Lessons learnt

There is always something to be learnt from gardening and often the best lessons are from our mistakes. This was brought home to me lately when I  experienced the consequence of pruning lavender too fiercely, too late in the year, with the embarrassing result of losing a good number of the plants we put in last year at the Visitor Centre. Talk about a novice error! Still it is always good to be taken down a peg or two and to be reminded that we ignore mother nature at our peril!

That is not to say that lavenders can never be pruned hard, as is often thought. There is a useful page of advice on caring for lavenders at Downderry lavender nursery, which includes a video showing how to prune them correctly.

My mistake was to leave it too late in the season and I failed to take into account the exposed, cold position they were planted in. We live and learn!

Discovering new plants in the garden is a more exciting and less humbling way of learning from gardening and this week an exciting discovery was made by Valerie, whilst weeding the medicinal border, that had us all reaching for the wild flower books and poring over pictures.

Any ideas? I had certainly never seen this growing in the garden before.

Erica gets the sleuth of the week prize after correctly identifying it as Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis) and after a further internet search we found it to be a most interesting but rather sinister plant. Originating in Southern Europe it was once a widely grown medicinal herb, used to assist childbirth, partly  as a result of the funnel shaped yellow flowers’ resemblance to a uterus. Birthwort was given to speed up labour and it was a standard herb in the gardens of abbeys, where the nuns often performed midwifery duties. The distinguished Oxford botanist, Professor E.F. Warburg, used to shock his audiences by describing birthwort as a useful herb for inducing abortions, only found in English nunneries, where it is an introduced plant. In Northumberland it was also used by dairy farmers for expelling the afterbirth after a calf had been born.

The poison garden website, from the well known poison garden at Alnwick castle, gives some sobering information about this plant, a valuable reminder of the potency of many plants and the dangers of using them without full knowledge of their effects. Here is their entry for Birthwort:

“One of the best examples of the problems arising from the belief that the look of a plant determined its use medicinally. May have been responsible for many thousands of deaths since, at least, Roman times. Its poisonous component, aristolochic acid, continues to kill as a result of upper urinary tract cancers resulting from its use in Chinese medicine.

Quite possibly, in terms of accidental poisoning, the most harmful plant of all those featured on this website” (thepoisongarden.co.uk)

Another plant with a fascinating history of a different kind is woad (Isatis tinctoria) and this is looking good in our dye border at the moment.

It was the main source of blue dye in the middle ages and much cheaper than the imported indigo from the Orient. It continued to be cultivated and used, with indigo, as an important dye up until the 1930’s and a classic historical account of woad by Hurry (1930) refers to its use for dyeing police uniforms. Celtic tribes used woad as a skin dye and the name Britain is said to derive from the Celtic word, brith, which means paint. Julius Caesar famously noted the blue stained skin of the natives, which gave them a wild look in battle. Glastonbury got its name from glastum, meaning blue and Somerset was the centre of woad growing in medieval England. Woad was gradually replaced by Indigo but not before laws were passed throughout most of Europe to prevent the import of the foreign dye and protect the local woad growers.

Hold your noses for the next bit! Woad dyeing relies on the vat method of dyeing, involving some form of fermentation during the process. One of the old fashioned ways of dyeing with woad was to use a urine vat, which contains ammonia, to make the mixture alkaline, and bacteria, necessary for removing the oxygen. If you wanted to try this method yourself, you would need to collect urine to make the vat and it should be 2-3 weeks old before use. Furthermore, it is best left open to the air during storage, as bacteria from the air improves it. Ugh, I am not recommending it! No wonder Elizabeth I forbade the production of woad within 5 miles of any of her estates because of the pong.



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