Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Canadian Fleabane Revisited

Fleabane (probably Canadian) with ragwort at Woolwich Dockyard

Dear Readers, Canadian Fleabane (and its close relatives Bilbao’s Fleabane and Guernsey Fleabane) are such weedy weeds that it’s easy to pass them by without so much as a second glance. Members of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family, they have tiny flowers and a whole lot of fluffy seeds and are annuals of such fecundity that once you have the plant on a patch of rough ground or, as here, along a riverside, you are probably going to have it forever. Experiments outlined in my book ‘Alien Plants’ by Clive Stace and Michael J. Crawley suggest that grazing with rabbits seems to be a way to keep the Fleabane (Conyza) genus in check, but there’s a grave lack of small furry grazing animals in Woolwich, clearly.

Fleabanes tend to grow alongside buddleia, as I noticed from the Woolwich walk.

Buddleia!

The name given to the community of plants established by buddleia and fleabane is the Buddleia-Conyza scrub community, and you can see it popping up in many urban sunny sites, frequently on builder’s rubble or tarmac – we have a great example of this just up the road from here in East Finchley on the site of an old petrol station which has been landbanked by developers for years, but you can also find great examples on railway embankments. Fleabanes tend to be the first colonisers, along with mugwort, American willowherb, bristly oxtongue and evening primrose, but soon the buddleia and the sycamore start to take over, with the fleabane tending to die out where it’s overshadowed by the buddleia. This feels like such a very urban habitat that I’m glad that it has its own name and now has people studying it. Colonisation can start within a year of a site being left derelict, and the habitat can persist for up to twenty years. It will be interesting to see how long the example of the Buddleia-Conyza complex in East Finchley lasts before someone decides to actually build there.

And when I looked back at the last time that I wrote about Canadian Fleabane, I mentioned that there was a patch at the side of my house. When I looked early this week, there was still some there, probably descended from the seeds that were dropped by the parent plant back in 2014. You have to admire the plant’s sheer persistence.

So, this is from my original post back in 2014.

A thicket of Canadian Fleabane has erupted in the alley at the side of our house, and I am delighted. I know this is not the reaction that most people would have, but then, this week is the thirteenth anniversary of my marriage to my Torontonian husband, so a little reminder of the country that he came from is very welcome. Plus, although this plant comes from so far away, it has put down firm roots in London, and is more commonly seen in the Capital than in any other city, so in that respect it is a little like me.

Canadian Fleabane 004 BPThere are lots of plants that resemble Canadian Fleabane, but none have such a mass of tiny flowers, which at this time of year are rapidly turning into fluffy seeds. The plant was apparently brought to the UK as seeds in the innards of a stuffed bird, back in the sixteenth century (unlike my husband who arrived into Heathrow in a big metal bird twenty-odd years ago).

Canadian Fleabane 003 BPIn many ways, Canadian Fleabane is a ‘proper’ weed – it’s an annual which produces thousands of seeds, and which can grow in the most unpromising of spots, as its appearance in my dark, soil-less side alley proves. But, as with so many plants, it has a myriad of helpful uses. A tea made from the plant is said to be helpful for arthritis and for diarrhoea, and it has also been used to combat hay-fever. Like so many fleabanes, it is also said to be good for deterring insect parasites.

Some wind-blown Canadian Fleabane

Some wind-blown Canadian Fleabane

I can’t help but admire a plant that can erupt from a crack a hairs-width wide and grow to four feet high in a single season.  This afternoon, the little seeds were flying away in the breezy weather, taking their chances on a new land far from where they started. And, thinking of my soulmate who flourished so far from his native soil, I find myself wishing them luck.

More on Bracken

Dear Readers, you might remember that, in our discussion on bracken, it was stated that it was known as ‘eagle fern’ because of the pattern in a transverse section of the root. Some people also thought that it looked like the oak tree that Charles II was said to have hidden in after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 (thanks to Sara for pointing out that I’d put down the wrong monarch (again)). Once I’d sorted out my Charles I’s and Charles II’s , I was delighted to be sent the botanical print above by long-time reader Anne Guy. It shows a cross-section of the root of the plant, and indeed it does look rather like a flying bird. However, as with all things it does rather depend on how you look at it. The root cross-section below (from a paper on hemorrhagic disease in Belgian cattle) is thought by the authors to resemble a double-headed eagle, but if you tilt your head and look at it upside down, it also looks very like a tree.

Cross-section of bracken root

And how about this one, from the book ‘Scandinavian Ferns’ by Benjamin Øllgaard and Kirsten Tind, Rhodos, 1993 (the root is in the bottom right-hand corner). Double-headed eagle or tree?

