Category Archives: London Plants

The Street Trees of Archway Part Two

Dear Readers, when I left you last week I had reached the highest point of the North London street tree walk from Paul Wood’s new book ‘London Street Trees: A Guide to the Urban Forest‘. As I walked along Cheverton Road I was struck by the fact that there were no street trees on this stretch of road at all. How bare and exposed it felt! But a little further down, the trees started again, and among them was a whitebeam. I have a great affection for these trees, as I have one in my own garden and value its generous shade. I had never noticed before how twisted the trunks often are, as if the tree had followed the sun in tiny circles when it was young and had not managed to untangle itself.

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

A typical twisted whitebeam trunk

There was some building work going on on the other side of the road, and, when one of the builders saw the camera, he danced across the road like an escapee from ‘Fame’. Unfortunately I failed to capture his moves on my camera, and when asked to repeat them he became as shy as a toddler hiding behind his mum. One has to be ready to take a picture at all times.

The view from the other end of Cheverton Road is pretty impressive as well.

However, my path led me away from the twinkling roofs of Canary Wharf, and towards one of London’s street tree ‘hotspots’, Dresden Road.

There were some very fine trees, including this broad-leaved cockspur thorn (Crataegus x persimilis ‘Prunifolia). This is a type of hawthorn, one of my very favourite trees, both for its wildlife value and for the way that it heralds the start of summer. I love the pink pollen.

Not far from the tree there was a very fine cat. He didn’t want to talk at all but if he had I think that his utterance might not have been very polite.

There was beautiful bark on this Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’). It reminded me of the curls from a pencil sharpener.

But what is this fine tree, positively abuzz with bees? My guide tells me that it’s called Bragania or Erect Crab Apple, and that it’s from the Levant, Anatolia, Thrace, and an arc of the higher altitudes through Israel, Lebanon, Syria and western Turkey with a few isolated pockets in Europe. On Mount Lebanon it grows at altitudes of more than 1000 metres. In the Evros Mountains of Greece it was traditionally safeguarded by local communities for its fruit, but may be forced out when the land comes under pressure. How wonderful to see it as part of the international woodland along Dresden Road (which also includes crepe myrtle from the southern USA, a hankerchief tree from China and a Judas tree from the Eastern Mediterranean). The flowers of Bragania remind me a little of rock roses, and several of the trees were in full flower when I walked past last week.

And here is a much more friendly cat. So friendly, in fact, that I had to make a run for it to prevent being followed home. Sorry, puss cat…

I have already remarked on the extraordinary variety of trees in Dresden Road. The next few roads, however, show how a planting of a single type of tree can affect the look and feel of the street.

Lime trees on Gladsmuir Road

The vast majority of the trees on Gladsmuir Road are common limes (Tilia x europea), and how cool they made it seemed. These trees can live in excess of three hundred years, and were the preferred urban planting prior to the London plane, not just in the UK but also in Europe – think of the Unter den Linden in Berlin. The lush vegetation is almost tropical at this time of year, though I wonder how the local car owners like it – the tree is notorious for supporting a fine harvest of aphids, who make a habit of dropping honeydew on anything parked below. I love the flowers, and the scent, but the pollen is one of the worst offenders for hayfever sufferers. What a lovely hiding spot for small birds, however, and for the many insects that I’m sure will enjoy the leaves.

Then it’s a quick trip across the Archway Road (with a brief glance back at The Shard) and into Despard Road, which is also mostly planted with a single tree species, the white-berried rowan(Sorbus aucuparia).

This is a tree with airy, ethereal foliage, and fluffy, short-lived flowers. The tree itself is also short-lived, and is usually on its last roots after 25 years. Wood sees it as a safe, but uninspired choice, although no doubt the berries will be much appreciated later in the year.

And then, finally, to Magdala Avenue, the home of the Whittington Hospital. You may remember that I had cause to spend several painful weeks visiting my mum here in 2015/16, and so it was with trepidation that I retraced my steps. The flowers on the corner are doing very well, while some of the other beds seem to have dried out and reverted to the usual sowthistles and dandelions (not that there’s anything wrong with them, of course!)

