Monthly Archives: October 2019

Wednesday Weed – Echinacea

Echinacea purpurea

Dear Readers, this weekend I was at the Bridge Theatre, a new-ish venue founded by Nicholas Hytner, formerly head of the National Theatre. As a venue it had pluses and minuses. Pluses included plentiful ladies toilets (for once) and an auditorium with great sound and excellent sightlines. Downsides included only one hand dryer in each loo, and a cafe with very few tables – most of the seating was on those perching seats which are a trap for the unwary, or those very low three-legged stools that always make me think I should be leaning into the side of a patient, hay-munching Fresian.

However, I digress. We had some time to kill and so I dragged my husband, in the drizzle, through the gardens of Potters Fields.  A potter’s field is usually a pauper’s graveyard, and one of my favourite places in the world, Crossbones Graveyard, is nearby. However, this Potters’ Field appears to have been just that – an area where potters settled in the 17th and 18th Century. The gardens  have been designed by Piet Oudolf, one of my favourite designers – I love those drifts of prairie-style flowers and grasses. At this time of year, however, it’s mainly brown seedheads and rather sad blooms.

And, as we move into the season of the common cold, it seemed appropriate to concentrate this week on one of the plants most commonly invoked as a cure for the sniffles. Echinacea, or purple coneflower, forms part of so many cold remedies these days that I fear Holland and Barrett would go bust if it was proved not to be effective. The plant comes originally from the grasslands of eastern North America, and was used extensively by Native American peoples, though not particularly as a cold remedy: it was thought to be efficacious for the treatment of wounds, burns and insect bites. The root was chewed to alleviate toothache, and it was taken internally as an analgesic. . A specimen of the plant was sent to Thomas Jefferson by Lewis and Clark in 1805, and it was described as ‘Mad Dog Plant’, with the packing list stating that it was

highly prized by the natives as an efficacious remidy in the Cases of the bite of the rattle Snake or “Mad Dog.”

Echinacea was also used by native peoples to treat coughs and sore throats, but this seems to have been something of a sideline. 

There have been many studies on the efficacy of echinacea, but the problem has been that they have used different parts of the plant, and often different species (there are ten species of echinacea). However, the conclusion overall from the Cochrane Review, as reported by the BBC Futures team, was that using echinacea might reduce your chance of catching a cold by between 10% and 20% if taken at the first onset of sniffles. I wrote about the common cold a while back, and the one thing that I would advocate is zinc gluconate, taken at the first inkling of a tickly throat. I always have some in the house just in case.

A potential problem with echinacea as a drug is that stimulating the immune system is not always a good thing, particularly for people with auto-immune conditions such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. In the US, the National Institute for Health advises people with these illnesses not to take echinacea. In 2012 the NHS also recommended not using echinacea for children under 12, because of the small risk of a severe allergic reaction.

One thing that echinacea is definitely good for, however, is the bees and the butterflies. The plant is a member of the daisy family, and as such the ‘flower’ is composed of hundreds of tiny plantlets, some forming the petals and others forming the ‘cone’ that the plant is named for, and the flowerheads are long-lived (as those in Potters Fields prove). The flowers attract the Vanessid butterflies (red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells), and many species of bee, especially bumblebees. My Gardening for Wildlife book suggests that the plant needs full sun and well-drained soil, but that it should be kept well-watered in summer. The seed heads may also attract finches and blue tits.

Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) on echinacea (Public Domain)

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) on echinacea (Public Domain)

Incidentally, the name ‘echinacea’ comes from the some root as a plant we looked at a few weeks ago, echinops: it means ‘hedgehog’ and refers to the shape of the ‘cone’ in the middle of the flower.

There are many cultivated varieties of echinacea, some of which are trying to persuade the plant to lose its ‘shuttlecock’ appearance – the reflexed petals are seen as being to the detriment of the flower’s appearance. For me, this is one of its strong points – I rather like that pincushion look, and the way that the centre of the bloom is the star of the show. If it had ‘ordinary’ petals, wouldn’t it just look rather like any large single daisy? Stop messing about, people! The plant below is an example of an echinacea where the reflexed petals have been modified. See what you think.

Photo One by James St John at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/39444960851

Echinacea purpurea ‘Leuchstern’ (Bright Star) (Photo One)

And finally, a poem. This one is rather tangential to our subject (which is not unusual), but I was very taken by it. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz became the lover of (and eventually married) the artist Georgia O’Keefe. He was obsessed by her, and particularly her hands, taking many photos of them. The poet Barbara Rockman imagines a letter from O’Keefe to Stieglitz, in which she explains exactly who she is. I feel as if Rockman has somehow conjured the spirit of O’Keefe in these few lines. See what you think.

Hands (1919) Alfred Stieglitz (Metropolitan Museum of Art) (Public Domain)

Letter from Georgia O’Keefe to Alfred Stieglitz on Seeing His Photograph of Her Hands

By Barbara Rackman from to cleave

October 4 1919

Be calm, Alfred. No,
I am a plain woman. I rinse dishes,
pull weeds, and unleash the dogs on dirt trails.
I sleep in a narrow bed. I rise early.
These are hands that mix paint,
decipher sky. With these hands
I scratch my head at the improbable.
I twist them under my breasts in sleep.
Fisted against my stomach they fly
from my body in dream. Hands
at the tips of wings, Alfred.
How you splayed my fingers,
insisted I caress the absent forelock,
empty sockets, each stone molar,
imagining the horse’s rough tongue.
I want nothing of death, Alfred, nothing
of absence. These elegant hands cup seeds,
cut back echinacea, snip herbs for the sauce.
They tug knotted shirts from a basket, shake them
into light, clamp them to the line with bleached pins.
What can a man know of a woman’s hands?

Photo Credits

Photo One by James St John at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/39444960851

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New Bee on the Block

Ivy bee (Colletes hederae)

Dear Readers, there is something about spotting a ‘new’ species of animal or plant that always makes my pulse race, especially when it’s one that I’ve been looking out for for a while. So it was on Saturday, when a birthday visit to the National Archives at Kew with my husband to see an exhibition about the Cold War had the unexpected bonus of a splendid stand of ivy flowers in the grounds. They were abuzz with all manner of hoverflies, some wasps and the usual honeybees, but then I noticed that some of those ‘honeybees’ had distinctive black and yellow-striped abdomens. There was also something about the way that the pollen was gathering in the hairs on the legs, rather than being neatly tucked away into the proper ‘basket’ that I’d expect to see on a honeybee. At last! I’d spotted an ivy bee, and it wasn’t long before I had my eye in and saw several dozen. The photos this week were taken with my phone as I hadn’t expected to ‘get lucky’, so please forgive the quality.

First things first. Ivy bees were first spotted in the UK in 2001, and since then have been steadily advancing north – their range includes most of Europe, as far south as Cyprus. They are on the wing in late autumn when the ivy flowers, and it is used as a source of pollen and nectar. Ivy bees are solitary bees – they don’t congregate in communal nests, but have build nest tunnels, although the bees may nest in the same small area, sometimes creating conglomerations of thousands of individual nests. These are the last of the British bees to emerge – I have noted before that the emergence of solitary bees seems to be in strict sequence. In my garden, the first to appear is the hairy-footed flower bee in early spring, followed by the ashy mining bees. I intend to pay closer attention next year to see who pops out when.

The ivy bee males emerge first, and hang around the nest tunnels looking for females. The first females to turn up may be mobbed, with lots of males attempting to mate – this phenomenon is known as a ‘mating ball’. Once mated, the female will head off to excavate a nest tunnel, lining it with a cellophane-like substance that she produces from her salivary glands. This substance is water-proof and contains a fungicide, which helps to protect the pollen and nectar that she gathers from ‘going bad’. This is important because she will lay her eggs on the food that she’s collected, and they won’t hatch until the following summer.

Another hazard for the female ivy bee is that a beetle has evolved a sophisticated method of feeding its own larvae at the expense of the young bees. The ivy bee blister beetle (Stenoria analis) lays its eggs close to the nesting tunnels of the ivy bees. These hatch into larvae known as triongulins because of the three claws on their feet. The newly-hatched male ivy bees approach these larvae, and behave in a very peculiar way, sometimes attempting to mate with them. It’s thought that this might be because the triongulins produce a pheromone that mimics the smell of a female. The small individual larvae also clump together in a way that may resemble the shape of a bee, though looking at them individually this seems rather unlikely. Once the male comes close enough, the triongulins will ‘hop on’ and wait for the next stage of their extraordinary journey.

Photo One by By Slimguy - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51455849

Ivy bee blister beetle (Stenoria analis) (Photo One)

The male ivy bee, now festooned with beetle larvae, will eventually find a ‘real’ female to mate with, and in the blink of an eye will transfer to her. They will ride back to the female’s nest tunnel, hop off and imbed themselves in the wall, allowing themselves to be sealed in with all that lovely nectar and pollen and, sadly, with the bee egg. The triongulin eats the egg first and then gobbles up all the supplies. If more than one beetle larva ends up in the same nest, one of them will eat the other one too. In the following summer, a new beetle emerges, and the cycle begins all over again.

Photo Two by By Pjt56 --- If you use the picture outside Wikipedia I would appreciate a short e-mail to pjt56@gmx.net or a message on my discussion page - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62016106

Ivy bee with lots of little ‘hangers on’ (Photo Two)

I am always amazed at the complexity of the relationship between parasites and their hosts. It must be such an ‘arms race’ for each species involved, each one evolving new ways of outwitting the other. According to my Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, it appears that the ivy bee blister beetle currently only parasitizes ivy bees in the Channel Islands rather than on mainland Britain. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to arrive on the South Coast. I find myself hoping that this attractive little bee will have at least a few years to enjoy the ivy flowers without being harassed.

