Derek – Friday 19th June 2020

The rain began in the early hours of Thursday. It continued for eight hours, and then on and off during the day. It wasn’t heavy but was steady, allowing water to soak deep into the soil. Much more than we can deliver with a hose. We water for around 40 minutes on three nights every week, but having to cover the whole garden, that’s a light watering. A long downpour could only be equalled with many hours of a garden sprinkler.

I am struck by a shock of yellow. Hollyhocks are flowering in a raised bed. Where had the blooms sprung from? Obviously from buds, but they had burst out so quickly and simultaneously. Quite a picture, the yellow flowers flanked with purple toadflax, and the languid blue spikes of buddleia, lined up as if in a wedding photo against the green foliage of the buddleia jungle.

Here’s a term quite new to me, awn. It’s the bristles growing out of many cereals. We have three wheats in our cereal project: emmer wheat, Red Fife, and winter wheat. Only emmer has much awn, long bristles coming out of the maturing seed head. Red Fife, the 19th century Canadian wheat, has a little awn, but our modern winter wheat has none at all. Emmer dates back 11 thousand years, to the early days of arable farming in the Middle East. Plant breeding reduced its height and fattened the seed heads, and along with that, not by intention, came the loss of awn.

So what is the purpose of awn? Our barley and rye have it, both modern varieties. In fact, in my countryside walks, if I see a maturing cereal crop and the seedheads have no awn, then it is wheat. A simple identifier. Agronomists have shown that in emmer wheat, the awn, by contracting and expanding in moisture, drive a fallen seedhead into the soil, by as much as an inch over time. While of considerable advantage to wild emmer, modern farmers have no need for this assistance in seed sowing, so have not aimed in plant breeding to keep it.

Two related plants in the garden are intriguing me. One is bristly oxtongue (Picris echioides), found at the edge of our wildflower bed. (This is turning out to be quite a bristly blog.) The name at once strikes me. So pictureseque, but quite apt. The plant is around a metre tall and the lower leaves are probably about the size of an ox tongue, and a similar shape, and have short bristles like overnight stubble. The leaves are pimply too, as if recovering from an attack of measles.

Bristly oxtongue is in the dandelion family with its yellow composite blooms. Fairly similar to it, growing out of the concrete round the pond, is another plant, but it is not quite the same. The leaves are hairy and pimply, similarly shaped too, but there are more of them, and they are larger at the top of the plant. It might be hawkweed oxtongue (Picris hieracioides) but I am not yet convinced.

A poke about in the compost heap revealed lots of scurrying woodlice. They hate the light, and have gone in seconds, so I have a poor photo of them, and I am reluctant to bother them again. Woodlice obviously like our compost heap; there’s plenty of vegetation for food, and we water it every so often to assist in the breakdown of the heap. They are one of the few examples of terrestrial crustaceans which includes crabs and lobsters. And daphnae (water fleas) too, which are plentiful in our pond.

Comments 2

  1. I agree, Derek. That photograph of those three colourful plants look so right together…like wedding photograph. What lovely words you use!

  2. I think Hollyhocks is the bride and her family, Purple toadflax is the groom’s. He didn’t get on with them too well, so not many there.

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