Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Field Wood-Rush

Field Wood-Rush (Luzula campestris)

Dear Readers, I know that some of you gardeners might disagree, but I was charmed by this little plant, growing on one of the grassy banks in a sunny part of the cemetery on Saturday. Look at those lovely hairy leaves! These are a distinctive feature of the wood rush family, who all belong to the genus Luzula. Luzula might come from the Italian word lucciola, meaning ‘to sparkle’, probably a description of how the plant looks when it’s wet with dew. Another derivation could be the Latin word ‘luculus’, meaning a summer field, or a small place. Whatever the original meaning of the word, I have rather fallen in love with this plant, hiding in plain sight as it is. My photos are good enough for identification, but to see the full prettiness of the

Flowers of Field Wood-Rush (Photo by By Leo Michels  Own work, Public Domain)

I note that the plant is also called ‘Good Friday Grass’, from its habit of springing into flower at Easter (it was pretty close this year, but as the date moves by several weeks I am not totally convinced). It is also known as ‘sweep’s broom’, for obvious reasons. It is found right across temperate  Europe and into the Caucasus. North American readers might recognise its very close relative Heath Wood-Rush (Luzula multiflora) – indeed, some botanists think that it might be the same species. To add to the complications, Heath Wood-Rush is also found in Europe, including the UK, and looks very similar. Both species like short, unimproved grassland, with Field Wood-Rush being particularly fond of acidic conditions: the RHS suggests that build up of ‘thatch’ (the dead stems and leaves of grass and other plants) acidifies the soil, and helps the wood-rush to thrive. Both species are also described as ‘pests’ in ornamental turf such as golf courses, and the RHS suggests using lime to change the pH of the soil to get rid of it. On the Pitchcare website, the author has a historical perspective, relating how Field Wood-Rush became a problem when poor pastureland was ploughed over to grow crops during the World Wars.  Personally, I think that a grassy area is much more interesting with a variety of plants in it, and lots of other creatures would agree, though possibly not golfers, bowlers and golfers.

Photo One by By Krzystzof Ziarnek, Kenraiz - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47451611

Heath Wood-Rush (Luzula multiflora) (Photo One)

All of the wood-rushes provide food for moths. The Smokey Wainscot (Mythimnia impura) is one species whose larvae will munch their way through the leaves, hairs and all, before overwintering as a tiny caterpillar. I love the very marked veins on the wings of this moth, and the fringes around the edges – it looks rather like upholstery fabric!

Photo Two by Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Smoky Wainscot (Mythimnia impura) (Photo Two)

And how about this little chap, with his ridiculously long antennae?  Coleophora otidipennella is a micro moth without a common name, and the larvae feed only on the seeds of the wood-rush.

Photo Three by Patrick Clement from West Midlands, England - 37.072 BF578 Coleophora otidipennella, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63729084)

Coleophora otidipennela (Photo Three)

You might sometimes find yet another Luzula, Greater Wood-Rush (Luzula sylvatica) in woodland, and there are several ornamental varieties. I think it could be a fine choice in a particularly shady spot where nothing else will grow.

Photo Four By Cwmhiraeth - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47073845

Great Wood-Rush in an oak wood with wood anemones in the background (Photo Four)

Photo Five By Pablo Alberto Salguero Quiles (Alberto Salguero) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=731186

Flower heads of Great Wood Rush (Luzula sylvatica) (Photo Five)

I keep seeing references Field Wood-Rush as being ‘one of our commonest grassland plants (and for some rather lovely photos of the plant in situ, have a look here). I am astonished that I’ve never noticed it before, and I love that even after seven years of a more-or-less weekly ‘Wednesday Weed’ I am still finding new plants. I also love that the Lorn Natural History Group website refers to it as ‘a happy little plant’ as this was exactly the impression that I got. I know that anthropomorphism is deeply unfashionable, and for sure most of the time I am projecting: this plant makes me feel happy, so how could it not be happy itself, flowering away on a sunny spot? There is a deep satisfaction from both finding out what on earth a plant ‘is’ according to our classification, and also noticing our own reactions, and being curious.

And so, to a poem. As you might expect, finding a poem about ‘Field Wood-Rush’ proved to be impossible, but looking for ‘Good Friday Grass’ brought up this vignette by Edwin Morgan. Morgan was a wonderful poet who wrote extensively about the poor and dispossessed of Glasgow, but I think this poem can be read on many levels – it’s about an incident that I’m sure will feel familiar to many of us, but it’s about lots of other things too. See what you think!

Good Friday

by Edwin Morgan

Three o’clock. The bus lurches
round into the sun. ‘D’s this go –‘
he flops beside me – ‘right along Bath Street?
– Oh tha’s, tha’s all right, see I’ve
got to get some Easter eggs for the kiddies.
I’ve had a wee drink, ye understand –
ye’ll maybe think it’s a – funny day
to be celebrating – well, no, but ye see
I wasny working, and I like to celebrate
when I’m no working – I don’t say it’s right
I’m no saying it’s right, ye understand – ye understand?
But anyway tha’s the way I look at it –
I’m no boring you, eh? – ye see today,
take today, I don’t know what today’s in aid of,
whether Christ was – crucified or was he –
rose fae the dead like, see what I mean?
You’re an educatit man, you can tell me –
– Aye, well. There ye are. It’s been seen
time and again, the working man
has nae education, he jist canny – jist
hasny got it, know what I mean,
he’s jist bliddy ignorant – Christ aye,
bliddy ignorant. Well –’ The bus brakes violently,
he lunges for the stair, swings down – off,
into the sun for his Easter eggs,
on very
nearly
steady
legs.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Krzystzof Ziarnek, Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47451611

Photo Two by Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Patrick Clement from West Midlands, England – 37.072 BF578 Coleophora otidipennella, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63729084)

Photo Four By Cwmhiraeth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47073845

Photo Five By Pablo Alberto Salguero Quiles (Alberto Salguero) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=731186

 

The Dead Wood of Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, we all love a good tree, but what about when it’s felled or trimmed or comes to the end of its life? I took a walk in Coldfall Wood on Friday with my good friend A, as people generally don’t seem to appreciate how important dead wood is to the ecology of woodland. Just look, for example, at the moss growing on these logs. There will be all kinds of invertebrates living under the bark, and no doubt mice and beetles and all sorts of other creatures will be living in the interstices. In time the whole lot will rot down (with the aid of a whole army of fungi, insects, bacteria and other detritivores) and return to feed the new trees that will grow up in the space that the tree once occupied.

There are wood piles from when some of the trees were coppiced a few years ago, and, whilst you can only see the fungal fruiting bodies later in the year, they host a whole range of different species.

Black bulgar fungus

Candlesnuff fungus

Hairy Curtain Crust

Standing dead trees can provide roosting holes not only for the obvious candidates, such as woodpeckers and nuthatches, but also for birds such as this stock dove. These are shy little birds, smaller than a wood pigeon, with what I always think of as ‘kind’ dark eyes.

Dead trees often have a kind of grandeur and beauty all of their own. I love the peeling bark on this one, and the variety of colours on its trunk.

The Conservation Volunteers are an organisation who do a lot of work in the wood, including creating these dead hedges to protect areas from trampling. 95% of people recognise that these are meant to be a barrier. 5% take it as a challenge, and the hedges are sometimes dismantled, with the branches ending up in ‘dens’. Part of the reason for taking these photos with Friend A was to design some signage so that people know what the dead hedges are there for, so maybe we can get them left alone for longer. Getting the balance right between people exploring and experiencing the wood and its long-term survival so that future generations can also enjoy it sometimes feels like a real uphill battle, but it’s important to remember that most people do respect the woods, and that many of those who don’t are doing so out of ignorance rather than malice. Many of us seem to have become so divorced from nature and its patterns that we really don’t have the first idea about how to treat a ‘wild’ place.

A rather lovely dead hedge

And to cheer me up, the marsh marigold in the woods is in flower a good week before the one in my garden pond. There’s nothing more heartening than that glimpse of gold amidst all the green.

And hidden away, almost below the bridge, there are some enormous violets, definitely ‘blushing unseen’.

And of course some forget-me-nots.

So, let’s see where we get to with our ‘dead wood is good wood’ posters. Will they all end up in the stream? It’s possible, but I do hope that at least some people will realise that the hedges are there for a purpose, not just to be annoying. I will keep you posted!

