Wednesday Weed – Nordmann Fir

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…..

Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana)

Dear Readers, when you see the Christmas trees stacked up outside Tony’s Continental in East Finchley, you know that Christmas is well and truly on its way. Another indication is when you see Michael with an axe in his hand, ready to pare down the trunks and fit them into a Christmas tree holder. One conversation with a customer went like this:

Customer: ‘Careful with that axe, you’ll cut your leg off!’

Michael: ‘I’ve been doing this for forty years and I haven’t cut one off yet! But even if I did, I’ve got another one’.

Here is a photo of Michael at work. To be honest, it’s not his legs I’m worried about.

I am also much impressed by the Christmas tree wrapping contraption that is brought out every festive season. Just pop a tree into the metal tube, push it through and it comes out wrapped in a netting bag. It’s a kind of Christmas tree sausage machine.

60% of the Christmas trees that are sold in the UK are Nordmann firs, and I can see why – the tree has soft, child-friendly needles that don’t drop, and it is a good-value, long-lived tree. What it doesn’t have is any fragrance so you won’t get that delicious piney smell, but as this scent makes some people’s noses twitch, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Nordmann firs come originally from the mountains to the south and east of the Black Sea, and so are native to Turkey, Georgia, the Russian Caucasus and parts of Azerbaijan. They live in mountainous areas from 900-2200 metres and grow to a terrific height  – one tree in the Western Caucasus reserve has been reported to be 279 feet tall, the largest tree in Europe. They also live in regions which have a rainfall of over 1000 mm per year, which is a reminder to keep them well-watered while they’re in the house.

Photo One (Wild Nordmann Firs) by By Acidka on Flickr - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5988580

‘Wild’ Nordmann Fir trees in Karachayevo-Cherkesiya, Caucasus (Photo One)

The trees at Tony’s are typically about six to seven feet high, and would be between eight and twelve years of age. The seed is normally taken from older trees, grown on in nurseries and then sold to Christmas tree farms when the saplings are three to four years old. Once harvested, they will have a brief life of a couple of weeks in the house, before being put outside to be recycled by the council. Here in Barnet, the trees are chipped and used as a weed suppressant on municipal beds, or on paths. The chippings can also be heat-treated and then used as a soil conditioner (in their native state, the needles produce a chemical which inhibits the growth of other plants, which is one reason for the almost sterile under canopy of fir plantations).

The debate about whether to have a live tree or a cut one, or an artificial tree, depends, as usual, on a variety of factors. A live tree in a pot, that can be used year after a year, is probably the most environmentally-friendly option, but the trees often don’t survive the sudden change in environment. A cut tree is the next best choice, but only if it’s recycled: if it ends up in landfill, it generates about 16kg carbon due to the methane released as it decomposes. ‘Real’ Christmas trees also provide a habitat for a variety of birds and insects as they grow, including goldcrests, firecrests and crested tits, although the serried ranks of fir trees, row on row, are much less biodiverse than mixed woodland.

Photo Two (Crested Tit) by By Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom (Crested Tit (Parus cristatus)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A crested tit (Parus cristatus) (Photo Two)

An artificial tree takes ten years of use to become carbon-neutral, due the the plastics and oils used in its creation. I have an artificial tree that I’ve been using for twenty-three years this year, and in typical Bugwoman style the only decorations allowed are ones that relate to animals. I shall have to post a photo once it’s up.

Another way of dealing with your Christmas tree once the festivities are over could be to eat it, but sadly not if you’ve opted for a Nordmann fir. In the article here the authors describe their attempts to turn their tree into a delicious feast.  The authors describe their Nordmann fir mayonnaise as

‘….the worst of all our experiments. It It seriously made us question our abilities and the whole concept!’

The tree was quickly replaced by the more fragrant blue spruce (Picea pungens).

Interestingly, the needles from Christmas trees of all kinds can be used in the manufacture of the anti-viral Tamiflu, which was in the news during recent worries about a bird flu pandemic. In Toronto in 2006, residents donated no less than half a million Christmas trees, and the needles were treated and powdered, ready to create up to a million Tamiflu tablets a day in the event of an outbreak. Let’s just hope that they’re never needed.

The Nordmann fir didn’t always have such a grasp on the UK Christmas tree market. When I was growing up, the favourite was the Norway spruce (Picea abies) which had little sharp pointed needles which seemed to drop off as soon as the tree came through the front door. I remember picking the needles out of the pads of our dog, Spock, who was the most accident-prone hound that I ever met. He once set fire to himself by leaning up against the electric bar heater, and was only rescued when someone caught a whiff of burning fur.

Christmas seems to be the time of the year when, in the UK at least, people yearn to bring plants into the house. For a month or so, our homes are staggering under the weight of poinsettias and amaryllises, Christmas cacti and hyacinth bulbs, holly wreaths and bunches of mistletoe, and that’s even before the tree arrives. Although the origins of the Christmas tree itself are said to be from Germany in the 16th Century, it feels as if something much older is going on, and indeed evergreen branches were brought into the house for centuries before the tree itself made an appearance. It seems to me that something very profound is going on: a need to remind ourselves that the darkness of winter is not forever, and that under the soil, life is still stirring. Plus there is something about a fir tree that reminds us of the resilience needed to survive outside in the harshest of weathers. I am curious about the choice of tree in other countries that celebrate Christmas. What’s the tree of choice in Australia, for example, or in California? Do tell, I am intrigued.

As you know, dear friends, I love to close these pieces with a poem.  I find that I am ambivalent about the folksy poetry of Robert Frost, although I love the one about riding through the woods with ‘promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep’ and I can even tolerate ‘The Road Less Travelled’. And so, here is something thought-provoking from the poet, which speaks of town and country, rich and poor, and the worth that we put on living things.

Christmas Trees

By Robert Frost
(A Christmas Circular Letter)
The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”
                                                     “You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”
He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”
Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.
Photo Credits
Photo One (Wild Nordmann Firs) by By Acidka on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5988580
Photo Two (Crested Tit) by By Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom (Crested Tit (Parus cristatus)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Surprise

Dear Readers, we were expecting snow in the UK last weekend, but not in London, so it was a bit of a surprise to be woken by the strange light that snow produces seeping through the curtains. It’s been seven years since the last substantial fall, and so there were little children  who had never seen it before. But we woke up early, and everything was hushed.

My first thought was ‘the birds!’ and so we squeaked through the fresh snow to fill up the seed feeders and the suet feeders and the bird table. By the time we went out for a walk to get breakfast, a few children were already running about, their cheeks pinched pink from the cold. They were scraping the snow from the cars to make snowballs, but this year’s fashion seems to be for plastic sledges. A well-wrapped toddler sat like a little princeling surveying his kingdom while his father dragged him along the road.

On East Finchley High Street there were no buses, and just an occasional car travelling slowly and carefully. Michael at Tony’s Continental (the best greengrocer in London in my opinion) was relating how the North Circular Road had come to a complete standstill. An elderly lady was standing at the bus stop in conversation with a woman who was explaining that the bus garages had closed, and offering to walk her home if she wanted.

The red-hot pokers from the Wednesday Weed were wearing little hats of snow.

The various berries looked particularly festive.

I love the way the snow gathers on the undulations in the bark of the plane trees.

And here is a particularly fine festive doorway.

Back in East Finchley after eating my blueberry pancakes and drinking several Flat Whites, I noticed that the Bald-Faced Stag statue above the eponymous pub had turned from gold to white.

On the corner outside Kentucky Fried Chicken there was a single, very friendly pied wagtail. He or she has been there for several days now, and I suspect is living on a diet of discarded chips. Lots of birds hang out here: the crows wait around for discarded bones, the pigeons throw the debris about, and the foxes crunch up anything that’s left. I’m tempted to throw some food down for the wagtail but I suspect everyone else would get there first.

Pied wagtail

Back in the garden, every scrap of food had gone, so out I went again. Although the weather is unkind to animals, it does bring some unexpected visitors, and it also increases their tolerance of both humans and one another.

A small flock of goldfinches have been regular visitors for weeks, so no surprises here.

Goldfinch

But I was delighted to see a family of siskins.In the south-east we only see these birds in the winter, but they are year-round residents in the rest of the country. They are much smaller than the other finches, and flash citrus yellow against the snow.

And then some real excitement – a new species for the garden, a brambling (Fringilla montifringilla), another winter visitor and normally a bird of beech woodland. It is said to be ‘orange-washed’, and this is what helped me to see that this wasn’t ‘just’ another chaffinch. Sadly, she only stayed for a few brief minutes and then headed off. These are shy birds, and the rough-and-tumble of the garden can be a bit much for them.

A brambling (to the left of the picture)

There was a fine collection of birds pecking up the mealworms and suet that we’d scattered – not all birds are comfortable on feeders. The robins, for one, don’t seem to like them, although they are very happy on the bird table.

Robin and Chaffinch

Chaffinch (right) and two siskins.

I should have guessed that it would’t take long for the big guns to move in. I don’t mind, though. These creatures need to eat too. And then I tried to ring Mum and Dad, and got no answer from their telephone. What could have happened? Had it snowed so much in Dorset that the lines were down? Why couldn’t I reach Dad on his mobile? I had a spell of serious catastrophising. Regular readers will know that my parents are not very well, and both are currently recovering (very slowly) from a horrible chest infection.

And then, of course, it turned out that Dad had just knocked the phone off the hook,  and that they were well, without a single flake of snow, and my heart went back to its normal tempo.

I am sure that anyone who has been a carer, or who has had a family member who isn’t well, will recognise this syndrome – a kind of hypervigilance, an expectation that every phone call will require a springing into action. It takes some time to come down from the adrenaline rush, and to accept that all those little internal emergency workers can stand down. But having a garden full of hungry mouths to feed certainly helps take the mind off such things, because this is something that I can do, a way in which I can help. In a world of uncontrollable happenings, I can at least top up the feeders and make sure that there’s fresh water. I am repaid by beauty and interest and a sense of connection with the animal members of the local community.

In other news, Mum and Dad seem to like their new carers, which is a great relief. And the preparations for the Great Western Christmas Migration are more or less in place. This time next week we will (hopefully) be in Dorset, doing the final preparations for 25th December. And while I was sorting out the Tesco food delivery for the parents for next week, I glanced up and saw this.

And then, a few moments later, this.

