My young neighbour is spraying weed killer all around his house, I can hear the swish of the hand pump and soon all will be a yellow kill zone . Weeds and all the creatures they support are dirty and wants his new house to be “clean” and dead.
As a title, spring snow flake could be describing a late weather event , but after a few recent flurries of snow I am pleased to say it actually describes a flower!
Spring snow flake is like a large snow drop with jaunty pointed petals that flowers in my local forest in the very early spring. As March and spring are now here and I delightedly detached the February page from my calendar yesterday, I thought it was time to see if they had started flowering.
After a long walk through the bare woods it was a great pleasure to see a sweep of their white flowers in the grass by the stream
Leucojum vernum is native to central and southern Europe from Belgium to the Ukraine. It is naturalised in some places in Britain and even the US, as it make a lovely garden bulb in cooler shady spots.
My neighbours tell me it is called the snow piercer in France, as it’s sharp leaves often have to come up through the snow.
Today was snow free. There were black wood peckers in the forest and yellow hammers in the hedge rows were singing “ a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeese!”.
There has been sunshine and there have been cold winds. It’s still only February, but the promise of spring is there in the air.
The garden is still mud brown and I long for the colour and exuberance of flowers.
So, I stare at the orchid flowering on my kitchen table. It came from the co-op on special offer, but it was designed for some where far more lush and exotic than my plastic covered winter table.
The nectar lines are to tempt in the insects that the orchid will reward with nectar and take payment in the form of pollen transported on the insects’ backs. All that irresistible beauty is to ensure that the orchid will cross pollinate and seeds will form.
No chance of that in this kitchen!
However on the garden table outside, something more promising is taking place.
Here a few violas from the garden centre have survived the snow and perked up in the sunshine. They are very close to their wild heartsease pansies and have not been so over bred so that no bee can use them.
A huge Queen bumble bee has recognised the honey guide makings on the flower and she is in! This is a scarce time for flowers for us all, but she has emerged from her winter dormancy to find what ever she can to fuel her self up in order to found her new dynasty in the garden.
I think she is a bombus terrestris Queen and she will found her colony underground, probably in an abandoned mouse hole.
I hope she found enough food in these few early flowers on my patio table to hatch her new season of pollinators for the flowers that we all long to see.
When the snow melts, the countryside looks flattened . There are tide marks of green along the wet ploughed brown shine of fields and not much else. But along the little stream between the rocks, the moss is in its element.
In the deep valley the moss is plump and luminously green. It covers the rocks and the base of the trees and where water drips down the face of the gully, it makes silent soft waterfalls of damp vegetation. In February, when nothing much else is growing, I am drawn to this wonderful moss, to the few ferns that cling amongst it and to the sound that is swallowed by the myriad fronds.
The Easter Island face of the rock looks down on this miraculous pulse of green in such a dead month and seems to be protecting it . Spring will come and the green will cover the little valley and the fields and the gardens. Until then it waits in this quiet waterfall of thick, thick moss.
The wild columbines in my garden are in their full glory.
I collected a few handfuls of seeds from plants in the forest on the ridge between my village and the border with Switzerland, some years ago. I chose a variety of colours, but they are all on the wild pallet of purple and pink.
Over the years they have self seeded in the shady parts of the garden and the variety of colours is amazing. Every year I try and photograph them and am always dissatisfied with the result. The flowers are down ward pointing and it seems impossible to capture their beauty and delicacy.
Some of the flowers have double and triple whorls of petals and I think their variation would have inspired Gregor Mendel to unlock the secrets of genetic variation in his famous monastic garden.
All types of bees visit the flowers . Here is a fat carpenter bee looking for nectar.
The bumble bees bite into the spurs of the flowers to reach the nectar faster and the next bees use the easy access too. You can see the bite holes in this picture.
The name columbine come from the Latin for dove and the shy down turned flower is supposed to look like a ring of doves’ heads.
Like all of the most beautiful things in life, they are transient. The warm weather will see them pollinated quickly and soon the patio will be painted with the bright confetti of their multicoloured, fallen petals.
I came across a wonderful article describing how the Japanese seasons are separated in to five day micro seasons, after ancient Chinese segments adapted for the Japanese climate. The segments are such marvellously subtle slices from the time when deer shed their antlers to when the bears go into their dens . From when the wheat germinates under the snow, to when the first cherry blossom opens.
It made me think about a calendar for my corner of the world from when Madame Charlotte’s walnut tree finally breaks into leaf ( third week of May ) to when the snails climb up the plant stalks ( driest time in late August) . There is the time when the first crickets sing at night, to the thickest dew on the ladies mantle leaves; the full moon when the moths don’t fly ( tonight !) to the time when the first slugs devour new the iris flowers ( tomorrow!)
I think I will work on my own 72 divisions, but it can’t be done right now as this season is undeniably the busiest of them all. It can wait until the garden seems asleep and there is nothing else to do. In the meantime, take a look at this wonderful list and maybe start to plan your own version for your own corner of the world, or maybe wait until the winter when the ice forms!
I was inspired to photograph my window sill today by Flighty at flightplot.Wordpress.com . So here it is : two overwintered geraniums, two small trays of seedlings and an absurd sunflower .
The sunflower found its way from the bird seed in to the vegetable seedling trays and very soon out grew the chilli seedlings that were supposed to be germinating there. I have given it its own pot for fun and have been astonished by how much it has grown. I turn it every day and soon it will be taller than the window frame.
Of course it should be in the garden and that is the tension of this time of year. I want to plant everything out, but it is still cool at night and if I go too early , the seedlings will be stunted or worse still, frosted by the ice saints. Saint Sophia’s feast day is May 15th and it often coincides with a few days of really cold weather in this part of Europe . She is known as Kalt Sophie and can be the last frost of the spring and it isn’t advisable to put anything tender out before this date.
So my window sill is still is groaning under geraniums that have kept me cheerful all winter and flower seedlings ( cosmos) for later on the season and gherkin seedlings for tiny cucumbers harvesting when it is hot .
Two more weeks seems a long time to wait when the sun is shining and my fingers are itching to plant them outdoors. It is such a wonderful time of renewed life . Everything is far from perfect in the world, the news from the Ukraine is appalling and Russia seems to want to start World War Three, so I turn to my laden window sill; to faith in goodness and to the glory of the garden.
The blossom trees held their breath in the snow and the storm and today they exhaled.
The white cherry blossom studs the forest tops and in the orchards, the perfect pink of apple blossom opens out on to the clean pale centre of this most lovely of flowers on this the most perfect of April days.
Things are not always perfect, but in the brief moment when they are, we can rejoice.
The hedgerows are still bare: a few colts foot and celandines have nosed out above the soil and in the woods there are tiny oxslips and lungwort flowers, easily overlooked amongst the dead leaves.
The spring migrants are here!
The chiffchaff is throwing his voice like confetti up into the leafless trees. The secretive dunnock has slipped in on the warm air and the electric crackle of the black redstart is fizzing from the barn tops. Every storks’ nest has two gigantic birds stood aloft and they throw back their heads and rattle and clack to one another with insane glee.
In the ploughed fields there are still a few bramblings and in my garden the feeders are covered with siskins, who don’t seem to know that winter is over yet. The cold weather seed eaters are still cautious, but the warm weather insect eaters are already here. They are ready to risk the changing of the guard and for a few days yet they meet in the neutral territory of the early spring.
These are the last cabbages of the season. They have hung on all winter and have now been picked so the vegetable plot can be rotivated for the new growing season.
I love their tenacity, how they stay green in snow and frost and the complexity of their texture and colours .
The Alsace was once famous for growing huge cabbages, which were shredded for making choucroute or sauerkraut on the other side of the Rhine. The fields were also home to the wonderful Giant Hamster of the Alsace which is just surviving by the skin of it’s rodent teeth in the face of industrialized agriculture: protected from complete extinction in a few tiny reserves.
My best friend, when I lived in Kazakhstan, was a Russian lady with a wonderful garden behind her small house. She grew cabbages and pumpkins and walls of flowers and roses and I often think of that productive and beautiful patch of earth on the edge of the city, where we ate shaslik from the bbq with Uighur friends in the shade of a plum tree.
