Tag Archives: Folklore

Do You Dig Our Digitalis?

Take a good close look inside a Foxglove flower to glimpse its true beauty

Take a good close look inside a Foxglove flower to glimpse its true beauty

With the weather really hotting up right now, it feels like Summer is certainly doing its best to take a hold here at Chartwell. This means that most of the Spring flowers and blooms like Tulips, Daffs, Bluebells and the like have done their turn and given way to the huge array of Summer colour that will soon be completely filling Churchill’s gardens. There are a few plants however that straddle the seasons and one of the best at doing that at the moment is the humble Foxglove, or Digitalis purpurea.

White Foxgloves reach for the sky from the aptly named Foxglove Bed!

White Foxgloves reach for the sky from the aptly named Foxglove Bed!

Foxgloves are classed as a short-lived perennial or more commonly as a biennial. We sow ours indoors in the Summer, grow them on, prick them out and pot them on before planting them out in the Autumn where they happily overwinter before blooming the following Spring. The resulting plant can self seed freely if allowed to but when the resulting flowers are as pretty as they are, who cares?! As you can see from the picture above, we actually have a small area of the garden behind the Golden Orfe Pond actually called the Foxglove Bed that is filled with gorgeous spires of white Foxgloves every year. They really sing out from this dark, shady spot but they are certainly not the only examples within the Chartwell boundaries as you will see throughout this blog post.

The Bomb Crater in the Chartwell woods looks even better studded with Foxgloves

The Bomb Crater in the Chartwell woods looks even better studded with Foxgloves

Digitalis purpurea was named by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753 in his important publication ‘Species Plantarum’. The Genus name Digitalis comes from the Latin for finger (digitus), referring to the shape of the flowers. The species name purpurea simply refers to the colour of the flowers of the wild form, which are frequently purple (although a white-flowered form is also fairly common). OK, so Digitalis purpurea is the latin or botanical name and Foxglove is the common name but were you aware of the sheer number of other common names by which this plant can be known as?

Bloody bells
Bloody finger
Cow flop
Dead man’s bells
Dog’s lugs
Dragon’s mouth
Fairy bells
Fairy fingers
Fairy gloves
Fairy thimbles
Fairy’s cap
Fairy’s petticoat
Fairy’s thimble
Finger flower
Flap dock
Folk’s gloves
Fox finger
Gloves of Mary
Lady’s fingers
Lady’s gloves
Lady’s thimble
Lion’s mouth
Lusmore
Lustmore
Pop dock
Thimble finger
Thimble flower
Throat root
Witches’ bells
Witches’ fingers
Witches’ gloves
Witches’ thimbles

Blimey! I’m not sure what the World record is for number of common names but that’s got to be up there, surely?

In the Cut Flower area of the Walled Garden you will find this 'Apricot' variety...

In the Cut Flower area of the Walled Garden you will find this ‘Apricot’ variety…

...and this glorious 'Pam's Choice'

…and this glorious ‘Pam’s Choice’

Foxgloves are a source of digitoxin, a chemical used in the drug ‘Digitalis’, which has been used as a heart stimulant since as early as 1785. Although normally made using Digitalis lanata leaves, D. purpurea use is not unknown. They are also well-known for their toxicity, and ingestion of the leaves can result in severe poisoning. Despite this toxicity, they have been widely used in folk-medicine throughout the ages. Foxglove Tea (an infusion of the leaves) was taken for colds, fevers and catarrh, and compresses were used for ulcers, swellings and bruises. The Foxglove’s most common use however was as a diuretic against dropsy (an accumulation of fluid in the tissues), for which it was sometimes effective, but occasionally proved fatal! William Withering, an 18th century botanist and physician, discovered that an infusion of the leaves of Foxgloves could slow and strengthen the heartbeat, which in turn stimulated the kidneys to clear the body and lungs of excess fluid. He also showed that Foxglove leaves could be used in the treatment of heart failure, but that high doses could also stop the heart!

More white Foxgloves loom majestically at the back of the Herbaceous Border

More white Foxgloves loom majestically at the back of the Herbaceous Border

Van Gogh is said to have taken Foxglove tincture as a treatment for his epilepsy and art historians believe that the yellow haze that this could cause in the sight of patients for this type of treatment may be responsible for the appearance of many of his yellow dominated paintings. Back in 1554, Nicholas Culpeper (an English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer) said that “foxglove was one of the best remedies for a scabby head”! So now you know! In Roman mythology, Flora, the Goddess of fields, crops and flowers, placed a foxglove blossom on Juno’s stomach causing her to instantly conceive. She went from Flora’s garden to the shoreline and gave birth to Mars. In Scandinavia, they say that foxes were saved by the fairies from extinction when the fairies gave them the secret of how to ring the Foxglove bells to warn other foxes of approaching hunters. The foxes were also said to put on these flower gloves so that they would tread more softly among the chicken roosts to capture an unsuspecting hen or rooster. In Wales, Foxgloves were called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.

Paths in the Chartwell estate are lined with purple Foxgloves

Paths in the Chartwell estate are lined with purple Foxgloves

So whether you believe any of that Foxglove folklore or not, be sure to hurry along to Chartwell soon to catch this year’s crop before they disappear again until next Spring…

Jamie

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How The Mighty Have (Nearly) Fallen

Down but not out

Down but not out

Regular readers with an elephantine memory may remember a post I produced back at the start of January about some of the damage the gardens here at Chartwell had suffered as a result of the Christmas storms. Well, although one of our more treasured trees managed to survive that festive battering, it did unfortunately fall foul of some high winds a little later on in the Winter. The constant heavy rain we’ve experienced over the last 12 months certainly wouldn’t have helped either, but a few weekends ago an ancient Field Maple tree (Acer campestre) in the Parkland on the other side of the lakes sadly lost some major sections.

Our Field Maple in all it's glory last Summer

Our Field Maple in all it’s glory last Summer

Sir Winston Churchill himself would have enjoyed the view of this tree during his tenure at Chartwell. In fact we think that the tree was probably introduced by the previous owner, John Campbell Colquhoun, who was a keen planter of trees as you can read about in this here blog from January 2013. Because of the historic nature of it, we are keen not to lose the tree entirely. With this in mind we have decided to try and preserve the old girl, instead of removing the remaining sections as perhaps we might have done in another instance. Steve, our Estate Supervisor, is particularly fond of it and wants to make sure that our visitors can keep enjoying this Field Maple for years to come.

Our Acer campestre in the Parkland has been fenced off

Our Acer campestre in the Parkland has been fenced off

The Estate team of Steve, Ben and Georgie together with some help from a bunch of hardy volunteers have therefore been spending quite some time erecting a permanent fence around the Acer campestre, constructed themselves out of spare and coppiced timber. The benefits of this are that it keeps our visitors safe from any further falling branches as well as protecting the tree itself from any undue human (or indeed bovine when the field is used to graze cattle) intervention.

Steve, Ben and Georgina, our Estate team here at Chartwell, hard at work building the new fence

Steve, Ben and Georgina, our Estate team here at Chartwell, hard at work building the new fence

Two of our volunteers, Chris and Howard, doing their bit

Two of our volunteers, Chris and Howard, doing their bit

The tree itself doesn’t appear to have split because of any disease that we can see. It seems as though it is simply old age combined with the accumulative effects of the nasty weather that has done for the poor old Maple. It comes to us all I suppose! We plan to plant some young Acer campestre saplings in and around our exisiting specimen so that when it does finally fall there will be a new generation waiting to take its place. In the meantime, the area inside our new fence will be planted up with wildflowers to make a feature of the site that plenty of visitors will walk past on their way up to the woods.

This split in the trunk was observed and noted as part of last year's tree safety surveys

This split in the trunk was observed and noted as part of last year’s tree safety surveys

This picture clearly shows the extent of the rotten trunk

This picture clearly shows the extent of the rotten trunk

The name Acer means “sharp” or “pungent” and campestre means “of fields”. Acer campestre is actually the only native Maple tree in the UK. Also known as the Cat Oak or Dog Oak, the Field Maple can reach up to 90ft in height in an ideal situation. Good for wildlife and easily grown, this vibrant native tree has autumn foliage which turns a beautiful clear yellow, or sometimes flushed with red. A good foraging tree, supporting over 50 species of wildlife, the small flowers are attractive to bees and insects, whilst the seeds are eaten by mammals such as wood mice and bank voles.

This shot of the grand old trunk was taken before the recent damage

This shot of the grand old trunk was taken before the recent damage

In folklore the Field Maple is associated with the heart and love and is said to bring contentment to those with heavy responsibilities. Carrying a child around this tree or passing it through the branches was also believed to bring long life to the youngster. In Alsatian folklore it was said that bringing branches of field maple into the house would protect against bats and keep nesting storks safe from disturbance! Very handy, I’m sure you’ll agree. The wood of the Field Maple is traditionally used to the turning of masers, or mazers, the ceremonial drinking bowls associated with the ritual of wassailing. In fact, Acer campestre is sometimes called the Maser Tree.

This new fence should help preserve the poor old Acer for years to come...

This new fence should help preserve the poor old Acer for years to come…

...and keep our visitors safe from further falling branches

…and keep our visitors safe from further falling branches

In medicine a concoction made from the sap of the Field Maple has been used to treat sore eyes, and the astringent bark used to cure gallstones and high cholesterol. Like all Maples, the sap contains sugar, which can be concentrated into a syrup or used as a sweetener for food. It can also be used to make wine. I’ve not tasted it but if anyone wants to offer me some I’ll certainly give it a go! The wood of the Field Maple is fine-grained but the trees are too small to supply large pieces of timber. It takes a high polish however, so is valued by cabinet makers and wood turners. It has an attractive curving pattern of growth rings and has long been used to make musical instruments, such as violins and cellos. Harps have been made from it since Saxon times and in fact a harp frame made from Field Maple was found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Field maple is efficient as firewood and also makes good charcoal while the roots of the tree are sometimes used to make snuff boxes or pipes.

Jamie

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The Holly & The Ivy

Festive frosty Photinia berries at Chartwell

Festive frosty Photinia berries at Chartwell

The morning frosts, brisk winds and crisp, sunny December days are really letting us know that Winter is here at the moment. And at this festive time of year it seems fitting that in this week’s Chartwell Garden Blog we are going to have a look at a couple of Christmas-shaped plants that you can find looking lovely here in Churchill’s gardens right now. We may be a little short on mistletoe but we more than make up for that with some dazzling Ilex and Hedera, or holly and ivy to you and I.

There's a question over this Quercus...

There’s a question over this Ilex…

If you take a walk around our estate you will doubtless spot plenty of red-berried holly trees in the woods which the birds are very happily munching on as their other food supplies begin to dwindle. In the gardens themselves however there are a couple of slightly more unusual holly specimens that I’d like to point you in the direction of. Firstly, on the banks above the Croquet Lawn you will find a stunning variegated holly shrub that might even change the minds of those who normally eschew the variegated forms of garden plants. Unfortunately none of our garden records tell us the exact variety of this holly however. We’ve done some research but nothing has been conclusive. Personally I like to think that it’s Ilex aquifolium ‘Golden Milkboy’, just because I like the name!

Some of the leaves a predominantly green with a splash of yellow...

Some of the leaves a predominantly green with a splash of yellow…

...while others are mostly the opposite.  All have striking purple stems.

…while others are mostly the opposite. All have striking purple stems.

Holly is obviously very intrinsically linked with this time of year. In fact in some parts of Britain holly was formerly referred to merely as ‘Christmas’, and in pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas trees’ actually meant holly bushes. Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves with Jesus’ crown of thorns and the berries with the drops of blood shed for humanity’s salvation, as is related, for example, in the Christmas carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. In some pre-Christian celebrations, a boy would be dressed in a suit of holly leaves and a girl similarly in ivy, to parade around the village, bringing Nature through the darkest part of the year to re-emerge for another year’s fertility.

Ilex aquifolium 'Bacciflava'

Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’

The other holly doing its thing here at Chartwell right now is this yellow-berried variety called ‘Bacciflava’. Perhaps my favourite of all the holly’s, the yellow baubles really sing out during late Autumn and through Winter every year. Birds often target red berried plants before all others so often this yellow holly has a longer shelf life than some of the more regular types.

Another gratuitous close up!

Another gratuitous close up!

Holly was often brought into the house at Christmas to protect the home from malevolent faeries. Whichever of prickly-leaved or smooth-leaved holly was brought into the house first dictated whether the husband or wife respectively were to rule the household for the coming year! Incidentally, the prickliness of a holly leaf usually decreases as you go higher up the tree. In Celtic mythology the Holly King was said to rule over the half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule for the time until the summer solstice again. The Holly King was depicted as a powerful giant of a man covered in holly leaves and branches, and wielding a holly bush as a club. He may well have been the same archetype on which the Green Knight of Arthurian legend was based, and to whose challenge Gawain rose during the Round Table’s Christmas celebrations.

Hedera colchica 'Dentata Variegata'

Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’

Apart from it’s Christmas connections, you may think it a little strange to be writing about something as supposedly uninteresting as ivy on this blog. The particular one that I’ve chosen to highlight this week though is a bit of a corker. Also known as Persian Ivy, this example we have growing up the side of the Marlborough Pavilion is a beautiful feature in its own right. Often used for brightening up shady corners, it is less vigorous than some of the thuggish green-leaved varieties and was awarded an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) for its troubles.

One of the windows of the Phillip Tilden-designed Marlborough Pavilion, framed in pretty ivy

One of the windows of the Phillip Tilden-designed Marlborough Pavilion, framed in pretty ivy

The fact that ivy, like some hollies, stayed green throughout the year led some to believe it had magical properties and led to its use as home decor during the Christmas period. It symbolized eternal life, rebirth and the coming Spring season. In some cultures, ivy was a symbol of marriage and friendship, perhaps due to its tendency to cling. In ancient Rome, ivy was associated with Bacchus (known as Dionysus in Greek mythology), god of wine and revelry, again connected to the Christmas festivities! Though not as popular as holly, ivy was still used in festivals held during winter by many cultures. For a period, ivy was banished as festive decor by Christians due to its ability to grow in shade, which led to its association with secrecy and debauchery. Nevertheless, the custom of decorating with holly and ivy during Christian holidays was eventually accepted and obviously still stands today.

The varying colours of the top and underside of the foliage makes a great spectacle in close up too

The varying colours of the top and underside of the foliage makes a great spectacle in close up too

The gardens at Chartwell are closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but be sure to come and join us again from Boxing Day onwards when we’ll be open every single day until December 24th next year! I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy new year from all of us in the garden team at the family home of Sir Winston Churchill…

Jamie

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A Tale Of Two Fritillaries

Spring has been well and truly springing all over the gardens here at Chartwell for a couple of weeks now and long may it continue! In fact, so long did the cold wintry weather last, coupled with how hot it has been this week, it almost feels as if Spring has been skipped all together and we’ve gone straight from Winter to Summer! All of this means that there is plenty of horticultural interest for our visitors, from the burgeoning Magnolias to the Spring bulbs. Two real star plants right now however are a couple of fritillaries, but you would never know they were in the same Genus.

Fritillaria imperialis at Chartwell

Fritillaria imperialis at Chartwell

Fritillaria imperialis is more commonly known as the Crown Imperial, Imperial Fritillary or the Kaiser’s Crown. Our collection can be found at the bottom of the orchard path, each standing about 1m tall and they could almost act as a signpost. Turn left at the Fritillaries for Churchill’s Studio, turn right for the Kitchen Garden!

You can't miss 'em!

You can’t miss ’em!

Before you see the mesmerizing flower heads, you might actually smell these plants on your way down the path, giving the plant its other name of Stink Lily! The have a distinct earthy, fox-like odour, especially when emerging in early Spring that has been said to repel mice, moles and other rodents. Maybe we should plant some in our greenhouses!

Seek and ye shall find!

Seek and ye shall find!

It is the flowers that sit proud above the thick central stem and beneath an attractive spiky barnet that are the real draw of this plant. As great as they look from head height, it is when you bend down and look up inside the hanging flower where the magic really lies though. The inquisitive viewer will be rewarded with a sight of a series of little ‘pearls’ that hang in the depths of the inflorescence. Folklore has sometimes called these moist orbs the tears of Christ. In Christian tradition the crown imperial is said to be the only flower that did not bow its head at the crucifixion of Christ and has bowed and wept ever since. In actual fact, they are simply the nectaries, glistening with tempting nectar for any pollinators that fly by.

The lone Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' is just as attractive

The lone Fritillaria imperialis ‘Rubra’ is just as attractive

Native to a wide stretch of land from western Turkey to the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, it was the great Carl Linnaeus first described the plant in 1753. These bulbous perennials love a spot in full sun but other than that can tolerate a wide range of aspects and soil types. Although sometimes prone to to slug damage, they are also pretty much disease and pest free too. Perfect!

Fritillaria meleagris at Chartwell

Fritillaria meleagris at Chartwell

The other fritillary that is strutting its stuff right now is the Snake’s Head Fritillary, or Fritillaria meleagris. This bulbous perennial is always a favourite with anyone who sees it and I for one am never less than fascinated by the intricate checkerboard patterns on the petals. Also known as chess flower, frog-cup, guinea-hen flower, leper lily (because its shape resembled the bell once carried by lepers), Lazarus bell, or checkered lily, our large collection is a bit hidden away, or certainly off the path at least. As you walk down the entrance path and before you get to Churchill’s swimming pool, take a little stroll up the bank on the right and you will discover some stunning treasure.

'Check' these beauties out!

‘Check’ these beauties out!

The name Fritillaria comes from the latin fritillus which means dice-box, probably referring to the checked pattern on the flowers. The species name of meleagris means ‘spotted like a guineafowl’, again referencing the petal design. Vita Sackville-West famously called it “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.” It’s not often that I would disagree with Vita, but personally I find them an incredibly cheering plant and they always brings a smile to my face.

The white variety isn't checked but is still pretty darn pretty

The white variety isn’t checked but is still pretty darn pretty

Unlike the Crown Imperial, they grow to only little more than the length of a 30cm school ruler and so can get lost amongst long grass which is perhaps ironically a common place to find them. They can thrive in full sun or part shade but once again can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions giving all of us no excuse for not planting them in our own gardens.

Living together in harmony...

Living together in harmony…

The Snake’s Head is native to Europe but in many countries it is now considered an endangered species that is rarely found in the wild but is commonly grown in gardens. In Britain there is some arguement amongst botanists as to whether it is a native species or a perhaps a plant that once escaped from the garden. The plant was first described in the UK in the 16th century by herbalist John Gerard who knew it as a garden plant. It was not recorded in the wild until 1736, which suggests that it might be an escapee. However, the fact that its habitat is usually confined to ancient hay meadows and it does not easily spread to adjoining land, leads some to the theory that it is actually a native species which became isolated from Europe when Britain was cut off during the last ice age.

No pearls of tears here!

No pearls or tears here!

Whatever the folklore and stories behind these two fritillaries, the simple fact that they are both amazing to look at cannot be denied or overstated. Make sure you pay a visit to us here at Chartwell soon and see them for yourself. If you take any pictures of these beautiful garden models, maybe you could even enter them into our Chartwell Photography Competition, more details on which can be found by clicking right about here.

Jamie

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