I love the florid sunsets of winter, their drama and their fleetingness. In five minutes, the light show was gone, and darkness overwhelmed the colours. But for a few moments, it was glorious, and I felt privileged to have been lucky enough to see it. I wish for quiet moments of witness for all of us in the busyness of the next few weeks, moments when we can take a breath and remember what really matters: love, truth, and everyday beauty,

Wednesday Weed – Hebe

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…..

Hebe

Dear Readers, it has been snowing a blizzard here in East Finchley today (and for more on this, and some unexpected visitors, have a look at the blog on Saturday). So, I am looking through my photos for a Wednesday Weed, and realise that this evergreen New Zealand native has not yet been featured. There is a magnificent bush in the front garden of one of the houses at the end of my road, and I would estimate that it’s in flower for ten months of the year. It is a boon to early-rising bumblebee queens, hoverflies and honeybees, and even on a warm November day there will be insects buzzing about.

Spot the bumble!

In Greek mythology, Hebe was the goddess of youth, and Canova made a rather fine marble statue of her, which is currently in the Hermitage Museum. Hebe dispensed the ambrosia of eternal youth to the gods, hence the jug and cup, and I wonder if the nectar-rich flowers of the plant inspired the name. Why the woman in the statue is  carrying a jug up by her ear, and why she seems to have forgotten her blouse I will leave for you to judge. Hebe was the daughter of Zeus and Hera, and in some legends Hera became pregnant after eating a wild lettuce sandwich, so take care when feasting on any unidentified brassicas, ladies. Later, Hebe became the wife of Hercules after he had defeated Geras, the personification of old age, and become an immortal god himself. These ideas about being ‘forever young’ have a long pedigree. Personally I think that youth, while lovely at the time, is somewhat overrated – give me wisdom and experience any time.

Hebe by Antonio Canova (created 1800-1805) (Public Domain)

Hebe is also often shown with an eagle, which, in the way of the Classical gods, is the form taken by her father Zeus.

Hebe and the Eagle of Jupiter by Frederic Westin (1782 – 1862) (Public Domain)

There are between 90-100 species of Hebe,(which is a member of the Veronica family) and all of them (except one which lives only on the island of Rapa Nui) can be found in New Zealand, which has  unique and fascinating floral, invertebrate and bird populations. The Hebes vary from trees up to 7 metres tall to little sprawling shrubs, and they can be found everywhere from alpine to coastal regions. On islands, sometimes a particular group of organisms will proliferate, taking advantages of niches that are normally taken by very different kinds of species: think of the varied lemurs of Madagascar, for example. Hebes have taken advantage of their geographical isolation, and now gardeners are taking advantage too. They come in shades of white, blue and purple, all excellent colours for attracting pollinating insects.

Photo One (Hebe albicans) by By Alan Pascoe - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=881878

Hebe albicans (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Kurt Stüber [1] [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Hebe pinguifolia (Photo Two)

Hebes are resilient souls: they are resistant to salt-laden sea breezes, and so are sometimes planted as hedges in the coastal regions of the south-west of England and Australia. However ,the larger plants are only half-hardy, and won’t survive prolonged freezing. On the other hand, I have several in pots in my garden that have shrugged off a few sub-zero nights, so it may depend on how exposed they are.

Photo Three by https://plantgrowers.blob.core.windows.net/files/Garden/lbi-h-hedge-withan-edge-003.jpg

A very fine Hebe hedge in Australia (Photo Three)

As you might expect, a plant that is so varied and wide-spread has many uses in its native country. In New Zealand Hebe stricta is known as Koromiko and the unopened leaves and buds were chewed as a cure for dysentery by the Maori people. Dried leaves were apparently sent to New Zealand soldiers during both World Wars as a cure for stomach problems. The plant is said to contain a chemical that reduces peristalsis: this would combat the water loss that is the real killer in diseases such as cholera and dysentery. However, as diarrhoea is the body’s way of ridding itself of the toxins created by the bacteria, the use of the plant would need to be coupled with something that would attack the problem at source. I’m always slightly alarmed when people use drugs such as Immodium as a ‘cure’ for diarrhoea, when what they do is stop the need to go to the toilet without tackling the bugs that are causing the problem in the first place. I remember someone taking them like sweeties on one of my more exotic trips, and being unable  to go to the toilet for a week as a result, so be warned…

There is a rather lovely children’s song in the Maori language called ‘Koromiko’, which you can hear here. The lyrics in English are as follows:

Koromiko, Karaka, Tī Kouka
The trees of the forest
Tarata, Ngaio, Tōtara
The trees of the forest

Look at the flowers
Look at the leaves
This one is different from that one
They all differ, they all differ.

The Karaka is the New Zealand Laurel tree, and is endemic to that country. The Ti Kouka is the cabbage tree or cordyline, a popular pot plant in the UK. The Tarata is the lemonwood (Pittosporum eugenioides) and a very fine plant it is too.

Photo Five (Tarata) by By Rudolph89 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15773056

The leaves of the lemonwood, or Tarata (Photo Four)

The Ngaio is also called the mousehole tree (Myoporum laetum) and the New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh was named for the plant.

Photo Five (Ngaio flower) by By Avenue - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13534790

Flower of the Ngaio (Photo Five)

And, finally, the Totara is a magnificent tree that grows only in New Zealand.

Totara tree (Podocarpus totara) (Public Domain)

All this has made me very eager to pack a bag and head for the Antipodes. What a magnificent and varied flora.

It occurs to me that  I’ve had Hebes in my garden for years without knowing about their cultural importance in New Zealand (or indeed that they even came from that country). Our gardens can be such rich sources of interest and wonder. My patch is a veritable United Nations of plants, all getting along and providing nectar and food for my invertebrate and ornithological visitors. If only all humans could be as good natured and useful.

But, back to the Hebe.

I have not been able to find any culinary uses for Hebe, but there is a variety called ‘Rhubarb and Custard’, so that will have to do for now.

Photo Six (Rhubarb and Custard) by https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/320219/Hebe-Rhubarb-and-Custard/

Hebe Rhubarb and Custard (Photo Six)

And to round up the post today, I present to you a poem that fairly drips homesickness. The poet, Dora Wilcox, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, but spent the years leading up to and including the First World War in London, where she obviously didn’t feel at home. Later, she lived in Sydney Australia. Wilcox died in 1953, having won an award for a poem commemorating the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1927. While it is undoubtedly not the best poem I have ever featured here (I find it rather mannered and in need of a good editor), it does have a sense of poignant yearning that I find rather appealing. See what you think.

In London

When I look out on London’s teeming streets,
On grim grey houses, and on leaden skies,
My courage fails me, and my heart grows sick,
And I remember that fair heritage
Barter’d by me for what your London gives.
This is not Nature’s city: I am kin
To whatsoever is of free and wild,
And here I pine between these narrow walls,
And London’s smoke hides all the stars from me,
Light from mine eyes, and Heaven from my heart.

For in an island of those Southern seas
That lie behind me, guarded by the Cross
That looks all night from out our splendid skies,
I know a valley opening to the East.
There, hour by hour, the lazy tide creeps in
Upon the sands I shall not pace again —
Save in a dream, — and, hour by hour, the tide
Creeps lazily out, and I behold it not,
Nor the young moon slow sinking to her rest
Behind the hills; nor yet the dead white trees
Glimmering in the starlight: they are ghosts
Of what has been, and shall be never more.
No, never more!

Nor shall I hear again
The wind that rises at the dead of night
Suddenly, and sweeps inward from the sea,
Rustling the tussock, nor the wekas’ wail
Echoing at evening from the tawny hills.
In that deserted garden that I lov’d
Day after day, my flowers drop unseen;
And as your Summer slips away in tears,
Spring wakes our lovely Lady of the Bush,
The Kowhai, and she hastes to wrap herself
All in a mantle wrought of living gold;
Then come the birds, who are her worshippers,
To hover round her; tuis swift of wing,
And bell-birds flashing sudden in the sun,
Carolling: Ah! what English nightingale,
Heard in the stillness of a summer eve,
From out the shadow of historic elms,
Sings sweeter than our Bell-bird of the Bush?
And Spring is here: now the Veronica,
Our Koromiko, whitens on the cliff,
The honey-sweet Manuka buds, and bursts
In bloom, and the divine Convolvulus,
Most fair and frail of all our forest flowers,
Stars every covert, running riotous.
O quiet valley, opening to the East,
How far from this thy peacefulness am I!
Ah me, how far! and far this stream of Life
From thy clear creek fast falling to the sea!

Yet let me not lament that these things are
In that lov’d country I shall see no more;
All that has been is mine inviolate,
Lock’d in the secret book of memory.
And though I change, my valley knows no change.
And when I look on London’s teeming streets,
On grim grey houses, and on leaden skies,
When speech seems but the babble of a crowd,
And music fails me, and my lamp of life
Burns low, and Art, my mistress, turns from me, —
Then do I pass beyond the Gate of Dreams
Into my kingdom, walking unconstrained
By ways familiar under Southern skies;
Nor unaccompanied; the dear dumb things
I lov’d once, have their immortality.
There too is all fulfilment of desire:
In this the valley of my Paradise
I find again lost ideals, dreams too fair
For lasting; there I meet once more mine own
Whom Death has stolen, or Life estranged from me, —
And thither, with the coming of the dark,
Thou comest, and the night is full of stars.

Dora Wilcox (1873-1953)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Hebe albicans) by By Alan Pascoe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=881878

Photo Two by By Kurt Stüber [1] [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by https://plantgrowers.blob.core.windows.net/files/Garden/lbi-h-hedge-withan-edge-003.jpg

Photo Four (Tarata) by By Rudolph89 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15773056

Photo Five (Ngaio flower) by By Avenue – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13534790

Photo Six (Rhubarb and Custard) by https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/320219/Hebe-Rhubarb-and-Custard/

All Change!

Male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Dear Readers, normally I would be starting to decorate the house and make food for the festive season this week, but Mum and Dad are still unwell. They are both breathless and weak, and the doctor has told them that it will be several weeks before they’re back to ‘normal’. And so we’ve come to the decision that it will be better if they stay in Milborne St Andrew  rather than undergo the stress of the travelling to London and being away from home. So,  John and I will take Christmas to Dorset instead of looking after them here, and much re-organisation has ensued. There have been rooms, trains and taxis to book and, most importantly of all, a supermarket delivery slot to get so that I don’t have to carry three days worth of Christmas food down to Dorset on South Western Railways. And now, with everything in place, I’ve been able to spare a few minutes to look out of the window and see what the rest of the world is doing.

It has been a boisterous, unpredictable couple of days, with the weather varying from warm and rainy to freezing cold with bright sunshine and blustery winds. We even have an outside chance of snow over the weekend. The bird feeders have been close to horizontal on several occasions, depositing seed all over the path. The starlings seem to play in the wind, throwing themselves into the air and careering sideways with every appearance of glee. They sway on the branches, bicker on the feeders and are able to rid the bird table of much larger birds by simply showing up in large numbers and descending on the food. They argue among themselves, but, en masse, they are a formidable opponent.

Starling surveying the bird table and gauging her moment for descent….

I was reminded of the importance of supporting one another today. I was having my usual morning flat white in Costa Coffee on East Finchley High Street when a woman started to abuse the young women behind the counter. From what she was saying it was clear that she had mental health problems, but as the tirade got more and more unpleasant, and as one of the younger targets of the abuse was in tears,  I found myself going over to stand with the baristas. I say ‘found myself’ because I didn’t appear to have much choice – my legs just seemed to carry me there. I had no idea what to say or do, but I didn’t want to simply be a bystander – I’ve been too scared to intervene in situations like this in the past, and have always felt ashamed of myself afterwards. As soon as I got to the counter two other customers got up and stood with the young women too. It was important to me that we didn’t demonise the woman who was ranting away, because she was clearly a troubled soul who was in need of care, so we gently tried to calm her down, and to suggest that if she had problems she should take them up with the manager, and eventually she gave up and left. Did we help? I have no idea. But there is a strength in simply standing together that the starlings seem to know instinctively, and that humans often don’t appreciate.

Collared doves waiting for breakfast

Back in the garden, the collared doves stand guard in the whitebeam above the seed feeder. Every so often they descend to feed and promptly start fighting with one another, but in the tree they seem serene and unconcerned.

The chaffinches are back in force, with their mothy flutterings. I doubt that there is a more elegant British finch, and I never tire of their blush-pink breast feathers and slate-blue heads. The females are less brightly coloured, but are graceful little birds. I  love the way that they swoop and bound over the pond.

Female chaffinch

We have been adopted by a small flock of goldfinches, too. They roost in one of the big plane trees on East Finchley High Street, but during the day they pop into the garden every twenty minutes or so. They are such dapper birds, their pale-grey beaks tipped with charcoal and their faces masked in crimson.

Goldfinch

The black and white feathers on the wings remind me of Mondrian, the artist, and so does this most unusual of visitors. It has been almost a year since I’ve since a woodpecker on the suet feeder, and here he is again, hammering away, propped up with his stiff tail feathers. Last time he was here it was Christmas Day 2016 and I gave Mum the binoculars so that she could see him. She is so small and frail, and she swayed slightly as she raised them to her eyes. She said she saw the bird, but I’m not sure if she did or if she just said it to please me.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

And in good news, Mum and Dad have finally accepted that they need a bit of extra care for a while, and I have found an agency that seems caring and responsive. The new carer starts next week, and I hope that they are nice, and that Mum and Dad like them. Life at the moment seems to be something of a steeplechase, with unexpected obstacles around every corner, but I am hoping that we have at least cleared this one. And in the meantime, I look at the birds, and thank them for the moments of peace that they bring me, and the way that they lift me out of myself with fierce wings.

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Red-Hot Poker

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…..

Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia uvaria)

Dear Readers, this week I was delighted to spot this red-hot poker growing in a garden in Muswell Hill, and looking about as exotic as any plant has a right to do. I love the way that the orange colour complements the red brick wall of the rather splendid house behind it, and the way that the flowers were beaded with rain didn’t hurt either.

In its native South Africa, this plant is known as torch lily, and the flowerheads can reach up to five feet in height.Red-coloured flowers are often bird-pollinated, and in South Africa sunbirds are common visitors, but in the UK bumblebees also love the long trumpet-shaped flowers.

Photo One by By Alandmanson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Malachite sunbird (Nectarinia famosa) on red hot poker (Photo One)

The Table Mountain Beauty butterfly (Aeropetes tulbaghia) also pollinates the flower, particularly in the Fynbos region of South Africa, and is unusual in preferring red flowers over the usual paler blooms. In his lovely blog ‘The Fynbos Guy’, the author mentions that wearing a red shirt will result in you being ‘buzzed’ by these beautiful insects.

Photo Two by The Fymbos Guy at http://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

A Table Mountain Beauty (Aeropetes tulbaghia) Photo Two

The plant has been introduced all over the world: in the New World, orioles and hummingbirds have taken a shine to it, and in Australia it has become something of an environmental hazard to the native wild plants. It is clump-forming and vigorous, and I can imagine how it could easily dominate in a fragile habitat.

Photo One by By Toby Hudson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9374718

Clump of red hot pokers on Lake Jindabyne in Australia (Photo One)

Red-hot pokers belong to the subfamily Asphodeloideae , which includes such plants as aloes and asphodels. There has been much debate about where exactly the plant belongs, however, and it is something of a puzzle. It certainly doesn’t share much of a superficial resemblance to its close relatives: it’s not a succulent, like the aloes, and it doesn’t have the flowers of the asphodels. What defines the subfamily is a chemical compound called anthraquinone, which is used in laxatives and in batteries. I suspect you’d have to be very careful to make sure you were taking the correct version of the compound.

As you would expect for such a stunning plant, there are many cultivated varieties, in a range of colours. However, it’s the gradation of colour that gives the plant its common name, pale yellow at the bottom through to peachy-red at the top. The other colours don’t have the same effect, pretty as they are. I suspect that they may not have the same hardiness either: we’ve had snow and sub-zero temperatures for several days here in London, but the Muswell Hill plant is still going strong. Once established, red-hot pokers have a reputation as being tough plants to kill, but an article in The Telegraph suggests that although Kniphofia was popular before the Second World War, many interesting varieties of red-hot poker were  destroyed during the Dig For Victory campaign, when people dug up their flower gardens to grow food. It’s interesting to see that it is now back ‘in fashion’.

By the way, the tricky Latin name Kniphofia is pronounced ‘Nee-FOF-ee-a’ and is named after Johann Hieronymous Kniphof, an 18th century German physicist and botanist.

Photo Three by By Mork the delayer at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Kelly using CommonsHelper., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16044760

A yellow kniphofia. Pretty, but not a red-hot poker (Photo Three)

In South Africa the nectar-filled blooms are sometimes eaten by humans, and are said to taste like honey.

Medicinally, the flowers of some Kniphofia species have been used to repel snakes and an infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest disorders. In Zimbabwe the powdered roots of Kniphofia are mixed with food to treat infertility in women.

In Lesotho, the plant was considered to be a charm against lightning, and was therefore grown close to habitation. However, in the UK at least one person believes that they are unlucky according to the Plant Lore website, and according to Plant Lives, it’s believed that if red-hot poker flowers in the autumn it means a death in the family. Then again, my Mum believes that green is an unlucky colour, and my Nan believed that putting new shoes on the table would bring misfortune, so I guess there’s always something.

It strikes me that superstitions grow from our fundamental need to explain either bad luck (in order to prevent it from happening again) or good luck (to make sure we get more of it). But this behaviour is not limited to humans. In some of his experiments, the behaviourist B.F Skinner provided pigeons with food that dropped out of a container at purely random intervals. He noted that the pigeons would repeat the behaviour that occurred when the food arrived in an attempt to get more. So, if a bird happened to be preening when a pellet dropped, it would preen obsessively to see if it could generate more food. Many other species of animal, from pigs to dogs to poor imprisoned primates, demonstrate the same tendencies. I wonder if this is the root of all religion: the need to find a reason for our mixed fortunes in a volatile, uncertain world.

But, as usual, I digress.

Now, as you know I like to finish my pieces with an artwork, or a poem, or preferably both, and this week my search has led me back to Les Murray (I featured his poem ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ in my piece on lucerne a few months ago). What a remarkable poet he is! As you know, I don’t cut and paste the complete poems of living authors, but here is a taste of ‘The Cowladder Stanzas’ from ‘New Selected Poems’. For the rest of it, you (and I ) will need to buy the book.

The Cowladder Stanzas

Not from a weather direction

black cockatoos come crying over

as unflapping as Bleriot monoplanes

to crash in pine tops for the cones.

 

Young dogs, neighbours’ dogs

across the creek, bark, chained

off the cows, choked off play, bark

untiring as a nightsick baby, yap

milking times to dark, plead

ute-dancing dope-eye dogs.

 

Red-hot pokers up and out

of their tussock. Kniphofia flowers

overlapping many scarlet jubes

form rockets on a stick.

Ignition’s mimed by yellow petticoats.

 

Like all its kind

Python has a hare lip

through which it aims its tongue

at eye-bursting Hare.

And if this hasn’t whetted your appetite for more of this precise, explosive poetry, nothing will.

Photo Credits

Photo One by  Alandmanson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by The Fymbos Guy at http://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

Photo Three by By Mork the delayer at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Kelly using CommonsHelper., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16044760

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – The Best Laid Plans

Clematis seedheads in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, you may remember that last week I reported that Mum had been stricken down with a chest infection, but seemed to be on the mend, and was at least not in hospital. Well, on Sunday I phoned Mum and Dad, and realised that Dad had succumbed to the same bug. Add to this the fact that one of their lovely carers is currently struggling with her own health emergency, and that the washing machine has broken irreparably, and the only feasible course of action was to leap on a train and head down to Milborne St Andrew on a rescue mission.

Flint nodule from wall in Milborne St Andrew

And so, I have been on tea-making/cooking/washing machine wrangling/cleaning/medicating duty for the week, and have been trying to persuade Mum and Dad that they need some additional help while their carer is sorting out her own crisis. I have met with some resistance (understatement) because they love their current carers, and would rather not have to deal with anyone else. Plus, Dad in particular is sanguine about the future, which is lovable but occasionally infuriating. For example, on the coldest day of the week I returned from the walk that I am about to describe, only to find that the enormous wheelie bins had been put on the kerb for the dustbin men. Yes, in spite of barely being able to breathe, Dad had wrangled them outside, in -5 degrees of wind chill.

I love that Mum and Dad are so determined to be independent. I think that their sheer cussedness and determination is what’s kept them going so far. I just worry myself sick about them. But they are of sound mind, and I don’t want to be one of those children who railroads their parents into doing things that they don’t feel comfortable with. So, on Thursday, while they were having a nap, I wrapped myself up and went out for a walk.

The sun was so low on the horizon that for half the walk I could barely see where I was going.

Bugwoman’s shadow….

I stomped along Chapel Road, and stopped as a flock of blackbirds erupted from one of the gardens. What could have brought these normally solitary birds together? I inhaled a deep lungful of sweet apple scent, and realised that the kind house owner had left the windfalls for the birds.

And it wasn’t just blackbirds who were ready to feed – I also spotted my first redwing of the year.

Onwards I trudged, feeling my anxiety ease with every step. I even made the mistake of thinking it was warmer than I’d thought. Hah! I was to discover the error of my ways when I walked back, into the wind.

A mole had been very busy in the ex-cabbage field, and the soil was the colour of cocoa. These little animals are very common, and yet I’ve never caught a glimpse of one. How busy they are, turning the soil and munching on the worms and leatherjackets.

Earlier in the year, I’d passed a dry stream bed, and speculated that maybe it was a winterbourne – a river that only runs in the winter. It seems that I might have been right. Many villages in Dorset are called Winterbourne something, such as the nearby Winterbourne Whitechurch.

Over a stile, and then a decision on which of three paths to take. In the mood of Robert Frost, I decided to take the one less travelled, diagonally up hill and into a little copse of trees. The low sun burnished the dry thistles into something softly miraculous.

At the top of the hill was the path through trees, which looked strangely menacing compared with the open field. But somehow I wasn’t ready to turn back yet, and so up I went.

And when I came out on the other side, there was a view of another cabbage field, and a single wind turbine.

Back I go, and immediately realise that it’s colder than I thought.

I pause at a sign before the wood. I have not heard shots here, and so I don’t think that I’m in danger of being peppered with pellets. Plus, I am wearing a bright red (and very unsuitable) coat, so I should at least be obvious. I know that shooting things is part of country life, but I confess that I loathe it, especially when it’s done for sport and the dead creatures are not even eaten. Still, you could argue that at least a pheasant has had a decent life before it meets its end, unlike a factory-farmed chicken or pig.

I’m out into the field again, and heading home. I spot the sheep from my last walk on a field across the way.

The tractor ruts are full of water, necessitating some clever manoeuvering to keep my feet dry. At least I’m wearing suitable walking shoes.

I fall in love with this dancing bush. It looks to me like a couple in the middle of a tango, and rather reminds me of the Fred and Ginger House in Prague….

The Fred and Ginger House, Prague.

It’s becoming colder, and I notice that some of the water in the ruts here is frozen. A pied wagtail is picking over the puddles, and the hedgerow is full of goldcrests and long-tailed tits. As usual, I don’t get a photo of them, but the wagtail is very obliging, flying along just a few feet ahead of me as I pick my way through the muddy morass.

Pied Wagtail

There is a huge bonfire in the wood to the left of the path as I turn for home, and I soon realise why. You might remember that last time I reported on this walk, I mentioned a very fine dilapidated barn in some woodland. Well, most of the woodland is now gone, and the logs are stacked up. I walked through a veil of woodsmoke, which lingered in my hair (and probably my lungs) for the rest of the day.

As I got to the brow of the hill, I noticed how some of the trees have previously been heavily coppiced, but have now grown into trees.

Notice all the tree trunks growing up from one horizontal trunk

It occurs to me that this was maybe once a hedgerow, or at least a piece of ancient woodland coppiced for firewood, which has been allowed, over many years, to grow freely. On the other side of the path, a hedgerow is still maintained, and I was struck by the similarity in the pattern of growth, but on a miniature scale. It would take me a lifetime to be able to truly read this landscape, but I am determined to learn while I can.

Part of the hedgerow

And as I passed another modern barn, I noticed the moon rising.

How serene it looked above the trees.

Underneath an abandoned farm building, a piece of old machinery was burnished with late afternoon light.

I had seen a few starlings roosting earlier, but now the big oak tree was full of twittering, whistling birds bedding down for the night.

And in the field opposite, the very last rays of the sun seemed to blessing a pair of horses.

And so I walk briskly home as the light fades and the wind picks up, chilling my face and making me yearn for a centrally-heated living room and a cup of tea. The parents are both asleep in their reclining chairs. Dad’s chest is wheezing gently, while Mum’s is distinctly more crackly. I put the kettle on, knowing that regardless of how deeply asleep he is, Dad will launch into alertness for our daily watching of ‘Pointless’. I am filled with such a rush of love for the pair of them that I’m brought to the edge of tears. I have to learn to relax into the uncertainty of the situation, and not try to control every decision (hard as that is for someone who thrives on making things happen). Sometimes, it’s best to just listen and trust that, in the words of Julian of Norwich:

‘All shall be well,

and all shall be well,

and all manner of things shall be well’.

Wednesday Weed – Japanese Aralia

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…..

Japanese Aralia(Fatsia japonica)

Dear Readers, as I walked home  through Muswell Hill on a cold Sunday morning, I was surprised to hear the sound of buzzing, and to see not one but three bumblebees feeding from these sputnik-shaped flowers. Japanese aralia is an exotic, but as more and more bumblebee nests are surviving the winter it has become a valuable source of nectar and pollen. A  glance at the flowers put me in mind of ivy, which is not surprising as both are members of the Araliaceae family, and there is at least one hybrid between  this plant and an ivy.

Fruit of Japanese Aralia

The genus name ‘Fatsia’ comes from an old Japanese word for ‘eight’, and if you look at the leaves you’ll see that they usually have eight ‘fingers’ (though they can have seven, or nine). As you might guess from this, the plant is native to southern Japan and South Korea. The Japanese name for the plant is ‘Yatsude’, meaning ‘eight-hand’. Whatever the number of lobes, the leaves are evergreen, shiny, and rather attractive. However, as you can see in the photo below, even evergreens may have an ‘autumn’, when older leaves turn yellow and drop off – I have a viburnum in a pot which did this this year, to my horror. However, it’s now doing well, so I can breathe again.

A Fatsia leaf (one of the eight lobes is hidden, honest!)

Japanese aralia is a great plant for shady conditions and heavy soils, and so it should be a shoo-in for my north-facing, claggy-soiled garden, if only I had a bit more room. However, I have a very dark side-return which is currently home to potted camellias, a daphne and a climbing hydrangea, so maybe I will find a spot for one here (they’re hardy down to -14 degrees, so hopefully that should be ok). I am somewhat tempted by this new variety, though in my experience you’re often better off with the old faithfuls.

Fatsia japonica 'Spiders Web'

Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ (Photo One)

I absolutely see the point of raising native flowers in some habitats: I have friends in the US and in Australia who do this, and I think that there’s a real need to support wildlife by growing the plants that evolved with them to be the perfect source of food and shelter. In London, though, there are already so many foreign species that I think it’s a case of deciding which will benefit creatures such as pollinators when no native plants are in flower, or available as food for larvae. For example, winter-flowering plants such as Mahonia and Fatsia fill a feeding gap for over-wintering bumblebee queens and for the nests that survive these days.

IMG_2356

Although Japanese aralia is sometimes known as the castor-oil plant, it is not related to the actual castor-oil plant (Ricinus communis), although the leaves are similar. This is important for several reasons, particularly because the ‘true’ castor-oil plant is extremely poisonous. You will sometimes find Fatsia japonica labelled as ‘false castor-oil plant’, to add to the confusion. This is why Latin names are so important -at least we all know that we’re talking about the same thing.

In Japan, the shoots of Fatsia japonica are harvested and used as a vegetable, and very tasty they look too…

By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9781610

An actual castor-oil plant(Ricinus communis) (Photo Two)

Japanese aralia has been used as an anti-inflammatory in Japan and Taiwan, and hence in the treatment of such conditions as osteoarthritis and rheumatism. In folklore those huge eight-pointed hand-shaped leaves were thought to repel devils, and the plant was grown on the north side of the house from whence these enemies were thought to come (though as this is presumably also the coldest side it seems like a bit of a risk for the plant.).

IMG_2364

Dear Readers, last week I described how the ginkgo trees in Japan were among the few to survive the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and today I found this photo essay on the effects of those bombs. And here is a photo of the shadow of Fatsia japonica leaves left on a telegraph pole following the flash from the bomb at Hiroshima. What happened to the plant eventually is not recorded. At a time when the idea of nuclear war, so long considered unthinkable, has become a ‘viable option’ for some leaders of the Free World, it’s as well to stop to consider what it really means. Some of the other photos in the essay show exactly what happens when you drop a nuclear device on other human beings.

shadow2.gif (107026 bytes)

This photo was taken by the US Army following the bombing of Hiroshima. Note the shadow of the leaves on the telegraph pole.

And, following the disaster at Fukoshima, Japanese poets have also been concerned with the effects of the radiation released by natural forces. In the collection ‘Reverberations from Fukushima: 50 Japanese Poets Speak Out’, Setsuko Okubu, who lived in Fukushima, considers the effect of this devastating event on her home:

In “To My Home,” Setsuko Okubo affirms, “Our prime blessing is brought by the soil..inherited and guarded.” In the first and last stanzas, the repetition of the names of wild plants they used to gather serves as a litany.

To My Home

Butterbur sprouts, five-leaf aralia, fatsia sprouts, bracken, and parsley.
When the mountains are ready
for the sprouting of plants,
the rice fields are dug, and the fields are cultivated,
calves are born,
horses are pastured,
and chickens lay eggs.
It’s a season full of life.
In the fall
Ears of rice rustle.
The smell of rice heralds the harvest.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Then, “In a twinkle it vanished../ life-taking radiation —/ contaminated my home”

We had to slaughter the cows that we had tenderly watched over.
We abandoned our racehorses that we had raised with the utmost care,
left our houses, fields, and livestock, and evacuated.
We drift from shelter to shelter as refugees.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Spring has rolled around again.
Butterbur sprouts, five-leaf aralia, fatsia sprouts, bracken, and parsley.
They are waiting to be picked
on the desolate land.

My heart goes out to people everywhere who have to leave everything that they know and leave their homes, whether through natural disaster or war, drought or famine. It sometimes seems as if the whole world is on the move, and this will only increase as climate change makes areas uninhabitable. Building walls against others is no solution. We need to learn to live with people who are different from us, and we need to learn fast. We have always been the adaptable ape, and I hope this will stand us in good stead in the future, though some days I despair. But not today, because the bees are feeding on the Japanese aralia, and will go home with full stomachs to survive another day.

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