Author Archives: Bug Woman

A Return to the Barbican

Dear Readers, you may remember that I visited the planting at the Barbican Centre in London a few years ago, and was very impressed. Today, in an attempt to get back to something like normality, I went to see a matinee of Macbeth featuring Christopher (Dr. Who) Eccleston in the Barbican Theatre but before I settled down I wanted to see how the gardens were standing up, and what they looked like in the most uninspiring month of the year. By January, most gardens are looking a bit tired, and one is lucky to have more than a few things in flower. It’s all about texture, and these plantings have that in spades.

The light at this time of year can be strong but the sun is low in the sky, and this creates all kinds of strange effects between the tower blocks. It’s here that the grasses come into their own. The seed heads look molten, glowing with an unearthly fire. I felt as if my poor parched senses were drinking the beauty in.

The icy wind whistles between the buildings, but there were hardy souls weeding and tidying the beds. I told one man how much I enjoyed the gardens at any time of year, and he pointed out a few things that were in flower, a salvia and a little cranesbill. But strangely enough, it’s the starker delights of bark and twig that appeal to me at the moment.

I found one spot, sheltered from the wind, where I noticed the fur on this frosty-leaved plant. I love the way that each leaf has a centre-parting, like a damp-haired schoolboy.

The euphorbia and the Japanese Anemones are still going strong where they have some protection from the cold.

Because of the way that the sun reflects from the windows, there can be strange, fleeting puddles of light.

There is a pond under one of the buildings, and went to see if there was a yellow wagtail, as there had been on a previous visit. Today, there was nothing but reflections.

There are some big, concrete containers that have been planted with a wildflower mix. I was surprised to see cornflowers and mayweed and yarrow still in bloom. I have seen wildflower plantings in a number of other places, but have my doubts as to the provenance of the plants – near to my house in East Finchley, an area has giant yarrow and the largest-flowered creeping thistle that I’ve ever seen. Possibly these are cultivars, but they look remarkably like the wild plants on steroids. The plants here, though, look pretty much like the real thing.

I used to visit the Barbican regularly at lunchtime (I worked just across the road), and it was a most unimpressive place, with the beds full of regimented primulas and well-behaved geraniums. Today it’s a wild and woolly prairie, full of interest even at this time of the year. When I visit in summer the place is full of pollinators having a pit-stop for nectar and pollen. This is an exposed and variable habitat, where the wind scours the soil and the sun blazes down, but the garden is doing well. It just goes to show what can be done with a bit of imagination.

And Macbeth was pretty good too, with the part of the witches taken by three scary children in identical red dresses, and Christopher Eccleston giving it his all in a northern accent and body armour. I get a bit fed-up with the handbrake turns that the characters take, but I think we have to blame Mr Shakespeare for that rather than the performance. It sometimes feels like one of the few Shakespeare plays that could actually do with being a bit longer to allow for the deterioration in the characters’ states of mind. But still, if you fancy a couple of hours of supernatural goings on, the descent of one of the lead characters into madness and all manner of surprising goings-on, this is your play.


Wednesday Weed – Siberian Iris

Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica)

Dear Readers, I have always loved irises, but have never been able to grow them. This surprises me somewhat, as the big yellow flag irises that grow in the wild, damp places of the UK would seem to be perfectly adapted to taking over my pond, but they refuse to do anything other than wither and die. Similarly, whenever, against my better judgement, I buy a bunch of irises for a vase, they turn papery and grey without ever opening. So I was pleased to see these little chaps in full flower in Fortis Green, just round the corner from my house. Their delicate lilac-blue flowers with their custard-coloured tongues were almost shocking against the dead leaves.

Irises are a big, diverse group of plants, and are named for Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. Iris is said to have been a messenger of the gods, and crops up regularly in The Iliad. Like the rainbow, she is said to have linked heaven and earth and would often help intercede on behalf of humans, bringing their prayers to the attention of the gods.

