Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Holm Oak

Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex)

Dear Readers, a pair of stately holm oaks stand outside Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester. I remember being surprised by them on the very first day that Mum and Dad arrived, and thinking that I had never seen an evergreen oak before. Little did I know that the south west of England is a hotspot for this plant. It comes originally from the Mediterranean, and was one of the southern European trees planted on the Mamhead Estate in Devon by Sir Thomas Balle, who also introduced ‘cork, ilex, wainscot, oak, Spanish chestnut, acacia, and other species of exotic trees’ (Britton and Bayley ‘The Beauties of England and Wales’ (1803)). It is now seen as a dangerous alien invader which is accused of damaging biodiversity. In theory, it is not fully frost hardy, and so shouldn’t be able to get too far north. However, with climate change it has recently popped up as far north as Cumbria.

There is a high concentration of holm oaks around St Boniface Down near Ventnor in the Isle of Wight, and on the coastal sand dunes near Holkham in Norfolk. Both of these are vulnerable habitats but, as the acorns are spread by jays, rooks and grey squirrels, who bury them to provide sustenance during the winter, it’s difficult to see how they can be completely controlled. The big danger is in that extensive, evergreen canopy, which shades out other plants. There is, however, a DEFRA plan in place to keep an eye on the spread of the species and to take action as necessary. In ‘Alien Plants‘ by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley, it’s noted that holm oak also spreads along the side of railway lines, probably being buried in the soil of the embankments by those pesky squirrels.

There are also two holm oaks featured in ‘The Great Trees of London‘ by Jenny Landreth, one in Fulham Palace Gardens and one in Valence Park in Beacontree, not far from where I used to live.

There are two subspecies of holm oak: one has bitter acorns, and grows from northern Spain and France to Greece, and the other has sweet acorns and grows in southern Spain and North Africa. These can be very long-lived trees: the ones on the Mamhead Estate are still there after over two hundred years, and there is a grove of the trees in Malta that are said to be between 500 and a thousand years old. The tree can grow to massive size, with one in County Wexford in ireland being over 20 metres tall with a spread of 43 metres. These are fine trees, with dense shade from the holly-like leaves (which is what gives the tree its name – ‘holm’ is an old word for ‘holly’). I imagine that people will enjoy sitting on the seat under the pair beside the nursing home once the weather gets warmer. As the nursing home used to be a maternity hospital, I can also imagine people pushing their prams into the welcoming coolness of the shade.

In its native regions, holm oak is one of several trees that are used in the creation of truffle orchards or truffieres. The tree has an association with the mycorrhizal fungus which produces truffles as its fruiting body, whilst the fungal ‘roots’ help to increase the amount of moisture and nutrients that the tree can extract from the poor, drought-prone soil that it grows on. Back in 1790 a Frenchman named Pierre II Mauleon decided to try planting acorns from oak trees which were known to have hosted truffles. It takes some 7-10 years for the fungus and the tree to establish themselves, but Monsier Mauleon was patient, and his experiment was eventually successful. In the nineteenth century, much of the area where the Phylloxera virus had destroyed the grapevines was turned, instead, to truffle production.  Today, truffles are grown in many parts of the world, although the connoisseur considers that the Perigord truffle is the best of the bunch. Personally, I find that a little truffle goes a very long way (which is just as well considering how expensive it is).

Black Perigord truffle (Public Domain)

The acorns from holm oak are food for the free-range black Iberian pig, and is said to be one of the elements that flavours their meat. Jamon iberico, a distinctive ham, can be produced only from this breed of pig, and is always produced from wild-foraging animals.

Photo One by By comakut - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Iberian pigs (Photo One)

The wood from holm oak is hard and tough, and has been used in the manufacture of everything from wagons (as described by Hesiod back in 700 BCE ) to wine vessels. It is also used for charcoal and firewood in its native range.

Holm oak is also very amenable to being used for hedging, and for pruning into formal shapes. The Armed Forces Memorial in Staffordshire is surrounded by 50 holm oaks which have been pruned into cylindrical shapes, echoing the tumulus-like design of the memorial itself, which honours over 16,000 servicemen and women who have been killed in the line of duty since the end of the Second World War.

Photo Two by By Bs0u10e01 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Armed Forces Memorial in Staffordshire (Photo Two)

It is, of course, impossible for me to divorce this particular tree from the memories that I have of the nursing home, of Mum’s last days and of my Dad’s rapidly deterioration due to vascular dementia. The two trunks remind me of what a pigeon pair Mum and Dad were, and how lost Dad often seems without her. And so, this poem by Stevie Smith, included in her final collection before her death, seems particularly fitting, in its simplicity and lack of sentimentalism.

Grave by a Holm Oak

Stevie Smith

You lie there, Anna,
In your grave now,
Under a snow-sky,
You lie there now.

Where have the dead gone?
Where do they live now?
Not in the grave, they say,
Then where now?

Tell me, tell me,
Is it where I may go?
Ask not, cries the holm-oak,
Weep, says snow.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By comakut – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Bs0u10e01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wednesday Weed – Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis)

Berberis (Berberis darwinii)

Dear Readers, there are some garden shrubs that only come into their own on a sunny day, when the light illuminates their flowers as if they were little lanterns. I confess that I rarely gave Berberis a second look until last week, when it was positively glowing. This particular one, in Fortis Green, was laden down with flowers on a cold February day. Later in the year, it will produce small purple berries, and its evergreen foliage is attractive all year round.

The plant was indeed ‘discovered’ by Darwin in South America, during the voyage of The Beagle in 1835. It had been known by the indigenous people of Patagonia since prehistoric times, however: they used the berries as a valuable autumn food source. It was soon a popular garden plant, but in some places it has become something of a threat to indigenous ecosystems: in New Zealand, it is listed on the National Pest Plant Accord, where it joins a whole gang of ‘thugs’ such as pendulous sedge  and rhododendron.

One way to tackle an invasive plant is, of course, to eat it. The Wilderness blog recommends turning the berries into a jelly to eat with cold meat or cheese. The berries of Berberis vulgaris are what we buy as barberry in Middle Eastern delicatessens, and they have a startlingly sour flavour – if you’ve been cooking from the books of Yotam Ottolenghi you’ll find that they crop up all over the place.

The berries are also popular with birds, as seen in this painting by Jacques le Moynes de Morgues, a French artist who travelled to the New World in the sixteenth century and returned with exquisite pictures of the flora, fauna and people that he found there.

Linnet on a Spray of Barberries by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533 -1588) (Public Domain)

The plant is a member of the Berberidaceae family, which includes 18 genera and about 700 species, the most familiar of which are the mahonias. Many berberis are spiny, which makes them a popular choice, along with pyracantha, for municipal hedging. However, historically berberis was seen as a problematic choice by farmers: the plant can harbour a rust fungus that also infects wheat. The UK has a native berberis, Berberis vulgaris, which was a popular hedgerow plant until this link was discovered in the nineteenth century. The shrubs were grubbed up, taking away the sole foodplant of a native moth, the barberry carpet moth (Pareulype berberata). By the 1980’s the moths were reduced to a single site, and it seemed likely that they would become extinct. The story has a happy ending, however: captive populations of the moth were maintained, and, when rust-resistant wheat was developed and the shrubs were replanted, these were released into the wild again. The Barberry Highways Group consists of various organisations (including Dudley and Bristol Zoo, Butterfly Conservation and British Waterways) who are working together to restore the habitat of this vanishingly rare creature. Unfortunately, the caterpillars of this moth show little interest in the tough leaves of ‘our’ berberis , and are inextricably linked to the fortunes of Berberis vulgaris. Let’s hope that its population continues to grow. If you want to read more about the conservation effort involved in protecting this species, there is a paper here which makes for a most interesting read.

Photo One by By J.F. Gaffard - J.F. Gaffard, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Berberis vulgaris flowers (Photo One)

Photo Two by Jean.claude [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

An adult Barberry Carpet Moth (Pareulype berberata) (Photo Two)

Barberry carpet moth caterpillars (Public Domain)

Incidentally, another rare moth, the Scarce Tissue Moth (Hydria cervinalis) has taken a shine to Darwin’s Barberry, and is well worth watching out for.

Photo Three by By Olei - Self-published work by Olei, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Scarce Tissue moth (Hydria cervinalis) ( PhotoThree)

All berberis species contain a compound called Berberine, which is considered to have antibacterial properties, especially for the urinary system and for dysentary. The root is said to be useful as a tonic, and also provides a bright yellow dye, which has been used to colour leather and tint hair.

And a poem, by Rainer Maria Rilke no less. This is about the common barberry with its red berries, but still. I think that it is a kind of plea to live fully, not to ‘die before you die’. Let me know what you think, gentle readers.

Already ripening barberries grow red,

Already ripening barberries grow red,
the aging asters scarce breathe in their bed.
Who is not rich, with summer nearly done,
will never find a self that is his own.

Who is unable now to close his eyes,
certain that many visages within
wait slumbering until night shall begin
and in the darkness of his soul will rise,
is like an aged man whose strength is gone.

Nothing will touch him in the days to come,
and each event will cheat him and betray,
even you, my God. And you are like a stone,
that draws him to a lower depth each day.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems from the Book of Hours

Photo Credits

Photo One by By J.F. Gaffard – J.F. Gaffard, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by Jean.claude [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Photo Three by By Olei – Self-published work by Olei, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wednesday Weed – Pink Sorrel

Pink sorrel (Oxalis articulata)

Dear Readers, this week I had a lesson in ‘seizing the day’. Last week I spotted a patch of pink sorrel in bloom in a front garden in Muswell Hill . I hadn’t seen it around here before, though it isn’t an uncommon plant.

‘Hah’, I thought, ‘I’ll pop back and take a photo of that when I get a second’.

Well, the days went past and when I revisited on Saturday not only were the flowers gone but the house owner was cheerfully pulling the plant up because ‘it gets everywhere’. Still, there were some leaves left and I find them very sweet, with their three sets of hearts joined in the middle. Those leaves are a sign that the plant is a member of the Oxalidaceae, or wood sorrels – we have already met one member of the family, procumbent yellow sorrel (Oxalis corniculata) and I hold out hope for my favourite plants, wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella).

Incidentally, although the plant is known as ‘pink shamrock’ in some places in the UK, it is not closely related to the ‘true’ shamrock, which is a variety of clover.

More pink sorrel leaves

Pink sorrel comes originally from South America, and made its debut in the UK in a garden setting in 1870. By 1912 it was off and running. As it reproduces by a variety of methods, including seeds, runners and bulbils, it is often introduced to gardens in the compost surrounding other more desirable garden plants and vegetable seedlings. As the plant is acid-tolerant it can also thrive in areas where other flowers find it difficult to get a foot (root) hold. I can see that it could rapidly run amok, but when you see it in bloom it’s difficult to be deeply annoyed with it.

Photo One by By la la means I love you - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Oxalis in flower (Photo One)

You might wonder why this delicate woodland species is called sorrel, when there is also a heftier plant that shares the name (Rumex acetosa). The reason is that the leaves of both have a lemony taste, and the word ‘sorrel’ comes from the Germanic word ‘sur’, meaning ‘sour’. One alternative name for sorrel is ‘sour grass’. Lots of people seem to eat the plant, in salads, as a stuffing, or, as here, as the basis for a refreshing drink. If you do eat it you could be doing yourself a favour: the leaves are also rich in Vitamin C, and one species, known as ‘scurvy-grass sorrel’ (Oxalis enneaphylla), was eaten by sailors in South America to prevent scurvy.

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

The ‘other’ sorrel, Rumex acetosa (Photo Two)

A  Bolivian species, Oxalis tuberosa has particularly tasty and swollen roots, known as ‘Oca’, and eaten in a manner similar to Jerusalem artichokes (though hopefully without the somewhat windy side effects).

Photo Three by By Nzfauna - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tubers of the Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) (Photo Three)

Part of the reason for the ‘refreshing’ flavour of the leaves and flowers is the presence of oxalic acid, for which the genus is named. Lots of plants contain this compound, including spinach, rhubarb and broccoli, and, while it is toxic to humans you would need to eat a huge amount of the leaves in order to experience any ill effects. In fact, crystals of calcium oxalate used to be extracted from the plant for medicinal purposes, and also to produce a salt with a lemony flavour, known as ‘sorrel salt’.

Some species of Oxalis are apparently strongly attracted to copper in the soil, and a Ming Dynasty text from 1421 describes how dispersing the seed of the plant over a wide area would give an indication of where deposits of the mineral could be found.

According to the Doctrine of Signatures, plants in the Oxalis family are good for the heart because of the shape of those leaves.

And now, a poem. This one has a only passing mention of Oxalis, but I loved it so much that I wanted you to have a chance to read it too. The man to whom it is dedicated, Czeslaw Milosz (1911 to 2004), was a Polish poet who also saw himself as Lithuanian and a man instrumental in helping Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Poland  (for which he received the medal for ‘The Righteous Among the Nations’ in Yad Vashem, Israel). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 and wrote extensively against totalitarianism and prejudice. When he died, there was resistance to his being buried in Krakow Cathedral because of, among other things, his support for the rights of gays and lesbians. In other words, he was a man of conscience who used his writing and his life to support what he felt was right.

The poet Robert Hass is no slouch himself, having translated Milosz’s work, along with that of the Japanese haiku masters Basho and Issa. I love this poem for its breadth, and for the moments of stillness that it contains, much as after a haiku, there is a kind of opening, a silence.

by Robert Hass

The fog has hovered off the coast for weeks
And given us a march of brilliant days
You wouldn’t recognize-who have grumbled
So eloquently about gray days on Grizzly Peak-
Unless they put you in mind of puppet pageants
Your poems remember from Lithuanian market towns
Just after the First World War.  Here’s more theater:
A mule-tail doe gave birth to a pair of fawns
A couple of weeks ago just outside your study
In the bed of oxalis by the redwood trees.
Having dropped by that evening, I saw,
Though at first couldn’t tell what I was seeing,
A fawn, wet and shivering, curled almost
In a ball under the thicket of hazel and toyon.
I’ve read somewhere that does hide the young
As best they can and then go off to browse
And recruit themselves.  They can’t graze the juices
In the leaves if they stay to protect the newborns.
It’s a glitch in engineering through which chance
And terror enter on the world.  I looked closer
At the fawn.  It was utterly still and trembling,
Eyes closed, possibly asleep.  I leaned to smell it:
There was hardly a scent.  She had licked all traces
Of the rank birth-smell away.  Do you remember
This fragment from Anacreon?-the context,
Of course, was probably erotic:  ” . . . her gently,
Like an unweaned fawn left alone in a forest
By its antlered mother, frail, trembling with fright.”
It’s a verse-you will like this detail-found
In the papyrus that wrapped a female mummy
A museum in Cairo was examining in 1956.
I remembered the time a woman in Portland
Asked if you were a reader of Flannery O’Connor.
You winced regretfully, shook your head,
And said, “You know, I don’t agree with the novel.”
I think you haven’t agreed, in this same sense,
With life, never accepted the cruelty in the frame
Of things, brooded on your century, and God the Monster,
And the smell of summer grasses in the world
That can hardly be named or remembered
Past the moment of our wading through them,
And the world’s poor salvation in the word.  Well,
Dear friend, you resisted.  You were not mute.
Mark tells me he has seen the fawns grazing
With their mother in the dusk.  Gorging on your roses-
So it seems they made it through the night
And neither dog nor car has got to them just yet.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By la la means I love you – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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

Photo Three by By Nzfauna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,







Bugwoman on Location – 120 Fenchurch Street Roof Garden

Dear Readers,  while London has many splendid Royal Parks and city squares, the City of London itself can feel like something of a desert to those of us who enjoy the hum of bees and the whispering of the breeze. Furthermore, some of the sites that sound enticing, such as the Sky Garden in the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building, are completely enclosed, and require pre-booking. I remember visiting this site and being extremely disappointed: the public were promised a garden (indeed, this feature was what finally got the planning permission for the building granted) , and instead they got, in the words of Oliver Wainwright, the architecture critic of The Guardian, ‘a meagre pair of rockeries, in a space designed with all the finesse of a departure lounge’.

So, it’s fair to say that I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the new Roof Garden just along the road at 120 Fenchurch Street. First signs were promising: there is, of course, security in place (bags are X-rayed), but then a lift whooshes you up to the fifteenth floor, without any id or pre-booking required. The lift doors open, and there you are.

One of the views from the Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street

This place is all about the angles. It is a mass of triangles. The water feature zig-zags eastwards towards views of Canary Wharf and the building work around Whitechapel.

Toddle round a bit further and the Gherkin appears. This building has gone from ‘unsightly’ to ‘icon’ in the space of fifteen years, and indeed it now seems elegant and modest compared with some of the other skyscrapers that are being thrown up.

The Gherkin

And indeed you can see the Sky Garden from here. I rather like the perspective that fifteen floors gives you as opposed to thirty-six.

The Walkie Talkie

But what, I hear you ask, of the garden? Well, there are actually plants, and there is much about the design to like. I love the effect of the wooden shuttering on the concrete, for example – it reminds me of the same effect in Sir Denys Lasdun’s South Bank Centre, but here the concrete is a soft cream colour. I think it will look very fine when the myriad of vines have grown up. The concrete itself is covering the services and plant for the building, and has the effect of breaking the roof garden up into smaller, more intimate areas.

There are some plants in flower already, and I see a lot of bulbs just waiting to pop.


Astrantia and narcissi

Japanese anemone


There are a healthy number of species geraniums, which will be great for pollinators later in the year.

There are also rafts of ferns and ornamental grasses.

And there is a whole area of low hedging which echoes the angles of the pergolas. I am a little miffed at the waste of an opportunity to provide more plants for pollinators in this space, but then I am a bit monomaniacal on the subject, as regular readers will know. I will be interested to see if bees actually do pop up to this height once they discover that there’s food available, and will have to revisit in the early summer when things have grown up a bit. As a study found that bumblebees are quite happy at heights of 3250 metres in the mountains of Sichuan in China I’d have thought that a mere 15 floors would be well within their range, provided there’s an incentive.

Low hedging with the Lloyd’s Building in the background

Wisteria is being encouraged to climb the struts of the pergolas, and very pretty it will be too once they get going. At the moment I quite like the starkness of the design, but plants will soon change all those sharp angles to something softer and more natural.

So, I am cautiously optimistic about The Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street. It is an exposed site, but because it is broken into ‘rooms’ by the concrete there will be a little more protection for the plants. I am sad that it isn’t a little more wildlife friendly, but it is not all about human convenience either. It is certainly a fine place to visit if you are in the City, and at some point a swish restaurant will open on the fourteenth floor in case all that ‘fresh’ London air makes you hungry. When I went, at 10 a.m. on a cloudy Thursday, the security staff outnumbered the visitors, and were very happy to chat. Apparently the place has been overrun with bloggers (I seem to have become part of an infestation), but the time to avoid is between 12 and 2, when everyone pops up for their lunch, although they aren’t supposed to. I don’t blame them – this would be a magnificent spot for a sandwich on a sunny day. I shall definitely revisit later in the year to see how the garden is getting on.

Opening hours are currently between 10 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. until 31st March, when the evening opening times are extended to 9 p.m. There will soon be a coffee hut for any caffeine addicts. They are also currently trialling weekend opening from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Total capacity of the garden is only 207 people, so I expect that there will be queues when the weather is good, especially in the evening. If you want to see how busy it is, you can have a look here, which is rather cool.



Wednesday Weed – Maidenhair Spleenwort

Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)

Dear Readers, I was in Somerset this week visiting my 91 year-old Aunt Hilary. Her garden really is a delight – at the moment it is absolutely full of cyclamen, but I have already waxed lyrical about them here, and here, so I have turned to the more subtle delights of this little fern. Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) is in the same genus as another common fern of these parts, hart’s tongue fern, but this plant is an altogether shyer character. It is easily identified by the delicate lozenge-shaped leaflets emerging from the jet black stems. Many ferns are known as spleenworts, because it was thought that the spores, which appear on the underside of the leaves, resembled the shape of the spleen. Under our old friend the Doctrine of Signatures, this was believed to mean that God was posting a message on the plant about how it could be used by humans.

Walls are a very special habitat, and only a few plants have learned the art of surviving on them. There is very little soil for the roots to anchor themselves in, nutrients are scarce, and, depending on whereabouts on the wall you germinate, it can be very dark or very exposed. Water too may be ever present (at the bottom of a shady wall) or very transient. All in all, wall-living plants have to be resilient and well-adapted.

Maidenhair spleenwort is happy growing in any kind of substrate (see below) and it also likes the damp, shadier conditions of a north-facing wall. The plant that I was admiring has a couple of relatives hiding close by. It all looks very Victorian somehow, the Victorians being great pteridophiles.

The spores of the plant are produced on the underside of special leaves called sporophylls (a normal leaf that produces sugars via photosynthesis is called a trophophyll). I love the spores of ferns, they have a kind of geometrical precision that delights me.

Photo One by Bjorn S at

Spores of a maidenhair spleenwort (Photo One)

The story of the maidenhair spleenwort is rather more complicated than you might think, however. For a start, it is a true ‘citizen of the world’. It is native to every continent except Antarctica, and it has evolved to have a variety of different subspecies, each with a different ‘lifestyle’. One subspecies, Asplenium trichomanes trichomanes prefers acidic rocks such as basalt and sandstone, and is found mainly in mountainous northern areas in Europe and North America. Another, Asplenium trichomanes quadrivalens, prefers alkaline rocks such as limestone and will grow in mortar, so I suspect that this is ‘our’ plant. It is much commoner in Europe than in North America. Majorca, Madeira and the Azores also have their own subspecies of the plant. Furthermore, where the subspecies intermingle they can also hybridise. I suspect that botanists who specialise in ferns will have plenty of work sorting that lot out for generations to come.

It just goes to show that some supposedly ‘primitive’ and simple plants have staggeringly complicated backstories, just as it’s often the quietest and most self-effacing people who have lived the most extraordinary lives.

The Plant Lives website describes how, in North America, maidenhair spleenwort was used by the Native American Hopi tribe as part of their rain-making rituals – the plant was soaked in water, and the water was then painted onto prayersticks. For the Cherokee people, the plant had many medicinal uses, including for liver and uterine problems, and was also used to make cough mixture. In County Cavan in Ireland, the plant was boiled with honey and oatmeal as a cure for dysentery.

In Slavic folklore, it was believed that anyone who found a ‘fern flower’ would be happy and rich for the rest of their lives. The fern was believed to flower only once a year, on Midsummer’s Eve. As ferns are not flowering plants I fear that the search for a bloom would have been in vain although maybe the hunt provided an opportunity for young people to go off into the woods on their own on this magical shortest night of the year.

Now, as you know, this blog takes me to some fascinating and unlikely places. This week, it’s taken me to the paintings of Gerard David (1460 to 1523), a Netherlandish painter who was renowned for his use of colour. However, he was also a painter of extraordinarily detailed plants, which often seem to pop up everywhere amidst his portraits of religious figures. One of his paintings, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, features two ferns including Maidenhair Spleenwort growing out of the wall behind Mary and Joseph.

Photo Two from

Detail from ‘The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard’ by Gerard David (1515) (Photo Two)

I am indebted to Caleb Leech, the Managing Horticulturalist at the Met Cloisters, for pointing this out, and for his explanation of the inclusion of these humble plants in the work:

‘While the setting of the painting could simply depict the common state of stone buildings during the Middle Ages, I believe it also demonstrates a love for the bucolic, ramshackle idyll of nature. This same sentiment is witnessed in the modern Gothic folly (an ornamental building with no practical use), or in a recreated medieval ruin set amidst a garden. Then, perhaps even more than now, weedy or opportunistic species like ferns and dandelions were much appreciated. The artist’s careful attention to the ferns softened the setting and emphasized how much the medieval world was fundamentally connected with plants.

And here is the entire triptych:

‘The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard by Gerard David (1515) (Public Domain)

And finally, a poem. As you might expect, the canon is not exactly snowed under with poems that specifically mention the maidenhair spleenwort, but my search for the mention of ferns in general has brought me to Theodore Roethke, an American poet who had his problems with mental health and alcoholism but who wrote some of my very favourite poems. Here is an excerpt from his 1948 poem ‘A Field of Light’. It seems to me to conjure that ecstatic feeling that I sometimes get when I’m walking in nature, alone, on a late spring morning. See what you think.

A Field of Light by Theodore Roethke
The dirt left my hand, visitor.
I could feel the mare’s nose.
A path went walking.
The sun glittered on a small rapids.
Some morning thing came, beating its wings.
The great elm filled with bird.

Listen, love,
The fat lark sand in the field;
I touched the ground, the ground warmed by the killdeer,
The salt laughed and the stones;
The ferns had their ways, and the pulsing lizards,
And the new plants, still awkward in their soil,
The lovely diminutives.
I could watch! I could watch!
I saw the separateness of all things!
My heart lifted up with the great grasses;
The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds.
There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak of cedars,
And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle.
The worms were delighted as wrens.
And I walked, I walked through the light air;
I moved with the morning.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Bjorn S at

Photo Two from

Wednesday Weed – Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

Dear Readers, I was delighted to spot a witch hazel in flower in Borough Gardens in Dorchester last week. I have always been fascinated by those strange, strap-like, dishevelled petals, and the way that they stand out when everything else is still in bud. The plant itself is a member of the Hamamelidaceae family, which is now confined to eastern North America and Central America, eastern Africa and Madagascar, and the Far East, though it was much wider spread before the Ice Ages in the northern hemisphere. ‘Our’ witch hazel comes originally from China, and was collected from there by the plant hunter Charles Maries. There was (and still is) a lot of money in plants, and the Victorians in particular had a craze for species from China and Japan to complement their ‘oriental’ schemes, and to add novelty. Although not an especially showy plant, witch hazel became popular because of its winter colour and unusual flowers.

Witch hazel is not a hazel, as we have seen, but neither is it particularly linked to witches, with the ‘witch’ in the name thought to come from the Middle English word ‘wych’, meaning ‘bendable’  or ‘pliable’. In the US, where there are several native species of witch hazel, the plant is used for dowsing (the detection of underground water, minerals or other buried objects), while in the UK hazel is used. Although this practice is described as a pseudoscience, with no clear proof of its efficiency, I find it interesting that 10 of the 12 water companies in the UK still use it to find leaks, along with other methods.

Because of its winter-flowering, witch hazel is wind-pollinated (most self-respecting insects are tucked up in hibernation or pupation at this time of year). When the seedheads are ripe they explode, sending the seeds flying through the air. They can travel up to 30 feet, which is enough distance to give them a chance of germinating without being overshadowed by the parent plant, and explains the alternative name of ‘snapping hazel’.

The flowers have a most attractive scent, which is another reason for its popularity with the cognoscenti. It is also extremely frost-resistant. However, it is slow-growing, which may explain its relative expensiveness here in the UK if compared to plants like the ubiquitous forsythia. You need to be patient if you buy a small witch hazel, and rich if you want to buy a more mature one.


Witch hazel is a regular ingredient in many medicinal and cosmetic products: witch hazel water is made by boiling up the leaves, bark and roots and then distilling the result. There is a lot of tannin in witch hazel, which is why it is often used as an astringent, for drying up acne, or dissuading piles. The North American species have been used extensively by native peoples, for everything from sore throats to haemorrhage. However, it should be noted that using the bark directly can cause skin disfigurement, so best to get stuck into that distilling process. Witch hazel ointment sometimes also contains arnica, and is used for minor injuries and bruising.

It is said that those explosive seeds are edible (if you can find them before they’re catapulted into the stratosphere), and the twigs can be used as a replacement toothbrush if you find yourself in need of emergency oral hygiene.

It doesn’t surprise me that witch hazel attracted the attention of Charles Rennie Mackintosh better known as an architect and furniture designer. I love the print below, with its simple elegance. The style is said to be more indicative of Mackintosh’s wife, Margaret MacDonald, who was an art student at Glasgow School of Art when the two met. At the time that it was painted (1915), the pair were living in the village of Walberswick in Suffolk, where Mackintosh was accused of being a German spy and briefly arrested. This may have been the impetus for a later move to Port- Vendres in Southern France in 1923, a warmer, sunnier and cheaper place to live.

Japanese witch hazel at Walberswick by Charles Rennie and Margaret Mackintosh (1915) (Public Domain)

And to complete the post this week, here is a poem by Robert Frost. I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to this poet’s work: there is a kind of down-home folksiness to it that I just don’t get (and I was once accused of not realising that the poet was trying to be funny, which was extremely embarrassing at the time). I have something of a problem also with his double-syllable rhyming scheme, which skitters along on the edge of doggerel, to my ear at least. And yet, I rather like this poem, all in all. He is talking about the American witch hazel, which flowers in the autumn, rather than the one that I saw. Indeed, if he had seen the Chinese witch hazel blossoming in mid winter he might have had to write a completely different poem.


Out through the fields and the woods
   And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
   And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
   And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
   No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
   The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
   But the feet question ‘Whither?’
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?


Wednesday Weed – Aloe Vera

Aloe vera.

Dear Readers, this rather elegant but spindly plant is a member of the Aloe family, and has a bit of a history. The mother plant belonged to a good friend of my husband’s who died back in 1998, and this is a tiny offshoot from that original aloe. You might expect it to be a bit larger considering that that was over 20 years ago, but it has had an adventurous time of it. A few years ago I put it out in the garden so that it could have a summer holiday, but for some reason the local foxes took exception to it, and dragged it out of its pot and under the hedge. If my husband hadn’t noticed that it was missing, it would probably have died there, but as it was we were able to rescue it and repot it. I hoped that it would  survive, and indeed it has, though I suspect it is still not as happy as it could be. It reminds me rather of one of Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculptures.

Photo One by hh oldman [CC BY 3.0 (]

Louise Bourgeois – Maman, 1999 (Photo One)

There are many, many species of Aloe, but knowing my husband’s friend, I think this plant is most likely to be Aloe vera, because he was very interested in the healing properties of plants. This plant originates in the Arabian peninsula, but has become naturalised in many parts of the world – indeed, I saw one on the island of Lanzarote that was easily the size of a small garden shed. Like all aloes, Aloe vera is a succulent that is adapted for desert climates, and stores water in its leaves. The sharp spines along the edge of leaf are a protection against the grazing animals that would otherwise gobble it up in order to supplement their own liquid reserves.

The water is held by the plant in the form of a gel, which is claimed to have all kinds of soothing and healing properties, particularly in cases of skin irritation or burns. The gel is also used as a dietary supplement and as a thickener for products such as yoghurt.

Unprocessed aloe vera ‘juice’ contains a substance called aloin which can work as a laxative, although products marketed for this purpose were banned in the US in 2002 due to their potential toxicity.  It has also been used as a cold and flu remedy, and to treat herpes. In fact, the ancient Egyptians knew it as ‘the plant of immortality’ and used it for more or less any ailment.

Although sometimes considered effective against the side effects of radiotherapy treatment, Cancer Research UK has reviewed the evidence and remains unconvinced.

It is true, however, that Aloe vera has a history of medicinal use going back to the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, a list of plants used in ancient Egypt from 1550 BC. I can see how temptingly emollient that sap looks, and am not surprised that among the products that I looked up at random are moisturisers, toilet tissue and, ahem, a colon cleanse.

For a long time it was believed that Aloe vera grew only on the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, and Aristotle was said to have asked Alexander the Great to conquer the island to make sure that supplies of the plant could be maintained. Alexander is said to have ethnically cleansed the island of its original inhabitants, replacing them with Ionians who would tend the aloes. The island is also home to myrrh (a tree resin extracted from the bark of a number of small trees), which, with Aloe vera, was used as an embalming fluid.

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

A split aloe leaf (Photo Two)

Although my Aloe vera plant is a bit weedy at the moment, they are rather splendid when they get to flowering size.

Photo Three by By Collage by en:User:MidgleyDJ, original images from Wikimedia commons (Image:Aloe_vera_offsets.jpg and Image:Aloe_vera_C.jpg) - See author., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Aloe vera in flower (Photo Three)

Although through some of their naturalised range Aloe vera plants might be pollinated by insects, they evolved to be pollinated by sunbirds, in particular the Arabian sunbird (Cinnyris habessinicus hellmayri). These fill the niche that is occupied by hummingbirds in the New World, and look surprisingly similar. The plant can also reproduce by offshoots, like the one that produced my husband’s plant.

Photo Four by Av Tore -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Arabian sunbird (Cinnyris habessinicus hellmayri) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Rahulsharma photography - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Sunbird on naturalised Aloe Vera in India (Photo Five)

And finally, a poem by Danielle Chapman, another poet who is new to me (and how I love the journeys that I go on when I research this blog)! She is based in Connecticut, but this poem speaks to me of somewhere else. I think she catches the way that curiosity, and close attention, is so often a cure for both major, and minor, pains. I have certainly found it to be so over this past few years.


Mother Dear, never apologize for nettles
I yanked in fury
from Lottie Shoop’s side yard — 
they stung me into seeing
fairy mosses lilypad
her middened juniper,
the quivering gobble of her chin,
teacup clicking dentures as she sprang
up into her wattle hut
and broke a rib
of aloe vera — 
gel belling the top of that claw goblet.
It didn’t cool the sting, and yet, noticing
sunshine thumbing plums in a string
catch-all — 
I was already well.


Photo Credits

Photo One by hh oldman [CC BY 3.0 (]

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By Collage by en:User:MidgleyDJ, original images from Wikimedia commons (Image:Aloe_vera_offsets.jpg and Image:Aloe_vera_C.jpg) – See author., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by Av Tore –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Five by By Rahulsharma photography – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,