Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Winter Honeysuckle

Winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima)

Dear Readers, it is strange how suddenly I am brought up short by remembering. Today, as I was mooching home from Muswell Hill, looking for a Wednesday Weed,  I inhaled a breath of lemony sweetness from this rather bedraggled-looking shrub. Instantly, I was transported to another place and time: my father, walking around the garden centre with me when I was in my mid-twenties, and suggesting plants for my first garden.

‘Winter honeysuckle’, he said. ‘Doesn’t look like much, but the smell in the winter….’

He tailed off, always being a man of few words. How he loved to garden: for most of my childhood we had an allotment to supplement our food, and I remember his big brown hands, picking up the tiny seedlings and transplanting them into pots. He was the one I went to for anything to do with plants.

Now, he doesn’t know who I am, or what day it is, but it makes me wonder if, when spring comes, he will still know how to plant seeds, how to dig over a bed. I shall be asking what’s possible at his nursing home. He is so lost, what with the recent death of my mother, but there is something about soil that always brings me home, and maybe it will do the same for him.

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is one of those plants that makes up for its complete lack of aesthetic interest during the spring and summer by pumping forth its extraordinary perfume during the coldest months of the year. Its flowers are small and lack the showiness of the vine honeysuckles, and yet, looked at closely, they have a kind of elegance, what with their super-long stamens and delicately fluted petals.

Furthermore, I was not the only one who was attracted by their scent.

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Two bumblebees were busily working the flowers. It’s a mild day, but it is only the 6th January, so I was intrigued. I think that they are most likely worker bees, which indicates that there is an active nest still in progress – normally the nest dies and the queen hibernates, only starting to produce eggs and worker bees in the spring. A combination of warmer temperatures and the increasing number of gardeners growing winter-flowering plants such as this honeysuckle, Mahonia and winter-flowering heather means that nests can be viable throughout the year.

It did my heart good to see these insects foraging today. I love the way that the hang on to the flowers with their hook-like feet, and the way that they comb themselves so as to deposit all the pollen into the pollen baskets (corbicula) on their hind legs. I like the way that they go so energetically about their business, completely unperturbed by me and my camera. For a few minutes I was enraptured, and that’s a very fine state to be in.

Winter honeysuckle is also known as ‘kiss-me-at-the-gate’ and ‘sweet breath of spring’. It comes originally from China and was introduced to the UK by the plant hunter Robert Fortune, the chap who stole tea plants from China and took them to India for the East India Company in 1848. The plant was introduced to the UK in 1845, and to the US in a few years later. Winter flowering honeysuckle was certainly grown at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire by the Marquess of Salisbury during this period, and if you’re looking for an interesting day out just a few miles from London, I would recommend a visit. The gardens were originally laid out by no other than John Tradescant the Elder (for whom the genus Tradescantia is named), and the house was the home of several Tudor monarchs, including Elizabeth I.

Photo One by By Allan Engelhardt - Hatfield House, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4585384

Hatfield House (Photo One)

The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I can be seen in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House. It is attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1600-1602.(Public Domain)

Whilst winter honeysuckle has not established itself in the wild in the UK, it has become a problem in some parts of the USA, particularly in the east and, for some reason, in Utah. Lonicera species do seem to have a habit of jumping ‘over the fence’ given half a chance – there’s a box-leaved honeysuckle in Coldfall, my local wood, which probably came from a bird who had eaten a berry in a municipal car park, where the plants are commonly used. And while a bird might happily eat the berries of winter honeysuckle, we shouldn’t, as they are said to be toxic. The leaves can also cause dermatitis.

Although I can find no specific mentions of winter honeysuckle being used medicinally, its genus name Lonicera comes from the German botanist and herbalist Adam Lonicer (1528 – 1586), who published a book called the Krauterbuch in 1557. The book contained information about the uses of hundreds of plants and had a particular interest in distilling, something that my Dad, who worked as a gin distiller for over twenty years, would have loved.

