Dear Readers, how could I resist this splendid display of Dalmatian Bellflower, tumbling over an original Victorian tiled path? There are actually two types of Bellflower that have made themselves at home in North London and other parts: this one from the Dalmatian mountains of Croatia, and the one below, Serbian Bellflower, from the Dinaric Alps in Serbia. As you can see, both are Alpine plants, very at home in cracks and crevices, and every bit as pretty as anything you could buy in the garden centre. The Dalmatian species is less pointy, more deeply coloured and a bit more vigorous, while the Serbian plant is a delicate little star-shaped thing. I love them both, although they don’t seem to attract quite as many bees as you might expect (in spite of what I might have thought in my original piece). Still, they help to cover the most unlikely places with greenery, and that makes them welcome in my book.
Botanists know them as ‘port and posh’ after their Latin names, which is certainly less of a mouthful than their full species designation.
Here’s what I had to say in my original post, back when we were all young and enthusiastic back in 2014.
Trailing Bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)
When I am exploring the half-mile around my house, I am regularly surprised by some new plant that I haven’t noticed before. This week, however, I found a whole new lane that I’d not stumbled across previously, leading from Baronsmere Road to Cherry Tree Wood.
The building development in East Finchley sometimes leaves interesting lanes and snickleways….
In this weedy little track, with garden sheds and walls on either side, I found this patch of Trailing Bellflower, with its lilac-blue flowers enhanced by perfect raindrops.
Trailing Bellflower comes from the Dinaric Alps – these are the parts of the Alps that were part of the former Yugoslavia, and you can sometimes see the plant referred to as Serbian Bellflower. As we’ve seen before, mountain plants, with their tolerance of poor, thin soil, often do very well in urban environments. This plant is a relatively recent introduction – it first came to the UK in 1931, and was first recorded in the wild in 1957.
Isn’t it funny how, once you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere? On a trip to Tufnell Park, I found a patch of Trailing Bellflower peeping out from amongst the ivy.
The name ‘Bellflower’ doesn’t seem very appropriate for this plant – ‘Starflower’ seems more descriptive of those five-petalled blooms. However, in the photo below, you can see a stem with two flowers on it on the right hand side. Viewed from here, the flowers look like hats for fairies.
There seems to be some debate as to whether Trailing Bellflower is palatable or not. On the lovely website Plants for a Future the leaves are described as ‘a little tough’, but the flowers ‘have a pleasant sweet flavour and make a decorative addition to the salad bowl‘. They would certainly look very pretty nestled amongst some winter leaves. However, as this is a popular plant with pollinators, and as it flowers later than most, I would be inclined to leave most of the flowers where they belong.
As I left the lane, I spotted another patch of Trailing Bellflower, which had made itself at home amongst the stone stairs of an impressive entrance:
As I was standing there, an elderly gentleman paused to let me take my photograph.
“Are you interested in Victorian architecture?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “but today I’m more interested in the plants”. With a burst of enthusiasm, I explained that this was Trailing Bellflower, and told him probably more than he either wanted or needed to know about the habits, history and ecology of the plant.
He shook his head, a little sadly I thought.
“I see them,” he said, “but I don’t know any of the names”.
You don’t have to know the name of something to appreciate it – in fact, sometimes the urge to identify what a plant or animal is can get in the way of really looking at what you’re seeing. But being able to put a name to a Trailing Bellflower does add a depth, a way of seeing plants both individually and as part of an ecosystem. In fact, my walks to the greengrocer are often now something of a mantra.
Dear Readers, you might remember me mentioning that I’d found some fringe cups growing in the garden at the weekend, so I thought it might be the moment to resurrect this post, from 2015. And here is a small treat – an extract from a poem by Sandra McPherson, published in New York in 1988. I think it’s rather lovely.
Of a green so palely, recessively matched to the forest floor, one asks if they will turn a color for they could hardly fade more. Around them, buttercups spread witheringly bright.
But there can be a deep pink sign of aging on a cup’s curled edge. And when its style calves and the ovary splits, one drop of cucumber-scented water sprinkles the fingernail.
And now, let’s zip back to 2015 and see what I had to say then….
Dear Readers, during a walk in Coldfall Wood last week, I was surprised to see a stand of Fringecups alongside the stream. They are a member of the Saxifrage family, although they look very different from the others, with their strange green-pink flowers peering like giraffes over their neighbours. They are the sole member of their genus, and as such are somewhat out on a limb: most saxifrages are five-petalled, open-flowered plants, although a few do share the long stem of the Fringecup. As the flowers grow older, they start to change from greenish-white to pink, and even to red.
This is a plant that my North American readers might recognise, as it is a native of the north-western corner of the continent, including Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Alberta and British Columbia. It is a plant of woody, shady, wet places, and in my garden at least the bees are very fond of those unassuming flowers.
Here in the wood, they have certainly made themselves at home. They mix happily with the nettles, the violets and the marsh marigolds, and keep themselves largely to themselves. It is not difficult to see how it has made the leap into ‘the wild’ – I have it in my own garden, and there are many varieties for sale. Its tolerance of shade is a great point in its favour in many people’s eyes.
Fringecups growing in my garden.
I think that this looks like a fairy-tale plant, ethereal and delicate. The flowers look as if they could be hats for pixies, and, indeed, there is a Canadian folktale that elves ate Fringecup in order to improve their night vision. The First Nation Skagit people used Fringecup to make a tea for treating many illnesses, including loss of appetite.
In many of the books that mention Fringecups, there is a reference to its fragrance. I have to admit that this was not something that I’d noticed so, in the interests of research, I went down to the garden to have a sniff. And there it is, a faint hint of sweetness, as fragile as the scent left on a silk scarf. This is a modest plant of strange and elusive beauty, which only reveals itself if you have the time to stop and look.
Sowthistle display outside The Village Green pub in Muswell Hill
Dear Readers, I mentioned earlier this week that the sowthistle appears to have gone berserk all over North London, but even I was surprised at this impressive display in a windowbox outside the Village Green pub on Fortis Green Road in East Finchley. The pub has recently been taken over and I suspect that the owners have more things to worry about than what’s going on outside. Plus, in a way this is spectacular – I almost walked past it because it’s so abundant, so full of flowers that you could almost think it was deliberate. Anyway, if I was this particular sowthistle I think I’d be aiming to set seed as quickly as possible before anybody noticed, so that my babies could colonise every crack in the pavement between here and East Finchley.
Anyhow, here is what I wrote about prickly sowthistle back in 2017. Do scroll on down to the bottom for the most incredible poem by Sylvia Plath, one which I’d completely forgotten until I looked again at this post today. See what you think.
Prickly Sowthistle (Sonchus asper)
Dear Readers, I wanted to find a ‘proper’ weed for you this week, and here it is. Way back when I started this blog, one of the very first plants I wrote about was Smooth Sowthistle and I have been looking out since then for the prickly variety. I shouldn’t have needed to look very hard because goodness knows it’s everywhere in the UK except for in the very far north of Scotland, but it has proved elusive until today. How delighted I was to find it lurking in a little alleyway close to Fortismere School here in East Finchley, and how surprised all the passersby were to see me taking its portrait.
The diagnostic basal lobe
First things first. Both sowthistles are members of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family. Both have yellow flowers, though those of the prickly species are said to be darker in colour. Both bleed white sap, but that of the prickly sowthistle quickly turns a dirty orange colour, while that of the smooth sowthistle takes longer. However, the leaves of the prickly sowthistle are decidedly more thistle-like, and where the leaves emerge from the stem there is a kind of rounded prickly spiral called a basal lobe (see above). The leaves are also shinier and darker green. I would hazard an opinion that the prickly sowthistle is a slightly more handsome plant than it’s smooth relative, but not by much.
A rather sad smooth sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
Both sowthistles are native,and both are annuals. They are extraordinarily tough plants and require next to no soil to produce an extraordinary quantity of biomass, and a fine crop of seeds. There is one in the tree pit just up the road from my house that must be nearly a metre tall. How I admire these city-dwellers for their resilience in tough times! No amount of drought, dog urine, litter or polluted rain puts them off their stride. They remind me of Dickensian urchins, cheeky and adaptable. The only thing that slows them up is a biannual dousing with weed-killer, administered by a man from Barnet Council with a backpack full of biocide and a hose. He wears ear-buds so that he can listen to music while he sprays, but no face mask to protect his lungs, and no gloves to protect his skin. I fear that the chemicals are more prone to damage him than the plants for, although the weeds wither and die, they or their offspring are generally back within the month.
Of the two species the prickly sowthistle is, surprisingly, the one that is preferred for eating – luminaries such as Rose Gray of the River Cafe are said to have gathered the fresh young leaves in March and April for salads. According to Pliny, Theseus was treated to a dish of sow-thistles before he headed off to fight the Bull of Marathon. The plant was also fed to lactating sows (hence the name) to encourage their milk production – the white sap was thought to be indicative that this was the best use for the plant. In fact, many grazing animals love sowthistle, although farmers generally view it as a pernicious weed. In Germany, it is believed that a fleeing hare can hide safely under the leaves of sowthistle as the plant will protect the animal (hence another alternative name for the plant, ‘hare-lettuce’).
The older leaves of sowthistle are often decorated with the white tracery of leaf-miners – usually these are the tiny caterpillars of micromoths that live between the two layers of the leaf and spend their lives munching little tunnels. I often wonder what leads to the shapes of the patterns – did the caterpillar meet another caterpillar coming in the opposite direction and have to back up? The filigree is rather attractive, I think, if not particularly advantageous to the plant. Other moth species eat the leaves and the buds, and the plant invariably attracts lots of aphids, which make it useful for attracting predatory insects such as ladybirds and lacewings.
Prickly sowthistle with a few late blackfly.
Amongst the moths that feed on prickly sowthistle are the Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata), whose caterpillars feed on the buds and flowers:
Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata)
the grey chi (Antitype chi) whose caterpillar feeds on the leaves:
Grey chi moth (Antitype chi)
and the rather elegant shark moth (Cucullia umbratica). Although most UK moths are not as brightly coloured as their tropical counterparts, they have a subtle and delicate beauty that repays close attention.
