Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Cotoneaster Revisited

Probably the Hollyberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster bullatus)

Dear Readers, when I first wrote about cotoneaster back in 2016, I was very much thinking of the small-leaved hedging variety that is so popular here in the County Roads. However, I am now tripping over them everywhere, including in various woodlands where they are making themselves at home. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley list no less than 12 different species of Cotoneaster, of which the Wall Cotoneaster (described below) is the most commonly found. The authors describe how Entire-Leaved Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster integralis) and Himalayan Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster simonsii) seem to be the most inclined to bad behaviour: the former smothers limestone cliffs and turf, while the former prefers heathland in the far northern reaches of Scotland. The culprits, I fear, are our friends the birds, who gobble up the berries and deposit the seeds elsewhere. 

In all, there are 85 species of Cotoneaster in the wild in the UK, 82 of which are actual species and 3 of which are hybrids. No wonder it’s difficult to tell them apart! These plants are popular with bees, hoverflies and birds, so I can see why they’re so widely planted. In urban areas I think that they greatly cheer up our streets and car parks and public spaces, and I can even forgive the odd intrusion in the edges of our local woodlands. I can see how they’d be much more of a problem in a Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

Anyhow, let’s see what I thought back in 2016.

Dear Readers, I suspect that the most contentious part of today’s post will be how the name of this plant is pronounced. Do we go with ‘cotton-easter’, or is it the rather more exotic-sounding ‘cot-oh-knee-aster?’ Well according to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s the latter, preferably with the second syllable voiced as if you’ve just heard that the price of quinoa in Waitrose has doubled overnight. So that’s that cleared up. Incidentally, the name comes from cotone, the Latin for quince, and -aster meaning ‘resembling’ – I suppose that the berries, with their star-shaped ‘ends’, do look a little like tiny quinces.

img_8119There are over 80 species of cotoneaster in cultivation in the UK, but this is probably the most common. It is a great favourite in gardens – the small white flowers are bee-magnets that attract an extraordinary variety of pollinators from the second that they come into bud, and the berries are not only attractive to us, but also to birds. This is a plant that doesn’t need pruning, and is largely trouble-free for the gardener. Unfortunately it is also a frequent escapee, spread by those pesky birds who eat the berries and distribute them all over the place. In my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ it is described as being a dangerous invasive on cliffs and heathland, where it shades out less vigorous plants. In London, it crops up all over the place, and I’ve found cotoneaster seedlings in woodland, on waste ground and even in my own garden.

img_8116Cotoneaster is another member of the rose family (see tormentil last week), and is originally from western China. It was first introduced to the UK in about 1879, was recorded in the wild in 1940 and is said to be ‘still spreading’, though at present it can mostly be found in the south of England.  From the little map in my Harraps Wildflower Guide, it appears that Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset are ‘hotspots’.

img_8121However, there is a native cotoneaster, known in Welsh as the Creigafal y Gogarth “rock apple of Gogarth” (Cotoneaster cambricus) , and found only on the Great Orme peninsula in north Wales. There are only six of this plant left in the wild, with another 11 cultivated from cuttings and seeds. The plant is unique to this habitat, and grows nowhere else. It has a very slow and erratic germination and survival rate (the 11 cultivated plants are the only ones left from 33 originally planted out). The plant was discovered in 1783 and since then has been dug up by collectors, overgrazed by sheep, eaten by rabbits and goats and, the final straw, outcompeted by other species of cotoneaster from local gardens. There is a plan in place to increase the population to 100 plants by 2030, so fingers crossed.

By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The rock apple of Gogarth (Cotoeaster cambricus) – probably the rarest plant ever featured on the Wednesday Weed! (Photo One – credit below)

But, to return to the far more common Cotoneaster horizontalis. You will sometimes find mention of the berries being poisonous, but fortunately the level of toxins is very low, and the berries are rather bitter and powdery,  so the chance of anyone being masochistic enough to eat a sufficient quantity to do themselves a damage is extremely low. Indeed, on the Poison Garden website the author states that even the birds will only eat his cotoneaster berries when everything else is gone. In view of this, it will come as no surprise that I can find no recipes featuring cotoneaster berries, not even a tasty liqueur.

img_8116Having thought that we had nailed down the pronunciation of the name of this week’s plant, I have now come across a poem by Thomas Hardy which throws the proverbial spanner in the works. It’s fair to say that it’s not one of his best works, although it is in an interesting poetical form called a triolet, a French form with a rigid pattern of stress and rhyme. Here it is, in full.

Birds at Winter Nightfall

Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotoneaster
Around the house. The flakes fly!–faster
Shutting indoors that crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone!

So, even accounting for Hardy’s probable West Country accent, we now have a third possible way of saying ‘cotoneaster’ – ‘cot-oh-knee-arster’. Unless Hardy pronounces ‘faster’ as ‘fass-ter’ rather than ‘farster’, which is quite possible. I like the idea of a ‘crumb-outcaster’ – that would be me, in all weathers.

However, my happiest find for this particular Wednesday Weed is some music by the composer David Warin Solomons called ‘Cotoneaster’. Inspired by the bees coming and going from his cotoneaster bush, it’s a rather meditative and peaceful piece, redolent of those first warm days of spring when the flowers open, and the queen bees are stocking up their reserves for the challenges ahead. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Cotoneaster for cor anglais and and guitar, by David Warin Solomons


Photo Credits

Photo One (Native Cotoneaster) – By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


Nature’s Calendar – 27th November – 1st December – Teasel Brush Silhouettes

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren. 

Dear Readers, it might appear that I’ve become teasel-obsessed, but clearly I’m not the only one! In Nature’s Calendar, Lulah Ellender has an interesting piece on teasels. While I was familiar with some of it (see the ‘Wednesday Weed’ piece below), I had no idea that teasels had so many vernacular names, from ‘barbers’ brushes’, ‘donkey’s thistle’ and ‘brushes and combs’ to ‘Venus’s basin’ because of the way that the water gathers in the little ‘bowls’ at the bottom of the leaves. I had been intrigued by thoughts that the plant was on its way to insectivory, because one study showed that plants with drowned insects in the ‘basins’ did better than others. Ellender points out that a second study hasn’t borne this out, though, so more research is needed!

And here’s a poem by John McCullough, written in 2008. I remember seeing something very similar to this in Dorset when I used to visit Mum and Dad – the teenagers wreaking havoc through the quiet rural lanes, so full of energy that it felt as if they might burst. The ‘quivering teasel’ really reminds me of how the plant stands as a sentinel in a variety of unloved, damp places – ditches swamped with Himalayan balsam and rusting farm detritus, those strange rubble-y piles beside gates where something was dumped and is slowly returning to the soil.

In humid months, at the estate’s unwatched edge
the boys hook up for an after-hours cigarette

before trashing field gates. Dazzle of white Reeboks, bling,
practised geezer-laughs rev-revving

with the engines of graffiti tagged bangers.
Customised stereos thump out this week’s garage,

the race kicking off in a blizzard of chalk dust,
a bouncing charge up the crumbling, fossil-built rise.

Death and dew ponds can’t stop them while they swerve
past quivering teasel, conquer the bone ridge’s turn,

skeins of wool lifting from gorse as banners
for the night’s whooping, fist-raising winners.

Further off, the crews unite for a slow drift, melt into hills
but leave the empty sky with headlamp trails:

blazing ghosts still performing their necessary work,
still scribbling their names on the dark.

And now, here’s a revisit of my Wednesday Weed on teasel, from (gosh) 2015.

On a grey, damp day at the end of February, I went with my friend Ann to see what weeds I could find in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. A stream runs along the far north-eastern edge of the area and there, silhouetted against the sky, we found the unmistakable seedheads of the Teasel.

IMG_1369Teasel, for all its grass-like appearance, is in fact a member of the Scabious family, and like scabious, it has a lot of wildlife value – I have seen whole families of goldfinches dangling from the stems and pulling out the seeds, and in summer, the flowers are loved by bees and other pollinators.

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (

The Teasel flower itself is remarkable. In July, a band of flowers opens around the middle of the head, as below:

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Then, gradually, the band separates into two ‘stripes’, one moving up the seed head, the other moving down.

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence )

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

For some truly beautiful close-ups of the Teasel, have a look at the photos by Brian Johnston here.

A close relative of ‘our’ teasel, Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus sativum) was extensively used in the  textile industry. The plant was used to ‘raise the nap’ on woollen fabric, particularly for such delicate jobs as treating the green baize covering on billiard tables (and indeed they are still used for this purpose, having proved to be the most efficacious way of performing this task). For anyone who would like to know more about the process, and about the history of baize, I can heartily recommend the Pegs and Tails website, which is full of arcane and interesting facts and photos.  The seed heads were attached to a machine such as the Teasel Gig below, from the Somerset Levels.

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Dried teasel head ("Teasel" by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) - Own work. )

A single dried teasel head (“Teasel” by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) – Own work. )

By the twentieth century, the Teasel gigs had been largely replaced by metal combs. However, many weavers still swear by the Teasel heads – they don’t tear the cloth as metal items sometimes do, and are, of course, cheaper to grow or to harvest. And the Wild Teasel that I saw in the cemetery has also had its part to play – though the spines are weaker than those of Fuller’s teasel, they have still been used for gently carding wool, a process that ‘teases’ out the separate threads for spinning.

Fuller’s teasel was taken to Virginia in the USA by the early settlers for their woollen industry, although there it has proved to be something of a thug. It can grow surprisingly tall given half a chance.

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In a winter garden, or in floristry, Teasels also have a kind of sculptural majesty, especially in autumn, where the low sunlight shows them to their best advantage.

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

One very interesting feature of the teasel is that when young, the leaves of the plant form a kind of continuous cup, which holds water when it rains. This prevents insects from climbing up the stem, and drowns a good number of those who try. There is some evidence that the insects that are thus left rotting are absorbed by the plant, in a form of partial carnivory – plants that have such ‘food’ seem to have a larger seedset than those who don’t.

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant ("Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant (“Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s also interesting that this is the very water that is said to have rejuvenating powers: it has also been used to remove freckles, and as an eye bath for those suffering from hay fever.

IMG_1370The structure of the Teasel seed head fascinates me. It looks a little like a small hedgehog, or some kind of many-spiked sea creature. It doesn’t surprise me at all that there is an Irish belief that a teasel head left on a grave will distract the Banshees, who will use it as a hairbrush. It is one of those plants which look almost otherworldly, a spiky character full of strange secrets and a most particular beauty.

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons



Wednesday Weed – Firethorn Updated

Firethorn (Pyracantha) in the Sunshine Garden Centre car park

Dear Readers, having written about waxwings and their taste for berries yesterday, I wanted to have a quick revisit of Firethorn, or Pyracantha. This has become an increasingly popular garden plant, as the number of colour varieties increase. And it forms a very fine prickly hedge, which is not only full of flowers in spring, and berries in autumn, but would keep out anything less determined than a grizzly bear (see the story about the man who bought my previous house below.

And here is an interesting poem by Jane Hirshfield, an American poet whose work I like very much. See what you think of this enigmatic little piece. And then, on to my original Firethorn Wednesday Weed, from 2015. Gosh, such a lot has happened since!

Pyracantha and Plum by Jane Hirshfield

Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree,
spring blossoms tender, hopeful, on another.
The view from this window
much as it was ten years ago, fifteen.
Yet it seems this morning
a self-portrait both clearer and darker,
as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel
had walked through the garden, looking hard.

Pyracantha growing in Coldfall Wood

Firethorn (Pyracantha sp) growing in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, this week we have something of a mystery on our hands. Growing at the edge of Coldfall Wood is what appears to be a Firethorn (Pyracantha) bush. This native plant of southern Europe through to south-east Asia is a common garden plant, but the clue to its normal form is in the name. Firethorn normally has the most impressive array of thorns of any common shrub, but this  individual appears to be thornless. What is going on?

I used to live in Chadwell Heath, which is in the hinterland between Essex and Greater London. I had two Pyracantha bushes, one with yellow berries, and one with orange ones, much like the one in the picture below.

A fine orange Pyracantha („Pyracantha-coccinea-berries“. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons -

A fine orange Pyracantha („Pyracantha-coccinea-berries“. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons –

As you might expect, my garden was wild and overgrown by suburban standards, but it was a home to sparrows and bumblebees, toads and foxes. The sparrows in particular would chirp from the depths of the Firethorn, safe from predators, for none would dare the Firethorn’s spiky tracery. When I sold the house, there was a mix up with the moving vans, and we were marooned after the transaction was completed. The new owners took possession, but we had nowhere to go while we waited for transport to move all our stuff. We had to watch as the new owners of the house started to hack the garden about. For reasons which puzzle me even now, the new man of the house took his shirt off before he started in on my beloved Firethorn. As anyone who has ever encountered one knows, pyracantha fights back with a vengeance. Within half an hour, the plant was half its previous size, but its attacker had so many cuts on his torso that he looked as if he’d been whipped. The Firethorn might have been going down, but it left its opponent bloodied and resentful.

Pyracantha flowers and fruit ("Starr 021126-0030 Pyracantha angustifolia" by Forest & Kim Starr. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Pyracantha flowers and fruit (“Starr 021126-0030 Pyracantha angustifolia” by Forest & Kim Starr. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

Pyracantha has many advantages as a wildlife garden plant, and has been cultivated in the UK since the Fifteenth century. We have already mentioned its thorns, so useful as a deterrent to would-be burglars. Its flowers attract bees, and its berries attract birds. In fact, the fruits can be such a draw that the municipal planting of Pyracantha and its close relative, Cotoneaster in supermarket car parks sometimes summons that most colourful and iconic of winter birds, the Waxwing.

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) ("Bohemian Wax Wing" by Randen Pederson - originally posted to Flickr as Cedar Wax Wing. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) (“Bohemian Wax Wing” by Randen Pederson – originally posted to Flickr as Cedar Wax Wing. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Of course, none of this explains exactly why this thornless, berryless, flowerless specimen has popped up in the wood.

IMG_1161IMG_1160IMG_1159We have seen numerous examples of plants who have escaped from gardens and established themselves (no doubt with great glee) in the ‘wild’. And as Coldfall Wood backs onto many gardens, it would be a simple thing for a passing blackbird to gobble down a berry, perch in a hornbeam tree and deposit the seed amongst the fallen leaves. But living in the deep shade of the uncoppiced part of the wood is not ideal for a plant that needs at least some direct sunlight. I have a hypothesis that, because thorns are expensive for a plant to produce, maybe this individual is putting all its energy into producing leaves at the moment. Maybe it is too young and innocent to have thorns. Or maybe, in my infinite wisdom, I have misidentified it and it is, in fact, some errant Cotoneaster (though my botanist friends agree that it is a Pyracantha).

Not everybody is fond of Pyracantha.  Like Hawthorn, its flowers are said to smell a little like sex, and so it has come to have something of a wicked reputation. Indeed, it is said that some churches will not have Firethorn berries included as part of the Harvest Festival flower arrangements because it is associated with the Devil. Terrible woman that I am, this makes me admire it even more. Who could not love this fierce, beautiful, generous plant? It is as much a force of nature as a tiger or a kestrel. And in the uncertain, tumultuous days ahead, maybe this is exactly what our struggling pollinators and birds will need.

Pyracantha hedge. © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Pyracantha hedge from Sandhill (north of Leeds).  © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Sources this week include the Plantlore website, the Plant Lives website and Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica.

Wednesday Weed – Oleander Updated

Oleander in Venice October 2023

Dear Readers, ever since I saw Oleander growing as a street tree in Venice I’ve been thinking about this beautiful but poisonous plant. I was all set to write a ‘Wednesday Weed’ when, lo and behold, it turned out that I’d written one already, back in 2019, so here it is. See what you think. And if anyone has a decent Oleander poem do share, I couldn’t find one that I liked :-).

Oleander (Nerium oleander)

Dear Readers, many moons ago I was treasurer for a community garden in North London. We had received some money to make a ‘dry’ (drought-tolerant) garden and we were discussing what to plant.

‘We could go for a Mediterranean theme, with some oleanders’, said one innocent soul.

Everyone around the table positively hissed. Heads were shaken, sighs were uttered and I could  imagine people making a mental Sign of the Cross to fend off the evil of the suggestion.

Our chairperson leaned forward.

‘Don’t you know’, she whispered, ‘that oleander is deadly poisonous! Think of the children!’

And that, dear readers, was the end of that. So I gave oleander very little thought until I saw it poking its head under a hedge in the County Roads today. Is it really as poisonous as everyone thinks?

Well, according  to our old friend ‘The Poison Garden’ website, it is a candidate for ‘the most poisonous plant in the garden, but also the most beautiful’. The website contains the sad story of a giraffe who died after being fed oleander clippings at Tucson Zoo, and also the story of Fudgie, a miniature cow who nearly died after eating the plant, but who survived in spite of having her heart stop twelve times during the time it took her to recover. Every time her heart stopped the vet or toxicologist would apparently restart it by kicking her in the chest, which seems a bit drastic but at least it worked.

