Midsummer already

I always arrive at the longest day on 21st June with mixed feelings. While I relish the long hours of daylight and the peak of the flowering season in the garden I am also surprised at how quickly we arrive at this midsummer day; too soon, it seems, after the memory of the short cold days of winter.  I want to linger at this moment before we turn that corner, once again, towards those short days and longer nights.

The Midsummer Solstice, a celebration of the longest day of Summer, is associated with many ancient Midsummer traditions, and surrounded by mythical tales of fairies and supernatural visitors. But after the religious reformation in the early part of the 15th century, the church became increasingly uncomfortable with the Pagan celebrations associated with Midsummer and started to ban many of the rituals in favour of a more Christian festival. The celebration was then renamed to mark the birth of St John the Baptist and, appropriately, was called the Feast of St. John the Baptist.

The plant that is most closely associated with this time of year in the walled garden must be St John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum with its golden yellow, star shaped flowers, slit shaped perforations on the leaves and red staining sap.

A perennial, native to Britain, Europe and Asia, this plant was believed to have infinite healing powers, the red juice produced by the leaves representing the blood of St John. It was once known as Fuga demonium, devil’s flight, and was believed to give powerful protection against Satan. The house that had St John’s wort hung above the door was safe from thunder, lightning and fire. Neither witches nor the devil himself could cross the threshold. On account  of its red juice and the perforations on its leaves it was interpreted by the Doctrine of Signatures  as a wound healing herb and an oil reddened with the juice was sold in apothecary shops as a treatment for burns.

Another plant greatly enjoyed in the garden at this midsummer-time, for its colour, beauty but most particularly it’s exquisite scent is the rose, and a fine example is the vivid striped Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’ or ‘Rosa Mundi’ we have growing in the nosegay garden.

Gallicas are the oldest of the garden roses, having been grown by the Greeks and Romans and later being used as a parent for many of our more modern cultivated roses.  Rosa Mundi is the earliest known stripped rose dating back to the 1500s. Legend has it that Rosa Mundi was named after Fair Rosamund, a mistress of Henry II, England’s monarch from 1154 to 1189. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor is said to have poisoned the lovely Rosamund by breaking into the house Henry had built for her at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. This legend is depicted in the oil painting by Evelyn de Morgan (1855 -1915) shown here.

(Courtesy of The De Morgan Foundation)

The stained glass window above Rosamund shows two lovers in an embrace. The Queen carries a small flask of poison, plus the thread that has led her through the maze to the house. She brings with her shadowy evil forms of dragons and apes, while blood red roses lie at her feet. In contrast, winged cherubs and shadowy doves of peace accompany Rosamund and white roses, symbolising purity and innocence, lie at her feet. Rosamond stares at the flask of poison held by the Queen, recognising her doom.

This legend makes an attractive picture, but is contradicted by historical fact. Henry actually imprisoned Queen Eleanor from 1174-1189 for supporting the rebellion of two of her sons against their father. Rosamund entered a nunnery in 1174 or 1176 and died there in 1176. At the time of Rosamund’s death, Queen Eleanor was a prisoner in Winchester.
Moving from a strange tale to a strange plant: I am always delighted when something pops up in the garden that I have never seen before and we all reach for the wild flower books to see if it can be identified. This specimen was discovered by a volunteer while weeding the North wall border the other day.
It is called Lesser Broomrape (Orobanche minor), a very curious looking parasitic perennial that lacks chlorophyll, feeding on the roots of the pea and daisy family. This clump was found growing very near to the oxeye daisies growing in our meadow grass. It belongs to the Broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) which includes another similar native plant called toothwort (Lathraea squamaria), an unearthly looking parasite which grows on the roots of trees, especially hazel, elm, alder and willow. The tiers of flowers resemble dirty, mauve stained molars, giving rise to the common name.
Back to more everyday matters, we have reached the busiest time of the year and our community vegetable garden is in full swing.
This smart new banner draws attention to the plot and there is plenty to get the taste buds tingling when you get there.
Strawberries are cropping well, helped by our newly installed seep hose system.
the rhubarb is having a riot….
 …and ingenious ways are being invented to keep the crops well watered.
Gardeners (and helpers) are busy…..
Veg are available to buy from the stall….
And we have even been out and about in the local community, representing the Friends Group at Witham Community Day on 9th June.
Visit on a Tuesday and one of the volunteers will be happy to show you the community garden and offer you some of the harvest to take home.  The best buttery new potatoes ever tasted,  freshly dug and on your plate in no time….tempted?
The Heritage Lottery project is making great progress and we are pleased to announce the completion of stage one – repair of the viewing platform. Joe puts the last few fixings to the floor before work on the steps can begin.
And with a final coat of preservative to the oak boards, all is finished, and very lovely it looks too.
The next stage was to repoint the paving that runs under the arbour. A volunteer away day group from a charity called ‘Trees for Cities’ were the unlucky victims for this laborious task. After a demonstration from Joe they applied themselves with enthusiasm and seemed to enjoy the change from their usual day jobs.
What a difference. No more high heels getting stuck in the gaps!
In the meantime, two time lapse cameras have been installed to capture a year in the life of the garden. Here is a sneak preview of what the camera can see. It will be taking 6 frames per day, each of a split second duration. This will be edited, after the year is completed, to give a fascinating insight into the seasonal changes in the garden.
We have an opt out scheme for anyone who would prefer their image not to appear on the final version, although, as you can see, identification would be very difficult at this range (ask in the visitor centre for more information).
Plans are also well under way for the oral history interviews. We are contacting people who have had a connection with the gardens over the past 30 years and asking them to contribute their memories of the garden. We hope this will form a valuable and interesting record for posterity and added interest for our visitors. If you have memories of the garden, know somebody else who has, or if you would like to help us with this piece of historical recording, please contact us.
None of this would be possible, of course, without the generous support of The Heritage Lottery fund.
Enjoy your gardening in this lovely warm weather, but keep up the watering!
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