Shark moth (Cucillia umbratica)
Prickly sowthistle has a wide native range, encompassing Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, and has been imported into North America, probably with grains used for food. Across its native range it has been used medicinally as a poultice for wounds and skin complaints, though many herbals consider smooth sowthistle to be slightly more efficacious.
As I feared, the common-or-garden nature of the poor old prickly sowthistle has meant that it has not featured widely in art. Even the Sowthistle Fairy of our old friend, Cicely Mary Barker, is standing on a smooth sowthistle, not a prickly one (have a look at those basal lobes, friends).
Sowthistle Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker
Nor is there a superabundance of sowthistle poetry. However, I hope you’ll forgive the tenuous link to this extraordinary poem by Sylvia Plath. After all, sowthistle was fed to lactating pigs, as we know. Maybe it was also used to fatten them up.
God knows how our neighbor managed to breed His great sow: Whatever his shrewd secret, he kept it hid
In the same way He kept the sow–impounded from public stare, Prize ribbon and pig show.
But one dusk our questions commended us to a tour Through his lantern-lit Maze of barns to the lintel of the sunk sty door
To gape at it: This was no rose-and-larkspurred china suckling With a penny slot
For thrift children, nor dolt pig ripe for heckling, About to be Glorified for prime flesh and golden crackling
In a parsley halo; Nor even one of the common barnyard sows, Mire-smirched, blowzy,
Maunching thistle and knotweed on her snout- cruise– Bloat tun of milk On the move, hedged by a litter of feat-foot ninnies
Shrilling her hulk To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast Brobdingnag bulk
Of a sow lounged belly-bedded on that black compost, Fat-rutted eyes Dream-filmed. What a vision of ancient hoghood must
Thus wholly engross The great grandam!–our marvel blazoned a knight, Helmed, in cuirass,
Unhorsed and shredded in the grove of combat By a grisly-bristled Boar, fabulous enough to straddle that sow’s heat.
But our farmer whistled, Then, with a jocular fist thwacked the barrel nape, And the green-copse-castled
Pig hove, letting legend like dried mud drop, Slowly, grunt On grunt, up in the flickering light to shape
A monument Prodigious in gluttonies as that hog whose want Made lean Lent
Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint, Proceeded to swill The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent.
Dear Readers, it’s funny what we have tolerance for as gardeners, and what pushes us to the limit. In the front garden this year I’ve let the Green Alkanet have its head – I know it’s a thug, but it attracts more pollinators at this time of year than practically anything else. Look at this gorgeous Holly Blue butterfly, for example – they all seem to have come out in the past few days and you can often see them circling around one another in tight, dizzy circles.
Holly blue from a most peculiar angle.
The plant is not just a magnet for butterflies, though – it’s also visited by honeybees (I suspect from the hives over in our local allotments) and various hoverflies and solitary bees, including a very late female hairy-footed flower bee. The hoverfly in the photo below is, I think, a Common Hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) – if so I’m delighted, as its larvae are ferocious feeders upon aphids, eating up to 50 a day. If the last few years are anything to go by, my two buddleia plants, which are currently looking green and healthy, will soon be dripping with honeydew from the sheer volume of greenfly, which are cheerfully picked up and moved around by the black ants that live under the patio.
So what is it that I won’t tolerate? Does anyone recognise this?
It’s our old friend Prickly Sowthistle (Sonchus asper) and London seems awash with it at the moment. This individual was growing in one of my fancy pots next to the semi-squashed catmint, and had somehow managed to achieve a height of about a metre without me noticing (well, I have been away/busy). And somehow, this was a step too far, and out it came. It seems there are limits to my acceptance of ‘wildflowers’ after all (and yet I am turning a blind eye to a few nettles in amongst the lavender and the green alkanet because I figure there’s a good chance that something will be benefitting from it).
I accept that I am prepared to accept a wider range of ‘weeds’ than most people (after all, what would I have to write about?) but I am curious. What plants will you pull out as soon as they raise their heads? What do you tolerate because you’re fond of it, in spite of its ‘weedy’ status? I am reminded of my Mum asking the gardener to mow around the patches of daisies because she loved them so much (and bless him, he always did). I suspect that we’ve all got a soft spot for something.
Well Readers, after two weeks, thousands of miles, two flights, numerous subway trains and taxis and lots of walking I’m back home and I suspect that you peeps in London have had a lot of rain, as everything has gone berserk. Just look at my climbing hydrangea! It’s absolutely covered in flowers and is going to be quite something in a few days time.
Here is the garden now (with the flowering currant that I was using for my bee experiment in the foreground)
…and this is what it looked like in mid-April. What a difference a few weeks makes! It’s always like this, I go off to Canada at the end of April and come back to a jungle.
The duckweed has taken over, so I foresee some removal in the (very near) future if I can get it out without decimating the tadpoles…
But on the other hand the marsh marigold is just past its peak…
and the bog bean is in flower! I love those raggedy blooms!
Elsewhere, the balm-leaved deadnettle (Lamium orvala) is attracting the bumblebees in spite of the rain…
The white lilac is just finishing…
and I fear that the green alkanet has gotten carried away with itself again.
In the front garden, both the buddleias have literally grown about 12 inches since we left…
and everything in my experimental containers in the front garden is doing very well, especially the Bowles Mauve and the catmint, which I feared had had it after a cat spent hours sitting on it last year. Plus my alliums look to be ready to pop…
The Kilmarnock Willow looks lovely…
and the Delosperma is just about to flower again.
The cat is less than impressed with our return, as I suspect we are a little too jetlagged to give her our full attention, plus you wouldn’t believe how much laundry two human beings can generate in just 14 days. But it’s so lovely to be home, rain or not, and we tried to stay awake through the Coronation, in spite of the whole thing feeling rather like Gormenghast for much of the proceedings (and if you haven’t read Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary trilogy, and if you like fantasy, it comes highly recommended). I was puzzled by the whole anointing thing going on behind screens, and would put a tenner on Penny Mordaunt somehow being our next prime minister if the whole performance with the sword is anything to go by (at least until the next election). Anyhow, Dear Readers, I am off for a quick dinner and an early night, as no doubt I shall be awake at 3 a.m. and wondering what time it is and what continent I’m on, so see you tomorrow!
Oops! This should, of course, have gone out on Wednesday. Apologies for the double post!
Dear Readers, yesterday I mentioned that some street trees had appeared in Church Lane, East Finchley, which had been given names. Apparently these trees (known as Desert Willows or Chitalpa tashkentsis) appeared more or less overnight, to the delight of the local residents, who then decided to name them after local people. So, we have Eve, named for Eve Bagley, whose family have lived in Church Lane for 90 years…
‘Angela’ for one of the original residents of Cricket Row on Church Lane…
‘Ted’ for Eve’s late husband, who was a veteran sailor on the Arctic convoys to Russia during World War II…
‘Pauline’ for the mother of Lisa, one of the residents of Church Lane…
and Dominic for the son of Church Lane residents Gail and Barry.
What a lovely idea this is! I’m sure that these will be the best nurtured, most loved trees in East Finchley. We humans do love to connect, and if we manage to do that by seeing plants or animals as individuals (which of course they are), all the better.
What on earth is a desert willow though? Well, the Chitalpas are hybrids between two closely related plants – the original desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) and the northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa).
The ‘original’ desert willow isn’t a willow at all (though the leaves look rather similar), but one look at the flowers would tell you that this is a much more exotic plant – it comes originally from Mexico and the southern parts of the USA. The flowers are pollinated by large bees such as bumblebees.
These two trees were hybridised by a botanist called A.Rusanov in the Botanic Gardens of Uzbekistan back in 1964. Although it looks very exotic, it’s not a bad choice as a street tree – it’s very drought-resistant and fast growing. I can’t wait for the flowers to appear. Let’s hope that they appeal to bumblebees in the same way that the parent plants do.
There are two forms of the plant – ‘Pink Dawn’ and ‘Morning Cloud’. It will be interesting to see which variety the Church Lane trees are.
In his book ‘London’s Street Trees’, Paul Wood calls Chitalpa ‘a street tree of the future’, so it’s interesting to see that it’s already turning up in East Finchley (and in some numbers too!). It’s always worth paying attention to the trees on our streets, they are often such an eclectic mix. To add a note of caution though, the International Dendrology Society suggests that Chitalpa is likely to be at the edge of its range in the UK, and that, without the long hot summers that its parent plants are used to, Chitalpa is always likely to be slightly unhappy. We shall have to see what happens, but fingers crossed! Although the one in the photo below is leaning out into the sunshine (as street trees so often have to to get enough light), it also looks very lush and green. The ones in Church Lane will not be overshadowed, so I have every hope that they will do better.
Photo by Owen Johnson of a leaning Chitalpa in London in August 2018 (see link above)
Dear Readers, this week is our Away Day week at work, something that I approach with some trepidation, being allergic to ‘compulsory fun’ (though it has to be said that there are some interesting things going on too, so I shall try to rein in my inner curmudgeon). This means taht I will be pretty much full-time, and will not have my usual chance to cogitate over the blog, so some posts might be rather sketchier than usual. However, I was walking around the County Roads earlier this week, I noticed that the rosemary was in flower, even though the temperatures were only just above freezing. This might be a Mediterranean plant, but it seems to be very hardy. Plus, those little blue flowers are very attractive to bees, and are very pretty to boot. So it seemed like a good moment to revisit my 2018 post. Also, I can never see Rosemary without thinking of my beloved aunt Rosemary who passed away last year, and that’s just as it should be, because that’s one way that the people that we love live on.
Dear Readers, here in East Finchley Rosemary is an extremely popular choice for the front garden. It is deliciously pungent if brushed against, and the tiny, complex flowers delight the bees. On a warm summer day the scent of the Mediterranean wafts up in a fragrant cloud. But on a cold December morning, it reminds me that the name ‘Rosemary’ comes from the Greek words for ‘dew of the sea’. It is also associated with Christianity: there is a legend that when the Virgin Mary threw her cloak over a white-flowered rosemary bush to dry, the flowers took on the blue colour from her garment. It was henceforth known as ‘the rose of Mary’.
In the Middle Ages it was said that a thriving bush of rosemary outside the front door indicated that the woman of the house wore the trousers, to which I reply ‘and your problem is?’. However, many men with such a botanical indication of their status right outside their living room window would sneak out at dead of night and cut the roots of the plant. A comb made from rosemary, however, was said to cure baldness, so maybe it was sometimes allowed to stay.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) had this to say about the plant:
“As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.”
Rosemary is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and numbers basil, sage, oregano and mint among its siblings. They all share the intensely aromatic oils that are such a boon in cookery, and which were probably developed to deter pesky insects – rosemary has been used as a way to protect clothes against moths, and was one of the ingredients of ‘four thieves vinegar’ which was said to prevent a person from catching the plague. As the plague was spread by fleas, there might have been a germ of truth in the idea, as with many folk remedies.
Rosemary is well adapted for a hot climate, with its needle-like, waxy leaves, which protect against water loss. It is known for its tendency to bloom out of season, and one of the bushes that I spotted last week was bursting with flowers.
Any Shakespeare readers will recall that Ophelia strews rosemary ‘for remembrance’ shortly before her watery demise. There is a long history of associating rosemary not only with remembrance, but also with memory: rosemary oil is said to be good for those struggling to memorise facts and figures, or whose memory is failing. The Guardian reported that sales of rosemary oil were rocketing amongst revising students. A packet of Maryland Cookies used to do the trick for me along with vats of black coffee, but hey.
Ophelia and Laertes by William Gorman (circa 1880). Note the sprig of Rosemary drooping from Ophelia’s hand (Public Domain)
Rosemary was also much associated with marriage during the Middle Ages, and both bride and bridegroom would have worn it on their wedding day. The bride would carry a sprig of rosemary from a bush grown in her parents’ garden, to remind her of the love and protection that had been afforded her there. A bridesmaid would plant a sprig of the same bush in the bride’s garden as a symbol of protection and in due course, a sprig from this would be passed on to the bride’s daughters. I love the idea of handing plants down from one generation to another. I have a sudden vision of a garden filled with plants given to me by my friends and family, and the possibility of passing the plants on in my turn. That would be a real garden of remembrance every time I stepped out into it.
Rosemary is a most popular culinary herb, especially with roast meat, but it has also been cropping up in desserts recently. If you scroll down through this article, you’ll find apple cake with rosemary crumble, for example, which sounds extremely acceptable, especially as I haven’t had my lunch yet. There is also a rosemary and chocolate brownie and, hallelujah, a cocktail made from lemonade, bourbon and rosemary. Just as well that there’s so much of it here in East Finchley.
Rosemary and Chocolate Brownie (Photo One)
If you still have any rosemary left after all that cooking, you might consider knocking up some Hungary Water, which was a mixture of fresh rosemary tops and wine, and was used by Queen Elizabeth of Poland (1305-1380) to restore her youth and vitality when she was in her seventies (a ripe old age in those days). It is also said to cure gout and ‘paralysis of the limbs’. It had a brief spell of popularity as a perfume too, and no doubt all those courtly ladies (and possibly gentlemen) had great fun dousing themselves in the stuff.
Queen Elizabeth of Poland and her sons (1380). She looks very sprightly, I must say. (Public Domain)
And to finish, a poem. Elaine Feinstein (born 1930) is one of our greatest living Jewish poets, and this particular poem resonates deeply. It reminds me of the increasing frailty of my Dad, who was such a strong, vigorous man in his heyday. He still has his moments now, so it doesn’t do to underestimate him, but there is a poignant sadness in this work that moves me. I am breaking my usual habit of not pasting the poem because I want you to see it, but you can buy more of Feinstein’s work here.
Rosemary in Provence
We stopped the Citroen at the turn of the lane,
because you wanted a sprig of blue rosemary
to take home, and your coat opened awkwardly
as you bent over. Any stranger would have seen
your frail shoulders, the illness
in your skin – our holiday on the Luberon
ending with salmonella –
but what hurt me, as you chose slowly,
was the delicacy of your gesture:
the curious child, loving blossom
and mosses, still eager
in your disguise as an old man.
Photo One (Brownie) by Yuki Sugiura for the Guardian
Dear Readers, my camellia has just one flower on it so far (though there are a few hopeful buds), but it’s poignant because it was bought for me by my Dad, who never actually got back to London to see it. Such beautiful flowers, though….and here’s what I said back in 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dear Readers, having hunkered down and got through a) year end and b) forecasting we’re now into c) the reports for January 23. Ah, the roundabout that is finance! Before I know it, it will be December. However, for now I am just beginning to notice the buds on my white lilac bush (above) – they won’t be fully in flower until April, but it already feels like spring (at least here in East Finchley), and I’m watching the pond eagerly to see if any of the frogs have woken up.
And although there is a fine lengthy lilac poem by Amy Lowell at the end of my original 2018 post, I am rather fond of this Robert Burns poem. See what you think.
O were my love yon Lilac fair Robert Burns – 1759-1796
O were my love yon Lilac fair, Wi’ purple blossoms to the Spring, And I, a bird to shelter there, When wearied on my little wing! How I wad mourn when it was torn By Autumn wild, and Winter rude! But I wad sing on wanton wing, When youthfu’ May its bloom renew’d. O gin my love were yon red rose, That grows upon the castle wa’; And I myself a drap o’ dew, Into her bonie breast to fa’! O there, beyond expression blest, I’d feast on beauty a’ the night; Seal’d on her silk-saft faulds to rest, Till fley’d awa by Phoebus’ light!
