Celebrating the Harvest

It was the Autumn Equinox last Sunday, a time of harvest celebrations. But what a strange year this has been! A late winter with snow in April, then drought in May, June and July, before a wet and chilly August.

The apples loved it. The extra cold helped them create more flower buds, they survived the drought, losing excess fruit without me having to thin them out, and then the rain came just in time to help the fruit swell. The first fruits were ready at the start of August, two weeks early even for our early trees, and carried on into September with larger fruit. I spent the days before we went on holiday (late August) madly making apple sauce to freeze, as this early fruit doesn’t keep and we were overflowing with apples on every counter.

Plums came at their normal time, but suffered from being eaten more than normal. The apples also had lots of wasps early on which I’ve never seen before, I assume there just wasn’t much else for them in the drought.

Blackberries came a month early – but with the cold weather finished early as well. Yet my strawberries have had a second crop and been a really delicious treat – they are still going. The raspberries cropped well in the drought but didn’t make new canes, so the autumn crop and also next summer’s are greatly reduced, even though there is plenty of rain now.

In the vegetable garden, the sweetcorn drank all the water offered so underplantings (mainly nasturtiums) all died. I had a crazy plant with a cob growing around a male flower, but it proved edible and we managed a small crop of good cobs as well. The climbing French beans were so prolific that eventually the wind blew them over. The edging and supports will all need replacing over the winter. Similarly the tomatoes grew so well in the heat I actually had to stop them at the top of their six foot stakes!

Finally, one crop I harvested but didn’t grow was barley. I promised myself last year that I would as so many Lughnasadh rituals are based around wheat – which I am allergic to, but barley is fine for me. Unfortunately I never found any small quantities of seed for sale. However, I did keep an eye on the fields around here, and spotted barley growing along a lane I sometimes cycle, with a footpath going conveniently along the edge of the field. With the drought it was harvested in mid-July, earlier than I have seen previously. So I parked up my bike, climbed the style which luckily wasn’t completely overgrown with nettles and brambles thanks to the drought, and walked along the field edge to see what had been left behind. Enough barley, and also some wheat for the rest of the family, to make a display and grind some into bread. A token amount – it takes a lot of grain for a loaf and barley I discovered is much harder to separate from the chaff than wheat, but somehow the inclusion of even a few grains of my own picked and winnowed barley seems worth it and makes the bread special. I have managed to be part of the wheel of the year and the turning of the seasons, not just an observer.

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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.

Growing Uncommercial Fruit

At this time of year I frequently feel very lucky to have a garden for it is filled with ripe fruit, there for the picking. But what I really love is the fact that most of what I can pick is not available in shops.

Victoria plums are for some reason dismissed by many gardeners as being not worth the effort or the space. I really don’t understand this; our plum fan takes little of either, apart from being sure to pick them every day when in season for they do not hang around. Their keeping time is short, only two or three days to be at their best, but the flavour and texture is so much better than any other plum I have tasted with the possible exception of a good greengage.

Apples start in my garden in August as well, with the smallest Sunset eating apples usually coming first along with Bountiful cookers. Arthur Turner follows on promptly, but goes on for longer. However there is another, unnamed, tree growing in our hedge from a core discarded many years ago that produces the most amazing cooking apples. If only they kept for more than a week it would be a great commercial proposition, but they don’t. I like to make chunky apple sauce that can be frozen and then turned into crumble or Eve’s pudding or applesauce and chocolate cakes. I wouldn’t bother with an apple that keeps for weeks and that I could buy in the shops whenever I wanted it, yet because the season is so short I find myself going to extra efforts.

As for various berries in their reds, blacks, or blues, a few at a time, they are delicious for breakfast and so different from watered down commercial equivalents. Luckily they won’t keep either, unless frozen or turned into jam. We just have to eat them.

Ivy

Ivy flowers and berries

Ivy flowers and berries

I have been thinking a lot about ivy recently, for two reasons: first because of its Winter character, being evergreen and flowering when all else has finished, and second because as the trees loose their leaves I have been particularly aware this year of how the ivy has spread up their trunks and is surrounding them.

To look at the second point first, the RHS advice on ivy is that it will not harm a healthy hedge or tree. Their website states “where it grows into the crown this is usually only because the trees are already in decline or are diseased and slowly dying.” This does not bode well for some of the trees around me! I have pulled it from our hawthorn hedge a few times over the years, where it tries to swamp some of the older trees, or invade the flower areas, because left unchecked, the balance seems to be entirely in favour of the ivy. If ivy gets into stone walls, they generally need rebuilding. However for all the problems it causes, I have to admire its spirit.

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy is unusual in flowering in late autumn, making it ecologically important. There is an ivy bee which lives just for these flowers, basing its entire life cycle around the ivy, although sadly not this far north. Hoverflies also feed off their nectar. Then the berries last through the winter, feeding many birds when other fruits have gone. The leaves are evergreen so provide shelter for many insects, and also temperature regulation and protection for us humans when grown on buildings. Ivy is like the holly in having two leaf forms – a pointed, palmate leaf, and a smooth edged, simpler leaf on flowering shoots. However while the holly grows its points for protection against the low shoots being eaten with smooth leaves higher up, the ivy does it to increase its surface area where light levels are low.

Ivy leaves are good for removing pollution from the air, and also toxins from our bodies. They are mildly anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Their best use is in lung conditions, easing the ability to breathe by helping to relax muscle spasms as well as loosening mucus. It combines well with Thyme for this purpose. Unfortunately ivy is also poisonous, generally causing stomach upsets, so any recommendations for home preparations are limited to external uses such as skin complaints or insect stings, for which it is apparently effective. Luckily I haven’t had a reason to try this out!

Traditionally ivy is seen as female, possibly due to its spiral growth connecting it to the Goddess. It is included in bridal bouquets – and it is supposed to bring luck, fidelity and fertility. The holly is seen as its male counterpart in winter, hence there are many references to the two together, often in conflict for superiority with each other but sometimes in partnership.

Personally I have trouble with ascribing genders to trees or other plants, so to use gender as a starting point for understanding a plant or for its use is therefore problematic. (Individual tree spirits or faeries are a different matter!) So what does the character of ivy offer? I see it as tenacious, can grow anywhere from the darkest shade to bright sunshine, and will use whatever it finds to climb up and over any obstacles. It is highly adaptable and not fussy. It can wander freely, and can be binding yet is not bound itself. It can offer protection, nourishment, but also death to the unwary. Know yourself, know what you seek before asking ivy to help, but then trust in its ability to network and scramble to reach the light where it will flower regardless of the weather – even on a dull late November day as shown here!

Ivy 'hedge' in flower

Ivy ‘hedge’ in flower