Wednesday Weed on Location- Heliconia

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Heliconia (Heliconia rostrata)

Dear Readers, during my recent visit to Costa Rica I was flabbergasted by the sheer vivacity and variety of the flora and fauna. There are some plants that are so otherworldly that it’s hard to believe that they’ve not been created by a diligent botanist, and so it is with the Heliconias. Their waxy flowers, in shades of nail-varnish red, custard yellow, amber and lime green are so different from the more demure blooms of home that I can only imagine the culture shock of the first European colonists. Heliconia rostrata, the plant in the photo above, is also known as the Lobster Claw, for obvious reasons, but some other species have the flower inverted, so that they look rather like the Strelitzias of South Africa (indeed, one name for them is ‘false bird-of-paradise plant’.

There are 194 species of Heliconias, in their own family, the Heliconiaceae. Their closest relatives are probably bananas. The name Heliconia means ‘from Mount Helikon’, which was the home of the nine muses. I can’t think of a plant that is more likely to stimulate the creative juices.

Heliconia longiflora ( I think)

The bright red and orange flowers of the plant give a clue to the main pollinators of the group – hummingbirds.  The  coloured part of the ‘flower’ is actually a waxy bract, with the true flower being a more inconspicuous white bloom, clearly seen protruding in the photo below. Some of the flowers are easily accessible to a range of hummingbirds, while others have evolved in parallel with particular species. I was captivated by the zing and zip of these tiny birds as they make their nectar-powered way through rainforest groves and gardens. I didn’t feel as if I was in tropical Central America until I’d seen one.

Photo One (Hummingbird on Heliconia) by Pat 1479 at

Green-crowned Brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) on Heliconia (Photo One)

Heliconias have huge leaves, and some of the rainforest inhabitants take full advantage of this. Bats shelter under the leaves of the plant, turning them into ‘tents’ by biting through the main vein so that the leaf folds over. These Honduran White Bats (Ectophylla alba) look rather like tiny leaf-nosed sheep.

Photo Two (Honduran White Bat) by Wanja Krah at

Honduran White Bat sheltering under Heliconia leaf (Photo Two)

Costa Rica is rich in bats, with 119 different species identified. On a walk at dusk, the air was full of bats of all sizes, from tiny moth-like flitterers to pigeon-sized flutterers, all pursuing the moths and mosquitoes and midges that are their prey . We saw some other remarkable bats during a boat trip in the centre of Costa Rica. From a distance, I thought that I was looking at some kind of bamboo. Close up, I saw that I was looking at a row of five bats, their markings breaking up their outline, and then turning into a kind of face. I was absolutely enchanted. Bats are the second largest group of mammals (after rodents) and are yet so underappreciated.

Where the flowers point up (as in the Heliconia longiflora above), water will be retained in the bracts and many insects, including the mosquito larvae that will turn into the food for the bats, live in these tiny ponds. Leaf beetles, including the very fine tortoise beetle shown below, roll up the leaves and eat them, or munch on the stems and flowers.

Photo Three (Tortoise Beetle) - by By Ilona Loser - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mottled tortoise beetle (Deloyala guttata) (Photo Three)

We have seen how the leaves are shelters for bats, but when it rains in Costa Rica, it really rains. In the wet season, the rainforest (so-named for a very good reason) can receive 300 millimetres of heavy precipitation in a single month. So, how do small creatures such as insects survive? Many, like the paper wasp shown below, build their nests by attaching themselves to the undersides of big, sturdy leaves such as those of the Heliconia.

 Photo Four by - Gail Hampshire

Costa Rican Paper Wasp (Polistes erythrocephalus) (Photo Four)

Heliconias were used in a variety of ways by the local native peoples. In Panama, Heliconia rostrata is used to treat skin cancers, and those big leaves have been used for everything from roofing to creating a fine temporary umbrella. Interestingly, whilst the vast majority of heliconias live in Central and South America, there is a small group of species which live in the Solomon and other South Pacific islands. Here, the leaves are used as wrappings for food, and for straining coconut milk. The root of the lovely Heliconia caribaeae (below) is boiled and used to make a lotion for treating varicose veins.

