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 Comfort Quilt

Cosy Comfort Quilt

Here is magic woven into a quilt. Love sewn into every seam, every colour chosen with love and joy in mind.

The fabric is all brushed cotton, which reduces choice considerably, so some have rather larger designs than I would ideally have chosen for this pattern. However final choice of fabric, pattern, and layout was out of my hands on this one!

It is of course Hunter’s Star – you really do have to hunt for some of the stars! (It also suits a Sagittarian being The Archer, another form of hunter…) I have done my best to emphasize them by quilting around each one, and with a relatively high loft filling this keeps the softness. It also conveniently disguises the overlapping corners, which make more of a bump with brushed cotton than a thinner fabric would.

In between the stars, I have sewn butterflies – which are mainly visible from the back. Creatures of beauty and transformation, they bring light to so many situations. They also fit well with the fabrics used, most of which contain flowers or butterflies or both. All were done by making templates from photographs of British native butterflies and chalking around the templates before sewing.

Quilt back with butterflies and stars.

Thank You David Austin

Hips of Rosa Graham Thomas, photographed earlier today.

Thank you for the 240+ roses you created, that bloom from May until November. That cope with whatever the weather gives them. That smell beautiful. That combine with every possible style of planting. That grow so profusely in sun or in shade. That when they have finished still look wonderful through the winter with their hips. That attract all manner of insects. My garden and so many others would not be the same without them.

December buds of Rosa Graham Thomas, picked for the Winter Solstice.

Thank you for the rosebuds of Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’ I was unexpectedly able to pick today ready for our Winter Solstice table. An unexpected gift.

May you live on with joy in Spirit, as your roses live on in my garden, and all around the world.
b. 16 Feb 1926. d. 18 Dec 2018.

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.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb in flower, seen in the evening sunlight

I have had a wonderful rhubarb plant for almost twenty years. It was an offshoot from the rhubarb which grows in my mother’s allotment, which in turn came from my father’s father’s garden. I have no idea what variety it is, but it can usually be picked in early March through to July, has red stems and tastes delicious. Every so often I try to make it a bit smaller by shopping some off, but I haven’t done this for a few years so it has grown huge.

Normally I do what everyone tells me to and remove any flower shoots as soon as they are seen. However, given the size of the plant, I couldn’t see why I needed to do that – there were plenty of stalks the other side, and if that bit did die off for any reason it would save me the trouble of dividing the plant next winter. So I decided that it didn’t matter. I let the flowers come – and now they are an absolute delight. Over five foot high and fluffy creamy-white. Rhubarb in its fullest glory.

It feels like the whole front garden is celebrating in response.

Rhubarb flowers

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.

Fleeting Beauty

I enjoy the changing of the seasons, and with each season its special flowers. I have very few evergreen plants in my garden, even flowering types, because I find them stiff and dull for so much of the year – with never that promise of a fine show when it is their turn. Roses are great for flowering from June to November, but even they would be too familiar if they didn’t take a break from time to time between each flush of new flowers. However, there is one flower which the books don’t tell you about, which I am finding is testing my patience in the opposite direction: the waterlily.

Until digging the pond last year, I had little experience of any water plants, and relied on best advice from the books I found. It has mostly been a wonderful journey of discovery and excitement, with a whole range of different shaped leaves and flowers and some interesting growth habits, and I enjoy discovering which wildlife can be found on which plants. Most have grown well, and flowered well, except for the waterlily. Last year it produced a few leaves and one flower bud, which as far as I could tell, sat sticking just out of the water for days and days, then fell over and died. I was disappointed, but as a new water gardener, not too worried as I thought it just hadn’t established yet and the weather conditions were wrong and the balance in the pond hadn’t quite sorted itself out yet. After all, not all peony buds make flowers if the weather is wrong, but there are always enough giant blooms to give a good show for a few weeks.

Waterlily 4, barely open

This year I have therefore been pleased to see a succession of buds come to the surface on my waterlily, approximately one a week. This is the fourth in the photograph. You will however see it is only half open. And there lies the problem. After spending well over a week as a bud, the waterlily finally decides it is time for the flower to open. If it is a warm sunny day, the flower opens up like the pictures in the book and looks beautiful. Truly stunning. I saw one. But if the weather is miserable and cloudy, or worse actually raining, then it half opens for two days, like this, before giving up and falling over sideways for a few days before disappearing back into the depths. I really wanted to take some pictures of a beautiful open flower; I didn’t realise that first one was going to be the only one to fully open!

Waterlily 5, mostly open

Luckily for my peace of mind, flower number five followed just a day later and did finally get three-quarters of the way open briefly this afternoon. Even more luckily I was here to photograph it at the right moment. Normally it is earlier or later in the day that I am outside, not 3pm on a week day.

The waterlily is not, of course, the only flower to spend most of its life half-open, and only open fully when the sun is shining. Tulips do this all the time. Some even look quite odd on a sunny day, with their petals wide; they were clearly bred for a Northern European climate. The little species tulips that grow naturally further south look great opened out, because the interest is on the inside of their petals, but most hybrids are bred to look good and be photographed half closed. But my fluted tulips often last 5 weeks for each flower, and even the fussy ones and the species last 2-3 weeks, with sometimes more than one flower per stem. Tulips would never have become a garden classic if they lasted a mere day or two!

Daylily

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) illustrate the other side of the picture – they do just last a day. But then they get out of the way so as not to spoil the show for tomorrow’s flower. My plants may be more leaf than flower, but there are always several flowers to be seen each day in the summer.

In Lisa Beskow’s ‘The Flowers’ Festival‘ the Rose and the Waterlily are both queens of equal rank; all the other flowers are below them. But while the rose presides over the festival, the waterlily is fussy and does not leave the water. Everyone else comes: other water flowers such as reeds, rushes, Miss Calla, Yellow Flag and the yellow water lily; even the hothouse flowers like the Miss Pelargoniums, Mrs Myrtle and the grand Lady Fuchsia, once their fears about cold have been allayed. Says it all really!

I think I have a choice. I can enjoy the challenge of growing something so fussy, doing my best to contact its Deva and find out what it wants and then struggle to meet its needs in my windswept Derbyshire garden, or when I next rearrange plants in the pond, I can reconsider whether it is happy here. And yet I can’t help but feel disappointed. If it was something really rare, I would be proud of my occasional flowers. Instead it is like a Camellia plant I removed a year ago because every year it was full of promise, covered with buds, and then every year it got frost on it at some point so the flowers went brown and I would have to go round pulling them off because I hate the sight of a plant smothered in dead flowers. I replaced it with Camellia ‘Debbie’, which has been far more successful – the flower shape is slightly unusual with larger petals around the outside and smaller in the centre, so the centre never gets frosted because it is protected. And when each flower is finished it falls off by itself. Add to that it is a stunning rich pink.

Meanwhile I planted another rose last month, completely the wrong time for rose planting, just because I found a gap in a flower border and it looked pretty. (I also had a voucher to use up at the garden centre near the school M has just left and it was my favourite of everything they had in stock.) I’m glad to say it seems very happy and has sent out new leaves.

Apple Blossom

Apple Cordons in full blossom

Following on from the Blackthorn blossom a couple of weeks ago, I am now seeing the best display of apple blossom ever in my garden! I had always believed apples needed sufficient cold to set flower buds, but clearly that isn’t the case. Having had warm winters two years in a row, and small crops for the last two years as well, I think the trees have gathered their energies into production. It is of course possible that my pruning has improved and had some effect, but I’m not aware of it. I think it is just a good year for fruit blossom around here.

Blossom from ‘Bountiful’ opening from dark pink to white.

I really enjoy the different colours from different plants, and the change as the petals open.

Anyway as apples are such a great Pagan fruit, I just wanted to share it this week. Pagan because they make a five-pointed star inside, and because anything regarded as totally sinful and at the same time the fount of all wisdom must be good… They are pretty good for promoting harmony and love as well!

Arthur Turner Blossom

Crabapple ‘Laura’ Blossom. The fruit is dark red all the way through.

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!

Happy Imbolc

The 1st/2nd February may be the start of Spring, but Imbolc was not a sunny day here this year!

Maybe I should be glad – it is said in Scottish folklore, that if the Cailleach wishes to make Winter last longer, she will ensure Imbolc is bright and sunny so she may gather lots of firewood. If the weather is foul that day, the Cailleach is fast asleep and Winter is nearly over. It was so windy that I had trouble taking any photographs at all, although at least our everlasting fog has been blown away. The poor snowdrops in my garden, pictured in snow at the start of February two years ago, have not had enough warmth or sun to open properly yet this year and are now looking ragged.

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

But an unexpected find: Rosemary just coming into flower. It is a wonderful Winter herb, full of flavour through the darkest months when nearly all the softer herbs have lost their leaves or disappeared below ground, as well as giving shape to the garden. Then just when I start thinking the ‘evergreen’ plants are looking stiff and tired they spring into new growth, or bring out these wonderful blue flowers. It makes a great herbal tea, full of robust energies – as well as being anti-bacterial anti-septic, and an antioxidant. I also like it mixed with my other winter herb, Thyme, which is great for coughs.

Sunflowers

Yellow Sunflower

Yellow Sunflower

There is a patch of garden, next to the pond we created in Spring, that is going to be subject to quite a bit of earth moving. I didn’t want to fill it with perennial plants and shrubs that would establish themselves just at the point I needed to move them, nor did I want to leave it bare. So I decided to plant annuals there.

Not all that I planted has thrived, and not all the seeds have turned into plants. It is too shady, too dry, and too many plant predators were made homeless just before I created the bed – but there is one plant that has grown better than any previous attempts of mine: Sunflowers. Standing taller than almost anything around them, they haven’t needed staking or care and have produced several flowers each.

As we approach the festival of Lughnasadh (or Lammas if you prefer), it is always this colour that is in my mind. The hot sun, the ripening barley in the fields, summer holidays. They bring smiles to my face, reaching for the sky, as they flower for weeks. They are strong, bending in the wind, yet flexible enough to follow the sun in its path every day. Several religious or spiritual groups around the world have used sunflowers as a symbol for both reaching for the light and being or bringing light.

I will be leaving the flowerheads to ripen for the birds and look forward to seeing how long they last. Along with the teasels and the various tree berries (hawthorn, rowan) they should create a natural storecupboard for a few months to come.

Sunflowers on one stem

Sunflowers on one stem

Holly Flowers

In a satisfying fusion of two apparently unrelated events, to me anyway, the timing was perfect this week to combine a new interest in whittling with the planned removal of a holly tree.

Whittling came about because I realised it would be a way of making fun, quick things in wood that would require less setting up and clearing away time than actual carving. I love carving when I have had an opportunity to do some, but setting up an old workmate table which isn’t too secure and can only hold small items, and which needs folding up and sweeping at the end of each short session – does not make for an easy time given all the other things I want to do and also don’t have much time for. And trying to use a mallet would be too noisy when M is supposed to be asleep! So being inspired by the fact that the mushrooms I carved last autumn were originally whittler’s projects, I thought I would look into it.

Serendipitously I already had a knife – a small Swiss Army one I was given over thirty years ago. Not possibly the ideal gift for a child, but it has traveled far and wide with me thanks to the usefulness of the scissors (with replaced spring), tweezers, and miniature screwdriver I added inside the corkscrew when I replaced the scissor spring – which is the perfect size for glasses screws that haven’t been glued in place. I never did find much use for the knife blade so I was really pleased to realise with a bit of reshaping and sharpening it could be capable of something interesting, meaning I now had a use for half of the eight functions on the knife. (Corkscrew, bottle opener and large screwdriver should be useful… just not my first choice! But plastic toothpick? How is this an essential tool?)

The holly tree is one I have always been a bit sad about. It was here when we moved in – a perfect conical shape growing up against the boundary wall, but with its top damaged in a fire for getting rid of the hawthorn clippings when the then overgrown hedge was rather brutally chopped in order to put the house up for sale. The holly sprouted twin leaders, so never had a chance of regaining its former shape. In recent years it has grown fairly huge, blended into the hedge on one side, and then layered itself on the other to produce a whole thicket of holly on a mission to takeover the corner of the garden – including attacking my small Rowan tree and a Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ both of which I am rather fond of. I have other hollies in the hedge, so I thought it would be better to remove this one before it knocked the end wall down or grew into the electric wires, and then plant something else that was less prickly. As I pruned and shredded, I realised some branches as well as the trunk, now four inches or so in diameter, would be suitable for carving. Only at the last moment did I realise the smaller branches could also be useful for whittling.

Holly flowers in a vase.

Holly flowers in a vase.

The five flowers were all whittled from one branch, around quarter inch across. I left the bark in place to form ‘sepals’ around the ‘petals’, and was intrigued by the way it curled inwards while the ‘petals’ curled outwards. I could have left the stems green, but they felt rather fat and also the bark started going wrinkly before I had finished the last one, so I thinned them to a size that would fit in the vase. Not perfect, too many bits broke off when my cutting was too deep or too shallow, and my knife could do with more sharpening, but they were great fun to do. And I’m sure I will have some more bits to practice on before too long! Bedsides a store of larger timber now seasoning to carve at some future point.

Fleeting Beauty

Anemone nemorosa

Anemone nemorosa

There are many short-lived flowers in my garden, each of which have their season, come once, and are then gone again. Bulbs, for example, which will last only a few weeks at best, or this Anemone nemorosa which usually flowers throughout April but will be gone by the summer. However an extreme case is our flowering cherry tree, Prunus Pandora.

Prunus Pandora

Prunus Pandora

Right now it is in full bloom, and looks absolutely stunning. Every nectar-loving insect in the vicinity has come to visit: several types of bees, butterflies, other flies, and it hums with life. But having gathered the nectar and spread the pollen, tomorrow it will be loosing its petals. Within a week the show will be over for another year, and the tree will recede into the background again. Unlike our other trees, it does not produce fruit. It throws up suckers in all sorts of annoying places. Low branches and those on the property boundary need pruning and don’t grow back with the same elegance and grace.

So why grow it? I had considered that what makes us human is to enjoy the beauty in life, rather than simply shaping our environments to maximum convenience and usefulness for ourselves. Just like it is my impulse to craft and to be creative. However I then wondered if I had this wrong. That the ‘human-ness’ is the layer of necessity and need, while the divine spark within us is what actually prompts the enjoyment of the moment. Entering that timeless moment is what connects me to Spirit, and reminds me that I am Spirit. Life isn’t drudgery and hard work, life is about fun, enjoyment, being lighthearted. Catching the fleeting beauty when it comes. Doing things just because we want to, not because there is any need. Life is a gift.

Prunus Pandora

Prunus Pandora

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

Aconitum

Aconitum napellus

Aconitum napellus


I first started growing Aconitums in the garden when I discovered it looked a bit like delphiniums but didn’t get eaten by slugs. Also known as Monkshood, thanks to the flower shape, or Wolfsbane thanks to its poisons; all parts of the plant are highly toxic.

There are few traditional uses for Aconitum, poisons for spear tips or arrows to kill wolves or tigers being the main ones, but some have used it on the skin as a painkiller for severe joint pain apparently, and horses can eat it when dried to give them a powerful narcotic stimulant. Used with Belladonna, Henbane, Hemlock and soot, it is said to produce a ‘flying ointment’ for witches – the landing may be a little more insecure than most of us would wish however! Modern witches have created a number of uses for Aconitum such as consecrating knives to banish old energies and give protection, burning at funerals, or when calling upon Hecate with whom the plant is associated.

Recently I have discovered Aconitum can be used for a very effective homoeopathic remedy for colds. Many homoeopathic remedies are based on poisons; my interpretation is that because of the way they are diluted and shaken to have a high energetic presence of the poison, the body is triggered into a reaction. However, as there is no actual physical poison there, the body’s reaction is used instead to fight the disease, in this case a ‘common’ cold. Magic. But not something I would want to prepare for myself…

So why grow it?
Besides being a way of becoming familiar with a great plant, it is actually very garden-worthy. A. napellus, pictured, grows to nearly six feet tall in my windy garden, yet never needs staking. It is a very pretty plant with a full four seasons of interest – the fresh young growth in Spring, flowers in Summer, good leaf colour in Autumn, and finally dried stems and seed cases through the Winter. It seems to be fairly undemanding, neither taking over nor being easily squeezed out, and grows happily in the middle of borders which conveniently ensures it is not brushed accidentally.

I see its parallel with Yew in the world of trees. Equally poisonous in almost all parts, Yew teaches us about death and transformation, letting us see the dark side of the cycle as a positive experience and allowing us to be reborn. Aconitum can be used to clear what needs to be cleared at a stroke, and see the fundamental truths. It is fast acting, being fast growing, but carries the power of renewal from the deep taproots. Having cleared, there is a store of energy there which can be used to create something new out of the ashes.