Iris by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1886) (Public Domain)

A minor digression here – I have always been very fond of the paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw – I know that they are deeply unfashionable these days, but I love his depictions of the wet streets of Victorian cities. They are so atmospheric that they seem to beg for a story of dubious goings on at the waterfront, or of ladies shopping before Christmas. See what you think.

Glasgow, Saturday Night by John Atkinson Grimshaw (unknown date) (Public Domain)

Boar Lane, Leeds by John Atkinson Grimshaw (Date Unknown) (Public Domain)

But, back to the iris. The ‘design’ of the flower is an example of a plant that, in its natural state, has co-evolved with the insects that pollinate it. Three of the petals seem to ‘clap hands’ in the centre of the flower (the ‘standards’), with the other three petals curling down like lolling tongues (the ‘falls’). The lower petals form a landing stage for insects, and the shape of the sexual organs means that after pollen is deposited on the back of a bee, it can only be transferred to another flower, rather than pollinating the same one. Of course, the appearance of the flower has been mightily changed by horticulturalists over the years, but this basic structure largely remains, regardless of the colour or size of the bloom.

Photo One by By DavidAnstiss - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Parts of an iris flower (Photo One)

Photo Two by Kor!An (Андрей Корзун) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

A bearded iris ‘Amethyst Flame’ (Photo Two)

Siberian iris is native to Europe and Central Asia, and its range extends as far north as Lake Baikal in Siberia. It is also naturalized in various states of the US and in Ontario in Canada. It was brought to Northern Europe as early 1500 by monks, and was first cultivated in the UK in 1596. It can be found in growing wild in damp, wooded areas, but seems to be slow to spread, unlike many other waterside plants. It grows from rhizomes rather than bulbs, and division seems to be the best way of raising new plants. Vita Sackville-West noted that Siberian irises

will do well by the waterside in a fairly damp bed, although it does not like being drowned underwater all year round.’

Maybe this is where I’m going wrong with my irises.

The flowers of this iris have been used to produce yellow cloth by the Tartar people of Western Siberia, and there is lots of information on the Interwebs for those who want to use iris flowers as dye. Medieval illuminators used a colour called iris green, and during my research I have discovered the website ‘Threadborne’ by Wendy Feldberg. She has several posts on using irises of various kinds as dye and as ink, which I found absolutely fascinating. You can have a look here.

The root of the plant is said to be good for coughs, and it is also said that the Chinese made an edible starch from it. ‘The Mysteries of Human Reproduction‘ by Dr. Raymond Bernard  mentions that Siberian brides eat the cooked fruit of the Siberian iris before their wedding night to increase fertility.  This is probably an improvement over the poor brides of Kamchatka, who apparently eat spiders to create the same effect. Sadly, the rhizome is also apparently poisonous, and handling it can cause dermatitis. As always, caution is advised.

As you might expect, such a splendid plant has inspired many artists, not the least of which, Vincent Van Gogh, is another of my favourites. The painting below shows bearded irises rather than Siberian ones, but hey. I love the way that my eye is drawn to the single white iris on the left, plus that sunny spread of marigolds in the corner. That such a joyful, sun-filled picture could be created by someone who struggled so hard with depression fills me with a kind of hope.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh (1886) (Public Domain)

And here is a puzzle. As you know, I do like a bit of poetry, so here is ‘Iris’ by William Carlos Williams.

Iris by William Carlos Williams

A burst of Iris so that
come down for

we searched through the
rooms for

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea

startling us from among
those trumpeting

But here’s the thing. You can make perfume from the rhizome of some species of iris – it’s known as orris root, and is incredibly expensive as the root has to be dried for three to four years before being turned into ‘orris butter’, and it has to be protected from fungal and insect attack for all that time. The scent is described on The Perfume Society website as

sweet, soft, powdery, suede-like – rather like violets, which we tend to be more familiar with as a scent‘.

However, I have never come across an iris flower that had a scent. Is it just because mine tend to die as soon as bring them home, as if struck by a ray gun? Or am I missing something? Or is the poet delusional? This was, after all, the man who ate all the plums in the fridge without so much as a by-your-leave, so he might not be completely reliable.

