Monday 23 July 2012

Ladybird Spiders need our help

Male Ladybird Spider (Eresus sandaliatus). Photo by Viridiflavus.

You have probably not even heard of the Ladybird Spider but this is hardly surprising because it is a very rare creature indeed.  Named after the brightly-coloured beetle everyone knows, the male Ladybird Spider (Eresus sandaliatus) has a vivid orange-red back with four larger black dots and two smaller spots on it.  If you saw one there wouldn’t be any chance of mistaking it for something else.
Well, actually there are many other species of spiders in the Eresus genus and several of these are known as Ladybird Spiders because of their colourful appearance. These spiders are collectively called “Velvet Spiders” because of the minute hairs that cover their bodies and legs.

Endangered species
In Britain the Ladybird Spider (E. sandaliatus) was so rare it was believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1980 in a small population in Dorset. The species is listed in the British Red Data Book as “Endangered” and is, not surprisingly, protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
In 1993, it was thought that there were only around 50 individual Ladybird Spiders still surviving in the UK, and that they were dying out mostly because of habitat destruction. In 2000, however, there was some very good news because more than 600 separate Ladybird Spiders were counted, and this number has been increased since then to 1,000 spiders.
Since 2000, other colonies have been successfully created on the Dorset heaths which are the sort of habitat the Ladybird Spider needs. Captive bred specimens of this very rare and but distinctive spider were released bringing the number of populations in Dorset from just one to eight.

Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust
Buglife - the InvertebrateConservation Trust, has started an important campaign to help ensure the safety and future survival of this very attractive but endangered spider.  The organization is collecting funds that will be spent on carrying on the captive breeding programme, establishing new populations of the Ladybird Spider, and monitoring the existing ones.
Buglife are accepting donations to assist in this vital conservation work but will reward those helping their efforts.  All those people who donate over £20 we will be sent a special Ladybird Spider pin badge, as well as an electronic newsletter  keeping them up to date on the progress of the project. Anyone who makes a generous donation of  £1000 or more will receive an exclusive invitation  to actually visit a site where you will be able to see the Ladybird Spider in its natural habitat.
Ladybird Spider lifecycle
The Ladybird Spider species sandaliatus is also found in Europe from southern Norway to the northern parts of Italy. They make their webs as tubes under the ground and mainly feed on small bettles and millipedes.
The smaller males become adults in early September, and overwinter in their webs.  They emerge from hibernation in spring and search for females in May or June of the following year. As well as being larger in size the female Ladybird Spiders are different in appearance to the males because they are a jet-black colour all over. After mating, female Ladybird Spiders lay between 35-80 eggs. After these hatch out, the baby spiders are fed with a liquid from their mother’s mouth. The female then dies and the spiderlings feed on her body. They stay in her web until the next spring when they leave to go and make their own.
The very similar and closely related Ladybird Spider E. cinnaberinus is also known as E. niger, but the males only have the four black spots and are missing the smaller ones. It is found throughout Europe and as far as the North Africa and La Gomera in the Canary Islands. It lives in underground tube-webs too in small colonies like its cousin and is also very rare.
I am sure you will agree with me that these Ladybird Spiders are fascinating creatures. If you would like to do something to help their survival in future then please get in touch with Buglife.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Monday 16 July 2012

Chickweed is a common edible plant

Chickweed in flower

Chickweed (Stellaria media)  is a very common weed found growing in many places in the world, but whilst it is despised by gardeners, it is actually a delicious and nourishing edible wild plant. So instead of throwing it away or into the compost heap why not try saving some to use in the kitchen?
Chickweed is very common in the UK and many parts of Europe and likes to grow in cultivated ground and in damp soil. It self-seeds itself and easily forms large masses of its tiny green foliage. It is often found growing along paths and even in the cracks in concrete and paving stones.

Chickweed description

Chickweed is a fragile and straggling plant. It has small bright green leaves, and minute white, star-like flowers, with five deeply divided petals. It flowers throughout the year and often grows well in the autumn and winter months.
Chickweed forms mats of its green foliage and its branched stems reach about 40 cm in length, though they are mainly to be seen creeping over the ground.
It is an annual plant but quickly re-establishes itself from seed if it has died down due to dry conditions. Chickweed is native to the UK and Europe but is naturalised throughout the world. It likes to grow in nay reasonably moist soil in sun or partial shade.
The plant's Latin name Stellaria comes from "Stella", meaning a star, and referring to the shape of its flowers. It was called its English name of Chickweed because it was once much-used as a food for hens and other birds.

Chickweed's uses

Chickweed is a surprisingly enjoyable edible wild plant to eat. It is good in salads but also cooked as greens or added to soups.
Chickweed is also a medicinal herb with a number of uses in herbal medicine. Taken as an infusion it is a treatment for rheumatism. It can also be made into a poultice or an ointment and used as a remedy for eczema, skin irritation and other skin diseases.
Chickweed is rich in the minerals potassium and calcium, as well as being a source of vitamins A, B and C.
It is used in homeopathy to treat rheumatism, arthritis and bronchitis.

Chickweed recipes

The following recipe is taken from Richard Mabey's classic book for foragers -  Food For Free.
"Wash the sprigs well, and put in a saucepan without any additional water. Add a knob of butter, seasoning, and some chopped spring onions. Simmer gently for about 10 minutes, turning all the time."
Mabey  goes on to say that a dash of lemon juice or a sprinkling of grated nutmeg completes the dish, and that Chickweed cooked like this is very good served with rich meat.
Another recipe from Jessica Houdret's The Ultimate Book of Herbs & HerbGardening is as follows:
Chickweed and parsley dip
25g/1oz fresh chickweed, 25g/10z flat-leaved parsley, 225g fomage frais, 1 tbs mayonnaise, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Rinse and pick over the chickweed, and chop it finely with the parsley. Put in a bowl with the other ingredients and mix well.
Serve as a dip with raw vegetables such as carrots, cucumber and red or green peppers.

Find out more about edible and medicinal plants that can be foraged for here.
Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Arthritis worsened by Oxalic Acid in edible plants

Many people today suffer from arthritis and gout but what a lot of them don’t realise is that their painful condition is made worse by many commonly eaten foods and their acidic content. There are plenty of greens, vegetables and some fruits that contain oxalic acid and this is where the problem lies. Purines in foods become uric acid in the body. Even black tea is one such source of the problem. Cranberries can be good for you but they are a fruit with a high acid content. Moderation is the key with many such foods.

Margaret Hills
The late Margaret Hills, who had been a nurse, became famous for her book Curing Arthritis the Drug-Free Way, and a main part of her theory and the remedy she prescribed, is the avoidance of the foods and drinks that cause arthritic conditions. Hills had once suffered the painful ailment herself but had found a cure for it. 

Cider Vinegar
She claimed that apple cider vinegar counter-acted the problem by helping to break up the crystals in the joints. It contains malic acid, and this has an alkaline effect in the bloodstream. So, apple cider vinegar is a very important way of treating osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, according to Hills.

Hills helped many people cure their arthritis and soon had thousands of followers. She set up a clinic and also went on to write other books, all dealing with the subject of how to treat yourself if you suffer from arthritis and how to live a lifestyle that prevents the condition starting or returning if you once had it. She recommended eating a healthy diet that is low in purines and avoiding commonly eaten food such as citrus fruit and drinking black tea.

You see, the inflammation in the joints is caused by uric acid crystals that have accumulated over time. Oxalic acid and oxalates not only add to this problem but cut down the absorption of calcium, which is needed for the strength, repair and growth of bones. It is believed that oxalates, and calcium oxalate in particular, cause kidney stones.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Honeygar
Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes healed himself of terrible arthritis with cider vinegar in a product known as Honeygar, which also contains honey as its name suggests. He takes Honeygar daily and swears by its efficacy. His story was published in the Daily Mail in 2008 in a story by Matthew Dennison entitled: “Sir Ranulph Fiennes: I beat my arthritis with a vinegar cure passed down from my mother”.

Parsley Salad

Amongst the plants that contain oxalic acid, Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) has large amounts of this substance in its leaves. Many people think of this herb as being healthy to eat, and whilst this is mainly true, because of the oxalic acid it should be eaten with caution by anyone with a tendency to suffer from arthritis.

