Henry VIII falls face-first in the fen and a lone heron stalks the rooftops in my Guardian Country Diary this morning… (click on image for link). More of my Country Diaries can be found here.
It was my childhood dream to see a hoopoe & today I got to write about it in The Guardian Country Diary. This one’s for you, Dad xx (Click on image for link)
This one’s been a long time in the writing & means a great deal to me – tracing my family history from our early shepherding roots living alongside the poet John Clare, through 1920s urban Manchester & into the present day. My thanks to Little Toller’s ‘The Clearing’ for the opportunity to share the story with readers…
It was such a pleasure to run this nature writing workshop for the Sussex Wildlife Trust, supported by Arts Council England and MEAction UK. Designed for anyone who enjoys watching nature out of the window, in the garden or in the local landscape, the workshop focuses on sharing experiences and developing our individual creative voices.
If you’d like to catch up with the video on YouTube, the session looks at different ways to connect with wildlife and landscape, how and where to find inspiration, and what form your writing might take. The workshop includes short guided writing exercises that can be developed into longer pieces afterwards. All you need is pen and paper (or a computer) and a natural object (feather, flower, piece of bark, etc.)
This is the first in a series of workshops for the project Moving Mountains. Led by Louise Kenward (writer in residence at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve), Moving Mountains is a new project focusing on nature writing for and by people living with chronic illness and/or physical disability. You can find out more about the project and further workshops at www.movingmountainsanthology.wordpress.com
It was such a privilege to be asked to contribute to Nicola Chester’s fantastic curated series on place, protest and belonging on The Clearing this week…
The towpath beside the River Lee is a study in mauve with sprays of Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris) sprawling along the verge and out over the water. Often reduced to stunted tufts in managed verges, wilder areas that have been spared the mower allow this jaunty perennial to spread luxuriantly, its stems trailing and reaching up to a metre.
In our wildflower meadow (if a 4m x 1m patch in the lawn merits such a name, which for idealism’s sake we think it does) Common Mallow’s open, five-petalled flowers colour in the gaps between Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) and Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis). It was the first flower my daughter learnt to identify and amongst the first I attempted to paint in watercolours, but our affection for this wildflower is just the latest chapter in its long history as a familiar plant growing outside the backdoor or down the lane.
As members of the Malvacaea family, Mallows are related to Hollyhocks (Alcea), Hibiscus and Limes (Tilia). Like Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata) and Large-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos), Common Mallow has edible leaves and flowers, but the nutlets or fruits (known colloquially as ‘cheeses’) were the part of the plant most prized by children as a wayside snack.
I like to rewind a couple of centuries and imagine the children in my family munching on the nutty cheeses, a tradition recounted by poet John Clare who shared a cottage in rural Helpston in Northamptonshire with my shepherding ancestors back in the 1820s. In The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), Clare describes a thresher musing on his childhood:
The sitting down, when school was oer
Upon the threshold by his door
Picking from mallows sport to please
Each crumpld seed he calld a cheese.
I can’t help wondering if, one summer morning in the late 1820s, my young great-great-great grandfather Henry might have picked a fistful of mallow nutlets to give him something to nibble on as he trotted beside his father on their way to tend the sheep in the Helpston fields. While Henry might have been thinking about his handful of cheeses, children in other counties knew them as ‘rags and tatters’, ‘old man’s bread and cheese’ or ‘Billy buttons’.
Mallows were also important for their medicinal properties with both Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta) and Common Mallow collected by the local herbalist in John Clare’s poem ‘The Village Doctress’ to add to her potions. They had a wide range of uses including as a laxative and purgative, and as poultices for bruises, inflammation and insect bites due to the soothing powers of the mucilage in the leaves.
Other native mallows in the UK include Musk-mallow (Malva moschata) with its delicate pinkish or occasionally white flowers in July and August, and slightly later from August to September, Marsh-mallow (Althaea officinalis), soft white with the merest whisper of rose-blush. Marsh-mallow was most valued for the demulcent properties of its leaves and roots – the latter was the original source of the glutinous substance in marshmallows, a sweet treat now commonly (and somewhat less romantically) concocted from sugar, water and gelatin.
Common Mallow’s nectar-rich flowers are a mauve magnet for pollinating insects. In 1999, a study at Cambridge University Botanic Garden revealed that Honeybees (Apis mellifera)and Red-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) were the most frequent visitors to both Musk-mallow and Common Mallow. Hoverflies, solitary bees and Small White (Pieris rapae) and Large White (Pieris brassicae) butterflies are also attracted to the blooms.
Caterpillars of the imaginatively-named Mallow Moth (Larentia clavaria) feed on Common Mallow, although they will forsake their main larval foodplant to feed on Hollyhocks in the garden too. If feeding caterpillars are disturbed, they drop to the ground and curl up, disguising themselves as mallow seeds. Least Yellow Underwing (Noctua interjecta) larvae eat Common Mallow leaves too, while Hollyhock Seed Moth (Pexicopia malvella) caterpillars seek out the seeds of Marsh-mallow as well as feeding on Hollyhocks.
Common Mallow thrives in most soils and is an ideal addition to a wildflower meadow (however small) and any sunny wildlife garden. Marsh-mallow is also easy to grow and its tall (1.2m) flower spikes have an elegant charm at the back of an informal or wildlife border. At the more modest height of 60-90cm, Musk-mallow suits sunny spots in wildflower meadows or the middle of cottage borders. It is a fairly short-lived perennial, but will self-seed.
Both common mallow and common lime have edible parts, but should be eaten with caution as nitrates in the soil (for mallow) and old flowers (for lime) can cause problems. Mallow should be avoided by people with gallstones. See the Plants for a Future database for further information.
To buy mallow plants and seeds, try Bee Happy Plants, Chiltern Seeds, Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, Scotia Seeds, Cumbria Wildflowers, Norfolk Herbs, PlantWild and other growers on the Peat Free Nurseries List.
If you’d like to read more articles on nature, gardening, wildflowers and the environment, you can follow my blog by clicking below to subscribe…
Nic Wilson and Dogwooddays do not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. Always ensure it is legal to forage and where identification is concerned, if in doubt, leave it out.
It’s been a quiet year or so on the blog, partly due to family illness and months of home-schooling – the kinds of issues many of us have been dealing with in our lockdown lives. But I’ve also been completing a Diploma in Advanced Non-Fiction at the University of Cambridge, continuing to write for The Guardian Country Diary and contributing to the anthology Women on Nature.
Last month, I was delighted to be one of 12 writers longlisted for the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize in association with Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre, judged by writers Damian Barr and Frances Wilson, and Catherine Cho, a writer and literary agent.
My piece is an extract from the book I’m currently writing, which explores ways of engaging with everyday landscapes based on my own experiences as a displaced Northerner, a stay-at-home mum and someone dealing with long-term fatigue – a symptom of coeliac disease.
Frances Wilson commented that it was ‘an ambitious meditation on memory and the senses, with its roots in the soil of John Clare’.
If you’d like to explore these new voices and also read my piece (with guest appearances from a puss moth caterpillar, memory-saving bombweed and my two-year-old binoculared self), all 12 extracts have now been collected in an online anthology available to download here.
Meanwhile, I’ll be back on the blog with a series on wild flowers in the garden very soon.
Images from the Spread the Word website
Went for a lovely walk this afternoon that reminded me how vital our wild places are, especially at the moment. This is a piece on the importance of my local patch, first published Friday 9 October in The Guardian Country Diary.
There’s a spring-fed sliver of alder carr shaped like a thought bubble near the source of the River Purwell. Before the pandemic, I volunteered here with the local wildlife trust and I’m often drawn back to this swampy woodland in search of solace and inspiration. Alongside the holloway that skirts the carr’s eastern edge, I learnt to lay a hedge, or ‘plash’ it to use an old Hertfordshire term. On a raised bank unceremoniously named The Dump, I’ve coppiced elder and hazel to allow light to reach the understorey and when life is too loud and angular, I sit with the mosses or settle in the sedges on the riverbank and watch the little egrets fly by, trailing their washing-up glove feet behind them.
As I dip into the wood on this hazy autumn morning, the lopsided basketry of the laid hedge looks familiar and welcoming. After several grim housebound weeks recovering from Lyme Disease, the act of walking into the carr feels like an exhalation, a gentle homecoming. In front of me, as if anticipating my return, the wood’s last surviving black poplar has lowered a drawbridge – a vast plank of riven bark, taller than a woman, now lying across the path. The top half has fractured, sending corky chunks drifting off into a sea of dog’s mercury and hedge woundwort like a disintegrating life raft. This poplar’s days are numbered; already the wood is reclaiming its bare trunk in alder, elder and bittersweet spirals.
Mired in glassy black pools at the heart of the carr, titanic common alders rise twenty metres above the water. I walk across the spongy woodland floor, picking my way warily through the marshy areas, leaving a fenny trail in my wake as each footprint fills behind me. In the waterlogged soil, alder roots are engaged in symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi and the nitrogen-fixing bacterium Frankia alni in a mutually beneficial exchange of nutrients. I rest my head against the nearest alder trunk, feel the rasp of lichen on my cheek. I stand rooted here for a long time, transfixed by the fecundity of life beneath my feet and its invisible impact on the superficial layer – the tip of the iceberg – that we call wood.
It’s a sultry September afternoon and I’m pottering round the garden, deadheading the dahlias as I go. I can hear the echinacea gently buzzing as a drowsy bumblebee picks its way across the tawny central cone. On the dwarf blue lavender hedge that edges the border, a green-veined white butterfly is also making the most of the late nectar supply.
The flowerbeds have been attracting large numbers of bumblebees, hoverflies, solitary bees, beetles and butterflies all summer long – especially the borage, globe thistles, calendula and red valerian. It is always a privilege to share the garden with wild creatures, especially when they play such a fundamental role in supporting ecosystems and pollinating our crops.
We’ve tried to choose as many plants as possible for the garden with pollinators in mind – avoiding double flowers, incorporating small areas of wildflowers in the lawn, including a range of flower shapes for different pollinators, adding a mix of plants that bloom from early spring until late autumn and encouraging ivy to colonise the bottom of the garden near the shed to extend the nectar season over winter.
We’re often told that even the tiniest patio or window box can grow plants to benefit pollinators – and this is absolutely true. No space is too small. Each individual plot, however modest, is part of the one million acres of garden habitat in the UK, each acre of which (depending on our planting choices) can make a significant difference in the fight against the catastrophic biodiversity declines that have seen a 68% fall in wildlife populations since 1970, according to the WWF Living Planet Report 2020.
But that’s not the end of the story. The recent focus on the damaging effects of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on pollinating insects is highlighting the unfortunate irony of buying ‘plants for pollinators’ that may have been treated with synthetic chemicals. Even if we make informed planting choices, with the best of intentions we could be unwittingly offering a poisoned chalice to pollinators, adding flowers to our containers, beds and borders that could be laced with residues of synthetic chemicals that risk harming the very insects we’re trying to support.
The Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme
With this issue in mind, the National Botanic Garden of Wales recently launched their innovative Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme. When I spoke to Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the Garden, she highlighted several problems that consumers currently face when attempting to buy pollinator-friendly plants from nurseries or garden centres. The first issue is that many ‘plants for pollinators’ lists aren’t based on scientific data, unlike the list behind the Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme which is backed by many years of scientific research on the best plants for pollinators. Plants with the Saving Pollinators logo have been scientifically proven to support pollinators (based on a strong evidence base of data from the Botanic Garden’s DNA-barcoding research).
Natasha and I also discussed the depressing fact that most of the plants we buy (even if they are suitable for pollinating insects) are still grown in peat – the extraction of which destroys ecosystems and the environment, releasing vast amounts of climate change gases into the atmosphere. The Saving Pollinators logo can only be used on plants grown in peat-free compost – meaning consumers don’t need to choose between supporting pollinators and protecting the environment.
Finally, Natasha emphasised the lack of information available to consumers concerning the insecticides that have been used on the plants they are considering buying. I have certainly struggled in the past to find nurseries that can give me any assurances that their plants have been grown without the use of pesticides. To enable consumers to make informed purchases, all plants sold under the Saving Pollinators logo are guaranteed to have been grown without the use of synthetic insecticides.
I witnessed the widespread desire to make environmentally-responsible gardening choices last September when I compiled the UK’s Peat-Free Nurseries list. I was truly overwhelmed by the positive response to the list, which has already sent many thousands of readers to independent peat-free nurseries across the UK (many of whom are also pesticide-free) and I’m equally excited about the Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme which I believe will enable gardeners to support pollinating insects more effectively. It is being trialled initially with growers and nurseries across Wales (some of whom deliver nationally) and Natasha is hoping that the scheme, or something similar, can be rolled out across the UK in the near future.
The sunshine has brought out the ladybirds on our snow-in-summer. Some hurry along the raised bed sleepers in between the silvery leaves, clearly preoccupied with ladybird business, while others doze and mate on the warm wood.
The kids have always enjoyed watching these charismatic beetles with their striking patterns and distinct spots, so we decided to focus on ladybirds for our garden school maths project (with a bit of art and natural history thrown in for good measure). Ladybirds emerge from hibernation during spring, so now is a great time to go on a ladybird hunt. There are over 40 species in the UK, although only 26 resemble what we would generally think of as ladybirds. The number of spots varies between the species from 2 to 24 – ideal as the basis for a range of garden equations.
We started by learning about different species and drawing some of the different patterns so we’d be able to identify any ladybirds we found. Favourites included the 14-spot ladybird which we later found on the whitecurrant and the multi-coloured 10-spot ladybird. Once we’d learnt a bit about the different species we might find in the garden, it was time to get calculating…
MATHS: CALCULATE AREA
- Choose a sunny afternoon when ladybirds are likely to be out and about. Begin by measuring the length and breadth of a border, garden or any green space that you have access to – in metres.
- Calculate the area of your space by multiplying the two numbers together, to find the area in m2.
- Now measure out a m2 quadrat in one section of your space (1m x 1m) or a smaller quadrat – maybe 0.25m2 (0.5m x 0.5m) – if your space is restricted. Mark it out with bamboo canes or twine.
RECORD LADYBIRD NUMBERS
- Count all the ladybirds you can find in the quadrat and record by species on a tally chart. We also recorded ladybird larva, but not by species.
- Make a bar chart or pie chart to display the numbers and species.
- Work out how many quadrats there are in the whole space by dividing the total area by the area of your quadrat. Round up to the nearest m2.
- Calculate the estimated number of ladybirds in your space by multiplying the number in the quadrat by the number of quadrats in the total space.
- Of course, it’s possible that there are not many ladybirds in the quadrat or that those you find are all of one species. If this is the case, imagine some different scenarios such as:
- You find 10 two-spot ladybirds, 6 thirteen-spot ladybirds and 3 twenty-two spot ladybirds (feeding on the mildews on your herbaceous plants!) How does this change your calculations?
- What would happen if you find 12 ten-spot ladybirds, 9 five-spot ladybirds (you’ve clearly got a Welsh river running through the garden) and 4 beautiful yellow fourteen-spot ladybirds?
- Consider the equations in terms of spots rather than individual ladybirds. How many ladybird spots are there in your total space?
- Complete the same exercise for the results above in blue and make up some of your own ladybird sums.
- Throw in a few non-native harlequin ladybirds just to mix things up a bit. They can have up to nineteen spots!
- Attract more ladybirds to your garden in future by building a bug hotel to give insects somewhere to shelter.
- Avoid using pesticides in the garden – instead encourage natural predators like ladybirds, ladybird larva and blue tits that will eat problem insects such as aphids.
- Don’t be too tidy – overgrown areas, long grass and hollow stems left over winter are all beneficial habitats for ladybirds.
- The only disadvantage to creating an amazing habitat for ladybirds is that next year’s maths equations will be far more tricky!!!
For more garden schooling ideas – you can follow the blog below…
I’ll be posting another project soon and if you’d like to read about our last projects you can explore the Seed Sowing Challenge and Nature Spells lessons here: