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!
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.
Dear Readers, after a few weeks of having a break from the cemetery, it was such a pleasure to be back on a sunny spring day with not a cloud overhead. I was pleased to see the garlic mustard coming into flower, and was keeping a keen eye open for orange-tip butterflies, who lay their eggs on the plant. Well, I didn’t see any, but I did see several citrus-coloured brimstone butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on buckthorn. There is a view that the name ‘butterfly’ came from these bright yellow beauties.
Male brimstone butterfly in flight (Photo One)
I seemed to be scaring up butterflies at every step, like this peacock: red admirals, peacocks and the odd speckled wood were all warming themselves up on the paths. It wasn’t quite the swarms of lepidoptera that I remember from our walks in the Austrian Alps, but it wasn’t bad for East Finchley.
The Tibetan cherry tree is coming into flower, and very fine it is too.
This jay was a little less shy than usual…
But this green woodpecker was rather more reticent than of late…
And we saw the Official Cemetery Cat, who is very splendid…
And an unofficial cemetery visitor, who we’ve seen before, and who looks like a little panther.
But loveliest of all, against that clear blue sky, was the buzzard, peacefully riding the thermals and unharried by the crows for once. Maybe they’re all off on holiday.
Mustn’t it be lovely to fly like that! The closest thing that I can think of is swimming, which is something I haven’t done for way too long. Maybe I’ll find somewhere over the summer.
Oh, and the lesser celandine is still in flower….
….and there was this patch of pink sorrel close to the North Circular Road boundary. I hadn’t noticed it before, but no doubt it will soon be everywhere. All sorts of mysterious things grow in this rather ‘weedy’ area, including the mysterious salsify that I was so astonished by a few years ago. Although you can hardly hear yourself think for traffic noise, it is always full of surprises.
Dear Readers, three weeks after the onset of my Covid I’m finally feeling like myself again, and so it was such a joy to head out to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery to take in the glory of the Lesser Celandine. Just look at them! Could they be any more joyful, I ask myself.
And if you watch closely, you can see them being appreciated by a whole mass of bees and tiny pollinators.
The primroses are out in force too.
I heard the buzzards mewing, and saw one being hotly pursued by the usual gang of crows. And, for your delectation, here is a sparrowhawk’s backside, shortly before she exited stage left, also pursued by crows. Note those distinctive bars on the stomach.
Blackcaps were singing their heads off, as was this chaffinch, who was making a most uncharacteristic volume of sound.
And the blackthorn is in flower.
I have mentioned before that the lesser celandine was Wordsworth’s favourite flower, but I’d never read the poem that he composed to it. I had expected some cheery paean to the first flower of spring but, as so often with Wordsworth it’s rather more thoughtful than that. So here, for your delectation, is Wordworth’s Lesser Celandine. See what you think.
The Lesser Celandine
There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!
When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.
But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.
I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.
“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.
To be a Prodigal’s Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!
Dear Readers, it felt very strange walking in the cemetery yesterday; although I am now past the worst of my covid infection I am still a little slow and breathless, and everything feels most peculiar. I first realised that brain fog was ‘a thing’ after my Dad died and I realised that I could no longer calculate percentages without having to think about it first. Fortunately my mental faculties gradually came back, but at the moment I’m still a bit hazy about many things. Still, it was good to get a bit of fresh air on the most beautiful spring day. I especially love the way that the Scotsman is standing in a pool of lesser celandine. I’ve remarked before that it seemed not to be having a very good year, but clearly I was just too early. It was everywhere on my walk, turning its shiny yellow face to the sun, and hoping for an early bumblebee to pop along, I’m sure.
The petals of many flowers in the buttercup family are shiny – there is a special layer of reflective cells which intensifies the yellow colour and makes the flowers even more attractive to pollinators. As the flowers grow older, this layer may rub off, leaving the petals white, as in the one on the far left hand side of the photo. There are some rather lovely buttercup photos (though not lesser celandine) on this microscopy-uk webpage, well worth a look.
I was surprised to see how much of the cherry plum blossom was gone (after all I’ve only missed one week on my walks), but it has been very windy. On the other hand, the horse chestnut buds are pushing through already.
And although the bluebells look a long way off, there’s one tiny patch of woodland where the Scilla have naturalised, and their blue is almost as intense. What a pretty and delicate flower this is, and it’s obviously happy even in deep shade.
