Author Archives: Bug Woman

Wednesday Weed – Alder

Alder ( Alnus glutinosa) catkins and cones, Kings Cross London

Dear Readers, last week I was in Kings Cross, scouting about for a blogpost on the landscaping that has been done around the old gasholders and the new Coal Drops Yard, when I spotted this magnificent alder on the opposite side of the canal. It was absolutely dripping with catkins and tiny cones, and it reminded me how much I have always liked this native tree. I remember watching the blue and great tits feeding on the cones of an alder in Culpeper Garden in Islington: it was the first time that I’d noticed how the two species portioned out the tree, with the blue tits seeming to stick to the more delicate twigs and the great tits going for the cones on the more robust branches. It might not be the most elegant tree, nor the most august, but as it is a pioneer that grows in boggy ground which most other trees wouldn’t endure, it will always have a place in my heart.

Photo One By No machine-readable author provided. MPF assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5,

Alder foliage (Photo One)

The buds and young leaves of alder are sticky, and the bark exudes a thick resin, hence the Latin species name ‘glutinosa’. The tree is a member of the birch family (Betulaceae), and it is found across Europe, Central Asia and North Africa. It has been introduced to North America, New Zealand and Australia but because it can thrive in waterlogged and nutrient-poor soils, it is not usually seen as a major problem. The main reason for alder’s resilience is  its symbiotic relationship with a fungus, Frankia alnii, which forms nodules on the plant’s roots and fixes nitrogen from the air in a form that the plant can use, in return for the carbon produced by the tree. This relationship improves the fertility of the soil, making it available to other plants.

Photo Two by By Cwmhiraeth - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Alder ‘nodules’ caused by symbiotic fungi Frankia alnii (Photo Two)

However, the seedlings of alder cannot survive overshadowing and so, as the wood that the alder and its fungal ‘friend’ have helped to create becomes more extensive, the alder itself is limited to the forest edges, or to the places which are too wet for other trees to grow. This kind of wet woodland is known as a ‘carr’ (which comes from the Old Norse ‘kvarr’, meaning ‘swamp’).

Photo Three By Bernd Schade - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Alder carr in Germany (Photo Three)

As you might expect from a tree that already has a healthy relationship with one fungus, there are several other species that are also only associated with alders. One is Russula alnetorum, with its magenta cap and pure white underside.

Photo Four By This image was created by user Irene Andersson (irenea) at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.You can contact this user here. - This image is Image Number 197907 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Russula sp (Photo Four)

Another is the Alder Roll-Rim, which to my untutored eye has a decidedly chanterelle-ish look about it. This is why you should never send me out foraging for fungi.

Photo Five by By Irene Andersson - This image is Image Number 25465 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Alder Roll-Rim (Paxillus filamentosus) (Photo Five)

There is even a fungus, catkin cup (Ciboria amentacea), that grows only on the fallen catkins of alder and willow. Don’t they look like the most exquisite miniature wine glasses? Truly, the world is full of wonders.

Photo Six by By Andreas Kunze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Catkin cup (Ciboria amentacea) growing on a fallen alder catkin (Photo Six)

But sadly, another fungus has been having a most deleterious effect on the poor old alder – Phytophthora alnii, a recently evolved species, causes a lethal rotting disease, and has been spreading across Europe. It sometimes seems as if all of our trees are under constant threat from pathogens, which makes the need for better plant hygiene in nurseries and when shipping plant products even more important. Although the native alder is not a popular street tree the Italian alder, a close relative, is, especially in the City where the pollution, poor quality of the soil and general disturbance require a robust and resilient tree. Let’s hope that our alders, wild and ‘tame’  are able to survive this latest onslaught.

Photo Six by By User:Gerhard Elsner - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

An alder infected by the Phytophthora alnii fungus (Photo Six)

Alder is extremely useful to wildlife – we have seen how birds eat the cones, but the tree also attracts over 140 species of leaf-eating insect, and the caterpillars of many moths and butterflies feed on the tree, including the delightfully-named alder kitten (Furcula bicuspis) which is a most attractive moth.

Photo Seven by Ben Sale from UK [CC BY (]

Alder kitten (Furcula bicuspis) (Photo Seven)

Humans have also used alder extensively. The wood from alder trees is often used in marshy conditions: many of the piles under the city of Venice are made of alder timber, and the Roman engineer Vetruvius mentions that the causeway across the marshes of Ravenna was also made from the tree. The wood is not particularly hard, so it has also been used for coppicing, charcoal making (particularly for use in gunpowder factories)  and for paper. However, alder is also the wood of choice for the bodies of most Fender Stratocaster guitars, both because of its tonal qualities and because the light colour of the wood means that it can take a variety of finishes. If you are thinking of buying an electric guitar and aren’t sure what wood to get it in, there’s an interesting article here, though I suspect that the biological origin of something like a guitar is often overlooked (I certainly hadn’t given it much thought until now).

Photo Eight from

A Fender Telecaster guitar with alder body (Photo Eight)

Alder was also said to be the wood of choice for woodworm larvae, and so branches of the tree were sometimes brought into houses so that the insects could munch harmlessly away on their favourite food instead of gnawing their way through the weight-bearing beams.

