Wildflower of the Week: Bramble

The bramble or blackberry is a member of the rose family and not actually a single species, but an aggregate of some 2000 very similar micro species. It is a scrambling perennial shrub that is commonly found in hedgerows, woodlands and waste ground. It is happy in poor soil and quickly colonises untended or ungrazed land and is difficult to eradicate from a neglected garden. The shoots may grow to 6m long or even more.

The plant sends out viciously prickly biennial arching shoots that grow vigorously without flowering in their first year, bearing prickly toothed leaves, comprising 5-7 toothed and heavily veined leaflets. The shoots take root wherever they touch the ground.

In the shoot’s second year it does not grow in length, but produces flowering side shoots and smaller leaves comprising 3-5 leaflets.

The flowers, which appear from June onwards in groups on the side shoots, usually have 5 white or pale pink petals.

These are followed by the blackberries – technically not a fruit, but a cluster of drupes. These are green as they begin to develop, turning red through purple to black as they ripen. The ruit are easy to distinguish from the raspberry when they are picked – the raspberry detaches from the plant leaving its core behind on the plant so each picked berry has a hollow centre. The white core or torus of the blackberry detaches with the the fruit.

The plant is very important to wildlife. The flowers are popular with bees and the leaves are food for several species of caterpillars and deer enjoy grazing on them. The fruit are eaten by many species of birds and mammals who disperse the seeds in their droppings. The dense bramble thickets provide valuable cover and nest sites.

Man has used the bramble extensively too. Though we enjoy gathering the wild berries from our hedgerows, cultivated varieties have been developed to produce larger fruit with better flavour and without those vicious thorns. Preparations of the plant have been used in folk medicine for all manner of ailments: the leaves have been chewed to relieve bleeding gums; a tea made from all parts of the plant has been used to cure whooping cough and the roots used to cure dysentery and diarrhoea. The Ancient Greeks used it as a cure for gout. It has also been used to treat stomach ulcers. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and has been used against scurvy.

The berries leaves and shoot tips can be used for dyeing. Native Americans have used the stems to make rope. The plant also provides an impenetrable barrier to protect stock and property and keep large animals and enemies out.

Blackberrying, or foraging for the berries in late summer or early autumn is a popular pastime – at one time the autumn half-term school holiday was known as Blackberry Week. The fruit makes delicious jams, jellies, pies and crumbles, often in combination with apples. It is also used to make the French liqueur Creme de mur, which is the key ingredient of a bramble – a cocktail which also includes gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup.

Folklore decreed that blackberries must not be picked after Michaelmas Day (October 11th). After this the devil was believed to have spoilt the berries by trampling, fouling or spitting on them. After this time the fruit would often be mouldy or beginning to decompose. It was also traditionally planted on graves, to stop sheep grazing (or some believed to keep the dead in!)

As the blackberries ripen on our local hedgerows I’ll have to pick some. But what to make….jam? jelly? pies? I might even try making blackberry and apple gin liqueur – I tried it a few year back and it was delicious!

Have you picked any blackberries yet this year? What have you made with them?

Christmas Comes Early

Every December I think how lovely it would be to have a hand knitted Christmas jumper, by which time it is or course far too late to do anything about it. I set some knitting-related New Year resolutions back in January and making a Christmas jumper was one of them. I cast the Frosty’s Christmas jumper on early on in the lockdown and wrote a blog post about it at the time.

Since then I’ve fallen in and out of love with knitting a few times, so progress has been sporadic, but I finally finished it tonight! I love it!

It’s knitted in a gorgeous light fluffy alpaca/silk mix, which has been lovely to work with and as well as the cute snowman design it features this moss stitch rib on lower edge, cuffs and neck.

I decided that it needed something more to add a bit of Christmas sparkle (because a Christmas jumper needs bling). I found these iridescent white sequins and sewed them on to add a snowstorm, which took a while! I’ve had clothes with sequins on before and they always seem to come off so I made sure these were sewn extra securely……all 300 of them!

I love that the back view of the snowman is on the back of the jumper

Snowman’s face includes a knitted carrot nose and black sequin eyes and mouth. he also has a cosy scarf.

I’m rather looking forward to wearing him this December!

Have you started making anything for Christmas yet?

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Watching The Kite Buggies

A few weeks ago, we headed up to Spittal, which is at the mouth of the River Tweed, on the south side of the river (South of Berwick-on-Tweed). We had gone there in search of Bottle-Nosed Dolphins as they had been been seen there on most days during the early summer. There were no dolphins to be seen, but I ended up watching three people doing an extreme sport I’d never come across before.

I’ve since discovered on the internet that these are kite buggies, vehicles, usually with 3 wheels, propelled by the wind using a power kite and steered with the feet.. It looks rather like a cross between sand yachting and kite surfing. I’ve seen the kite surfers at Bamburgh many times and that looks pretty spectacular, but this was something new for round here.

The big beach at Spittal was pretty quiet (even though the car park was busy), so they had plenty of space. I’m not sure how easy it is to control speed and direction!

There was a bit of a breeze, so they were zipping along pretty quickly. I suppose one of the advantages is that you don’t need to have quite such a good sense of balance as you would with kite surfing.

It looks like great fun!

Wildflower of the Week: Honeysuckle

The Common Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)is a vigorous perennial climber, that twines itself around hedgerow plants, shrubs and trees to a height of up to 7m.

Clusters of finger-like pink-red buds open into exotic creamy yellow blooms, tinged with pink and red. These appear from June to September and have a strong sweet fragrance, especially at night when the flowers open. The dark red-brown stems carry oval, pointed leaves in pairs and the flowers form at the shoot tips. They are tubular with upper and lower lips. These are followed by clusters of berries.

It is one of many species and cultivated garden varieties, including the very invasive Japanese Honeysuckle. The Common Honeysuckle is however a useful plant to both man and wildlife.The flowers provide a rich source of nectar for insects, especially bees, butterflies. Night-flying moths, attracted by the scent, in turn attract bats to prey on them. The tangle of growth provides valuable nesting cover and the bark strips away from the mature stems providing nesting material for several bird species and also for dormice. The berries provide food for many bird species, though are toxic to humans.

The honeysuckle is named for the custom of picking the blooms and sucking the honey-like nectar, but it has a number of other names, including woodbine, eglantine, fairy trumpets, sweet suckle, goats leaf and trumpet flowers. Shakespeare mentions it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle gently entwist…

Honeysuckle was said to protect against evil and, when grown around the door of a house, would prevent a witch from entering. The plant is said to symbolise loving affection and faithfulness and wearing it would make someone dream of their true love and bring luck in courtship. The Victorians were less approving, and forbade young girls from bringing the flowers into the home, believing that it would give them unsuitably erotic dreams!

The plant has many uses. Tree branches will take on a twisted form when honeysuckle entwines around it, making an interesting shape for carved walking sticks. The flowers are used in pot pour and perfumes and also to add a sweet honey flavour to jams and jellies, teas, country wines and flavoured liqueurs and gin.

in folk medicine it has been used to make a soothing remedy for coughs and sore throats, and to heal woulds and infections.. It is said to have anti-imflammatory properties, though these are as yet unproven.

At this time of year, honeysuckle provides a colourful and fragrant addition to our hedgerows and woodlands.

Alnwick Garden: A Rosy Treat

Last month Alnwick Garden invited bloggers to attend one of two days as part of their “Bloggers Week”. It was scaled down somewhat from the original event, but COVID – 19 had put paid to that. I was pleased that it had been rescheduled and it was nice to get a treat, so I booked my free ticket. I’ve been many times previously and used to have a members pass. I stopped that after they started a special offer which gave you entry for the year on a single admission ticket and haven’t been since, until this recent visit. It was also one of my first trips out to a public place since lockdown – it was going to be interesting to see what measures had been put in place and also how I felt about being in a busy location.

If you decide to visit, I strongly advise you to check the Alnwick Gardens website beforehand to check if advance booking is required and if there are any restrictions on opening hours or the facilities available. Everywhere is subject to quite rapidly changing guidelines in these difficult times.

As a disabled visitor I was able to show my blue badge use the designated forward parking area by the entrance. I had brought my own disability scooter, because the gardens own scooters and wheelchairs were not available for visitor use. A one- way system was in use to facilitate social distancing. which included a couple of small kerb bumps that in other circumstances I would have tried to avoid with the scooter, but they were not too bad and I got over them ok. As we approached the pavilion area it did seem more crowded, which did make me feel uneasy – Social distancing was just about manageable but I was still reaching for my mask! I think that this was mainly because the cafe was not open at the time, so more people were milling about – a couple of stalls were serving refreshments along the walkway to the left of the pavilion which seemed to add to the congestion. There were plenty of hand sanitiser points around.

The first sight of the cascade as you come through the pavilion courtyard remains as spectacular as ever. At regular intervals an additional sequence of fountains plays out, which is lovely to watch. Part of this is accompanied by the delighted shrieks of children trying to dodge the jets of water that shoot over the walkway in the centre of the cascade

The central cascade is flanked by hornbeam tunnels which have matured beautifully.

The one way system in the garden itself was not so easy to follow, especially when I’m used to following the easiest paths for the scooter . Most parts of the garden are reachable by scooter, with fairly gentle ramped paths throughout. Because of this we somehow bypassed the area of the garden which has a series of water features hidden from the rest of the garden by hedges.

July is my favourite time to visit when the Rose Garden is at its best. The scent is intoxicating. Out of interest I checked if I could still smell the roses with one my homemade masks on – I could not, so that’s an interesting test of their efficiency!. Until you visit a place like this it’s hard to imagine what variation in fragrance there is between different roses. Some are quite spicy, others have citrus notes. There are a stunning variety of different colours and forms too, from massive many-petalled blooms to sprays of tiny single flowers.

At the centre of the rose garden is a pergola covered in climbing roses and clematis, with an ornate urn. There are lilies here too.

in addition to the amazing planting and water features there are a few unexpected ornamental items, like this little frog statue, which I love.

Even the wrought iron gates are works of art

The path slopes upwards through the trees at one side of the cascade to the walled garden at the top. This is another feast for gardeners with stunning herbaceous borders that thrive in the shelter of the tall old brick walls. Earlier in the summer the delphiniums near the walled garden entrance are one of my favourite elements of this part of the garden, though the planting has highlights at all times of the year. They are past their best now but there are many other plants to enjoy, including a stunning bed of alstroemerias, in shades of red, orange and pink.

The centre of the walled garden has a formal layout with beds and paths bordered by clipped hedges, some low to show off the flowers inside, some high, like the ones surrounding this little secret garden with its central fountain

Following the path from here to the other side of the cascade we arrived at the cherry orchard, which is a vision of blossom in the spring. The path zig zags down through the trees (the corners are a little bit steep and the path is not a smooth as elsewhere in the garden but I managed (there is a steeper path with steps straight down the bank for those able to use it). In amongst the the trees are some swing seats for those whose want to stop for a breather here.

The path leads along past a large duckpond towards the poison garden, which has a fascinating collection of poisonous and medicinal plants. Visitors here are escorted by guides that begin their tours at regular intervals.

Between here and the pavilion there is another lovely border, planted in shades of blue and yellow. We grabbed a coffee from the stall here and sat watching the bumblebees visiting these electric blue and silver eryngiums.

The one-way system exited through the gift shop. I have to say this was the most stressful part of the visit. Even though my visit took place before masks became mandatory in shops, I felt safer wearing mine. Despite signage, few of those using the gift shop seemed to be observing social distancing and the route meandered through the shop displays and the shoppers, rather than directly to the exit door. The gift shop used to be in a separate building and visiting it was optional. It seemed ironic that we were corralled in this way at a time when social distancing is needed – rearrangement of shop fixtures would help.

With that exception, I enjoyed my visit. The gardens are as lovely as ever and there was plenty of space on the lawn for families to picnic and enjoy the space.

Just before we left we caught the climax of another fountain display. It ended with the large fountain in the lower pool getting higher and higher.

Have you visited the Garden? What did you think?

Welcome Misty: There’s a Horse in the Family!

We had an exciting evening yesterday, especially for daughter. She’s bought a horse! Meet Misty the grey mare.

Daughter only took up riding when she went to college and loves it. As her riding got more proficient it became more obvious that she would end up buying her own horse. She’s worked hard to make it possible and has taken her time looking for the the right horse. Misty fits the bill! Our friends at Clarke Equestrian, who have been so patient making sure that this was the perfect match of horse and rider, brought her over last night. After a short ride, daughter put Misty in the stable and she got stuck straight into her hay net.

Then she had a good look around her new home (she’s living with friends nearby who have a spare stable). There was plenty to see as everyone came over to meet her: including two children and three dogs, but Misty took it all in her stride. She is so chilled.

Daughter is thrilled. They are going to have lots of fun together.

Wildflower Of The Week: Meadowsweet

At it’s peak now, Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flowers from June to September, and is common in damp meadows, ditches and road verges, by rivers and streams, growing to about 1.5m on reddish stems. . It is actually a member of the rose family, though the frothy clusters of cream-coloured flowers give no clue to this. Each tiny flower has 5-6 petals and male or female flowers are on separate plants. the flowers smell faintly of almonds and are an important pollen source for insects.

Found from Europe to the Middle East, the plant was introduced to America, where it has become naturalised.

The dark green leaves however are, more like those of the rose, set in pairs along a leaf stem, toothed and more heavily veined, with a silvery underside. When crushed they can have an antiseptic smell on top of the same almond notes of the flowers.

The plant has many names, some of which indicate it’s many uses through the ages. It was used as a strewing herb, thrown on the floor to cover the mud, provide insulation and a pleasant scent when trodden underfoot. The flowers were used to decorate banquets and for bridal garlands, giving rise to the name bridewort. The herbalist Gerard said that the scent “make the heart merrie, delighting the senses without headache or putting off meat”. Meadowsweet was said to have been a favourite of Elizabeth I.

Although the name Queen of the Meadow or Pride of the Meadow, would suggest that the plant is named for its habitat, the alternative of meadwort is thought to derive from the use of the flowers to flavour mead. It has been used to add flavour to port, claret and beer, gin, sloe gin, jam and various desserts – some sources recommend using it in the same way as elderflower to make cordials, liqueurs and “champagne”.The flowers and leaves retain a scent and flavour even when dried, enabling use all year round. The roots yield a black dye.

Herbalists have also found many uses for this plant. Culpeper used it for fevers, wounds and eye irritations. It has also been used for colds, bronchitis, upset stomachs, joint problems and for bladder infections. Modern science has found one of the reasons for its useful medicinal properties: it contains salicylic acid, also known as aspirin.

This really is a versatile plant with a fascinating history.Wildflower

August Wildlife Walk

During this crazy year, when time has either been standing still or passing us by, it’s quite reassuring to go for a walk and see the passing of the seasons. Whatever else happens, the wild plants still come into flower around the right time and the swallows migrate here. The farm year continues too and we see fields change as crops grow and reach harvest and spring lambs grow bigger.

Today I took my usual walk near the village and the first thing I spotted was that some of the meadows have been cut – the warm wet weather has really encouraged grass growth and hay and silage making.

The oilseed rape crop is ripening. The acid yellow flowers of spring have now been replaced by brown stems and seed pods.

The grain crops are ripening fast and combining has already begun in some places. This barley still has a greenish tinge. I love to watch it swirl about and ripple in the breeze.

The verges and hedgerows are now a dustier, darker green, with the creamy grass seed heads, thistledown and meadowsweet flowers and accents of purple from thistles, knapweed, meadow cranesbill and woundwort.

Purple Knapweed and Milk Thistle (top right) with creamy Meadowsweet (bottom right)
The brilliant blue-purple flowers of Meadow Cranesbill

The most dominant birdsong I heard today was that of the yellowhammer: a rising sequence of notes followed by a single, lower, longer one. They seemed to follow me and every so often I’d catch a glimpse of one on top of a hedge.

There were lots of butterflies today, mainly whites, including green-veined whites and also small tortoiseshells and red admirals. I also saw this beautiful pale moth – so far I can’t identify it.

As we turned, a roebuck crossed by the bridge. They are very common round here, but mostly keep themselves well hidden in woodland, especially during summer, so it was lovely to see one.

What aspects of nature characterise this time of year where you live?