‘Fashioned From Nature’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Beetle wing dress circa 1868

Dear Readers, on Friday I went with my friend A to a preview of ‘Fashioned From Nature’, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum which, as the title suggests, explores the relationship between fashion and the natural world. I was prepared to be upset, as the history of humans and the rest of the planet’s inhabitants hasn’t been (and still isn’t), an equitable one. Take the dress pictured above and below, for example. Each of the ‘beads’ is the wing case from a tropical beetle.

Or this muff, made from the breast feathers of a peacock.

Or this ‘hat’ made from a stuffed bird of paradise

So much of our history has been about viewing the world as a cornucopia of treasures that we could plunder endlessly with no repercussions. All of the creatures of the world were available for us to use not just for food, but to convert into whatever trivial object we wanted, and there is nothing so frivolous as a party dress. And if this was all the exhibition was about it would be very depressing indeed. However, there are some beautiful things here that are inspired by nature but don’t involve violating it. Take this waistcoat, for example, with its embroidered macaques.

French embroidered waistcoat 1780-1789

Or this wall hanging with its delightful caterpillar.

And I was particularly taken with this ensemble, with its embroidered representations of the sexual organs of a plant.

It occurs to me how closely entangled art is with the plants and animals that surround us. The first cave paintings were of horses and mammoths, woolly rhino and camels. Once we started making fabrics we not only dyed them using plant dyes, but we represented plants in floral textiles. Just looking around as I sit at my laptop I see a bag with William Morris’s flowers all over it in one corner, a mug with a giraffe on it holding my pens and pencils, another bag made by my Mum featuring some patchwork cats, and a pair of discarded socks with fox terriers on them. Of course, I am probably more ‘nature-oriented’ than many people, but I bet most of us could look up right now and see a representation of a plant or animal within eye-shot. As we have become more ‘civilised’ we have on the one hand decided that we are separate from (and superior to) ‘nature’: at the same time we find ourselves yearning for our erstwhile companions, the plants and animals that we have lived alongside for most of our history. We fill our houses with plants and pets, and we cover our walls, our furnishings and our bodies with representations of them. How lonely we became when we decided that we had outgrown nature, and how foolhardy.

It is the third aspect of the exhibition that I found most inspiring because, as Stella MacCartney the designer recently said, the fashion industry is the most wasteful in the world. It encourages people to throw away their clothes every season, with side-effects for landfill, for the textile industries of developing nations, for workforces where labour laws are not as protective as they are in the West, and for pollution. However, there were plenty of examples of how that doesn’t have to be the case.

The leather industry is one of the most polluting on the planet, operating alongside the meat industry – leather isn’t a by-product, it’s an actual reason for some animals to be farmed (and don’t get me started on python and alligator leather). The trousers below were made from ‘leather’ made from mushrooms.

Trousers made from mushroom leatherThis dress is made from by-products of the wine industry.

This silk dress is made from ‘Ahimsa’ silk – it is woven after the moth has emerged from the cocoon.

This ensemble was made from waste wool and scrap cloth. It’s a shame that it looks rather as if someone has run through a jumble sale, but I’m sure something rather more wearable by the average person could also be made. Plus, wouldn’t the trousers show the underwear? And be a bit draughty? And scratchy?

There were lots of other examples too. The man who started the Burtons chain of men’s outfitters wore a Harris Tweed suit for over twenty years, on the basis that something classic never goes out of fashion. There’s a lot to be said for this approach – I’m trying to make my clothes last longer by buying items that can be accessorised in different ways as fashion changes. I have also noticed that if you keep things for long enough, they will come into fashion again. Someone told me that my dress was ‘on trend’ last week, much to my astonishment, so I’d say that the cycle is probably about ten years.

And I was rather taken by this dress, made by persuading plant roots to grow into a grid pattern.

And just when I was settling down, I was suddenly outraged all over again.

But wait. The whole of this ‘leopard-skin’ dress is made out of tiny glass beads.

And so, everything is not what it seems. We have reached a point in our development as a species where we can have all the beauty of a leopard without hurting it, and we can have the suppleness of leather without polluting the planet. Which will it be, I wonder? Humans often remind me of Wily Coyote, just about to go over the edge of the cliff. It might be that we’ve gone over it already, and are peddling in mid-air, but maybe, just maybe, there’s enough creativity and will in the world to turn us back. Exhibitions like this make me question how the companies that I shop with are managing their ethical responsibilities to the environment and to their workforces, and make me think about the questions I should be asking of my preferred brands. If you are in London, I would definitely recommend a visit.

‘Fashioned From Nature’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, until Sunday 27th January 2019.

