Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Eastern Gladiolus

Eastern gladioulus (Gladiolus communis ssp byzantina)

Dear Readers, I hope you will forgive me for writing about a very non-urban ‘weed’ this week – eastern gladiolus is a ‘weed’ of Somerset but I have not yet seen it in the wild in London. However, it seems so local to the West Country that I wanted to ferret out some information on a plant that seems to have gone largely unreported.

We do have one native gladiolus (Gladiolus illyrica) in the UK, which is confined to the New Forest and seems to have escaped the grazing predations of New Forest ponies and deer by growing amongst the bracken. Eastern gladiolus, however, is clearly a garden escape, and is widespread in the Isles of Scilly, where it is known as Slippery or Whistling Jacks. All gladioli are members of the iris family (Iridaceae) and are named from the Latin for ‘little sword’, probably referring to the shape of the leaves (this also explains their alternative name ‘sword lily’). They grow from corms, and the wild forms are often delicate and subtle. You can not say this for the larger, showier florist gladioli, which come in brash rainbow colours.

Photo One by Image by <a href="">Capri23auto</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>

Florists gladioli (Photo One)

There are about 300 species of gladioli and the epicentre of diversity, as with so many plants, is in the Cape area of South Africa. Eastern gladiolus comes originally from a swathe of countries from North Africa in the west to the Caucausus in the east. I rather love its delicacy and elegance, and it certainly seems to pop up in the verges and gardens of my Aunt Hilary’s village in Somerset with very little encouragement. The first recorded sighting of the plant in a garden is 1596, so it’s had plenty of time to burst forth.

Many different insects are gladioli pollinators, but the one I would keep an eye open for if I had some of this plant in my garden would be the stunning hummingbird hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Actually, I’ve seen this creature twice in the wild, once on red valerian in Mum and Dad’s Dorset garden, and once on lavender in my garden in East Finchley, and I ache to see it again. Sometimes, people take quite some persuading that they haven’t seen an actual hummingbird, so similar are the flight patterns of insect and bird. The fact that hummingbirds don’t live wild in the UK is not enough to convince some folk that they haven’t seen an escaped one.

Photo Two by By Yusuf Akgul - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Hummingbird hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellaratum) (Photo Two)

The caterpillars of the Large Yellow Underwing moth can feed on the leaves of gladioli too, and the moths are some of the commonest in my area.

Photo Three by By Holger Gröschl -, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Large Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua pronuba) (Photo Three)

‘Gladdies’ are, of course, synonymous with that ‘Housewife Superstar’ Dame Edna Everage, and even feature in a bronze statue of her in Melbourne.

Photo Four by By WalkingMelbourne - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Dame Edna statue in Melbourne (Photo Four)

As a family we used to roar with laughter at her wicked observations, and her relationship with her bridesmaid Madge was a particular source of glee. It was no wonder, then, that at a fancy dress party that Mum and Dad held when we lived in Seven Kings in the outer reaches of East London, Mum dressed as Dame Edna, and even had some gladioli to hand out. It’s true that Mum’s Dame Edna vocabulary was limited to ‘Hello Possums’ in an accent that owed more to Stratford than the antipodes, but she was such a comedienne that this was quite enough. Mum loved to make people laugh, and would play to the gallery given the slightest encouragement. Her particular gift, especially as she got older, would be to say something outrageous and giggle inwardly as everyone tried to work out if she knew the connotations of what she’d said.

I do believe that there may be vol-au-vents in the buffet spread behind Mum in this picture, and probably devilled eggs, just to date it accurately to the early 19080’s.

Mum as Dame Edna Everage

Another cultural figure associated with the gladiolus is Morrissey of The Smiths, who used to whip the flower out of his back pocket and throw it into the audience at his concerts . How I loved his lyrics when I was growing up! He seemed to understand the angst of the lonely and the rejected. However, he’s turned into a fascist, sporting a ‘Britain First’ badge at his concerts, and so I shall pass on without even so much as a photograph. It is always disappointing when the people that we loved when we were young turn out to have clay feet, but goodness knows there’s been a lot of that about lately.

For such an attractive plant, gladioli have been rather out of garden fashion lately – maybe the Dame Edna link makes us think that all of them are blousy, and there are some pretty horrific, overblown gladdies out there. I really like the eastern gladioli though, and if they are too subdued for your tastes they could always be paired up with montbretia for a real cerise and orange ‘kick’. I think they look rather lovely against the silvered wood of this fence. Although gardeners are often advised to lift gladioli corms for the winter, the doyen of cut flower gardening Sarah Raven suggests that a healthy layer of mulch keeps them just as happy.

I was pleased to find that one of my favourite artists, Vincent van Gogh, also rather liked gladioli, though he chose to feature the bright red ones.

Vase of Red Gladioli by Vincent van Gogh (1886) (Public Domain)

And here is a treat. This wonderful poem, by Amy Clampitt, speaks of the way that we have grown used to having everything that the world has to offer available to us, the way that everything is in motion these days. And if you have time, have a listen here to the choreographer and artistic director Bill T.Jones reading this poem and three others, including one of my all time favourites, ‘A Blessing’ by James Wright. You will not be disappointed, I promise. And if you do not already follow ‘Brain Pickings’, I can thoroughly recommend it.

by Amy Clampitt

In memory of Father Flye, 1884–1985

The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes—a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom—
for sale in the supermarket! We are in
our decadence, we are not entitled.
What have we done to deserve
all the produce of the tropics—
this fiery trove, the largesse of it
heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed
and crested, standing like troops at attention,
these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons
grown sumptuous with stoop labor?