So, if you have any ivy flowers around, do take a closer look at those ‘honeybees’. In my local area my favourite ivy ‘shrub’, which used to harbour a bumblebee nest, has been cut right back, so no chance of any ivy bees there. Ivy is a remarkable resource for all kinds of pollinators in the late autumn when everything else has died back, and a fine place for birds to nest in the spring. I do realise that it can be a menace when it’s climbing a wall, but I would put in a plea for gardeners to leave it where it isn’t causing a major problem. The ivy bees will love you for it.

Photo Three by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51348999

Male ivy bee (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Slimguy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51455849

Photo Two by By Pjt56 — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62016106

Photo Three by By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51348999

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Swamp Cypress

Dear Readers, the swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) is most definitely not a weed but a stately and unexpected tree, covered in feathery lime-green foliage and bearing little round cones that look rather like medieval weapons of war. I spotted it in the Cleary Garden last week, and couldn’t wait to find out more about it. I suspect it is a tree that will be more familiar to my North American readers than my European ones, but what usually happens is that I spot a plant and then see it everywhere, so it will be interesting to see if that happens this time.

Swamp cypress is native to the south-east corner of the United States, and gets its alternative name, ‘bald cypress’ from its habit of dropping all of its needle-like leaves in autumn, following a flush of russet-red or sunshine yellow, depending on the variety. This makes it a rare deciduous conifer.  In ‘the wild’ it can grow up to 140 feet tall, though in the UK, with its cooler and less humid climate, the trees rarely top 100 feet. There are a pair of swamp cypresses in St James’s Park, and the plant as a species was thought to have been introduced to the UK by John Tradescant in 1640.

Swamp cypresses have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The female flowers are the round, green ‘cones’ (properly called ‘strobili’) in the photo below, while the male flowers are the catkin-like pendants. All in all, it looks like a tree that has created its own Christmas decorations. As time goes on, the cones will turn from green to purple, and I must make sure that I pop back in a month or so to see how the tree is changing.

The ‘shell’ of each cone is comprised of a number of scales, each of which contains four or five seeds. If the tree happens to live in a swamp, the seeds will be borne away by the movement of the water. Germination is not possible underwater, but the seeds can survive inundation for up to thirty months. If the waters subside, the seeds spring into action – they germinate from the top of the seedling, like a bean, and then race to keep their heads above water for the rest of the growing season – they can grow up to 30 inches in their first year. If the timing is wrong, and the seedling is submerged for a long period, it will die, so a fair bit of luck is involved.

Squirrels are another way that the seeds are distributed – though the animals tend to eat the outer scales, where the seeds are, they will frequently drop a few. I also noticed a pair of crows apparently trying to eat the cones on the Cleary Garden tree, so I wonder if, like jays and nutcrackers, these corvids have developed a taste for these seeds. If so, they would be another useful way of carrying the cones away from the shadow of the established trees.

Photo One by By CarTick at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10513334

Swamp cypress cones (Photo One)

A feature that ‘my’ swamp cypress didn’t have was ‘knees’. More properly known as pneumatophores, these are seen in trees that actually grow in swamps. As the name suggests, it was originally thought that these projections helped to get oxygen down to the saturated roots, but an experiment showed that the trees grew just as well with their pneumatophores removed. Other explanations might be that the outgrowths help to stabilise the tree in the soggy ground, or prevent detritus and mud from gathering around the base of the trunk, increasing the risk of rot and instability. Several of the ever-resourceful Native American tribes used the ‘knees’ as beehives. More prosaically, the early European merchants secured their sailing ships to the ‘knees’ by using them as mooring posts.

Swamp cypress ‘knees’ (Public Domain)

The swamp cypress forests of the south-eastern USA are an invaluable habitat for all kinds of animals. They are the last refuge of the Florida Panther and the striped newt, and a resting place for many migratory birds. Sadly, much as bogs in the UK are underrated as habitat, so swamps in the US are often thought of as mosquito-ridden hellholes, full of alligators. Their value to humans as a buffer-zone in the event of cataclysmic storms is often overlooked, and of course their value to the non-human members of the community is immeasurable.

Florida panther (Felis concolor coryi) (Photo from Florida Parks Service)

Photo Two by By Glenn Bartolotti - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39112712

Striped newt (Notophthalmus perstriatus) (Photo Two)

Swamp cypresses can live to an astonishing age: one of the trees along the Three Sisters Tract on the Black River in North Carolina has been estimated by dendrochronologist David Stahle to have started growing in 364 AD. However, the fight to survive to any age is a hard one: in addition to the special conditions needed to germinate and grow outlined above, the young seedlings of swamp cypress are the favourite food of the coypu, or nutria (Myocastor coypus). A group of these rodents escaped from a fur farm in Louisiana in the 1940’s and have now spread across the entire southern United States, munching as they go. In the UK the animals escaped from a fur farm in East Anglia in 1929, and it took the Ministry for Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry (MAFF) until 1989 to eradicate them: I remember seeing the body of a nutria floating in a drainage channel in Whitstable, Kent, when I was a child of about 11. However, since then a ‘giant rat’ killed in County Durham in 2012 was thought to be a coypu, and maybe there is still a population hanging out in the North of England. So often creatures are introduced, escape (or are deliberately released) and then end up being killed because they are inconvenient. It’s (almost) enough to make me despair.

Photo Three by By José Reynaldo da Fonseca - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1341339

Coypu (Myocastor coypus) (Photo Three)

The timber of the swamp cypress has, as you might expect, a high degree of resistance to water, making it valuable for use in everything from boats to garden fencing to coffins. Prehistoric swamp cypress wood is also prized for carvings – a well-preserved stand of trees over 50,000 years old was discovered by divers several miles off the coast of Alabama in 60 feet of water. It was thought that maybe Hurricane Katrina had removed the underwater sediments that had hidden the grove for all these years. When cut, the branches still smelled of cypress.

Some prehistoric wood was infected by a fungus that created distinctive oval-shaped discolourations in the timber. This type of wood, known as ‘pecky’, is highly prized for panelling and flooring.

Photo Four from https://heartpine.com/flooring-selection/heart-cypress-pecky/

‘Pecky’ panelling and ceiling (Photo Four)

All in all, my little Cleary Garden tree is clearly a baby as far as swamp cypress go. I cannot resist sharing with you this wonderful photo from the Arborday blog, showing what it could be in the right environment. Sadly, street trees rarely have the chance to achieve their full potential, what with the compacted soil, the pollution and the constant pollarding.

Photo Five from https://arbordayblog.org/treeoftheweek/baldcypress-king-swamp/

Photo Five

And of course, here is a poem, this time by Ann Neuser Lederer, originally from Ohio, who is a Registered Nurse and who has also studied anthropology and art. It speaks to me because I am learning a bit about hope, and the way that the future is always unknowable.  I think that ‘my’ swamp cypress might be a tree to watch through the seasons, and the years, a kind of mooring post for me during this time of change. Let’s see.

Bald Cypress by Ann Neuser Lederer

Mistaken for dead or dying.   
At first hint of chill: brittle, orange alarm.

In a burst of turbulence, the wounded umbrella flipped.  
Skyward, then reverted, cured, surprised as Lourdes. 
Abandoned canes and crutches piled beside the marble steps. 

At the playground, while we were busy ringing giant chimes,
a silent little boy appeared.
Sat near and stared, then broke into wails.  
A siren signal: danger.
Soon his custodian snatched him away.
Diverted, and the incident forgotten. 

Do you remember the long, slow, goodbyes?   
Waving and waving until the vision dims?
How much longer before he wanders away for good?

Deciduous evergreen sprouts. Soft, gentle feathers,
hopeful, tender, pastel nursery green.
The Cypress, seemingly done for, after its long cold sleep
remembers to return.  

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By CarTick at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10513334

Photo Two by By Glenn Bartolotti – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39112712

Photo Three by By José Reynaldo da Fonseca – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1341339

Photo Four from https://heartpine.com/flooring-selection/heart-cypress-pecky/

Photo Five from https://arbordayblog.org/treeoftheweek/baldcypress-king-swamp/

 

 

The Search for Green Continues

The memorial to Fred Cleary, who helped to found the Cleary Gardens

Dear Readers, as you will know my search for somewhere green to linger at lunchtime has been fraught with problems so far. I found a tiny churchyard and a private garden that had been astroturfed. But then I remembered that my Mum used to work in a solicitor’s office just around the corner from where I am now, and that she used to sit outside on any dry day, eating her sandwich and thinking her thoughts. And so I set out to find the spot where she spent so many hours.

Mum was a legal secretary, and in the early days that meant typing a document perfectly every time – one mistake and the whole thing was ruined. If you needed multiple copies you had to insert a millefeuille of carbon paper and paper. Mum could not only type accurately, she could do it at 120 words per minute. She was a little disappointed when self-correcting golfball typewriters appeared, because she could type faster than they could and she was always waiting for them to catch up.

And word processors took all the fun out of it, of course. Any idiot could type a document and correct it themselves. That was the end of the typing pool, and of a lot of the work of the secretary, but Mum did have a brief renaissance when she was taken on at the Stock Exchange and started to create all kinds of charts and tables. She always did have a lively sense of colour, and it amuses me to think of all those pinks and lime greens and turquoises that crept into her otherwise sober documents.

