Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Dear Readers, it was such a delight to get back from Austria on Saturday, and to find the meadowsweet that I planted by the pond two years ago in flower. What a splendid plant this is! It has a honeyed scent that reminds me of hay, and it attracts all manner of hoverflies. The buds are almost square, and then the seed heads remind me of those fondant sweets that you can buy in posh places like Fortnum and Masons.

Twisted seedheads plus hoverfly….

Although the garden as a whole has gone completely berserk during this past couple of years, I am very pleased with this spot, where the meadowsweet mixes with hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and some self-seeded greater willowherb. It is a-buzz with bees and other pollinators, and they are all at head height so I can get a really good look. The fly above, for example, with his/her rather muscular ‘thighs’ reminds me of a mini weighlifter.

Anyhow, to return to meadowsweet. Although the plant likes damp places (and is often known as ‘queen-of-the-meadow’, the name might refer to ‘mead’ , as the flowers were used to flavour many kinds of drinks. It was also used as a strewing herb on floors and in mattresses. In my new favourite book, Vickery’s Folk Flora, it mentions that it was sometimes used on the floors of outside toilets, to disguise the smell.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey mentions that different parts of the plant have different scents: he describes the basic scent of the plant as being like marzipan, tinged with musk and honey in the flowers, but with the sharpness of pickled cucumber in the leaves. Mabey mentions that one ‘cynical namer’ believed that this was the difference between ‘courtship and matrimony’, but he was obviously married to the wrong person.

In spite of its sweet scent, Meadowsweet is yet another of those herbs that it was thought to be unlucky to bring into the house. One of these days I shall compile a list of all the wildflowers that are cause death and bad luck just by being picked and stuck in a vase. One alternative name for meadowsweet was ‘old man’s pepper’, with ‘old man’ being a name for the devil in many parts of the UK. Sniffing meadowsweet with too much enthusiasm was also thought to bring on fits.

In Wales, it is not only considered unlucky to bring it into the house (‘if a person falls asleep in a room where many of these flowers are placed, death is inevitable’), but it is also though to be dangerous to fall asleep in a field where there is an abundance of meadowsweet. However, there is also a legend in Wales that the magicians Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet, and called her Blodeuwedd, or ‘Flowerface’. She was created to be the wife of Lleu, who was cursed to never be able to marry a human wife, but had other ideas, and arranged for him to be murdered. This was no easy task:

Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing how he may be killed, since he cannot be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. He reveals to her that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass. With this information she arranges his death’.

However, Lleu is nursed back to health by the magicians who created Blodeuwedd in the first place, and she is turned into an owl for her pains. It just goes to show that crime never pays.

The legend was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s 1967 young adult novel ‘The Owl Service’, which explores what it mean to be Welsh, the class divide and the eternal power of stories. Well worth a read, even if you’re way past being a ‘young adult’.

Photo One by By E. Wallcousins - 'Celtic Myth & Legend', Charles Squire,, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29984364

Blodeuwedd meeting Gronw, the man who will kill her husband (Photo One)

Here, though,  I’d like to back up a little and give some basics on the plant. Meadowsweet is native to the UK and can be found in damp spots throughout Europe and western Asia. It is also naturalised in some parts of North America. It is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) which I would never have guessed, though the leaves do look a little rose-like.

The plant contains salicin, which is related to salicylic acid (aspirin) – in fact, the drug was named from the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Having just returned from Austria, I was interested to learn that the Austrians make a tea with meadowsweet, and use it for the treatment of painful conditions such as rheumatism and gout.

The Bronze Age burial sites of three humans and one animal at Fan Foel in Carmarthenshire, Wales, have contained the remains of meadowsweet, probably used as a strewing herb, and the signature of the plant has also been found in grave goods in Scotland from the same period, probably as a result of meadowsweet being used to flavour wine that was buried alongside the dead.

Meadowsweet has a reputation as a dye plant – the roots are supposed to give a black dye when used with a copper mordant (fixative). The genus name ‘Filipendula‘ relates to the way that the root tubers hang off of the fibrous roots (the Latin word means ‘hanging thread’). To read about various experiments using different parts of meadowsweet with different mordants, have a look at the wonderful ‘Wool Tribulations’ blog here 

Photo Two from http://wooltribulations.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-trial-of-meadowsweet-plant-dye-on.html

The author of ‘Wool Tribulations’, Fran Rushworth, has created some great effects from using meadowsweet (Photo Two)

In addition to its obvious attraction for hoverflies, the leaves of meadowsweet are munched upon by no fewer than 16 species of moths, including the magnificent emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). How excited I would be if one of these turned up!

Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340

Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Three)

The caterpillars are pretty magnificent too.

Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK - Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12704087

Emperor moth caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Four)

The leaves of meadowsweet can also be injured by the meadowsweet rust gall, which is a fungus which chemically induces a bright orange swelling on the mid rib of the leaf. It can cause serious problems in young plants, so I shall keep an eye open. The last thing I want is for my newly established meadowsweet patch to keel over.

Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7040901

Meadowsweet rust fungus (Triphragmium ulmariae) (Photo Five)

And, of course, a poem. For those of you who haven’t come across the Scottish poet and writer Kathleen Jamie, I can heartily recommend her books ‘Findings and  ‘Sightlines’, and her poetry collections ‘The Tree House’ and ‘The Overhaul’. I love her for many reasons, not the least of which was her piece about Robert MacFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’, called ‘A Lone Enraptured Male‘. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here. It made me roar with laughter and nod in agreement (and I speak as someone who loved MacFarlane’s recent book ‘The Underland’.

And here is her poem.

Tradition suggests that certain of the Gaelic women poets were buried face down.
So they buried her, and turned home,
a drab psalm
hanging about them like haar,

not knowing the liquid
trickling from her lips
would seek its way down,

and that caught in her slowly
unravelling plait of grey hair
were summer seeds:

meadowsweet, bastard balm,
tokens of honesty, already
beginning their crawl

toward light, so showing her,
when the time came,
how to dig herself out —

to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.

