Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Nigella

Love-in-a-mist or nigella (Nigella damascena)

Dear Readers, when I was growing up in East London we had an allotment. I was allowed a little corner of it to plant a packet of ‘seeds for children’ – from memory, you could buy these in Woolworths, and they contained a mixture of marigolds, a strange plant that looked a bit like (and indeed might actually have been) knotgrass, and love-in-a-mist. How I loved the blue and white flowers and the dill-like leaves against the bright orange marigolds! And how my poor father loved picking out the love-in-a-mist from between the peas and the beans and the cabbages the following year after the plant had self-seeded.

This set me to wondering. Do they still have ‘seeds for children’? And do they still include love-in-a-mist? Well, Suttons certainly do. Indeed you can buy nigella seeds and they’re marketed as ‘Alien eggs’. Well, I can kind of see what they mean.

A love-in-a-mist seedpod. Very strange….

But what is this plant? Turns out that it’s a member of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and normally lives in southern Europe, north Africa and southwestern Asia. It is pretty much a weed of damp places in all these countries. But what a weed! Those china-blue flowers (which can also be coloured white or pink), the frond-like leaves and that strange bloated seedhead all give it an exotic charm. The seedhead is a behemoth compared to those of other members of the buttercup family – those of other species more closely resemble a tiny mace. Plus, as mentioned, it is ridiculously easy to grow – I found the specimen in my photos in a most inauspicious narrow bed at the side of a house in East Finchley, where it was popping up amongst the docks.

The species name ‘damascena’ refers to the city of Damascus, which is where it is said to have been found during the Crusades by the French knight Robert de Brie in 1570. On his return home to his castle in Champagne, de Brie is said to have planted the first ever nigella in France. No doubt from here the plant quickly hopped over the castle wall, swam across the moat and headed for the hills.

Photo One by By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A selection of nigella cultivars (Persian Jewels mix I suspect) (Photo One)

Those of you who experiment with Indian cookery may have used nigella seeds, but sadly these are not from this plant, but from Nigella sativa, a close relative. Indeed, the seeds of ‘our’ plant contain a poison called damascenine, so however much seed you harvest I would resist throwing it onto your naan bread. The plant may well have been used as a medicinal herb, however: there is evidence that it was brought to Austria in the Bronze Age by an immigrant population of miners. One possibility is that it was used as a vermifuge, to treat cases of intestinal worms – many poisonous plants were used in low doses in order to kill the parasites without killing the host. The plant is also said to be good for treating flatulence, though as Nigella sativa is said to be used to help with digestion I do wonder if there’s some confusion here. The seeds are also said to be used to keep insects out of clothing, so perhaps they would be handy against the clothes moths which seem to be everywhere in North London at the moment. Rubbing the seeds between the hands releases the essential oil, which is said to smell like strawberry jam.

The gardener Gertrude Jekyll was very taken with nigella, and included it in many of her cottage garden schemes. Indeed, the most popular of all the love-in-a-mist varieties is probably ‘Miss Jekyll’, a pale blue variety. Jekyll was a proponent of colour theory in her gardens, with blues and greys offset by vivid oranges and reds, so maybe my child’s seed selection wasn’t so far off the mark.

Photo Two from

Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll from the RHS website (Photo Two)

Of course, if you type ‘Nigella’ into Google you will not get this attractive little blue plant, but the rather attractive Nigella Lawson, cookery writer and TV presenter extraordinaire. I rather like Nigella. Her cookery shows on TV normally feature an episode in which she gets up in the middle of the night and spoons homemade icecream into her mouth illuminated only by the light from the refrigerator. Normally, she is wearing silk pyjamas and full make-up, and seems oblivious to the camera crew who have staked out her kitchen for just such an eventuality, much as wildlife photographers sit in a bush for weeks to catch sight of some nocturnal lemur.  However, she is not named for this pretty little plant, but for her odious father Nigel Lawson, professional climate change denier and a man with no redeeming features whatsoever as far as I’m concerned. So sadly, we shall have to move swiftly on.

Incidentally, in Germany, nigella is known as ‘Gretel-in-the -bush’ – in the Germanic version of the fairy story, Gretel is turned into nigella, and Hansel into chicory (which is known as ‘Hansel-on-the-road’ – two little blue flowers separated forever by habitat.

Photo Three by By Cecile van Straten from Manila, Philippines -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Nigella Lawson (Photo Three)

Now, Ms Lawson has somewhat hampered my search for a nigella poem – my results have included many works celebrating her comely form and delicious recipes, largely penned by somewhat overheated male poets of a certain age. So, instead, here is a painting.

Love in a mist by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823 – 1903) (Public Domain)

The artist, Sophie Gengembre Anderson, was the first woman to sell a painting for over £1m in the UK, and her painting ‘Elaine’ was the first public collection purchase of work by a woman artist, so there is lots here to celebrate. ‘Elaine’ was based on a poem by Tennyson, and was purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

‘Elaine’ by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1870)

Anderson was born in France, moved to the USA in 1848 to escape the Revolution of that year, and later lived in Falmouth in Cornwall. During her lifetime she painted everything from a series of portraits of bishops to still lives, but soon settled on the genre paintings that would make her name in the art world. She painted ‘Foundling Girls at Prayer in the Chapel’ for the Foundling Museum in London, where it still hangs. At a time when men were getting rich by painting decorative and sentimental images of children and women, Anderson managed to chip out a niche for herself. I suppose it’s not surprising that she isn’t as well-known as Sir Joshua Reynolds or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but to my eye she is every bit as accomplished.

And so, my nigella journey has taken me to some most unexpected places. In my minds-eye I am a little girl, leaning on my half-sized garden fork and looking over my tiny blue and orange flower-bed, while dad digs up the potatoes and wipes the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. I think I might even plant some nigella seed, just to have it in the garden to remind me.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two from

Photo Three by By Cecile van Straten from Manila, Philippines –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Wednesday Weed – Lilac

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

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
white flowers.


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

False blue,
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.
False blue,
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.
False blue,
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.


Wednesday Weed – Amaryllis (Hippeastrum)

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp)

Dear Readers, whenever I see an amaryllis I always think of my Dad. His Christmas presents always contain at least one rectangular box containing an enormous amaryllis bulb and a pot, and sometimes I get one too. Then our phone conversations for the next month or so are mildly competitive.

‘Mine is about three feet high!’

‘Mine is so big that it keeps falling over!’

‘Mine has flowers the size of a baby’s head!’

‘MIne’s got flowers the size of a cabbage’.

Dad and I love to cross swords. If we are watching ‘Pointless’, the room echoes to a chorus of answers to Alexander Armstrong’s questions. For a while I was winning, but then, after Dad got his cataracts done, we realised that it was only because he couldn’t actually see what the questions were. Hah! These days we are neck and neck. Or maybe Dad’s slightly in front.

Anyhow, the amaryllis is a most bold and ostentatious plant. In my opinion there is no more spectacular indoor bulb. You can practically watch it growing. For a while it’s rather embarrassing to anyone with Victorian sensibilities, as it looks like a giant Martian willy. I almost feel that i should be covering it up with a lace curtain. And then the blooms form and start to open, and it seems impossible that there should be so much volume of petal in that little crumpled bud, but there it is. This year, my amaryllis is dark red, with petals that are simultaneously as sleek as satin and as plush as velvet. It is utterly glorious.

It’s important to clear up exactly what this plant is, however. The bulbs that we grow at home are not actually amaryllis (this name refers to some South African plants) but are from a separate genus known as Hippeastrum, which hales from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The name was given to the plant by William Herbert, a 19th century botanist and illustrator, and means ‘horse star lily’, for reasons which have faded into obscurity. There are 90 separate species of Hippeastrum and over 600 hybrids and cultivars, with new varieties being offered every Christmas – over the past few years Dad and I have competed with pale-green, stripey red and scarlet varieties. The original Hippeastrum species are normally red, pink or purple in colour.

Photo One by By Averater - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

Hippeastrum pardinum, one of the plants used to develop cultivated Hippeastrum (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Daniel Macher - AmaryllisUploaded by Epibase, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Hippeastrum variety ‘Gilmar’ (Photo Two)

Photo Three by Pictures taken by Raul654 around Washington DC on May 7, 2005.

Hippeastrum variety ‘Candy Floss’ (Photo Three)

The leaves on a Hippeastrum appear after the flowers, which is one reason why the developing buds look so extraordinary. The sexual organs of the plant, the stamens and pistil, are long and elegant. The pollen is plentiful but is poisonous to cats, so be careful if you have any moggie companions. As with lilies, the danger is that the pollen comes into contact with the fur and is licked off by the cat during grooming. The bulbs of some Caribbean species of Hippeastrum are used to produce arrow poison, so this is obviously not a plant to be messed with.

I have never yet managed to persuade my Hippeastrum to bloom for more than one year, but then I have been doing it All Wrong. The leaves should be allowed to develop, and the plant given some food on a weekly basis during this time, but then it will need two months ‘rest’ in the cold and dark, without food or water (and preferably with no nibbling by any rodents that may be living in the shed). Then the plant can be brought out into the light and watering re-commenced. The plant should be in a small pot, not much bigger than the circumference of the bulb,  with a good third of the bulb above the surface of the compost. This can make the plant very top heavy, of course, hence the occasional catastrophe when the whole lot falls over and the main stem breaks under its own weight. I can only imagine that the Hippeastrum that grow wild are rather less exaggerated in form, much as a fox stands more chance of survival in the wild than a pug would.

Incidentally, a properly cared-for Hippeastrum can live for 75 years so I really have no excuse.

One thing that  I don’t associate with Hippeastrum is perfume, but apparently there are some scented varieties. The gene for scent is recessive, and is associated only with white or pastel coloured plants – I’ve never grown a perfumed one, but do let me know if you have, I am curious as to what it smells like. Sadly, the English language is very short on words to describe scent, probably reflecting our rather inadequate noses. If dogs could speak I imagine they’d have a very varied perfume vocabulary.

Medicinally, Hippeastrums contain over 64 alkaloid compounds, which as we have already noted are poisonous, but which are also anti-parasitic and have psychopharmaceutical properties. Some species of Hippeastrum seem to have interesting anti-depressant and anti-convulsant possibilities, and experimentation has indicated that the bulb may have possible uses as an antibiotic.

Just to return to the name ‘Amaryllis’ for a moment – Amaryllis was a Greek nymph who suffered with unrequited love for the cold-hearted Alteo. In a paroxysm of passion she pierced her heart with a golden arrow and trekked to his door every day for a month, leaving a path of blood splatters en route. These days we would probably call this behaviour stalking, but on the thirtieth day the blood spots transmogrified into red flowers of stupendous size and hue. Alteo finally fell in love with Amaryllis, her heart was healed, and the Dutch bulb trade lurched into action. The rest, my friends, is history.

You might expect that such a showy plant would inspire visual artists and, before he turned to abstraction, Piet Mondrian produced a number of startling ‘portraits’ of Hippeastrum.

Amaryllis by Piet Mondrian (1910) (Public Domain)

And you might also expect that the amaryllis/Hippeastrum would invite the attention of poets, and so it does. I adore this poem by American poet Deborah Digges, who died in 2009 and who sounds like a most generous teacher of other poets. She explores both the beauty and the absurdity of the amaryllis, a plant which, in its super-abundance, teeters on the very edge of ‘too much’.

My Amaryllis

by Deborah Digges


So this is the day the fat boy learns to take the jokes

by donning funny hats, my Amaryllis,

my buffoon of a flower,

your four white bullhorn blossoms like the sirens

in a stadium through which the dictator announces he’s in love.

Then he sends out across the land a proclamation—

there must be music, there must be stays of execution

for the already dying.

That’s how your pulpy sex undoes me and your seven

leaves, unsheathed. How you diminish

my winter windows, and beyond them, the Atlantic.

How you turn my greed ridiculous.

Now it’s as if I could believe in having children after forty,

or, walking these icy streets, greet sullen strangers

like a host of former selves, so ask them in, of course,

and listen like one forgiven to their crimes.

Dance with us and all our secrets,

dance with us until our lies,

like death squads sent to an empty house, put down,

finally, their weapons, peruse the family

portraits, admire genuinely the bride.

Stay with me in this my exile

or my returning, as if to love the tyrant one more time.

O my lily, my executioner, a little stooped, here,

listing, you are the future bending

to kiss the present like a sleeping child.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Averater – Own work, CC BY 4.0,

Photo Two by By Daniel Macher – AmaryllisUploaded by Epibase, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Three by Pictures taken by Raul654 around Washington DC on May 7, 2005.

Wednesday Weed – Ivy-Leaved Speedwell

Ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia)

Dear Readers, last week I was in Dorset with my parents, and Dad had a horrible chest infection (or maybe a continuation of the one that he’s had for the past six months). In the space of 24 hours he went from being ok to being too weak to stand up unaided. Fortunately the doctor was able to visit, and prescribed him some antibiotics and some steroids, with the proviso that if he wasn’t any better he would be admitted to hospital the next day.

Steroids are miracle drugs, but they are also dangerous for long-term use. For a while Dad was taking them regularly, and by the end of a few months he could barely walk (muscle weakness and pain is a known side-effect). But a short course can have miraculous results. The next day dad was walking about, he had some colour back in his cheeks, and by the day after he was out ‘advising’ the men who had come to fit some new tyres to his car. And so I could at last breathe out (well, it felt as if I’d been holding my breath for 48 hours) and go for a little walk. As I headed towards the shop, I spotted this sprawling, inconspicuous plant. It could easily be mistaken for chickweed, if it wasn’t for its tiny, pale blue flowers and its lobed leaves. It was leaning into the sunshine on every verge and under every hedge. One lone plant had even stationed itself on one of the lovely shale walls in the village. For a moment I mistook it for its close relative, ivy-leaved toadflax.