And here is a poem. It is a translation of a work by the Russian dissident poet Anna Akhmatova, by the British poet Jo Shapcott. Here is the background:

This translation was commissioned by the Southbank Centre for a celebration of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in 2004. poet Jo Shapcott writes of the commission ‘I was given Akhmatova’s most famous poem, ‘Wild Honey’, to work on. I stayed as close as possible to the tight beautiful images she creates for the first half of the poem. In the second half she uses the figure of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands in front of the people. I changed him to George Bush, reasoning (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) that she might have spoken more freely if she could; and since I live in a more open time and place, then I should.’

Wild Honey by Anna Akhmatova

Translated by Jo Shapcott

Wild honey smells like freedom,
dust – like a ray of sun.
Violets – like a girl’s mouth,
and gold smells like nothing.
Honeysuckle smells like water,
and an apple – like love.
But finally we’ve understood
that blood just smells like blood.

And in vain the president from Texas
washed his hands in front of the people,
while cameras flashed and correspondents shouted;
and the British minister tried to scrub
the red splashes from his narrow palms
in the basement bathroom, outside
the strangers bar, in the Palace of Westminster.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Allan Engelhardt – Hatfield House, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4585384

 

Wednesday Weed – Silk Tassel Bush

Silk Tassel Bush (Garrya Elliptica)

Happy New Year, Dear Readers! May 2019 be a peaceful, happy, healthy and inspirational one for all of you…

Dear Readers, this plant and I go back a long, long way, to the first garden that I ever owned. When I was in my late twenties I bought a house in Chadwell Heath, to the north-east of London – this was in the days when someone on an average wage in the capital could afford to do such a thing. How lucky I was! But I wasn’t quite so sure of my luck when, one morning shortly after I’d moved in and following heavy rain, I looked out of the upstairs window to see the whole garden under six inches of water. The clay soil was so heavy and compacted that the water had nowhere to drain, and so I had a swimming pool rather than a garden.

What to do? I was completely inexperienced in such things. Fortunately, Dad had bought me a copy of the RHS Guide to Gardening. It had a section on gardening on clay soil, and so I dug a couple of new beds and sought out plants that would tolerate these conditions. One of my first purchases was a silk tassel bush, properly known as Garrya elliptica. All I knew was that the variety I needed was ‘James Roof’, because of its long, graceful male tassels.

Photo One by By Salix - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39780179

Silk tassel bush in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris (Photo One)

These days I might think twice about planting a bush with so little wildlife value – it is wind-pollinated and,  outside of its native Oregon and coastal California, there are few invertebrates that feed on the leaves. But how magnificently it grew in my garden! Surrounded by foxgloves in summer and lily of the valley in spring, it presented a picture of elegance right through the year, and helped to soak up some of the dampness in the garden. I hope that whoever moved in after me admired it as much as I did.

Map of range of Garrya elliptica (Public Domain)

Silk tassel bushes are dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants. The male varieties are the impressive ones, however, with the catkins growing up to a foot in length. The leaves of ‘my’ silk tassel bush have a wavy edge, which distinguishes Garrya elliptica from several other species that grow in the same region.

Photo Two by By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=602770

The wavy leaf margins of Garrya elliptica (Photo Two)

The plant was named after the Hudson’s Bay Company secretary Nicholas Garry, who helped the Scottish plant hunter David Douglas in his forays in the western USA. Douglas introduced silk tassel bush to the UK in 1828, and I imagine it was a hit with the Victorians who had a taste for such novelties.

Medicinally, the Pomo Indians used the leaves to make an infusion to treat period pains. The bark and leaves may also have insect-repellent properties.

The berries and leaves can be used to produce a black or grey dye, and I recommend having a look at the website for the Winterbourne Dye Project, where the Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers have been having all sorts of fun with garden plants. You can read about their experiments with silk tassel bush here.

I can’t find any reference to silk tassel bush being edible, though American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are said to like the berries.

Photo Three by By Crematia18 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46870597

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) (Photo Three)

The wood is rather beautiful, but silk tassel bush was never a common plant, and there was no danger of it ever going into mass production. I find it rather interesting that it was also known as ‘quinine tree’, but this seems to be related to the bitter taste of the leaves, rather than to any medicinal properties (quinine, a key ingredient in Indian tonic water, is often seen as a remedy for the symptoms of malaria).

Photo Four from https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections/forestry/hough/vlgimage/plate_131.jpg

The wood of Garrya elliptica, taken from ‘American Woods’ by Romeyn B Hough (Photo Four)

And this week, I have a little treat for you all. I found this very short animated film about the silk tassel bush, and while I am not sure that it is completely botanically accurate, and while my French is just about good enough to get the general idea of what’s going on, I thought it was absolutely charming. Have a look and see what you think…

https://www.behance.net/gallery/67999967/A-Rebours-Short-animated-movie

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Salix – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39780179

Photo Two by By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=602770

Photo Three by By Crematia18 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46870597

Photo Four from https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections/forestry/hough/vlgimage/plate_131.jpg

Wednesday Weed – Brussels Sprout

Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea)

Dear Readers, firstly I would like to say thank you to everyone who has left comments on the blog and on Facebook following my mother’s death last week. I have read every single one, and they have given me such comfort. I will be responding to you individually as soon as I have enough mental bandwidth to do justice to your kindness. In the meantime, please be assured that you have made such a difference to me. It’s made me realise that I’m not alone, and that so many of you have already been where I am today, and are alongside me as I walk this path.

Now, some of you may have read Joan Didion’s book ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, in which she describes her emotional journey following the sudden death of her husband. She recounts how she keeps his shoes because ‘he’ll need them when he comes back’. The rational  part of her knows that he’s never coming back, but she still can’t throw the shoes away. I had my own version of this when I found Mum’s hairbrush with some of her long, silver hair still in it. I found myself thinking ‘maybe someone could clone Mum from the DNA in her hair’. I know that this is completely ridiculous, but the thought was there. And I have the hairbrush, just in case.

More helpful is what happened to me earlier this morning. I was getting ready to go out for breakfast, and I was telling my husband that I probably wouldn’t do a blog this week because, after all, my mother had just died, and everyone would understand. And then I heard Mum’s voice in my head, as clearly as if she was standing next to me.

‘Don’t you dare not do the blog! Tell them about the Brussels sprouts’.

And so, Dear Readers, here is my take on that most divisive of vegetables the Brussels sprout, courtesy of my mother.

Every Christmas we would have Brussels sprouts with our turkey. I quite liked those sulphurous, squidgy little crucifers, and Dad positively loved them. They were usually a little watery and yellow, and I maintained that this was because Mum insisted on making a cross in the bottom of each one which allowed the cooking water to penetrate right into the heart of the vegetable. I, with my new-fangled modern ways, declared that this wasn’t necessary but somehow, even when I hosted Christmas in my own house, Mum managed to get hold of the Brussels and a sharp knife and the rest was history.

In fact last year, when we had Christmas in Dorset because Mum and Dad were getting over a chest infection and were too sick to travel, the only thing that Mum had the energy to do was to sabotage the Brussels sprouts. By this point I was only too happy to let Mum have her way.

When we eat sprouts, we’re actually eating the buds of the plant. I was too late to get a picture of the Brussels sprouts on the stem that were being sold at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley (the best greengrocer in London in my humble opinion), but here are some so that you get the idea. The plant is, of course, a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) which accounts for those hints of sulphur if the plant is overcooked. It probably originally came from the Mediterranean area, and forerunners of our sprouts may well have been  grown in ancient Rome. The plant was known in northern Europe from about the 5th century onwards, and was said to have been grown in Belgium from about the 13th century, hence the name.

Photo One by By Emmanuel.revah - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47586931

Brussels sprouts ready for harvest (Photo One)

Each stalk can bear a harvest of up to 3lbs of sprouts, which can be picked all at the same time, or over a period of weeks. The sprouts are normally ready for harvesting between 90 and 180 days after planting, and are considered sweetest after a frost. They are a traditional winter vegetable in the UK, though I would be willing to bet that a lot of people have them with their Christmas dinner and at no other time. Personally, my winter crucifer of choice would be a fine green cabbage, but that is an absolute no-no in my household.

There are some new varieties of Brussels sprout about, including a rather neat looking red and green flouncy variety that cropped up in Waitrose last year, and red Brussel sprouts have been around for a while . The red ones are a hybrid between red cabbage and the traditional Brussels sprout. Just as I find it hard to keep up with the ever-burgeoning selection of citrus varieties that appear in the greengrocers, so I am overwhelmed with Brassicas. I just get my head around kale when cavalo nero appears, and now there is micro-kale. I am not always sure that too much choice is a good thing.

Photo Two from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/8065212/Red-Brussels-sprouts-to-be-sold-at-supermarkets.html

Red Brussel sprouts (Photo Two)

Most of the Brussels sprouts eaten in the UK will be home grown, with the ones in Tonys coming from Lincolnshire. Sprouts need temperatures no higher than 75 degrees and are also fairly thirsty plants, so the climate in East Anglia is ideal.  In the US, the area around Monterey Bay, with its year-round coolish climate and coastal fog,  is a big area for growing sprouts, although up to 85% of them will be for the frozen food market. I’ve never eaten frozen sprouts, my great fear being that upon defrosting they would turn into mush, but surely all those American consumers can’t be wrong.

Like all members of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are very good for you, packed full of vitamins and minerals and that all important fibre. But if you are on Warfarin or some other blood-thinning drug, beware: sprouts are high in Vitamin K, and a Scottish man was hospitalised following excessive consumption of the vegetable at Christmas. Apparently eating Brussels sprouts means that the Warfarin is cleared through the body more quickly, and therefore does not create the desired anticoagulation effect. And here’s me thinking that the main danger from a Brussels sprout was stepping on a raw one and being catapulted into the Christmas tree.

Of course, the Brussels sprout lends itself to all sorts of other shenanigans not related to its health-giving  properties. In August 2014 adventurer Stuart Kettell pushed a Brussels sprout all the way to the top of Mount Snowdon with his nose to raise money for MacMillan Cancer Support. He needed 22 sprouts, it took him four days, and he lost all the skin on his knees. He managed to raise £5000. He had previously practiced by pushing a Brussels sprout around his garden, and purposely chose large sprouts so that they wouldn’t get stuck in any crevices. Well done that man! He had previously raised money by walking every street in Coventry on stilts, and by running in a giant hamster wheel.

Then there is Linus Urbanec from Sweden who holds the world Brussels sprout consumption record, eating 31 sprouts in a minute in November 2008. I assume that they were cooked.

And on the subject of cooking, there are so many recipes for Brussels sprouts that it is difficult to choose just a few. The rumour is that roasting sprouts avoids the sulphur flavour that results from boiling or steaming, and you can also shred them and stir-fry them. One of my favourite dishes is bubble and squeak, which uses left over mashed potato and left over sprouts. But I don’t think they should ever be turned into desserts, or smoothies for that matter. I am reminded of the time that I used swede in a cake recipe, and the whole thing was so revolting that even I couldn’t eat it. For those who are keen on such things, however, there are some Brussels sprout smoothie recipes here. And good luck.

I note that the ever-innovative Heston Blumenthal made a ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert for Waitrose last year, but, quel suprise, it contained no actual sprouts, only green profiteroles filled with lime creme patissiere. Hah.

Photo Three from https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/heston-blumenthal-launches-next-big-11654201

Heston Blumentha’s ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert (Photo Three)

In ancient folklore, Brussels sprouts were said to have sprung from bitter tears, although it is also said that eating sprouts before a riotous evening will help to ward off drunkenness. It seems to me that a combination of sprouts and beer would be apt to produce both bitter tears and all manner of personal explosions, but there you go. If you can’t let rip at Christmas, then when can you?

And finally, in my journey through the world of sprouts I have found the delightful ‘Sprouts are Cool‘ website. And for your delectation, here is a poem by Suzie S, which sums the whole sprouts dichotomy in a few sentences.

Brussel Sprouts Poetry

O, Brussels sprout sae green and round,

Ye sit upon ma plate,
So innocently mystifying,
The cause o’ much debate.

Some say ye taste like camel droppings,
While others think you great,
I’m sure your sitting there a wonderin’,
Whit’s goin’ tae be your fate.

So let me tell you o’ so quick,
As nervously you wait,
That I find you e’er so loathsome,
So you definitely won’t be ate.

-Suzie S.

Mum was always so supportive of my writing. For years I would write 1000 words and send it to her, and she would read it, and then read it out loud to my Dad (who often fell asleep but there you go). She would foist my magazine articles onto anyone  who stood still long enough, whether they wanted to read them or not. She always believed that I was meant to be a writer, and would chide me if I stopped producing for any reason. And here she is, still doing it although she’s no longer here. She wanted me to be the best version of myself that I could possibly be, and so I guess I’d better get back to my notebooks and laptop and get composing. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, even now.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Emmanuel.revah – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47586931

Photo Two from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/8065212/Red-Brussels-sprouts-to-be-sold-at-supermarkets.html

Photo Three from https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/heston-blumenthal-launches-next-big-11654201

Wednesday Weed – Freesia

Dear Readers, when I was at the nursing home last week, visiting my Mum who is dying, the staff nurse was talking about how they could make the room a little more peaceful.

“We can put in softer lighting and gentle music”‘ she said, “and some candles, maybe some scented ones…”

“Not the scented candles!” I said, “I wouldn’t want Mum’s last thoughts to be about how much she hates the smell of jasmine…”

And indeed, Mum has something of a dislike of many scented products, especially since she became ill. Things that she’d previously loved have become overwhelming. But there is one flower that may still work, at least in its natural form, and that is the freesia. Its light perfume isn’t overbearing and thuggish, but insinuates itself into the mood of the room without any drama.

There are 16 species of freesia, all of them from Southern Africa and most from Cape Province, home of so many unique plants. The one that we buy comes from a  hybrid between two species, Freesia refracta and Freesia leichtlinii which was made in the 19th century, and a more recent addition of Freesia corymbosa which gives us the pink and blue forms.

Photo One by Makoto hasuma [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Freesia refracta (Photo One)

Photo Two from http://pza.sanbi.org/freesia-leichtlinii-subsp-alba

Freesia leichtlinii (Photo Two)

Photo Three by User:BotBln [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Freesia corymbosa (Photo Three)

Although there are many freesia-scented toiletries and perfumes on the market, nothing that I have smelled comes close to the scent of the plant itself. It is often used in wedding bouquets, and my mother wanted some for hers back in 1957, but was told that, as her wedding was in September, there would be none available. She did, however, get some beautiful sugar paste ones on the cakes made for the 60th Wedding Anniversary celebration back in September 2017, so she got them in the end.

Cakes from Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party in 2017. Note the freesias!

Nowadays, you can get freesias pretty much year round, and most of the blooms are produced from some eighty suppliers in the Netherlands, bulb capital of Europe.

Freesia can be grown from seed, but is actually a bulbous plant, a member of the crocus subfamily. In their native habitat, freesias are usually pollinated by solitary bees. Their period of dormancy underground may be a protection from the grassland fires that are a common feature of the fynbos, or Cape Floral Kingdom, where they originated. For all their apparent delicacy these are tough plants.

The flowers of freesia are edible, and I rather like the idea of a freesia and lemon tisane, as described on the Garden Eats website here.

In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the freesia represented trust, and in the US is apparently the flower to use to celebrate a couple’s seventh wedding anniversary. If you wondered what you were meant to be sending on the other years, have a look at the list here. I am somewhat disappointed that there are no suggestions for an eighteenth wedding anniversary, as mine is coming up next year. Looks like I’ll have to wait until my twentieth.

And now, a poem. Here is one by Robert Henry Forster, a poet who took the garden and the more ‘domesticated’ plants as his last subject. He was Northumbrian born and bred, and I imagine that the colour and scent of the freesias in his greenhouse were even more welcome in the teeth of northern gales than they are here in London. This example of his work is a big bowl of custard of a poem, as comforting as bed socks and Heinz tomato soup. It’s just what I need at the moment, what with the Winter Solstice coming on. On some days, it barely feels as if the sun gets above the horizon before it slips back into bed.

The Greenhouse in Early April, by Robert Henry Forster (1867 – 1923)

I
Still do the garden’s half-awakened beds
Wait for the passing of the wintry cold;
But in this fairy palace we behold
The sheltered blossoms lift their comely heads.
Fragrance the newly opened Freesia sheds
From its white trumpets with the splash of gold;
And here the Polyanthus doth unfold
Its blooms, and colour with gay colour weds,
Colours of brilliant or of subtle hue;
Bright orange with fair yellow for its mate;
Pale yellow margined with a fairy blue;
Crimson and gold in almost regal state;
Soft pink and brown, ethereal to view,
Matched with a yellow not less delicate.

II
And here, most faithful of all blossomed friends,
The Primulas their witchery display.
Spring will depart and summer pass away,
But for these happy flowers one summer ends
Only when Nature’s operation sends
The next succeeding summer’s opening day:
In drear December they will still be gay,
As though for winter they would make amends.
So should true friendship be,-a constant thing
In sunshine or beneath a gloomy sky,
Not waking only with the breath of spring
And ready at the winter’s touch to die,
But bright and helpful and encouraging
When days are dark and other comforts fly.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Makoto hasuma [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two from http://pza.sanbi.org/freesia-leichtlinii-subsp-alba

Photo Three by User:BotBln [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.

It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.

Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.

An imperfect photo of a  nuthatch (as my photos usually are 🙂 )

But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.

I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.

Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.

A coppiced area in Big Wood

As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.

The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.

The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Quince

Flowering quince (Chaenomeles x superba)

Dear Readers, whenever you read a book about winter-flowering shrubs, flowering quince is sure to be one of the top five. It is, however, a confusing plant. For one thing, it isn’t the ‘true’ quince (Cydonia oblonga), although it is related to it. All quinces flower, so there is nothing unusual in the fact that this one is in bloom. It is also known as the Japanese quince, which is a little closer to the mark as all Chaenomeles come from the Far East, but the true Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is rarely grown in gardens. In short, the common names for the plant do nothing but pile confusion on top of confusion. However, I forgive all this because, in a chill, sunny day earlier this week, this plant was by far the prettiest thing in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

One feature of the flowering quince is that the flowers emerge directly from the stalk, before the leaves. It was the first time that I’d seen a pink variety – the ones in the County Roads here in East Finchley are normally the orange-red variety.

Photo One from https://www.flickr.com/photos/conifer/38844133980

Orange-red flowering quince (Photo One)

Flowering quince also has the virtue of being quite a spiny plant (it is a member of the Rose family after all) and I have seen it combined in hedges with such well-armed shrubs as Pyracantha. It is quite often ‘persuaded’ into miniaturisation as a bonsai.

Let us not completely overlook the fruits either. They are hard, sour and small, though this is ameliorated somewhat after the first frost. However, they can be used as a substitute for lemon juice, or turned into jelly, much as crab apples are. The Grown to Cook website has a recipe for Japanese quince jelly with star anise, and the photos are lovely too.  In Japan the fruit is known as karin or flower pear, and commands a high price, so if you have one of these shrubs in your garden I’d have thought it would be worth harvesting the fruit to see what you can do with it. Some websites recommend combining it with apples to offset its astringency. Note that it is also extremely high in pectin, so helps with the set of jams and jellies.

Photo Two from http://www.growntocook.com/?p=36

Quince jelly on bread. Yum! (Photo Two)

In Japan, the fruit of flowering quince is also used to make cough and sore throat remedies. The botanist James Wong mentions that for Japanese people, Chaenomeles cough sweets take the place of our honey and lemon. He also mentions that Russian scientists introduced the plant to the Baltic states as a source of vitamin C – the fruits have a slightly higher level than lemons – and so the plant is sometimes known as ‘Baltic lemon’.

What I love about flowering quince, though, is that element of surprise. In late spring, when everything is bursting into bloom, you might not notice this plant. But in winter, when the only competition is the acid yellow flowers of Mahonia, it is breathtaking. It was eulogised by one Miss Twamley who, in a poem called ‘The Romance of Nature’, refers to the flowers as ‘fairy fires’

‘That gleam and glow amid the wintery scene
Lighting their ruddy beacons at the sun
To melt away the snow…..’

Flowering quince features extensively in the art of Japan. Here, for example, is the artist Watanabe Seitei’s painting ‘Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry’ – I love that the flowering quince in the image looks so similar to the one that I saw.

Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry by Watanabe Seitei (Shotei) 1906 (Public Domain)

Now, as you know I usually include a poem at this point, but this week I am going to break convention by directing your attention to the (very) short story ‘The Japanese Quince’ by John Galsworthy. What on earth is going on here? I have some thoughts, but I’d be delighted to hear yours, if you have the time and the energy during this pre-Christmas rush…

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Japanese_Quince

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.flickr.com/photos/conifer/38844133980

Photo Two from http://www.growntocook.com/?p=36

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Christmas Rose

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

Dear Readers, it might seem a bit early to start talking about all things Christmas-related, but the flowers of the Christmas rose are so striking that I couldn’t resist. Spotted in a window box on the County Roads in East Finchley, they are not roses at all but hellebores, members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). That the Latin species name for this plant (niger) means ‘black’ when the flower is pure white is a little confusing, but it probably refers to the roots. The word ‘Helleborus’ comes from the Greek words ellos, meaning ‘fawn’ and bora, meaning ‘food’  – I love the idea of young deer munching upon it, although some commentators remark that it is deer resistant. The grazers would have to be careful though, because, like all hellebores, Christmas rose is poisonous, though probably less so than some other species. Handling the seeds can cause skin irritation as well. It is also toxic to dogs and cats, so be careful if you have pets and want to bring the plant indoors.

In spite of its poisonous nature, Christmas rose has been used medicinally, as a purgative following poisoning, and as a antihelminthic (a new word to me) for parasites in children. Too much hellebore, however, and it’s quite possible to kill the child. It has also been used as a laxative. I would strongly advise leaving it to look pretty in the garden in the dark early months of the year rather than adding it to a sandwich.

In the wild, Christmas rose is an Alpine plant, found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. I suspect that the flowers will be rather smaller in the wild than in our gardens. This can be a difficult plant to grow, preferring humus-rich soil and dappled shade, and disliking acidity, but when it’s happy, it’s delightful.

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Christmas rose in the Austrian Alps (Photo One)

Traditionally, Christmas rose was said to have arisen from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to the infant Christ. It often isn’t in flower by Christmas, but may be bursting forth by 6th January, which was Christmas Day under the old Julian calendar. Obviously the ones that I photographed hadn’t got the memo about their flowering date.  It is also believed that standing on powder made from the roots of a Christmas rose will make you invisible, which is a splendid idea, what with Christmas coming and all those crowds to navigate. Should you have the urge to dig a Christmas rose up you should, according to Pliny, make sure that you are not spotted by an eagle, because the bird will swoop down and cause your death (an unlikely event in East Finchley but then I’m extremely risk averse). Pliny also suggests that, having scanned the sky for any birds of prey, you should draw a circle around the plant, face east and offer up a prayer before picking up your spade.

No other luminary than Charles Darwin, with his usual close attention, noticed something unusual about the change in the Christmas rose once it’s pollinated. The pure white flower goes green, and its shape changes, as can clearly be seen in the photo below, where the blooms show the various stages of the change, from top to bottom. I’m not sure whether this a plant strategy to deter insects from trying to pollinate a flower that is already impregnated, or just a sign, as Darwin thought, that the plant colour is related to the production of nectar which is not required once the bloom has fulfilled its purpose. Of course, it could also be both. Nature is nothing if not complex and interconnected.

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The fruit of the Christmas rose (Photo Two)

Although Christmas rose has no scent, that hasn’t stopped an Italian perfume company from knocking up a perfume that purports to smell like the flower. However, the bottle is very pretty, and the aroma includes lilac, jasmine and fig, so it’s probably very pleasant. On the other hand, having loved ‘smellies’ all my life, I find that, as I get older, I find most of them  faintly nauseating. I feel very sorry for anyone who has a more sensitive nose than mine, and also for the many people who find being in close contact with strong smells, even pleasant ones, overwhelming. Not that this is a new problem. My Dad, who was a bus conductor in his young days, said that the smell of women’s perfume on the top deck was sometimes so strong that it made his stomach turn.

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail

Christmas rose toiletries from Erbaflor (Photo Three)

And here is a rather lovely poem by Michael Newman, published online by Acumen magazine.It seems to me to sum up the unexpected quality of plants that bloom in the midwinter. They always feel so precious, for being so rare.

Winter Colour

Blush-shy,
The flower rises
From the soil,
Then opens into white apparition,
Helleborus niger,
The Christmas Rose.

On such a grey and rain-rotten day,
I welcome this affirmation

Of unbridled joy:

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail