Category Archives: London Plants

Planning the Garden – Dry Shade

Dear Readers, as you will know I have been very neglectful of my poor garden during the past few years. But in the last few weeks there has been a flurry of cutting back and digging up (the box bushes were so well munched by box moth that it wasn’t worth keeping them) and so I am at the point of planning what to plant to keep the critters and the humans happy in the years to come.

My garden falls into two parts. It is north-facing, with heavy clay soil, and to add to the challenges, the left-hand side is extremely dry, with several medium sized trees, while the right-hand side is dominated by the pond. The garden has always been something of a challenge, but this time I am going to give it some serious thought. What can I plant that will thrive, look good, have a long season and keep the bees and other invertebrates happy? Here are my thoughts on the dry-shade part so far. Feel free to interject :-).

On the shrub front, I only really have room to add one plant, and so I am going for Oregon grape (probably Mahonia aquifolium). I have grown this before and know that it likes clay soil. My wildlife reason is that it is often the only thing in flower when queen bumblebees emerge during mild winters and early spring. I will need to plant it closer to the house, where it gets at least some sun – you can plant all the nectar-rich flowers that you like, but if the shade is too deep you will not attract very many insects.

Mahonia aquifolium

On the perennial front, my garden has long lacked hellebores, and I intend to make up that deficit this year. My Gardening for Wildlife book by Adrian Thomas mentions christmas rose but I might also look at our native species, such as stinking hellebore.

I will definitely be avoiding the pretty double-flowered varieties, which have less value for the creepy-crawlies. Hellebores are, again, early flowerers, which is a bonus.

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

I am hearing good things about some varieties of Heuchera (Coral Bells) as wildlife plants, which surprises me a little as I have always thought of them as pretty but useless. If you have any experience with this plant, do let me know. My book recommends Heuchera ‘Firefly’ in particular, but there are so many varieties these days that it makes my head spin. I have always had a penchant for the ones with lime-green foliage, especially when paired with the chocolate-brown ones. I think they remind me of the chocolate-lime sweets that I used to eat when I was a child.

Photo One by Ghislain118 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Heuchera sanguinea ‘Firefly’ (Photo One)

And then there is lungwort, or Pulmonaria. I love the way that the flowers change colour on this plant as each bloom is pollinated, and the spotted leaves remind me of a leopard. It’s another lovely woodland plant.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis)

Hardy geraniums will feature, of course. I already have a mass of dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) but it finishes very early in the year, and I need another plant to take up the baton. My book recommends Geranium x macrorrhizum (or Balkan cranesbill), and I noticed this doing very well in my Aunt Hilary’s garden, so I suspect it will be soon be popping up in mine! There are several varieties, with ‘Ingwerson’s Variety’ winning an RHS Order of Merit.

Photo Two by Muséum de Toulouse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) (Photo Two)

Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Ingersen’s Variety) (Photo Three)

For ground cover, I am thinking of some dead-nettles, probably Lamium maculatum, although I’ve had mixed experiences with it in the past – I think my dry shade is possibly too dry in parts even for this bruiser! I shall plant it in somewhere with a bit more sunshine this time, and am probably going to mulch everything this year as well.

Photo Four by MurielBendel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Lamium maculatum (Photo Four)

On the bulb front, I am addicted to fritillaries, and shall pop in a few more this year.

Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

There is a company in the UK called Farmer Gracy which does all manner of intriguing, and they have a remarkable selection of fritillaries that I’ve never heard of. It is the kind of website that makes one positively salivate, so be warned to hide your credit card before you pop in. I am tempted by several, including Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers’. There is also a green variety. Now that I am a working woman, maybe I’ll indulge…

Photo Five from

Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers (Photo Five)

Photo Six from

Fritillaria persica ‘Ivory Bells’ (Photo Six)

And of course, no woodland garden would be complete without some foxgloves. Mine self-seeded last year, but of course they won’t flower until 2021, being biennials, so maybe I’ll find some plants that will flower this year, so that I’ll then have a succession.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

And finally, a plant that I’ve never grown but which always seems like a pollinator-magnet is honesty . It has those lovely pink flowers, transparent seed cases in the autumn, and again it self-seeds. I shall definitely have a go this year.

Honesty (Annua Lunaria)

So, that’s the plan at the moment. I am considering various other plants (grape hyacinths, squill, snowdrops), but I will soon be running out of room (my garden is not enormous in spite of my ambitions!). Next week I shall be considering what to plant in and next to my pond, which is looking more like a muddy puddle than an oasis of calm at the moment, but if you have any thoughts on dry shade plants that have done well in your experience, do let me know. I haven’t actually bought anything yet!

Wednesday Weed – Damson

Damsons at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley

Dear Readers, my local greengrocer, Tony’s Continental on the High Road in East Finchley, London, is my go-to spot for unusual produce. Some fruits and vegetables come in and out of season at such a rate that you might miss them if you blink. And now is the season for plums of all kinds: the golden-skinned Victoria, the olive-coloured greengage, and our subject today, the night-hued damson. Unlike other plums, the damson errs on the side of astringency, giving it a mouth-puckering flavour that, when tamed down a bit with something sweet, makes it one of my favourite subjects for jam.