The various parts of alder produce a variety of different dye colours: the catkins produce a green dye, which has been associated with the ‘Lincoln green’ hue of the clothing of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The bark contains a high degree of tannin, and can be used to dye clothes brown. The fresh-cut wood can produce a pinkish dye: when the tree is injured the exposed wood quickly turns brownish-red and looks as if it is bleeding, which may be why there is an Irish legend that it is unlucky to pass an alder tree when on a journey.

The photo below shows wool dyed with madder (orange), weld (yellow) and alder (brown).

Photo Nine from

Wool dyed with weld (yellow), madder (orange) and alder (brown) from Medieval Wools (see below for link) (Photo Nine)

Medicinally, the bark has been used in a decoction to treat burns, inflammation and sore throats. It was believed that alder leaves placed into the shoes before a long walk would soothe tired feet (and alder wood was also used to make clogs in the industrial North of England during Victorian times). The bark has also been used as a toothpaste. In the Alps, peasants would warm up bags of alder leaves and use them to relieve the pain of arthritis during the long, cold winter nights.

Although in the UK the alder is often viewed as something of a ‘weed tree’, it featured in one of the most important works of the Dutch Golden Age of landscape painting. ‘The Avenue at Middelharnis’ by Meindert Hobbema was created in 1689, and is thought to be an extremely accurate portrayal of this avenue of alders, which were planted in 1664. This was an unusual departure for Hobbema, who usually painted idealised landscapes made up of several different locations. The man working amongst the saplings on the lower right of the painting is also unusual – there had previously been a sense that these landscapes had just sprung into being, rather than being intensely man-made. Hobbema was largely thought to have stopped painting some twenty years before this work was made: he had a lucrative job as a ‘wine-gauger’, someone who collected the taxes on locally-produced wine. This is a particularly successful late work, described by the American Dutch art specialist Seymour Sleve as ‘the swan song of Holland’s great period of landscape painting which fully deserves its high reputation’. I am not a great fan of landscape painting, but there is something rather enigmatic about this work – it beckons me on, between those rather lanky alders, towards the church.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) (Public Domain)

And oh, how happy I am to find this poem by Seamus Heaney, with which to end my celebration of the alder. To hear the man himself reading the poem, click here. How deeply he loved the land that he grew up in, and how poignantly it comes through in his work.


For the bark, dulled argent, roundly wrapped
And pigeon-collared.

For the splitter-splatter, guttering
Rain-flirt leaves.

For the snub and clot of the first green cones,
Smelted emerald, chlorophyll.

For the scut and scat of cones in winter,
So rattle-skinned, so fossil-brittle.

For the alder-wood, flame-red when torn
Branch from branch.

But mostly for the swinging locks
Of yellow catkins.

Plant it, plant it,
Streel-head in the rain.

© 2006, Seamus Heaney
From: District and Circle
Publisher: Faber & Faber, London, 2006


Photo Credits

Photo One By No machine-readable author provided. MPF assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5,

Photo Two by By Cwmhiraeth – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three By Bernd Schade – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four By This image was created by user Irene Andersson (irenea) at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.You can contact this user here. – This image is Image Number 197907 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five by By Irene Andersson – This image is Image Number 25465 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six by By Andreas Kunze – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Seven by Ben Sale from UK [CC BY (]

Photo Eight from

Photo Nine from





A Dorchester Walk


Dear Readers, with the audit at work  over and my period of full-time work at an end, I was able to head west to Dorchester to visit Dad. I have been so anxious about work this past few weeks that it was a relief to get back to some sort of normality – I think that I have been so worried and upset about Mum and Dad over the past few years that the slightest stress plunges me into a state of nervous agitation. I did read somewhere that once your cortisol levels have been consistently raised it takes a  very long time for them to return to normal, and so I suppose that’s why these basically trivial concerns have loomed so large. While the rational part of me knows that no one is going to die if I’ve done something wrong in the audit preparation, my body still thinks that maybe someone is actually going to die if the salary calculations are out. And then there’s that pesky perfectionism again. What would it feel like, I wonder, to drop all pretence that I can control everything? The very thought makes me anxious and so I shelve it, for now.

I get to the nursing home, and Dad is nowhere to be seen. I go to his room and there he is, curled up on the bed like a baby, deeply asleep. He is just finishing a course of antibiotics, and they generally knock him for six.

I go to my bed and breakfast, unpack, watch an episode of ‘Escape to the Country’ for light relief, and head back. Dad is still asleep. It’s a pleasure to see him sleeping so peacefully though – for years he’s  been a very agitated sleeper, I think because he was worried about Mum, who had a habit of falling out of bed.

And so it’s back to the bed and breakfast, and more television. Strangely enough, although it’s good to rest, it doesn’t actually help with the anxiety, which is there in the background, searching for something to be anxious about. Whenever I find something it’s like an electric shock of fear – heart racing, mouth dry, sometimes even a cold sweat.

Next morning, I decide that what I need more than anything else before I pop into see Dad again is a walk, so I head down the High Street to the riverside walk that we discovered at Christmas. I want to see where it goes, and how it connects to the rest of the town. It’s freezing cold but bright and breezy after the storms of the past few days.

