Monthly Archives: October 2016

Wednesday Weed – Tormentil

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

Dear Readers, I am always a little puzzled by the plants that grow in the cemetery. On some graves, such as this one, there will be a healthy amount of a particular species, but then it won’t be found anywhere else. Sometimes, it’s obvious that this is because something has been planted deliberately, but on other occasions it’s a native plant such as tormentil, a member of the rose family. Although not uncommon, tormentil is normally found on acid soils, so I am assuming that there’s something about the substrate on this burial place which makes it more suitable for the plant. As the year draws to a close, however, I am delighted to find anything in flower that I haven’t already written about, so I am happy to have a small mystery.

img_8062Tormentil is an unusual member of the rose family because it has only four petals (most of the others have five). It is closely related to the cinquefoils, and like them has leaves that have five leaflets (hence the ‘cinq’ part of the name), although in young leaves two of them appear vestigial. It is a low-growing, creeping plant, but very pretty when looked at closely.

img_8056Tormentil is a very common and widespread plant, with a range that encompasses Europe, Scandinavia and western Asia,  but like so many of the ‘Wednesday Weeds’ I hadn’t really noticed it before, and would probably have passed by it today if it hadn’t been for its late flowering.

Our ancestors used the root of tormentil as a red dye for leather (another name for the plant is ‘bloodroot’), and it is still used to create an artists’ colour called ‘tormentil red’. The dye was used extensively in Scandinavia and in Scotland, and there is a very interesting account of an experiment with tormentil by Jenny Dean here.

By Wolfgang Frisch - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20729349

Tormentil root (Photo One – see credit below)

Tormentil root contains a lot of tannin (which traditionally was thought to help bind proteins together) and it is also thought to have antiseptic properties, hence tormentil’s honourable role in the treatment of diarrhoea, gingivitis, conjunctivitis and various other ‘itises’. Gargling with a decoction of tormentil root is said to be beneficial for sore throats and mouth ulcers. In Ireland, it has been used to treat scour in cattle, and foot rot in sheep (many thanks to the Herb2000 website for this information). The name ‘tormentil’ is thought to relate to the torments of the diarrhoea and toothache that the plant is said to cure. However, on the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland suggests that the name might come from the Latin word for flatulence, ‘tormina’. I shall leave it up to you to decide which version fits in with your personal philosophy of plant naming. Having done Latin as an O-Level many, many years ago, I rather go with the theory that if the people naming plants could slip in a vulgar joke, they would, but maybe that says more about me than them.

img_8055Although the tannin content of tormentil makes it an unlikely food plant it has, you’ll be delighted to hear, been turned into an alcoholic beverage called Blutwurz in Bavaria. The liqueur is a mere 50% by volume, and is made by macerating the root in alcohol. The resulting liquid is filtered but not distilled to preserve the plant’s medicinal qualities. I would be most intrigued to discover what it tastes like: I suspect that it will be one of those drinks that is ‘good for you’ rather than pleasant to drink. But then, once upon a time I thought that about whisky, and look where that ended up.

By Stefan Penninger (Alte Hausbrennerei Penninger) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Blutwurz (Photo Two – see credit below)

Tormentil makes an appearance in the poem ‘October’ by Edward Thomas, a poet who makes more and more sense to me as I have grown older, and am more inclined to recognise the happiness of a breezy, ‘ordinary’ autumn afternoon. The poignancy of the elm, mentioned in the first line and now practically extinct in the UK, makes me think how much we should value and protect our plants and animals rather than taking them for granted.

The green elm with the one great bough of gold

Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, —

The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,

Harebell and scabious and tormentil,

That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,

Bow down to; and the wind travels too light

To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;

The gossamers wander at their own will.

At heavier steps than birds’ the squirrels scold.

The rich scene has grown fresh again and new

As Spring and to the touch is not more cool

Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might

As happy be as earth is beautiful,

Were I some other or with earth could turn

In alternation of violet and rose,

Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,

And gorse that has no time not to be gay.

But if this be not happiness, — who knows?

Some day I shall think this a happy day,

And this mood by the name of melancholy

Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Tormentil root) By Wolfgang Frisch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20729349

Photo Two (Blutwurz) – By Stefan Penninger (Alte Hausbrennerei Penninger) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Autumn in Milborne St Andrew

img_8034Dear Readers, I am a wheelchair ninja. During this past few years I have conveyed both my parents along the endless corridors of hospitals and clinics in three counties. I can get through swing doors without missing a beat (though Dad usually assists by holding them open with his walking stick as we trundle through). I can even manage a wheelchair while carrying two bags and a zimmer frame. But this week I took all this to a new level – I managed to get Mum, in her wheelchair, down to the shop in Milborne St Andrew, the Dorset village which has been their home for the past fourteen years.  My Dad has just had a cataract operation, and is waiting for one on his other eye before he can see well enough to drive, and so Mum has been going quietly stir crazy. So stir crazy, in fact, that she was happy to trust herself to me, even though I am a novice at the art of wheelchair pushing in the great outdoors.

The main problem is that Mum and Dad’s bungalow is on a steep hill. Could I wrangle the wheelchair not only down the incline, but back up it?  On the way to the shop, it was hard work keeping the wheelchair from running away, and so we eased ourselves down with the handbrake on full. After all, I didn’t want Mum careering down the hill with me in hot pursuit like something from Benny Hill. Once we were on the level there was the question of the steep kerbs (the solution, it appeared, was to pull the wheelchair up backwards, rather than stick my knee in Mum’s back in an attempt to lever her over the bump) and the adverse camber which had the wheelchair slipping sideways like a badly behaved shopping trolley. I really think that those in charge of the upkeep of pavements should be strapped into a wheelchair and taken for a little trot around the village before they make decisions about road upkeep.

Then, to my joy, I saw one of the neighbours walking along with his two Newfoundland dogs. They are both the size of Shetland ponies and, from the way the man wrapped the leads around his house and braced himself, I could tell that they were dogs with inquiring minds.

‘Can my Mum say hello to your dogs?’ I asked.

The man’s face was a picture – I could see thoughts of overturned wheelchairs and liability suits running through his mind.

‘This one’s a bit frisky’ he said, as the dog washed Mum’s face with a single lick.

Still, Mum is a great dog-lover, and so being covered in canine saliva was all in a day’s work. When we got to the shop, Mum was greeted like the prodigal grandmother, and as she advanced along the road on the way back, raising her hand in greeting in a manner reminiscent of the late Queen Mother, it struck me that we should really get out for a processional more often. You meet people when you are in a wheelchair that you would not be able to greet from a car.

img_8033When I got home (after a hefty push up hill, encouraged by Mum’s shouts of ‘not much further now’!) I decided to seize the day, and go for a walk around the village. After all, I’d been absent for two months, and who knows what changes had occurred? Well, firstly there were sheep on the little field, and calves further up the hill. How benign these animals seem, and when I looked at the calves I was struck by their different faces and characters. One little calf was laying down when I passed on my walk uphill, and was still there when I came downhill. Others pushed towards the fence to see what on earth I was up to. When scientists announce with some excitement that a species of animal has ‘personality’, I just wonder why they are surprised. I’m sure any farmer, or pet owner, or horse rider, will tell you exactly the same.

img_8001

img_8020 When I passed the thatched cottages on my way up to Badger Farm, I noticed that there were several birds snatching up the insects that were emerging from the roof. There were a pair of pied wagtails working their way over the  sunny side of the building, and a young spotted flycatcher, my first ever sighting. It had never occurred to me that a thatched roof could be such a resource for birds that are now anxious to fatten up for the winter.

img_8012img_8010img_8016As usual, I heard more birds than I was able to photograph. A  flock of a dozen swallows swooped over on its way south. I heard jackdaws jinking and chuckling, but as soon as I raised my camera they were off – it strikes me that birds in the country have much to fear from anyone carrying something black and metallic and suspicious-looking. And, for about the sixth visit running, I heard the sad mew of a buzzard, and even saw one for a split-second as it glided over the brow of the hill and away. One day, dear readers, I will manage to capture these sights on camera, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

img_8003The hedgerows are chock-a-block with little birds at this time of year. I heard a flock of long-tailed tits as they got stuck into the hawthorn berries. Finches of all kinds were feasting amongst the pyracantha and the rosehips. A dunnock was feeding in the road at a spot where I saw one on a previous visit. There were brambles everywhere, and the translucent red berries of bittersweet. Autumn seems to bring a second burst of energy, as everyone tries to pile on the calories.

img_8028img_8023img_8030The ivy flowers were alive with wasps, feeding on the last sweetness that many of them will ever taste. I admit to being a fan of wasps: I enjoy their elegant yellow-and-black bodies and their deft, needle-sharp flight. They seem to me the embodiment of a predatory animal, much as a shark is, or a tiger. They do what they do, and they do it consummately well. Maybe this is why so many people fear them. But we would do well to show mercy when one gets into a room, for our own sake as much as theirs – apparently an injured wasp sends out a pheromone that acts as a ‘call for back up’ to any other wasps in the area. Indeed, a good friend of mine recalls running from a woody part of the cemetery when she inadvertently disturbed a wasps’ nest. But in a few weeks, all but a few hibernating queen wasps will be gone, and the bodies of the workers will be providing compost for the plants for next year.

img_8046 img_8048As I walked home, every chimney pot and telegraph pole seemed to be the supporting plinth for a singing bird. The starlings are full of verve, their plumage iridescent green and purple in the late morning sun. It might be autumn, but it seems that creatures, like people, refuse to go gently into the cold and peace of winter. Instead, they shout their defiance, throwing it against the indifference of an azure sky and the first freezing nights of the season.img_8053-2

All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!