Spinach leaves

Many of us were brought up watching the Popeye the Sailor-man cartoons in which the hero of these animations derives all his strength from eating Spinach. Again, this plant is very good for us in moderation because os the vitamins and minerals it contains. However, Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) too has a lot of oxalic acid in it, as does its very close relative the Beetroot.  Beetroot and the Beets are all in the Beta genus of plants. Sea Beet or Wild Spinach, which is regarded an ancestor of the cultivated varieties, is Beta vulgaris. Chard too contains oxalic acid in its leaves and is actually a descendant of the wild plant just mentioned because it is known to botanists as B. vulgaris subsp. cicla.

Rhubarb on sale

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) may make delicious pies but the leaves of this vegetable are actually poisonous due to the acids in them. The pinkish-red stalks which we use in our cooking admittedly do not contain anywhere near as much oxalic acid but it is present. This has been known for a long time and many old books will include a caution that this food should be avoided or eaten in moderation by those who suffer from gout and arthritis.

Bermuda Buttercup

There are two sorts of plant known as Sorrel. First there are those in the Rumex genus including the Common Sorrel (R. acetosa) and the Sheep’s Sorrel (R. acetosella). They are known for having a sharp and tangy taste and make good additions to salads and can be cooked as greens. However the acidity of these Sorrels is caused by oxalic acid.
The second type of Sorrel that also contains high levels of this harmful acid are those in the Oxalis genus. Even their generic name tells you this is the case. Wood Sorrel (O. acetosella) and the Bermuda Buttercup (O. pes-caprae) are two of the many species. They all have pretty foliage like four-leaved clovers and many have dainty flowers too. The Oxalis species have a tangy taste and are eaten in salads but again the caution needs to be applied because of the oxalic acid they contain.

The Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a common weed in many places in the world. This little plant with its semi-succulent leaves makes a popular and tangy addition to salads but again it has oxalic acid present in its leaves in the form of oxalates.  It can be cooked as well as eaten raw and has many other health-giving nutrients but care should be taken because of the oxalic acid present.

A useful list of edible plants and how much oxalic acid they contain is published here by the USDA:

Saturday 7 July 2012

Corn Salad or Lamb’s Lettuce

Lamb's Lettuce or Corn Salad

Corn Salad or Lamb’s Lettuce (Valerianella locusta) is an edible plant that, as its name aptly suggests, is good in salads.  Also known as Mache, it is a member of the Valerian family of Valerianaceae, and commonly grows as a weed in many places even though it is also widely cultivated.

Corn Salad can be found in waste ground, on hedge banks, sand dunes and on arable land used for growing other crops but usually in fairly dry soil. It will self-seed itself and spring up all over the place, even in cracks in a pavement and in walls.

It is a small annual plant that reaches a maximum of some 40cm and it bears really tiny pale lilac flowers. Corn Salad produces a rosette of spoon-shaped leaves and a short flowering stalk grows from this, usually producing flowers in spring. It is said that its name Lamb’s Lettuce comes from a similarity between the shape of its leaves with those of baby sheep

Corn Salad's range
Corn Salad is a very hardy plant and found growing wild in the UK, parts of Europe, North Africa and western Asia.  It has become naturalised in many parts of North America too after escaping cultivation there.
France is the main producer of Corn Salad today for sale to European consumers but it is also grown in Italy in Germany as a crop.  Germany, the UK and Spain are where the plant gets eaten the most in Europe. Organic Corn Salad seeds can be purchased online and from many suppliers of seeds.

Corn Salad can produce several crops in a year if cultivated. It is often grown as a second crop in August and September and gathered throughout the autumn and winter until it shoots upward to flower in spring. Although the whole plant is edible it is really only the leaves that are usually eaten.

Corn Salad can be eaten fresh on its own or mixed with other salad ingredients, and is particularly good with potato salad.  It has a pleasant tangy taste. Corn Salad can also be cooked a as green vegetable and served as a side-dish.

