map to identify trees, or to find a particular kind of tree. There are a few drawbacks – a lot of the more recently planted trees are classified as ‘other’, which doesn’t give one a whole lot to go by. On the other hand, there is a Google View photo of each tree, at least in theory, so we probably shouldn’t quibble too much.

Anyway, I foresee hours of innocent fun exploring my local street trees with this, and I find myself wondering if other councils have done the same? Let me know readers! A street tree map of the UK, or indeed of every city in the world, would be a very fine thing.

 

 

My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican

Dear Readers, we were very, very lucky to get tickets for this play, which apparently sold out even faster than Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Hamlet’ which was at the Barbican a few years ago. And what a delight it was! The audience was full of children of all ages, most of them under 12 but a good few of them in their 60s (ahem).

I had always loved the Studio Ghibli film of the story. It tells of a father and his two daughters, one about four years old and one about eight, who move to the country to be closer to their mother, who is in hospital, suffering from an unspecified disease. I love that, at the end of the story, it’s no clearer if there’s going to be a happy ending, and the play also avoids any Disney-fied tying-up of all the loose ends. There are big themes in the story – not only sickness and loss, but the anxiety of moving house, the fear of change, the difference between urban and rural living (the family were previously living in a flat in Tokyo). I love that the whole story of Totoro doesn’t pretend that these things happen, but shows how they can be dealt with. I imagine that there could be quite a lot of conversations between adults and children on the way home from the play.

When the family move into their new house, they realise that they are sharing it, and the forests around it, with a variety of sprites and forest guardians, including the eponymous Totoro. I was looking forward to seeing how these creatures were brought to life, and wasn’t disappointed. Suffice it to say that the puppeteers who ‘wrangle’ the creatures must be extremely fit. There are various versions of Totoro, one of which practically takes up the whole of the stage. There is also a magic bus in the form of a cat that puts in several appearances.

‘Magical’ is a very overused word, but that’s exactly what it was. There is one part, where the forest creatures work together to make the seeds that the girls have planted grow, that had me wiping away surreptitious tear, old softie that I am.

Totoro and the girls from the Studio Ghibli film

I had forgotten, too, that the film has a strong eco message, probably because it’s so interwoven into the story that it doesn’t feel like preaching. A grandmother explains that the forest guardians used to be visible to everyone, but that these days they’re afraid of humans and hide away. The teacher at the local school tells the oldest daughter that there used to be bears and wolves in the forest, but not anymore.

Although there are themes of sickness and loss threaded throughout the story, it is also extremely funny in places – the youngest girl, Mei, has all the fearlessness of the very young, and although she gets into scrapes, her friendship with the forest guardians and with the local people always see her through. Her older sister is indomitable. The father is an academic, kind but a bit witless when it comes to things like discipline or getting the breakfast done. There is a boy who finds it hard to speak to girls, but who eventually comes to the rescue. It’s a story about human beings as well as one about huge furry creatures.

The cast are excellent, the music is wonderful (it was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who wrote the score for the animated film), and although there’s a lot of ‘action’, there are also peaceful moments, when we have time to gather our breath.

You can tell a lot about how good a play was by the buzz when people leave the auditorium – on Saturday, the place was uproarious, and complete strangers were talking to one another in the queue for the ladies toilet, which is always a good sign. I hope that ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ gets another run, or tours, or that it’s filmed for the cinema so that lots more people can see it. Do take the chance if you’re able.

Thoughts on Mum’s Birthday

Mum at the Royal Oak pub in 2012

Dear Readers, Mum would have been 87 years old this Saturday, 26th November. It’s strange how even when I’m not consciously remembering, there’s a sad heaviness about this time of year. Sometimes I wonder why I’m feeling so bereft only to glance at the calendar and realise what’s coming. The shortening of the days, the turning of the leaves all remind me that a few years ago Mum and Dad went into a nursing home, and that a few months later Mum died.

The pang is not so sharp, now, but I still miss her, especially as we head into Christmas, her favourite time of the year. When people at work talk about the family getting together, playing games, I remember how Mum was always up for charades, and what a good actress she was. She had a party piece in which she imitated me sorting out my contact lenses which was so accurate that it had us crying with laughter. Give Mum a glass of wine and she was unleashed. I was always sorry that she didn’t find an Amateur Dramatics society, she would have stolen the show every time.

