Category Archives: Uncategorized

Wednesday Weed – Water Hawthorn

Water Hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos)

Dear Readers, this was one of the plants that I put into my pond when it was first created in 2011, and this is the first time that it has flowered, so I thought I would share it with you. What a strange bloom it is! At first I thought the flower was full of little black insects, but a closer look reveals that the stamens are deepest chocolate-purple. The shape of the flower is most unusual – it opens into a ‘Y’ shape which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  Each ‘flower’ is in fact a collection of single-petalled white flowers, each with their own set of stamens. When the flower is pollinated, it apparently bends below the surface of the water to allow the fruit to ripen. The seeds then float away from the parent plant, sink, and wait until conditions are right to develop into a new plant.

Water hawthorn comes originally from the Western Cape and Mpumalanga regions of South Africa, where it is known as waterbloometjie or ‘water floret’. It is a plant of ephemeral pools, rather than permanent ones like mine: it blooms with the autumn rains, and becomes dormant when the pond dries up in summer. Water hawthorn species store all the water and nutrients that they need to survive in their dry tubers, but this means that they are rather easy to dig up in the dry season: one related Thai species, Aponogeton crispus, was nearly driven to extinction when it was ‘harvested’ in this way for aquariums, and is now protected. All the plant books advise the gardener not to assume that the plant has died when it disappears, but I did think that mine might put in an appearance more often than every eight years. However, I guess the conditions in the pond are finally to its liking, and maybe it will be a bit less shy from now on.

The flowers are said to be highly-scented, but I must say that I haven’t noticed so far: maybe the temperature needs to climb a bit to bring out the fragrance. I have heard the perfume described as like ‘vanilla’ (lovely) or, more likely, like hawthorn (something of an acquired ‘taste’). It was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century, and has since naturalised in some places in the UK and France. Further afield, it can be found growing wild in California and in Australia. It is mentioned as a potential problem in my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ by Olaf Booy, Max Wade and Helen Roy, but the authors grudgingly admit that the plant doesn’t appear to spread much by itself without human help. In this it varies from other water plants which are really making an impact on UK waterways, such as parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) and floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides), both of which were popular pond plants and have since become a real menace, choking out every other plant.

As with many ‘invasive’ plants, one solution is to eat them, and the buds and new flowers of water hawthorn are eaten in South Africa in a stew, usually with lamb.If you fancy having a bash (and with only three flowers this year I won’t be joining you), there’s a recipe here. There are also some rather mouth-watering photos here, where the waterblommetjies bredie is described as tasting ‘like a combination of winter and spring’. I love the way that this website gives me a world tour every week.

Photo One by By Genet at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12146974

Tinned water hawthorn flowers (Photo One)

The recipe for the stew, called waterbloometjie bredie in Afrikaans, came originally from the Khoikhoi people of the Cape. They were a nomadic people who maintained large herds of Nguni or South African cattle, a breed specially adapted to the highveld area. The cows have a characteristic black nose, and were bred in a variety of colours to provide uniforms for the different regiments of the army of King Shaka of the Zulus. The king’s personal guard wore the pure white hides of the cattle from the king’s herd.

Photo Two by By Justinjerez, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10347636

Nguni or South African Cattle (Photo Two)

But as usual, I digress. The Aponogeton family has 56 species, in Africa, Australia and Asia, all of them pond plants. So far only the water hawthorn has become popular as a garden plant, but there are several species from Madagascar currently in cultivation, including the rather beautiful Aponogeton madagascariensis or Madagascar laceleaf. I just hope that the revenues from the sale of this plant will help the populations of that extraordinary country. Several species are also cited as being good for aquariums.

Madagascar laceleaf (Aponogeton madagascariensis) (Public Domain)

Now, in the hunt for a poem about this plant I decided to go with its Afrikaans name. And here, for your delectation, is a lovely combination of image and words from the website Haiku Out of Africa by Liz Bard.

But I also loved this splendid piece from the BBC, which explores the whole history of the waterbloometjie bredie and the way that the plant is so entangled in the culture of the Cape. The photos are wonderful, and I shall look at my water hawthorn not just as a delight to the eye, but as a little exemplar of African history right here in East Finchley

BBC – A South African comfort food born from a pond

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Genet at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12146974

Photo Two by By Justinjerez, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10347636

Bugwoman is Five Years Old!

The photo adorning Bugwoman’s first ever blogpost

Dear Readers, it hardly seems possible but five years ago, in February 2014, I started Bugwoman’s Adventures in London following a most excellent course run by the Gentle Author, whose masterwork Spitalfields Life has been published every single day since August 2009. One of the Gentle Author’s most helpful rules was to establish exactly what you were going to do as a blogger, and to make this public. And so, on my page, I wrote the following:

‘Bug Woman is a slightly scruffy middle-aged woman who enjoys nothing more than finding a large spider in the bathroom. She plans to spend the next five years exploring the parks, woods and pavements within a half-mile radius of her North London home, and reporting on the animals, plants and people that she finds there. She will also be paying close attention to the creatures that turn up in the garden and the house. She promises to post every week on a Saturday, and more often if she can tear herself away from the marmalade making. She looks forward to finding out what’s happening in your half-mile.’

Well, I have kind of kept that promise. I have certainly posted every Saturday, and indeed every Wednesday with the Wednesday Weed. To start with I was strictly local. I shared Coldfall Wood, and Cherry Tree Wood, and then there was the saga of the foxes who lived in the cemetery.

What I could not have anticipated was how my ‘half-mile’ was going to spread to encompass Canada, Austria, Monterey Bay, Costa Rica, and  Milborne St Andrew, where my parents lived until very recently.

Humpback breaching in Monterey Bay (Photo courtesy of Peter Dunn)

Nor could I have anticipated how my subject matter was going to spread. To start with, it was very strictly the birds and the bees and the weeds. Here, for example, is a link to my very first blogpost.  At that point, I thought that it was all going to be about the writing, and that the photos were secondary. Later, I rediscovered my love of marrying image to text. I sometimes think of this blog as the equivalent of the nature table that I looked after when I was at school, a rather magpie-ish collection of things that I’ve found interesting, and hope that the reader will too.

Once, when I was desperate for subject matter (and I feel that I underestimated the pressure that a blog creates), I did a post on the foster cats that I used to look after. It remains one of my most popular posts, to my chagrin.

Hamlet

However, it was this post from 2016 that really changed the focus of the blog. My mother and father had come to stay with us for Christmas. While she was here, Mum became ill with a chest infection that developed into  sepsis, and she nearly died. It was one of the worst times of my life, and it brought home to me what a solace the natural world can be during these times. It isn’t just that it provides beauty and distraction and in doing so it pulls us back into the present moment – it also provides much-needed perspective. Nature carries on doing her thing regardless of our worries and troubles. Strangely enough, I find that very comforting.

Mum’s orchid

The next few years were full of trips to Dorset to nurse Mum and Dad through their various crises. As regular readers will know, Mum and Dad both went into a nursing home last year, and Mum died in December. Throughout this period my walks around the village were a constant source of relief and inspiration. Last summer I remember standing under a lime tree that was heavy with blossom. The bees buzzed around it and the scent was enough to make me want to recline underneath and sink into slumber. For a few blissful moments I could drop everything that was weighing me down.

Lime blossom

And then, of course, there has been the Wednesday Weed. In spring and summer this has been an easy piece to write, but it has become more and more difficult in the winter. I have gradually moved on from plants that everyone would agree was a weed, to plants that are wild but desirable, to plants that are happily growing in someone’s front garden. At Christmas this year I even did a piece that I am rather proud of on brussels sprouts. I have loved finding out about the plants that pop up on the waste ground of East Finchley, but I fear that, after 250 ‘weeds’ I may have to expand my area of interest even further. Still, the one thing about doing a biweekly blog is that, at least twice a week, I have to go outside, open my eyes and see what’s happening. I honestly think that the process of creating the blog has kept me sane over the past few years. The combination of looking and walking, taking photographs and writing is to be highly recommended to anyone who wants to try out their creative wings. And it has kept me accountable. I don’t know if people are exactly hanging on my every word, but I do suspect that some people would notice if I stopped posting, and so I feel a responsibility which has kept me going when nothing else would have done.

So, the question now is, whither Bugwoman? I shall be considering my plan for the next five years, but I would be grateful for your comments and ideas. Is there anything that you have particularly enjoyed, or would like more of? Does anything stick in your memory? I would quite like to expand my writing to include some of the nature books that have inspired me or piqued my interest. Part of me wants to have some more expeditions to interesting places in London and beyond, but part of me also wants to root back down into the very local. Part of me wants to deepen and research my pieces more thoroughly, while another part loves the broad brush stroke, the overview. Whatever I decide, I can bet that the next five years will throw up opportunities and challenges that I can’t even imagine at the moment. Thank you all for coming along for the ride so far, and I look forward to your company as we gallop into the future.

A cucumber spider (Arienella curcubita)

 

 

Travelling Home

Mum and Dad on their wedding day 61 years ago

Dear Readers I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the last things. During this past year I have watched so many things fall away from my parents, but these  events are rarely marked because we don’t realise that they are final at the time The last time that Dad was able to do the Guardian Quick Crossword. The last time that Mum was able to enjoy solid food. The last time that Mum could walk, or go to the toilet on her own, or enjoy ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The last time that she said my name.

When I last reported on Mum and Dad’s progress, they had just moved into a nursing home, and Mum in particular was raging about what she considered her incarceration. It was a dreadful time. We didn’t have the care in place to send her home, and she was so ill that no amount of care would have been enough, but she was determined not to settle at the nursing home. On one occasion she called the police to get her out. She fought with the staff about everything from taking her medication to having a bath.

It is no exaggeration to say that I was in despair, though I was also secretly proud of her. She has a long tradition of being defiant. If there was a complaint to be made at a restaurant, or if an unfortunate scammer rang up to try to get her credit card details, she was ready for the challenge. One man who insisted that he was from Sky Television and wanted Mum to divulge her bank account number ended up calling Mum a ‘very nasty woman’ and putting the phone down in high dudgeon. Given her track record, there was no way that my mother was going ‘gently into that good night’.

Gradually, she got to know some of the nurses and to accept care from them. But it wasn’t long before Mum was sick again. She has an ailment called a pseudo-blockage, in which the whole of her digestive system comes to a halt, causing nausea, stomach pain and bloating. Sometimes this is a result of another disease such as cancer, or diverticulitis, or Parkinson’s disease, and sometimes it’s just a result of old age. Mum had five days in hospital, at the end of which time the hospital said that they could do nothing more for her, and that she was too frail for any investigative tests. She was sent back to the nursing home, and I went to visit her.

I saw one of the carers who had previously tried to look after Mum when she was at her feistiest.

‘She’s like a different woman’, said the carer. ‘She’s totally prepared to let me look after her now’.

‘Is that a good thing?’ I asked.

The carer squinted and considered.

‘No, ‘ she said. ‘Probably not’.

I went in to see Mum. Her head was bent to one side like a bud on a stalk. She was complaining about a head ache, and said that her arm hurt, and her neck hurt.

The nurse gave her some oral morphine. They were planning to use a morphine patch if Mum’s condition came back, which the hospital had assured them it would. And so, without even noticing, we were now into palliative care, which treats the symptoms of the severely ill whilst recognising that they will never get better.

Mum was still fairly lucid, but she was in pain. The doses of oral morphine came closer and closer together. There was talk of a patch that released morphine into the blood stream.

At one point, Mum opened her eyes and said

‘Someone is helping me’.

‘Who, Mum?’ I asked. I wondered if it was her mother, dead at 64 years old of a heart attack.

‘I don’t know’, said Mum, and closed her eyes again.

When I left Mum, I said ‘I love you’, as I always do.

‘I love you’, she said, and then, as I got to the door, ‘I love you’, again.

On Monday I get a call telling me that the pseudo-blockage has come back, that Mum is in increasing pain and that they are going to start Mum on a syringe driver that releases a regular amount of morphine directly into her bloodstream. The nurse tells me that this usually indicates that we are talking about weeks of life left, not months. It could even be days, though it’s difficult to say for sure.

On Wednesday I jumped onto the train to go to Dorchester to spend a few hours with Mum.

Mum hasn’t really eaten solid food since mid-July, and her face is returning to the planes and angles that it had when she was a young woman. Her skin is stretched thin over her cheekbones, and her cat-green eyes have a kind of febrile light, when they are open. Her mouth has fallen in and the nursing staff are using big, lemon-scented cottonbuds impregnated with glycerine to keep her lips and tongue from cracking. They wash her, and offer her milk which is the only food left that she can tolerate. They are like handmaidens caring for an elderly priestess. There is something stately about Mum now, something ancient as if carved out of stone.

At first, Mum is groaning, and Dad is trying to interpret the noises that she is making. The nurses come in to replace her morphine syringe and gradually the groaning stops. When Dad goes for lunch, I have a chance to sit and hold Mum’s hand.  I see her take three or four breaths and then pause for what seems an interminable time before taking the next one. I can  see the vibration of her labouring heart beneath her nightshirt.

People talk about a dying person ‘letting go’ or ‘giving up’, but it seems to me that what is going on is a tussle between the different parts of person, with some systems closing down and others wanting to hang on. It is complicated, this business, and different for everyone. It seems like hard, private work.

It is surprisingly quiet in the room – no nurses, no television, just the sound of birds in the tree outside. I tell Mum that I love her, that she is surrounded by so much love. I tell her that my brother and I will look after Dad if she’s not around. I tell her that my brother and I will look after one another too.

She squeezes my hand, though it could just be a spasm.

I tell her that I’m going to feel pretty bloody silly if next time I come in, she’s running around the room.

I cry a bit. And then all is peaceful again.

A week ago, Mum said ‘I love you’.  She said it twice. These might be the last words that I ever hear from her, because I sense that she is labouring away in some place too deep for words. But whatever happens next, those words will be enough.

 

Wednesday Weed – Winter Daphne

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me this week – I have a cold and am feeling a bit sniffly and sorry for myself, so I thought I would write about a plant that couldn’t be closer to home. I have a Daphne in a pot right next to my kitchen door, and when it flowers in January the delicious scent wafts up every time I go out to top up the bird feeders.

Daphne odora is native to China but soon spread to Japan and Korea.It grows best in acid soil, hence its being confined to a terracotta pot in my garden. The leaves are evergreen, and in my variety they are gold-edged. The plant is a member of the Thymelaeaceae, a large and varied family of some 898 species including lacebark trees and paper bush (Edgworthia). Daphne has a reputation as a delicate, short-lived garden plant, at least in the UK – it can grow into a substantial shrub, but generally has a life of only 8 to 10 years. Mine is fairly happy after five years in its pot, and I am keeping my fingers crossed. However there is a legend that says that if you tell another gardener that your Daphne is doing well, it will die, so please close your ears to my boasting.

Photo One by Miya [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Daphne odora in flower (Photo One)

This plant really is all about the perfume. Its Korean name means ‘thousand-mile scent’, and its Latin species name means ‘sweet-smelling’. Even my little shrub can make me stop in my tracks when it is in full flower.According to the A Wandering Botanist website, the following legend explains the plant’s Chinese name:

According to an early Chinese herbal, a monk fell asleep below a cliff on Lu Mountain (Lu Shan) in Jiangxi Province. In a dream he smelled a fragrance so strong and memorable that he recalled it clearly when he awoke. He climbed up the mountain to find the source of the odor, finding Daphne odora. He called the plant “sleeping scent” (shuixiang). which has changed over time to the similar-sounding name lucky scent (ruixiang). 

But not everything about Daphne is sweet. All species of Daphne are poisonous: the sap may cause skin irritation, and the berries (if they appear) may, according  to the Poison Garden website

‘…. cause vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and a burning sensation in the mouth. Larger doses add to these shivering, dilation of the pupils, convulsions and damage to the oral passages and the intestine’.

Interestingly, the sap was used to give young women rosy cheeks as it irritated the skin.

There is one recorded case of Daphne poisoning in a child, from 1887, and this related to a four year-old eating the berries of Daphne mezereum or spurge laurel. In 1950 a seven year-old was taken ill after eating some of the leaves. Generally the taste of the berries is too acrid to encourage much ingestion, though they do look rather like redcurrants. My little shrub has never produced any berries, but here are some on a Daphne mezereums so that you can see what they look like.

Photo Two by Jeffdelonge [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Daphne mezereum berries (Photo Two)

The name ‘Daphne’ comes from the jGreek legend of Daphne and Apollo. Daphne was a water nymph, who was pursued by Apollo. Just before he caught her, she appealed to her father Poseidon, who turned her into a laurel tree (Laurus nobilis). The Greek word for laurel is ‘Daphne’, hence the general confusion. Here we can see Daphne transforming into a tree in her haste to get away from Apollo. Women generally came off worst in any encounters with the gods of antiquity.

Photo Three by By Architas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70138441

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini (1622-25) (Photo Three)

I rather like this more modern take by  Iris Le Rutte in Oldenburg, Germany.

Photo Four by Anaconda74 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

‘Daphne im Wind’ by Iris Le Rutte, 2011 (Photo Four)

And for our poem this week, here is a piece by the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950). I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with her poetry: I am not that struck by this piece (although it obviously fits our topic of the week), but see what you think.

Daphne

Why do you follow me?—
Any moment I can be
Nothing but a laurel-tree.

Any moment of the chase
I can leave you in my place
A pink bough for your embrace.

Yet if over hill and hollow
Still it is your will to follow,
I am off;—to heel, Apollo!

And yet, I never fail to be moved by this one. I think it sums up the rage that often accompanies death, and is so rarely expressed.

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the
world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Miya [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Jeffdelonge [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Photo Three by By Architas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70138441

Photo Four by Anaconda74 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Bugwoman on Location – Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, Walthamstow Wetlands is the largest urban wetland in Europe, and opened to the general public earlier this year. I have been eager to visit it, but wanted to pick a time when it wasn’t too crowded. What better day, then, than a grey blustery November day? There are no less than eleven reservoirs here, and so we decided to concentrate on the southern part of the reserve, walking to the Coppermill Tower past the East Warwick reservoir, and then looping back past Reservoir 1.

The Engine Room cafe and shop

The reserve is still an operational Thames Water site, providing 3.5 million people with water every day. However, it is surprisingly peaceful. It is also home to two listed Victorian industrial buildings, and there are many pieces of paraphernalia relating to the site’s main purpose – moving water from A to B. The Engine Room (above) housed the pumping machinery relating to the reservoirs, and is now a cafe ( I can recommend the orange polenta cake), interpretation centre and shop.

Further into the reserve is the Coppermill. It has the most extraordinary Italianate tower attached to it, which served no earthly purpose that I  could see other than being decorative. The mill was powered by the Coppermill stream, and between 1808 and 1857 it produced the power to turn copper ingots into pennies and halfpennies. In the fourteenth century it was used to grind corn, in the 1670’s it produced gunpowder,in the 1690’s it rolled paper, and during the 1700’s it was used to work leather, and generate linseed oil. In the 1850’s the mill was purchased by the East London Water Authority, and used to pump water during the building of the reservoirs. These days, its milling and pumping days are over, but it is still used as an operational hub for Thames Water.

The Coppermill

But what, you might ask, of the animals? Walthamstow Wetlands is a prime spot for moulting  tufted duck, for example; over two thousand of them choose the reservoirs as a haven during this vulnerable time of the year. I always loved the way that tufted ducks dive with a wake of bubbles, and bob back up to the surface like corks.

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

The site is also home to a sizable proportion of North-Western Europe’s northern shoveler ducks. These are such handsome birds, especially the drakes with their mix of russet and bottle-green, and their golden eyes. They are such easy ducks for the beginner to identify too, with their over-sized bills, which they swish through the water as they sieve out the tiny invertebrates that they feed on.

Northern shoveler (male ) (Anas clypeata)

Male and female shoveler duck

There are also, of course, some of the usual suspects. Coots are already fighting over territory, though you’d think with all these reservoirs to choose from there would be plenty of room. Canada geese graze beside the more formal, raised reservoirs. They look particularly splendid silhouetted against the sky.

The increasingly common Egyptian geese also like this area – a little family wandered over to us to see if we had anything in our pockets, the male uttering his characteristic wheezy call.

A mute swan drifted up the Coppermill stream, and reminded me of the time that I was walking to catch my train to work at stupid o’clock. I heard the sound of rustling wings, looked up, and seven mute swans flew overhead, just above the rooftops. I was transfixed. Sometimes, nature can turn an ordinary day into something with an almost mythical quality.

Walthamstow Wetlands is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for herons too – it has one of the five best heronries in the country. I saw many herons flying past, but the nests, which are enormous, are abandoned at this time of year. I must make sure to pay a visit in the spring though. Young herons look more like dinosaurs than almost any bird I can imagine.

The heronry on the island in Reservoir Two, surrounded by cormorants

 

At this time of year, the heronries are largely home to cormorants. Up to 100 pairs breed every year, down from 300 pairs in the early 2000’s. This is not a bird much beloved by anglers, and neither is the heron. On the other hand, the chaps (and they seemed to all be chaps) who were sitting in their olive-green tents and dipping their fishing rods into  Reservoir One seemed to be a peaceable lot, not much given to getting annoyed about any avian competition. Long may this happy state continue!So all in all I was extremely impressed by Walthamstow Wetlands. I saw a lot of things that I didn’t manage to photograph, including an extremely friendly goldcrest who was working the needles of the gorse bushes beside Reservoir One, and a flock of long-tailed tits in the same area. But there is so much more to see! There are reputed to be kingfishers everywhere, plus as the winter goes on all kinds of waterfowl will drop in. There are water rail ( a ‘bogey bird’ for me, inasmuch as I have heard it many times but have never actually seen more than a few red toes before they disappeared into the reeds). And there are sometimes bearded tits. Who could resist? I shall make a return visit to Walthamstow Wetlands very soon.

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) (Photo One)

Completely Unapologetic Plug

I would like to recommend ‘Birdwatching London‘ by David Darrell Lambert as an excellent guide to the many places in the Capital for birdspotting. A great resource whether you live here or are just visiting. I would also like to put in a plug for the Natural History Bookshop, a tremendous online shop for all things nature-related, from books to moth traps to microscopes.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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