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Wednesday Weed – Common Figwort

© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Flowers of Common Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) (Photo One – credit below)

Dear Readers, what a quiet and inoffensive plant Figwort is! I have it growing in my pond, but I first spotted it at East Finchley Station, growing alongside a drainage ditch where there was also lots of horsetail. It certainly attracts the bees, even when not in full bloom – the flowers seem perfectly bumblebee adapted.

Herbalists thought that the plants  resembled a human throat, and so they were used medicinally for tonsillitis and all kinds of ailments related to this part of the body. In particular the plant was used to treat scrofula, a form of tuberculosis that led to enlargement of the neck (hence the plant’s genus name). Long term readers might remember the Doctrine of Signatures, a belief that a plant would indicate what it was useful for by its shape, colour or scent, as if a ‘clue’ had been planted by God when the Garden of Eden was created.

Figwort is in the same family as the Buddleia and Great Mullein (the Scrophulariaceae), though you’d be hard put to notice any obvious similarities. If we’re looking at just the figworts there are over 200 species spread across the Northern Hemisphere, and telling them apart can be somewhat challenging. Are the plants in my pond Common Figwort or Water Figwort (Scrofularia auriculata) for example? I hope the latter, because otherwise I’ve been drenching my plants rather more than they’d like.

Rose chafer on young common/water figwort

Figworts are eaten by the caterpillars of the Mullein moth, and I would be very delighted to see one.

Photo Two by By Bobr267 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61678532

Caterpillar of the Mullein Moth (Curcullia verbasci) (Photo Two)

The caterpillars of the Six-striped Rustic moth (Xestia sexstrigata) also feed on figworts. The adult is subtly beautiful.

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Six-striped Rustic (Photo Three)

The jury is out concerning the plant’s edibility by humans, however. It’s said to have a foetid smell (I haven’t noticed any such problems with my plants), but in addition to the medicinal uses mentioned above, the plant has been used as an antihelmentic, which means that it’s poisonous to intestinal worms at the very least. In Mrs Grieves ‘A Modern Herbal’, she mentions that the root was used to feed the populace during  the 13 month Siege of Rochelle, but that the taste is so appalling that it would only ever be considered a famine food.

Mrs Grieve also mentions that Common Figwort was considered a lucky herb in both Ireland and Wales (where it was known as Deilen Ddu (‘good leaf’). The Medieval herbalist Gerard says that people used to wear the plant around their necks to keep themselves in good health. Furthermore, the plant was a treatment for rabies (hydrophobia), the patient being required to take:

every morning while fasting a slice of bread and butter on which the powdered knots of the roots had been spread and eating it up with two tumblers of fresh spring water. Then let the patient be well clad in woollen garments and made to take a long, fast walk until in a profuse perspiration, the treatment being continued for seven days.’

And finally, a poem. This is by John Lindley, who was the poet laureate for Cheshire in 2004, and it’s inspired by the Sandstone Ridge in that county. It is about a very specific place, but it is so full of hope that I thought I’d share today. We could all do with some inspiration, I’m sure.

Stone by Stepping Stone (John Lindley)

From ‘landfill’ to ‘lapwing’
requires more than a dip in the alphabet,
more than just a leap of faith
yet it begins
and it begins not letter by letter
but hedge by fattening hedge.

It begins as small as a bird table
and grows as wide as a field, as long as a ridge.
It begins amongst foxgloves and figwort,
in a morning of meadowsweet
and though no wild boar witness it
it is noted by hairstreak and peregrine,
by badger and owl.

It begins stone by stepping stone
and who would have thought such stones
could be engineered and sown?
Who would have thought
they could be dreamt, mapped and moulded
into more than fancy, more than symbol?

Still, it begins. From Frodsham to Bulkeley Hill.
From corridor to green corridor
a land found and refashioned
reclaims itself and swells until each corridor
is no longer measured by the wing span of a hawk
but by the circumference of its flight.

Born of a glacial shift –
a sandstone ridge,
red raw with promise,
skirts hill fort and castle.
A raven hunches like age
against the gathering mist.

Put an ear to the earth,
hear a seed splitting with new life.
Cast an eye to the hills,
see elms able again to stretch and touch fingers.
Woodland and heathland –
all are a heartland
and it is a heart that beats from Beacon Hill
to Bickerton and beyond.

It is a heart thought still,
jumpstarted by other hearts:
by landlord and farmer,
by owner and tenant,
by craftsman and labourer,
by the you and me we call a community.

It is a heart that drums
in the small frame of newt,
the slick casing of otter,
the sensual hide of deer
and grows louder,
like the echo of those lost skylarks
who went with the grassland
but now sing of recovery, sing of return.

Photo Credits

Photo One © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Two by By Bobr267 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61678532

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

At the British Museum

Dear Readers, I was at the Emperor Nero exhibition at the British Museum yesterday, and rather than overwhelm you with all the artifacts, I thought I’d just choose two that appealed to me. The exhibition tries very hard to point out that Nero wasn’t just the chap who ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, and shows many examples of Nero’s civic-mindedness, ability to cope with natural disasters and general sense of responsibility. However, there is no doubt that Nero was something of a show-off, and in particular he loved to perform in front of an audience, either playing a musical instrument or appearing in theatrical performances, particularly tragedies. So I loved this little ivory, showing a tragic actor peering out from behind his mask. This is just the kind of costume that Nero would have worn, right down to the snazzy platform shoes.

It really is the most exquisitely-carved piece, dating back to the First Century AD and found in Rome. The lighting in the exhibition is low, so it’s difficult to get all the details, but the actor is peering out from behind his mask. Sadly, I can imagine all the senators sitting watching Nero cavorting about with rictus grins on their faces, while they plan how to get rid of him. He was eventually ‘given the opportunity’ to commit suicide, and his cremation was arranged by his wet nurse, Claudia Ecloge,  and his first love, Claudia Acte, a freedwoman (the relationship was nixed by Nero’s mother Agrippina).

Here’s the second piece that caught my eye. This was recovered from a house in Pompeii, and depicts the earthquake of AD62 which occurred during Nero’s reign. Look at the way that the buildings are toppling and things are falling over! I like the anxious-looking farmer with his ox on the right, and on the left of the top photo the mounted rider on a statue appears to be on the verge of falling off.  And is that a dog hiding under the altar?

 

I love both these pieces because they make me feel closer to the people who actually lived in the Roman Empire, what with their gadding about to the theatre, and the sudden natural disasters that happened to them. Perhaps most of all, I love the sense of humour in the earthquake piece. Am I just projecting if I sense that whoever made it actually had fun in the process? It wouldn’t be true that the sculptors of the time couldn’t produce remarkably life-like sculpture if they wanted to, as the actor piece demonstrates. Let me know what you think, Readers.

The Nero exhibition finishes this Saturday (24th October), but it’s well worth catching if you have the time.

Sunday Quiz – Leaf Shapes – The Answers!

Dearest Readers, this was an absolute stinker, and I promise never to do it again. However, even so we had two great results: I awarded one mark for the correct leaf shape, and one mark for the correct plant. So, Claire got a very respectable 14 out of 20, but just pipping her to the post was FEARN with 16 out of 20.

Don’t blame me, by the way, blame the Royal Horticultural Society gardening school. Goodness knows how any one ever passes their exams 🙂

1)C) Elliptic (shaped like an ellipse) (leaf is twice as long as broad, with the broadest bit in the middle) Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Photo Two by Mehmet Karatay, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

2) D) Lanceolate ( shaped like a spear head) – Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

3) E) Perfoliate (a leaf with a base that appears to be pierced by the stem) Spring Beauty/Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)

4) G) Linear ( long and narrow) Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)

Photo Five by No machine-readable author provided. Lorenzarius assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) A) Flabellate (resembling a fan) – Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Photo Six by Dcrjsr, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) B) Ovate (egg-like with the broader part at the base) – Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

Photo Seven by By Casliber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15212665

7)H) Falcate (sickle-shaped, like the beak of a falcon) Sickle Wattle (Acacia falcata)

Photo Eight by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1079274

8)F) Spathulate (spoon-shaped) – Water Oak (Quercus nigra)

Photo Nine by Emőke Dénes, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9) L) Oval (similar to elliptical but ‘fatter’ – the width is more than half the length, widest in the middle) – Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus)

Photo Ten by Σ64, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

10) J) Obovate (shaped like an upside-down egg, with the broader part at the top) – Big-leaved Magnolia (Magnolia obvata)

Photo Eleven by Matt Lavin from https://www.flickr.com/photos/plant_diversity/6124894886

11) I) Oblanceolate (shaped like an upside-down spear head) – Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Photo Credits

Photo Two by Mehmet Karatay, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by No machine-readable author provided. Lorenzarius assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Dcrjsr, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by By Casliber – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15212665

Photo Nine by Emőke Dénes, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by Σ64, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eleven by Matt Lavin from https://www.flickr.com/photos/plant_diversity/6124894886

All other photos public domain or author’s own.

The War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Photo by Mark Hillary fromhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/markhillary/347877537

Dear Readers,  in his book ‘Where Poppies Blow’ (reviewed yesterday), John Lewis-Stempel tells the story of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), a most revolutionary response to the slaughter of the First World War, but led by a most surprising rebel. Sir Fabian Ware was a Tory who, at the age of forty-five, was too old to fight in the war, but instead became the commander of the Mobile Ambulance Unit of the Red Cross. Ware’s unit did more than transport the dead, though: it also searched for the graves of those who had been killed, largely at his urging.

The army had little time to deal with their dead, and fallen soldiers often ended up in hastily-dug, shallow graves, often dug by their comrades, with nothing but a cross whittled from branches and maybe a few scrawled words. Marking these graves with a proper wooden cross and a metal identification plate soon became the sole job of Ware’s unit, which was renamed the ‘Graves Registration Commission’.

However, this wasn’t enough for Ware, who had not only a vision of how the fallen should be commemorated, but the connections to make it a reality. In 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded, with Ware as vice-chair and Lord Derby as figurehead.

But it was how they decided to memorialise the dead that was truly radical. Get this.

The IWGC determined that all war graves should be uniform, because ‘private initiative’ would lead to the well-to-do erecting ‘costly monuments’ which would ‘contrast unkindly with those humbler ones which would be all the poorer folk could afford’. Some families, notably that of the former prime minister Gladstone, had already disinterred the bodies of relatives and repatriated them. Ware stopped the practice because it smacked of privilege. Soldiers were to be buried in the foreign fields where they fell’ (pg 311 ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel)

Ware insisted that the cemeteries and memorials were constructed of the finest available materials, and that they were designed by the greatest architects of the day, including Sir Edwin Lutyens. By 1927 the IWGC had overseen the construction of more than 500 permanent cemeteries, with over 400 headstones, and had also built memorials to the missing close to the sites of some of the fiercest World War One battles, such as Thiepval and the Ypres Salient (commemorated by the memorial at the Menin Gate). The Menin Gate memorial holds the names of 54,000 of the missing, but a further 34,000 who died at Ypres had to be commemorated on a separate monument at Tyne Cot, close to Passchendael in Belgium.

The Menin Gate memorial, photo by Johan Bakker

Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing (Photo by Gary Blakeley)

Right from the start, the War Graves cemeteries and memorials were thought to be gardens of remembrance rather than just ‘depositories for the deceased’. I always find the simplicity of the designs, the egalitarian nature of those rows of stones very moving: however hierarchical the army was, men and officers lay here together, as they did when they died. And there’s something about the lawns and the flowers that seems like a quintessential English garden of a certain era to me. They are certainly peaceful places, full of bird song and the buzzing of bees. I’m reminded of the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, ‘God’s Garden’. I find this verse strangely moving, even as a non-Christian. After so much bloodshed and suffering, I can only hope that there is peace.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.

The War Graves in East Finchley Cemetery

 

Open University Year 2

Dear Readers, it’s that time of year when thoughts turn to things academic, and this year’s Open University course looks like a doozy. We have one module per week, on subjects varying from plate tectonics to ecological interactions, from the quantum realm to DNA. This week, we are all getting our heads around picometres (which is ten to the power of minus twelve for those of you with a mathematical bent) and nanometres and giga-this and micro-that, plus orders of magnitude and scientific notation.

Next week we are freezing various solutions of bicarbonate of soda in our freezers and recording how long they take to freeze. My new tutor has invited us to take photos of the resultant ‘mush’, which I think bodes well for the sense of humour quotient for the course.

So, this is by way of saying that although I intend to keep blogging daily, my posts might be (a) more frivolous, (b) more varied and most importantly  (c) shorter. Bear with me, folks! This degree ain’t gonna earn itself.

Hope For the Future

Dear Readers, as I walked around the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green yesterday, my thoughts turned to the act of faith that is involved in gardening, and particularly in planting things. Every autumn, I plant some bulbs in the hope that they will come up in the spring, and that I will be there to see them. The planning that’s involved, the vision in my head (that never quite matches what actually happens) and the idea of the future all seem to me to give us a delusion of control that is comforting and uplifting, even if it isn’t actually true. The bulb may get eaten by squirrels, we might get run down by the proverbial bus, our house might be compulsorily purchased for HS2 and yet we still carry on, throwing our dreams into the future. We keep our fingers crossed, put the effort in, and sometimes we are rewarded, sometimes now. I think that gardening is a lesson in perseverance and humility, and it always exercises my creative muscle like almost nothing else.

I have two focuses (focii?) for my purchasing today. One is for the shady area around the pond, where I’m going to plant some candelabra primulas, having seen a spectacular display of them at Compton Acres gardens in Poole when I was a child, although I can’t see any mention of them on their website. I’m going to plant some grape hyacinths in the area as well, as they’ll hopefully provide some cover for the frogs, and if they’re invasive I don’t mind. I am a sucker for new varieties, hence the ‘Night Eyes’ and the ‘Grape Ice’ in the photo above, but I suspect that the good old-fashioned blue Armeniacum muscari will do best. Somewhere in this area I planted some lily of the valley as well, but goodness only knows where. I’ll have to wait until they pop up (or don’t).

I also could resist some more of the Sicilian honey garlic (Nectascordum siculum). I note that the good folk at the bulb company have rebranded the plant as ‘honey lily’. Maybe the ‘garlic’ bit is putting people off. It was my favourite plant of last year, once I’d worked out what the hell it was, having forgotten that I’d planted it.

And in the south-facing front garden, I’m going all guns blazing for crocuses. They’ll have to be in pots, as there’s only a narrow strip of soil which is completely taken up with buddleia and lavender, but at least the early bees will get something. I may well get a few more packets once I’ve got these in and have worked out how many spare pots I have, as they are so cheerful and punch well above their weight in terms of attractiveness to pollinators. I’m trying to extend the planting season from February through April, so let’s see how we get on. I am sometimes raided by squirrels at the front of the house as well as the back, but I think they prefer tulips so maybe they’ll toddle on and annoy someone who is planting them.

Anyhow, lovelies, I wanted to finish this post with a few words about my lovely friend J. I normally visit the garden centre with her, and she often shops for plants for her Mum –  we usually spend a few minutes while J rings her Mum to confer on the correct colours for the cyclamen, or which variety of pansies to buy. But J’s Mum spent her 84th birthday in hospice on Saturday and  if you have a few minutes to just wish her well in your heart, or say a quick prayer if that is what you do, I am sure that it will help. We are all held in a net of connections, both in ‘real life’ and virtually these days, and those moments of kindness and support are what help to keep the darkness out.

And good luck with your gardening! Let me know if you have plans for the spring, even if it’s just a pot on the windowsill. Every little helps.

Sunday Quiz – Poems of Harvest – The Answers

Title photo by Marc-Lautenbacher, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Canadian Harvest Festival (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, I think this was mega-difficult, but even so Claire got 30 out of 30 (one point for identifying the fruit or vegetable, one point for the title, one point for the author) and Fran and Bobby Freelove got 27 out of 30. Well done to everyone, and I think for Sunday’s Quiz we might have something a bit more identification-related :-)…..

  1. Figs, from the poem ‘Figs’ by D.H.Lawrence

  2. Plums, from the poem ‘This is to Say’ by William Carlos Williams

  3. Blackberries, from the poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’ by Seamus Heaney

4. Apples, from the poem ‘After Apple-Picking’ by Robert Frost

5. Potato, from the poem ‘Potato’ by Jane Kenyon

6. Carrot, from the poem ‘Carrot’ by James Bardolino

7. Corn, from the poem ‘Sweetcorn’ by Isabella Mead

8. Pear, from the poem ‘Pear’ by Paisley Rekdal

9. Cherry, from the poem ‘Cherry Ripe’ by Thomas Campion

10. Barley, from the poem ‘Barley’ by Ted Hughes

 

A Walk in Waterlow Park

View of St Joseph’s Church, Highgate from Waterlow Park

Dear Readers, as you stagger up the hill from Archway to the heady heights of Highgate, you might be tempted to stop in Waterlow Park. For one thing, they have a very nice cafe, and I can recommend the cheesecake brownie. For another, the grounds are rather lovely at any time of year, and there is a kitchen garden to admire and several borders that are full of pollinator-friendly plants. 

The park was originally the grounds of Lauderdale House, which dates back to the 1580s and was the home of the Dukes of Lauderdale. Following relentless ‘improvements’ and a fire in the 1960s nothing of the Tudor building remains, but there are still rumours that Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s mistress, used to live there, and the poet Andrew Marvell also had a house in the grounds. The estate was bought by Sir Sidney Waterlow, Lord Mayor of London, who leased the site to St Bartholemew’s Hospital as a convalescent home in 1872. I can’t help thinking that convalescent homes were a great idea which should be brought back into service, but I digress. Then in 1889 Waterlow donated the estate to the London County Council as a ‘garden for the gardenless’. Looking at the range of people using it when we visited, I can’t help thinking what a generous gesture this was. The park suffered a period of neglect in the 1980s and 1990s but was restored with a grant from the Lottery Fund in 2001, and is now in the loving hands of the London Borough of Camden.

There are three ponds, all fed by natural springs. In spite of the signs asking people not to feed the ducks, the number of pigeons, moorhens and ducks who looked hopefully at us as we walked past makes me think that many folk are just doing what comes naturally.

Young moorhen

Adult coot. Look at the feet!

Foot close-up!

Young heron

Pretty hybrid duck

We found this astonishing oak tree, which may have been struck by lightning and then vandalised by some idiot setting a fire inside the hollow. I’m pleased to report that it still has leaves and seems to be doing fine in spite of the nonsense.

We take a wander down to the kitchen garden and amidst the sweetcorn and the cabbages there are these sunflowers, still abuzz with bees in spite of the cold.

The church of St Josephs towers over the park – it was originally established in 1858 by Father Ignatius Spencer, who had converted to the Roman Catholic faith and was a member of the Passionist order, who have a special mission to evangelise on the meaning of the Passion of Christ. The church itself opened in 1889, and a very fine building it is too, with its copper dome estimated to weigh 2000 tonnes. The cost was so great that the church wasn’t consecrated until 1932 when the debt for building it was cleared.

In addition to the church itself there is a community of Passionist fathers who live on the site. Their way of life is described below:

“The Passionists make a special promise to promote the Memory of the Passion of Jesus by word and deed. They do this especially in preaching and in various ministries among the poor and the marginalised of every kind in whom they see the Crucified today.

Another characteristic of the Passionists is their life in community. Passionist fraternity means that everything is held in common. Time is given to community prayer and to the contemplative dimension of life. Passionists are active contemplatives who, in a creative way, unite contemplation and an active pastoral life.” (from the St Josephs Highgate website).

But of course, in addition to the cake I visit places for the plants. And here is a quick view of some of the borders. Notice the sedums, the cosmos, the verbena boniarensis and the rudbeckias. There’s something here for pollinators of all kinds just as they head into their winter hibernation.

Waterlow Park has lots going for it – there are a variety of playgrounds for children and young people, the ponds, the cafe and a variety of art and musical events at Lauderdale House throughout the year (I’ve certainly gone to a very nice crafts/antiques market). But it also has places which are peaceful, where you can sit and read a book and gaze at the trees and feel a sense of serenity gradually seeping into your bones. I shall definitely visit again.

A Wet Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, as we come to the end of our holiday, even the weather seems to be colluding with my low mood. The pathetic fallacy (the idea that nature reflects our thoughts and feelings) was alive and well in East Finchley on Saturday, as I grumbled through the drizzle and raindrops dripped off my nose.

Grumble, moan, grumble, moan. What pleasant company I must have been for a whole half hour, as I paused to take photos in the rain and to dab the raindrops from my camera lens. My long-suffering husband took it all with a barely supressed grin. He knows that something will soon happen to distract my attention and to make me aware that nature is just going about her business and could care less about me having to go back to work.

Look at this tiny mushroom, for instance, heralding the start of fungi season. All summer long the fungi have been growing underground, and any day soon their fruiting bodies will burst forth as if by magic. It is a sign of autumn, and that’s my favourite season, so already I can feel my mood lift.

When we first moved to our house in Seven Kings when I was fourteen, we woke one morning to see a perfect fairy ring of fungi in the garden. The mushrooms were purest white, and of differing sizes. We stood agape at their surprising perfection. There was a very old apple tree in the garden (which sadly fell down the following year), so maybe this was related to the phenomenon. I rather like the alternative interpretation, that the rings are caused by the tiny feet of dancing elves or fairies, although the consequences for a mortal enticed into the centre of the ring can be disastrous: it was said that the person became invisible to anyone outside, and that the fairies might try to keep the mortal imprisoned forever.

Photo One by By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=374929

A fairy ring of Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis) mushrooms (Photo One)

Help is at hand, though! Touching the enchanted person with iron or a branch from a rowan tree might help to lift the spell, and throwing wild marjoram or thyme can also befuddle the fairies. If you are tempted to pop into a fairy ring, you should first run around it nine times under a full moon, and in the direction of the sun. Doing a tenth lap is apparently a recipe for disaster.

It’s strange how the sight of a single mushroom can bring back some many memories.

On we go, with the rain heavier but my heart lighter. We decide to stick to the leafier parts of the cemetery, and I am suddenly much taken by the bark on this tree.

Judging by the leaves, I would say that this is a goat willow (Salix caprea), but I have never seen one with such a lattice-like pattern on the trunk. This must be quite an old tree – goat willows can live to 300 years and grow to 10 metres tall. This one can’t be far off that height. Also known as the pussy willow, this tree is an invaluable source of early pollen for bees, and I remember seeing one at Crossbones Graveyard in South London that was absolutely covered with honeybees on a warm spring day.

Willow bark from all species contains salicin, from which aspirin is derived: in medieval times the bark was chewed to alleviate toothache, which just goes to show that our ancestors were well attuned to the different characteristics of wild plants, even without knowing the chemical justification. The bark was also boiled in water and used to treat sore throats and to reduce the joint pain from arthritis, surely one of humanity’s most ancient banes. I remember seeing the skeleton of a stone-age person who had lived into middle-age, and her joints were eaten up with arthritis. I hope she was able to use some of nature’s painkillers to ease her suffering.

And then we emerge onto one of the avenues in the cemetery, the rain lifts just a little, and I stop to look back.

The horse chestnuts are shedding their leaves and their conkers, but there is a brief golden glow as a stray sunbeam grazes the tops of the trees. And then the rain really starts, so we hustle back home for a feta and spinach slice from Tony’s Continental (our local greengrocer) and a nice cup of tea. Yet again, the nature cure seems to have worked.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Common Hemp-nettle

Common Hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit)

Dear Readers, I have a great fondness for dead-nettles, and have written about many of them: there’s white dead-nettle, red dead-nettle and hedge woundwort, black horehound and yellow archangel, bugle, self-heal and ground-ivy. They are called dead-nettles because their leaves have a superficial resemblance to those of stinging nettles,  but they don’t cause any skin irritation, and are much loved by pollinators. So, I always have my eyes open for a new species, and was much pleased to find this common hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) with its pale pink flowers positively exploding out. This plant is less common than those on my list above, and is usually found in disturbed ground around arable fields, exactly where I spotted these plants in Dorset. I love the whorls of calyxes where the flowers have emerged and left a kind of vegetative sea-urchin shape.

This is a native plant, described as ‘common’, so I wonder how often I’ve passed it by. Like all members of the dead-nettle family it’s much favoured by bumblebees, giving it it’s alternative name of ‘bee nettle’. Like many members of the Lamiaceae it can be difficult to identify (in a previous post I’ve already named it as ‘henbit deadnettle’, which it clearly isn’t), but Plantlife mentions that the stem in this species is swollen just where the leafstalks begin, which isn’t clear in the photos but I do remember from the actual plant. It also hybridises with the bifid hemp-nettle (Galeopsis bifida) which doesn’t help, and it may well be a natural hybrid between the downy hemp-nettle (Galeopsis pubescens) and the large-flowered hemp-nettle (Galeopsis speciosia). There’s a much better photo of the flower below, but bear in mind it can also be pink, as mine were.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125208

Common hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) (Photo One)

According to the Flora of the USSR (a 25 volume work by V.L. Kamorov and referenced by the Plants for a Future website), Common hemp-nettle is poisonous, but I find this a little surprising, as most of the rest of the family are known as herbs. Don’t take any chances though, peeps. The Glossary of Indian Medical Plants (also referenced by Plants for a Future) mentions that the plant is used for the treatment of tissue-wasting and pulmonary complaints.

An oil from the seeds has been used as a polish for leather, and apparently fibre from the stems can be used to make cord (hence the ‘hemp-nettle’ designation).

I can’t find any human edible uses for the plant, which rather backs up the idea that it might be poisonous, but marsh and coal tits are said to be partial to the seeds.

Apparently the genus name ‘Galeopsis‘ means ‘weasel-like’, probably a reference to the shape of the flower which could resemble a weasel’s snout if you squint. The ‘tetrahit‘ species name probably refers to the pattern of four leaves around the stem, though I can’t find an exact equivalent.

And finally, a poem. As you might expect, a search for ‘common hemp-nettle poem’ comes up with nothing. But wait! Here’s a poem by Louise Glück, which mentions the way that many dead-nettles are plants of damp, dark places (including our plant, which was growing in a very shady lane). The mention of the silver leaves makes me think of the garden variety of yellow archangel. See what you think.

Lamium by Louise Glück

This is how you live when you have a cold heart.
As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock,
under the great maple trees.

The sun hardly touches me.
Sometimes I see it in early spring, rising very far away.
Then leaves grow over it, completely hiding it. I feel it
glinting through the leaves, erratic,
like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon.

Living things don’t all require
light in the same degree. Some of us
make our own light: a silver leaf
like a path no one can use, a shallow
lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.

But you know this already.
You and the others who think
you live for truth, and, by extension, love
all that is cold.

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125208