Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Edible wild leek bulbs

We were digging about in the garden the other day when we discovered a nice crop of leek bulbs on the roots of a Babington's leek (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii).  Leek bulbs form underground from the second year of growth of both Babington's and the ordinary garden leek.  In the past they were part of the vegetable armoury for the gardener and allotment holder, but in recent times they seem to have sunk into obscurity.  These bulbs are not formed in concentric rings like onions but have even white flesh all the way through like water chestnuts.


W.W. Weaver in his Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, 2018) wrote: Leeks left in the ground to overwinter normally produce an epicurean delight the second year.  This is known as the "leek bulb", small bulbs that form about the base of the leeks that are ready to bloom.  Some of the bulbs can grow quite large, perhaps 1" in diameter, and make a perfect substitute for shallots.  The longer the leeks are in the ground, the larger the leek bulbs become, and they can be further increased by breaking off the flower spikes.

In the Gardeners' Magazine (April 24, 1875.  Page 536) someone named 'S.H.' wrote of leek bulbs "....the way to understand their real value is to stew them in gravy and eat the hot with butter and pepper."

Babington's leek as a wild plant is endemic to south west Britain and Ireland but is widely available in the nursery trade.  The bulbs are quite mild tasting and, to me, somewhat of a cross between leek and garlic.  We used those illustrated above to make leek and potato soup with 50% bulbs.  It was very good.  Here is the recipe:

10 or a dozen leek bulbs
The same amount of potato (unpeeled)
Butter
Salt and pepper

Unpeeled potatoes give a slightly earthy flavour to the soup.

METHOD  Chop the vegetables and fry gently in butter without browning for 4 or 5 minutes.  Put in a saucepan and add water (for two people, two mugfuls).  Boil for about 25 minutes then process to a smooth texture in a blender or with a blending stick.  Stir in some cream or crème fraîche to taste and adjust seasoning.  Some vegetable stock powder will give a slightly deeper flavour.  

In addition to its gastronomic and conservation interest, Babington's leek makes an interesting ornamental plant.  Its flower heads rise on slender stalks to  about 2 metres in height and carry a globular head mainly of bulbils with a few flowers scattered about on longer stalks.  As they extend these tall stems look like long-necked birds and the developing heads move during the course of the day to different orientations as though searching for something.  For their size these stalks are remarkably strong and never seem to get broken by summer winds.


The flower heads are composed of tightly packed bulbils each of which will produce a new plant.


Babington's leek is a winter green plant with leaves that appear above ground in December.



Friday, September 07, 2018

Marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris)

Marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris) is one of the most fascinating and beautiful plants in our garden.  As I write on a sunny 3rd September, the third day of meteorological autumn, I can see a couple of the plants in a large black cubical box.

This spurge always seems to be doing something, often several things at the same time. The largest plant in the box is about one and a half metres tall.  It has small but complicated yellowish flowers (technically 'cyathia') on many of the upper parts of each cyme and the flowers are often accompanied by green and ripe brown seed pods.


Lower down the dusty red stems new shoots of green leaves with a central white stripe are appearing and I imagine these will be heading towards flowering next spring when the plant puts on its greatest show with acid yellow bracts around the flowers.

Throughout the summer many of these early bracts and older leaves fade to complex and subtle shades of old rose, faded orange and tired green..  Although the name indicates that it is a marshland plant, it grows perfectly well here in ordinary and often very dry soil.  I do have one plant that I keep very wet.  It grows well and in due course I will be able to see how it does compared withe others.  If plants get very dry they die back to woody rootstocks from which shoots appear very quickly if water is restored.

In mid-September the lower leaves turn colour on my plants that are growing in wet conditions.


According to the Biological Flora of Central Europe it is an endangered river corridor plant whose natural habitats are being destroyed.  However, plant are very widely available in the nursery trade in the UK


It has been described as a hemicryptophyte, a perennial having its overwintering buds at the soil surface.

The plant is not a British native, though it seeds itself readily and has been recorded from various places in the UK.  The only 'wild' record I can find here in East Sussex is on a verge at Gray Wood (TQ5316) east of East Hoathly.  It is widely distributed across central and eastern Europe and western Asia.  There is a cultivar of E. palustris called 'Walenburg's Glorie' which apparently turns proper red in autumn and is described as 'dazzling' by the Royal Horticultural Society.

There is also a cultivar called 'Zauberflote' which is assigned both to E. palustris and Balkan spurge, Euphorbia oblongata, and I wonder if the two species have been conflated.  Monty Don, well-known for his TV gardening programmes, describes 'Zauberflote' as smaller than normal E. palustris and 'fabulous'. On her web site horticulturalist Sarah Raven says of E. oblongata (which she calls 'eggleaf spurge') 'the all round best-looking, longest-flowering foliage plant you can find anywhere in the world. It forms the base of 95% of my floral arrangements, and lines most of the beds in my garden at Perch Hill.  You never tire of their brilliant acid-green flowers and bold, strong shapes. It is really a short-lived perennial, but it flowers best in its first year, so we treat it as a hardy annual.  One nursery says E. oblongata is almost identical to Euphorbia coralloides which does not seem to be the case, but I think the relationship between these various spurge species needs a more critical look.

Balkan spurge, E. oblongata, is illustrated in wonderful detail in BSBI News, vol 71 page 47: http://archive.bsbi.org.uk/BSBINews71.pdf with details of UK records.  There is a good web page on Euphorbia palustris here: www.revolvy.com/page/Euphorbia-palustris





Monday, September 03, 2018

More on the drought

There has been scarcely any rain since the beginning of May and this has affected the more open parts of M3.  The rush plant on the left of the picture has collapsed but many plants survive.


Today I noticed that the large birch tree was struggling.  The branches are hanging much lower than usual and the leaves look dry and dull.  In the picture below the sallow has the bright green leaves and appears to be doing much better than the birch.  I would have expected the reverse to be the case.




Friday, August 10, 2018

Start of August 2018

There is a pair of wood pigeons that visits our garden every day.  In late winter they eat the ivy berries in the hedge, but currently they like to perch together for a while on the same place on a branch of the birch tree just beyond the hedge.  Here they indulge in a little 'billing and cooing' though the 'cooing' aspect is usually not evident.  I wonder why they like this particular perch.  Maybe it is because there is lots of ivy nearby and they got used to it when they were homing in on the berries.


As well as mint beetles, our various mint plants often attract the little day-flying moth Pyrausta aurata. 


While looking for these we came across this strange looking creature feeding on mint.  It turned out to be the larva of a tortoise beetle (Cassida viridis).  The two prongs at the rear of the creature are used to carry excrement - turd kebabs - supposedly to discourage predators and the spines along the sides can be used for similar purposes.


Our buddleia has been popular with a wide range of commoner butterflies and moths including the migrant  painted lady and humming-bird hawk, but it was good to see a couple our native silver-washed fritillaries. 


Today the drought has ended with heavy falls of rain, but the ground will still be very dry for a long time.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Report from the drought

Itis now around seven weeks since we had any rain and the countryside is increasingly drying up.  In the lane outside there are places where only a few of the deeper rooted plants remain green.



These are mostly tufts of grass, but there is also smooth hawksbeard with the yellow flowers on the right, wood dock, greater plantain, pineapple weed and other species.  Along the middle of the lane all the grass has died (but may recover when rain arrives) leaving only the green and rather wilted rosettes of dandelions.


On one walk I came across a fine slow worm crossing the lane and heading for the shade.


Churchland Fields on the western side of the lane are very brown and dry but some plants like creeping thistle and knapweed do not seem to be suffering.  In the picture below looking across to Sedlescombe church, as well as the brown grass and thistle there is a flourishing patch of yellow common fleabane in full flower: the whole makes a subtle pattern of buffs, greens, mauves, whites and yellows bordered by dark summer woods and hedges.






Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mealybug destroyer at large

Today I spotted a weird looking little creature powering around the rim of  a flowerpot containing a plant bought yesterday from the Staplecross Shrub Centre.  After Googling about I tracked its identity down to the larva of a mealybug destroyer, Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, a small Australian ladybird which, as its name suggests, is predatory on mealybugs.


This species now seems to be quite widely used to control mealybugs in the horticultural industry and this was no doubt how it arrived in Staplecross, perhaps brought with the many plants imported from Holland.  It is not winter hardy in this country.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Late May highlights 2018

Our granddaughter brought home a spray from a tree with which I was unfamiliar.  It was trained against a wall of a house in Ellenwhorne Lane a kilometre of so north of here.  It turned out to be kiwifruit, Actinidia deliciosa.  We found a caterpillar of Svensson's copper underwing, Amphipyra berbera, on it.

The caterpillar is very similar to the common copper underwing, Amphipyra pyramidea, but can be distinguished by the continuous lateral white line behind the head (it fades out for a couple of segments in A. pyramidea), the black speckled forelegs and the red-tipped spine at the end of the body.  It feeds on various trees and shrubs and seems quite happy munching away at the kiwifruit leaves.  The species is widespread here in East Sussex, but less common than A. pyramidea.

Another interesting moth was the appearance of a rather battered pale tussock, Calliteara pudibunda, on our lighted kitchen window.  This is a male with pectinated orange antennae. Sixty years ago when we worked in the Rother Valley hop gardens we often came across the beautiful golden haired caterpillars that were known as 'hop dogs'.


Halfway down the garden a very attractive combination of plants has occurred of its own free will: a mixture of wild yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) and a garden cranesbill, Geranium macrorrhizum I think.  I am sure it would be difficult to create deliberately.


I was also struck by a white-flowered plant of herb-robert (Geranium robertianum) that has splayed itself out on the back wall of the house unchallenged by any other vegetation.