I want to tell people to appreciate their loved ones, to relish these moments because things change. On the other hand, I don’t want to be the party pooper. Would I have really listened if someone had said that to me before Mum and Dad were gone? I think I might have just brushed it aside as being too morbid for the season. And so I keep my mouth shut except with those I know the best. I think the message is valid, regardless. The good memories are worth making, and sometimes the arguments that flare when people are stuck together with too much rich food and too much to drink are not worth having.

I am sending love out to everyone who finds this season painful. There will be people reading this who have lost someone close to them this year, and for whom this will be the first Christmas without their loved one. Be gentle with yourself. Do what you need to do. Don’t strive for perfection, there’s no such thing under the sun. Follow the old family traditions where they bring comfort, but be prepared to ditch them if they no longer make sense, or are too painful. Grief is a process that never truly ends, and there is no right way to feel or not to feel, and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.

And finally, I rediscovered this piece from 2019. I think it captures some of how Mum was, and what her legacy was, to me and to everyone who knew her. I hope you enjoy it.

Dear Readers, 26th November would have been my Mum’s 84th birthday, had she not died in December last year. These firsts are hard, as people who have trodden this path before warned me: on Tuesday I went into work, did fancy things with spreadsheets, cried in the toilets intermittently and went home. And then, when I started to prepare the cabbage for dinner, I heard her voice in my head.

‘Look!’ it said.

And so I did. If Mum had still been alive, she would have called to me from the kitchen, and wouldn’t have given up until I came to see what was interesting. I can remember her in the days when she could still walk, hunched over with scoliosis and poised over a chopping board.

Maybe she’d found a carrot shaped like a pair of crossed legs, or something ruder.

Maybe she was entranced by the glistening magenta seeds inside a pomegranate.

Maybe there was a five-pointed star in the middle of a potato.

Or maybe it was the way that water drops form pure, translucent pearls amongst the indentations and veins of a Savoy cabbage.

She would have gestured at the vegetable with her (always blunt) knife.

‘Can you see it?’ she’d ask.

‘Can I see what?’ I’d say, with a greater or lesser degree of exasperation.

She’d smile enigmatically and wait for me to get it.

And then, like one of those optical-illusion puzzles that change suddenly, I’d see what she saw.

‘There’s a tormented demon in your cabbage’, I’d say, and she’d laugh. She saw characters everywhere – in wallpaper, in the grain of wood, in clouds, in the upturned faces of the pansies in the garden. She would have loved the fuse box that I spotted at Walthamstow Wetlands the other week.

For Mum, the world was full of people that went unnoticed, both in terms of images, and in terms of real folk who are often passed by. It was not unusual for me to meet her somewhere, only to find her sharing a cigarette with a homeless person that she’d made friends with outside the tube station, or ‘chatting’ with a lost tourist who spoke not a word of English. She reached beyond speech to find the common language that we all share:  a need for connection, empathy, and beauty. She would compliment a complete stranger if she liked their dress, and once told a very well-dressed young man that the newspaper he was carrying had left a big print smudge on his face.

‘I could tell that he was going to an interview because he looked very nervous and kept checking his A to Z’, she said, ‘and he was very grateful when I told him. And I was right, he was going to an interview!’

Once, in Finsbury Square, Mum noticed a pigeon with its feet wrapped in string much like the one at Waterloo Station above. She had a pair of scissors in her bag, and, with some trepidation, approached a besuited chap at the next bench.

‘Excuse me’, she said, ‘but if you could just get hold of that poor pigeon, I’m sure I could cut it free’.

The guy looked at her with complete incredulity.

‘Madam’, he said, ‘you must be completely mad’.

And so the pigeon remained entangled, and Mum went back to work, sad and exasperated.

‘All he had to do was grab it!’ she told me that evening.

I should add that Mum also brought home many of the house plants from work that the company who looked after them deemed too tatty to grace the office. She would nurse them back to health with great satisfaction.

‘All they needed was a bit of TLC’, she’d say. People, animals and plants flourished under her kind attention, and she taught me that no living thing should ever be treated without respect, or written off. Her passion for the underdog was the thing that I loved most about her, and it was that that propelled me into so many of my own choices in life. She believed that that a community is only strong when there is room for everyone, and so do I.