I do hope someone can enlighten me…..

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two by Kor!An (Андрей Корзун) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Bugwoman on Location – Weymouth

Dear Readers, on Tuesday we went to Weymouth for my Mum’s cremation. We are having a bigger gathering in Milborne St Andrew, where Mum and Dad lived, in February. But Mum wanted to be cremated and, unlike in London where crematoria are ten a penny, in Dorset the nearest one was in Weymouth, a place to which none of us have any connection.

Events like this always put our own choices into the spotlight. My plan is to be buried in a cardboard coffin in a woodland somewhere  – I have no worries about insects munching my bones and helping to recycle me. But Mum was never one for creepy crawlies, and she had been graveside on too many cold, rainy days to want to inflict that on us, so cremation it was. She also thought that it was cleaner, somehow, simpler. I think that she missed a trick by not wanting to be fired into the stratosphere in a rocket, like Hunter S Thompson, but there is still something about the thought of her body, which had been the cause latterly of so much pain, being reduced to its simplest elements that I find comforting. I am so glad that we managed to have some of these conversations before Mum died, so that at least some of what she wanted was clear. It’s never too early to have these discussions with those we love. Life is hard enough after you’ve been bereaved without having to second guess what the person who has died would have wanted.

We went for a walk around the town of Weymouth before the service. It is a fine little town, with a working harbour and its own lifeboat. Everywhere, people were going about their business – walking their dogs, mending nets, sitting on benches and gazing out to sea. It’s surprising how often I glimpse Mum in the colour of a stranger’s hair, the way that they walk, a certain tilt of their head. She seems to be everywhere.

The cliffs that make up the Jurassic Coast peered through the early morning mist. Mary Anning found the fossil of an ichthyosaurus not far from here. It is an interesting part of the world. However, all I could think of was those last few weeks with Mum as her life ebbed away, and my mood coloured everything grey. But then I remembered that the day before Mum went into the Nursing Home, an ice-cream van had parked up outside the school opposite their bungalow, and Mum had been able to enjoy one of those Mr Whippy icecreams with a flake in it. I had never noticed an icecream van there before, so it seemed like fate. Mum adored those soft icecream cones, and even without her teeth, she managed to eat it all. There is grace everywhere, but it’s easy to overlook it.

Everything seemed unreal, as if I was in a dream and would soon wake up to find everything as it should be. But as usual, it took nature to bring me back to reality. Perched above a pile of nets was a pair of herring gulls.

They seemed watchful, and I soon realised why. There was a young herring gull picking through the fish scales and guts on the quayside below, and I suspect that he was their chick.

Like all young birds, young gulls seem so witless, so vulnerable.  This one looked around, and emitted the most plaintive, sad little cry, half way between a squeak and a wail.

‘Oh’, I said, ‘he’s crying for his mother’.

And then, I realised what I’d said, and finally I could lean on my husband’s shoulder and cry for mine. At last I could be present with what was going to happen, the end of my mother’s physical presence on this world, and I could start the remembering that would be the work of the rest of my life. My mother is always with me, in the shape of my eyes, the length of my fingers, my skill with roast potatoes and my love of colour. There is a particularity about each person who walks this earth which comes into the sharpest focus in the weeks and months after they’ve died. They are unique, and they will never come again, and that is what is so, so hard.

But there is solace, nonetheless, in the universality of death, at least for me. Someone described the loss of a parent as an initiation, and it feels like walking through fire. I will not be the same on the other side, but maybe I will be more compassionate and perhaps even wiser. Grief is the price that we pay for loving with all our hearts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday Weed – Winter Honeysuckle

Winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima)

Dear Readers, it is strange how suddenly I am brought up short by remembering. Today, as I was mooching home from Muswell Hill, looking for a Wednesday Weed,  I inhaled a breath of lemony sweetness from this rather bedraggled-looking shrub. Instantly, I was transported to another place and time: my father, walking around the garden centre with me when I was in my mid-twenties, and suggesting plants for my first garden.