John Gerard's Herbal
Corn Salad was once foraged for by European peasants and was used as a food plant in Britain for many centuries. It was grown commercially in London from the late 18th century. Today it can be bought in seed form for cultivation as a salad plant. It was included in John Gerard’s Herbal in 1597, giving some indication of how long ago the plant was eaten. Because it grows in the autumn and winter, Corn Salad is a particularly useful plant to grow at these times in the year.
Drawing of Corn Salad

Vitamins and minerals
Corn Salad is a very healthy plant to eat because it is the source of several vitamins and minerals. It is said to contain three times as much Vitamin C as ordinary lettuce does. Corn Salad also contains Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B9, Beta-carotene , Omega-3 fatty acids, Potassium and Iron.

Corn Salad, although a small plant with very insignificant flowers, is well worth growing and eating.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Treacling for moths and moth books

Why moths fascinate me?
Since I was a little boy and discovered my first caterpillars, and found out how some types turn into moths that were like butterflies but different, I have been fascinated by the insects. It saddens me to know that many species are becoming much less in numbers in the modern world. Many people don't seem to know or care.

But moths are not only amazing creatures to see and study but are an essential part of the eco-system. They are the food of bats and many other nocturnal animals and their caterpillars become the food of countless birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians and other insects. If they are missing from the environment then other creatures go hungry.

The Moths of the British Isles
I recently went to visit my father in Cardiff and picked up some old and treasured books of mine. The Moths of the British Isles (Series I and II) by Richard South F.E.S. are, in my opinion, some of the best reference books on the insects available.

I say this because many a modern book only has a small selection of the more common or large and brightly-coloured species. However, these old books have all the small ones and the dull brown and grey species and even the types that were exceedingly rare many years back. There are quite a good selection of books on moths though.

Moth names
I love the names that moths have. Here is a selection: the Lunar Spotted Pinion, the Old Lady, the Lobster Moth, the Puss Moth, the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, the Chocolate Tip, the Argent and Sable, the Frosted Green, the Wood Tiger, the Vapourer, the Kentish Glory, the Emperor, the Rosy Footman, the Neglected Rustic, the Clifden Nonpareil, the Alchymist, the Rannoch Sprawler, the Brighton Wainscot, the Nonconformist, the Ruddy Highflyer, the Toadflax Pug, the Belted Beauty, the Essex Emerald and the Gold Spot.
They sound more like titles for plays or detective novels, some form of confectionery, public houses or maybe a rock band even! Anything but a flying insect!
When I was a child and later in life too I used to delight in rearing caterpillars in jars and other containers and make sure they had the leaves they needed of their food plants. When it was time for them to pupate some types needed soil to burrow in and others needed leaves or other material to fashion into cocoons. It was all a part of the learning process for me finding out about all these requirements.

Pale Tussock Moth caterpillar or Hop Dog

Some types of moth only pupate for a few weeks or months but others must go through the whole winter and spring before they emerge. Waiting patiently for the day they hatched out was always worth it when I watched the beautiful creatures drying their wings with all their colours fresh and radiant.
There are many ways of finding caterpillars too. One good way is to beat bushes and overhanging foliage with a stick or to shake it onto a tray of some sort below.
Some caterpillars are very unusual looking creatures and very beautiful in their own way. The caterpillar of the Pale Tussock Moth, or "Hop Dog" as it is also known, is a good example, covered as it is in coloured tufts of hair against a lime green background.
Some types fall off and curl up or start crawling and others like some of the "looper" caterpillars can hang down on threads if they are dislodged.
Hawk Moths
Some caterpillars can be spotted by looking out for the areas of foliage they have eaten. Big caterpillars like those of the Hawk Moths do this.
Finding moths at night is exciting too because you never know what you might discover. There are various ways. You can search around lights in outhouses and buildings where theinsects are attracted, or looking on flowering shrubs like the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is another great way of finding moths as they feed on the nectar.
Speaking of moths that are feeding, a very good way of tempting the insects is by an old-fashioned method known as "sugaring" or "treacling." To do this you make up a mixture of treacle and sugar and maybe a dash of some alcoholic drink and daub it in strips on walls and fences and tree trunks and then come back an hour or so later with a torch to see what is there.
On a good night it will tempt all sorts of species but not only moths. I remember getting the attention of a policeman when I was a boy so, if you try sugaring, be careful where you put your sticky treacle lure because it might not just be moths that it attracts.
Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Monday 2 July 2012

Pineapples and Kiwi Fruit from Ely, Cardiff

My pineapple

Years ago when I lived in the Ely council estate in Cardiff, I made the news a few times because of the exotic fruit I had managed to cultivate in my house and garden. The most memorable occasion was when I grew a pineapple in my living room and the story got reported on HTV News at Christmas.

Home-grown Pineapples
It had taken me a few years to get the plant big enough to produce a flower and then a fruit, but I proved it was possible. Amazingly my house had no central heating at the time too so it was growing in a room that was unheated a lot of the time.

I started the pineapple off by taking the green spiky rosette off a pineapple I bought in a local shop, and after tearing off the bottom leaves, planting it in a pot full of garden soil. It soon took root and started to get bigger and I re-potted it into larger pots as it continued to grow larger.  I remember how exciting it was seeing the flower developing in the centre.

Pineapple flower

I let it develop into a small pineapple fruit before I sent my proposal in to the local television station.  I wrote a script too saying that in the cold and dark days on winter a Cardiff man was dreaming of a much warmer climate and holidays abroad. To help him get that tropical touch to his home in Ely he had grown his own pineapple.

They obviously liked my idea and soon got back to me and arranged to send a reporter called Victoria Pearce and a cameraman around to see me.  I was shown pouring some water into the pineapple’s pot out of a milk bottle and I explained that I just used earth from the garden and water that came out of the tap. There were no secrets to my success but the report said that I had "green fingers". The news story ended with me saying that I hoped the pineapple would be big enough and ripe enough to eat for Christmas.

HTV added some footage of a tropical beach with palm trees and appropriate music for the introduction to the report. An expert from the Welsh National Botanical Centre explained that it was most unusual for anyone to grow a pineapple at home like this. A caption read: “Welsh pineapple grower Steve Andrews”.

Welsh Pineapple Grower Steve Andrews

South Wales Echo
I also sent the story into the South Wales Echo and grew a second pineapple a couple of years later.
My next horticultural success at growing exotic fruit was when I succeeded in growing several kiwi fruit on vines in my back garden. I had grown the plants from seed and had them twining up and around my washing-line pole.

I had a great story for the media about this too. My friend Ayla the Witch had been visiting and we had been sitting on the grass out the back garden on an early summer’s day. I had told my friend about how although I was really pleased with my kiwi fruit vines and the lovely flowers they produced each year, for some reason they never produced any fruit. She said she thought that this summer my luck would change and I would get a crop on my vines. I told Ayla that I hoped she was right and didn’t think any more about it.

But then just a few weeks later, after it had been flowering I noticed a fruit forming, and then another and another. What was really magical about this was that the kiwi fruit were growing on the part of the vines above where Ayla had been sitting. 

Kiwi fruit

I sent the story into the South Wales Echo and the newspaper sent out a cameraman and a reporter. The story got published with a photo of me with kiwi fruit on each side of my face. So that was how I got known in the Cardiff news media as being the gardener who managed to grow pineapples and kiwi fruit at his home.

Passion for fruit

That was all back before I moved to Tenerife in 2004. Some years later I went back on a holiday visit to Cardiff and went back to Ely to see some friends. I was amazed to see large banana plants growing in a garden in Wroughton Place in the estate. Someone there was following in my footsteps I thought, and with yet another exotic fruit.

Bananas in Ely

If Climate Change continues perhaps it will become normal for fruit normally grown in subtropical and tropical countries to being grown in Wales.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Earthstars are very strange fungi


When I lived in Ely in Cardiff I had a number of strange plants and mushrooms that came up in my garden and one of the most curious of all was a fungus that is known as the Earthstar. They suddenly arrived one autumn amongst the dead leaves under the bushes and trees at the bottom of my garden. It was almost like a peaceful invasion of some very small alien beings

It seemed a very suitable place to find them, but a real mystery because they are said to grow most frequently under Beech trees in woods, and there were none anywhere near my house. In fact the nearest forest was about a mile away. Not only that but they are not a common fungus in any case. Why had they picked my garden as a home?
Earthstars are in the family Geastraceae, which translates as "stars of Ge/Gaia" (the Earth). The species that was growing in my garden was Geastrum triplex. Although none of these weird fungi can be described as “common” this species is probably the one that is most often seen. They are always included in books about British, European and North American fungi.

Earthstars are unmistakable. There is nothing else quite like them.They have a body like a puffball with a hole right in the middle that will puff out millions of spores, and around it is a formation of arms that makes it look like a star. It looks more like some weird sea creature than a fungus. Like a starfish living on the land perhaps?

Dry Earthstars

The arms peel back and can crack or they can curl up when the weather is very dry. The whole fungus can break off from its base in the ground and get moved about like fungus tumbleweed. The Earthstar fungus is the only fungus I know of that can actively move around, although all species move very slowly as they grow bigger.
Rain also helps the fungi disperse their spores that get puffed out of the central sack in heavy showers as the raindrops hit the Earthstar. I can only assume they arrived in my garden carried as spores on the wind. The Earthstars were growing under a rescued Christmas tree and under a very large Privet bush and by a small Yew Tree. Every autumn they appeared for several years in a row and were still there right through the winter. They tolerated very cold spells and drying up too. Rain revived them but eventually they got eaten away by snails and woodlice. They might still be growing there if the new people living there haven't destroyed the end of the garden.

I made a point of puffing out millions and millions of spores and like to think that I was helping the Earthstar fungus colonise somewhere else on the planet. I watched them blowing away in the breeze. And they do appear to be a colony, a colony of weird alien creatures. They not only look like stars but look as if they have come from the stars! 

Bard of Ely with some of the Earthstars

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Grow your own Cotton

Cotton flower

We all wear cotton clothes and we know about cotton fields, and there are even old songs that talk about picking a "bale of cotton," but what a lot of people don't realise is that the plant the fibre comes from has an attractive flower and leaves and makes a very unusual ornamental plant to grow as a houseplant or in your garden.
Cotton species
Species of the Cotton Plant grown and harvested commercially are Gossypium hirsutum (90% of world production), G. barbadense (8%), G. arboreum and G. herbaceum and they are all in the Mallow family or Malvaceae.
Cotton described
The Cotton Plant is a shrub or bush and can grow to as high as 3 metres, depending on the species and the growing conditions. Cotton species are subtropical or tropical plants but can be grown indoors as houseplants in colder climates.
Cotton comes originally from Africa, India and the Americas. The plants need a fairly good soil and plenty of water to grow well. Cotton plants start off with two fairly large seed-leaves and then start to develop the proper leaves, which are palmate in form. The plants can grow fast and will eventually produce pretty flowers in shades of yellow or pale orange and these are followed by the bolls, which contain hard seeds covered in the fluffy cotton fibre.

Parts of the Cotton plant

Cotton plants can be attacked by several insect pests including thrips, whiteflies and caterpillars. There is a species of moth caterpillar known as the "bollworm." Surely the best way of dealing with pests is the old-fashioned way or by using biological controls?

Genetically modified cotton has been produced by the bioengineering global company Monsanto. This form is known as BT Cotton and contains a pesticide from a gene in its artificially manipulated DNA.
It is successful in combating some insect pests but not all and in India has caused terrible problems for farmers there who bought the seeds from Monsanto. Faced with failed crops, a need for irrigation, herbicides, and buying new seed from the company, many farmers have found themselves unable to afford the costs and have actually committed suicide. This is yet another tragedy brought to the world by this powerful global company that has also given us Agent Orange, a dangerous defoliant used in the Vietnam War, and Aspartame, the toxic artificial sweetener that is found in a disturbing amount of food and drink products today.
Organic Cotton
There has also been a move towards growing organically-produced cotton and plenty of such products on sale. Many people prefer to have cotton clothes as a natural product as opposed to artificial fibres but they would also prefer a natural product free of pesticides and herbicide residues.

Cotton growing in a  flower border

I first came upon a Cotton Plant growing as a bush in a shrub border here on Tenerife. I picked a boll off the plant and found that the seeds it contained germinated very easily. I have also seen plants of cotton in a row on a shrub border in the village I live in where I assume they have been planted by a member of the local community.

Cotton bolls

If you have enough land and live in a warm enough part of the world you could grow your own field of cotton but I grow my Cotton Plants on the balcony. Cotton makes a very unusual and attractive plant to grow and I can certainly recommend it.
Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Hot stuff – growing Capsicum Peppers

Green Bell Pepper

Many people enjoy eating hot spicy dishes such as curries, and also like growing their own plants, and this is where the many species of Peppers (Capsicum) are ideal for both purposes. Chilli Peppers and Sweet Peppers are very easy to grow and you can use their fruits too.

There are so many to choose from. There are the very hot Chilli, Cherry and Cayenne Peppers, and many varieties and cultivars available within these groups, and there are the much larger Bell or Sweet Peppers that are not hot to taste and are eaten in many ways.

In fact there are over 1,000 cultivars grown in the world with a very wide range of colours, shapes and degree of pungency. Most cultivated Peppers are either of the C. annuum var. annuum or C. frutescens species.

Pepper groups
Peppers can loosely be included in five separate groups. There is the Cerasiforme Group (Cherry Peppers), with small and very hot fruit, the Conoides Group (Cone Peppers) with erect and cone-shaped fruit, the Fasiculatum Group (Red Cone Peppers) with thin red and very hot fruit, the Grossum Group (Bell Peppers, Sweet Peppers and Pimientos), with large sweet fruit that are green and ripen to red or yellow, and finally the Longum Group (Cayenne and Chilli Peppers) with drooping, very hot-tasting fruit that are the source of Chilli Powder, Cayenne Pepper and Tabasco Sauce. There are books about Peppers such as The Whole Chile Pepper Book that comes with over 180 hot and spicy recipes using them.

Growing Peppers
The Peppers are all annuals or short-lived perennials and grow easily from seed. They are all frost-tender so need to be grown in greenhouses or indoors in temperate zones and countries like the UK. They grow fine outdoors in subtropical and tropical areas of the world as long as they have enough water.

I have personally grown them well in pots on a balcony in Tenerife and in my house when I lived in Britain.  My good friend Chris Fowler, who lives in Cardiff, became so involved in his hobby of growing Peppers that he has been successfully cultivating many different varieties, and set up a small business selling his produce. He has posted lots of photos of his Peppers at his Facebook site.

The plants do best in well-drained nutrient-rich soil and germinate easily enough. I have grown Peppers from seeds I have taken from fruit I have bought or been given but you can, of course, buy named varieties in packets of seed commercially available. Most Peppers form bushy plants with small white flowers that turn into green fruit that change colour as they ripen and grow larger.

Cherry Peppers

History of Capsicum Peppers
Capsicums were first introduced to Europe and the Western world after being brough from Mexico following Columbus’s voyage of 1942. A doctor who had sailed with him and noticed how the Native Americans used the fruit for flavouring food and as medicines, such as toothache remedies and pain relievers. It is said that the Portuguese then took Peppers to Africa and India.

Medicinal uses and properties
The bitter alkaloid Capsaicin has been established as a pain-killer.  Peppers are also antibacterial and contain vitamins A and C, as well as minerals. Hot varieties increase blood flow, stimulate sweating and are good for the digestion. Capsaicin can be made into an analgesic cream used to treat rheumatism, arthritis and aching joints.

Culinary uses
Sweet Peppers can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as vegetables. They can be stuffed or added as ingredients to other mixed dishes such as sauces for pasta, for pizzas and in soups and stews. Hot Chilli and other very pungent Peppers are added to pickles and chutneys, as well as providing their hot spiciness for Indian, Thai, Mexican and other cuisines of the world.

Chilli Pepper

And finally...
From this short introduction to Capsicum Peppers I am sure you will see many reasons why they make excellent plants to grow, but a word of warning: the hot Peppers can cause painful inflammation if they are brought into contact with mucous membranes. So if you have been handling Chilli Peppers do not touch your eyes or other sensitive parts of the body or you will regret not washing your hands first!

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.