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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Whoooosh…..And there goes another year. Three weeks ago, 2016 sauntered right in and made itself at home while my head is still entertaining 2015. Time is a strange thing. It has absolutely no regard for my preferred pace of life. Marching along steadily, refusing to wait for me as I ramble off-course. If Time were not so regimented and I not so easily distracted, we might make better friends. Meanwhile, we put up with each other’s shortcomings and carry on regardless. As with any fractious relationship, a little venting eases the irritation. And what better bugbear to start with, than this very blog.

At the beginning, Time left lots of room for blogging. But the novelty lost it’s sheen somewhat when everyday stuff demanded attention. Other activities got priority and Time refused to wait for me to catch up. Time does not tolerate excuses. He is well known for forging ahead regardless. I have noticed that the more activities I plan to cram into each day the more indifferent Time becomes. So perhaps I need to narrow my focus to only include the activities that mean the most to me and allocate a realistic amount of energy to them.

Blogging is most definitely among my favourite activities. I’ve selected a few favourite images from 2015. A look back through the year helps me mend my relationship with Time and be more forgiving. After all it has been a great year! It also helps me reflect on what activities are closest to my heart.

Foraging-making-exploring

I love the treasures that foraging brings, the act of gathering food from the hedgerows is such a delight. Thinking up new ways to use my bounty is so much fun! Home remedies, food, cosmetics…the list is endless. I’ll never tire of learning and exploring more about the natural world and as for making things by hand- it’s the perfect antidote for someone who spends too much time pushing pixels around a screen for a living.
Gardening

 

Our new veggie patch of raised beds was a great success this year and for a few months we just ate what came out of the garden. That gave us a great sense of satisfaction with the added bonus of great-tasting, chemical-free, fresh ingredients.

If there are any fitting subjects that you would like me to cover here on Green Jam Jar please let me know. I like to think there are folk getting something out of my monthly musings – other than the other end of therapeutic venting! (But therapeutic venting alone is good enough!)  So, with your help, and that of my old pal time, Time, let’s take Green Jam Jar into 2016!

Happy New Year to you all! Make it the year to follow your heart.

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Watering the polytunnel one evening I was taken aback to spot a large insect flexing his feelers on a courgette plant. His slender body spanned almost two inches with long gangly antennae that comically kinked out suddenly. I’d never seen a creature like him before and decided to keep my distance. After gingerly taking a picture on my phone I darted indoors to see if Google could enlighten me. I found no images to match my bug so I sent off an email to the Viney household hoping for some insight. Ethna Viney, writer and wife to Irish Times nature columnist Michael, very kindly advised me to contact the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

Parasitic_Wasp_Ireland

Funded by the Heritage Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the National Biodiversity Data Centre is based in Waterford. They collect data from civilian naturalists from all around the country. That information is then managed and analysed to inform us of any changes to our natural surroundings. It means that the state of Ireland’s wildlife is documented for future reference and monitored so that any potential threats or challenges can be detected and dealt with. As the natural environment directly impacts our daily lives, it is a valuable and worthy activity.

The public are encouraged to visit the website, log in and record their sighting- whether it be insect, wild animal, bird or plant. There are even useful step-by-step instructions to help you through the process. When I opened the website I read that earlier in the day a Pine Marten had been spotted in Sligo, someone had spied a Green Shield bug in Kerry while the day before in Dublin a Rock Pigeon was recorded and Sea Aster was found growing in Waterford. Just a few of the many, many recorded sightings that are logged each day. It doesn’t seem to matter if the particular species is unusual or considered rare, even encounters with common flora and fauna are welcome.

But how could I record my exotic visitor without first identifying him? With that in mind I sent my photo in an email to the experts at the National Biodiversity Data Centre asking for assistance. A speedy response confirmed that my insect wasn’t terribly exotic but, in fact, a parasitic wasp. Dr Tomás Murray assured me that the wasp was harmless, unless you happen to be a caterpillar. The unfortunate caterpillar is host to the wasp larvae. I was a little disappointed not to have discovered a rarity or even a brand new species but at least he will help deter ravenous caterpillars from chomping through my leafy greens.

Elephant_hawkmoth_caterpillar_sm

A week later while walking in the locality I spotted another gargantuan insect on my path. A fat, brown caterpillar with eye-like markings lolloped over the gravel. Aha, I thought, another specimen to record. Google was able to help me out on this one which turned out to be an Elephant Hawk Moth grub. So I dutifully logged on to the National Biodiversity Data Centre website and recorded each insect individually, citing exact location, date and habitat I found them in. Lots of prompts and drop-down menus make the process as easy as possible.

Next time you are outdoors take a closer look at that grass verge, the hedge nearby, the stone wall, the flower bed.  It’s amazing what you see when you really look. Get spotting and recording. You’ll develop a more intimate relationship with your surroundings, you’ll be doing your bit for the preservation of our biodiversity and, last but not least, it’s fun for all the family!

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Ragwort_FlowersYou will find swathes of bright yellow swaying in fallow meadows and roadsides despite attempts to eradicate it completely from the land. As a child I remember scouring fields for *buachaláns. Its strong, acrid odour would fill the air as you grabbed the stalk to tug it out. A smell so potent you could almost taste the unpleasantness in your mouth. The reason for its unpopularity lies in its toxicity. In the unlikely event of cattle or horses eating the plant, given its unpalatable smell, the presence of alkaloid poisons have the potential to cause severe or fatal liver damage. It poses more of a problem when the plant is cut and dried as it still retains its toxins. Hence our annual family ragwort purge. The plant is considered such a threat to the agricultural community that it is cited as an offender in the Irish Noxious Weeds Act of 1936.

Ragwort tastes so woeful that it would never be considered as food for humans so it is not a real danger to us. Some alkaloids may be absorbed through skin contact but these are eliminated from the body without causing harm. Ragwort may however cause dermatitis or an allergic reaction to sensitive individuals.

Cinnabar_Moth_ragwort

Is it fair to portray the ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) as a demonic scourge? It is, after all, host to over 70 insect species about 30 of which feed exclusively from it. The most well-known is the Cinnabar Moth, whose larvae can safely chomp away on the leaves, unbothered by predators. The plant’s alkaloids are absorbed by the caterpillars, giving the grubs, I imagine, a particularly nasty taste. The clusters of yellow flowers that emerge in late July and August are a great source of nectar and pollen for insects while its downy seeds provide food for birds in the autumn.

The Manx people refer to ragwort as cushag and liked it enough to appoint it as the Isle of Man’s national flower. This may be down to it’s extensive medicinal use in former times. There is early documentation reporting of the use of ragwort leaves as a poultice for rheumatism, sciatica and gout and the plant has even been cited as a cure for “staggers” in horses.

It goes without saying that livestock should always be kept safe and the practice of pulling the plant from grazing pastures is sensible. A prolific seeder and hardy perennial, it is unlikely that ragwort will ever become an endangered species but consider the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) and other insect life that the plant supports. Next time you come across a **bauld buachalán enjoy the beautiful display of radiant yellow, have a scan for any stripy passengers on board and wonder at the marvel of everything having its place in this magical ecosystem we inhabit.

*buachalán buí: Irish for ragwort (probably derived from Irish word buachaill- meaning boy, while buí means yellow) **bauld: Irish slang for bold or naughty

Note: I would not recommend self-medicating with ragwort, despite the wonder-cure claims.

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BeechLeafNoyeau_SMI’m not one-hundred percent sure what Noyeau actually means but from mooching around blogville I’m picking up that it is a tipple with a vague association with brandy. Interestingly, the addition of a single French word always transforms the mundane into instant sophistication. So I’m sticking with it.

It’s too late in the year to make this drink as the beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves have now lost their fresh, bright green lustre. When they first emerge in spring they are beautifully soft and downy with a translucency that plays with the early May sunlight. And that is what we are looking for. I picked my leaves at the end of May and already they were beginning to take on a more robust, viridian hue. Sensing the urgency, I filled a large bag. Although it looked like a big harvest, when I packed them tightly into a Kilner jar they only half filled it. But that was fine – it seemed a bit mean to strip the tree bare. I washed the leaves before making sure to press them down into the jar with some force. Apparently that’s important. I then poured in enough gin to cover the leaves and left them to stew for four weeks.

Four weeks later I strained the gin from the leaves, squishing them to extract as much liquid as possible. The boozy leaves went on my compost heap – your  compost heap is allowed to get a little tipsy once in a while. As with us- moderation is key. The gin had taken on a greeny-brown hue. I then made a syrup by boiling sugar and water. When it was cool, I added it to the gin along with the obligatory splosh of brandy and decanted the lot into a suitable bottle. And….oo la laa…. we have noyeau! Drink neat or enjoy with a mixer of choice. I’m going to sip mine, very lady-like, with tonic water… and a certain air of decadence…

As a guideline should you want to make this next spring: for every 100ml of beech leaf-infused gin you will need about 43ml water and 32g of sugar to make the syrup. I added a modest 15ml brandy per 100ml but you may prefer more.

 

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MaryWhite_blackstairs-EcoToursSouth of Curracloe beach is Culleton’s Gap where a wooded walk, teaming with all sorts of interesting flora and fauna, meanders behind the sand dunes. The sun was shining, there was a cockoo calling and a red squirrel was spotted scampering through the tree tops. A magical backdrop for our forest forage led by Mary White of Blackstairs Eco Trails. The group huddled close as Mary and her partner Robert went through the ethics of foraging for wild food. We were advised not to over indulge – to leave some for the insects and animals to feed on and enough to enable the plant to reproduce. “We take no more than a third of a particular species in a given area” Mary explained “and if it is a rare specimen, such as pig nuts, then we leave it alone altogether to give it a chance to re-establish itself”. Most importantly, “if in doubt- leave it out”. Some plants are easy to identify but others require some experience. There are several plant species with white umbel flower heads that look remarkably similar and while a lot of them are safe to ingest there are a few that are poisonous- some deadly. So bring along a good wild plant guide to help you make informed choices and if you are unsure please don’t take the risk.

With the sensible advise underway we continued on our walk. Stopping frequently to point out plants of culinary interest, Mary and Robert highlighted their individual characteristics to aid identification. They shared interesting tips and facts as well as practical recipes to try out. So engaging were our two guides that the 90 minutes flew by. I was particularly taken with a recipe for fried dandelion heads so I rushed home to scour our lawn for ingredients to make an afternoon snack. Everybody knows dandelions, or Pissy-beds as they were charmingly referred to round these parts due to their strong diuretic qualities. Also embedded in our childhood memories are the floaty seed heads which we would puff at to tell the time. But if you actually go hunting for a dandelion there are a number of yeller flowers that bear a striking resemblance to it – like Lesser Hawkbit and Sow Thistle. So here are a few tell-tale signs to make sure you’ve made the correct choice.

Dandelion_ID

Apparently it’s best to harvest them at midday or when the sun is at its strongest so that the flower will have maximum sugar levels. Sun still blazing I filled my colander with the yellow heads, washed them, patted them dry and removed as much as the green calyx as I could. Then I dipped them in whisked egg and coated them in flour mixed with salt, pepper and a few herbs. I used some thyme and oregano and my flour was buckwheat but you can alter the recipe to suit what you have to hand. I fried them in olive oil and -wow! Totally delicious- we scoffed them down in the blink of an eye.

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Frosty_MorningThey say it’s best to wait til after the first frost to gather haws. The cold both softens and sweetens them. Just over a week ago we had our first frost of the winter. I woke to a white blanket of ice crystals twinkling in the morning sun. Donning hat and gloves I braved the chill to gather fruit from a hawthorn tree in our boundary hedge. There is very little wild food to be found at this time of year so, if the birds haven’t already savaged them, those little red baubles are foraging gold-dust. Haws are full of vitamins and minerals and can be used to make jelly, chutney and even a kind of fruit jerky/leather. The hawthorn fruit is also a useful heart medicine, healing on both a physical and an emotional level. It is used to regulate blood pressure and, as with other members of the rose family, to mend broken hearts. Not wanting to totally strip our garden of winter nourishment for the birds I decided to pick some more haws on my usual dog-walking route. The route that I have been frequenting for many years was home to several hawthorn bushes. As luck would have it they were also still bearing berries and flanked by some flowering gorse bushes. The bright yellow blossoms caught my attention (more foraging gold-dust) so I helped myself to a handful.

 

Hawthorn_berries

After rinsing the berries I placed them in a kilner jar with about half their weight of sugar, added the gorse flowers and covered the lot in rum. I would have used brandy but for the addition of the gorse flowers. Their lovely coconutty scent would have been completely overpowered. I placed the jar on a shelf in the kitchen to be shaken daily.

 

HawBerry&GorseBlossom_Rum_SM

A few days later, dog and me ambled down our familiar track. We rounded the corner to the spot where we had gathered our berries and blossoms only to be greeted with a bare ditch. One side of the half mile stretch had been mechanically removed of all the plant life that I had become acquainted with over the course of many years. My heart sank. I know, in time, the wild carrot, thistles, hemp-agrimony, fleabane and many, many others will return but how long will it take for the bigger shrubs and trees to become established- if they are allowed? Well, I shall certainly savour my rum, even if its flavour will be tinged with little sadness. Perhaps the hawthorn will mend that.

“Things do not change; we do” Henry David Thoreau

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Apparently today is Yorkshire Day which is fortuitous as that’s exactly where I am. Sitting at the cafe in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park gazing out onto the Peak District with a brass band thumping out jolly tunes behind me. I’m sipping a well earned cuppa after a few hours meandering through curvatous Henry Moores, a stately Anthony Gormley and several totem-pole inspired Barbara Hepworths. Hepworth was born locally and is in so many ways the star of the show. I imagine her life and work initiated the idea of a park.

Map of Yorkshire sculpture park

Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

One of many Henry Moore's bronze sculptures

One of many Henry Moore’s bronze sculptures

The park, known as YSP, won the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2014. It’s easy to see why. Located in the 500-acre Bretton Estate it houses over 60 sculptures throughout its grounds where sheep and geese are free to roam.

Many of the pieces are huge installations that nestle at ease in their wide, open-air positions. There are also several indoor galleries exhibiting art which has a connection to the natural world. Even though the Yorkshire populace have come here to celebrate their special day I still managed a secluded woodland walk by the lake before rejoining the crowds back at the YSP centre. Now that I’ve have my caffeine fix I’m off to find the work of Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei on exhibition in the chapel. Spoilt for choice, the variety has given me food for thought on how to work with my substantially smaller patch of green at home. Hmmmm…..

 

Sculpture by Ai Weiwei

Sculpture by Ai Weiwei

Sculpture piece by James Capper

Sculpture piece by James Capper

Giant Mosaic Octopus by Marialuisa Tadei

Giant Mosaic Octopus by Marialuisa Tadei

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