My mother taught me to peel back the cases when I was little in our garden near Liverpool. I was enchanted then and am enchanted still. I want the honesty to grow everywhere in the garden, but it will only flourish in the cracks between the paving stones that it finds for its self.
An enormous grasshopper flew into the house and took a great bite out of my spider plant.
It was so heavy it toppled the plant pot and the huge and the unearthly head reminded me of the terrifying creatures found by Professor Quatermass in the London Underground . The 1950s classic TV series has haunted me as the ancient swarm leapt through the impossible memory of susceptible humans .
Here was the same head, jade green, monumental, implacably other regarding me over the washing up bowl.
It seems we are all just one jump away from Quatermass’ pit!
Before the rain the peonies were perfect.
Before the deluge the roses were pristine,
The lawn was trim and the slugs asleep,
But after the storm, in the snail slimed, dripping quiet,
The perfume was divine.
Capturing complex beauty is so difficult and I have the greatest respect for those who take wonderful photos with such apparent ease.
My garden is crammed with columbines at this time of year all of which have come from seeds collected in the woods locally. They cross and cross with one another and the variety they produce is mesmeric. Every May I try to capture them, but I am never satisfied by the result, as they hide in their five petaled whorls and I cannot begin to show the diversity of their colour and petals.
Some are pale, almost white and they stand out in the dawn light. Others are baby pink and innocent; next are the deep, sophisticated , rose-red flowers. Seemingly unconnected in gradation are the purple columbines: a rare few seem actually blue and are the smallest and most shyly flowered; then there are the work -a -day mid purples with the longest spurs; followed by purples rich enough for an emperor’s robe and finally, the most exotic of all: the midnight purples, so dark that they seem to absorb the very sun light around them .
Some flowers have just a single whorl of five petals: each petal contains a nectary to encourage the bees to visit and to pollenate . The nectaries are curled over and this has given the flowers their name, as they look like five doves or columbs facing one another in a delicate ring. They have also given columbines the folk names of “ladies in bonnets”and “old ladies” from when women kept warm and modest in complicated lace caps.
Bumbles bees cannot be bothered extending their long tongues into the spurs and they simply bite into the neck of the ”dove” and steal the nectar provided by the flower. Some plants are not satisfied with just one ring of petal doves and produce natural “sports” of flowers which are crammed with petals, so they look like pom-poms or little floribunda roses.
This variety is absolutely glorious.
I understand Gregor Mendel started our understanding of genetics by studying the way peas crossed with one another . I am glad he studied such a visually dull flower, as I think he would never have gained such important insight, if he had studied columbines – their beauty is just too distracting!
My cat has a drug den and today I finally destroyed it.
For years the roots of white valerian plants have attracted our cats to rub the soil and to actually eat the earth around the plant. This has made them feisty, fierce and frankly stoned, which I have put up with and found vaguely amusing . However the habit has spread. The valerian patch is now frequented by all the neighbourhood cats, who come to our garden to get high too. This causes fights and blood has been drawn on many occasions.
We first dug out the big plant and left a few muddy bits of root on the back door step. By dawn the roots were mysteriously all gone and the cats were furtive and jumpy.
We covered the patch were it had grown in wood ash. Our cats came in dirty and grey. We covered the patch in a sheet of plastic. The other cats dug along the edge and left the soil polished with their ecstatic rubbing on the earth where the plant used to grow.
So today I got dirty and dug up every tiny shoot and leaf. The drugs plants are in the photo and it is hard to imagine that they could exert such a hypnotic pull on every feline for 10 kilometres, but it is true.
This photo shows Pixie rubbing round the shoes I wore to break up the joint. She is relaxed now. Wait until she realises the truth, when she goes to get her fix first thing tomorrow morning!
It’s snowing here, but soon the sun will be out again and the dandelions will be in flower again – such is the fickle nature of spring. Faffing about flowers when the virus has us all enthralled seems absurd, but we must stay sane and nature turns unperturbed by our concerns.
Those of us fortunate enough to have lawns are watching them grow and as the world beyond the garden seems increasingly unsafe, we attempt to impose order on our own small patch. I think the first blog I ever wrote four years ago was a plea not to mow the lawn in the spring time and here I am again with the same plea for peaceful inaction!
Dandelions are beautiful.
Their huge golden flowers are the first food for so many bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies. If you are home instead of the office, then lie on the grass and watch a bee burying itself in the profusion of pollen that dandelions offer up. Watch the bee revel in the yellow gold, its whole body dusted in it and the pollen sacs on each back leg bulging with the riches it will take back to the hive.
Then put away the mower for a few weeks and let the dandelions be.
