Wednesday Weed – Nigella

Love-in-a-mist or nigella (Nigella damascena)

Dear Readers, when I was growing up in East London we had an allotment. I was allowed a little corner of it to plant a packet of ‘seeds for children’ – from memory, you could buy these in Woolworths, and they contained a mixture of marigolds, a strange plant that looked a bit like (and indeed might actually have been) knotgrass, and love-in-a-mist. How I loved the blue and white flowers and the dill-like leaves against the bright orange marigolds! And how my poor father loved picking out the love-in-a-mist from between the peas and the beans and the cabbages the following year after the plant had self-seeded.

This set me to wondering. Do they still have ‘seeds for children’? And do they still include love-in-a-mist? Well, Suttons certainly do. Indeed you can buy nigella seeds and they’re marketed as ‘Alien eggs’. Well, I can kind of see what they mean.

A love-in-a-mist seedpod. Very strange….

But what is this plant? Turns out that it’s a member of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and normally lives in southern Europe, north Africa and southwestern Asia. It is pretty much a weed of damp places in all these countries. But what a weed! Those china-blue flowers (which can also be coloured white or pink), the frond-like leaves and that strange bloated seedhead all give it an exotic charm. The seedhead is a behemoth compared to those of other members of the buttercup family – those of other species more closely resemble a tiny mace. Plus, as mentioned, it is ridiculously easy to grow – I found the specimen in my photos in a most inauspicious narrow bed at the side of a house in East Finchley, where it was popping up amongst the docks.

The species name ‘damascena’ refers to the city of Damascus, which is where it is said to have been found during the Crusades by the French knight Robert de Brie in 1570. On his return home to his castle in Champagne, de Brie is said to have planted the first ever nigella in France. No doubt from here the plant quickly hopped over the castle wall, swam across the moat and headed for the hills.

Photo One by By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=375714

A selection of nigella cultivars (Persian Jewels mix I suspect) (Photo One)

Those of you who experiment with Indian cookery may have used nigella seeds, but sadly these are not from this plant, but from Nigella sativa, a close relative. Indeed, the seeds of ‘our’ plant contain a poison called damascenine, so however much seed you harvest I would resist throwing it onto your naan bread. The plant may well have been used as a medicinal herb, however: there is evidence that it was brought to Austria in the Bronze Age by an immigrant population of miners. One possibility is that it was used as a vermifuge, to treat cases of intestinal worms – many poisonous plants were used in low doses in order to kill the parasites without killing the host. The plant is also said to be good for treating flatulence, though as Nigella sativa is said to be used to help with digestion I do wonder if there’s some confusion here. The seeds are also said to be used to keep insects out of clothing, so perhaps they would be handy against the clothes moths which seem to be everywhere in North London at the moment. Rubbing the seeds between the hands releases the essential oil, which is said to smell like strawberry jam.

The gardener Gertrude Jekyll was very taken with nigella, and included it in many of her cottage garden schemes. Indeed, the most popular of all the love-in-a-mist varieties is probably ‘Miss Jekyll’, a pale blue variety. Jekyll was a proponent of colour theory in her gardens, with blues and greys offset by vivid oranges and reds, so maybe my child’s seed selection wasn’t so far off the mark.

Photo Two from https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/106194/i-Nigella-damascena-i-Miss-Jekyll/Details

Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll from the RHS website (Photo Two)

Of course, if you type ‘Nigella’ into Google you will not get this attractive little blue plant, but the rather attractive Nigella Lawson, cookery writer and TV presenter extraordinaire. I rather like Nigella. Her cookery shows on TV normally feature an episode in which she gets up in the middle of the night and spoons homemade icecream into her mouth illuminated only by the light from the refrigerator. Normally, she is wearing silk pyjamas and full make-up, and seems oblivious to the camera crew who have staked out her kitchen for just such an eventuality, much as wildlife photographers sit in a bush for weeks to catch sight of some nocturnal lemur.  However, she is not named for this pretty little plant, but for her odious father Nigel Lawson, professional climate change denier and a man with no redeeming features whatsoever as far as I’m concerned. So sadly, we shall have to move swiftly on.

Incidentally, in Germany, nigella is known as ‘Gretel-in-the -bush’ – in the Germanic version of the fairy story, Gretel is turned into nigella, and Hansel into chicory (which is known as ‘Hansel-on-the-road’ – two little blue flowers separated forever by habitat.

Photo Three by By Cecile van Straten from Manila, Philippines - https://www.flickr.com/photos/chuvaness/29946044613/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61695788

Nigella Lawson (Photo Three)

Now, Ms Lawson has somewhat hampered my search for a nigella poem – my results have included many works celebrating her comely form and delicious recipes, largely penned by somewhat overheated male poets of a certain age. So, instead, here is a painting.

Love in a mist by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823 – 1903) (Public Domain)

The artist, Sophie Gengembre Anderson, was the first woman to sell a painting for over £1m in the UK, and her painting ‘Elaine’ was the first public collection purchase of work by a woman artist, so there is lots here to celebrate. ‘Elaine’ was based on a poem by Tennyson, and was purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

‘Elaine’ by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1870)

Anderson was born in France, moved to the USA in 1848 to escape the Revolution of that year, and later lived in Falmouth in Cornwall. During her lifetime she painted everything from a series of portraits of bishops to still lives, but soon settled on the genre paintings that would make her name in the art world. She painted ‘Foundling Girls at Prayer in the Chapel’ for the Foundling Museum in London, where it still hangs. At a time when men were getting rich by painting decorative and sentimental images of children and women, Anderson managed to chip out a niche for herself. I suppose it’s not surprising that she isn’t as well-known as Sir Joshua Reynolds or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but to my eye she is every bit as accomplished.

And so, my nigella journey has taken me to some most unexpected places. In my minds-eye I am a little girl, leaning on my half-sized garden fork and looking over my tiny blue and orange flower-bed, while dad digs up the potatoes and wipes the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. I think I might even plant some nigella seed, just to have it in the garden to remind me.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=375714

Photo Two from https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/106194/i-Nigella-damascena-i-Miss-Jekyll/Details

Photo Three by By Cecile van Straten from Manila, Philippines – https://www.flickr.com/photos/chuvaness/29946044613/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61695788

Dogs and Cats and Bats

Rt Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King with one of the Pats

Dear Readers, last week, while I was in Toronto, I visited the home of the first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was the grandfather of the former Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who lived from 1874 to 1950. Mackenzie King was a a solitary man, with no close relatives and a small circle of friends. He seems to have distrusted his fellow human beings, and no woman could ever live up to his mother. He lived alone with his dog: he had three Irish Terriers during his lifetime, each one called Pat, and wrote about them in his diary. He described his first ‘Pat’, his constant companion for over 17 years, as ‘a God-sent little angel in the guise of a dog, my dear little saviour’.  It is said that the dog was often asked about matters of foreign and domestic policy, the enthusiasm of his tail-wagging being a clue to how to proceed. When the dog died, Mackenzie King communicated with him by means of seances and a Ouija board.

Every Christmas, Mackenzie King sat down in his armchair beside a glowing fire and read the whole of the Christmas story to his dog, everything from the shepherds to the Magi to the birth in the stable, with special emphasis on the role of the animals around the manger, so that the dog would feel that he, too, was part of the nativity.

I was touched by the image of this man, so isolated from other human beings,  reading aloud to his dog and attempting to make the dog feel that he, too, had his part in the divine plan. I imagine the dog looking up at his master and reacting to his emotions, rather than his words. Who is to say that this is not love of the purest kind? Whatever we pay attention to grows and develops in mysterious ways, but what we sometimes overlook is that this is a two-way process.  The man reads to his dog, and the dog  repays him with unconditional love.

Willow showing relaxed indifference, her normal state.

My cat, on the other hand, had disappeared completely when we got home early on Saturday morning. Sometimes she rushes down the stairs to greet us, wailing the whole way. This time she hid under the bed for two hours before slinking down the stairs and presenting herself to me while I was on the phone catching up with Mum. The cat yowled and demanded to be stroked, tail trembling as she danced in tiny fraught circles. It took a lot of attention to bring her back to her normal state of relaxed indifference.

The cat seems to find me less intimidating when I’m sitting down or laying in bed, which makes me wonder how she actually sees me. Someone once wrote that when they lay down on the floor, their pet rabbit went directly to their hands, the only part of them that was familiar in this new scenario. And Oliver Sacks writes about a man who had been blind from birth, and was then able to have an operation so that he could see. This was not such an unalloyed blessing as you might think, especially at first: we ‘learn’ to see, and to understand the pattern of light and shadow that designates a staircase, for example. But what was most surprising was that, although he could identify his pet dog with his eyes closed, when his eyes were open he had difficulty in identifying his pet from different angles – a dog from the side looks completely different to a dog from the front. So maybe my cat is reacting to my towering, looming height, or maybe she just doesn’t recognise me as the same person when I’m sitting down.

Jackdaw

The garden has exploded into green and white. All the bare twigs are clothed, the reeds and purple loosestrife are three times the height of the plants that we left. The hawthorn is clothed from head to foot in white flowers that smell faintly erotic. The duckweed is advancing across the pond as usual, and is impossible to remove without a genocide of tadpoles. Water hyacinth has popped up, in full flower – I planted it over five years ago and it’s never done anything until now. A jackdaw has been feeding from the bird table, and I wonder if it’s the same one that visited in spring last year. He watches us as we tiptoe around the kitchen, his grey eye attentive, his frosted neck reflecting the sunlight. Sometimes he chases other birds, and once he is in turn pursued by a magpie.

A wood pigeon floats up from the roof and claps his wings, once, twice, before drifting off in a great loop.

And on Sunday evening, at dusk, I stand watching a single bat looping around the narrow side return. My climbing hydrangea is just coming into bloom, and I wonder if the bat is roosting in it during the day, but mostly I just watch, amazed, as she works tight little figures of eight in the confined space, sometimes silhouetted against the turquoise sky, sometimes disappearing against the black of the fence. I see a moth rise, the bat fly past it and then turn sharply and catch it. I see it happen again. I watch and watch, afraid to blink. And then the bat leaves, and the sky is empty, and the insects that have escaped this onslaught start to disperse.

It seems to have been a year for bats: in Costa Rica, in Collingwood, and now outside my own window. And of all of these, it is this homely bat that gives me most pleasure, because it implies that for all the failures, I must be doing something right in the garden. My mind moves to things that I can do to encourage the insects that the bat needs: should I plant a window box full of nicotiana, for example, or is it my pale cream rhododendron that is attracting them? All I know is that a garden is never finished, but that if we pay attention and are humble it will tell us what it needs, and how to work with it.

Maybe ‘home’ is whatever and whoever we pay attention to. And maybe attention is just another word for love.

My birthday rhododendron from my friend J, in full flower.

Wednesday Weed – Lilac

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

Dear Readers, you might remember that I spent some of my formative years working in a night shelter for homeless people in Dundee. Sunday evenings there were typically quiet, and the men often spent them sitting in the kitchen and listening to the radio. There were two songs which many of them found particularly affecting. One was ‘The Lady in Red‘ by Chris de Burgh,  which would often end with someone surreptitiously wiping their eyes, lost in memories of happier days. But the one that would really get everybody going was ‘Lilac Wine’, originally by Nina Simone but recorded by Elkie Brooks in the ’90’s. Was there ever a better song about the melancholy drinker? Everything from her wavering notes to her tear-filled eyes encapsulates the way that alcohol both distorts thinking and intensifies emotion. However, I do wonder if she has a different lilac tree from mine, as even on a good day I would not characterise the scent as ‘heady’, maybe because my plant flowers in April when the rain and the wind (and the occasional snow) make sitting outside a heroic endeavour. Maybe it’s also because my lilac is white, rather than the usual eponymous lilac? Do tell me of your lilac experiences, especially if they involve ‘feeling unsteady’ and seeing things that aren’t actually there.

My venerable lilac tree has grown to prodigious proportions. When I first moved into the house, all the flowers were at the top, some six feet above my head, and their fragrance was mainly enjoyed by passing starlings. Over the past few years I have been pruning out the old wood in an attempt to renovate the plant, and it seems to be working – this year I had flowers at eye-level for the first time in years. I cut a small bunch, put them in a glass jar and popped them down on my writing desk. For a while I just inhaled and admired them, until a moving pea attracted my attention. And when I took my glasses off for a better look, I saw a tiny spider, seemingly made out of green glass.

A cucumber spider (Arienella curcubita)

My garden wildlife book tells me that this is a cucumber spider, and I could not have been more surprised if I’d found out that it was a wildebeest. All my pruning and hacking suddenly seemed worthwhile, because if the lilac blossoms had still been at the top of the ‘tree’ I’d never have cut them.

Lilac has been in the UK since at least the sixteenth century, and is thought to have been brought here not from the Balkans, where it grows wild, but from the courts of the Ottomans. It didn’t reach North America until the eighteenth century, but has become so naturalized there that it is the state flower of New Hampshire. You can occasionally find lilac growing wild in the UK too, but generally close to human habitation. Indeed, a lone lilac bush can often be the first indication that there was once a garden on the site.

Now, to loop back to Elkie Brooks, I found myself wondering if lilac was much used as a culinary ingredient (after all, the plant is a member of the Oleaceae or olive family). I wandered out to the garden to munch on a flower, and found it a rather under-whelming experience – it was quite astringent (i.e. it dries up the saliva), floral, and a bit ‘green’, almost salady. My hunting through the internet revealed a recipe for lilac syrup on The Practical Herbalist, and from here I found a recipe for actual Lilac Wine. The latter website also has a link to all kinds of other ‘country’ wines, including rhubarb, beetroot and something enticing called ‘scuppernong’ wine. I am old enough to remember the days when any kind of fruit or vegetable was fair game for a spell of vinification. My Uncle Roy’s parsnip wine would knock your head off.

Medicinally, lilac was believed to be an ‘anti-periodic’ – that is, it could help to treat diseases such as malaria which occur cyclically. It has also been used to treat fever. In North America, the Iroquois people used it to treat sores.

Lilac (the white variety in particular) is yet another of those plants which have a reputation for bringing bad luck if brought into the house  – I have listed so many of these lately that it’s a wonder that there are any bouquets at all! A five-petalled lilac flower is also thought to be a bad omen, except in some accounts where it appears to be lucky, so my advice is, if in doubt, go for the happier interpretation. Lilac was thought to bring protection against evil if planted at the corners of a house, and I have always thought of it as a happy plant, one of the earlier signs that summer is on its way.

On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland records a legend about the origin of the lilac in the UK:

According to legend its introduction to the British Isles is owed to a falcon that dropped the
seed in an old lady’s garden in Scotland. The bush grew without flowering until the day
when a passing prince stopped to admire it and a purple plume from his headdress
dropped into it. Thenceforth the bush bore purple flowers and the purple shrub brought
such joy to a young local girl that when she died on the eve of her marriage a cutting was
planted on her grave. This cutting flourished and eventually grew into a bush that bore
white flowers.

 

Maybe as a result of this story, wearing white lilac is said to mean that you will never marry.

During the 19th century there seems to have been a lot of enthusiasm for the complicated, abundant flowers of the lilac. Impressionists were particularly enamoured, and they seem to have been trying to outdo one another in their depictions. I particularly like the Manet one, but maybe that’s because the flowers are so recognisably like the ones in my garden. I am also very partial to the hexagonal glass vase.

Bouquet of Lilacs by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875-80 (Public Domain)

Lilacs in the Sun by Claude Monet, 1872 (Public Domain)

Lilacs in a Vase by Edouard Manet c.1882 (Public Domain)

And finally, here is a poem by the American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925). This speaks to me, newly returned from North America, and it helps to settle in my mind the conundrum of why the lilac, a flower from Europe, has so intertwined itself in the American imagination that it is the state flower of the Granite state, the ‘Live Free or Die’ state of New Hampshire. This work takes my breath away. I hope you enjoy it too. Read it slowly, preferably with a cup of tea.

‘Lilacs’ by Amy Lowell

Lilacs,
False blue,
White,
Purple,
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.
Lilacs,
False blue,
White,
Purple,
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
And Massachusetts
And Vermont.
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And apple-blossoms,
And windows open to a South Wind.
May is full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.
Lilacs,
False blue,
White,
Purple,
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.

 

Bugwoman on Location – Royal Botanic Gardens Burlington

Serviceberry outside the Royal Botanic Garden visitor centre, Burlington, Ontario

Dear Readers, every year when I go to Toronto I make the journey to the Royal Botanic Gardens outside Burlington, about an hour’s train ride from the city. There, I meet my friend M who drives up from Youngstown in New York State. For a few hours we wander the trails and my friend shares her knowledge of North American nature with me. Sometimes we think about meeting somewhere else, but this is such a magical trail and there is always something new to see. This year, for example, we saw a great blue heron (Ardea herodias), a much larger version of the grey heron that’s common in Europe – this magnificent bird can be 54 inches tall (‘Almost as tall as me!’ as my friend said). It has a wingspan of up to six and a half feet, and when it takes off it seems prehistoric, as if it’s been rising from marshland from before the advent of humans and will probably continue to do so long after we’re gone.

The orange hue on the beak and the legs, the plumes on the animal’s back and the black crest show that this bird is coming into full breeding fettle. It is always moving to see such a large, impressive creature at such close quarters, but this was not the last surprise that the walk was reveal.

There were all the usual delights too, of course. The trout lilies and trilliums were just starting to reveal themselves. I love the delicacy of woodland flowers and the way that they disappear as soon as the canopy of leaves shades them out.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum)

Trillium and windflowers (Trillium grandiflorum and Anemone canadensis)

What I hadn’t noticed in previous years were the banks of lesser celandine, a European native. It looks very pretty in the dappled sunlight, and was being visited by a variety of small bees, but is being treated with herbicide by the Botanic Garden staff as it’s seen as being invasive, and shading out the native plants. It will be interesting to see how different things are when we visit next year – apparently they have attempted pulling the plant up, but it spreads by means of tiny bulbils and is so very difficult to get rid of.

Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

Some birds had started breeding early – several pairs of Canada geese had goslings already. They are fiercely protective of their youngsters, especially as they are not only vulnerable to other birds, but also to large fish (of which there are many in the lake).

Canada geese with goslings

We leaned on a rail by the boardwalk to watch some geese feeding, and noticed a most unusual creature hoovering up the sunflower seeds.

Muskrat

I had never seen a muskrat out of the water before. The fur was so dense that the undercoat was perfectly dry. No wonder the Hudson’s Bay Company valued their pelts so much (along with those of beaver, fox, ermine, sable…..). S/he kept a healthy distance from the geese, who are much inclined to peck at this time of year. I explained to one young woman that this was a muskrat, not a ‘rat – rat’ and that, as we know from David Attenborough, they sometimes share lodges with beavers. It was originally thought that the muskrats were just freeloaders, but the Attenborough film showed the muskrats helping to repair the lodge, so it seems that they do their bit to help with the chores.  I am also rather taken with the muskrat’s tawny eyes, which look rather lion-like to me.

On the way into the trail, we met an elderly man who was feeding the birds, but stamping his feet at the  squirrels.

‘What good’s a squirrel?’ he asked. The response ‘And what good are you, human’ never quite made it past my lips, but it does occur to me that this anthropocentric view of the world is responsible for a good proportion of the mess that we’re currently in. It’s not all about us.

Anyhow, further along the trail we were accosted by a very fine American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), rather smaller and shyer than the usual grey ones (and not the same as the European red squirrel). I love the hopeful, watchful  expression as s/he tried to work out if I’m a friend or a stamper.

We were also very lucky with birds this time. There were of course the usual red-winged blackbirds, calling from every tree – confusingly these are not thrushes like  the European blackbird, but Icterids, a New World group.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

But how about this little beauty? I wasn’t sure what species I was looking at, but it turns out that it’s the perfectly named yellow warbler. They can be found throughout North and South America, and there are no less than 33 subspecies. Their Latin name means ‘moth-eater’, and they are voracious predators of all kinds of flying insects. As they buzzed through the leaves they were like small streaks of lemon feathers.

Yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia)

But what about this bird? I do believe that I might have had a brief spotting of a Baltimore oriole, though my friend and I both thought that the bird looked a little small for that. If it was an oriole, it was my first ever sighting. Let me know what you think, North American friends!

There were many other delights on the walk: a raccoon sleeping in the crook of a tree, some Carolina wood ducks pottering about, a downy woodpecker popping in for a very close visit.

Carolina wood ducks (Aix sponsa)

Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

But my biggest surprise came at Aldershot station. I was sitting in the station waiting room when I looked up idly at the transmission tower opposite as a huge bird came in to land.

Good grief.

Yes, a pair of ospreys have made a nest overlooking the railway station. My friend M and I saw an osprey fly over last year, but I had no idea that such large birds of prey would happily make their homes so close to human habitation.

This bird used to live in the UK in some numbers, but was persecuted until it became extinct in the country in 1916. It recolonised in 1954, and there are now between 250 and 300 breeding pairs, mostly in Scotland. Worldwide, there are 460,00 ospreys, a third of them living in Canada during the summer and over-wintering in South America. This bird is found on every continent except Antarctica, and their presence is said to be a mark of the water quality – ospreys, being at the top of the food chain, are very susceptible to the impact of pollutants such as DDT and PCB’s.

I have never seen ospreys in the UK, a country which seems to delight in shooting anything that looks like a bird of prey, but what a joy it was to see them so unexpectedly in Canada, and what a wonderful end to a day full of friendship and nature. Roll on next year!

Red bud (Cercis canadensis) tree at the RBG

 

Wednesday Weed – Amaryllis (Hippeastrum)

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp)

Dear Readers, whenever I see an amaryllis I always think of my Dad. His Christmas presents always contain at least one rectangular box containing an enormous amaryllis bulb and a pot, and sometimes I get one too. Then our phone conversations for the next month or so are mildly competitive.

‘Mine is about three feet high!’

‘Mine is so big that it keeps falling over!’

‘Mine has flowers the size of a baby’s head!’

‘MIne’s got flowers the size of a cabbage’.

Dad and I love to cross swords. If we are watching ‘Pointless’, the room echoes to a chorus of answers to Alexander Armstrong’s questions. For a while I was winning, but then, after Dad got his cataracts done, we realised that it was only because he couldn’t actually see what the questions were. Hah! These days we are neck and neck. Or maybe Dad’s slightly in front.

Anyhow, the amaryllis is a most bold and ostentatious plant. In my opinion there is no more spectacular indoor bulb. You can practically watch it growing. For a while it’s rather embarrassing to anyone with Victorian sensibilities, as it looks like a giant Martian willy. I almost feel that i should be covering it up with a lace curtain. And then the blooms form and start to open, and it seems impossible that there should be so much volume of petal in that little crumpled bud, but there it is. This year, my amaryllis is dark red, with petals that are simultaneously as sleek as satin and as plush as velvet. It is utterly glorious.

It’s important to clear up exactly what this plant is, however. The bulbs that we grow at home are not actually amaryllis (this name refers to some South African plants) but are from a separate genus known as Hippeastrum, which hales from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The name was given to the plant by William Herbert, a 19th century botanist and illustrator, and means ‘horse star lily’, for reasons which have faded into obscurity. There are 90 separate species of Hippeastrum and over 600 hybrids and cultivars, with new varieties being offered every Christmas – over the past few years Dad and I have competed with pale-green, stripey red and scarlet varieties. The original Hippeastrum species are normally red, pink or purple in colour.

Photo One by By Averater - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47076787

Hippeastrum pardinum, one of the plants used to develop cultivated Hippeastrum (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Daniel Macher - AmaryllisUploaded by Epibase, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8933832

Hippeastrum variety ‘Gilmar’ (Photo Two)

Photo Three by Pictures taken by Raul654 around Washington DC on May 7, 2005.

Hippeastrum variety ‘Candy Floss’ (Photo Three)

The leaves on a Hippeastrum appear after the flowers, which is one reason why the developing buds look so extraordinary. The sexual organs of the plant, the stamens and pistil, are long and elegant. The pollen is plentiful but is poisonous to cats, so be careful if you have any moggie companions. As with lilies, the danger is that the pollen comes into contact with the fur and is licked off by the cat during grooming. The bulbs of some Caribbean species of Hippeastrum are used to produce arrow poison, so this is obviously not a plant to be messed with.

I have never yet managed to persuade my Hippeastrum to bloom for more than one year, but then I have been doing it All Wrong. The leaves should be allowed to develop, and the plant given some food on a weekly basis during this time, but then it will need two months ‘rest’ in the cold and dark, without food or water (and preferably with no nibbling by any rodents that may be living in the shed). Then the plant can be brought out into the light and watering re-commenced. The plant should be in a small pot, not much bigger than the circumference of the bulb,  with a good third of the bulb above the surface of the compost. This can make the plant very top heavy, of course, hence the occasional catastrophe when the whole lot falls over and the main stem breaks under its own weight. I can only imagine that the Hippeastrum that grow wild are rather less exaggerated in form, much as a fox stands more chance of survival in the wild than a pug would.

Incidentally, a properly cared-for Hippeastrum can live for 75 years so I really have no excuse.

One thing that  I don’t associate with Hippeastrum is perfume, but apparently there are some scented varieties. The gene for scent is recessive, and is associated only with white or pastel coloured plants – I’ve never grown a perfumed one, but do let me know if you have, I am curious as to what it smells like. Sadly, the English language is very short on words to describe scent, probably reflecting our rather inadequate noses. If dogs could speak I imagine they’d have a very varied perfume vocabulary.

Medicinally, Hippeastrums contain over 64 alkaloid compounds, which as we have already noted are poisonous, but which are also anti-parasitic and have psychopharmaceutical properties. Some species of Hippeastrum seem to have interesting anti-depressant and anti-convulsant possibilities, and experimentation has indicated that the bulb may have possible uses as an antibiotic.

Just to return to the name ‘Amaryllis’ for a moment – Amaryllis was a Greek nymph who suffered with unrequited love for the cold-hearted Alteo. In a paroxysm of passion she pierced her heart with a golden arrow and trekked to his door every day for a month, leaving a path of blood splatters en route. These days we would probably call this behaviour stalking, but on the thirtieth day the blood spots transmogrified into red flowers of stupendous size and hue. Alteo finally fell in love with Amaryllis, her heart was healed, and the Dutch bulb trade lurched into action. The rest, my friends, is history.

You might expect that such a showy plant would inspire visual artists and, before he turned to abstraction, Piet Mondrian produced a number of startling ‘portraits’ of Hippeastrum.

Amaryllis by Piet Mondrian (1910) (Public Domain)

And you might also expect that the amaryllis/Hippeastrum would invite the attention of poets, and so it does. I adore this poem by American poet Deborah Digges, who died in 2009 and who sounds like a most generous teacher of other poets. She explores both the beauty and the absurdity of the amaryllis, a plant which, in its super-abundance, teeters on the very edge of ‘too much’.

My Amaryllis

by Deborah Digges

 

So this is the day the fat boy learns to take the jokes

by donning funny hats, my Amaryllis,

my buffoon of a flower,

your four white bullhorn blossoms like the sirens

in a stadium through which the dictator announces he’s in love.

Then he sends out across the land a proclamation—

there must be music, there must be stays of execution

for the already dying.

That’s how your pulpy sex undoes me and your seven

leaves, unsheathed. How you diminish

my winter windows, and beyond them, the Atlantic.

How you turn my greed ridiculous.

Now it’s as if I could believe in having children after forty,

or, walking these icy streets, greet sullen strangers

like a host of former selves, so ask them in, of course,

and listen like one forgiven to their crimes.

Dance with us and all our secrets,

dance with us until our lies,

like death squads sent to an empty house, put down,

finally, their weapons, peruse the family

portraits, admire genuinely the bride.

Stay with me in this my exile

or my returning, as if to love the tyrant one more time.

O my lily, my executioner, a little stooped, here,

listing, you are the future bending

to kiss the present like a sleeping child.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Averater – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47076787

Photo Two by By Daniel Macher – AmaryllisUploaded by Epibase, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8933832

Photo Three by Pictures taken by Raul654 around Washington DC on May 7, 2005.

Bugwoman on Location – Collingwood, Ontario

Dear Readers, when we arrived in Canada on Saturday 28th April it was something of a shock – the temperature was just above freezing and it was trying to snow. The next morning when we took Charlie the wheaten schnoodle for a walk, the boardwalk was half-covered in ice and I needed every layer of clothing that I’d brought with me, plus a borrowed hat. But by Monday the sun was out, the ice was gone, and there was a sudden, almost instantaneous burst of spring. Coltsfoot had sprung up almost instantaneously, raising their hopeful yellow heads.

The red-winged blackbirds were calling from every tree.

And all this was somewhat expected. But this was not.

There were three large-ish bats flittering around in search of gnats at two o’clock in the afternoon. I was worried at first that they were victims of a fungal disease called white-nosed syndrome, which has destroyed the bat population in some areas such  as New Brunswick. In some areas it has had a fatality rate of almost 99%. These bats looked healthy as far as I could see, and I sincerely hope that they were just roused to such unusual activity due to the late cold spell, and a need to get out and feed regardless of the time of the day. However, I have a call in to the local Batwatch team, so I will keep you posted.

I think that the bats are Hoary Bats (Lasiurus cinereus) – they have a kind of frosty tinge to their fur, and a white mark on their ‘wrist’ area which I think I can see in the photo below. It was such a pleasure to watch them, and I wasn’t the only one who was amazed – a young couple nearly fell off their bicycles when they stopped suddenly to see what I was looking at, and a dog walker came back to tell me that there were some more bats further along the path. People in Collingwood are very happy to stop and spend the time of day, and in that they remind me of the people in Mum and Dad’s Dorset village. It was a great start to my Canadian holiday to spend a bit of time in nature. It’s a bit harder to spot critters in downtown Toronto.

On the lake itself I was delighted to see several pairs of red-breasted mergansers. I had never had a good look at their beaks before, and was astonished to see how long they were.

Male red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator)

Mergansers are members of the sawbill family of diving ducks (the Latin species name ‘serrator’ means ‘sawyer’) and they use that elegant long  beak to catch fish, frogs and newts. They are also the fastest duck ever recorded, with one red-breasted merganser being timed at 100 m.p.h when ‘pursued by an airplane’. The mind boggles. What was an airplane doing chasing a duck? I also had no idea that planes could fly as slowly as 100 m.ph without stalling. If anyone out there is a pilot or the kind of person who studies duck speeds, do let me know.

Red-breasted merganser drake and duck

What moves me most about the change of seasons in Collingwood is how quickly things move on. The violet leaves are springing back into life after being submerged in snow, and I suspect that the woods will soon be smelling sweetly of their perfume. The swan is incubating her eggs, and soon the cygnets will be peeping from the nest. I capture a moment and then things move on, and I’m not there to see what happens next. But how good it feels to know that this place exists, and that it is a haven to birds and turtles and invertebrates and frogs. Canada is a big country, but all over the world wetlands are under threat, which only makes this spot, with its reedbeds and shallows, all the more precious.

Wednesday Weed – Ivy-Leaved Speedwell

Ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia)

Dear Readers, last week I was in Dorset with my parents, and Dad had a horrible chest infection (or maybe a continuation of the one that he’s had for the past six months). In the space of 24 hours he went from being ok to being too weak to stand up unaided. Fortunately the doctor was able to visit, and prescribed him some antibiotics and some steroids, with the proviso that if he wasn’t any better he would be admitted to hospital the next day.

Steroids are miracle drugs, but they are also dangerous for long-term use. For a while Dad was taking them regularly, and by the end of a few months he could barely walk (muscle weakness and pain is a known side-effect). But a short course can have miraculous results. The next day dad was walking about, he had some colour back in his cheeks, and by the day after he was out ‘advising’ the men who had come to fit some new tyres to his car. And so I could at last breathe out (well, it felt as if I’d been holding my breath for 48 hours) and go for a little walk. As I headed towards the shop, I spotted this sprawling, inconspicuous plant. It could easily be mistaken for chickweed, if it wasn’t for its tiny, pale blue flowers and its lobed leaves. It was leaning into the sunshine on every verge and under every hedge. One lone plant had even stationed itself on one of the lovely shale walls in the village. For a moment I mistook it for its close relative, ivy-leaved toadflax.

The flowers of this species are very pale, almost lilac, rather than the deep blue of other speedwells. The stems and leaves are hairy, but the leaves are the distinguishing feature, being wider than long, and with obvious veins. There are about 15 species of speedwell in the UK, but this one is an arcaeophyte, introduced probably with grain from mainland Europe before 1500 BCE. It grows in the nutrient-rich, trampled soils that exist around human habitation and, like all the speedwells, was thought to be lucky for travellers, with the more showy species such as germander speedwell being worn as a buttonhole by those about to set out on a journey.

The genus name ‘Veronica’ comes from St Veronica. She is said to have wiped the blood from the face of Christ, and the handkerchief that she used bore the ‘vera iconica’, the ‘true image’, of his features. There seem to be many folk tales concerning the picking of the plant, which will bring dire consequences: either your mother’s eyes will fall out, your eyes will fall out or birds will come and pluck your eyes out for you. I suspect that the white centre of speedwell species is seen as an ‘eye’ by those of an imaginative disposition, and speedwells often have vernacular names such as ‘blue eyes’.

The plant was at one point so popular as a cure for gout that it was picked almost to extinction in London, where boozing was presumably as much a problem in medieval times as it is these days. Speedwell was prescribed ‘to be taken in the spring for some time, especially by Persons who drink much ale and are in gross habit of body’. A tea made from speedwell is said to be beneficial for pretty much everything, and the plant itself is sometimes added to salads, though the leaves and flowers of this species are so small that I wonder if it would be worth the bother. Probably better to let it alone, to be food for the extremely rare Heath Fritillary’s caterpillar (though in truth it prefers germander speedwell if there’s any available).

Photo One by By Harald Süpfle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4197344

Heath fritillary (Melitaea athalia) (Photo One)

One reason for the name ‘speedwell’ is thought to be that the petals fall quickly once the plant is picked. The painting below is by  John Everett Millais and is called ‘The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue (1891-2)’ This is an example of the ‘Fancy Picture’, which was a style that was very popular and lucrative. Millais tried to make the genre more painterly and serious by depicting the compulsory small, attractive child with emblems of mortality, such as flowers or dead birds or bubbles. Here, the infant is musing on a speedwell (admittedly not an ivy-leaved speedwell, but still) and is no doubt waiting for the flower to disintegrate. The whole notion of ephemeral also played nicely into the Victorian love-affair with the death of the young and the beautiful.

w ‘The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue’ (John Everett Millais 1891-2) (Public Domain)

And to round off this week, we have none other than Oscar Wilde, grieving for the man who betrayed him ( the title means, roughly ‘Because I have loved too much’. I didn’t know this poem at all, but I rather like it as a description of passion, and I love the last line , although I am not quite sure that I understand it. Is Wilde saying that his love is one of many that has been showered on his lover? Someone enlighten me, please.

 

Dear Heart, I think the young impassioned priest
When first he takes from out the hidden shrine
His God imprisoned in the Eucharist,
And eats the bread, and drinks the dreadful wine,

Feels not such awful wonder as I felt

When first my smitten eyes beat full on thee,
And all night long before thy feet I knelt
Till thou wert wearied of Idolatry.

Ah! hadst thou liked me less and loved me more,

Through all those summer days of joy and rain,
I had not now been sorrow’s heritor,
Or stood a lackey in the House of Pain.

Yet, though remorse, youth’s white-faced seneschal,

Tread on my heels with all his retinue,
I am most glad I loved thee—think of all
The suns that go to make one speedwell blue!

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Harald Süpfle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4197344