Root cross section in bottom right-hand corner

So, it seems as if the ‘eagle fern’ moniker for this plant is perfectly understandable. I wonder if it should also be known as ‘oak  fern’ as well, though? As with so many things, I suspect that it just depends on how you look at it.

 

The Capital Ring – Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick

The view along Casenove Road

Dear Readers, our 3.7 mile long walk today started at Stoke Newington Station. Typically we had decided to get there with a combination of bus (102), tube (Piccadilly Line to Wood Green) and bus (67 to Stoke Newington), which was a bit long-winded but gave us a chance to sit on the top deck and admire the splendid houses along the route. When we eventually arrived, our first stop was Cazenove Road, with its magnificent avenue of London plane trees, planted shortly after 1900. These giants make such a difference to the temperature – this was to be quite a hot, exposed walk, and in retrospect I should have bathed in this cool, shady spot for a bit longer. Alas, not all the plane trees have made it to 2022, and I did wonder how much they shaded the front gardens of the houses. A small price to pay for all this lush greenery I’d imagine.

This one didn’t make it, clearly….

This borderland between Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill is home to many different communities – members of the Orthodox Jewish community were walking home after prayers, there are lots of Turkish and Caribbean cafes and shops, and we passed a mosque which had been cleverly created from three of the terraced houses. It reminds me of how many people have made their homes in the capital, and how much they have enriched all of our lives.

We pass Jubilee Primary school, and I fell in love with the pavement art outside. The children’s drawings have been turned into plaques, along with their descriptions of what living in Hackney was like. This one says “When I’m in Hackney I hear birds tweeting like happy families”.

 

This one says (rather less optimistically’ “When I’m in Hackney I smell fumes flowing like fire in the air”.

And it looks as if the words of this youngster have been cut off, because all that remains is “When I’m in Hackney”, but I think I can identify a space theme going on, and it is 100% adorable as far as I’m concerned.

Further down Filey Avenue there is the most splendid lilac-blue hibiscus.

And then we turn left into Springfield Park, but before we do I am much taken by these flats. The towers (which I assume house a fire escape or other staircase) are most striking. I haven’t been able to find out anything about the estate, but with a pleasant view over Springfield Park I imagine that it’s a nice place to live.

By now we’ve been walking for oh, about twenty minutes and so our thoughts are turning to lunch. And what better place than Springfield Park? The park was originally the grounds of Springfield House (built in the 19th century) but it was taken over by London City Council in 1909. And if it’s a nice day, and you fancy sitting peacefully, watching the crows imitate that bit in ‘The Birds’ where they congregate before tearing chunks out of Tippi Hedren you could do much worse. I had the most splendid avocado, hummus and halloumi on ciabatta bread and considered myself very lucky.

View from the Springfield Park Cafe

Crows menacing the invertebrates in the grass.

Some very handsome Egyptian geese

Springfield Park also apparently has a community orchard, but I missed it – what a shame. It would have been interesting to compare it to Barnwood in East Finchley.

We walk down through the park, and discover that the geology of the area is actually rather special – it has been designated as one of Greater London’s Regionally Important Geological Sites (which makes me curious as to where the others are – I feel yet another blogpost coming on!) Apparently the park contains not only ‘Hackney Gravel’ deposited by the River Lea a quarter of a million years ago, but on top of this it has fine ‘brick earth’, a wind-blown loess known as rock flour. The two components together make the site perfect for making bricks, and these two components are laid on top of the more typical London clay that forms the basis of the geology of most of London. Roman sarcophagi and a Saxon boat were found during excavations in the park, and it’s thought that the lake is probably the result of gravel extraction over the years.

The view from the hill in Springfield Park

And then it’s downhill to the Lea/Lee Valley Navigation. This waterway used to mark the boundary between Essex and Middlesex, and now delineates the line between the London Boroughs of Waltham Forest and Hackney. The spelling of the name of the area has more or less settled down now, with ‘Lea’ referring to the river Lea and its natural manifestations, and ‘Lee’ referring to anything man-made. The river Lea itself runs for about 50 miles, from Luton to Bow Creek, and the Capital Ring follows it east for about three miles.

First up is the Springfield Marina. There are river boats moored along the whole length of the walk, some of them in fine fettle and some of them on what looks like the verge of disintegration. It’s also a walk that lacks shade, and I was very glad that I’d brought my Factor 50 suncream.

To start with, the path is broad, and we walk along the edge of Walthamstow Marshes, just slightly south of the Walthamstow Wetlands reserve that I visit on a regular basis. The ditch by the side of the path is full of bulrushes, purple loosestrife and other water plants, and I get a brief view of a reed bunting before it disappears back into cover.

Common Reed Bunting (Photo One)

Bulrushes

I love that the skies are so big here. Also, the path is relatively wide, which means that the cyclists who zoom past have plenty of room. In the later part of the walk, the path is much narrower and encounters can be a bit more fraught.

