2011 Autumn

Late October 2011

Flowering and fruiting continue on some wild plants right into late October, even later if the deep cold stays away.  The wild marjoram Origanum vulgare, right in the photographs below, taken 19 October, has continued to flower from late summer, and is now one of the few labiates open to any bees still active. The black mullein Verbascum nigrum (left below) also develops late in the season, with a clash of colour and form in the flowers and still with many buds to open. Both these species grow year after year in the untilled and uncut part of the garden to the north west of the meadow. The specimens of black mullein appeared from soil collected about ten years ago during research on seedbanks. The plants die down in winter, but have reappeared each spring, unlike the commoner great mullein which rarely lasts more than its second year.  


Some plants are eaten whole or their leaves stripped by wild visitors, but some are eaten bit by bit, leaving the skeleton intact until it finally falls apart. One such is the horseradish Armoracia rusticana, whose leaves are being invaded in sections and eaten from within, until the tissue is too thin to hold together and holes appear. Parts of one leaf on 19 October are shown below. The width of the leaf in the right hand photograph is about 20 cm across. The left and centre ones are slight magnifications.


The horseradish finds little favour here as a uncooked vegetable - it is better known as a preserved sauce for use with meats - but its white flesh is still commonly eaten, shredded and raw as a potent garnish, in many other european countries. It is easy to grow and adds serious bite to a meal. Traditionally, the plant has had a wide range of medicinal uses. The specimen in the garden was brought in last year to an area that got overrun with grasses, but it will be moved to the developing medicinals section for 2012, to join other members of the cabbage family.  It's not the only member of that family to have a pungent taste and smell - the yellow mustard paste comes from seeds of the related white mustard Sinapis alba

The fruiting in the hedges is past its peak. The hawthorn and elder berries have gone, but the sloes - the fruits of the blackthorn Prunus spinosa - have turned from the unexpected plummy-red of summer to a very dark blue verging on black. The fruits in the photograph to the right, on 19 October, are about 1 to 2 cm across. Too bitter for human food when raw but a useful flavouring. 


Early October hay

By 6 October the hay from the meadow had been piled, soon to be collected and moved away.




The dyer's coreopsis Coreopsis tinctoria and dyer's chamomile Anthemis tinctoria are both still flowering and fruiting. Both are of the composite family, and with a growth habit that is indeterminate, in that flower buds continue to appear through the season if the weather gives them the chance. They did not mind the cold and wet of summer but will be stopped by the first few frosts. On a turbulent day, the flower heads were swaying so much that they created a sort of wind painting.

The hedges have been giving shelter and food to small animals for a few years. The elder Sambucus nigra flowered well this year and now its black berries are ripening. When eaten, they leave behind a red framework that supported them. The berries to the outside of the cluster have already disappeared in the photograph to the right.

The memory of the strange stink of the elder's leaves and stems stays with you from childhood. There's nothing like it. The stems break easily to expose soft pith tissue which you can grub out to make a tube. But elder has a wide range of medicinal uses and yields various dyes. The flowers make a herbal tea, and the berries are still used to flavour wine. Other wild fruits are ripening in the hedges - hips and sloes among them.


The elder is common and can be grown easily from a piece of root and lower stem wrenched from an existing shrub. It's worth growing in a wildlife garden or hedge for the many things that live on it, and you can investigate its usefulness, just as the first hunters and then the first settlers in these islands must have done.


Late september 2011

The giant cotton thistle continues to live out its life. By the end of September, many of its composite heads were about to release the wind-born seeds (photograph below). Because of their many spines, the bigger fruiting heads can get to look a bit ragged, collecting the remains of spiders' webs and dead flies and bits of wind blown detritus. 




In the photograph above, the whole head is about 5 cm across. A couple of weeks ago, the head was closed, protecting the seed, but now it's opened, allowing each seed with its pappus of hairs to leave when the wet and wind allow. Like many other annuals and biennials of its type, it still has the capacity to continue flowering after its first seeds have flown, but new flowers in late September are much smaller than those of the summer.


The brassica part of the crop sequence is in various states: the swedes are still bulking but the leaves of the broccolis, on plants that were left in the ground after the flower heads were removed in bud, have been stripped and eaten except for the main veins (photograph right). Even these will rot later in the year and offer a sludgy late autumn desert for the slugs.