‘Winter honeysuckle’, he said. ‘Doesn’t look like much, but the smell in the winter….’

He tailed off, always being a man of few words. How he loved to garden: for most of my childhood we had an allotment to supplement our food, and I remember his big brown hands, picking up the tiny seedlings and transplanting them into pots. He was the one I went to for anything to do with plants.

Now, he doesn’t know who I am, or what day it is, but it makes me wonder if, when spring comes, he will still know how to plant seeds, how to dig over a bed. I shall be asking what’s possible at his nursing home. He is so lost, what with the recent death of my mother, but there is something about soil that always brings me home, and maybe it will do the same for him.

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is one of those plants that makes up for its complete lack of aesthetic interest during the spring and summer by pumping forth its extraordinary perfume during the coldest months of the year. Its flowers are small and lack the showiness of the vine honeysuckles, and yet, looked at closely, they have a kind of elegance, what with their super-long stamens and delicately fluted petals.

Furthermore, I was not the only one who was attracted by their scent.

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Two bumblebees were busily working the flowers. It’s a mild day, but it is only the 6th January, so I was intrigued. I think that they are most likely worker bees, which indicates that there is an active nest still in progress – normally the nest dies and the queen hibernates, only starting to produce eggs and worker bees in the spring. A combination of warmer temperatures and the increasing number of gardeners growing winter-flowering plants such as this honeysuckle, Mahonia and winter-flowering heather means that nests can be viable throughout the year.

It did my heart good to see these insects foraging today. I love the way that the hang on to the flowers with their hook-like feet, and the way that they comb themselves so as to deposit all the pollen into the pollen baskets (corbicula) on their hind legs. I like the way that they go so energetically about their business, completely unperturbed by me and my camera. For a few minutes I was enraptured, and that’s a very fine state to be in.

Winter honeysuckle is also known as ‘kiss-me-at-the-gate’ and ‘sweet breath of spring’. It comes originally from China and was introduced to the UK by the plant hunter Robert Fortune, the chap who stole tea plants from China and took them to India for the East India Company in 1848. The plant was introduced to the UK in 1845, and to the US in a few years later. Winter flowering honeysuckle was certainly grown at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire by the Marquess of Salisbury during this period, and if you’re looking for an interesting day out just a few miles from London, I would recommend a visit. The gardens were originally laid out by no other than John Tradescant the Elder (for whom the genus Tradescantia is named), and the house was the home of several Tudor monarchs, including Elizabeth I.

Photo One by By Allan Engelhardt - Hatfield House, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Hatfield House (Photo One)

The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I can be seen in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House. It is attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1600-1602.(Public Domain)

Whilst winter honeysuckle has not established itself in the wild in the UK, it has become a problem in some parts of the USA, particularly in the east and, for some reason, in Utah. Lonicera species do seem to have a habit of jumping ‘over the fence’ given half a chance – there’s a box-leaved honeysuckle in Coldfall, my local wood, which probably came from a bird who had eaten a berry in a municipal car park, where the plants are commonly used. And while a bird might happily eat the berries of winter honeysuckle, we shouldn’t, as they are said to be toxic. The leaves can also cause dermatitis.

Although I can find no specific mentions of winter honeysuckle being used medicinally, its genus name Lonicera comes from the German botanist and herbalist Adam Lonicer (1528 – 1586), who published a book called the Krauterbuch in 1557. The book contained information about the uses of hundreds of plants and had a particular interest in distilling, something that my Dad, who worked as a gin distiller for over twenty years, would have loved.

And here is a poem. It is a translation of a work by the Russian dissident poet Anna Akhmatova, by the British poet Jo Shapcott. Here is the background:

This translation was commissioned by the Southbank Centre for a celebration of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in 2004. poet Jo Shapcott writes of the commission ‘I was given Akhmatova’s most famous poem, ‘Wild Honey’, to work on. I stayed as close as possible to the tight beautiful images she creates for the first half of the poem. In the second half she uses the figure of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands in front of the people. I changed him to George Bush, reasoning (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) that she might have spoken more freely if she could; and since I live in a more open time and place, then I should.’

Wild Honey by Anna Akhmatova

Translated by Jo Shapcott

Wild honey smells like freedom,
dust – like a ray of sun.
Violets – like a girl’s mouth,
and gold smells like nothing.
Honeysuckle smells like water,
and an apple – like love.
But finally we’ve understood
that blood just smells like blood.

And in vain the president from Texas
washed his hands in front of the people,
while cameras flashed and correspondents shouted;
and the British minister tried to scrub
the red splashes from his narrow palms
in the basement bathroom, outside
the strangers bar, in the Palace of Westminster.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Allan Engelhardt – Hatfield House, CC BY-SA 2.0,


The Sea Raven

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

Dear Readers, once I returned to London after having a very subdued Christmas with my Dad, I felt a desperate need to reconnect with both my physical self and the world around me. I have found that grieving involves both a closing down and an opening up – I spend a lot of time with my memories, but I am also vulnerable to the world around me, as if all the emotional bludgeoning of the past few years had tenderised me like a steak.

For example, I was travelling on the tube the other day when a woman got on with a small, elderly dog. He was a grizzled creature, slightly wobbly on his legs, his eyes bulging in their socket, his tongue lolling out as he peered around the carriage. And then he staggered over to me and looked up with an expression of such trust and hope that I started to cry all over his innocent head. Fortunately there are many deranged people on the Northern Line, and so my outburst went unnoticed and unremarked, except by the dog,  who tried to lick my tears and wagged his tail so vigorously that he fell over.

And so, the next day,  I went to Hampstead Heath for a brisk walk and there, on the boating pond, I saw a cormorant and realised that I had never really seen one before.

Look at that extraordinary frosting on the bird’s head, the red chin! My camera was at the limit of its magnification, but the bird is blue-eyed. In North Norway the bird is considered to be the incarnation of souls lost at sea, whose bodies have never been recovered.  Their Latin genus name, Phalacrocorax, is said to mean ‘bald raven’ and the name ‘cormorant’ may be a direct contraction of the Latin ‘corvus marinus, or ‘sea raven’. There’s something about black-plumaged birds, whether crows or cormorants,  that awakens the Gothic imagination, and for many people the birds represent the spirits of the departed. Plus, as Adam Nicholson remarks in his wonderful book  ‘The Seabird’s Cry‘ , the bird is invoked in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as the very incarnation of Satan:

Up he flew, and on the Tree of Life

The middle tree, and highest there that grew,

Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life

Thereby regained, but sat devising Death

to them who liv’d.’

Cormorants are regarded by many anglers as direct competition, and in spite of the bird’s protected status it is often illegally killed. This is, as so often, a pointless exercise: if a prime fishing site becomes vacant, other cormorants will move in. Plus, for such a big bird the cormorant’s daily food requirements are quite modest, with each creature requiring less than a kilo of fish. The birds are exquisitely designed to hunt fish underwater, and have jaws which they can dislocate to eat much bigger fish than you’d think, but they spend much of their time perched up, drying their wings and surveying their kingdom with a haughty air. In summer, with babies to feed, the birds catch all the fish that they can but in winter they hunt more strategically, waiting for larger, more torpedo-shaped fish, so as to not waste valuable energy that could be used to keep themselves warm.

The UK has a resident cormorant population of about 9,000 pairs, who live mostly in coastal regions, and who are extremely faithful to their nest sites, building up their nests with twigs year after year. However, in the winter their numbers are swollen by a further 41,000 birds who spend the cold weather on rivers, lakes and reservoirs. There is a huge cormorant nesting site on one of the islands in Walthamstow Wetlands, however, so to see the dinosaur-like nestlings of this remarkable bird, it’s worth bringing your binoculars to north-east London.

