Summer Plant Highlights (i) – from Humble Pavement to Grander Garden

Epilobium parviflorumAs we move into autumn, I plan to put up some short posts with highlights from my engagement with plants this summer. The first is from mid-June, when I was invited to Bury St. Edmunds by Sustainable Bury to lead a mid-summer plant walk through the town. I found it very rewarding and good fun – the whole group really got into the spirit of the walk and connecting with the natural world via the plants and flowers.

Hoary Willowherb

We spent a couple of hours visiting plants in all different locations – from the humble pavement to the grander (but very friendly) cathedral herb garden and the riverside. In the herb garden we sat and tuned in to plants and place, taking notice of whatever plant our attention was drawn to, whether familiar or unfamiliar, hoary mullein or prickly milk thistle. We then spoke together about our findings over a collectively brewed fresh herb tea from the community garden that Sustainable Bury set up and co-runs.

From long-forgotten childhood memories of foxgloves in Wales to an increased awareness of colour and smell, to a determination to do this more often, the richness and variety of people’s experience was striking. And all by taking time out to pay a different kind of attention.

Hoary WIllowherb Bury Wall 14 June 2014

Humble Pavements aka “You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

For more info on my talks, walks and workshops, please see here.

Images: Hoary Willowherb by Hectonichus (from Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License); In the street by Sustainable Bury and Sitting on Walls by Karen Cannard; Text by Mark Watson. Creative Commons with attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives

Just How Much Epazote in the Beans? And When?

I’ve been looking at some Mexican cooking forums to find out exactly when to add epazote to black beans (see previous post) and just how much.

P1020067 1024x768Una ramita, a sprig, seems to be a common guide on how much epazote you put in the olla (pot) when you cook frijoles (beans). Traditionally (but by no means exclusively) it’s used with black beans. And how much you put in also depends on when you put it in. More at the beginning and less right at the end.

It’s a very strong smelling plant when fresh, and (to me anyway) utterly compelling. The word like, or even dislike, doesn’t really come into it (which is great given how like is so overused these days). There’s really nothing else like it no matter how we might talk about similarities to tarragon… or varnish!

20140729_092708The intensity does break down in the cooking. Last week I cooked a pot of black beans and then put a ramita in before going on to the refried stage, which took another hour or so. Next time I might try it a little nearer the end of the cooking time.

I’ve found epazote a very easy herb to grow here near the Suffolk coast in the east of England. I don’t know if it has to do with the soil, which is light and sandy, but some of them are well over five feet tall. It’s mostly described as an annual but most of the plants I have are in their third year – including this mammoth one.

Images: Two sprigs of epazote; epazote growing tall, Suffolk, England July 2014 (both by Mark Watson)

Of Blackcurrants and Beans, Epazote, Cosmos and Playing For Time

Herbs, Flowers, Food 22-3 July 2014 smaller 2The days are hazy and warm if not always entirely dry this post-midsummer here in Suffolk. And whilst in the moment time feels fairly slow, the days and weeks themselves seem to rush on apace.

This week Lucy is here and she and Charlotte are at work in the caravan putting the finishing touches on Lucy’s book about collaborative arts practices and new narratives, ‘Playing for Time‘, which they have been working on for the past year and a half. Maybe calling it finishing touches is a bit premature as there’s still quite some editing and picture work to do over the coming months. But later this week Lucy will take her Puck caravan back home to London and her regular visits will have come to an end.

So yesterday, whilst they were both in London meeting with the publishers, I prepared the evening meal. What was to be a tortilla had to undergo remedial action as I almost burnt it chatting to Lucy and her daughter Alice in the garden when they got here. All was not lost though I just had to rename it an egg and potato hash! It tasted fine.

I prepared a herbal refresher as ever and added some very lightly stewed and strained blackcurrants to the 18 herb infusion, which along with the lemon juice turned the whole thing a startling magenta pink (see bottle in picture).

But the refried beans were what most excited me. Already cooked black beans simmered for a further hour or so along with two large sprigs of our homegrown epazote (aka Mexican Tea or Wormseed) and a bunch of coriander with tomatoes, onions and salt added. They were delicious. Epazote is incredibly pungent but when cooked tastes very different from what it smells like raw. It’s what makes Mexican beans taste like Mexican beans. And as you can see in the picture (above left) it grows very easily here.

The centre picture in the banner is of feverfew, orange cosmos, Moroccan mint and Japanese mugwort, all growing happily by the back door.

