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.

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…]

Beltane Quilt

Beltane Quilt

Here is the last of my Sabbat quilts, made during the last Spring Snowstorm in early April.

It has the largest number of fabrics of all the quilts, 24 I think, helped by some of the leftovers from recent dressmaking and bunting projects, as well as the donation of some scraps left over from a quilt my grandmother made me when I was little. So this quilt has real family history in it! The design is inspired by the flowers and colours of May, and by the whirling patterns of Maypole dancing. It started off very regular and formal in its arrangement but I was a row short; it ended up much more freeform in its twirling, swirling around, but I’m quite pleased with the way it has come out. The only thing I might have changed is that on three of the corners a diagonal seam runs into the corner, which was hard to trim or turn properly. This would not have been a problem on a normal quilt with a wadding layer and bound edges, but these are unfilled, just turned like a bag with one colour being chosen in each quilt for outlining to join the two layers. Unlike the other quilts I had no choice of which colour to outline on this one, green being the only plain colour used across the quilt!

It has been an interesting project to make all eight – and challenging at times when I was struggling to sew! I deliberately made each one unique, not comparing them as I went, so here is the first time I have put them all together. To me they make an interesting impression of how colours change over the year. I might have exaggerated this more if I had made them all at the same time, and had the fabrics I now have, but that is the beauty of making one at a time. The design changes had a logic, which isn’t so apparent here, but this may be the only time they are all seen together.

Eight Sabbat Display Quilts, arranged from top left:
Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Spring Equinox, Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, Autumn Equinox.


Over the next year I hope to make items to go in the displays, since some sabbats definitely do better than others at the moment! Each sabbat has seen something being made and something stored from previous years, but like our special tree decorations that come out December after December and are passed on through the family, and inspired by the nature displays in the Steiner School we used to visit, I would like to create more ‘special’ things for the rest of the year as well.

Pansies … and Pigeons!

Pansy

I’ve never grown pansies in my garden before, except occasionally the wild Johnny Jump Up from seed, but my daughter is fascinated by them. The rich depth of colours, the softness, the fact they flower when little else does. So over the holidays I took her with me to buy some plants and allowed her to choose which ones she liked. I ended up buying twenty four mixed pansy plants covering just about every shade between them – which earned me some very strange looks from my prize-winning horticulturalist neighbour, and also ex-boss, that I happened to meet with my trolley-full! (His garden is a little different to mine…)

Actually there was some logic in my apparent madness. The unpredictable winter with its late snows (by local standards) has left many gaps in my borders, and as I haven’t been growing so many flowers from seed over the past few years, I do not have a ready supply of new stock with which to fill the gaps. I figured the pansies would bring happiness, especially to M, and would hopefully last all summer. If most are gone by next year then at least I will have more time to plan something else new!

But as I started to get them out of their pots for planting, I had a revelation. I realised that if regrouped them into their approximate colours, I could reduce the crazy mixture to approximately four colours: dark red, mostly yellow, purple-blue, and white with a bit of dark purple.

I have a vague colour theme going on, inspired by John Fothergill and his writings about his pub garden in the 1920s, (An Innkeeper’s Diary, published 1931), placing hotter colours near the house and fading out to white at the furthest distance to make it look further away. It works well in my small garden, as there are fields beyond, and helps me decide where to put a plant – although some seeds don’t read their labels like ‘yellow’ hollyhocks turning out to be pink, or Welsh poppies seeding everywhere they can, so I’m not too strict about it! So I mostly followed my usual scheme with the pansies, M helping me to place them around the garden in colour groups, mostly three or four at a time with me helping to show where geraniums or campanulas or giant scabious were about to be, and suddenly they looked amazing. Blending in tastefully, yet full of cheer. I really enjoyed the sight.

However, trying to take photos of them to go with this post revealed another problem that I hadn’t considered: several of the flowers were being eaten. Being edible to humans, and also freshly grown, they must have appeared to be a new delicacy in my garden compared to all the hardy plants that had survived outside all winter. I have never liked to use poisons in the garden, preferring to find natural solutions and letting the garden balance itself over time; copper rings made out of an old hot water tank are one of my best against slugs, but I didn’t think that was the problem here, since it was the flowers being eaten rather than the stalks. A few days observation finally revealed the truth. Pigeons.

