Category Archives: Uncategorized

Wednesday Weed – Japanese Anemone

Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis)

Dear Readers, many of the gardens in East Finchley, including my own, are in the final stages of the flowering year. I have spent the afternoon cutting back the greater willowherb (and getting covered in the fluffy seeds in the process), and next week the buddleia will finally get its demi-annual pruning. But one plant that is absolutely busting out all over East Finchley is the Japanese anemone. Its big single flowers are a final source of pollen for pollinators, and the plant looks delicate and graceful. I have a great fondness for the white varieties, but the plant comes in all shades of pink as well. It doesn’t mind poor soil and, like many other members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), it will tolerate dappled shade.

Japanese Anemone comes originally from China, but has been naturalised in Japan for many years. Indeed, it belies its sylph-like elegance with the belligerent nature of a heavyweight boxer, and, once established, can spread by a proliferation of suckers. The RHS list it as one of their ‘thugs’, meaning a plant that will require judicious management if it is not to take over.

The plant was first described in Carl Thunberg’s Flora Japonica in 1784. It was introduced to the UK from China in 1844 by the plant hunter Robert Fortune, who spotted it popping up between the gravestones in a cemetery in Shanghai. I can imagine that this ethereal plant brought a touch of late-autumn beauty, and looked exquisite against the reddening foliage.

Photo One by By Abraham Jacobus Wendel - book by H. Witte and A J Wendel: Flora: afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van boomen, heesters, éénjarige planten, enz. voorkomende in de Nederlandsche tuinen, Groningen: Wolters, [1868]., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53895628

A painting of Japanese Anemones by Abraham Jacobus Wendel, 1868 (Photo One)

Whilst the Chinese Anemone (Pulsatilla chinensis) is one of the Fifty Essential Herbs of Chinese Traditional Medicine, I can find no mention of Japanese Anemone being used medicinally. Nor can I find anyone who has tried to eat them – the plant has a reputation for being poisonous, but most sites that I’ve looked at suggest that it is merely unpalatable rather than being positively toxic. Maybe this is one of those plants that can be loved for its beauty alone.

And for my poem this week, here’s an excerpt from ‘Sentenced to Life’ by the Australian writer Clive James. James has leukaemia and COPD, and has been writing valedictory poetry for the past few years. An experimental drug treatment has bought him some extra time, and he has been extraordinarily prolific, writing everything from a translation of Dante to book reviews, and this latest collection. I won’t quote the whole poem (in line with my preference for not taking bread from the mouths of living poets), but in this verse he gets to the heart of things.

“Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known

The name for Japanese anemones,

So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone

Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees

Without my seeing them. I count the bees.”

Photo Two by By Schnobby - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19091330

Japanese Anemone seeds (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Abraham Jacobus Wendel – book by H. Witte and A J Wendel: Flora: afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van boomen, heesters, éénjarige planten, enz. voorkomende in de Nederlandsche tuinen, Groningen: Wolters, [1868]., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53895628

Photo Two by By Schnobby – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19091330

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – An Update from Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, on this very day last year Mum and Dad had their 60th Wedding Anniversary Party, and what a great day it was! This year, however, the celebrations were rather more subdued.

Mum has been in hospital for six weeks now. Well, more accurately, she’s been in ‘hospitals’ – the County Hospital twice, Wareham Community Hospital once and now she’s in Blandford Community Hospital. When I saw her after my week in Monterey I was shocked at how much weight she’d lost. She had her elegant cheekbones back, but at a cost – the doctors have been treating Mum for a blockage/pseudo-blockage/infection (take your pick), but the outcome has been that Mum has not been able to eat solid food for all this time. The fact that someone dropped and broke her bottom dentures didn’t help. She looks about a hundred and ten years old, as people do when they don’t have their teeth in, but her sense of humour and feistiness are in fine fettle.

For example, since she has been in hospital she has been asked SIX TIMES if she wants a Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is known as a ‘DNR’ and is attached to your medical records. It means that if you die, no one will attempt to try to revive you. Mum replied that she would like to be revived, thank you very much.

‘There’s nothing wrong with me except for this blockage thing’, she said, ‘and I want you to resuscitate me if you can. I’m not done yet’.

But every time she changed ward or hospital, she was asked again, sometimes several times. The last time she was absolutely furious.

‘Are you expecting me to pop off at any moment then?’ she asked the consultant, who was surround by a penumbra of junior doctors with clipboards.

‘Oh no’, he said, as the others chorused the same response.

‘Then why do you keep bleeding asking me?’ she said. ‘I know that this might not be your choice, but it is mine’.

And so they slunk away.

Mum has been a fighter all her life, from her birth as a 2 lb 12 oz premature baby in 1935 through heart attacks and depression and COPD and arthritis and all the pains that flesh is heir to and more, and she ain’t about to cave in now. She wants to be home, with Dad.

Which brings us back to the anniversary.

You might remember me telling you that Dad seems to be much more confused lately than he has been in the past. Someone from the Memory Assessment Clinic came out on Tuesday, replicated the tests that his doctor had done, and found that he had got worse (well, I could have told them that). But  he has long periods of lucidity, when he does know who people are and what is going on, and at hospital visiting time he gave Mum her Anniversary card. His writing is terrible (I come by my scrawl honestly), and it isn’t helped by the peripheral neuropathy in his hands, and his stroke. But he had written

‘To my only wife and girlfriend, I love you forever’,

and he struggled out of his wheelchair to give her a series of kisses while the carer and I made ourselves scarce.

When we got home, I walked around Dad and Mum’s garden while the wind blew and the rain came in horizontally, and pondered what to do. Mum is currently unable to walk, and until she can make it from bed to the toilet to her chair, she won’t be able to come home – the bungalow is just not set up for a wheelchair. Meantime Dad is particularly confused at night, when he is likely to wake up, discover that Mum isn’t there and ring everyone he can think of, even if it’s 3 a.m. And so my brother and I are trying to manage the situation, to keep everyone safe while retaining their right to make their own decisions, to head off disasters at the pass and to deal with totally unexpected disasters as they crop up.

But the big lesson of this whole experience has been to try to learn when to push and when to accept, when to plan and organise and when to go with the flow. The flowers in the garden bend with the wind, and so must I.

At 6.30 a.m. earlier this week I was rudely awoken by a magnificent grizzled patriarch in his underpants, all ready for his  shower. The trouble was that the carer wasn’t coming until 8 a.m.  and Dad won’t let anyone else help.

‘I’ll just sit here’, he said, plonking himself down in front of an open window.

‘Dad you’ll freeze there!’ say I from my bed. ‘Why don’t you go and sit next door and I’ll make you a cup of tea’.

‘I’m alright here’, he says, as the wind tousles his hair. And then the lure of tea works its magic.

‘I think I’ll go and sit next door’, he says.

So I spring up, shut the window, whack up the heating and make him tea.

‘I’ll just put this blanket here in case you get cold’, I say.

‘I won’t get cold!’ he says. But I notice that he’s wrapped up in it twenty minutes later. The trick is to say nothing.

And eventually the 90 minutes passes, and the carer comes in, and dad is spruced up for another day. He has chosen navy trousers and a navy, yellow and red-striped teeshirt, and he looks very handsome, if I say so myself. I am trying not to concentrate on the fact that he’s dropped ten inches off his waist size in the past eight months in spite of eating voraciously. I have a call logged with the GP to talk about that, but at the moment, as Dad reclines the chair to get comfortable for another episode of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, all is well.

Sometimes there are moments of grace, of stillness, of ordinariness when I can stop and actually feel what’s going on. There are moments of horror, but also moments of the most tender care, the most profound love. I feel held in the embrace of everyone who has anything to do with Mum and Dad, from close family and carers through to neighbours and friends and the wider community. So many people stop me on the village street to ask me how Mum and Dad are doing. So many people are helping. There are so many small kindnesses that don’t feel so small to the person on the receiving end.

Someone said to me that looking after the elderly was a bit like looking after toddlers.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Except that one day a toddler can’t do something, and then the next day they can. With my parents, one day they can do something, and the next day they can’t’.

But with that stripping away we get closer and closer to what’s real, what it’s all about. At the heart of it all, at the end of it all, there’s a man in a wheelchair kissing his wife of 61 years, just like he did when he was a young blade and she was a shy girl of 22. At the heart of it all, there’s love.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day 61 years ago

Wednesday Weed – Goldenrod

Goldenrod (Solidago sp, probably canadensis)

Dear Readers, I’d been noticing this member of the daisy family growing in swathes alongside the railway line from Dorset to Waterloo, and was interested to come across it again in Trent Park in North London. Then, I saw some in the US during my recent visit to Monterey Bay. Goldenrods are largely native to North America, and are a family of some 120 species which look remarkably similar to one another, and may sometimes hybridise. In the UK, Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a popular garden plant and I would guess makes up a large part of the wild population here, though there is a native goldenrod too (Solidago virgaurea).

Goldenrod in the UK is largely a plant of wasteland and railway embankments, thriving on the bright sunlight and shallow soil. It is extremely popular with pollinators, who seem to love the racemes of tiny yellow flowers. The nectar produces a clear and spicy honey when not mixed with nectar from other plants.

Photo One by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Cryptic Bumblebee (Bombus cryptarum) on European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) (Photo One)

Goldenrod is sometimes blamed for causing hayfever, but this is more likely to be the result of ingesting the pollen of ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) which blooms at the same time in late summer. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, and the plant is largely pollinated by insects: ragweed is wind-pollinated, so the pollen is light. However, handling the plant can cause skin irritation, and a 1998 report  suggested that goldenrod (along with chrysanthemums and other members of the daisy family) caused such severe dermatological reactions that florists handling the plants on a daily basis were forced to change careers.

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Goldenrod and asters (Photo Two)

The leaves of goldenrod were once seen as a possible source of rubber by none other than scientist and inventor Thomas Edison. The idea was taken up by Henry Ford, and the tyres on the the Model T Ford that were given to Edison were made from goldenrod. Ford was concerned about the need to continue with rubber production during the Second World War, when many sources of the substance were cut off, and it seemed that goldenrod might produce a viable substitute, as the leaves contain approximately 7% rubber. However, the material produced was tacky, with low tensile strength, and so the experiment was abandoned.

Goldenrod does, however, have a distinguished history as a medicinal plant, particularly with regard to the treatment of kidney and urinary problems.

American goldenrod at Zmudowski State Beach

The young leaves and seeds of goldenrod have been used by Native American peoples as food, and a tea can also be made from the leaves or flowers (after the Boston Tea Party the plant was used to make ‘Liberty Tea’ to replace the tea that could no longer be obtained).

I was led slightly up the garden path by a US recipe for ‘eggs a la goldenrod’. It was described as ‘eggs on toast with gravy’. Turns out the ‘gravy’ would be called a ‘white sauce’ here in the UK, with the word ‘gravy’ reserved for the brown meaty stuff that’s poured over your roast dinner. Also, the recipe contains not a jot of the plant goldenrod. Two nations divided by a common language, indeed.

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Eggs a la goldenrod (Photo Three)

Goldenrod can also produce a dye, and the site here shows the amazing range of colours that can be created just by adding different chemicals. Dyeing is such an interesting subject, and such an outlet for creativity. I shall have to give it a go one of these days…

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Different dye colours produced from goldenrod (Photo Four)

Goldenrod does not just produce food for pollinators, but is also much liked by flies and parasitic wasps, whose larvae create galls just below the buds to protect themselves while they grow. Alas, some fishermen in North America have caught on to this and extract the larvae from their fortifications to use them as bait. Some woodpeckers and other birds have also learned this trick, and can be seen tappity-tapping until they’ve made a hole and can claim their prize, a valuable source of protein during the winter months.

Black-capped chickadee getting to work on a goldenrod gall (Public Domain)

Goldenrod is the state flower of Kentucky, Nebraska and South Carolina, and used to be the state flower of Alabama until it was replaced with the camellia. For many North American schoolchildren, its flowering indicates the end of the holidays, and time to get back to school. In the UK I can remember how the ‘Back to School’ signs in the windows of our local Co-op department store used to make my stomach shrink into my shoes. I hope that children these days have a happier experience of their educational establishments.

More US goldenrod

A patch of goldenrod growing outside your door is supposed to be a sign of sudden good fortune. On the other hand, goldenrod is yet another of those plants that superstitious folk in the UK will not allow inside the house. It is a wonder that anything floral gets past the front door in some abodes. Maybe just a few leaves would be safer if you are going to a dinner party. Or forget the flowers altogether and bring copious quantities of wine.

And as winter approaches, I am much taken by this poem by Bliss William Carman (1861 – 1929), a poet from New Brunswick in Canada that I hadn’t come across before. See what you think.

The Ghost-Yard of the Goldenrod by Bliss William Carman

WHEN the first silent frost has trod
The ghost-yard of the goldenrod,
And laid the blight of his cold hand
Upon the warm autumnal land,
And all things wait the subtle change
That men call death, is it not strange
That I— without a care or need,
Who only am an idle weed —
Should wait unmoved, so frail, so bold,
The coming of the final cold!

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1850’s cabin in North Carolina with goldenrod (Photo Five)

Photo CreditsPhoto One by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

A Scented Walk in the County Roads

A Victorian Stink Pipe on Durham Road, East Finchley

Dear Readers, I was hoping to satisfy your curiosity as to my whale-related whereabouts this week, but the truth is that there has been so much activity that I’ve had not a second to compose something for you. So, I  hope you will forgive me and enjoy this piece that I wrote back in June for just such an occasion as this. Next week all will be revealed!

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that summer in the city can seem to be a feast of rather unpleasant smells. There’s the smell of fat from Kentucky Fried Chicken when the wind is in the right direction, the ripe whiff of uncollected organic rubbish, and a slight scent of diesel. At least we aren’t still assailed with the perfume of sewage that used to be wafted skywards by the stink pipe pictured above. However, a leisurely ramble along the County Roads in East Finchley can present the perfume connoisseur with a veritable feast of pleasant scents, intensified by the humid atmosphere and the hot concrete.

Rose in All Saints Church garden

For example, who can resist the scent of a full-blown rose? Actually, there is wide variation in the scent of roses, from the floral via citrus to musk and even chocolate. This rose reminded me of classic floral with an overtone of lemon, and I could have stood there with my nose in it for an hour if the pose hadn’t been killing my back. These roses are not so popular with pollinators, though, who prefer the more lightly-scented single flowers of the Rosa rugosa species.

White rose in All Saints Church garden

And then there is jasmine. There are some splendid example on the County Roads, including the one that’s clambering over my friend A’s fence. Not everyone likes jasmine, as I’ve mentioned before – it is a waxy, sweet scent, a bit redolent of decay and decadence. I am convinced that Edgar Allen Poe would have been a fan. Today the scent seemed to come in pulses like a heartbeat.

Jasmine

And, surprisingly, some lucky person had a hedge of classic honeysuckle. It was going over a little, but there was still a trace of the honeyed perfume. It always reminds me of walks along hedgerows in the West Country as a child, with moths and bats rising over my head. Some of the showier varieties of honeysuckle have no smell at all, and I marvel at the breeding that could remove the key factor of a plant’s attraction in favour of a change of colour.

Some plants need a little encouragement to reveal their scent, like these splendid rosemary bushes, interwoven with spider webs. I love the spicy, resinous smell of this group of herbs, although I know many people who think that it’s a bit overwhelming and dominates the dishes that it’s used in.

Rosemary

And in the same family, of course, there is lavender, the bee flower par excellence at this time of year. The bushes in my front garden reveal their scent as I brush past them to get in at the front door. This year I must remember to dry some.

Lavender

And as I walk into the house for some much-needed shade, I smell honey so strongly that it’s as if someone has opened a pot of the stuff and warmed up a few spoonfuls in a saucepan. I pick up the buddleia flower and inhale. No wonder the bees and butterflies love it so much. It’s absolutely delicious. But I suspect that the smell of buddleia will always remind me of my mixed emotions during this troubling year, and will bring me both the wistful pleasure of remembering my parents, and the stomach-knotting sense of dread that seems to accompany every phonecall and visit. A scent can become subliminally linked to a set of emotions, and we often don’t realise the link until we breathe in a lungful of a long-forgotten perfume and it all comes rushing back. Smell bypasses our conscious processes and catapults us into the past, whether we want to go there or not.

Buddleia

It is said that the sense of smell is closely wired to the most ancient part of our brain, and it certainly seems to have a way of reaching past our consciousness and accessing our emotions directly.

 

 

 

 

Uncomprehending

Dear Readers, last week I was summoned to the shed and told to ‘bring my camera’ by my husband, who was out topping up the bird feeders. We have several metal containers to keep out the vast array of rodents who pop in for a snack, and a plastic swing bin to top them up.

Well, someone had had an adventurous few days. It is probably a week since we last opened the bin, and in the meantime, a woodmouse had jumped in and had been unable to scramble out again.

The poor creature was fairly portly, but s/he must also have been desperately thirsty, and terrified.

How long had s/he been in the bin, desperately trying to get out, jumping up again and again, trembling every time s/he heard us rummaging about in the shed? What did s/he understand about the situation? It must have been   as incomprehensible as it would be for us if we were captured by aliens and taken up to the mothership.

Animals are so extraordinarily present, so embodied compared to us. They are fully absorbed with whatever they are doing, be it laying in the sun, or stalking a bird, or hiding from a fox. I suspect that their emotions are absolute, and what gripped this mouse was absolute terror. But as always with animals at the mercy of humans, there was a kind of acceptance about this creature, as if s/he was asking me what was next. I see a similar look in the eyes of domestic animals being transported to the slaughter house.

I took one or two more photos of the little mouse and then I let them go under the hedge. A quick leap and a few seconds of scuffling and s/he was gone. I hope s/he found a drink, and a place to hide and recover after their ordeal.

All paths seem to lead back to what’s going on in Dorset with my parents, and this was no exception. I was talking to the staff nurse about my mother, and she remarked that she thought of my mum as a little dormouse, all curled up in her bed and slow to wake. And when I went to visit earlier this week, there she was, snug as the proverbial bug. I sat down next to her and held her hand.

‘Mum’, I said quietly.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

She roused and looked at me with an expression of utter incomprehension and  fear.

‘Who is it? ‘ she said.

‘It’s me, Mum’, I said.

She stared at me for a moment, and I thought that she still didn’t know. But then she visibly relaxed and squeezed my hand.

‘Of course it’s you, I’m just being silly’, she said. ‘But I have had a very peculiar day’.

She proceeded to tell me how her day had been broken up into little shards of time and space.

‘I was having my breakfast and then it wasn’t there. Someone was shaking my shoulder and then the physiotherapist was here, but he was on his own so he couldn’t do much because I still can’t walk. And then you were here’.

Some of this is being in hospital, of course – both Mum and Dad lose touch with reality when they’re on a ward. Some of it is being tired. Some of it though is failing cognition.

Will there come a point when she won’t recognise me at all? And if that comes, will she recognise at least that I’m someone who loves her and doesn’t mean her any harm?

I push that thought away, and start to feed her a homemade creme caramel, her favourite. After two minutes she grabs it herself, and eats the lot. This is good news, for sure.

The staff nurse tells me that Mum is now medically fit to leave hospital, but still can’t stand unaided, and so they are going to transfer her to a community hospital in Wareham, where she’ll get the rehab that she needs. It’s a place with only one ward and relaxed visiting hours, so hopefully she’ll get a bit more attention than is possible in a busy hospital.

I go home to dad, who is still under the impression that Mum is his mother for a lot of the time. Initially we kept trying to explain the situation, and I do still try to help him understand who is who. He is really shocked if I tell him that his Mum died over twenty years ago, and it almost seems cruel to do so, but it’s breaking my mother’s heart.

‘Oh’, he says, suspicious. ‘If you say so’.

And yet he remembers exactly where the doctors surgery is when we visit later in the week, directing the carer there and telling her to slow down as we trundle through Milton Abbas as there’s a 30 mile per hour limit. Dad is itching to drive, but we have deterred him so far, because he has been so poorly with his chest and his confusion. I have a feeling though that if he sat in a car all those automatic reactions would take over and he would be fine. He was always an excellent driver, and gets so cross with us when we try to dissuade him from popping to the shops in the car.

‘Driving is my life!’ he says, in a burst of unaccustomed eloquence. ‘I promise I won’t drive if I don’t feel well enough. You don’t need to worry!’.

But worry I do, of course, because it’s ingrained now. However, I have to recognise that my span of control is limited, and that Dad is still a power to be reckoned with, even if half the time he has no idea that I’m his daughter. He was always a great bull of a man, stubborn and single-minded and, whatever else is happening to him, that remains unchanged. As with Mum, I think it’s that cussedness that’s enabled them to survive so far. It’s such a narrow line between giving them the respect that they deserve as my parents and as human beings, and trying to keep them safe. Do let me know if you’ve managed to walkthat tightrope without falling off regularly, I could do with some tips!

And next week, I am walking away from it all for a whole week and a bit. I am going a long way away to have an adventure that has been booked for a long, long time. My brother is going to look after the situation with the carers and the parents, and I am going to switch my phone off for hours at a time. Watch this space over the next few weeks for Bugwoman on Location in a very interesting place 🙂

And here’s a clue….

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Sunflower

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Dear Readers, you may have read about how the bird-sown sunflowers in my garden cheered me up last week. I’ve subsequently become even more fascinated with them, with their geometrical patterns, their usefulness to both pollinators and humans, their rhythms and the way that they have inspired artists.

First things first. The sunflower that we know comes originally from North America, where it was planted on the north side of fields by some Native American groups as the ‘Fourth Sister’ to the more well-known ‘Three Sisters’ of squash, corn and beans. The seeds are extremely nutritious, and the oil that can be extracted from them is high in Vitamin E and low in saturated fat. The birds in my garden have been somewhat spoiled with their diet of hulled sunflower seeds, and now turn their beaks up at anything else. They are delicious for humans too, and I can recommend using them as a sprinkle on salads if they are toasted and given a few dashes of soy sauce.

What about that seedhead, though?

The head of a sunflower is not composed of one big flower, but of a myriad tiny ones, arranged in a series of interlocking spirals. These are called ‘disk florets’ (the ‘petals’ are called ‘ray florets’). In the photo below, you can see some tiny actual petals protruding. Each one of the disk florets will, if pollinated, become a sunflower seed.

A closer view of the fused petals of each disk floret

Each floret is orientated towards the next one at an angle of approximately 137.5 degrees – this is known in geometry as the ‘golden angle’, and it results in a series of spirals that are successive Fibonacci numbers.  At this point my head explodes (maths not being a strong point) but for those of you who are fascinated by these things, here’s a diagram. Note that each number is the sum of the two previous ones (so 1+1 =2, 2+1 = 3, 3+2 = 5 etc). What it actually means is that each disk floret is at a slightly different angle to the one next to it, so the florets are packed in as tightly as it is mathematically possible for them to be. This maximises the amount of seeds that the plant will eventually produce.

The marriage of mathematics and nature can produce some truly beautiful offspring.

Photo One by By 克勞棣 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38708516

A diagram of a Fibonacci spiral (Photo One)

And now to another feature of sunflowers. It is often believed that the sunflowers follow the sun: that is, they are heliotrophic, following the path of the sun through the sky. However, this is not absolutely true. Sunflower buds start in the morning facing the rising sun, and end it facing west (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), a movement synchronised by the sun (though it will continue in cloudy weather or if kept in constant daylight).

However, the ‘adult’ flowers always face east, towards the rising sun, as shown in the photo below: here, you can see the sun blazing away behind the flowers.

Photo Two by By shirleybolling2005 - Flickr: D40 726, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21999817

Sunflowers facing away from the late afternoon sun (Photo Two)

The most likely reason for this is that it warms up the plant early in the morning,  and helps it to attract more pollinators. The sunflowers in my garden are visited by carder bees, hoverflies, and honeybees, to name but a few.

Carder bee on sunflower

In addition to their use as a food/oil crop, sunflowers can be used for phytoremediation (removal of dangerous chemicals from the soil) and rhizofiltration (removal of radioactive material from water). Sunflowers were used to remove strontium-90 and caesium-90 from a pond after the Chernobyl disaster and have been used in a similar way following Fukushima. It seems that all of nature is trying to rebalance and clear up our mess.

Because of their ease of cultivation, sunflowers are often the first thing grown by children, and some schools have sunflower-growing competitions. The plants in my garden are a modest metre tall, probably because my plot is north-facing, but in  2016 Suttons Seeds ran a competition for the tallest sunflower. The winner was Valerie Briggs, with a 4.60 metre plant.

Photo Three from https://hub.suttons.co.uk/blog/general/tallest-sunflower-competition-2016

Valerie Briggs’s award-winning 4.6 metre tall sunflower (Photo Three)

When I look at a sunflower I can never work out what came first. Did we look at a sunflower and decide that that was what the sun looked like, or did it happen the other way round? After all, the sun is a bright ball in the sky without any ‘petals’, but many children draw the sun exactly like a sunflower head.

Child’s drawing of the sun and a bird (Public Domain)

However, what is clear is that the sunflower has inspired many artists of all ages and degrees of talent. Van Gogh, of course, painted them during a time of rare optimism  while he was waiting for the arrival of his friend, the artist Paul Gauguin. Newly invented pigments meant that he could experiment with different shades of yellow and ochre, and he went at it with enthusiasm, as shown in this letter to his brother Theo:

I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers.”

Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (Vincent van Gogh , 1888) (Public Domain)

Van Gogh thought of the sunflower as being ‘his’ flower:

“It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’. You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.”

Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (Vincent van Gogh 1888) (Public Domain)

In return, Gauguin painted Van Gogh painting sunflowers:

Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (Paul Gauguin, 1888) (Public Domain)

I like to think of sunflowers as being a source of happiness for Van Gogh, a man who had vanishingly few good times in his troubled life. There is something about them that always makes me smile, for sure. Maybe it’s because they are so much bigger than most members of the daisy family, and make me feel correspondingly smaller and more childlike. Maybe it’s that buttery colour, and their complicated relationship with the sun. But for me, it’s also because there seems to be something dogged about the plant, something that is determined to keep going up and up. It’s conjured in this poem by Frank Steele. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunflower

You’re expected to see
only the top, where sky
scrambles bloom, and not
the spindly leg, hairy, fending off
tall, green darkness beneath.
Like every flower, she has a little
theory, and what she thinks
is up.   I imagine the long
climb out of the dark
beyond morning glories, day lilies, four o’clocks
up there to the dream she keeps
lifting, where it’s noon all day.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By 克勞棣 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38708516

Photo Two by By shirleybolling2005 – Flickr: D40 726, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21999817

Photo Three from https://hub.suttons.co.uk/blog/general/tallest-sunflower-competition-2016

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Water Plantain

Water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica)

Dear Readers, just before the heatwave finally broke I went for a walk in Coldfall Wood with my friend J, and noticed this extraordinary seedhead projecting above some elegant, long-stemmed leaves. How delicate water plantain is! It is growing in the now dried-up bed of the seasonal pond, where the water level has gone up and down by several feet in the past few months. At the moment the pond bed is a mass of bistort and water mint, with the water plantain and some bulrushes providing a bit of height. This is a far cry from the scene in January.

The seasonal pond in Coldfall Wood in January this year

I have just missed the main flowering of the water plantain, but the flowers are tiny, pinkish-white, and usually only open after midday. There is something rather Sputnik-like about the arrangement of the flowers on their spikes, and the closed buds resemble clenched fists. All this reminds me of the social realist Russian paintings of the Soviet era, and indeed there is a Russian connection. Water plantain is native to most of Europe and Asia and northern and central Africa, but in Russia the powdered root is said to be a cure for rabies, giving the plant the alternative name of ‘mad dog weed’. In some parts of the world it is also said to be a cure for snakebite.

Illustration by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman (Public Domain)

It is said to be anti-allergenic and protective of the kidneys and urinary tract.

The crushed dried leaves (to avoid the problems of blistering mentioned earlier) have been used as a poultice to relieve pain during breast-feeding in both humans and other mammals, and in Chinese Traditional medicine (where it is known as Xe Zie) it is believed that the plant can help with all aspects of fertility and childbirth.

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043864

Water plantain flower (Photo One)

The plant is not closely related to plants such as ribwort plantain but is a member of the Alismataceae or water-plantain family. In addition to its place in Russian medicinal lore, it is known as ‘Leaf of Patrick’ in Ireland, and is reputed to ward off fairies. The leaves are, however, said to cause blisters if bruised. The genus name Alisma is said to come from the Celtic word for ‘water’.

Photo Two by By Bff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7862977

The elegant leaves of water plantain (Photo Two)

Ruskin took an interest in the ratio of the flower stalks of water plantain to one another, and used this to illustrate his theory of Gothic architecture. He also believed that the curve of the water plantain leaf represented a model of ‘divine proportion’, one of those shapes on which ‘God has stamped those characters of beauty which He has made it man’s nature to love’.

Photo Three from http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/painting/ruskin/drawings/7lamps12e.html

An illustration of a water plantain flower stalk by John Ruskin (Photo Three)

Water plantain have been used as food by the Kalmucks of Russia and China, who boiled the roots to get rid of the bitterness and toxicity of the plant. The Iroquois of North America drank a tea made from the leaves to give them extra energy (the plant is widely naturalised in the New World).

Now, at this point I normally share a poem, or a painting, but this week I want to share something completely unrelated to water plantain. As my friend and I left the pond and headed up through the wood towards home, our eyes were drawn to a tiny heart-shaped plaque at the root of a tree. When I read what was written on it, I was instantly drawn back to the pet funerals of my own childhood. I often roped in my unfortunate little brother – once we had a ceremony for a moth that had died after hatching from its chrysalis and being unable to find somewhere to expand its wings properly. I well remember that we buried it in a matchbox under a fragment of bathroom tile, upon which was scrawled, in purple crayon,

‘Died before he could live. RIP’.

RIP Moonlight. And blessings on the child who loved her pet enough to bury here in the woods. Grief is grief, and who is to say that the death of an animal is trivial?  I have had my own heart broken often enough, and so, I suspect, have many other people.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043864

Photo Two by By Bff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7862977

Photo Three from http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/painting/ruskin/drawings/7lamps12e.html