The flowers of this species are very pale, almost lilac, rather than the deep blue of other speedwells. The stems and leaves are hairy, but the leaves are the distinguishing feature, being wider than long, and with obvious veins. There are about 15 species of speedwell in the UK, but this one is an arcaeophyte, introduced probably with grain from mainland Europe before 1500 BCE. It grows in the nutrient-rich, trampled soils that exist around human habitation and, like all the speedwells, was thought to be lucky for travellers, with the more showy species such as germander speedwell being worn as a buttonhole by those about to set out on a journey.

The genus name ‘Veronica’ comes from St Veronica. She is said to have wiped the blood from the face of Christ, and the handkerchief that she used bore the ‘vera iconica’, the ‘true image’, of his features. There seem to be many folk tales concerning the picking of the plant, which will bring dire consequences: either your mother’s eyes will fall out, your eyes will fall out or birds will come and pluck your eyes out for you. I suspect that the white centre of speedwell species is seen as an ‘eye’ by those of an imaginative disposition, and speedwells often have vernacular names such as ‘blue eyes’.

The plant was at one point so popular as a cure for gout that it was picked almost to extinction in London, where boozing was presumably as much a problem in medieval times as it is these days. Speedwell was prescribed ‘to be taken in the spring for some time, especially by Persons who drink much ale and are in gross habit of body’. A tea made from speedwell is said to be beneficial for pretty much everything, and the plant itself is sometimes added to salads, though the leaves and flowers of this species are so small that I wonder if it would be worth the bother. Probably better to let it alone, to be food for the extremely rare Heath Fritillary’s caterpillar (though in truth it prefers germander speedwell if there’s any available).

Photo One by By Harald Süpfle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Heath fritillary (Melitaea athalia) (Photo One)

One reason for the name ‘speedwell’ is thought to be that the petals fall quickly once the plant is picked. The painting below is by  John Everett Millais and is called ‘The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue (1891-2)’ This is an example of the ‘Fancy Picture’, which was a style that was very popular and lucrative. Millais tried to make the genre more painterly and serious by depicting the compulsory small, attractive child with emblems of mortality, such as flowers or dead birds or bubbles. Here, the infant is musing on a speedwell (admittedly not an ivy-leaved speedwell, but still) and is no doubt waiting for the flower to disintegrate. The whole notion of ephemeral also played nicely into the Victorian love-affair with the death of the young and the beautiful.

w ‘The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue’ (John Everett Millais 1891-2) (Public Domain)

And to round off this week, we have none other than Oscar Wilde, grieving for the man who betrayed him ( the title means, roughly ‘Because I have loved too much’. I didn’t know this poem at all, but I rather like it as a description of passion, and I love the last line , although I am not quite sure that I understand it. Is Wilde saying that his love is one of many that has been showered on his lover? Someone enlighten me, please.


Dear Heart, I think the young impassioned priest
When first he takes from out the hidden shrine
His God imprisoned in the Eucharist,
And eats the bread, and drinks the dreadful wine,

Feels not such awful wonder as I felt

When first my smitten eyes beat full on thee,
And all night long before thy feet I knelt
Till thou wert wearied of Idolatry.

Ah! hadst thou liked me less and loved me more,

Through all those summer days of joy and rain,
I had not now been sorrow’s heritor,
Or stood a lackey in the House of Pain.

Yet, though remorse, youth’s white-faced seneschal,

Tread on my heels with all his retinue,
I am most glad I loved thee—think of all
The suns that go to make one speedwell blue!


Photo Credits

Photo One by By Harald Süpfle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wednesday Weed – Rhubarb

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)

Dear Readers, rhubarb is something of a travelling plant in our family. I remember a patch of it growing in the two allotments that we had when I was a child, and I strongly suspect that it was the same plant, dug up and transplanted. And now that Mum and Dad live in their Dorset bungalow there is a clump of the plant growing next to the greenhouse. How handsome it is, with its crinkly green leaves that look in need of a good iron, and those lip-puckering stalks, so unpromising raw, so delicious when combined with some sugar and topped with crumble. However, rhubarb is truly a divisive, love-it-or-hate-it plant. I find that people who love it often also favour other strong, uncompromising flavours, such as gooseberries,mackerel, blackcurrants and offal. It is a most assertive ingredient, and needs to be treated with the utmost respect by the cook.

In the first months of a new year there is forced rhubarb, with its yellow leaves and delicate rose-pink stems. In the UK this is grown in sheds in the ‘rhubarb triangle’ (between Wakefield, Leeds and Morley) and is picked by candlelight, in a tradition dating back to the 1800’s. The plants are grown outside for two years (and therefore exposed to frost, which is said to improve the flavour) and are then moved to low, heated sheds – the plants used to be fertilised with manure, night-soil and ‘shoddy’, a by-product of the wool industry. At one time, West Yorkshire produced 90% of all the forced rhubarb in the world, Such was the demand that the ‘Rhubarb Express’ brought up to 200 tonnes of rhubarb to the south every day before 1939. Alas, the post-war availability of more exotic fruits impacted on the rhubarb trade, and today the early rhubarb is an expensive luxury – beautiful, delicate, and, to my mind, more insipid than the robust late-spring outdoor-grown plant. But what a treat it must have been before everything was available all the time! We have lost something, I feel, with our strawberries in December and our asparagus in October and our oranges all year round.

Photo One by © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A rhubarb forcing shed (Photo One)

But the ‘real’ stuff comes later in the year, with green and red-tinged stems and with a tannic taste that can twist the face into some most amusing shapes. It cooks in seconds, and the stems collapse into mush at the slightest provocation, so if presentation is a concern, keep your eye on your rhubarb. Usually, though, the fruit is covered with a pie crust, or sponge, or the aforementioned crumble, and so appearance is not a major concern. I have been seeing some recipes which use young rhubarb raw in salads, and very pretty they look too.

Those crinkly leaves are poisonous, containing oxalic acid which is a corrosive ingredient that acts particularly on the kidneys. It is estimated that 5 kgs of rhubarb leaves would have to be ingested to run the risk of dying from rhubarb poisoning, but there is also a school of thought that suggests that using bicarbonate of soda in the cooking water ( a common technique for keeping the bright colour of leafy greens) accentuates the toxin. There is also a long-standing belief amongst scientists that there is another, unidentified toxin in the rhubarb leaves. During the First World War there were said to be a few cases of accidental poisoning when people harvested and cooked the leaves, but it seems to be hard to find hard evidence for such cases.

What is much better documented is the long history of rhubarb being used as a laxative – the Chinese have used it for this purpose for millenia, as did the medieval peoples of Western Europe and the Middle East. Along with senna pods rhubarb was one of the ‘comedy ingredients’ of my childhood – it would be clear that anyone eating rhubarb without the traditional sweet accoutrements was constipated. A good old purge was often thought to sort everything out, and rhubarb was just the stuff to do it.

Rhubarb feels as English as, well, rhubarb pie, but in fact it originated far further east, probably in China, and arrived in Europe in the 14th Century via the Silk Route. It was initially prized for its aforementioned medicinal properties, and was extremely valuable, more expensive than cinnamon, saffron or even opium. Have a look at this list of treasures from the East, written in 1403 by the Castilian ambassador to the court of Timur the Great (Tamburlaine) in Samarkand:

‘…The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…’

But of course this is a most adaptable plant, and it took to the soils of Europe with much enthusiasm. Soon every peasant had a rhubarb plant of his or her own, and the ingredient was being used in every kitchen.

Rhubarb isn’t technically a fruit, as the stems are used rather than the fruiting bodies (just as a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). I doubt that that has dampened anyone’s enthusiasm, however. Part of the joy of harvesting a (small amount) of rhubarb is that you head out with your machete,  cut off the stems while imaging that there’s a leopard in the undergrowth waiting to pounce on you (or maybe that’s just me) and return to the house with your booty. None of that time-consuming picking! Rhubarb is definitely an ingredient for the ‘I want it now’ generation. You can have a pot full of rhubarb compote in less than twenty minutes from opening the back door.

Rabarbra by Norwegian artist Nikolai Asrup (1880-1928)

Incidentally, I have never seen a rhubarb plant in flower, but this is what it looks like. Rhubarb is a member of the Polygonaceae, which includes buckwheat, the various persicarias, sorrel and Japanese knotweed. If you look closely at the white florets, they look rather like buckwheat.

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

Rhubarb flowers (Photo Two)

It’s believed that a slice of rhubarb placed into the hole where you plan to plant a cabbage or other brassica will prevent club-root, and a piece of rhubarb worn around the neck was said to prevent stomach cramps. And in my research for this article, I found a most delightful website called ‘The Rhubarb Compendium‘, which includes the following delights:

  • Rhubarb is great for bringing back the shine to burnt pots and pans. I must remember this time next time I forget about my rhubarb compote and boil it dry.
  • 3 tbsp of rhubarb root boiled in two cups of water can brighten the colour of blond hair (though I’d test it first. Pink hair is so last century, darling)
  • The leaves can be used as an insecticide (all that oxalic acid, I’m guessing) – boil up in water, allow to cool, spray, watch all the aphids retreat screaming, clutching their babies under their arms (not that I’m trying to make anyone feel guilty of course).