Immediately another incident in the holidays with M came to mind, when I had to wait at a zebra crossing because a pigeon was using it. I had watched as the bird looked both ways at the side of the road, in the way pigeons do, then walked very fast all the way across, exactly in the middle of the crossing. I didn’t want to run it over, so I ended up having to stop while it completed its journey to the other side and then over to investigate the gutter. My daughter of course found all this hilarious. Given the Highway Code says drivers must stop when a ‘pedestrian’ is on the crossing, rather than specifying a ‘person’, I presume this was what I was required to do. I now wonder whether I should have reduced the pigeon count slightly, as I am getting a little fed up with them.

Cock pheasant seen from my window. (There is a layer of ice below the surface.)

One more possibility springs to mind however, before I curse the fat grey birds, as we had an even more unexpected garden visitor recently that makes a pigeon look tiny…

Spring Equinox Quilt

Spring Equinox Quilt

This display quilt just got made in time! Mainly due to the fact that Winter returned with snow in early March closing all the schools… Instead of daffodils, often flowering here by the end of January, snowdrops are entering their fourth month of continuous flowering.

As this festival is about balance, I wanted to do a very square design. Most of the colours I had that were suitable were not patterned either, restricting my options. However I found that this added to the calm, balanced feel, even if the weather is being wild. Like at Imbolc and Yule, there is a more definite pattern to this quilt than some of the earlier ones, which I find I prefer.

The colours were based around what I normally see at this time of year, so lots of new fresh greens, daffodils, pink blossom, blue skies. At the moment, the purple crocuses are doing well, usually much earlier, and the only pink I have seen is my winter flowering Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Just before the equinox we had a very deliberate removal of anything ‘Wintery’ and changing to Spring, hoping to help draw it forth. So the display includes a woolly lamb we made in the Lake District (I’ll have to do some more for Imbolc next year so it doesn’t get lonely!) hares, flowers, fairies, and lots of eggs.

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.

Imbolc Quilt

Quilt for Imbolc

Here is my quilt for Imbolc, season of Winter thawing to Spring. It is always a special festival to me, celebrating Brigid, the one Goddess I have had a really long term relationship with, and I wanted to reflect the square shape of her cross in the quilt. So this has a more organised colour pattern than the previous seasonal quilts I have made.

I’m still managing to use up scraps, although a certain amount of trust is now being called for that I won’t run out before I finish the series. Having enough backing fabric is also starting to get tricky – for this one I used white as without wadding any other colour showed through the white squares on the front, but I had to make it in three pieces.

The colours of Imbolc always make me think of snowdrops, which are often associated with Brigid and the festival itself – despite having only been introduced to Britain in the 1500s. It is true that they often flower at the right time of year, although this year one clump of mine were showing white just a day or two after the winter solstice.

This quilt has again raised the question of when to create a display for each Sabbat. Mostly I change things a few days or a week before, except the Yule display was started at the beginning of December. However, there seems to be a strong tradition around here of removing all Christmas things on or by the 5th January, which leaves a surprisingly long time for an empty display! So I waited a few days and then put out the new Imbolc quilt, but found I was then ready to clean the house and bring the freshness in! Did Spring arrive early this year? I now understand why Steiner schools sometimes have the addition of ‘Mrs Thaw’ to fill this gap, although she could come any time up until May depending on the weather!

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.

Blackthorn Weatherforecasting

Blackthorn Blossom

For the past two weeks, almost since the March equinox, the Blackthorn has been increasingly floriforous around here. It is a ghostly presence in the hedges, with its white flowers growing along the smaller branches and tops of Prunus spinosa trees, leaving their black trunks bare underneath – almost like the child dressing up at Samhain with black leggings and a white sheet over their heads. Yet the hawthorn which makes up the bulk of the hedges around here is now glowing green with fresh young leaves, creating a patchwork effect.

The old saying for this time of year was “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” With high pressure dominating and the weather having turned beautifully sunny and warm for much of the country, I have felt that Spring has finally sprung – yes there is the occasional nightly frost, but nothing particularly long lasting since most days it has gone within an hour of sunrise. So I have been puzzled as to why Blackthorn blossom should suggest a return to winter, and decided to investigate further.

