Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Guelder Rose

Berries of the Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)

Dear Readers, there are some plants which are exquisite in every season. Take the guelder rose, for example. At this time of year, it is dripping in shiny red berries. As the year progresses, the leaves turn to shades of red and copper.

Photo One by © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under

Guelder rose in autumn (Photo One)

And in the summer, the plant has flowers that resemble those of a lacecap hydrangea.

Photo Two by © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under

Guelder rose flower (Photo Two)

Guelder rose is actually not a rose at all, but is a member of the Moscatel family (Adoxaceae) which includes other viburnums and elders. It is native to a broad swathe of Europe, northern Africa and central Asia,and a related plant, Viburnum trilobum which is native to North America is thought by some botanists to be a subspecies of ‘our’ guelder rose.

The plant is one of the national flowers of Ukraine, where it is known as Kalyna, and the red berries are associated with fertility, health and, in Slavonic pagan beliefs, with the birth of the universe. ‘Oh, the red viburnum in the meadow’ was a marching song of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. ‘Kalyna’ also referred to the hymen, and the bride’s bloodied nightshirt which was paraded in front of the guests on her wedding night as proof of her virginity was called a ‘kalyna’. It’s safe to say that guelder rose has a deeply symbolic value in Ukraine, becoming synonymous with the nation and with its people. The berries of the plant turn up everywhere, including on these rather fetching boots.

Photo Three from

Ukrainian Guelder Rose boots (Photo Three)

The name ‘guelder rose’, however, is thought to refer to the Dutch province of Gelderland, from where a popular cultivar of the plant, the snowball tree, originated.

Photo Four by Fulvio Spada from Torino, Italy - Snowball flowers, CC BY-SA 2.0,

‘Snowball tree’ cultivar of the guelder rose (Photo Four)

Those red berries look delicious, and are indeed favourites of thrushes and the bullfinch.

Photo Five by By Людмила Голуб [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Fieldfare on guelder rose (Photo Five)

Humans can eat them too, in small quantities, although they are reputedly very acidic, and prone to causing diarrhoea. If used at all, they are generally turned into jelly to accompany cheese and cooked meats. In keeping with our Ukrainian theme, you can find a recipe for guelder rose jam here. The berries have also been turned into brandy and even into a cocktail.

Photo Four from

Guelder rose jam (Photo Four)

One alternative name for guelder rose was ‘cramp bark’, and an infusion was used to treat all kinds of cramps and muscle spasms, including menstrual cramps and the symptoms of lockjaw (tetanus).

In Scandinavian mythology, guelder rose was called water elder, and the water spirit, known as the Nix, was said to wait under the plant and play enthralling music. When someone stopped to listen, they would be grabbed and pulled under the water unless they already had a sprig of the plant in their pocket.

Photo Six by By Theodor Kittelsen - 2. Nasjonalmuseet: No.21., Public Domain,

Nokken (Water Spirit) by Theodor Kittelsen (1904) (Photo Six)

And now to a poem. There is something in this one that puts me in mind of the train journey from London to Dorset, where my parents live, and of the interminable hours spent looking out of the window, lost in thought and yet suddenly brought back by horses running in the New Forest, the sea, a field of loosestrife and golden rod. And, of course, guelder rose.

England, or the continent I had in mind when I came here by Eireann Lorsung
for Caroline
Every bird is a sister of mine—can you believe
I never saw horses running
before I came to this island,
and nothing but their own good sense keeps them
from falling into the ocean?
At the edge of your country
along traintracks that run from Devon
to Cornwall, someone
set up a howl and it’s been going
longer than we remember,
or our mothers
remember, or their mothers.
Where else could a woman turn
into flowering rosebush? All
so peripheral, the crooked edges maps show—
the limit is sensate here
where I can never travel all night
and the next day—
what brings me is what bound you,
a piece of cloth in tatting thread and colors
I found here—loosestrife, sorrel, the guelder rose,
wood anemone—a tapestry
barring girlhood to one
field, long stripe of a neighbor’s plow turning
land just over the woven branches: earth
to earth.
The sandwich cart rattles by, you stack
cups on a tray. Meanwhile, unobtrusively, the air
diffuses particles, the sky is pinked.

