Sunday, 19 July 2009

You Spotted Snakes...

...with bright blue eye
Your pains the Bugloss will repay

The viper's bugloss is out again on the dunes, where it will last for some weeks. It's a striking plant with its vibrant deep blue flowers. It likes bare and scrubby ground, often growing near beaches or on mine spoil tips, where its roots go down deep, and is one of those fascinating plants whose flowers emerge one colour (a deep rose) and then change. In classical times it was thought to be effective against snake bite, and its spotty stem probably gives it the first part of its name, but "bugloss" comes from ox's tongue.

In her Modern Herbal, published in 1931, Mrs Grieve tells us that it is a diuretic and can relieve inflammation and fever, though I wouldn't want to pick its hairy stems without gloves! Alternative names, according the Geoffrey Grigson, include Blue Cat's Tail, Snake's Flower and Our Lord's Flannel! I wonder if this last is because of the reddish spots on the stem, which may look like flecks of blood?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Baby swallows in the rain

These small black dots are baby swallows sitting on the lawn, waiting to be fed - I think it's too windy and rainy for them to fly, so their parents are making regular sorties with laden beaks. The picture was taken through the window because it's raining too hard to set foot outside, and anyway, I didn't want to disturb the poor things.

Rather better is this picture, taken by younger son at the beginning of the week, a much later brood of babies. Three heads, I believe, in a delightfully warm and feathery nest, some of the feathers, I rather think, contributed by the Bluebell Girls.

For weeks now, I have been regularly woken at dawn - about 3.30am at the solstice last month - by liquid bubblings and churrings just outside my open window: the swallow babies waiting for their breakfast. They line up on the guttering and wait for a bristling beakful of flies. At least when I look at my untidy garden I can console myself with the knowledge that it's a excellent hunting ground, helping to provide for good numbers of babies each year - swallows, flycatchers, wagtails, bats, and the ever-present and garrulous sparrows.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Martagon Lily

Gerard mentions the martagon lily in his list of garden plants in 1596, and it was much loved in Elizabethan gardens. Common from Eastern Europe to Mongolia, where its bulbs were dried and eaten with cow's or reindeer milk, it probably only grows in the wild in Britain as a garden escape, and is another plant of woodland edges. It doesn't appear in our British herbals, probably because it was never common in the wild, but the (poisonous) bulbs were used medicinally elsewhere for heart complaints and as a diuretic.

It's not a fussy plant, growing quite happily in our heavy clay soil yet also thriving in lighter, sandy soils, and it will take both semi-shade and sun. The flowers, fragrant at night, attract moths, so it is a plant that has had a place in my garden for 30 years. I love its reflexed flowers - its other common name is turk's cap lily - and its muted purples.

(It has been suggested that martagons are the Biblical 'lilies of the field', but it seems likely that this is a confusion with lilium chalcedonicum, the scarlet martagon).

Friday, 10 July 2009

Hedge woundwort

Stachys sylvatica

I grow within the lowly hedge;
My cousin at the marsh's edge.
And each, as shown within our name,
For healing wounds is known to fame.
Less famous is our second feat -
Our roots are very good to eat.

This pungent wild herb grows very happily in our garden, though no doubt my efforts to transplant it to the paddock will all prove in vain. Here it is growing across a path, and ought to be cleared away, but it's a cheerful soul and I shan't do so while it's in flower.

Despite its name it is not very highly rated as a wound herb - if its cousins, marsh woundwort or betony are to hand they are preferred; nonetheless, it was supposed to make a very good poultice (who, these days, remembers the agonising relief of a hot poultice on a recalcitrant splinter?) and styptic, more often collected from the wild than cultivated, since it grows readily in hedgerows across much of northern Europe. Gerard advised mixing it with hog's grease, much as I used to make comfrey ointment by heating comfrey leaves in lard.

Mrs Grieve, in her Modern Herbal, reports that a yellow dye can be made from the plant and it is suggested that there might be commercial uses for the fibres. Young shoots can, apparently, be eaten like asparagus, and the roots are said to be very nutritious, although the smell does little to persuade me.

There are good reasons for encouraging this plant in the wild areas around your garden, however: bees and moths both love it, and we should be doing all we can to provide habitats for both. Encouraging moths will also provide food for bats, and our long-eared bats regularly hunt over the woundwort patch (also the nettle patch, we have a very messy garden, although we claim that it is intentional).

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


Something quite special this week. One of my favourite gardens is at Hill House Nursery in Devon. Much of the attraction for me is that it feels like a family garden - it's not very big, but it's great for plantlovers, while the greenhouses combine working space for propagation with a wonderful collection of stock plants, some of them truly exotic. It's a proper working nursery, too, run by people who know about plants. It's no good me going there to shop, everything is much too tender for Northumberland, but I love to wander around the garden and greenhouses with a camera, before visiting the tearoom, but my mother sometimes does quite well out of a visit, if I find something utterly irresistible.

I thought this passion flower (Passiflora x caponii 'John Innes') truly lovely, and was intrigued to discover later that there is a story attached to it.

The embothrium at the back of this bed is the offspring of one in my mother's garden nearby. There's quite quite a long history of two-way traffic between the two gardens. If you look hard you can see its cousins in this view from my bedroom window:

The hydrangea walk is a recent addition at Hill House. I want this one!

And this is just glorious! A deutzia, I think, but I don't know which variety.