Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Windflower

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…..

Windflower (Anemone nemorosa)

Dear Readers, it has been my great pleasure to spot this exquisite plant twice in one week. On Wednesday, I saw it in a tiny fragment of woodland in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, when I was visiting my parents, and on Thursday I found a tiny patch in Coldfall Wood, part of my East Finchley ‘territory’. This plant spreads by less than six feet every hundred years, and so is a reliable indicator of ancient woodland – the plant’s seed is rarely fertile, and so it relies on root growth in order to propagate.

Windflowers and English bluebells in a tiny fragment of ancient wood in Milborne St Andrew

Windflowers are also known as wood anemones, grandmother’s nightcap, and, for more than one small child, ‘wooden enemies’.  It is said to have a sharp, musky scent on a warm day, which has led to another obsolete local name of ‘smell foxes’. The plant belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), and is native to the UK.

Although it’s a woodland plant, windflower comes into flower early while the tree canopy is still not extensive, like so many other plants in the family (winter aconite and lesser celandine come to mind). Windflower does not like deep shade, and the flowers will only open fully in sunshine, which is when their chief pollinators, hoverflies, are about. It is an ephemeral beauty, in flower for a short season and then disappearing until the next year. What a good reason for a brisk April walk in the woods! In the language of flowers, wood anemone stands for brevity, expectation and forlornness, so is probably not something that you want to pop into a bouquet for your beloved. Not unless you want a clip round the ear’ole, as my Dad used to say.

The troubled nineteenth century poet John Clare was ever a close observer of the plants and animals around him, and described the windflower thus:

‘What pretty, drooping weeping flowers they are!

The clipt-frilled leaves, the slender stalk they bear

On which the drooping flower hangs weeping dew!

How beautiful through April time and May

The woods look, filled with wild anemones!

And every little spinney now looks gay

With flowers mid brushwood and the huge oak trees.

John Clare, Wood Anemone

I wondered why the plant was called ‘windflower’ (and anemone means ‘wind’ in Greek). Greek legends believed that the flowers were the harbingers of the windy season of early spring, and Pliny stated that the plant only opened on windy days. The plant was also believed to have sprung from the tears of Aphrodite as she wept for the death of Adonis.

Like so many plants, the windflower has been considered a symbol of both good and bad luck. It was a symbol of sickness for the ancient Egyptians, and the Chinese consider it a flower of death. On the other hand, the Romans believed that if it was picked while saying ‘I gather this against all diseases’ and then tied around an invalid’s neck, it would provide a certain cure.

The plant contains a variety of toxins, and is poisonous to humans and livestock – Linnaeus mentions how cattle kept indoors over the winter would sometimes harm themselves by bolting down anemone leaves as soon as they got out of the barn. However, I can find no recent authenticated cases of anyone or any creature being harmed by a surfeit of windflowers, so I suspect that you would need to munch a lot of them.

Historically, the plant has had a variety of medicinal uses, such as treating headaches, ‘tertian agues’ and gout, along with leprosy, eye infections and ‘malignant and corroding ulcers’. Most of the treatments involved either ointments or chewing the roots: the latter would, I suspect, be most unpleasant, as the toxins in the roots are powerful irritants. Maybe it was a kind of ‘ordeal by plant’, at the end of which the sufferer would feel better because at least his mouth wasn’t on fire anymore. Anyhow, gentle readers, I advise you against any such activity, if only because the root you’d be chewing could have taken many, many years to grow.

I love the delicacy of these flowers. If you look at the petals closely, you can see a tracery of faintest lilac, and the butter-yellow stamen are a contrast to the green carpel in the middle of the bloom. They are snowy-white against the gathering gloom, racing to complete their life cycle before the leaves on the hornbeams and oaks above them shut out the light until autumn. They would be just the thing in my garden, as I usually say at the end of a Wednesday Weed. What a pity my garden isn’t ten times larger, so that I could accommodate all my new favourites!

All blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Elephant’s Ears

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…..

Elephant’s ear (Bergenia crassifolia)

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me this week as I write about a plant that is a favourite here in East Finchley, especially in the municipal flower beds outside Budgens and Amy’s Hardware Store. It has all the characteristic survival attributes required for this harsh environment: a resistance to pollution, to insect pests, to drought, to wind, and to being peppered with upended cardboard coffee cups and cigarette butts. Through all this, it flowers majestically, and in a variety of colours too.

