Thursday, 30 April 2015

Interesting but unlovely

Right around the end of April, when streaks of cobalt blue begin to intrude on the peripheral vision of any creature moving through the countryside, signifying the arrival of the bluebell season – as if the gangs of burly Spanish interlopers in our gardens hadn’t already alerted anyone with even half the usual complement of occular equipment in their head to this event in the calendar – right around the time, in fact, that most of us with a mind to are celebrating the appearance of a jewel bright, elegantly arching, exquisite flower, which has the power to be captivating as a solitary specimen, and breathtaking in number – something rather less gorgeous pushes its way up through the leaf litter.

This is toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, a parasitic plant that lives on the roots of hazel, alder, and beech. I’ve written before about this area being renowned for cobnut production; between that and the amount of hazel in the understory of our local mixed woodland, it’s not too hard to find an example of this unloveliest of plants, nestling at the base of a tree trunk.

Now, I’m a lover of weeds, and of nutrient cycles and food webs, fungi and detritivores – I’ve even got a soft spot for wasps, and consider them greatly beneficial to the gardener, at least until they get a bit lairy in late summer –  but I have to confess that I’ve yet to work out quite how parasites fit in to things, unless it’s as a control mechanism to control populations of  a particular organism in order to preserve the balance of an ecosystem. Perhaps it’s that. Do they always have to be quite so revolting? I am not including mistletoe in this group – apart from the fact that it’s a hemiparasite, gaining some of its nutrients from the host plant but also possessing green leaves and therefore the ability to photosynthesis some sugars of its own accord, it’s nice for us human types to look at (or stand below), and the berries provide food for birds, such as thrushes and blackcaps. But I’m afraid to say, the poor toothwort prompts an almost visceral reaction within me.

There’s something rather unwholesome about its appearance. Its leaves remain obdurately subterranean and lacking in chlorophyll (why would they need any when they can pilfer all the nutrients they need from their host?), so the only part readily visible is the short flowers stem. The common name reflects a supposed resemblance to a row of teeth – ghoulish enough, perhaps, but to my mind it’s suggestive of nothing so much as pile of old, partially exsanguinated meat that’s been left out in the rain for a couple of weeks. And before I’m accused of allowing my discomfiture at the concept of the parasitic to influence my opinion of the plant (it does), I was somewhat wary on my first encounter with it, at which point I was entirely ignorant of its identity.

Imagine my delight on discovering it’s also known as corpse flower, reputed to grow wherever there’s a dead body. Perfect for a goth’s garden. My teenage years coming back to haunt me.


Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Forget me not

Regular visitors to these pages may have formed the not entirely inaccurate notion that, while I am a person who revels in the company of all manner of plants, I am not always in a position to identify the vegetables in question. In this respect I feel rather like a forgetful old gentleman, delighted to find himself surrounded by crowds of grandchildren, and without the vaguest hope of putting a name to any one of them. In fact, when it comes to plant recognition, I have prudently left myself ample room for improvement, the better to guard against the possibility of knowing too much, and thereby becoming bored with the subject.

It’s true that, in this respect, while I know more than most non-gardeners, I often feel that I know considerably less than my horticulturally-inclined peers. In an excess of public feeling I’ve even been known to flaunt my ignorance before a keen amateur gardener, allowing them to bathe in the warm glow of feeling that invariably accompanies the knowledge that you have just ‘got one over’ an individual who, by virtue of their professional occupation, really ought to know better.

All this wordy preamble is really by way of setting the scene for last week’s plant-ID hiccup, which occurred when I got myself into a right old pickle over my Boraginaceae. This is a fabulous family if you’re fond of the colour blue*, including the forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.), lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.), vipers bugloss (Echium vulgare), and Brunnera macrophylla – all of them instantly recognisable, even by me. I’m fine with comfrey too, whether the tall, gangly wild comfrey Symphytym officinale – of smelly-leaf and compost-tea fame – or the much more dwarf, cottage garden favourite, Symphytym grandiflorum, which now oddly seems quite tricky to get hold of.

Comfrey, Symphytum officininale
But when a photo was posted to Twitter depicting a handsome plant with deeply veined leaves and forget-me-not blue flowers, I managed to career about like a demented pinball, bouncing from borage itself, to anchusa – both of the hairy leaf and stem with blue flowers persuasion – before being gently guided towards green alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens. For this I’m grateful as always to my kindly twitter friends for taking pity on me, even if some were having trouble hiding their apparent amusement at my floundering.

I should have known really – I have it in my garden and it’s now, I think, firmly imprinted on my mind. Hairy stems, with alternate, deeply veined leaves, also bearing hairs, and rather fat clusters of flower buds with a pinkish tint. The flowers themselves have five, sky blue petals (hence the latin name of the genus), raised at the base where they meet in a central white boss.  A plant of hedgerows and woodland edges, it has a deserved reputation for getting a little unruly, being a rampant self seeder with a long tap root. However, I find it such a handsome presence in the borders that I allow it to stay, if only as a token presence.

And now the next person who asks me about it will be treated to a lengthy explanation of its features, and doubtless its uses as a source of a rich reddish dye extracted from the roots, and used in the colouring of furniture and stringed instruments, among other things.  How fascinating and informed I shall feel, for at least two minutes, until they stump me by pointing at some other specimen and demanding the name, which will, of course, have totally eluded me at that point. At which juncture I shall skillfully change the subject, and distract them with tea and cake.

* Or pink. There's often quite a bit of variation with this gang, sometimes even on the same plant. Flower buds are often pink, even with blue flowers. And then there’s the white and the cream. But I don’t think any family beats it for startling sky blues.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Great Comp Spring Fling,
and The Lump of Green

Glorious sunshine, albeit a bit chilly with a gusty breeze, for this morning’s plant fair at Great Comp. Such a fabulous setting, particuarly in spring, when the burgeoning borders and the upper layers bright with camellias and magnolias charm you to a state where you feel able to smile with benignant forgiveness even upon the ghastliness of of the folly-like mock ruins which are a the only jarring feature of this garden. In a few weeks time, drifts of hellebores in the woodland garden will be succeeded by the epimediums and geraniums mac that are gathering strength, while in the more formal areas paeonies thrust purposefully through the soil, rich with deep red hues and the promise of things to come. It’s a great time of the year to experience a mature garden, especially one as well planted, curated and maintained as Great Comp, and the Spring Fling is certainly worth making the effort to get to if you find yourself within striking distance of North Kent toward the beginning of April.


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Bumbles in the willows

Last year around this time I wrote a post about bumble bees swarming high up in the crown of a pussy willow (Salix caprea, aka goat willow). I knew nothing. Nothing. Since that time I have read Dave Goulson’s excellent A Sting in the Tale which, if nothing else, has served to give me some appreciation of the depths of my ignorance.

These are queen bumbles, newly waked from hibernation from which they emerge famished, having used up all their stored energy resources over winter. The female pussy willow is one of the few sources of rich nectar at this time of year, and must be a welcome sight indeed to the nearly knackered queenies. No wonder so many of them descend upon each tree, they must be gasping, the poor things. So, drink up ladies. Ovaries to swell, nesting burrows to find, and eggs to lay. Fortunately for the shagged out queens, no energy will need to be spent upon the tiresome business of mating – that was all done before the winter, the males now less than a distant memory, their sperm being stored within the body of the queen. It will be needed to fertilize eggs to produce daughters, who will become the first generation of worker bees, and later, the next generation of queens. Male bees are produced from unfertilised eggs, their only function in life being to mate. It’s not a massively interesting life – the tend to hang around in groups on the top of hills, waiting for a lady to arrive – but they have it better than the male honeybee. The last moments of a sexually successful male honeybee are somewhat dramatic, involving mid-flight sex, exploding genitals, and death. Way to go, chaps.

But all that is months away. Spring is newly arrived – perhaps a week or two late this year – and the willows are abuzz once more.


More sobering is the revelation that the government’s own research into the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees does not support the conclusions that they drew from it at the time. A recent article in The Guardian describes how Dave Goulson has taken another look at the study from 2012, finding that the evidence gathered strongly suggests a negative correlation between the presence of common neonicotinoids and the number of queen bees. You can read the full piece here; I was particularly drawn to the following quote from Professor Goulson,

“The conclusions (the government) come to seem to be completely contrary to their own results section.

“They find that 100% of the time there is a negative relationship between how much pesticides were found in the nest and how well the nest performed, and they go on to conclude that the study shows that there isn’t a significant effect of pesticides on bee colonies. It doesn’t add up.”

Even a spokesman from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), who carried out the research, concurs that the wrong conclusions were drawn.

You often hear both scientists and politicians speaking of the importance of good, reasearch-based data upon which to base policy decisions. When the research is conducted by individuals and organisations manifestly less than impartial to the outcome, the studies are not exposed to the rigours of peer review and the resulting data are apparently wilfully misinterpreted, one could be forgiven for wondering how well this process is working.