Saturday, 23 February 2013

Marginal Plants

 A Love of Water

Astilbe, Primula florindae, Lobelia, Ligularia 'The Rocket' - all lovers of damp soil
      One day one of my old mates will descend on me bent on vengeance. I change their names but at some stage one of them is going to come across these epistles and recognise himself. Ah well. May as well enjoy life while I've got it.

      Max (name changed), is a fishing buddy. He's an Italian. A unique one. At least I think he is but, as I don’t know any others, perhaps they’re all like that. He has a reputation for being a hot angler which has been achieved in the same way as ninety percent of climbers achieve theirs - he talks about his success. Climbers do it in the pub, where they've gathered to discuss how the weather is 'too bad to go up today'. Their stories of death-defying deeds expand in direct correlation with the amount of beer that goes down their throats. In Max's case he doesn't need the beer. He'll tell anyone who doesn't move fast enough when they see him coming. The common denominator in all this is the fact that it's all in the head - the climber doesn't actually scale the rock face and Max doesn't actually catch fish.

Mentha aquatica (Water mint)
       We like rivers, especially small ones, because they change with each flood, giving them character  lacking in lakes, and this leads to us roaming the banks finding promising spots. The books will tell you that fish are sensitive. They quickly detect movement or noise on the bank and move away. This is a bit at odds with Max's technique: he crashes through the undergrowth, looms over the water, shouts to me about this being a likely spot, then casts in.  The  size of weight he uses on the line means that it  whistles as it sails through the air and the impact when it meets the water ensures that any fish in the area make for the bomb shelters.

      Then there's his fly fishing technique: fly fishing involves an artificial fly being presented on the water in such a way that it seduces a fish to pop up and eat it.  Max's  methods border on the spectacular: the artificial lure is extremely light and so projecting it across a wide expanse of water entails the employment of a particularly dextrous technique. The rod is moved  backwards and forwards in the manner of a whip, each forward motion attended by the release of a little line from the reel. In this way the length of the whipping line is extended until there is enough length to allow it to settle on the water in the required spot.

      The first time I went fly fishing with Max, the technique was new to me in practise and I made the mistake of standing a few yards behind him while he gave a demonstration. It was at this point that I narrowly missed parting company with my right ear, because he suddenly flung himself into a frenzy of casting which had the potential to  prove lethal to anyone within twenty yards in any direction. Bearing this in mind, it seemed logical to me that it would be to the caster’s advantage, as well as that of any unfortunate passer-by, to ensure there was no obstacle to the free movement of the line. This point always eludes Max and you can guarantee that his fishing spot will be surrounded by twigs, leaves and, on occasion, even small branches which have succumbed to his wild flailing. I once saw a bald sparrow which I suspect had been slow to see the danger. Sometimes the hook will lodge in a more resilient part of a plant and he spends more time climbing trees to retrieve his fly than he does fishing. It never seems to occur to him that standing in front of a tree is not the most advisable position. Although he reckons he can cast his fly onto a pinhead, he has great difficulty in landing it anywhere near a rising fish and I can only assume he concentrates on the  pinheads.

      Max was the one with a supply of flies when this sort of fishing was new to me and it was here that his competitive nature came to the fore. On one occasion he insisted that I try this floating creation which resembled a moth-ball, while he used something uncannily like a real fly: “eet bobbles in the fast bits”, he informed me, referring to the moth-ball, “they won’t be able to resist that”. So I slung it in and watched it bobble. Unfortunately watch was  all the fish did as well. Finding a trout with a penchant for mothballs is not an easy thing, I discovered, and my only comfort lay in the fact that Mussolini was having the same problem with real - looking flies.

      My job in management meant that I could never get the same satisfaction as someone who actually changes things. Even if you only dig a hole, you can see what you’ve done at the end of the day and get some satisfaction from that. I think this same philosophy is shared with Max, because he may not catch anything but he certainly changes things. The trees in the vicinity of his endeavours look different from the same species elsewhere. It's something about their lacy appearance – it gives the impression of new hybrids produced by some ambitious nurseryman.
Pontederia cordata (Pickerel weed)

      His approach to coarse fishing is equally unique. The bait we favour for catching chub and barbel is luncheon meat  (Spam, to be specific) and Max uses it without reserve. He will frequently attach what looks like half a tin of it to his hook, cast, and watch the bait sail somewhere into a far field, while the hook and weights crash into the water a few feet away. When I first started fishing with him I thought maybe it was some cunning new gambit: the attention of the fish would be drawn to the airborne Spam (perhaps to the accompaniment of a fishy shout of ‘hey lads, look at that’), causing them to not notice the weight. This would suddenly descend from nowhere and knock one of them out. Eventually a notable lack of unconscious fish led me to reassess the theory. In fact I could, at times, swear a sort of choking sound was emanating from the water but maybe it was my imagination, because science has yet to prove that fish can laugh.

      And river banks are remarkable for plant life - those which thrive in a harsh environment subject to flood and drought on a regular basis. In the garden the pond is the nearest we get to these conditions and it seems logical to choose subjects adapted to them. The thing to remember though, is that the pond (in most cases) is artificial, liner giving way to the ordinary soil. To create the dampness of the river or lakeside therefore, it helps to bury a bit of liner, fill it with soil, and then add water, creating a bog effect. We don't want it to hold stagnant standing water - just retain dampness - so the addition of a few holes, by puncturing the liner with a fork, will achieve this.

Lysichiton americanus (skunk cabbage)
      The choice of plants for this sort of environment is large, so I'll only highlight a few of my own favourites. It is worth noting that, for this sort of thing - choosing a plant for a particular environment - any good gardening book will provide comprehensive lists.

      Water mint (Mentha aquatica) is a vigorous grower which not only provides shelter for wildlife but is utilitarian in that a nice tea can be made from it. Simply add a few leaves to hot (not boiling) water, leave it to brew for about three minutes, then transfer it via a strainer into a mug.

      Lobelia is a plant we tend to associate more with bedding schemes or hanging baskets, but L.cardinalis is a tall water- lover offering attractive red flowers and often with red tinged leaves. Lobelia siphilitica has blue flowers and thrives in similarly damp conditions. There are numerous varieties which like the same environment - ideally a basket of acid soil sunk in shallow water. Ligularia, Primula, Mimulus luteus (monkey flower), Pontederia cordata (Pickerel weed, so called because it comes from areas in America frequented by  pickerel fish), Caltha palustris (marsh marigold) - the list is endless but have an eye for scale: if you have a small pond avoid subjects like Gunnera mannicata which will look ridiculous adjacent a six foot puddle. This is also true for Lysichiton americanus (skunk cabbage), which looks great when flowering but produces after-growth resembling a five foot cabbage. The 'skunk' bit I find a bit dubious because I've never been able to detect the smell the name refers to. Plant labelling is a lot better than it used to be, and the ultimate size of a plant is usually outlined, so make good use of the information offered.

      Writing this lot has worn me out, so I'm going fishing now.

      By myself.


Saturday, 16 February 2013

Plants For Shade

Shadey Places

Foxgloves, geraniums and hostas enjoy shade

You could say that mountains are a bit like Dougal's cow, in 'Father Ted'

"Whoi is dat one bigger dan de other? Ted", he says, pointing to two bovines in the fields beyond the house,

"Well", says Ted, with infinite patience, "because dat one", indicating a black and white friesian, "is half a mile further away dan de other".

I look at a distant mountain, still, and think 'that looks a doddle - we'll be back before dinner', while the little hill, towering over me at this point, looks formidable. I'd get on well with Dougal.

We were camping, Ged (not his real name) and myself, in a field running down to Loch Leven. It was a long time ago, probably late '60's and I can remember no detail other than the horror of midges. They would descend at around five p.m. with the playful intent of making life a misery for us. I swear the buggers had swastikas on their wings. Our camping arrangements consisted of  a two man tent and the inevitable old G.P.O. van. Cooking was done in turns:  the one who was 'on' that day would prepare the food crouched in the back of the van, rush out to light the calor gas stove while dressed like an Afghan insurgent, only the eyes showing, and bang the food on. Then he'd retire to watch from the relative safety of the van until, in another mad rush, he retrieved the cooked food. In spite of these precautions, you could always spot the cook of the day because he'd look a bit like Mr Blobby.

"What's that one called", I asked Ged, pointing at a peak some way along Glen Coe.

After consulting the map he informed me it was called Stob Coire Nan Lochan. And, because it was some way away, I fell into the trap:

"Let's go up it", I said, thinking we could do it and be back at the pub for lunch.

So it was that, on a hot summer day, we made our way up the lower slopes of one of the highest peaks in the Glen Coe range.

Ged and I got on pretty well, but the midges had shortened our tempers and, when I suggested proceeding  up the steep slope directly in front of us, he reacted brusquely:

"No way. We'll go up the corrie there", and he indicated a rough path leading up a fold in the mountainside.

Now I'm pretty easy going normally, but this being given as an instruction got my goat:

"You go up the corrie", I said, "I'll see you at the top", and, without waiting for a reaction, I started up the slope.

Asarina procumbens - likes shade

At first, things went well, and I made good progress. Looking back, I could see Ged toiling up the path some way below and I worked out that I'd probably be at the top a half hour before him. However, the slope became a lot steeper, slowing me considerably and I got to the point that I had to take the heavy rucksack off, hoist it up ahead, then climb up to it and repeat the process. For the first time, I began to get worried: the   rock of the hillside didn't just get steeper, it started to become flakey. I'd grab what looked like a firm hold and it would come away in my hand. Eventually I went a bit too far past the bag and couldn't reach it, so I sat on a jutting rock to consider my position. That was when I really started to lose it, because I looked round and realised the rock I was sitting on was split down the back and certainly not something to tie your horse to.

I could see the cars moving down the road at the foot of the valley, looking like Dinky toys, and I remember wishing I was in one of them. I was going to die. There was no way I could retrace my steps down the crumbling hillside, so I sat there as still as possible and hailed Ged.

"I'm stuck", I shouted, "and I can't get the bag".

I new the 'bag' bit would get a response. Our butties were in it.

"Well throw a rock at it and knock it off, it'll roll down to the bottom", he shouted back, after some thought.

So, trying not to move on my unsafe seat, I threw enough rocks at the bag to qualify as an avalanche, until one hit it full on. The way the bag then bounced about five hundred feet at ever increasing speed down the hillside made my stomach churn. One false move and that'd be me.

Glen started retracing his steps to collect it. I could hear him swearing.

"And while you're there", I shouted, "you'd better get the mountain rescue".

This brought on another bout of swearing, but he eventually disappeared from view, holding the ragged remains of a bag containing some tomatoes which had become sauce.

Saxifraga oppositifolia - another shade lover

I sat there on my perch, like an eagle in its eyrie, visualising the helicopter and shots of whiskey which would soon arrive. Hopefully it'd be the good stuff, not one of those blends.

Before long, it began to get cold. Although it was a sunny day, I had climbed the north side which was in complete shade. So, in an effort to get warm, I started singing. It was quite good, really. The surrounding mountains caused my voice to echo, and I got quite carried away going through my repertoire. I was trying 'The Lonely Goatherd' and the yodelling bit seemed to fit really well. Then I heard voices, so I shut up. Down below, on the track, a couple of people were climbing the route Glen had been on. Judging by the the lack of a helicopter, they obviously weren't mountain rescue, so I didn't shout. It'd have been embarrassing. How do you explain sitting on a rock half way up a crumbling rock slope singing something from The Sound of Music?

I could clearly hear their voices:

"That was singing. I know I heard singing".

"No, it must have been the wind through the gully"

"I'm telling you, it was singing. Bloody awful voice. Wonder if the mountain's haunted".

"Well, there was that bloke fell last year. Killed himself"

As their voices faded away I played with the idea of giving them a taste of my rock-throwing. Julie Andrews I may not be, but, on balance, I thought I sounded pretty good. It was bit sobering hearing about that bloke killing himself though, and I uneasily examined the back of my seat, trying to work out what I could grab onto if it started moving.

