Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cosmic revelations

Cosmos with Small Copper butterfly

OK, I admit the last blog was a bit of a challenge. It takes a peculiar mind like mine to be intrigued by the mathematics of flowers. But I’m also fascinated by the simpler aspects of gardening – and it doesn’t get much simpler than growing annuals from seed.

I’ve always loved growing annuals from seed – right back to when I got my first little garden plot when I was about nine years old. I pretty quickly learned I could fill it with all kinds of exciting annuals from packets of Cuthberts Seeds bought for a few pence from Woolworths.

Later on I discovered that there were seed companies like Dobies and Carters that would post me wonderful colourful catalogues of their seed ranges for free. I even sent off to seed companies in the US for their catalogues and I remember getting a huge catalogue of all kinds of exciting plants from the Burpee Seed Company. As a 12 year old, I found the name enormously amusing. And I bet I was the only boy of my age in my town who had a pile of seed catalogues as bedtime reading!

I still reckon annuals from seed offer fantastic value in the garden and we grow quite a lot to fill the holes in our beds while we are waiting for the perennials to reach full size.

One of my particular favourites has always been Cosmos. It’s such a big showy plant with lovely fern-like foliage and attractive flowers that insects and butterflies just love. But I always wondered why it was called Cosmos as it seems pretty extravagant to name a flower after the universe.

Apparently it was given the name by Spanish priests who found the plant growing wild in Mexico and grew it in their mission gardens. The evenly placed petals led them to christen the flower Cosmos - the Greek word for harmony or ordered universe.

And why is it so ordered? Well the fact that every Cosmos flower has eight petals might have something to do with the previous blog …. but I did promise. No more mathematics!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunflowers - maths, art and the pineapple

My apologies for such a long gap since my last blog - I can only plead pressure of work - some paid, some voluntary unpaid .... and a great deal unpaid and not particularly voluntary either.

But I just couldn't let this picture of sunflowers from our garden pass without a blog.

Why? .......not because it's one of the most beautiful flowers in cultivation or because it's one of the most economically valuable plants in the world.

No ..... what stirred me into action was the connection between the sunflower and a little known Italian mathematician from the thirteenth century, Renaissance artists and the pineapple.

Unlikely, I know, but let me explain.

When you look at the sunflower above, what's one of the first things to catch your eye once you've taken in the overall beauty of the flower and the purity of its yellow colour? It's the spiral patterns shown by the developing flower seeds in the centre of the flower.

It's obviously a result of the way the seeds are packed into the seed heads to get the maximum number into the space available - a triumph of evolutionary development creating such perfection? Maybe ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

Look closely at the flower and you'll see two sets of spirals radiating in opposite directions. In one direction there are 21 and in the other 34. And this is where the Italian mathematician comes in. Those two numbers are successive numbers in a sequence starting with 0 and 1, where the following number is the sum of the previous two. So the sequence goes:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610

This sequence is known as the Fibonacci Numbers after Leonardo of Pisa also known as Fibonacci who lived from 1170 to 1250. The sequence of numbers was his attempt to mathematically define the growth of a population of rabbits under idealistic conditions. That may have been what he had in mind, but actually the sequence has been found very widely in nature - as in our sunflower. There they are - ninth and tenth in the sequence - 21 and 34.

Look at any sunflower and count the spirals. They will always be two successive numbers from the sequence. The huge sunflowers may have 55 and 89 spirals or even 89 and 144 - but they will always be two adjacent numbers from the sequence.

The reason is the golden ratio - and that's where the connection with art comes in.

Renaissance artists who studied classical art and architecture found that there was often a ratio (0.618 to 1) between key features. For example in Michaelangelo's statue of David many measuremnts between important features of the figure follow this ratio. Similarly on the Parthenon in Athens, the ratio between the measurements of key architectural features fitted the golden ratio. Artists felt that using the ratio in their paintings would capture the essence of classical art and used it to position figures in the canvas, or to divide it into land and sky and often in much more subtle ways.

The golden angle is the golden ratio expressed as degrees of a complete circle of 360 degrees. It works out as 137.52 degrees.

Are you keeping up at the back there?!

So, to return to our sunflower. The flower grows on the end of a shoot and if you blow up the shoot tip under a microscope the end is like a flattish circular dome. Each seed starts as a little bump just to one side of the very tip of the dome and moves down the dome as it develops and as new ones are formed after it. To get the maximum number of seeds on the flower head each new bump that becomes a seed forms at exactly 137.52 degrees round the head of the dome from the previous one and so on. It has to be accurate - just a small error and the whole thing would become chaotic - the spiral patterns would disappear and the exquisite packing of the seeds would be lost.

But nature doesn't get it wrong! It keeps producing those little bumps at exactly 137.52 degrees from the previous one hundreds and hundreds of times over to make a single flower head. And it repeats it millions of millions of times around the globe on every sunflower from the Andes to Ireland to Australia.

And the trick is repeated on lots more plants from daisies to pineapples - which makes our final connection.

Ever noticed that the blocks that make up the pineapple fruit are arranged in spirals? Count them up and they will usually be 8 one way and 13 the other. Numbers 7 and 8 in the Fibonacci sequence.

So that completes the connection between the sunflowers growing in our garden, an Italian mathematician, Renaissance art and the pineapple.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It's got a great Fuchsia

Fuchsia magellanica by our gate at Doorus, Co Clare

Beautiful ballerina-like flowers

The Fuchsia is a plant that used to drive me to distraction. Not because it was hard to propagate or difficult to grow, or anything horticultural like that. People just seem to find it so hard to spell.

As an editor working on horticultural publications it was one of those bogey words. However much I told my writers how it should be spelled, it would still arrive on my desk as Fuschia. Aaaargh. Just typing it that way brings me out in a cold sweat.

It got so bad I resorted to sticking a large notice on the office wall with the correct spelling in letters a foot tall.

So there were mixed feelings when I moved to this plot in Ireland and found out that many of the hedges were of the hardy fuchsia. But seeing it this time of the year, dripping with its beautiful red and purple flowers that dance in the breeze, any bad memories are instantly washed away.

The species we have is one of the hardiest, Fuchsia megallanica. It looks so at home here it’s hard to believe it’s actually a very long way from home – the clue to how far is in the name. It’s actually native to Chile – from the area near the Magellan Straits.

Trinity College Dublin lists it as an invasive alien species to Ireland. I know they’re probably technically right, but there are aliens and aliens and this one, like ET, is certainly a friendly one.

How it found its way here is somewhat disputed, but it has probably been here since the early 18th century. Charles Plumier certainly brought it back from his plant hunting expedition to South America around 1700 and was responsible for naming it Fuchsia in honour of the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs.

You see … it’s easy. It’s named after Fuchs so it’s Fuchs..ia. I can hear myself repeating this endlessly to aspiring writers and seeing the same glazed look in their eyes.

Sorry …. I must get over it!

So Fuchsia magellanica made its way to Britain along with a number of other species and it became one of the parents of many of the fuchsia hybrids we now know and love to grow. It’s reckoned there are some 8000 hybrids in the garden trade around the world – a reflection of our universal love for this wonderful plant.

But I think the original species is still a great plant in its own right and worthy of a place in any large garden.

Just remember though …. if you decide to comment, just watch that spelling. Get it wrong and I’ll be after you with my editor’s blue pencil!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Like golden rain

Laburnum X 'Vossii' at Doorus, Co Clare - a stunning display this year

Beautiful long strings of flowers catch the sun

Our Laburnum tree has been absolutely stunning this year – thoroughly living up to its name of Golden Rain Tree, it’s been just dripping with huge long strings of brilliant yellow flowers.

It’s not a native of Britain and Ireland, but it has been around for going on 500 years.

There are two species of Laburnum – the Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) and the Scotch Laburnum (L. alpinum). Both are native to the mountain of southern Europe from France through to the Balkans, but their potential as ornamental trees for gardens was recognised early on. The Common Laburnum was introduced in 1560 and just 30 years later came the Scotch Laburnum – so-called because it stood up rather better to the harsher conditions north of the border.

But the most showy and commonly grown Laburnum, and the one which we have in our garden, is a hybrid between the two. Laburnum X watereri ‘Vossii’ or Voss’s Laburnum. Like all the most successful hybrids, it combines the best of both parents, with the longer strings of flowers of the Scotch Laburnum and the more densely packed flowers of the Common Laburnum.

The hybrid seems to date from 1864, and I presume from the name that it originated in one of England’s most famous nurseries, John Waterer & Sons of Bagshot in Surrey.

When I first became involved with horticulture back in the 1960s it was one of the first nurseries I visited. They were still growing their speciality, rhododendrons, in a very traditional, and labour-intensive way. Most were grown in the soil and hand-dug with a root ball and bagged for sale. Techniques that had probably hardly changed over the 140 years the nursery had been in business.

Nowadays, of course, much plant production in containers is highly mechanised. It might seem more like factory production than horticulture, but it does mean that a far wider range of plants are now much more affordable than they were back then.

I’ve not been able to find any records of Waterer’s having an interest in Laburnums – or who Voss was, but a Rhododendron raised at the nursery called ‘Betty Ann Voss’ is perhaps a clue. Maybe the Laburnum is also named after her – or perhaps she’s the wife of Mr Voss who worked at the nursery as a plant breeder.

Whatever the origin, ‘Vosii’ is the Laburnum to look for if you plan to plant one in your garden. As well as its better flowers, it also sets very few seeds – a great advantage as the seeds are highly poisonous.

As this is a member of the pea family the seeds are in pods which children can think are rather like pea pods. Eating large numbers can cause severe illness and even death. But don’t let that put you off. You’ll get few if any seeds from ‘Vosii’.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The darling buds of May

Mayblossom at Doorus, Co Clare

Right now, our hawthorn trees and bushes are putting on a great show. And there’s a good chance that wherever you are in the Northern Hemisphere you’re going to be sharing the same experience ..... and feeling, just as we do, that the hawthorn display really does signal that summer is just around the corner.

Most people across the British Isles know it as May or Mayblossom – a reminder that many centuries ago hawthorn blossom was reliably available as decoration for the First of May – May Day. These days, apart from in the more climatically favoured south east of England, it’s normally at its best a couple of weeks into the month. So why is it now usually late?

Surprisingly, the answer is not climate change - or the influence of the El nino ocean currents – or one of those other fashionable environmental explanations. It’s much simpler than that. As far as Britain, Ireland and most of North America is concerned it dates back to 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. This inserted the calendar correction of removing 11 days so that Wednesday, 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday, 14 September. So when May Day came round the following year, it was actually only April 20 – and this shift in dates has remained with us ever since.

The hawthorn's pivotal position between spring and summer made it deeply important in mythology – reflected in Shakespeare’s phrase the ‘darling buds of May’ – referring to the opening buds of the Hawthorn pointing towards the warm summer ahead and marking the change from youth and exuberance to adult maturity.

It comes from Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

We also see how the flowering of the May tree has long been regarded as an important moment of seasonal change in the proverb: ‘Ne'er cast a clout ‘til May be out’ – clout being old English for an item of clothing.

Although the Hawthorn is widely known as May, it also has a host of other names, some of them quite odd. Where I grew up in West Yorkshire it’s known as ‘cheese and bread’ – presumably from the taste of the shoots which are edible when young. Here in Ireland it’s often referred to as ‘Johnny Magory’ or ‘Johnny MacGorey’ – I’ve no idea why.

In Ireland there's also a lot of superstition surrounding the hawthorn. A tree standing alone in open ground is known as a fairy tree and there is a strong feeling that to cut one will disturb the fairies and bring a great deal of bad luck. Even in recent years roads here have been re-routed to avoid uprooting hawthorns.

The hawthorn also features in one of the most evocative books recounting the horrors of the Irish Famine in the 1840s when over one and a half million men, women and children died from hunger and related diseases. ‘Under the hawthorn tree’ by Marita Conlon-McKenna tells the story of the three O’Driscoll children who lose both parents and then their baby sister who is buried under the hawthorn tree to be with the fairies. They set out to walk across Ireland to try and find their great aunts who they only know about from the stories their mother told them. Not surprisingly, it’s an epic battle for survival. It was made into a film by a cast and production company made up entirely of young people – mostly at school. Here’s a clip.

The last part of it refers to protests against the disgraceful continuing export of corn from Ireland to England rather than it being used to feed the starving.

Even more inexplicably, Britain’s relief effort, such as it was, centred around dried corn which was bought from the US and kept under close lock and key in the control of Sir Charles Trevelyn. He welcomed the famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population,” and refused to distribute this corn to anyone who could theoretically provide for themselves including those who were fit enough to work, regardless of the fact that no work available, and those with a quarter of an acre of land or more.

Anyone caught attempting to steal the corn from his warehouses faced deportation to Australia – the subject of one of the most powerful Irish songs - The Fields of Athenry – heard at its best when sung by many thousands at one of Ireland’s great rugby matches. This clip was recorded at a match between Munster and the welsh team the Ospreys just a couple of weeks ago. I was there with my daughter who was visiting from England, and you can get some idea of the spine-tingling effect of 25,000 voices singing this deeply moving song in unison.

Fields of Athenry - the Lyrics

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Micheal they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the Fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing
we had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters Mary when you're free,
Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity.


By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blackthorn to Finnegan's Wake

Blackthorn in flower at Doorus, Co Clare

If gorse, the subject of my previous blog, lights up the Irish landscape with splashes of yellow in early spring, then blackthorn follows with a liberal dusting of white. Only to be replaced by the more intense white of hawthorn blossom in May.

All three are thorny, but blackthorn takes the prize for the most vicious, as we’ve discovered to our cost when we’ve been trying to cut it back or clear it. The thorns will penetrate leather gloves, the soles of Wellington boots and many layers of clothing and leave themselves buried painfully deep in fingers. It’s these qualities that make it a hedging plant of choice in this part of Ireland to retain livestock and provide protected shelter for game birds.

Not surprisingly it’s been given the Latin name Prunus spinosa – the Prunus part, a reminder that this is a member of the plum family and it does indeed produce small plums – commonly know as sloes.

They’re really much too tart to be used in cooking, but most people know about Sloe gin – not really a gin, but an infusion of the fruit in gin or other distilled spirit to create a liqueur.

But what makes the blackthorn a plant steeped in Irish folklore is the shillelagh – the walking stick or club which was very often made from the dense wood of the blackthorn – using the knotty stem base and root as the club end. Suitable sticks were suspended in the open chimneys to harden and acquire the sooty blackness of the true shillelagh.

These days the shillelagh is an object of fun bought, often with a shamrock painted on it, as a ‘souvenir’ of Ireland. But in reality it was a serious weapon used in stick-fighting contests, and the skills of this marshal art were passed on from one generation to the next.

I remember singing along to The Clancy Brothers, who revived the wonderful 1850s Irish drinking song, Finnegan’s Wake and wondered quite what was meant by:

“Shillelagh law was all the rage and a row and a ruction soon began”

Of course, this was a reference to the laws that governed the use of the shillelagh in formal fights.

By the time Finnegan’s Wake was written, the shillelagh was much more the weapon of choice in gang warfare and faction fights that had a habit of breaking out at social gatherings – particularly when there was a lot of drink around.

Listen to this performance by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem of this wonderfully funny song – with a bit of explanation about the song and the lyrics ….. and sing along.

The singer Tommy Makem, in the introduction refers to James Joyce and his book Finnegan’s Wake – said to be loosely based on the story in the song.

Most people know Joyce for Ulysses – and that’s considered to be a pretty hard read – but it has nothing on Finnegan’s Wake. It was Joyce’s final work and written over 17 years in Paris and published in 1939.

I think the style would be described as experimental. To me it’s a bit like the literary equivalent of abstract art. You’re not entirely sure whether it’s a work of genius or a lot of nonsense. Still, it’s kept a lot of worthy academics busy trying to interpret what it all means.

What makes it so hard to understand is that Joyce made up a language with references to Latin and other languages and then threw in a lot of made up words –often combinations of other words or made-up words conveying sounds or emotions.

Here’s a sample:

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

You can get an impression of what he's writing about - or at least you think you can!

So there we are. The humble blackthorn has got a lot to answer for.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gorse of course

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and rainbow over foothills of Wicklow Mountains (top) and gorse flowers (and spider!) at Doorus Co Clare

This is really just an excuse to include in my blog this photo I took last week on the fringes of the Wicklow Mountains on the Eastern side of Ireland. It was early in the morning and the countryside was bathed in bright sunshine when a sharp shower produced a spectacular rainbow right ahead of me. I had to pull in and capture the moment.

I'm sure I ought to have known this, but it hadn't struck me until then, that when the sun is low in the sky, as it was then, the rainbow it produces is also a low arc in the sky. I suppose I'm more used to seeing rainbows that come with rain later in the day and then it's hard to capture the full arc without a very wide angle lens.

It's not coincidental that gorse is in the foreground. It's a dominant feature of the landscape in Ireland - surprising really for a plant with reduced leaves and spines - adaptations for growing in dry conditions. It obviously isn't aware that 'dry' and 'Ireland' are rarely, if ever, heard in the same sentence.

In early spring gorse has the landscape to itself and wherever you look, yellow is the dominant colour. Now the blackthorn and hawthorn are in flower white is starting to edge out the yellow. But the remarkable thing about gorse is that it flowers pretty well throughout the year, hence the old saying:

"When gorse is out of bloom,
Kissing's out of season."

The custom, in some parts of the British Isles, of inserting a spray of gorse in the bridal bouquet is an allusion to this saying.

We've got quite a few gorse bushes on our land and the sweet scent of coconut they give off is quite noticeable - particularly at this time of year. It's inspired me to have a go at making gorse flower wine which apparently retains this delicate aroma of coconuts.

The recipe is:

1 gallon of gorse flowers
1 gallon of water
2-3lb of sugar
1 tablespoon cold tea
1 orange
1 lemon
50g root ginger
25g yeast

Cover the flowers, ginger, orange and lemon juice and rind with boiling water. After 5 days, with occasional stirring, strain into a fermenting jar. Dissolve the sugar in the rest of the water and add it. When cool add the yeast and cold tea. Syphon after a couple of months and again in 8 to 10 weeks.

I wonder what the tablespoon of tea is for?!

It sounds easy enough. Look back around October to see whether it turned out to be drinkable!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Archangel or devil

Yellow archangel
Lamium galeobdolon

We have a lovely plant growing at the top of our trackway and next to our car park. Its common name is Yellow archangel or Yellow deadnettle. English Nature agrees and says it is a “beautiful, yellow-flowered plant with nettle-like leaves which is a member of the dead-nettle and mint family.”

The one we have growing is actually a cultivated form with silver markings on its leaves which makes it even more attractive. But over in the USA the story is very different. In a number of states the archangel has become the devil in plant form and it has noxious weed status. Orders can be made to have it cleared and destroyed like some dangerous alien invader.

OK, it does spread quite readily, but sometimes that’s just what you want – a plant that does what a ground-cover plant is supposed to do …. cover the ground. I suppose it's all a matter of degree.

Why is it called archangel? The view is that it closely related to the red and white dead-nettles which, because they flower close to April 27, the day dedicated to the Archangel Michael, are sometimes called red and white archangel. Yellow archangel flowers a little later, but shares the name because of its similarity to them.

It also shares with them the reputation as a guardian against evil spirits and, in particular, for protecting cattle against a disease known as elf-shot. This disease is commonly referred to in the literature and folklore of Celtic areas. It was considered to be inflicted on cattle by elves acting for witches using flint arrowheads – the artefacts we now know to be of Neolithic origin. The arrowheads were supposed to cause a paralysis known as elf-stroke – from which we get the now familiar medical term of a stroke.

So, you take your pick …. archangel, the devil, or protector against witches. I just like to think of it as a lovely plant with bright golden flowers and attractive foliage. If it keeps my farming neighbour’s cattle healthy, then so much the better.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows

Primrose (top) then Cowslip, 'Oxlip' (third from top) and (bottom) from the left, the arrows show plants of cowslip, primrose and 'oxlip' (over on the right) by the gate at Doorus

Our land and climate is obviously ideal for primroses. I’ve already blogged about Primula juliae 'Wanda' which is taking over all the dank, shady, inhospitable bits of the garden, but the wild primrose is everywhere – particularly on the old field banks. In this part of Ireland stone walls are rare and most fields are bounded by banks of soil, rocks and anything else that comes to hand - including lots of domestic rubbish. They're up to five or six feet in height, often with thorn hedges along the top. We’re in the process of clearing a lot of these banks and making them features in the extended garden we’re creating, and the primrose love the new freedom they've got to spread along these banks.

We’ve also got a handful of cowslip plants, but I got really excited last year when we were clearing a patch of rough grass near our gate and there was what I thought was an oxlip. The flowers had almost died down and I couldn’t be sure, so I’ve been waiting and watching this year to see what appeared.

I knew the oxlip was pretty rare, but I hadn’t realised just how limited it was in the British Isles – just a patch around Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk – and certainly none in Ireland …. so far.

But the books kept stressing that, as well as the true oxlip, there was also a false oxlip – a natural hybrid between the primrose and the cowslip. Perhaps that’s what I had. An imposter!

Now the long wait to find out is over. The primroses came out first and then this week, the cowslip and the ‘oxlip’.

I’ve compared the pictures and I don't think we’re going to be able to re-write the botany of Ireland. It’s almost certainly the hybrid – the false oxlip. As you can see in the picture the chances of the hybrid cropping up are pretty strong as the primrose and cowslip are only a few feet apart and the ‘oxlip’ is only a few feet away from both of them.

Mind you, I can take comfort from the fact that no less an authority than Charles Darwin struggled to distinguish the oxlip and the false oxlip and did numerous experiments to try and sort them out.

And long before him the Bard threw a potential botanical spanner into the works in Oberon's famous speech from Act II of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows.”

"The wood outside Athens", in which most of the action takes place, would seem to be an English wood, but if it had the oxlip growing it would have to be in Essex, Suffolk or Cambridgeshire. But most scholars consider the woods are based on the Forest of Arden. If the location had moved to the eastern counties it would tell a rather different story about Shakespeare and his influences.

However, the answer is probably that the Bard was also referring to the more widely distributed false oxlip.

But it wouldn't be quite the same if Oberon said:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where that imposter, the false oxlip, and the nodding violet grows.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dandelions .... Mick says it all

I've had a snatch of a song running round my head all day

"Dandelion don't tell no lies, Dandelion will make you wise"

Must have been the sight of all the dandelions that have popped up in the lawn - just as I described in my blog of a few weeks ago about this plant we gardeners love to hate.

But isn't it infuriating when you've got a bit of a song in your head, and you can't remember any more or what the song is or who recorded it.

I felt pretty stupid when I realised it was a Rolling Stones track from 1967 - and I was a big Stones fan.

I said in my blog that the dandelion reminded me of happy times as a child blowing the seed heads to find out if "she loves me, she loves me not". But others commented that they only connected this with the daisy and not to blowing the dandelion clock.

Well now we have it on no less an authority than Mick Jagger and Keith Richard that blowing the dandelion can answer no end of questions including the happiness of the one you love.

The Rolling Stones

Prince or pauper, beggar man or king,
Play the game with ev'ry flow'r you bring.
Dandelion don't tell no lies.
Dandelion will make you wise.
Tell me if she laughs or cries.
(Blow away dandelion.)

One o'clock, two o'clock,
Three o'clock, four o'clock, (five).
Dandelions don't care about the (time).
(Dandelion) don't tell no lies.
(Dandelion) will make you wise.
Tell me if she laughs or cries.
(Blow away dandelion.)
Blow away dandelion.

Though you're older now it's just the same.
You can play this dandelion game.
When you're finished with your childlike prayers,
Well, you know you should wear it.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailors' (lives).
Rich man, poor man, beautiful daughters, (wives).
(Dandelion) don't tell no lies.
(Dandelion) will make you wise.
(Tell me if she laughs or cries.)
(Blow away dandelion.)
Blow away dandelion.

Little girls, and boys come out to (play), yes.
Bring your dandelions to blow away.
(Dandelion) don't tell no lies.
(Dandelion) will make you wise.
(Tell me if she laughs or cries.)
(Blow away dandelion.)
Blow away dandelion.
Blow away.
Blow away.

And if you want to hear it ..... there doesn't actually seem to be a video of the Stones performing this, but this is the track

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

From Russia with love

Primula juliae 'Wanda' (above)

Primula juliae

We tend to think of plant hunters as intrepid explorer-types who fought natives, deadly insects and tropical diseases to hunt down and bring back exotic species from inaccessible rain forests or remote mountains to satisfy the demands of the lords and gentry for plants to impress their friends … and rivals.

Sure, a few plant hunters were in that mould, but the majority were just enthusiastic botanists who were fascinated by the challenge of finding plants that had not previously been found and described. If they proved worthy of cultivation as garden plants then that, for them, was a big bonus.

With a few additional twists and turns, that’s really the story of Primula juliae ‘Wanda’, a plant we have in great abundance in our garden and one which we love for its showiness in the spring, and its ability to spread and cover some pretty dank and unpromising corners of the garden.

The story starts towards the end of the 19th century with a young Russian girl, Julia Mlokossjewicz, who used to accompany her Polish-born father on plant hunting trips to remote parts of the Caucasus Mountains in south west Russia. She continued to be an avid naturalist into adulthood and, on 20 April 1900, while exploring these slopes of her homeland, she discovered a tiny primula growing with moist mosses alongside a mountain stream.

This charming little species was named Primula juliae in honour of its discoverer, but it wasn’t until 1911 that seeds from this new species were sent to Oxford. The following year P. juliae, was brought to the attention of gardeners when a plant was exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society show and received an Award of Merit.

What made Primula juliae of such interest to gardeners, apart from its charming little purple-pink flowers, was actually the bit you can’t see – its root system. It’s unique among primulas in having a root system with stolons – these are thickened roots that grow out from the parent plant just under the surface and form a branched network with at intervals along the length of the stolons, buds that produce new shoots and flowers. So P. juliae can quickly spread to form a dense mat covered with a sheet of flowers – very different from the primulas we are familiar with that form tight rosettes of leaves with flowers growing out from the centre. Expansion of these plants to form clumps is relatively slow.

It was pretty soon discovered that the pollen of Primula juliae was compatible with other primulas and the plant breeders got to work. The result was a whole range of hybrids the most well-known of which is ‘Wanda’. This came from a cross between P. juliae and a red form of our native primrose Primula vulgaris.

Like all the most successful hybrids it has the best of both parents …. and a bit more besides.

It has the vigour, larger leaves and flowers of the primrose, it has the spreading root system of P. juliae and the same masses of flowers, but they are more intensely coloured. And, as a plant that came from the mossy sides of a stream in the Caucasus mountains, it loves damp moist conditions – something we have in abundance here in the West of Ireland.

So, it's a plant that may have travelled a long way from home and taken a hundred years to get here, but now it looks as much at home here as any native.

Monday, March 16, 2009

What is the shamrock?

The shamrock is the quintessential Irish icon. The Celtic harp might be the official symbol, but the three-leafed shamrock is recognised the world over as the true symbol of Ireland. So what better subject for a blog on St Patrick’s Day than the shamrock.

But there’s a problem.

There’s something delightfully Irish about having a plant as a national emblem – and yet ask an Irishman to show you a shamrock and he’s likely to come up with any one of four or more different plants. So what plant is the true shamrock?

Let’s take a look at the evidence and the main contenders.

A survey done in 1988 found the following were identified as shamrock by the percentages of Irish people shown:

Trifolium dubium (lesser trefoil) 46%
Trifolium repens (white clover) 35% (photo second from top)
Medicago lupulina (black medick) 7%
Oxalis acetosella (wood sorrel) 5% (photo third from top)
Trifolium pratense (red clover) 4%

If we go back a hundred years to a similar survey in 1893 the results were:

Trifolium repens (white clover) 55%
Trifolium minus (now recognised as a small form of white clover) 33%
Trifolium pratense (red clover) 6%
Medicago lepulina (black medick) 6%

So overall, white clover seems to win the popularity vote and that’s backed by the origins of the word shamrock derived from the Gaelic word 'seamrog' meaning ‘little clover’, but there’s still some doubt. Earlier illustrations of the shamrock don’t help resolve the problem. They show a rather stylised three-leafed plant, very much like the shamrock symbol that’s seen everywhere on St Patrick’s Day.

It could be any three-leafed plant and perhaps that’s the root of the problem. In the absence of a plant specifically called the shamrock, people have chosen the three-leafed plant happens to be around ..... or the one they are familiar with.

So, if we can’t tie down exactly which plant is the true shamrock, we must surely be able to establish why the shamrock has become such a potent icon for the Irish .... and particularly associated with St Patrick.

Well …. perhaps not.

The earliest written mention of shamrocks is not until 1571 and it’s not until 1727 that there’s a record of Saint Patrick using the shamrock to illustrate the Christian trinity of a united Father, Son and Holy Spirit when trying to convert the Druids in Ireland to Christianity. As this is written some 1000 years after St Patrick died, many suspect this to be a myth that was created in the 18th century and then been backdated.

What is known is that the shamrock was an important plant to the Druids prior to Saint Patrick. It was believed to have medicinal properties and its association with the number three had significant meaning in ancient numerology, in which three was a sacred number with mystical powers.

But whatever the truth of its ancient associations, more recent history marks the shamrock as a truly potent icon for the Irish. It was regarded as a symbol of rebellion and independence from the British crown during Queen Victoria’s reign and wearing it on a military uniform was a crime punishable by death. So ‘the wearing of the green’ became an enormous point of Irish pride and its spiritual roots – and indeed its botanical roots - have become lost as the shamrock has been transformed into a political symbol of national pride.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

She loves me, she loves me not

The dandelion must be one of the plants most people can recognise and name. For gardeners, it’s a plant to be hated … the archetypal weed. In lawns it lies flat to the ground avoiding any number of passes of the mower, then sends up flower heads, seemingly overnight, just to annoy us.

In flower beds it produces enormously long tap roots that test the abilities of even the most skilled weeder. Removing them is like pulling teeth, except that the root usually breaks just when it feels like it’s going to come out whole. And a few days later, up pop not one but half a dozen fresh shoots to mock the gardener.

But to children the dandelion is a pure delight. Every child knows the ball of fluffy parachutes that make up the dandelion seed head. And most are sure that blowing it will tell them the time of day, or whether “He loves me, he loves me not”, or that it will make their wish come true . It’s the seed heads that give the common name for the plant in a number of countries such as Pusteblume (blow flower) in Germany. But it’s the serrated leaves that provide the origin for the name most of us know – looking like a row of lions teeth or dent de lion in old French.

Ironically, in France, its common name is now pissenlit, and you don’t need a degree in French language to realise that translates as piss in the bed – not such an extraordinary or inappropriate name when you realise that the dandelion has very good diuretic properties.

In fact, the dandelion has a whole host of medicinal properties as the Latin name Taraxicum probably indicates. It’s thought this comes from the Greek words taraxos, meaning disorder, and akos, meaning remedy. Many herbalists regard the dandelion as an effective treatment for liver disease, useful even in such extreme cases as cirrhosis. It cleanses the bloodstream and increases bile production, and is a good remedy for gall bladder problems as well. The herb is also a boon to such other internal organs as the pancreas, kidneys, stomach, and spleen. The dried leaf, taken as a tea, is used as a mild laxative to relieve constipation.

So, how come a plant that’s got so much going for it has such a bad reputation?

It’s even got an extraordinarily beautiful flower.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blogging Jim ... but not as we know it

Blogging, in the sense that most people do it, is contrary to my nature and at odds with most of the writing I've done - or had to do - during my working life. I've always written for an audience I know and understand. That was the essence of writing for the kind of specialist magazines I worked for. Get that wrong and you'd pretty soon be out of a job.

Blogging seemed much more spontaneous and rather random. Firing words off to an unknown audience. Maybe hitting a target ... maybe not. The process worried me.

I wanted to write a blog, but it had to be a blog with rules and a structure. So I turned to plants. They've been a recurring theme throughout my life and whilst I've written for magazines on topics as diverse as caravanning and printing, and outdoor pursuits and town planning, I've always felt happiest writing about plants and on plant related topics.

Blame my parents. They dragged us out on Sunday afternoon walks across what passed for the open countryside in the area between the sprawling industrial waste and housing estates of Wakefield, Dewsbury, Batley and Leeds. We always had our Penguin book of British Wild Flowers with us and we learned what a rich diversity of plants could be found even in such unpromising surroundings.

I don't think it was a 'normal' upbringing in that area. At school when it came to choosing subjects for A level, I said I wanted to do Botany .... and I was the only one. So I did it ... by myself. I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I used to go off for hours "collecting specimens". I had my own area of a lab to do microscope studies and my own windowsill for growing things. And I had a teacher who I used to see for an hour or two a week and the rest of the time I was left to get on with work I was set to do.

I got good marks in the exams and went off to do botany at university. The best I can say about it was that I got a degree. Student politics, beer, parties, writing for the student newspaper and a host of other things all seemed to offer much more excitement than sitting in a lecture room learning about the reproductive structures of liverworts or the biochemical processes involved in photosynthesis.

But the underlying interest in plants never went away. Much later I returned the favour my parents gave me by taking my children out on walks and telling them about the plants - how they worked and some of the stories attached to them. And that's really where this blog has come from. My fascination with the diversity of plants, their place in food, industry, medicine, culture ... and folklore. Why do they have the names they have? ... why do they grow where they do? ... why? ... why?

I'll be looking for some of the answers to those questions, to satisfy my curiosity and, I hope, to stimulate yours. And I'll be looking mainly at the plants I see around me - on our fives acres of rough pasture in Co Clare and in the woods, down the lanes and on the hillsides around us.

It'll be an interesting journey for me. I hope you'll find time to join me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A host of golden celandines

The first Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) to come into flower at Doorus on February 17, 2009

Although Wordsworth's 'Daffodils' is one of the most famous and widely read poems in the English language, daffodils were probably not Wordsworth's favourite flower. He wrote no less than three poems about the tiny Lesser celandine and just one about the more famous daffodils. This is his first poem in praise of the celandine

To the Small Celandine

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.

Eyes of some men travel far
For the finding of a star;
Up and down the heavens they go,
Men that keep a mighty rout!
I'm as great as they, I trow,
Since the day I found thee out,
Little flower! - I'll make a stir
Like a great Astronomer.

Modest, yet withal an Elf
Bold, and lavish of thyself,
Since we needs must first have met,
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
'Twas a face I did not know;
Thou hast now, go where I may,
Fifty greetings in a day.

Ere a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the Thrush
Has a thought about its nest,
Thou wild come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we've little warmth, or none.

Poets, vain men in their mood!
Travel with the multitude;
Never heed them: I aver
That they all are wanton Wooers;
But the thrifty Cottager,
Who stirs little out of doors,
Joys to spy thee near her home,
Spring is coming, Thou art come!

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost shew thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood,
In the lane - there's not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But 'tis good enough for thee.

Ill befall the yellow Flowers,
Children of the flaring hours!
Buttercups, that will be seen,
Whether we will see or no;
Others too of lofty mien;
They have done as worldlings do,
Taken praise that should be thine,
Little, humble Celandine!

Prophet of delight and mirth,
Scorned and slighted upon earth!
Herald of a mighty band,
Of a joyous train ensuing,
Singing at my heart's command,
In the lanes my thoughts pursuing,
I will sing, as doth behove,
Hymns in praise of what I love!

The name is probably derived from the Greek chelīdónion meaning swallow said to be so called because it blooms when the swallows return in spring. Actually it blooms much earlier than the swallow returns, but like the swallow it is regarded as a harbinger of spring.

The plant was traditionally called 'pilewort' and was used to treat the painful affliction of piles because a bunch of the fleshy small roots somewhat resembles the condition. Surprisingly Wordsworth didn’t bring that into his poem

It is a member of the buttercup family and is one of the earliest spring wild flowers, and provides nectar and pollen for bumblebees emerging from hibernation. Its flowers react very clearly to weather conditions, opening with the sun and closing whenever rain or colder weather come along.