Wildflowers Don’t Read Books

I have been having lots of fun this summer getting to know the various wildflowers that grow around Thorpe Cloud and the River Dove, and identifying those previously unfamiliar to me from photographs. (See my earlier post on Wildflower Surveying.) Now that the school holidays over, I am finally able to sort out all the information I have scribbled, photos I have taken, and try to make sense of it. However I am constantly amused by the flowers that don’t read the guidebooks.

Of the various ‘Indicator Species’ that I need to record,

  • Wood sage was not found in my patch of woodland, but growing happily on the rocky cliff.
  • Wild Marjoram was not found in the sunny grassland, but in the woods.
  • Quaking grass grows not in either place, but by the stream.
  • Bedstraws grow everywhere, but almost never the species I am checking for.
  • A friend tried to identify a sedge for me that, if correct, isn’t supposed to grow anywhere near here. (I might leave that one to recheck next year since there are only one or two!)

I am also amazed at just how many different species of plant grow in some habitats – to identify everything along my 25m of stream, or 25m2 of grassland would take me most of a day each, if I was to look at everything with magnifying glass and book(s) in hand. Luckily I don’t have to, as a list of habitat-specific plants has been drawn up that will indicate how healthy and happy it is over time, and checking for those can, thankfully, be done within the time I have available. However when it comes to the river, I can actually do all the plants – there are only six in the water, of which only two species (water mint and river crowfoot) are actually on the list.

Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.) – a solitary flower in June became a whole carpet by August.

Here are a few favourites from Thorpe Cloud, which definitely don’t grow wild around where I live. Some are within my survey area, others were photographed higher up on the hill.

Close-up of Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia)

It may seem obvious when enlarged like this, but counting petals is critical! So many of these flowers are only 2-3mm across and look very similar at first glance, especially as their leaves can be mixed with other plants. Even plants like Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill grow tiny up here – a thin covering of soil over rock, and being regularly grazed by rabbits means that very little gets to any great size.

It is fortunate that the ground is very steep, bringing the plants close to eye-level, or else I would spend all my time crouching over!

Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre), Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia), and Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill (Geranium molle) growing together.

Thyme (Thymus polytrichus ssp britannicus) and Limestone Bedstraw (Galium sterneri) are fairly abundant in the area.

Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis), a close relative of the bedstraws.

Common Stork’s-bill (Erodium cicutarium)

A Return To Wildflower Surveying

A first view of Thorpe Cloud, as approached from Thorpe village.

Years ago I used to do the ‘Common Plants Survey’ for Plantlife; the final year of the scheme (in 2014) I wrote about here. I enjoyed it and learned quite a bit, but several things changed including the survey and it felt like time for a break. Then a few weeks ago I decided I would like to take part again, so I looked to see what squares a surveyor was still needed for – and there was nothing anywhere near me at all. The new National Plant Monitoring Survey which replaced the original scheme has tried to distribute squares evenly across the country rather than just near where people live, so there are currently many squares needing surveyors in Scotland with a scattering of empty spaces across the rest of the country, the majority of which are in the less populated areas… Then I thought why not choose a square I would like to visit?

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.[/caption]My new square, which has the wonderfully palindromic number of 1551, is quite a long way from here, up to an hour’s drive depending on traffic, but what an amazing place I am getting to know! Derbyshire’s favourite rocky ‘mountain’, Thorpe Cloud, once a coral reef all of 287m high, rises above the river Dove where you can cross the stepping stones to Staffordshire if you wish. Ancient ash woodland lines the banks further along, and there is a stream that comes out of a cave at the foot of the Cloud.

Heath Bedstraw and wild Thyme

I don’t consider myself any kind of plant expert, I am simply a gardener who likes getting to know flowers, weeds… and now grasses. What I love the most is seeing how the same family adapts to surroundings. Galium for example, varies from the rather annoying Stickyweed / Cleavers / Goosegrass that invades my garden although makes a nice tea, to lady’s bedstraw that smelled sweet enough to be dried and used in the home, to the short, spreading Woodruff that carpets woodland floor, to truly tiny plants on top of mountains. Quite a lot of it grows on top of Thorpe Cloud along with wild thyme, saxifrages, sedums, tiny geraniums…

What I hadn’t anticipated was that surveying wildflowers would be any kind of spiritual experience or practice, yet it has proved to be so. I had planned to do the first visits with a friend who is an experienced and trained ecologist – who knows different plants from me and is more practiced in looking up oddities in a book. However, every time she was free, it rained. Plans were made, and cancelled repeatedly. I finally realised I should go for a reconnaissance visit by myself on a nearly-dry day, which proved very worthwhile in all sorts of ways.

