Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Lavender

Honeybee on lavender (Lavandula augustifolia)

Dear Readers, when we were trying to buy a house in East Finchley almost a decade ago, I sat on the wall outside the house that is now ours. Were we far enough from the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner not to be affected by the rowdiness that sometimes accompanies such establishments? How bad was the noise from the main road? As I sat there, I breathed in the scent from the lavender that had been planted by the current owners, and watched the bees hopping from flower to flower. I realised how lucky I was to be even considering living here, and also that the house was meant to be ours. I am sure that the smell of lavender will always mean this house to me, and will be tied up with the memories of my time here.

Today, those lavender plants have become a veritable field. In truth they’ve become a bit woody and overgrown, but for a few weeks every year they attract every pollinator for miles around. I sat on my wall with the camera this afternoon, and listened to the drowsy hum of the honeybees going about their business, just as I did a decade ago, and it still soothes me. I think of them taking the lavender-scented nectar back to the hives on the allotment a few blocks away, and it makes me smile to think of how delicious it will be.

Every year we take the shears to the lavender once it’s finished flowering, and the next year it comes back with more flowers than ever. I know there are lots of other varieties, but this seems to be the one that is the most robust in the sun-baked Mediterranean climate of my south-facing front yard. Every time I brush past the flowers they release that heady, resinous scent.

Most of the bees that come to visit are busy honeybees or bumblebees, but every so often we get a butterfly. Normally these are large or small cabbage whites, but today I spotted my first small tortoiseshell. These butterflies had a bad year last year – I don’t think I saw a single specimen, so it was great to see this one. They look so unobtrusive with their wings closed, but then they open them, and you get a brief glimpse of tangerine and sky blue.

Wait for it…..

There we go! Small tortoiseshell ( Aglais urticae)

Lavender is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and can be found right across Europe, south west Asia and northern and eastern Africa. It has been taken to many other countries as a culinary herb, and as a source of essential oils. It has been found ‘in the wild’ in the UK since at least 1440 – it was mentioned in a manuscript poem by a horticulturalist called Jon Gardener ( which may have been a pseudonym, a case of someone being named after their occupation, or a fine case of nominative determinism). The plant now finds itself in the top thirty list of alien plants found in London and Berkshire, but not in Sutherland, where presumably it is too cold and wet. I suspect that its range will increase northwards as climate change warms up the country.

There is some discussion about how lavender got its name. Some believe that it came from the Latin word lavare, to wash, perhaps referring to the use of the essential oil in soap and for scenting both people and clothing. Others think that it comes from the Latin word livere, meaning ‘blue-ish’. Both seem feasible to me, and the derivation could well be a combination of the two, equally applicable, words.In Hebrew, the plant is called nard, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon. In Roman times, lavender was sold for 100 denarii a pound, about the same as a month’s wages for a farm labourer.

Today, lavender the plant has given its name to lavender the colour, one of my favourites.

Something that divides people is the use of lavender as a flavouring. I am very fond of floral overtones in food, and a lemon and lavender cake is my idea of heaven. However, it’s easy to be heavy-handed and to end up with a dessert that tastes like soap, just as the over-use of rosewater can result in something that reminds me of a lady’s boudoir. Should you wish to have a bash, however, here is a recipe for lavender and lemon loaf cake.

Lemon and Lavender Loaf Cake (see recipe at link above)

Interestingly, although popular culture has it that the people of Provence have been showering every dish with lavender since time immemorial, the ingredient was not included in books about Provencal cookery at the turn of the 20th century. Lambs were  allowed to graze on lavender to flavour and tenderise their meat, but the inclusion of lavender in ‘Herbes de Provence’ was created in 1970 for the North American market. Thus are legends born.

