Category Archives: London Plants

Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.

It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.

Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.

An imperfect photo of a¬† nuthatch (as my photos usually are ūüôā )

But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.

I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.

Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.

A coppiced area in Big Wood

As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.

The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.

The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.







Wednesday Weed – Flowering Quince

Flowering quince (Chaenomeles x superba)

Dear Readers, whenever you read a book about winter-flowering shrubs, flowering quince is sure to be one of the top five. It is, however, a confusing plant. For one thing, it isn’t the ‘true’ quince (Cydonia oblonga), although it is related to it. All quinces flower, so there is nothing unusual in the fact that this one is in bloom. It is also known as the Japanese quince, which is a little closer to the mark as all Chaenomeles come from the Far East, but the true Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is rarely grown in gardens. In short, the common names for the plant do nothing but pile confusion on top of confusion. However, I forgive all this because, in a chill, sunny day earlier this week, this plant was by far the prettiest thing in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

One feature of the flowering quince is that the flowers emerge directly from the stalk, before the leaves. It was the first time that I’d seen a pink variety – the ones in the County Roads here in East Finchley are normally the orange-red variety.

Photo One from

Orange-red flowering quince (Photo One)

Flowering quince also has the virtue of being quite a spiny plant (it is a member of the Rose family after all) and I have seen it combined in hedges with such well-armed shrubs as Pyracantha. It is quite often ‘persuaded’ into miniaturisation as a bonsai.

Let us not completely overlook the fruits either. They are hard, sour and small, though this is ameliorated somewhat after the first frost. However, they can be used as a substitute for lemon juice, or turned into jelly, much as crab apples are. The Grown to Cook website has a recipe for Japanese quince jelly with star anise, and the photos are lovely too.¬† In Japan the fruit is known as karin or flower pear, and commands a high price, so if you have one of these shrubs in your garden I’d have thought it would be worth harvesting the fruit to see what you can do with it. Some websites recommend combining it with apples to offset its astringency. Note that it is also extremely high in pectin, so helps with the set of jams and jellies.

Photo Two from

Quince jelly on bread. Yum! (Photo Two)

In Japan, the fruit of flowering quince is also used to make cough and sore throat remedies. The botanist James Wong mentions that for Japanese people, Chaenomeles cough sweets take the place of our honey and lemon. He also mentions that Russian scientists introduced the plant to the Baltic states as a source of vitamin C – the fruits have a slightly higher level than lemons – and so the plant is sometimes known as ‘Baltic lemon’.

What I love about flowering quince, though, is that element of surprise. In late spring, when everything is bursting into bloom, you might not notice this plant. But in winter, when the only competition is the acid yellow flowers of Mahonia, it is breathtaking. It was eulogised by one Miss Twamley who, in a poem called ‘The Romance of Nature’, refers to the flowers as ‘fairy fires’

‘That gleam and glow amid the wintery scene
Lighting their ruddy beacons at the sun
To melt away the snow…..’

Flowering quince features extensively in the art of Japan. Here, for example, is the artist Watanabe Seitei’s painting ‘Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry’ – I love that the flowering quince in the image looks so similar to the one that I saw.

Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry by Watanabe Seitei (Shotei) 1906 (Public Domain)

Now, as you know I usually include a poem at this point, but this week I am going to break convention by directing your attention to the (very) short story ‘The Japanese Quince’ by John Galsworthy. What on earth is going on here? I have some thoughts, but I’d be delighted to hear yours, if you have the time and the energy during this pre-Christmas rush…

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two from







Wednesday Weed – Christmas Rose

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

Dear Readers, it might seem a bit early to start talking about all things Christmas-related, but the flowers of the Christmas rose are so striking that I couldn’t resist. Spotted in a window box on the County Roads in East Finchley, they are not roses at all but hellebores, members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). That the Latin species name for this plant (niger) means ‘black’ when the flower is pure white is a little confusing, but it probably refers to the roots. The word ‘Helleborus’ comes from the Greek words ellos, meaning ‘fawn’ and bora, meaning ‘food’¬† – I love the idea of young deer munching upon it, although some commentators remark that it is deer resistant. The grazers would have to be careful though, because, like all hellebores, Christmas rose is poisonous, though probably less so than some other species. Handling the seeds can cause skin irritation as well. It is also toxic to dogs and cats, so be careful if you have pets and want to bring the plant indoors.

In spite of its poisonous nature, Christmas rose has been used medicinally, as a purgative following poisoning, and as a antihelminthic (a new word to me) for parasites in children. Too much hellebore, however, and it’s quite possible to kill the child. It has also been used as a laxative. I would strongly advise leaving it to look pretty in the garden in the dark early months of the year rather than adding it to a sandwich.

In the wild, Christmas rose is an Alpine plant, found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. I suspect that the flowers will be rather smaller in the wild than in our gardens. This can be a difficult plant to grow, preferring humus-rich soil and dappled shade, and disliking acidity, but when it’s happy, it’s delightful.

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Christmas rose in the Austrian Alps (Photo One)

Traditionally, Christmas rose was said to have arisen from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to the infant Christ. It often isn’t in flower by Christmas, but may be bursting forth by 6th January, which was Christmas Day under the old Julian calendar. Obviously the ones that I photographed hadn’t got the memo about their flowering date.¬† It is also believed that standing on powder made from the roots of a Christmas rose will make you invisible, which is a splendid idea, what with Christmas coming and all those crowds to navigate. Should you have the urge to dig a Christmas rose up you should, according to Pliny, make sure that you are not spotted by an eagle, because the bird will swoop down and cause your death (an unlikely event in East Finchley but then I’m extremely risk averse). Pliny also suggests that, having scanned the sky for any birds of prey, you should draw a circle around the plant, face east and offer up a prayer before picking up your spade.

No other luminary than Charles Darwin, with his usual close attention, noticed something unusual about the change in the Christmas rose once it’s pollinated. The pure white flower goes green, and its shape changes, as can clearly be seen in the photo below, where the blooms show the various stages of the change, from top to bottom. I’m not sure whether this a plant strategy to deter insects from trying to pollinate a flower that is already impregnated, or just a sign, as Darwin thought, that the plant colour is related to the production of nectar which is not required once the bloom has fulfilled its purpose. Of course, it could also be both. Nature is nothing if not complex and interconnected.

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The fruit of the Christmas rose (Photo Two)

Although Christmas rose has no scent, that hasn’t stopped an Italian perfume company from knocking up a perfume that purports to smell like the flower. However, the bottle is very pretty, and the aroma includes lilac, jasmine and fig, so it’s probably very pleasant. On the other hand, having loved ‘smellies’ all my life, I find that, as I get older, I find most of them¬† faintly nauseating. I feel very sorry for anyone who has a more sensitive nose than mine, and also for the many people who find being in close contact with strong smells, even pleasant ones, overwhelming. Not that this is a new problem. My Dad, who was a bus conductor in his young days, said that the smell of women’s perfume on the top deck was sometimes so strong that it made his stomach turn.

Photo Three from

Christmas rose toiletries from Erbaflor (Photo Three)

And here is a rather lovely poem by Michael Newman, published online by Acumen magazine.It seems to me to sum up the unexpected quality of plants that bloom in the midwinter. They always feel so precious, for being so rare.

Winter Colour

The flower rises
From the soil,
Then opens into white apparition,
Helleborus niger,
The Christmas Rose.

On such a grey and rain-rotten day,
I welcome this affirmation

Of unbridled joy:


Photo Credits

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three from

Wednesday Weed – Cosmos

Cosmos bipinnatus

Dear Readers, now that it’s the middle of November it’s becoming harder and¬† harder to find plants that are not only still in flower, but are new to the Wednesday Weed. So this week I was delighted to find a pot of cosmos still in flower. These are great late-autumn plants, beloved by pollinators (if there are any about), and they come in a delightful array of pink, white and cerise. The delicate pale green foliage is also very fresh and toothsome-looking.

Cosmos is a genus of plants in the daisy family and includes such delights as chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which is said to smell vaguely of cocoa, and which has dark reddish-brown flowers.

Photo One by By Björn Appel - self made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Chocolate cosmos (Photo One)

‘Our’ cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus, is a half-hardy annual. It self-seeds, and the flowers may come up for several years, though in my experience they get smaller and smaller with each iteration. . It comes originally from Mexico, hence its alternative name of Mexican aster, and arrived in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. In some parts of the world (such as Australia and Asia) it has become an invasive weed, but in Europe the temperatures are too cold in winter for the plant to get a proper foothold.

