Category Archives: London Plants

Autumn in Cherry Tree Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday Weed – Gaura

Gaura lindheimeri with Verbena bonariensis

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

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

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

Photo One from photo by Jason Ingram

Hauser and Wirth gallery meadow (Photo One)

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

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

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

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

‘Whirling butterflies’ (Photo Two)

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

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

Siskiyou Pink (Photo Two)

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

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

Ferdinand LIndheimer

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

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

Tardy Bugs

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

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

Photo Credits

Photo One from photo by Jason Ingram

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

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





Wednesday Weed – Old Man’s Beard

Old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba)

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

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

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

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

Old man’s beard flowers (Photo One)

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

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

Small emerald (Hemistola chrysoprasaria) (Photo Two)

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

Small waved umber (Horisme vitalbata) (Photo Three)

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

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

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

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

Photo Five from

Frittata di vitalbine (Photo Five)

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

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

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

The Bittersweet Gourmet website describes how

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

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

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

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

The Sign-Post

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


Photo Credits

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

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

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

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

Photo Five from

Coming Home at Last

Dear Readers, it’s some indication of how the summer has passed that I have not created a post about East Finchley since June. But this morning was so beautiful that I had to go out with the camera for a stroll around the County Roads. I have been so stressed that I have become completely unmoored, and the cure is to walk, slowly, to pay attention, to breathe and to notice. What better place to start than with the plane trees on the High Street, that seem to be holding the sun in their branches? They are the last species around here to come into leaf, and the last to lose those leaves.

The Bald-Faced Stag gazes towards Cherry Tree Wood, as usual.

There are a lot of tropical Fatsia plants in some of the south-facing front gardens on Lincoln Road. The buds look like little green artichokes, bursting into waxy white flowers.

There are lots of members of the daisy family still coming into flower, loosening those tight-fisted buds one petal at a time.

Michaelmas daisies are everywhere, I love the way that the stamens go from yellow to purple as the flower ages.

Michaelmas daisies

A pumpkin left over from Wednesday’s Trick or Treating gives me the side-eye…

And the autumn berries and hips and fruit are set off by the blue sky.

Each burst of colour feels like a small electric shock. I ask myself where the summer went? Since July every waking moment has been spent organising, planning and worrying about my parents. Now that they are in the nursing home I feel redundant, without purpose. This will pass, I know, but at the moment I feel as if all the grief that has been stored up over the warmer months is exposed by the extravagance of autumn. It all feels just a little too much, beautiful as it is.

I spent a few days with Mum and Dad in the nursing home last week. I had a chance to have a good talk with Mum and to take her through what had happened, step by step. She seemed to understand, finally, that we were unable to look after her at home anymore, and that we wanted to carry out her wishes to be with Dad, and to be close to the friends and neighbours  that she loves. She hasn’t mentioned going home since, though I am not optimistic enough to assume that this will be the end of the conversation. But things look better than they did last week, and that is a bonus.

And now, I have to work out what I want to do when I grow up. As I am nearly sixty, I’d better get a move on. And in the meantime, I am walking the streets with my camera, making friends with the local cats.

There is one garden that I really love. It is a tiny space but absolutely full of nicotiana, borage, and other pollinator-friendly plants. There are a few honeybees even on this chilly day – one of the benefits of a south-facing plot is that it warms up the insects and helps the nectar flow. As I watch, I hear a low-pitched humming, and a queen bumblebee as big as the first joint on my thumb appears. Maybe the warmth of the day has roused her from her hibernation, and she needs a snack. The borage shudders and bows under her weight.

I float along to the High Street again. For a whole hour I haven’t been worrying about whether the nursing home are taking dad’s slight chest infection seriously, or what they will do about the fact that he’s now more or less nocturnal and keeps waking mum up. I realise that though I still have a role to play, the day to day care is not something that I need to meddle in. The home is happy for me to phone whenever I want, but I do think that after being so involved for such a long time, I need to step back from the small stuff. The trouble is, it’s a reflex, and it gave my life purpose.

What do I do now, with my one wild and precious life?

Well, one thing seems to be that I take photos of bollards that have been knocked over. The one on Leicester Road is no sooner concreted into verticality than it’s prone again. This cycle must have been repeated a dozen times since we moved to East Finchley in 2010. And there’s a bollard on the High Street that is similarly afflicted. I could extract some cheesy metaphor about persistence and resilience, but actually it seems a bit Sisyphean, a never-ending task that seems to have no more meaning than a grudge match between bad drivers and some long-suffering council workers.

On Bedford Road there is a rather beautiful tree. It is poised like a heron about to take off, one branch flung back and arching over a garage, the other leaning over the pavement and almost kissing the tops of the cars. What a deeply inconvenient being it is, no doubt blocking out the sun from the front windows and depositing leaves in great russet piles. And yet, it is obviously loved, and encouraged, and valued. There is room on these streets for the strange, the unusual, the awkward. I feel at home here. One day it will be my turn, too, to leave. I hope that I will have planned ahead so that the transition will feel like one that was a choice, rather than imposed on me. And in the meantime I hope to make the most of the harvest, and of the glory that it brings.





Wednesday Weed – Shoofly Plant

Shoofly plant (Nicandra physalodes)

Dear Readers, I am always delighted to come across a weed that I’ve never seen before, and even more delighted when it’s in the company of a friend who actually knows what it was. Thus it was that I found this beauty lurking on Bedford Road in East Finchley. On first glance at the flowers, I thought that it was a species geranium such as ‘Rosanne’, but the leaves looked more like those of a potato or tomato. My friend knew what it was because she had planted some in her garden and, plants being what they are, this one had jumped over the fence and spread down the road.

Known as the Shoofly plant, because of the belief that it will keep all kinds of flying insects away, this plant is also known as Apple of Peru. It is thought to have come from Peru originally, but these days has set up home across the globe – it is a popular ingredient in wild bird food, and so it can pop up more or less anywhere. It favours tropical and sub-tropical climates but, as this one shows, it can be equally happy in a damp North London street. In the Caribbean it is planted around windows and doors to deter biting flies. It grows into a hefty annual, with the lilac-blue flowers being replaced by attractive seed-capsules.

The fruits are interesting – they resemble Cape gooseberry, or physalis, but actually shoofly plant is a member of the nightshade family, and the fruits, and indeed the whole plant, are generally thought to be toxic. In Australia there has been at least one recorded case of sheep dying as a result of feasting on shoofly plant, and in many countries the plant is used as an insecticide. In Tanzania a decoction of the plant has been used to treat headlice, in the southern states of the USA it has been mixed into milk as a poisonous bait for house flies and blow flies, and it has also been used as a treatment for worms and to kill the amoeba that causes dysentery. These insecticidal properties come from a group of chemicals known as nicandrenones, which were finally synthesised for commercial use in 2000.

This has not stopped people also eating  the leaves as a pot herb, and using the seeds and leaves medicinally for everything from fever and indigestion to constipation. The plant is naturalised in many countries, and has been taken into medicine cabinets everywhere from the Himalayas to Brazil and Madagascar.

Shoofly plant, like other members of the nightshade family, is also said to be mildly psychoactive and to cause dilation of the pupil ( which is known as mydriasis – a new word!) As you might remember, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) was once used in eyedrops by high-ranking Italian women to produce just this effect -it was thought that those big, dark eyes were particularly sexually attractive.  Shoofly plant has also been used to produce this effect, with little regard for the fact that prolonged use can produce blindness.

Shoofly plant is the only species in its genus, Nicandra. Nicandra is thought to have come from the Greek poet Nicander of Colophon, who lived in the 2nd Century BCE and who wrote two surviving poems: one, Theriaca, is about venomous animals and their poisons, and the other, Alexipharmaca, is about other toxins, including those of plants. He was praised by such luminaries as Cicero, and was quoted by Pliny and other writers. Here is an illustration from the Theriaca, featuring a youth who is strolling through the countryside and considering whether to whack something with his hockey stick. I note that in a study of the Theriaca, F. Overduin describes the author as having a

‘predilection for horror, voyeuristic sensationalism, and gory details’

If only I could find a translation.

Photo One by By Anonymous -, Public Domain,

Nicander of Colophone (Photo One)

Now, try as I might I can find any poetry that refers to the shoofly plant, under this name or any of its other names. However, I have found the rather delightful shoofly pie, which fortunately contains neither Nicandra physalodes or dead insects, but instead contains molasses. It originated in the 1880’s in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, who called it Melassich Riwwelboi or Melassichriwwelkuche (Molasses Crumb Cake) and ate it with strong black coffee for breakfast. It contains no eggs, which leads historians to believe that it was baked in the winter when the hens weren’t laying, but when molasses would be available, and the pie crust meant that it was easier to eat ‘on the run’. I can only imagine that the name arose because of the resemblance between the black molasses and a swarm of flies. It seems that the bakers of 1880’s Pennsylvania had a sense of humour that Nicander of Colophon may well have appreciated!

Photo Two by By Syounan Taji - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Shoofly Pie (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Anonymous –, Public Domain,

Photo Two by By Syounan Taji – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Bugwoman on Location – Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park

Dear Readers, hidden away between the Thames Flood Barrier and the United Emirates Cable Car across the Thames is the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, 2 hectares of reedbeds and streams and wetland. You exit North Greenwich station and head along the river, passing all the new apartment complexes. If you’re lucky, you might catch the eye of a very hungry woodpigeon, getting tucked into the rowan berries.

At this time of year, I have to work hard to find beauty on my walks. It’s that in-between time of year – the summer migrants have left, but most of the winter ones haven’t arrived. Most of the trees and plants look a little threadbare and between seasons. But the surrounding buildings are bright and colourful, and the path into the alder scrub looks very inviting. The metallic ‘chink’ calls of goldfinches are everywhere.

On the main pond there are the usual coots dabbling for water plants and bustling about. A sleepy duck of indeterminate parentage is resting on one of the wooden islands.

To my delight there are tresses of traveller’s joy, the wild clematis, tumbling through the shrubs.

There are two main paths, a boardwalk which goes around the edge of the site and which is open 24 hours a day, and an inner path which is only accessible when the visitor centre is open. As I head for the inner path, I get talking to a man with binoculars who tells me that a jack snipe has often been spotted in the reeds, but not today. Similarly there are sometimes herons, but the only one I see today is painted on the side of the building.

I look a little closer. There are some very cheeky magpies, one of whom partly demolished a garden trellis outside one of the flats before taking off into the trees.

The reeds remind me a little of bird of paradise flowers.

And there is a guelder rose, dripping with rain.

What a melancholy little walk this was! I have tried to raise my spirits, and as usual nature has helped, but I have a lot on my mind. As I mentioned last week, Mum and Dad are now in the nursing home, but Mum hates it with an absolute passion. She wants to go home so much that earlier this week she dialled 999 to get the police to come and liberate her. I love her so much for her feistiness and ingenuity, but we are in a bit of a bind. The care that we would need to look after her at home just isn’t available, and the nursing home, Mum and Dad’s GP and the District Nurse all think that Mum, at least, needs residential care. So, there we are. I will go to Dorset next week to talk to everyone involved and see what can be done to make Mum happier. Wish me luck!

On the way home, I notice some people climbing over the Millenium Dome. It doesn’t look too hard from here, but I bet it’s not so much fun actually doing it, especially on a breezy day like today. I guess we all have our mountains to climb….


Wednesday Weed – Monkey Puzzle Tree

Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana)

Dear Readers, the monkey puzzle tree is a true ‘living fossil’, and it is believed that the long necks of some dinosaurs may have evolved to reach up into these trees. There was originally a global distribution of these plants, and today they are found in South America (the monkey puzzle species comes from the Andes and is the Chilean National Plant), New Caledonia, Australia and New Guinea, implying that they existed when there were no separate continents, just the massive landmass of Gondwana land. Since then they have become rare due to deforestation and climate change, and some of the most magnificent specimens can be found in the estates and stately homes of the UK, where they have been grown since the 1850’s. As the tree can live for up to a thousand years there are many that will be around for a good while yet.

The tree in the photo grows in Fortis Green, an area between Muswell Hill and East Finchley. I love the way that it is snuggled around the house, and I wonder if the owners know that it can grow (eventually) to a 130 feet tall? The scaly, almost reptilian leaves can live for up to 24 years and eventually cover the entire stem. This one is also full of cones at the moment. Most trees either bear male or female cones, but the occasional tree will have both, or will change from one sex to another. This tree is a female, with the typical round cones that can hold up to 200 seeds. The male cones dangle and provide the pollen – the plant is wind-pollinated.

Those seeds are highly edible, and were an important food source for several indigenous tribes in South America, especially the Araucanians for whom the species is named. Because the cones drop to the ground, the seeds are easily harvested, although the tree doesn’t produce them until it is 30-40 years old.The seeds are known as piñones, and are used in many recipes: you can find piñones soup and croquets here, along with an interesting piece on the relationship between the Mapuche people and the monkey puzzle here.

If not eaten by people, the seeds are carried away by the long-haired grass mouse (Akodon longipilis) and buried – as is often the case, the mouse doesn’t remember where every cache is hidden, and so new trees soon grow up. Rodents and birds are often creators of forests.

Photo One by By Daderot - Own work, CC0,

Long-haired grass mouse (Akodon longipilis) in the Genoan Museum of Natural History (Photo One)

The town of Whitby in Yorkshire was, from Roman times, a source of jet, much used in jewellery. Whitby jet dates back to Jurassic times (approximately 182 million years ago), and is the fossilised remains of a species very similar to the monkey puzzle tree. The material was probably collected from the beach at Whitby and transferred to York to be made into objects such as the jet cameo below. The Romans believed that the material had magical properties: Pliny the Elder suggest that:

the kindling of jet drives off snakes and relieves suffocation of the uterus. Its fumes detect attempts to simulate a disabling illness or a state of virginity.

For the Victorians it was a popular choice for mourning jewellery, with Queen Victoria wearing it after the death of Prince Albert.

Photo Two by By Photographed by: York Museums Trust Staff - This file originated on the York Museums Trust Online Collection. YMT hosted a GLAMwiki partnership in 2013/14.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 4.0,

Roman Medusa pendant made from Whitby Jet (Photo Two)

Incidentally, ‘jet-black’ used to mean the blackest black possible, until modern technology came along and produced ‘Vantablack’, a pigment that absorbs 99.6% of all the light that falls on it, and which was promptly snapped up by the artist Anish Kapoor, who owns exclusive rights to the material. This caused absolute uproar in the artistic community – who wouldn’t want to use a pigment that has been described as ‘the blackest material in the universe, after a black hole’?

Photo Three from

Vantablack (Photo Three)

But as usual I digress.

For a non-native tree, the monkey puzzle has attracted a considerable amount of folklore, much of it conflicting. In the UK, children were told to be quiet on passing the tree if they didn’t want to grow a monkey’s tail (and of course some children took to yelling in order to acquire such an appendage). Another superstition was that the devil sat in the tree, and you need to sneak past to avoid attracting his attention. On the other hand, a Cambridgeshire belief has it that monkey puzzles were planted on the edge of graveyards because they  were difficult for the devil to climb, and so he couldn’t gain a vantage point from which to watch burials.

And now to another Araucaria. This was the pen name of the Reverend John Graham who compiled The Guardian cryptic crossword for more than 50 years, and very convoluted it was too. I personally find the quick crossword is about my limit (and Graham also compiled this for many years), but I know lots of people who enjoy the challenge of the wordplay of the cryptic variety.

Graham was an idiosyncratic but much-loved crossword setter, and loved a themed crossword – his choices had varied from crosswords on the theme of anti-apartheid heroes to Dickens novels.  When he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in December 2012, he set his whole crossword around the theme: when solved, it revealed that Araucaria had cancer of the oesophagus, which was treated with palliative care.

It seems to me that we underrate the pleasure derived from a good puzzle. Trying to solve the Quick Crossword in the Guardian has provided me with twenty minutes away from my trials and tribulations for more than twenty years. Bravo Reverend John Graham, for bringing so much happiness and head-scratching to crossword enthusiasts for half a century.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Daderot – Own work, CC0,

Photo Two by By Photographed by: York Museums Trust Staff – This file originated on the York Museums Trust Online Collection. YMT hosted a GLAMwiki partnership in 2013/14.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 4.0,

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