A Quiet Morning

2

Herbs grow, colonise, move around the garden, always pushing beyond the artificial boundaries we attempt to impose. Common Mallow (Malva silvestris) threatens to engulf Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Iris (Iris florentina), Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) overruns the House Leek (Sempervivum tectorum); there’s a balance to be struck between natural growth and the organised nature of the physic garden. We’re attempting to restore that balance, clearing Calendula from the House Leek, thinning out the Common Mallow, and weeding out the Orach (Atriplex hortensis) which has emerged again among the Bisort (Polygonum bisorta).
Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert, grow in the gaps between paving, disrupting the divisions between pathway and bed, and there’s something in this unruly habit that’s to be welcomed; leave them, let them grow, within reason, acknowledging the tension between artifice and unconfined growth.

The Physic garden’s function is primarily aesthetic and informative, which sometimes poses problems. Many of the plants are regarded as weeds; numerous conversations with people visiting the garden bear this out, as well as the surprise and delight that weeds such as Herb Robert in flower can look so extraordinary, a mass of feathery red foliage studded with geranium pink flowers. Common Mallow is associated with the peripheral zones of the urban environment. Edward Step, in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), believed that one of its common names, Rags and Tatters […] could only have been suggested by one of the unfortunate specimens that have chanced to grow between the roadside and the ditch […] liberally coated by road dust they do present a forlorn and ragged appearance. Among the common names listed by Geoffrey Grigson in The Englishman’s Flora (1955) are, Chucky Cheese, Old Man’s Bread and Cheese, referring to the seeds, which develop after flowering. Children still eat these discs or ‘cheeses’, as they are known from Cornwall to the Border. Valued medicinally, the foliage can also be eaten as a vegetable; ragged on the roadside, but also a useful plant.

Working in this garden, weeding, tidying, replanting where necessary, we are aware of what little connection there is to a time when these plants, considered unruly and invasive by some of our visitors, were food and medicine. Teresa McClean suggests that, so many medieval plants were so variously used that almost all of them were classified as herbs, including those grown in the specialised area of the monastic infirmary garden.
John Gerard’s Herball, first published 60 years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, informs the original planting in the physic garden; the decision resting on the understanding that many of the plant remedies listed in the Herball were already considered traditional, having the authority of the classical Greek and Roman texts that the friars may have been familiar with. But Gerard wasn’t concerned with the monastic garden. A 9th century poem in Latin, by Walafrid Strabo, On The Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus), offers an insight into that intense familiarity, born out of necessity that McClean alludes to. Walafrid was Abbot of the Abbey on the island of Reichenau in the Bodensee, southwest Germany, when he wrote the poem, some four centuries before the founding of Michelham Priory.

On the Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus) is anchored in the physical processes of gardening, an activity central to the monastic ideal of prayer and work familiar to the friars at Michelham Priory: as long as you aren’t afraid of going outdoors and getting calluses all/over your grubby hands […] I gained my expertise through hard work and experience. He clears nettles that are, covering the whole area with stinging poison, carefully prepares the ground, making raised beds by edging them, with some planks. He works rich yeasty fertiliser into newly turned earth, and begins to plant out his garden. We try to coax forth some of our herbs from seeds, other we try to rejuvenate from old roots. Although separated by centuries, the poem’s intimate connection to the earth and growing resonates; time taken in careful preparation ensures that, the garden has brought to life all/the shrivelled stocks and seeds assigned to it […]. But now all my skill is required-and my learning/and eloquence as well-to present the names/and virtues of the gathered fruits, and thus/to grace these small things with my reverence for them.
He lovingly describes the plants in his small plot, mingling medicine and everyday magic with an awareness of wider economic interests. Among them Pennyroyal; a commercial commodity, reportedly valued as highly by the physicians of India/as a whole sack of black pepper amongst the Gauls; it’s medicinal actions carminative, useful to cure a sluggish stomach; and with magical properties. According to his informants, If you stick a twig of pennyroyal behind your ear, it will combat the effects of a hot summer sun.
The herbs Walafrid lists, including Agrimony, Betony, Catmint, and Sage, would be as important to an infirmary garden, as they were to his courtyard plot. They are also among the herbs we tend in this garden.

We’ve weeded out the Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert; the paths are cleared, aesthetics triumphs, at least for the moment.

 

 

 

 

Food For The Birds

Plants (or some plants) were necessary to a degree that we are forgetting.[1]

Chickweed; from the Old English cîcene mete, cîcene-mete chicken food.
Daisy; from the Old English dægeseage (about 1000, in Ælfric’s Glossary), and dæges êage day’s eye, in allusion to closing of petals in the evening, and their opening in the morning.[2]

Days of sunshine days of rain, the week passes and we’re here, again working in the physic garden. We have a routine now, time set aside; this week we’ve concentrated on the areas where Chickweed and Daisy should be growing. Chickweed, most troublesome according to John Hutchinson, but also of considerable economic and biological interest, representing a high stage of evolution. The seeds provide food for small birds nearly all the year round.

Chickweed, unsightly for some, disruptive; Daisy, a familiar flower in the memory, a flower of childhood meadows, but not welcome in the garden. Both are valued here, but no longer where they should be, no doubt casualties of over enthusiastic weeding in the years since the herb garden was established. The planting plan tells us where they should be, so do the small metal plaques growing out of bare soil. So, with hand forks and a small trug, we go for a walk around the Priory grounds, by way of the orchard where we find what we’re looking for, and then back to the Physic garden.

A man, walking through the garden, is surprised that we should think of cultivating rather than weeding out these perennials.
‘Of all things. Can’t get rid of them in our garden, thought of spraying but haven’t, yet.’
‘Good. You shouldn’t spray.’
The conversation turns on weeds and why we might want to eradicate them.
‘Nothing but a Nuisance, why would you want them in the garden, growing over everything’.
It depends on what’s considered a nuisance, an eyesore. We wouldn’t have a herb garden if we agreed with that point of view; most of the plant here being considered too unruly, would overrun the bedding plants, colonise the lawn.
‘And anyway they’re unnecessary now, we can call in at the chemist, can’t we?’
But he thinks we’re doing a fine job tidying this part of the Priory, taking care of our weeds.

Chickweed (Stellaria media); this unassuming plant has a long history. Sir Harry Godwin, in The History of the British Flora states, Stellaria media has been recorded from the Cromer Forest Bed series […]. It is apparent that S. media has been persistently native up to and through the Weichselian glaciation, […] The numerous interglacial records give striking proof of the plant’s capacity to exist here independently of human influence. Troublesome as this plant might be to some, it’s been here at least as long we have, and thrived, been useful too.
Gerard recommends: The leaves of Chickweed boiled in water very soft, adding thereto some hogs grease, the pouder of Fenugreek and Lineseed, and a few roots of Marsh Mallowes, and stamped to form a cataplasm or poultesse, take away the swellings of the leg or any other part. He also states, the leaves boiled in vinegar are good against manginesse of the hands and legs.
James Britten and Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant Names (1886), under the entry for Chickweed, say, the name was formerly applied to many small plants of similar habit, such as the annual species of Veronica […]. 
For Geoffrey Grigson, Chickweed is everywhere, winter green and happy even in the coldest months.

Daisy (Bellis perennis), Wordsworth’s little Cyclops, may be older, or rather the Asteraceae family to which Daisies belong, research into fossil pollen found in Antarctica suggesting that the Asteraceae family is about 80 million years old. The dating of this fossil pollen, together with similar finds in Australia and New Zealand, is helping to show how the Daisy family spread across the world, and the potential influence on the evolution of pollinators. Asteraceae is believed to have played a major role in the diversification and evolution of animals such as bees, hummingbirds and wasps.
For Maude Greave, the Daisy along with Ox-Eye Daisy, had a reputation for healing fresh wounds. Gerard suggests Daisy, which he calls by its English name Bruisewort, as a remedy to, mitigate all kinds of paines. A decoction, made in water and drunke, is good against agues, inflammation of the liver and all other inward parts. The decoction, in ale rather than water, was a common folk remedy for jaundice. Contemporary herbal medicine recommends the Daisy, often as a tincture, or as a tea, for a range of ailments including coughs, colds, and intestinal inflammation.

Geoffery Grigson, in The Englishman’s Flora, explores our relationship with plants, through their own human dossier, those common names that speak eloquently of the role plants have, or at least had, in our daily lives.
Among the local common names Grigson lists for Chickweed, are; Clukenweed, Cluckweed, Clukenwort, in Northumberland, Mischevious Jack, in Somerset. For Daisy; Little Open Star, Little Star, in Somerset, Mary Gowlan, in Northumberland. Naming is knowing, expressing an intimate connection with our immediate environment.
First published in 1955, when many of the local names listed might already have become obsolete, An Englishman’s Flora acts as a record of that passing, and in the process, underscores a loosening of ties with the local and familiar, perhaps inevitable in an increasingly urbanised society. We can remake these connections, through our work in the physic garden, which otherwise will remain, to many, merely a collection of weeds.

[1] Grigson, G. The Englishman’s Flora, London, 1987
[2] Barnhart, K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, London. 2000

 

chickweed_physic-garden1

 

Spring Tasks

We planted our potato tubers over the Easter weekend – traditionally, potatoes are planted out on Good Friday. Easter is the last Christian festival to be governed by the moon – Easter Sunday takes place on the 1st Sunday after the 1st full moon to occur after the Spring Equinox – hence why it moves each year. So, planting root crops on a waning moon fits with the tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday. We were taking a bit of a risk, with the freezing weather right through Easter, so we’ve covered all the beds with builders’ bags to protect from frost and to warm the soil when the sun eventually shines.

covered potato beds

We’ve also been spring cleaning, tidying beds, covering paths with wood chip, terracing and creating new beds up the hillside, space neglected up to now. The back of the allotment is almost ready to begin laying foundations for another shed – we have old fencing ready and are on the look out for sheds on Freecycle. Better to find a shed that needs work doing to it than buy an expensive and flimsy shed from a DIY chain.

Our fruit cages all collapsed under heavy snow about 4 years ago and we were not able to rebuild them. We’ve now cleared most of that area and reorganised our fruit bushes, but tackling these neglected areas has uncovered some invasive and persistent weeds that we’ve not seen before. Over the past couple of years we’ve been invaded by a variety of Hogweed, and now find that we have a major task to dig out their large fleshy root systems.

hogweed [2]

We’ve done some searching to find out about this plant and discovered it’s a biennial:  apparently, Hogweed likes chalky soil, and we garden on chalk, in some places it’s only inches from the surface. Hogweed also seems to prefer perennial fruit crops, perhaps why we found it predominately amongst our neglected fruit bushes. ‘Based on the seed characters, Hogweed seed should persist for less than 5 years and does not form a persistent seedbank’: this tells us about the seeds, but it doesn’t tell us how long the plant is likely to last on our allotment. However, there is some indication that regularly cutting back should  ‘decrease its frequency’, which suggests it becomes weakened, over time.  But, we’re getting there, and will keep looking for seedlings and getting them out of the ground before they get too big. Although we should be grateful it isn’t Gaint Hogweed, only Common Hogweed.  Weeds, after all, are our own creations, plants out of place, obstructions in our cultivation plans.