The name ‘damson’ is thought to come from the name ‘damascene’, meaning ‘Plum of Damascus’, and one theory suggest that the plant came to the UK with the Romans. Certainly damson stones have been found at some Roman sites during archaeological digs. Damsons are probably a domesticated variety of a subspecies of the wild plum known as the Bullace, and their full species name is Prunus domestica subspecies insititia variety damascena. Wild damsons occasionally pop up in hedgerows or on woodland edges, but all wild plums are extremely variable and difficult to identify. The fruit of the damson is dark indigo, with a slight bloom of pale blue and sometimes with small patches of rust. The ones in the photo below remind me of Europa, the moon of Jupiter, although I’ll admit that they are rather more ovoid. Damsons are, as anyone who has attempted to make jam with them will tell you, of the ‘clingstone’ variety – this means that the flesh clings to the stone, making them something of a pain to prepare for jam. However, many cooks boil them up intact and remove the the stones at the end, once the fruit is pulped and split. The stones are said to impart a subtle almond flavour, largely due to the small quantity of cyanide that they contain.

Photo One by By Jonathan Billinger, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Damson on the tree (Photo One)

Europa (from NASA – Public Domain)

At one time, damsons were an extremely popular food crop – they are said to be the only plums planted north of Norfolk, and were used extensively for commercial jam-making. The plants were also used as hedging in orchards to protect more delicate trees. They were taken to North America by English settlers in the eighteenth century and were thought to thrive better in the local conditions than other plum varieties. In some places, such as Idaho, the plant naturalised and can be found growing wild.

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

Damson Flowers (Photo Two)

With its dark colour, it’s no surprise that damsons were reputed to have been used in local dyeing industries. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how a variety of damson called the ‘Edlesborough Prune’ (from a village near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire) was used to provide dye for the Luton hat trade, while the ‘Aylesbury Prune’ was unique to the village of Weston Turville, and was used as a dye on the straw plaiting that was a cottage industry at the time. However, contemporary experiments with using damsons as a dye have been rather disappointing in terms of the colours produced – see this post from Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour for example. One conclusion is that the fruit was probably used primarily for eating, with only damaged fruit being used for dye as a side line. Another is that the ‘damson’ used for dyeing might have been a completely different plant, or that there might have been some trick to extracting the colour. It is clear, however, that there are a multitude of different, very local varieties of wild plum with varied characteristics. What a treasure of genetic diversity they could be!

Now, to return to the subject of jam. I have three books on preserving (my cookbook collection is only outnumbered by my collection of field guides and nature books) and they all have a different approach to this fruit. In ‘Five Seasons of Jam’, Lillie O’Brien suggests making a virtue of the damson’s high pectin content to make damson ‘cheese’ (a bit like quince paste). This also has the added benefit that the fruit is cooked with the stones in and then sieved, avoiding all that tedious stoning. In my second book, ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’ by Diana Henry, there is a gratifying concentration on alcohol, with a recipe for damson and gin jam (the damsons are cooked with the stone in, and these are then skimmed off). She also has a recipe for damson gin, which is very similar to sloe gin, one of my all-time favourite tipples. This involves piercing each damson with a skewer, but it produces a most delicious, warming drink that I associate with winter and with Christmas in particular. In my final book, ‘The Modern Preserver’ by Kylee Newton, there is a recipe for damson and orange jam. Kylee suggests using the preserve instead of raspberry jam in a Bakewell tart, a thought that gets my mouth watering. Apparently damsons also freeze well, so I think I shall have to rush to Tony’s and get a bag full for one of those days when I’m not run off my feet. Making jam is a most meditative and gratifying process, but it does take a bit of time.

Incidentally, damson wine was once a common drink in England: a nineteenth century source stated that ‘good damson wine is, perhaps, the nearest approach to good port that we have in England. No currant wine can equal it.'(Damson Wine”, in Hogg and Johnson (eds) The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman, v.III NS (1862), 264)

A display of damson jam from the Beamish Museum Co-Op (Photo Three)

Now, in my research for this piece I came across the most delightful website, called ‘Damson Plums‘ by Daiv Sizer. They moved into a house with an old damson tree in the garden, and were immediately smitten by the abundance of the fruit and the low-maintenance required by the plant. Daiv has created a complete guide to everything damson related, including history, recipes and the culture surrounding the plant. I had no idea that it had featured in so many poems by so many authors, from last week’s favourite Seamus Heaney to Shakespeare and Chaucer. The fruit also appears several times in the books of George Eliot, and in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’ the character Suke Damson, a wild and buxom village maiden, is seen by one critic as being ‘the juicy plum is ripe for Fitzpier’s plucking’ (Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Bronte, Eliot and Hardy, by Eithne Henson). But for this week’s poem I shall return to another favourite, Edward Thomas. Thomas wrote this poem in 1915 while he was in Essex, teaching map-reading to officers. He had been encouraged to sign up (although he was a mature man who didn’t need to enlist) after reading his friend Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Less Travelled’ – Frost intended the poem to be a way of gently mocking Thomas’s indecision during their woodland walks, but Thomas took it much more seriously. In 1917 he died at Arras in France, having been shot through the chest. Rarely can a piece of poetry have had such a devastating effect.

There’s nothing like the sun

There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said –
Or, if I could live long enough, should say –
‘There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.’
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.

