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Last week, several news articles hit the headlines concerning allergic reactions to plants.

Each case required a visit to the casualty unit or a stay in hospital.

Being a keen gardener myself, I was stunned to read these accounts of notionally harmless plants.

(Photo: F Geller-Grimm/Wikimedia Commons)The first story involves teenage boys who were playing in a park in Bolton, Greater Manchester. They brushed up against hogweed and, naturally, thought little of it. A rash later developed, which then turned into blisters and boils. The Mirror has photographs. Two of the boys required hospital treatment. One needed to stay overnight. Both are still receiving drugs to help their recovery. Initially, physicians at Royal Bolton Hospital were baffled by the injuries. However (emphases mine):

It can take as long as seven years for the skin to repair itself after a hogweed burn and the boys will now have to make sure they are protected from sunlight.

If the hogweed sap is rubbed into the eyes, it can cause temporary or even permanent blindness.

Apparently, according to the Woodland Trust — from which the photo also comesit is the giant hogweed which can be hazardous. Woodland Trust tells us:

Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is a plant in the Apiaceae family which was introduced to the UK as an ornamental garden plant. It has white flowers and deeply incised compound leaves (where the leaf is divided into several smaller leaflets) whose edges are irregular and very sharply or jaggedly cut. It looks similar to its harmless relative common hogweed however it can grow up to 5.5 metres (18 feet) in height, making it easy to spot when fully grown!

Giant hogweed is closely related to carrots, common hogweed, cow parsley, and (a bit confusingly!) is sometimes known as cow parsnip, or wild rhubarb.

The second story involves Mrs Rita Savage, 79, of Frome, Somerset. Several years ago, her sister gave her a Madagascar palm — a type of cactus — which Mrs Savage replanted recently after it outgrew its pot. Whilst repotting it, she accidentally pierced herself with one of the thorns. Emergency services were initially unhelpful because they did not understand the significance of her swelling and pain. She spent several days in hospital taking antibiotics and antihistamines. Doctors told her that she would recover fully — in another six weeks!

The third incident occurred in Loup near the Côte d’Azur. Six-year old Louise, from nearby Vence, was on a picnic with her parents. She and a young friend were having fun pulling leaves off a fig tree. Twenty-four hours later, both girls had to be rushed to hospital with burns and huge blisters. One of Louise’s hands has second degree burns. (Nice-Matin has photos.)  Louise’s mother told Nice-Matin:

[Doctors] told me it’s an ongoing phenomenon. However, I didn’t even know such a thing existed. No one talks about it.

In a conversation about gardening here last week, my reader Underground Pewster helpfully explained:

The milky sap that one finds when picking figs is both a local irritant and allergen. In addition, some people can develop burns when the sap affected skin is exposed to ultraviolet light. I have experienced only mild skin irritation on the fingers which is worse with the less ripe fig. When the stem or skin is green, then more sap will be flowing. Peeling figs can cause the same problem when the skin is thick and not fully ripe.

Who knew such hazards existed? The Tandurust site has more detail on fig tree sap. Excerpts follow:

Fig allergy rash may come from contact with the latex of unripe fig fruits which is usually made into a powder to be used for making meat tender, clarifying beverages, and rendering fat.

Rash will appear as a result of irritation which has been a big problem for fig harvesters.

… the leaf and root sap of a fig tree cause more allergic reaction and rashes than the unripe fruit and other parts of the tree

Psoralen and bergapten which are abundant in leaf and root saps of fig trees are considered to be the primary cause of the allergic reactions and the appearance of rashes.

Besides rashes, phytophotodermatitis can also develop when a patient comes into contact with psoralen that is present in fig trees. This condition is characterized by hyperpigmentation, sunburns, and blisters. There also had been cases of anaphylaxis.

I would not wish to cause my readers alarm, but it is worthwhile reading up on certain plants before working or playing with them.

I’ll certainly pay closer attention in future!

This year, both our fruit trees gave us delightful produce, despite pest problems.

Aphid removal follow-up

At the end of May, our dwarf cherry (Stella) had aphids on top. My gentle soap and water wash worked. Whilst the leaves with the infestation withered, the fruit continued to grow and ripen.

The gooseberry tree, a standard, necessitated aphid removal by carefully wiping the top of the fruit with the corner of a dry paper towel. This was not the easiest operation, particularly as gooseberry trees and shrubs have spiky thorns.

(Photo credit: Ornamental Trees UK)


Our red gooseberry tree is in its third year of production. It gave us fruit in its first summer, only months after I planted it.