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud[/caption]Being by myself, I was able to do a blessing by the Spring and ask the mountain’s permission and support to survey this area of beautiful countryside. I then had a mini-pilgrimage to the top of the hill, where I had never been before, and had the summit to myself. It is a very beautiful ridge, and felt welcoming to me. Just as well after my sleepless night before – I seemed to know in advance this was going to be big for me.

I returned home, with a better idea of what plant groups to study in advance (my soil is acid clay so the flora is rather different) and see how unprepared I was the first time. I also had the oddest feeling that I was studying plants each night while I slept.

New plans were made with my friend, but no, I really was meant to do this by myself – the only day forecast to be dry was the only one she wasn’t free. However there were difficulties. I had to be back earlier than on the day we hoped to go, and there were roadworks and road closures, making for a longer route and busy roads getting there. I just had to trust I would be capable of doing the job, and that I had long enough there.

Thorpe Cloud summit looking North up Dovedale

I woke up early, not nervous this second time but excited and confident. On arrival I again asked the mountain’s permission and support. Remarkably I had whatever space I needed to carry out the survey, without winding a rope around anyone’s legs or lunch despite it being a much busier day, and somehow I got finished with just enough time to climb to the top again. Five areas surveyed, each exactly 25 square metres although some were square and some long, covering five different habitat types. I have a selection of photos to go through to complete more thorough plant identifications, not having time to look anything up and wanting eventually to know every plant that appears on my plots, but goodness I have a lot of work to do on grasses if I am ever to really understand and be able to identify them! As yet, knowing to the family name when they are in flower feels like an achievement, but it is apparently possible to know many of them even after the tops have been nibbled off by rabbits.

I look forward to many return visits.

Happy Beltane!

Fairy Maypole

I have had a bit of fun realising I could put some of my recently edged grass (see Edges, April) in a pot and make a ‘fairy garden’ for May Day. This was the widest, shallow pot I could find and is a lovely old terracotta one, but I may look out for something larger if I do this again. It is a little dwarfed by the maypole and the ribbons – I am trusting fairies can fly to weave them in and out, they don’t need a huge garden!

I had the idea about a week after finishing the edging, so there wasn’t that much grass left from my weeding and tidying efforts, and the violets have now finished flowering, but the forgetmenots are doing brilliantly and it has been a very cheerful indoor arrangement for about three weeks. I notice some aquilegia seedlings have appeared as well. The grass has had to be cut every few days…

Rushes for Brigid

Finished crosses on the display quilt (after several days of drying time.)

One of our current family traditions is making Brigid crosses out of rushes. It is a fun, simple activity my daughter and I do together, and talk about who Brigid is and the festival of Imbolc itself. The crosses are the end of the process however, the first part is to gather enough rushes to make a cross each.

This year the responsibility of rush gathering fell to me, since I was the only person free last Friday. Previously we have collected them together, so I have had someone to pull me out of the ditch and laugh at my wet foot…

The weather was cold, snow was forecast but missed us almost entirely, meaning it should be easy to gather a few stalks. But where? Rushes are one of those really common plants that you can never find when you need it. I had been keeping a lookout over the previous couple of weeks or so, but places I have seen rushes in the past were bare of them. Land dries out. Houses get built. Sheep and cows eat them. The drainage ditch, used previously, was not an option this year. Luckily a walk in January along a footpath new to me showed me a currently ungrazed field where there were some rushes growing, although having driven there to save short legs the boring bits and spend more time doing good or new bits, it was further from our house than I would have liked.

I decided I could manage the walk, a 5-6 mile circle, if I took a snack and had a rest somewhere and put my trust in Brigid. I treated it as a walking meditation on Brigid and Imbolc.

Single Rush plant, Juncus effusus, by stream

It seems very fitting that the plant I was looking for grows in damp ground, and the first single plant I found was by the start of a little stream. Brigid is of course known for her healing wells and springs – as well as fires, hearth and home, where the crosses are traditionally placed once made deepening the connection with her. (Ours are on our mantelpiece.)

However, I did not want to pick all from one plant, and this one was so perfect, being protected from horses by the tree, it didn’t seem right to take any. A second plant grew by the fence so I gathered a few stalks, but not enough for a cross.

Rushes eaten almost to ground level.

I continued up to the next field, where there were a lot of rush plants in the boggy ground from which the stream flows, but all had been cropped close to the ground.

