Category Archives: London Plants

Wednesday Weed – Rowan

Rowan (Mountain Ash) (Sorbus aucuparia)

Dear Readers, if there is a better tree than the rowan for a small garden, I have yet to hear of it. In spring, it’s covered in frothy white blossom.

Photo One By Kenraiz - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083172
Photo One

In summer, its leaves are filmy and cast little shadow. In the autumn it’s often covered in berries, and its leaves turn to a variety of orange/copper/scarlet shades. Plus, the berries will stay on the tree through the winter, unless they are all gobbled up by birds.

Photo Two By Eeno11 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5029715
A roadside Rowan in County Wicklow, Ireland (Photo Two)

Rowans are native from Madeira and Iceland right the way to Northern China. They tolerate poor soil, and one of the pioneer species that pop up when a new habitat becomes available. Their good manners and graceful appearance have made them a popular choice for a street tree, with one road in Archway planted with just this species.

Rowans in Archway

However, just as the only problem with dogs is that they don’t live as long as we do, so it is with the rowan. In his excellent book ‘London’s Street Trees’, Paul Wood suggests that 25 years is a ‘good innings’ for a rowan, after which another tree will have to be planted in its place. So, this street could conceivably lose all its rowans at once.

The North London trees look surprisingly tall for what is often a stunted little tree. However, there is one individual tree in the Chilterns which is 28m tall, quite a height for a rowan.

Apart from its year-round attractiveness, the rowan is a most excellent tree for wildlife. You might be lucky enough to see waxwings munching on the berries, and redwings and fieldfares are also big fans, along with blackbirds.

Bohemian waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

35 different species of butterfly and moth caterpillar are also associated with the rowan, from the rather dandy leopard moth (Zeuzera pyrina) to the beautiful brocade (Lacanobia contigua)

Photo Three by By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7195872
Leopard moth (Zeuzera pyrina) (Photo Three)
Photo Four by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6986929
Beautiful Brocade (Lacanobia contigua) (Photo Four)

Rowan has a rich folklore: it used to be planted as a protection against witches, and in parts of Scotland there is still a taboo against cutting down a rowan tree, especially when it is close to houses. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey stresses that it’s the wood of the tree that is seen as potent, rather than the berries:

‘Rowan boughs were hung over stables and byres in the Highlands, used for stirring cream in the Lake District and cut for pocket charms against rheumatism in Cornwall’.

The poet Kathleen Raine and the author Gavin Maxwell (of Ring of Bright Water fame) had a most difficult relationship: passionate and all-encompassing on her side, rather more utilitarian on Maxwell’s side, as he was gay and Raine couldn’t accept this. On one occasion, when Maxwell had brought a lover home with him , Raine went to the rowan tree outside Maxwell’s house on the West Coast of Scotland and cursed him:

Let Gavin suffer in this place, as I am suffering now.

Shortly after this, Maxwell’s pet otter Mijbil was run down and killed (partly as a result of Raine letting the animal off its lead). Raine always believed that her curse had called something evil down upon Maxwell’s head and never forgave herself, though Maxwell, generously, forgave her. Then Maxwell’s house burned down. It seems that there might be rather more to the power of the rowan than we give it credit for. Leastways, it’s probably best not put such things to the test.

I recently acquired a rather lovely book called ‘Scottish Plant Lore – An Illustrated Flora‘ by Gregory J. Kenicer. In it, he describes how shepherd girls would usually drive their sheep with a staff made from Rowan wood, and how in Strathspey livestock were made to pass through a hoop made of rowan in the morning and evening, as a charm against black magic. It was also noted that rowan trees often grew around standing stones, and that one eighteenth century writer, Lightfoot (1777) thought that these might have been the remnants of trees planted by the druids who used to gather there.

Photo Five by Brian Turner / Rowan Tree on Feinn Loch - Kilmelford
Rowan Tree on Feinn Loch, Kimelford (Photo Five)

Now, you might be tempted to do something clever with the berries of the rowan, and indeed they are edible (though like so many things they are said to be better after frost). They contain very high levels of Vitamin C (good) but are also high in tannins (bad). The most common use is to turn them into a jelly that can be eaten with cold meats or cheese, but look! Here’s a recipe for rowan Turkish delight. I include it in honour of my poor old Dad, who loved the stuff, and who could get himself covered in powdered sugar faster than anyone I ever met.

Incidentally, the eattheweeds website is a most excellent source of inspiration for anyone who forages. There are some really imaginative ideas.

Photo Six by https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/rowan-recipe-turkish-delight
Rowan Turkish Delight (Photo Six)

Medicinally, the berries have been prescribed for stomach complaints and to staunch bleeding – I suspect that the tannins have a lot to do with any perceived efficacy. Be careful though, as some sources suggest that the berries can be poisonous.

The leaves have been used to make remedies for sore eyes, asthma, rheumatism and colds.

Photo Seven from https://foragerchef.com/rowanberries/
Photo Seven

Now, as previously mentioned, the wood of rowan is thought to be the most potent part of the plant, so it comes as no surprise that when I search for ‘rowan wood’ I find a plethora of wands, walking sticks and amulets made from the material. But what an attractive timber it is! One sculptor in wood described it as his ‘favourite wood for turning’.

There also seem to be a wide variety of Harry Potter-themed items made out of rowan, but having only read the first volume in the series (and that decades ago) I’ll have to rely on you to tell me what the possible connections are.

Photo Eight By Per Grunnet - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61399948
Freshly cut rowan wood (Photo Eight)

Incidentally, the word ‘rowan’ is thought to come from an Old Norse word meaning ‘to redden’, probably a reference to the berries (though at this time of year it occurs to me that it could also refer to the leaves). And I had totally forgotten that the rowan is mentioned in the lovely Scottish folksong ‘Mairi’s Wedding’:

Red her cheeks as rowans are,

bright her eyes as any star,

fairest of them all by far,

is our darling Mairi.

Gosh, this almost has me dancing. Have a listen here and see if you can avoid jiggling about.

And, to end with, a poem by Seamus Heaney. He decided on the last line after he heard an interview with Fionn mac Cumhaill, the legendary Irish figure, who, when asked what the best music in the world was, replied ‘the music of what happens’.

Song by Seamus Heaney

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083172

Photo Two By Eeno11 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5029715

Photo Three by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7195872

Photo Four by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6986929

Photo Five by Brian Turner / Rowan Tree on Feinn Loch – Kilmelford

Photo Six by https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/rowan-recipe-turkish-delight

Photo Seven from https://foragerchef.com/rowanberries/

Photo Eight By Per Grunnet – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61399948

Surprise Quiz! – What’s That Fruit – The Answers

Cultivated rose hips

Dear Readers, this week’s joint winners were Sylvie, Christine, Isla and Fran and Bobby who all got a full house of 15 out of 15, with Anna also doing brilliantly with 11 out of 15. Well done to all of you, and keep your eyes open for another autumnal quiz at the weekend….

Photo One by Edal Anton Lefterov / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

1) i) Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Photo Two by Ian Cunliffe / Blackthorn fruit (sloes) - Prunus spinosa

2) g) Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Photo Three by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

3) o) Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

Photo Four by Brian Robert Marshall / Hawthorn berries, Postern Hill, Savernake Forest

4) e) Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Photo Five by grassrootsgroundswell / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

5) j) Yew (Taxus baccata)

Photo Six by Dcrjsr / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

6) k) Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Photo Seven by Arnstein Rønning / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

7) l) Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Photo Eight by Zeynel Cebeci / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

8) c) Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

Photo Nine by Ragesoss / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

9)a) Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg.)

Photo Ten by Randi Hausken from Bærum, Norway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

10) b) Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)

Photo Eleven by Rosser1954 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

11) n) Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Photo Twelve by Peter O'Connor aka anemoneprojectors from Stevenage, United Kingdom / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

12)d) Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

Photo Thirteen by Jan Sørensen / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

13) m) Burnet Rose (Rosa spinosissima)

Photo Fourteen by Rosenzweig / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

14) h) Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)

Photo Fifteen by Jesse Taylor / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

15) f) Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Edal Anton Lefterov / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Two by Ian Cunliffe / Blackthorn fruit (sloes) – Prunus spinosa

Photo Three by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Photo Four by Brian Robert Marshall / Hawthorn berries, Postern Hill, Savernake Forest

Photo Five by grassrootsgroundswell / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Six by Dcrjsr / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Photo Seven by Arnstein Rønning / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Eight by Zeynel Cebeci / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Photo Nine by Ragesoss / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Ten by Randi Hausken from Bærum, Norway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Photo Eleven by Rosser1954 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Photo Twelve by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors from Stevenage, United Kingdom / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Photo Thirteen by Jan Sørensen / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Photo Fourteen by Rosenzweig / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Fifteen by Jesse Taylor / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Surprise Quiz! – What’s That Fruit?

Cultivated rose hips

Dear Readers, it’s that time of year when the trees and hedges are laden down with berries and hips and haws. The thrushes are ecstatic, and if you keep your eyes open you might even be able to spot some waxwings later in the year. But how many of those pretty shiny fruits  can you identify?

Match the photo to the list below (so, if you think photo 1 is a blackberry, your answer is 1) a) ).

You have until 5 p.m. next Thursday (8th October) to post your answers in the comments if you want to be marked ( write your answers down on a piece of paper first if you don’t want to be influenced by speedier people).

Have fun!

a) Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg.)

b) Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)

c) Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

d) Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

e) Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

f) Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

g) Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

h) Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)

i) Elder (Sambucus nigra)

j) Yew (Taxus baccata)

k) Juniper (Juniperus communis)

l) Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

m) Burnet Rose (Rosa spinosissima)

n) Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

o) Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

Photo One by Edal Anton Lefterov / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

1)

Photo Two by Ian Cunliffe / Blackthorn fruit (sloes) - Prunus spinosa

2)

Photo Three by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

3)

Photo Four by Brian Robert Marshall / Hawthorn berries, Postern Hill, Savernake Forest

4)

Photo Five by grassrootsgroundswell / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

5)

Photo Six by Dcrjsr / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

6)

Photo Seven by Arnstein Rønning / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

7)

Photo Eight by Zeynel Cebeci / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

8)

Photo Nine by Ragesoss / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

9)

Photo Ten by Randi Hausken from Bærum, Norway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

10)

Photo Eleven by Rosser1954 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

11)

Photo Twelve by Peter O'Connor aka anemoneprojectors from Stevenage, United Kingdom / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

12)

Photo Thirteen by Jan Sørensen / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

13)

Photo Fourteen by Rosenzweig / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

14)

Photo Fifteen by Jesse Taylor / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

15)

Wednesday Weed – Vervain

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

Dear Readers, what a small and overlooked plant this is! I was delighted to find it during my visit to Walthamstow Wetlands during my expedition last week, because as we all know new ‘weeds’ become increasingly difficult to find as autumn sets in.

With its delicate turrets of five-petalled white flowers, the species name ‘officinalis’ tells us that this is a medicinal plant, also known as ‘holy herb’ or ‘simplers joy’. It was believed to have been used to staunch Jesus’s wounds, hence another name ‘herb of the cross’, and because of these associations it was also believed to be useful in the casting out of demons. It has also been used by artists and writers to enhance their creativity and to relieve ‘blocks’. Medically it has been used for  throat swellings and gum inflammation, stomach problems, headache and lung problems. It was known to the ancient Egyptians as the Tears of Isis, and Pliny the Elder considered it a powerful herb, used to purify temples. It was also felt to be helpful during negotiations, and in Greek and Roman times was often brought along for diplomatic purposes.

Well, that’s quite a lot of weight for such a delicate plant to bear. In many cultures, the local name for vervain includes the word ‘iron’ though I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly why. There is one suggestion that it was used in the iron smelting process, but this seems a bit unlikely to me. Pliny says that the ‘magicians’ who work with the plant insist that it should be surrounded by a circle of iron. Ironically (see what I did there?) some studies have suggested that it actually inhibits the absorption of iron in humans. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, mentions that gun-flints were sometimes boiled with rue and vervain to make them more effective, so there is yet another explanation here.

Mabey also mentions that on the Isle of Man the plant is so important that it is called The Herb, as if there were no others. Getting hold of some vervain was quite a procedure:

‘It has medical uses, but mere possession of it conferred all manner of protection. A person going on a journey would carry a piece and many a Manxman would have a piece permanently sewn into his clothing. I have seen a number of plants growing in gardens, but so far I have not been successful in obtaining a plant for myself. The procedure for getting a piece is rather complicated. It cannot be asked for directly. Broad hints will be dropped and perhaps the possessor will take the hint and a plant will discreetly changed hands, usually wrapped in paper. No word should be exchanged. It must always change hands from man to woman or vice-versa. it can be stolen, but I have not stooped to that yet’. (Colin Jerry, Peel, Isle of Man)

For many years, wearing vervain in a bag around the neck was thought to be a protection for travellers and children, but these days its folkloric aspects seem to be largely forgotten: in Vickery’s Folk Flora, the author mentions that there is not a single reference to it on the Plantlore website, which collects such accounts in the UK. However, it was an ingredient in the ‘flying ointment’ used by witches (along with monkshood and deadly nightshade), and it was said that a tiny piece of the leaf placed into a cut on the hand would enable the opening of all locks. Plus, a piece of vervain included in a love potion would encourage someone to laugh, which is most certainly a good thing.

Photo One by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Vervain (Photo One)

Vervain probably came to the UK during the Neolithic period, brought for protection and for medicinal purposes. It likes chalk cliffs, south-facing slopes and disturbed grassland, and in the UK is very much a plant of the south. Most members of the Verbena family come from the Americas or from Asia, and Verbena boniarensis, the Argentine vervain, is one of the more popular butterfly plants these days. However, our more modest vervain is also a popular bee plant, all the more so since ‘grandiflora’ varieties have been grown that beef up the flowering while retaining the appeal to pollinators. Let me know if you’ve grown it, I’d be fascinated.

Photo Two from https://www.tortworthplants.co.uk/ourshop/prod_6850797-Verbena-officinalis-var-grandiflora-Bampton-9cm-pot.html

Verbena officinalis var grandiflora (Photo Two)

As my thoughts generally turn to thoughts of food, I was checking to see if you could turn vervain into a curry or salad or, better still, a cake, but all I can find are references to tea. Certainly in France I’ve had a vervain infusion, but I’m not sure if it’s this plant. That’s the trouble with common names, they can lead to all sorts of confusion. I suspect that vervain is sometimes what we call lemon verbena. The flowers are allegedly edible, so you could always pop some into a salad if the urge came upon you.

But wait! Here is a peach and vervain tart, which I’m 100% certain actually contains lemon verbena and supports my thought about the French use of the word ‘vervaine’. It’s too pretty to leave out, even if it is completely the wrong plant.

Photo Three from https://camillestyles.com/food/manger-with-mimi-peach-and-vervain-tart/

Peach and vervain tart (Photo Three)

And now, a poem. I am sure that the verbena in this work, translated from the French, is not ‘our’ flower, but I think the verses tell a sort of truth, and the image of the broken vase is an example of what can be done by focussing closely on just one thing. I hope you enjoy it. If you want to hear it being read with a lovely French accent, you can find it here.

“Le Vase Brisé (The Broken Vase)”
by Sully Prudhomme

Read by Jean-Luc Garneau

The vase where this verbena’s dying
Was cracked by a lady’s fan’s soft blow.
It must have been the merest grazing:
We heard no sound. The fissure grew.

The little wound spread while we slept,
Pried deep in the crystal, bit by bit.
A long, slow marching line, it crept
From spreading base to curving lip.

The water oozed out drop by drop,
Bled from the line we’d not seen etched.
The flowers drained out all their sap.
The vase is broken: do not touch.

The quick, sleek hand of one we love
Can tap us with a fan’s soft blow,
And we will break, as surely riven
As that cracked vase. And no one knows.

The world sees just the hard, curved surface
Of a vase a lady’s fan once grazed,
That slowly drips and bleeds with sadness.
Do not touch the broken vase.

(French)

Le vase où meurt cette verveine
D’un coup d’éventail fut fêlé;
Le coup dut l’effleurer à peine,
Aucun bruit ne l’a révélé.

Mais la légère meurtrissure,
Mordant le cristal chaque jour,
D’une marche invisible et sûre
En a fait lentement le tour.

Son eau fraîche a fui goutte à goutte,
Le suc des fleurs s’est épuisé;
Personne encore ne s’en doute,
N’y touchez pas, il est brisé.

Souvent aussi la main qu’on aime
Effleurant le coeur, le meurtrit;
Puis le coeur se fend de lui-même,
La fleur de son amour périt;

Toujours intact aux yeux du monde,
Il sent croître et pleurer tout bas
Sa blessure fine et profonde:
Il est brisé, n’y touchez pas.

Photo Four byCC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48530

Photo Four

Photo Credits

Photo One by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Two from https://www.tortworthplants.co.uk/ourshop/prod_6850797-Verbena-officinalis-var-grandiflora-Bampton-9cm-pot.html

Photo Three from https://camillestyles.com/food/manger-with-mimi-peach-and-vervain-tart/

Photo Four byCC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48530

An East Finchley Update

Dear Readers, one thing that going for a daily walk before work has taught me is the restorative power of having something pretty to look at. Although the front gardens on my street are tiny, I love the effort that people have put into making them attractive. Here are a selection spotted in about two minutes.

 

I love the imaginative use of the gap in the brick wall here. Every season there’s something new.

I do love pampas grass. I know it’s a bit retro, but I love seeing the finches ripping bits off for their nests. This one has had lots of babies though, unfortunately.

This hebe is my number one plant within walking distance if I’m looking for late or early bumblebees.

I do love an imaginative use of pots.

Tutsan is really popular around these parts: a close relative of St John’s wort, it seems to flower forever.

And there are some fine apples and crab apples starting to appear.

Then it’s across the road to the Cherry Tree estate – these houses are later (1920s and 30s) with bigger front gardens, and some of them are gorgeous.

I thought that this fabulous plant might be a rhodichiton, but I’m sure one of you lovely people can let me know for sure 🙂

And I love this garden with its pond and little willow. Trees like goat willow are very important for early pollinators – I was wondering about getting a Kilmarnock willow for the garden for this very reason.

And the hibiscus this year! This garden has a blue one and a white one, and very fine they are too, so unexpected in a suburban road in North London.

And then it’s off to Cherry Tree Wood for a quick romp around the tennis courts and back to the main road. I am intrigued by this plant, which is growing very well. I am thinking Common Orache (Atriplex patula) but will have to go in closer for a proper look at the leaves. I am always hoping to find those Old English pot herbs Good King Henry(Chenopodium bonus-henricus) or Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) but no luck yet. What excellent Wednesday Weeds they would make!

Then it’s off to my favourite weed-spotting site, the unadopted road between the wood and Baronsmere Road. One thing that is doing very well is the Russian vine (Mile-a-minute plant) Fallopia baldschuanica). Well, what can you expect of a close relative of the dreaded Japanese Knotweed? I see that it also goes by the name of Bukhara Fleeceflower. Who knew?

I spy some evening primrose flowers, beloved by moths and a member of the willowherb family.

Lots of Japanese anemones are out too, a very reliable autumn plant in these parts, and tolerant of shade too.

When I get to the High Street, I see that the traffic light on the corner has been completely demolished. Usually a passing lorry just clips it until it is at a 45 degree angle, but this must have been a rather more substantial collision. As usual we’ll just have to be careful crossing the junction -pedestrians are definitely at the bottom of the pecking order in London generally, and at this crossing in particular.

And then it’s home. The buddleia outside my house are all but finished (although every time I think about cutting them back they throw another half-dozen flowers). What they do have is lots of honeydew on their leaves, which means that our little black and yellow friends the wasps are all over the plant, licking up the sugar. Methinks the pruning is going to have to be done with a watchful eye and great care. Fortunately it’s raining at the moment, so by the time I get to it maybe the problem will have eased a bit. Otherwise, wish me luck!

Sunday Quiz – A Rose By Any Other Name

Dear Readers, the rose family (Rosaceae) is one of the most diverse of flowering plant families, with 55 species in the UK alone. So, this week’s quiz is simple: match the names to the photos. And hopefully everything will be coming up roses 🙂

As usual, answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Monday if you want to be marked, and if you don’t want to be influenced by speedy people, write your answers down first. Onwards!

Choose the species from the list below. So, if you think the plant in photo one is a dog rose, your answer is 1) a). Good luck!

a) Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

b) Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

c) Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

d) Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

e) Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

f) Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

g) Wall Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

h) Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

i) Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

j) Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum)

k) Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis)

l) Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

m) Pirri-pirri-bur (Acaena novae-zelandiae)

n) Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

o) Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

1)

2)

3)

4)

Photo One by © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

5)

6)

Photo Two by © Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

7)

8)

9)

10)

11)

12)

13)

14)

15)

Wednesday Weed – Mugwort – An Update

Dear Readers, I have what is officially known as ‘the week from hell’ this week, with another two half-days of Away Day and a whole gamut of ‘stuff’ to sort out. So, having been most intrigued with the mugwort that I found last week, I thought I’d give my post another airing. And, so that you don’t think I’m slacking off completely, here are a few new photos from the weekend. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Dear Readers, it is always a pleasure to write about a very common and widespread ‘weed’, especially one that may have slipped under our radar. So it is with Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), a member of the Daisy (Asteraceae) family. It has sprays of little, unobtrusive flowers, deeply-cut leaves that look silver underneath, and it is said to be faintly aromatic, though as usual I forgot to check out the scent.

Mugwort looks like a quintessential ‘weed’ – not the kind of thing that you’d want to pop up in your garden for its good looks. Indeed, Richard Mabey reports that in Lancashire it’s known as ‘Council Weed’ because it always seems to appear after the local council have sprayed everything else. And yet, it was once known as Mater Herbarum (the Mother of Weeds) and is one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons:

‘Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.’

Medicinally, it seems to have been mainly used in two ways: to ease period and childbirth pains, and to lessen the shaking of ‘the palsy’. It was thought in Wales that a bunch of the plant tied to the left thigh of a woman in labour would ease her distress, though the plant had to be removed immediately after delivery to prevent haemorrhage.  The dried leaves were used to ease ‘hysterical fits’, and were also thought to be a cure for epilepsy. It was probably these  medicinal properties that resulted in it being imported into the UK in ancient times (it’s native to mainland Europe, Asia, North Africa and Alaska, and is naturalised throughout North America).

One of Mugwort’s alternative names is ‘Poor Man’s Tobacco’, and the dried flowers have been smoked by young people since time immemorial. Smoking the plant is said to cause vivid dreams. As if being an intoxicating drug wasn’t enough, it has also been used to flavour beer (much like ground ivy), and some think that this is where the name ‘mugwort’ originated, beer being drunk from a pottery mug in those days rather than a glass. If you would like to have a bash at creating your own Mugwort beer, there’s a recipe here.And if you get very keen, there’s a recipe for an ancient gruit beer here: gruit beers predate hops, and so are closer to what our medieval ancestors might have glugged down, just before they fell, singing, into a hedge.

An alternative reason for the name might be that ‘mug’ is a variant on the old word ‘mouchte’, meaning moth – the leaves have long been thought to be efficacious against clothes moths.

In Cornwall, the leaves were used as a tea substitute when ‘real’ tea grew too expensive during World War ii. It is also used as a culinary herb for stuffing roast goose on St Martin’s Day in Germany, although as it is  closely related to that bitterest of herbs, Wormwood, I suspect it may be an acquired taste. Mugwort is used extensively in Korean and Japanese cuisine, but  the plant they use is not ‘our’ mugwort. Some members of the genus Artemisia are much more bitter in flavour than others.

Mugwort has a long association with St John the Baptist, and with travellers. The saint was said to have worn a girdle of the plant for protection when he was in the wilderness, and stuffing your shoes with mugwort is said to be a talisman against everything from fatigue to being attacked by wild beasts. In Holland and Germany, the plant was gathered on St John’s Eve (23rd June) as a protection against misfortune in the year to come. I note that this is very close to the Summer Solstice, and may be yet another example of the blending of Christian and Pagan beliefs.

You might think that the Latin name for Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, links the plant back to Artemis/Diana, the goddess of hunting in Greek and Roman traditions. However, there is some thought that it is actually named after Artemis II of Caria, a botanist, medical researcher and naval strategist who died in 350 BC. She managed to hold off the navy of Rhodes, who advanced on the little island of Caria because they thought that a female ruler would be easy to defeat. She soon showed them their marching (sailing) orders. However, she is best known to history as the woman who drank her dead husband’s ashes in a goblet of wine every day as an act of extravagant mourning. The fact that her husband was also her brother adds a salacious frisson to the whole tale. Many artists took to their brushes to depict this scene, rather than her naval victories.. Women are so much less threatening when they’re imbibing their husbands and looking mournful. Especially when their blouse is dropping off.

Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of her Husband (attributed to Francesco Furini, circa 1630- Public Domain)

And to end, here is one of the last poems of Edward Thomas. I don’t recall the honeycomb smell of ‘mugwort dull’, but there is something about this work that captures that moment, poised between summer and autumn, between hope and despair, that I feel in my bones. I’ve read it once, and then again. It haunts me. Strange days, indeed.

The Brook

Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.
Last Poems, 1918.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Lesser Celandine Revisited

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

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Dear Readers, this piece dates back to March 2015, and as the lesser celandine is busting out all over at the moment I thought it was worth revisiting it. I have always loved this plant, with its promise of spring and its rush to flower and seed before the tree canopy closes over for another year. In the language of flowers, it is said to represent ‘joy to come’, and let’s hope that it’s correct. 

I wouldn’t have thought that this plant would have been of much interest to moths and butterflies, as it disappears so early in the year. However, the caterpillars of the white-barred tortrix moth (Olindia schumacherana) feed more or less exclusively on the heart-shaped leaves of lesser celandine, folding them over into a cosy envelope so that they can feed unmolested inside. Something to look out for if you’re perusing the lesser celandine I think, though as the plants are very small and grow close to the ground you might have to do a fair bit of bending and squatting. 

Photo One by Adrian Russell Park Wood, Stockerston 22 June 2014 from https://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/olindia-schumacherana

White-barred tortrix (Olindia schumacherana) (Photo One)

And so onwards to my original piece. 

Dear readers, my last visit to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery involved an unexpected detour. One of the heavily wooded paths in the older part of the graveyard was blocked by a massive fallen beech tree. As my friend , as agile as an anorak-clad mountain goat, clambered over the branches and found a way through, I slid down a muddy incline,into the middle of this mass of heart-shaped leaves. A little investigation showed that this was Lesser Celandine, normally one of the earliest woodland plants to flower. Gilbert White, the nature diarist of Selborne, records it flowering on 21st February, but mine were still not in bud in early March. However, one of the plant’s vernacular names is Spring Messenger, which gives some indication of its precocity.

Lesser Celandine in flower (By Alvals (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Lesser Celandine in flower (By Alvals (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The plant is a member of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family. This is a group which prefers damp habitat,  which may explain why the  Latin meaning of Ranunculus is ‘little frog’. Like many buttercups, It can certainly spread when in the right situation. The tubers easily break off from the roots in disturbed situations, such as cemeteries which are trampled by eager middle-aged lady plant hunters. A subspecies, Ranunculus ficaria bulbifer, produces little bulblets at the junction of its leaves, which can be accidentally transported by walkers, dogs and wildlife. In its native range (the whole of Europe and West Asia)  it grows where few other plants can survive and is more of a boon than a problem. However, it is yet another ‘weed’ which is described as ‘invasive’ in other places. For example, it has been imported to North America, where its early flowering and spreading habit means that it can smother more ephemeral native plants.

Lesser Celandine advancing across the forest floor.

Lesser Celandine advancing across the forest floor.

The name ‘Celandine’ is interesting. In the UK, there is the Lesser Celandine and the completely unrelated Greater Celandine, which will undoubtedly be a subject for a future post, as there is a great mass of it growing at the side of my house (I like to have a few ‘weeds’ up my sleeve in case domestic emergency or sheer laziness stop me from walking in the woods or the cemetery). Just to say here that the name Celandine derives from Chelidon, the Greek name for the swallow. This works for Greater Celandine, which flowers at about the same time as the swallows arrive, but Lesser Celandine flowers much earlier. I suspect that someone back in antiquity got confused because the flowers of both plants are yellow, and look superficially similar. Either that or, as Richard Mabey suggests, the plant was seen as a kind of ‘vegetable swallow’, a harbinger of spring.

Flower of the Greater Celandine. Doesn't look much like that of Lesser Celandine to me (By Alvesgaspar (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Flower of the Greater Celandine. Doesn’t look much like that of Lesser Celandine to me (By Alvesgaspar (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

IMG_1493Now, let us return to the Doctrine of Signatures. As you might remember, this was a belief that God had put a sign on plants that were useful to human beings. The buds of Nipplewort, for example, are shaped like nipples, and so the plant was said to be good for all kinds of things related to breast feeding. Have a look at the picture below, in particular the roots of the plant, and see if you can guess what Lesser Celandine was said to be good for.

Do those roots remind you of anything?

Do those roots remind you of anything?

One of Lesser Celandine’s alternative names was Pilewort, and it was used to treat hemorrhoids. In Germany, it is known as Scurvygrass, and was harvested because its leaves are rich in Vitamin C. As it appears so early, it must have been a blessing to eat something green just as winter was coming to a close, and the cupboard was bare. In Russia, the dried herb is also used for a variety of ailments.

Wordsworth loved Lesser Celandine, and wrote three poems about it. This is part of my favourite of the three, which sums up a little how I feel about all the ‘weeds’ that I write about every week.

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit !
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost show they pleasant face
On the moor and in the wood,
In the lane; — there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ‘t is good enough for thee.

Albert Bridge [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Bridge [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wordsworth wanted the Lesser Celandine to be depicted on his tomb, as it was his favourite flower. Unfortunately, the stone mason carved images of the Greater Celandine, which is not, as we’ve seen, the same thing at all.

Note the 'wrong' Celandine on the right hand side of the monument. (John Salmon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Note the ‘wrong’ Celandine on the right hand side of the monument. (John Salmon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

 Richard Mabey, in his magisterial ‘Flora Britannica’, notes that Wordsworth made the following field note about the Lesser Celandine.

‘It is remarkable that this flower, coming out so early in the Spring as it does, and so bright and beautiful, and in such profusion, should not have been noticed earlier in English verse. What adds much to the interest that atttaches to it is its habit of shutting itself up and opening out according to the degree of light and temperature of the air’.

And this is exactly what the plant does. Wordsworth was a great walker and observer of nature and, although unfashionable at the moment, had a deep love of his local area and of the plants and animals that lived there. He was a man with a big heart, and a great and enduring spirit, as so many poets are, but he was also modest and reclusive, How appropriate that he should have been so fond of this little, unobtrusive flower.

Lesser Celandine flowers closing as the sun sets ( © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Lesser Celandine flowers closing as the sun sets ( © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Photo Credit

Photo One by Adrian Russell Park Wood, Stockerston 22 June 2014 from https://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/olindia-schumacherana

 

Wednesday Weed – Yellow Corydalis Revisited

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

Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Dear Readers, I will shortly be jetting off on an adventure for my sixtieth birthday which will involve travelling to a part of the world that I’ve never visited before. But, while I am away, I thought I would revisit some of the ‘weeds’ that grow in my street in East Finchley. The piece below made its debut in October 2014. What a lot has happened since then! This is still a favourite plant, and in spite of many, many sprayings of weedkiller it is still present on the wall in the picture (though the graffiti is gone). It is, like many ‘weeds’, originally an alpine plant, but has been known in the UK as a garden plant since 1596. Mortared walls are a very specific environment, and few native plants have learned to colonise a habitat with sparse soil, high pH and a lot of exposure. In fact, some of the plants that we now think of as native (such as ivy-leaved toadflax ) came originally from the rocky places of mainland Europe.

In London, it is now the twentieth most common alien plant, putting it just behind trailing bellflower and just ahead of horse chestnut. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace describes how the black, shiny seeds of yellow corydalis are covered with an ‘oil body’ which ants are fond of – they often carry the seeds into their nests for future sustenance, and the seeds germinate once the oil has been consumed, a very handy symbiotic relationship.

Stace also makes some interesting comments about the relative affluence of housing and the alien ‘weeds’ that pop up. When I lived in Islington I was forever peering into the basements of the attractive Georgian houses round about, and these were often a mass of yellow corydalis, pale-lilac trailing bellflower, and baby trees-of-heaven or sycamore, all pushing up uninvited. On the other hand, the house that I lived in when growing up in Stratford had no basement and no front garden (and indeed, no bathroom and an outside toilet), but was often infiltrated by groundsel and sow-thistle, which Mum and Nan would pull up as soon as they showed their innocent heads for fear of what the neighbours might say. You don’t have to go very far in London to see a completely different array of plants, and I find it fascinating how local they can be. Where, for example, can I find some pellitory-of-the-wall, a plant that I’ve been dying to write about? If you live in London, give me a shout and I might come visit with my camera when I get back from my Secret Trip.

Anyhow, here were my thoughts six years ago. See what you think!

Just as the cold nights are coming in,  Yellow Corydalis is putting on a last display of its yellow tubular flowers, which remind me  of the muzzles of Chinese dragons. It grows very happily in this dark corner, and the lack of soil seems to present no problem – after all, this is a plant which came originally from the Alps and is therefore well adapted for infiltrating its tiny roots into the gaps in ramshackle walls and footpaths. As it has been recorded in the wild in the  UK since 1796, however, I think we can consider it as being at home. Yellow Corydalis 003

The plant is a member of the Fumitory family, and I was delighted to discover that the word ‘Fumitory’ comes from ‘Fumus terrae’ – Smoke of the Earth, in tribute to the fineness of the foliage. The leaves remind me a little of the Maidenhair Fern that I had as a houseplant when I was a student. That too, was one tough plant, surviving beer, cigarettes, being accidentally upended and, on one sad occasion, being pooed in by the newly acquired kitten. Yellow Corydalis is also tough, putting up with all manner of pollution and trampling, and still bouncing back. It is also poisonous, but doesn’t have the seductive qualities of many toxic plants, with their delicious-looking red berries and interesting seeds.

Yellow Corydalis 006This is one of those plants that is so attractive that, if it were not for its omnipresence in the scabbier spots of the capital, would undoubtedly be on sale in garden centres. As usual, once something is designated as a ‘weed’, it is seen, in general, as having no redeeming features whatsoever. Here at the Wednesday Weed, of course, we have no truck with such silliness.

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

Yellow flowers, yellow graffiti

This plant flowers more prolifically and grows more vigorously than anything else in the alley by the side of my house, and I am grateful to it for covering up the extremely uninspiring concrete path and the gravelly bit at the bottom of the fence. Plus, it provides cover for the froglets as they make their long and dangerous journey out into the big wide world. I could spend a lot of money buying ‘shade tolerant plants’ and be wholly disappointed with the results. Sometimes, we fail to see the beauty of what’s right there in front of us in our perverse desire for improvement and novelty. Certainly I’ve been guilty of grubbing up perfectly happy native plants and replacing them with showier organisms who were miserable from the second that they were planted, and faded away to a few pathetic leaves by the end of the season. But not this time! I am learning from nature, and it will be a life-long endeavour I’m sure. If something is perfectly adapted to its environment, covered in yellow flowers and dainty foliage,  why not treasure it?

A frog corridor?

 

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