Many mornings this month when I have looked out of the kitchen window, the Leechwell Garden has been bathed in a warm, clear light that I hadn’t noticed previously this year. Perhaps it’s the early sunrise, perhaps it’s the dry weather, and the lack of rain and mist, that has persisted throughout much of the month.
As well as being dry, the weather has been quite warm at times, re-creating that summery feeling expressed so well by Edward Thomas in his poem “Adlestrop”, written 100 years ago this June after his train stopped unwontedly at the station.
Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
But let me drag you away from the Cotswolds to look at some of the highlights of the month in the Leechwell Garden here in Devon.
On the pergola, the climbing roses put on a wonderful show as if they were saluting the warm weather. For a short time, they cloaked the natural wood structure with a luxuriant overcoat of pink and white petals.
In the herb garden, large fleshy leaves and flower spikes of clary sage rose from the ground. The closed buds were very pale and reminded me of ghostly toothwort. They opened to a mass of very pale lilac flowers. The plant was called “clear eye” by Culpeper in his 17th century herbal and its sticky seeds were recommended for removing foreign objects from the eye. Nowadays, clary sage is grown commercially for its essential oil.
Nearby is a large patch of feverfew, impressive for its many small yellow and white daisy-like flowers, also called “bachelor’s buttons.” The flowers grow so densely that they seem to coalesce to a bright yellow and white mosaic which glows when the sun shines.
I like Culpeper’s dedication for feverfew in his herbal: “Venus has commended this herb to succour her sisters” – in the past it was indeed used to treat gynaecological problems. Nowadays, feverfew is commonly used as a herbal remedy for migraine headaches, although a systematic review of clinical trials of feverfew failed to show any effect over placebo.
Elsewhere in the Garden I found two interesting trees. One is a Flowering Dogwood (probably Cornus kousa), notable for its unassuming, small flowers each surrounded by four large, white bracts performing the function of petals. The bracts take on a pink tinge as they mature.
The other was a Ginkgo Biloba, the world’s oldest tree. The Ginkgo has unique leaves, fan shaped with veins radiating in to the leaf blade which sometimes splits. It is referred to as a living fossil as the modern species has been found to be related to fossils dating back 270 million years.
Extracts of Ginkgo Biloba have been long used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a range of disorders. There has been great interest in the western world in the use of Ginkgo extracts to improve memory and prevent Alzheimer’s disease but controlled clinical trials do not support this idea.
I first heard of the Ginkgo tree through a painting, not via a garden. In the mid 1980s, the artist Tom Phillips had been commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a portrait of the author and philosopher, Iris Murdoch. I used to be a fan of the writer and I remember going to see the painting; I was surprised to find that it also contained a branch of a tree. Apparently, the artist wanted to include “a bit of nature” in the picture and after consultation with Murdoch they agreed on Ginkgo. Here is a link to the story and the picture.
The bees have been busy whenever the weather has allowed and I have included a couple of pictures.
The enclosed narrow paths leading to the Garden were striking earlier in the month, bathed in the mostly pink flowers and fleshy green leaves of red valerian growing from the walls. This plant, which was introduced from the Mediterranean many years ago, is now naturalised and grows widely in the South West wherever it can – in walls, on waste ground, in gardens. It was recently also featured on the Words and Herbs blog. Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) is very much a feature of the urban landscape of this part of Devon and contributes to a southern European feel, at least until it rains heavily. By the end of the month, much of the red valerian near the Leechwell Garden had lost its petals contributing to the slightly dried-out look that has replaced the lush greenness of gardens and hedgerows just a month ago.