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.



  1. Love this article. Thanks for the first great laugh of the day.

    I will be planting my Ligularia 'The Rocket' today with a plastic liner with holes poked in it, next to my Astilbe 'Key Largo'. Hopefully it will perform better than its current full shade condition where it's surviving instead of thriving.

    Best wishes in your fishing endeavors.

  2. Thanks for your comments and good luck with your plants.