Murder, Magic and Plant Potions, from Your Garden and Beyond – A Talk by Marion Stainton; Mad Hatters Tea Party

Marion opened by telling us that her talk would be about ornamental and native plants – their history, their less well-known aspects and their ability to both heal and harm. The definition of ‘poisonous’ can range from a nettle sting to causing death. The talk would cover just some of the plants that can be described as poisonous, highlighting those that can be both good and bad.

A good example is the yew tree. All parts of the tree are poisonous, apart from the red flesh of the berries. Symptoms of poisoning can range from stomach upset to heart failure. There are records of yew clippings being thrown into a field where sheep then died after eating them. Traditionally, yew trees have been grown in churchyards and in that environment there are many ancient specimens – in Perthshire there is a tree recorded as being between two and three thousand years old. It was believed that yew trees became poisonous by feeding on the dead bodies buried in the ground in the churchyards, and for that reason they also became associated with witches (another theme in this talk). On the positive side, yew has more recently become known as the source of the anti-cancer chemical taxane, which has had many benefits.

A number of gardens were sources of information for this talk – the Chelsea Physic Garden, the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden and the Welsh National Botanic Garden. The latter contains the Apothecary Hall, a recreation of an apothecary’s shop as it would have been in 1919. Many herbal plants include ‘officinalis’ in their Latin name, indicating that they were used for medicinal purposes, primarily at home. If these domestic remedies failed, people would turn to the apothecary., who would have turned plants into powders, pills and tinctures – the raw materials would be contained in labelled drawers. An example photograph from the Apothecary Hall showed us a drawer labelled with various plants we would consider poisonous, including Aconite. The latter ingredient was included in a prescription (which can be seen there) dated 23 June 1918 – but we don’t know what was wrong with the patient, nor whether they recovered!

Plants are, of course, still used in medicine; now, much more rigorous testing and isolation of the active ingredient is carried out. This ingredient is then made up or synthesised (created artificially). The World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of the world’s population rely on plant-based remedies, while 40% of the industrialised countries use medicines based on plant extracts, and 33% of new medicines developed in the last 25 years have been made from or are synthesised versions of plants. For example, the anti-malarial ingredient artemisinin was isolated in Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood) in the 1970s which was effective, but then resistance developed. However, now an American trial is using the whole plant, which contains 10 different anti-malarial properties, which is proving very effective (as it is harder for the parasite to develop resistance to 10 different components).

The poisonous ingredients found in plants fall into a number of groups:

Alkaloids: this group includes the poppy, which provides morphine.

Glycosides: this group includes foxgloves, whose active ingredient is used to treat heart problems.

Saponins: only some plants containing these are poisonous. The group includes the soapworts, but also the little corncockle, which used to be a problem in hayfields.

Essential oils (terpenes and sesquiterpenes): many of us are familiar with the great variety of essential oils available. One example is lemon balm essential oil which is now being studied for the treatment of agitation and aggression in Alzheimer’s Disease, and also for the treatment of epilepsy. Essential oils are widely available, but as they are very concentrated they can be problematic if they are not correctly diluted.

Peptides and Proteins: peptides (as found in gardenia, for example,) are widely used in skincare preparations.

Pyrethrins and Pyrethroids: deriving from plants from the Chrysanthemum family, pyrethrum is an insecticide (used against ants, for example). Care should be taken to use it in the evening to avoid damaging other insects such as bees.

There are three ways in which a person may be killed by a plant:

  • they may ingest it accidentally;
  • they may be given the plant with intent to kill them;
  • they may self-administer it.

There are a number of plant families which contain poisonous plants (although not all the plants in the family may be poisonous:

Solanaceae: this family contains potatoes (which is why you should cut out any parts of potatoes with green colour for the high concentration of glycoalkaloids) but also deadly nightshade; it contains Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), as well as the lovely scented N. sylvestnis.

Apiaceae: this is the carrot family, so again it contains a vegetable that we eat as well as hemlock  (Socrates was sentenced to die by drinking hemlock). Its similarity to wild carrot means great care should be exercised. Giant hogweed, in the same family, is phytotoxic, and so the juice can cause severe blistering and burns when exposed to sunlight. Dill, parsley and parsnip also have the potential to be skin irritants.

Ranunculaceae: this is the buttercup family, including Aconitum (all parts of which are extremely poisonous), Delphinium and Helleborus (which has irritant sap).

Liliaceae: cat-owners will no doubt be aware of the danger these plants pose to cats. All parts of the plant are toxic to cats, including the leaves, flowers and pollen, even in very small amounts. The autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnal) is also a toxic plant, but is used in the treatment of gout.

Papaveraceae: this is the poppy family, which is the source of the painkillers morphine and codeine with all their adverse and beneficial effects.

Euphorbiaceae: many of the spurges contain irritant sap which is phytotoxic. The castor-oil plant, Ricinus communis, is a member, giving us castor oil (used for many things including the promotion of hair growth in men, but also the deadly poison ricin). It is the coating of the bean that contains the most ricin – one bean contains enough to kill a human, and it would take four beans to kill a horse. 

