Friday, 31 October 2008

The Prize Cat

Franz Marc, Two Cats

This is the day when Cat Musings, usually a rather doggy site, celebrates its namesake, the Cat. This is on behalf of T., and since I can't put flowers on his grave, this year it's a poem.

The Prize Cat

E.J. Pratt (1882-1964)

Pure blood domestic, guaranteed,
Soft-mannered, musical in purr,
The ribbon had declared the breed,
Gentility was in the fur

Such feline culture in the gads
No anger ever arched her back--
What distance since those velvet pads
Departed from the leopard's track!

And when I mused how Time had thinned
The jungle strains within the cells,
How human hands had disciplined
Those prowling optic parallels;

I saw the generations pass
Along the reflex of a spring,
A bird had rustled in the grass,
The tab had caught it on the wing:

Behind the leap so furtive-wild
Was such ignition in the gleam,
I thought an Abyssinian child
Had cried out in the whitethroat's scream.

Friday, 24 October 2008


Photo by

This week's flower is yarrow, mainly because at this time of year it is one of relatively few plants still blossoming on the dunes. Also known as milfoil, for its feathery leaves, achillea millefolium is named for Achilles, as this has been a wound herb from early times, used to staunch bleeding (it may also help that, like willow bark, it contains salicylic acid). However, it is also supposed to promote bleeding – one of its common names is nosebleed, and this characteristic led to it being used as a cure for migraine – I don't know, having a nosebleed might take your mind off a mild one, I suppose, but I don't think I'd want to try it as a cure when suffering from one of those three-day affairs. A kinder local tradition says that if you stuff the leaves up your nose, you will bleed if your love loves you – a bit more dramatic than picking the petals off daisies and, presumably, all the truer for it. Alternatively, just place it under your pillow and you may dream of your lover.

The word yarrow comes from Old English, gearwe, and its use in medicine is discussed by Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica. Not surprisingly, perhaps, for such a
n old and valuable herb, it has magical properties too, for divination (yarrow stalks are used in casting the I Ching) and as a protection against evil. Hang it up on St John's Eve (23 June) to ward off illness (oddly, there is a folk story that says there is a fern which flowers only on that night, which can give the power of second sight – it occurs to me that yarrow has very ferny leaves, though it flowers a good deal more prolifically). In Scotland, where it's also called Moleery tea (from the French millefeuille, perhaps?) it's also a dye herb, giving a pale yellow colour. Gardeners should plant to attract useful predators like hoverflies and ladybirds, but it also has a reputation for soil improvement so it makes a good, and attractive companion plant. There are cultivated varieties in deep pinks and oranges, but one of the things I like best about the wild white plant is the occasional rose pink flower, unexpected amongst its white sisters.

I will pluck the yarrow fair,
That more benign will be my face,
That more warm shall be my lips,
That more chaste shall be my speech,
Be my speech the beams of the sun,
Be my lips the sap of the strawberry.

May I be an isle in the sea,
May I be a hill on the shore,
May I be a star in the waning of the moon,

May I be a staff to the weak,
Wound can I every man,
Wound can no man me.

from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Just looking in

I wish I had been able to capture the moment of her arrival but I was quite surprised, as I sat here at the desk, when this young person arrived on my window sill. I think the windy weather may have had something to do with it - I was very glad it was a successful landing.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Quick, before it goes...

Where we have had autumn colour there are now very few leaves left, but for a couple of weeks the view has been brightened by splashes of russet, yellow and orange. This combination of planting isn't necessarily permanent, not least because the eupatorium (the thing with mauve flower heads, known in the US as Joe Pye Weed) is a bit of a thug. It was planted there for the butterflies, but it comes out so late this far north that they have all gone by the time it's in full bloom. In Devon it's a joy in late summer, a living mosaic of red admirals, peacocks and silver-Y moths. For Nan's benefit, that straggly bit of grass in a pot bottom right is a day lily - pathetic, huh?

I'm annoyed with myself for forgetting what kind of spiraea this is below, and I haven't been able to find it online. Back to the old-fashioned book for a bit of research, if I can lay my hands on it. This is its second appearance here: in June I photographed it covered in frothy white blossom. You'll note from the picture, incidentally, that my gardening style is "riotous". The potentillas are still flowering determinedly - I do approve of their fervour.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Flower of the Week

Since some of the posts on this blog which have provoked most comment have been of a botanical persuasion, I thought we'd have a new feature here, a plant of the week. I'll try to make them seasonal, and either native, or garden cultivars of native plants, although in winter that may need some lateral thinking. And, having decided this, I made a rather poor first choice, in that I expected one of my favourite plants to have a more accessible history!

I was determined to write about the flower that features in the header on my other blog since its blooms have been giving us pleasure for so much of the summer: the cottage garden plant, Astrantia major or great masterwort (this one, I think, is Ruby Wedding, though a rather inferior specimen - they can be very variable). Common names are Hattie's pincushion, mountain or black sanicle, and melancholy gentleman. The name "masterwort" (meaning a universal cure-all) is actually applied to a range of the umbelliferae, and the plant that Gerard refers to in his Herbal was a different one, Peucedanum ostruthium; there doesn't seem to be a great deal of evidence for the use of astrantia major itself as a specific, though it was thought to be a diuretic and various constituents have been identified by modern analysis, including steroids, which may mean it will yet prove to have potential as a medicinal herb.

Astrantia major is not included in Geoffrey Grigson's Englishman's Flora, but Keble Martin (Concise British Flora) lists it with its English name of melancholy gentleman, as naturalised in Shropshire, giving a bit of credibility to the claim that it has been cultivated in Britain since the 16th century. The flowers, which are papery like everlastings, dry well, and it's a good cut flower, relatively unfussy about growing conditions. The subspecies "involucrata" has long bracts, giving rise to one of its varietal names, "Shaggy" while, in recent years, the reds have become deeper and richer, some with crimson stems. It's possible to cut them back just before flowering, to give late colour, but I find that they have such a long flowering period that I'm not sure it's worth it. Perhaps further south, where they would normally flower earlier, it may be more effective? All in all, a thoroughly desirable plant, even if its apparent place in the pharmacopeia turned out to be undeserved.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Aga saga

Last week I visited the Aged Parents (not an appellation that they would approve but, since I came down with a cold while I was there, I'm not feeling exactly spritely myself). Every afternoon I retired to my room to sniffle and catch up on my email, or a bit of typesetting, only to find that the super high speed connection which should be provided by my Vodafone gadget would only offer something akin to the speed of light through treacle. So instead I spent a good deal of time gazing out of my drafty attic window and watching the rooks, jackdaws and the occasional raven in trees that have achieved quite terrifying proportions in the 100 or so years that the grounds became a proper garden. On each of my visits my mother and I embark on a sort of Royal Progress: she with stick for swiping the "brimbles", and secateurs to stem the encroachment of the laurel bushes (a losing battle), while I follow behind like a footman, carrying any other necessaries (bag for fir cones destined for kindling, camera to record goodies, the odd armful of prunings destined for the compost heap) and murmuring agreement to such pronouncements as "I think that branch needs to come out" or "That azalea has done very well since I rescued it". The weekend Progress was limited by awful weather and, by Sunday, a pathetic disinclination on my part to move from the warm spot by the Aga.

The greatest treasures at this time of year are the cyclamen which carpet the ground, to be replaced in spring by crocuses and snowdrops. In a garden which still contains the occasional plant so exotic that no one can remember what it is, these tiny jewels still give the most pleasure.