The white stag, a remnant of the old inn that once stood on the site, marks the spot where I turn left and onto the path.

The white stag

The water is high, and rushing along, and there is no handrail, which adds a pleasant frisson of jeopardy. After all, if I tumbled in I would have more to worry about than our procurement policy. There is a handsome gothic angel sitting on top of the wall opposite, head in hands. I wonder if I would have noticed it if my current state of mind wasn’t so peculiar.

There were a few mallards here in December, but now the breeding season is in full swing. One duck is being pursued by three drakes, and very sensibly escapes onto the bank to avoid their attentions.

Further along the stream I notice another duck swimming as hard as she can into the current, two drakes behind her. The flow of the water is dragging her back towards them, and I think that she can’t get up the momentum to fly away. I wonder what genetic accident has made the ‘courtship’ of these animals so brutal – females are often injured and sometimes even drown during what looks to me like a gang-rape. Surely this can’t be beneficial for the species as a whole?

Duck swimming into the current, hotly pursued by drake.

And then there are what I think of as the ‘smug married’ ducks, who have found a partner and are all paired up already. They are dozing peacefully in the water-plants by the side of the stream, occasionally opening one lazy eye to watch the shenanigans going on all around them,  and if that’s not a metaphor for something I don’t know what is.

I take a detour through the tiny nature reserve even though I can clearly see that the boardwalk has turned into a ‘road to nowhere’.

The boardwalk through the nature reserve

I have noticed how each local area seems to have a weedy ‘spirit’ and around here it’s definitely the cuckoo-pint. The damp woods are bursting with them, mostly the native British species (Arum maculatum) with its bright green leaves, but a few examples of the Italian species (Arum Italicum) as well. It will be interesting to pop back in the summer to see it in flower. I love that this species generates its own heat to attract insects to pollinate it. All the old scientific certainties (about what is and isn’t ‘cold-blooded’ for example) continue to fall away as we learn more and more.

Leaves of British cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)

Leaves of Italian cuckoopint (Arum italicum)

And there are the heart-shaped leaves of that spring ephemeral lesser celandine, with its yellow flowers just appearing here in the shade, though already in full bloom at Dorchester South station.

I love the reflections. It’s possible, just for a moment, to lose track of what is up and what is down, what is real and what is a mirror image.

And then it’s back onto the main path, where someone has provided some bird feeders, and the sparrows are taking full advantage.

I  follow the stream on around the back of the deserted prison, which is still waiting to be redeveloped. There is a path on the bank opposite which is no longer accessible to the public, and I see that a whole meadow of snowdrops has sprung up. It seems to me more beautiful for its isolation, and I am reminded that I was going to buy some bulbs in the green this year, having had minimal success with snowdrop bulbs planted in the autumn.

As usual, I notice that I have slowed down enough to start to use all of my senses now. I am taken with the sound of the water as it rushes past a wall and narrows into the smaller stream, and I see how the swirls of the water eddy out and around, each one similar but subtly different.

I notice the red stems of the dogwood in the scrappy woodland next to the path.

And, buried in the woodland I notice the yellow paintwork of some ancient and semi-derelict machinery, the seat torn, rust showing through. How expensive it must have been to buy, and how strange that someone would just leave it to become a pile of scrap metal.

Ahead, I see a low stone three-arched bridge, and some sluices for controlling the flow of the water from one stream to another – I have now reached a confluence of at least three streams. To my immediate right, water has been diverted from the stream running ahead.

The path continues to a junction where I can follow the river left or right,  and next time I think I might head right and see where that goes to. But today, I need to head back to the nursing home to see if Dad is mercifully awake, and so I head uphill and away from the river for today.

When I get to the nursing home, Dad is sitting in his favourite seat, next to the nurse’s station. It often takes me a second to recognise him – I think I am still expecting to see the bearded Dad with an Elvis Presley quiff who was his previous incarnation, rather than this frail, clean-shaven man with a side-parting. But he recognises me, or at least knows that I’m someone. His face brightens and that is worth everything.

We decide to go out for a coffee, and I get Dad wrapped up and pop his new hat on his head. Then we find a wheelchair, and off we go. Dorchester is a fairly hilly place, and so it’s an extremely good upper body workout. I was hoping to take Dad to the pub for lunch, but he wants to get back for lunch at the home. I suppose I should be happy that he feels so comfortable there, and wants to preserve his routine.

As we joggle across the cobbles, I notice that the hat has shifted so Dad can’t see a thing. I adjust it.

‘Thank you’, he says, ‘I thought the lights had gone out’.

We sit in the coffee shop, and Dad decides he doesn’t like the coffee. He eats a Portuguese custard tart with great enthusiasm though, and watches the usual stramash as people try to maneuver their prams through the maze of tables and chairs.

‘They could do with one less table in here’ he says, sagely.