Patchwork of white Blackthorn and green Hawthorn

It turns out that normally the blackthorn flowers at the middle to end of April – when there is very often an unexpected cold period. This year winter has been mild, and the weather seems to be continuing that way, so I am thinking this has caused the blackthorn to be particularly early. It is not alone; bluebells have been flowering since the beginning of April around here, 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. But the result of this is that the Blackthorn is not coinciding with a cold spell as it usually does; MET office forecasts are currently predicting ‘rain or showers, turning wintery’ ie snow for next weekend…

I now await confirmation from another tree for my planting out, using that other favourite saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’till May be out.” It refers to the hawthorn blossom, which is usually in flower in mid-May around here – and has generally proved a reliable guide to the last frosts (provided I wait for my own hedge to flower rather than those in more sheltered locations). It already has flower buds, but as I have seen before, the tree is happy to keep its flowers in bud if necessary until the cold weather is over. Wise old trees!

Tadpole update

Mass of emerged tadpoles

I thought anyone who follows my blog might like to know that the tadpoles are all wriggling about the pond…

The first ones ‘hatched’ after 2 weeks, with more emerging each day over the next week and creating a very dark mass of wrigglers in the centre of the two clumps of frogspawn. Finally they seem to have eaten the remains of their ‘egg sacks’ and the first ones broke free to pastures new, being seen around the plants and nibbling algae of rocks – particularly later in the day as the sun warms them. I may have a cleaner, clearer pond very soon!

Tadpole off exploring

Happy Equinox

This year I have been asked to write a series of articles about the various Pagan festivals for a non-pagan audience, so I have been looking at the ‘basics’ of what is common to each festival rather than just relying on my own personal eclectic practices. Needless to say my online searches have turned up many short introductory articles, most of which repeat the same information, most of which is totally familiar. But just a few give me something that I didn’t know before, and in the case of the Spring Equinox, some of what I thought I ‘knew’ has proved to be just a little different.

1. I always had the impression that this festival and its September equivalent were less celebrated and therefore less important than the other sabbats.
However, several stone circles including Stonehenge and various circles in Derbyshire where I am getting to know them have alignments to the sunrise or sunset on this day. They wouldn’t have bothered if they weren’t interested!
I also suspect that the majority of celebrations were related to the farming year – it is always the time when I start my seed sowing, and it always feels entirely appropriate to start it with a ceremony.

2. It comes in the middle of the Pagan year.
Well it does if the year starts at the Autumn Equinox or at Samhain, but actually the spring equinox comes at the start of the modern Persian year, the old European year (on March 25th), the astrological year… The Romans also celebrated new year in March before they created January and February. Of those who didn’t, the Greeks celebrated at the winter solstice, and the Egyptians and Phoenicians started their year at the Autumn Equinox.

3. The name Ostara is used for this festival, the German equivalent of Eostre.
First there is the confusing claim that Eostre was only mentioned by Bede and nowhere else so he probably made her up… Given that Bede was pretty good on his knowledge on every other subject, I don’t see why he shouldn’t have known about the local Goddess where he lived! Evidence on many Celtic and Anglo-Saxon deities is pretty scanty at times, but there are always clues for those that wish to see them.
But, and this is a big but for me, I then read that Eostre’s day was the first full moon after the equinox, not the equinox itself. Given that Eostre is concerned with hares and eggs, this makes perfect sense that the full moon would be relevant, and also explains why Easter is the first Sunday after Eostre’s day. The only trouble is I shall no longer feel right celebrating eggs at the equinox, I will want to wait for the full moon. And it also means that Eostre (and if they are equivalent Goddesses, Ostara) had nothing to do with the Equinox – giving me a whole new set of challenges, and hopefully journeys of discovery, for next year.
Just to confuse things further, there are also those who claim Easter was named for Ishtar who, while still being a Spring Goddess, has a whole different mythology associated with her…

4. Egg hunts are just a fun thing for children to do.
Eggs have been apparently been decorated on every continent, the oldest yet discovered being South African and 60,000 years old. The ancient Egyptians decorated eggs. Almost every European country as well as several Asian and American ones have their own special egg traditions. Eggs can be cooked or blown, scratched, carved, coloured in many different ways, and then displayed in some form (often hung in a tree or by a well) or offered to another. They are not restricted to a particular day either; any time from early spring to the summer solstice seems to have been recognised in this way. But in Britain, eggs were apparently buried by Celtic Druids after being dyed red in order to encourage the life force to return to the Earth for new planting. More sinisterly if true, during difficult times in Europe eggs were hidden to avoid it being known that offerings were being made to the Goddess and children were apparently paid on finding and reporting these eggs. Hiding eggs so that they may be hunted for ‘fun’ seems to have started in England by the 1800s.

