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Use of peat and peat substitutes

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Use of Peat and Peat Substitutes

January 2020 – Planning a Winter Garden

sarcococca confusa flowering in february norfolkLast month I was at an RHS gardeners’ networking day down at Hyde Hall, their garden in Essex. They built a winter garden about four years ago and so it was a chance to see how it had developed and learn from the people who designed and built it. Winter is the season of short, dark days and long nights and a lack of vibrant colour. But there is a huge array of more subtle colours that add hugely to our enjoyment of our gardens.

At the moment we close at the end of October and although we are here every day working in the garden (weather permitting: it’s throwing it down as I write) we don’t open to visitors. Long-term we want to be open all year round but quite a bit needs to be done before we can get there both in terms of buildings and the garden.

So, off June and I went to Hyde Hall. It was inspirational to hear about how the space had been planned, what had been planted and then to go outside and see the space itself. It helped enormously that it was the most delightful day, clear blue skies and (even more unusual for November just gone) warm sunshine. I was able to cast a clout or two that day.

June told me that when she was training as a garden designer one of her tutors told her “plan for winter and summer will look after itself.” I hadn’t thought about this before but when I thought of it, it’s obvious. If you plan the structure of the garden for winter then summer simply develops around it.

This means thinking in terms of shrubs and trees, bark colour and texture, twig and stem colours, catkins, skeletal forms, berries and seed heads. So for example Prunus serrula (Tibetan Cherry) has fantastic deep cherry-coloured bark which also peels leaving even brighter colour beneath. Salix has bright yellow or orange stems.

I discovered that there are around fifty Cornus species which come in shades of red, burgundy, black, salmon pink, green, lemon and orange. Or you could, like Anglesey Abbey (and indeed us) plant silver birches with ghostly white bark for a real stand out display. We have Cornus  sericea ‘Flaviramea’ with its bright olivey green stems right in front for dramatic contrast.

Architecture planned, then add bulb and herbaceous so that the planting flows from one season to the next. Winter aconites are little globes of bright orange flowering from January onwards; crocuses flower from autumn (Colchicum autumnale) through to spring (Crocus tommasinianus and C. speciosum amongst others). And of course who could have a garden without snowdrops. There are so many to choose from this hardy little gem. Ted Hughes wrote about them having a “pale head heavy as metal” emphasising how tough they are to flower when they do.

Honestly I could go on but I am running out of space. I haven’t even talked about scent or herbaceous planting. I think I might have to continue this next month. What I will say is if you are anywhere near RHS Hyde Hall or National Trust property Anglesey Abbey do explore their winter gardens. I struggle with the really short days of winter and the lack of light and I’m sure I’m not alone. So the more we can make of the colour available in winter the more we can delight in our gardens, even if only looking out of the window whilst we toast out toes in front of the fire. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris January 2020

December 2019 – Flowers to tell a story

Flowers tell a storyLadies and gentlemen let me take you on a little time travel as we go back to the middle ages and the time when plants were the only form of medicine and linked with myth and legend.

In an age when only wealthy people could read and church services were in Latin, people learnt the stories of the Bible through pictures painted on the interiors of church walls and through stories attached to flowers.

Here in the Garden we have our own medieval physic garden with each bed containing plants used for the ailments of a particular part of the body. In the same period many of these plants would be used to tell the Christmas story

Lady’s Bedstraw  (Galium verum) with its masses of foamy yellow flowers gets its common name from the legend that it was the straw that Mary lay upon to give birth to Jesus. Perhaps a more prosaic reason for the name would be that it was also used to stuff mattresses, presumably only for ladies! Corpses rested upon a bed of Bedstraw  in their coffins.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) believed to help with lung complaints and in its symbolic meanings bookends the life of Christ. The white splashes on the leaves represent the milk that Mary fed to Jesus and the flowers that open blue and turn to pink represent the Virgin’s blue eyes which turn red with weeping at His death.

