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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Harvests good and bad

Posted on September 01 2015 at 3:13:20 0 comments

Cornfield

Mary Green points out some plants that can kill or cure.

September is still harvest time to most of us. Our harvest festival services are mostly in this month, when “all is safely gathered in,” and the services strike a chord even in these days when most of us are not directly dependent on the produce of the land.

I suppose this is because we know we still need all the food produced in the world to be successful, even if we get it second hand.

I can still remember how important the weather was to my farming family when I was a child, and especially for the harvests. Woe betide anyone who made a noise when the weather forecast was on the radio!

I still love the different smells of oat, barley and wheat fields around the Village area, and was pleased this year to see one with wild flowers allowed to grow on its edges.

Historically there were lots of different celebrations of the end of harvest, most including something to be done with the last few ears of corn to be gathered. Often they were woven into various shapes (the “corn dolly”), usually human-shaped but sometimes in crosses, horseshoes or other more complex patterns.

Sometimes the last grains were ground and made into special cakes (like the first ones were at Lammas).

Whatever happened, harvest home was the excuse for a big celebratory party, often one in which the farm workers, and indeed the whole village, mixed with the gentry for once. There was feasting and drinking and music. It was important as a celebration of the end of the agricultural cycle, and recognised the hard work of everyone over the last few weeks.

September held one of the key quarter days in the agricultural year, Michaelmas (September 29). It’s interesting that these four quarter days are still used as the structure of our financial year. They are named after key events in the church calendar.

This one is St Michael’s Day, celebrating the archangel who drove out the devil from heaven (you can see a good carving of this event at Coventry Cathedral).

It marks the transition from summer into autumn, and is the date by which we should have gathered and eaten blackberries from the hedgerows. After this, the devil spits on them (or worse) as a revenge on St Michael.

The familiar blue-mauve flower called the Michaelmas daisy is not a wild native but an old cottage garden flower. However, it has been naturalised in many places and you can see swathes of it along some roads and railway lines.

Michaelmas was the time to eat roast goose, too. This was the start of eating up some of the summer poultry and meat so animals didn’t have to be fed during the hard winter. It was also a key time for important “hiring fairs.” Now the harvest was over, workers had to secure themselves employment for the next year.

In fact, September was full of fairs, starting with St Giles’ Day on September 1 and taking a lot of mop fairs, apple fairs, goose fairs and others, all based round the end and start of the farming year. The fact that our academic years start in September harks back to the start of the agricultural year.

This year the flowering has been late, so the harvest of many fruits is a bit late. But it looks as if there will be plenty of apples, plums, damsons and everything else. The blackberries were late starting so we may be able to carry on eating them after Michaelmas!

So many of our hedgerow trees produce edible fruits: hips and haws, elderberries, sloes, apples, sweet chestnut and hazel are all coming into ripeness soon.

In the news this summer there has been a lot about giant hogweed, a plant that causes sores and blisters on contact. People have got a bit panicky about ordinary native hogweed, which is very common around here and is absolutely harmless.

I have never seen giant hogweed here. It is non-native, a garden plant, which has spread along roads and waterways in some places. It should certainly be avoided.

But when you look at our native plants, there are a lot of them that carry poisons. It made me smile when I went to Alnwick Castle gardens, where they have a poison garden with a big rigmarole about not allowing you in without an expert guide. Most of what was in there was either in my garden or growing along the canal and hedges around here!

This year, I have found several plants of hemlock around here. This is like a large showy cow parsley, but flowering in June rather than April/May.

When you get close up it smells rather bad and the stems have reddish spots on them. It is highly poisonous, but is avoided by most animals and won’t hurt you so long as you don’t try to eat it. It is probably the reason why we were always taught not to eat cow parsley, which is edible and delicious when young, just in case we got it wrong.

One of the plants that grows profusely along the canal is hemlock water dropwort. The name gives this away, and in fact it’s even more poisonous than hemlock, being the most poisonous plant in this country.

This has big, slightly glossy, ferny leaves a bit like celery, and a head like a big open cow parsley. It, too, flowers after cow parsley has finished, and grows right on the water’s edge. People die from eating it every year, possibly thinking it is wild celery.

In the same family as these is the little fool’s parsley. Once more the name gives it away – it is poisonous but looks like parsley. It has appeared, unusually, along the canal towpath this year. It is a plant of disturbed ground, so it is following the renovation of the towpath.

It is easily recognised by the little bracts hanging down all round the flowers, which are delicate and rather pretty. I have had it come up in my garden, so you might too.

All four of these poisonous plants are in the carrot family, along with the edible wild variants of many of our vegetables and herbs (carrot, parsnip, fennel, cicely, chervil, parsley). It just shows that you really need to know before you forage!

Outside this family there are other poisonous plants all round us. At this time of year you can still see ragwort flowering, that big plant with multiple yellow daisy-like heads. It’s unusual as most of the daisy family are edible. It’s dangerous for horses and cattle.

They normally don’t eat it as they can tell it’s not edible, but if it’s cut down and left to dry they can’t tell any more, and will eat it, sometimes with fatal consequences. So if you do remove ragwort, burn it.

Flowering earlier in the summer, the foxglove is one of our best-known poisonous plants. It is beautiful, and much loved by children who like to put their fingers in the flowers. It shouldn’t harm them, but handwashing is needed afterwards! Of course, the flower produces the drug digitalis, which is much used as a heart medicine.

Even deadly nightshade (belladonna) has been used to produce a drug. This is a reminder that there really isn’t a difference between a drug and a poison – it’s just a matter of scale.

I have recently spoken to people using galanthine as a medication for dementia. Galanthine comes from snowdrops and daffodils – which we have always been warned not to eat as they are poisonous.

At this time of year we become conscious of poisonous fruits and seeds. Most of what we see around us is edible and good. However, the lovely spindle berries are poisonous, and yew berries especially so. Birds can eat the fruit as they don’t break the seeds, which is where the poison lies, and which are spread in bird droppings.

In the hedge bottoms are the striking wild arum berries (also known as cuckoo pint or lords and ladies). These are bright orange-red in spikes. Along the canal you may find berries on the irises, and these too are poisonous. Much later at the end of the year come the black ivy berries, which at least look poisonous!

Most herbal medicines come from plants where the amount you are likely to consume doesn’t contain enough of the drug to cause any harm. But anything that will do you good can potentially harm you in the wrong quantities.

Some plants can cause a reaction in some people, or upset the stomach if over-eaten. Elderberries are a good example – they are fine but too many may cause upsets. The same is true of wood sorrel leaves.

The jury is out on how good rowan berries are for you. At one time country people had the knowledge about the good and bad plants could do for you, but not many of us know them these days. 

You may wonder why plants go to all this trouble to be poisonous, or indeed to be edible and good for us. Of course, it is in their own interest. They produce chemicals to attract things they want there – insects to pollinate them, birds to carry their seeds away, insects which feed on the other insects that attack the plants – and to repel things which might eat them before they have reproduced.

As plants can’t move, these chemicals are the only things they have to protect and spread themselves. At this time of year the harvest is here for the food we like and for the poisons that protect the plants. We just have to be careful not to mix them up!

The flowering and setting of fruit and seed in all our native plants is dependent on whether or not we let their habitat flourish. Unfortunately the Canals and Rivers Trust contractors have mown some of the newly-revived vegetation along the towpath, which I celebrated last month.

However, there is a new piece full of diverse flowers (melilot, wild carrot, yarrow, medick, weld, clover, trefoil) near Alvechurch station, where the plum trees used to be. I hope they will leave this, as it was full of blue butterflies in August.

I was pleased to see that the county council has done fewer cuts of the roadside vegetation this summer, resulting in some verges blossoming well.

I found pink centaury, usually a plant of sandy soils on the coast, growing along Sandhills Green where I saw it years ago until it was regularly mown down. Unfortunately it didn’t survive long until it was mown again.

It grows plentifully on the protected verge near Romsley. It’s an example of how plants can survive underground and come back, and how roadside plants come in from different habitats.

And people around the villages have been letting their lawns grow a little bit longer, so they become jewelled with flowers like white clover and self-heal – so much nicer than just grass. It’s in our hands what kind of harvest we have.

Here is another of my poems about the canal, written for the 200th anniversary.

Birmingham and Worcester Canal

Both town and country, like my life
It passes gardens, factories, fields
Quietly, seeming apart, but really
Touching and touched by them all.
Here are the remains of lime kilns
There where the horses were stabled
This bridge was linked to an incline
That narrowing is where a bridge was
Joining two parts of a farm: now a ghost
Remembered in the numbering of bridges.
It takes us to Worcester and Birmingham,
The old markets and the new industry
Dropping our country plants into the city
Bringing the city graffiti to our bridges.
The canal is not politically correct
It promiscuously welcomes daffodils
Sliding down from the garden to its banks
And mandarin ducks, farmyard geese,
Mink among the water voles, even a fig tree,
And then a piece of pure old woodland –
Bluebells and anemones and archangel.
The blossom starts at sloe, through bullace
To plum, and everything in between
Merrily mating with the help of bees.
You never know who the duckling’s daddy is
Or how a seaside plant appeared here
Alexanders by the landlocked bridge.
Here is a man fishing with a magnet
For his favourite spanner, dropped in.
It belonged to his dad. And he caught it!
And on the boats, people with no addresses
Pick up wood for their winter stoves.
That’s why I love it. It’s our path
To the station, our dog-walking route
Our wildlife corridor, our leisure trip
Our home without a door, our stillness
In a world of movement, the water
That flows through our blood and bones.


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