Last week we saw this beautiful and surprising creature, a hummingbird-hawk moth, feeding from the red valerian that grows so profusely in Totnes.
Here are two more photos I managed before it flew away.
The wing span is about 5cm to give some scale. These day flying moths come into the UK from southern Europe in the summer.
Seeing this insect was all the more surprising as I have recently had several conversations with people about how few moths they see nowadays and that is my experience as well. If you want to read about the general decline of insects in the UK here is an interesting article from the Observer.
At this time of year, only a small corner of the Leechwell Garden is visible from our kitchen window; the rest is obscured by the thick green wall erected by the trees. I can still see the three silver birches, also two of the benches and the lower part of the water course, popular with young children who like to paddle, especially during the hot weather we experienced this July.
There had been storms about and we did hear distant rumbles of thunder on more than one occasion but in Totnes this month there was little or no rain for more than three weeks. With the sultry temperatures everything began to look rather parched. Many of the flowers on the red valerian lining the paths near the Garden turned to seed; this felt earlier than previous years. The plants acquired a downy covering of numerous seeds equipped with small parachutes to aid windborne dispersal; no wonder it grows everywhere. I was also surprised to see ripe blackberries – in my mind blackberries are a feature of autumn.
The swifts were an almost constant feature this month, shrieking over the Leechwell Garden morning and evening. Typically there were ten or so probing the air above the Garden looking for insects. On the 21st, the swift spectacular stepped up a notch and we counted more than 40 that evening. I had noticed flying ants in our garden so I wondered if the extra food had attracted the birds.
What is it about the swifts that captures our attention? We have to look, we have to try to count. They speed past our house, they manoeuvre, change course quickly and regroup like miniature spitfires in an old Battle of Britain film. But suddenly, on the 28th we noticed their absence. They had gone, making their way back to Africa for the winter. We miss them.
Down in the Leechwell Garden, one problem this July has been the lack of easily accessible water. There was no actual shortage; water flows freely through the garden but it has to be carried some distance as there are no taps. This was the first prolonged dry spell for some years and I sensed that plant growth was being affected. The Garden volunteers came up with the clever idea of providing watering cans for visitors so that, as they looked around, they could also water the plants. Some of the watering cans are child-sized so watering can become a game.
On the pergola, purple seemed to be the colour of the month. The later flowering clematis showed well and the path was lined with burgeoning banks of lavender.
At the far end of the pergola there is a long wild flower bank. This has been carefully planted and showed a fine mixture of native plants in July – I saw proud yellow-flowered stems of mullein, floppy flowers of evening primrose, peering ox eye daisies, wild marjoram, musk mallow, knapweed, and, towering above them all, spindly purple-flowered verbena bonariensis (native to South America).
It’s very good to see the wild flower bank as it’s one way to provide extra habitat for pollinators. I saw plenty of insects there in the morning but later they seemed to desert this part of the Garden for the attractions of other flowers. One of the competitors was a large patch of golden marjoram covered with white flowers; on sunny afternoons this positively pulsated with honeybees and hoverflies. The beautiful borage also continued to flower well and its starry blooms were well used by bumble bees.
I want to finish with more pictures of bees and flowers.
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.
The fishing port of Brixham lies at the southern end of Torbay in South Devon. Last week, we walked along Brixham’s minor roads and quiet residential streets to reach a green lane leading away from the town and towards the coast path. The green lanes in Devon form a network of ancient tracks and here the green canopy, the high banks and the exposed bedrock kept us cool before we headed up hill over fields. As we climbed, we were rewarded with ever improving views over the entire panorama of Torbay. Here is a view towards Torquay with Brixham in the foreground.
The wide curve of the bay is certainly spectacular especially when the sun shines and if you imagine the bay without the scar of housing then you can see why visitors to Torbay in the late 18th century might have been reminded of Italy. One such visitor enthused: “It is not England but a bit of sunny Italy taken bodily from its rugged coast and placed here amid the green places and the pleasant pastoral lanes of beautiful Devon”. Even nowadays, the red valerian found in the summer all over this part of Devon manages to create some feeling of the Mediterranean although the modern, rather unsympathetic development of Torbay detracts.
Another picture below shows the fields above Brixham and if you look carefully at the surface of the field in the foreground, it appears to be covered with a white sheen. This is in fact white clover mixed with buttercups and other wild flowers.
We paused here to take in the view and to catch our breath on this warm day. It was very quiet but gradually we became aware of a low level hum. It took a while to realise what was causing this but when we looked more closely we could see that the field was full of bees, both honeybees and bumblebees; wherever we looked there were bees enjoying the clover. All our attempts to photograph the bees failed but here is a close-up of the clover.
Emily Heath has recently talked about how honeybees and bumblebees like white clover on her AdventuresinBeeland Blog.
The noise we heard, let’s call it a “midsummer hum”, took me back to my first year at senior school when we read a book, Bevis by Richard Jeffries. This book, written in 1882, tells the story of two boys, Bevis and his friend Mark, and their adventures. These include mock battles with other children, rigging a boat and sailing to an island. At one point, the boys remark that the only sound they can hear is the “midsummer hum”. I can’t now imagine why this book was chosen for us to read; perhaps my English teacher thought it would capture the imagination of a class of eleven year old boys. The story also has clear parallels with the Swallows and Amazons books of Arthur Ransome, which were quite popular at the time. I remember not liking the book (Bevis) but for some reason, the idea of a “midsummer hum” has stayed with me all these years.