Lesser celandine in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, favourite flower of William Wordsworth
Dear Readers, it was a close-run thing this week, with Fran and Bobby Freelove getting a most creditable 42 out of 45. The winner this week though, with an amazing 45 out of 45, is Anne from Something Over Tea. Well done Anne!
1) L Nightingale – from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats
2) G Wild Daffodils from I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth
3) I Wood Anemones from Wood Anemonie by John Clare
4) K Skylark – from ‘To a Skylark’ by William Wordsworth
5) A – Dipper by Norman MacCaig
6) D) Primrose – From ‘The Primrose’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
7) E – Brown Hares. From March Hares by Andrew Young
8) O Forget-me-nots from ‘A Bed of Forget-me-nots’ by Christina Rossetti
9) B – The Lamb by William Blake
10) M Northern Lapwings/Peewits – from ‘Two Pewits’ by Edward Thomas
11) J Cuckoo. This is from an old song, so so whatever you’ve written gets a mark from me!
12) H Linnet – from ‘I Heard a Linnet Courting’ by Robert Bridges
13) C) Sweet Violets – The Violet by Jane Taylor
14) N Dandelion from ‘Dandelions’ by Louis MacNiece
15) F Cherry Blossom. From The Loveliest of Trees (A Shropshire Lad) by A.E.Housman
Dear Readers, this book is such a pleasure for the eye and for the brain that if I could I would buy you all a copy! Jonathan Drori was a Trustee on the board of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and was Executive Producer of more than fifty science documentaries. He’s currently a Trustee at the Eden Project. His wide-ranging interests have seen him be a fellow of the Linnean Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society. From all of this you might expect that this book would be heavy on information, but Drori knows how to keep the reader entertained at the same time as they are educated.
A good part of the pleasure of this book is the illustrations by Lucille Clerc, who has worked with fashion houses, museums and Historic Royal Palaces. The drawings are not straightforward botanical impressions, but also show the plant in its context, sometimes alongside the people and animals who have made use of it. There is much fun to be had from reading part of the text, and then studying the illustration to see if you can spot the bug.
Take this illustration of the indigo plant from Bangladesh. I had no idea that it was a member of the pea family, but this is clear from the pictures of the flower. Drori explains how the leaves are fermented, then dried and cut into briquettes, as you can see. The briquettes are then powdered and added to water, along with an alkali that turns the water colourless. As he says,
‘It is only once the cloth is withdrawn from the vat and the air reaches it that – ta-da! – stunning, intense colour reappears’.
Who knew? Not me for sure.
And how about the rhododendron, and why is it included in an entry for Scotland? Well, largely because Rhododendron pontica was planted in the estates of landowners on the West Coast, both as a decorative plant and as cover for game birds. Tolerant of shade and acidic soils, it spread inexorably. Over to Drori:
‘A vast area of western Scotland is now colonized, with a profound effect on native biodiversity: where rhododendrons are present, almost every other species of plant is at risk. In their native range and without the helping hand of humans, rhododendrons play nicely in the ecosystem, but in Britain and Ireland they out-compete local species for light and nutrients. There’s worse. Rhododendrons also harbour Phytophthora ramorum( phytophora is Greek for ‘plant-destroyer), a microscopic fungus-like water mould that attacks trees, especially larches, beeches and sweet chestnuts’.
You might also recall that the honey of the rhododendron is sometimes called ‘Mad Honey’, and was reputedly left by the Persian king Mithridates for the Roman army who was pursuing him to find – the honey can lower the blood pressure dangerously and slow the heart. Drori again:
‘Mad Honey’ is still collected in the Black Sea area and used occasionally as a pick-me-up or recreational drug to induce a tingling wooziness. It also has a reputation for enhancing sexual performance, which doubtless explains why most of the inadvertent poisonings are among men of a certain age‘.
And for a final taster, how about this strange tree, known as the Cook Pine? In California they all tilt to the south quite dramatically (Drori explains that they average twice the tilt of the Tower of Pisa, which is quite some lean. In Hawaii they stand up relatively straight, but in Australia they lean precariously towards the north. Wherever they are in the world, Cook Pines lean towards the equator, and they are the only tree species in the world that’s been observed to do this. Most plants, as we know, grow towards the light, but this tree doesn’t, and no one knows why.
If I have whetted your appetite, you might also like Drori and Clerc’s earlier book, ‘Around the World in 80 Trees’. It’s just as delightful, though the colours are generally a little more subdued.
If you wanted to find out about everything from the Kapok tree to the Chinese Lacquer tree, this is the book for you.
Chinese Lacquer Tree
So, as you can see I am very taken with these two books. If you are lucky enough to have a local library that’s still lending, it might be a way to have a look without shelling out nearly £18 for each one. Or maybe you have a birthday coming up?
If you fancy buying them (or sending the link to a beloved 🙂 ) I recommend the NHBS website for all things natural history related…
Dear Readers, I feel a bit of an idiot concerning this plant. When I spotted it in East Finchley Cemetery yesterday, I suspected that it was Mediterranean because of those grey-green, waxy leaves, but as I had never seen a bay tree in flower before, I thought I’d found something much rarer and more exotic. However, seeing that fluffy yellow blossom has given me a whole new perspective on a plant that I’d previously thought of as small, clipped and well-behaved. This beautiful tree was at least thirty feet tall, elegant and abundant. It just goes to show what a plant that is normally seen in a terracotta pot can do when it’s liberated.
Bay in a pot (Photo One)
I was right about the plant’s Mediterranean origins though – there used to be Laurel forests which covered most of the area. Before the drying out of the area during the Pliocene era (between 5 and 2.5 million years ago), evergreen forests flourished in the high humidity and constant temperatures. Today, there are only a few relict areas of laurel forest in places such as Madeira, the Canary Islands and the wetter areas of Spain. However, the inheritance of these damp, rainy places can be seen in the shape of the leaf of the bay tree – it has a sharp, pointed tip, and a waxy surface, enabling the rain to trickle down and drip off rather than accumulating on the leaf. The wax acts to prevent the leaves from drying out in the much hotter, drier climate of the Mediterranean basin today, too.
Laurel Forest in Tenerife (Photo Two)
Laurel Forest in La Gomera (One of the Canary Islands) (Photo Three)
When anyone mentions bay, though, thoughts turn to stews (or mine do, anyway). My Mum always tucked a random dried bay leaf into a beef stew, though not a chicken casserole. The leaves that we had seemed to serve no purpose at all other than being something of a surprise when they were accidentally eaten at dinner time, but I have been experimenting with using more bay, in different dishes, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the dried leaves can add a subtle but delicious background flavour in conjunction with ingredients such as garlic, thyme and rosemary. It appears that the fresh leaves have rather too much of the menthol and eucalyptus flavour that comes from the essential oils, so bay is one of the few herbs that most chefs prefer to use dried. I have also used it in rice pudding, and rather liked it, plus it’s one of those herbs that is regularly thrown into pickling mixtures. Let me know how you use it, readers! I am always keen to learn.
Beef casserole with bay leaf(Photo Four)
The essential oils in bay leaves probably developed to dissuade insects from nibbling them (as is the case with other herbs such as rosemary, thyme and lavender). Interestingly, some entomologists used crushed bay leaves in their killing jars; the insects subjected to the fumes die slowly and peacefully, making them easier to mount. Not that Bugwoman approves, obviously. The leaves can also be used to repel clothes moths, silverfish, mice and many other small unwelcome visitors (though not children 🙂 )
Bay has a very long cultural history too. In Ancient Greece, bay leaves were used to make the laurel wreath that adorned the foreheads of competition winners and poets, and in Rome it became the symbol of emperors. Originally it represented the god Apollo, and his priestess was said to chew laurel leaves before giving her prophecies. The laurel is deeply embedded in our language even today – we have a poet laureate (i.e. a poet who wears the laurel wreath), and we speak of someone ‘resting on their laurels’ or suggest that they should ‘look to their laurels’ in the face of new competition. The name of the French examination the Baccalaureate comes from the same root.
Ovid wearing a laurel wreath (Photo Five)
The Romans also believed that bay trees were immune to lightning, and so the Emperor Tiberius always wore a laurel wreath when there was stormy weather. As with so many things, there is an element of truth here – bay is very resistant to fire, but when it does burn it does so with a loud crackling noise, leading the Romans to believe that the tree was inhabited by a fire demon who protected it. Pliny the Elder advised against burning bay on altars, for example, because the noise that it emitted sounded as if it was angrily protesting. Apparently the devil is rendered helpless by bay, so wearing a laurel wreath might be a useful precaution during most every day activities, if you don’t mind the funny looks.
Medicinally, bay has been used as a preventative during epidemics, and for rheumatism. The berries of the bay tree were believed by Culpeper to be efficacious against all kinds of bites from venomous creatures. A tincture of bay was used for ear drops, and bay oil was used for sprains (something very useful for those of us who are inclined to trip over stray microbes or infinitesimally small imperfections in a paving slab).
Lauris nobilis essential oil (Photo Six)
Incidentally, the bay tree is not closely related to the similar-looking cherry laurel, which seems to have taken over half the country. This is an important distinction because while you can obviously eat the leaves of the bay tree, those of the cherry laurel are packed full of cyanide. You have been warned.
Leaves of the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) (Photo Seven)
And finally, a poem. I rather love this, because it’s about a pigeon, and a bay tree, and lots else besides.
Goodness Readers, although East Finchley Cemetery is a much posher, more manicured cemetery than my favourite, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, it certainly has some very trees. Today, the rose-garden was looking a bit bare, but the trees more than made up for it.
One of the disadvantages of roses is that, although they look and smell wonderful when they’re in flower, they are very uninteresting for the rest of the year (and many varieties need a fair bit of looking after as well, what with the pruning and the feeding and the keeping an eye open for black spot). Furthermore, this part of the cemetery, which has an ornamental pond and then a small stream running down the middle, has been a bit of a problem for the landscape gardeners – the bit at the bottom was a quagmire earlier this year, though the weeping willows loved it.
However, there are some very pretty trees here. There is the usual Kanzan cherry tree, not my favourite but very ebullient.
Kanzan cherry. Look at all those petals!
There are some magenta-coloured crab apples too – I think this is purple crab (Malus x purpurea) but am happy to be corrected, as always.
But I think my favourite is this tree, which I think could be Siberian crab (Malus baccata), possibly the Lady Northcliffe variety? I think that it might be the prettiest blossom tree I’ve ever seen, what with those cherry-pink buds. Let me know what you think, you clever people!
Elsewhere, I find an Indian horse chestnut (Aesculus indica) – it has much narrower, more dainty leaves than ‘our’ horse chestnut, and is smaller and more delicate. I love the way that this cemetery makes a feature of its specimen trees – some of those in St Pancras and Islington are rather swallowed up with undergrowth, though this is much better for wildlife. I’m lucky to have both types of cemetery within a twenty-minute walk.
Indian horse chestnut (Aesculus indica)
And the pollen from this fir tree is absolutely everywhere. No wonder my husband’s nose is twitching. I’m thinking it looks most like a Nordmann Fir (i.e. the one that’s used as a Christmas tree), and if so these are the male flowers.
The ‘willow garden’ is coming on nicely, with lots of spring flowers, including this rather nice white Dicentra.
And the tree below rather caught me out – it’s a bay tree. I’d never seen one in flower before. What a twit.
I always stop to pay homage to the Cedar of Lebanons as well. What magnificent trees they are, planted when the cemetery first opened in 1854. I love the barrel-shaped cones, which gradually disintegrate, allowing the seeds to fall.
And the monkey-puzzle tree is putting on lots of new growth too – look at those cones! Apparently they will break up on the tree, rather than falling on someone’s head.
While I was admiring the monkey puzzle, my husband spotted that I had a hitchhiker – this bee. I’m thinking that it’s an orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) but these are tricky critters to ID to species level. As it likes south-facing grassy slopes to nest in, there will be plenty of opportunities for it in the cemetery – in some places the turf is kept very short, but there are also areas that are more overgrown.
The cemetery is a hot-spot for bats, too. What a shame that it closes at 4.30 p.m! But then there are signs outside prohibiting alcohol and barbecues, so I imagine that it has been the site of what I loosely describe as ‘urban vibrance’. Maybe it’s just as well that the bats, birds and bees have the whole place to themselves as dusk falls.
Dear Readers, over the years I’ve built up a collection of objects that remind me that insects and other invertebrates have been essential to my love of the natural world. When I was a little girl, our tiny back garden was a haven for all kinds of creeping and crawling things, and I was taking notice of their lives from as soon as I could walk. And so, I suppose it’s not surprising that if I’m going to wear clothing or a piece of jewellery, it’s likely to have an entomological theme.
Take the brooch above, for example. It’s made by Canadian designer Danny Pollak, and is a combination of vintage stones and new materials. My Aunt Rosemary bought it for me in Creemore, Ontario, on a visit to Canada many years ago. It was on this very same visit that I made the close acquaintance of a young turkey vulture, who was perching on the roof of someone’s car, oblivious to the stir that he was creating. And I also bought a vegan cookbook in the local bookstore by a Canadian author, Angela Liddon – it has the most fabulous recipe for a sweet potato, peanut and red pepper soup. Highly recommended.
This brooch was made by Annie Sherburne, who uses salvaged stones to make one-off pieces. I fell in love with this beetle, and dropped enough hints to get it as a Christmas present from my lovely friend J. I think of her whenever I wear it, and there is something very special about owning something that brings together a warm feeling of friendship and the joy of a very quirky object.
J also bought me this scarf for my birthday a few years ago. It has images of pretty much all my favourite creatures – frogs and toads, bees and beetles, earthworms and ants. I’m just sorry I didn’t iron it before I took the photograph. I love that it looks like one of those elegant lady scarves, but turns out to be covered in creepy crawlies. Many a person has done a double-take when they’ve looked at it closely.
And this is the brooch that got me into trouble with my boss, who I was meeting ‘in real life’ for the first time in Dublin. We’d gone out for a team dinner, and it turned out that she was arachnophobic. I ended up popping the poor spider into my pocket for the duration.
And of course I could never resist a bee. I had a lovely holiday with my dear friend S, who was working in Washington D.C, so I got a chance to go to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. A visit to the museum shop is obviously essential, and they had the best selection of insect jewellery that I’d ever seen in one place. Sadly most of the pieces aren’t online, and my friend works from London now.
I fell in love with this quirky chap when I saw him at a craft market in London. Sadly, the pink gemstones have been falling out all over the place – I used to wear him a lot when I was travelling for work in Europe, and I know for a fact that one stone is in Prague, one is in Helsinki and another one is most likely in Copenhagen. Never mind. Whenever I look at him, I’m reminded of the days when such lunatic levels of travel were not only condoned but expected, and I’m happy to be more settled, and less of a carbon liability.
And finally, how about this Bugwoman-themed cardigan? If I ever do personal appearances, I shall have to wear this.
It’s funny how I am so drawn to images of ‘bugs’, even after all these years. For me, they are still a source of fascination, and nothing cheers me up more quickly than the discovery of a new insect, or a new piece of information about their lives. I can quite see myself as an elderly lady in a care home with a secret pet spider in the corner of the room. This last few years have really made me consider what is important, and what isn’t, and I know that being connected to the natural world is so fundamental to me that without it, life wouldn’t be worth living. It’s always worth thinking about and stating these things while you still can.
Dear Readers, it was the most beautiful spring today, and while the cherry plums in the cemetery have mostly lost their blossom, the heavy candy-floss pink flowers of the cherry trees are just starting to emerge. It’s a shame that many of the prettiest are behind fencing at the moment, while the cemetery tries to turn yet another area of rough scrub into a site for graves, but nonetheless the tree is still exuberant. The blossom on these trees can sometimes seem almost too much: I suspect that these trees are of the Kanzan variety, with each blossom having up to 28 petals. There is a road close to where I used to live in Islington which was lined with these trees on each side: when the blossom started to fall, it could be like scuffling through a thin layer of pink snow.
The cherry plums have lost every last flower now, and are instead glorying in their copper foliage.
The cow parsley is just starting to flower in the woodland grave area, and is already attracting pollinators, like this little hoverfly. The photo is not good enough to identify the species, but it does give an indication of how varied this group of insects can be – at first glance you’d think this was a flying ant.
I had to pause for a quick look at the swamp cypress, which appears to have been in suspended animation for weeks. Not for much longer, though! I can’t wait until it’s decked out in fluorescent green.
I had to pause for a quick look at the cherry laurel by the main path – it is covered in strange, spidery flowers, and has a most nose-tingling smell, somehow dusty and honey-ish at the same time.
Another hoverfly was sunning itself on the leaves. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that this is probably a female Eristalsis pertinax. The males of this fly defend territories around flowering plants, and I imagine that the cherry laurel must be a very appealing site. The young go by the appealing name of ‘rat-tailed maggots’, and live in drainage ditches and other stagnant water: the ‘tail’ is actually a breathing tube.
And here’s an insect that I haven’t come across before. Superficially it looks rather like a shield bug, but it is narrower in the body and has much thicker, more pronounced antennae. This is a box bug (Gonocerus acuteangulatus) and it isn’t named after the plant directly but after Box Hill in Surrey (which was, admittedly, named after the box hedges that grew there). The bug was considered endangered, and in 1990 it was known only in the area around the eponymous Box Hill, but since then it has expanded its range to most of south-east England. It seems to have expanded the variety of foodplants that it eats to include hawthorn, bramble and rose, and I predict a sunny future for it as it munches its way northwards.
The dandelions are still out in force.
The leaves on the horse chestnut are getting bigger every week.
And the first flowers are opening on the hawthorn.
But what I’ve really noticed this week are the bluebells. The vast majority of the ones in the cemetery are hybrids, and they come in the most astonishing array of colours. I doubt that the cemetery was ever a pristine environment for bluebells, and in fact I suspect that if there weren’t hybrids here, there wouldn’t be any bluebells at all.
The primroses are doing their hybridizing thang as well. In the beds at the entrance to the cemetery there is the most extraordinary range of primulas and polyanthus, and I suspect that they are all cross-breeding and coming up with multiple varieties across the rest of the area. Genetic exuberance is certainly in evidence here.
In one of the sunnier parts of the cemetery I saw, in quick succession, a brimstone butterfly, a peacock butterfly, and a male orange-tip. I managed to get photos of two out of the three, which wasn’t bad considering how quickly the brimstone was flying. They apparently emerge from hibernation from March onwards, and will only be on the wing till May, so I cherished this glimpse of a butterfly in a tearing hurry!
Brimstone butterfly(Gonepteryx rhamni)
And then we almost trod on two peacock butterflies in quick succession, both of them sunning themselves on the path. These adults will have been hibernating over winter, and are now looking for someone to mate with, and somewhere to lay their eggs. They looked very ragged and tired, poor things.
The orange-tip will have been very happy to see the abundance of garlic-mustard which has popped up everywhere, and is now coming into flower. It’s good that there is so much of the stuff, as the caterpillars are cannibalistic and so the female normally lays each egg on a different plant – when an egg is laid, the female also deposits a pheromone which will prevent other females from laying there. Furthermore, the females will only lay their eggs on plants which are already in flower, but will also refuse to lay if the flower is starting to age. This is an insect which wants to give their young the very best start in life, for sure.
Male orange-tip (Anthrocharis cardamines) (Photo One)
Garlic mustard and lesser celandine
I couldn’t resist getting a photo of this watchful crow, and I rather liked the backlit dandelions too.
And for my final butterfly of the day, here’s a newly-minted speckled wood (Parage aegeria). These are woodland butterflies, flitting through the dappled shade. The males are fiercely territorial, and spend a lot of time flying into the air to investigate every insect that goes past. If it’s another male, an aerial battle will take place that could last up to 90 minutes. The battles are fiercest if the incumbent male has already been visited by a female – presumably this proves that his territory is a good spot. What a lot of hard work this reproduction business is.
Speckled wood (Parage aegeria)
And so, it seems that, with the arrival of flies and bugs and butterflies, and with bluebells and garlic mustard springing up all over the cemetery, we are now into what I think of as ‘mid-spring’, the period when the battle to mate and rear young and get pollinated is at its height. All I need now is the arrival of the house martins to know that spring is fading, and summer is beginning.
Dear Readers, we haven’t had a poetic quiz for a while, and as spring is the season that gets all red-blooded poets into a frenzy of verse-making, all I need you to do this week is to match the photo to the quote, with one extra point for identifying the poet and a further point for identifying the animal or plant, so that makes 45 points going begging in total.
As usual, all answers in the comments by 5 p.m. on Thursday 29th April (UK time) please; I’ll publish the results on Friday 30th April. And where did April go, exactly? They say that time speeds up as you get older, but this is ridiculous.
Also as usual, I will ‘hide’ your answers as soon as I see them but if you are easily influenced you might want to write your thoughts down on a piece of paper before you put them in the comments 🙂
So, if you think Quote A refers to the bird in Photo 1, your answer is 1) A. which, if correct will give you one point. If you think the poet is William Shakespeare and the bird is a penguin, you would get a further two points if you were correct (unlikely in this case :-))
A) ‘When he perches on a stone
it’s a wet one.
He stands there, bobbing and bobbing
as though the water’s applauding him’
B) ‘Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and over the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly bright’.
C) ‘Yet there it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused its sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade’.
D) ‘ Yet Spring’s awakening breath will woo the earth,
To feed with kindliest dews its favourite flower,
That blooms in mossy banks and darksome glens,
Lighting the greenwood with its sunny smile’.
E) ‘ I watched them leap and run,
Their bodies hollowed in the sun
To thin transparency,
That I could clearly see
The shallow colour of their blood
Joyous in love’s full flood’.
F) ‘ Loveliest of trees, the xxxxx now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodlands ride
Wearing white for Eastertide’.
G) ‘ Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance’.
H) ‘ The phrases of his pleading
Were full of young delight;
And she that gave him heeding
His gay, sweet notes,-
So sadly marred in the reading,-
His tender notes. ‘
I) ‘ What pretty, drooping weeping flowers they are,
The clipt-frilled leaves the slender stalk they bear
On which the drooping flower hangs weeping dew’.
J) ‘ The xxxxx she’s a pretty bird,
She sings as she flies,
She brings us good tidings,
She tells us no lies;
She sucketh white flowers
For to make her voice clear,
And the more she sings ‘xxxx’
The summer draws near.’
K) ‘Ethereal minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or, while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!’
L) ‘That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease’.
M) ‘ Under the after-sunset sky
Two xxxxx sport and cry,
More white than is the moon on high,
Riding the dark surge silently;
More black than earth. Their cry
Is the one sound under the sky’.
N) ‘ Incorrigible, brash,
They brighten the cinder path of my childhood.
Unsubtle, the opposite of primroses,
But unlike primroses, capable
Of growing everywhere, railway track, pierhead,
Like our extrovert friends who never
Make us fall in love, yet fill
The primroseless, roseless gaps.
O) ‘ 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’.
Title Photo – Dune Helleborine (Epipactis dunensis)
Dear Readers, two excellent results this week, with Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus with 13 out of 15 and our old friends Fran and Bobby Freelove taking the top spot with 15/15. Thank you for playing,and let’s see what the challenge is tomorrow….
1.D – Dark Red Helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens)
2.G – Autumn Lady’s-Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)
3. H – Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)
4 I – Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha)
5. F – Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata)
Dear Readers, by the time you read this I will be on holiday (in the sense of ‘not working’ rather than ‘ going off somewhere exciting’) so there is the usual palaver around making sure nothing will blow up in my absence. Being a recovering perfectionist is a hard road to travel – I have to accept that a) I’m not irreplaceable and b) the organisation can get along very well without my presence. However, I do love to leave things in a tidy condition, and so for my blog post today I have spent a whole fifteen minutes in the garden before getting back to the grind.
I wouldn’t even have done this if a huge cardboard box containing 3 water irises hadn’t turned up – they were already potted up and ready to be dropped into the pond, so it seemed like the least I could do for the poor things. Can I just put in a plug here for Puddleplants if you are in the UK and want some pond or bog garden plants? I have been so impressed by the standard of the plants that they provide, and if they aren’t happy with the quality of anything they will let you know and ask if you want a refund or a different plant. Their customer service really is second to none.
Anyway, today’s delivery was of three Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby’, and if they thrive they should look like this:
Iris x robusta Gerald Darby (Photo One)
…though at the moment they look like this:
And yes, the water level in the pond is down yet again. We’ve had no rain for weeks. I am growing creeping/dangling plants along the pond edge and may gradually remove some of the stones to get a more natural look, but in the meantime I’m looking to the skies.
Everything seems to be taking off. The water mint is extending its little invasive fingers and will no doubt be planning to take over the pond shortly.
Water mint (Mentha aquatica)
The water figwort plants look extremely happy.
Water figwort (Scrophularia auriculata)
The yellow flag iris are shooting upwards. I love its butter-yellow flowers though it can be a bit of a thug. This one will need dividing for next year.
Yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus)
The leaves of the first water lily have broken the surface, though whether that’s because the leaves have grown up or the water level has gone down I shall leave for you to judge….
The yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) has just broken the surface of the water. One of the pots slid off the ‘shelf’ around the edge of the pond and has upturned and disappeared into the depths. I shall try to retrieve it soon – my planting guide suggests that it should be under no more than 10 cm of water, and it must be in about 70 cm so that isn’t going to work. The other three are wedged in, so should be safe!
And finally the purple loosestrife is springing forth. Every year it gets so big that it ends up toppling over, and every year I think to myself that I should try to prevent this from happening. Sadly, ‘think’ is all I seem to do, being a bit short of inspiration. Maybe another case of dividing and putting into a heavier pot?
Away from the pond, there has been some cat-on-bird action – I ‘discouraged’ one slinky black and white marauder who was hiding under the bushes but he or she might have been back. Fortunately there are usually so many birds in the garden that someone sounds the alarm. Plus, fortunately, the feathers of woodpigeons are very loosely attached, so all a predator often gets is a mouthful of fluff.
I rather liked these grape hyacinths, but the bees don’t, much preferring the dark blue ones. Still, you live and learn.
The forget-me-nots that my friend J gave me are out…
And so are these wallflowers. I bought them thinking they would be cream and mauve, and instead I have one yellow one and two red ones, which rather mucks up my colour scheme. Never mind. Also, what’s with the leaves going brown around the edges? All advice gratefully received. I’ve been watering them religiously (or rather my husband has).
The ferns are looking good too! I have a couple more that have been in a pot for ages so I’m planning to liberate them this year.
And look, here is my one English bluebell (it’s a darker blue than it looks here, and the flowers do flop endearingly to one side so I’m fairly confident that it is Hyacinthoides non-scripta, as purchased). And yes, there are some stinging nettles next to it which will most likely be coming out when I have something to plant in its place.
And finally, I have planted up some honesty seeds (also given to me by my friend J) and have taken delivery of three woodruff plants (Gallium odorata), all of which will be popped into the shady side of the garden.
Woodruff and honesty seeds….
And finally, how about this red valerian that’s planted itself next to. the water butt? Whenever I see this plant it makes me think of Dorset and my time with Mum and Dad – the Red valerian there used to self-seed in every crook and cranny, and there were white and pink forms too. I don’t have the heart to pull it up.
And so, it’s back to work to tidy up a few more things. I hope to be having a few more exciting trips over the next few weeks – there are wetlands to visit locally, (Walthamstow and Woodberry), parks to walk in, and all sorts of places to explore. But I hope to be spending lots of time sitting in the garden too. After all, the lilac is almost in flower.
Well Readers, there are some plants that are not meant to be ignored, and crown imperials are right up there at the head of the group. Look at those extraordinary blooms! The plant looks as if it’s wearing a spiky hat for a start, and then there are those Dundee United coloured flowers. Who would ever guess that the plant is a close relative of the delicate little snakeshead fritillaries in my garden?
Snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris)
Another puzzle for me is the location where I found the crown imperials – right next to a pond in Golders Hill Park. The Royal Horticultural Society website says that the plant doesn’t like damp or heavy clay soil, requires full sun, and the bulb is prone to rotting, so this not an ideal site. Apparently the plant might flower like a good ‘un in its first year, but will then have an attack of the vapours and refuse to produce anything interesting for the rest of its life. Let’s hope that plans are afoot to look after these lovelies once they’ve flowered.
Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)
The plant comes originally from a broad swathe of land, starting with the Anatolian plateau in the west and ending up in the foothills of the Himalayas.However, it has apparently naturalised itself in Austria, Sicily, and Washington state in the US. I found it difficult to imagine this flower growing in the wild so here’s a lovely panoramic shot of wild crown imperial in Fars, Iran.
Wild Crown Imperial in Fars, Iran (Photo Two)
And here is another shot of wild crown imperials in Kurdistan. Goodness how I miss travelling….
Crown imperials in Kurdistan (Photo Three)
The flowers, which can be red, orange or yellow, apparently have a strongly foxy odour, which deters mice and other creatures who might otherwise eat the bulbs and flowers.
But here’s a thing! Apparently the flowers are pollinated by blue tits, a most unusual thing in the northern hemisphere where we don’t have hummingbirds or sunbirds to rely on. This was apparently featured in this week’s ‘Gardener’s World’ for those of you in the UK. For a more science-y view, here’s an article from New Scientist which explains that crown imperials produce a special kind of nectar, containing sucrose, which is specifically adapted to birds. Blue tits are the only birds who are light enough, and dextrous enough, to access the flowers without doing them any damage, though other species do destroy the flower to get at the sweet stuff.
Photo of blue tit under crown imperial by Mark Williams (Photo One)
Apparently, the nectar is so copious that it trickles out of the flower if you give it a tap, and therein hides a legend. Apparently, the crown imperial was once pure white, but when Jesus passed by in the Garden of Gethsemene it refused to bow its head like all the other plants. When Jesus reprimanded the plant, it blushed in shame and cried, hence the colour of the flowers and the ‘tears’.
I must say that I am becoming fascinated with the fritillary genus. While the crown imperial doesn’t particularly appeal to me, some of the others certainly do. How about Fritillaria persica, the Persian Lily, which comes in black or white?
Fritillaria persica (Photo Four)
Or Fritillaria acmopelata, the Anatolian fritillary?
Fritillaria acmopetala, the Anatolian Fritillary (Photo Five)
It’s always useful to remember that all these plants are members of the Lily family, however, and to keep an eye open for those bright maraunders, the lily beetles, adorable-looking as they are.
My room feels crowded, stuffy,
and I open windows wide.
The tallest officer stands close
as he stares out at my garden.
He asks the names of flowers
and trees: Sophora, walnut,
sweet chestnut. He points
to the flame-coloured flowers
pressed against the wall – Fritillaria imperialis, I reply,
otherwise known as crown imperials.
It seems someone has died, alone,
whose name I have never heard.
And in another continent.
I do not know, I say.
No relative of mine.
I hope you trace his family,
he had a sister, did you say?
They thank me for my time, drive off.
Left on my own, I know. I know.
I pick up the phone, call them,
tell them that I know. I know.