Category Archives: London Plants

A Bank Holiday Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was extremely quiet in the cemetery today. I’m guessing that lots of people are away, what with it being the August Bank Holiday and all, but it meant that I spotted two handsome foxes (though they dashed away too quickly for me to get a photograph), and also saw two buzzards circling overhead, mewing to one another. I expected the crows to rise up in umbrage, but they didn’t for once – maybe they’re all on holiday too.

Some Japanese anemones are just coming into flower in the woodland grave area, along with some most unlikely-looking plants – they remind me of one of my house plants. Let’s hope they survive.

Look at the swamp cypress, people! I am waiting for the first hints of rust to appear. There is a definite increase in tempo this week, with the coal tits and blue tits cheeping and the robins starting to announce their winter territories. I love autumn though, it’s probably my favourite season – there is strangely more of a sense of possibility and new beginnings for me at this time of year than in the spring. Maybe it’s all those years of education, when the school year started in September, but it’s always been pivotal for me – I got married in September, as did my mother and father, and I started my most recent job in September too.

The swamp cypress

Anyhow, I’m starting to see a lot of wasps drifting about. I wonder what this one was after on this conifer? Maybe there’s something sweet and resinous being produced.

The Cedars of Lebanon are looking particularly magnificent, and several of them are producing their female flowers, which will be shedding pollen and irritating the noses of hay fever sufferers for the next few months.


The conkers are filling out nicely, and there are plenty of berries on the holly.

And here’s a holly-blue butterfly, sunning itself. This one is a female (you can tell by the black edges to the wings).

I always stop and give the Tibetan Cherry trunk a little rub as well, to keep it nice and shiny.

There is a definite meadow-ish feel to some parts of the cemetery at the moment – the gardeners are out with their strimmers and, I regret to say, their leaf-blowers, but it’s been such a wet summer that everything is springing up as fast as it’s trimmed. Some grave-visitors have taken to bringing in their own strimmers. Still, I thought I’d try to take a couple of grasshopper-eye views of the plants while they’re still around.

Red clover and ribworth plantain

Other notables today were the hedgerow geranium, with its intensely mauve flowers..

…the common toadflax…

…the bristly oxtongue…

….the nipplewort…

…and the Japanese Knotweed in full flower. Just as well it doesn’t spread by seed in this country, there’s quite enough of it in the cemetery as it is.

And in other signs of autumn, there’s the tarspot fungus in all its glory on the sycamore leaves…

and the hogweed seeds, which are rather pretty close up. I’m sure someone on Masterchef actually used these in a dish recently, I shall have to check (though the umbellifers are a tricky family with several, such as hemlock, being extremely poisonous).

And finally, it’s funny what you don’t notice, until you do. I walk this way every week, but never saw that the ivy had covered a whole row of graves just by one of the woodier parts of the cemetery. It’s amazing the way that ivy just reclaims things. Was this part of the cemetery once pristine and neat, I wonder? I know that I prefer it the way it is now. Although a lot of the wilder parts of the cemetery are being dug over for new graves, I imagine that there will always be older parts where it’s just not economical to cut down the trees. I hope so, anyway.

Graves disappearing under the ivy.

London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – A Pimlico Circular – Part Two

Variegated Chinese Privet on Alderney Street in Pimlico

Dear Readers, after my meander around the Churchill Gardens Estate I was in need of a coffee, a sit-down and a loo (though not in that order). I found the Brewhouse cafe, which had all three, including some seats outside. Highly recommended in an area that’s actually fairly devoid of hostelries. 

Onwards! I have fallen in love with these Chinese Tree Privets (Lugustrum lucidum var Excelsum superbum) and this variegated variety was particularly impressive. I could smell the perfume of the flowers from twenty feet away, and it was abuzz with bees.

On the other side of the road are two Chestnut-leaved Oaks (Quercus castaneifolia) – these trees come from Iran, but they seem to love it here. A tree planted in Kew Gardens is the largest in their Arboretum, measuring 37 metres tall and 8 metres in girth. These trees are rather smaller (at the moment).

Chestnut-leaved oaks (Quercus castaneifolia)

On Denbigh Street there’s a statue of Thomas Cubitt, who was the builder of much of Belgravia and Bloomsbury. His vision was to convert the area of marshy ground close to the river to a grid of stuccoed terraces and garden squares, and this he largely achieved. He is shaded by an Indian Horse Chestnut (Aesculus indica) – I met one of these trees in East Finchley Cemetery a few months ago. It is increasingly favoured by street arborists because the tree doesn’t attract the leaf-miners that ‘ordinary’ horse chestnut does.

