Driving back from the Gwalia* Ceramics gallery in Llangollen, the consequences of this pandemic were apparent. Businesses are having to make difficult decisions, and the ceramics rattling gently in the back of the car were not unwanted but rather a reminder of how vulnerable small enterprises are. The lovely Gwalia Ceramics is having to wind down and I was bringing my unsold pieces home.
The A49 meanders through some beautiful countryside but there are few opportunities to overtake on it. From outside Shrewsbury all the way to Leominster I was stuck behind a food delivery lorry. No doubt with Brexit in mind and in preparation against the invasion of chlorinated chickens from the USA, a large image of a plump roast chicken surrounded by potatoes and veg, a Union Jack background, and with the slogan “Eat British Chicken” hovered before my eyes for forty miles. By the time it turned off at Leominster I was truly hungry and stopped to gulp down a small pork pie I had bought in Llangollen for supper that night.
With the Gwalia ceramics unloaded and stored back on their shelves it is always interesting to see work again after some time. Sometimes you are surprised by a colour achieved and you can’t remember how you did it, or you notice a shape or contour for the first time, which you decide to apply to a new piece. The mossy green on the Loop Vase is a tone I will repeat.
Talking of which (“green”, that is) we get spoilt in Spring, what with all the bloom and fresh growth. I set off for a walk in the woods a few afternoons ago. It was hot and sultry, overcast, with a hint of rain in the air, but the trees were not offering any cool shade and the undergrowth looked tired; without a hint of anything flowering it was a dull grey/green carpet. It even smelled different – tacky mud and dried up puddles. I was just about to show my disappointment with Nature by turning back home and watching another episode of “Call my Agent” (it cheers me up) when at last I spotted a pink flower.
Now, I would be a complete fraud if I claimed to know a lot about plants and flowers. With the recent lockdown and the increased walks I am learning on the trot, but I have recently downloaded an app that helps identify most things in a couple of seconds. This one turned out to be a Hairy Willowherb.
Because its dense and aggressive growth habits can crowd out and destroy other native plants, a sort of rural bullyboy that goes around beating up the feeble pretty ones that tremble and hide behind trees, it is considered a problem, an “unwanted” plant that is difficult to eradicate. Local names include “apple-pie” and “codlins-and-cream”. So, it can’t be all that bad. In fact, the shoots of the willowherb can be boiled and eaten like asparagus. This I can believe, since it seems that any stem or shoot of a non-poisonous plant or veg can be boiled and served cold with mayonnaise as “poor man’s asparagus” – I have eaten beetroot stalks in this way.
Anyway, I was struck by the “unwanted” epithet given to so much that grows in the landscape. Not only willowherb, but also the next one I stumbled on – the Bull Thistle.
It may be considered a noxious weed by some authorities, but it produces a large amount of nectar and attracts pollinators. Its entire bud is featured with stiff spines that make it look like a fierce bull. It is also called a Spear Thistle and is designated an “injurious weed” under the UK Weeds Act 1959 (no, I didn’t know about that either) despite the fact that it feeds butterflies, beetles and small birds. Guess what? Yes, the stems can be peeled and steamed or boiled.
The third plant to get my attention was the usually disregarded bitter dock, which is another unwanted plant apparently growing and spreading out of control, and in such competition with other “wanted” or cultivated plants that it aggressively overpowers them. But I have always seen it growing in the countryside and to me it seems to happily coexist with nettles (which I expect is yet another “unwanted” plant) and most other unidentified vegetation. Furthermore, the large clusters of shoots which contain small greenish flowers change to a deep reddish brown as they mature and serve as visual punctuation marks in the landscape specially against a greenish background.
The doc’s name variation depends on the leaf – if they are huge it is a broad-leaved dock. Blunt-leaved dock was used to wrap butter in the 19th century. Hence, it is called butter dock. And the bitter dock may be an invasive weed, but It serves as an effective laxative.
By now I was dreaming up plans to cultivate a Garden of the Unwanted dedicated to all these unappreciated and unloved rural thugs, when I felt something strange on my left arm. Unlike insects which surreptitiously puncture the skin with needle-like organs, female horse flies have specially adapted mouth-parts which they use to rip and/or slice flesh apart. Research later showed that they thrive in hot rainy weather and that “the female horse fly is secretive, with an annoying ability to land without being detected and escaping before the victim begins to experience any pain”, but in this case I most definitely felt it.
I brushed it off and noticed another had landed on my right arm and was already tying its bib around its neck in readiness when I flicked it off. When I felt something land on the back of my neck, I decided I had had enough of Nature for the day and beat a retreat. They can persistently chase you at a flying speed of around 15mph and they did until I crossed paths with a couple walking their dog, who offered my tormentors far tastier fare.
I am sorry but horseflies are unwanted “unwanted” and will have no place in my Garden – you have to draw the line somewhere. To compensate for the dark shadow cast by these beasts here are two sunny images, one above of peacock butterflies feeding on lilac, and one below of sunflowers in a large vase.
*Gwalia is an archaic Welsh name for Wales. It derives from the Medieval Latin Wallia, which in turn is a Latinisation of the English “Wales”.