The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us
before there is a yen or a need for it. The green-
grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea.
Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly
fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are
disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias
fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli
likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson;
as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower
of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these
bachelor’s buttons. But it isn’t the railway embankments
their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it’s

a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos,
snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies,
in my grandmother’s garden: a prairie childhood,
the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid,
unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses,
their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered
here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas
on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch
of living matter, sown and tended by women,
nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful,
beneath whose hands what had been alien begins,
as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous.

But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above–
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two by By Yusuf Akgul – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three by By Holger Gröschl –, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Photo Four by By WalkingMelbourne – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Cuckoo Spit and Xylella – The Story So Far

Cuckoo Spit on the lavender in the front garden

Dear Readers, I am a member of several garden wildlife and insect groups online, and during this past week I have seen a rise in questions along the lines of ‘ I have cuckoo spit on my lavender, should I hose it all off? Is there any way to get rid of it? Are we on the verge of Armageddon?’ As someone who is entranced with the miracle of these annual foamy masses and the insects that make them, I figured that someone had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, and so they have. Reports that have superficially demonised the froghopper have appeared on the BBC and in most major and local newspapers, and I am frankly bewildered by the lack of knowledge shown. Science is often complicated, and it’s sometimes easy to read a headline and panic. So here is what is happening, as I understand it, and here is what we should be doing.

  1. What is cuckoo spit?

Cuckoo spit is produced by the nymph of the froghopper, a ‘true bug’ which feeds on the sap of plants such as lavender and rosemary. The froth is a protection for the toothsome youngster: it is produced from the insect’s excreta, and is turned into froth by the creature passing air through its anus. As I put it in my original piece on froghoppers here,

‘The foam is the only protection that Froghoppers have, and schoolchildren are always delighted by how it’s made. The bug sucks up the sap from its chosen plant, excretes what’s left, and blows air through it – so, it lives in a house built from faeces, and created by flatulence. What youngster could resist such a story? I’m surprised that they’re not all queueing up to be biologists as we speak.’

2. Do froghoppers do any harm?

The RHS website says that froghoppers rarely cause any real damage to plants, and can be left unmolested. I concur. My lavender has been a-froth with froghoppers for years, and is still splendid.

Froghopper nymph denuded

3. So why all the sudden fuss?

A bacterial disease known as Xylella fastidiosa, first discovered in the US in the 1890’s, is on the move. It turned up in Brazil at the end of the 20th Century, was in Europe by 2013 and has been advancing at a surprising pace. It was previously thought to be confined to warm areas such as the olive plantations of Greece, but in the past few years it has been found in France and Germany. Xylella works by blocking the uptake of water to the plant, and can be devastating – it has been identified in over 560 species of plant worldwide. In the UK, trees such as the oak and plane are thought to be most at risk. The RHS and DEFRA have been putting plans in place to arrest the spread of the disease if (or more likely when) it arrives. It is not, as far as we know, here yet.

The disease is probably going to arrive in the UK via a plant imported by a garden centre or tree nursery.  – the most recent outbreak of the disease was in Oleander, a popular garden plant in this country. However, once here it could be transmitted via sapsucking insects such as the froghopper. Although froghoppers are homebodies and don’t usually move more than about 100 metres during their lifetimes, they can be carried much further by the wind.

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

An adult froghopper (Philaenus spumarius) waiting to ping away. It is a very froggy-looking creature! (Photo One)

4. Why all the requests to report cuckoo spit?

This is pre-emptive. It’s hoped that by building up a picture of where froghoppers are at the moment, it will be easier to understand exactly when the insects are active and the extent of their range.  I will be reporting my froghoppers to the iRecord site below, which can be used to report other critters too, and is very useful for getting a picture of what’s around in your local area. You will need to set up an account, and then you are looking for a ‘project-specific record’ – the project is ‘xylem-feeding insects’, and the common cuckoo spit froghopper’s Latin name is Philaenus spumarius. There is a useful pictorial guide here, just in case you have one of the other two common British species.

5. What is being done to fight the disease?

Certain EU regulations are already in place to control the spread of the disease: this is from the Henry Doubleday website.

  • All plant importers have to show evidence that their plants are sourced from areas that are free from Xylella.
  • Proposed imports of host species such as plane, elm and oak plants must be pre-notified to the UK plant health authorities to enable inspection This will allow a sequence of spot checks at the UK borders.
  • Other regulations are in place that restrict movements of specified host plants from the infected region of Apulia in southern Italy, and from countries outside the EU, to reduce the risk of entry.

However, if it did become established in the UK, control would focus on the targeted removal of host plants and management of the vector insects’ habitats. An outbreak (as opposed to an isolated incidence) would mean eradication of all possible hosts within 100m of the outbreak and very tight restrictions on commercial plant producers or garden centres within 10km of the outbreak for 10 years.

In other words, this is an extremely strong incentive to garden centres to ensure that their plants are properly sourced.

Photo Two by By I, Pompilid, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Oleander infected by Xylella (Photo Two)

6. What plants does DEFRA consider are most at risk?

In addition to the oak and plane, there are a whole range of other plants who would be endangered by Xylella.

  • Acer rubrum L.
  • Catharanthus roseus (L.) G.Don
  • Citrus sinensis (Linnaeus) Osbeck
  • Coffea L.
  • Gramineae Adans., Nom. Cons.
  • Medicago sativa L.
  • Morus rubra L.
  • Nerium oleander L.
  • Platanus occidentalis L.
  • Prunus L.
  • Prunus persica Batsch
  • Quercus rubra L.
  • Ulmus americana L.
  • Vaccinium L.
  • Vinca minor L.
  • Vitis L.
  • Woody plants
  • Liliaceae (family)
  • Citrus

7. What are the symptoms of Xylella?

Unfortunately, Xylella can look rather like many other diseases. The Forestry Commission says that:

‘The visible symptoms on plane, maple (Acer), oak and elm trees include leaf scorch, sometimes also with dieback of twigs and branches. The characteristic leaf symptoms which are visible in summer include browning at the leaf margins (but not along the main veins), and there is often a yellow edge to the browned areas.’

I suspect that concrete identification can only be achieved by scientists with microscopes. The bacteria produces many different species-specific syndromes, varying from oleander leaf scorch to citrus variegated cholorosis to olive quick decline syndrome. You will have noticed that many of the plants attacked are important food crops, often intensively grown and lacking in genetic diversity. There is much to be said for proper husbandry and stocking, and for the preservation of different varieties of plants, for just this situation.

The bacteria works by blocking the xylem, the main water-transport system of the plant. If only a few vessels are affected, the plant might be asymptomatic but still a carrier of the bacteria. If it is planted elsewhere and subsequently fed upon by a froghopper, the bacterium can be spread to another plant. The infected plant can also transmit the disease if it is grafted to a healthy plant.

Photo Three by Alexander Purcell, University of California, - [CC BY 3.0 (]

Pierce’s disease, caused by Xylella, on citrus (Photo Three)

8. Do we have to worry now? Should I be hosing off my froghoppers and burning my lavender?

No. As mentioned above, the reporting of cuckoo spit is pre-emptive. Our froghoppers are currently completely innocent, and will hopefully remain uninfected with Xylella. I think it is a hopeful sign that DEFRA and other bodies are getting on the case now, in unison with the EU, in order to head this threat off at the pass before it gets to the UK. We have already lost our elms, are likely to lose most of our ash trees, and our horse chestnuts are under siege every year. Let’s hope that this will be one disease that doesn’t get a grip.

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two by By I, Pompilid, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by Alexander Purcell, University of California, – [CC BY 3.0 (]

Wednesday Weed – Oleander

Oleander (Nerium oleander)

Dear Readers, many moons ago I was treasurer for a community garden in North London. We had received some money to make a ‘dry’ (drought-tolerant) garden and we were discussing what to plant.

‘We could go for a Mediterranean theme, with some oleanders’, said one innocent soul.

Everyone around the table positively hissed. Heads were shaken, sighs were uttered and I could  imagine people making a mental Sign of the Cross to fend off the evil of the suggestion.

Our chairperson leaned forward.

‘Don’t you know’, she whispered, ‘that oleander is deadly poisonous! Think of the children!’

And that, dear readers, was the end of that. So I gave oleander very little thought until I saw it poking its head under a hedge in the County Roads today. Is it really as poisonous as everyone thinks?

Well, according  to our old friend ‘The Poison Garden’ website, it is a candidate for ‘the most poisonous plant in the garden, but also the most beautiful’. The website contains the sad story of a giraffe who died after being fed oleander clippings at Tucson Zoo, and also the story of Fudgie, a miniature cow who nearly died after eating the plant, but who survived in spite of having her heart stop twelve times during the time it took her to recover. Every time her heart stopped the vet or toxicologist would apparently restart it by kicking her in the chest, which seems a bit drastic but at least it worked.

Oleander also caused the deaths of two toddlers adopted from a Siberian orphanage and living in California. In their previous lives, the children were said to have had malnutrition, and to have developed pica, a habit of eating inedible objects in order to assuage their hunger. They ate some oleander leaves in spite of the extremely bitter flavour, and both died. Oleander affects the stomach, central nervous system and heart, and 100g is enough to poison an adult horse. Victims of oleander poisoning may be treated with activated charcoal to absorb the toxins and may need to be put on a pacemaker to keep the heart steady during the recovery period.

As if this wasn’t enough, the sap of the plant can cause skin and eye irritation.

In other words, it probably wasn’t the best choice of plant for a community garden frequented by small children.

There is little doubt that this is a very pretty plant, often scented and available in a wide variety of colours. It is part of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae) which also includes the almond-scented frangipani and the periwinkle or Vinca. The family is largely tropical, and many species are poisonous (the Latin name may refer to ‘dog poison). Although we associate it now with the Mediterranean it has been cultivated for so long that no one really knows where it comes from, though south-west Asia has been suggested as a starting point. In their ‘native’ habitat, oleanders grow in stream beds which alternately flood and dry up, and so although the plant is drought-tolerant it also seems resistant to waterlogging.

Oleander growing wild in a dry river bed (Wadi) in Libya (Public Domain)

Small wonder, then, that it has been extensively planted in some parts of the US where these conditions are not unusual – it was used following the devestating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, and Moody Gardens in Galveston is the home of the International Oleander Society, dedicated to the development of new varieties and the preservation of existing ones.

Photo One By WhisperToMe - Own work, CC0,

The first oleander planting in Texas (Photo One)

When it comes to wildlife benefits, oleander is a bit of a mixed bag. Its toxins were originally developed to deter invertebrate pests and grazing animals, and we’ve already seen what happens to the latter. However, as you might expect, some insects do prey upon the plant, and have come up with handy solutions to the poison problem. The caterpillars of the polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) eat only the pulp of the leaves, avoiding the more poisonous ribs. Both caterpillar and moth are stunning, and can be found in the Caribbean and the south of the United States. It is thought that they fed on a plant called the devil’s potato before oleander was introduced to the New World, but it seems that they have pretty much moved over to the ‘alien’ plant.

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! - Polka-Dot Wasp Moth - Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) (Photo Two)

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Caterpillar of the polka-dot wasp moth (Photo Three)

Other caterpillars, including those of the common crow butterfly (Euplora core) and the oleander hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii) incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, making them unpalatable to birds. It is noted that the common crow butterfly in particular almost seems aware of how poisonous it is, as it drifts through the forests of India and takes its time as it wanders from flower to flower. Several butterflies from other families mimic the common crow butterfly, and who can blame them?