Wednesday Weed – Skunk Cabbage

Western Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)

Dear Readers, this wasn’t a plant that I was expecting to see when I visited Golders Hill Park on Saturday. It comes from the Pacific North West, and is a member of the Arum family, much like our native Cuckoo-pint. However, Western Skunk Cabbage has much bigger, lemon-yellow flowers, and its foetid scent attracts the flies and beetles that pollinate it. Unlike cuckoo-pint, it doesn’t generate its own heat, so this doesn’t add to its attractions, but on the other hand the ‘flower’ can be up to 35 cm long, so it’s an impressive beast in its own right. It loves swampy ground, and I seem to remember seeing some on a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario when I was there last. It is, however, horribly invasive. It arrived in the UK in 1901 and has since naturalised in swampy areas all over the country, including the Royal Horticultural Society’s own Wisley Gardens. Since 2018 the RHS has recommended that it not be planted in UK gardens, although one variety was given its Order of Merit in 2014. but you can still buy it in garden centres, even though the charity Plantlife recommends that it be listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act as a non-native invasive species . I’m normally quite relaxed about alien species in urban areas, but as this one is on a watercourse that is linked to the fragile bog habitat a quarter of a mile away, I am going to report it to the City of London council who manage the Heath.

One reason that Western Skunk Cabbage can be such a problem is that it is extremely tolerant of shade: while very few native British plants survive under the thick canopy of summer in forests, this plant positively thrives. Its leaves are enormous, up to 150 cm long and 70 cm wide when the plant is full-grown It can spread for hundreds of metres along a muddy river bank and shade out everything, including the spring ephemerals who need a few months of early sun, before the leaves form on the trees. According to my Alien Plants book by Stace and Crawley, alder swamps are particularly vulnerable because they can be overrun not only with skunk cabbage but also with pendulous sedge and Himalayan balsam. Skunk cabbage propagates by rhizomes but also by seeds which travel along watercourses and get caught in the fur of dogs and wild animals.

Like so many plants, however, Western Skunk Cabbage is not a problem in its North American home. The roots are eaten by bears, apparently as a laxative or cathartic after hibernation (all that laying around is probably not good for the digestion). Native peoples did use the leaves medicinally, but as they contain oxalate crystals these were only used, once cooked, as a famine food. In normal times the leaves were largely used to wrap food. Indeed, the Skunk Cabbage is considered to be a tourist attraction in some regions, such as Mount Revelstoke National Park close to Banff, Canada, where there is a Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail.

Incidentally, according to the Iroquois applying a poultice of skunk cabbage leaves to a dog bite would not only cure the wound, but would make the dog’s teeth fall out.

And finally, a poem, by Mary Oliver, one of my favourite poets. What critics often miss is her close observation of the natural world, something that puts me in mind of a latter day John Clare. She often pulls focus from the close-up to the universal, and so she does in this poem. The last line is a stunner.

Skunk Cabbage
by Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)

And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunched leaves up
through the chilly mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below,
stubborn and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again——a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.

 

 

 

 

 

An April Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Primroses on one of the graves

Dear Readers, spring is really gathering pace in the cemetery, in spite of the fact that the temperature has gone from the low ’70’s at the beginning of the week to the mid 40’s Fahrenheit today. It’s a worrying time for gardeners with half-hardy plants, but the natives could care less about the cold. I saw my first wood forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) today….

and my first cuckooflowers, also known as lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), which are another real sign of spring for me. The cemetery has several patches of these delicate flowers. Who’d look at them and think ‘cabbage?’ but that’s exactly what they are (or members of the Brassica family at any rate).

The cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) will be abuzz soon as well – it’s naturalised itself all over the cemetery. I have one in the garden just behind my semi-circle of sleepers at the back of the garden, so I know how it self-seeds. The flowers have a heavy, almond scent that I find borderline sickly.

 

But look at the horse chestnut leaflets! Last week they were just emerging from their buds, but this week the familiar hand-shaped leaves and candelabra flowers are already unfurling. It’s a shame that these leaves will be blasted by fungus and leaf-miners in a few months time, but at the moment they look young and slightly fuzzy and very, very green.

It’s fair to say that the grape hyacinths are doing very well on some of the older graves.

And while the lesser celandine is disappearing in some places, it’s at its peak in others, forming a carpet of yellow flowers.

Down by the stream, the blackthorn is in flower.

And the creeping comfrey is, well, creeping along the river bank. Later on it will be overwhelmed by the Russian and white comfrey that also grows here, and so the bees will be happy for months.

‘My’ cherry plum has stopped flowering, and so it’s the copper-coloured leaves that are coming into prominence now.

On the way back, we passed a man who was planting up one of the graves. I paused to tell him how lovely it looked, and he mentioned that his wife had passed away in March and that he was sorting out her grave, and the grave of her parents and grandparents. He had a pile of paving slabs next to him and while he wanted to let me know what had happened he clearly didn’t want to talk about it. I see what a help hard physical labour is for people who are mourning, and I suspect this is for a variety of reasons: exercise brings endorphins that help to soothe, physical exhaustion is good for sleep, and I think that the physical pain can be a kind of counter-irritant for the emotional pain. Plus, I suspect that making a grave beautiful is a way of communing with the loved one who is gone, and of serving them even though they are no longer here. Finally, there is meaning in the creation of beauty, and after a bereavement everything can seem very empty.  Working in the midst of the new spring flowers and the bird song may bring a kind of solace, if even only for a moment.

I look at this Cedar of Lebanon, and think of it spreading its branches over all the many, many corteges who have passed under it. Whenever I look at it I somehow breathe in some of its peacefulness.

 

Golders Hill Park and the Heath Extension

Magnolia tree at Golders Hill Park

Dear Readers, how much I took for granted before this year of Covid 19! In 2019 a bus ride and a walk to Golders Hill Park and through the Heath to Hampstead Garden Suburb would have been a perfectly normal, even mundane, thing to do at the weekend. But this week we decided to catch a bus and go for a walk in these previously well-known parts of North London, and it was a revelation.

In theory, we were going to look for the West Heath bog: as you might know from previous posts, bogs are extremely rare in London, and so this little area of sphagnum moss is a most unusual habitat. But first we had to pass through the more manicured area of Golders Hill Park, with its cafe (homemade icecream resulted in a queue a couple of hundred metres long), and its animal park. And, it turns out, its stumpery, which was new to me. How extraordinary these felled stumps are, and how imaginative of the park keepers to turn them into a whole new habitat rather than just carting them away. They look like modern sculpture to me, and they were much appreciated by the pigeons and squirrels, as well as providing a nice niche for wood anemones and hellebores.

Further along the path is an ornamental lake. This year it has a bit patch of crown imperial fritillaries – these lilies are so prone to rot that the bulbs are usually planted on their sides, which makes me wonder how they managed to grow so well in such a damp spot.

Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)

And I was a little perturbed to see these western skunk cabbages. These are a member of the Arum family, and are become a problem in Scotland and in other damp parts of the UK. The RHS has recommended not growing them since 2018 as they are considered invasive, so I was surprised to see them here, especially next to a stream which will easily distribute the seeds along the whole length of the stream. There’s no doubt that it is an attractive plant, with its lemon-yellow ‘petals’ and pale-green spathe, though the ‘skunky’ odour, said to persist even after the plant has been picked and dried, would put a lot of people off.

So now we had the task of finding the bog. It’s outside the park itself, on the area known as West Heath, and as I know from previous bog-finding expeditions they can be surprisingly elusive, especially during a dry patch. We had a couple of false starts as we followed tributaries from the Leg of Mutton pond. I found myself wondering whether this was so named because of its shape, or because it was in some way related to the Mutton Brook which rises in my local park, Cherry Tree Wood. I had just started to voice my queries when we discovered the first glimpses of flag iris and, glory be, some sphagnum moss.

The big problem will be protecting the bog from too much trampling: this is a very delicate habitat, and with the current footfall it would be easy for it to turn into a muddy soakaway. But I know that various conservation groups have been involved in removing invasive grasses and suchlike so that the bog will at least have a fighting chance. There are little wooden bridges and boardwalks too to help keep big feet at a distance. The bog is  a bit off the beaten track as well, so hopefully that will help it to thrive. There is another tiny area of bog close to Kenwood, and that’s it for the whole of the Heath. There are plants that grow here, and invertebrates that use the area, that won’t be found anywhere else, so it’s important for biodiversity.

The bog. See how green it is!

And then we turn for home, planning to walk via the Heath Extension which borders Hampstead Garden Suburb. However, we get a little turned around, and I suddenly find myself catching a whiff of coconut. There is a small area of ‘proper’ heathland, with gorse in flower, pumping out that tropical scent. What a surprise! To find woodland, a bog and heathland within a minute’s walk of one another must be a true rarity.

Gorse heathland

I half expect to find a basking adder or spot a Dartford warbler. I wasn’t that lucky, but this little spot did make me very happy, and, in spite of it being Good Friday and very busy on other parts of the Heath, we had the gorse all to ourselves.

And then we head along North End and into another part of the Heath, and we found this gate to nowhere, next to the most magnificent tree.

It turns out that it was part of the gatehouse to the estate of William Pitt back in 1766. His house is round about here, too. It’s easy to forget that the Heath was once a series of great estates (such as Kenwood) and was also farmland, though sometimes you can be looking at something and realise that it was probably once a hedgerow.

Were those cherry plums once part of a hedgerow?

The final part of our walk takes us along the edge of the suburb. There is a fantastic wall here, full of strange manorial doors and antique brickwork.

In the distance you get a great view of Sir Edward Lutyen’s St Jude’s Church, sadly currently swathed in scaffolding.

And as we head back towards our bus, I notice the pinkest of pink magnolias, so that our walk has been bookended with such plants. It seems to be a stunning year for magnolias – I have never seen so many varieties in flower, or in such healthy profusion. What a treat, and how easy it is to let blossom time pass by without sufficient admiration time. Go out and admire a tree today, Readers! They always lift the spirits.

Wednesday Weed – Lawson Cypress

Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)

Dear Readers, isn’t it strange how you can march past a tree every week for a year and never notice that it appears to be covered in tiny red and black humbugs? These are the male flowers of the Lawson Cypress, and the photo doesn’t do them justice. They look as if they’ve been newly painted, and are nicely set off by the yellow-tipped foliage. The beige objects are the new cones. Apparently the whole tree smells of parsley (though my Collins Tree Guide adds the comment ‘rather sour’, you shall have to tell me what you think.

It is a most stately and funereal tree, and so it’s no surprise that there are a number of cypress ‘walks’ in the cemetery. There are some fine specimen trees of other kinds of cypress too, including the Japanese Hinoki cypress in the woodland burial area, and the wonderful swamp cypress . It all rather reminds me of Feste’s song from Twelfth Night (though I strongly suspect that Feste the clown is mocking his master Orsino in this piece). It would also have been about a Mediterranean rather than an American cypress, but I beg your indulgence.

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown.
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!

The Lawson Cypress is also known as the Port Orford Cedar, and its native range is restricted to a few mountains in Oregon and California. The wild tree is threatened by fires and by a fungal disease caused by the Phytophthora spore. Apparently the disease is largely spread by soil adhering to the tyres of off-road vehicles, and so these are sometimes banned from areas where the fungus is present. Good riddance, I say! If only someone would find a correlation between plant diseases and leaf-blowers so we could ban them too.

Although in the UK most of the trees are of a moderate height, they can grow to a magnificent 60 metres tall.

Old growth Lawson Cypress in California (Public Domain)

But, who is this Lawson I hear you cry? Well, Charles Lawson was a Scottish plantsman who specialised in crops and conifers. He sent teams of collectors to many places, but when the tree was discovered at Port Orford it was taken into cultivation at Charle’s Lawson’s nursery in Edinburgh. Well, the plant must have been happy because these days it can be found in many large gardens, country-house estates and parks. It comes in a wide variety of colours, shapes and ‘habits’, including this incredibly droopy variant known as ‘Imbricata pendula’.

Photo One By Darorcilmir - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72720894

A weeping Lawson cypress (Photo One)

No wonder I have trouble identifying conifers when they’re so varied! I can always fall back on the red male flowers for ID at this time of year though.

Such beautiful straight-trunked trees would have been very attractive to lumberjacks, and to the timber companies that employ them, and so it was with this tree. However, large amounts of the wood are sent abroad, particularly to Japan where it’s used to make coffins and shrines. The lumber is said to smell faintly of ginger, which sounds very pleasant. The straightness of the wood also makes it a shoo-in if you want to knock up a few arrows, and its lightness means that it’s been used in the manufacture of guitars.

Guitar made from Lawson Cypress (Photo Two)

In North America, the Karuk people built sweat lodges with the branches of Lawson Cypress. In the UK, the sole legend about the Lawson Cypress appears to be that it’s unlucky to burn it (something which seems to hold true for any conifer, in fact, at least in Monmouthshire).

And finally, because spring is here, I have brought you a most unusual poem by Alfred Tennyson. From his long work ‘The Princess’ this is a very sensuous work, a cross between a Persian Ghazal and a sonnet. Both forms often embrace the idea of the parted lovers. I really like the visual quality of the poem – can anybody else see the glint of fin in the porphyry font, or the cypress falling still in the hot, oppressive air?

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal from The Princess by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Darorcilmir – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72720894

Celandine Time in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

Dear Readers, I think we’ve reached the height of Lesser Celandine season here in the cemetery – every path is ankle-deep in those shiny yellow flowers with their heart-shaped leaves. I love the polished look of the petals, so different from the waxy petals of the daffodils.

It seems difficult to imagine that in a few weeks they’ll be gone, the leaves dying back until next year. I note from my Harrap’s Wild Flowers that there are two sub-species of Lesser Celandine, one which is fertile (Ficaria verna ssp fertilis) and has petals that are 10-20mm long, and one which reproduces from bulbils (Ficaria verna ssp verna) which has flowers 6-11mm long. I shall have to take my ruler next time I visit, but my hunch would be that these are the latter – plants that reproduce by bulbils are often seen as indicators of ancient woodland because they can’t travel quickly from one place to another. The cemetery has only been around since 1854, but previously the land belonged to Finchley Common, so the area has a long history. At any rate, it’s difficult not to feel the spirits lift at the sight of all these little golden flowers.

Lesser celandine is not the only plant that’s in flower at the moment, though – the violets are just starting to emerge. I found this lovely patch of sweet violet close to a fence – the flowers are very pale and I didn’t get any scent, but the rounded sepals (the ‘covers’ for the bud) give the game away.

Sweet violet (Viola odorata)

I was very struck by the red flowers on the Lawson cypress as well – I had never noticed them before, but this year they are very bright, almost like drops of blood, or like some stripy beetle.

The ground ivy is in flower, too – a member of the deadnettle family, the flowers always remind me of little dolls.

The blossom is going over, particularly on my favourite cherry plum where the coppery leaves are just coming through.

Lots of daffodils are still out, and although as you know I have mixed feelings about them, they are very striking when backlit by the sun.

And here are the sticky buds of the horse chestnut getting ready to burst. Soon there will be the candelabras of creamy, sweet-scented flowers, but for now it’s the first intimation of spring.

As we walk through the cemetery I hear the mewing of a buzzard, and for once it isn’t being mobbed by crows. We watch it catching a thermal (no mean feat on this blustery, chilly day), and it continues to call until another buzzard appears. They can travel a long, long way at speed just by riding the wind. Are they nesting somewhere in the cemetery? It wouldn’t surprise me, but I haven’t found the site yet. If they are, I’m sure it will be hidden away in one of the most difficult-to-access parts of the forest, but how exciting it would be!

And finally, here is another little patch of violets. These are a ‘proper’ violet colour, but it’s difficult to make out the sepals. However, those perfect heart-shaped leaves make me think it’s dog violet (Viola riviniana), so-called because it doesn’t have any scent, and ‘dog’ is often used as an epithet for something commonplace and uninteresting. Try telling that to any dog (or dog owner) though.

 

Poking Your Tongue Out….

Dear Readers, few things make me happier than the first hairy-footed flower bees. They often arrive before the end of March, and they have a great fondness for my flowering currant bush. The males are unmistakable – they have white faces, as if they’ve run head-first into some putty. And look at the length of that tongue! I love the way that they fly around with their tongues out, like little knights about to head into a joust.

The hairy-footed flower bee (or Anthophora plumipes to give the correct name) is generally an early riser – my Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Stephen Falk suggests that the males can be on the wing as early as mid February, though they’d have been blown about rather roughly if they’d put in an appearance in February this year. The males are said to appear two to three weeks before the females, who are jet black but have russet hairs on their legs and collect pollen, unlike the chaps who are just after the nectar and some lurve. I did spot a female this morning, but as usual she was too speedy for me – the males seem to hover and hang around a lot more, while the females are very purposeful. There is a suggestion that the males hold territories around desirable flowers, so now that I have a few days off I can spend some time watching them.

The nests are usually made in crumbling brickwork and sometimes in chimneys, which is one reason why the females will sometimes appear indoors.

In the photo below you can just make out the white hairs on the last pair of legs, which indicates to me that they should be ‘hairy-legged’ rather than ‘hairy-footed’. Maybe that’s a bit too Morecombe and Wise for the apiphiles out there.

And they were not the only bees either; there were a couple of honeybees on the plant-whose-name-I’ve-forgotten. Remind me, readers! It’s evergreen with white or green flowers, and I have a couple strewn about the garden.

The ratio of leaf to flower on the potted grape hyacinths is gradually improving, plus I suddenly realised that they were fragrant, something I’d never noticed before. I think once they’ve gone over I’m going to liberate them from their pots and plant them around the pond to provide some cover.

And look, the fritillaries are coming into bloom!

And the wood anemones. Please turn a blind eye to the guano if you can. I think I’m going to get nappies for the visiting birds, they have no manners at all.

The marsh marigold is doing very well, and if the water in the pond gets much lower I am going to have to tip out the frogspawn. A lot of it looks as if it will be hatching soon, though.

And here is my one and only self-sown lesser celandine. I’ve got some way to go before the garden is as full of golden flowers as the cemetery is, but there you go, it’s a start. I might regret ever bewailing their rarity, I know.

And finally, here are a few more shots of the hairy-footed flower bees. I am very pleased with this flowering currant, but the one next to the pond is looking very sad this year, I’m not sure what’s wrong with it. I think I’ll let it flower, cut it back a bit and then give it some TLC. I’m not sure how long they live, but I know I’ve had it for ten years, so it deserves a bit of a rest. Any way, let’s see. A garden is a perpetual work in progress, and none the worse for it.

A Quick Walk Around the Garden

Dear Readers, the auditors are in full swing and so although they don’t actually materialise at your shoulder with a lever-arch file and a quizzical expression, they still do the online equivalent, which involves lots of emails and all kinds of fancy software for uploading files. So, today I have spent many hours trying to track down invoices and explain exactly how we’ve allocated people across multiple expense lines. All this detailed work has a tendency to make me grumpy, and so I had a trot around the garden to see what was going on.

First up are the buds on my flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). I am especially fond of this bush because it is the ‘child’ of my original plant, but has flowers that are much paler. It’s in a slightly sunnier spot than its ‘parent’, and must be a good week ahead in terms of flower development. It feels as if spring starts off slowly and then busts out everywhere..

I was looking for some more pond plants, and someone suggested figwort – this is native and a big favourite with the bees, so I bought five and am counting them every night to make sure they haven’t slid off the ledge around the edge of the pond and into the water. This morning there should have been five and I could only see four – when I went out to have a look, one pot had been dragged onto to the path, so that can only be the fox as the pot is too heavy for a cat. I spy what looks like a dead frog at the bottom of the pond as well, so I think I can piece the story together.

The marsh marigold will be out soon too.

We have one tiny cyclamen in flower, it’s been going strong for weeks.

And we’ve planted up yet more foxgloves. Let’s hope these actually get to the flowering stage.

 

I’ve bought some salvias cut price for the pots in the sunny spot at the bottom of the garden – they seemed very potbound to me, but let’s hope they’ll survive. The trouble with this location is that I can’t see the pond, though it is a lovely enclosed spot – I’m hoping to get so much pollinator-action going that I don’t aggravate my poor husband by leaping up to see what’s going on in the rest of the garden. We can only hope.

And the grape hyacinths look as if they’ll bloom soon, though there is a very high leaf to flower ratio. I’m thinking that I missed a trick and should have planted them next to the pond to provide some frog-cover. Next year!

And then there are my biennials – the angelica is doing well, and I’m really hoping for some flowers this year.

And for some teasel flowers – I think this is also technically a biennial (correct me if I’m wrong) but I’m hoping for lots of babies. I need to get stuck into those greater willowherb plants that are erupting too (you can just see them in the bottom left-hand corner) otherwise they’ll be everywhere. It looks rather as if the slugs have been having a go too, but hopefully the teasel can outgrow them.

 

And finally, the meadowsweet is popping through – this is such a boon for the hoverflies. If only I had a bigger garden, I think I might plant some more.

And so I head back for my laptop refreshed. At this time of year you only have to turn your back for a second and something pops up in the garden, so it’s good to keep a daily eye on things. Who knows what will happen next?

Wednesday Weed – Mimosa/Silver Wattle

Mimosa/Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata)

Dear Readers, you would think that I would pay more attention to something as bright and yellow as this small tree, especially as there is one in full flower next door as I speak. But, for some reason, the sheer magnificence of this Australian plant has past me by until this Saturday, when I stood in a hailstorm trying to take a few pictures. It really is an eye-blasting explosion of sunlight on a freezing cold March day, so I decided to try to find out some more about it.

Firstly, Mimosa is a member of the bean family (Fabaceae). All of the plants in the genus Acacia are found in Australasia, and all of them are fire-adapted, something that probably dates back at least 20 million years. The plant has deep roots, its seeds may germinate more quickly after being exposed to fire, and mature stands of trees can regenerate after a fire has passed through. However, the plant’s Achilles heel, at least in the UK, is its lack of frost tolerance – an extended period below -5 C is enough to kill young plants. I can only think that the two that I know of in East Finchley are protected by the urban heat island effect, whereby the warmth radiating from the buildings stops the temperature from dropping too far for too long.

Mimosa, in its native habitat, is a coloniser species, much as birch is in the UK. It cannot withstand being shaded out by bigger trees, and it has a short life span of only 30 to 40 years, which might explain why it isn’t as popular as it might be as a street tree, in spite of all the ‘Acacia Avenues’ of suburbia.

The flowers of the mimosa are given to women on International Women’s Day in Italy, Russia, Georgia and Armenia, and I remember seeing lots of small boys dressed as Batman and Superman, lots of little girls dressed as princesses, and lots of mothers carrying bunches of mimosa flowers. The smell of the plant is difficult to describe, but it has a sweet floral quality that is rather appealing. Not that I could smell it on Saturday, what with little ice pellets bouncing off my head, but I can still remember it.

The feathery foliage is very appealing too.

Photo One by By Stephencdickson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60595557

New growth on Mimosa (Photo One)

The plant’s alternative common name, Silver Wattle, might refer to a white lichen which colonises the plant in Australia, or possibly to the silvery tint of the foliage of the canopy in a mature tree. ‘Wattle’ comes from an old word for ‘weave’, and the fibre of the tree has been used by the indigeonous Ngunnawal people of Australia to make rope for millenia. The Ngunnawal also use the sap as glue, the timber for tools and the seeds to make flour.

Photo Two from https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/403953

Nineteenth Century Timber Sample from Victoria Museum, Australia (Photo Two)

Sadly, not everyone loves the Mimosa – it is considered an invasive alien in South Africa and New Zealand, and also gives cause for concern in Spain. I’m sure that its pioneering nature can cause a veritable thicket of mimosa to emerge at the drop of a hat.

The whole Wattle/Acacia family can be considered as a symbol of Australia – the plant features on the country’s coat of arms, along with the kangaroo and the emu. The green and gold colours of the Australian cricket team are said to be inspired by the plant, and when the surviving soldiers left the Gallipoli peninsula, their chaplain is said to have planted wattle seeds so that something of Australia would be left behind. During the First World War, mothers would send sprigs of wattle in their letters to their sons, and this inspired a poem by A.H Scott of the 4th Battery of the A.F.A. I suspect that there is no homesickness like that of a young man facing his death on the other side of the world.

A Little Sprig of Wattle

My mother’s letter came today,
And now my thoughts are far away
For inbetween its pages lay
A little sprig of wattle.

“The old house now looks at its best,”
The message ran: “the country’s dressed
In spring’s gay cloak, and I have pressed
A little sprig of wattle”.

I almost see that glimpse of spring
The very air her seems to ring
With joyful notes of birds that sing
Among the sprigs of wattle.

The old house snug amidst the pines,
The trickling creek that twists and twines
Round tall gum roots and undermines,
Is all ablaze with wattle.

Australian Coat of Arms (Public Domain)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60595557

Photo Two from https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/403953