Category Archives: London Plants

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.




Wednesday Weed – Agapanthus

Agapanthus in full flower on the County Roads in East Finchley

Dear Readers, there appear to be fashions in plants, just as there are in most other things, and in the south-facing gardens of Bedford Road in East Finchley there is pot after pot of Agapanthus. Some of the pots are elegant in Majorelle blue, which nicely highlights the sky blue of the flowers. There are lots of bees about too, which always makes me happy. My  book ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ says that only a few cultivars are actually liked by pollinators, however, so if you’re thinking of getting some I would apply the Garden Centre test – watch to see which ones the bees visit, and go for one of those. In my experience, plants which are closest to the original wild plant always work better than those which have been ‘messed about with’, so I’d go for a blue one, rather than the pink and white ones that seem to be popping up. There is a Dutch grower who specialises in Agapanthus if you want to have a look at some of the varieties that are available. And do let me know your experience! I always think of this blog as a communal effort.

Also known as ‘blue lily’, ‘African lily’ or even ‘Lily of the Nile’ (although the plant isn’t actually a lily at all),  Agapanthus plants in the UK are normally of the Agapanthus praecox species, which comes originally from Natal and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The very name ‘Agapanthus’ comes from the Greek for ‘love flower’, and there is a lot to love about the plant: it can live for up to 75 years, can withstand drought, wind and frost down to -15 once established, and flowers for a long time. The young shoots need to be protected from slugs and snails but once an agapanthus is ‘up and running’ you’re in business. I really like these plants en masse in a border – they echo the colour of the spring bluebells. The plants grow from a rhizome, which resembles a piece of ginger, and which helps to store water when there isn’t much about.

I didn’t expect to find that Agapanthus was a naturalised species, but as usual I find myself surprised. In the Isles of Scilly, the Agapanthus has taken to the local sand dunes with great gusto – maybe the light soil and sunny conditions remind the plant of its home, and as it spreads via rhizomes it can quickly establish itself. It also appears to have be naturalised in Australia and New Zealand – in the former, it was widely planted in municipal beds because it was drought-tolerant, but this now seems to have been discontinued, although it is apparently a popular cemetery plant in the Antipodes, probably because it is relatively low maintenance.

In its native South Africa, the Xhosa people believe that the Agapanthus helps to enhance the well-being of pregnant women, who drink a tea made from the plant during their third trimester, and wear a necklace of dried Agapanthus root during pregnancy to protect the baby. When the baby is born, it is bathed in a solution of Agapanthus, which is believed to make the infant strong and healthy. For the Zulu people, the plant is used to cure a whole variety of ailments, including heart conditions, paralysis, colds and flu. The leaves are plaited into bandages for tired feet. However, the Agapanthus root is thought to be purgative if ingested, according to an interesting study of poisonous plants in New Zealand, though eating a few flowers or leaves was not thought to do much harm. There is also some thought that the sap may cause skin irritation in susceptible people.

Agapanthus is also traditionally used to ward off thunder, though there is plenty about in East Finchley today. I think the plant should pull its socks up.

It will probably come as no surprise that a plant as beautiful as the Agapanthus has inspired artists – Claude Monet painted the plant in his garden at Giverny many times. Monet spent the last years of his life here, following the death of his second wife and his son. In 1926, Monet himself died of lung cancer and at his funeral his long-time friend, George Clemanceau, removed the black cloth that had been draped over his coffin and, saying ‘no black for Monet!’ replaced it with a floral one.

Agapanthus (Claude Monet 1914 – 26) (Public Domain)

Waterlilies and Agapanthus (Claude Monet 1917) (Public Domain)

Agapanthus (unfinished) (Claude Monet 1917) (Public Domain)

And just to end on a classy note, here is a poem by Pam Ayres. She was such a feature of my childhood, with her works including ‘I wish I’d looked after me teeth‘ ( to get the full effect, you should hear her reading it herself here). Ayres lives with her husband in the Cotswold and has a small holding with rare breeds of farm animal. She is also patron of several animal welfare organisations and sanctuaries, and her love for creatures is very clear in her poems.

Dog Gardening Poem

I  love to do the gardening,

I roll on the acanthus,

Do flops across the echinops,

And trash the agapanthus.

Ah yes, this reminds me of trying to do any serious gardening with our family dog Spock when I was growing up.

But Ayres also has a serious side. I really love this poem. See what you think.


Don’t lay me down in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall

Where the dust of ancient bones has spread dryness over all.

Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold

Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.

There kindly and affectionately plant a native tree

To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.

The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way

To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.

To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done

I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the Sun.

Wednesday Weed – Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Dear Readers, it was such a delight to get back from Austria on Saturday, and to find the meadowsweet that I planted by the pond two years ago in flower. What a splendid plant this is! It has a honeyed scent that reminds me of hay, and it attracts all manner of hoverflies. The buds are almost square, and then the seed heads remind me of those fondant sweets that you can buy in posh places like Fortnum and Masons.

Twisted seedheads plus hoverfly….

Although the garden as a whole has gone completely berserk during this past couple of years, I am very pleased with this spot, where the meadowsweet mixes with hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and some self-seeded greater willowherb. It is a-buzz with bees and other pollinators, and they are all at head height so I can get a really good look. The fly above, for example, with his/her rather muscular ‘thighs’ reminds me of a mini weighlifter.

Anyhow, to return to meadowsweet. Although the plant likes damp places (and is often known as ‘queen-of-the-meadow’, the name might refer to ‘mead’ , as the flowers were used to flavour many kinds of drinks. It was also used as a strewing herb on floors and in mattresses. In my new favourite book, Vickery’s Folk Flora, it mentions that it was sometimes used on the floors of outside toilets, to disguise the smell.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey mentions that different parts of the plant have different scents: he describes the basic scent of the plant as being like marzipan, tinged with musk and honey in the flowers, but with the sharpness of pickled cucumber in the leaves. Mabey mentions that one ‘cynical namer’ believed that this was the difference between ‘courtship and matrimony’, but he was obviously married to the wrong person.

In spite of its sweet scent, Meadowsweet is yet another of those herbs that it was thought to be unlucky to bring into the house. One of these days I shall compile a list of all the wildflowers that are cause death and bad luck just by being picked and stuck in a vase. One alternative name for meadowsweet was ‘old man’s pepper’, with ‘old man’ being a name for the devil in many parts of the UK. Sniffing meadowsweet with too much enthusiasm was also thought to bring on fits.

In Wales, it is not only considered unlucky to bring it into the house (‘if a person falls asleep in a room where many of these flowers are placed, death is inevitable’), but it is also though to be dangerous to fall asleep in a field where there is an abundance of meadowsweet. However, there is also a legend in Wales that the magicians Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet, and called her Blodeuwedd, or ‘Flowerface’. She was created to be the wife of Lleu, who was cursed to never be able to marry a human wife, but had other ideas, and arranged for him to be murdered. This was no easy task:

Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing how he may be killed, since he cannot be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. He reveals to her that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass. With this information she arranges his death’.

However, Lleu is nursed back to health by the magicians who created Blodeuwedd in the first place, and she is turned into an owl for her pains. It just goes to show that crime never pays.

The legend was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s 1967 young adult novel ‘The Owl Service’, which explores what it mean to be Welsh, the class divide and the eternal power of stories. Well worth a read, even if you’re way past being a ‘young adult’.

Photo One by By E. Wallcousins - 'Celtic Myth & Legend', Charles Squire,, PD-US,

Blodeuwedd meeting Gronw, the man who will kill her husband (Photo One)

Here, though,  I’d like to back up a little and give some basics on the plant. Meadowsweet is native to the UK and can be found in damp spots throughout Europe and western Asia. It is also naturalised in some parts of North America. It is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) which I would never have guessed, though the leaves do look a little rose-like.

The plant contains salicin, which is related to salicylic acid (aspirin) – in fact, the drug was named from the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Having just returned from Austria, I was interested to learn that the Austrians make a tea with meadowsweet, and use it for the treatment of painful conditions such as rheumatism and gout.

The Bronze Age burial sites of three humans and one animal at Fan Foel in Carmarthenshire, Wales, have contained the remains of meadowsweet, probably used as a strewing herb, and the signature of the plant has also been found in grave goods in Scotland from the same period, probably as a result of meadowsweet being used to flavour wine that was buried alongside the dead.

Meadowsweet has a reputation as a dye plant – the roots are supposed to give a black dye when used with a copper mordant (fixative). The genus name ‘Filipendula‘ relates to the way that the root tubers hang off of the fibrous roots (the Latin word means ‘hanging thread’). To read about various experiments using different parts of meadowsweet with different mordants, have a look at the wonderful ‘Wool Tribulations’ blog here 

Photo Two from

The author of ‘Wool Tribulations’, Fran Rushworth, has created some great effects from using meadowsweet (Photo Two)

In addition to its obvious attraction for hoverflies, the leaves of meadowsweet are munched upon by no fewer than 16 species of moths, including the magnificent emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). How excited I would be if one of these turned up!

Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Three)

The caterpillars are pretty magnificent too.

Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK - Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0,

Emperor moth caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Four)

The leaves of meadowsweet can also be injured by the meadowsweet rust gall, which is a fungus which chemically induces a bright orange swelling on the mid rib of the leaf. It can cause serious problems in young plants, so I shall keep an eye open. The last thing I want is for my newly established meadowsweet patch to keel over.

Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith - Own work, Public Domain,

Meadowsweet rust fungus (Triphragmium ulmariae) (Photo Five)

And, of course, a poem. For those of you who haven’t come across the Scottish poet and writer Kathleen Jamie, I can heartily recommend her books ‘Findings and  ‘Sightlines’, and her poetry collections ‘The Tree House’ and ‘The Overhaul’. I love her for many reasons, not the least of which was her piece about Robert MacFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’, called ‘A Lone Enraptured Male‘. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here. It made me roar with laughter and nod in agreement (and I speak as someone who loved MacFarlane’s recent book ‘The Underland’.

And here is her poem.

Tradition suggests that certain of the Gaelic women poets were buried face down.
So they buried her, and turned home,
a drab psalm
hanging about them like haar,

not knowing the liquid
trickling from her lips
would seek its way down,

and that caught in her slowly
unravelling plait of grey hair
were summer seeds:

meadowsweet, bastard balm,
tokens of honesty, already
beginning their crawl

toward light, so showing her,
when the time came,
how to dig herself out —

to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.

Photo Credits
Photo One by By E. Wallcousins – ‘Celtic Myth & Legend’, Charles Squire,, PD-US,
Photo Three by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo Four by By Thomas Tolkien from Scarborough, UK – Emperor Moth caterpillarUploaded by herkuleshippo, CC BY 2.0,
Photo Five by By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith – Own work, Public Domain,