Cosmos is a floppy kind of plant, prone to keeling over in high winds and not getting up again. Growing a lot of the plant in one place helps a bit, as the leaves interlock and form something of a framework for support. It can look very impressive en masse, and is a popular cut flower. In Japan, the rice paddies are sometimes planted with cosmos to provide autumn colour for after the crop is harvested.

Photo Two by By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A cosmos field…(Photo Two)

The plant is a great source of late-season nectar. In North America, migrating monarch butterflies use it as a refuelling stop on their way south.

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from

Monarch butterfly on cosmos (Photo Three)

In Europe it provides nectar and pollen for many insects, including this comma butterfly.

Photo Four - no attribution required.

Cosmos and comma (Photo Four)

In Central and South America, cosmos has been used to make an anti-inflammatory ointment, and the young leaves are eaten as a salad and as a pot herb. The petals can also be used to brighten up a dessert. A closely related species, Cosmos sulphureus, has been used to produce yellow and orange dye. In the language of flowers cosmos is said to symbolise innocence, and I imagine that the white-flowered variety is especially appealing in this regard.

It is said that cosmos was cultivated in the gardens of Spanish mission priests in Mexico, as a manifestation of divine order. Certainly, a close look at the flowerhead is an object lesson in geometry. There is a kind of harmony about it that reminds me of the cosmos, in the sense of the galaxy.

Photo Five by By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Centre of a cosmos flower (Photo Five)

And now, here’s a poem. Although cosmos is not native to Japan, it seems to have many adherents in the country. Here is a poem by Yosano Akiko (1878-1942):

Your heart remains
just as unsettled, like
the wavering
of a cosmos flower
after the bee is gone. 

I think that it captures that moment just after something has happened, when equilibrium is yet to be re-established. There is such a sense of stillness about it. And it captures the delicacy of cosmos, which can seem such a brash, cheerful plant, and which yet has a subtle elegance. I am thinking that next year I will definitely plant a pot!

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Björn Appel Рself made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from

Photo Four – no attribution required.

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

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Autumn in Cherry Tree Wood

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that it hasn’t been the easiest of years, what with the gradual decline in my parents’ health, and the recent decision to admit them to a nursing home. In the aftermath of all this, I find myself vulnerable, as if I’ve lost a layer of skin. The downside is that I never know what will make me cry: an advert on the television, a snippet of an old song, a memory conjured out of nowhere. But the upside is that I am seeing things as if anew. I can be caught by a glimpse of sudden beauty that stuns me into stillness. This can make me cry too, but there is less of despair and loss, and more of hope about it. And so I took myself off for a walk in Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley at this breeziest, sunniest time of the year, just to see what I could see.

A trio of bright pink leaves caught my eye to start with. Nothing natural here, unless you include the tendency of the human to want to mark their territory. Once seen, I noticed it everywhere.

But for the first time I noticed how the hornbeam and oak trees are dancing, their trunks twisting as they reach towards the sun, but on a timescale much slower than our own. What tangos would be captured by a stop motion sequence! They lean back, they swivel, they revolve around their own axis, trying to find a space in the canopy, a dance of years and decades rather than moments, but a dance none the less.

And in the main part of the wood a huge oak rises from a lake of golden¬† leaves. How many autumns has this giant seen¬† come and go? And of the eight autumns that I have had in East Finchley, how come this is the first time that I’ve noticed it?

And among the leaves, the squirrels are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, from skinny little runts to great fat imperial squirrels. Most of them are carrying an acorn in their mouths, and they will bury their prize in the ivy or under a layer of oak leaves.¬† Some tiny proportion of the nuts that they don’t eat during the winter will germinate, some¬† of them far from their parent tree, and the dance towards the canopy will start all over again.

Turning dizzy laps in the woods is a small¬† white dog.He skids past me, leaves flying in all directions, and heads back, ears flapping, tongue lolling. He hurtles along the path and increases the diameter of the circle. I don’t know where his owner is, but I sense they are somewhere at the epicentre, like the sun.

I catch glimpses of him as I walk on through the woods. Once, there would have been deer here, but today he seems like the spirit of the place, a dishevelled London pooch, full of life and spirit. And when I stopped to film the falling leaves, there he was.

There is so much to be said for a slow, careful walk in autumn. The colours, the movement, the smell of burning leaves and damp vegetation, the call of crows and the whistle of starlings all serve to remind me that outside my poor, overworked brain there are other lives going on. However lonely we might feel when tough times come to visit, we are part of something so much bigger.


Wednesday Weed – Gaura

Gaura lindheimeri with Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, it’s funny how fashions in gardening change. When I was young, stiff, regimented armies of geraniums and alyssum and blue lobelia were the way to go, with the occasional radical individual throwing in a few French marigolds for good measure. But just lately the trend has been towards much more informal beds, featuring feathery grasses as a backdrop, interspersed with more delicate-looking perennials. So I was not surprised when I looked around the new houses that have been built off Grand Avenue in Muswell Hill and found these butterfly-like Gaura dancing in the breeze.

We have one gardener to thank for this move towards ‘prairie-style’ planting, and that’s Piet Oudolf. He designed the¬† planting the Olympic Park in Stratford, the High Line in New York and the meadows at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Somerset among many, many others. I have been hugely influenced by him too, although this relaxed look is in some ways even more difficult to create and maintain than a Tudor knot garden. I love how they look, though, and that they have such value, when done right, for birds and invertebrates.

Oudolf created his own strain of Gaura, ‘Whirling Butterflies’, to complement his garden style. Thank you very much, sir! I am fairly sure that this is the variety in my photographs.

Photo One from photo by Jason Ingram

Hauser and Wirth gallery meadow (Photo One)

Actually, although it looks as if a puff of wind would blow it over, Gaura is one tough plant. It doesn’t mind being exposed. It doesn’t mind heat. It doesn’t mind drought.¬† I suspect that it doesn’t much like heavy soil, as the ones that I planted in my garden expired almost instantly. It is said to be deer-resistant, which is not much of an advantage in East Finchley where the only deer is the plaster one on top of the Bald-Faced Stag pub.¬† But the plant does, apparently, relish being given a hair cut regularly, and its floppiness can be offset by planting it amongst more upright plants which will support it, such as the Verbena bonariensis in the photo above.

Actually, Gaura is no longer the official name for this plant: its new Latin name is Oenothera lindheimeri which reflects that it is part of the evening primrose family, though it looks nothing like a classic evening primrose.¬† I shall keep the name Gaura for this piece, as this is how most people know the plant. It has a variety of vernacular names, including Lindheimer’s beeblossom and Indian feather in its native Louisiana and Texas.

This is a plant that flowers prolifically when it’s happy, from early spring right through to the first frosts. Each¬† stem produces many white or pink flowers, and in some varieties the petals start off white at dawn and turn pink during the day, before falling off at dusk.

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

‘Whirling butterflies’ (Photo Two)

And here is one of the pink varieties, ‘Siskiyou Pink’. Note that it’s being pollinated by a fly – most members of the evening primrose family are insect pollinated, and some have very specific relationships with particular types of invertebrates, such as moths.

Photo Two by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Siskiyou Pink (Photo Two)

The original name ‘Gaura lindheimeri‘ comes from Gaura, the Greek for ‘superb’, and from the name of the German botanist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801 – 1879), who collected plants in Texas for Asa Gray, the Harvard professor of botany for several decades. Lindheimer collected over 1500 species in the south Texas area in thirteen years, and is known as the Father of Texas Botany, with over twenty species bearing his name.

Incidentally, in Icelandic the word ‘gaur‘ means a gangly, unruly boy. Completely coincidental, I’m sure.

Ferdinand LIndheimer

Gaura was used medicinally in several ways by the native peoples of the US – the Hopi used a decoction of the roots to treat snakebite, and the Navajo used it as a burn dressing and to treat inflammation. A close relative of ‘our’ Gaura, Gaura coccinea, is said to be good for erasing freckles, though why anyone would want to rid themselves of these delightful little speckles is beyond me. Blank perfection is extremely overrated in my view. It’s sometimes as if we want to photoshop ourselves into non-existence.

And here is a poem. Written by Anca Vlasopolos, who was born in Romania and who has lived in Detroit for many years, it conjures up the feeling of panic I sometimes get on those strange days when the weather is unseasonal, and the animals are confused, and vulnerable. Vlasopolos is a passionate environmentalist, poet, ceramicist and teacher. I shall be reading more of her work, for sure.

