The Curious Peasant

at Peasant Publishing

Lost skills in cookery, craft, and culture.

Munching Mulleins

Returning to the garden after 10 days away I am astonished by the rate of growth in our absence. Beans are leaping up their poles, the courgettes will get their first picking tonight and the outdoor lettuces are filling nicely. The flower border is looking good if a bit chaotic.

Self sown mulleins (Verbascum pulverulentum) have overwintered and are now in full flower. One in particular is flowering spectacularly. Another has appeared right at the front of the border - not a good place for a statuesque 6 foot tall plant. However, as it is at the front it affords a fantastic view of the mullein moth caterpillars (Shargacucullia verbasci) that are munching their way through it.

Mullein moth caterpillar

The caterpillars are considered to be a pest by most gardeners, as they can completely defoliate a plant, and are killed either with pyrethrum or can be picked off by hand. I think they are beautiful and so don't kill them. Of course if I was growing my mulleins deliberately as a herbal medicine I might feel differently. But I am not and these lovely little creatures are thickly covering the stems of three of the mulleins. There must be over a hundred on each plant, all of different sizes, some as much as 2.5 cms long, and all leaving vast amounts of waste behind them.

Given the spectacular colouring of the caterpillars I expect they are poisonous, which is perhaps why the birds have left them alone, despite their being very exposed on the stems of the plants.

Considering how many caterpillars there are I am amazed that the moths themselves are rarely seen especially as they have a nearly 5 cm wingspan: I have never seen one.

Mullein moth caterpillar

Peasant in the city

Sometimes it is necessary for this peasant to leave the lovely Wiltshire landscape and work in the heart of London. 10 days in the smelly city, we are in the throes of a mini heatwave with no rain, reminds me how lucky I am not to live here permanently. However, a delightful walk to work across Kensington Gardens has allowed me to spot some interesting trees. There is an avenue of Tulip Trees (Liriodendron)
in front of Kensington Palace which are at their peak right now; fascinating flowers. These ancient trees have been found in the fossil record and while the trunks have been used for dugout canoes (not in London!) they are mostly grown as a decorative or ornamental tree. A second avenue of trees that I have been walking past on a daily basis are the mulberries running due South from Kensington Palace. These appear to be of different varieties as some are bearing fruit now, soon to be ripe, and others have no fruit at all and glossier leaves. I suspect the black mulberry (Morus nigra) is the fruit bearing one. Kensington Palace holds one of the National Collections of Mulberries, another being in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and these are probably part of the collection. There are other black mulberries in London, some of the best known being those on Birdcage Walk and St James's Gardens. King James I , in an attempt to establish a silk industry in London in the early 17th century, instructed people to plant mulberries and thousands were planted all over the country.
Unfortunately his advisor promoted the black mulberry not realising that the white mulberry was the preferred food plant of the silk moth caterpillar. The tree is quite short-lived so none of the existing mulberries in London are survives. The fruit of the mulberry is sublime, eaten fresh with a large splurge of thick cream it has a flavour like no other fruit - slightly sharp and lemony. It also makes fabulous jam, crumbles, pies and one of the best fruit wines. I have tried planting a mulberry tree three times in my gardening life but have had no luck with any of them, I don't think they like my very free draining, alkaline soil. A shame as they can be prolific fruiters and it is almost impossible to buy the fruit as it is so fragile. I have never had enough mulberries to try dyeing with them but, using salt as a mordant, they can give a rich variety of shades from aubergine through to lavender. Looking at the Royal Parks website I see there are a lot of medlar trees - Mespilus germanica - in Kensington Gardens too - I will have to search them out later in the year when the "dog' s bottom" fruit is in evidence. This tree does grow successfully in my garden and fruits with abandon. I am not keen on the slightly rotted or "bletted" fresh fruit but they make a lovely dark pink jelly, perfect with game.

Curious Plants

he plant world is a strange place. Take the Broomrape I found yesterday; this astonishingly beautiful plant, Orobanche minor, is a parasite, in this case on clover roots. Broomrapes are not that rare in the UK but they are mostly found in the south of the country, flowering from June right through to September. A plant of poor open habitats, they don't have any chlorophyll, hence the pale colouration, and the flowering stem is only there to set seed. Unlike orchids, which have a symbiotic relationship with their host mycorrhiza, broomrapes are a true parasite. They draw their nutrients from their host plant and can eventually be very problematic. In fact, as I write, the third International Symposium on Broomrape in Sunflower has just closed in Cordoba, Spain. The broomrape that parasitises sunflower, Orobanche cumin Wallr, has a significant effect on crop yields throughout Europe and Asia and much research is going on to find a resistant strain of sunflower. Elizabeth Luard gives a recipe for a gratin of mushrooms and young broomrape shoots that was eaten in Italy. (European Peasant Cookery p. 380). I haven't found any equivalent use in the UK.

The broom rape I found was a solitary plant, thriving in a large meadow which is cut for hay and then grazed by sheep. This solitary plant may have an adverse effect on the clover plant it is parasitising but in the overall scheme of things it won't effect the yield of this particular field much. Its beauty alone is worth the valiant sacrifice of the host.