And then it’s time for lunch, so we head back to the home. Today it’s chicken pie, and we chat with one of the other residents who has terrible arthritis in her hands but doesn’t seem to have dementia (though it can be hard to tell). Dad tells her that he’s going to have an operation on his hip. If he is, that’s the first that I’ve heard of it. He also tells us that he was in France last week. I think this unlikely, but when I have a chat with the staff nurse I discover that, no, he isn’t having any kind of surgery, but that, actually, the France thing is semi-true – the middle floor has been done up to look like a cruise ship, and every month they have a themed day for a particular country, with appropriate food and music and activities. Last week it was France, and it’s something of a bonus that Dad,who will probably never travel abroad again, thinks he’s been across the Channel.

I try to tell Dad that he isn’t going to have an operation, breaking my usual habit of meeting him where he is rather than imposing what’s ‘real’.

‘So, I’m not having the operation today’, he says.

‘You’re not having an operation at all, Dad’, I say.

He thinks for a minute.

‘Well, it’s good to know that i’m not having it today. I’m sure they’ll take me down when it’s time’.

I give up. It’s time to go and do some shopping for Dad (Polo mints and some kind of after-shave balm with no alcohol).

‘I’ll be back again later on Dad’, I say as I head off on my errands.

And he turns to the other resident and says

‘Yep, she’s going to be in to bore me to death for the next few days’.

And, strangely enough, I see something of the old Dad in this. He used to hate to be ‘crossed’ or argued with, and prided himself on the way that he would ‘get someone back’ if they upset him. I wonder if he was annoyed because I had tried to put him right about the operation?

‘Oh Dad!’ I said. I was about to say something cutting and sarcastic, but what’s the point?

‘Only joking’, he said, in a way that was also typical Dad.

Much as I loved both my parents, they weren’t saints. But with Dad, his determination not to be bested has probably been an asset when I balance everything up. And I know he loves me, because his heart is on show now in a way that he would never allow before he had dementia.

Now, I just have to think of an extremely non-boring outing for next time that I visit. Maybe sky-diving or something.

Dad in his new hat, wearing his Christmas tie.







Wednesday Weed – Thale Cress

Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)

Dear Readers, today I was searching for a new weed in East Finchley Station car park. I don’t know how you spend your Saturdays, but for me a plant hunt in a relentlessly urban setting, with tube trains whistling past my ear and the steady thrum of an emergency generator forming an interesting soundscape is as close to heaven as I can imagine. This is mainly because the auditors finished their work yesterday, and although they had many, many comments, none of them related directly to anything that I’d done. Hooray! Life can resume some vestige of normality, and nothing is more normal than peering at a tiny plant and realising that, humble as it is, this is one of the most scientifically important organisms of the past century.

Thale cress is a brassica (as was our hairy bittercress last week) and on the surface of it, there is nothing much to report. It is a winter annual, with a rosette of dark green, hairy leaves, and a long waxy stem bearing tiny white flowers. The ‘hairs’ on the leaves are called trichomes, and are interesting because in thale cress, each one is a single cell.

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

Scanning electron micrograph of trichome: a leaf hair of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), an unique structure that is made of a single cell (Photo One)

However, what makes thale cress so important is that it was the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced: its small size, short life-span and relatively simple genetic structure made it perfect as a model organism in scientific research. It also has remarkably little ‘junk’ DNA.  Because it was (relatively) easy to map the genome of the plant to its appearance and behaviour, thale cress is used for experimentation in laboratories all over the world, leading to a much better understanding of flower and leaf development, light sensitivity and circadian rhythms. In spite of being self-pollinated, the plant is also surprisingly diverse, with over 750 naturally occurring varieties world-wide, and over 40 in the UK alone.This has led to a variety of commercial applications being suggested, from increasing the speed at which oranges develop to encouraging plants to produce more Omega-3 acid – this article by Peter Marren is a fascinating look at the different ways in which this humble ‘weed’ could be used.

Of the many discoveries that were made using thale cress as a model, one of the most intriguing to me is that the roots of a plant seem to channel light to their roots, where there are light sensitive cells that need illumination in order to grow.

Thale cress has also landed on the moon – the Chinese Chang’e-4 lander brought the plant in a closed environment together with silk worm caterpillars and potato seeds. In theory, the three organisms should be a microcosm, with the silk worms producing carbon dioxide for the plants, and the plant producing oxygen, provided, of course, photosynthesis can take place.

Thale cress is named after Johannes Thal, the botanist who first described the plant in 1573. Thal discovered it in the Harz Mountains in Germany, and thale cress does seem to be another of those mountain plants that does well as a weed, surviving light, infertile soil, a high degree of exposure and risk of drought.  It is a pioneer species, and I suspect that one reason that I’ve never paid it any attention before is because it is also ephemeral – with such a short lifespan it will be here one day and gone tomorrow. It is apparently sometimes used as a salad ingredient, but presumably it grows larger in less hostile environments, because you’d be a long time picking a bowl full in East Finchley station.

