You will hopefully have come across the hardy hellebore whilst out and about in January. Despite the cold and damp, hellebores poke through and provide a flash of lush green and subtle colour in shady spots. If you are yet to spy one or more, go and find them this weekend... they can often be found hiding under a tree in a shady spot in the park.
The hellebore is native to central and eastern Europe but became a well known plant in the UK by medieval times, and has remained fairly common place ever since. The hellebore has attracted attention throughout history (both good and bad) with accounts dating back to ancient times associated with poison, medicine and magic.
One of the most interesting stories recorded dates back to 585BC in Kirra (modern day Greece). The city was besieged by attackers in the First Sacred War (forgiven if this war doesn't ring many if any bells). Citizens were kept safe by the tall walls of Kirra, that is until the attackers poisoned an underground waterway with roots of the black hellebore. Drinking this water thus weakened the citizens of Kirra, with reports of sickness and hysteria giving the Athenian attackers their advantage and gifting them the subsequent victory.
Poisoning by the hellebore plant can cause tinnitus, vertigo, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue/throat, followed by vomiting... which perhaps explains how the plant was used so effectively as an ancient biological weapon of war.
Moving away from warfare, the hellebore has also played a significant role in both ancient and medieval medicine, featuring in many herbal remedies. The most common usage was to prevent, avert and/or heal melancholy and madness, which contradicts the use of hellebore in Kirra. We can only assume that physicians such as Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder thought that in small doses the purgative effect was good for the body (and also as a good diuretic and laxative). The behaviour of patients would have changed rapidly due to the weakness caused by vomiting and diarrhoea, allowing physicians to assume their antidotes were working. This would have been taken at great risk to the patient, although they might not have had a choice in whether or not they consumed the potion. It could be curative, it could be poison... bottoms up!
Further to this, the hellebore has been used and referred to in remedies relating to women's health (unfortunately written and prescribed by men, as was the norm). The hellebore is frequently noted as an emmenagogue (meaning to stimulate and increase menstrual flow) and an abortifacient (meaning to cause abortion). The Greek physician Dioscorides included the hellebore in his remedy for 'abortion wine'. So too did the early medieval book 'Macers Herbal', alongside other ingredients known for purgative effects.
Thankfully, usage of the hellebore for consumption is now under careful scrutiny and it remains the focus of medical research (but your GP will not be crushing up any hellebore root for you to digest). The fact that we are still interested in the medicinal and healing powers of this plant is testament to the subtle and fascinating hellebore, and it is not surprising that it has demanded our attention and awe for so long.
Moving away from war, prescriptions and poison, we should take some time in this slow month to appreciate the beauty of the hellebore. The hellebore has a unique and almost otherworldly ability to bring some life and colour to thaw the otherwise bleak and frozen garden in winter. Take some time in this slow month to seek out and admire the hardy hellebore. Quite a history for such a pretty plant.
January can seem such a drab time of year. Much of what there was to look forward to: autumn leaves as the seasons change; halloween dress up; fireworks and festive bingeing has now passed. January has arrived and seems scarily quiet, bleak and lacking in spectacle.
I am trying this year to enjoy this calm and quiet that January brings, and what better way to do this than take a moment and reflect on some of the unsung little fruits that the winter months give us: berries!
Berry producing plants can provide us with colour in perhaps the saddest gardening month of the year, but more importantly these fruits are essential for birds and other animals (such as mice), as they struggle through the cold and hungry winter.
Interestingly birds will give preferential treatment to ready to eat berries (much as we might do with fruit) and will return to berry bushes later in the winter when they are either ripened or it is necessary to eat. You will often find lots of red berries on many an Ilex (Holly) tree around December, hence the association with the festive season. Come late January and February, most of these berries will have been consumed.
I have put together a list of berries for you to spot in January. It might be a dark and cold month, but colour and fruit can still be found once you start looking for it.
1. Rowan berries
2. Mahonia berries
3. Ilex (Holly) berries
4. Pyracantha berries
5. Hawthorn berries
N.B. remember to always check if certain berries/fruits are poisonous/toxic for human consumption if you are foraging for yourself! The Woodland Trust has some good articles to consult on winter foraging.
