Category Archives: London Plants

A Mid-June Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

‘My’ Swamp Cypress

Dear Readers, with the temperatures expected to be in the mid-eighties this week, it seemed that a walk in the shadier parts of the cemetery would be a good idea. However, first I wanted to say hello to ‘my’ swamp cypress, one of my (many) favourite trees. It’s looking very splendid at the moment, even though it’s a good few weeks later than I expected in greening up – the cold May certainly held it back.

It’s the changing of the guard again this week – as you can see from the photo above, the cow parsley is almost finished, but the hogweed is just getting going.

I always think that it looks as if it’s exploding from the stem like a firework.

This shieldbug seemed to be enjoying it as well – it’s the creature with the triangular patterns on it towards the centre of the photograph. Pretty sure it’s a hawthorn shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale) though they’re normally brighter coloured than this one.

The real star of the show this week, though, is the grass, which is waist-deep in some places. The chaps who do the strimming are having a real job keeping up. I quite like it wild, but for people visiting graves it can be a source of some distress. One lady that we spoke to had lost her mother to Covid a few months earlier, and not being able to keep her Mum’s resting place neat and tidy was a real source of distress.  Getting the balance right between the wild spots and the more neatly-groomed one is always going to be tricky, especially with council cutbacks, and such a large area to look after.

Grasses are definitely not my area of expertise, but these have piqued my interest. Let me know if you know what they are, readers! I shall do some research and get back to you. Just about the only grass I’m confident on is wall barley.

Perennial rye-grass (Lolium perenne)??

Cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata)??

It’s interesting to see how this year’s conkers are already forming on the horse chestnuts…

And the haws are already coming on the hawthorns.

However, spring isn’t quite finished for the birds – I saw a few unusual goings-on in the garden today, which I shall report back on tomorrow, and there was a song thrush singing his head off, so I thought I’d share the moment with you all. You can’t actually see the bird, so you can just relax and listen.

Along by the North Circular Road was a tree that looked like bird cherry, but is evergreen, with very shiny leaves. I’m thinking that it’s a close relative of cherry laurel, Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitanica) – it’s flowering just as the cherry laurel is finishing.

The ox-eye daisies are in full swing, too.

And look at this path. Doesn’t it just make you want to walk along it?

The hogweed always seems to know exactly where the sunny patches are.

And the Scotsman has the sun on his back too.

 

And all this abundance rather made up for what has happened on our road at home in East Finchley’s County Roads, because the council has been round with the glyphosate and have sprayed not only all the ‘weeds’, but the tree bed where my next door neighbour was growing some California poppies, and the poppy that had self-seeded under my lavender. We shouldn’t blame the people who are doing the spraying, because they are just doing what they’ve been told to do and are probably earning minimum wage for walking the streets all day, but Barnet Council should be listening to the locals, who largely don’t want weed killer sprayed willy-nilly around the places where they live.

My neighbour’s tree pit.

The weeds along the road

My ex-California Poppy

My California poppy last week (Eschscholzia californica)

The only good thing is that most of these annuals have already set seed, and so they’ll be back within a couple of days. And also, the man from the council missed the most enormous sow thistle that is hiding amongst the lavender flowers, which gives me a certain degree of glee. I feel a campaign for no-spraying coming on…..

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff (Gallium odoratum)

Dear Readers, I bought some sweet woodruff because I thought it would be perfect for the shady side of the garden. It was lovingly planted, watered and tended, and within about three days it had practically disappeared, with no sign of obvious nibbling. On the other hand, my good friend A has banks of the stuff in her garden, and so I know that the local conditions are not the problem. Still, that’s gardening for you, a succession of small disasters and happy accidents. If you have any illusions that you’re in control, I suggest you get a garden. It certainly put me right.

Anyhow, sweet woodruff is a really delightful plant. It’s a member of the bedstraw family (Rubiaceae), and is a plant of ancient woodland, with leaves that are said to be hay or vanilla-scented when bruised. It’s native to the UK but grows in a great swathe across Europe and Asia all the way to Japan, taking in Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus en route. In German it’s known as ‘waldmeister‘ or ‘Master of the Woods’ which seems a bit martial for this delicate beauty. It’s also known as ‘Wild Baby’s Breath’ – I assume that the ‘wild’ refers to the plant, not the baby (or indeed the breath).

