Hot sun at last, in the third week of May. Of the croplands' wild plants that look good in the sun, the marsh marigold Caltha palustris is among the boldest, with its golden-yellow flowers and bright green leaves. Valued in previous times as a medicinal, though a poison and irritant when uncooked, it is far less common than the earlier flowering and smaller member of the buttercups, the lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria. The marsh marigold's range still covers most of the UK, but it's not an everyday plant in the croplands. Its preferred habitat is decreasing and it gets hit by herbicide and roadside scouring.
The flowers in the photographs above (Living Field collection, 23 May 2012) are about 3 cm across; the many male parts, looking like thin spoons standing up, surround the fewer females, which are central, and in the photo middle right look greener. This plant is one of the descendants of a group of marsh marigold growing on a grassy farmland bank, but sprayed with a selective herbicide (for reasons unknown). Only one was still alive. It had been lightly touched by the spray, its stems curling, but possibly not fatally. It was dug up by one of a survey team - that was 11 years ago - and planted in a garden. It outgrew the herbicide after a year or so and survived, later being split into many plants, including the one in the photograph, that now live in wet ditches and pond-margins in the area. One by one, bit by bit, the croplands' wild plants and their habitats are being lost, yet continued loss is not inevitable.
Repent Walpurgis - it's Beltane. The early-May cross quarter day, on the 5th this year, is mid way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Through northern Europe, and for centuries, it's marked a time of fire festivals and a hopeful welcoming of summer, but for farming it can be a thrawn and fractious time. Masses of sun - on a clear day in early May the earth receives 85 per cent of the annual maximum at this latitude - but with a temperature so variable that it can be warm or chill at a whim. This year, on Walpurgis' night and in the early hours of Beltane it dropped to below zero in some parts, over ten degrees lower than on Christmas Day 2011.
The spring crops, which are still the majority in much of the north, are just about in, showing acres of bare soil. Agriculture has been adapting to the uncertain weather around the May cross quarter day by growing, where it can, autumn-sown (winter) rapeseed, barley and wheat - all bred to be hardy, bolstered by efficient agronomy, and now soaking up the energy. More recently, plastic film is used to warm soil and plants so they can take advantage of the sun.
As if insuring against late frosts and storms, the wild plants are cautious at Beltane. The emerging flower heads of ramsons or wild garlic Allium ursinum look like they are wrapped in thin, translucent plastic, clingfilmed before the flowers burst through. The wild garlic is an underused medicinal and cooking herb, it's young leaves a mild garnish for casserole and stir fry.
So what's Walpurgis (or Walpurga) got to do with it - pious lady, dark age anchorite, influential European traveller. Now for your assignment - two paragraphs on Walpurgis, her origins and significance, why she's celebrated at Beltane, her influence on prog-rock fuzzy guitar.
Birch before bud-break
Those who knew the croplands and upland pasture land knew well the birch: hard wood for poles, for supports, utensils and the fire, bark for vessels and baskets, leaves for teas to drink, fine branches for brushes and kindling, and the sap a source of tar, glue and potent wine. Useful even today - but ask people now of the majestic trees of the croplands and they would say oak, beech, maybe ash, elm recently, but few would say birch. Yet where left to grow the birch is a mature tree of variable splendour, variable in architecture between trees, no two alike, and variable within a single tree as the main branches grow different characters through their life.
Of few places left to see old birch, Balnaguard Glen in Perthshire (see below) won't disappoint. The images above are parts of the same tree, mid-April 2012, probably Betula pendula. In the bottom image, the trunk and lower branches of the tree are emerging through dense juniper.
Almost a month past the equinox - the days have lengthened to over 14 hours, and the sun's reached three quarters of its maximum height and intensity at noon, yet the plants are slow to take advantage of this wealth of energy. In most species leafing is driven much more by temperature, which lags well behind the seasonal march of the sun. By mid-April, leaves on many of the cropland's trees and shrubs are just unfolding. Birch woods, especially from above, take on that purplish tinge just before green appears. Few plants are in flower: ground ivy, early among the labiates, coltsfoot and the primula and cowslip.
The images above are (upper left clockwise) sprouting leaves on grazed stems of broom Cytisus scoparius, primrose Primula vulgaris in flower, lichens on birch Betula trunk and leafing branch on an old hawthorn Crataegus monogyna at Balnaguard Glen, Perthshire on 15 April 2012.
Living Field goes wild in Greece
Early April - and a visit to see some land and crops in Attica. Wild plants were evident on roadsides, between fields, in all sorts of corners, in bits of unused ground, on rocky outcrops and in boggy hollows. They were at least six weeks ahead of our own wild species. Most were in full flower and many were starting to seed. They'll mature before the summer heat and dryness hits them. Such a range of species, coexisting with man's activities.
Most obvious of the wild plants were the yellow-flowering masses of the brassica family - mainly mustards and rockets. Legumes, less visible except for the shrubby species, mingled everywhere with other plants, fixing nitrogen and able to thrive in this low-nutrient, agricultural land. The photographs above and below give a mild indication of the colour and form of the common plants, a botanical splendour rivalled in our croplands by only a few Orkney waysides. Many thanks to our hosts at the Agricultural University of Athens.
And the root parries the adversary
Late March and the winter crops have greened the fields. Plants in hedgerows and gardens are preparing themselves for their annual burst into the light, at least those that survive the onslaught. Take the common rhubarb, a cooking vegetable, a medicinal with an ancient lineage and a source of a rich, deep yellow dye. On slicing a plant in half, with the intention of moving a piece of it to the dye plants section in the Living Field garden, the remains of sub-surface battles were unmissable. Assailed by things that dissolve, suck, chew, bite and bore, the 'root' fights back with outgrowths of new tissue, sticky mucilage and dark protective coverings.The heading is from Christopher Smart's poem Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb), where the adversary is the devil, but the roots and stem tubers of plants - once so essential as food during the winter for people and their animals - perpetually fight adversaries by the million.
The convoluted mass of the storage tissue below the blanched stems and green leaf of the sliced rhubard above (right) has been under constant attack by microbes and worms. Some come to feed on the dark matter, the dead stuff that the plant casts off as it grows. Others manage to enter the plant and chew and suck at its nutritious materials, even though parts can be poisonous when uncooked. Whitish 'worms' can be seen in the top left quarter of the left hand image. Mostly, though, the tissue is intact on this plant. The deep yellow dye from rhubarb comes from boiling the yellow-brown storage tissue, cut into small pieces.
Artist Jean Duncan to work on Living Field projects
Between 25 February and 5 April 2012, the Lamb Gallery University of Dundee is exhibiting Paintings by Jean Duncan completed during her work as CECHR Artist in Residence. Jean has most recently been working on a series of paintings linked to research at the JHI on the plant Capsella bursa-pastoris (see booklet cover below). She made several visits to the glasshouses and Balruddry Farm to sketch and record the plants, and also to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh to draw from the early collections. Jean's current work with the Living Field is described on the new People page on this site.
The image above is of the front cover of the booklet accompanying the exhibition, which also includes photgraphs by Martin Kirkbride and Tracey Dixon of the School of the Environment, displays from the Macro Micro Studio (low energy and zero-carbon building design) from the Department of Architecture and posters from staff and students who have worked with Jean over the past 18 months.
Contact for this page: Geoff Squire