Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Camellia

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate.  Who knows what we will find…..

Camellia japonica

Dear Readers, it might seem strange to be in love with a plant, but I am enraptured with the white camellia that lives in a pot right outside my back door. I have tried to create a shade garden in the dreary north-facing side return there, and Dad gifted me with this plant several years ago. I know that it isn’t good for pollinators (my usual reason for planting something).  I know that in a bad year, the blossoms go brown almost before they’ve opened because of cold weather or rain. But still, I find it exquisitely beautiful, with its shiny green leaves and sunburst of yellow stamens in the centre of all that ivory-white.

Every time I see it, it reminds me of Dad. I think of how he taught me to transplant seedlings, picking them up with his big brown hands and handling them with such tender care. It makes me sad to think that, because of the neuropathy in his hands, he can now barely handle a knife and fork, though he would be the last one to dwell on such things. He deals with things by getting on with it does my Dad, and he doesn’t seem to think about what he used to be able to do. Everyone copes with things differently, but this is his way, and it seems to work for him. My parents come from a class and a generation when it wasn’t done to analyse things too much, because what was the point?  No one outside your immediate family and community was going to help.

The camellia is also known as the Rose of Winter, and in the mountainous areas of its native China, South Korea and Japan it blooms between January and March. In my back garden, its buds open from mid March onwards, although the snow that we’ve had this week will be slowing it up a bit.

In Japan, the flower is pollinated by the Japanese white-eye, a small bird.

Photo One by DickDaniels (

Japanese white-eyes courting (Zosterops japonicus) (Photo One)

Most camellia species need acidic soil, hence the fact that my plant is growing in a pot – the clay in my garden would certainly not be to the plant’s taste. There are, however, a few Vietnamese camellias that live in the limestone karst area of the country, and which are more amenable to alkaline soils.

Vietnam is also home to the endangered yellow camellia, Camellia chrysantha. Apparently breeders have been trying for years to get a yellow camellia which also flowers abundantly, and even in China and Japan they have largely failed – the yellow species tend to have small, downward-facing flowers, and to be extremely picky about where they grow.

Photo Two by By self - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Camellia chrysantha, the yellow camellia (Photo Two)

As you will know, the garden camellia is closely related to Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, and tea can be made with the leaves of Camellia japonica. For the full details of how to do it, have a look at the Taurus Rising blog here. However, as a synopsis, you need to pick the youngest three leaves at the top of a stem, rub the leaves between your hands to crumble them, and then sort out the stems from the leaves. The crumbled leaves are left for a couple of days and are moved around periodically to aerate them before they are dried in a low oven. The conclusion was that the resulting brew was pretty high in caffeine, and ‘delicate’ in flavour – the authors thought that the leaves could have been left for a few more days to mature and deepen the taste.

Personally, I still want my camellia to grow, so will wait a bit longer before I start nipping off the stem tips. Camellias grow fast (up to 30 cm a year) and can live a long time (there are camellias in Portugal that are thought to be 460 years old). In time, they can turn into a magnificent tree – there are a couple in a front garden in Tufnell Park that are absolutely gob-smacking, as tall as the second storey window and covered in red and pink blooms every spring. I don’t have a photo of those trees, but the one below, from Hyde Hall in Essex, gives you an idea.

Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Camellia tree at RHS Hyde Hall (Photo Three)

Or you can torment your camellia until it becomes a bonsai if you’re that way inclined. As I’ve mentioned before, I admire the skill and persistence that it takes to create a miniature tree like this, but I feel a kind of empathy for the plant, who surely ‘wants’ to be ten metres high.

Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese camellia as a bonsai (Photo Four)

The flowers of the camellia have been used in herbal medicine to treat various blood-related ailments, and are also widely reported to be mixed with sesame oil as a salve for burns and scalds. I was always taught not to plaster burns with creams, but there you go. The seeds of the related species Camellia oleifera are used to create a cooking oil that is very widely used in Southern China, and apparently you can do the same with Camellia japonica.

In Japan, the Emperor carried a staff made from camellia wood to fend off the evil eye, and flowers are said to represent business success, virtue, happiness, fidelity, luxury, tastefulness, & a life concluding in the ease of retirement. In China, the flower is said to represent the union of male and female, with the petals representing the female principle, and the green calyx representing the male. Typically, when a flower falls the calyx remains on the stem, but in camellias both fall away together. It is said that both male and female attributes are needed for wholeness (as in yin and yang) and I’m not going to argue with that.

The flowers of the camellia have always been seen as expensive, rare, and slightly decadent. Probably the most famous literary representation of the plant is La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas. It tells the story of a young man in love with a courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, who is dying of consumption. In real life, the courtesan was Marie Duplessis, Duma’s lover. In the novel, Marguerite gets her epithet ‘the lady of the camellias’ because she wears a red camellia when she is menstruating (and hence unavailable) and a white one the rest of the time. The book rapidly became a play, and then the opera La Traviata. In the cinema, the role of Marguerite has been played by actresses as varied as Greta Garbo, Theda Bara (the original ‘Vamp’) and Isabelle Adjani.

Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) - [1], Public Domain,

Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in the 1936 film ‘Camille’ (Photo Five)

As you might expect, in the pictorial arts the camellia has been a great favourite with Dutch still life painters. However, I also like the elegant depictions of the plant from China and Japan, such as this painting by Lu Ji from the sixteenth century.

Pheasant and Camellia shrub by Lu Ji (Public Domain)

Finally, for our burst of poetry this week, I’d like to present two poems. The first, by American poet Carol Snow, is short and simple, at least at first glance.


Near a shrine in Japan he'd swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.

Or — we had no way of knowing — he'd swept the path
between fallen camellias.

—Carol Snow

The second is by French writer Honore de Balzac, and it seems to reinforce that theme of the camellia as a hothouse flower, suitable only for ballrooms and to grace the hair of beautiful women.

The Camellia

In Nature’s poem flowers have each their word

The rose of love and beauty sings alone;

The violet’s soul exhales in tenderest tone;

The lily’s one pure simple note heard.

The cold Camellia only, stiff and white,

Rose without perfume, lily without grace,

When chilling winter shows his icy face,

Blooms for a world that vainly seeks delight.

Yet, in a theatre, or ball-room light,

I gladly see Camellias shining bright

Above some stately woman’s raven hair,

Whose noble form fulfills the heart’s desire,

Like Grecian marbles warmed by Phidian fire.

For me, the camellia is a symbol of endurance, flowering in the earliest part of the year, before even the daffodils have gotten going. It asks for little, and gives so much. And it will always represent my father’s love, and his persistence, and his uncomplaining straightforwardness. It is the first thing that I see when I step into the garden from the kitchen, and it never fails to make me smile and feel grateful. It might be a ‘lily without grace’ to Balzac, but it’s full of grace for me.
Photo Credits
Photo One by Photo One by DickDaniels (
Photo Two by By self – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) – [1], Public Domain,

Wednesday Weed – Ageratum

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…..

Ageratum conyzoides

Dear Readers, as I looked out of the window of the coach as we travelled through Costa Rica, I noticed that some of the fields had a gentle lilac haze, as if fairy smoke were wafting upwards.

‘Blimey’, I thought to myself, ‘those plants look for all the world like the Ageratum that’s in municipal flower beds all over London’.

And indeed it is. Later in the holiday I went for a walk on my own, fell down a hole, got bitten by an ant and then discovered a tiny plot of this plant, growing where a tree had fallen over and the sun could penetrate. It is not a fussy plant, apart from requiring a little sunlight, and in Vietnam it is known as ‘pig shit’ because it often grows around pig sties. It’s also known as Billy Goat Weed. This is a plant that leads many lives: as a native beauty in Costa Rica and other parts of Central America, as a domesticated space-filler in the UK, and as an invasive weed in Africa, Asia, and North America.

I love that a plant that usually hangs out with alyssum and blue lobelia in front of a statue of some Great Colonial Gentleman is actually native to Costa Rica, where it’s known as Santa Lucia, and is believed to bring great good fortune. As the Tico Times explains, if someone gives you a bouquet of the plant at New Year, and you put some of it in your wallet, you will never be short of cash. The name Ageratum means ‘non-ageing’, which refers to the long-life and prolific flowering of the plant.

There are lots of species of Ageratum, and lots of cultivars too – the popular one around these parts is ‘Blue Mink’. It is an inoffensive and hard-working annual, and I love the softness of the colour, especially when compared with the brasher bedding plants that are available. Ageratum is a member of our old friends the Asteraceae, or daisies, and so the flower is actually a conglomeration of lots of smaller ‘florets’ – disk florets in the velvety centre of the plant, and ray florets forming the ‘flower’.

Fluffy Ageratum flowers (public domain)


Fluffy as it looks, though, Ageratum is not without its problems. It can cause liver lesions and tumours, and there was a mass poisoning incident in Ethiopia in 2005. 118 people were affected, with a 38% fatality rate. It was eventually found to be due to some Ageratum growing in the village well – the plant was used to dry the cooking implements that the women washed there, and it was also used to cover the pans to protect the contents from flies. Interestingly, despite its toxicity the plant is used medicinally to treat dysentery, malaria and many other tropical diseases across both its native and its introduced range, but it is more commonly turned into an insecticide. It can also be used to treat worms, but I suspect that in this case the cure is much worse than the disease. All this makes me think that people who get to know the plant are able to prepare it in ways that reduce its toxicity.I note that there are some sites which seem to think that the flowers are edible, but I will stick to violets, thank you very much.

Photo One by

Ageratum in bud (Photo One)

While I was looking for images for this piece, I found the vintage seed packet below (go to the link under the photo credit if you collect such things). It made me sigh a little with nostalgia, for I remember when seed packets had paintings of the plants that were expected to burst forth from the seeds, rather than photographs. As I am considering my seeds for this year, it also reminded me that the saying ‘every seed a plant’ is a little optimistic, at least when it’s me that’s doing the planting. Either nothing comes up, or everything does, and then I have the job of thinning out which goes against the grain, because don’t they all deserve to live? I sometimes think that I don’t have the iron spine required of a gardener, what with my toleration of slugs and my lack of ruthlessness.