According to legend Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) by God to guide the wise men to the Christ Child. Once the star’s purpose was completed, God thought it was too beautiful to banish from the earth. Instead, the brilliant star burst into thousands of pieces and descended to the earth. The fragments of star gave birth to beautiful white flowers that blanketed the hillsides which became known as Star of Bethlehem.

The common or garden Daisy (Bellis perennis) beloved of children for making daisy chains and the scourge of gardeners looking for a perfect lawn is seen in its simplicity to represent the innocence of the Christ child. Whilst the white Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) represents the Virgin Mary in her purity and grace. The altars of churches and chapels in religious houses would be decorated with lilies to glorify the name of the Virgin. It is one of the oldest flowers in cultivation and its name (candidum) means purest white.

Before Christmas was the older festival of Saturnalia and Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe all had meanings associated with the winter solstice, eternal life and rebirth. To the Celts holly (Ilex aquifolium) represented the holly king of the winter solstice and it had magical properties because of its shiny leaves and ability to bear fruit in winter. The druids believed it stayed green to keep the earth beautiful whilst the magical leaves of the oak had disappeared for winter and people used it along with Ivy (Hedera helix) around their doors to repel evil spirits.

Mistletoe (Viscum album ) symbolising  life and fertility by Celts was also seen as an aphrodisiac and protection against poison. In Norse mythology it was sacred to the Goddess of Love Frigga whose son was shot by Loki, Goddess of Mischief with an arrow made of mistletoe wood. Frigga revived her son and then blessed the tree so that anyone standing beneath it would be protected from death and would also deserve a kiss. And who can argue with that.

Have a wonderful Christmas, hopefully relax a little and maybe look again at the greenery we decorate our houses with and think of all those who have done so before us. Happy Christmas everyone.

Tricia Harris December 2019

November 2019 – Dahlias

Helmsley Walled Garden Dhalias by David HowardDear readers I have a terrible confession to make this month. I used to think dahlias were a frou-frou waste of time and effort. I know. I can see you all stern faced, lips pressed tight in disapproval at this scandalous attitude. But fear not I have turned my back on my former louche behaviour.

The change was brought about by my dear friend Helen who gardened with me here and brought from her previous garden a range of dahlias with which she set about educating me.

I had no idea there was such variety in dahlias and (worse) I used to mix them up with chrysanthemums. They are so different but in my head they came under the same showy bunch of blooms that needs lots of fuss.

Well Helen was having no truck with that and so she won my heart for dahlias by planting ‘David Howard’, ‘Carolina Moon’, ‘Chat Noir’, ‘Nuit d’ Ete’ and ‘Purple Haze’. The last always brings on a Jimi Hendrix soundtrack in my head (I was very young in the 60s which is why I remember them). The colours are amazing and they are in full bloom now, a little diminished by the recent frost but still giving autumn a real zing.

So now, even though they do take a bit of care I’m a big fan. For me it’s not about enormous show bloom, more about colour and well joy really. At a time when problems seems to be everywhere: politics, the climate, the health service to name but a few, we can all do with plants that lift our spirits.

A few recommends. Miniature decorative ‘David Howard’ is a gem, and I’m not just talking about the plant breeder and nurseryman. Combining beautiful orangey gold flowers with being very robust (for a dahlia) you can’t really go wrong. A couple were missed when we lifted them last and they still managed in this not startlingly good summer to put on a thumping show. I’d say the same as regards robustness about ‘Carolina Moon’, a waterlily dahlia whose petals are white with a delicate violet wash.

For drama, cactus dahlias are good value. ‘Chat Noir’ is an almost chocolatey dark purple with ‘Nuit d’ Ete’ a deep aubergine. Or for full-on zing try ‘Acapulco’ (cue for another song), a brilliant scarlet and a real showstopper.

I’m going to be pretty busy soon lifting this lot here at the garden. I’ll start after we close and it will be all hands to the pump through November as we lift each tuber, cut off the old foliage and rinse off any remaining soil. The dahlias then stand upside down in the Orchid House to dry out thoroughly.

Next it’s out with the dahlia crates. I line them with newspaper and a layer of potting compost. Each crate is filled with tubers of the same variety, a name tag is popped on and then another layer of potting compost, finally going under the benches in the Orchid House to overwinter. I check them occasionally, I don’t want them wet as they’ll rot but they don’t want to be bone dry either.

Once spring is here and I can see buds starting, I’ll bring them up on top of the benches to get some light and give them a little water so they can start filling out. Nothing is planted until I’m certain we’ve had our last frost. This can be a pretty moveable feast so I watch the weather. Once I’m sure, in they go and I look forward to another brilliant show. Yes, dahlias are wonderful, thanks Helen.

Tricia Harris November 2019

October 2019 – The busyness of October

Harvest celebration Helmsley Walled Garden October 2019In the days of my extreme youth when people would say “ooh hasn’t the year gone by quickly” I was filled with scepticism and disbelief that these older people really knew what they were talking about. How could the year go by faster? All days and months are the same length every year? Reader, I hang my head  and confess I now know exactly what those people in my past were talking about as this year has shot past faster than the speed of light.

We are into October and autumn and at the end of this month we close our doors to the public until next April. Not that the work stops; it just means we can dig up large areas to redevelop them without worrying about any unsightly mess.

Preparations for our winter work are now underway. I don’t want to let all our surprises out at once but I will say that those of you who have visited recently will have noticed the Iris Border taking shape on the East wall. We will also be giving the wild area a massive makeover. It has become so overgrown it does indeed resemble a truly wild place. But as such it doesn’t really belong in the garden so it will be completely dug over, leaving one or two shrubs and then replanted with British native wild flowers.

We will also be doing a lot of work on the Long Border with a new design drawn up by June, who in addition to being garden manager is also a fine garden designer. The new design is still under wraps but I can say that it will incorporate some unusual peonies as a tribute to Alison Ticehurst who started the whole restoration process of the garden back in the 1990s. Peonies were her favourite flower and it will be a wonderful way to remember what she did and what we all owe her.

But in the meantime things do not stand still, oh no. We will be having an autumn display in the Orchid House full of pumpkins, squashes and other vegetables, fruit and flowers harvested from the garden. Although whether we will have an old garden lush in this year’s display will be purely down to the creative skills of our volunteers! Terrible things happen when you put a gardener next to a gin bottle.

We celebrate all things apple on Saturday October 19th, our Apple Day. There will be apple-themed trails and puzzles for children, apple pressing and juicing displays alongside the chance to taste unusual varieties. There is the chance to learn more about pruning and training the apple trees in your garden with short workshops throughout the day. In addition there will be delicious apple-themed dishes to try in The Vine House Café. I’m hoping for Apple Cake which I love but never seem to get the time to make for myself.

Also in the Orchid House there will be a display of paintings, craft jewellery and other items created by the York Textile Group of artists alongside our own artist-in-residence Clare Carlile. This will start on the 19th and run for a week. I can hand on heart say that all their work is exquisite and if you looking to get ahead with some Christmas shopping it will be well worth a look.

Time does not stand still and I must go and open up the garden for visitors. The garden may be starting to prepare for its winter slumbers but it is still beautiful. Visit if you have the chance, we’d love to see you. In the meantime, enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris October 2019

September 2019 – Bringing in the Harvest

It has been something of a topsy-turvey summer with the weather cracking the flags one minute and rain of positively Biblical proportions the next. I’ve noticed a big difference in our apple crop this year. There are a lot less for a start.

