Tag Archives: borage

A visitor from Eastern Europe and a winter hoverfly – Lockdown Nature Walks 12

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk I took advantage of a rain-free day to cross Totnes to look at some unusual flowers growing on the northern edge of the town.  Here is my account of the walk (taken on January 25th 2021) together with a poem by the American poet Ruby Archer entitled Fire in the Sky.  For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, please click here.

The day dawned to a washed out, almost translucent, pale blue sky.  To the east, though, there was a hint of what was to come as an apricot halo crept above the low hills as if a fire were burning behind them. Then, as the sun rose, a raft of thin cloud towards the south east caught its light, first a rose-pink, then orange before relaxing to cream.  It was a good way to start the day.

No rain was forecast so I decided to walk across the town, past the castle to the northern edge, where semi-urban and residential gradually give way to rural.  It was a day of light and dark, a day of bright sunshine and long shadows, and a cold day where frost lingered in areas inaccessible to the sun.  

A minor road, Barracks Hill lies in this transitional zone, striking north away from the bypass past a modern housing development.  The road rises gradually between rough grassy banks and then more steeply to cross a low ridge.  This section of the road is enclosed and dark.   It rises, like a sunken green lane, between steep sides, some rocky, some covered in rough vegetation, emerging eventually into sunshine and open countryside with farmland and trees.  There was once a Barracks along this lane, built in the late 18th century.  Some of the buildings remain but most were demolished when a fine Georgian house was built in the 1820s.

But I want to go back down the hill to the lower part of the lane to look at the scruffy areas of vegetation that line the road.  Where it can, the sun casts pools of brightness on to these roadside banks, its spotlight picking out pennywort, hart’s tongue fern, brambles and what looks suspiciously like garden rubbish.  Whatever can get a foothold here seems to flourish and there is a long section of the bank where lime green, heart-shaped leaves push through a mass of dark brown, dry, decaying vegetation.  Unusually for the time of year, many sturdy flower spikes also rise above the leaves, some sporting striking blue flowers that sparkle in the sunshine like sapphire jewels. This is oriental borage (Trachystemon orientalis) commonly known as Abraham-Isaac-Jacob.  A relative of wild borage (Borago officinalis), this plant was introduced into gardens in the UK in 1868 from its native Bulgaria, Georgia and Turkey where all parts of the plant are consumed as a popular spring vegetable.

This patch of the plant is probably a garden throw-out and it seems very happy here, covered in flowers and having elbowed out all the competition.  At a first glance, the flowers look rather chaotic but this is because several different forms and colours exist together at the same time. 

First there are the pink tapering flower buds about 1cm long, decorated with a fuzz of white hairs resembling the stubble on an old man’s chin.   The buds open to reveal the strikingly beautiful complex flowers.  Each has five petals that curl and twist backwards creating an intensely blue frilly decoration around a crimped white collar reminiscent of a sapphire-coloured ruff around the neck of an Elizabethan lady.  Adding to the complexity, five stamens, each about 1 cm long, and a single slightly longer style protrude proudly from the collar as a tight cluster.  The stamens themselves are multicoloured starting white at the top, then pinkish-lilac, terminating as indigo anthers clasping lumps of pollen. 

As the flowers mature, they discard the petals and stamens leaving an odd-looking remnant where a spiky pinkish-lilac style emerges from hairy sepal cup.  This form in particular contributes to the overall messy look of the plant.    Unusually, all three flower forms, representing different stages of maturation, are present at the same time.  This may be the inspiration for the common name of the plant, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, itself a reference to three generations of a biblical family.   [Photographs at the end of this post illustrate the three different flower forms.]

A plant that produces flowers at this low time of year is a rare discovery and these out of season sources of pollen and nectar often attract winter-active insects.  Nothing was about when I looked, though, and the day was probably too cold.  I came back a few days later on a warmer afternoon and was pleased to find a fine hoverfly on the flowers (see picture at the top of this post).  With its bulging brown eyes and distinctive barcoded abdominal pattern of yellow, silver and black bands this was a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) a species that overwinters as an adult and emerges on mild winter days.  It was collecting pollen from the indigo-coloured anthers and nectar from the nectaries in the white collar.

…………………………………….

Fire in the Sky by Ruby Archer

I thought the darkness would not yield,
Glooming the sun-forgotten sky,
‘Till pulsing, surging glows revealed
A far-off burning,—home or field,
Up flung the light. Oh whence? O why?

I thought forgetfulness had spread
A Lethean gloom athwart one sky,
‘Till memory’s light crept warmly red
From flame I deemed in ashes dead.
Up leapt the light. Oh whence? Oh why?

…………………………………………………..

The roadside bank with the lime-green leaves and blue flowers of Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

Pink tapering flower buds with their decoration of white hairs

Three of the beautiful and complex flowers showing the frilly decoration of blue petals around the white collar and the tight cluster of stamens and style. Note also the indigo-coloured anthers with pollen.

Some of the spiky remnant flowers

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) feeding from the anthers of one of the flowers on Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

A blackbird, some old apple trees and a deserted bench – the garden in November

It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

From River by Joni Mitchell

It’s only a week or so until the shortest day and, in the town, the Christmas lights have been twinkling merrily since late November. Shop windows struggle under the weight of gifts and expectation and there has been an outbreak of Christmas Fayres in local schools and nearby villages. Totnes will soon host its own festive late-night shopping events. Perhaps all this brashness and brightness is an antidote to the greyness handed out by the recent weather.

Rainbow over Totnes
A rainbow over Totnes church with the Leechwell Garden in the foreground (November 3rd 2014)

 

My overriding impression this November was a lack of sunshine although there must have been some to produce the rainbow captured in the photograph. We also had our first frosts, waking up to white roofs, and on other days we were buffeted by heavy rain and strong winds which finally disposed of the leaves. The view from my kitchen window changed during the month to one dominated by bare branches.

Crab apple
A detached crab apple and “friend”

 

Decaying crab apple
A mouldy crab apple

 

Blackbird on crab apple tree
The predator

 

Down in the Leechwell Garden, November was a time of seeds and fruits. I remarked a month or so ago on the “almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red”, the crab apples. I wondered how these would mature and I now have my answer. By November they were looking distinctly worse for wear and the “green tinged with red” had transmuted to a sickly yellow-orange. Some fruits had fallen off altogether and some were rotting, having been attacked by predators. I discovered the identity of one of the predators as I stood under the tree with my camera. A blackbird landed above me, took a casual peck at one of the fruit and flew off in disgust.

Rosehips
Rosehips

 

Cotoneaster
Cotoneaster

 

The blackbird may also have been responsible for damage to some chunky overripe rose hips nearby. The same bird will probably be back, when the time is right, to sample the berries offered by a cotoneaster. The shrub already seemed to be spreading its arms to make the berries more accessible.

Chaenomeles fruit and bottle
Fruit of flowering quince, and bottle.

 

Beneath one of the flowering quinces I found three golden fruit lying on the ground near the old stone wall. Whether they were just overripe or whether the blackbird had been at them, I don’t know. They looked very tempting but I am told that to humans the fruit are unpalatably bitter unless cooked. I deliberately left the bottle in the picture as it highlights one of the problems faced by a public garden. Whereas most people enjoy and respect the Leechwell Garden, a few people see nothing wrong in lobbing a bottle over the wall as a means of convenient disposal.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the blackbird. It has to get its food somewhere and there is an interesting biological chain beginning with sunlight falling on leaves, this energy leading via photosynthesis to tree growth and eventually to fruit which are eaten by the blackbird. Pollinators have a role in there as well. These chains and their relationships feature strongly in the nature writing of Mark Cocker, recently compiled in a new book (Claxton – Field notes from a small planet). Cocker sees the calls of swifts and swallows as a transmutation of “insect protein converted through the birds’ digestive system into the music”. Should I see the chiding call of the blackbird as a transmutation of the photosynthetic activity in the leaves of the crab apple tree?

Fruit on spindle tree
Fruit of spindle tree

 

Ginkgo tree
Ginkgo glowing

 

Down in the shadier part of the Garden, the spindle tree continued to light the way. In September, I commented on the shocking pink fruits. By early November, these fruits had opened to reveal bright orange seeds and more gaudiness. By the end of the month, only the pink seed casings remained, looking like tiny ornate lampshades. Another splash of temporary colour came from the ginkgo tree which glowed briefly as though a switch had been flicked and then promptly lost all its leaves.

Mullein
Mullein flower and hover fly

 

Rosemary
Rosemary

 

Bloody cranesbill
Bloody cranesbill

 

Borage
Borage

 

Even this late in the year a few plants seem determined to try to give us colour. Among these survivors were the mullein, still painted in splashes of yellow, some rosemary showing new mauvish-blue blossom and a bloody cranesbill with its small magenta flowers . A borage also had a few blue flowers but they didn’t look properly formed.

Leechwell Bug House

The Leechwell Garden was, for many years, an orchard so it seemed fitting that three apple trees were planted late in the month. Two dessert varieties popular in the 19th century, Laxton’s Superb and Ribston Pippin were planted together with a James Grieve, “the classic Scottish cooking apple” but, in my experience, very good eaten raw. The three varieties seem to have been chosen partly to allow cross pollination but they will need the insects, especially the mason bees from the bug house, to do their bit in the spring.

Deserted bench
The deserted bench. The cup etc surely tell a story ……

 

Bee bread, benches and a crows nest in the April garden

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There is no escaping it. Wherever you look, there is pulsating growth: trees, plants, birds, insects, all swept up in an orgy of renewal. From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, the predominant feeling is green, although there were days in the middle of the month when the sun picked out the white blaze of blossom on nearby trees. Trilling wrens and chiding blackbirds provided the soundtrack, saluting the warmer weather.

It’s a favourite time of year for me, I like the feeling of everything starting afresh and alive. Shakespeare gets it right for me in Sonnet 98
When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,

Others, however, see April as a time of hopes and aspirations that can never be fulfilled. TS Eliot began his poem The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month” and, in Spring Edna St Vincent Millay wrote “To what purpose, April, do you return again?”

I don’t share their pessimism; I know autumn will come and these new leaves will wither and fall, but I also know that there will be another season of growth next year.

Down in the Garden, there has been much to see. Three new rustic benches have been installed making it even better for people to visit and spend time here. On the pergola, the clematis continue to entertain.

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Clematis Francis Rivis

The tear-like buds of the Francis Rivis that I admired last month have now opened showing delicate mauve outer petals and white inner petals.

 

 

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Clematis Montana

Another clematis, a Montana, has been covered with round pinkish buds resembling small grapes.

 

 

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Golden Marjoram

In the herb garden, a burgeoning patch of golden marjoram comes alight when the sun shines.

 

 

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Sweet Cicely

A clump of sweet cicely shows frothy white flowers above the fern-like, green foliage; the leaves of this plant are edible and have a mild aniseed-like flavour with sugary overtones.

 

 

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Borage

Several spikes of borage seem to have appeared from nowhere as if called to stand to attention. Bees love borage; the plant is sometimes called Bee Bread so they will be eagerly awaiting the full opening of the flowers.

 

 

 

ramsons
Wild Garlic

The far side of the Garden has a much wilder feel. A small bank of wild garlic (Ramsons) shows starry flowers beginning to appear above the fleshy leaves. Wild garlic is very abundant in the Devon countryside and the spring-smell of a woodland path lined with the plant is unmistakable. The leaves now find favour with celebrity chefs as a gentle garlic substitute.

 

 

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Hidcote-blue Comfrey

In a hidden corner, I found some beautiful comfrey, another bee favourite. Its buds are a deep red and, once opened, there are clusters of bell-like flowers; that part of the flower nearest the plant is pale blue with the remainder being white. This unusual variety is Hidcote-blue comfrey.

 

 

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Garlic Mustard

Near the comfrey was an upstanding plant with copious green, heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers. This is garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-Hedge; when bruised or chopped, its leaves emit a mild garlic smell.

 

The bees are out and about and I have seen a common carder and a hairy footed flower bee on the white lungwort.

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Common carder bee on white lungwort

 

On April 20th I noticed a bird glide gracefully down between the trees to land on the grass. It was quite large, predominantly dark but with pale patches on its wings and my first reaction was that it was a buzzard. It stalked about the Garden, occasionally stopping to eat and with its long tale and dark plumage it reminded me of the proprietor of a posh French restaurant eyeing up his staff and clientele while keeping his hands clasped firmly behind his back. The more I looked the more I realised this was no buzzard and most likely it was a very large crow with a few pale feathers. The bird kept returning to the Garden and I found this puzzling until one day I saw it land on a nearby tree. On the tree was another crow sitting on a nest made of twigs balanced between two branches. Both birds are occasionally on the nest together; there will be a new crow-family before too long.

This is the fifth of my monthly reflections on the Leechwell Garden in Totnes. To see what I wrote in earlier months, follow the links at the end of this post or put “leechwell” in the search window.

Thanks to Hazel Strange for improving the photos I took on April 19, 26 and 27.