Plant of the Season - Lavender
A flowering plant of the mint family, lavender is justly famous for its beauty, scent and medicinal qualities. It has been popular throughout the world for thousands of years and was used by the ancient Egyptians and the Romans. The name reputedly comes from the Latin lavere meaning to wash although some sources claim that it is the Latin livere meaning blueish.
However, lavender isn’t always blue — it can be pink, violet, deep purple or white. It also comes in different sizes from large plants of up to 3ft such as Lavendula intermedia ‘Grosso’ to tiny rockery plants like L. angustifolia ‘Nana Alba’. The traditional English lavender ( L. angustifolia) is a strong compact plant that will withstand low temperatures. However the tufty-eared French lavender ( L. stoechas) is not so frost hardy.
Lavender will tolerate most soil conditions but it doesn’t like to get its roots too wet so incorporate plenty of drainage material if your soil is clay. Plants do best in full sun and they should be clipped after flowering to keep the shape compact. Just cut back the new season’s growth as the lavender doesn’t like having its old wood cut. Some books advocate replacing the plants every five years or so but I’ve had lavender in my previous garden that was several decades old and still going strong. You can easily add to your lavender stock by taking semi-ripe or hardwood cuttings.
The unmistakeable perfume of lavender is used in many ways — to scent soaps, lotions, cosmetics and room sprays. Sachets of dried flowers have long been popular for placing with stored sheets and clothes, as well as putting in pillows to aid sleep and relaxation. Dried lavender is also used in baking — lavender scones and shortbread are delicious. The distilled oil of lavender is widely available and a few drops are said to soothe headaches, insect bites and sunburn, help cuts to heal and relieve coughs. The oil should always be used according to the instructions on the label and never taken internally.
It is not surprising that lavender is one of England’s best loved plants and one that can be found in gardens of all types. It is a royal favourite too — in fact Queen Victoria loved lavender so much that she appointed Sarah Sprules, who had a nursery in Wallington, Sutton, as “Purveyor of Lavender Essence to the Queen”.
being discharged into rivers illegally. It is not easy to catch a large number of oiled swans and wash them to remove any contamination caused by this kind of pollution.”
Discarded fishing tackle is another major culprit, although the lead split-shot weights that were once attached to fishing lines are now illegal. Before they were banned in the 1980s swan numbers on the Thames diminished sharply as they died of lead poisoning.
Heavy river traffic is another factor in the diminishing numbers of swans. Sometimes accidents can be hard to avoid and we must remember that everyone wishes to use the river: it is a massive leisure attraction for many people including rowers, fishermen, sailors, boaters etc.
The Queen visited Swan Upping a few years ago. Her party travelled on a steamer called Alaska in the area from Bovney Lock to Oakley Court Hotel. She spoke to several children and presented a certificate to two of the schools for the projects they had completed on river conservation.
“We were proud and honoured to be a part of that day. The Swan Uppers are good oarsmen and many of them are watermen or lightermen working on the Thames so they can handle a boat with expertise. Some of them have been Olympic oarsmen.
“When they are appointed they are advised by Professor Perrins how to handle swans, lift them out of the water and hold them. They also go to one of the swan rescue organisations to be taught how to tie the swans’ legs and wings and also check for fishing-tackle injuries.
“The Vintners and Dyers place a small stainless steel ring on their cygnets and this is inscribed with a number that enables that bird to be traced. Crown birds are left unmarked. However, all swans carry what is known as a British Trust for Ornithology ring (BTO). This has nothing to do with ownership but is placed on the leg for traceability and to enable data to be kept on record about each swan.
“We have a team of traditional support boats that carry our gear, tow our skiffs occasionally, and do a wonderful job for us on our journey to Abingdon. Many people come to the locks and watch us travel through and they all wish to see a swan catch which is not easy for us because you never know where the next swan catch will be.
“The schools contact us when they’re intending to send a party of children. We can arrange with them where we are going to stop and I find myself praying we’ll have a swan catch there. If we don’t have a swan catch at the rendezvous point with the schoolchildren I will usually arrange for one of the swan rescue organisations to meet us with, for example, two orphaned cygnets to show the youngsters. We have many orphaned cygnets at that time of year. Some have been washed over the weirs and lost their parents.”
David Barber’s contribution to river life has recently been recognised in a portrait by the well-known international artist Susan Edwards from the Cotswolds who completed several canvases. “It was a lovely portrait and she did a grand job,” he says. The artist told us: “There’s nothing in the world as lovely as an English summer’s day on the Thames with the sunlight on the water, and the magnificent, colourful and historic pageant of the Swan Uppers progressing upriver. I wanted to capture the excitement as it happened, and took the large canvas down to the river at Sonning to paint en plein air, just like the Impressionists did. Luckily there was very little wind, so my canvas didn’t take off and the clouds drifted gently by. I like to think you can almost hear the oars dipping into the water when you look at the painting.”
Susan Edwards can be contacted at email@example.com