Why, though, do the birds spend so long with their wings outspread? Other water birds who dive, such as tufted ducks and gannets, have no need to do this, and indeed some species of cormorant don’t do it either, particularly the wonderfully named Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps bransfielden). There has been much heated debate on the subject in the scientific community, but the conclusion as far as I could see seemed to be that the plumage of cormorants is not as water-repellent as that of some other birds and so, in suitable climates, they need to dry out their feathers before they are able to fly. For our friend the Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag, however, hanging around revealing your wingpits would have the added effect of lowering body temperature due to exposure to the icy blasts of the Antarctic wind, and would not help significantly with the speed of drying, and so the bird sensibly keeps its wings shut. Animal behaviour is often much more nuanced and cued to context than we understand, unless we take the time to really look.

If this posture looks a little familiar, it may be because the cormorant is the model for Liverpool’s emblem, the Liver Bird.

Photo One by By Chowells, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Liver Bird atop the Liver building in Liverpool (Photo One)

There are actually two Liver birds on the Liver building, but they face away from one another. One was designed to watch the sea (‘our prosperity’) and one to watch the city (‘our people’). The legend goes that if that two birds actually mated and flew away, it would mean the end of Liverpool, and that’s why they are chained to their perches. The birds are officially known as Bella and Bertie, and they are eighteen feet long, ten feet high and each carry a sprig of laver seaweed in their beaks (a pun on ‘Liver’).

In the interests of illuminating a trap for the unwary, I should point out that the ‘Liver’ in ‘Liver birds’ rhymes with ‘fiver’, whereas in ‘Liverpool’ it rhymes with ‘hither’. Go figure.

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Royal Liver Building (Photo Two)

And for any folks ‘of a certain age’, who could forget the weekly antics of The Liver Birds on BBC1, as they tottered around Liverpool in their Afghan coats, mini skirts and knee-length white patent boots, looking for love and trying to cope with the vagaries of work and their social lives? Like so many British comedies of the period, it was very much about class. Beryl, played by Polly James, was the ‘common’ working-class one,  and Nerys Hughes played Sandra, who was the more softly-spoken, refined one.

Photo Three By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

Polly James and Nerys Hughes on the set of The Liver Birds (Photo Three)

The programme ran for 9 series, from 1969 right through to the end of the seventies, and it was a fixture in our household. We watched agog with our dinner plates on our laps (we didn’t really have room for a dining table). If we were lucky, Mum would have made ‘spammy hedgehogs’. This was a pile of mashed potato with spam ‘quills’ and tomato ketchup for eyes. Sometimes we would have eggy sunflowers, which was a fried egg surrounded by chip ‘petals’. My Mum was such a creative person that even a cheap dinner would be transformed into a masterpiece.

But I digress, as usual.

I would like to leave you with a poem by Ted Hughes. I know a lot of Hughes’s poems, and admire the way that he can conjure a creature with a few lines, but I didn’t associate him with humour. However,  I find this hilarious. It speaks to me of how humans, adaptable as we are, are actually the clumsiest, most ill-adapted animals on the planet. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…

A Cormorant by Ted Hughes

Here before me, snake-head.
My waders weigh seven pounds.

My Barbour jacket, mainly necessary
For its pockets, is proof

Against the sky at my back. My bag
Sags with lures and hunter’s medicine enough

For a year in the Pleistocene.
My hat, of use only

If this May relapses into March,
Embarrasses me, and my net, long as myself,

Optimistic, awkward, infatuated
With every twig-snag and fence-barb

Will slowly ruin the day. I paddle
Precariously on slimed shale,

And infiltrate twenty yards
Of gluey and magnetized spider-gleam

Into the elbowing dense jostle-traffic
Of the river’s tunnel, and pray

With futuristic, archaic under-breath
So that some fish, telepathically overpowered,

Will attach its incomprehension
To the bauble I offer to space in general.

The cormorant eyes me, beak uptilted,
Body-snake low — sea-serpentish.

He’s thinking: “Will that stump
Stay a stump just while I dive?” He dives.

