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Wednesday Weed – Spotted Loosestrife

Dotted loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata)

Dear Readers, at first glance I thought that this rather attractive plant was yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris), but the centre of each flower tells me that it’s its cultivated cousin, dotted loosestrife (which is named after the orange dot at the bottom of each petal). I should have guessed because this patch was growing not alongside a pond, but behind my Aunt Hilary’s shed, and dotted loosestrife is much less picky about the dampness of its habitat. It is an attractive member of the primrose family, and was first introduced to the UK in 1658 from south east Europe. By 1853 it had cut loose from its garden setting and is still spreading, being particularly common in the south east and on the west coast of the UK. In Stace’s book ‘Alien Plants’, it is number 22 in the top 30 most frequently found alien plants in East Sutherland in Scotland,

All Lysimachia species are named in honour of Lysimachus, an ancient king of Sicily who is said to have cured a mad ox by feeding it a member of the genus. Dotted loosestrife is not closely related to purple loosestrife, but both names refer to the belief that the plants are powerfully medicinal, particularly for ailments of the mind.

Although dotted loosestrife can grow into quite a substantial patch, Stace notes that individual plants appear not to set seed,  indicating that it needs to be cross-pollinated. However, it can spread by tiny rhizomes, and is hence often moved from one place to another by the dumping of garden waste (the RHS has dotted loosestrife on its list of ‘thugs’). This is the case with many other plants as well, and those of you who are regular readers will have heard me complain before about the species that pop up in my little local patch of ancient woodland, Coldfall Wood. However, dotted loosestrife seems like a relatively well-behaved ‘weed’, unlike its purple namesake who has been running riot in the wetlands of North America ever since it was introduced.

There is one species of bee in the UK which uses Lysimachia species in a most unusual way. The Yellow Loosestrife bee (Macropis europaea) harvests not only the pollen from the flowers of yellow loosestrife (and occasionally dotted loosestrife), but also the oil that that the plant produces from special glands. The oil is used by the female to waterproof the tunnels within which she lays her eggs: these are usually made in damp soil, so it’s important water doesn’t ooze in and drown the larvae. These little insects can therefore nest safely in areas that are much too waterlogged for other bees.

This is a rare insect, but it can be found in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, so if you live in Eastern England keep your eyes peeled! It will be on the wing for a few more weeks, until early September.

Photo One by AfroBrazilian [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Yellow loosestrife bee (Macropis europaea) (Photo One)

The plant is also used as a foodplant by the caterpillars of many moths, including the V-pug (Chloroclystis v-ata), so called for the dark ‘V’-shaped marks on its wings.

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

V-Pug (Chloroclystis v-ata) (Photo Two)

Interestingly, my ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book (by Adrian Thomas) has introduced me to a Lysimachia that I hadn’t come across before: he describes the gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) as a ”much undervalued’ nectar plant for butterflies and for bees. And very attactive it is too, with flowerspikes up to a metre tall.

Photo Three by By TIFFANYLAUFER - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) (Photo Three)

And finally, a poem. John Clare has been a favourite here on Bugwoman’s Adventures in London, for his close observation of the countryside around him, for his wanderings, and for the sad story of his final descent into insanity and his incarceration. I love this work by Susan Kinsolving, a new poet to me, who somehow threads Clare’s own perceptions into this poem. The way that the enclosing of England echoes Clare’s own fate is deeply moving.


Susan Kinsolving

Winner of the Lyric Poetry Award in 2009

Parliament Passes The Inclosing Lands Act, 1809

The open-field system would end. Every acre was enumerated
in a way John Clare could not comprehend. Why should footpaths
have fences, streams be made straight, why fell trees, wall a field
and lock it with a gate? No longer could he drink from Eastwell
the bubbling water was penned by scaffolding. No Trespassing

at every turn, posted over scurvy-grass, loosestrife, vetch,
clover, and fern. Clare doffed his cap and wept for his right to
in chicory, thistle, briony and buttercup, he’d always been at
Or coming upon a gypsy camp (fires and tambourines!) he’d
his fleabane, borage, parsley, some beans. Once again the

had lost to the well-to-do, those new proprietors of blackberry,
nettle, toadflax, and meadow rue. Clare questioned his sanity,
a familiar hell, but tramped on to say his farewell to mallow,
oxlip, and pimpernel. He knew this ramble was one of his last;
field, farm, and forest would be enclosed. The open world was

Photo Credits

Photo One by AfroBrazilian [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (, but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution,

Photo Three by By TIFFANYLAUFER – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Wednesday Weed – Hollyhock

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Dear Readers, if there is any plant that shouts ‘English Country Garden’ louder than the hollyhock, I have yet to find it. This stand of plants in Dorchester, close to Dad’s nursing home, was abuzz with bumblebees, who were rolling about in the pollen like puppies. At first glance the flowers remind me very much of those of the mallow, which is not surprising because hollyhocks belong to the same family, the Malvaceae.