The Emperor Diocletian was the only Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate power and to step down before he was killed in war or was assassinated . He decided to give up the power of his vast empire and to retire and simply grow cabbages in his garden.
When asked to return to lead his people again he is said to have replied that if you could see my cabbages you would understand the impossibility of the suggestion.
I think some current emperors could learn from this. Growing cabbages is far more noble than going to war, as history has proven. And if no one else will thank you; then maybe the Giant Hamster will.
At the start of the week the madness of the invasion of the Ukraine became apparent and by the end of the week it has intensified in a way that is almost unbearable. And yet I am not Ukrainian and no one is shelling me, so the very, very least I can do, is to get on.
It has been glitteringly sunny here. Cold and cuttingly bright and at night it is unusually star filled and cloudless. The nighttime temperatures are very low and each morning I awake to a hard white frost.
March is the start of the mothing season for me and on the first night above freezing, I put out my moth trap. There were two Hebrew characters and an Early Grey in the trap . The Early Grey was a new species for the garden and I start 2022 with 315 recorded moth species in my garden since I started to keep records. This moth eats honey suckle and like the Hebrew character ( named for the distinctive marking on the wing that looks like a letter) has furry tummy to keep in warm in these cold early days of spring.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Lenin.
We went driving today along the Rhine river. The Rhine is the artery of industrial Europe: on one side Germany and on the other France and all along this stretch there are vats of hydrochloric acid, vast cement works, gigantic silos of grain, parks of containers full of goods from China and Bangladesh and factories making glass and airplanes and shopping trolleys and everything that we take for granted in our 21st century lives, but don’t want to actually see.
In the water were some swans, pochard and mallard. A canny heron and a few tufted ducks and above was a very early spring sky blowing though a beautiful cloud scape before the storm struck.
Three vignettes stood out.
Before the motorway a small group of people were lifting a wreath of flowers over a memorial to some one killed in the traffic. An elderly lady with two younger men were momentarily frozen in a very private moment of remembrance as we drove on by.
Much further on a tall, dark young man with a large backpack walked very quickly along the motorway verge. He looked tired but purposeful and I wondered how very far he had walked , from where and which side of the river he actually wanted to be on.
On the edge of a village a pétanque court was actually in use. There were dozens of men playing in the normally abandoned sand. Their faces were unmasked and they were animated with competition, excitement and humour .
There really does seem little to look at in late January.
The ground is as hard as a stone, the water is all frozen and my greatest wildlife achievement is to put boiling water out for the birds. I pick out the flower shaped ice from the bird bath and fill it with water that stays liquid for half an hour. The great tits are the first to flutter down for a drink, a robin drinks and so too do the blue tits.
The “pond” we made from a sunken sink is glassy with solid ice and a big black cat sits in the middle of the ice and scrabbles with his claws at the ice to melt a corner to drink from. I decide it is interesting to see wild behaviour from semi domestic cats: it is something to see .
There are two greater spotted woodpeckers and a Siskin has turned up to eat the sunflower kernels. There are now 11 bramblings about in the garden. Last year we had none and the year before the sky was black with these bright birds. It all depends on how the winter is in the far north of Europe. The bramblings seem to say it is coldish, but not perishing yet this year.
A stork has returned to his/her nest site in the next village. He is early and as yet alone, but I take it as an omen of the spring to come and hope he will soon be a pair and the nest will be made even larger for the chicks and the thaw to come.
I know winter is far from over, that February is the coldest, hardest month and is yet to come, but today there was a change of the light . There was a breath of spring somewhere, even if it was only in the blue sky behind the snow clouds and I thought of Edward Thomas’ lovely short poem.
Thaw Edward Thomas 1917?
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed The speculating rooks at their nests cawed And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass, What we below could not see, Winter pass.
The whole plant is now locked away in the tiniest of seeds.
Sometimes they will germinate in Autumn rains and survive the winter, but most often the seed will just wait it out until the spring comes and conditions are right to explode into life.
Seeds are so tiny in comparison to the plant they may become. All that complex information for life is locked away safely in the dry seed and it’s survival is so improbable that it makes collecting the autumn seeds seem like the most important thing I can do . I know seed catalogs are full of technicolor promise for the spring, but these are seeds that I know will grow again. I collect nasturtiums, sweet William, dames violet, wall flowers and lettuce. Some things will just seed without needing to be collected like roucoula , columbine and marigolds. Some will need the lure of the seed catalogue like chard and pumpkin and fennel, but all will be an astounding testimony to what can grow out from the locked away life!
Some fungi you remember from their smell, some from sight and just a few from their sound.
This yellow morel was under an open hedge and was already broken, so I picked it up and as I did so the honeycomb shape made the oddest dry hollow sound, unlike any fungi I have ever heard . I have never even considered the sound of fungi before, but on retrospect I expect a largish mushroom to sound solid and sturdy but this was light and reverberated to the touch.
Yellow morels are apparently very good to eat, but I am very wary of eating fungi as they are so astonishingly different at each stage of their development . The only thing I have ever confidently eaten was a giant puff ball as it simply cannot be anything else once it has reached football size!
Foraging for fungi is very fashionable but I was once nearly killed by a forest mushroom sauce at my favourite French restaurant. I have never been back and I have never eaten mushroom sauce again, much better to admire them and even to listen to them then ever to actually eat them!
The pear blossom is over, the cherry blossom is still splashing down and the pink edged perfect apple blossom is just showing between the twin green leaves that seem to offer up the simple flowers to an April morning.
In the thicket a real Nightingale sang. Her song is so rich, so varied, so burbling, so beautiful it needs Keats to do it justice. This poem seems so apt and poignant today, just as it did for Keats struggling with TB and still transported by the astounding beauty of the bird’s song. It is a long poem, but well worth reading again, or for the first time.
“Immortal bird” indeed.
Ode to a Nightingale .
John Keats- 1795-1821
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness,— That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known, The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy, Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; But here there is no light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy! Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn; The same that oft-times hath Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell To toil me back from thee to my sole self! Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades Past the near meadows, over the still stream, Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Today the sun shone and I went exploring. The cherry trees that waited until the snow had gone, were in full flower and the apples trees that had slept the frost away were just unwrapping their pinkest, white petals.
In a local village I stopped to look again at the history of the Jewish communitythat once lived here. They are gone now. Their names are on the war memorials, but nothing else remains.
The community thrived for a long time, built schools and synagogues until in the 19th century, locals ripped the roofs from their homes and destroyed their houses.
Some stayed: their lives were intertwined with France until the very last families, old and young were deported by the Nazis and died in concentration camps.
Their story has not been forgotten in Durmenach and the village commemorates them, but the people are gone and their memory is just glimpsed in the photos and in the spring sunlight.
In spring there is so much to notice, so much to hear, smell and to see that writing about it all seems an unprofitable use of this wonderful time of year; but somehow I still like to try to capture a little of it in words, so here I go.
The woods are full of fighting wrens. Tiny balls of feathers explode out of the undergrowth and cascade down in furious brawls over mates and territories. These secretive birds are suddenly everywhere and they don’t care if you notice them in their brief spring bruiserish personas . They will soon melt back into the leaves to raise their tiny brood of chicks in quiet and anonymous safety.
It has been a good year for cowslips and for the shiny yellow stars of lesser celandine. The celandine are slowly colonising the corners of my garden and the late spring has allowed their flowers to shine for weeks . It’s country name is pilewort as it is good for curing piles apparently!
The tree leaves are appearing like a green smoke and wild cherry blossom in the woods is thin and unexpected like a lace curtain hastily pulled over an indiscreet window. Before the leaves join into the screen of summer some couples are still visible. I noticed these two trees growing into each other a few days ago. The smooth bark I think belongs to a hornbeam and the fissured bark is a robinia . The bark is melding and there is something ludicrously romantic about their unlikely and supportive intimacy.
The blackcaps have returned to the garden and so have the redstarts with their electric crackle of song. One of our nest boxes that has been spurned for years due to our ( and many, many others) cats may finally be home to some blue tits and the kestrels are back to nest in the barn opposite. My husband heard a cuckoo yesterday morning and in the evening I saw the first swallows racing over the garden and all the bright, bright unfurling leaves.
This bright daffodil was growing on the edge of the wood and maybe wild or may be not.
The wild daffodils I have seen in Gloucestershire and Wales have paler outer petals, so the uniform yellowness of this flower made it seem more like a hybrid of some description. Wild or not, the most remarkable thing about the flower was the myriad of tiny shiny black beetles all over it. I have never noticed them in my life, but Meligethes aeneus or pollen beetle is a common beetle in gardens and farmland apparently. They love yellow flowers and clothes and yellow tennis balls. They eat pollen and can be a problem on rape seed crops, but are no cause for alarm in a garden. They were as beautiful and remarkable as the flower that they were feeding on.
This morning I braved the garden centre and was cheered by the plants and depressed by the row upon row of chemicals on sale to kill “weeds” moss, insects, moles in our gardens.
The link between Parkinson’s Disease and farmers and gardeners who have been in close contact with glyphosate /paraquat such as Roundup herbicide is becoming stronger and stronger and legal cases are being amassed against the manufacturers of such chemicals. We have to find beauty in all aspects of nature and crucially to find a balance between our need for bountiful crops and our need for good human health and a healthy ecosystem . Not drenching our own backyards and gardens with perniciously noxious chemicals would seem the obvious place to start!
We have to find space for the daffodil and the bug!
Today was warm and the cones on the pine trees started to crack open, slow releasing their tough seeds onto the ground.
Green woodpeckers yaffled, spotted woodpeckers drummed and the greenfinches sneered their wonderfully adolescent long single whine from the branches.
Butterflies woke up . There were brimstones, comma, red admirals and small tortoiseshells, bright against the brown mud in my garden as they shook colour back into the world.
In doors I sat at the kitchen table and watched the images from Mars on a laptop.
The rover descending and filming the surface as it came closer and closer, I saw the ridges and the red craters, the tantalising aquamarine shapes and then the sand of the very surface blown by the rover landing, engulfed it all.
I listened to the sound of Mars.
A wind blew between the clicks and bleeps of the machine that had travelled so far to hear it. In my kitchen, as the pine cones split open, I heard the wind on planet Mars and existence was astounding again and again.
In January there really is little to see except cold, hungry birds and so I return to my records of the moths that I have seen during the better part of the year.
One of my strangest photographs was of a very distinctive black and white moth which I could not identify from my moth books.
I had sent the record in to the LPO as an an unidentified specimen knowing that the moth recorder checks such a unnamed moths in the depths of the winter and may well provide an identification for me.
When the days were suitably dark and moths were suitably absent, a positive ID came back: it was a wonderful rare Lycia zonaria the Belted Beauty !
These moth are extinct in mainland Britain. The last records were from the sand dunes of costal Cheshire, but golf courses and the heavy tramp of healthy walkers have done for them and they are now only found in Orkney. The females are flightless home bodies, who cannot stray far from the right sandy grassland and they are not plentiful anywhere .
We live about as far from the sea as you can get in Europe and our ground is not at all sandy, but somewhere a female belted beauty must have found the right spot to hatch and to send out her perfume on the night air to this lucky male. His feathery antenna are designed to detect her subtle sent and I very much hope that they guided him safely to his mate the next night. I like to think that some new Belted Beauties were made last Marchand that that they just might return this spring to tantalise and gladden the heart with their very rare beauty.
I slept late this morning. I hate waking up when it’s still dark and today I took the luxury of sleeping the darkness away.
There’s been heavy snow here, pretty but crushing , it has bowed down the bushes, cracked open the rosemary and flattened the wallflowers that were waiting gamely through the winter for the spring.
However, while I
slept a wonderful warm wind rattled the house, bangle the shutters, whistled through the door jambs and gave me vivid spring dreams full of light. The thick snow slid from the roofs and crashing roars of noise that would normally have me jumping with fear, were intertwined with my dreams to produce formless exhilarating sensations .
I went to sleep in the winter and woke in spring time.
In the garden the sky was huge and racing blue and white. Everything smelt of growth and possibility. The cats were afraid of the scurrying leaves and the howling trees, but I just filled my lungs with the warm air and rejoiced.
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