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.