Buddleia Coming Up to Full Bloom and Lots of Butterflies

IMG_8826 Buddleia & California PoppiesTwo summers ago on 30th July 2012, I wrote a very short post about how the huge buddleia here at home was in full bloom but that, unlike every year for almost a decade previously, there were hardly any butterflies around to visit the bush. It seemed a very lonely butterfly bush that year and we felt keenly the absence of the red admirals, commas, tortoiseshells, gatekeepers, large whites, meadow browns and peacocks (we’d counted up to two hundred at a time in the past).

Now, this Mark in Flowers blog has a modest number of visitors, it’s true. But a post that comes up again and again when I do check the stats, is precisely this one called Buddleia in Full Bloom but Very Few Butterflies. But it’s better news here this year as far as butterflies (and other insects) are concerned, so I thought I’d better bring things into the present.

20140715_115910 1024x768 enhThis is what’s happening today (15th July 2014) as the buddleia comes up to its full summer bloom. On the bush itself I just counted over two dozen butterflies, mostly peacocks and also several red admirals, tortoiseshells, three large whites and some meadow browns. And more flying elsewhere in the garden. It’s also been a good year for hoverflies, who love the St Johns wort and plantain, and we’ve been visited by many bees of both the bumble and the honey kind.

And the atmosphere is fuller, more vibrant and joyful for the presence of these creatures visiting the plants than when they weren’t here.

16th July: More butterflies today than yesterday, including commas.

Images: Beautiful but lonely – butterfly bush with no butterflies, wild carrot, california poppy, July 2012; this year as the buddleia comes into full bloom the butterflies (and bees and hoverflies) are back

Test and images by Mark Watson, Creative Commons with attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives

This Midsummer Life (1) Creatures

P1010454 Frog detailIt was only when I sat down to reflect on the past few weeks that I realised what I thought had been a stream of ordinary and uneventful days of the usual work and household tasks, in fact, turned out to be a midsummer period filled with life.

This includes: the exciting and abundant flowering of a cactus for the first time in the twelve years it’s been with us, and which rarely blooms at all in cultivation; a visit to Bury St Edmunds to lead a wildflower, feral flower, cultivated flower, all-flower walk and talk (and teapot!) through the town with a great group of people from Sustainable Bury; and celebrating both Summer Solstice and Charlotte’s birthday with a local walk and picnic of mainly local and seasonal ingredients along with perhaps the most delicious herbal refresher I’ve made yet.

I hope to post some words and images about all of these things in due course. But first the creatures…

This year three creatures have returned to the garden and the field beyond we thought had disappeared for good. All of them used to be regular visitors and inhabitants. At least five years had gone by since we last saw a hedgehog here, but last week I came upon the fellow in this picture ambling nonchalantly up the path and into the long grass. I’ve seen her/him several times since then, so it may have made a home with us.

Almost the same amount of time has passed since there were any frogs here. I have seen several recently though, leaping over plant pots when I take the watering can around. This morning I found a young one peeking out from beneath a sunflower.

Winter 2012/2013 was a bad time for barn owls. A deadly mix of continual cold weather right through into the spring and the widespread use of rat poison, brought the populations in the country to a serious low. Suffolk, where we live, is well known as a stronghold for these birds. For the past couple of years we had really missed the familiar jizz of the barn owl at dusk (sometimes we’d see a pair), and how they would skirt the fields beyond the house on their hunt for prey. I only realised how much I’d taken them for granted when they were no longer there. Then last week we saw one again making its rounds. That was a very joyful moment.

We have also found common lizards again on the anthills, and the grass snakes continue to render the compost heap out of bounds for the season.

Insects too, seem to be more abundant this summer than of late. I’ll finish here for now with a picture I took earlier of hoverflies pollinating the ribwort plantain flowers…

P1010461 plantainhoverflies23June2014

Text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons license with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives.

Remembering Memorandum Nº 13,874

Quito - AndesMemorándum 13.874 is a song I first heard in 1985 as a language student in Mexico, sung with beautiful harmonies on a wonderful album called Así Como Un Gorrión (Like A Sparrow) by a little-known Argentinian duo, Nora y Delia.

I recently rediscovered the song on YouTube and found out the name of the author of the original poem (Argentinian writer and poet Humberto Costantini).

The text takes the form of a letter in which, after 20 years of continuous work in the same office, a clerk dictates to the senior administrator his 13,874th memorandum, setting out a “list of essential materials” that his boss must supply as soon as possible if the clerk is to continue with his task.

This song will speak to anyone who finds themselves inside for long periods of time under the pressure of unceasing administrative tasks.

Below are the original lyrics in Spanish followed by an English translation. Here is the link to the song on YouTube: (It begins properly at 0:18 secs)

Spanish original (adapted by Nora y Delia from the poem Memorándum Nº 13.870 by Humberto Costantini)

Sr jefe,
Me dirijo a Ud a los efectos de informarle que
habiendo cumplido ya 20 años de trabajo continuo en esta oficina
es imprescindible para proseguir en esta tarea
que me envíe a la mayor brevedad posible
la lista de materiales que detallo a continuación:

Un cielo gris
algunas nubes bajas
y una tarde de otoño, si es posible.
Además, muchos árboles viejos,
casuarinas oscuras, como el tiempo.

Sería mucho pedir también,
algunos álamos?
Humedad y una llovizna lenta
y tierra, claro está,
y el olor de la tierra
de la lluvia
y del otoño
y de los árboles también.

Podrían faltar quizás las hojas secas
pero no el corazón ardiendo
ni la sangre, trinándose de pájaros.
Ni el vértigo
ni la muchacha rubia
ni toda su ternura a mi lado
ni la sangre, llenándose de pájaros…

A rough English translation by me

Dear boss,
I’m writing to inform you that,
having now completed 20 years of continuous work in this office,
it is imperative, if I am to continue with this task,
that you send me, at your very earliest convenience,
the items I list below:

A grey sky, some low clouds and an autumn day, if possible.
And a lot of very old trees…
casuarinas, as dark as time.

Would it be too much to ask for some poplars as well?
And dampness,
a slow drizzle – and earth,
definitely earth,
and the smell of earth and autumn and trees.

You could perhaps omit dry leaves,
but not the heart on fire,
nor the blood full of birdsong;
and don’t leave out vertigo either
or the blond girl at my side with all her tenderness,
or the blood filling with birds…


Images: Quito Under Cloud 1992 by Mark Watson; Casuarina* by Atamari (from Wikipedia) under CC BY-SA 3.0 license
*Casuarinas are large shrubs and trees native to the Southern Hemisphere (though introduced to Argentina).

Teas in Transition go walkabout!

I wrote this piece for the latest edition (Spring/Summer 2014) of Transition Free Press, the quarterly grassroots UK newspaper which reports “on a culture that’s shifting the way it looks at and engages in the world… with news and feature stories that other papers don’t quite reach.” I manage the distribution for the paper. The piece both records the first Sustainable Bungay* wellbeing walk of this year, which I introduced with a pot of tea, and looks at how paying attention to where we are can show us how we belong in a place.

Teas in Transition go walkabout

“Can you guess what’s in this tea?” I am standing in the community library garden in early April, introducing the first Sustainable Bungay wellbeing walk of the year. The liquid I’m pouring from the large white teapot is a light golden green in colour; “pale sunshine” someone calls it. Though no one recognises its fresh, mild taste.

The tea is from the leaves of a nearby birch tree. I’m talking about its spring tonic qualities – the theme of this walk. Birch leaf tea helps cleanse the system and reduce uric acid. Several people here have told me recently that they suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, even gout. Time to get acquainted with birch!

The monthly walks themselves are about paying attention to where are and discovering what makes us belong in a place. They began last year after a Green Drinks discussion about wellbeing and community, where we decided to walk together and map the places and green spaces around town that we valued and made us feel at home.

The route is decided collectively on the day by everyone who turns up. As we walk people show each other the meadows and alleyways that have resonance for them, as well as swapping local knowledge and stories. One month we may hear about about the history of local trade and shops, and another discover how the relationship between human society and the River Waveney has changed over time (and take a swim!). It’s also about engaging with the people (and plants and places) you meet along the way.

When I organise a walk I there is a strong focus on plants and trees and learning to see them as multi-faceted fellow inhabitants of the Earth with their own reasons for being here, as well as their medicinal qualities. And there is always a pot of tea!

Birch leaf tea: 5 fresh or dried birch leaves per person (picked spring/early summer), infused 5-10 minutes in just-boiled water. No harmful side effects. Drink freely.

I teach people how to connect with the living world through plants (and my ever-present teapot!). I also manage distribution for Transition Free Press and chair Transition initiative Sustainable Bungay* in northeast Suffolk.

Photo caption: Me with a teapotful of wild and community garden flowers at Transition Town Tooting’s foodival, September 2013

Credit: David Thorne, Transition Town Tooting


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