Bringing Plants Indoors

I was given a very lovely, anonymous gift of flowers from a local florist at the end of last term. Pink Stargazer lilies, dark pink miniature roses, grey-blue sea holly, dark purple alstroemerias, light purple crysanthemums, rosemary, pussy willows, fatsia and wide green flax leaves, and the whole thing was beautiful. Over two weeks later, many of them are still looking good. So a huge thank you to whoever gave them to me for making me smile and brightening my days, when I was having a particularly hard time!

I now see it as a once in a lifetime gift that I shall probably pass on one day. But trying to figure out who they were from made me think first about my friends (who all denied any knowledge) and then about the various plant-related things I do for which I expect nothing in return, which might have somehow ‘earned’ me some flowers. Rubbish collecting around the village. Giving plants or fruit away from my garden. Secretly sowing appropriate wildflower seeds in barren places. Shifting energies or sending healing – to the Earth or its inhabitants. I rarely see the full effects of my actions, just like the kind donor of these flowers will never see how they brightened my kitchen and left the house smelling amazing, or how they made me feel loved and wanting to do more.

There has been one immediate impact on me however: they have helped me to understand that I need greenery inside the house again, and to do something about it. I used to have a few houseplants, ones I had been given that didn’t really like the conditions in our house, and that mostly felt stiff and spiky to me. Eventually I got fed up with them always looking slightly ill, and wanted the limited windowsill space for seedlings of perennial flowers or vegetable plants each Spring.

So now I am trying to be more creative about where I put plants, considering Winter (near window) and Summer (eg in front of fireplace) positions. I look at a book from the library and see what might be suitable, but dowsing comes up with very little that looks like a guaranteed success.

Then I visit my nearest garden centre. Outside first, I can’t resist a look, and in the back corner find some wildflower plants that are being sold off at rock bottom price, just in perfect condition with the roots starting to show through the bottom. I choose several, two of which I have been looking for for some time – Herb Robert and Red Campion, each nicely labelled with their history and planting requirements. We also choose some pansies in flower, of which more later.

Back inside, near the tills I find the houseplants. Lots of showy orchids in flower, along with a few large foliage plants. Too big for what I want at the moment. Small Dragon trees, with a picture of a dragon and basic care instructions but no clue that they will reach 5′. Then almost hidden away, small plants of the size and price I thought might be reasonable – but labelled mostly as ‘fern’, or ‘foliage plant’ with no care instructions at all. I choose four plants whose shapes combine well, and which intuition and basic plant knowledge suggest may survive where I want to put them. Even looking later, I cannot positively identify three of them from the library book I have; my list of questions fails to get much shorter.

I could just hope for the best, but being a witch I am now asking the plants what they need. So far they seem happy, and have brightened up my shady kitchen windowsill brilliantly giving me something green to look at when I wash-up instead of tiles, cleaning products and the temporarily bare brick wall opposite. It may be possible to live a fulfilling life without plants and greenery around me, but I’m glad I don’t have to.

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Imbolc Flowers

Snowdrop flowering at Imbolc

I have been enjoying the flowers of early Spring, which being generally very small, decided it was a good opportunity to experiment taking some ‘close-up’ pictures. I love seeing macro shots, probably because I have poor eyesight and pictures can often show more detail than I can see with my eyes. Taking them is a different matter however – my poor eyesight makes it difficult for me to focus accurately, and it has been very windy all week, adding an additional element of luck to whether the flower stays where I have focused. A tripod wouldn’t necessarily help!

Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrops seem to have become very closely associated with Imbolc, and Brigid in particular. They are green and white – the freshness of Spring combined with the purity of the Goddess, and of course the colour of milk which this festival celebrates. (After the lambs or calves are born, there is milk to drink again.)

Rosemary flower

While watching for snowdrops, I found many Viburnum flowers as well as Hazel catkins swinging in the wind. More surprising however were a few purple Anemone blanda just opening up, as well as Rosemary in flower.

