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The Search for Green Continues

The memorial to Fred Cleary, who helped to found the Cleary Gardens

Dear Readers, as you will know my search for somewhere green to linger at lunchtime has been fraught with problems so far. I found a tiny churchyard and a private garden that had been astroturfed. But then I remembered that my Mum used to work in a solicitor’s office just around the corner from where I am now, and that she used to sit outside on any dry day, eating her sandwich and thinking her thoughts. And so I set out to find the spot where she spent so many hours.

Mum was a legal secretary, and in the early days that meant typing a document perfectly every time – one mistake and the whole thing was ruined. If you needed multiple copies you had to insert a millefeuille of carbon paper and paper. Mum could not only type accurately, she could do it at 120 words per minute. She was a little disappointed when self-correcting golfball typewriters appeared, because she could type faster than they could and she was always waiting for them to catch up.

And word processors took all the fun out of it, of course. Any idiot could type a document and correct it themselves. That was the end of the typing pool, and of a lot of the work of the secretary, but Mum did have a brief renaissance when she was taken on at the Stock Exchange and started to create all kinds of charts and tables. She always did have a lively sense of colour, and it amuses me to think of all those pinks and lime greens and turquoises that crept into her otherwise sober documents.

And so, I came upon the Cleary Gardens, and they were more or less as I remembered them. Although the gardens are named for Fred Cleary, the original bombsite was turned into a garden by a shoemaker called Joe Brandis, who collected mud from the Thames riverbank and brought soil from his own garden, all the way east in Walthamstow.

The steeply-sloping alley by the side of the gardens is called ‘Huggins Hill’, and as the sign says, this might be from an old word for ‘hops’. There are hops and grapevines growing on the terraces in the garden, and they provided secluded places to  sit, out of the general eye. One couple who were either newly married or carrying on an office romance were entwined with one another on one of the seats, and looked fairly horrified when I appeared carrying my camera. To reassure them I stopped and looked theatrically out at one of the trees, adjusting my F-stop and pointedly not looking in their direction at all. But then the tree distracted me, as they do. What a magnificent specimen! It was as furry as Chewbacca and the fluffy leaves were a splendid lime green. Furthermore, there were baubles hanging from it as if Christmas had come early. It is apparently a swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) and I was delighted to make its acquaintance. If it doesn’t turn up soon as a Wednesday Weed I shall eat an article of clothing.

When I turned around, the couple had scarpered.

The garden is on three levels, and you can’t see the entrance to this lower level until you are practically on top of it, which makes it a lot of fun. You can sit at the top and eat your yoghurt while gazing out at the buses and you might not even know that there was any more to see. Isn’t one of the secrets of a great garden meant to be that you can’t see everything at once? This garden takes this idea to an extreme.

On the top level there is a tree paeony, which was given by the town of Yatsuke in Japan, where the plant is the ‘representative flower’ of the region. It was donated in the hope that it would ‘be loved by, and bring peace of mind to, the people of London’.

The grapevines were apparently planted because in 2017 the gardens were designated a ‘Loire Legacy Garden’, and in addition to grapes there are great tussocks of rosemary and lavender. I was pleased to see some Japanese anemones for the bees too, and a batbox on one of the trees. A pair of crows made a quick appearance, and seemed to be interested in the cones on the Chewbacca tree. According to the website, robins, blue tits, blackbirds and dunnocks have all been known to nest here, so I shall be keeping my eyes open.


I was very impressed with how much was squeezed into this tiny area. I doubt that it is actually a secret garden, and I’m sure I’ll have to visit out of lunch hour in order to make the most of it. But then, I’m getting into work for 7 a.m. so I reckon I can sneak out a little bit early. I yearn for a bit of non-human contact when I’m at work, probably because the sheer press of humanity in the City can feel oppressive, and somehow makes us all a little less human. I know that Mum felt the same. She used to love to just sit and breathe and said she always felt better for being outside. It’s strange because I haven’t really felt as if she was close to me since she died, but sitting on a bench here, it was almost as if she was sitting next to me, and although I was sad, I also felt contented, just for a few minutes. So thanks Mum, and thanks Cleary Garden. I shall be back, for sure, probably on a cold, damp day when it’s just me and my memories.




Wednesday Weed – Field Scabious

Field scabious (Knautia arvensis)

Dear Readers, I was very happy to find this plant in flower at Walthamstow Wetlands a few weeks ago – it has long been a favourite, but it seems reluctant to appear in my ‘territory’ in East Finchley. It is a plant of rough, grassy places on well-drained soil, which may be the problem locally – our clay soil is heavy enough to make pots out of. I am, however, seeing varieties of scabious in the garden centres hereabouts, and it is a great favourite with the bees and lots of other insects too. Each flowerhead is made up of individual florets, which have four unequal petals, and contain a rich and inviting nectar. It is a member of the teasel family (Dipsacaceae) and the flowers are a very similar colour to those of teasel.

Photo One by By Darkone - photo taken by Darkone, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Field scabious with long-horn beetle (Photo One)

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 2.0,

Field scabious with ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus) (Photo Two)

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

Field scabious with male shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum) and unidentified moth (Photo Three)

Most of the local names for field scabious refer to the shape of the flower: in Sussex it’s known as ‘grandmother’s pincushion’ and in Somerset it’s ‘gentleman’s pincushion’. The name ‘scabious’ is thought to derive from the same root as ‘scabies’ – the Latin word ‘scabere’, meaning ‘to scratch’. Scabious is thought to have been used as an ointment for skin complaints and for the ‘buboes’  or boils that gave bubonic plague its name. Richard Mabey suggests that the plant might have been thought to have been suitable because of the roughness of the stems, which resembled the skin that it was meant to treat.

In Belgium, a young girl with lots of boyfriends would pick scabious when in bud, give each bud the name of one of her favourites, and would choose her husband by the one that flowered best.

More pleasantly, the plant is also known as ‘gypsy rose’ in many parts of the country.

All of the plants in the genus Knautia are also known as ‘widow flowers’. I have been having a look to see if I can work out why, but so far no luck. Blue flowers have been associated with the devil, at least in Warwickshire, according to some writers, and the devils-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) got its name because the devil was said to have been so envious of its healing powers that it bit off part of the root. However, the reason for ‘widow flower’ remains a mystery. Do let me know if you have any ideas.

In addition to being a great plant for pollinators, field scabious is also the foodplant for the caterpillars of the rare marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) (although they prefer devils-bit scabious given a choice)  and the narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth (Hemaris tityus). I am astonished at the mimicry of this second insect – it’s only the antennae that give it away at first glance.

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

Male marsh fritillary (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By M kutera - Own work Marcin Kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Narrow-bordered bee hawk moth (Photo Five)

Now, as you know I am always interested in eating, so my thoughts now turn to whether field scabious is edible. In an article by Sarah Raven, I read how farmers used to value wild flowers in their fields, because they provided the animals who grazed there with a greater variety of minerals than the grass did – flowers such as field scabious, yarrow and birdsfoot trefoil have deep taproots that draw up nutrients from deeper in the soil. However, I have found no recipes for human consumption, except for this seventeenth century ‘water to digest melancholy’ :

Take borage, landbeefe (i.e. bugloss, hart’s tongue, calamint, centurie, scabious, thyme, hop, mugwort, rosemary, the flowers of the tenderest woodbine, of each a like quantitie: distil them and drink the water morning and evening, first and last‘ (from ‘Seventeenth Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aleitheia Talbot Howard, edited by Elizabeth Spiller)

For those of you who might be wondering (as I was) what the hell chirurgery was, it’s an archaic word for surgery. Anyone undergoing surgery in the seventeenth century would have had to have been made from very stern stuff, what with the lack of anaesthetic and no understanding of germ theory. I well remember hearing someone reading on Radio Four from the memoirs of Fanny Burney, who had a mastectomy for breast cancer in the eighteenth century under these conditions, and  it was one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever listened to. Burney survived for another 29 years after the operation, and so it probably saved her life, though how she didn’t die from the shock I’ve no idea. For those of you with strong stomachs, you can read the letter that she subsequently wrote to her sister here.

Scabious is also an ingredient in another seventeenth century recipe, this time from Essex, and to be drunk as a cold remedy. It takes more than thirteen ingredients and a lot of sugar (at this time a very expensive substance) and so I think we can assume that it was out of the reach of ordinary folk, who probably had to continue sniffing and sneezing as they ploughed and harvested.

Finally, field scabious is used in many recipes as a flavouring for the honey-based alcoholic drink mead. I remember Mum and Dad going to a ‘medieval  banquet’ and coming back so sloshed that they couldn’t get to Tescos the following morning. It was always blamed on ‘food poisoning’ but I think that, unfamiliar with drinking much, they thought that the sweet drink wasn’t very strong. At last, the truth can be told!

And, of course, a poem. Here is a work from Denise Levertov’s Evening Train, a collection of transcendental verses about her spiritual awakening. I love the way that this poem moves from the notion of the plants as workaday weeds to something that is ‘wise beyond comprehension’.

Sophia’s Flowers (Denise Levertov 1923 – 1997)

Flax, chicory, scabious –

flowers with ugly names,

they grow in waste ground, sidewalk edges,

fumes, grime, trash.

Each kind has a delicate form, distinctive;

it would be pleasant to draw them.

All are a dreamy blue,

a gentle mysterious blue,

wise beyond comprehension.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Darkone – photo taken by Darkone, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 2.0,

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

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

Photo Five by By M kutera – Own work Marcin Kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Moving On

Dear Readers, this post isn’t really about nature, except that everything in nature changes, and grows older, and eventually passes away. On the way, the path can twist and turn, and it is not true to say that it is always relentlessly downwards. I have no illusions about the progressive nature of dementia, but it feels so important to emphasize that there can be moments of great joy and humour during that journey, moments that don’t get much attention in the usual narratives about the disease.

Last time I was in Dorset visiting my Dad in his nursing home, I heard that he had piloted a boat from Portland to Weymouth. He had been renamed ‘Captain Tom’, and the lounge was all abuzz with his exploits. This time, I got the actual photographic evidence, so here are a few photos of the intrepid mariner. I don’t remember the last time I saw my Dad so engaged, or so clearly enjoying himself.

And so it made me determined to make sure that when I visit, Dad and I have an adventure, even if it’s just a little one. In the past, I’ve been held back because I wasn’t sure how far Dad could walk, and I knew that I’d have trouble navigating the narrow pavements of Dorchester with Dad in a wheelchair, what with my dodgy back and all. But on Tuesday Dad, J The Carer and I headed to the local pub for lunch, and Dad marched along at a cracking pace with his walker. We were less than ten metres from the front door when we needed to stop for a breather, and I was very impressed. A year ago Dad could barely walk from his reclining chair to the kitchen without needing to stop, so the Home is obviously doing something right.

Once in, Dad had a light ale and we ordered scampi and chips. We waited. And waited.

‘They’re probably cooking it right now, Dad’, I said.

‘Catching it, more like’, said Dad.

Dementia is such a funny thing. The part of Dad’s brain that is quick-witted and likes to amuse is firing on all cylinders, but he introduced me to a new carer as his sister. What I am noticing, though, is that Dad is increasingly getting his words muddled: he tells me to open the door when it’s already open and then gets irritated because I didn’t realise that he actually wanted it closed. I know, from the brain scan that he had a few years ago, that the part of his brain that looks after language is damaged, and that this damage is likely to get worse. Because Dad has vascular dementia, any ‘event’ which results in oxygen deprivation (such as a chest infection) can result in a step-change for the worse. But at the moment I can mostly understand him, and his raised spirits are a delight to behold. He seems to have a new-found confidence.

When I visit the home in the evening, Dad seems tired but happy. He wants me to take the photos that I’ve shared home so that Mum can see them. I’m never quite clear if he’s talking about my mother, who died in December, or his Mum (who would be well over a hundred if she was still alive). But as usual I say that I’ll make sure that everyone sees them. To change the subject, I ask Dad what he’d like for his birthday.

‘I’d like to go home, really’ he says apologetically. ‘But I know that Mum has decided that I’m better off not seeing her and the kids, and that’s ok’.

And this is what really breaks my heart. He has decided that the reason he can’t see Mum is not because she’s died, but because he’s done something wrong. Before she died, Mum (who was in the home with Dad, and who was very ill) became very jealous of the ‘young’ (50-ish) women who helped Dad to shower, and I think it’s still in his head that he wasn’t a perfect husband.

‘Oh Dad’, I say, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong, and Mum really, really loves you. And if you could be together, I know that that’s what she’d want’.

‘That’s ok then,’ says Dad, unconvinced.

The following morning, I pop in to see Dad and he’s already busy painting some leaves to decorate the home.

‘I’ve been so busy!’ he says.

Dad is always busy, and generally he describes the home as being in ‘utter chaos’. This seems to give him great satisfaction, because he spent most of his life organising things, and he loves making a difference to the perceived anarchy of the second floor lounge.

We drink a frothy coffee, and Dad eats a custard tart, and is promised a game of dominoes later. He settles back contentedly.

‘I’m not going to try to go home today’, he says. ‘I think I’ll stay here for a bit longer’.

I give him a hug, and head towards the door. Then I go back and give him another hug, because the day will come when he won’t be here and I will be sorry if I didn’t embrace him when I could. But already he’s looking around for his domino partner. It is bittersweet to step back, to accept that the staff here know Dad as he is now better than I do, and to allow them to take care of him after so many years of looking after him and Mum. But now, I can enjoy the good times without worrying about everything else, and that is such a blessing. I am so thankful that all is well at the moment, and that is all that anyone can hope for.




All Change and a Handsome Visitor

Dear Readers, those of you who follow this page regularly will know that it’s been a difficult year. My Mum died in December. My Dad’s dementia has gotten worse, and he is now in a nursing home. For the two previous years I had been travelling up and down to Dorset to look after the pair of them, and was pretty much unable to work, both because of the emotional toll and because I knew that I couldn’t be reliable – an emergency could, and did, erupt at any moment.

It took six months after Mum’s death before I could even contemplate getting myself back into the world of work, but back in July the perfect opportunity arose. An organisation that is working with 98 cities worldwide to combat the climate emergency, C40, was looking for a part time reporting accountant, using exactly the software that I’ve been teaching and working with for twenty years. And on Monday I started work. It has been a lonely couple of years, and it is good to have colleagues, and to feel part of something again.

It’s strange, but in the midst of my elation at a whole new adventure I feel a little disloyal to Mum and Dad somehow. It’s hard to explain, but I feel as if, by getting back to my own life, I’m leaving them behind. And this is the first time that I’ve made a major life change without having Mum and Dad to talk to. It’s true that they often didn’t understand the finer nuances of all the techie stuff that I was doing, but they were always 100% on my side, delighted for me if I seemed happy, angry on my behalf if I was having a rant. And now Mum is gone. But I shouldn’t underestimate Dad. He was delighted when I told him that I had a new job, even though he wasn’t quite sure who I was. And if he’s forgotten about it, hopefully he’ll be delighted all over again when I see him next week and tell him how my first week has gone.

Incidentally the Bloomberg building, where I’ll be based when not working from home, is the most sustainable office building in Europe. Well worth having a look here.

I should also add, as required by Bloomberg’s social media policy, that any views expressed on this blog are my own, and shouldn’t be taken as representing the views of Bloomberg or C40.

Anyhow, the other effect of getting the job has been to make me look around at the house and garden and shake my head in amazement. How did everything get so overgrown and grimy? I guess that’s what two years of neglect will do for you! What was most striking was that the garden was not only a jungle, but the oak steps to the shed were rotten through, with all kinds of interesting fungi. It was only a matter of time before one of us went right through the wood whilst carrying a laundry basket full of underwear, so it has to be fixed. As a result, the garden is full of piles of rotting wood, and I’m wondering where to put a woodpile.

On Thursday I got up early to open the side door so that the builders could get in, and came face to face with a very handsome dog fox. What a surprise! And what was even more delightful was that, after an initial bout of wariness, he decided to hang around for a chat.

Not sure….

He sat in next door’s garden for a while, making up his mind about my intentions.

And then he hopped back into my garden to check out the pond.

He has a little bit of an eye infection, poor thing, but is otherwise in splendid health. I suspect that he might be one of the foxes who has stolen a boot from a bag of rubbish that was put out last week, and which keeps turning up in the garden. I put it away, and the next night it’s back out again.

Fox play things

Anyhow, this chap was in no rush to go, and sat patiently while I took endless portraits. Sometimes, foxes that are this confiding have toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease which makes them bolder, but maybe he’s just learned that humans can be useful. It always feels like such a privilege to have a wild animal so close.

And then I decided to go back indoors, but as I went through the kitchen door I looked around and he was about to follow me in! Well, this was a step too far, as my poor cat would have been horrified. But I couldn’t resist him, and so I threw out a small handful of dried food for him. I might have made a rod for my own back, but we’ll see. Who could resist him?

And here is a short film of him in full-on chomping action. Goodness only knows what the background noise is, probably my fridge, though it sounds as loud as a leaf blower.

Events like this seem so magical to me. It isn’t the first time that we’ve had foxes in the garden, but to spend time with one feels such a privilege. For those few moments I’m not worrying or planning or organising, I’m just being. There are so many stories even in a suburban garden – animals going about their lives, plants growing, fungi infiltrating an oak sleeper one mycelia at a time – and they have the ability to make me forget everything else. Plus, just as I was hungry for connection at work, I feel lost if I don’t make time to get out into nature and renew my connections there. For me, it is the cure for most of what ails me.


Wednesday Weed – Globe Thistle

Globe Thistle (Echinops sp.)

Dear Readers, I have always loved thistles, both for the way that they attract a wide range of pollinators, and for their extraordinary flowers. I know that not all gardeners are so impressed, and I’m sure if I’d been inundated with creeping thistle I might feel the same way. However, thistles seem to having their moment in the sun in UK gardens, with everything from cardoons to melancholy thistles popping up all over the place. It’s no wonder, then, that globe thistles were much favoured in Regent’s Park this year. I can’t help thinking that the fact that the plant is currently being marketed as ‘the blue hedgehog thistle’ might also be raising its popularity, although as ‘echinops’ is Greek for ‘hedgehog’ at least it comes by the name honestly.

The flowers of the globe thistle remind me of the Dale Chihuly exhibition that I went to at Kew Gardens recently, especially his sculpture ‘Sapphire Star’.

Sapphire Star by Dale Chihuly at Kew Gardens

It isn’t until I looked at the photograph of the flowerhead closely that I could clearly see how the globe is made up of long-throated individual flowers. The plant attracts honeybees and bumblebees, butterflies and shield bugs, beetles and hoverflies. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas suggests three species that are particularly good value for insects: Echinops ritro, Echinops bannaticus (which is the one in the photographs) and Echinops sphaerocephalus, a Russian species with whitish flowers. Some gardeners do mention that they have a spot of bother with the plants self-seeding themselves all over the garden, especially as the flowerheads look so sculptural and are often left over the winter for the birds.  All globe thistles are native to Europe, Central Asia and Africa as far south as the mountains north of the tropics, and are part of the daisy family Asteraceae.

White echinops

The young leaves of the globe thistle are apparently edible, though the Plants For a Future website only gives it a 1 out of 5 for edibility. The leaves are extremely spikey so I imagine they’d have to be very young indeed to be toothsome. In Asia Echinops species have historically been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, including the treatment of skin complaints, sexual problems, issues around breast-feeding and to kill internal parasites. In Morocco it has long been considered helpful during and after childbirth: a decoction of the roots was said to aid the expulsion of the placenta.  In Egypt it is used to treat high blood pressure. In short, the different species of Echinops have been used for many of the medical problems that beset humans, and it would be interesting to know how efficacious they are.

In an interesting paper on healing and the folklore of the saints in Russia, Valeria Kolosova explains that the globe thistle Echinops sphaerocephalus is known as ‘Adam’s Head’, and that flowers placed under the pillow are said to prevent a child from having nightmares. The resemblance to a head is also thought to indicate the plant is efficacious against headaches.

As you might remember, I sometimes find that a plant is the ‘birthday flower’ for a particular day. I discovered that Echinops is the flower for the 18th August, and also, finally, where the information comes from: Thomas Ignatius Forster (1789 – 1860) was a botanist, naturalist, poet, balloonist and practical joker who spent a lot of time trying to convince the world that there had once been a monastic calendar of ‘birthday flowers’. To read the whole story (and another interesting piece about the Victorian language of flowers) have a look at this publication by the RHS here.

And now, some poetry. I read with interest that in 2000 the Chelsea Physic Garden had a poet-in-residence, Sarah Maguire, who had also been a professional gardener. Maguire didn’t just want to do a few writing workshops, but instead ‘nested’ complementary poems amongst the plants in the beds that had been planted not for their aesthetic value, but because the plants they contained were related to one another. Many of these plants had not been written about by poets, so Maguire used a process of association. Under the Echinops, for example, she placed John Clare’s poem about a hedgehog:

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge,
Or in a bush or in a hollow tree;
And many often stoop and say they see
Him roll and fill his prickles full of crabs
And creep away; and where the magpie dabs
His wing at muddy dyke, in aged root
He makes a nest and fills it full of fruit,
On the hedge bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
And whistles like a cricket as he goes.
It rolls up like a ball or shapeless hog
When gipsies hunt it with their noisy dog;
I’ve seen it in their camps — they call it sweet,
Though black and bitter and unsavoury meat.

Maguire subsequently published an anthology of poems about plants, ‘Flora Poetica – The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse’. However, the state of the world impelled her to found the Poetry Translation Centre, which aimed to;

‘..assemble small groups of linguists, poets, and impassioned readers to produce readable and enjoyable English renditions of poems written in non-English languages. The intended result was equally simple: at a time when an entire people were being demonized to suit geopolitical interests and corporate balance sheets, silence was no longer an option, and translation, Maguire believed, was the “opposite of war,” and she waged that fight just as ruthlessly as the merchants of death she so deeply detested‘. (André Naffis-Sahely from World Literature Today)

Maguire died, aged 60, in 2017, having been the first poet sent to Palestine and Yemen by the British Council, and had been the only living English-language poet with a book in print in Arabic. What a loss to us all.







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