Oddly I found an egg buried nearly a foot deep in my garden a month or so ago when planting a small tree. Probably a duck egg, white and quite large, and heavy as if there was an egg inside it. Having absolutely no idea where it came from or what to do with it (we have lived here for 19 years and have never kept ducks) I just left it on the surface of the soil to see what would happen. A week later it was still there, but after another week I saw its broken shell, and it was now definitely empty. Who or what ate it, and what condition or age it was, I have no idea.

Frog Spawn

Frog spawn apparently ‘appears’ between January and February or March, in any pond where there are frogs. I have had various people asking if we had any over the past few weeks, but had to keep saying no, the pond was less than a year old and I didn’t know if we would this first year.

Frogspawn

First Frogspawn, a few hours old. (Click to enlarge.)

And then to our great excitement a large clump of spawn appeared last Sunday.

Given it was full moon that day, I spent some time in the garden in the evening and for the first time in my life had the joy of listening to the gentle sound of frogs croaking. After about 20 minutes there was a splash, then silence. A second clump of frogspawn had appeared – so close to the first I almost missed it in the dark.

Two clumps of frogspawn. (Click to enlarge.)

So now I am keeping an eye for changes, and making sure nothing damages the spawn. However, I was fascinated one morning to discover just how well it looks after itself. Some beech leaves had blown in from the nearby hedge, which I remove most days at this time of year, and one had landed on the spawn. I was surprised to find it was slightly stuck to the spawn and then worried about damaging them as I pulled it off – until I realised that it had a series of circular holes and arcs cut into it. (Afterwards I wished I had kept hold of the leaf, as I couldn’t find it again later to take a photograph.) I can only assume that the coating on the spawn had dissolved the leaf wherever it touched, so that it was no longer blocking the light. This seems to me some feat to achieve in less than a day on a crispy tough beech leaf!

Frogspawn photographed from underwater

Meanwhile my photography took a new turn as I began writing this post, as I managed to find the waterproof case we used to use with our old camera when canoeing. I have a lot to learn still about lighting and focal distances underwater – I obviously cannot see what is in the viewfinder, nor can I check the resulting images very well while they are in the waterproof case, and it needs to dry before I can open it giving little chance for a repeat attempt.

7 day old frogspawn, photographed from underwater.


Surprisingly for a camera that is rubbish at macro, it was the closest pictures that came out most in focus, just showing the start of tails developing. Hopefully with this knowledge and a bit more time to experiment, I will improve before the tadpoles emerge!

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.

Bark Patterns

Sycamore Bark

Sycamore Bark

New Year, new trees… and I have a new camera to play with. Here is one of my early pictures of some tree bark which caught my eye, just enjoying the patterns that were formed as the tree grew. I believe it is the mature bark of a sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, not a tree generally considered to be beautiful, but it comes into its own in Winter and also early Spring when it is one of the first to sprout new leaves.

A Woodland Spring

There is a very lovely woodland spring near to me, which I had the opportunity to revisit this week. It is shown on maps as “Ben’s Well”, near to “Ben’s Farm”, and lies within “Booth’s Wood”. I have not as yet been able to find out anything about who Ben was – do comment below if you can enlighten me!

Ben's Well as it emerges from the ground.

Ben’s Well as it emerges from the ground with the root bridge in the foreground.
(Click to enlarge.)

The spring is one of several nearby, but the only one that never seems to be muddy. It comes straight out of the muddy bank and flows beautifully pure and clear, making nice drinking. I was reminded on tasting it of some of Victor Schauberger’s work on streams following their natural course through woodland, running all year and never flooding or jamming up if they are not interfered with by man. The temperature stays far more constant with the tree’s shading, and it is very pleasant there even on a hot day.