Anemone blanda flower just opening for Imbolc

I also found a lone cyclamen flower, which was fun to take from almost underneath, and an Iris reticulata being battered by the wind.

Iris reticulata flower


Cyclamen flower

Finally, I noticed some teasels which are long past their flowers but were backlit by the sun and I couldn’t resist.

Iris reticulata being blown by the wind.

Teasel, Dispsacus fullonum seedhead.

The pictures were all taken with the same Pentax DSLR camera body but two different lenses – a Sigma 70-300mm telephoto on macro setting, giving me a working distance of 1-2m, and a 50-year-old Pentax 50mm lens with a reversing ring and converter ring giving me a working distance of 10cm and almost no depth of field. I’m still exploring its potential now that digital gives me instant results.

Black Bryony

Black Bryony berries garlanding its way through the ivy.

All autumn I have been enjoying the sight of black bryony berries garlanding the hedgerows. They are of course a fairly common plant in most of England, but one I only tend to see once the bright red berries have ripened. The flowers are fairly small and insignificant.

Black Bryony in Hawthorn hedge.

I have wanted to take a picture of the berries before, but mostly I see them while cycling, along roadside hedges that are not always good places to walk with a camera. They also drape themselves so sparsely that they don’t frame well. Then this year a new cycle route was opened up to me (see earlier post, Cycle Roads) and it grew in these traffic free hedges in such profusion that I wanted to have a go. A month ago the leaves were still yellowing and showing their bindweedy shape, but now they hang brown or have dispersed into the hedge bottom to be recycled into next year’s crop. Getting camera, weather, time and leg that can be walked on all together has taken some time… (These were taken with our old compact camera – the DSLR camera I got this year would have done a better job at putting the background out of focus and letting the berries shine, but would have added an extra weight / balancing challenge I wasn’t ready for. Work in progress!)

There are two bryonies, named white and black after the colour of their roots, both looking very similar for most of the year since they each have mid-green ivy-like leaves, small insignificant greenish white male and female flowers followed by red berries, and they climb up hawthorn with abandon. However they are completely unrelated to each other. White bryony, Bryonia dioica, is a member of the curcurbitae family (ie courgettes and melons) so climbs with tendrils, and is dioecious, while Black Bryony, Tamus communis, belongs to the Dioscoreaceae family (ie yams), climbs by twining, and is monoecious. Both are poisonous in all parts.

Black Bryony berries and ivy.

Black bryony berries and juice or pulp from the root have been applied directly to the skin for bruises, strains, gout, rheumatism and hair loss because the calcium oxalate it contains as crystals irritate (or stimulate?) the skin. It has also been used to cause vomiting in careful doses, and when mixed with wine or honey, black bryony has been used for gravel or asthma. An overdose is likely to cause a painful death however. All parts also contain saponins, another poison, although one which is normally deactivated by cooking – but the young shoots are cooked and eaten like asparagus in southern France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia and Greece.

I managed to meet Black Bryony in meditation, and found a very interesting energy which was willing to communicate with me, appearing briefly in a dark female form and very beautiful. Its element is fire, and its focus is transformation – hence is medical uses. But transformation can be destructive to some if they are not willing to change, to let some parts die down. It was used in alchemy for this purpose. [I cannot find any evidence for this as yet, although I’m not an alchemist so it may turn up…] It has been particularly active along the lane to create the transformation that I have seen this year. It has developed strong roots in the course of this work so will continue to grow well there, but doesn’t need to spread further. It also brings harmony, creating links between species. It does not help the fiery aspects of will, or of strong focus and intention.

Black Bryony makes a garland under a hawthorn branch.

Stone Circles – Nine Stones Close

Nine Stones Close circle as seen from the top of Robin Hood’s Stride, showing how it fits into the surrounding countryside. The circle probably had one extra stone to the right of the four remaining, but may have extended left as far as the oak tree. (All photos can be clicked on to enlarge.)