And so it was with some relief that I got home and had a sit down, but it was great to see something outside my four walls for the first time in ten days. For anyone who is getting over covid, or indeed any infection, I’d say ‘be a little more gentle with yourself than you think you need to be’ – it’s good to give yourself time for your body to adjust to getting back to ‘normal’ rather than throwing yourself in with enthusiasm, especially as you’re getting older. When I was in my twenties and thirties I thought I was immortal and indestructible, but sadly now I know a bit better.
Dear Readers, there was lots to see in the cemetery on Saturday, most of it centred around the bird life. We were barely through the gates when we noticed this crow, getting stuck into a mystery fruit. At first I thought it might be a mango, but on balance I’ve decided it was an orange. Who knew that crows had a taste for citrus? I love the way that the crow is keeping the fruit under control with his or her foot.
Normally the crows are pretty shy, but this one was clearly too involved in eating to be put off by me and my camera.
Then, I was looking at the blossom (which is rather fine at the moment) when my husband said ‘what’s that bird with the red head?’
And yes it was a green woodpecker, usually a very elusive bird. This one was digging up ants as if they were going out of fashion – the wet weather has made the soil a bit easier to hammer into. The bird was completely engrossed in its task, but was moving so quickly that it was hard to get a decent shot. Some birds seem to live on a slightly faster timescale than us, and this one definitely did that. If you look carefully in the video below you can see the bird’s long tongue flickering out to lick up the ants. It looks in some of the photos as if the beak is malformed but the bird looked healthy and was clearly feeding, so hopefully it can still look after itself. It’s a hard life bashing yourself against hard surfaces all day, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t sometimes some collateral damage.
Then we spotted a small panther, clearly watching out for mice or other small rodents.
In the more open part of the cemetery there were several flocks of redwings, probably several hundred in total. They are starting to gather for the flight back north, but it was the first time I’d seen them in such numbers.
Round we go, and here’s another panther – this one is a bit chunkier than the earlier one.
And everywhere, the daffodils and various narcissi have taken over from the crocuses and the snowdrops.
The primroses are coming into their own as well.
And one of my favourite cherry-crabs is almost at the peak of flowering.
And finally, someone has given the lovely Scotsman on Kew Road some new flowers, and some twigs. I think this is probably the finest sculpture in the cemetery, and he never fails to move me, standing there so proud amongst the trees. When he was alive, someone clearly loved him very much.
Dear Readers, this is a tree that can be found pretty much everywhere, and is often overlooked. How graceful it is, though, with its weeping twigs that, at this time of year, are a brownish-purple colour! And how ghostly that white bark can look, especially against a background of yews or other evergreens, though over time the bark develops deep, triangular black fissures. It was, in the 1920s and 1930s, a popular street tree, according to Paul Wood’s ‘Street Trees of London’ , but these days more exotic birch species such as the Chines red birch (Betula albosinensis) seem to be planted more frequently. As we shall see, silver birch supports a lot of biodiversity, so maybe it’s time for it to make a comeback, even though it’s a short-lived tree (it’s rare for a silver birch to live for more than 80 years.
Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis)
The trees bear both male and female flowers in April and May. The male catkins are borne in groups of two or four, and look like dangling lambs’ tails. The female flowers are short, green and erect.
Illustration of silver birch features (Public Domain)
Although silver birch has a wide range, from Scandinavia through to Eastern Asia, I always associate it with the north. It seems to like heathland and moorland, and in the warmer parts of Europe it tends to grow at high altitudes. It is the national tree of Finland.
Birch forest in Finland (Photo One)
Birch forest is kind to other organisms – the canopy casts only light shade, and so an understorey can develop, as seen in the photo above. The ground beneath the trees can be full of primroses and wood sorrel, bluebells and wood anemone in spring, and in Scotland there may be blaeberry and cowberry growing underneath. The soft wood of the tree provides nest holes for woodpeckers, and the many insects that feed upon birch provide food for nightingales and warblers. This is a real contrast to the hardwood landscapes of hornbeam and oak woods, where the canopy is so shady that nothing apart from holly can survive outside of early spring, before the leaves form.
Birch sawfly larvae (Photo Two)
More than 300 insect species are associated with the silver birch in the UK, including the larvae of the Kentish Glory moth.
Kentish Glory (Endromis versicolor) (Photo Three)
The tree is also associated with a whole raft of fungi, including fly agaric, birch knight and the birch polypore (or razor strop). The latter was actually used to sharpen razors, and is also used as a background for mounting dead insects in collections.
So, it’s clear that birch trees, in life and death, support a whole range of species. As you might expect from a native tree, there is also a lot of folklore connected to silver birch. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year, and a besom, or broom, made of birch was used by gardeners to purify their gardens. In Finland, birch twigs are used to beat the body when one comes out of a sauna. In the Scottish Highlands, a barren cow driven with a birch wand would become fertile, and a pregnant cow would have a fine and healthy calf.
Birch wood has been used for furniture, toys and for the bobbins used in Lancashire weaving factories, and birch bark is used for tanning leather. Traditionally, birch has been used as a treatment for rheumatism and arthritis, but recently there has been a resurgence in interest in birch syrup, which is made from the sweet and sticky sap of the tree in much the same way as maple syrup, although I note that this is usually made from the paperbark birches that are found in Alaska and Canada.
It comes as no surprise to me that these trees have been a subject for art – there is something about those shimmering white branches that begs to be painted. And artists as famous as Gustav Klimt couldn’t resist.
‘Birch Forest’ by Gustav Klimt (Photo Six)
And finally, a poem. Seamus Heaney, no less. How I love the way he manages to sum the man up in just a few tiny details. I laughed out loud. See what you think.
At the back of a garden, in earshot of river water, In a corner walled off like the baths or bake-house Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa, They have planted their birch grove. Planted it recently only, But already each morning it puts forth in the sun Like their own long grown-up selves, the white of the bark As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress She bends and straightens up in, pouring tea, Sitting across from where he dandles a sandal On his big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s. Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet trail Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper. “If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.”
Dear Readers, is there any food more versatile than the chickpea? This little legume has, along with the lentil, been the mainstay of civilisations all around the Mediterranean and beyond since at least Neolithic times, and if you want to get into a delicious culinary argument, just ask someone who makes the best falafel, or where to buy the best hummus. For Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and all the countries of the Middle East right through to the Indian subcontinent, the chickpea is one of the most important staple foods, turned into purees, fritters, pancakes and dumplings, flavoured with everything from garlic and lemon to tamarind and turmeric. In Italy the chickpea turns up as farinata, a delicious egg-free pancake, and in Mexico and the islands of the Caribbean it can be found as a spicy street food. If you go to the grocery shop you can have enough protein for several hearty main meals for less than a pound and chickpeas also freeze well once cooked.
I must confess to a special love for the chickpea, because my husband has probably eaten several tubs of hummus every week for the past twenty years. I have even caught him eating it surreptitiously by the spoonful straight from the fridge. Luckily, I would agree with Nicolas Culpeper the herbalist, who says that chickpeas are less ‘windy’ than dried peas, and more nourishing.
It occurred to me, though, that I had no idea what a chickpea plant looked like – as with so many foods, the actual production takes place somewhere else. It cheers me greatly that the English company, Hodmedods, is looking at restoring the reputation of some of the UK’s native beans, such as field beans, which are well-suited to our climate, but they have also recently started to grow their own chickpeas. Hooray! So maybe we’ll soon see these little chaps growing in our fields (although there are also some wild ones who have presumably popped up from spilled bird seed or human food).
Has anyone out there tried growing some of these beans? I somehow forget that what we’re eating are seeds, and that if plonked in a pot they might turn into something interesting.
Chickpea plant (Photo Two)
As you can see, the chickpea plant looks very much a typical ‘bean’, with those pinnate leaves. The flowers are even more of a giveaway. Incidentally, the plant’s scientific name, Cicer arietinum, is thought to have given rise to the Classical name Cicero.
Chickpea flowers (Photo Three)
Chickpeas are a nutrient-dense food, with a 100 gram serving providing over 20% of an adult’s daily requirement for protein, fibre, iron and phosphorous. However, they have also been used medicinally: Pliny the Elder suggests that the way to treat warts is to touch each one with a chickpea during the new moon and to then throw the chickpea over the shoulder. One way to cure gout was to soak the feet in the water that the chickpeas had been cooked in. These days we know that this water can be used to make an egg-free meringue, which makes sense if you think about how full of protein this substance is. For the sceptics among you, there’s a recipe for vegan meringues here, and very pretty they look too.
Vegan meringues (Photo Four)
Although chickpeas are very widely grown in cultivation, they come originally from a tiny area of Anatolia in what is now Turkey. They are thought to be descended from the wild chickpea, Cicer reticulatum, and there were several varieties even before the plant was domesticated. These days you can buy black chickpeas, green chickpeas and the more usual golden chickpeas. I’m fairly sure that if blindfolded I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Different varieties of chickpeas (Photo Five)
And finally, a poem. There is a poem by Rumi in which he envisions a conversation between a poor chickpea being boiled and the cook who has put it there, but it seems to have a view akin to ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’, a sentiment that I loathe with every fibre of my being, along with ‘everything happens for a reason’. No, sometimes terrible things happen, and people are shaped in ways that hinder the rest of their lives by those things. But I do rather like this poem by Lauren Whitehead, which feels appropriate to the season, and mentions a tin of garbanzos, which is the US term for chickpeas, so I think I can get away with it. Let me know what you think, readers.
Dear Readers, you may remember that last year I ‘attended’ a talk by Alastair Fitter, on Plants and Climate Change. Fitter pointed out that plants were flowering earlier than they had in past years, and he had very good evidence from the studies done by his father Richard Fitter and himself over many years. Now, New Scientist is reporting on a new study by the University of Cambridge, which is showing that the flowering of spring plants has moved forward by a whole month since 1986. This is based on over 420,000 observations of the first flowering of 406 plant species in a citizen science project called ‘Nature’s Calendar’ which is hosted by the Woodland Trust.Ulf Büntgen who headed up the study explains that there are records dating back to 1753, from gardeners and naturalists as well as organisations such as the Royal Meteorological Society. The date of 1986 was chosen because there were as many records before this date as there were afterwards, so it was the midpoint of the data.
The study shows that flowers were opening an average of 26 days earlier than in 1986 (in Fitter’s talk there were wide variations between the different species). The effect seems to have been most marked on small plants, with those less than 20 centimetres high flowering on average 32 days earlier than in 1986.
The average temperature of the months between January and April had a direct correlation with the date of flowering – clearly spring-flowering plants are extremely temperature-sensitive. The scary thing is that the although the maximum average temperature across those four months has only risen by 1 degree Celsius, it’s resulted in a change of a month in flowering time. And this has a knock-on effect on all the insects that pollinate and feed on the plants, and in turn on the birds and other animals that feed on them.
Statue of Susanna Wesley the ‘Mother of Malethodism’
Dear Readers, I was on my way to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery for my usual weekend walk when I was stopped in my tracks by this extraordinary statue. It appeared this week in the grounds of East Finchley Methodist Church. Last week, this was a red cedar tree, but this week it has been transformed.
The sculptor is Simon O’Rourke, and the funds for the project were raised after a 103 year-old parishioner died, and left money for something to be created ‘for the children’, with extra funds raised by local people and donated by the Heathfield Trust, a Methodist charity. The design of the sculpture incorporates some lovely details that I’m sure children will love.
Susanna Wesley was born in 1669, the youngest of 25 siblings. Although she never preached a sermon, she was a strong believer in the moral and intellectual education of young people, both boys and girls, and her meditations and commentaries on scripture attracted large crowds to her family services. Susanna and her husband had nineteen children, of whom only eight were alive at her death. Amongst the children were Charles and John Wesley, who went on to found Methodism, which now has about 80 million followers worldwide.
The whole of the area around the sculpture will be transformed into a garden for adults and children.
I rather like the statue, with its intricate details and the sense that Susanna Wesley is both welcoming everyone with open arms and simultaneously jetting off into heaven like a Red Arrow trailing smoke.
There is an explanatory sign hung on the railings.
In spite of this, I was intrigued to hear one male passerby describing Susanna Wesley as ‘John Wesley’s wife’. And this is how women are regularly denied their place in history and relegated to the role of appendages. Our assumptions betray us, every time.
After this, a walk in the cemetery was going to seem a little ordinary, unless the foxes would oblige with a spectacular showing. Alas they were keeping a low profile, but there were lots of more subtle delights on show. For example, my husband said that his hay fever was kicking in, and sure enough, lots of the conifers have their tiny cones just opening.
I love the way that the sun shows off the smooth silver bark of the young ash trees. It’s easy to forget how many there are in the cemetery. If/when ash dieback hits hard, it will be a very different place.
I love the way that horizontal branches develop their own ‘moss gardens’ as well. In the tropics they have bromeliads, in London we have moss.
The lesser celandine are really starting to kick off now….
And whilst in some places the snowdrops are in full flower…
…in other spots the buds are just starting to emerge, like little rockets.
Everything is starting to push up through the soil, and it will only be a few weeks until the cemetery is a riot of birdsong and crocuses. This year the winter has seemed very long to me, and the greyness unrelenting. How lovely to see the days grow longer (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere), and to feel winter losing its grip for another year.
You can read more about the Susanna Wesley statue in the Ham and High article below: