Wildflower of the Week: Cow Parsley

First posted 22 May 2020

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: Primrose

The primrose (Primula vulgaris) is my favourite sign of Spring and the last of the flowers are now beginning to fade as Summer approaches.

This perennial plant is native throughout Europe and can be found in woodland, under hedges and on steep road verges. Though the flowers may appear as early as December in milder areas, in most places they flower from February/March to May.

The pale lemon yellow flowers are 2-3cm in diameter and each has five notched petals.and deeper yellow centres. The flowers are carried singly on hairy stems above a rosette of oval leaves, wrinkled and heavily veined, each leaf up to 30cm long. The flower gives way to a capsule containing many small brown seeds. These require a cold spell to stimulate germination.

The nectar of the primrose is a valuable food source for long-tongued insects like butterflies, including emerging hibernating small tortoiseshells. It is also the food plant for the caterpillars of the rare Duke of Burgundy Fritillary butterfly.

The name primrose is derived from the Latin prima rosa: first rose, as an early Spring flower. Other names include Lent rose, butter rose,Easter rose, though not a member of the rose family at all. In folklore the flower was associated with fairies. A patch of primroses marks a portal into the fairy realm. Placed on a doorstep the flowers bring a fairy blessing. Druids used primroses for protection from evil during rituals. A primrose garland would be placed on the body of a young woman who had died ‘in the springtime in her life” . Primroses would also be used to decorate the bed of newly weds, probably because of the association with, Spring, new life and fertility.

The name Butter Rose may come from an old practice of rubbing the flowers on cows’ udders to ensure good butter production from the milk. A poor show of primroses was said to be a sign that hens would lay fewer eggs.

Thomas Culpeper, the 17C herbalist, recommended primrose for its wound healing properties. It has also been used to treat gout, rheumatism, paralysis, toothache and skin problems.

Queen Victoria was said to have sent primroses to her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli regularly. On Primrose Day, April 19th, the flowers are placed on his grave and on the statue of him in Westminster Abbey.

It remains one of my favourite wildflowers and a true harbinger of Spring

Up the Tyne Valley, Down Memory Lane

It’s rather chaotic at Stitches By The Sea HQ as we are having some work done on the house. We had an escape last Tuesday, a trip out for what we call a “Because We Can” day. We do this from time to time ever since we retired because, back then, when we were working,…we couldn’t!

Many of our jaunts take us up the Northumberland Coast and into the Borders, but this time we headed south west until we reached the Tyne Valley, then followed it upstream to Corbridge, a place that holds many childhood memories for me.

Corbridge is a pretty village, with an old church, and some attractive shops, cafes and pubs. It sits perched on a steep bank overlooking the Tyne, only a fairly short drive from the City of Newcastle, making it a popular destination for visitors. To reduce congestion on the narrow streets, there is a large car park just over the bridge outside the village. Stopping there and walking (or in my case scooting) back over the bridge presents stunning views of the river.

Some of the properties on Front Street have steeply terraced gardens leading down to the riverside footpath. It was in one of these gardens that my paternal grandparents had a caravan.

I went there often as a small child. At the time, the garden belonged to the Tynedale pub. There are other businesses occupying the former pub premises now but the central archway and courtyard remain, from which steep steps descend to the flat area at the bottom of the garden. I was so pleased to see that this is still being used to grow vegetables as Grandpa was a fanatical gardener. Having cultivated his garden at home to grow copious amounts of produce, he ran out of space but managed to plant a few rows of cabbages and beans by the caravan.

The seating in the front of the caravan somehow converted into two double beds, separated by a curtain. At the back, opposite the little kitchen were bunk beds for me and my little brother. It must have been pretty crowded, though I remember that sometimes there was a large tent too. This was igloo shaped, with inflatable ribs that were blown up with a footpump until rigid enough to make the structure stable.

My grandmother (Nan) was a prolific knitter: we grandchildren must have had jumpers, cardigans and hats in every colour of the rainbow. She used the leftover yarn to knit squares that she sewed together into very colourful blankets. There were several of these in the caravan. It was always spotlessly clean, and smelt of TCP. Nan had been a nurse and swore by the stuff: she used it as a household disinfectant, an antiseptic on grazed knees and insect bites and even as a gargle for sore throats.

As we wandered through Corbridge I looked out for the Wheatsheaf Hotel. We would sometimes have Sunday Lunch here back then. I was always fascinated by the dumb waiter that brought food from the kitchen downstairs up to the restaurant. As my grandfather was a regular customer we got know our usual waitress by name. She was an older lady (well to me anyway) named Hilda. She would yell our order down the dumb waiter shaft to the kitchen. “Four soups for Mr Brown!”

A steep lane leads down to a footpath by the river. It was a little muddy and criss-crossed by tree roots but the scooter coped. There were masses of snowdrops and some early daffodils in flower.

We soon found the garden again. I thought of Grandpa’s constant battle to keep the grass cut. The rich alluvial soil made it grow long and lush At home he had an immaculately mown lawn (which gradually shrank as the vegetable plot grew) but there was no lawnmower here so he was usually to be found stripped to the waist, wielding a hand sickle.

The fence separating the garden from the path looks the same as it ever did – there was a gate that we used to get to the river. The water was quite high and fast flowing, especially as we got near to the bridge where the river narrows slightly. Buddy the Labrador loves the water, but we kept him well away.

The path floods sometimes. I remember years ago hearing that the river had burst its banks, which to my young ears sounded really dramatic – my grandparents had to clean and dry out the caravan afterwards. During the summers I was there, the river was at a much lower level, safe enough for me to play among the rocks in the shallows, fishing for minnows with a shrimp net.

My father told me that when he was a little boy, he wanted to go fishing with his dad but wasn’t allowed and didn’t have a rod of his own. Ever resourceful, Nan used a garden cane, a piece of string and a bent pin to make a rod. line and hook. . Off he went, with a piece of bacon rind to use as bait. According to the story he caught a pike with his homemade gear. I know that fishermen’s tales have a reputation for exaggeration, but whatever did happen that day, it must have inspired my father. He remained a keen angler all his life.

Have you ever revisited a place from your childhood?

May Wildlife Walk

I haven’t scooted down my regular route in a while so, as the weather was pleasant, we did the local dog walk on Friday. It was cloudy and cool, but not unpleasantly cold.

Acid yellow fields of oilseed rape in full bloom really stand out from the rest of the landscape .

Newly emerged arable crops are still so small that the rows are clearly visible.

There are plenty of lambs about too.

On the verges, dandelions and lime green spikes of crosswort dominate.

The first red campion flowers have opened. They will flower all summer.

A few bluebells can be seen in the shade of the hedgerows.

Patches of primroses, my favourite spring flower, are flowering profusely.

Garlic hedge mustard grows under the hedges too. This is the food plant of the orange tip butterfly. I only saw one. On sunny days there are more.

Under the trees the blue of the forget-me-nots stands out

Hawthorn flower buds are just opening. The saying “Cast ne’er a clout till may is out” refers to hawthorn or may blossom rather than the month. It basically means that you shouldn’t shed any clothes (clouts) until the flowers are fully open. I’m keeping the layers on for now!

I could hear lots of birds but no lapwings or skylarks, which usually nest in the fields here. I must listen out for them. I could hear the yellowhammers though. I love their lilting song.

Emerging bumblebees were particularly enjoying the nectar of the white deadnettles

In the woods, by the stream the red stems of water avens flowers are emerging.

I hadn’t noticed this fallen branch before .It will soon be hidden by foliage, but for now you can see the mesh of honeysuckle stems that have grown around it.

wildlife walks

Most of the trees are covered in ivy. The stems at the foot of the trunks are quite old and gnarled, but honeysuckle is starting to grow through these too.

So many signs of spring, with lots of new growth and emerging spring flowers. This is such a hopeful time of year.

What are the spring highlights in your neighbourhood?

Humpback Throwback

There have been sightings of a humpback whale on the Northumberland Coast recently, which is very exciting. The animal is not too close to the shore and seems to be feeding and behaving normally, which is a good sign that it is not going to beach itself, so fingers crossed that it is ok. The exact location of the sightings is being kept a closely guarded secret by the wildlife groups monitoring the whale, and rightly so. With current lockdown measures here in the UK, only essential journeys are allowed so any visiting would-be whale watchers are being discouraged.

All this brought back memories of a wonderful trip to California some years back. One of the highlights of our trip was a boat trip in Monterey Bay to watch the humpback whales. Today I’ve been looking at the photographs I took at the time.

The first thing you’d see as a whale surfaced would be a puff of white spray from the blowhole

Then a huge dark shape would appear, rolling back under the waves.

Sometimes as the whale dived, its massive tail fluke would become visible

Sometimes we were close enough to hear and smell the whale’s breath and feel the spray.

On a couple of occasions (sadly not caught on camera) a whale completely breached and leapt clear of the water, which was incredibly spectacular. It was such a privilege to see these magnificent creatures at such close quarters – and now one is visiting my part of the world!

New Year Resolutions: Looking Back and Looking Forward

The turn of the year is an opportunity to review those resolutions from a year ago and make new ones. Who could have predicted what 2020 would become?

At the beginning of the year my blog was only a couple of months old. I was creating content every day and that was mostly knitting related. I’d started it as part of my plan to learn a new skill every year. I set some knitting and crafting New Year resolutions last January

  1. Make a Santa hat. I completed this last January, though I had fewer occasions to use it with no choir or ukelele gigs this Christmas. I never knitted a Bah Humbug version for K (who I described at the time as my personal Grinch). Maybe this year?

2. Knit a Christmas Jumper. I cast this on in April when the Pandemic had taken hold and it became my lockdown project. I bought the yarn online and remember quarantining the parcel for 72 hours before I opened it. I stopped knitting altogether at times but finally completed it in late August. I’ve loved wearing it this Christmas.

3. Keep on stash-busting. I had set out to use scraps of blue and grey yarn to make a cape/poncho but it didn’t workout. I pulled it out and redesigned it as a jacket which I finally finished a couple of days ago! This has made a smaller impression on the blue and grey parts of the stash than I’d hoped. I need to think about a project that will use another part of the stash.

The other craft materials I’ve accumulated got used too. Quilting fabric was made into masks and I used seaglass to make mosaic coasters and Christmas baubles. I made pheasant feather baubles too, and driftwood candle-shades, wax melts….

I still have piles of material in the craft room, so the stash-busting is ongoing.

4. Finish as many UFOs (Unfinished Objects) as I can . I completed a piece of tapestry during lockdown, which suited my state of mind at the time. Now it’s finished I’m not sure what to do with it as I don’t like it enough to frame or make into a cushion. I also finished a cobwebby scarf, a needlefelted unicorn from a kit among other things. There are still more projects to finish but I’m getting there.

5. Tidy up the craft room. This is ongoing and very much linked to 3 and 4 but at least I don’t have to share it with Son’s drum kit, which has been sold. he’s more of a guitarist these days.

6. Get out more – with my knitting. I had resolved to spend more time sitting in a car with a nice view while K walked the dog, but as lockdown began and there were no essential journeys allowed, driving to the beach stopped – later it was hard to get anywhere near as more and more tourists arrived in the area. I did get out more on my scooter for local dog walks and that reconnected me with nature, particularly wildflowers, and I started regular Wildflower of the Week posts on the blog. As Summer turned into Autumn the blackberries and sloes ripened and I got into preserving and making fruit gin liqueurs.

7. Improve my photography. I began using lenses that clip on to my mobile phone, including a macro lens for close ups of flowers. I also use tripods and remote shutter controls so my pictures are sharper. Still lots of room for improvement though!

8. Learn brioche. This was achieved when I made hand warmers, both 2 and one-coloured versions. I love the soft squishy feel of brioche stitch.

Of course I did other stuff this year. I have learnt a new skill : spinning yarn since I got an e-spinner for my birthday – with more equipment for Christmas I think this will take up a lot of crafting time in 2021, especially with all the gorgeous alpaca fibre I’ve been given.

So here’s my list of crafty intentions for 2021 – they deliberately include more of the same ongoing items, and some new ones.

  1. Make a Bah Humbug hat for K (like a Santa hat but in black).
  2. Continue stash-busting, including another big project, to be decided.
  3. Finish more unfinished projects
  4. Continue to sort and tidy the craft room
  5. Continue spinning, including a jumper for myself
  6. Get out more to knit if and when I can
  7. Keep improving the photography
  8. Learn how to dye yarn and fibre (this could be my new skill for 2021)
  9. Use natural fibres and upcycle/resuse/recycle wherever possible

I think that’s enough to be going on with!

Finally, a very Happy New Year to everyone who reads this. We got through 2020 and what it threw at us so we are well equipped to deal with anything this year sends our way. I remain hopeful that things will improve with the rapid rollout of vaccines. Here’s to a safer, calmer 2021.

Have you made any New Year resolutions?

A Woodland Ride in Autumn

Yesterday Buddy the Labrador and I joined Daughter when she went riding in Swarland Woods. There are some lovely trails through this mixed woodland, which skirts a golf course.

There is an avenue of horse chestnut trees, which are currently dropping their fruit (conkers). There were plenty of shells but none of the smooth brown conkers they protect. Maybe people had collected them. Apparently if you put piles of conkers around your home they deter spiders. When I was a child we played the game of conkers. This involved drilling a hole in the conker and threading it onto a knotted string. Players would take turns flicking their conker at that of their opponent until theirs shattered. There were all sorts of tricks like pickling your conkers in vinegar to harden them.

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The beautiful fan-shaped leaves of the horse chestnut are just beginning to turn gold for autumn.

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There were plenty of ripe blackberries, but I didn’t stop to pick any or I’d have been left behind by dog and horse! My scooter keeps up ok, but not if Misty breaks into a trot!

There were other berries on show like these glowing red ones on the guelder rose….

…and the startling white fruits of the snowberry, an introduced non-native species. Neither plant’s berries are edible by humans, though are a good food source for birds.

I also saw this beautiful devil’s bit scabious. There are fewer wildflowers about as autumn sets in so this is a welcome splash of colour.

Misty is quite happy with Buddy walking by her side.

As we were almost back at the stables Misty neighed loudly at her two friends and they answered her. They seemed really glad to see us when we got back and posed for pictures.

Of course Misty had to pose too!

What a lovely afternoon we had!

Buddleia and Butterflies

We have a buddleia outside our dining room window and the sunshine this week has brought the butterflies out to bask while they drink from the nectar-rich blooms. K went out to take some photos.

The first one he saw was this red admiral.

Then it was joined by a small tortoiseshell……

….and another.

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It’s lovely that two of our most common butterfly species are also among our most colourful.

The plant self-seeded and is not in a great position to be honest, but I’m reluctant to remove it when the butterflies love it so much and I enjoy watching them from the window. It will get cut right back, almost to ground level, after the flowers have finished. The common name of Butterfly Bush is very appropriate!

Have you had any interesting wildlife visitors to your garden recently?

BackTo Knitting With A View

One of my favourite things to do is drive to the beach and sit with my knitting while K takes the dog for a walk. It’s been a while. The beach is just too far to walk to from home so when lockdown began we stuck to dog walks round the village. Then when the restrictions were lifted the world and his wife seemed to arrive in Northumberland for a staycation. The coast was basically full! The surge in domestic tourism has helped the local economy and kept our local hospitality industry going which is great, but now the school term has begun and many of the holiday makers have gone it’s lovely to reclaim our beaches.

Today we went to Sugar Sands. It’s a bit off the beaten track and getting there involves a gated single-track road through a farm (with an honesty box – you pay £1 to park by the beach and it all goes to local church funds.) It’s been one of the few places we’ve been able to park on the coast, until August Bank Holiday, when it appeared on a list of “Britains’s top secret beaches” somewhere and got overrun. There were still quite a few people about but as you can see there was nobody sat on the beach.

The parking area is at the top of a steep bank , so the view over the beach and out to sea is wonderful. It was such a beautiful day, if a bit breezy, and the sea was the most brilliant blue.

There were still some sand martins about (they nest in holes in the bank). Some tiny wading birds (sanderling I think) were trotting about the shoreline like clockwork toys. A pair of gannets were hunting quite close to shore, unmistakable when they turned into the sun to show pure white plumage and black tips to those long straight wings. They would soar to gain height then fold their wings and plummet into the water with a splash, catching small fish with that dagger beak. It’s always spectacular to watch.

I love to knit with a view. Do you have a favourite knitting spot?

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.