And now, let’s whizz back to 2018 to see what I had to say for myself then.
Dear Readers, you might remember that I spent some of my formative years working in a night shelter for homeless people in Dundee. Sunday evenings there were typically quiet, and the men often spent them sitting in the kitchen and listening to the radio. There were two songs which many of them found particularly affecting. One was ‘The Lady in Red‘ by Chris de Burgh, which would often end with someone surreptitiously wiping their eyes, lost in memories of happier days. But the one that would really get everybody going was ‘Lilac Wine’, originally by Nina Simone but recorded by Elkie Brooks in the ’90’s. Was there ever a better song about the melancholy drinker? Everything from her wavering notes to her tear-filled eyes encapsulates the way that alcohol both distorts thinking and intensifies emotion. However, I do wonder if she has a different lilac tree from mine, as even on a good day I would not characterise the scent as ‘heady’, maybe because my plant flowers in April when the rain and the wind (and the occasional snow) make sitting outside a heroic endeavour. Maybe it’s also because my lilac is white, rather than the usual eponymous lilac? Do tell me of your lilac experiences, especially if they involve ‘feeling unsteady’ and seeing things that aren’t actually there.
My venerable lilac tree has grown to prodigious proportions. When I first moved into the house, all the flowers were at the top, some six feet above my head, and their fragrance was mainly enjoyed by passing starlings. Over the past few years I have been pruning out the old wood in an attempt to renovate the plant, and it seems to be working – this year I had flowers at eye-level for the first time in years. I cut a small bunch, put them in a glass jar and popped them down on my writing desk. For a while I just inhaled and admired them, until a moving pea attracted my attention. And when I took my glasses off for a better look, I saw a tiny spider, seemingly made out of green glass.
A cucumber spider (Arienella curcubita)
My garden wildlife book tells me that this is a cucumber spider, and I could not have been more surprised if I’d found out that it was a wildebeest. All my pruning and hacking suddenly seemed worthwhile, because if the lilac blossoms had still been at the top of the ‘tree’ I’d never have cut them.
Lilac has been in the UK since at least the sixteenth century, and is thought to have been brought here not from the Balkans, where it grows wild, but from the courts of the Ottomans. It didn’t reach North America until the eighteenth century, but has become so naturalized there that it is the state flower of New Hampshire. You can occasionally find lilac growing wild in the UK too, but generally close to human habitation. Indeed, a lone lilac bush can often be the first indication that there was once a garden on the site.
Now, to loop back to Elkie Brooks, I found myself wondering if lilac was much used as a culinary ingredient (after all, the plant is a member of the Oleaceae or olive family). I wandered out to the garden to munch on a flower, and found it a rather under-whelming experience – it was quite astringent (i.e. it dries up the saliva), floral, and a bit ‘green’, almost salady. My hunting through the internet revealed a recipe for lilac syrup on The Practical Herbalist, and from here I found a recipe for actual Lilac Wine. The latter website also has a link to all kinds of other ‘country’ wines, including rhubarb, beetroot and something enticing called ‘scuppernong’ wine. I am old enough to remember the days when any kind of fruit or vegetable was fair game for a spell of vinification. My Uncle Roy’s parsnip wine would knock your head off.
Medicinally, lilac was believed to be an ‘anti-periodic’ – that is, it could help to treat diseases such as malaria which occur cyclically. It has also been used to treat fever. In North America, the Iroquois people used it to treat sores.
Lilac (the white variety in particular) is yet another of those plants which have a reputation for bringing bad luck if brought into the house – I have listed so many of these lately that it’s a wonder that there are any bouquets at all! A five-petalled lilac flower is also thought to be a bad omen, except in some accounts where it appears to be lucky, so my advice is, if in doubt, go for the happier interpretation. Lilac was thought to bring protection against evil if planted at the corners of a house, and I have always thought of it as a happy plant, one of the earlier signs that summer is on its way.
On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland records a legend about the origin of the lilac in the UK:
According to legend its introduction to the British Isles is owed to a falcon that dropped the
seed in an old lady’s garden in Scotland. The bush grew without flowering until the day
when a passing prince stopped to admire it and a purple plume from his headdress
dropped into it. Thenceforth the bush bore purple flowers and the purple shrub brought
such joy to a young local girl that when she died on the eve of her marriage a cutting was
planted on her grave. This cutting flourished and eventually grew into a bush that bore
Maybe as a result of this story, wearing white lilac is said to mean that you will never marry.
During the 19th century there seems to have been a lot of enthusiasm for the complicated, abundant flowers of the lilac. Impressionists were particularly enamoured, and they seem to have been trying to outdo one another in their depictions. I particularly like the Manet one, but maybe that’s because the flowers are so recognisably like the ones in my garden. I am also very partial to the hexagonal glass vase.
Bouquet of Lilacs by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875-80 (Public Domain)
Lilacs in the Sun by Claude Monet, 1872 (Public Domain)
Lilacs in a Vase by Edouard Manet c.1882 (Public Domain)
And finally, here is a poem by the American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925). This speaks to me, newly returned from North America, and it helps to settle in my mind the conundrum of why the lilac, a flower from Europe, has so intertwined itself in the American imagination that it is the state flower of the Granite state, the ‘Live Free or Die’ state of New Hampshire. This work takes my breath away. I hope you enjoy it too. Read it slowly, preferably with a cup of tea.
‘Lilacs’ by Amy Lowell
Lilacs, False blue, White, Purple, Color of lilac, Your great puffs of flowers Are everywhere in this my New England. Among your heart-shaped leaves Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing Their little weak soft songs; In the crooks of your branches The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs Peer restlessly through the light and shadow Of all Springs. Lilacs in dooryards Holding quiet conversations with an early moon; Lilacs watching a deserted house Settling sideways into the grass of an old road; Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom Above a cellar dug into a hill. You are everywhere. You were everywhere. You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon, And ran along the road beside the boy going to school. You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking, You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver. And her husband an image of pure gold. You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms Through the wide doors of Custom Houses— You, and sandal-wood, and tea, Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks When a ship was in from China. You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men, May is a month for flitting.” Until they writhed on their high stools And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers. Paradoxical New England clerks, Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night, So many verses before bed-time, Because it was the Bible. The dead fed you Amid the slant stones of graveyards. Pale ghosts who planted you Came in the nighttime And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems. You are of the green sea, And of the stone hills which reach a long distance. You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles, You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home. You cover the blind sides of greenhouses And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass To your friends, the grapes, inside.
Lilacs, False blue, White, Purple, Color of lilac, You have forgotten your Eastern origin, The veiled women with eyes like panthers, The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas. Now you are a very decent flower, A reticent flower, A curiously clear-cut, candid flower, Standing beside clean doorways, Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles, Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight And a hundred or two sharp blossoms. Maine knows you, Has for years and years; New Hampshire knows you, And Massachusetts And Vermont. Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island; Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea. You are brighter than apples, Sweeter than tulips, You are the great flood of our souls Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts, You are the smell of all Summers, The love of wives and children, The recollection of gardens of little children, You are State Houses and Charters And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows. May is lilac here in New England, May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree, May is white clouds behind pine-trees Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky. May is a green as no other, May is much sun through small leaves, May is soft earth, And apple-blossoms, And windows open to a South Wind. May is full light wind of lilac From Canada to Narragansett Bay.
Lilacs, False blue, White, Purple, Color of lilac. Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England, Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England, Lilac in me because I am New England, Because my roots are in it, Because my leaves are of it, Because my flowers are for it, Because it is my country And I speak to it of itself And sing of it with my own voice Since certainly it is mine.
Dear Readers, the last time that I wrote about cyclamen was back in 2016, so I thought they would be worth a revisit, especially as the ones in my garden are doing so well. I rather suspect that these are Cyclamen coum, the Eastern Sowbread, as they come into flower after the autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium discussed below but all the plants are so confused at the moment that it’s anybody’s guess. It would be rather nice to plant both to extend the planting season especially if, like me, you have a preponderance of dry shade.
The cyclamen is certainly far away from its Mediterranean home (though it has been here for a long time, as you can read in the piece below). D.H Lawrence got very carried away with it in his poem ‘Sicilian Cyclamen’ – there are some lovely things here, but rather too many of them, which is often the case with D. H. Lawrence in my opinion. When I was younger I found the abundance of metaphor to be almost as dramatic as I was, but these days I just feel a little disgruntled and overwhelmed. Anyway, see what you think, lovely people!
Sicilian Cyclamens BY D. H. LAWRENCE
When he pushed his bush of black hair off his brow: When she lifted her mop from her eyes, and screwed it in a knob behind —O act of fearful temerity! When they felt their foreheads bare, naked to heaven, their eyes revealed: When they left the light of heaven brandished like a knife at their defenceless eyes And the sea like a blade at their face, Mediterranean savages: When they came out, face-revealed, under heaven, from the shaggy undergrowth of their own hair For the first time, They saw tiny rose cyclamens between their toes, growing Where the slow toads sat brooding on the past.
Slow toads, and cyclamen leaves Stickily glistening with eternal shadow Keeping to earth. Cyclamen leaves Toad-filmy, earth-iridescent Beautiful Frost-filigreed Spumed with mud Snail-nacreous Low down.
The shaking aspect of the sea And man’s defenceless bare face And cyclamens putting their ears back.
Long, pensive, slim-muzzled greyhound buds Dreamy, not yet present, Drawn out of earth At his toes.
Dawn-rose Sub-delighted, stone engendered Cyclamens, young cyclamens Arching Waking, pricking their ears Like delicate very-young greyhound bitches Half-yawning at the open, inexperienced Vistas of day, Folding back their soundless petalled ears.
Greyhound bitches Bending their rosy muzzles pensive down, And breathing soft, unwilling to wake to the new day Yet sub-delighted.
Ah Mediterranean morning, when our world began! Far-off Mediterranean mornings, Pelasgic faces uncovered And unbudding cyclamens.
The hare suddenly goes uphill Laying back her long ears with unwinking bliss.
And up the pallid, sea-blenched Mediterranean stone-slopes Rose cyclamen, ecstatic fore-runner! Cyclamens, ruddy-muzzled cyclamens In little bunches like bunches of wild hares Muzzles together, ears-aprick
Whispering witchcraft Like women at a well, the dawn-fountain.
Greece, and the world’s morning While all the Parthenon marbles still fostered the roots of the cyclamen. Violets Pagan, rosy-muzzled violets Autumnal Dawn-pink, Dawn-pale Among squat toad-leaves sprinkling the unborn Erechtheion marbles.
And now, back to 2016.
Dear Readers, I have always loved cyclamen – there is something about the way that the petals stream ‘backwards’ that remind me of the wings of a bird as it lands. At this time of year you can see lots of naturalised cyclamen in hedgerows, parks and other dryish places (the photos this week were taken in my Aunt Hilary’s Somerset garden). The plants have been showing their cherry-blossom flowers in the UK since 1597(they are originally from the area around the Mediterranean), and have been here long enough to acquire a vernacular name – ‘Sowbread’. There are variations on this name in several of the European countries from which the plant came: ‘pain de porceau’ in France, for example – and this is presumably because the pigs ate the tubers when they were rooting in the woods in autumn.
At first glance, it’s difficult to imagine what plant family cyclamen belong to, but if you look into to the lower part of the flower, where the stamens are, you’ll see that it looks rather like the middle of a primrose. And this is the family to which cyclamen has finally been allocated, after a brief flirtation with the Myrtles, a most unlikely place for this plant to end up. Genetics has solved a lot of strange taxonomical anomalies: when I was growing up, giant pandas and red pandas were placed in a family together, even though they shared few obvious similarities. What a relief when geneticists discovered that giant pandas were exactly what they looked like – bears – and popped them back with the rest of the family. Though I imagine it made no difference whatsoever to the pandas, who just carried on munching the bamboo.
There are 23 species of cyclamen in total, but the one that is naturalised in the UK is Cyclamen hederifolium. One reason that the plant is so valuable in a garden is its very late flowering: the leaves and flowers die back completely during the spring and summer (probably a mechanism for avoiding the worst of the Mediterranean heat) and then reappear, almost miraculously, in the autumn. The leaves themselves are exquisite, heart-shaped and patterned in cobweb-white and the palest of green, and the species name ‘hederifolium’ means ‘like the leaves of the ivy’. I can see the resemblance. ‘Cyclamen’, incidentally, comes from the Greek word for ‘circle’. Many sources rather prosaically mention that this is because the tubers are round, but I wonder if it is because of the way that cyclamen appear, flower and disappear in a circle of life. As they can be remarkably long-lived plants (up to a hundred years) I wonder if they seemed both mysterious and eternal.
Although the flowers are usually pink, there is occasionally a white one.
The tubers of cyclamen were used in a variety of ways. In ‘A Modern Herbal’, it is suggested that a tincture of the root, applied as a liniment, would cause ‘purging of the bowels’ (so stand well back!) Juice from the root is said to be poisonous to fish, and an ointment made from the tuber is said to expel worms. All in all, the action of the plant seems to have been about getting various things out of the body which shouldn’t be there.
Given that the root of cyclamen has such purgative qualities, and that it also contains saponin, a most unpleasant-tasting chemical, I was surprised and pleased to find that there is one recipe which uses cyclamen leaves rather as vine leaves are used in dolmades in Greece. The History of Greek food website is a great source of information on the uses of many of the foods of this area, and for a Fava Stuffed Cyclamen Leaves recipe, just click here.
From Sue Eland’s ‘Plant Lives’ website I learn that, in the language of flowers, cyclamen is said to represent voluptuousness, diffidence and goodbye, a rather difficult combination to carry off I would have thought. A small cake made from the plant and baked will cause paroxysms of love in whoever eats it. The plant is said to offer protection from the ‘evil eye’ (and its close relative, Cyclamen persica, has been a house plant for centuries), but if a pregnant woman stepped over a cyclamen it was believed to cause miscarriage. If it appears in your dreams, it is a sign of calamity. All in all, it appears that you never know where you are with a cyclamen.
When I was in Hilary’s garden, I should have hunkered down and had a sniff of the cyclamen, for the pink ones, at least, are said to have a sweet scent. Here is Walter Savage Landor (1775 – 1864) on the cyclamen:
‘Thou Cyclamen of crumpled horn
Toss not thy head aside;
Repose it where the loves were born
In that warm dell abide.
Whatever flowers, on mountain, field,
Or garden, may arise,
Thine only that pure odor yield
Which never can suffice.
Emblem of her I’ve loved so long,
Go, carry her this little song. ‘
As you might expect, the unusual form of the cyclamen made it a favourite with still life painters, such as the remarkable Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, who worked in the Netherlands during the 17th Century.
‘Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase’ by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1621)
However, they have also inspired more recent painters. Koloman Moser, whose painting is below, was a member of the Viennese Secessionists, a group that included Klimt. The plant was to be a big influence in Art Nouveau generally, with its love of the natural world and the exotic. And I can see why people were influenced to record the fleeting beauty of cyclamen. To see those flowers, poised as if to take flight, amongst the fallen leaves of autumn is to experience a brief moment of wonder.
‘Cyclamenstock’ by Koloman Moser (1868-1918)
Images of paintings in Public Domain. All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!