But now we come to a most puzzling question. Why is the phrase ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’ used to simulate the sound of background chatting in plays and films? Allegedly it’s because the word contains no particularly obvious phonemes, and so if a lot of people are repeating it, in different tones and with different stresses, it sounds a lot like your usual background babble. Other phrases might include ‘watermelon’ and ‘peas and carrots’. Apparently, however, these days what is more often used is something called ‘pocket dialogue’ – a few uncompleted sentences relating to the matter at hand for the extras to say, to simulate the sound of conversation. What a shame. I rather liked the idea of everyone saying rhubarb. Though maybe it stimulated the appetite for a coffee break.

And here, finally, is a rather fine poem about rhubarb, and about lots of other things too….


Rhubarb by Matthew Burns

The poison lives only in the leaves,
thick with instant bitterness to warn you,
and my Polish grandmother said
this was to kill off the lazy ones, the stupid ones,
the ones who wanted things handed to them,
who couldn’t find it in themselves to dig.

And planting it told everyone
you didn’t mind dirt under your nails,
that you knew life was hard work if you did it right.
So she grew more than the whole family could eat.

By May, her narrow terraced backyard
in the city’s First Ward was a lapping sea
of palm-sized leaves; by June, a solid ruff of green,
a pruning knife’s hooked blade biting
through the stalks with a flick of her wrist
and a quick snap.

The one time I tried this I sliced deep
into my thumb knuckle at first swipe.
We were both red inside,
me, the rhubarb.
That’s the stuff I didn’t really think about at ten,
how everything bleeds;
how everything must die somehow—
the stupid ones poisoned, the hard workers
heart-worn and wrecked.

We ate the rhubarb raw, stripped of all its leaves.
Dipped in sugar, it still lingered
bitter on our tongues as some inoculation
against the worst of what was yet to come.

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo One by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Wednesday Weed – Hyacinth

Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis)

Dear Readers, when it comes to the scent of flowers I am very particular. I find that jasmine is ok outdoors, but nauseating at close quarters. Lilies have a kind of waxy scent, redolent of decay, that doesn’t work for me either (plus the pollen is poisonous to cats). I adore freesias, but they have such short lives as cut flowers that I rarely buy them. But hyacinths have the kind of perfume that makes me want to inhale great lungfuls of perfume.

For years, Dad would plant up pots full of hyacinth bulbs for forcing. In recent years, he hasn’t been well enough, so I’ve bought some ready-planted ones for him. When they’re finished, he asks the lady who looks after the garden to plant them outdoors, and so the borders are punctuated with blues and pinks and whites. The blooms are never as spectacular as in the first year, but they are still very fine, and on a still day they bring me up short with their delicious scent. It seems as if the plants revert to their natural type in their later years, as seen in the photo of the hyacinth taken in the wild below.

Photo One by Kurt Stüber [1] - part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wild hyacinth (Photo One)

Hyacinths are native to the Eastern Mediterranean, and are members of the Scilla family. Most scillas are much smaller, more modest plants, although they can be startlingly blue.

Photo Two by By Heike Löchel - fotografiert von Heike Löchel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Siberian Scilla (Scilla siberica) (Photo Two)

Hyacinths were introduced to Western Europe in the 16th Century and, as with all things bulb-related, the Dutch became masters of breeding different cultivars. In the wild, the flowers are largely blue, with occasional white and pink plants. By the 18th Century the Dutch had bred over 2000 different varieties, and the colours available now include yellow, orange, and apricot. I definitely prefer the original blue hyacinth, and I think it has the most delightful scent of all, with the white-flowered hyacinth a close second.

Photo Three by By John O'Neill - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Hyacinths in Canberra, Australia. What a range of colours! (Photo Three)

On the subject of blue hyacinths, the word ‘Persenche’ means ‘hyacinth-blue’, and is formed of 73% ultramarine, 9% red and 18% white. So now you know.

You might expect a plant with such a strong scent to be attractive to parfumiers, and so it proved. Madame de Pompadour was an early advocate for the plant in France, and soon every titled lady was stuffing hyacinth flowers down her cleavage to surround herself with a sweet-smelling cloud. It takes 6000kg of hyacinth flowers to make a single litre of hyacinth perfume, and so it was a premium product until the days of synthetic perfumes. Strangely, as with freesias and bluebells, I have never found a convincing man-made scent that comes anywhere near the complexity of the flower.

Hyacinths are mentioned in the Iliad, as part of the eruption of flowers that sprang up to provide a bed for Zeus and Hera:

‘Therewith the son of Cronos clasped his wife in his arms, and beneath them the divine earth made fresh-sprung grass to grow, and dewy lotus, and crocus, and hyacinth, thick and soft, that upbare them from the ground. [350] Therein lay the twain, and were clothed about with a cloud, fair and golden, wherefrom fell drops of glistering dew.’

Well, it’s alright for some, that’s all I can say. All that the divine earth ever makes for me in such outdoor encounters is a fine selection of wood ants and irritated mosquitoes, but let’s draw a veil over the whole subject while there’s still time.

In Greek mythology, Hyacinthus was a young man admired by both Apollo and the god Zephyr. Hyacinthus and Apollo were playing with a discus, rather like chaps play with a frisbee I suspect (although with fewer clothes). Zephyr was the god of the West Wind, and was disgruntled that Apollo was spending time with his favourite. When Apollo threw the discus, Zephyr blew it off course so that the unfortunate Hyacinthus was clunked on the noddle by a flying discus.  Being beloved by the gods was something of a liability, I fear. A chastened Apollo created the hyacinth flower from the drops of blood shed by Hyacinthus, though there are only a few daffodils in the picture below, which means the artist missed an opportunity in my opinion.

Photo Four by By Jean Broc -, Public Domain,

Hyacinthus feeling a bit the worse for wear (The Death of Hyacinthos by Jean Broc) (Photo Four)

Hyacinth bulbs (rather than the leaves and flowers) are toxic, particularly to dogs if they dig the bulbs up and eat them. Most cats are much too sensible to eat a hyacinth.  The big danger for humans is if the bulbs are mistaken for onions, but this is much less likely to happen than with daffodils, where the brown papery covering makes for a much closer appearance.

On the subject of hyacinth folklore, I find that in Shropshire it’s considered unlucky to have white hyacinths in the house, as they are emblematic of death. In the course of four years of preparing this blog, I have discovered that almost every plant that I write about is not allowed in the house for fear of someone dying. I suspect that often it’s because the flowers have featured at a funeral and are now inextricably linked with those sad memories. It seems a shame, though. Flowers, especially early-flowering ones like these, can bring such cheer in the early spring.

Hyacinths have long been associated with the Nowruz (New Year) celebrations in Iran, and are often placed on the Haft-Sin table, which contains 7 symbolic items all beginning with the Persian letter Seen (‘S’):

  • Greenery (سبزهsabze): Wheat, barley or lentil sprouts grown in a dish
  • Samanu (سمنوsamanu): A sweet pudding made from germinated wheat
  • The dried fruit of the oleaster tree (سنجدsenjed)
  • Garlic (سیرsir)
  • Apples (سیبsib)
  • Sumac berries (سماقsomāq)
  • Vinegar (سرکهserke)

Other items include a holy book (usually the Quran), books of Persian poetry, candles, a goldfish in a bowl, decorated eggs for each member of the family and a mirror.

Photo Five by By Mandana asadi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A Haft-Seen table (Photo Five)

Nowruz usually occurs on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox, and I can see how the hyacinth would add its beauty and scent to the occasion. Plus, it’s an opportunity for baklava, the world’s sweetest dessert.

Photo Six by By Kultigin - Own work, Public Domain,

Baklava (Photo Six)

As I watched the hyacinths earlier this week, I was delighted to see that, even though the flowers were almost finished they were still being visited by hairy-footed flower bees, particularly the males, who look as if they’ve been dabbed on the forehead with Tippex. I was also delighted to find out that hyacinth seeds are are dispersed by ants, in a delightful practice called myrmecochory. Hyacinth seeds are attached to a nutrient-rich outgrowth called an eliasome. The ants take the seeds back to their nests and eat the eliasome, but the seed is unharmed and either germinates in the midden of the ant nest, or is carried outside, where it can germinate away from its parent plant. I find it fascinating that this behaviour has evolved to the mutual benefit of ant and hyacinth, and it is much more widespread than I appreciated – over 3,000 species of plants rely on ants to distribute their seeds, and it is a major method of dispersal in both the South African fynbos (where it’s used by 1000 species of plant) and in many Australian habitats, both of which have largely infertile soils. Using an insect to carry the seed away from the parent plant (who might have just enough nutrients to survive itself) is one of those evolutionary marvels that makes my head spin.

Hyacinth seeds – the white parts are the eliasomes that ants use as food (Public Domain)

So, what is left to say about hyacinths? Like snowdrops and bluebells, they seem so hopeful, spilling their perfume into the cold air. I know, even now, that whenever I smell them I will see my father, tucking the white bulbs into the brown earth and popping them away in the shed for a few months, until it’s time to bring them out to brighten the last days of winter.The Persian poet Sadi (1184-1292 apparently, which would make him 106 years old) had this to say about the joy of hyacinths, and I agree. Feeding the soul is almost as important as feeding the body.

‘If thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul’


Photo Credits

Photo One by Kurt Stüber [1] – part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Heike Löchel – fotografiert von Heike Löchel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Photo Three by By John O’Neill – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by By Jean Broc –, Public Domain,

Photo Five by By Mandana asadi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Six by By Kultigin – Own work, Public Domain,

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Currant

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Dear Readers, when I was planting up my garden some eight years ago, I was wandering around the garden centre with my wonky trolley, trying to stop my phlox from capsizing, when I spotted a bush standing all alone in the corner. It seemed so lonely and unappreciated that I ground to a halt and wandered over for a closer look. The plant looked decidedly disheveled, but the leaves were just starting to emerge, and the buds were the most delicate pink-tinged things. I looked around. I looked back. I considered. And then,shoving a couple of ox-eye daisies to one side, I grabbed the plant.

‘You’re coming home with me!’ I told it. I still had no idea what it was but, just as when I was fostering cats and could sometimes see what a beautiful animal lay under the scratty fur and watery eyes, so this plant seemed to me to just be in need of some gentleness and consideration.

Eight years later it is the plant that delights both me and the hairy-footed flower bees most in the early days of April, as its cerise buds unfurl into a mass of flowers. You can’t beat a flowering currant for a spectacular show, and as this one is right next to the pond I get the double benefit of its reflection in the water.

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

A hairy-footed flower bee (Anthora plumipes) feeding on spring snowflake (Photo One)

Flowering currant is actually a North American plant, growing on the west coast from California up to British Columbia. It was brought back to the UK by the Scottish explorer David Douglas in 1826, A friend remembers that the plant had a wonderful sweet scent, but mine has unperfumed flowers, and leaves that smell rather like the pee of a tom cat if crushed.

Flowering currant is a member of the Grossulariaceae family, along with the other currant species such as redcurrant, whitecurrant and blackcurrant, although the family is actually named for another member, the gooseberry. The berries of the flowering currant are not particularly juicy or flavoursome , but all the currants have a lot of gamma-linoleic acid in their roots, leaves and seeds which is proven to be efficacious for pre-menstrual syndrome. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest also ate the berry, in particular saving it for winter food – like all of the family, flowering currant is rich in vitamin C. One method for doing this was to turn the pulp of the berries into something called fruit leather, thus avoiding the numerous annoying seeds. If you want to see how this is done, have a look at the Wild Harvests website here.

The caterpillars of many moths and butterflies will feed on flowering currant, but the confusingly-named spinach moth only eats the leaves of members of this family.

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0,

The spinach moth(Eulithis mellinata) (Photo Two)

Plus many other moth caterpillars will also make an occasional meal of a currant, and I make no apology for this gratuitous picture of an ermine moth, one of my favourites.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ermine Moth (Spilosoma lutea) (Photo Three )

It is said that birds will also eat the berries, although the ones in my garden are extremely picky and seem to prefer the (very expensive) suet pellets.In their native Pacific Northwest the flowers are a prime early nectar source for hummingbirds – the colour and shape of the flowers is a dead give away.

Photo Two by Andrew A Redding at

Male Anna’s humminbird on flowering currant (Photo Four)

I had never made the link between the name ‘Ribena’ (the blackcurrant cordial) and the Ribes family, which proves that I am not always paying attention. Incidentally Suntory, the company that makes Ribena, has gotten itself into a whole heap of trouble after changing its formulation to try to avoid the UK sugar tax. The drink  now contains a heap of artificial sweeteners, which are also problematic as we know. There is a theory that, in addition to the various correlations between artificial sweeteners and diseases such as cancer, having too much of the stuff in your diet can screw up your glucose metabolism. So, maybe a reason to start making my own cordial  (though the only time that I have ever drunk Ribena was when I was six years old and ill in bed with a bilious attack).

Photo Two by By Patrice78500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Flowering currant berries (Photo Five)

In spite of its prettiness, bringing a bough of this shrub into the house seems to be considered unlucky all over the UK. Maybe it’s the smell of cats’ pee that does it.

And bringing it all together, as always, is Seamus Heaney. In his collection ‘Field Work‘ he writes of many things, one of them being his love for his wife. Have a look at this, both the close observation of the plant, and the skin, and the last two lines which, like the last line of a haiku, seem to leave a kind of silence.


Catspiss smell
the pink bloom open
I press a leaf
of the flowering currant
on the back of your hand
for the tight slow burn
of its sticky juice
to prime your skin
and your veins to be crossed
criss-cross with leaf-veins

I lick my thumb
and dip it in mould
I anoint the anointed
leaf-shape. Mould
bloom and pigments
the back of your hand
like a birthmark
my umber one
you are stained, stained to perfection.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by Andrew A Redding at

Photo Five by By Patrice78500 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,