I was thinking that this week, when I showed you this picture of a small tortoiseshell butterfly sitting in a butterfly bush, I would be able to tell you all about the caterpillars – who love nothing better than to munch their way through a patch of nettles.
Then, I thought I would draw your attention, through a tasteful and finely constructed phrase, to the gorgeous, deep colour of the flower. We had bushes with paler flowers earlier in the year and now they seem to be flowering again – but with much more definite colours.
But, now I come to the place in the tale where it is no longer possible to delay the awful moment. I have to choose which spelling of the plants common name to use.
Our critical senses have become totally numb, a simple ‘f” (or even a ‘ff’) sound becomes ‘ough’, ‘ort’ becomes ‘ought’ and ‘w’s and ‘k’s are splattered through written language with gay abandon – and complete lack of any logic, or even just the smallest touch of common sense. You will notice that I have forborne to mention the garden gnomes who, hopefully, have taken this opportunity to pack up and go off to do a little fishing.
Surely, but surely, this has all gone far enough. Buddleia? Buddleja? Pul-eeze!
OK. So, I can’t claim deep anguish, or that life is so burdensome that the future is bleak and lustreless. If I could, then it would be perfect. You see, today’s picture is of the flowers of the Sweet Chestnut tree. Dr Edward Bach, who we mention here from time to time, produced a flower essence from these blooms, but then Dr Bach lived in southern England and the sweet chestnuts grow well down there.
Up here in the north, the sweet chestnut tree is a bit of an oddity. We know its make and model number because, last autumn we collected several large spiky seed cases from this very tree and, not without a certain amount of personal damage – the spikes are very sharp, we prized the shells open to reveal the seeds.
At this point, had we been Roman soldiers and had we been about to go into battle, we would have made porridge from them. We gathered three spiky nut cases, which revealed a total of six small nuts. Not enough porridge for a real battle but perhaps enough for a heated argument.
We’ve been keeping an eye on these catkins as we trundle backwards and forwards on our daily amble. We were hoping that they would, well – flower. But today when we paused to inspect the tree – there where no flowers visible at all.
So it looks like that was it then.
Cherry ripe. Cherry ripe. Well, perhaps not yet.
I thought, that as I had let you in at the beginning – remember, we had a picture of the cherry blossom just before it flowered, heralding in the pollen season – I ought to show the fruits of your patience. Unfortunately, not only are they not quite ripe but these particular fruit are high in the tree, well out of easy reach.
Last year we collected half a dozen low hanging fruit and put them in a jar with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar. We also added a covering of brandy, purely for its preservative qualities, of course. We had in mind an autumn treat, with possibly meringue and a few spoonfuls of ice cream – just to keep the cherries from scraping on the bowl.
Life, however, intervened. Have you noticed, it does this often. I think it begins to feel that it’s being ignored and it has to do something dramatic, just to get our attention. I wish it would just cough or clear its throat discretely instead – then we would glance its way and make an effort to include it in the conversation.
Anyway, as I was saying, last year popped in for a quick chat and then hurried off, muttering ‘I must get on!’ and, in all the hustle and bustle, we forgot about the jar of cherries.
Do you think they’re still edible or do you think they’ve gone rotten?
The verge, on the road down to the beck, is quite broad on one side. Once again this year, a huge bank of Rose Bay Willow Herb has appear out of nowhere. What, over winter, had become almost bare ground, with a few wisps of grass here and there, is now a bank of plants three or four feet high.
Google knows a great deal about Rose Bay Willow Herb. As with most of the information on the Internet, many of the sources are contradictory – but all of them are very authoritative. I thought I’d pass on a selection of the wisdom of the world so you could pick out the pieces that appeal to you.
One option is that this is a native of North America. It was brought over to Europe as a garden plant, escaped and made itself at home. Next, we have it as a native of the Russian tundra. Here, they have been using the leaves to make tea and fermenting the pith of the stems to make beer for ever. Then, there’s the opinion that it was known here, in the north of England, before its supposed importation – but was considered very rare.
This is an amazing plant – most of it is edible or drinkable, it can be used medicinally to cure a range of ills – from typhoid to nappy rash, and it grows in huge banks of glorious purple in summer and the leaves turn a fiery red in autumn.
And what do we do with this, natures bountiful largess?
“That’ll be her now.” June pushed her bra strap back up, she tucked it under the strap of the black vest she wore with her loose black trousers. Mary was wearing her long black skirt and black cape but June, being more physical, didn’t like to feel restricted when casting a spell.
Mary opened the door to a slight, elderly lady in a beige skirt, floral top and a floppy pink sun hat. “Hello, Evadne,” she said importantly, “Please come in.” she stood back, invitingly. “I’m Mary, and this . . .”
“Ah. Of course.” Evadne interrupted “You must be The Vicked Vitch of the Vest!”
June glared at her. “I’m June.” she said jerking her bra strap up abruptly.
“There now dear. Just my little joke.” Evadne said soothingly. They all sat down.
“Would anyone like a nice cup of herbal tea?” Mary said into the awkward silence. “The Red Berry Mix is very earthing.”
“I feel the vibration of. . . Hibiscus.” said June with her fingers resting lightly on her temples.
“Could I have a cup of coffee, do you think?” asked Evadne, “With one sugar would be nice.”
“Erm, yes of course.” Mary raised her eyebrows at June.
“Now.” June began seriously, “The world is in need of powerful magic. The old beliefs are lost and ignored, witchcraft no longer commands the respect it deserves. I propose that the three of us form a coven and invoke the oldest and most powerful spell of them all.”
“Oh. What a lovely idea.” Evadne smiled brightly. “Which spell were you thinking of, dear?”
“Double, double. Toil and trouble.” June’s voice shook with the power implicit in the words.
“The ingredients are our first business, then.” Mary did her best to copy June’s portentous tone.
“Eye of newt and wool of bat.”
“Oh, no, no.” Evadne shook her head emphatically, “I’m sorry dear but I am a strict vegan, could we have something a little more, er vegetarian?”
June’s eyes flashed but clamping her jaw closed, she reached into her tote bag for her phone. “Magical. Plants.” she pronounced each word slowly as she tapped the letters in. She flipped through the results. “Coltsfoot, that’s a good one, deadly poison.”
“Oh, the poor little horses.” Evadne murmured.
“Mandrake.” A statement, June didn’t even bother ask.
“Well now dear,” Evadne interrupted, “I’m sure there must be an easier way. Whenever I have a little problem, you know, I just turn my hat inside out. Like this. And then I put it on back to front. Like this.” she turned to June with a girlish smile and a coquettish tilt of her head.
Well. That did it. That was the last straw. June exploded!
A few soggy bits splatted against the cupboards behind her. Accompanying the vast sound, too short to actually be heard, a cloud of sluggish brown smoke roiled and swirled – finally settling into a a neat pile of dust that trickled over the edge of the chair that June had so lately occupied.
“Dry as dust.” murmured Evadne shaking her head, “No sense of humour, you know.” She flipped her hat the right way round and popping it back on her head, stood up and reached over to take Mary’s stunned hand.
“I must be going dear, it’s been lovely to meet you. Thank you so much for the coffee.” She paused with her hand on the door. “I’m sorry about the mess dear, but I’m sure she’ll vacuum up quite easily.”
I think I must have mentioned this before, but one of the things that continues to provoke me is that, whenever we discuss plants poisonous to people, people take great delight in eating them. Here today we have another example, the elder. The flowers, leaves, bark, roots are all poisonous at all times of the year. The berries, when fully ripe, are reasonably safe. The only concession to humanity that the plant makes, is that the flowers and berries can be eaten, with minimal chance of ill effect, if they have been cooked.
The Woodland Trust mentions that it is thought the word elder derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for fire – because the stems could be hollowed out easily and used to blow through, for furnaces and things. My friend Google also pointed out, at one time it was thought that planting elder by your house would keep The Devil away, but anyone who burned elder could expect a prompt visit from him. And then, there have been some real scientific tests done that show elderberry extract really does help to relieve flu symptoms.
Do you think there’s a connection here? He is used to a warmer environment, you know. He probably doesn’t have a nice warm coat to wear while he’s around these parts.
The big news this week must be the sudden sprinkle of roses in the hedgerows. Almost overnight it seems, places that had survived all through the winter as a dull grayish brown. Who had surged into green in spring. Who had then ‘just sat there’ – seemingly waiting for autumn to arrive before committing themselves to any further chromatic exertion – suddenly have pink and white bits coyly peeking out everywhere.
Roses made me think of an attar of roses. I had a chat with Google, he referred me to Wikipedia. Attar was a Persian person. A poet, a philosopher and a pharmacist and his pen name, Attar, or Perfumier, was a reference to this last occupation. He lived around 1150 – 1220 in what is now northern Iran, and suffered from that irritatingly common problem – his writing talent was not recognised until after his death.
Bulgaria is, globally, the largest producer of rose flowers. The flowers are picked in that murky half world believed to exist, although I personally cannot vouch for it, just before daybreak. The flowers are put into copper kettles and boiled for a couple of days. If we are making an attar, the steam from the boiling is condensed and mixed with sandalwood oil.
Strangely, the sandalwood oil is the most expensive ingredient, and this, not the smell, is the reason perfume has such a high price tag.