Monthly Archives: April 2019

At East Finchley Station

Outside East Finchley Station today

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that I haven’t been paying much attention to what’s been going on locally lately – I seem to have spent most of my time in Dorset, or on a South Western Railways train going backwards and forwards from Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester. So it was a real pleasure to see what’s been going on in the rather challenging piece of land outside East Finchley station. I have reported on this area several times before, but I have to say that the N2 Community Gardeners have really surpassed themselves this time.

The bed is about a metre and a half off the ground, faces north-east, is no doubt filled with rubbly, claggy soil and has, in previous incarnations, attracted a lot of beer cans and cigarette ends. It must be tricky to look after – I suspect that the gardeners have the agility of mountain goats (and presumably green fingers/hooves as well). But all those efforts have paid off, because I haven’t been smiling very much lately, and yet this garden cheered me up.

I applaud the choice of plants, which are predominantly pollinator-friendly, and even on this overcast, windy day there were a few flower bees about. I love the choice of fennel, for its delightful fronds and also for the flowers later in the year – hoverflies adore them.

Fennel fronds….

I had no idea that annual wallflowers came in so many different colours either. And the forget-me-nots are such a humble pleasure.

There are some useful wildflowers too, such as white dead nettle and garlic mustard – the latter is the main  foodplant of the orange-tip butterfly, and although it can be very invasive in countries to which it has been introduced, it’s generally not so much of a problem in the UK.

Garlic mustard (Alilaria petiolaris)

White deadnettle (Lamium album)

And there are edible plants for humans too: there are some currant bushes. I  am hazarding a guess that they are redcurrant, but am, as always, happy to be corrected.

Redcurrant (Ribes rubrum)??

There is also a magnificent flowering quince .

And a clematis that seems to be advancing towards Finchley Central with great enthusiasm.

Clematis montana

People often don’t realise how much their labours are appreciated: community projects are often the target of sniping and criticism, and it must be tempting sometimes to just throw down the trowel and do something a little less demanding. However, it’s also easy to underestimate how many people have their spirits lifted by the sight of something pretty in flower as they hurry to the station. This garden hasn’t been made for private pleasure, but for the delectation of everybody. There is something very civilised about it, a kind of celebration of the best in human beings: their generosity, their selflessness and their creativity. Although most of us will never achieve ‘great’ things, it is surprising what we can achieve collectively when we put our minds (and our backs) into it. Thanks to you, N2 Community Gardeners. You have done your neighbourhood proud.

 

Wednesday Weed – Magnolia

Magnolia x soulengeana

Dear Readers, I am just about to put Mum and Dad’s bungalow up for sale – we need the money to pay for Dad’s nursing home fees. However, Mum was a great lover of colour, and we suspect that some rooms (the candy-pink living room, for example, or the aquamarine bedroom) might need a coat of a rather more neutral paint to enhance the property’s sale price.

‘Magnolia?’ asks the decorator, and I agree. But then I get to thinking what a ridiculous name for an off-white paint this is. Some magnolias are pure white, some are tinged with pink, some are bright pink. None of them are a vague kind of cream colour.

For most of the year, magnolias sit around greenly, doing plant-y things but without much in the way of berries or autumn colour. But goodness. A magnolia in full flower is one of those miracles of the plant world, one of the few trees that can actually stop me in my tracks. I particularly like the old-school magnolias like the one above, with their waxy blossoms opening slowly and prolifically. One storm can ruin it all for the year, of course, but if you’re lucky, they can produce a show worth pondering.

Of course, I missed the height of the flowering of the tree above, but you get the idea.

And here is one from Montreux, in full flower.

Photo One by By Roylindman at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17959956

Magnolia tree in full flower in Montreux, Switzerland (Photo One)

Magnolias belong to a very old family of plants (fossil magnolias have been discovered from 95 million years ago), and evolved before bees did. Instead, they are believed to have been pollinated by beetles, and as a result have very tough carpels ( the female reproductive part of the flower) as presumably the beetles were rather more thuggish in their attentions than the later pollinators. Some species of beetle actually ate the magnolia while others distributed the pollen and some did both, so I imagine anything that slowed up the destruction of the flower was a good thing.

There are over 200 species of magnolia, and they grow in Asia and the New World, but not in Europe or Africa. It had never occurred to me, but I associate magnolias both with the paintings of Chinese artists, and the plantation houses of the Deep South of the USA. Siebold’s Magnolia is the national plant of North Korea, while Bull Bay or the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is the state plant of Louisiana and Tennessee.

Photo Two by By Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada - 20120522_CamelliaPath_OyamaMagnolia_Cutler_P1240017, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22926817

Siebold’s Magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Josep Renalias Lohen11 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27938081

Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) (Photo Three)

The association of the magnolia with the Deep South has resulted in many artistic connections. The film ‘Steel Magnolias’ featured a group of women who lose their one of their own, and explores their resilience. The poster reads like a summary of the key female actors of the period, and won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Julia Roberts.

Poster for Steel Magnolias

In 1939, however, Abel Meeropol’s song ‘Strange Fruit’, memorably sung by Billie Holliday, referenced the magnolia tree as a symbol of the southern US where many lynchings of black people took place:

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

If trees could speak, I sometimes think they would tell some of the saddest and most brutal stories on earth. From the blasted oaks of the battlefields of the First World War to the tropical trees of Vietnam and Cambodia, they have borne unwilling witness to our worst atrocities.

Pink magnolia (probably Magnolia liliiflora)

With all those waxy petals waiting to be plucked, you might expect someone to have tried eating magnolias, and you would be right. The flowers can be pickled, the buds can be used to flavour rice, and there is even a type of miso which is flavoured with magnolia. Pickling the petals apparently started in England, but I can’t find a specifically English recipe. The ever-interesting Eat The Weeds website does suggest how to do it, however, and mentions some other flowery favourites as well.

Humans and beetles are not the only creatures who like to take a bite out of a magnolia – in the USA it is the food plant of the magnificent Giant Leopard Moth(Hypercompe scribonia). The male reaches 2 inches in length and has a three-inch wingspan, which would give any one pause. When the male finds a female, mating can take up to 24 hours, and during this period the male will pick the smaller female up and carry her to a warmer spot if it gets too cold. What a gent! However, mating can rub some of the scales off of the female’s wing, impairing her ability to fly.

Photo Four by By Jeremy Johnson - http://www.meddlingwithnature.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41471642

Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia)(Photo Four)

Photo Five by Phlintorres98 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Female giant leopard moth showing post-mating damage (Photo Five)

Should mating be successful, there will soon be the patter of many tiny furry feet. How I love ‘woolly bear’ caterpillars! And this species is said not to cause dermatitis either, so you can admire them at close quarters.

 

Photo Six by Asturnut at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Giant leopard moth caterpillar curled up in a defensive ball (Photo Six)

The timber of some magnolias is also used, particularly in the northeastern USA and southern Canada, where the Cucumbertree (Magnolia acuminata) is often harvested. Unlike other magnolias, the flower of this species is not very showy, though the fruit might give you pause.

Photo Seven by By MikeParker (talk) - Photo taken by Michael Parker, CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17722886

Fruit of Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) (Photo Seven)

The wood is fairly soft, and is used in everything from pallets and boxes to furniture.

Cucumber tree timber (Public Domain)

And, naturally, here is a poem. I love this work by Lisel Mueller who was Illinois Poet Laureate. It is full of nostalgia for the joys of spring.

MAGNOLIA

by Lisel Mueller

This year spring and summer decided
to make it quick, roll themselves into one
season of three days
and steam right out of winter.
In the front yard the reluctant
magnolia buds lost control
and suddenly stood wide open.
Two days later their pale pink silks
heaped up around the trunk
like cast-off petticoats.

Remember how long spring used to take?
And how long from the first locking of fingers
to the first real kiss? And after that
the other eternity, endless motion
toward the undoing of a button?

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Roylindman at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17959956

Photo Two by By Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada – 20120522_CamelliaPath_OyamaMagnolia_Cutler_P1240017, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22926817

Photo Three by By Josep Renalias Lohen11 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27938081

Photo Four by By Jeremy Johnson – http://www.meddlingwithnature.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41471642

Photo Five by Phlintorres98 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Photo Six by Asturnut at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Photo Seven by By MikeParker (talk) – Photo taken by Michael Parker, CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17722886

 

Like Something Almost Being Said

Dear Readers, on Wednesday we interred Mum’s ashes in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church, Milborne St Andrew. The sun shone gently, the grass was full of wild primroses, and great tits and robins sang. I think Mum would have loved the spot where she was buried, not just because it was in a sunny, happy, open spot, but also because she was right next to the grave of her best friend Pat, who died a few years ago.

Mum was a great collector of ‘waifs and strays’, people who needed her help but didn’t have the capacity to reciprocate. Until she met Pat she didn’t really know what it was to relate to a friend as an equal.  Mum was an intensely social person but Dad wasn’t, and she was unhappy about leaving him on his own in the house. Dad was a great watcher of Last of the Summer Wine, and would have been perfectly happy watching it every day until it was time for Pointless, and then the News, and then The One Show, and then Midsomer Murders and then bed. Mum really chafed against these constraints, and Pat was someone who would whisk her out to a craft shop or a sewing group. She helped Mum to make her masterpiece, a magnificent embroidered quilt, and then convinced her to exhibit it at a craft show, where it got the Silver Award. Pat gave Mum a sense of possibility outside the confines of the bungalow, and when she died, Mum lost not just a friend but a whole way of accessing the outside world.

Mum with her quilt. All the embroidery and the quilting was done by hand.

Mum’s ashes lay  next to a field which is often full of sheep and their little lambs. She would have loved that too. One of the local estates, Kingston Maurward, has ‘lambing weekends’, where you can go into the sheds and actually see the lambs being born. Mum was enchanted, and so was I, though I remember the chaps having to go outside for a breather. But after that she eschewed all lamb meat, in spite of it previously being her favourite roast dinner. She was tending towards vegetarianism as she got older, but for Dad, a meal wasn’t a meal unless there was meat in it., and there was no way that Mum was going to put her preferences in front of Dads.

When I was younger, I used to worry that Mum hadn’t fulfilled her potential, largely because Dad was the centre of her world, and whatever he wanted came first. She was so creative and so outgoing, and her life could have been different. But would she have been happier? I doubt it. She adored Dad, and he adored her, and they had worked out a way of being together that largely suited them both. I found a letter that Dad had written to Mum while he was out in Venezuela making gin for United Distillers, and it was so full of the longing to be home and to see her again that it reminded me that this was a love match, a true partnership in which each person needs and respects the other. Someone said that the truth of a marriage can never be seen from the outside and I think that’s an accurate observation.

Dad was at Mum’s funeral, but not at the interment – he broke his wrist in a fall last weekend and has a chest infection. I popped in to see him before the ceremony and he was asleep. He looks so frail now. He disturbed in his sleep and I stroked his hair as if he was a little boy. I left him a ‘frothy coffee’  and some Polo Mints and Dairy Milk chocolate. Hopefully the nurses will let him know that I visited, otherwise he’ll think he’s been visited by the confectionery fairy.

I did find a poem, though, which I thought represented him, even though he wasn’t there.

A Marriage
 
R.S. Thomas
 
We met 
    under a shower
of bird-notes. 
    Sixty years passed,
love’s moment
    in a world in
servitude to time. 
    She was young;
I kissed with my eyes 
    closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
    ‘Come’ said death,
choosing her as his
    partner for
the last dance. And she,
    who in life
had done everything
    with a bird’s grace, 
opened her bill now
    for the shedding
of one sigh no
    heavier than a feather.

But what struck me most about the ceremony was the sense that life was bursting forth all around us, even as we mourned for Mum. As we bowed our heads in prayer the breeze rustled the leaves, and the jackdaws chinked overhead. I know that Mum would not want us to be frozen in time but to move on, to do whatever it was we are here to do. The flow of the river carries us forward however hard we cling to the riverbank. Mum lives on every time I’m in a gift shop and see something that she’d like, every time I smell White Diamond perfume, every time I hear ‘You Are My Sunshine’. I am bereft, but also strangely hopeful, as if everything has been scoured clean. I don’t know what will happen next, but as I look at the unfurling of the leaves, my heart lifts, just a little.

The Trees
 
Philip Larkin
 
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of look new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Wednesday Weed – Water Hawthorn

Water Hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos)

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

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

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

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

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

Tinned water hawthorn flowers (Photo One)

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

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

Nguni or South African Cattle (Photo Two)

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

Madagascar laceleaf (Aponogeton madagascariensis) (Public Domain)

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

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

BBC – A South African comfort food born from a pond

Photo Credits

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

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

At the Garden Centre

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

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

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

It seems that Dad is back on National Service.

‘Did he, Dad?’ I said.

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

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

Then he looks thoughtful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cirsium atropurpureum.

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

Bowles mauve perennial wallflower – in hairy pots!

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

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

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

Hairy-footed flower bee on Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower

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

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

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

Ajuga (Bugle)

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

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

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

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

Aquilegia

Wednesday Weed – Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

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

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

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

Asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus) (Photo One)

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

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

Mature asparagus with seed pods (Photo Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A feast of asparagus (Photo Three)

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

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

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

The Asparagus

Tom Pow

Edouard Manet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits

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

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

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

On Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

‘Northern China’, he says, emphatically.

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

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

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

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

‘It’s with crayons’.

‘Well, they’re a bit less messy’.

Dad laughs. There’s a pause.

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

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

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

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

‘Love you Dad’.

‘Love you n’all’.

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

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

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

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

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

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