Boom and bust on the allotment

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In a perfect world – i.e. not the one we’re actually living in, crops would come along like parts in a car factory, perfect, exactly on time and in just the right quantities. The Potwell Inn allotment, on the other hand, is a boom and bust operation subject to the vagaries of weather, impulse buying and whatever pests happen to blow, creep or slither in. Therefore we are unable to impress anyone with photographs of complete gourmet meals straight off the allotment with no more than a rinse in our private springwater supply. The potatoes, which were worryingly slow to get going have now all flowered at once.  The strawberries are in the midst of producing a glut, as are the Hungarian hot wax chillies, and don’t even mention salad leaves, but the onions were a lost cause, the tomatoes grew leggy while we waited for it to warm up and most of the squashes died at the seed leaf stage. We are – categorically – not experts

Apart from the glamorous world of coffee table gardeners, this time of year is relentless in its demands. The ground, which was thick with bindweed three years ago, is still capable of growing a towering six foot specimen in a week even after we thought we had picked every tiny piece of root out. Couch grass is easier to tame – provided you conduct a vengeful campaign of uprooting every time it pokes a leaf out above ground. But the worst ones are the annuals that grow from seeds blown across from the unlet plots. Willowherb is a particular and common villain, but we have a problem with a much less common plant which, notwithstanding its name – “common ramping fumitory” is not at all common in our area and so uprooting it seems like a small crime except for the fact that it has secret plans to take over the world – hence the “ramping” bit of the name.

In the winter I was slaving over the ‘civil engineering’ of beds, paths and bins and longing for the summer. Now it’s almost the solstice and every day, it seems, we’re unable to complete all the jobs that need doing because there just isn’t time and so neither are we able to doze in the deckchairs and listen to the bees humming – which is what most people think gardening is for, although – to paraphrase Ghandi – it would be a good idea.

IMG_5520AND – I’ve also been trying to sort out my study which, as I’ve already written, involves getting rid of several hundred books that I’d been clinging to in case I forgot who I was. Consequently the twin planets of the allotment and the study have swung into malevolent alignment.  That said, though, the business of handing over boxes of books at the Oxfam shop and then rearranging the survivors in proper order on the shelves has had a very happy effect. I hadn’t realised how reproachful a shelf of unread books can be, and if – like me – you’re an olympian self-doubter, the constant look of unread-ness relating to a past enthusiasm can sap the will dreadfully. I’m sure this is the blindingly obvious core of the decluttering movement  – old stuff ties you down, keeps you looking backwards. I’ve had persistent images of my (suitably sad) children taking the exact same books to the same Oxfam shop after my death and, frankly, I’d rather spare them the pain and reward myself with the sense of release that comes from sitting at my desk and being surrounded by books I use constantly and love.

Of course there are many that I’ll hang on to – Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” which I bought when I was about thirteen;  Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” which I chanced on accidentally when I was nineteen and which changed the course of my life – just two of the milestones that I could never part with. My Grandfather’s copy of “The History of Mr Polly” where I found the Potwell Inn, has been promoted to glory among the very special novels.

Back on the allotment it’s pleasing to be able to say that the seaweed mulch that we applied in the winter to the asparagus bed has had the most astounding effect, and it’s growing taller all the time – I mean over five feet tall and climbing!  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it because last year it was ravaged by asparagus beetles, but all we’ve been finding is lacewings which must have got there first. One painful lesson learned once and (hopefully) never forgotten is that asparagus beetles are not the same as lacewing larvae – so look before you squeeze. Luckily the presence of the adult lacewings and innumerable other pollinators working the flowers has prevented us from any spraying with soft soap, and so no harm was done by the misidentification.

Wildflower meadows part II

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So today was our second day at RHS Rosemoor.  We always like to split a new garden into at least two days, the first to get the lay of the land and the second to go back in more detail.  In fact you’d need to go two days a week for a year to truly get the measure of the place. After my big worry yesterday I was able to relax and enjoy the gardens for what they are and, hardling surprisingly, we spent a lot of time revisiting the wild meadow areas. The first thing to say is that the RHS aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. These meadows are as ‘artificial’ as any of the other (equally beautiful) gardens. It’s we visitors who like to put labels like “wild” and “cultivated” on what are basically different styles of garden: this kind of “wildflower meadow” style is developed by sowing and planting, using any means that works, for instance some of the plants are developed in modules and planted out. There’s no purism in the selection of species; no absolute rule that only native plants or archaeophytes are allowed in, and a scientific mowing regime is applied to  encourage self-seeding. Plants that don’t do well, or do too well and start choking the others out are dealt with by removal. This is a highly labour and resource intensive version of ‘natural’.

Imagine my sadness at reading in today’s Guardian that while many of us are working flat out to try to turn around this environmental and ecological catastrophy, our government are secretly eroding controls on harmful and cancer causing chemical insecticides that are absolutely banned in the EU but which may well be reintroduced by ministerial fiat if we leave. This is the greatest danger we’re facing today.  While I absolutely applaud the environmental efforts of bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust, The RHS and other non governmental authorities, we can’t save the world by building a few nature reserves like insect zoos.

Today I had a long conversation with a woman from Wolverhampton who is (pretty much singlehandedly) trying to build a wildflower meadow on a piece of land next to a housing estate. Last year was a terrible year for her and most of her spring sown seeds died during the hot summer, but she’s not daunted and today she was in Devon, at Rosemoor, trying to find out how she can give things a better chance and develop the plot. Her budget was about £250, and I think she might just pull it off, but all her work could be undermined in the stroke of a pen by a minister in thrall to the agrichemical industry lobby. I’m not very big on organised religion these days but sometimes I long for a bit of smiting from a higher power. Just a small plague of boils would do, as long as it was targeted at the right people.  Better avoid the flies and frogs, though, in case Bayer come up with some new and even more horrible chemical for dealing with plagues of  flies and frogs. The only (and more sensible) alternative is to make a stand with those who are trying to end this madness, and change the way we think about our relationship with (and complete dependance on) the earth.

 

The Pale Rider of the flower beds

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This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.

IMG_5498So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day.  Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year.  So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were.  Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out.  The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.

As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense.  Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.

I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.

Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds.  That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.

And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.

_1080773However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art.  A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley.  I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.

So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats.  If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction.  It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources.  Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.

IMG_5512And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.

 

Why the delight?

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It’s good to be in contact with the natural world ….. isn’t it? Everywhere I look I’m being told it’s good, even I bang on endlessly about the pleasures of the allotment, and (they say) it’s not just good – it’s a miracle cure for just about any affliction you could name – and if you put that particular claim on a herbal remedy you’d be in real trouble with the law.

What’s interesting to me is not that it’s good to be outside, but to wonder why it’s so good. Why do people with mental health issues feel so much better when they walk or garden? Why so, people with life-changing illnessses or those who are going through bereavements?  I think we can discount any sort of natural ‘miasma’, some undiscovered radiation that affects our dopamine levels, but in my unscientific way I do believe that our moods are linked to quite tiny physical changes.  Without making it sound as if this is a pitch for PhD funding, the question is – what’s the link between experiencing the natural world, in gardening for instance, and mood – and the subtle changes in our brain chemistry. If I were an academic – I haven’t got the patience in real life – but if I were, I’d quickly move on after I’d listed fresh air, sunshine and excercise … because they’re all very good and we know it.

But while I’m building a raised bed, weeding, planting out and watering there’s always a dialogue going on in my head.   Talking to the plants doesn’t make me certifiably crazy, it makes me more human. Having a chat to the robin that sits waiting for titbits to emerge from the soil when I’m digging feels like the most normal thing in the world. Examining the rows and clumps and trying to figure out if all’s well or whether I should look for a troublesome pest – that’s about relationship.  And so the first area I’d look for the answer to my question “why?”  would be in the relational. Of course allotmeteers are (by and large) a friendly lot but actually quite a few of us find relationships with other humans far more tricky than relationships with robins and runner beans. There are people on our site that I’ve never spoken to because they clearly don’t want to complicate their day by talking to me – far too risky – and I don’t hold it against them, they’re completely free to be themselves.

And that leads to the second promising avenue for research. We’ve looked at relational factors but what about the sense of agency that comes with allotmenteering? Being ill, being sad, being under-appreciated or jobless can send you into a vortex where you feel absolutely helpless.  Tending the allotment, or even a walk through the woods, can give you back a sense of purpose. There’s a link between what you you do and what you get back and so you begin to regain the sense of agency that’s so important to our wellbeing.

Yesterday we took some beetroots from the hotbed and while Madame planted out leeks for the winter, I finished planting the outdoor tomatoes and I put a screen around them to protect them from the expected winds on Saturday.  One of the problems with propagating plants indoors is that they can be quite leggy and soft and so they can be easily damaged by wind or rough handling or even sudden changes in temperature. That’s why we harden things off, gradually introducing them to ‘real’ life on the allotment. Of the sixteen plants, fifteen survived their first night in the rough and tumble and they’ll quickly develop more strength as the roots go down and the stems toughen up.

It’s the sheer generosity of the earth that heads my list of the healing properties of gardening. There is no explanation for the variety, the vitality, the colourfulness, the exquisite shapes and patterns, the medicinal uses, the food they provide.  Time without number I come away from the allotment with a trug full of food and a sense of thanksgiving. Even on the winter days when the bird nets are collapsing under the weight of snow and I drag myself up there to clear them, I get back exhilerated by the cold and the sense of adventure but perhaps more than anything esle by the sense that I matter, that my existence makes a difference, if only to a patch of purple sprouting broccoli!

That’s why the delight.

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June 1st and first picking of broad beans

Vegetables seem to be remarkably regular in their flowering and fruiting habits regardless of the weather.  I had thought that we’d be picking the first batch of broad beans at least a week early this year, but in spite of the vast difference in weather between this year and last, we’re picking just two days earlier. Potatoes and tomatoes are a little later but they have both been put out later for fear of a late frost.  The biggest diference this year is the strawberries. Although we’ve got a fabulous crop on the way, last year we were picking ripe strawberries in the first week of June.  This year we’ll be lucky to see them by the third week. The potatoes, I fear, have been afflicted by the incredibly dry weather and they’ll pick up if we get the promised rain this coming week. I’m loath to throw too much water in the direction of the potatoes because I think it diminishes the flavour.  I was grumbling to our neighbouring allotmenteer about the poor flavour of Jersey Royals over the past couple of years and he said he thought it was because the farmers have been prevented from using seaweed because it was thought to be adding too much salt to the soil. Our asparagus, on the other hand is thriving on its thick mulch of seaweed over the winter and is five feet tall now. I do hope there’s as much activity underground because we shall enjoy a good crop next spring.

So this week has been incredibly busy, with a good deal of grandparenting and a trip to replace the water pump on the campervan.  A friend was charged €230 in France 2 years ago for a replacement, but after a bit of research on the internet I sourced a brand new replacement for £50 and fitted it myself at the additional cost of a packet of electrical connectors. I felt absurdly proud of myself.

Apart from that it’s been absurdly busy on the allotment – so much so I’ve hardly had time to write at all. We’ve fitted a hazel wattle screen between the shed and the greenhouse to create a sheltered area where we can grow tomatoes and peppers.  It arrived with one of the end posts pulled out because presumably the delivery driver had dragged it across the floor of his van (after all it weighed 30Kg and he’s probably never seen one before).  Rather than send it back I decided to have a go at repairing it – it took 2 hours of  somewhat grumpy effort but I did finally manage to separate all the woven horizontal branches with the aid of some steel bars, and reinsert the post. It’s now in position and will be an effective screen against cold north winds.  Then, today the temperature soared to 25C so we went up early and  I hammered in the supporting posts ready for the tomatoes, nonethleless we both needed a shower when we got home.  The weather will break tonight, according to the forecast, and we’ll get some rain, so great relief all round.

Someone wrote to the paper the other day lamenting the fact that weather forecasters seem to regard sunshine as inherently superior to rain.  You can tell they’re not gardeners.  In fact there’s a proper drought building up. Our usually damp plot is bone dry down to a foot deep and so we’ve been forced to water as if it were July. Given that a full watering can weighs 22lbs and the round trip to the tank is 100 yards, you can see it’s a bit of a workout to water the whole 250 square metres.

Yesterday my friend Rob – the real botanist – came to check my ID of the Fumaria I’ve been going on about – and,  joy of joys, I was right and it’s Fumaria murialis. This probably means less than nothing to almost everyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me because it shows I’m very slowly getting my eye in.

