The Heritage of Common Plants

oxford herbarium specimen urtica dioica

Oxford University Herbaria specimen for Urtica dioica


Nettle cloth from Denmark, retrieved from a bog-grave








I’m very pleased to be working with Barrack’s Lane Community Garden again, and with The Nature Effect, to implement the new lottery-funded Heritage of Common Plants project. There are several strands to the project, which focuses on the cultural and productive heritage of five common garden and hedgerow plants – Stinging nettle, Mint, Lavender, Dog-rose, and Elder. One of the aims of the project is to create a unique Herbaria for the Garden, collecting the experiences and memories of the garden’s users around these common plants, as well as collecting physical specimens to create herbarium samples. This kicks off on Saturday 19th March with a day programmed around the Nettle – there’ll be soup, fibre-making and nettle tea as well as a host of other early Spring gardening activities and the annual Seed Swap. Later on in the project we’ll be working with a group of unaccompanied young asylum seekers as a part of their support programme, introducing them to some of Oxford’s beautiful plant- related heriatge sites and collections, and working with them in the Community Garden. I’ll post more information as the project develops.


Illustration from the fairy-tale, The Six Swans, collected by the Brothers Grim. Their sister had to weave six nettle shirts to help break the spell put upon her brothers by their wicked stepmother.

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IMG_3774 IMG_3778 IMG_3779 IMG_3782 IMG_3783 IMG_3784

I visited Rousham House garden (Charles Bridgeman 1725/William Kent 1737 to 1741) in the Spring sunshine on Sunday – so unspoiled and yet beautifully maintained. Horace Walpole described it as the ‘most engaging of all Kent’s works. It is Kentissimo’ – which sounds surprsingly modern to me for an 18th-century description! The dovecote and parterre in the walled garden pre-date Kent, but are a charming and intimate counterpoint to the broad outward looking sweep and thought-provoking imagery of the gardens designed by Bridgeman and Kent. Here in the walled gardens we are charmed by the concerns of gardeners – the beautifully trained pear tree on the wall of the dovecote, the very ancient looking espaliered apples, the beautifully kept potting shed and glass house with shelves of sweet pea seedlings, drying chillies, and scented pelargoniums; the cold frame full of pots of tulips being brought on to place in the gardens later in the season. There are no postcards, no shops, no tea-rooms, and on a sunny Sunday in March, practically no people. I hope this wonderful balance between fidelity to the genius loci and ability to maintain the gardens at this standard can be kept forever!

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Just potted: Sweet things

More of my obsession with Spring’s sweet whites. Two beautiful plants for the wilder/more natural areas of the garden, both with species name ‘odorata/um’ from the latin for perfumed or fragrant:

Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum : Tiny white flowers hover above fresh green whorls of star-like leaves. Valuable under-planting, forms a carpet under shrubs and trees, loves alkaline soil. Leaves persist right though the year until the new ones burst through the older leaves.  Much more garden-friendly relative of Lady’s Bedstraw, Galium verum, and the ever-spreading Cleavers or Sticky Willy, Galium aparine

Woodruff/Galium odoratum

Woodruff/Galium odoratum

Sweet Cicely, Myrrhis odorata: Vigorous perennial with fine soft grass green umbellifer leaves, and big panicles of white flowers – in growth and in flower before most other umbellifers are even thinking of it, a really useful precursor to the Ammi genus such as Ammi majus. Strong aniseed smell and flavour to the leaves, which are edible and a great addition to rhubarb.

Sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata

Sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata

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Just potted: Glooming in the gloaming

I get obsessive about white flowers in Spring. Last year I posted on Wild Whites, revelling in the rush of white flowers that seem to gallop across our country side between March and May. This year I’ve been walking a lot in our local woodlands (using Shotover Hill as the nearest thing to the Pyrenees that Oxford can offer, training for my June walk along the Camino de Santiago). There is something special about the way that small white flowers shine out in the dappled dark of a wooded valley – I found myself wondering about the collective nouns we could use:

A Gleam of Sorrel

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)







A Gloaming of Wood Anenome

Wood anenome, Anenome sylvatica






A Ghost of Stars

Greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea

Greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea







Maybe together they are a Wood of Whites ….





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Just potted: Marsh samphire in autumn

Just how complicated can a simple* be?

Walking last weekend with my daughter in the salt marshes of the Cuckmere valley we saw brilliant patches of red amongst the grasses and reeds bordering the rivers and pools.        We were intrigued to know what it was – I managed to get close enough to pick a small sprig, and saw that it was some sort of samphire-like plant, but instead of the usual grassy-green it was coloured dark red/purple.

IMG_2425 IMG_2428

I was puzzled – mostly by the colour, and partly by the ease of access: my only real knowledge of the habitat of Samphire coming from Shakespeare:

“How fearful And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half-way down
Hangs one that gathers Samphire: dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.”


It didn’t take a lot of research to find that my confusion is not uncommon: the true Samphire is a single species genus, Crithmum maritimum of the Umbillifer family (the same family as Parsley and Carrot): the plant we saw was a Glasswort, Salicornia, a somewhat confusing and jumbled genus of the Goosefoot and Orach family, which includes other edibles such as  Purslane and Fat Hen. Which Glasswort it was is unsure – my Collins Flower Guide lists them as

‘extremely variable and difficult to identify as the distinction between the species is not clear’. 

A somewhat older source, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, by William Thomas Fernie, 1897, gives the following guidance

“Samphire, of the true sort, is a herb difficult to be gathered, because it grows only out of the crevices of lofty perpendicular rocks which cannot be easily scaled. This genuine Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is a small plant, bearing yellow flowers in circular umbels on the tops of the stalks, which flowers are followed by seeds like those of the Fennel, but larger…A spurious Samphire, the Inula crithmoides, or Golden Samphire, is often supplied in lieu of the real plant, though it has a different flavor, and few of the proper virtues. This grows more abundantly on low rocks, and on ground washed by salt water. Also a Salicornia, or jointed Glasswort, or Saltwort, or Crabgrass, is sold as Samphire for a pickle, in the Italian oil shops.”

My conclusion – what we saw was probably Purple Glasswort (Salicornia ramosissima), but may have been Common Glasswort, also known as Marsh Samphire, (Salicornia eueopea) in it’s reddened autumn state.

salicorniaramosissima GuernseyNorfolk_Samphire

Whether or not what we saw is one of the edible and delicious samphires (as opposed to those rich in saponins, which can be toxic) is another matter altogether. As William Thomas Fernie says in the introduction to his Herbal Simples: 

“The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself”.

I’ll admire the plants in the salt marsh and buy my edible samphire from the fish monger.

* simple, being the old word for a medicinal herb, as in ‘Simple Simon to the Pie Man’ – not a stupid Simon, but a boy selling herbs.

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Just potted: Pink and Yellow, Colours for an Indian Summer

It was the Dahlias that did it. Hilary Squires, Ethical Florist at East Oxford’s Farmers’ Market (EOFM) has been selling the most stunning lemon yellow, yolk yellow, and clear pink dahlias for the last few weeks – on a cold spring morning they would make your eyes water, but in the balmy days of an Indian summer they were perfect.

Dahlias from EOFM

Anyway, it got me thinking. When we did planting design colour portfolios at college I don’t remember being asked to do pink and yellow! Or pink and orange. Not very ‘designerish’ and so many clients just don’t want yellow in their garden at all. But I started looking and realised just how often pink and yellow are found together- in nature, and in cultivated flowers.  Just think of the fruit of the Spindle (Euonymus europea) – perhaps more orange than yellow, or at least the rich orange-yellow of an egg yolk, combined with the richest pink you could hope to see.

Euonymus europea

Euonymus europea

And the colour combinations of a summer meadow, with the yellows of vetches and hawk bits, and the pinks of clovers and grasses. In garden settings these combinations can work well – think of the new Merton Borders at The Oxford Botanic Gardens with their glorious mix of Echinacea pallida and Echinacea purpurea. Or just look at this suburban front garden planted every year with pink Cosmos and yellow Rudbeckias by mother’s  neighbour, well over 80 now.

Merton Borders

Merton Borders, Oxford Botanic Garden

Front garden

Front garden, Shepperton

Having been musing along these lines I then took my mother to Waterperry gardens to see the Autumn borders – I’m not sure I would recommend all the colour combinations there, but the pinks and yellows certainly sang. There were combinations of Rudbeckia fuldiga with Asters such as Aster n.a. Andenken an Alma Potschke where the yellow of the Rudbeckia picked out the yellow stamens of the aster. The colours together would have made a Bollywood poster look dull!

Aster n.a. Andenken an Alma Potschke

Aster n.a. Andenken an Alma Potschke

Rudbeckia fulgida var deamii

Rudbeckia fulgida var deamii

So next year, when I’m planning my largely green garden, there’ll be a corner, somewhere, for an Indian summer planting to remind me just how bold nature can be, even here in England.

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Wild Whites

Some our most beautiful native species are the white-blossomed trees, shrubs and perennials of Spring. In many years, including this year, Spring is slow succession of flowering whites – the Blackthorns followed by Whitebeams and Hawthorns, the Sweet cecily by the Cow-parsley, the Wood anenomes by the Sweet woodruff.  (Last year, 2013,  Spring was cold and wet until mid-May, then it all happened at once,  the roadsides, fields, gardens and parks becoming a riot of white froth and flower).

The true glory of these spring-flowering natives  is in the open countryside, but they can also make a stunning contribution to the garden, town or country, wild or formal. Imagine the beautiful, delicate Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata) planted at the shady base of a formal low box hedge,  the stately Sweet cecily (Myrrhis odorata) making an early contribution to a potager, or the Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) as the focal point of a lawn, perhaps bridging the more formal part of the garden with  a more naturalistic woodland or meadow area.  And even in the smallest garden a clump of Sweet cecily will give value for many months, the finely divided soft foliage being beautiful and the aromatic black seedheads architectural, whilst the Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), can be pruned to keep it as a medium-shrub providing spring flower and autumn berries for the small garden.

So, here are five of my favourite ‘Wild Whites’, all of which deserve a place in our gardens.  Starting with the smallest and working upwards:

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

A tiny, delicate wonder of a plant with starry white flowers, and slightly shiny whorls of rich green leaves, the overall impression being of a gently exploding  carpet of green and white firework. It prefers shade, and well drained but moist ground, and form excellent ground cover where  it is happy.  Flowers above the leaves begin to appear March, flowers April through May.


Star of bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)

Star of Bethlehem,  Ornithogalum umbellatum

Star of Bethlehem,
Ornithogalum umbellatum

This native bulb has an array of charming (and not so charming) folk names – Betty-go-to-bed-at noon, Shamefaced maiden, Dog’s onions – the first two of which refer to the flowers’ habit of closing at midday on cloudy or overcast days. But for me the beauty of this bulb is as much in the clear grass green markings on the the underside of the petals as in the shiny, almost pearlescent side that face thelight. It likes the moist, and naturalises well in grass.

Luzula nivea, this is a cultivar of the native woodrush

Luzula nivea, this is a cultivar of the native woodrush

I grow mine in a deep wooden tub, by the side of my pond,  with a cultivar of the native Sweet woodrush, (Luzula nivea), where, this year, it looks stunning from April  through early June.




Sweet cecily (Myrrhus odorata)

Myrrhis odorata Photo © Carl Farmer 11 May 2002 Inverness

Myrrhis odorata
Photo © Carl Farmer
11 May 2002 Inverness


Such a lovely name! Elspeth Briscoe, a founder of My Garden School called her daughter  Cecily, and what a good choice it is. It is sweet and lovely plant. The foliage is fresh like new ferns unfurled, but soft to the touch,  the flowers a haze of creamy white, and even the seed-heads have beauty as they age through the summer. I grow mine close to the kitchen, and in spring snip its leaves to cook with Rhubarb, the anis sweetness of the leaf replacing half the sugar I would usually use.

This is a tall perennial, up to 1.2m in good conditions. The wonderfully fresh foliage begins as the ground and the air warm in early Spring, and the flowers come before the Cow-parsley, in my garden at least! Use it in the border, the herb garden, or the potager. Or as a fringe to a meadow or grass area – where it is happy it will naturalise and give great value.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), garden of brother-in-law

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), garden of brother-in-law

No point in preaching to the converted about this wonderful native tree/shrub: it will give you trees and hedges, blossom and berries, and nurture the birds, invertebrates and insects of your garden. Not showy in the individual flower or berry, there is nevertheless something quintessentially natural about the hawthorn en masse: pushing forward its blossom into the welcoming arms of late spring, showing its crimson berries against the blue skies of autumn.  Not a choice for the courtyard garden – but in larger urban settings a hedge of hawthorn (or ‘Mixed natives’) or shrub given room to grow will bring the country to your urban corner.

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

Viburnum opulus, the Guelder-rose, in May.

Viburnum opulus, the Guelder-rose, in May.

The Guelder rose or Wayfaring tree has  two seasons of real beauty. The first is in late Spring and early Summer, when it is covered with fragrant, white, lace-cap type flower heads, each composed of an inner ring of creamy-white, tubular, fertile flowers surrounded by larger, porcelain-white sterile florets. The second is  in Autumn, with vibrant reds and oranges, a magnet for the eye and the birds.

For smaller gardens there is an excellent berry-bearing cultivar Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ . There is also the very attractive V. opulus ‘Roseum’, Snowball plant, but avoid this if you are creating a wildlife area, as it is completely sterile and has no nectar or fruit.


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