Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Pieris

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

Pieris japonica

Dear Readers, this week my plant of choice is one that I have never attempted to grow, though I have admired it in many a front garden. This is Pieris japonica, known as Pieris here in the UK, but with the delightful names Japanese fetterbush or Japanese andromeda in the US (to find out why, read on!). There are seven species in the Pieris genus, and they have a wide distribution through the mountainous areas of eastern North America, eastern and southern Asia and Cuba, though it is the japonica species (which, as the name suggests, comes from Japan, Taiwan and eastern China) that  is the most widely seen here. The plant is a member of the Ericaceae or heather family, and its liking for acid soil is one reason for my not attempting it in the claggy, clay-based soil of London, though I suppose I could try one in a pot.

The close relationship to heather is clearer when the buds open and become little bells. You can see why yet another name for the plant is ‘lily-of-the-valley shrub’. And apparently the chains of flowers were a reminder of the fetters that bound Andromeda to the rock in Greek mythology until she was rescued by Perseus, hence the American names for the plant.

Photo One by By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

Pieris japonica in full bloom (Photo One)

The new spring foliage is often a different colour from the older leaves, and the plant is evergreen, making it a good choice for year-round interest in a small garden.

Photo Two by By Stephencdickson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

New foliage on a Pieris (Photo Two)

For some delightful close-ups of Pieris japonica, have a look at the Microscopy UK page for the plant here, which is full of wonders.

Although not native to the UK, Pieris has become the foodplant of a subtle but elegant moth known as the engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). Incidentally, ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semi-circular indentations along the edge’.

Photo Three by By ©entomart, Attribution,

The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Three)

Pieris is said to be a good plant for those plagued by visits from hungry deer ( I should be so lucky!), and this may be because all parts of the plant are said to be toxic to animals and to people. The plant has been implicated in ‘mummification of the fetus’ in goats , and honey made from the nectar of the plant can be poisonous (such honey is known as ‘mad honey’, and the same results can be produced when the nectar comes from rhodondendrons).

Apparently the plant features as a poison in the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’, but as I haven’t seen it I can only call upon those who have to see if they remember an appearance. By the strange synchronicity that often attends this blog, I went to see a production of ‘Network’ at the National Theatre yesterday, starring none other than Bryan Cranston, the star of ‘Breaking Bad’. I’d give the show as a whole 3.5/5, but Cranston was outstanding, and it’s worth going just for him (if you can get tickets at this late stage).

Anyhoo, back to Pieris japonica.

As you might expect, there are few recipes that include pieris, and few medicinal uses that I could find, though the plant is apparently used as a pesticide and a parasiticide in its native Japan. However, in the course of researching this post I found a very interesting blog called ‘The Hospice Gardener‘, by a delightful man called Jim Nicholson. He was very much cheered up by a Pieris japonica back in April, and who can blame him? There is so much love in a garden like this, and I’m sure that it brings solace to many, many people. Sometimes a plant’s beauty is more than enough.

It was certainly enough for the people of Japan, for Pieris japonica features in many poems. In 985, a group of Japanese gentlemen were admiring the blossoming Pieris (translated here as Andromeda) and decided to write Wakas (poems of thirty-one syllables designed to capture a moment of fleeting beauty). The event is captured in The Art of Japanese Gardens, by Sandra Kuck.

The first poem was by Otomo no Yaka-Mochi:

The pond water reflects

Even the shadows of blooming Andromeda-

Let me take it carefully

In my sleeve.

Another was by Ikako no Mabito, who wrote:

Under the rocks

The transparent pond water

Has become the bright colour

Of young Andromeda leaves.

Must these things die?

And finally, Prince Mikata no Ohogime conjures up another inhabitant of the garden:

In this, your island

Home of the mandarin duck

I see today also

the Andromeda


I don’t know about you, but I can almost see this garden, the red leaves and white flowers of the Pieris reflected in the water and a mandarin duck passing by at a stately pace. There is something about a plant in total harmony with its surroundings, growing in its native land, that feels somehow profoundly right and congruent, like a meadow full of buttercups and ox-eye daisies here in the UK, or a bluebell wood. It’s wonderful that we can pick and choose from plants that are native to other places in the world, and certainly some of them help to prolong the season for our birds and insects, but there is something so special about a natural and complex ecosystem, its parts in harmony with one another. As we all know, however, our climate is changing, and it will be interesting (and probably terrifying) to see how our native habitats change with it. I suspect that it will be the adaptable creatures and plants that survive, and the treasures that thrive in narrow, specific niches that will be lost. Let us hope against hope that the peoples of the world will wake up in time to mitigate at least the worst effects of our presence on this planet.

Photo Four by By Buiobuione - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Male Mandarin Duck (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two by By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four by By Buiobuione – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,




Bugwoman on Location – Hampstead Village


The Wonky Chimneys of Flask Cottages, Hampstead

Dear Readers, this week I was in Hampstead, delivering an enormous bag of knitting wool to a charity called Knit For Peace who match keen knitters with good causes. I am a great believer in the healing power of crafts of all kinds – it’s hard to stay angry and resentful when you’re trying to work out how a Fair Isle pattern is supposed to work. And look at the excellent use that your master(mistress)pieces can be put to once the many hours of work have been completed!

Willow the cat and my blanket.

Being in Hampstead gave me an opportunity to explore. I started off on Flask Walk, where I am always intrigued by the wonky chimneys in the first photo above. Why are they so eccentric? My delving into the internets has produced nothing on the subject, so feel free to chip in with any suggestions.

Hampstead seems such a quaint and attractive area, rather Bohemian you might think, a great place to bring up a family. However, as average house prices for the area are over £1.6m (and a ‘detached family dwelling’ is getting on for £6m) I don’t imagine the average family will be moving here any time soon. In the meantime, however, I spent some time admiring the water droplets on the leaves and plants, and trying not to look too suspicious, what with my camera and all. There are a lot of security teams around here, as you might expect.

One reason for advancing along the road is that this is the location of Burgh House, the site of Mr and Mrs Bugwoman’s marriage in September 2010. Sadly, the building, and hence the delightful cafe, was closed until 10th January, but I recommend a visit for both food and edification, as the Hampstead Museum is also here. I took a few photos and remembered some of the details of the day – for example, when my dad and I got into the vintage Rolls Royce we’d hired to get to Burgh House and he said ‘I suppose I should be giving you some advice, but you know it all already’. Well, I was forty.

Burgh House, Hampstead

This was all very splendid but I hadn’t seen any animals yet, apart from one of the many blackbirds who have popped out in the past few days to make the most of the muddy conditions and the superabundance of worms. Incidentally, I was walking in the cemetery today with my most excellent friend A, and we observed a similar blackbird.

‘I don’t like to dwell upon blackbirds eating worms in a graveyard’, she said.

But when you think about it, how wonderful it would be to be recycled as a blackbird!

A Hampstead blackbird

I decided to pop over to the other side of the village and have a look at the churchyard. The church itself is the Parish Church of St John at Hampstead, although I note from the website that it wasn’t initially clear which St John was intended – it was only in 1917 that it was declared that it was the St John the Evangelist. The current church was consecrated in 1747, although there have been religious buildings on the site right back to 986.

The Church of St John in Hampstead

As you might have expected by now, I was drawn to the churchyards. There is one around the church itself, and a second one across the road.

The churchyard around St Johns

I was not exactly dressed for muddy paths and bird watching, what with my bright red coat and boots and all, but I slithered around nonetheless. There is an atmosphere of melancholy under those dark, ancient trees, and sitting on a bench right in the middle of the churchyard was a young man, deep in thought. How these places support us when we need peace and solitude! I sneaked past as quietly and unobtrusively as I could and noticed how the robins have suddenly started singing, just in this past few days. How sensitive their clock is to the length of days.

Around the side of the church, a tombstone had split and weeds were growing in the cracks, a metaphor for life’s persistence and resilience if ever one was handed to me.

And then I headed off across the road, to the ‘overflow’ graveyard that was opened in 1812.

The place was full of birds. Robins sang from the gravestones and, as I nearly went flat on my bum under an alder tree, a gang of long-tailed tits came along to have a good laugh.


A long-tailed tit, no doubt laughing his head off

There was a small flock of redwings in the yew tree, and when one flew out to perch nearby, I was able to capture this candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year (not)


Redwing! Honestly!

I found this exquisitely beautiful tomb, with an angel kissing the forehead of a small child. It is the last resting place of Eve Hammersley, who lived locally and died in 1902.


I found a gorse bush in full flower, and noticed for the first time how the petals at the base of the bloom have a little hole in them, like a jawbone.


And, in addition to the long-tailed tits (who aren’t really tits) there were blue tits and great tits, which are.

And so, as the rain started, I turned and headed for home. There are lots of interesting graves here: Hugh Gaitskill and Peter Cook are among the luminaries buried amidst the yew trees and the moss. And yet, as always, it’s the life that intrigues me and lifts my spirits in a cemetery, not the death. The call of birds and the bursting forth of new green life always reminds me that there are other cycles beside our day-to-day artificial bustle of Christmas and New Year, accounting year-ends and sales. For the birds, and for the plants, spring has already put a twinkle in their eye. If we stop and breathe and listen, it will do the same for all of us.



A pathway in the second churchyard







Wednesday Weed – Crab Apple

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


Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

Dear Readers, when you see all the different varieties of ‘domestic’ crab apple, such as this splendid one on Durham Road in East Finchley, it’s easy to forget that this is a native British tree, now vanishingly rare. This is partly due to interbreeding with the domestic apple (Malus pumila), but also because this slow-growing tree has a high light requirement, which means that it largely survives on the edges of woods and as solitary trees in hedgerows.In ‘Flora Britannica’, Richard Mabey mentions that these lonely crab apples were often used as boundary markers, and are mentioned in nearly 10% of the 658 Anglo-Saxon and Welsh charters examined. It may also have been used as a plough marker, something for the farmer to line up with when setting out to turn the soil. These little trees have been part of the landscape for a very long time indeed.

In its wild state, the crab apple has tiny yellow-green fruit and white blossom. Domesticated varieties can vary in colour from the crimson of the tree on Durham Road to the bright orange of the one in my garden, and the blossom can be every colour from pure white to darkest maroon.

Photo One by By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fruit of the wild crab apple (Photo One)

Why ‘crab apple’ though? I wondered if it was because the fruit was so lip-puckerlingly sour ( the genus name ‘Malus‘ means ‘evil), but most sources think it’s because the tree itself looks rather twisted and elderly even when relatively young (crab apples can live to 100 years), and also because the stems can develop spines. When we talk about someone being ‘crabby’  we mean  that they are irritable and quick to take offence, and I imagine that this is what’s intended by the use of the word ‘crab’ here. However, crab apples are wonderful trees for the small garden, with their blossom in spring and fruit in the winter. I do note, however, that it is one of the last types of fruit to go from my garden. Maybe even the thrushes find it a little harsh to stomach. However, it’s sourness was seen as a benefit by the Anglo-Saxons, who included it in the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ as ‘a cure for the bite of another poison’.

Photo Two - by Judith Wakelam at Mildenhall Air Force Base (

Blackbird feeding on crab apples at Mildenhall Air Force base in Norfolk, UK (Photo Two)

These days, crab apples either fall to the pavement and make a mess/feast for wasps, or they end up in crab apple jelly, which can be a most delightful pale pink colour. I always think that it looks better than it tastes, but maybe that’s my sweet tooth talking. Crab apples are a very useful source of pectin for jam making, too. The Woodland Trust have a collection of three recipes here, including the ubiquitous crab apple jelly, but also featuring crab apple liqueur, which makes my eyes light up somewhat. Then, there is a recipe for crab apples turned into toffee apples, which sounds like a way to surprise small children, and not in a pleasant way either.

Photo Three by

Crab apple toffee apples. I have my doubts, gentle readers…..(Photo Three)

In Shakespeare’s time crab apples were sometimes added to warmed ale or winter punches, hence this from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:


And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In the very likeness of a roasted crab

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob

Typical Puck. What a naughty boy he is.

There is little doubt that the crab apple was an important ancestor of the ‘real’ apple, and as we have seen it hybridizes with domestic apples quite happily. Crab apples are often planted among eating apple trees because their blossom attracts bees who will cross-pollinate the apples, and if there is a shortage of bees, the flowering branches from crab apples might be brought into an orchard to encourage the pollinators. Crab apples are also sometimes used as root stock for domestic varieties.

Apple pips will often grow into trees when they’re deposited in suitable soil by birds, and because they never ‘come true’ from seed these ‘wildings’ can give indications of genetic ancestors long-since extinct. To quote Richard Mabey again:

I know a green lane near Bovingdon in the Chilterns, not far from an area of one-time orchard land, in which there are three wilding trees, one with apples like miniature Cox’s Orange Pippins, another whose fruit has a bitter-sweet, almost effervescent taste, like sherbet, and a scent of quince, and a third whose long, pear-shaped apples have a warm smoky flavour behind the tartness, as if they had already been baked. On the shingle beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk there is a prostrate apple of unknown provenance which bears fully ripe fruit before the end of June’ (Flora Britannica pg 202)

What an extraordinary resource these wilding trees are. We are becoming more and more reliant on a tiny number of food plants, and, with the climate changing, it seems to me that we should be saving every variety that we can find, and diversifying, not narrowing. But yet again I digress. Back to the crab apple!

Photo Four by By Kilo22 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A flowering crabapple in Washington D.C. (Photo Four)

Crab apples are a popular food of many moths and butterflies, and you can find a complete list here. Here are a couple of the moths whose caterpillars have been found on crab apple, and what a varied and attractive bunch they are. They make me very happy to have such a useful tree in the garden.

Photo Five by By ©entomart, Attribution,

The brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) (Photo Five)

Photo Six by CC BY-SA 2.5,

Common emerald (Hemithea aestivaria) (Photo Six)

Photo Seven by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Cherry-bark tortrix (Enarmonia formosana) (Photo Seven)

Photo Eight by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Emperor moth (Pavonia pavonia) (Photo Eight)

Crab apples have a number of traditional and folkloric uses in the British Isles. They were made into a spiced drink at Lammastide (1st August), and young women used to lay out the fruit on a loft floor in the shape of their various boyfriends’ initials on 29th September each year. Those initials which were least nibbled by mice, kicked over by passing beetles or relatively undiminished by mildew were said to indicate the boy with the warmest feelings for the lady concerned. There is much room here for sabotage I’m sure, and also some scope for a comedic short story if anyone out there has the inclination.

For an even more entertaining evening, it is said that if you throw the seeds from a crab apple into a fire while intoning the name of your beloved, the seed will explode if his/her love is true. Just the thing for a winter’s evening!

I note that in the Bach Flower Remedies, crab apple is a cure for self-dislike, despondency, obsessions, fussiness, and anxiety.

The village of Egremont in Cumbria has, since 1267, held a crab apple fair, at which the fruit would be distributed to the peasants. No doubt they were overwhelmed with gratitude. These days, however, the fair is the site of the annual Gurning Competition, in which folk put their heads through a horse collar and see who can make the most alarming ‘funny face’.

Photo Nine by

The 2013 Gurning Championship winners, and what a fine selection they are (Photo Nine)

To start 2018 with a bang, click here for  a rather splendid poem by Vicki Feaver, called Crab Apple Jelly. This definitely makes me want to read more of her work. And here is a rather melancholy piece called ‘Crabapple Blossoms’ by Carl Sandburg (winner of no less than 3 Pulitzer prizes). It reminds me rather of the fading of blossom, and the passing of time, which is rather appropriate considering how quickly 2017 galloped past. Carpe diem, friends!

Crabapple Blossom by Carl Sandburg

SOMEBODY’S little girl-how easy to make a sob story over who she was once and who she is now.
Somebody’s little girl-she played once under a crab-apple tree in June and the blossoms fell on the dark hair.

It was somewhere on the Erie line and the town was Salamanca or Painted Post or Horse’s Head.
And out of her hair she shook the blossoms and went into the house and her mother washed her face and her mother had an ache in her heart at a rebel voice, ‘I don’t want to.’

Somebody’s little girl-forty little girls of somebodies splashed in red tights forming horseshoes, arches, pyramids-forty little show girls, ponies, squabs.
How easy a sob story over who she once was and who she is now-and how the crabapple blossoms fell on her dark hair in June.

Let the lights of Broadway spangle and splatter-and the taxis hustle the crowds away when the show is over and the street goes dark.
Let the girls wash off the paint and go for their midnight sandwiches-let ’em dream in the morning sun, late in the morning, long after the morning papers and the milk wagons-
Let ’em dream long as they want to … of June somewhere on the Erie line … and crabapple blossoms.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – by Judith Wakelam at Mildenhall Air Force Base (

Photo Three by

Photo Four by By Kilo22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Six by CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Seven by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Eight by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Nine by

Wednesday Weed – Rosemary

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

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Dear Readers, here in East Finchley Rosemary is an extremely popular choice for the front garden. It is deliciously pungent if brushed against, and the tiny, complex flowers delight the bees. On a warm summer day the scent of the Mediterranean wafts up in a fragrant cloud. But on a cold December morning, it reminds me that the name ‘Rosemary’ comes from the Greek words for ‘dew of the sea’. It is also associated with Christianity: there is a legend that when the Virgin Mary threw her cloak over a white-flowered rosemary bush to dry, the flowers took on the blue colour from her garment. It was henceforth known as ‘the rose of Mary’.

In the Middle Ages it was said that a thriving bush of rosemary outside the front door indicated that the woman of the house wore the trousers, to which I reply ‘and your problem is?’. However, many men with such a botanical indication of their status right outside their living room window would sneak out at dead of night and cut the roots of the plant. A comb made from rosemary, however, was said to cure baldness, so maybe it was sometimes allowed to stay.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) had this to say about the plant:

“As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.”

Rosemary is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and numbers basil, sage, oregano and mint among its siblings. They all  share the intensely aromatic oils that are such a boon in cookery, and which were probably developed to deter pesky insects – rosemary has been used as a way to protect clothes against moths, and was one of the ingredients of ‘four thieves vinegar’  which was said to prevent a person from catching the plague. As the plague was spread by fleas, there might have been a germ of truth in the idea, as with many folk remedies.

Rosemary is well adapted for a hot climate, with its needle-like, waxy leaves, which protect against water loss. It is known for its tendency to bloom out of season, and one of the bushes that I spotted last week was bursting with flowers.

Any Shakespeare readers will recall that Ophelia strews rosemary ‘for remembrance’ shortly before her watery demise. There is a long history of associating rosemary not only with remembrance, but also with memory: rosemary oil is said to be good for those struggling to memorise facts and figures, or whose memory is failing. The Guardian reported that sales of rosemary oil were rocketing amongst revising students. A packet of Maryland Cookies used to do the trick for me along with vats of black coffee, but hey.

Ophelia and Laertes by William Gorman (circa 1880). Note the sprig of Rosemary drooping from Ophelia’s hand (Public Domain)

Rosemary was also much associated with marriage during the Middle Ages, and both bride and bridegroom would have worn it on their wedding day. The bride would carry a sprig of rosemary from a bush grown in her parents’ garden, to remind her of the love and protection that had been afforded her there. A bridesmaid would plant a sprig of the same bush in the bride’s garden as a symbol of protection and in due course, a sprig from this would be passed on to the bride’s daughters. I love the idea of handing plants down from one generation to another. I have a sudden  vision of a garden filled with plants given to me by my friends and family, and the possibility of passing the plants on in my turn. That would be a real garden of remembrance every time I stepped out into it.

Rosemary is a most popular culinary herb, especially with roast meat, but it has also been cropping up in desserts recently. If you scroll down through this article, you’ll find apple cake with rosemary crumble, for example, which sounds extremely acceptable, especially as I haven’t had my lunch yet. There is also a rosemary and chocolate brownie and, hallelujah, a cocktail made from lemonade, bourbon and rosemary. Just as well that there’s so much of it here in East Finchley.

Photo One (Brownie) by Yuki Sugiura for the Guardian

Rosemary and Chocolate Brownie (Photo One)

If you still have any rosemary left after all that cooking, you might consider knocking up some Hungary Water, which was a mixture of fresh rosemary tops and wine, and was used by Queen Elizabeth of Poland (1305-1380) to restore her youth and vitality when she was in her seventies (a ripe old age in those days). It is also said to cure gout and ‘paralysis of the limbs’. It had a brief spell of popularity as a perfume too, and no doubt all those courtly ladies (and possibly gentlemen) had great fun dousing themselves in the stuff.

Queen Elizabeth of Poland and her sons (1380). She looks very sprightly, I must say. (Public Domain)

And to finish, a poem. Elaine Feinstein (born 1930) is one of our greatest living Jewish poets, and this particular poem resonates deeply. It reminds me of the increasing frailty of my Dad, who was such a strong, vigorous man in his heyday. He still has his moments now, so it doesn’t do to underestimate him, but there is a poignant sadness in this work that moves me. I am breaking my usual habit of not pasting the poem because I want you to see it, but you can buy more of Feinstein’s work here.

Rosemary in Provence

We stopped the Citroen at the turn of the lane,

because you wanted a sprig of blue rosemary

to take home, and your coat opened awkwardly

as you bent over. Any stranger would have seen

your frail shoulders, the illness

in your skin – our holiday on the Luberon

ending with salmonella –

but what hurt me, as you chose slowly,

was the delicacy of your gesture:

the curious child, loving blossom

and mosses, still eager

in your disguise as an old man.

Elaine Feinstein

Photo Credits

Photo One (Brownie) by Yuki Sugiura for the Guardian 





Christmas on the County Roads

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that Christmas has broken out all over the County Roads here in East Finchley, so, on a particularly damp and misty morning I went out for a walk to see what was going on. I am going to be away from home for Christmas for the first time since I moved here in 2010, and it feels a little strange: I haven’t put up the Christmas tree, the pink velvet reindeers are still in the box in the eaves, and several Father Christmases will be feeling very irritable if I don’t fish them out soon. But, somehow, I feel a need to let go of expectation and to simplify this year, and to that end I thought I’d enjoy what everyone else was doing rather than feel as if I had to do it myself.

The door wreathes, for example, are particularly splendid this year, and very varied. As with the Christmas trees, there are those who favour natural materials, and those who have an artificial one that lasts for many seasons.

  And then there are the decorations. I am very taken with the little glass creatures in the photo directly below.

But as I walked around, I quickly became aware that although much of nature is quiescent at this time of year, there is still a surprising amount going on. After all the snow I was surprised to see fresh spiders’ webs, bejewelled with mist.

And what is more festive than a shrub full of fruit?

The cotoneaster below was a mass of berries

The black fruits of ivy promise some respite for the thrushes if the weather turns cold again.

And I shall need a hand with this one, gardening friends. The fruit reminds me very much of spindle   but the leaves are different. Maybe it’s from the same family.

A relative of the spindle?

There is a strange beauty to the decay of plants. For example, I think I prefer the browning heads of the hydrangeas to the blooms in their fresher, more pristine state.

And in the insect-damaged leaves of mahonia and holly there is a flame of colour that the perfect ones lack. It reminds me that the beauty of a face that has been through trouble is often more profound than the picture-perfect features of someone who has not yet been tested by life.

And who should pop up when I was walking down Bedford Road but Bailey, the King of the Cats? He didn’t want to stop for a chat, but headed off down the road at a brisk trot, yowling all the way. He is a most determined puss cat.

To my surprise, some things are in flower, like the pink camellia and the clematis below. Although there are less blooms about at this time of year, the ones that there are seem all the more precious.

But what lifted my heart most today was not one of the more obvious things, but a tiny seedling. A few months ago, I captured a green oasis at the bottom of a wall along from Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were approximately ten species growing there, all ‘weeds’ to be sure, but tiny spiders were making their homes between the leaves, and there was even a caterpillar.

Then came the paving improvements, and, whilst the new paving slabs are delightfully even, there is not a blade of grass to be seen.

Until today.

I love that the natural world never gives up. Where there is a teaspoonful of soil, and a spot of rain, some plant will put down roots and throw up flowers. it gives me such hope to see that whatever we do, nature can circumvent us.

So, by the time this is published I’ll be heading off to Dorset for Christmas with Mum and Dad. It will be a different kind of celebration, but none the worst for that, and I’m actually rather looking forward to it. At least the parents will be snug and warm in their own home, and won’t have to worry about braving the Christmas traffic, or coping with the air quality in London. I wish all of you a peaceful and happy holiday, and hope that 2018 brings you everything that you long for most.





Wednesday Weed – Nordmann Fir

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

Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana)

Dear Readers, when you see the Christmas trees stacked up outside Tony’s Continental in East Finchley, you know that Christmas is well and truly on its way. Another indication is when you see Michael with an axe in his hand, ready to pare down the trunks and fit them into a Christmas tree holder. One conversation with a customer went like this:

Customer: ‘Careful with that axe, you’ll cut your leg off!’

Michael: ‘I’ve been doing this for forty years and I haven’t cut one off yet! But even if I did, I’ve got another one’.

Here is a photo of Michael at work. To be honest, it’s not his legs I’m worried about.

I am also much impressed by the Christmas tree wrapping contraption that is brought out every festive season. Just pop a tree into the metal tube, push it through and it comes out wrapped in a netting bag. It’s a kind of Christmas tree sausage machine.

60% of the Christmas trees that are sold in the UK are Nordmann firs, and I can see why – the tree has soft, child-friendly needles that don’t drop, and it is a good-value, long-lived tree. What it doesn’t have is any fragrance so you won’t get that delicious piney smell, but as this scent makes some people’s noses twitch, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Nordmann firs come originally from the mountains to the south and east of the Black Sea, and so are native to Turkey, Georgia, the Russian Caucasus and parts of Azerbaijan. They live in mountainous areas from 900-2200 metres and grow to a terrific height  – one tree in the Western Caucasus reserve has been reported to be 279 feet tall, the largest tree in Europe. They also live in regions which have a rainfall of over 1000 mm per year, which is a reminder to keep them well-watered while they’re in the house.

Photo One (Wild Nordmann Firs) by By Acidka on Flickr - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

‘Wild’ Nordmann Fir trees in Karachayevo-Cherkesiya, Caucasus (Photo One)

The trees at Tony’s are typically about six to seven feet high, and would be between eight and twelve years of age. The seed is normally taken from older trees, grown on in nurseries and then sold to Christmas tree farms when the saplings are three to four years old. Once harvested, they will have a brief life of a couple of weeks in the house, before being put outside to be recycled by the council. Here in Barnet, the trees are chipped and used as a weed suppressant on municipal beds, or on paths. The chippings can also be heat-treated and then used as a soil conditioner (in their native state, the needles produce a chemical which inhibits the growth of other plants, which is one reason for the almost sterile under canopy of fir plantations).

The debate about whether to have a live tree or a cut one, or an artificial tree, depends, as usual, on a variety of factors. A live tree in a pot, that can be used year after a year, is probably the most environmentally-friendly option, but the trees often don’t survive the sudden change in environment. A cut tree is the next best choice, but only if it’s recycled: if it ends up in landfill, it generates about 16kg carbon due to the methane released as it decomposes. ‘Real’ Christmas trees also provide a habitat for a variety of birds and insects as they grow, including goldcrests, firecrests and crested tits, although the serried ranks of fir trees, row on row, are much less biodiverse than mixed woodland.

Photo Two (Crested Tit) by By Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom (Crested Tit (Parus cristatus)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A crested tit (Parus cristatus) (Photo Two)

An artificial tree takes ten years of use to become carbon-neutral, due the the plastics and oils used in its creation. I have an artificial tree that I’ve been using for twenty-three years this year, and in typical Bugwoman style the only decorations allowed are ones that relate to animals. I shall have to post a photo once it’s up.

Another way of dealing with your Christmas tree once the festivities are over could be to eat it, but sadly not if you’ve opted for a Nordmann fir. In the article here the authors describe their attempts to turn their tree into a delicious feast.  The authors describe their Nordmann fir mayonnaise as

‘….the worst of all our experiments. It It seriously made us question our abilities and the whole concept!’

The tree was quickly replaced by the more fragrant blue spruce (Picea pungens).

Interestingly, the needles from Christmas trees of all kinds can be used in the manufacture of the anti-viral Tamiflu, which was in the news during recent worries about a bird flu pandemic. In Toronto in 2006, residents donated no less than half a million Christmas trees, and the needles were treated and powdered, ready to create up to a million Tamiflu tablets a day in the event of an outbreak. Let’s just hope that they’re never needed.

The Nordmann fir didn’t always have such a grasp on the UK Christmas tree market. When I was growing up, the favourite was the Norway spruce (Picea abies) which had little sharp pointed needles which seemed to drop off as soon as the tree came through the front door. I remember picking the needles out of the pads of our dog, Spock, who was the most accident-prone hound that I ever met. He once set fire to himself by leaning up against the electric bar heater, and was only rescued when someone caught a whiff of burning fur.

Christmas seems to be the time of the year when, in the UK at least, people yearn to bring plants into the house. For a month or so, our homes are staggering under the weight of poinsettias and amaryllises, Christmas cacti and hyacinth bulbs, holly wreaths and bunches of mistletoe, and that’s even before the tree arrives. Although the origins of the Christmas tree itself are said to be from Germany in the 16th Century, it feels as if something much older is going on, and indeed evergreen branches were brought into the house for centuries before the tree itself made an appearance. It seems to me that something very profound is going on: a need to remind ourselves that the darkness of winter is not forever, and that under the soil, life is still stirring. Plus there is something about a fir tree that reminds us of the resilience needed to survive outside in the harshest of weathers. I am curious about the choice of tree in other countries that celebrate Christmas. What’s the tree of choice in Australia, for example, or in California? Do tell, I am intrigued.

As you know, dear friends, I love to close these pieces with a poem.  I find that I am ambivalent about the folksy poetry of Robert Frost, although I love the one about riding through the woods with ‘promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep’ and I can even tolerate ‘The Road Less Travelled’. And so, here is something thought-provoking from the poet, which speaks of town and country, rich and poor, and the worth that we put on living things.

Christmas Trees

By Robert Frost
(A Christmas Circular Letter)
The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”
                                                     “You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”
He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”
Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.
Photo Credits
Photo One (Wild Nordmann Firs) by By Acidka on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,
Photo Two (Crested Tit) by By Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom (Crested Tit (Parus cristatus)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A Surprise

Dear Readers, we were expecting snow in the UK last weekend, but not in London, so it was a bit of a surprise to be woken by the strange light that snow produces seeping through the curtains. It’s been seven years since the last substantial fall, and so there were little children  who had never seen it before. But we woke up early, and everything was hushed.

My first thought was ‘the birds!’ and so we squeaked through the fresh snow to fill up the seed feeders and the suet feeders and the bird table. By the time we went out for a walk to get breakfast, a few children were already running about, their cheeks pinched pink from the cold. They were scraping the snow from the cars to make snowballs, but this year’s fashion seems to be for plastic sledges. A well-wrapped toddler sat like a little princeling surveying his kingdom while his father dragged him along the road.

On East Finchley High Street there were no buses, and just an occasional car travelling slowly and carefully. Michael at Tony’s Continental (the best greengrocer in London in my opinion) was relating how the North Circular Road had come to a complete standstill. An elderly lady was standing at the bus stop in conversation with a woman who was explaining that the bus garages had closed, and offering to walk her home if she wanted.

The red-hot pokers from the Wednesday Weed were wearing little hats of snow.

The various berries looked particularly festive.

I love the way the snow gathers on the undulations in the bark of the plane trees.

And here is a particularly fine festive doorway.

Back in East Finchley after eating my blueberry pancakes and drinking several Flat Whites, I noticed that the Bald-Faced Stag statue above the eponymous pub had turned from gold to white.

On the corner outside Kentucky Fried Chicken there was a single, very friendly pied wagtail. He or she has been there for several days now, and I suspect is living on a diet of discarded chips. Lots of birds hang out here: the crows wait around for discarded bones, the pigeons throw the debris about, and the foxes crunch up anything that’s left. I’m tempted to throw some food down for the wagtail but I suspect everyone else would get there first.

Pied wagtail

Back in the garden, every scrap of food had gone, so out I went again. Although the weather is unkind to animals, it does bring some unexpected visitors, and it also increases their tolerance of both humans and one another.

A small flock of goldfinches have been regular visitors for weeks, so no surprises here.


But I was delighted to see a family of siskins.In the south-east we only see these birds in the winter, but they are year-round residents in the rest of the country. They are much smaller than the other finches, and flash citrus yellow against the snow.

And then some real excitement – a new species for the garden, a brambling (Fringilla montifringilla), another winter visitor and normally a bird of beech woodland. It is said to be ‘orange-washed’, and this is what helped me to see that this wasn’t ‘just’ another chaffinch. Sadly, she only stayed for a few brief minutes and then headed off. These are shy birds, and the rough-and-tumble of the garden can be a bit much for them.

A brambling (to the left of the picture)

There was a fine collection of birds pecking up the mealworms and suet that we’d scattered – not all birds are comfortable on feeders. The robins, for one, don’t seem to like them, although they are very happy on the bird table.

Robin and Chaffinch

Chaffinch (right) and two siskins.

I should have guessed that it would’t take long for the big guns to move in. I don’t mind, though. These creatures need to eat too. And then I tried to ring Mum and Dad, and got no answer from their telephone. What could have happened? Had it snowed so much in Dorset that the lines were down? Why couldn’t I reach Dad on his mobile? I had a spell of serious catastrophising. Regular readers will know that my parents are not very well, and both are currently recovering (very slowly) from a horrible chest infection.

And then, of course, it turned out that Dad had just knocked the phone off the hook,  and that they were well, without a single flake of snow, and my heart went back to its normal tempo.

I am sure that anyone who has been a carer, or who has had a family member who isn’t well, will recognise this syndrome – a kind of hypervigilance, an expectation that every phone call will require a springing into action. It takes some time to come down from the adrenaline rush, and to accept that all those little internal emergency workers can stand down. But having a garden full of hungry mouths to feed certainly helps take the mind off such things, because this is something that I can do, a way in which I can help. In a world of uncontrollable happenings, I can at least top up the feeders and make sure that there’s fresh water. I am repaid by beauty and interest and a sense of connection with the animal members of the local community.

In other news, Mum and Dad seem to like their new carers, which is a great relief. And the preparations for the Great Western Christmas Migration are more or less in place. This time next week we will (hopefully) be in Dorset, doing the final preparations for 25th December. And while I was sorting out the Tesco food delivery for the parents for next week, I glanced up and saw this.

And then, a few moments later, this.

I love the florid sunsets of winter, their drama and their fleetingness. In five minutes, the light show was gone, and darkness overwhelmed the colours. But for a few moments, it was glorious, and I felt privileged to have been lucky enough to see it. I wish for quiet moments of witness for all of us in the busyness of the next few weeks, moments when we can take a breath and remember what really matters: love, truth, and everyday beauty,