The English name for them is a corruption of the French “dent de lion” – lion’s teeth and they are “ lowen Zahn” – lion’s teeth in German too. Both names come from the shape of the seed, not the flower. The common French name is “pissenlit “ which literally means piss the bed, which is the diuretic result of eating too many of the delicious leaves!
I am eating a lot of dandelion leaves at the moment. I am eating them Greek style which is boiled or steamed for a few minutes and then dressed in olive oil and salt. You will be relieved to know they have not lived up to their French name so far!
So enjoy the spring flowers on your lawn: feed the bees: eat free greens and stay healthy!
Spring knows nothing of fear.
The lane behind our house is awash with foaming white blackthorn blossom. The bushes are like waves breaking static white tops against the bluest sky – a Japanese woodcut of mountainous water frozen into the spray of spring blossom .
The cherry trees are just starting to flower, balancing sunshine and the forecast of snow in their unfurling buds.
On the kitchen window sill the first seedings are germinating for the vegetable garden. I normally get my seeds in the supermarket over the border in Switzerland, as their varieties do well here; but in the scramble to stock up on food, they were forgotten and I am keeping well out of the shops now.
Luckily I have managed to order seeds online and the second lot arrived yesterday, to my great delight! Some postal staff will not deliver in the Haut Rhin, as the infection rate here is so high and the prospect of an empty vegetable plot for the whole year was very dispiriting. However, wonderful Spring Seeds have sent a good fist full of seeds to start things going. I have flat leafed parsley and chilli beginning to grow and their first leaves give great good cheer!
The commercial growers of fruit and veg are asking the French hairdressers and waiters and all the others who have been sent home, to help pick the spring produce which is growing right now in the greenhouses and fields. Most of the workers who normally pick the vegetables are not ill, they are migrants and they cannot enter the country as the borders are all closed and without their work the food will rot.
The world is very interconnected now. The butterfly wing flap of a closed border is felt in unpicked field. An open postal service allows some leaves to unfurl on a window sill hundreds of miles away and spring progresses one leaf at a time.
My neighbour’s apricot tree is in full bloom and if you squint your eyes hard you can just make out a red kite in the top left corner against the blue, blue sky.
Greedy for the light they press soft leaves to the cool glass
The stems yearn over one another
Etiolated by desire.
The storm splatters rain hard against the window
The roof lifts a little in the wind
Groaning to resettle it’s self on the February house.
The empty quater of view is suddenly red kite –
Angled tail and feathers quartering the lift and bluster of the day.
Inside, the leaves press harder.
Producing less polluting rubbish in the world is one of the few things we can personally do to make things better. I have always used synthetic sponges from the supermarket to clean tea cups and sinks, but feel increasingly bad about throwing them away when they are used up, as they are not recyclable.
Turns out you can use cut up loofahs to do the same job and then put the used up sections in the compost bin. Better still, you can even grow the loofah in your own garden from seed! No transport, manufacture or disposal pollution at all!
I crossed the Luwangwa river into Mozambique from Zambia some years ago. It was just a river bank above the big muddy river, but we all got out of the little boat, just to say we had landed in Mozambique . A vine was scrambling over the low bushes and the vine was loaded in long fruit. I was intrigued, pulled a few off and realised that this was a real loofah plant. The centre of the fruit is the light, slightly abrasive skeleton that we know from bathrooms and the once the peel is removed I had two perfect loofahs that I used in my own bathroom for years.
This is how I know what a loofah plant looks like, but I only just found out that you don’t have to be in Africa to grow them. They are easy to grow from seed even in Britain and the National Trust now only uses its home grown loofahs to wash up all those tea cups. My next task is to buy some loofah seeds and to plant them this spring.
I promise to tell you how they grow!!
There is always conflict for the naturalist when confronted with an alien species. On the one hand we are delighted to see a wild animal or to admire a beautiful plant, on the other hand a creature in the wrong place can push a whole ecosystem out of balance and destroy native life. Every country has its own tales of trouble from European starlings in America to Costa Rican toads in Australia and Japanese knot weed in Britain.
When crossing a road bridge in a local village I was astonished to see a large muskrat peacefully munching on a long frond of water weed, as the traffic rumbled on overhead. It was the best view I have ever had and I spent a long time admiring his white whiskers; delicate dexterous paws and ears sunk deep in his thick, silky fur. That thick fur is the whole reason why he was here, so far from his native North America. Muskrats were brought to this area to be bred for fur. When the fur market collapsed in the 1930s, the fur farmers of the Vosge mountains simply opened the cages and just let the muskrats go free. They didn’t take to find their way to the waterways and now they breed naturally .
I enjoyed watching it going about its business. I find all animals fascinating and was reminded of the pleasure of watching grey squirrels feeding and playing In British parks and in my own back garden (we named a particularly bold one Sharlene). They were aliens, they outcompeted the indigenous red squirrel and they are an official pest. However the movement of flora and fauna has been going on since life evolved, on the wind, on the tides ,on the feet of birds and the life around has always had to adapt. The ethical question of which creature has a right to exist is as complex as the evolutionary question of whether creatures that evolved in one place are more worthy than those who have moved , or been moved, to another place.
And then there are the human creatures, to whom all the same questions apply as to the muskrats under the bridge.
More tea anyone?
This video clip about a young man who is passionate about plants and reintroducing lost species to his own area. It gives me great hope for the future when I see knowledgeable and active men starting with the rewilding of their own area.
I am not chauvinist or nationalistic about any fauna or flora, if we all take care of the wildlife of our own areas then the whole planet may just have a joined up, healthy future!
I love having time to reading, but only when the world is cold and wet, do I really get properly down to it.
At the moment I am reading “The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet“ which was a Christmas present that was spot on. Dave Goulson is passionate about his garden and evangelical about how much wildlife we can all cram into our on private gardens, if only we eschew pesticides, herbicides and all the other things we are encouraged to buy to make our potential slice of paradise, tidy and dead. I was horrified to read how many suburbs of the USA are regularly drenched in pesticides from the air to “control pests” and that gardeners have no choice at all in this annual destruction of all the micro fauna on their own land.
I am also reading “Crime au Pressoir “ by Jean-Marie Stoerkel, where bodies are found lying on the grapes about to be crushed in a wine press in nearby Ingersheim. Somehow it is all linked to the German annexation of the Alsace some 80 years and hopefully reading it will improve my French!
I have just finished “A Portrait of Elmbury “ by John Moore which is a memoir of Tewkesbury in England before the second World War. This is a part of the world I know well, but set in a time I didn’t know. Some of his observations seem crass in our more enlightened times, but some are timeless such as his admiration for the men who only work as much as they had to …”they were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work itself is a virtue. They worked when they wanted to and their work was fun. They were in fact a sort of privileged class and their privilege was one which nowadays only a few great artists have.” I also learnt that farm workers were given great slabs of apple pie to eat first, before the roast beef, to ensure that they didnt just fill up on meat and avoid the abundant produce of the local orchards.
The book that I just unwrapped this morning, is however the one I think I am about to enjoy most. “Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers” by Peter Marren is the book I have been waiting for to explain the wonderfully poetical names of moths, both English and Latin. My first dipping proved Marren knows his European languages too and he gives German and French derivations of the marvellous names that always seem so redolent of 18th century country vicarages.
The moth book definitely wins the best cover award. I normally take off dust jackets as they are fiddly and irksome, but this is staying on to remind me of the colourful wonder of the delights still to be found in my moth trap in 2020..
Oh, and I had to include a “Just William ” collection by the incomparable Richmal Compton as I read a story nearly every night to send me to sleep with chuckle!
Happy New Year to all!
I need green.
The garden is mud and rain, so I appreciate my house plants hugely at this time of year.
The sitting room is dominated by three large fig trees that live on the veranda in summer, but come indoors in the cold. They block off the book cases, drop yellowing leaves on the tiles and splash dark water everywhere from their saucers when pushed out of the way. Every available surface is covered in lemon and peppermint scented geraniums, devils claw vines, spider plants and exhausted amyrilis plants that are here at home while school is closed.
In the office an old shop shelf unit is groaning under Christmas cactus and the window is almost obliterated by lumpy, leggy geraniums waiting for the summer to explode again. Most of the geraniums are cutting from a single enormous deep red flowering plant, which is far too valuable ( to me! ) to be discarded in the autumn.
The bedroom is dominated by a gigantic spider plant that is hauled into a hanging basket each summer and has been the mother to hundreds of spider babies . The spider babies have grown roots in innumerable jam jars and been given away to children, who have grown them into their first house plant in many homes. When we rented out our home in Brecon I could not find homes for all of plants and I had to leave a spider plant behind, in the hope that the tenant would adopt it. Two years later, when we visited the house I was delighted to see the only changes that the tenant had made, was to add a large tiered book case to the sitting room to display the dozens and dozens of new spider plants he had potted up from the dangling spider babies!
The kitchen widow sill has jade plants and pink leaved collis jostling for light with a hibiscus and the last pink bedding begonia from the garden. There is just enough room for a seed sprouter currently growing green lentils and a very important space for Pixie the cat to escape from her bully brother Winston when a fight is on between them.
Occasionally I think I am mad to give up so much of my house to plants and then there is another grey day of rain and fog that keep us all indoors and I know exactly why I need them. Green is the colour of life and sharing my space with them is essential to all our survival until the spring!
If it is the fate of the world to keep making people and to shove them into smaller and taller living spaces, then we have to make use of every millimetre of roof and wall to grow green things and make an aerial world, to make up for the terrestrial one that we have so comprehensively scabbed over.
I have written before about green walls and they are becoming more popular, but they are difficult to water and maintain. In Ikea; that shop front of the tiny urban world; so many have to inhabit, the cafe has a huge striking green wall and all the plants are made of plastic.
Most people find even a pocket garden too much work and choose to cover the soil in concrete or decking or even an old bike. When life is a race for time and enough money to keep the wolf from the door, then gardening is a luxury few have the space or energy to indulge in. That is why I love green roofs.
If the builder has put the right surface on the roof and it collects some moisture, then a carpet of drought tolerant, shallow rooted plants can flourish with no need of “gardening” at all. Such low input surfaces are never going to support trees or bushes, but they are green, do make oxygen, do clean the air and make a home for tiny creatures and the occasional foraging bird. We are surrounds by surfaces that could be green. Such roofs on office blocks, schools, bike sheds and shops are just crying out for a little cool green life.
The photo is of a bike shed roof, where even in winter a little line of seed heads adds life and beauty to the concrete apartments beyond. We need to make the best of what we’ve got!
I love the shape of winter trees.
Now the tattered remnants of autumn have blown away, the filigree beauty of the trees is revealed shining in a steady cool rain.
In summer all is the soft fur of green leaves, snuggling promiscuously over one another, almost indistinguishable in the pulse of sap and growth.
In Autumn there is some individuality of colour; the different varieties of vines on the hill side are briefly visible as each line of leaves turns a different shade of red in its own time before falling to the ground. Beech and hornbeam flare orange in the woods, before scattering each dry, curled leaf into the wind like sparks from a wildfire.
But in winter, there is no summer hiding, no autumnal showmanship: this is the real shape of the tree. Each limb is smooth, or broken, pruned or leaning slowly out into the sunlight. Each silhouette tells a tale of genes and weather and often the hand of man.
Winter trees are honest, bare and very, very lovely.
I am not a vegetarian, but sometimes I think I should be.
I love the taste of meat, but am disturbed by eating fellow sentient mammals. Then I consider the fowl and the fish; decide I shouldn’t eat them either and then I am left with the plants. Plants are alive too and are killed so we can eat them. If we eat neither flesh nor fruit, we are left with nothing at all, except our own extinction .
I grew a magnificent pumpkin from seed. I fed and watered it and then I picked it, sliced it into mighty chunks and made it into soup. The slices wept moisture and were so beautiful I could hardly bring myself to hack it up. But I did: I cooked it with red lentils, cinnamon and spices , pureed it to creamy perfection and ate it with relish while the rain fell outside. Oh to be human!
We have finally lifted all the potatoes; rolled five fat pumpkins onto the back step to finish ripening and picked the apples from our single apple tree: it feels like the harvest is in.
This, however, is very small fry in comparison to the massive harvest of the real countryside and the deeply bizarre manifestation of its bounty in the agricultural extravaganza in local Mulhouse.
In the huge exposition centre thousands upon thousands of people crowd in to look at stands of arranged vegetables. This is not the type of flower show that I knew well from places like Brecon in Wales, where lovingly grown marrows were judged for weight and gloss and three perfect sweetpea blossoms were awarded hotly contested rosettes for perfume and hue. This was the deliberate piling of fruit and vegetables into improbable and inedible unicorns, dragons and cathedrals and it made me long for the simplicity of the single sweetpea.
The picture above is of the more recognisable offerings of landmarks from the Alsace town of Colmar in mosaics of potatoes and pumpkins.
The Statue of Liberty in sprouts was a particular favourite. Bartholdi was a son of Colmar and created the monumental statue in France for the American people. I bet immigrants to The USA never envisaged their welcoming symbol of a new life picked out in green sprouts as they sailed into New York!
The autumn raspberries are always small.
My fingers fumble for them amongst the yellowing leaves.
There has been just enough sun to ripen a few hard green knots into fragrantly
soft fruit, bowed down now in easy reach of the gleaming slugs.
And now the rain.
A benediction of mist in a quiet grey sky
Makes slippery the sticky handle of the little basket.
My fingers close lightly and tug to loosen the wet fruit from the white stipe
But the raspberry crumbles, the droops bleed juice and rain onto my hand.
I should have picked them long ago.