– Edward Thomas






Wednesday Weed – Black Bindweed

Black Bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus)

Dear Readers, it always makes me happy to find a ‘proper’ weed, one that I haven’t seen before but which is extremely common. Black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) is not actually a bindweed, but is a member of the Polygonaceae or knotweed family, and can be told from its close relative Russian Vine by its heart-shaped leaves, and smaller, less flamboyant flowers. This one has popped up at the top of my road, and is half-heartedly climbing up the drain pipe, although its natural habit is more prostrate. One possibility for its appearance in this very urban spot is that it’s an ingredient in bird food, and has been deposited here by a passing finch.

Black bindweed is an annual, and is thought to be a Neolithic introduction to the UK – one of its vernacular names is ‘wild buckwheat’, and and the seeds have been found in Bronze Age middens. The plant was probably sown with food crops such as barley, and harvested at the same time. The last meal of Tollund Man, a 2000 year-old corpse found in Jutland in 1950 included the seeds of black bindweed, along with barley, linseed and wild pansy. The man had been hanged, it is believed as a sacrifice to the goddess of spring, and he was then thrown into a peat bog, which preserved his body. There is a great peacefulness in his face, which I hope means that he didn’t suffer, poor soul.

The head of Tollund Man (Public Domain)

Black bindweed is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, and grows most commonly on disturbed land throughout its range. It is a most adaptable plant, and can grow up to an altitude of 3600m in the Himalayas. It is a much better behaved plant than some of its relatives, however: we have already mentioned Russian vine,  but another member of the genus is our old favourite Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Black bindweed can cause some problems, however: it is classified as an invasive weed in North America, and can cause damage to the cutters of harvesting machines if there is a heavy infestation in a field.


The seeds of black bindweed are a major food of the grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the UK’s native partridge. This species is on the Red List of endangered birds, largely because it is a bird of hedgerow and field margin, habitats that have been much reduced over the past fifty years. The bird has the largest egg clutch of any UK bird, with a record of 19 eggs in a single nest. Fortunately, the chicks are able to run around from birth, and grey partridge can be seen in ‘covies’, small groups of up to twenty individuals. If disturbed the birds will run rather than take to the air, which explains why the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) was introduced as game bird, it being rather more inclined to take flight. During the breeding season, the male grey partridge is said to have a call rather like a key being turned in a rusty lock.

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy - Grey partridge - Neusiedl - Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Grey partridge (Perdix perdix) (Photo One)

The plant is also the foodplant of the Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Laconobia oleracea), which is one of the most splendidly descriptive species names that I know.

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from

Bright-line Brown-eye moth(Lacobia oleracea) (Photo Two)

It is also the foodplant of the rare black-bindweed case-bearer micro moth (Coleophora therinella) a most intriguing insect whose larvae create tiny portable cases that they live in until they pupate. The adult moths have wingspans of only 13-16mm, so they are very easy to miss.

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from

Black-bindweed case-bearer moth (Coleophora therinella) (Photo Three)

And so, I find that my ‘new’ weed has actually been intertwining its stems with our lives for thousands of years. And, while this poem is not directly about black bindweed, it is about Tollund man, and about our dark, interconnected history in these small islands. Heaney wrote an excerpt from this poem in the visitor’s book at the Aarhus museum where Tollund man was on show. The way that he interweaves this sacrifice from the Bronze Age with the deaths in the Troubles is masterly. If you want to hear him read the poem, there is a link here.

Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Grey partridge – Neusiedl – Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from



Wednesday Weed – Lantana

Lantana camara

Dear Readers, anyone who has ever visited a tropical butterfly house will have come across lantana. There are about 150 species, but the one that’s mostly seen is Lantana camara, otherwise known as Spanish Flag. It comes in a wide variety of colours – the orange one shown above seems to be the commonest. The flowers change colour as they mature, leading to multicoloured umbels – in the plant above they varied through apricot to tomato-red, with the lighter-hued blooms being the ones that have not yet been pollinated. There are many, many varieties, including the rather more demure one below.

One thing is for sure: these plants are a butterfly magnet. They form part of a genus of 150 different species in the Verbena family, and are native to tropical regions of the Americas and Africa: I saw Lantana growing wild when I was in Costa Rica. A wide range of butterfly and moth species feed on the flowers, especially swallowtails and birdwings, skippers and brush-footed butterflies such as the glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) of Central America, shown below.


Photo One by By Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields - Belgiquistan - United Tribes ov Europe - the wings-become-windows butterfly., CC BY-SA 2.0,

Glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) on lantana (Photo One)

Furthermore, the seeds of lantana are loved by birds, and herein hangs a tale. Lantana is considered a noxious weed in many parts of the world where it has been introduced, notably Australia, South Africa and some parts of Asia. It has also become naturalised in the warmer parts of North America. Because the leaves of the plant are toxic to herbivores, most grazers and browsers won’t eat them (and become sick if they do). Meantime, the birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds in their droppings. Among the species that eat the seeds are the superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) of Australia;

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Male superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) (Photo Two)

and the endemic Mauritius Bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus)

Photo Three by By Josh Noseworthy - Mauritius Bulbul, CC BY 2.0,

Mauritius bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus) (Photo Three)

In Australia, lantana has become so prevalent that various insect controls have been tried in order to reduce its vigour. Of the thirty species introduced, some have become problems in their own right. The rather handsome Mexican lantana bug (Aconophora compressa)  was brought to Australia in 1995, in the hope that it would munch its way through the plants that it was named after. Alas, the lantana bug has extensive and varied tastes, and has eaten many plants that were not supposed to be on the menu, including the popular ornamental trees fiddlewoods (also from the Americas), which are related to lantana. The case of the lantana bug led to much greater testing of the appetites of proposed bio-remedial species: this insect was tested with 62 species to see if it ate any of them, but fiddlewoods were not included.

Photo Four by By James Niland from Brisbane, Australia - Lantana TreehopperUploaded by Lymantria, CC BY 2.0,

Lantana bug (Aconophora compressa) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Vinayaraj - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ornamental fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum) (Photo Five)

So, lantana continues to run riot in many parts of the world where there are no pests to contain it, though I was cheered to hear that the swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is one of the few mammals that can eat the leaves without keeling over.

Photo Six by By jjron - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor (Photo Six)

I was also happy to hear that in some places in Australia, lantana is actually increasing biodiversity. In urban green spaces, it provides nesting cover for birds such as the fairy wren in the absence of native species that will do the same thing, and so provides a refuge for these attractive little birds to reproduce. Urban areas are not pristine habitats, as a brisk walk around East Finchley will show: we have plants from all over the world here, and the insects and birds take advantage of the longer flowering period and range of different microhabitats. It’s a very different thing in an endangered habitat. As Stace says in his book ‘Alien Plants’:

In disturbed native forests, Prickly Lantana can quickly become the dominant understorey species, disrupting succession and decreasing biodiversity. At some sites, infestations have been so persistent that they have completely stalled the regeneration of rainforests for more than three decades‘.

A plant out of its own habitat, without the native pests that keep in check, can quickly become an environmental disaster. Plus, lantana produces chemicals in its roots that check the growth of other plants. In areas with cold winters, the plant doesn’t survive, but if I was planning on growing it, I would choose one of the sterile varieties that are available that don’t produce fruit.

Photo Seven by By RickP 12:16, 3 May 2006 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Lantana growing in an abandoned citrus plantation in Israel (Photo Seven)

Lantana leaves have been used medicinally for a wide range of complaints, including malaria, tetanus and rheumatism. They are also believed to be efficacious in cases of snakebite. In India, where lantana is particularly invasive in mountain regions, local people have been making furniture from the plant, as it is considered a good substitute for traditional materials such as bamboo. Because of the toxicity of the lantana, the furniture is also not eaten by termites and beetle larvae. In an IUCN report, it indicates that using lantana in this way has increased income and productive work days for the villagers who are involved. The problem now is a shortage of people with skills to create the furniture.

Photo Eight from

Lantana furniture (Photo Eight)

Now, have a look at the image below and see if you can guess who it’s by.

Photo Nine from

Photo Nine

At first glance, I thought it was a photograph, but subsequent research revealed that the image, called ‘Tithorea harmonia in Lantana’ from 2009-10, is actually a faithful reproduction in oils of a photographic image. And I was very surprised to find that the artist was Damien Hirst. Of this series of paintings that aim to reproduce photographs, Hirst says;

“I want you to believe in them in the same way as you believe in the ‘Medicine Cabinets‘. I don’t want them to look clever, but to convince you. I’m using painting to produce something that looks like a bad quality reproduction – the painting process is hidden as it is in my work ‘Hymn’, which looks like plastic, but is bronze underneath.”[2]

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: Hirst has long been fascinated by butterflies and other insects, and has used them extensively in his art. Usually, it hasn’t ended very happily for them, as in the image below, where real dead butterflies are stuck onto gloss paint (to be fair, I believe that Hirst acquired them when they were already dead).

Photo Ten from

For Boys and Girls (Damien Hirst 1989-92) (Photo Ten)

To me, his relationship with animals has always been strictly functional – he uses them to prove a wider philosophical point, as in his famous piece ‘A Thousand Years’, where maggots hatch, feed on a cow’s head and are killed in an Insect-o-cuter. Another exhibit at Tate Modern in 2012 featured live butterflies who hatched, flew around and died, next to an exhibit of the gloss paint and dead butterfly paintings. And then, of course, there was the shark.

Photo Eleven from

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) (Photo Eleven)

It’s interesting how Hirst has gone from being the Enfant Terrible with the shark in a tank to someone who reproduces photos in oil paints, but he has never been afraid to experiment and to change. I suppose that his early work, in particular, is difficult to ignore – I saw his ‘Mother and Child Divided’ in an exhibition in Oslo in the ’90’s, and found it both fascinating and deeply distressing. For me, he sums up everything that is wrong with our attitude to the rest of the living world; everything is there to be plundered and used for our entertainment. But for others the fact that he raises these questions is part of his appeal. He has always been polarising: for some, the most interesting of the Young British Artists of the 1980’s, for others a cynical showman. I would be very interested to hear what you think!

Photo Twelve from

Mother and Child (Divided) (Damien Hirst 1993)(Photo Twelve)

And finally, a poem. I can’t tell you how much I love this work by Grace Paley, especially her evocation of ‘sadness and hilarity’. I know exactly how that feels, having been alternately laughing and weeping for most of the past six months.