Photo Credits
Photo One by By E. Wallcousins – ‘Celtic Myth & Legend’, Charles Squire,, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29984364
Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340
Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK – Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12704087
Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7040901

Wednesday Weed – Petunia

Petunias on East Finchley High Street

Dear Readers, petunias are popping up in the hanging baskets and pots of East Finchley. I must confess that I have never been a big fan of the plants, but the great thing about the Wednesday Weed is that it’s made me question everything that I’ve ever known. After all, what is a petunia, and how has it become so popular? What is it related to? Do any insects like it?

Well, petunias come originally from South America – there are about 20 separate species. The plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes tobacco, tomato and potato, and their name ‘petunia’ comes from the word ‘petun’, meaning ‘tobacco’, in the local Tupi-Guarani language. The Maya and the Inca believe that the plant has the ability to ward off underworld monsters, and there is a belief that petunias bring happiness to a house. They are certainly the most generous of plants, pouring forth their blooms for months at a time. No wonder they are many people’s first choice for a hanging basket.

Photo One by By ElenaSchifirnet - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15124646

Floral Arrangement in Columbus, Ohio (Photo One)

The ‘domesticated’ petunia is a hybrid between two species, Petunia axillaris (the white moon petunia) and Petunia integerifolia (violet petunia). The white moon petunia has a sweet smell which has been inherited by some forms of the cultivated petunia, while the violet petunia is said to be used as a hallucinogen in Ecuador, giving a sensation of flying.

Photo Two by By Magnus Manske - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7398799

White moon petunia (Petunia axillaris) (Photo Two)

Petunia integorifolia from Edward’s Botanical Register 1833 (Public Domain)

The cultivated petunia is known as Petunia x atkinsonii. Incidentally, this is an example of a nothospecies – a new word to me, so I had to investigate. A nothospecies is a hybrid between two plants in the same genus, as here. If a plant is a hybrid between two plants of different genuses, it’s known as a nothogenus. Who knew? Certainly not me, who has enough trouble finding two matching socks at the moment.

Anyhoo, back to the petunia. It seems to tolerate drying out better than some other plants, which makes it ideal for the exposed environment of a hanging basket. It isn’t overfond of conditions that are too damp or shady – it is said to need at least five hours of full sunshine every day. It pairs beautifully with pelargoniums (which need similar conditions) and there is definitely a petunia for every colour scheme. There are the ones which are divided into segments:

..the ones where the edge of the petal is a different colour from the middle…

the ones with defined veins in the petals…

Grandiflora petunia ‘Blue Daddy’ (Public Domain)

and my favourite, the ones that look like starry skies….

Photo Three by By EliasTheHorse - I took it on a flower's shop., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74372553

‘Starry Night’ petunia (Photo Three)

One definite disadvantage of the petunia from my point of view is that, pretty as it is, it doesn’t seem to attract many insects. All the species bar one are pollinated by insects, and rumour has it that petunias are sometimes visited by hummingbird hawk moths, as evidenced by several photos.

Photo Four by David Short from Windsor, UK [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Hummingbird hawkmoth popping in for some petunia nectar (Photo Four)

Being a plant of hanging baskets, the seeds of petunia are often scattered far and wide, and the seedlings can sometimes be seen popping up in the cracks in the pavement during the following spring. The paving stones by the side of pubs are a particularly good spot – some pubs pride themselves on their floral displays, and there are several in London that really exceed expectations. Perhaps the finest is the Churchill Arms in Kensington, which spends £25,000 a year on its floral display, and very fine it is too.

Photo Five from https://secretldn.com/churchill-arms-flower-pub/

The Churchill Arms in Kensington (Photo Five)

Allegedly, petunia flowers are edible, though no one seems to get very excited about them. I was a little disappointed to see that the ‘Petunia Bowl’ salad that I found online was an homage to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in which two thermonuclear missiles turn into a whale and a bowl of petunias) and actually contains no petunias, though as there is some thought that the petals might be poisonous it’s probably just as well.

Now, here’s a fascinating thing. A couple of caterpillar larvae do eat the flowers of petunias, and both are serious pests of agricultural crops. One, the corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea) is the second most serious insect pest in the USA, munching its way through corn, tomatoes, cotton and a dozen other plants. Not only does it decimate plants but, most unusually for a moth, the caterpillar will also eat other insects.

Photo Six by By cyanocorax - https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyanocorax/2901626664/in/set-72157607594253502/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7096670

Corn Earworm (Helicoverpa zea) larva (Photo Six)

The  other species that feeds on petunia is the cabbage looper caterpillar (Trichoplusia ni) which, as its name suggests, normally prefers brassicas, red cabbage in particular. As this is a vegetable that I find it hard to get excited about, I am prepared to give this little chap rather more garden-room. Plus, it does that ‘inch worm’ walk that I found so appealing when I was a child.

Photo Seven by By Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia, United States - This image is Image Number 1327034 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7038081

Cabbage looper ‘looping’ (Trichoplusia ni) (Photo Seven

Now, in a study by the scientists at United States Department of Agriculture in Peoria, Illinois, it has been found  that when the caterpillars of both species were fed on bi-coloured petunias like the one below, they much preferred the white sections to the coloured ones. When given no choice but to eat the blue bits, they put on much less weight, and a much higher proportion of the larvae died. The hypothesis is that this is due to the natural anthocyanins in the blue petals, which act as a natural insecticide. Such pigments are energetically expensive for a plant to produce, but of course these plants have been bred rather than emerged through natural selection. The question is whether these pigments could have a wider application, and how much effect they would have if they could be bred into food crops. Fascinatiing stuff.

Bicoloured petunias, similar to the ones fed to the caterpillars.

And here’s a poem. I’ve had to read it once or twice to get under its skin, but it’s worth it. I regret that I hadn’t come across Bob Hicok before – he was born in 1960 in Michigan, and had worked for years in the automotive industry before he discovered his gift for poetry. He is most famous in the US for his poem series about the shootings at Virginia Tech. Someone commented that “Hicok’s meditations… do not allow us to turn away from the act of violence, neither from the person who committed the act, nor from the ironies of survival.” See what you think.

The semantics of flowers on Memorial Day

Historians will tell you my uncle
wouldn’t have called it World War II
or the Great War plus One or Tombstone
 
over My Head. All of this language
came later. He and his buddies
knew it as get my ass outta here
or fucking trench foot and of course
sex please now. Petunias are an apology
for ignorance, my confidence
that saying high-density bombing
or chunks of brain in cold coffee
even suggests the athleticism
of his flinch or how casually
he picked the pieces out.
Geraniums symbolize the secrets
life kept from him, the wonder
of variable-speed drill and how
the sky would have changed had he lived
to shout it’s a girl. My hands
enter dirt easily, a premonition.
I sit back on my uncle’s stomach
exactly like I never did, he was
a picture to me, was my father
looking across a field at wheat
laying down to wind. For a while,
Tyrants’ War and War of World Freedom
and Anti-Nazi War skirmished
for linguistic domination. If
my uncle called it anything
but too many holes in too many bodies
no flower can say. I plant marigolds
because they came cheap and who knows
what the earth’s in the mood to eat.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By ElenaSchifirnet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15124646

Photo Two by By Magnus Manske – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7398799

Photo Three by By EliasTheHorse – I took it on a flower’s shop., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74372553

Photo Four by David Short from Windsor, UK [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Photo Five from https://secretldn.com/churchill-arms-flower-pub/

Photo Six by By cyanocorax – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyanocorax/2901626664/in/set-72157607594253502/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7096670

Photo Seven by By Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia, United States – This image is Image Number 1327034 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7038081

Wednesday Weed – Caper Spurge

Dear Readers, I am always delighted when I find a ‘real’ weed that I haven’t written about before, and here is a doozy – Caper Spurge (Euphorbia Lathyrus) is a statuesque spurge, with leaves that start off long and narrow with a prominent white mid-rib, and end up more oval as they get near to the flower. It is the seed capsules that give the plant its name, however: they look deliciously toothsome, but sadly, like all parts of the plant, they are poisonous, oozing a blueish, latex-like sap if damaged.

Flower and seed capsule of caper spurge

Caper spurge is inherently a plant of the southern Mediterranean, Northern Africa and southwards right through to China, but it is thought to be an ancient introduction to the UK, and is often grown in gardens. Why, I wonder, was it introduced? Medicinally it has often been used as a purgative, but more intriguingly, it was also thought to deter moles. Vickery’s Folk Flora points out that this belief has given the plant the alternative names of mole-plant and in German it is known as maulwurfvertreiker or ‘mole deterrent’. However, the plant grows best in sandy soil where worms are scarce. As moles are fond of dining on earthworms it may be this, rather than the caper spurge, that explains the lack of ‘the little gentleman in black velvet’.

There is also a belief in Germany that the plant ‘keeps little mice away’.

In Somerset, the plant is said to be a deterrent to badgers because they dislike the sap – again, in Vickery’s Folk Flora, someone explains that you ‘have to keep breaking the stems’ to get the sap to flow.

Another explanation for the name ‘mole-plant’ is that the caustic sap might have been used to burn away ‘moles’ or beauty spots from the faces of those who considered them an impediment. Many euphorbias were used to treat warts in this way, so it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely.

And while we’re on the subject, here is a photo of a mole, probably the commonest British mammal that no one has ever seen (though we’ve all seen the results of their labours). Incidentally, other ways to keep moles out of the garden include ‘never speaking of them’ (much as you are not meant to mention ‘the Scottish Play’ to an actor), putting sardines in their runs (which would keep me out of the garden as well, though probably not the foxes and cats) and leaving hessian bags of human hair around the garden. Personally, I think I’d rather have the moles.

Photo One from https://www.wythamwoods.ox.ac.uk/article/mole-talpa-europaea

European mole (Talpa europea) (Photo One)

To return to the theme of caper spurge’s medicinal uses, Richard Mabey explains how the plant is found on the now uninhabited island of Steepholm in the Bristol Channel, along with the only colony of wild paeony (Paeonia mascula) in the UK and many other medicinal herbs such as henbane, coriander, wild leek, greater celandine and alexanders, all Mediterranean plants. Between 1166 and 1260 a community of Augustinian monks lived on the island, and it is likely that they planted a ‘physick garden’ in the equable oceanic climate. Certainly, Chaucer knew of caper spurge as ‘katapuce’ (mentioned in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale), and of its laxative properties, and Charlemagne insisted that it be grown in all herbal gardens in case anyone was ever in need of a good purge (the name ‘spurge’ comes from the Latin ‘expurgare’ which should give us a clue).

The sap was also used by beggars in medieval times who were in need of some additional sympathy – applied to the skin, it can cause extremely impressive blisters. One can only wonder at the depths of deprivation that made people to resort to such things. You most certainly do not want to get the sap in your eye, or onto any other ‘delicate parts’ – there are a lot of stories about chaps doing the weeding without gloves and then going to the toilet, followed by a rushed trip to Accident and Emergency when the effects of the sap became apparent.

Although caper spurge is toxic, goats will eat it, and the toxin can then be passed on via their milk. However the sap from caper spurge is also being considered as a possible biofuel, as it is extremely rich in hydrocarbons, and the plant will grow in relatively salty soils which are inhospitable to other plants so there would be little competition with food crops. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Melvin Calvin (1911-1997) (who discovered the Calvin Cycle of photosynthesis) estimated that cultivated caper spurge could produce 10-50 barrels of oil per acre per year, but whether there would be damage to the delicate coastal ecosystems involved remains to be seen.

Those fat little seed capsules, while not to be mistaken for capers, are entertaining in their own right: when ripe, they explode, catapulting the seeds for several metres. The seeds also float, and can be transported downriver if they happen to land in a suitable stream. Fortunately they are not particularly competitive, and are usually overwhelmed by more vigorous plants unless they happen to land in the perfect spot. They are now naturalised in many parts of the world, but do not appear to have become too overwhelming. In North America the plant is sometimes known as ‘gopher spurge’, so I wonder if this comes from a belief that, in addition to moles, mice and badgers, the plant discourages other mammals. And here is a photo of a gopher, just because I have never seen one. Those are extremely impressive incisors, I must say.

Photo Two by By LeonardoWeiss - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12937639

Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) (Photo Two)

And finally, here is a titbit that I found while looking around for a poem on caper spurge. The artist John Northcote Nash (1893 -1977), was the younger brother of the WWI artist Paul Nash, but his creative endeavours took him in the direction of botanical woodcuts. In his wonderful book ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees‘, the late Roger Deakin (gone much, much too soon), wrote about Nash’s masterpiece, ‘Poisonous Plants: Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect‘ (1922)

In a review of an edition of Nash woodcuts published in Hortus in 1988, Ronald Blythe writes:

‘His garden was always plentifully supplied with henbane, hemlock, monk’s hood, foxglove, meadow saffron, spurge laurel, datura, caper spurge, herb Paris, Helleborus foetidus and other such species which he had often been found staring at, much as one might at a murderer. He was proud, not only of their robust growth, but of their capabilities, and I have often watched him cast a wary eye over the gaunt reaches of the henbane. Gardens were not entirely benign places to him: they contained their darker moments.”

I think that any garden, closely observed, is awash with birth, life, death and decay, and that is, of course, exactly how it has to be. So many gardeners (myself included) have spells of railing against the unfairness of it all, when a heron eats a frog or a much-loved plant succumbs, or the slugs seem overwhelming. The foxglove feeds the bumblebee, and the caper spurge sits there innocently until you break a stem and rub your eye. Nature is not hell, but nor is it Disneyland.

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.wythamwoods.ox.ac.uk/article/mole-talpa-europaea

Photo Two by By LeonardoWeiss – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12937639

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Cabbage Palm

Cabbage Palm (Cordyline australis)

Dear Readers, the cabbage palm is a plant that I have always been a little snooty about. For much of the year it just stands there, with its big leathery leaves, and looks rather out of place. But this year, this one in the County Roads of East Finchley has burst forth with three huge inflorescences. I stood there with my camera, breathing in the sweet scent and watching dozens of honeybees flying about, and realised that I had been completely wrong. This is a very fine tree indeed.

The cabbage palm is endemic to New Zealand, where the largest known tree is estimated to be over 400 years old, and has a height of 56 feet and a circumference of 30 feet. The fruit that follows the flowers is the favourite food of the New Zealand pigeon or kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), who is also endemic. I am fascinated by New Zealand and its unique wildlife, and I think that I shall have to visit at some point!

Photo One by By Duncan - originally posted to Flickr as Kereru, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7903580

New Zealand Pigeon/Kereru (Hemiphaga novaseelandiae) (Photo One)

The flowers are eaten by the kakariki or New Zealand parakeet, a very attractive small parrot. I wonder if our ring-necked parakeets will start to recognise the plant as a source of food? They have certainly already developed a taste for spring blossom.

Photo Two by By Duncan Wright - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3020473

Karakiri (Red-crowned parakeet)(Cyanophorus novaezelandiae) eating cabbage palm blossom (Photo Two)

Cabbage palms grow in a variety of habitats in their native country, with different varieties occupying different niches. However, young plants are not frost-hardy (which means that it is limited as to altitude) and need open spaces to thrive – they will not survive if they are overtopped by other plants. The seedlings need a lot of water, and so the plant is not found on steep hills or among sand dunes unless there is underground water. The cabbage palm also needs fertile soil, and when European settlers first arrived in New Zealand they would use the presence of cabbage palms to indicate where to set up their farms and homesteads. This is probably why the ‘jungles of cabbage trees’ described by those settlers no longer exist – these days, cabbage palms are much more likely to be individual trees.

The nectar from the cabbage palm has compounds that make it attractive to moths as well as to bees, and I have seen our local tree surrounded by fluttery figures on a warm night. Bees use the nectar to stoke their developing hives, Each stalk on a cabbage palm bears a flower on alternate years, so there tends to be a heavy flowering every other year, and a bumper crop every three to five years. I suspect that this is a bumper year. One inflorescence can carry up to 40,000 seeds which are rich in linoleic acid (an important compound in the egg-laying of birds). Given that young plants need open space to grow well, it’s no wonder that the plant has developed to have its seeds transported away by the New Zealand pigeon, who will hopefully deposit it a good long way away from its parent (with a handy parcel of fertiliser to boot).

Much as the oak tree is a ‘mother tree’ to many British species, and constitutes a whole ecosystem in itself, so the cabbage palm is home to a whole variety of other species. Epiphytes such as orchids, ferns such as our old friend the Asplenium  and a whole fieldguide full of lichens and liverworts live on the plant.

The gold-striped gecko (Woodworthia chrysosiretica) scuttles over the bark, and New Zealand bellbirds nest under the leaves

Photo Three by By Sid Mosdell from New Zealand - Bellbird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21871769

New Zealand Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) (Photo Three)

Long-tailed bats roost in the hollow branches.

Photo Four from https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/bats-pekapeka/long-tailed-bat/

Long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus) (Photo Four)

In winter the leaves are an excellent hiding-place for the weta, a giant flightless cricket and one of the largest insects in the world.

Photo Five by By Mary Morgan-Richards - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70677446

Cook Strait Giant Weta (Deinacrida rugosa) (Photo Five)

There are nine species of insects who are only found on the cabbage palm in New Zealand, including the cabbage tree moth (Epiphryne verriculata) which eats nothing else. The adult is camouflaged so that it can hide on the dead leaves of the plant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stripey moth.

Photo Six by By Dan Kluza - https://www.flickr.com/photos/72744226@N00/5398604491, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65837571

Cabbage tree moth (Photo Six)

As you might expect from a plant that has been so utterly entwined with the other inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maori people have a long relationship with the cabbage palm. The stems and rhizomes are rich in natural sugars, and were steamed in earth ovens to provide a sweet substance called kauru that was used to sweeten other foods. It was easily stored for long periods, and is said to taste like molasses.

The cabbage palm groves attracted thousands of pigeons, and the Maori would trap and eat these birds – they were often so fat that they couldn’t fly.

The fibre from the leaves was incredibly tough, and especially resilient in seawater, being used to make anchor ropes and swings. They were also used to make protective trousers for when people were travelling in the high country of the South Island, home to the prickly spear grasses.

Medicinally, different parts of the plant were used for everything from diarrhoea to colic.

Children using a swing made from Cordyline fibre (Public Domain)

Although the cabbage palm rarely sets seed in the UK, individual plants do often seem to appear in the ‘wild’ – the plant is the fifteenth commonest ‘alien’ plant in London according to Stace and Crawley’s book ‘Alien Plants’. In the Isles of Scilly, the cabbage palm is used as a shelter for the bulb fields, and it is generally a plant of the milder south west of England, where it is sometimes known as the ‘Torquay Palm’. I see that there has recently been a thinning out of the various ‘palm’ trees of Torquay by the local council, with a concomitant furore. Let’s hope that all is well by the start of the summer season.

There are also cabbage palms on the west coast of Ireland, a similarly mild spot.

 A cabbage palm in a front garden in Torquay

In its native land, the cabbage palm has been threatened by a variety of pests and diseases. In 1987, populations of the plant sickened and died, often within a year of the first symptoms being noticed. Sudden Decline was eventually found to have been caused by a bacterium transmitted by a non-native sapsucking insect, the passion vine hopper, and there is some hope that the disease is lessening. However, individual cabbage palms are sometimes victims of what has been named ‘Rural Decline’. When the forests of the plant were originally cleared, individual specimens were left as shelter for livestock. Unfortunately, said livestock ate the seedlings and rubbed against the bark, eventually damaging the tree beyond hope of survival. Rabbits, possums and even horses also have a liking for the sweet stems and fruit. The cabbage palm’s richness as a source for other organisms seems to be hastening its demise in New Zealand, though the population is still at a healthy level at the moment.

Furthermore, the cabbage palm is very widely cultivated, both as a pot plant and as ‘bedding’ in many council flowerbeds. It is strange to think that this most individual of plants, so firmly embedded in the country from which it comes, is pretty much unremarked. I am looking at the cabbage palm with much more respect these days. What a very fine plant it is!

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Duncan – originally posted to Flickr as Kereru, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7903580

Photo Two by By Duncan Wright – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3020473

Photo Three by By Sid Mosdell from New Zealand – Bellbird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21871769

Photo Four from https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/bats-pekapeka/long-tailed-bat/

Photo Five by By Mary Morgan-Richards – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70677446

Photo Six by By Dan Kluza – https://www.flickr.com/photos/72744226@N00/5398604491, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65837571

 

Wednesday Weed – Columbine

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

Dear Readers, this seems to have been a particularly good year for columbines.They are the quintessential cottage garden plant, but I was surprised to discover that the small flowered blue form, as seen above, is a native. Because various forms of columbine are grown so frequently in the garden it’s hard to determine what the actual range of the plant is, but Aquilegia, a genus of about 70 species, are found throughout the northern hemisphere. Aquilegia vulgaris seems to like calcium-rich soils, woodland areas and damp grassland, and is most common in the south and west of the UK – I found the flowers in the photos today in Somerset and Dorset.

Columbine has many, many local names. Most refer to the shape of the flowers: my Vickery’s Folk Flora tells me that the plant is known as ‘Doves-in-the-ark’ in Somerset; the name ‘Columbine’ comes from the Latin word for dove, ‘columba‘, with the inverted flower being said to resemble five doves clustered together. In Yorkshire it’s called ‘Fool’s hat’, a reference to flower’s resemblance to a jester’s cap. In Wiltshire it bears the name of ‘Granny-jump-out-of-bed’, possible because the petals resemble a skirt, though why granny was wearing her clothes in bed would probably make a story all on its own. ‘Aquilegia’ means ‘eagle-like’, and this is because the petals are supposed to look like an eagle’s claw.

The wild form of columbine is usually dark blue, though it can also be found in pale pink and white. However, the ‘domesticated’ forms come in a huge variety of colours and flower shapes. Here are a selection: first, the cultivar ‘Magpie’

Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5516707

‘Magpie’ cultivar (Photo One)

Then this rather pretty blue cultivar

And this pink one….

Pink flowered columbine (Public Domain)

And a double-flowered one for good measure.

Double-flowered columbine (Public Domain)

What is interesting about the structure of the columbine, however, is that it is the spurs at the back of the flower hold the nectar. The length of these structures varies from species to species, but in all wild plants the spurs have evolved to match the bird or insect that pollinates it. In California, Aquilegia pubescens (also known as the Sierra columbine) is a high-altitude plant that has white flowers, and spurs up to 5 centimetres long. The plant is pollinated by hawk moths, insects with a liking for white-flowered plants and with a tongue long enough to reach the nectar.

Photo Two by By Dcrjsr - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10776732

Sierra columbine (Aquilegia pubescens) (Photo Two)

At lower altitudes, from Alaska to Baja California is the crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa). Its red colour and much shorter spurs are a giveaway that its main pollinators are hummingbirds (most red-flowered wild plants were originally bird-pollinated). In between there are a whole host of hybrids between the two species, illustrating the way that the plant is adapting to the chief pollinators in each area. The process illustrates the way that plants and pollinators are locked into a dance of evolution, with each dependent on the other.

Photo Three by Dcrjsr - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50586172

The transition from Aquilegia pubescens to Aquilegia formosa (Photo Three)

Photo Four By Walter Siegmund (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5491242

Crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) (Photo Four)

For anyone who would like a closer look at the structure of the columbine flower, I recommend the UK Microscopy website, which has many fascinating insights. One of these days I shall treat myself to a microscope, maybe for my fast-approaching sixtieth birthday – I love the way that a close-up view reveals so many wonders. But in the meantime I shall keep going to UK Microscopy for my high-magnification fix.

In the UK, columbine is a good bee plant, and is a nice choice for a woodland garden. It attracts mainly long-tongued bumblebees, and as seven of these species are considered endangered, it is well worth popping a few columbines into your understorey (should you have one). The bumblebee with the longest tongue in the UK is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), who has a tongue which can reach 2 cms long and is hence a match for any native columbine. My advice is to avoid the highly-bred fancy cultivars, and go for the dark blue natives.  Plus, you don’t have to worry about isolating individual cultivars or even species in order to get them to ‘come true’ – as we have seen, columbines hybridize at the drop of a hat.

Photo Five by Roo72 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Bee pollinating columbine (Photo Five)

There seems to be some debate over whether Aquilegia vulgaris (‘our’ columbine) is poisonous – they are members of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and are closely related to monkshood (Aconitum napellus), described as ‘the most toxic wild plant in Britain’. Some sites described the roots and stems as being toxic, and on the Poison Garden website, the dark columbine (Aquilegia atrata), which is native to northern Europe, is said to have been used to cause miscarriage. However, there are no recorded cases of poisoning, and it is often a favourite in children’s gardens because of its interesting flowers and bee-attracting properties. Plus, certain Native American tribes have long eaten the flowers, which I imagine are very sweet due to the concentrated nectar that they contain.

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) used the plant medicinally as a treatment for swollen glands, and it was also used to hasten childbirth. As with most herbal remedies, the dosage and the wisdom and understanding with which the plants were used has been largely lost, to all of our detriment.

Many species of moth caterpillar munch upon the poor old columbine, and one of them is the saddleback looper, the larva of The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). The moth is not particularly exciting to look at, but I include it here because I have learned that the word ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semicircular indentations along the edge’ in heraldry. You’re welcome.

Photo Six by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806463

Adult male Engrailed moth (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Six)

A plant which has been grown in the UK since the 13th century is bound to have attracted some folklore, and one story is that lions ate columbine in order to give themselves strength – it was said that, to get the courage of a lion, all you needed to do was to rub the plant over your hands. However, if you are female and someone gives you a bunch of columbine, this is an indication that you are said to have ‘flexible morals’, and I think you would be well within your rights to summon up the courage of a lion and ‘clip them round the ear’ole’ as my Dad used to say.

And, of course, a poem or two. When I looked for ‘Columbine poems’,  I found many, many works about the school shooting at Columbine, a great outpouring of grief and rage and questioning. But I was most intrigued by, firstly, this work by Melissa Stein, who we encountered a few weeks ago writing about lily of the valley.

Dear Columbine, Dear Engine

by Melissa Stein

Dear columbine, dear engine.
Mere water will force a flower
open. Then with a touch
the beautiful intact collapses
into color filament and powder.
It’s all my fault. All hands on deck
to help collect what’s spilled.
That could be me beneath
a bridge. Torn up beside the road,
a bloat of skin and fur.
Afloat in bathtub, clean,
blue-lipped, forgiven. Face-down
in the snow. Why do you
imagine these terrible things?

asks my mother, or her
ghost. Because the paper’s
crisp and white. Because
no slate’s unwritten.
Because the ant that scaled
this flower head
has nowhere else to go.

And to end on a less distressing note, here is Emily Dickinson. There is a fine blogpost here by someone who is reproducing Emily Dickinson’s garden, and what a lovely idea that is.

It’s Father’s Day here today as I write, and for some reason this poem made me think of my mother. See what you think.

Columbine

by Emily Dickinson

Glowing in her bonnet-
Glowing in her cheek-
Glowing is her Kirtle-
Yet she cannot speak.

Better as the Daisy
From the summer hill
Vanish unrecorded
Save by tearful rill-

Save by loving sunrise
Looking for her face.
Save by feet unnumbered
Pausing at the place.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5516707

Photo Two by By Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10776732

Photo Three by Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50586172

Photo Four By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5491242

Photo Five by Roo72 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Photo Six by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806463

Wednesday Weed – Foxglove

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Dear Readers, I can never get past my mental image of a fox tiptoeing around the garden wearing pink ‘gloves’ on each foot when I look at this plant. The allusion goes right back to the Anglo Saxon, when it was known as ‘foxes glova‘, and the Latin name digitalis means ‘finger-like’. In some parts of the country it is also known as fairy gloves. I remember putting the spent blooms on my fingers and drawing little faces on them when I was a child, and Richard Mabey reports how, by leaving the stem of each flower intact, they can be turned into ‘claws’. In Vickery’s Folk Flora, there are many tales of children using the flowers as tiny balloons, holding each end of the flower and pushing the ends until they popped. It was also considered a great game to capture a bumblebee inside one of the flowers, and to delight in its frantic buzzing. In the Forest of Dean, foxgloves were known as ‘snowpers’, and a favourite admonition to a noisy child was ‘Shut thee chops; thee bist like a bumble bee in a snowper’. Certainly these always feel like the most playful of plants, and from memory they seemed to be in full bloom at just about the time that the school holidays started.

Foxgloves are certainly having their moment ‘in the sun’ (though they are actually woodland flowers and most varieties don’t thrive without some shade). Every time I go to the garden centre there seem to be new varieties in every shade of cream, apricot, white and pink. They are biennials, bulking up during year one and producing flowers in year two. They self-seed enthusiastically, and are beloved by bumblebees. Digitalis purpurea is native to most of temperate Europe, but is also naturalised in many parts of North America. It is, rather counter-intuitively, a member of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae) which has been muchly enlarged of late.

White foxgloves in my garden

The story of foxgloves, however, is most closely associated with its toxicity and its medicinal properties. The leaves of foxglove were long used as a diuretic against dropsy (fluid accumulation), but it was also known that foxglove was toxic, and that giving the wrong dosage could be fatal. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how it was a study of the plant’s usage by botanist and physician William Withering that created the split between traditional herbalism and modern pharmacology.

Withering realised that the principal action of foxglove was on the heart, slowing and strengthening its beat and hence, in dropsy, stimulating the kidneys to clear fluid from the body. He also noted that the leaf could be useful in cases of heart failure. However, he insisted on carefully measured doses of the dried leaf, and was aware that too high a dose could cause the heart to falter and cease. Over time, the foxglove’s key active ingredient, digitalis, was isolated and purified, and is used today (as digitoxin and digoxin) for heart conditions. Incidentally, if you have an elderly relative taking either of these drugs who seems to be in a habit of falling, do check that the drug is not lowering blood pressure too much. Dad had six falls in as many months until a junior doctor checked his medication and realised what was happening.

These days, the chemicals for medication are largely prepared from imported leaves of a European foxglove, Digitalis lanata. However, during both World Wars the leaves were gathered and dried by members of The Womens’ Institute, just to make sure that there was an adequate supply. In 1941 the women of the Oxfordshire Women’s Institute collected enough foxglove leaves to provide 350,000 doses of the drug (enough to treat 1,000 patients for a year). Never underestimate a group of woman on a mission.

Although the plant is very poisonous, it is also emetic, which means that you are likely to vomit before suffering the worst cardiac effects. However, it was used as a salad ingredient by someone trying to murder their husband (in Colorado in 2010). The husband realised that the salad tasted bitter, but thought it was one of these antsy-fancy new leaves that are all the rage (I can relate). He suffered a gastrointestinal upset but survived, and his wife was sentenced to four and a half years in jail.

In the Vickery book mentioned earlier, it seems that foxglove was also used for a deeply sinister purpose: the killing of unwanted children. There are several folk legends indicating that foxglove is poisonous to ‘fairies’, and it was used as a test to see if a sickly child was a changeling ( a fairy child who had been exchanged for the original human child) in both County Leitrim and Caernarvonshire, the latter as recently as 1857. A child was given a small dose of foxglove, and it was believed that if the child was human, it would survive, whereas if it was a fairy it would die. It would not take a very large dose to kill a child, especially one who was already ill.  Vickery comments that

Thus it seems that the use of foxglove (and other ordeals to which supposed changelings were subjected) might have been an acceptable method of infanticide which enabled families to rid themselves of sickly offspring‘.

Photo One by By i_am_jim - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68449634

Photo One

The poisonous nature of the plant doesn’t put off the caterpillars of the foxglove pug moth (Eupithecia pulchellata), who feed on the internal parts of the flowers, after sewing them shut with silk. Both moth and caterpillar are unassuming in appearance, but for sheer ingenuity I think they deserve a brief moment of fame here.

Photo Two by user janenannierocks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. - This image is uploaded as image number 3702949 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20563006

A foxglove pug (Eupithecia pulchellata) (Photo Two)

And now, a picture. Regular readers will know of my fondness for Vincent Van Gogh, who loved flowers of all kinds so much that I believe he saw into their innermost nature. The portrait below shows Dr Paul Gachet, a homeopath and medical doctor, who took care of Van Gogh following his release from the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, and was with the artist for the last few months of his life. Following an inauspicious start, Van Gogh grew to love Dr Gachet, describing him as ‘a true friend, something like another brother’. The portrait shows Dr Gachet with a bunch of foxgloves, probably as an indication of his medical background. Van Gogh painted two versions of the picture, and said that:

“I’ve done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done… There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later”.

Six weeks later, Van Gogh shot himself in the woods surrounding Dr Gachet’s home.

In 1990 the painting was bought by Ryoei Saito, chairman of the Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co, for $82m, making it the world’s most expensive painting at the time. The 75 year-old businessman was so fond of the painting that he threatened to have it cremated with him. When Saito died in 1996, the painting seems to have been sold, but the new owner suffered financial problems and sold it on again. Like so many masterpieces, it is probably now in a vault somewhere, or in a secret private collection.

Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) (Public Domain)

And of course, a poem. Here is ‘The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves’ by Anne Stevenson, which manages to combine close observation with a sly humour.

The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves

Because hairs on their speckled daybeds baffle the little bees,
foxgloves come out to advertise for rich bumbling hummers,
who crawl into their tunnels-of-delight with drunken ease
(see Darwin’s chapters on his foxglove summers)
plunging over heckles caked with sex-appealing stuff
to sip from every hooker its intoxicating liquor
and stop it propagating in a corner with itself.
And this is how the foxflower keeps its sex life in order.
Two anthers—adolescent, in a hurry to dehisce—
let fly too soon, so pollen lies in drifts around the floor.  
Along swims bumbler bee and makes an undercoat of this,
reverses, exits, lets it fall by accident next door.  
So ripeness climbs the bells of Digitalis, flower by flower,
undistracted by a Mind, or a Design, or by desire.
Notes:

In eight pages of The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London, 1876: 81–88), Charles Darwin describes an experiment he began in June 1869 among the fox- gloves of North Wales, this just one of his thousands of experiments demonstrating the superiority of cross-fertilization and throwing light on the origin of sexuality.
Photo Credits
Photo One by By i_am_jim – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68449634

 

Photo Two by user janenannierocks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. – This image is uploaded as image number 3702949 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20563006

Settling Back

Dear Readers, I am now home for eighteen whole days, which is my longest stay in East Finchley for at least a year. But before I tell you about London, I want to give you an update from my latest visit to Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester. Dad was chatting away to a new chap  when I arrived at the home. P had been in the forces and had lived abroad extensively, and, as Dad travelled a fair bit when he was a gin distiller, they were gently ‘one-upping’ one another with tales of jaunts abroad. I have learned that while people with dementia don’t always get their facts in perfect order, there is normally a kernel of truth in what they say however confused they are, and I have no doubt that P had lived in the Far East, and had learned Japanese.  P had a postcard from his daughter which he was showing to everyone who came in. Dad had been planning to write a letter to me, my brother and Mum, and had started to write it on one of the handkerchiefs that I bought him, but when I asked him about it he’d forgotten what he wanted to write. I was surprised both that he could still spell my name, and that he could still write. I’ve left him with a pad and some pens in case the urge to write strikes him again.

Dad’s face absolutely lights up when I walk in, and it’s one of the greatest joys of my life. I tell him when I’m going to visit him, but he always forgets. This time, he grabbed my hand and kissed it.

‘I didn’t know you were going to come in’, he said, and cried.

Dementia has made Dad more emotional, gentler. He has developed a taste for Portuguese custard tarts and ‘frothy coffee’, and it touches me how much he enjoys both of them. I thought that maybe he would be upset by the unusual behaviour of some of the other residents, but he seems completely at ease with them, and sometimes tries to help if someone has ‘lost’ something or seems particularly distressed.

One lady asked if I’d seen her daughter, and I told her that I hadn’t seen her today, but I was sure she’d  be in soon (she visits her Mum very regularly).

‘She’s the best girl in the world’, said the lady, and I had to go outside because that was what Mum always said about me.

One of the guys, B, used to be a London taxi driver and hasn’t lost any of the repartee. One of the carers asked him if he liked children.

‘I like children but I couldn’t eat a whole one’, he said.

When I popped in on Wednesday to have breakfast with Dad and to say goodbye, he was all geared up to ‘walk into town and have a look at a secondhand car’. I know that Dad misses driving, but while I’m sure he could do the mechanics of driving, he wouldn’t know where he was going. Fortunately, the home had organised a trip to the local market, and Dad was going to help choose some plants for the garden.

‘We’ll have a look at the cars if we can find any’, said the carer.

Initially I was really disconcerted at the degree to which I needed to lie to Dad about what was going to happen, and yet the alternative is so much more distressing and painful for him. No one is going to tell him that he will never own a car or drive again, and so the constant promise of it in the future keeps him calm and happy. There was a positive spring in his step as he headed off with his zimmer frame to get his jacket on, and I know that once he’s in the market he’ll be distracted by all the minutiae of tomato varieties and which geraniums are best.

As I waved goodbye, all the other residents waved as well. It really is a little family.

And yet when I got back to London, I was having a coffee and got into a chat with a lady who had a little dog. We talked about pets for a bit, and then I mentioned that I was just back from visiting with my Dad who has dementia. She sympathised, and then, as she was getting up to go, she turned and said

‘Oh, I do hope it doesn’t drag on too long for you’.

And yet again I was lost for words. I know that dementia is a terminal and progressive disease, but really? I think not just about my dad, but about all the people in the home that I’m getting to know, and I know that not only do they have a quality of life that makes it worth living, but that they are still valuable, loving human beings. This is the fourth time in the past six months that someone has suggested that my Dad and his friends would be better off dead, and that I must be hoping for such a speedy outcome. What does it say about our society that we can wish the oldest and most vulnerable people in it dead? My Dad is teaching me lessons about compassion and patience and understanding every single day.

And so, I really needed the solace of the garden when I got home, and all kinds of things were going on.

Take the fabulous cabbage palm (Cordyline australis) next door, for example. This year it is carrying three whole spikes full of flowers which are constantly abuzz with honeybees. I went outside to take a photograph and realised how sweet-smelling it is. No wonder the bees love it.

Outside the back door, I notice that everything is hideously overgrown, and that the pond is turning into a bog as fast as I can pull things out. However, some yellow flag irises are flowering for the first time this year. I can’t even remember planting them, so maybe they came with something else. This will certainly be something for the dragonfly larvae to climb up, and I check every day just in case.

And I love the way that the sunlight touches the water. The pond is absolutely full of frogs of all sizes this year, from adults to tiny new froglets the size of my fingernail. They are hanging around a lot later this year too, so maybe being so overgrown isn’t such an absolutely bad thing.

My white foxgloves are flowering, and the Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower is covered in bumblebees.

And so is the mock orange, which is just finishing but which is still headily-scented.

But there has been one disaster. The box moth caterpillars have been particularly vigorous this year – last year I managed to trim the bush back in the spring and get rid of most of the damage, but this year they have killed the bushes completely. I shall be cutting them back, digging them out and planting something else. I even spotted one of the caterpillars walking nonchalantly across the path a few days ago, probably en route from one bush to another. This is a pest that has marched through the  country over the past ten years, although the adult moth is rather lovely. I spotted the first one I’d ever seen at the Barbican Centre in London in 2015, but it was noticed in private gardens in 2011. It has probably arrived in imported box plants (the moth comes originally from East Asia) and while it can be treated with nematodes if caught in the early stages, the advice from RHS Wisley is to plant something else. Climate change is making the environment much more pleasant for the moth, and I suspect that we are going to have to adapt too. Privet, anyone?

RIP to my box bush.

Adult Box Worm Moth (Cydalima perspectalis)

And, in more exciting news, we are going to get our external decorations done. It’s been more than ten years, and the paintwork is, shall we say, a bit on the dodgy side. The scaffolding is up, but the best news is that I have bought this.

A sparrow nesting box

Sparrows like to nest communally, and so I have this little terrace of nestboxes that I have persuaded the decorator to put up for me while he’s on the scaffolding. Sparrows have already been investigating the eaves but have never stayed, so I am very hopeful that maybe next year they’ll take up residence. And if they don’t, maybe somebody else will. And once that’s done, I shall be looking into getting the garden back into some kind of order. I need to move my centre of gravity back east from Dorset, and start getting back into my own life. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

Roxanne geranium in the garden