Dear Readers, it was a strange, sad Christmas this year, without my Mum. We stayed in Dorchester (at the excellent Westwood House if you’re ever in need of a place to rest your weary head) – the owners, Tom and Demelza, have been so kind, and sensitive to my emotional turmoil too. We have walked up and down to the nursing home where Dad lives, and have found that his mental state has gone from bad to worse. When shown a picture of Mum of he furrowed his brow and asked if it was my brother’s girlfriend. He has regressed to a point where he seems to think that he is in his early twenties, and is planning on running a truck business, and maybe it is a strange kindness that he no longer seems to remember Mum, or the misery of the past few months. It is brutal to have lost both my parents, one to death and one to dementia, and some days I honestly don’t know how I get out of bed. But this time has also shown me that the web of connections between people, both in ‘real life’ and on the internet, is as resilient as spider silk. It has held me when I was afraid that I would fall, and I am so, so grateful.
But life goes on, and on Boxing Day I went out for a walk to Fordington with my husband, an area that I first discovered last week when I went to pick up Mum’s death certificate from the GP’s surgery. I was roused from my sorrow by the enormous church of St George’s standing on the hill, and seeming out of all proportion to the village around it. I loved the mixture of modest houses and massive mansions, and wanted to explore further.
The lane up to St George’s church
The church dates back to the 15th Century, but has some much earlier features: a Roman commemorative stone was found under the porch, and one of the pillars is actually a Roman pillar turned upside down. We can assume that a Roman temple stood on the site originally (Fordington was known as Durnovaria to the Romans, and was separate from Dorchester). Sacred sites are often used and re-used, as we know.
The Roman commemorative stone to Carinus, a nobleman, that was found under the porch in 1908
The upside-down Roman pillar, with the Capitol at the bottom
And as you know, I have always found solace in graveyards, so, after inspecting the inside of the church, we headed to the cemetery. Here, we found the only memorial to German prisoners of war of the First World War in the UK. Most of the prisoners died during the Influenza epidemic of 1918, and were given full and solemn burial rites. They are honoured in a service on the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday every year, although the bodies have now been moved to the German War Cemetery in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.
The Memorial to German Prisoners of War in Fordington Cemetery
The memorial was designed by another German POW, Karl Bartholmay and carved by Josef Walter. After the war, Walter emigrated to America, where he worked as a sculptor and made pieces for many public buildings.
By now, we were losing the light, and so we headed back through the churchyard and towards home, past the magnificent yew trees.
And we were nearly home when I spotted something that made me laugh, for the first time in weeks.
This is a rather handsome herring gull ‘puddling’. It always reminds me a little of the Irish Jig. The theory is that the sound made by those big rubbery feet makes the earthworms think that it’s raining, and that their burrows are about to be flooded out, so they come to the surface, whereupon they are grabbed by the gull. There is something about the serious expression of the bird that always amuses me. Sometimes they manage to look slightly embarrassed when observed too.
I have been reading a wonderful book about gulls called ‘Landfill’ by Tim Dee, which discusses all manner of things gull-related. In particular, Dee discusses how landfill sites, formerly a beacon for seabirds, contain less and less edible matter, which is either buried immediately or goes off for biofuels. The ever-adaptable gulls are moving on to other sources of food, such as the icecreams of toddlers or the chips of the casual stroller, and have hence been demonised, as any creature does when it doesn’t ‘know its place’. I rather love these piratical, vaguely menacing birds, with their icy eyes and predatory beaks, and I blessed this one as I passed. He or she had been very obliging with their dance, and topped it all off with a most impressive greeting or threat to another bird passing overhead.
Ah, Dear Readers, what a year it has been. But a walk in nature usually persuades me that life goes on, with all its trials and joys and moments of unexpected comedy. I wish a slightly less tumultous ride for me for 2019, and a cornucopia of good things for all of you lovely people. And here, to finish 2018, is a most handsome dove, one of a group of white birds performing outside the Town Hall. May we all find the peace that the bird represents.
Dear Readers, firstly I would like to say thank you to everyone who has left comments on the blog and on Facebook following my mother’s death last week. I have read every single one, and they have given me such comfort. I will be responding to you individually as soon as I have enough mental bandwidth to do justice to your kindness. In the meantime, please be assured that you have made such a difference to me. It’s made me realise that I’m not alone, and that so many of you have already been where I am today, and are alongside me as I walk this path.