This earth. This shining in the sea.

(first published online as a winning poem in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize; also published in Her Book)

Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music For Landing Planes By (2007) and Her Book (August 2013), both from Milkweed. Other work appears or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Burnside Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Two Serious Ladies, The Collagist, and Bluestem. She edits 111O and co-runs MIEL, a micropress

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under

Photo Two by © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under

Photo Three from

Photo Four by Fulvio Spada from Torino, Italy – Snowball flowers, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Five by By Людмила Голуб [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by By Theodor Kittelsen – 2. Nasjonalmuseet: No.21., Public Domain,

Wednesday Weed – Small Balsam

Small Balsam (Inpatiens parviflora)

Dear Readers, on Bank Holiday Monday I went for a walk on Hampstead Heath, and I discovered this new ‘weed’ growing in the woods alongside the path. I think it must be a relatively recent arrival because I have never noticed it before, and it is quite distinctive, with its primrose-yellow flowers and orange pollen. It is spreading at quite a rate, and seems to be out-competing the enchanter’s nightshade that used to grow prolifically in the dry shade here.

Small balsam is a member of the busy lizzie family, something that is not obvious until you have a look at the buds, to the right of the photo below. It is also closely related to Himalayan balsam, that scourge of riverbanks/great plant for pollinators depending on your view, although this is a much more delicate plant.

There is some debate about how small balsam originally got to the UK from it’s original habitat, the damp woodlands of Russia and Central Asia. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley discuss the various theories. One is that it was imported accidentally with Russian timber in the mid 19th century – small balsam is the only plant thought to have arrived and thrived in the UK in this way. Another is that the seeds were imported along with buckwheat which was used as feed for gamebirds. It’s also difficult to rule out contamination from fly-tipping of horticultural waste, especially at the edge of woods. Whatever route the plant took, it is certainly very happy now.

Small balsam is hermaphroditic, which means that it can self-pollinate, but it is largely pollinated by hoverflies, who dance in the dappled sunlight from the trees above, patrolling their three-dimensional territories and occasionally darting down for some sustenance.

As I was taking photographs of the small balsam a young woman with the most delightfully mud-covered small dog stopped for a chat. She told me that she had been on a herbal walk on the Heath some months ago, but had forgotten most of what she’d been told. I sympathised: my memory is so full of medical appointments and other organisational imperatives that relate to my elderly parents that I can barely remember how to get dressed in the morning. However, it’s surprising how the discovery of a new plant, and furthermore one that I can almost identify with confidence, concentrates the mind and lifts the spirit. For a few minutes I felt almost normal, as opposed to just about hanging on.

Small balsam leaves are apparently edible if cooked in one change of water, and they can also be used as a treatment for ringworm, nettle stings and warts. It seems that they can also be used as a treatment for an itchy scalp. I am always a little nervous when a plant that kills things (such as the fungus that causes ringworm) is also said to be edible, so as always caution is advised. Plus, as this seems to be a plant of the forest edge it is liable to contamination by passing dogs, especially on the Heath where at least one pooch seems to be de rigour.

The seeds are also said to be edible, but good luck with collecting them – as with all members of the family, touching the ripe seed pods will send the seed cascading into the air, one reason that an alternative name for balsams is ‘touch-me-nots’ (and that the generic name ‘Impatiens’ literally means ‘impatient’.

The caterpillar of the balsam carpet moth (Xanthorhoe biriviata) feeds on all kinds of balsam, and is unusual in having three different colour forms.

Photo One by By Léo-Paul Robert - Self-scannedDie Raupen und der Maler – Léo-Paul Robert, Stiftung Sammlung Robert, Biel, ISBN 3-9522989-4-8, Public Domain,

The different colour forms of the balsam carpet moth caterpillar (Photo One)

The moth itself is a handsome creature, striped in shades of rust, chocolate and cream.  The one in the photo below has kindly posed him/herself against a white wall for maximum impact.