There is a delightful pub on the other side of the river, but as my Capital Ring book points out, the little ferry that used to take you across ceased in the 1950s. Alas, for we have been walking now for forty minutes and surely we’re due another sit down?

The Anchor and Hope – so near, and yet so far.

There is, however, a railway viaduct which goes to Clapton and takes people off to Stansted Airport. Apparently an aviator, A.V.Roe, used to create his early airplane prototypes in the arches of the viaduct, and the marshes used to cushion his inevitable crash landings.

Looking along the river, we catch a glimpse of a family of swans and a lone oarsman. The swan on the right looks a wee bit defensive to me. In situations like this, my money is always on the swan, but we didn’t hear any splashing or screaming so presumably all was well.

Looking into the distance I noticed some cows. They were most uncooperative as far as getting a nice photo goes, but they have been reintroduced to the marshes to help with the habitat. We underestimate the role that grazing animals play in biodiversity, I think.

Cows’ backs.

Cows’ backsides

And at this point, the River Lea and the Lee Navigation separate for a while, and our way ahead is blocked by some building work on the new Ice Skating Centre, which will enable people to do their double axels and pirouettes all year round. We are leaving the wide open spaces next to Walthamstow Marshes, and are heading into something altogether more urban. But for that, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow….

 

 

After the Rain at Barnwood

Dear Readers, it’s always interesting to see what has and hasn’t thrived during the drought of the past few months. At the Barnwood Community Orchard, some of the trees and fruiting shrubs are still doing very nicely, even the recently planted ones (largely due, I suspect, to the care and attention given to them by the volunteers at the site. On the other hand some plants, such as the hazel to the left of the photo, are covered in crisp brown leaves and look very sorry for themselves. I wouldn’t give up hope just yet, though – native shrubs such as this can be very resilient, and it’s more  than possible that it will resurrect itself after the recent rains.

Many of the other plants are looking very healthy. This guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is full of berries. What good value this plant is, with its white flowers in spring, its red fruit in late summer and its fine golden colour in the autumn. It’s also one of the national symbols of Ukraine, and so it couldn’t be more appropriate.

I love the way that small fruit trees look when they have a few pears or apples on them – they often look almost overwhelmed by what they’ve produced. This little apple is called ‘Ellison’s Orange’, and is apparently a cross between Cox’s Orange Pippin and a variety called Cellini. It’s said to develop an aniseed flavour in storage (unlikely to be a problem this year as I imagine these apples will get munched up very quickly), and to be more disease-resistant, and juicier, than Cox’s. However, it is said to be prone to apple canker (a fungal disease of apple trees that attacks the bark) and therefore requires good drainage. The variety was first seen in 1905, and is believed to have been developed by C.C. Ellison, a Lincolnshire priest who clearly had a fondness for apples.

Ellison’s Orange

Now, as usual I was keeping my eyes open for invertebrates, and I found a very fine spider on some dried-up teasel. It seemed to be feeding on a shieldbug nymph, and at first I thought it was something exotic – look at that lovely lacy pattern on the abdomen.

But no, this our old friend the Noble Spider (Steatoda nobilis) – I normally have a couple of these living in my sash windows in the kitchen. The good folk at the UK Spider Identification Group on Facebook, along with many other people, have been trying to rehabilitate this rather fine spider by changing its common name from ‘Noble False Widow Spider’, which was rather playing into the sensationalist headlines of the tabloid press. Schools have been shut down because of this spider, people have accidentally burnt down their houses by trying to get rid of them with flame throwers and they have been blamed for people losing their limbs.

It’s true that they can bite, but only if provoked or trapped next to skin, and in most cases the result is no worse than a wasp sting. There have been cases of infections after ‘spider bites’, but this would be the case with any puncture wound, and in none of the cases has the initial cause been proven. In short, if you leave these guys alone (the male is more prone to bite, but only because he wanders further in search of a mate, and is therefore more likely to come into contact with people), and just admire them from a safe distance everybody will be ok. And just think of all the midges and mosquitoes and houseflies that they consume! Spiders are some of my favourite house guests, and I don’t even need to change the bed.

 

And finally, here is a Barnwood-related puzzle. A moth trap has been run in Barnwood for several months, but when Leo, custodian of all things Barnwood-related, opened the trap to inspect it a few days ago, he found that all  the Jersey Tiger moths had been beheaded and partially eaten. What could be causing this crime? We did wonder if the culprit was the mosquito who was found alongside the ‘body’, but only briefly.