Photo Four By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Common Crow butterfly (Euploea core) (Photo Four)

The oleander hawk moth can very occasionally be found in the UK, but it lives mainly in Africa, Asia and, surprisingly, some of the Hawaiian Islands. It migrates and this is how it sometimes ends up in Europe, though it more commonly finishes its journey in Turkey.The caterpillars can grow to almost nine centimetres long, and are a flourescent lime-green colour, again a mark of confidence that no one is going to eat you.

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Oleander hawk moth (Daphnis nerii) (Photo Five)

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

A splendid oleander hawk moth caterpillar (Photo Six)

So, the oleander can be food for a subset of invertebrates who have learned to deal with its toxicity. However, although the flowers look inviting, it’s thought that they are not actually useful for pollinators because they are nectarless, and the blooms receive very few visits from insects, who won’t bother to return often for no reward. The plant does require insect pollination, however, and so to compensate it produces extremely sticky pollen, which allows many flowers to be pollinated from one visit. Nectar is an expensive resource for a plant to produce, and so oleander has found a way of getting insects to visit without ‘paying them back’.

Oleander has cropped up in the work of many artists. Klimt featured it in his ‘Two Girls with an Oleander’ painted in 1892 and rather more naturalistic than his better known ‘gold’ paintings, such as ‘The Kiss’.

Two Girls with an Oleander (Gustav Klimt) (1892) (Public Domain)

My old favourite Vincent Van Gogh painted oleanders when he was staying in Arles in 1888 – he loved the plants because they were ‘joyous’ and ‘life-affirming’.

Oleanders (Vincent van Gogh 1888) (Public Domain)

Oleanders were a popular subject in the frescos and murals of Rome and Pompeii, and so it’s no surprise that the Victorian Orientalist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema should incorporate them into many of his paintings of classical antiquity.

‘An Oleander’ by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1882) Public Domain

So, this is a plant that has fascinated people for millenia. Poisonous but beautiful, with flowers that deceive, it is tough enough to survive drought and flood. Its ability to cope with disaster is nowhere clearer than in Hiroshima, where it was the first plant to bloom after the atomic bomb destroyed the city and is the symbol of the city to this day.

Photo Seven from

Oleander flowering near the Genbaku dome in Hiroshima (Photo Seven)

And this week, something different. I found this article in The Atlantic magazine, and it is about the way that different cultures use language in war situations in order to cope with the situations that they find themselves in. In the Israeli army, “We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” translates as ‘We have two wounded and one dead. We need a helicopter.” It’s a fascinating read. See what you think!  It seems to me that, wherever we come from, we need to find a way of describing the indescribable.

“British soldiers in the field also refer to dead comrades as “T4,” Campbell told me, and to the badly wounded as “T1,” identifying the people in question over the radio never by their names but by a mix of letters and serial numbers. “So it’s ‘Charlie Alpha 6243 is T1,’ not ‘Tom’s lost his legs,’” Campbell said. “You need the jargon so that an 18-year-old can say it and not be overwhelmed by what he’s saying. (My emphasis)” (From The Atlantic. ‘What Military Jargon Says About Armies, and the Societies that they Serve’,Matti Friedman 2016).

Photo Credits

Photo One By WhisperToMe – Own work, CC0,

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth – Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

The Complicated Whitebeam

The flowers on the whitebeam tree

Dear Readers, as the whitebeam (Sorbus aria) tree in my garden is having such a good year, I decided that I’d find out a bit more about it. These are not showy trees, but they have a subtle beauty – the leaves have tiny hairs on the underside which cause them to  flash white in the breeze, hence the name. When the leaves are in bud, they resemble magnolia flowers, and the flowers themselves are exquisite, and very attractive to insects. One reason for this is that whitebeam is a native, and has hence developed a whole range of associations with invertebrates  – the rather delightfully-named red midget moth (Phyllonorycter corylifoliella) mines its leaves, bees feed from the flowers, and birds will eat the berries (which are known as chess-apples in the north of England and, like medlars, are best eaten when nearly rotten). For a detailed recipe on how to make whitebeam jelly, click here.

Photo One by By Stainton -, Public Domain,

Red midget moth (Phyllonorycter corylifoliella) (Photo One)

Photo Two by Photo © Albert Bridge (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Chess-apples (Whitebeam berries (Photo Two)

The whitebeam is sometimes planted as a street tree, and has a rather pleasing domed habit, which makes it look a little like the trees that I used to draw when I was about six. They also have a tendency to twist and follow the sun, which can lead to some interesting effects.

Whitebeam as a street tree on Woodside Avenue, Muswell Hill.

A typical twisted whitebeam trunk

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) in the Whitehall Estate, Archway, North London

Whitebeams are members of the mighty rose (Rosaceae) family, and are closely related to the rowans and wild service trees. Indeed, they interbreed with both of these relatives, and there are  a whole series of microspecies, which may grow only in one rocky crag or tiny local area, and nowhere else in the world. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey lists some of them:

The Arran whitebeam (Sorbus arranensis) grows only on steep streambanks on the Isle of Arran. This is a protected species, and only 283 specimens survived back in 1983.

Arran whitebeam (Sorbus arranensis) (Public Domain)

The least whitebeam (Sorbus minima) grows in a few sites in Breconshire, Wales. At last count there were 730 specimens. In 1947 the tree was endangered by mortar practice, and the MP for the area was able to persuade the army to stop shelling, and is credited with saving the tree from extinction. The main danger now is quarrying, which reduces the available habitat for the plant. All sites are now protected, and there are some least whitebeam trees in the Botanical Garden of Wales.

