April in the Garden 2017

April already! This is the time of year when you realise just how many shades of green there are: Hawthorn hedgerows, newly leaved trees, and of course the grass is starting to grow. We have dusted off our mower and, with fresh fuel, it started first time! As it’s power assisted, our work on the slopes is so much easier now. With the need to make use of our grass cuttings, we are getting ready to prepare our composting area, which was going to be at the top of the site by the Bath House. We’ve changed our minds, with all the work that we are doing there,  and decided to build it halfway down the site on some rough ground. This gives us space to create a large three-bay compost heap, made out of donated pallets. Our thanks to www.revolutionarygarden.com for this image of what it could be like!

Example of a 3-bay compost area from pallets

Ideally, all gardens should have a composting area and it is something that we are keen to promote. Not everyone has space like ours, but even a single dustbin-sized composter can swallow huge amounts of green waste, and produce nutrient-rich natural compost. Some care needs to be taken on the type and quantity of green waste you add, as without a proper balance you can produce unwanted smells and pests, but don’t be put off – there is plenty of information on the web to get you started. More sites worth looking at are: http://www.edenproject.com    www.carryoncomposting.com   http://www.theenglishgarden.co.uk  

The pond, created last year but already a great attraction in our garden, received a further boost this month when we planted a water lily, Nymphaea alba. The rhizomes of this native plant were traditionally used medicinally in poultices, and as a gargle for sore throats, due to their antiseptic and pain relieving properties.

Linda planting the water lily

A more exotic introduction to British gardens has been the magnolia, a flowering tree that lights up many April gardens. Our lovely specimen is a Magnolia liliiflora, one of the smaller varieties – we haven’t room for a larger one, such as magnolia grandiflora which can reach 120 feet high. Magnolias are a very primitive plant species, with fossil records showing they were growing 100 million years ago. Because they pre-date the evolution of bees, they do not produce nectar and are usually pollinated by beetles.  Another astonishing fact about these trees is that they are related closely to buttercups!  [See below for more information about Magnolias].

The glorious flower of our Magnolia liliiflora

Interesting in its own way, but rather less of an attraction to the garden, is the wasps’ nest we have found in the Bath House. We will have to consider what to do about this!

The wasps’ nest in the roof


MAGNOLIA    Magnolia officinalis

Botanical image of M.officinalis

Magnolia officinalis is native to China, one of many deciduous varieties with creamy white flowers. Grown commercially for medicinal extracts, the bark being particularly useful, it is also found in gardens around the world. The tree in our Physic Garden is M.liliiflora,  also a Chinese native and also deciduous,  but with richly purple blooms.

The first magnolias cultivated in the UK actually came from the southern states of the USA and were evergreen. The earliest one, the virginiana, sweetly perfumed, arrived in 1688, but was overtaken in popularity a few decades later by the magnificent grandiflora. These, like the many beautiful varieties introduced to Britain in the early 20th century, are now mainly grown as ornamentals. Both evergreen and deciduous magnolias are now indigenous only to China, Japan and the warmer areas of the Americas.

Myth and Magic
The Chinese consider magnolias to symbolise the feminine, or Yin, and in their decorative arts a magnolia represents a beautiful woman.

In the British Victorian language of flowers, a magnolia spoke of dignity and nobility; in southern US states it is found in bridal bouquets as a mark of purity and nobility; and it is the state flower of both Louisiana and Mississippi.

Modern paganism attaches meaning to the colours of flowers, and thus white magnolia flowers relate to the moon, yellow to the sun, while pink ones are associated with the goddess of love.

Medicinal properties
The bark from Magnolia officinalis is the main source of herbal medicines from magnolia, such that the tree itself is commonly referred to as magnolia-bark. The aromatic bark, stripped from the stem, branches and roots, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine used since 100 A.D. and is also used by modern medicinal herbalists. In Russia, herbalists soak the bark in vodka, which may add different properties. Other species of magnolia are also used by Western herbalists, including Magnolia virginiana, M. glauca, M. acuminate and M. tripetata.

The flowers and unopened buds also have medicinal properties and are used in the treatment of sinusitis and allergic rhinitis.

Magnolia is considered to be anti-allergenic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, antiseptic and anti-spasmodic. It is prescribed for many ailments and conditions:
Anxiety         Asthma        Bronchitis       Coughs         Diarrhoea            Gastro-enteritis
Indigestion and abdominal bloating        Loss of appetite           Menstrual cramps
Nausea        Rheumatism          Typhoid         Ulcers            Weight loss

Current scientific research not only supports the pharmaceutical value of M. officinalis extracts, which include magnolol and honokiol, but also suggests new areas for treatment may be possible, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and memory loss.

Magnolia is considered safe taken in the recommended dosage. However, it is generally advised that it should not be used by pregnant women, nursing mothers, babies or children, or anyone suffering from dehydration or liver or kidney disease.

Other uses
Many perfume houses have produced their own versions of magnolia scent, though because there is no such thing as magnolia oil, these scents are usually made with synthetic ingredients or extracts from other flowers such as rose and jasmine.

Acknowledgments – thanks for much information to:
http://www.encylopedia.com [quoting from the Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine]
http://www.nutragreenbio.com [for the image of M officinalis]


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March in the Garden 2017

It’s that lovely time of year when you suddenly see the tiny green shoots appearing everywhere and you realise that winter is finally behind us. It’s a busy time for us too. Behind the scenes we have been constantly fund raising, and a thank you must go out to The William Dean Trust and to Congleton Town Trust who have both given funds this month towards our on-going work.

The bulbs donated by Tesco that we planted just a few weeks ago are now in full bloom, and have transformed those areas, outside the main site, that were previously just unkempt scrub and full of brambles.

Daffodils near the gate

Another yellow spring plant, a wild one and much less showy than the daffodils, has also appeared on the scene. The coltsfoot is one of very few wild flowers that produce flowers before their leaves, and it is sometimes mistaken for the much more common dandelion. [See more about coltsfoot below].

Coltsfoot greeting the spring sun

Nick and Andrew have been continuing to dig out the stubborn holly tree stumps that once must have been a hedge but now lie in the way of our future plans for the site.

As we remove the holly trees we are also planting new trees across the site. Some time ago we were awarded 100 saplings by The Woodland Trust. We chose their “Wild Harvest” mix that comprised of 30 x Hazel, 30 x Blackthorn, 15 x Crab apple, 15 x Dog rose and 15 x Elder. They arrived as bare root-stocks and we’ve planted them to thicken our hedgerow and other spaces. So the garden is undergoing considerable change, but nothing stops spring growth: here we have found the charming purple violet in bloom.

Shy – or not so shy? Violets

Two varieties of this native plant are particularly common in this country. The scented Sweet Violet, Viola odorata, with its distinctive heart-shaped leaves, grows happily in semi-shade or full sun, and can be seen on village greens and in churchyards as well as in darker wild areas. Its shorter-stemmed but equally dainty cousin, Viola riviniana, prefers woodland and hedgerows. This bloom is scentless, however, and has been known for centuries by the less charming name of Dog Violet!

We enjoy seeing our garden making a home for many wild flowers during every season, and it was therefore with sadness that we read about the closure last month of The National Wildflower Centre in Knowsley, Merseyside. It was a great place to learn about wild flowers and a superb educational resource. We visited there only last year [see our blog In the Garden June 2016] and we hope that even at this late stage funding can be found to save this project. If you would like to show your support, please do sign their petition on Change.org

The gates are closed at the National Wildflower Centre

We are also starting to prepare for two special events happening at The Bath House later this spring. Firstly, we are once again hosting a theatrical performance by students of Manchester Metropolitan University on Saturday May 6th, as part of the Hidden Spaces event. This is a chance for students based at the Crewe campus to try out new works in a real world setting.

A week later, we will host our first Spring Open Day on Saturday May 13th. This will be a chance to show the community how we are progressing and hopefully help to recruit more volunteers to our project. There will be history tours, talks by Barbara Wilkinson of the Herb Society, and more. Full details will be posted on our Facebook page leading up to the date, and from Congleton Tourist Information Centre, 01260 271095. Do join us!


COLTSFOOT  Tussilago farfara
Coltsfoot is a low-growing native perennial that produces a single golden-yellow flower, which dies down before its hoof-shaped leaves, with their felt-like undersides, appear.

The leaves of Coltsfoot appear when the flowers have died

Regarded as an invasive weed by some, it is however accompanied by strong medicinal properties that make it a widely collected plant in many countries, not just for home use but also in commercial quantities for prescriptions by medical herbalists.

Myth and Magic
Many English local names for the plant have been recorded: Culpeper, for instance, lists four alternatives, including Cough-wort. An early name for the plant was filius ante patrem – son before father – because of its unusual habit of producing flowers before leaves, and its common Russian name means ‘mother and stepmother’.

The leaves could be said to resemble the lungs, just as well as horse-hooves, so maybe this gave rise to the idea it could be used for cough medicine (Doctrine of Signatures).

Ironically, coltsfoot was also smoked as a herbal tobacco substitute and was known locally by the common name of Baccy Plant in Somerset, as Richard Mabey records. He also recalls someone telling him they could buy ‘coltsfoot rock’ off ration during the war, because it counted as medicine. (This herbal sweet product is still made by a family confectionary company in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire and sold worldwide today.)

It is said that the plant’s silky seed heads, similar to dandelion ‘clocks’, were used in the past as a stuffing for mattresses and pillows – thousands would be needed!

Medicinal Uses
The buds, flowers, and leaves of coltsfoot are all widely used in herbal medicinal practice, continuing a millennia of its use for dry cough and throat irritation. As the flowers and leaves are produced at different times, they are collected and, usually, used separately. Both flowers and leaves can be dried, but leaves are sometimes used fresh.

The name Tussilago was used in the 1st century AD by the Roman naturalist Pliny, deriving from the Latin tussis, meaning cough. The Greek physician Dioscorides, living at the same time, wrote in his book ‘Materia Medica’ that it was beneficial particularly for those who could not breathe ‘unless standing upright’.

Medicines using coltsfoot are widely prescribed by medical herbalists in the UK, Europe, China, USA and many other regions to this day. It is recommended for:
asthma – bronchitis – emphysema  – dry cough – laryngitis – sore throat – whooping cough. Coltsfoot is also used for anti-inflammatory poultices for skin irritations such as eczema.

Coltsfoot contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which have been shown to cause liver damage in rats, although these occur in minute quantities and research suggests that boiling destroys the harmful elements. Even so, in the UK it is recommended not to take coltsfoot remedies without professional guidance.

Acknowledgments – thanks for information to the following:
Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal




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February in the Garden 2017

This year’s projects are starting to take shape. One of our biggest tasks will be to fund-raise and prepare for building a toilet on site. This is a complex project and many factors such as design and accessibility needing to be taken into account. Also, sadly, because of limited space, we have had to remove several old holly trees. These appear to have originally been planted as a hedge and allowed to grow tall. Our electric chainsaw made short work of the stems and branches, but the root ball was a different challenge all together.

Nick working up in the Holly Tree

With Nick in charge, he, David and Andrew managed to dig, saw and generally maul the main root ball out with brute force. It took several hours to remove and they deserve great credit for persevering. Only another four to go then!

Andrew wrestling with the stump

This winter, despite the rainfall, access to the site has been much better following the ground works and paving we put down during 2016. The broken stone paths were based on those at Biddulph Grange gardens, but despite reseeding, the areas between the stones were still mainly bare earth. The amount of footfall we are now getting just doesn’t allow grass to grow between the stones. Ros has seen, at other National Trust properties, that they have driven duck stones* in the paving to create a sound and decorative surface. With this in mind she decided to try and do the same thing with our path. This fits in well with our policy of reusing as much material from the site as possible. We have over time collected a ton bag of duck stones, dug from the site as we have worked, and coincidently these stones needed moving from the proposed toilet area too. We managed to call upon some of the local youths who meet at our site each afternoon, and they moved the stones in no time at all. We will keep you informed as to how our experimental path laying proceeds.

* JO adds: For those of you – like me – who hadn’t met the term ‘duck stones’ before, here’s a brief explanation from a delightful website, to which I owe many thanks! http://www.pavingexpert.com – a family firm based in Warrington. ‘Duck stones’ is local (i.e. northern) terminology for those rounded stones sometimes marketed in garden centres as ‘river-washed cobbles’ – romantically sounding as if they have been picked one at a time from a tranquil river bed… Duck stones are un-worked natural stones – as the website says, “lumpy, bumpy stuff” – and not to be confused with stones used in cobbled streets, which are actually dressed stone setts. Clear?

The latest plant to pop its head through the ground is the Winter Aconite, planted last autumn by the Tesco volunteers.

Aconites ready to open

Confusingly, there are two plants commonly known as Aconite, the pretty, ground-hugging yellow Winter Aconite, and the tall, purple, and very poisonous Aconite also known as Monk’s Hood or Wolf’s Bane! For more information, see below.


Winter Aconite Eranthus hyemalis
The Winter Aconite, though common in the UK since at least the sixteenth century, is not  an indigenous plant, being a native of southern Europe.  Popular in the spring garden, it has naturalised widely beyond the garden gate into ‘wild’ areas.

Myth and Magic
The most prevalent myth is that Winter Aconite is the source of a deadly poison. It isn’t. Many internet sites refer to its legendary and fictional, as well as historical, uses in murder, but they are confusing it with the aconitine poison derived from the purple Aconitum napellus, Monk’s Hood. Agatha Christie used aconitine in two of her stories, but she wouldn’t have tried it with Winter Aconite!

It’s something of a mystery that this plant has the same common name as a completely different and very poisonous one. One theory points to the herbalist John Gerard, (1545–1612), who described it as Aconitum hyemale, blending two names and ascribing the deadly poison of the larger purple plant to the relatively innocent little yellow flower. It is also thought that under the medieval ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ (plants having medicinal properties according to their appearance), their leaves were considered sufficiently similar that the plants would necessarily have the same properties.

But they haven’t. Like any member of the buttercup family, Winter Aconite is inedible and indeed poisonous – although medical sources disagree about just how toxic it is. Eating a lot of it would undoubtedly result in sickness at the very least – but who would want to?

Medicinal Properties
There seems to be very little recorded about Winter Aconite as a medicinal plant, despite Gerard’s belief that it could cure the scorpion’s bite… There is a brief mention, in a history book about Cattle Plague, that it was used in the 18th century to cure blisters on cattle. Currently, it seems to appear only on homeopathic medicine websites.

So it is perhaps more helpful to regard this charming early spring flower as simply a delightful addition to the glory of the garden!

Acknowledgments – thanks to the following for much information



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January in the Garden 2017

A new year begins with a rather wet and grey January, but there are jobs to be done. Mr Sebire, one time owner of Congleton’s famous Berisfords Ribbons, offered us a 6’ x 8’ aluminium greenhouse. A group of us spent two very wet mornings dismantling and transporting it back to the Bath House, where it will stay until we are ready to assemble it.

Removing the greenhouse

Removing the greenhouse

Another structure also arrived this month. As part of our work at the Bath House we are going to erect a wooden shed for storage. This 10’ x 8’ structure came all the way from Yorkshire on the back of a flat bed truck, and went straight into our neighbour’s garage until we can assemble it later in the year. We bought the shed with some of the money that came from Tesco’s “Bags of Help” fund.


We are forming a good relationship with Tesco, and we also received from them a large amount of spring bulbs. These mainly consisted of daffodils and crocuses, which are not medicinal plants, so we were unable to plant them within the Physic Garden. However, we have taken over small sections of scrubland bordering our site, so we decided to plant them there. The ground of course was full of Dock, Ground Elder, Brambles and plenty of builders’ rubble. As in many jobs, it’s the unseen preparation that is the really hard work! Once this was done, our volunteers managed to plant around 1000 bulbs in total. We are concerned that our local wildlife, in particular the badgers, might dig up our hard work, so we are experimenting with laying holly branches over the bare soil to give the bulbs a chance whilst they are establishing.

Planting the bulbs

Planting the bulbs

Another occasional problem we have is dog fouling. We try to have a relaxed approach to responsible dog owners visiting the site, but every so often, as now, things get a little out of hand. We have had plants chewed and several piles of poo that seem to come from repeat offenders. Our “No Dogs” sign is often removed; but on this occasion some of the youths who visit us every day decided to help and create their own sign. No doubt this will be an on going issue, but it’s good that our young visitors are helping to keep the garden clean.

If only dogs could read, perhaps they'd train their owners!

If only dogs could read, perhaps they’d train their owners!

Though the days are short and often gloomy, the first welcome signs of the spring to come are just about appearing. Towards the end of January our first snowdrops bloomed, with the promise of many more to come.

Harbingers of spring...

Harbingers of spring…

I have noticed in recent years increasing numbers of bracket fungi appearing on tree stumps in late December and January. We reported on some edible oyster mushrooms a few years back, but this year we have had an abundance of a different sort, which I am unable to identify. The Oysters go after a heavy frost but these seem much tougher. Any ideas on their identification would be welcome!

Winter fungus

Bracket fungus in winter


Bracket fungi

There are many varieties of bracket fungi, which grow on living and dead trees. Some of them may be edible though not appetising, others are definitely inedible and yet others are extremely toxic. And some bracket fungi have been used medicinally. Although we haven’t yet identified the one illustrated above, you may have seen elsewhere the Birch Polypore bracket fungus, a common sight in British woodland, which has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It only grows naturally on birch trees, but as there are many similar bracket fungi it should not be harvested without expert advice.

An infusion of this fungus, dried or fresh, was drunk with reputed beneficial effects on the immune system. It was also  made into a plaster or dressing by applying cut pieces of the membrane to blisters, corns and wounds.

Modern research into the chemical components of Birch Polypore has found that it  contains the following potentially useful attributes:
Antiviral; Antibiotic; Anti-inflammatory;
Anti-tumour; Antiseptic; Antifungal; and
Stiptic (staunches bleeding)

“Ötzi the Iceman”, a 5,300 year old Bronze Age frozen mummy found in Austria in 1991, had some Birch Polypore on a leather thong around his neck. He also had a parasitic intestinal worm,  a Whipworm, that we now know can be cured with polypolenic acid – one of the chemicals present in Birch Polypore. It is fascinating to realise that Ötzi ‘s contemporaries knew about the curative properties of fungus in the Bronze Age…


Acknowledgments – thanks for information to:

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