As you might expect for something so sweet-smelling, sweet woodruff has been used for a variety of purposes. The sweet smell lingers on after the plant is dried, so it has often been used in pot pourri and cosmetics. It seems to have been particularly favoured as a flavouring in Germany, where it’s used in May Wine (Maitrank), an alcoholic beverage traditionally served on May Day. Maitrank involves steeping sweet woodruff in white wine, and very refreshing it looks too.

Photo One by By Dr. Bernd Gross - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49057025

German May Wine (Photo One)

The plant was also used to flavour beer (Berliner Weisse), ice cream, brandy and a Georgian soft drink called Tarhun. It was used to flavour sherbet powder, though in the UK I’m sure we’re all much more familiar with the zesty lemon-flavoured substance that used to be eaten with a liquorice stick. Alas, the substance that gives woodruff its flavour is called coumarine, and in 1974 the Germans banned its use in products for children because it was found to cause liver damage (and children, being smaller, are more susceptible). Adults can still lay their hands on sweet woodruff-flavoured alcohol, but artificial substitutes are now used in sweets.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how dried woodruff was hung in wardrobes and laid amongst stored linen to deter moths. The leaf whorls were apparently used as bookmarks, and during Georgian times the leaves were placed in the cases of pocket-watches, so that the user could inhale their fragrance whenever they needed to tell the time. Mabey reports that woodruff no longer grows wild in London, but that it was once hung in churches on St Barnabas Day, the 11th June. And a turning close to the Tower of London, now called Cooper’s Row, was once called Woodruff Lane.

And finally, a poem. A few posts back, I wrote about friendship, and how it’s undervalued in our society compared with the love we feel for family and romantic partners. This feels like an intensely personal poem, and yet it made me think of so many of my female friends, past and present, and the things that we’d shared. See what you think.

Up, Over the Steep Hill
by Kathleen Ripley Leo

‘May we strive to touch and to know the great common woman’s heart of us all…’ Mary Stuart

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
whose laughter you hear in the night
ringing in your ears: over your elaborate strategy to lose weight;
over the grand joke you keep to yourselves;
over swearing her to secrecy for driving you
to the Secretary of State when you’re late renewing.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
whose baby daughter crawls through your dining room
looking for all the world
like a pink shell on the carpet, she moves so sweetly;
whose son shares his bike lock with your son at school,
the son she cheers on to win the race, to make the grade,
to stay alive one more day in the isolette.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
whose hostas and phlox bloom in your garden;
with whom you kneel and pray for peace;
with whom you silently walk in the woods
hoping the raccoon, sunning itself
on the branch overhead, does not wake up,
hoping the deer in the clearing does not bound away,
who watches with you, both apprehensive and in awe,
as two snakes curl and dance in the sun
on the cement pavement at Maybury;
who takes care of the cat, the mail, the paper,
the broken ground between your houses,
picking you up at the side of the road
when you’ve locked your keys in the car,
quelling the shaking wings of your heart.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
who has lunch with you after the angel tour at the Art Institute;
who helps you overcome your panic attack at the mall,
or on that crowded street in Washington DC,
or at that Brighton home tour;
who asks you to write your poems and to read them outloud;
who helps you pick out glasses to fit your odd and funny face;
who carefully tends to the basil parmesan bread,
so you can take it to your progressive dinner party
and claim you made it;
who washes your clothes in her machine when yours gives out.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
who tells you what happened to the bank of sweet woodruff you dug out
the spring your father died, because in the fall
you couldn’t remember doing that;
who tells you how to think about toxic criticism;
who helps you cope with aggressive jealousy;
who drives you to the hospital when your baby needs x-rays,
and then when your husband’s there;
who drives you to the doctor for the procedure,
and carefully holds you when you cry;
who sees your letters unanswered,
and your invitations refused, sees your hurt and stays quiet;
who catches your waist, too, and together, laughing and crying,
you pull each other up, over the steep hill.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Dr. Bernd Gross – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49057025

Tuesday Gardening Update

Dear Readers, I thought you might like to see my angelica aka ‘the triffid’ – the handrail is about three feet high, and the ground is about a foot below the stairs, so I think this plant is about ten feet tall. What a beauty! It’s still abuzz, mainly with honeybees but bumblebees and some tiny wasps/hoverflies have got in on the act too.

My plant guide suggests that in the wild it can grow to about eight feet tall, so this is clearly an outlier, but then I seem to have picked the perfect spot for it, largely by accident – it’s right by the pond, so it’s nice and damp at the root, but it gets sun for most of the day. Plus by the time it goes over the hemp agrimony will be coming into flower, so I’ve extended my flowering season. I just love it when there is a happy accident.

If you look very closely at the middle of the first photo you’ll see that there’s a little wasp/hoverfly, but I need him/her to stay still for a bit longer so I can get a better view. I do love the way that each individual flower on the angelica looks like a tiny acorn though.

 

Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m so enamoured by the angelica that I’ve forgotten everything else. My blue water irises have buds on them now, which is very exciting, and one of the yellow flags has produced a flower too, the first of many I hope.

Blue water irises

And at the end of the garden, the mock orange is smothered in flowers and bumblebees, and the scent is extraordinary. In fact, there are so many bumblebees that I’m wondering if there’s a nest close by. That would really be a bonus.

I did see one ashy mining bee earlier on (typically when I didn’t have my camera handy), but I’m hoping that they’ll discover the climbing hydrangea flowers, which were a big favourite a few years ago. I’m seeing lots of ladybirds about too, but masses of aphids which are taking over the buddleia in the front garden again as they did last year. I think I’ll send my husband out with the hosepipe to give them a good dousing, that seems to slow them up a little bit.

And so, with the heady scent of the mock orange blossom indicating that summer is truly here, I shall bid you adieu until tomorrow.

An Early June Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, this might not look like much but it gives me hope for the future. Traditionally, cemetery lawns have always been close cut and relatively lifeless, but I noticed that, in the sweeping sward of the green closest to the entrance, some little patches of grass have been left unmown, and the daisies, buttercups, speedwell and cut-leaved geranium were all the happier for it. Well done, L.B. of Islington!

Cut-leaved geranium in the sward.

It’s definitely dog rose time too, with bushes bursting into flower all over the cemetery.

However, I have officially designated this week as buttercup week. Just look at them! And they are popular with bees too, something that I’d never noticed before.

And look at this handsome little chap, sunning himself in the woodland grave area – it’s a small copper (Lycaena phlaeas), and at this time of year the males establish territories close to areas where females might want to lay their eggs (usually on sorrel, of which there is a plentiful supply). The male flies up in the hope of intercepting any passing females, but will also see off other males, and butterflies of other species. This one was particularly brightly coloured, and for a moment I imagined myself amongst the alpine meadows of Austria, which is where I usually see these creatures.

The elder is in flower too, and in the sun there was that faint smell of gooseberry. There seems to be salsify everywhere as well – last year it was just along the path next to the North Circular, but this year it’s busting up all over.

Two other great pollinator favourites are the flowers on the pyracantha (firethorn) which are now studded with bumblebees, and the various forms of comfrey in the damp areas close to the stream.

Sadly the Japanese Knotweed continues to gather pace right along the stream and the edge of the playing field. It really is such a thug – there are thickets twenty or thirty feet deep in some places now. I am a little intrigued by the leaf damage on this plant though. Could it be leaf miner damage? I shall do some research and let you know. It would be great if some creature decided that it was dinner and started to bring it into check.

There was a rather tired-looking speckled wood butterfly along one of the walks. I hope that it has done its duty by the next generation and can have a bit of a rest now. It flew up at another butterfly but seemed a bit half-hearted, I thought. Spring is tough on all kinds of animals, and this spring has been colder and harder than many.

As we left a woodland path and started walking in the sunshine, something enormous shot past. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, but then I spotted it perching in the long grass. It wasn’t until it flew up and started quartering the grass again that I realised it was a male broad-bodied chaser, using this spot to survey its kingdom with those enormous eyes before setting off on patrol again. I always get a frisson when in the company of large dragonflies – this one circled us with what I’d describe as curiosity before returning to exactly the same place on a sturdy stem. I like this shot because you can see the way that the wings are stacked on the body.

