Faith in Flowers.. and a cure for scabs and arrow wounds

 

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One of my recent birthday presents was a book by Faith Anstey called Flowers in the Field. It’s just what I needed really to start at the beginning! There is no point having a huge reference book of wild flowers if you don’t know where to start. So I’m starting my botany at the beginning, and hopefully it will help me to identify at least some of the wonderful wild flowers I’ve seen this year!

The first lesson is the structure of the flower. So in lesson 1, I learned the following about this lovely common centaury. That as it has five petals it is a dicot, it has all round symmetry and that the yellow parts of the flower are the carpel (stigma, style and ovary) and the male Stamens (anther and filament)

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This primrose though having different leaves is also a dicot with all round symmetry but less obvious stamens.

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The lily is a lovely example of a monocot which has petals and sepals in multiples of three. Leaves are normally straight blade or simple oval shapes.

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Taking a closer look at a scabious flower from my garden, lets you clearly see the stamens with the anthers and the end of the filaments covered in pollen, where the bee is happily collecting it. I love to grow these in the garden, but have also spotted a number of wild ones over the Summer which are hopefully correctly identified!

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Devil’s bit scabious, (Succisa pratensis) at Cuckmere. This one is found in damp habitat, and is the main larval food of the declining Marsh Fritillary butterfly (sadly not spotted)

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Small scabious growing in short grassland near Crowlink, Seven Sisters

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Field scabious in meadows at  Lewes railway nature reserve

The name scabious appears to have come from this herb’s traditional usage as a folk medicine to treat scabies, caused by the plague. Indeed it appears to be an essential of the medicinal garden as my old copy of Culpeper’s complete herbal includes:

“Scabious is very effectual for all coughs, shortness of breath and all other diseases of the breast and lungs. The decoction of the herbs and roots outwardly applied doth wonderfully subdue all hard or cold swellings in any part of the body, is effectual for shrunk sinews or veins and healeth green wounds, old sores and ulcers. The decoction also cures running and spreading scabs, tetters, ringworms and the French pox. The juice cleanseth the skin and removeth freckles, pimples, morphew and leprosy. The herb bruised and applied doth in a short term draw forth any splinter, broken bone or arrow head from the flesh!”

Useful to know. I’ll remember that, next time I’m shot with an arrow while out flower spotting.

 

 

 

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In the Pink

In the pink

My partner (who has very little interest in nature spotting ) likes to tease me, telling me I have just missed a wildlife spectacle just over there.. On Sunday it was apparently a huge cloud of butterflies that had just flown off when I had my back turned. What colour were they? Pink apparently.

Well I’ve not spotted any pink butterflies yet, and I’m not sure there actually are any on the list of Sussex butterflies, but what I have spotted are some lovely pink flowers, and some of them very attractive to the butterflies.

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The first was hiding near a hedge just up the hill. A cute little pink and white flower like a little doll’s bonnet faces. Research suggests it is common restharrow (ominis repens). The flowers were right down low on the floor. Apparently they are linked by fibrous stems with such deep strong roots that this plant could stop a horse drawn harrow, with the roots tangling the blades!

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This one is a bit more familiar, and found on the exposed chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters cliffs where the butterflies were congregating – wild thyme. What a wonderful scent too

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These little pink buds had me wondering a while. I think the yellow plant is Perforate St John’s wort.

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A week or two later flowers nearby seem to reveal themselves as common centaury (centaurium erythraea). A little beauty from the gentian family, that can be low to the ground appearing like an alpine on thin chalk cliffs or where grazed, or can be tall and slender. The flowers open in full sun. 17th century apothecary and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper reported of ‘Ordinary Small Centaury’ that ‘The whole plant is of an exceeding bitter taste’ and that it helped to cure ‘the dropsy’, a condition which is nowadays regarded as edema.

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One pink flower not spotted as of yet was the one referred to in this cryptic poem by Emily Dickenson

Pink small and punctual by Emily Dickinson

Pink—small—and punctual—
Aromatic—low—
Covert—in April—
Candid—in May—
Dear to the Moss—
Known to the Knoll—
Next to the Robin
In every human Soul—
Bold little Beauty
Bedecked with thee
Nature forswears
Antiquity—

Apparently the answer to the riddle is the mayflower trailing arbutus, which according to folklore with the first spring-blooming plant that the pilgrims saw in the new country of America. It is believed that the little pink plant has existed since the last ice age.

Cute.

 

 

 

 

Weed hogging and magpie hopping

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At the top of Seaford Head in early July, it was hogweed nurturing the most wildlife! Not the infamous giant hogweed, that is non-native and can very toxic if you touch it, common hogweed is a native plant and was blooming everywhere. Almost every flower head I peered over, was covered with busy red soldier beetles, feeding, mating and general congregating.

Hogweed (heracleum sphondylium) has lacy umbellifer flowers which are white or pink.

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Soldier beetles are very common here and feed on aphids, pollen and nectar. The larvae prey on ground dwelling invertebrates such as slugs and snails. Another welcome insect to try and attract to my garden then!

It was a windy day and the birds were mostly lying low, except for a noisy family of magpies in a bush beside the golf course. Presumably juveniles, they congregated and cogitated, then flew off in a noisy hullabaloo.

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As I walked down the hill towards Hope Gap, the hogweed was joined by ladies bedstraw (gallium verum). The tiny delicate yellow flowers combine into golden clouds that waft prettily all the way down the hill. The flower is most abundant on very poor chalk soil where it cannot be crowded out by other more vigorous plants.

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Their pleasant honey and hay scent of the flower, made it popular in days gone by for drying and using to stuff mattresses, especially of women about to give birth, hence the name! In Norse mythology it was also used as a sedative for women in labour! Due to its high acid content it was also used as a rennet substitute to colour and flavour cheese!

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(truckle bed at Singleton Downland museum)

The end of my walk was also accompanied by more noisy magpies, who clearly wanted to stand up and be counted. But I think I lost count in the end. Anyway this little chap certainly wasn’t on his own, so I think I can avoid the curse of a lone magpie today.

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One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.[1]

 

 

 

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

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(1 Marbled White)

And so one of my resolutions for the Summer was to slow down. Get outside whenever I could weather permitting, and not to rush, but instead to stop and look closely, and photograph. Then to learn something I didn’t know last year. Trying to identify, names of birds, butterflies, flowers, insects and more. To learn my landscape as it changes through the year. I’ve made a good start, but this is the sort of journey, cultivating my curiosity, that takes a lifetime, and is never finished.

So if I come across a snail on the chalk path leading up the hill, I should resist the temptation to tread on it (my garden ones are never spared!) and instead wonder about whether there are many varieties of snails, and whether the snail shell always curls the same way. What do the snails eat on the thin chalky grassland? In my garden they managed to climb several layers of copper tape, slide across sharp gravel and chew their way through every stem of zinnia every time… The stem of the struggling remaining one, has been repaired several times with sellotape. Which seems to work, and the poor flower is battling on valiantly. Not that I’m bitter.. well not that bitter..

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Anyway I still don’t know the answers about snails (I’ll get there, but they are not exactly top of my list) but I have enjoyed my way so far. Be patient, as my travels so far may take a while to tell, and if the weather is good, I won’t be typing, but outside instead.

According to the Sussex branch of the Butterfly Conservation society there are 52 species of butterfly found in sussex, 43 entirely native to Sussex. So I wonder if it’s possible to spot (and photograph all of them?) It seems worth a try. Second I want to be identify the flowers and plants that thrive within walking distance of my house. I already belonged to a couple of facebook groups for birdwatchers, and recently joined one for wild flowers. I haven’t yet dared post any photos (although it is mostly friendly enough) but I have learned just how many flowers there are , and just how difficult it is to identify them, especially from just one photo! I have a lot to learn!

You have to start somewhere, so I’ll start with my first butterfly of the year, the marbled white. The first ones I saw were up Seaford Head on 3rd July, in the long grass near the golf course, and they are normally pretty common there. This year I was also very pleased to find one in my garden on the verbena bonariensis, which I’m encouraging to run rampant anywhere it pleases.

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“The Marbled White is a distinctive and attractive black and white butterfly, unlikely to be mistaken for any other species. In July it flies in areas of unimproved grassland and can occur in large numbers on southern downland. It shows a marked preference for purple flowers such as Wild Marjoram, Field Scabious, thistles, and knapweeds. Adults may be found roosting halfway down tall grass stems. 

Found in unimproved flowery grassland with tall sward but may stray into gardens. The strongest populations are found on chalk or limestone grasslands but other habitats such as; woodland rides and clearings, coastal grassland, road verges and railway embankments are also used.

Caterpillar Foodplants- Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) is thought to be essential in the diet of larvae but Sheep’s-fescue (F. ovina), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus), and Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum) are also eaten. It is thought that several other grasses may be used, but the full range is not known.

There’s a lot of knapweed up on Seaford Head, and you don’t have to peer at many heads before you spot some wildlife. Bees, soldier beetles and butterflies are all fighting over it! In fact I think knapweed will be on my list of things I really want in my garden next year!

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But of course nothing is that easy.. Knapweed – well is it greater knapweed, lesser knapweed, common knapweed, cultivated knapweed? Well according to the couple of books I have, I’m going to plump for greater knapweed. But I’m always happy to be corrected, as it’s in the process of being wrong, that we learn something. I have a terrible memory too, so the harder the journey is to answer the question, the more likely I am to remember this time next year when I’m out with my camera again, and checking what’s new.

“I sit beside the fire and think
Of all that I have seen
Of meadow flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
In autumns that there were
With morning mist and silver sun
And wind upon my hair

I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring
That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green
J.R.R. Tolkien

 

 

Wild about Spring

Wild about Spring

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I dream’d that as I wander’d by the way

Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring

And gentle odours led my steps astray

      Shelley

And so the suddenly green shoots were pushing up so fast you could almost hear their lush unfurling and the pots exploded in a lush blaze of colour Snowdrops, narcissus and crocus popping up in pots and in the beds. Far more than I thought I’d put in! Spring was here.

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When I walk to work from the station, I choose the peaceful path up the side of the campus, alongside established trees. All Winter the ground has been a crackling brown carpet of leaves under bare branches. As the days warmed up little leaves appeared taking advantage of the bare canopy. I’m not great on identifying wild flowers, but I’m trying to learn! Am very smitten with a book I found in a bargain bookshop in Lewes, Wild Flowers, by Sarah Raven!

The first leaves to appear were like miniature cyclamen. And pretty soon their flowers appeared, another Springtime yellow, a mass of lesser celandine. It was a real delight watching the brown dead carpet become a mass of colour as the weeks passed by.

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I was rather less delighted when I realised that my new beds were also becoming a sea of celandines too. A “freebie” that came with my free top soil! After researching them I realised that these were pretty difficult to eradicate; digging them out was likely to leave tubers that resprouted! After removing them only where they appeared to be most encroaching on precious plants, I took a philosophical view to love and leave them for now.

There is a flower, the Lesser Celandine

That shrinks like many more from cold and rain

And the first moment that the sun may shine

Bright as the sun himself, tis out again!

W Wordsworth

On a March walk at Cuckmere I was delighted to spot these little violets which I’m almost certain are sweet violet rather than the more common later dog violets. A shy and sweet delight.

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At the campus perimeter the celandines were soon finished. The next leaves to shoot up were more delicate fronds, I was guessing cranesbill but suddenly they grew, at least a foot a week! Triumphant Cow Parsley, some of it already chest high.

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Nettles and dandelions are next and down the slope a few bluebells already opening those fragrant blue petals.

However much I  carefully nurture my garden , it reminds me Mother Nature is pretty good at blossoming forth without any help!

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Enjoy it while it lasts

I is for Insects, and Holly and Ivy

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I is for insects, mostly  welcome, some not so! I have a couple of bee and insect boxes round the garden, also some homemade boxes with lots of nooks and crannies for the beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings (not quite as big as this one I spotted in a local garden!)

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I’m was delighted to see so many hoverflies this year, mostly on the fennel and the odd soldier beetle too (these photographed over Seaford head where I spotted dozens!)

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I’ve also been delighted to see so many evening flying moths in the garden this year – almost certainly encouraged by the fragrant nicotiana that wafted its perfumed trumpet heads so beautifully in the evening air. Photographing them however is a real challenge!

So who were the baddies? The white-fly inside, and in the mini greenhouse, black-fly outside on the cosmos, valerian and nasturtiums, and lily beetles on the lilies. I never did work out what was voraciously eating my marguerite flowers either, possibly slugs or possibly earwigs, though I didn’t trap more than the odd one with an upturned pot.

Now it’s Autumn there are also a few craneflies deciding that they would rather be inside the house, and making a break for it as soon as we open a door or window. These harmless flies are not exactly the terrifying plague that the trashy press were making out. (It really must have been a slow news day). As the Sussex Wildlife Trust pointed out, there are not 200 billion of these bursting their way out in an Old Testament like plague, they are not the world’s most venomous creatures, lacking only a mouth to let loose that poison and they are not recent foreign invaders, but have been here since the Ice age, and are surely eligible for British citizenship by now. And they only live a few days, so irritating though they may be, we really should give those daddy long legs, a break.

“Nevertheless headlines urged us to ‘brace yourselves’ as the ‘plague’ of insects was heading our way. Things started to get personal in The Express who yelled that “for every man, woman and child in the UK there will be 3,000 Daddy Longlegs on the rampage”. We reached peak panic when The Star screamed “Apocalyptic invasion of 200 BILLION bugs FOUR INCHES LONG coming to UK homes.” By now the people of Britain were no doubt stocking up on tinned food, barricading their doors and preparing to defend themselves with a rolled up copy of the nearest tabloid.

So far this year I’ve seen seven craneflies.”

So plants beginning with I – not too many in my garden.  Italian Lords and ladies (Arum Italicum), brighten up the beds in the Winter, with interesting foliage and bright red berries.

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A lovely resilient non prickly holly – Ilex (Altaclerensis variegated) also brightens up the bed with Winter berries. (picture below bottom right)

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Oh yes and last but not least the dreaded Ivy. I think I have ground ivy coming up in almost every direction, and it’s a real battle to keep pulling it up. I do try and avoid weedkillers, but I may have to give in and give it a dose. A classic definition of a weed – a plant in the wrong place! In the woods and wild places it is a wonderful thing, giving nectar to those hoverflies but in my garden it strangles my hedges and perennials and sends those dreaded tendrils out in every direction.

The holly and the ivy

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown

 

      Traditional Christmas carol, Holly and the Ivy

 

H is for Honesty and very important Hedges

H is for honesty and very important hedges

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First two plants that thrived throughout our inhospitable coastal Winters The Hebes seem to be indestructible, and even obligingly self propagate themselves in random places. Some have gorgeous bright variegated foliage and all have lovely purple flowers, much appreciated by the bees.

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Rather more of an acquired taste is the Helichrysum Italicum (otherwise known as the curry plant). This plant with silver foliage contrasts well with other plants; it also thrives here and cuttings take very easily, adding interest to the border and pots. It really does smell of curry but apparently doesn’t taste of it! It also has an abundance of yellow flowers.

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As to the Hostas – I think I’ve cracked it now. I need to keep them in individual pots (not with other plants that crowd them out) and I need to keep them as long as possible on the balcony (until the Summer gets really hot) Why? Because I must have a population of around three million slugs and snails which devour everything in sight, and especially the hostas.  However the snails seem to be scared of heights and don’t make it up that high! So I think I have five plants of three varieties, and they have retreated for the Winter, so I’ve carefully put them to bed ready for next year.

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I’m not really keen on Hydrangeas generally but was willing to give one a go, Hydrangea anomala, petiolaris, a climber with white flowers went in the sunny bed behind the rosemary two years ago.  I’ve finally given in and dug it up from where it was as it’s never thrived.  It has one last chance the other side of the garden, but I’m not holding my breath. They usually take a while to settle anyway and this one whenever it decides to start growing, the storms leave it battered and browning at the ages. Better to put it out of its misery!

Also missing this year was the Honesty which self seeded absolutely everywhere over the Winter. I dug some out, donated some to family, but left plenty behind but not a single one flowered. Honestly! Still plenty there though so hopefully they will flower next year. I miss those fragile seed swaying flower heads!

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And on the patio the Houseleeks seem to thrive when brought outside for the Summer, they are so easy to grow and propagate these plants! Love them.

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I first saw Hellebores growing in a friend’s garden. “What is that plant sticking out of the snow and flowering!?” There are a couple in my garden somewhere, but they didn’t rear their heads last Winter/Spring. However one did turn up blooming in late August (what is going on there?) These hellebores and heuchera sadly are not from my garden, but from the gardens of Hever Castle one Spring.

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And so a last minute impulse buy for some Autumn colour, this Heuchera to cheer up the patio. Nice

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And the most important H in the garden, well it has to be the huge hedge on the left hand side. Hedges protect from the wind far better than the fences which invariable get blown down in the storms. They also give shelter and hiding places for the sparrows when they come in, plucking up the courage to leap to the feeders, it also harbours insects and caterpillars. On occasion a sparrow hawk has also used the hedge as a good vantage point. The blackbirds, and dunnocks have certainly built nests in there over the last couple of years, but as yet no one has chosen to nest in the birdbox. I’m not sure exactly what the hedge is, and it does need a good trim a few times a year (the neighbour opts for a man on a ladder armed with a chainsaw but my side is rather more delicately manicured on tiptoes with my loppers. At times it casts rather too much shade on my garden, but on balance it is a valuable asset and the garden wouldn’t be the same without it. I’ll leave you with that Hawk in the hedge! Glad I’m not a sparrow.

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