Wednesday Weed – Wargrave Pink (Hardy Geranium)

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…..

Geranium x oxonianum

Dear Readers, it is interesting to see a plant that is actually in the process of escaping the garden and becoming ‘wild’. This little pink flower, a variety of hardy geranium known as Wargrave Pink (Geranium x oxonianum), is all over the entrance to Cherry Tree Wood, and can be found quite happily growing among the commoner ‘weeds’ such as dock and annual mercury. It has largely finished flowering but fortunately I got a few photos after a rain storm a few weeks ago. It seems to thrive in the dry, semi-shaded areas at the feet of the hornbeams and oaks, much as the blue hardy geraniums are happy at the feet of my whitebeam tree.

Like Montbretia, Geranium x oxonianum is a hybrid of two species: Geranium endressi, or Endre’s  Cranesbill….

By Meneerke bloem - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7105945

Geranium endressii (Endre’s Cranesbill) Photo One (credit below)

and Geranium versicolour (Pencilled Cranesbill)

Geranium versicolor (Pencilled cranesbill) (Photo Two, credit below0

If you look at the picture below, you can see both the pink colour and the faint veining of the plant’s ‘parents’.Apparently, the plant was ‘found’ in the greenhouses of Waterer, Sons and Crisp in 1930, which implies that it came about accidentally. Waterer, Sons and Crisp was a company of nurserymen which was formed in 1676. In 1914 the company got into financial difficulties (probably not unrelated to the war, and the call-up of many of the staff), and so it merged with the Wargrave Plant Farm in Buckinghamshire, which is probably the reason for name ‘Wargrave Pink’. The nursery still continues today, specialising in azaleas and rhododendrons.

The name ‘Geranium’ comes from the Greek word for crane, geranos, and this also gives us the English name ‘cranesbill’. Both titles come from the appearance of the fruit capsule of some species, such as the bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) seen below. The fruit capsule springs open and the five seeds are thrown some considerable distance.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=256121

Seedhead of Geranium sanguineum (Photo Three, see credit below)

Incidentally, although those bright red flowers that adorn the window boxes of Austrian chalets are also known as geraniums, they are more correctly pelargoniums (although they are members of the same family as ‘our’ plant). Pelargonium flowers have a different structure – while geraniums have five equal petals, pelargoniums have two upper petals and three lower petals that  are different.

Rose Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) – Public Domain

Hardy geraniums seem like very demure little plants to me, unlikely to inspire passion. And yet, in my search for interesting links to the plant, what do I come across but the poem ‘The Geranium’ by  Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It tells of dalliance in a woodland where geraniums bloom (species unspecified, but if you read the poem you will see that botanical accuracy is the last thing on the poet’s mind). Be warned that it is very explicit, so please don’t read on if you’re likely to be offended (though I also found it very funny). I can guarantee that you will never have read a flower poem quite like it. Here it is.

So, now that you’ve recovered, let me tell you a little about Mr Sheridan.

Portrait of a Gentleman, Half-Length, in a Brown and White Stock, a Red Curtain Behind, (oil on canvas) by Hoppner, John (1758-1810);. The sitter has traditionally been identified as Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816).); Photo © Christie’s Images; English, out of copyright

Sheridan was born in Ireland in 1751, and made his name as a playwright – his plays include ‘The Rivals’ and ‘School for Scandal’, both comedies of manners. ‘The Rivals’ includes the character of Mrs Malaprop, a woman forever using the wrong words in her attempts to sound more intellectual than she actually is, and a mainstay of comedy ever since. I have a distinct memory of a very similar character invented by the estimable Les Dawson.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10627999/Les-Dawson-wrote-secret-romantic-novel-under-name-Maria-Brett-Cooper.html

Les Dawson as Ada Shufflebottom. Oh, how we laughed when I was a child….(Photo Four – credit below)

Anyway, back to Sheridan. His private life was eventful. In 1772 he fought two duels with the same man, Captain Thomas Matthews, who had written an article defaming the  character of his wife-to-be. The first duel was bloodless and Matthews was forced to beg for his life and sign a retraction. However, Matthews then challenged Sheridan to a second duel. Sheridan wasn’t obliged to agree but, well, his honour was now in question.  In this second duel, both parties were injured, Sheridan seriously – he ended it with a sword sticking out of his breastbone, and his face beaten to a pulp. Matthews (who I think we can agree is the villain of the piece) fled in a carriage. Sheridan was not expected to survive, but somehow pulled through,

No sooner was Sheridan recovered than he married the lady in question, Elizabeth Ann Linley. Sheridan had no money of his own, and so they lived on the dowry in some style, entertaining their fashionable friends and generally making something of a splash. Mrs Sheridan was painted by Gainsborough, no less, some ten years after the marriage.

 

Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Thomas Gainsborough (1782) (Public Domain)

In 1778 Sheridan bought out David Garrick’s share of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In 1809 the theatre burned down. On being encountered in the street watching the fire with a glass of wine in his hand, Sheridan is reported to have said ‘A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine at his own fireside’

Sheridan also had a long career as a Whig politician. He sympathised with the French and American revolutionaries, and was said by William Pitt and Edmund Burke to have made ‘the greatest speech ever made, ancient or modern’ when he called for the impeachment of the Governor of India, Warren Hastings, for corruption. Clearly his eloquence in persuading ‘the lovely Susan’ in ‘The Geranium’ could be put to many uses.

Domestic bliss was elusive, however: Elizabeth had a son with Sheridan, and a daughter with her lover, Lord Fitzgerald. Elizabeth died soon after the birth of her second child, and Sheridan continued to care for both children. The child herself died, aged eighteen months in 1793. Sheridan married again, but died in 1815, heavily in debt. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The Prince of Wales himself is said to have lamented ‘Poor Sherry!’ on hearing of his death.

So, what is the relationship between the witty Sheridan of ‘School for Scandal’, a man who was said to have never been coarse in his speech, and the author of’ The Geranium’? The poem was never published in his lifetime, but Sheridan certainly had a reputation as a man who could scarcely be alone in a room with a woman without trying to ‘seduce’ her (and I wonder exactly what ‘seducing’ involved in the 18th Century, especially if the woman was a servant and the man was a Member of Parliament). He seems to have been a lustful, rambunctious man, determined to drain life’s wine to the lees.

Incidentally a line from the poem, ‘All my body glows with flame’ turns up in a Bob Dylan song, the theme to a film called ‘Tell Ol’ Bill‘. Rather than a song of desire fulfilled, it’s a song of desolate loneliness and despair.

I know which one I prefer.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Endre’s Cranesbill) – By Meneerke bloem – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7105945

Photo Two (Pencilled Cranesbill) – By Meneerke bloem – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7105945

Photo Three (Cranesbill Seedhead) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=256121

Photo Four (Les Dawson) – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10627999/Les-Dawson-wrote-secret-romantic-novel-under-name-Maria-Brett-Cooper.html

 

Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day

Dear Readers, I had great plans for the blog today, but the deluge started. As I sat in Costa Coffee and looked out at grey skies and slick pavements, I felt a bit down and hopeless. But then, I started to notice the effect that the rain had on everything, and so, with apologies to Wallace Stevens and his poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, I’ve found 26 ways of looking at a rainy day.

1.Grey skies and rain make all the colours look brighter. The reds of the buses and the yellow of the AA van are almost startling. The traffic cones that Affinity Water have put along our road (lead water pipes have been discovered, oh joy) positively pop with brightness.

2. Raindrops form a constantly changing geometric pattern of interlacing circles and bubbles and tiny explosions.

3. Rain really highlights the terrain, the slopes and ridges and the long down-hill towards the tube station

4. The rain also highlights the places where vehicles have parked on the pavement, breaking the paving stones and creating the ideal home for miniature ponds and lakes.

5.People walk faster, but give one another little smiles and eye-rolls. ‘British summer, eh’. You can never go wrong with the weather. A month and a bit ago, we were all moaning about the heat. Today, I have the heating on. In August.

6.You can hear the shape of things by listening to the rain. I remember a radio programme where a chap who was blind said that he loved the rain, because he could ‘see’ the shape of the bushes and trees in the garden. I shall have to try that out, but I love the sounds of tyres in the rain, and the rain on the roof and the windowlights. In Cherry Tree Wood, you could hear the raindrops hitting the leaves.

7.Rain brings up all the smells – there is a word, ‘petrichor’ for earth after rain.  And I wish I could share the smell of these roses with you.

8. The rain brings out all the colours of the bark on the plane trees on the High Road, and the ornamental trees on the County Roads.

9. The rain paints the trees and houses, making it clear exactly where it falls.

10. The rain emphasises out the muscularity of the trunks of the hornbeam trees.

11. I love that some people ignore the rain, and go running anyway. In fact, when I used to run I loved the wet days most of all, the splashing through puddles and the splat of my footsteps, and the fact that I got soaking wet but was going to have a shower anyway.

12. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro talks about the way that the rain ‘washes all the scum off the streets’. He was talking metaphorically, but it does clean our streets up for sure. Look at how clean and new the nettles look after their bath.

13. I love that you can sometimes get a perfect reflection in a raindrop.

14. Reflections on a wet pavement are a whole other area of interest. Each car has its own upside-down double attached to its wheels. The awning at Tony’s Continental (the best greengrocer on the High Street in my opinion) looks even more splendid when reflected on wet paving stones.

15. The reflection of traffic lights on a wet surface blurs them romantically.

17. Where do the insects hide during the rain? A big raindrop can knock a butterfly off course or disrupt the busyness of a bee. As the rain (briefly) eased, all kinds of insects reappeared.

17.The rain doesn’t put the birds off, that’s for sure – the starlings bathe, and the crows are still looking for chips in the gutter outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I should tell them that their dietary habits are cannibalistic, but I doubt that they’d listen.

18.Some people have wonderful rainwear, like the lady completely encased in a yellow poncho who just popped into Costa Coffee. Practical and bright.

19.You see more grown-ups in Wellington Boots, and that’s not a bad thing. It always makes me think of the seaside.

20.Generally, people drive more slowly and carefully, as if suddenly aware that they are piloting a ton of metal through a world filled with creatures made of flesh and bone.

21 .My water butts will be full, ready for this ‘drought’ that we’re supposed to be having.

22. Leaves are both waterproof, and designed for rain to run off and fall where it’s needed, the soil beneath the plant.

23. The rain brings out the snails. And I have a great fondness for snails, in spite of their bad behaviour.

24. Walking in the rain when you don’t have to feels a bit anarchistic, but (whisper it) it can be fun. Children know this, we seem to have forgotten it. Best save any puddle-jumping for a quiet spot, though. I get enough funny looks as it is.

25. People walk closer together, sharing umbrellas, holding one another’s arms. We could all do with walking a bit closer together.

26. Tomorrow is meant to be dry and sunny. Let’s make the most of the rain while it’s here.

Wednesday Weed – Montbretia

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…..

Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora)

Dear Readers, Montbretia (also known as crocosmia)  is popping up all over East Finchley. It’s a popular garden plant but it has also naturalised in many parts of the country, particularly the south-west of England where Mum and Dad live. It is a hybrid of two plants: the Valentine Flower or Falling Stars (Crocosmia aurea):

Photo One (Valentine Flower) - By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16866403

Valentine Flower (Crocosmia aurea) (Photo One – credit below)

and Pott’s Crocosmia (Crocosmia pottsii).

