Category Archives: London Plants

Coming Home at Last

Dear Readers, it’s some indication of how the summer has passed that I have not created a post about East Finchley since June. But this morning was so beautiful that I had to go out with the camera for a stroll around the County Roads. I have been so stressed that I have become completely unmoored, and the cure is to walk, slowly, to pay attention, to breathe and to notice. What better place to start than with the plane trees on the High Street, that seem to be holding the sun in their branches? They are the last species around here to come into leaf, and the last to lose those leaves.

The Bald-Faced Stag gazes towards Cherry Tree Wood, as usual.

There are a lot of tropical Fatsia plants in some of the south-facing front gardens on Lincoln Road. The buds look like little green artichokes, bursting into waxy white flowers.

There are lots of members of the daisy family still coming into flower, loosening those tight-fisted buds one petal at a time.

Michaelmas daisies are everywhere, I love the way that the stamens go from yellow to purple as the flower ages.

Michaelmas daisies

A pumpkin left over from Wednesday’s Trick or Treating gives me the side-eye…

And the autumn berries and hips and fruit are set off by the blue sky.

Each burst of colour feels like a small electric shock. I ask myself where the summer went? Since July every waking moment has been spent organising, planning and worrying about my parents. Now that they are in the nursing home I feel redundant, without purpose. This will pass, I know, but at the moment I feel as if all the grief that has been stored up over the warmer months is exposed by the extravagance of autumn. It all feels just a little too much, beautiful as it is.

I spent a few days with Mum and Dad in the nursing home last week. I had a chance to have a good talk with Mum and to take her through what had happened, step by step. She seemed to understand, finally, that we were unable to look after her at home anymore, and that we wanted to carry out her wishes to be with Dad, and to be close to the friends and neighbours  that she loves. She hasn’t mentioned going home since, though I am not optimistic enough to assume that this will be the end of the conversation. But things look better than they did last week, and that is a bonus.

And now, I have to work out what I want to do when I grow up. As I am nearly sixty, I’d better get a move on. And in the meantime, I am walking the streets with my camera, making friends with the local cats.

There is one garden that I really love. It is a tiny space but absolutely full of nicotiana, borage, and other pollinator-friendly plants. There are a few honeybees even on this chilly day – one of the benefits of a south-facing plot is that it warms up the insects and helps the nectar flow. As I watch, I hear a low-pitched humming, and a queen bumblebee as big as the first joint on my thumb appears. Maybe the warmth of the day has roused her from her hibernation, and she needs a snack. The borage shudders and bows under her weight.

I float along to the High Street again. For a whole hour I haven’t been worrying about whether the nursing home are taking dad’s slight chest infection seriously, or what they will do about the fact that he’s now more or less nocturnal and keeps waking mum up. I realise that though I still have a role to play, the day to day care is not something that I need to meddle in. The home is happy for me to phone whenever I want, but I do think that after being so involved for such a long time, I need to step back from the small stuff. The trouble is, it’s a reflex, and it gave my life purpose.

What do I do now, with my one wild and precious life?

Well, one thing seems to be that I take photos of bollards that have been knocked over. The one on Leicester Road is no sooner concreted into verticality than it’s prone again. This cycle must have been repeated a dozen times since we moved to East Finchley in 2010. And there’s a bollard on the High Street that is similarly afflicted. I could extract some cheesy metaphor about persistence and resilience, but actually it seems a bit Sisyphean, a never-ending task that seems to have no more meaning than a grudge match between bad drivers and some long-suffering council workers.

On Bedford Road there is a rather beautiful tree. It is poised like a heron about to take off, one branch flung back and arching over a garage, the other leaning over the pavement and almost kissing the tops of the cars. What a deeply inconvenient being it is, no doubt blocking out the sun from the front windows and depositing leaves in great russet piles. And yet, it is obviously loved, and encouraged, and valued. There is room on these streets for the strange, the unusual, the awkward. I feel at home here. One day it will be my turn, too, to leave. I hope that I will have planned ahead so that the transition will feel like one that was a choice, rather than imposed on me. And in the meantime I hope to make the most of the harvest, and of the glory that it brings.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Shoofly Plant

Shoofly plant (Nicandra physalodes)

Dear Readers, I am always delighted to come across a weed that I’ve never seen before, and even more delighted when it’s in the company of a friend who actually knows what it was. Thus it was that I found this beauty lurking on Bedford Road in East Finchley. On first glance at the flowers, I thought that it was a species geranium such as ‘Rosanne’, but the leaves looked more like those of a potato or tomato. My friend knew what it was because she had planted some in her garden and, plants being what they are, this one had jumped over the fence and spread down the road.