Now, have you ever noticed the way that teasels develop little ponds at the base of their leaves after it’s rained? I hadn’t this week, but I was very curious about it. I had no idea that an alternative name for the plant is ‘Venus’s Basin’, and that the water was said to have healing properties. In one experiment, where some plants were allowed to ‘keep’ their water and others had it emptied out, the plants where the water was allowed to stay set more seed and were taller.  There is one theory that teasels are on the evolutionary path towards becoming insectivorous although this is usually an attribute of plants that live in extremely inpoverished soils such as bogs. More likely is a second theory that the water acts as a way of stopping insects climbing up the stem, though as aphids in particular can fly I wouldn’t have thought that this was so much of an advantage. What do you think, readers? All theories gratefully considered. If only there was a little frog that could live in the pools, like the tree frogs in the tropics who live in the middle of bromeliads.

Water at the base of teasel leaves.

I am going to make a point of taking a photo of the Scotsman so that I can see how the wood changes during the year, so here is this week’s shot. Lots of tree cover but no lesser celandine or crocuses. The next plant to put in an appearance will be hogweed I suspect.

And so we meander home, past the daisies, pausing only to look at the sculptural form of some ivy working its way up a tree. The cemetery is about the only place round about here where you can walk for a couple of hours and see just a handful of people. Unlike so many of our green places, which have been trampled relentlessly for the past eighteen months, the cemetery retains a kind of serenity that is very pleasing in these fraught times. Long may it remain so.

Wednesday Weed – California Poppy

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

 

Dear Readers, some of the tree pits along the County Roads in East Finchley have been planted up with seeds, and I’m always fascinated to see what ‘escapes’ and starts to grow in the cracks and crevices of the pavement. Poppies seem to be particularly fond of doing this: there are very pretty lemon-yellow Welsh poppies in several locations, and there was an abundance of opium poppies outside my friend A’s house a year or so ago. These are plants of poor soil and disturbed ground, so a north London street is very little problem for them.

Welsh poppies on Trinity Road, East Finchley

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)

California poppy is one of those plants that grows from seed without any messing about – throw a handful in the soil and off it goes. This one had attracted a marmalade hoverfly (as you can see from the photo), and cheap and cheerful doesn’t even begin to cover its attractions – it seems perfect for a child’s garden to me, when you want something reliable, bright and long-flowering. The commonest varieties are golden or orange, though I have seen some dusky pink ones too.

As you might expect from the name, California poppies come from the Western United States, from Washington in the north all the way down to Baja California in the south. It’s said that the whole 1745 acres of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is carpeted in orange when the poppies are in flower. What a sight that must be! It’s said that the early Spanish explorers could navigate by the sight of the orange hills, and that they called the plant ‘Cup of Gold’ (copa de oro). Very appropriate.

Like many flowers, California poppies open up when it’s sunny, and stay closed when it’s chilly. The flowers also close at night time, giving it another Spanish name, ‘Dormidera’, meaning ‘to fall asleep’.

Photo One by By User:Vsion - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=209016

California poppies at the Antelope Valley reserve in California (Photo One)

There is a subspecies of the poppy that can be found in the Monterey Bay area, and is yellow and much lower growing.

Photo Two By Peter D. Tillman - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38654420

Maritime poppies (E. californica subsp. californica var. maritima) (Photo Two)

Poppies of all kinds are attractive to insects because of their pollen – both the UK’s field poppy and the California poppy produce abundant amounts of this protein-rich bee food. The flowers are edible by humans (in moderation) and are sometimes used as a garnish, though they aren’t much used for their seeds as other species are. In the UK the plant is largely grown as an annual, but as it self-seeds everywhere I suspect that once you have it it will be with you forever. It is drought-tolerant but doesn’t like heavy clay soils, which is a bit of a pity as that’s exactly what I have. No wonder ‘my’ plant is lurking outside my front door in a crack in the pavement.

The golden poppy (another name for the California poppy but the same species) has been the state flower of California since 1903, and can be seen on many of the road signs.

Photo Three by CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397719

Route 1 road sign in California (Photo Three)

 

Medicinally, the plant seems to be associated, like so many poppies, with treatments for various forms of anxiety, from insomnia to bed-wetting. It’s said that it isn’t an opioid like other poppies, and has been used to help those addicted to morphine/heroin to ‘kick the habit‘. Native American peoples thought it gentle enough to be made into a tea to soothe their children. The Plant Lore website reports that

‘My grandfather used to pick and dry California poppies (the whole plant), then grind it all up and roll it into cigarette papers and smoke it. This gave him and his friends a mild euphoric feeling, with no known side effects [Andover, Hampshire, December 2013].’

Was there anything that folk haven’t dried and tried to smoke, I wonder? I remember a friend of mine smoking a cigarette through the shell of a green pepper because he was told that it would make him feel euphoric. I have no idea if it worked, but it certainly ruined my intended stir-fry.

‘My’ California poppy popping up outside the front door.

And finally, a poem. I rather liked this by Sandra McPherson, a poet that I hadn’t come across before. I think she captures the strange cruelty of cutting a flower for our own pleasure – the image of the twitching frog’s legs will stay with me for quite a while. See what you think.

Poppies by Sandra McPherson (1943 – )

Orange is the single-hearted color. I remember
How I found them in a vein beside the railroad,
A bumble-bee fumbling for a foothold
While the poppies' petals flagged beneath his boot.

I brought three poppies home and two buds still sheathed.
I amputated them above the root. They lived on artlessly
Beside the window for a while, blazing orange, bearing me
No malice. Each four-fanned surface opened

To the light. They were bright as any orange grove.
I watched them day and night stretch open and tuck shut
With no roots to grip, like laboratory frogs' legs twitching
Or like red beheaded hens still hopping on sheer nerves.

On the third afternoon one bud tore off its green glove
And burst out brazen as Baby New Year.
Two other poppies dropped their petals, leaving four
Scribbly yellow streamers on a purple-brimmed and green

Conical cadaver like a New Year's hat.
I'd meant to celebrate with them, but they seemed
So suddenly tired, these aging ladies in crocheted
Shawl leaves. They'd once been golden as the streets

Of heaven, now they were as hollow.
They couldn't pull together for a last good-bye.
I had outlived them and had only their letters to read,
Fallen around the vase, saying they were sorry.

Photo Credits

Photo One By User:Vsion – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=209016

Photo Two By Peter D. Tillman – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38654420

Photo Three by CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397719

A Tiny Visitor

Celery Fly (Euleia heraclei)

 

Dear Readers, I was absolutely fascinated by this tiny fly on my angelica yesterday. I know that it’s a celery fly, and that its larvae will happily mine the leaves on what is currently my favourite pondside plant, but what a performer it is! My photo is far from perfect, but hopefully you can see that it has a shiny black body, wings rippled with chocolate, a bright yellow head and green eyes. All this in a critter smaller than my little fingernail.

It seemed to be displaying, though I couldn’t see anyone apart from me who was enjoying the show. The fly twisted its wings from side to side, hopped from one leaf to another, investigated the fallen pollen from the angelica flowers, disappeared briefly and then hopped back again.

And to my delight, a bit of research showed me that this male fly is actually displaying, and furthermore you can watch it too:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Euleia_heraclei_-_2015-06-17.webm#file

Celery flies lay their eggs on the leaves of the host plant, and the larvae burrow in and mine the inside, leaving a brown or yellow blotch. After four weeks, the larvae drop to the ground and pupate in the soil, with a second generation emerging later in the summer. I found it very interesting that the first generation of larvae burrow to a measly four or five centimetres down into the ground, but the second generation, who have to survive through the winter, will dig down to about 10 centimetres. Nature really is quite remarkable.

I would never have seen this fly if I hadn’t grown my angelica, and so it seems that whenever yo you plant something, you don’t just get the flora, you get the fauna that it attracts too. The angelica is now taller than me, and is attracting not just bees, but an early blue butterfly too – this one is a holly blue, and I hope that it’s found the ivy that’s overtaking my shed for its eggs. I am so delighted with this plant, and if you have a damp patch in the garden and don’t mind something huge, I’d definitely plant this beauty.

The End of May in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

The highpoint of the cow parsley show?

Dear Readers, I have been fascinated by the speed at which the massed ranks of flowers come and go in the cemetery. One week it’s full of forget-me-nots and the next it’s ablaze with buttercups. This week, the rhododendrons have just opened, and, in spite of the honey made from it being hallucinogenic, the bumblebees were very enthusiastic (see the pollen baskets on the bee on the right of the photo).

The meadow in the woodland grave area is full of red campion…

And the swamp cypress is greening out nicely…..

Under the horse chestnut trees, the masses of ground ivy and violas have been completely submerged under a sea of black medick, a tiny yellow clover.