Photo Two (Pott's crocosmia) - By peganum from Small Dole, England (Crocosmia pottsii tall form) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Potts Crocosmia (Crocosmia pottsii) (Photo Two – see credit below)

Both of these are splendid South African flowers, members of the Iridaceae or Iris family, and they were combined by the plant breeder Victor Lemoine in France in 1879. The thing about the montbretia that we’ve grown to know and love is that it quickly spreads to form the clumps that are much appreciated in the garden, but rather less so in the wild places of Dorset or Devon, Anglesey or Sutherland (where it is the fourth commonest alien plant, after sycamore, ground elder and lady’s mantle).  In ‘Alien Plants’ by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley, it’s noted that although the plant can set seed, it spreads more often by means of horizontal rhizomes (underground stems), and that the plant seems to prefer the damp climate of our Atlantic coasts. To see how dense a carpet it can create, have a look at the troll’s head from the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall (below) – the troll’s hair is entirely formed of Montbretia.

Photo Three (Troll's head) - by Webheathcloseup https://www.flickr.com/photos/76631347@N00/6041267212

Troll’s head with Montbretia hair (Photo Three – credit below)

Montbretia is also a remarkably resilient plant, which survives being thrown out by gardeners. When I’m in Coldfall Wood, I’m often horrified by the garden waste which is just thrown over the fences of the houses that surround it. I’m sure people don’t realise the harm that can be done by this random ‘fly-tipping’ of plant material. It’s true that the woods are not as ecologically sensitive as some habitats, being full of aliens already, but it would be nice if we could preserve what we still have.

Montbretia seems to come in two colours: the orange and yellow variation that Mum and Dad have, and a much more scarlet version. I always thought that flowers of this colour were largely pollinated by sunbirds and hummingbirds, but a bumblebee was burying itself in the flowers when I was observing earlier this week, so it is clear that insects have learned how to take advantage of the pollen and nectar.

The Latin name Crocosmia might lead you to think that this plant is a member of the crocus family. However, it comes from the Greek words for ‘saffron-odour’ – the dried leaves are said to smell like saffron when immersed in hot water. The name ‘Montbretia’ comes from the name of a French botanist A. F. E. Coquebert de Montbret (1780–1801).

One advantage that Montbretia has over other plants is that it is very tolerant of, and may even prefer,  high rainfall (hence its love of the west coast). Certainly, after a day of unremitting rainfall last week, the plant looked positively cheery.

I expected to find no medicinal uses for Montbretia as we know it -after all, the plant didn’t even exist until 1879. However, Pott’s Crocosmia, one of the ‘parents’, is a Zulu medicinal plant called Undwendweni, used to treat infertility (and thanks to 21stCenturyNaturalist for the information).  Valentine flower (Crocosmia aurea), the other ‘parent’ is used to treat dysentery and diarrhoea.

Valentine flower blooms can be used to produce a yellow dye for use as a food colouring.

In Papua New Guinea, where Montbretia is a recent ‘alien invader’, the crushed leaves are used as a treatment for a head cold by being sniffed like snuff.

I am always surprised at where my research for this blog takes me. Meet HMS Montbretia, a Flower-Class Corvette.

Photo Four (HMS Montbretia) - By Royal Navy official photographer, Tomlin, H W (Lt) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

HMS Montbretia, seen from the deck of HMS Vervain (Photo Four – credit below)

These ships were built for the Allied Forces during World War Two and were used specifically as anti-submarine convoy escorts. All of them were originally named after flowers, so we have HMS Convolvulus and HMS Coriander, among others. I note that those made in other countries were often named something more belligerent – the Canadian navy had ‘Cobalt’ and ‘Drumheller’ for example.

These were relatively slow, lightly-armed ships, intended to be quick to produce. They were mostly built in the smaller shipyards around the country, as the larger ones were already at full capacity.  They were, however, very ‘wet’ boats: you couldn’t get from the front to the back without being drenched, and by 1941 they held twice as many crewmen as they were designed for, with men sleeping on lockers and tabletops. They were also known as ‘the Pekingese of the seas’ because it was said that they would ‘roll in wet grass’ – they wallowed so badly that even experienced seamen succumbed to nausea.It would have been a tedious, wet, uncomfortable assignment, especially as there was no room for fresh food so the sailors subsisted on hard tack and bully beef, just like in the good old days of the Royal Navy. Nonetheless, the convoys largely got through, and the Flower-class corvettes were a major reason why.

HMS Montbretia was built in Paisley in 1940, but in 1941 the Royal Navy sold her to the Norwegian navy. On the 18th November 1942 she was torpedoed by a German U-Boat with the loss of 48 lives.

Last week, I went to see the film ‘Dunkirk’ and so the thought of men lost in the cold, dark sea is especially vivid to me. By a strange coincidence, I had seen ‘The Tempest’ at the Barbican during the same week, and so I would like to leave you with Ariel’s song from the play.

Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Everything is in flux, everything is connected: a botanist combines two South African plants that are now flourishing on the west coast of Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic where HMS Montbretia met her end. Metal hewn from the earth is made into a ship to serve in the wars of men, and that same ship is now probably a reef, busy with fish. One day we, too, will return to our constituent minerals and our atoms will make other creatures and plants. Nothing is wasted, if we take the long view. And some days, i find that strangely comforting.

 

Photo Five (The Tempest) - by Plum Leaves (https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/13863575695)

Edmund Dulac’s illustration for Ariel’s song from The Tempest (1908) (Photo Five – see credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Valentine Flower) – By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16866403

Photo Two (Pott’s crocosmia) – By peganum from Small Dole, England (Crocosmia pottsii tall form) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (Troll’s head) – by Webheathcloseup https://www.flickr.com/photos/76631347@N00/6041267212

Photo Four (HMS Montbretia) – By Royal Navy official photographer, Tomlin, H W (Lt) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (The Tempest) – by Plum Leaves (https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/13863575695)

Bugwoman on Location – Coming Home

Coming home….

Dear Readers, this week I thought I’d share my train ride from Mum and Dad’s home in Dorset back to the Big Smoke in London. I’ve taken one picture at each station, through the window (because heaven help any one who gets off – there would have been many pictures of my train disappearing out of the platform with all my luggage on it). I start from Moreton (down in the bottom left hand corner) and end up at Waterloo.

Before I start, however, here is a brief interlude on the party planning for Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary in September. We now know pretty much who is coming, and people are starting to let me know their menu choices. We met with the events manager at the hotel who is very obliging, so now we have Deadlines and such. There is some debate over whether or not to have a champagne toast after the main course and before dessert, with Dad saying this is what normally happens at Weddings, not Anniversary parties, and Mum and I  saying that there is never a wrong time for a champagne toast. I suspect we shall have our own way in the end. The flowers are sorted (roses, freesias, whatever else is in season), the table decorations and layout are agreed and the harpist is booked. In short, I am planning it like a military operation, minus the amphibious landing craft and trebuchets, though I shall have these in reserve in case of any shenanigans.

And then, there is the  vexed question of presents. Mum and Dad maintain that they Don’t Need Anything and even if they did, it would be rude to ask. On the other hand, lots of people have asked me what they should buy for Mum and Dad. I maintain that if you don’t give people some hints, they will get what they think. So, we have (finally) agreed that I will let the guests know that their presence is present enough, but if they do want to get something, we’ll go for garden centre gift vouchers. That way, Mum and Dad will have something to look forward to after the party, when I suspect their spirits might slump a bit after all the excitement. The autumn is a great time to buy perennials and get them planted, and every time they look at the plants, they’ll be reminded of their special day. An outing to the garden centre, plus lunch, will be just the tonic required to restore optimism I hope.

Moreton

Anyhow, back to my train journey. Dad gave me a lift to Moreton station, the first time he’s felt able to drive there for over five years, so it just goes to show that even when someone is in their eighties they can still recover from illness – it’s not an inexorable, one-way decline. And as I was standing on the platform, I noticed this fluffy character. I love the antennae, and the ‘furry’ legs. And then it was time to throw myself onto the train and settle back for the two and a half hour ride with my sandwiches.

Moreton Station – a white ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda)

The journey from Moreton to Waterloo is wonderfully varied. The first part goes through farmland, with Jacob’s sheep grazing in the fields and deer nibbling at the bushes. The trackside vegetation is a mix of self-seeded sycamore, and buddleia. Lots and lots of buddleia.

Wool

Wool Station – a cheeky buddleia.

The first station is Wool, presumably named for it’s sheep-farming heritage. Today, it is the closest stop to Bovington army camp and the world-renowned Tank Museum. More importantly,  it’s home to Monkey World, a sanctuary which, despite its name, mainly specialises in rescued chimps and orang-utans from the despicable tourist photography trade in Europe and Asia. Some of these creatures arrive at the sanctuary completely bald from stress, and the last member of their species that they saw was probably their mother. Recently, Monkey World rescued a large number of capuchin monkeys from a research centre in South America, and they also have many small monkeys who were previously kept as pets. I only wish my friend Robin had been here long enough to visit it, though we’d probably never have got her home again.

I think that the buddleia pictured above has something of the dirty old man about it, but maybe that’s more a reflection on the sad state of my psyche.

Onwards!

Wareham

Wareham – more buddleia.

Wareham – some broad-leaved ever-lasting pea

Wareham is the next stop. It was probably founded by the Saxons, and is a great spot for anyone wanting to tour Dorset, with Studland Bay and the Purbeck Hills close to hand, and the Jurassic Coast (where Mary Anning found her fossil ichthyosaurus) close by. On a more sinister note, it was one of the spots where the notorious Judge Jeffries held his Bloody Assizes following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, and five rebels were hung, drawn and quartered on the West Walls of the town. I had no idea that this barbaric practice was still going on in the seventeenth century.

And a note to for the poor traveller; Wareham is the only spot on this stretch of line that you can get a cab, in the event of your train misbehaving. As my journey to Dorset was delayed by over three hours (thank you, Woking signals) this can be extremely useful. The company I used was called Elysium Taxis, and although the ride did not remind me too much of the resting place of dead heroes, it was certainly extremely efficient and friendly.

Wareham station itself is a little bleak, but it’s always nice to see some interesting ‘weeds’ bursting forth, as seen above.

Holton Heath

Ribwort Plantain at Holton Heath

Holton Heath is the next stop, and the only plant life visible was some ribwort plantain on the other side of the chain-link fence. I wonder why one plant has grown twice as tall as the others? Is it genetic, or is there some source of water or food here?

Holton Heath was the site of the Royal Navy Cordite Factory during both the First and  Second World Wars – cordite is a propellant used in guns, and replaced gunpowder. One of the key ingredients is acetone, and to make this requires a source of starch, usually grain. As grain ran short during 1917, local children were asked to gather horse chestnuts (conkers) as an alternative source. They were so ardent that eventually six enormous grain silos were filled with the chestnuts that the children had gathered.

However, such dangerous manufacturing lead to accidents, with the worst being in 1931, when an explosion occurred in a nitroglycerin preparation chamber, killing 10 and injuring 19. Three buildings were destroyed and a storage tank was ruptured, spilling sulphuric acid in to the area. The explosion, which occurred at 10.45 am, was heard 20 miles away and people working outdoors 2 miles away were knocked over by the blast wave. Houses situated on the main road approximately 1 mile from the blast suffered extensive damage.

These days, Holton Heath is a ghost town, with industrial units and razor wire. I have never once seen anyone get on or off the train at Holton Heath, and the wind whistles through the grass and the ribwort plantain.

Hamworthy

Sycamore keys at Hamworthy

On we go to Hamworthy, another ‘ghost stop’ where tall, self-planted sycamore trees are heavy with their fruit. This was an Iron Age settlement, and is situated on a peninsula, making it ideal for ferries and cargo to France, Jersey and the isle of Wight. A rather elegant new bridge has opened recently, to work alongside the existing bridge, and ensure that traffic can always get from Poole town centre to the ferry port.

Photo One (Bridge) - By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18372969

The Twin Sails bridge at Hamworthy (Photo One – see credit below)

Poole

Groundsel at Poole station

As you head to Poole station, you pass wetlands and sailing ponds with gigantic plastic swans on them, but at the station itself my spirits were barely lifted by some struggling groundsel and a few leaves of grass. There wasn’t even a seagull. The train meanders through the middle of town, and you can gaze out at some of the most expensive real estate in the world (on Sandbanks in Poole), and also see the mixture of holiday-makers and locals waiting patiently for your train to pass so that they can get on with their shopping.

Bournemouth

Ironwork at Bournemouth station

For the traveller, the fine Victorian station of Bournemouth is important because this is where the refreshments trolley boards. Sure enough, I had some sandwiches, but  this is where you can avail yourself of what passes for coffee on South West Trains. Plus, the driver changes over, so I had five minutes to survey the scene. They certainly don’t want any pigeons nesting here: I have rarely seen such prolific anti-pigeon measures, though I suspect that from the occasional feathers and droppings some such avian trespassers haven’t read the rules.

But how my heart lifted at the sight of a few weeds who had, miraculously, managed to find a root-hold. Life will always find a way, I see.

Buddleia on the roof at Bournemouth station

A fern making itself at home on a ledge

Another happy fern at Bournemouth

Christchurch

The next part of the ride is through the New Forest, which is neither New (it probably dates from about 12,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age) nor a Forest (being mostly heathland these days). However, it was William the Conqueror who called the area the Foresta Nova, and reserved it for hunting purposes.  It is one of the largest remaining tracts  of unenclosed land left in south-east England, and ponies, pigs and other domestic animals still have the right to roam here. It is a biodiversity hotspot, and I often see grazing roe and red deer from my train window. Several of the villages and towns on my route are in the New Forest, and there seems to be a new enthusiasm for making the stations pretty.

Tub at Christchurch Station

Here is a splendid tub at Christchurch station – the town has one of the oldest populations in England (with 30% of its residents being over 60). Maybe a preponderance of people with time on their hands makes for a pretty platform. However, they have strong competition from the folk just along the line at New Milton.

New Milton

New Milton – winning the prize for the prettiest station so far. But is it my favourite?

New Milton dates back to the arrival of the railway in 1888. It, and the surrounding villages, were the centre of the seaborne smuggling trade, and a detachment of armed ‘Coast Guards’ were stationed here to try to stop them. These days, we think of the main job of the coast guard as being the rescue of folk who drift away on their lilos or of fishermen who get into trouble in heavy weather, but in those days they literally ‘guarded the coast’. Some of the offshore sea routes were actually named after the main smuggling families. I Imagine it was a time of intrigue and double-dealing. These days, it’s all a bit more sedate.

Brockenhurst

Some floral decoration at Brockenhurst

At last, a seagull

Brockenhurst is the most popular stop in the New Forest – you can hire a bike here, there are many small hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, and lots of walking trails start here. However, they need to pull their socks up with the floral decoration, as I would say that New Milton and Christchurch are currently in the lead. The town itself has a long military tradition, with a hospital for Indian and New Zealand soldiers wounded in the First World War. The woods around Brockenhurst were used for jungle training for soldiers destined for the Pacific during the Second World War. I imagine they weren’t much of a substitute for the environment that the soldiers were soon to face.

Photo Two (wounded soldiers) - PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12300298

Wounded New Zealand soldiers on the platform at Brockenhurst station during the First World War (Photo Two – credit below)

Photo Three (trainees in the woods) - By Oulds, D C (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//31/media-31047/large.jpgThis is photograph A 27308 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25076005

Trainees learning jungle tactics in woods around Brockenhurst (Photo Three – credit below)

Southampton

I was at university at Southampton. It wasn’t a particularly happy time for me: I missed my home and family. Also, it was the first time that I realised that I was a different class from everyone around me: one of the ‘posh’ girls told me that ‘when I first heard you speak, I thought you were common, but actually you’re ok’. Gee, thanks. But it was nice to see happier students sitting at the station, although their floral decoration could definitely do with some work.

Floral decoration at Southampton station

Southampton Airport Parkway

Strangely enough, though, the planting that I like most is at Southampton Airport Parkway. Someone has taken a tiny strip of ground behind the fence and in front of the boxes for the telephone exchange, and has turned it into a little spot of insect heaven. Technically, i suppose it isn’t even in the station, but hey.

The guerrilla garden at Southampton Airport Parkway

Winchester.

Ah, Winchester. How prosperous. How pretty. How august. But what on earth is happening on your station platform? Surely there is room for a pot or two.

I must admit to having a dislike for Winchester, having been knocked into a bramble patch by a completely naked man whenIi was a student here back in the early eighties, but I am prepared to be converted. Just sort out some pollinator-friendly plants and I’ll reconsider, I promise.

Some nice pillars, but no planting at Winchester station

Basingstoke

I rather like this planting at Basingstoke. I am wondering what on earth the fruit is? Could it be nectarines, or is it just some small, colourful apples? Help me out here, gardening friends.

A splendid bed at Basingstoke station

Although we think of Basingstoke as a new town, it is probably on the site of an Anglo-Saxon village settled by ‘the people of Basa’, Basa being the tribal leader. The word ‘stoke’ probably derives from the word for a stockade.

Clapham Junction

And now, I’m eight minutes from Waterloo and, if all goes well, about forty minutes from East Finchley. Clapham Junction is the busiest station for trains (though not passengers) in the whole of Europe, with 200 trains passing through per hour. However, what it is not is plant friendly. There are some isolated buddleia plants, and a few sad weeds, who look as if they have been sprayed (this is often the case if the plants would impede the progress of the trains). However, maybe the seeds from the willowherb below will find more inviting ground – there are huge drifts of them all the way along the edge of the lines.

A sorry willowherb at Clapham Junctiion

The Entry into Waterloo

It’s funny. You’d think I’d love the countryside, and yet my heart lifts at the sight of the building work on the way into Waterloo station and the little glimpses of the London Eye. I’d like to share a few of the final moments of the journey with you below. And then, I’m off. Home, a cup of tea and my husband await!

Photo Credits

Photo One (Bridge) – By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18372969

Photo Two (wounded soldiers) – PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12300298

Photo Three (trainees in the woods) – By Oulds, D C (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//31/media-31047/large.jpgThis is photograph A 27308 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25076005

Wednesday Weed – Knotgrass

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…..

Knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare sp)

Dear Readers, you will know by now that I love investigating the most common and overlooked of ‘weeds’, and this week’s subject is what my American friends would call ‘a doozy’. Knotgrass is popping up all over East Finchley at the moment, straggling from between paving stones and emerging from cracked concrete. It has a sprawling, nonchalant habit, tiny flowers and a jointed stem that reminds me a little of bamboo. But as usual, there is more to knotgrass than meets the eye.

Knotgrass is a member of the Polygonaceae, a family that includes redshank, Japanese knotweed and Russian vine . The name ‘Polygonaceae’ derives from the Greek phrase meaning ‘many knees’ – if you look at the stem of knotgrass you can see lots of little ‘joints’ or nodes. I learned with some delight that the Middle English name for this plant is ‘ars-smerte’ – it was once used in a lotion for haemorrhoids, and as many of the plants in this family are hot and peppery, I think we can imagine the reason.

Although knotgrass is a relatively uninteresting plant to the casual observer, I would draw the attention of anyone with a magnifying glass to the flowers and buds, which are rather delightful.

By Dalgial (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Knotgrass flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

As you will know, I am often flabbergasted when I am researching my ‘weeds’ and today is no exception. In his novel ‘The Man Who Laughs’, Victor Hugo tells of how ‘artificial dwarves’ were created by Spanish child-buyers or Comprachicos. Hugo compares their work of deliberate mutilation to those who create bonsai trees. The Comprachicos stunted the growth of the children   “by anointing babies’ spines with the grease of bats, moles and dormice” and using drugs such as “dwarf elder, knotgrass, and daisy juice”, in order to create tiny people who could be sold as entertainment at court, or as beggars. Although there is some question about how accurate Hugo’s depiction of these practices was, Shakespeare certainly knew that knotgrass had a reputation in this regard. Here is a description of the diminutive Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Get you gone, dwarf;
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;

And here, in a play by Beaumont and Fletcher, the Coxcomb says that they

Want a boy

Kept under for a year on milk and knotgrass‘.

The illustration below is of the Hermia scene described above in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, painted by none other than William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), the man who created the extraordinary pictures of machines that have led to any ingenious, Wallace and Gromit-esque contraption being described as being ‘Heath Robinson’.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (illustration by William Heath Robinson) (Public Domain)

And here, for your delectation, is the William Heath Robinson Naval Cloud Dispeller.

William Heath Robinson (Naval Cloud Dispeller) (Public Domain)

But I digress, as usual.

You might think that knotgrass looks most unappetising, but it has been used as food all over the world (the plant seems to be pretty much universal).In Vietnam, the plant is known as rau đắng, and is used in a hot and sour stew called Canh chua, which looks most delicious.

By Jason Hutchens - Flickr: Canh Chua, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2500892

Canh chua (Photo Two – see credit below)

Several foragers mention that the young leaves can be used in salads, and that the seeds can be milled into flour (knotgrass is closely related to buckwheat). You would need a lot of patience and a clean supply of the plant for either of those activities, however: because of its low-growing habit and preference for paving stones, knotgrass is frequently trampled underfoot and peed upon by dogs, neither of which makes it particularly appetising.

I do wonder if the species name of the plant, aviculare, refers to small birds being partial to the seeds, though. They look just about the right size for goldfinches.

By Stefan.lefnaer - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53572135

A knotgrass seed. You’d need a few for a loaf, that’s for sure….(Photo Three – credit below)

I did learn that the plant has a single taproot which can penetrate to nearly four feet, which makes it very drought-resistant, another desirable attribute in an exposed city plant. It is also said to be rich in zinc.

In Turkey, the plant is known as Madimak, and here is a recipe from the Turkish Yummies website

Generally, knotgrass has been seen as a famine food, something to get people through when nothing else was available. It is, however, seen as food by many insects, including the bloodwing moth, whose caterpillar tries to camouflage itself as a thorny twig.

By Bj.schoenmakers - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53374298

Bloodwing (Timandra comae) caterpillar (Photo Four – see credit below)

By Marcello Consolo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcelloconsolo/29141640432/

Adult Bloodwing (Timandra comae ) (Photo Six – credit below)

As well as being used for piles, knotgrass has been used as a diuretic, and for the treatment of urinary tract infections. It is an antihelminthic (I love this word – it means that it can be used to expel parasitic worms), and has been used to break down mucus when people have lung and throat infections.

You might think that such a small and humble plant would not have made much of an impact on poets (except for its child-shrinking abilities, of course). But here is Keats, in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’:’

A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
       All garlanded with carven imag’ries
       Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
       And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
       Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
       As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
       And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
       And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

 

And here is Oliver Wendell Holmes from his poem ‘The Exile’s Secret’

Who sees unmoved, a ruin at his feet,
The lowliest home where human hearts have beat?
Its hearthstone, shaded with the bistre stain
A century’s showery torrents wash in vain;
Its starving orchard, where the thistle blows
And mossy trunks still mark the broken rows;
Its chimney-loving poplar, oftenest seen
Next an old roof, or where a roof has been;
Its knot-grass, plantain,–all the social weeds,
Man’s mute companions, following where he leads;
Its dwarfed, pale flowers, that show their straggling heads,
Sown by the wind from grass-choked garden-beds;
Its woodbine, creeping where it used to climb;
Its roses, breathing of the olden time;
All the poor shows the curious idler sees,
As life’s thin shadows waste by slow degrees,
Till naught remains, the saddening tale to tell,
Save home’s last wrecks,–the cellar and the well?

‘Man’s mute companions’, indeed. But I sometimes wonder if they would still speak to us, as they used to, if we paid them more attention.

By Dalgial - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7036011

Photo Six (Credit below)

 

Photo Credits

Photo One (knotgrass flowers) – By Dalgial (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Vietnamese hotpot) – By Jason Hutchens – Flickr: Canh Chua, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2500892

Photo Three (knotgrass seed) – By Stefan.lefnaer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53572135

Photo Four (Bloodwing caterpillar) – By Bj.schoenmakers – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53374298

Photo Five (Adult bloodwing) – By Marcello Consolo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcelloconsolo/29141640432/

Photo Six (Knotgrass) – By Dalgial – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7036011

 

 

 

Bugwoman Presents Robin Huffman, Primate Portrait Painter

Dear Readers, I hope that this week you will forgive me for venturing many miles from East Finchley, into the forests of Cameroon and South Africa. My artist friend Robin Huffman is staying with me for a few days and I want you to meet her .Our relationship started with a photograph of a sleeping talapoin monkey called Yoda.

Yoda Asleep (Photo by Robin Huffman)

I saw it on a site called, of all things, Cute Overload. Of course, I didn’t know anything about Robin then, but I was impressed by the way that, when the comments stream filled up with people gushing that they ‘wanted a monkey’,  the photographer commented that this monkey was from a sanctuary, and that monkeys should never be kept as pets.

My husband looked at the photo too, and clicked through to find out some more details.

‘You know’, he said, ‘the sanctuary where this photo was taken is asking for volunteers’.

Two years later, I was bumping over the dusty red roads of Cameroon on my way to the Mefou Primate Sanctuary. It is home to orphaned gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys. Most of them are refugees from the bushmeat trade – the adults are killed for meat, and the babies suffer a miserable fate as ‘pets’. I was to spend most of the next month looking after young chimps (which basically involved being a climbing frame, sweeping and mopping floors, sorting out food and playing pat-a-cake).

Playing pat-a-cake with M’Boki

There was a constant war of attrition with the soldier ants, who were dangerous to caged animals because they will eat anything in their path. In the film below, the soldier ants are moving their larvae and eggs to the next place where they will form a nest. The column is defended by the ‘soldiers’, who have heads the size of blueberries and strong, sharp jaws. Many days saw me getting too close to an ant column and having to run through the compound ripping off clothes as the ants headed up a trouser leg.

And one day I rescued this extraordinary giant stick insect from the curious young chimps who would have torn her to pieces out of pure curiosity.

Cameroonian giant stick insect

But what was most surprising was that my room mate in our cozy Nissen hut turned out to be Robin, who had taken the picture of the talapoin monkey that had brought me to Cameroon in the first place. She had discovered her calling here in  the rainforest of Cameroon after 29 years working for Gensler, one of the most prestigious design consultancies in New York. Robin had thrown up the schmoozing and the Manhattan condominium in order to volunteer at various wildlife sanctuaries, where her passion was looking after orphaned baby monkeys. The job could sometimes be heartbreaking, but this didn’t dent Robin’s commitment to these vulnerable, fragile creatures. And latterly, she’d discovered that not only could she rear these animals, she could also paint them.

Robin’s painting of Yoda (after a photograph by Ian Bickerstaff)

Robin started off by painting signs for the sanctuaries that she volunteered at, often working on hardboard and using house and roofing paint. Then one day, one of the sanctuary staff asked if she could ‘paint a monkey’. The rest is history.

Robin painting a sign at the Ape Action Africa sanctuary in Mefou, Cameroon (photo by Liliane Eberle)

Nowadays, she uses acrylic paints, which dry quickly and are non-toxic. Robin has no permanent home base, so she has to be able to work quickly wherever she is in the world. Her aim is to present the creatures that she loves, and their stories, to people who might not otherwise have thought about the issues of deforestation and bushmeat, animal research and the pet trade. She is a witness to the suffering and the spirit of these animals, and an advocate for them. When you look into the eyes of these monkeys, it’s impossible not to see them as individuals, with personalities and desires and fears. Her paintings stake a claim for their place in the world, and speak up for those who cannot be heard above the whine of chainsaws and the jingling of money.

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

Mowgli, vervet monkey

Diva, moustached guenon

Recently, Robin had a solo exhibition at the prestigious Explorers’ Club in New York, the first exhibition of paintings ever held by the organisation.

Robin with her painting of Keksie the vervet monkey at the Explorers’ Club exhibition. https://www.ecowatch.com/explorers-club-primate-paintings-2403325036.html Cassie Kelly

And for the next few weeks, one of Robin’s portraits is part of the Wildlife Treasures exhibition at the Nature in Art Gallery and Museum. The gallery is based in Wallsworth Hall, a magnificent stately home in Twigworth, Gloucestershire, and Robin will be giving a talk about her work with primates on Saturday and Sunday this week (29th and 30th July). The exhibition itself runs until 3rd September, but if you are unable to visit, you might like to see some more of Robin’s work on her website here.

Ayla, vervet monkey

Robin normally paints her monkeys from life: she knows each one, and her love for them as individuals shines through her work. But there is one exception. Here is what she says about ‘Witness’.

‘I saw the photograph of this monkey on the Internet.  It is the newest species of monkey identified in Africa.  It was recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the bushmeat-fighting TL2 Project, headed up by Drs. Terese and John Hart.  This monkey, in the photograph, had a heavy chain around its neck and was being held prisoner as a village pet.  It may have eventually ended up in someone’s stew pot.  It wore its fate in its eyes.’

Every time one of these small souls dies, it is as if, somewhere, a star blinks out. But there are many people working to preserve the light. Robin is one of a growing army of warriors whose weapons are paintbrushes, and cameras and the written word. They are fighting for nothing less than the right of others to live their lives unmolested on this small blue planet.

Can a painting change the world? Let’s hope so.

‘Witness’ – Robin Huffman (after a photo by Maurice Emetshu)

For details of how to volunteer at or donate to Ape Action Africa, click here

For details of the Vervet Monkey Foundation, click here

You can see some more of Robin’s artwork here

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Fennel

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…..

