Benny and Bob

There are a couple of abundant weeds that you can really get on first name terms with: Herb Bennet and Herb Robert. Though they are not related, they are sometimes confused, as their human names  start with the letter “B” and is prefixed with the word “herb”. (It is simpler to think of Herb Bennet by its common alternative name, Wood Avens.) The similarities don’t end there – both are hairy, have five petalled flowers, and are frequent on anthropogenic land. But they are quite different individuals.

Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum) belongs to the Rose family. The name derives from the medieval Latin herba benedicta meaning ‘blessed herb’. This blessedness came from a belief that it had the power to ward off venomous beasts and evil spirits. The Ortus Sanitatis (1491) claims “where the root is in the house, Satan can do nothing and flies from it, wherefore it is blessed before all other herbs, and if a man carries the root about him no venomous beast can harm him.” Various other names have been used for this plant, including City Avens, Way Bennet, Goldy Star, and Clive Root.

In contrast to Herb Robert, Benny is a perennial, and overwinters as a rosette of leaves. Its flowers are radially symmetrical – each is a mirror of itself in all directions. They resemble strawberry flowers, though coloured a buttercup yellow rather than white. The RHS website lists it as “perfect for pollinators”.  The leaves are compound, dividing into sections which are cleft to the midrib. In A Modern Herbal written in the early 1900s, Mrs M. Grieves describes the leaves as “interruptedly pinnate”; a good description.

 

 

The fruits are globose and of the ‘hitch-a-ride’ type. They are burred with red hooks and cling to my gardening gloves when a-weeding I do (grudgingly!) go. Professional forager Robin Harford says the seed head “looks like viruses”! Dig up the plant and the roots smell of clove. In Tudor times, bunches of roots were hung up to scent clothes and banish moths from the wardrobe. Harfod uses this plant as a way of “incorporating interesting, sublime flavours into food… that haven’t been tasted on our palates for hundreds of years.” It is part of the “hidden spice chest of the hedgerow.”

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That Herb Robert belongs to the Geranium family is evident in the shape of its beaked fruit, supposedly resembling a crane’s-bill. One explanation for its name suggests a link with an 11th century saint, Abbot Robert of Molesme, who was a skilled herbalist. The plant still has validity in modern herbal medicine, being used as a wound healer. Its name may also derive from an association with the house goblin of legend, Robin Goodfellow, perhaps owing to the reek of the plant when it is crushed or damaged. The smell is often described as mousey, but the authors of The Handmade Apothecary: Healing Herbal Remedies have likened it more accurately (in my opinion) to burnt rubber. For this whiffy reason, it is also called Stinky Bob.

 

 

Bob is an annual plant with stems and foliage that are often suffused with red. The leaves are highly dissected and ferny looking, and in common with Herb Bennet, the flowers are radially symmetrical. They brighten up a shady spot with a cheerful pink (and it’s not often I describe pink as cheerful!) with white streaks on each petal leading to towards the centre of the bloom. Rare, naturally occuring white forms are also found. I have only ever seen white Stinky Bob once. As these were in a garden, they may have been a cultivated form such as ‘Alba’ or ‘Celtic White’. Herb Robert is also “perfect for pollinators”, but it is interesting to note that, regardless of their attractiveness to insects, seed production appears to be the result of self-pollination. The pointed fruit is a schizocarp – a dried fruit that is divided into at least two single-seeded sections at maturity – ready to peck at the hand that weeds.

Benny and Bob are often found in company, but it’s only familiarity that has fixed which plant belongs with which name. I’ve yet to find a trick to aid the memory to remember which is Herb Robert and which is Herb Bennet. Reminds me of the poem about the witch with the itch and the witch with twitch, but that may just be my tangential mind.

 

 

 

 

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I Sea a Holly

There is a plant I have wanted to spot ever since I was a kid and, despite many visits to the coast, it’s always eluded me. Flicking through my pocket sized wildflower guide, the Sea Holly captured my attention because of two things which to my younger mind had nothing to do with each other – holly (associated with Christmas and woodlands) and the sea (that water by the coast where woodlands don’t reach.)

I was walking a section of the Essex Way yesterday – an 81 mile long trail between Epping and Harwich, which is waymarked with poppy logos:

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The Harwich to Wrabness section takes the walker through saltmarsh, fields and woodland. The Sea Holly was spotted right at the start of the walk, and made my day – much to the wry amusement of my fellow traveller.

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As a gardener, I have seen cultivated versions of Eryngium maritinum fairly often, but garden plants don’t count! Unless the wild type arrives unbidden..

 

 

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Hampton Court: a sideways view

A trip to Hampton Court Palace isn’t what I normally do with a Tuesday, but that’s what I did this week. My intention in writing this post is not to offer an account of the intricate parterres of the Privy Garden nor of Queen Mary’s passion for exotic plants etc. You can find all that sort of thing in typical reports of the gardens. No, I want to share some alternative views, things that wouldn’t usually get noted or enthused about.

The 18th century kitchen garden is the area I wanted to see above all else. As I’d visited with someone who was keener to investigate the buildings, I didn’t feel free to fully indulge my geekery (it wouldn’t be fair!) so I didn’t look for the historical esculents I was keen to spot e.g. Sweet-Maudlin, Trick-Madam, Hartshorn, and Rampion. I did spot Elecampane (Inula helenium). A flower pot gave a quote from Pliny: Let no day pass without eating the roots of Inula, to help digestion and cause mirth. Much better than causing flatulence, like another of the composite family edibles, Jerusalem Artichoke!

The thing that attracted my attention the most in my curtailed perambulation was the way the tomatoes were arranged – up wigwams!IMG_3463

At first, I didn’t realise how interestingly they were trained. I thought the vines were simply encouraged up the stakes of the wigwam frame, as it all looked a bit bunched up. But then I noticed each plant had a twin stem, one branch tied along a pole, the other wrapped round string attached to the tips of opposite ones. It was a method I’d never seen before. I’m not sure if it’s a long-forgotten technique, or modern experimentation, but my guess is the latter.

The backdrop to these tomatoes is a block of flax plants going to seed. This plant (Linum usitatissimum) is the source of linen. A sign explained that these were being grown to assist the curators of the Historic Royal Palaces, who are investigating how Tudor royal tents were made.

I peeped through the windows of the Gardener’s Pot Shed, and took these pictures..

And I just had to take a photo of the chief kitchen gardener’s t-shirt! No mistaking who’s boss there then!

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I couldn’t do justice to the Great Vine (in a different part of the gardens) but I was amused by an illustration on the info board so took a picture of that instead. Apparently, this single vine produces 270 kg of fruit a year which is comparable to three gardeners and their tools…IMG_3456

The Privy Garden is probably the part of the grounds that Hampton Court is most famous for. I’ve read a description that it’s “as formal as a fugue” and though I’m not a big fan of very formal gardens, I can appreciate their historical context. But the only thing I was desperate to take photos of were the Wood Pigeons, appearing impossibly large as they attempted to eat the berries of lollipop-trained Honeysuckle.

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Birds once again captured my focus in the Great Fountain Garden. The water feature itself was drained, and I watched the crows paddling about in the puddles as they picked at things in the mud of the brickwork base.

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Bees of course attracted my attention across the gardens, and as well as the usual suspects I was chuffed to spot (and even identify) a bee I’d never seen before: the Small Scissor Bee. As its Latin name (Chelostoma campanularum) suggests, this is a bee associated with bellflowers. In fact, it is oligolectic (restricting pollen gathering to a limited range of flower, in this case flowers belonging to the Campanula genus)

One of my favourite pictures was accidental. Both Tudor and baroque walls form the backdrop for a very pretty plant: Thalictrum davidii.

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It would have been nice to have had extra time to look around more. But the kitchen garden at least is free to wander around, so I may well pay another visit. And maybe buy some heritage veg from the stall to take home for dinner.

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Berrying

The berries of the Mahonia outside my front window are mostly over. In the past few weeks they’ve attracted the appetite of many birds. Mostly Blackbirds who have stuffed beakfuls of the blue fruit before flying off.

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But there were, fleetingly, Blackcaps, and Starlings have visited on occasion.

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And to my excitement, I also spotted Song Thrushes, a bird I’ve never seen in this area let alone on the Mahonia. This isn’t to say that they weren’t here before, just that I’ve never noticed them. I know their song, but haven’t even heard them..

I’m not a keen birder – I wouldn’t have the patience to sit in a hide and wait… I prefer to spot them when I’m doing other things, like gardening or sitting at my computer. In a way, I think I feel more connected, each of us going about our business, rather than hunting them with a twicher’s gaze.

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The Coal and the Bean

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The brothers Grimm tell a tale explaining an anatomical feature of a bean seed. In The Straw, the Coal and the Bean, a bean seed which is destined for the pot escapes its fate, along with a piece of straw and a lump of coal. The three companions run away but when mishap befalls the coal and the straw, the bean laughs so hard that it splits its sides. A tailor happened upon the bean and took pity, kindly sewing up the legume “but because the tailor had used black thread, all beans since then had a black seam“.

A cute story, but not as true as I’d like it to be! I’m guessing the bean in question was a broad bean (Vicia faba) since it has a long hilum (the bit where the seed attaches to the inside of the pod) which does indeed look like a seam, and is often black. But it can also be white depending on the variety. Research by the Heritage Seed Library indicates that if a variety has seeds with different coloured hilums, this is a tell-tale sign that there has been cross pollination, or that the variety isn’t stable within itself.

The seeds of French and runner beans look different to those of broad bean, but are similar to each other. There can be confusion between the two, as the plants look alike. Both are in the genus Phaseolus, but are different species: the French is P. vulgaris, whilst the runner is P. coccineus.  The seeds of runner beans are usually (but not always) bigger than those of french beans. As the Latin name coccineus indicates, runner beans usually have scarlet flowers (though they are sometimes white or a combination of both). But a runner bean is not always P. coccineus, as French beans were sometimes called ‘runners’ in old catalogues!

The way to be certain is to observe the way they germinate.  If the foliage which first emerges above ground are the ‘true leaves’ (i.e. typical of that plant), then it is the runner bean, P. coccineus. The seed itself stays in the soil, and its cotyledons (seed leaves) stay enclosed within. This is called hypogeal germination. However, if the seed is hoisted into the air and the seed leaves burst forth, then it is a French bean. The first leaves you see are the cotyledons, followed by the typical leaves. This type of germination is called epigeal. The way I remember the difference is that a runner bean ‘hits the ground running’ so to speak, already producing its true leaves when it unfurls from the ground. The French bean is behind in the process.

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Runner Bean: hypogeal germination

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French Bean: epigeal germination

Things may just have got a bit more complicated! In the latest Organic Gardening Catalogue, I noticed a cross between a French and runner bean. As it’s listed in the runner bean category, I’m guessing (perhaps incorrectly) the germination style is hypogeal..

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This year, I am trialling a non-climbing French bean on my shady fire escape. After success with dwarf tomatoes, I’ve decided to try a short version of this sun loving bean. Interestingly, when I tried runner bean ‘Hestia’ I didn’t have much success, despite P. coccineus coping with more shading.

Further Reading:

Biddle, Anthony J., Peas and Beans (CABI, 2017)

Stickland, Sue, Back Garden Seed Saving: Keeping our Vegetable Heritage Alive (eco-logic books, 2001)

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Keep Still!

In an earlier post, I wrote about wanting to get more familiar with the different bees. I’ve been trying to identify them all year, and the only ones I can say I know with any certainty are the first to fly –  the Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and the Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes). I thought taking pictures would help with identification but those bees just won’t keep still and blurry pictures aren’t very good for identification! Occasionally, though, I do succeed in taking a good photo or two. These pictures were taken in May on the way to a job.

I was walking past Hampstead Heath and saw the bramble flowers and Hogweed umbels literally buzzing with activity. Great, I thought, I’m sure I will be able to i.d these bees. But when I looked them up, I realised there are cuckoo bees also, which resemble the others. Argh! I said to myself, pulling my hair out. Identifying bees isn’t easy! One of my lovely friends sent me a bee i.d. book, and I must say, I’m even more confused! So many bees, and there are even hoverflies which look like bees!! I will just keep looking at the book and reading bits here ‘n’ there. I’m sure it will click … eventually..

Last week, when volunteering at a local community kitchen garden, I managed to snap an action shot –  a bee mid-flight. And it didn’t turn out blurry. A fluke, to be sure! I like the way the sun is glancing off the hind tibia.

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Here’s another bee pic taken that same morning..

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Incidentally, for those people out there wishing to help bees by planting lots of lovely pollinator friendly plants, beware! The majority of plants purchased from garden centres have been treated with pesticides to make them look at their most appealing, and these chemicals may well persist in the plant when you plant them out in your garden. While trying to help, many gardeners may well be contributing to the problem of bee decline, even if they work organically. I have been guilty of this – the Lobelia that did so well for me last year in my shady growing space was bought from a local garden centre. But I bought them as bee-friendly plants. Oops!

For more info, follow this link..

http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/news/worrying-level-pesticides-found-bee-friendly-plants

There is hope though. From February 2018, no flowering plants sold by home improvement retailer  B&Q will have been grown using neonics, the pesticide most implicated in bee decline.

http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/news/bq-announce-ban-growers-treating-any-flowering-plants-neonicotinoid-pesticides

Of course, another alternative is to grow plants from seeds yourself – if you have room, that is. I only have two sunny windowsills, and these get overcrowded with seedlings as it is.

However you do it, bee kind, bee friendly, bee happy.

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Train Station Tomatoes … & other choo-choo chews

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It’s common enough to have a buffet cart on a train, or a cafe in the train station. Less common is a food growing area within a station’s boundary. But this is exactly what you’ll find abutting Platform 2 of St. Leonard’s: Warrior Square on the Sussex coast.

The potager was initiated by Transition Town Hastings who, in 2015, consulted with Southeastern Railway about the possibility of turning a vagrant patch of railway land into something more productive. A year and a half on, the resulting garden comprises four raised beds of varying sizes, soft and top fruit, and a wildflower bank with perimeter railings offering an extra dimension.

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The planting in the beds looks quite random: sage and strawberries grow in the same bed as tomatoes, sweetcorn and rosemary, with courgettes, lavender and feverfew also in company; kale and dwarf french beans share space in another bed with parsley, celery, spinach and courgette. The plant associations that really intrigued me were the underplantings of the fruit trees: the apple is sub-planted with strawberry, and a plum and damson stand over tomatoes and courgette. I suspect these were spare plants slotted into a gap to see how they’d fare. Always worth a try.

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plum (or damson?) underplanted with tomatoes

Up the bank, there is a mixture of edibles and ornamentals along the railings – cosmos, sunflowers, hebe, climbing french beans, nasturtiums.. all brightening up an otherwise bland bit of fence line.

At first glance, it may seem that the garden is overrun with weeds – more ramshackle than regular and ordered. But that is part of its charm, and has two advantages: the weeds spilling down from the wildflower bank extends foraging opportunities as some weeds can be eaten. They also increase biodiversity and hence pollinator activity, helping crops such as apples and courgettes, which require insect visitors to set fruit.

This is an open-access food growing site, with a help-yourself ethos: anybody stepping off a train here can garner a bit of veg to incorporate into their supper. If they can spare the time and energy to join in the fortnightly voluntary sessions, all the better. The underlying principles are those of the Transition Town movement, aiming to shift to a low-carbon society which is socially and environmentally just. Local produce is an integral part of this. And a train station is as good a site as anywhere to grow some tomatoes. Pass the vinaigrette, please!

 

 

 

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