Back and Forth
15th September 2021
Our theme this month is migration.
Our species-list was recorded in post war London by Professor Edward Salisbury in 1940. What was surprising was the diversity of plants and where they came from: the prairies of North America and Canada, the volcanic slopes of Sicily or Andean Peru. Richard Mabey noted that many of our ‘common weeds’ are of Mediterranean origin or were brought over from mainland Europe by ancient farmers.
The migration of plants follows the routes of human exploration; Way Bread (Plantago major) is also known in North America as ’White-Man’s Footprints’ as it spread west with the early pioneers. Other plants such as Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) perhaps map imperialist expansion. Plunder or bounty? Seeds were brought back from Peru and planted in the Royal Gardens at Kew in 1796, from whence they escaped to the wild.
Some plants become unlikely commercial cash crops such as Rosebay Willowherb which was harvested to make fermented tea in Russia. Or status symbols, like the the golden and red Tomato, once a pea-sized fruit prized as an exotic curiosity. Or perhaps, like the fluffy seedbeds of Canadian Fleabane (Erigeron canadensis) they arrive as stowaways as taxidermists’ stuffing in the carcasses of birds for display .
But the other side is that plants which migrate in an unplanned way are often seen as worse than weeds - as alien invaders. Oxford Groundsel (Senecio squaladis) is classified as a ‘injurious weed and is specified in the Weeds Act of 1959.
Of course, the migration of plants encourages us to look at the migration of humans, who change countries for a variety of reasons, including starvation, war and imperialism. Migrating humans can also be exploited commercially, treated as trophies, or wrongly viewed as dangerous or inferior, just like weeds.
We shall be exploring these themes this month, and also later in the project when we consider how we put both plants and humans into categories. A chance to challenge false hierarchies and, in Richard Mabey’s words, ‘to look closely at the very idea of a divided creation’.
Our plants of interest this the month are the semi-parasitic Wheatbine (Bartsia odonites), the widely dispersed Redshank (Persicaria maculosa) and Way Bread (Plantago major) which has spread all over the world in the footsteps of European settlers.
Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is one of the big surprises found in the St James's species list. It is of course not usually classified as a 'weed' - it is grown as a major cash-crop across the world. There are at least 10,000 varieties of tomato, many of which are hybrids.
We planted tomatoes in pots along the south-facing railings on the Jermyn Street side of the church. 'Harbinger' was chosen as it's a robust, disease resistant heirloom variety, popular in the 1940s.
The seeds are too big to have blown in with the wind, so perhaps a bird carried them, or perhaps they dropped out of a sandwich?
Hop over to THINGS TO READ for Diane Pacitti’s wonderful Tomato poem and Cornell Jackson’s piece on the AFTERMATH of the Slave Trade.
5th August 2021
Our Trusty Tomato Wardens
Introducing ... Kyoko and Simon. Their main role used to be looking after the flower stall on the Jermyn Street side of the church, but they have become AFTERMATH Harbinger tomato heroes - supervising, watering and engaging members of the public. Thank you Both!
Weeds of the Week are Oxford Groundsel and Common Vetch. Both are looking lovely at this time time of year. Oxford Groundsel (Ragwort) is a riot of yellow daisy-like flowers and Common Vetch a rambling profusion of pink and purple flowers ... both are unwelcome guests in the garden though!
3rd August 2021
August 1st marks Lammas, the festival of first fruits. Last year at this time we were threshing our wheat crop, this year our Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) has set seed. In Britain, Fat Hen tends to be weeded out of agricultural crops, but birds such as Yellowhammer and Linnet love the seeds which are similar to quinoa. In India, Fat Hen is widely cultivated. All parts of the plant except the roots are edible and rich in vitamins and minerals.
1st August 2021
Pretty as a Picture
The BOMB-BOX looked as pretty as a picture for the James’s Day celebrations on 25th July. The Corn Chamomile and Poppies were flowering and the Fat Hen and Canadian Fleabane looked nobly verdant as was the Black Nightshade; which is beginning to fruit!
Sunday 25th July 2021
The Humanities in Deep Time
Limestone pavement (pictured above) is a rare habitat in Britain, the majority is found in the western parts of North Yorkshire Dales. It was formed by the scouring of ice-sheets in the last ice-age and is of great geological and botanic interest. The slabs (clints) and crevices (grikes) provide a valuable variety of habitats for both sun and shade loving plants.
Diane Pacitti writes:
Last year Canterbury Press published my poetry collection Dark Angelic Mills. These poems were produced during my time as Poet in Residence at Bradford Cathedral. The city of Bradford is surrounded by the dales, and it also has a polluting industrial past. Some of my poems explore ecological themes, or respond to the Yorkshire landscape.
A few weeks ago, Kate Rigby, Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University, focussed on Dark Angelic Mills in her presentation in the online conference The Humanities in Deep Time. Kate is well known to us at St James’s. She is a regular attender of our eco contemplative liturgies and last year presented Daily Bread at a conference at the Freiburg Institute. We look forward to the September session of Rooted in God’s Earth, when she will be talking about her Hexameron, a re-writing of the seven days of creation.
The Humanities in Deep Time was organised by the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities in conjunction with TORCH, an organisation which supports research and wider engagement. It was a fascinating and often profound discussion. Speakers included a historian and an anthropologist, and the subject was viewed from the perspectives of philosophy and theology, including Hinduism, Daoism and Christianity. So I was thrilled that Dark Angelic Mills was part of this discussion.
Kate focussed on three of my poems. The first poem in the book places the city of Bradford in deep geological time. It evokes the making of the rock landscape and the formation of a ‘darkly sleeping seam’ of tropical ferns, slowly changing into the coal which will fuel mills and ‘flare out in Empire’. Fellow-Travellers is a contemplative poem which considers other-than-human life-forms of the dales: a fish, a grey-lag goose, a harebell. In contrast, Voices from the Other Side is urgent and angry. It gives voice to three of the many unheard victims of industrialism: a fish in a polluted river, a girl mill-worker and a voice from the future crying out from an island which is disappearing under rising waters. The poem ends with the words: ‘Pray with deeds.’
You can access the whole conference here:
Kate’s presentation is in the 2:15 – 3:15 slot: Deep Time Literature
If you would like to explore these poems further, I can send you a signed copy of Dark Angelic Mills for £10.00 including postage. Email: email@example.com
Saturday 24th July 2021
New Defences of Poetry
Diane Pacitti writes:
This year is the bi-centenary of Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry. To celebrate this event, Newcastle University put out a call for contemporary poets to write their own Defence.
I am thrilled that my own submission Poetry: a Defence of the Earth forms part of the online publication. It suggests various ways in which poetry might make us more responsive to other-than-human life, and also more aware of our own destructiveness.
In this article, I draw on various poets I admire. I also refer to both Daily Bread and Aftermath, beginning with a quotation from one of my own poems, a re-writing of William Blake, which will appear later in this project.
You can read my contribution and Defences by thirty other poets at:
Friday 23rd July 2021
Introducing Olá (Isreal Akíndípè)
In July, when our AFTERMATH theme is joy, we present this infectuosly happy video from Olá and his friends.
AFTERMATH is based on the plants which blew into St James's Piccadilly, some of which originated in faraway countries. Each brought its own distinctive gift. We see it is as an enormous and unexpected gift that Olá has come from Nigeria, and is now contributing his music and vision to AFTERMATH.
Diane Pacitti writes:
When I embark on any writing, I want to take myself into unknown territory. And take the reader with me into something new. You may have known and loved the Grinling Gibbons reredos for years. But I hope that when you have finished my story, you will see it in a different way.
Grinling Gibbons’s London offers parallels with ours. It is a London which has emerged from disaster. It has suffered civil war, plague and fire. But by the time the reredos was completed in 1684, there was a growing mood of confidence and creativity. This was seen in the developments of science, in the expansion of trade which brought new consumer experiences. The building of our church and the whole area of St. James’s was part of this new mood.
But there was a horror which helped to finance these new developments. A horror hidden hundreds of miles away.
Grinling Gibbons interests me because he was a foreigner, living in England at a time when it was dangerous to be a Dutchman because the two countries were in a protracted war. People from outside often see things slightly differently. He also, of course, became part of the cultural and social establishment, but only after a struggle. His social contacts could stretch from the king in Whitehall Palace to a drunk sailor in a Deptford pub or a woman beggar in Haymarket. This makes him invaluable to a writer.
Before starting this story, I have researched Gibbons and many aspects of his seventeenth century world. The shells really did come from the Caribbean and the Indo-Pacific. The visit to Whitehall Palace draws on the account in John Evelyn’s diary. I found David Esterley’s The Lost Carving* particularly helpful. But the core of this narrative is a fiction, imagined into the gaps between what we know.
A fiction, but I hope one which offers truths that challenge us today. We might ask ourselves whether the society we hope to build after Covid will be built on the labour or financial loss of people we choose not to see. Perhaps people hundreds of miles away. We might ask (as my character does without answering his own question) how far guilt extends downwards from the actual perpetrators of a scandalous act which is happening elsewhere. In a society in which almost everyone enjoys some benefit from this act, where does the responsibility stop?
* David Esterley, an American working on a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University, had what has been described as ‘a conversion experience’ when he saw the reredos at St James’s Piccadilly, an experience which led him into a long career in limewood carving. So do read The Lost Carving: a Journey to the Heart of Making. And if you would like more encounters with a pelican, check out Howard Jacobson.
August 2021 marks the 300th Anniversary of Grinling Gibbon's death.
Read Diane Pacitti's story 'Grinling Gibbons: a story of Shells & a Pelican' here.
Click here to go to the AFTERMATH: Things to Read pages.
Thursday 15th July 2021
A case of mistaken identity ...?
'The only difference between a weed and a cultivated plant is a bit of marketing and PR!'
Panellist on BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time
Corn Chamomile (Anthemis arvensis) was the first species to germinate in the BOMB BOX. It was once a very common corn-field annual, but since the advent of herbicides and more intensive farming methods it is now considered an endangered species. So, how nice to be able to offer it sanctuary in a little corner of Piccadilly.
Have a peek at our glorious wild and flowery BOMB BOX and the tomatoes growing on the Jermyn Street railings with their new sign. As our correspondent Alice Codner reminds us this week – “Are we looking at weeds or wild flowers?” … or indeed a food crop!
Tomatoes were one of the species on Prof. Salisbury’s St James's bomb-site ‘weeds’ list. This Spring Deborah planted a row of ‘Harbinger’ tomatoes (a heritage variety) in pots along the south-facing Jermyn Street railings, where they can enjoy the sun. There are actual small green tomatoes growing now, and passers-by are going into raptures over them! She met someone this week who comes by most days and checks them, and does a bit of pinching-out when required.
Deborah writes: “This summer has been extremely wet. After all the cold weather, I think this is slowing flowering down in the box, but on the other hand it's very lush.
The rain, and the nearby Lime tree casting shade, is causing more moss and algae to grow on the paving stones so it is a hazard is some places. Our Estates Manager is organising a hot-washing, so that's the end of this phase of the 'pavement meadow'.
Today I numbered 130 pavers and took photos of them (not sure what came over me, seemed like an interesting idea at the time!). See the examples below; I thought it might make a sort of collage / jigsaw as a reminder of what it was like.”
Thursday 8th July 2021
"Summertime and the ..."
The weeds are growing! Our pick this week are Musk Mallow (Malva moschata) and Codlins and Cream (Epilobium hisutum) from the list of weeds growing at St James’s compiled by Professor Salisbury in post-Blitz 1940.
Both species were important cash crops in the past.