Oleander also caused the deaths of two toddlers adopted from a Siberian orphanage and living in California. In their previous lives, the children were said to have had malnutrition, and to have developed pica, a habit of eating inedible objects in order to assuage their hunger. They ate some oleander leaves in spite of the extremely bitter flavour, and both died. Oleander affects the stomach, central nervous system and heart, and 100g is enough to poison an adult horse. Victims of oleander poisoning may be treated with activated charcoal to absorb the toxins and may need to be put on a pacemaker to keep the heart steady during the recovery period.

As if this wasn’t enough, the sap of the plant can cause skin and eye irritation.

In other words, it probably wasn’t the best choice of plant for a community garden frequented by small children.

There is little doubt that this is a very pretty plant, often scented and available in a wide variety of colours. It is part of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae) which also includes the almond-scented frangipani and the periwinkle or Vinca. The family is largely tropical, and many species are poisonous (the Latin name may refer to ‘dog poison). Although we associate it now with the Mediterranean it has been cultivated for so long that no one really knows where it comes from, though south-west Asia has been suggested as a starting point. In their ‘native’ habitat, oleanders grow in stream beds which alternately flood and dry up, and so although the plant is drought-tolerant it also seems resistant to waterlogging.

Oleander growing wild in a dry river bed (Wadi) in Libya (Public Domain)

Small wonder, then, that it has been extensively planted in some parts of the US where these conditions are not unusual – it was used following the devestating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, and Moody Gardens in Galveston is the home of the International Oleander Society, dedicated to the development of new varieties and the preservation of existing ones.

Photo One By WhisperToMe - Own work, CC0,

The first oleander planting in Texas (Photo One)

When it comes to wildlife benefits, oleander is a bit of a mixed bag. Its toxins were originally developed to deter invertebrate pests and grazing animals, and we’ve already seen what happens to the latter. However, as you might expect, some insects do prey upon the plant, and have come up with handy solutions to the poison problem. The caterpillars of the polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) eat only the pulp of the leaves, avoiding the more poisonous ribs. Both caterpillar and moth are stunning, and can be found in the Caribbean and the south of the United States. It is thought that they fed on a plant called the devil’s potato before oleander was introduced to the New World, but it seems that they have pretty much moved over to the ‘alien’ plant.

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! - Polka-Dot Wasp Moth - Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) (Photo Two)

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Caterpillar of the polka-dot wasp moth (Photo Three)

Other caterpillars, including those of the common crow butterfly (Euplora core) and the oleander hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii) incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, making them unpalatable to birds. It is noted that the common crow butterfly in particular almost seems aware of how poisonous it is, as it drifts through the forests of India and takes its time as it wanders from flower to flower. Several butterflies from other families mimic the common crow butterfly, and who can blame them?

Photo Four By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Common Crow butterfly (Euploea core) (Photo Four)

The oleander hawk moth can very occasionally be found in the UK, but it lives mainly in Africa, Asia and, surprisingly, some of the Hawaiian Islands. It migrates and this is how it sometimes ends up in Europe, though it more commonly finishes its journey in Turkey.The caterpillars can grow to almost nine centimetres long, and are a flourescent lime-green colour, again a mark of confidence that no one is going to eat you.

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Oleander hawk moth (Daphnis nerii) (Photo Five)

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

A splendid oleander hawk moth caterpillar (Photo Six)

So, the oleander can be food for a subset of invertebrates who have learned to deal with its toxicity. However, although the flowers look inviting, it’s thought that they are not actually useful for pollinators because they are nectarless, and the blooms receive very few visits from insects, who won’t bother to return often for no reward. The plant does require insect pollination, however, and so to compensate it produces extremely sticky pollen, which allows many flowers to be pollinated from one visit. Nectar is an expensive resource for a plant to produce, and so oleander has found a way of getting insects to visit without ‘paying them back’.

Oleander has cropped up in the work of many artists. Klimt featured it in his ‘Two Girls with an Oleander’ painted in 1892 and rather more naturalistic than his better known ‘gold’ paintings, such as ‘The Kiss’.

Two Girls with an Oleander (Gustav Klimt) (1892) (Public Domain)

My old favourite Vincent Van Gogh painted oleanders when he was staying in Arles in 1888 – he loved the plants because they were ‘joyous’ and ‘life-affirming’.

Oleanders (Vincent van Gogh 1888) (Public Domain)

Oleanders were a popular subject in the frescos and murals of Rome and Pompeii, and so it’s no surprise that the Victorian Orientalist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema should incorporate them into many of his paintings of classical antiquity.

‘An Oleander’ by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1882) Public Domain

So, this is a plant that has fascinated people for millenia. Poisonous but beautiful, with flowers that deceive, it is tough enough to survive drought and flood. Its ability to cope with disaster is nowhere clearer than in Hiroshima, where it was the first plant to bloom after the atomic bomb destroyed the city and is the symbol of the city to this day.

Photo Seven from

Oleander flowering near the Genbaku dome in Hiroshima (Photo Seven)

And this week, something different. I found this article in The Atlantic magazine, and it is about the way that different cultures use language in war situations in order to cope with the situations that they find themselves in. In the Israeli army, “We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” translates as ‘We have two wounded and one dead. We need a helicopter.” It’s a fascinating read. See what you think!  It seems to me that, wherever we come from, we need to find a way of describing the indescribable.

“British soldiers in the field also refer to dead comrades as “T4,” Campbell told me, and to the badly wounded as “T1,” identifying the people in question over the radio never by their names but by a mix of letters and serial numbers. “So it’s ‘Charlie Alpha 6243 is T1,’ not ‘Tom’s lost his legs,’” Campbell said. “You need the jargon so that an 18-year-old can say it and not be overwhelmed by what he’s saying. (My emphasis)” (From The Atlantic. ‘What Military Jargon Says About Armies, and the Societies that they Serve’,Matti Friedman 2016).