Photo Two from

Vintage Seed Packet (Photo Two)

And for this week’s poem, how about this one by William F Dougherty, an American poet and someone that I hadn’t come across before. This one takes a couple of readings, but I love the image of the broken vase, and it reminds me very much of my visits to the cemetery.

A Promise to Keep by William F Dougherty

I promised her the garden’s glory:
marigold’s monarchal blooms,
ageratum’s lavender fuzz, the
grainy beards of coxcombs’ plumes;
sturdy zinnias, salvia’s flames,
snapdragons, and tiger lilies: raw
cuttings from home to grace a stone
in final, promissory awe.

Crystal-needled frost struck and drained
the promised flowers brown; left them
in rows of shriveled heads to nod
on gallows of each blackened stem.
I bought chrysanthemums and filled
her navy vase with bronze and gold
clusters to decorate the grave—
my quaking hand let slip its hold.

The vase discharged against a stone
and shattered, as if the cobalt night
had cracked again: the fragments gemmed
my gold bouquet with bluish light.
The flowers lost—love left unsaid—
planted in my repentant sleep
the seeds to start a garden of words
where love and promises will keep.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Carol Krol at

Photo Two from

William F Dougherty’s poem, and others by him, can be found here





Wednesday Weed – Hydrangea

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…..


Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) in Costa Rica

Dear Readers, in spite of a plethora of native exotic blooms, the lovely folk in Costa Rica have gone bonkers for hydrangeas. They spill out of the little gardens of San Jose (often peeking through the bars that surround urban houses to keep out thieves), burst forth from the manicured grounds of haciendas, and decorate the paths of hotels (as in the photo above from Monteverde). I find it a little confusing: why would you plant hydrangeas when you have heliconias and passionflowers and hibiscus? But of course, the hydrangeas are no further away from home in Costa Rica than they are in London, because this species (Hydrangea macrophylla, or Florist’s Hydrangea) actually comes from Japan.

The flowers of hydrangeas are actually formed of four decorative ornamental petals surrounding five smaller petals ( a ‘tetramer’ surrounding a ‘pentamer’ for those of you with a lust for new words). The outer petals can be white, pink or blue, and the inner flower contains the fertile part of the plant, with five bluish-green sepals.

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

The ‘two-flowered’ head of a hydrangea (Photo One)

It’s well known that the colour of a hydrangea varies according to the soil pH, but I had it round the wrong way. Counter-intuitively, an acid soil may produce a flower on the blue spectrum, an alkaline soil one that is pinker (though see below). I have been pontificating about exactly the opposite for years. That’ll teach me.

The reason for the colour change is that hydrangeas are ‘hyperaccumulators’ – they can take up particular minerals and elements (in this case aluminium) to a degree that would be toxic to other plants. This gives them a clear advantage in particular soils. In alkaline soils the aluminium ions are ‘tied up’ and are hence not available, but in acid soils they are free to be taken into the tissues of the plant. The ions in the metal affect the pigments in the petals, thus causing the colour change – the more aluminium taken up, the bluer the flower.

Note that you can’t change the colour of a hydrangea just by re-potting it – it’s the aluminium ions that cause the change, not the pH per se. Also, some varieties have been bred to retain their pink or white colour regardless of the metal content of the soil. It’s probably best to buy a blue variety and hope for the best if that’s your preference.

Petals of a hydrangea showing the blueing effect of aluminium sulphate solution (Public Domain)

Incidentally, an alternative name for hydrangeas is ‘change rose’. The name ‘hydrangea’ comes from the Greek and means ‘water vessel’ after the cup-shaped seed capsule.

In Asia, pink hydrangeas are much preferred, with a meaning generally translated as ‘you are the beat of my heart!’.

A pretty pink hydrangea (Photo Two)

Now, I should probably make a confession at this point. I have never been overly fond of this kind of hydrangea – they seem to take up a lot of garden space for a plant that is not very useful for pollinators or other creatures and, although florists seem to love those big blousy overblown flowerheads, even when dead, they always seem, well, just a bit much. I have a climbing hydrangea with a much lacier flowerhead, and a Hydrangea paniculata which the bees love for its abundant pollen, but these chaps just leave me cold.

It seems that I am not the only person who is not overly fond of hydrangeas, either: in the language of flowers a hydrangea can indicate ‘boastfulness, cold beauty, heartlessness, and ‘you are cold’. There was an English tradition that the daughter of a  house with hydrangeas growing in the front garden would never marry, and that the plants are generally unlucky. Try telling that to the good folk of East Finchley, you can barely walk ten yards without falling over a hydrangea.

As with many ornamental plants. Hydrangea has a variety of medicinal uses: the root and rhizome are said to be useful in the treatment of urinary complaints. However, it’s worth noting that the plant is poisonous, especially the leaves and buds.

Photo Three by By Holdmacska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three

As I have been preparing this piece I have come across several articles remarking that you can make a tea called Amacha from the leaves of the hydrangea  – you are supposed to rub the leaves until they become sweet. It is very popular for the Buddha’s birthday celebrations. Note, however, that the tea is made from the leaves of a different species of hydrangea, Hydrangea serrata. I would be loathe to risk poisoning everyone from the leaves of our common garden hydrangea.

Photo Four by By Chhe (talk) - Own work (Original text: I (Chhe (talk)) created this work entirely by myself.), Public Domain,

Hydrangea serrata, source of the sweet tea for the Buddha’s birthday (Photo Four)

In my internet travels today I have found several paintings of hydrangeas, but none of them quite sum up my feelings about them as well as this painting by Victoria Dubourg, a French flower painter who died in 1926. The heads of the flowers bow under their own weight, and remind me of nothing so much as the big white broiler chickens that I rescued when I worked on a city farm years ago. Those poor creatures had deformed legs from being bred to put on weight so quickly that their frames couldn’t support them, and for me the very largest of the hydrangea cultivars have the same quality of ‘too-muchness’. But still, they have a kind of languid, tubercular beauty that even I can see.

‘White Hydrangeas’ by Victoria Dubourg (1840 – 1926) (Public Domain)

And, finally, here is a poem by Mark Doty, one of my favourite American poets. I love him for many reasons, one of which is his astonishing book ‘Dog Years‘ which is about his dogs, and about losing the man that he loves to AIDS, and how these things come together. And another reason is that he manages to be both funny and profound simultaneously, a clever trick to pull off. This poem was originally published on the Poem A Day website, which I recommend for a daily poetry ‘fix’.


Mark Doty, 1953

Late August morning I go out to cut
spent and faded hydrangeas—washed
greens, russets, troubled little auras

of sky as if these were the very silks
of Versailles, mottled by rain and ruin
then half-restored, after all this time…

When I come back with my handful
I realize I’ve accidentally locked the door,
and can’t get back into the house.

The dining room window’s easiest;
crawl through beauty bush and spirea,
push aside some errant maples, take down

the wood-framed screen, hoist myself up.
But how, exactly, to clamber across the sill
and the radiator down to the tile?

I try bending one leg in, but I don’t fold
readily; I push myself up so that my waist
rests against the sill, and lean forward,

place my hands on the floor and begin to slide
down into the room, which makes me think
this was what it was like to be born:

awkward, too big for the passageway…
Negotiate, submit?
When I give myself
to gravity there I am, inside, no harm,

the dazzling splotchy flowerheads
scattered around me on the floor.
Will leaving the world be the same

—uncertainty as to how to proceed,
some discomfort, and suddenly you’re
—where? I am so involved with this idea

I forget to unlock the door,
so when I go to fetch the mail, I’m locked out
again. Am I at home in this house,

would I prefer to be out here,
where I could be almost anyone?
This time it’s simpler: the window-frame,

the radiator, my descent. Born twice
in one day!
In their silvered jug,
these bruise-blessed flowers:

how hard I had to work to bring them
into this room. When I say spent,
I don’t mean they have no further coin.

If there are lives to come, I think
they might be a littler easier than this one.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Holger Casselmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Mani Nair – Own work, GFDL,

Photo Three by By Holdmacska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Chhe (talk) – Own work (Original text: I (Chhe (talk)) created this work entirely by myself.), Public Domain,






Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part Two

August 2017

Dear Readers, one of my most popular posts from last year was created during a deluge. ‘Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day’ was so much fun to write. The main challenge was keeping the camera from getting water-logged during the downpour…

It hasn’t been a particularly ‘foxy’ year, unlike 2016 when I was spending a lot of time with the foxes in the cemetery, but I did spot this little darling, sleeping under the whitebeam in the garden.

And I also spotted some common carder bees buzz-pollinating in the garden, a first!

September 2017

The month started a visit to the new gardens around Kings Cross station, for an assessment of how helpful they were to wildlife. The answer was that it’s early days, but the signs are very hopeful. Sparrows, vanishingly rare in central London, have already moved in, and there was an active wasps’ nest. I shall have to visit again soon to see how things are shaping up.

The month continued with my friend A bringing me a Knotgrass caterpillar for me to identify. What a fine creature! It has now pupated, and is back in A’s garden, with a barricade of twigs for protection. One day, no doubt, it will emerge and fly away, probably when no one is looking.

A theme throughout last year was my Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. At times it was all very stressful, and it was good to go for a walk around their village, Milborne St Andrew, and to reconnect. There’s always something wonderful to spot, and slowing down to actually see things is a very fine way of gaining perspective.

The party was held on 21st September. Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, so every bit of hassle about table-settings and whether or not to have a photographer was worth it.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….


A few days after the party, we had the heart-breaking news that one of the people who had attended, someone who had battled for years with depression, had killed themselves. It was so hard, especially after the event had been such a good one. I wrote this piece in the days afterwards, and believe every word.

I also took a visit to Dundee. I worked as a carer in a night-shelter for homeless people in the city when I was in my twenties, and wondered how things were going. The shelter is about to be converted into luxury flats, the pub where we used to drink is now a college, and there’s a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum going up on the quayside, but there are still people asking for change on the streets. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

The garden was visited by an amazing visitor in October: a female emperor dragonfly, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs.

And some birds in the garden had a narrow escape when we had another visit from the sparrowhawk…

November 2017

November saw me back in Milborne St Andrew, following Mum and Dad’s spectacular double fall down the front doorstep. Fortunately neither of them were seriously damaged (though after spending two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance while laying on the front lawn Mum was a little less sanguine than usual). But once in hospital, they were delighted to be placed in adjacent beds, and even more delighted to be sent home after a couple of hours. Suffice it to say that my visit the next day was well-timed. But I did manage to get out for a walk, and finally got photos of a buzzard, and my first ever meadow pipit.

We even managed to make the Christmas cake. By the time we ate it, Dad had fed it with so much brandy that I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

Once home, I went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery, where I found a strawberry tree, some greenfinches, a handsome jay, and this lovely gravestone. How I would love to find out a bit more about Muriel….

I also had a few thoughts about the use of fruit trees as street trees: there is a crab apple on our street which causes all kinds of mess, but which does attract such exotic creatures as this one.

What are you looking at?

I finished off the month with some thoughts about the passing of time, which seems to be have been a theme last year. With so many people that I love in their eighties and nineties, and with my own seventh decade approaching, I suppose that it’s inevitable that mortality should be on my mind, along with other existential thoughts, such as ‘what’s it all about’? ‘How do we live a good life, and what is a good life anyway?’ All this was prompted by watching a band of sunlight move across the garden in the space of a few minutes. I had a similar sensation last week as I watched the moon rise with Mum, and we both realised that you can actually see it moving,  and wondered why we’d never noticed before.

December 2017

December saw Mum and Dad struck down with a chest infection, and so I headed West again. It was a stressful time: the carer who normally looks after Mum and Dad was struck down by her own health emergency, and so I had to negotiate to try to get Mum and Dad to accept a carer who came from an agency, rather than someone that they already knew. I found it unbearable to think of them struggling on, sick, without someone to help them, and so I took myself off to the frozen fields for a walk and a think. Oh, the light on those December days. It felt like a blessing.

Then we had a spot of snow, the first that’s fallen and stayed for about five years.

Pied wagtail

And then it was Christmas, on the County Roads...

and in Dorset. We hadn’t expected to be in Dorset (Mum and Dad usually visit us in London) but they were both still too sick from their chest infections to travel. This didn’t reduce their appetite fortunately, and ridiculous quantities of the aforementioned Christmas cake were eaten, along with chocolates, roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts. Just as well we were able to get out for a walk.

It’s a pig!

January 2018

So, now we’re nearly back to the present day. January saw me exploring Hampstead Village, and falling in love with an angel.

It saw the very welcome arrival of a song thrush in the garden (still here as I write in February), and the continued presence of a single pied wagtail, who has been here since November. We are all hoping that he or she soon has some company.

And I took a bus ride down to Tate Modern, and a tube ride back.

So, readers, that’s the end of the review of the past year. Thank you for all your input  – I read every single comment, and love the community that we’ve built together. Don’t forget that if you’re on Facebook, you can find me here. I look forward to ‘meeting’ with you all in the year to come. And during the next few weeks, you will find that Bugwoman has been on a very exotic adventure, and has been living up to her name, for once. Stay tuned…..







Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part One

Dear Readers, it’s that time of year when I review what’s been going on during my fourth year of producing the Bugwoman blog. What’s been happening in the past twelve months? This week, we’ll be looking at February 2017 through to July 2017 – the rest of the year will make an appearance next week. Stay tuned!

February 2017


We started the Bugwoman year in a celebratory mood. After a year of no blackbirds (following the death of a male at the hands of the local sparrowhawk) a new couple moved in, and it was such a pleasure to hear the song of the male from the rooftop in the evening. I’m pleased to report that I still have a pair of blackbirds in 2018, and I’m hoping that they’re the same ones.


March 2017

In March London suffered the first of several terrorist attacks last year, when a car was rammed into pedestrians as they crossed Westminster bridge. I was on the South Bank when it happened, and wrote a piece about it here.  I find that nature has a way of restoring balance to our troubled minds in times of trouble, and it was especially consoling during my walk, the arrival of spring coinciding with the terrible injuries and loss of life.

And I also made a visit to Crossbones Graveyard, close to London Bridge. This is a site for the outcast dead, and they are remembered in a ceremony every month at the main gates. It is a very special place, and it felt entirely appropriate to be making my first visit there in the week after the terrorist attack. I hope to visit it again soon.


The gates at Crossbones Graveyard

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2 1725 – one of the ribbons from Crossbones Graveyard

A bee feeding on willow in the graveyard

And the frogs were back, singing away in the pond.



April kicked off with a garden visit from a female sparrowhawk, who plucked and ate a collared dove that she’d knocked out of the whitebeam tree. A spectacular but discomfiting event.

And then some Bohemian Waxwings visited a tree at the end of my road, something I hadn’t seen for years.

April also found me on my annual visit to Canada – my husband John is Canadian, and I love observing the wildlife on the other side of the Atlantic. The similarities and differences always intrigue me. For example, we have no grackles in the UK.





And our goldfinches are not North American goldfinches…

And we don’t have any cardinals..

But we do have house sparrows.

And these guys of course….





May 2017

At the beginning of May I was still in Canada, and paid a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington (just outside Toronto). I met up with my lovely friend M, who lives in the States but had motored across the border. She is also a writer and a nature-lover. We had a wonderful day!

Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Red-winged blackbird

Back in London, I took a walk to look at the street trees of Archway, just down the hill from where I live. It was based on one of my favourite books from last year, ‘London Street Trees: A Guide to the Urban Forest‘ by Paul Wood, and it was so much fun that I plan to do another walk later this year. You can read about the walk here and here.

Chinese Lacebark Elm

A Dawn Redwood (Metasequioa glyptostroboides) just off Holloway Road in North London.

A Bragania visited by a carder bumblebee in Dresden Road, a few hundred metres from the hubbub of the Archway junction.


June saw my monthly visit to my elderly parents turning into something of a drama, after Dad got a chest infection and had a fall. Still, spending time in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset is always a pleasure, and even if I didn’t have much time to admire the scenery, I did get a few brief minutes to look at the garden and take a deep breath.

White-tailed bumblebee on the ceanothus in Mum and Dad’s garden

June also saw the great willowherb in my garden infested with the caterpillars of a tiny moth. Surprisingly, they still flowered rather splendidly. ‘Weeds’ are resilient plants, for sure.


In July I made my annual visit to Obergurgl in Austria, for walking in the mountains and admiring the flowers and the insects. Oh, and for cake.

Large Copper butterfly on yarrow

Hoverfly on rampion

Early flowering orchid


Closer to home, I paid a visit to East Finchley Station, and to the N2 Community Garden beside it. There are many new goings on in the entrance to the station…


…on the platforms


….and in the garden itself. It was lovely to go travelling, but it’s always nice to be home.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

I also spent some time posting about my amazing artist friend, Robin Huffman, and her portraits of the monkeys and apes that she cares for when she volunteers at wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. I think her work is absolutely stunning, and to see more of it you can visit her website here. She is currently in Cameroon at the  Ape Action Africa sanctuary in Mefou, looking after several baby monkeys. I imagine that she’s covered in poo, bitten half to death and dreaming of Japanese food, but I bet she’s also deliriously happy.

Sunshine, Olive Baboon (Robin Huffman) (after a photo by Perrine DeVos)

Diva, moustached guenon

Ayla, vervet monkey

So, Dear Readers, that’s the end of part one of my annual review. Stay tuned for next week!






Wednesday Weed – Spider Plant

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…..


A very fine spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) at East Finchley Station

Dear Readers, when I was growing up my paternal grandmother had a number of houseplants. There was a rubber plant that had grown almost to the ceiling, with leaves that were lovingly wiped once a week. There were various ferns with fronds browning in the dry air (these were cut off with nail scissors as soon as they began to look untidy). And there was the most magnificent spider plant, bursting forth like a fountain and producing little starry white flowers which would, in due course, turn into new spider plants. If not transplanted quickly enough, these would root into the carpet, but this was an unusual happening in a house where no grain of dust was allowed to languish.

I have two spider plants myself, acquired because they are believed to be particularly good at cleaning up household air, and because they are tolerant, hardy plants, prepared to forgive negligence and mishandling. For a while, I was giving my plants a ‘holiday’ on the patio in the summer, but soon discovered that they are a favourite with slugs and snails. One plant came back into the house with a positive colony of tiny snails living under the rim of the pot, and they could be caught shimmying forth across the Persian carpet if you got up during the night.

I note that there are also several spider plants now living in the entrance to East Finchley tube station, and these are rather fine specimens, standing on a plinth and cascading down. They are a good choice for this spot because they don’t seem to mind low light, draughts, people accidentally knocking them off their podium, and the other hazards of being in a public space. And so I got to thinking. What on earth are they? And how did they get to become one of the most popular houseplants in the world?


The Latin name for the spider plant is Chlorophytum comosum, and popular names include airplane plant and spider ivy. Interestingly, none of the names include the word ‘grass’, in spite of the fact that this is what the plant most closely resembles. However, its closest relatives are actually agaves, aloes, hostas  and the Joshua tree, members of the Agavoideae family. There are some 200 members of the spider plant genus, but our plant comes from tropical and southern Africa originally. In the wild there seem to be three subspecies: one with very narrow leaves that grows along the margins of forests, and two others that live within the forest itself, and have broad leaves which help to make the most of the dappled sunlight.

In cultivation there are two popular variegated varieties. One, ‘Vittatum’, has a broad white stripe down the middle of each leaf, and the flower stalks are white.

Photo One (Vittatum) by By Hierbabuena_0611.JPG: Dtarazonaderivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) - Hierbabuena_0611.JPG, Public Domain,

‘Vittatum’ variety of spider plant (Photo One)

The other, ‘Variegatum’ has leaves with white margins, and the flower stalks are green. It goes to show how much attention I’ve paid that I’ve never noticed the difference.

Photo Two by By Digigalos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Spider plant ‘Variegatum’ variety (Photo Two)

To return to the subject of using spider plants to clean air: they are said to be particularly good at neutralising formaldehyde (which can be found in automobile exhausts and cigarette smoke, among other pollutants). However, you would need 70 plants to clean the air in a 160m square energy-efficient house, so I’d better be encouraging mine to produce some plantlets at speed. A spider plant will also give you a hand (leaf) with toluene and xylene, should you be suffering from such noxious substances. And all for the price of a regular watering and an occasional (very occasional in my case) feeding when you get round to it.

Spider plants are also said to be very good at absorbing the smell of fresh paint. Let me know if you have any experience of such a phenomenon – my house is due for a ‘freshen up’ on the paint front, and the smell always gives me a sore throat.

Incidentally, my spider plants were for a while displayed elegantly on top of my husband’s expensive speakers. One day I was watering the plants and didn’t notice that the leaves had directed the water into the equipment. One of the speakers is currently with the Hi-fi doctor, and I am keeping an unusually low profile.

Photo Three by CC BY-SA 3.0,

A magnificent spider plant in full breeding condition (Photo Three)

It appears that spider plants are eaten in the regions of Africa where they grow wild – they apparently have a bitter taste, but are full of vitamin C and various micronutrients. If you had the 70 plants recommended to reduce your in-house pollution, you would have an abundance for your eggs Florentine or spider plant omelette. The plant, especially the stem, is also relatively high in protein.

In Polish-American folklore, the white flowers on a spider plant signify a birth or a wedding.

Photo Four by By Wildfeuer - Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,

Spider plant flower (Photo Four)

Medicinally, the plant has been used by the Nguni people of South Africa as a charm to protect a pregnant mother and her baby. The plant is kept in the room where the mother and child are staying, and the roots are dipped into water which the mother then drinks. The child is also given an infusion of the leaves.

Apparently some cats develop an attraction to spider plants, and get ‘high’ much as some cats do with catnip. Although the plants are not toxic, this is probably a good reason for hanging them up somewhere high (though not on top of expensive speakers, see above).

Incidentally, the two biggest problems that spider plants suffer from are red spider mites (ironic, given the name) and browning leaf tips. For the spider mites, the recommended treatment is to blast the little arachnids with strong alcohol on a cotton bud (should you have such a substance in the house, of course).

Photo Five by By Charles Lam from Hong Kong, China (Red Dot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Red spider mite (Tetranichidae sp.) (Photo Five)

Those brown leaf tips, though, are due to an accumulation of fluoride, which the plant can’t tolerate. The recommended treatment is to cut off the affected leaf tips, and to water the plant with rain water or, at a pinch, with water that’s been allowed to stand overnight so that some of the fluoride evaporates off. Who knew? The things that I learn in the course of this blog never fail to amaze me.

Strangely enough, this common, cheerful, easily nurtured houseplant seems to have inspired a raft of sinister poetry. Here, for example, is a found poem by Lori Davis, a poet about whom I can find almost nothing.

Caring for Your Spider Plant
Lori Davis
A found poem dedicated to Andrea Yates,
the mother from Texas who drowned
her five children

The more root-bound your plant is,
the more babies it can produce.
The more babies on the plant,
the more attention the plant will need.
Most problems arise from overwhelming.
You will first notice a darkening heart
with a yellow halo,then all-black lower leaves.
If it dries out between waterings,
keep an eye on the foliage.
It will become pale and limp
when it is ready for water.
The root system is large and tuberous,
allowing it to store distress longer
than most hanging plants.
Naturally, the bigger the babies are
the more strain they put on the mother.
Since their roots are already formed,
the babies can be removed
rather easily. To remove babies from the mother,
trim the stem off both mother and baby.
It looks better if there are no stubs showing.
Then you can plant directly into moist soil
or simply place in water, holding them under
until their little roots start to recoil.

and this one, called ‘Last Nostalgia Starting With a Piece of Spider Plant on our Car’s Backseat‘ by Anna Journey: if the last stanza doesn’t demand a sudden intake of breath, i don’t know what does.

But after all that misery, here is a post that stopped me in my tracks. From the website ‘Vision Loss and Personal Recovery‘ it details how, even without sight, a person can enjoy and nurture their houseplants, and the information included is useful for everyone who loves plants. Here, for example, is a very happy spider plant:

‘My heartiest plant currently is a huge spider plant that I bought at a yard sale four years ago. At that time it was unhealthy and about the size of the circumference of a dessert plate. Today it fills a pot that has the circumference of a small laundry basket and is very hearty. I routinely first set it on my office chair at home, wheel it into the bathroom and set it in the tub and then give it a 15 minute shower. It cleanses the leaves and saturates the soil quite nicely. Then I set something under one side of the pot to tip it in order to allow it to drain for a couple of days until I can again lift it and return it to the bedroom window. During its short stay in the shower, I cover it with plastic while Nick, my husband, or I shower so that soap or shampoo does not get in the plant. Nick is never more thrilled than when showering with this monster plant.’

Showering with monster plants? That’s an idea whose time has come.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Vittatum) by By Hierbabuena_0611.JPG: Dtarazonaderivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) – Hierbabuena_0611.JPG, Public Domain,

Photo Two by By Digigalos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by By Wildfeuer – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Five by By Charles Lam from Hong Kong, China (Red Dot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Wild Garlic

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…..

Wild Garlic (Ramsons) (Allium ursinum)

Dear Readers, during a very wet walk in Somerset last week, I was delighted to see that the wild garlic is already putting in an appearance. I couldn’t help myself – I had to stop and pluck a leaf and take a little nibble. I love the delicate flavour of wild garlic, but by spring the whole of this lane will have a distinct whiff of allium, and the leaves will be topped with a froth of white flowers.

Photo One (garlic flowers) by By Kurt Stüber [1] - part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wild garlic in flower (Photo One)

I was delighted to learn that the species name, ursinum, comes from the brown bear’s habit of digging up the bulbs and eating them. I suppose if you’re walking through the woods and get a blast of onion breath it might be your cue to head up a tree at speed. Wild garlic often grows alongside bluebells, and both are known as indicators of ancient woodland (woodland that existed before 1600) – both plants spread slowly, and so if they are present in a wood, it means that the wood has been there for a considerable period of time.

Photo Two (ancient woodland) by By No machine-readable author provided. Naturenet assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Bluebells, wild garlic and hazel in ancient woodland on the Isle of Wight, UK (Photo Two)

Wild garlic is also known as ramsons (often misremembered as ‘ransoms’) or buckram, and is native to the UK and to the rest of Europe and Asia. The Old English root name for the plant, hramsa, appears in place names such as Ramsbottom and Ramsey Island, which I had previously thought related to sheep rather than a plant. It can indeed be an invasive little number (indeed, the vernacular name ‘ramsons’ comes from the same root as ‘rampant’), and when I was treasurer at Culpeper City Garden in Islington, I remember how we were inundated with the stuff for a season. Our lovely volunteers managed to dig most of it out, but it was very hard work.

It appears that I took a chance with my nibble, as it has been known for people to mistake the poisonous leaves of the lily-of-the-valley or the arum lily for the edible leaves of our plant. The scent test (rubbing the leaf and smelling the fingers to check for the garlicky smell) is a good way of identifying an individual plant but won’t help with subsequent plants. Fortunately, once the flowers are out everything is clear. Unfortunately, by this time the flavour has changed from ‘subtle’ to ‘brash’.

There is a limit to how much of the plant anyone wants to take home, although it has been growing in popularity as a culinary ingredient just lately, and it sometimes feels as if I’m tripping over wild garlic pesto every time I go to a posh restaurant. However, it’s not just about the pesto, as you will see from the fine selection of recipes here.

I was interested to find out that the plant has also been used as fodder, although like most members of the onion family it taints the milk produced by the cows and goats who feed on it. In Switzerland, garlic-scented butter made use of this natural feature, and was apparently quite popular. I am reminded of an episode from ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy, where the cows eat wild garlic in the orchard and ruin their milk, so Tess and Angel Clare end up working together with the rest of the village to clear the plant. Hardy is not my favourite author, but I do love the set pieces that he creates, and I must admit that since spending so much time in Dorset with my parents I am warming to his descriptions of the countryside and the people and animals that live there.

Wild garlic pesto

Like most alliums, wild garlic also has a whole raft of medicinal properties: it is antibacterial, and is said to be the best of all the onion and garlic family for lowering blood pressure (unless you’ve let it get out of hand in your garden of course). A 17th Century saying has it that if you :

Eat leekes in Lide (March) and ramsins in May,
And all the yeare after physitians may play.

Wild garlic was also a useful source of Vitamin C, and was said to have been taken to many parts of Europe by the Vikings: in Finland, it was planted at the ports and around the harbours to make it easy to pick and take on board. It was believed by the Vikings to protect against the evil eye, and of course we know how useful garlic is against vampires.

For my poem this week, I’ve chosen one by the Welsh poet Leslie Norris, who died in 2006. His poem honours fellow poet Edward Thomas, whose poems conjure the British countryside, wild garlic and all.

(for Edward Thomas)What the white ransoms did was to wipe away
The dry irritation of a journey half across
England. In the warm tiredness of dusk they lay
Like moonlight fallen clean onto the grass,And I could not pass them. I wound
Down the window for them and for the still
Falling dark to come in as they would,
And then remembered that this was your hill,

Your precipitous beeches, your wild garlic.
I thought of you walking up from your house
And your heartbreaking garden, melancholy
Anger sending you into this kinder darkness,

And the shining ransoms bathing the path
With pure moonlight. I have my small despair
And would not want your sadness; your truth,
Your tragic honesty, are what I know you for.

I think of a low house upon a hill,
Its door closed now even to the hushing wind
The tall grass bends to, and all the while
The faroff salmon river without sound

Runs on below; but if this vision should
Be yours or mine I do not know. Pungent
And clean the smell of ransoms from the wood,
And I am refreshed. It was not my intent

To stop on a solitary road, the night colder,
Talking to a dead man, fifty years dead,
But as I flick the key, hear the engine purr,
Drive slowly down the hill, I’m comforted.

Leslie Norris (b. 1921 d.2006)

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two (ancient woodland) by No machine-readable author provided. Naturenet assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,