Author Archives: Bug Woman

The War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Photo by Mark Hillary from

Dear Readers,  in his book ‘Where Poppies Blow’ (reviewed yesterday), John Lewis-Stempel tells the story of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), a most revolutionary response to the slaughter of the First World War, but led by a most surprising rebel. Sir Fabian Ware was a Tory who, at the age of forty-five, was too old to fight in the war, but instead became the commander of the Mobile Ambulance Unit of the Red Cross. Ware’s unit did more than transport the dead, though: it also searched for the graves of those who had been killed, largely at his urging.

The army had little time to deal with their dead, and fallen soldiers often ended up in hastily-dug, shallow graves, often dug by their comrades, with nothing but a cross whittled from branches and maybe a few scrawled words. Marking these graves with a proper wooden cross and a metal identification plate soon became the sole job of Ware’s unit, which was renamed the ‘Graves Registration Commission’.

However, this wasn’t enough for Ware, who had not only a vision of how the fallen should be commemorated, but the connections to make it a reality. In 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded, with Ware as vice-chair and Lord Derby as figurehead.

But it was how they decided to memorialise the dead that was truly radical. Get this.

The IWGC determined that all war graves should be uniform, because ‘private initiative’ would lead to the well-to-do erecting ‘costly monuments’ which would ‘contrast unkindly with those humbler ones which would be all the poorer folk could afford’. Some families, notably that of the former prime minister Gladstone, had already disinterred the bodies of relatives and repatriated them. Ware stopped the practice because it smacked of privilege. Soldiers were to be buried in the foreign fields where they fell’ (pg 311 ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel)

Ware insisted that the cemeteries and memorials were constructed of the finest available materials, and that they were designed by the greatest architects of the day, including Sir Edwin Lutyens. By 1927 the IWGC had overseen the construction of more than 500 permanent cemeteries, with over 400 headstones, and had also built memorials to the missing close to the sites of some of the fiercest World War One battles, such as Thiepval and the Ypres Salient (commemorated by the memorial at the Menin Gate). The Menin Gate memorial holds the names of 54,000 of the missing, but a further 34,000 who died at Ypres had to be commemorated on a separate monument at Tyne Cot, close to Passchendael in Belgium.

The Menin Gate memorial, photo by Johan Bakker

Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing (Photo by Gary Blakeley)

Right from the start, the War Graves cemeteries and memorials were thought to be gardens of remembrance rather than just ‘depositories for the deceased’. I always find the simplicity of the designs, the egalitarian nature of those rows of stones very moving: however hierarchical the army was, men and officers lay here together, as they did when they died. And there’s something about the lawns and the flowers that seems like a quintessential English garden of a certain era to me. They are certainly peaceful places, full of bird song and the buzzing of bees. I’m reminded of the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, ‘God’s Garden’. I find this verse strangely moving, even as a non-Christian. After so much bloodshed and suffering, I can only hope that there is peace.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.

The War Graves in East Finchley Cemetery


Book Review – ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel

Dear Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book as much as I have this one. Lewis-Stempel ranges across everything from the way that the British love of nature inspired so many of the soldiers involved in World War I to the origins of the word ‘chat’ (of which more later) to the uses and abuses of animals , both wild and domesticated, during this conflict. I learned so many things that I didn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there’s something to make even the most ardent military historian wrinkle their forehead.

I started to read the book thinking that it would surely have been the officers from the shires and the soldiers from the villages who would be most enamoured of the fields and woods of home, but interestingly it seems that even Tommies from the cities felt a deep nostalgia for the countryside – Lewis-Stempel quotes many of them, and points out that the city dwellers of this generation often spent their holidays picking fruit or hops. There seems to have been a more or less universal longing for the fields of home which was wrapped up in the terrible home-sickness and trauma that many of these young men experienced. And when they were on the Western Front, the croaking of frogs from the shell-holes, the larks who ascended as soon as the guns fell silent, the song of a nightingale all assumed a kind of spiritual importance, a reminder of what was being fought for. It also seemed to jolt men out of their anxiety and trepidation, if just for a moment. Private Stephen Graham recalled:

