The all-conquering conker!

Conkers mean the arrival of Autumn.

I spotted a request for conkers from a friend’s mother on Facebook this morning. Was she about to stage a local conker championship or challenge her grandchildren to a match, I wondered? No… she was one of the many people who believe conkers can keep spiders out of their house! Hmmm, I thought, is there any truth in that, and are conkers good for anything else, other than looking lovely, confirming Autumn has arrived and entertaining kids in the playground.

Are conkers spider killers?

I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no proof this is true. The story goes that conkers contain a noxious chemical that repels spiders but no-one’s ever been able to scientifically prove it. Legend has it that if a spider gets close to a conker it will curl its legs up and die. Others say spiders will happily crawl over conkers with no ill effects at all. What do you think? Are you one of those people who have conkers strategically positioned around your house?

Bake a cake with conker flour?

Chestnuts, the edible ones!

Do not confuse horse chestnuts (conkers) with chestnuts, the latter is a pleasant and popular nut, the former is actually mildly poisonous! Despite this, I have read that those old stalwarts, the Victorians, wrote recipes for making conker flour. The seeds were shelled, ground and then leached to remove bitter flavours.

Conkers can cure sprains and bruises?

It is said that the horse chestnut is so named because its seeds were once used to treat ailments in horses. It has since been discovered that aescin, which can be extracted from conkers, has anti-inflammatory effects and is an effective remedy for sprains and bruises in humans.

Leave conkers in your wardrobe to deter moths

Horse chestnuts… the much less edible ones!

Is this another spider scam? It seems not. If moths are munching their way through your winter wardrobe then conkers could help stop the little critters. Conkers give off an aroma called triterpenoid that wards off pests. Place fresh conkers in among your clothes and as they dry out they emit the moth-repelling chemical. I shall be investigating this!

You can get clean with conker soap

Conkers contain saponins, which are soap-like chemicals that are sometimes added to shampoos and shower gels. It is believed that the Vikings (who were apparently surprisingly clean!) made their soap out of soaked, crushed up conkers. I’m not sure I shall be relaxing in a conker bath any time soon, but fascinating nonetheless!

 

 

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Heather and gorse – moorland beauties

From a distance, Dartmoor can seem rather gloomy and forbidding as Autumn draws in, but pause to look closer, and you’ll see that it is carpeted in the most lovely shades of purple, pink and yellow as heather and gorse combine to create a stunning patchwork.

Heather is also known as ‘Ling’ and you’ll find it on heathland, moorland, bogs and even woodland with acidic or peat soils. Its delicate pink flowers appear from August to October with the plants growing tightly packed together. Surprisingly, given the tough areas they seem to thrive in, heathers can live for up to 40 years or more!

Historically, heather has been used for many purposes, such as fuel, fodder, building materials, thatch, packing and ropes. It was also used to make brooms, which is how it got its Latin name – Callunais derived from the Greek word meaning ‘to brush’.

People have lived and worked on Dartmoor for thousands of years and managed the vegetation to produce what they need. Swaling (or burning) has been carried out by farmers from earliest times, as a way to clear scrub and improve grazing for sheep, cattle and ponies. Today, laws and regulations stipulate the time of year and even the time of day that swaling can take place – so very different from times gone by. An old farmer friend of mine recalls being sent out with a box of matches to swale nearby moorland with three friends, the oldest being 12 and the farmer himself 5! He said they did it every year without mishap and their parents trusted them to get on with the job, it wasn’t a game, and they all knew how to manage the burn – quite extraordinary!

The other star of the moorland landscape is gorse. Its vivid yellow flowers create a real splash of colour and, although I wouldn’t normally think to put pink and yellow together, in nature they look stunning against the dark green foliage. Gorse is a prickly character and can leave you with scratched legs should you walk through it, even in thick walking trousers!

Common Gorse can be seen in all kinds of habitats, from heaths and coastal grasslands to towns and gardens. Western Gorse, which is abundant on Dartmoor, flowers from July to November. Gorse provides shelter and food for many insects and birds, it’s spiky leaves creating an effective deterrent for even the nosiest dogs!

Traditionally, gorse was regularly collected from common land and, like heather, had all sorts of uses – including fuel for firing bread ovens, fodder for livestock and was used as a dye for painting Easter Eggs.

Common Gorse flowers a little in late autumn and through the winter, coming into flower most strongly in spring, while Western Gorse and Dwarf Gorse flower in Autumn. Between the different species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrase: “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”!

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Goodbye summer – hello gloom?

The end of summer, when the children go back to school and the days start to shorten, can seem a rather depressing time. You’ve had a lovely summer, you possibly enjoyed a holiday and felt relaxed… so how do you try and hang on to some of those positive feelings rather than slumping into an Autumnal gloom?

Holidays are good for us. Research has shown that taking time off, be it a holiday away, or just relaxing at home, reduce your stress levels and increases your life expectancy. Now is the time to think about how you can make the most of your post-holiday feel-good factor as immediately after a holiday is the perfect time to make changes to your routine. After your holiday, your brain will be freshly stimulated by a combination of novel experience and physical activity (well, for some of us!) and ready for the idea of positive change. So, with that in mind, here are 5 ways to keep the holiday spirit alive.

Beautiful Dartmoor – I’m lucky enough to have this on my doorstep!

1 Be a home tourist

When did you last appreciate the place where you live? Look at it afresh, as if you were a visitor researching a trip… Put your postcode into TripAdvisor or any other travel site and see what comes up –you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised!

2 Savour the small things

I think this is so important and yet we so rarely do it – and I am as guilty as the next person! When we’re on holiday, we slow down and we use all our senses. We may sit and people watch, or be fascinated by the local bird life or just take time to smell the flowers. Perhaps you could find ways to savour your routine in a way that makes it feel less routine? You could savour your shower – treat yourself to

Get to know your garden bird life… Robins are incredibly bold and friendly characters!

a new shower gel, or you could notice the changing seasons on your way to work, or when you walk the dog or collect the grandkids from school. It doesn’t really matter what you savour, just hang onto your holiday habit of savouring a little bit more.

3 Re-evaluate your routine

On holiday, in a different environment, we behave differently. When you come back from holiday, think about the things you didn’t do when you were away. Obviously, these will include doing the washing, cooking and possibly dropping off and collecting children from various places. But what else freed up your time? Be honest… did you watch less TV? Use your phone less? Have a good think and you’ll probably find ways to free up some time to do other things that you

Try putting it down more!

usually say you haven’t got time for!

4 Plan day trips

This isn’t as daft as it sounds. Years ago, I booked a lovely sounding holiday cottage that turned out to be a dive – pokey cottage in horrible setting – ugh! We left early and came home and, so as not to waste our previous week off, we thought about all the things we wanted to visit locally but had never got around to, and went off every day to attractions, or to nearby towns we’d never seen. It was lovely and still felt like a holiday!

Perhaps try more of a Mediterranean diet?

5 Cook with a new ingredient

Bringing home exotic foods or ingredients from holidays abroad (in the days when you were still allowed to!) was nearly always disappointing in the cold light of your own kitchen. But think laterally… if you can’t find a particular spice of pickle in this country to replicate your delicious Greek feast, why not tone it down a bit and simply try to pick one new ingredient to use each week? If you’re stuck for ideas, supermarkets own magazines are always full of new seasonal ideas you can try.

 

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Cards I have loved…

Do you ever have cards you have made that you just can’t bear to give away? I make so many dozens of cards, I often make one that I really like, but as they are destined for magazine articles or TV shows, I can’t just hide them away and not part with them!

I thought I would do a couple of blogs just showing cards I have particularly loved this year and both of these cards were an easy choice.

Beautiful Bruges – well worth a visit.

The pretty watery scene is from the pad featuring Evgeny (pronounced Eugeny) Lushpin’s artwork. I love his choices of subject and the way he paints. This particular scene is in Bruges I believe and is so beautiful (as is all of Bruges if you get a chance to go for a visit). The backing paper behind also comes from the pad as does the border and sentiment – so convenient!

The butterflies and leaves are from the Signature Die range – Butterfly Cloud and Trailing Leaves.

The gorgeous little bird card uses an image from the Jane Shasky Birds in the Garden pad alongside our Signature Dies Pumpkin Patch – ideal for autumn too!

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Very berry good!

It looks like a great year for blackberries.

The hedgerows are thick with blackberries already this year, I assume as a result of the rather extreme weather we’ve had of late. There are lots of berries that grow wild in this country – strawberries, sloes and elder to name just a few – and it’s a reflection on our modern lives that the vast majority of us wouldn’t be able to identify them, and certainly not feel confident to pick them! We all got terribly excited about ‘superfoods’ a few years ago and berries are top of the list being high in antioxidants, fibre, vitamin C and flavonoids.

The world-conquering strawberry.

As ever, ancient man (and woman of course!) knew all this and berries have been a valuable food source for humans since before the start of agriculture. They were a seasonal staple for early hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. In time, humans learned to store berries so that they could be used in the winter.

Berries began to be cultivated in Europe and other countries. Some species of blackberries and raspberries have been cultivated since the 17th century. The most widely cultivated berry of modern times, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the strawberry, which is produced globally at twice the amount of all other berry crops combined.

Rowanberries – impossible to miss even by the most shortsighted bird!

As ever, Mother Nature has got it all cleverly worked out and when ripened, berries are typically of a contrasting colour to their background (usually green leaves), making them visible and attractive to animals and birds. This is essential as it’s how the plants’ seeds get dispersed to produce new plants and so keep the growing cycle going…

As well as the old favourites – strawberry, raspberry and blackberry – there are plenty more berries out there! Here are a few more:

  • White and Golden Raspberry
  • Dewberry
  • Elderberry
  • Lingonberry
  • Cloudberry
  • Gooseberry
  • Cape Gooseberry
  • Mulberry
  • Loganberry
  • Tayberry

Fresh raspberries – so delicious!

What a gorgeous sounding list! The last two are especially interesting as they are ‘hybrid’ berries – hybrids of other berries, created by planting fruit cross-pollinated by two different plants. In the late 19th and early 20th century, botanists went on a bit of a hybridizing craze, crossing berries in the Rosacea family (like raspberries and blackberries) to try to come up with berries that had the best qualities of both parents.

Loganberry
Legend has it that the loganberry was accidentally created in the late 1800s in California by Judge J.H. Logan. Judge Logan planted an heirloom blackberry and a European raspberry next to each other. The plants seemed to grow well together, and with a little help from the birds and the bees, they cross-pollinated. Loganberries have a deep red raspberry colour and the size and texture of a blackberry. The vines, which lack the substantial thorns of a blackberry, have dark green fuzzy leaves. Unsurprisingly, the loganberry taste a little like a raspberry and a little like a blackberry!

Tayberry
Tayberries are a more recent cross between raspberries and blackberries, developed by the Scottish Horticultural Society in the late 1970s and named after the river Tay in Scotland. The Tayberry also tastes of a cross between raspberries and blackberries, but it is larger and sweeter than Loganberries. Tayberries have a naturally high level of pectin, so they’re perfect for jam and pie filling. Yum!

Elderberries – lovely when ripe… posionous when not!

Fruity facts:

  • If you feel you’re lacking in vitamin C, reach for the strawberries. Just nine provide you with your whole recommended daily allowance!
  • Did you know strawberries are powerful teeth whiteners? They contain Vitamin C which helps fight plaque.
  • Strawberries were regarded as an aphrodisiac in medieval times and a soup with the berries, borage and soured cream was traditionally served to newlyweds at their wedding breakfast. I don’t think I’ll be trying that recipe anytime soon!
  • Blackberries, raspberries and strawberries are all part of the rose family. So next Valentine’s Day, consider giving a bunch of berries instead.
  • Everyone knows blueberries are great for humans, but did you know you can freeze them and give them to dogs as a crunchy, healthy treat?
  • While many berries are edible, some are poisonous to humans, such as deadly nightshade. Others, such as the white mulberry, red mulberry, and elderberry, are poisonous when unripe, but are edible when ripe
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