Last week I found an arum lily behind our garden fence. On Sunday afternoon I found another fine specimen growing in the shade of the lime tree walk in our nearby Linden Field. I had gone there to photograph the lime trees coming into leaf, and the avenue was a haven of leaf shadow and dappled light, and wonderfully cool in our unexpected heatwave. There was also the heady whiff of wild garlic. The plants whose leaves I had been cropping earlier in the year were bursting with white star flowers. You can eat those too. But you definitely can’t eat the arum lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint (pint to rhyme with mint), Lords-and-Ladies, Parson in the pulpit and Willy lily – though the roots were apparently once crushed to make household starch for crisping up Elizabethan ruffs (Richard Mabey Flora Britannica).
Spotted over the garden fence yesterday.
Wood Anemone . Anemone nemorosa . Windflower . Grandmother’s Nightcap
I hadn’t meant to go wild flower hunting. I was only intending a quick dash along the old railway embankment beside the Linden Walk. A bunch of wild garlic leaves was the objective. They had started appearing soon after the second snow, and I’ve been cropping them on and off since early February. Now all the shady ground either side the former track bed is carpeted in clumps of lush, green, garlicky leaves.
I’ve found that chopping them into a jar and steeping them for a week or so in unfiltered cider vinegar makes for a delicious salad dressing ingredient. You can also treat this as a general spring tonic – a dessert spoonful in a big glass of water. The leaves are also good in a pesto sauce instead of basil, and you can chop them with abandon into soups, curries and casseroles. When they start to flower, you can use the tiny white florets too.
Anyway, as I picking my way through the undergrowth I came upon the wood anemones creating their own little galaxies under the lime trees. They are one of the loveliest of our spring flowers, and their presence is an indicator of ancient woodland. In his Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey also says they do not seed, but their roots spread very slowly in dappled shade. If you spend some time with them, you will see how they turn their faces always towards the sun. Less appealingly, their foliage is said to have the musky odour of foxes, though I can’t say I noticed any such smell when I sniffed the leaves.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
Dare one say it – suddenly spring seems more intentional, as if it’s meaning to stay for more than five minutes? These lesser celandines were blooming hell for leather yesterday when I was delivering stuff to the allotment. Even the spider seems to be having a bit of a sun bathe (apologies arachnophobes) rather than being sneekily on the hunt.
Things being transported to the plot included three black bin bags of leaves gathered from mother-in-law’s lawn (they will take a couple of years to turn into very useful leaf mould) and twenty new seven-foot canes. These last are not for this year’s runner beans, but for peas. After seeing last summer’s mega-pea-crop success of fellow allotmenteer, Dave, I thought I would give climbing pea Alderman a go. This is a heritage variety, apparently favoured by ‘good old boys on their allotments’, and not much to be found elsewhere.
You need to treat them like runner beans using plenty of tall supports because they may end up growing six to eight feet tall i.e. heading for around 2 metres. The beauty of this variety is that it crops without surplus production over several months. Whereas modern pea varieties tend to produce all at once, which is why you need to sow the seed successionally e.g. every couple of weeks, which can be a faff if you lose track of time.
At the moment the pea seeds are just germinating (I sow in trays due to allotment mice), and yesterday I moved the first batch into the cold frame, so I truly am hoping that winter has gone. I will report back in a few months time on how this good old girl is getting on with the Alderman.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
You have to be out of bed rather earlier than I am to catch the Morning Glories unfurling. That is probably lesson number one: be up and doing earlier in the day; nurture the creative impulse before the world of dreaming totally recedes and mundane matters like doing the washing impose.
Then there is the lesson of making the most of opportunities as they arise, and at least here I came up to scratch. I dashed outside in my night attire to capture this scene. The hoverfly will feast. The Morning Glory will be pollinated. And I am watching, recording and posting. Everyone wins.
All the same, on the side lines my writer’s nerves are jangling. There are other lessons here. For one thing I have several works in stasis, projects that I dearly wish to complete. But for some reason I’m not attending to any of them. The danger is that procrastination may soon transmogrify into something toxic – a stultifying sense of failure that in turn becomes a downward spiral of non-doing and self-recrimination. The writer’s vicious circle.
