Plant of the month: May foxgloves

One of the most positive things about gardening is that you live in the now and look to the future simultaneously. Never is that more tangible than at this time of year. As May is burgeoning into June all my biennials are beginning to bloom. As I watch them I sow the same varieties (often from last year’s collected seed) to plant out in the Autumn. These will be next year’s blooms. The perfect cycle.

I sow sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty every year. Forget me nots self-seed prolifically in our garden as do my particular favourites – foxglove although I usually sow some as well. We have several shady parts of our garden and these do well in shade or sun so are one of my utility plants for early Summer. In places here they are surrounded by ferns and campanula; in others by bronze fennel or quaking grass; some do their thing among euphorbia and sweet woodruff. I love them all and the folklore that accompanies them.

Foxgloves contain digitalis and other cardiac glycosides and so it’s best to use gloves when handling the plants. These chemicals affect the heart. It’s poisonous although recorded poisonings from this plant are very rare. In fact an old Welsh legend proclaims the foxglove’s connection to the most celebrated physicians in Wales. Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could use that famous Welsh rhetoric on her. He returned every evening looking for her and eventually he asked advice from a wise man. The answer was cheese – inevitable if you’re attempting to attract a Celtic woman, I’d have thought. I’d go a long way for a decent hunk of cheese. Sure enough the cheese gift worked, she came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

The sons grew and Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told him he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejewelled magic box. The three sons opened it and found a list of all medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous physicians in all of Wales.

Foxgloves are fairy plants too. In the Scottish borders, foxglove leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason. Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, either because it robs the fairies of a plant they love or they allow the devil into the house. I never pick them for the vase because they do such sterling work in the garden. These flowers are universally connected with women. In Roman times, the foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora and has been associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets – we all have a few of these – but by the Victorian era they had become a much more negative symbol of insincerity.

Easy to sow and excellent self-seeders, foxgloves are well worth starting off now to flower next year. It’s good to have something to look forward to.

Beltane: Bluebell woods, plant fairs, fire baskets and hawthorn brandy.

Beltane – the start of Summer if you’re a Celt – and the beginnings of all sorts of outdoor shenanigans. It may have brought the first rain in weeks – always a bonus if you don’t have to water your seedlings in May – but there are stirrings within me to cross the threshold, get outside, move more and be less reflective and more outgoing than I have been over the Winter and Spring. This move from reflective to outward-looking is an annual event for me. It lasts for six months until the end of October, when I want to batten down the hatches again and stay at home more. Over the years I have learnt to listen to my body and my mind and to accept that this is part of my psychological make-up. It keeps me centred, grounded and content. I don’t fight it anymore. Wisdom and acceptance has been the gift of aging.

Yesterday we went for a wander round nearby Iford Manor Gardens to admire their tulips, breathe in their fabulous array of woodland wild garlic and commiserate with them about the wisteria blossom, which had been killed off by the frost. Today I indulged in a bit of retail therapy at Great Chalfield Manor‘s May Day plant fair. The bluebells are out in force in the garden and in the woods around about. We have a new fire basket to sit around on the terrace of an evening over the coming months and I have limited amounts of marking to do this weekend. All’s right with the world.

The Beltane festival is one of the great fire festivals when cleansing bonfires are lit and cattle are prodded out of their comfortable winter lodgings and driven into the freedom and opportunity of summer pasture. I’ll be prodding my year 11 students out of their comfort zone and towards the opportunities of the GCSE exams. Well dressing, Morris dancing, Maypoles, handfasting ceremonies are all traditional May Day pursuits but there are a number of traditional ways to celebrate Beltane at home, of course.

  1. Dress in Green – Too bad, I went early. Yesterday’s attire was green.
  2. Stay out all night – You must be joking. I can barely stay awake past 9 o’ clock.
  3. Conceive a new project – Already in hand.
  4. Dress your home and/or altar with greenery Do pot plants count? My focus is on the garden at this time of year.
  5. Dress a tree. Hang ribbons from its branches, each ribbon represents a wish or prayer. – More our kind of thing when the children were little. Spending time with the trees in the garden, ensuring they’re growing well must be good too.
  6.  This is the festival of Flora. A little jug full of flowers grown in the garden will lift the spirits at any time of year.
  7. Make some Hawthorn Brandy – Why wouldn’t I?

Hawthorn Brandy recipe.

So easy. You will need a 375ml bottle of brandy and at least 225g of hawthorn flowers, plus a little sugar to taste (up to 125g). Pick the flowers over carefully for bugs. Wash and dry them. Mix the ingredients together, shake well and leave away from direct light, for a couple of months. (This is where I am smug about the recently acquired capacious pot cupboards. So much more room for preserving like this.) Shake every day for one week and once a week for two months. Strain into sterilised bottles and enjoy. Hawthorn is renowned as a tonic for the heart.

Beltane blessings to you and yours.

Seed moon and Easter Day.

‘Twas a beautiful full moon last night – the seed moon or paschal moon so called because, well, it’s sowing time and Easter. I always find full moons amplify my emotions and the urge at this time of year is to take courage, seize the day, clear the clutter and make a fresh start. So that’s what I’ll be doing.

This time of year is practically perfect for noticing what parts of your life have run their course, letting go of whatever weighs you down and keeps your life out of balance. Easier said than done, I know but also remarkably freeing. It’s in the quiet moments that enlightenment truly floods in – like at 6am this morning outside the church door with a dozen or so friends and neighbours. We lit our candles from the firebowl and proceeded into the dark church to welcome in Easter Day once more. The reflection of Lent is over; the pain and sacrifice of Holy Week is done and we are free to move forward, albeit with a little uncertainty at first. But confidence will grow. Work-life balance is something that definitely needs attention. I hope that by Easter next year I will have spent more time with my family and less time marking piles of exercise books late at night in the kitchen.

Happy Easter.

Festivals of Spring

When you’re too overloaded at work to properly celebrate the Spring Equinox then you’re honour bound to go large at Easter, right? I love the opportunity to mix celebrating the old ways and an important Christian festival. It’s what the early Christians did after all. There are rituals associated with every school holiday but the ones in Spring always seem so hopeful and expansive. The family is back together for a few weeks; walks and picnics to local beauty spots are once more; the garden has come through the winter and is full of potential and there is a sense of perfect balance on the journey through the wheel of the year. The days are getting longer and warmer, life moves outside and the energy is expansive and exhuberant. I need that sense of renewal right now. If you live in the countryside the symbolism of the Spring festivals is all around – hares, eggs, chicks and nest building.

We’ll be collecting twigs to make up our Easter tree, baking simnel cake and chocolate cake, walking at Stourhead, Lacock or Great Chalfield, attending a dawn service on Easter Day and celebrating a couple of family birthdays with a special Easter tea. There are seeds to sow in the garden, garden furniture to repaint, spring cleaning to do and plans to be mulled over. I’m spending an hour in the garden with a notebook and a hot cross bun – powerful Christian symbol of resurrection and Celtic Cross, two Equinoxes crossed by the two Solstices, the four seasons, the four Sacred Directions of North, East, South and West and the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water with Spirit at the Centre. The circumference represents the cycle of the year, the circle of life, with the still point of balance at its centre. And you thought it was just a tasty treat spread with butter?

Plant of the month: April forget-me-nots

The garden is just beginning to burgeon with a multitude of perennials and so I’m spoilt for choice when deciding on a plant for April. Wild garlic? Tulips? In the light of my belief – and experience – that gardening is not all about hard slog, that nature knows best, that no plant will thrive in the wrong place, and that everything in the garden must have a resonance or a use – preferably both- I have plumped for the humble forget-me-not.

They grow like weeds in our garden, popping up in the veg patch, in the borders at the base of rose bushes and in the gravel near the kitchen door. I have never planted them and remove plenty to avoid them taking over but who am I to turn down a free plant, particularly when they have such poignant folklore attached to them?

They are symbols of fidelity when separated from a partner – no chance of that any more with the husband working from home- Forget-me-nots also symbolize protection and luck. It’s believed that they have the power to protect humans against witches, which is always handy around these parts. King Henry IV used this flower symbol as his lucky charm during his exile in 1398, and ever afterward. As for their name, the narrative reads that a knight in armour died trying to pick the flowers from a riverbank for a lover, only to be swept away in front of her, his words ‘forget me not’ carried by the breeze. As any safety manager will tell you, doing anything in a full suit of armour requires a risk assessment in triplet. Clearly said knight was a bit too spontaneous. Another story suggests that the forget -me-not was the last to be picked at the games when the flowers were named, and its plaintive cry gave the flower its name. Bit needy if you ask me and somewhat reminiscent of Alistair Cooke when we were picking teams for rounders at school. (I heard he took to the gym at university and ended up rowing rather successfully).

More recently this simple flower has been the symbol of International Missing Children’s Day and of the Alzheimer’s Society. And as both my mother and my mother-in-law – neither with us in person – had Spring birthdays, it’s the perfect flower for our April garden. I like its association, the delicate colour of the flowers, just right for this time of year although I crave bolder jewel colours later in the season. I love the way it looks so natural next to the cowslips near the compost heap at the bottom of the garden and I love its short, pointed leaves reminiscent of mouse ears. (The genus name Myosotis comes from the Greek word mus and otos – mouse ear). These delicate blooms more than earn their place in any cottage garden but they are toxic to humans – so don’t be tempted to prettify a salad with them. Butterflies and bees in the eco-garden will love them however.

These boots were made for walking

It is a truth universally acknowledged that this Celt owns more sturdy boots than pairs of shoes. And these boots have put in plenty of work shifts- – in the garden, around numerous National Trust properties and in the lanes and fields within a stone’s throw of home over the Winter. They have been to Pembrokeshire beaches and Wiltshire barrows. They’ve beaten the same path near one of our local farm shops and another round the back of the allotments, through fallow fields, past sheep flocks, down to the river, through the woods and along the canal towpath.

Plenty of people discovered the benefits of walking outside during the pandemic. Numbers seemed to have waned more recently as folk have restarted busy lives but if the price of fuel continues to be volatile or there are shortages, we’ll be back to walking to the shops.

I’ve never been a fan of running. At school I did the shortest possible cross country run, even cutting through a forbidden shortcut hedge to get back sooner for maximum hockey time. But walking fires up a different part of the brain. I want to be outside, observing the subtle changes in nature day by day rather than getting uncomfortably sweaty.

There is no question that walking is good for you. It burns calories, lowers blood sugar, strengthens the heart, improves the immune system, eases joint pain, boosts energy, tones your leg muscles, improves your mood and helps you think more creatively. What’s not to love. I have to admit I have not walked anywhere near as much over the Winter whilst the craziness of school life post pandemic has sucked me in. And I can feel how wrong that is. Now that the days are longer I am determined to get back to pulling on my boots for an hour every day – at the very least.

How about you?

Plant of the month: March primroses

Long as there’s a sun that sets, Primroses will have their glory – Wordsworth

Although there were plenty of daffodils in bloom in the garden for St David’s Day this week, it’s the primroses that I love to see in March. We have a patch under a hazel along with bluebells, cowslips and grape hyacinths. They bloom well for a couple of months before the canopy of the hazel develops, bringing cheer to shady parts of the garden. Edible plants, you can pick them to garnish a cake or a spring salad – they taste like lettuce. All of the primroses I have in the garden have developed from some plants dug up by a friend. They spread prolifically. I’ll be sharing the love with my neighbours soon, so that they don’t take over.

Primroses were prized plants in days of yore by those who made their own cures and potions, being useful as remedies for muscle aches, rheumatism, paralysis, jaundice and gout. Combined with beeswax it makes a salve for burns or an ointment for treating spots and wrinkles (useful) and it’s even been made into a tea to treat insomnia (not necessary as I’m always shattered when my head hits the pillow). The leaves and flowers of the plant can be used both fresh and dried. Roots were only used when dried, and a special infusion of the roots was used to treat headaches.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn primroses were considered sacred by the Celts, who carried them to ward off evil spirits. They thought primroses held the keys to heaven. Another old superstition claimed if you ate the blossoms of a primrose you would see a fairy and large patches of primroses were portals into the ‘faerie realms’. They are traditionally associated with Easter in Britain although the my Irish ancestors were just as likely to link them with Beltane (May Day), using them to decorate the threshold but never bringing them inside if the hens were laying or hatching eggs indoors.

Whatever you believe, primroses are true harbingers of Spring. It may be bitterly cold outside today but when the sun shines and you’re out and about you can feel that the season has turned. The annual weeds have sprouted; there are leaf buds aplenty and with a rug slung over my shoulders or across my knees I can enjoy a mug of coffee in the garden.

Emerging from Winter

It’s a late postcard this week. Half Term has allowed for a lot of much-needed sleep, reading and recuperation. The weather has been pretty wild – a mix of high winds, relentless but gentle rain and the odd moment of watery sun. It is a metaphor for my work life right now.

This picture of a misty morning walk popped up from one of my friends over the last few days; it also speaks to me. A little bleak but there is a clearly defined, if very muddy and slippery path and when the sun does eventually break through, it will be a glorious day.

The garden tidy up has begun. I always keep the borders protected by leaves from our trees over winter and leave places for wildlife during the worst of the weather. Small bunches of tete a tete daffs nod their heads near the kitchen door. Grape hyacinths and primroses sprinkle the ground under our ancient hazel; the snowdrops are dying back heralding the start of spring. I can see the bluebells burgeoning and we’ll have a good crop of wild garlic under the hedge this year. I no longer have a greenhouse and so seed sowing will have to wait for a few weeks.

Whatever the weather, there’s always hope in the garden and with lighter evenings we’ll have time to absorb its positivity.

Cardiff, connection and self-care

Two years on from a planned trip to Cardiff to the Principality Stadium to cheer on Wales against Scotland, we finally made it yesterday. It was meant as a pre-A level exams eighteenth birthday treat for the son who is now nearly twenty and a second year university student. Yesterday seemed more of a reward for endurance. Teaching and learning through a pandemic has taken its toll but this blog is not the place to air that grievance. Let it be enough that I refuse to feel guilty for taking most of a day off to connect with my family and do something we all enjoy. When the children were much younger and we were strapped for cash, our days out consisted of picnics, treasure hunts or exploration of National Trust or English Heritage sites. Now we can afford to buy rugby tickets and eat out but the key elements remain – shared family time, outdoors with food and drink.

I enjoyed listening to the various conversations on the train which suggested that there are a whole heap of folk who rest, recuperate and take time out for connection and self-care at the weekend. The couple next to us were planning a DIY project – although the colour of the bedroom paint and the exact delivery date for the bed was up for discussion. Someone else had spent time pottering in the garden. (Note to self – this is a neglected part of my own self-care routine.) I caught up on the adventures of a lady who has thrown herself – quite literally – into wild swimming in the winter. And in the stadium itself the five of us with 74,000 others spent a couple of hours united in song, jokes, stories of past matches and appreciation of a sporting contest which meant so much to fans and players alike. A day to remember and one that might go some way to balance a Sunday spent marking and working in front of a computer.

And balance is the key. Teacher, doctor, professional, human – know that you can’t fill from an empty pot. Efficiency and creativity is the gift you bring as an employee when self-care and connection with others lies at the heart of your life. Employers, especially school academy trusts would be well-advised to recognise this. Whatever you do this week, make time for yourself and those you love. An exhortation made especially poignant upon learning out of the blue on Friday afternoon of the death of a dad whose children are contemporaries of our own.

Plant of the month: February hellebores

As January melts into February, the Winter garden is just getting going. A busy, stressful week at school has been made almost bearable by the scent of delightful Daphne, drifts of snowdrops and an array of crimson and purple hellebores planted beside the front door. I love the way they nod in the breeze; I appreciate that you have to gently lift up the heads to see their delicate beauty; I’m eternally grateful that they thrive in shade and withstand much of the late-Winter weather despite their apparent flimsiness. Best kept away from icy winds, they are content in our tiny, North-facing, front garden where the sorrowful, pendulous flower heads bring hope that winter is finally broken. A metaphor for this teacher right now.

Hellebores have an interesting backstory. Brought to Britain by the Romans, like many of the popular plants in our gardens, in the early days of medicine hellebores were used as a purgative or to treat gout and high blood pressure. (I’m hoping for a few more gout-free years!) Actually, they are extremely toxic in high doses; some historians believe that Alexander the Great died from a hellebore overdose. Inevitably for a poisonous plant it has associations with witchcraft but there is also the charming tale of the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) sprouting in the snow from the tears of a girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem. (Perhaps a few will sprout from my tears after a twelve hour working day and a boot load of marking.) In Greek mythology, the daughters of the king of Argos by ingesting hellebores were cured of a madness that caused them to run naked through the city, crying, weeping, and screaming. The madness of the classroom hasn’t reached such extremes so far but my little patch of hellebores provide solace and succour every time I return home.

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