Exotic Echium

Way back in 2011 ( I think) I ordered some flower seed from an online retailer. When the package arrived I was pleased to see they had also enclosed a free gift. Two packets of Echium Pininana seed, two varieties ‘Blue Steeple’ and ‘Snow Tower’. I have to confess I had no idea what they actually were, so after enlightening myself with a quick Google search, I was very excited to see what a spectacle these huge flowering plants are.

Waiting until the appropriate planting time I duly planted up half of both varieties of the seed in small individual pots, mixing the remaining seed into a single packet (a mistake I later came to regret) and stored it away. The viability of the seed was excellent with 100% germination.

The life cycle of these plants is such that in the first year it forms a large leafy rosette, the leaf covered in stiff and mildly irritating hair leaving the plant well protected against slugs and snails. If conditions are good and it can survive the winter, the following year the plant prepares to flower by sending up a rapidly growing spire. The growth rate is quite phenomenal – several centimeters per day! As the spire grows, coiled flower stems begin emerging from the main trunk.

I had to research the internet to discover how best to care for this plant. They are frequently seen growing down in the South West of the UK and also in the Channel Islands, notably Guernsey. The problem is the further North you are in latitude and with a harsh winter the less likely it is to make it to the second year. They also need a really good sunny spot, preferably all day. Planting one in a shady border is simply not an option. This left with me a problem as the only such spot in my back garden is right in the middle of the lawn. The wife was not too impressed when I began digging a bed in the middle of the lawn without an explanation. I transplanted all the young plants into the bed and watched them form lovely silvery rosettes until the winter arrived. I did my best to protect them, but that winter was just too much and they all sadly perished.

In the spring of 2014 I remembered I still had the seed and contemplated having another go and hoped for a milder winter. Again I planted up the seed into small pots, this time around and with older seed the germination rate was not so good. In fact I only had one viable seedling and I had no idea which variety it was. This time I decided I would keep the plant in the biggest pot I could get my hands on instead of planting it in the ground. This way I reasoned I could avoid frozen ground and perhaps even bring it inside if needed. I chose a slightly different spot to place it, again pleasing the wife with a large pot sat in the middle of the lawn. The plant grew well in the pot despite my concern it may become pot bound. As winter approached it was a healthy looking specimen. To help protect it, I covered the soil with a good couple of inches of pea shingle additionally I wrapped the entire pot with reflective bubble wrap duct insulation. Now I will be the first to confess that this did not look very attractive and I did spot a neighbour staring at it in wonder but I viewed this as a ‘do or die’ attempt and was determined to get one to flower. On very cold days and nights I covered the plant with a double layer of garden fleece, thankfully these days were quite rare in the winter of 2014/15 and so for the most part it was left uncovered. Before long the longer warmer days arrived and I was more than thrilled when the second year growth began in earnest.

 

 

Echium Pininana is actually a very easy plant to grow from seed. Requiring little in the way of watering, in fact they are very good at telling you when to water when you notice the foliage drooping. I never fed it, or did anything except protect it from the coldest of winter nights and provide a large stake to tie to to prevent it snapping in strong wind. Occasionally with an early spell of warm weather the plant can decide to begin sending up the spire, only for a cold snap to make it change it’s mind. Apparently a remedy for this is to cut out the growing tip and wait another year, at which time you should be rewarded, if your lucky with a pair of spires from a single plant.

I can only say, when the tubular bell shaped and nectar rich flowers began opening on this impressive looking plant that it was continually covered in bees, both Bombus and Apis. All day long they searched from flower to flower, up and down appearing reluctant to leave it. The flowering length is equally impressive, a few months. After which you are left with a rather dry looking plant laden with seed. The seed is easy to collect, just place something around the plant like a blanket and give the trunk a few solid blows and you will have plenty.

One day I had a knock at the door from a gentleman with his own garden care business who had spotted it at distance above the fence asking if he could come in and take a look at it. He was so impressed he thought I should have contacted the local paper as he thought it was highly unusual to get one to flower as North as we are located! I am not sure about that as I am sure others even further North have had success.

I mentioned earlier I made a mistake by mixing the two varieties of seed into one packet. I am unsure which variety this is. The flowers on first opening were a definite shade of blue and pink but quickly fade into a very pale pink. It may have even been some kind of hybrid. Perhaps there is someone out there with an opinion? I also made another mistake, apart from the few seeds I gave the pro gardener I accidentally threw out all the seed I had collected for myself. However all is not entirely lost as recently spotted this young plant growing under the bird table of all places. I am pretty sure it is an Echium. I hope it is and I hope it does as well as the parent. With the mild winter we are currently having it is a great shame I do not have any first year plants overwintering as this will not flower until 2017.

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I hope this may encourage others to have a go at growing this fantastic plant, not only do they look stunning in flower they are a good talking point and extremely popular with our pollinator friends due to the rich nectar supply. Have a go, the bees will thank you for it.

 

 

 

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Call to action for a Veteran.

 

**Edit**

Many thanks to all the people who voted for the Cubbington Pear Tree for European Tree of the Year, and especially to those who shared the link on Twitter and Facebook. Voting is now closed and the results will be announced on 20th April in Brussels.

In the Warwickshire village of Cubbington stands a grand old wild Pear tree. It’s age is uncertain, and so is it’s future. The tree was listed in this 2011 survey by Warwickshire County Council as a ‘veteran’. Veteran Trees of Warwickshire

Unfortunately this grandfather of Pear Trees is standing right on the spot for the proposed HS2 rail project, and therefore will likely be removed. One less flowering tree out of the many this project will flatten that provides forage for bees and other insects.

There is currently a European wide vote for ‘Tree of the Year’, unfortunately as I write this it is the final day of voting (Monday 29th Feb 2016)

If you have time please do follow the link and vote for this wise old tree, it requires entering an email address and a captcha code, a link is then sent to your email account and once you click on that link in your email your vote becomes registered and counted. The entire process takes less than 1 minute.

Link to vote >> Vote for this Pear Tree

Please do share through your Social media accounts, thank you.

Photo by Frances Wilmot

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Hive records – why and how to keep them

Courtesy of Paul and Lynne Honigmann of Oxfordshire Natural Bees, invaluable hive observation forms specifically for Natural beekeepers. Document remains copyright of the author Paul Honigmann.

Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

Natural beeks often do not conform to many of the practices of more conventional beeks, one example being that intrusive hive inspections are much less frequent. Observations made at the hive entrance and through windows normally provide sufficient information to judge the ongoing health for most purposes; full inspections are only carried out infrequently and with different emphases than for other beeks. For example, we are not usually looking to stop swarming or to artificially supersede a queen.

Because of this difference in approach, the more standardized hive record cards that conventional beeks use are not so directly useful to the natural beek. In my experience, many natural beeks keep records of their own devising, either individualised hive cards or an observations notebook – however the approach varies from beek to beek and is often not very consistent or easily cross- referable.

Here I share my own record forms devised…

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Musings on terminology, subversive gardening and an Australian contraption.

I personally am continually bothered by the term ‘beekeeper’ in the natural approach. It suggests ownership and possession, and therefore intervention. Which is exactly what I personally am striving to avoid. However I find it difficult to not use the term in certain circumstances. I am aware of some alternatives – bee host, bee guardian, bee father /mother. Wherever possible I do avoid using the term, however it is such an entrenched word that it sometimes ‘slips out’. I do like the term bee host, since I am merely providing a home and the bees are free to carry out their natural tasks as they see fit, since they know what they are doing and why better than I, and whom am I to interfere. Wherever possible I shall be using the term bee host.

Guerrilla gardening, yes I know it sounds like some illegal subversive behavior. It is something I have been doing for a number of years, although initially you feel like you may be breaking some obscure law, in fact you are just spreading nature’s seed. That can not be a crime, since plants, birds and the wind are continually spreading seed. Sure, if you do not have the permission of a land owner, just maybe it might be a crime. However, I have never heard of a prosecution brought against a Blackbird for spreading a berry seed. I take care on how I do it, which species I use and even where I drop my bombs. For instance I only use native wildflower species, so as not to introduce alien species that may compete with our native species. I only use pollinator friendly seed of both nectar rich and pollen producers and try to provide variety throughout the year. I have a preference for Viper’s Bugloss (Echium Vulgare), St Johns Wort, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Foxglove. Mostly my activities are in rural area’s, which often seem like barren deserts for foraging pollinators. In very urban areas I have no problem with using non-native species, my argument being that most peoples gardens are crammed with alien flower species anyway. Given enough time some of these will escape into the countryside anyway. It has even been suggested to me that rural areas are so barren and through the increasing use of mono-culture that the use of alien species may even be justified. For now I act on the precautionary principle with my strategy. It is extremely satisfying to revisit a spot some months after dropping a bomb to find a patch of flowers being worked by various pollinators where previously there was only grass or bare earth. I may make a future post about how I make my seed bombs if anybody is interested, watch this space. Here is a small handful of Vipers Bugloss bombs ready for tactical dispersion.

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Through my use of Facebook, and its ability to capture my browsing habits to market things at me. I was shocked and upset to see a brand new Australian bee exploitation hive on my screen. It is part of a crowd funding campaign where the ‘innovator’ hopes to secure donations to get the awful thing manufactured and marketed. Think ‘flow hive’. Fortunately after over a month of appealing the campaign has raised exactly $0 of the $300,000 USD they need. So far so good. What appalls me the most is the marketing technique of claiming to be helping bees by buying this contraption. So you can share in my horror, and keep an eye on it’s progress here is the link to the crowd funding campaign. Let us hope no big investor steps in.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/new-bee-hive-concept-with-auto-honey-extraction#/

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Bees in Prison

As the bee flies, less than three miles from my home and just to the South of the Warwickshire town of Rugby, in fact on the border of Warwickshire and Northamptonshire lies the secure institution HMP Rye Hill. Few people probably realize, even locally, that within the walls of that place a project is run in cooperation with the Natural Beekeeping Trust (NBKT). A lucky few prisoners who have the privilege to work in the garden have become the carers of a number of bee-hives, Sun-hives and Warre’s.

In the future it is my hope I will be able to write more about this amazing project.

Here is a link to an introductory article (pdf) on the NBKT website which was published in the Biodynamic Association magazine ‘Star and Furrow’ by Heidi Herrmann.

Telling the Bees – Star and Furrow, July 2015.

 

 

 

 

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Humble beginnings.

So, this is the first post of hopefully many on this blog.

My first task is to extend a huge thank you to Paul and his good wife Lynne from the Oxfordshire Natural Bee group for the invaluable assistance in setting this page up.

The Oxfordshire group is well established and also has a WordPress site and can be found here> https://oxnatbees.wordpress.com/

It is my hope that this group can model itself along similar lines, through expansion of membership, sharing of information and experiences, planning social get together’s/meetings, hive visits and ultimately workshops. Indeed Oxfordshire have organised a Warre hive building one day course for April which I have arranged to attend and which will provide me with my first Warre. I will be sure to make a post after the event to share how the day progressed.

At the time of writing I have already heard from a couple of local people who are interested in being involved in this group so we are already off to a decent start. I think it is worth mentioning that it is not necessary for anybody interested in being involved with this group that they commit to attending meetings etc, nothing along those lines is compulsory. Unlike other beek groups this is an informal group, not being a charity we have no need to appoint Chairmen, Secretary’s, Treasurer’s etc. Everyone is free to participate as an equal, as much or as little as they like and please note I am not the leader – I am just the guy who started the ball rolling! So, with that in mind I hope interested persons reading this will get in touch via the Contact form. It would be great to hear from anybody in Warwickshire or indeed the greater West Midlands region already practicing natural bee-keeping, perhaps you would like to make a submission for a blog post of your own? It is also worth mentioning that it is not necessary for anybody interested in participating with this group that you are already a natural beekeeper or even a beek of any description – if you are simply just interested in the natural approach then we would love to hear from you. Likewise do please spread the word to anybody you feel may be interested and hopefully in future we can also have a thriving group and we can expand the groups activities.

To close off with a lovely photograph for which I would like to thank Jules from https://gardeningjules.wordpress.com/ for her kind permission to reproduce her amazing image of a honeybee visiting a Phacelia Tanacetifolia flower. This green manure and nectar rich plant is of course much loved by bees and is a charm in any garden.

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