Tardy Bugs

this october warm haze cheats
us into hallucinating summer
roses pump up sparse buds with a fury that would
give cabbage blooms if this weather went on
bumblebees nap on gaura flowers bending swaying
on filaments

the afternoon blushes
an efflorescence
inexplicable numbers fill the air
settle on brick on white door as if on sandy beaches
                                              in the Bahamas
eyeing rapacious eyes staring from leaves of the crabapple
that now is animate with screams and jostlings
i urge these absurd polka-dot balls underground
you don’t know what’s coming and if you all get caught
by a frost, get picked out by beaks like coins thrown among
crowds what’ll happen in spring when the ants will shepherd
their aphid flocks up the tenderest shoots i say as i brush them
away from the crack of the door
they bursting orange then gathering themselves into
compact hemispheres soaking soaking the last of the sun

Photo Credits

Photo One from photo by Jason Ingram

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons





Wednesday Weed – Old Man’s Beard

Old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba)

Dear Readers, I have searched long and hard for this plant in East Finchley, only to find it in abundance when I did my Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park walk a few weeks ago. It is our only native clematis, and has a variety of vernacular names. The sixteenth-century writer and herbalist John Gerard christened it ‘traveller’s-joy’ :

These plants have no use in physick as yet found out, but are esteemed only for pleasure, by reason of the¬† goodly shadow which they make with their thick bushing and climbing, as also for the beauty of the flowers, and the pleasant scent or savour of the same’.

The fluffy ‘hair-do’ seedheads are indeed a delight, and the flowers, though small, can be extremely abundant. I’ve never savoured the scent, but they are said to smell faintly of almond.

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

Old man’s beard flowers (Photo One)

The plant is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is found in the UK roughly south of a line from the Mersey to the Humber. It has been widely planted in other places, however, and is considered invasive in countries such as New Zealand. Left to its own devices, it can form a thick canopy that shades out other plants. However, in the UK it is the sole foodplant of several species of moths, including the small emerald, small waved umber and Haworth’s pug, who help to keep it under control.

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Small emerald (Hemistola chrysoprasaria) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Small waved umber (Horisme vitalbata) (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia - Eupithecia haworthiata, CC BY 2.0,

Haworth’s pug (Eupithecia haworthiata) (Photo Four)

The dry winter stems of old man’s beard have been used as cigarette substitutes, giving old names such as ‘smokewood’ and ‘boy’s bacca’.¬† In Slovenia the stems were was used to tie sheaves of grain together, because it was believed that mice wouldn’t gnaw on them. The stems have also been used to make baskets and rope since the Stone Age.

In Italy, the boiled buds are used in omelettes called ‘Fritatta di vitalbini’ and are considered a delicacy.

Photo Five from

Frittata di vitalbine (Photo Five)

In spite of Gerard’s belief that the plant was not used for ‘physick’, a juice made from old man’s beard was used in the nostrils to cure migraine. I find the warning that ‘it can also destroy the mucous membranes’ a little alarming, however, and the Poison Garden website describes it as follows:

‘Ingestion leads to severe abdominal pain, gastrointestinal irritation and has caused death in cattle though it is not usually eaten because it has an acrid taste and contact can cause skin irritation‘.

In short, old man’s beard is a plant to be used well-boiled, or not at all.

The Bittersweet Gourmet website describes how

medieval beggars and mendicant friars would enlist vitalba‚Äôs venomous qualities to bring about sores on the skin, to achieve a more pitiable appearance before those potentially charitable souls whom they passed on the road‘.

In French, the plant is known as ‘herbe aux geaux‘, or rascal’s herb, so presumably this effect was well known across the plant’s range.

From a folkloric point of view, old man’s beard bears a double meaning, as is so often the way. It was said by countryfolk to do the devil’s work, because it smothered other plants and killed them. It is also associated with the Virgin Mary and with God because of its white flowers, and another vernacular name for the plant is ‘Virgin’s bower’. I can well imagine resting on a bed of these fluffy white seedheads, or reclining among the sweet-scented flowers.

I have been quite remiss on the poetry front for this past few weeks, but here’s a piece by Edward Thomas to make up for it. He really is one of the best of England’s poets with regard to his appreciation of the countryside. ‘A mouthful of earth to remedy all’, indeed.

The Sign-Post

The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould be
To be sixty by this same post. ‚ÄúYou shall see,‚ÄĚ
He laughed‚ÄĒand I had to join his laughter‚ÄĒ
“You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,‚ÄĒ
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?‚ÄĚ


Photo Credits

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

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Photo Three by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia – Eupithecia haworthiata, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Five from