He sheds everything from his tail end
Except fish-action, becomes fish,

Disappears from bird,
Dissolving himself

Into fish, so dissolving fish naturally
Into himself. Re-emerges, gorged,

Himself as he was, and escapes me.
Leaves me high and dry in my space-armour,

A deep-sea diver in two inches of water.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Chowells, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

Wednesday Weed – Silk Tassel Bush

Silk Tassel Bush (Garrya Elliptica)

Happy New Year, Dear Readers! May 2019 be a peaceful, happy, healthy and inspirational one for all of you…

Dear Readers, this plant and I go back a long, long way, to the first garden that I ever owned. When I was in my late twenties I bought a house in Chadwell Heath, to the north-east of London – this was in the days when someone on an average wage in the capital could afford to do such a thing. How lucky I was! But I wasn’t quite so sure of my luck when, one morning shortly after I’d moved in and following heavy rain, I looked out of the upstairs window to see the whole garden under six inches of water. The clay soil was so heavy and compacted that the water had nowhere to drain, and so I had a swimming pool rather than a garden.

What to do? I was completely inexperienced in such things. Fortunately, Dad had bought me a copy of the RHS Guide to Gardening. It had a section on gardening on clay soil, and so I dug a couple of new beds and sought out plants that would tolerate these conditions. One of my first purchases was a silk tassel bush, properly known as Garrya elliptica. All I knew was that the variety I needed was ‘James Roof’, because of its long, graceful male tassels.

Photo One by By Salix - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Silk tassel bush in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris (Photo One)

These days I might think twice about planting a bush with so little wildlife value – it is wind-pollinated and,  outside of its native Oregon and coastal California, there are few invertebrates that feed on the leaves. But how magnificently it grew in my garden! Surrounded by foxgloves in summer and lily of the valley in spring, it presented a picture of elegance right through the year, and helped to soak up some of the dampness in the garden. I hope that whoever moved in after me admired it as much as I did.

Map of range of Garrya elliptica (Public Domain)

Silk tassel bushes are dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants. The male varieties are the impressive ones, however, with the catkins growing up to a foot in length. The leaves of ‘my’ silk tassel bush have a wavy edge, which distinguishes Garrya elliptica from several other species that grow in the same region.

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

The wavy leaf margins of Garrya elliptica (Photo Two)

The plant was named after the Hudson’s Bay Company secretary Nicholas Garry, who helped the Scottish plant hunter David Douglas in his forays in the western USA. Douglas introduced silk tassel bush to the UK in 1828, and I imagine it was a hit with the Victorians who had a taste for such novelties.

Medicinally, the Pomo Indians used the leaves to make an infusion to treat period pains. The bark and leaves may also have insect-repellent properties.

The berries and leaves can be used to produce a black or grey dye, and I recommend having a look at the website for the Winterbourne Dye Project, where the Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers have been having all sorts of fun with garden plants. You can read about their experiments with silk tassel bush here.

I can’t find any reference to silk tassel bush being edible, though American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are said to like the berries.

Photo Three by By Crematia18 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) (Photo Three)

The wood is rather beautiful, but silk tassel bush was never a common plant, and there was no danger of it ever going into mass production. I find it rather interesting that it was also known as ‘quinine tree’, but this seems to be related to the bitter taste of the leaves, rather than to any medicinal properties (quinine, a key ingredient in Indian tonic water, is often seen as a remedy for the symptoms of malaria).

