Astrantia major has many common names – Hattie’s pincushion, great masterwort and even melancholy gentleman. One of our volunteers, Sally, remembers it being called “Granny’s Brooch”, due to its resemblance to a piece of old-fashioned jewellery, the kind that an elderly relative might have worn on the lapel of a ‘good coat’ on special occasions. Astrantia, which have been cultivated since the C16th, was described by William Robinson as having ‘a quaint beauty of their own’.
The delicate blue flowers of Forget-Me-Not are holding their own among the strong, wiry stalks of Sweet William in Glasshouse No. 5. Both species (Myosotis scorpiodes and Dianthus barbatus) fit well into our Victorian setting. Much has been written about the symbolism of Forget-Me-Not, stretching back to Medieval times. It is associated with King Henry IV who is said to have adopted the flower as his symbol while in exile from England in 1398.
This week at Fota House a group of staff and volunteers led by Herbalist, John Vaughan, covered a short area of ground to dip into a vast area of herbal knowledge. John led us on this expedition to find “common plants for common problems” and to help us “re-discover old knowledge and learn anew”. The dictionary defines foraging as “food for animals especially when taken by browsing or grazing; the act of foraging : search for provisions”. Animal or human, foraging has become popular among chefs and health enthusiasts. Whether or not you’re interested in homeopathy, foraging is also a great way to learn about plants that we see everyday but know little about.
On these wet and windy days, as we wait for promised sunshine, it’s nice to think about exotic and colourful plants. And as volunteers at the Fota Frameyard we’re always eager to explore other gardens and glasshouses. This one is in Pittsburgh, quite a distance away. Pittsburgh’s nickname used to be “hell with the lid off”, a reference to the profusion of steel-mills that operated in the city. By 1911 it was producing half of the nation’s steel. Now the mills are gone and the air is cleaner. But even when the steel-mill chimneys were spewing out poisonous smoke (or perhaps because of that), the city built these Victorian glasshouses and set up the Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens. A vibrant and colourful oasis in the middle of a dark, industrial landscape.
The spidery, yellow ribbons of the witch hazel unfurl with a spicy fragrance in the Fota Frameyard. This is the Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’, that came under attack from the Fota rabbits when it was first planted. Now it has recovered and is thriving in the herbaceous border. E.A. Bowles, the British horticulturist, called witch hazel the ‘Epiphany Tree’ because some of these shrubs start to flower around the 6th of January and smell like frankincense. ‘Arnold Promise’ flowers somewhat later than others, in February and March.
This year’s Young Scientist Award was won by a young man from Cork called Simon Meehan whose work looked at the benefits of using plant extracts (particularly blackberry leaves) to treat bacterial infections.. At his display stand he had a photograph of his herbalist grandfather who had inspired him. At Fota House, as part of a Volunteer Appreciation Day recently, we were treated to a talk by herbalist John Vaughan. Here is a sample of what he said on the day.
The beech takes its time coming into leaf in late Spring and puts on a great show in Autumn when other deciduous trees have shed their leaves. Among the dark evergreens of Fota, the orange, brown, red and gold leaves seem to glow. Rounding a bend on any given path around the Gardens, they provide a welcome relief from the approaching Winter. Continue reading