I went out walking
in the old neighborhood
Look! more trees on the block   
forget-me-nots all around them   
ivy   lantana shining
and geraniums in the window
Twenty years ago
it was believed that the roots of trees
would insert themselves into gas lines
then fall   poisoned   on houses and children
or tap the city’s water pipes   starved   
for nitrogen   obstruct the sewers
In those days in the afternoon I floated   
by ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island   
then pushed the babies in their carriages   
along the river wall   observing Manhattan   
See Manhattan I cried   New York!
even at sunset it doesn’t shine
but stands in fire   charcoal to the waist
But this Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day
I walked west   and came to Hudson Street   tricolored flags   
were flying over old oak furniture for sale
brass bedsteads   copper pots and vases
by the pound from India
Suddenly before my eyes   twenty-two transvestites   
in joyous parade stuffed pillows under   
their lovely gowns
and entered a restaurant
under a sign which said   All Pregnant Mothers Free
I watched them place napkins over their bellies   
and accept coffee and zabaglione
I am especially open to sadness and hilarity   
since my father died as a child   
one week ago in this his ninetieth year

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields – Belgiquistan – United Tribes ov Europe – the wings-become-windows butterfly., CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By Josh Noseworthy – Mauritius Bulbul, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four by By James Niland from Brisbane, Australia – Lantana TreehopperUploaded by Lymantria, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Five by By Vinayaraj – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six by By jjron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Seven by By RickP 12:16, 3 May 2006 (UTC) – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Eight from

Photo Nine from

Photo Ten from

Photo Eleven from

Photo Twelve from


Wednesday Weed – Cardoon

Cardoon (Cynar cardunculus var altilis)

Dear Readers, there can’t be many late-summer plants that attract as many insects as the cardoon, a massive Mediterranean thistle that is suddenly very popular in bee-friendly flowerbeds. You might know it as the globe artichoke, and you would be right: the cultivated variety of the plant, Cynar cardunculus var scolymus, has been systematically bred for larger, juicier flowerbuds, while the cardoon was grown more for its edible stems. There are now many decorative varieties of the plant , and with its architectural grey foliage and fist-sized flowers there are few more imposing things to stick at the back of the border.

The cardoon has a long and illustrious history as an edible plant. It was mentioned by the Greek writer Theophrastus who lived during the fourth century BCE. It was also popular with the Romans and the Persians, and was eaten in many places in medieval and early modern Europe. It was taken to North America by settlers during the colonial era, and can also be found in Argentina and Australia (it is considered an invasive weed in both countries). However, it fell out of favour throughout most of its range and by the twentieth century it had become rare, except in a few regions.

In North Africa the leaves and stems are often added to couscous, but it really comes into its own in Lyonnaise cuisine, and in the recipes of Navarre and Aragon in Spain. Only the tenderest, innermost leaves are considered edible, and these are traditionally blanched by being surrounded by earth to keep the light out. This reminds me somewhat of the ‘forced rhubarb’ of Yorkshire, though here the plants are grown in sheds in the dark to achieve the same ends. Sadly, the blanching is now more often achieved by wrapping the plant in black plastic.

Some people do eat the buds, in the same way that you might eat baby globe artichokes, but when I look at the wild plant this seems like a daunting prospect. The stems of the cardoon are also covered in small painful spikes, which need to be removed, although some commercial varieties have been bred without them.

Photo One by By Lusitana - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

The wild cardoon (Photo One)

The buds can, however, be used for cheesemaking, as can the pistils of the flower: they contain a kind of vegetable rennet which helps to coagulate the milk. Both Spanish and Portuguese cheesemakers use cardoon for this purpose.

Photo Two by By MollySVH - Torta de Casar cheeseUploaded by Diádoco, CC BY 2.0,

The Torta del Casar cheese of Spain, made with cardoon rennet (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Adriao - Own work, Public Domain,

Queijo Serra da Estrella cheese from Portugal (Photo Three)

The cardoon is also an ingredient of the Spanish national dish Cocido madrileño, a substantial dish made with chickpeas, meat (usually pork) and vegetables. Traditionally, this is eaten in three parts: first the stock, with some noodles added, then the vegetables and pulses, and then the meat. The dish was originally called adafina, and was a staple of the  Sephardic Jewish community, without the pork but with eggs. It was valuable because it was cooked very slowly, and therefore didn’t need to be attended to during Shabbat. Sadly, the growth in anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jewish population during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries led to the dish incorporating pork, as a way for Christians and converted Jews to prove that they weren’t Jewish. The history of cuisine is so often a history of the peoples who originated it.

Photo Four by By Tnarik - Flicr [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

Cocido Madrileño (Photo Four)

In New Orleans, the stems are traditionally served battered and fried on the altars on the Feast of St Joseph (19th March).

Photo Five by Christopher Scafidi.Original uploader was ChrisQuint at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : Christopher Scafidi), Public Domain,

St Joseph’s Day Altar with fried cardoons (Photo Five)

Of course, I couldn’t leave the subject of the culinary uses of cardoon without mentioning the alcoholic beverages that it is associated with. The Italian liqueur Amaro uses cardoon as a principle ingredient, but if you really want an artichoke hit, there is a drink that I saw being quaffed in Venice: cynar spritz. The cynar is made with globe artichoke rather than cardoon, but it seems to appeal to the Venetians, who have a taste for the bitter rather than the sweet. Maybe it’s all those blessed tourists and cruise ships that tend them towards the darker side of life. At any rate, on any sunny evening you will see Venetian matriarchs of all ages knocking this back (along with bright orange Aperol spritz, which always reminds me of Lucozade, at least in colour) and discussing the abominations of the age, and who can blame them?

Photo Six by Trekkiedane - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Cynar liqueur. Imbibe at your own risk (Photo Six)

Cardoon has also come to the attention of the biofuel industry, and in Sardinia, the site of an old petrochemical factory is being turned into a biorefinery which  which will take the oil from the thistle seeds and turn it into bioplastics. It is planned to use the rest of the plant too: the biomass can be turned into high-protein flour and animal feed, and during the flowering season it’s hoped to create cardoon honey. As you can see from the photos, there is no shortage of bees waiting to take advantage of those enormous flowerheads.

In my ever-helpful ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas, Cynara species are described as some of the most useful plants for the August to November season, just when the queen bumblebees are fattening up and the honeybees are gathering in their stores for the winter. However, he does mention that, as it can grow to 2.5 metres tall and have a spread of the same dimensions, it probably needs a large garden. Like most Mediterranean plants, it loves full sun and a well-drained soil. I fear that I am going to have to admire it in other people’s gardens for the time being. I have tried to grow it in mine, but it languished droopily and finally succumbed.

So, what impact has the cardoon had on the arts? I was delighted to find this still life by Spanish painter Felipe Ramirez from 1628, which is currently in the Prado in Madrid. Note the blanched stems of the cardoon, looking for all the world like celery after it has been in the fridge for a little too long. The francolin is a kind of quail. We know absolutely nothing else about Snr Ramirez, but this painting lives on. I  love the way that he has captured the bloom on the grapes, and the blemishes on the cardoon.

Still Life with Cardoon, Francolin, Grapes and Irises by Felipe Ramirez (1628) (Public Domain)

There is, however, speculation that Ramirez was a student of the master of Spanish still life painting (known as ‘bodegones’, meaning, ‘from the bodega (a storeroom or tavern), Juan Sánchez Cotán. He was working in Toledo in the seventeenth century, and raised ordinary everyday things, such as fruit and vegetables, to the status of objects to be artistically appreciated. This appeals to my own sensibility – everything is worth paying attention to, and I know that when I was taking a drawing class, I fell in love with everything that I turned my charcoal to, particularly the imperfections that made a carrot or an apple or a bottle individual and unique.

Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables by Juan Sanchez Cotan (circa 1602) (Public Domain)

And finally, a poem. I have been so busy thinking about bees that I forgot that goldfinches love thistle seeds of all kinds, and the cardoon must provide a bumper crop. Here is a poem from the London Magazine by Peter Anderson. I love the sense of the morning after the night before amidst the ruins of Rome.

The Goldfinches of Rome by Peter Anderson

Dawn on the Palatine:
planets bow out, stars pick their way
through rat-traps and incident tape.
The morning after the party of all time.

The sun loves me like a cat
wanting my sleep. I am trying to sleep
in the lee of a wall in the wilderness
backyard of an emperor.

There is a lyric of ruins. It is a song
sung in that dream of eating your own teeth.
Red brick turns its flank to the sun.
BAX BUNNY tattooed there.

Scudding across tufa and tramlines
glittering like straights
goes just the one scooter.
Ciao, bella.

This letter comes by goldfinch,
the first I ever saw,
blooding its face on the Palatine
at dawn, terrible

as a princeps, pontifex, come
down into gardens of citrus and cypress
in the first heat of the day.
A blood god busy in the cardoons.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Lusitana – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Two by By MollySVH – Torta de Casar cheeseUploaded by Diádoco, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three by By Adriao – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo Four by By Tnarik – Flicr [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Five by Christopher Scafidi.Original uploader was ChrisQuint at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : Christopher Scafidi), Public Domain,

Photo Six by Trekkiedane – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Wednesday Weed – Coleus

Coleus in Regent’s Park

Dear Readers, when I rented my very first flat, I had no garden. Instead, I became obsessed with house plants. I bought a packet of mixed coleus seeds, and soon there was no corner of the living room or kitchen that didn’t have a gaudily-leaved plant sitting on it. Friends, neighbours, even the postwoman were not safe from having a plastic pot thrust into their hands. What with all the pinching out of the top shoots and the constant watering, it was a busy summer. Sadly, my coleus soon grew leggy in spite of all my ministrations, and they showed a determination to produce their pale-lavender flower spikes (which marked the end of their lives) that was too much for my hard-working, hard-partying ways. Suffice to say that the following year I grew spider plants instead.

But today, as I walked through Regent’s Park, I grew nostalgic. For a sudden splash of colour in a bedding scheme, it’s hard to beat the sheer variety of the coleus, and I suspect that they are good value for money too. Although they are not beloved by pollinators, like other plants, they are also remarkably pest free. Plus, the variety is astonishing. Here are just some of the coleuses (coleii??) that I spotted yesterday:

Lime green with red veins

Burgundy with a yellow edge

Autumnal red

But then I realised that I had no idea whatsoever what a coleus actually was, and there is still some scientific confusion about the plant. It is agreed that the most commonly cultivated variety, previously known as Coleus blumeii, is now known as Plectanthrus scutellarioides. It is a member of the Lamiaceae or deadnettle family, and one common name is ‘painted nettle’. In the ‘wild’, this species is native to a swathe of countries from India in the west to Australia in the south and east. It is a woodland plant which even when not cultivated displays a wide variety of leaf colours and shapes. Here is the ‘original’ plant (here naturalised in Puerto Rico). The small purple-blue flowers look very familiar.

Photo One by By Bjoertvedt - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

‘Wild’ coleus (Photo One)

Coleus arrived in Europe in 1851, and the US by 1877, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that breeders realised the plant’s colourful potential. By the 1980s the plant was the tenth most important bedding crop in the US. It is a great, cheap, low-maintenance choice for municipal beds, and as anyone who has ever grown them will know they are very easy to propagate by cuttings. Although the plants like high temperatures, their colours are brightest in shade, which is the opposite of my experience with most variegated plants, who need sunshine to keep their colour. Apparently it can be grown as a perennial in colder climates where it shows less tendency to bolt, but in the UK most coleus are used as annual bedding and, as this chromolithograph from the turn of the last century illustrates, it has been this way for a long time.

PhotoTwo by Raw PIxel from

A chromolithograph of a botanical carpet bedding with a colorful butterfly by Federick William Burbridge (1847-1905). Digitally enhanced from our own original plate. (Photo Two)

Apparently the plant has psychotropic effects, and is used as a hallucinogen by the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico (their shamans also use psilocybin and Salvia divinorum to conjure visions and enable psychic journeying). I am somewhat surprised as the plant is not native, but it has been very widely naturalised in the Caribbean and Central/South America.

I was fascinated to find that people who grow the ‘wasabi coleus‘ (which has plain acid-green leaves) and the ‘chocolate mint’ coleus (as you might have guessed, brown leaves with green edges) wondered if the plant might taste like their names. The answer, of course, is ‘no’, though it’s a nice idea. There are, however, some species of coleus that are edible, and I’m indebted to the Dave’s Garden website for pointing this out.

One is the ‘country potato’, a group of three coleus species (with Plectranthus rotundifolius being the most important) that are native to Africa but have more recently been grown in southern Asia as well. Their food value comes from their tubers – these are said to be blander than a ‘real’ potato and they are normally used as a subsistence crop, though in Burkina Faso they are milled to produce flour.

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

Country potato tubers (Plectranthus rotundifolius) (Photo Three )

The other coleus species, Indian coleus( Plectranthus barbatus) is grown, as the name suggests, in India, partially because the root is edible and can be used in pickles, but mainly because the plant contains a chemical compound called forskolin. This has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine, and is sometimes marketed as as a diet aid, because it is believed to burn fat. There is currently no scientific evidence to support this idea, although there are several studies that are looking into the possible medical uses of this plant and several other Asian coleus (you can find extensive information here).

Photo Four by By mauroguanandi -, CC BY 2.0,

The flowers of Indian coleus (Plectranthus barbatus) (Photo Four)

Now, as you know I am fascinated by the superstitions that grow up around plants. For the coleus, I have had to turn east to the plant’s home range, and here it appears that to have a plant in the house may a) attract bankruptcy, b) attract fire (probably because of the plant’s flame-coloured leaves or c) attract poverty if it starts to bloom in the winter. Coleus is also believed to take revenge on its owner if it isn’t looked after properly. All in all I seem to have had a flat full of trouble, which I then visited on all my friends and relatives. Goodness! Maybe it’s best kept as a bedding plant after all, though to be fair the article that also points out that the coleus has ‘a powerful positive energy and can bring success in business’. I find it difficult to believe that such a bright and cheerful-looking plant can bring many disasters.

And here is a rather fine poem by Richard Swanson, who lives in Wisconsin. Who among us hasn’t tried to protect our garden from the inevitable onset of winter? Some of us (ahem) have been known to sneak out in the soon-to-be-frozen garden with buckets to protect the frogspawn from the promised frost, regardless of what the neighbours think….

First Frost Night
Richard Swanson
We’re frantic, trying to save them,
our summer’s offspring, our garden children.We’re cloaking the roses with deer hunter ponchos,
spreading old denim shirts on pumpkins,
capping Swiss chard with grocery store bags.
Maybe — can’t go there but we will — we’ll sneak out
Heather’s prom dress to shield a squash vine.The neighbors recoil at our refugee draping.
Who cares! We’ll pretend we’re rich eccentrics,
beyond the rules of normal behavior.

We’re hauling in pots, that begonia, this foxglove,
a coleus now in an armchair.

The cats, displaced, are spooked.
We’re their mewling hiss, not their meow.