Photo Four from

The wood of Garrya elliptica, taken from ‘American Woods’ by Romeyn B Hough (Photo Four)

And this week, I have a little treat for you all. I found this very short animated film about the silk tassel bush, and while I am not sure that it is completely botanically accurate, and while my French is just about good enough to get the general idea of what’s going on, I thought it was absolutely charming. Have a look and see what you think…

Photo Credits

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

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

Photo Three by By Crematia18 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four from

Bugwoman on Location – Christmas in Dorchester

St George’s Church, Fordington

Dear Readers, it was a strange, sad Christmas this year, without my Mum. We stayed in Dorchester (at the excellent Westwood House if you’re ever in need of a place to rest your weary head) – the owners, Tom and Demelza, have been so kind, and sensitive to my emotional turmoil too. We have walked up and down to the nursing home where Dad lives, and have found that his mental state has gone from bad to worse. When shown a picture of Mum of he furrowed his brow and asked if it was my brother’s girlfriend. He has regressed to a point where he seems to think that he is in his early twenties, and is planning on running a truck business, and maybe it is a strange kindness that he no longer seems to remember Mum, or the misery of the past few months. It is brutal to have lost both my parents, one to death and one to dementia, and some days I honestly don’t know how I get out of bed. But this time has also shown me that the web of connections between people, both in ‘real life’ and on the internet, is as resilient as spider silk. It has held me when I was afraid that I would fall, and I am so, so grateful.

But life goes on, and on Boxing Day I went out for a walk to Fordington with my husband, an area that I first discovered last week when I went to pick up Mum’s death certificate from the GP’s surgery. I was roused from my sorrow by the enormous church of St George’s standing on the hill, and seeming out of all proportion to the village around it. I loved the mixture of modest houses and massive mansions, and wanted to explore further.

The lane up to St George’s church

The church dates back to the 15th Century, but has some much earlier features: a Roman commemorative stone was found under the porch, and one of the pillars is actually a Roman pillar turned upside down. We can assume that a Roman temple stood on the site originally (Fordington was known as Durnovaria to the Romans, and was separate from Dorchester). Sacred sites are often used and re-used, as we know.

The Roman commemorative stone to Carinus, a nobleman, that was found under the porch in 1908

The upside-down Roman pillar, with the Capitol at the bottom

And as you know, I have always found solace in graveyards, so, after inspecting the inside of the church, we headed to the cemetery. Here, we found the only memorial to German prisoners of war of the First World War in the UK. Most of the prisoners died  during the Influenza epidemic of 1918, and were given full and solemn burial rites. They are honoured in a service on the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday every year, although the bodies have now been moved to the German War Cemetery in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.

The Memorial to German Prisoners of War in Fordington Cemetery

The memorial was designed by another German POW, Karl Bartholmay and carved by Josef Walter. After the war, Walter emigrated to America, where he worked as a sculptor and made pieces for many public buildings.

By now, we were losing the light, and so we headed back through the churchyard and towards home, past the magnificent yew trees.

Fordington cemetery

And we were nearly home when I spotted something that made me laugh, for the first time in weeks.

This is a rather handsome herring gull ‘puddling’. It always reminds me a little of the Irish Jig. The theory is that the sound made by those big rubbery feet makes the earthworms think that it’s raining, and that their burrows are about to be flooded out, so they come to the surface, whereupon they are grabbed by the gull. There is something about the serious expression of the bird that always amuses me. Sometimes they manage to look slightly embarrassed when observed too.

I have been reading a wonderful book about gulls called ‘Landfill’ by Tim Dee, which discusses all manner of things gull-related. In particular, Dee discusses how landfill sites, formerly a beacon for seabirds, contain less and less edible matter, which is either buried immediately or goes off for biofuels. The ever-adaptable gulls are moving on to other sources of food, such as the icecreams of toddlers or the chips of the casual stroller, and have hence been demonised, as any creature does when it doesn’t ‘know its place’. I rather love these piratical, vaguely menacing birds, with their icy eyes and predatory beaks, and I blessed this one as I passed. He or she had been very obliging with their dance, and topped it all off with a most impressive greeting or threat to another bird passing overhead.

Ah, Dear Readers, what a year it has been. But a walk in nature usually persuades me that life goes on, with all its trials and joys and moments of unexpected comedy. I wish a slightly less tumultous ride for me for 2019, and a cornucopia of good things for all of you lovely people. And here, to finish 2018, is a most handsome dove, one of a group of white birds performing outside the Town Hall. May we all find the peace that the bird represents.