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.

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

Sour Grapes?

I read some interesting comments this week, talking about the way fruit and vegetables are treated:

“By spraying poisonous chemicals on our fields and gardens, we killed the micro-organisms and bacteria that provided the glue that held the soil together in its crumb formation. … Once the micro-organisms and bacteria had been killed, their work – which was to excrete humic acids that would break down mineral elements into nutrient forms the plants could use – did not take place! … Plants grown in poor, dying or dead soil were not healthy enough to withstand cold, heat, periods without rain, or the normal range of pests, fungi, and viruses that lived in any soil. … The dead and collapsed soil we insisted on trying to grow foods in was just not capable of producing either healthy plants or healthy foods. Since insects and fungus were nature’s garbage collectors, her way of cleaning up sick, diseased, or dysfunctional plants and removing them from the landscape because they were not fit for consumption, our continued use of poisonous sprays to protect worthless crops was nothing less than ridiculous, ignorant, and doomed. … Fruits, vegetables and grains that grew from dead soil were almost as dead as the dirt they came from. Even when they looked beautiful they lacked basic levels of proteins, sugars and minerals. Worse, they contained chemical residues and other poisons. Healthy, normal amounts of protein in vegetables and fruits had to be at least 25 percent to support human life. Foods grown in these depleted soils of these United States had been at 3 percent or less for at least thirty-five years.”
Penny Kelly, The Elves of Lily Hill Farm

And that is just proteins. Huge numbers of trace minerals are missing from these crops, leached out of the soil that hasn’t been taken care of, and further unbalanced by using NPK fertilisers with many of the essential trace elements missing. The effects of waxing or preserving fruits for storage, then gassing to ripen them only adds to the chemical imbalance.

Fundamentally for me was this statement:

“Most of us were paying for cheap, poisoned foods grown in depleted soils and still complaining that it cost too much to eat. No one realized that what was saved at the grocery store was being spent at the hospital.”
Penny Kelly, The Elves of Lily Hill Farm

As someone who has had major health issues in the past, this struck a chord within me. I don’t like buying overly processed food, or non-organic vegetables or fruit that may have been flown half way around the world, but sometimes I still do. I can make many excuses, like alternatives not being available, or being significantly more expensive, or that I have requests for particular things that are only available from sunnier climates, but ultimately I still have to take responsibility for the choices I make. I would like to do better, one day…

And then I ate a grape. Just one, but before any other food instead of after as I normally do. It made me feel queasy. It gave me an instant headache, something I don’t suffer from. Sure the grape taste was in there, but what else?

So I have realised I cannot carry on down the path I am on any longer. Ideally I would grow more fruit and veg, but my garden is small and the area given over to edibles is smaller still, not sufficient to grow everything we want. Neither am I a very successful vegetable grower, yet! But change has to start somewhere, and for me it is now. So I am writing down my intentions to grow better fruit and vegetables and to seek out organic and biodynamic locally grown alternatives, because what I write here has a good way of coming true.