This week a post about a pennywort which is causing a problem to our waterways!
The Pennyworts are in their own family: The Hydrocotylaceae or Pennywort family according to Stace.
The family is in between Araliaceae (number 143) and Apiaceae (number 145).
Many authorities, including R.B.G. Kew and the R.H.S., however classify it in the Araliaceae!
But Stace writes:‘Differs from Apiaceae and Araliaceae in its distinctive habit and presence of stipules, and from Apiaceae in its fruits without oil bodies (or carpophore); appears anomalous in either family’.
From Wikipedia: The genus Hydrocotyle has between 75 and 100 species that grow in tropical and temperate regions worldwide. A few species have entered the world of cultivated ornamental aquatics.
There are 4 species in the B.I. according to Stace and only one is native and the other three are introduced. The Floating Pennywort can cause a major problem in our waterways!
Pictures by Mike Poulton, Matt Summers and Wikipedia Commons. Links on Scientific Name from the (online) Plant Atlas 2020 and links on Common Name from Wikipedia or other source. See next page.
Information about habitats and uses also by various sources above and colour-coding is blue background for habitat, wildlife and interesting information. Green for uses and pink for medicinal uses or threat to our waterways.
A dear friend suggested writing about this obscure plant: the Mistletoe, after seeing an appletree absolutely loaded with it!
He sent me a picture and then sent some more after he asked the householder to take a few close-ups and then he got kindly invited into his garden.
There were three apple trees in the garden: two covered in both male and female plants of mistletoe. Neither appeared to be suffering in any way and according to the householder, both are producing fruit. The third tree however, which he said has never had any mistletoe growing on it, had recently died!!
That is a bit of a mystery as surely it should have been the other way round?
The mistletoe is semi-parasitic (or hemi?) but also has some other interesting facts which you can read on the next page.
The mistletoe belongs to the Santalaceae or Bastard-toadflax family and the only one other member growing in the B.I.: Thesium humifusum or Bastard-toadflax will also be discussed!
The family Hypericaceae has only one genus: Hypericum and the most useful plant in this genus is the St John’s Wort or Hypericum perforatum.
But there are other species with medicinal uses as you can read on the next page and many shrubby Hypericums in particular make good garden shrubs with simple yellow flowers and often attractive fruits. These are often arrived on the B.I. as a garden shrub and then spread succesfully in the wild.
The herbaceous Hypericums are pretty wildflowers too, worth growing in an ornamental border and also as I found out from this blog that their pollen is good food for bees:
“I love Hypericum shrubs. I adore the cheerful yellow flowers and the berries afterwards (the seeds inside the berries are eaten by some bird species).
It can be quite comical to watch bees, especially fat bumble bee queens and large workers, landing, and almost bouncing on the stamens, which on some varieties are rather long – these are specimens I advise selecting for a bee garden.
Most often, I tend to notice honey bees and bumble bees on the flowers, although some solitary species may also be observed. Other pollinators like Hypericum too; especially hover flies.“
The Plant Atlas 2020 online describes 19 species of Hypericum + 1 hybrid and 2 subspecies of Hypericum maculatum. You’ll find all the species on the next page and the descriptions of the more common species.
Information is used from the Plant Atlas Online mainly on the habitat of the plant and the link on the scientific name gets you to this website page. Pictures of the plant can often be found in the Gallery of the website. The link on the common name gets you to Wikipedia or any other often UK website. Pictures by Mike Poulton or Wikipedia Commons. A special thank you to https://cambridgewildflowers.blogspot.com/ where you can find good descriptions and pictures of the various Hypericums.
Myrica gale or the Bog-myrtle, Sweet willow, Dutch myrtle, and Sweetgale which are its other common names is a fascinating plant in the Myricaceae family.
This is the only native species of this family, but there occurs one other introduced species in the British Isles:
M. pensylvanica or Bayberry is an introduced species from E.N. America and is also naturalized in a few places in the B.I.
Pictures are by Matt Summers and information + pictures mainly from Wikipedia. The links on the scientific name take you to the Plant Atlas Online 2000. The link on the Common Name is mainly from Wikipedia.
This is all about my stay at ‘Marroncello’ with my friend Esther, who I’ve known for nearly 30 years. She and her partner Thomas look after the land surrounding a 300 year old traditional Tuscan farm house. The land on which they live and work amounts to about 5 Hectares and the vegetable crops as well as the herbs for their business are grown on terraces or in the valley. Many different sorts of useful ‘fruit’ trees are also grown. The house is located at 530 m and can be reached by a 700 m long track on foot or by tractor!
Native trees consist mainly of Oak along with Ash, Lime, ‘Sorbo’ and Juniper.
Marroncello means: a small orchard with Sweet Chestnut trees. Apparently there is still a small stand of them much higher above the house.
When Thomas ‘found’ the property it had been derelict for 50 years!
I stayed for 4 weeks helping along with all the jobs to be done at this time of the year and enjoying the much more natural and simple way of life in very beautiful surroundings!
I love all the plants including the ‘weeds’ that grow everywhere. It has been a bit of a puzzle to identify some of them without flower, so I will have to go back at some point in spring or early summer to see those flowering, as it will make identifying a bit easier!
I have used mainly my own pictures, but I have also used several from Wikipedia Commons with much gratitude.
Follow the links in my contents page for easier reading, the different colour backgrounds are ‘blue’ for general interesting information, ‘green’ for different uses and ‘pink’ for medicinal uses.
This is a report of my time at ‘Marroncello’, a 300 year + farmhouse in Tuscany, Italy:
From Sunday 29th January to Monday 20th February 2023
After spending just a week back in April 2019 with my friend and former classmate, Esther, I decided I would like to spend a bit longer this time.
In 2019 it had just been to get a flavour of what I imagined was a very down to earth and romantic way of living up in the beautiful oak-wood clad hills near Arezzo in Italy.
Before that week I had only been corresponding with Esther since the 1990’s after having both completed a course in Biodynamic Agriculture, back in the Netherlands. I left for Britain and she ended up in Italy!
It all sounded an idealistic way of living to me. Something I’d always envisaged myself doing one day; living in a beautiful place and as much with nature and self-sufficient as possible!
But the Covid virus prevented all the travelling after that first visit in 2019 and only this year I finally managed to get out there again. Late winter was perhaps not the ideal time to travel but with too many responsibilities from spring onwards I decided; it is now or never!
I had been spending 3 weeks with family back in the Netherlands before in January and then took the FlixBus all the way from Amsterdam Sloterdijk to Florence with a bus-change in Verona. It is a trip I am not likely to do ever again as it is extremely long and tiring! I left Amsterdam Sloterdijk at 3pm on Saturday 28th and arrived at Arezzo train station 24 hours later, 3pm, Sunday 29th January.
Esther picked me up opposite the station with her faithful Citroen transport.
My entire stay can be summoned up in short by saying that this is a good, peaceful way of living but not really for the faint hearted and for people who need lots of entertainment or an easy, lazy way of living! Basically it is a very natural way of living with going to bed early and getting up early as well. The days are busy with jobs/ necessary things to do at that moment, but with plenty of breaks and good, honest food, mostly all fresh vegetables from the garden and bread made by Esther. Other items are bought on the local market in Arezzo or brought over from Germany by Thomas, Esther’s partner, who travels frequently between the 2 countries to run his wholesale business in Herbal produce and mixtures.
The house is a typical 300 year + old Tuscan Farmhouse and was found by Thomas nearly 40 years ago in a much dilapidated state. Trees were growing in it!
For a while, whilst he was doing it up, he lived in a small wooden house a bit higher up the hill; this is still being used for temporary accommodation for casual labour and friends/family alike.
The water comes from the stream which runs passed their house and is piped from about 700 metres above by gravity through a thick plastic pipe.
The electricity is through the Solar Panels fixed on the outbuilding of the bathroom/conservatory next to the typical Tuscany type roof with clay tiles. Occasionally a small generator is used to facilitate a washing machine and ironing!
The heating in the kitchen, (2) bedrooms and bathroom (this has a boiler to produce hot water), is by ovens fired with the copious oak wood logs in an around their estate.
There are about 3 hectares (6 acres) of land around the house and up the hill which is being used for crops and fruit trees and also has a stable + yard for their 26 year old stallion called ‘East’. There is a large shed for drying various herbs in the season, a work shed, a polytunnel and various other small sheds for storing hay or other materials. It is a steep hillside so the land has been made more easily accessible by making terraces into it.
The sun does not hit the house and parts of the land until mid-late morning, when it comes round the hill in the east. I was fascinated by the growing ‘sun-line’ on the hills opposite each day in the morning until it was also shining on us at the house!
The hills around are covered in mainly gold-leaved oak, with the occasional evergreen of Italian cypress, Juniper or Pine.
The gold will slowly give way to the vivid green of spring foil I imagine… But that is another time!
The soil is a well-drained, grey/brown, sandy loam with plenty of shale like stone which is the base rock you can see occasionally on the badly worn tracks around. Heavy rain, just before I came, washed a lot of the surface away and made bad gullies, which were more awkward to walk on especially for East!
Many different types of (fruit) trees and crops have been grown during the 40 years Thomas has lived here and about the 25 years that Esther has been there. They aren’t all easily established as the soil has to be improved and maintenance such as watering and weeding is not always easy with so many tasks to do each day and not having enough people and time to do this!
I spent several days of my 3 weeks with weeding and pruning of some of the fruits and ornamentals (such as roses). Weeding of brambles and scrub was done with a pickaxe rather than a hoe on the stony slopes! They were often cut off with a sharp sickle first. It was all new to me; having worked my entire life mainly ‘on the flat’.
All the jobs took so much longer to do! Climbing up and down the hill all day long sapped a lot of energy!
This is why Esther made sure we had 3 good meals a day and several tea breaks! We needed it!!
It is also very much living with the weather:
There were frosts on most nights during my stay and one night it had been severe enough to burst the thick water pipe in the woods so that cut off our water supply! First we had thought that the water had just been frozen in the pipe, but when the water did not come after several days without frosts, we went to investigate and walked about 300 metres into the woods along the pipe. Suddenly Esther saw a water jet through a burst, explaining our lack of water!
It was fixed the following day with another length of pipe and the help of a part-time worker, Rita, who lives in a beautiful mountain village about half an hour away.
The water can also be in short supply during a dry summer. Not just by the fact of no rain but also because the wild boars, which live in the woods, bite trough the pipe, in order to get to the water!
Solar energy is only there when there is enough sunshine!
Wood to heat the stoves is not ‘free’ as some of the casual labour had pointed out to Esther, but has to be cut first and then into logs and smaller sizes to fit the various stoves. In the cold months especially this can be a major task each day.
Also kindling needs to be gathered. A good kindling is made with the dead stems of Spanish/Rush Broom or Spartium junceum, which grows everywhere around on the dryer slopes. Also pine cones and dried peels of tangerines are used as firelighters!
In Bolivia and Peru, the plant is known as retama, (not to be confused with the genus Retama) and has become very well established in some areas. It is one of the most common ornamental plants, often seen growing along sidewalks in La Paz.
The plant is also used as a flavouring, and for its essential oil, known as genet absolute. Its fibers have been used for cloth and it produces a yellow dye.
Then there is the toilet!
This is a fabulous ‘throne’ situated further away and above the house. Made of wood and looking out towards the neighbouring hills it is a bit of a climb to sit, stare and do your business; but it works and is so simple and clean with just a sprinkle, or two, of some brown oak leaves, waiting patiently next to the toilet. ‘It’ all collects in a large bucket, which needs to be emptied when it is full, further along the terrace, near the woods, to break down into harmless organic matter.
Organic waste from the kitchen is also dumped onto a heap on a lower terrace. This can eventually be used to improve the soil for the crops.
So the above is a little description of the workings in this peaceful home of Esther and Thomas.
I decided to lengthen my stay to 3 weeks in order to be a helping hand for Esther as she is mainly trying to manage everything by herself most of the time! Thomas spends a lot of his time in Germany to keep their business going. There are occasional/seasonal workers in the growing season, when needed.
It was a wonderful experience for me to spend these 3 weeks with Esther in these beautiful surroundings. I had been extremely lucky with the weather. Only a few days were overcast but dry and the rest was sunny or slight cloudy. The sky at night also was a sight to behold: Orion, the Moon, Venus and Jupiter were clearly visible most nights! Temperatures were varying to frost at night and early morning and then to spring and early summer temperatures during the day!
Esther having a well-deserved break with ‘Loekie’ the cat!
Neophytes were introduced to these shores after the discovery of the New World in c.1550 on purpose as an ornamental or food plant. But many are also arrived accidently through wool shoddy, and in more recent years with oil-seed, bird-seed and agricultural seed.
“On enquiry he found that wool waste (“shoddy”) was unloaded at the sidings and delivered to local farmers for use as a manure, and when this was followed up foreign weeds were found to be plentiful in their fields. By 1952 he had found 112 species of wool aliens in Bedfordshire (Dony, 1953) and was in touch with the firms near Bradford that despatched the “shoddy” -in that year he went to Yorkshire and in Bradford, Morley, Heckmondwike and Kirkheaton found over 40 species.”
The Wild Flower Key describes just the 5 best-known species in the Nightshade Family:
Lycium barbarum or Duke of Argyll’s Teaplant
Datura stramonium or Thorn-apple
Hyoscyamus niger or Henbane
Solanum dulcamara or Bittersweet
Solanum nigrum or Black Nightshade
Atropa belladonna or Deadly Nightshade
Pictures with gratitude from Mike Poulton, Matt Summers and Wikipedia Commons. FBBC added behind the common name below in the contents when the plant is described in the Flora of Birmingham and the Black Country.
Please note that this is an educational blog and not a guide for medicinal use. All plants in this family are poisonous!! Many poisonous plants are however also often employed as medicine in a much reduced amount of course.
After finishing my last post I’ve decided to pick a rather good looking family in the winter time and that is the Dogwood Family or Cornaceae.
It however consists of only one genus and has only two native species, the other three have been introduced .
Several of the species are eye catching with their coloured stems and one Cornus is also flowering at this time of the year! Recently I’ve stayed with my friend near Arezzo, Tuscany, in Italy where many grow in the wild!
Pictures by Matt Summers (M.S.) and various contributers of Wikipedia Commons. FBBC added behind the Common name if the plant occurs in Birmingham and Black Country area.
Background colours are meant for easier reading. A pink background means a warning (such as poisonous!) or medicinal use, green for edible, ornamental or other uses and blue for habitat where it can be found in B.I. , and just for interesting facts or wildlife use.
In Stace we can find that the Veronicaceae is now a family with 11 genera of which 4 genera are individually very distinctive.
Some authorities, however, including R.B.G. Kew, the R.H.S., Wikipedia, etc have most of these genera in the Plantaginaceae.
The Plantaginaceae is a much shorter family in Stace, which you can read about in an earlier post.
I am using various good websites for you to find out more on each individual plant. The links on the scientific mames are usually from the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, the links on the common names are from Wikipedia or preferably a U.K. website.
Pictures, with gratitude are again by Mike Poulton (M.P.), Rudi Pilsel (R.P.), Matt Summers (M.S.) and Wikipedia Commons.
FBBC is added behind the plant names in the contents below, when the plants occur in the Flora of Birmingham and the Black Country.