But what I’d come to see was right opposite the main entrance. I hadn’t noticed it during those difficult former visits, though I wish I had. This is the champion Chinese Lacebark Elm in the whole of the UK, the tallest one of all. It looks rather delicate for all its height, especially when a police car with its lights flashing is parked just out of the photograph. How many human dramas has this tree witnessed, I wonder: people bringing home their babies, people who have just said goodbye to their loved ones, people who have received a hopeful diagnosis or crushing bad news. People, like me, laden down with bags and paraphernalia as they ease their mothers or fathers into the taxi which will take their frail but grateful bodies home. All this has swirled around this tree and yet there it stands, unmoved. I find solace in the timescale of great trees, their long slow lives, their deep roots and their seasonal cycles. It reminds me that, compared to some of these great organisms, we are as ephemeral as mayflies.

Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

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Wednesday Weed – Laburnum

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…..

Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

Dear Readers, following last week’s investigation of one of the most delicious of plants, I am turning my attention to laburnum (sometimes known as golden chain) which has a reputation as one of the most poisonous. This small tree originally came from southern and central Europe, but was introduced to the UK by 1596. This particular tree was found in the scrubby woodland between the builders’ merchant and Highgate Wood, where it seemed to be doing very well.

Laburnum seeds

Firstly, let’s talk about that dangerous reputation. All parts of the laburnum contain a poisonous alkaloid called cystisine, which is dangerous to humans, horses and cattle. The tree belongs to the Fabaceae, or pea family, and many of the incidents of poisoning occur when children mistake the fresh seedpods for peas. However, on The Poison Garden website, the author can find no accounts of child fatalities from ingesting the seeds during the last century. A 1979 study found 3000 hospital admissions, but this was an estimate extrapolated from cases in the north west of the UK, and the author thought that many of the admissions were because the plant was thought to be dangerous, rather than because of symptoms. There are many cases of children eating the plant, but it seems that generally they recover without medical intervention. One documented fatality, in 2009, involved a 20 year-old man who drank tea made with laburnum leaves and died as a result of cytisine poisoning. However, as John Robertson points out, this rather beautiful tree has suffered out of all proportion to documented cases of poisoning, with parents and grandparents cutting down laburnum trees in their gardens and ignoring much more dangerous plants.

It should be noted that hares and rabbits reputedly find the bark to be a delicacy.

The wood of laburnum has been used for making musical instruments and furniture, and was once used for making bows. The wood from old laburnum trees was known as ‘false ebony’ because it was so dark. These days, it is sometimes used to make garden furniture and barrel hoops. Below, however, is a rather more interesting use of laburnum wood: two spray cans, presumably for creating a higher class of graffiti. The grain of the wood is very beautiful. However, do not use the wood for scratching posts for your cats, as the filings may be ingested during grooming, with unfortunate results, and there is some evidence that exposure to the sawdust can cause ‘constitutional symptoms’ (feeling generally under the weather).

https://www.flickr.com/photos/observatoryleak/7656772460

Two spray cans made from laburnum wood (Photo One – see credit below)

There are Laburnum Avenues and Laburnum Roads all over the western world, and indeed even some Laburnum Medical Centres, and in spite of its poisonous nature, it has been used in medications for asthma and whooping cough. Cytisine is also the active ingredient in a smoking cessation drug called Tabex, developed in Bulgaria, and found to be three times more effective than a placebo in helping people to give up. The website for the drug emphasises that cytisine is very close, structurally, to nicotine, but is much weaker, and cites this as the reason for its ‘success’. However, as John Robertson points out on The Poison Garden, this still means that only 31 out of the 370 trial subjects managed to give up, so maybe the best thing to do is not to start smoking in the first place (if you have a Tardis so you can go back in time and knock that Woodbine out of your own mouth).

Dreaming of a laburnum in bloom is said to mean that adversity can be overcome with intelligent effort (if you can muster up such a thing), and in the language of flowers it means forgotten,  pensive beauty. It is the birthday flower for 8th January, though I have no idea how someone decides these things, as any self-respecting laburnum would be sound asleep at this point of the year.

The tree is said to be the influence for Laurelin, the golden tree of J.R.R. Tolkein’s late-published work ‘The Silmarillion’. Although I have read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I would direct the eager reader to the much less read Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, which I personally much preferred. This has nothing at all to do with laburnum, and everything to do with my wanting to suggest an interesting read for those of you inclined towards Gothic fantasy (which I realise may be a small subset of my readership) .

For all its beauty the laburnum is a little tree, on a domestic scale, one that fits into many back gardens. I rather like this poem by Thomas Hood (1799-1845), sentimental as it is: ‘my spirit flew in feathers then’ is a lovely line, and there is, of course, a laburnum.

I Remember, I Remember

I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
 
I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The vi’lets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,—
The tree is living yet!
 
I remember, I remember,
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!
 
I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One (Laburnum spray cans)  – https://www.flickr.com/photos/observatoryleak/7656772460

All blog content free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

The Street Trees of Archway Part One

Japanese Pagoda Trees (Styphnolobium japonicum) outside Archway Station

Dear Readers, we are surrounded by street trees but they go largely unnoticed, flowering and fruiting and developing autumn foliage without so much as a glance from us as we hurry past. Yet our built environment would be so much poorer without their shade and freshness, and so would our wildlife. I was very excited to find that, in Paul Wood’s new book ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, there are a number of walks to follow. One of them is in Archway, just a mile or so down the road from East Finchley. And so, on a day of volatile weather, I took myself down the hill to explore this familiar place with a new focus.

The area outside the station is newly pedestrianised, and there are a variety of young trees, including some Japanese Pagoda trees. Wood points out that these are easily identified by the green bark on the new growth.

Note the green bark on some of the twigs

This tree is a member of the pea family, and, when it’s all grown up, it may have racemes of white flowers. I say ‘may’ because you can wait 30 years for a tree to flower. In the meantime, it has soft, feathery foliage and an elegant, graceful habit. The tree is Chinese rather than Japanese, and in Chinese legend it is believed to attract demons. Let’s hope that this isn’t the case, as the area around the station attracts many lost souls as it is.

By Penarc - naturalezaysenderos.com - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sophora_japonica_(1).jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44138116

The flowers of the Japanese Pagoda Tree (in case you can’t wait for thirty years to see them) (Photo One – see credit below)

In fact, the space around Archway has been somewhat ‘tarted up’ over the past year. All the bus stops have moved, a source of considerable irritation to folk like me who haven’t worked out where the 143 goes from. Also, a cycle lane runs right across the middle of the pedestrianised area, so we will see how that works out.

Newly modernised blocks around Archway (pedestrianised area to the bottom left)

Japanese Pagoda Tree. Is the cage to keep the demons in, or out?

Following the route in the book, I head along Junction Road. Here, I see a splendid example of all the things that street trees have to put up with.

A pit a metre deep has been dug around this tree, and this is currently full of bits of yellow plastic drain pipe, drinks cartons and cigarette ends. No one was working there when I visited, so I will be interested to see how long the poor tree remains with some of its roots exposed. Plus, there is a lot of traffic here, so the plant also has to contend with a lot of pollution. No wonder London Planes are the trees of choice for so many of London’s big roads, what with their resilience and the way that they regularly shed their bark, along with any unpleasant chemicals.

I turn left onto St John’s Grove and there, towards the junction with Pemberton Road, I see two Dawn Redwoods (Metasequioa glyptostroboides).

I must have walked past these trees on my way to the Cat Protection shelter on Junction Road hundreds of times when I was a fosterer, and yet not noticed them. Dawn Redwoods come from a single Chinese forest, where there are less than 5000 individual trees left, and they were only discovered by scientists back in 1946. In its native Lichuan the plant is known as the Water Fir.  It is related to the Giant Redwoods, and though not quite as much of a goliath as these trees it can still grow to 200 feet. It is unusual in being deciduous, and has a light, delicate appearance. It came as a surprise to me to see a tree that is classified as Endangered in the wild is doing well just off the Holloway Road, but then life is full of surprises.

Foliage of the Dawn Redwood

Looking back down Pemberton Road, I see that the council tree surgeons have been hard at work.

The pollarded plane trees always look to me as if they are raising their fists to the sky in fury. They appear to be almost indestructible, however.

Pollarded tree coming into leaf

Paul Wood explains that the main reason that trees are pollarded is prevent the tree from becoming too large. A big tree is a thirsty tree, and it may drink up all the water in the soil. This is known to lead to subsidence, a particular problem, I imagine, in the hilly environs of Islington. If the trees are pollarded every three years, then a court will most likely throw out any claims by a householder, on the basis that the tree always takes the same amount of water. At any rate, although the pollarding looks ugly, it seems to only encourage the trees (at least if the behaviour of my whitebeam following its pruning eighteen months ago is anything to go by – every time it’s cut back, it grows through more vigorously).

Onwards! I cross Holloway Road, and head along St John’s Villas, the scene of much tree-related drama a few years ago.

Sand Pear trees (Pyrus pyrifolia)

There are seven Sand Pear trees in this street, an unusual choice of fruit tree, as they  produce particularly large and abundant fruit. In 2007 there was a particularly splendid crop of fruit. As no one knew what to do with it, the pears splattered onto residents’ cars and turned the pavement into a slippery mess. This highlights one of the problems of fruit-bearing street trees – if no one harvests the fruit, the result can be piles of fermenting crab apples or rotting plums. On my street, a neighbour spends much of the time in autumn sweeping up slushy crab apples. At any rate, in St John’s Villa some residents wanted the trees cut down, while others were ready to link arms to protect them. In the end, the council agreed to harvest the pears, and some of the residents took to making perry, a kind of pear cider. A win/win solution for everyone, I’d have thought! When I visited the road was quiet, except for the chirping of baby blue tits from one of the nest boxes, so it seems that the Pear Wars have come to an end, at least for now. For more on this story, have a look at Paul’s blog here.

As I walked along Prospero Road, I was literally led by the nose to the most beautiful show of jasmine and climbing hydrangea I’ve seen in a long time. It perfumed the air for tens of metres in every direction. I only wish that this blog were scratch and sniff, I’d love to share it with you.

On the corner of Lysander Grove, Wood points me to another unusual tree, the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Remember the name, because we will meet another of these trees next week.

This elm is largely resistant to Dutch Elm Disease ( I posted about the English Elm here ) and has a kind of splendid grace and poise. It seems to be very popular for Bonsai, but I rather like it as a ‘proper’ tree, bringing a touch of elegance to a North London Street corner.

During a mistaken detour along Lysander Grove, I spot an over-enthusiastic Clematis montana, sharing its beauty with everyone. I wonder where it will end up? Crouch End at this rate.

Once back on the correct path, I see the most splendid green roof on top of a garage, full of red campion and ox-eye daisies. Well done, that home owner! It goes to show that even a small space can provide some beauty and interest.

The garage green roof

Up past the Village Garage on Cressida Road (yes, there’s a Shakespearean theme in these parts), and there are two Photinia ‘Red Robin’ trees. What a shame that I’ve missed the height of their flowering. I must pop back when they’re in their autumn colour. Photinia are much more often grown as shrubs, but these two are very striking in their tree form. The plant is a member of the rose family and is related to the apple: the fruit is said to be popular with birds such as thrushes and waxwings, a good example of how valuable street trees can be for wildlife.

Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’

And now, as I hit the halfway point of my walk, I look back towards the towers of Canary Wharf, with the pyramid of One Canada Square reflecting the fleeting sunshine. I had no idea of the sheer variety of the street trees here, and the walk has thrown up a number of surprises. As I head towards what Wood describes as ‘one of the street tree hotspots of London’, Dresden Road, I wonder what else I will find.

London friends, if you want to know what the street trees are in your area, have a look at this map. It’s not perfect, but put in your postcode and see what’s on your streets….

Photo Credits

Photo One (Japanese Pagoda Tree flowers) – By Penarc – naturalezaysenderos.comhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sophora_japonica_(1).jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44138116

Paul Wood’s fascinating blog is here, much recommended.

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Wild Strawberry

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…..

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Dear Readers, I first discovered wild strawberry when I was a young woman, fresh out of university. I was doing some volunteer work on a city farm in Dundee, Scotland. One of my duties was to take the goats for a walk (as you do) – we had two milking goats, Beatrice, a white toggenburg with distinctive tassels under her chin and Shirley, an anglo-nubian with a bellow like a dying walrus. Both of them had two kids, and so we had a little herd of six. Every day, I took them to a piece of wasteland a hundred yards from the farm, and sat on a pile of masonry while the mothers grazed, and the babies played ‘I’m the king of the castle’. Passersby on the way to the bus station would sometimes stop to survey the scene, and on one occasion a small boy asked me what kind of dogs they were, but generally all was peaceful except for the hum of bees and the occasional groan from Shirley. Sometimes, I would almost doze off, but Beatrice had a habit of resting her forehead against my leg and sighing, as if motherhood was too much, so it wasn’t usually for long. And for sustenance, I had the wild strawberries that grew everywhere. I would even fight the goats for them. The intense flavour of these tiny fruits was concentrated berry sweetness, much finer than anything that I ever grew or bought from a shop. This was a complicated time in life, when I really had no idea at all what I was doing, and yet I remember those summer afternoons with great fondness. The sense of possibility, of choice, was something that I wouldn’t experience again until I was in my fifties.

