Author Archives: Bug Woman

Wednesday Weed – Cosmos

Cosmos bipinnatus

Dear Readers, now that it’s the middle of November it’s becoming harder and  harder to find plants that are not only still in flower, but are new to the Wednesday Weed. So this week I was delighted to find a pot of cosmos still in flower. These are great late-autumn plants, beloved by pollinators (if there are any about), and they come in a delightful array of pink, white and cerise. The delicate pale green foliage is also very fresh and toothsome-looking.

Cosmos is a genus of plants in the daisy family and includes such delights as chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which is said to smell vaguely of cocoa, and which has dark reddish-brown flowers.

Photo One by By Björn Appel - self made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250892

Chocolate cosmos (Photo One)

‘Our’ cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus, is a half-hardy annual. It self-seeds, and the flowers may come up for several years, though in my experience they get smaller and smaller with each iteration. . It comes originally from Mexico, hence its alternative name of Mexican aster, and arrived in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. In some parts of the world (such as Australia and Asia) it has become an invasive weed, but in Europe the temperatures are too cold in winter for the plant to get a proper foothold.

Cosmos is a floppy kind of plant, prone to keeling over in high winds and not getting up again. Growing a lot of the plant in one place helps a bit, as the leaves interlock and form something of a framework for support. It can look very impressive en masse, and is a popular cut flower. In Japan, the rice paddies are sometimes planted with cosmos to provide autumn colour for after the crop is harvested.

Photo Two by By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1360530

A cosmos field…(Photo Two)

The plant is a great source of late-season nectar. In North America, migrating monarch butterflies use it as a refuelling stop on their way south.

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from https://www.flickr.com/photos/volvob12b/9252673241

Monarch butterfly on cosmos (Photo Three)

In Europe it provides nectar and pollen for many insects, including this comma butterfly.

Photo Four - no attribution required. http://www.wallcoo.net/flower/wild_flowers_cosmos/wild_flower_cosmos_photo_90446286.html

Cosmos and comma (Photo Four)

In Central and South America, cosmos has been used to make an anti-inflammatory ointment, and the young leaves are eaten as a salad and as a pot herb. The petals can also be used to brighten up a dessert. A closely related species, Cosmos sulphureus, has been used to produce yellow and orange dye. In the language of flowers cosmos is said to symbolise innocence, and I imagine that the white-flowered variety is especially appealing in this regard.

It is said that cosmos was cultivated in the gardens of Spanish mission priests in Mexico, as a manifestation of divine order. Certainly, a close look at the flowerhead is an object lesson in geometry. There is a kind of harmony about it that reminds me of the cosmos, in the sense of the galaxy.

Photo Five by By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3414943

Centre of a cosmos flower (Photo Five)

And now, here’s a poem. Although cosmos is not native to Japan, it seems to have many adherents in the country. Here is a poem by Yosano Akiko (1878-1942):

Your heart remains
just as unsettled, like
the wavering
of a cosmos flower
after the bee is gone. 

I think that it captures that moment just after something has happened, when equilibrium is yet to be re-established. There is such a sense of stillness about it. And it captures the delicacy of cosmos, which can seem such a brash, cheerful plant, and which yet has a subtle elegance. I am thinking that next year I will definitely plant a pot!

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23763201

Photo Six

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Björn Appel – self made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250892

Photo Two by By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1360530

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from https://www.flickr.com/photos/volvob12b/9252673241

Photo Four – no attribution required. http://www.wallcoo.net/flower/wild_flowers_cosmos/wild_flower_cosmos_photo_90446286.html

Photo Five by By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3414943

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23763201

Autumn in Cherry Tree Wood

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that it hasn’t been the easiest of years, what with the gradual decline in my parents’ health, and the recent decision to admit them to a nursing home. In the aftermath of all this, I find myself vulnerable, as if I’ve lost a layer of skin. The downside is that I never know what will make me cry: an advert on the television, a snippet of an old song, a memory conjured out of nowhere. But the upside is that I am seeing things as if anew. I can be caught by a glimpse of sudden beauty that stuns me into stillness. This can make me cry too, but there is less of despair and loss, and more of hope about it. And so I took myself off for a walk in Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley at this breeziest, sunniest time of the year, just to see what I could see.

A trio of bright pink leaves caught my eye to start with. Nothing natural here, unless you include the tendency of the human to want to mark their territory. Once seen, I noticed it everywhere.

But for the first time I noticed how the hornbeam and oak trees are dancing, their trunks twisting as they reach towards the sun, but on a timescale much slower than our own. What tangos would be captured by a stop motion sequence! They lean back, they swivel, they revolve around their own axis, trying to find a space in the canopy, a dance of years and decades rather than moments, but a dance none the less.

And in the main part of the wood a huge oak rises from a lake of golden  leaves. How many autumns has this giant seen  come and go? And of the eight autumns that I have had in East Finchley, how come this is the first time that I’ve noticed it?

And among the leaves, the squirrels are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, from skinny little runts to great fat imperial squirrels. Most of them are carrying an acorn in their mouths, and they will bury their prize in the ivy or under a layer of oak leaves.  Some tiny proportion of the nuts that they don’t eat during the winter will germinate, some  of them far from their parent tree, and the dance towards the canopy will start all over again.

Turning dizzy laps in the woods is a small  white dog.He skids past me, leaves flying in all directions, and heads back, ears flapping, tongue lolling. He hurtles along the path and increases the diameter of the circle. I don’t know where his owner is, but I sense they are somewhere at the epicentre, like the sun.

I catch glimpses of him as I walk on through the woods. Once, there would have been deer here, but today he seems like the spirit of the place, a dishevelled London pooch, full of life and spirit. And when I stopped to film the falling leaves, there he was.

There is so much to be said for a slow, careful walk in autumn. The colours, the movement, the smell of burning leaves and damp vegetation, the call of crows and the whistle of starlings all serve to remind me that outside my poor, overworked brain there are other lives going on. However lonely we might feel when tough times come to visit, we are part of something so much bigger.

 

Wednesday Weed – Gaura

Gaura lindheimeri with Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, it’s funny how fashions in gardening change. When I was young, stiff, regimented armies of geraniums and alyssum and blue lobelia were the way to go, with the occasional radical individual throwing in a few French marigolds for good measure. But just lately the trend has been towards much more informal beds, featuring feathery grasses as a backdrop, interspersed with more delicate-looking perennials. So I was not surprised when I looked around the new houses that have been built off Grand Avenue in Muswell Hill and found these butterfly-like Gaura dancing in the breeze.

We have one gardener to thank for this move towards ‘prairie-style’ planting, and that’s Piet Oudolf. He designed the  planting the Olympic Park in Stratford, the High Line in New York and the meadows at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Somerset among many, many others. I have been hugely influenced by him too, although this relaxed look is in some ways even more difficult to create and maintain than a Tudor knot garden. I love how they look, though, and that they have such value, when done right, for birds and invertebrates.

Oudolf created his own strain of Gaura, ‘Whirling Butterflies’, to complement his garden style. Thank you very much, sir! I am fairly sure that this is the variety in my photographs.

Photo One from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/30/piet-oudolf-gardens-hampton-court-palace-flower-show#img-1 photo by Jason Ingram

Hauser and Wirth gallery meadow (Photo One)

Actually, although it looks as if a puff of wind would blow it over, Gaura is one tough plant. It doesn’t mind being exposed. It doesn’t mind heat. It doesn’t mind drought.  I suspect that it doesn’t much like heavy soil, as the ones that I planted in my garden expired almost instantly. It is said to be deer-resistant, which is not much of an advantage in East Finchley where the only deer is the plaster one on top of the Bald-Faced Stag pub.  But the plant does, apparently, relish being given a hair cut regularly, and its floppiness can be offset by planting it amongst more upright plants which will support it, such as the Verbena bonariensis in the photo above.

Actually, Gaura is no longer the official name for this plant: its new Latin name is Oenothera lindheimeri which reflects that it is part of the evening primrose family, though it looks nothing like a classic evening primrose.  I shall keep the name Gaura for this piece, as this is how most people know the plant. It has a variety of vernacular names, including Lindheimer’s beeblossom and Indian feather in its native Louisiana and Texas.

This is a plant that flowers prolifically when it’s happy, from early spring right through to the first frosts. Each  stem produces many white or pink flowers, and in some varieties the petals start off white at dawn and turn pink during the day, before falling off at dusk.

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6362117

‘Whirling butterflies’ (Photo Two)

And here is one of the pink varieties, ‘Siskiyou Pink’. Note that it’s being pollinated by a fly – most members of the evening primrose family are insect pollinated, and some have very specific relationships with particular types of invertebrates, such as moths.

Photo Two by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Siskiyou Pink (Photo Two)

The original name ‘Gaura lindheimeri‘ comes from Gaura, the Greek for ‘superb’, and from the name of the German botanist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801 – 1879), who collected plants in Texas for Asa Gray, the Harvard professor of botany for several decades. Lindheimer collected over 1500 species in the south Texas area in thirteen years, and is known as the Father of Texas Botany, with over twenty species bearing his name.

Incidentally, in Icelandic the word ‘gaur‘ means a gangly, unruly boy. Completely coincidental, I’m sure.

Ferdinand LIndheimer

Gaura was used medicinally in several ways by the native peoples of the US – the Hopi used a decoction of the roots to treat snakebite, and the Navajo used it as a burn dressing and to treat inflammation. A close relative of ‘our’ Gaura, Gaura coccinea, is said to be good for erasing freckles, though why anyone would want to rid themselves of these delightful little speckles is beyond me. Blank perfection is extremely overrated in my view. It’s sometimes as if we want to photoshop ourselves into non-existence.

And here is a poem. Written by Anca Vlasopolos, who was born in Romania and who has lived in Detroit for many years, it conjures up the feeling of panic I sometimes get on those strange days when the weather is unseasonal, and the animals are confused, and vulnerable. Vlasopolos is a passionate environmentalist, poet, ceramicist and teacher. I shall be reading more of her work, for sure.

Tardy Bugs

this october warm haze cheats
us into hallucinating summer
roses pump up sparse buds with a fury that would
give cabbage blooms if this weather went on
bumblebees nap on gaura flowers bending swaying
on filaments

the afternoon blushes
an efflorescence
inexplicable numbers fill the air
settle on brick on white door as if on sandy beaches
                                              in the Bahamas
eyeing rapacious eyes staring from leaves of the crabapple
that now is animate with screams and jostlings
i urge these absurd polka-dot balls underground
you don’t know what’s coming and if you all get caught
by a frost, get picked out by beaks like coins thrown among
crowds what’ll happen in spring when the ants will shepherd
their aphid flocks up the tenderest shoots i say as i brush them
away from the crack of the door
they bursting orange then gathering themselves into
compact hemispheres soaking soaking the last of the sun

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/30/piet-oudolf-gardens-hampton-court-palace-flower-show#img-1 photo by Jason Ingram

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6362117

Photo Two by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Barnwood, East Finchley

Dear Readers, there is a little patch of green and gold wildness in Tarling Road, just off Oak Lane in East Finchley.  For many years it has been locked up behind a chain mesh fence and allowed to go its own way, with brambles bursting into berry and the leaves of sycamore yellowing and falling. But this is all about to change. This secret place is going to be managed as a space for the whole of the local community, from fungi and plants and birds to people.

I met Leo Smith, a member of Grange Big Local and one of the people behind the site’s resurrection. Leo has form when it comes to wildlife gardening. Look at this wonderful hedge that he planted 9 years ago.

The site used to form part of the grounds of the Old Barn Community Centre, (hence the name  ‘Barnwood’) but when the community centre fell into disuse, the little wood was left neglected and unloved. For many years Leo and other local people  have seen the potential of this tiny site, and have wanted to make it a place that people could visit. The first stage has already begun – paths have emerged through the bramble thickets, each one curved so that you can’t see what’s around the next corner.

Each twist  reveals something something new in this overgrown but enigmatic site.

In the very middle of the wood an open space has been cleared. This is where Leo envisages that events will take place. Maybe people will carve wood into benches, or make bug hotels, or put up bird and bat boxes. Maybe they will sit and tell stories, or share their memories. Maybe children will learn about the wildlife and plants that surround them. There is so much possibility here.

Maybe people will harvest the blackberries, or even get to the cobnuts before the squirrels.

There are other plans, but the important thing is balance. There might be a rain garden, or a wildflower meadow, to increase the biodiversity of the site. Some trees are in a dangerous condition, and may need to be cut down, but others will be planted in their place. People will be able to walk straight from the spanking new (and currently empty) community centre into Barnwood.

The new (empty) community centre

It’s possible to underestimate the importance of tiny wild places such as Barnwood. But in a city, every resting place and food stop for birds and insects is important. As I have a cup of tea with Leo after the visit, we discuss all the birds that we’ve seen in East Finchley, and watch as the goldfinches and chaffinches visit Leo’s feeders. A patch of trees and shrubs might not account for much on its own, but when you see how it forms a corridor with other green places in the area, you start to appreciate how animals can survive even in the built-up environment of the city.  And the plan will make the site even more attractive to birds and invertebrates. Every half-acre counts, whether it’s a garden or a park or a place like Barnwood.

On Sunday 25th November, from 1-3 pm, there will be a community bulb planting event at Barnwood. Native snowdrops will be planted, as part of the Holocaust memorial, and as a symbol of new beginnings, hope, purity and consolation, alongside native bluebells and snake’s head fritillaries. All are most welcome.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Old Man’s Beard

Old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba)

Dear Readers, I have searched long and hard for this plant in East Finchley, only to find it in abundance when I did my Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park walk a few weeks ago. It is our only native clematis, and has a variety of vernacular names. The sixteenth-century writer and herbalist John Gerard christened it ‘traveller’s-joy’ :

These plants have no use in physick as yet found out, but are esteemed only for pleasure, by reason of the  goodly shadow which they make with their thick bushing and climbing, as also for the beauty of the flowers, and the pleasant scent or savour of the same’.

The fluffy ‘hair-do’ seedheads are indeed a delight, and the flowers, though small, can be extremely abundant. I’ve never savoured the scent, but they are said to smell faintly of almond.

Photo One by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15699562

Old man’s beard flowers (Photo One)

The plant is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is found in the UK roughly south of a line from the Mersey to the Humber. It has been widely planted in other places, however, and is considered invasive in countries such as New Zealand. Left to its own devices, it can form a thick canopy that shades out other plants. However, in the UK it is the sole foodplant of several species of moths, including the small emerald, small waved umber and Haworth’s pug, who help to keep it under control.

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=293985

Small emerald (Hemistola chrysoprasaria) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=823634

Small waved umber (Horisme vitalbata) (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia - Eupithecia haworthiata, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5000120

Haworth’s pug (Eupithecia haworthiata) (Photo Four)

The dry winter stems of old man’s beard have been used as cigarette substitutes, giving old names such as ‘smokewood’ and ‘boy’s bacca’.  In Slovenia the stems were was used to tie sheaves of grain together, because it was believed that mice wouldn’t gnaw on them. The stems have also been used to make baskets and rope since the Stone Age.

In Italy, the boiled buds are used in omelettes called ‘Fritatta di vitalbini’ and are considered a delicacy.

Photo Five from http://ricettetoscane.altervista.org/frittata-di-vitalbini.html

Frittata di vitalbine (Photo Five)

In spite of Gerard’s belief that the plant was not used for ‘physick’, a juice made from old man’s beard was used in the nostrils to cure migraine. I find the warning that ‘it can also destroy the mucous membranes’ a little alarming, however, and the Poison Garden website describes it as follows:

‘Ingestion leads to severe abdominal pain, gastrointestinal irritation and has caused death in cattle though it is not usually eaten because it has an acrid taste and contact can cause skin irritation‘.

In short, old man’s beard is a plant to be used well-boiled, or not at all.

The Bittersweet Gourmet website describes how

medieval beggars and mendicant friars would enlist vitalba’s venomous qualities to bring about sores on the skin, to achieve a more pitiable appearance before those potentially charitable souls whom they passed on the road‘.

In French, the plant is known as ‘herbe aux geaux‘, or rascal’s herb, so presumably this effect was well known across the plant’s range.

From a folkloric point of view, old man’s beard bears a double meaning, as is so often the way. It was said by countryfolk to do the devil’s work, because it smothered other plants and killed them. It is also associated with the Virgin Mary and with God because of its white flowers, and another vernacular name for the plant is ‘Virgin’s bower’. I can well imagine resting on a bed of these fluffy white seedheads, or reclining among the sweet-scented flowers.

I have been quite remiss on the poetry front for this past few weeks, but here’s a piece by Edward Thomas to make up for it. He really is one of the best of England’s poets with regard to his appreciation of the countryside. ‘A mouthful of earth to remedy all’, indeed.

The Sign-Post

The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould be
To be sixty by this same post. “You shall see,”
He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—
“You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?”

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15699562

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=293985

Photo Three by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=823634

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia – Eupithecia haworthiata, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5000120

Photo Five from http://ricettetoscane.altervista.org/frittata-di-vitalbini.html

Coming Home at Last

Dear Readers, it’s some indication of how the summer has passed that I have not created a post about East Finchley since June. But this morning was so beautiful that I had to go out with the camera for a stroll around the County Roads. I have been so stressed that I have become completely unmoored, and the cure is to walk, slowly, to pay attention, to breathe and to notice. What better place to start than with the plane trees on the High Street, that seem to be holding the sun in their branches? They are the last species around here to come into leaf, and the last to lose those leaves.

The Bald-Faced Stag gazes towards Cherry Tree Wood, as usual.

There are a lot of tropical Fatsia plants in some of the south-facing front gardens on Lincoln Road. The buds look like little green artichokes, bursting into waxy white flowers.

There are lots of members of the daisy family still coming into flower, loosening those tight-fisted buds one petal at a time.

Michaelmas daisies are everywhere, I love the way that the stamens go from yellow to purple as the flower ages.

Michaelmas daisies

A pumpkin left over from Wednesday’s Trick or Treating gives me the side-eye…

And the autumn berries and hips and fruit are set off by the blue sky.

Each burst of colour feels like a small electric shock. I ask myself where the summer went? Since July every waking moment has been spent organising, planning and worrying about my parents. Now that they are in the nursing home I feel redundant, without purpose. This will pass, I know, but at the moment I feel as if all the grief that has been stored up over the warmer months is exposed by the extravagance of autumn. It all feels just a little too much, beautiful as it is.

I spent a few days with Mum and Dad in the nursing home last week. I had a chance to have a good talk with Mum and to take her through what had happened, step by step. She seemed to understand, finally, that we were unable to look after her at home anymore, and that we wanted to carry out her wishes to be with Dad, and to be close to the friends and neighbours  that she loves. She hasn’t mentioned going home since, though I am not optimistic enough to assume that this will be the end of the conversation. But things look better than they did last week, and that is a bonus.

And now, I have to work out what I want to do when I grow up. As I am nearly sixty, I’d better get a move on. And in the meantime, I am walking the streets with my camera, making friends with the local cats.

There is one garden that I really love. It is a tiny space but absolutely full of nicotiana, borage, and other pollinator-friendly plants. There are a few honeybees even on this chilly day – one of the benefits of a south-facing plot is that it warms up the insects and helps the nectar flow. As I watch, I hear a low-pitched humming, and a queen bumblebee as big as the first joint on my thumb appears. Maybe the warmth of the day has roused her from her hibernation, and she needs a snack. The borage shudders and bows under her weight.

I float along to the High Street again. For a whole hour I haven’t been worrying about whether the nursing home are taking dad’s slight chest infection seriously, or what they will do about the fact that he’s now more or less nocturnal and keeps waking mum up. I realise that though I still have a role to play, the day to day care is not something that I need to meddle in. The home is happy for me to phone whenever I want, but I do think that after being so involved for such a long time, I need to step back from the small stuff. The trouble is, it’s a reflex, and it gave my life purpose.

What do I do now, with my one wild and precious life?

Well, one thing seems to be that I take photos of bollards that have been knocked over. The one on Leicester Road is no sooner concreted into verticality than it’s prone again. This cycle must have been repeated a dozen times since we moved to East Finchley in 2010. And there’s a bollard on the High Street that is similarly afflicted. I could extract some cheesy metaphor about persistence and resilience, but actually it seems a bit Sisyphean, a never-ending task that seems to have no more meaning than a grudge match between bad drivers and some long-suffering council workers.

On Bedford Road there is a rather beautiful tree. It is poised like a heron about to take off, one branch flung back and arching over a garage, the other leaning over the pavement and almost kissing the tops of the cars. What a deeply inconvenient being it is, no doubt blocking out the sun from the front windows and depositing leaves in great russet piles. And yet, it is obviously loved, and encouraged, and valued. There is room on these streets for the strange, the unusual, the awkward. I feel at home here. One day it will be my turn, too, to leave. I hope that I will have planned ahead so that the transition will feel like one that was a choice, rather than imposed on me. And in the meantime I hope to make the most of the harvest, and of the glory that it brings.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Shoofly Plant

Shoofly plant (Nicandra physalodes)

Dear Readers, I am always delighted to come across a weed that I’ve never seen before, and even more delighted when it’s in the company of a friend who actually knows what it was. Thus it was that I found this beauty lurking on Bedford Road in East Finchley. On first glance at the flowers, I thought that it was a species geranium such as ‘Rosanne’, but the leaves looked more like those of a potato or tomato. My friend knew what it was because she had planted some in her garden and, plants being what they are, this one had jumped over the fence and spread down the road.

Known as the Shoofly plant, because of the belief that it will keep all kinds of flying insects away, this plant is also known as Apple of Peru. It is thought to have come from Peru originally, but these days has set up home across the globe – it is a popular ingredient in wild bird food, and so it can pop up more or less anywhere. It favours tropical and sub-tropical climates but, as this one shows, it can be equally happy in a damp North London street. In the Caribbean it is planted around windows and doors to deter biting flies. It grows into a hefty annual, with the lilac-blue flowers being replaced by attractive seed-capsules.

The fruits are interesting – they resemble Cape gooseberry, or physalis, but actually shoofly plant is a member of the nightshade family, and the fruits, and indeed the whole plant, are generally thought to be toxic. In Australia there has been at least one recorded case of sheep dying as a result of feasting on shoofly plant, and in many countries the plant is used as an insecticide. In Tanzania a decoction of the plant has been used to treat headlice, in the southern states of the USA it has been mixed into milk as a poisonous bait for house flies and blow flies, and it has also been used as a treatment for worms and to kill the amoeba that causes dysentery. These insecticidal properties come from a group of chemicals known as nicandrenones, which were finally synthesised for commercial use in 2000.

This has not stopped people also eating  the leaves as a pot herb, and using the seeds and leaves medicinally for everything from fever and indigestion to constipation. The plant is naturalised in many countries, and has been taken into medicine cabinets everywhere from the Himalayas to Brazil and Madagascar.

Shoofly plant, like other members of the nightshade family, is also said to be mildly psychoactive and to cause dilation of the pupil ( which is known as mydriasis – a new word!) As you might remember, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) was once used in eyedrops by high-ranking Italian women to produce just this effect -it was thought that those big, dark eyes were particularly sexually attractive.  Shoofly plant has also been used to produce this effect, with little regard for the fact that prolonged use can produce blindness.

Shoofly plant is the only species in its genus, Nicandra. Nicandra is thought to have come from the Greek poet Nicander of Colophon, who lived in the 2nd Century BCE and who wrote two surviving poems: one, Theriaca, is about venomous animals and their poisons, and the other, Alexipharmaca, is about other toxins, including those of plants. He was praised by such luminaries as Cicero, and was quoted by Pliny and other writers. Here is an illustration from the Theriaca, featuring a youth who is strolling through the countryside and considering whether to whack something with his hockey stick. I note that in a study of the Theriaca, F. Overduin describes the author as having a

‘predilection for horror, voyeuristic sensationalism, and gory details’

If only I could find a translation.

Photo One by By Anonymous - http://campus.belmont.edu/honors/macedonian/manus.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8916784

Nicander of Colophone (Photo One)

Now, try as I might I can find any poetry that refers to the shoofly plant, under this name or any of its other names. However, I have found the rather delightful shoofly pie, which fortunately contains neither Nicandra physalodes or dead insects, but instead contains molasses. It originated in the 1880’s in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, who called it Melassich Riwwelboi or Melassichriwwelkuche (Molasses Crumb Cake) and ate it with strong black coffee for breakfast. It contains no eggs, which leads historians to believe that it was baked in the winter when the hens weren’t laying, but when molasses would be available, and the pie crust meant that it was easier to eat ‘on the run’. I can only imagine that the name arose because of the resemblance between the black molasses and a swarm of flies. It seems that the bakers of 1880’s Pennsylvania had a sense of humour that Nicander of Colophon may well have appreciated!

Photo Two by By Syounan Taji - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31206973

Shoofly Pie (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Anonymous – http://campus.belmont.edu/honors/macedonian/manus.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8916784

Photo Two by By Syounan Taji – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31206973