Matteucia struthiopteris and many other ferns like shade

For two hours I sat, getting colder and more scared, straining my ears for the clatter of the helicopter. Then I heard more voices. Two blokes appeared way below at the foot of the slope, accompanied by Glen. They were wearing trainers and one was carrying a rope. Obviously the mountain rescue budget didn't run as far as a helicopter.

"I wouldn't climb this slope", I shouted, helpfully.

"Not bleedin' likely", came the reply. "We're not mad".

I ignored the implication of this remark.

"We're goin' up top and we'll throw the rope down", then they moved up the gully, eventually appearing some distance above me. They threw the rope and told me to tie it round my waste and start climbing. If I fell, they assured me they'd hold me. The rope looked suspiciously like his mum's washing line but I did what I was told and managed to climb up to them without the indignity of slipping and swinging like a conker on a string.

"Right", I said, "thanks lads. I'll be ok now - get you a pint in the pub tonight?"

"Nope, you're coming with us. Bloke's fallen down a waterfall on the other side and we need all the help we can get."

And they ran, literally ran, over the top of the mountain, with Glen and I puffing in pursuit. I'd thought I was pretty fit until I saw those blokes. Anyway we reached the site of the accident where the famous climber Hamish MacInnes was organizing the carrying of a stretcher down the mountain. He gave me a perfunctory nod and rolled his eyes when my rescuers explained what had happened, which is the nearest I've been to being acknowledged by a famous person (although, come to think of it, Alan Titchmarsh once spoke to me when I bumped into him as he was filming in Wisley Gardens: "Gerroff me foot", he said).

"Well, at least you can do something useful now", Hamish said, indicating where I should grab hold of the stretcher.

And that was it. We struggled down the mountain with the stretcher for the next hour or so and after that I slunk off with Glen to do what we could with the jigsaw-puzzle that was our butties.

And the interesting thing about all this is the fact that there were plants growing in niches in the rock all around the point I'd been stranded, although the area was in constant shade. The practical side of this is that most of us have shady parts of the garden where the usual plants won't grow and there is actually a wide selection of the ones that do: the mat forming Campanulas portenschlagiana and poscharskyana, together with Chiastophyllum oppositifolium, Hepatica, Omphalodes cappadocica, mossy types of Saxifrage, Viola and Walsteinia are just a few suggestions for a shaded rockery. Herbaceous plants happy in shade include Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker', Lysimachia clethroides, Matteucia struthiopteris, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', large leaved geraniums, Hosta, Acanthus spinosus, Cimicifuga, Epimedium perraldeanum, Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Robbiae and Lamium galeobdolen. Among the shrubs tolerant of these conditions we can list Aucuba japonica, Sarcococca humilis, Osmanthus delavayi, Ruscus aculeatus, Skimmias, Pachysandra terminalis, Euonymus 'Emerald & Gold', Camellias, Rhododendrons, Choisya ternata, Cotoneasters and many others.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)


Fertile stems of horsetail topped by spore - bearing cones

One of my first experiences in horse riding occurred when a mate of mine, Mike (name changed to protect the innocent), badgered me to go with him to a riding stable somewhere in Cheshire. The only thing I remember about the location of the place was the fact that, to get there, you went past George Best's house. It was a strange looking affair and I think they've knocked it down, since.

Mike was a smashing bloke but he did get a bit over the top in assessing his own capabilities: we arrived at the stables and I, as a beginner, was allotted a gentle horse called Mooney who was so old she must have been top candidate for a Tesco Value Beefburger. Mike, having been before, had a much more sprightly mare and, for a while, we just trotted round in a roped off ring with him shouting advice. I didn't need it - Mooney hadn't got the energy to chuck me off.

There were red and white pole fences at different heights for people with varying riding abilities to jump, and the stable girl keeping an eye on us suggested we were ready to have a go at the lowest one. It was about two foot high and Mooney ambled up to it and stepped over rather than jumped. This gained me some patronising applause from Mike, who was beginning to get on my nerves.

"Now watch this", he shouted, "this is the way it's done" and with this he rode to the far end of the ring then urged his mare to run full pelt at the jump. Up until then I was under the impression that the idea was to negotiate the jump with the horse. However, his technique involved the horse stopping dead about a foot from the bars while he proceeded by himself in the manner of  superman, arms stretched out before him. His flight trajectory came to an abrupt conclusion when he buried his head in the deep mud, suggesting that he'd become Clark Kent again.  The horse looked round at me with what, I swear, was a smug grin, then wandered off to chew some grass at the side of the ring.

Mike now rose slowly from the mud with the whites of his eyes a startling contrast to his now dusky complexion, and it crossed my mind that he only needed a straw hat and a banjo to pass for a George Mitchell minstrel. Anyway, after that his enthusiasm for riding seemed to wain and, even after he stopped wearing the neck brace, the subject never came up again.

This experience did little to encourage an enthusiasm for riding but there is something a bit compulsive about it: about a year later I accompanied a youth club on an outing to Colwyn Bay, in Wales. I regularly helped the youth workers at the club but on this occasion seemed to be a bit surplus to requirements, there being a number of other people along to keep their eyes on the kids. And so it was that I found myself in a pub with another volunteer, a bloke called Dave. When, some time later, we emerged blinking into brilliant sunshine (contrary to popular belief, they do get an annual sunny day in Wales) and wandered onto the beach, the first thing I noticed was the horses.

"Hey", I said, "look".

"Right", said Dave, glazedly eyeing the group of horses which were standing idly next to a sign offering rides for a pound. "Oh. Horshes".

Dave wasn't normally the adventurous type and had never ridden a horse in his life but a few pints of Newcastle Brown can change ones outlook. So it was that we wandered over to the bloke running the horse rides, with the intention of a pleasant canter across the beach.

Even at that time there was a bit of health and safety awareness around and I anticipated that the man would want to absolve himself from any responsibility should a disaster occur.

"He'll probably ask if we're experienced", I warned and, sure enough, that was the first thing he said. Dave, who bore an uncanny likeness to Eric Morecambe, simply nodded in a world-wise manner and said "done a bit". The man held  the reins while Dave put one foot in a stirrup, and hauled himself up. Then he hauled himself down because, having arrived in the saddle, he quickly came to the conclusion he was either on the horse whose  head appeared in The Godfather or, and this seemed more likely, he was the wrong way round. His glasses had acquired a tilt in the mounting process, making the likeness to Eric even more marked. The horse owner, who had obviously discharged his health and safety responsibility in asking about experience turned away, affecting not to notice this unusual mounting technique. Having asked me the same question, he watched while I clambered onto a big black horse, taking care not to replicate Dave's mistake.

"What's he called?", I asked.

"Lightning", he replied, gruffly.

"Why", I said, for some reason slightly uneasy. But he had turned away to talk to another customer.

Sitting on the back of a horse can make the ground look a hell of a long way away, but I put this to one side as I did a John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle and squinting into the distance as if scanning for Indians. I was a bit put out to find there was no pommel. A pommel is a rounded thing that sticks up at the front of any cowboy's saddle and he leans on it as he does the 'tall in the saddle' bit. Anyway, English saddles don't have them and it crossed my mind that this was probably a good thing in the case of my old mate Mike. The way he'd parted company with his horse that day could have resulted in his voice going up a few octaves.

"Giddyup", said Dave, speculatively. His horse flicked one ear and breathed out heavily. Otherwise, movement there was none. Meanwhile I was having the same problem with the seemingly inaptly named Lightening. I'd seen more westerns than Dave though and knew the appropriate terminology:

"Har!", I said "hit 'em up!", then, "move 'em out!" - all straight takes from 'Rawhide' which, in retrospect, I think actually referred to something about moving cows. Maybe it was the dearth of cows on Colwyn Bay  beach that was the reason Lightening stayed so perfectly still that Dave's mount seemed animated in contrast. This state of inertia went on for so long that my western vocabulary was running out and I was worried the bloke would tell us to get off and let someone else have a go. I was almost desperate enough to try "Hi-yo Silver", when,instead,  I tried gently kicking the horse with my heels. What Lightening would have done had I been wearing spurs, I hate to think. As it was, his ears suddenly flattened and he took a great leap forward. In a fraction of a second we'd gone from zero to mach something or other, and were heading for a post about half a mile away. This, the man had indicated, was where we were to ride to and back.

I didn't try "whoa!", because every ounce of breath was driven from me as we pummelled across the hard sand and, in any case, the bugger didn't do anything I said. Lightning knew the way, and was probably visualising a sack of oats when he got back. Pulling on the reins had no effect and I resorted to the only weapon in my defence. I shut my eyes.

This perhaps wasn't the wisest move because we reached the post before I realised and Lightening negotiated it like Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren. This resulted in me leaving the saddle and resuming a new perch hanging round the animals neck with my left foot still caught up in the stirrup. When we finally reached the starting point and stopped in a shower of sand, I saw the admiring looks of a small boy who obviously thought I was a trick rider. At the same time, just for a moment, I thought I saw a smile on the face of the horse owner. If it was there, it quickly disappeared in the force of my glare.

"Giddyup", said Dave, who hadn't moved.

Daughter's picture of Australian snowman

And the pernicious weed, horsetail (Equisetum arvense) shares Lightning's horsey  stubbornness. So called because it looks a bit like its name suggests, it is probably one of the biggest problems in the garden. The reason for its persistence is the nature of its root: I was once in Norfolk, buying trees for the council from Notcutts nursery, when the chap showing me round their fields pointed out a large crater with a digger nearby.

"Irrigation", he said, "we'll put a liner in and fill it with water". Then he pointed to something about thirty feet down at the bottom of the hole. "See that". I looked and could make out a mat of black roots. "horsetail", he said. "That's why it's so hard to get rid of".

This is why, if we try killing Equisetum with  a systemic weedkiller, there is no way that the chemical can permeate the whole system, so the unreached length will simply become another plant. Only constant treatment, applying glyphosate to new growth which has been damaged by stamping on, will eventually succeed. This treatment is most effective when carried out at the end of the growing season.

Covering the ground with black polythene or old carpet will eventually do the trick because the root will waste all its energy in unsuccessfully pushing its green growth up to where it perceives the light should be in order to photosynthesise like other plants.   However most people don't want to lose their garden under polythene for a year or so, although I suppose a good Wilton carpet could look quite nice.

The plant contains silica and accordingly has abrasive qualities which make it useful in cleaning pans. It is also  used for many medicinal and culinary purposes: as a tea it works as a diuretic and helps with kidney and bladder problems and the young shoots are edible. In addition, it's used to make a fungicide to control blackspot and mildew, when steeped in hot (not boiling) water, at a rate of one ounce per two pints. In my experience, it doesn't get rid of the existing problem and is more effective as a preventative.

I don't know whether it still is, but horsetail was certainly used at one time to indicate the presence of gold. When the metal is present, a ton of the plants will yield 4.5 ounces of the metal. How's about that for useful information?

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Impatiens glandulifera (policeman's helmet)

One-Way Weeds

Impatiens glandulifera with gatekeeper butterfly

I think I've mentioned before that I used to have an old post office Morris 1000 van. I had a strict maintenance schedule for GPO vans and this was to run them til they stopped and then get another one. Having said this, I did perform occasional highly technical repairs. For example the radiator on this particular one leaked and someone had told me you could solve the problem by putting an egg in. This led to a pleasant smell of cooking in the vehicle but the efficacy wore off after about fifty miles, meaning a new egg was required on a regular basis. I always used free-range, so this was pretty environmentally responsible for the time and there was always a carton of them under the dashboard. Eventually the system got completely blocked with what I suppose, in culinary terms was poached egg, and I forget what happened after that. I've a suspicion I did an unsuccessful experiment to see whether you can run a car without a radiator, but merciful old age memory has blocked out the result.

I was driving down Oldham Road in the van one day and made a left turn down a fairly narrow street. My wife was with me and she suddenly screamed. This over-reaction to  my driving was fairly common in those days and, come to think of it, has steadily got worse. More so when  my daughter is also on board because this means there are three drivers. Anyway, I suppose on this occasion she had some justification, because a policeman was crossing the road in front of us, looking the other way.

"Bloody hell", I yelled, jamming on the brakes "you'd think a copper'd have more sense".

At this point the policeman turned round, saw the egg-laden bonnet about three feet away and, for some reason, jumped in the air. I often think back to the way his helmet came down two seconds after he did,    and have come to the conclusion there must be some law of physics that explains this. Then I realised he was crossing the road at pedestrian lights facing the other way. The evidence was purely circumstantial, but it seemed to point to the fact that this was a one-way street and, more than likely, I wasn't going the recommended one.

The officer of the law banged imperiously on the driver's side window, not looking very pleased.

"Park up over there", he instructed, when I wound the window down, so I pulled over and got out. Its worth pointing out that the van wasn't in the best of conditions: one wing mirror was loose and it rotated slowly when the vehicle was moving, giving a wonderful view of what was in the shop windows but being a bit neglectful of what was actually behind on the road; the engine started when it felt like it, which wasn't often enough for my liking, and various other defects showed up intermittently. No doubt there is another blog in there somewhere. Anyway, the policeman leaned on the back of it and read the riot act.

Another aspect of the van that was a bit defective was the handbrake, and the weight of the arm of the law leaning caused  it to start moving. However, it stopped before he noticed, because my quick-thinking wife had leaned across and pressed the foot-brake. Even then he could have had me when the brake lights gave us away, but luckily they hadn't worked for some time.

He had a considerable rant, informing me I'd taken ten years off his life and giving the impression that going the wrong way up a one way street was subject to the death penalty. I thought he'd throw the book at me but he didn't. For some reason he seemed to be a bit of a nervous wreck and gave me the impression he wanted me out of his sight.

"Bear that in mind and now bugger off", he said when he ran out of rant. I felt quite indignant really. What had happened to police politeness when addressing members of the public?- surely I was entitled to a 'sir' and this was the police brutality they talk about. Maybe I should report him. Police on the telly never used bad language like that (not in the seventies, anyway). Even when a murderer is being arrested they refer to him as 'sir'. He had gone a funny red colour though, and he had nearly been run over, so I thought it best not to pursue the matter. On reflection, I suppose he may have had a point.

 I got back in the van and tried to start the engine. It wouldn't.

The friendly constable stood watching, and I swear he went a deeper red than the traffic light when I had to ask him for a push. It was alright though, I was used to this. With him and my wife pushing and me running and shoving alongside, steering through the open door  until we reached speed, I was able to dive in, ram it into gear, and roar off, leaving Plod looming through a cloud of black exhaust smoke. He looked a bit like Clint Eastwood in that scene in 'A Fistful Of Dollars' and I got the impression he'd have liked to blast me to oblivion, like Clint did with the baddies. He looked even worse when I did a three point turn and came back.  It was a one way street, after all.

Not surprisingly, this incident reminded me of policeman's helmet (Impatiens glandulifera), that ubiquitous weed of damp places. It was first introduced by the early Victorians as an attractive garden plant. One of those things that seemed a good idea at the time. Now it is rampant along river banks throughout the country, out -competing native plants for light and nutrients and making some places inaccessible. At times it can reach a height of 9ft.

Called policeman's helmet because the flower is the same shape as its namesake, it is also known as Himalayan balsam, with reference to its place of origin, and is closely related to the busy Lizzie we grow as bedding. The reason it has taken hold so successfully can be seen in its seed pods: the plant forces water into them until the pressure is so great that they explode. Sometimes even a fly landing on one can set it off, sending seeds as far as twenty feet away. This gives it tremendous potential to exploit new ground and also probably explains a preponderance of flies on crutches in the vicinity.

Explosive seed capsules

Much disliked for the reasons outlined, balsam bashing days are organised in many places, the object being to destroy the plants before they set seed. However seeds are viable for a couple of years, so only regular 'bashes' are going to make an appreciable difference.

On the positive side, the flowers are attractive and bees love them, climbing out positively plastered with pollen and, if you look closely, smiling. In addition to this, all upper parts of the plant are edible for humans.

Bee emerging from flower

Coming back to one-way streets: maybe the policeman's helmet and various other alien plants are destined to move inexorably forward until the day comes that we forget they're foreigners. It's happened with sycamore, conker trees and many more, so why not? Be nice to think that the people of different nations will eventually blend in the same way.

Roll on one world.