The most commonly domesticated hollyhock, Alcea rosea, came originally from south-western China, and has been grown in the UK since at least the 15th Century. It is thought that it was given its name by the herbalist William Turner, who called it the holyoke. The name comes from the Middle English ‘holy‘ (meaning ‘blessed’) and the Anglo Saxon word ‘hoc‘ meaning ‘mallow’. It is unclear whether the plant was brought to England as an ornamental, or because of its medicinal properties – the genus name ‘Alcea‘ comes from the Greek word Alceos, meaning ‘to cure’. Like many members of the mallow family, the hollyhock was believed to have emollient qualities and was used for everything from sore throats and bladder inflammation to soothing the chapped and cracked hooves of horses.

One subspecies that may have been imported specifically for its decorative properties, however, was the ‘black’ hollyhock, Alcea rose nigra. Plants with flowers this dark were rare, and I imagine that a specimen would have been quite a talking point. The earliest record of this plant is from 1629, and hollyhocks in general were very popular right up until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Photo One by By Øystein Hellesøe Brekke - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Black hollyhock (Alcea rosea nigra) (Photo One)

Sadly, a rust fungus that affects hollyhocks spread from South America to affect the plants worldwide, and the plant more or less ceased to exist in English gardens until the 1930’s, when it became popular again. Now it is a favourite in many gardens, both in Dorset (where I was positively tripping over them) but also in East Finchley and roundabouts. It is rather splendid, but am I alone in also finding it an untidy plant? It often seems to have crispy, browning leaves and is more often lopsided than not. Still, I can forgive it anything because of the enthusiasm with which it is approached by the aforementioned bumblebees, who seem to go into a kind of ecstasy in the flowers. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife‘ book advises staking the plant and growing it in moist but well-drained soil (always a tricky combination to pull off).

A pollen-covered bumblebee

As usual, my book recommends avoiding any double-flowered hollyhocks, amusing as they look with their puffball flowers. One double variety, ‘Chater’s Double’, was developed by the eponymous Chater in Essex in the 1880’s ( and I am very indebted to the ‘Harvesting History‘ website for all this fascinating information). Amazingly, this variety is still available and a packet of seeds from Marshalls will put you back only £1.99. However, do grow some more ‘straightforward’ hollyhocks as well. The bees will thank you.

Photo Two from

Chater’s Double Hollyhock (Photo Two)

In the West Country, your hollyhock leaves may be munched upon by the caterpillar of the mallow moth (Larentia clavaria), a rather understated but nonetheless elegant moth. Like many British moths, this species needs to be looked at closely to appreciate how beautiful the different bands of colour are, and how they help the moth to camouflage itself.

Photo Three by By Donald Hobern - originally posted to Flickr as Larentia clavaria, CC BY 2.0,

Mallow moth (Larentia clavaria) (Photo Three)

The caterpillar is one of the usual little green critters, but I’m sure it would be worth a look next year if you have hollyhocks in the garden. The adult moth flies from August right through to November if the weather is mild enough.

Photo Four by By J. Pohjoismäki -, Copyrighted free use,

Mallow moth caterpillar (Photo Four)

Incidentally, there are about 60 species of hollyhocks belonging to the genus Alcea, all of them from Europe or Asia. There is a single hollyhock species in North America known as the streambank wild hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis), and very pretty it is too.

Photo Five by By Unknown -, Public Domain,

Streambank wild hollyhock (Ilimana rivularis) (Photo Five)

‘Our’ hollyhock was, and is, a popular garden plant in North America, however. The Living History Farms website tells me that hollyhocks were often grown near the outhouse in Victorian times, so that ladies wouldn’t have to ask for the toilet but could simply look for the hollyhocks. The same source tells me that Thomas Jefferson was very partial to hollyhocks, and grew some in his garden at Monticello (or rather, his gardeners did).

In Japan, a hollyhock flower was incorporated into the seal of the Tokugawa shogunate, who ruled the country from 1603 to 1867. The plant still has resonance as a cultural symbol today.  There is a football team known as the Mito Hollyhock, whose seal shows three stylised ‘hollyhocks’ surrounded by a dragon. There is some discussion over whether the plant shown is actually a hollyhock, and I must admit that I am struggling to see the resemblance to the flowers, though maybe what is being portrayed is the leaves.

Photo Six by By Source, Fair use,

Logo of the Mito Hollyhock football team (Photo Six)

There is, however, a hollyhock festival (Aoi Matsuri) which is held in Kyoto every year. It dates back to the sixth century BCE, and is thought to have originated as a response to a series of natural disasters and epidemics. A lavish procession, decorated with hollyhock leaves (thought to ward off natural disasters) wends its way through the city to two shrines, where respects are paid to the deities. The event also features horse archery, which drew such huge crowds in the seventh century that the display was banned for a time. There are also some very impressive floats covered in hollyhock flowers.

Photo Seven by By Japanexperterna, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Man carrying what looks like a very heavy float featuring hollyhock flowers at the Aoi Matsuri festival in Kyoto (Photo Seven)

Hollyhock petals, especially those of the darker varieties, are said to be useful as dyes, so for this I turn to the Wooltribulations website, which has been a source of fascinating information before. The author certainly has a lot of fun with the flowers, both from her own plants (which are not as cooperative as they might be) and with some donated by a friend. She mentions that an Indian article on dyeing with hollyhock used ultrasound rather than heat to get the colour to ‘take’, which is a fascinating idea. Suffice to say that a whole range of hues were produced, including this absolutely lovely lavender-blue. If anyone is going to tempt me to plant hollyhocks, or to try dyeing, it would be this lady.

Photo Eight from

Wool dyed with hollyhock petals (Photo Eight)

As you might expect, hollyhocks were a favourite with Victorian era painters. Here is a delightful portrait by Charles Courtney Curran, from 1902. This looked so English that I was startled to find that Curran was actually an American. That’ll teach me to make assumptions.

Hollyhocks and Sunlight (Charles Courtney Curran, 1902) (Public Domain)

And here is another painting, this time by Frederick Carl Frieseke, an American Impressionist painter who spent most of his time in France. He lived for many years in Giverny, though he was not a friend of Monet, and said that if he was influenced by anyone, it was Renoir. The woman with the Japanese parasol is probably modelled upon his wife.

Hollyhocks (Carl Frederick Frieseke, 1912-1913) (Public Domain)

But I think that I actually like this painting, by Danish painter Anthonore Christensen (1849 – 1926), is probably my favourite. The artist has made the flowers the stars of the show, and she has a delicate style which made her one of the leading floral ‘portrait painters’ of her time. The best botanical painters not only observe closely, but also seem to bring out the ‘personality’ of the plants that she depicts. I feel as if I know these hollyhocks, with their buds bursting and their leaves starting to turn brown.

Anthore Christensen, Hollyhocks (1894) (Public Domain)

And now, lovely readers, for a poem. How much do I love this? Really a lot. I remember hearing a tale from a birdwatcher friend of mine, who told me that if you put on red lipstick, and filled your mouth with sugar water, hummingbirds would come and kiss you (not in the UK obviously, where you’d be waiting for a very long time). It always sounds rather unhygienic, particularly for the poor hummingbirds, but this work, by Galway Kinnell, reminded me of the scenario. I hope you enjoy it, and forgive the fact that its relationship to hollyhocks is strictly tangential.

Telephoning In Mexican Sunlight

 Talking with my beloved in New York
I stood at the outdoor public telephone
in Mexican sunlight, in my purple shirt.

Someone had called it a man/woman
 The phrase irked me.
 But then
I remembered that Rainer Maria
Rilke, who until he was seven wore
dresses and had long yellow hair,
wrote that the girl he almost was
"made her bed in his ear" and "slept him the world.
I thought, OK this shirt will clothe the other in me.

As we fell into long-distance love talk
a squeaky chittering started up all around,
and every few seconds came a sudden loud 
 I half expected to find
the insulation on the telephone line
laid open under the pressure of our talk
leaking low-frequency noises.

But a few yards away a dozen hummingbirds,
gorgets going drab or blazing
according as the sun struck them,
stood on their tail rudders in a circle 
around my head, transfixed
by the flower-likeness of the shirt.

And perhaps also by a flush rising into my face,
for a word -- one with a thick sound,
as if a porous vowel had sat soaking up
saliva while waiting to get spoken,
possibly the name of some flower
that hummingbirds love, perhaps
"honeysuckle" or "hollyhock"
or "phlox" -- just then shocked me
with its suddenness, and this time
apparently did burst the insulation,
letting the word sound in the open
where all could hear, for these tiny, irascible,
nectar-addicted puritans jumped back
all at once, as if the air gasped.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Øystein Hellesøe Brekke – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two from

Photo Three by By Donald Hobern – originally posted to Flickr as Larentia clavaria, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four by J. Pohjoismäki –, Copyrighted free use,

Photo Five By Unknown –, Public Domain,

Photo Six by By Source, Fair use,

Photo Seven by By Japanexperterna, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Eight from


Bugwoman on Location – Crossrail Place Roof Garden

Dear Readers, I am intrigued by the number of new imaginative green spaces that are springing up in Central London. Not long ago I popped in to see the roof garden at Fenchurch Street , and I was most impressed. However, I have been hearing great things about the roof garden at Canary Wharf. and so on a wet day earlier this week I took the Jubilee Line to Docklands, and popped in for a look.

The garden is part of the Crossrail (now the Elizabeth Line) station, a project which, as we know, is well behind schedule. When completed, the trains will arrive on Level Four of the station, below the shops and restaurants and the garden. The architecture is typical of its designer Norman Foster and Partners, who was responsible for the Great Court at the British Museum and the new Kings Cross Station. What is particularly interesting however is that large sections of the roof  of the garden are open to the elements (you can see an aerial photograph here. I had a chat with the gardeners who told me that this makes it quite a challenging space, with very differing levels of moisture and humidity. However, it looked absolutely splendid when I was there.

The planting design is based around the kinds of plants that would originally have arrived in the docks, either as food plants or as ‘stowaways’ – there is sugar cane and banana, tea, coffee and black pepper.  The garden is  divided in two, with plants from the east on one side of the main path, and plants from the west on the other. This could make for a right old jumble, but actually it is a lovely place to stroll through, and the plants are in excellent condition.

Rodgersia, palms and ferns

Bottlebrush plant

I was pleasantly surprised at how quiet it was at 10 a.m., though the gardeners told me that it is rammed at lunchtime. There are restaurants at either end, and a performance space called Giant Robot. There is a space for cookery lessons, and it was advertising sessions on Cuban and Persian food. By the time I left there were lots of London Mums from a dozen different cultures, walking their toddlers along the paths. It is a surprisingly child-friendly space, with lifts and escalators taking you down to very swish toilets with bright red glass doors.

But what is so lovely about this place is that, unlike more enclosed spaces, it is full of birdsong – the full-throated warbling of a blackbird, and the bell-like chimes of a flock of goldfinches, feeding on the seeds of the American Sweet Gum tree.

I loved the tree ferns too, such imposing plants.

There is some fine bamboo in a variety of greens and yellows.

And the roof frames some very unusual views of all the glass and steel buildings that surround the garden.

The calls of gulls can be heard too, and I watched one herring gull harassing a crow – gulls nest on some of the flat roofs and rafts in the old docks, and can recognise trouble when they see it.

So my advice is to go to the gardens early, avoid lunchtime and the evenings if you want a quieter experience, but do go and have a look. I suspect that it will be very attractive when some of the leaves change colour later in the year, and I have rarely seen a garden where the plants are so well looked-after. And who knows what other animals will move in? I saw several bees and hoverflies, all enjoying the plentiful flowers.

So, if you are in London and want to visit Crossrail Place Roof Garden I would definitely make a detour to see it. I suspect it will be much busier once Crossrail actually happens, so don’t hang around! It’s only a five minute trot from Canary Wharf Station, and you could catch the whizzy Docklands Light Railway from Bank or Tower Gateway or Stratford. Try to sit at the front to get the full ‘rollercoaster’ experience.

I have always thought of Docklands as being a soulless realm of men in suits, but it really is developing, finally, into something else. I  was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was, and by the variety of people who were enjoying it. London never ceases to surprise me.



Wednesday Weed – Lily of the Valley

Lily-of-the-valley(Convallaria majalis)

Dear Readers, I have found such comfort lately in the scent of lily-of-the-valley. One day, while I was wandering in Dorchester and trying to decide what to do after a visit to Dad in the nursing home, I found a tiny garden behind St Peter’s Church. I sat on a wall in a tucked-away corner, and the perfume from these small, shy flowers wafted up and distracted me from my sadness. There is something about some smells that can restore us to the here and now and fill us with a kind of ecstasy. No wonder many religious orders use incense to heighten the senses, though for me honeysuckle or rose would do just as nicely.

And one of the things that I found when I was clearing out Mum and Dad’s bungalow was the Bible that she carried on her wedding day, 62 years ago, and the satin bookmark hung with artificial lily-of-the-valley flowers. I note that Kate Middleton followed Mum’s example when she was married to Prince William in 2011, though she was lucky enough to be able to afford the real thing. As she was married in April, well before the plant’s normal flowering time, I imagine they were greenhouse grown.

The Bible that Mum carried at her wedding, complete with lily-of-the-valley flowers

Mum and Dad on their wedding day, 21st September 1957

Photo One by By The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg: Magnus Dderivative work: Blofeld Dr. (talk / cont) - The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

William and Kate’s wedding (Photo One)

Some people find that lily-of-the-valley sets up home in their gardens and is impossible to get rid of – the plant spreads by rhizomes and each colony is clonal, though it does also set seed. It is a native in the UK and across Europe and Asia, and there is even a colony in the Eastern United States, though its origins are open to question. Richard Mabey notes that in the south and east of the UK it favours ancient woodlands on sandy, acidic soils, whereas in the west and north it grows in limestone woods. Wherever it grows it likes shade, and so you would think it would do well in my garden, but, so far, not a bit of it. I shall have to have another go this autumn.

The lily of the valley which grows in St Leonard’s Forest near Horsham is said to have sprung up from the blood of a dragon killed by St Leonard, so maybe this is what my garden is lacking: both a dragon and a saint to come and deal with it.

Although in the UK peak flowering for lily-of-the-valley is in June, in France, where it is known as muguet, it is associated with May Day, and is given as a gift. My new favourite read, Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora, has this story:

“…..during the Second World War, when her home in Bignor, Sussex, was being used as a ‘secret house’ for French Resistance workers, Barbara Bertram recalled that amongst the embarrassing number of presents that the workers brought, perhaps the one she valued most was a bunch of lily of the valley which she found on her breakfast plate one May Day:

‘They had been picked in France the night before, following the charming French habit of giving Our Lady’s Tears on the first of her month’ (Vickery’s Folk Flora pg 423)”

The flower is also worn by participants in the annual Furry Dance in Helston, Cornwall. Gentlemen wear it the right way up, on the left, while ladies wear it upside down, on the right. It is worn by dancers, bandsmen, officials and by those who are ‘Helston-born’. I note from the film here that the bandsmen also often tuck it into their hats, no doubt to keep it out of the way of trombones and French horns.

However, Vickery also points out that lily of the valley is one of those plants that it is considered fatal to bring into the house. There are so many plants that apparently cause destruction on crossing the threshold that it’s a wonder that we ever put anything into a vase. However, lily of the valley is poisonous, so those innocent-looking waxy flowers and the red berries that follow them do need to be treated with a modicum of respect. There is only one recorded case of poisoning in the UK from 1989, when a family of four ate the bulbs under the misapprehension that they were onions (something that has also happened with daffodils). The symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning are similar to those caused by digitalis from foxgloves – the heart beat slows, and heart failure can occur. To add to the fun, the plant contains saponins which can cause gastrointestinal poisoning. This didn’t go unnoticed by Walter White in Breaking Bad, where it was used as a naturally occurring poison.

All of this hasn’t prevented lily of the valley being used as a medicinal plant: with the roots used as a diuretic and the leaves as a poultice for bruises and abrasions.

The scent of lily of the valley has not gone unnoticed by perfumiers, and it was incorporated into Diorissimo, produced by Christian Dior. Dior adored the flower, and it featured on his stationary and in his garden. It is, however, very difficult to produce a perfume from the plant as it contains no essential oils, so any scents that bear its name are likely to be artificial. Although it was first created in 1956 Diorissimo, with its other notes of ylang-yland, amaryllis, boronia and jasmine, continues to be a favourite, and was apparently much loved by Diana, Princess of Wales.

Lily of the valley was associated with the Second Coming of Christ in the Christian tradition,and in the language of flowers it is said to signify the return of happiness. It certainly kicked me out of the doldrums when I spotted it last week, and it seems to be seen by most people as a most hopeful little plant. I am rather with Elizabeth Gaskell on this: in ‘Wives and Daughters’ she writes that:

“I would far rather have two or three lilies of the valley gathered for me by a person I like, than the most expensive bouquet that could be bought!”

And so, to a poem. Well, two poems actually. One is so disconcerting that I wondered about including it, but I think that it is so evocative and unexpected that it’s worth a read. There’s an interesting analysis of it here.

Lily of the Valley by Melissa Stein

In the lake bodies shift
with the currents. Waterskaters
traverse their tapestries. On the bank
grow plants that no longer have names.
Some have tongues to catch the feet
of flying things. Two shoes lie
on the bank as well. A child’s shoes.
A girl’s. Can you see her, dirty dress,
dirty soles? The arms that held her?
In a convulsion of tenderness
that wasn’t tenderness. In a fever
that wasn’t fever. In this heat
the lily of the valley exudes
such sweetness a man can’t think.
All you want to do is stop up
those pealing mouths. Those white
white skirts, unutterably clean.

And, finally, back to my mother, as all roads seem to lead to her at the moment. In her youth she was a delicate, lily of the valley kind of girl, but in her later years she bloomed into someone with a love of vibrant colours, heady, blousy scents and striking textures. This poem by e.e.cummings jumped out at me. Yep, I think this is exactly what Mum’s heaven will be like.

if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses….
& the whole garden will bow

–e.e. cummings

Photo Credits

Photo One by By The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg: Magnus Dderivative work: Blofeld Dr. (talk / cont) – The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg, CC BY 2.0,


Wednesday Weed – Tamarisk

Tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima)

Dear Readers, this seems to be a particularly good year for tamarisk in the UK – the tree above, spotted in a lane in Dorchester, was stunning, but there are some splendid examples in the County Roads in East Finchley as well. I have never seen a flowering plant with so many individual flowers, and according to my new wildlife gardening bible, ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ by Adrian Thomas, it is very popular with bees.A single flower can produce thousands of tiny seeds, each one adorned with a mini-mohican of hairs to aid in dispersal. This profligacy has made it a problem in some parts of the world, as we shall see.

Also known as salt cedar, the name ‘tamarisk’ encompasses a genus of about 60 species of plants. They all come from the drier parts of Eurasia and Africa, and the name ‘tamarisk’ might come from the Tamaris river in Spain. They are extremely salt-tolerant, and hence are often seen in the coastal areas of southern England, where they are used as windbreaks and for their prettiness. The RHS website suggests cutting them back hard after flowering, so that they don’t become spindly and blow over in a gale.

Being desert plants, tamarisks are extremely hardy – they have long tap roots which enable them to access ground water. They can also use their salt-tolerance to diminish competition – they accumulate salt in their foliage which is then deposited in the surrounding soil, making it impossible for other plants to grow. They are also adapted to survive fires. No doubt being in an East Finchley garden is a pleasant change from the normally harsh conditions that the tamarisk is more familiar with.

Photo One - no attribution CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tamarisk aphylla growing in the desert in Israel (Photo One)

Tamarisk was introduced to the US in the nineteenth century as a shade tree and windbreak. In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, it was used as a tool to fight soil erosion on the Great Plains, and it was hoped that it would be able to stabilise the soil, and prevent water loss. The photo below, of a tamarisk tree planted beside the Escalante river in Utah, was taken in 1936. I can well imagine how much people hoped that this plant would help the situation.

Tamarisk tree beside the Escalante river, Utah (Boyd Norton, circa 1936) (Public Domain)

Since then the tamarisk has taken to the desert areas of California and the southwestern US with much enthusiasm, using up the groundwater, making the soil salty and changing the habitat for native plants. There are now vast forests of tamarisk. How far they are a good or bad thing remains to be seen; ecosystems are complex, and humans often rush to change things without realising that a balance might be achieved in time without our intervention. Certainly the rush to rid the desert of tamarisk has seen some drastic measures: programmes have tended to concentrate on cutting the adult trees down and applying herbicide to the stumps. However, as we have seen, the tamarisk produces seeds with great profligacy, and also has roots that pop up everywhere, so this has proved to be something of a losing battle.

A more successful method has been the introduction of the northern tamarisk beetle (Diorhabda carinulata) which comes originally from China. It defoliates the tamarisk, and doesn’t eat anything else, so will die once the tamarisk is gone. Normally the introduction of one alien species to eat another brings all kinds of risks, but this has been tested in the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and seems to have been successful. Removing such a well-established species as the tamarisk will not be easy, and it remains to see what the impact of climate change and other environmental impacts will be: increased sea-flooding, for example, creates conditions that favour the plant.

Northern Tamarisk Beetle (Diorhabda carinulata) (Public Domain)

Fortunately, in the UK there are no equivalent habitats to the arid regions of the US, and so the plant has not become a major invasive here. In fact, it is a foodplant for the tamarisk plume moth (Agdistis tamaricis), a species unknown in the UK until 2007. Like all plume moths, this is an elegant and easily-overlooked creature. You can often see other species of plume moth sitting on the window panes after dark, their wings sticking out at right angles to their bodies. You are unlikely to see this particular species, however, unless you live in Jersey, as so far it hasn’t crossed the rest of the Channel.

Photo Two by Keith Tailby taken from

Tamarisk plume moth (Agdistis tamaricis) (Photo Two)

Photo Three from

Model of a composite Scythian bow (Photo Three)

Tamarisk is mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran, and is said to have been the favourite tree of the god Apollo. It is also often seen in the art of the Scythians, a nomadic people who are thought to have originated in Persia before spreading west into the Crimea, Caucasus and Balkan regions. The Scythians are thought to have used a bow made of ibex horn, sinew and the wood of the tamarisk tree: this made a weapon that was stronger, more flexible and capable of firing an arrow for much greater distances than a wooden bow. This was also the type of bow that the Amazons were depicted as using. Tamarisk wood can be used for many other purposes, including as firewood, though it should be remembered that it burns at a much higher temperature than other timber. This rather splendid statue of the goddess Isis, from the Louvre, is made of gilded tamarisk wood.

Photo Four by Gary Todd from

Statue of the Goddess Isis made from gilded tamarisk wood inlaid with bronze and glass, from the Louvre, Paris (Photo Four)

The tamarisk tree has featured in the art of Judaism, Islam and Christianity – Abraham was said to have planted a tamarisk tree, and in the Quran, the people of Saba were punished by having their garden transformed until it bore only ‘bitter fruits and tamarisk’ by Allah. The tree is also thought to be one possible origin for the idea of ‘manna’ falling from heaven. In some desert regions (including the Sinai), the tree is host to a mealy bug (Trabutina mannipara) which exudes large quantities of honeydew. This would quickly crystallize during the cold conditions overnight, and forms large flakes. Some people have also suggested that the resin of the tree itself could be the source of the legend, though the sugar concentration is much higher once it’s been passed through the guts of the insect, and most people now concur that it was the insect that was the source of the legend. In some countries in the Middle East ‘manna’ is still considered a delicacy.

Sadly, the UK tamarisks seem devoid of any sugar-producing insects, and we shall have to make do with them looking pretty.

Medically, tamarisk has been used for dysentery, snake bite, and as an anti-inflammatory. I can see few uses for it as food for humans, although Sue Eland’s Plant Lives mentions that North American children have eaten the flowers as ‘cedar bread’. I wonder if the salt that the tree metabolizes makes the flowers taste rather like crisps? If you’ve ever munched on any, do let me know.

The American Impressionist Guy Rose(1867 – 1925) seems to have been fascinated by the tamarisk trees that he saw while he had a scholarship in France for two years, and haunting, enigmatic images they are too.

Photo Five from

Tamarisk Trees in Southern France (Guy Rose 1904-1912) (Photo Five)

And, of course, a poem. This is by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. We could all do with some hope at the moment, I’m sure.

Ein Yahav

 A night drive to Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert,
a drive in the rain.
 Yes, in the rain.

There I met people who grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed as barbed wire.

And I said to myself: That's true, hope needs to be
like barbed wire to keep out despair,
hope must be a mine field.

Photo Credits

Photo One – no attribution CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by Keith Tailby taken from

Photo Three from

Photo Four by Gary Todd from

Photo Five from

Wednesday Weed – Oleander

Oleander (Nerium oleander)

Dear Readers, many moons ago I was treasurer for a community garden in North London. We had received some money to make a ‘dry’ (drought-tolerant) garden and we were discussing what to plant.

‘We could go for a Mediterranean theme, with some oleanders’, said one innocent soul.

Everyone around the table positively hissed. Heads were shaken, sighs were uttered and I could  imagine people making a mental Sign of the Cross to fend off the evil of the suggestion.

Our chairperson leaned forward.

‘Don’t you know’, she whispered, ‘that oleander is deadly poisonous! Think of the children!’

And that, dear readers, was the end of that. So I gave oleander very little thought until I saw it poking its head under a hedge in the County Roads today. Is it really as poisonous as everyone thinks?

Well, according  to our old friend ‘The Poison Garden’ website, it is a candidate for ‘the most poisonous plant in the garden, but also the most beautiful’. The website contains the sad story of a giraffe who died after being fed oleander clippings at Tucson Zoo, and also the story of Fudgie, a miniature cow who nearly died after eating the plant, but who survived in spite of having her heart stop twelve times during the time it took her to recover. Every time her heart stopped the vet or toxicologist would apparently restart it by kicking her in the chest, which seems a bit drastic but at least it worked.

Oleander also caused the deaths of two toddlers adopted from a Siberian orphanage and living in California. In their previous lives, the children were said to have had malnutrition, and to have developed pica, a habit of eating inedible objects in order to assuage their hunger. They ate some oleander leaves in spite of the extremely bitter flavour, and both died. Oleander affects the stomach, central nervous system and heart, and 100g is enough to poison an adult horse. Victims of oleander poisoning may be treated with activated charcoal to absorb the toxins and may need to be put on a pacemaker to keep the heart steady during the recovery period.

As if this wasn’t enough, the sap of the plant can cause skin and eye irritation.

In other words, it probably wasn’t the best choice of plant for a community garden frequented by small children.

There is little doubt that this is a very pretty plant, often scented and available in a wide variety of colours. It is part of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae) which also includes the almond-scented frangipani and the periwinkle or Vinca. The family is largely tropical, and many species are poisonous (the Latin name may refer to ‘dog poison). Although we associate it now with the Mediterranean it has been cultivated for so long that no one really knows where it comes from, though south-west Asia has been suggested as a starting point. In their ‘native’ habitat, oleanders grow in stream beds which alternately flood and dry up, and so although the plant is drought-tolerant it also seems resistant to waterlogging.

Oleander growing wild in a dry river bed (Wadi) in Libya (Public Domain)

Small wonder, then, that it has been extensively planted in some parts of the US where these conditions are not unusual – it was used following the devestating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, and Moody Gardens in Galveston is the home of the International Oleander Society, dedicated to the development of new varieties and the preservation of existing ones.

Photo One By WhisperToMe - Own work, CC0,

The first oleander planting in Texas (Photo One)

When it comes to wildlife benefits, oleander is a bit of a mixed bag. Its toxins were originally developed to deter invertebrate pests and grazing animals, and we’ve already seen what happens to the latter. However, as you might expect, some insects do prey upon the plant, and have come up with handy solutions to the poison problem. The caterpillars of the polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) eat only the pulp of the leaves, avoiding the more poisonous ribs. Both caterpillar and moth are stunning, and can be found in the Caribbean and the south of the United States. It is thought that they fed on a plant called the devil’s potato before oleander was introduced to the New World, but it seems that they have pretty much moved over to the ‘alien’ plant.

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! - Polka-Dot Wasp Moth - Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) (Photo Two)

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Caterpillar of the polka-dot wasp moth (Photo Three)

Other caterpillars, including those of the common crow butterfly (Euplora core) and the oleander hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii) incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, making them unpalatable to birds. It is noted that the common crow butterfly in particular almost seems aware of how poisonous it is, as it drifts through the forests of India and takes its time as it wanders from flower to flower. Several butterflies from other families mimic the common crow butterfly, and who can blame them?

Photo Four By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Common Crow butterfly (Euploea core) (Photo Four)

The oleander hawk moth can very occasionally be found in the UK, but it lives mainly in Africa, Asia and, surprisingly, some of the Hawaiian Islands. It migrates and this is how it sometimes ends up in Europe, though it more commonly finishes its journey in Turkey.The caterpillars can grow to almost nine centimetres long, and are a flourescent lime-green colour, again a mark of confidence that no one is going to eat you.

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Oleander hawk moth (Daphnis nerii) (Photo Five)

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

A splendid oleander hawk moth caterpillar (Photo Six)

So, the oleander can be food for a subset of invertebrates who have learned to deal with its toxicity. However, although the flowers look inviting, it’s thought that they are not actually useful for pollinators because they are nectarless, and the blooms receive very few visits from insects, who won’t bother to return often for no reward. The plant does require insect pollination, however, and so to compensate it produces extremely sticky pollen, which allows many flowers to be pollinated from one visit. Nectar is an expensive resource for a plant to produce, and so oleander has found a way of getting insects to visit without ‘paying them back’.

Oleander has cropped up in the work of many artists. Klimt featured it in his ‘Two Girls with an Oleander’ painted in 1892 and rather more naturalistic than his better known ‘gold’ paintings, such as ‘The Kiss’.

Two Girls with an Oleander (Gustav Klimt) (1892) (Public Domain)

My old favourite Vincent Van Gogh painted oleanders when he was staying in Arles in 1888 – he loved the plants because they were ‘joyous’ and ‘life-affirming’.

Oleanders (Vincent van Gogh 1888) (Public Domain)

Oleanders were a popular subject in the frescos and murals of Rome and Pompeii, and so it’s no surprise that the Victorian Orientalist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema should incorporate them into many of his paintings of classical antiquity.

‘An Oleander’ by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1882) Public Domain

So, this is a plant that has fascinated people for millenia. Poisonous but beautiful, with flowers that deceive, it is tough enough to survive drought and flood. Its ability to cope with disaster is nowhere clearer than in Hiroshima, where it was the first plant to bloom after the atomic bomb destroyed the city and is the symbol of the city to this day.

Photo Seven from

Oleander flowering near the Genbaku dome in Hiroshima (Photo Seven)

And this week, something different. I found this article in The Atlantic magazine, and it is about the way that different cultures use language in war situations in order to cope with the situations that they find themselves in. In the Israeli army, “We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” translates as ‘We have two wounded and one dead. We need a helicopter.” It’s a fascinating read. See what you think!  It seems to me that, wherever we come from, we need to find a way of describing the indescribable.

“British soldiers in the field also refer to dead comrades as “T4,” Campbell told me, and to the badly wounded as “T1,” identifying the people in question over the radio never by their names but by a mix of letters and serial numbers. “So it’s ‘Charlie Alpha 6243 is T1,’ not ‘Tom’s lost his legs,’” Campbell said. “You need the jargon so that an 18-year-old can say it and not be overwhelmed by what he’s saying. (My emphasis)” (From The Atlantic. ‘What Military Jargon Says About Armies, and the Societies that they Serve’,Matti Friedman 2016).

Photo Credits

Photo One By WhisperToMe – Own work, CC0,

Photo Two by By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth – Syntomeida epilais, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three By Flex at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five By Shantanu Kuveskar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Photo Six SKsiddhartthan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

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,

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,

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,

Photo Two by By Justinjerez, CC BY-SA 3.0,