There are only ten species of Bergenia in all the world, and they live in a great swathe of land that takes in Afghanistan, the Himalayas and China. I have noticed before that many ‘weeds’ come from the scree slopes and high altitudes of this region (such as buddleia, for example). Drought enhances the leaf colour of Bergenia, and you can often see delightful hues of scarlet and crimson in those big, fleshy, moisture-retaining leaves (which give the plant its vernacular name). It is also known as pigsqueak, because of the noise produced when the leaves rub together, and heart’s leaf bergenia because some romantics think the leaves are heart-y rather than elephant-y. Incidentally, the leaves are also said to be disliked by slugs and snails, which makes them a shoo-in for my garden when I get my act together.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rhgardens/5084544465

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’. Look at those gorgeous leaves! (Photo One – credit below)

Elephant’s ear is part of the Saxifrage family, a huge conglomeration that includes plants as diverse as astilbes, heuchera, rodgersia (a great waterside plant) and (not surprisingly) saxifrages. Although the stems resemble those of rhubarb, bergenia is not closely related to the variety that we eat, which is a member of the buckwheat family. The leaves have been used as a tea substitute owing to a high proportion of tannin.

Members of the Bergenia genus are known as Kodiya or Pashanbeda in Ayurvedic medicine, and are used particularly for the treatment of kidney diseases. They contain a chemical called Bergenin, and there is some evidence that this can inhibit crystal formation, which may assist with the breaking-up of kidney stones.  Bergenin is also said to be useful for bolstering the immune system.

Bergenia was named for the German botanist and doctor Karl August van Bergen back in 1794. He published an enormous book about German flora,  but his chief claim to fame seems to have been an essay about the rhinoceros. The title of the work is ‘Oratio de rhinocerote, quam habuit cum tertium deponeret rectoratum‘. I have run this through Google translate, and the closest that it can up with is Rhinocerote address from which it had deposited with a third rectoratum. I am so nervous about what this might possibly mean that I think I will leave it here, though if any classical scholars could assist with what this means I would be most grateful.

Herr Bergen’s Rhino Essay (Public Domain)

Something that I had not thought about was how tactile the leaves of Bergenia are, but my research this week took me to a book called ‘Garden for the Blind‘ by Kelly Fordon, which is a collection of short stories, and gets splendid reviews. In it, the author writes about how one of the characters has been left in the Touch Plants area, which contains:

‘…silky lamb’s ears, sharp agave, cinnamon fern, curly mint, heartleaf bergenia, horehound and tunic flower’.

What a delicious ensemble of plants, varying from the wooliness of the lamb’s ears to the delicious smoothness of the bergenia, and the scent on the fingers of mint and cinnamon fern. There are so many ways to appreciate a species that do not involve the eyes, from the rattling of bamboo canes to the scent of honeysuckle and the taste of lemon balm, but touch is the one that I most often forget.

I remember that when my Nan had pneumonia and was at death’s door, my mother brought her some tulips. My Nan roused enough to reach out and brought the tulips to her lips, for their smoothness and delicious coolness. Children and the very old know that they have a body and (at least) five senses, and often experience the world in a vivid way, unfiltered by the busyness and preconceptions of the rest of us. How good it would be to stop and caress a bergenia leaf, or to really smell the lilac once in a while.

The smooth leaves of bergenia

Photo Credits

Photo One (bergenia leaf colour) – from Rosehill Gardens https://www.flickr.com/photos/rhgardens/5084544465

All other blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Forget Me Not

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…..

Forget Me Not (Myosotis sylvatica)

Dear Readers,

It’s a funny old life being an IT consultant. It’s a life that I’ve chosen because it gives me lots of flexibility (which I need to write, and to spend time with Mum and Dad), but, as my husband says, it can be rather ‘bumpy’. I can spend weeks sailing along working a couple of hours a week and wondering where the next crumb is coming from, only to suddenly have the gift of an impossible deadline, a mountain of work, and the possibility of being solvent again.

Such, dear readers, is my life at the moment. I have 50 huge complicated reports to convert in the next five days, and there is at least ten days of work.

So, I was not going to go far to find a Wednesday Weed, because I didn’t have time – I feel rather like a koi carp coming up for a gulp of air and then heading back to the depths of the silty pond. But look what I found!

Yes, growing in a corner of the garden by the hosepipe, there is a forget-me-not. As this is a plant that prefers damp places, I suspect that its location is no accident. I confess to never having really looked at one before, and what an oversight. I love the egg-yolk yellow middle, and the way that the edges of the petals form a kind of sunray pattern around it. It’s a member of the Borage family (yet again), and so the tiny buds bear that characteristically different colour from the open flower. And now I’ve noticed it in the garden I see it everywhere, popping up along the edges of paths and self-seeding in the flowerbeds.

The original name for forget-me-not was scorpion grass, apparently because of the curled nature of the flowerheads. I suppose I can see what they’re on about, though they look rather more pangolin-y than scorpion-y to me.