The production of lavender oil for other purposes is big business: it’s used in everything from soap and shower-gel to fabric conditioner and cleaning products. There are two types of oil, one derived exclusively from the flowers and used in perfumery and aromatherapy, and lavender spike oil, derived from a different species of lavender, Lavandula latifolia, and used as a replacement for turpentine. The world’s biggest producer of lavender is not as you might expect Provence in France, but Bulgaria. There are also some lavender farms in southern England, including Mayfield Lavender in Surrey, a site that I stumbled upon during a walk a few years ago. What a feast for the senses it was!

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Mayfield Lavender Farm (Photo One)

As a medicinal ingredient, lavender is often used to enable sleep and to soothe anxiety (hence the use of lavender oil sachets and pillows filled with the flowers for those with insomnia). It was used in the First World War as an antiseptic for wounds and burns, and has long been used for tension headaches, and as a treatment for parasites. However, the oil is also an endocrine disrupter, and has been linked to breast development in young boys (prepubertal gynecomastia). It is also a strong ingredient which can irritate the skin if used at the wrong concentration. While I like the smell of the flowers, and the taste of the ingredient in food, I much prefer rose as a scent in my soap and lotions. I find lavender a little bit overwhelming.

On the other hand, Cleopatra was said to have seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony by wearing a perfume containing lavender, so if you are in the mood to subdue a dictator this might be just the plant. On St Luke’s Day (18th October), maidens would sip lavender tea and recite this poem:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me,
In my dreams, let me my true love see.”

Furthermore, lavender was one of the ingredients of Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction which was said to protect those who used it against the plague. The ‘Four Thieves’ bit comes after some burglars who were preying on the houses of those who had died of the disease were captured: they gave the recipe in exchange for clemency, saying that it had enabled them to go about their nefarious crimes without catching the plague themselves. There are many different recipes, but all include vinegar mixed with various herbs, such as sage, rosemary and lavender. As these plants have all been used to deter insect infestations, I wonder if bathing in the vinegar deterred the fleas that carried the plague? Often these stories have a tiny kernel of truth.

And here, for our poem of the week, is one by Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who has won both the T.S Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This is the title poem from his 1987 collection ‘Meeting the British’.

Meeting the British

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence








Bugwoman on Location – At Long Lane Pasture

Dear Readers, on the hottest day of the year so far, my friend A and I ventured forth for a walk around Long Lane Pasture. This nature reserve is just half a mile from my house in East Finchley, but it’s easy to miss, being tucked in beside the North Circular Road and the tube line. Once I was through the unprepossessing gate it was as if I was in some mythical summer from my childhood – although the rumble of the traffic is ever present this is the only reminder that you are in the London Borough of Barnet, not in some meadow in the shires.

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum) beside the main path

There are meadow brown and ringlet butterflies, cabbage whites and the occasional cinnabar moth flitting around the long grass. The flower heads of a yellow buddleia hang opposite the berries of a guelder rose. Wild and garden perennials mix cheerfully together. All that is missing is the chirrup of grasshoppers, which puzzles me – with all this long grass I would expect the place to be deafening. I wonder why there aren’t any?

Seedheads of yellow buddleia (Buddleia x weyeriana)

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

There are some seats under a covered area next to the largest pond, and we sit and enjoy the shade and a drink of water. A moorhen and her chick head for cover, but the dragonflies are relentless. One male emperor dragonfly seems to want to own the entire pond, swooping down to see off all rivals, his wings gleaming in the sun. He always returns to the same reed to survey his kingdom. Occasionally he stoops at a butterfly but in a half-hearted way. This time of year is about breeding.

It is chastening to think ow easily this pasture could have been lost to development. In 1912 it was given to the public as a reserve, but half of it was lost in 1920 when the North Circular Road was built. For years the land was grazed by horses, but in 1999 Barnet wanted to build houses on the site, one of the last scraps of unspoilt green left in the Borough. After a public campaign it was designated as open space, and 2009 the Long Lane Pasture Trust was granted a 25 year lease. I suppose this means that we’ll have to gird our loins for another fight in 2034. I shall be marking it in my diary.

Alder bark ( I think! Feel free to correct me….)

