Dear Readers, it’s so easy to look at every little pink-flowered geranium growing in rocky and disturbed spots and assume that it’s yet more herb robert. Indeed, I think I’d walked past these flowers in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery many times without noticing something very obvious – the leaves are all wrong. The foliage of herb robert is delicate, ferny stuff, while the foliage of this little plant forms a kind of five-pointed leafy ‘hand’. The name ‘shining’ comes from the fresh, glossy leaves which, once you’ve got your eye in, are nothing like those of other geraniums.
Another feature that shining cranesbill shares with herb robert is that the foliage goes fiery red in the autumn – you can see it just beginning to turn in the photo below. It also has those bright red stems that I think of as typical of herb robert. With wild geraniums, the leaves really are your best bet for ID – there are so many little pink-flowered jobs that it becomes very hard otherwise.
Habitat is another feature – herb robert really is the geranium for urban settings, as it seems to pop up in every unattended plant pot and crack in the pavement. Shining cranesbill, like many of the others in the family, is more of a plant of walls and churchyards. It is native to the UK and mainland Europe, Asia and North Africa but, along with herb robert, it has been imported into North America, where it is known as shiny geranium. Here the usual story plays out, with the plant becoming a noxious, unchecked weed that overwhelms native plants in woodland settings. One reason for its success (apart from the lack of insect species to keep it in check) is that the seed is thrown explosively out of the capsule, so the plant can, with successive generations, move up a wall or a tree trunk, or advance up a slope. In fact, considering how well-behaved it is in its native habitat I am stunned to see how enthusiastically shining cranesbill has taken to life in North America, particularly in the Pacific North-West – in the April 17 edition of the Kings County Noxious Weeds Blog, there is this:
‘To quote Ed Alverson, a botanist from Oregon who has extensive experience battling shiny geranium, “this is pretty much the most diabolical invasive plant I’ve ever encountered”. He adds, “In my 3 decades of experience with this species I’ve not seen anyone successfully “control” it, anywhere or any time. Not that it is impossible, I’ve just not seen anyone take it as seriously as is necessary, especially early on”.
And look at this photo of an oak wood infestation in Washington State.
Now, in the UK it appears that shining cranesbill is a foodplant for the caterpillar of just one moth, known as the annulet (Charissa obscurata). This is a rather subtle moth, coloured in shades of grey and black that give it a rather soot-spattered look. However, it nearly had a place in history: in 1878, an entomologist named Albert Brydges Farn wrote to Charles Darwin, saying that he had found annulet moths with dark grey wings, rather than the usual paler colour – he thought that this might relate to the fact that the chalk cliffs where the moths were found had been darkened by the smoke from the local lime kilns. Alas, Darwin never replied, and so the peppered moth became the poster-child for what became known as ‘industrial melanism’ – the way that evolution acts to favour animals that can blend in more easily with a blackened environment.
Incidentally, an annulet is described as a ‘small band encircling a column’, maybe because of the way that the rings encircle the body? Your guess is every bit as good as mine. I think there must be a whole book to be written on the derivation of moth names.
Now, I wondered if humans could eat shining cranesbill, as my thoughts during lockdown turn to food rather more often than usual: the answer seems to be ‘who knows?’ because I can find not a single recipe, though it is noted that it isn’t eaten by rabbits or deer, which probably contributes to its invasive qualities across the Atlantic.
Medicinally the plant apparently has uses as a diuretic and astringent (according to the Glossary of Indian Medicinal Plants from 1986) but doesn’t appear to have been much used in the UK, maybe because herb robert was such a popular and widely used herbal remedy.
Apparently shining cranesbill is one of the over 30 species of plant that have the common name ‘bachelor’s buttons’ – it is known by this name in Lancashire, while herb robert bears this moniker in Kent. I can’t imagine that this delicate plant would last very long in anyone’s buttonhole, but maybe the leaves made up for the wilting flower. The name ‘cranesbill’ comes from the shape of the seed capsules, which are said to look like the beak of a bird – in fact ‘geranium’ is a direct translation of the Greek for ‘crane’s bill’.
And so, dear readers, a poem. I cannot tell you how much I love this newly-discovered work – it fills me with such longing. Every separate verse feels like a pebble dropped into still water, the ripples spreading out. It feels like something to be savoured slowly, like a fine malt-whisky. See what you think.
A visit to the island of Colonsay,
Inner Hebrides, April 1987
There are other lives we might lead, places we might get to know, skills we might acquire.
When we have put distance between ourselves and our intentions, the sensibility comes awake.
Every day should contain a pleasure as simple as walking on the machair or singing to the seals.
The ripples on the beach and the veins in the rocks on the mountain show the same signature.
When we climb high enough we can find patches of snow untouched by the sun, parts of the spirit still intact.
The grand landscapes impress us with their weight and scale but it is the anonymous places, a hidden glen or a stretch of water without a name, that steal the heart.
The mere sight of a meadow cranesbill can open up a wound.
We live in an age so completely self-absorbed that the ability to simply look, to pour out the intelligence through the eyes, is an accomplishment.
You will require a tune for a country road, for hill walking a slow air.
When I climb down from the hill I carry strands of wool and fronds of bracken on my clothing, small barbs of quiet in my mind.
At dawn and again at dusk we feel most acutely the passing of time but at dawn the world is with us while at dusk we stand alone.
The farther we move from habitation, the larger are the stars.
There is a kind of bagpipe and fiddle music, practiced in a gale, which is full of distance and longing.
A common disease of sheep, the result of cobalt deficiency, is known as ‘pine’.
The best amusement in rain is to sit and watch the clouds negotiate the mountain.
Long silences are as proper in good company as a song on a lonely road.
Let everything you do have the clean edge of water lapping in a bay.
In any prevailing wind there are small pockets of quiet: in a rock pool choked with duckweed, in the lee of a cairn, in the rib-cage of a sheep’s carcass.
When my stick strikes a stone, it is a call to order.
The most satisfying product of culture is bread.
In a landscape of Torridonian sandstone and heather moor, green and gold lichens on the naked rock will ignite small explosions of sensation.
Whatever there is in a landscape emerges if we just sit still.
It is not from novelty but from an unbroken tradition that real human warmth can be obtained, like a peat fire that has been rekindled continuously for hundreds of years.
After days of walking on the moor, shoulders, spine and calves become resilient as heather.
The hardest materials are those which display the most obvious signs of weathering.
We can carry a tent, food, clothing or the world on our shoulders, but how light we feel when we lay them down.
Just to look at a beach of grey pebbles can cool the forehead.
On a small island, the feeble purchase that the land obtains between the sea and the sky, the drifting of mist and the intensity of light, unsettles the intellect and opens the imagination to larger and more liquid configurations.
Although the days should extend in a graceful contour, the hours should not be accountable.
A book of poems in the rucksack – that is the relation of art to life.
On a fine day, up on the heights, with heat shimmering from the rocks, I can stretch out on my back and watch all the distances dance.
The duty of the traveller, wherever he finds himself, is always to keep faith with the air.
We should nurture our own loneliness like an Alpine blossom.
Solitude and affection go well together – to work alone the whole day and then in the evening sit round a table with friends.
To meet another person on a walk is like coming to a river.
In the art of the great music, the drone is eternity, the tune tradition, the performance the life of the individual.
It is on bare necessity that lyricism flourishes best, like a cushion of moss campion on granite.
When the people are gone, and the house is a ruin, for long afterwards there may flourish a garden of daffodils.
The routines we accept can strangle us but the rituals we choose give renewed life.
When the lark sings and the air is still, I sometimes feel I could reach over and take the island in my hand like a stone.
Photo CreditsPhoto One by Amadej Trnkoczy from https://www.flickr.com/photos/atrnkoczy/27226059712/
Photo Two by By Cwmhiraeth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49710097
Photo Three from https://www.nwcb.wa.gov/weeds/shiny-geranium
Photo Four by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=256121