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Wednesday Weed – Black Lilyturf

Black lilyturf (Ophiopogon planiscapus)

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

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

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

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

Black lilyturf in flower (Photo One)

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

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

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

Ophiopogon japonicus berries (Photo Two)

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

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

Kew Gardens – the Olympic Rings (Photo Three)

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

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

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

All The Grasslands Are Yellow

All the grasslands are yellow

and all the days we march

and all the men are conscripts

sent off in four directions. 

 

All the grasslands are black

and all the men like widowers

So much grief! Are soldiers

not men like other men?

 

We aren’t bison! We aren’t tigers

crossing the wilderness,

but our sorrows 

roam from dusk till dawn.

 

Hairy-tailed foxes

slink through the dark grass

as we ride tall chariots 

along the wide rutted roads.

Photo Credits

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

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

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

 

 

 

Christmas in Dorchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what is this? A new nature reserve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White Stag

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

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

Then he throws us a curve ball.

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

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

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

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

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

‘They’ll be here!’ says Dad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad nods up and down.

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

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

On Boxing Day, he is a little less obsessed.

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

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

Dad harrumphs.

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

And then he brightens up.

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

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

Dad in his new hat, wearing his Christmas tie.

 

 

 

 

Christmas Weed – Cranberry

Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

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

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

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

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

British cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) flowers (Photo One)

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

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

Cranberry sauce (Photo Two)

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

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

Wet-harvesting cranberries (Photo Three)

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

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

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

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

The Legend of the Cranberry (Photo Four)

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

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

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

Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell
by Marty McConnell

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

Photo Credits

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

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

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

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

Little Devils

Dear Readers,I am sitting in Costa Coffee, in the same seat from which I used to write to Mum. Every day, for more than five years, I would knock up 1000 words about something or other, and send it to her. Sometimes she would read it out to Dad, who really just wanted to watch Last of the Summer Wine. Sometimes she’d email me back with a comment or some thoughts, but in the past few years the responses got fewer and fewer. The laptop was too heavy for her to lift, and she was too tired to read. But I carried on churning out those thousand words because without them I didn’t know what I was thinking, or feeling. Someone said that writing rights things, and this is true. Once Mum died, although I knew writing was good for me, I couldn’t bear it. The only thing that kept my fingers tapping away was this blog, because I knew that there were people reading it who would hold me accountable. It is not too dramatic to say that there have been times during this past year when it was only the thought that I needed to have something to write about that got me out of bed, and out of the house. So thank you for reading, and for commenting, and making me feel that I was still part of the world, even when I was lost.

On Wednesday, it was the first anniversary of Mum’s death and it seemed to me as if I was viewing the whole world from under a damp, grey woollen blanket. At work, the Christmas festivities were in full swing, and I remembered when I too would look forward to being together with my parents, and would take it for granted that those celebrations would continue forever, even when rationally I knew that they would not. And this year, we will have Christmas at the Care Home with Dad, who in spite of his dementia takes so much joy in a mouthful of turkey or a new pair of socks that it makes up for a lot.

Still. What I wouldn’t do for one more Christmas with Mum and Dad as they were, in spite of the way that I worked myself to a frazzle and there was always at least one stupid argument about nothing in particular. How I would love to see them both dozing in my living room after Christmas dinner, paper hats askew, snoring gently.

Bereavement made me vulnerable in a lot of ways that I didn’t expect. I’m never sure if I can talk rationally about Mum and Dad, or if I’m going to burst into incontinent tears. Bless the people who see a few tears as an opportunity to listen or to offer a hug, rather than being embarrassed or changing the subject. Young men have offered me their seat when I’ve been commuting, and it has been most welcome, because some days I have felt very frail. Of course, an act of kindness can bring on the tears as well, but I have found that tears allowed last a much shorter time than tears that are suppressed.

I feel as if I have joined a whole new strand of humanity, those for whom Christmas is difficult because of their loss. I remember that my own grandmother had the body of her two year-old son, dead from diptheria, in a coffin in her living room all over Christmas. I think of my friends who have lost people that they love, and I bow to their resilience and to the way that they sometimes bury their own sadness in order to make Christmas good for other people. Now I recognise the strain on some faces, because i see it when i look in the mirror. I realise how often I have taken a brusque manner or a short answer personally, without considering what the other person might be suffering. I hope that, if nothing else, this year has made me kinder, and slower to judge.

And I have been so glad to have found work. It has given my brain something to do, although for the first few weeks I would sit and look at a spreadsheet and the numbers might as well have been hieroglyphics. Brain fog is an awful reality, and there were times when I wasn’t sure, in spite of all my years of experience, if I was up to the job. Somehow, I’ve come back, and I feel as if I understand what I’m meant to be doing. More importantly, I feel part of a team, and they have gone out of their way to make sure that I’m included in everything, even though I’m part time and thirty years older than they are.

But why, you might ask, is there a squirrel hanging from a bird feeder at the top of this post? Because on the anniversary of Mum’s death, two squirrels visited the garden, and it reminded me of how Mum loved the squirrels, and called them ‘little devils’ with grudging admiration. We once went to Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh with a bag of peanuts and were practically mugged by a gang of grey squirrels who skittered out of the trees and popped out of the bushes. Look at the beauty of that extraordinary tail, with its penumbra of white fading to grey and rust red at the heart! One of the squirrels has developed a taste for suet, which is surely not good for them, while the other one performs acrobatics to get at the sunflower seeds. The only thing that seems to deter them is the great-spotted woodpecker, who is fearless and has a beak like a stiletto, but everyone else waits around, tapping their birdy feet, until the rodents are finished. The squirrels leap from the whitebeam to the hawthorn and back again, and I can almost hear Mum laughing at their antics. The bird feeders rock backwards and forwards like the swings at the park, and the squirrel sits there with a handful of pellets, looking around as if not understanding the joke, and not caring either.

They stop me short, the creatures in the garden. They pique my curiosity, and they make all my worries and sadnesses fall away. So many of the things that we worry about are not going to happen, and many of the other things are out of our control. But there are robins singing, and berries, and goldfinches chinking like windchimes. And of course, there are ‘little devils’ in the garden, breaking the bird feeders and eating prodigious quantities of food, and there is plenty of room for them, because, as Mary Oliver said ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon’?

It seems to me that being wholehearted is the only way to live in this world, because trying to protect ourselves only lessens our capacity for joy. And I think the world needs our wholeheartedness, painful as it might be. In 2020 I will be 60, and I plan to make ‘wholehearted’ my word for the decade, because the hourglass of my life is starting to run down, and if I want to make a difference the time is now.

And also, did you ever see a half-hearted squirrel?

 

Wednesday Weed – Curly Kale

Curly kale (Brassica oleracea)

Dear Readers, I have being watching the rising popularity of curly kale with some astonishment. Who’d heard of the stuff five years ago, apart from a few hardy allotment owners who wanted a change from the usual spinach and cabbage? Nowadays, you can’t go to a café without being offered the chance to purchase a ‘green smoothie’ that bears an uncanny resemblance to that drink that everyone lived on in the film Soylent Green. I have been buying curly kale for some time, partly seduced by its promise of maximum nutritional ‘bang for my buck’ and partly because of how pretty it is. The curly leaves have a fractal-like quality, and the taste is so bitter and green that surely it’s doing me good.

Curly kale is, as you might expect, a member of the brassica family, and belongs to the sub-group of ‘headless cabbages’, because it doesn’t form a nice round compact head like a Savoy or a white cabbage. It is thought to be closer in form to the wild cabbage, and this doubtless increase its appeal to those who want to get away from the more highly-bred vegetables. I’ve never grown it, but I suspect it’s one of those crops that you could possibly harvest leaf by leaf – let me know, gardeners! Curly kale is also essentially the same subspecies as collard greens that are grown in North America (Brassica oleracea var viridis).

Photo One by By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119948

Curly kale growing in a field (Photo One)

Photo Two by By el Buho nº30 - originally posted to Flickr as Repolos, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71207432

Collard greens growing in Galicia, Spain (Photo Two)

Wild cabbage is a plant of the limestone sea cliffs of southern and western Europe – it has a high tolerance for salt and lime, and a strong dislike of competition from other plants. Hence, it thrives in a very niche environment. It is biennial, forming a rosette of leaves in its first year, and storing up nutrients and water in its tough, leathery leaves, which have evolved to combat the tough, exposed spots that the plant grows in. In its second year, the cabbage uses all those stored nutrients to send up a flower stalk that can be three metres high and covered in yellow flowers. Wild cabbage is a rather nondescript-looking plant, but it is the mother of everything from broccoli to cauliflower, brussels sprouts to our subject today, kale.

Photo Three by By MPF - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=442342

Naturalised population of wild cabbage growing on the cliffs below a medieval monastery in Northumberland (Photo Three)

It didn’t take our ancestors long to realise that this was a plant worth cultivating: it had a reputation for being healthy long before we had the science to understand why. Humans took the basic wild cabbage and started selecting for different qualities, such as leaf size – it is believed that recognisable kale already existed in the 5th century BC. By the 1st century AD, humans had decided that they rather liked a plant where the leaves were gathered together into a head, and had produced the cabbage. At about the same time in Germany, a taste for the stems had led to breeding for this feature, and that most alien of brassicas, the kohlrabi, appeared.

Photo Four by By MOs810 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50151120

Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea var gongylodes)(Photo Four)

In Europe, humans started to become fond of eating the buds of cabbage, a preference that resulted in cauliflower in the 15th century, broccoli and the magnificent Romanesco in the 16th century.

Photo Five by By Jitze Couperus - Flickr: Unknown Vegetable, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24508465

Romanesco (Brassica oleracea var botrytis) (Photo Five)

And finally, the Belgians turned to the only part of the plant that had not been transfigured into a completely new vegetable, the lateral buds along the stem of the plant, and turned it into brussels sprouts in the 18th century.

But back to our curly kale. Have you noticed the pretty ornamental cabbages that turn up in bouquets at this time of year? They are also members of the kale group, although they are not particularly palatable, their leaves being even tougher than curly kale.

Photo Six By Terren - Kale, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3445771

Ornamental kale (Photo Six)

The nutritional value of kale is beyond question. It provides approximately four times your daily requirement of Vitamin K, half of your Vitamin C, and 11% of your Vitamin B6. It also gives a healthy dose of manganese, iron and calcium. Is it better for you than other greens? Spinach is higher in folic acid, which is important if you are pregnant. Kale is lower in vitamin A than romaine lettuce or spinach. Swiss chard has 4.5 times more magnesium. So, the answer is to have a variety of greens, rather than relying on just one. This article from the Harvard Medical School gives a helpful list of greens and their relative nutritional values. However, for anyone dealing with an audience who doesn’t appreciate the assertive flavour of the cabbage family, bear in mind that romaine lettuce seems to have a surprising number of the virtues of the brassicas without the sulphurous taint.

Kale is a robust plant, and has been used to fill the ‘hungry gap’ that comes before the spring crops are ready to be harvested. In Ireland it was mixed with potatoes to make colcannon (and for me, anything that involves potatoes is already a good idea). In some Scots dialects, the word ‘kail’ is synonymous with food, and ‘to be off one’s kail’ is to be lacking in appetite. In Tuscany, a delicious variant on kale called cavalo nero (becoming increasingly popular here) is used to make ribollita, a delectable vegetable soup, and in Portugal caldo verde is made with potatoes, kale, salt and broth. It’s making me hungry just thinking about it all.

Photo Seven by By Original uploader was LupoCapra at it.wikipedia - Transferred from it.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5469356

Ribollita. I know it doesn’t look like much but boy, is it delicious (Photo Seven)

Photo Eight by By Mateus Hidalgo - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2263361

Caldo verde from Portugal (Photo Eight)

Although kale is now ‘trendy’, it has been part of our lives in the British Isles since at least the Middle Ages, and several folkloric tales have grown up around it. In Scotland, young men and women of marriageable age would sneak into a kale patch at Halloween and pull up a stalk without looking at it. The youngest person would then hang it above their bedroom door, and examine it in the morning for a clue as to the kind of person they were going to marry. A stalk with lots of soil on it might indicate a rich spouse, while one with a black centre might mean that the person had a temper. The height of the partner-to-be could also be determined by the length of the stalk. Children who wanted a brother or sister would pile kale outside their parents’ door in the hope that it would result in a sibling, bless them.

In Ireland, charms could be added to the colcannon at Halloween – if you found a ring charm, it meant that you would marry within the year, but a thimble charm meant that you were destined to be a spinster. Women would also take the first and last spoonful of colcannon and hang it in a stocking above the door. The first man to walk through it the following day was destined to be her husband, although if the nail that secured the stocking failed I imagine all bets were off.

Photo Nine by By VegaTeam - Colcannon, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84663750

Colcannon (Photo Nine)

And finally, a poem. This is by Jordan Davis, and it’s one of those poems that is so simple that it seems almost effortless, but hints at something else underneath. There is so much in here about disappearance, regrowth, about what to take and what to leave, but it’s also about such an ordinary event. See what you think. And eat your kale! It’s good for you.

Kale
by Jordan Davis

I hear James but can’t see him so
I call out his baby name, Jamey-James
and he pops up from behind a plow
bank. We walk down the driveway
past the barn to the fenced-in
garden, iron rail, green metal grid,
red thread for the deer. The black
mama cat with the extra toes comes
running past us.

“The ones buried
in snow are insulated,” James
tells me, as if quoting from
“The Pruning Book.” He might be.
“If you cut a butterfly bush
down to nothing it grows back
the next year twice as high.”

There are five or six tall stumps
of the flat variety, and eight or nine
low curly ones. We fill a plastic
popcorn bowl and leave as much
behind still growing.

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 14, 2013, p. 52

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119948

Photo Two by By el Buho nº30 – originally posted to Flickr as Repolos, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71207432

Photo Three by By MPF – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=442342

Photo Four by By MOs810 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50151120

Photo Five by By Jitze Couperus – Flickr: Unknown Vegetable, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24508465

Photo Six By Terren – Kale, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3445771

Photo Seven by By Original uploader was LupoCapra at it.wikipedia – Transferred from it.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5469356

Photo Eight by By Mateus Hidalgo – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2263361

Photo Nine by By VegaTeam – Colcannon, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84663750

Eco-Visionaries at the Royal Academy – The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

 

The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Dear Readers, last week I visited the Royal Academy to see their Eco-Visionaries exhibition. Although there were several installations that piqued my interest, I was drawn to one room by the sound of snorting and the thunder of feet. What was going on? When I arrived, there was just a huge white room, taking up a whole wall.

And then, there was this.

I watched, spellbound, as a mass of pixellated bricks fizzed and vibrated until they formed the shape of a large animal.

And when it finally settled, a life-sized Northern White Rhino looked out into the room.

He shook himself and started to explore his environment, snuffling and huffing as he went. Although I knew that he wasn’t ‘real’, I was intimidated by his size and physicality. He came to a wall, backed up, stamped, whinnied. This was not an animal that was happy to be contained.

And then, he disappeared.

The piece is a great illustration of the way that we bring ourselves to everything. On one level, I read this as being about the millenia of evolution  that went into creating an animal as extraordinary as a northern white rhino, and how it has been snuffed out by us in the blink of an eye. But how could I not also see it as a metaphor for a human life: all the richness of experience and learning that goes into making an individual, and how abruptly it ends?

It turns out that Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, the artist who made this piece (called ‘The Substitute’) had quite a different theme in mind. Her work often explores the links between bio-technology and the natural world. She is intrigued by the way that human beings are constantly seeking to ‘better’ the world, and in ‘The Substitute’ she is examining the possibility of bringing the northern white rhino back to life using genetic implantation into a different subspecies. I was moved to hear that the sounds were taken from the only known recording of a northern white rhino herd. As she says on her website, 

On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real? 

The Substitute explores a paradox: our preoccupation with creating new life forms, while neglecting existing ones.

When I hear about people hoping to resurrect the mammoth by implanting DNA extracted from corpses found in the Siberian permafrost into the wombs of Asian elephants I shake my head in disbelief. All this effort and money spent on bringing a creature back from the dead when we could be using our resources to preserve the species that we do have! It feels like hubris to me, of which we humans have an abundance. When I saw this lone creature, bemused by finding himself alone, in a white box, it touched me so deeply that I have to admit that I cried. There is not better way to get a whole exhibit to yourself than to openly display emotion.

If you want to see the whole video, you can watch it here. I would love to know what you think.

Art should make us think and feel, and this does both. I find myself pondering on its significance even now, a week later. The white room at the beginning and the end of the film is objectively the same thing, but how different they feel! At the start, viewing that emptiness filled me with excitement and a little apprehension – what was going on here? But the emptiness at the end of the film, when the rhino is gone, has a completely different feeling, of enormous loss and sadness. However, it is also filled with the memory of what was there before, and it inspired in me a feeling that that which is lost should not have died for nothing. As we enter a new world in the UK following the results of the election, it occurs to me that there is still much  to fight for, to protect and to preserve.The empty room is waiting. It is up to us to choose what to put into it.

You can read more about the Eco-Visionaries exhibition at the Royal Academy here.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s website is here, and I find her work most intriguing. I particularly like her work on the Wilding of Mars, which is currently on at the ‘Moving to Mars‘ exhibition at the Design Museum in London.

 

Wednesday Weed – Strelitzia (Bird of Paradise Flower)

Photo One by By Scott Bauer, USDA - This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K9054-1 (next)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=327292

Strelitzia reginae (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when we were wheeling Dad around the garden centre in Poundbury last week, he suddenly noticed a big pot of bird of paradise flowers, hidden away in a corner.

‘We used to have some of them!’ he said.

And he was right, we did. Although Dad left school at 14, he ended up with a job as an ‘overseas distiller’, making Gordon’s Gin all over the world. One of his regular haunts was Venezuela, and after one of his trips he brought back some Strelitzia seeds. Mum planted them up, and several years later they finally flowered, bringing a touch of the exotic to Seven Kings in Essex. What surprises me is that Strelitzias are not South American but South African; however they have been widely naturalized wherever the climate is suitable, so I suspect this is how Dad came by the seeds. In fact, they have become so ‘naturalised’ in the western USA that they are now the State Flower of Los Angeles. Go figure.

Dad was forever bringing home  contraband: once, he brought home the pod from a cocoa plant, and we were horrified by how unlike chocolate the glutinous seeds tasted. Another time, he came home with some ‘Mexican Jumping Beans’ – these are seed pods inhabited by a tiny caterpillar that ‘jumps’ when the bean is heated up by the warmth of the hand. Ours actually hatched into tiny silver moths, but a call to London Zoo provided the information that the insects live for only a few days after emergence. These days I am horrified by the possible biological implications of all this transporting of live organisms, but I am touched by how Dad wanted to share his experiences with us.

Back to the Strelitzia. What a magnificent plant this is! There are five species in the genus, but the one that most of us associate with the name ‘bird of paradise flower’ is Strelitzia reginae. It is known as the crane flower in its native South Africa, and I can see why.

Photo Two by By I, Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2341086

Strelitzia reginae flower (Photo Two)

Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) (Public Domain)

The flower is sunbird pollinated: the bird perches on the spathe, which is the hard covering from which the flower emerges. As the bird drinks the nectar, its feet become covered in pollen, which it transfers to the next flower. In countries with no sunbirds, the plant normally needs to be hand-pollinated. Apparently, in North America the common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) has worked out how to get at the nectar, and is in the process acting as a pollinator. I do hope that this doesn’t mean that the bird of paradise plant now becomes a rampant weed.

Female malachite sunbird on Strelitzia flower (Public Domain)

The genus name of the plant, Strelitzia, comes from the title of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was the wife of George III at the time the plant was first described, in 1788. She was an amateur botanist and a great supporter of Kew Gardens, which is where Strelitzia was first grown. It is not a particularly fussy plant, but it does like to be pot-bound – I remember Mum deciding to divide ours after it had flowered ‘to give it a bit more room’, and it never flowered again. The ‘normal’ orange-coloured flower might seem quite fancy enough, but there is also a golden variant, ‘Mandela’s Gold’, which looks rather fine.

Photo Three by By Axxter99 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35271657

‘Mandela’s Gold’ at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town (Photo Three)

Strelitzias are members of the ‘banana-leaved’ half of the ginger order (Zingiberales), and are closely related to the Heliconias that I fell in love with during my trip to Costa Rica, and to the banana. The one defining feature of the group is that it only has an aerial stem when flowering. Interestingly, another member of the Strelitzia family is the extraordinary traveller’s palm (Ravenela madagascarensis), which is endemic to Madagascar, and which normally provides a crude compass as it is oriented in an east-west direction. You would certainly not look at this plant and recognise its relationship with the bird of paradise flower, but genetics is a wonderful way of looking below the surface of things.

Photo Four by By Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas or alternatively © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30775692

Traveller’s palm (Ravenela magadascarensis) (Photo Four)

Strelitzia has many edible relatives (including the banana and many varieties of ginger) but the species itself is mildly toxic, particularly to domestic animals.

The artist Georgia O’Keefe was intrigued by the bird of paradise plant, which she saw in Hawaii where it commonly grows wild. She painted the giant white bird of paradise (Strelizia Nicolai) as part of a commission by the tropical fruit company, Dole, in the late 1930’s – this was a period when commercial organisations would invest in the cachet that fine artists could bring to their campaigns. Sadly, most of the paintings were of non-native species, beautiful as they are: Hawaii has lost more than ten percent of its native plants, with half of those remaining at risk.

White bird-of-paradise by Georgia O’Keefe (1939) Public Domain

Perhaps the most famous Strelizia artwork that I know about, however, is the self-portrait with monkeys that was painted by Frida Kahlo. She had many pets in her house, Casa Azul, in Mexico City, including these spider monkeys, which she saw as representing the children that she was not able to have following her horrific traffic accident when she was a teenager. By the time the picture was painted, she was only able to run art classes from her home, and her number of students was reduced to just four (there is some indication that the monkeys might also represent these beloved proteges). The monkeys, and the strelizia behind, indicate an artistic fecundity and transgression that was intrinsic to Kahlo’s art. I love the strangeness of the painting, the many ways that it can be ‘read’, and the uniqueness of Kahlo’s vision. What plant could possibly sum all this up better than the strelizia?

PHoto Five from http://theconversation.com/heres-looking-at-frida-kahlos-self-portrait-with-monkeys-61141

Self-Portrait with Monkeys (Frida Kahlo, 1943) (Photo Five)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Scott Bauer, USDA – This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K9054-1 (next)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=327292

Photo Two by By I, Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2341086

Photo Three by By Axxter99 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35271657

Photo Four  By Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas or alternatively © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30775692

PHoto Five from http://theconversation.com/heres-looking-at-frida-kahlos-self-portrait-with-monkeys-61141