Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Winter Flowering Cherry Revisited

Winter-flowering Cherry on Huntingdon Road in East Finchley

Dear Readers, if there’s one plant that is guaranteed to be in flower on my birthday, it’s the winter-flowering cherry at the bottom of my road here in East Finchley. How welcome it is! Today the temperature is below freezing, and the road rang with the sound of windscreens being scraped, but here’s the tree, popping out its snowflake-flowers.

So, why does this tree flower from November to April, instead of in spring like any self-respecting plant? The answer is not ‘climate change’ (in this instance), or to enable the blossom to be pollinated by some particularly weather-proof bee. Nope, it flowers in the winter because we’ve bred it that way, presumably because we felt the long, dark January days needed some cheering up. On his ‘Street Trees’ blog, Paul Wood points out that in the very coldest weather the blossom actually gets frost bite and turns brown. Wood also mentions that winter-flowering cherries have a second burst of flowering in April, just as the leaves appear, and that these flowers are different from the earlier ones – the spring flowers have stalks, the winter ones don’t.

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
― Kobayashi Issa, Poems

Indeed. And now, let’s see what I had to say about this plant back in 2016.

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Dear Readers, this plant may seem an odd choice for a Wednesday Weed. For one thing, it is not a ‘weed’ even by my very wide definition and, although it probably originated in Japan, it is unknown in the wild. But on a dark January day, with slushy snow still on the ground and with the bitter wind infiltrating every gap between clothing and skin, it lit up St Pancras and Islington Cemetery like a sprinkle of starlight.

IMG_5148The people of Japan have an enduring relationship with cherry blossom – the fairy Ko-no-hana-sakuya-hime, ‘the maiden who causes the trees to bloom’, is said to waken the dormant trees into blossom by softly breathing on them. These were the trees of Emperors, and much time and effort was spent in selecting the best specimens (cherry trees are capable of great variation) and developing new kinds – the Japanese have had double-flowered cherry trees for over a thousand years. Furthermore, the Japanese knew about the art of grafting one tree onto another since early times, and so could propagate a new and exciting variety by persuading a cutting to grow from the stem of a more mundane tree. This is one reason why many people believe that the Winter Flowering Cherry is a hybrid (probably between the Fuji Cherry (Prunus incisa) and the Weeping Tree (Prunus spachiana) ). In Japan, the trees are doted upon, and some Winter Flowering Cherries can reach a very impressive stature.

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

A pink Winter Flowering Cherry at the front of the Juinji Temple in Koshu, Japan.(Photo One – Credit below)

Cherry blossom was so much tied up with Japanese culture that the trees were sometimes planted in order to  claim occupied territory as Japanese space. The ephemeral nature of the blossoms symbolises mortality in Buddhist teachings, and during the Second World War the Japanese population were encouraged to regard the flowers as the reincarnations of kamikaze fighters – indeed, one kamikaze sub-unit was named ‘the Wild Cherry Blossoms’. That these delicate blossoms could be used for such a militaristic purpose may seem strange to us now, but humans have always co-opted the symbolism of plants and animals and used it to shore up their own ideas.

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Although the fruit of ornamental varieties of cherry is usually inedible, the Japanese pickle the blossoms in plum vinegar. The pickle is used with wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) and with anpan, which is a kind of Japanese doughnut.

"Sakura yu2" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Pickled Cherry Blossom (Photo Two – credit below)

"和菓子PA100093" by Akiyoshi's Room - Akiyoshi's Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

A plate of Wagashi (Photo Three – credit below)

Salt-pickled cherry blossoms in hot water produce a kind of tea called sakurayu, which is drunk at festive events.

"Sakura yu" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

Sakurayu – cherry blossom tea (Photo Four – credit below)

The Latin species name ‘subhirtella’ means ‘slightly hairy’, apparently a reference to the young wood. I shall have to look more closely later in the year to see if the plant has a tendency to shagginess.

IMG_5166

Although it hasn’t been cold here in London, it has felt like a very long winter, and of course we are not out of the dark yet. But it is rather cheering to see something flowering when it should, rather than months early, and if any bee were foolish enough to venture out when it gets a little warmer at least there will be something for it to feed on. I like to think that maybe the collective spirits of all the people buried in the cemetery derive some pleasure from the flowers as well. At the very least, this early cherry blossom is something beautiful for the visitors to the cemetery to gaze upon when their mood is at its lowest. Let us never underestimate the solace that nature can provide.

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two: “Sakura yu2” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Photo Three:”和菓子PA100093″ by Akiyoshi’s Room – Akiyoshi’s Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

Photo Four: “Sakura yu” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

 

Wednesday Weed – Hazel Revisited

Dear Readers, when I was writing my garden update yesterday, I suddenly wondered if I had ever done a ‘Wednesday Weed’ on hazel, and indeed I had, back in 2015. I remember wandering the streets of East Finchley on a cold and blustery day, and wondering what on earth I was going to write about, when suddenly I noticed the catkins outside Martin School. Writing this blog has really reminded me to pay attention, even on the most unpromising of days.

We are just coming up to the busiest time of the year at work, when it feels like nothing but deadlines, but I am reminded that nature is going on all around us all the time. And because I love it, here is my favourite hazel poem. I always wondered what an Aengus was, but according to the interwebs, Aengus was the god of love in Irish mythology. Yeats himself described the poem as “the kind of poem I like best myself—a ballad that gradually lifts … from circumstantial to purely lyrical writing.”

The Song of Wandering Aengus
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Source: The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)

And now, let’s zip back to 2015 and see what I had to say about hazel back then.

Hazel Catkins (Corylus avellana)

Hazel Catkins (Corylus avellana)

Dear Readers, this week the search for a Wednesday Weed sent me in a completely different direction from my usual route. On a rainy, blustery day, I headed off towards our local primary school, to see if the playing fields there had anything growing that I had not already covered. In vain I peered through the fence at the turf, until my eyes refocused and I realised that I’d been looking at my subject all along. For what is more surprising on a January day than a plant that is already in full flower, ready to reproduce when everything else is still in bed?

Male Hazel Catkin

Male Hazel Catkin

The male Hazel catkin has the delightful colour of a sherbet-lemon. With every damp gust, invisible clouds of pollen are released. With any luck, they will be captured on by the red female flowers  who wait with open arms, a little like sea anemones.

Female Hazel Catkin

Female Hazel Catkin

It is these female flowers that will eventually turn into hazelnuts. They will promptly be nibbled off by squirrels or, if we are extremely lucky, by dormice. Kentish Cobnuts, with their creamy white interiors and little hats of pale green, are a domesticated variety of the hazelnut, but the wild variety is perfectly good to eat, and was, indeed, one of the staple foods of prehistoric peoples. Hazel has grown in the UK for at least the last 6000 years, and only birch was quicker to colonise the country after the last Ice Age. The spread of the plant throughout Europe has been attributed to its being carried from place to place by humans. After all, nuts are a concentrated, portable form of protein and carbohydrate. What better food if you’re embarking on a (very) long walk?

Hazel leaves and nuts ("Corylus avellana". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corylus_avellana.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corylus_avellana.jpg)

Hazel leaves and nuts (“Corylus avellana”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corylus_avellana.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corylus_avellana.jpg)

The Hazel growing beside the school playing fields has turned itself into a small tree, but historically it is much coppiced, the stems being used for a wide variety of purposes. They are extremely flexible, and can be turned back upon themselves or knotted. They were woven together to form both hurdles and fences, and were also used as the framework for wattle and daub walls. They are still used in thatching, to hold the thatch down, because the hazel stems can be bent through 180 degrees. A more modern use is in the creation of sound screens alongside motorways.

A Wattle Hurdle ("Wattle hurdle" by Richard New Forest - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wattle_hurdle.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Wattle_hurdle.JPG)

A Wattle Hurdle (“Wattle hurdle” by Richard New Forest – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wattle_hurdle.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Wattle_hurdle.JPG)

Here, a Wattle gate is used to keep the animals out of the 15th Century cabbage patch ("Tacuinum Sanitatis-cabbage harvest". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tacuinum_Sanitatis-cabbage_harvest.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Tacuinum_Sanitatis-cabbage_harvest.jpg)

Here, a Wattle gate is used to keep the animals out of the 15th Century cabbage patch. This is from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being, and well worth further study.

And here we can see a wattle and daub construction, with the twigs visible behind the mud used to make the walls (By MrPanyGoff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

And here we can see a wattle and daub construction, with the twigs visible behind the mud used to make the walls (By MrPanyGoff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A plant which has lived alongside us in these islands since the very beginning, Hazel has many associations with Druid and Celtic beliefs. Its stems have been used for water divination, and for the making of shepherds’ crooks and pilgrims’ staffs. A Hazel tree was believed to be the home of Bile Ratha, the poetic fairy of Irish folklore, and it was believed that eating hazelnuts would bestow wisdom. On Dartmoor, Hazel was said to be the cure for snake and dog bites. And, to prevent toothache, you simply have to carry a double-hazelnut in your pocket at all times.

IMG_1044The catkins are shivering in the wintry blast, and so am I. Parents are tearing past me in their cars, hurrying to pick their children up from the school gate and giving me a decidedly funny look as I stand in the rain, peering through the fence with my camera.  I wonder if any of the children will get the chance to admire the catkins, the first sign that the long dark is finally loosening its grip. I hope that someone will take the time to show the little ones the ‘lambs tails’, and explain to them about this plant. After all, we have been living together, side by side, for six thousand years.

Wednesday Weed – Chickweed Revisited

Chickweed (Stellaria media) Photo by Kaldari

Dear Readers, I have always been very fond of chickweed – it seems to grow where nothing else will, and yet its flowers are very beautiful when seen close up. It likes disturbed ground, and so will often grace the most unlikely pile of rubble. Its Latin name means ‘medium-sized star’, although ‘tiny star’ would be more appropriate.

This was one of the very first ‘weeds’ that I wrote about, and I still remember what a voyage of adventure those first explorations of my neighbourhood were. As I got to know the various plants, and where they grew, it felt as if a whole new world had opened up. It was like getting to know the neighbours, and indeed my strange behaviour when I was weed-hunting introduced me to many people who wanted to know what on earth I was doing with a field guide in one hand, a camera in the other and my nose two inches from a tiny plant. I am still searching for some ‘weeds’ that should be around, but that I’ve never seen – pellitory-of-the-wall springs to mind. It’s a London plant, but I’ve never seen it in East Finchley. I shall have to go further afield, clearly.

And finally, a poem by Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky. The chickweed mentioned here is probably not ‘our’ chickweed, but I love the poem all the same.

A Spell Against Bomb Makers

This, officers, is common chickweed,

cousin of a prickly sow thistle.

If you lean your ear

to her stem

you can hear

yourself leaving.

– Ilya Kaminsky

And now, let’s see what I had to say about chickweed back in 2014.

Chickweed Flower BPWhen I was growing up, we had a blue budgerigar called Fella. He lived in a cage on our sideboard for his entire life. For most of the time, he seemed to be happy enough, as far as we could tell, although I suspect that keeping a single bird when, in his native Australia, he would have been a member of a flock thousands strong was tantamount to cruelty. Still, these were days when most people didn’t think about these things: we did our best to be kind to the animals that we kept, without ever considering whether we should have kept them at all.

Every so often, Fella would flap his wings frantically, sending a cloud of feathers and bird shit all over the carpet and driving the dog into a frenzy of barking.

‘He’s having a mad half-hour’, we would say, trying to shush the dog and sweep up the debris.

But what I remember is that occasionally, I would bring Fella some Chickweed from the garden. I remember the tilt of his head as he pulled it through the bars, the look of concentration on his face as he peeled off the leaves, the way that he used his beak with great gentleness and delicacy.  In such a stultifying life, I wonder if the Chickweed was a highpoint, something that gave him a sense of the world outside the bars, a tiny piece of the wild that he would never experience.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

The Chickweed is coming into flower again at the bottom of the street trees on my road. It forms a kind of green ruffle, covering the chicken bones from the KFC and the cigarette ends. The leaves are so green, the flowers so tiny and star-like that it seems like a last taste of spring in the midst of October. The plant is a member of the same family as Ragged Robin and Red Campion, and, as you might expect from its name, it is popular with chickens as well as budgerigars.

In the spring, Chickweed is considered good eating by humans too, and may turn up amongst the salad leaves at fancy restaurants. It’s also the foodplant of the caterpillars of this beautiful moth:

Yellow Shell moth (Camptogramma bilineata) "Camptogramma bilineata" by Eric Steinert - photo taken by Eric Steinert near Munich, Germany. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camptogramma_bilineata.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Camptogramma_bilineata.jpg

Yellow Shell moth (Camptogramma bilineata) “Camptogramma bilineata” by Eric Steinert – photo taken by Eric Steinert near Munich, Germany.

Chickweed also has a reputation for being an anti-inflammatory, especially when turned into an ointment. The water in which Chickweed has been boiled is said, when sipped, to be a cure for obesity, and can also help with the symptoms of rheumatism.

In her wonderful website Plant Lives, Sue C.Eland describes how Chickweed undergoes what is known as ‘The Sleep of the Plants’ – at night, the leaves curl over any new shoots to protect them from the cold, like a chicken snuggling her chicks under her wings.

Chickweed 2 BPChickweed also has a line of hairs on its stem that all point in one direction. These channel dew into a pair of leaves where the water is absorbed and helps to hydrate the plant in times of drought – as the plant often grows in exposed, disturbed areas, this extra fluid must be very useful.

You can just make out the hairs on the stem in this lovely shot by By Kenraiz Krzysztof Ziarnek (Own work)

You can just make out the hairs on the stem in this lovely shot by By Kenraiz Krzysztof Ziarnek (Own work)

As we go on this journey of exploration together, I am constantly surprised by the memories that these plant and animal companions unearth, and  what a new dimension being aware of them brings to my life. Going to the shops means pausing to see what is growing, and often involves a quick about-turn to collect a camera or a plant guide. Having a conversation with a neighbour may mean suddenly swivelling on a heel to watch an unfamiliar flock of birds pass overhead. The flora and fauna  that surrounds me is giving me roots, helping me to find my home here. The least I can do is to acknowledge and to celebrate them, in all their surprising and inspiring variety.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Shepherd’s Purse Revisited

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shepherd’s purse – photo by João Domingues Almeida athttps://flora-on.pt/?q=Capsella

Dear Readers, Shepherd’s Purse is one of the smallest, most inoffensive plants that you’re likely to see growing at the edge of a wall or next to a bollard. I first wrote about in 2014 when I was just starting to blog, and at the time it didn’t seem odd to me that this isn’t considered a native plant – as described below, it’s technically an archaeophyte, thought to have arrived in the UK before 1500. And yet, other small ‘weedy’ plants such as chickweed are accorded full native status. It’s all very puzzling, but greater botanical brains than mine have come to their own conclusions.

What is in no doubt is that Shepherd’s Purse is a very widespread ‘weed’ indeed. In Stace and Crawley’s ‘Alien Plants’, Shepherd’s Purse appears on the top 30 alien plants in London, suburban Bedfordshire and rural East Sutherland, one of only 5 plants to appear in all three lists (the others, in case you’re interested, are Buddleia, Sycamore, American Willowherb and Ground Elder). One reason is that it is an annual that will happily inbreed, giving rise to a whole range of microspecies (30 are listed in Druce’s Plant List of 1998, for example). This is important as the flowers of Shepherd’s Purse don’t attract a whole lot of pollinators, so sometimes the seeds for next year have been self-pollinated. No wonder the plant is so successful.

So, let’s see what I said about the plant eight whole years ago.

Shepherd's Purse

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

Shepherd’s Purse is one of those straggly  white-flowered weeds that grow at the bottom of walls, or in amongst the roots of city trees. It gets its name from its seed-pods, which are shaped like the leather pouches carried in medieval times, hung by draw-strings from the belt. The name also gives a clue to the length of time that it has been in the UK, for this little plant is a long way from home. It originated in Eastern Europe and Asia minor, but has been with us for a long time – it is considered to be an archaeophyte in the UK, which means that it came here prior to 1492. Plants which came along after this date are known as neophytes.

Like many so-called ‘weeds’, Shepherd’s Purse is an annual, and flowers almost all year round, the seed scattering far and wide from those heart-shaped seed pouches.

Shepherd's Purse Seedhead

Shepherd’s Purse Seedhead

There can be several generations of Shepherd’s Purse in a year, and the seeds can also survive for a long time in the soil, making it an ideal plant for an urban environment. When conditions are right, it will proliferate. When times are hard, the seeds will wait for better times to arrive. Once you have noticed Shepherd’s Purse, you will see it everywhere, going about its modest business without any ostentation. Yet, it has been used in a variety of ways all over the world.

Shepherd's Purse (the long straggly plant with the white flowers)

Shepherd’s Purse (the long straggly plant with the white flowers)

Shepherd’s Purse is a member of the cabbage family, and in many parts of the world it is actively grown as a food plant. It is increasing in popularity in this country as a foraged addition to salads, and in Japan is part of a ceremonial barley and rice gruel that is eaten on January 7th (for more details, have a look here). Although in cities it rarely reaches more than a few inches high, in rich soil, or when cultivated, it can grow into a more substantial plant, up to two feet high, with bigger, juicier leaves.

Shepherd’s Purse has also been used medicinally – a tea made from the plant is described as a ‘sovereign remedy’ against haemorrhage, especially of the kidneys. In Germany, the plant has been approved for use against nose-bleeds, pre-menstrual syndrome, wounds and burns. During the First World War, the herb was used in Germany to stop bleeding after other, more conventional remedies became unavailable.

Finally, the seeds of the plant are much loved by small birds, and I have watched sparrows hopping along the wall at the end of my street, pecking up the little ‘purses’.

This inoffensive, useful little plant is all around us, and yet, we have no respect whatsoever for it. This is the scene that greeted me a few days ago when I wandered up to the High Street:

Dying Shepherd's Purse

Dying Shepherd’s Purse and other ‘weeds’

Someone had decided to spray all the little weeds growing at the foot of the wall beside Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m not sure whether it’s the council, or the staff from KFC. I suspect the former – Barnet Council ‘gardeners’ have a zero-tolerance policy towards anything that isn’t a rose bush or a petunia. All these micro-habitats gone. All those seeds poisoned. I just hope that the sparrows have the sense not to eat them.

My one consolation is that I doubt it will be long before the Shepherd’s Purse is back. There will be seeds in the soil, just waiting for the toxins to die down. In the battle between man and plant, my money is always on the plant.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Green Alkanet Revisited

Dear Readers, I hear so many people complaining about green alkanet, the way that it takes over, the way that its tap roots go down to the centre of the earth etc etc. But the blue of its flowers is pretty much unmatched, especially at this time of year, and it is much favoured by pollinators, so that seems like a win to me! In Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley point out that in sensitive habitats, green alkanet can form a monoculture that excludes other plants, and it’s certainly vigorous. They also, however, point out that no native plant in the UK has ever gone extinct because of an alien ‘invader’. For me, I think it’s all about the vulnerability and fragility of the habitat – I love seeing green alkanet in the city, where there’s already an ecosystem of outrageously tough, prolific and hardy plants, but if it took over the undergrowth of my local ancient woodland I would be a little bit less impressed.

In London, green alkanet is the 6th commonest non-native plant (Buddleia is the commonest, you’ll be pleased to hear), and in suburban Berkshire it’s also the 6th commonest, with sycamore being the most often seen. In East Sutherland in the North of  Scotland, however, it doesn’t appear on the list at all – we know that it doesn’t like acidic soil (see below), so this might be the main reason. It might also not be suited to the colder habitat – it comes originally from Western Europe, so I imagine that it’s used to a milder climate. It seems to like urban streets and also motorway verges, so it’s clearly not scared of a little concrete. Stace also describes it as a ‘wall alien’, meaning that it’s a plant that is often found along the bottom of walls, a most peculiar habitat but one that a variety of London ‘weeds’ have taken a liking to, including yellow corydalis and ivy-leaved toadflax.

Incidentally, green alkanet’s Latin name, Pentaglossis sempervirens, means ‘five-tongued’ and ‘ever green’. I’m guessing that the five tongues refers to the petals, and the ‘ever-green’ to the plant’s habit of popping up at any time of year. Seen amongst the dead leaves of autumn, it really is a most toothsome colour.

And look what I found! A poem, and a good one too. See what you think.

Green Alkanet by Meryl Pugh (from her book Natural Phenomena)

From the hot flank of the bus to the pavement lunch between meetings
in the dazed, hot, infinite day of August:
green alkanet in profusion, persistent, taken for granted
between brick wall and tarmac, on vacant sites,
untended verges.
The hairy, blistered leaves,
the robust, fluted stalk; green alkanet in flower stares
with clarity brewed in a white day-for-night pupil – where world
is altered, reversed – and holds in its blue, pitiless iris
the same, blue intensity that drags us, thrashing, on –

And so, let’s move on and see what I said about green alkanet in my first Wednesday Weed, back in 2015.

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

Dear readers, if the county plant of London is the Rose-Bay Willowherb, then the Postal Code Plant of East Finchley must be the Green Alkanet. As I wander the streets, it seems to be obligatory to have at least one of these hairy-leaved beauties peering out from under the Buddleia, or popping forth boldly from the bottom of a fence. And yet, I cannot remember it from my childhood in East London, so I wonder if it has a preference for the heady heights of North London.

IMG_1883It is, in fact, a member of the Borage and Comfrey family, and, as you might expect, is popular with bees, especially early in the season when there isn’t much else about. Its leaves survive right through the winter, hence its Latin moniker, sempervirens, which means ‘always green’.

IMG_1887Green Alkanet was introduced into gardens before 1600, and was first recorded in the wild in 1724, so it has been with us for a long time. It is a true Londoner inasmuch as it can’t abide acidic soils, and so the cold, claggy clay of the capital suits it down to the ground (literally). It is a very hairy plant – the stems are hairy, the lavender buds are hairy, the leaves are hairy (and sometimes feature white spots as well). It is readily attacked by rusts (as in the specimen above). All in all, it is something of a bruiser, a street-fighter of a plant whose toughness belies its delicate flowers.

IMG_1888‘Alkanet’ is an interesting word, thought to derive from the Arabic word for the plant-based red dye Henna. The word is also the root of the names of Dyers’ Bugloss (Alkanna tinctoria) and Common Bugloss (Anchusa arvensis), to which Green Alkanet is closely related. In fact, Anchusa is derived from the Latin word for paint. The  books that I’ve read seem to agree that a red dye can be extracted from the sturdy root of the plant, and the WildflowerFinder website, which has a special interest in plant chemistry, goes further, suggesting that the extracts from the root can be used to make a purple or burgundy dye, with alkaline compounds being used to increase the blue pigment, and acid ones turning it red again. There is also a strong suggestion elsewhere that the plant was deliberately introduced to provide dyes for cloth, being cheaper than true Henna, which is extracted from the Henna tree (Lawsonia inermis).

The Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis)

The Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis)

Green Alkanet has several other uses – the flowers are apparently edible, and I can just imagine them frozen into ice-cubes and clinking away in a gin and tonic. Being a member of the comfrey family, the leaves can also be composted, or rotted down to provide liquid fertiliser. But it’s as a plant for pollinators that it finds its true vocation, the white heart of the flower acting as a target for all those thirsty early bees. It is yet another of those plants that we would be delighted with if we planted it deliberately, but which is undervalued because it’s just a ‘weed’. It seems as if we find it difficult to appreciate the beauty that comes to us for free, like grace.

IMG_1815

Wednesday Weed – Groundsel Revisited

South London Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

Dear Readers, when I was on my walk from Beckenham to Crystal Palace last week I was impressed by the sheer volume of groundsel. I have seen it growing weedily from cracks in the pavement in North London, but it seems to be at its happiest growing amongst the plantain and dandelions on a patch of proper rough ground.

This is a plant that has been with us ever since we first colonised the UK, and I love its old-fashioned quality, although as each plant can produce up to 1700 seeds three times per year, it is not so popular in other parts of the world. Furthermore, after drying and cold storage for three years the plant still achieved a germination rate of 87%, and it should be very proud of itself.  However, groundsel is not thought to be particularly harmful to native plants or to crops, unless you happen to be a mint farmer in Washington State. Who knew that there were mint farmers? I learn something every day on this blog. My Nan used to say that mint ‘goes seven times to the devil and once to you’, but in my experience if mint is happy you might as well give up all hope of growing anything else in that particular spot.

There is some debate about whether groundsel is toxic, either to humans or to animals, but it is clear that it was used as a purge, something that was often the case with plants that were mildly poisonous. For your delectation I present this tale collected by Roy Vickery who, along with Richard Mabey are my go-to people for the folklore and historical uses of UK plants. The description is rather graphic and the language is rather salty, so you might want to scroll past if you’re of a delicate disposition.

Mr Joby House, who used to be at Hewood, told us that, for constipation, you boiled groundsel and lard and take that and you will shit through the eye of a needle. His sister Lucy had constipation so bad that when the doctor called in the morning he said Lucy would be dead by 5 o’clock. Mrs. House went to the gypsies (Mrs. Penfold)…and she told her how to cure her. The doctor came late in the day, and Lucy was running around; there was shit everywhere. The doctor had brought Lucy’s death certificate, but he was so mad he tore it up and put it in the fire’ (From The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore (Roy Vickery 1995))

As I mention in my original piece, groundsel is munched upon by many, many caterpillars, so here is a poem by Julian Bishop. I love the idea of the caterpillar’s world view being reconfigured. See what you think.

CATERPILLAR by Julian Bishop

The weeks play out in peaks and troughs
charted by the parabola of his back –
he meanders from one room to another,
all wreathed in the same leafy wallpaper.

Every morsel of groundsel is a Groundhog Day –
there’s no furlough for a hungry caterpillar.
He knows an airborne killer hovers over
his world of constant foraging, a beak

swooping out from behind the green curtain.
Nonchalant about the hair-raising danger,
other caterpillars give him sage advice:
Bruv, it’ll get you one way or another. 

One day his restricted life will be lifted
by the gods gifting him a pair of wings.
From the cockpit of his modified body,
he will gaze down goggle-eyed on a land

reconfigured, where for a few precious weeks
heaven was a place of herbal teas, perpetual eating,
garden meals the boundaries of liberation.
Where will his new-found freedom take him?

And now, back to 2014 when I wrote this original piece.

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) (and is that a roach or a dog-end in the top right of the picture, I wonder?)

What a non-descript, retiring little plant Groundsel is. Slightly droopy (especially in the hot weather we’re having in London at the moment), it lurks in the toughest corners of the urban environment, at the bottom of walls and in the smallest of cracks. But this is one tough plant. The Groundsel photographed here is growing in a spot which was blitzed with weed-killer about six weeks ago (much to my annoyance). Dog pee, blazing sun, tiny amounts of soil and huge amounts of pollution daunt it not. The name ‘Groundsel’ comes from the Old English for ‘Ground Swallower’, and it has advanced to all four corners of the globe, probably because its seeds have been mixed in with food crops.

The light, hairy seeds of the Groundsel can travel a long way....

The light, hairy seeds of the Groundsel can travel a long way….

Richard Mabey points out that the ‘Senecio’ part of the Latin name for Groundsel comes from the word for ‘Old Man’. With its seeds attached, the seedhead looks rather like Einstein’s hairdo, but when they are all gone, it looks like the (somewhat dimpled) head of a bald man.

I remember feeding my budgie on Groundsel and Chickweed, and it is said to  persuade rabbits to feed when nothing else works. In ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams, one of the wisest rabbits was named Groundsel, which is maybe a nod to the animals’ dietary preferences.  The seeds are also taken by sparrows and finches – I tend to forget that, before birdtables came along, wild birds did perfectly well finding food for themselves. Indeed, once upon a time a certain proportion of ‘weeds’ such as Groundsel were happily tolerated in our fields, and so there was plenty for birds to eat in rural areas. These days, the fields are less biodiverse than our gardens, and so the birds that are left come to us. For an agricultural approach to groundsel (otherwise known as ‘blasting it off the planet), have a look at the approach taken by Dow AgroSciences here, and weep.

Groundsel Blog 2Groundsel is a favourite food of Cinnabar and Flame-Shouldered Moths, and the Ragwort Plume Moth. In fact, the plants of the Groundsel family (which includes the Oxford Ragwort and various types of Fleabane) support an extraordinary number of butterflies and moths, and a partial list is included here

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar By joost j. bakker [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar By joost j. bakker [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Flame-shoulder moth By picture taken by Olaf Leillinger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Flame-shoulder moth By picture taken by Olaf Leillinger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, the main habitats of this ancient weed are now our city streets and brownfield sites, our railway sidings and wastelands. This is why these sites can be so important, particularly for insects. At least on a derelict site, there are unlikely to be regular applications of insecticides and herbicides. Our greatest biodiversity is not found in ‘the countryside’ anymore, but in those marginal areas that have not (yet) been developed. It’s important to remember that a Cinnabar Moth caterpillar doesn’t care what an area looks like, just that it has enough to eat. For some more information about Brownfield sites, and why they are important to insects , I can recommend this article from Buglife, a charity worthy of support by anyone who cares about our invertebrate neighbours.

Groundsel blog 3

 

 

 

 

At Whittington Hospital

Whittington Hospital Main Entrance (Photo by Tony Peacock)

Dear Readers, whenever I enter Whittington Hospital I am flooded with emotion. This is where they looked after my mother when she became ill with sepsis on Boxing Day 2015. It’s here that they saved her life, so that she could go on to enjoy her sixtieth wedding anniversary party, and to relish some of the small sweetnesses of existence as she became increasingly ill. I remember so well sitting in the canteen before the ward opened to visitors and walking back down the stairs in tears after a tricky visit.

Today, I was there for a whole raft of blood tests. I have some strange numbness and tingling in my feet, and as Mum, Dad and my brother all have type two diabetes, I thought I should get it checked out. Never one for half measures, my doctor has also requested lipids, liver function, bone density, a blood count and anything else she could think of. I expect that my left arm is now a few ounces lighter than my right.

The phlebotomy clinic is very well-organised – you’re checked off, given a number, and ten minutes later you’re leaving. The receptionist was apologetic that things were running a little late, but in the end I was actually seen five minutes before my scheduled time, so I’m definitely not complaining. I used to sometimes faint when my blood was taken, but fortunately I seem to have grown out of it – provided I don’t watch, it’s fine. And I should know the results by the end of the week. I never forget how lucky I am not to have to worry about the costs of medical procedures like this.

Anyway, today I wanted to share this original piece with you, written while Mum was still in hospital. It was the first time that I’d shared anything personal on the blog, and it changed everything for me. So, let’s go back to December 2015.

IMG_5116My mother and father came to stay with me in London this Christmas. All three of us knew it was a risk. Both my parents have the full range of late-onset ailments ( COPD, diabetes, dicky hearts) but this is the only holiday that they get, and, besides, prizing safety above all else means that we gradually retreat into our shells, like hermit crabs, afraid that every shadow is a shore-side bird waiting to gobble us up.

On Christmas morning. Mum was trying to pin one of the brooches I’d bought her onto her jumper, fumbling with the clasp. She sat back and smiled, the filigree butterfly a little skew whiff. Then, I remembered.

‘One last present,’ I said.

I’d almost forgotten the orchid that I’d hidden away in the bedroom. As I walked back downstairs, I looked at the flowers. I am not a great fan of orchids – they have an alien quality that looks sinister to me. And yet, my mother has a gift for coaxing them into flower time and again. This one was pale pink with mauve bruise-like blotches. The mouth of each bloom opened like a man-trap with long, backward-pointing teeth.

‘It’s beautiful!’ said Mum, as I passed it to her.

As I removed the wrapping, one of the flowers detached itself and floated to the ground. I picked it up, feeling the waxiness of the petals. I showed it to Mum.

‘Oh, put it in some water’, she said, ‘I can’t bear to think of it just getting thrown away’.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Won’t it just die anyway?’

But she looked so upset that I found a dish and floated the flower in it. It’s still there now.

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Early on Sunday morning, I heard a rasping whisper from Mum and Dad’s bedroom.

‘I think you need to call someone’, Mum said. ‘I can breathe in, but I can’t breathe out’. I could hear her chest wheezing and crackling from across the room.

An hour later, she was in an ambulance, being given oxygen, heading for the nearest London hospital.

The doctors confirmed that she was 80 years old. They heard the recitation of her health problems, shook their heads over her oxygen levels and the sounds coming through their stethoscopes. They ascertained that at her best she could walk only ten paces without having to stop to gather her breath. They admitted her to the hospital. She was put in a huge room on her own. There were no windows, but there were lots of empty navy-blue storage cupboards, as if this had once been a kitchen but all the appliances had been removed. The fluorescent light gave off a constant background hum. It was like being in the belly of a great machine.

‘I’m not afraid of dying’, said Mum. ‘But it makes me so sad to think that I’ll never walk around Marks and Spencer again, or walk in a park. And I know I’m lucky and there are lots of things that I can still do, but somehow, just now, that doesn’t help’.

Normally I try to protect myself by avoiding what is really being said in these conversations, by trying, like Pollyanna, to look on the bright side. But today, I just sat, and held her hand, and cried with her.

IMG_5085As I walk to the hospital, I notice how bright all the colours seem, as if I’m hallucinating. The thoughts are chasing one another round and round inside my skull, as scratchy as rats. There is a wall alongside me and beyond a wildflower garden, at head height. The low winter sun lights up a patch of trailing bellflower. I see the way that the stamen are casting a hooked shadow on the lilac petals, the way a single raindrop trembles on the edge of a leaf before falling, in what seems like slow motion, onto the soil. And for a moment, I don’t think about Mum at all, and I feel my shoulders relax. I take a deep breath, then another. And then I walk on.

————————————————————————————————————————————-

It used to be that hospital wards were full of flowers, the stink of lilies and gently decomposing chrysanthemums rising above the smell of antiseptic and hospital cooking. But now, all plants are banned ‘for hygiene reasons’. Probably the nurses are so overworked that they don’t have time to cope with browning foliage and wilting poinsettias. But I can’t help thinking that something alive and beautiful is as important for healing as drips and antibiotics. Mum’s bunker looked completely sterile. But I had underestimated her.

At Christmas dinner, I had handed out some crackers that I’d bought from a wildlife charity. Each one contained a card that, when opened, released a snippet of bird song. The game was to guess which bird was singing – nightingale, blue tit, wren? Mum had put the cards in her bag. When the very important Consultant and his two trainees came along to see how she was doing, she produced one of the cards and pushed it into the Big Man’s hand.

‘Open that’, she said.

He looked at her askance, and opened the card. The sound of a song thrush in full-throat filled the bare room, flooding the place with the sound of woodland wildness.

The consultant’s face changed. He closed the card and opened it again. He turned to the two trainees.

‘I know you want to go home’, he said to them, ‘But listen to this!’

And he ‘played’ the song again, before closing the card and handing it back to Mum with a bow.

After a few days, Mum is moved to a different ward. As usual, she hates it at first – relationship is what Mum thrives on, and in each new location she has to charm everyone all over again. But she does have a window now.

‘At night, I can see all the planes flying over’, she says.

I notice that there’s a spider outside the window. At first I think it’s dead, but then I see that it is on a web, blowing backwards and forwards as the wind buffets the building. I decide not to tell Mum. She isn’t the world’s biggest spider fan. But it makes me happy to see this little note of anarchy in this antiseptic place.

‘At least I can get a breeze here’, says Mum. ‘Though when I was standing up next to the window yesterday they made me get back into bed in case I caught a chill’.

Her temperature is still too high, she is coughing most of the time and she’s pulled her canula out.

‘ I thought I’d be feeling a bit better by now’, she says. ‘But they’ve still got me on that bloody antibiotic that doesn’t work’.

I know that doctors don’t like to be told their jobs, but still.

‘Did you know that Mum’s been hospitalised for Proteus infections several times?’ I ask the doctor when he’s next on his rounds.

‘No’, he says. ‘Maybe we should talk to the people in Metabiotics’.

———————————————————————————————————

Proteus is a super-bug, and Mum probably acquired it in a hospital. Along with MRSA and C.Difficile, it is infecting our clinics and operating theatres. Proteus is so-called because it hides in the body, changing location. There are several variants, many of them immune to one antibiotic, some to several. The use of several antibiotics simultaneously is called Metabiotics.

This is the age of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On a bad day, I feel that we are standing on the threshold of apocalypse. I remember a display I saw about the Jamestown settlers in America. Several of them died from a simple tooth abscess that could not be treated, became infected, and spread through the body.

As we seek to sterilise our homes and hospitals and schools, life is creeping back through the keyhole, pouring under the door, finding the draughty spaces around our windows.

The doctors change the drugs. My mother’s body becomes a battleground. At 3.30 a.m. she rings me.

‘I’m in The Game’, she says. ‘I’m trapped in a room, and they’re murdering people next door, and slaughtering them like animals, and they won’t let me out’.

‘Mum,’ I say, heart racing, ‘You know that none of this is real?’

‘I know’, she says, ‘but I want to get out and they won’t let me go’.

The phone goes dead. I call the ward. After what seems like a year, the nurse answers. I explain the situation.

‘I’ll talk to her’, he says. ‘It’s the drugs’.

The next morning, Mum can’t remember any of it, but her breathing seems better. Then her blood sugar climbs to 32, a dangerously high level. It seems that, somehow, the bacteria are fighting back. This is not going to end any time soon.

On my visit, Mum hands back the cards with the bird songs in them.

‘Take them home’, she says. ‘Keep them safe. They don’t belong here’. And she closes her eyes, a look of concentration turning her face to marble. She is not beaten yet.

IMG_5117

Today, there is finally good news. The blood sugars are under control. Mum’s breathing is improving. Her poor body has fought back again, and if all goes well, she will be out of the hospital in a couple of days.

I am making my peace with the orchid. The buds are clenched fists, but the newly opened flowers are poppy-shaped, like cupped hands, around the soft inner petals. I see that the long, tongue-like leaves have a fine layer of dust.

‘I’d better clean you up’, I say to the plant. ‘Before Mum comes home’.

Update

Mum finally left the hospital on Thursday, and is travelling back home to Dorset with Dad and I on Sunday. She isn’t fully well yet, as might be expected, but she is getting better.I am deeply grateful to all the staff at the Whittington Hospital in north London for their unfailing care of my mum, and for their patience and dedication. The NHS truly is a pearl beyond price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Gallant-Soldier Revisited

Gallant-Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora)

Gallant-Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora)

Apologies to those of you who saw this when I posted it a day early yesterday, it’s been one of those weeks!

Dear Readers, I hope that you’ll forgive me for revisiting another ‘weed’, this one from 2014. Whenever I go back to Islington, I am astonished at how much Gallant Soldier there is growing in the tree pits and popping up from cracks, but until recently I had never seen it in East Finchley, even though it’s just a few miles up the road. Then, I noticed that it was living happily in some plant pots outside the Turkish restaurant, and I fully expect it to take up residence at any minute.

I have been doing a bit of extra research on this rather inconspicuous little weed, mainly in my copy of ‘Alien Plants’ by Stace and Crawley. The authors add a little more to the story of the plant’s name (see below) – they believe that ‘Gallant Soldier’ did come from the name of the discoverer, Mariano Galinsoga, but add that a close relative of the plant, which is rather hairier, has picked up the epithet ‘Shaggy Soldier’. Indeed, I shall have to check the next patch of the plant that I come across, as the shaggy version is apparently now commoner than the gallant one.

Shaggy Soldier (Galinsoga quadriradiata) Photo by Dalgial, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Stace and Crawley also point out that Gallant Soldier is one of the few well-documented cases of plants from collections escaping into the wild. It escaped from, of all places, Kew Gardens in 1861, and  by 1863 it had naturalised on the pavements and wasteland of an area from Richmond to East Sheen. Gradually it advanced, until it is now found across London, and in other spots in the south of the country. However the ‘soldiers’, both Shaggy and Gallant, appear to have done no harm to native flora, being rather discreet in habit and fond of ‘low value’ areas like wasteland (though with the house prices in Islington it’s difficult to argue that there is anything ‘low’ about their values).

When I wrote this original post, I wasn’t looking for poems, but as I idly paged through the interwebs looking for ‘gallant soldier’ verse, this leapt out of me, though it is a bit tangential. When I think about the state of things, this doesn’t seem so far from the truth, though the ‘angry and defrauded young’ have been joined by a chorus of those who’ve died through the mishandling of Covid, cuts to health services and benefits and sheer poverty.

A Dead Statesman

by Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Anyway! Back to Gallant Soldier. Here’s the piece that I wrote back in 2014.

I am rather excited about this little plant. I discovered it drooping rather sadly from the bottom of a wall in North London, and was intrigued when I discovered that it had the enigmatic name of ‘Gallant Soldier’. It’s nothing much to look at – a small, greenish daisy with five petals and a rather straggly, dangly habit – but it is a world traveller, an escape artist, a component of a South American stew and a potential drug for high-blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Not bad for such an inconspicuous ‘weed’.

Gallant-Soldier was originally taken to Europe from the Andean regions of Peru, by a Spanish botanist called Mariano Martinez Galinsoga, hence the plant’s Latin name, and its eventual English corruption to ‘Gallant Soldier’. Richard Mabey thinks that ‘Gallant Soldier’ may be an example of typical London sarcasm – there is nothing martial or upstanding about this diffident little plant. On the other hand, as we shall see, it has ‘marched’ unobtrusively across most of the planet, setting up home everywhere from the USA to Africa.

The plant lived inoffensively enough in the Madrid Botanical Gardens for many years, and a speciman was then taken to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1796.

In Colombia, the plant is called Guascas, and is used in a rather delicious stew called Ajiaco Bogotano. This features chicken and no fewer than three types of potatoes. As a lover and connoisseur of potatoes myself (like most Cockneys) this sounds delicious, especially as there are small yellow potatoes, floury white potatoes and a few blue potatoes thrown in for colour. As a vegetarian, though, I would probably skip the chicken. Then, a few handfuls of Gallant-Soldier are thrown on top to give what is described as ‘a unique flavour’. Colombian ex-patriots can buy Guascas dried, but this is said to be a poor substitute for the delicious fresh herb. I find it so interesting how, again and again, a plant can be a ‘weed’ in one country, and an invaluable resource in another. As we have become more detached from the plants around us, we have become less curious about what properties they may have, and even what they may taste like.

Ajiaco, thanks to Morten Johs for the photo https://www.flickr.com/photos/mortenjohs/2503485720

Ajiaco, thanks to Morten Johs for the photo https://www.flickr.com/photos/mortenjohs/2503485720

On the other hand, the plant is said to be poisonous to goats.

The plant has since spread to Africa and to North America. In Tanzania, Malawi and other areas it is planted amongst the crops to act as an alternative host for pests and viruses. However, it maintains its meek and humble reputation here too: in Malawi, its name is ‘Mwamuna aligone’, which means ‘my husband is sleeping’ (Richard Mabey, Plants Britannica).

In 2007, a study at the University of Kwa-Zulu in Durban, South Africa, investigated a number of plants for their properties as ACE inhibitors – plants that reduce hypertension. Gallant-Soldier was found to help improve blood flow, and to also be helpful in cases of hyperglycaemia, along with other common herbs such as Wild Garlic and Fat Hen. Herbalists have always known that there are a whole range of useful plants growing around us, but we have forgotten so much of the lore of our grandparents. Sometimes, it seems as if science is ‘discovering’ things that have been known by observant ‘ordinary’ people for centuries.

The little flowers of Gallant-Soldier

The little flowers of Gallant-Soldier

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed on Friday- Mexican Fleabane Revisited

Dear Readers, so many people commented on yesterday’s post about the Mexican Fleabane that I found during my lunchtime wander that I felt it was due for a revisit. This piece dates back to 2014, when I was just starting out on my blogging adventures, and I regret to say that I no longer have the plant in its original position, though as I mentioned yesterday it is now in my windowboxes, so will hopefully spread from there.

I have had a quick look in my Alien Plants book by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley, and the authors mention that Mexican Fleabane is one of the plants with the highest tolerance for dry soil, which makes it perfect for those little pockets of stony-dry soil at the bottom of walls, or in the cracks between paving stones. The authors also mention it as being a plant of villages, especially those where ‘cottage garden’ style front gardens are cultivated:

These plants are often found as fly-tipped garden waste on roadsides at the edge of the village, and as self-seeded individuals on paths, banks and walls.“(Page 475).

And it’s not just villages, clearly – we often find garden rubbish dumped in our local ancient woodland, and this might be one reason why we have hybrid bluebells rather than the original native species.

Stace and Crawley note that the plant is often found in urban areas as well, as we’ve seen. They associate Mexican Fleabane as a plant that appears where people actually have gardens for it to escape from – it’s interesting how the flora of an area can change according to whether people have access to their own greenspace or not.

And now onto my original post on Mexican Fleabane, from what now feels like a lighter, more innocent time. Over the past eight years I have written about hundreds of ‘weeds’ and garden plants and foodstuffs of various kinds, but if there’s something you’d like to know more about that I haven’t covered, do drop me a note in the comments – I am always open to inspiration!

Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus)

Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus)

On Sunday, I decided that things in the garden had gone too far. My deciduous hedge was slapping me in the face with a wet branch every time I went to the shed to get the  bird food. I’d been allowing the stinging nettles to do their thing in a quiet corner, but they had busted out and were popping up all along the path, patinating my ankles with blisters. The branch on the whitebeam was so low that my husband nearly brained himself everytime he went to collect the washing. A little judicious, gentle pruning and a modicum of cutting down and pulling up was required, just to make the garden habitable for people, plants and animals.

I went to collect the green wheelie bin for the bits that we couldn’t compost or put in the log-pile. It lives in the dark alley at the side of the house, which attracts a wide variety of volunteer plants: Yellow Corydalis and Greater Celandine, Buddleia and even an intrepid Foxglove. But as I got to the darkest, dreariest part of the path, a little plant glowed up at me as if lit by moonlight: a Mexican Fleabane.

Mexican Fleabane by the wheelie bin

Mexican Fleabane by the wheelie bin

The flowers of this little plant are very similar to those of our native daisy, but it has very different habits. While our daisy is low-growing and short-stemmed, keeping its head down to avoid the blades of the mower, the Mexican Fleabane is straggly and dangly, and is most at home in tiny pockets of soil. In some parts of the country, it can be seen clinging to the gaps between the bricks in a wall, tumbling down like a floral waterfall.

Like so many of the plants I’ve discovered, it has come a long way. It was named after a Hungarian botanist and explorer with the magnificent name of  Baron Wilhelm Friedrich Karwinski von Karvin (von Karvin Karvinski). He found his sample plant in Oaxaca, Mexico. It arrived in the UK some time during the nineteenth century, and promptly ‘escaped’. Today, it is found on the west coast of North America, all over Europe and even in Japan, where it is categorized as an undesirable alien. One person’s dangerous weed is, as always, someone else’s desirable garden plant, and indeed, if you fancy a Mexican Fleabane for your garden, the online garden centre Crocus will provide you with one for 7.99 GBP.

Mexican Fleabane 3 BlogWhen I look at this plant, it makes me ponder on why we call somebody ‘weedy’. Are we complimenting them on their adaptability, toughness, resilience and savage beauty? Sadly, we are usually talking about a young man who has grown a little too tall for his girth, someone who is always picked last for the soccer team. I suppose that the Mexican Fleabane is a typical ‘weed’ in this regard – it is a droopy, unassertive little plant, a literal ‘wallflower’. Like many a human ‘weed’, however, it has the last laugh, having quietly succeeded in populating most of the planet where more aggressive, obvious plants have failed.

Mexican Fleabane 2 BlogFurthermore, it appears that it is not called ‘Fleabane’ for nothing. In less hygienic times, dried fleabane would be put into mattresses to deter biting insects, and it has been suggested that the same can be done today in the beds of dogs and cats to keep the fleas away. Certainly it’s worth a try – I know that Roundup and such chemicals work, but I always worry about how they work, and whether they have any deleterious effect on the creatures that they are used on. If any one has a go, do let me know!

So, in my brief stint of tidying up, I managed to discover a new plant. I will be delighted if it spreads – a bee was investigating the flower as I left to write this piece. I might even give it a little encouragement.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Angel’s Trumpet

Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia sp.)

Dear Readers, I spotted this plant in Regent’s Park at the weekend, and was amazed at its beauty, but there’s more to this shrub than meets the eye. Angel’s Trumpet (and the closely related Datura) are some of the most poisonous ornamental plants in the world, containing the same poisons as those found in Deadly Nightshade (not surprisingly as they’re in the same family, the Solanaceae). Like many poisonous plants, however, their toxins have proved to have many uses. Medicinally, the alkaloid chemicals that they contain have been used for everything from anaesthesia and sedation to treating asthma. However, the plant was originally found in Central and South America, and here the local people used the plant mainly for external complaints such as rashes and arthritis. They were much more circumspect about using the plant internally, although it was sometimes used to induce vomiting and to kill parasites such as tapeworms.

However, Angel’s Trumpet is probably most famous for its hallucingenic properties. The effects of the plant have been described as ‘terrifying rather than pleasurable’, and I read with a certain amount of horror that children in some South American tribes would be given a drink containing Brugmansia so that they could be admonished directly by their ancestors in the spirit world. It was also used to drug slaves and the wives of important people so that they could be buried alive with their dead lords. And if that doesn’t make you shudder, I don’t know what will.

Angel’s Trumpet was also used by South American shaman for a variety of initiation and magical ceremonies. Apparently ‘bad shamans’ will add the plant to the brew served to gullible Westerners who want to take part in Ayahuasca ceremonies, seen as a way of raising consciousness, altering perception and as a cure for depression. As vomiting is seen as part of the ceremony, I guess that the Angel’s Trumpet is likely to make you vomit a whole lot (if it doesn’t kill you).

For a plant that can be seen in cultivation on a regular basis, Angel’s Trumpet is listed by the IUCN as extinct in the wild. How so? It appears that the plant had a long-standing relationship with some large species of megafauna which probably ate the seeds and dispersed them. The animal has since become extinct itself, and so it’s the shamans (and latterly the gardening industry) that have kept the seven species in the Brugmansia family alive.

Incidentally, the way that you tell a Brugmansia from the closely-related Datura is that in Angel’s Trumpets, the flowers hang down, whereas with the Daturas (such as the American Jimsonweed) the flowers stick out or up. They are just as poisonous as their dangly relatives.

Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) from Joshua Tree National Park

Another reason to grow Angel’s Trumpets has been their sweet scent, which is especially pronounced at night. As you might surmise, this indicates that the plant is moth-pollinated (and by moths with very long tongues, presumably). One red species (Brugmansia sanguinea) has no scent, and is pollinated instead by hummingbirds. Some butterfly larvae also feed on the leaves and are able to utilise the poison in the plant to make themselves distasteful to predators. The poison lingers on not just in the caterpillars, but through the pupal stage and into the adult butterfly.

Brugmansia sanguinea (Photo by By Derek Harper, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18092796)

So, Angel’s Trumpet is a plant of contradictions – exquisitely beautiful and sweet-smelling, but also so poisonous that a woman who pruned her plant and then rubbed her eye with her hand was blinded in that eye for 24 hours. It’s not surprising that Jimson Weed, with all of its strange, exotic beauty, was painted numerous times by Georgia O’Keefe. She frequently painted flowers which were common, but she had this to say, and I couldn’t agree more.

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment, I want to give that world to someone else.”

Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keefe (1936)