In 2013, we had 100g of gooseberries. Last year, 300g. In 2015, our harvest amounted to 685g, enough for three gooseberry crumbles! I was able to pick the berries in late June, early July and over the past weekend.

For those who have not tried gooseberries before, they are tart and delicious. They are a traditional English fruit. That said, one of my father’s cousins remembered gooseberry pie as standard at a café in America’s Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, I’d never heard of them until I moved to the UK.

They freeze well. Top and tail them before putting them in a bag and tucking them away for later. A gooseberry tart or crumble in winter is a delightful reminder of summer.

Some people prefer making jam or chutney, both of which go well with grilled mackerel fillets. The tartness cuts through the fish’s oiliness.

Gooseberries are increasingly hard to find at supermarkets and greengrocers. Most of what is on offer is the green variety. I recently saw red gooseberries online priced at £4.50 for 50g! The tree cost under £10 — I’m quids in!

A gooseberry standard takes up only a square metre of space and is well worth planting, especially since they yield fruit in the first year. I planted mine in November. They come with a bare root, so will require plenty of all-purpose compost.

They require very little maintenance. I give mine some fertiliser in the spring and away it goes.


After two years of waiting for cherries, this year our dwarf produced 110g — 15 fruits.

They are large, dark and sweet — just the way I like them.

Buying the dwarf tree was a bit controversial. My better half said they were troublesome to grow: a long wait for fruit (true) and limited lifespan (several years at most). We’ll see. I am considering transplanting it to another part of the garden in September so it has more room. Removal of another tree has opened up a new space.

Ordering advice

Make sure fruit trees are described as ‘self fertile’ before ordering. A catalogue or online display will state this.

Herbs and garlic

In other news, our herbs are having a particularly good season.

Our garlic harvest is imminent. We can hardly wait!

Our tomato and cucumber plants are coming along slowly.

It’s really worthwhile planting something edible in the garden, even where space is limited. Not only does it save money but it is also intriguing to watch the plants grow, flower and produce fruit.

The late Spring/early summer period is the time to check ornamental (flowering) and fruit trees for pests.

Ridding your plants of pests can be done naturally without commercial chemical sprays. However, either way, trees and shrubs will need periodic checking and reapplication through July.

Leaving pests unattended encourages their proliferation and can potentially damage the tree.


I spent an hour yesterday removing scale, aphids and ants from several leaves on our camellia.

Both were present on certain branches on the tree: parts nearer the base, some in the middle and a bit on top.

New leaves provide a soft, sheltered place for aphids to breed. Scale appears near new growth, often in the join between leaf and branch. Gardening Know How has good photos of both aphids and scale, although my aphids are blackfly, which look like tiny bugs.

On a camellia, they produce what is called sooty mould. They excrete honeydew onto the leaves, too much of which can reduce photosynthesis. The honeydew attracts ants. The ants protect the aphids because they want more honeydew. It is important to brush off the ants when getting rid of blackfly.

A chemical solution is Roseclear Ultra, which I tried a couple of weeks ago on a lower portion of the tree. Whilst that worked to a certain extent, I later found an explosion of blackfly on other branches.

Not having anything else to hand, I decided to use dry kitchen — paper — towels instead. We’ll see how this works out. I gently wiped the sooty mould off the top of the leaves and then did the same to the underside to get rid of the blackfly. I also used paper towel to get the scale. Keep crushing the paper towel as you fold it over and go for another affected area. This took about an hour, involved perhaps two dozen leaves and several sheets of kitchen towel.

The blackfly like to breed in the newest leaves before they open, so checking the insides of the leaves soon to open is important. If you see an ant, blackfly is sure to be nearby.

I have seen neem oil mentioned, however, the gardening product is quite expensive.

Cherry tree

In another area of the garden, we have a dwarf cherry tree. After three seasons, we are finally getting fruit!

This tree has spots of infestation from cherry aphids, also black, in colonies on the underside of the leaves. They, too, excrete a sticky substance which ants love.

I used dry paper towel again to wipe off as many of these as I could, as well as two or three tiny green and white caterpillars.

I followed this with soapy water, again applied to both sides of the leaf with paper towel. A wash of tobacco soaked in water would also work, although I did not want to get nicotine stains on my clothes.

Gardening Know How has this simple soap recipe. Although it is for scale, it will no doubt work for aphids, too:

You can use bleach-free dishwashing liquid (1  1/2 teaspoons per quart of water) in place of commercial insecticide soaps.

However, this will not work for the following:

Do not spray on hairy or waxy-leaved plants.

A gentle soap will do the trick. Anything stronger, such as household cleaners, may harm the leaves or kill the plant.

When in doubt, try on an inconspicuous area of the plant first.

Additional advice

Wear an old long-sleeved shirt or smock. Put it in the wash when you finish to avoid bringing ants and aphids into the rest of the house.

Put used kitchen towels into a plastic bag and throw everything into the outdoor waste bin afterward for the same reason.

Keep checking and reapplying any treatment every one to two weeks in early summer.

One can encourage insects such as ladybirds, but ours have always been in short supply. I did see one on the cherry tree last week, but she probably had her fill in a short space of time.

Last Friday, I featured Martin Luther’s marvellous quotes on nature.

Today’s post looks at what Dr Gregory Jackson, a retired Lutheran pastor, current university lecturer, loving husband and doting grandfather has done to make his garden a haven for fauna.

Before I continue, in Anglican parlance, ‘retired’ means the ordained continues preaching or performing other sacerdotal duties without being in charge of a church or as an associate pastoral leader. Anglican locums are often retired priests without parishes who can still preach sermons, give the Sacraments and preside over services. I am fully aware that Dr Jackson has conducted Sunday and feast day online services for several years. Some have been quoted here. I apologise to him for not being able to explain it in Lutheran terms. Mea maxima culpa! I mean no offence whatsoever.

Now to today’s post. Dr Jackson writes Ichabod, which offers not only an exposé of errant Lutheran teaching but also provides insight into organic gardening, the way God intended it to be.

Recently, he explained how he transformed his garden into a Creature Convention Center (CCC) which includes the

Jackson EZ Bird Swing, just to the left of the feeder, a little above eye level.

and the

Jackson Bird Spa – the mulched area just beyond the CCC, between the trees. Ten bird baths.

What struck me most was what he had to say about birds (emphases mine):

Luther saw birds as God’s professors, because they wake up every morning singing cheerfully, not even knowing where the next meal is coming from. Having nothing to eat, they praise God first.

Shouldn’t we be doing the same?


Very few of them store food. Blue jays store acorns, but they actually create oak forests by “hiding” the acorns that are most promising for germinationbetter than smart scientists can.

How true!

Before I share two of his outstanding graphics with you below, this is why Dr Jackson transformed his garden:

Of course, I did all this for the grandchildren. That is one great advantage of being a grandparent. I can have fun in my second childhood because I get to see the world again through the eyes of a child.

Enjoy reading his post in full! And kudos to Norma Boeckler for the superb illustration.


Martin Luther had a profound love of God’s creation.

Praying the Gospel features his marvellous quotes on nature:

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.

Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.

Anyone who has a garden of his own is truly blessed. To be able to admire one’s own plants, tend to them and provide for birds as well as other fauna is a luxury beyond measure.

I’ll look at another post on nature and gardening soon. It is from Dr Gregory Jackson, author of Ichabod, retired Lutheran pastor, current university lecturer, loving husband and doting grandfather.

For now, here is one of his graphics. I cannot help but agree with him and his wife Chris — ‘Mrs Ichabod’ — who asks:

How can anyone glance at a garden and remain an atheist?

A few weeks ago, I updated you on the beautiful May we had here in Greater London.

Bumblebee on ceanothus flickrcomShortly after I wrote that piece, our ceanothus flowers really took off and attracted hundreds of bumblebees.  For the next week and a half, it was as if we were listening to ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee‘ for real.  Whilst the tree has always attracted bees, we had a record number this year.  After the bumblebees had their fill of nectar, honeybees came for the final few days. 

I love bees and am always sorry to read articles about colony collapse disorder.  Needless to say that playing host to so many of them gave me great pleasure.  I have a lot to learn about them but did read that bumblebees are the delightful creatures that pollinate tomato and soft fruit plants.  

The collared dove hatched her eggs in the ceanothus tree at the beginning of June and left soon after. Her two chicks have just fledged.  My best memory was seeing her in the tree with the bees feeding all around her.  As she was sheltered, she just rested quietly and let them get on with their business.

One of our neighbours seemed almost alarmed that we had a bird in our tree.  ‘Um, do you know there’s a bird in your tree?’   

‘Yes, it’s been there for about three weeks now,’  I replied. 

‘Aren’t you worried?’ 

Why would anyone worry about having a bird in their tree?  She was tranquil and clean.  We have endless television shows about cultivating wildlife in our gardens.  It seems the harder we try, the less success we have.  So, finally, I have what I’ve been working towards for the past decade. Once I gave up trying, it happened: birds along with the bees.     

There’s a lesson there: try too hard and things won’t happen.  Ease up a bit and you just might have some success.

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