And so, I came upon the Cleary Gardens, and they were more or less as I remembered them. Although the gardens are named for Fred Cleary, the original bombsite was turned into a garden by a shoemaker called Joe Brandis, who collected mud from the Thames riverbank and brought soil from his own garden, all the way east in Walthamstow.

The steeply-sloping alley by the side of the gardens is called ‘Huggins Hill’, and as the sign says, this might be from an old word for ‘hops’. There are hops and grapevines growing on the terraces in the garden, and they provided secluded places to  sit, out of the general eye. One couple who were either newly married or carrying on an office romance were entwined with one another on one of the seats, and looked fairly horrified when I appeared carrying my camera. To reassure them I stopped and looked theatrically out at one of the trees, adjusting my F-stop and pointedly not looking in their direction at all. But then the tree distracted me, as they do. What a magnificent specimen! It was as furry as Chewbacca and the fluffy leaves were a splendid lime green. Furthermore, there were baubles hanging from it as if Christmas had come early. It is apparently a swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) and I was delighted to make its acquaintance. If it doesn’t turn up soon as a Wednesday Weed I shall eat an article of clothing.

When I turned around, the couple had scarpered.

The garden is on three levels, and you can’t see the entrance to this lower level until you are practically on top of it, which makes it a lot of fun. You can sit at the top and eat your yoghurt while gazing out at the buses and you might not even know that there was any more to see. Isn’t one of the secrets of a great garden meant to be that you can’t see everything at once? This garden takes this idea to an extreme.

On the top level there is a tree paeony, which was given by the town of Yatsuke in Japan, where the plant is the ‘representative flower’ of the region. It was donated in the hope that it would ‘be loved by, and bring peace of mind to, the people of London’.

The grapevines were apparently planted because in 2017 the gardens were designated a ‘Loire Legacy Garden’, and in addition to grapes there are great tussocks of rosemary and lavender. I was pleased to see some Japanese anemones for the bees too, and a batbox on one of the trees. A pair of crows made a quick appearance, and seemed to be interested in the cones on the Chewbacca tree. According to the website, robins, blue tits, blackbirds and dunnocks have all been known to nest here, so I shall be keeping my eyes open.

 

I was very impressed with how much was squeezed into this tiny area. I doubt that it is actually a secret garden, and I’m sure I’ll have to visit out of lunch hour in order to make the most of it. But then, I’m getting into work for 7 a.m. so I reckon I can sneak out a little bit early. I yearn for a bit of non-human contact when I’m at work, probably because the sheer press of humanity in the City can feel oppressive, and somehow makes us all a little less human. I know that Mum felt the same. She used to love to just sit and breathe and said she always felt better for being outside. It’s strange because I haven’t really felt as if she was close to me since she died, but sitting on a bench here, it was almost as if she was sitting next to me, and although I was sad, I also felt contented, just for a few minutes. So thanks Mum, and thanks Cleary Garden. I shall be back, for sure, probably on a cold, damp day when it’s just me and my memories.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Field Scabious

Field scabious (Knautia arvensis)

Dear Readers, I was very happy to find this plant in flower at Walthamstow Wetlands a few weeks ago – it has long been a favourite, but it seems reluctant to appear in my ‘territory’ in East Finchley. It is a plant of rough, grassy places on well-drained soil, which may be the problem locally – our clay soil is heavy enough to make pots out of. I am, however, seeing varieties of scabious in the garden centres hereabouts, and it is a great favourite with the bees and lots of other insects too. Each flowerhead is made up of individual florets, which have four unequal petals, and contain a rich and inviting nectar. It is a member of the teasel family (Dipsacaceae) and the flowers are a very similar colour to those of teasel.

Photo One by By Darkone - photo taken by Darkone, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23975

Field scabious with long-horn beetle (Photo One)

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250749

Field scabious with ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42533479

Field scabious with male shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum) and unidentified moth (Photo Three)

Most of the local names for field scabious refer to the shape of the flower: in Sussex it’s known as ‘grandmother’s pincushion’ and in Somerset it’s ‘gentleman’s pincushion’. The name ‘scabious’ is thought to derive from the same root as ‘scabies’ – the Latin word ‘scabere’, meaning ‘to scratch’. Scabious is thought to have been used as an ointment for skin complaints and for the ‘buboes’  or boils that gave bubonic plague its name. Richard Mabey suggests that the plant might have been thought to have been suitable because of the roughness of the stems, which resembled the skin that it was meant to treat.

In Belgium, a young girl with lots of boyfriends would pick scabious when in bud, give each bud the name of one of her favourites, and would choose her husband by the one that flowered best.

More pleasantly, the plant is also known as ‘gypsy rose’ in many parts of the country.

All of the plants in the genus Knautia are also known as ‘widow flowers’. I have been having a look to see if I can work out why, but so far no luck. Blue flowers have been associated with the devil, at least in Warwickshire, according to some writers, and the devils-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) got its name because the devil was said to have been so envious of its healing powers that it bit off part of the root. However, the reason for ‘widow flower’ remains a mystery. Do let me know if you have any ideas.

In addition to being a great plant for pollinators, field scabious is also the foodplant for the caterpillars of the rare marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) (although they prefer devils-bit scabious given a choice)  and the narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth (Hemaris tityus). I am astonished at the mimicry of this second insect – it’s only the antennae that give it away at first glance.

Photo Four by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59385557

Male marsh fritillary (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By M kutera - Own work Marcin Kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17485909

Narrow-bordered bee hawk moth (Photo Five)

Now, as you know I am always interested in eating, so my thoughts now turn to whether field scabious is edible. In an article by Sarah Raven, I read how farmers used to value wild flowers in their fields, because they provided the animals who grazed there with a greater variety of minerals than the grass did – flowers such as field scabious, yarrow and birdsfoot trefoil have deep taproots that draw up nutrients from deeper in the soil. However, I have found no recipes for human consumption, except for this seventeenth century ‘water to digest melancholy’ :

Take borage, landbeefe (i.e. bugloss, hart’s tongue, calamint, centurie, scabious, thyme, hop, mugwort, rosemary, the flowers of the tenderest woodbine, of each a like quantitie: distil them and drink the water morning and evening, first and last‘ (from ‘Seventeenth Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aleitheia Talbot Howard, edited by Elizabeth Spiller)

For those of you who might be wondering (as I was) what the hell chirurgery was, it’s an archaic word for surgery. Anyone undergoing surgery in the seventeenth century would have had to have been made from very stern stuff, what with the lack of anaesthetic and no understanding of germ theory. I well remember hearing someone reading on Radio Four from the memoirs of Fanny Burney, who had a mastectomy for breast cancer in the eighteenth century under these conditions, and  it was one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever listened to. Burney survived for another 29 years after the operation, and so it probably saved her life, though how she didn’t die from the shock I’ve no idea. For those of you with strong stomachs, you can read the letter that she subsequently wrote to her sister here.

Scabious is also an ingredient in another seventeenth century recipe, this time from Essex, and to be drunk as a cold remedy. It takes more than thirteen ingredients and a lot of sugar (at this time a very expensive substance) and so I think we can assume that it was out of the reach of ordinary folk, who probably had to continue sniffing and sneezing as they ploughed and harvested.

Finally, field scabious is used in many recipes as a flavouring for the honey-based alcoholic drink mead. I remember Mum and Dad going to a ‘medieval  banquet’ and coming back so sloshed that they couldn’t get to Tescos the following morning. It was always blamed on ‘food poisoning’ but I think that, unfamiliar with drinking much, they thought that the sweet drink wasn’t very strong. At last, the truth can be told!

And, of course, a poem. Here is a work from Denise Levertov’s Evening Train, a collection of transcendental verses about her spiritual awakening. I love the way that this poem moves from the notion of the plants as workaday weeds to something that is ‘wise beyond comprehension’.

Sophia’s Flowers (Denise Levertov 1923 – 1997)

Flax, chicory, scabious –

flowers with ugly names,

they grow in waste ground, sidewalk edges,

fumes, grime, trash.

Each kind has a delicate form, distinctive;

it would be pleasant to draw them.

All are a dreamy blue,

a gentle mysterious blue,

wise beyond comprehension.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Darkone – photo taken by Darkone, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23975

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250749

Photo Three by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42533479

Photo Four by By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59385557

Photo Five by By M kutera – Own work Marcin Kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17485909

Moving On

Dear Readers, this post isn’t really about nature, except that everything in nature changes, and grows older, and eventually passes away. On the way, the path can twist and turn, and it is not true to say that it is always relentlessly downwards. I have no illusions about the progressive nature of dementia, but it feels so important to emphasize that there can be moments of great joy and humour during that journey, moments that don’t get much attention in the usual narratives about the disease.

Last time I was in Dorset visiting my Dad in his nursing home, I heard that he had piloted a boat from Portland to Weymouth. He had been renamed ‘Captain Tom’, and the lounge was all abuzz with his exploits. This time, I got the actual photographic evidence, so here are a few photos of the intrepid mariner. I don’t remember the last time I saw my Dad so engaged, or so clearly enjoying himself.

And so it made me determined to make sure that when I visit, Dad and I have an adventure, even if it’s just a little one. In the past, I’ve been held back because I wasn’t sure how far Dad could walk, and I knew that I’d have trouble navigating the narrow pavements of Dorchester with Dad in a wheelchair, what with my dodgy back and all. But on Tuesday Dad, J The Carer and I headed to the local pub for lunch, and Dad marched along at a cracking pace with his walker. We were less than ten metres from the front door when we needed to stop for a breather, and I was very impressed. A year ago Dad could barely walk from his reclining chair to the kitchen without needing to stop, so the Home is obviously doing something right.

Once in, Dad had a light ale and we ordered scampi and chips. We waited. And waited.

‘They’re probably cooking it right now, Dad’, I said.

‘Catching it, more like’, said Dad.

Dementia is such a funny thing. The part of Dad’s brain that is quick-witted and likes to amuse is firing on all cylinders, but he introduced me to a new carer as his sister. What I am noticing, though, is that Dad is increasingly getting his words muddled: he tells me to open the door when it’s already open and then gets irritated because I didn’t realise that he actually wanted it closed. I know, from the brain scan that he had a few years ago, that the part of his brain that looks after language is damaged, and that this damage is likely to get worse. Because Dad has vascular dementia, any ‘event’ which results in oxygen deprivation (such as a chest infection) can result in a step-change for the worse. But at the moment I can mostly understand him, and his raised spirits are a delight to behold. He seems to have a new-found confidence.

When I visit the home in the evening, Dad seems tired but happy. He wants me to take the photos that I’ve shared home so that Mum can see them. I’m never quite clear if he’s talking about my mother, who died in December, or his Mum (who would be well over a hundred if she was still alive). But as usual I say that I’ll make sure that everyone sees them. To change the subject, I ask Dad what he’d like for his birthday.

‘I’d like to go home, really’ he says apologetically. ‘But I know that Mum has decided that I’m better off not seeing her and the kids, and that’s ok’.

And this is what really breaks my heart. He has decided that the reason he can’t see Mum is not because she’s died, but because he’s done something wrong. Before she died, Mum (who was in the home with Dad, and who was very ill) became very jealous of the ‘young’ (50-ish) women who helped Dad to shower, and I think it’s still in his head that he wasn’t a perfect husband.

‘Oh Dad’, I say, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong, and Mum really, really loves you. And if you could be together, I know that that’s what she’d want’.

‘That’s ok then,’ says Dad, unconvinced.

The following morning, I pop in to see Dad and he’s already busy painting some leaves to decorate the home.

‘I’ve been so busy!’ he says.

Dad is always busy, and generally he describes the home as being in ‘utter chaos’. This seems to give him great satisfaction, because he spent most of his life organising things, and he loves making a difference to the perceived anarchy of the second floor lounge.

We drink a frothy coffee, and Dad eats a custard tart, and is promised a game of dominoes later. He settles back contentedly.

‘I’m not going to try to go home today’, he says. ‘I think I’ll stay here for a bit longer’.

I give him a hug, and head towards the door. Then I go back and give him another hug, because the day will come when he won’t be here and I will be sorry if I didn’t embrace him when I could. But already he’s looking around for his domino partner. It is bittersweet to step back, to accept that the staff here know Dad as he is now better than I do, and to allow them to take care of him after so many years of looking after him and Mum. But now, I can enjoy the good times without worrying about everything else, and that is such a blessing. I am so thankful that all is well at the moment, and that is all that anyone can hope for.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Tansy

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

Dear Readers, I have been looking for tansy, with its tiny yellow pom-poms, for several years. It is common, but not in the back streets of East Finchley, and so I have had to go a little further afield, to Walthamstow Wetlands, where it grows in abundance. Many of its vernacular names refer to the shape of the flowers – bachelor’s buttons in Somerset, yellow buttons in some parts of Scotland, and bitter buttons in Morayshire, where the ‘bitter’ is said to refer to the taste of the plant.

Tansy is considered by some to be native to the UK, and by others to be an ancient introduction. It has been used for a wide variety of medicinal uses: Vickery’s Folk Flora recounts how a wineglass full of tansy infusion every morning was said to be a cure for worms, and the leaves were a cure for ‘the pip’, a parasite of chickens and young turkeys that lodged in the windpipe of the animals. Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica relates how tansy was once eaten in a kind of omelette to kill off the ‘phlegm and worms’ which were a result of the fish diet eaten during the forty days of Lent. From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries a ‘tansye’ was any kind of pancake or omelette flavoured with bitter herbs. One of my favourite foraging websites, Eat Weeds, has a recipe for a tansy and spinach pancake here which is adapted from a book written in 1788. You can also find a more modern recipe for Rose and Almond Tansy Pudding with Butternut Squash Icecream here.

The leaves were used as an aid to fertility by young couples in Cambridgeshire eager to start a family: because tansy was much eaten by rabbits, those symbols of fecundity, there may have been a kind of sympathetic magic going on. On the other hand, young women who lived on the Fens would chew tansy to procure a miscarriage, and the oil is said to be an efficient abortifacient.

The aromatic leaves were also used as a strewing herb on the stone floors of houses in the Shropshire countryside, and their smell is said to deter the infamous Colorado potato beetle, and so it is sometimes used as a companion planting in North American potato fields. Tansy oil is an effective insect repellent, but not as effective as DEET, though I doubt that tansy oil will burn a big hole in your camera case.

The Tansy Green pub in Bolton was named by local people after the large number of tansies which grew in the field before the housing development was built there. I think it is crying out for a pub sign with a painting of the plant, but it seems to be very popular with the community.

Photo One from https://whatpub.com/pubs/BOL/087/tansy-green-bolton

The Tansy Green Pub in Bolton (Photo One)

Tansy is also the main foodplant of the Nationally Rare tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis), a leaf beetle with iridescent coppery-green wingcases so pretty that the Victorians are said to have used them as sequins. Sadly, the poor old tansy beetle is now limited to a 30km stretch of the River Ouse in York: it spends all its time on or around tansy, and as it isn’t known to fly, if a patch disappears it has to walk to the next one (so not much chance of it turning up at Walthamstow Wetlands under its own steam). The amount of tansy in the UK is in decline due to a variety of factors, not least of which is the rise of Himalayan balsam, which crowds out many other species. The Tansy Beetle Action Group are hot on the case however, doing everything from removing the aforementioned Himalayan balsam to making sure that landowners who are clearing ragwort because of its perceived danger to grazing animals know the difference between this plant and tansy. And I have just noticed that the acronym for the group is TBAG. Well done!

Photo Two by By Geoff Oxford - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13290854

Tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis) (Photo Two)

The larvae of the tansy beetle pupate underground, and this presents a number of problems: the area where they now live floods regularly in the winter, but there seems to be a very low mortality during hibernation, and so the pupa must be able to survive substantial periods of complete inundation, with no access to oxygen at all. When they emerge as adult beetles, they are prey to everything from birds to spiders, but they may also contain the volatile oils from the tansy plants that they eat, making them an unpleasant mouthful. I like the photo below, showing the pinch-marks on the wingcases of the beetle where a bird has picked it up and then thought better of it.

Photo Three by By Zakhx150 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61186472

Somewhat battered tansy beetle (Photo Three)

The work of TBAG reminds me of an article that I read by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian this week. He talks about how overwhelming the problems of the world can be, and how difficult it is to feel as if you’re making any kind of difference. The antidote to this, in his view, is to pick something local that you feel strongly about and that you can get involved in. This feels true to me: we can spread ourselves so thinly over all the things that are wrong that we end up raising our anxiety levels to fever pitch and making no difference at all. It’s something to think about for sure. We do not, individually, have unlimited resources, but if everyone got involved in something that they cared about and worked together to make it better, who knows what we could achieve?

Tansy has also been used historically as a dye-plant, yielding a very pretty bright yellow result as you can see in the blogpost from Gage Hill Crafts in Vermont here. Tansy is widely naturalised in North America, and was used in the burial of the first president of Harvard University, Henry Dunster, in 1659 – he was laid to rest wearing a tansy wreath, and the coffin was packed with the plant. When the burial ground was moved over two hundred years later, in 1846, Dunster’s remains were easily identified because the plants had retained their shape and scent.

Photo Four from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=264055

Photo Four

The name ‘tansy’ is thought to derive from the Greek word Athanathon, meaning ‘immortal’, possibly because the flowers do not wilt when dried, or because the leaves have been used (among their myriad other uses) to preserve meat. On the other hand, it is also one of the many plants that are said to induce a death in the family if planted in the garden. However, in Greek mythology, tansy is said to have been given to the youth Ganymede, who was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle – the herb made the human boy immortal, so that he could become cup-bearer to the Gods. Ganymede’s father was paid off with some ‘heavenly horses’ and the only creatures to have really missed him seem to have been the hounds who were with him when he was carried away – they are often depicted howling at the sky. Mythology tries to make sense of the randomness of fate, and to explain the inexplicable. I wonder if there ever was a prototype for Ganymede, and what actually happened to him?

The Abduction of Ganymede by Eustache Le Sueur (circa 1650) (Public Domain)

And here is a poem. I love how Blunden evokes those long summer evenings, and conjures up those men of few words who did so much to shape the world around them, and who passed unremarked except by those who loved them. If looked at with attention, is there any such thing as an ordinary life?

Forefathers

by Edmund Blunden (1896 – 1974)

Here they went with smock and crook,
Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade,
Here they mudded out the brook
And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
Harvest-supper woke their wit,
Huntsmen’s moon their wooings lit.

From this church they led their brides,
From this church themselves were led
Shoulder-high; on these waysides
Sat to take their beer and bread.
Names are gone – what men they were
These their cottages declare.

Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew,
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.

On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.

Unrecorded, unrenowned,
Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
But I know you not within –
There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.

Like the bee that now is blown
Honey-heavy on my hand,
From his toppling tansy-throne
In the green tempestuous land –
I’m in clover now, nor know
Who made honey long ago.

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://whatpub.com/pubs/BOL/087/tansy-green-bolton

Photo Two by By Geoff Oxford – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13290854

Photo Three by By Zakhx150 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61186472

Photo Four from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=264055