Jersey Tiger with completely innocent mosquito

The murderer is likely to be a wasp – they are voracious hunters, and I believe that they can learn about food sources, and how to exploit them. They may even communicate with one another to reveal where food is. Leo is currently considering how to manage this new problem – he notes down the moths that he finds and releases them safely, but has never had dead moths before. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

 

Wednesday Weed – Marsh Woundwort

Marsh woundwort (Stachy palustris)

Dear Readers, it is always such a delight when a new plant pops up alongside the pond. I have been watching this one for some weeks, so when it came  into flower I was, for a moment, a little confused. Clearly it’s a deadnettle, but I thought it might be hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica). The pale pink flowers are a giveaway though, plus the leaves on the upper stem are stalkless. In addition, the leaves of hedge woundwort give off a rather unpleasant smell when crushed, whereas those of marsh woundwort are much less scented. Finally, as the name suggests, marsh woundwort likes damp places, and so here it is, nestled amongst the meadowsweet and the hemp agrimony.

Marsh woundwort is native to the UK and to most of Europe and Asia, and has been introduced to North America. Like all of the woundworts, it has a long history of use medicinally – in her ‘Modern Herbal‘, Mrs Grieve tells the following story:

This plant had formerly a great reputation as a vulnerary, being strongly recommended by Gerard in his Herbal. He tells us that once being in Kent, visiting a patient, he accidentally heard of a countryman who had cut himself severely with a scythe, and had bound a quantity of this herb, bruised with grease and ‘laid upon in manner of a poultice’ over the wound, which healed in a week, though it would ‘have required forty daies with balsam itself.’ Gerard continues:’I saw the wound and offered to heal the same for charietie, which he refused, saying I could not heal it so well as himself – a clownish answer, I confesse, without any thanks for my good-will: whereupon I have named it “Clown’s Woundwort.” ‘

Afterwards, however, Gerard himself used the plant to cure many ‘grievous wounds’, including some that were considered life-threatening. Mrs Grieve says that the plant, when harvested in July, just as it comes into flower, can be used to relieve gout, cramps, pains in the joints and vertigo. The fresh juice can be made into a syrup and used to alleviate haemorrhage and dysentery. In a more recent record, Monica Wilde, a forager and herbalist, records how marsh woundwort tea, and a poultice soaked in the liquid, helped to alleviate the symptoms from a very nasty insect bite. Very interesting stuff.

Marsh woundwort is also said to be edible – the roots, according to Mrs Grieve ‘are tuberous and can attain a considerable size’. When boiled, they are said to form ‘a wholesome and nutritious food, rather agreeable in flavour’. The roots were also dried, powdered, and added to bread and soup in the winter months when there was not much in the way of greens to eat. The shoots can also be eaten and are said to taste pleasant in spite of their disagreeable smell.

In Shetland, marsh woundwort, along with several other plants, was known as grice mooriks, with ‘grice’ meaning ‘pig’ and ‘moorik’ meaning ‘edible root’. So clearly it wasn’t just humans who found the roots palatable.

Like all deadnettle species, the flowers of marsh woundwort are popular with bumblebees. The caterpillars of the rather spectacular speckled yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia) can also be found feeding on woundworts of all kinds, and what a fine moth it is!

Photo One by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Speckled Yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia) (Photo One)

And finally, a poem. This is so atmospheric – set during the English Civil War, you can almost hear the hammering as the church is stripped of its angels and decoration, smell the smoke. See what you think.

Commission by Damian Walford Davies

Suffolk, 1650 
I was in the graveyard, islanded
by creeks, parsing deep botched
cuts that pass for epitaphs.
Horses drummed their piss
on clumps of woundwort –
so loud, the troopers laying
statues on the fire turned to look.
Stare long enough, the tower’s
flintwork will bewilder you. Gilt
paint burns especially. He called me
from the porch, framed by gargoyles
and the Lamb, bitter ramsons
mixed with sweetish smoke.
My sergeant rose among the reeds,
a tan bird mewing in his gloves.
The church was cool; their eyes
were hammering at three angels
on the roof. I wrapped the balls
inside a paper patch and shot,
walked out decked in golden dust.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Delosperma (Ice Plant)

Delosperma sp.

Dear Readers, the local garden centre is absolutely full of these cheery little plants at the moment, and the ones in my window boxes are positively busting out all over. These are succulents, and so are (helpfully) drought-resistant, a theme that feels more and more important as hosepipe bans loom, and heatwaves and dry spells are likely to become more common.

The common name for Delosperma is ‘ice plant’, but this is also used for a whole variety of what I used to call sedums. Older readers might also remember the name ‘Mesembryanthemum’. There are about 170 plants in the genus, and all of them live in Southern Africa. They are beautifully adapted to dry conditions: their leaves are fleshy and store water for arid times, and the seed capsule opens in response to rain to free the seeds at the most auspicious time. These plants have been flowering consistently since I planted them over a month ago, with no sign of stopping yet! They seem to be attractive to hoverflies, though the marjoram that they’re planted with is a much bigger draw for bees.