Richard Mabey argues that the name ‘forget me not’ is not as old as you might think: the name doesn’t crop up in Shakespeare, or in Chaucer, and first pops up in a poem by Coleridge, ‘The Keepsake’. On the other hand, that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, mentions that it is first used in English in 1398 by King Henry IV, and is a literal translation of the German word for the flower, Vergissmeinnicht. In the course of my investigations, I have discovered that to translate word for word from one language to another has its own verb, ‚’to calque‘. So there we go, another new word (to me at least).

There are many legends about how the forget me not got its name, most of them revolving around a creation legend in which God/a god is naming all the creatures and plants that he’s brought into being. A little blue flower cries out the equivalent of ‘Oi mate, howsabout me? Forget me not please!‘ and so the name has stuck. In a variation, God was giving the flowers their colours, and did forget about the forget me not, so had to give it a tiny piece of sky to make up for it. In medieval times the plant was a symbol of constancy and good faith, and this suits it, I think: there is something so humble and yet so bright about this inconspicuous little plant.

Forget me nots come from two places: Western Eurasia and New Zealand. How interesting that the two groups of species should come from such geographically distant areas! The plants have since spread to more or less everywhere: there are 74 recognised species, but over 500 variations on a theme, and the plant hybridises quite happily. There are over a dozen species in the UK, and this one is I think the commonest variety, the wood forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica).

You can buy packets of forget me nots and scatter them hither and thither in the garden, but to me they seem to be the quintessential wildflower, growing where they fancy in drifts of azure. They are an unexpected and often undeserved gift. I think Christina Georgina Rossetti had in about right in her poem ‘A Bed of Forget Me Nots’:

Is love so prone to change and rot

We are fain to rear forget-me-not

By measure in a garden plot? —

I love its growth at large and free

By untrod path and unlopped tree,

Or nodding by the unpruned hedge,

Or on the water’s dangerous edge

Where flags and meadowsweet blow rank

With rushes on the quaking bank.

Love is not taught in learning’s school,

Love is not parcelled out by rule;

Hath curb or call an answer got? —

So free must be forget-me-not.

Give me the flame no dampness dulls,

The passion of the instinctive pulse,

Love steadfast as a fixed star,

Tender as doves with nestlings are,

More large than time, more strong than death:

This all creation travails of —

She groans not for a passing breath —

This is forget-me-not and love.

But, dear readers, before I descend into the depths of Excel once more, I had to share with you a second poem, by none other than the man described as ‘the world’s worst published poet’, Mr William McGonagall of ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ (and you can read that masterwork here).  I shall leave it to you to decide if this tale of love is even better. To get the full effect of the irregular metre, you might want to read it out loud. But let it be said that I am a great admirer of McGonagall, for all his poetical disadvantages. I love his confidence, and his self-belief, and his preparedness to put his work in the public domain even if he wasn’t exactly Shakespeare. He apparently had no concerns with the critics’ opinion of his work, and he inspired the wonderful Spike Milligan. And  in addition, his middle name was Topaz.  I’m sure, if he was alive today, he would write  a very splendid blog, though I fear that the 140 characters of Twitter would have defeated him completely.

Forget-Me-Not

A gallant knight and his betroth’d bride,
Were walking one day by a river side,
They talk’d of love, and they talk’d of war,
And how very foolish lovers are.

At length the bride to the knight did say,
‘There have been many young ladies led astray
By believing in all their lovers said,
And you are false to me I am afraid.’

‘No, Ellen, I was never false to thee,
I never gave thee cause to doubt me;
I have always lov’d thee and do still,
And no other woman your place shall fill.’

‘Dear Edwin, it may be true, but I am in doubt,
But there’s some beautiful flowers here about,
Growing on the other side of the river,
But how to get one, I cannot discover.’

‘Dear Ellen, they seem beautiful indeed,
But of them, dear, take no heed;
Because they are on the other side,
Besides, the river is deep and wide.’

‘Dear Edwin, as I doubt your love to be untrue,
I ask one favour now from you:
Go! fetch me a flower from across the river,
Which will prove you love me more than ever.’

‘Dear Ellen! I will try and fetch you a flower
If it lies within my power
To prove that I am true to you,
And what more can your Edwin do?’

So he leap’d into the river wide,
And swam across to the other side,
To fetch a flower for his young bride,
Who watched him eagerly on the other side.

So he pluck’d a flower right merrily
Which seemed to fill his heart with glee,
That it would please his lovely bride;
But, alas! he never got to the other side.

For when he tried to swim across,
All power of his body he did loss,
But before he sank in the river wide,
He flung the flowers to his lovely bride.

And he cried, ‘Oh, heaven! hard is my lot,
My dearest Ellen! Forget me not:
For I was ever true to you,
My dearest Ellen! I bid thee adieu!’