One reason for that is last year was a bumper crop and trees will look after themselves by limiting the number of fruit they bear in order not to exhaust themselves and to conserve energy for the following year. Called biennial bearing it’s not an unusual sight but I think this year has been exacerbated by the cold, wet snap we had just as the trees blossomed. It meant pollinators weren’t out and about so much. This was followed by an unseasonal warm and dry spell which has resulted in much smaller fruits. Worcester Pearmain, normally a decent sized fruit has got tiny apples this year. More like the size of Spartan only not quite so crimson in colour.

So it has made cropping from our Kitchen Garden a bit interesting. But we are picking every day and I have never made so many courgette and lime cakes so I guess courgettes are cropping as usual.

I love this time of year when the quality of the light changes as summer draw towards its close and we pick tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, herbs and salad leaves from the Salad House and beans, courgettes, sweetcorn and potatoes out in the Kitchen Garden. There does seem to be a healthy crop of plums and damsons and we’ll be starting to pick autumn raspberries very soon.

I grew up in a small seaside town in the north west and I don’t think I truly appreciated harvest time then. Harvest Festival at school was very much a tin of spaghetti or fruit and although we sang the hymn We Plough the Fields and Scatter, it didn’t have any resonance for me. Now I can see and hear the combines working late into the night from my house. Everyone works till all hours to bring the harvest in when the weather is good and frets when it rains. It makes me appreciate all the hours of work that have gone into growing the wheat for my bread and the fruit and vegetables for my dinner amongst many other things.

But of course it doesn’t stop with harvest for farmer or gardener. I’m thinking now about what seeds I will need for the Salad House next year and I will be talking to Mollie who makes all the delicious food in The Vine House Café about what she would like me to produce for her menus. I’ll be taking the opportunity once we close to put heart into soil that has been busy all season by adding organic matter and a helping of manure.

Likewise in the Kitchen Garden, Laura is planning her crop rotation, which beds to manure and obviously planting things like garlic for next year. The colder months are the perfect time to drool over seed catalogues and a lot of that goes on here I can tell you.

But we only have five acres and twenty four hours in a day so common sense must prevail. We really can’t grow five different types of carrot and although there are many lovely salad leaves to choose from, growing two different kinds of rocket is silly when I could grow Mizuna, mustard, chard, spinach not to mention, coriander, dill, flat and curly parsley, basil and so on.

So we may slow down a little but we won’t be stopping as summer ends. Come and watch our progress and enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris September 2019

August 2019 – Show stopping plants

Talking to visitors about the plants in the garden got me thinking about show stoppers. The sort of plant that make you stop dead in your tracks and say wow. There are definitely some visitor favourites: one would be Lychnis chalcedonica in the Gravel Garden and Hot Border, tall with bright scarlet flowers it catches everyone’s attention and I have a very soft spot for it growing it at home as well as putting new plants into the Hot Border at every opportunity to bulk up the display.

Another of my favourites that visitors ask about is Achillea “Gold Plate” on the Hot Border. It has the familiar umbel of tiny flowers but they are so tightly packed together they form a plate of vibrant yellow. Anyone who follows the gardens social media will know that the annual appearance of this plant is something I post about a lot! Well who could resist, certainly not me.

One fabulous scented showstopper is Rosa “Gertrude Jekyll” in Alison’s Garden. I was about to say that normally I’m not overly keen on pink flowers. But then I remembered the startlingly vibrant pink Achillea “Cerise Queen” I’ve just planted in the Hot Border and then Lychnis coronaria, common name rose campion which is a more deep velvety cerise. Anyway, I digress, Gertrude is an old-fashioned looking rose that was actually bred by David Austin in 1986. An English shrub rose, it’s colour is a deep, deep pink and oh the scent; it will truly take your breath away. Gertrude is a bit thorny but the beauty of her flowers means she should not be missed.

I have great fondness for Kniphofia rooperi or Red Hot Poker, in the West and Hot Borders. It’s a bit of a marmite plant for many people but it is (along with Dicentra formosa) one of the first flowers I can remember. It grew in the garden of my extreme youth and, I don’t know, maybe it was it’s very brashness, tall, slightly angular flowers in the brightest of oranges that made it appeal. Either way I had to plant it in my garden at home and was bereft when it didn’t thrive. When it refused to flower for the third year in a row I dug it up and planted it in my neighbour’s front garden. To my chagrin it flowered profusely from the word go. It obviously prefers it next door and I am still miffed.

One gorgeous perennial that comes along slightly later in the summer is Helenium “Moerheim Beauty”. It has daisy-like flowers with the most striking coppery-red petals and a dark centre. Flowering from late July onwards with dead-heading it goes on and on. H. “Sahin’s Early Flowerer”  as its name suggests flowers earlier but is more yellowy. Equally striking at a height of 50cm – 1 metre high, these two give real continuity to a border making sure the show goes on right through summer.

There are a lot of beautiful perennial Rudbeckias such as “Goldsturm” or R. fulgida, but the one that has a special place in my heart is annual R. “Cherry Brandy”. It has deep, dark crimson petals that look almost the colour of chocolate they are so deep and rich, again with a dark centre. Annuals they may be but they flower for ages. They do need to be sown under cover and not put out until all danger of front has passed.

I hope you’ll try out one or two of these and maybe, if you see me in a flower bed here, come and tell me some of your favourites. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris August 2019

July 2019 – Working in the White Garden

It’s all hands to the pump here as we swing into July. Our head gardener is unwell so I have had to step into her shoes. Mind you with a diminutive shoe size 3, I find it hard to fill anyone’s shoes but I’ll always have a go.

This is the most exciting time to be in the Garden as everything is putting on leaf and colour and the Hot Border in particular is gearing up for its summer extravaganza. But for anyone who is waiting for me to phone or email in my capacity of marketing manager, I can only give you my sincere apologies and say I will be in touch as soon as I can.

One of the joys of escaping my desk and putting my assistant head gardener hat firmly on my head, is the chance to work in parts of the garden I don’t normally.

For the past week I have been deep in the White Garden batting the Coltsfoot and Pink Fumitory. Coltsfoot is a thug of a wild flower with deep roots and a pretty yellow daisy-like flower. It’s a medicinal plant; its Latin name Tussilago farfara indicates that it is very good for soothing sore throats and bronchial complaints. But it is very invasive and so far I haven’t dared plant it in the physic garden. People make a tea or tisane with the leaves as well as Coltsfoot jelly. Does anyone make Coltsfoot jelly anymore? It seemed to be something fed to invalids in Victorian novels; I bet it was made out of that pig of a root. Anything that goes that deep just has to be medicinal.

I have replaced it with the beautiful pure white Scabiosa perfecta alba, Astilbe x arendsi and one of my favourite spring plants, the delightful Brunnera macrophylla “Betty Bowring”. I’ve mentioned her to you before, such a well-behaved girl with a pure white flower. Every garden should have her in a shady spot somewhere.

Whilst I have a think about what else I’d like to plant I’ve been putting in a few annuals. Now, at the risk of being convicted of crimes against annuals I have to confess I’m not their biggest fan. Unless I can direct sow, I struggle to fit with their timetable. They need pricking out and potting on when they need it not when I’m able to do it. Result, leggy etiolated plants that never really get away properly and don’t look as good as they should. I know I should be able to plan for them but I sometimes struggle to juggle everything I’m doing.

However, for one or two I am prepared to make an exception. One is Nicotiana affinis, a real surprise to me. I’m not noted for my love of the tobacco plant but its lovely plate-like rosette of basal leaves and tall stem with beautiful trumpet-shaped brilliant white flowers with just a hint of baby-pink blush on the underside truly took my breath away. Another would be zinnias. I’m putting “Polar Bear” in here but there are many beautiful shades of this overlooked flower. But enough, I’ll leave my passion and proselytising for zinnias for another day.