Photo Credits

Photo One By WhisperToMe – Own work, CC0,

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth – Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Nature’s Calendar – 28th October to 1st November – Reddening Dogwood

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

Dear Readers, dogwood is one of the few garden plants that’s more interesting in the winter than at any other time of year, especially when seen against a grey sky or, even better, snow. I wrote the piece below back in 2018, when dogwood was my Wednesday Weed. See what you think. 

Dear Readers, every gardening magazine  has a section on ‘winter colour’ in September (along with instructions on bulb planting), and one of the plants that is always mentioned is the dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). This is a shrub which is native to the UK and most of Europe and western Asia, and it is largely grown for the colour of its stems in winter – the species name sanguinea  meaning ‘bloody’ rather gives the game away. It is the youngest growth which has the brightest colour, and in many municipal parks and gardens the plant is cut right down to a few inches every year. There are many cultivated varieties of dogwood, with stem colour varying from crimson red to sunset orange.

Dogwood for sale in the garden centre last week.

However, dogwood is more than its stems. Although the white flowers are not particularly showy, the berries (sometimes called dogberries) are irresistible to birds, one reason that I don’t butcher my shrub every year. In fact, some organic gardens grow dogwood as a way of keeping the thrushes from the soft fruit, as it’s said that they prefer dogberries to any other fruit. I shall have to see if my bush proves to be interesting to our avian friends when it gets a bit bigger.

Photo One (Dogwood berries ) by Sten Porse - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Dogwood berries (Photo One)

According to Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ the name ‘dogwood’ is not disparaging (unlike, say ‘Dog’s Mercury’), but comes from the name ‘dagwood’, a ‘dag’ being a wooden skewer. This is borne out by some of the other common names, such as ‘prickwood’. When the prehistoric man Otzi was discovered on the borders of Austria and Italy, he was carrying arrow shafts made of dogwood and viburnum, and an axe with a handle made of yew. He was estimated to have been buried in about 3400 BCE, and was approximately 45 years old when he met his violent death. The story of the discovery, and of what has been ascertained about Otzi’s way of life, is a fascinating one. Furthermore, the fact that the body is in a museum in Italy and not in Austria is still a source of some disgruntlement in Austria to this day.

Photo Two (Otzi reconstruction) by

Reconstruction of Otzi the Ice Man from the Museum of the South Tyrol in Bolzano, Italy (Photo Two)

Dogwood is mentioned in classical literature: in the Aeneid, Aeneas finds a haunted copse of dogwood and myrtle, and when he breaks off branches to make an altar, the dogwood bleeds black blood.

There is also a legend that Christ was crucified on a cross made of dogwood, and that the flowers became cruciform as a result.

Finally, it’s said in the UK that when the dogwood flowers, there will be no more frosts.

Photo Three (Dogwood flowers) by By Kurt Stüber [1] [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Dogwood flowers (Photo Three)

Dogwood bark and berries both contain natural tannins, which make them both unpalatable, and useful as emetics. The plant has also been used as a treatment for rabies (hydrophobia), which may have been due to a misunderstanding of the derivation of its name. A solution made from the bark has been used by veterinarians to treat mangy dogs.

The fruit of dogwood was also used to produce a dye called Vesica green, until it was replaced by more exciting substitutes such as, er, arsenic. For a rather wonderful account of how THAT particular decision went down, have a look at the Racked website here.

Dogwood is one of the many foodplants of the larvae of the green hairstreak butterfly. As this is a) the UK’s only green butterfly, and b) as its Latin name means ‘beautiful eyebrow’ I thought that we should have a photo. What a delightful creature!

Photo Four (Green Hairstreak) by By Charlesjsharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Green hairstreak (Callophrys rubra) (Photo Four)

And, to return to the subject of ‘winter fire’, here is a wonderful poem by American poet Hyam Plutzik, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who died at the age of 50 in 1962. This really touched a chord in me, and I hope it does the same for you.

Because the Red Osier Dogwood

Because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter lightning,
The retention of the prime fire
In the naked and forlorn season
When snow is winner
(For he flames quietly above the shivering mouse
In the moldy tunnel,
The eggs of the grasshopper awaiting metamorphosis
Into the lands of hay and the times of the daisy,
The snake contorted in the gravel,
His brain suspended in thought
Over an abyss that summer will fill with murmuring
And frogs make laughable: the cricket-haunted time)—
I, seeing in the still red branches
The stubborn, unflinching fire of that time,
Will not believe the horror at the door, the snow-white worm
Gnawing at the edges of the mind,
The hissing tree when the sleet falls.
For because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter sentinel,
I am certain of the return of the moth
(Who was not destroyed when an August flame licked him),
And the cabbage butterfly, and all the families
Whom the sun fathers, in the cauldron of his mercy.

Photo Credit

Photo One (Dogwood berries ) by Sten Porse – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Otzi reconstruction) by By Thilo Parg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three (Dogwood flowers) by By Kurt Stüber [1] [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Green Hairstreak) by By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,



Nature’s Calendar – Cacophonies of Conkers (23-27 September)


Dear Readers, I will have more to say about horse chestnuts in general, and conkers in particular, later this week. But today, in memory of my Auntie Mary, I wanted to share this piece from 2016. See what you think. 

As I walked through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery earlier this week, I came across the shed leaves of a horse chestnut tree, and a windfall of conkers. Some were new and mahogany-coated. Others had been crushed by cars, revealing their white, mealy interior. Some were still partly wrapped in their spiky green coats, and looked like half-open eyes. And as I photographed them, I suddenly remembered Auntie Mary.

Auntie Mary wasn’t a ‘real’ auntie at all: she was my maternal grandmother’s sister, whatever title that bestows. And yet we knew her better than we knew some of our official aunties. I can easily bring to mind her toothless grin, her thin dark hair held back by a hairgrip, her National Health glasses, the way she shambled around, shoulders hunched.

It was said that when she was a child, a boy had picked Mary up and swung her around while she screamed with delight, until suddenly his grip slipped and everything fell silent. Mary struck her head on the kerb, and was never the same again. These days, we would say that she had Learning Disabilities. When she was growing up, it was whispered that she was Simple.

img_7961And simple she was, in many ways. Mary never learned to count or to read or write. Her chief role was as wheelchair-pusher for my great-grandmother, who was crippled with polio. And yet, it would be a mistake to say that Mary didn’t understand what was going on.  When she was sent out to the corner shop to buy cigarettes, she remembered exactly what coins she had handed over, and what she got back. There was many an occasion when Mary was cheated, and my nan marched her back to the shop to say exactly what had happened. Faced with such evidence, most shopkeepers confessed to a mistake and returned the money. It was a trick that they didn’t try twice.

Mary was a generous soul with the little that she had. She loved the tiny chocolate-covered toffees that you could buy at the newsagents. Unfortunately, so did our mongrel dog, Sally. Sally would sit beside Mary and gaze up at her. Mary would resist for a few minutes, but then relent.

‘Alright!’ she would say, ‘But just one’.

And she would take out the paper bag that she had folded and folded until it was tight shut, and unfold it, and take out a single toffee the size of a bean, and give it to Sally, who would chomp it down in a tenth of a second. Mary would screw up the bag again and put it back in her pocket, but the dog was unrelenting. Mary would heave a huge sigh and take out the bag again.

‘This is the Last One’ she would say. But it never was.

Mum maintains that the dog had more of the sweets than Mary ever did.

img_7958Mary lived with Great Gran and Nan and Mum for years, but there came a point where it was all too much. Nan couldn’t look after a huge woman in a wheelchair and her own disabled sister any more. Great Gran went into one home, and Mary into another.

As was Mary’s way, she just got on with it. The home was in a mansion in Chigwell with rolling lawns and huge horse chestnut trees. We would go to visit, and play Banker with Mary. This easiest of card games involves breaking the pack into piles and betting on which pile will have the highest card. It’s pure luck, and Mary loved it, as did my brother and I – I was eight, and my brother was six, and so we were all pretty much at the same level. Mary’s glee when she won was infectious, and somehow she always won, probably because she wouldn’t let us stop until she had.

img_7964Mary was never loud or badly behaved, but the same could not be said of the other inhabitants, who were sometimes in the last stages of dementia. The screaming and the erratic behaviour of some of the ladies frightened my brother and I, and when it all got too much Dad would take us outside. In my memory it was always a damp autumn afternoon, and we would rustle about under the horse chestnut looking for conkers. The glint of the polished nuts shining amongst the fallen leaves, the faint smell of bonfires, our shrieks of excitement as we found yet another conker – these are the things that I associate with those last days, with the white mansion behind us and the lawn falling away. We would collect a whole shopping  bag full of conkers and bear them away. Strangely, I can’t recall playing conkers more than once or twice – it always seemed like a violent and dangerous game, in spite of Dad’s enthusiasm. I do remember sticking pins into the chestnuts and turning them into little temporary animals, before they were all tidied away in time for Christmas.

img_7967Mary went into hospital for a cataract operation one day. Something went wrong, and she died, never coming round from the anaesthetic. Apparently there was something wrong with Mary’s heart that had never been diagnosed. The staff at the hospital, and at the care home, were griefstricken.

What is a life worth, I wonder? It seems to me that the hole that is left in the web when someone dies is a bigger indicator of someone’s value than any money accrued or status acquired. Mary’s simple soul had drawn people and animals towards her like a magnet. She never created a great work of art or became a person of power and prestige, but she lived her life with joy, and never knowingly did harm to a living soul. The world would be a better place if we all lived so gently.


Post Retirement Day One!

Dear Readers, it felt very strange to wake up this morning and realise that I had actually managed to get everything done that I wanted to get done yesterday, but I didn’t have long to cogitate as we had an organised Geology walk in Coldfall Wood today. It was on the subject of geology, which for me is the unheralded crux of ecology – what underlies the soil determines so many things, from the soil organisms that will thrive to the plants that will grow, as anyone who has tried growing chalk-loving flowers in a London clay garden will tell you. The walk was led by Diana Clements, who is currently revising her book ‘Geology of London’, which is well worth a look for anyone even vaguely interested in the deep history of our area.

We looked at the main rock types in the area – London clay, Dollis Hill gravel and glacial till. Diana’s walk rather cleverly takes us through the three stages of the history of the wood as reflected in their geological history, and I for one will never look at the them in quite the same way again.

The rather unprepossessing bit of the stream above shows that the banks are London clay, and Diana had a box full of fossils found in clay, from North London molluscs, shark’s teeth, palm seeds and magnolia seeds. The clay was first laid down about 50 million years ago, when the climate was probably tropical (though the magnolia seeds may suggest at least some seasonality). Magnolias are ancient flowering plants that are pollinated by beetles, as there were no specialist pollinators about at the time.

Next it was off to the wet woodland for a look at the Dollis Hill gravel. The Thames used to run to the north of London, through the Vale of St Albans and then into the North Sea at Clacton, until it was diverted by the glaciers of the Ice Age. Some of its tributaries flowed through what’s now Coldfall Wood, depositing gravel as it went. You can find all sorts of interesting things in gravel, including quartz and the flinty Lower Greensand Chert.

The bed of the stream into the wetland area is full of gravel.

And finally, there’s the glacial till. One finger of the last glacier of the Ice Age (which retreated about 400,000 years ago) reached as far south as Coldfall Wood (and also Hornchurch in Essex for anyone who lives in those parts). As it retreated it ‘dropped’ all the rock fragments that it was carrying (to a depth of 14 metres in Finchley), and simultaneously excised deep gullies as the water in the ice sheet melted, while the surrounding soil rebounded after being compressed by the ice. No wonder the woods are so undulating, although they’re probably less so than they used to be, as the London Clay is a very soft material, easily eroded.

So, it was a fascinating walk, and I seem to have retained rather more of it than I thought I had at the time. I will certainly look at the woods in a new light!