This is a circle I have visited previously, as it is almost impossible to miss if you are in the area. The four remaining stones are apparently the tallest in Derbyshire, all well over six foot. I do not know why it is called Nine Stones Close, as there are not and probably never have been exactly nine stones. Drawings exist from the mid and late nineteenth century showing 7 and 6 stones respectively, and estimates of the original number seem to be 11 or even 13, which makes sense on the ground; I felt it larger than 9. There are suggestions it may have actually been called Noon or Moon Stones Close, since the moon sets over Robin Hood’s Stride, a major rock feature in the area. (Robin Hood in this instance is another name for the Green man, the old God of fertility.) The circle is also known as the Grey Ladies, who were dancing until turned to stone when Robin Hood p****d on them from the stride… a very familiar story of dancers being turned to stone although the addition of a giant standing on the rock outcrop makes it slightly more local.

Two northern stones of Nine Stones Close circle, the further one showing the remains of a cup on top.

Each stone has its own character, all quite different in looks if not in size. Two originally had a cup in the top to catch rainwater, although these have both weathered a channel so that they now leak. There is one with a ‘smile’ again, although my imagination may be working overtime here. They are all of local gritstone and probably did not travel very far – there are some pretty large boulders scattered about the area only a couple of fields away, in addition to the taller outcrop of the Stride.

As a circle however, it is broken. The position where a stone once stood between the two pairs can be felt, as can the next stone around the circle in each direction, but then it fades out for me. So sitting there, I did not get strong positive feelings and circling energies that I get from sitting in a completed circle. It is also a fairly windswept site, with little intimacy, and the surrounding countryside kept drawing me out of the circle, rather than focusing my energies within. After a few minutes of getting nowhere, I decided to continue on my walk.

The four remaining stones of Nine Stones Close circle in Derbyshire.

A few days later I returned to the circle in a journey. Again, the circle felt broken and my first feelings were of frustration and disappointment that I didn’t seem to be able to connect with it or learn anything more. However I was then shown a way of ‘mending’ the circle by placing quartz points where stones should be, pointing along the energy lines I could feel, and amplifying what was there. I did this and continued placing quartz points until the circle was complete. Suddenly it felt far more worthwhile, although the energy was still very low. Then I remembered how the name might have been Moon Stones, and ‘fast forwarded’ to night time and a full moon.

Nine Stones Close stone pointing towards Robin Hood’s Stride to the South.

At this point the circle and surrounding area came alive. I became aware of literally hundreds of people there, mostly wearing dark clothing, standing outside and behind the circle to watch the rising of the full moon in silence. Out of respect most did not enter the circle, although there was one man, possibly a priest officiating in a lighter coloured cloak, who remained within it and at times others entered for healing while the moon shone on the circle. My focus was poor and I did not stay long, but I had other impressions of other times of year when the moon was not in quite the right place or quite full when smaller groups of people or individuals would come and benefit from ‘moon power’. I interpreted this as healing, divination or intuition. This may all be my imagination working overtime, or there may be something in this, I have no way of telling. I did however feel this circle, once mended, as very different from those I have previously written about and far more ceremonial than small ‘family’ circles as I now think of the last one I visited.

John Barnatt in his book ‘Stone Circles of the Peak’ suggests that tall stones were used for this circle so that they could be seen over the trees in what was a relatively lowland, wooded area – in fact the lowest of all Peak District stone circles. There may be something in this as nearby I had read of and seen a few pictures of a circle known as ‘Dudwood’, so after visiting Nine Stones Close circle I made an attempt to find it. Looking for stones through trees is surprisingly challenging! Shadows and stumps catch your attention, but stones do a good job of hiding. I found various stones, but failed to find any arranged in a circle.

The three references I rechecked afterwards (a 6-figure grid reference, and two Lat/Long positions) were to three different spots, none of which are exactly correct. (I know that because I had looked in two of the three places, and the third was too steep and wooded.) From the photos I think I now know where to look (not in the woods!) so may try again one day, but as it is most likely a ‘hut circle’ remains and not built for the stones themselves, it is a little low on my priority list.

Wood-sorrel, Oxalis acetosella

However I had a really special experience in the woodland by my looking. (A path runs along the outside of the wood, on the edge of Access Land.) My namesake Wood-sorrel carpeted the floor, the last of the bluebells were now faded but still good, and I found some very beautiful mossy rocks. So the search was worthwhile even if unsuccessful. Also it will remind me that sometimes it is worth following other people’s descriptions of how to find a circle, especially when it is not marked on a map in any way – although in this case it was a completely unplanned walk that was decided in the car!

Bluebells in Dudwood, seen from the access land. Some of the mossy rocks can be seen on the far right by the wall and path.

Oak Apples

Oak Apple

I found these decorative little apples on a walk last weekend, then returned later with my camera. Rarely have I seen them so beautifully coloured – just like the apples they are named after.

Oak apples and other galls have been used to make ink since at least Roman times, and it was the most commonly used ink from the 9th to the 20th century in Europe – it is still used for legal records in the UK such as birth, marriage and death certificates because it is both permanent and waterproof. Best used in a disposable quill pen rather than your best fountain pen!

To make it, first you need some galls that have been vacated by the wasp and are dry. Crush them to powder, then add warm water and iron in some form, eg rusty nails or filings, and cover. Keep in a warm place to ferment for a few days. Then drain off the ink, filtering out the solids if necessary, and store it in an airtight container. It has a fairly short shelf-life; oxidation reveals the ink and turns it darker on the page, but isn’t so helpful before it has been formed into writing! The ink is also quite acidic, being formed from tannic acid and iron – although apparently crushed egg shells can be used to neutralise it and prevent it from degrading the paper.

Oak Apple

Medicinally oak apples can be used like oak bark to stop internal bleeding. However while chewing bark is fine, I cannot recommend chewing an oak apple – they are about the most astringent of all vegetable compounds. Instead, use a decoction. They are also known for curing dysentery.

There is not a lot of folklore associated with the oak apple. However, it is said that if a “worm” (larva) is found inside the gall on Michaelmas Day (29th September) then the year will be pleasant and unexceptional, if a fly is found inside it will be a moderate season, but if a spider is found, then it will be a bad year with food shortages and ruined crops. If nothing is found however, then serious diseases will occur all that year.

Group of Oak Apples

The oak apples used to have a much greater significance in England, being used as decorations on Oak Apple Day, 29th May. The mid 1600s saw civil war in England, followed by a very Puritan Commonwealth rule. All sorts of traditional festivities and activities were banned, such as Maypole dancing, Christmas decorations or feasting, carol singing, theatres, inns, football or other sports, walking on a Sunday except to or from church, and even wearing colourful clothes or makeup etc. Even the various Medieval Saints’ Feast days were stopped, and instead Fast days were introduced once a month. It was on his birthday, 29th May, in 1660 that Charles II rode triumphantly into London to return as King. The day was declared a holiday and was entirely given over to dancing, feasting and merry-making – and the event was repeated every year. The story of how he hid in an oak tree to escape parliamentarian forces became widespread and led to the Oak tree becoming the symbol both for this day and of England. To show their loyalty and support for the monarchy and its restoration, doorways were decorated with oak boughs and people wore sprigs of oak in their clothing or on their hats – of which oak apples are the most decorative part at the end of May. They were liable to be punished with pinching or nettles if they failed to do so!

Oak Apple

While this holiday has become much less known since the Victorians removed it from the official calendar (a day given over to merry-making didn’t fit well in that period!) it is still celebrated in various villages and towns around the country – including Castleton in Derbyshire where they hold a garland parade every year on this day.

Spring Weeding

The sun come out, the soil warms up, and every year I am surprised by how the weeds always seem to launch into growth ahead of my preferred flowering plants…

I have spent the past three weeks weeding, whenever I have half an hour or an hour and it isn’t actually raining. Mainly just four perennial plants (it being too cold for the annuals to get going) – grass, dandelions, American willowherb and avens. Avens I unfortunately allowed to seed itself thinking it might be geum, and which now infiltrates from its base in the hawthorn hedge to wherever it can hide. The geums meanwhile seem to have given up the ghost; there were none last summer. Creeping buttercup used to be a problem, but I have only found a couple of areas this year that it has tried to cover pretending to be hardy geraniums. I am growing wise to the subtle differences there too.

I think only one plant was inadvertently weeded out this year, a phlox paniculata just emerging that looked like a Rosebay willowherb. (Had I realised immediately it could have been replanted, but unfortunately it had to wait for me to flick through a plant catalogue that arrived a week later.) I have never managed to grow tall phloxes, them being rather prone to mildew and other fungi, but like everything, try occasionally when I find a cheap plant that looks pretty in the hopes it will do better this time. Clearly it is partly my own fault I don’t have phlox!

But now I am left wondering what plants resemble grass that I need to be careful of? Dierama seedlings? Crocosmia? Hemerocallis? Luckily I don’t think the dandelions are in danger of confusion with anything else so at least I know I am safe weeding them out before they flower! However, dandelions are one plant I might just allow to grow – were it not for the fact there is usually a field full of them just over my back wall where they look stunning both in flower and later with their silvery seed clocks.

So I now have the near impossible task of filling the gaps (before they fill themselves) with other native wildflowers. Near impossible, because while I think plants such as Helleborus foetidus or Geranium robertianum or Silene dioica should be easy to obtain, they are generally eschewed at the garden centres in favour of new introductions that pay plant breeders rights and will ideally live for only a season or two, ensuring the purchaser returns to buy more plants next year. I’m sure the cottage gardeners of yesterday would have simply dug a bit up and transferred plants to their garden, or hedgewitches would simply have known where to find them locally when they were wanted. Today I must create my own garden, and that may even include importing the ‘weeds’ I want!

In Praise of Lamb’s Lettuce

Lamb's Lettuce after a shower of rain

Lamb’s Lettuce after a shower of rain

This modest little annual never ceases to amaze me, as it continues to grow all through the winter producing little bites of freshness whenever I want some salad leaves. Unlike many winter leafy plants (eg land cress, mizuna or pak choi) it does not become tough or peppery in flavour, but remains slightly sweet and crunchy all year. It seeds itself everywhere, covering the ground with a green carpet, so where I do not want it, such as on the gravel pathways, I eat it. (Preferably before it runs to seed!) Lettuce does not overwinter, but Lamb’s Lettuce does – and makes a great addition to soup or steamed as a vegetable if not wanted fresh.

Botanically known as Valerianella locusta, it is also commonly known as Corn Salad thanks to its propensity to grow as an edible weed in wheat (corn) fields, and as Mache or Rapunzel in Europe, although this last name is also applied to Campanula rapunculus.

I like the idea of Lamb’s Lettuce being the plant referred to in the Rapunzel story, and it makes perfect sense to me that a pregnant woman would be desperate to eat some in the middle of winter. I can imagine her sitting at her window, in a barren, cold and frosty land, desperate for something nice and fresh to eat that won’t make her stomach turn. There is nothing to eat in her garden and just stodgy old root vegetables left in store, but next door, where the witch lives, there is a carpet of edible green that no one is touching. Oh how that would make her pine for it each day! And yes, the first time she persuades her husband to go, it is even better than she had hoped, for she sends him again…

So there you have it – Rapunzel’s mother was pregnant in winter, and desperate for something crisp and fresh, and packed with nutrients (Vitamins A, B6 and C, plus iron and potassium) that would help her through. Pretty and edible as the Campanula is, I can’t see it inducing any kind of desperation in late spring when so many other plants are also abundant.

Finding Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts are one of my favourite foods to forage. At first I see nothing. Then little nuggets of gold seem to appear on the ground. Not many, and frequently hidden by long grass and brambles, but walk back and forth over an area by a nut tree and more seem to emerge from the undergrowth until before I know it, I have managed to fill a pocket. A few days later I will do it again.

The timing seems to be critical with hazels, and some years I have missed them altogether. Early falls are hollow, rejects by the tree. Later ones get eaten or lost within a day or two of falling. Reaching them for picking directly from the tree is rarely possible; the trees near me grow tall and nuts form at the extremities, so the only way is to watch and wait, and keep visiting the same trees every few days. In small ways I am lucky however, as the three trees I mostly pick from are in a line along a field boundary between a cow field and a playground and I can walk along both sides of two of the trees. Also they ripen in succession so if I miss the first tree I may get the second or third. And thanks to their open location few squirrels seem to have found them – the other trees around my village rarely produce any nuts without holes and trying to find uneaten ones amongst the debris of empty shells is a frustrating task.

Freshly picked hazelnuts

Freshly picked hazelnuts

The photo shows one day’s picking. So far, a six out of six success rate for finding nuts inside … but given the pale colour of some released still with their calyxes attached it is unlikely that I will get 100% fill rate. I never do. But I enjoy eating the nuts fresh, or shelling a batch and toasting them so they may be stored, for sprinkling over my breakfast or just nibbling for a snack. The difficulties in getting hazelnuts at least doubles the appreciation, and reminds me why they cost so much more than almonds.

It also amazes me every autumn how the catkins are already forming on the trees, ready for winter and then next year’s flowers and fruit. As we approach the Autumnal Equinox, ready to start the cycle again, the hazel tree is already there ahead of me.

Finding Footpaths

Sea of Bracken

Sea of Bracken

I have been in Yorkshire this past week, exploring many footpaths new to me. Most were well-maintained, had good surfaces, and were obviously well used – with the exception of one!

Here is a problem I have encountered before: what to do when it is impossible to follow a footpath by any of the usual means, such as signs on the ground, or aiming for a visible point, or following the shape of the land. Visual clues, in other words. Yes there have been plenty of times in the past when I have taken a bearing, and then struggled down a difficult route a few feet from a very good path that was just out of view – it gets me there, but isn’t much fun. What I have been trying to learn, however, is to use intuition and touch by feeling energy flows in order to follow paths that I cannot see.

The first time I remember successfully using intuition was in the Brecon Beacons, taking a little used path off the side of a hill to shorten a walk in bad weather. Unfortunately the side path petered out and there were more pony prints than human ones. I repeatedly asked for guidance from within, and seemed to find ways around all the crags and gorse, zig zagging my way down until we were able to join a more well used path along the valley. No rock climbing required!

Feeling paths was something I discovered by accident when walking in the south of France several years ago, when we did not have the benefit of an Ordnance Survey map to follow. An old walking guide to the area proved slightly inadequate on one particular walk, but I was surprised to find I could feel through my hands when I was on a path that was regularly walked, and when I wasn’t. It saved a lot of wrong turns. Finally we came out to a minor road, and the force of energy hit me in the chest and stomach so strongly it left me reeling as if a large truck had just run into me.

So when faced with a sea of bracken that was head high a few days ago, I was really keen to try and follow where the path should be. I should add that it was only a matter of 150m to come out onto a track, which would then make a circle with paths we had walked previously, and there was a newly rebuilt bridge at the start – but I wasn’t alone and it was getting dark. I had quite a lot of convincing to do, and had to trust that the path I could feel was the right way even if it didn’t exactly follow the bearing taken from the map. But the most important thing to me was that I could feel it. Lines of energy where people, not sheep, had walked. Sometimes I could use a swimming motion to see the ground and see fewer bracken stalks where I felt I should be going, but mostly it was on feel. Oh the joy to come across a submerged rock with a date inscription where there had once been a viewpoint! Yes it was hard going, the moon was almost full and high in the sky by the time we reached the track, but the joy of having succeeded and avoided all boggy or marsh thistle sections was huge. I was only sorry that I never got the chance to walk it in the opposite direction to make a circle the other side.