Monday, September 19, 2005

green alkanet

Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens) is one of those plants that you find around the place and you never quite know what you did to deserve it. At some point in history it was really used as a dye plant and that's when it became naturalized in the north. The dye from the thick, deep roots was red, which kind of makes sense because "alkanet" is based on the Arabic word for henna. The flowers of course are blue with a white eye, so its common name is pleasingly off-the-wall. Presumably "green" has got something to do with "sempervirens" and it certainly is a plant that seems to be always there and always busy.

A few years ago green alkanet happened to sprout through an air-brick that was lying in Maria's rockery. It might not be everyone's idea of a good centrepiece for the garden but there are significant compensations. Fairly obviously you get a continuous supply of really blue flowers from April to October, and unlike forget-me-nots this plant never gets mildew*. It's hard to imagine those tough bristly leaves getting any disease at all. Of course the plant is far too vigorous among the alpines so Maria cuts it back two or three times a year, and then it just starts over with more flowers. It's in just about the sunniest spot in the whole garden (received wisdom says the green alkanet is useful for semi-shade, and it probably is, but the bristliness and the Spanish homeland says that this is really a plant equipped for sun). It is the favourite plant - the overwhelmingly favourite plant - of a crowd of small bumble-bees. There are certain lemon-yellow ones in May-June that spend all day around it. It's beautiful to see the plant then in those spring afternoons, and to hear it too. But I remain uncertain whether the constancy of those bees is a tribute to perpetual satisfaction or perpetual dissatisfaction. They just can't make up their minds to leave, they keep taking off and orbiting and dropping onto another flower - but usually just for a quarter-second. It seems like they are impelled by the hope, which must sometimes be satisfied, of chancing on a flower that has miraculously been overlooked and still contains a full charge of whatever drop of ecstasy the plant secretes in there. Or perhaps the promise inscribed on those blue flowers is just too mesmerising. No insect, it seems, is able to remember what flowers it has already visited, and the whole business of dithering around a plant with many small flowers seems to have no rational beginning or end to it.

Elsewhere I have often watched the voluptuous flowers of the woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) crawling with slow bumble bees, and noticed a few that have stopped crawling and in fact are just dead, presumably from too much bliss. - But that is a later time of year, not long before all the adult insects die out anyway, much like summer blooms themselves.

The only plant in the garden that seriously divides the loyalty of these small bumble-bees is lavender. Different kinds of insect like different plants, of course; different types of bumble bee like different plants. Big bumble-bees generally don't go for the same plants as small bumble-bees, though sometimes they'll bend themselves into a U-shape so that their mouth and feet are all bunched together; then they can approach a flower they're really much too big for. When the fennel comes into flower small wasps appear from nowhere, and when I examine the goldenrod it seems that all of its bees are actually "bee-flies", I mean those diptera species who have evolved a resmblance to bees in order to deter predators. These are everyday observations, and casual ones. Even though bees keep similar hours to ourselves, it must be no easy task to watch them methodically as they interact with an environment that contains overwhelming variables. As a scientist it's easier to get a fix on the simple lock and key of Darwin's orchid and its moth. But that's a prehistoric sort of set-up - one species for one species, mutually and utterly dependent on each other. Bumble-bees in a garden go browsing like shoppers in a mall, requiring nectar in some form or other but over-supplied, leisured and choosy. The language of psychology, hidden persuaders and obsessions supersedes the language of measures and survival.

Now in September the green alkanet, a few weeks after its latest chop-back, looks exactly like it did in May, its big leaves untroubled and its flowers directing their unblinking assertion to the eight corners of the earth. I am reassured. But the consort of bees has dropped away. Craneflies rattle in the shed, we cart large armfuls of buddleia and ash to the hump behind the factory. We have to get up while it's still grey outside and, in the shrinking of the season, we sign up for evening classes that will change our lives.

*Not quite true, I've realized. Green Alkanet does get mildew sometimes, but it's rare.



At 10:33 am, Anonymous Catherine Waters said...

Many thanks for this. We have a tiny, shady garden in urban Bristol and it is full of this wonderful wild flower. So glad the bees love it as much as I do.
Lovely blog.
Thank you,
Catherine Waters

At 4:49 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comprehensive information. I have just started some seed here in Northern New Mexico (elevation 6,500 ft.) and have found the seedlings to be mighty growers. I have refurbished an old (100 year old) adobe house with trash and weeds everywhere so am anxious to find new easy care landscaping material. I hope this is one of them. Thanks again. Anita

At 2:43 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Green alkanet grows in a 2ft gap between my house wall (north facing) and the 6ft garden wall in between. So it's in a pretty shady position where virtually nothing else grows. As it's not much of a useful space to me I let it thrive there. It's clearly adaptable as there's a small community garden nearby in full sun which used to be full of it. It should be good for adding to compost heaps as it's in the borage family along with comfrey.


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