Wednesday Weed – Melancholy Thistle

Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)

Dear Readers, after two weeks in Austria I am back in an over-heated, parched London and find myself yearning for the fresh breezes of the Alps. So what better to do than to write about one of my favourite plants, the melancholy thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)? It is true that this is not a southern plant in the UK, preferring the uplands of northern England (where it is known as the shaving-brush plant) and Scotland, but I have occasionally seen it in wildlife gardens in the Capital. Generally, it is found in cold and mountainous areas of Europe and Western Asia, and with its big, solitary flowerheads it is one of the highlights of an Alpine meadow. No sooner has it come into bloom than it is descended upon by bees, butterflies and flower beetles, who seem to swoon into its cerise embrace.

As my regular readers will know, my Dad became ill while I was in Austria, and I am heading off to Dorset to see what’s going on. It’s been a stressful time, and as at today (Sunday) Dad is still in hospital, and is very confused. So, you might think that a subliminal reason for picking the ‘melancholy’ thistle is because of my general mood. I had assumed that the epithet ‘melancholy’ came about because of the single, statuesque flowerheads of the plant, which may appear to slump lethargically when in bud,  but  Nicholas Culpeper viewed the thistle as a cure for sadness, saying that

the decoction of the thistle in wine being drank, expels superfluous melancholy out of the body, and makes a man as merry as a cricket; … my opinion is, that it is the best remedy against all melancholy diseases”.

It maketh the finches as happy as crickets in the autumn too, as they love the seeds. Plus, melancholy thistle has no spines. When I think back to those banks of flowers in Obergurgl, it fills me with a kind of joy that, every year, I have been there just at the right time to see the buds opening, and the creatures coming to feast. As I’ve grown older I’ve changed from wanting to skim the surface of a wide range of places to wanting to know them deeply, and it does my heart good to know where I might find the rose chafers, and the secret places where the fritillaries come to feed.

Rose chafer beetles (Cetonia aurata)  on melancholy thistle head

Apparently both the root and the leaves of melancholy thistle are edible, but the roots of all thistles are liable to produce flatulence, and the leaves are too prickly to eat raw. I’d be inclined to leave this one for the critters if I were you. However, the Speyside Distllery has been making some flavoured spirits using ingredients found in the Highlands, and to my delight they have one that includes melancholy thistle, along with

Scot’s Pine, Sweet Vernal-grass, Juniper, Rowan, Downy Birch and Aspen

My Dad used to be a distiller of Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin, and he is very unimpressed by the current trend for fancy flavours. Nonetheless I am much intrigued by such concoctions, although at 43% proof a bottle would last me a very, very long time.

Photo One from http://speysidedistillery.co.uk/product/byrons-gin-melancholy-thistle/

Melancholy Thistle Gin. You’re welcome! (Photo One)

I have been considering which poem to use for this plant, and naturally many of them are Scottish – after all, the thistle is the symbol of that fine country. However, the question is, which thistle? While the melancholy thistle has the magnificent flower that we might expect, it is, as already noted, without thorns, and surely part of the symbolism of the Scottish thistle is that it is not to be trifled with. I have therefore, with regret, set Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, and several works by Robert Burns, to one side, as I believe that they refer to the much feistier Spear Thistle.

However Ted Hughes, always a close of observer of nature, wrote a poem about thistles that somewhat hits the spot. I  suspect that even this is about a rather spikier thistle than the gentle Cirsium heterophyllum, but it is much too hot here in London to be particular.

Thistles

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Ted Hughes

How martial Ted Hughes sometimes seems! In so many of his poems, nature seems to be about nothing but scrapping and fighting. There is a lot of this, of course, but there is also a lot of co-operation and harmony. I prefer to think of the way that the melancholy thistles open to the fumblings of bees and beetles as being of benefit to both the insects and the plant, but Hughes is much keener on conflict. Ah well. Both our views are true, and they are not mutually exclusive. But just as Western society seems to see tragedy as more ‘real-world’ and more important than comedy, so the gentler aspects of life do not seem as worthy of celebration. I sometimes wonder how the concentration of the arts and media on conflict and destruction skews our psyches, and affects our view of the world.

And so, as a balance to the view of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, here is one of my very favourite poems, which doesn’t mention thistles at all, but which somehow accords with my current mood. I am not a creationist, so in answer to the question ‘ Who made the world’ I would answer ‘ a complex interaction between forces’, but the close attention to the grasshopper, and the plea to be in the moment both appeal to me very much.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

 

Photo Credits

Photo One from http://speysidedistillery.co.uk/product/byrons-gin-melancholy-thistle/

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – A Walk to Solden

View towards the Wildspitze mountain from Solden

Dear Readers, it all started when I got a phone call last Thursday from the care agency who look after Mum and Dad.

‘Hi’, said the Manager. ‘I was just wondering if your mum will need extra carers next week to help her while your Dad’s in hospital’.

Dad’s in hospital? I had no idea. I texted my brother, who had been sworn to silence so that I could have a trouble-free holiday.

Indeed, Dad had been in hospital since the day I left for Austria – he’d been in and out of hospital for weeks with a chest infection, but this had now developed into something more troubling. He was confused and had bowel problems, and the hospital wanted to make sure that the infection was cleared up before he was allowed home. As at today, he’s been in hospital for two weeks.

I spoke to Mum and she sounded pretty chipper, all things considered – she was eating and drinking and taking all her many tablets, and was hoping that Dad would be out soon.

Unfortunately, what we didn’t realise was how dependent she’d become on her morning carer to help her sort out her medication. And the carer was taking a well-earned week’s break.

Mum decided not to take any of her tablets because she didn’t trust herself to sort them out. And then she decided she wasn’t hungry, and stopped eating.

We only  discovered this after my brother popped in to see her and take her to the hospital to see Dad, only to find her confused and disorientated.

Fortunately, we got a morning carer to help her with her medication and her porridge, and one of her friends in the village (who is in her late 70’s herself) slept over on the sofa to keep her safe.

Suffice it to say that I’m hotfooting it to Dorset next week, and we’re going to have a family conference to make sure that things are in place in case Mum or Dad are ever left in the house alone again.

For the past week all I’ve been able to think about is a) how guilty I feel that I’m not in Dorset looking after Mum (although my brother is there) b) how terrified I am that Mum is going to fall over and there will be no one to help her and c) how it feels as if none of us can catch a break at the moment – it’s just one thing after another, and I can’t see an end to it (well, not one that I want to see). I have to get comfortable with the fact that I can’t plan with any certainty for anything , that I will always be afraid when the phone rings, and that the constant knot in my stomach is something that I will have to get used to. At the same time, I recognise how much worse it is for Mum and Dad, and I often feel so helpless in the face of what happens to them.

And meantime it is so beautiful here. I find myself weeping at everything from snowy mountains to baby birds. I think that I’m on an even keel, and then something as simple as an alpine flower growing out of a slab of rock breaks me open. I am surrounded by so much fragility, and yet so much resilience. Mountain plants and animals have such a brief season that they throw everything into the short period of summer. They flower and breed with such exuberance, making the most of every bright moment, and I know that there’s a lesson here for me too, if I choose to take it. There are still sun-kissed moments with my parents when things are ok, when it isn’t all about sickness and medications and emergency buttons, although this is part of it too. It’s all part of it, and the more that I push it away, the worse it gets.

Anyhow, I seem to have developed a dicky tummy during this past few days, and so I’ve stopped pushing myself to harder and harder walks, envigorating though they can be. I feel a need to be gentle with myself, and so today we went for a little walk, mostly downhill, alongside the river at Zwieselstein and down to Solden for cake and the bus home.

There is already plenty of wood gathered in for the winter. I love woodpiles, and wood is what people used to use for everything.

The Oetz valley has a number of covered bridges, some modern, some old.

The clover is spectacular this year.

The path down to Solden is lined with gigantic boulders, and the river itself is full of them.

The boulders themselves form a mini habitat for all manner of shallow-rooted plants, especially different kinds of saxifrage and stonecrop.

Mountain houseleek (Sempervivum montanum)

White mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua) ( I think)

There is an enormous chunk of driftwood by the path – was it put here by humans, or was it thrown up in an exceptional flood?

And further along the path, some pretty yellow foxgloves.

Small Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis lutea)

And on the path is a poor dead forest dormouse, looking rather as if s/he has been run over by a mountain bike. It’s such a shame that the only time I’ve ever seen one is as a corpse.

Dead forest dormouse (Dryomys nitedula)

Up one more hill, and we’re into the outskirts of Solden. Someone has made a very fine rock garden.

But what have we here? These cute frogs are just the kind of thing that mum would stick in the garden. And underneath, there is some edelweiss, actually a rarity around Obergurgl because it prefers limestone, and most of the area is composed of something called gneiss, which is acidic.

And then we go to our favourite cafe in Solden for a coffee, and end up having some more apricot cake. We watch the gondolas of the Gaislachkogelbahn go up and down for a bit.

And then I spot a mother alpine swallow swooping up and down under the eaves of the parking garage opposite, so of course I have to go and investigate. And what do I see?

Baby alpine swallows

Is that mum?

All this waiting around for food is sooooo boring…

And so we head back on the bus. I feel my spirits lifted, almost as if I’d been pulled out of myself for a while. I’ve loved our more ambitious walks here in Austria: I feel fitter, and leaner, and a bit stronger. But for sorting out my head, there’s nothing like a (fairly) leisurely stroll, with lots of time to ponder on what I’m seeing, and to try to understand how things fit together. How does a boulder become a habitat? Where did these fledgling alpine swallows nest originally, and how long will it be before they, too, take to the wing? How does this incredibly complicated ecosystem fit together?

And also, time to just stand in wonder at this extraordinary, sacred world.

Wednesday Weed – Selfheal

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)

Dear Readers, my friend J has had some work done in her garden, and a fine crop of selfheal has popped up as if by magic. I love the way that some seeds will bide their time, maybe for years, until the conditions are right for them to germinate. This plant is a member of the dead nettle and mint family (Lamiaceae) and if you look closely, the flowers have the characteristic ‘tongue’ at the bottom, which makes them look almost like tiny orchids.

Selfheal is a widespread plant, growing in Europe, Asia and North America. It can look very different, according to where it grows: in a much-mowed lawn it can be tiny, but alongside a woodland path it can grow to a foot high.

The name ‘selfheal’ indicates that the plant has a variety of medicinal uses. In the UK it has largely been used to treat bruises and cuts (probably one reason for the alternative name ‘carpenter’s plant’, at least if woodwork is something of an ordeal as it has always been for me). The leaves were combined with lard and smeared onto the wound. In Chinese medicine, however, it was considered to be much more powerful, and capable of changing the course of a chronic disease. Even its Latin generic name, Prunella, comes from the German word for a kind of throat infection, known in the UK as quinsy – the plant was said to be able to cure such ailments. These days, it usually blooms away unnoticed, like so many medicinal plants.

Selfheal is edible, and its leaves can be used in a salad or as a pot herb. Unlike many members of the Lamiaceae such as mint and basil,  selfheal has no smell and little flavour, although the young leaves have a fresh green taste, and I can imagine the flowers added to a gin and tonic (but then, I am a distiller’s daughter). In the USA the Cherokee cooked and ate the leaves, and the Nlakapamuk made a beverage from the whole plant.

While I was looking for recipes that contain selfheal, I discovered Prunella cake, an American recipe from the 1930’s, on the Yesterdish website. Unfortunately it doesn’t contain any selfheal (it seems to mainly consist of prunes and sugar), but the icing would have been a delightful purple-blue colour from all the prunes, so maybe that was part of the link with the plant. The author of the website also believes that the name is a hint that the cake is as healthful as the plant, though with all that Crisco I’m not totally convinced.

Selfheal is one of those native plants that you can buy for your garden ( at £3.99 a pop). However, if you want one of those bowling-green lawns with not a blade out of place, you may find selfheal an implacable enemy, what with its self-seeding and spreading rhizomes and all. I would rather find space for such a useful little plant in my garden. Life is enough of a struggle without going to war against the natural world.

And how could I resist the Selfheal Flower Fairy, sorting out the elves and the mice and the frogs with her healing balm?

Photo One at http://www.mapsandantiqueprints.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/p-762-195-248.jpg

The Selfheal Flower Fairy by Cecily Mary Barker(Photo One)

For my poem this week I offer you this extraordinary work by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, one of my very favourite writers. Although Self-Heal is about the west of Ireland, rather than the Troubles in the north, it’s difficult not to read this and consider how an act can spiral into violence and yet more violence. It’s not an easy read.

(Mayo Monologues 3)

I wanted to teach him the names of flowers,
Self-heal and centaury; on the long acre
Where cattle never graze, bog asphodel.
Could I love someone so gone in the head
And, as they say, was I leading him on?
He’d slept in the cot until he was twelve
Because of his babyish ways, I suppose,
Or the lack of a bed: hadn’t his father
Gambled away all but rushy pasture?
His skull seemed to be hammered like a wedge
Into his shoulders, and his back was hunched,
Which gave him an almost scholarly air.
But he couldn’t remember the things I taught:
Each name would hover above its flower
Like a butterfly unable to alight.
That day I pulled a cuckoo-pint apart
To release the giddy insects from their cell.
Gently he slipped his hand between my thighs.
I wasn’t frightened; and still I don’t know why,
But I ran from him in tears to tell them.
I heard how every day for one whole week
He was flogged with a blackthorn, then tethered
In the hayfield. I might have been the cow
Whose tail he would later dock with shears,
And he the ram tangled in barbed wire
That he stoned to death when they set him free.

Photo Credits

Photo One at http://www.mapsandantiqueprints.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/p-762-195-248.jpg

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Obergurgl, Austria – The Path to the Sahnestuberl

The river Gurgl.How I love an onomatopoeic name!

Dear Readers, as you will know if you follow the blog regularly, I spend a fortnight every year in the alpine village of Obergurgl, skipping about like a (middle-aged) mountain goat and eating prodigious quantities of cake to make up for the calories expended. This year, alas, my skipping was halted by a rather unfortunate incident. Under every Tyrolean hotel there is a Boot Room, and as I made my way to the one under the Hotel Wiesenthal on the first day of the holiday, I neglected to notice a tiny step down and crashed dramatically to the ground, twisting my ankle and feeling like an idiot to boot (sorry). Fortunately I was able to spend the rest of the afternoon with my leg raised and my ankle completely wrapped in a bag of ice (courtesy of the Picnic restaurant across the way), and after taking it easy the following day, I was up for a very small adventure. What could be better than a slow amble down to the Sahnesturbel, a mountain hut which serves the best cake in the village?

So off we went, climbing slowly up amongst the meadow flowers. Some farmers are already cutting their fields for the first time, so I was glad not to have arrived later in the year. I am always stunned by the sheer variety of flowers, and the concomitant biodiversity – there are butterflies, day-flying moths, beetles and flies of all kinds. The yellow rattle helps to reduce the fertility of the soil and keep the docks and nettles in check, and the many species of clover and vetch put nitrogen in the soil.

Yellow rattle and clover

A swallowtail butterfly put in an appearance, feeding on clover. One of its wingtips was missing, perhaps the result of a close encounter with a bird, but its flight was still strong. Several of the larger butterflies that I saw looked a little worn – the summer season is short here in the Alps, and I imagine that many of these insects have already had their share of drama.

Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon)

Every time that I come to Obergurgl, it seems that several plant species are doing particularly well. 2018 seems to be the year of the bladder campion (Silene vulgaris)….

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris)

and the round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare).

Round-headed rampion (Phyteuma obiculare)

But I confess to really loving the melancholy thistles. They are so dramatically pink, and such a magnet for insects of all kinds. The bees sometimes seem to collapse into them in a nectar-induced coma, and I can imagine no finer bed for a sleepy insect. Plus, this year was the scene of some drama. I noticed a fritillary feeding from one of the flowers, and for once my camera was handy.

IMG_4865

Shepherd’s fritillary (Bolaria pales)

A male flew in, attempting to mate with the female.

Then he was chased off by another male.

All this time the female carried on feeding. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore this kind of shenanigans I guess.

It’s easy to forget how territorial butterflies can be – I watched several orange-tips guarding their patch of plants against all comers, including various species of white butterfly who were twice their size. Of course, they could also have been mistaking them for female orange-tips. These idyllic mountain pastures are the scenes of so much drama at the micro level, and as I was moving more slowly than usual I had a chance to really watch what was going on.

Crossing the Gurgl

Once we crossed the river again, we had a walk along the river bank, where the flora is completely different. Several species from the Apiaceae or carrot family dominate here, and I love the way that the broad flowers become a huge dinner plate for many species of pollinating flies. Flies get a bad press, but they are important for the fertilisation of many species of plant.

Plus, the blooms are very beautiful, especially in these damp, shady places, where they seem to glow and burst like fireworks.We cross the road (carefully, this is prime motorbiking country, and those guys are often travelling very fast) and head up into the pine forest. We manoeuvre round some lively calves, and their many and varied cowpats, and then we’re into the woods.

This has been a good year for the broad-leaved marsh orchids – the central reservations of the roads are full of them, and the woodland paths are lined with their pink-speckled flowers. These plants prefer poor-quality, wet soils, and they are profuse in the boggier areas of the region. They are, however, not quite as sensitive to the soil conditions as some orchids, and so are usually the last to be lost when a meadow is drained, or when nitrogen run-off from farms becomes a problem. Long may they, and their rarer relatives, survive here in the Tyrol, one of the last places where they are common.

Broad-leaved marsh orchid (Dactylorisa majalis)

The gondolas from the Hochgurgl lift glide silently overhead. It’s rather surreal.

One of the Tyrolean grey cows gives us a look as we advance, but can’t be bothered to move, and who can blame her? We scoot round her respectfully.

We pass by the Piller See, a little pond stocked with trout, at some speed – a few years back we stopped to eat our sandwiches. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised that every midge and mosquito in the area had fed on me while I was eating my cheese roll. My husband didn’t have a single bite. Go figure.

The Piller See

Then it’s down to the river again, which has picked up pace by now and is whooshing past with some vigour. In the end, this water will join the river Inn ( for which Innsbruck is named) and will eventually become part of the Danube. This is a most ambitious little stream. We cross one of those see-through metal bridges that the Austrians (who obviously have no fear of heights) are so fond of, and plonk down on a bench to sort out our socks and boots and have some Toblerone.

A way-marker en route to the Sahnesturbel

By now, however, the clouds are starting to set in, and my ankle is starting to twinge. Just as well we’re on the home straight.

We cross the bridge. Landslides are common here, and rocks that vary in size from house-sized boulders to pebbles have been washed down by the glacial waters. I pick my way gingerly along the riverside, and then up through the woods for the last time. I can see the flag of the Sahnestuberl through the trees. And then, at last, just as the rain comes on in earnest, we’re there.

The Sahnestuberl is one of the last old-fashioned huts in the valley, with a mish-mash of deckchairs and wobbly tables and umbrellas outside. But the owners are friendly, the food is good and wholesome, and the cat is still here. He is clearly in charge, as you can see.

There is only one home-made cake every day, so you take your pick. But today it’s apricot, my favourite. We were going to share a piece in the interest of our waistlines, but really, life’s too short to share a cake. So here it is. I’m sure it’s helped to cure my ankle.

Apricot cake. Yum.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Lavender

Honeybee on lavender (Lavandula augustifolia)

Dear Readers, when we were trying to buy a house in East Finchley almost a decade ago, I sat on the wall outside the house that is now ours. Were we far enough from the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner not to be affected by the rowdiness that sometimes accompanies such establishments? How bad was the noise from the main road? As I sat there, I breathed in the scent from the lavender that had been planted by the current owners, and watched the bees hopping from flower to flower. I realised how lucky I was to be even considering living here, and also that the house was meant to be ours. I am sure that the smell of lavender will always mean this house to me, and will be tied up with the memories of my time here.

Today, those lavender plants have become a veritable field. In truth they’ve become a bit woody and overgrown, but for a few weeks every year they attract every pollinator for miles around. I sat on my wall with the camera this afternoon, and listened to the drowsy hum of the honeybees going about their business, just as I did a decade ago, and it still soothes me. I think of them taking the lavender-scented nectar back to the hives on the allotment a few blocks away, and it makes me smile to think of how delicious it will be.

Every year we take the shears to the lavender once it’s finished flowering, and the next year it comes back with more flowers than ever. I know there are lots of other varieties, but this seems to be the one that is the most robust in the sun-baked Mediterranean climate of my south-facing front yard. Every time I brush past the flowers they release that heady, resinous scent.

Most of the bees that come to visit are busy honeybees or bumblebees, but every so often we get a butterfly. Normally these are large or small cabbage whites, but today I spotted my first small tortoiseshell. These butterflies had a bad year last year – I don’t think I saw a single specimen, so it was great to see this one. They look so unobtrusive with their wings closed, but then they open them, and you get a brief glimpse of tangerine and sky blue.

Wait for it…..

There we go! Small tortoiseshell ( Aglais urticae)

Lavender is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and can be found right across Europe, south west Asia and northern and eastern Africa. It has been taken to many other countries as a culinary herb, and as a source of essential oils. It has been found ‘in the wild’ in the UK since at least 1440 – it was mentioned in a manuscript poem by a horticulturalist called Jon Gardener ( which may have been a pseudonym, a case of someone being named after their occupation, or a fine case of nominative determinism). The plant now finds itself in the top thirty list of alien plants found in London and Berkshire, but not in Sutherland, where presumably it is too cold and wet. I suspect that its range will increase northwards as climate change warms up the country.

There is some discussion about how lavender got its name. Some believe that it came from the Latin word lavare, to wash, perhaps referring to the use of the essential oil in soap and for scenting both people and clothing. Others think that it comes from the Latin word livere, meaning ‘blue-ish’. Both seem feasible to me, and the derivation could well be a combination of the two, equally applicable, words.In Hebrew, the plant is called nard, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon. In Roman times, lavender was sold for 100 denarii a pound, about the same as a month’s wages for a farm labourer.

Today, lavender the plant has given its name to lavender the colour, one of my favourites.

Something that divides people is the use of lavender as a flavouring. I am very fond of floral overtones in food, and a lemon and lavender cake is my idea of heaven. However, it’s easy to be heavy-handed and to end up with a dessert that tastes like soap, just as the over-use of rosewater can result in something that reminds me of a lady’s boudoir. Should you wish to have a bash, however, here is a recipe for lavender and lemon loaf cake.

Lemon and Lavender Loaf Cake (see recipe at link above)

Interestingly, although popular culture has it that the people of Provence have been showering every dish with lavender since time immemorial, the ingredient was not included in books about Provencal cookery at the turn of the 20th century. Lambs were  allowed to graze on lavender to flavour and tenderise their meat, but the inclusion of lavender in ‘Herbes de Provence’ was created in 1970 for the North American market. Thus are legends born.

The production of lavender oil for other purposes is big business: it’s used in everything from soap and shower-gel to fabric conditioner and cleaning products. There are two types of oil, one derived exclusively from the flowers and used in perfumery and aromatherapy, and lavender spike oil, derived from a different species of lavender, Lavandula latifolia, and used as a replacement for turpentine. The world’s biggest producer of lavender is not as you might expect Provence in France, but Bulgaria. There are also some lavender farms in southern England, including Mayfield Lavender in Surrey, a site that I stumbled upon during a walk a few years ago. What a feast for the senses it was!

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Mayfield Lavender Farm (Photo One)

As a medicinal ingredient, lavender is often used to enable sleep and to soothe anxiety (hence the use of lavender oil sachets and pillows filled with the flowers for those with insomnia). It was used in the First World War as an antiseptic for wounds and burns, and has long been used for tension headaches, and as a treatment for parasites. However, the oil is also an endocrine disrupter, and has been linked to breast development in young boys (prepubertal gynecomastia). It is also a strong ingredient which can irritate the skin if used at the wrong concentration. While I like the smell of the flowers, and the taste of the ingredient in food, I much prefer rose as a scent in my soap and lotions. I find lavender a little bit overwhelming.

On the other hand, Cleopatra was said to have seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony by wearing a perfume containing lavender, so if you are in the mood to subdue a dictator this might be just the plant. On St Luke’s Day (18th October), maidens would sip lavender tea and recite this poem:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me,
In my dreams, let me my true love see.”

Furthermore, lavender was one of the ingredients of Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction which was said to protect those who used it against the plague. The ‘Four Thieves’ bit comes after some burglars who were preying on the houses of those who had died of the disease were captured: they gave the recipe in exchange for clemency, saying that it had enabled them to go about their nefarious crimes without catching the plague themselves. There are many different recipes, but all include vinegar mixed with various herbs, such as sage, rosemary and lavender. As these plants have all been used to deter insect infestations, I wonder if bathing in the vinegar deterred the fleas that carried the plague? Often these stories have a tiny kernel of truth.

And here, for our poem of the week, is one by Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who has won both the T.S Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This is the title poem from his 1987 collection ‘Meeting the British’.

Meeting the British

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – At Long Lane Pasture

Dear Readers, on the hottest day of the year so far, my friend A and I ventured forth for a walk around Long Lane Pasture. This nature reserve is just half a mile from my house in East Finchley, but it’s easy to miss, being tucked in beside the North Circular Road and the tube line. Once I was through the unprepossessing gate it was as if I was in some mythical summer from my childhood – although the rumble of the traffic is ever present this is the only reminder that you are in the London Borough of Barnet, not in some meadow in the shires.

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum) beside the main path

There are meadow brown and ringlet butterflies, cabbage whites and the occasional cinnabar moth flitting around the long grass. The flower heads of a yellow buddleia hang opposite the berries of a guelder rose. Wild and garden perennials mix cheerfully together. All that is missing is the chirrup of grasshoppers, which puzzles me – with all this long grass I would expect the place to be deafening. I wonder why there aren’t any?

Seedheads of yellow buddleia (Buddleia x weyeriana)

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

There are some seats under a covered area next to the largest pond, and we sit and enjoy the shade and a drink of water. A moorhen and her chick head for cover, but the dragonflies are relentless. One male emperor dragonfly seems to want to own the entire pond, swooping down to see off all rivals, his wings gleaming in the sun. He always returns to the same reed to survey his kingdom. Occasionally he stoops at a butterfly but in a half-hearted way. This time of year is about breeding.

It is chastening to think ow easily this pasture could have been lost to development. In 1912 it was given to the public as a reserve, but half of it was lost in 1920 when the North Circular Road was built. For years the land was grazed by horses, but in 1999 Barnet wanted to build houses on the site, one of the last scraps of unspoilt green left in the Borough. After a public campaign it was designated as open space, and 2009 the Long Lane Pasture Trust was granted a 25 year lease. I suppose this means that we’ll have to gird our loins for another fight in 2034. I shall be marking it in my diary.

Alder bark ( I think! Feel free to correct me….)

We follow the paths, taking the opportunity to sit on the benches placed in the shade of the trees. In one area, an elm has been planted. A sign tells us that this is a Princeton elm, a hybrid developed in the US to resist Dutch Elm disease, which still kills off any elm saplings ambitious enough to grow taller than about six feet. The sign tells me that a white-letter hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) was spotted in the pasture in 2009: this is vanishingly rare in the UK, as the eggs are laid on the twigs of elm trees, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. When the elms died in the UK, it was pretty much the end for the butterfly as well, so closely was it associated with the tree. The Princeton elm has been planted in the hope that ‘the white-letter hairstreak will make a home here’. I hope so too.

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

A white-letter hairstreak (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

White-letter hairstreak caterpillar (Photo Two)

There are many small ponds on the pasture, many dotted with purple loosestrife and bulrushes. My friend A rescues a cinnabar moth caterpillar from one of them. The irises have just gone over, and there are some strange plants in another of the damper patches. I’m hoping that they aren’t skunk cabbage, an invasive species from North America that can out compete practically anything, but my latest advice is that it’s probably elecampane, a yellow member of the daisy family. I saw some in flower earlier, so this makes sense.

But the best is yet to come. My friend A points out some little webs in the long grass. I take a few photos, and once home I talk to some of my friends on the invertebrate identification groups that I belong to. It appears that the webs belong to nursery web spiders! I am cockahoop. These spiders are free-range hunters, tracking flies and other small insects  through the long grass and pouncing on them like cheetahs. The female carries her egg-sac around with her in her jaws and then, when they are ready to hatch, she weaves the webs that I saw so that her spiderlings are protected while they grow.

Nursery webs….

Apparently, when the male wants to mate with the female (who, as is the way with spiders, is much, much bigger than he is) he presents her with a gift of food while simultaneously pretending to be dead. When she comes over to investigate he apparently springs to his feet, mates with her (presumably while she is absorbed in her dinner) and then runs away as fast as his eight tiny legs will carry him. The ways of insects are strange, but I have known humans who would pursue the same tactics if only they were speedy enough.

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider - Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) carrying her egg sac (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult female nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo Four)

And so we come full circle to the entrance again, having only just skimmed the surface of the wonders that Long Lane Pasture has to offer. I haven’t mentioned the fluty notes of the song thrush, nor the pretty yellow flowers of the meadow vetchling, and I could probably go on all day about the moth population of the grassland. But that will have to wait, because once it gets above 80 degrees in London it’s time for even the mad dogs and English women to get out of the mid-afternoon sun, and into somewhere a little more shady. I shall certainly be back.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider – Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Viper’s Bugloss

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) by the stream in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, nothing delights me more than finding a plant that my guide describes as ‘common’ but which I have never seen before, and so it is with Viper’s Bugloss. What a fantastic plant it is, with its furry flowers and purple stamen and hairy stems. There is something rather Harry Potter-ish about it, and it looks far too exotic to be a UK native, even though it is.

I found this one growing from a crevice in a wall above the stream in Milborne St Andrew,  and it does seem to have a liking for chalky soils such as those in parts of Dorset. It is a member of the Borage family, and is much loved by pollinators. The name ‘bugloss’ comes from the Greek for ‘ox-tongued’ and refers to the rough texture of the plant. The ‘viper’ bit comes from the way the stamen resemble a snake’s tongue, from the look of the seed head, and from the belief that the plant could cure snakebite (probably another manifestation of the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, whereby it was believed that God had designed the appearance of a plant to indicate what it could be used for).

Photo One by By D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10222992

Viper’s Bugloss flower (Photo One)

Viper’s Bugloss is native to Europe and temperate Asia, and has been introduced to North America, where it is sometimes known as ‘blueweed’ and has become invasive in some parts of the continent.

Photo Two by By Lubiesque [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Viper’s Bugloss alongside a road in Montreal (Photo Two)

The plant contains alkaloids, which are poisonous, although there are no known cases of humans suffering from eating it. Because of its long taproot it can be difficult to remove from pasture, and in 2006 a paper suggested that bulls in Spain died as a result of munching on viper’s bugloss and common ragwort. However, while ragwort gets a very bad press, viper’s bugloss is generally tolerated. I sometimes wonder how and why we get these bees in our bonnets about particular plants whilst ignoring others that, it could be argued, are equally ‘dangerous’. Could the popular press have something to do with it, I ask myself (sarcastically)?

In Australia, a closely related plant (purple viper’s bugloss or Echium plantagineum) is known as ‘Patterson’s Curse’, because it is said to have escaped from the garden of a Mrs. Patterson. After a bushfire in Canberra destroyed all the other pasture, 40 horses are said to have eaten the bugloss and suffered liver failure, resulting in them having to be destroyed.

Photo Three by By Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia (Echium plantagineum plant1) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Purple viper’s bugloss (Echium planagineum) in South West Rocks, Australia (Photo Three)

Viper’s bugloss is such a stunner (in my eyes anyhow) that a number of cultivars have been developed, such as ‘Blue Bedder’ which can be bought from the Royal Horticultural Society shop should you be so inclined. As usual, I rather prefer the species plant, and I suspect that it might be more attractive to pollinators in its original state as well. Why would you want to breed out those bright red stamens? I think we should be told…

Incidentally, you can see here how the buds start off pink and turn blue when the plant is ready to be pollinated, like so many members of the borage family.

Photo Four by https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/139228/Echium-vulgare-Blue-Bedder/Details

Viper’s bugloss variety ‘Blue Bedder’ (Photo Four)

In addition to treating snake bite, the plant is said to be useful for ameliorating fevers, headaches and inflammation, with the best parts of the plant being the leaves that grow close to the ground, directly from the root.

A herbalist named Parkinson noted that

‘the water distilled in glasses or the roote itself taken is good against the passions and tremblings of the heart as also against swoonings, sadness and melancholy.’

which sounds like a good thing. As with all plants, and particularly ones that are known to be poisonous, I would suggest a good degree of circumspection however. Remember those horses in Canberra.

I am off to Austria next week, and I note that in the Tyrol, people were warned against consuming viper’s bugloss because it was said to stimulate sexual desire. Presumably all that fresh mountain air and yodelling was aphrodisiac enough, not to mention the lederhosen.

Many species of bees love viper’s bugloss, including the rather splendid red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

Red-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus lapidarius) (Public Domain)

It is also a favourite foodplant of the migratory Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). These insects come out of their chrysalises in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa before heading north and east to find foodplants for their caterpillars. Fortunately the caterpillars have wide-ranging tastes, from thistles to mallows, but they also love viper’s bugloss. In years when there are not many foodplants close to home, or if a large number of adults have hatched and survived, there may be extraordinary irruptions of the adults in the UK as they arrive en masse: I remember seeing over thirty in one small patch of community garden one morning a few years ago. All the more reason for growing lots of plants for butterflies and bees! The butterflies also have a love for viper’s bugloss as a nectar plant, so it helps both caterpillars and adults.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) (Public Domain)

And as if that wasn’t reason enough to welcome viper’s bugloss to your garden if you get a chance, looky here….

Photo Five by By spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) feeding from viper’s bugloss (Photo Five)

Perhaps the most exciting insect find of all, however, is not particularly spectacular to look at, but is a sign of how our flora and fauna are likely to change with the climate. The viper’s bugloss mason bee (Hoplitis adunca) is a brand new species in the UK and is currently found at only one site, the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park in London. It strongly prefers species in the Echium genus to any other plants and, while it makes its tiny nest in every thing from empty snail shells to old beetle tunnels, at the park it was found nesting in an artificial ‘bee hotel’. Which just goes to show that if you provide lots of habitat in your garden, you never know what will turn up. It also points up the importance of ‘brownfield’ style sites for insects – many prefer these areas, even though they look uninviting to us, because they mimic the Mediterranean conditions of dry, poor soil and exposed, hot places to warm up that these insects are used to.

Photo Six by Thomas Roppenecker at https://www.flickr.com/photos/roppenecker/27613303396

Viper’s bugloss mason bee (Hoplitis adunca) (Photo Six)

I am reminded of the amazing book ‘Wildlife of a Garden – A Thirty Year Study’ by Jennifer Owen, who was a hoverfly specialist and who discovered several species that were completely new to science in her Leicestershire back garden. This was before the current (much welcomed) advent of ‘wildlife gardening’ – she had, by her own description, a very ‘ordinary’ garden with a lawn and flower beds and somewhere to dry clothes, and yet, because she paid attention and recorded the visitors that she had, she was able to list  2673 species of plants and animals. I wonder what the counts for our gardens would be? So many creatures, especially the tiny ones, escape our notice altogether, and that’s without all the ones who whistle through when we aren’t looking. We are surrounded by wonders, and I for one only notice a tiny proportion of them.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10222992

Photo Two by By Lubiesque [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia (Echium plantagineum plant1) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four from https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/139228/Echium-vulgare-Blue-Bedder/Details

Photo Five by By spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Thomas Roppenecker at https://www.flickr.com/photos/roppenecker/27613303396