Codlins and Cream is a species of Willowherb and was and is used to make a Russian caffeine-free tea called Koporye tea. It was a valuable crop before the black tea was imported into Europe. The leaves are fermented for 2-3 days and then dried, just like those in black tea. Koporye tea tastes very similar to black tea but with a pineapple-like aroma but doesn’t contain caffeine.
Many thanks to Alice Codner our special correspondent this month, she writes:
‘Isn’t it funny that rather than acknowledging our own needs, preferences and prejudices, we have labelled you:
As if you were one homogenous group and not as different to each other as sheep and cows;
As if you were doing anything other than what you can do;
As if somehow the opinions of one have the power to transform the essence of another into something Less Than; something Not Worthy.
Ignoring your epic journeys through birds and across continents, we state that you are Not Welcome; because you are in yourself Wrong:
But you – you are unaware of my musing, unaware of my labelling, and just keep doing what you can do:
Protecting soil; transporting food; attracting visitors; giving food and shelter;
Growing, Reproducing, Providing, Thriving – it’s a busy life for you too, now I come to think of it.
Maybe the word, ‘Weed’ is designed to assuage our guilt, like the plant version of ‘enemy’;
So when we kill you or pull you back we avoid the discomfort of facing the truth that because you do not serve my purpose, I am choosing to remove you, at least in part.
Maybe I will kill you because I need to eat and right now those carrots need all the nutrients they can get;
Or maybe I will kill you for the comfort of knowing that my roses will bring great joy next year, now you are not feeding on them.
Maybe your shape or colour simply do not fit the image that I imagined for this space.
So I label you ‘weed’ appeasing my conscience that clings to the illusion of a simple morality in which you were a baddy anyway, only an ‘it’, not even a ‘you’; only a ‘what’, not even a ‘who’: there is no need to grieve.
Thursday 17th June 2021
Last Sunday Ivan preached on the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32); he explained that the ‘mustard’ plant in the parable was as much a ‘wild’ species as it was a ‘cultivated’. That got me interested and researching.
The Greek word used mustard is sinapi and the equivalent Hebrew word is hardal. According to Pliny it was grown in gardens, but didn’t really need cultivating as it just popped up where ever. But in the Jewish tradition (the Mishnah) it states that it is not a garden vegetable, but is grown in the fields (as in “flowers of the fields”).
There are a few contenders for the mustard plant of the parable, mostly members of the Brassica family which includes cabbages, cauliflowers, radishes, horseradish, turnips and broccoli.
All the mustards have small seeds (about 1mm diameter) and are rapidly growing annuals; indeed, a seed can start to germinate the day after planting. Our contenders are: Black Mustard (Brassica nigra), White mustard (Sinapis alba), Wild Charlock (Sinapis arvense) and the Mustard Tree (Salvadora persica).
Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) is an upright, lanky plant with large stalked hairy leaves; it can reach a height of 3 metre growing in the wilds of Jordan where it forms thickets, which could indeed shelter birds. It blooms in spring in Palestine, each flower has four bright yellow petals, which later from long seed pods containing four round black seeds. The seeds are the smallest of the mustard contenders and ‘mustard-seed’ was used as a figure of speech, for the smallest measure of size. (www. jewishvirtuallibrary.org)
The seeds are used as a fiery cooking spice and when ground make the most pungent type of mustard.
White Mustard (Sinapis alba) probably originated in the Mediterranean region and is naturalised in the UK, and is now found throughout the world. It’s an annual species growing to 700mm tall and has pinnate leaves and yellow flowers. Each pod contains about 6 pale brown seeds which can be ground with vinegar to make a mild flavoured mustard. The leaves are edible before the plant flowers. White mustard is also grown as a fodder and manure crop throughout Europe.
Wild Charlock (Sinepis arvense) is a common weed in Israel and in the Mishnah is called lafsan (Wild Charlock). It is also found to the UK on roadsides, railway tracks and waste ground. It looks similar to Black Mustard, but is actually not in the same genera. It is much shorter and the seeds are larger. The leaves are eaten as a vegetable, the seeds can be ground to make a mild mustard and oil extracted from the seeds. It’s also known as bazzocks, bread and marmalade and wild kale in the UK.