But wait! I’m hurrying back to see what has happened to the Morning Glory. By late afternoon the sky coloured canopy of the day’s high hopes has imploded – the colours deepening, bruise-like. It is hard not to feel a pang of loss for such swiftly passing loveliness.
Yet there is a beauty here too in the subtle end-of-spectrum shades. Not failure, but process. Deep within the crumpled sheath things are happening. The hoverfly has done its work. There will be fruit in the making, new seeds to ripen and sow. Tomorrow is another day. Another chance to bloom. Time to get back to work then.
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell
P.S. For more beauty in decay, pop over to Sue Judd’s blog. It is a theme she explores in many arresting photo essays
Naturally I would have to say that nothing compares with the hazy woodland swathes of British bluebells; their slender spires gently nodding; the subtle fragrance that not quite like any other scent.
By contrast, the garden-escaping Spanish sort are much more upright and chunky, more like a skinny hyacinth. They have blue pollen too, or so the Woodland Trust site tells me. And it also says they are a big MENACE. People hate them in their gardens and so dig them up and dump them round the countryside, where they have relations with our native species, so changing them forever.
Without doubt, losing our native species would be a great a shame, but I still have time for the Spanish cousins that pop up around our garden. Admittedly I used to try to dig them up and compost them – until I learned that it was a pretty impossible task to excavate every part of them.
Now when they flower, I pick them. They make excellent house flowers, their bells opening wider and the blue fading over the days. They smell nice too. I’m thinking that cutting them off at the roots might also put a stop to fraternisation, and ultimately weaken the plant. In the meantime, I have the pleasure of them indoors.
Picking the native species is of course very much forbidden. But those of you who live in the UK will soon have the pleasure of spotting them in a wood near you. Reports have it that they will be flowering early this year.
Six Word Saturday Now pop over to Debbie’s for more SWS posts.
Talk about conflicting interests. When I’m at work on my allotment I continuously wage war on dandelions. They are shown no mercy, bar resorting to pesticides. And yes, I know they are very helpful plants – the roots plunging deep into the soil strata and releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients into the topsoil.
On the other hand, on the way to the allotment, camera to hand, I have a lot of time for them. They are of course in the farmer’s field, and not on my plot, which helps to foster a little appreciation. I find their seed-head ‘clocks’ endlessly photogenic. Looked at closely, they have a mysterious and mesmerizing quality: the perfect design of their parachutes, each one programmed for relentlessly unavoidable procreation.
And so, even as I feel my spade-hand twitching towards a ruthless uprooting, I’m also thinking ‘live and let live’. There are other good reasons to love dandelions. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that these plants possess great therapeutic qualities. Herbalists have long used the roots for healing liver conditions, while the leaves and flowers act more on the kidneys (not for nothing is the dandelion’s country name piss-in-the-bed.) You can use the young leaves in salads, while the roasted roots make a passable coffee. Meanwhile, the dandelion in the photo is also auditioning for a special effects role in Star Trek.
The shadowy margins of the Linden Walk near my house and the old railway line that runs alongside are presently lit by white-star carpets. Ramsons. Stink Bombs. Stinking Nanny. Londoner’s Lilies. Thank you, Richard Mabey and your Flora Britannica for all these country names for wild garlic.
I know many people loathe the smell of this plant, and it can indeed be overpowering on warm days, but whenever I catch a whiff, it simply inspires me to cook. You can eat the leaves and flowers. On Friday I used them to make a pesto sauce to go with steamed carrots, assorted allotment greens and braised salmon.
This is what I did to make it:
- Took a good handful of broken walnuts and lightly toasted them in a little olive oil
- Roughly chopped a dozen flower heads and a small bunch of garlic leaves
- Tipped all with the walnuts into a food processer
- Added more olive oil to cover, salt, black pepper and squeeze of fresh lemon juice and blitzed. More oil can be added according to taste and requirements.
This is good with pasta, or spooned on the top of fresh-made soup, especially broad bean, or the classic pistou. In his Food for Free book Richard Mabey also quotes the sixteenth century writer, John Gerard, who writing in The Herbal (1597) says that in Europe the leaves are used to make a sauce to go with fish, and adds that these may:
very well be eaten in April and May with butter, of such as are of strong constitution, and labouring men.
And what about labouring women, good sir? This particular one has great liking for ramsons. In fact I’m thinking now of using them to lace a homemade tomato sauce. Bon Appétit , and happy foraging.
And please pop over to Jude’s Garden Challenge. This month she wants to see our wild flower photos.
These are the seed heads of a lovely plant that was once to be seen in English corn- fields, but is now almost extinct in the wild. And here it is in its full flowering glory…
…the Corncockle aka Agrostemma githago aka Kiss-me-quick.
This stately annual plant was also the target of shock-horror media hysteria a couple of years ago.
And why? You may well wonder.
It apparently all began with a well-meaning gesture by the BBC’s Countryfile programme. Courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, they were giving away packets of wild-flower seeds that contained corncockle. There was huge demand. Suddenly everyone was sowing wild flower gardens.
Next some individual in Royal Wootton Bassett, a small market town in Wiltshire, noticed that the plant had appeared in a garden created by the Brownies in the local park. He, having ‘googled’ it, raised the alarm, pronouncing the plant deadly. The Town Council then had the plant fenced off and eliminated, and it all became a matter for the national press as more and more sightings of the plant were made across the land.
The Telegraph’s headline positively screamed with indignation:
BBC spreads poisonous wild flowers across Britain
And from the Daily Mail we have:
The plant that can kill
In an eminently sensible press account Patrick Barkham of the Guardian tried to bring perspective and rationality to the panic:
This kerfuffle is a huge overreaction, given that many of our most popular garden plants are poisonous, including daffodils, laurel, ivy, yew, hellebores, lupins and particularly foxgloves. In fact, we have lived alongside poisonous plants for centuries, and many toxic species are particularly useful to medicine and are used in life-saving drugs. Even parts of plants we eat, such as potatoes, are toxic.
And the real story?
Corncockle, it seems, arrived in Britain back in the Iron Age over two thousand years ago. Its seeds were present in imports of rye grain from Europe, and it soon became established on the lighter soils of southern England. Thereafter, and into the 20th century the plant could be found among the nation’s arable and cereal crops. Then improved methods of seed cleaning were introduced, and together with extensive herbicide use, this led to the plant’s virtual extinction in the wild.
The plant does have toxic properties. This is what Monique Simmonds, Head of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Sustainable Uses of Plants Group has to say:
This plant, like many we have in our gardens, does contain compounds that can be toxic if eaten in large amounts or eaten frequently over a period of time. The toxic compounds are in higher concentrations in the seeds, which are hard and very bitter. If eaten by a child, the child would most likely be sick or complain of a stomach ache. There is no evidence that eating a few seeds would cause acute toxicity.
In the past, problems associated with toxicity occurred in Europe when flour contaminated by corn cockle seeds was consumed in bread, and this contaminated bread was eaten over a period of time. The fact that there are very few reports about any form of toxicity to humans in other parts of Europe, where the plants are more common, indicates that although toxic, the plant is not considered a high risk.
Plants for the Future website explains further:
The seed and leaves are poisonous, containing saponin-like substances. Although poisonous, saponins are poorly absorbed by the human body and so most pass through without harm. Saponins are quite bitter and can be found in many common foods such as some beans.
What concerns me about this story is how easily people can be stirred into panic and demonizing tactics by manipulative and exaggerated press coverage. And over a flower that has absolutely no appetizing qualities whatsoever. Of course that doesn’t mean we should not be aware of the toxic qualities of plants. We definitely should be. People sadly do die from eating poisonous plants. But we don’t need to feel afraid of their very existence. The problem is when we lose connection with our natural environment, it leaves room for the kind of scare-mongering that seeks to make us feel like victims – and all, and only to sell newspapers. Obviously this goes for many more serious issues and situations too.
But then you never do know. Maybe the denizens of the plant kingdom have it in for us. Maybe they are just biding their time, thinking up cunning ways to lure us into eating their poisonous parts.
Quick! Surround the lupins and hellebores! Cut them off at the roots before we’re driven to eat them and DIE!
copyright 2016 Tish Farrell
NB. For well-informed details about poisonous plants see The Poison Garden website.
#7-daynaturephotochallenge Day 6
In case you don’t know Meg she is presently in Warsaw, and if you want to get in lots of vicarious walking with fascinating things to see (and sometimes eat) please join her there. Anyway, this wild orchid is for her, and so is this walk, since it took me back to Windmill Hill (which is actually only across the road from my house), to search once more for signs of spring.
At least last Friday the sun was out, but we still have a continuous chilling wind. As I may have said elsewhere, it feels as if it has blown across an ice sheet before ending up in Shropshire. Brrr. So far it looks as though ‘clouts’ will not be cast in June, never mind in May. I, for one, am sticking to my many garment layers, which may or may not include a vest.
But back to the orchids. This one took some finding, but I had promised Meg I would look. She had read my mention of limestone-meadow plants in an earlier post about Windmill Hill, and wanted to see more. This lovely little plant, about a hand’s span tall, has the plain name of Common spotted orchid. It was growing at the foot of the hill, and I had seen the darkly spotted leaves a week or so before. They are definitely being slow to flower this year. They probably don’t like the wind either.
To find them I went the long way round, once more up the Linden Walk whose ancient limes are now bursting into juicy green clouds. Soon (I hope) they will be flowering, and then I can get high on the scent, as well as on the sight of them. (Herbalists use lime flowers as a sedative, quite a strong one, so don’t use the flowers without expert guidance). Good old Dr. William Penny Brookes, Much Wenlock’s erstwhile physician, and the man who planted this avenue over a hundred years ago, knew what he was at on the life-enhancing front. Bravo Dr. Brookes.
Once out of the Linden Field and onto the hill, I’m taking the low path around the bottom when along comes octogenarian, Jimmy Moore, our local marathon man. He’s out on his morning run – an example to us all. He’s raised over £30,000 for charity. Seeing him approach in his buttercup yellow shirt is enough to lift the spirits sky-high. Keep on running, Jimmy.
As he passes me, he still has breath to crack a joke, and to say my photo of him will doubltless be worth a fortune. He speeds away, and I meander on, peering into the meadow grass.
The cowslips are over, but there are low growing clumps of Common bird’s foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus if I am not mistaken in my identification from the classic Keble Martin work on British flora. As you can see from its pea-like flowers, it belongs to the legume family.
Up the hill to the windmill and there are carpets of buttercups, and a little family pretending the windmill is a castle. I like overhearing their interpretation of these remains. I shall think of them differently from now on:
The search for orchids next takes me along the hedge line where the open meadow becomes woodland. And here I find the first elderflowers of the year. I love their creamy colours, and they make the most delicious sorbet (recipe at the end).
The flowers also make a fragrant tea that is anti-catarrhal, and when mixed with peppermint is a good remedy for colds and flu. The elder tree itself has magical connotations, and features in many traditions of indigenous peoples around the world, including North America’s First Nations’ tales. The dark purple berries are of course now used in a commonly available anti-viral that goes under various names that derive from its botanical name Sambucus. The berries’ efficacy was trialled some years ago by Israeli scientists, if I remember rightly, and used to treat HIV- patients. They are thus, not by any means, ‘a quack cure’.
Into the wood, and the flowers of my earlier spring walk (which you can find HERE) the arum lilies, violets and wild garlic, are over and, beyond a few tiny wild strawberry flowers, there’s not much to be seen until I reach the roadside verge. First the Oxeye daisies…
And then the orchids, although so far only a handful are in flower. Here’s what they look like before they bloom, along with a glimpse of a wild strawberry flower at 3 o’clock:
And now as promised a recipe:
8oz /1 cup/ 250 gm fair trade unbleached granulated sugar
1 pint/0.5 litre water
2/3 big heads of elderflowers
First pick the elderflowers when they are freshly open , and on a dry day. Shake out the bugs but do not wash. Keep the heads intact.
Pare the rind finely from the lemons, and squeeze out the juice.
Heat the water and sugar in a pan, starting gently until the sugar has dissolved, add the lemon rind and then boil briskly for 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat. Add lemon juice and elderflower heads. Leave to cool.
Strain into a suitable container and freeze. After an hour or so, when the sorbet is slushy and starting to set , you can give it a good mash with a fork to break up any crystals, and return it to the freezer.
Alternatively, strain and churn in an ice cream maker.
This sorbet is delicious with fresh strawberries.
And guess what, as I finish writing this post the wind has dropped, and it is suddenly HOT. Just the weather for sorbet. Hurrah!
P.S. It didn’t last, so we had broad bean soup instead.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell