Tag Archives: pollen

Friday 13th – unlucky for some?


It is probably the juxtaposition of ‘unlucky Friday’ and ‘unlucky 13’ that has made much of Western civilisation so nervous on that particular day. Just to make you feel really nervous about these things, 2012 has had three ‘Friday 13th’s each 13 weeks apart…

….and it’s a leap year which is supposedly really bad as it affects the crops so we’ll all starve.

Bet you didn’t know that wheat had its own Google calendar did you? Well, obviously it doesn’t; which is the point. Many of these superstitions are based in legend and have been added to and tweaked as society has changed. The number 13 was considered lucky in Ancient Egypt as it symbolised the glorious afterlife. Christianity perceives 13 as unlucky because there were thirteen at the last supper. If we look at plants and unlucky number 13 the prime slot goes to Norse legend.

There is a Norse myth where 12 gods were having a dinner party in Valhalla. One of these guests was Balder, god of joy and the sun, who was the favourite and much loved by the others. Loki, god of mischief, had not been invited and he was jealous of Balder, so he gate-crashed the party. Then he went on to trick the blind god of winter, Hoder, into shooting Balder with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. Why mistletoe? Well, Baldur’s mother, the earth or mother goddess, Frigga, had made all the plants on earth swear an oath not to harm Baldur. The mistletoe had been considered too young to swear an oath, and Loki had discovered this.
Conveniently for Loki, European mistletoe (Viscum album) is toxic. It contains a poisonous alkaloid which causes acute gastroenteritis, blood vessel collapse and very possibly death. My issue with this tale is that one would have to eat the mistletoe berries or leaves or drink a tea made from them in order to ingest the toxin.  Unless Hoder was able to send the poison-tipped arrow directly into a blood vessel, I’m not convinced that Baldur would have died. (Not an experiment to try at home!) Baldur was brought back to life, by the way, so 13 was less of an unlucky number for him than for Loki.

Like many toxic plants, mistletoe is also useful for ‘good’ medicine; particularly for respiratory problems. While poisonous to humans, the berries are a good source of protein for many birds. Mistletoe is also an important pollen and nectar plant for bees. It’s also been found to increase habitat diversity, so it might be a parasite but it’s not a pest. And you thought mistletoe was just for kissing under at Christmas!

What other plants could be considered ‘unlucky’? Hawthorn or May blossom (Crataegus monogyna) is one. Superstition has it that to bring May blossom into the house invites illness and death into the house too.  Just as well we didn’t have Friday 13 in May – that would have been seriously bad fortune. Hawthorn has so much folklore surrounding it probably shunts mistletoe out of our current top spot. The flowers are said to smell sweetly – or of death and decay. It is a ‘witching plant’ favoured for broomsticks and wands. Hawthorn is also a medicinal plant, good for improving heart conditions and reducing depression. It has sharp thorns and edible berries and has been a favourite hedging plant in Britain for hundreds of years because of it great usefulness at all times of the year, so it does seem strange that it’s also classed as ‘unlucky’. Perhaps that stems from someone years ago taking a spray of May blossom into the house on Friday 13th and then a family member took ill and died. Coincidence? Poison? Superstition? I leave the choice to you…

If you’d like to know if you have ‘unlucky’ or toxic plants in your garden, or need general garden advice, contact us for a consultancy visit!


Show Chelsea a Flower


There is, funnily enough, a showy element to this week’s blog. It is that time of the year again after all, when the media and the Garden Design world all start patting each other on the back or sniping behind the aforesaid backs. Chelsea Flower Show can bring out both the best and worst in people.

Show Chelsea a flower and she may start sneezing; many people are allergic to pollen from one or more plant species. The London Plane trees that line the avenue at Chelsea (a permanent feature) are known to cause grief to many visitors as this is the exact time of year when the Plane trees’ pollen brings out the sneezes and wheezes; the infamous ‘Chelsea cough’.

Trees have been something of an issue at the Show this year; some of the designers have trawled the world, it seems, for the tallest or widest specimens; thereby causing a few headaches for those organising the event as some of the aboricultural delights only just fit through and on site. Importing trees for a short time in this way has to raise questions about sustainability and the environment.   Not just trees of course; importing Chinese slate when we have Welsh slate near to hand belongs to a similar dispute. But it is the trees that have made the headlines. At a time when London and the south east is suffering from a drought which was pretty much on the cards when this year’s gardens were being designed, was it a responsible action? Not only have the trees been imported (carbon footprint etc, etc, etc) but as they are such large specimens and have been recently transplanted they will require gallons and gallons and gallons more of water.

As someone who designs largely drought tolerant gardens (which fall nicely into the ‘easy maintenance’ brief of many of our clients) and who knows many other designers and landscapers who likewise incorporate a raft of environmentally friendly aspects into their work, one can be majorly irritated by the display of showmanship or see it as childishness. But there are plenty of designers showing at Chelsea who have not succumbed to this attitude. Their trees are native species, or sourced from nearer to home; or smaller specimens; or no trees at all, just shrubs and flowers. These, perhaps are the gardens to praise, these are the gardens that delight in showing that size is not everything…

Chelsea Flower Show is a showcase; it should be an inspiration – for designers, creatives, and for the ‘general public’ (whoever they are). It usually is an inspiration. It should also be an education; and yes it is, there are gardens and displays that tell us how we can live a life that balances computers and smart phones with bee friendly outdoor spaces.

Back to those pollen laden plane trees that are making Chelsea sneeze…Platanus x hispanica is found across London and other cities. It is very tolerant of pollution and of the root compaction that urban trees also have to deal with. Root compaction from the amount of hard surfaces rather than soil surrounding them and from the constant flow of traffic pounding the earth into a hard state.  Deciduous, so showing a tracery of branches over the winter and with palmate, ie hand-like, leaves and a peeling bark which is its most appealing feature (!) this tree is not native to the UK. Colloquially known as the ‘London Plane’ it has become a largely accepted immigrant, although there is still not full agreement on its antecedents; the ‘x hispanica’ nods in the direction of one of its most likely parents, the Spanish plane tree. Flowering time? May –June, of course: just in time for the Chelsea Flower Show!

It is of course a patriotic year, with both the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics appearing on the national calendar. So in her hunt for flowers, our Chelsea is likely to make a bee-line for the Great Pavilion and probably need a sniff of Rosa ‘Queens Jubilee Rose’ and Rosa ‘Royal Jubilee’. These are obvious contenders for RHS ‘Plant of the Year’ award. Roses, also being pollen bearers, may cause an allergic reaction, as may the perfume, either to nose or skin. But hopefully, these celebratory roses, whilst scented, will not cause too many sneezes or skin itches. They are lovely looking roses and their scent promises to be good too.

Oh and while Chelsea does like her flowers, she’s also into hair styles – so let’s hear it for the Chelsea Fringe – a series of events and open gardens running from today (May 19) until June 10. http://www.chelseafringe.com

And whether you’re seeing Chelsea for real, watching it on TV or your computer, Plews can help you with the view you see every day – your own garden. For ideas that are inspired not just by Chelsea but by the many wonders of the world around us,  why not contact us and let us design and build you a sneeze free garden?