I had been sent to a neighbouring headquarters with a message, and at noon I sat for a while beside a high hawthorn on a daisy-covered bank. The war ceased to exist; only beauty was infinitely high and broad above and infinitely deep within. Birds again sang in the heavens and in the heart after a long sad silence, as it seemed”

However, it wasn’t just the wild animals that gave solace during World War I, but the domesticated ones too. Cages of canaries were placed in ambulances, to lift the spirits of the wounded, although as these little birds were more susceptible to gas-poisoning than humans they often didn’t last for very long.  Stempel-Lewis has a whole chapter on the horses that were requisitioned for the war, and the relationships that were formed between them and the men who looked after them. Some men would risk their lives to be with their animals, as in the excerpt below:

I was riding when one of the troop’s horses was badly hit by MG (machine gun) fire. Horse and rider crashed down in front of me. The horse lay on its side and the trooper, unhurt, had rolled clear. Kicking one foot off the stirrups I ordered the trooper to mount behind me. Instead, he crawled towards his horse which raised its head and was looking at him. He reached the horse, gently lifted its head on to his knee, and stayed put. I again ordered him to mount and drew my pistol, saying I would shoot the animal. He said nothing, just looked up at me, then down to the horse and continued to stroke its head. From the look in the horse’s eyes, I think it knew it was the end, and I also think it understood that its master was trying to give it what comfort he could. I didn’t shoot. Bullets were still smacking around me, and the squadron was almost out of sight. I said something to the effect of ‘Well, it’s your funeral’ and trotted to regain my place. The trooper caught up with the squadron later; he had stayed with the horse until it died. By all laws of averages, he should have stopped one too.

But not all animals were as well-loved. The trenches were running with vermin, in particular rats, flies and body lice. The latter were known as ‘chats’, derived either from chattel (something carried about) or from the Hindi word ‘chatt’, meaning a parasite. Men would spend hours between battles picking the lice off of one another’s bodies, and this came to be known as ‘chatting’, something to remember next time you meet a neighbour for a ‘chat’.

Lewis-Stempel also describes how gardens were made in the grounds of abandoned houses, in prisoner of war camps and even in the trenches themselves, with spent Howitzer shells being used as flower pots and celery being grown in the dark spots at the very bottom. At the Ruhleben Interment Camp in Germany, the British prisoners asked for (and got) affiliation with the Royal Horticultural Society in England, and were able to hold their own fruit and produce shows. When the blockade of Germany started to really hit food availability, the prisoners dug out a vegetable garden which eventually grew 33,000 lettuces and 18,000 bunches of radishes. Lewis-Stempel remarks that ‘the diet inside the perimeter fence was in all respects superior to that outside it’. Seeds had been provided following an RHS appeal to British nurseries, and the seeds were forwarded inside Red Cross parcels. It seems that, whatever the circumstances, gardening was both a solace and a way of keeping body and soul together.

Perhaps the part of the book that gave me most pause, though, was Lewis-Stempel’s point that although the trenches and the destruction of the First World War were eventually largely healed by nature’s propensity to grow back (though you might want to be careful digging up a field on the Western Front even now – farmers regularly uncover live munitions), the country that was so beloved by those who fought was already in the process of despoliation that has continued to this day. 450,000 acres of woodland were destroyed to provide timber for the war effort. Ancient pastureland and water meadows were ploughed up to provide land for growing crops – by 1917, the U Boat campaign had reduced the country’s food stores to less than 6 weeks. After the war, the lack of manpower for agricultural labour led to increased mechanisation. The National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England were both formed after the war, on the basis that this ‘fair land’ was what the soldiers had been fighting for. And certainly, for many of those who had suffered during the First World War, there was a sense of gratitude towards nature. Here is a final quote, from Captain Carlos Paton Blacker, who wrote a memoir of his wartime experiences called ‘Have you Forgotten Yet?’

I became aware of a sense of awe and gratitude to the trees, to the forest, but above all to the rooks. The feeling of gratitude to the rooks has often come back since. Indeed it comes back every time I hear these birds contentedly calling to each other round their rookeries in spring. It comes back now as I type these lines“.

I highly recommend this book, as you might have guessed.


Open University Year 2

Dear Readers, it’s that time of year when thoughts turn to things academic, and this year’s Open University course looks like a doozy. We have one module per week, on subjects varying from plate tectonics to ecological interactions, from the quantum realm to DNA. This week, we are all getting our heads around picometres (which is ten to the power of minus twelve for those of you with a mathematical bent) and nanometres and giga-this and micro-that, plus orders of magnitude and scientific notation.

Next week we are freezing various solutions of bicarbonate of soda in our freezers and recording how long they take to freeze. My new tutor has invited us to take photos of the resultant ‘mush’, which I think bodes well for the sense of humour quotient for the course.

So, this is by way of saying that although I intend to keep blogging daily, my posts might be (a) more frivolous, (b) more varied and most importantly  (c) shorter. Bear with me, folks! This degree ain’t gonna earn itself.

A Moth Like a T-Bar

Beautiful Plume Moth (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla)

Dear Readers, I am always happy to see a plume moth, especially as the last one that ventured in was squashed by my cat – I only wish she had such success with the clothes moths. You might be more familiar with the Hemp-Agrimony Plume moth (Adaina microdactyla) or maybe that’s just me, what with having the plant in the garden. I always find these sitting on the front door.

Photo One by This image is created by user Wouter van der Ham at, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands., CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Hemp-Agrimony Plume Moth (Adaina microdactyla) (Photo One)

The wings are unusually constructed, as you can see – at rest the wings are rolled up like a Venetian blind. Plume moths are closely related to the many-plumed moths, which take the wing construction to a whole new level –  (Alucita hexadactyla) has wings that look like feathers.

Many plumed moth (Alucita hexadactyla)

Although these wings probably aren’t ideal for flight, they do seem to be useful for camouflage – both the beautiful plumed moth and the hemp-agrimony plume moth look like pieces of dead grass when they are in their natural habitat. Alas, they are rather more noticeable against a plain wall, as my cat will attest.

The beautiful plumed moth on my kitchen wall is probably looking for a place to hibernate, as the adult moths spend the winter dozing away, before heading off in spring to mate and lay its eggs. The larvae have wide and varied tastes, and will munch on mints, thistles, heathers and geraniums, but rarely reach pest status in this country. Besides, my water mint has gone berserk this year, so if these little critters will keep it all in check I will be only too happy.

Hope For the Future

Dear Readers, as I walked around the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green yesterday, my thoughts turned to the act of faith that is involved in gardening, and particularly in planting things. Every autumn, I plant some bulbs in the hope that they will come up in the spring, and that I will be there to see them. The planning that’s involved, the vision in my head (that never quite matches what actually happens) and the idea of the future all seem to me to give us a delusion of control that is comforting and uplifting, even if it isn’t actually true. The bulb may get eaten by squirrels, we might get run down by the proverbial bus, our house might be compulsorily purchased for HS2 and yet we still carry on, throwing our dreams into the future. We keep our fingers crossed, put the effort in, and sometimes we are rewarded, sometimes now. I think that gardening is a lesson in perseverance and humility, and it always exercises my creative muscle like almost nothing else.

I have two focuses (focii?) for my purchasing today. One is for the shady area around the pond, where I’m going to plant some candelabra primulas, having seen a spectacular display of them at Compton Acres gardens in Poole when I was a child, although I can’t see any mention of them on their website. I’m going to plant some grape hyacinths in the area as well, as they’ll hopefully provide some cover for the frogs, and if they’re invasive I don’t mind. I am a sucker for new varieties, hence the ‘Night Eyes’ and the ‘Grape Ice’ in the photo above, but I suspect that the good old-fashioned blue Armeniacum muscari will do best. Somewhere in this area I planted some lily of the valley as well, but goodness only knows where. I’ll have to wait until they pop up (or don’t).