And for those of you who read my piece on Crape Myrtle last week, I stopped to check out the bark on the tree and it is indeed both rather attractive and very smooth. What amused me no end is that having noticed one small tree, I completely failed to notice that there was another Crape Myrtle next to it. It just goes to show how distracted I’ve been, but no longer!

Crape Myrtle bark

Wednesday Weed – Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

Dear Readers, the Crape (or Crepe or Crêpe) Myrtle is originally from India, China and other areas of eastern Asia, though I think of it as being a tree that is synonymous with the southern states of the USA. I was in Washington DC a few years ago, and between the singing of the cicadas and the flowers on the Crape Myrtles it felt very sultry. All I needed was a mint julep and I’d have been in my element.

In China, the tree is known as Pai Jih Hung, which apparently means ‘100 days of red’, after the plant’s long flowering time and red flowers (the pink, mauve and white varieties are cultivars). It was also known as the ‘monkey tree’ because the bark is smooth and difficult to climb. So I suppose it should be called the ‘no monkey tree’. Or possibly the ‘monkey puzzle tree’, except that we already have one of those.

But what is this tree doing in East Finchley, parked at the end of Huntingdon Road in the County Roads and blooming away to its heart’s content? A while back I mentioned that the council was getting much more ambitious with its street trees, and Crape Myrtle was one of the trees mentioned. It really is spectacular, and most unexpected. In his book ‘London’s Street Trees’, Paul Wood mentions that in previous years the tree was considered only half-hardy in London’s winters, but as climate change kicks in, it seems to be thriving. Crape Myrtle doesn’t flower every year, so when it does it’s a real treat.

The fact that the tree doesn’t flower annually has led to some brutal pruning practices (actually known as ‘crape murder’) particularly in the US. All the outer branches are cut off in the autumn, leaving just a stump. In fact, the tree will flower whenever conditions are right and it has the resources to do so, and pruning that hard leads to soft growth, which can attract aphids and mildew, and suckering from the bottom. Be kind to your Crape Myrtle, people! It will flower when it feels like it!

Crape Myrtle is a member of the Lythraceae family, which also includes purple loosestrife of all things. Who knew? I guess they’re both pink (though bear in mind that Crape Myrtle comes in a variety of colours, including bright red.

As far as pollinators go, Crape Myrtle doesn’t have a lot of nectar but it is said to have two types of pollen – the usual stuff, which is full of protein, and ‘false’ pollen, which is generated specifically to attract pollinators. As it blooms in September/October in the UK, it could potentially be a good source of late pollen for any bees who are still active. I shall keep an eye on the one on our street to see if anyone is popping in for a bite.

What I’ve found interesting from reading some of the legends about Crape Myrtle is how, all of a sudden, it’s associated with Aphrodite. What? This is a plant originating in eastern Asia and then heading to the US without so much as a stopover in Europe. What’s happened (I think) is that people are getting confused with a European plant that is interwoven with myth called Myrtle. This is a completely different plant, associated with love and marriage and all those other pleasant things. It is not, however, a Crape Myrtle, so enough already. This is where (Pedant alert) those so-called  boring, elitist Latin names come in so handy when we are trying to identify something precisely.

Common Myrtle (Myrtus communis) Photo By LIGURIAN VASCULAR FLORA –, CC BY 2.0,

Back to Crape Myrtle. This really is an excellent tree for a small garden if you want something that has more than one season of interest (though for wildlife value I think there are better choices) – the bark of the tree is apparently very smooth (as mentioned above), and I must go and inspect the East Finchley tree to see what it looks like. The author of the photo below says that you have to actually stroke the tree to appreciate the smoothness (from the Wild in Japan blog, which is a very good read). In the photo below it looks rather like a more-refined London Plane, which is anything but smooth, as we know.

Crape myrtle bark – ‘as smooth as a baby’s bottom’ (Photo from

And then there’s the autumn foliage colour, something else for me to look out for later in the year.

Crape Myrtle leaves in autumn (Photo Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Medicinally, Crape Myrtle is one of those trees that is literally meant to cure everything from diabetes to cancer. stroke to heart attack. A more reasonable assessment is given over on the Plants for a Future website, where it seems to be more use as a ‘drastic purgative’ (yikes!), as a paste for the treatment of wounds, and as a treatment for colds (if you use a decoction of the flowers). As usual, Bug Woman advises extreme caution.

And finally, here’s a poem by Evie Shockley, a black woman who grew in in the Deep South of the US. Here’s what she says about being ‘a southern poet’ –

I grew up: hearing certain accents and vocabularies and speech patterns that were the aural essence of ‘home’ or the audible signal of danger, depending; thinking that racism wasn’t much of a problem in other parts of the country; eating a cuisine that was originally developed under conditions of make-do and make-last; enjoying five- or six-month summers and getting ‘snow days’ out of school when the forecast called for nothing other than ‘possible icy conditions’; knowing that my region was considered laughable almost everywhere else; assuming there was nothing unusual about finding churches on two out of every four corners; and believing that any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime—and that all of this informs my poetry, sometimes directly and sometimes in ways that might be unpredictable or illegible.”

I love this, and I love this poem. See what you think.

where you are planted

he’s as high as a georgia pine, my father’d say, half laughing. southern trees
as measure, metaphor. highways lined with kudzu-covered southern trees.
fuchsia, lavender, white, light pink, purple : crape myrtle bouquets burst
open on sturdy branches of skin-smooth bark : my favorite southern trees.
one hundred degrees in the shade : we settle into still pools of humidity, moss-
dark, beneath live oaks. southern heat makes us grateful for southern trees.
the maples in our front yard flew in spring on helicopter wings. in fall, we
splashed in colored leaves, but never sought sap from these southern trees.
frankly, my dear, that’s a magnolia, i tell her, fingering the deep green, nearly
plastic leaves, amazed how little a northern girl knows about southern trees.
i’ve never forgotten the charred bitter fruit of holiday’s poplars, nor will i :
it’s part of what makes me evie :  i grew up in the shadow of southern trees.

A Close Shave?

Dear Readers, as you might remember I was in Coldfall Wood yesterday for our spider walk, and a lot of fun it was too. Well, between midday on Saturday and first thing this morning, one of the dead standing trees alongside the boardwalk has toppled over and smashed part of the bridge.

For once, it’s very unlikely that this was caused by vandalism – it’s too far from the boardwalk for someone to pull, and it’s completely surrounded by stinging nettles so it’s unlikely that someone would have waded through them to give it a push. Standing deadwood is normally pretty stable, so what could have caused the problem? I have a  theory, so here goes.

First up, the area here in Coldfall is a habitat known as wet woodland, which is extremely rare, especially in urban areas. Water runs down into the area from a variety of culverted streams, and also seeps in from the higher ground that surrounds it. In the winter the area has, in the past, been flooded to a depth higher than the handrails, and the photos below give an idea of what it’s often like in a normal and exceptionally wet winter.

A normal winter

An exceptional winter (Photo courtesy of Neville Young from 2020)

However. In recent years, there have been some attempts to improve drainage – for one thing, one of the pipes that took excess water away was forever getting blocked, so the water backed up. This was then cleared.  But I am now a little concerned that the ‘wetlands’ is getting too dry – where there used to be water mint and water bistort, there’s now a sea of stinging nettles. Clearly, you can have too much of a good thing  where drainage is concerned, because the last thing  we need is for the wet woodland area to dry up altogether.

Naturally, the amount of water in the wet woodland is to a certain extent weather-dependent (and it has been a pretty dry summer), but I have never seen it this dry in late summer.

Water mint and water plantain in the wet woodland from 2014

Water Plantain, amphibious bistort and bulrushes from 2020

Now, of course a dead tree can topple over at any old time. However, I suspect that the  the weather (hotter than usual for this time of year) and the dryness (as evidenced by the changing vegetation) are contributing and helping to destabilise the soil.  We really do need to sort out the drainage issue here, before we lose this precious and unusual habitat for good.

You can read a bit more about the different kinds of wet woodland, and its value to wildlife, here.

Wednesday Weed – Tree of Heaven

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Dear Readers, some people might dispute whether this common London street tree is actually a tree of hell rather than heaven, largely because male trees have enormous leaves that  smell of old trainers. Lovely! The tree also reproduces with abandon, and suckers pop up in cracks in the pavement, in drains, in patches of wasteland and anywhere with a tiny bit of soil.  Nonetheless, this is an extremely resilient if short-lived street tree – it shrugs off pollution, drought, graffiti and general misuse happily for the roughly seventy years that it lives, and I think it’s actually rather graceful and attractive. The leaves, which can grow to 60-70 cms long look like those of a giant ash tree, and the seeds can be orange, yellow, rust-coloured or even bright red. As the male flowers also have that delightful odour of sweaty feet, it’s not surprising that most trees planted in urban settings (like the one opposite Martin School in East Finchley, above) are female.

Leaves and seeds of Tree of Heaven

Tree of Heaven originated in China, and was first planted in the UK in the late 18th Century when there was a fashion for all things Chinese. Once the trees’ reproductive enthusiasm was noted, it was abandoned in favour of the London Plane, until the pollution levels of industrial London killed off most smaller trees, and it started to be planted again. Ada Salter, who became Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922, was determined to make her desperately-deprived borough more beautiful, and succeeded in planting over 7000 Trees of Heaven, a number not to be exceeded until the urban tree. planting boom that’s happening at the moment. Most of the planted trees will not be Trees of Heaven, but I note that a new one was planted alongside the statue of Ada Salter that was set up in Bermondsey Spa Gardens.

Statue of Ada Salter

Ecologically, Tree of Heaven has another trick up its ‘sleeve’ – it produces a chemical called ailanthone, which inhibits the growth of other plants in the vicinity, but which doesn’t impact upon its own seedlings. Plants that produce these chemicals are called allelopathic, and it’s clearly a great advantage to invasive plants: another species which can lessen the success of competitors is garlic mustard, which might explain why it takes over so easily in new environments. In addition, the leaves are eaten by the Spotted Lanternfly, which is indigenous to China and parts of Vietnam but which has been imported into North America, where it is now cheerfully munching its way through fruit trees, grape vines and timber in addition to Tree of Heaven.

Spotted Lanternfly (Photo By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Tree of Heaven has a long cultural history too – it is the tree in ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ by Betty Smith. See if you can spot the metaphor…

“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”

And in Chinese stories, a mature Tree of Heaven represents an ideal father, while a stump represents a spoiled child. Apparently (and this not something my mother ever scolded me with), it’s perfectly fine to call a careless child a ‘good-for-nothing ailanthus stump sprout’.

A Tree of Heaven stump, sprouting (Photo Hexafluoride, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, I realise that it’s been a while since we’ve had a poem, so here we go: this one, by Naomi Long Madgett, seems to sum up the Tree of Heaven’s tenacity. I do think it has rather more redeeming features than Madgett seems to think, but then I’ve always loved tough, adaptable, ‘common’ plants. This is the Wednesday Weed, after all.

Tree of Heaven
Naomi Long Madgett

I will live.

The ax’s angry edge against my trunk

cannot deny me. Though I thunder down

to lie prostrate among exalted grasses

that do not mourn me, I will rise.

I will grow:

Persistent roots deep-burrowed in the earth

avenge my fall. Tentacles will shoot out swiftly

in all directions, stubborn leaves explode their force

into the sun. I will thrive.

Curse of the orchard, blemish of the land’s fair


I have grown strong for strength denied, for struggle

in hostile woods. I keep alive by being troublesome,

indestructible, stinkweed of truth.