Monthly Archives: May 2019

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The flowers on the whitebeam tree

Dear Readers, I have thinking a lot about home this week, as I sift through my parents’ belongings and make decision after decision about what to keep, what to give away, and what to dispose of. How do you distill the essence of a life into two cardboard boxes? There is photo after photo of Dad standing with a group of the besuited men that he worked with. He is always grinning when everyone else is looking serious. There are photos of Mum looking stiff and awkward, but then very occasionally there is one where she looks like herself, caught unawares before she could put on her ‘formal’ face. There are clothes that were never worn, ornaments that were never displayed. As the rooms empty, as the shelves come down, it is as if the bungalow is shedding its personality and becoming a blank canvas for someone else to paint their preferences upon.

It was such a happy place, for all the horror and sadness of the last days. When I walk around the garden, which seems to have been taken over by forget-me-nots and cerinthe, I see the stone fairies and fawns and frogs that Mum hid among the plants, so that any visiting children could try to find them. The beech hedge that was always so full of sparrows, is silent now, probably because nobody is filling up the bird feeder. The rotary washing line is completely covered in rust, but the climbing rose that Mum would look out on from the kitchen window is smothered in buds.

I get on with it, because getting the place ready for sale is a project, and one that will benefit Dad. The amount of memories that flood back would be overwhelming if I didn’t keep busy. But it is so quiet, without ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on the television, without Mum and Dad snoring gently in their reclining chairs. In one of his books John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and writer, asks if it isn’t just that we miss ‘home’ when we leave, but that the building, in some strange way, misses us. I feel as if the bungalow always did its best to shelter Mum and Dad, and they looked after it and loved it in return. Who am I to question what is embedded in its breeze blocks and roof tiles, its cobwebs and the very soil in the garden? Mum and Dad’s DNA is all over the carpets and the curtains. There is a kind of symbiosis going on, an interrelatedness that reminds me that we don’t just ‘make’ a home, a home also makes us. Maybe we feel ‘at home’ when the partnership is working, where we are doing what the house and garden ‘need’.

And then I return to my home, and see the garden as if for the first time. I have been trying to be gentle with it, to appreciate what it needs as a community of plants and animals. I have learned many lessons along the way, and sometimes I’ve wasted time and money trying to make it ‘do’ things that the aspect, the soil and the light wouldn’t support. How much better to go with the flow in these things.

White lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

On the left hand side there is an ancient white lilac that I am gradually renovating, a hawthorn tree and a whitebeam. I had the hawthorn and the whitebeam trimmed by a tree surgeon about five years ago, because the canopies of both had become very dense. I was told at the time that the trees would only grow more vigorously to compensate, and this has proven to be true, but goodness, how beautiful all three plants are this year.

What has astonished me this year is the way that the whitebeam has burst into flower. We have had occasional blossoms, but it is absolutely covered. I am so proud of it. It makes me sad to think of how I butchered it previously. Whitebeams are going to have dense foliage given half a chance, and going forward I think I will just sit back and appreciate those grey-green leaves, and the way that they spark silver in the wind.

Another plant that is doing well, growing at the foot of the hawthorn, is the dusky geranium (Geranium phaeum). I have tried other species geraniums, but no others seem as tolerant of the dark, dry conditions on this side of the garden. And the bees adore those dark-chocolate flowers, in spite of their modest nature.

Dusky geranium

A pendulous sedge has planted itself beside the pond, and provides lots of cover for the baby frogs when they emerge from the pond. I was delighted to see three adult frogs today, so it appears that the heron didn’t get the lot after all. I know that pendulous sedge can be an almighty thug, but I just pull up its many, many ‘babies’ and let it get on with being magnificent and solitary.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

And I am also pleased that the meadowsweet that I planted last year is doing well this year, and maybe it will even flower! Watch this space.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

The water hawthorn now has half a dozen flowers, and the marsh marigold is just finishing.

Water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyon)

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)

In my very shady side return, the ferns are uncurling their croziers.

And the climbing hydrangea is just about to burst into flower.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)

And all this, of course, is temporary. I suspect that when we sell the house (hopefully in about twenty years) the pond at least will go – no family with small children would want to risk it. Someone else might not want the big, shady trees, or they might want a lawn. We cannot legislate for everything that happens when we are no longer here. Sometimes I feel my heart contract at the thought of the frogs coming back to a deck or a conservatory rather than their traditional breeding grounds. But I also know that this is a complete waste of my emotional energy, and part of a desire to control the uncontrollable. You would think that I would have learned about what I can and can’t influence during this past twelve months, but somehow it only makes me cling on more.

I could learn a lot from Dad. I went to see him while I was in Dorset sorting out the bungalow, and he was very happy sitting in his recliner. One of the new residents reminds Dad of Mum and while on one level he knows that his wife is gone, on another i think that he is always hopeful that she’ll turn up. The new resident actually booted me out of my chair so that she could sit next to Dad, so maybe he reminds her of someone in her life. Dad seems to be completely in the moment. He can’t remember who has been to see him,  or who I am, but if someone is kind to him, or interested in him, he opens up like a flower in the sunshine. He is not worrying about the future, and the past has fallen away behind him, and yet he takes the opportunity to be happy when it presents itself. I left him munching on a bar of Dairy Milk and breaking off a chunk to share with his new friend, no mean feat considering he fractured his wrist a few weeks ago. He might not be in charge of a distillery or the head of a household now, but I have never seen him so content. Maybe home, or at least the ability to feel at home,  is something that we carry in our hearts.

Cirsium atropurpureum

Wednesday Weed – Wisteria

Wisteria

Dear Readers, you might have read headlines on social media recently about ‘wisteria hysteria’. There are houses in West London where the wisteria has grown so splendidly that the owners are fed up sick with Instagrammers standing outside and taking photographs. In particular, there is there is this darling house with a pink door. I can absolutely see why anyone would want to stop and take a picture.

Photo One by https://www.instagram.com/amanda.phillips.london/

Wisteria in Holland Park (Photo One)

In East Finchley the wisterias are rather younger and therefore not quite so splendid, but there are examples in the garden of the Bald-Faced Stag, and several in the County Roads.

County Roads Wisteria

There are two very common species of wisteria. Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) twines counterclockwise, whilst Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) twines clockwise. If only I’d known this before running all over East Finchley taking photos I could maybe have made this post more useful from an identification point of view. But there we go! Chinese wisteria has more flowers, but those of Japanese are longer, with a maximum length of nearly half a metre. I would hazard a guess that the plant above is of the Japanese variety. The flowers of both species are said to smell of grapes, and maybe anyone lucky enough to be growing a wisteria could confirm.

Bald-Faced Stag gardens with wisteria

Wisterias are members of the pea family, as a glance at those leguminous flowers can confirm. They are mostly from China, Japan and Korea,but there are several species that are native to the US.  Like all peas wisteria fixes nitrogen in the soil. Unlike  most peas, however, it can grow into a monster: the plant in the photo below was planted in 1870 in Ashikaga, Japan, and covered half an acre in 2008. Wisteria can be pernickety and loathe to flower, but they can also be thugs: a mature plant can, as their Wikipedia entry puts it ‘ collapse latticework, crush thin wooden posts, and even strangle large trees’. I once lived next door to a wisteria that we christened ‘the triffid’ – its ‘fingers’ would reach across to our balcony, in through the window, through the gaps in the front door frame and would probably have invited themselves in for dinner if we hadn’t cut them back every so often. However, I have never seen anything as pretty as when this plant flowered at the same time as my neighbour’s yellow climbing rose. So, this is an exquisite plant, but not for the faint of heart.

Wisteria can be reluctant to flower before it reaches maturity, but in Chinese Wisteria maturation may not occur until the plant is twenty years old. I am told that being unkind to the plant by ‘physically abusing the main trunk or root pruning or drought-stress’ can force it into flower, but I do wonder if this would also shorten the life of the poor plant. Giving a nitrogen-fixing plant yet more nitrogen is also a good way to delay flowering, although it might need some potassium and phosphate.

Japanese and Chinese wisteria are naturalised in some parts of the south east of the USA and are considered an invasive plant in these areas.

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3874300

Wisteria in flower at Ashikaga Park (Photo Two)

I was surprised to find that, as with its close relative laburnum, the seeds of wisteria are poisonous, and have caused gastroenteritis in children and pets in many countries.  In Japan the leaves are blanched and eaten, as are the flowers. I note that you can find a recipe for wisteria and redbud spring rolls here, for my North American readers.

Photo Three by By Roger Culos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31864476

Wisteria seeds (Photo Three)

You can apparently make wine from wisteria flowers too, but I have searched in vain for a recipe. Instead, for any London-based readers, here is news of a wisteria-themed wine bar that is about to open in Holborn, and very swanky it looks too.

Photo Four from https://secretldn.com/nyetimber-secret-garden/

Photo Four

Wisteria is very long-lived, given the right conditions, and is often seen as a symbol of immortality. In  Japanese kabuki theatre it is symbolic of Love, Sensuality, Support, Sensitivity, Bliss and Tenderness. In Korean folklore, however, the plant is seen as representing conflict: it is said that two sisters were in love with the same warrior, and when they discovered this they threw themselves, fighting, into a lake and were transformed into a wisteria. Their lover promptly threw himself into the same lake, and became a nettle tree or hackberry (Celtis sp.) Ever since, wisterias in Korea have scrambled over nettle trees, occasionally strangling them or pulling them down. I am intrigued by the way that the Japanese symbolism seems to concentrate on wisteria’s beauty, while the Korean view is that it is a bit of a thug. Both things are, of course, true. The Victorian view was that the plant symbolised over-passionate love or obsession, again looking at the plant’s growth habit. Poor plant. Like so many of the living things that surround us, it is blamed for being what it is, a vigorous vine. It seems to me that humans get very cross with disobedience and inconvenience in the natural world, a bit like toddlers stamping their feet because their mothers won’t obey them.

Photo Five by By User:Geographer, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41512940

Nettle tree (Celtis sinensis) (Photo Five)

There are many examples of wisteria in art, particularly from the East, as you might expect. I rather love this depiction of a ‘Lady in a Wisteria Kimono’ by Mizuno Toshikata. I love the way that you can almost smell the rain. I wonder why she is looking behind her? Is she expecting someone to follow her, or is she alarmed?

Lady in a Wisteria Kimono by Mizuno Toshikata (1900) (Public Domain)

And how about this beautiful folding screen?

Folding screen by Maruyama Okyo (circa 1800) (Public Domain)

But here is perhaps my favourite: ‘Paradise Flycatchers and Wisteria’ by Ren Yi from 1943.

Paradise Flycatchers and Wisteria (Ren Yi – 1943) (Public Domain)

And here is a poem. I like this because it sums up what it’s like to be ignorant of something that everybody else knows, and how being given the answer can feel like a small blessing. If you haven’t come across Billy Collins before, have a look. He sometimes tumbles into the whimsical in my humble opinion, but often he hits the nail right squarely on the head.

Field Guide – Billy Collins

No one I ask knows the name of the flower
we pulled the car to the side of the road to pick
and that I point to dangling purple from my lapel.

I am passing through the needle of spring
in North Carolina, as ignorant of the flowers of the south
as the woman at the barbecue stand who laughs
and the man who gives me a look as he pumps the gas

and everyone else I ask on the way to the airport
to return to where this purple madness is not seen
blazing against the sober pines and rioting along the
   roadside.

On the plane, the stewardess is afraid she cannot answer
my question, now insistent with the fear that I will leave
the province of this flower without its sound in my ear.

Then, as if he were giving me the time of day, a passenger
looks up from his magazine and says wisteria.

Photo Credits

Photo One by https://www.instagram.com/amanda.phillips.london/

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3874300

Photo Three by By Roger Culos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31864476

Photo Four from https://secretldn.com/nyetimber-secret-garden/

Photo Five by By User:Geographer, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41512940