Another adaptation to arid living is the bladder cell: this is what gives the plant the name ‘ice plant’, as sometimes the cells shimmer with liquid. They are modified hair cells, and during times of high stress will manage the salt intake of the plant – as less water is available, the salts in the plant can reach toxic levels. There is some thought of using members of the Delosperma genus for bioremediation of salt-logged soils.

Leaves of the Delosperma, showing the bladder cells.

So, Delosperma is clearly a great plant for a sun-drenched south-facing window box, and it comes in a whole array of colours too, from red, orange and yellow through cool blues and icy whites. I imagine it must look strikingly beautiful when it blooms in its natural surroundings. In California it seems to be a favourite in some ocean-front properties, maybe due to its ability to cope with the salty breezes.

Photo One by By Peter D. Tillman - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89361118

Delosperma cooperi planting on ‘Millionaire’s Row’, Cambria, California (Photo One)

Remarkably, though, the plant is also very hardy – one gardener that I follow has found that his Delosperma specimens will survive a Newfoundland winter, and I may well leave mine out just to see if they can make it through the colder months.

Although the plant doesn’t look as if it might be particularly edible, it was apparently taken onboard ship and the leaves eaten to prevent scurvy – again, maybe its drought and salt tolerance would have made it appealing. I imagine that the leaves taste a little like samphire. Medicinally, the leaves have been used to make a soothing cream, and have also been used to treat bloating, dysentery, liver and kidney disease and pneumonia. Interestingly, the leaves are also said to contain hallucinogenic chemicals, and a deep dive into the internet realm of people rearing plants for their psychedelic properties reveals lots of folk growing pretty pink succulents and having no success with getting high whatsoever. Personally, I think that the flowers are quite ‘trippy’ enough without eating the poor thing.

However, the Batu people of South Africa use the leaves of Delosperma to make khadi, an alcoholic wine which induces hallucinations. The roots are used to grow yeasts which are then used for beer.

And now, how about a poem, lovely people? I am reminded of the photo of the California coast (above) as I read this. It takes a couple of readings, I think, to absorb all the nuance. W.S di Piero was born in Philadelphia in 1945, and his poems are said to be full of ‘gritty realism’: he also takes inspiration from painters such as Caravaggio and (my favourite!) Carpaccio. I think there’s something epic about this work, as it reaches back in time and then focuses in on the flowers around a child’s feet. See what you think.

Ice Plant in Bloom

BY W. S. DI PIERO

From where I stood at the field’s immaculate edge,
walking past the open patch of land that’s money bounded,
in California’s flat sunlight, by suburban shadows of houses
occupied by professors, lawyers, radically affluent do-gooders,
simple casual types, plus a few plumbers, children of lettuce-pickers
and microchip princes, grandchildren of goatherds and orchard keepers
who pruned and picked apricot trees that covered what wasn’t yet
block after block. Vaporized by money, by the lords and ladies of money,
in one month, on one block, three bungalows bulldozed, and the tanky smells
of goatherds and, before them, dirt farmers who never got enough water,
held momentary in the air like an album snapshot’s aura,
souls of roller-rink sweethearts and sausage-makers fleeing
heaps of crusty lath, lead pipe, tiny window casements,
then new foundations poured for cozy twelve-room houses.
So what was she doing in that field among weeds and ice plant?
The yellow and pink blooms spiking around her feet like glory?
Cranking her elbow as surveyors do, to a bored watcher in the distance,
she fanned the air, clouds running low and fast behind her.

A voice seeped through the moodless sunlight
as she seemed to talk to the flowers and high weeds.
She noticed me, pointed in my direction. Accusation, election,
I could not tell, nor if it was at me myself
or the green undeveloped space she occupied,
welded into her grid by traffic noise. Okay!
A word for me? A go-ahead? Okay! Smeared by the wind
and maybe not her own voice after all. I held my place.
She would be one of the clenched ministers adrift
in bus terminals and K-Marts, carrying guns
in other parts of America, except she dressed like a casual lady of money,
running shoes, snowbird sunglasses, wristwatch like a black birthday cake.
The voice, thin and pipey, came from the boy or girl,
blond like her, who edged into view as I tracked the shot. The child,
staring down while he cried his song, slowly tread the labyrinth
of ice plant’s juicy starburst flesh of leaves.
Okay! He follows the nested space between flowers that bristle at his feet,
his or hers, while the desiccated California sky so far from heaven and hell
beams down on us beings of flower, water, and flesh before we turn to money.
The sky kept sliding through the tips of weeds. The sky left us behind.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Peter D. Tillman – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89361118

