Two new neighbours, thanks to Richard Mabey’s book on weeds which has reminded me how we don’t know these plants because, through some cultural trick of the mind, calling a plant a ‘weed’ means we often don’t even see it. These two plants are growing on the pavement outside the flat and one of them at least is rather pretty. I don’t think the one on the right – Conyza canadensis, or Canadian Fleabane is ever going to win a prize for its looks, but the other, Erigeron karvinskianus – Mexican Fleabane is very pretty. We’ve been here almost 4 years now an in that time it’s extended its precarious life in pavement cracks almost the whole length of the street.
There’s a direct parallel with the human population in our ward. On a short walk into the centre of town it wouldn’t be unusual to pass people of half a dozen nationalities from right around the world. Among our visitors here, Chinese and Japanese are almost as common as the French and Spanish speakers. Some residents have been here for generations, some stay for years and there’s a whole other mixed age group of students and others who are far more ephemeral. Mexican Fleabane and Canadian Fleabane are just two more visitors who came and stayed.
There are others too – this one is Saxifraga tridactylites – the Three Fingered or Rue Leaved Saxifrage that turned up on our fire escape steps in 2018 and promptly disappeared. It was replaced by a fine crop of slime mould the following winter. I had no idea that slime moulds were mobile but this one slowly worked its way down the steps and on to the yard where it too promptly disappeared.
I love it – the constantly changing plants seem to fit the constantly changing population. There are beautiful plants of course, but there are loads of imposters, spivs and generally indestructable plants like Hedge Mustard and Wall Barley. I’m not calling them weeds any more because if we’re going to bring the earth back from the brink we’ve got to start calling these plants by a different name. I’m calling them parishioners because because like it or loathe it we’re sharing both our space and our fate with them. They’ve all got names, parents and a history, just like the drunks and spiceheads who also spend their days immobile outside on the grass.
I hope I shall be Parson Woodforde to all my new parishioners of whatever life-form; speaking of which, the dog belonging to our neighbour Nutter is barking furiously (fruitlessly) at a hot air balloon passing overhead. His owner is sitting in the sun drinking beers – he hasn’t even gone out busking today – which is a great mercy to all our visitors.
The family land holding just increased by 135 square metres, although when I say “holding” I mean rental because our middle son has just taken on a somewhat neglected allotment about 8 miles away from us. We spent Sunday morning there together with a 100 metre tape and some wooden pegs marking out where the beds would go and sampling the soil, the aspect and generally establishing some kind of route from where he is to where he wants to be. I’m immensely proud, but mindful of the huge effort of balancing his working hours as a chef with his family life with his partner and their three children, as well as growing an allotment. But ironically I was also a bit envious because the work of breaking an allotment and bringing its soil up to scratch is so rewarding. The pioneer days have their charms. His main challenge is the covering of rampant Blackberries across the whole plot. Even no-dig demands at least one season of the usual hard work to clear the soil of the worst of the noxious weeds.
But following on from Sunday’s posting, I’ve been thinking a lot about weeds and I went back to the bookshelf to re-read Richard Mabey’s book – “Weeds- the story of outlaw plants” It’s an absolutely lovely book from a writer who’s hardly written a dud word in his life and it’s definitely one for the Potwell Inn library. You’ll look at weeds differently once you’ve read it, and I realized, as I turned the pages, how much of his book had soaked into my memory and formed my own attitude. The history of weeds often includes periods when they were immmensely valuable as medicinal herbs, and if you read the labels of many beauty products you’ll see that they’re still in use today. My favourite discovery is that a well-known brand of natural fibre sold as a laxative, uses the seeds gathered from a member of the Plantago family. The plantains still have their uses, and instead of composting them I’m now inclined to let them fatten up and then harvest them as I might harvest any other useful food plant. Quite apart from their use to us, weeds are of the utmost importance to many of our moths, butterflies and other insects, and a large part of the ecological crisis that’s unfolding is the result of the chemical war on weeds. We should love them for all their irrepressible vulgarity and powers of survival.
Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, the incoming vegetables – particularly the unstoppable flow of courgettes and gherkins is testing our ingenuity. I confess I’ve never been a fan of ratatouille – it’s a reaction to being force fed the stuff many years ago while camping. I can still see the cook crouching behind a windbreak muttering incantations and boiling it down into a dreadful slush that tasted mostly of methylated spirits. But in the interests of harmony I’m suspending all my food prejudices in order to find a way of enjoying all the stuff we grow. Madame and I have between us tried just about every recipe for ‘rat’ that’s ever been written down. Today it was the turn of Simon Hopkinson whose recipe Madame found in one of the cookbooks (we’ve probably got over a hundred). The advantage was that the vegetables were fried to the point where they still had some bite, and then they were anointed with some of last year’s tomato sauce, a couple of black olives and a handful of fresh basil from the windowsill. It was without doubt the best ratatouille I’ve ever tasted.
I’ll write one day about the dynasties of chefs – it’s a subject I’m very interested in because we have two in our immediate family and they are both very much the product of the mentoring and training they received. More on that one another day, but now we’re getting to the start of jamming, pickling and freezing. Some of the brine pickles we experimented with last year have been quietly dropped, and we’re hoping that this year we’ll pull off some really decent pickled gherkins.
But on top of all this there are grandchildren to be looked after from time to time, and our campervan which has a fridge that won’t work as it should on LPG. Mechanics are expensive and I’ve come to question their skills over the years so I’ll have a go at anything I’m legally allowed to do. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours measuring voltages and resistances and pondering over the service manuals. Most problems are stricly logical ones – X doesn’t work because Y – and so forth. The difference between mending it myself and paying someone else to do it can amount to hundreds of pounds so I’m eagerly awaiting a package with what (I hope) will solve the problem inside. It’s important because in a few weeks we’re celebrating Madame’s birthday with a week in the Yorkshire Dales and then onwards into the Borders and Scotland. With a bit of wildcamping in view we need the gas fridge.
Muckyannydinny Lane was the name we used, as children, for a narrow, wet, rubbish filled and overgrown short cut from “The Lane” to halfway down Seymour Road. It was such an uninspiring dump that, so far as I know, no-one ever actually used it except couples who in those far off days needed somewhere out of sight to consummate their relationships. Consequently it became imbued with an almost erotic overtone for me as a child – which may or may not explain a great deal!
Moving rapidly on, I think it’s time to remind everyone that the Potwell Inn is not a real place but a fictional creation of H G Wells whose leading character Alfred Polly had more influence on me growing up than a whole garrison of teachers freshly returned from the 2nd World War, many of them suffering from the same sorts of depressions and mental disturbances that afflicted my Dad. Mr Polly, in the course of the novel, burns down half the town in which he lives unhappily, by setting fire to his stairs while attempting to commit suicide. He becomes an inadvertent hero by rescuing a trapped elderly lady and in the ensuing chaos slips away to search for something better – which turns out to be the Potwell Inn where he only has to get rid of the psychopathic Uncle Jim in order to find his paradise. Uncle Jim, being vanquished in an act of bungled heroism quite as daft as the suicide bid, washes up dead some time later wearing Polly’s jacket, therefore allowing the hero to be declared dead and consequently free to pursue an idyllic life with the plump landlady of the establishment. So not quite the story of my life but tremendously resonant for a teenager living in a house haunted by PTSD, falling for Madame who, though she was as slender as a whippet had plenty of crap to leave behind as well.
So after those two oxbows and the confluence of several small streams in the great journey of life, I want to say that yesterday was something of a disappointment. “What you want and what you’ll get is two different things” my Granny (who could start a fight in an empty room) would often say. I was missing the campervan, missing the coastal path walks, missing the botanising and feeling mightily grumpy about it. Madame, noticing the dark cloud moored over my head, suggested a walk up to Prior Park to look at the plants. Absolute bomber direct hit! that was exactly what I needed to do. And so all fired up I downloaded a new plant recording app for the phone, packed pocket magnifier, notebook, copy of Rose and even a six inch steel ruler and we set out.
Setting out involved passing the astroturfed bankside, but I did notice one or two dodgy looking plants that might have stepped right over from Muckyannydinny Lane. Prior Park has become a bit of a building site because they’re repairing one of the dams that’s been tunnelled into by marauding Signal Crayfish. The new app refused to work and after my third attempt to log in I had a huffy message to say I’d been barred and needed to email the management. The Cafe was shut, and there were nothing but weeds and Cabbage Whites to look at and so we turned back and walked home again.
As we walked back with my dudgeon level set to nine, I began to think a bit more rationally about what was going on. Not all of the plants along the bankside were Bohemian interlopers. There were some that looked like – well, proper weeds which had emerged from the builders rubble and the subsoil, briefly resurrected from their tarmac tombs. There’s a certain muscularity about these plants. Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as it abhors architects’ fancy wildflower mix, and the bankside has become a grudge match between the flowers introduced for their attractive colours, and the native weeds. Milwall versus the local croquet club. Guess which was winning?
And so a new project began to form in my mind. Obviously I’d really love to spend my life in places of outstanding wildness and beauty, recording stunningly lovely and rare orchids. However I actually live right next to the Bath to Bristol Cyclepath which is much loved by commuters on foot, runners, lycra louts on their handbuilt racing bikes, drunks, homeless people and drug dealers who rather appreciate the opportunity of a swift exit if the police arrive. That’s why all our local dealers ride bikes, because they’re over the river and away before the police can do a thirteen point turn and chase them. The litter bins have proved particularly useful for hiding stashes of drugs by taping them up under the lid, like a kind of unofficial click and collect service.
The path is a unique environment all of its own. There’s the river bank on one side, parks, houses and factory buildings on the other. It’s much altered and constantly dug up for building work and it enjoys heavy traffic most of the day. If dogs’ turds and discarded cans and bottles contribute any nourishment it must be highly fertile. Graffiti add a certain edginess to the flat surfaces, but in real life, notwithstanding the fact that the Council like to boast about it as a great achievment for the environmentalists, it’s a frog and no amount of kissing is going to make it into a prince.
But it’s my frog and I like it. This morning I was up at the crack of ten o’clock to take some photos. I’ve already ID’d three native plants I’ve never seen before and I can feel a big list coming on. Prickly Lettuce and Weld are hardly going to draw in the twitchers, but as I’ve said so often – if you don’t know that it’s there you won’t know when it’s gone. One day, I hope, the Natural History of Muckyannydinny Lane will stand with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Meanwhile a few photos to whet the appetite.
That’s Rose my friend, rather than Francis Rose whose book “The Wildflower Key” goes with me on all my expeditions. With surgical skill she reorganised my prejudices and enabled me to see that these ‘pernicious weeds’, growing less than ten feet from the Potwell Inn allotment are a haven to wildlife of all kinds. Let’s start with the Ragwort (“Stinking Willie”), which carries the additional burden of being listed as poisonous to livestock and a favourite hate plant for lazy gardening journalists. So dangerous, in fact that Norman Tebbit in his days of pomp wanted to force unemployed youths to uproot it as a form of community service. A typical example of the politician rising above the facts, because it’s likely that uprooting the plants would be more likely to spread them further. Even HRH Prince Charles had a poke at them and wanted something to be done about it, as did Adam Henson of Countryfile fame. Mercifully, the lineup of the outraged is such an offense to common sense I’m only hardened in my determination to leave it alone. It was the host plant for the first caterpillar I learned to identify when I was a child, when we would collect jam jars with a few stalks of the plant with their caterpilars and hope to see them hatch later as Cinnabar Moths. They are fantastic attractors of nectar loving insects and they look beautiful. Yes they are poisonous to cattle – like many other plants – but cattle won’t eat them green, which is why you often see them standing tall in fields that are otherwise grazed flat. They are poisonous in hay admittedly, but that’s not an excuse to exterminate the species by dousing every field with agent orange.
The Rosebay Willowherb, the Hedge Bindweed, the grasses including Cocksfoot and even Couch, the Stinging Nettles the list goes on and on – they are all important habitat for the very same insects, the Hoverflies, Lacewings, Ladybirds that predate on the pests we really do want to discourage, and the butterflies and moths we’re fighting to save from extinction.
These photographs, taken feet away from the allotment could so easily be regarded as the ‘enemy at the gate’ – that favourite trope of the agrichemical industry whose devoted attention to productivity and profit over the last fifty years has brought us to the brink of disaster. But these so-called weeds are not the problem, they’re the solution. Good allotmenteering depends (as does all great human endeavour) on minute attention to detail. Industrial farming has no idea how to do this because it works from inside an airconditioned cab without the faintest idea of what’s being destroyed. Getting to know the weeds gives us the ability to keep them out of the places where they’re a nuisance while giving them space to help us in the bigger picture. There’s a heartbreaking correlation here between our obession with “alien” plants and “alien” people. 90% of these nuisance weeds can be controlled by attention and a little hard work. The annual seedlings are easily hoed off as they germinate and if you learn to recognise the leaves they can be added to the compost since there are no seeds to cause trouble later on. Even Bindweed gets fed up in the end – it can’t survive without making chlorophyll and so we pick the leaves off as they appear. Looking across at the abandoned plot next door demands that we recognise that it’s a gift, an opportunity rather than a threat. Hello all you pollinators, welcome aboard.
Tomorrow is the last chance this year for a look around Whitefield meadow. I’ve printed off the Vice-County list – these are an incredibly useful resource obtainable online from BSBI. I’ll take Rose – the other one – and a hand magnifier, but what I’m really after is a Bee Orchid. Oh and I’d love to see a Marbled White butterfly again, they’re so beautiful.
We’ve had family commitments for five days out of the last seven so we’ll be there as the park opens, with a picnic. Bliss on steroids.
Actually that’s not quite true because we’ve been eating new season garlic for quite a while as the main batch dried in the greenhouse. The picture shows about half the crop, and the results show that the variety Early Purple Wight was the most successful of the three varieties we tried. We’d thought that most of the alliums were a bit of a disappointment this year, and we dug up the onions when they appeared to be suffering from some kind of (unidentifiable) affliction. However, less fearful (diligent?) allotmenteers left their affected plants in and many of them have recovered and now look well, so maybe we were overcautious, but the combination of twisted and wilting foliage with softness in the sets suggested some kind of rot. We found no evidence of fly infestation at all. so that’s another one to put down to experience. There’s a lot of “no idea” in gardening if we’re honest, but plants are amazingly resilient and can come back from the brink. It’s been so dry this season, and it’s been difficult to give the plants enough water. When we planted the leeks out a couple of weeks ago they looked terribly sorry for themselves, but even the sickliest have pulled themselved into the ground and are looking more vigorous now. Our sage plants, particularly, respond to ruthless pruning with loads of new growth. Parsley seems to hate being watered from above with a rose, and most of our plants seem to prefer a good soaking straight from the can at ground level. There’s a mass of detailed experience that comes into play on the allotment, and so many things that can go wrong – but the rewards are immense, and we don’t beat ourselves up too much if we get it wrong. Life’s too short to waste with gloomy reflections on the inevitable failures.
So it’s been water hauling, garlic peeling, thinning out and weeding in the warm sunshine. I had to get the strimmer out yesterday to deal with a couple of out-of-control paths and a big patch of nettles on an adjoining plot. Actually I’m quite happy to have nettles around the place because, as my friend Rose says, they’re not weeds – they’re habitat. However they’re also deep rooting mineral miners and great as accelerants in the compost heap and so I took half of them for the heap in the hope that they too will regenerate with fresh new growth. But strimming in hot weather is a pain and it’s fearfully noisy and smelly with exhaust fumes. We’ve now got four abandoned allotments neighbouring ours and when I put up an insect barrier to protect the eastern edge of the plot from strong winds it was soon decorated with airborne seeds. How much habitat is too much? We have much discussion about what it’s appropriate to put in the compost bins and my rule of thumb is to exclude bindweed and couch roots and any weeds that have actually set seeds, but bung the rest in, roots and all, mixed with all our kitchen peelings, tea leaves, eggshells, shredded paper and cardboard. Since I don’t encourage the heap to get too hot it probably doesn’t kill seeds, but since we don’t dig, thereby bringing new seeds to the surface, most of the seeds that germinate when we spread compost are easily hoed off.
While we were in Cornwall rediscovering the meaning of chilling out we decided to limit time on the allotment to something more manageable. Naturally that resolution didn’t get much further than the allotment gate, and yesterday we were there for best part of six hours, but with fresh peas available I couldn’t resist making a risotto when we got back. I can’t pretend it was a vegetarian dish because there was home made chicken stock and a little pancetta along with the arborio rice, shallot and parmesan. I always use butter rather than oil in this recipe, and I always add a splash of white wine in the early stages. There’s something very comforting about pulling up a stool and a glass of wine to drink while I keep the risotto moving in the pan. But some, at least, of the ingredients had come straight from the allotment and we finished off with a pile of summer raspberries from a neighbour. Beware of allotmenteers bearing gifts, they’re usually about to go on holiday! Our corner of the site is a small and unofficial cooperative where we take mutual obligations seriously, so no free lunches then, but you can get away for a break without worrying too much about the plot!
My newly revived interest in medicinal herbs has led to our son’s partner calling the flat “Hogworts”!
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.
Fumitory – Fumaria officinalis
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.