Various culinary herbs are still rich and green. The fennel Foeniculum vulgare and the lemon balm Melissa officinalis both grow well at this latitude. They cohabit in a small patch in the raised bed. The fennel can be used to add a mild aniseed flavour to salads, and is now grown commercially as a salad herb round here, while the balm, apart from smelling fresh and lemony, gives a herbal tea. These plants can be strong to the taste at first, but try them a few times! Here they are in the autumn sun - the fennel is the one with the feathery leaves and yellow flowers; the balm looks a bit like a mint. 




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Mid September 2011

The cornflower Centaurea cyanus has a sort of lived-in look about it after being thrashed by the rain and wind of the late summer. Stems are layered, but flowers, what's left of them, have bent upright (photograph below) and seed heads are quietly filling.



The cornflower is mostly very rare in the arable scene.  It can cope with the northern weather, probably better than other cornfield annuals like the poppy and corn marigold - in the garden it's generally the last annual in flower to be killed by the frost. But it can't cope it seems with chemical pesticides and the intense competition it gets from dense stands of modern cereals. 

So it is a mystery why its blue haze still spreads every now and then over a few cornfields in east Scotland. Does it rest in the buried seedbank waiting for the right year, or does it come in as a seed impurity? Insects like it. The big patch of cornfield annuals sown this year in the west garden is still busy in mid-September with hive bees, hoverflies (photograph right) and small bumble bees, most of them on the cornflower.


The garden has had much less success with its plan to establish a range of forage legumes. These plants - fixing nitrogen from the air and high in protein - have been part of managed pastures for centuries but are now rarely seen, apart from white clover. The dry soil after sowing in spring, followed by the wet of the summer, and a perverse lot of wild creatures that seem intent on devouring anything strange and legumy, have reduced most of the forage legume collection to bare plots. And there we were, proud in 2010 of the 10 or 12 wild legumes that have become part of the garden since its beginning in 2004, and hoping to grow more. Even the wild red clover Trifolium pratense and kidney vetch Anthillis vulneraria that so enlivened the meadow last year were hardly to be seen. It's the year that bears, not the field! Was it the very long cold winter that suppressed legumes or just a combination of other conditions that we simply don't understand. Not all the legumes suffered. One that grew well was a seed impurity (that's being polite, the seed merchant sent what turned out to be hungarian vetch Vicia pannonica instead of the species ordered), but at least it grew.

Of the few that did not totally die, lucerne Medicago sativa, produced its pale blue flowers in late August and September (photograph right). And we're not the first to fail. In their 1850 Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland, the Peter Lawson family of seedsmen say this about lucerne: 'The climate of Scotland has been considered by some as too cold for the growth of lucerne ... lands that .. are of a tenacious nature and damp in winter are totally unfit for growing it.' But they go on to say that if proper attention be paid to the young plants, they will continue to produce for eight years and even more. Let's wait a year or two for the symbiotic bacteria to get going.  We remain optimistic.

The north part of the east garden has been reserved for a collection of medicinal plants which should begin to take shape next year. One of the first to go in was the marsh mallow Althaea officinalis which took well and is now flowering (below).


While it grows wild in coastal ditches and marshes, though rarely in the north, the name officinalis indicates the connection with herb gardens, where it has long been grown for the mucilages (in its roots and other parts) that are used in poultices and ointments, and also at one time in confectionary. The plant has a waxy appearance, puts out shoots late and flowers late around here.


A few small plants of the labiate family have been finding their way into the garden in the last few years. While meadow clary has been in and around the meadow for years, and the corn mint was one of the many plants introduced through the Institute's seedbank research, the marsh woundwort (see below) seems to have found its own way in, but a plant that we think is a calamint, the wild basil Clinopodium vulgare also appeared recently. Unusually for wild labiates in this region, it has its flowers arranged in tight clusters, or whorls, around the stem. Like other labiates, its flowers attract insects, but once the petals wither, the mass of teeth and hairs must deter many that want to eat the growing seeds. In the photograph to the right, each calyx tube with its five teeth is 2-3 mm across.


All photographs - Living Field collection.


Geoff Squire for enquiries on this page

Gladys Wright for further information on the garden 


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