Mustard Tree (Salvadora persica)
This a small tree typically 6-7m tall with a crooked trunk with a pleasant fragrance of mustard. The leaves break with a fine crackle when walked upon and the tree produces small reddish-black edible berries in clusters, juicy but pungent, which later yield small round seeds. It is a native of desert flood-planes, river banks and grassy savannahs in the Middle East.
Small twigs of the tree known as miswak are popular for cleaning teeth in the Arab world because of their antiseptic properties, and the fresh leaves are used in traditional medicine. But perhaps its large berries make it an unlikely candidate for our mustard-seed candidate?
The two species from St James's list of pioneer herbaceous plants this week are Gallant Soldiers and Rosebay Willowherb.
Tomato blog: Deborah Colvin writes ...
An unexpected pleasure arising from tending the tomatoes is the number of people I've met and conversations I've had - builders (who have respectfully moved along a bit when they're sitting against the railings on their morning break so they don't squash them), office workers, people who are homeless, concert goers, Caffè Nero staff (when walking through with a watering can), Simon the flower stall proprietor who is very protective of them and the local dogwalker has worked out a grand plan for an Organic Mayfair tomatoes enterprise ...
Thursday 10th June 2021
Greenfly and Aphids
We have an insect theme this week; Greenfly and Aphids it turns out are best-mates. In return for protecting greenfly from ladybirds and other predators, ants feed on a sugary solution secreted by greenfly called honeydew; they even transport them from plant to plant to new pastures to keep up the yield! And while on the topic, did you know that worker-ants live for three years and the queens up to thirty!
Head over to the Eco Church at St James’s Piccadilly Twitter account to catch up with daily postings #30DaysWild featuring plants from the Southwood Garden and courtyard. Day 9 features Liverworts.
As part of our 30DaysWild activity we have been spotting pioneer plants growing ‘wild’ in the courtyard paving and chalking their names. The rain has now washed away all our efforts but we will have another go! Have a look when you’re next here.
The two species from the St James's list this week are Canadian Fleabane and Crepis. Both have windblown fluffy seeds and are pioneer species.
Thursday 3rd June 2021
41 species of pioneer herbaceous plants sprung up from the chaos in the aftermath of the bombing of St James’s Church in1940. It turns out that many of them were not native to the UK; some were bought here by botanical explorers from the volcanic slopes of Sicily or even as taxidermists stuffing, as in the case of Oxford Groundsel and Canadian Fleabane! Our SJP species list contains plants that are resilient pioneers, opportunists even, adapted to thriving in harsh conditions, but interestingly some are cultivated as cash-crops in other parts of the world.
Last week the UN designated 22nd May as BIODIVERSITY DAY to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, with the #ForNature. The main conference will be held on 11th October 2021 in China, with a focus on “the nutrition, food security, and livelihoods of people, especially the most vulnerable”. Head over to THINGS TO READ here.
ROGATION WALK click here to read a report on our Rogation Walk around the parish boundaries on Sunday 30th May 2021.
Our Plants of the Week are number 3 and 5 on the SJP species-list. One hails from the Mediterranean where it is a common wayside-weed and the other from North and South America where it is cultivated as a leaf vegetable and the seeds traditionally ground into a nutritious flour.
"Give us today our Daily Bread ..."
Thursday 13th May 2021
Thursday 13th May 2021
Last year, the community of St James’s Piccadilly, grew and harvested our very own wheat. This heart-warming endeavor was recorded in our DAILY BREAD project; a series of 31 collaborative ‘posters’ exploring topics that arose in each season. From wheat genetics, Middle Eastern history, Medieval philosophy, the botany of grasses, William Blake, poetry, eco-theology, and much more.
AFTERMATH: weeds & wilding is our new collaborative project, facilitated by Artist (Sara Mark), poet (Diane Pacitti), and scientist (Deborah Colvin).
AFTERMATH: weeds & wilding. As we begin to emerge from the COVID epidemic in the UK we look back at a previous catastrophic event which occurred 81 years ago. In October 1940 St James’s Church took direct hits from explosive and incendiary bombs and was reduced to a near ruin in the first phase of the London Blitz. The aftermath that sprang up from the ruins was a colony of 42 species of ‘weeds’ which were identified and listed by Prof. Edward Salisbury, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
On Palm Sunday, 28th March 2021, a selection of these ‘weeds’ have been sown in the box that previously grew our wheat, and members of the St James’s community from Gloucestershire to Dorset, Sussex, Essex, Leicestershire and across London have sown their own seed mixes. We await an aftermath of prolific, resourceful and resilient plants that previously flourished in chaotic and precarious times. We hope to rediscover their gifts of flourishing and fruitfulness as God’s hope in these post-pandemic days.
Want to be involved? please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
BOMB BOX. A specially made micro-environment designed to mimic the nitrogen-rich but nutrient poor conditions of a bomb-site. These are found naturally in conditions such as forest-fires or post-volcanic eruptions.
The posters for the side of the planter were designed to reflect the month of April: Sowing.
One of the aims is to question false hierarchies: and perhaps the whole concept of ‘weeds’ - which in the case of the St James’s species are wind-dispersed pioneer-herbs, some of which are important food crops in other parts of the world, have medicinal properties or are valuable food/habitat for animals.
BOMB BOX. Members of St James’s Community sowed a selection of seeds from the list of 42 pioneer species, which was discovered in the church archives.
Head over to the Things to watch and listen to pages to see Sara Mark’s video based on a series of mono-prints that she made depicting the wonderful variety of shapes and sizes of the various seeds that arrived with the wind. The prints were also digitally printed onto fabric and then installed in the courtyard to be borne on the wind once again as piece entitled AFTERMATH: seed prayers.
Thursday 20th May 2021
Our theme for May is Emergence and after a very cold wet start to the year, we can at last welcome some more of our weeds as they germinate in the BOMB BOX. The first green shoots of Black Horehound (Ballota nigra), Common Vetch (Vicia sativa), Canadian Fleabane (Erigeron candensis), Gallant Soldiers (Galinsoga parviflora), Corn Chamomile (Anthemis arvensis) and Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) have popped their heads above the rubble and we can already see their different morphologies.
One of our community growers has sent in a photo of her seedlings enthusiastically emerging into the light; she tells us that she has had to thin them out quite drastically. Do let us know how your plants are faring!
The Harbinger tomatoes are establishing themselves and beginning to clamber up the railings alongside the Bulbous flower stall. The rain and wind along Jermyn Street have been unrelenting, so it’s impressive that they are doing so well - there is hidden resilience in this heritage variety that more modern forms are lacking.
Many people who check out the vines growing right on the street have said ‘but people will steal the tomatoes!’. To which the answer is “help yourself, there is abundance here” - and it suits the plants to have their seeds spread far and wide.
Every week we will be introducing a couple of the weeds growing at St James’s post-Blitz, from the list compiled by Prof. E Salisbury in the 1940’s. He identified 42 species on site and the first one listed is Fool’s Parsley: the origin of its name will become apparent!
This week we will be updating our four BOMB BOX words; we like to think of them as a mini-Haiku that captures something of the season... we might ask Diane Pacitti our poet-in-residence to write an actual haiku next month.
Friday 14th May 2021
“Weeds thrive in the company of humans ...”
Quotation from WEEDS: How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation
and changed the way we think about nature by Richard Mabey (2010)
It’s 6 weeks since we sowed our seed mix in the BOMB BOX, and still only the corn chamomile has really got going! Several other species are just poking their heads up after this week’s rain and warmer air today.
Above. BOMB BOX is beginning to show signs of life after a very cold Spring.
The Corn Chamomile (Artemis arvensis) has made a quick get-away but other
species are only beginning to show their heads. The Male Fern (Dryopteris felix-mas)
was bought as a small pot-plant because they are slow to germinate at the best of times!