Known as the Shoofly plant, because of the belief that it will keep all kinds of flying insects away, this plant is also known as Apple of Peru. It is thought to have come from Peru originally, but these days has set up home across the globe – it is a popular ingredient in wild bird food, and so it can pop up more or less anywhere. It favours tropical and sub-tropical climates but, as this one shows, it can be equally happy in a damp North London street. In the Caribbean it is planted around windows and doors to deter biting flies. It grows into a hefty annual, with the lilac-blue flowers being replaced by attractive seed-capsules.

The fruits are interesting – they resemble Cape gooseberry, or physalis, but actually shoofly plant is a member of the nightshade family, and the fruits, and indeed the whole plant, are generally thought to be toxic. In Australia there has been at least one recorded case of sheep dying as a result of feasting on shoofly plant, and in many countries the plant is used as an insecticide. In Tanzania a decoction of the plant has been used to treat headlice, in the southern states of the USA it has been mixed into milk as a poisonous bait for house flies and blow flies, and it has also been used as a treatment for worms and to kill the amoeba that causes dysentery. These insecticidal properties come from a group of chemicals known as nicandrenones, which were finally synthesised for commercial use in 2000.

This has not stopped people also eating  the leaves as a pot herb, and using the seeds and leaves medicinally for everything from fever and indigestion to constipation. The plant is naturalised in many countries, and has been taken into medicine cabinets everywhere from the Himalayas to Brazil and Madagascar.

Shoofly plant, like other members of the nightshade family, is also said to be mildly psychoactive and to cause dilation of the pupil ( which is known as mydriasis – a new word!) As you might remember, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) was once used in eyedrops by high-ranking Italian women to produce just this effect -it was thought that those big, dark eyes were particularly sexually attractive.  Shoofly plant has also been used to produce this effect, with little regard for the fact that prolonged use can produce blindness.

Shoofly plant is the only species in its genus, Nicandra. Nicandra is thought to have come from the Greek poet Nicander of Colophon, who lived in the 2nd Century BCE and who wrote two surviving poems: one, Theriaca, is about venomous animals and their poisons, and the other, Alexipharmaca, is about other toxins, including those of plants. He was praised by such luminaries as Cicero, and was quoted by Pliny and other writers. Here is an illustration from the Theriaca, featuring a youth who is strolling through the countryside and considering whether to whack something with his hockey stick. I note that in a study of the Theriaca, F. Overduin describes the author as having a

‘predilection for horror, voyeuristic sensationalism, and gory details’

If only I could find a translation.

Photo One by By Anonymous - http://campus.belmont.edu/honors/macedonian/manus.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8916784

Nicander of Colophone (Photo One)

Now, try as I might I can find any poetry that refers to the shoofly plant, under this name or any of its other names. However, I have found the rather delightful shoofly pie, which fortunately contains neither Nicandra physalodes or dead insects, but instead contains molasses. It originated in the 1880’s in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, who called it Melassich Riwwelboi or Melassichriwwelkuche (Molasses Crumb Cake) and ate it with strong black coffee for breakfast. It contains no eggs, which leads historians to believe that it was baked in the winter when the hens weren’t laying, but when molasses would be available, and the pie crust meant that it was easier to eat ‘on the run’. I can only imagine that the name arose because of the resemblance between the black molasses and a swarm of flies. It seems that the bakers of 1880’s Pennsylvania had a sense of humour that Nicander of Colophon may well have appreciated!

Photo Two by By Syounan Taji - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31206973

Shoofly Pie (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Anonymous – http://campus.belmont.edu/honors/macedonian/manus.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8916784

Photo Two by By Syounan Taji – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31206973

Bugwoman on Location – Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park

Dear Readers, hidden away between the Thames Flood Barrier and the United Emirates Cable Car across the Thames is the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, 2 hectares of reedbeds and streams and wetland. You exit North Greenwich station and head along the river, passing all the new apartment complexes. If you’re lucky, you might catch the eye of a very hungry woodpigeon, getting tucked into the rowan berries.

At this time of year, I have to work hard to find beauty on my walks. It’s that in-between time of year – the summer migrants have left, but most of the winter ones haven’t arrived. Most of the trees and plants look a little threadbare and between seasons. But the surrounding buildings are bright and colourful, and the path into the alder scrub looks very inviting. The metallic ‘chink’ calls of goldfinches are everywhere.

On the main pond there are the usual coots dabbling for water plants and bustling about. A sleepy duck of indeterminate parentage is resting on one of the wooden islands.

To my delight there are tresses of traveller’s joy, the wild clematis, tumbling through the shrubs.

There are two main paths, a boardwalk which goes around the edge of the site and which is open 24 hours a day, and an inner path which is only accessible when the visitor centre is open. As I head for the inner path, I get talking to a man with binoculars who tells me that a jack snipe has often been spotted in the reeds, but not today. Similarly there are sometimes herons, but the only one I see today is painted on the side of the building.

I look a little closer. There are some very cheeky magpies, one of whom partly demolished a garden trellis outside one of the flats before taking off into the trees.

The reeds remind me a little of bird of paradise flowers.

And there is a guelder rose, dripping with rain.

What a melancholy little walk this was! I have tried to raise my spirits, and as usual nature has helped, but I have a lot on my mind. As I mentioned last week, Mum and Dad are now in the nursing home, but Mum hates it with an absolute passion. She wants to go home so much that earlier this week she dialled 999 to get the police to come and liberate her. I love her so much for her feistiness and ingenuity, but we are in a bit of a bind. The care that we would need to look after her at home just isn’t available, and the nursing home, Mum and Dad’s GP and the District Nurse all think that Mum, at least, needs residential care. So, there we are. I will go to Dorset next week to talk to everyone involved and see what can be done to make Mum happier. Wish me luck!

On the way home, I notice some people climbing over the Millenium Dome. It doesn’t look too hard from here, but I bet it’s not so much fun actually doing it, especially on a breezy day like today. I guess we all have our mountains to climb….

 

Wednesday Weed – Monkey Puzzle Tree

Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana)

Dear Readers, the monkey puzzle tree is a true ‘living fossil’, and it is believed that the long necks of some dinosaurs may have evolved to reach up into these trees. There was originally a global distribution of these plants, and today they are found in South America (the monkey puzzle species comes from the Andes and is the Chilean National Plant), New Caledonia, Australia and New Guinea, implying that they existed when there were no separate continents, just the massive landmass of Gondwana land. Since then they have become rare due to deforestation and climate change, and some of the most magnificent specimens can be found in the estates and stately homes of the UK, where they have been grown since the 1850’s. As the tree can live for up to a thousand years there are many that will be around for a good while yet.

The tree in the photo grows in Fortis Green, an area between Muswell Hill and East Finchley. I love the way that it is snuggled around the house, and I wonder if the owners know that it can grow (eventually) to a 130 feet tall? The scaly, almost reptilian leaves can live for up to 24 years and eventually cover the entire stem. This one is also full of cones at the moment. Most trees either bear male or female cones, but the occasional tree will have both, or will change from one sex to another. This tree is a female, with the typical round cones that can hold up to 200 seeds. The male cones dangle and provide the pollen – the plant is wind-pollinated.

Those seeds are highly edible, and were an important food source for several indigenous tribes in South America, especially the Araucanians for whom the species is named. Because the cones drop to the ground, the seeds are easily harvested, although the tree doesn’t produce them until it is 30-40 years old.The seeds are known as piñones, and are used in many recipes: you can find piñones soup and croquets here, along with an interesting piece on the relationship between the Mapuche people and the monkey puzzle here.

If not eaten by people, the seeds are carried away by the long-haired grass mouse (Akodon longipilis) and buried – as is often the case, the mouse doesn’t remember where every cache is hidden, and so new trees soon grow up. Rodents and birds are often creators of forests.

Photo One by By Daderot - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33388678

Long-haired grass mouse (Akodon longipilis) in the Genoan Museum of Natural History (Photo One)

The town of Whitby in Yorkshire was, from Roman times, a source of jet, much used in jewellery. Whitby jet dates back to Jurassic times (approximately 182 million years ago), and is the fossilised remains of a species very similar to the monkey puzzle tree. The material was probably collected from the beach at Whitby and transferred to York to be made into objects such as the jet cameo below. The Romans believed that the material had magical properties: Pliny the Elder suggest that:

the kindling of jet drives off snakes and relieves suffocation of the uterus. Its fumes detect attempts to simulate a disabling illness or a state of virginity.

For the Victorians it was a popular choice for mourning jewellery, with Queen Victoria wearing it after the death of Prince Albert.

Photo Two by By Photographed by: York Museums Trust Staff - This file originated on the York Museums Trust Online Collection. YMT hosted a GLAMwiki partnership in 2013/14.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38964856

Roman Medusa pendant made from Whitby Jet (Photo Two)

Incidentally, ‘jet-black’ used to mean the blackest black possible, until modern technology came along and produced ‘Vantablack’, a pigment that absorbs 99.6% of all the light that falls on it, and which was promptly snapped up by the artist Anish Kapoor, who owns exclusive rights to the material. This caused absolute uproar in the artistic community – who wouldn’t want to use a pigment that has been described as ‘the blackest material in the universe, after a black hole’?

Photo Three from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/26/anish-kapoor-vantablack-art-architecture-exclusive-rights-to-the-blackest-black

Vantablack (Photo Three)

But as usual I digress.

For a non-native tree, the monkey puzzle has attracted a considerable amount of folklore, much of it conflicting. In the UK, children were told to be quiet on passing the tree if they didn’t want to grow a monkey’s tail (and of course some children took to yelling in order to acquire such an appendage). Another superstition was that the devil sat in the tree, and you need to sneak past to avoid attracting his attention. On the other hand, a Cambridgeshire belief has it that monkey puzzles were planted on the edge of graveyards because they  were difficult for the devil to climb, and so he couldn’t gain a vantage point from which to watch burials.

And now to another Araucaria. This was the pen name of the Reverend John Graham who compiled The Guardian cryptic crossword for more than 50 years, and very convoluted it was too. I personally find the quick crossword is about my limit (and Graham also compiled this for many years), but I know lots of people who enjoy the challenge of the wordplay of the cryptic variety.

Graham was an idiosyncratic but much-loved crossword setter, and loved a themed crossword – his choices had varied from crosswords on the theme of anti-apartheid heroes to Dickens novels.  When he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in December 2012, he set his whole crossword around the theme: when solved, it revealed that Araucaria had cancer of the oesophagus, which was treated with palliative care.

It seems to me that we underrate the pleasure derived from a good puzzle. Trying to solve the Quick Crossword in the Guardian has provided me with twenty minutes away from my trials and tribulations for more than twenty years. Bravo Reverend John Graham, for bringing so much happiness and head-scratching to crossword enthusiasts for half a century.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33388678

Photo Two by By Photographed by: York Museums Trust Staff – This file originated on the York Museums Trust Online Collection. YMT hosted a GLAMwiki partnership in 2013/14.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38964856

Photo Three from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/26/anish-kapoor-vantablack-art-architecture-exclusive-rights-to-the-blackest-black

Wednesday Weed – Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Dear Readers, for the longest time I wondered why people planted staghorn sumac – it’s a small elegant tree, to be sure, but for most of the year the only interest are those fuzzy fruits. But come autumn, they take on some of the most brilliant autumn colour that you can see around the County Roads in East Finchley, and all becomes clear. These trees are the belles of the ball when October comes around and on a cold, blustery, rainy day like today they stand out like traffic lights.

Although all the photos today come from ‘domesticated’ sumacs, you don’t have to look far to see them growing ‘in the wild’. There is a fine stand of them along the railway embankment on the way into Waterloo for example, and they often pop up on wasteground. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace describes it as ‘a favourite plant that all too soon becomes oppressive, at which point it gets thrown over the garden fence’. He believes that its location alongside railways is probably because these can be difficult spots to eradicate, though the vigorous use of weed killer as I zoom through Wimbledon and Clapham Junction makes me think that Transport for London has redoubled its efforts just lately. For the third week in succession I am featuring a plant that is on the RHS’s list of ‘thugs’ – staghorn sumac largely spreads from a rhizome, but can throw up suckers a fair way from the parent plant, and go grow into dense thickets, crowding out other plants.

Sumacs are native to the eastern side of North America – I saw them growing wild in Collingwood, Ontario for example. The name’ staghorn sumac’ refers to the hairy stems and and the forking branches of the tree, which resemble a stag’s antlers. They are members of the cashew nut family, of all things, the Anacardiaceae, which also includes mangoes and the marula tree. Marula is  an African fruit which is much loved by elephants, but which makes them drunk if the fruit has begun to  ferment. I remember a rather lovely cream liqueur called Amarula which was all the rage when I was a student and knew no better.

Photo  One By Laurentius - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71227883

A glass of Amarula (Photo One). You’re welcome.

In North America, the leaves and berries of the tree were dried and smoked, on their own or mixed with tobacco. The stems could also be used as pipes, making the plant a handy source of all things smoking-related. The grain of the wood is exquisite.

Photo Two by Shihmei Barger at https://www.flickr.com/photos/beautifulcataya/8735837935

Sumac wood (Photo Two)

The strange velvety fruits can be used to make pink lemonade, known as ‘sumac-ade’ and considered both refreshing and health-giving – for a recipe, have a look here.Sumac is a spice much used in North Africa and the Middle East, but this comes from a closely related shrub, Rhus coriaria.

Photo Three By Oneconscious at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35737301

The fruit of Rhus coriaria, the source of sumac spice (Photo Three)

All parts of the plant can be used to make a dye for cloth, and it is rich in natural tannins – this may have led to the plant’s French and German common name, the vinegar tree. You can read a bit more about using staghorn sumac as a dye in the last part of Jenny Dean’s blog here. On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland records that

‘…several tribes used the plant to obtain various dyes. Menominee Indians used the root for a
yellow dye, the Cherokee made a red dye with the fruit, an orange dye was achieved by some of the Chippewa by using the inner bark and stem pith with other ingredients, and the fruit also yielded a black dye for the Cherokee tribe.’
In short, choose what colour you fancy, and which part of the plant, and off you go! I am sometimes tempted to have a go at using natural dyes (one of these days when I have a bit more time), do let me know if it’s something that you’ve ever experimented with.

Staghorn sumac is a powerful antioxidant, and the fruits were used by Native Americans for everything from treating sore throats to helping to alleviate diarrhoea. It was a veritable medicine chest, with different tribes using it for different purposes. It was believed to cure venereal disease and tuberculosis, to aid childbirth, to treat stomach upsets and as a general tonic.

Some North American tribes believed that staghorn sumac could foretell the weather, although try as I might I cannot work out how. On the Plant Lore website, gardeners in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire seem to believe that planting staghorn sumac in a garden will bring marital strife (though in no other region is this a belief). This is a change from the usual litany of disasters that will occur when a plant is brought into the house, but still. It’s a wonder that anyone plants anything, such are the predictions of disaster for almost everything that you might want to grow.

And here, for our poem and to celebrate the season, is a deceptively simple poem by William Wilfred Campbell (1861 – 1918), a Canadian poet who had no doubt seen plenty of staghorn sumacs in his day. I say ‘deceptively simple’ because each line of this poem conjures up an  photographic image of a Canadian autumn in the mind’s eye, and because of the air of wistfulness that flavours it. You may think you could knock this up in an hour, but I suspect it ain’t so easy. Anyhoo, see what you think!

Indian Summer

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.Now by the brook the maple leans
With all his glory spread,
And all the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.

Now by great marshes wrapt in mist,
Or past some river’s mouth,
Throughout the long, still autumn day
Wild birds are flying south.

Photo Credits
Photo One By Laurentius – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71227883
Photo Three By Oneconscious at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35737301

Wednesday Weed – Passionflower

Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea)

Dear Readers, I have always been fascinated by the flowers of this plant. What on earth is going on? Away from those waxy white petals there are those blue spikey things, which always remind me a little of porcupine quills, and then that strange arrangement of five boat-shaped things and three kidney-shaped things in the middle. Humans being humans, we have attached all kinds of symbolism to the flower.

In Christian iconography, the blooms are said to contain all the instruments of the Passion – the three stigma are thought to represent the three nails that held Christ to the cross, the tendrils of the plant are the whips that were used to scourge Him, and the 5 anthers are the five wounds. However, in Japan, Israel and Greece that plant is called ‘Clockflower’ because the there are twelve petals, the tendrils reminded people of the inner workings of a clock, and there’s something that looks like the winding mechanism in the middle.

In India blue passionflower is known as Krishnakamala, with the centre representing Krishna, and the radiating blue filaments representing his aura.

In short, it’s hard to look at the flower without attaching some symbolism to it.

Passionflower bud

Blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea), the commonest cultivated species in the UK, is a vigorous vine that often looks a little tatty at this time of year. It comes originally from South America, and later in the year will be hung with bright orange fruits that look most appetising, but taste very insipid.The wrinkly brown fruits that you can buy in the greengrocer come from a related species, Passiflora edulis, and are among my very favourite things to eat.

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Taka assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=360496

Fruit of the blue passionflower (Photo One)

Passiflora edulis, which produces ‘proper’ passionfruit (Public Domain)

A tea can be made from the flowers of the blue passionflower, which is said to aid sleep – the word ‘passion’ is all about the Passion of Christ rather than anything romantic, and the plant is said to calm you down rather than get you going. The leaves contain cyanide, so I  wouldn’t be nibbling on these if I was you.

Blue passionflower is listed as one of the RHS ‘thugs’ (much like the Japanese Anemones that I talked about last week) and has naturalised in several countries, including Spain, though it is not such a problem in the UK, especially not when compared to Russian Vine

The flowers of the Passiflora tend to be pollinated by very specific groups of animals. ‘Our’ passionflower is cross-pollinated by bumblebees. Some species, however, are linked together even more closely: the sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) is the sole pollinator of 37 separate species of Andean passionflower, especially Passiflora mixta.This is the only bird which has a beak longer than its body, and the plant has an especially long corolla which only this species can exploit. This is a splendid example of co-evolution, and also an illustration of the risks of this as a biological strategy: if the plant becomes extinct, so will the bird.

Photo Two by By Michael Woodruff from Spokane, Washington, USA - Sword-billed Hummingbird, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5165020

Sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) with Passiflora mixta bloom (Photo Two)

There are several cultivated varieties of blue passionflower, including a pure white one called ‘Constance Elliott’. I’m not sure how it is an improvement over the blue one, but then I always did have extravagant tastes.

Photo Three by By Kelly Cookson from Lafayette, USA - Various Views...Uploaded by uleli, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22953221

White passionflower ‘Constance Elliott’ (Photo Three)

For our poem this week, I would like to present to you that hoary old chestnut ‘Come Into the Garden, Maud’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson. This is a poem that rewards close attention for, far from being romantic there is something deeply sinister about it. The poet is waiting in the garden for Maud to return – she has been at a dance, to which he has not been invited. He seems to think that he is the only one in the world for her, and his thoughts have all the obsessive monomania of a stalker. I find the mention of her ‘little head, sunning over with curls’ rather troubling. And then, he mentions the passionflower, with which has dropped a ‘splendid tear’ for the death of Christ, and seems to think that his plight is comparable. Run away, Maud! Or at least keep your pepper spray handy.

from Maud (Part I)

A Monodrama
Come into the garden, Maud,
      For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
      I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
      And the musk of the rose is blown.
   For a breeze of morning moves,
      And the planet of Love is on high,
Beginning to faint in the light that she loves
      In a bed of daffodil sky,
To faint in the light of the sun she loves,
      To faint in his light, and to die.
   All night have the roses heard
      The flute, violin, bassoon;
All night has the casement jessamine stirr’d
      To the dancers dancing in tune;
Till a silence fell with the waking bird,
      And a hush with the setting moon.
   I said to the lily, “There is but one
      With whom she has heart to be gay.
When will the dancers leave her alone?
      She is weary of dance and play.”
Now half to the setting moon are gone,
      And half to the rising day;
Low on the sand and loud on the stone
      The last wheel echoes away.
   I said to the rose, “The brief night goes
      In babble and revel and wine.
O young lord-lover, what sighs are those,
      For one that will never be thine?
But mine, but mine,” so I sware to the rose,
      “For ever and ever, mine.”
   And the soul of the rose went into my blood,
      As the music clash’d in the hall;
And long by the garden lake I stood,
      For I heard your rivulet fall
From the lake to the meadow and on to the wood,
      Our wood, that is dearer than all;
   From the meadow your walks have left so sweet
      That whenever a March-wind sighs
He sets the jewel-print of your feet
      In violets blue as your eyes,
To the woody hollows in which we meet
      And the valleys of Paradise.
   The slender acacia would not shake
      One long milk-bloom on the tree;
The white lake-blossom fell into the lake
      As the pimpernel dozed on the lea;
But the rose was awake all night for your sake,
      Knowing your promise to me;
The lilies and roses were all awake,
      They sigh’d for the dawn and thee.
   Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
      Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
      Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
      To the flowers, and be their sun.
   There has fallen a splendid tear
      From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
      She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”
      And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”
The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”
      And the lily whispers, “I wait.”
   She is coming, my own, my sweet;
      Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
      Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
      Had I lain for a century dead,
Would start and tremble under her feet,
      And blossom in purple and red.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Taka assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=360496

Photo Two by By Michael Woodruff from Spokane, Washington, USA – Sword-billed Hummingbird, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5165020

Photo Three by By Kelly Cookson from Lafayette, USA – Various Views…Uploaded by uleli, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22953221

The Golden Hour

Dear Readers, it has been a difficult few weeks. Mum was in hospital until yesterday (Wednesday) but has been weeping because she wants to come home for at least a fortnight. At one point I honestly thought that Dad would ‘spring her’ from the hospital and drive her home, in spite of his dementia. Now she is home, and I am trying to make sure that we have the correct care at the correct time. My worry is that whatever we plan it still won’t be enough. Mum is intermittently confused, extremely weak, and seems to have forgotten many of the things that she was able to do just a few short months ago. Getting off the toilet is a problem, for example, not because Mum is too weak to do it, but because she has forgotten the sequence of physical actions necessary to make it happen. I hope that the muscle memory will come back, but in the meantime it is a worry for all of us.

Meantime, Dad has been ringing me up more or less every night in the wee small hours, asking me where Mum is, where the carers are, when the cab is coming to take him to hospital. At least now that Mum is home I might get a little bit of a break from all that, though it’s possible that all that will happen is that the questions will change.

The situation is evolving faster than we can respond. I am up and down to Dorset visiting nursing homes ‘just in case’. It is very hard to find somewhere where Mum and Dad can be together with their different needs, but I shall keep trying. As much as anything else, I want to be prepared for the next emergency. So far in the last few months they’ve spent 9 weeks apart because one or the other has been in hospital. At least in a nursing home they wouldn’t have such frequent admissions, and would be released more quickly.

In short I am at my tether’s end, and beyond.

However, outside my rapidly shrinking world of care rotas and supermarket orders and medical appointments, the world goes on.Between 17.30 and 18.30 on a fine day in October, the light has a quality that is unlike that at any other time. Photographers call it ‘the golden hour’, that short window when the sun’s rays are low and diffuse, and everything is lit up as if from within. On Wednesday my husband came home early, and more or less dragged me out of the door, onto the County Roads in East Finchley and down to Coldfall Wood.

I hadn’t noticed that the trees had started to redden, but it must have been going on for ages. And look at the berries! My heart lifts at the thought of redwings and waxwings and blackbirds having something sweet(ish) and natural to fatten them before winter comes.

I hear the chuckle of jackdaws overhead, and it puts me in mind of Dorset, where they are commonplace. Here in North London, a pair moved in a few years ago, and this year I was visited by a family of five. The crows are still more commonplace though, perched on the television aerials and surveying the scene for a feeding opportunity.

And then into the woods. By the main entrance the colours are subdued and muted, shadowy and understated, but as we walk west, everything is touched with the setting sun. The leaves of the twisted hornbeams catch the last rays and shimmer.

The sun hits some trees like a searchlight, illuminating every detail of bark, revealing the corrugations, the crisscross stems of ivy, the spikes of holly.

A single leaf dangles from a strand of spider silk, and is transformed.

And when I look back, I see that the sun has painted a long pathway into the woods that seems to open for a few short moments before the sun sinks too low, and it’s gone.

I have been so busy, moving quickly because I think that I can outrun what’s coming for me, and for Mum and Dad. The last thing I want to do is meander through the trees and let myself be caught. But here in the woods there’s the sense of life proceeding on a scale that is far greater and older than our human span. The sun goes down whether I want it to or not, and sometimes all there is to do is to drink in both the poignancy and the beauty of that  moment.