Photo Four (Heliconia caribaea) by Conrad Munro [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Heliconia caribaea (Photo Four)

One famous painter of the heliconia was the artist Georgia O’Keefe. She was sent on an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii by Dole, the fruit company, in order to paint two canvas of pineapple plants for their advertising campaign. Alas, O’Keefe was a curmudgeon after my own heart. She wanted to live on a pineapple plantation, but Dole squashed the idea and instead sent her a sliced pineapple. Uninspired, she complained that it was ‘manhandled’. She embarked on a trip across the Hawaiian islands, and was much enthused by the thermal spouts and pools, but although much of the flora intrigued her, her canvases displayed nary a tropical fruit. Here, though, is her rendering of a heliconia – they are not native to Hawaii, but the plants obviously love it there. Eventually, on her return, O’Keefe deigned to create a painting of a pineapple plant that Dole, in near-despair, had shipped from Hawaii to her home in New Mexico in less than 36 hours.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Crab Claw, 1939. Honolulu Museum of Art (Public Domain)

And here is the final painting. Incidentally, pineapples are not native to Costa Rica either, but there are plantations everywhere, and the fruit is absolutely delicious.

Photo Five (Pineapple advert) from

Georgia O’Keefe’s Pineapple Painting for Dole (Photo Five)

And so, I look for a poem to round off this week’s piece. And what do I find but a poem by Neil Deupree, a visitor to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. I didn’t get to this part of Costa Rica this time, but what he writes sums up my experience too.


Sitting on the front porch at Piro

The surf is distant thunder  – be sure to pack the poncho.

The cicadas are way more than white noise in the background.

The tortuguitos finally made it to the ocean.

Papaya and piña spark the taste buds for breakfast.

The anole ambles across our front yard in fits and starts.

The howlers start their “hello” at half past four in the morning.

The clouds are wisps of cotton against the cobalt sky.

The hummingbird (which one of the thirty?)

makes the rounds of the verbena by our front porch.

We are called to see the aracari –

which, of course, are gone by the time we get there –

keeping us humble.

“I am soooo humble,” says Frank, our filmographer.

Damselflies wearing blue and yellow mittens flit through the forest.

A hawk with red wings and a banded tail traces circles in the sky –

followed by a turkey vulture coasting in a straight line – for once.

Heliconia spear their orange among the oars of green leaves.

I hear a bird in the distance that Nito could identify in an instant.

The breeze wicks away the heat –

this part of our home in Osa is truly a breezeway.

Neil Deupree

January 26, 2014

And so, for more on Costa Rica’s plants and animals, keep an eye open for Saturday’s blog…

Photo Credits

Photo One (Hummingbird on Heliconia) by Pat 1479 at

Photo Two (Honduran White Bat) by Wanja Krah at

Photo Three (Tortoise Beetle) – by By Ilona Loser – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four (Heliconia caribaea) by Conrad Munro [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (Pineapple advert) from






Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part Two

August 2017

Dear Readers, one of my most popular posts from last year was created during a deluge. ‘Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day’ was so much fun to write. The main challenge was keeping the camera from getting water-logged during the downpour…

It hasn’t been a particularly ‘foxy’ year, unlike 2016 when I was spending a lot of time with the foxes in the cemetery, but I did spot this little darling, sleeping under the whitebeam in the garden.

And I also spotted some common carder bees buzz-pollinating in the garden, a first!

September 2017

The month started a visit to the new gardens around Kings Cross station, for an assessment of how helpful they were to wildlife. The answer was that it’s early days, but the signs are very hopeful. Sparrows, vanishingly rare in central London, have already moved in, and there was an active wasps’ nest. I shall have to visit again soon to see how things are shaping up.

The month continued with my friend A bringing me a Knotgrass caterpillar for me to identify. What a fine creature! It has now pupated, and is back in A’s garden, with a barricade of twigs for protection. One day, no doubt, it will emerge and fly away, probably when no one is looking.

A theme throughout last year was my Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. At times it was all very stressful, and it was good to go for a walk around their village, Milborne St Andrew, and to reconnect. There’s always something wonderful to spot, and slowing down to actually see things is a very fine way of gaining perspective.

The party was held on 21st September. Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, so every bit of hassle about table-settings and whether or not to have a photographer was worth it.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….


A few days after the party, we had the heart-breaking news that one of the people who had attended, someone who had battled for years with depression, had killed themselves. It was so hard, especially after the event had been such a good one. I wrote this piece in the days afterwards, and believe every word.

I also took a visit to Dundee. I worked as a carer in a night-shelter for homeless people in the city when I was in my twenties, and wondered how things were going. The shelter is about to be converted into luxury flats, the pub where we used to drink is now a college, and there’s a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum going up on the quayside, but there are still people asking for change on the streets. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

The garden was visited by an amazing visitor in October: a female emperor dragonfly, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs.

And some birds in the garden had a narrow escape when we had another visit from the sparrowhawk…

November 2017

November saw me back in Milborne St Andrew, following Mum and Dad’s spectacular double fall down the front doorstep. Fortunately neither of them were seriously damaged (though after spending two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance while laying on the front lawn Mum was a little less sanguine than usual). But once in hospital, they were delighted to be placed in adjacent beds, and even more delighted to be sent home after a couple of hours. Suffice it to say that my visit the next day was well-timed. But I did manage to get out for a walk, and finally got photos of a buzzard, and my first ever meadow pipit.

We even managed to make the Christmas cake. By the time we ate it, Dad had fed it with so much brandy that I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

Once home, I went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery, where I found a strawberry tree, some greenfinches, a handsome jay, and this lovely gravestone. How I would love to find out a bit more about Muriel….

I also had a few thoughts about the use of fruit trees as street trees: there is a crab apple on our street which causes all kinds of mess, but which does attract such exotic creatures as this one.

What are you looking at?

I finished off the month with some thoughts about the passing of time, which seems to be have been a theme last year. With so many people that I love in their eighties and nineties, and with my own seventh decade approaching, I suppose that it’s inevitable that mortality should be on my mind, along with other existential thoughts, such as ‘what’s it all about’? ‘How do we live a good life, and what is a good life anyway?’ All this was prompted by watching a band of sunlight move across the garden in the space of a few minutes. I had a similar sensation last week as I watched the moon rise with Mum, and we both realised that you can actually see it moving,  and wondered why we’d never noticed before.

December 2017

December saw Mum and Dad struck down with a chest infection, and so I headed West again. It was a stressful time: the carer who normally looks after Mum and Dad was struck down by her own health emergency, and so I had to negotiate to try to get Mum and Dad to accept a carer who came from an agency, rather than someone that they already knew. I found it unbearable to think of them struggling on, sick, without someone to help them, and so I took myself off to the frozen fields for a walk and a think. Oh, the light on those December days. It felt like a blessing.

Then we had a spot of snow, the first that’s fallen and stayed for about five years.

Pied wagtail

And then it was Christmas, on the County Roads...

and in Dorset. We hadn’t expected to be in Dorset (Mum and Dad usually visit us in London) but they were both still too sick from their chest infections to travel. This didn’t reduce their appetite fortunately, and ridiculous quantities of the aforementioned Christmas cake were eaten, along with chocolates, roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts. Just as well we were able to get out for a walk.

It’s a pig!

January 2018

So, now we’re nearly back to the present day. January saw me exploring Hampstead Village, and falling in love with an angel.

It saw the very welcome arrival of a song thrush in the garden (still here as I write in February), and the continued presence of a single pied wagtail, who has been here since November. We are all hoping that he or she soon has some company.

And I took a bus ride down to Tate Modern, and a tube ride back.

So, readers, that’s the end of the review of the past year. Thank you for all your input  – I read every single comment, and love the community that we’ve built together. Don’t forget that if you’re on Facebook, you can find me here. I look forward to ‘meeting’ with you all in the year to come. And during the next few weeks, you will find that Bugwoman has been on a very exotic adventure, and has been living up to her name, for once. Stay tuned…..







Wednesday Weed – Fourth Annual Report – Weeds of the Year Part Two

Dear Readers, here are the remaining contestants for ‘weeds of the year’. Let me know what you think!


Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)


I might not like fennel very much, but I am a great fan of tomatoes, what with their health-giving lycopenes and all, and so I was delighted to find a couple growing beside a lamp post in Muswell Hill. It appears that they ‘escaped’ from a vegetable delivery van, and were doing very nicely though, knowing the association of dogs and lamp posts, I was not going to harvest any from this particular site. Tomatoes, like all plants in the family, need to be ‘buzz-pollinated’ by bumblebees, and in some countries with no bumblebees of their own, people are paid (a tiny amount) to go to every tomato flower and pollinate it using a special device. I had no idea. And in a piece of most excellent synchronicity, I witnessed buzz-pollination myself only a few days later.


Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)


Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

I have chosen mugwort as my September weed because it is such an unassuming plant that it’s very easy to walk right past it and not notice, surely the defining characteristic of a true ‘weed’. Yet, it has a very long association with the people of the UK – it’s been smoked, turned into beer (the ‘mug’ part of the name may refer to the days before glass tankards) and it is said that, if you stuff it into your shoes, it will stop you from tiring on a long journey. It may, of course, give you blisters, but that’s another story.