Then she wrung her hands in wild despair,
Until her cries did rend the air;
And she cried, ‘Edwin, dear, hard is out lot,
But I’ll name this flower Forget-me-not.

‘And I’ll remember thee while I live,
And to no other man my hand I’ll give,
And I will place my affection on this little flower,
And it will solace me in a lonely hour.’

Adieu, Gentle Readers, until I surface on the other side of my reports, refreshed and rather more financially well-off.

All blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – White Comfrey

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…..

White Comfrey (Symphytum orientale)

Dear Readers, I am often surprised by what ‘pops up’ in the gardens of East Finchley. White comfrey is not a rare plant, but this individual, leaning through the fence of my friend A’s garden, is the only one that I’ve come across in my half-mile ‘territory’, and it has no friends nearby. Where do these plants come from? Has it been lurking in the soil for ages, just waiting for its chance? Or did the seed (described rather rudely in my Harraps Guide to Wildflowers as being ‘dull, with minute warts’ ) blow in from some distance? Which ever is the case, there it stands, as lonely as a cloud.

I have talked about Common Comfrey and Creeping Comfrey in previous posts, and as you might have gathered, I have rather a ‘thing’ for the whole Boraginaceae, a group that includes everything from lungwort to forget-me-nots. Who could resist these plants, with their plentiful food for bees and their varied medicinal uses? Clive Stace describes white comfrey as being ‘surely the most beautiful of it’s genus’, and notes that it is well distributed due to its ‘persistent roots and fertile nutlets’. Who could resist a plant with fertile nutlets, I ask myself, it sounds like just the thing for a vegetarian brunch, maybe with some fried tomatoes and mushrooms.However, some of the sites that I have looked at that sell white comfrey refer to it ‘not spreading, but gently self-seeding’, which could be weasel words in my view: I suspect that once you have one white comfrey, you might find yourself with nutlets to spare.

And in case you wondered, each comfrey flower has four nutlets (seeds), which are heart-shaped and dark-brown in colour.

White comfrey (also known as ‘soft comfrey’) was introduced into cultivation in this country in 1752, and was found in the wild by 1849. It comes originally from north western Turkey, Russia and the Causcasus. White Comfrey can be told from common comfrey by its snowy white flowers (those of common comfrey are creamy-coloured). The flowers discolour rather quickly, unfortunately, as in the plant above.

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

White Comfrey growing at Hadrian’s Wall (Photo One – see credit below)

Symphytum, the genus name for comfrey, and the name comfrey itself (from the Latin verb confevere), both mean ‘to grow together’, a reference to the plant’s long use in poultices for fractured and broken bones – an old country name for the plant is ‘knit-bone’. However, as far as I can ascertain, white comfrey is not one of the species best suited for medicinal work – for that, we need common comfrey. It’s a case of a rather ‘weedier’ plant having the edge when it comes to healing.

By Denis.prévôt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

White comfrey, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, published in 1912 (Photo Two – credit below)

As you know, I like to weave in some poetry when possible for my Wednesday Weeds, and this week it’s the turn of Walter de la Mare. I was brought up with some of his poetry for children, and although some of it now makes my teeth ache, I rather like this one, both for its pun on the word ‘weeds’ and for the contented present life of the widow. I would love to make a garden like this one.

A Widow’s Weeds

A poor old Widow in her weeds
Sowed her garden with wild-flower seeds;
Not too shallow, and not too deep,
And down came April — drip — drip — drip.
Up shone May, like gold, and soon
Green as an arbour grew leafy June.
And now all summer she sits and sews
Where willow herb, comfrey, bugloss blows,
Teasle and pansy, meadowsweet,
Campion, toadflax, and rough hawksbit;
Brown bee orchis, and Peals of Bells;
Clover, burnet, and thyme she smells;
Like Oberon’s meadows her garden is
Drowsy from dawn to dusk with bees.
Weeps she never, but sometimes sighs,
And peeps at her garden with bright brown eyes;
And all she has is all she needs–
A poor Old Widow in her weeds.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/60861613@N00/14504797801

Queen Victoria with John Brown by Edwin Landseer, late 1860’s (Photo Three – Credit below)

Well, not exactly a poor old widow, but a fine example of mourning dress nonetheless. And the phrase ‘widow’s weeds’ got me thinking. Is there any etymological relationship between the weeds of a widow, and the weeds that pop up here every Wednesday?

Well, sadly, no. ‘Weeds’ as in ‘Widow’s Weeds’ comes from the Old English word waed, meaning garment. It was first recorded in 888, but by 1297 it referred to the clothing of a particular kind of occupation or station in life: you could talk about a priest’s ‘weeds’ or a beggar’s ‘weeds’ for example. By 1595 it is used only for the dark mourning clothing of widows, and this is the only sense in English in which we still use the phrase.

‘Weed’ as in ‘plant’ comes from Old English ‘weod’, meaning herb or grass, and only later becoming pejorative.

I sometimes think we should restore the old habit of mourning clothing, because it provided some indication that the person wearing them might be feeling vulnerable, and I like to think that people would behave accordingly. I do remember, however, my mother remarking that when she was wearing black after her mother died back in the 1970’s, some idiot still told her to ‘smile’ when she walked past. I believe she ‘cleaned him’ as they say these days. Don’t get me started on blokes who believe they should have dominion over women’s faces as well as everything else.

By Cwmhiraeth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

A fine crop of white comfrey (Photo Four – see credit below)

And talking of my mother reminds me that, when I was a child, she used to recite the poetry that she had learned by heart to me. She had many favourites, but since we were talking about Walter de la Mare earlier, I shall share with you a rather eerie poem, which still makes a little shiver run down my back.

The Listeners

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house

 

Photo Credits

Photo One (white comfrey at Hadrian’s Wall) – © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Two (white comfrey plate) – By Denis.prévôt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (Queen Victoria) – by Lisby (https://www.flickr.com/photos/60861613@N00/14504797801)

Photo Four (White Comfrey) – By Cwmhiraeth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Deep in Their Roots All Flowers Keep the Light (Theodore Roethke)

Spring in the County Roads

Dear Readers, I was at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on Wednesday, watching a production of Twelfth Night. My first inkling that something was wrong was when I switched on my phone during the interval. As soon as the screen burst into life, I was inundated with messages from my husband and friends.

‘Are you all right?’

Of course, what could possibly go wrong at Twelfth Night (apart from some rather weak comedy of course)?

But soon it became clear that a terrorist attack had taken place on Westminster Bridge and at Westminster itself. People were dead. Someone was in the Thames. Parliament was in lock down.

When I left the theatre, Waterloo Bridge was a chain of red double-decker buses, bumper to bumper, and a crocodile of commuters trudged past, trying to find an alternative way home. Overhead, the helicopters droned like heavy bees.

It all felt all too familiar. I had been visiting the Tower of London with my sister-in-law and her eight-year old daughter when the tube bombings of 7th July 2005 happened. The whole transport network, tubes and buses, was closed down, and the working population of London  took to the streets to walk home, blinking like moles above ground. I remember the wail of sirens as ambulances screeched past, the women walking in their stockinged feet, high-heels in hand.

And years earlier, picking my way through barricades in the City of London after the IRA bombs, the crunch of broken glass underfoot and the window blinds in the Nat West tower flapping like sails.

And later, leaving the station and feeling a juddering through my feet and up into my stomach that could only be an explosion, and hearing that a bomb had been set off at Canary Wharf, five miles away as the raven flies.

And when it feels as if the ground has moved, there is nothing for it but to slow down, to breathe, to return to the familiar. And so today, the day after the Westminster attacks, I walk around my local streets to see what can be seen. I need to move at the pace of a small child, and allow myself to be intrigued.

What, for example, is eating my nettles and green alkanet? It seems too early for a caterpillar but there he is, not sure whether to curl up or not.  I am glad that I showed mercy to the nettles, and will leave them now for this creature to feed on.

I turn left, and notice the violets scattered amongst the broken Victorian paths and popping up at the bottom of walls. I love their strange, five-petalled faces, the purple stripes against the lilac throat, like landing lights for bees. Where have the violets come from? I cannot remember seeing them last year, but today they are everywhere. There is one particularly big patch a few houses up, and I wonder if this is the motherlode, and all the others are downwind, the seed scattered and taking root.

I turn into Bedford Road. There is a particularly fine double-fronted house with two massive trees outside, and the steep, tiered garden is full of woodplants: green hellebore and lungwort, and a bush covered in yellow flowers that look like the blooms of miniature daffodils.

Across the way is some green alkanet coming into bloom. For the first time, I notice that the early flowers are purple or even pink, turning blue as they age, just as the flowers of lungwort do, and I am reminded that green alkanet and lungwort are closely related. In fact, there will be many things on this walk that remind me of the borage family, and what a boon it is.

I’m feeling steadier already.

Some asplenium ferns are growing from a wall further up the road, and I am reminded of the ones that I saw in Somerset, and had never seen in London before. Another thing about walking slowly is that it enables me to make connections, in time and place. For a second I can see a tiny part of the complex web that holds all of us together, for, deny it or not, we are all much more closely related than we think.

The Camellias are in full bloom, and how glorious they look! But the rain will mar their perfection, and never was a flower more easily ripped from its stem. They are a brief glory, but a glory nonetheless.

One house has an enormous plaster pineapple as a gate post. I have always loved it, while having no idea at all what it means. It looks a little big for this particular house, and I would love to know if it was originally on the gatepost of some local mansion. But for now, I just admire it and move on.

The white comfrey outside my friend A’s house is doing very nicely – the flowers are such a brilliant white that I have to turn down the exposure on my camera to get any kind of photo. That whiteness only lasts for a brief time, though, before it’s stained with brown.

The waxy blossoms of the magnolia are just about to erupt and one house has a magenta magnolia with buds that look like elegant hands.

Some twittering on Durham Road makes me look up, and there are a pair of blue tits working their way along a gutter, along with a goldfinch. I suspect that little insects sometimes turn up here, maybe trapped with the dead leaves. At this time of year the tits are so busy. One has taken to pecking at the blossoms on my skimmia, though whether for nectar or invertebrates I have no idea.

The lesser celandine is popping up everywhere.

Outside the church on Durham Road there is a big patch of creeping comfrey. A few years ago this was almost completely eradicated, but here it is again. The blooms start off with a red throat, which goes blue as the flower matures, and they are a magnet for hairy-footed bees and bee flies and bumblebees, even on a cold, breezy day like today.

I always look at the little microhabitats at the bottom of trees. The chickweed is in full bloom already, with its flowers like little stars. The blossom from the early-flowering cherry trees blows along the pavement.

There is one magnificent twisted cherry tree on Leicester Road, that looks as if it could have come from a Japanese vase. It arches over the garage and out over the road as if in a complex yoga pose. I nearly get run down taking a picture from the middle of the road. Such are the dangers of trying to be intrepid in East Finchley.

There is a particularly fine forsythia bush, too.

I am rather taken by the early flowers of yellow corydalis, when they are cream-coloured with a kiss of pale green. Later, they turn sunshine yellow, which is not quite so elegant.

And for the first time I notice the tiny flowers of a laurel, erupting from bunched fists into four tiny chocolate petals.

I turn for home, and can’t resist a final photo of the moss on a nearby wall, the capsules reminding me of the head and neck of a swan, a world in miniature.

And my final, final picture, of rosemary in flower, each bloom a little homunculus, orchid-like in their beauty.

When Death’s trumpet blares from every headline, I need to remember that this is only part of the story. We get so caught up in our own stories, our tragedies and our triumphs,  that we forget that there are different stories to be told.  Other living things are getting on with their lives, preparing for the next cycle of seeds and eggs and frantic gaping mouths, just as they always have. There is such tenderness in the soft shoot of a violet, and yet it has pushed through concrete to get to the light. Life is ferocious and it will not be denied, and I do believe that our urge towards the light is much stronger than our need for the darkness, however much it might sometimes seem otherwise. In the words of Theodore Roethke, that great, vulnerable, brave poet:

‘Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.’

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Wednesday Weed – Forsythia

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…..

Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)

Dear Readers, at this time of year the gardens of East Finchley are graced with great bursts of gaudy custard-yellow flowers, borne on bare stems. This is forsythia, the early-flowering shrub of choice in large areas of London, because of its reliability and its love for the capital’s claggy clay soil. It can be pruned into a neat shrub, allowed to grow into a tree 3-4 metres high, or  can be cut into a bush. It is tolerant of more or less anything. Viewed from my upstairs window, it looks as if there are little patches of sunshine breaking out everywhere. I welcome forsythia’s  boisterous good spirits at this time of year, but it is a plant that seems to polarise people: here, for example, is a piece by James Alexander Sinclair on the Gardeners’ World website. It seems he doesn’t like it much (and there is some British understatement for you):

Spring is in the air. Birds are tweeting. Comfortable nests are being flung together. Plants are sprouting. Frogs are croaking lasciviously. Daffodils are flowering away with nothing less than gusto and the gloom of February fades into distant memory.

There is however one big fat buzzing fly in the ointment. A plant that I have come to dislike with an almost irrational fervour. A plant that glares forth from innumerable gardens throughout the land. A plant whose impact is the equivalent of being socked hard round both ears with a large salami. A plant which sets my teeth on edge and sucks the joys of spring right out of my soul.

I have confessed to this before and have tried to work on this character defect, but to no avail. I think that forsythia (no matter how beautifully photographed) is just about the most horrible shrub in the world. There. I’ve said it…….

The flowers do not last long (which is a mixed blessing) and are succeeded by really, really, really boring foliage.

I will, if pushed, ‘hug a hoodie’ or even ‘snuggle a snail’ but I just cannot learn to ‘love a forsythia’.

Well, now we all know where Mr Alexander Sinclair stands. What do you think?

Forsythia on the left, mimosa on the right

Forsythia is a member of the Olearaceae or Olive family, and the hybrid that is most grown in British gardens was discovered in the Gottingen Botanical Gardens in Germany in 1898. The plant is sometimes found naturalised in the UK, and spreads by creating new plants when the roots touch the ground.

By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Forsythia growing in the wild in Heidelberg, Germany (Photo One – see credit below)

Forsythia was named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth, who created the first rock garden in England and who is also the great grandfather of Bruce Forsyth, formerly host of The Generation Game and latterly Strictly Come Dancing. The Generation Game was a Saturday evening must-see when I was growing up, and featured two families doing battle via using a potter’s wheel, Irish dancing or some other talent. At the end, the winning family would get everything that they could remember from a parade of consumer goods that passed them on a conveyor belt in 30 seconds. It always included a ‘cuddly toy’. What innocent days!  I can never get over the strange alleyways through which this blog leads me.

William Forsyth (Public Domain)

By SqueakBox at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077865

Bruce Forsyth (Photo Two – see credit below)

I was rather surprised to discover that the pretty flowers of forsythia have been used in a variety of culinary ways: here, for example, is a recipe for forsythia syrup from the Pure Traditions website. As I can detect almost no scent from the plant, and a nibble at the petals doesn’t reveal any particular flavour, I wonder what the syrup tastes of? If you make some, do let me know.

And even though this is not a cat blog I couldn’t resist the picture below, mainly because the picture reminds me of Felix, one of my very favourite foster cats. You’re welcome, cat lovers.

Forsythia and a very fine cat indeed (Public Domain)

Felix

One story that I have been chasing round and round the internets is a belief that forsythia flowers contain lactose. This would be most unusual, as this is normally only found in milk, but there seem to be several studies that suggest that the pollen of the plant does contain up to 25% lactose, or at least the component parts of the sugar. It’s thought that the sugars might play a part in protecting the buds of the plant from frost damage. On the other hand, there are several other studies which have failed to isolate the chemical. The whole discussion is making my head hurt, so I will just leave it here. In Chinese medicine, Forsythia suspensa, a close relative of our forsythia,  is used to treat problems of ‘mammary welling-abscesses’, and is generally thought to be useful for problems around breast-feeding.

You might be interested to know that we have just missed the 2017 Forsythia Festival, held in Forsyth, Georgia, in the second week of March. I particularly regret missing the Retro Eighties Night, and the visit from Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. As we couldn’t be there, here’s a taste of what we missed (though I imagine that Mr Noone looks a bit older these days)

As my regular readers know, I love to finish off a piece with a painting or a poem, and this week I’ve found two! First up  is American poet Billy Collins, one of my very favourite poets. It’s taken from the Poem A Day blog.

Forsythia – Billy Collins 
It caught my eye a while ago, lit up
against the gloom of the woods
in the corner of a wild field,
the pulsing color of caution.
And now that I have spent a little time
on this stone wall watching its fire
flare out of the earth
I begin to think about the long chronicle of forsythia
how these same flowers have blazed
through the centuries,
roused from the ground by the churning of spring.
I would rather not look around the next
corner of the year to see how this will die,
its lights going out,
its bare, arcing branches
waving like whips in the bitter wind.
So I sit facing the past,
letting my feet dangle over the wall,
beating time against stone with my heels
as the long gray clouds roll over me.
Remember how Arnold by the Channel
thought of Sophocles who must have heard
the same shore-sounds long ago,
walking by the edge of the Aegean?
Well, I am holding in the palm of my thoughts
all the others who once were stopped,
like me, by this brightness,
this sulfuric cry for help:
women in tunics, women gathered by a well,
men in feathers, men swimming by a river,
all speaking languages I will never know,
saying the different words for its color
as I feel the syllables of yellow form in my mouth
and hear the sound of yellow fill the morning air.

 

And here, from the The Herald, is ‘Old Woman in a Forsythia Bush’ by the Scottish poet, Vickie Feaver. How this speaks to me now that I’m getting older – ‘the long dark corridors of another winter’ indeed.

Old Woman in a Forsythia Bush

Bright bush of yellow stars

reaching out to me with long

bowed wands, among fields

ringing with blackbird songs;

where lambs, licked into life

by sheep’s rough tongues,

leap like ballet dancers,

impossibly high, as if hung

on strings of a great puppeteer

who dangled me when young,

exciting me to strip of vest

and bra to celebrate spring;

and, now I’m old, whose arms

have dragged me through the long

dark corridors of another winter

to sit on this sunny seat, among

starry stems of forsythia,

buoyant again, as if sprung

from my body and floating

above it, like a seed flung

from the grey head of dandelion.

Photo Credits
Photo One (Wild forsythia ) – By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two (Bruce Forsyth) – By SqueakBox at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077865
All other blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

On a Thursday lunchtime, the streets around London Bridge station are mobbed with folk heading for Borough market to pick up their artisan coffee and hog-roast sandwiches, but just a few hundred yards further on is the garden of the Crossbones graveyard, a place of pilgrimage for many and a space for quiet contemplation amidst the traffic, human and vehicular.

It is  said that the site was originally a medieval burial ground for the sex-workers, or ‘Winchester Geese’ who worked in the area, and who were required to be buried in unhallowed ground. I went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in the 1990’s which showed a variety of skeletons, and told what could be learned from their condition. One of the bodies, exhumed from Crossbones,  was of a woman estimated to be 16-19 years old, only 4 foot 7 inches tall, and with well-advanced syphilitic lesions of the skull. I remember being haunted by the delicacy of her bones as she lay exposed in a glass case. I have always been simultaneously fascinated by what these remains can tell us, and appalled at what feels to me like desecration. I imagine that the young woman now lays in a vault in the Museum of London – the circular building in the middle of the roundabout there is an ossuary, full of historical bones.

The site was subsequently used as a pauper’s graveyard. Over 15,000 people too poor to afford burial were buried here, many of them children under a year old. The graveyard itself fell into disuse after 1853, at which point it was said to be absolutely full of remains, with one body thrown on top of another.When the site was used for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990’s, 142 bodies were disinterred, among them the young woman mentioned above.  The ribbons attached to the memorial gates of the site record the parish records for some of the people buried at the site.

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2,1725’

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

‘Mary Ann Jupp, Silver Street, Age 4 months’

People also attach remembrances of those who have died more recently, so that the gates are covered with tokens of those who are no longer on this earth.

Inside the garden there is a quiet space, where the rattle of trains en route to London Bridge is interspersed by the flapping of a wood pigeon’s wings and the song of a blackbird.

The entrance to the garden is via an elegant ‘goose’s wing’ shelter. There is a feeling of hopefulness and renewal, as the plants break into flower and the bees go about their work once again.

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

The willow tree was positively abuzz with honeybees collecting pollen to feed the larvae back in the nest. I love the little orange ‘baskets’ on their legs. It just goes to show that even in such an urban spot, insects will be attracted if we grow the right plants.

There were some other excellent pollinator plants in the garden as well.The early spring bees were all over the periwinkle, but were a bit too fast for me to get a photograph.

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

The brunnera was doing a great job of attracting pollinators as well – this is a great woodland plant, and mine is just popping up again in my garden (though it’s well behind this one).

Brunnera macrophylla

The green men statues are honoured at a ceremony in the autumn giving thanks for nature’s generosity.

The boards at the end of the site shows a map of the area in medieval times, and two poems taken from the ‘Southwark Mysteries’, a contemporary Mystery play written by local author John Constable, and performed by 50 professional actors and a cast drawn from the local community, at the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral in 2000, and again in 2010. The plays, with their ribaldry and boisterous nature, attracted a great deal of controversy, as you can read here. However, the overall message of the production was that no one is beyond redemption, and I’d have thought that this was something that was intrinsic to Christian belief. In 2007, before the garden was officially ‘a garden’, one of the on-site security guards, Andy Hulme, began to construct ‘the invisible garden’ behind the gates and shrine which were at that time the main focus of the site. One of his works was the Pyramid, into which seeds have been scattered over the years. One side of the pyramid is covered in oyster shells from Borough Market – oysters were once the food of poor people, washed down with gin or stout. Many of the people buried in the graveyard would have eaten them.

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

The most moving part of the garden though, for me, was the shrine behind the gates. A statue of the Virgin Mary tenderly cradles a goose, surrounded by flowers and tokens, and by broken chains. For many people, the statue also represents the Goddess, and it is typical of the inclusivity of Crossbones that, if you look, you will find symbols of many faiths. The principle here is divine love, whatever form it comes in.

The garden is currently leased from Transport For London (who recognise its role as public space) and is managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust and the Friends of Crossbones, who provide volunteers to open the garden between 12 and 2 pm on weekdays, and for a longer period at weekends. The garden is free to enter, but do sign the visitors book on your way out – when the usage of a space is recorded, it’s much easier to protect it from the ‘powers that be’. There have been many times in its history when Crossbones has been under threat.

Crossbones role as a memorial garden for the outcast dead is what makes it unique.  We are all just one mental illness, one financial catastrophe, one crushing bereavement, one addiction away from becoming outcasts ourselves. And in a city where everything moves too fast, and follows the money too enthusiastically, it is easy for people to be left behind. Only by including everyone can a city or a community thrive, and Crossbones is a powerful symbol of those who were not, and are not, included. Ceremonies of remembrance are held on the 23rd of each month at 7 p.m., not just for those buried in the garden but for all our outcast, dead and alive.

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