Book Review: The Knot, by Jane Borodale

“Knowledge should run freely between men and women, readily available to those who care to know…”

(Henry Lyte, in “The Knot”)

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Henry Lyte was  a British botanist, living in the 16th century. He became well known for his translation of Rembert Dodoens’ “Cruydeboeck” – a register of mainly herbs and medicinal plants which was translated by other famous botanists into French and Latin as well as other languages. Other botanists around this time were Carolus Clusius (who gave Gentiana clusii its name), John Gerard (Geradia), John Tradescant (Tradescantia), or Mathias de l’Obel (Lobelia).

This novel is a fictional account of his life with his family on the Somerset Levels in the west of England.

“The Knot”, by Jane Borodale


While raising a large family, managing an estate, fighting a lawsuit by his father’s second wife for possession of his ancestral home, and creating a garden, Henry Lyte is also busy translating a botanical masterwork into English – a long process involving hours of dedicated and meticulous concentration, that will be of monumental importance to those who, in Elizabethan England, are unable to pay a physician and need information on medicinal plants in the English language. Henry dreamed: “Imagine a world where good health is a universal possibility!”

As the story slowly unravels, with Henry’s second wife Frances taking trouble in settling in, and the loss of several children to illness, we sense a secret regarding the death of his first wife, Anys. The sense of anticipation lasts throughout the book, though not affecting the gentle pace of rural life and the methodical progress of his work. In fact the tranquility of the garden and the down-to-earth gardener who always seems to be present seem to emanate peace and harmony, counterbalancing the annoyance Henry feels about his wife’s lack of interest in his garden, and his step-mother’s claim to his home.

Henry loves his garden and plants above everything it seems… One evening his wife refuses to accompany him to view the madonna lilies, so he goes out alone:

“He bends his head and breathes deeply. If only more men would take the chance to drink in the smell of lilies in the night in June, he thinks. There can be nothing so delicious. Nothing that could make a man so contented. He feels dizzy with love and tenderness for his garden. Above him is the clicking of bats, and a pale moth looms and flutters near the grass. He tilts his face to the moon and closes his eyes to its whiteness, bathes in its unflinching gaze. The air is warm. He feels enveloped, cupped between the sky and the earth…”

The passing of seasons and the constant references to plants and herbs growing in the marshy surroundings or in his own garden drew me into the story. As did the disparity between Henry’s love of nature and mankind, and his unintentional negligence to the needs of his family. He can, however, give his seeds and beans his absolute attention. On inspecting them he sees:

“… they are all – he feels quite overwhelmed with the sheer mass of them – waiting… And the promise they contain. These things seem dead, and yet… A few drops of water, the enclosing dark earth with minerals, the warmth of sunlight; and each of these dessicated, mummified little bits of toughness will hydrate, fatten and burst into vivid miraculous sweet shoots, climbing, sinewing towards the light.”

This book is not a masterpiece, but a gentle and enjoyable read. I personally felt that the storyline was lacking, but the journey through Henry Lyte’s life is pleasurable and calming. Little drama, hardly suspense, but I am glad I read it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the earlier pioneering botanists. The age in which he lived was so much slower and life was harder. The connection to the earth had to be suppressed where prayer was considered the only connection necessary:

“He wonders whether there has been any rigorous scientific study of the effects of spring on nature and man, and even idly toys with the idea of making some notes towards this himself… not as a counter to the truth of God, of course, but rather as an observational study of what actually occurs.”

Henry Lyte, sadly, does not appear to have had any plants named after him. Had he sacrificed the peace of the countryside for London he may have had more success and renown, but he is depicted here as a lover of plants and the earth above all, who hated travelling to the city…


So, if your reading list is not too long already, here’s another book to add!


Germany’s Flower of the Year 2014

Every year the Loki Schmidt Foundation, based in Hamburg, chooses a wild flower as Germany’s “Flower of the Year”. The idea behind this campaign is to draw attention to and to protect endangered flowers and their habitats. 2013’s flower was one of my favourite wild flowers – the Hepatica. Liverwort (Hepatica nobilis) grows profusely in our region and I love seeing the little blue flowers in late winter, signalling the beginnings of spring.

This year’s flower is, however, unknown to me. Maybe you have heard of it?

Butomus umbellatus

(also known as flowering rush or grass rush)


(All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

One of the German common names is Schwanenblume – “Swan flower”…


Apparently this has become invasive in parts of North America, yet it is struggling here. This flower loves water, and is found in areas that flood regularly. I don’t think it grows near me, but on the edges and inlets of the rivers Rhine, Elbe or Oder it finds the warmth and damp it loves.

I think it’s really pretty, don’t you?


I’d love to hear if you know this flower!


Wikipedia (English): Butomus umbellata

Wikipedia (German): Butomus umbellata

“Blume des Jahres” (Loki Schmidt Foundation) (German)

A Bishop’s Garden Revisited

First of all, Happy August everyone! July was a long slow haze of sunshine, turning into a blazing heatwave mid-month. But the last few days have brought rain showers, cooler temperatures, and a very welcome breeze.

At the beginning of July, which now seems ages ago, I was able to revisit a “botanical” garden I posted about last July; The Bastion Garden.


Some of you may remember the four-part series I did last year on the Bishop’s Garden here in southern Germany. (See Part One here)


The garden is looking more and more established, and very well cared for. Most plants are allowed to go to seed, so since I came a little later than last year it looked slightly untidy! This is not your normal botanical garden, nor a garden like those of large stately homes in the UK, but is a special place for those interested in the plants themselves, and not effects or design.


At a first glance it seems so small, but it’s amazing what is packed in there. Some of the trees in the beds are rarely seen in our climate… they are well wrapped up in winter (or taken indoors in pots), but they are also in an extremely sheltered position, despite being up on a hill. Below is a Pomegranate, Punica granatum


And here is the Melia azedarach, which was just going over. What a lovely scent!


Most of the plants and trees are labelled…


.. but some of the labels are missing or hard to find. If anyone knows the name of this poppy, or has grown one, please let me know! Isn’t it a beauty?

(Click on the photo to get a closer look)


I loved these colourful cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus)…


… inspiration for future gardening years! The fresh green foliage of this Adonis annua reminds me of Chamomile, and is in fact sometimes called Red Chamomile, or Blood Drops…


Orlaya grandiflora (French Cow Parsley), an endangered wild flower in Germany, with its prickly seed heads…


And these are a red version of a yellow weed growing in my garden, called “Spargelbohne” in German, or Asparagus Pea in English.

Tetragonolobus purpureus

I shall now have to hunt for some seeds for next year… 😉

Have you ever seen any of these plants in your part of the world? And where do you go for your gardening inspiration?

Wild Orchid

In the shade of a pine tree and under the Kolkwitzia a rare beauty has bloomed. Single flowers have been spotted before in my garden, but this year there are six or seven of these strange plants.

White Helleborine

(Cephalanthera damasonium)


The German name is lovely: Weiße Waldvöglein

Weiß is white, and Waldvöglein is a little woodland bird.

This member of the orchid family prefers chalky limestone soil – exactly what we have here. It is very shy of the sun, and since it is autogamous, i.e. it self-pollinates, it does not depend on insects and is able to flower in very deep shade. In fact the ivory coloured flowers hardly ever really open enough to expose the yellow lip.


In Sarah Raven’s “Wild Flowers” she writes that its pale and somewhat ghostly appearance and upright stance is like “a strait-laced librarian… a spinster who turns herself out neatly in public”!


I have read that the plants take at least eight years to develop from seed, and it can take up to two or three years after that for a flower to form. Although not endangered in Germany, it is therefore a rare find. I’m very pleased that it has found a suitable place in my garden so that I can enjoy it!

Have you ever spotted any rarities in or near your garden?

Book Review: The Secrets of Wildflowers

“The Secrets of Wildflowers: A delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History”

by Jack Sanders


This was a Christmas gift and I’ve been losing myself in it on and off through the spring. The word “Feast” in the title is very appropriate – and “delightful” it is too!

Although the focus is on North American flowers, many are also prevalent in Germany and Europe, some even native. In the introduction the author states that his book covers both “natives and immigrants, friends or foes, because both kinds are here and both are interesting”. I like this attitude, as I find so many non-native plants growing wild, and think they are just as valuable as the native ones.


Divided into Spring, Summer, Late Summer and Fall, it is easy to find what is flowering now. Each flower has its own chapter, which gives some botanical information and tells you a little about the plant’s history, the common names given, uses (medicinal, culinary etc) and myths or traditions surrounding it. The chapters are broken up nicely into little chunks – very readable. The botanical details are also fed to the reader in a clear way, without getting too complicated and without being patronizing. I am learning so much and in such an enjoyable tone.

I was immediately impressed because it is the first source I have found that upholds my belief that Hepatica nobilis sometimes gives off a wonderful scent… I was beginning to think it was my imagination, but Sanders quotes the naturalist John Burroughs: “Group after group may be inspected, ranging through all shades of purple and blue, with some perfectly white, and no odor to be detected, when presently you will happen upon a little brood of them that have a most delicate and delicious fragrance.”


Occasionally a poem or quotes are included, even a recipe or two, and the little lesser known details and legends are so fascinating! Did you know, for example, that gypsies used to smoke Coltsfoot leaves (Tussilago) for pleasure? Or that spring violet leaves are extremely high in vitamin C? Or that a German scientist counted 93 species of insect that visited the dandelion flower?…

I shall be reading each chapter as the flower appears here, learning new and interesting facts and enjoying the feast daily. This book gets top marks for writing style AND content. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves wild flowers!


Tussilago farara


The Song of the Coltsfoot Fairy

The winds of March are keen and cold;

I fear them not, for I am bold.

I wait not for my leaves to grow;

They follow after: they are slow.

My yellow blooms are brave and bright;

I greet the Spring with all my might.

(by Cicely Mary Barker)

I only saw a couple of these beauties in March, barely open. The one above was March 2012, and the ones photographed below on April 1st 2013 were still quite small. They certainly need all their might this Spring!


The name (Huflattich in German) comes from their hoof-shaped leaves that appear later and grow to a tremendous size. They can be used in all sorts of herbal remedies, including cough sweets; the “tussilago” part of the name comes from the Latin for “suppressing a cough”. (Ever heard of “Coltsfoot Rock“?)

The next photo is not too clear as the forest floor was quite dim, but here you can see the flower head in more detail –  pollinating insects crawl over the tiny little male florets within the bloom which contain nectar and give off pollen, then they fly to the next flower and use the female outer ray petals for landing, where pollen is brushed over the stigmas. Normally the Coltsfoot is an important early source of nectar and pollen for bees, but I have only seen one bee this year so far. However, the outer petals close over the central florets in wet and cloudy weather, and the plant therefore also self-pollinates. Double safe!


Do you see this plant in your part of the world?

(And if anyone has some better photos of the flower head, I’d love to see them!)


Book Review: RHS Latin for Gardeners

RHS Latin for Gardeners2

If you love language and you love plants, then you’ll love this book. RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison  explains all those tricky-to-pronounce botanical words attached to our dear plants, herbs and flowers.

The book itself – a hardback – has a lovely cover and is nicely bound… it looks pretty on your bookshelf! It is perfect as a reference book and for the odd dip into while drinking a cup of coffee. The main body of the book is an alphabetical list of botanical terms, each explained, with a pronunciation guide too. Here’s an example:

helix HEE-licks:

Spiral-shaped; applied to twining plants, as in Hedera helix

Now, I never knew “helix” meant that, but it makes sense….

I also never knew that the “novi-belgii” in Aster novi-belgii means “connected with New York”.

Or that the “bonariensis” in Verbena bonariensis means “from Buenos Aries”!

Or that “saccharata” in Pulmonaria saccharata means “sweet or sugared/as if dusted with sugar”.

And the list of discovery goes on!

I was pleasantly surprised how many I had guessed correctly, such as Cymbalaria muralis (“growing on walls”), and the information hidden within these words delivers excellent guidelines for planting… if a plant is from Buenos Aries it will like heat and sunshine, right?

A bonus is the pages in between the list… a few plants are profiled, with notes on how they got their name or certain associations and uses. And some famous plant hunters are also given a page or two, with examples of the plants they discovered on various continents.

This is the ideal gift for a keen gardener, and absolutely perfect for anyone fascinated by botanical plant names. It is already a favourite of mine, and the gardening season hasn’t even begun!

RHS Latin for Gardeners1