Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Wednesday Weed – Melancholy Thistle

Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)

Dear Readers, after two weeks in Austria I am back in an over-heated, parched London and find myself yearning for the fresh breezes of the Alps. So what better to do than to write about one of my favourite plants, the melancholy thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)? It is true that this is not a southern plant in the UK, preferring the uplands of northern England (where it is known as the shaving-brush plant) and Scotland, but I have occasionally seen it in wildlife gardens in the Capital. Generally, it is found in cold and mountainous areas of Europe and Western Asia, and with its big, solitary flowerheads it is one of the highlights of an Alpine meadow. No sooner has it come into bloom than it is descended upon by bees, butterflies and flower beetles, who seem to swoon into its cerise embrace.

As my regular readers will know, my Dad became ill while I was in Austria, and I am heading off to Dorset to see what’s going on. It’s been a stressful time, and as at today (Sunday) Dad is still in hospital, and is very confused. So, you might think that a subliminal reason for picking the ‘melancholy’ thistle is because of my general mood. I had assumed that the epithet ‘melancholy’ came about because of the single, statuesque flowerheads of the plant, which may appear to slump lethargically when in bud,  but  Nicholas Culpeper viewed the thistle as a cure for sadness, saying that

the decoction of the thistle in wine being drank, expels superfluous melancholy out of the body, and makes a man as merry as a cricket; … my opinion is, that it is the best remedy against all melancholy diseases”.

It maketh the finches as happy as crickets in the autumn too, as they love the seeds. Plus, melancholy thistle has no spines. When I think back to those banks of flowers in Obergurgl, it fills me with a kind of joy that, every year, I have been there just at the right time to see the buds opening, and the creatures coming to feast. As I’ve grown older I’ve changed from wanting to skim the surface of a wide range of places to wanting to know them deeply, and it does my heart good to know where I might find the rose chafers, and the secret places where the fritillaries come to feed.

Rose chafer beetles (Cetonia aurata)  on melancholy thistle head

Apparently both the root and the leaves of melancholy thistle are edible, but the roots of all thistles are liable to produce flatulence, and the leaves are too prickly to eat raw. I’d be inclined to leave this one for the critters if I were you. However, the Speyside Distllery has been making some flavoured spirits using ingredients found in the Highlands, and to my delight they have one that includes melancholy thistle, along with

Scot’s Pine, Sweet Vernal-grass, Juniper, Rowan, Downy Birch and Aspen

My Dad used to be a distiller of Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin, and he is very unimpressed by the current trend for fancy flavours. Nonetheless I am much intrigued by such concoctions, although at 43% proof a bottle would last me a very, very long time.

Photo One from

Melancholy Thistle Gin. You’re welcome! (Photo One)

I have been considering which poem to use for this plant, and naturally many of them are Scottish – after all, the thistle is the symbol of that fine country. However, the question is, which thistle? While the melancholy thistle has the magnificent flower that we might expect, it is, as already noted, without thorns, and surely part of the symbolism of the Scottish thistle is that it is not to be trifled with. I have therefore, with regret, set Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, and several works by Robert Burns, to one side, as I believe that they refer to the much feistier Spear Thistle.

However Ted Hughes, always a close of observer of nature, wrote a poem about thistles that somewhat hits the spot. I  suspect that even this is about a rather spikier thistle than the gentle Cirsium heterophyllum, but it is much too hot here in London to be particular.


Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Ted Hughes

How martial Ted Hughes sometimes seems! In so many of his poems, nature seems to be about nothing but scrapping and fighting. There is a lot of this, of course, but there is also a lot of co-operation and harmony. I prefer to think of the way that the melancholy thistles open to the fumblings of bees and beetles as being of benefit to both the insects and the plant, but Hughes is much keener on conflict. Ah well. Both our views are true, and they are not mutually exclusive. But just as Western society seems to see tragedy as more ‘real-world’ and more important than comedy, so the gentler aspects of life do not seem as worthy of celebration. I sometimes wonder how the concentration of the arts and media on conflict and destruction skews our psyches, and affects our view of the world.

And so, as a balance to the view of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, here is one of my very favourite poems, which doesn’t mention thistles at all, but which somehow accords with my current mood. I am not a creationist, so in answer to the question ‘ Who made the world’ I would answer ‘ a complex interaction between forces’, but the close attention to the grasshopper, and the plea to be in the moment both appeal to me very much.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver


Photo Credits

Photo One from





Bugwoman on Location – A Walk to Solden

View towards the Wildspitze mountain from Solden

Dear Readers, it all started when I got a phone call last Thursday from the care agency who look after Mum and Dad.

‘Hi’, said the Manager. ‘I was just wondering if your mum will need extra carers next week to help her while your Dad’s in hospital’.

Dad’s in hospital? I had no idea. I texted my brother, who had been sworn to silence so that I could have a trouble-free holiday.

Indeed, Dad had been in hospital since the day I left for Austria – he’d been in and out of hospital for weeks with a chest infection, but this had now developed into something more troubling. He was confused and had bowel problems, and the hospital wanted to make sure that the infection was cleared up before he was allowed home. As at today, he’s been in hospital for two weeks.

I spoke to Mum and she sounded pretty chipper, all things considered – she was eating and drinking and taking all her many tablets, and was hoping that Dad would be out soon.

Unfortunately, what we didn’t realise was how dependent she’d become on her morning carer to help her sort out her medication. And the carer was taking a well-earned week’s break.

Mum decided not to take any of her tablets because she didn’t trust herself to sort them out. And then she decided she wasn’t hungry, and stopped eating.

We only  discovered this after my brother popped in to see her and take her to the hospital to see Dad, only to find her confused and disorientated.

Fortunately, we got a morning carer to help her with her medication and her porridge, and one of her friends in the village (who is in her late 70’s herself) slept over on the sofa to keep her safe.

Suffice it to say that I’m hotfooting it to Dorset next week, and we’re going to have a family conference to make sure that things are in place in case Mum or Dad are ever left in the house alone again.

For the past week all I’ve been able to think about is a) how guilty I feel that I’m not in Dorset looking after Mum (although my brother is there) b) how terrified I am that Mum is going to fall over and there will be no one to help her and c) how it feels as if none of us can catch a break at the moment – it’s just one thing after another, and I can’t see an end to it (well, not one that I want to see). I have to get comfortable with the fact that I can’t plan with any certainty for anything , that I will always be afraid when the phone rings, and that the constant knot in my stomach is something that I will have to get used to. At the same time, I recognise how much worse it is for Mum and Dad, and I often feel so helpless in the face of what happens to them.

And meantime it is so beautiful here. I find myself weeping at everything from snowy mountains to baby birds. I think that I’m on an even keel, and then something as simple as an alpine flower growing out of a slab of rock breaks me open. I am surrounded by so much fragility, and yet so much resilience. Mountain plants and animals have such a brief season that they throw everything into the short period of summer. They flower and breed with such exuberance, making the most of every bright moment, and I know that there’s a lesson here for me too, if I choose to take it. There are still sun-kissed moments with my parents when things are ok, when it isn’t all about sickness and medications and emergency buttons, although this is part of it too. It’s all part of it, and the more that I push it away, the worse it gets.

Anyhow, I seem to have developed a dicky tummy during this past few days, and so I’ve stopped pushing myself to harder and harder walks, envigorating though they can be. I feel a need to be gentle with myself, and so today we went for a little walk, mostly downhill, alongside the river at Zwieselstein and down to Solden for cake and the bus home.

There is already plenty of wood gathered in for the winter. I love woodpiles, and wood is what people used to use for everything.

The Oetz valley has a number of covered bridges, some modern, some old.

The clover is spectacular this year.

The path down to Solden is lined with gigantic boulders, and the river itself is full of them.

The boulders themselves form a mini habitat for all manner of shallow-rooted plants, especially different kinds of saxifrage and stonecrop.

Mountain houseleek (Sempervivum montanum)

White mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua) ( I think)

There is an enormous chunk of driftwood by the path – was it put here by humans, or was it thrown up in an exceptional flood?

And further along the path, some pretty yellow foxgloves.

Small Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis lutea)

And on the path is a poor dead forest dormouse, looking rather as if s/he has been run over by a mountain bike. It’s such a shame that the only time I’ve ever seen one is as a corpse.

Dead forest dormouse (Dryomys nitedula)

Up one more hill, and we’re into the outskirts of Solden. Someone has made a very fine rock garden.

But what have we here? These cute frogs are just the kind of thing that mum would stick in the garden. And underneath, there is some edelweiss, actually a rarity around Obergurgl because it prefers limestone, and most of the area is composed of something called gneiss, which is acidic.

And then we go to our favourite cafe in Solden for a coffee, and end up having some more apricot cake. We watch the gondolas of the Gaislachkogelbahn go up and down for a bit.

And then I spot a mother alpine swallow swooping up and down under the eaves of the parking garage opposite, so of course I have to go and investigate. And what do I see?

Baby alpine swallows

Is that mum?

All this waiting around for food is sooooo boring…

And so we head back on the bus. I feel my spirits lifted, almost as if I’d been pulled out of myself for a while. I’ve loved our more ambitious walks here in Austria: I feel fitter, and leaner, and a bit stronger. But for sorting out my head, there’s nothing like a (fairly) leisurely stroll, with lots of time to ponder on what I’m seeing, and to try to understand how things fit together. How does a boulder become a habitat? Where did these fledgling alpine swallows nest originally, and how long will it be before they, too, take to the wing? How does this incredibly complicated ecosystem fit together?

And also, time to just stand in wonder at this extraordinary, sacred world.

Bugwoman on Location – Obergurgl, Austria – The Path to the Sahnestuberl

The river Gurgl.How I love an onomatopoeic name!

Dear Readers, as you will know if you follow the blog regularly, I spend a fortnight every year in the alpine village of Obergurgl, skipping about like a (middle-aged) mountain goat and eating prodigious quantities of cake to make up for the calories expended. This year, alas, my skipping was halted by a rather unfortunate incident. Under every Tyrolean hotel there is a Boot Room, and as I made my way to the one under the Hotel Wiesenthal on the first day of the holiday, I neglected to notice a tiny step down and crashed dramatically to the ground, twisting my ankle and feeling like an idiot to boot (sorry). Fortunately I was able to spend the rest of the afternoon with my leg raised and my ankle completely wrapped in a bag of ice (courtesy of the Picnic restaurant across the way), and after taking it easy the following day, I was up for a very small adventure. What could be better than a slow amble down to the Sahnesturbel, a mountain hut which serves the best cake in the village?

So off we went, climbing slowly up amongst the meadow flowers. Some farmers are already cutting their fields for the first time, so I was glad not to have arrived later in the year. I am always stunned by the sheer variety of flowers, and the concomitant biodiversity – there are butterflies, day-flying moths, beetles and flies of all kinds. The yellow rattle helps to reduce the fertility of the soil and keep the docks and nettles in check, and the many species of clover and vetch put nitrogen in the soil.

Yellow rattle and clover

A swallowtail butterfly put in an appearance, feeding on clover. One of its wingtips was missing, perhaps the result of a close encounter with a bird, but its flight was still strong. Several of the larger butterflies that I saw looked a little worn – the summer season is short here in the Alps, and I imagine that many of these insects have already had their share of drama.

Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon)

Every time that I come to Obergurgl, it seems that several plant species are doing particularly well. 2018 seems to be the year of the bladder campion (Silene vulgaris)….

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris)

and the round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare).

Round-headed rampion (Phyteuma obiculare)

But I confess to really loving the melancholy thistles. They are so dramatically pink, and such a magnet for insects of all kinds. The bees sometimes seem to collapse into them in a nectar-induced coma, and I can imagine no finer bed for a sleepy insect. Plus, this year was the scene of some drama. I noticed a fritillary feeding from one of the flowers, and for once my camera was handy.


Shepherd’s fritillary (Bolaria pales)

A male flew in, attempting to mate with the female.

Then he was chased off by another male.

All this time the female carried on feeding. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore this kind of shenanigans I guess.

It’s easy to forget how territorial butterflies can be – I watched several orange-tips guarding their patch of plants against all comers, including various species of white butterfly who were twice their size. Of course, they could also have been mistaking them for female orange-tips. These idyllic mountain pastures are the scenes of so much drama at the micro level, and as I was moving more slowly than usual I had a chance to really watch what was going on.

Crossing the Gurgl

Once we crossed the river again, we had a walk along the river bank, where the flora is completely different. Several species from the Apiaceae or carrot family dominate here, and I love the way that the broad flowers become a huge dinner plate for many species of pollinating flies. Flies get a bad press, but they are important for the fertilisation of many species of plant.

Plus, the blooms are very beautiful, especially in these damp, shady places, where they seem to glow and burst like fireworks.We cross the road (carefully, this is prime motorbiking country, and those guys are often travelling very fast) and head up into the pine forest. We manoeuvre round some lively calves, and their many and varied cowpats, and then we’re into the woods.

This has been a good year for the broad-leaved marsh orchids – the central reservations of the roads are full of them, and the woodland paths are lined with their pink-speckled flowers. These plants prefer poor-quality, wet soils, and they are profuse in the boggier areas of the region. They are, however, not quite as sensitive to the soil conditions as some orchids, and so are usually the last to be lost when a meadow is drained, or when nitrogen run-off from farms becomes a problem. Long may they, and their rarer relatives, survive here in the Tyrol, one of the last places where they are common.

Broad-leaved marsh orchid (Dactylorisa majalis)

The gondolas from the Hochgurgl lift glide silently overhead. It’s rather surreal.

One of the Tyrolean grey cows gives us a look as we advance, but can’t be bothered to move, and who can blame her? We scoot round her respectfully.

We pass by the Piller See, a little pond stocked with trout, at some speed – a few years back we stopped to eat our sandwiches. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised that every midge and mosquito in the area had fed on me while I was eating my cheese roll. My husband didn’t have a single bite. Go figure.

The Piller See

Then it’s down to the river again, which has picked up pace by now and is whooshing past with some vigour. In the end, this water will join the river Inn ( for which Innsbruck is named) and will eventually become part of the Danube. This is a most ambitious little stream. We cross one of those see-through metal bridges that the Austrians (who obviously have no fear of heights) are so fond of, and plonk down on a bench to sort out our socks and boots and have some Toblerone.

A way-marker en route to the Sahnesturbel

By now, however, the clouds are starting to set in, and my ankle is starting to twinge. Just as well we’re on the home straight.

We cross the bridge. Landslides are common here, and rocks that vary in size from house-sized boulders to pebbles have been washed down by the glacial waters. I pick my way gingerly along the riverside, and then up through the woods for the last time. I can see the flag of the Sahnestuberl through the trees. And then, at last, just as the rain comes on in earnest, we’re there.

The Sahnestuberl is one of the last old-fashioned huts in the valley, with a mish-mash of deckchairs and wobbly tables and umbrellas outside. But the owners are friendly, the food is good and wholesome, and the cat is still here. He is clearly in charge, as you can see.

There is only one home-made cake every day, so you take your pick. But today it’s apricot, my favourite. We were going to share a piece in the interest of our waistlines, but really, life’s too short to share a cake. So here it is. I’m sure it’s helped to cure my ankle.

Apricot cake. Yum.





Bugwoman on Location – At Long Lane Pasture

Dear Readers, on the hottest day of the year so far, my friend A and I ventured forth for a walk around Long Lane Pasture. This nature reserve is just half a mile from my house in East Finchley, but it’s easy to miss, being tucked in beside the North Circular Road and the tube line. Once I was through the unprepossessing gate it was as if I was in some mythical summer from my childhood – although the rumble of the traffic is ever present this is the only reminder that you are in the London Borough of Barnet, not in some meadow in the shires.

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum) beside the main path

There are meadow brown and ringlet butterflies, cabbage whites and the occasional cinnabar moth flitting around the long grass. The flower heads of a yellow buddleia hang opposite the berries of a guelder rose. Wild and garden perennials mix cheerfully together. All that is missing is the chirrup of grasshoppers, which puzzles me – with all this long grass I would expect the place to be deafening. I wonder why there aren’t any?

Seedheads of yellow buddleia (Buddleia x weyeriana)

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

There are some seats under a covered area next to the largest pond, and we sit and enjoy the shade and a drink of water. A moorhen and her chick head for cover, but the dragonflies are relentless. One male emperor dragonfly seems to want to own the entire pond, swooping down to see off all rivals, his wings gleaming in the sun. He always returns to the same reed to survey his kingdom. Occasionally he stoops at a butterfly but in a half-hearted way. This time of year is about breeding.

It is chastening to think ow easily this pasture could have been lost to development. In 1912 it was given to the public as a reserve, but half of it was lost in 1920 when the North Circular Road was built. For years the land was grazed by horses, but in 1999 Barnet wanted to build houses on the site, one of the last scraps of unspoilt green left in the Borough. After a public campaign it was designated as open space, and 2009 the Long Lane Pasture Trust was granted a 25 year lease. I suppose this means that we’ll have to gird our loins for another fight in 2034. I shall be marking it in my diary.

Alder bark ( I think! Feel free to correct me….)

We follow the paths, taking the opportunity to sit on the benches placed in the shade of the trees. In one area, an elm has been planted. A sign tells us that this is a Princeton elm, a hybrid developed in the US to resist Dutch Elm disease, which still kills off any elm saplings ambitious enough to grow taller than about six feet. The sign tells me that a white-letter hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) was spotted in the pasture in 2009: this is vanishingly rare in the UK, as the eggs are laid on the twigs of elm trees, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. When the elms died in the UK, it was pretty much the end for the butterfly as well, so closely was it associated with the tree. The Princeton elm has been planted in the hope that ‘the white-letter hairstreak will make a home here’. I hope so too.

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

A white-letter hairstreak (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

White-letter hairstreak caterpillar (Photo Two)

There are many small ponds on the pasture, many dotted with purple loosestrife and bulrushes. My friend A rescues a cinnabar moth caterpillar from one of them. The irises have just gone over, and there are some strange plants in another of the damper patches. I’m hoping that they aren’t skunk cabbage, an invasive species from North America that can out compete practically anything, but my latest advice is that it’s probably elecampane, a yellow member of the daisy family. I saw some in flower earlier, so this makes sense.

But the best is yet to come. My friend A points out some little webs in the long grass. I take a few photos, and once home I talk to some of my friends on the invertebrate identification groups that I belong to. It appears that the webs belong to nursery web spiders! I am cockahoop. These spiders are free-range hunters, tracking flies and other small insects  through the long grass and pouncing on them like cheetahs. The female carries her egg-sac around with her in her jaws and then, when they are ready to hatch, she weaves the webs that I saw so that her spiderlings are protected while they grow.

Nursery webs….

Apparently, when the male wants to mate with the female (who, as is the way with spiders, is much, much bigger than he is) he presents her with a gift of food while simultaneously pretending to be dead. When she comes over to investigate he apparently springs to his feet, mates with her (presumably while she is absorbed in her dinner) and then runs away as fast as his eight tiny legs will carry him. The ways of insects are strange, but I have known humans who would pursue the same tactics if only they were speedy enough.

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider - Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) carrying her egg sac (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult female nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo Four)

And so we come full circle to the entrance again, having only just skimmed the surface of the wonders that Long Lane Pasture has to offer. I haven’t mentioned the fluty notes of the song thrush, nor the pretty yellow flowers of the meadow vetchling, and I could probably go on all day about the moth population of the grassland. But that will have to wait, because once it gets above 80 degrees in London it’s time for even the mad dogs and English women to get out of the mid-afternoon sun, and into somewhere a little more shady. I shall certainly be back.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider – Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons






Wednesday Weed – Common Fumitory

Common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis)

Dear Readers, this is a plant that grows in one spot at the end of Mum and Dad’s road in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset. I love it because of its bright pink and purple flowers, which remind me of lipstick. Common fumitory is in the same family as that urban favourite yellow corydalis, and if you look closely you can see how similar the flowers are.

Yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Common fumitory is an ancient introduction to the UK (its natural range is mainland Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa), and its Latin species name, officinalis, indicates that it was used as a medicinal plant. The name ‘fumitory’ comes from ‘fumus terrae‘, or ‘smoke of the earth’, thought to be because the fine foliage looks a little like a cloud of fumes. Pliny the Elder noted that the sap from the plant, if rubbed in the eyes, made them sore, which is just what happens when ‘smoke gets in your eyes’, and led to another vernacular name, ‘fumewort’. However, the plant was used historically for treating conjunctivitis and other eye complaints, so maybe the soreness was just a necessary side-effect of the treatment. It was also used to treat skin complaints, to reduce the appearance of blemishes,  and as a kidney cleanser.

In Rosamund Richardson’s lovely book ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’, she reports how the cleansing power of fumitory was thought to extend beyond the skin to the soul:

‘If you wish to be pure and holy

Wash your face with fumitory’

Richardson tells us how the plant, according to a Victorian practitioner,

‘ought chiefly to be employed by those who have previously removed those moral blemishes which deform the mind, or degrade the dignity of a reasonable and an immortal being’.

In other words, sort yourself out before you start worrying about your freckles.

I was very sorry to learn that Rosamund Richardson died last year at the age of 71, having written many books about the British countryside. ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’ is, I think, her last book, and well worth a place on any bedside table.

Other medicinal uses included the treatment of cradle-cap in babies.

Common fumitory is said to have roots that smell of smoke, and it is believed to expel evil spirits if burned in the house, or at an exorcism. It is said to protect you if you rub some on your shoes before a journey, and it may also bring you wealth, either spiritual or material. In the Ayurvedic tradition, fumitory is believed to confer long life.

In Iran, ‘water of fumitory’ is made by steeping the plant in water overnight and then distilling the liquid – the resulting distillate is used to flavour sherbet. Generally, however, the plant has been used sparingly as food: the leaves are said to be edible, and milk can also be soured by immersing the plant in the liquid. I have no idea what you would do with the milk that was ‘turned’ in this way, but maybe it made for a more pleasant taste than milk that was allowed to go ‘sour’ naturally. Plus, we are only just finding out some of the benefits of fermented foods, so maybe this was found to be healthful.

That bard of the English countryside, John Clare, whose observations of plants and animals still ring fresh after several hundred years, had this to say about the uses of fumitory in his poem ‘May’, part of ‘A Shepherd’s Calendar’:

And fumitory too a name
That superstition holds to fame
Whose red and purple mottled flowers
Are cropt by maids in weeding hours
To boil in water milk and way (*whey)
For washes on an holiday
To make their beauty fair and sleak
And scour the tan from summers cheek

The flowers of fumitory can be used to produce a yellow dye for wool.

Although the flowers look very enticing to me (and are indeed nectar-rich), they are rarely pollinated by insects, and so this annual plant reproduces by self-fertilisation. One animal that did favour the seeds and flowers was the increasingly-rare turtle dove, so perhaps this also helped to spread the plant from one place to another. It is thought that our intensive agricultural methods, which mean that there are far fewer ‘weeds’ such as fumitory about, is one factor in the bird’s Red List status. It is also shot in huge numbers as it migrates over countries such as Malta and Cyprus.

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

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) (Photo One)

Shakespeare was not overly impressed with fumitory, which he described as a ‘rank weed’ of fields. Here is Cordelia talking about her father in ‘King Lear’:

As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud,

    Crown’d with rank Fumiter and Furrow-weed,

    With burdocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers

    Darnel and all the idle weeds that grow

    In our sustaining corn.”

The plant crops up again in Henry V, and again Shakespeare describes the poor fumitory as ‘rank’:

Her fallow leas

    The Darnel, Hemlock and rank Fumitory

    Doth root upon.”

If I was fumitory’s press agent, I think I’d be complaining. However, Shakespeare was pre-dated in using the word ‘fumitory’ by several hundred years, with Chaucer having the first use of the word in a manuscript in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, where the plant is part of a medicine used as a laxative.


And finally, here’s a fragment from Gerard Manley Hopkins, that ecstatic poet of kestrel and fallen leaves, on the common fumitory. People seem to either love Hopkins or find him uncomfortably over the top, but I can never read him without a sense of expansion, of the world being larger and more miraculous than I imagined, and in these straightened, black-and-white-no-shades-of-grey times this can surely only be a good thing. The poem below is not one of his best (as a fragment I suspect he meant to work on it but never got round to it), but can’t you just see that furrow?


I ám so véry, O só very glad
That I dó think there is not to be had…

The blue wheat-acre is underneath
And the braided ear breaks out of the sheath,
The ear in milk, lush the sash,
And crush-silk poppies aflash,
The blood-gush blade-gash
Flame-rash rudred
Bud shelling or broad-shed
Tatter-tassel-tangled and dingle-a-dangled
Dandy-hung dainty head.

And down … the furrow dry
Sunspurge and oxeye
And laced-leaved lovely
Foam-tuft fumitory

Through the velvety wind V-winged
To the nest’s nook I balance and buoy
With a sweet joy of a sweet joy,
Sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy
Of a sweet—a sweet—sweet—joy.’

Photo Credit

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

Wednesday Weed – River Water Crowfoot

River Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus fluitans)

Dear Readers, most of the ‘weeds’ that I’ve been writing about during this past year have either been common, widespread ‘weeds’ or garden plants, but this week I want to tell you about a plant that is both unusual and very local. River water crowfoot (Ranunculus fluitans) is a member of the buttercup family that needs a clean, fast-flowing stream with a stony bed, where the water is both alkaline and relatively nutrient-rich, without being polluted by nitrates from run-off. I was delighted to find a fine crop of the plant in the tiny river that flows through Milborne St Andrew in Dorset. I wrote a bit about it in Saturday’s post, but thought that it needed a bit more attention. After all, it’s not every day that you encounter a relative rarity.

River water crowfoot can have stems that are up to 20 feet long, with each stem bearing several of the pure white flowers. The leaves are all thread-like and submerged, and undulate in the water in a very pleasing way. In the film below, I am holding the camera still and the water is moving. It’s maybe best avoided if you have a tendency to motion sickness.


MIlborne St Andrew has long been a ‘watery’ kind of place – a few years ago the village was cut off by flooding from this very same stream (which is a tributory of the delightfully named River Piddle). The area outside the shop was under about a metre of water, and this required a thirty-mile detour for anyone eager to get to or from the nearest railway station at Moreton. Some folk would disregard the warning that the area was too deep to ford, even in a Land Rover, and much entertainment was to be had by watching as the inevitable happened, and local tractors had to be summoned to get the culprits out of their self-inflicted immersion. Fortunately, a lot of work has been done and, fingers crossed, the stream is now relatively well-behaved, and whatever changes have been made seem to not to have affected the water crowfoot.

Incidentally, the name ‘Milborne’ gives you a clue – any place name with ‘borne’ in the name refers to a small river in Anglo Saxon. ‘Winterbourne/borne’, as in ‘Winterbourne Whitechurch’, means a stream that only runs in winter. In these days of flooding, it would be well to do a spot of research before moving to one of these delightful Dorset villages – those Anglo Saxons knew a lot about geography.

The presence of water crowfoot is thought by some ecologists to indicate the site of a collapsed bridge or old ford, though why I have not yet worked out.

Why ‘crowfoot’ though? The leaves of other species of crowfoot do have something of a bird’s foot look about them, but not here. Is it because it was thought that the seeds were spread by crows (not that unlikely, as many other plants arrive in ponds and rivers when birds stop to drink)? Or is it because crows were seen feeding in meadows (they love the insects that used to inhabit cow pats before the animals were regularly dosed with antibiotics)? The name goes back to the Middle English ‘crou-fot’, so it has been around as long as those Anglo-Saxon place names.

River water crowfoot is endemic to Western Europe, and the UK has over twenty percent of the total population of the plant. While it is classified as ‘Least Concern’ here, it is considered Vulnerable in Sweden and Near Threatened in Switzerland. As with all water plants, factors such as pollution and changes in river management can eradicate a population overnight. It was good to see the plants in Milborne in such abundance and obvious good health.

It is difficult to look at the streaming green tresses of the river water crowfoot and not think of Ophelia, and indeed Gertrude mentions ‘crow-flowers’ when describing the ‘fantastic garlands’ that Ophelia made before her suicide. Millais’s painting of Ophelia shows some river water crowfoot at the bottom of the picture, although when I look at this painting I can’t help but remember the terrible cold that the model, Elizabeth Liddal, caught while floating in a bath over a period of four months.

Photo One from

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais,(1851-2) (Photo One)

River water crowfoot is an important part of the ecosystem of a stream, partly because it provides cover and refuge for all manner of fish fry, insect larvae and other small invertebrates. Less obviously, dense stands of crowfoot can actually alter the dynamics of a stream, causing it to drop sediment in places where the plant forces the flow of the water to slow down. This sediment then enables other plants to root, and increases biodiversity. In particular, caddis and mayfly larvae are able to thrive, and these in turn feed the juvenile trout and salmon that may live in the river. It’s not for nothing that mayflies are the models for many of the lures used by fly fishermen and women. This fascinating article goes into greater detail on how the humble crowfoot can change the whole dynamic of a chalk stream.

Photo Two by Aaron Gustafson at

Brown Trout (Salma trutta) – one of the fish that benefits from water crowfoot cover (Photo Two)

So, as I write this on a sunny, humid day, I turn to Edward Thomas, a poet who captured the English countryside in a way that is redolent of sunshine through trees and the song of birds, mixed with a deep melancholy. For those of you who might wonder what a sedge warbler sounds like (as I did), you can see and hear them at the link here.


This beauty made me dream there was a time
Long past and irrecoverable, a clime
Where any brook so radiant racing clear
Through buttercup and kingcup bright as brass
But gentle, nourishing the meadow grass
That leans and scurries in the wind, would bear
Another beauty, divine and feminine,
Child to the sun, a nymph whose soul unstained
Could love all day, and never hate or tire,
A lover of mortal or immortal kin.

And yet, rid of this dream, ere I had drained
Its poison, quieted was my desire
So that I only looked into the water,
Clearer than any goddess or man’s daughter,
And hearkened while it combed the dark green hair
And shook the millions of the blossoms white
Of water-crowfoot, and curdled to one sheet
The flowers fallen from the chestnuts in the park
Far off. And sedge-warblers, clinging so light
To willow twigs, sang longer than the lark,
Quick, shrill, or grating, a song to match the heat
Of the strong sun, nor less the water’s cool,
Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.
Their song that lacks all words, all melody,
All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
This was the best of May—the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.

Edward Thomas (1915)


Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two by Aaron Gustafson at





Bugwoman on Location – Spring in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers,  the most beautiful tree in Milborne St Andrew stands next to a cottage that looks as if it’s peeping over the fence. I look for the tree whenever I arrive. It is variegated in cream and green and when the leaves first open it looks like a great pistachio-tinged cloud. It’s strange how Milborne has become a second home to me, a devout London woman who always thought that the country was overrated. What’s brought me to this realisation has been my gradual exploration of the village in all weathers, over years: I know where the scarlet pimpernel blooms, where the rookeries are, where you can spot a yellowhammer if you’re lucky and patient. I have grown to love this place, and the people who live there. It has humbled me with its goodness and patience, its friendliness and its unexpected wildness.

I visit  Milborne St Andrew to visit my eighty-something parents every month, and  I am usually on  a mission. Sometimes it’s to sort out a problem with the computer, to organise some home repairs or to accompany Mum or Dad on a visit to the hospital. But this time, it was to begin to sort out a cruise. All things being equal, we are hoping to travel next summer. It has been  a conundrum to plan: the ship needs to be ‘big but not too big’, the location needs to be both ‘hot’ and ‘not too hot’ and the timing needs to fit in with not only Mum and Dad but also me and my friend J, who is coming with us.

But first, Mum and Dad need to renew their passports. They’ve been too unwell to travel during the past few years, so their passports have expired and they need new photographs. Fortunately, you can renew your passport online these days if you’ve already had one, and I can recommend it as an experience. I take several photos of Dad standing against a white door (for the requisite Plain Background) and my main problem is that he can’t stop himself from smiling.

‘Look serious!’ I bellow, with little effect.

Finally, we get a shot where his eyes are twinkling but his mouth is pretty much horizontal. I just hope that cheery eyes are allowed. At least it got past the Computerised Pedant  in the online application form, who gives me a big green tick.

Let’s hope there’s not too much twinkle 🙂

Then it’s Mum’s turn.

Mum is very unsteady on her feet, and has severe scoliosis, which means that she can’t hold her head up. Plus, she seems to have developed a head tilt. I take photos, pop them into the online application, and the Computer Says No.

‘ You Do Not Appear To Be Looking At The Camera’ it says, probably because Mum’s head is just a little out of the vertical.

I position her in front of the door, gently move her chin to the vertical, crouch down and fire off some more shots. I feel like David Bailey photographing a supermodel (for those of you old enough to remember who the hell David Bailey was). Dad helps by shouting advice from his reclining chair.

‘ Keep still, Syb!’ he says. ‘You’re moving about all over the place!’

‘ I can’t help it Tom’, she says, wobbling.

And somehow I manage to grab a shot between wobbles that satisfies the Computerised Pedant, and the longed-for green tick appears.

This morning I despatched the old passports, for the processing can’t start without them. And then we will see.

It is bittersweet, all this planning for the future. Today, Dad goes to Dorchester Hospital for a CT scan. The doctor is worried by Dad’s persistent cough, and his unexpected two-stone weight loss. Dad is worried by the logistics – he can’t breathe properly if he lays flat on his back because of his COPD. He has packed his dressing gown and his slippers, but he keeps getting up and down. Dad is not normally worried by these things, but today he is very on edge. And of course he won’t find out the results straight away. We are all concerned about what it might be, and we are all putting a brave face on it. Hopefully it will be nothing.

I look out of the window, and the rhubarb is in full flower. I have never seen such a thing. If I don’t cut down this magnificent florescence the rhubarb will die, and so, after taking a photo I hack it down, much to the disgust of a nest of ants who come tumbling out of the ground like lava.

Flowering rhubarb

And then I take myself out for a walk, as usual. Opposite the village hall there is a bubbling stream which comes from under a culvert, runs along merrily past a wall emblazoned with red valerian and ivy-leaved toadflax, turns a sharp left, then a sharp right, and finally disappears into a field. Along the whole way, the water crowfoot is in flower. Near a wall, where the current is slack, there is a raft of white petals entangled in stems and leaves.

Where the current is faster there are flowers in bloom, their heads lifted above the water on stiff stems, presumably so that their pollinators don’t drown. And the long stems and leaves undulate in the water like grass snakes.  They are like the blossom-encrusted manes of water horses, galloping just below the surface. I watch, entranced, for a while, as the invisible currents and eddies of the water are made manifest by the movement of the plants. And I ask myself how life would be if I could be so emotionally supple, so able to submit to the subtle undertows and whirlpools and obstacles of life. Instead, I seem to believe that I can stare down the illness and death that stalks my parents with sheer force of will. I know that this is illogical, but part of me thinks that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse themselves would blench when confronted by the love that a child has for their parents.


And then I leave the stream and head home. On the way I pass a patch of ramping fumitory, growing at the bottom of a wall. This is the only place I know where this plant grows, with its lipstick-pink and indigo flowers on their thread-like stems. Every year it dies back to nothing, and every spring it comes back, along with the heavy-headed poppies and the martial hedge mustard.

I pick one of the flowers, and take it back  for Mum and Dad.

‘What do you think this is?’ I ask Dad. He takes it in his cold, numb fingers, almost drops it, picks it up again, twirls it.

‘Not sure’, he says, ‘some kind of clover?’

‘It’s ramping fumitory’, I say, ‘not sure what family it’s in, but I can see why you’d say clover’.

I show it to Mum.

‘Pretty’, she says.

And I realise that what I’m trying to do is to bring the outside world into the house for them, to say ‘this is what delights me, I hope it delights you too’. Doesn’t life call to life, after all? I want to turn their faces to the sun, to the world beyond the four walls that surround them. I want them to have both hope for the future and joy in the present moment. There is such a delicate dance between what I want for Mum and Dad, and what they want for themselves, and there is a fine line between ‘enabler’ and ‘bossyboots’. But I so want them to be able to eke each last drop of nectar out of their day, to go to bed having experienced something new and interesting, to feel that progress is still possible.

And now, I have to go. I’ve a cruise to arrange.