Root bridge at Ben's Well.

Root bridge at Ben’s Well. (Click to enlarge)

There is, however, an extra feature that attracts me to this stream. Within a few feet of the spring is a path, which at one time had a stone wall built along each side of it. This can be seen higher up in the wood, with the occasional stone gatepost still standing. However where it crosses the stream, the main evidence of the wall is where a tree root has used it to advantage to make a natural bridge. This root has become the crossing point itself. A special place.

Root Bridge and Wood Sorrel

Root Bridge at Ben’s Well, Derbyshire. Wood Sorrel grows on the upstream side.

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.

Conscious Participation

I have been exploring the idea of conscious participation over the past few weeks, inspired by a comment I read from Laurie Cabot (Salem, Massachusetts witch and writer) suggesting there is no such thing as a passive observer; you are always a participant.

This makes a lot of sense to me, as the human influence can be seen working at every level: in quantum physics where light can behave as particles or as waves depending on which you are looking for; in mind experiments controlling where a ball falls; in dowsing where clear results come for anyone openminded enough to believe in the possibility – and frequently not working at all for people convinced it won’t.

At a group M and I enjoy, the person who runs it thanks everyone for being there at the end of each session. Not for coming, for being there. I found this odd the first time, that she should be thanking us rather than the other way around, but now recognise that she is acknowledging how each person’s presence influences the group and is welcome. I notice how I learn different things and have different experiences depending on who is there and how they are being, and it is frequently precisely whatever I am needing at the time.

In canoeing there is an often repeated phrase for swimmers (ie those who are unintentionally parted from their boat in whitewater) that they are not a victim, they are an active participant in whatever rescue is needed. I have been on both sides of this, rescuer and swimmer, many times, and know there is nothing to be gained except a feeling of helplessness if I don’t take an active part when needed. Sometimes that job is to observe, especially in a group situation, as signals might need to be passed up or down river. But passive observation it is not! Alternatively, even at the distance of a few years since I was last in a boat, for any rescue I can remember (and there are a few!) I can still picture every person who was there, even if they were merely passing along the footpath. Sometimes I made use of complete strangers, having to use intuition for who I could trust to help.

Similarly, in any situation of performing in front of an audience: musicians, actors, dancers, speech givers, and in every situation from concert halls and theatres to office boardrooms to the street, every person present or passing by is a participant if only they knew it! The most uninterested or bored observers will have an effect on the performance just as much as those clapping or cheering.

This is also true in witchcraft. I would never invite anyone to ‘observe’ a spell or healing I was doing, but if I felt their energies were positive might ask them to participate – the intentions of each person present and assisting will influence the outcome. After all, we ask the stars and planets to aid us in our magic, just as I am discovering many do in biodynamic gardening, which is a pretty subtle influence – as are other correspondences such as crystals or herbs used. But they can all add up to a very powerful whole.

So as this weekend was Beltane, I have of course been celebrating. Some folk might talk of ‘observing’ a festival – but this is not the pagan way. For several years now I have actively created a ritual at each Sabbat so that I may learn something from it. These are generally solo and thus fairly simple meditations and activities that I have used to give my life greater depth and meaning, connecting to the Earth as the seasons progress. However this weekend I have finally understood why many pagans talk (or write) of helping to keep the wheel of the year turning. It is not that it would stop without our efforts, (actually it might if Earth enters a higher state of consciousness, but that is a different story!) it is more that by actively participating in the celebration of the seasons, I become part of it too. By showing my love to each sign of Spring I add my consciousness. I am not a mere ‘audience’, I add my appreciation and encourage the flowers, the birds, the sheep and other field animals, the bees, the ladybirds, to greater efforts. I have become a co-creator with nature: an active participant, part of the turning wheel. That to me is something worthwhile.

Bottle Gardening

Trying to grow vegetables on a windswept Derbyshire hillside always feels a bit hit and miss – most plants do very well once they establish themselves and get growing as the soil is good and rich and is rarely too dry – but vegetables being mainly annuals can be somewhat tricky to get to this stage. Setbacks in their growth tend to have rather negative consequences on their cropping!

I have tried waiting to plant things later, but sometimes the growing season then feels too short. Or else I miss the ‘window’ for planting and they never get in the ground. I also have trouble sowing seed indoors due to lack of windowsills and lack of light – I grow lots of things from seed each year, but slower growing flowers or seeds sown in late April or May do better than compact, fast growing, leafy plants sown in winter. So this year I am trying a new, more determined approach: buy in some healthy looking, British grown, brassica plants and lettuces that are at the right stage for planting out, and then give them as much protection as I can. My bottle collection, built up over a few years and normally reserved for sweetcorn, has come out of store early.

Bottle Garden

Bottle Garden

Of course, a windy day immediately followed planting and several bottles flew off. I tried simply putting them back – which lasted all of a few minutes until the wind picked up again. My solution was to make use of my sticky, heavy clay soil – water everything, pile soil around each bottle, water again and effectively ‘glue’ the bottles into place. It has worked before, and I hope will this time! For those wishing to copy this method, water well before attempting to remove the bottles as the first time I tried this a plant came out with the bottle, but minus its roots…

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

Unexpected Festivals

It is always a challenge, living as a Pagan in a Christian country, to decide how to celebrate festivals. It is even more of a challenge to explain to M why we are celebrating on different days to everyone else in the country. Normally I try and think through what my approach will be to each festival before it arrives. And then one catches me completely by surprise.

Today is apparently Mother’s Day. Originally known as Mothering Sunday, it was the day when young girls in service would return home to go to their mother church and has been celebrated in England since at least the sixteenth century. They would pick flowers along the way to give as an offering, either to the church or to their mothers. The day was also known as Pudding Pie Sunday, Simnel Sunday, Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday, being a short break from the general austerity on week four of Lent so that the underfed daughters could have a good meal and possible something to take back with them.

Mothering Sunday has morphed into Mother’s day over recent years, maybe because fewer people go to church or feel strongly allied to a particular church, or maybe because of influences from the American Mother’s Day – which has an entirely different history. Ann Reeves Jarvis began organising mother’s groups, along with various other women, in the 1850s to promote peace and tackle issues such as infant mortality and milk contamination. They tended to both sides during the civil war in the 1860s, and in 1868 a Mother’s Friendship Day was held for mothers of fallen soldiers to mourn together, whether they were union or confederate. Her daughter Anna Jarvis then created Mother’s Day in May 1908 to honour her mother (who died in 1905), as a local event in their home state of Virginia and after much lobbying, nationally from 1914. She later tried to have the holiday stopped after it became too commercial.

I have never celebrated Mother’s day before, nor wanted to. It hasn’t felt right to me to annex a Christian festival to gain recognition – something which is either there anyway, or won’t come because of one day. Neither have I ever felt comfortable with the commercialisation of the American Mother’s Day. Other mothers may feel differently about this, and that is fine, but that is how I have felt. So it was very disconcerting to say the least to find my daughter presenting me with flowers and card she had made at nursery this week!

As it would have been churlish of me to refuse the gift offered, it has made me re-examine my feelings towards Mother’s Day. Most likely I became biased against the day over many years of not being able to have children – there is nothing like a yearly reminder of something I haven’t got to make me reinterpret the situation into something non-threatening. And then reading about the history, I discovered that, like so many other Christian festivals, it may have a Pagan root.

The Ancient Greeks celebrated the Earth Goddess Rhea, the Mother of the Gods and Goddesses, every Spring with festivals of worship. The Romans celebrated her better known counterpart, the Phrygian Goddess Cybele in March with offerings of flowers, reeds, pine and oak. Unfortunately at this point the ‘may’ of pagan history comes into play. Every online source I found states as fact that the March Hilaria is a precursor to Mother’s Day, and at least three of the twelve or fourteen days are celebrating Cybele and motherhood; but a key focus of the festival is the death and resurrection of her lover Attis, which to me is an Easter story. However, since Cybele was known as The Great Mother, and this was her festival in March, the connection to Mother’s day appears to have stuck. Two thousand years on it is difficult to know which aspect, motherhood or resurrection, was more important.

So I have now come to see Mother’s Day as a way to celebrate all mothers, from the Earth mother down through dynasties of Goddesses and humans, to myself as a mother on this Earth. It is a festival of Spring, of fullness, of flowers and trees, and of joining families together through the power of the mother. I will go and enjoy the sunshine with my own family.

I now wait and see if there will be a similar offering for Father’s day…

Moon Cycles

There was a beautiful full moon here on Wednesday evening, round and fat, rising orange before turning yellow and then silvery white as it ascended into the clouds. We took turns going up the stairs to view it while also trying to cook dinner. A time of intense energy, I was feeling so alive the next morning that I found it hard to settle – tricky when our regular activities saw me at a group where most people sit and chat!

I keep being assailed by incorrect illustrations or descriptions of the moon at the moment. Children’s books love to picture the moon, but will frequently have a quarter moon rising at sunset, and then in the same place several hours later, or even in the same place facing the other way in the morning! Even books written for older people, such as teenagers or adults, will have moons rising at the wrong time of day for their shape, or in the wrong direction relative to the sun. An impossible moonrise spoils, for me, whatever illusion has been built up.

For those confused about what to expect from the moon, in rises roughly in the East and sets in the West much as the sun does. However, the Full moon is seen at night while the New moon is occasionally seen during the day as a shadow eclipsing the sun. To move between the two extremes, as the month progresses the moon rises about an hour later each day – so a waxing moon is often seen in the afternoon and a waning moon seen in the morning.

There is another aspect however, which is that sometimes referred to as ‘wobble’. This means that although the moon rises roughly in the East, like the sun it moves back and forth along the horizon a little. It does this over a period of around 27 days, rather than approx 29.5 of the full moons or 365.25 of the sun’s seasons, so doesn’t coincide with anything very well – although it does make for exciting eclipses, as well as Metonic calendars of nineteen years (or only slightly less accurately, eight and eleven years. I have recently discovered that biodynamic gardening calendars take this wobble movement very much into account, even more so than which constellation the moon is moving through. The ascending, Spring-like path is far more dynamic for growing things, for example, than the descending, Autumn path when pruning or weedkilling might be done. When I have enough gardening time to guarantee being free on the right days for the right type of plants to be cultivated, I will try and work with this… I look forward to it!

Tree Stories 7 – Larch

Autumn larch at woodland edge (Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)

Autumn larch at woodland edge
(Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)


Larch story is now published on its own page, please follow the links above.

Larch is one of those trees which goes unnoticed by me for much of the year, and then, thanks to its deciduous nature, suddenly announces its presence in Spring or Autumn when it is a completely different colour to all the trees around it. Its needles are some of the softest to stroke of all conifers, and the most cheerful bright green that I always love seeing them. They do grow in Derbyshire, although not locally to me, but the place where I will always remember them in in Glen Nevis. I had two days to myself in the area one April about ten years ago, and spent the first walking up Ben Nevis. It was a hot sunny day, views were spectacular, and the last thousand feet had deep snow underfoot. The next day I was feeling a little tired and stiff, so I planned a shorter walk in the opposite direction, over Cow hill to drop down into Fort William and then back along the river Nevis. Struggling up the hill I came to a group of larches with their first leaves of Spring just opening, and felt the most wonderful, uplifting freshness that carried me onwards and through the rest of my walk.

Introduced to Britain in the seventeenth century for its knot free, virtually waterproof timber, larch is commonly used for yachts, buildings, roof shingles and interior panelling, fences and posts, and also coffins. Venice was built almost exclusively of larch wood. They often grow on the south side of a plantation as they like much more open sunny conditions than most pine trees. They also act as a firebreak, thanks to their thick bark and very hard wood. However their natural home is in the mountains, where they are also likely to find the clear air they prefer being fairly intolerant of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide.

Larch was traditionally worn or burned to protect against enchantments or evil spirits. It was used to help with fertility issues, childless women believing that spending the night under a Larch would help them conceive a baby, and the timber was used for babies cradles. With this in mind, the story given to me to write by larch was somewhat unexpected, but it does tie in surprisingly well with the Bach remedy of using larch for people who feel that they are not as competent as others, lack confidence in their ability to do things well, or even assume they will fail so don’t bother to try.

As I write this, larch trees are leaving Britain. Along with several other tree species, the time has come that they are no longer able to grow healthily in the climate and conditions we have created for them. In this particular case, it is the fungal disease Phytophthora ramorum providing the symptoms of their “dis-ease”, which is that it has become too wet and earthy for what is essentially an airy sort of tree. Also known as sudden oak death, P. ramorum spreads rapidly through weakened trees and has in the past few years invaded many of the plantations in the south west of England, Wales and Scotland. The “cure” is apparently to remove all the trees, not just the infected ones, so millions have been cut down in the last few years, with many more facing the same fate, destroying the work already done and leaving the land and the watercourses in a poor state for at least another generation. This is supposedly to save the infection from spreading, and getting into oak trees.

I like to try and find something positive in a situation, no matter how bleak it might at first appear, so here is how I see it. The Earth will survive whatever happens. Spirit is timeless and endless and will not be destroyed by us, but take new forms. As humans however, we have an opportunity to become more aware of how we are treating our planet and the other living beings which inhabit it, and to make the necessary changes. On a personal level, I see it as an opportunity to learn how to connect with trees and the earth closer. I am starting to find where or how I can help, and to develop the skills needed with the guidance and encouragement of my spirit friends. Like my work with weather, the first step is to create balance in my local area, and then expand outwards when I am ready. I would love to hear from others doing this type of work in their area.

Autumn larch tree, 4-sailed windmill in background.  (Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)

Autumn larch tree, 4-sailed windmill in background.
(Shotover Estate, Oxfordshire)

Garden Sculptures

Moonstruck Hares Sculpture

Moonstruck Hares Sculpture
(Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire)

I came across this wonderful garden sculpture last weekend, while doing “essential research” for planning the redesign of my garden. (This garden is a little bigger than mine however…) It consists of ten wooden hares, nine of which are mesmerised by a full wooden moon hanging in the tree above their heads.

The hare has inspired many legends thanks to its unusual behaviour, such as boxing which is apparently females boxing males to either prove their strength before mating, or else fend them off. Until relatively recently it was believed that hares were hermaphrodite and changed sex each month – as late as the nineteenth century valuations in Wales did not specify the sex of the animal unlike for cats, dogs, or any other farm animal. Hares do not mate for life, and do not have much of a family life. They are born fully furred and with eyes open, and can just about survive by themselves if they had to. Each leveret will have its own ‘form’ or nest for the mother to visit, constructed in some long grass to give shelter, so they learn to be independent and solitary from the start. It was said that hares can do superfoetation, that is be pregnant twice over, with each pregnancy at a different stage. Science has apparently yet to prove this one way or the other. However it is known that one doe can produce 42 leverets in a year, which is a pretty high fertility rate for a mammal.

They are often said to be shape-shifting witches in disguise, particularly during times when witches were feared. Their solitary nature, being active at night, and being unpredictable and illogical in most people’s minds rather than recognising their intuition led the two to be associated. In British mythology, the Goddess Eostre was said to change into a hare at the full moon, the hare was sacred to the Moon Goddess Andraste, Ceridwen changed into a hare, and Freya was attended by hares. Boudicca used hares for divination, releasing them before battle and seeing which way they ran.

Hares are closely associated with the Spring Equinox, as it is the one time of year when they are seen to gather in droves, for reasons not yet understood. It is also at this time they are seen to box, run in random directions or in circles, roll in the grass, and generally behave like ‘mad March hares’. In more recent times the relationship with Eostre is cited for a reason for celebrating them at the Equinox, and also because their sex brings balance, which is the key to the energies that surround us at that time. Like the moon, they symbolise resurrection as they go through the birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth cycle at great speed. Male hares can supposedly give birth, having got themselves pregnant, and they are even said by some to lay eggs, like the picture of the hare in the moon holding an egg. Some see the hare’s egg as a cosmic egg which contains the seeds for all life.

Equally interesting is the tree, which is a handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, which was in flower when I saw it. (The flowers were all a little high for photographing individually, and just past their best.) Also known as the Dove tree in its native China, a tree of peace, seed was brought back to England by EH Wilson in 1901. It is the sort of tree that still gets mentioned in the newspapers here when it flowers, because it takes several years to reach flowering size and is still considered to be a rare sight. It was never widespread and remains endangered in the wild.