On Windmill Hill

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The old windmill is a much loved landmark, seen from many quarters as you approach Much Wenlock. To reach it you can take the Linden Walk which brings you to the wooded flanks of Shadwell hill. Or you can walk across the Linden Field to the far corner where there is an old iron gate that opens onto the well worn trail up to the windmill. It’s a steepish climb mind you, but at this time of year there’s plenty of reasons to stop and gaze: every few steps a fresh wildflower panorama to take in, the scents of summer grasses and of lady’s bedstraw.

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Along the path where the footfalls of Wenlock’s denizens have worn the topsoil to bare rock – wild thyme – a mass of tiny purple flowers, spills over the exposed limestone. There is also pale pink musk mallow, seemingly clinging to the most meagre soil cover. Then by contrast, on either side the path is an exuberant  floriferousness, typical of an unspoiled limestone meadow: a host of flowering grasses whose names, I’m sorry to say, I do not know, purple pyramidal orchids, pale yellow spires of agrimony, golden stars of St. John’s Wort, pink soapwort and pea flower, purple knapweed, yellow vetch and buttercups, pink and white striped bindweed, viper’s bugloss, musk thistles and clovers. One could spend all day up here and not see everything.

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Tree Square #4 This month Becky wants to see trees (header shot) in square format.

Mysterious In Monochrome: Digitalis purpurea

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Foxgloves – also known as Fairy Gloves, Lion’s Mouth and Witches’ Fingers – have long featured in herbal medicine, the leaves used as infusions and compresses. But it was in the 1780s that William Withering, Shropshire-born botanist and physician, discovered the plant’s most potent use is for the slowing and strengthening of the heartbeat. In 1785 he published An account of the foxglove in which he outlined his findings and the results of his clinical trials. Foxgloves are also highly toxic, so getting the precise dosage was absolutely critical. Nevertheless, efficacy won over potential risk and eventually the active principles, digitoxin and digoxin were isolated and purified. These are still used in mainstream medicine, though the source of choice is a European species Digitalis lanata.

In his Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey also tells the story of how my corner of Shropshire on Wenlock Edge played its part during World War II when the import of European foxglove supplies was foiled by war. Apparently the foxgloves growing on certain areas of eroded limestone were especially potent. And until 1949 large quantities of the plants were also gathered across the county by members of Women’s Institutes, the leaves put to dry in nets in bakery lofts and clothes drying rooms.

The foxglove in the photo is growing in a shady corner of the garden. It brought itself there a while back and in real life is of a colour more rosy pink than purple. In monochrome, though, there’s a compelling eeriness about it. Witches’ thimbles, eh.

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: flowers

Wild Arum Days

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Here is another woodland find from Monday’s wood chip scrounging mission in the Linden Field. Freshly opened too among the Dog’s Mercury, this arum lily looks like a dryad’s lantern.

The flower’s mysterious (not to say phallic) looks have earned it a host of country names over the centuries, many obviously, but not so obviously, of the lewd variety. For instance the seemingly innocuous Lords and Ladies would have had particular connotations in its day. The same with Cows and Bulls. And the more modern Willy Lily is downright rude. I’ve always known it as Cuckoo Pint, the pint pronounced as in pint of beer. But back in the day it would, most likely, have been pronounced to rhyme with mint. In the sixteenth century, pint was an abbreviated version of pintle, slang for penis.

Other names are Red-hot-poker, Devils and Angels, Adam and Eve, Friar’s Cowl, and Wake Robin. There are many more. And it’s making me think of that classic anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ contention in his book The Savage Mind, that human beings have ever used their observations of the natural world to think by. Food for thought in every sense – a trigger for metaphor and story-telling makings, the narrative impulse that defines human nature.

So I’m treasuring the bawdy names, even if I’ve often missed their meaning. Irreverent they may be, but then irreverence may be the only antidote we have to what Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, called “the colonisation of the mind.”

Bright Squares #28

Bright Glade

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Yesterday morning I set off across the Linden Field on one of my periodic scavenging missions. I’d found the stash back in the winter when it was frozen into a craggy hummock: too hard to prise open the constituent parts. We’re talking about wood chips here. Last year one of the oaks at the top of the field where it meets the foot of Windmill Hill had shed a large branch. The brash was duly shredded and left in a heap by the boundary fence. And what a sight to gladden this gardener’s heart, though I had to wait for it to dry out, first after the thaw, and then after weeks of rain.

It is amazingly useful stuff. Firstly it’s good to add to the garden and kitchen waste that goes into our hot compost bin. Secondly it makes an excellent mulch for the home flower borders. Thirdly, and mostly, I use it at the allotment where I pile it on layers of cardboard set between the raised beds; this in a bid to maintain weed-free paths. When, after a year or two, when the cardboard has melted and the chippings begun to break down, the whole lot can be added to the allotment compost bins, and the cardboard laying and scavenging begins again.

And so that was my mission – out in the brilliant sunshine and still frosty, frosty air to collect fresh path makings. Of course I always take the camera too, which meant that when I reached the heap, I was at once distracted by bluebells. There they shimmered on the flanks of Windmill Hill, proper native bluebells:

through the light/they came in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue…

Gerard Manley Hopkins Journal May 1871

Bright Square #27

A Brightness Of Wild Garlic

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Today, up on the Linden Field, I found the wild garlic is all set to flower. I’d rather forgotten about  harvesting the leaves. Now there is a lush Ramsons verge the entire length of the lime tree avenue. And there are carpets of them too along the old railway embankment and in the woods below Windmill Hill. It’s not too late to gather the leaves either, though best to be picky and opt for the newest growth. The flowers can be used too, cooked in soups or raw in salads and pesto sauce. Both leaves and flowers are fairly mild in flavour and consumption provides the added benefit of pepping up the constitution since they are rich in vitamins K and C. The only drawback for many is the smell. It can be especially pungent on warm afternoons and earned it names such as Stinking Nanny and Stink Bomb. But garlicky odours aside, the freshly opening flowers do a fine job, creating their own terrestrial starscapes, lighting up the woods and shady peripheries.

Bright Square #26

Dandelion Dilemmas

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The dandelion is surely a plant to be reckoned with – whether you see it as wild flower, weed or herbal pharmacopoeia. You certainly can’t beat them for brightness. Or for persistence.

When I’m wearing my gardener’s hat, which is mostly, their presence in and around the vegetable plots infuriates me, and I gouge them up as soon as I spot them. Yet this is probably counter productive. I’ve read that the plant’s pugnacious tap root thrusts down through unpromising soil and unlocks nutrients from below. A huge advantage then. Also, the roots, if you do dig them up, can be roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute, and though it may not match up to your favourite Arabica, will at least give your liver a good clean out.

The leaves, popularly used in French salads (and inspiring the original name ‘lion’s tooth’ dent de lion) act on the urinary system, hence the many other much ruder old country names: Jack-piss-the-bed, Tiddle-beds, Old man’s clock to mention only a few.

But old country lore aside, scientific studies have shown that the plant is bursting with nutrients: minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Even the flowers are edible, though apparently tasting best before they open. Well! I did once see a recipe for dandelion flower fritters, and they certainly looked very pretty. Perhaps instead of casting them as villains of the plot, I should welcome them as a most useful, free and therapeutic crop. As with most things in life, much depends on your chosen perspective.

Bright Square #25

Of Windflowers And Pileworts

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That would be wood anemones and lesser celandines – the bright stars of English wildflowerdom. The celandines have been flowering for weeks and weeks and usually are among the first spring bloomers. It’s hard not to smile when you first spot their mini-sunbursts popping out the dreary over-wintered grass.

This year they have also colonised our front flower bed that runs down to the road. There must have been hosts of seeds among the wood chippings that I gathered up last year after tree and branch felling in the Linden Field. A double bonus then: first the autumn mulch, then an unforeseen spring flowering. They grow very low to the ground in coronets of lush green leaves, and so have most discreetly filled gaps between the daffodil clumps. I expect I’ll let them stay. The pilewort common name of course denotes an old herbal application.

I’m not expecting any wood anemones to emerge from the front garden mulch. As their name suggests, they prefer wooded terrain, or at least ground where woodland once was. I found the one in the photo growing beside the path between the Linden Field and Windmill Hill, under the oaks and conifers, keeping company with primroses and violets and dog’s mercury and wild arum. Legend has it that only the wind will make them open their delicate petals. I beg to differ. When I took this one’s photo it was embracing the sun full-on, as you can see. The next day when I returned to the same spot, the anemones were all hanging their heads and shivering in the cold wind. With no sunshine on offer, they looked like bedraggled waifs, much hard-done-by.

Today in Shropshire the snow flurries have stopped. We have sun and wind. A good moment then to check on the plant life in the Linden Field, and also to gather supplies from a fresh cache of wood chips from a felled oak tree. They chips are brilliant for allotment paths and dosing the hot compost bin. The things one does!

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Copyright 2021 Tish Farrell

Bright Square #8

The Changing Seasons ~ And So Many Of Them In June

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I’ve read, just the other day in fact, that rain and dew drops caught in the leaves of Lady’s Mantle were much sought after by alchemists. They called them ‘moon water’, a deemed essential ingredient in the making of the philosopher’s stone, which in turn would change base metal into gold.

This plant’s transformative powers are also suggested in the old common name alkmelych  (alchemy) and preserved too in its botanical name Alchemilla vulgaris. Today medical herbalists prescribe it as a gynaecological tonic, in particular for balancing menopausal symptoms or resolving irregular menstrual cycles. The leaves and flowers are made into an infusion.

Anyway, the reason I mention this and indeed took the header photo is down to those big juicy drops. They mark the most transforming-transformative element of the month of June: RAIN. After a long dry spring, many weeks wherein our stolid Silurian soils set hard as concrete round limp and fainting plant life, we have finally had some good downpours; some of them quite torrential (as in stair rod assaults). We have also had hail and thunder. And in between, some over-heated sun-soaked days that made us think we had gone to the Mediterranean (while blissfully saved the airport check-in). But now, as the month comes to a close, the weather is more like late September – wind, drizzle, coolness and gloom. The allotment cabbage plots are happy though: just their kind of climate.