By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41218044

Wild Strawberry in fruit (Photo One – see credit below)

I found the plant twice today, once growing in the wall of the Parkland Walk at Muswell Hill, a disused railway line turned into a nature reserve, and once in the unadopted road here in East Finchley. I suspect that St Pancras and Islington Cemetery will be full of it, too. This is not an ancestor of our garden strawberry, but a species in its own right, and a native of the UK and most of the Northern Hemisphere. Also known as the Alpine Strawberry, the fruit is much prized in other parts of Europe: the Swedes thread the individual fruits onto grass stalks because they are so delicate. I should add here that Ingmar Bergman’s film, called ‘Wild Strawberries’ in English, has a title that translates as ‘wild strawberry patch’ in Swedish, which can mean ‘an underrated gem of a place, often with sentimental or personal value’ according to that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia. I’m glad that I’m not the only person for whom the sight of wild strawberries rekindles memories of times past.

You might expect such tasty fruit to be popular with creatures besides ourselves, and you would be right: deer and all manner of birds love the fruit. William Morris was inspired to create his pattern ‘ The Strawberry Thief’ after seeing a thrush take one from the garden.

By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Strawberry Thief by William Morris (Photo Two – credit below)

For a more realistic depiction of the fruit, we can turn to the still lives of the Dutch Golden Age by artists such as Adriaen Coorte. The ones in the picture below look delicious enough to pluck from the frame and munch right away.

Wild Strawberries by Adriaen Coorte (1665 1707)

The name ‘strawberry’ comes not from the straw which is sometimes placed under the ripening berries of domestic fruits, but from an old past participle of the verb ‘to strew’, describing how the plant spreads itself across the ground by runners. The website ‘A Modern Herbal’ describes many of the plant’s medicinal uses: the leaves were mostly used for conditions such as gout, but the fruit is said to be useful for whitening the teeth (the juice must remain on the teeth for five minutes, and then be washed off with water to which a pinch of bicarbonate of soda has been added). Cut strawberries rubbed all over the skin will help if, like me while I was in Canada, you are unexpectedly afflicted with mild sunburn. This occurred on one of only two bright sunny days that we experienced in two and a half weeks: the rest of the time, you were more likely to need a remedy for rust, so torrential and persistent was the down pour.

The plant has a lively and varied folklore associated with it. In Norse mythology, the goddess Freya  smuggled dead children into her ‘hall’ wrapped in wild strawberry leaves. In Roman mythology, it is associated with Venus. For Christians, it was the plant of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, with the three-part leaves representing the Trinity. However, its sweetness and sultry perfume were thought also to be a source of temptation, as seen in several parts of Hieronymous Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. painted between 1495 and 1505. The left hand panel of this work shows the Garden of Eden, and the right hand panel shows the  Last Judgement. In the central panel, naked humans are shown enjoying largely innocent pleasures, including riding on enormous fish-submarines, and wrestling with gigantic strawberries. This is a work of extraordinary imagination and exuberance, and has been open to interpretation of different kinds from the beginning. Just recently, some scholars have detected a note of irony in his work, but I do wonder if this is just us inflicting our own world view on someone who lived almost 800 years ago.

Detail from central panel

A man using a strawberry as a backpack

Various fruit-related goings-on

It will not surprise you to learn that wild strawberries have inspired a number of poets. One of them is the cartoonist and children’s author Shel Silverstein (1930 -1999), whose poem ‘Wild Strawberries’ is a great example of taking an idea and running with it.

Are Wild Strawberries really wild?
Will they scratch an adult, will they snap at a child?
Should you pet them, or let them run free where they roam?
Could they ever relax in a steam heated home?
Can they be trained to not growl at the guests?
Will a litterbox work or would they leave a mess?
Can we make them a Cowberry, herding the cows,
Or maybe a Muleberry pulling the plows,
Or maybe a Huntberry chasing the grouse,
Or maybe a Watchberry guarding the house,
And though they may curl up at your feet oh so sweetly,
Can you ever feel that you trust them completely?
Or should we make a pet out of something less scary,
Like the Domestic Prune, or the Imported Cherry,
Anyhow, you’ve been warned and I will not be blamed
If your Wild Strawberry cannot be tamed.

However, for a more grown-up poem about the plant,  I would like to honour Helen Dunmore an author better known for her novels but a very gifted poet . I have read many of her books, but one of my favourites is ‘The Siege’, about the 1941-1944 siege of Leningrad. It’s an agonising read, but one of those books that linger in the memory long after they’ve been read. I was deeply sad to learn that the author has terminal cancer, and has written a very considered and moving piece about it here. One of her great strengths as a writer is her use of sensory impressions to draw us in. I am in awe of how she does this. The poem is copyright, but do have a look here . You won’t be disappointed.

Photo Credits

Photo One(Wild Strawberry fruit) – By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41218044

Photo Two (The Strawberry Thief) – By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photos of paintings by Adriaen Coorte and Hieronymous Bosch in the public domain.

Credit to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for some of the information in this week’s blog.

Blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

Wednesday Weed – Ground Ivy

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…..

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

Dear Readers, one is not supposed to have favourites, either in offspring or pets or, indeed, in the plants that one writes about. Nonetheless, as you’ve probably gathered, I have a great fondness for members of the Borage family. However, in second place would be the dead-nettles, because this common plant repays close attention: the flowers of red dead-nettle and white dead-nettle are exquisite, as are those of the woundworts and claries and the lovely bugle, which I described a few weeks ago. So I hope you will forgive a further foray into the Lamiaceae, because here is ground ivy, a common plant with the most delightful little homunculus-like flowers.

Ground ivy used to be known as ‘the blue runner’ because of the way that it spreads by horizontal runners known as ‘stolons’. It is sometimes considered a veritable pest, and has been carried to many parts of the world because of its medicinal and edible uses (of which more later). But, like so many in the family, it is much favoured by wild bees, especially the smaller solitary bees that appear early in the year, such as the hairy-footed flower bee (pictured below feeding on ground ivy’s close relative, bugle).

By © pjt56 --- If you use the picture outside Wikipedia I would appreciate a short e-mail to pjt56@gmx.net / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10234181

Male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) Photo One – credit below

Ground ivy is not, as we know, an ivy – the name probably refers to the shape of the leaves. Some of its other names, such as alehoof and alegill (guiller is a French word meaning ‘to ferment  ale), hint at one reason for the plant’s wide distribution: it was used to clarify, flavour and extend the keeping qualities of beer. It was used in preference to hops until the 1600’s, and this might explain why it pops up in many cottage gardens in the UK and on the Continent. If anyone would like a recipe for the beer, I refer you to the Barefoot Foods website, although do take note that the author says that the second time he tried to make beer with ground ivy, the carboy exploded. Don’t let that put you off.

The plant has also been used as a substitute for rennet in cheese-making.

The young leaves of ground ivy have often been used as a pot-herb, or in salads, but for my more adventurous readers, I recommend the Eatweeds website, where you can find a recipe for ground ivy tempura   and indeed for lesser celandine and ground ivy stew. For this second recipe, however, you’ll have to get a move on, as the former plant has more or less finished flowering around here. Maybe tofu marinated in ground ivy instead?

Ground ivy has had a variety of medicinal uses. In the ever-wonderful Plant Lives website, Sue Eland describes how, in North America, painters used to drink ground ivy tea as a preventative and a cure for the lead poisoning that they contracted as a result of their trade. The Cherokee used it for colds, measles and rashes on babies. It has been considered a treatment for eye ailments as far back as the physician Galen (c 130 – 200 CE) and has been used for headaches, jaundice, lung infections and asthma. The plant is, however poisonous to animals if eaten in large amounts, and as usual, caution is advised unless you are sure what you are doing.

By Rasbak (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A close-up of that exquisite flower (Photo Two – credit below)

 Although ground ivy may be poisonous to cattle, some folklore suggested that it was able to protect cows against sorcery, and in some parts of the world, the first milking was done through a ground ivy wreath, which must have been something of a challenge. It was apparently one of the plants that, if made into the shape of a cross, could be used to identify witches, though I have no idea how. As a middle-aged, somewhat eccentric woman with a cat, I am extremely glad that I live in an age when my strange activities don’t garner more suspicion than the odd tut-tut.

With all the many uses of ground ivy, it’s no wonder that it pops up in The Cries of London, which was one of the Poems on the Underground a few years back. I wonder if people bought the ground ivy for salad, or for making a medicine for sore eyes, or for a batch of beer that they were brewing? We shall never know.