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Dear Readers, this member of the carrot family is easily distinguished by its yellow flowers and its very delicate, frond-like leaves that taste strongly of aniseed. If you were to dig it up, you would discover that it also has a fleshy bulb that has a similar flavour. The plant in the photo above was planted in the N2 Community Garden next to East Finchley Station, but I noticed that an intrepid seed had germinated in the gutter nearby, and at this rate it will be popping up all over the place.

Buddleia and fennel making a bid for freedom

Fennel  loves disturbed ground and has naturalised in many places in the south of England. Vigorous stands of the plant may often be found at the seaside, as if advertising fennel’s long association with fish.

Fennel is said to have been brought to this country by the Romans, and it is a Mediterranean plant. In fact, the Greek name for the plant is Marathon, and the plain where the Battle of Marathon took place means, literally, ‘the plain of the fennel’. The capital of Madeira is also named from the Portuguese word for the plant, giving us Funchal.  The English name ‘fennel’ apparently came from the Middle English for ‘hay’.

There can be little doubt that fennel was a deliberate introduction in this country, unlike some plants which probably stowed away in seed crops. Fennel has a long history of culinary use throughout its range, and many parts of the plant are used. The flowers, often described as ‘fennel pollen’, are currently cropping up in fine dining establishments across the land, and the seeds are a popular ingredient in bread and in spice mixtures such as panch phoron (from Assam and Bengal) and Chinese Five Spice. Plus, who can forget the little round steel dishes of mukhwas given with the bill at the end of an Indian meal? The seeds help to freshen the breath, but fennel also has a long-standing reputation for assisting with the digestion, hence this delightful ditty from the Middle Ages, reported by Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica:

In Fennel-seed, this vertue you shall finde,

Foorth of your lower parts to drive the winde.

By Nicolas1981 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18773548

No winde here! (Photo One, credit below)

The leaves and bulb are also widely used, in everything from salads to sauces. I must confess to having an aversion to the raw bulb: I am not a great lover of aniseed flavours at the best of times, probably due to the effects of an unfortunate cocktail of Ricard and Tizer imbibed at a friend’s house when I was fifteen (never again). However, when cooked slowly, or gently caramelised, I find it much more palatable.

By Darya Pino at https://www.flickr.com/photos/summertomato/3440076844

Grilled fennel. Yum! (Photo Two – see credit below)

Fennel is also one of the key ingredients of absinthe, that delightful green liqueur that is about as far from Baileys as it is possible to get. Otherwise known as ‘the green fairy’, the drink was said to have hallucinogenic properties, and was a favourite tipple of, among others Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso and Aubrey Beardsley. One wonders how much of its fearsome reputation was due to, well, its reputation – it was a strong spirit for sure, but no stronger than many others on offer at the time. Maybe it suffered because of the Bohemian nature of many of its drinkers. And I’m sure that Dega’s picture ‘L’Absinthe’ wouldn’t have helped with the marketing. The spirit was banned in many parts of Western Europe at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, on the basis that:

Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.

‘L’Absinthe’ by Edgar Degas (1876)

However, the spirit was never banned in the UK (we never seem to have developed a taste for ouzo, or raki, or Pernod, although we are partial to licorice allsorts). Hence, quite recently there’s been a new interest in the spirit here, with initial imports coming from Czechia (where it was also not banned in the past). I suspect that drinkers of the spirit will not seem out of place on the streets of many parts of the country on a Saturday night, though the top hat might need to go…

Edouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker (1859)

It seems strange that a plant associated with making people go blind (among other things) should have a long history as something that strengthened eyesight. Here is Longfellow’s poem from 1842:

Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.
Pliny believed that when snakes shed their skins, they rubbed themselves against a fennel plant in order to restore their eyesight – the eyes of such creatures go milky just before they lose their skins, so it’s not a big jump to assume that they are blind.
It was also said to be a cure for obesity:
‘Both the seeds, leaves and root of our Garden Fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those that are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank. (William Coles, ‘Nature’s Paradise’ (1650) (Thanks to A Modern Herbal))

Lots of fennel in the N2 Community Garden next to East Finchley Station

We should not assume that we are the only creatures who enjoy fennel, however: the caterpillars of the swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) are fans. This is a butterfly which is now confined to the fens in the UK, but is rather more widespread in Europe (indeed I saw one powering past when I was in the Alps last week).

By Superdrac - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33329657

Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel (Papilion machaon) (Photo Three – credit below)

By Entomolo - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48664965

Swallowtail (Adult) (Photo Four  – see credit below)

In North America, where fennel is an introduced plant, it may be used by the caterpillars of the anise swallowtail(Papilio zelicaon). How subtly different this species is, with its powerful wings and yellow and black livery – I wondered if it was migratory and needed to do a lot of flying, but apparently not.

By Calibas - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3514460

Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicoan) Photo Five (Credit below)

Finally, let’s have a look at the use of the plant in Hamlet. When Ophelia has ‘gone mad’, she speaks to her brother Laertes:

There’s fennel for you, and columbines.—There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.—There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end (sings) For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy—

Fennel (and columbine) are presented to Gertrude. There was an Italian phrase ‘to give the fennel’, meaning to compliment falsely, and this is thought to have been the origin of the later Cockney phrase ‘to give flannel’ (i.e. to try to fool someone). More directly, fennel was a symbol of adultery, so wholly appropriate for the fickle Queen.

Like all members of the carrot family, the flowerheads of fennel are great favourites with the little pollinators like hoverflies and honeybees (I imagine that fennel honey would be a most interesting foodstuff). And so, it is something of a delight, even to those of us who are not overly keen on the flavour that it imparts so relentlessly to everything that it comes into contact with. Thank you once again to the Romans!

Photo Credits

Photo One (Fennel seed digestif) – By Nicolas1981 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18773548

Photo Two (Grilled Fennel) – By Darya Pino at https://www.flickr.com/photos/summertomato/3440076844

Photo Three (Swallowtail caterpillar) – By Superdrac – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33329657

Photo Four (Swallowtail Butterfly) – By Entomolo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48664965

Photo Five (Anise Swallowtail) – By Calibas – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3514460