I found thale cress rather difficult to photograph – my camera really doesn’t like white flowers (they nearly always end up appearing overexposed) and my knees really don’t like crouching down for too long (poor old thing that I am). But for some really splendid pictures of this humble plant, have a look at the Wildflower Finder website. To whet your appetite, here is an example:

Photo Two from

Thale cress (Photo Two)

Medicinally, thale cress has been used in Indian traditional medicine to treat mouth sores and inflammation of the throat. However, scientists looking at the bacterial communities that live on the surface of the leaves of the plant have found that some of the bacteria are producing a substance that deters the growth of other bacteria – a novel antibiotic. If this proves to also be effective against the bacteria that cause disease in humans and animals, it would be a tremendous advance in the search for new methods of combatting infection. Many of our current antibiotics are becoming less and less effective as bacteria acquire immunity to them, so we need all the help we can get.

Now, thale cress is not a particularly beautiful plant. Monet preferred water lilies for some reason, and Van Gogh turned his nose up at the thale cress and went for sunflowers and irises instead. But there are some remarkable scientific photographs of thale cress, showing the intricate beauty of its structures.

Photo Three from

Electon microscope photo of thale cress flower (Photo Three)

Photo Four from

Thale cress flowers – the blue areas show where fatty acids are produced ( a possible source of plant-based Omega 3 oils) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Dr Heiti Paves at Tallinn University of Technology from

Anther of a thale cress plant (Photo Five)

How beautiful the tiny details of this plant are when viewed close up! And this is the point at which I would normally produce a poem. However, for the first time I can report that this plant actually is a poem. In 2003, a group of geneticists from Icon Genetics managed to encode a line from Virgil’s Georgics into the DNA of the line of thale cress that they were working with. The line was ‘Nec vero terrae ferra omnes omnia possunt‘ or ‘Nor can all of the earth bring forth all fruit alike‘. However, this was not a simple artistic act, but a way of copywriting the whole genetically modified organism – if it was ‘stolen’ it could be identified by the poem encoded into each of its genes. For more on this, and on the work of poet Christian Bok, who is attempting to encode a poem into a bacteria that will change and replicate as reproduction occurs, have a look here.

Thale cress is the fruit fly or laboratory rat of the plant world. It has been analysed and reorganised to produce plastic, to glow in the dark, and to produce oil . It is certainly something of a wonder plant, but while normal selective breeding (which humans have done for millenia) has limitations imposed by the genome of the organism, we are now swapping genes from one organism to another, sometimes for good, humanitarian reasons but often just because we can. I am no Luddite, but it seems to me that our technology may be running ahead of our ability to decide on the ethical implications of our discoveries. I believe that science can save us, but I also believe that we need to think through what the results of our experimentation mean. Looking at this tiny plant, so unassuming that it has taken me over six years to notice it, I wonder what other secrets it may hold, and what they will lead to. I only hope they will be used for everyone’s benefit, rather than to make profit for a few bloated corporations, naïve as that hope may be. It is long since time to cooperate rather than compete.

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two from

Photo Three from

Photo Four from

Photo Five by Dr Heiti Paves at Tallinn University of Technology from








Bugwoman’s Sixth Annual Report Part One

The Order of Service from my Mum’s memorial service.

Dear Readers, it is the sixth anniversary of Bugwoman’s Adventures in London and, coincidentally, a year since Mum’s memorial service in Milborne St Andrew. What a year it’s been! My life has changed in all sorts of ways that I couldn’t have envisaged twelve months ago – I am now working, Dad is settled into his care home much better than I could ever have hoped, and I now have my TFL senior railcard so that I can commute to work for free. Of course, being sixty wasn’t logically surprising, but it was a bit of a shock to the system, particularly as I still feel about thirty. This year has been about being carried on in the flow of life even when I wanted to cling on to the bank. I feel like one of those trees that grows around a fence post – I won’t ever ‘get over’ the things that happened to my parents, but I might learn to accommodate them.


In February I paid a visit to the splendid Borough Gardens in Dorchester while I was visiting Dad, and was very taken by some of the trees and the immaculate grandstand. Dad often comes here when the weather is warm enough and, when I read this post, I remember how hard it was at first to come to terms with the ‘new Dad’ who had emerged since Mum died, and the dementia started to take hold.

The bandstand in Borough Gardens

I also found a new Roof Garden close to Fenchurch Street in London, where the plants were just becoming established. I must pop back in the spring to see how things have moved on.

The view from the Roof Garden

Everything really kicks off in March. The frogs get up to their usual froggie misbehaviour.

The foxes become more apparent as the days get longer…

And last year, we visited John’s Mum and Aunts in Canada. In Collingwood we spotted a beautiful trumpeter swan in amongst all the mute swans, the first time that I’d ever seen one.

Trumpeter at Wye Marsh

But when I got back to England, it was to find that I had some wildlife of my own. A heron was systematically eating all my frogs (and, as I now know, had stabbed through the lining of the pond). It was my first Mother’s Day since Mum died as well, so I was feeling in a reflective mood.

Closer to home, there was much joy to be had in East Finchley too: the community gardeners had been hard at work, and the garden centre was fully stocked.

The work of the N2 Community Gardeners at East Finchley Station

Bowles mauve perennial wallflower – in hairy pots!

And, finally, it was Mum’s interment, on a beautiful day when the air was full of the songs of robins.

Mum with her quilt

June saw a visit to Kew to see the Dale Chihuly exhibition. I had mixed feelings about some of the pieces, though I loved it overall, and it was a splendid day. It also saw Dad visited in the care home by an alpaca, which was a source of some fascination and consternation for both of them.

An Alpaca

I discovered yet another new garden, at the Crossrail station (still unopened!) at Canary Wharf. I loved that it was open to the sky so that birds and insects could get in and out.

Then, in July, it was off to Obergurgl in Austria, yet again, for our summer walking holiday. We had a very foggy walk from Hochgurgl back to the village, with sheep looming out of the mist in a most unexpected way.

Fortunately it brightened up a bit as the fortnight went on, and we had a splendid walk through the flower meadows, one of the highlights of my year.

The meadows of Obergurgl

When I got back from Austria, I went to see Dad. It was something of a bittersweet visit, as they often are, with Dad seeming calm one minute, agitated the next. But however he is, I am always so glad to see him. The way his eyes light up when he sees me, even though he doesn’t have the faintest idea who I am, melts my heart. However he is, he’s still my Dad.

Next week, we’ll have a look at the second half of the year. What a lot of ground we’ve covered!

Bugwoman and her Dad

Wednesday Weed – Hairy Bittercress Revisited

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute) (probably)

Dear Readers, what a week it’s been! Between getting the pond cleaned, and preparing for the visit of the auditors next week I have hardly had a minute to breathe. On Saturday we were helping our aged auntie to clear out her house in Somerset – she is 92 years old and moved into a care home last year, but still wants to go through her possessions herself, as is her prerogative. Nonetheless, I was delighted to find the hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) in flower on top of a wall in Muswell Hill – for me it has always been a harbinger of spring, even though it has tiny flowers only a few millimetres long. I love those globular leaves (I’m sure that’s not the correct botanical term), and the way that the plant pops up on top of walls or in the few grains of soil at the edge of the pavement. I took a few photos and headed home rejoicing.

Until, that is, that I realised that I’d already written about hairy bittercress back in 2016. Alack! I have no time to find a new weed. I could attempt to pull  the wool over your eyes and tell you that this is in fact wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa),  but to be sure I would have had to dissect the flower to see if it had 6 stamens (wavy) or 4 stamens (hairy) and I didn’t do that. So, in reprise, here are a few of the things that I love about bittercress, regardless of its hirsuteness or degree of undulation.

Firstly, like many other crucifers (for although small this is indeed a cabbage), the bittercress has seeds which can be ‘fired’ with a touch – the scientific name for this is ‘explosive dehiscence’, which delighted me in 2016 and still delights me four years later. Apparently, the seeds can be fired up to 16 feet, and bittercress has even been observed using its ballistic ability to wallop approaching caterpillars, although whether this is coincidence or intention I would not like to say. When the auditors have finally left I am going to amuse myself by giving every other bittercress that I meet a gentle flick, just in case the seeds are ripe. I suspect that this method of seed distribution helps a little annual plant to give its offspring their best start in life, away from the shade and resource requirements of the parent. I suspect that many human parents might wish that they could do the same.

Secondly, bittercress is one of the Anglo-Saxon’s Nine Herbs Charm, which was a treatment for poisoning and for infection. The charm included mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), cockspur grass (or, according to some commentators, betony), bittercress, plantain, mayweed, nettle, crab-apple, thyme and fennel. The charm is recorded in an Anglo-Saxon medical collection called the Lacnunga, and the manuscript is preserved at the British Library – you can actually see it, and turn the pages, here. What a treat! According to that source of all wisdom, Wikipedia:

At the end of the charm, prose instructions are given to take the above-mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice. Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg – both before and after the prepared salve is applied.

Further, the charm directs the reader to sing the charm three times over each of the herbs as well as the apple before they are prepared, into the mouth of the wounded, both of their ears, and over the wound itself prior to the application of the salve.

I love that our commonest ‘herbs’ were included in the charm; people were familiar with them and their properties, and their ubiquity was no obstacle to their usefulness. It gives me heart that foraging for personal use is coming back, though I fear that, where our ancestors were attuned to what was available when, and how much of a certain plant it was appropriate to take, we may not necessarily all have those skills. Still, anything that makes us take notice of the plants and animals around us, and helps us to recognise and respect them is surely a step in the right direction.

Some foragers say that bittercress can be used a salad ingredient or a pot herb but, as I mentioned in my original post, it should be gathered from an unpolluted source. Plus, the leaves are so tiny that I can’t help wondering if it’s worth all the effort. If you are forever making bittercress pesto, do let me know! I was very happy to find this poem from the Incredible Edibles Todmorden site, which makes me think that maybe there is more to bittercress as a food ingredient than I figured. For those of you who don’t know about Incredible Edibles, it is a wonderful project in Yorkshire, which started with the idea of using public space in the town to grow fruit and vegetables for everyone to use. The naysayers were convinced that a few folk would do all the growing, and a few lazy folk would do all the eating, but instead it has been an extraordinarily successful project which has brought people together, provided fresh food for folk who would not otherwise have been able to afford it, and taught a whole range of gardening and cooking courses. It is positively heartwarming. Here is a link to the project site, and here is the poem about bittercress by Judy Kendall:

seeds like a weed

tastes nearly like watercress, like rocket

nutty peppery bittercress

And finally, a poem. This is not directly about bittercress, but it sums up how I feel about ‘weeds’,their stoicism and their secret power. For ‘God’ I would put ‘hope’ or ‘nature’ or ‘spirit’, but maybe, in the best of all worlds, they all come to the same thing.

Weeds by Philip Pulfrey

I learn more about God

From weeds than from roses;

Resilience springing

Through the smallest chink of hope

In the absolute of concrete.

Small seeds secreted

Under man’s designings;

Roads and city plans,

The humourless utopias

Of arid dreams.

It seems God smiles:

A head of gold

So delicate yet strength enough

To bring temples to their knees In time.

What is left of Greece Is the work of weeds:

A humble persistence

Of unobserved beauty

The force of life enduring

The follies of men.






A Bit of a Palaver in the Pond

Dear Readers, in this past few weeks my boiler broke, the washing machine gave up, and the pond….well, the pond has been refusing to fill up for several months, but I have been trying to pretend that it’s just because we’ve had a hot summer, not much rain etc etc. However, a few weeks ago even I had to admit that something was wrong. A lovely young woman from Women With Waders came out for a look and shook her head sadly.

‘Have you, by any chance, been visited by a heron?’ she inquired.

And indeed I have, as you might remember.

‘Oh dear’, she says. ‘We find that they often stab right through the lining’.

That’s the trouble with a wildlife pond. The wildlife is, shall we say, wild.

Anyhow, on a cold crisp day last week the Women With Waders team turned up, armed with hoses and wheelbarrows and, most importantly, a pump and some shovels.

First step was to empty the pond water into a massive tank so that, although we’d have to top up with tap water, we at least had some of the original stuff. As the water level went down, the level of sludge became apparent. It went onto the garden, where it will weather down into some nice fertilizer over time. Fortunately, it hadn’t yet become anaerobic, because at that stage it absolutely stinks.

And as the water level went down, there they were – 5 or 6 clean stabs right through the lining. It was the heron what did it, clearly. But not just the heron. There were some tiny indentations in the liner: the larvae of caddis flies, who make a casing for themselves out of little bits of twig and stones, are fond of gnawing at the rubber, and can go right through it given enough time. We’ve patched up all the damage, but let’s see how it goes. I see a new liner in my future in a few years.

And then there were the frogs. They were unhappy at being moved, but it wasn’t for long. In the end, we counted 55 big frogs and one teeny tiny little one.

Tiny frog

A wide array of unhappy frogs

It’s not until you see a lot of frogs together that you realise how varied they are, in colour and in size. This lot vary through darkest green, olive, russet and golden. I am relieved to see that they survived the depredations of the heron, because it seemed to me that he had eaten the lot.

The plants were cut back and repotted, and we decided that the bulrushes had been a mistake, what with them taking over the pond and all, so we’ve upped the irises instead. It all looks very neat and tidy.

And I even have a geum!

The frogs were popped back into their new, cleaned up home. They sat around for a minute and then disappeared back to the bottom of the pond. It all looks a bit bare at the moment, so I might have to buy a few pondside plants to give the mating frogs a bit of cover. But it does feel as if things are gradually coming under control again – my boiler is fixed, the washing machine is chugging away downstairs, and soon, the frogs will be singing. Spring is on the way. Now, if I can just get through next week’s audit in one piece, I shall be a happy woman.





Wednesday Weed – Japanese Cedar

Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica var Elegans)

Dear Readers, I spotted this plant in East Finchley Cemetery a couple of weeks ago, and, in the words of the inestimable Kylie Minogue, I just can’t get it out of my head. There was something about the colouration, the feathery foliage and the sheer presence of the shrub that intrigued me. I know that it’s relatively rare in this country, and so some of  you will not have seen it before, but I think that, as a specimen plant, it deserves a bit more attention.

Japanese cedar is a member of the Cypress family, and is related to the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) though you wouldn’t know it from the smaller cultivar shown above. As the name suggests, the plant is endemic to Japan, where it is known as ‘sugi’. At one extreme, the tree can grow to 230 feet tall, with a trunk measuring 13 feet in diameter but at the other end of the height scale, Japanese cedar is often used as a bonsai. Somewhere in the middle, the variety Elegans pictured above could result in a tree about 30 feet tall.

Photo One by By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Japanese Cedar path to the Togakushi shrine (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Montrealais - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Japanese cedar as a bonsai (Photo Two)

Japanese cedar is the national tree of Japan, and there are many stately avenues of the plant, including the Cedar Avenue of Nikko. This was planted by a feudal lord who could not afford to donate the usual stone lantern to the shrine of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who died in 1616, and so he offered to plant an avenue of Japanese cedar instead, to protect the visiting pilgrims from the heat of the sun. The result was the longest tree-lined avenue in the world, at some 22 miles long. The project was started in 1625 and it is estimated that over 200,000 trees were planted.

Photo Three from

The Cedar Avenue at Nikko (Photo Three)

Japanese cedars can live for a very long time: there is one on Yakushima island in Japan which is somewhere between 2000 and 7200 years old. In his book ‘Remarkable Trees of the World’, Thomas Pakenham described the tree, known as the Jomon Sugi, as

“a grim titan of a tree, rising from the spongy ground more like rock than timber, his vast muscular arms extended above the tangle of young cedars and camphor trees”.

Fortunately, it’s a five-hour trek to get to see the tree, and then a platform has been raised to prevent people from getting within 49 feet of this venerable giant. This didn’t stop vandals from ripping a 4 inch square of bark from the plant in 2005, sadly. What a shame that a branch didn’t ‘accidentally’ thump them on their ignorant heads.

Photo Four by By Σ64 - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The magnificent Jomon Sugi (Photo Four)

Now, to return to ‘our’ Japanese cedar for a moment. That deliciously feathery foliage is a result of an anomaly that has been specially bred into the cultivar Elegans. Normally, this kind of foliage changes when the plant is about a year old, and becomes something closer to a ‘typical’ conifer. Elegans retains its juvenile foliage for the whole of its life.

Photo Five by By MPF at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Left: shoot with mature leaves and cone. Middle: mature shoot. Right: juvenile shoot (Photo Five)

Japanese cedar var Elegans with its juvenile foliage

I find it interesting that humans often select for juvenile characteristics in the animals that we surround ourselves with: the domesticated dog, for example, is said to demonstrate neoteny, because it retains many puppy-like characteristics into adulthood.  You only have to look at the ‘cute’ features on toys and Disney cartoons to realise that we often prefer the big eyes, huge heads and long limbs of baby creatures to the less endearing hairiness and muscles of the adult. I wonder if this sometimes also extends to plants? Certainly in the case of Japanese cedar we appear to have chosen to freeze the development of the shrub at an early stage, and you could argue that some examples of miniaturisation in plants are doing the same thing. I shall have a ponder. Generally juveniles are easier to manage than adults (though any parent of teenagers may beg to differ).

Japanese cedar has been extensively used for its fragrant, light-weight timber. It is the only wood used in the Japanese craft of magewappa, which uses steam to bend the wood into the beautiful containers shown below. Only trees over one hundred years old are suitable, and there can be no knots or discolouration in the timber. The woodworkers of Akita prefecture in Japan have long been the practitioners of the craft, and manage the forests to ensure that there is a suitable supply of the timber.

Photo Six By sota - 我が家の曲げわっぱ達, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Magewappa containers (Photo Six)

The relationship between human beings and Japanese cedar is not one of unalloyed tranquillity however. Together with the hinoki , the tree is a major cause of hay-fever in Japan, which is thought to affect up 25% of the population, with those in cities such as Tokyo suffering even higher rates. There was massive deforestation to provide timber during the Second World War, which led to landslides, soil erosion and other deleterious effects, so in the 1960’s there was a major replanting. However, it became cheaper to import foreign timber and so the native forests were left unmolested and uncut. At thirty years, they began to produce pollen. This, coupled with the pollution in cities (which seems to somehow prime people’s immune systems for hay fever) has led to unprecedented levels of the condition. I love that, in Japanese, one word for hayfever is kafunsho, which sounds to me exactly like a sneeze.

The problem is not to be underestimated, however: it affects some people so badly that they resort to laser treatment to ‘turn off’ some of the nerve endings in their noses. The hayfever drug market in Japan is booming, and some people even take ‘hayfever holidays’ to the low-pollen areas of Hokkaido and Okinawa. The government is trying to move towards growing varieties of Sugi which produce less pollen but as more timber is imported than grown in Japan, so the number of people skilled in forestry in the country has dropped dramatically. I  have personally never suffered from hay fever, but have known lots of people who have, and I know how miserable it can be. It will be interesting to see how Japan rises to the challenge.

Photo Seven by By ふうけ - ふうけ's file, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Japanese cedar ‘cones’, full of allergy-inducing pollen (Photo Seven)

And so, to some poetry. Who would have thought that some authors would have turned to the subject of hay fever for inspiration? But Shuko Hanayama (not herself a hayfever sufferer) has written several poems on the subject. I suspect that they were more resonant in the original Japanese but still, you get the idea.

People wearing dazzling white masks

 Day after day

Shedding tears due to pollen in spring 

Making me feel the pathos of things 

As they show runny noses”.


“The number of miniscule pollen granules

from just one cedar tree

is as astronomical as the number of stars

in spiral galaxies”

And finally:

I see clouds of pollen from a cedar mountain drifting

as if they were plumes of smoke

from a forest fire”.

But, in writing about hayfever and Japanese cedar, Shuko Hanayama is in good company, as in 2017, Emperor Akihito composed a poem celebrating the pollen-less Japanese cedar saplings that he was planting. As he was in his eighties at the time, I wonder how much thoughts of his legacy were in his mind? Trees are so often planted as a leap of faith in the future. I hope that the disturbed balance of trees and people will come back into harmony soon.

The 68th National Arbor Day Festival
Non-pollen Japanese cedar
Here have I planted
Hoping no one will suffer
From pollen any longer.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Montrealais – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Three from

Photo Four by By Σ64 – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Five by By MPF at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six By sota – 我が家の曲げわっぱ達, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Seven by By ふうけ – ふうけ’s file, CC BY-SA 3.0,