Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Following the success of our socially distant street party to commemorate the anniversary of VE Day, we decided to hold another one for the bank holiday yesterday. This time we had a Mad Hatter theme.

First of all I baked: cheese scones, banana loaf and some jam tarts (like the Queen of Hearts)….I made some cucumber sandwiches too.

Next, I painted some posters of characters from Alice in Wonderland and printed off some giant playing cards (thank you Google Images) to decorate the front of the house.

All served up with Pimms from a teapot and beer! The sun shone and what a lovely afternoon it was!

Wildflower of the Week: Cow Parsley

From April to June our hedgerows, road verges and meadows are filled with the frothy white flowers of cow parsley. It is the earliest to flower and one of the most common of a large plant family, the umbellifers, which all have similar shaped flower clusters or umbels, made up of tiny individual flowers on stems radiating from a single point in a sort of umbrella shape. The family includes several food plants and culinary herbs, including carrot, celery and and parsley, but also some extremely poisonous species such as hemlock and fools parsley and also hogweed which has a highly irritant sap that can cause quite severe burns.

The flowers are carried on metre high hollow stems. As they appear quite early in the year, they are are a great food source of both pollen and nectar for insects.

The leaves are arranged alternately along the stems and are fern-like: triangular and finally divided. When crushed they smell of aniseed.

Cow parsley spreads rapidly, producing large quantities of seed and also though spreading rhizomes. It is on the increase in the UK. Like the nettle, it enjoys fertile soil and increased agricultural fertiliser use has benefited it. This may be to the detriment of smaller plants that become smothered out by the taller cow parsley. It is considered an invasive species in parts of the US.

The plant has a variety of old names. including hedge parsley, wild chervil, keck, lady’s lace and Queen Anne’s lace. In some parts of the UK it has the rather gruesome name of mother die or mummy die. Children would be told they would lose their mothers if they brought it in the house – to deter them from picking it and the highly poisonous hemlock that it resembles.

Though cow parsley is edible, eating it or using it medicinally is not to be encouraged in case it is mistaken for its deadly relative. It has also been used as a mosquito repellent.

The lacy flowers certainly make very pretty addition to our hedgerows in late spring and early summer.

Wildflower of the week: White Dead-Nettle

Commonly seen on road verges and on disturbed land, the white dead-nettle resembles the stinging nettle, but, as its name suggests, has no sting. It is a short to medium height perennial. The leaves (closely resembling those of its stinging relative) are heavily veined, toothed, slightly hairy and heart-shaped, arranged in pairs on square, often reddish stems.

The flowers form in whorls round the stems immediately above each pair of leaves. They are lipped and white, slightly tinged with green. A rich source of nectar, the flowers are popular with insects, especially bumblebees. The blooms have evolved to be pollinated by the larger bees – only they have a long enough proboscis to reach the base of the flower where the nectar is and they are the perfect size for their backs to brush against the stamens and stigma of the flower, depositing and collecting pollen as they feed. The nectar is protected by a ring of hairs that stop smaller insects crawling inside, though some reach the nectar by cheating: they bite a hole in the base of the flower!

As the flowers die the calyx of each remains, forming a spiky cup that holds the developing seed.

White dead-nettle’s popularity with bees gave it one of its old names, the bee nettle. It is also known as white archangel as it was said to come into flower around the feast day of Michael the Archangel. From a certain angle the stamens resemble two human figures and this gave rise to the name Adam-and-Eve-in-the-bower.

The flowers and young shoots can be used in salads or the leaves cooked as a vegetable. Traditional medicinal uses for the plant were for staunching wounds, curing haemorrhage, reducing excessive menstrual bleeding, and also as a tonic to lift the spirits.

White dead-nettle has been in bloom since March and will continue until Autumn

Scone of the Week Stays At Home

I’ve mentioned before that my street has been organising various activities to keep people amused during lockdown – we’ve been putting things in our windows and front gardens for people, especially children, to spot during daily exercise. First it was frogs, then scarecrows. Last week we had to put something in our windows from a country we’d visited and add the flag to reveal the identity of the country at the end of the week. This week was all things red, white and blue, for the 75th anniversary of VE Day, culminating with a socially distanced street party today, where we all sat in our front gardens for food, drink and a bit of distant socialising with our neighbours.

Of course you have to have a bit of home baking at a street party so yesterday I made scones (my favourite cheese ones of course) I do like baking, but can’t stand for long periods so I always do the ‘rubbing in” part of making scones or pastry in a food processor to save time. My go to cheese scone recipe is adapted from a Delia Smith one, but I add extra cheese, both to the dough and sprinkled on top of the scones before they go in the oven – I use a mixture of cheddar and parmesan. I was pleased with how they turned out.

I had a couple while they were still warm, with plenty of butter of course and they were lovely – really cheesy with a little bit of a spicy bite (I add English mustard powder and a pinch of cayenne pepper to the dough). Son and I delivered a few to my Mum. We are both missing our regular Scone of the Week jaunts to local cafes so there was no way she was missing out on these!

I also made some bunting to decorate the front of the house – I just made a template and used it to cut triangles from some old t-shirts (I found a red one, a white one and a blue one). T-shirt fabric doesn’t really fray so I didn’t need to hem them and I just machine stitched them to some tape, a couple of inches apart.

Today I thought I’d make some plain scones to go with our street party feast (to serve with butter and strawberry jam). I also made some little cucumber sandwiches (triangles with the crusts cut off of course). K had bought a jar of Shipphams salmon paste as he thought that was suitably retro so I made some sandwiches with that too, and , after I’d buttered the cheese scones too, our feast was assembled

Out came the teapot and cups and saucers, but we mixed a jug of Pimms and put that in the teapot! We had a great afternoon enjoying our food and drink and chatting with the neighbours. After the more sombre remembrance of those who died in the war in observing two minutes silence this morning, it was lovely to remember the celebrations that marked the end of hostilities in Europe, even if it was at a distance.

Have you taken part in any VE Day commemorations?

Wildflower of the Week: Crosswort

Crosswort: Cruciata laevipes

Crosswort is one of those wildflowers that seems insignificant at first, but once you spot it, it seems to be growing profusely everywhere. There is a good show at the moment along the grass verges, but as the grass and larger plant grow rapidly they obscure it.

Crosswort is a low growing perennial, that forms rhizomes, underground stems from which the shoots sprout around 4-8 inches high in Spring. The stems are square and unbranched, bearing triangular leaves, both stems and leaves are covered in tiny hairs.

The leaves are arranged in groups of four in a cross-shape, which can be easily seen when viewed from above. This gives rise to the name. It is also known as smooth bedstraw, maywort and maiden’s hair.

The tiny four-petalled yellow flowers also follow a cross shape and smell faintly of honey. They are arranged in clusters around the stem above each group of leaves.

Crosswort isn’t used as a modern culinary or medicinal herb but in the past it was used to treat dropsy, rheumatism and rupture. It was also used to promote would healing and cure headaches. A red dye was extracted from the roots.

Crosswort is found throughout Europe and Asia. In the UK it is less common in Northern Scotland and the far west. It thrives on chalky soils in grassland and roadside verges.

Going on a Beer Hunt

We’ve missed our monthly trips to Acklington Park Farm since lockdown. That’s where the Brewery Tap for the Rigg and Furrow Brewery is based. The bar pops up every month in part of one of the barns that has been converted for this purpose. In summer the customers spill out onto the grass where there are benches and blankets to sit on and enjoy the sunshine. It’s child friendly and dog friendly and there’s also delicious street food available from visiting caterers. You can read about a previous visit here.

Earlier this week we found out that they were starting a click and collect service. K was delighted – Rigg and Furrow’s Run Hop Run is his favourite beer. So he ordered and paid for a mini-keg and received his instructions for collection. He’s been like a child waiting for Christmas ever since.

Today was collection day – the farm opened its gates for just an hour this morning and with all the anticipation (and the possibility of a trip out and a few minutes freedom) I had to go too. It’s only a few minutes drive away, but it’s a lovely trip through some pretty countryside. It was so nice to have a change of scene for a little while.

Rigg and Furrow had obviously given a lot of thought to their collection process. They operated a one-way system up the farm lane and a queueing system for vehicles, but when we arrived there was only one other car in front – we had been instructed to stay in the car until it was our turn. We then had call our our order number and our beer was brought to a table set up outside the barn- the staff member took a few paces back, then K went to retrieve it – all conducted very safely, contactless and strictly observing social distancing. He stowed the beer in the car and off we went, out the other gate – it was all very well organised.

He’s over the moon with his beer – it’s the little things that make us happy! That should last him a while but as the brewery hope to continue to run this service during the lockdown, so all is well for when he runs out. Well done Rigg and Furrow! It’s goodto be able to support a local business – especially when the beer is this good!

Have any of your favourite local businesses managed to find new ways of working during the Pandemic?

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?