Now, some of you may have read Joan Didion’s book ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, in which she describes her emotional journey following the sudden death of her husband. She recounts how she keeps his shoes because ‘he’ll need them when he comes back’. The rational part of her knows that he’s never coming back, but she still can’t throw the shoes away. I had my own version of this when I found Mum’s hairbrush with some of her long, silver hair still in it. I found myself thinking ‘maybe someone could clone Mum from the DNA in her hair’. I know that this is completely ridiculous, but the thought was there. And I have the hairbrush, just in case.
More helpful is what happened to me earlier this morning. I was getting ready to go out for breakfast, and I was telling my husband that I probably wouldn’t do a blog this week because, after all, my mother had just died, and everyone would understand. And then I heard Mum’s voice in my head, as clearly as if she was standing next to me.
‘Don’t you dare not do the blog! Tell them about the Brussels sprouts’.
And so, Dear Readers, here is my take on that most divisive of vegetables the Brussels sprout, courtesy of my mother.
Every Christmas we would have Brussels sprouts with our turkey. I quite liked those sulphurous, squidgy little crucifers, and Dad positively loved them. They were usually a little watery and yellow, and I maintained that this was because Mum insisted on making a cross in the bottom of each one which allowed the cooking water to penetrate right into the heart of the vegetable. I, with my new-fangled modern ways, declared that this wasn’t necessary but somehow, even when I hosted Christmas in my own house, Mum managed to get hold of the Brussels and a sharp knife and the rest was history.
In fact last year, when we had Christmas in Dorset because Mum and Dad were getting over a chest infection and were too sick to travel, the only thing that Mum had the energy to do was to sabotage the Brussels sprouts. By this point I was only too happy to let Mum have her way.
When we eat sprouts, we’re actually eating the buds of the plant. I was too late to get a picture of the Brussels sprouts on the stem that were being sold at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley (the best greengrocer in London in my humble opinion), but here are some so that you get the idea. The plant is, of course, a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) which accounts for those hints of sulphur if the plant is overcooked. It probably originally came from the Mediterranean area, and forerunners of our sprouts may well have been grown in ancient Rome. The plant was known in northern Europe from about the 5th century onwards, and was said to have been grown in Belgium from about the 13th century, hence the name.
Brussels sprouts ready for harvest (Photo One)
Each stalk can bear a harvest of up to 3lbs of sprouts, which can be picked all at the same time, or over a period of weeks. The sprouts are normally ready for harvesting between 90 and 180 days after planting, and are considered sweetest after a frost. They are a traditional winter vegetable in the UK, though I would be willing to bet that a lot of people have them with their Christmas dinner and at no other time. Personally, my winter crucifer of choice would be a fine green cabbage, but that is an absolute no-no in my household.
There are some new varieties of Brussels sprout about, including a rather neat looking red and green flouncy variety that cropped up in Waitrose last year, and red Brussel sprouts have been around for a while . The red ones are a hybrid between red cabbage and the traditional Brussels sprout. Just as I find it hard to keep up with the ever-burgeoning selection of citrus varieties that appear in the greengrocers, so I am overwhelmed with Brassicas. I just get my head around kale when cavalo nero appears, and now there is micro-kale. I am not always sure that too much choice is a good thing.
Red Brussel sprouts (Photo Two)
Most of the Brussels sprouts eaten in the UK will be home grown, with the ones in Tonys coming from Lincolnshire. Sprouts need temperatures no higher than 75 degrees and are also fairly thirsty plants, so the climate in East Anglia is ideal. In the US, the area around Monterey Bay, with its year-round coolish climate and coastal fog, is a big area for growing sprouts, although up to 85% of them will be for the frozen food market. I’ve never eaten frozen sprouts, my great fear being that upon defrosting they would turn into mush, but surely all those American consumers can’t be wrong.
Like all members of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are very good for you, packed full of vitamins and minerals and that all important fibre. But if you are on Warfarin or some other blood-thinning drug, beware: sprouts are high in Vitamin K, and a Scottish man was hospitalised following excessive consumption of the vegetable at Christmas. Apparently eating Brussels sprouts means that the Warfarin is cleared through the body more quickly, and therefore does not create the desired anticoagulation effect. And here’s me thinking that the main danger from a Brussels sprout was stepping on a raw one and being catapulted into the Christmas tree.
Then there is Linus Urbanec from Sweden who holds the world Brussels sprout consumption record, eating 31 sprouts in a minute in November 2008. I assume that they were cooked.
And on the subject of cooking, there are so many recipes for Brussels sprouts that it is difficult to choose just a few. The rumour is that roasting sprouts avoids the sulphur flavour that results from boiling or steaming, and you can also shred them and stir-fry them. One of my favourite dishes is bubble and squeak, which uses left over mashed potato and left over sprouts. But I don’t think they should ever be turned into desserts, or smoothies for that matter. I am reminded of the time that I used swede in a cake recipe, and the whole thing was so revolting that even I couldn’t eat it. For those who are keen on such things, however, there are some Brussels sprout smoothie recipes here. And good luck.
I note that the ever-innovative Heston Blumenthal made a ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert for Waitrose last year, but, quel suprise, it contained no actual sprouts, only green profiteroles filled with lime creme patissiere. Hah.
In ancient folklore, Brussels sprouts were said to have sprung from bitter tears, although it is also said that eating sprouts before a riotous evening will help to ward off drunkenness. It seems to me that a combination of sprouts and beer would be apt to produce both bitter tears and all manner of personal explosions, but there you go. If you can’t let rip at Christmas, then when can you?
And finally, in my journey through the world of sprouts I have found the delightful ‘Sprouts are Cool‘ website. And for your delectation, here is a poem by Suzie S, which sums the whole sprouts dichotomy in a few sentences.
Brussel Sprouts Poetry
O, Brussels sprout sae green and round,
Ye sit upon ma plate, So innocently mystifying, The cause o’ much debate.
Some say ye taste like camel droppings, While others think you great, I’m sure your sitting there a wonderin’, Whit’s goin’ tae be your fate.
So let me tell you o’ so quick, As nervously you wait, That I find you e’er so loathsome, So you definitely won’t be ate.
Mum was always so supportive of my writing. For years I would write 1000 words and send it to her, and she would read it, and then read it out loud to my Dad (who often fell asleep but there you go). She would foist my magazine articles onto anyone who stood still long enough, whether they wanted to read them or not. She always believed that I was meant to be a writer, and would chide me if I stopped producing for any reason. And here she is, still doing it although she’s no longer here. She wanted me to be the best version of myself that I could possibly be, and so I guess I’d better get back to my notebooks and laptop and get composing. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, even now.
Dear Readers, you have been with me through the whole of the journey of the past few years, with all its ups and downs, and I have so appreciated your thoughts and support. So today, I wanted to share with you the last few days of my mother’s life. I realise that many people are finding this time of year difficult enough already, so please don’t feel obliged to read this if you think it might make things worse.
I got the call to go back to the Nursing Home on Monday. When I arrived it was clear that Mum’s breathing had changed – there was a distinct rattling sound with every breath, and it seemed as if it was shallower and faster than it had been previously. Mum seemed to be totally absorbed in the process of dying, and unaware of what was going on, but I tried to remember that she could probably still hear at least some of what was going on, and could still feel. We all spent a lot of time holding her hand and talking to her. My brother and I took it in turns to be there – there is no way of knowing how long this stage will last, and Mum was a tough, determined woman.
After a couple of hours, I went to speak to the staff nurse.
‘This may sound cold-blooded’, I said, ‘but I want to know what the practicalities are, and what needs to happen once Mum has passed’.
So it was explained to me exactly what would happen in the next few hours and days. One thing that the Staff Nurse said triggered something in me.
‘You need to think about how you want her to be dressed when she leaves’, she said.
Mum was always a splendid dresser. She loved bright colours and it was a running joke that her socks had to match her outfit. I went back to the room and rooted through her clothes, but Dad has been packing and unpacking their clothes and it was difficult to see what was clean and what what wasn’t. And so I found a nightdress that didn’t look too bad, but felt very uneasy about it.
I went back to my Bed and Breakfast, and lay on the bed. It occurred to me that there was no way that I could let Mum be buried in a tatty nightdress. It was pouring with rain outside, the raindrops bouncing off the window. I made a decision, and phoned a taxi.
I went back to Milborne and collected the clothes that Mum had been wearing for her 60th Wedding Anniversary Party. She described the event as ‘the best evening of her life’. I folded the lacy top, the waterfall jacket, the pale blue trousers. Then I jumped into the cab and headed back.
I told the Staff Nurse that I’d got the clothes and that I had another request.
‘I’d like to help to wash and dress her after she’s passed’, I said.
‘That’s very unusual’, said the Staff Nurse, ‘ but of course you can be involved, I’ll write it down on her notes. But if, when it happens, you don’t feel up to it, that’s fine too’.
I had no idea that I was going to make the request until I made it, but this was a lesson for me – this is a time to go with your instincts. Do not override them. Do not delay, and do not second-guess yourself. Only you know what you and your loved one needs at this time, and it will be different for everybody.
I went back in to sit with Mum. I held her hand, and noticed that it was starting to feel cold. I kissed her on her forehead and told her that I was back. And then, she took a breath, and there was a pause before she took another one. I was watching the fluttering of the pulse in her neck. She took another breath.
‘Dad, hold her hand’, I said.
And we waited for a breath that never came. The pulse at her neck slowed. It was like watching a feather gently drift down and come to rest.
Oh the peace in that moment, after the breath has stilled.
‘Should we call the nurse?’ said Dad.
‘No, ‘ I said, ‘Not yet’.
It was good to just take that time to sit with Mum, to feel her presence still with us but ebbing. I opened a window so that she could fly if she wanted to. She hadn’t been able to take more than a few steps for months, but I had a clear, clear picture of her flying free.
Eventually, we told the nurse, and she stood and watched Mum for a few moments. My father was distraught, but his dementia has become much worse, and although he knew he loved the person that had just passed, I am not sure if he knew exactly who she was. My brother took Dad to a quiet room downstairs, and I watched as the nurses examined Mum to ascertain if she had passed.
‘Sorry, Sybil, if the stethoscope is cold’, said one.
‘Sorry, Sybil, I’m just going to shine a light in your eyes’, said the other.
And death was pronounced at 08.50 on Tuesday 18th December 2018.
Two carers came in , and together we worked to wash her and to dress her in the clothes that I had only picked up a few hours before. Mum was still beautiful, in spite of, or maybe because of, her suffering. We talked to her the whole time, explaining what we were doing, apologising in case it was uncomfortable. In death my mother had achieved a kind of gravitas and authority. She commanded respect, and that was what we gave her. I found that I was a little in awe of her for all she had achieved, and all she had been through.
The funeral company came to take Mum to the funeral home. Because Mum and Dad shared a room, it wasn’t possible to leave it till the following day. The nurses and carers lined up to watch in silence, heads bowed as Mum passed. How hard it must be for them, who get to know the people that they look after so intimately, and yet see them pass, inevitably, through those doors and into a hearse.
Mum had always been terrified that she and Dad would end up in separate homes, or that Dad would die first and she’d be left alone. And yet, they were together to the end. She passed out of this life peacefully, without pain, and surrounded by her family. I hope that we all may be so lucky.
Back at home I realised that I still have Mum’s hairbrush, with some long strands of silver hair still in it. It seems like only five minutes ago that I was brushing her hair for the party, and now I had just finished brushing it on her deathbed. We might know rationally that someone is going to die, but It will take me a long time to realise that I will never see that little figure toddling out to the kitchen with her zimmer frame to make me a cup of tea again.
Dear Readers, when I was at the nursing home last week, visiting my Mum who is dying, the staff nurse was talking about how they could make the room a little more peaceful.
“We can put in softer lighting and gentle music”‘ she said, “and some candles, maybe some scented ones…”
“Not the scented candles!” I said, “I wouldn’t want Mum’s last thoughts to be about how much she hates the smell of jasmine…”
And indeed, Mum has something of a dislike of many scented products, especially since she became ill. Things that she’d previously loved have become overwhelming. But there is one flower that may still work, at least in its natural form, and that is the freesia. Its light perfume isn’t overbearing and thuggish, but insinuates itself into the mood of the room without any drama.
There are 16 species of freesia, all of them from Southern Africa and most from Cape Province, home of so many unique plants. The one that we buy comes from a hybrid between two species, Freesia refracta and Freesia leichtlinii which was made in the 19th century, and a more recent addition of Freesia corymbosa which gives us the pink and blue forms.
Freesia refracta (Photo One)
Freesia leichtlinii (Photo Two)
Freesia corymbosa (Photo Three)
Although there are many freesia-scented toiletries and perfumes on the market, nothing that I have smelled comes close to the scent of the plant itself. It is often used in wedding bouquets, and my mother wanted some for hers back in 1957, but was told that, as her wedding was in September, there would be none available. She did, however, get some beautiful sugar paste ones on the cakes made for the 60th Wedding Anniversary celebration back in September 2017, so she got them in the end.
Cakes from Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party in 2017. Note the freesias!
Nowadays, you can get freesias pretty much year round, and most of the blooms are produced from some eighty suppliers in the Netherlands, bulb capital of Europe.
Freesia can be grown from seed, but is actually a bulbous plant, a member of the crocus subfamily. In their native habitat, freesias are usually pollinated by solitary bees. Their period of dormancy underground may be a protection from the grassland fires that are a common feature of the fynbos, or Cape Floral Kingdom, where they originated. For all their apparent delicacy these are tough plants.
The flowers of freesia are edible, and I rather like the idea of a freesia and lemon tisane, as described on the Garden Eats website here.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the freesia represented trust, and in the US is apparently the flower to use to celebrate a couple’s seventh wedding anniversary. If you wondered what you were meant to be sending on the other years, have a look at the list here. I am somewhat disappointed that there are no suggestions for an eighteenth wedding anniversary, as mine is coming up next year. Looks like I’ll have to wait until my twentieth.
And now, a poem. Here is one by Robert Henry Forster, a poet who took the garden and the more ‘domesticated’ plants as his last subject. He was Northumbrian born and bred, and I imagine that the colour and scent of the freesias in his greenhouse were even more welcome in the teeth of northern gales than they are here in London. This example of his work is a big bowl of custard of a poem, as comforting as bed socks and Heinz tomato soup. It’s just what I need at the moment, what with the Winter Solstice coming on. On some days, it barely feels as if the sun gets above the horizon before it slips back into bed.
The Greenhouse in Early April, by Robert Henry Forster (1867 – 1923)
I Still do the garden’s half-awakened beds Wait for the passing of the wintry cold; But in this fairy palace we behold The sheltered blossoms lift their comely heads. Fragrance the newly opened Freesia sheds From its white trumpets with the splash of gold; And here the Polyanthus doth unfold Its blooms, and colour with gay colour weds, Colours of brilliant or of subtle hue; Bright orange with fair yellow for its mate; Pale yellow margined with a fairy blue; Crimson and gold in almost regal state; Soft pink and brown, ethereal to view, Matched with a yellow not less delicate.
II And here, most faithful of all blossomed friends, The Primulas their witchery display. Spring will depart and summer pass away, But for these happy flowers one summer ends Only when Nature’s operation sends The next succeeding summer’s opening day: In drear December they will still be gay, As though for winter they would make amends. So should true friendship be,-a constant thing In sunshine or beneath a gloomy sky, Not waking only with the breath of spring And ready at the winter’s touch to die, But bright and helpful and encouraging When days are dark and other comforts fly.
Dear Readers I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the last things. During this past year I have watched so many things fall away from my parents, but these events are rarely marked because we don’t realise that they are final at the time The last time that Dad was able to do the Guardian Quick Crossword. The last time that Mum was able to enjoy solid food. The last time that Mum could walk, or go to the toilet on her own, or enjoy ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The last time that she said my name.
When I last reported on Mum and Dad’s progress, they had just moved into a nursing home, and Mum in particular was raging about what she considered her incarceration. It was a dreadful time. We didn’t have the care in place to send her home, and she was so ill that no amount of care would have been enough, but she was determined not to settle at the nursing home. On one occasion she called the police to get her out. She fought with the staff about everything from taking her medication to having a bath.
It is no exaggeration to say that I was in despair, though I was also secretly proud of her. She has a long tradition of being defiant. If there was a complaint to be made at a restaurant, or if an unfortunate scammer rang up to try to get her credit card details, she was ready for the challenge. One man who insisted that he was from Sky Television and wanted Mum to divulge her bank account number ended up calling Mum a ‘very nasty woman’ and putting the phone down in high dudgeon. Given her track record, there was no way that my mother was going ‘gently into that good night’.
Gradually, she got to know some of the nurses and to accept care from them. But it wasn’t long before Mum was sick again. She has an ailment called a pseudo-blockage, in which the whole of her digestive system comes to a halt, causing nausea, stomach pain and bloating. Sometimes this is a result of another disease such as cancer, or diverticulitis, or Parkinson’s disease, and sometimes it’s just a result of old age. Mum had five days in hospital, at the end of which time the hospital said that they could do nothing more for her, and that she was too frail for any investigative tests. She was sent back to the nursing home, and I went to visit her.
I saw one of the carers who had previously tried to look after Mum when she was at her feistiest.
‘She’s like a different woman’, said the carer. ‘She’s totally prepared to let me look after her now’.
‘Is that a good thing?’ I asked.
The carer squinted and considered.
‘No, ‘ she said. ‘Probably not’.
I went in to see Mum. Her head was bent to one side like a bud on a stalk. She was complaining about a head ache, and said that her arm hurt, and her neck hurt.
The nurse gave her some oral morphine. They were planning to use a morphine patch if Mum’s condition came back, which the hospital had assured them it would. And so, without even noticing, we were now into palliative care, which treats the symptoms of the severely ill whilst recognising that they will never get better.
Mum was still fairly lucid, but she was in pain. The doses of oral morphine came closer and closer together. There was talk of a patch that released morphine into the blood stream.
At one point, Mum opened her eyes and said
‘Someone is helping me’.
‘Who, Mum?’ I asked. I wondered if it was her mother, dead at 64 years old of a heart attack.
‘I don’t know’, said Mum, and closed her eyes again.
When I left Mum, I said ‘I love you’, as I always do.
‘I love you’, she said, and then, as I got to the door, ‘I love you’, again.
On Monday I get a call telling me that the pseudo-blockage has come back, that Mum is in increasing pain and that they are going to start Mum on a syringe driver that releases a regular amount of morphine directly into her bloodstream. The nurse tells me that this usually indicates that we are talking about weeks of life left, not months. It could even be days, though it’s difficult to say for sure.
On Wednesday I jumped onto the train to go to Dorchester to spend a few hours with Mum.
Mum hasn’t really eaten solid food since mid-July, and her face is returning to the planes and angles that it had when she was a young woman. Her skin is stretched thin over her cheekbones, and her cat-green eyes have a kind of febrile light, when they are open. Her mouth has fallen in and the nursing staff are using big, lemon-scented cottonbuds impregnated with glycerine to keep her lips and tongue from cracking. They wash her, and offer her milk which is the only food left that she can tolerate. They are like handmaidens caring for an elderly priestess. There is something stately about Mum now, something ancient as if carved out of stone.
At first, Mum is groaning, and Dad is trying to interpret the noises that she is making. The nurses come in to replace her morphine syringe and gradually the groaning stops. When Dad goes for lunch, I have a chance to sit and hold Mum’s hand. I see her take three or four breaths and then pause for what seems an interminable time before taking the next one. I can see the vibration of her labouring heart beneath her nightshirt.
People talk about a dying person ‘letting go’ or ‘giving up’, but it seems to me that what is going on is a tussle between the different parts of person, with some systems closing down and others wanting to hang on. It is complicated, this business, and different for everyone. It seems like hard, private work.
It is surprisingly quiet in the room – no nurses, no television, just the sound of birds in the tree outside. I tell Mum that I love her, that she is surrounded by so much love. I tell her that my brother and I will look after Dad if she’s not around. I tell her that my brother and I will look after one another too.
She squeezes my hand, though it could just be a spasm.
I tell her that I’m going to feel pretty bloody silly if next time I come in, she’s running around the room.
I cry a bit. And then all is peaceful again.
A week ago, Mum said ‘I love you’. She said it twice. These might be the last words that I ever hear from her, because I sense that she is labouring away in some place too deep for words. But whatever happens next, those words will be enough.
Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me this week – I have a cold and am feeling a bit sniffly and sorry for myself, so I thought I would write about a plant that couldn’t be closer to home. I have a Daphne in a pot right next to my kitchen door, and when it flowers in January the delicious scent wafts up every time I go out to top up the bird feeders.
Daphne odora is native to China but soon spread to Japan and Korea.It grows best in acid soil, hence its being confined to a terracotta pot in my garden. The leaves are evergreen, and in my variety they are gold-edged. The plant is a member of the Thymelaeaceae, a large and varied family of some 898 species including lacebark trees and paper bush (Edgworthia). Daphne has a reputation as a delicate, short-lived garden plant, at least in the UK – it can grow into a substantial shrub, but generally has a life of only 8 to 10 years. Mine is fairly happy after five years in its pot, and I am keeping my fingers crossed. However there is a legend that says that if you tell another gardener that your Daphne is doing well, it will die, so please close your ears to my boasting.
Daphne odora in flower (Photo One)
This plant really is all about the perfume. Its Korean name means ‘thousand-mile scent’, and its Latin species name means ‘sweet-smelling’. Even my little shrub can make me stop in my tracks when it is in full flower.According to the A Wandering Botanist website, the following legend explains the plant’s Chinese name:
According to an early Chinese herbal, a monk fell asleep below a cliff on Lu Mountain (Lu Shan) in Jiangxi Province. In a dream he smelled a fragrance so strong and memorable that he recalled it clearly when he awoke. He climbed up the mountain to find the source of the odor, finding Daphne odora. He called the plant “sleeping scent” (shuixiang). which has changed over time to the similar-sounding name lucky scent (ruixiang).
But not everything about Daphne is sweet. All species of Daphne are poisonous: the sap may cause skin irritation, and the berries (if they appear) may, according to the Poison Garden website
‘…. cause vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and a burning sensation in the mouth. Larger doses add to these shivering, dilation of the pupils, convulsions and damage to the oral passages and the intestine’.
Interestingly, the sap was used to give young women rosy cheeks as it irritated the skin.
There is one recorded case of Daphne poisoning in a child, from 1887, and this related to a four year-old eating the berries of Daphne mezereum or spurge laurel. In 1950 a seven year-old was taken ill after eating some of the leaves. Generally the taste of the berries is too acrid to encourage much ingestion, though they do look rather like redcurrants. My little shrub has never produced any berries, but here are some on a Daphne mezereums so that you can see what they look like.
Daphne mezereum berries (Photo Two)
The name ‘Daphne’ comes from the jGreek legend of Daphne and Apollo. Daphne was a water nymph, who was pursued by Apollo. Just before he caught her, she appealed to her father Poseidon, who turned her into a laurel tree (Laurus nobilis). The Greek word for laurel is ‘Daphne’, hence the general confusion. Here we can see Daphne transforming into a tree in her haste to get away from Apollo. Women generally came off worst in any encounters with the gods of antiquity.
Apollo and Daphne by Bernini (1622-25) (Photo Three)
I rather like this more modern take by Iris Le Rutte in Oldenburg, Germany.
‘Daphne im Wind’ by Iris Le Rutte, 2011 (Photo Four)
And for our poem this week, here is a piece by the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950). I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with her poetry: I am not that struck by this piece (although it obviously fits our topic of the week), but see what you think.
Why do you follow me?— Any moment I can be Nothing but a laurel-tree.
Any moment of the chase I can leave you in my place A pink bough for your embrace.
Yet if over hill and hollow Still it is your will to follow, I am off;—to heel, Apollo!
And yet, I never fail to be moved by this one. I think it sums up the rage that often accompanies death, and is so rarely expressed.
Dirge Without Music
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you. Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust. A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew, A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,— They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve. More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.
It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.
Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)
There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.
Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)
As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.
Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.
An imperfect photo of a nuthatch (as my photos usually are 🙂 )
But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.
I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.
Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.
A coppiced area in Big Wood
As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.
The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.
The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra
And through it all, the dappled sunlight.
Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.
Dear Readers, whenever you read a book about winter-flowering shrubs, flowering quince is sure to be one of the top five. It is, however, a confusing plant. For one thing, it isn’t the ‘true’ quince (Cydonia oblonga), although it is related to it. All quinces flower, so there is nothing unusual in the fact that this one is in bloom. It is also known as the Japanese quince, which is a little closer to the mark as all Chaenomeles come from the Far East, but the true Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is rarely grown in gardens. In short, the common names for the plant do nothing but pile confusion on top of confusion. However, I forgive all this because, in a chill, sunny day earlier this week, this plant was by far the prettiest thing in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
One feature of the flowering quince is that the flowers emerge directly from the stalk, before the leaves. It was the first time that I’d seen a pink variety – the ones in the County Roads here in East Finchley are normally the orange-red variety.
Orange-red flowering quince (Photo One)
Flowering quince also has the virtue of being quite a spiny plant (it is a member of the Rose family after all) and I have seen it combined in hedges with such well-armed shrubs as Pyracantha. It is quite often ‘persuaded’ into miniaturisation as a bonsai.
Let us not completely overlook the fruits either. They are hard, sour and small, though this is ameliorated somewhat after the first frost. However, they can be used as a substitute for lemon juice, or turned into jelly, much as crab apples are. The Grown to Cook website has a recipe for Japanese quince jelly with star anise, and the photos are lovely too. In Japan the fruit is known as karin or flower pear, and commands a high price, so if you have one of these shrubs in your garden I’d have thought it would be worth harvesting the fruit to see what you can do with it. Some websites recommend combining it with apples to offset its astringency. Note that it is also extremely high in pectin, so helps with the set of jams and jellies.
‘That gleam and glow amid the wintery scene Lighting their ruddy beacons at the sun To melt away the snow…..’
Flowering quince features extensively in the art of Japan. Here, for example, is the artist Watanabe Seitei’s painting ‘Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry’ – I love that the flowering quince in the image looks so similar to the one that I saw.
Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry by Watanabe Seitei (Shotei) 1906 (Public Domain)
Now, as you know I usually include a poem at this point, but this week I am going to break convention by directing your attention to the (very) short story ‘The Japanese Quince’ by John Galsworthy. What on earth is going on here? I have some thoughts, but I’d be delighted to hear yours, if you have the time and the energy during this pre-Christmas rush…
Dear Readers, Walthamstow Wetlands is the largest urban wetland in Europe, and opened to the general public earlier this year. I have been eager to visit it, but wanted to pick a time when it wasn’t too crowded. What better day, then, than a grey blustery November day? There are no less than eleven reservoirs here, and so we decided to concentrate on the southern part of the reserve, walking to the Coppermill Tower past the East Warwick reservoir, and then looping back past Reservoir 1.
The Engine Room cafe and shop
The reserve is still an operational Thames Water site, providing 3.5 million people with water every day. However, it is surprisingly peaceful. It is also home to two listed Victorian industrial buildings, and there are many pieces of paraphernalia relating to the site’s main purpose – moving water from A to B. The Engine Room (above) housed the pumping machinery relating to the reservoirs, and is now a cafe ( I can recommend the orange polenta cake), interpretation centre and shop.
Further into the reserve is the Coppermill. It has the most extraordinary Italianate tower attached to it, which served no earthly purpose that I could see other than being decorative. The mill was powered by the Coppermill stream, and between 1808 and 1857 it produced the power to turn copper ingots into pennies and halfpennies. In the fourteenth century it was used to grind corn, in the 1670’s it produced gunpowder,in the 1690’s it rolled paper, and during the 1700’s it was used to work leather, and generate linseed oil. In the 1850’s the mill was purchased by the East London Water Authority, and used to pump water during the building of the reservoirs. These days, its milling and pumping days are over, but it is still used as an operational hub for Thames Water.
But what, you might ask, of the animals? Walthamstow Wetlands is a prime spot for moulting tufted duck, for example; over two thousand of them choose the reservoirs as a haven during this vulnerable time of the year. I always loved the way that tufted ducks dive with a wake of bubbles, and bob back up to the surface like corks.
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
The site is also home to a sizable proportion of North-Western Europe’s northern shoveler ducks. These are such handsome birds, especially the drakes with their mix of russet and bottle-green, and their golden eyes. They are such easy ducks for the beginner to identify too, with their over-sized bills, which they swish through the water as they sieve out the tiny invertebrates that they feed on.
Northern shoveler (male ) (Anas clypeata)
Male and female shoveler duck
There are also, of course, some of the usual suspects. Coots are already fighting over territory, though you’d think with all these reservoirs to choose from there would be plenty of room. Canada geese graze beside the more formal, raised reservoirs. They look particularly splendid silhouetted against the sky.
The increasingly common Egyptian geese also like this area – a little family wandered over to us to see if we had anything in our pockets, the male uttering his characteristic wheezy call.
A mute swan drifted up the Coppermill stream, and reminded me of the time that I was walking to catch my train to work at stupid o’clock. I heard the sound of rustling wings, looked up, and seven mute swans flew overhead, just above the rooftops. I was transfixed. Sometimes, nature can turn an ordinary day into something with an almost mythical quality.
Walthamstow Wetlands is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for herons too – it has one of the five best heronries in the country. I saw many herons flying past, but the nests, which are enormous, are abandoned at this time of year. I must make sure to pay a visit in the spring though. Young herons look more like dinosaurs than almost any bird I can imagine.
The heronry on the island in Reservoir Two, surrounded by cormorants
At this time of year, the heronries are largely home to cormorants. Up to 100 pairs breed every year, down from 300 pairs in the early 2000’s. This is not a bird much beloved by anglers, and neither is the heron. On the other hand, the chaps (and they seemed to all be chaps) who were sitting in their olive-green tents and dipping their fishing rods into Reservoir One seemed to be a peaceable lot, not much given to getting annoyed about any avian competition. Long may this happy state continue!So all in all I was extremely impressed by Walthamstow Wetlands. I saw a lot of things that I didn’t manage to photograph, including an extremely friendly goldcrest who was working the needles of the gorse bushes beside Reservoir One, and a flock of long-tailed tits in the same area. But there is so much more to see! There are reputed to be kingfishers everywhere, plus as the winter goes on all kinds of waterfowl will drop in. There are water rail ( a ‘bogey bird’ for me, inasmuch as I have heard it many times but have never actually seen more than a few red toes before they disappeared into the reeds). And there are sometimes bearded tits. Who could resist? I shall make a return visit to Walthamstow Wetlands very soon.
Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) (Photo One)
Completely Unapologetic Plug
I would like to recommend ‘Birdwatching London‘ by David Darrell Lambert as an excellent guide to the many places in the Capital for birdspotting. A great resource whether you live here or are just visiting. I would also like to put in a plug for the Natural History Bookshop, a tremendous online shop for all things nature-related, from books to moth traps to microscopes.