Down By The River

I’ve started taking my Wild Flowers pocket book around with me. Am actually grateful for the thing’s relative unsearchability because having to leaf through the whole thing every time I come across a new plant to identify has really helped a lot of information seep into the old subconscious. The other day I was looking at a leafy plant with big yellow flowers on a piece of boggy ground. The name ‘Marsh Marigold’ just popped into my head out of nowhere. Reach for Wild Flowers, search index, flip to page, sure enough, Marsh Marigold – ten second ID! Anyway, another plant it has recently helped me put a name to is the Cuckooflower, aka Lady’s Smock. The book says that its name comes from the fact that it ‘starts to flower about the same time as the cuckoo begins to call’ – although I think I read somewhere that cuckoo populations have crashed in the UK, and I haven’t heard a single one so far this year. Anyway, here’s a huge bank of the suckers:

close-up:

Picture one shows them growing in a ditch by the side of a trackway. As they’re ‘new acquaintances’ I’ve started to notice them popping up all over the place, but they do seem to prefer to grow near water or on otherwise damp soil, sometimes by roadsides (which get a good ‘run-off’ when it rains). Picture two shows the lovely four-petalled flowers which vary from cream-white to more violet-tinted. Click on the picture for greater detail on the purple veins and the ‘pinnate’, finger-like leaves further down the stem.

Rubbing a leaf in my fingers uncovered an intriguing smell which I couldn’t help but get a second opinion for from the taste-buds (generally I spit after a couple of front-tooth nibbles; one piece of advice I took from this page). After a few seconds I got hit with a powerful taste like really strong mustard. It was kindof a thrill to get such a reaction from a pretty unassuming-looking plant. I’ve wondered about the condiment plants (mustard, horseradish, etc.) before – whether the strong flavours actually represent a defensive tactic which we’ve perversely come to enjoy: “Hey, Plant: you’re feisty but I’m gonna eat you anyway!” Anyway, I kept waiting for an unpleasantness to kick in but it never did. Books & the internet later confirmed what I already knew about its ‘pungent’, ‘cress-like’ flavour and suggested using leaves and flowers to give salads or sandwiches an extra kick.

It’s a ‘Blackthorn Winter’:

close-up:

The river flooded last winter and swallowed all the sloes before I could collect more than one batch (for three pots of plummily astringent jam) from the thick bushes that grow along its banks. I like nibbling the flowers for the weird shifts of flavour from sweet to bitter to almondy when the cyanide kicks in. Before you go crazy, let Plants For A Future (henceforth: PFAF) reassure you that ‘[it] is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm’ and further explain:

[…] all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water [or saliva? – ed.] to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being[238].

Still, I wouldn’t go overboard… I’ve dried the blossoms to make a yellowish tea which tastes pleasant enough and is supposed to help with ‘diarrhoea (especially for children), bladder and kidney disorders, stomach weakness’ (ibid.)

The weather has been really kind to us for the last week-or-so. I’ve been paying attention to the clarity of the sky since the Iceland volcano knocked the planes out of action. There seemed to be a special deep kind of blue in the blissfully empty sky, and I thought I could see much further and more sharply from the various local vantage points. Also the relative quiet was wonderful – the birds didn’t sound so much like they were straining to make themselves heard. I took the above photo just after missing a particularly splendid crow in mid-flight between the tree and the moon (above-left). This was the day the airports were just beginning to get back to ‘normal’ (climate destruction renewed – yay Normality!) so the plane in the top-right is probably one of the first to come back. “Brave pioneers … *sniff*”

‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ as they say. In this case it took their absence and subsequent return before I realised what a knife to my senses these abominations truly represent. I couldn’t help but give the finger and shout out at the first few low-flying growlers to ‘get the [expletive] out of my sky’. I had felt such a thrill a few days previously seeing signs on the motorway (as a passenger in somebody else’s car) warning of the closure of both Gatwick and Heathrow airports, fantasising about this continuing into a permanent condition (and maybe then a series of earthquakes could take out all the motorways?) Now the knife was slowly sliding back in… Once I wrote a poem about shelving and beasts of burden, with the key idea being that:

good shelving will hold beyond its capacity
but will buckle immediately
if,
after you’ve taken the load off
you try to put it back on

I wonder what it’ll take before people stop relying on distant volcanoes or other acts of God or Nature to shut down the airports for them. How long a break do they need before enough of them realise that actually, no, they don’t want air travel’s constant imposition back in their lives; how long before they finally make the connection between their needs (e.g. to not get poisoned) and the clear-if-daunting course of action to get these needs addressed?

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