But truly, Mum saw beauty everywhere. She loved the night sky, and I remember us standing at the back of the bungalow one night, not long before she died. It is very dark in the village, and we stood there, holding hands and looking up. Suddenly, there was a shooting star.

‘Quick, Mum, make a wish!’ I said, and she closed her eyes, and so did I. I wished for her to have better health, and to find peace, and one of those wishes was granted, though not in the way I wanted.

And so, I go on, as we do. But I often find myself trying to get complete strangers to pay attention to what’s around them. I point out a red moon, a flock of waxwings, a pied wagtail trying to find food outside Kentucky Fried Chicken, a robin singing at first light, and when I do I know it’s Mum speaking through me, still.

‘Look’.

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

 

 

Next to Nature – A Lifetime in the English Countryside by Ronald Blythe

Dear Readers, I have been very much enjoying this book by Ronald Blythe, who is 100 years old this year. His most famous book, Akenfield, told the story of the village of Debach and the town of Charlsfield, 10 miles from Ipswich. The conversations with the people who lived in both places were real, but the details of the characters were slightly fictionalised. The book was loved so much that it was turned into a film by Peter Hall.

This latest book is a collection of pieces collected from Blythe’s columns for the Church Times. They are arranged by month, with each month being introduced by what feels like a pantheon of other nature writers, Richard Mabey, Olivia Laing and Mark Cocker amongst them. I am finding it the perfect bedtime reading – gentle enough not to cause nightmares, closely observed, often wry, and never sentimental. Although some of the Biblical references pass me by (Blythe is a Christian and has been a lay-reader for many years), they bother me not a jot, and indeed pique my curiosity, as I suspect that there’s a whole other layer of meaning here that I’m missing.

I spotted the book in Waterstones in Islington, and picked it up out of curiosity. By the time I’d read this passage I knew I had to bring it home. Blythe describes the May Bank Holiday downpour, and then wanders into the larder.

Whether the bees and hornets in the larder were taking shelter it was hard to say, but a furious murmur met me when I entered it in search of marmalade. It is a long brick-floored room in which the tall fridge-freezer is in constant battle with the iciness of the larder itself. It was as I thought, a poor fat bee was glassily imprisoned on the washed jam jars shelf, and I set it free by means of the classic postcard and glass method. When I returned the buzzing was still there, only now there was a great choir of it coming from all directions, a kind of orchestrated sibilance in which rage was being expressed symphonically. Thus, sic times did I set both bees and hornets free, carrying them one by one into the garden, displaying immense courage. Meanwhile Henry our vicar was innocently laying a hand on an unseen hornet in the church, with dreadful result. Mercifully all he suffered was agony. Hornets provide a kind of first strike in the Pentateuch when God sends them before the Israeli forces to scare the enemy. They dwell peacefully in my vine, sunning themselves in the garden-lamp. No one knows a time when they were not there. But how could they not fly from a lidless jam-jar? Why did they come so near to death in their glass gaol when the door was wide open?” (Page 183)

There have been some fine pieces written on Blythe and his centenary, such as this one in The Guardian  by Patrick Barkham (a very fine nature-writer himself). It made me sad to read that Blythe has now been diagnosed with dementia, and yet I hope that his still living in the place that has been his home, surrounded by friends who support him, and the nature that has provided his inspiration will soften his situation. I read this piece, on ‘The Death of Miss Helen Booth’, and thought of Blythe, his acceptance and his generosity. One of his heroes is John Clare, the poet of the countryside from an earlier century, I think of Blythe as carrying on his tradition.

“I am walking to Helen’s funeral. The afternoon air is moist and still. Birds sing loudly. Where the lane twists the hedge grows invisible under a mat of wild rose and traveller’s joy. Fine stands of agrimony and mallow rear on its banks. Cars whisper by. Helen’s cars, beginning with a Bullnose Morris and continuing with various Estates, make ghostly journeys. She ceased counting after the very public centenary and withdrew to her slip of a bedroom, and was comfortable enough. Her mind revisited where she had been, who she had been. We visited her, being careful not to harp on about her age, for the worst thing about being over a hundred is being told how wonderful it is. It is not wonderful at all – just the persisting heartbeat and life not knowing when to stop. Just another day announcing itself through the thin curtain and jumping into one’s consciousness like a jack-in-the-box.” (Page  208)

This is a wonderful book, full of things to ponder and descriptions to marvel at. It’s available at our old friends the Natural History Bookshop, and in all the other usual places.