Gentle but very curious cows on the footpath.

And then, a herd of cows across the footpath. Why should I expect otherwise on Brigid’s day? She kept me safe, and they gently moved out of the way before closing in again behind me. There were a few bullocks, curious and coming towards me for a closer look, but they seemed quite a calm lot, as (thankfully) were the longhorns I found later – complete with bull next to the footpath. I was very glad the mud by the squeeze stile was frozen solid, however.

Circle oak tree.

The furthest point from home was not the rush field, but a small patch of woodland where wild daffodils and bluebells grow. It is noisy, thanks to the nearby dual carriageway, but that means if I can tune it out, a meditation is rarely disturbed. I waited to see which tree called me for a sit down – and discovered this wonderful oak.

Close up of the circle oak.

The hole was too difficult for me to risk climbing through without help, (I wasn’t sure if I would fit all the way, especially with the branch across the middle!) but after my rest and grounding on the frozen earth, I put my head through and felt the tree’s energies circling me. I stayed there for some minutes, exchanging energies.

Soggy, frozen field where rushes grow.

Finally I left the woodland and descending, found my field, again luckily frozen (there is a good reason why I haven’t walked this path before!) with many small rush plants growing now the cows have been moved. I picked a few stalks from several until I had enough, they would make small crosses this year but size wasn’t important. In fact, I found later they behaved very well without splitting as thicker stalks can. Frozen myself, I put all in my rucksack, gloves back on my hands, crossed the stream and began the long walk back up the hill to home. I had a celebration to prepare for.

Imbolc

I love this time of year with its increasing light, and snowdrops. I love Spring more, and early Summer is even better, but Imbolc holds promise. As a gardener, and being connected to the land, that is special.

Hazel Catkins lengthening

Maybe it is because I am an eternal optimist, always looking forwards, wanting to see what is coming and believing that it will be even better than the present. Ever hopeful. I like the planning for a holiday and the dreaming. I like the preparing for events. The pregnancy. I become part of it then, not just presented with someone else’s finished masterpiece.

Imbolc is even more special than a promise, though. It is the beginnings of light, and life, and putting plans into action that have been incubating all winter. They may have been planned since Samhain or slightly earlier, or they may be unconscious desires that have been there for a while. Whichever, at Imbolc they suddenly burst into the light and make us aware of them, and what needs doing.

My first Pagan initiation was at Imbolc, definitely a case of an unconscious longing and then bursting out into the light in a wave of illuminations where all made sense to me and fell into place. I have been a Pagan all my life, in my spiritual outlook, in the things I celebrate, and suddenly discovered there were others like me. On Imbolc I found out what I was, the reasons for everything – and within a few days made a promise to myself that changed my life.

A hardy cyclamen withstands a flurry of snow

As I celebrate this personal anniversary, I am struck by how many changes in my life have been initiated in February, and then been ‘harvested’ or have taken full effect in the autumn. Not all, but a disproportionately high number. Which makes me wonder as I approach this festival what change might be initiated this February? I’ll maybe let you know next autumn!

[This post was written two days ago, but an unexpected lack of internet connection delayed things…]

Autumn Flowers

Late October Cranesbill Geraniums

It is hard to believe that Samhain is next week when my garden is full of flowers that normally bloom in May or June.

Potentilla Miss Willmott still going

Several died back to ground level during the drought, put on growth in the rains of August, and the Campanulas started flowering again in September. They were joined by a Leucanthemum, giant scabious, candytuft, sweet cicely, sweet rocket, and now even the geraniums which I thought I had lost are having a good go. Along with the usual autumn flowers of course!

Sweet Cicely enjoying a second flush of flowers

Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ still flowering in late October

Hazelnuts were so early that I missed most of them. Yet the Eucryphia tree in our garden which usually flowers in August did so at the normal time, and has carried on, and on…

Unfortunately the recent warm spell also brought a new generation of pests, including many flies which get in my face while cycling and whiteflies which have invaded my kale. I am sending the lacewings out from sheltering in my bedroom windows (not a very sensible place for the winter, I open them too often) on the next warm day to have a feast.

And one that flowered at the normal time, a Paeonia mlokoseiwitschii I grew from seed and now producing the first of the next generation. The flies seem to like this too.

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.

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.

Hedgecutting

I am trying an experiment this year – to cut our mixed hawthorn hedge twice, instead of once. This weekend we have managed to complete the first cut, having started it two weeks ago. I’m glad to say that this year the birds finished nesting by then; some years we would not have been able to start in June! (Garden warblers usually seem to be the latest here, but I haven’t been hearing them this year.)

