This large and very diverse family does have some characteristics often found in the various members:
stipules five petals, not joined into a tube below alternate-leaved
thorns seed enclosed in fleshy fruit numerous, free (not fused) stamens
epicalyx receptacle cup - fruit develops out of the calyx tannins
Rowan spring growth
Rowan / Mountain Ash Sorbus aucuparia
The Rowan is a lovely tree and I'd like a few more in our garden. It has a lovely show of blossom in the spring and, in autumn, the berries make a huge splash of colour at the edge of the forest.
Rowans are a pioneer species - they quickly populate open areas in the forest, for example, after a storm has brought down older trees. The young rowan trees grow and spread rapidly as they produce a lot of seed. There are a lot of rowan and birch trees (another pioneer plant) growing in the mountain heathland along the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse.
The berries are very popular with birds, despite being very bitter. I tried making rowan liqueur a couple of years ago. It looked quite nice but didn't turn out to be particularly drinkable!
I was given these pears by a friend who has an orchard locally. They looked so good that I decided to draw them before eating them. They were delicious too!
The apple trees in our garden are all quite old and have not been tended for many years. Every now and then, they surprise us by producing fruit and this is a painting of a particularly perfect apple we found hanging on the tree near to our main hawthorn which you can also see depicted in the next section.
Common Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna
There are a number of hawthorns in our garden. Although they generally prefer drier limestone and chalk they grow quite happily in this area on acid, sandy soil and, of course, the hawthorns here are probably planted rather than wild. The genus name Crataegus, from the ancient Greek for strength, refers to the tough hardwood. I used to volunteer for the Grafham Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire and one of our tasks was laying the hedges around the reservoir. This was hard work and the thorns are merciless but hawthorns tolerate being cut back and are adapted to harsh conditions. I can see why they are good hedges for holding cattle or sheep.
Monogyna refers to the fruit of the plant, which has a single (mono) seed (gyna). Because Common Hawthorn could be confused with Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) I checked the flowers and dissected the haws on several of the garden hawthorns. The fruit all had one nutlet and the flowers one stigma, so they are probably C. monogyna. Midland Hawthorn has two of each. The leaves of Midland Hawthorn are also not as deeply cut. However, Common Hawthorn hybridises with other Crataegus species and it can be difficult to identify them where they occur together. The most common hybrid is C. x macrocarpa.
The largest hawthorn in our garden is around 4m high and has several stems spreading from the base. The berries in our garden vary greatly in colour even on the same shrub. The blackbirds love the bright haws but we have also had redwing visit. Other visitors to the tree include treecreeper, greenfinch, robin, female blackcap, marsh/willow tit, and red-backed shrike. In spring, we've seen a hawfinch which seemed to be taking the buds from the hawthorn. This is something we have already seen the bullfinches do in the past.
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria
When this flowers in late June and July, you can't miss the creamy, frothy heads of flowers standing high above the meadow. The French name, Reine des Près, reflects this. We had quite a few plants on the driveway but they tended to get mildew, so I have moved them to more open parts of the garden. They are really a plant of wet meadows and often line the banks of watercourses. Our garden is rather dry and free-draining but so far they look happy enough in their new locations.
The main story I tell guests is that it contains salicylic acid - a forerunner of aspirin - the trade name originally derived from the old name for Meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. I always take apple juice flavoured overnight with Meadowsweet blossom on my walks when it is in flower. It has a honey-sweet fragrance. The story goes that another English name for Meadowsweet, Courtship and Matrimony, refers to the sweetness of the bloom contrasted with the bitterness of the leaves. The leaves are a bit of an acquired taste for salads but I have made tea out of it and apparently you can use it for a yellow-green dye but I haven't tried that yet.
Wild Strawberry Fragaria vesca
Wild Strawberry grows all over the back garden where there is a little more shade at certain times of the day, particularly right around the edge of the house. When the strawberries start to come in June we collect them almost every day to add to our breakfast. Of course, the strawberries contain Vitamin C and even iron and they are also used as a herbal remedy but we just enjoy eating them. Unfortunately so do the slugs!
I have used the leaves in tea and pesto but they are slightly bitter due to the tannins which occur in many Rosaceae species. It's better to use the young leaves in spring as they get more bitter as they get older.
I love the plants as they make very pretty addition to the steps and walls in the garden. The runners follow cracks between the stones and the plants can run rampant - no problem for me!
Wood Avens Geum urbanum
Wood Avens is rather successful in our garden but I don't mind as it doesn't seem to crowd anything else out. The flowers don't last long but the seed heads are spectacular with their barbs, which hook on to passing animals (and humans) and get dispersed. It's a clever tactic. The German name Nelkenwurz refers to the roots, which could be used instead of cloves and were in the past used to flavour wine.
Lady's Mantle Alchemilla sp.
This grows here very successfully on our well-draining slope and generally in areas of the garden where there is shade for some of the day. The flowers appear from May to September. They are yellowish green and very small. I needed a magnifier to draw them. The leaves are very distinctive, rounded and kidney-shaped. In the morning there is often a line of pearl-like drops along the edges of the leaves. I discovered this is called guttation - secretion of water from the pores of the plant rather than dew. This ability to make 'pearls out of water' led to the plants being connected with alchemy and the scientific name Alchemilla means little alchemist. There are lots of Alchemilla species and they hybridise, so I can't really be sure which ones I have in the garden.
The leaves also resemble a protective cape so people considered this a plant for women. In fact, as a herbal plant it is taken to help with women's ailments today, but you can also use it in the kitchen. I have used the leaves in tea, salads and even pesto.
The plant contains tannins, flavonoids, bitter compounds, saponins - glycosides with a distinctive foaming characteristic, traces of salicylic acid, coumarin and minerals.
You can collect the leaves in April and May when they are young and tender. They can be eaten raw or cooked and taste a little like cucumber. The older they get the more bitter they are.
Apparently, it's possible to use the plant as a source of dye, cutting it before it flowers but I haven't tried this out yet. My garden plants don't really produce enough colour when I have used other plants.