Wednesday Weed – Hemp Agrimony Revisited

Honeybee on Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Dear Readers, I haven’t written about hemp agrimony since 2016, and so I thought that it needed a few more minutes in the limelight. These are the same plants that I planted in 2010, and they are still going strong twelve years later. Every year I cut them back in the autumn, and every spring they burst forth again without any bother or nonsense. This year I’ve put in a circular plant support so they’re not quite as flopsy-bunny as they’ve been in previous years, but they are still a little shaggy and unkempt, rather like me. No wonder I love them, and I’m not the only one. The honeybees pop over from the nearby allotments for a feed, especially as the lavender has gone over now, but it is also popular with all manner of little hoverflies, bees and wasps, including this rather intriguing visitor from Sunday afternoon.

Nomada sp. bee

You might think that the little critter in the photo above was a tiny wasp, but in fact it’s a bee, and a rather sneaky one at that. Nomad bees don’t build nests of their own, but are cleptoparasites – the females creep into the nest of another species of bee and lays her egg on the wall. When the larva hatches out, it kills the host’s larva and feasts on it and the provisions of pollen and other materials that the mother bee has so lovingly gathered. Normally the host species is some kind of mining bee, and the range of the nomad bee is very closely attuned to that of the intended target, so I shall have to keep my eyes open and see what mining bees are about. One other delightful thing about hemp agrimony is that the flowers are at eye level so I don’t even have to bend over to see all the drama. You might remember me spotting the spider below last year – she was hanging around trying to catch a bee or moth, or even a butterfly – today I spotted a comma, a blue butterfly and a large white all popping in to feed.

Candy-striped spider ((Enoplognatha ovata)

So, hemp agrimony definitely punches above its weight when it comes to invertebrate interest, and, as I have one plant in the sun, one in the shade and one in semi-shade it extends the flowering season to about six weeks.

I included some of the plant’s medicinal and folkloric uses in the original post below, but having a quick look at the Plantlore website, it seems that even as recently as the 1920s/30s, a poultice of the leaves was used to cure a fisherman whose arm was otherwise likely to be amputated. The person who had heard the story of the fisherman was, in his teens, much afflicted by boils on his neck and arms, and his parents remembered that the plant concerned was hemp agrimony. The youngster jumped on his bike and found a stand of the plants, and took some of them – sure enough, a poultice made from the leaves drew out the pus from his infection, and he was cured. He writes about how, whenever he sees hemp agrimony he regards it with ‘admiration and gratitude’, which is exactly how I feel about it, and about so many of the plants that I’ve grown to love through writing the Wednesday Weed.

And, as I didn’t include a poem in my original post, here’s a new one, by Matt Howard. He was born in Norfolk, and works as a nature conservationist and organiser of environmental and arts events. I think I would have known that Howard was a close observer of the world around him just from reading this poem, with its understanding of the interwoven lives of humans, plants and animals. See what you think. Howard’s website about his latest project, described as ‘ an innovative international poetry translation project that will map the poetry of nature and place across borders’ is here.

Reed sweet-grass by Matt Howard

 

A quarter acre of it, mowed
down the low meadow for the clearing.
Frost and stubble among the rides.
Dominant and too coarse to bale,
a day’s work, with rake and fork.

 

An aesthetic of summer justified
by muscle memory in February,
slung from hip, back, shoulder and wrist –
the idea of the nectar-rich; marsh orchid,
ragged robin, hemp agrimony

 

and what it all might mean. High talk,
but none of it bluff or bluster;
hard-pronged, our true vernacular sworn
and sweated by the good tonnage we heap,
taller than a big man. Purposeful.

 

The stack will grow warm as a body inside;
a hibernacula of predator and prey:
grass snake and her leathery eggs,
tunnelings for vole and shrew,
all bedfellows of the rat, three feet down.

 

Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Dear Readers, I wonder if there was ever a plant quite as ramshackle-looking as Hemp Agrimony when it’s past its prime. The flower heads looks as if they are in need of a good comb, and when the seeds come the overall effect is of a gigantic thistle with bedhead. But if we look at the photograph above, we can see a hoverfly who is in no way put off by the general air of untidiness. For, of all the flowers that has self-seeded around my pond, Hemp Agrimony is among the most popular.

IMG_4270Like many plants whose blossom is made up of numerous small flowers, Hemp Agrimony’s nectar can be easily accessed by the more non-specialised pollinators, such as flies and hoverflies. And the multiplicity of blooms means that there is a lot of food in one place. Honeybees also have a great fondness for the plant, and when it’s sunny the bees drift drowsily over the dirty-pink flowers, which Richard Mabey  compared to ‘whipped strawberry mousse’ in his book Flora Britannica.

IMG_4291Hemp Agrimony is a member of the Asteraceae, or Daisy family. You might expect that it has some psychotropic properties, what with it having the species name cannabinum, but this simply refers to the shape of the leaves. This doesn’t stop the occasional perfectly innocent Hemp Agrimony seedling being impounded of course, because botanical knowledge is not necessarily the first thing that they teach at Police Academy. Richard Mabey  mentions that young Horse Chestnut trees have been taken into custody because their leaves also have a strange resemblance to the true Cannabis plant, at least if you’ve never seen one of the latter.

IMG_4278Hemp Agrimony is a native plant in the UK, and like so many plants that have been here for a while, it has some interesting folklore. One alternative name for the plant is ‘Holy Rope’ – the leaves of Hemp, which this plant resembles, were used to make rope, and it was believed that such a rope was used to bind Christ before his crucifixion. A more day-to-day belief was that if bread was placed on a bed of Hemp Agrimony leaves, it wouldn’t go mouldy. The plant has also been used medicinally, especially in the Netherlands where it was for jaundice, as a blood-purifier and as a cure for scurvy. It is said to be toxic, however, and it has been noticed that the iron-stomached goat is the only creature that will eat it.

IMG_4271Hemp Agrimony likes damp, shady places, and so is very at home beside the pond in my north-facing garden. It’s a perennial too, so all it needs is some cutting back to stop it becoming too much of an eyesore. I put the hollow stems beside the shed, where they will hopefully be used by hibernating insects. And next year, without any bother at all, it will be back as a late summer feast for pollinators. I am very happy to live with its wayward habit and general shagginess when the reward is such an abundance of insects and other invertebrates.

Resources this week include: Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey

The Plant Lives website

The A Modern Herbal website

 

Wednesday Weed – Candytuft

Candytuft (Iberis umbellata)

Dear Readers, candytuft has been a popular garden plant for as long as I can remember – it has a lot of garden variants, many of them pure white, but the ones I have in my windowboxes are palest pink when young. Candytuft is actually a member of the Brassicaceae, or cabbage family, and as with most of these plants there are four petals arranged in a cross-shape (hence the alternative name for the family of ‘crucifers’). The name ‘candytuft’ doesn’t relate to the plant’s sweetness, but to the old name for Heraklion the main city of Crete, Candia. The genus name ‘Iberis’ also emphasizes the Mediterranean connection, with Iberis coming from Iberia, the classicaal name for Spain.

Wild candytuft (Iberis amara) grows all over Europe but its heartland is around the Mediterranean. The wild plant can be found in the UK but is extremely rare, as it lives on the south-facing slopes of chalk downs, a habitat that is becoming increasingly rate. You can tell the plant from its garden cousin because the flowers grow up into little cones and the petals are asymmetric.

Photo One by By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10426344

Wild Candytuft (Iberis amara) (Photo One)

All members of the cabbage family have chemicals called glucosinolates, which produce the pungent garlic/radish/mustard smell of many brassicas, and which defend against many insects. However, members of the candytuft family have an additional chemical defence, cucurbitacin, which is more commonly found in cucumbers. Interestingly, this defends against cabbage white butterflies, who are not deterred by the strong flavours of other kinds of brassicas.

Although a member of the cabbage family, Candytuft doesn’t seem to be particularly edible, what with its teeny tiny mustard-flavoured leaves which are hardly worth the gathering. Some people do admire the flowers though, and I’m sure that a few thrown into a salad would brighten things up no end.

Medicinally, the flowers have been used for gastro-intestinal complaints, such as bloating or acid reflux. I note that chemical company Bayer are growing their own candytuft flowers to produce ‘Iberogast’, a herbal treatment for these problems. In Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal (from the 1930s), the plant is said to have been used to treat gout, rheumatism and atrial fibrillation. Presumably the wild plant was much more  common then than now.

In the Victorian language of flowers, Candytuft is said to signify ‘indifference’, perhaps because it’s tolerant of a variety of growing conditions. I do wonder how the Victorian lady managed to decipher any bouquet sent to her, and whether spats developed with different posies winging their way backwards and forwards, becoming ever more insulting. For example, a bunch of flowers containing amaranth (pretension and foppery), aspen (lamentation), basil (hatred) and bilberry (treachery) would be a most irritating thing to receive. Maybe the only response would be to buy some very woody plants and throw the whole lot at the sender.

Photo Two by By Stefan Laarmann - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=947261

Candytuft (Photo Two)

And finally, a poem. Christopher Morley’s ‘Our House’ features lots of things that I would like – the old-fashioned garden, the window seat, the summer house, the banister – but I think a moat is a step too far. See what you think. Morley was a journalist, poet and great fan of Sherlock Holmes, and I find this poem as cozy as an old armchair, and none the worse for it. We don’t need to be challenged all the time, eh.

Our House
by Christopher Morley (1890-1957)

IT should be yours, if I could build
The quaint old dwelling I desire,
With books and pictures bravely filled
And chairs beside an open fire,
White-panelled rooms with candles lit-
I lie awake to think of it!

A dial for the sunny hours,
A garden of old-fashioned flowers-
Say marigolds and lavender
And mignonette and fever-few,
And Judas-tree and maidenhair
And candytuft and thyme and rue-
All these for you to wander in.

A Chinese carp (called Mandarin)
Waving a sluggish silver fin
Deep in the moat: so tame he comes
To lip your fingers offering crumbs.
Tall chimneys, like long listening ears,
White shutters, ivy green and thick,
And walls of ruddy Tudor brick
Grown mellow with the passing years.

And windows with small leaded panes,
Broad window-seats for when it rains;
A big blue bowl of pot pourri
And-yes, a Spanish chestnut tree
To coin the autumn’s minted gold.
A summer house for drinking tea-
All these (just think!) for you and me.

A staircase of the old black wood
Cut in the days of Robin Hood,
And banisters worn smooth as glass
Down which your hand will lightly pass;
A piano with pale yellow keys
For wistful twilight melodies,
And dusty bottles in a bin-
All these for you to revel in!

But when? Ah well, until that time
We’ll habit in this house of rhyme.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10426344

Photo Two by By Stefan Laarmann – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=947261

 

Primroses and Red Kites and Babies!

Candelabra primula (Primula bulleyana)

Dear Readers, as you might imagine I have been pretty swamped with work since getting back from Canada, but it was such a beautiful day today that I actually managed to pop out to see what was happening in the garden. First up, I noticed that some of the candelabra primulas that we planted last year have actually survived, and are coming into flower – these are orange and yellow, but we have some purple ones for later in the year. The patch at the top end of the pond is often a bit bleak at this time of year, before everything else gets going, so it was lovely to see them. We have put in supports for the hemp agrimony this year, so hopefully they won’t be overwhelmed before they’ve finished for the year.And then, I was having a cup of tea when I thought I heard the sound of baby birds. The blue tits have been all over the hawthorn this year gathering caterpillars, and then one of them shot past me and headed for the nest box that we put up on the balustrade of our loft.

And here’s a shot of his or her tail disappearing into the nest. I am so excited! We will keep the curtains on the room drawn so that we don’t disturb them. I feel like a proud surrogate parent.

I am hoping that at some point the climbing hydrangea will reach the balustrade, it would provide some extra cover and hiding places. I reckon about another two years at the rate it’s growing. Believe it or not, we cut it back level with the ground floor window (above the green door) in January 2020.

And then, finally, after looking for them for the past year, I saw a red kite in the sky over East Finchley.

At one time, these birds were so valued as scavengers that to kill one was a capital crime. But over time, with habitat destruction, cleaner streets, less carrion about and the rise of egg-collecting as a hobby, the bird became extremely rare, retreating from its range across the whole of the UK to a few sites in Wales, where it was never able to raise enough chicks to expand.

By the 1930s there were only 30 birds in the whole of the UK, all derived from one female bird. It was decided to bring in birds from Sweden and Germany to improve genetic diversity, and the birds were released in various sites around the UK. This was so successful that there are now an estimated 10,000 birds, and their range is increasing every year. They are the most elegant of birds, with their forked tails and narrow wings, and it was a real joy to see one so close to home. The main risks now to the birds are poisoning from rodenticides used to kill rats (this also kills many other birds of prey and mammals, including domestic dogs and cats). They also have a habit of colliding with power cables. Still, this is a real success story, and we could all do with one of them!

Well, That’ll Teach Me….

Holy Moly readers, I should remember that when I go away in spring I come back to a garden that needs a machete to hack my way to the shed, but as it’s been three years since I’ve been anywhere I hope I can be forgiven. The whitebeam has sprung into leaf, the hawthorn is laden down with flowers…

The Geranium phaeum (or Dusky Cranesbill) is in full flower…

The Geranium macrorhizum has been flowering for weeks and is now in its full glory…

The Geranium nodosum (are you sensing a theme here?) is so delicate that I currently have it in a pot, but it too is flowering (along with the white Herb Robert that has seeded itself)

And finally, I planted an ornamental dead nettle, Lamium orvala (otherwise known as balm-leaved red dead-nettle) and it promptly looked very unhappy before it disappeared. This year, it’s about eighteen inches tall, covered in flowers and abuzz with bees. Very satisfying.

And here is a new visitor to the garden – I believe that she’s from the next road to us and that her name is Sadie. She was a tiny bit too interested in the frogs, but as the whole pond is currently covered in duckweed (at least until we start removing it tomorrow) they at least have plenty of cover.