Fig (Ficus carica)


My choice of fig for October is because it gave me the opportunity to talk about the delights of eating the fruit (in spite of the possibility of each succulent morsel bearing a few crunchy wasps). Even more excitingly, I was able to report that, in Victorian times, plaster figleaves were created which could be hung from naked Classical statues in the event of a visit from Queen Victoria and her ladies-in-waiting. Rarely has a factoid made me so delighted.


Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)


The Gingko is 270 million years old and the very last of its kind.Its leaves are reputed to fall all at once, overnight, leaving the bare tree standing in a golden pool. They survived the bombing of Hiroshima, and there are trees that are over a thousand years old and still producing new shoots. Ok, so the rotten fruit smells of vomit, and the pollen is highly allergenic, but this looks like a very special tree indeed.


Red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria)


On a grey December day, the orange and yellow flowers of the red-hot poker, or torch lily, were just what I wanted. It brings a touch of African heat to the cold of winter, and I could just imagine a sunbird perched on top, or feeding from the tubular blossoms. I love the way that our native bumblebees have learned to navigate the flowers: they truly are the Einsteins of the insect world (although who knows what other six-legged geniuses are waiting for their chance at an intelligence test? Let’s hope that we haven’t made them extinct before we grow to appreciate them).


Winter-flowering heather (Erica carnea)



And so we come to the beginning of this year, and I would like to celebrate the charms of the winter-flowering heather, boon for sleepless bumblebees and the subject of a rather amusing April Fool’s Day joke in The Independent newspaper a few years ago, when the flowers were described as ‘natural Viagra’. I cherish anything that is in flower during these cold, dark days, and this plant really hits the spot.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Do you have a ‘Weed of the Year’  from the twelve posted over the past two weeks, or is your favourite plant something completely different? Are there any plants that I’ve never covered that you think deserve a bit of attention? Just let me know. And thank you for all your comments and ideas, and your never-ending support. It makes all the difference.


Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part One

Dear Readers, it’s that time of year when I review what’s been going on during my fourth year of producing the Bugwoman blog. What’s been happening in the past twelve months? This week, we’ll be looking at February 2017 through to July 2017 – the rest of the year will make an appearance next week. Stay tuned!

February 2017


We started the Bugwoman year in a celebratory mood. After a year of no blackbirds (following the death of a male at the hands of the local sparrowhawk) a new couple moved in, and it was such a pleasure to hear the song of the male from the rooftop in the evening. I’m pleased to report that I still have a pair of blackbirds in 2018, and I’m hoping that they’re the same ones.


March 2017

In March London suffered the first of several terrorist attacks last year, when a car was rammed into pedestrians as they crossed Westminster bridge. I was on the South Bank when it happened, and wrote a piece about it here.  I find that nature has a way of restoring balance to our troubled minds in times of trouble, and it was especially consoling during my walk, the arrival of spring coinciding with the terrible injuries and loss of life.

And I also made a visit to Crossbones Graveyard, close to London Bridge. This is a site for the outcast dead, and they are remembered in a ceremony every month at the main gates. It is a very special place, and it felt entirely appropriate to be making my first visit there in the week after the terrorist attack. I hope to visit it again soon.


The gates at Crossbones Graveyard

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2 1725 – one of the ribbons from Crossbones Graveyard

A bee feeding on willow in the graveyard

And the frogs were back, singing away in the pond.



April kicked off with a garden visit from a female sparrowhawk, who plucked and ate a collared dove that she’d knocked out of the whitebeam tree. A spectacular but discomfiting event.

And then some Bohemian Waxwings visited a tree at the end of my road, something I hadn’t seen for years.

April also found me on my annual visit to Canada – my husband John is Canadian, and I love observing the wildlife on the other side of the Atlantic. The similarities and differences always intrigue me. For example, we have no grackles in the UK.





And our goldfinches are not North American goldfinches…

And we don’t have any cardinals..

But we do have house sparrows.

And these guys of course….





May 2017

At the beginning of May I was still in Canada, and paid a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington (just outside Toronto). I met up with my lovely friend M, who lives in the States but had motored across the border. She is also a writer and a nature-lover. We had a wonderful day!

Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Red-winged blackbird

Back in London, I took a walk to look at the street trees of Archway, just down the hill from where I live. It was based on one of my favourite books from last year, ‘London Street Trees: A Guide to the Urban Forest‘ by Paul Wood, and it was so much fun that I plan to do another walk later this year. You can read about the walk here and here.

Chinese Lacebark Elm

A Dawn Redwood (Metasequioa glyptostroboides) just off Holloway Road in North London.

A Bragania visited by a carder bumblebee in Dresden Road, a few hundred metres from the hubbub of the Archway junction.


June saw my monthly visit to my elderly parents turning into something of a drama, after Dad got a chest infection and had a fall. Still, spending time in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset is always a pleasure, and even if I didn’t have much time to admire the scenery, I did get a few brief minutes to look at the garden and take a deep breath.

White-tailed bumblebee on the ceanothus in Mum and Dad’s garden

June also saw the great willowherb in my garden infested with the caterpillars of a tiny moth. Surprisingly, they still flowered rather splendidly. ‘Weeds’ are resilient plants, for sure.


In July I made my annual visit to Obergurgl in Austria, for walking in the mountains and admiring the flowers and the insects. Oh, and for cake.

Large Copper butterfly on yarrow

Hoverfly on rampion

Early flowering orchid


Closer to home, I paid a visit to East Finchley Station, and to the N2 Community Garden beside it. There are many new goings on in the entrance to the station…


…on the platforms


….and in the garden itself. It was lovely to go travelling, but it’s always nice to be home.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

I also spent some time posting about my amazing artist friend, Robin Huffman, and her portraits of the monkeys and apes that she cares for when she volunteers at wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. I think her work is absolutely stunning, and to see more of it you can visit her website here. She is currently in Cameroon at the  Ape Action Africa sanctuary in Mefou, looking after several baby monkeys. I imagine that she’s covered in poo, bitten half to death and dreaming of Japanese food, but I bet she’s also deliriously happy.

Sunshine, Olive Baboon (Robin Huffman) (after a photo by Perrine DeVos)

Diva, moustached guenon

Ayla, vervet monkey

So, Dear Readers, that’s the end of part one of my annual review. Stay tuned for next week!






Wednesday Weed – Fourth Annual Report – Weeds of the Year Part One

Dear Readers, goodness only knows what happened to the formatting of my photos this week! Here is an amended version with what I hope are the correct photos.

Dear Readers, as we come to the Fourth Anniversary of the commencement of this blog,  I thought it might be fun to nominate a few ‘weeds’ as my favourites of the past year. As you know, my definition of ‘weed’ is any plant that I haven’t planted deliberately myself – the Wednesday Weed has been an excuse for me to learn something about the plants that surround me here in East Finchley, whether they’ve been planted on purpose or have sprung up of their own accord. After four years it’s become increasingly difficult to find truly wild plants that I haven’t already discussed, and so you might have noticed an increase in ‘domesticated’ plants this year. Personally, I’ve found it fascinating to discover the histories of some of our garden plants, though my heart does belong to wildflowers, especially those who survive, like many city dwellers, in impoverished and difficult habitats. With that in mind, let’s have a quick gallop through February 2017 to July 2017, (August 2017 to January 2018 will appear next week), to see who’s made my (extremely biased) list of Weeds of the Year. To find the original pieces, just click on the links in each section.


Stinging Nettle (Utrica diocia)

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)


I know, I know. Most of us have had a close encounter with stinging nettle at some point in our gardening lives, and as I get older I find that the stings seem to persist for ages, even after an application of dock leaves (as recommended by my Dad, who knows what he’s on about). But who could resist a plant that feeds peacock and red admiral butterflies, that has been woven into cloth, and which can be turned into a delicious nettle risotto? I rest my case.


Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis)

Lungwort(Pulmonaria officinalis)


This was a difficult month to judge, but what tipped it for lungwort was the way that the flowers change colour from pink to blue once the plant has been pollinated, possibly giving an indication to bees that they shouldn’t waste their valuable time on blooms that have gone over. Plus, the spotted, lung-shaped leaves were said to indicate that the plant was useful in the treatment of pleurisy and other pulmonary complaints (hence the Latin name Pulmonaria officinalis). I have even succeeded, for one year at least, in growing this in my garden, and I will be delighted beyond measure if it pops back up this spring. Fingers crossed.


Windflower (Anemone nemerosa)

Windflower (Anemone nemorosa)


I love this plant because it is an indicator of ancient woodland, because it is so ephemeral, and because it seemed to welcome me when I first came to East Finchley and discovered Coldfall Wood. Its flowering was said to mean that the ‘March winds’ were on their way and Pliny believed that it only opened on windy days. In another story, the flowers sprang from the tears of Aphrodite as she mourned Adonis, killed by a wild boar. Its brief flowering is a result of it taking advantage of the sunshine before the leaves on the trees shade out the forest floor. If I wanted to take a lesson from it (and experience tells me that plants and other living things have much to teach us if we have ears to listen) it would be to grasp opportunities when they present themselves, because it might be a while before they come round again.


Welsh Poppy (Meconopsis cambrica)

Welsh Poppy (Papaver cambrica)


I do love a ‘new’ urban weed, and Welsh poppy is a plant that has escaped only recently, and is spreading through the neighbourhood with great enthusiasm. It is a native plant, but is listed as ‘nationally scarce’ in its original habitat. Not here in East Finchley, where it has taken to the shale and gravel front gardens of the County Roads as if they were the shady dells of Snowdonia. There is a legend that the plant doesn’t flourish away from Welsh soil, but it has obviously not read the book. It is the symbol of Plaid Cymru, and is closely related to the Himalayan Blue Poppy. Pollinators of the hoverfly and beetle variety seem to love it, so I am content.


Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

This little beauty erupted from some spilled birdseed, and I have not been so excited about a plant in a long time. After all, when your Latin name means ‘really, really, really useful’ it’s worth doing some research. Flax is used to make linen, linseed oil, flaxseed (as sprinkled on your muesli in these health-conscious days), and, best of all, linoleum! Plus the flowers are exquisite and delicate, and much beloved by equally exquisite hoverflies. I am very pleased to have made its acquaintance.


Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Dear Readers, I actually loathe things that are aniseed or licorice flavoured: I can just about cope with fennel seeds, or the domesticated fennel bulb if roasted gently until the taste is somewhat constrained. But who can argue with the pollinators who were hovering above this fennel flower in the N2 Community Garden next to East Finchley Station? They were positively queuing up for some of that delicious pollen and nectar, and in these difficult times for insects that is a great thing. Plus, fennel is one of the ingredients of absinthe, that mainstay of French poets and artists for years immemorial, so it well deserves its place in the Hall of Weedy Fame.


So, what do you think so far? Stay tuned for the August to January ‘weeds’ next week!








The Great Garden Birdwatch 2018

Dear Readers, the last weekend in January is the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) annual citizen science event, the Big Garden Birdwatch. All over the country, people sit and watch the birds in the garden or local park, and record the maximum number of each species that they see. It started in 1979, and was aimed at junior members of the society, but when the event was featured on Blue Peter, the most popular children’s TV programme at the time, more than 34,000 school children submitted their forms. Today, over 40 years of data has been collected, and over half a million people, from residents of care homes to private individuals (like me) take part.

Usually, for whatever reason, the birds opt to stay away in my garden for the hour of the count, only to come back in their dozens as soon as I submit my results. I did wonder if this was because of my presence looming at the kitchen window, but this year, the birds didn’t care. As soon as I started my timer, a great flock of starlings descended. I have noted before that I’m convinced that they watch from one of the big trees on East Finchley High Road and swoop down as soon as the feeders and bird table are topped up.

I had recorded 17 starlings when a charm of goldfinches flew into the whitebeam. I love the way that they approach at speed, jinking at right angles as if to confuse any passing predators. And what splendid birds they are!

A wren has recently taken up residence in the garden, and stayed long enough for a brief portrait. Everything about them seems explosive: they burst from cover like feathery bullets, and their whole bodies vibrate with song. I was very lucky to get any photograph at all.

The chaffinches appeared, a group of six, with their elegant mothy flight.

But then, something flew in fast over the roof, and seemed to wipe the whole garden clean of birds with a stroke of its wing.


It sat in the tree for a few minutes, surveying the garden with monomaniacal yellow eyes. Where do the little birds go, I wonder, it was as if they had dematerialised. I was able to walk out into the garden and get a few shots of this juvenile (there have been a pair of adults around for a while). I suspect it was only the inexperience of the bird that protected his prey, for other visitors have been much luckier in their pursuit of something to eat.

Well, I thought, that puts the kibosh on my bird count, and indeed for a full ten minutes there was not a single visitor of a feathered variety, though someone popped in to take advantage of the peace and quiet.

But then, the birds started to drift back. Of course, the starlings were first, bold characters that they are.

And then the resident robin.

And one of the pair of blackbirds. A few years ago, a male fell prey to a sparrowhawk, but the territory was reoccupied the following year. So far, so good.

The pond has always been a great draw for creatures of all kinds, and the blue tit often perches on the branch that I’ve partially submerged to attract dragonflies, and has a little bath.

The finches are back on the seed feeder. Although the chaffinches are larger, the goldfinches are more aggressive, and usually win any perches that they contest.

And then, something catches my eye down by the pond.

A blackcap! This is a kind of warbler that has historically been a summer visitor, but increasingly blackcaps from central Europe have been overwintering here. I was visited by a female a few years ago, but this is my first male. They have a lovely song, described in my Crossley Bird Guide as ‘somebody cheerfully whistling as they walk through the wood’. See what you think.

