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’.
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.
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
Ophelia raged through Cork on a day when we usually work in the Frameyard. So we did what we were told and stayed home, hoping that none of the big trees would fall on the glasshouses or that panes of glass wouldn’t blow out. Returning this week, it’s good to see that the Frameyard is unscathed, as peaceful and orderly a place as ever. The orchard was not so lucky, with apple trees that were more than a hundred years old, succumbing to the hurricane. Ian the gardener was philosophical. It’s nature at work.
Many of us have childhood memories of sucking the nectar from fuchsia flowers or using them to create figures. Some people considered it unlucky to take it into the house. Even the Irish name for the plant -“Deora Dé”, God’s tears – was fascinating. These memories come back to us as we work this summer in the “buzzing” glasshouses of Fota Frameyard. Great, lumbering bumblebees are busy visiting the many varieties of Fuchsia. Magellanica (alba), Riccartonii, Pink Goon, Tom Thumb, Thalia, Mrs Popple, Nellie Nuttall, Sleepy and the wonderfully named, voluptuous Voodoo. Fuchsia was introduced to Ireland for hedging and a walk at this time of year on a country road in West Cork or Kerry bears this out. A constant stream of bees crossing the road from one fuchsia hedge to another is common. It’s like being on a bee highway.