 

Good News from Dartmoor

Blue Ground Beetle (Carabus intricatus) (Photo by Bernard Dupont at https://www.flickr.com/photos/berniedup/13537624634)

Dear Readers, the world is so full of gloom and doom these days that on Friday I plan to post something a little more optimistic. One thing that really cheers me up is the number of people involved in small scale projects, be it monitoring the wildlife on a local ‘patch’, making their gardens more friendly for wildlife, or working to preserve or renovate habitats that have become damaged or overgrown.

The Blue Ground Beetle (Carabus intricatus) is Britain’s largest ground beetle (up to 38 mm long), and very splendid it is too. There are other, smaller, commoner ground beetles which have a more violet sheen to their elytra (wing cases), but as its name suggests, this species is very definitely blue. It is largely nocturnal and makes its home in damp deciduous ancient woodlands, where it lives by eating slugs – it grabs them with its fearsome jaws and injects them with digestive juices, before sucking out their insides.

It was previously known from only 13 sites in Cornwall, Devon and South Wales, and is most often spotted at night as it runs up and down a mossy tree trunk, looking for prey. But staff at Buglife (the invertebrate conservation charity), local naturalists and local volunteers have been searching possible sites for the beetle at night, quite often in the rain, and have found them at two new sites on Dartmoor.

While this might not sound very exciting, it means that the beetle is more widespread than was thought. Plus, once a site is known, it can be protected. Knowledge is so important, and invertebrates are a very understudied group, plus the taxonomic knowledge to identify species is becoming rarer and rarer – you could argue that taxonomists themselves are becoming an endangered species. But if we don’t know what is living at a site, it becomes very difficult to advocate for it, and we will have no idea about the distribution or rarity of particular species. This is an argument for better natural history education, for citizen science, and for funding, particularly of small, specialist charities like Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Society who are both doing such useful work on such tight budgets. I look forward to the launch of the new Natural History GCSE course that’s being launched in 2025 – hopefully, it will inspire a whole new generation of naturalists, ecologists and taxonomists.

Red List 2022 – Number 4 – Fieldfare

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) (Photo by Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK)

Dear Readers, when I was growing up I loved my ‘Ladybird Book of British Birds’. In my mind’s eye, I see a painting of ploughed and snowy fields, with fieldfares circling gently down like smuts from a fire. Although we most commonly see these autumn migrants in  hawthorn bushes and rowan trees, they are happier pulling up earthworms and digging for beetle larvae, and much prefer fields and hedgerows to our gardens.

Sometimes, though, when the earth is too frozen to get a beak into, a fieldfare will deign to see what we have to offer. About ten years ago, during a particularly harsh winter, and a fieldfare lost track of his flock and spent a few days in the garden. What a fierce bird he was! I put out a dish of grated apple, and he defended it against all comers, so I had to put out two and then he tried to defend them both. Then, one day, a flock of birds went over and he must have recognised them as his kind, because he flew up and away, leaving the blackbirds to feed unmolested.

This vigour in defence has been noted by many observers. They have been seen to ‘ram’ magpies and crows in flight, and in the British Trust for Ornithology piece on the species there is a report that some birdwatchers believe there are ‘guard’ fieldfares in a colony, who will ‘escort’ predators away. The usual defence, however, is apparently well-aimed defecation in the direction of the intruder. I can’t help thinking that the blackbirds got away lightly.

In Scandinavia, fieldfares are known as ‘birch thrushes’ and they feel quintessentially northern to me, birds of the pale wintery birch forests that I remember from Norway. ‘Fieldfare’ comes from the Old English ‘feld’ (field) and ‘fara’ (to go). In her piece on the bird in the British Trust for Ornithology book ‘Into the Red’, Brigit Strawbridge mentions that this name is sometimes interpreted as ‘the traveller of the fields’. In winter, the fieldfares, along with the smaller redwings, leave the taiga and head south to the UK.

The journey south by the fieldfares is largely determined by the availability of food – the BTO reports that some birds make regular visits to UK orchards, while other Scandinavian birds have been recovered from as far south as Ukraine. The Red List designation refers not to the migrant population, but to the tiny breeding population, which was largely limited to the far north of Scotland. The breeding population has gotten even tinier, but in truth, as the climate warms, it might be easier for the birds to breed further north rather than make a hazardous trip across the water to Scotland. Our breeding population was probably always an outlier, and I suspect that fieldfares will never become a reliable breeding bird in the UK. Let’s just be glad that they visit us at all.

I loved this description of fieldfares by Nick Acheson from the BTO’s previous book about Red-listed birds, ‘Red Sixty Seven’. See what you think.

‘…Fieldfares are birds of the lead and iron late October sky, which bears them from the north. As they come – these fierce-faced Valkyries – they drop their welly-squelch calls to the earth. Next they themselves materialise from the cloud, stroking the wing with their too-large wings, stalling and guiding their fall with their black square tails. Like that the Nordic summer, the Green Sandpiper’s song, the shrill whine of midges and the Crane’s yell fall to the sad mud and the autumn-tousled grass of Britain. In the being of a bird. (pp 102).

I am not 100% convinced about ‘welly-squelch calls’, but maybe I have the wrong kind of wellies. Recording by Stein Ã. Nilsen, from Norway.

So, if it’s a harsh winter, maybe we’ll be graced by one of these elegant visitors, but even if not, it’s well worth surveying the rowan trees and hawthorn bushes to see who has turned up. You never know who you might see.

Photo by Teresa Reynolds

Wednesday Weed – Green Alkanet Revisited

Dear Readers, I hear so many people complaining about green alkanet, the way that it takes over, the way that its tap roots go down to the centre of the earth etc etc. But the blue of its flowers is pretty much unmatched, especially at this time of year, and it is much favoured by pollinators, so that seems like a win to me! In Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley point out that in sensitive habitats, green alkanet can form a monoculture that excludes other plants, and it’s certainly vigorous. They also, however, point out that no native plant in the UK has ever gone extinct because of an alien ‘invader’. For me, I think it’s all about the vulnerability and fragility of the habitat – I love seeing green alkanet in the city, where there’s already an ecosystem of outrageously tough, prolific and hardy plants, but if it took over the undergrowth of my local ancient woodland I would be a little bit less impressed.

In London, green alkanet is the 6th commonest non-native plant (Buddleia is the commonest, you’ll be pleased to hear), and in suburban Berkshire it’s also the 6th commonest, with sycamore being the most often seen. In East Sutherland in the North of  Scotland, however, it doesn’t appear on the list at all – we know that it doesn’t like acidic soil (see below), so this might be the main reason. It might also not be suited to the colder habitat – it comes originally from Western Europe, so I imagine that it’s used to a milder climate. It seems to like urban streets and also motorway verges, so it’s clearly not scared of a little concrete. Stace also describes it as a ‘wall alien’, meaning that it’s a plant that is often found along the bottom of walls, a most peculiar habitat but one that a variety of London ‘weeds’ have taken a liking to, including yellow corydalis and ivy-leaved toadflax.

Incidentally, green alkanet’s Latin name, Pentaglossis sempervirens, means ‘five-tongued’ and ‘ever green’. I’m guessing that the five tongues refers to the petals, and the ‘ever-green’ to the plant’s habit of popping up at any time of year. Seen amongst the dead leaves of autumn, it really is a most toothsome colour.

And look what I found! A poem, and a good one too. See what you think.

Green Alkanet by Meryl Pugh (from her book Natural Phenomena)

From the hot flank of the bus to the pavement lunch between meetings
in the dazed, hot, infinite day of August:
green alkanet in profusion, persistent, taken for granted
between brick wall and tarmac, on vacant sites,
untended verges.
The hairy, blistered leaves,
the robust, fluted stalk; green alkanet in flower stares
with clarity brewed in a white day-for-night pupil – where world
is altered, reversed – and holds in its blue, pitiless iris
the same, blue intensity that drags us, thrashing, on –

And so, let’s move on and see what I said about green alkanet in my first Wednesday Weed, back in 2015.

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

Dear readers, if the county plant of London is the Rose-Bay Willowherb, then the Postal Code Plant of East Finchley must be the Green Alkanet. As I wander the streets, it seems to be obligatory to have at least one of these hairy-leaved beauties peering out from under the Buddleia, or popping forth boldly from the bottom of a fence. And yet, I cannot remember it from my childhood in East London, so I wonder if it has a preference for the heady heights of North London.

IMG_1883It is, in fact, a member of the Borage and Comfrey family, and, as you might expect, is popular with bees, especially early in the season when there isn’t much else about. Its leaves survive right through the winter, hence its Latin moniker, sempervirens, which means ‘always green’.

IMG_1887Green Alkanet was introduced into gardens before 1600, and was first recorded in the wild in 1724, so it has been with us for a long time. It is a true Londoner inasmuch as it can’t abide acidic soils, and so the cold, claggy clay of the capital suits it down to the ground (literally). It is a very hairy plant – the stems are hairy, the lavender buds are hairy, the leaves are hairy (and sometimes feature white spots as well). It is readily attacked by rusts (as in the specimen above). All in all, it is something of a bruiser, a street-fighter of a plant whose toughness belies its delicate flowers.

IMG_1888‘Alkanet’ is an interesting word, thought to derive from the Arabic word for the plant-based red dye Henna. The word is also the root of the names of Dyers’ Bugloss (Alkanna tinctoria) and Common Bugloss (Anchusa arvensis), to which Green Alkanet is closely related. In fact, Anchusa is derived from the Latin word for paint. The  books that I’ve read seem to agree that a red dye can be extracted from the sturdy root of the plant, and the WildflowerFinder website, which has a special interest in plant chemistry, goes further, suggesting that the extracts from the root can be used to make a purple or burgundy dye, with alkaline compounds being used to increase the blue pigment, and acid ones turning it red again. There is also a strong suggestion elsewhere that the plant was deliberately introduced to provide dyes for cloth, being cheaper than true Henna, which is extracted from the Henna tree (Lawsonia inermis).

The Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis)

The Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis)

Green Alkanet has several other uses – the flowers are apparently edible, and I can just imagine them frozen into ice-cubes and clinking away in a gin and tonic. Being a member of the comfrey family, the leaves can also be composted, or rotted down to provide liquid fertiliser. But it’s as a plant for pollinators that it finds its true vocation, the white heart of the flower acting as a target for all those thirsty early bees. It is yet another of those plants that we would be delighted with if we planted it deliberately, but which is undervalued because it’s just a ‘weed’. It seems as if we find it difficult to appreciate the beauty that comes to us for free, like grace.

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The Cricket on the Hearth

A House Cricket (Acheta domesticus) Photo by By Geyersberg, Professor emeritus Hans Schneider – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19915899

Dear Readers, when I was writing my piece about the field cricket on Friday, it suddenly occurred to me that an insect which lived with us for most of our existence as human beings has suddenly been turfed out into the wild. The house cricket was so ubiquitous in Victorian times that Charles Dickens’s Christmas short story ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ was almost as popular in its day as all that shenanigans with Scrooge and the turkey.

This is the story of the Peerybingle family, their nanny Tilly Slowboy and, more importantly for our purposes, a cricket who lives on the hearth, and who is the family’s guardian angel. The cricket sings when things are going well, and shuts up when tragedy is in the air, as it frequently is in this novella, which has undertones of jealousy, mistaken identity and familial reconciliation. As it’s Christmas, not only does everything work out well for the family, but the villain of the piece is converted to the ways of good fellowship.

Apparently Vladimir Lenin left during a performance of the play in Russia, because he found it boring, and the sentimentality got on his nerves. It seems that some hearts are not meant to be melted. George Orwell apparently mentioned the incident in his book on Charles Dickens, so that might be worth a look.

I might also remind the reader of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, an overly cheerful creature in the Disney version, at least for my taste. I was the only child in the cinema who cried when the whale was killed and Pinocchio was released, so clearly I’m not the best judge. I love the description of him on Wikipedia:

Jiminy Cricket’s appearance differs somewhat from that of actual crickets, which range from black to light brown and have long antennae and six legs; Jiminy Cricket has short antennae, a greenish-brown hue, and four limbs; like most Disney characterizations, he is bipedal. He dresses in the manner of a 19th- or early 20th-century gentleman, characteristically wearing a blue top hat and carrying a burgundy umbrella.”

Indeed.

Why, though, are our houses no longer haunted with crickets? Is it pesticides, or the fact that we generally no longer bring in coal or wood that the cricket might be living amongst? In my British Wildlife magazine this month, Peter Sutton and Björn Beckmann have dug up a letter from the famous Gilbert White (who wrote The Natural History of Selborne ) to a friend on the subject of house crickets in 1778.

When they increase to a great degree, as they once did in the house where I am now writing, they become noisome pests, flying into candles, and dashing into people’s faces; but may be blasted and destroyed by gunpowder discharged into their crevices and crannies”. 

Well that seems a bit harsh. Fortunately, other pest-control measures are available. Here’s White again, in gentler mood:

Crickets may be destroyed, like wasps, by phials half filled with beer, or any liquid, and set in their haunts; for, being always eager to drink, they will crowd in until the bottles are full’. 

And so, it can be seen that species come and go, and presumably the house cricket is now largely confined to those little plastic tubs that people buy when they have tarantulas or poison arrow frogs to feed. But this is the very species which is often mentioned as a possible way out of our need for protein that isn’t as damaging to the climate as beef or chicken (and which is also pretty damaging to the animals themselves I might add). Crispy crickets are sometimes hailed as a delicacy, and I foresee cricket flour becoming a popular additive to all kinds of foodstuffs.

As an insect lover, I feel that this is no way to treat Jiminy. I’ll be sticking to my tofu thank you.

Deep fried crickets from a market in Thailand. You’re welcome (By Takeaway – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26774492)

The Capital Ring – Streatham Common to Balham Part Two

Well Readers, here we are, advancing across Tooting Bec Common. There’s a lake hidden away behind the woods, and it seems to have been mostly taken over by black-headed gulls, who got very excited at the sight of someone with some crusts for the ducks.

There was an optimistic cormorant watching from the top of a tree too, though these birds seem very unimpressed by our human offerings.

And maybe it’s just the angle, but these guys look rather like rooks (or at least one of them does), a most unusual bird for inner London.

The lake is the source for the Falcon Brook, one of those hidden rivers of London. It’s completely underground now, but according to Paul Talling (whose ‘Lost Rivers of London” book and website are real gems) it burst up through the pavement in 2007 and flooded most of Falcon Road near Clapham Junction. What’s with all these Falcons, though? They were probably named for the Lords of Battersea Manor, the St Johns, whose family crest was a falcon.

Tooting Bec itself was probably named for its granting to the abbey of St Mary de Bec in Normandy in the 12th Century. The Common is a rather damp spot, with some very interesting trees – have a look at this willow, presumably vigorously coppiced and then left to burst out.

There is some gorse here too, and some bumblebees happily foraging on it.

But what’s with the blue spray paint everywhere? It seems pretty random, but it could maybe be marking something up.

And I only learned this week that when a dead tree is allowed to remain standing but has most of its limbs removed, it’s known as ‘monolithing’. At least it retains the rotting wood as habitat for everything from woodpeckers to stag beetles.

And after my post on bollards last week, I bring you this rather particular South London version.

The tree below is a Railway Poplar (Populus x canadensis), so named because of its usual location alongside the railway lines. I imagine the shape means that it doesn’t need as much maintenance as some trees.

And then we’re back into the land of some magnificent houses.

I love how the shingles on this one are mimicked in the concrete tiles on the one below.

But honestly, Balham has definitely come up in the world. Just look at all these cracking architectural details.

All topped off with this splendid tree.

And then we’re on Balham High Street, opposite Du Cane Court. This is an Art Deco building, and very splendid it looks too. Comedian Tommy Trinder used to live here, and during the Second World War the rumour went around that Nazi Officers planned to live here when they invaded, and that the building was shaped like a swastika. And we think that conspiracy theories are a new thing….

It’s a shame that this building doesn’t crop up on Open City,  as I’d love a peek at a flat, but for now, here’s a photo of the lobby…

And what do we find for lunch but a branch of Taro, the Japanese restaurant? Many a bowl of noodles has been slurped down at the restaurant’s Soho branch, and so we had to stop and finish off our walk here. And how nice to go home via the Northern Line from Balham without having to change! And I can also report that my feet have held up nicely, so it’s a win all round.