Category Archives: London Plants

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

 

 

 

 

 

At Walthamstow Wetlands (Again)

Dear Readers, there is a condition known as pareidolia, in which we see faces in inanimate objects. But, really, how could one resist this little fellow, who is actually an old meter, set into the wall of the Engine House cafe in Walthamstow Wetlands? I almost offered him a bite of scone. But soon it was time to walk out amongst the reservoirs, and so I had to leave him behind.

The air was zipping with house martins feeding on the gnats that were rising from the water. Soon, the birds will be heading off to Africa, so I hope that they got a decent number of calories. Dragonflies were patrolling the paths too. I felt sorry for the prey insects as they were picked off, but I suspect there are many more that passed unharmed. You really do get a feeling for the importance of invertebrates as the basis of many food chains.

And everywhere, it was autumn.

I spotted some tansy, which may well appear as a Wednesday Weed, so I shall say little about it now, except that I was delighted to see it.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

There were lots of chaps fishing in the reservoirs as we wandered past: some of them had masses of equipment, and two-wheeled trollies to help them get all their stuff down the steep banks to the fishing spots. They were positioned, one by one, like so many herons, each with their ‘spot’. I wonder how much of this time spent in quiet contemplation helps to calm the spirit after a long week at work. Personally, I’d rather not harass the fish, who I think have quite enough bother as it is, what with the herons and the cormorants and the constant risk of pollution, but I can see what folk enjoy about it.

Along the fence posts of the island opposite there was a whole row of other anglers.

Gulls and herons

But what really amazed me this time was the large number of great-crested grebes. What handsome birds they are, set against that mercury-silver water. They are always up to something – fishing, diving, preening, and even having a little practice of courting behaviour – I watched two birds performing a kind of ritualistic dance, bobbing their heads, swimming alongside one another, rising up and bowing down. This is only a shadow of what will happen in the spring, but maybe it’s a way of pair-bonding, of reminding one another who they are in the absence of parental duties.

As we headed down towards the Coppermill (about which I wrote on my last visit) I spotted a very fine cormorant, who flew low over our heads and plopped into the water. S/he walked laboriously up the concrete slope that led to the bank, raising each foot carefully and keeping a blue eye on us the whole time. I hadn’t realised how stiff the tail feathers were, or how wet the bird gets – cormorants don’t seem to be completely waterproof, hence their need to spend a long time drying their wings. They nest on one of the islands in the reservoir, so it’s yet another reason to visit in the spring – between the cormorants and herons nesting, and the great-crested grebes doing their mating dance, it must be quite the scene.

And finally, as we turned for home, a mute swan flew overhead, wings swishing, neck outstretched. Swans are at the upper limit for size when it comes to flying – the bigger you are, the more powerful your chest muscles need to be to operate your wings. However, muscle is heavy, and so a bird the size of a swan or pelican is about as big as you can get unless you are able to just launch yourself from a mountain top – this is what scientists assume that the giant flying reptiles used to do. But aside from the science, a swan in flight always seems magical to me, as if the laws of the universe have been briefly put to one side.

It is good to come back to a place that has difficult memories. Last time I was at Walthamstow Wetlands, I was in the middle of the painful process of settling Mum and Dad into their nursing home. Mum was determined to go back to their bungalow, even though she was much too sick, and the choice was actually between being in the nursing home or being in hospital. Dad just wanted Mum to be happy, and if that meant going home, that was what he wanted too. I honestly felt as if my heart was broken, with no way forward and no way back. Mum eventually made her peace with being in the home, and Dad is now about as happy as he can be, but as I trudged those paths last year everything seemed dark and desperate. Even then, though, I found myself distracted by the plants and animals that I saw, and I went home feeling just a little lighter. Today, I feel sad but peaceful, which is a definite improvement. I am glad to have overlain the remembrance of my last visit with the joy of strutting cormorants and dancing grebes. Things are in constant flux, much like the weather, and if you just hang on in there and wait, you might be surprised at what happens.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Bladder Campion

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)

Dear Readers, a trip to Walthamstow Wetlands on Saturday provided me with no less than three potential Wednesday Weeds, a tremendous haul considering that we are now heading into autumn, and finding plants that I haven’t written about before becomes something of a challenge. So, to kick off this week, here is one of the last remaining bladder campion flowers,  blowing in the wind. The ‘bladders’ can be popped, and often were as a childhood game in various parts of the country: in Somerset and Wiltshire the plant is known as ‘poppers’, and in Kent they were called ‘Thunderbolts’, which seems a bit of an overstatement. Vickery’s Folk Flora lists dozens of other names for the plant, including ‘cowmack’, from the north of Scotland, as bladder campion was thought to be an aphrodisiac for cows, ‘making them desire the bull’. In Dorset, it was known as ‘white-flower-of-hell’ as it was thought to be deadly poisonous – in fact, the plant is edible, as we shall see. Finally, to continue the bovine theme, on the Isle of Wight the plant is known as ‘bull-rattle’, probably because of the sound made by the dried calyxes. I listened closely to this little patch, but could hear narry a sound. Bladder campion is a member of the Caryophyllaceae, or pink family, and is closely related to red campion, ragged robin and the various catchflies. It is native to Europe, although it is also widely naturalised in North America. Incidentally, the name ‘bladder campion’ has been used for the white campion (Silene latifolia) in the US, which is why Latin names are so useful.

Bladder campion has found itself on the menu in several parts of Europe. In Cyprus it is eaten for its green leaves and shoots, and you can buy bunches of the plant, sold as Tsakrostoukkia  or Strouthouthkia in the market. In Italy, it can be found in risotto, especially in the Veneto and Friuli regions. But it’s in Spain where it features most prominently, with people known as ‘collejeros‘ who pick the leaves (‘collejas‘). You need an awful lot of those tiny narrow leaves to make a dish of ‘widower gazpacho’ (gazpacho viudo), which features flatbreads served with a bladder campion stew.

Photo One by By Xufanc - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10397418

Chickpea and bladder campion stew (Photo One)

Bladder campion is also one of the favourite plants of the froghopper, and in Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey points out that the herbalist John Gerard called it the ‘Spatling poppie’, ‘in respect of that kind of frothie spattle, or spume, which we call Cuckow spittle, that aboundeth in the bosom of the leaues of these plants, then in any other‘. The adults are very attractive-looking insects, and are true bugs, which makes them one of my favourites.

The flowers are also said to be clove-scented, especially at night (though I associate this feature more with white campion (Silene latifolia)). They are pollinated largely by moths, who can reach inside that long calyx.

Photo Two by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21298493

Red and black froghopper (Cercopis vulnerata) (Photo Two)

I wondered if the medicinal uses for bladder campion might include treatments for cystitis or for other urinary complaints, but it seems that the Doctrine of Signatures (the belief that plants indicated what they should be used for by their physical appearance) does not seem to stretch as far as this plant. However, it has been used medicinally, as a soothing ointment for skin complaints, and as a treatment for sore eyes. In Norway, the plant was used as a cure for constipation, and was surely preferable to some of the alternatives mentioned, such as chewing horse-harness leather or eating mouse droppings.

Like all members of the family, the roots contain saponin, which is a soap substitute, and bladder campion appears to have been used for this purpose in Finland at least.

In my search for folklore related to bladder campion, my new-found favourite Finnish website also mentions that the plant is best used ‘for spells by untouched young men and maidens‘. And here is a rather delightful story, by VenetiaJane on Twitter:

In legend, an idle youth , Campion, was employed by Minerva to catch flies, placing them into a bladder bag to feed her owl. One day she found the lazy boy taking a nap so she transformed him into the white flower that we know today as bladder campion, or flycatcher‘.

Photo Three by By D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8007825

Photo Three

Now, in my search for some interesting paintings relating to this plant, I found the artist and illustrator Joris Hoefnagel. Have a look at the lovely page below, showing a bladder campion, a b broad bean and an opium poppy – a most unlikely combination, but such an accurate and loving depiction. Hoefnagel was one of the last illustrators to illuminate manuscripts (which were largely being replaced by books), and his drawings of plants and animals were a major influence on the Flemish still-life artists who were to follow.

Joris Hoefnagel (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 – 1600)
Opium Poppy, Bladder Campion, and Broad Bean, 1561 – 1562; illumination added 1591 – 1596, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 16.6 × 12.4 cm (6 9/16 × 4 7/8 in.), Ms. 20 (86.MV.527), fol. 69
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 20, fol. 69 (Public Domain)

And finally, of course, a poem. This one is by Fleda Brown, former Poet Laureate of Delaware. I love the way the image of the bladder campion flower segues into a blimp. For my readers not familiar with Horatio Alger, he was an author who wrote stories about impoverished boys who work hard to escape poverty and are rewarded by some extraordinary act of generosity by a rich person. I suspect that this is poem is mostly about hope, and its limitations.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Xufanc – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10397418

Photo Two by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21298493

Photo Three by By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8007825

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – The Search for Green

Dear Readers, I have just completed week three in my new job. The office is based in the heart of the City, round the corner from Bank and Cannon Street stations, and this is my usual lunchtime view. Note the strange skyscraper on the horizon – a friend of mine was once convinced that the country was being taken over by Owl People, and cited this (and the MI6 building at Vauxhall) as proof. Personally, I think that the Owl People might make a much better job of it all.

Anyhow, it’s fair to say that the City is bustling, fast-paced and impersonal. It makes me feel like a very small frog in a very large pond, and so I decide to do what I always do in these circumstances – try and find something alive to ground me. So, this week I explored the little area between Cannon Street and King William Street, and found some very strange things.

Right opposite the office is St Stephen Walbrook church, a most magnificent edifice. But does it have a churchyard? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.

The tower of St Stephen Walbrook.

The churchyard

Like so many spots around here, it is completely hemmed in by office buildings. This is a nice, calm, peaceable place to have a read and a think, though. It is also blessed with vast beds filled with liriope, which seems to be the plant du jour around these parts. They have the alternative name of ‘lily-turf’. Who knew?

A liriope-fest

There is a rather uninspiring modern concrete pond at the other end of the churchyard, with a dead box moth floating in it. I’m not sure that this bodes well for the hedges next year. What a pretty moth it is! I was most taken with it when I first spotted it at the Barbican, but this year there were clouds of them. The species seems to have taken to the UK with great enthusiasm, and our topiary will never be the same.

You can only exit the churchyard through the front gate – there is a very modern office block at the back of the space, but pedestrians are not allowed to walk through the atrium. There is so much private space in the City these days – I was slightly concerned that wandering about with my camera would attract some unwanted attention from the security guys who are everywhere, but I made sure that I was always taking my photos from public space.

On the way out, I spotted that Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans, was buried in St Stephens. He was also one of the original patrons of the Terence Higgins Trust (which campaigns on issues around HIV and provides services for people with the disease), and was at one point the chair of the Mother’s Union. He was a man of good conscience, and goodness knows that we need more people like him.

On the way out of the churchyard I am alarmed by this sign.

I suspect it relates to this very impressive metal fire-escape which is presumably lowered in the event of fire. I wouldn’t want to be underneath it, for sure.

I wonder if there is any other green space to be found, and the answer is ‘yes, but not for the likes of you’. There are several gardens and green spaces, all of them private.

There is at least some more liriope and some Japanese anemones to offer something for the pollinators though.

And then, I spot this.

And to the left of the sign is a small ornate wrought-iron gate. And it’s open. Well, that’s all I need.

In we go. My first surprise is that there is astroturf instead of a lawn.

And then, what on earth is this?

It appears that most of the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and that what remained was used by French Huguenots until 1820, when the rest of the church was demolished. The only part that still remains is the tower on the corner, to which I paid absolutely no attention, being distracted by the trees and the statuary. But here it is, indeed.

Photo One by By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7132872

The remaining tower of St Martins Orgar church (Photo One)

The churchyard is said to have been around since 1250, but I shall have to make the most of my visit, because, as I suspected, it is actually in private use – the very fancy picnic chairs and table should have given me a clue. I am guessing that the gate is left open so that the people who work in the office building behind the churchyard can have access. Still, at least I was able to have a quick look, and any place with astroturf is not going to do my soul good – I can just imagine the earthworms choking underneath.

It feels distinctly as if every non-human creature in the City has been squeezed into the smallest interstices between the glass and steel. Trees peer out, lean over, see themselves reflected in the mirror but can’t see one another. Maybe it’s just my mood, but it feels as if it’s a microcosm of what’s going on everywhere. However, I am determined to find somewhere a bit wilder, with a bit more room for nature. Watch this space for my meanderings.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7132872

Wednesday Weed – Tree Houseleek (Aeonium)

Tree Houseleek (Aeonium arboretum )

Dear Readers, when I wandered past my local retirement home last week I was stopped in my tracks by this magnificent succulent, which was poking its face through the fence. I am often impressed by what the residents grow in their small, west-facing gardens – one lady is growing potatoes in a bucket, while someone else is specialising in pelargoniums. This plant, however, is endemic to the floral biodiversity hotspot that is the Canary Islands – of 1600 species of plant, 680 are found naturally nowhere else in the world.  On the volcanic soils of its homeland (where it is known as the Bejeque),  the Aeonium develops into a ‘sub-shrub’, and has green leaves and bright yellow flowers. In case you wonder, as I did, what on earth a ‘sub-shrub’ is, the answer appears to be ‘a bush’.

I also wondered where the ‘houseleek’ name came from, for both this plant and for its smaller relatives. Apparently the word ‘leac’ in Anglo-Saxon meant ‘plant’, so the name literally means ‘house-plant’. I suspect that these exotic beauties have been kept indoors for a long, long time, if only because exposure to the elements in the UK normally means the end, at least for the more sub-tropical species.

Photo One by By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55094687

A wild tree houseleek on Gran Canaria (Photo One)

There are many ‘domesticated’ varieties of the plant: you might be familiar with the green version, where the leaves are edged with scarlet.

Photo Two by By Philipp Weigell - picture taken by Philipp Weigell, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4337610

The green and red version (Photo Two)

There is also a variegated version, like this one from the Exotic Gardens in Monaco.

Variegated version (Public Domain)

I have always had a soft spot for succulents as house plants: when I was a child they seemed so exotic to me, and I loved the way that you could break off a plantlet, stick it in a pot, and away it went. Sadly, I also learned that you could kill them with kindness: too much water and their shallow roots rotted, their leaves turned to mush and a favourite plant was suddenly very much an ex-plant. But with a little neglect (and a regular inspection for white-fly) they flourished. Mum would sometimes rescue the plants from her office – as soon as a plant looked ragged the plant-care company would throw it away, but Mum often came home with an enormous succulent in a black bin bag.

‘All it needs is a little love and attention’, she’d say, and within a few monts it would be magnificent. We didn’t have a lot of room in our little house in the East End, but we surely had some fine house plants.

Aeoniums are part of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) which includes not only exotics like our plant, but Alpine flowers such as the Sempervivums or sedums. What they share are adaptations for preventing waterloss: in both semi-arid areas and mountainsides there is often thin soil (which allows water to flow away quickly) and exposure (which means that the sun and wind make a plant prone to dehydration). Aeoniums have thick leaves which store moisture and resist desiccation, and these leaves can curl up if the conditions are too hot or dry, resulting in something that looks a little like a globe artichoke. Once they flower they often die, which is why it’s worth potting up a few baby plants while the plant is still growing.

Mountain Houseleek (Sempervivum montanum)

In general, Aeonium plants cannot survive frost, but there are some naturalised populations in the Scilly Islands, where they take advantage of the balmier temperatures.

Now, I didn’t expect to find that this plant was edible, but I did find a rather interesting Youtube video, where the author eats the leaves of wild-harvested Aeonium arboreum that s/he finds on the coastline in Chile in a salad with tomato and cucumber (the plant is naturalised widely in many parts of the world where the climate is favourable). The spring leaves are apparently also used medicinally, principally for heart and liver problems. You can find the whole video here and very interesting it is too, especially on the subject of why the Canary Islanders only seem to have used the plant for medicinal purposes rather than as food (short answer – when you have bananas and mangoes why would you eat succulents?)

And finally, a poem. It’s rare that I read one that makes me laugh out loud, but this one did the trick, though I fear this is not its intention. The poet, John Gray (1866 – 1934), was romantically involved with Oscar Wilde ( he was possibly the inspiration for the character of Dorian Gray). He may also have been in a dalliance with the Arthur Edmonds of the dedication, who was Gray’s co-worker at the Confidential Enquiry Branch of the Civil Service.  Gray was part of the Aesthetic movement, and I can imagine him sitting at his desk, head in hand, a bouquet of lilies dying gently on the shelf behind him. He ended up as a Catholic priest, so at least this was only a passing phase.

In the poem, the ‘metal Burns’ is thought to be a bronze statue of the poet that stands in Victoria Embankment Gardens in London. And what a work this poem is! I love the ‘leprous daisies’ and particularly the ‘foul child’ – there is such a sense of languid distaste for all things wholesome and pure that I find myself reaching for the absinthe. And yes, the link with our poor plant is tenuous to say the least, though it is at least a ‘houseleek’. You try finding a poem about Aeonium and see where it gets you  :-).

Poem 
by John Gray

To Arthur Edmonds

Geranium, houseleek, laid in oblong beds
On the trim grass. The daisies’ leprous stain
Is fresh. Each night the daisies burst again,
Though every day the gardener crops their heads.

A wistful child, in foul unwholesome shreds,
Recalls some legend of a daisy chain
That makes a pretty necklace. She would fain
Make one, and wear it, if she had some threads.

Sun, leprous flowers, foul child. The asphalt burns.
The garrulous sparrows perch on metal Burns.
Sing! Sing! they say, and flutter with their wings.
He does not sing, he only wonders why
He is sitting there. The sparrows sing. And I
Yield to the strait allure of simple things.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55094687

Photo Two by By Philipp Weigell – picture taken by Philipp Weigell, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4337610

 

 

 

 

Planning the Garden – Dry Shade

Dear Readers, as you will know I have been very neglectful of my poor garden during the past few years. But in the last few weeks there has been a flurry of cutting back and digging up (the box bushes were so well munched by box moth that it wasn’t worth keeping them) and so I am at the point of planning what to plant to keep the critters and the humans happy in the years to come.

My garden falls into two parts. It is north-facing, with heavy clay soil, and to add to the challenges, the left-hand side is extremely dry, with several medium sized trees, while the right-hand side is dominated by the pond. The garden has always been something of a challenge, but this time I am going to give it some serious thought. What can I plant that will thrive, look good, have a long season and keep the bees and other invertebrates happy? Here are my thoughts on the dry-shade part so far. Feel free to interject :-).

On the shrub front, I only really have room to add one plant, and so I am going for Oregon grape (probably Mahonia aquifolium). I have grown this before and know that it likes clay soil. My wildlife reason is that it is often the only thing in flower when queen bumblebees emerge during mild winters and early spring. I will need to plant it closer to the house, where it gets at least some sun – you can plant all the nectar-rich flowers that you like, but if the shade is too deep you will not attract very many insects.

Mahonia aquifolium

On the perennial front, my garden has long lacked hellebores, and I intend to make up that deficit this year. My Gardening for Wildlife book by Adrian Thomas mentions christmas rose but I might also look at our native species, such as stinking hellebore.

I will definitely be avoiding the pretty double-flowered varieties, which have less value for the creepy-crawlies. Hellebores are, again, early flowerers, which is a bonus.

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

I am hearing good things about some varieties of Heuchera (Coral Bells) as wildlife plants, which surprises me a little as I have always thought of them as pretty but useless. If you have any experience with this plant, do let me know. My book recommends Heuchera ‘Firefly’ in particular, but there are so many varieties these days that it makes my head spin. I have always had a penchant for the ones with lime-green foliage, especially when paired with the chocolate-brown ones. I think they remind me of the chocolate-lime sweets that I used to eat when I was a child.

Photo One by Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Heuchera sanguinea ‘Firefly’ (Photo One)

And then there is lungwort, or Pulmonaria. I love the way that the flowers change colour on this plant as each bloom is pollinated, and the spotted leaves remind me of a leopard. It’s another lovely woodland plant.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis)

Hardy geraniums will feature, of course. I already have a mass of dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) but it finishes very early in the year, and I need another plant to take up the baton. My book recommends Geranium x macrorrhizum (or Balkan cranesbill), and I noticed this doing very well in my Aunt Hilary’s garden, so I suspect it will be soon be popping up in mine! There are several varieties, with ‘Ingwerson’s Variety’ winning an RHS Order of Merit.

Photo Two by Muséum de Toulouse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) (Photo Two)

Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Ingersen’s Variety) (Photo Three)

For ground cover, I am thinking of some dead-nettles, probably Lamium maculatum, although I’ve had mixed experiences with it in the past – I think my dry shade is possibly too dry in parts even for this bruiser! I shall plant it in somewhere with a bit more sunshine this time, and am probably going to mulch everything this year as well.

Photo Four by MurielBendel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Lamium maculatum (Photo Four)

On the bulb front, I am addicted to fritillaries, and shall pop in a few more this year.

Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

There is a company in the UK called Farmer Gracy which does all manner of intriguing, and they have a remarkable selection of fritillaries that I’ve never heard of. It is the kind of website that makes one positively salivate, so be warned to hide your credit card before you pop in. I am tempted by several, including Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers’. There is also a green variety. Now that I am a working woman, maybe I’ll indulge…

Photo Five from https://www.farmergracy.co.uk/collections/fritillaria-bulbs-uk/products/fritillaria-persica-bulbs-uk

Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers (Photo Five)

Photo Six from https://www.farmergracy.co.uk/collections/fritillaria-bulbs-uk/products/fritillaria-persica-ivory-bells-bulbs-uk

Fritillaria persica ‘Ivory Bells’ (Photo Six)

And of course, no woodland garden would be complete without some foxgloves. Mine self-seeded last year, but of course they won’t flower until 2021, being biennials, so maybe I’ll find some plants that will flower this year, so that I’ll then have a succession.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

And finally, a plant that I’ve never grown but which always seems like a pollinator-magnet is honesty . It has those lovely pink flowers, transparent seed cases in the autumn, and again it self-seeds. I shall definitely have a go this year.

Honesty (Annua Lunaria)

So, that’s the plan at the moment. I am considering various other plants (grape hyacinths, squill, snowdrops), but I will soon be running out of room (my garden is not enormous in spite of my ambitions!). Next week I shall be considering what to plant in and next to my pond, which is looking more like a muddy puddle than an oasis of calm at the moment, but if you have any thoughts on dry shade plants that have done well in your experience, do let me know. I haven’t actually bought anything yet!

Wednesday Weed – Damson

Damsons at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley

Dear Readers, my local greengrocer, Tony’s Continental on the High Road in East Finchley, London, is my go-to spot for unusual produce. Some fruits and vegetables come in and out of season at such a rate that you might miss them if you blink. And now is the season for plums of all kinds: the golden-skinned Victoria, the olive-coloured greengage, and our subject today, the night-hued damson. Unlike other plums, the damson errs on the side of astringency, giving it a mouth-puckering flavour that, when tamed down a bit with something sweet, makes it one of my favourite subjects for jam.

The name ‘damson’ is thought to come from the name ‘damascene’, meaning ‘Plum of Damascus’, and one theory suggest that the plant came to the UK with the Romans. Certainly damson stones have been found at some Roman sites during archaeological digs. Damsons are probably a domesticated variety of a subspecies of the wild plum known as the Bullace, and their full species name is Prunus domestica subspecies insititia variety damascena. Wild damsons occasionally pop up in hedgerows or on woodland edges, but all wild plums are extremely variable and difficult to identify. The fruit of the damson is dark indigo, with a slight bloom of pale blue and sometimes with small patches of rust. The ones in the photo below remind me of Europa, the moon of Jupiter, although I’ll admit that they are rather more ovoid. Damsons are, as anyone who has attempted to make jam with them will tell you, of the ‘clingstone’ variety – this means that the flesh clings to the stone, making them something of a pain to prepare for jam. However, many cooks boil them up intact and remove the the stones at the end, once the fruit is pulped and split. The stones are said to impart a subtle almond flavour, largely due to the small quantity of cyanide that they contain.

Photo One by By Jonathan Billinger, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24415223

Damson on the tree (Photo One)

Europa (from NASA – Public Domain)

At one time, damsons were an extremely popular food crop – they are said to be the only plums planted north of Norfolk, and were used extensively for commercial jam-making. The plants were also used as hedging in orchards to protect more delicate trees. They were taken to North America by English settlers in the eighteenth century and were thought to thrive better in the local conditions than other plum varieties. In some places, such as Idaho, the plant naturalised and can be found growing wild.

Photo Two by By Pokrajac. - Own work., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1873088

Damson Flowers (Photo Two)

With its dark colour, it’s no surprise that damsons were reputed to have been used in local dyeing industries. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how a variety of damson called the ‘Edlesborough Prune’ (from a village near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire) was used to provide dye for the Luton hat trade, while the ‘Aylesbury Prune’ was unique to the village of Weston Turville, and was used as a dye on the straw plaiting that was a cottage industry at the time. However, contemporary experiments with using damsons as a dye have been rather disappointing in terms of the colours produced – see this post from Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour for example. One conclusion is that the fruit was probably used primarily for eating, with only damaged fruit being used for dye as a side line. Another is that the ‘damson’ used for dyeing might have been a completely different plant, or that there might have been some trick to extracting the colour. It is clear, however, that there are a multitude of different, very local varieties of wild plum with varied characteristics. What a treasure of genetic diversity they could be!

Now, to return to the subject of jam. I have three books on preserving (my cookbook collection is only outnumbered by my collection of field guides and nature books) and they all have a different approach to this fruit. In ‘Five Seasons of Jam’, Lillie O’Brien suggests making a virtue of the damson’s high pectin content to make damson ‘cheese’ (a bit like quince paste). This also has the added benefit that the fruit is cooked with the stones in and then sieved, avoiding all that tedious stoning. In my second book, ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’ by Diana Henry, there is a gratifying concentration on alcohol, with a recipe for damson and gin jam (the damsons are cooked with the stone in, and these are then skimmed off). She also has a recipe for damson gin, which is very similar to sloe gin, one of my all-time favourite tipples. This involves piercing each damson with a skewer, but it produces a most delicious, warming drink that I associate with winter and with Christmas in particular. In my final book, ‘The Modern Preserver’ by Kylee Newton, there is a recipe for damson and orange jam. Kylee suggests using the preserve instead of raspberry jam in a Bakewell tart, a thought that gets my mouth watering. Apparently damsons also freeze well, so I think I shall have to rush to Tony’s and get a bag full for one of those days when I’m not run off my feet. Making jam is a most meditative and gratifying process, but it does take a bit of time.

Incidentally, damson wine was once a common drink in England: a nineteenth century source stated that ‘good damson wine is, perhaps, the nearest approach to good port that we have in England. No currant wine can equal it.'(Damson Wine”, in Hogg and Johnson (eds) The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman, v.III NS (1862), 264)

A display of damson jam from the Beamish Museum Co-Op (Photo Three)

Now, in my research for this piece I came across the most delightful website, called ‘Damson Plums‘ by Daiv Sizer. They moved into a house with an old damson tree in the garden, and were immediately smitten by the abundance of the fruit and the low-maintenance required by the plant. Daiv has created a complete guide to everything damson related, including history, recipes and the culture surrounding the plant. I had no idea that it had featured in so many poems by so many authors, from last week’s favourite Seamus Heaney to Shakespeare and Chaucer. The fruit also appears several times in the books of George Eliot, and in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’ the character Suke Damson, a wild and buxom village maiden, is seen by one critic as being ‘the juicy plum is ripe for Fitzpier’s plucking’ (Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Bronte, Eliot and Hardy, by Eithne Henson). But for this week’s poem I shall return to another favourite, Edward Thomas. Thomas wrote this poem in 1915 while he was in Essex, teaching map-reading to officers. He had been encouraged to sign up (although he was a mature man who didn’t need to enlist) after reading his friend Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Less Travelled’ – Frost intended the poem to be a way of gently mocking Thomas’s indecision during their woodland walks, but Thomas took it much more seriously. In 1917 he died at Arras in France, having been shot through the chest. Rarely can a piece of poetry have had such a devastating effect.

There’s nothing like the sun

There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said –
Or, if I could live long enough, should say –
‘There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.’
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.

– Edward Thomas