Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Lucerne

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Lucerne( Medicago sativa sativa)

Dear Readers, I am sometimes astonished at the plants that crop up in East Finchley. Where do they come from? How did they get here? One particular ‘weed’ hotspot is a little bed outside the corner house on Park Hall Road. One month it’s full of cleavers, the next it’s full of thistles, and this week, it’s full of lucerne.  And very pretty it is too, in its many shades of lilac and purple.

Lucerne is a member of the Fabaceae family, which includes peas, vetches and clovers, and if you look at the flowers you can see the characteristic lower ‘lip’. The leaves are in groups of three, but the most characteristic feature is the tightly-curled seedpod, which spirals around itself like one of those wacky Carsten Holler helter-skelters that were at Tate Modern a few years ago. The name ‘lucerne’ is said to have come from the Latin ‘lucerna’ or lamp, which makes me wonder if there were oil lamps that resembled the shape of the seedpod.

By Philmarin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lucerne Seedpods (Photo One – credit below)

Kirsteen at

Photo Two (Credit below)

Lucerne was introduced to the UK in the 17th century as a fodder crop, and is otherwise known as alfalfa (which is from the Arabic name for the plant). It probably came from south west Asia, and was first noted in the wild in the UK in 1804. The plant was first cultivated in ancient Iran, and in a fourth-century book about agriculture, Palladius notes that it can be cut four to six times in 12 months, and that a quarter of a hectare of lucerne will feed three horses for a whole year. Palladius also notes that fresh lucerne should be fed sparingly to cattle, who may develop bloat, and indeed domestic animals have a paradoxical relationship with the plant, sometimes developing photosensitivity and jaundice. However, it is a major source of hay and silage for cows and horses, particularly in North America, where in Arizona and Southern California a single field can be cut up to twelve times in a year.

It has never been much used for human food in the West, with most people encountering it as alfalfa sprouts. It was used as famine food during the Spanish Civil War, but in China the young leaves are used as a salad vegetable.

By Thesupermat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (Credit below)

Incidentally, anyone getting excited at the plants’ Latin species name (sativa) should note that, although lucerne was used unsuccessfully as an ingredient in cigarettes, ‘sativa’ simply means ‘cultivated’.

Like most members of the pea family, lucerne is a magnet for bees. There is a story that lucerne could not be grown commercially in the US until the honeybee was introduced to the country (it is not native north of Mexico), and pollination became possible. It is often the case that introduced plants do not become a problem if their pollinators do not arrive – Dave Goulson, who wrote the wonderful book ‘A Sting in the Tale’ describes how Tree Lupins only became problematic in Australia once the bumblebee arrived. I always find it interesting how these complex webs of life change when one of the elements is missing.

Indeed, there is a problem with the pollination of lucerne. When Western honeybees visit a lucerne flower, they are knocked on the head by the keel of the plant, which transfers the pollen. Neither you nor I would like to be hit on the head every time we went to work (though I’ve been employed at places where every day felt a bit like that was what was happening). So, the honeybees take to nectar-robbing – piercing the side of the flower to get at the nectar store without being walloped. Unfortunately this does not result in the pollination of the plant.

To avoid this happening, the beekeepers employed to pollinate the lucerne fields use a high proportion of young, innocent bees, who have not yet become jaundiced and cynical by their daily experiences. However, young bees are also not as expert at performing their tasks. Also, the bees quickly suffer from a protein deficiency induced by only eating lucerne pollen, which is missing one of the key amino acids.

By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Honey bee on lucerne (Photo Four – see credit below)

One answer is to use alfalfa leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata) to do the pollination. These solitary bees, native to Europe,  produce no honey, but are very efficient pollinators of lucerne. They are transported in hollow plastic tubes, which they fill with leaves and use to raise their young. These are the bees of choice in the Pacific Northwest, with the poor old long-suffering honeybee being used in California.

By Pollinator at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

Alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata) (Photo Five – see credit below)

In parts of the US lucerne is used as an insectary, a nursery for all kinds of predatory insects, and is often interspersed with cotton. The various ladybirds and lacewings and wasps that hatch in the lucerne go to work on the grubs that would otherwise eat the cotton. In return, the lucerne is harvested in strips to avoid killing the entire insect population.

