Wednesday Weed – Almond

Almonds (Prunus dulcis)

Dear Readers, the almond has always seemed to me to be the most exotic of nuts. Coming originally from Iran, it is a mainstay of pastries right across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region – I well remember the delicious sweetmeats that I ate in Morocco, including the Kaab El Ghazal (gazelle horns) of Marrakech, with their orange-water scented almond paste. Almond flavouring pops up everywhere, of course, from the marzipan that we use to cover our Christmas cakes to the amaretto liqueur of Italy, and those tasty little amaretti biscuits. When we were children and were lucky enough to get a tin box of the amaretti wrapped in paper, we’d roll the paper into a tube, set fire to the top, and clap our hands as the fiery cylinder flew up into the air, threatening to turn the curtains into an exciting conflagration. Well, entertainment was hard to come by in the East End in those days – remind me to tell you of the time my Uncle Ken blew up the living room window sill with his chemistry set.

However.

Almonds are most closely related to peaches – the corrugations on the shell are an indication of their genetic relationship.

Botanical illustration from 1897 (Public Domain)

And if anyone ever watches ‘Midsomer Murders’ or ‘Murder She Wrote’, you will recall the moment when the detective muses on ‘the smell of bitter almonds’ coming from an otherwise innocent glass of wine or half-quaffed cup of bedtime cocoa.

‘Cyanide!’ says the discerning viewer, and indeed, there are certain almond trees which produce not sweet but bitter almonds. Eating 50 bitter almonds is enough to kill an adult, but cyanide extracted from the kernels is much more potent. The poison is present to a certain extent in the kernels of apricots and cherries too, but we don’t normally eat these: the almond ‘nut’ is actually the equivalent part of the almond ‘fruit’. A tiny proportion of bitter almonds are occasionally imported with sweet almonds: the symptoms of cyanide poisoning include vertigo, so be careful if the world starts spinning after a handful of almonds. It is perfectly normal for the world to start spinning after several glasses of amaretto liqueur, however.

Photo One by By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6408498

Rose-ringed parakeet eating the blossom of a bitter almond tree in Teddington, London (Photo One)

These days, nearly 50% of world almond production comes from California, and herein lays a problem. Almond trees need a lot of water – almost 1.1 gallons to produce a single almond. California has been suffering from drought, and in the meantime the demand for almonds has gone up because of the trend towards drinking almond ‘milk’. I note that another area that produces a significant amount of almonds is the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, another area hit by severe drought. Other areas producing a lot of almonds are Morocco, Spain and Iran.

The problem of the sustainability of Californian almonds is exacerbated by the way that they are pollinated. Nearly half of all the beehives in the USA (over 1.4 million hives) are trucked to the almond groves in February (which is several months earlier than most bees would naturally be active). This enormous concentration of bees in one smallish area leads to the risk of infection and parasitism, particularly by the varroa mite.  One beekeeper described it as ‘sending my bees to war’ every year, and expected to lose up to 25% of his hives. Even if biocides are not used in the almond groves themselves, the bees come into contact with the chemicals via the heavily sprayed grape and cotton crops in the area.  Furthermore, the honeybees outcompete the many other local pollinators, leading to a decrease in biodiversity.

Almond growers are trying to develop self-pollinating varieties, which would do away with the requirement for bees, but currently the harvest from these trees is not as high as from the insect-pollinated cultivars.

To read more about this, have a look at this article.

Photo Two by Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/malubeng-518208/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=503038">malubeng</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=503038">Pixabay</a>

Honeybees on almond flowers (Public Domain)

The almond has had symbolic importance for both Christians and Jewish people, partly because it was the first tree to flower each year.  The menorah that stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was said to be based on the shape of almond blossom:

“Three cups, shaped like almond blossoms, were on one branch, with a knob and a flower; and three cups, shaped like almond blossoms, were on the other…on the candlestick itself were four cups, shaped like almond blossoms, with its knobs and flowers”.

Reconstruction of the menorah from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Public Domain)

In Christianity, the almond shape of some icons and images of the Madonna and Child is known as a mandorla, and was said by Saint Hildegarde of Bingen to represent the cosmos.

Photo Two by By Unknown engraver 1200/1300 - http://alittlebitofstone.com/2011/09/18/bit-of-medieval-stone-found-in-surrey-field/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85583018

The seal of Stone Priory in Staffordshire in the shape of a mandorla (Photo Two)

The shape of the almond seems to have an innate appeal to humans – a quick search turned up lots of references to the attractiveness of the ‘almond-shaped eye’, and fingernails that have that characteristic oval shape seem to be particularly desirable. I was briefly side-lined by lots of information about a Japanese race horse called Almond Eye, and very handsome she looks too, though not remotely like a nut.

Photo Three by By Ogiyoshisan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73601916

Almond Eye winning the Shuka Sho in Japan (Photo Three)

And finally, a poem. I rather liked this unusual offering by Robert William Service, a British-Canadian poet who was known as ‘the Bard of the Yukon’ (1874 – 1958). He was extraordinarily prolific, and wanted specifically to write poems for ‘ordinary folk’ rather than academics and intellectuals. See what you think.

Bird Watcher

 In Wall Street once a potent power,
 And now a multi-millionaire
Alone within a shady bower
 In clothes his valet would not wear,
He watches bird wings bright the air.


The man who mighty mergers planned,
 And oil and coal kinglike controlled,
With field-glasses in failing hand
 Spies downy nestlings five days old,
With joy he could not buy for gold.


Aye, even childlike is his glee;
 But how he crisps with hate and dread
And shakes a clawlike fist to see
 A kestrel hover overhead:
Though he would never shoot it dead.


Although his cook afar doth forage
 For food to woo his appetite,
The old man lives on milk and porridge
 And now it is his last delight
At eve if one lone linnet lingers
 To pick crushed almonds from his fingers.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6408498

Photo Two by By Unknown engraver 1200/1300 – http://alittlebitofstone.com/2011/09/18/bit-of-medieval-stone-found-in-surrey-field/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85583018

Photo Three by By Ogiyoshisan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73601916

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Cemetery Walk

Cedar of Lebanon in East Finchley Cemetery

Dear Readers, I hope you’ll forgive a second cemetery post in seven days. This week, we found ourselves in need of some fresh air and some melancholy Victorian angels, and so we headed to East Finchley Cemetery on East End Road. If you decide to visit, can I recommend Margot Bakery, which you pass en route? It specialises in Jewish breads such as challah , and sourdough of all kinds. I bought a rye loaf which was crusty and full of flavour, and it was only my gross overindulgence at Christmas that stopped me from pocketing a chocolate babka.

Anyhow, back to the business in hand. East Finchley Cemetery is owned and managed by the City of Westminster – I am forever confused about who is responsible for what in the field of cemeteries and crematoria – City of London cemetery is actually in Newham, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is in Barnet. This cemetery has had a lively recent history: it was sold to a development company for 3p in the 1990’s, was then sold on for a million pounds, and then finally purchased by an offshore development company for three million pounds. How it came back to Westminster City Council is a mystery. I’m sure the land would be worth much more than three million pounds now, but it seems unlikely that it would be allowed to be built upon. Maybe someone, somewhere, is hedging their bets for the future.

As you enter the cemetery, you are greeted by two magnificent cedars of Lebanon (planted in 1856) and the main chapel. Opposite is the memorial to Sir Peter Nicol Russell, who founded a school of engineering in Sydney, Australia. I rather like that he is posed topless with the tools of his trade, watched over by a solicitous angel. The statue is Grade II listed, as is the chapel.

The chapel has two carved stone faces next to the window. I love the way that church buildings so often have these little details that are not apparent at first glance.

On we go. As we head along the road, passing some very fine stone crosses, a car drives slowly past us, with a schnauzer attached to a lead running alongside. The lady driving gives me a cheery wave as she notices me watching. The dog seems completely unperturbed. Just goes to show that you never know what you’re going to see in a cemetery.

Before Christmas, when I was desperately trying to find plants for the Wednesday Weed, I looked everywhere for some mistletoe. Well, I didn’t look hard enough, because there’s some right here. Now I just have to remember it for Christmas 2020.

I was also stopped short by these small, smoky-foliaged trees, which I suspect are a variety of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). The variety here is probably a cultivar called ‘Elegans’, which retains that delicate, feathery juvenile foliage for its whole life. The wild tree is the national tree of Japan, and can grow up to 230 feet tall. These little chaps won’t get above ten metres.

 

Once I start to slow down and take notice, I find that there are things to look at on both a large and a small scale. I am taken by the solemnity of an avenue of conifers, but I also love the bright green of the moss against the paving stones.

There is a memorial to the people who died in the City of Westminster (St Marylebone as was) as a result of the bombing of London during the Second World War, and who are buried in the cemetery. I am always moved by the ‘old-fashioned’ names – the Violets and Winifreds and Horaces and Ethels and Mauds. These are the names of my grandparent’s generation – my granny on my mother’s side was called Minnie, and on my dad’s side we had Ivy. They went through so much, and seem to have borne it with a kind of stoicism. My Mum and Nan were buried in an air-raid shelter after the house next door was completely destroyed. My Mum remembered going off to school with her little gas mask strapped to her bag, and sitting in the underground cloakroom singing endless rounds of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ while the bombs fell on the houses round about.  Now that people who remember the war directly  are passing away, I hope that we remember their stories of what living through a war, either as a civilian or as a soldier, was like. There is too much political bluster and rhetoric, and not enough thought about what being in a war actually means for ‘ordinary’ people.

The yew bushes are all a-bustle with redwings, who pop out as soon as I go within 100 feet. They are nervous about the camera too, true farmland birds who know all too well what someone raising a metal object might mean. I love these small thrushes, blown in from Scandanavia and hoping for food. Well, there is lots of waxy red fruit on the yew to fuel them on their way.

 

Before we leave, we have to loop round to visit my favourite tomb, a monument to Sir Thomas and Esther Tate. Someone has left a pink rose on his foot. Thomas Tate was not related to the sugar moguls, but seems to have made his fortune through the manufacture of tennis racquets. His wife died within two weeks of his demise, in spite of being considerably younger than him. Whilst researching the memorial I have discovered a positive treasure-trove of information on London’s cemetery memorial in  The London Dead blog. Along with Margot Bakery, this website is definitely my most exciting find of the week.

The very expensive bronze memorial has two very over-worked cherubs at the corners. Poor things, after all this time they look in need of a rest. Plus, surely that posture can’t be good for their infant backs?

And so, as it starts to rain, we turn tail and head home. Whether we shall find ourselves mysteriously drawn to some local spot that does chocolate and raspberry babka, only time will tell. Suffice it to say that all that walking has made us hungry.

Photo One from https://www.topcitybites.com/top-bites/margot-bakery-london-chocolate-and-raspberry-babka/

Photo One

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.topcitybites.com/top-bites/margot-bakery-london-chocolate-and-raspberry-babka/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Cedar of Lebanon

Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani)

Dear Readers, this magnificent tree must be as far away from a ‘weed’ as anything that I’ve ever featured here. Once upon a time it was a feature of every mansion lawn, but it is rarely planted these days because it is considered to be too slow-growing .I am reminded that, in ancient woodlands such as Coldfall Wood which followed a pattern of ‘coppice and standard’, hornbeams would be planted around a single oak which would not be harvested for a hundred years. With the climate crisis escalating all over the world, we need to be looking ahead beyond our own short lifetimes. I rather like this piece by Alan Titchmarsh on the planting of trees that will not reach their full glory until long after we are dead.

My Collins Tree Guide points out that, in fact, the tree is extremely vigorous in the right conditions, and Titchmarsh’s trees have put on 24 feet of growth in 15 years. As you can see, you would need a lot of room for a cedar of Lebanon to achieve its full potential; those flat level plates of foliage spread out for many metres away from the trunk, shading everything underneath. The cones are enormous and look to me like walnut whips: they disintegrate and drop their scales while still on the tree. The needle-shaped leaves emerge from spurs that whirl around the stem. Everything about this tree is supersized. If you wanted a statement tree for your estate, this would undoubtedly be the one, and in the UK it has been planted since at least 1664, when it is mentioned in a book about timber. Apparently there are many  fine specimens in Highgate Cemetery. I shall have to go and have a look.

This cedar is the national plant of Lebanon, and features on that country’s flag. It is deeply interwoven with the history and culture of Lebanon – 2005 saw the ‘Cedar Revolution’, and it has been the symbol of many of the protests of the past ten years. Rarely has a plant been seen as such a personification of a nation.

The flag of Lebanon (Public Domain)

However, the extensive cedar forests of the region have been extensively logged – an ancient tale tells that the forests were protected by demigods, who were defeated in battle by humans, who cut down the trees. Lebanon and Turkey have both been at the forefront of attempts to reforest although their approaches differ: in Turkey, 50,000 young trees are planted every year, while in Lebanon attempts are made to improve growing conditions in the areas where the trees were previously common. One such is the mountain town of Bsharri in Lebanon, birthplace of Kahlil Gibran. The forest there is known as the ‘Cedars of God’ and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also shows how hardy these trees can be when full-grown – the photo below shows the cedars when over 7 metres of snow had fallen.

Photo One by By Hany raymond rahme - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67139818

Cedars of God in Bsharri, Lebanon (Photo One)

The cedar features in many of the holy books of the Middle Eastern region. Hebrew priests were commanded by David to use the bark of the Cedar of Lebanon in a cure for leprosy. Solomon used the trees’ timber to build the Temple in Jerusalem. The tree is mentioned explicitly in Psalm 92, lines 12-15:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
13 planted in the house of the Lord,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
14 They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will stay fresh and green,
15 proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
    he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

I also love the tale of the Biblical behemoth, a giant creature who apparently grazed on cedars of Lebanon much as a cow eats grass. The monster needed to eat an entire mountain’s worth every day. I suppose that’s one excuse for the deforestation.

Cedar oil is currently being employed in the everlasting battle against the clothes moth, which has been making a remarkable comeback in the wardrobes of East Finchley over the past few years. It’s believed that cedar clotheshangers, cedar oil impregnated balls and cedar wood chests will all deter the little pests, but I suspect the ones in my house must have no sense of smell, because they still manage to find things to munch upon. The only answer seems to be having less clothes, worn and washed more often, and that’s maybe a lesson to all of us. However, although the cedar oil of antiquity undoubtedly came from the cedar of Lebanon, the essential oil today is much more likely to come from other members of the pine, cypress and cedar families, as the ancient forests have been almost completely eradicated.

Cedar oil was also used by the ancient Egyptians as a way of embalming the dead without the need to remove their internal organs – it was a relatively cheap way of preserving a loved one without all those priests and canopic jars and other paraphernalia.

Cedar of Lebanon has been used extensively for its timber – the wood is resinous and is believed to deter insects, and has been used for everything from building to carving.

Photo Two © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Bishop’s Tree, Fulham Palace, London. A recent addition to the gardens has been ‘The Bishop’s Tree’. Sculptures by Andrew Frost depicting some of the bishops and their animals have been applied to the stump of the Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) on the north side of the building. Delores Moorhouse commissioned the sculptures in memory of her late husband, Peter Moorhouse. (Photo Two)

And now, some paintings. You might expect that a tree as august as the cedar of Lebanon would generate its own cloud of myths, and so it was when the Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka(1853 – 1919) first saw them during his trip to the Middle East. In 1880, while working as a pharmacist, he heard a mystical voice, telling him that he was going to be “the greatest painter in the world, greater than Raphael”. He saved up his earnings and in 1890 he headed off into Europe, North Africa, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. He didn’t start painting until after 1900, but his visionary, expressionist works were acclaimed, except in Hungary, where he was considered an eccentric crank because of his pacifism, vegetarianism and hatred of alcohol. His paintings of the cedar of Lebanon have a dream-like, hallucinatory quality that I find rather appealing. See what you think.

Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon (Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka – 1907) (Public Domain)

The Lonely Cedar (Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka 1907) (Public Domain)

And, of course, a poem. I liked this work from The Irish Times, by Peter McDonald – it refers to the cedars in Bsharri that I mentioned earlier, and seems to me to cover a lot of ground in a few short verses. See what you think.

Lebanon by Peter McDonald

High up in the dead cedar, someone has carved
a figure of Jesus stretched over the cross:
his polished face, angular and half-starved,
faces downwards, like that of a man diving
in free-fall to the ground, ready to toss
his life away, and then see death arriving
bang on time, almost already there,
upwards towards him through breathtaking air.

What god would ever want this for himself?
If once he looked out forwards, he would see
a line of mountains, the snowed-over shelf
of Mount Lebanon, the Kadisha valley
stretched underneath it, and even each tree
around him, adding to the cedar-tally
one – but he looks down, and is looking still
down to the earth with a singular will.

Living his second, discontinuous life,
a young man talks to us about the war,
phalanges, sects, and the contours of strife
that make the map of his imagination;
how close he came, or came at least not far
from death when a hand-grenade in conflagration
caught him out of nowhere, on the left side,
as a friend next to him and a stranger died.
He remembers how the air was sucked away
all in an instant, how the blast was not
noise but a silence opening; the spray
of soil and stones and blood together going
in the wrong direction, and a vacuum, hot
and fast, pulling him inwards; a force growing
enormous in a second; then the fear
just after, as they dragged his body clear.

And now the same man stands here fit and whole
below the Jesus of the Maronites,
his talk of trees, and the cedar-patrol
that guards year-round the few of them still standing;
the dangers of dry summers and cold nights,
and names of birds here, flying off or landing
close to their hidden nests somewhere above
all of our heads in the protected grove.

What we might say, standing on his deaf side,
is lost, but he laughs and nods anyway;
how much is spoken, how much more implied
about things by the people who have seen them
hangs like a question, balancing today
in two natures with the one will between them:
even the thin air at this altitude
smells of needles and undecaying wood.

Peter McDonald’s works include Pastorals , Torchlight and a Collected Poems (Carcanet Press)

Photo Credits

Photo One By Hany raymond rahme – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67139818

Photo Two © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Year’s Walk in East Finchley

Dear Readers, on New Year’s Day I decided to go for a walk in Coldfall Wood and the adjoining Islington and St Pancras Cemetery. I don’t usually make New Year’s Resolutions, having a less than perfect record of achieving them (ahem), but this article from The Guardian got me all fired up about the power of moving. Walking is something that is easy to incorporate into my life, and I enjoy it, so there’s a good chance that I’ll keep doing it. Let’s see.

Anyhoo, it was off to the woods, and as usual my eyes were drawn to the strange shapes of the hornbeam trees. Once upon a time they would have been coppiced for firewood every year (cut right back to the ‘stool’), but since this stopped they have grown in the strangest, most tortured ways. You’ll notice how bare the understorey is as well – in the parts of the wood which were coppiced a few years ago, there is much more plant diversity, as seeds that were in the ground for decades finally felt the warmth of the sun and germinated.

The holly and the ivy

In this part of the wood, though, it’s all about the holly and ivy, as few other plants apart from a few early flowerers like lesser celandine can tolerate the shade once the leaves appear.

We turned off the path and sneaked through a hole in the fence, much beloved by dog-walkers, into St Pancras and Islington Cemetery.

It looks bleak at this time of year, but it’s already full of birdsong – jays chase one another, magpies rat-a-tat-tat and every hundred metres a new robin appears. I can hear great tits (‘teeeecher!’), the irritated twitter of blue tits, and the soft contact calls of long-tailed tits. I even hear the high-pitched call of a goldcrest in one of the big conifers. Sadly, I couldn’t get a single photo, so you’ll have to trust me.

How green everything looks, after all the rain we’ve had! There is moss everywhere. The angels on the corner by the newly refurbished chapel look even more melancholy than usual.

We head down to the ‘forest burial site’ which has had an almighty tidy-up – at one point it had docks seven feet high, burdock, and a wide variety of interesting weeds. Not at the moment, however, and even the big sad cedar, which looked to be on its last roots, has been subject to the chainsaw. At least it’s still standing, though – maybe one of the many woodpeckers than I heard drumming in the wood will use it.

What I wanted to investigate, though, was the new part of the cemetery, which has been under development for several years. Once upon a time, this area was used as a nursery to grow plants for the Borough, but the greenhouses fell into disrepair, and for a long time it was the haunt of foxes and birds. Now, however, the animals have been evicted and the area is pristine and rather disheartening. Hopefully once the planting grows up it will be a bit more welcoming. I am guessing that the blank plaques will be used to commemorate loved ones who have been cremated – there is a similar area at the other end of the cemetery. I know it’s a matter of personal choice, but give me a melancholy Victorian angel any day.

New commemoration area for cremations

Some gazebos. I’m hoping that something will be planted under them, but no sign of any beds yet

Planting (mostly euphorbias by the look of it)

So, let’s hope that the area will get a bit softer once the plants get going. The quality of the paving and brickwork is impressive at any rate.

On the way out, I spot this wonderful gravestone, commemorating one Gilbert Richard who fell through a snow bridge in Grindelwald, Switzerland, in 1896, and who was apparently of an ‘amiable disposition’. I am also moved by the death of Matilda Rose Dafforne, though she seems to be something of a paragon of the various virtues, and was probably completely terrifying as a result. I do think we should be told more about the lives of those who have passed, so we can get an idea of their personality – elsewhere in the cemetery someone is described as ‘a force of nature’, and I think we all have a fair idea of what that means.

I was also taken by this statue of yet another angel, mostly because the pruned trunk behind her reminds me of a rather eager dog begging for a treat. What do you think?

On the way back to the woods, I am taken by the number of graves featuring an anchor as a headstone – this is a sign that the deceased was a sailor, either in the Royal Navy or as a merchant seamen.

In amongst the higgledy-piggledy headstones, there are the patterns of nature – Ivy making a ladder as it climbs a sapling, bracket fungus emerging from a dead stem/

And then, we climb back through into Coldfall Wood. The rain this year has caused the ‘Everglades’ to become less of a wetland and more of a lagoon. Here are some shots from just before Christmas, courtesy of Neville who regularly walks his dog in the woods. Thank you Neville!

By New Year’s Day the level of water has dropped, but I still fear that the boardwalk and some of the bridges will need some work in the spring. There is obviously a drainage problem somewhere, and the Friends of Coldfall Wood group will be talking to Haringey Council to see what can be done.

I find myself dizzied by the reflections. In photography as in life, it’s hard sometimes to work out which way is up.

The poor crows who normally bathe in the little stream here seem rather confused and disgruntled at all the changes.

And then it’s time to head home, for a cup of tea and some of the leftovers from yesterday’s New Year’s Eve meal. I made the rice pudding with almonds and cranberry compote that I used to make for Mum and Dad, and very nice it was too. Just as well, as I seem to have made enough for about twelve people, and I sense rice pudding for breakfast in my immediate future. All in all, it’s been a very satisfactory start to the New Year. I hope that yours was as much fun as mine was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Black Lilyturf

Black lilyturf (Ophiopogon planiscapus)

Dear Readers, first of all, Happy New Year, and indeed Happy New Decade. Although technically the next decade doesn’t start until 1st January 2021, I am not strong enough to swim against that particular tide, and anyhow, I can wish you all Happy New Decade again next year. Let’s hope that it brings us all a measure of peace, inspiration, and a whole truckload of kindness, to ourselves and to one another. Something tells me that we’re going to need it.

And now, back to the Wednesday Weed. Black-leaved plants are extremely rare in nature, and are even unusual as cultivars – most of the so called ‘black’ plants are actually deep purple or very dark green when looked at closely. Black lilyturf (known as black mondo grass in North America) (Ophiopogon planiscapus) is different – its leaves really are black, and in a recent study it was suggested that the leaves are similar in colour to the flat black  samples often used by paint companies. However, there is also a green-leaved variety of the same plant, and this has been used in the formal beds in Regent’s Park to create some interesting effects.

Black lilyturf is neither a lily (though for a while it was included in the lily family) nor a grass. It is a member of the Asparagaceae or asparagus family, which is an enormous gathering of plants, and includes Liriope, which I mentioned a few months ago as being very popular with the landscape gardeners of the City of London. The plant comes originally from Japan, but because of its distinctive colour it has become a feature of both formal beds and shady gardens. It produces rather pretty white flowers, but only after it has become well-established.

Photo One by Meneerke bloem [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Black lilyturf in flower (Photo One)

Looking at this plant raised a number of questions. Why are black-leaved plants so rare in nature? Do they have some kind of disadvantage when compared to green-leaved plants? The study that I referenced earlier was also intrigued by this question, and so the scientists involved grew both the green and black-leaved cultivars (which are pretty much genetically identical) in a range of environments, and measured growth rates in both. It was found that the green-leaved plants had a slight advantage in strong sunlight, but that the black leaves helped to protect the plant against the effects of excessive light, which could cause free radicals which damage the plant. In the shade, green leaves seemed to confer no advantage. So, in short, it isn’t clear why there aren’t more black-leaved plant communities, especially as there are plenty of black mosses and liverworts. It’s one of those fascinating questions that could lead to all sorts of new discoveries about the way that plants use sunlight.

The genus name Ophiopogon literally means ‘snakes beard’, and the plants are widespread throughout China, Korea and Japan. One species, Ophiopogon japonicus, is known as mai men dong in Chinese, and is widely used for ‘nourishing the yin of the stomach, spleen, heart and lungs‘. It has beautiful dark blue berries, and is also a popular garden plant.

Photo Two by By Alpsdake - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65369067

Ophiopogon japonicus berries (Photo Two)

But back to black lilyturf. One of the most spectacular examples of its use as a bedding plant has to be from 2012, when Kew Gardens used it as one of the Olympic rings.

Photo Three from http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:538935-1

Kew Gardens – the Olympic Rings (Photo Three)

The other rings were made from blue garden lobelia (Lobelia erinus),  yellow marigold (Tagetes patula), green apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and red pelargonium. It was created as a backdrop for the torch relay which passed by on July 24th, 2012, and over 20,000 plants were planted in the five days that it took to create the display.

If you prefer to use black lilyturf in a less colourful setting, however, you can combine it with other dark and dangerous plants as recommended by the  Facebook group ‘Goth Gardening‘. I am pleased to see that one of my other favourites, Aeonium Zwartzkop, is suggested as well. A black garden might be rather splendid, especially with some suitably Gothic statuary and maybe a resident bat colony. And if you want to see what a full-blown Gothic black-planted garden looks like, you can see a very fine example here.

And finally, a poem. As you can imagine, finding poems that mention Ophiopogon are hard to come by, as are poems featuring black lilyturf. However, I have expanded my horizons as usual, and came across this poem from the Zhou dynasty in China, which lasted from 1046 BC to 256 BC. The poet is unknown, but the poem comes from The Book of Songs, a collection of 305 poems which was thought to have been compiled by Confucius. The music has been lost, but the lyrics give us a window into another time and place. The grass is almost certainly not ‘our’ grass, but I hope that the both the specificity and the timelessness of the poem make up for it.

All The Grasslands Are Yellow

All the grasslands are yellow

and all the days we march

and all the men are conscripts

sent off in four directions. 

 

All the grasslands are black

and all the men like widowers

So much grief! Are soldiers

not men like other men?

 

We aren’t bison! We aren’t tigers

crossing the wilderness,

but our sorrows 

roam from dusk till dawn.

 

Hairy-tailed foxes

slink through the dark grass

as we ride tall chariots 

along the wide rutted roads.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Meneerke bloem [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Photo Two by By Alpsdake – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65369067

Photo Three from http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:538935-1

 

 

 

Christmas in Dorchester

St Peter’s Church steeple, with the Corn Market building in the foreground

Dear Readers, I was in Dorchester for the Christmas holidays, spending some time with Dad at the care home. I often find myself getting a little crazy at this time of year, though whether it’s the unaccustomed volume of desserts, the feeling of being close-swaddled with my loved ones or the general melancholy that Christmas brings, I’m not sure. This year, there’s been a sense of having nothing much to do, compared to previous years when I would be running around cooking and entertaining, and so there’s a certain emptiness. Still, one way of alleviating all of those things is a good brisk walk, and Christmas morning dawned in such crystalline perfection that it was a pleasure to get out.

Dorchester is a fine old town, with pre-historic roots, a Roman heritage, and a fine dose of Georgian and Victorian architecture. It was the inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s Castorbridge, and it maintains a kind of gentility which is all too rare in England these days. If I tell you that nearly all the restaurants close at 9 p.m. you’ll get an idea of the atmosphere of the place. Early to bed and early to rise seems to be Dorchester’s watchword, and it’s none the worse for that.

We walk along Church Street, which certainly has an abundance of the eponymous holy houses. The main church is St Peters, which dates back to the fifteenth century and has a delightful garden and chapter house behind it. It is built of local Portland stone and hamstone, from Ham HIll in Somerset. Maybe that explains why it seems to have just emerged, fully formed, out of the ground.  It has been Grade 1 listed since 1950, so it’s now frozen in form, although previous to this it was extensively fiddled about with and renovated.

Behind the church there is an enormous bright orange crane, doing goodness only knows what. The town is  much frequented by gulls of all kinds, and these two were looking out for anyone being a bit untidy with their croissant.

As we wander around the back of the church, we are confronted by an enormous redbrick wall, with some kind of Victorian edifice peeping over the top. The whole thing is fenced off, with barbed wire and checkpoints and metal gates. A sign announces that the site has been bought by a developer called City and County, but nothing much seemed to be happening, even given that it was Christmas Day.

There is a most august-looking holly tree opposite the wall, maybe a survivor from the early days of the building. We are also greeted by a friendly moggie. We try to circumnavigate the wall, but are stopped in all directions.

A little bit of research afterwards revealed what should have been blooming obvious – this was previously a prison, HMP Dorchester to be exact. It ‘housed’ some 300 male prisoners when it closed in 2014, and was the site of the hanging of the last woman to be executed in Dorset. Apparently this was viewed by Thomas Hardy, who incorporated it into Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The plan is to develop the site for housing, with 200 new homes planned, but the company has run out of resources, and is looking for a new partner. I’m not sure I’d want to live behind those imposing walls, and, as many of the prison buildings are listed, it would be quite a challenge to make it homely. Plus, I wonder if all that human misery leaves a mark, somehow? It will be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out.

Before the site was a prison, it was a Norman castle – though the Normans weren’t very impressed with Dorchester (unlike the Romans who built an aqueduct and an amphitheatre), they still thought it worthwhile to knock up a fortification on the town’s highest spot.

Onwards! We walk down the hill a bit, past some very attractive cottages. They remind me of the house that I grew up in Stratford, East London – it was a railway cottage which had no front garden  at all and opened directly onto the street. One pair of houses has a nice wooden hood above their doors. I love the way that it has turned into a garden.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Dorchester, but usually in a half-mile square centered on the guesthouse where I stay, the care home and the shops where I make sure Dad is stocked up with polo mints and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, so today it was a real pleasure to explore a little bit further afield. Beside the cottages a stream gurgles on, probably an offshoot of the River Frome. We cross a little bridge, and head along the path.

There is no doubt that there has been a lot of rain in the past month – some parts of the allotments are practically under water.There are birdfeeders strung from the bushes along the path, and they are full of sparrows and finches. Some reeds have been planted, which adds another habitat to the selection already on offer. People are jogging and walking their dogs, and everyone says ‘Merry Christmas’, though some of the runners find it a bit of an effort, what with them having barely enough oxygen to breathe.

And what is this? A new nature reserve?

I am hardly wearing the correct shoes for the job, but we head off along the boardwalk. The water is so clear that I am intrigued by the flora underneath. Are they actually waterplants, or just poor drowned ‘weeds’? I fear the latter.

As we turn the corner, I hear some people coughing heartily. I see two youngsters by a park bench, one wearing a Chewbacca onesie and a pair of antlers. The air is heavy with the smell of cannabis, and both the boys turn to us, bleary-eyed.

‘Merry Christmas!’ they chorus, before breaking into another bout of chest-wrenching hacking.

We walk on a bit further, but the boardwalk disappears into the water like a log-flume, so we head back, passing the youngsters. One of them is on the phone.

‘My Dad’s there already!’ he says. ‘I’m gonna be in so much trouble’.

The end of the road (at least without waders…)

We pass a family. Their daughter is walking tippy-toe on each individual board, and their pug does not like the holes between the slats. The mother is anxious to get them onto the next stage of the Christmas festivities, but is not having much luck, although by the speed that the whole party bowls past us fifteen minutes later she must have hidden powers of persuasion.

And we, too, need to get to the care home for lunch with Dad. We pass the site of the White Hart Inn,  which dated back to 1895 and was finally demolished to make way for a small housing estate in 2006. There was some concern that the iconic white hart statue, which stood above the door of the pub, would not be incorporated into the new buildiing, but here it is, in all its splendour. It reminds me of the white hart statue in Milborne St Andrew, and the scandal that occurred when the new owners of the house painted the private parts of the animal bright pink. White deer are occasionally spotted on the local Purbeck Hills, so maybe the animal has been considered lucky for a long time. I suspect that standing out when  deer-hunting was rife was not such a lucky thing for the animal, however.

The White Stag

We arrive at the care home and Dad is washed and showered, and wearing his musical Christmas tie. I give him his Christmas presents, and he is sad that he hasn’t been able to go out to buy any for us. In truth, Mum and Dad gave up on the present buying several years ago, when they could no longer manage online, and going to the shops was impossible. How things fall away as we get older!!

‘Your presence is present enough for me, Dad’, I say, cheesily but honestly.

Then he throws us a curve ball.

‘When do you think Mum and Dad will get here?’ he asks. ‘I never knew my Dad, you know’.

Dad’s father was a commando, and died in a tank in Tunisia during the Second World War. Dad would only have been about eight when his dad was killed, so he’s got that right. His Mum died about fifteen years ago.

‘I bought them a flat opposite so I can just pop in and see them’, Dad says. ‘Everyone says I jumped the queue, but I didn’t care so long as they could be near’.

I honestly don’t know how to deal with Dad when he says stuff like this. If I tell him his parents have been dead for years he’ll be upset, and it cures nothing, because he won’t remember what I’ve said and will go back to his original understanding of the situation.

‘They might not be able to come, Dad’, I say tentatively.

‘They’ll be here!’ says Dad.

So we go downstairs for lunch, and Dad keeps looking out of the window while he eats his pate and biscuits.

‘I don’t think they’ll be able to come, Dad’, I say, ‘But we’re here, and we’ll have a nice time, eh’.

‘Of course’, says Dad, but I can tell he isn’t convinced.

‘I shall be really annoyed if Mum and Dad don’t come, after all the trouble I’ve been to’, he says.

So we try distraction with crackers, and talking to the people at the next table. I mention that we used to have prawn cocktail when we went to our local Berni Inn, The Spotted Dog in Forest Gate, and Dad remembers that my brother and I used to ping our peas over the balcony and into the bar downstairs. He’s absolutely right. How can he be right about this, and still think his parents are alive? Dementia is an object lesson in being able to hold a multitude of paradoxical ideas at the same time.

Dad starts to relax a bit, but I know he’s disappointed.

‘Dad, you know they would have come if they’d been able to’, I venture. ‘And they both love you very much’.

Dad nods up and down.

‘I only really wanted to have this dinner to see them’, he says.

Gee, thanks Dad. But the one thing you learn very early with dementia is not to take things personally. Dad doesn’t mean  to be hurtful, he just gets an idea in his head and can’t shift it, until the next idea comes along. I look forward to the return of his lunches with the queen, or even his haulage company.

On Boxing Day, he is a little less obsessed.

‘Did you tell Mum that I was angry that she didn’t come to dinner?’ he asks.

‘I did, Dad, and she was very sorry.  She can’t walk very well, you know’.

Dad harrumphs.

‘I didn’t know that, ‘ he says. ‘ I’ll let her off then. Maybe I’ll take a walk over and see them in a few days’.

And then he brightens up.

‘You said I’ve got lots of money’, he says, ‘So maybe in the spring we’ll go out and buy a little car’.

‘Maybe, Dad’, I say. ‘When the spring comes’.

Dad in his new hat, wearing his Christmas tie.

 

 

 

 

Christmas Weed – Cranberry

Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

Dear Readers, first of all happy Christmas to those of you who are celebrating today, happy Hannukah to my Jewish readers, and welcome to all of you. I decided to write about cranberries today because they seem to have popped onto the UK Christmas menu fairly recently, and because they are such mouth-puckeringly tart little critters. I have to say that I don’t envy food stylists, because trying to get this bunch to stay in my best dessert dish proved something of a challenge – I must have spent five minutes chasing them around the kitchen as they bounced onto the floor. Apparently, cranberries harvested to be eaten fresh (rather than ending up in sauce) have to pass a ‘bounce test’ in New England, with only berries bouncing more than four inches being considered ripe enough, so at least I know my cranberries are good quality.

I no longer need to cook turkey for Christmas dinner, what with Mum having passed away last year and Dad now being in a care home because of his dementia, so my cranberries will be a sweet accompaniment to a Danish rice pudding with slivered almonds in it. Traditionally, though, most folk in the UK eat cranberries on one day of the year, with their Christmas turkey, and jar of sauce sits at the back of the fridge until someone notices that it has become a microhabitat all of its own and throws it away. But what on earth is a cranberry? I thought that I would do a deep dive into the provenance and history of the plant that has sneakily found its way onto our plate on 25th December.

So, cranberries are bog plants, closely related to bilberries and huckleberries, and are members of the heath/heather family (Ericaceae). There is a native British cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos, which has flowers rather like those of the cyclamen, and which pops up among the sphagnum mosses in the south-west of Scotland, north-west of England and the wetter parts of Wales and Ireland. This plant is also found in North America and the northern parts of mainland Europe and northern Asia, and although its berries are not harvested commercially, it has been used as food by many Native American communities, and also as medicine.

Photo One by Bernd Haynold - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=190476

British cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) flowers (Photo One)

The cranberries that most of us eat are from a different species, Vaccinium macrocarpon, and we shall turn our attention to this plant for the rest of this post. It is thought that the name ‘cranberry’ came from the resemblance of the flowers to the head and neck of a crane, and was first used by the missionary John Eliot in 1647, but the berry was being harvested by native peoples well before Europeans arrived. It is believed that the Narragansett people of the north-eastern corner of North America introduced the first settlers in Massachusetts to the cranberry, both as a winter foodstuff, and as a dye. In 1633 there is an account of a cranberry-dyed petticoat being auctioned for 16 shillings in Plymouth, Massachusetts. There are accounts of native peoples greeting European settlers with cups of cranberries as they came ashore. My heart can only bleed for what was to happen subsequently. The first reference to the serving of turkey with cranberry sauce is in 1669, at the wedding feast of Captain Richard Cobb. In the UK, any reader of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ knows that the turkey was already the major feature of Christmas dinner by Victorian times (although goose was also very popular), but I can find no mention of cranberry sauce. I seem to remember that redcurrant jelly was a favourite when I was growing up, but it’s quite possible that I misremembered. What did you used to eat with your turkey? I would love to know.

Photo Two by Veganbaking.net from USA - Cranberry Sauce, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35717187

Cranberry sauce (Photo Two)

The vast bulk of the cranberries that we consume in the UK come from North America, with Wisconsin and Montreal being two epicentres of production. Chile is the third major player in the cranberry market. Cranberries are usually grown on sand, which is flooded in the fall to a depth of about eight inches above the top of the vines. A harvester then drives through the water to separate the berries – they float, and so can be scooped off the surface of the water. About five percent of the berries are dry-picked because they are to be sold fresh, but as the remainder end up in tins or jars, a little damage isn’t critical. The cranberry ‘lakes’ must be quite a sight.

Photo Three by -jkb- - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8426461

Wet-harvesting cranberries (Photo Three)

Now, most of us ladies have been told at some point or another that cranberry juice, or cranberry extract, is efficacious in the treatment of cystitis or other UTIs (Urinary Tract Infections). Well, I regret to say that the jury is out. A 2012 metastudy found no link between the ingestion of cranberry products and a reduction in suffering. A 2017 study found that there was some evidence that cranberry is useful for people with recurrent infections. What seems to be clear is that the scientific evidence is contradictory and confusing. One problem, I suspect, is that cranberry on its own is so tart that it requires a large amount of sugar to make it palatable, and unfortunately the bugs that cause UTIs love to eat sugar themselves. Still, cranberries are a reasonable source of Vitamin C (though not as good as curly kale), so I imagine they won’t do you any harm.

The use of cranberry as a dye seems to be rather more reliable however, and produces a really attractive deep pink colour. Have a quick look at the experiment carried out by 44 Clovers here to see the sort of results that can be achieved.

Now, here’s an interesting thing. The Delaware Native American tribe apparently have a legend which links the ancient (and now extinct) mastodon, a relative of the elephant, and the cranberry. In the tale, the mastodons are initially helpful to the humans, but suddenly and inexplicably the animals turn against their former friends, and also begin to act badly towards the other animals. Acting on advice from the Great Spirit, the humans trap the mastodons in a pit and destroy them by throwing rocks at them. The next year, bitter red berries grow from the blood-soaked ground – the first cranberry bog. I find this all rather unsettling, especially in view of the rather romantic view that the first human inhabitants of North America lived gently alongside the other inhabitants of the continent. Lots of large mammal species disappeared shortly after humans arrived and it is unclear whether we were the cause, or just the final straw. It is fascinating that this tale, handed down through the generations, remembers when humans and the mega-mammals co-existed. I wonder if it recalls an actual event? The story has been turned into a children’s book, which looks rather splendid.

Photo Four from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-671-75975-9

The Legend of the Cranberry (Photo Four)

I thought that the cranberry bogs might have interested North American artists, and they have, but not in the way I thought. I expected the glow of red berries to be the chief attraction, but for Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a renowned genre and portrait painter, it was the people picking the cranberries that gave him his focus. Johnson went on to paint intimate portraits of the Ojibwe people of the Lake Superior area, and several pictures of black people which were supportive of the emancipation of slaves. His pictures of the cranberry harvest give an idea of the immense amount of labour involved before the advent of machinery, and leaves open the question of whether these people are foraging, or working.

Two versions of ‘The cranberry harvest at Nantucket’ by Eastman Johnson, one from 1879 and one from 1880 (Public Domain)

And finally, a poem. I just discovered this today and look, it has cranberries in it! And most excellent advice to anyone who is trying to split up with someone who damages them. In it, the poet Marty McConnell imagines that Frida Kahlo (who popped up in my Strelitzia post a few weeks ago) is giving her some guidance on how to proceed. We would do well to listen, I think. Enjoy, and have a wonderful day, whatever you’re up to.

Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell
by Marty McConnell

leaving is not enough; you must
stay gone. train your heart
like a dog. change the locks
even on the house he’s never
visited. you lucky, lucky girl.
you have an apartment
just your size. a bathtub
full of tea. a heart the size
of Arizona, but not nearly
so arid. don’t wish away
your cracked past, your
crooked toes, your problems
are papier mache puppets
you made or bought because the vendor
at the market was so compelling you just
had to have them. you had to have him.
and you did. and now you pull down
the bridge between your houses.
you make him call before
he visits. you take a lover
for granted, you take
a lover who looks at you
like maybe you are magic. make
the first bottle you consume
in this place a relic. place it
on whatever altar you fashion
with a knife and five cranberries.
don’t lose too much weight.
stupid girls are always trying
to disappear as revenge. and you
are not stupid. you loved a man
with more hands than a parade
of beggars, and here you stand. heart
like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas.
heart leaking something so strong
they can smell it in the street.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Bernd Haynold – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=190476

Photo Two by Veganbaking.net from USA – Cranberry Sauce, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35717187

Photo Three by -jkb- – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8426461

Photo Four from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-671-75975-9