And so, my hour came to an end. Of the twenty species on the list that were seen as ‘general’ garden birds, I’d recorded ten, and some regular visitors, such as the long-tailed tits and the coal tit, hadn’t put in an appearance in the hour. On the other hand, I’d had two species, the sparrowhawk and the blackcap, who weren’t on the list at all, and that always makes me happy.

I have two thoughts at the end of my hour. Firstly, this was a lot of fun, and gave me an excuse to do nothing but watch, listen and record for an hour. Did anyone else do the Birdwatch, or do you have an equivalent where you live? Or do you take part in any other citizen science events? In the UK there are recording events for everything from moths to earthworms.

And secondly, I wonder what else I would see if I took an hour a week, maybe at the same time of day, to sit and watch and record? I have an urge this year to look at things in more depth, rather than being distracted by the sheer wealth of things that there are to pay attention to. Does anyone else keep some kind of record of what they see, maybe a diary or a photo album? The blog encourages me to pay attention and to share what I see, but I am very curious about what you get up to. Let me know what helps you to appreciate nature, and what helps you to make the most of your garden or local area. I am definitely up for new ideas.

Wednesday Weed – Spider Plant

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


A very fine spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) at East Finchley Station

Dear Readers, when I was growing up my paternal grandmother had a number of houseplants. There was a rubber plant that had grown almost to the ceiling, with leaves that were lovingly wiped once a week. There were various ferns with fronds browning in the dry air (these were cut off with nail scissors as soon as they began to look untidy). And there was the most magnificent spider plant, bursting forth like a fountain and producing little starry white flowers which would, in due course, turn into new spider plants. If not transplanted quickly enough, these would root into the carpet, but this was an unusual happening in a house where no grain of dust was allowed to languish.

I have two spider plants myself, acquired because they are believed to be particularly good at cleaning up household air, and because they are tolerant, hardy plants, prepared to forgive negligence and mishandling. For a while, I was giving my plants a ‘holiday’ on the patio in the summer, but soon discovered that they are a favourite with slugs and snails. One plant came back into the house with a positive colony of tiny snails living under the rim of the pot, and they could be caught shimmying forth across the Persian carpet if you got up during the night.

I note that there are also several spider plants now living in the entrance to East Finchley tube station, and these are rather fine specimens, standing on a plinth and cascading down. They are a good choice for this spot because they don’t seem to mind low light, draughts, people accidentally knocking them off their podium, and the other hazards of being in a public space. And so I got to thinking. What on earth are they? And how did they get to become one of the most popular houseplants in the world?


The Latin name for the spider plant is Chlorophytum comosum, and popular names include airplane plant and spider ivy. Interestingly, none of the names include the word ‘grass’, in spite of the fact that this is what the plant most closely resembles. However, its closest relatives are actually agaves, aloes, hostas  and the Joshua tree, members of the Agavoideae family. There are some 200 members of the spider plant genus, but our plant comes from tropical and southern Africa originally. In the wild there seem to be three subspecies: one with very narrow leaves that grows along the margins of forests, and two others that live within the forest itself, and have broad leaves which help to make the most of the dappled sunlight.

In cultivation there are two popular variegated varieties. One, ‘Vittatum’, has a broad white stripe down the middle of each leaf, and the flower stalks are white.

Photo One (Vittatum) by By Hierbabuena_0611.JPG: Dtarazonaderivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) - Hierbabuena_0611.JPG, Public Domain,

‘Vittatum’ variety of spider plant (Photo One)

The other, ‘Variegatum’ has leaves with white margins, and the flower stalks are green. It goes to show how much attention I’ve paid that I’ve never noticed the difference.

Photo Two by By Digigalos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Spider plant ‘Variegatum’ variety (Photo Two)

To return to the subject of using spider plants to clean air: they are said to be particularly good at neutralising formaldehyde (which can be found in automobile exhausts and cigarette smoke, among other pollutants). However, you would need 70 plants to clean the air in a 160m square energy-efficient house, so I’d better be encouraging mine to produce some plantlets at speed. A spider plant will also give you a hand (leaf) with toluene and xylene, should you be suffering from such noxious substances. And all for the price of a regular watering and an occasional (very occasional in my case) feeding when you get round to it.

Spider plants are also said to be very good at absorbing the smell of fresh paint. Let me know if you have any experience of such a phenomenon – my house is due for a ‘freshen up’ on the paint front, and the smell always gives me a sore throat.

Incidentally, my spider plants were for a while displayed elegantly on top of my husband’s expensive speakers. One day I was watering the plants and didn’t notice that the leaves had directed the water into the equipment. One of the speakers is currently with the Hi-fi doctor, and I am keeping an unusually low profile.

Photo Three by CC BY-SA 3.0,

A magnificent spider plant in full breeding condition (Photo Three)

It appears that spider plants are eaten in the regions of Africa where they grow wild – they apparently have a bitter taste, but are full of vitamin C and various micronutrients. If you had the 70 plants recommended to reduce your in-house pollution, you would have an abundance for your eggs Florentine or spider plant omelette. The plant, especially the stem, is also relatively high in protein.

In Polish-American folklore, the white flowers on a spider plant signify a birth or a wedding.

Photo Four by By Wildfeuer - Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,

Spider plant flower (Photo Four)

Medicinally, the plant has been used by the Nguni people of South Africa as a charm to protect a pregnant mother and her baby. The plant is kept in the room where the mother and child are staying, and the roots are dipped into water which the mother then drinks. The child is also given an infusion of the leaves.

Apparently some cats develop an attraction to spider plants, and get ‘high’ much as some cats do with catnip. Although the plants are not toxic, this is probably a good reason for hanging them up somewhere high (though not on top of expensive speakers, see above).

Incidentally, the two biggest problems that spider plants suffer from are red spider mites (ironic, given the name) and browning leaf tips. For the spider mites, the recommended treatment is to blast the little arachnids with strong alcohol on a cotton bud (should you have such a substance in the house, of course).

Photo Five by By Charles Lam from Hong Kong, China (Red Dot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Red spider mite (Tetranichidae sp.) (Photo Five)

Those brown leaf tips, though, are due to an accumulation of fluoride, which the plant can’t tolerate. The recommended treatment is to cut off the affected leaf tips, and to water the plant with rain water or, at a pinch, with water that’s been allowed to stand overnight so that some of the fluoride evaporates off. Who knew? The things that I learn in the course of this blog never fail to amaze me.

Strangely enough, this common, cheerful, easily nurtured houseplant seems to have inspired a raft of sinister poetry. Here, for example, is a found poem by Lori Davis, a poet about whom I can find almost nothing.

Caring for Your Spider Plant
Lori Davis
A found poem dedicated to Andrea Yates,
the mother from Texas who drowned
her five children

The more root-bound your plant is,
the more babies it can produce.
The more babies on the plant,
the more attention the plant will need.
Most problems arise from overwhelming.
You will first notice a darkening heart
with a yellow halo,then all-black lower leaves.
If it dries out between waterings,
keep an eye on the foliage.
It will become pale and limp
when it is ready for water.
The root system is large and tuberous,
allowing it to store distress longer
than most hanging plants.
Naturally, the bigger the babies are
the more strain they put on the mother.
Since their roots are already formed,
the babies can be removed
rather easily. To remove babies from the mother,
trim the stem off both mother and baby.
It looks better if there are no stubs showing.
Then you can plant directly into moist soil
or simply place in water, holding them under
until their little roots start to recoil.

and this one, called ‘Last Nostalgia Starting With a Piece of Spider Plant on our Car’s Backseat‘ by Anna Journey: if the last stanza doesn’t demand a sudden intake of breath, i don’t know what does.

But after all that misery, here is a post that stopped me in my tracks. From the website ‘Vision Loss and Personal Recovery‘ it details how, even without sight, a person can enjoy and nurture their houseplants, and the information included is useful for everyone who loves plants. Here, for example, is a very happy spider plant:

‘My heartiest plant currently is a huge spider plant that I bought at a yard sale four years ago. At that time it was unhealthy and about the size of the circumference of a dessert plate. Today it fills a pot that has the circumference of a small laundry basket and is very hearty. I routinely first set it on my office chair at home, wheel it into the bathroom and set it in the tub and then give it a 15 minute shower. It cleanses the leaves and saturates the soil quite nicely. Then I set something under one side of the pot to tip it in order to allow it to drain for a couple of days until I can again lift it and return it to the bedroom window. During its short stay in the shower, I cover it with plastic while Nick, my husband, or I shower so that soap or shampoo does not get in the plant. Nick is never more thrilled than when showering with this monster plant.’

Showering with monster plants? That’s an idea whose time has come.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Vittatum) by By Hierbabuena_0611.JPG: Dtarazonaderivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) – Hierbabuena_0611.JPG, Public Domain,

Photo Two by By Digigalos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by By Wildfeuer – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Five by By Charles Lam from Hong Kong, China (Red Dot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons