Wednesday Weed – Water Hawthorn

Water Hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos)

Dear Readers, this was one of the plants that I put into my pond when it was first created in 2011, and this is the first time that it has flowered, so I thought I would share it with you. What a strange bloom it is! At first I thought the flower was full of little black insects, but a closer look reveals that the stamens are deepest chocolate-purple. The shape of the flower is most unusual – it opens into a ‘Y’ shape which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  Each ‘flower’ is in fact a collection of single-petalled white flowers, each with their own set of stamens. When the flower is pollinated, it apparently bends below the surface of the water to allow the fruit to ripen. The seeds then float away from the parent plant, sink, and wait until conditions are right to develop into a new plant.

Water hawthorn comes originally from the Western Cape and Mpumalanga regions of South Africa, where it is known as waterbloometjie or ‘water floret’. It is a plant of ephemeral pools, rather than permanent ones like mine: it blooms with the autumn rains, and becomes dormant when the pond dries up in summer. Water hawthorn species store all the water and nutrients that they need to survive in their dry tubers, but this means that they are rather easy to dig up in the dry season: one related Thai species, Aponogeton crispus, was nearly driven to extinction when it was ‘harvested’ in this way for aquariums, and is now protected. All the plant books advise the gardener not to assume that the plant has died when it disappears, but I did think that mine might put in an appearance more often than every eight years. However, I guess the conditions in the pond are finally to its liking, and maybe it will be a bit less shy from now on.

The flowers are said to be highly-scented, but I must say that I haven’t noticed so far: maybe the temperature needs to climb a bit to bring out the fragrance. I have heard the perfume described as like ‘vanilla’ (lovely) or, more likely, like hawthorn (something of an acquired ‘taste’). It was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century, and has since naturalised in some places in the UK and France. Further afield, it can be found growing wild in California and in Australia. It is mentioned as a potential problem in my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ by Olaf Booy, Max Wade and Helen Roy, but the authors grudgingly admit that the plant doesn’t appear to spread much by itself without human help. In this it varies from other water plants which are really making an impact on UK waterways, such as parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) and floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides), both of which were popular pond plants and have since become a real menace, choking out every other plant.

As with many ‘invasive’ plants, one solution is to eat them, and the buds and new flowers of water hawthorn are eaten in South Africa in a stew, usually with lamb.If you fancy having a bash (and with only three flowers this year I won’t be joining you), there’s a recipe here. There are also some rather mouth-watering photos here, where the waterblommetjies bredie is described as tasting ‘like a combination of winter and spring’. I love the way that this website gives me a world tour every week.

Photo One by By Genet at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12146974

Tinned water hawthorn flowers (Photo One)

The recipe for the stew, called waterbloometjie bredie in Afrikaans, came originally from the Khoikhoi people of the Cape. They were a nomadic people who maintained large herds of Nguni or South African cattle, a breed specially adapted to the highveld area. The cows have a characteristic black nose, and were bred in a variety of colours to provide uniforms for the different regiments of the army of King Shaka of the Zulus. The king’s personal guard wore the pure white hides of the cattle from the king’s herd.

Photo Two by By Justinjerez, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10347636

Nguni or South African Cattle (Photo Two)

But as usual, I digress. The Aponogeton family has 56 species, in Africa, Australia and Asia, all of them pond plants. So far only the water hawthorn has become popular as a garden plant, but there are several species from Madagascar currently in cultivation, including the rather beautiful Aponogeton madagascariensis or Madagascar laceleaf. I just hope that the revenues from the sale of this plant will help the populations of that extraordinary country. Several species are also cited as being good for aquariums.

Madagascar laceleaf (Aponogeton madagascariensis) (Public Domain)

Now, in the hunt for a poem about this plant I decided to go with its Afrikaans name. And here, for your delectation, is a lovely combination of image and words from the website Haiku Out of Africa by Liz Bard.

But I also loved this splendid piece from the BBC, which explores the whole history of the waterbloometjie bredie and the way that the plant is so entangled in the culture of the Cape. The photos are wonderful, and I shall look at my water hawthorn not just as a delight to the eye, but as a little exemplar of African history right here in East Finchley

BBC – A South African comfort food born from a pond

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Genet at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12146974

Photo Two by By Justinjerez, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10347636

At the Garden Centre

Dear Readers, I spent the early part of this week in Dorset, visiting my dad. As regular readers will know, he has vascular dementia, and is living in a nursing home in Dorchester. His face breaks into a huge smile when I walk into the lounge, although I am convinced that he doesn’t know exactly who I am. Still, when I give him the Polo mints and Dairy Milk chocolate that I’ve bought he gathers them up with glee. Sometimes, I think that we are like Russian dolls, with all our previous selves hidden inside us. When I look at his face, I can see the cheeky schoolboy that I never knew.

However, Dad is, in his head, a bit older than a schoolboy.

‘The Captain came in to see us yesterday’, he said, ‘and told us not to worry because we don’t have dress parades here’.

It seems that Dad is back on National Service.

‘Did he, Dad?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Dad says, ‘And we went out for a dance yesterday and we were dancing until 3 o’clock in the morning!’

This actually has a kernel of truth – the residents have a form of music and movement that some of them enjoy. Dad normally sleeps through it, but seems to have embraced it with gusto this week.

Then he looks thoughtful.

‘This might sound wicked’, he says, ‘But I really miss your Mum’.

And I have no doubt that, for a moment, he’s actually thinking about the right person.

‘I miss her too, Dad’, I say. We sit in silence for a minute. Then Dad breaks the silence.

‘That woman over there is a real pain’, he says.

And so it goes on. On one level, Dad is well aware that Mum is dead. On another, he’s a young man in his twenties with his life in front of him. You could get whiplash trying to keep up. One minute he’s making me roar with laughter, and thirty seconds later he’s breaking my heart.

When I mention, at breakfast in my hotel, that my Dad has dementia, the man at the next table opines that if he gets dementia, he’d like someone to ‘take him out and shoot him’.

I do wish that people would think before they implied that my father would be better off dead. Dad has dementia, and isn’t the same as he was, but that says nothing about his quality of life. He still enjoys things. He still laughs. He still ponders and is curious. He isn’t in physical pain, or in mental anguish. I am fairly sure that it is worse for me, watching Dad change, than it is for Dad, who doesn’t remember how he was. He seems to have reached a kind of equanimity, for now. I know that this might change, but I am confident that he wouldn’t want to be shot.

I said none of this to the man at the table. But I shall be ready next time someone says something like it, bearing in mind that no one says such a thing to be unkind. I think dementia speaks to our deepest fears of losing ourselves and becoming dependent, and there is a kind of existential terror in such statements. Nonetheless, I think it is also a reflection on how we value ourselves, and one another. A person with dementia is no less lovable, or less valuable, than anyone else. Dementia challenges us be with the person that we care about in their world, to see things through their eyes, and to love them in all their various moods and incarnations. My father is not the same as he was, but I have never loved him more.

When I get home, I need something to raise my spirits. What with Mum’s death, Dad’s situation and the prospect of selling the family bungalow looming on the horizon I am exhausted and a little heartsick. So, my lovely friend J picks me up and takes me to the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green for some plant therapy. And what an exciting visit it is!

The picture at the top of the piece shows a new self-watering system for walls called Wonderwall. If only I had a wall to hang them off of, I would be in business! Each set of twelve individual planters costs about £40 so it’s not cheap, and I suspect that someone handy could knock up something very similar for much less. However, I can imagine it being a boon for a small garden or even a balcony. If it was planted up with pollinator-friendly plants it could be abuzz for months. I have to tear myself away though, because I’ve spotted something else.

Cirsium atropurpureum.

When I first planted up the garden, I had several of these thistles. Sadly, they died off after a couple of years, but while I had them they were the most desirable plants in the whole garden. Bees used to literally faint into the flowers. They are impossible to resist.

Bowles mauve perennial wallflower – in hairy pots!

Regular readers will know that I always have some Bowles mauve perennial wallflower in the garden – it is in flower all year round, and the bees love it. The added bonus here is that they are supplied by the Hairy Pot Plant Company, who sell their plants in coir pots that can be put directly into the ground. There is so much plastic in your average garden centre, and this seems like an excellent way of cutting back – how ever many times I reuse my pots, I always end up with a great teetering tower of them in the shed.

Common primrose with hairy-footed flower bee (Anthora plumipes)

I usually let the bees lead me to the best plants, rather than relying on the ‘pollinator friendly’ bee sign on the label. The garden centre is full of hairy-footed flower bees (Anthora plumipes), one of the first solitary bees to emerge in the southern UK. The females are jet black, like one above, and the males are tawny with a distinctive white face. They sometimes fly around with their tongues sticking out, which adds to their charm.

Hairy-footed flower bee on Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower

I am excited to see that the hairy pots seem to contain nothing but excellent pollinator plants.

Pulmonaria and Lamium with yet another hairy footed flower bee. This female has a big splotch of pollen on her thorax.

There is pulmonaria, with its flowers that go from blue to pink following pollination. The Lamium is basically domesticated dead nettle, but is another splendid bee plant. There is some very pretty bronze-leafed bugle (Ajuga reptens).

Ajuga (Bugle)

I bought some foxgloves last year, but couldn’t resist a few more…

And how about these? You might have noticed that the lesser celandine is in full flower at the moment. I didn’t realise that there was a cultivated variety, but this is rather splendid with its chocolate-brown foliage. I was musing aloud about whether the plant was as invasive as its wild cousin, and one of the Garden Centre workers suggested that it was ‘vigorous’. To be honest, I don’t mind if something is ‘invasive’ in my north-facing, claggy soiled, heavily treed back garden, but I have resisted this plant so far. Let’s see how strong my resolve is.

Lesser celandine ‘Brazen Hussy’. What a splendid plant….

And so I stagger to the checkout with a trolley full of plants and a head full of planting plans, and realise that for a whole hour and a half I haven’t thought about Mum, or Dad, or decluttering the bungalow. Instead, I feel a sense of possibility that I haven’t felt in a while. For a second, I feel almost guilty. And then I remember that I got my creativity from my mother, and my love of nature from Dad, and I know that they would want me to live according to those two principles. I often feel completely stuck, as if I’m buried up to my waist in mud, but something still calls me , step by faltering step, back into life.

Aquilegia

Wednesday Weed – Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Dear Readers, I am always excited when I see the first English asparagus on sale at Tony’s Continental on East Finchley High Street. There is usually some asparagus in the shop, but I would rather feast from spring to midsummer on the English stuff than have Peruvian asparagus all year round. Much like the Seville oranges, asparagus is a real seasonal treat and doesn’t taste the same to me at any other time of year.  But what exactly is it? What is it related to? And how long has it been a treat?

Firstly, asparagus belongs to a genus of 300 varied species. Some are climbers, some are drought-adapted thorny species with tubers which store water. To my surprise, the asparagus ‘fern’ (Asparagus setaceus) is actually closely related to edible asparagus – often plants are named because of a superficial resemblance, but in this case the name has a scientific basis. Edible asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) probably has a native range from western temperate Asia through to western Europe. It was grown as a vegetable from at least 3000 BC, when it appeared in a frieze in an Egyptian tomb, and was mentioned by the Roman chef Apicius in the first ever cookbook, written in 300 BC. It was grown in Norman monasteries, but was first mentioned in the UK in 1538, arriving in the New World as late as 1850. The world has taken to it with great gusto, however, and it now features in cuisines all over the planet. China is by far the major producer,

Photo One by (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden. - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1191941

Asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus) (Photo One)

You can see the similarity when compared with the delicate foliage of the ‘domesticated’ plant, here left to go to seed.

Photo Two by By SriMesh - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4880679

Mature asparagus with seed pods (Photo Two)

Edible asparagus, in its wild form, was probably a coastal plant – it can certainly grow in soils too salty for other plants, and one way of preparing asparagus beds historically was to suppress the weeds with salt. This did mean that you were stuck with growing asparagus forever in that site, however. The soil needs to be well-drained and also fertile, a tricky combination to achieve. Furthermore, only the young shoots are edible – asparagus quickly becomes woody. When I was working in the Netherlands I noticed how much they preferred white asparagus – this is the same plant but the shoots are ‘earthed up’ as they develop, so that they don’t have access to light and so don’t photosynthesize. My colleagues said that the resulting vegetable was much more delicate in taste, but I always found the white stuff a bit too squishy, preferring the subtle toothsomeness of the green shoots. Each to their own, of course.

Asparagus is a favourite regional crop in many places. In the UK the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire is an asparagus hotspot, and hosts a music festival called ‘Asparafest’ every year. In the US, the city of Stockton in California holds an annual asparagus festival. In Germany, many cities hold celebrations to herald the arrival of white asparagus: those in Bavaria involve lots of beer, naturally, but the city of Berlin’s festival featured the uncontested world record for asparagus peeling by television chef Helmut Zipner, who peeled an entire tonne of asparagus in 16 hours. This earned him the title of ‘Asparagus Tarzan’.

The eating of asparagus has long been thought to have two major effects. It was long said to be an aphrodisiac, probably because of the shoots’ phallic appearance (if you don’t look too closely) and the fact that they arrive in the spring, when all of nature’s thoughts turn to getting jiggy with it. Madame de Pompadour apparently feasted on them, calling them ‘points d’amour’.

However, I would like to concentrate here on asparagus’s historical medicinal qualities. It has long thought to be a diuretic, and to be a useful treatment for urinary disorders, but I wonder how much of this is due to the almost magical way in which asparagus changes the smell of urine? Within 30 minutes of eating the stuff you can tell that you’ve been eating the vegetable, and the effect lasts for up to four hours. I can think of few other foodstuffs that change the smell of one’s bodily secretions so quickly: eating some spices will change the smell of sweat, for example, but not so instantaneously.

The change is brought about by the breakdown of a compound called asparagusic acid. For a long time, it was thought that not everyone’s urine changed in aroma, but it has been proved that actually what happens is that some people are genetically less able to perceive the smell. This reminds me of the way that 10% of the population are unable to detect the scent of freesias, though this seems to me rather sadder than not being able to notice the way that asparagus changes the smell of pee.

Photo Three by Muffet [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

A feast of asparagus (Photo Three)

There a multitude of recipes available for using asparagus, but it is possible to go over the top. I once had an asparagus tasting menu in a five-star hotel in Bucharest that featured asparagus icecream with candied asparagus for dessert. Should you fancy repeating the experience, the Farmers Almanac website has asparagus bundt cake and asparagus icecream here. Do let me know how you get on.

Asparagus’s alternative name is ‘sparrow grass’, which I rather like. In Turkey, it’s called kuşkonmaz which literally means ‘a bird won’t land on it’, referring to the awkward shape of the plant.

Finally, here is a story that combines art and poetry, two of my favourite things. The poem, by Tom Pow, tells the tale much better than I can.

The Asparagus

Tom Pow

Edouard Manet

In his final years, illness attended
the artist. His friends brought him flowers

and, in modest works, when free from pain,
he gave them his fullest attention. Each

became a study in concentration
and in the memory of paint: testament

to the moment. One instinctive still life
of that period is of a fat bundle

of asparagus, each stalk fleshily
overfed, ready for the kitchen.

The purchaser paid over the odds,
so Manet, in recompense, sent him

a small oil painting of a single stalk.
‘There was one missing from your bunch.’

Its body, pearly-grey as the belly
of a fish, lies inert on the marble top.

But its purplish tip curves gently up
in the way that a fish, brought to land,

will raise its head and gawp for life
though there is nothing that can save it.

A Bunch of Asparagus by Eduoard Manet (1880) (Public Domain). This small painting was bought by Charles Ephrussi who gave Manet 1000 francs, instead of the 800 francs that Manet had requested.

Asparagus by Edouard Manet (1880) (Public Domain) Manet painted this lone asparagus shoot, and gave it to Ephrussi, tellling him that ‘there was one missing from your bunch’.

Photo Credits

Photo One by (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden. – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1191941

Photo Two by By SriMesh – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4880679

Photo Three by Muffet [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

On Mother’s Day

On the first Mother’s Day since Mum died, I wander around the house like a ghost, unable to settle to anything. I would always have rung Mum to see if she liked whatever pretty thing I had sent her, and to see if the Mother’s Day card had hit the spot. Everywhere I look  there are signs of happy families, complete with live mothers. We can’t get into our usual place for Sunday breakfast because it is completely full up from 8 a.m. Muswell Hill is full of young people carrying bunches of flowers.

I have joined yet another ‘club’, the ‘Problematic Mother’s Day’ club. For those who have lost their mothers, those who wanted to be mothers and weren’t able to, those who had abusive or alcoholic or troubled mothers, today, like Christmas, throws up the contrast between what things are ‘supposed’ to be like, and how they actually are. Real life is messier, infinitely more complicated. This year, Mother’s Day is about gritting my teeth and getting through, one hour at a time.

I do still have one parent alive though, and so I  ring the nursing home to see how Dad is  getting on.

‘I’m on a boat’, he says. ‘I’ll be gone for forty days’.

‘Where are you going, Dad?’ I ask. I’ve learnt that it’s easier for everyone if I join Dad in Dadland rather than attempting to drag him into the ‘real’ world, where he has dementia and his wife of 61 years is dead.

‘Northern China’, he says, emphatically.

‘You’ve not been there before, have you? It will be an adventure. I hope the food is good!’

I’m not sure if Dad is remembering the business trips that he used to take, or the cruises he went on with Mum, or if this is a metaphor for another journey that he’s taking. But I am sure that it could be all three explanations at once.

‘And I’ve done a picture of a rabbit with a bird on its head’.

‘That sounds fun Dad, I know you like painting and drawing’.

‘It’s with crayons’.

‘Well, they’re a bit less messy’.

Dad laughs. There’s a pause.

‘I haven’t been able to talk to Mum. I ring and ring, but she never answers’.

I wonder if he has actually been ringing the house and getting Mum’s voice on the answerphone. He is convinced that she is cross with him because one of the ‘young’ female carers at the home ( a very nice lady in her fifties) helped him to have a shower. He went to the funeral, and was in the room when Mum died, but he doesn’t remember.

‘She’s away at the moment Dad’, I say, ‘But she loves you and she knows that you love her’.

‘That’s all right then,’ he says. ‘But I have to go now’.

‘Love you Dad’.

‘Love you n’all’.

It’s as if, in his dementia, Dad is returned to some earlier version of himself – more placid, less anxious. His calls to my brother have gone from 43 in one day to once or twice a week. I am not sure if this peacefulness will last, or if it presages a movement to another stage in the progression of the disease, but I am grateful for his equanimity. Somewhere inside this frail, vulnerable man there is still my Dad, and I feel such tenderness for him.

I walk to the bedroom and look out of the window. There is something totally unexpected in the garden.

A grey heron is in the pond, and, as I watch, s/he spots the rounded head of a frog. Once the bird is locked on target, there is no escape. The heron darts forward, squashes the frog between the blades of its bill and waits, as if uncertain what to do. The frog wriggles, and the heron dunks it into the water, once, twice. And then the bird throws back its head and, in a series of gulps, swallows the frog alive.

I don’t know what to do. I feel protective towards the frogs, but the heron needs to eat too. The frogs have bred and there is spawn in the pond, so from a scientific point of view there is no need to be sentimental. But still. I have been away in Canada for two weeks, and I suspect that the heron got used to visiting when things when quiet. The pond must have had a hundred frogs in it when we left. Hopefully some of them quit the water once the breeding was over, because on today’s evidence the heron could happily have eaten the lot.

What a magnificent creature, though. It is such a privilege to have a visit from a top predator. Close up, I can see the way that those yellow eyes point slightly forward to look down the stiletto of the beak, and the way that the mouth extends back beyond the bill, enabling an enormous gape. The plume of black feathers at the back of the head show that this is an adult bird, perhaps already getting ready for breeding. S/he leans forward, having spotted yet another frog, and I decide that I’ll intervene. I unlock the back door and open it, but it isn’t until I’m outside on the patio that the bird reluctantly flaps those enormous wings and takes off, to survey me from the roof opposite.

I know that I won’t deter the bird for long – after all, I will leave the house, and the heron will be back. But there has been so much loss in my life in the past few months that I feel as if I have to do something. The delicate bodies of the frogs seem no match for that rapier-bill and there is something unfair about the contest in this little pond that riles me. We are all small, soft-bodied creatures, and death will come for us and for everyone that we love with its cold, implacable gaze, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sometimes throw sand in its face. I am so lucky to have the graceful presence of the heron in my garden, but today, I want to tip the balance just a little in favour of the defenceless.

Wednesday Weed – Shadbush/Juneberry

Shadbush (Amelanchier sp) in East Finchley

Dear Readers, as I am just back from a fortnight in Canada I thought I would feature a North American tree this week, the shadbush or juneberry. The specimen in the photo above was planted a few years ago after the original tree succumbed to a fungal infection, and there is a larger, older tree on the other side of the road. It is fast becoming one of London’s most popular street trees, and you can see why: the frothy white flowers are surrounded by new leaves that emerge as bronze and gradually turn green, and in the autumn the tree has spectacular red foliage. They look a little like cherry trees, but, as Paul Wood points out in his wonderful book ‘London’s Street Trees‘  the bark and leaves are different – the bark of the shadbush is smooth grey with a faint vein pattern, and the leaves are smaller and more oblong.One slight disadvantage though, as I peer along the road, is the sheer volume of dropped blossom once the wind gets up – the car opposite looks as if it’s had a smattering of snow. But I would forgive it anything when the sun lights it up for a few seconds, as it did when I was writing this piece this afternoon. At the moment, I need all the sunshine that I can get, literal and metaphorical.

Incidentally, Paul Wood has a new book out soon called ‘London is a Forest’ and I have already pre-ordered it. Highly recommended!

Shadbush is a member of a genus of twenty-odd species of Amelanchier, a group of small trees and shrubs in the rose family  that are mostly native to North America. I seem to remember that my local tree had a label designating it as Amelanchior canadensis, but this has unfortunately dropped off. This is a group which hybridises with great enthusiasm, and so plants are often described incorrectly. Suffice to say that this particular plant strongly resembles those that I’ve seen in Canada, where they are often trees that pop up early as woodland establishes itself. The name ‘shadbush’ seems to come from the way that the flowers bloom at the same time as the shad start to appear in the streams in spring. This was the subject of a rather lovely children’s book by Carla J.S. Messinger, a descendant of the Lenape people of Eastern North America, and you can have a look here.

And here is a shad, for your delectation. They are members of the herring family, and were presumably very welcome after a long hard winter. When I was in Canada the long hard winter was still going on, and it was nearly April, but fortunately these days the arrival of the shad is not quite so crucial.

Photo One by By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5678810

Shad (Alosa fallax) (Photo One)

Incidentally, the London place names ‘Shad Thames’ and ‘Shadwell’ are thought to be related not to the fish, but to the location of a nearby St Chad’s Well, although I have heard some other explanations too. Intriguingly, one of the Old English names for ‘fish’ was ‘shad’, though the fish that now bears the name does not live in Europe.

As you might expect from yet another alternative name,  ‘Juneberry’, the tree also bears fruits which are described as ‘insipid to delectably sweet’ depending on the species. The berries (or technically ‘pomes’)  are useful for wildlife, but have also been harvested for human use: the fruit of Amelanchier alnifolia, the Saskatoon, was an important ingredient in pemmican, a preserved meat taken on the trail by the fur trappers of Hudson’s Bay, and also by the Canadian native peoples. Saskatoon berries gave their name to the city of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, Canada, and are made into everything from jams and jellies to rather delicious-looking pies.

Photo Two by By Original: Elsie HuiCropping: User:Mr. Granger - Cropped from File:Saskatoon Pie and Saskatoon Butter Tart (9060879381).jpg., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37036046

Saskatoon berry pie and icecream (Photo Two)

The wood has also been used by First Peoples in Canada to make arrows and a kind of body armour.

The plant is the food of choice for many species of butterflies and moths, with the caterpillars of the red-spotted admiral (Limenitis arthemis) and the brimstone moth (Opisthographtis luteolata) being amongst the most colourful. As the brimstone moth is European and doesn’t normally have access to the shadbush, I assume that it has found those planted in streets and gardens to its liking.

Photo Three by By Saxophlute at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32748228

Red-spotted purple admiral (Limenitis arthemis) (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=294708

Brimstone (Opisthographtis luteolata) (Photo Four)

Another name for the shadbush is ‘serviceberry’. The story was that, once the shadbush was in bloom, the ground was sufficiently thawed to hold the funerals of those who had died during the winter.

Medicinally, the plant was used by the native peoples of North America to treat dysentery, childbirth problems and worms.

And now, a poem. Why have I never heard of Stanley Plumly? I love his depiction of a city scene, and the way that it opens up from the particular to the universal. The last line is a killer.

 

Woman on Twenty-Second Eating Berries

She’s not angry exactly but all business,
eating them right off the tree, with confidence,
the kind that lets her spit out the bad ones
clear of the sidewalk into the street. It’s
sunny, though who can tell what she’s tasting,
rowan or one of the serviceberries—
the animal at work, so everybody,
save the traffic, keeps a distance. She’s picking
clean what the birds have left, and even,
in her hurry, a few dark leaves. In the air
the dusting of exhaust that still turns pennies
green, the way the cloudy surfaces
of things obscure their differences,
like the mock orange or the apple rose that
cracks the paving stone, rooted in the plaza.
No one will say your name, and when you come to
the door no one will know you, a parable
of the afterlife on earth. Poor grapes, poor crabs,
wild black cherry trees, on which some forty-six
or so species of birds have fed, some boy’s dead
weight or the tragic summer lightning killing
the seed, how boyish now that hunger
to bring those branches down to scale,
to eat of that which otherwise was waste,
how natural this woman eating berries, how alone.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5678810

Photo Two by By Original: Elsie HuiCropping: User:Mr. Granger – Cropped from File:Saskatoon Pie and Saskatoon Butter Tart (9060879381).jpg., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37036046

Photo Three by By Saxophlute at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32748228

Photo Four by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=294708

Bugwoman on Location – Collingwood, Ontario

One of these swans is not like the others….

Dear Readers, it’s always such a pleasure to arrive in Canada and to spend some time in Collingwood, Ontario before heading down to the hurly-burly of Toronto. On Sunday, I went for a walk with my husband’s aunt L and their soft-coated wheaten/schnauzer mix Charlie. Most of the bay was frozen, and so the waterfowl were huddled together. There were lots of mute swans (Cygnus olor) with their bright orange bills, but right in the middle was a slender, black-billed swan. It was my first sight ever of a wild trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) and I was immediately taken with how elegant and self-possessed the bird appeared. Furthermore, he had a bright yellow wing tag, and so we could identify him as T29.

The internet is a wonderful thing, and I was able to ascertain that T29 was born to parents K09 and 038 who nest near Chatsworth. His parents and six of his siblings moved on to Port Credit, near Burlington, but T29 did not, and was spotted with his sibling  T28 in Thorold. Now, T29 seems to be on his own, and is tolerated by the mute swans. Occasionally he bobs his head and calls, and I hope that some other trumpeters soon fly over and he can join them. However, trumpeter swans don’t breed until they are 5 to 7 years old, with some swans waiting until they are in their late teens. Like other swan species they normally mate for life, so it makes sense to wait for the right partner to come along.

In this of course, as in all things, I am reminded of Mum and Dad, and their 61 year marriage. ‘Till death us do part’ was accurate in their case, as it is with most swans (although ‘divorces’ are not completely unheard of). I once asked Mum what she thought the secret of a long happy marriage was, and she thought for a few moments.

‘There’s a lot of luck involved’, she said. ‘You’re a completely different person at 40 from how you were at 20. If you’re lucky, you’ve both changed in ways that your partner can cope with. Otherwise, it can be very tricky’.

And I’m sure she’s right. I hope that life is simpler for swans than for humans, and that they have less personality change to worry about.

But back to the trumpeter swan. Its beak is the longest of any waterfowl, and they also have a very long neck, which is not curved like that of the mute swan. They are also noisy birds, as their name would suggest (the Latin buccinator means ‘trumpeter’). See if you can pick out the sound of the trumpeters in amongst the Canada geese in the video below.

Yet the sound of trumpeter swans wasn’t heard in Ontario for over a hundred years – the bird was driven to extinction in the province by hunting and habitat destruction. Unlike the more tolerant mute swans, trumpeters breed in wild marshland where they will be undisturbed by humans, a habitat which is becoming harder and harder to find. Fortunately, in 1982, a biologist named Harry Lumsden set about a project to reintroduce the bird to its former heartland by rearing eggs taken from trumpeters in Western Canada (if an egg is taken from a nest at the right time, the mother will often lay another egg, leaving the original one free to be reared elsewhere). The birds were then released on wetlands across Ontario. Over 500 were released in the twenty-five years of the project, and there are now almost 2000 wild birds. Many of them can be seen at the original Wye Marsh site, where they overwinter before moving north to breed.

Trumpeter at Wye Marsh

So, it is always a pleasure to see a new species, but I was even more delighted to spot these geese. At first glance I thought that they were snow geese, but a closer look at the field guide revealed them to be Ross’s geese (Anser rossii), a very attractive small goose that breeds in northern Canada and normally overwinters as far south as Mexico. I figure that these two were downed by the cold weather, and will soon be heading much further north.

Ross’s geese (Anser rossii)

My misidentification of them as snow geese was, I think, forgivable ( I blame the jetlag), but they are about 40% smaller, and have a softer, rounder appearance. Also, they have grey colouration at the base of their bills, and much shorter necks. This pair kept a very low profile, avoiding any interaction with the other waterfowl. It seemed clear to me that they didn’t plan to hang about, and indeed, on the day that we headed to Toronto they disappeared.

It’s difficult to describe the subtle delight of gradually getting to know the birds of a different country. I recognised the call of the first red-winged blackbirds who had arrived to claim their territories, and the pair of cardinals on the bird-feeder felt like old friends. I know that it is only the tip of a massive ornithological iceberg, but it feels like a good start. During this period of my life when so much has changed, I love the way that Canada is beginning to feel like a second home. There is so much to love about its wild places and its kind, generous people.

Wednesday Weed – Seville Oranges

Dear Readers, you may will be worrying about the state of my mental acumen at the moment. It’s very clear that the two jars above are definitely not weeds. They do, however, contain one of my favourite seasonal ingredients, Seville oranges. These strange, bitter, seed-filled fruits appear in December and are gone by February – indeed, what with Mum’s death and Dad’s deterioration, I managed to grab the very last of the fruit in Tony’s Continental on East Finchley High Street. It’s surprising to me that many customers buy Seville oranges to eat, and have to be gently advised that this isn’t a good idea by the kind folk in the shop. I suppose that marmalade making is a bit of a faff, but the result lasts all year (well, if you don’t give it all away) and there is such a pleasure about the long process of it, the cutting up of the rind and the testing of the set. It is one of those things that I always do at the start of the year. I was in two minds this time, because of course Mum was always a key beneficiary, but in the end I found it comforting rather than distressing. Let’s never underestimate the soothing powers of cooking, and of ritual.

Photo One by By Genet at de.wikipedia - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12761671

Seville oranges (Citrus x aurantium) (Photo One)

It takes quite a leap of imagination to go from the knobbly, parsimonious Seville orange to those jars of golden unctuousness, but someone must have decided to put it to the test a long time ago. The fruit is high in pectin, which helps with the set of the marmalade. It is actually grown in Spain, particularly Andalusia, so for once the popular name is actually correct. The fruit has been shipped to the UK from Portugal and Spain since at least 1677, the date of the first extant recipe for ‘marmalet’.

But what actually is it? It’s believed that the Seville orange is a cross between two other varieties: Citrus maxima, otherwise known as the pomelo, gives the fruit its sourness, and Citrus reticulata, the mandarin orange, gives it its orange colour. These two fruits, along with several other varieties of citrus, are the ‘parents’ of all of the rapidly multiplying tribe of tangerines, nadacotts, pink grapefruit and clementines that grace our shelves. Most have been bred for sweetness, ease of peeling and juiciness. The Seville orange stands out as a fruit of grumpiness and character in this good-mannered company.

Incidentally, the Seville orange’s sourness puts it in the same category as grapefruit when it comes to dangerous interactions with some drugs, such as those used for chemotherapy and to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs. At least no sensible person will be drinking Seville orange juice, and I suspect that unless you are a real fan of marmalade the risk is quite low, though I would check with your doctor if you are tempted to indulge.

 

Photo Two by By Ananda - uploader's creation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=457650

Pomelo (Citrus maxima) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By 4028mdk09 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25423079

Mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata) (Photo Three)

Seville oranges probably arose naturally in south western Asia, particularly Vietnam, where the growing of an orange tree is said to bring happiness. The plants were exported all over the world by Arab traders, who loved to use them in their courtyards for their fragrance and their golden fruits. Most famously, more than 14,000 of the trees line the streets of Seville, and I imagine that the scent of the flowers is heavenly, though getting dunked on the head by a toppling, overripe orange might also be a hazard.

Photo Four by © Jared Preston

Seville oranges growing in the gardens of the Alcazar in Granada (Photo Four)

The Moors cultivated them in Spain from at least the Tenth Century, and there are wild groves of the plant in Florida and The Bahamas which were brought there by the Spanish. And no wonder. Although the fruit is used for marmalade, it has a multitude of other uses.

  • You can use the peel to flavour liqueurs such as Triple Sec, Curacao (where a special subspecies of the Seville orange is grown for precisely this purpose) and my personal favourite, Grand Marnier.
Photo Five by Kuriosatempel - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68214466

Two bottles of Grand Marnier. That will do nicely! (Photo Five)

  • The peel is used to flavour gingerbread and other desserts throughout the Nordic region. A Finnish Easter dish called Mammi looks particularly enticing.
Photo Six by By No machine-readable author provided. Strangnet assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=644547

Mammi (Finish Easter Dessert) (Photo Six)

  • In Greece, Cyprus and Albania the fruit is an important component of spoon sweets – tasty preserves which are served on a spoon, usually with a strong Greek or Albanian coffee and sometimes cheese.
Photo Seven by Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60773137

A sour cherry spoon sweet (Photo Seven)

  • Seville oranges are used extensively as a side dish for charred meat and fish dishes in Iraqi and Iranian cuisine , and is also used as a salad dressing.
  • In Belgium, Seville orange peel is one of the ingredients of Witbier, or ‘White beer’,
  • I watched an episode of the Netflix cookery series ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’, in which the chef Samrin Nosrat travelled to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Seville oranges are used extensively in the cuisine here in preference to other sources of sour flavours (such as vinegar). In particular it is used in the pork dish Cochinita pibil, in which the meat is marinated in the bitter orange juice, seasoned with annatto (an orange-red condiment) and then roasted in a banana leaf.
Photo Seven by By Popo le Chien - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51463785

Cochinita pibil (Photo Seven)

After all that food you might be glad to hear that essence of bitter orange has been marketed as a dietary aid and appetite suppressant, but hold your horses – some of the chemicals in the fruit act to raise heart rate and blood pressure, which is not desirable if you have circulatory problems of any kind. The supplements have been linked to stroke, angina and ischaemic colitis. Best to just lay off the marmalade, I think.

The Seville orange tree has also been used as a rootstock to grow the sweeter varieties, to make soap and as the material for Cuban baseball bats. The essential oil is also widely used in toiletries and perfumery.

Seville orange trees in the courtyard of the cathedral in Seville (Public Domain)

And now I find myself getting quite hungry. The only thing to do is, of course, to head downstairs for some toast and marmalade. But here is a poem that sums up the communal nature of marmalade making in many villages and towns all over the world.

The Makings of Marmalade

Gillian Allnutt

unripe oranges in silk-lined sacks
sow-bristle brushes
china jugs of orange-washing water
one big bowl
pith-paring knives, one for each woman
a mountain of sugar, poured slowly
a small Sevillian well
songsheets against the tedium, in parts
pine cones for burning
silver spoons for licking up the lost bits
a seven-gallon pot
a waxed circle, a sellophane circle, elastic
small pieces of toast

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Genet at de.wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12761671

Photo Two by By Ananda – uploader’s creation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=457650

Photo Three by By 4028mdk09 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25423079

Photo Four by © Jared Preston

Photo Five by Kuriosatempel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68214466

Photo Six by By No machine-readable author provided. Strangnet assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=644547

Photo Seven by Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60773137