Monthly Archives: April 2017

Wednesday Weed – Forget Me Not

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…..

Forget Me Not (Myosotis sylvatica)

Dear Readers,

It’s a funny old life being an IT consultant. It’s a life that I’ve chosen because it gives me lots of flexibility (which I need to write, and to spend time with Mum and Dad), but, as my husband says, it can be rather ‘bumpy’. I can spend weeks sailing along working a couple of hours a week and wondering where the next crumb is coming from, only to suddenly have the gift of an impossible deadline, a mountain of work, and the possibility of being solvent again.

Such, dear readers, is my life at the moment. I have 50 huge complicated reports to convert in the next five days, and there is at least ten days of work.

So, I was not going to go far to find a Wednesday Weed, because I didn’t have time – I feel rather like a koi carp coming up for a gulp of air and then heading back to the depths of the silty pond. But look what I found!

Yes, growing in a corner of the garden by the hosepipe, there is a forget-me-not. As this is a plant that prefers damp places, I suspect that its location is no accident. I confess to never having really looked at one before, and what an oversight. I love the egg-yolk yellow middle, and the way that the edges of the petals form a kind of sunray pattern around it. It’s a member of the Borage family (yet again), and so the tiny buds bear that characteristically different colour from the open flower. And now I’ve noticed it in the garden I see it everywhere, popping up along the edges of paths and self-seeding in the flowerbeds.

The original name for forget-me-not was scorpion grass, apparently because of the curled nature of the flowerheads. I suppose I can see what they’re on about, though they look rather more pangolin-y than scorpion-y to me.

Richard Mabey argues that the name ‘forget me not’ is not as old as you might think: the name doesn’t crop up in Shakespeare, or in Chaucer, and first pops up in a poem by Coleridge, ‘The Keepsake’. On the other hand, that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, mentions that it is first used in English in 1398 by King Henry IV, and is a literal translation of the German word for the flower, Vergissmeinnicht. In the course of my investigations, I have discovered that to translate word for word from one language to another has its own verb, ‚’to calque‘. So there we go, another new word (to me at least).

There are many legends about how the forget me not got its name, most of them revolving around a creation legend in which God/a god is naming all the creatures and plants that he’s brought into being. A little blue flower cries out the equivalent of ‘Oi mate, howsabout me? Forget me not please!‘ and so the name has stuck. In a variation, God was giving the flowers their colours, and did forget about the forget me not, so had to give it a tiny piece of sky to make up for it. In medieval times the plant was a symbol of constancy and good faith, and this suits it, I think: there is something so humble and yet so bright about this inconspicuous little plant.

Forget me nots come from two places: Western Eurasia and New Zealand. How interesting that the two groups of species should come from such geographically distant areas! The plants have since spread to more or less everywhere: there are 74 recognised species, but over 500 variations on a theme, and the plant hybridises quite happily. There are over a dozen species in the UK, and this one is I think the commonest variety, the wood forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica).

You can buy packets of forget me nots and scatter them hither and thither in the garden, but to me they seem to be the quintessential wildflower, growing where they fancy in drifts of azure. They are an unexpected and often undeserved gift. I think Christina Georgina Rossetti had in about right in her poem ‘A Bed of Forget Me Nots’:

Is love so prone to change and rot

We are fain to rear forget-me-not

By measure in a garden plot? —

I love its growth at large and free

By untrod path and unlopped tree,

Or nodding by the unpruned hedge,

Or on the water’s dangerous edge

Where flags and meadowsweet blow rank

With rushes on the quaking bank.

Love is not taught in learning’s school,

Love is not parcelled out by rule;

Hath curb or call an answer got? —

So free must be forget-me-not.

Give me the flame no dampness dulls,

The passion of the instinctive pulse,

Love steadfast as a fixed star,

Tender as doves with nestlings are,

More large than time, more strong than death:

This all creation travails of —

She groans not for a passing breath —

This is forget-me-not and love.

But, dear readers, before I descend into the depths of Excel once more, I had to share with you a second poem, by none other than the man described as ‘the world’s worst published poet’, Mr William McGonagall of ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ (and you can read that masterwork here).  I shall leave it to you to decide if this tale of love is even better. To get the full effect of the irregular metre, you might want to read it out loud. But let it be said that I am a great admirer of McGonagall, for all his poetical disadvantages. I love his confidence, and his self-belief, and his preparedness to put his work in the public domain even if he wasn’t exactly Shakespeare. He apparently had no concerns with the critics’ opinion of his work, and he inspired the wonderful Spike Milligan. And  in addition, his middle name was Topaz.  I’m sure, if he was alive today, he would write  a very splendid blog, though I fear that the 140 characters of Twitter would have defeated him completely.

Forget-Me-Not

A gallant knight and his betroth’d bride,
Were walking one day by a river side,
They talk’d of love, and they talk’d of war,
And how very foolish lovers are.

At length the bride to the knight did say,
‘There have been many young ladies led astray
By believing in all their lovers said,
And you are false to me I am afraid.’

‘No, Ellen, I was never false to thee,
I never gave thee cause to doubt me;
I have always lov’d thee and do still,
And no other woman your place shall fill.’

‘Dear Edwin, it may be true, but I am in doubt,
But there’s some beautiful flowers here about,
Growing on the other side of the river,
But how to get one, I cannot discover.’

‘Dear Ellen, they seem beautiful indeed,
But of them, dear, take no heed;
Because they are on the other side,
Besides, the river is deep and wide.’

‘Dear Edwin, as I doubt your love to be untrue,
I ask one favour now from you:
Go! fetch me a flower from across the river,
Which will prove you love me more than ever.’

‘Dear Ellen! I will try and fetch you a flower
If it lies within my power
To prove that I am true to you,
And what more can your Edwin do?’

So he leap’d into the river wide,
And swam across to the other side,
To fetch a flower for his young bride,
Who watched him eagerly on the other side.

So he pluck’d a flower right merrily
Which seemed to fill his heart with glee,
That it would please his lovely bride;
But, alas! he never got to the other side.

For when he tried to swim across,
All power of his body he did loss,
But before he sank in the river wide,
He flung the flowers to his lovely bride.

And he cried, ‘Oh, heaven! hard is my lot,
My dearest Ellen! Forget me not:
For I was ever true to you,
My dearest Ellen! I bid thee adieu!’

Then she wrung her hands in wild despair,
Until her cries did rend the air;
And she cried, ‘Edwin, dear, hard is out lot,
But I’ll name this flower Forget-me-not.

‘And I’ll remember thee while I live,
And to no other man my hand I’ll give,
And I will place my affection on this little flower,
And it will solace me in a lonely hour.’

Adieu, Gentle Readers, until I surface on the other side of my reports, refreshed and rather more financially well-off.

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An Unexpected Visitor

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

Dear Readers, just when I think that I’ve spotted every species of bird who is likely to visit the bird table, someone new drops by. And so it was on a sunny evening this week, when I glanced out of my upstairs window to see a jackdaw pecking up the suet pellets. This is the first time I have ever seen a jackdaw in the garden: they are rare birds in London, though when I visit my parents in Dorset they are everywhere, chuckling away and playing above the roofs. I have always been fond of Jackdaws: they are intelligent and adaptable birds, the smallest of the UK’s crows, and they would have been a familiar sight in central London at the end of the nineteenth century. They have often been described as ‘ecclesiastical birds’ because of their habit of nesting in church towers: up to 1889 they bred at St Paul’s Cathedral, and they were also nesting in St Michael’s Church near the Bank of England at this time.  In Wales Jackdaws were considered to be sacred because of their religious nesting places: the birds were said to be ‘shunned by the devil’.  Alas, these days they avoid most of London. There have been various theories as to why, but the usual double-whammy of unavailability of habitat and food is probably to blame. Jackdaws would have eaten grain that was meant for the horses that were once prevalent in the city, and would have used the hair and wool from the many domesticated animals that were driven down to Smithfield to line their nests. I wonder if it is coincidence that the one place in London where jackdaws are regularly seen is Richmond Park, with its herds of deer.

I find the jackdaw a most handsome bird. I love the frosty cape around his neck, and the bouncy way that he jogs about: while crows always remind me a little of Prince Charles as they walk around with their metaphorical hands clasped behind their backs, jackdaws have much more of the Tigger about them. But most of all I love those ice-blue eyes. The naturalist W.H.Hudson described them as ‘small malicious serpent-like grey eyes’ but I can only think that he looked with a jaundiced attitude. To me, the eyes of a jackdaw show a sharp intelligence, and a clarity of intention. This bird had just noticed me standing at the bedroom window with my camera, and was trying to decide if I was a threat or not.

Evidently the suet pellets won over immediate flight. This was a hungry bird, and most of the contents of the bird table ended up on the patio, where the starlings and squirrel made short work of them.

Jackdaws are certainly very chatty birds, and will imitate human speech if they’re in the mood, or sufficiently well rewarded. An ancient Greek and Roman adage was that ‘swans will sing when jackdaws are silent’, meaning that well-informed people will have their say once the foolish folk have ceased their gabbling. In Czechia, there is a belief that if jackdaws quarrel, war will follow. A jackdaw on the roof can mean either a new arrival or a death, depending on where you are in the country. In short, superstition follows this bird as it does so many others, and I am reminded of the Buddhist proverb: ‘Good luck, bad luck, who knows?’

Jackdaws are normally seen in flocks, but  pair for life within this group. A pair will stay together even after multiple cases of breeding failure. Single birds are at the absolute bottom of the pecking order (as noted by Konrad Lorenz in his book King Solomon’s Ring) but if a bird finds a new mate, his or her status depend on that of their partner. As I watched the bird in my garden, I was feeling a little sorry that he or she was on their own. And then something disturbed him or her and a second jackdaw emerged from under the bird table as they both flew off together. Call me a tired old romantic, but it warmed my heart.

There is something very special about witnessing a new visitor to the garden, especially when you’ve been feeding for years and think you’ve seen everything. Hah! Nature has a way of puncturing such pomposity.  I  sometimes think that I haven’t even begun to notice the secret life of my garden, let alone understand it. There’s enough in this little spot of ground to keep me busy for the rest of my life.

All blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!