Photo Three by By Salicyna - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Least whitebeam (Sorbus minima) (Photo Three)

Wilmott’s whitebeam (Sorbus wilmottiana) grows only in woodland and scrub in the Avon Gorge, is on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, and has less than 100 individual trees left.

Photo Four copyright Dr Tim Rich, from

Wilmott’s Whitebeam (Sorbus wilmottiana) (Photo Four)

There are only 22 individual Cheddar Whitebeams (Sorbus cheddariensis). As you might expect from the name, they live only in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset.

Photo Five copyright Libby Houston from

Cheddar Whitebeam (Sorbus cheddarensis) (Photo Five)

But maybe saddest of all is the Ship Rock Whitebeam (Sorbus parviloba) which is known from only one specimen on the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire border. No wonder the IUCN describe it as ‘critically endangered).

Photo Six by Dr Tim Rich from

Ship Rock whitebeam (Sorbus parviloba) (Photo Six)

In general the flora of the UK is much sparser than that of mainland Europe, largely due to our fairly recent Ice Ages, which scoured much of the land clear of flowering plants (though we are a hotspot for mosses and lichens). And yet, we have this incredible diversity of whitebeams – I have only described a small selection of the endemic species above. Just to reiterate, these plants are found nowhere else in the world. Each of these trees is subtly different from the others in terms of growth habit, berry colour and leaf shape, and each one no doubt plays a part in its local environment. Who knew we were home to such riches?

It does make me wonder how my whitebeam ended up in the garden. Traditionally, whitebeams are associated with chalk – in his new book ‘London is a Forest‘ (which I heartily recommend by the way), Paul Wood suggests that ‘it’s almost as if it imbibes so much of the stuff that it seeps out through its leaves’. Whitebeams of all kinds are rare in the wild, especially on clay, and live for 100-200 years. Is it impossible that this tree was planted when the house was built back in 1897? It certainly looks like a tree in its prime to me.

Following on from my musings about what would happen to the garden when I eventually leave, I am almost tempted to apply for a Tree Preservation Order. Trouble is that it would cause all kinds of bureaucratic wrangles if I needed to prune it. Does anyone have experience of this? Do let me know the pros and cons. I’m not planning on going anywhere for a long time, but as we know, humans make plans and God chuckles….

White lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

I have been looking for myths and legends surrounding the whitebeam, and here is a cracker from the Plant Lore website which I suspect might have been made up on the spot by someone’s Dad (much as I told my little brother that a monster would come out of the Belisha Beacon by the zebra crossing and eat him if he didn’t behave himself).

‘Two old ladies told me that their father permitted them to eat the young leaves of whitebeam. These had an almond-like flavour. However, they were permitted to eat only seven at a time as the leaves contained traces of a deadly poison’.

Interestingly enough, the seeds are said to contain Hydrogen cyanide, so maybe Dad was on to something, or was at least being cautious. I might have to pluck up the courage to have a nibble, though the leaves are surprisingly high up and I fear some clambering might be involved.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘folklore’, I couldn’t leave without mentioning the No Parking Whitebeam (Sorbus admonitor).

Photo Seven copyright Dr Tim Rich from

A No Parking Whitebeam (Sorbus admonitor) (Photo Seven)

The first example of this species to come to the attention of botanists was discovered in a lay-by at Watersmeet in North Devon in the 1930’s, with a ‘no-parking’ sign tacked to the bark. E.F Warburg, an eminent plant scientist, knew that it was different from the other local microspecies, the Devon Whitebeam, but it wasn’t until the tree’s DNA was studied in 2009 that it was given species status, and the Latin name ‘admonitor‘ (meaning ‘to tell off’). There are about 100 of these trees, which as we’ve seen almost counts as a healthy population in the world of whitebeams. Let’s hope that its interesting name keeps it in the public eye.

Incidentally, the species name of ‘our’ whitebeam, ‘aria‘, comes from the Latin name ‘aries’, meaning prop or battering ram. The wood is very hard, and was used for axles and shafts until superseded by cast iron. The diarist John Evelyn admired the wood, and used it to panel one of his rooms, and it was also used to make gunstocks.

Photo Eight by By Gaffer206 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cross-section of a whitebeam trunk (Photo Nine)

And, as usual, a poem.  Paul Farley is a poet of the edgelands, and I think he captures the shapeshifter nature of the whitebeam: one of only 33 native trees in the UK, but with a myriad of forms, a plant of parks and gardens but also one found hiding in surprising places. The whitebeam is a tree that invites us to wonder what would be possible if we appreciated what we have.


The sixty-miles-per-hour plants, the growth
that lines the summer corridors of sight
along our major roads, the overlooked
backdrop to Preston 37 miles.
Speed camera foliage; the white flowers
of Mays and Junes, the scarlet fruits of autumn
lay wasted in the getting from A to B.
Hymn to forward-thinking and planting schemes,
though some seem in two minds: the greenwood leaves
are white-furred, have a downy underside
as if the heartwood knew in its heart of hearts
the days among beech and oak would lead to these
single file times, these hard postings
and civilised itself with handkerchiefs.

Paul Farley (2003)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Stainton –, Public Domain,

Photo Two by © Albert Bridge (cc-by-sa/2.0) from

Photo Three by By Salicyna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four copyright Dr Tim Rich, from

Photo Five copyright Libby Houston from

Photo Six by Dr Tim Rich from

Photo Seven copyright Dr Tim Rich from

Photo Eight by By Gaffer206 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wednesday Weed – Perennial Cornflower

Perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana) in the process of escaping….

Dear Readers, it is always interesting to see a garden plant in the actual  process of escaping from the garden. When I got back from Dorset this week I noticed that a perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana) had seeded itself into the wall of the house opposite. It’s quite possible that the next generation will appear somewhere along the street, as, with council cutbacks, the streets of East Finchley are not being swept and ‘de-weeded’ with quite the enthusiasm of yore, and all sorts of plants are popping up in the debris that is left. It is such a striking plant, and is closely related to the cornflower and to our native knapweed (Centaurea nigra). Perennial cornflower, however, is a plant of southern Europe, particularly the mountain areas – another alternative name is ‘mountain bluet’. No wonder the plant is happy in crevices and exposed spots, and is relatively drought-tolerant. I’ve noticed before how many of our ‘alien’ weeds are originally from mountainous areas, which mimic the harsh conditions of our cities, buddleia being a splendid example. Other plants that were originally from mountainous areas include fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca), a bright orange daisy from the Carpathians, and purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea), a delicate purple plant which is very popular with bees and comes originally from the mountains of Sicily.

This may also explain why perennial cornflower is naturalised to a much greater extent in the north east of England than in the south, outside of cities – the climate is cooler, and one thing that the plant can’t stand is being waterlogged, which would rule out some areas in the west.

I love the buds – they look to me as if every sepal is surrounded by little eyelashes. And the colour of the flower is an extraordinary deep lavender-blue, set off by the magenta centre. That deep blue colour originally gave it the name of ‘Great Blue-Bottle’ – it seems to have been introduced to the UK some time in the 16th century, as recorded by the herbalist John Gerard in 1597. He didn’t know quite what to do with it: in its native range, the plant was used as a tea to treat dyspepsia and also as a diuretic. In 1790 the gardener William Curtis wrote that it was a plant that ‘will grow in any soil or situation, some will think too readily‘. The Kew Gardens website describes it as a ‘useful, if somewhat untidy, addition to a herbaceous border‘, which seems a little unkind to me. If you tire of the blue variety, there are also white, pink and mauve cultivars, but as usual my taste tends me towards the original plant. It does feel to me as if it would be lovely in a border with other ‘cottage garden’ plants, such as aquilegia. Do let me know if you’ve been growing it, and what you’ve paired it with.

Photo One from

Centaurea montana ‘Purple Heart’ (Photo One)

Sadly, although perennial cornflower has not become invasive in the UK, it has become a problem in places such as British Columbia in Canada and the Rocky Mountains (where I would expect it to be happy, what with it being a mountain and all). Indeed, if you spot a perennial cornflower in the Pacific Northwest, you can shop it to the authorities by calling the Weeds Hotline. Sometimes, a plant can just make itself way too at home, and as perennial cornflower propagates both by seed and by rhizome it has several ways to spread. It is also believed that ants might feed from the profuse nectar produced by the flowers, and hence accidentally transfer pollen to other plants.

Unfortunately, mountain  habitats are some of the most vulnerable to ‘invaders’, and they are already under stress due to climate change. I can understand why people want to protect what is already there. My local ‘patch’ is urban, and hence such a mish-mash of species and influences that I have the luxury of enjoying plants from all over the world.

Perennial cornflower with forget-me-nots at East Finchley station.

The genus name for perennial cornflower, Centaurea, relates to the belief that the centaur Chiron used cornflowers to treat battle wounds. When I was a child I was fascinated by the animals and half-animals of Greek and Roman mythology, such as Pegasus the winged horse and the centaurs and satyrs. I was a rather lonely little girl, and thought that I’d feel at home with all these strange creatures. I would have been very happy having a centaur as a friend and mentor, and I would have been able to ride into school instead of having to share a car with Judith Barlow who used to encourage her brother to pull my hair (not that I bear grudges of course). Chiron was Achille’s teacher, and so I’d be in interesting company, though Achilles attitude to women could have done with a bit of realignment.

I love how, in the illustration below, Chiron is shown as in full Greek dress with a horse’s back end stuck on as an afterthought.

Chiron the centaur being presented with the infant Achilles to teach (From ‘The Golden Porch – A Book of Greek Fairytales by W. Hutchinson (1914)) (Public Domain)

But, as usual I digress.

The flowers of perennial cornflower are said to be edible, and would certainly add a pop of colour to a salad. They are also a good source of nectar for non-human visitors, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, and feature on the RHS Plants for Pollinators list, which is a useful resource, though of course a perfect pollinator plant in one location might be a dead loss in another. I know that the plants that help bees in my back garden (dusky geranium and bittersweet, for example) would fail in the sun-blasted front garden where the lavender thrives. So much of gardening is trial and error!

And now, for something a little different. The author Maggie Nelson (born 1973), most famous for her memoir ‘The Argonauts’, wrote a series of reflections on the colour blue, called ‘Bluets’. They were written during a period when she was going through a relationship break-up, and also caring for a friend who had been rendered quadriplegic. I find what she has to say both intriguing and challenging.  Here are a few excerpts from ‘Bluets’.

“At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my cv it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette.” 

“Eventually I confess to a friend some details about my weeping—its intensity, its frequency. She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair.” 

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in it’s focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what it’s hue, can be deadly.”

All quotes are from Goodreads. If you want to rush out and buy the book without resorting to Amazon (as I am just about to do), it’s available here. There is a very interesting article about this collection of ‘propositions’ here. And here is a final quote.

“That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.” 

Photo Credits

Photo One from




The flowers on the whitebeam tree

Dear Readers, I have thinking a lot about home this week, as I sift through my parents’ belongings and make decision after decision about what to keep, what to give away, and what to dispose of. How do you distill the essence of a life into two cardboard boxes? There is photo after photo of Dad standing with a group of the besuited men that he worked with. He is always grinning when everyone else is looking serious. There are photos of Mum looking stiff and awkward, but then very occasionally there is one where she looks like herself, caught unawares before she could put on her ‘formal’ face. There are clothes that were never worn, ornaments that were never displayed. As the rooms empty, as the shelves come down, it is as if the bungalow is shedding its personality and becoming a blank canvas for someone else to paint their preferences upon.

It was such a happy place, for all the horror and sadness of the last days. When I walk around the garden, which seems to have been taken over by forget-me-nots and cerinthe, I see the stone fairies and fawns and frogs that Mum hid among the plants, so that any visiting children could try to find them. The beech hedge that was always so full of sparrows, is silent now, probably because nobody is filling up the bird feeder. The rotary washing line is completely covered in rust, but the climbing rose that Mum would look out on from the kitchen window is smothered in buds.

I get on with it, because getting the place ready for sale is a project, and one that will benefit Dad. The amount of memories that flood back would be overwhelming if I didn’t keep busy. But it is so quiet, without ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on the television, without Mum and Dad snoring gently in their reclining chairs. In one of his books John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and writer, asks if it isn’t just that we miss ‘home’ when we leave, but that the building, in some strange way, misses us. I feel as if the bungalow always did its best to shelter Mum and Dad, and they looked after it and loved it in return. Who am I to question what is embedded in its breeze blocks and roof tiles, its cobwebs and the very soil in the garden? Mum and Dad’s DNA is all over the carpets and the curtains. There is a kind of symbiosis going on, an interrelatedness that reminds me that we don’t just ‘make’ a home, a home also makes us. Maybe we feel ‘at home’ when the partnership is working, where we are doing what the house and garden ‘need’.

And then I return to my home, and see the garden as if for the first time. I have been trying to be gentle with it, to appreciate what it needs as a community of plants and animals. I have learned many lessons along the way, and sometimes I’ve wasted time and money trying to make it ‘do’ things that the aspect, the soil and the light wouldn’t support. How much better to go with the flow in these things.

White lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

On the left hand side there is an ancient white lilac that I am gradually renovating, a hawthorn tree and a whitebeam. I had the hawthorn and the whitebeam trimmed by a tree surgeon about five years ago, because the canopies of both had become very dense. I was told at the time that the trees would only grow more vigorously to compensate, and this has proven to be true, but goodness, how beautiful all three plants are this year.

What has astonished me this year is the way that the whitebeam has burst into flower. We have had occasional blossoms, but it is absolutely covered. I am so proud of it. It makes me sad to think of how I butchered it previously. Whitebeams are going to have dense foliage given half a chance, and going forward I think I will just sit back and appreciate those grey-green leaves, and the way that they spark silver in the wind.

Another plant that is doing well, growing at the foot of the hawthorn, is the dusky geranium (Geranium phaeum). I have tried other species geraniums, but no others seem as tolerant of the dark, dry conditions on this side of the garden. And the bees adore those dark-chocolate flowers, in spite of their modest nature.

Dusky geranium

A pendulous sedge has planted itself beside the pond, and provides lots of cover for the baby frogs when they emerge from the pond. I was delighted to see three adult frogs today, so it appears that the heron didn’t get the lot after all. I know that pendulous sedge can be an almighty thug, but I just pull up its many, many ‘babies’ and let it get on with being magnificent and solitary.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

And I am also pleased that the meadowsweet that I planted last year is doing well this year, and maybe it will even flower! Watch this space.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

The water hawthorn now has half a dozen flowers, and the marsh marigold is just finishing.

Water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyon)

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)

In my very shady side return, the ferns are uncurling their croziers.

And the climbing hydrangea is just about to burst into flower.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)

And all this, of course, is temporary. I suspect that when we sell the house (hopefully in about twenty years) the pond at least will go – no family with small children would want to risk it. Someone else might not want the big, shady trees, or they might want a lawn. We cannot legislate for everything that happens when we are no longer here. Sometimes I feel my heart contract at the thought of the frogs coming back to a deck or a conservatory rather than their traditional breeding grounds. But I also know that this is a complete waste of my emotional energy, and part of a desire to control the uncontrollable. You would think that I would have learned about what I can and can’t influence during this past twelve months, but somehow it only makes me cling on more.

I could learn a lot from Dad. I went to see him while I was in Dorset sorting out the bungalow, and he was very happy sitting in his recliner. One of the new residents reminds Dad of Mum and while on one level he knows that his wife is gone, on another i think that he is always hopeful that she’ll turn up. The new resident actually booted me out of my chair so that she could sit next to Dad, so maybe he reminds her of someone in her life. Dad seems to be completely in the moment. He can’t remember who has been to see him,  or who I am, but if someone is kind to him, or interested in him, he opens up like a flower in the sunshine. He is not worrying about the future, and the past has fallen away behind him, and yet he takes the opportunity to be happy when it presents itself. I left him munching on a bar of Dairy Milk and breaking off a chunk to share with his new friend, no mean feat considering he fractured his wrist a few weeks ago. He might not be in charge of a distillery or the head of a household now, but I have never seen him so content. Maybe home, or at least the ability to feel at home,  is something that we carry in our hearts.

Cirsium atropurpureum

Wednesday Weed – Wisteria


Dear Readers, you might have read headlines on social media recently about ‘wisteria hysteria’. There are houses in West London where the wisteria has grown so splendidly that the owners are fed up sick with Instagrammers standing outside and taking photographs. In particular, there is there is this darling house with a pink door. I can absolutely see why anyone would want to stop and take a picture.

Photo One by

Wisteria in Holland Park (Photo One)

In East Finchley the wisterias are rather younger and therefore not quite so splendid, but there are examples in the garden of the Bald-Faced Stag, and several in the County Roads.

County Roads Wisteria

There are two very common species of wisteria. Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) twines counterclockwise, whilst Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) twines clockwise. If only I’d known this before running all over East Finchley taking photos I could maybe have made this post more useful from an identification point of view. But there we go! Chinese wisteria has more flowers, but those of Japanese are longer, with a maximum length of nearly half a metre. I would hazard a guess that the plant above is of the Japanese variety. The flowers of both species are said to smell of grapes, and maybe anyone lucky enough to be growing a wisteria could confirm.

Bald-Faced Stag gardens with wisteria

Wisterias are members of the pea family, as a glance at those leguminous flowers can confirm. They are mostly from China, Japan and Korea,but there are several species that are native to the US.  Like all peas wisteria fixes nitrogen in the soil. Unlike  most peas, however, it can grow into a monster: the plant in the photo below was planted in 1870 in Ashikaga, Japan, and covered half an acre in 2008. Wisteria can be pernickety and loathe to flower, but they can also be thugs: a mature plant can, as their Wikipedia entry puts it ‘ collapse latticework, crush thin wooden posts, and even strangle large trees’. I once lived next door to a wisteria that we christened ‘the triffid’ – its ‘fingers’ would reach across to our balcony, in through the window, through the gaps in the front door frame and would probably have invited themselves in for dinner if we hadn’t cut them back every so often. However, I have never seen anything as pretty as when this plant flowered at the same time as my neighbour’s yellow climbing rose. So, this is an exquisite plant, but not for the faint of heart.

Wisteria can be reluctant to flower before it reaches maturity, but in Chinese Wisteria maturation may not occur until the plant is twenty years old. I am told that being unkind to the plant by ‘physically abusing the main trunk or root pruning or drought-stress’ can force it into flower, but I do wonder if this would also shorten the life of the poor plant. Giving a nitrogen-fixing plant yet more nitrogen is also a good way to delay flowering, although it might need some potassium and phosphate.

Japanese and Chinese wisteria are naturalised in some parts of the south east of the USA and are considered an invasive plant in these areas.

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

Wisteria in flower at Ashikaga Park (Photo Two)

I was surprised to find that, as with its close relative laburnum, the seeds of wisteria are poisonous, and have caused gastroenteritis in children and pets in many countries.  In Japan the leaves are blanched and eaten, as are the flowers. I note that you can find a recipe for wisteria and redbud spring rolls here, for my North American readers.

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

Wisteria seeds (Photo Three)

You can apparently make wine from wisteria flowers too, but I have searched in vain for a recipe. Instead, for any London-based readers, here is news of a wisteria-themed wine bar that is about to open in Holborn, and very swanky it looks too.

Photo Four from

Photo Four

Wisteria is very long-lived, given the right conditions, and is often seen as a symbol of immortality. In  Japanese kabuki theatre it is symbolic of Love, Sensuality, Support, Sensitivity, Bliss and Tenderness. In Korean folklore, however, the plant is seen as representing conflict: it is said that two sisters were in love with the same warrior, and when they discovered this they threw themselves, fighting, into a lake and were transformed into a wisteria. Their lover promptly threw himself into the same lake, and became a nettle tree or hackberry (Celtis sp.) Ever since, wisterias in Korea have scrambled over nettle trees, occasionally strangling them or pulling them down. I am intrigued by the way that the Japanese symbolism seems to concentrate on wisteria’s beauty, while the Korean view is that it is a bit of a thug. Both things are, of course, true. The Victorian view was that the plant symbolised over-passionate love or obsession, again looking at the plant’s growth habit. Poor plant. Like so many of the living things that surround us, it is blamed for being what it is, a vigorous vine. It seems to me that humans get very cross with disobedience and inconvenience in the natural world, a bit like toddlers stamping their feet because their mothers won’t obey them.

Photo Five by By User:Geographer, CC BY 3.0,

Nettle tree (Celtis sinensis) (Photo Five)

There are many examples of wisteria in art, particularly from the East, as you might expect. I rather love this depiction of a ‘Lady in a Wisteria Kimono’ by Mizuno Toshikata. I love the way that you can almost smell the rain. I wonder why she is looking behind her? Is she expecting someone to follow her, or is she alarmed?

Lady in a Wisteria Kimono by Mizuno Toshikata (1900) (Public Domain)

And how about this beautiful folding screen?

Folding screen by Maruyama Okyo (circa 1800) (Public Domain)

But here is perhaps my favourite: ‘Paradise Flycatchers and Wisteria’ by Ren Yi from 1943.

Paradise Flycatchers and Wisteria (Ren Yi – 1943) (Public Domain)

And here is a poem. I like this because it sums up what it’s like to be ignorant of something that everybody else knows, and how being given the answer can feel like a small blessing. If you haven’t come across Billy Collins before, have a look. He sometimes tumbles into the whimsical in my humble opinion, but often he hits the nail right squarely on the head.

Field Guide – Billy Collins

No one I ask knows the name of the flower
we pulled the car to the side of the road to pick
and that I point to dangling purple from my lapel.

I am passing through the needle of spring
in North Carolina, as ignorant of the flowers of the south
as the woman at the barbecue stand who laughs
and the man who gives me a look as he pumps the gas

and everyone else I ask on the way to the airport
to return to where this purple madness is not seen
blazing against the sober pines and rioting along the

On the plane, the stewardess is afraid she cannot answer
my question, now insistent with the fear that I will leave
the province of this flower without its sound in my ear.

Then, as if he were giving me the time of day, a passenger
looks up from his magazine and says wisteria.

Photo Credits

Photo One by

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

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

Photo Four from

Photo Five by By User:Geographer, CC BY 3.0,