Ipsden altar frontal: Cow Parsley/ Queen Anne’s Lace

Over the last few days brief periods of brighter weather and sunny spells almost lulled us into thinking spring is round the corner. On two days running, the young one rushed out of nursery, cast aside his duffle coat and danced most of the way home. But it was not to last and as I write, yet another sudden cascade of April like showers makes me look up and do a brief circuit round the house to close open windows, for fear of a repeat of the invasive hail stones of last week. Our handkerchief sized bit of bald lawn in the back garden is wet once more and makes me think I haven’t seen it truly dry since last September or October. Why sunny spells – goodness knows – surely only the English would think of resorting to magic for better weather?

Ipsden altar frontal: cow parsley/Queen Anne’s Lace (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

At the moment, I am ‘under the weather’ (and where did that come from?) having caught conjunctivitis from the small one. It’s got to the eyeball as pin cushion/ cricket ball in the face stage which makes all sewing, knitting and blogging a bit of a trial. But you can’t sit there doing nothing can you and blogging seemed the easiest option, so here we go with another little summer flower for the altar frontal which was embroidered in sunnier times and in a more rural place.

Ipsden altar frontal: cow parsley/Queen Anne’s Lace (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Cow parsley froths its foamy way along most English lanes and rural roads in May-June, just after the flowers of the blackthorn and just before the May blossom really gets going – all white but so different and each worthy of a place on the Farrow and Ball paint chart perhaps ousting all those gloomy named whites – Lamp White, Old White, New White, Strong White, etc… A weed and a member of the carrot family, ordinary mortals tend to love it while botanists bemoan its success. Richard Mabey (Flora Britannica) commends it as  “arguably the most important spring landscape flower in Britain” but then diminishes the compliment by describing regions “ornamented by mile upon mile of this indomitable dusty smocking” (thank you for the smocking image, Richard – lovely!). The name ‘cow parsley’ just sets it out as a lesser plant than parsley. Queen Anne’s Lace – alluding to its filigree appearance looking very like the costly hand made collars and cuffs of Queen Anne and her courtiers – was a conscious attempts to give the plant a more attractive name and a more interesting back story, though why a weed of no commercial value should need one I’m not sure. Sometimes though, like T.S.Eliot’s ‘Cats’, having another name is quite useful. Mabey tells the story of visitors from Alaska wanting to buy some pendants with tiny pressed cow parsley flowers in a National Trust Shop in Warwickshire. Unsure that the name cow parsley would impress their Alaskan womenfolk, they seized joyfully upon the Queen Anne’s Lace alternative and immediately thought the flowers looked even prettier! A rose by any other name!

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Ipsden altar frontal: the Mallow

Ipsden altar frontal: the mallow (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

This week I’ve been pushing multitasking to the limit (well, for me, anyway) and brain pathways are getting just as tangled as the threads from the two different jerseys I’m knitting and the monogrammed cushion I’m embroidering. Mornings, while the young master is at nursery are taken up with embroidery (light so much better) and working out Fair Isle designs for the bottom of a new jumper for the small person (ditto the bit about light and add to it the benefits of a clear morning head). During the day, I’ve managed to get on with a bit of  straightforward knitting for a little long sleeved woollen polo shirt while overseeing Duplo construction, but in general this becomes evening work –  remarkably untaxing and delightfully soothing. I never got into knitting while my own children were little and it’s only now that I realise what I missed.  After a day of mixed success with the potty training, it’s extraordinary how advancing a few inches of knitting can end the day on a high!

Ipsden altar frontal: the mallow (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

But with lots of projects on the go, I’m glad that I still have a few embroidered flowers for the altar frontal to show and once again this one is a flower that reminds me of the Oxfordshire countryside we left last summer – a time when the mallow was at its most prolific, deep pink flowers and a bushy straggle of haphazard leaves lining every dusty lane, well trodden footpath and patch of waste ground. So much about its untidy bearing suggests ‘weed’ yet its flowers are as pretty and profuse as any a garden grown lavatera. (And on this I’m confused. The lavatera, Lavatera olbia, is also known as the tree mallow, yet the mallow’s Latin name is Malva sylvestris; both have very similar flowers and colouring, yet seemingly no consanguinity – convergent evolution? . More research needed!). The mallow is instead closely related to the splendid statuesque hollyhock and the exotic hibiscus, whose flowers are indeed alike but quite different from the mallow! Interestingly, the mallow is also related to the cotton plant, but I can make no comment on this as cotton isn’t grown in England.

Hollyhocks (closely related to mallow) seen on a street corner in Hoi An, Vietnam to celebrate Vietnamese new year

Though regarded as a weed now, in the past mallow was valued as both food and medicine. Pliny recommended a daily dose of mallow sap diluted in water to ward away aches and pains, while Cicero thought eating young mallow shoots gave him indigestion. Martial found it a useful hangover cure for the morning after an orgy. Some folk remedies suggest application of the leaves to draw out insect stings or a paste of its gummy sap as a poultice for skin infections. The fruit, a round of seeds looking like a cottage loaf sliced into segments, is known as ‘cheese’, has a indistinct, slightly nutty taste, was often picked and nibbled by children and gave rise to the plant’s folk names, like ‘cheese flower’, ‘pick-cheeses’ (Norfolk), ‘Billy buttons’ or ‘pancake plant’. So far have we as a nation moved from our rural roots, that I’m not sure any children today, in this modern risk averse world would dream of putting one of these little ‘cheeses’ into their mouths.

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