Amaryllidaceae: two plants in this family very familiar to us in Wales are the daffodil and the snowdrop. Both plants contain galantamine, which is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease in its early stages. Indeed, daffodils are grown commercially for this purpose, including near Talgarth in the Brecon Beacons. Bluebells are another member of this family, everywhere in the hedgerows and woods at this time of year, with a medical history going back to the thirteenth century for the treatment of leprosy. Bluebells are now being investigated as a possible control for mycobacterial infections, including tuberculosis. It is known that badgers eat bluebells, so is it possible that they are self-medicating for tuberculosis? Bluebell bulbs have been shown to contain at least 15 different compounds, some of which are similar to those used in the treatment of HIV and cancer, and others have diuretic and astringent properties. On a more mundane note, the juice from bluebell bulbs was traditionally used in place of starch.

Plantaginaceae: an important plant in this family is the foxglove, which contains digitoxin and digitalin. These are compounds which have a low therapeutic index (where there is only a narrow margin between the amount needed to be medically effective and the amount that would do harm). Despite being so well-known to us today, its use to treat heart disease is relatively recent. In 1598, Gerard in his Herbal declared that the foxglove had no place in medicine; although it would have been used by wise women to treat throat problems based on the doctrine of signatures. It was also later used as a diuretic to treat dropsy (which in retrospect makes sense as fluid build-up can be caused by congestive heart failure).

Marion went on to discuss some of the plants, whether native or introduced, which might serve as starter plants in a witch’s garden. The first four have been referenced in the context of the ‘witches’ flying brew’, supposedly used by witches before mounting their broomsticks! 

The first is  Aconitum, or wolfsbane. It has the reputation of being one of the most poisonous plants in the garden (although it is also a wild plant). It can be absorbed even through broken skin. It can give rise to severe stomach problems and slow the heart, sometimes fatally. Gloves should always be worn when handling the plant. It was used in warfare to poison arrow tips and to poison the water supplies of besieged castles; it was also used to administer the death penalty in some Greek cities.

Another ingredient in this brew was Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade, named after Atropos who in Greek mythology wields the scissors of death. Poisonous as it is, atropine is also an antidote to the nerve agent sarin, and was issued as such to US troops in the Iraq war. The ‘belladonna’ in the name comes from the Italian for ‘beautiful woman’ and refers to its use in dilating pupils to make eyes appear more attractive; atropine is still in use in optometry for specific purposes.

A second member of the nightshade family is henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, containing hyoscine causing hallucinations, as well as vision problems, forgetfulness, weakness and sleepiness. Along with the mandrake root, again of the same family and containing hyoscine, it also makes up part of the flying brew. 

Datura, thornapple or jimsonweed, is another plant with a low therapeutic index. The plant has been used as an anaesthetic and asthma treatment, as well as a hallucinogenic. It is worth noting that Brugmansia, often grown in gardens, has the same properties.

Amongst other plants is Sambucus nigra , the elder. In addition to being used to create elderflower cordial and elderberry wine, both flowers and berries have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. However, the roots and some parts are very poisonous, so care is needed. Elder trees were often planted in graveyards, and were believed to be protective if planted by a house. In Ireland witches traditionally rode eldersticks rather than broomsticks; the most powerful wand in the Harry Potter books was the Elder Wand.

The box, or Buxus sempervirens, is a native plant commonly used for edging in gardens, but it also contains buxine and is poisonous to us (it can cause a skin rash) and animals. Boxwood extract may boost the immune system, and it was once used in place of quinine to reduce a fever.

Marion was keen to stress that the purpose of her talk had not been to make us concerned, but to bring out the hidden elements behind the history of many plants which she hoped would add to our enjoyment of plants. Members of the audience shared their experiences of contact with some of the plants she had mentioned, and the meeting closed with a big thank you to Marion for a fascinating and enjoyable talk.

Members Only – Mad Hatters Tea Party

 Cothi Gardeners’ Club members are invited to a Mad Hatters Tea Party (hats obligatory, the madder the better!) on 14 June at Fiona and Julian’s wonderful garden in Rhydcymerau, when the wild flower meadow should be at its best. If you are a member, and haven’t already let Elena know that you would like to be there, please get in touch with her directly, or email Cothi Gardeners and I will forward your query on. Julian has very kindly prepared a couple of videos to introduce the garden to new members of the club and remind existing members of its delights.

‘Epimediums – Rising Stars of the Shade Border’ – a Talk by Janine Thompson; Fergus Garrett at Llechryd & District Gardening Club; Llandeilo & District Gardening Club 4 May Meeting

Janine runs Heartsease Plant Nursery, based near Cenarth, where she grows herbaceous perennials and bulbs, especially shade tolerant plants, and is a devotee of Galanthus (Snowdrops), Helleborus and Hepatica as well as Epimediums.

Epimediums are valued especially for their ability to thrive in both shady and dry conditions and are particularly useful for ground cover. They are rhizomatous shady perennials which prefer acidic conditions. Many are evergreens with common names such as Bishops Hat, Barrenwort, Horny Goat Weed (the supposed aphrodisiac!) and Fairy Wings and are particularly sought after for ground cover. Epimediums have been cultivated since Roman times.

In 1775, the infamous German physician and botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold was seconded to the Dutch East India company in Japan and was stationed there for 5 years. He did a significant amount of work on Epimediums which were valued for both flowers and foliage and brought them back to Britain, along with the Hosta and Japanese Knotweed.

Two hundred years later, in 1975, the renowned Japanese Plant Hunter and breeder Mikinori Ogisu had a particular interest in Epimediums, as did plantsman gardeners Roy Lancaster and Robin White, which greatly increased awareness about these plants. There is still work continuing on the discovery of new Epimedium varieties in China.

Breeders today are particularly interested in cultivating larger and longer flowering varieties, with even greater tolerance of drought and shade. Many flower colours and shades can now be seen, with ever more diverse habits and appearance, and leaf shapes and colours are more varied than ever. Epimediums can be grown in varied conditions and some will thrive in pots. They are happy planted under trees and shrubs and look excellent under Japanese Maples, Hydrangeas, Cornus sibirica, Rhodedendrums, Magnolias, Azaleas and many more. Whereas in the past they were often thought of as a yellow flowered plant, they can now also be found with cream, pink or red flowers. Many are reliable evergreens such as Epimedium x rubrum, whose pretty heart shaped leaves are bronze when young, darkening to red-brown in autumn and Epimedium ‘Pink Champagne’ which is a hybrid cultivar, with attractive bronze-red, mottled foliage and a profusion of pink-red hanging flowers in spring. Leaf colours now vary from black through the spectrum to red. They are good partners for Spring flowers such as Snowdrops and Hellebores and are extremely low maintenance.

There are very few pests and diseases affecting Epimediums, although they can be prone to vine weevil damage and unfortunately rabbits do like them. Tobacco Rattle Virus causes thickening and malformation of leaves but there are very few perils altogether.

There is a National Collection at Brentwood in Essex run by Roger and Linda Hammond.

Plants can be obtained from Janine at various markets and by email at

Janine answered questions from the audience and Elena thanked her for an interesting evening.

Fergus Garrett at Llechryd & District Gardening Club

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Llechryd & District Gardening Club, Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter will present a talk on ‘Great Dixter, Past, Present & Future’ on 9 August at 7.30pm in Boncath Village Hall, Boncath SA37 0JL.  This talk on Christopher Lloyd’s iconic English Garden is sure to be popular so entry is by TICKET ONLY.

Cothi Gardeners members are invited to enjoy this wonderful opportunity to hear one of Britain’s foremost gardeners speak on the Great Dixter legacy and his vision for the future of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust.  There will also be a plant sale and refreshments, and Boncath Hall is accessible, has toilets and good seating capacity. Visitors are asked to car share, as parking will be at a premium.

Tickets are limited and can be purchased very easily online at a cost of £5.00 each.  Payment is by BACS after your ticket is confirmed. Tickets will then be delivered by email to your inbox.

Purchase tickets HERE

Llandeilo and District Gardening Club 4 May Meeting

Cothi Gardeners members are invited to attend the meeting on Thursday 4 May, open to all local garden club members, at the Vestry, Capel Newydd, Crescent Road, Llandeilo, SA19 6HN at 7.30pm. Bob Brown, the founder of Cotswold Garden Flowers in Evesham,  will be talking about paeonies, described by the RHS as “slow growing but rewarding aristocratic plants with a brief but keenly anticipated” flowering period.

There are also vacancies for a day trip to Stockton Bury Gardens. The coach will leave Jones International depot, Llandeilo (time to be confirmed) on Thursday May 18th 2023, calling at The Old Railway Line Garden Centre and then on to Stockton Bury Gardens.  The trip which includes the cost of the coach and entry to Stockton Bury Gardens is £33.00 per person.  If you are interested please contact Denise Durham .

Remember to keep checking the Events page on our site, updated regularly, for more events as they are notified to the web editor.

‘A Garden above the Estuary’ – a Talk by Adam Alexander; Pottiputki; Updated Website

The 2023 year of talks opened with this fascinating and entertaining talk on the creation of Adam’s current garden which combined practical tips with stories of adventures tracking down vegetable seed and its links with food identity and culture, and the history of many vegetable seeds and their names. Adam’s particular interest is the conservation of the genetic diversity of edible crops.

As background, Adam told us that he has grown something every year for the table from a very young age. Despite having trained as a film-maker, Adam became a market gardener in the mid-late seventies; then that was what Adam describes as a “mug’s game”, as there was little interest in unusual vegetables such as purple-podded peas or yellow courgettes, and he returned to the film industry. That was a job that enabled him to travel widely and led directly to Adam’s interest in acquiring and protecting vegetable seeds with a history and cultural connection.

That is where this story begins – in Donetsk in 1988, where Adam had travelled as producer of a film about a Welsh industrialist who founded the steel industry in Ukraine. In the hotels of the time vegetables were not in great supply on the menu, and Adam ventured to the local market with an interpreter. There he encountered an old lady selling the surplus of vegetables she had grown, from seed she had saved herself, from seed saved previously by her mother and her grandmother. Adam bought some peppers and took them back to the hotel kitchen and was blown away by the sweetness, fruitiness and hint of heat. During his stay Adam returned to the market several times to buy more peppers (which are a very important part of the culture in parts of the former Soviet Union and eastern and central Europe, and central to the food identity of the peoples there). The taste of the pepper was unique and he wondered about saving seed to take home to propagate for conservation purposes; seed was duly dried on the window sill of the hotel and has successfully been propagated and conserved, so that it can now be distributed to displaced Ukrainians to reconnect them with their home.

Fast forward to 2013. By now, Adam was growing over 500 varieties of vegetable for the various seed libraries and gene banks. He grows at least 70 varieties each year to renew each of the seeds that he has. This takes a lot of space, which Adam found in different gardens, but he really needed to have everything in one place. So in 2013 he moved from the Forest of Dean to Monmouthshire, to a property outside Chepstow 170m above the Severn Estuary.

With the property came a field to transform into his garden; it was effectively an unrestored wild flower meadow, in which the previous owners had kept chicken and had a lot of bonfires (as the opening slide of the presentation illustrates).

In the spring of 2014, having covered parts of the ground with anything he could find (polythene, corrugated iron sheets etc.) for weed suppression, he planted potatoes (excellent for cleaning the ground) through black plastic. Then some raised beds were built in terraces to maximise the light in an East-West orientation. Adam had always used cedar for his raised beds, as it was readily available from plantations in the Forest of Dean. If you turn the cedar boards in your raised beds around every couple of years, they can last for up to 20 years.

Within 2 or 3 months, Adam had created the framework and the shape for the garden that he needed. There were 14 raised beds, each one-metre wide, which means you never have to walk on them. You can extend the season by using clear polythene film with metal hoops. As the beds are all the same length, these cloches can be re-used, and typically last five years. He also uses and re-uses fleece in the same way for warmth and to keep pests out.

While some digging was required to create the framework of the garden, the basic philosophy is to keep digging to a minimum and use black mulch (polythene or membrane) to grow through; it warms the soil and gives off heat at night creating a micro-climate for the plants. The aim is also to recycle and re-use materials as much as possible.

The contents of a 40-foot duck pond provided the base, spread on the ground and covered with black polythene, for two 30-foot polytunnels, the first of which was erected in October 2014. The polytunnels had been with Adam since 1976 and have moved with him to all of his different gardens ever since. In his raised beds within them, now in March, he has peas and broad beans in flower, fennel for eating, herbs, salad crops right through the winter and cauliflowers beginning to heart up. A trickle irrigation system is essential – he is lucky to have his own spring water (with a pH of 6.9) for this, one of the original attractions of this site.

One of the crops that Adam plants in his polytunnels is garlic – but not any old garlic! One of his filming assignments took him to Oman, home to damask roses and famed for its rose water. In Oman terraces tumble 100 metres down into ravines with the most amazing irrigation system. Adam saw garlic being cultivated, and got into conversation with the owner of the hotel where he was staying. It turned out that the plantation of garlic that Adam had seen belonged to the hotel owner; this was in April, and Adam asked him to send some garlic when it was ready, not really expecting that this would be possible. In June, having been away, Adam walked into his house to find a strong smell and a large plastic sweet jar covered in stamps and with the appropriate immigration certificate. In South Wales, Adam plants this garlic in a polytunnel in October through black polythene. The mountains of Oman in the winter experience a dry cold. This is replicated in the polytunnel where, even if the air temperature drops, the soil temperature is maintained. The garlic in the polytunnel can be harvested in the green in May, and then after that for storing in June/July. It is a hardneck variety, and doesn’t keep terribly well beyond October.

Adam also wanted polytunnels for broad beans; he grows three crops in a year in sequence, from autumn through to April, so that they do not cross-pollinate. A delicious broad bean is ‘Bowland Beauty’, which was originally bred for exhibition.

It has to be said that timing is key in terms of getting crops into the ground. Since 1976 Adam has kept a diary of what he sows when, the temperature, conditions etc. This is giving very direct information about climate change. Saving seed helps to build in local adaptations, which means that plants from very different environments from our own will in time thrive here. Carrot ‘Red Elephant’ from Australia is a good case in point. Adam has grown it outside in beds for a number of years. He discovered by chance, from seed spilt in the bed while collecting, that it can grow with absolute neglect when sown in October outside for early harvesting – there is no need for special forcing varieties.

None of Adam’s growing would be possible without compost. He uses all sorts of old materials to make the compost bins, including pallets and old carpet (this has to be pure wool). A lot of grass is used in the compost, which has the benefit of generating heat, but it does have to be turned regularly (once a week).

The last thing that Adam installed on his new site was a greenhouse, which he uses for tomatoes, capsicum, cucumbers, lemongrass, okra, ginger etc. A propagator is also key for starting seed off in early spring. There is only one cucumber which he now grows, for its taste, which comes from Syria. He encountered it in Aleppo, in what was known as the ‘fertile crescent’, and he now grows out a number of vegetables from the seed bank there for seed. The cucumber is unusual in that it has both male and female flowers. Seed is now being distributed to displaced Syrians, including those in camps in Jordan; later this year they will be sent to camps in Kurdistan.

Polytunnels or greenhouses allow you to create controlled environments for the production of seed; you can water when necessary during the growing period, and keep the crops dry when seed is setting.

One of the things that Adam has discovered on his travels is that growers like to mix things up together, and that plants don’t mind being crowded; polytunnels or a greenhouse allow him to do both of these things. Sweetcorn is an example: he has had good success growing 9 or 10 plants in a small block a foot apart, producing very good crops. Sweetcorn is a wind-pollinated crop, and growing them in a polytunnel gives good control (rather than the wind blowing the pollen far and wide, tapping the plants means the pollen falls where it needs to).

Moving on to the seed that Adam grows, here is a whirlwind tour through just a few of them:

  • Fava bean ‘Syrian Small’ – first seen in Damascus, being wheeled through the streets in barrows piled high. They are traditionally eaten whole when young, but can also be eaten shelled. The seed is now primarily being distributed to displaced Syrians.
  • Radish ‘Pasque’, is a French radish, which is lifted in the autumn, stored in clamps, and then eaten at Easter. It is an interesting plant in that the flowers start white, but then turn pink once they have been pollinated.
  • Fava Mourda Reina Mouz (‘Purple Queen’) is a purple broad bean from Catalonia (another very interesting area for endangered vegetable varieties), which Adam is growing out to make safe for the future.
  • Blue potatoes from Atacama in Chile – they have a shape like Pink Fir Apple, but are deep blue right through; they are now being included in an official breeding programme to establish their blight-resistance.
  • Pea ‘Champion of England’ is the only pea still in cultivation of the 13 listed as having any merit out of the 200 catalogued by the RHS at the end of the nineteenth century. Although held in seed libraries, it returned to commercial seed catalogues in 2016, originating in the US. Adam still held some seed from 2009, so that seed is now being grown for comparison to see whether the newly-listed variety is the true original variety.
  • Pea ‘Daniel O’Rourke’ was one of the most successful varieties of pea in the United States until the 1920s. Its name derives from the 1852 Derby winner, when it was introduced to the UK the following year, as a marketing strategy to encourage growers in the UK to buy it.
  • Pea ‘Fesol Negre del Belgarda’ is a purple-flowered, black pea from Catalonia grown for drying and storing.
  • Pea ‘Panther’ is a pea that the Heritage Seed Library was told grew to about two foot in height – but in fact grows to three times that!
  • Pea ‘Jaune de Madras’ is one of the peas used by Mendel in his work on genetics. It is a mange-tout pea, its name implies it had originated in India. However, it was being introduced to the UK at the time that yellow Madras curry, which was a British invention, was very popular, so the name was purely a marketing strategy. In the US, it was called ‘Golden Sweet’, and it is now sold here as that as well.
  • Blue Hopi Maize hails from very arid regions of Arizona, where three inches of rain falls in a year if they are lucky. There it is sown in very deep holes to reach the damp where it can germinate. It is sown in clumps, and the drooping leaves create shade and a particular micro-climate which enables them to grow in such a harsh climate. There is a particular culture around blue maize within the Hopi nation where it used to make blue polenta, and the ability to grow blue maize is key to winning the heart of the woman a man wants to marry.
  • Tomatoes – Adam grows many different tomatoes from all over the world – including ‘Burmese Sour Tomato’ from Yangon (which is recently in demand thanks to ‘Gardener’s World’), and ‘Bolivian Orange Cherry.’

Adam stressed the importance of using green manures over winter. A very important one is Caliente Mustard – its biofumigant properties attack pathogens such as onion white rot in the soil. He also grows comfrey as a feed for plants, particularly tomatoes.

Autumn in Adam’s garden is all about harvesting. Beetroot is a great crop, as you don’t need many plants to produce masses of seeds (33,000 seeds from a single plant!). Cucumbers are much tricker – the cucumbers have to be almost rotten, and even then there is no guarantee the seed will be viable.

On that note of seed harvesting, Adam’s talk came to a close. Appreciative thanks were expressed for such a wide-ranging, erudite, and engrossing talk, and there was then a rush for the table where different seed varieties were laid out, along with Adam’s book ‘The Seed Detective’.


At our last meeting Julian introduced us to the Finnish tree-planting tool, the Pottiputki. Although originally designed for forestry planting, Julian has discovered it is invaluable for transplanting snowdrop divisions. He has created this video to show how the tool can be used and to demonstrate the process of dividing snowdrops in the green. Thank you Julian!

Updated Cothi Gardeners Website

The Cothi Gardeners website has recently undergone a bit of an update, and now includes a new section for members to write about their garden as it changes through the year – highlight ‘Members’ Gardens through the Year’ from the main menu at the top of the page. The more members who would like to contribute pieces about their gardens the better! Please contact with your text and photographs (or any queries you may have), and the web editor will do the rest.

Sex, Lies and Putrefaction – a talk by Timothy Walker; October Plant Swap and Sale; December Festive Tea

During the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020-21, the Zoom talks organised by Fiona Wormald in lieu of our in-person meetings were a beacon of light which helped to lift the gloom of the general isolation. This repeated Zoom talk at our November meeting was shown in our meeting hall so that we could all enjoy for a second time what was a fascinating talk with the added benefit of social interaction, tea and biscuits!

Timothy Walker is a highly respected British botanist who was the Director of The Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Aboretum from 1988 – 2014. He is passionate about plants, particularly regarding conservation and pollination, and is the author of several books on these subjects.

The talk began with with a quote from Charles Darwin in his ‘Origin of Species’ where he identified the relationship between the flower and the bee, and how they were perfectly adapted to each other, describing “pollination biology”. One of the many ways in which this was demonstrated was with the orchid, where a visiting hawk moth was able to reach over 12 inches into the flower in order to obtain the nectar. So, it was pointed out, not only did the moth end up with food, it also helped with pollination by dusting itself with pollen as it left which was then transferred to the next orchid it visited.

Pollen grains are different on each variety of plant, and fertilisation will generally only work when pollen of one variety is transferred from the anthers (male) to the stigma (female) of another plant of the same variety. Moving the pollen from one plant to another occurs via animals, insects, wind and (rarely) water. Even slugs can be pollinators (!), but not often. Plants have different ways of attracting pollinators, such as colour and scent, (though some use both, plus pattern); some, such as a number of trees, produce catkins where the pollen is then blown away to hopefully land on another catkin. The birch tree cleverly has a flap on the flower which protects the catkin and opens on landing, thus preventing random spillage of the seed. There are plants which actually inject pollen into the atmosphere. Grasses are almost always blown on the wind with only very few, such as the Canadian Pondweed, using water as a vehicle. Around 87% of water plant pollination is done by animal life, the majority being bees and wasps.

Night-flowering plants (such as nicotiana and night-scented stock) are hard wired to attract (mostly) moths via scent. Again, a short proboscis is catered for with a short pollen tube (or it could be the other way round!). The same theory applies to butterflies.

Birds obviously help with pollination and they particularly favour red flowers, although they also see UV colours; bats help as well, although they are quite clumsy and throw stuff around a bit.

Pollen is a highly nutritious substance and the whole organisation of fertilisation runs on a reward or bribe system benefitting both parties. The fig is a clever example of pollination where the fig flower is hidden inside what is effectively a brood chamber and a female wasp enters through a hole. She lays eggs; the male wasps hatch first and fertilise the unborn female wasps, create exit tunnels for those female wasps to move on to the next fig, and then die. Thus, if humans eat the fig they also eat the poor dead male wasps – not a reward for them but probably extra protein for the human!

Victoria amazonica is a South American water lily, which attracts a beetle of the Scarabaeidae family; it crawls into the flower, eats so much pollen that it gets drunk & is then too confused to remember its way home, eventually leaving the flower only to stagger on to the next one. Hopefully the wife (or husband) doesn’t possess a rolling pin otherwise there will be trouble!

There are, however, flowers that don’t smell good at all (to humans anyway), such as Dracunculus vulgaris, which smells like rotting meat and Helicadiceros muscivorus (or Dead horse Arum, which is probably a clue). These plants are largely pollinated by flies.

This really interesting Zoom talk by Timothy was just as entertaining the second time around, very well put together and certainly educational.

John and Helen’s October Plant Swap and Sale

John and Helen Brooks held a plant sale at their garden Ty’r Maes on a Sunday afternoon in October to raise funds for the National Garden Scheme charities. It was very well attended, with visitors coming from as far away as North Pembrokeshire.

There was a great variety of plants on sale, provided by members of the Cothi Gardeners, and mostly of course by John and Helen themselves. The plants on offer ranged from trees, such as Paulownia tomentosa (the Foxglove tree) through to a great variety of perennials, including asters, geums, crocosmia, geraniums, hesperantha, persicaria, primula, rudbeckia, salvia, and many others. A great bonus of the afternoon was the enormous quantity of delicious cake provided by volunteers along with teas, and the opportunity to chat with other gardeners.

In total the amount raised for the NGS charities was a fantastic £900! This is a reflection of the tremendous generosity of the plant providers, Cothi Gardeners members and other visitors, and we should never forget the hard work that goes into organising such an event, including the refreshments.

Festive Christmas Tea on 14 December

This year the Cothi Gardeners are celebrating Christmas by holding a festive tea at Granny’s Kitchen in Lampeter at 3.30pm on 14 December. Twenty-two of us are attending, and it’s bound to be a jolly (and delicious) event, bringing to an end a year when we have finally been able to hold in-person meetings and celebratory gatherings again. Long may it continue!

Autumn into Winter with Richard Bramley of Farmyard Nurseries

Richard Bramley, here preparing to give his talk, is from Farmyard Nurseries with 3 acres of land and 50 polytunnels near Llandysul, where 90% of the stock for sale is grown outside which helps to produce hardy plants of many varieties.

He is very keen to encourage people to think more about the colour and interest of plants – trees and shrubs can be grown in autumn and into winter.   Starting with Acers, which are not as difficult to grow as is often thought (though they don’t like wind), he showed many of the different colours, shapes and textures that can be provided by planting them. Liquidambar styraciflua, or Sweetgum, is more tolerant of wind though it doesn’t come into leaf until later in the season. Berberis thunbergii, although it is a bit prickly, is particularly worth having because it is so colourful and produces berries and flowers in addition. Also they can be kept at a smaller size if required by hard pruning, without any detriment to the look of the plant.

Winter stems, such as the many different varieties of Cornus, provide different upright shapes with a wide variety of colours and are very hardy. C. alba ‘Baton Rouge’ is one of the very bright red varieties during the winter and again Cornus produce flowers and berries.

There was a lot of discussion about Hydrangeas! The mopheads were described as ‘blocky’, whereas the Lacecap varieties of Hydrangea macrophylla are to be encouraged. Hydrangeas are (generally) enthusiastic growers and do provide colour in the flowering gap, while the H. paniculata varieties can reach up to 18 – 20 ft. Climbing Hydrangeas need to be treated differently at pruning time as they flower from the previous year’s growth but they will tolerate some shade during the flowering season which makes them very useful.

Fuchsia will grow happily into autumn and, although they will tolerate wet,  they do need plenty of light. Chrysanthemum (if cut down in spring) will last into autumn. Lavender, Nepeta, Astrantia and Campanula plus many of the daisy family, if cut down after previous flowering, can do surprisingly well. There are nearly 200 varieties of Aster now which can continue through autumn and the hybrids don’t get mildew, plus they will tolerate some shade.

Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturmwill also last, as will Leucanthemum, Helenium, Persicaria, Autumn Salvia, Kaffir Lillies, Solidago (Golden Rod), Heliopsis and many more varieties of flowers and shrubs, given some care, will reward the grower in spades (see what I did there).

Grasses will give lots of interest in the winter and there are some quite remarkable ones to try. Imperata cylindrica (Japanese Bloodgrass) when planted in a drift looks as if it’s on fire. Panicum virgatum varieties are very varied and do well when established. Grasses are deciduous and demand very little in the way of care, can be easily split, can be grown from seed and some of them flower.  There are endless varieties of grass to choose from now that will provide an addition to the garden in the cooler months.

We thanked Richard and his support act Mabel (his dog) for his informative and entertaining presentation and took full advantage of the beautiful plants which he had brought for sale from the nursery.

Native Plants as Garden Flowers; Invitation to Local Gardening Clubs; Plant Swap and Sale

Native Plants as Garden Flowers – Talk by Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers

We were lucky to once again hear an entertaining talk from Bob Brown, founder of the Cotswold Garden Flowers nursery. He started by encouraging us to put the right plant in the right place – something we all know but need constantly reminding of! 

The initial list of headings was to outline the bullet points of his talk i.e. Acclimatised & Easy, Invasive, Garden Worthy etc. Bob went on to describe the different types of plants within the headings and started with the Welsh poppy (hurrah!) and we had conversations about the habits of the plant. He continued to describe many different types of plants which come into the native plant varieties including Achillea, seakale, viper’s bugloss, Mullein, Veronica spicata and many more.

Woodland plants were described next and include Aquilegia vulgaris, Allium sphaerocephalon, wood anemone amongst many others. 

Woodland Edge plants  & bulbs came next, such as the lawn daisies, hen & chicks, single Campanula, Colchicum autumnale, Pulmonaria, celandine varieties etc.

Grasses were the next category, including woodland grasses and Bob is keen on using plants needing structural support being grown within grasses, using the grasses as the support. Dogwoods, which look good with grasses, (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ in particular) are a favourite – he advises to cut them right down in winter.

Ferns of different types were next and his particular favourite, Polypodium vulgare, because it is evergreen in the winter but has died down by June and so makes way for other plants.

Iris types and the different areas in which they flourish came next and we discussed the very smelly Iris foetedissima (roast beef plant) & had a chat then about what the smell actually is like!

Primula varieties, which have been grown here since Eizabethan times, are a good bombproof plant for many areas. 

Roses, particularly varieties of the small Rosa pimpinellifolia ,were discussed, and then many more of the different native plants including the shrubs Salix purpurea (purple willow) and the different varieties of Sambucus nigra (elder), both of which are fast growing and invasive.

We thanked Bob for his informative and entertaining presentation and took full advantage of the beautiful plants which he had brought for sale from the nursery.

Invitation to Local Gardening Clubs

Drefach Felindre Gardening Club and Llechryd and District Gardening Club have each kindly invited all Cothi Gardeners to attend any of their meetings, which are listed below. We hope that their members will also choose to attend our meetings this year and beyond.

Drefach Felindre Gardening Club

All meetings are held at 7.30 pm in the Red Dragon Hall.  Guests simply pay £2 per meeting which includes refreshments.

Open evening October 5th

The speaker is Stuart Akkermans, ‘Cae Hir’: A Welsh Garden with a Dutch History. Light refreshments to follow. This event is free to Cothi Gardeners Club members.

Wednesday, 2nd November 2022 ‘The Gardens at Winchester Cathedral’, Emma Sharpe

Wednesday, 30th November 2022 ‘Biodynamic Gardening’, Louise Cartwright

Llechryd and District Gardening Club

Meetings are held in Boncath Hall, SA37 0JL

Wednesday 12 October at 7.30pm
‘The Treasures of Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan’ with Bob & Rannveig Wallis
Bob and Rannveig Wallis were plant hunting in Central Asia before the pandemic and this illustrated talk starts on the border with Afghanistan and goes via Samarkand and Tashkent to the Chatkai Range. This is the centre of Tulip and bulbous Iris development and also features Fritillaria and Corydalis. Superb photographs and an excellent speaker. Last club plant table of 2022.

Wednesday 9 November at 7.30pm
‘Costa Rica’ with Julian Cremona
Julian Cremona’s brilliant photography brings this small country’s amazing wildlife and flora to life. Dense broadleaf evergreen forest, palm trees, mangroves, mosses, orchids and tropical plants as well as monkeys, sloths, anteaters, snakes and iguanas. Annual Club Seed Swap. 

Plant Swap and Sale for the NGS 9 October 2022

John and Helen of Cothi Gardeners are holding their annual plant swap and sale to raise funds for the NGS on 9 October at 1pm at Ty’r Maes, Ffarmers SA19 8JP.

There will be loads of plants for sale, a lot more than last year, when just about everything went!
There will also be a table of plants that are available for a small donation. These are generally perfectly garden worthy plants that for presentational reasons are not quite up to selling standard.

People are encouraged to bring in plants to swap. Last year some wonderful plants arrived and were seized on immediately.

Tea, coffee, biscuits and cakes will be provided. If you bring extra cakes, that would be great too.
There is no charge for refreshments, but as funds are being raised for NGS charities – donations are always welcome.

A word about parking. We will be using our bottom field, opposite the turn to Ffarmers, for parking and there will be NGS signs up.
The area in front of the house will be available for loading and unloading plants.

August Social; Telegraph Garden and Indoor Plant Centre

August – time for the Cothi Gardeners’ annual social event! This year it was held at the Telegraph Garden and Indoor Plants Centre and adjacent Blossoms Cafe in Llangadog. 

Much anticipated by members, the event proved immensely popular and was extremely well attended. Following a talk by Carol from the Garden Centre, and a chance to wander through the Garden Centre and buy plants, members were able to choose from a very varied menu of savoury dishes, as well as the all-important cake, at the Blossoms Cafe. It was a coolish evening after the heat of the previous week, so the cafe felt warm and welcoming, and it was soon filled with voices and laughter as we all caught up with each other and what we had been doing. The general consensus seemed to be that the food was delicious (I can vouch for my Greek Salad), and the cakes looked mouthwatering!

The social was also an opportunity to celebrate belatedly the tenth anniversary (which was actually in 2021) of the Cothi Gardeners Club, and say thank you to Yvonne who started the club back in 2011, providing us with the pleasure of regular talks on the subject close to our hearts and the opportunity of socialising with like minds. Long-term member Donna would shortly be moving away from the area, so on the occasion of her last meeting we all wished her well for the future and settling in to her new home.

Members of Cothi Gardeners listening to Carol’s talk at the August Social

Telegraph Garden and Indoor Plant Centre

Carol has always enjoyed gardening and been passionate about plants.  Whilst working for the National Trust in Wales as their Grants Manager, she used to break the journey up and down Wales by stopping at different Garden Centres en route.  Sadly the experience tended to be the same at every one, giving a groundhog day feeling.  When Carol retired after working for 31 years for the National Trust, she set up a small Garden Centre on space rented from the Works Antiques Centre in Llandeilo.  However, illness and parking/space problems forced the closure of this Centre.  When Carol and her husband Steve moved to the Telegraph Inn at Llangadog, her daughter Lara saw the opportunity of converting the damp and overgrown area behind the building into a garden centre and The Telegraph Garden and Indoor Plants Centre was born. Although in retirement, Carol enjoys helping out and, in total, the Garden Centre in Llangadog now has 4 members of staff.

Running a garden centre can be more complicated than you might think. One of the skills you need is anticipation – for example, you need to be able to anticipate which plants Monty Don might talk about on Gardeners’ World!  Carol gave the example of Lunaria, or Honesty. Carol had plenty in stock, and they had sat happily on their table without a great deal of interest being shown until Monty Don showed some Honesty in his garden one Friday evening, and all the stock went almost instantly. You need to anticipate what plants people will want when, which means being able to second guess the weather, fashions, television gardening programmes, etc. Obviously the ideal would be for people to want to buy plants year round, and the Garden Centre encourages that, but the winter months can be quite difficult in that respect.

When creating the Telegraph Garden Centre, Carol’s daughter Lara designed the area to look like a garden. The wish was for people to enjoy looking round and to relax there, even if they did not buy anything. Certainly the displays of massed perennials for sale in pots look very much like well-composed garden beds.

At the Garden Centre they are very careful about the sourcing of plants and keen to support other local producers where possible. All the trees, decorative and fruit, are raised in Worcestershire. The bedding plants are sourced in Powys, and all the herbs are grown organically in Ceredigion.

If it is not possible to source some perennials, these are grown from cuttings or seed, and in fact many of the plants in the garden centre are raised there. For example, Nepeta ‘Blue Dragon’ was almost impossible to get hold of, but one plant was sourced and there are now young plants of Blue Dragon available to buy. Here Carol holds one of her favourite plants, Calamintha nepeta, which she grew from seed.

The Indoor Plant Centre is also a great success, with a wide variety of indoor plants always available.  This has proved enormously popular, particularly with the younger generation who really enjoy this form of gardening.

At the Garden Centre, they try to be as environmentally friendly as possible, with peat-free and reduced- peat compost always available.  Pots are recycled at the Centre on behalf of customers and charities for onward use. During the course of the year, as appropriate, plants are  divided, repotted, cut back and tidied up and the whole process started again ready for sale the following year. Customers can have their hanging baskets refilled with no charge for labour, only for the plants and compost used.

One of the downsides of running a garden centre is the paperwork, which is substantial. To counter that, there is the pride in supplying quality plants to customers, and there is the joy of propagating,  creating and nurturing new plants..

Carol finished by giving us all some of her tips. When she’s taking cuttings, she dips them first into liquid seaweed fertiliser and then into rooting powder. Cuttings should always be placed around the edge of the pot, and you need to keep them damper than you would think. Vitax Q4 is really good for plants that are looking a little tired and need perking up. Finally, when dividing plants it helps to take some root off; it might look a little brutal, but it encourages the plant to make more.

On that final note, Carol encouraged the Club members to explore the garden centre and the range of plants available, and we all made the most of the opportunity!