Lucerne is a very drought-hardy plant -it has a root-system that can penetrate almost 50 feet to find ground-water. It can live for more than twenty years, but the plant is autotoxic – lucerne seeds cannot grow where there is already lucerne, and so crop rotation needs to be practiced. Like all members of the pea family, the roots contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which means that it improves the soil. As such, it was the most widely grown fodder crop in the world in the early 2000’s, with over 436 million tons grown, not just in North America but in China, Russia, Europe and Argentina. In 2009 over 74 million acres of the planet were used to grow lucerne. Not satisfied with this, the biotech giant Monsanto developed a GMO version of the plant that was resistant to glyptosate. This meant that fields could be sprayed with Round Up, which would obliterate all the ‘weeds’ but spare the lucerne. There has been a long-running court case in the US about the use of this plant, with many concerns about the possibility of cross-contamination with non-GMO lucerne. You can read all the gory details here, but suffice to say that Monsanto appears to have won, as usual.  Whilst here in Europe we tend to be cautious about GMOs, there are far fewer restrictions in the US. I shall watch with interest to see how this all plays out. I am not anti-science, but it seems to me that obliterating biodiversity in this way runs counter to the health of the environment. I sometimes wonder at what point we will stop messing with delicately poised ecosystems. As the Buddha once said, we are children playing in a burning building.

So, generations of domestic animals have been fed on this delicate ‘weed’ that has appeared, surprisingly, on a London street. And when I go hunting for a poem about lucerne, I find this by Les Murray, the extraordinary Australian poet. ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ is not an easy read, but I don’t think I have ever read a poem that imagines so sensitively what it would be like to be an animal. Have a look, and let me know what you think!

Photo Credits

Photo One (Lucerne Seedpods) – By Philmarin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Carsten Holler Slides) – Kirsteen at

Photo Three (Alfalfa sprouts) – By Thesupermat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Honeybee on lucerne) – By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five (Leafcutter bee on lucerne) – By Pollinator at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

Wednesday Weed – Dwarf Mallow

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta)

Dear Readers, I found this tiny plant in the grass in front of our local children’s nursery. It is so small and delicate that it’s hard for me to believe that it’s a close relative of the stonking great pink mallow in my back garden, but indeed it is, for this is the dwarf mallow (Malva neglecta). It is an ancient introduction, possibly brought here by the Romans. So many plants arrived with the Romans (everything from radishes to walnuts) that I sometimes imagine them skipping along Watling Street scattering seeds in all directions. Why this little plant would be one of them I have no idea, but it was probably an interloper, maybe arriving with harvested seed and setting up home when it was planted.


All of the mallows have been used widely for medicinal purposes (herbalists call the mallows ‘innocents’ because they have no bad qualities), and the name ‘Mallow’ and genus name Malva come from the Greek word Malakos, meaning soft and soothing. Dwarf mallow has been used to make salves and lotions for bruises, inflammation and insect bites (the herbalist Gerarde said that it was ‘good against the stinging of scorpions, bees, wasps and such’), and as a treatment for lung and urinary complaints. The plant is said to be better than common mallow (Malva sylvestris) for these purposes, but the creme-de-la-creme of mallows for medicine is the marsh mallow (Althea officinalis). Dwarf mallow is also described as an excellent laxative for small children, though here, as in all matters medicinal, extreme caution is advised.


The leaves of dwarf mallow are edible, though most foraging websites mention that the mucilaginous quality of the leaves, which make them so effective in treating bruises and skin problems, is rather unpleasant when the leaves are cooked. So, in other words, if you don’t like the slimy quality of okra, you’d be better eating dwarf mallow raw. However, as I mentioned in my post on common mallow, if the leaves are steeped in water the resulting fluid can be used as an egg white substitute in meringues and souffles, which seems like a minor miracle to me. It can also be used as a binding agent in vegan cookery, as in this recipe for Mallow Leaf and White Bean Burgers.

One potential problem is that dwarf mallow seems to concentrate nitrates for fertilizer in the leaves, so be careful where you harvest from.

The round fruits are said to look like tiny cheeses (and in Yorkshire were known as ‘fairy cheeses’) and are full of nutritional value, though a bit on the small side in this species. On the other hand, they were used in a dormancy experiment and apparently germinated after a hundred years, so there can be no doubt that they are well protected and full of everything that a plant might need to grow when the conditions are right.

By Stefan.lefnaer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A dwarf mallow ‘cheese’ (seedhead) – Photo One (see credit below)

I must add a small note of sadness here as well. Just along from the nursery where the dwarf mallow is growing was the car park for GLH, the cab company. The wall along the front was full of willow herb and ragweed, and there was a fine buddleia growing at the front. Well, the building has been sold to erect some new flats. I’m all for affordable housing, as you know, but more than a thousand local people objected to the design of the building on the basis of its design, the risk of over-development and the way that the project added to the chronic traffic congestion in the area (there is no on-site parking) and this was completely ignored by Barnet Council.  All the weeds have been sprayed, and a man was erecting a plywood hoarding with a door in it. As he stepped through to the demolition site and shut the door behind him, it reminded me of how much seems to be going on behind closed doors at the moment. Let’s hope that there’s still a way to moderate this most grandiose design.

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

The proposed flats on East Finchley High Street (Photo from The Archer)

Photo Credit

Photo One (Mallow seed head) – By Stefan.lefnaer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



Wednesday Weed – Enchanter’s Nightshade

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) (Photo by Shona Mackintosh)

Dear Readers, sometimes there’s a strange synchronicity about the Wednesday Weed. When I had lunch with my friend S earlier this week, she mentioned a plant with tiny white flowers that was taking over her garden. She sent me the photo above, and I was very puzzled. Then, on my way to teaching an English class in Wood Green, I saw a huge patch of exactly the same plant, mixed in with some black medick.


Thanks to some help from some botanists on the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page, it was identified as Enchanter’s Nightshade. And a very confusing plant it is too. For a start, it isn’t a nightshade at all, but yet another willowherb. It is a native plant but, as my friend has noticed, it can be a very persistent garden weed. However, Richard Mabey finds a subtle beauty in this modest plant, and notes how the flowers are ‘mounted like butterflies on pins’. He describes how many parts of the plant, from the leaves to the stamen to the petals, grow in pairs.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Enchanter’s Nightshade flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

By Willow (Own work) [GFDL (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Enchanter’s Nightshade demonstrating its ‘persistent weed’ characteristic (Photo Two – see credit below)

The Latin name for this plant, Circaea lutetiana, links it to Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs so that he wouldn’t leave her island. According to Virgil, she could turn men into lions and wolves as well. This humble little plant was thought to be her ‘charm’. When I was a child, I longed to be able to talk to the animals, but turning the people who bullied me into pigs and cows would have been just as gratifying. There is much wish-fulfillment in some myths, and a great fear of the secret powers of women. Even today, I can think of a few men who would be able to do much less harm if they were four-legged animals without opposable thumbs, but then I wouldn’t wish their company on the rest of the creatures.

The species name ‘lutetiana’ comes from the Latin name for Paris, which was sometimes known as the ‘Witch City’, according to Wikipedia. However, Witchipedia thinks that the name refers to the character of Paris from the Iliad. Curiouser and curiouser.

In the painting below, Circe seems to have transformed a woman into an animal as well, judging by the lionesses. Also, her jumper seems to have fallen off.


Circe by Wright Barker (1889) (Public Domain)

Strangely, though, in spite of its fascinating name, enchanter’s nightshade does not appear to have a wide variety of medicinal uses. It is used to make herbal tea in Austria (which figures, as the plant has a high concentration of tannins). Where it is mentioned as a cure, the active part appears to be the berries of the plant but, not being a true nightshade, the plant has burrs rather than berries. A case of mistaken identity, I fear.

However, it was used in an aphrodisiac potion in the Highlands of Scotland, which would be slipped into the unsuspecting chap’s evening tipple. I am sure that much merriment ensued.

By Kristian Peters -- Fabelfroh 14:54, 10 November 2005 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The burrs of enchanter’s nightshade (Photo Three – credit below)

I can find no edible uses for enchanter’s nightshade, although when I was identifying the plant, one of the botanists mentioned that it had a pronounced peppery taste.

To return to Circe and her ability to transform men into animals: I wonder if there is a deeper suggestion here that, rather than taking the tale literally, we are meant to question if all men are animals under the skin, with just the merest skim of ‘civilisation’ on top? How easy it is in these troubled times to see the more ‘bestial’ of our instincts coming to the fore. There is more than a hint of this in Louise Gluck’s poem ‘Circe’s Power’.

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.

I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Undisciplined life
Did that to them. As pigs,

Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.

Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw

We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,

I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think

A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you

I could hold you prisoner.

However, if we are going to claim that our aggression and violence came from animals, we have to acknowledge that so did our capacity for love and compassion. There are many scientists now looking at the altruistic behaviour of animals, the development of culture and the lengths that non-human animals will go to to look after one another. We can’t have it both ways, as if our ability to make war came from our primate ancestors while our ability to sacrifice ourselves was sprinkled on us by angels. We are part of a continuum, remarkable as our species is, and we can’t disown our heritage. The gap between us and the intelligent, resourceful, affectionate pig is not as big as we  think.

Circe and her swine (Briton Riviere, 1896) (Public Domain)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Flower close-up) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Patch of enchanter’s nightshade) – By Willow (Own work) [GFDL (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (enchanter’s nightshade burrs) – By Kristian Peters — Fabelfroh 14:54, 10 November 2005 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Himalayan Honeysuckle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Himalayan Honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa)

Dear Readers, this is a most strange and exotic shrub that seems to naturalise easily in the woodlands of north London – there is one in Coldfall Wood, and another by the bus stop on Highgate Hill. It is a plant much used by gamekeepers as cover for their pheasants, just like that other common shrub, Snowberry, although the pheasant keepers of East Finchley are rather few and far between. A more likely explanation is that the tasty dark-red berries, which appear in early autumn, are eaten by birds and spread through defecation. The bushes can often be seen under popular perching spots, which adds some weight to the theory.

By Kurt Stüber [1] - part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Himalayan Honeysuckle berries (Photo One – credit below)

As the name suggests, the plant comes from the Himalayan region and South West China. It is not strictly speaking a honeysuckle, as these belong to the genus Lonicera, though it is in the same family. The flowers, with their reddish-purple bracts and white flowers, have a distinctively fleshy quality.  Some people also refer to it as the shrimp plant, and I can see why. The foliage varies from lime-green to greenish-yellow, with the latter being a popular buy at garden centres.

Himalayan Honeysuckle (Lonicera formosa)

Unfortunately, poor old Himalayan Honeysuckle has been declared a noxious weed in New Zealand and Australia,  and is a problem in the Azores, the Canary Islands and Madeira. In the UK  it is, in truth, a rather sorry-looking plant if the conditions are not ideal. It quickly becomes etiolated and flabby, the flowers often don’t reach their full potential, and I suspect that although it often ends up in woods, it would be much happier perched on a mountain side exposed to full sun. It is not thought to be particularly invasive in the UK, where an occasional speciman pops up but does not go on to dominate the area, and it probably provides a welcome boost for the birds.

Himalayan Honeysuckle is also known as flowering nutmeg and as toffee berry, and on the ‘Of Plums and Pignuts‘ blog, Alan Carter refers to it as ‘the king of instant consumption’. He calls it the treacle tree, and I cannot better his description of the taste of the berries:

‘No plant in the forest garden divides opinion like leycesteria: you either love or hate its startling mixture of molasses sweetness and bitter aftertaste’

I find myself very sorry that I have never tasted any, and must keep an eye on the one in my garden to remedy this oversight. I am also reminded of Fergus the Forager’s recipe for Himalayan Honeysuckle Fig Rolls. However, Fergus does also mention that, much like figs, the berries might have what one might politely describe as a ‘loosening effect’ on the bowels, so take it easy, friends! However, I cannot resist including a picture of the completed pastries. I would gobble them up in no time.

Himalayan Honeysuckle Fig Rolls, courtesy of Fergus the Forager (Photo Two – full credit below)

Humans and birds might like the fruit, but the caterpillar of the Vapourer moth ( Orgyia antiqua), a creature of the most catholic of tastes, has taken to the leaves of Himalayan honeysuckle with great enthusiasm.The caterpillar has glands containing a toxin at their rear end, and can sometimes become a pest in UK cities, with contact resulting in an unpleasant rash. What a beauty though, a cross between a toothbrush and a sunburst. The adult moth is rather less striking, although the antennae are splendid.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Vapourer moth caterpillar (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Ben Sale from UK - [2026] The Vapourer (Orgyia antiqua), CC BY 2.0,

Adult Male Vapourer moth (Photo Four – see credit below)

This species has the most interesting life cycle. The female is wingless and emerges from her cocoon, ‘calling’ to the male by releasing a pheromone. The male finds the female, mates with her, and then she lays her eggs on the cocoon that she’s just emerged from.

By Grmanners - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Male and female Vapourer moth mating (Photo Five -see credit below)

I love how the eggs look like tiny mushrooms.

By Beentree - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Vapourer eggs (Photo Six – credit below)

In Northern India and Nepal, a paste from the leaves of Himalayan honeysuckle is used as a cure for head lice and dandruff. It has also been used as an anti-helmintic (cure for worms) in Nepal. The roots of the plant form part of a traditional Chinese medicine remedy for acute cystitis.

So, Himalayan honeysuckle seems to me a most underrated plant, with its strange, pendulous flowers, its toffee-flavoured berries and its gangly habit. It always reminds me a little of a shy version of Audrey, the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors, although I’m sure that, unlike Audrey, this plant would always preface its demands to ‘feed me, Seymour!’ with a ‘if you don’t mind’. What do you think?

Andy Bowman (Photographer) from the Cathedral School Production, 2016 (

Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors (Photo Seven – Credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Berries) – By Kurt Stüber [1] – part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Fig Rolls) –

Photo Three (Caterpillar) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four (Male Moth) – By Ben Sale from UK – [2026] The Vapourer (Orgyia antiqua), CC BY 2.0,

Photo Five (Moths mating) – By Grmanners – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Six (Moth eggs) – By Beentree – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Seven (Audrey) – Andy Bowman (Photographer) from the Cathedral School Production, 2016 (






Wednesday Weed – Lady’s Mantle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

Dear Readers, green-flowered plants are so unusual that when I find one, I have to stop to admire it. This plant has popped up in my garden after a long absence, and so I wanted to give it its moment in the spotlight.  Lady’s Mantle  is such a charmer, with its clouds of tiny flowers and crinkled leaves that grow out from the stem like little fans. In fact, it’s the leaves that give it the link to ‘Our Lady’, as they are thought to resemble her cloak. After a shower the leaves (which are highly water-resistant) hold the drops of water like little jewels, but the plant will also produce the liquid itself in times of high humidity, as explained by Rosamund Richardson in her lovely new book ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’:

The early morning ‘dew’ is there even on dry days, and isn’t dew at all but moisture porduced by the plant itself, exuded by a process called guttation (in conditions of high humidity when water cannot be lost from the leaves as vapour, water is forced out through the breathing pores or stomata in the leaves’.

In cases such as this, the water appears along the edge of the leaves, as in photo one below, and I can add the word ‘guttation’ to my rapidly-expanding list of botanical terms.

Whether the water is made by the plant or arrives via the clouds, the liquid was thought to have magical properties: alchemists used it in their experiments to change base metal into gold (hence Alchemilla) and it was also thought to be an aphrodisiac.

The water can also be used by thirsty butterflies and other invertebrates.

By Alek RK

An example of guttation (Photo One – see credit below)

By Mom the Barbarian - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Dew on the leaves of Lady’s Mantle (Photo Two – see credit below)

Richardson reports that in France the plant is known as herbe a la vache, because the magic water from the plant is one of the ingredients of a medicine given to sick cows by the elf doctor. It appears therefore that France has a National Elf Service for farm animals.

Unlikely as it seems, lady’s mantle is part of the rose family. This particular species (known as soft lady’s mantle) was introduced to British gardens from the Carpathians in 1874, and was first recorded in the wild in 1948. We have a native Alchemilla, called Alpine Lady’s Mantle, which is restricted to the north of Scotland, and a further 12 native species. Like brambles and dandelions, lady’s mantle is apomictic, which means that it sets seed without fertilisation, and therefore all the plants in a particular area are clones. It is an amazement to me that botanists ever get to the bottom of such things – brambles have an estimated 334 microspecies.

The plant has a long history as an ingredient of lotions for skin complaints, especially for women whose complexions had been ravaged by smallpox or acne. It is also said to be good for wrinkles, so I am looking at the patch in my garden with some interest. It was also used to stem bleeding and for various gynecological preparations,  to aid childbirth and to protect from miscarriage. It has hence long been seen as a female plant, and one of its alternative names is ‘woman’s best friend’. Culpeper suggests that it can be used in a cream to reduce the size of ones breasts, and it is also recommended by other herbalists for ‘swollen’ breasts, so I shall leave these suggestions right here for the well-endowed in that department.

The leaves can be eaten in salads when young, and can also provide a green dye for wool. it is a favourite of flower arrangers and, because of its long flowering period and unusual green flowers, Sarah Raven suggests combining it with a daisy like Erigeron (Mexican fleabane) for a very decorative informal border.

The leaves are the foodplant of the caterpillar of the Red Carpet moth (Xanthorhoe decoloraria).

By Tocekas - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Red carpet moth (Xanthorhoe decoloraria) (Photo Three – see credit below)

As you know, I like to end my Wednesday Weed with a poem, so here is one by James Inglis Cochrane from his book ‘Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems’ written in 1853. In it, he decries the loss of knowledge of the properties of plants, and mourns the passing of earlier, quieter, more contemplative times. The notion of a ‘too busy, mammon-loving age’ hits the nail firmly on the head too. He went on to knock up a translation of Homer’s Iliad into English hexameters, and is buried in a cemetery in Edinburgh, where I hope that he found the peace that he seems to crave in his poem.

Our Lady’s Mantle !

When I musing stray In leafy June along the mossy sward,

No flower that blooms more fixes my regard

Than thy green leaf, though simple its array;

For thou to me art as some minstrel’s lay,

Depicting manners of the olden time,

When on Inch Cailliach’s isle the convent chime

Summoned to Vespers at the close of day.

Tis pleasant ‘mid the never-ending strife

Of this too busy, mammon-loving age,

When Nature’s gentler charms so few engage,

To muse at leisure on the quiet life

Of earlier days, when every humble flower

Was known to all, and cherished as a dower.


Britain’s Wildflowers by Rosamund Richardson is a really lovely book, packed with folklore and all manner of interesting information about the plants that surround us.

Photo One (guttation) – By Alek RK

Photo Two (dewdrops) – By Mom the Barbarian – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three (Red Carpet) – By Tocekas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Accidental Beauty

Dear Readers, this week I have been filled with rage, horror and sadness at the unfolding tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. The completely needless deaths, the cynicism of those in power and the divide between rich and poor in the capital in particular and the country in general has made me feel physically sick. I look at the photographs of the dead and missing, and I see everything that makes London rich and meaningful to me: the handsome Syrian man who had finally reached ‘safety’, the woman sitting in her tiny sitting room like a queen surrounded by the beautiful things that she had made and scrimped to buy, the elderly man sitting serenely with his grandchildren. I donate, I sign petitions, I look at the faces of the refugees that are in my English class and I know that it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

And then, I walk. Because unless I reconnect to the real world around me, I can feel myself starting to grow thin and tattered, and I need to be strong. I have people who depend on me, and things that I believe in, and I need to have my feet on the ground in order to  serve them.

Community is not just some abstract concept, though the way that the word is sometimes bandied about might make you think so. For me, it starts with the soil under our feet and the plants that grow in it, and the creatures that visit it. Each garden  has its own style, the inhabitants of the houses announcing their particular tastes and preferences through the things that they plant, and the things that they allow to remain. The grace and beauty of an area comes often through the accidental juxtaposition of different elements, the way that things just ‘happen’.

The lavender is in full bloom outside my front door. This year I thought that it had grown too  woody and was thinking of replacing it. Then the bees came.

A few days ago, I came back from the shops and a little girl had paused outside with her Mum. She was counting the bees.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!’ she shouted, her voice rising higher with every bee spotted. ‘They’re so happy!’

And so, I think the lavender is reprieved, again. Bees like a lot of flowers, all of one kind. They can remember up to three different ‘designs’ of flower type, but when they encounter a fourth, one of them has to go. I sometimes think that humans can’t hold too many paradoxical ideas in their heads at the same time either, so it doesn’t do for us to feel superior.

I note that there are several very interesting plants just coming into flower. The Passionflower is said to include the crown of thorns,the nails and the scourge from Christ’s crucifixion.


The solanum is a member of the nightshade family.

This jasmine is exquisite, and flowering much better than mine which produces masses of leaves and nary a flower in my north-facing garden.

But wait, what is this? Has the summer of love returned to East Finchley? I feel my spirits lift.

What a very fine camper van. I hope that the inhabitants will wear their tie-dye teeshirts and loons to keep the ambiance consistent.

I particularly like the sign in the window.

Further along the road is my favourite hebe: I would say that it flowers for ten months out of twelve, and is a go-to pitstop for early emerging queen bumblebees, and those in need of a snack in the winter. I do hope that the owner of the house knows how much the plant is appreciated, and how valuable it is.

I cross the road to have a look at where someone has planted up the tree pit on the corner. I love these acts of unnecessary kindness. Goodness knows we need it, and cosmos is another great choice for pollinators.

The air is heavy with the sickly-sweet smell of privet flowers.

There is a big patch of a yellow-flowered daisy-like plant, possibly a santolina – always a favourite with hoverflies, who can’t cope with the complicated flowers of lavender and foxglove.

And goodness, haven’t hydrangeas come a long way? I remember when they were big, blousy flowers in blue or pink, according to the soil. I have a climbing hydrangea in my back garden, and in five years it has reached the level of the loft on the second floor. But look at these! Truly East Finchley is a hydrangea hotspot. I’ll forgive them for having no wildlife value whatsoever.

Oh, I spoke too soon. Look, somebody loves them.

I love the accidental beauty of some of the paths, where yellow corydalis and ferns, bellflower and green alkanet have created something as pretty as anything you could create on purpose.

There is one garden that is different from all the others around here, and I stopped to admire it.

I was taking some photographs of the Queen Anne’s Lace (Cow Parsley) when the owner of the house walked up to the front door.

‘What a lovely garden!’ I said, ‘I love how fresh it looks’.

The man looked a bit sheepish.

‘I keep telling my son to tidy it up’, he said, gesticulating at the bits and pieces that were laying about, and which I hadn’t even noticed.

‘I think it’s gorgeous’, I said, but he wasn’t convinced. And so I’m glad that I have a few photos of it in all its glory, before the strimmer gets into action.

I love these glass birds, nesting in a terracotta pot.

And a bank of trailing rosemary provides a home for lots of spiders, judging by the webs.

A blackbirds sings from a chimney pot, but then the air is filled with the racketing of a helicopter. The sound always fills me with a sense of foreboding. Helicopters mean a terrorist attack, or a terrible accident, . But then it veers away, and peace returns, and the blackbird is still singing.

At the corner of the road is a huge ceanothus (California lilac) bush, absolutely alive with bees. There are clouds of hoverflies, and each one seems to be laying claim to a few inches of flower. They may, in fact, be males, each one guarding some flowers in the hope that when a female comes to feed they’ll be able to ‘persuade’ her to mate. I took a short film to give some idea of the hectic activity.

And then, I spotted this lovely front garden.

This is just my kind of garden – a mixture of plants, not too tidy, full of life. The front door opened and I complimented the owner on her quirky choice of plants.

‘It’s a happy accident!’ she said. ‘Most of them have self-seeded, or just appeared’. And she told me about when her cat caught a pipistrelle bat (fortunately unharmed, and subsequently released) and when her son took a picture of a local fox asleep on her shed roof. When the picture was enlarged, it revealed her cat sitting happily next to it.

I am reminded that this week is the anniversary of the murder of MP  Jo Cox, with her famous quote that ‘we are far more united than the things that divide us’. She was right, of course. But  we should recognise cynicism and venality and disdain when we find it, for the sake of the most vulnerable, the people who are ignored and treated with contempt, the people who may have lost their lives for the sake of a few pounds more expenditure on fire-proof cladding.  There are so many experiences, so many different perspectives and stories, so much richness that is never reflected because it doesn’t fit with the way that the media moguls and the powerful view the world. I hope that things are changing, that Grenfell Tower will be the point at which people say ‘never again’.  I look forward to the music that will arise when all of us are heard.


Wednesday Weed – Tutsan

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find….

Tutsan in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, some plants seem much too exotic for a damp north London wood, and so finding tutsan growing amidst the pendulous sedge is always a real surprise. In spite of appearances, tutsan is a native plant, though the fact that lots of people grow it as a garden plant can cause much confusion. It is normally a plant of woods in the west of England but has certainly become established in Coldfall Wood, where it starts to flower  a month or so after the Marsh Marigold has finished.


.The berries of tutsan start off like little apples, but over time they become black, and are much favoured by birds. There is some debate about whether the fruit is poisonous to humans, or simply inedible. The fuzzy flowers remind me of a close relative, the Rose of Sharon (Hypericum calycinum) which has a positive firework display of stamens, and which is another popular garden plant.

By JJ Harrison ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Rose of Sharon (Hypericum calycinum) (Photo One – see credit below)

The name ‘Tutsan’ is thought to come from the French phrase toute saine, which literally means ‘all-healthy’. This is thought to be a reference to its healing powers: Culpeper considered it good for sciatica and gout, and to aid the healing of burns, with the leaves being used for all of these purposes. He also thought it good for the healing of wounds:the plant

“stays all the bleedings of wounds, if either the green herb be bruised, or the powder of the dry be applied thereto”.

The Portuguese also used it as a diuretic, and as a treatment for jaundice.

The antiseptic properties of the leaves were also used as a cheese preservative: according to the author of ‘The Domestic Encyclopedia’ (1802), A.F.M. Willich, tutsan leaves

have from experience been found to possess considerable antiseptic properties. They ought, however, to be employed only when moderately dry, in which state they should be placed upon, or at the sides of the cheese, in an airy situation.”

By Nova - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Flowers and berries (Photo Two – credit below)

Other names include Sweet Amber (for the pretty yellow flowers) and, in Wales, Dail y Beiblau, or Bible Leaves, as the sweet-smelling leaves were used as bookmarks in the Bible that every household would have.

Richard Mabey describes the dried leaves as having ‘an evocative, fugitive scent, reminiscent of cigar boxes and candied fruit’ (Flora Britannica), and says that they were being used as Bible markers in parts of Somerset up to the Second World War.

Eric Hunt (

Photo Three (credit below)

As it is so well-behaved in its native range, I was surprised to find that, in Australia and New Zealand, Tutsan is considered a noxious weed. I suppose that, as is so often the case, a plant that has lots of creatures to munch upon it at home will go a bit berserk when it isn’t to the taste of woodland marsupials and forest birds. In New Zealand a moth and a small beetle have been approved as agents of biological control: the caterpillars of the moth, a British native ( Lathronympha strigana), feeds on the leaves of all Hypericum species, so hopefully there aren’t any in New Zealand that the country wants to preserve.

By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Lathronympha strigana (Photo Four – credit below)

The beetle is a member of the Chrysolina genus, which also includes the lovely but voracious rosemary beetle, though from the pictures on the website, the species chosen is a rather rotund little black chap, whose larvae make short work of the berries. To see why such controls might be needed, have a look at the photos from the New Zealand Environmental Protection Agency here. The damper climate of New Zealand seems to have enabled tutsan to move out of the forests and onto the hillsides, where it has morphed into a triffid.

ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fully ripe tutsan berries (Photo Five – see credit below)

I was able to find several mentions of tutsan as a healing plant in literature. The Tudor poet Michael Drayton (1563 – 1631) includes the plant amongst a positively stellar cast of medicinal plants in his celebration of the British Isles, The Poly-Olbion. No, I’d never heard of it either, but Samuel Johnson liked it enough to include it in a collection of early poets. Here, our hero is gathering herbs to cure a migraine (megrim):

And in some open place that to the sun doth lie,

He fumitory gets, and eye-bright for the eye;

The yarrow, wherewithal he stops the wound-made gore;

The healing tutsan then, and plantane for a sore

And hard by them again he holy vervaine finds

Which he about his head that has the megrim binds.

In some ways, tutsan seems to me to be a plant that we’ve forgotten about. We’ve heard of yarrow and eye-bright, plantain and vervaine (verbena) but I bet that not in one in a hundred could identify wild tutsan (including me before I started this blog). And yet, another of its names is ‘balm of the wounded warrior’, and there is a legend that the berries sprang from the blood of dead Vikings. Maybe it’s time that we paid it a bit more attention.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Rose of Sharon) – By JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Flowers and Berries) – By Nova – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Three (Flowers, berries, raindrops) – By Eric Hunt (

Photo Four (Moth) – By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five (Berries) – ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons