Dear Readers, this week I have been in Dorchester, visiting Mum and Dad’s grave out in Milborne St Andrew. And when I came back, I needed to walk, but the night draws in so quickly now that it’s December. I looked up the time for sunset, and it was 16.07, so I had just about an hour for my expedition. The ducks were starting to settle down for the night….
and I noticed all the molehills for the first time. Someone has been very busy…
Then it’s across the blue bridge…
And I’m sure I saw a kingfisher flying like an arrow up the stream, but it was too quick for me to photograph.
And then I look back to see the sun beginning to go down.
How often do we get a chance to really savour a sunset? We should do it more often, I think. I cross the field that was full of sweetcorn last time I was here, in September, and the crows and gulls and pheasants are gleaning the fallen seeds.
The field where the birds are feeding has some magnificent trees. I love that they remain although they must make it awkward to plough. I admire the farmer who recognises that some things are more important than convenience.
And around every corner there’s a new view of the sunset.
And here is a sheep wearing a bemused expression.
There’s a family of swans out on the meadow, and the old, rusty machinery that used to be used to direct the water and flood the fields. By now it’s getting cold, and dark, and so I head back towards the guest house. But as I walk up the hill, the sky blushes and changes until I can do is gawp and take photos. Let’s take some time to watch this twice-daily miracle, friends. Although watching it made me sad, because my parents are no longer here to see it, it also made me feel alive, and that is a very important thing.
Dear Readers, we’re entering that time of year when most of the real ‘weeds’ have disappeared, but I was so taken by this plant that I saw in my Aunt Hilary’s garden that I thought I’d give it it’s moment in the sun. The scent was so strong that I could smell it before I saw it, and it reminded me that I’d actually seen this shrub before, during my walk along the route of the Mutton Brook.
Now, this plant is one with a very particular history. We can date it back to 1935 when Charles Puddle (what a splendid name!) the Head Gardener of Lord Aberconway at Bodnant Gardens in Wales decided to experiment with a bit of hybridisation. He took Viburnum Farreri, an extremely fragrant viburnum that grows in Northern China….
Viburnum farreri flowers (Photo One)
…and crossed it with Viburnum grandiflora which, as the name suggests, has large flowers….
Viburnum grandiflora (Photo Two)
to get Viburnum bodnantense, named for the estate.
Viburnum bodnantse var ‘Dawn’
The history of Bodnant Garden itself started in 1874 when it was founded by Henry Davis Pochin, an industrial chemist who invented the process which culminated in producing white soap as opposed the the brown bars that had existed previously. Then it came into the family of Laura McLaren (Baroness Aberconway). The family funded numerous plant hunters who scoured the world for new plants, and the garden still holds the national collections of Magnolias, Eucryphias, Embothriums and Rhododendron forestii. Three generations of head gardeners in the Puddle family (Charles was the middle one) helped to create what Henry Nicholson (husband of Vita Sackville-West) described as ‘ “… the richest garden I have ever seen. Knowledge and taste are combined with enormous expenditure to render it one of the wonders of the world“. It was given to the National Trust in 1949 and attracts a quarter of a million visitors every year, many to visit the Laburnum Arch which is the longest in the UK.
Laburnum arch at Bodnant Gardens (Photo Three)
What are Viburnums, though? Our native Viburnum is the Guelder Rose, and it’s easy to forget that these decorative varieties also have berries, and can be useful for birds. There are about 130 – 175 species, and they have recently been moved from the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) to the moscatel family (Adoxaceae) which, in addition to the tiny woodland plant that the family is named for, also includes the elders. This molecular phylogeny business has thrown up some strange bedfellows, and certainly keeps us gardeners on our toes.
Moscatel (Adoxa moschatellina) (Photo Four)
The long, straight stems of Viburnum were used as arrowshafts in prehistory (some species of the plant have the vernacular name ‘arrowwood’. Poor old Ötzi the iceman, found in the Alps on the boundary of Austria and Italy in 1991 and believed to have died over 5000 years ago, was carrying 14 arrows, their shafts made of dogwood and viburnum. He also had an arrowhead buried in his shoulder, which just goes to show how dangerous these high mountain passes were.
The stone weapons that Ötzi was carrying when his body was found (Photo Five)
The Bodnant Viburnum has a lot to recommend it, if you have room – the scent is divine, it flowers through the winter on its bare branches, offering nectar to late insects, and the flowers are elegant, especially when glimpsed against snow, or an azure winter sky.
And finally, a poem. This is not, I suspect, about a Bodnant Viburnum, but I rather like it anyhow. See you what you think. The poet is Steve Xerri, and I love his description of his early life as a poet. I am very glad that he is able to be a full-time poet and potter now. So few of us follow our passions. Maybe more of us should.
“He started writing for his school magazine, took verses along to his college poetry reading group as a student, contributed pieces to his students’ magazines when he was a teacher, and in his days as a designer would sneak into a spare office at lunchtime to compose more poems, which were destined to languish in his desk drawer.”
Might we two always have known this place with its twayblades and viburnum, the mottled leaves and purple spikes of its sheltering orchids? Did moments fall dense as these do, faintly spiced with pollen and fungus, in a tent of stillness anchored to these trees? And were we maybe this same flesh on different bones, bodying other versions of companionship? Allow me my foolish questions : hard else to tolerate our endstopped mammal time, tramping yearly up these hill paths, slowly getting slower, in hopeful search of greened-up shoots eternally returning.
Dear Readers, it would have been my mother’s 86th birthday on 26th November. She died on 18th December 2018, and so nearly three years have passed, but I still feel a great heaviness as her birthday approaches. Mum loved a celebration, be it Christmas or a birthday, November 5th or Easter, and it’s hard to think that I will never ring her up and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ (badly) down the phone to her.
The last time Mum and Dad came to visit at Christmas was in December 2016. I bought Mum the little orchid in the photo above, and when she headed home she forgot to take it with her. I watered it and then neglected it, and then watered it again. The poor thing must have been very confused. But then, in October, I noticed that something was happening. Were there buds emerging, after all this time?
And just before what would have been Mum’s birthday, the first flower unfurled. I picked the plant up and put it on the mantelpiece so it could have pride of place. This morning the pond was frozen for the first time this winter, but the sun shone cold and hard through the window and the orchid glowed as if illuminated from within.
Mum had lots of orchids on her windowsill when she and Dad lived in Dorset. She became expert at coaxing them into flower and knowing when to let them rest. She had a long battle with whitefly, and every time I visited I’d be wiping the leaves and checking the buds to make sure there weren’t any insects hiding away, especially as her vision was failing. When she went into hospital and then the nursing home, the whitefly won, and every plant died except this one, the one that she forgot. It is so bittersweet that it is doing so well when she is three years dead. Sweet because it is so beautiful, bitter because she is no longer here to see it. She would have loved it, I know.
And yet, when I saw the orchid glowing in the sun, everything fell away. There is something about a moment of beauty that stops the endless brain-chatter and strips away the constant commentary about what’s happening. Before language I imagine this is what everything is like – no wonder tiny children are so constantly amazed by everything they see and hear. I am reminded too of Dad’s sheer, unalloyed delight when eating a custard tart after his dementia had stripped so many other things away. And if I can get past my narrative about Mum and Dad and what happened to them in their later years, all that is left is a boundless tenderness that’s so close to pain that I don’t really know how to express it, except that it feels like being filled from the top of my head to the tips of my toes with light. Grief is the tax we pay for loving deeply, and I don’t resent paying it, not one bit.
Dear Readers, what a cold, damp and grey day it was in the cemetery today! The wind was blowing a gale – we are getting the edge of Storm Arwen, who has been a real beast in the northern parts of the UK. Yesterday, the Meteorological Office issued a most unusual red warning for parts of Scotland and northern England – this means severe and imminent danger of loss of life and substantial property damage, and at least one person in Northern Ireland was killed in the high winds. Lest you think we are being imprudent by walking in the woods, I can assure you that the gusts are much less severe so far than elsewhere, but it was very chilly. We trudged along with our thermals on and our heads down, but as usual there was something to see.
First of all, I noticed this little ginkgo, a spot of sunshine in the relentless grey. This infant tree seems to be hanging on to its leaves, probably because it’s well protected by the cedars of Lebanon and the swamp cypresses (of which more shortly).
But then we drifted a little off piste, and came across this extraordinary sight.
An older ginkgo just across the way must have given up all its leaves at once. Look at this carpet of gold! They are rumoured to do this, but I’d never seen it before. How beautiful.
And what is that magnificent russet tree in the background? Regular readers will know that this is my favourite tree in the cemetery, the swamp cypress.
My husband was pondering why I loved it so much, and we came to the conclusion that it’s because it seems to stand between two worlds. It’s a conifer, and so you’d expect it to keep its leaves, but instead it’s deciduous. Conifers are so often trees of cold regions, but this tree is found in Texas and Louisiana. Although it can grow in swamps, it actually prefers dry soils. In other words, this is a tree that eludes categories and neat classification, like all my favourite people and animals. But more than that, it has a fairy-tale quality that is easy to see once you tiptoe under the low-hanging branches and stand under the canopy of soft leaves.
And here is a little cone, just forming. They are rather like medieval maces with their tiny plates.
My Collins Tree Guide describes the trunk as ‘sinuous’. I know what they mean.
There’s just something about this tree that somehow makes me feel loved and protected. It’s difficult to explain, but I could just nestle down on this bed of fallen leaves and sleep for a week. I know ‘tree-huggers’ have a bad name, but I have put my arms around this one more than once when unobserved.
Do you have a favourite tree? Or am I alone in thinking that, if you pay attention, they have character? Let me know, Readers!
Dear Readers, as winter comes on apace here in the UK, I have been thinking about how many plants are animals have the words ‘white’ or ‘black’ in their names, even when they aren’t either colour. The black-headed gull, for example, has a chocolate-brown head, and doesn’t even have that for most of the year.
So your challenge this week is a) to say whether the organisms depicted in the photos below belong in the ‘white’ or the ‘black’ category, and to make things fair there are eight of each. An extra point if you can name the critter/plant, giving a possible maximum score of 32 points.
All answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Friday 3rd December please, and the answers will be posted on Saturday December 4th. As usual I will make your answers disappear as soon as I see them, but write them down before looking at the comments if you are easily influenced by other people’s brilliance.
So, if you think the creature in photo 1 belongs in the black category, your answer is 1) Black. If you think that it’s a black-tailed spooglehound, you can put that in as well for an extra point.
Dear Readers, we had some splendid results this week! Fran and Bobby Freelove got 29/30 for the tiniest of slips (one too many Canadians and not enough New Zealanders :-() but our winners this week, with 30/30 are Sophie and Claire. Well done to everyone!
A) 2) Paris – Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia)
B) 9) Wales – Welsh Poppy (Meconopsis cambrica)
C) 8) New Zealand – New Zealand Pigmyweed (Crassula helmsii)
Dear Readers, you might remember that I visited this serene space in the middle of the Inns of Court a few months ago. Since then I’ve become somewhat evangelical about the gardens, which combine interesting planting with a sense of informality which I find very appealing. I was intrigued to see what would still be in flower in the middle of November, and as I walked up to the gates, I spotted this remarkable plant, which I think is a cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens).
I’m not sure if these are buds or seedheads, but they are most remarkable structures.
Inside the garden there were salvias a-plenty, still mostly in flower. One of them was even hosting a drowsy bumblebee (not so drowsy that I managed to get a photo of her though).
The gardeners are very fond of ornamental grasses here, and use them to great effect.
Manchurian walnut tree in Inner Temple Gardens
And I rather like this plant, though I have no idea what it is. Help, Readers!
My friend S and I both though that this topiary looked like a duck with its head under its wing…
…..though not from the other side.
And look, a swamp cypress. Not quite as magnificent as *my* swamp cypress in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, but very fine nonetheless.
And then it’s off for a trot along the plane tree avenue…
And then past the hydrangeas. I had no idea that you could get a scarlet variety, but here it is.
And here’s a more traditional variety. Hydrangeas are not my favourites (apart from my splendid climbing hydrangea of course) but they do have a very long season, and are one of the few plants that look impressive even when the flowers are dead.
But what on earth is this? The leaves on this plant are so interesting, and I love the way that it seems to unfold like a fan. If you know what it is give me a shout, gentle readers. UPDATE:I am mega-embarrassed about this as I’ve actually done a Wednesday Weed about this plant – Melianthus major, the Giant Honey Flower. Thanks to Fran and Bobby Freelove, Anne and Sophie for reminding me about it!.
So I am still in love with these gardens, even at the turning of the year. It would almost be worth becoming a lawyer just to have unlimited access. Note that I say ‘almost’ because I am not of a combative nature, and I suspect that that’s a prerequisite, though I guess it depends what part of the law you specialise in. And as I leave, I notice that the steps to the outside world are tumbling with Mexican fleabane, and embedded with wildflowers, as if insistent that our last memories of this special place should be of the potency of nature, which obeys laws of its own.
Red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubens) (Photo One)
Dear Readers, my copy of British Wildlife (which includes all things living, not just animals) often makes sober reading, as habitats change and species decline. This month, however, there are some very bracing success stories and I thought I’d share them here to cheer us all up.
First up is the red helleborine (photo above) – this is a critically endangered orchid in the UK, known from only a handful of sites, so it was a real treat when a new population of the plant was discovered in West Gloucestershire. Orchids are vulnerable to idiots with spades digging them up so the exact location is a secret, but the landowner, the local recorder and those with expertise in managing the habitat of this rare plant have been informed. Let’s hope that it thrives!
And while we’re on the subject of orchids, a small-flowered tongue orchid (Serapias parviflora) has cropped up on the green roof of Nomura Internation in the City of London. The seeds of orchids are incredibly light and can travel a long way, so it might well have been blown here from across the Channel (it’s a plant of the Atlantic coast of mainland Europe generally), and climate change is making the southern part of England much more amenable to plants that require warmer, wetter conditions.
And here’s a very surprising story. Mousetail (Myosurus minimus), a Red-listed threatened species of buttercup, was spotted growing at Reading services on the M4 motorway – the plant was growing in a strip of gravel between two parking bays. The person who spotted it (Simon Leach) contacted a botanist who told him that it had been spotted on the other side of the motorway too so, with the zeal that only a true plant enthusiast can muster, he checked out the grass verges on the return journey, only to find that there were literally tens of thousands of the plant growing in these most inhospitable circumstances. Nature will indeed find a way.
Mousetail (Myosurus minimus) (Photo Three)
Moving onto insects, there is exciting news to report from the world of grasshoppers and their relatives. For one thing, the Large Conehead (Ruspolia nitidula) has become very well established in the south of England, and bat detectors have been used to pick up the calls of the males. There is a recording of their high-pitched call below – you might need to turn up your speakers!
Large conehead (Ruspolia nitidula) (Photo Four)
This rather splendid fly was found in Wytham Woods near Oxford – it’s a Forest Silver-Stiletto (Pandivirilia melaleuca) and is vanishingly rare – it needs dead and dying wood and sap runs in which to breed) so any new sighting has to be good news. Most people are not very fond of flies, but this varied group contains insects which are essential to the well-being of the ecosystems in which they lives.
Forest Silver-stiletto (Pandivirilia melaleuca) – Photo by Matthew Harrow
And finally (and for me this is the most exciting news of the month) a population of praying mantises has been found in a garden in Oxfordshire. The insects appear to be breeding – Richard Lewington, who wrote ‘Guide to Garden Wildlife‘, one of my favourite field guides, found several adults and an egg case in 2020. The owners contacted him this year, and he found a nymph, so this appears to be the first record of successful breeding in the wild in Britain.
Praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) (Photo Five)
So, it seems that climate change and a variety of other factors are influencing the make-up of our wild plant and animal communities in a variety of ways. Some could be predicted, but others are totally unexpected. Many species are being pushed to the brink, while others are taking advantage of new opportunities. There can be little doubt that everything is on the move.
Dear Readers, was there ever a more characterful vegetable than the kohlrabi? The one on the left looks as if it is grinning maniacally, and the one on the right seems to be waving its little arms or begging to be picked up. What a shame that they taste so much like turnips, a vegetable that fills me with little enthusiasm. Still, these chaps have appeared in my fortnightly organic box, and so I shall find something exciting to do with them.
Gary Rhodes, beloved pointy-haired chef from the 80s, suggests making a remoulade with them – as this features mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, capers and gherkins I am hoping that this will take the edge off the flavour. Rhodes was one of the first chefs to really pioneer British ingredients and recipes (though I remember Mum being very dismissive of his deconstructed steak and kidney pudding). His recipes included steamed syrup puddings, pies, pot roasts and trifles, and they all seemed to work, so I have high hopes for my kohlrabi. Sadly, Rhodes died aged only 59, but he was seen as an inspiration by everyone from Marcus Wareing to Jamie Oliver.
The esteemed Nigel Slater, however, describes the kohlrabi as ‘more or less useless‘. Over to you, readers!
Gary Rhodes (Photo One)
Now, although it looks like a turnip, kohlrabi is actually Brassica olearacea, the wild cabbage. This humble wild plant has given us not only our cultivated versions of cabbage, including the dreaded/revered Brussels sprout, but also the cauliflower, broccoli and collard greens. Although it looks like a turnip it isn’t actually one, although the confusion is long-lived: the name comes from the German Kohl (meaning cabbage) plus Rübe (meaning turnip). The vegetable is eaten right across southern Asia, from India to Vietnam, and is also popular in Eastern Europe. It is also a popular vegetable in Cyprus, where it’s eaten as an appetiser with lemon and salt.
Kohlrabi was first recorded in Europe in 1554, where the botanist Mattioli recorded that it has ‘lately come into Italy’. It was widely grown across Europe by the end of the 16th century, including in the UK – the soil seems to favour a wide range of root crops, from swedes and turnips to carrots and the much beloved (by me at least) potato. In some places, these same roots were used to feed cattle. Just about the only root vegetable that I can think of that hasn’t been used by both humans and animals is the sugar beet: it provides us with most of our sugar these days, but I have never heard of anyone roasting it or popping it into a coleslaw. Do let me know if you’ve heard otherwise.
‘My’ kohlrabi are purple-skinned ( I think the variety is known as Purple Vienna) but the colour doesn’t affect the taste or the colour of the flesh, which is always creamy white. You might be more familiar with the green variety.
Green kohlrabi (Photo Two)
Kohlrabi is a good source of fibre and Vitamin C and K, and contains trace amounts of potassium, phosphorus and copper. Medicinally it has been used as everything from a cancer preventative to a weight-loss promoter, though studies haven’t proved its efficacy except as part of a well-balanced and varied diet. However, all members of the Brassica family punch above their weight in terms of all-round nutrition – there was a reason that my Mum always told me to ‘eat my greens’.
Now, you might think that a vegetable as striking as a kohlrabi would have appeared in numerous still life paintings, but in fact it is often disregarded in favour of more picturesque vegetables such as the cauliflower. I was very impressed by this work by a contemporary German artist, Manfred W. Jürgens – and as you can see he paints the humble kohlrabi with loving care and attention.
Red Kohlrabi by Manfred W.Jürgens
And here is a slightly menacing kohlrabi.
Still life with kohlrabi by Manfred W.Jürgens
And finally, a poem. I bet you thought that it would be difficult to find something featuring this strange and bulbous plant, but in fact I was spoiled for choice. Here’s the one that I liked best, with its intimations of the abundance of harvest, and the need, sometimes, to trust and to be generous. I hadn’t come across Donna Hilbert before, but I love this!
I push my cart through Plowboy’s produce market gleaning this song for the first days of fall: broccoli cauliflower cabbage kohlrabi The price of red pepper is dropping. Eggplant shines purple. Bell pepper is green. I watch an old couple choose stringbeans: she fills their sack by handfuls. He frowns, empties the bag back into the bin, then turns each bean to the light before dropping it in. pattypan crook-neck pumpkin zucchini A woman wearing a scarf tight at her chin eats Thompson’s seedless from the grape bin. Tokay Exotic Muscat Red Flame At the melons, a man in white shorts, skin brown as russet potatoes, swings a cantaloupe into his cart. I think I’m in love. Winesap Pippin Golden Delicious where last week there were plums. Old man, kiss your wife. Wash your face in the juice of ripe fruit. Put beans into your sack without looking. Old man, we’re in Plowboys’s every bean is perfect, every bean is right.
View of the sunset from our window at the Shrubbery Hotel
Dear Readers, I have already said goodbye to Somerset once, but here we are again, still sorting out my Aunt H’s house. A lifetime of 93 years gives ample opportunity to accumulate ‘stuff’, especially when you are interested in family history and local history and all matters church-related. And so we headed down to Broadway this morning to sort out the kitchen and to prepare for all the paperwork that will need to be signed tomorrow. While John went off to collect the keys, I had a chance for a walk around the garden. I would say a ‘final’ walk around the garden, but clearly that would leave a hostage to fortune.
The foliage on the shrub below is gradually turning scarlet, and there is a fine crop of berries, but what on earth is it? I would have said some kind of berberis, but those long fruits are confusing me somewhat. Let me know what you think, gardening people!
There has been a lot of judicious pruning in the garden and it’s looking in much better shape than it was.This Viburnum is in full flower and I could smell its sweet scent from ten feet away. What a boon to a winter garden this plant is! I wonder if I could squeeze one in.
The white periwinkles have come back, having been strangled by the bramble. I love their pale, star-like flowers.
There is a fine Hawkshead fuchsia, another plant that I’ve been thinking about trying – in fact I might nick a cutting and see how it does. I’m sure Aunt H would have approved.
And the cyclamen are in flower. I love the way that they carpet the ground under the shrubs, to be replaced by the snowdrops and primroses and crocuses in the spring.
Whatever happens to the house, I doubt that the garden will be a priority for anyone – the garden is large, the cottage is small, and at the very least I imagine someone will want to extend. Even if they don’t they will probably want to change the garden into something else, as people always do. I hope that they give it a year so that they can see what’s already there, but folk are in such a hurry these days. It makes me think of what might happen to my resolutely idiosyncratic garden when we move, or when I die – no one with small children will want a massive pond, and I suspect that the days of the inconvenient whitebeam and the prickly hawthorn will be numbered too. But if this year has taught us anything it’s that the future is out of our control. Who knows what will happen? It’s certainly not worth worrying about.
As I go through Aunt H’s belongings I am struck by her frugality, and how much it chimes with the mood today – the desire to recycle, to reuse, to save things ‘for a rainy day’. There’s a jar full of bottle tops. There are plastic Stork margarine containers, used and reused over and over again to store soup and stews for freezing. I find jars of chutney from ten years ago, and boxes full of buttons. There’s much to learn from a generation that had to make things last and was reluctant to waste things. If we were all a bit more like Aunt H our beaches might not be full of plastic bottles and crisp packets and wet wipes. I’m pretty sure that Aunt H never utilised a wet wipe in her life, and if she had I have a suspicion that she’d have washed it and hung it out to dry somewhere.
Back in our hotel room, I watch the sun go down, and realise how rarely I allow myself to do such a thing. Tonight, the sun is painting the edge of the clouds with a light as sharp as one of Aunt H’s knives. She had knives for everything, most of them past their best, all of them kept in case they’d be needed again. It is hard, putting aside the remnants of a life. But our things are not us, though they sometimes tell our stories. Aunt H trod more gently on the earth than most of us, though she also trod on the toes of those who didn’t adhere to her standards of behaviour. Like all of us, she was complicated. She drove me to distraction on occasion, but I miss her, and so do many other people. She has left a hole in the village and church community that it will be very hard to fill.