We follow the paths, taking the opportunity to sit on the benches placed in the shade of the trees. In one area, an elm has been planted. A sign tells us that this is a Princeton elm, a hybrid developed in the US to resist Dutch Elm disease, which still kills off any elm saplings ambitious enough to grow taller than about six feet. The sign tells me that a white-letter hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) was spotted in the pasture in 2009: this is vanishingly rare in the UK, as the eggs are laid on the twigs of elm trees, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. When the elms died in the UK, it was pretty much the end for the butterfly as well, so closely was it associated with the tree. The Princeton elm has been planted in the hope that ‘the white-letter hairstreak will make a home here’. I hope so too.

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

A white-letter hairstreak (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

White-letter hairstreak caterpillar (Photo Two)

There are many small ponds on the pasture, many dotted with purple loosestrife and bulrushes. My friend A rescues a cinnabar moth caterpillar from one of them. The irises have just gone over, and there are some strange plants in another of the damper patches. I’m hoping that they aren’t skunk cabbage, an invasive species from North America that can out compete practically anything, but my latest advice is that it’s probably elecampane, a yellow member of the daisy family. I saw some in flower earlier, so this makes sense.

But the best is yet to come. My friend A points out some little webs in the long grass. I take a few photos, and once home I talk to some of my friends on the invertebrate identification groups that I belong to. It appears that the webs belong to nursery web spiders! I am cockahoop. These spiders are free-range hunters, tracking flies and other small insects  through the long grass and pouncing on them like cheetahs. The female carries her egg-sac around with her in her jaws and then, when they are ready to hatch, she weaves the webs that I saw so that her spiderlings are protected while they grow.

Nursery webs….

Apparently, when the male wants to mate with the female (who, as is the way with spiders, is much, much bigger than he is) he presents her with a gift of food while simultaneously pretending to be dead. When she comes over to investigate he apparently springs to his feet, mates with her (presumably while she is absorbed in her dinner) and then runs away as fast as his eight tiny legs will carry him. The ways of insects are strange, but I have known humans who would pursue the same tactics if only they were speedy enough.

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider - Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) carrying her egg sac (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult female nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo Four)

And so we come full circle to the entrance again, having only just skimmed the surface of the wonders that Long Lane Pasture has to offer. I haven’t mentioned the fluty notes of the song thrush, nor the pretty yellow flowers of the meadow vetchling, and I could probably go on all day about the moth population of the grassland. But that will have to wait, because once it gets above 80 degrees in London it’s time for even the mad dogs and English women to get out of the mid-afternoon sun, and into somewhere a little more shady. I shall certainly be back.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider – Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons






Wednesday Weed – Rose Campion

Rose Campion (Silene coronaria)

Dear Readers, this plant and I go back a long way, to when I bought my first house back in 1998. I realise that this makes me sound like a property magnate, but if I tell you that it was actually the only house that I ever bought on my own I hope it puts things into perspective. It was in Chadwell Heath, way out in the north-eastern hinterlands of London, sandwiched between the Romford Road on one side and the A13 on the other. My street, however, was leafy and suburban, and I settled into it with a contented sigh. Being a middle-class white woman, I hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that the BNP, the extreme right-wing party of the time, had won councillors in the borough (Barking and Dagenham), but I soon realised that they were symptomatic of a deep-seated problem.

One example was that when a British- Indian doctor and his family moved into the house next door several people on the street cut them dead, turning their backs on them and refusing to respond to their greetings. Because I talked to them, I was cold-shouldered in my turn. Because Mum came to visit and got chatting with the family on the doorstep, she too was subjected to people staring at her and slamming their doors as she passed their houses.  I don’t know what additional harrassment the family suffered, as they kept themselves very much to themselves, but I do know that they had moved on within the year. They were replaced by a white family. When I sold the house, the woman opposite bustled over to check that I wasn’t selling it to anyone black. As it happened, I wasn’t, but to say I was gobsmacked would be an understatement – I still regret that I didn’t have the gumption to explore the subject further.   There were good people on the street who were welcoming to everyone, but the taste of bigotry and zenophobia poisoned everything. There were too many people who were afraid that things were going to change, and that they were going to be forced to be part of the diverse London that surrounded them. London, like so many cities, was built by immigrants – Irish, Chinese, Huguenot, Indian, Bangladeshi, Jewish, Pakistani, and a hundred other groups of people. Barking and Dagenham was, however, one of the few London boroughs to vote resoundingly for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.. Yes, the reasons for the Brexit vote were complicated, but  I strongly suspect that in this case, fear of immigration was the main reason why.

However uncomfortable I felt it was still home, and in one of the two tiny beds in the front garden I planted  three rose campion. In a couple of years they had taken over the entire bed, self-seeding themselves with vigour.  They were a blast of outrageous colour in a bland, small-minded, fear-filled landscape. I know of no other plant that has quite that hallucinatory cerise hue, set off by the furry grey leaves, and I have had a great affection for them ever since.

Rose campion is a member of the Caryophyllaceae or carnation family, and is native throughout Europe and Asia, although it was introduced to North America by the eighteenth century . It’s also known as ‘Crown Pink’ and ‘Lantern Flower’. Although it is a relatively short-lived perennial it does self-seed everywhere, as I know. It doesn’t mind poor soil (just as well, as my garden beds seemed to be largely composed of bits of brick). In their book ‘Alien Plants’, Stace and Crawley note that rose campion is often found growing ‘wild’ around villages, having either escaped from gardens by self-seeding or having been ‘liberated’ by people who fly-tip their garden rubbish.

If I may digress here briefly, I think that people often don’t realise the potential damage to habitats caused by casual dumping of garden waste. It happens regularly in the tiny remnant of ancient woodland closest to me, Coldfall Wood, where there are thriving communities of daffodils and hybrid bluebells, box honeysuckle and tellima, largely as a result of folk just throwing what they don’t want from their gardens into the wood. Ours is an urban wood, a mosaic of all kinds of plants, and hardly a pristine habitat, so the plants don’t wreak quite as much havoc as they might do in other places. Nonetheless, many well-established woodland species are having a hard enough time of it at the moment without having to compete with a bunch of narcissi.

Back to rose campion. The Latin species name ‘coronaria’ implies that this plant was used in garlands, and very fine they would have been too. In the Roman Catholic church, the plant is associated with John the Baptist, as it blooms around his feast day.

Those grey furry leaves help the plant to survive in drought-prone areas, the colour and the ‘hairs’ helping to reflect sunlight and reduce water loss. Certainly my rose campion were able to do well when other plants were wilting. The leaves give the plant yet another alternative name – ‘Dusty Miller’, and in the Middle Ages were woven together to form a wick for a lamp. According to the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD) the seeds, if soaked in wine, can be used to treat scorpion stings.

The flowers are attractive to bees and hoverflies, and one US site suggests that hummingbirds will also visit the flowers, so do let me know if this is something you’ve ever witnessed. It also seems to be a favourite for several butterflies, including the brimstone in the UK and several species of swallowtail in North America.

Large skipper butterfly on rose campion (Public Domain)

For our poem this week, I’ve discovered the Detroit poet Philip Levine, who was described as ‘a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland’ by Edward Hirsch. Have a look at this poem, and see if you can’t imagine yourself standing there, gazing at the rumpled seed-packets.

The Absent Gardener

Go back to early April of 1949. Get off the Woodward streetcar at Grand Circus Park, walk a few blocks west, and find behind the Greyhound bus terminal a tiny garden no larger than a Buick Roadmaster. Last week’s snow is gone. It’s just another morning in Michigan, the streets dark with last night’s rain, the air cool and fresh, the pale sky so distant you wonder if this is a different world & not last night’s when the silence, windless and heavy, smelled of rusted iron. Now the perfumes of wet black dirt, the tiny plots marked with sticks, twine, and pebbles to hold down the warped seed packets proclaiming their riches: radish, big boy tomato, ripe red wonder, little sweetie, rhubarb, rose campion.








Wednesday Weed – California Lilac

California Lilac (Ceanothus sp.)

Dear Readers, there is nothing that sounds more like summer to me than the drowsy buzz of bees feeding from California lilac. It seems to attract everything from bumblebees to honeybees to hoverflies,  and although its rather dusty, resinous smell makes my nose tingle I still always stop to see who is visiting. Apparently there is a species of California lilac which smells so strongly that it resembles ‘boiling honey in an enclosed space’. I think I shall give that one a miss.

The masses of tiny flowers soon lose their petals, resulting in a puddle of blue at the base of the plant.The resultant seeds are said to be dependent on forest fires in order to germinate, so it sounds as if self-seeding won’t be a problem unless you’re prone to having bonfires close to the shrub.

California lilac comes in many shades of blue, from what my grandmother used to call ‘Royal Blue’  to the most delicate powdery robin’s egg shade. It is extremely popular in the County  Roads here in East Finchley, where it has grown to about eight feet tall. Most varieties are evergreen, and there is even a more recumbent plant that could be used for ground cover.

There are 50-60 species in the Ceanothus genus, which is part of the buckthorn family. The genus is an endemic to North America, with its epicentre in, as the name suggests, California. The name ‘Ceanothus’ means ‘spiny plant’, which is surprising as, as far as I know, this is a most inoffensive plant. Do let me know if it’s attacked you at any point. I suspect that the small trees in my area are examples of the ‘domesticated’ form of Ceanothus arboreus, but there are many hybrids around. I am wondering whether to pop one into my tiny front garden, to fill the gap between the bulbs and the lavender. I shall be engaged in pondering as I write.

Incidentally, Ceanothus has nitrogen-fixing nodules on its roots, which makes it good for the soil.

One species of Ceanothus, Ceanothus americanus, is known as ‘New Jersey tea’ because its leaves were used as a tea substitute during the American Revolution. As the plant is very high in tannin this is not as surprising as we might think.

Ceanothus americanus (Public Domain)

In their native North America, Ceanothus leaves are eaten by mule deer, and the stems and seeds are eaten by quail and porcupine. And so here, for your delectation, is a North American porcupine. You’re welcome.

Photo One by Fyn Kind at

North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) (Photo One)

In its native North America, Ceanothus has had a variety of uses. Those fluffy blue flowers are saponins, which means that they can be used as a soap substitute if crushed and mixed with water.This ‘soap’ was used by the women of some Native American tribes to perfume their skin before their marriage ceremony.

The roots produce a red dye (one alternative name for some varieties of Ceanothus is ‘red-root’). The flowers produce a green dye. Unsurprisingly, using the whole plant gives you a brown dye.

Medicinally, the roots were dried and used as a decoction to treat sore throats and all manner of bronchial ailments, from asthma to bronchitis. The plant was also used as a wash to treat sores and skin complaints.

One theme that crops up repeatedly when I read about Ceanothus is that it is short-lived. I wonder if the climate in the UK stresses these Californians, what with our heavy downpours, brief periods of hot sunshine and unexpected cold snaps.  At any rate, it certainly stresses me. I also wonder if any plant that blossoms so prolifically, year after year, can keep going for a long time. After all, trees such as beech and oak flower and set fruit intermittently rather than constantly generous.

Just as the Ceanothus in bloom reminds me that it’s summer, so do the banners outside the Royal Academy announcing that it’s time for the Summer Exhibition (which opens to the public on 12th June). For those of you who are unfamiliar with this event, it’s an opportunity for artists to have their work hung in the halls of the Royal Academy. The vast majority of the works are also for sale, with prices varying from under a hundred pounds to many thousands. Among the eager newcomers will be the new works of the Academicians, artists who have made it to become Fellows of the Royal Academy. One of the most interesting is Anthony Green, who presents scenes from the most unlikely angles. Conveniently, he has created one of a vase of Ceanothus, and if you have £16,500 hanging about I’d advise you to buy it sharpish. For more of his paintings, which manage to be both familiar and otherworldly, have a look here. I find them most intriguing.

‘A Vase of Ceanothus’ by Anthony Green (2009) (Photo Two)

I am also rather partial to this painting, ‘Ceanothus tree in a London street’ by Melissa Scott-MIller, who says ‘Who am I to edit nature? It looks beautiful enough as it is’. This image just sums up the unexpected pleasures to be had in walking London’s residential streets. The painting was at the Affordable Art Fair, and you can read more about it here. If you’d like to look at some of the artist’s other paintings (and I admit to having fallen in love) her website is here.

‘Ceanothus tree in a London street’ by Melissa Scott-Miller (2016) (Photo Three)

And to finish this post with something unexpected, here is a Ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus), whose larvae feed on the leaves of our Wednesday Weed. This huge moth can be found all the way from British Columbia to Baja California, and has a maximum wingspan of 127mm. The adults do not feed, but spend all their short lives looking for a mate and laying eggs. The caterpillar goes through a variety of colour changes, but is never anything short of spectacular. I love the way that the eyespots make it look as if the moth has a couple of snakes for protection.

Photo Four by Linda Tanner (originally posted to Flickr as Ceanothus Moth) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus) (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Fyn Kind at

Photo Two at

Photo Three at

Photo Four by Linda Tanner (originally posted to Flickr as Ceanothus Moth) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pertaining to ashes


Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria)

Dear Readers, when I first moved into my house in East Finchley in 2010, I was at a loss to know what to do with the darkest part of the side return, the gap between the kitchen and the house next door. I wondered if anything would ever be happy there. Fortunately, someone suggested hydrangea petiolaris, the climbing hydrangea, and after 8 years it has reached the roof. This year, it  was smothered in its strange, lace-cap flowers, and every time I stepped outside on my way to top up the bird feeders, it made me smile.

I didn’t, however, think that it was a very good plant for wildlife. My highest hopes were that it might provide a thick and leafy haven for birds’ nests at some point. But then, I noticed that, although there were only a tiny number of white flowers with petals on each flowerhead (known as a corymb), there were masses of tiny flowerets, which seemed to be composed entirely of stamen. I learned that the white flowers are sterile, but the unassuming smaller ‘blooms’ are not, and are in fact a rich source of pollen.

And so I started to notice that various pollinators were visiting the hydrangea. Bumblebees and honeybees collected the pollen, and small hoverflies seemed to be patrolling territories above the flowers. However, my happiest realisation was that I had a new visitor, or at least one who was new to me. The black and grey bee in the first photo is an ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria), and she is busily collecting pollen.

How do I know that this is a female? The shiny black abdomen and grey and black-striped thorax are very distinctive. The males are smaller, and have white tufts of hair sticking out of the side of their thoraxes, rather like muttonchop whiskers (though in the wrong place). These are small bees, about two-thirds of the size of a honeybee. Their Latin name ‘cineraria’ means ‘pertaining to ashes’, a reference to their colour – incidentally the plant cineraria was probably named because of its grey furry stems.

IMG_4609 (2)

Although ashy mining bees are solitary in the sense that they don’t form colonies like honeybees or bumblebees, they do like to nest together. They build long nesting tunnels, usually on sunny south-facing slopes, and sometimes a favoured site can be peppered with hundreds of individual nests, the bees coming and going with a frequency that  reminds me of Heathrow airport. The bees seem to prefer bare soil, but will sometimes nest in lawns, leaving little ‘volcanoes’ of soil. They block the tunnels when they’ve finished foraging, or if it looks like rain. If disturbed they will rush to blockade their nest entrances – these are not aggressive creatures, and I have never heard of anyone being stung by one.

As is often the way, I noticed the bees last weekend, and by mid-week the hydrangea had gone over, and the bees had disappeared. Much like the hairy-footed flower bees that are around on warm days in April, ashy mining bees have a short, single flight period, and will all be gone by the end of June. The females spend their time busily gathering nectar and pollen to feed the larvae who have hatched in the brood chambers at the end of those tunnels. Once they have fed enough, the larvae will pupate for the rest of the year, ready to emerge in spring – the males pop out before the females so that they’re ready for them when they come out (much as the male frogs emerge in my pond a few days before the females turn up). The male bees hover around the nest site in a behaviour known as ‘lekking’, a term that I associate more with black grouse than insects.

IMG_4611 (2)

Ashy mining bees are not at all particular about what plants they use for pollen, and are very important for the pollination of oil-seed rape in some areas of the country (an indication that honeybees are not the only important pollinators). They go about their work largely unnoticed, appearing for a few weeks every year and then disappearing. I shall certainly watch for them next year, and will keep my eyes open for whatever species comes next. There is a dance in the gentle succession of species that emerge, or bloom, or die-back every month, and getting to know these patterns has been one of the most wonderful things about writing this blog. It gives me a sense of belonging and groundedness that is most reassuring when so many other things are in flux.

In her wonderful book ‘The Enchanted Life’, Sharon Blackie refers to the importance of having a ‘Sit Spot’ – somewhere that you sit every day, whatever the weather, and just observe. I know that plonking down on my kitchen step and paying attention to the hydrangea and to the plants has given me a real sense of the turn of the seasons and of how plants and animals and humans interrelate. It has given me peace when serenity was in short supply. It reminds me that life goes on, literally right outside my back door. And it is cool, and green, in the way that a forest is cool and green. It has become a sanctuary, thanks to this plant that doesn’t mind the shade, and flowers with such generosity. It reminds me how lucky I am.

I recommend ‘The Enchanted Life’ for anyone who would like to foster a deeper connection with the area in which they live, and who yearns for a sense of belonging. You can find out more about it (and purchase it directly from the author) here




Wednesday Weed – Nigella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Two from

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

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

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

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

Nigella Lawson (Photo Three)

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

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

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

‘Elaine’ by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1870)

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

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

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two from

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

Wednesday Weed – Lilac

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

Dear Readers, you might remember that I spent some of my formative years working in a night shelter for homeless people in Dundee. Sunday evenings there were typically quiet, and the men often spent them sitting in the kitchen and listening to the radio. There were two songs which many of them found particularly affecting. One was ‘The Lady in Red‘ by Chris de Burgh,  which would often end with someone surreptitiously wiping their eyes, lost in memories of happier days. But the one that would really get everybody going was ‘Lilac Wine’, originally by Nina Simone but recorded by Elkie Brooks in the ’90’s. Was there ever a better song about the melancholy drinker? Everything from her wavering notes to her tear-filled eyes encapsulates the way that alcohol both distorts thinking and intensifies emotion. However, I do wonder if she has a different lilac tree from mine, as even on a good day I would not characterise the scent as ‘heady’, maybe because my plant flowers in April when the rain and the wind (and the occasional snow) make sitting outside a heroic endeavour. Maybe it’s also because my lilac is white, rather than the usual eponymous lilac? Do tell me of your lilac experiences, especially if they involve ‘feeling unsteady’ and seeing things that aren’t actually there.

My venerable lilac tree has grown to prodigious proportions. When I first moved into the house, all the flowers were at the top, some six feet above my head, and their fragrance was mainly enjoyed by passing starlings. Over the past few years I have been pruning out the old wood in an attempt to renovate the plant, and it seems to be working – this year I had flowers at eye-level for the first time in years. I cut a small bunch, put them in a glass jar and popped them down on my writing desk. For a while I just inhaled and admired them, until a moving pea attracted my attention. And when I took my glasses off for a better look, I saw a tiny spider, seemingly made out of green glass.

A cucumber spider (Arienella curcubita)

My garden wildlife book tells me that this is a cucumber spider, and I could not have been more surprised if I’d found out that it was a wildebeest. All my pruning and hacking suddenly seemed worthwhile, because if the lilac blossoms had still been at the top of the ‘tree’ I’d never have cut them.

Lilac has been in the UK since at least the sixteenth century, and is thought to have been brought here not from the Balkans, where it grows wild, but from the courts of the Ottomans. It didn’t reach North America until the eighteenth century, but has become so naturalized there that it is the state flower of New Hampshire. You can occasionally find lilac growing wild in the UK too, but generally close to human habitation. Indeed, a lone lilac bush can often be the first indication that there was once a garden on the site.

Now, to loop back to Elkie Brooks, I found myself wondering if lilac was much used as a culinary ingredient (after all, the plant is a member of the Oleaceae or olive family). I wandered out to the garden to munch on a flower, and found it a rather under-whelming experience – it was quite astringent (i.e. it dries up the saliva), floral, and a bit ‘green’, almost salady. My hunting through the internet revealed a recipe for lilac syrup on The Practical Herbalist, and from here I found a recipe for actual Lilac Wine. The latter website also has a link to all kinds of other ‘country’ wines, including rhubarb, beetroot and something enticing called ‘scuppernong’ wine. I am old enough to remember the days when any kind of fruit or vegetable was fair game for a spell of vinification. My Uncle Roy’s parsnip wine would knock your head off.

Medicinally, lilac was believed to be an ‘anti-periodic’ – that is, it could help to treat diseases such as malaria which occur cyclically. It has also been used to treat fever. In North America, the Iroquois people used it to treat sores.

Lilac (the white variety in particular) is yet another of those plants which have a reputation for bringing bad luck if brought into the house  – I have listed so many of these lately that it’s a wonder that there are any bouquets at all! A five-petalled lilac flower is also thought to be a bad omen, except in some accounts where it appears to be lucky, so my advice is, if in doubt, go for the happier interpretation. Lilac was thought to bring protection against evil if planted at the corners of a house, and I have always thought of it as a happy plant, one of the earlier signs that summer is on its way.

On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland records a legend about the origin of the lilac in the UK:

According to legend its introduction to the British Isles is owed to a falcon that dropped the
seed in an old lady’s garden in Scotland. The bush grew without flowering until the day
when a passing prince stopped to admire it and a purple plume from his headdress
dropped into it. Thenceforth the bush bore purple flowers and the purple shrub brought
such joy to a young local girl that when she died on the eve of her marriage a cutting was
planted on her grave. This cutting flourished and eventually grew into a bush that bore
white flowers.


Maybe as a result of this story, wearing white lilac is said to mean that you will never marry.

During the 19th century there seems to have been a lot of enthusiasm for the complicated, abundant flowers of the lilac. Impressionists were particularly enamoured, and they seem to have been trying to outdo one another in their depictions. I particularly like the Manet one, but maybe that’s because the flowers are so recognisably like the ones in my garden. I am also very partial to the hexagonal glass vase.

Bouquet of Lilacs by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875-80 (Public Domain)

Lilacs in the Sun by Claude Monet, 1872 (Public Domain)

Lilacs in a Vase by Edouard Manet c.1882 (Public Domain)

And finally, here is a poem by the American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925). This speaks to me, newly returned from North America, and it helps to settle in my mind the conundrum of why the lilac, a flower from Europe, has so intertwined itself in the American imagination that it is the state flower of the Granite state, the ‘Live Free or Die’ state of New Hampshire. This work takes my breath away. I hope you enjoy it too. Read it slowly, preferably with a cup of tea.

‘Lilacs’ by Amy Lowell

False blue,
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.
False blue,
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
And Massachusetts
And Vermont.
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And apple-blossoms,
And windows open to a South Wind.
May is full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.
False blue,
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.