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0,

Balsam carpet moth (Photo Two )

And as my photos are not quite up to scratch this week, here is a great photo showing the delicate tracery of burnt-orange and blood-red on the ‘throat’ of the flower.

Photo Three by ArtMechanic [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Small balsam flower (Photo Three)

The path alongside the wood where the small balsam grows is now shadowed on the other side by a massive fence and a lime hedge. Behind it is one of the largest houses that I’ve ever seen. I only know this because, at various times in its construction, us commoners could get a glimpse through the gaps in the hoardings, to see such things as a swimming pool complete with metal tubular slides from the first floor into the water. On the other side of the fence, folk who have arrived on the bus and puffed their way up the hill walk their elderly stiff-legged terriers, and mothers push their prams en route to the ice cream van. Beneath the fence, a mysterious stream flows out, crosses the path and trickles down into the wood, right where the small balsam is growing, and I wonder if the wet conditions have changed the ecosystem just enough for the plant to thrive. It reminds me that no matter how much people isolate themselves from the community that they live in, they are still part of it, and impact upon it. Whether they care, or are happy in their own little bubble, remains to be seen.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Léo-Paul Robert – Self-scannedDie Raupen und der Maler – Léo-Paul Robert, Stiftung Sammlung Robert, Biel, ISBN 3-9522989-4-8, Public Domain,

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by ArtMechanic [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Hibiscus

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Red Heart’ (also known as Tree Hollyhock)

Dear Readers, is it just my imagination or has there been a sudden burst of enthusiasm for hibiscus as a garden plant? Once upon a time I had to travel to the Mediterranean to see these exotic beauties in full flower, but on a wet Sunday afternoon I found no less than three different plants in the environs of the County Roads in East Finchley, and very splendid they were too. I suspect that the climate change induced warmer temperatures are suiting them very well, for this plant comes originally from southern Asia, with its long warm summers. Hibiscus arrived in the UK in the 16th century, and was at first thought to be unable to survive frost. Later, it was realised that although individual buds might be affected by sub-zero temperatures, the shrub itself was frost-hardy.

Hibiscus syriacum is part of a genus of several hundred species belonging to the mallow family, or Malvaceae.  In the UK the plant is also known as the Tree Hollyhock, but in the US it is also known as Rose of Sharon, a name that in the UK refers to a bright yellow member of the St John’s wort family. Yet again, we find ourselves divided by a common language, and I give huge thanks to Linnaeus for his system of nomenclature that enables us all to understand what we’re talking about.

I love the way that hibiscus flowers open, the petals swirling around as they open like a ballerina pirouetting.

Photo One by By JeedaGhazal - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

A hibiscus flower opening….(Photo One)

Many hibiscus species (mainly the red ones) are pollinated by hummingbirds or sunbirds, but our plant, originating in China, is not. It is both self-fertile (i.e. each flower contains both male and female parts) and capable of being pollinated by insects, chiefly bees, who are attracted more for the plentiful pollen than for the nectar. Each flower only opens for a day, but in a good year the shrub will be covered in blooms for weeks, providing plenty of opportunity for pollen-hungry invertebrates.

Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of South Korea, where it is known as mugunghwa, from the word ‘mugung‘ meaning ‘eternity’ or ‘inexhaustible abundance’. In the South Korean national anthem, reference is made to ‘Three thousand ri (about 1,200 km, the length of the Korean peninsula) of splendid rivers and mountains covered with mugunghwa blossoms’. It is not surprising that Hibiscus syriacus became the national flower after Korea gained its independence from Japan in 1945.

Photo Two from

The Emblem of the President of South Korea, showing a hibiscus blossom (Photo Two)

The leaves of Hibiscus syriacus are said to be a good substitute for lettuce, though a little mucilaginous. The buds are said to resemble okra (not necessarily a good thing in my opinion, but each to their own).  The flowers are edible, although it’s the dark red flowers of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that are more usually used to make hibiscus tea. I must admit to getting a bit irritated with the way that so many herbal fruit teas use hibiscus as their first ingredient in order to bulk it out – I find the rather astringent flavour overwhelms everything else. You can also get hibiscus syrup, again, normally made from Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.  The ingredient is having something of a ‘moment’ in trendy restaurants at the moment, and to be honest I will be delighted when the moment has passed, and we can get back to normal food, like charcoal bread or aubergine icecream.

