Civilisation reached the community garden this week with the arrival of water and electrics. They say no pain no gain and it was certainly agonising watching the digger gouge out the great trench, all 75m of it, to install the cable and pipework required to get us ‘connected’.
In contrast, all was peace and tranquility in the walled garden and after the long colourless days of winter the first flowers of spring are breathtakingly beautiful.
The pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) was named by John Gerard in his famous herbal of 1597 where he wrote ‘they flower for the most part about Easter (pasques in Old French) which hath moved me to name it Pasque flower, or Easter flower’. A British native that was once commonplace, this flower is now very rare in the wild since modern intensive farming methods have resulted in old pastures being ploughed and the application of fertiliser has changed the complex soil structure making it less hospitable for these plants. Its one useful function in Tudor times was to produce a bright green dye to decorate Easter eggs and the household accounts of Edward I make reference to four hundred eggs being dyed and gilded for the Easter court festival. It was also popular as a colourful centrepiece for posies, being, as the twentieth century gardener Vita Sackville-West described it as ‘soft as the suffle of a kitten’s fur’
Here you can see the enchanting snakes head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) in the nuttery alongside cowslips (Primula veris) and the wild grape hyacinth (Muscaria botryoides). They make a jewel studded lawn, evoking a mood of romantic chivalry and courtly love so often associated with gardens of the medieval period.
The snakes head fritillary was a favourite garden plant in Tudor times, ‘greatly esteemed for the beautifying of our gardens, and the bosoms of the beautiful’ (Gerard 1597). Now a rare site in the wild, one of the best known colonies being Magdalen College Meadow in Oxford which in late April it is covered with a purple haze of this nodding flower. In times gone by there was a Fritillary Sunday when the flowers were picked in enormous numbers and posies were sold for charity.
Is it a primrose? Well, the one on the left is. The other one looking like a primrose on a stick is the Oxlip (Primula elatior), a plant with a very limited distribution confined to Eastern England. It was first recorded by John Ray in 1660 who spotted it in Kingston and Madingley woods, Cambridge. At first it was thought to be a natural hybrid between the primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris) but in 1840 two Essex botanists, George Gibson and Henry Doubleday discovered it growing by the thousand in Great Bardfield, where no primroses existed, and so declared it a distinct species. Sadly it no longer exists in Great Bardfield but it can still be seen growing wild on the boulder clay of the moist woodlands between Stansted and Bury St Edmunds and in a small area west of Cambridge. A rare and precious Essex flower.
On a grander scale this joyful swathe of double daffodils is hard to miss as you cross the chapel lawn on your way to the well house. A cheery sight indeed.
There is always something which catches the visitor’s eye and leads to the most questions and this week it has most certainly been our giant fennel (Ferula communis) , seen here with its enormous fennel like leaves and curious unfolding flower heads. An ancient herb, used medicinally in classical times but now known to be toxic to both humans and animals, is was most usefully used as a kindling for fires on account of its very pithy stems, and for making bee hives.
The flower stalks grow to an enormous height, some 2-3 metres and can easily blow over in strong winds so we always provide a sturdy stake before they become too heavy and unmanageable.
The annual job of protecting the Cullen garden plants from rabbit attack started in earnest this week. We try to use natural materials like hazel and willow where possible and let our imaginations and creative spirit run away with us to make all manner of protective and supportive structures. Nothing wrong with a bit of modern art in the garden. I do hope the rabbits appreciate it!