Tomorrow or Monday the outdoor tomatoes will begin their outdoor life, taking their chances with whatever the weather throws at them.  Meanwhile we’re making the second batch of elderflower cordial.  The first batch is growing on us as we drink it – the problem is that home made is essentially unrepeatable.  This time we’ve gathered a bag of 50+ heads from a purple, ornamental elderflower tree.  So far the result is a lovely rose pink colour.  Sadly we had to buy another eight 500ml  swing top preserving bottles because the rest are all in use, and so our “food for free” cordial, or at least this batch, will cost about twice as much as the commercial stuff. However as the years mount up, home made gets increasingly competitive.  As ever, though, the flavour beats anything you could buy

 

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft

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Snake bite, snake pipe, Lazarus bell or Fritillaria meleagris

I’v been dipping into Geoffrey Grigson’s book “The Englishman’s Flora”, and the irresistable words in the heading come from the name of a book he mentions – Cockayne’s  “Leechdoms,Wortcunning and Starcraft of Anglo Saxon England” (1866) – a sentence that, as I read it back to myself, makes me fear I’m treading on sacred ground once occupied by Flann O”Brien and Umberto Eco who loved to make fun of sentences exactly like this one.

But (straightening my roughed-up tie and recovering my hat) what lovely words – “Wortcunning” ,”Leechdoms”, “Starcraft” . I bought Geoffrey Grigson’s book, long out of print, for a couple of pounds from a second hand bookseller entirely on the recommendation in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” – another one worth getting.

It’s the only book I have that lists all of the folk names of the commonest British plants along with the uses to which they’ve been put. It’s not a medical herbal, not a flora you could identify a plant from, but an erudite and joyful celebration of a whole disappearing culture. Wortcunning is  the loveliest way of expressing the deep knowledge of plants needed to produce a leechdom, or medicinal formula. If you google ‘leechdom’ you’ll find the whole text Grigson is referring to.

These three strange words are enchanting.  Specifically they re-enchant the world of plants and evoke old, and new ways of relating to them.  Language can make familiar things strange and present them to us in a new light altogether. It’s impossible to underestimate the power of playful and inventive words to enlighten our world and it’s not strictly necessary to invent them.  Warcraft games, Tolkein, Alan Garner all do it powerfully but we don’t need to invent new languages  – they’re already there – buried in the folk usages of the past. Waterpepper is botanically known as Persicaria hydropiper but its folk name, ‘arsemart’ tells you a lot more. The two names need each other in order to to flourish.

British wildflowers are all too rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of botanists and ecologists and their folknames and medicinal properties are disappearing from memory while plant taxonomists argue over their DNA. Is this a loss? Well, I can think of a couple of reasons at least why it’s a loss.  The biggest reason is that we can’t protect something if we don’t know it’s there, and so there’s a danger that the argument about the building of a housing estate over the last outpost of a rare plant will sound like a theological dispute in the face of a housing crisis. It’s taken us a very long time to realize – almost too late – that our destructve selfishness in the abuse of the earth is leading to our own destruction. When we lose even the name of a flower, then we lose the flower itself.

Another reason for protecting this heritage is that language is a lot more that a list of words. Our world is constructed in language, and when language is impoverished the world gets smaller. We were walking through Leigh Woods to the West of Bristol many years ago, when a strange man, obviously sleeping rough in the woods, burst out of the scrub and grabbed me by the arm, talking wildly about “coming to see something”. He said “I’ve been living here in the woods for twenty years and I never saw one of these before!”  We followed him – because we’re like that – and he dragged us to see a thorn apple in flower. The privations, discomfort and inner demons that probably kept him there had been blown away for a moment by finding a plant whose capacity to both lift his spirits by simply being there, or do him serious harm if he ate it, showed the dual power of plants.

Is this a hard read? I’m sorry but a blog is not much more than a message in a bottle – I throw it into the sea and maybe a handful of people will read it.

My mother knew many of the flowers by their local names, but then she could predict rain by looking at the sky over “Granny Perrin’s nest”  – a group of tall elm trees behind the cottage she was born in. I don’t remember ever being treated for ear ache with a boiled onion, but even as she administered the latest medicine she would occasionally remember how the ailment had been treated when she was a child, living in the Chilterns.

We have to avoid all that Grigson calls “cross-gartered whimsey” in sentimentalising the past; we have to get it into our heads that the past is not an expensive Sunday night costume drama on the television, just as understanding the natural world is not the same as watching a few episodes of Countryfile. Wortcunning is not the hippy alternative to plant taxonomy, they’re like a divorced couple who really owe it to their children to start talking to each other again. Being learned in plants means embracing the whole of them, their histories, meanings and usages.

And while I’m on the subject of disappearances, whatever happened to that prolific social group of human beings like Geoffrey Grigson and Jane Grigson, vastly learned, filled with curiosity and interested in everything?  Jane Grigson is one of my favourite food writers – and if I could invite myself to any household in history it would be to eat with them. Their daughter Sophie wrote somewhere that it wasn’t impossible to find the bath full of unspeakable bits of meat when she was a child. This brave new world of targets, spreadsheets and reviews doesn’t favour the long life, the full life – lived like the course of a river with its rapids and waterfalls, meanders, watermeadows and estuaries.

Back, however at the Potwell Inn my struggle with the unidentifiable Fumaria was finally rewarded by a confirmatory email from a proper botanist who confimed that (having looked at my photos), in all likelihood my plant is Fumaria muralis. We’re meeting at the allotment on Friday evening to seal the deal.

 

Hello Flower!

_1080763At what point do you admit to yourself that you’ve got a bit of a problem? Not, I hasten to add, some sort of dreadful problem like drinking too much, after all who doesn’t enjoy a top ranking landlord’s breakfast like gin and cornflakes? No, this problem is to do with never knowing when to stop trying to identify a flower when you’ve got the family and most of the name. but you want to know the species, or even sub species as well.

IMG_5461This one’s been bugging me since we first started the allotment because it’s just so prolific, and I’ve tried a dozen times to run it down. I thought it might be a Corydalis because it looks a bit like that, but after my close encounter with a similar plant to the one on the allotment at St Davids last week, I did a bit of detective work and discovered that Corydalis has not been seen in the Bristol region for decades so I discarded that in favour of Fumaria  – I’ve already written about this –  and plodded on with magnifier, steel ruler and multiple floras – up to and including Stace.  The problem is that there are so many criteria for sorting them out that you just have to get close-up and personal. And so here’s my idea of close-up and personal:

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_1080761So above, here’s my Panasonic Lumix GH2 – old but lovely – and a 45mm Leica Macro -Elmarit lens, mounted on a Manfrotto tripod and ball head, and to the left there’s a photo of the fruit which shows that it’s smooth.  That’s an important diagnostic. And so the unexpected ID seems to be that this is  Fumaria muralis, the common ramping fumaria (and I can vouch for the ‘ramping’ bit!) and the reason that this is a surprise is that it’s quite unusual in Bath or indeed in the whole Bristol region. In case there are any proper botanists out there, the flower length is on the high side at around 15mm, but the sepals are spot on. The overall height is a bit high as well, but Stace says it’s very variable so I’ll go with the smooth fruit which is a clincher.

All that’s about a couple of hours work and five or more books and regional floras.  The picture at the top is about X7.  Elsewhere on the Potwell Inn allotment we cleared the bed for the leeks, added mountains of discarded chard to the compost heap and so we also added a good deal of cardboard and shredded paper to stop it getting slimy. The elderflower cordial was not the best we’ve ever made and that’s one for a second attempt

Country cousins

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A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.

A change turned out to be every bit as good as a rest, and the trip to Wales – although it involved as many hours of wildflower hunting as we would have spent on the allotment – was a complete change of tempo. I photographed the angelica in the photo above on the allotment yesterday. It really is stunningly beautiful, as are many of the other Apiaceae (carrot family) herbs that we grow.

We grow carrots and parsnips, parsley, coriander, caraway, celeriac, chervil, celery, lovage, dill, angelica,  fennel and sweet cicily – all in the same family. In fact without them our cooking would lose most of the interesting flavours.  But like all good families there are black sheep and the umbellifers can boast (if that’s the word), some of the most deadly poisonous plants we have – like hemlock water dropwort for instance – that tastes rather sweet (so they say) and kills you without any ado.

But this particular group of plants have a reputation for being difficult to identify and before we went to Wales I bought a copy of the BSBI handbook no 2 “Umbellifers of the British Isles” by TG Tutin (of Clapham Tutin and Warberg fame). Anyone who knows me will know that I find the dense descriptions of botanical language a bit daunting, but they gradually penetrate my stubborn mind and I find myself consulting the glossary few enough times to take away some of the pain. I know parsley from dill, but could I tell dill from fennel at ten paces and without crushing the leaves and smelling them? In his introduction Tutin suggests that the sheer usefulness of some of the family probably drove the need clearly to identify them. The line drawings in the book are exquisite in their sheer usefulness.