Photo Three from City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons

Hibiscus-Poached Rhubarb,Garden radishes,Belgian endive,ruby beet essence and toasted hazelnut ‘Génoise’ (Photo Three)

As you might expect, such a structurally-interesting flower has attracted many artists. I rather like this still-life by Dutch artist Nicolaes van Veerendael, painted some time between 1660 and 1691, and proving that a Hibiscus syriacus just like the one around the corner from me was flowering quite happily in the Netherlands over 300 years ago. Incidentally, the picture sold at Christies for £92,500 in 2014.

Hibiscus,parrot tulips, carnations, a rose, and iris, snowballs and other flowers in a vase on a partially draped stone ledge with a garden tiger moth by Nicolaes van Veerendael (Public Domain)

And for our poem, I rather liked this, by American poet Jim Ballowe who is, quite rightly, Artist of the Month for August 2018 at the Center for Humans and Nature website. Do have a look at his other work, too.

Remember that in North America Hibiscus syriacus is known as ‘Rose of Sharon’ and is thought to be the plant referred to in the Song of Solomon.

Lessons from the Garden

                         for Ruth 


The garden doesn’t give a fig for Solomon 

any more than we know what he meant when he said

that kisses are sweeter than wine. The white fly

sucking at the belly of sweet potato leaves

pauses to ponder neither sex nor text.

Remember that piece of fluff, that ancient ephemera

circling the Rose of Sharon, settling awkwardly

at last in the sun-warmed bird bath, 

how determined it was to continue on the wing again 

after we plucked it from its futile folly?

Think how the Rose of Sharon greets spring as a dead stick,

then revels through summer days in a pink pregnancy,  

each night dropping its spent blooms  

nestled like newborns curled in silk blankets.



In a month of spiders, butterflies, and hummingbirds,

in days of asters, mums, and Autumn clematis,

in sun-harsh hours cascading into velvet nights,

in lapsed minutes the sumac takes to redden,

the unexpected forever happens, and we,

thrilled to see the intricate web, the floating color,

the darting shadow, the many-petaled flower,

the diminishing light, are reassured by nature’s tricks,

the existent summer’s ephemeral exit,

fall’s hovering presence awaiting embrace,

geometrical designs in crisp skies,

the unmasking of trees, the sense of humor behind it all,

a stage whisper, the thought that we too

share this scene, waiting to go on.

Jim Ballowe

Photo Credits

Photo One by By JeedaGhazal – Own work, CC BY 4.0,

Photo Two from

Photo Three from City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


The Accidental Garden

Common Carder Bumblebee buzz-pollinating Bittersweet

Dear Readers,what a week it’s been! As you may remember, Mum was finally admitted to hospital last Friday with what we thought was an infection. However, once she’d had a CT scan it appeared that something more sinister was going on. She seemed to have an obstruction in her digestive tract, and for a few terrifying days we were afraid that she might have to have an operation to remove whatever was causing the blockage. In her weakened state, and given her medical condition, this was the last thing that anyone wanted.

Mum gave her consent to the operation if it proved to be necessary, but was extremely indignant that she was asked if she wanted to be resuscitated if anything went wrong.

‘Of course I want to be resuscitated!’ she said to me later as she told me about the encounter.  ‘After all, I haven’t got anything else wrong with me!’

Well, this is open to question, but who wouldn’t admire such a fighting spirit?

Fortunately, the surgeon took a look at  the scan and decided to play a waiting game. And so poor Mum was Nil by Mouth from last Friday until Wednesday this week. I took the train to Dorset County Hospital to see how she was getting on, and she was seriously disgruntled.

‘I’m never coming to this hospitall again’, she said.. ‘I’ve been sitting in this chair all day, and they won’t let me get back into bed’.

I tried to explain that this was because they were trying to ease the pressure sore on the small of her back, and also that they were going to bring her a cup of tea which she couldn’t drink laying down, but to no avail. When Mum has a bee in her bonnet it’s normally a pretty large bee.

And then yesterday we were delighted to learn that what had appeared to be a blockage was actually the result of a chemical inbalance, probably because of her infection, dehydration and various other factors. She is now eating ice-cream and yoghurt and drinking tea, and seems well on the road to recovery.

On the other hand,  at the moment she is also completely unable to bear any weight on her legs. Maybe this is just weakness after the infection, or maybe it is some new ‘thing’, because no sooner has one thing been knocked on the head than something else puts in an appearance. It’s like some game of medical Whack-a-mole.

However. I have been at home for a few days, have caught up on my sleep, have applied unguents to the horrible stress-related rash that was turning me into the Elephant Woman, and have had time to wander around the garden and admire all the things that are popping up that I’ve had nothing to do with planting at all.

Dear Readers, I  am something of a ramshackle gardener at the best of times. When a new plant first appears in the garden, I am loathe to just pull it out until I know what it is, and sometimes identification takes a while. However,  such tardiness can breed the most spectacular results with regards to wildlife.

Take the bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) that is clambering all over my fence, for example. This year it has grown into a splendid vine and has flowered for months, producing great bunches of bright red berries which the birds may or may not be interested in later in the year. The plant is outcompeting my honeysuckle, and has already defeated a clematis. But what can I do? It is literally abuzz with common carder bumblebees, who buzz-pollinate the flowers. There are at least a dozen of them at a time and their high-pitched buzzing the very sound of summer for me.


The superabundance of bees and other pollinators means that the vine is also studded with spiders. Most of the arachnids are not big enough to cope with a full-sized bumble at the moment, and so when a bee flew into the web of a garden spider earlier today, the spider rushed over and cut it loose before the bee could completely destroy all the hard work that went into making it.

Garden orb spider (Araneus diadematus)

Incidentally, the appearance of garden spiders that are big enough to notice means that summer is ripening into autumn. Earlier in the year there are just as many spiders but they are tiny, so they escape our gaze.

Another surprisingly effective wildlife plant is Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum). Again, this just popped up around the pond without so much as a by-your-leave. I have cut it back a bit this year, but it is still vigorous and extremely popular with the bees and butterflies. Round about now the seeds are starting to appear, and I should really blitz it before I have hundreds of seedlings all over the garden, but I don’t have the heart while most of the plants are so pretty and in full flower.

Great Willowherb and honeybee

I have already waxed lyrical about the bird-planted sunflowers and their value to pollinators, so I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that, like many daisies, it is useful for all kinds of bees and hoverflies, and those huge flowers will be useful for finches later on.

Carder bee on sunflower

Last year, the birds were kind enough to plant some flax, which is not only exquisite in its own right, but valuable for small flies too. This year it was the sunflowers. Who knows what they’ll plant next year?

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

But the largest plants that have appeared from nowhere in my garden, and the ones that are the most useful of all my ‘weeds’ are the two twelve-foot high buddleias in the front garden. Why the most useful? Because my back garden faces north, and so is only insect-friendly for part of the day, whereas the front garden faces south and so is thronged with bees and butterflies all day.

In  order to be friendly to the neighbours I cut the buddleia back as soon as it starts to encroach on the pavement, which means that it flowers for much longer than normal. This year, they came into bloom at the start of July and are still full of flowers in late August. Many different kinds of pollinators use it during the day, and at night it’s full of moths.

The buddleia a few years ago. It’s much bigger now!

Finally, even non-flowering plants that appear in the garden can have their uses. By the side of my pond there is a large pendulous sedge. These can be something of a pest as they self-seed everywhere, but they are extremely useful as cover for newly-emerging baby frogs, and adult frogs seem to enjoy their protection too.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

Of course, not every plant that I tolerate in the garden reciprocates my good manners. I should not have been so kind to the herb bennet, for example, which is now absolutely everywhere. The brambles in the very back of the garden are now arcing over into the seating area, looking for somewhere to root. And the bindweed is becoming positively impudent. But on balance, there is something to be said for being generous when a stranger pops up in the garden. After all, it is often a plant ideally suited to the conditions that you’ve created, something that will thrive when the expensive item that you bought at the garden centre will pull up its roots and go south as soon as you turn your back. If it isn’t Japanese Knotweed or duckweed, I’d say give it a chance. You never know which creatures will crop up to take advantage of it.

Wednesday Weed – Water Plantain

Water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica)

Dear Readers, just before the heatwave finally broke I went for a walk in Coldfall Wood with my friend J, and noticed this extraordinary seedhead projecting above some elegant, long-stemmed leaves. How delicate water plantain is! It is growing in the now dried-up bed of the seasonal pond, where the water level has gone up and down by several feet in the past few months. At the moment the pond bed is a mass of bistort and water mint, with the water plantain and some bulrushes providing a bit of height. This is a far cry from the scene in January.

The seasonal pond in Coldfall Wood in January this year

I have just missed the main flowering of the water plantain, but the flowers are tiny, pinkish-white, and usually only open after midday. There is something rather Sputnik-like about the arrangement of the flowers on their spikes, and the closed buds resemble clenched fists. All this reminds me of the social realist Russian paintings of the Soviet era, and indeed there is a Russian connection. Water plantain is native to most of Europe and Asia and northern and central Africa, but in Russia the powdered root is said to be a cure for rabies, giving the plant the alternative name of ‘mad dog weed’. In some parts of the world it is also said to be a cure for snakebite.

Illustration by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman (Public Domain)

It is said to be anti-allergenic and protective of the kidneys and urinary tract.

The crushed dried leaves (to avoid the problems of blistering mentioned earlier) have been used as a poultice to relieve pain during breast-feeding in both humans and other mammals, and in Chinese Traditional medicine (where it is known as Xe Zie) it is believed that the plant can help with all aspects of fertility and childbirth.

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Water plantain flower (Photo One)

The plant is not closely related to plants such as ribwort plantain but is a member of the Alismataceae or water-plantain family. In addition to its place in Russian medicinal lore, it is known as ‘Leaf of Patrick’ in Ireland, and is reputed to ward off fairies. The leaves are, however, said to cause blisters if bruised. The genus name Alisma is said to come from the Celtic word for ‘water’.

Photo Two by By Bff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The elegant leaves of water plantain (Photo Two)

Ruskin took an interest in the ratio of the flower stalks of water plantain to one another, and used this to illustrate his theory of Gothic architecture. He also believed that the curve of the water plantain leaf represented a model of ‘divine proportion’, one of those shapes on which ‘God has stamped those characters of beauty which He has made it man’s nature to love’.

Photo Three from

An illustration of a water plantain flower stalk by John Ruskin (Photo Three)

Water plantain have been used as food by the Kalmucks of Russia and China, who boiled the roots to get rid of the bitterness and toxicity of the plant. The Iroquois of North America drank a tea made from the leaves to give them extra energy (the plant is widely naturalised in the New World).

Now, at this point I normally share a poem, or a painting, but this week I want to share something completely unrelated to water plantain. As my friend and I left the pond and headed up through the wood towards home, our eyes were drawn to a tiny heart-shaped plaque at the root of a tree. When I read what was written on it, I was instantly drawn back to the pet funerals of my own childhood. I often roped in my unfortunate little brother – once we had a ceremony for a moth that had died after hatching from its chrysalis and being unable to find somewhere to expand its wings properly. I well remember that we buried it in a matchbox under a fragment of bathroom tile, upon which was scrawled, in purple crayon,

‘Died before he could live. RIP’.

RIP Moonlight. And blessings on the child who loved her pet enough to bury here in the woods. Grief is grief, and who is to say that the death of an animal is trivial?  I have had my own heart broken often enough, and so, I suspect, have many other people.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Bff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three from



Bugwoman on Location – A Common Ground at Tate Britain

Dear Readers, the Tate has ‘form’ when it comes to installations that combine gardening with art. Who can forget the raised beds of ‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern, a most frustrating exhibit which missed a number of opportunities to illuminate the varied habitats around London. So, I was hopeful but not overly optimistic when I went to visit ‘A Common Ground’ on Monday. This is what the gallery says about it:

It seems like a lovely idea, but I too have ‘form’ when it comes to community gardens. I was treasurer at Culpeper Community Garden in Islington for several years, and I know that the idea of a pop-up community garden is almost an oxymoron – these places take years of slow growth to build up both the garden itself and the community that supports it. People need to get to know one another, and the plants need tender loving care to establish themselves.

And so it proved. Most of the beds housed plants that were not in the best of health. The poor old sweet peas had withered away to nothing. The large white butterfly caterpillars were having a delightful time and had eaten nearly all the cabbage seedlings to a stump.

Large White (Pieris brassiceae) caterpillars

Some plants were doing well, especially the ones in the greenhouse, where a lone shy young man was potting up some seedlings.

There were various forms of squash bursting forth, a homage to an installation called ‘The Squash’ by Anthea Turner, which takes place in the gallery itself. Someone wearing a squash on their head poses among the artworks, as we all gawp and take photos. What a job.  I cannot imagine how hot the performer has been during the last few weeks.

Hokkaido squash

‘The Squash’ by Anthea Hamilton

The raised beds themselves have a certain geometric elegance, but I can’t help thinking that runner beans would have been nice. Like so many edible plants they are elegant in their own right. As it is, the sweet peas are just not cutting it, though some broad beans are giving it their best shot.

Some plants are doing very well: there are some splendid hollyhocks and sunflowers.

There are a couple of beds which combine pollinator-friendly herbs and vegetables with plants such as verbena for the bees, and these are doing pretty well.

There are even fountains that are triggered by the human voice. I  wondered how these worked, but I think the idea is that you sit down for a chat and then  the fountain gurgles into life. My friend S and I were eventually loud enough to get one to work, and very exciting it was too.

But sadly there was no one for us to have a chat to. The young lad in the greenhouse didn’t want to talk, and that’s fine – not everyone who comes to a garden comes to socialise, and any community garden should allow for both the quiet and the extrovert. But there was nobody else. I suspect that it’s very different on Saturday when there are events (last week’s demonstration of Caribbean vegan cooking sounds particularly intriguing), but all in all I think the problem is intrinsic to the very nature of the project. Gardens take time and investment, and many gardeners wouldn’t want to spend time on something that will disappear at the end of October. This is a bit sad, as I’m sure this could be a very productive garden even in this period of time if it was looked after.

Also, community gardens are usually full of volunteers who live within walking distance, school children, pensioners, folk who have time to spare for whatever reason. The garden here could be the same, but I have a suspicion that by the time people get to know about the garden, it will be time for it to close.

I would have been fascinated to know a bit more about the kinds of fruit and vegetables that are being grown too: for example, there was a label for Yacon, a kind of tuberous South American daisy, but it was impossible to tell which plant it referred to, which was frustrating.

The questions that ‘A Common Ground’ ask are well worth considering. How does a garden bring people together? What can we learn from one another by growing and eating plants, side by side? What happens in those social interactions where people are working on a  common task? Unfortunately, my visit today makes me think that local people are not really engaged with this project, for all the reasons of time and location that I’ve mentioned previously. It frustrates me to see happy caterpillars munching on lovingly planted cabbages, and sweetpeas turned to brown paper for want of watering. My dad, who had an alllotment for most of his life, would have been horrified.

I shall pop back for a second look later in the year, just to see if things have gelled into something more coherent. But for today, this was a pleasant and interesting walk, nothing more.





Wednesday Weed – Verbena Bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, what a strange plant this is, with its stiff stems and heads of tiny purple-pink flowers! I until a few years ago it was a relative rarity in London gardens, and I can see why – the flowerheads are small for the size of the plant, which can grow up to six feet tall. But then the other day I saw some planted with grasses and Japanese anemones, and I finally appreciated its delicate beauty. Plus, it is a great late summer plant for butterflies, and as so many people are trying to do their bit for wildlife these days it has grown in popularity. Finally, it is drought-tolerant, and we all need a bit of that in London, what with it being nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Verbena bonariensis in Muswell HIll, with grasses….

The name ‘Verbena’ means ‘sacred bough’, but this refers to Verbena officinalis or Vervaine, a plant used for medicine and for sacred ritual from the Druids onwards and introduced to the UK in the Stone Age. You can see the family resemblance in the photo below, especially the stiff stems.

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at

Vervaine (Verbena officinalis) (Photo One)

‘Bonariensis’ means ‘from Buenos Aires’, indicating that the plant originated in South America. It has naturalised in the warmer parts of North America and is considered a noxious weed in some states.

In the US, the plant is known as ‘purpletop’ or ‘South American vervaine’. It seems strange to me that the plant doesn’t yet have a common name in the UK, considering how popular it’s become. In their book on Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael J. Crawley call it ‘Argentine Vervaine’, so maybe this will catch on. However, a new variety of the plant, which is smaller with larger flowers, is known as ‘Lollipop Verbena’ so maybe this is the name that will stick.

Photo Two from

Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ (Photo Two)

In ‘Alien Plants’, Verbena bonariensis is described as being one of the UK’s fastest spreading non-native plants. It certainly loves to self-seed and, as it gives height to plantings in supermarket car parks and municipal beds it’s easy to see where the spread is coming from. Plus you can grow it from seed, which saves lots of money, no small thing if you’re a cash-strapped council. I foresee fields of ‘purpletop’ in our future.

Medicinal uses for the plant seem to be few and far between, at least in Europe. One site describes it as useful for love potions. Another mentions how their dog seems to love eating it. Humans, however, do not appear to eat the plant in any form that I can find. I suspect that it might be useful as a dried flower, and Alys Fowler describes the blackened seed heads as ‘most arresting’. But if you have a patch of the garden in full sun, you might want to grow the plant just to see which insects turn up.

Photo  Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

With honey bee (Photo Three)

With Skipper butterfly (Public Domain)

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at

With red admiral butterfly (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at

With monarch butterflies in North America (Photo Five)

I always have a bit of a problem with what to plant for once my buddleia and lavender have finished, and I am thinking of getting a raised bed for my south-facing front garden, to replace the selection of pots that I currently have – even with daily watering the plants have suffered this year, and I think they might stand a better chance in deeper soil. I suspect that some Verbena bonariensis will definitely feature after the display of insects above, especially if I can grow it from seed. It’s good to have a gardening project to consider when I have so much else going on. It’s difficult to dwell on dark thoughts when leafing through a seed catalogue.

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0  ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Photo Six)

And so to a poem, and what a sock in the eye this one is, especially as we all pant in the grip of a heatwave that is longer than any I can remember.

‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry‘……

Anthropocene Pastoral by Catherine Pierce

In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.

Early spring everywhere, the trees furred

pink and white, lawns the sharp green

that meant new. The sky so blue it looked

manufactured. Robins. We’d heard

the cherry blossoms wouldn’t blossom

this year, but what was one epic blooming

when even the desert was an explosion

of verbena? When bobcats slinked through

primroses. When coyotes slept deep in orange

poppies. One New Year’s Day we woke

to daffodils, wisteria, onion grass wafting

through the open windows. Near the end,

we were eyeletted. We were cottoned.

We were sundressed and barefoot. At least

it’s starting gentle, we said. An absurd comfort,

we knew, a placebo. But we were built like that.

Built to say at least. Built to reach for the heat

of skin on skin even when we were already hot,

built to love the purpling desert in the twilight,

built to marvel over the pink bursting dogwoods,

to hold tight to every pleasure even as we

rocked together toward the graying, even as

we held each other, warmth to warmth,

and said sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry while petals

sifted softly to the ground all around us.

Photo Seven by By frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven

Photo Credits

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at

Photo Two from

Photo Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons at

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by  frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons