Wildflower of the Week: Garlic Mustard

In Spring, tall upright stems with neatly spaced leaves, topped with small clusters of white flowers, appear in the shade of hedgerows, giving this plant its other common names: hedge mustard or jack-by-the-hedge.

The plant is a biennial, taking two years to complete its life cycle. In its first, non-flowering year the plant forms a low growing cluster of heart-shaped, leaves, heavily veined with serrated edges. In the following year a single upright stem grows up to about 3 feet tall from this base. The leaves become more pointed and almost triangular in shape and are spaced alternately on the unbranched stem. They are a bright, almost lime-green colour, which really makes them show up a in shady areas (where they are growing in sunnier spots the leaves turn a darker green).

The flowers are tiny, each one with four white petals, arranged in a cross shape. The flower clusters form at the top of the stems and are followed by long seedpods.

Garlic mustard is native to Europe, Asia and parts of North Africa. Here in the UK it is an important food plant for both the orange tip and green-veined white butterflies, which lay their eggs on the plants and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. Introduced to the USA long ago, probably by early settlers for food the plant has become a serious invasive weed in some areas, with no natural predators to keep it in check.

Garlic mustard totally unrelated to garlic (it is a member of the cabbage family. The leaves do smell faintly of garlic when crushed and have a mild garlic flavour. Interestingly, Some people report an unpleasant bitter aftertaste, completely undetected by others. For those who do like the flavour, the young leaves can be chopped and added to salads and used instead of mint to make an alternative sauce to serve with lamb. Historically it was used to make a sauce to accompany sea fish – this gives another old name: sauce-alone. The seeds are mildly peppery and can be used as a mild alternative to commercial mustard.

Herbal and folk medicine has employed garlic mustard to treat asthma and other lung complaints and as an antiseptic. As with all foraged wild plants, it is important to follow some common sense safety guidelines

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

One of my favourite sights on a sunny Spring day is to see the shoots of garlic mustard standing to attention in front of a hedge or on a woodland edge, with a pair of orange-tip butterflies fluttering overhead.

Wildflower of the week: Dandelion

The grass verges are scattered with the shaggy mops of bright yellow dandelion flowers right now. That’s not such great news for gardeners. They are perennials that will grow back every year. The plants have long tap roots, that are difficult to dig out and can regrow from any fragments left behind. If that wasn’t enough, they are also great at dispersing their seeds, which will grow just about anywhere. But there is a lot more to the humble dandelion than meets the eye.

The deep tap roots will root in the tightest spots, like here between concrete and fence.

Although listed as a single species, there are actually over 200 hundred micro-species of dandelion, virtually indistinguishable from each other apart from being genetically distinct. The plants form a rosette of heavily toothed leaves – which gives them their name (dents-de-lion: lion’s teeth). The familiar flowers are carried on fleshy stems filled with with white sap. The flowers appear from early spring right through summer, and provide a source of nectar for insects, including bumble bees and butterflies, which is especially welcome early in the year when little else is in flower.

Peacock butterfly feeding on dandelion nectar

Flowers are followed by the fluffy round clusters of seeds (dandelion “clocks”), which are just starting to appear now. Each seed has a fluffy “parachute” attached, which carries it away on the wind. As children, we always used to pick the heads and blow away the seeds – it was supposed to act as a clock – the number of breaths it took to blow away all the seeds would match the time (allegedly)! Some believe that if all the seeds are easily blown away then you will have true love; if some stick behind then your lover has some doubts and reservations!

I was also told recently that children were once warned not to pick dandelions or they would wet the bed! This could have been parental scare tactics to avoid messy sap-stained little hands, although this may come from past use in folk medicine as a diuretic . That gives rise to some of the other old names for the dandelion: piss-en-lit and tiddle-beds. The sap is a folk remedy for warts, though it can irritate the skin too.. Traditionally it had many other culinary and medicinal uses, I’ve never eaten them myself, but the leaves are said to have a bitter flavour becoming stronger with age. Some people use fresh young greens in salads, pasta fillings, pesto and many other dishes. The dried roots have been used as a coffee substitute. Dandelions are also used to make country wines and still used commercially to make the dandelion and burdock soft drink. I’ve only ever fed them to childhood pet rabbits and guinea pigs! Fashionable as foraging is, it’s important to stay safe, use common sense. and respect the countryside.

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

Do you know any other old names, folklore or uses of the dandelion? I’d love to hear about them.

Fun Frogs

Our froggy money-box has a new purpose.

There’s a new Facebook Group for our street. A lovely neighbour set it up to help us help each other during the Coronavirus lockdown. It’s good to keep connected. People have been sharing what they’ve been doing and lots of useful information and offers of support are being posted. We’ve also been sharing jokes (good, clean ones of course) – how lovely it is to be able to make each other laugh, especially while we are all going through this.

There are several young families here – there have been some brilliant ideas to keep the children busy. With no school and no playing out with friends, it can’t be easy for the children and their parents, trying to home-school and curb the boredom along with everything else. There have been offers of help with emailed activity sheets from retired teachers, gifts of toys and some really creative ideas. I think the “We’re Going On a Bear Hunt” idea has happened in a lot of places but ours was amazing – children out for daily exercise counted at least 50 teddy bears that our residents had placed in windows visible from the street, following the request on the Facebook Group. It’s amazing how many people still have their childhood teddies – we had a 61-year-old bear in one house (so we now know how old it’s owner is- there may have been older ones, but no-one was admitting to that! How could we follow such a great effort?

The next suggestion (chosen from a shortlist of creatures) was a little more challenging. If most people own a teddy bear (whatever their age) you can’t say the same about frogs! Cuddly frogs are rather unusual, so local residents have had to be more creative. Many have kindly given me permission to share photos of their froggy labours!

We didn’t have to think too hard about our frog as K owns a ceramic money box (see title photo) that is nearly as old as his ancient bear. We sat our froggy on an upturned vase so he could be seen more easily by passing frog-hunters.

It was great fun to go out and look at the other frogs.

This handsome chap was all dressed up and fully accessorised for a spot of fishing

Some were quite small.

Others made a bigger display. Isn’t this one brilliant! It even has a pond and lily pads.

It’s provided the children with some drawing and colouring activities too, some in windows…..

…some outside.

This one looked familiar. It took ages to realise that I used to have it as a screensaver.

…..and there were many more – here’s a few.

The next project is already taking shape after hearing about the Scarecrow at Home Challenge. Other villages in the area are taking part in this too. Several scarecrows have already appeared in some of our gardens and, thinking ahead, there’s also an offer of compost and seed for anyone here who wants to grow the biggest sunflower. With so many fantastic ideas there’s never a dull moment here!

Are you taking part in any “together at home” activities with your neighbours?

Wildflower Walks

As we are not making any unnecessary car journeys our walks (or in my case trips on a little mobility scooter) are close to home.We are fortunate to live in a village close to open countryside and some great views. As I’ve been doing the route for a while now, I’ve become really aware of the seasonal changes – the lambs are growing bigger and every day I see different wildflowers coming into bloom.

I’ve always been a keen wildlife watcher, and wildflowers are easy in some ways (they don’t run or fly away!). I have a reasonable knowledge of most of the common species, although some plant families have loads of very similar ones that are hard to tell apart. I thought I would create a photographic record of the flowering wild plants I see on my walks. That would challenge me to get better at identifying the trickier ones. I could add to the list as more species come into flower…..it could even become a regular “wildflower of the week” feature on the blog.

I decided to limit the list to the verges and hedgerows along a particular stretch of the route as you leave the village – so I counted 18 species in flower. Some, like the Lesser Celandine have been out for ages, others, like the last three I only noticed in flower today. I can see different plants’ leaves shooting up and some flower buds are developing so I should be able to keep adding to the list for a while.

I was able to identify most of these from memory but used a magnifier and a field guide to help with a few. I certainly don’t profess to be an expert, so if I got any wrong – please let me know.Some of the photos are better than others, so I may edit the post if I take a if I find a better specimen and/or take a better photograph – hopefully my photography skills will improve too.

I’m quite pleased with the idea of repurposing my walks into a sort of botanical survey. I also love the way that wildflowers are an integral part of folklore – many have several names, some often specific to an area, that may give a clue to past uses, for example as medicinal or culinary herbs or to dye cloth. One of my favourite country names is sometimes used for the Moschatel – this insignificant little plant bears five tiny green flowers at the top of the stem, one at each side and one on top (as if they were on five faces of a cube) – it’s also known a Town Hall Clocks.

Moschatel, also known as Town Hall Clocks

I wonder what will be the next wildflower of the week?

Casting on for Christmas

At the turn of the year I made some knitting-related New Year resolutions (for the full list click here). One of these was to make a Christmas jumper. For several years running, as the Festive Season arrives, I’ve thought about how great it would be to have a really nice hand-knitted Christmas Jumper and promptly forgotten about it until the following year, when it’s far too late to do anything about it. With this in mind chose a pattern and ordered yarn a while ago. With social activities and trips out curtailed in the current lockdown, what better time to get started?

I found the Frosty’s Christmas pattern for a snowman jumper on the Drops Design website – one of thousands of the free patterns on the site, which also includes tutorials, hints and tips, an online shop and list of stockists.

Photo by Drops Design

It also has a yarn converter – all the Drops yarns are divided into groups: every pattern will recommend a yarn and provide alternative yarns – all yarns from that group can be used, sometimes using a double strand – the converter works out the weight/number of balls needed in your chosen yarn. That’s what I did. I fancied treating myself to something more luxurious than the 100% wool Drops Eskimo recommended but found that I could also knit this design using two strands of Drops Brushed Alpaca Silk (a 77% alpaca, 23% silk blend) so I bought that. This means that I’m also sticking to my “green” resolution to try and buy natural fibre yarns whenever possible.

The sweater is knitted in from the top down in stocking stitch, with raglan sleeves, constructed with separate front and back, rather than knitted in the round. It uses nice chunky needles (7mm) so it should take shape quite quickly. The details on the snowman’s face and the snowflakes are added afterwards. You have the option of knitting the snowman on the back too – you just don’t add the nose, scarf etc so you get the back view of him!

Now I’ve cast on the back and got started I’m really enjoying this. I did spend some time before I got to the snowman design rewinding the black and white yarns – the pattern only uses one ball of each and it is to be used double-stranded. The yarn is feather-light and super soft. I like the way it’s knitting up.

I’m really looking forward to wearing this at Christmas….and let’s face it we all need something to look forward to right now!

And Now For Some Good News

When the news is full of doom and gloom we need to share good news and we got some last week. A dear friend’s dad, Ted, is home from hospital having recovered from the coronavirus.

Ted is 87 and has a number of underlying medical conditions. When he developed symptoms of the virus he was taken to hospital and tested positive for COVID-19. His daughter couldn’t go with him or visit him while he was there. She feared they’d not see him again.

As the rest of the family waited for news, they too fell ill. After a few days, when they were starting to recover they got the news that Ted was on the mend too. They were even able to speak to him by phone. He was moved to a COVID recovery ward and last week was well enough to return home. Despite being a high risk patient, Ted had beaten the virus. As you can see from this photo, Teddy the dog is delighted to have him back too and won’t let Ted out of his sight.

As I said, good news is worth sharing: Ted got into the newspapers and even made the local news.

I’m so happy for Ted and his family. It’s a story that’s captured everyone’s hearts and spread a little bit of hope.

Enjoying the Spring Sunshine

I’ve been struggling with the blog recently. Regular blog subjects, like visiting the beach, eating scones at local cafes and taking part in knit and natter groups have all stopped. I threw myself into some knitting and craft projects, but it didn’t seem the same. I’m not a walker – I use a disability scooter to get about, and have other health issues so I hadn’t been leaving the house. This week I reached the point when it was time to pull myself together and, as the weather was so good, I got the scooter out and joined K on a couple of walks with Buddy, the Labrador. I’m so glad I did.

The little Amelanchier tree in the front garden has finally come in to flower and is looking stunning

As we walked through the village I saw a few rainbows, painted by children and stuck in windows.

There’s also this sign, which has been placed at the entrance to the little garden of remembrance, which is known as Green Hut Corner.

It’s a lovely gesture – the village has applauded loudly for NHS staff and other key workers every Thursday night – there were even fireworks last week!

I enjoyed seeing all the spring flowers. This garden wall was festooned with aubretia.

Here in Shilbottle, the grass verges are full of daffodils in Spring. Until now I hadn’t noticed that some hyacinths had been planted with them in one spot. I wondered if they had originally been indoor ones that someone had planted out after they finished flowering. They had a beautiful fragrance that we could smell as we went past.

There’s a really quiet lane that winds through farmland – we can let Buddy off his lead there. He’s not bad at avoiding other dogs and people if you tell him to “leave” . We met several people out for their daily exercise or walking dogs but all were cheerfully observing distance guidelines. We are lucky to live here where there is the space to get out safely.

One of my favourite spots on this route is a by a gate at the top of a bank- there’s a wonderful view towards the sea from here. It was very hazy on one of my walks this week but yesterday was beautifully clear.

It was good to see the wildflowers in bloom as well as the garden plants. These primroses are one of my favourite signs of spring.

The blackthorn is also in full bloom. We hope that the sloe berries this autumn are as profuse as the flowers – we always make a batch of sloe gin if we can pick sloes. Some years, if there are late frosts that stop the fruit forming, there are none to be found.

Of course the newborn lambs are one of the signs of spring we love to see and there were plenty in the fields.

We doubled back and came back up the hill, stopping for a little while to take in that view again. Buddy seemed to be glad of the break. I had forgotten just how important it is to get our in the fresh air and I felt so much better for it.

Busy with Brioche and Buddy Bedding.

I’ve been keeping busy this week, though I’m missing trips to the beach and visiting local cafes for coffee and scones. I’m still involved with online choir and ukulele sessions, virtual coffee mornings and quizzes.

This week I’ve upcycled an old duvet to make liners for Buddy’s basket – I chopped it into six rectangles and machine-stitched the edges.

Buddy seems to like his new bedding! – at one point he dragged in into another room and cuddled it!

I’ve also finished my first brioche project – a pair of wrist warmers. I have quite short arms – well it certainly seems that way because sleeves on clothes I buy are way too long. I tend to buy three quarter length sleeves, but sometimes these leave a cold gap so I wanted some extra-long wrist/arm warmers. I sort of made these up as I went along.

I can also roll the cuffs back to show the reverse.

They are lovely, warm and squishy. I’ve really enjoyed learning how to do 2-colour brioche. This was one of my New Year Resolutions.

Another resolution was to make a Christmas Jumper. Every year I think about how lovely it would be to have a hand knitted festive sweater, and then I forget about it until the following December when it’s far too late to start. I now have the yarn and the pattern and am looking forward to starting it soon.

What have you been doing to keep busy?