Category Archives: London Plants

A Street Tree Harvest


Dear Readers, the man a few doors along from me gets very frustrated with the crab apple street tree outside his house. In October and November you can see him sweeping up all the rotten fruit , and if you pause he will explain why he hates it.

  1. The fruit, when freshly fallen, is as hard as a ball-bearing, just waiting to catch out the unwary.
  2. The fruit quickly degenerates into a squishy mush, which is even more slippery  than the ball-bearing stage, and is rather unpleasant to walk on even if you don’t fall onto your derriere.
  3. If you leave the rotten and fermenting fruit, it attracts clouds of drowsy wasps.
  4. While the fruit is still on the tree, it attracts noisy and badly-behaved parakeets who add to the mess with their droppings.
What are you looking at?

A noisy and badly-behaved parakeet

Fruit trees as street trees can be problematic, because the fruit is attractive to all kinds of creatures that some people wouldn’t want on their doorstep.  I have no problem with the poor wasps, who are imbibing the last sweet thing that they’ll ever taste, and who could blame them for wanting to get a bit tipsy after a hard year of caterpillar-catching and grub-grooming. And I don’t have a problem with the parakeets either, who bring a touch of exotic beauty to the street.


But then there’s the mess. It’s not a problem, generally, with cherry trees, because the fruit appears early and the thrushes and blackbirds eat every last morsel. But the autumn fruits can be something of a problem. After all, how much crab apple jelly can anybody eat? And even the more edible fruits can prove difficult to handle in their sheer abundance and generosity.  When I went on a street tree walk earlier this year, I visited a group of sand pear trees whose fruit was so succulent and heavy that it was bombarding the pavement and any cars that were parked underneath with a deluge of sticky-sweet puree. As you might remember from that piece, half the street wanted the trees cut down, and the other half wanted them preserved. Peace broke out when it was decided to do something radical and harvest the fruit to be turned into perry (the pear-based version of cider). It’s almost as if we have forgotten what fruit trees were originally planted for.

A sand pear tree off Holloway Road in North London

I was very heartened to read in Time Out this week that a group of people are harvesting the apples from street trees, and trees growing on public land, to make cider and to give the fruit to foodbanks and organisations that prepare meals for isolated people. Although crab apples are not immediately edible(at least for humans), tons of perfectly good fruit are wasted every year because nobody picks it. There must be a better, more connected way to bring the hungry together with their food, and to make good use of nature’s bounty, and there are a lot of interesting experiments going on to do just that.


The fruit on my garden crab apple – popular with the thrushes (when everything else has been eaten)

And it occurs to me that where a tree is just plain messy at certain times of the year, it wouldn’t hurt me to dig out my broom and give the man who lives a few houses down a hand. It’s so easy to become territorial in a row of houses, and to think that your responsibility ends at the edge of your garden wall. That might be strictly true, but it’s not a community I’d want to live in. When we had snow a few years ago, my husband cleared a path not just in front of our house, but for a good distance in either direction. He grew up in Canada and knows how to clear snow, but also recognises that it’s easier for some of us to do heavy work than it is for others. And yes, I know the old story that you can be sued if you clear your snow and someone falls over anyway, but from my research that seems only to apply if you’ve done something really stupid (like try to wash it away so that it freezes into an ice-rink).


So, as autumn turns into winter, and the sun seems to be low on the horizon all day, I’m determined to be more aware of the bounty around me. There are some handy maps that you can use, in London at least, to look out where your local fruit trees might be, and to keep an eye open for any seasonal bonanzas – here, for example, is one for Hackney, provided by the organisation Hackney Harvest. For a general map of street trees in London, have a look here: you can enter your postcode, and it will tell you what’s growing in your area. All the usual provisos about health and safety apply, but I’d be willing to bet that if you passed by some of these trees in the autumn, the fruit would be literally dropping off. Wash it well though, you know how keen some councils are on spraying things.


I’ve written before about how ‘plant-blind’ many of us have become. Whereas a generation or two back plants were in relationship with us, whether as medicines, or food, or as food for the imagination, nowadays it’s so easy to barely notice them. Writing the blog has opened my eyes a bit, but there is still so much more to notice and to learn about. I have grown to love the diverse plant community around my home, and to value it for the way that it roots me in place, and in history. If you are feeling a bit stale or lacklustre, put on your coat and hat and gloves and go for a fifteen minute walk. I guarantee that, if you walk slowly and pay attention, you’ll see something that piques your interest and takes you out of yourself. And maybe you’ll even find something to take home and turn into a crumble.







Wednesday Weed – Strawberry Tree

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Fruit of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

Dear Readers, I spotted this tree in East Finchley cemetery last week and, although it is most definitely not a weed, I decided to indulge myself and find out a bit more about it. After all, it is native to Great Britain (albeit only in a tiny corner of south-western Ireland, where it seems to have survived the last ice age) and is a popular street tree – in ‘London’s Street Trees‘ Paul Wood points out that it can be found in Bermondsey, Haggerston, Vauxhall and Holloway, and that there is even an Arbutus Street in Dalston. The Irish connection gave it its alternate names of ‘Irish strawberry tree’ or ‘cane apple’ (from caithne, the Irish name for the tree). Elsewhere, it can be found around the Mediterranean and Western Europe.

The tree is not related in any way to the strawberry that we have for dessert: in fact, it’s a member of the heather family (Ericaceae), something that can be seen more clearly in the flowers than in the fruits. The tree bears both simultaenously, which makes for an attractive and long-lasting display.

Photo One (Flowers) by By muffinn from Worcester, UK (Ameixial - strawberry tree Arbutus unedo flowers) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Strawberry Tree flowers (Photo One)

The fruits are edible, but, much like the avocados that I sometimes buy, they take twelve months to ripen and then spoil very quickly. The species name unedo means ‘I eat only one’, and is attributed to Pliny the Elder. Whether he meant that one was enough, or that one was so delicious that no more were required is open for debate. I now regret that, in the interests of citizen science, I didn’t try one. There were certainly enough of them about.


The fruit is can be used in a variety of ways: here is a rather attractive crumble cake, for example.

Photo Two (Cake) by By Nzfauna - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Strawberrry tree crumble cake (Photo Two)

However, as is so often the case, the main use of the fruit turns out to be in the making of alcoholic beverages. In Portugal, the wild fruit is used to make Medronho a 48% proof brandy that is drunk at breakfast to ‘waken the spirits’. In Albania it’s used to make rakia (not to be confused with the aniseed flavoured raki) and can be up to 90% proof. All I can say is that these folk are made of much stronger stuff than me. One glass of prosecco and I’m dancing on the table.

For something slightly less alcoholic, here is a recipe for Irish Strawberry Liquer from the splendid Talk of Tomatoes blog.

The fruit can also be used to make jam, and here is a recipe from the Maremma region of Italy which sounds rather splendid.


What with its fruit and flowers and evergreen foliage, the strawberry tree is a great tree for a small garden, where every plant has to earn its keep. The flowers are pollinated by bees, birds like the fruit (even if we are wary of it) and it has a variety of ecosystem advantages: it can grow in very poor soil, and helps to stabilise it: it is salt-tolerant, and so useful for coastal gardens:it’s fire-resistant: and the thick leaf-cover helps to protect birds and insects during the winter.

Pliny did, however, note that it should not be kept close to bee-hives, for the nectar gives a bitter flavour to honey.

The strawberry tree forms part of the coat of arms of the Spanish city of Madrid, which shows a bear eating the fruits from the plant. There are still about 230 brown bears in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain, and I love to think of them stretching up to eat the berries. There is some indication that the bears may also eat the fermented fruit and collapse in an alcoholic stupor, much as they do in other places where such bounty is available.

In a complete digression, I remember seeing the paw prints of a sloth bear in a forest in India, and being amazed at how human they looked, just like the bare feet of a small child. These creatures resemble us in many ways.

Photo Three (coat of arms) by By Valadrem ( [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Coat of arms of Madrid (Photo Three)

In Italy, the tree, with its red fruit, white flowers and green leaves (the colours of the Italian flag), was seen as a symbol of the unification of the country during the 19th Century.

Medicinally, the leaves of the  strawberry tree have been used for a wide variety of purposes – they are said to be astringent, diuretic, urinary anti-septic, antiseptic, intoxicant, rheumatism, tonic, and have more recently been used in the therapy of hypertension and diabetes. The leaves certainly contain quercetin, which is an anti-oxidant, and are said to have anti-inflammatory properties.


Now, I have referred previously to Hieronymos Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, and the way that folk can be seen to be wrestling with strawberries, carrying strawberries, and even eating strawberries. I took it for granted that the fruit in question was from the wild strawberry. However, the painting was recorded in the inventory of the Spanish monarch as ‘La Pintura del Madroño‘ – ‘the painting of the strawberry tree’. Have a  look at those giant fruits and see what you think. I suspect that I was right the first time.

Wild Strawberry or fruit from Strawberry Tree? I think the former….(Public Domain)

And finally to our poem. I am indebted to Greene Deane at the Eat the Weeds website for finding this Irish folk song on the subject of the Arbutus, or strawberry tree. Do pop over to the blog for fascinating information on all things foragable (this may be a new word). Like so many folk songs, it starts well enough, but gets rather less pleasant as we approach the end.

My Love’s An Arbutus

My love’s an arbutus
By the borders of Lene,
So slender and shapely
In her girdle of green.
And I measure the pleasure
Of her eye’s sapphire sheen
By the blue skies that sparkle
Through the soft branching screen.

But though ruddy the berry
And snowy the flower
That brighten together
The arbutus bower,
Perfuming and blooming
Through sunshine and shower,
Give me her bright lips
And her laugh’s pearly dower.

Alas, fruit and blossom
Shall lie dead on the lea,
And Time’s jealous fingers
Dim your young charms, Machree.
But unranging, unchanging,
You’ll still cling to me,
Like the evergreen leaf
To the arbutus tree.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Flowers) by By muffinn from Worcester, UK (Ameixial – strawberry tree Arbutus unedo flowers) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Cake) by By Nzfauna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three (coat of arms) by By Valadrem ( [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons











In East Finchley Cemetery

My favourite gravestone


Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that I’m a great fan of cemeteries. My heart is already given to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with its Victorian trees, tumbledown tombs and colony of feral foxes, but I occasionally like to walk in East Finchley cemetery. This is a much more manicured, controlled space, but it has some spectacular specimen trees, and is a haven for birds.

I spend a lot of time listening as I walk – I find it helps me to tune in to what’s going on. There are lots of conifers: cypresses and spruces, pines and fir trees. They vibrate with the twitterings of small birds. I see goldcrests and long-tailed tits, and hear the scolding of blue tits. None of them stay long enough for me to get a photo, but it’s enough to know that they’re there, working their way through the needles.

There’s the sing-song squawking of ring-necked parakeets, the cackling of magpies, the cawing of ever-present crows. The goldfinches sound like little bells. There’s a flight of finches at the top of one of the big, bare trees, but they’re too far away for me to see what they are. When I get home, I see that they are most probably greenfinches, at least judging from the heavy beaks and the gold wing bar that I can see on one of the wings. These birds were hit very hard by a parasitic disease (Trichomonosis) a few years ago, and the British Trust for Ornithology noted a decrease in the number of gardens who were visited by the birds of 40%. So, it’s cause for celebration if they’re recovering. Fingers crossed.

There’s a theme of wings in the cemetery. Secretly, I always wished that I could fly, and our myths and legends are full of humans who took to the air, from Icarus to the angels. We seem to want the freedom of the air, and perhaps also a release from our heavy, earthbound bodies.

I find the garden of remembrance, where the sound of running water is added to the bird calls. There are still a few last roses in bloom, but mostly they are now well-pruned and dormant, waiting for spring. I sit on one of the benches and wait to see what will happen. Nothing does, except that I notice how the golden of the leaves on some silver birch is offset by the darkness of the firs behind it, and how the yellow foliage on the topiary box bushes make them look as if they’re touched by sunshine.

When I am walking, I often think that something will happen, and then I’ll know that it’s time to go home. There’s often a moment when I think ‘Aha, this what I was meant to see/hear/smell’. I am, I suppose, waiting for a sense of completion, and permission, a sense of closure. But what will it be this time?

I walk along a path towards the crematorium, and am stopped in my tracks by the waves of scent coming from a most modest little bush on one of the graves. I have to stop, bend down, and take a good long sniff. We think we know what a rose smells like, but there are subtle differences: some perfumes have a lemony edge, some are deep and spicy. This little rose is pure floral, essence of rose.

I take a little path along the very edge of the cemetery and, as I meander along, I have a feeling of being watched. Who, or what, is it? And there, perched stock-still on one of the gravestones is a squirrel. I laugh out loud, because he looks so much like a glove puppet. And there he sits, unmoving, as I walk along the path and then away. While every other squirrel scurries away at my approach, this one seems to believe that if he sits still, I won’t see him. As he looks plump and confident, it seems to be a strategy that’s served him well.

Once I’ve laughed with delight, I know that my job here is done and I can head home, but my eyes are attracted (much like a magpie’s) to some bright red fruit on the ground. I have found a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), a member of the heather family. The fruits look delicious, and are apparently edible fresh, although they bruise very easily. I love the tableau that they make amidst the sedum and the grasses.

And then, just as I turn for home, I see a jay perched on another gravestone. How I love these brownish-pink crows with their electric-blue wing feathers.They are everywhere in the cemetery, gathering acorns that they’ll bury for the winter. This one watches me and then flies off on rounded wings, emitting an alarming cackle.

So now I’m surfeited with wonders and can head for home. As I cross the road outside the cemetery I see a 143 bus in the distance and head towards the bus stop at a brisk but sensible trot – I still have my camera round my neck and so I don’t want to do anything foolish like fall flat on my face. Just as I reach the stop the bus pulls away, and I plump down onto a seat, defeated.

An elderly man passes me a few minutes later, and smiles.

‘Next time’, he says, ‘you’ll have to fly’.




















Wednesday Weed – Scarlet Pimpernel

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagalllis arvensis)

Dear Readers, if there is one lesson in life that I should have learned by now, it’s ‘don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today’. When I was in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset last week, I spotted this delightful patch of scarlet pimpernel, every flower open in the sunshine. But, alas, I had milk and rich tea biscuits to buy, and a copy of Woman’s Weekly to pick up, so I hurried past instead of stopping to take a photograph.

For the next three days,  the flowers were closed up tight, what with the fog, and the cold, and the afternoon shadows. And so I’m afraid my photos show them in their ‘coy mode’. However, here is what they look like when they’re in full sun. The plant has alternative names like ‘poor man’s weather glass’ and ‘shepherd’s clock’; the flowers are said to open at 8 a.m. and close at about 2 p.m. unless there’s cloudy or damp weather, in which case they may not bother to put in an appearance at all. I don’t blame them. Now that the clocks have gone back and it’s dark before 5 I often feel like huddling under the duvet with a hot chocolate and a good book.