But what really catches my eye this week are the patches of germander speedwell. I thought that the forget-me-nots were blue, but this plant is an intense lavender-blue colour.

Germander speedwell

Elsewhere, the red clover is coming into flower, and I am wondering if some of these flowers are actually the slighter rarer zigzag clover (Trifolium medium). I should have bent down and had a closer look – the flowers of zigzag clover are on a stalk, whereas those of red clover are more or less stalkless. Maybe next week I’ll have the wit to bend over for a closer look.

On the path next to the North Circular Road the salsify flowers are out in force, and very pretty they look too, though I remain puzzled as to how on earth they got here.

Salsify flowers

The herb Bennett (wood avens) is in flower too.

Herb Bennett (Geum urbanum)

I have this all over my garden, along with herb Robert, greater celandine and green alkanet, and to tell you the truth I’ve rather given up the battle in some of the damper, shadier places. The plants that thrive there are perfectly suited to the habitat, and only this week I got into a gentle Facebook argument with someone who, when told that the plant they’d photographed was herb Robert, said ‘Oh, I thought it was a wild geranium’. It is, of course, a wild geranium, and not only is it very pretty in its place, but it is also often visited by pollinators, like this green-veined white (Pieris napi).

And finally, here is a last burst of germander speedwell blue, to power us through the week. Who knows what will have taken over from it by next week?

Laying in Wait….

Honeybees on angelica

Dear Readers, for about twenty minutes today the sun shone, and so I wandered outside to take a few photos. My angelica flowers are just opening, and are already a hit with the local honeybees, much to my delight. There is such a feeling of accomplishment when you plant something to attract pollinators and it actually does.

I imagine that the recent wet weather has kept all the pollinators at home, so they will all be playing catch-up. The tadpoles have been very happy though – it’s rained so much that it’s raised the level of the pond, and they are able to forage for algae on the parts of the pond that are usually just a beach. They look very fat and happy to me, but I’ll have to make sure that none of them get stuck as the water level goes down (it’s supposed to be much warmer and drier for the next week or so). The water snails are happy too.

But who is this lurking on one of the other angelica flowers?

This is a young male running crab spider (Philodromus sp.) (many thanks to the British Spider Identification Group on Facebook for the ID). This is a group of fast-moving arachnids who hunt flies and other insects, and who also guard their eggs, which are enclosed in what looks like the tip of a medium-sized cotton bud. I shall have to keep my eyes open to see if any females turn up, and also if the male reappears, because when I popped down to see if I could get another photo he had, true to his name, done a runner. If I was a honeybee or a hoverfly, I would be very careful. Incidentally, these spiders spend the winter hibernating beneath loose bark, yet another reason to not be too tidy in the garden.

In other news, I have about 150 honesty seedlings pinging up from the seeds that my friend J gave me last year. I suspect that the good people of the County Roads in East Finchley where I live are going to have an opportunity to put them all over their gardens if the urge takes them. Now all I have to do is prick them out. I know what the bank holiday is going to hold in store for me!

 

Wednesday Weed – Sorrel

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Dear Readers, what an unassuming little plant this is! if you weren’t paying attention you could easily miss it. This is sorrel (Rumex acetosa). Sorrel looks like a grass, but isn’t one. It’s a member of the Polygonaceae or knotgrass family, along with the various persicarias and bistorts and our old friend, Japanese knotweed. The zesty leaves have been eaten throughout the plant’s range, which includes Scandinavia, the rest of Europe and parts of Eurasia. Sorrel is used in spanakopita, the Greek feta, leek and greens pie, in Albanian byrek pies and in Armenian aveluk soup, with walnuts and lentils. In Eastern Europe, it’s turned into soup with hard-boiled eggs. In short, sorrel’s lemon-flavoured leaves are much enjoyed in parts of the world where citrus isn’t grown, or at times of the year when lemons aren’t available.

Photo One By Popo le Chien - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69436320

Byrek/borek pie (Photo One)

The flavour of the leaves has given rise to a whole range of vernacular names. My Vickery’s Folk Flora (by Roy Vickery) tells me that in northern England sorrel is known as bitterdabs, in Roxburghshire as Lammie sourocks, in Northern Ireland as red sour-leek and in Ross-shire as sourey souracks, which is probably my favourite. It reminds me rather of Boaty McBoatface, the name selected by the public in the UK when asked to suggest a name for a research ship (subsequently named the David Attenborough, which is more appropriate but rather less fun).

Medicinally, Scottish children used to eat the first leaves of sorrel as a cure for their spots, and John Clare describes how workers in the field would nibble on the plant to slake their thirst. It used to be believed that the plant could ward off scurvy:although the flavour comes from oxalic acid rather than ascorbic acid, it contains some Vitamin C, as do all green plants. While the oxalic acid is associated with kidney stones, you’d have to eat prodigious quantities of the plant to do yourself a damage. Plus oxalic acid is also present in foods like rhubarb, and what is the point of life without rhubarb?

Sorrel was also the source of ‘salts of lemons‘, a concentrated compound of the oxalic acid, which could be used to bleach straw, remove rust stains from linen, and remove ink stains. With the last, however, the chemical reaction only worked if the ink was made from oak galls and salts of iron.

It is eaten by various caterpillars, including those of the fiery clearwing (Pyropteron chrysidiformis), the forester moth (Adscita statices) the blood-vein (Timandra comae) and the scarce vapourer (Orgyia recens), all scarce species that it’s well worth encouraging.

Photo Two by Ferran Pestaña, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Fiery Clearwing (Pyropteron chrysidiformis) (Photo Two)

Photo Three AfroBrazilian, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Forester Moth (Adscita statices)(Photo Three)

Photo Four by hamon jp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Blood Vein (Timandra Comae) (Photo Four)

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

Caterpillar of the scarce vapourer (Orgyia recens) (Photo Five)

Sorrel can also be used as a dye, with either the whole plant or the root being used with various mordants to get a whole range of colours. The dyes in the photo come from sorrel’s close relative sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) but the results should be broadly the same. Who knew you could get so many colours from such a modest little plant? The photo comes from the Forest and the Spirit blog, which is well worth a look.

Photo Six from https://forestandthespirit.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/plant-dyes-sheep-sorrel/

Dye colours from sheep’s sorrel (Photo Six)

And finally, a poem. I love Edna St Vincent Millay, with her streak of cussedness and curmudgeonly attitude. How could I not also love this poem? Why, even the name is appropriate. I’m not exactly sure what the last verse means, so feel free to share!

Weeds by Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)

White with daisies and red with sorrel
And empty, empty under the sky!—
Life is a quest and love a quarrel—
Here is a place for me to lie.

Daisies spring from damnèd seeds,
And this red fire that here I see
Is a worthless crop of crimson weeds,
Cursed by farmers thriftily.

But here, unhated for an hour,
The sorrel runs in ragged flame,
The daisy stands, a bastard flower,
Like flowers that bear an honest name.

And here a while, where no wind brings
The baying of a pack athirst,
May sleep the sleep of blessèd things,
The blood too bright, the brow accurst.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Popo le Chien – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69436320

Photo Two by Ferran Pestaña, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three AfroBrazilian, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by hamon jp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Photo Six from https://forestandthespirit.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/plant-dyes-sheep-sorrel/

 

 

 

A Mid May Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

 

 

 

Dear Readers, this tumbled headstone, complete with its own pond and fine growth of algae, just about sums up this week. It is heading towards being the wettest May on record. What people generally don’t appreciate is that climate change creates weather chaos, not just a gradual rise in temperatures. For the birds who have started breeding the lack of insects will probably increase the rate of nest failure, and for insects trying to complete their reproductive cycles it will lessen the amount of time that they have available. At least we haven’t had snow in London, though it has fallen further north this month.

It’s also been very windy, so the dandelion clocks, so abundant last week, have more or less disappeared, to be replaced by a carpet of daisies and buttercups.

Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

There are several species of buttercup in the cemetery: there’s the typical creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), with its three-lobed leaves, the poor old Goldilocks buttercup, (Ranunculus auricomus) where the flowers are always missing their petals and it looks as if it’s been nibbled even when it’s pristine, and the delicate meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), with its finely-cut leaves. Once you’ve got your eye in for identifying these plants, you notice that the flowers on the meadow buttercup seem to have more separated petals, and the whole plant is a bit taller than the creeping buttercup. My Dad taught me that where there are buttercups of any kind it’s an indicator that the soil is wet, so it’s best to avoid standing near them if you don’t have your Wellington boots on.

Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)

I am pleased to report that ‘my’ swamp cypress is finally getting a coat of green, rather later than I expected. Look at it standing ankle-deep in cow parsley!

I noticed how the flowers on the horse chestnut turn pink when they’re pollinated – you can see the mixture of yellow and pink blossom on this flowerhead. I have seen bumblebees about in the midst of the storms this week, determinedly heading for the dusky cranesbill which is in full flower in the garden. I am a recent convert to species geraniums – some varieties are shade-tolerant, and the bees love them. I imagine that a tree like a horse chestnut must be a powerful bee magnet. So many flowers! So much nectar and pollen!

There is some sorrel just starting to appear too – I horrified my husband by eating a leaf just to make sure. It looks rather like a grass, but it’s actually a member of the knotweed family. The leaves have a delicious lemony tang to them, and if you look at the stem you can see how similar it is to plants like bistort and redshank.

Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

When we reach the main path that leads to the North Circular Road entrance, what should we see but a blooming little egret flying past! I apologise for not getting a better photo for you, readers. I promise that the white blob just right of centre towards the top of the photo is actually an egret, not a stray handkerchief whooshing past in the high wind. I wonder where s/he was going?

On we go. I am delighted with the way that the sycamore flowers are already turning into the little ‘helicopters’ as we used to call them.

A rather magnificent crow surveyed the scene from the top of a tree. We’d just watched a crow pick up half a sandwich that someone had dropped, dunk it in a puddle to moisten it and then fly off, presumably back to a nestful of little dinosaurs waiting for their lunch.

And there’s an area completely covered in shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum). Even allowing for the damp weather, just look how shiny the foliage is! And look at all those fallen horse-chestnut flowers, probably ripped untimely from the tree in this week’s wind, rain and hail.

Shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum)

Storm damage

 

 

More branches down

My friend A told me that there were some whole trees down in other parts of the cemetery. It’s such a large area that they can lay around for quite some time if they haven’t fallen onto a recent grave, and if they aren’t blocking a well-used road.

And, as usual in the cemetery, I notice something that I’ve walked past a hundred times without really seeing it.

The broken column symbolises a life cut short, and was often used to signify the death of a child, as indeed is the case with this memorial. Little John Arthur Winter died at the age of 18 months, and is buried here with who I imagine are his grandparents, judging by the ages.

John Arthur was born in Shoreditch,  to Charles Richard and Amy Jane Winter, and was baptised in St John the Baptist church in Shoreditch. In 1881, 5 years after John Arthur had died, Charles Richard and Amy were living at 164 Southgate Road in Hackney. They had two children, Charles aged 12 and George aged 4, and their 4 year-old niece Alice was visiting them on the day of the census. Charles Richard lists his occupation as ‘clerk/surveyor’, but the section for Amy’s employment is blank. By 1891 the family have moved to Hever in Kent, and it seems as if Charles Richard has gone up in the world, with his occupation now listed as ‘Architect/Surveyor’. The older boy, Charles, is now 22 years old and a stonemason, and the younger, George, is a draughtsman and architect, so it looks as if both children followed in their father’s footsteps. Their niece, Alice, seems to be living with them, and they now have a general servant. In the 1901 census Charles Richard and Amy are still living in Hever, but all the young people have left and they no longer have a servant. The couple are only 55 years old  but by 11th November 1901, Charles Richard is dead, and is buried in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, though not in the same grave as his infant son. Amy Jane follows him in 1920, and it seems from the burial records that she might have spent her last days in Brighton. Maybe one of her sons lived there?

It is extraordinary what you can find out on the internet these days, but the bare bones of a life give no idea of the really important things – was a person kind? Did they have a sense of humour? What infuriated them, and what got their pulses racing? Did they love their job, or hate it? Did the sons get on with their father? How come the niece was living with them? All these things vanish when the last person who remembers someone, or has heard about them, dies themselves. Nonetheless, I think we often don’t realise what a huge difference we can make to the people around us, for good and for ill, and how those things ripple out into the wider world. My grandmother remembered her two dead sons until her own dying day: one died at eighteen months of scarlet fever, and the other at two years old from diptheria. But the stories that she told me about them live on in me, and so in a way they still live on, though their lives were so short, and so long ago. Let’s never forget to pass on those stories.