A Day’s Plant Hunting

One of the pleasures of living on a small island is that you are never far from anywhere – except another country (apologies to Wales and Scotland, I know that you are proud of your separate identities and rightly so).

So last Friday I spent at home in the Cotswolds – limestone country, wide open views and rolling pastures. Saturday I spent walking across Dartmoor (post to follow) – granite country of bleak, open moorland and few trees. Today I spent walking in the Chiltern Hills, my birthplace, a chalk country, densely wooded and secretive. All are beautiful in their own way.


And today was especially special for I was on a mission: looking for rare plants. And with some success, although just as much delight was found in the more common ones, for seeking pleasure from rarity for rarity’s sake is a poor emotion. What could be more charming a discovery than this group of foxgloves in a woodland glade? A common enough plant: I prefer the wild to the garden varieties, that have been bred to have ever larger ‘cups’. Here, the wild plants have a grace and delicacy that is so unlike their brasher relatives.


The group of thistles didn’t seem to be of special interest other than for the pleasure of watching the bumble bees feed from their flowers. But when seen in close detail the flowers really are quite spectacular. Most of these were purple but some that, from a distance, appeared to have prematurely gone to seed turned out to be a variant – they had white flowers. How glad I was that I had dawdled and not just rushed past without giving them a second glance!



Further into the woodland and growing in dappled shade was the first of the ‘finds’. Our native Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is not often seen. Many that appear wild are garden escapes and are usually close to roads or houses but these were a long way from either. And, again, the flowers have a delicacy and lightness about them. Ladies Bonnets is another country name for them – it is easy to see why.


The Narrow Leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) is also uncommon and it was only after this one was found that we realised that there were over forty plants scattered over the area. Like the Columbine, where the plants were not sheltered by scrub or ferns, the deer had eaten the tops off. The flowers remain closed, making them unavailable to insects so, I assume, the plants self pollinate – perhaps that is why they are not at all common.


Further still along the path, was this solitary speciman of Daphne laureola, the Spurge Laurel. Although this plant grows quite widely in the Chilterns, this was the only specimen seen today. It flowers in late winter, it’s greenish-yellow flowers lacking the sweet scent of its garden cousins. Already the berry seedheads are forming, these will turn black later in the year. The Mezereon, a popular garden shrub in the past but not grown so widely these days, is also a native but extremely rare. It is known to grow in the Chilterns although I’ve never found one.


Returning once more to open meadows the woodland gave one last surprise: tall Field Maples, Acer campestre, usually grown as a hedging plant. And this is how it would have started out: one trunk, coppiced and layed to create sturdy, stockproof fencing. The original trunk has long disappeared and the ‘new’ stems from around its base have grown to be trees in their own right. For a maple to be of this size – and they rarely are – it would have been planted in Medieval times and it is known that the field that it borders was first created by the Saxons, 1000 years ago.


And as a grand finale, the meadow gave us dozens of Common Spotted Orchids – only common in favoured places, the spots refer to those on their leaves. The Chilterns are a great place for orchids and are home to some of the rarest species – their sites a closely guarded secret.
A most successful and satisying day!

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Coronation Chicken, Anyone?

According to one tradition, the first Pekins were smuggled out of China and presented to Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her coronation. Whether this is true or not is immaterial – it just makes for a nice story. The first Pekins (I have read that in the States and Canada the breed is known as Cochins) presented to me were a gift from a friend several years ago and we have been breeding them ever since, concentrating on the more unusual lavender coloured variety.

Pekins are a breed that is only found as bantams – which is fairly unusual in itself – the majority of bantam breeds have a ‘full size’ chicken version as well. Recognised most easily by their feathered feet they are friendly, almost cuddly, as the hens especially are rounded and dumpy, another recognisable feature.

The cockerels, too, are reasonably lacking aggression (some bantam breeds I have kept in the past would attack at every opportunity). They do, however, have their moments, especially at this time of year. I have found that the way to deal with this is to arm yourself with thick gloves and ‘teach’ the cockerel that you are not intimidated. As he attacks, I catch and pin him to the ground, holding him there for a few seconds: he soon learns that he is second in the pecking order to me and the only thing to be hurt is the cockerel’s pride. We have a number of cockerels (too many) and, surprisingly, they show no aggression to each other.

Penned away safely at night, during the daytime we release them when they have the freedom to roam the fields of the secret valley. It is extraordinary the distance they travel in the course of the day as they cross back and forth. With the odd handful of corn to entice them back, I try to keep them reasonably close to the house for safety but, even then, the fox takes them from time to time.

Ramblers dogs are also a threat – it is amazing the number of people that seem to think it is acceptable for their animals to chase livestock when they are in the country. She-dog, our lurcher, a type of dog specifically bred for hunting, had to be taught that chasing certain animals was unacceptable if she wished to remain living on a farm. From the earliest age she was made to sit amongst sheep and also the bantams, which made useful training aids, with the consequence that now she totally ignores them. It didn’t stop her stalking them when a puppy if she thought we wouldn’t notice!

Would I recommend Pekins? Only with reservations. If it’s egg production you want, they are fairly useless although they lay enough for our requirements and the eggs are full of flavour with rich yolks. If it’s meat, then there isn’t much food on a bantam! If it’s just the lovely sight of a group wandering about the open fields, scratching in the hedgerows and dust bathing in the sunshine then yes, they win hands – or even feathered feet – down every time.

Coronation chicken? We don’t eat our bantams but I bet they would taste good and coronation chicken has to be one of my favourite dishes. If you want the recipe you will have to ask……

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About Frost Free Flowers and a Bomb Plot…

I know the mind plays tricks as you get older but when I was a small child Bonfire Night was always bitterly cold and frosty. Afterwards, it would turn milder and wet – my father told us it was because the bangs from the fireworks frightened the clouds and made them cry.

a frosty morning in the secret valley

Whether it really is due to global warming or just chance, (probably a bit of both), but this year has been milder than ever. We have had a couple of slight frosts but not enough to do much damage other than to the really tender plants such as dahlias. This post is really more of a photo shoot of plants that ought to have been long finished. In between, for the benefit of overseas visitors, I will explain about the tradition behind Bonfire Night.

fuchsia megallanica

“Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot” starts the old rhyme that children learn, recalling the day in 1605 when a group of men tried to assasinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. The main conspirators were Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes and it is the latter that is remembered because he was the one that got caught.

allium triquetrum – don’t they realise it isn’t Spring?

The burning of the guy, as the effigy of Guy Fawkes is traditionally known, represents the death of Fawkes and right up to the recent past (trick or treat seems to have taken over) children would take their guys, which they made, from house to house asking for ‘a penny for the guy’.


a stunted but proud Foxglove

The bonfire is always accomanied with a firework display, these days usually organised affairs by charities or village committees. What happened to the real Guy (which is where the modern day name for any man originates)? He was tortured and taken to the gallows to be hung, drawn and quatered – the baying crowd were cheated of this spectacle as he jumped to his death before the noose was placed around his neck.

a tender Salvia – not sure which one – any thoughts, please?

As for Catesby, he and the other conspirators escaped, but were found three days later and shot.

this surely has to be the last butterfly of summer?

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