Botanical photo books have improved so much over the years that if I’m stuck I often use them to make a start, but when you get down to the difference between a greater and a lesser pignut, it’s out with the hand lens and a key – and there begins the hand-to-hand combat with the truth that any beginning botanist will reconise.  Like Jacob wrestling with the angel by the Jabbock brook, we demand “what is your name?” and the plant usually refuses to tell us until we’re half dead with exhaustion.

The process involves all the tools books and instruments I’ve already mentioned, but beyond that there’s the intangible sense that birders call “jizz” which surely must be the product of memory and experience. My problem with jizz is that sometimes there’s so much background noise that I don’t pay enough attention to it. Like bumping into an old school friend fifty years on, you know that you know them but the name just won’t come.  It happened twice in Wales with two plants I had the strongest sense of familiarity with and yet I couldn’t force my brain to make the connections.

Four photos of two plants, but in each case the photo on the right was taken in St Davids and the one on the left was taken on the allotment. The top pair gave me most trouble and yet, side by side it’s so blindingly obvious that they’re country cousins I could kick myself. On the left some chard in the process of going to seed on the allotment. On the right the plant I found on the coast path and vaguely recognised but coudn’t quite name.  When we went to the allotment yesterday the connection was instantaneous – my coast path plant is, of course, sea beet.

But sometimes the information flows the other way.  With the lower pair, I found the clump of pink flowers and with very little effort recognised it as exactly the same plant that infests our ground on the allotment. So it was fumeria – end of! – until I got back to the van without bothering to take a sample, and discovered that there are no less than thirteen contenders, more than a Tory party leadership contest but considerably prettier. So there was nothing to do but find another one the next day, hoping that it was the same plant, and do the hard work all over again. Quick cheat – it’s a good idea to take a copy of the BSBI recording card for the county you’re in, and you can quickly find out which of the family don’t even live where you are and can be discounted. Needless to say I hadn’t done this so all thirteen contenders needed to be interrogated.  But we got there in the end.

I don’t think there’s any happier feeling than sitting identifying plants outside the van in the sunshine and with my books all around me, but needs must – and we desperately needed to water after a week of warm sunshine. Madame set out more tender plants and I carried down some half rotted leaves that the council had dumped on the site and mixed them with two big bags of grass mowings that our son had passed on to us. Grass mowings on their own make a filthy anaerobic mess, but mixed with some high carbon dry material they’re plentiful, free and useful in the compost heap. If I’ve come back with one lesson it’s that the natural world doesn’t divide itself conveniently into domestic and wild plants.  They’re all country cousins.

 

Finally we get to the cathedral

But I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. I was overwhelmed by the bewildering memory of a sign that someone saw over the Empty Tomb in Jerusalem which said – “He is not here he is risen”. My friend, having queued for ages in the hot sun was rather upset but went in anyway. For me though, the church (and I suppose this applies equally to other faiths) is all too fond of finding a truly holy place and then suffocating the life out of it with stones. So we stayed outside and my heart was lifted by the sounds of jackdaws and rooks playing and quarrelling in the trees and we listened to some singers sitting on the wall rehearsing a folk song. We leaned over the small bridge just beyond the West door and watched a dipper feeding and swimming underwater – quite an achievement.

Whatever spirituality clings to these beautiful stones, it’s contaminated by the venality of its leaders past and present who, I recall from my days as a curate, were quite capable of arguing ferociously about who would go last in a procession – because that was the most important place to be. But I mustn’t go on because mercifully the healing powers of the place cannot be contained and, if you can find a quiet place to sit, you may experience them. For me – because I’m a contrarian by nature – pilgrimage should begin at the holy site and continue all the way home when you’ve had time to work out what you found there. Backwards pilgrimage leads you away from the pile of stones – which can only be a good thing.

On our way to the bus stop in the morning we passed a beautiful adder which was basking in the hedge. I thought he was torpid and risked moving towards him with my phone camera, but he was more than a match for me and disappeared down into his nest like greased lightning.

I bagged a couple more flowers on the way, bringing the total to 65. There’s no place for pride, though, because although I didn’t bring the Vice County list with me that leaves me about 1450 to go! I should’ve started sooner.

Here then, with all the Latin names excised, are my 65 plants in flower, and below them some more of the photos I’ve taken. I particularly enjoyed watching the Lackey Moth caterpillars breaking out of their nest.

  1. Red campion
  2. Sea campion
  3. Scurvy grass
  4. Southern Marsh orchid
  5. Yellow iris
  6. Dandelion
  7. Celandine
  8. Buttercup
  9. Ragged robin
  10. Herb Robert
  11. Common Mouse ear
  12. Marsh marigold
  13. Cowslip
  14. Navelwort
  15. Lady’s Mantle
  16. Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
  17. Primrose
  18. Common Dog Violet
  19. Spring squill
  20. Tormentil
  21. Gorse
  22. Greater Stichwort 
  23. Bucks horn plantain
  24. Sea plantain
  25. Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
  26. Greater Plantain
  27. Red clover
  28. Oxeye daisy
  29. Tall Ramping Fumitory
  30. Sheeps sorrel
  31. Cow parsley
  32. Alexanders
  33. Cut leaved cranesbill
  34. English stonecrop
  35. Sheeps bit
  36. Foxglove
  37. Bluebell
  38. Kidney vetch
  39. Tormentil
  40. Common Orache
  41. Ivy Leaved Toadflax lilac form
  42. Ivy Leaved Tadflax white form 
  43. Scarlet pimpernel
  44. Wild Carrrot
  45. Cleavers
  46. Cat’s Ear
  47. Pignut
  48. Selfheal
  49. Common Sorrel
  50. Broad Leaved Dock
  51. Curled Dock
  52. Germander Speedwell
  53. Common Vetch
  54. Prickly Sow Thistle
  55. Brooklime
  56. Woody Nightshade
  57. Hemlock Water Dropwort
  58. Doves Foot Cranesbill
  59. Red Valerian
  60. Honeysuckle
  61. Nettle
  62. Burnet Rose
  63. Dumpy Centaury
  64. Lesser Trefoil
  65. Greater Birds Foot Trefoil

 

 

Fumitory, and more reasons for botanising.

Tall Ramping Fumitory – Fumaria bastardii

Thinking on from yesterday’s post, here are some extra reasons why learning to identify plants is a great thing.

  • Field botany – like astronomy – is one of those activities where amateurs can really make a contribution.
  • The healing properties of plants are not just historical memories, they have real significance for the future of medicine but unless we know what plants we have, we’ll lose them without ever exploring their possible benefits.
  • Knowing your plants is the best way of finding butterflies, moths and even birds. A bit of botanical knowledge feeds into the whole of natural history.
  • Knowing your plants helps to understand dozens of references in Shakespeare and across the whole of literature.
  • Making lists is fun
  • Fresh air and exercise are better for you than train spotting!

So back to Fumitory which seemed, when I first I/D’d it here, seemed to be the end of the matter – until I checked in Rose “The Wildflower Key”, which is an excellent guide, and discovered that my name was only part of the story because there are in fact thirteen representatives of the family in the UK. So today’s mission was to find another plant and identify it fully. Luckily it’s abundant hereabouts so that bit wasn’t hard at all. The identification involved a hand magnifier and a lot of hemming and hawing because confirmation bias is alive in this amateur botanist’s mind. It’s all too easy to read through one description and say “that’s it” and then read another and say “That’s it too” . So what you have to do – and it can be pretty tedious – is go through all the possibilities, narrowing it down one by one, until there’s only one left. It’s called “keying out” – and it’s a steep but worthwhile learning curve. Anyway the final result – in which I’m pretty confident – is that my Fumitory is Fumeria bastardii – result!

Apart from that my list of plants in flower has reached 65, with some lovely finds today. I won’t give the whole list – because there are no rarities on it at all, apart from a little Centaury which I think is Centaurium erythraea var capitatum which is not rare but very local and pretty too.

Aside from the plants we saw 2 chough, 2 oystercatchers nesting unexpectedly high on a cliff, being pestered by a crow, 2 gannets, swallows in abundance, a kestrel, 2 Canada geese, and some shags apart from all the usual gulls. A stonechat came and showed off only a dozen feet away.

Later we sat with a glass of wine on our campsite overlooking the Bitches in Ramsey Sound as the sun sank through the sky into a sea of pure silver. It’s three days after the full moon and a very high spring tide was flowing and even at a distance of half a mile we could hear the menacing sound of the flow which was generating some big standing waves. A large sail cutter and two canoeists navigated through the waters, the canoeists needed to put hardly any effort into rowing as they swept past the headland. That’s what we come here for. Our walk today took us along the coast from the lifeboat station to an old mineshaft where we turned back across the fields where we feasted on wild mushrooms last autumn. So no more than three miles of coast path and 65 wildflower species in flower. Happy days!