Surprisingly the dry spell has not noticeably curtailed production. Already garden harvest time is in full swing: peas, beetroot, lettuce, first potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, courgettes and broad beans. We’ve also had so many globe artichokes this year, I’ve had to prepare them en masse as hearts, braising them in olive oil and garlic. They can be eaten hot or cold.

As one crop finishes, so there is ground to clear, which means planning for the mid to late summer sowing and planting. Still lots to think about then. Mostly I’m thinking about fennel, various kinds of endives/chicories, carrots and spinach.

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Around the town the paths and lanes, and especially the Linden Walk have been drenched in lime flower scent. It is astonishing how these tiny green-gold, dusty looking  inflorescences  can produce such a heady perfume. They do of course have highly sedative properties  and should only be used with great care. No harm in some heavy sniffing though – as one passes by.

Early one morning, during the hot spell, I was doing just that, on my way to visit Windmill Hill. At 7 a.m. the sun was lighting up a lime tree by the children’s playground; the warmed perfume stopped me in my tracks: honeysuckle tempered with strains of citrus. Aaah!  Up on Windmill Hill there were however distinct signs of the recent drought. June is the time of the annual orchid count. It was corona-ed this year of course, but anyway, there were only a few pyramidal orchids to be seen there. Hopefully their little tubers have not been totally desiccated and are saving themselves for more salubrious conditions next year. (Aren’t we all). Even the Lady’s Bedstraw was struggling to bloom. Usually the hillside below the windmill is a mass of limestone meadow flowers in early summer. There were at least some very handsome musk thistles.

Another noteworthy wildlife sighting this month has been the large number of scarlet tiger moths about the place. Soon there will be a lot more if the scene in our back garden flowerbed is anything to go by. At rest they are not always so immediately noticeable: cream and amber spots on black. But in flight there are flashes of scarlet ‘skirts’ as they dart by. Very fetching.

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The Changing Seasons: June 2020  Please visit Su who hosts this challenge – not only for her lovely photos, but also for a very delicious soup recipe.

P.S. Cannot fathom this new system or how to put galleries where I want them. Hmph!

Wild Rose ~ One Single Flower

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This year there is a slender tumble of dog roses beside the field hedge gap into the allotment. The hedge grows particularly tall just here, a straggle of self-seeded tree saplings and hawthorn in the shadow of a spreading ash tree. At first it seems a puzzling place for Rosa canina  to take up residence. So much deep shade. I’d certainly not seen wild roses growing there before, though they once scrambled over the sunny hedgerow further down the field. But then that was before last autumn’s hedge cutting, when the farmer’s tractor-mounted slash ‘n mash device grubbed them up as it passed. So perhaps this new briar, flowering now in less likely surroundings, is an expression of survival, the ash tree’s stalwart presence ensuring swift retraction of the cut and ravage blades; providing sanctuary from an indiscriminate uprooting. Perhaps we all need an ash tree in some form or another.

The photo was taken back in May as I headed home after a spot of evening gardening.

Lens-Artists: One Single Flower 

This week Cee has set the theme, inspired by her favourite quotation from the Buddha: “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.

Communing With Orchids On Windmill Hill

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Yesterday morning he who presently spends his time making a scale model of a static steam engine, surprised me by abandoning house and shed to take part in the orchid count on Windmill Hill. We had the first count last year, but this year the orchids are far more numerous. The hill is in the care of the Windmill Trust, a group of local volunteers, and in the past the limestone grassland was mostly kept in check by a flock of small ponies, brought in to graze at the end of summer. Unfortunately the little ponies had to be sold, so last year at summer’s end  the Windmill Trust had the hill mowed, the hay baled and dispatched to the local riding centre and the ground harrowed. It’s certainly given the purple pyramidal orchids a boost, though later when I went up the hill to see for myself, apart from the pyramids, I could only find this single Bee Orchid and one Spotted Orchid, though I was probably a bit late for the latter; they anyway prefer the parts of the hill where the soil is less calcareous.

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With all the rain we’ve had, the grasses are knee-high and the orchids not as conspicuous as they usually are. But there are also masses of other limestone meadow flowers: wild thyme, mallow, agrimony, viper’s bugloss, knapweed, thistles, ladies bedstraw, hop trefoil, vetches, yellow rattle, cinquefoil, brambles, St. John’s Wort and hawkweeds. The place was alive with insects too – not only bees, but also blue damsel- and dragon flies and masses of Meadow Brown and Small Heath butterflies. Also a Common Blue. I didn’t see the peregrine falcon though that Graham had seen in the morning, but I went home thinking what a treasure place is Windmill Hill.

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P.S. Hot off the press come the orchid count results: 3,574 pyramidal orchids (compared to 864 last year); 129 spotted orchids; 15 bee orchids.

 

Six Word Saturday