Our balcony was taken over in late summer by straw-like vines, wrapped around every other plant, pot and railing. Sweet peas are not known for their consideration of other plants when blooming in summer, and my experience was no different. Left on their own for a few weeks, we returned from holiday to find all the green had turned to straw, and this sweet pea straw had taken over the best part of the balcony.
With some severe hacking, we brought some form of order back to the balcony, but whilst doing this, we kept hold of the sweet pea seeds for sowing next year. Sweet peas are annuals, so the plant grown from seed is only with us for one season, never to return, hence the importance of collecting your seed! Even on a balcony you can harvest seed... and this inexpensive and interesting process will provide seed and flowers for the following year.
Sweet pea pods are easily recognisable to all, as are any pea pods! Knowing when the seed is ready is indicated by a colour change of the pods from green to brown. Be careful not to leave it too late before the pods open and disperse their contents. Remember the plants want to release their seed as soon as possible. Once the pods have lost their green colouring and turned to brown, with the sun behind them, you will be able to see the black seeds within (see images below). If you shake the pods, you should also be able to hear a rattling.
Shake off any debris from the seeds and store in a cool, dry place. Remember to label the seeds, and save for next year! Sweet peas could be sown indoors from January to April, or if you prefer to sow directly into the ground or in pots, do so in late March or April, although in my experience the results are generally less satisfactory than bringing the seedlings on indoors before planting out!
January can seem but a colourless month - yet all one must do is seek out winter's flowers. There may be few, but few there are still --- unknown.
Spindly and arachnoid is the Hamamelis (or Witch Hazel to most), a winter flowering shrub that provides colour and fragrance for gardeners every year. The Witch Hazel brightens up those dull January days when the winter is harsh and gardens lie bare. Other-worldy in appearance, red and yellow tentacles dazzle and provide a spiced fragrance for passers-by to sniff at.
All varieties of Hamamelis are relatively easy to grow, just avoid excessively wet soils and plant somewhere that gets sunshine at least for part of the day. They do prefer neutral soils (although will put up with slightly acidic soils). Hamamelis will flower for long periods - ranging up to six weeks - which in the cold and dark months of winter is rather remarkable. Few other winter flowering plants have flowers that can survive such extremes.
Young saplings will grow to small trees of around 4-7ft over a period of 6-10 years, but will take quickly to their surroundings. Trim and maintain regularly if concerned about space invaders.
Cut a branch or two and place in a vase indoors for free perfume that lasts longer than incense sticks and is far more pungent than any candle. Even in the darkest and coldest months, nature still puts on a spectacular display, don't you think?
The bizarre yet beautiful carnivorous 'fanged pitcher plant' (Nepenthes Bicalcarata) - native to forests in Borneo - is a lethal operator. A foe to those insects who fly too close, lured in by the sweet smell of a delicious nectar. Deep reds, sap greens and unusual patterns make for an interesting species.
Insects who do fall inside the tubular pitcher will rarely escape. They will drown inside the pitcher in a liquid of the plants own making, where they are then broken down by digestive enzymes into nutrients that become available for use by the plant. A means of survival.
I also think they share a marked similarity to the praying mantas? The lips around the rim of the pitcher appear like forearms, praying for an insect to pass by. Killers of the forest, praying for food. Is seems wrong to fascinate over such a deadly plant, doesn't it? I will stop there.
Aquilegia (common name: Columbine) is a genus of perennial plants found in many places across the Northern Hemisphere. I have seen many varieties across the UK on my travels this year, and they have also impressed in my garden. It is easy to understand why designers repeatedly select Aquilegia varieties for show gardens year after year.
After months of colour, and once pollinated, the flower petals will begin to fall, and you will notice that where there was once a flower head, a spikey crown of green tentacles emerges: the seed pod. You might be inclined to deadhead and cut back at this stage, but be patient! Give the plant time to produce the seed that it always intended to.
In the images below, you will see that when the green crown begins to turn brown, the tip will open, and expose the brown/black seeds. This is the plant’s way of telling you the seeds are ready for harvest. You will also be able to hear the seeds rattling in the wind. Carefully snip the tips that are ready for harvest, and place in a container. Once ready, use your fingers to gently squeeze the upside down crowns so that the seeds free from their casing. You will be surprised by how many seeds fall from each crown, which will be ready for germination and planting next year. Store in a dark and dry place, and be sure to label. Happy harvesting!
The Clematis was first introduced in the UK way back when in the 1830s... now a relic from an imperialist age, when the UK's plant hunting trade was truly in vogue. Clematises, Geraniums, and Lupins all came to the UK in ships; with plant hunters pillaging plants from across the globe, all for a growing demand back home in Victorian Britain, for bright and blousy flowers from far off lands.
The Clematis Montana is no different, and originates from India, with Lady Amherst, wife of the retired Governor-General of India, bringing the variety back to the UK in 1831. It was described by Paxton's Magazine of Botany in 1840, when it was a relatively new addition to British gardens, as a "showy... charming" addition to the British garden, with a brilliant display of "snow white" and "delicate pink" blossoms. Nearly 180 years later, it is still a regular feature in the garden, and it is easy to see why; a sprawling mass of flowers, providing colour and fragrance in early Spring, and without needing much attention.
This week, I sorted through the onion sets that had been dug up at the end of the last season. As you can see below, some were much bigger than others. The larger ones can be planted straight out into the raised beds in a few weeks, but my dad and me (wanting to get outside) planted up some of the smaller sets into peat pots. This way, you can allow the bulbs some time in the safety (from birds) and warmth (relative) of the greenhouse, ready to plant out in the peat pots in a few weeks. If you want to strategically plan your harvesting, you can do this on a rotational basis, leaving a portion of the smaller set to the side for the time being. I will upload some more stories and images once the crop gets going. Happy onion-ing!
The Urban Gardener opened in January in Etterbeek (Chaussée de Wavre). This pop up store sells a vast range of terrariums, some open top and some closed, and some with a mini-sun, in the form of a micro-sun (LED lightbulbs in the jars). Terrariums have been the go-to trend for metropolitan gardeners, yet some complain both about their price, and this "hipster association". Although the price of these glass jars can be a litte on the steep side, if it allows people in small apartments to introduce a little microcosm of forest green into their home, perhaps it is worth it.
Dominic, the owner of the The Urban Gardener, is very cheery and welcoming. He hosts workshops on a monthly basis - see the below link for details!
Click here to visit the site. Pay Dominic a visit if in Bruxelles!
I wanted to write about oak trees because there is much to be said for this common native species of tree. The oak is one of Britain’s most common trees, and is one of the most widespread hardwoods in the northern hemisphere.
The oak family has great variety, but despite this, oaks share several distinctive characteristics, one being their impressive stature, with mature species growing as tall as 100 feet in height. Most species also share a common shape, showing off a perfectly round mass of leaves and branches.
The fruit of all oaks is known as acorns, which are instantly recognisable. As the fruit ripens on the tree, the green acorn takes on a darker colour, before loosening and falling to the floor below. Acorns are a rich food source for many wild creatures, including mice and squirrels, but if left, will germinate into an oak sapling.
For a long time the oak has been employed as a symbol; whether it is for the Woodland Trust as the charity logo, or as the home of an oaky character on children’s television programme (whose head was also made from oak, as it so happened… miraculous really). The oak, despite its quiet and non-showy resolve, has thus managed to attract cultural and national significance, yet this is not a recent feat.
Richard Mabey’s The Cabaret of Plants explores how this “human image making” has shaped our relationship with trees (particularly oaks), and has done for hundreds of years. Whether in Ancient Greek, Roman and Celtic cultures, the oak played a part, whether in religious ceremonies, adorning the heads of rulers as a crown of leaves, or as a medicine. In the medieval period, the “Green Man” mythic image became a point of intrigue: with sculptures depicting a person either masked or growing oak leaves, becoming a contentious feature of churches and buildings, with no one quite sure whether it was to be worshipped or feared.
There is such a multitude of reasons for our fascination with the oak, but also the ability to live for centuries, and see so much change, more so than any human ever will, is remarkable, especially at a time when we ponder cryogenically preserving ourselves. Several trees have been declared the “oldest oak in Britain”, including the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire, and are well worth a walk and a look. Oaks seem to gain attention and respect as they age, perhaps we could learn something in our own treatment of older people?