Category Archives: plants

Pennycress, Willowherb

IMG_0503Because it was a sunny day and I’d just missed my connection – watching powerless as my homebound train pulled out of the station without me (always painful, much worse than missing it by ten or even five minutes) – I walked on to the end of the platform where sun struck stone paving unimpeded by canopies or walls. A row of advertising boards, brash inducements to buy the latest ‘Number 1 Crime’ books, each with their own moody picture, intimating the gruesome and forensic, gradually petered out. I was happier looking at the stone underfoot, the grid of moulded rectangles harbouring sweet green creases of moss the further along I walked.

A tiny pennycress grew out of nothing, no visible earth, valiant among the coming and going of trains with their strident livery and their harried passengers, noses in novels, fingertips stroking screens, ears plugged against the outside world – I knew this because I’d just been one of them.

At the very end the platform sloped gently down until it met grey-blue clinker. I could see some plants with red leaves growing among it, sturdy against the sharp stones. Deep-veined, prolific, possibly a willowherb. I ambled slowly down the ramp scanning for any other plant life that might be thriving in this apparently inhospitable setting. The toothed leaves of an unfamiliar thistle wrapped themselves around a discarded bolt, rusty and large enough to be missed.

I eased the rucksack off my shoulders and placed it on the ground at my feet; knelt to look more closely and touch the veined leaves I’d seen from a distance, fiery in the sunlight that warmed my face and shoulders after such a very long winter, cramped and flowerless.

I dug in the pocket of the rucksack for my camera to take a picture in the afternoon light, all the lovelier for coming unannounced, unexpected. I crouched down again to focus close enough to catch these low-to-the-ground, unostentatious plants.

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Come away from there, now, step away, step away.   Please return to the platform.

A loud voice, with worry in it, a man’s. I lifted my head to see a bearded young man in a lilac uniform carrying a walkie-talkie. He repeated his instructions as if it were a matter of life and death, staying at the top of the ramp some distance from me. Until proven innocent, clearly I was dangerous.

Come up now, come back to the platform.

Another man, shorter, navy blue jumper, stood beside the first, twitching slightly. If he’d had a gun, he’d have his finger on the trigger. I could tell how much it cost him to say nothing. The tremor in his shoulders gave him away.

I had a choice: to argue the toss and claim my freedom as a citizen, my fundamental right to look at plants in the sunshine while waiting for a train; or simply let it go and reassure them – for I could see they were anxious about something and were in dire need of reassurance – that I wasn’t a terrorist, or suicidal, or a flagrant destroyer of railway property.  Though what they were reading into my grey hair and best black coat was a puzzle to me, a disguise impenetrable even to myself.

I’m just taking some photographs.

Forced to confess, it sounded like a crime. To persuade them it was true, the only sin I was committing was photography, I lifted up my camera and the shorter man started bobbing from foot to foot. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told me to drop it and raise my hands above my head. 15.34, a Wednesday and Central Station was suddenly an action thriller. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for these men, looking down at me, chests puffed out – so keen to do their duty, or be seen to do their duty, on high alert where there was nothing to be alert about. How exhausting it must be to wear a lilac uniform, carry a walkie-talkie and suspect middle-aged women of unspeakable crimes, a threat to the common good and trains running on time.

IMG_0506I made my way up the ramp slowly, with dignity I hoped: the only way I could express my deep disappointment at such misdirection of human energy, a senselessness that seemed to becoming more and more familiar, not just to me but everyone I speak to. Resistance burned at the core of me, political, existential. The willowherb remained unphotographed.  Had it come to this – that a person was no longer able to look at flowers growing in a railway station when the weather coaxed them in that direction? Would it have been different if I was a man writing down the number of a passing train?

The two men looked disappointed too.  Perhaps that I’d proved such easy meat and offered no further opportunity for their heroics. The drama had come and gone too quickly. I wanted them to be embarrassed but no one apologised to anyone else. Not I, nor the men, who turned on their heels and scurried back towards the main body of the station, disappearing in the coolness of the shade.

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Wild Teasel

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Dipsacus sylvestris

‘the wild and the manured Teasel – two different species’

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there is a fmall Moth about twice the size of the Euonymella, fpeckled with black, which finds its way into this formidable plant, and makes a comfortable and fecure domicilium of its fpinous head

                Flora Londiniensis, Vol II 1796

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One Week in May

Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.

Alfred Austin

– for Karen and Joe – 

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am I dreaming

this garden

or is it dreaming me?

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the sudden marvel

of a cactus bloom

white peacock tail

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starburst and curl

empty-hearted

a clematis unclenching

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modelled in wax

souvenir

from Mars

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intoxicating

the fin de siècle scent

of lilac

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behind glass

Nerys’s peonies always

on the point of opening

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what to love most

leaves

or their shadows?

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a bowl of stones

blue lavender

raven skull and wingbone

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a spiral

of green thoughts

going nowhere

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something French

about their flicked tips

just so, chic

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the ramparts

say what they mean

and mean what they say

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a second spiral

going nowhere

slowly

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a whole afternoon

reading the trees

binding their torn pages

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to a house of flowers

I bring flowers –

two kinds of lilies

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after rain

the smell of green

rinsed awake

 

 

 

Holly Hill

Northumberland

1 – 10 May 2015

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November

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On Thursday we gathered at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham to launch another wild – a new edition of a pamphlet published ten years ago under the title wild.  There was a mix-up between the publishers and the printers so it came back with much thinner paper and cover than expected but the small print run quickly sold out.  We always hoped we might work on another edition and now, with a beautiful new re-design by Melanie Ashby, here it is…

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In 2002, the artist Birtley Aris and I sought out a wild flower each month in different places around the north-east of England.  This is from the original introduction:

We were interested in ordinary, less well-known spots as well as more obvious landmarks; the surprising uncontained spaces in towns and cities as well as the rural environment.

Inspired by the reverberations of wild, we wanted to seek out and celebrate that particular quality of North – an autonomous identity, the open spaces, resilient flora and fauna, unfolding seasons, relatively sparse population and unequivocal weather.

From the start we envisaged setting the large-scale context of landscape alongside the miniature world of wild flowers. Some months we had an idea of the flower we were looking for; others we left it to chance, waiting to see what was growing.

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For the new version we have included eight more poems that pick up the themes of wild and take them somewhere else – looking at light, energy, memory and belonging.  They are introduced by this wonderful quotation from Pico Iyer:

Love is a wildness that has been falsely domesticated.

We were very lucky to have Morag Brown playing the violin for us, her wild northern tunes creating just the right atmosphere and bringing us all together in a celebration of place and this new work in print.

If you missed it, there’ll be another chance to hear some of the poems and buy the book at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle on Thursday 4th December, 7pm.  No need to book – all welcome.

Mugwort

 

Who could say exactly where a river

shifts shape into sea? Where current collides

with tide? On the pier’s stone slopes, mugwort

grows in spite of the salt and the weather:

who could say where its black becomes brown

becomes silver-grey? Today everything

is edgeless and strange. Even the spray

from the waves battering the southern jetty

bursts in the air like fireworks: a negative

framed by the window of the Bungalow Café.

Dirty glass catches the blur of what

could be a man, crouching to make a sketch

of mugwort fronds, like alchemical wands,

chancing their silver. Although, who could say?

 

Artemisia vulgaris

Roker Pier, Sunderland

November

 

 

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Floo’ers

The garden is a paradox, combining mathematics

and magic, history and myth, science and art,

reality and utopia.

John Dixon Hunt
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Yesterday I enjoyed an unexpected outing with the Corbridge Gardening Society to two gardens in Border Country – Floors Castle and Mindrum. It was a gorgeous summer’s day, ideal for exploring these two very different gardens in the company of some expert gardeners and plantswomen.

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I wanted Floors to be Scots for floo’ers but I suspect it’s too grand for that. The scale of the place – gardens, grounds and castle – was astonishing. And only 3 permanent gardeners to keep it in such immaculate condition, when back in the 19th century they had 100!   As we sat and drank our coffee, we had plenty of time to enjoy the blue and silver border. I thought this was my favourite bed until we turned the corner and saw the ‘hot’ border – a stunning stretch of reds and pinks, yellows and oranges. And then taking a right by the ‘rose chains’ (great swags of pink ramblers), there were more delights – the softer pastels of the spring and summer borders.

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Mindrum was more modest, but equally original. Working with the shape of the land, falling away down to the winding Bowmont Water, one of the Tweed’s tributaries, the garden doesn’t waste an inch.

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The more formal upper gardens, lush with clever planting and traditional sculptures, soften as they descend, incorporating a variety of perennials, trees and bamboos along the riverside.   Afterwards we were treated to a wonderful tea in a big white tent, looking out onto the beautiful Northumbrian countryside. Perfect end to a perfect day!

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Tune In

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A couple of sound pieces are now available online…

Just back from the lovely Ledbury Poetry Festival, where, as well as hearing some fantastic readings (Sharon Olds, Sujata Bhatt, Anne Micheals, Brenda Hillman, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Maggie Sawkins, Glyn Maxwell and Robert Hass), I took part in two events. One for the Poetry Society was a showcase of this year’s National Poetry Competition winners and I read alongside Josephine Abbott and Elaine Gaston. Ed Doegar asked us about writing ‘winning poems’ and there were questions from the floor.

You can hear a podcast I recorded with Mike Sims last month at the Poetry Society here.

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The other event at Ledbury was called Moon & Meadow – with sound recordist Chris Watson. We revisited our 2008 collaboration The Moon & Flowers, as well as creating a new piece from a recent sequence, set closer to home but also charting the cycle of the seasons, called Stone Meadow. The mono recording is rather plain compared with Chris’s audio wizardry where the songs of birds and gentle sounds of weather rippled through the packed Baptist Church on a balmy summer evening. Later we watched a plump pale orange moon rise in the sky above the town.

You can listen to Moon & Meadow here.

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Flowers and the Female

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I’ve been very much enjoying having some Cerinthe in the house (or Honeywort – as they’re beloved by bees) – a present from my friend Susie, grown in her beautiful Allendale garden. Although only an annual, it is has survived all through this winter.  I have a new plant of my own, with no flowers just yet, but it’s looking happy enough.

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I was pleased to learn that the name Cerinthe comes from the Greek – keros, for ‘wax’, after the almost fleshy texture of the leaves and bracts;  anthos means ‘flower’ (which gives us the word ‘anthology’).  To my ear it still sounds like a woman’s name.

Why is it girls are often named after flowers but no one thinks to name a boy after one?  I can only summon up Rowan Atkinson (strictly speaking a tree, for which there might be different rules) and Lupin in The Diary of a Nobody.  Anybody know any more?

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Auricula Theatre

I am fascinated by the way many aspects of the horticultural world are so arcane and specialised, marked by an obsessive attention to detail. National Collections and Plant Societies are just a couple of ways this manifests itself.  I stumbled upon a reminder in the glasshouses at Temple Newsam in Leeds last week.  Even the method of display reflects the emphasis on order and classification beloved of a certain type of gardener.  Apparently this particular type is called an Auricula Theatre – there is indeed drama in it, a striking sense of mise en scène.

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Lines To An Auricula, Belonging To –

 

Thou rear’st thy beauteous head, sweet flow’r

Gemm’d by the soft and vernal show’r;

Its drops still round thee shine:

The florist views thee with delight;

And, if so precious in his sight,

Oh! what art thou in mine?

 

For she, who nurs’d thy drooping form

When Winter pour’d her snowy storm,

Has oft consol’d me too;

For me a fost’ring tear has shed, –

She has reviv’d my drooping head,

And bade me bloom anew.

 

When adverse Fortune bade us part,

And grief depress’d my aching heart,

Like yon reviving ray,

She from behind the cloud would move,

And with a stolen look of love

Would melt my cares away.

 

Sweet flow’r! supremely dear to me,

Thy lovely mistress blooms in thee,

For, tho’ the garden’s pride,

In beauty’s grace and tint array’d,

Thou seem’st to court the secret shade,

Thy modest form to hide.

 

Oh! crown’d with many a roseate year,

Bless’d may she be who plac’d thee here,

Until the tear of love

Shall tremble in the eye to find

Her spirit, spotless and refin’d,

Borne to the realms above!

 

And oft for thee, sweet child of spring!

The Muse shall touch her tend’rest string;

And, as thou rear’st thine head,

She shall invoke the softest air,

Or ask the chilling storm to spare,

And bless thy humble bed.

 

Sir John Carr    (1772–1832)

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The National Auricula Society

From the early years of the 17th Century there have been shows for florist flowers – including Auriculas. The early shows were held in public houses…

The National Auricula Society was founded in 1872-73. With the support of the Manchester Botanical Council the first revived exhibition of the National Auricula Society was held on Tuesday the 29th of April 1873. The prizes at the first show were of cash and appear to have been extremely generous. Class A for six dissimilar show varieties, one at least in each of the classes Green, Grey, White Edged and Self, had a first prize of 60s (£3.00). In the single plant classes the premium prize was 10s (50p) and first prize was 8s (40p) – these prizes would be more than most people could earn in a week.

The fact that only subscribers of over 10s could enter the multi-pot classes tells us that the early members must have been comparatively wealthy. In fact they were often manufacturers and professional gentlemen.  Ladies were still absent.

In 1890 it was resolved that supports, i.e. staking, would be allowed in all classes but packing in the truss was not to be allowed… In 1912 three cups were purchased: one each for Show Auriculas, Alpine Auriculas and Gold Laced Polyanthus, together with three medals and a die.  The total cost was £18-8s-3d…

The word Primula was added to the society title in 1948 and so became The National Auricula and Primula Society (Northern Section). 

(extract from the Society’s website)

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