I hope you’ll be able to come and spend some time sitting in the White Garden and admire some of these lovely plants along with all the different shades of their foliage this summer. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris July 2019

June 2019 – Iris germanica

I got a lovely surprise when I went into the Physic Garden the other day. Iris germanica, otherwise known as Orris Root in physic was flowering. Now that may not sound very exciting or unusual. It is the time for iris to flower after all but what was exciting was that it is hasn’t flowered in years.

Now the reason for that is it had got congested and needed a bit of TLC. Over time irises spread outward through their rhizomes, a bulbous sometimes fleshy storage organ providing energy for growth and storing that same energy over winter ready for next year. Over time the central rhizomes die and the plant spreads outwards with a unsightly hole developing in the middle of the clump.

This is easily dealt with by digging the whole thing up after the plants have flowered and selecting the newest rhizomes (those on the outside of the clump) to replant. Generally this is done mid- to late-summer when gardeners have the time to attend to such a task.

In an act of rashness, the sort of thing that makes television presenters say “do not try this at home” I dug them up and replanted in the lovely warm spell we had in April. This really is not recommended but I was desperate. I never (and I mean NEVER) have the time in summer to go back to what can be quite a labour intensive task in July or August. I’m either deadheading, weeding or pruning in my role as assistant head gardener or as marketing manager I’m writing, talking to journalists, editing our website or a host of other things that need doing in the promotion of the garden to our visitors.

As a result poor old Iris germanica had become very congested and sad looking. So, armed with a spade and determination I jumped into the bed (it’s a raised bed at the back of the Physic Garden) and prepared for battle. I dug and chopped and sweated – not a pretty sight – and slowly got the whole plant out and selected my rhizomes for replanting.

By this stage I was working more in hope than expectation that the plant would recover. This is Yorkshire and Iris is a plant that has its origins on the plains of central Asia, very hot and dry in summer and very cold in winter. Also the soil is rocky and not that fertile, hence the rhizome. So by giving it such serious punishment I was shall we say, a bit on the anxious side.

Anyway, the job was done, the rhizomes back in with just the very top of them showing above the surface and I crossed my fingers and said a fervent prayer to the gardening gods to look favourably on my labours.

Well, clearly they must have heard because when I went to look the other day there was one beautiful yellow flower in bud. I danced with joy round the garden. I’ve been away a few days at a funeral so I need to go back today to see if any more have come out but I was thrilled that my gamble had paid off.

Now you might say, why didn’t you just buy another? Well, I could but a) I’m a professional gardener and I’m supposed to be able to grow things and b) plants cost money and we are perennially cash-strapped here. It costs £700 a day to keep the garden running before we so much as move a muscle so if I don’t have to spend money replacing plants I’ve managed to murder then that can only be a good thing.

So really all I can say is that calculated gambles can pay off but I’ll be trying not to make a habit of it. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris June 2019

May 2019 – Laburnum and the bees

As I write this, it’s lovely and sunny but we still live with the potential threat of frost turning up just as you think you are safe. We‘ve been bold and planted out our sunflowers in the cut flower border and I’ve been busy bulking up some of the display in the Physic Garden, things like Mugwort, Aquilegia, Agrimony and Parsley. In the sixteenth Century, Nicholas Culpepper gave it to patients to help with kidney function and getting rid of kidney stones and herbalists still use it to treat kidney ailments today.

But however busy I am (and it is pretty well crazy in the garden until the end of June getting everything into the ground) I always make time towards the end of May to make time to stand under the Laburnum Arch. There are many reasons to do this, one would be the delicate but heavenly scent, another would be to admire the rich gold of the flowers. But the best reason is to watch and listen to the bees. Standing there first thing before we open to visitors, the only thing I can hear is a prolonged buzz as bees of all varieties bounce from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar. For me it’s one of life’s pleasures to watch those industrious little creatures collecting as fast as they can, and it goes without saying that I am a big fan of honey.

We have kept bees in here at the Garden in previous years. Our last colonies went to Fountains Abbey when Mike, our last garden manager retired. I took the sad but realistic decision that with everything else I just couldn’t look after them on my own so we waved them goodbye as they went to their illustrious new home.

I’d really like to have bee hives back in the Garden at some time in the future as apart from being fabulous pollinators (and of course keeping me in the amounts of honey I wish always to be accustomed to) their outlook on life – if one can say a bee has an outlook – is something we humans could learn from.

Everything they do, they do for the colony from the minute they are born. The instant they emerge from their cell the first thing they do is turn around and clean it so the Queen can lay a new egg in it. Imagine if you could train teenagers to do that!

After that they are nurse bees, then guard bees, working at the entrance to the hive to check the bees coming in belong and there are no intruders trying to steal their honey supplies. Finally they become foragers, going out to find pollen and nectar and, if they find a good supply, coming back and telling other foragers exactly where the nectar source is by dancing. Sounds strange but they perform a complicated waggle dance which tells the other bees how far away it is and in which direction.

I should at this point mention that it is only the girls that do all this. Any males, called drones, born in the hive are there simply to mate with the Queen on her virgin flight. Once that’s done they sit around the hive until autumn arrives when they are thrown out to die as the colony contracts for winter. It’s a tough life being a male bee!

Do come and admire the Laburnum and the bees and maybe next time you spread honey on toast, think of those industrious girls who made it for you. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris May 2019

April 2019 – medicine old and new

Pulsatilla vulgarisSpring has sprung and it is such an exciting time of year when everything really starts into growth and the change is palpable by the day. I was in the Physic Garden the other day and I could see the Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris) were shooting up and Bears Breeches (Acanthus mollis) were spouting up everywhere. Note to self, NEVER plant that anywhere again, it is an absolute thug. Its use as a treatment for sores and wounds is so historic it’s mentioned in the Bible, but it’s an absolute heathen when it comes to taking over one’s garden.

Pulsatilla vulgaris also has a long history of use as a cure for amongst other things coughs and bronchial spasms and for period pains and the menopause. Interestingly modern herbalists and homeopaths still use it for these things today showing that the ancients knew a thing or two about plants and healing. We’ll gloss over the cure for the plague which needed a unicorn’s liver!

Digitalis_purpureaIt is fair to say that plants have a long and noble history of use in medicine, ancient and modern. Herbalists of old knew that Digitalis, derived from foxgloves could be used to treat ‘congestion of the heart’ as they would have known it. Or that salicin (the active ingredient of aspirin), extracted from the bark of the willow tree eased aches and pains including headaches. Both are still used today but they are now manufactured using synthetic active ingredients (although you can still buy willow bark tea from health food shops).

The first herbals came from ancient Greece with the works of Galen and Dioscorides making their way into monastic libraries for use by their herbalists. More ahem, modern works came with John Gerard in 1597 and John Parkinson in 1640. But they included lots of expensive drugs that needed to be imported. The breakthrough came with the publication of Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal in 1649. He insisted on using plant medicine that grew in Britain and on using English common names, telling his impoverished patients where they could find such plants. To help further, he translated the London Pharmacopoeia from Latin into English. His work made the available remedies accessible to people in the newly burgeoning towns and cities.

I find old herbals fascinating and plant lore can keep me glued to my armchair for hours but I don’t think I’ll give up on modern medicine. Last week Madame Molly our garden cat bit me. I can only assume she had been eating rat fricassee or pheasant parfait previously as quicker than you could say “mine’s a tetanus jab” my hand was the size of an udder. A quick trip to the doctor ensued and I came away bearing a packet of antibiotics that resembled horse pills such was their size. Anyway, a week later and my hand is back to normal and I’m back in the garden. I’m glad that I live in an age where such treatment is available. Happy gardening everyone.

Tricia Harris April 2019