Wednesday Weed – Rhubarb

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)

Dear Readers, rhubarb is something of a travelling plant in our family. I remember a patch of it growing in the two allotments that we had when I was a child, and I strongly suspect that it was the same plant, dug up and transplanted. And now that Mum and Dad live in their Dorset bungalow there is a clump of the plant growing next to the greenhouse. How handsome it is, with its crinkly green leaves that look in need of a good iron, and those lip-puckering stalks, so unpromising raw, so delicious when combined with some sugar and topped with crumble. However, rhubarb is truly a divisive, love-it-or-hate-it plant. I find that people who love it often also favour other strong, uncompromising flavours, such as gooseberries,mackerel, blackcurrants and offal. It is a most assertive ingredient, and needs to be treated with the utmost respect by the cook.

In the first months of a new year there is forced rhubarb, with its yellow leaves and delicate rose-pink stems. In the UK this is grown in sheds in the ‘rhubarb triangle’ (between Wakefield, Leeds and Morley) and is picked by candlelight, in a tradition dating back to the 1800’s. The plants are grown outside for two years (and therefore exposed to frost, which is said to improve the flavour) and are then moved to low, heated sheds – the plants used to be fertilised with manure, night-soil and ‘shoddy’, a by-product of the wool industry. At one time, West Yorkshire produced 90% of all the forced rhubarb in the world, Such was the demand that the ‘Rhubarb Express’ brought up to 200 tonnes of rhubarb to the south every day before 1939. Alas, the post-war availability of more exotic fruits impacted on the rhubarb trade, and today the early rhubarb is an expensive luxury – beautiful, delicate, and, to my mind, more insipid than the robust late-spring outdoor-grown plant. But what a treat it must have been before everything was available all the time! We have lost something, I feel, with our strawberries in December and our asparagus in October and our oranges all year round.

Photo One by © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A rhubarb forcing shed (Photo One)

But the ‘real’ stuff comes later in the year, with green and red-tinged stems and with a tannic taste that can twist the face into some most amusing shapes. It cooks in seconds, and the stems collapse into mush at the slightest provocation, so if presentation is a concern, keep your eye on your rhubarb. Usually, though, the fruit is covered with a pie crust, or sponge, or the aforementioned crumble, and so appearance is not a major concern. I have been seeing some recipes which use young rhubarb raw in salads, and very pretty they look too.

Those crinkly leaves are poisonous, containing oxalic acid which is a corrosive ingredient that acts particularly on the kidneys. It is estimated that 5 kgs of rhubarb leaves would have to be ingested to run the risk of dying from rhubarb poisoning, but there is also a school of thought that suggests that using bicarbonate of soda in the cooking water ( a common technique for keeping the bright colour of leafy greens) accentuates the toxin. There is also a long-standing belief amongst scientists that there is another, unidentified toxin in the rhubarb leaves. During the First World War there were said to be a few cases of accidental poisoning when people harvested and cooked the leaves, but it seems to be hard to find hard evidence for such cases.

What is much better documented is the long history of rhubarb being used as a laxative – the Chinese have used it for this purpose for millenia, as did the medieval peoples of Western Europe and the Middle East. Along with senna pods rhubarb was one of the ‘comedy ingredients’ of my childhood – it would be clear that anyone eating rhubarb without the traditional sweet accoutrements was constipated. A good old purge was often thought to sort everything out, and rhubarb was just the stuff to do it.

Rhubarb feels as English as, well, rhubarb pie, but in fact it originated far further east, probably in China, and arrived in Europe in the 14th Century via the Silk Route. It was initially prized for its aforementioned medicinal properties, and was extremely valuable, more expensive than cinnamon, saffron or even opium. Have a look at this list of treasures from the East, written in 1403 by the Castilian ambassador to the court of Timur the Great (Tamburlaine) in Samarkand:

‘…The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…’

But of course this is a most adaptable plant, and it took to the soils of Europe with much enthusiasm. Soon every peasant had a rhubarb plant of his or her own, and the ingredient was being used in every kitchen.

Rhubarb isn’t technically a fruit, as the stems are used rather than the fruiting bodies (just as a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). I doubt that that has dampened anyone’s enthusiasm, however. Part of the joy of harvesting a (small amount) of rhubarb is that you head out with your machete,  cut off the stems while imaging that there’s a leopard in the undergrowth waiting to pounce on you (or maybe that’s just me) and return to the house with your booty. None of that time-consuming picking! Rhubarb is definitely an ingredient for the ‘I want it now’ generation. You can have a pot full of rhubarb compote in less than twenty minutes from opening the back door.

Rabarbra by Norwegian artist Nikolai Asrup (1880-1928)

Incidentally, I have never seen a rhubarb plant in flower, but this is what it looks like. Rhubarb is a member of the Polygonaceae, which includes buckwheat, the various persicarias, sorrel and Japanese knotweed. If you look closely at the white florets, they look rather like buckwheat.

Photo One by By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6656946

Rhubarb flowers (Photo Two)

It’s believed that a slice of rhubarb placed into the hole where you plan to plant a cabbage or other brassica will prevent club-root, and a piece of rhubarb worn around the neck was said to prevent stomach cramps. And in my research for this article, I found a most delightful website called ‘The Rhubarb Compendium‘, which includes the following delights:

  • Rhubarb is great for bringing back the shine to burnt pots and pans. I must remember this time next time I forget about my rhubarb compote and boil it dry.
  • 3 tbsp of rhubarb root boiled in two cups of water can brighten the colour of blond hair (though I’d test it first. Pink hair is so last century, darling)
  • The leaves can be used as an insecticide (all that oxalic acid, I’m guessing) – boil up in water, allow to cool, spray, watch all the aphids retreat screaming, clutching their babies under their arms (not that I’m trying to make anyone feel guilty of course).

But now we come to a most puzzling question. Why is the phrase ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’ used to simulate the sound of background chatting in plays and films? Allegedly it’s because the word contains no particularly obvious phonemes, and so if a lot of people are repeating it, in different tones and with different stresses, it sounds a lot like your usual background babble. Other phrases might include ‘watermelon’ and ‘peas and carrots’. Apparently, however, these days what is more often used is something called ‘pocket dialogue’ – a few uncompleted sentences relating to the matter at hand for the extras to say, to simulate the sound of conversation. What a shame. I rather liked the idea of everyone saying rhubarb. Though maybe it stimulated the appetite for a coffee break.

And here, finally, is a rather fine poem about rhubarb, and about lots of other things too….

 

Rhubarb by Matthew Burns

The poison lives only in the leaves,
thick with instant bitterness to warn you,
and my Polish grandmother said
this was to kill off the lazy ones, the stupid ones,
the ones who wanted things handed to them,
who couldn’t find it in themselves to dig.

And planting it told everyone
you didn’t mind dirt under your nails,
that you knew life was hard work if you did it right.
So she grew more than the whole family could eat.

By May, her narrow terraced backyard
in the city’s First Ward was a lapping sea
of palm-sized leaves; by June, a solid ruff of green,
a pruning knife’s hooked blade biting
through the stalks with a flick of her wrist
and a quick snap.

The one time I tried this I sliced deep
into my thumb knuckle at first swipe.
We were both red inside,
me, the rhubarb.
That’s the stuff I didn’t really think about at ten,
how everything bleeds;
how everything must die somehow—
the stupid ones poisoned, the hard workers
heart-worn and wrecked.

We ate the rhubarb raw, stripped of all its leaves.
Dipped in sugar, it still lingered
bitter on our tongues as some inoculation
against the worst of what was yet to come.

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo One by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6656946

 

New Kids on the Block

Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

Dear Readers, there is nothing like a wildfowl collection for releasing new species into the unsuspecting wild. Take these handsome Egyptian geese, seen strutting their stuff in Regent’s Park a few weeks ago. The owner of Holkham Park in Norfolk introduced a few pairs of these birds in the 17th century. They had their wings clipped, but the lust for freedom is sometimes very strong. By the 1890’s there were 7 in Clissold Park and several in the London Royal parks. A hundred years later, there are some 1100 breeding pairs in the UK, and they have the dubious distinction of being included in my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’, They are particularly common on the Norfolk Broads, and are very territorial, to the disgust of our shyer native geese. Not content with seeing off an intruder on the ground they will take to the air for a ‘dogfight’, and have been known to attack drones. Egyptian geese pair for life, and both take care of their offspring.

They are also very vocal birds: a pair flying overhead and honking to one another sound exactly like a dustbin lorry reversing into a gap. The female has a particularly raucous quack, especially when with her goslings – she seems to be in a state of frenzied maternal concern for most of the time.

Incidentally, the Greek generic name ‘Alopochen’ means ‘fox goose’, probably referring to the russet colour of the male’s back.

Egyptian geese will sometimes make their nests in hollow trees, which, given the size of the bird is surprising. Maybe the one below was scoping out a suitable tree.

And while we’re on the subject of hole-nesting wildfowl, who would have thought that the little beauty below would also be included in my Invasive Species book?

Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

Yes, the mandarin duck, possibly the most exotic and beautiful of all wild duck species, is becoming a pest. There are 7000 feral mandarin ducks in the UK, and my book suggests that they are problematic because they compete with native birds for those all-important nest holes. May I put in a gentle suggestion that if we didn’t keep cutting down our forests (as we have done, incessantly, for the past two centuries at least) there would be plenty of trees with holes in them to go round? Mandarins first bred in captivity in London Zoo in 1834, and there are now at least 50 wild breeding pairs in the London area, with approximately 2000 breeding pairs in the country as a whole.

As you might have seen on various wildlife programmes, the ducklings of hole-nesting species have to fling themselves from their nest hole to the ground once they’re ready to go – one reason why mandarins like to nest close to water. If you would like to see the whole drama (with swelling orchestral music and a commentary by someone with a voice very like that of Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise) you can see it below..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W06Ph9wBTMM

The only close relative of the mandarin is the Carolina wood duck (Aix sponsa), another extremely handsome bird that rears its young in the same way. The wood duck is often seen in wildfowl collections, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to have ‘jumped over the fence’ like the mandarin. Just as well, what with that shortage of nesting holes.

Photo One by By Frank Vassen - Flickr: Wood Duck (Aix sponsa), Parc du Rouge-Cloître, Brussels, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31263857

Carolina Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) (Photo One)

Of course, the most ubiquitous, the most hated and the most belligerent of all our introduced wildfowl has to be the poor old Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). It is big, noisy, and breeds like billy-o. You can blame King Charles II for the original importation, Strangely, the bird’s numbers were low until the latter half of the 20th century, but now this is probably the most recognised bird in the London area after the feral pigeon. Many a toddler has been knocked over as the leathery beak of a Canada goose snatches the last crust intended for the duckies, but the birds have a determined and straightforward nature that I can’t help but admire. Nonetheless, they foul the grass and are accused of causing the eutrophication of waterways. I sometimes wonder if a major factor in the fouling of water bodies is not so much the geese themselves as the extraordinary amount of bread that folk throw into the ponds and lakes, which not only encourages the birds to congregate but adds to the general muck when it isn’t eaten.

Photo Two by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40152982

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)(Photo Two)

And while we’re on the subject of feeding bread to ducks and geese, it can cause a syndrome called Angel Wing, as seen in the bird below. Angel wing cannot be cured unless the bird is very young, and it renders the creature unable to fly. It’s no surprise to me that a Canada goose that can’t fly has survived to adulthood because, well, attitude – have you ever tried to mess with a Canada goose? I wouldn’t recommend it.

Photo Three by https://www.facebook.com/Nature-and-Wildlife-by-Jean-328912803836920/

Canada goose with angel wing syndrome (Photo Three)

We’ve all gone to the local pond and fed the ducks and geese bread and cake, and they’ve seemed happy and healthy. But the trouble is that when the food is easy to get, most animals will just hang around and wait, or spend their days eyeing the riverbank with a hungry eye. Wildfowl are largely omnivorous – grazing, eating water plants, grubbing away at the bottom of the pond with their sensitive beaks, even diving for food. When humans intervene, they end up with stale Battenburg cake and a few slices of Wonderloaf. Our joy at being able to feed animals should surely not trump their welfare, and just because we’ve always done something doesn’t mean that we should carry on when we find out that it’s doing harm. When we know better (myself included) we do better, surely.

Here’s what to feed the ducks and geese instead, courtesy of the Canal and River Trust:

a) Sweetcorn (who knew? Though I can empathise. I love sweetcorn, and my husband would happily live on it from August to October)

b) Lettuce, rocket, micro greens. Ducks won’t mind the tatty bits on the outside.

c) Peas (defrosted please)

d) Oats

e) Bird seed

f) Rice (raw or cooked, but no egg-fried rice please. That would be cannibalism).

And if you go to Regent’s Park with your largesse, you might find some very interesting birds to feed. I am always surprised at the sheer variety of wildfowl that turn up, especially in spring and autumn, on even the most uninspired local pond. Fill your pockets with frozen peas (defrosted) and have a brief trip back to childhood. It’s even more fun if you are accompanied by an actual child.

Greylag goose(Anser anser) amongst the daffodils

Pochard (Aytha ferina) (Native)

Male smew (Mergellus albellus) (Native)

Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) from North America. What delights they are! The female looks very determined.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Frank Vassen – Flickr: Wood Duck (Aix sponsa), Parc du Rouge-Cloître, Brussels, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31263857

Photo Two by By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40152982

Photo Three by https://www.facebook.com/Nature-and-Wildlife-by-Jean-328912803836920/

 

Wednesday Weed – Hyacinth

Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis)

Dear Readers, when it comes to the scent of flowers I am very particular. I find that jasmine is ok outdoors, but nauseating at close quarters. Lilies have a kind of waxy scent, redolent of decay, that doesn’t work for me either (plus the pollen is poisonous to cats). I adore freesias, but they have such short lives as cut flowers that I rarely buy them. But hyacinths have the kind of perfume that makes me want to inhale great lungfuls of perfume.

For years, Dad would plant up pots full of hyacinth bulbs for forcing. In recent years, he hasn’t been well enough, so I’ve bought some ready-planted ones for him. When they’re finished, he asks the lady who looks after the garden to plant them outdoors, and so the borders are punctuated with blues and pinks and whites. The blooms are never as spectacular as in the first year, but they are still very fine, and on a still day they bring me up short with their delicious scent. It seems as if the plants revert to their natural type in their later years, as seen in the photo of the hyacinth taken in the wild below.

Photo One by Kurt Stüber [1] - caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3792

Wild hyacinth (Photo One)

Hyacinths are native to the Eastern Mediterranean, and are members of the Scilla family. Most scillas are much smaller, more modest plants, although they can be startlingly blue.

Photo Two by By Heike Löchel - fotografiert von Heike Löchel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3703102

Siberian Scilla (Scilla siberica) (Photo Two)

Hyacinths were introduced to Western Europe in the 16th Century and, as with all things bulb-related, the Dutch became masters of breeding different cultivars. In the wild, the flowers are largely blue, with occasional white and pink plants. By the 18th Century the Dutch had bred over 2000 different varieties, and the colours available now include yellow, orange, and apricot. I definitely prefer the original blue hyacinth, and I think it has the most delightful scent of all, with the white-flowered hyacinth a close second.

Photo Three by By John O'Neill - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=459050

Hyacinths in Canberra, Australia. What a range of colours! (Photo Three)

On the subject of blue hyacinths, the word ‘Persenche’ means ‘hyacinth-blue’, and is formed of 73% ultramarine, 9% red and 18% white. So now you know.

You might expect a plant with such a strong scent to be attractive to parfumiers, and so it proved. Madame de Pompadour was an early advocate for the plant in France, and soon every titled lady was stuffing hyacinth flowers down her cleavage to surround herself with a sweet-smelling cloud. It takes 6000kg of hyacinth flowers to make a single litre of hyacinth perfume, and so it was a premium product until the days of synthetic perfumes. Strangely, as with freesias and bluebells, I have never found a convincing man-made scent that comes anywhere near the complexity of the flower.

Hyacinths are mentioned in the Iliad, as part of the eruption of flowers that sprang up to provide a bed for Zeus and Hera:

‘Therewith the son of Cronos clasped his wife in his arms, and beneath them the divine earth made fresh-sprung grass to grow, and dewy lotus, and crocus, and hyacinth, thick and soft, that upbare them from the ground. [350] Therein lay the twain, and were clothed about with a cloud, fair and golden, wherefrom fell drops of glistering dew.’

Well, it’s alright for some, that’s all I can say. All that the divine earth ever makes for me in such outdoor encounters is a fine selection of wood ants and irritated mosquitoes, but let’s draw a veil over the whole subject while there’s still time.

In Greek mythology, Hyacinthus was a young man admired by both Apollo and the god Zephyr. Hyacinthus and Apollo were playing with a discus, rather like chaps play with a frisbee I suspect (although with fewer clothes). Zephyr was the god of the West Wind, and was disgruntled that Apollo was spending time with his favourite. When Apollo threw the discus, Zephyr blew it off course so that the unfortunate Hyacinthus was clunked on the noddle by a flying discus.  Being beloved by the gods was something of a liability, I fear. A chastened Apollo created the hyacinth flower from the drops of blood shed by Hyacinthus, though there are only a few daffodils in the picture below, which means the artist missed an opportunity in my opinion.

Photo Four by By Jean Broc - http://exitinterview.biz/rarities/paidika/n12/pdk12ill.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62

Hyacinthus feeling a bit the worse for wear (The Death of Hyacinthos by Jean Broc) (Photo Four)

Hyacinth bulbs (rather than the leaves and flowers) are toxic, particularly to dogs if they dig the bulbs up and eat them. Most cats are much too sensible to eat a hyacinth.  The big danger for humans is if the bulbs are mistaken for onions, but this is much less likely to happen than with daffodils, where the brown papery covering makes for a much closer appearance.

On the subject of hyacinth folklore, I find that in Shropshire it’s considered unlucky to have white hyacinths in the house, as they are emblematic of death. In the course of four years of preparing this blog, I have discovered that almost every plant that I write about is not allowed in the house for fear of someone dying. I suspect that often it’s because the flowers have featured at a funeral and are now inextricably linked with those sad memories. It seems a shame, though. Flowers, especially early-flowering ones like these, can bring such cheer in the early spring.

Hyacinths have long been associated with the Nowruz (New Year) celebrations in Iran, and are often placed on the Haft-Sin table, which contains 7 symbolic items all beginning with the Persian letter Seen (‘S’):

  • Greenery (سبزهsabze): Wheat, barley or lentil sprouts grown in a dish
  • Samanu (سمنوsamanu): A sweet pudding made from germinated wheat
  • The dried fruit of the oleaster tree (سنجدsenjed)
  • Garlic (سیرsir)
  • Apples (سیبsib)
  • Sumac berries (سماقsomāq)
  • Vinegar (سرکهserke)

Other items include a holy book (usually the Quran), books of Persian poetry, candles, a goldfish in a bowl, decorated eggs for each member of the family and a mirror.

Photo Five by By Mandana asadi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67619983

A Haft-Seen table (Photo Five)

Nowruz usually occurs on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox, and I can see how the hyacinth would add its beauty and scent to the occasion. Plus, it’s an opportunity for baklava, the world’s sweetest dessert.

Photo Six by By Kultigin - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=905058

Baklava (Photo Six)

As I watched the hyacinths earlier this week, I was delighted to see that, even though the flowers were almost finished they were still being visited by hairy-footed flower bees, particularly the males, who look as if they’ve been dabbed on the forehead with Tippex. I was also delighted to find out that hyacinth seeds are are dispersed by ants, in a delightful practice called myrmecochory. Hyacinth seeds are attached to a nutrient-rich outgrowth called an eliasome. The ants take the seeds back to their nests and eat the eliasome, but the seed is unharmed and either germinates in the midden of the ant nest, or is carried outside, where it can germinate away from its parent plant. I find it fascinating that this behaviour has evolved to the mutual benefit of ant and hyacinth, and it is much more widespread than I appreciated – over 3,000 species of plants rely on ants to distribute their seeds, and it is a major method of dispersal in both the South African fynbos (where it’s used by 1000 species of plant) and in many Australian habitats, both of which have largely infertile soils. Using an insect to carry the seed away from the parent plant (who might have just enough nutrients to survive itself) is one of those evolutionary marvels that makes my head spin.

Hyacinth seeds – the white parts are the eliasomes that ants use as food (Public Domain)

So, what is left to say about hyacinths? Like snowdrops and bluebells, they seem so hopeful, spilling their perfume into the cold air. I know, even now, that whenever I smell them I will see my father, tucking the white bulbs into the brown earth and popping them away in the shed for a few months, until it’s time to bring them out to brighten the last days of winter.The Persian poet Sadi (1184-1292 apparently, which would make him 106 years old) had this to say about the joy of hyacinths, and I agree. Feeding the soul is almost as important as feeding the body.

‘If thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul’

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by Kurt Stüber [1] – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3792

Photo Two by By Heike Löchel – fotografiert von Heike Löchel, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3703102

Photo Three by By John O’Neill – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=459050

Photo Four by By Jean Broc – http://exitinterview.biz/rarities/paidika/n12/pdk12ill.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62

Photo Five by By Mandana asadi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67619983

Photo Six by By Kultigin – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=905058

A Garden of Character

Dear Readers, some gardens are grand. Some are charming. But some acquire something  even better – character. I love the garden of my Aunt Hilary because it speaks to me of the love that she and her sister Morwenna have put into it over nearly 50 years. It includes just the right combination of plants that are managed, and plants that have been allowed to naturalise and roam free, such as the primroses above, which pop up in every colour from cream to palest pink to rose to cerise.

In the autumn, the cyclamen take over.

The controlled anarchy of it all, with flowers bursting forth in the lawn, by the stumps of trees, in every corner, seems almost paradisaical to me. If Adam and Eve walked on this primrose-studded lawn I’m sure they’d think themselves lucky.

But it’s not all about the primroses. The wild lesser celandine combine with a handsome white periwinkle to make a little spot of semi-wildness.

Purple windflowers (Anemone blanda) hide shyly away alongside the dense conifers at the end of the garden, which are alive with wrens and goldcrests.

The rookery on the other side of the field is in full swing, with rooks croaking and conversing.

A sparrowhawk flies in over my head, long and low, for the second time in two days. She catches nothing, and swerves away, but the sparrows set up an anxious chirruping, as if discussing what has happened. In a few minutes, one is back on the roof of the old garage, which itself has a fine patina of age. The variety of lichens and mosses, here in this area of clean air, is impressive.

I wander over to the vegetable garden, and notice these two sparrows huddled against one another. I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphise, but they look like friends to me. Could they be recently fledged nest-mates, I wonder? Surely it’s too early? But then, Broadway has a lot of long-established hedgerows which provide just the conditions that these birds need – food, shelter, and lots of thorns to keep the sparrowhawks out.

When I look at a garden like this, it makes me wonder how many iterations it has gone through, how many plants have been tried and rejected because they aren’t happy in the conditions. There’s a lesson here about when to give up and try something new, when to persevere, when to intervene and when to let well enough alone. A garden can teach us many things, if we let it, and if we recognise that, in the end, we can either work with nature or against her. After almost fifty years this garden is still evolving, but is full of ‘happy accidents’ that have been allowed to multiply. Imagine how much poorer the garden would be if the first errant primrose had been dug out, instead of appreciated.

Nature touches the most unlikely things with beauty, like the roof of this bird table. I love the different textures and colours of the lichens, the way the one on the right looks as if some sea monsters are rising up and wading through the shallows. The one in the middle is as crumbly as birch bark. The lichen towards the top of the roof reminds me of the surface of a sphagnum bog. All of this is happening here on this few square inches of wood. There is so much abundance here, so much possibility. It’s hard to spend time in nature without being touched by joy.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Currant

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Dear Readers, when I was planting up my garden some eight years ago, I was wandering around the garden centre with my wonky trolley, trying to stop my phlox from capsizing, when I spotted a bush standing all alone in the corner. It seemed so lonely and unappreciated that I ground to a halt and wandered over for a closer look. The plant looked decidedly disheveled, but the leaves were just starting to emerge, and the buds were the most delicate pink-tinged things. I looked around. I looked back. I considered. And then,shoving a couple of ox-eye daisies to one side, I grabbed the plant.

‘You’re coming home with me!’ I told it. I still had no idea what it was but, just as when I was fostering cats and could sometimes see what a beautiful animal lay under the scratty fur and watery eyes, so this plant seemed to me to just be in need of some gentleness and consideration.

Eight years later it is the plant that delights both me and the hairy-footed flower bees most in the early days of April, as its cerise buds unfurl into a mass of flowers. You can’t beat a flowering currant for a spectacular show, and as this one is right next to the pond I get the double benefit of its reflection in the water.

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

A hairy-footed flower bee (Anthora plumipes) feeding on spring snowflake (Photo One)

Flowering currant is actually a North American plant, growing on the west coast from California up to British Columbia. It was brought back to the UK by the Scottish explorer David Douglas in 1826, A friend remembers that the plant had a wonderful sweet scent, but mine has unperfumed flowers, and leaves that smell rather like the pee of a tom cat if crushed.

Flowering currant is a member of the Grossulariaceae family, along with the other currant species such as redcurrant, whitecurrant and blackcurrant, although the family is actually named for another member, the gooseberry. The berries of the flowering currant are not particularly juicy or flavoursome , but all the currants have a lot of gamma-linoleic acid in their roots, leaves and seeds which is proven to be efficacious for pre-menstrual syndrome. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest also ate the berry, in particular saving it for winter food – like all of the family, flowering currant is rich in vitamin C. One method for doing this was to turn the pulp of the berries into something called fruit leather, thus avoiding the numerous annoying seeds. If you want to see how this is done, have a look at the Wild Harvests website here.

The caterpillars of many moths and butterflies will feed on flowering currant, but the confusingly-named spinach moth only eats the leaves of members of this family.

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=880141

The spinach moth(Eulithis mellinata) (Photo Two)

Plus many other moth caterpillars will also make an occasional meal of a currant, and I make no apology for this gratuitous picture of an ermine moth, one of my favourites.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Ermine Moth (Spilosoma lutea) (Photo Three )

It is said that birds will also eat the berries, although the ones in my garden are extremely picky and seem to prefer the (very expensive) suet pellets.In their native Pacific Northwest the flowers are a prime early nectar source for hummingbirds – the colour and shape of the flowers is a dead give away.

Photo Two by Andrew A Redding at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32933756594

Male Anna’s humminbird on flowering currant (Photo Four)

I had never made the link between the name ‘Ribena’ (the blackcurrant cordial) and the Ribes family, which proves that I am not always paying attention. Incidentally Suntory, the company that makes Ribena, has gotten itself into a whole heap of trouble after changing its formulation to try to avoid the UK sugar tax. The drink  now contains a heap of artificial sweeteners, which are also problematic as we know. There is a theory that, in addition to the various correlations between artificial sweeteners and diseases such as cancer, having too much of the stuff in your diet can screw up your glucose metabolism. So, maybe a reason to start making my own cordial  (though the only time that I have ever drunk Ribena was when I was six years old and ill in bed with a bilious attack).

Photo Two by By Patrice78500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22431600

Flowering currant berries (Photo Five)

In spite of its prettiness, bringing a bough of this shrub into the house seems to be considered unlucky all over the UK. Maybe it’s the smell of cats’ pee that does it.

And bringing it all together, as always, is Seamus Heaney. In his collection ‘Field Work‘ he writes of many things, one of them being his love for his wife. Have a look at this, both the close observation of the plant, and the skin, and the last two lines which, like the last line of a haiku, seem to leave a kind of silence.

IV

Catspiss smell
the pink bloom open
I press a leaf
of the flowering currant
on the back of your hand
for the tight slow burn
of its sticky juice
to prime your skin
and your veins to be crossed
criss-cross with leaf-veins

I lick my thumb
and dip it in mould
I anoint the anointed
leaf-shape. Mould
bloom and pigments
the back of your hand
like a birthmark
my umber one
you are stained, stained to perfection.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=880141

Photo Three Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Photo Four by Andrew A Redding at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32933756594

Photo Five by By Patrice78500 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22431600

 

 

A New Species!

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvatica)

Dear Readers, this little rodent is not actually  a ‘new’ species in the garden – I suspect that what with all the fallen bird seed, wood mice have been around for years. Plus, there are an estimated 30 million wood mice in the UK, making them commoner than either the rat or the house mouse. However,  this is the first time that a wood mouse in my garden has been bold enough to pop out in broad daylight. What a little sweetie s/he is! The eyes and ears are much larger than those of the standard house mouse, and the coat is a warm brown colour, shading to cream on the stomach. And yes, I know that s/he eats bulbs and seedlings and berries and nuts, but then s/he is a mouse, and I would expect a mouse to do such things. Plus, what with all the predators in the garden I will be very surprised if the poor little thing has a long life ahead (most wood mice do not survive for longer than a year). Furthermore, s/he occasionally eats snails, of which I have a wide variety in the garden. The mouse is living under the wooden steps which lead down to the pond (this makes the garden sound like some kind of stately home affair but I can assure you it isn’t). S/he runs out to the dropped seed under the feeder and leaps home at the slightest disturbance. The amount of febrile energy contained in that one small body is really something to witness.

Just a blur!

Wood mice don’t really hibernate, and I wonder if the cold winter has meant that this one has run out of her food store, and has become especially bold – normally wood mice are nocturnal. And with good cause, as everything loves a tasty wood mouse, though if a predator grabs the end of a wood mouse’s tail it will separate from the rest of the appendage, and will never re-grow.

In Ireland, it was believed that boiled mice were a cure for incontinence in children and for whooping cough. It was also believed that if you left a bucket of (presumably dead) mice for a year, and then smeared your head with the contents, it would cure your baldness, thus illustrating the lengths that some folk will go to to restore their hirsuteness. In fact, wood mice are not native to Ireland, and they probably came to the country with mesolithic settlers about 8,000 years ago. There is also genetic evidence that some of the mice came over with the Vikings from Scandinavia, as they are more closely related to mice from this area than from the UK. I suspect that they were often harvested along with the grain that they fed upon, and took up residence wherever they arrived.

Because they are such tasty morsels, wood mice tend to forage small, covered areas close to their nests. They may pick up bright objects, such as berries, and leave them as ‘road signs’ so that they can quickly navigate their way home. These ‘signs’ are much less conspicuous to predators than scent marking would be – it’s easy to forget that cats and foxes also understand the signs left by other species. The only other mammal species in which this ‘waymarking’  behaviour has been observed is in humans. I sometimes wonder how many other facets of the natural world we are missing.

The only other time that I’ve met a wood mouse was when one used to pop into my brother’s living room. S/he would sit up on her haunches and look around hopefully, whiskers twitching. My brother took to leaving some custard creams in a little pile, and many an evening’s entertainment would be spent watching the wood mouse stashing what s/he couldn’t eat in various corners of the room. The lady who came in to do the cleaning was most unimpressed.

Wood mice can breed at any time in the warmer months, have multiple matings (so, as with cats, each offspring can have a different father) and have up to five babies after 25 days gestation. The babies themselves are sexually mature at 2 months. You can see how, if there weren’t predators about, there would soon be a whole lot of wood mice.

Photo One by By Rasbak, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3506465

Look at the whiskers! (Photo One)

Incidentally, if something has been eating all the pips from your strawberries and discarding the pulp, it’s probably a wood mouse – unlike other animals, they seem to prefer protein to sugar. Maybe it’s their action-packed lifestyle that does it.

Wood mouse illustration from the 1920 edition of Thorburn’s British Mammals

As you might expect, this attractive little creature has appeared in several children’s books. In the Brambly Hedge series by Jill Barklem, Lord Woodmouse is the head of Brambly Hedge, and is described as a ‘kind and knowledgeable mouse’. Jill Barklem teamed up with the Wildlife Trusts in 2015 to help teach children about the real life counterparts of her characters, and you can read all about them here. In the meantime, here is Lord Woodmouse in his best regalia.

Lord Woodmouse by Jill Barklem

In North America, Thornton W.  Burgess was a prolific nature-writer and conservationist who wrote dozens of books for children about the creatures of the continent. On the mouse front, there was ‘Whitefoot the Wood Mouse’, in which

The happy little creature finds the perfect spot in Farmer Brown’s barn, where he meets a friendly stranger, tumbles into a life-threatening situation, and learns the meaning of the word “trust.”

The North American wood mouse (or deer mouse) is not the same species as the European one that I have in my garden, but you can see the similarity.

Photo One by By 6th Happiness - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6861184

Deer Mouse (Peromysucus maniculatus) (Photo Two)

There is something about the miniature world of the mouse that is enchanting – the way that the plants must loom overhead like trees,  dewdrops appear the size of beach balls, the menacing size of crows and cats. No wonder mice feature so often in children’s stories, for I believe that most children often have an instinctive empathy with creatures that are as small and vulnerable as they are. And then there is the way that mice seem to live on a different timescale from us lumbering adults. They are like quicksilver, doing everything at double speed, their short lives packed with incident and drama. When I see ‘my’ mouse hurrying out to grab a sunflower seed before the collared doves find it, I cannot begrudge them a single moment in the spring sunshine. It will be all too brief.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Rasbak, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3506465

Photo Two by By 6th Happiness – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6861184