It has been interesting to see the different behaviours of the plants by changing the timing. While starting only about six weeks earlier than normal (yes it often takes us two weekends to do the whole thing, since we have to cut both our side and the ‘track’ side where the footpath runs) it was noticeable how much softer the hawthorn was and therefore how much easier it was to shred. However, the holly was so soft though that it kept clogging up, and the hazel, separated out to be composted, was definitely easier when woodier. But the first cut with most of the hazel has virtually made compost already, in just two weeks.

There is another aspect however which makes me glad to change our practice. I have been gradually trying to grow the hedge out wider on the track side, in order to protect the bank against inappropriate use of strimmers and weedkillers applied by other track user(s). By keeping the edge neat and cutting a little off more frequently, the hedge is starting to thicken up on that side. It was really encouraging to see the return of cow parsley this year for the first time in about a decade. There are also a few other wildflowers, besides the predictable nettles, brambles and stickyweed trying to keep humans at bay, and a large quantity of ivy helping to stabilise the soil. I am hoping these will all flourish in a more protected space.

Wildflowers

Roadside Wildflowers, South Devon

Roadside Wildflowers, South Devon

One of the great joys to me is seeing a wildflower in its natural habitat for the first time, especially if I have become familiar with it through such means as in books or seeing it in a garden – mine or anyone else’s. In recent years, however, this is something I am most likely to experience when traveling abroad; having surveyed wildflowers locally to me for over a decade it is rare to see something unfamiliar.

Alexanders (and nettles) by roadside, South Devon

Alexanders (and nettles) by roadside, South Devon. (Click to expand.)

Last week I was in South Devon, in an area I hadn’t visited before, and driving down the narrow country lanes lined with flowers was a really joyful experience. Many of my favourites abounded – Red Campion, Cow Parsley, Foxgloves, Herb Robert, Shining Cranesbill, Buttercups, Ferns, and even late bluebells. But every so often there was a plant or patch of plants that were different. Umbellifers, but more yellow than anything that grows near me. I started to get interested – what was it? Traveling at car speed gave little chance for detailed looking, but the leaves and general colour did not appear to resemble any plant I knew.

Suddenly I realised: Alexanders, otherwise known as Parsley of Alexandria. One of the first mentioned in any book on foraging thanks to alphabetical listings, too far gone to try it on this occasion, but no less exciting to see. England has once again proved to me that treasures and rarities are there to be found.

Bank of Red Campion, South Devon

Bank of Red Campion, South Devon. (Click to expand.)

The photos shown here were taken on a cloudy afternoon, mostly along a road that is rarely driven on near Malborough. However more frequented roads were equally well lined with flowers – and often had fewer nettles or brambles. I was reminded of comments I have read about leaving areas for nature to do its own thing, particularly at Findhorn or Perelandra; this was a perfect demonstration of how glorious the natural world can be if man doesn’t interfere. Moreover, footpaths or this ‘unmetalled road’ had fewer flowers, as did others I walked, and I was shocked to discover some field edges had virtually nothing except nettles, thistles and brambles growing amongst the hedgerows. On a personal level, it reminds me not to interfere more than necessary with my own wild edges!
Wildflowers along an 'Unmetalled Road', South Devon

Wildflowers along an ‘Unmetalled Road’, South Devon

Ne’er Cast A Clout ’till May Be Out

This is an old saying that will no doubt be familiar to many. It refers to the May flowers, Hawthorn, rather than the month although it is generally May before the hedgerows are laden with their scented coverings; Beltane rarely has a good showing this far north, and certainly not this year!

I have written already about the strange winter we have had; Spring has been equally odd! After a warm week or two in early April, I noticed buds on the hawthorn hedges near me that were almost ready to pop open. Then it got cold again, and colder, and for three days in a row it snowed. The buds stayed exactly as they were. Swollen, almost open in places with hints of white petals showing, but frozen in time. Meanwhile the Blackthorn has been putting on a wonderful display with its flowers that come on bare branches and last for weeks if not months, from March to May, to get all the flowers pollinated.

Then the sun finally came out, the days warmed up to Summer temperatures rather than just Spring, and I thought that would be it. But no, there was another week to wait before the hawthorn finally revealed its flowers, and in that time a further couple of hard frosts. I have learned to trust. So I waited, and only now have I started my Spring sowing of tender vegetable seeds and the planting out of the many seedlings crowding my windowsills. I trust they will now be safe and happy in the garden.

Bluebells

Bluebells in once-coppiced woodland

Bluebells in once-coppiced woodland

In a beautiful demonstration of succession, this is the same patch of woodland as the wild daffodil photos I took at the end of March.

They are a little more spaced out than elsewhere in the wood, and therefore slightly less of a blue haze (even allowing for the less than ideal light conditions) – I presume this is because they are sharing the rootspace with other bulbs.

Bluebells in Silver Birch wooded area

Bluebells in Silver Birch wooded area

It may also be because they prefer different conditions – these two photos are from another area with silver birch and hazel rather than beech and sycamore. (Click for larger images.)

Bluebells by hazel tree

Bluebells by hazel tree

Equinox Daffodils

Apparently the Equinox, last Sunday, was the first day of Spring. This year with hawthorn coming into leaf in January, and daffodils even earlier, Spring seemed to come before winter. Then we finally had some snow, some frost, and nature seemed to sort itself back into the proper order of doing things. So now we can properly enjoy Spring – and the sunshine that filled the Equinox from start to finish.

Wild Daffodils

Wild Daffodils


I spent the day outside, which included a walk in some woods where wild daffodils grow. Narcissus pseudonarcissus is not generally reported as being in Derbyshire – the Lake District, Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, and South Wales being its usual haunts, but there is a small area of woodland north of Derby, surrounding the remains of a castle (the stone was plundered for building Kedleston Hall), where it grows in abundance. Only around 6-7” high, they make small delicate clumps and do not make the sort of show that we think of from daffodils growing en masse; it is certainly not an unmissable haze of colour, like the bluebells will produce nearby in another month or so! But their delicacy makes them special, as does the fact they only fully open in warm sunshine.

Daffodils are poisonous; they were used to induce vomiting, eating a tiny amount (if mistaken for onion) can kill, sap can cause dermatitis, and even regular handling of the bulbs with bare hands can cause similar problems. I have read that the Romans introduced them to Britain as they carried a bulb in their pocket to use as a suicide pill. However more recent research has revealed treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease, for Leukemia, and for Depression.

It is said to be a flower of the dead and the underworld, after Persephone was distracted by daffodils and Hades abducted her. They are often planted on graves, and can be used for death and rebirth ceremony or magic. As a symbol of new life and regeneration the daffodil is remarkable for its ability to return each Spring no matter how hard the winter has been; it is one of the few bulbs that will thrive almost anywhere, on every council roundabout and roadside verge, unlike fussier types like tulips. Alternatively the ancient Greek may refer to the Asphodel – which would be an equally good choice in ceremony, but rather less good as a hardy garden survivor.

Daffodils are, however, associated with Narcissus who pined and died for the love of his own reflection; its cup is said to be full of his tears. To some the daffodil therefore represents vanity and unrequited love. This ‘narcissism’ can be turned into a positive where more self-love is needed: its strong yellow colour and sunny attitude will help strengthen the solar plexus chakra which holds our sense of self and personal power, while the green stem and leaves link it to the heart chakra, that of love.

Wild daffodils like sunlight, and mostly they grow in fields, by hedgerows, or in coppiced woodland. The woodland I know is mostly young, but the bulbs still grow in their greatest profusion on the south-facing slopes on the edge of the woodland. I will have to see how well they survive in the absence of further coppicing. Meanwhile they remain, for me, one of the surest signs of Spring.

Wild Daffodils growing in once-coppiced woodland

Wild Daffodils growing in once-coppiced woodland

Tree Stories 11 – Elder

Elder is now published on its own page, under Tree Stories or click here.

Elder tree

Elder tree

Technically Elder, Sambucus nigra, should probably be a shrub rather than a tree. It does have a bole where the roots and branches meet but it scarcely has a trunk, its branches are hollow, and it is currently classified as being in the Adoxacae family along with Moschatel. (Previously it was with honeysuckle and snowberry in the dipsacale or teasel family.) However Elder towers over most other shrubs and grows to the size of a small tree, so in folklore it is a tree.

The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, fire, as its hollow sticks were used for encouraging a good blaze. They also called it ellaern, meaning hollow tree. Other names include Ellhorn and Bour (pipe) tree.

Elders like to grow in full sun and will romp away in a hedge overshadowing the hawthorn, but are also frequently found in damp shady areas of woodland forming part of the understory. It has a very strong life force and great powers of regeneration, being quite hard to remove should you wish to. However not much will grow under it so it is difficult to place in a garden.

A wide range of wildlife lives off elderflowers and berries, hence it will often grow near rabbit or badger setts after they have helped the seed along its way. Caterpillars also like the foliage. Elderberries can be mildly toxic to humans unless cooked, particularly if still unripe. Medicinally, however Elder is a very valuable tree. The berries and also the bark were used as a purgative, for rheumatism, or for colds and flu or sore throats and for asthma; breathing through a hollowed out stick was also a remedy for asthma. The leaves are good for bruises, sprains and strains or chilblains, or for insect repellant as a bunch to keep flies out of the kitchen or off horses, or soaked and the liquid used on the human body against midges. The flowers are good as a tonic or for epilepsy or sinusitis.

Other uses from the tree include: berry juice as a blue or purple dye, or for making wine, pies, jams, vinegar, chutney; flowers for sparkling wine or cordial, or in salads or cakes; bark for black dye, leaves for green; sticks for blowpipes, whistles, pegs, skewers, or making small whittlings; and the pith for fishing floats or to hold samples on microscope slides. The wood polishes up well when the bark is removed, and the bole is very dense.

In folklore elder was inhabited by the Elder Tree Mother, Hylde-moer, who needed to be appeased before any part of the tree was cut. She would haunt any timber from the tree, not necessarily in a good way, so making furniture from it was generally avoided. Witches were said to be able to turn into elder trees at will. However as protection elder was apparently great for driving away evil spirits or witchcraft, so branches were hung over doorways and buried in graves. Flutes made from elder were used to summon spirits, while twigs woven into a headdress are said to enable the wearer to see spirits. Alternatively they will undo evil magic; a necklace made from elder beads can also be used for protection. To have a self sown elder tree near your house was regarded as particularly auspicious, and they were often planted by bake ovens to keep the devil away. Fairies are said to particularly like the music from elder pipes or flutes, but it is generally advised to avoid sleeping under an elder tree unless you wish to be taken by them. Food left under elder trees overnight will be considered to belong to the fae.

To me the elder is a tree I have always been a little ambivalent towards, and the many contradictions in its character and uses are possibly the reason why. However, I then found a transcript of a conversation between an elder tree interpreted by Verena Stael von Holstein, and Wolfgang Weirauch, which showed me how the strength and spiritual gifts of this species come from precisely this contradictory nature. The many connections the Elder has with spirits and otherworld beings may not be entirely coincidental. As a witches tree, it is without parallel.

Elder Tree: “For human beings there are various paths to seek initiation into the world of spirit: firstly through thinking, clarity of thought; then the path which corresponds more to me is a path rooted in one’s own culture. … On the one hand such a person needs to be formed in a relatively gnarled way, but on the other hand he needs an unimpeded lightness – as you find in my timber. From the outside my wood looks completely gnarled, but inside I am almost cotton-like. As trees we need a harder exterior form, but within I’m the opposite of heaviness: a matter that is almost dissolving. This shows I’m a kind of connecting radiance between this world and the world of spirit. … This permeation with spirit informs my whole being and substance.
On the one hand my substance is very stable, on the other it is in dissolution. For instance, see the feathery quality of my pinnate leaves, through to the tips of each leaf, which are pointed and dentate, or toothed. Due to my transitional and gateway function, my leaves are flame shaped. In the flame you meet the world of spirit in tangible form.

A sulphurous quality comes through [the smell of my leaves.] The world of spirit does not necessarily smell very good for earthly senses. You would need to completely refashion your sense systems to really endure spirituality. If you want to develop your clairsentient faculties of smell, you can school your senses with the scent of crumbled elder leaf. On the other hand, my blossoms give of a fragrance that you probably find wonderful, which has an intoxicating effect and which you use to make sparkling wine. The scent serves at the same time as a warning not to get intoxicated.

As for the berries being poisonous when green and only edible when fully ripe:

Elder tree: “When you are still green you should not pass across to the other side, for then spirituality can endanger you. You first have to attain a certain soul maturity to cope with the full reality. The guardian of the threshold and I have a very close relationship. Wherever elder grows you can encounter your guardian.

Elder has a cleansing effect on the body. You can’t cross over the threshold in an impure state.

I belong to the cultural inheritance of northern Europe, and thus to the forces that come from the North and Teutonic cultures. I belong to people of the central European cultural epoch and their roots. … I am not so important to Asiatic peoples.”
Q: “There are said to have been times when people took off their hats as a mark of respect when passing an elder tree. Why did they do this?”
Tree: “Because they knew unconsciously that the place surrounding an elder tree is sacred. That’s why they removed their hats in the same way as going into church. At the same time people knew unconsciously that higher beings were connected with the elder tree, such as the guardian of the threshold, or Mother Holle, who is a fairytale image of the figure of the guardian.”

From: Nature Spirits of the Trees.

The strange thing to me is that I never liked the taste of elderberry, just the flowers, so I have most of a box of ‘medicinal’ tea on my shelf that I save for when I have a bad cough or cold. However, since writing this story and becoming closer to the tree, I have found I now rather enjoy it.

Ripening elder berries

Ripening elder berries

Tree Stories 10 – Scots Pine

Scots Pine story is now posted on its own page, under tree stories. Please click here or follow the links above.

Probably my nearest Pine Trees...

Probably my nearest Pine Trees…

This is a tree I have been familiar with all my life, and yet never really known; it has always felt rather remote. In its wild state, it stands high on the hillside on dry soils, often in small groups pointing the way. The Six Pine Trees of Pooh Bear’s world are a landmark and indicated on the map although little featured in the stories. Arthur Ransome had a pine tree to hold a lantern marking the way through the rocks into harbour in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, then in ‘Swallowdale‘ a row of four pine trees pointed the way on an otherwise bare hillside. Alfred Watkins wrote in ‘The Old Straight Track’ that Scots Pines had been marking ancient sites on Leylines for millennia, despite the fact that he admitted to never having seen an old tree. He was most likely wrong in the timing, since many Scots Pines were planted in England by Landscape gardeners and artist landowners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seeking to romanticise the countryside, tumuli being particularly prone to new plantings of Pines or Beeches, but right in them as a landmark. Single trees were often left when others were cut down in order to mark drovers’ paths, some of which may themselves have followed leylines. Single trees were also planted in the Highlands of Scotland to mark the burial sites of warriors, allowing their spirits to climb the tree into other worlds.

Scots Pine is one of our three native confer trees (the others being juniper and yew), with the Caledonian forest dating back to the last ice age. It is a fast-growing, short-lived tree compared to many, but will grow from seed in its own shadow and thus regenerate without the need for a natural disaster. It will also grow happily with other trees such as birch or larch, sheltering them as they grow without casting too much shade. Many animals rely on pine forest, or the blaeberries and cowberries that frequently grow in its shade. Notable species include red squirrels, pine martens and Scottish wildcats, as well as birds such as Scottish Crossbills, Black Grouse and Capercaillies. Roe and Red deer like eating pine so much they prevent the natural regeneration of the forest. Wolves, Bears, Elk, Beavers and Lynx all used to live in the pine forests, the latter two may do again as there are many who wish to see their reintroduction. Sadly it is often treated as a monocrop in plantations to produce construction and joinery timbers, or telegraph poles, forests which have no understory and support very little wildlife.

Pine is very high in vitamin C, and the needles can be used to brew a healing tea for bronchitis and other chest complaints. The smell of fresh pine is good for clearing congestion, clearing the blocks in what we can see and uplifting us. Pine trees reach for the sky. This is particularly relevant in the middle of winter when many of us need a boost, and gives us a good reason to have a pine tree in the home for a few weeks! In fact it was the huge pine bonfires lit at Yule in various parts of Northern Europe which gave rise to the tradition of the Yule Log, and later the Yule or Christmas tree.

In Roman times it was not Yule that celebrated the pine tree however, but the Spring Equinox. The Earth Goddess Cybele turned Attis, her lover, into a pine tree after an incident in which he was unfaithful to her and then castrated himself in remorse. In some versions online he appears to have been tied to the tree and gored by a bull or a wild boar. I have read two endings to this sorry tale, that the tree was burned after three days and Attis was reborn from the ashes, and that Zeus later made him evergreen so that Cybele could have him as a companion all year. The Spring rites paralleled those often enacted in late summer with the corn spirit: in a three day ceremony, March 22nd-25th each year, an effigy of a man was made and attached to a pine trunk and bedecked with flowers. The second day trumpets were blown, and on the third a sacrifice, usually of blood from the Priest, was made to appease the Earth Goddess in order that Attis may be resurrected and the fertility of the Goddess restored.

The pine cones were often seen as phallic, continuing the male fertility theme from Attis and Cybele – despite actually being the female flowers. The double spiral formed by the seeds was also a symbol of life and fertility. This may be where the idea of pine being an aphrodisiac came from… Pinecones are sometimes fixed to the end of a staff or wand and used in fertility magic, while pine needles are sometimes used to purify a space and remove any negativity.

Finally from an art and crafting point of view, pine is used to make paper, the sap is used to make turpentine for painting and varnishing, and rosin used for giving friction to violin bows. And when a break is needed, it formed brewer’s pitch to line beer casks, and its close relative sabina pine flavoured retsina wines.

Tree Stories 8 – Blackthorn

Blackthorn is now published on its own page; please use the link above.

Ripening Sloes

Ripening Sloes

There are many blackthorn bushes mixed into the hawthorn hedges around where I live, and some years I have picked the sloes for gin or syrup. They are best after the first frosts. Both can just be enjoyed as a drink, but are also good for coughs and sore throats. Blackthorn flowers and leaves can be helpful for depression, as well as a good general tonic. Birds also enjoy the berries. The flowers are a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees, while several butterfly and moth caterpillars enjoy the leaves.

The wood is particularly hard and dense, being traditionally used for cudgels, blasting sticks and Irish shillelaghs, as well as tool handles and walking sticks. It is very much associated with witches, with the thorns being considered ideal for spellwork such as piercing a wax poppet, although in past times it was the witch hunters who used it; blackthorn seems to be the tree most likely to be used by someone wishing to harm others. The Ogham name for blackthorn, Straif, strife in modern English, is a good descriptor for it. A hard tree to love, it nevertheless does a useful job of keeping cattle in the fields, and in some versions, keeping princes out of Sleeping Beauty’s castle becoming impenetrable to all except true love. Similarly Rapunzel, where the prince looses his eyes on blackthorn bushes, to have it restored by his true love’s tears. Those who hold onto their pain and anger rarely have an easy time with blackthorn and are likely to get scratched by thorns with a reputation for turning cuts septic.

More positive interpretations and uses of Blackthorn vary widely. Some use it for facing death, and it is usually associated with the dark Goddess, Morrigan or Cailleach. Others for piercing negative attitudes in themselves or others, and befriending it can bring understanding of what causes negativity in your life. Yet more use it for protection, either psychically or physically, or as a wand for a banishing spell. My own interpretation, for strength in times of adversity, covers most of these at a deep level.

The Blackthorn was traditionally followed by its sister tree Hawthorn when used for healing – gentling and bringing love where blackthorn has pricked the hidden sores.

Winter Herbs – Thyme

I enjoy using herbs in a seasonal way, using a succession of different herbs or wild plants (some might call them weeds) through the year, depending on what I can find. I have tried drying herbs for winter use, especially when shrubby plants such as sage have needed pruning anyway, but I found I never use them; I would rather pick something fresh according to the season and what is growing well at the time.

Luckily there are a few herbs I can pick at any time of year, one of my favourites being Thyme. Only the hardiest varieties survive here in Derbyshire, but I currently have two types in my garden. T. vulgaris I grew from seed which does very well, and another whose name is since lost which has slightly larger leaves and a more rounded flavour, but is only borderline hardy. A little goes a long way with both types, so I use it regularly in tiny quantities through the winter for soups, stews or herb tea. (As with all very strong herbs, don’t use the same herb every day and extra care should be taken if pregnant.)

As a tea, Thyme is great for reducing or thinning mucus, so really helps with winter coughs and colds even for those without lung conditions. I pinch off two or three tips and pour boiling water over them, cover and leave it to infuse until it is drinking temperature. It combines really well with rosemary, which is great for an energy boost, and in early Spring, marjoram which also helps to clear sinuses. Combined with sage it makes a good gargle for a sore throat. It is said to be anti-bacterial and anti-septic, so is good to use directly on the skin as cooled tea or as a salve where it can help with skin conditions, joint inflammations, or cuts and bruises.

Thyme is a survivor, growing in the harshest conditions between cracks in paving slabs or rocks, or on dry mountainsides in the wild. It can even cope with being walked or trampled on. It is said to increase courage and inspiration for when you are doubting yourself. In medieval times, women used to sew thyme into scarves for knights to wear in battle to help them be brave. Earlier uses included room purifications by the Romans, temple purification and offerings by the Greeks, and Egyptian embalming. Some modern pagans use it to cleanse and purify a room instead of sage.

Some writers have suggested that wearing a sprig of thyme will help you see fairies… for some reason it is thought that fairies are very small and can hide among the tiny leaves. I’m sure some can fit here, but not any fairies I’ve seen!