The Cries of London

Here`s fine rosemary, sage and thyme.
Come buy my ground ivy.
Here`s fetherfew, gilliflowers and rue.
Come buy my knotted majorum, ho!
Come buy my mint, my fine greenmint.
Here`s fine lavender for your cloaths.
Here`s parsley and winter=savory,
And hearts-ease, which all do choose.
Here`s balm and hissop, and cinquefoil,
All fine herbs, it is well known.
Let none despise the merry, merry cries
Of famous London-town!Here`s fine herrings, eight a groat.
Hot codlins, pies and tarts.
New mackerel! have to sell.
Come buy my Wellfleet oysters, ho!
Come buy my whitings fine and new.
Wives, shall I mend your husbands horns?
I`ll grind your knives to please your wives,
And very nicely cut your corns.
Maids, have you any hair to sell,
Either flaxen, black or brown?
Let none despise the merry, merry cries
Of famous London-town!

 

Photo Credits

Photo One (Hairy-footed flower bee) – By © pjt56 — If you use the picture outside Wikipedia I would appreciate a short e-mail to pjt56@gmx.net / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10234181

Photo Two (Close-up of flower) – By Rasbak (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Greater Stitchwort

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…..

Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)

Dear Readers, what a sweet and delicate plant this is. I usually see it in the hedgerows of the West Country, when I go to visit my parents or my aunt Hilary, but it puts in an occasional appearance in the woodier areas of St Pancras and Islington cemetery as well. I love the way that the petals seem to be paired like bunny ears (very appropriate for just after Easter), and the flamboyant yellow stamen. Who would have thought that this plant is closely related to the much more modest chickweed? The Carophyllaceae family also contains red campion and a variety of other sea spurreys, mouse-ears and sandworts. Each flower is a miracle of construction, and the smaller blooms are well worth a look with a magnifying glass or hand lens.

For such a demure looking plant, greater stitchwort has a number of peculiarities. Its species name, holostea, means ‘entire bone’, and refers to its brittle stems, which have given it vernacular names such as snapcrackers and snapdragons. Even more impressively, it apparently fires off its seeds with an audible pop, leading to names such as ‘pop-gun’. The elegant blooms, perfect for popping into a lapel, gave it the name ‘poor man’s buttonhole’.

There are a variety of explanations for the  name stitchwort. One is that the plant was used as a herbal remedy for the kind of stitch that you get when you run rather too vigorously for the bus. The herbalist Gerard mentions that it was drunk with wine along with ‘powder of acorns’ for just this kind of ailment. However, in some parts of the country the flower has yet another name, ‘addersmeat’, and it has been pointed out that ‘stich’ is German for sting – the plant was thought to be efficacious against the bite of venomous reptiles.

Whatever you are gathering your stitchwort for, bear in mind that it is also a thunder flower, thought to bring on storms if picked. So you might want to consider how quickly you can run with your stitch.

By the way, the website gardenherbs.org  has a charm which can be chanted in the event of being afflicted:

‘In the days of the old Saxon leechdoms it was customary against a stitch to make the sign of the cross, and to sing three times over the part:

“Longinus miles lance?inxit dominum:
Restet sanguis, et recedat dolor!”

“The spear of Longinus, the soldier, pierced our Savior’s side:
May the blood, therefore, quicken: and the pain no longer abide!“‘

So now you know what to do next time you’re doubled-up.

Greater stitchwort is said to be edible, although I very much like the comment on one foraging website, after some intrepid soul had tried it in her salad;

‘Mate! It’s like eating grass!’

So there. Maybe it’s better floated in a gin and tonic, or even left as a nectar plant for one of its biggest fans, the wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapsis), a rare and dainty insect. Spotting a bed of greater stitchwort with some of these creatures flitting above it would be a treat indeed.

By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapsis) (Photo One – see credit below)

And to round off, here’s an evocative poem by Michael Longley, one of my very favourite poets.

The Ice Cream Man

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road

And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.

I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren

I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,

Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,

Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,

Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,

Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

You can hear Michael Longley read his poem here

Photo Credits

Photo One (Wood White butterfly) – By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

All blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Bugle

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…..

Bugle (Ajuga reptens)

Dear Readers, I have been most remiss in my visits to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery this year. Apart from one trip just after Christmas, I have barely been past the place. Partly it’s work, partly it’s visiting the family, partly it’s a kind of post-Christmas doldrums. Plus, I have gotten my self into a state of mind where, if I’m not visiting every day, I feel embarrassed to visit at all. The phrase ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’ could have been invented for me. But today, Easter Monday, I went for a walk with my husband, and I was so glad that I did, because the flowers this year are extraordinary. There are stands of bugle all along the damper, shadier paths. They always look rather upright and martial to me, and there is a faint metallic sheen  to their leaves, but their common name is, according to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, nothing to do with the musical instrument. but more to do with cylindrical glass beads called ‘bugles’ – maybe they were often made in a blue colour reminiscent of the flowers. Another theory is that it is a corruption of the Latin name ‘ajuga’, which means ‘without yoke’, and could refer to the missing ‘uppper lip’ of the flowers.

The ‘yoke-less’ flowers of bugle (Public Domain)

In Germany, there is a belief that bugle can cause fires if brought into the house, so maybe the gunmetal notes of their foliage reminded people of how easy it is to cause a spark.

I love getting a different perspective on plants, and, if you look down on a bugle plant, it has a much softer, fluffier appearance. The blue and white flowers look like little men in  nightshirts, and the opening buds are surrounded by a red-mauve ‘fur’. It’s not surprising that many ‘domesticated’ varieties of this plant are now available, many of them taking the metallic-tinged leaves and turning them to full-on bronze with the power of genetics. As usual, I still find myself preferring the original version.

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ajuga reptans atropurpurea (Photo One – see credit below)

Bugle is a member of the Lamaiaceae, or dead-nettle family, and is a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies. The hairy-footed flower bees were enjoying it in the cemetery this morning, and it’s known to be a primary nectar source for the pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne). Bugle is so important to the adults of this rare species (which also requires a mosaic of bracken and grasses for its caterpillars to be successful) that land management for the species recommends using cattle rather than sheep, as the latter are not averse to eating bugle.

By Iain Lawrie - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33507212

Pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) (Photo Two – Credit below)

Bugle has had a variety of medicinal uses: it is known as ‘Carpenter’s herb’ because it is said to be able to stem bleeding, Culpeper was very impressed by the herb, recommending that it be made into a drink for internal use and an ointment for wounds and bruises. In fact,

‘it is so efficacious for all sorts of hurts in the body that none should be without it’.

I note that a tea made from bugle is said to be very useful for those suffering from ‘an excess of drink’. I shall just leave this here for future reference.

The young shoots of bugle are apparently edible, but as this is such a small plant, and so valuable to wildlife, I would be tempted to leave it alone. Various websites also describe it as poisonous, but if so it must be very mild – none of the other dead nettles are toxic. Some have mentioned that the plant has a narcotic effect, which is not so strange when you consider that catmint (Nepeta) is a member of the same family, and look what it does to cats.

By T (too much cat mint Uploaded by snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cat sleeping in catmint (Photo Three, see credit below)

All in all, bugle is a most elegant and attractive plant. Even so, I was impressed by the flower display that I found online, which features bugle along with Asian elderberry and perennial geranium. I love how this wildflower holds its own against the big hitters that surround it.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomronworldwide/16891727343

Ikebana by Ron Frazler (Photo Four – see credit below)

Now, you might not be surprised to hear that Cicely Mary Barker, the creator of the Flower Fairies, has a Bugle Fairy, and a Bugle Fairy poem.

Cicely Mary Barker’s Bugle Fairy

The Bugle Fairy
At the edge of the woodland
Where good fairies dwell,
Stands, on the look-out,
A brave sentinel.

At the call of his bugle
Out the elves run
Ready for anything,
Danger or fun,
Hunting or warfare,
By moonshine or sun.

With bluebells and campions
The woodlands are gay,
Where bronzy-leaved Bugle
Keeps watch night and day

And whatever you think of the Flower Fairies, I do think that Cicely Mary Barker was a keen observer of the plants, and had a good eye for their ‘characters’. As I walked in the cemetery, which was indeed laced with bluebells and spotted with campions, it wasn’t too hard to think of the bugle as ‘keeping watch’.

Bugle and bluebells

Photo Credits

Photo One (Bronze-leafed bugle) By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Pearl-bordered fritillary) – By Iain Lawrie – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33507212

Photo Three (Cat in catmint) – By T (too much cat mint  Uploaded by snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Ikebana) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomronworldwide/16891727343

All blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!