I also could resist some more of the Sicilian honey garlic (Nectascordum siculum). I note that the good folk at the bulb company have rebranded the plant as ‘honey lily’. Maybe the ‘garlic’ bit is putting people off. It was my favourite plant of last year, once I’d worked out what the hell it was, having forgotten that I’d planted it.

And in the south-facing front garden, I’m going all guns blazing for crocuses. They’ll have to be in pots, as there’s only a narrow strip of soil which is completely taken up with buddleia and lavender, but at least the early bees will get something. I may well get a few more packets once I’ve got these in and have worked out how many spare pots I have, as they are so cheerful and punch well above their weight in terms of attractiveness to pollinators. I’m trying to extend the planting season from February through April, so let’s see how we get on. I am sometimes raided by squirrels at the front of the house as well as the back, but I think they prefer tulips so maybe they’ll toddle on and annoy someone who is planting them.

Anyhow, lovelies, I wanted to finish this post with a few words about my lovely friend J. I normally visit the garden centre with her, and she often shops for plants for her Mum –  we usually spend a few minutes while J rings her Mum to confer on the correct colours for the cyclamen, or which variety of pansies to buy. But J’s Mum spent her 84th birthday in hospice on Saturday and  if you have a few minutes to just wish her well in your heart, or say a quick prayer if that is what you do, I am sure that it will help. We are all held in a net of connections, both in ‘real life’ and virtually these days, and those moments of kindness and support are what help to keep the darkness out.

And good luck with your gardening! Let me know if you have plans for the spring, even if it’s just a pot on the windowsill. Every little helps.

Sunday Quiz – Leaf Shapes

Dearest Readers, the Royal Horticultural Society Gardening School teaches that there are 11 different basic leaf shapes (there are lots of others that they don’t seem to have included here, but bear with me :-)). All we need to do this week (‘all’ she says) is match the leaves below to their shape. I will give a bonus point if you can also tell me which plant the leaves come from. I will also give you a definition of what the shapes mean just to help you on your way. We are all going to learn something here, I’m sure (including me!)

In view of the similarities between some of these leaf shapes, I am also going to exercise some latitude if you are close – one person’s ovate might be another person’s oval, for example. I am using Francis Rose’s Wild Flower Key and the RHS site, but they are not always in agreement. Sigh. Let’s see how we get on, and I am open for debate, though Bugwoman’s final word is final (if you know what I mean).

Answers by next Friday (15th October) at 5 p.m. UK time please, and I will disappear your answers when I see them (though WordPress has been extremely remiss in notifying me just lately), so if you are easily influenced by the brilliance of others I suggest you write your answers down first.

So, if you think that the leaf in Photo 1 is a flabellate leaf, your answer is 1) A)


Leaf Shapes

A) Flabellate (resembling a fan)

B) Ovate (egg-like with the broader part at the base)

C) Elliptic (shaped like an ellipse) (leaf is twice as long as broad, with the broadest bit in the middle)

D) Lanceolate ( shaped like a spear head)

E) Perfoliate (a leaf with a base that appears to be pierced by the stem)

F) Spathulate (spoon-shaped)

G) Linear ( long and narrow)

H) Falcate (sickle-shaped, like the beak of a falcon)

I) Oblanceolate (shaped like an upside-down spear head)

J) Obovate (shaped like an upside-down egg, with the broader part at the top)

L) Oval (similar to elliptical but ‘fatter’ – the width is more than half the length, widest in the middle).


Photo Two by Mehmet Karatay, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons




Photo Five by No machine-readable author provided. Lorenzarius assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Six by Dcrjsr, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Seven by By Casliber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Eight by Public Domain,


Photo Nine by Emőke Dénes, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Ten by Σ64, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eleven by Matt Lavin from





Sunday Quiz – Poems of Harvest – The Answers

Title photo by Marc-Lautenbacher, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Canadian Harvest Festival (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, I think this was mega-difficult, but even so Claire got 30 out of 30 (one point for identifying the fruit or vegetable, one point for the title, one point for the author) and Fran and Bobby Freelove got 27 out of 30. Well done to everyone, and I think for Sunday’s Quiz we might have something a bit more identification-related :-)…..

  1. Figs, from the poem ‘Figs’ by D.H.Lawrence

  2. Plums, from the poem ‘This is to Say’ by William Carlos Williams

  3. Blackberries, from the poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’ by Seamus Heaney

4. Apples, from the poem ‘After Apple-Picking’ by Robert Frost

5. Potato, from the poem ‘Potato’ by Jane Kenyon

6. Carrot, from the poem ‘Carrot’ by James Bardolino

7. Corn, from the poem ‘Sweetcorn’ by Isabella Mead

8. Pear, from the poem ‘Pear’ by Paisley Rekdal

9. Cherry, from the poem ‘Cherry Ripe’ by Thomas Campion

10. Barley, from the poem ‘Barley’ by Ted Hughes


A Walk in Waterlow Park

View of St Joseph’s Church, Highgate from Waterlow Park

Dear Readers, as you stagger up the hill from Archway to the heady heights of Highgate, you might be tempted to stop in Waterlow Park. For one thing, they have a very nice cafe, and I can recommend the cheesecake brownie. For another, the grounds are rather lovely at any time of year, and there is a kitchen garden to admire and several borders that are full of pollinator-friendly plants. 

The park was originally the grounds of Lauderdale House, which dates back to the 1580s and was the home of the Dukes of Lauderdale. Following relentless ‘improvements’ and a fire in the 1960s nothing of the Tudor building remains, but there are still rumours that Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s mistress, used to live there, and the poet Andrew Marvell also had a house in the grounds. The estate was bought by Sir Sidney Waterlow, Lord Mayor of London, who leased the site to St Bartholemew’s Hospital as a convalescent home in 1872. I can’t help thinking that convalescent homes were a great idea which should be brought back into service, but I digress. Then in 1889 Waterlow donated the estate to the London County Council as a ‘garden for the gardenless’. Looking at the range of people using it when we visited, I can’t help thinking what a generous gesture this was. The park suffered a period of neglect in the 1980s and 1990s but was restored with a grant from the Lottery Fund in 2001, and is now in the loving hands of the London Borough of Camden.

There are three ponds, all fed by natural springs. In spite of the signs asking people not to feed the ducks, the number of pigeons, moorhens and ducks who looked hopefully at us as we walked past makes me think that many folk are just doing what comes naturally.

Young moorhen

Adult coot. Look at the feet!

Foot close-up!

Young heron

Pretty hybrid duck

We found this astonishing oak tree, which may have been struck by lightning and then vandalised by some idiot setting a fire inside the hollow. I’m pleased to report that it still has leaves and seems to be doing fine in spite of the nonsense.

We take a wander down to the kitchen garden and amidst the sweetcorn and the cabbages there are these sunflowers, still abuzz with bees in spite of the cold.

The church of St Josephs towers over the park – it was originally established in 1858 by Father Ignatius Spencer, who had converted to the Roman Catholic faith and was a member of the Passionist order, who have a special mission to evangelise on the meaning of the Passion of Christ. The church itself opened in 1889, and a very fine building it is too, with its copper dome estimated to weigh 2000 tonnes. The cost was so great that the church wasn’t consecrated until 1932 when the debt for building it was cleared.

In addition to the church itself there is a community of Passionist fathers who live on the site. Their way of life is described below:

“The Passionists make a special promise to promote the Memory of the Passion of Jesus by word and deed. They do this especially in preaching and in various ministries among the poor and the marginalised of every kind in whom they see the Crucified today.

Another characteristic of the Passionists is their life in community. Passionist fraternity means that everything is held in common. Time is given to community prayer and to the contemplative dimension of life. Passionists are active contemplatives who, in a creative way, unite contemplation and an active pastoral life.” (from the St Josephs Highgate website).

But of course, in addition to the cake I visit places for the plants. And here is a quick view of some of the borders. Notice the sedums, the cosmos, the verbena boniarensis and the rudbeckias. There’s something here for pollinators of all kinds just as they head into their winter hibernation.

Waterlow Park has lots going for it – there are a variety of playgrounds for children and young people, the ponds, the cafe and a variety of art and musical events at Lauderdale House throughout the year (I’ve certainly gone to a very nice crafts/antiques market). But it also has places which are peaceful, where you can sit and read a book and gaze at the trees and feel a sense of serenity gradually seeping into your bones. I shall definitely visit again.

A Wet Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, as we come to the end of our holiday, even the weather seems to be colluding with my low mood. The pathetic fallacy (the idea that nature reflects our thoughts and feelings) was alive and well in East Finchley on Saturday, as I grumbled through the drizzle and raindrops dripped off my nose.

Grumble, moan, grumble, moan. What pleasant company I must have been for a whole half hour, as I paused to take photos in the rain and to dab the raindrops from my camera lens. My long-suffering husband took it all with a barely supressed grin. He knows that something will soon happen to distract my attention and to make me aware that nature is just going about her business and could care less about me having to go back to work.

Look at this tiny mushroom, for instance, heralding the start of fungi season. All summer long the fungi have been growing underground, and any day soon their fruiting bodies will burst forth as if by magic. It is a sign of autumn, and that’s my favourite season, so already I can feel my mood lift.

When we first moved to our house in Seven Kings when I was fourteen, we woke one morning to see a perfect fairy ring of fungi in the garden. The mushrooms were purest white, and of differing sizes. We stood agape at their surprising perfection. There was a very old apple tree in the garden (which sadly fell down the following year), so maybe this was related to the phenomenon. I rather like the alternative interpretation, that the rings are caused by the tiny feet of dancing elves or fairies, although the consequences for a mortal enticed into the centre of the ring can be disastrous: it was said that the person became invisible to anyone outside, and that the fairies might try to keep the mortal imprisoned forever.

Photo One by By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A fairy ring of Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis) mushrooms (Photo One)

Help is at hand, though! Touching the enchanted person with iron or a branch from a rowan tree might help to lift the spell, and throwing wild marjoram or thyme can also befuddle the fairies. If you are tempted to pop into a fairy ring, you should first run around it nine times under a full moon, and in the direction of the sun. Doing a tenth lap is apparently a recipe for disaster.

It’s strange how the sight of a single mushroom can bring back some many memories.

On we go, with the rain heavier but my heart lighter. We decide to stick to the leafier parts of the cemetery, and I am suddenly much taken by the bark on this tree.

Judging by the leaves, I would say that this is a goat willow (Salix caprea), but I have never seen one with such a lattice-like pattern on the trunk. This must be quite an old tree – goat willows can live to 300 years and grow to 10 metres tall. This one can’t be far off that height. Also known as the pussy willow, this tree is an invaluable source of early pollen for bees, and I remember seeing one at Crossbones Graveyard in South London that was absolutely covered with honeybees on a warm spring day.

Willow bark from all species contains salicin, from which aspirin is derived: in medieval times the bark was chewed to alleviate toothache, which just goes to show that our ancestors were well attuned to the different characteristics of wild plants, even without knowing the chemical justification. The bark was also boiled in water and used to treat sore throats and to reduce the joint pain from arthritis, surely one of humanity’s most ancient banes. I remember seeing the skeleton of a stone-age person who had lived into middle-age, and her joints were eaten up with arthritis. I hope she was able to use some of nature’s painkillers to ease her suffering.

And then we emerge onto one of the avenues in the cemetery, the rain lifts just a little, and I stop to look back.

The horse chestnuts are shedding their leaves and their conkers, but there is a brief golden glow as a stray sunbeam grazes the tops of the trees. And then the rain really starts, so we hustle back home for a feta and spinach slice from Tony’s Continental (our local greengrocer) and a nice cup of tea. Yet again, the nature cure seems to have worked.





Wednesday Weed – Common Hemp-nettle

Common Hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit)

Dear Readers, I have a great fondness for dead-nettles, and have written about many of them: there’s white dead-nettle, red dead-nettle and hedge woundwort, black horehound and yellow archangel, bugle, self-heal and ground-ivy. They are called dead-nettles because their leaves have a superficial resemblance to those of stinging nettles,  but they don’t cause any skin irritation, and are much loved by pollinators. So, I always have my eyes open for a new species, and was much pleased to find this common hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) with its pale pink flowers positively exploding out. This plant is less common than those on my list above, and is usually found in disturbed ground around arable fields, exactly where I spotted these plants in Dorset. I love the whorls of calyxes where the flowers have emerged and left a kind of vegetative sea-urchin shape.

This is a native plant, described as ‘common’, so I wonder how often I’ve passed it by. Like all members of the dead-nettle family it’s much favoured by bumblebees, giving it it’s alternative name of ‘bee nettle’. Like many members of the Lamiaceae it can be difficult to identify (in a previous post I’ve already named it as ‘henbit deadnettle’, which it clearly isn’t), but Plantlife mentions that the stem in this species is swollen just where the leafstalks begin, which isn’t clear in the photos but I do remember from the actual plant. It also hybridises with the bifid hemp-nettle (Galeopsis bifida) which doesn’t help, and it may well be a natural hybrid between the downy hemp-nettle (Galeopsis pubescens) and the large-flowered hemp-nettle (Galeopsis speciosia). There’s a much better photo of the flower below, but bear in mind it can also be pink, as mine were.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Common hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) (Photo One)

According to the Flora of the USSR (a 25 volume work by V.L. Kamorov and referenced by the Plants for a Future website), Common hemp-nettle is poisonous, but I find this a little surprising, as most of the rest of the family are known as herbs. Don’t take any chances though, peeps. The Glossary of Indian Medical Plants (also referenced by Plants for a Future) mentions that the plant is used for the treatment of tissue-wasting and pulmonary complaints.

An oil from the seeds has been used as a polish for leather, and apparently fibre from the stems can be used to make cord (hence the ‘hemp-nettle’ designation).

I can’t find any human edible uses for the plant, which rather backs up the idea that it might be poisonous, but marsh and coal tits are said to be partial to the seeds.

Apparently the genus name ‘Galeopsis‘ means ‘weasel-like’, probably a reference to the shape of the flower which could resemble a weasel’s snout if you squint. The ‘tetrahit‘ species name probably refers to the pattern of four leaves around the stem, though I can’t find an exact equivalent.

And finally, a poem. As you might expect, a search for ‘common hemp-nettle poem’ comes up with nothing. But wait! Here’s a poem by Louise Glück, which mentions the way that many dead-nettles are plants of damp, dark places (including our plant, which was growing in a very shady lane). The mention of the silver leaves makes me think of the garden variety of yellow archangel. See what you think.

Lamium by Louise Glück

This is how you live when you have a cold heart.
As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock,
under the great maple trees.

The sun hardly touches me.
Sometimes I see it in early spring, rising very far away.
Then leaves grow over it, completely hiding it. I feel it
glinting through the leaves, erratic,
like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon.

Living things don’t all require
light in the same degree. Some of us
make our own light: a silver leaf
like a path no one can use, a shallow
lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.

But you know this already.
You and the others who think
you live for truth, and, by extension, love
all that is cold.

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0,