Thomas Cubitt

The leaves of the Indian Horse Chestnut

I noted that the lions are locked up in these parts, though you’d need some muscles to run off with this chap.

And you can tell you’re in Westminster when the wheelie bins are decorated.

Onwards! Here is a very lovely mimosa, which Wood remarks has already become a local landmark, and I can see why.

Mimosa (Acacia dealbata)

Just around the corner, on Moreton Street, are some of the most unusual street trees in Pimlico. Can you guess what they are?

Yep, these are Australian Bottlebrush Trees (Callistemon citrinus). But why are they planted here?

Because Billy Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia, was born at No. 7 Moreton Street! I must pop back to see the trees when they’re in flower, they will look amazing.

Photo One by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Bottlebrush in flower (Photo One)

From here, I cross Vauxhall Bridge Road to find another London Plane-lined square, Vincent Square. This is private land (it forms the playing fields for Westminster School) and the trees are slightly younger than the ones that we saw on St George’s Square yesterday. There are splendid views through the square towards the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, or there would be if it wasn’t for the vans and street furniture.

London Plane trees along the edge of Vincent Square

Then I head off to another square via Elverton Street, which has been recently planted with Chinese Red Birches (Betula albosinensis). Look at this lovely bark!

And then it’s along Horseferry Road. Things are certainly changing on the taxi front. This lot are all plugged in to fast charging points. The drivers grab a quick coffee and their vehicles are recharged within 30 minutes.

The day has gotten a lot hotter by now, and I’m beginning to regret my raincoat and scarf, so it’s a real pleasure to walk into St John’s Gardens. This is yet another place that I’ve never visited before. The notion of a park being like a cathedral is a bit of a cliché, but these trees are so tall, and the interior is so cool and tranquil that nothing else seems quite as good as a simile.

Then I take a wrong turning, which is always fun. I end up outside the new Home Office building. Considering how brutal a department this can be,  the building is light-hearted and colourful. The sun is shining through panels of coloured glass on its roof and throwing Mondrian patterns on the pavement.

And finally, when I get back on the official route, I find the Millbank Estate, 32 blocks that were built at the turn of the twentieth century. The plane trees were planted at the same time. I’ve often walked along one of the main roads after the trees were pollarded, and thought how ugly they looked, as if they had their fists raised to the sky in protest. But today they are in full leaf, and they lower the temperature of this broad expanse of concrete.

Someone has built a whole container garden at the entrance to one of the blocks.

The Millbank Estate was built at the turn of the twentieth century on the site of the old Millbank Prison, which covered not only the area of the current estate but also the land now occupied by Tate Britain. The red bricks of the estate were taken from the prison. Prisoners from all over Great Britain were held in the prison prior to deportation, and some of the features of the prison remain, like this moat, which once formed its boundary.

This walk around Pimlico has shown the interesting ways that built communities have evolved in this part of London, and the ways that green spaces and trees have been incorporated over the years. From stuccoed terraces to the Arts and Crafts-influenced Millbank Estate to the modernism of Churchill Gardens, it’s shown how ideas of social housing have changed, but also how many houses were built during this period. There seems to have been a consistent idea that it was important to house people properly, right in the centre of London.  What a reflection on the lack of vision and imagination around housing today.

London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – A Pimlico Circular – Part One

St George’s Church, Pimlico

Dear Readers, all I really knew about Pimlico prior to this walk was the route from the tube station to Tate Britain, so this walk was a real revelation. Pimlico has been the centre of wave after wave of utopian housing developments for the past two hundred years, and the range of architectural styles that I passed was astonishing. Plus, trees have been part of these plantings during the whole of this period, and it’s fascinating to see the different species that have made their homes in the Capital.

First off, we walk along Bessborough Street towards the St George’s Church. St George’s Square is open to the public, which makes it unusual. On side there are the  impressive stucco houses that I expected to find in Pimlico.

But in the square itself there are towering London Plane trees, some of the tallest that I’ve seen. The trees were probably planted at the same time as the houses, so between 1839 and 1843, making the trees about 180 years old. Given good conditions, they could easily live for another 180 years. How enormous will they be by then, I wonder?

