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

A pair of bright sparks

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No apologies for showing this yet again. But the biting April wind here in Shropshire has driven back to the ‘old Africa album’ for a bit of warmth. And anyway, what can be more brightening than the sight of elephant babes. This photo was taken early one morning, on our last trip to the Maasai Mara. Happy times. Eight years in Africa gone in a flash.

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Bright Moth

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I thought my photo of an Elephant hawk-moth, Deilephila elpenor, deserved another viewing, being both unusually pink (as for Jude’s Life in Colour this week) and bright lipstick pink and so good for a Becky-bright-square. The moth itself  was a surprise arrival on the garden wall a couple of summers ago. In fact I think it was asleep when I found it. In real life it was about 6 centimetres across (2 and a half inches); a big moth, in other words. And in its caterpillar form it is even bigger, though at that stage it is mostly a dull sludgy colour with pink eye spots and a strange little horn on its tail end.

Hawk moths are nectar feeders and come equipped with especially long tongues to probe their favourite flowers. They are also speedy, precision fliers, so the colour scheme, gaudy when stationary,  blends well among drifts of rose-pink rosebay willow herb where, in high summer, they best like to feed. The caterpillar, on the other hand, has very different eating habits. If they find themselves in a domestic garden they will eat fuchsias. The best response is to pop them in a container and find them a wild patch of rosebay willow herb, Himalayan balsam or bedstraw.

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Life in Colour: pink

What A Bright Sight!

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Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one, and her name is Ann,
And she hid under the baking pan.

 

The rhyme comes from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in London in 1744. Just like the ladybird, spotted this week inside a whorl of freshly sprouting oregano, the book is very tiny. Here are some images from the British Museum which owns one of two surviving copies. You can see more images and find out more about the little book of rhymes that some us once knew (well perhaps not all of them) HERE.

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Bright Square #17

“In a cowslip’s bell I lie…”

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This tiny crab spider has been zoomed to giant size in the photo. I guess, in real time, it was about 3 millimetres across, less than a quarter of an inch. And still it waved its little front legs at me (most crab-like in posture) when I tried to take its portrait. Next it went into hiding under the flower, and when I pursued it down the stem it flung itself at me and then disappeared into the flower bed. It was most unnerving to find oneself having ‘a relationship’ (albeit a fractious one) with such a teeny-weeny little arachnid; the suggestion of ‘intelligence’ even.

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As you can see in the next photo, the flowers of this cultivated cowslip are anyway quite small. Feisty little critter, the crab spider.

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The quotation comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Aerial’s song, a jolly little air:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry;
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Bright Square #16

April evening bright, cold and clear

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Gosh, but the April air is chilly here in Wenlock, even when the sun shines and distracts us. I gather it’s all the fault of the North Atlantic Oscillation which has dropped into negative zones and is drawing cold air from an unusually frigid Arctic. The weather people say there’s more cold air to come so it looks like spring, here in the northern hemisphere, might be late this year.

I took these photos from the kitchen door the other evening. As ever, the teasels up in the guerrilla garden continue to catch my eye, and I’m putting off cutting them down. At this time of year the garden-over-the-fence does not look promising. Very flat and wintered. But then it’s also just the moment to discourage some of the more tenacious weeds which are popping up there – couch grass and ground elder in particular. Except now the allotment plot is calling and that’s where all my effort is being deployed. So many compost heaps to turn over, and bins to turn out in hopes finding enough of something useful to spread on the raised beds.

Climbing peas and broad beans have been started off in pots, the onions and the first early Swift potatoes are in the ground, and it’s time to start clearing the polytunnel of winter greens to make space for the tomato and cucumber plants which are presently in the conservatory at home, along with trays of cabbage and cauli and perennial flower seedlings. They will all need hardening off, but not yet.

And there we have a problem. He-who-binds-books-in-winter-and-lives-in-my-house is now set on the outdoor pursuit of dismantling said conservatory (which though presently useful to this gardener, we both agree is hateful) and erecting in its place against our other back door, a lean-to greenhouse whose parts are presently lying in boxes in our sitting room.

It’s one of those projects that will be wonderful when done, but the getting there is fraught with many acts of plant juggling, issues of meteorological conflict and potential domestic unrest between gardener and demolition man. Prickly times ahead. I will  keep you informed.

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Bright Square #15