It is one of my tasks when opening up the Visitor Centre of a weekend to refill the bird feeders and, I must confess, that in the right weather this can be the perfect start to a day. The birds seem to lose all fear when awaiting their breakfast. Tree sparrows sometimes come really close to give me an excellent view of them, and from time to time the robin can be tempted to sit on my hand; then, now that summer is here, the feeders have been engulfed in a cream coloured sea of umbellifers.
Let me explain for the benefit of those not yet captivated by our Blacktoft foliage. Umbellifers are the torture of the amateur plantsman (and I am a very amateur one). They are those usually tall, usually cream flowered, usually almost identical looking plants that spring up miraculously as the summer begins; and they can appear to grow by more than a foot a day. The infuriating thing for the beginner is that they all seem to look identical, perhaps the botanist’s version of an LBJ. My general rule of thumb is when in doubt guess cow parsley... Anyhow, the umbelliferous plants on the bank at Blacktoft have recently attained an almost astonishing height. The other Sunday morning I was doing my Blacktoft duty and filling the feeders up. There had recently been a torrential downpour, the type that would only feel at home in a British summer, and every umbellifer had what seemed like a litre of water clinging to its leaves. A short and usually pleasant walk through a very English jungle, where on past trips out I have had great close views of roe deer and weasel, had suddenly become a very cold and wet affair; each plant that I brushed against deposited yet more cold water onto my apparently very absorbent jeans. In short I was soaked. It was at this point that, feeling rather fed up, I looked up at one of my water retaining adversaries to see a rather huge plant. The plant in question was incredibly tall (perhaps 7 feet), had rather pleasant looking feathery leaves, and was covered in purple blotches. When compared to the plants either side (that I presumed were probably cow parsley) it was quite clearly of a different breed. I thus decided to try to put a name to my tormentor. Later, when the weather was a lot warmer and drier, I found out, with the aid of my trusty field guide, that I had been standing in the shade of one of our most notorious poison plants...hemlock.
The bank covered in what I presume is Cow Parsley (Photo by Pete Short).
Hemlock is famous, primarily, for being the poison that killed Socrates. Socrates, one of the greatest thinkers that has ever lived, was charged with ‘corrupting the youth’ and sentenced to die by drinking a poisoned mixture containing hemlock; it seems that this was a fate that he could have escaped, but he chose to accept it, his last lesson, perhaps, to his loyal disciples. Interestingly this may also have been the origin of the idea of ‘poison as the cure’ as with his last words he asked those around him to pray, in thanks, to the god of healing...
Umbellifers all have heads that are made up of lots of tiny flowers and look a bit like umbrellas. Their stems are wide and hollow and, when the plants dry out and die back or are cut back later in the season, this makes them perfect homes for solitary bees; a bundle of them left after a tidy up in the garden can give a lifeline to nesting solitary bees.
And do not worry; the risk of sharing the same fate as poor Socrates is incredibly unlikely. The plants do not smell very nice at all. Usually the aroma is described as ‘mousy.’ Yuck! It is very rare for even animals to attempt to eat them, and extremely unlikely that a human would pick one up for a munch.
Once you have your eye in there is a whole new world of umbellifers to discover! And far from being poisonous a lot of them are very tasty (carrot, parsley, fennel and lovage are all members of the crew). So my advice is to get out there and have a good look at what’s around you; you never know, it might even lead to a little bit of philosophy.
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