05 October 2015

Book Review: Seven Flowers by Jennifer Potter

This comprehensive book looks at seven different flowers and how they shaped our world. The author uses these flowers to explore how we've used these flowers throughout history and can now look back and use them to tell us something about where we come from and who we are.

The book covers the lotus, lily, sunflower, opium poppy, rose, tulip, and orchid.

As well as telling us when these flowers made a big impact on the history of particular cultures, it also tells us when they didn't - even when we'd have expected them to. For instance, the author explains that in Incan and Mayan mythology and ritual, the sunflower plays no role whatsoever - yet we go on to read tha since Europeans took seed from their lands to Europe, the sunflower began to have a large role in culture and was very popular for a time.

The book also looks at the economic uses of the plants, a prime example being that of the oil from the sunflower seed - developed for a higher oil percentage in Russia and even higher when the American's got their hands on it.

Of course the opium poppy was used as an excuse for war; with the British Empire fighting China for the express purposes of continuing the trade of opium to the Chinese population.

This book has a great deal of information in it and, for me, required a lot of concentration. I felt like the information in each flower chapter could have been fleshed out and made into a book of its' own. Instead it read like a bullet point list of facts and sometimes this negatively impacted the flow. However, this is a really good book and there's lots to get out of it. Even if you don't have a specific interest in any of these flowers, you will gain a greater understanding of how flowers have helped humanity survive and flourish.

13 July 2015

Stonecrop Identification (Biting, English, and White)

Note: The following appeared on the St. Giles Living Churchyard blog last year and can be read in full here.

July saw all three of our stonecrops in flower; the biting stonecrop, english stonecrop, and white stonecrop. In the past when I've seen english stonecrop and white stonecrop in isolation, I've sometimes struggled to reach the correct identification, so let's have a look at our stonecrops and see the distinguishing features are when compared to other common Sedum species.

Biting Stonecrop

This is our only yellow stonecrop and it's a perennial, which immediately rules out annual stonecrop (Sedum annuum) which at most is biennial. Being a low mat-forming plant, we can see that it's not reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre (S.reflexum)), which grows up to 30 cm tall and has its' yellow flowers clustered on an umbel-like stalk.

White Vs. English Stonecrop
Now, it's with these two species that I can sometimes become unstuck. They are both mat-forming evergreen perennials and both grow in similar conditions (rocky ground and stone walls) and flower around the same time of year (June to September). Let's see photos of some features side-by-side and see what the differences are.

The photos below show the leaves of each stone crop.  We have English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum) to the left with pale green to red leaves that are often described as 'egg-shaped'. To the right is White stonecrop (Sedum album), with (what looks like to me) fuller green to red leaves that are often described as 'cylindrical-oblong'. On both species the leaves are alternate. In the books I have (see references below), which have illustrated rather than photographed images the English stonecrop tends to be shown as the plant with red leaves, with white stonecrop being shown as having primarily green leaves. This may well depend on the time of year and the population being observed.

Our english stonecrop has 6 petals, which seems quite common, but often both species are described as having star-shaped flowers with 5 petals per flower that are white or pink tinged. On our specimens we can see that the pink tinge is more easily seen on the white stonecrop with our English stonecrop showing a yellow tinge in the centre.

Finally, let's have a look at the stems. The stems of the English stone crop have large hairless leaves growing alternately up the stem, which rules out thick-leaved stonecrop (Sedum dasyphyllum), which is very similar looking.
The leaves of the white stonecrop remain cylindrical and have a much brighter and shiny look to them.

Writing this has certainly helped me get to grips with these two species and I hope it assists anyone who stumbles across this post! It's important to remember that there is always variation within and between plant populations, but using a botanical key like that in The Wild Flower Key by Rose and O'Reilly will help you understand which features are important when identifying your plant.

06 July 2015

Book Review: Wild Flowers by Carol Klein

This book takes us through the seasons looking at some of the wild flowers that grow throughout the UK countryside and at the cultivars that have been bred from them.

Carol's writing is wonderful and within a few short pages we get social history, botany, life stages and photographs of the wild type as well as some of the cultivars mentioned in the book.

This is the first Carol Klein book I've actually read, and I find that she writes in the same infectious, excitable and intelligent way that she talks. She has a real passion for plants and writes a lot from her experiences in growing the plants she talks about in this book.

I'd be surprised if there's even a single reader who doesn't come away from this book with a desire to grow at least a hand full of the species and cultivated varieties described in this book. Carol helpfully tells us which are invasive and provides some good planting combinations.

The only downside is that Carol is being treated as a brand in this book. Her name is where the title ought to be and barely a couple of pages go by without a photo of Carol instead of all the magical cultivars described but not given even a quarter page. This can make it hard to follow the writing because there's no visual to guide the way. But, even so, this book is worth a read. My only hope is that Carol comes back with a much more detailed and plant photo rich book that will rival Flora Britannica - but for gardeners!