Begging forgiveness, out the door we go,
on one more rescue mission.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Bjoertvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

PhotoTwo by Raw PIxel from

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

Photo Four by By mauroguanandi –, CC BY 2.0,

Bugwoman on Location – A Trip to Smithfield

Animal trough in West Smithfield

Dear Readers, I used to work in the Smithfield area but hadn’t been back for ages, so I decided that the area was ripe for a re-visit. As I stepped off the number 17 bus, the smell of the place drifted back to me; Smithfield is London’s wholesale meat market, and I remember the distinctive smell of blood from the carcasses that are processed here.  Smithfield Meat Market was the site of slaughter of over 74,000 cattle and a million and a half sheep per year , right up to the 1850’s. Animals were driven via Highgate and Islington from all over the country: animals too weak to walk the past few miles were often killed in Highgate, which used to have a preponderance of butcher’s shops (and pubs for the drovers to ‘wet their whistle’).The raised pavements in these areas were to prevent the smart ladies and gentlemen from getting their clothing soiled by all the dung from these benighted creatures.

Smithfield was second only to Tyburn as  the site of many executions, including the Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler and the Scottish knight Sir William Wallace, of Braveheart fame. Swindlers and forgers were boiled to death in oil here in the 15th Century. In short, the amount of human and animal misery that these stones have witnessed should surely have left their mark. Peter Ackroyd, that august chronicler of the Capital, believes that certain places in the city retain their character in spite of attempts at modernisation. It will be interesting to see if this plays out in the Smithfield area.

There is an extraordinary amount of building going on. I spend a lot of time trying to get my bearings, and on every corner there seems to be a chap in a high-vis jacket and a hard hat, shouting about deliveries into a mobile phone.  Many of the old buildings remain, after a fight to retain them, and the Museum of London is due to be relocated here at 2021. There is lots of modernisation but I also read recently that it is planned that the meat market, along with Billingsgate fish market (currently in Poplar) and Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market (in Leyton) will all be relocated to Barking. What will happen to the remaining Smithfield buildings remains to be seen.

The entrance to the Grand Avenue at Smithfield

A Smithfield Dragon – symbol of The City of London

However, this is all very well, but I am really here to investigate an interesting new project in the little park in West Smithfield. Wayward Plants is an organisation that, among other things, has been organising the ‘adoption’ of unwanted house plants from events such as the Hampton Court Flower Show, which can only be a good thing. In Smithfield, they have put up a ‘greenhouse’ called ‘The House of Wayward Plants’. This is a pun on the ‘Wardian Case’, which was very popular as a way of displaying and growing ferns during the Victorian era: you might remember that I have written about ‘fern mania’ or ‘pteridomania’ during this time, when whole areas were denuded of (sometimes rare) ferns by eager collectors. My first sight of the ‘House’ was from behind a human drinking fountain,

And when I got a proper view of it, I realised that two chaps were sitting on the table inside having their lunch. They agreed that it was a most excellent spot for sandwich munching, especially when it was raining.

As you might expect, the planters are full of ferns – maidenhair and male fern and our old friend hart’s tongue fern.

There is a programme of events being held in the House of Wayward Plants, including botanical drawing, gardening and music. I suspect that our diners may sometimes have to find an alternative spot for their sarnies.

The Smithfield gardens hold another surprise, however. They are very proud of their Caucasian Wingnut trees, who are in full flower at the moment. In spite of sounding like something that the Monty Python team would invent, these are magnificent trees, competing very well with the huge London plane trees that would normally dominate the space. I would have said that I had never seen one before, but in ‘Street Trees of London’, Paul Wood points out that there is a heavily pruned example in Islington, where I lived for eight years. It all goes to show how easy it is to just walk past things rather than paying them any attention.

Flowers of the Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia)

The tree comes originally from the Black Sea, and is native to the Caucasus (as you might expect) – the notice on the railings says that they come from Iran. The notice also mentions that you shouldn’t try to grow a Caucasian Wingnut in your garden, because it can grow to over 30 metres tall and has a dense, spreading canopy. I also rather like the fissured bark.

Onwards! I decide to have a wander through the grounds of St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Looking down the road, I can see the figure of Justice from the roof of the Old Bailey.

There is also a truly awful example of what The Gentle Author has dubbed ‘ghastly Facadism’ – developers seem to think that they’re doing their duty by preserving the front wall of a building whilst knocking up a dreadful generic glass office block (or some ‘luxury flats’) behind it. I have no idea what was here before, but I suspect that what replaces it will not be as interesting as what was there originally. It sometimes feels as if we are losing this part of London faster than we can fight the applications.

There is a restful courtyard in the middle of the hospital complex, with some sympathetic pollinator plantings and a fine fountain.

This is one of the oldest parts of London, still full of winding medieval streets. There are two churches which are associated with the hospital and the parish, St Bartholemew the Less (which is actually in the church grounds) and dates back to the 12th century, and St Bartholemew the Great, which was founded as an Augustinian friary in 1123.

St Bartholemew the Great

This hasn’t stopped the building of one or two strangely unsympathetic buildings, however.

And as I wend my way through, I can’t resist finishing my walk with a visit to the planting at the Barbican, just to see how it’s settling in. As usual, I’m  not disappointed. I’m especially pleased with how the waterside planting is going, Even on this dull day, there are plenty of bees and hoverflies about.

And so, it’s time for my sandwich and a flat white. I am a little underwhelmed by the Wayward Plants greenhouse (though the idea is fascinating, and I am pleased with the ‘recycled plants’ idea). However, I have seen my first Caucasian wingnuts, and am pleased to have reminded myself of the byways of Smithfield. London is endlessly fascinating, and you can find interesting plants in the most unlikely places.