At the north-west corner of St George’s Square was the site of the brutalist landmark the Pimlico Academy, described as a resembling a battleship. It was finally demolished in 2010, and its destruction was described as ‘arguably the most philistine architectural destruction since the demolition of the Euston Arch’ in The Guardian.

Photo One from

The original Pimlico Academy (Photo One)

These days it’s rather more prosaic, though I do like the climbing wall on the outside. I note that it was recently the scene of protests by students about racism at the school, followed by the resignation of the Headteacher.

Pimlico Academy and the climbing wall

Pimlico Academy stands on Chichester Street, opposite Dolphin Square, which contains no less than 1,250 flats. These have been home to various politicians and grandees who needed a pied-a-terre, and Harold Wilson, David Steel and William Hague have all lived here, along with such notables as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies of Profumo fame. Apparently the flats have a bucolic garden in the centre, but it’s private, so, as directed by Wood, I spent some time looking at the street trees instead. On the Pimlico Academy side of the road there are some small-leaved limes, who fell out of favour as a street tree because of the aphids that feed on the tree and secrete honeydew all over the cars below.

Small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata)

On the other side of the road, there’s a mixture of Chanticleer pear trees and ‘Beech Hill’ Pear trees. There’s lots of fruit on them too.

At the end of Chichester Street we turn into Claverton Street, which is a tale of two halves. On one side we have another stuccoed terrace, but on the other side we have a low-rise block, built during the 1970s. There are more pears alongside the older houses, but the new side of the road is planted with Italian Alders. I saw these before opposite St Pauls and they seem to have become a favourite, probably because, as Wood points out, they can survive in poor, rubble-rich soil.

An Italian Alder on Claverton Street

Then, it’s into the Churchill Gardens estate, which seems to go on forever, and does in fact cover 32 acres. The entrance includes some ‘Crimson King’ Norway Maples, which Wood tells me are the second most frequent London street tree after, you guessed it, the London Plane.

‘Crimson King’ Norway Maple

But who would have guessed that this estate of high-rises would feature such spectacular trees? First up is a Red Oak.

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Leaves of Red Oak

Behind it is a splendid Tree of Heaven, which is considered something of a pest tree these days. It’s still very magnificent though.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Then I manage to get a bit lost (as usual). What an interesting estate this is! The first five blocks were completed in 1951, and received the Festival of Britain Merit Award.

A lady sitting on a wall asks me (very fairly in my opinion) what I’m finding interesting enough to take photos of. When I’ve bent her ear for five minutes about how amazing the trees are, her worries are calmed. And then this tree catches my eye.

What on earth is it? I can smell a sweet, creamy scent from across the road. It reminds me of something….

and it turns out that this is a Chinese Tree Privet (Ligustrum lucidum). We’ll meet some more of these trees later in the walk, but for now I was happy to just watch the bees making themselves drunk on the nectar.

Then I am distracted by this.

This is the Accumulator Tower, that was once used to provide communal heating to the estate. Originally, waste heat from Battersea Power Station was used for this purpose, but nowadays it’s been converted to using gas. It’s still said to be much more efficient because the flats don’t need their own gas boilers, and the Pump House holds the biggest thermal store in the UK.

I retrace my steps past the Grade II listed bin store….

Grade 2 listed!

and look to see if I can find a Varnish Tree (or Chinese Lacquer tree) that Wood mentions. I think I’ve missed it – it looks rather more like an ash than I expected. Oh well.

I didn’t miss the Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignoniodes) though. I always associate these trees with the Deep South of the USA. The tree has flowers that look like orchids, but not at this time of year.

Southern catalpa

Next to the catalpa is a Sycamore, but not as we normally see them – this is a purple-leaved ‘Spaethii’ variety

And then, I go off piste (as usual) and find something really delightful.

Tucked away behind one of the low-rise blocks is a tiny park with two meadows, one annual and one perennial.

There is not a soul around, although the people in the surrounding flats must have a lovely view.

The annual meadow is full of all sorts – I can imagine some people being sniffy about the flowers because they aren’t native, but there were plenty of bees. It was started with a grant from the London Wildlife Trust, and local children and residents are involved in its upkeep.

I thought it was lovely, and such a surprise.

I was pleased to see that there’s some dead wood left about as well.

I think this must be a really lovely spot to sit and enjoy the sunshine. I know that I did.

And finally, I head to Johnson’s Place. described by Wood as ‘a fine example of a mid-century civic open space’. And so it is. Churchill Gardens really is softened by the planting of trees and gardens and the availability of spaces to enjoy nature. I saw a good mixture of people walking their dogs, chatting, taking their children to and from the primary school in the middle of the estate. There’s a good range of shops on Lupus Road which skirts the estate too. I imagine there are plenty worse places to live in London.

Johnson’s Place

Johnson’s Place

So, after leaving Churchill Gardens I head off and find some most unusual things. But to find out what, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.


Falling Down in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Swamp cypress leaves

Dear Readers, those who’ve been following me for a while will know that I have a strange tendency to trip over the smallest of imperfections in any surface. Some people think that I could stumble over a misplaced molecule, and they are probably right. However, today I fell in spectacular fashion over a pothole in one of the paths that could have been seen from space. Fortunately both my camera, my knees and my ankles survived, though my hands smarted for a while and I think my poor husband will be traumatised for the rest of the week.

I suppose it’s something to do with the fact that we are finally holding my Dad’s memorial service in a fortnight’s time – I have always found myself rather distracted when significant days that relate to Mum and Dad are coming close. The service will be at St Andrew’s Church in the lovely Dorset village of Milborne St Andrew, and it will be a chance to see some people that I haven’t seen for well over a year. Covid numbers are rising, which is concerning, but the vicar is asking for social distancing and face masks, and I suspect that things will get worse as the year wears on, rather than better. At any rate, while I hate the word ‘closure’ because it implies drawing a line under an event that can only be integrated rather than tidied away, it will feel as if Dad has been honoured properly, and that people who have not had a chance to mourn communally will have been able to do so. I shall keep you all posted on how it goes.

Anyhow, although it’s a very damp, drizzly day, there is much to enjoy in the cemetery today. Everything seems to be on pause, but there is such bounty in the shrubs and trees.

This is why a cherry laurel is called a cherry laurel. Don’t eat these though, they contain cyanide.

I am watching the progress of the conkers and the leaf miners on the horse chestnut trees with equal interest. The conkers are growing nice and fat, but seem to have some kind of rust growing on them.

The leaf miners are having a great time. I’m starting to see the little holes where the tiny moths have exited (as at the end of the long brown streak on the left-hand side of the central leaf). I just hope that some Southern Bush-Crickets find the tree soon.

I was rather taken by this lonely Fox and Cubs (Pilotella auriantica)…

and I love the constellations on the flowers of the ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)…

But this plant stopped me in my tracks completely. It’s so perfect that at first I thought it was plastic. It’s a houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) though I’m not sure which variety. How splendid it is, and how utterly perfect.

There is a smaller plant in the other corner of the grave. Clearly this one isn’t in such a prime location but I have a suspicion that it will do its best to catch up.

It’s going to be a great year for hawthorn, my tree is bowed down with them.

It’s a good year for pyracantha, too.

And finally a long-standing mystery has been solved. I have been puzzling over this shrub for months – it has silvery, strap-like leaves. But finally I’ve seen the berries and all is clear. This is sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), rare as hen’s teeth in the wild but flourishing here alongside the North Circular Road. You honestly never know what you’re going to see in this uninspiring little strip of shrubs and wildflowers.

Sea buckthorn berries have featured heavily in the menus created for cookery show ‘The Great British Menu’, where established professional cooks compete to have a dish at a banquet to honour a particular group of people – D-Day veterans, health and care workers, musicians, children’s authors. Sea buckthorn is universally hated by the judges, but the chefs seem to think that if they can only come up with the right dish, they will win. It hasn’t happened yet, sea buckthorn berries being something of an acquired taste – Wikipedia describes them as ‘astringent, sour and oily’, which doesn’t sound like a winning combination. They do have medicinal qualities, however, so all is not lost.

Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Anyhow, by now it’s pouring with rain, and so we turn for home. I’m aware of a sudden chorus of agitated crows and jays screeching and cawing, and turn just in time to see a heron flying over, probably headed for the Dollis Brook or the lakes of Hampstead Heath. It looks more like a prehistoric animal than a bird, but of course birds are basically little dinosaurs so this isn’t surprising. What I need now is a cup of tea and some arnica for my grazes.

Expect the Unexpected

Walthamstow Wetlands – the weir

Dear Readers, I met up with a dear friend for a walk and a coffee at Walthamstow Wetlands yesterday. When we arrived at the main gate, it said that the main part of the wetlands was closed due to flooding. Gosh! Walthamstow was one of the areas badly flooded in the torrential rains last month, but there had been no rain overnight, so we were a bit taken aback. But fortunately, the other, smaller part of the wetlands was still open, so off we went to see what we could

One thing that you can definitely see is the extensive building at Blackhorse Road. I wonder how much of this is on the floodplain from the rivers around the wetlands? Hopefully none of it, as it seems to be on slightly higher ground, so fingers crossed. I’m hoping that at least some of these new flats and townhouses are ‘affordable’, though as affordability = 80% of the market price, they’ll still be out of the reach of most people.

There were lots of men with binoculars walking along the raised reservoir, so I made enquiries. Apparently there were two greenshank on the edge of the water on the other side. I hadn’t brought  my binoculars as a camera is distraction enough when you’re catching up with a friend, but here’s a photo of a greenshank so you can see what we missed.

Photo One by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) (Photo One)

The edge of the reservoir is a haven for wildflowers, and many a Wednesday Weed has been discovered along this stretch of uninspiring-looking concrete.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris)

Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

But who else is here?

A fine collection of mute swans, all happily preening and dozing.

These are likely to be young birds or those not yet paired up and territorial – once a pair have a territory they will guard it zealously, as anyone unfortunate enough to accidentally disturb a mute swan on its nest will attest. I was once chased along a country lane for a hundred metres by an irritate bird after I almost fell over its nest.

Apparently mute swans are so-called because their wings make a whistling, humming sound in flight, which means that they don’t need to have a flight call like other swans. Who knew? Not me for sure.

Two swans were swimming in parallel. One would raise its head, then the other one followed suit. One would dip its head under the water, and then the other would do the same. I always wonder what strange and subtle signals birds send to one another that we can’t read. How close are you allowed to stand to one another if you’re not a pair? Do you preen synchronously too?

And so, although it wasn’t quite the morning we’d planned for, it was still a good walk, full of plants and animals and interesting Victorian architecture, like this water tower. Those Victorians didn’t do things by halves.

And as we headed back to Blackhorse Road tube station, I spotted this bush. It’s clearly some kind of vetch, but I’m puzzled by the way that the seedheads seem to have exploded. Can any of you gardeners out there a) identify the plant and b) tell me if the seedheads are supposed to look like that? All information gratefully received..

Mysterious yellow bean-plant

Seed capsules of mysterious yellow bean. Are they supposed to look like deflated balloons?

Photo Credits

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


Careful Does It….

Dear Readers, today I decided to do a little bit of judicious pruning – my buddleias hang over the road a little, so I try to be a good neighbour and keep the pavement clear. Then, I noticed that some bindweed had infiltrated the hardy geraniums, and I finally paid attention to the elder that was trying to grow out of the wall. I chopped up all the bigger stems and was just about to go indoors when I noticed this shieldbug. My Facebook friends think it’s the last instar of a Hawthorn shieldbug, which makes a lot of sense what with me having a giant hawthorn tree in the garden.

And then these insects started to emerge – there were three of them in total, but they don’t hang around. I think this is probably a Southern Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema meridionale) – the ‘spike’ sticking out at the end shows that this individual is a female, and this is her ovipositor, for laying her eggs into rotten wood. Look at the length of those antennae!

All of the bush-crickets bounced away into the undergrowth. They can jump many times their own body-length, and just as well – being bright green they are far too conspicuous. You can tell this is a Southern Bush-cricket by the yellow dorsal stripe. This is another recent arrival, first recorded in Southern England in 2001. As the animal is flightless, it has probably been ‘hitching a lift’ in plant material that’s transported by vehicle. But here’s a thing – it is said to be a predator of the horse-chestnut leaf miner, the moth that is turning all the horse-chestnut leaves to crisps as we speak. It generally lives in trees, so I’m wondering if it is currently living in the whitebeam? Or was it hanging out in the buddleia, which is now the size of a small tree?

When I remove plant material from my pond, I always put it on the side for a couple of days to allow the little critters to wriggle back into the water, but I’ve always just plonked the lid onto my wheelie bin once I’ve done the pruning. It occurs to me that I should leave the lid open for a few hours, just to allow insects to escape as the vegetation starts to wilt. I’d already removed a two-spot ladybird and a very pregnant spider, so hopefully other creatures will also have a chance to escape.

So this is basically a plea for anyone who has their garden waste recycled, or who has a tightly-enclosed compost bin (like some of the plastic ones I’ve seen) to consider leaving the lid open for a little while, to avoid condemning invertebrates to death. It’s something I’d never thought of until all the action today, and I’d love to hear how you deal with such things.

In other news, the garden is a jungle. Once the angelica fell over and everything around it collapsed, it’s been a tangle of meadowsweet, hemp agrimony and greater willowherb. Chelsea Flower Show it ain’t, but how I love to watch all the pollinators, especially as the plants are at a very convenient height for observation.

The pond has water mint and figwort, with the bees and hoverflies being especially partial to the former.

Water mint

And the bumblebees continue to home in on the bittersweet.

It’s true that soon there will be some tidying to do, but I am just starting to realise how many species the garden supports. I will try to be sympathetic to what the creatures need, while also trying to keep my own sanity. Still, this is all a problem for September. For now, my tidying is done.

An August Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

‘My’ swamp cypress

Dear Readers, I didn’t get to the cemetery last week because of the interminable rain, so it was a real pleasure to see what was going on this week. For a start, the swamp cypress was looking extremely fine. I know you’re not meant to have favourites, but this tree is very close to my heart.

But then, how about the trunk on this oak? It seems to have been much-lopped in its early years, and it’s covered in puckers and scars, but is no less characterful for its troubles. It reminds me of one of those many-breasted statues of Artemis that you can see in museums, and, like all oaks, this tree probably has been ‘mother’ to many, many other species. Or maybe it’s just me. See what you think

Photo One by Son of Groucho from Scotland, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Artemis from the Ephesus Museum (Photo One)

In other news, one of the cherry laurels has become a refuge for snails of all kinds. I guess that the waxy leaves provide an excellent protection against drying out, though the snails don’t appear to be eating them. This brown-lipped banded snail (Cepaea nemoralis) reminds me rather of a mint humbug.

I think that this is probably a rather worn garden snail (Cornu aspersum). It looks like an elderly snail to me, battered by life but clinging on.

And this is another brown-lipped snail, though not quite as pristine as the first one. Isn’t it interesting how we (generally) view snails as small characters, rather lovable in their way, but don’t extend the same tolerance to slugs? Maybe the shells help to offset the general sliminess.

Late summer is already shading into autumn, with bountiful supplies of conkers…


And rosehips….

But there are some new plants in flower as well, such as this musk mallow (Malva moschata)…

and these lovely common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris). I love this plant, with its lemon and orange flowers. In fact, I have a great fondness for all toadflaxes – they are often great for pollinators and their flowers just ask for a bee to land on them.

There has been a whole lot of strimming going on on the banks where I’ve seen green woodpeckers in the past, but at the moment the magpies are there, working over the dried grass for tasty insects.

We take a quick run around the field and have a look at the Himalayan balsam. This is such an attractive, showy plant. I can see why people planted it in the past – it’s like having a giant moth orchid in your back garden. What a shame it’s such a thug – the bees seem to love it.

I spot a sparrowhawk flying overhead. I also see a recently-fledged blackbird, looking very small and vulnerable. Fortunately I could hear at least one adult bird in the tree overhead, so I moved quickly on, keeping my fingers crossed that this little one would soon be fully equipped for life in the cemetery. At least there are very few cats.

This crow was pecking at a piece of cellophane that had been used to wrap flowers with great determination, and even tried to fly off with it when we approached.

We couldn’t see anything of food value, and so my husband put the cellophane back in the bin. I reminded him that experiments have shown that corvids don’t forget someone who has done them a disservice – it’s been shown that they can identify someone who has wronged them even if they change their clothes and wear a mask. Let’s hope that this act of kindness won’t be misinterpreted, or our walks in the cemetery are about to become much more ‘interesting’.

Photo Credit

Photo One by Son of Groucho from Scotland, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed(s) – Reflexed, White and Caucasian Stonecrop

Reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre)

Dear Readers, I have often remarked on the variety of stonecrops that ‘crop up’ (apologies) in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, so I thought that this week we could have a look at these remarkable plants. All of them grow only on particular graves, normally those that have been covered with gravel. I doubt that they were planted deliberately, and they give a strangely coastal feeling to parts of the cemetery.

All of the stonecrops are members of the Crassulaceae family. They are succulents, and so can thrive on very thin, desiccated soil. All stonecrops operate using a form of photosynthesis called ‘Crassulacean Acid Metabolism’ or CAM for short. Basically, the plant keeps the little holes in its leaves, called stomata, closed during the day so that it doesn’t lose water. Then at night, it opens the stomata so that it can collect the carbon dioxide that it needs for photosynthesis, and stores the gas so that it can continue to operate during the day. This is thought to be an adaptation to hot, dry climates where the plant would not otherwise be able to survive.

I’ve noticed three species of stonecrop in the cemetery, though there may be many more.

Firstly, we have reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre/reflexum). This plant was probably introduced to the UK in the 17th century as a salad crop – those tiny leaves are said to have a bitter, astringent taste. It was recorded in the wild by 1666. In the USA the plant is known as Jenny’s stonecrop. As with all sedums, the delight is in the detail – I love the circlets of golden flowers, and the redness of the stems. No wonder people use these plants on their green roofs – they are superbly adapted to the dryness and thinness of the soil.

The white stonecrop (Sedum album) is just going over now, but at its height it covered some graves in a sea-spume of tiny flowers. This is probably an ancient introduction, or archaeophyte, meaning a plant that was growing in the wild in the UK before 1500 BCE. If you look closely at the photo, you can see how the plant is growing amidst a collection of green frosted-glass pebbles, an environment in which no other plants seem to be able to survive, so the stonecrop has the whole grave to itself.

White stonecrop (Sedum album)

The third stonecrop that I’ve spotted is Caucasian or two-rowed stonecrop (Sedum spurium). This is a much more recent introduction than the other two species, and has undoubtedly hopped over the wall from a garden somewhere, or may even have been deliberately planted on the grave. It comes from Eastern Europe, as its name suggests, and there are a number of cultivars on offer.

Caucasian stonecrop (Sedum spurium)

All the stonecrops seem to be very attractive to hoverflies, and the fact that they flower in the sunniest spots can only help. I wasn’t sure if any insects ate the leaves but a quick look at my ‘Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland’ revealed that the caterpillars of the Mullein Wave (Scopula marginepunctata), Magpie (Abraxas grossulatiata), Scotch Annulet (Gnophos obfuscata) and the Sword Grass (Xylena exsoleta) have all been found munching on various species of stonecrop, including the more ornamental ones, so keep your eyes open if you have some in your garden. The caterpillar of the Sword Grass looks especially spectacular.

Photo One by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Mullein Wave moth (Photo One)

Photo Two by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Magpie moth (Photo Two)

Photo Three by Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sword-grass caterpillar (Photo Three)

And finally, as often happens when you use a word over and over again in a piece of writing, I find myself thinking about the word ‘stonecrop’. It has its origins in Old English, but it can, of course, be read in two ways. It might be that, given the fact that some varieties of sedum are edible (and reflexed stonecrop might actually have been brought here as a herb), the word refers to a ‘crop that is grown amidst stones’. However, what also springs to mind is a crop of stones, a failed harvest, a hard and hungry time. Maybe stonecrop was also sometimes used as a famine food?

And so a poem, by Robinson Jeffers, an American poet from California who died in 1962. I like the way that this poem celebrates the way that nature is reclaiming the industrial site with its ‘rose-tipped stonecrop’. See what you think.

Bixby’s Landing by Robinson Jeffers

They burned lime on the hill and dropped it down
here in an iron car
On a long cable; here the ships warped in
And took their loads from the engine, the water
is deep to the cliff. The car
Hangs half way over in the gape of the gorge,
Stationed like a north star above the peaks of
the redwoods, iron perch
For the little red hawks when they cease from
When they’ve struck prey; the spider’s fling of a
cable rust-glued to the pulleys.
The laborers are gone, but what a good multitude
Is here in return: the rich-lichened rock, the
rose-tipped stone-crop, the constant
Ocean’s voices, the cloud-lighted space.
The kilns are cold on the hill but here in the
rust of the broken boiler
Quick lizards lighten, and a rattle-snake flows
Down the cracked masonry, over the crumbled
fire-brick. In the rotting timbers
And roofless platforms all the free companies
Of windy grasses have root and make seed; wild
buckwheat blooms in the fat
Weather-slacked lime from the bursted barrels.
Two duckhawks darting in the sky of their cliff-hung
nest are the voice of the headland.
Wine-hearted solitude, our mother the wilderness,
Men’s failures are often as beautiful as men’s
triumphs, but your returnings
Are even more precious than your first presence.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Wet Saturday in East Finchley

Rain dripping from the awning outside Coffee Bank

Dear Readers, our usual Saturday walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery was terminated abruptly today in favour of a flat white in Coffee Bank on East Finchley High Road. What a morning! It poured down relentlessly, and I look forward to the statistics which are going to announce that this was the wettest August ever. Even in the rain there are still things to see, but I wanted to start by showing you who popped into the garden yesterday.

This little one is very skinny but otherwise healthy – her tail looks mangey in the photo but it’s actually just a lighter silvery colour. She is all legs, and ears,  and is clearly one of this year’s cubs. Normally they haven’t been visiting until it’s properly dark,  but I imagine this one was very hungry. After about five minutes she loped off into the undergrowth and disappeared. It always feels like such a privilege to be visited by these animals.

Back to the High Road!

Coffee Bank stands right next to what is known as Carol’s Crossing. A wonderful local woman, Carol Jackson, was killed in a car accident at this spot in 2019. There had been many complaints about the difficulties for pedestrians who wanted to cross the road at this point, and it was very sad that the refuge in the middle of the road which makes things so much easier was constructed literally weeks after her death. Flowers are often left here in memory of Carol.

The ‘Carol’s Crossing’ embroidered sign

The crossing that makes life so much easier for East Finchley pedestrians

While I was watching the rain, I suddenly noticed the terracotta panels on the houses opposite. It’s these little details that make the mixed architecture around here so interesting. Clearly Tudor roses were very much in vogue.

And there are some fine floral swags too.

At least the plane trees are enjoying the rain, after the long dry periods of the last few summers.

And above the shop there’s a ‘ghost sign’ for an off licence – it’s interesting that there is still an off licence on this spot.

Then it’s off for a brisk trot along Leicester Road. Someone has planted borage and corn cockle in their front garden, and once it gets a bit drier I’m sure the bees will be delighted. I see some enchanter’s nightshade in there too – for the longest time I never saw this in East Finchley but suddenly it’s appeared.

All Saints Church looks rather forbidding against the grey sky….

But as we turn into my road, there’s a patch of blue sky.

And there is also something of an Alfred Hitchcock moment. Look at all these starlings! What are they waiting for?

They are all clicking and preening and whistling and generally discussing something I’m sure.

Maybe one of these days East Finchley will have enough starlings to have its own murmuration. Wouldn’t that be exciting? As it is, my conscience is unwrung because I topped up the bird feeders before I went out. In the film ‘The Birds’, I don’t think it was ever clear why the birds started to attack humans, but goodness knows they have enough cause. Let’s hope they don’t ever get it into their heads to take revenge.


Small Pleasures in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

A hoverfly’s bum. You’re welcome!

Dear Readers, after missing last week’s walk in the cemetery because I was still feeling poorly, it was a great pleasure to have a stroll around today, enjoying the little things that have changed since I was here last. In truth, the end of July/beginning of August is a quiet time for nature, with the babies fledged, the caterpillars growing and all manner of creatures fattening up for the autumn, but there are still lots of interesting things going on if you look closely. The woodland graveyard site is full of blowsy thistles, wild carrot, ragwort and knapweed, and the hoverflies are taking full advantage.

Drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a honeybee mimic

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

Marmalade hoverfly (hopefully) (Episyrphus balteatus)

Hoverfly larvae are some of our most voracious aphid-eaters – we might be more familiar with ladybirds and their youngsters as they plough through a ‘herd’ of greenfly, but hoverfly maggots, though not the most appealing of creatures to look at, are basically aphid hoovers. The mimicry which means that these insects resemble bees or wasps is possibly also their downfall where humans are concerned – some people only have to see a flash of yellow and black stripes before they reach for a rolled-up newspaper. However, I’m sure that lots of predators leave them alone because of their colouration, so hopefully it all evens out. And look, here are some Common Red Soldier Beetles (Rhagonycha fulva), living up to their popular name of ‘bonking beetles’.

The conkers are continuing to fatten up.