Category Archives: London Plants

Bugwoman on Location – 120 Fenchurch Street Roof Garden

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

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

One of the views from the Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street

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

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

The Gherkin

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

The Walkie Talkie

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

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


Astrantia and narcissi

Japanese anemone


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

There are also rafts of ferns and ornamental grasses.

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

Low hedging with the Lloyd’s Building in the background

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

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

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



Wednesday Weed – Maidenhair Spleenwort

Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)

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

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

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

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

Photo One by Bjorn S at

Spores of a maidenhair spleenwort (Photo One)

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Two from

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

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

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

And here is the entire triptych:

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits

Photo One by Bjorn S at

Photo Two from

Wednesday Weed – Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


Wednesday Weed – Aloe Vera

Aloe vera.

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

Photo One by hh oldman [CC BY 3.0 (]

Louise Bourgeois – Maman, 1999 (Photo One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

A split aloe leaf (Photo Two)

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

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

Aloe vera in flower (Photo Three)

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

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

Arabian sunbird (Cinnyris habessinicus hellmayri) (Photo Four)

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

Sunbird on naturalised Aloe Vera in India (Photo Five)

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


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


Photo Credits

Photo One by hh oldman [CC BY 3.0 (]

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,

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

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

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

Wednesday Weed – Lisianthus

Lisianthus (Eustoma russelliana) flower

Dear Readers, please excuse the somewhat bruised example of Lisianthus above – it was in one of the table decorations from my Mum’s Memorial service on Saturday, and has travelled back to East Finchley from Dorset via a rail  replacement bus,  so it is looking a little sad. I will write more about the service on Saturday, but it went as well as these things ever do, and better than most, so I have much to be thankful and grateful for. Mum was always partial to these delicate flowers, in their varied shades of pink and lilac, blue and white, and I realised that I knew next to nothing about them, except that they were very popular with florists, and, when not carted from one end of the country to the other, were very long-lasting and resilient.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 2.0,

A rather healthier example of Lisianthus (Photo One)

So, it turns out that lisianthus is also known as prairie gentian or Texas bluebell, and comes originally from the southern US, Central America and northern South America. As its common name suggests, it’s a member of the gentian family, and the wild plant lives in grassland and disturbed habitats.It is now relatively rare, particularly in the US where plant hunters sometimes cut the flowers before they seed. A field full of the wild plants must be really something to behold, and there are some stunning photos on the Wildflower Haven website here.

There is some confusion about how it got the English name lisianthus, which in Latin refers to a completely different plant. The name lisianthus comes from the Greek words for ‘smooth flower’, whereas the Latin name of the plant, Eustoma, means ‘good mouth’ in Greek.

I have always been very fond of the way the buds of lisianthus twirl open, like a tutu. The flowers seem to have the strong, supple grace of a ballerina.

Lisianthus is sometimes known as ‘poor man’s rose’, and I can see the similarity, though deep blue and purple ‘Lizzies’ have achieved a colour that roses can only aspire to. Lizzies aren’t fragrant, but then neither are most shop-bought roses. What does interest me is that lisianthus seems to have become a florist’s favourite from nowhere – I certainly don’t remember it when I was growing up, though Japanese horticulturalists have been creating different varieties since the 1930’s. The blue lisianthus is particularly revered in Japan, and is often placed on the grave of loved ones.

Photo Two by By Photo by David J. Stang - source: David Stang. First published at, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Lisianthus Lisa Pink (Photo Two)

Photo Three by Ramesh Ng

Blue lisianthus (Photo Three )

Photo Four by Downtowngal [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

White lisianthus (Photo Four)

For anyone inclined to rush out and get a packet of lisianthus seeds though, I would say be careful. According to ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ magazine, they are very slow to grow, taking 15 to 20 months from planting to flowering. The seed is dust like and must be lain on top of the soil, rather than buried. The soil must be rich and friable, and while the plant needs to be watered, too much will cause it to fall prey to a whole variety of fungal diseases and pests. Once up, it will need to be staked, to prevent it falling over and those delicate blooms being damaged. Finally, this plant is technically an annual, so once it’s flowered you’ll have to do it all over again. If you’ve had any success with lisianthus, do let me know, so that we can find out how you did it and give you a round of applause.

Lisianthus is apparently the birth flower for people born under Sagittarius (November 22nd to December 21st), which would have delighted Mum as she was born on November 26th.

And here is our poem, by none other than Emily Dickinson. It refers to a close relative of ‘our’ lisianthus, but is none the less charming for that.

‘Fringed Gentian’ by Emily Dickinson

God made a little gentian;

It tried to be a rose

And failed, and all the summer laughed.

But just before the snows

There came a purple creature

That ravished all the hill;

And summer hid her forehead,

And mockery was still.

The frosts were her condition;

The Tyrian would not come

Until the North evoked it.

“Creator! shall I bloom?”

Photo Five from

Wild lisianthus in New Mexico (Photo Five)

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by By Photo by David J. Stang – source: David Stang. First published at, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three by Ramesh Ng

Photo Four by Downtowngal [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five from

Wednesday Weed – Pansy

Pansy (Viola tricolor var hortensis)

Dear Readers, pansies are one of the few bedding plants that can be found in bloom throughout the winter months, and in spite of all the many, many diseases and pests that they are heir to, they are many people’s first choice for colour in the cold weather. I am always impressed by the way that the plants continue to flower even when there is snow on the ground, although my personal taste leans towards the smaller, more delicate viola-type flowers. In fact, pansies are hybrids of the wild viola (Viola tricolor) , or heartsease, an elegant European wildflower. The distinction between ‘pansies’ and ‘violas’ is hence a tricky one. One American distinction is that ‘pansies’ are plants which have a clear and distinctive ‘blotch’ in the middle, but in general horticulturalists seem to call the larger plants ‘pansies’ and the smaller ones ‘violas’ or even ‘violettas’.

Photo One by By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Heartsease (Viola tricolor) (Photo One)

The name ‘pansy’ comes from the French pensée or ‘thoughts’, and the plant is also known as ‘love-in-idleness’ : Shakespeare includes the plant in Ophelia’s bouquet ‘ ‘There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts’.

In German-speaking countries, the pansy’s name means ‘the stepmother’, and the flower is used to illustrate a folk tale, with the large bottom petal being the stepmother, the two petals to either side being the happy, well-dressed daughters, and the top two petals being the sad and bedraggled stepdaughters. We can imagine some kind of Cinderella tale being told, I suspect.

In Italy, the plant is known as ‘flammola’, or ‘little flame’

The  development of pansy varieties kicked off in the early nineteenth century, and began in the gardens of Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett, who combined every colour variant of heartsease that she could find. At the same time another aristocrat, James, Lord Gambier, was playing with hybrids of heartsease and other species of viola. It was during his endeavours that the classical ‘face’ of the pansy appeared, and it was introduced to the public in 1839 under the name ‘Medora’. It is those ‘faces’ which have given the pansy some of its more whimsical names: ‘Three faces in a hood’, and ‘Jump up and kiss me’.

The trouble that I have with pansies is that they seem to attract every aphid in the garden. Furthermore, my plants have suffered with mildew (both downy and powdery, and sometimes one followed by the other) and the wretched survivors have then collapsed with stem rot. I sometimes wonder if I am cut out for this gardening lark. On the other hand I have some splendid camellias and my daphne is a sight to behold, so maybe all is not lost.

Apparently the heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ was originally going to be called Pansy, but the name was changed to Scarlett at the last minute, and just as well I think.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. Pansy O’Hara just wouldn’t have been the same….(Public Domain)

The pansy was thought to be symbolic of humility long before it was linked to love, and I cannot resist the urge to show you this bookbinding embroidered by no other than Elizabeth I for her stepmother Katherine Parr. There are pansies in each corner, and what a fine piece of work it is! This was made when Elizabeth was only eleven. The dedication reads ‘To our most noble and vertuous Quene Katherin, Elizabeth her humble daughter wisheth perpetuall felicitie and everlasting joye‘. I’m rather moved by this. There can’t be many young girls who have had their mother executed by their father, and there seems to be a world of hope for a more stable and loving world in those few words.

Bookbinding made by Elizabeth I for her stepmother Katherine Parr (Public Domain)

Pansies have inspired many artists, including two of my favourite painters, Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. I find the van Gogh painting a little drabber than his usual flower paintings, but then it was created very late in his life (he died 3 years later).

Mand met viooltjes by Vincent van Gogh (1887) (Public Domain)

I absolutely love O’Keefe’s take on a black pansy with forget-me-nots, however.

Photo Two from

Photo Two

And now a poem with, I think you’ll agree, one of the most arresting first lines that I’ve read for a long time. This is ‘Wild Pansy’ by Lisa Bellamy, a poet who lives in Brooklyn and who is a member of the Academy of American Poets.

Wild Pansy

As a seed, I was shot out the back end of a blue jay
when, heedless, she flew over the meadow.
She had swallowed me in my homeland when she spied me
lying easy under the sun—briefly, I called her Mother
before I passed through her gullet like a ghost.
In a blink of God’s eye I was an orphan. I trembled
where I fell, alone in the dirt. That first night
was a long night, early May and chilly, and I remember
rain filled my furrow. I called out for mercy—
only a wolverine wandered by. I cursed my luck,
I cursed the happenstance of this world, I smelled
his hot stink, but he nosed me deep into the mud—
this was the gift of obscurity. I germinated, hidden
from the giants of earth, the jostling stalks,
the various, boisterous bloomers, and this was my salvation.
After seven days and nights I pushed through—
yes. Here I am, kissable: your tiny, purple profusion.


Pansy (Viola tricolor var hortensis)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Photo Two from

Wednesday Weed – Christmas Box

Christmas Box (Sarcococca hookeriana var dignya)

Dear Readers, in continuance of my theme of winter-scented plants I was pleased to find a whole front garden full of Christmas box on my travels around the County Roads today. This is a very unassuming plant, as most members of the Buxaceae are, but those little white flowers produce a heady, bewitching scent. It can be so strong in a confined space that I’ve watched people look around in all directions to try to find the source, expecting a much bigger, showier plant. This particular variety, known as ‘Purple Stem’ for obvious reasons, was given a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. I rather liked that the owner of the garden had had the courage of their convictions and had planted the whole place up with the plant. The massed flowers will be useful for any early-emerging pollinators, though any bee unwise enough to show its furry head this morning will find a very chilly welcome.

This particular species of box is named after the estimable scientist and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 to 1911). What a life the man had! He travelled to the Antarctic with the Ross exhibition of 1839-43, performed a geological survey of Great Britain, went to the Himalayas and India (where he probably encountered Christmas box), then on to Palestine, Morocco and the western United States. He, was a close friend of Darwin and was one of the founders of Kew Gardens. In between times he married twice and fathered nine children, though I suspect he had little opportunity to spend any time with them.

Joseph Hooker aged 90 (Public Domain)

In addition to Christmas box, Hooker had several other plants named after him, including this splendid Kashmiri iris, Iris hookeriana.

Photo One by By Imranashraf2882008 - File:Shounter valley.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Iris hookeriana (Photo One)

His name was also used for a snail which lives in sub-Antarctica and is unique because it has no chitin in its shell, and for a rare New Zealand sealion.

Photo Two by By Alice Gadea, Pierre Le Pogam, Grichka Biver, Joël Boustie, Anne-Cécile Le Lamer, Françoise Le Dévéhat & Maryvonne Charrier - Gadea, A., Le Pogam, P., Biver, G., Boustie, J., Le Lamer, A. C., Le Dévéhat, F., & Charrier, M. (2017). Which Specialized Metabolites Does the Native Subantarctic Gastropod Notodiscus hookeri Extract from the Consumption of the Lichens Usnea taylorii and Pseudocyphellaria crocata?. Molecules, 22(3): 425. doi:10.3390/molecules22030425 Figure 8A, crooped., CC BY 4.0,

Hooker’s snail (Notodiscus hookeri) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Hooker’s Sealion (Phocarctos hookeri) (Photo Three)

Once the flowers are finished, the plant will be covered in black fruit – the genus name Sarcococca comes from the Greek words for ‘fleshy berry’. Birds are said to like the fruit, and the jury is out as to whether they are poisonous to humans. All species of Sarcococca are native to  Asia, particularly China and the Himalayas, and are sometimes used in Chinese Traditional medicine. The Wellcome Institute page mentions that Christmas box contains chemicals which attack the leishmaniasis parasite, at least in vitro, which is interesting as one of the Chinese medicinal uses is to attack parasitic worms. Nothing is new under the sun, it seems.

Dear Readers, you might have thought that I would struggle to find a poem for something called Sarcococca hunteriana var digyna and you’d be right. However, I did find the poem below, which refers to a very closely related plant, with all the characteristics of this week’s subject. The poem is by Maureen Boyle (1961), a Northern Irish poet with a fine eye for the natural world. To see more of her work, have a look here, you won’t be disappointed.

Christmas Box by Maureen Boyle

There is honey and chocolate on our doorstep
since Christmas—sweet box and coral flower—
one on either side. The heuchera with ruffled
cocoa-coloured leaves hunkers in the corner but
the sarcococca or sweet box is where we step
inside by design so that on nights as dark as winter
and full of storm we brush the bluff, squat, shrub
and boots and coat trail the scent of summer
into the hall. Its flowers are what are left of flowers,
petals blown away—spindly threads ghostly in the leaves,
the odd early blood-berry that follows.
Its genus confusa is right—from so frail a bloom
a scent so big, as if the bees have nested in it
and are eager for their flight. 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Imranashraf2882008 – File:Shounter valley.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Alice Gadea, Pierre Le Pogam, Grichka Biver, Joël Boustie, Anne-Cécile Le Lamer, Françoise Le Dévéhat & Maryvonne Charrier – Gadea, A., Le Pogam, P., Biver, G., Boustie, J., Le Lamer, A. C., Le Dévéhat, F., & Charrier, M. (2017). Which Specialized Metabolites Does the Native Subantarctic Gastropod Notodiscus hookeri Extract from the Consumption of the Lichens Usnea taylorii and Pseudocyphellaria crocata?. Molecules, 22(3): 425. doi:10.3390/molecules22030425 Figure 8A, crooped., CC BY 4.0,

Photo Three by By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0,