Photo One (Scarlet Pimpernel flowers) by Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Scarlet pimpernel (Photo One)

This plant is a member of the primrose family (Primulaceae) but as far as I know it’s the only  red species. Scarlet seems to be pushing it a bit though – it’s more of an orangey-red. But I am very fond of it – it’s small and unobtrusive, but repays close attention. It’s a plant of arable farmland and seaside environments, such as dunes and cliffs. It is native to the UK and to the whole of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, but has ended up being transported to almost everywhere else in the world, probably with grain crops.

In the Mediterranean area (and, I’ve learned, in some parts of the UK)  there is a rather lovely blue form, which gives rise to yet another alternative name, ‘blue-scarlet pimpernel’.

Photo Two (blue scarlet pimpernel ) by By Zachi Evenor, cropped by User:MathKnight - File:Anagallis-arvensis-Horashim2014-Zachi-Evenor.jpg, CC BY 4.0,

Blue form of scarlet pimpernel (Photo Two)

Despite its demure appearance, however, scarlet pimpernel has a fearsome reputation. It is said that it causes gastroenteritis in dogs and horses, rabbits and poultry, and the seed is said to be poisonous to birds. Fortunately, it also apparently has a very acrid and unpleasant taste, and so most animals avoid it. The plant can also be used as an insecticide (which is probably why it developed the toxins in the first place). However, scarlet pimpernel has also been used medicinally, and in Germany it’s known as Gauchheil (‘Fool heal’) and used to be made into a treatment for those who were melancholy or otherwise mentally indisposed.The  genus name, Anagallis, comes from the Greek ‘to laugh’, and was said to indicate the mood of someone when their depression was lifted.

Of course, many people unfamiliar with this small red flower will be well aware of the novels of Baroness Orczy, who wrote the first of many books featuring The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1905. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a chivalrous gentleman who, with his band of loyal followers (‘ one to command and nineteen to obey’) worked to rescue French aristocrats who were destined for the guillotine. As you might expect from the name, the Scarlet Pimpernel left a flower at the scene of his rescues, and also used the symbol in his correspondence. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Pimpernel himself, you might be familiar with some of the parodies that his derring-do inspired, such as the Bugs Bunny episode featuring The Scarlet Pumpernickel, or the programme ‘Nob and Nobility’ in the third series of Blackadder that featured the eponymous hero’s disgust with the adulation accorded to the ‘bloody Pimpernel’.

Photo Three (Nob and Nobility) by By Source, Fair use,

The title card from Nob and Nobility (Photo Three)

This action-packed series of novels was the inspiration for many films and television series and radio plays, with probably the most famous cinematic version being the 1934 film starring Leslie Howard and and Merle Oberon.

Photo Four (Film 1934) by

The Scarlet Pimpernel (and very exciting it sounds too) (Photo Four)

A poem from the novel has passed surreptitiously into common usage:

‘We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.’

You might recognise the first line from The Kinks 1966 song ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’.

Anyhow, enough excitement! Let’s get back to the plant.

It was believed that holding scarlet pimpernel in the hand would confer the gift of second sight, and also that the plant could give protection from enchantment and spells. I imagine that much of what we now see as mental illness might have been seen as the effect of witchcraft or demonic possession in earlier times, and so the plant’s use has remained consistent – if you are not ‘in your right mind’ for whatever reason, scarlet pimpernel seems to have been the go-to remedy.

It was used to make ‘pimpernel water’, which was considered to be a remedy for freckles (though as they are rather delightful I hardly think they need a ‘remedy’), and also for rough and discoloured skin.

In spite of their allegedly acrid flavour and rich collection of toxins, the leaves have been used in salads, especially in Germany and France. They certainly look very toothsome, but I would be a bit careful if I was you.

This blog often leads me to some very interesting places. In the search for art associated with The Scarlet Pimpernel, I discovered the wonderful illustrator Luisa Rivera, who is originally from Chile but is now based in London. She has recently illustrated a Spanish language edition of the novel by Baroness Orczy, and the cover illustration is below. For more of her dreamy, folkloric illustrations, have a look here. I particularly like the lady with the owl, but they are all haunting and original.

Photo Five (Cover illustration from The Scarlet Pimpernel) from

The Scarlet Pimpernel, illustrated by Luisa Rivera (Photo Five)

And finally, as you might expect, my search for a scarlet pimpernel poem has been somewhat hindered by about five hundred separate references to ‘They seek him here, they seek him there’ etc etc etc ad nauseum. But then, peeping through the rough grassland of the Google ads comes this tiny gem, by the Irish poet Paula Meehan. It’s called ‘Death of a Field’ and I think it’s both deeply poignant and beautifully observed. We need more homes, but let’s not forget what’s lost. To read it, click here. I will be looking out for Paula Meehan in future.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Scarlet Pimpernel flowers) by Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (blue scarlet pimpernel ) by  Zachi Evenor, cropped by User:MathKnight – File:Anagallis-arvensis-Horashim2014-Zachi-Evenor.jpg, CC BY 4.0,

Photo Three (Nob and Nobility) by By Source, Fair use,

Photo Four (Film 1934) by

Photo Five (Cover illustration from The Scarlet Pimpernel) from 




Wednesday Weed – Mare’s Tail

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Mare’s tail (Equisetum arvensis)

Dear Readers, during a long-overdue walk through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last week, I spotted some mare’s tail (Equisetum arvensis) growing on a single grave. I wonder what the conditions were to produce such a crop, but only on this one site? Truly, the ways of the plant kingdom are a mystery, although I note that mare’s tail was once said to be an indicator of underground water. The cemetery is studded with such streams, so perhaps this is an explanation

At first glance mare’s tail resembles grass or a rush, but closer inspection shows that it is actually a living fossil that has been in existence for over 100 million years. Its structure is unique to this family of plants, with a whirl of spikey ‘leaves’ around each stem. Back in the good old days of the Carboniferous period, mare’s tail could grow into a magnificent tree 30 metres tall, and the fossils from these plants can sometimes be found in coal deposits, for Equisetum species formed a large part of this fossil fuel. These days Equisetum plants are of more modest stature, but are still worth a close look, because nothing else like them still exists. The giant dragonflies that I mentioned in my post last week would have been very familiar with these plants.

Photo One by By Alex Lomas - Equisetum arvense, CC BY 2.0,

The branching stems of mare’s tail (Photo One)

In German, mare’s tail is known as Zinkraut or tin-herb, because the stems contain silicate, absorbed from the soil in a way that is very unusual in plants. Mare’s tail is useful as an abrasive and cleaning-agent for metal, especially tin, and another English name is scouring-rush. A member of the Equisetum family is used in Japan in the last stage of woodworking, producing a finer finish than any sandpaper.

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron - Self shot by mobile phone, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In this micoscopic view of an Equisetum, the white dots are the silica nodules that produce the abrasive effect (Photo Two)

This is one of those plants that looks very different as the seasons pass, and this is because it produces two different kinds of growth. In spring, the fertile shoots look more like fungi than plants: in fact although I’m familiar with the summer foliage of mare’s tail, I was completely flummoxed by the buds when I visited Canada last year. These are what enable the plant to reproduce, but don’t photosynthesise.

Photo Three by By F. Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring mare’s tail buds (Photo Three)

As the year goes on, the plant develops photosynthetic foliage, both to survive and to create the conditions for reproduction during the following spring. Both kinds of shoot come from a complicated network of rhizomes under the soil.

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

Lush summer mare’s tail foliage (Photo Four)

But by autumn, all that’s left are a few of the main whorls of stems.

The plant proved to be an inspiration to the father of logarithms, John Napier. I remember using my logarithmic tables for O level Maths way back in 1976, but these days I imagine it’s all done with computers, and logarithms have gone the way of the slide rule. As you will probably remember, a logarithmic scale is a nonlinear way of describing something which has a very wide range of values. For example, the Richter Scale for measuring earthquakes is a logarithmic scale: an earthquake with a value on the Richter Scale of 6 is ten times stronger than one with a value of 5.

Napier noticed the way that the nodes on the mare’s tail got closer together as they approached the tip of the plant. That’s difficult to see on the older plants in my photos, but have a look at these fresh young greater horsetails, and you’ll see what caught his eye. I love the way that patterns in nature influence both scientists and artists.

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

Greater horsetail – note how the black lines (the nodes) are much further apart at the bottom of the plant than at the top (Photo Five)

Incidentally, Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) reports that in some places, mare’s tail is known as ‘Lego Plant’ because it comes apart at the nodes, and can be put back together again. It can also be used as a fungicide – mare’s tail boiled in water has been used with some success against rose mildew.

In herbal medicine only the photosynthetic summer parts of the plant are used, usually as an astringent or for the treatment of nosebleed.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that mare’s tail is sometimes considered to be a most pernicious weed. The RHS describe it as a plant that is ‘ is an invasive, deep-rooted perennial weed that will spread quickly to form a dense carpet of foliage, crowding out less vigorous plants in beds and borders’. Those rhizomes have got a lot to answer for! The RHS notes that simply pulling the plant up will just make things worse, as the plant can regenerate from the tiniest bits of root, (although if you are going to attempt this, the best time is when the fertile shoots appear in April) and suggests a range of chemical options. It also suggests battering the plant with a rake before applying the weedkiller, which could be therapeutic if nothing else. I have rather a ‘live and let live’ attitude to perennial weeds in my garden, which involves pulling them up or cutting them back if they get too enthusiastic, but tolerating them in small numbers. Life is too short for all-out war, surely.

I have been unable to find any works by the Old Masters (or indeed Old Mistresses) of mare’s tail, but here is an illustration of the Cretaceous period, featuring a most splendid equisetum on the right hand side, plus various assorted reptiles sunning themselves on the bank. I note some Gingko trees as well, which could well be another Wednesday ‘weed’ at some point in the future. You’ll note that my definition of ‘weed’ is becoming more and more expansive as I tick off the actual ‘weeds’ in my half-mile territory. Well, after almost four years I have already featured nearly 200 of the little darlings.

Evolution in the past by Knipe (Public Domain)

And for the poem? I have a humdinger this week by Anne Stevenson, who traces the path from mare’s tail through coal to the mining communities that extracted it and are now gone. As you know, I don’t cut and paste poems from living writers, because this is how they earn their crust. But please do click through here to read the poem, which is full of wonders. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Alex Lomas – Equisetum arvense, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron – Self shot by mobile phone, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By F. Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Wednesday Weed – Prickly Sowthistle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Prickly Sowthistle (Sonchus asper)

Dear Readers, I wanted to find a ‘proper’ weed for you this week, and here it is. Way back when I started this blog, one of the very first plants I wrote about was Smooth Sowthistle and I have been looking out since then for the prickly variety. I shouldn’t have needed to look very hard because goodness knows it’s everywhere in the UK except for in the very far north of Scotland, but it has proved elusive until today. How delighted I was to find it lurking in a little alleyway close to Fortismere School here in East Finchley, and how surprised all the passersby were to see me taking its portrait.

The diagnostic basal lobe

First things first. Both sowthistles are members of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family. Both have yellow flowers, though those of the prickly species are said to be darker in colour.  Both bleed white sap, but that of the prickly sowthistle quickly turns a dirty orange colour, while that of the smooth sowthistle takes longer. However, the leaves of the prickly sowthistle are decidedly more thistle-like, and where the leaves emerge from the stem there is a kind of rounded prickly spiral called a basal lobe (see above). The leaves are also shinier and darker green. I would hazard an opinion that the prickly sowthistle is a slightly more handsome plant than it’s smooth relative, but not by much.

A rather sad smooth sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

Both sowthistles are native,and both are annuals. They are extraordinarily tough plants and require next to no soil to produce an extraordinary quantity of biomass, and a fine crop of seeds. There is one in the tree pit just up the road from my house that must be nearly a metre tall. How I admire these city-dwellers for their resilience in tough times! No amount of drought, dog urine, litter or polluted rain puts them off their stride. They remind me of Dickensian urchins, cheeky and adaptable. The only thing that slows them up is a biannual dousing with weed-killer, administered by a man from Barnet Council with a backpack full of biocide and a hose. He wears ear-buds so that he can listen to music while he sprays, but no face mask to protect his lungs, and no gloves to protect his skin. I fear that the chemicals are more prone to damage him than the plants for, although the weeds wither and die, they or their offspring are generally back within the month.

Of the two species the prickly sowthistle is, surprisingly, the one that is preferred for eating – luminaries such as Rose Gray of the River Cafe are said to have gathered the fresh young leaves in March and April for salads. According to Pliny, Theseus was treated to a dish of sow-thistles before he headed off to fight the Bull of Marathon. The plant was also fed to lactating sows (hence the name) to encourage their milk production – the white sap was thought to be indicative that this was the best use for the plant. In fact, many grazing animals love sowthistle, although farmers generally view it as a pernicious weed. In Germany, it is believed that a fleeing  hare can hide safely under the leaves of sowthistle as the plant will protect the animal (hence another alternative name for the plant, ‘hare-lettuce’).

The older leaves of sowthistle are often decorated with the white tracery of leaf-miners – usually these are the tiny caterpillars of micromoths that live between the two layers of the leaf and spend their lives munching little tunnels. I often wonder what leads to the shapes of the patterns – did the caterpillar meet another caterpillar coming in the opposite direction and have to back up? The filigree is rather attractive, I think, if not particularly advantageous to the plant. Other moth species eat the leaves and the buds, and the plant invariably attracts lots of aphids, which make it useful for attracting predatory insects such as ladybirds and lacewings.

Prickly sowthistle with a few late blackfly.

Amongst the moths that feed on prickly sowthistle are the Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata), whose caterpillars feed on the buds and flowers:

Photo One by By User:Fvlamoen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata)

the grey chi (Antitype chi) whose caterpillar feeds on the leaves:

Photo Two by By André Karwath aka Aka - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Grey chi moth (Antitype chi)

and the rather elegant shark moth (Cucullia umbratica). Although most UK moths are not as brightly coloured as their tropical counterparts, they have a subtle and delicate beauty that repays close attention.

Photo Three (Shark moth) by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Shark moth (Cucillia umbratica)

Prickly sowthistle has a wide native range, encompassing Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, and has been imported into North America, probably with grains used for food. Across its native range it has been used medicinally as a poultice for wounds and skin complaints, though many herbals consider smooth sowthistle to be slightly more efficacious.

As I feared, the common-or-garden nature of the poor old prickly sowthistle has meant that it has not featured widely in art. Even the Sowthistle Fairy of our old friend, Cicely Mary Barker, is standing on a smooth sowthistle, not a prickly one (have a look at those basal lobes, friends).

Photo Four (Flower Fairy) by Jan Willemsen (

Sowthistle Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

Nor is there a superabundance of sowthistle poetry. However, I hope you’ll forgive the tenuous link to this extraordinary poem by Sylvia Plath. After all, sowthistle was fed to lactating pigs, as we know. Maybe it was also used to fatten them up.


God knows how our neighbor managed to breed
His great sow:
Whatever his shrewd secret, he kept it hid

In the same way
He kept the sow–impounded from public stare,
Prize ribbon and pig show.

But one dusk our questions commended us to a tour
Through his lantern-lit
Maze of barns to the lintel of the sunk sty door

To gape at it:
This was no rose-and-larkspurred china suckling
With a penny slot

For thrift children, nor dolt pig ripe for heckling,
About to be
Glorified for prime flesh and golden crackling

In a parsley halo;
Nor even one of the common barnyard sows,
Mire-smirched, blowzy,

Maunching thistle and knotweed on her snout-
Bloat tun of milk
On the move, hedged by a litter of feat-foot ninnies

Shrilling her hulk
To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast
Brobdingnag bulk

Of a sow lounged belly-bedded on that black
Fat-rutted eyes
Dream-filmed. What a vision of ancient hoghood

Thus wholly engross
The great grandam!–our marvel blazoned a knight,
Helmed, in cuirass,

Unhorsed and shredded in the grove of combat
By a grisly-bristled
Boar, fabulous enough to straddle that sow’s heat.

But our farmer whistled,
Then, with a jocular fist thwacked the barrel nape,
And the green-copse-castled

Pig hove, letting legend like dried mud drop,
Slowly, grunt
On grunt, up in the flickering light to shape

A monument
Prodigious in gluttonies as that hog whose want
Made lean Lent

Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint,
Proceeded to swill
The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking

Sylvia Plath

Photo Credits

Photo One (Broad-barred white moth) by By User:Fvlamoen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Grey chi moth) by By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Three (Shark moth) by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four (Flower Fairy) from Jan Willemsen (


Wednesday Weed – Fig

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Fig (Ficus carica)

Dear Readers, I hope that you will indulge my choice of ‘weed’ this week, for the Common Fig is no more a ‘weed’ than I am a nuclear scientist. Nonetheless, I pass this particular tree every week as I head into Muswell Hill for my breakfast, and I wanted to give it its moment in the sun. For one thing, I noticed that it actually has figs this year. For another, the leaves always remind me of classical statues that have been ‘censored’ to suit Victorian values. For yet another, I love ripe figs, although once you know how they’re pollinated you might want to avoid them if you’re averse to animal protein. So, welcome to the Wonderful World of Figs (and if that’s not a name for a plant-related theme-park I don’t know what is).

First things first. The fig is actually a member of the mulberry family, and is native to the Middle East and western Asia. It is a plant whose history is deeply interwoven with that of human beings: in the Christian tradition, Adam and Eve covered their genitalia with fig leaves after eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The Buddha became enlightened while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, which is a kind of fig. The fig is mentioned in the Quran, and the phrase from the Bible ‘each man under his own vine and fig tree’ was used to describe both the Jewish homeland and the land awaiting the American settlers. In short, the idea of figs as a symbol of plenty and of safety seems to be universal across the plant’s range.


The fig tree is normally a plant of dry, hot climates and rocky areas, but has a deep, penetrating root system, and in the wild is often found beside streams and oases. The tree can grow to a huge size and its leaves form dense, delicious shade. A fig tree can live for 150 – 200 years, but there are some stories of trees living for over a thousand years. One rather fetching tree lives in the grounds of Clerkenwell Primary School on Amwell Street in Islington – it is at least 200 years old, and these days is propped up with great green metal supports.

The Amwell Fig

Although the Muswell Hill fig is producing fruit, the chance of them ripening in the UK is practically zero (at least until climate change bakes us all a little harder). I do love a ripe, juicy fig. However, the fruit of each species of fig is pollinated by a tiny fig wasp (Blastophaga psenes in many cases). The coevolution of fig and wasp is one of those examples of symbiosis that boggles the mind. First, a pregnant female wasp enters through a tiny hole at the base of the fruit. She pollinates some of the flowers that are inside the fruit, lays her eggs, and dies. Then the male wasps emerge first and leave their semen so that this inseminates the females who then emerge into the body of the fruit, but can get no further. Finally, the male wasps return and gnaw holes in the outside of the fruit so that the females can escape. In short, that tasty fig is both a love nest for lustful insects and a grave for the original female.

There are no fig wasps in the UK, because it’s too cold. On the other hand, the fruit doesn’t ripen. Life can be problematic sometimes.

Photo Two (fig tart) by By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia - Black Genoa Fig Tart, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Black Genoa Fig Tart, anybody? (Photo One)

Figs are also eaten by a very wide range of birds, mammals and insects throughout their range – in a New Scientist article it was estimated that over 1270 species will eat the fruit, which makes it important for biodiversity. Experiments with planting it in degraded forest areas in Thailand have shown that the animals that it attracts will also help with habitat restoration – birds and bats in particular will be ‘carrying’ other seeds that they will ‘plant’ in their droppings.

Photo Three (Hornbill) By Lip kee ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Great Hornbill eating fig

Photo Four (Barbet) by By J.M.Garg (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lineated Barbet eating fig

Photo Five (chimps) by By Alain Houle (Harvard University) [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wild chimpanzee female and infant eating figs

However, it’s the leaves of the fig tree that are so emblematic. They seem tailor-made to cover any ‘naughty’ areas, and I suspect that very attractive green underwear could be knocked together by anyone with a fig tree, a needle and cotton and a few hours to spare. I note that there is even an underwear company called ‘Figleaves‘, although they have a strange reluctance to feature plant-based undergarments. However, what delights me is the way that figleaves appear and disappear through history. The Italian painter Masaccio painted a fresco of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden during the 15th Century. Adam covers his face, while Eve covers her privates with a hand (thus showing who is led by which body part). In 1680, some vandal  painted on some ‘fig leaves’ (which are not even botanically accurate, I’d like to pedantically point out). However, when the work was restored in 1980 the fig leaves were removed.


Masaccio – The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Painted 1426-28, Fig leaves added 1680, Fig leaves removed 1980) (Public Domain)

Here is a rather splendid depiction of Adam and Eve looking shifty in the Escorial Palace, Madrid. The fig leaves look a little as if they’ve been cut out of crepe paper, and their thighs indicate a little too much time riding uphill on a bicycle, but still.

Adam and Eve and the Serpent (Escorial Palace, Madrid) (Public Domain)

In the sculpture of the  classical world, male genitalia were exposed for all the world to see (though women were generally more coy, with much drapery and the occasional pot plant). However, once Christianity arrived statues were often made more modest, especially during the reign of the ‘chaste’ popes – these fig leaves were added later, and were often made so that they could be removed.

Photo Four (Mercury) by By Original uploader was Sputnikcccp at en.wikipedia. Photo taken by Sputnikcccp in the Vatican, May 25, 2003. - Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A classical statue of Mercury with added fig leaf

By Medieval times, only the damned were shown nude. However, things reached a pretty pass during the Victorian era, when male nudity in particular was frowned upon, and Queen Victoria herself was said to have found the sight of a man with no clothes on distressing. What to do, then, with the blooming great plaster cast of Michaelangelo’s David that was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London? The curators came up with the idea of a plaster fig leaf which could be hung from the cast on a very unanatomical pair of hooks, in the event of the monarch or some other female dignatory popping by for a dose of classical culture. In the event, it was never used, but you can still see it at the back of a case in the Cast Gallery should you ever visit.


The figleaf for the cast of the statue of Michaelangelo’s David. And very fine it is too. (Public Domain)

I cannot leave the subject of fig leaves without mentioning the first ‘muscleman’, Eugen Sandow, (1865-1925). He was not very ‘muscley’ by today’s standards (and all the better for it in my opinion) and he was also very influenced by the classical statues that he saw as a boy – he recorded their proportions and worked hard to copy their musculature.  Some of his displays were based on the poses of these works of art, and I fear that, gorgeous as he was, it is difficult for a modern person to look at ‘The Dying Gaul’ without a) thinking that it looks most uncomfortable b) noticing the carefully positioned leaf and wondering if it was attached with Bluetack and c) (pedant alert) becoming indignant that this is not, in fact, a fig leaf but some kind of inferior foliage.

Photo Six (Eugen Sandow) by By G.dallorto - File:Falk, Benjamin J. (1853-1925) - Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)- 1894 .jpg, Public Domain,

Eugen Sandow as ‘The Dying Gaul’

Now, when it comes to fig poems, there are several to choose from. There is ‘First Fig’ from Edna St Vincent Millay. I knew the poem, but didn’t know the title, and I am still a little thoughtful. All explanations and theories are welcome, as always.

My candle burns at both ends; 
It will not last the night; 
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends– 
It gives a lovely light!

And then there is D.H.Lawrence, havering on about what women should be like as usual. I loved Lawrence when I was a teenager, but have rather outgrown him, I fear. For anyone who wants to have a look, his poem Figs is here. I love the descriptions of the fruit, but the rest of it seems to me to be the maunderings of a deeply unhappy man.

As an antidote, here is a poem about the fig wasp, and about much else besides, by MTC Cronin, an Australian poet that I didn’t know, but will seek out in future. I like this one a lot. What do you think?

And finally, I really like this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, child of an American mother and a Palestinian father. It seems fitting to end with a work that talks about what a tree can mean to someone far from home, and also with a hopeful poem. Maybe we will all find home in the end.

Photo Credits

Photo One (The Amwell Fig) – From

Photo Two (fig tart) by By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia – Black Genoa Fig Tart, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Three (Hornbill) By Lip kee ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Barbet) by By J.M.Garg (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (chimps) by By Alain Houle (Harvard University) [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six (Eugen Sandow) by By G.dallorto – File:Falk, Benjamin J. (1853-1925) – Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)- 1894 .jpg, Public Domain,