Signatures of Spring

April 26th, 2015 | 7 Comments »

Crocus and daffodils are sure signs of spring, and I await their appearance at Glen Villa, my garden in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, with bated breath. (Will snow come again or is it finally safe to remove my winter tires?)

Crocus on the lawn at Glen Villa, April 2015.
Crocus are usually the second sign of spring. Snowdrops are the first, daffodils the third.


A less common sign of spring here is the flower that was blooming yesterday near the front door. It’s a common plant, found in many shady or woodland gardens, with almost 100 named cultivars, but I haven’t used it widely.  It’s pulmonaria or common lungwort.

I don’t know the name of the lungwort that is growing in my garden but it has the distinctive hairy stem, the spotted leaves and the flowers that change colour from pink to blue as they age. I found it growing in a garden next door to Glen Villa, and when I began to plant the garden in the late 1990s, I transplanted several clumps. These have spread happily and now form a thick carpet under the large pine tree at the top of our front steps.


The hairs on the stems and leaves of Pulmonaria, or lungwort, may have been useful as an expectorant.
This photo from last year shows buds of varying colours. The change from pink to blue tells bees whether the flower is too young to provide pollen and nectar, too old, or just right.


The name ‘lungwort’ is unattractive to my ears but both it and the plant’s scientific name share an interesting history. ‘Pulmonaria’ comes from the Latin word ‘pulmo’ meaning lung; the name is one example of a doctrine that dates from the first century AD, to physicians and philosophers like Galen.

Simply put, this doctrine was based on the idea that a plant which resembled an organ of the human body could cure an ailment that stemmed from that organ. The spotted leaves of Pulmonaria were thought to resemble ulcerated lungs, and were used to treat pulmonary infections.


The hairs on the stem and leaves of lungwort must have tickled the throat and may have made it useful as an expectorant.

In medieval times the idea acquired a theological aspect. God created plants that looked like parts of the body in order to alert people to their medicinal qualities. Botanists like William Coles (1626-1662) wrote that walnuts were good for curing ailments of the brain because “they Have the perfect Signatures of the Head.”  Hypericum, or Saint Johns wort, was good for wounds and minor injuries because the “little holes whereof the leaves…are full, do resemble all the pores of the skin…”

This photo of Hypericum perforatum or St John's wort is from Jim Conrad's Naturalist Newsletter. I found it on line at Backyard Nature.
This photo of Hypericum perforatum or St John’s wort is from Jim Conrad’s Naturalist Newsletter. I found it on line at Backyard Nature.
And indeed St John’s wort remains a common herbal remedy, primarily used for depression but also used to relieve stomach pains and insomnia.  And in case you were wondering, ‘wort’ is an old English term for a non-woody plant, a herb or forb. (Another meaning of “wort” is a liquid which can be fermented to make beer or whiskey.)

The German mystic and theologian Jacob Boehme (1575-1624 spread the idea that there was a link between the appearance and the use of a plant. He gave the doctrine its name in his book The Signature of All Things, published in 1621.

Many of today’s plants still bear names that reflect this medieval belief. Eyebright cured eye infections. Bloodroot cured diseases of the blood, snakeroot was a counter against a snake’s venom. Liverwort or hepatica was used to treat liver ailments. Toothwort or dentaria was used for – yes, you guessed it – problems with teeth.

My favourite of all these signatures is maidenhair fern. It was not meant for women, whether virginal or non. It was intended for men, to cure baldness.


The fronds of maidenhair fern are arranged like a tiara.
The fronds of this maidenhair fern are arranged like a tiara. Black stems contrast nicely with the green leaf tissue..


Do you think I can market the idea?


A Sugaring Off, or What To Do With All That Maple Syrup?

April 19th, 2015 | 6 Comments »
Winter this year was longer and colder than usual, and the deeper-than-normal snow lingered long past its 'best before' date. I worried that spring would be so short that our sugar bush would yield less sap than normal, and so less of that delicious product, maple syrup.   [caption id="attachment_2078" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] In January the woods were thick with snow. The sugar camp itself is barely visible, on the left.[/caption]   I needn't have worried. The late spring pushed everything back several weeks -- we didn't begin to gather sap


Following My Tree: April

April 12th, 2015 | 11 Comments »
Finally, the snow is melting and the ground that has been hidden for so many months is beginning to re-appear. Today temperatures rose to 15C or so, a big change from what we've been experiencing. And the sky was bright and beautifully blue.   [caption id="attachment_2040" align="aligncenter" width="1224"] The linden tree is framed between two old maple trees, planted over 100 years ago on the big lawn at Glen Villa.[/caption]   Despite this, not much is happening yet to the tree I'm 'following' this year, a linden or basswood, or


Taizé: A Project for the International Garden Festival at Métis, Quebec

April 5th, 2015 | 4 Comments »
Last fall I submitted a proposal to the International Garden Festival at Métis, Quebec as part of a mulit-disciplinary team. The Festival is one of the leading annual garden festivals in the world --  a "forum for innovation and experimentation and an exceptional showcase and launching pad for participating designers from a host of disciplines," to quote the festival website, providing "a unique space for those involved in the renewal of this art form." The team I led proposed a garden installation that focused on transformation: from noise to silence, from movement to stillness, from