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there is beauty all around us

Category: Nature

MUSINGS ON CLIMATE CHANGE

Milan, 14 November 2018

I recently finished the three-week course which I give annually at Kyoto University, on sustainable industrial development – or rather, lack thereof. Summarizing rapidly, my thesis is that current patterns of industrial development, indeed current patterns of economic development as a whole, are fundamentally unsustainable, and that if we don’t change course soon climate change as well as various other attacks on our planetary ecosystems will lead to their collapse and this to the collapse of our civilizations. The rest of the course outlines how we might change direction.

For the students it’s an intensive course, but for me it’s not so intensive: two three-hour classes a week, plus a bit here and there. So I and my wife, who always accompanies me on these trips, have a lot of spare time on our hands. In past years, we’ve visited the city’s museums but none of the exhibitions this year grabbed our attention. The only exception was the Miho museum, which we had discovered last year. It had a strange (well, to us strange) exhibition, obsessively focused on bamboo tea scoops, used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony to scoop powdered green tea out of its holder and transfer it to the pot of hot water. We see one here together with its bamboo holder.

Seeing one or two tea scoops is OK, but after the sixth or seventh my interest began to pall; yet this exhibition must have had a hundred of the things. Nevertheless, the building itself and the permanent exhibition was definitely worth another visit. I refer interested readers to an earlier post of mine on this museum.

We’ve also visited all the temples in and around Kyoto (and one year even took in the temples at nearby Nara), so by now we’re pretty much templed out. The only exception this year, because it continues to fascinate, was the Fushimi Inari shrine with its long avenues of torii gates snaking their way up and down the hill at whose feet the shrine stands.


Climbing up through all those torii gates was also useful exercise for us, helping as it did to maintain our fitness in readiness for the week-long walk we were booked in to do after I’d finished my course (and which, with a bit of luck, will be the subject of a future post).

In fact, walking the hills ringing Kyoto became the focus of much of our attention this year. Through serendipity we discovered a network of trails in those hills, and in the days I wasn’t teaching we would set off to explore them. They were quite hard going, their navigation not made easier by the many trees which this summer’s severe typhoons had brought crashing down over the trails. The typhoons were unusually severe this year in Kyoto, as was the summer in general; the climate change I was talking to my students about is making summers hotter and extreme weather events all the more extreme.


Luckily, many sections of the trails were easier on the legs, and it was on one of these sections, as we rounded a corner, that we suddenly found ourselves on the edge a steep wooded slope carpeted by intensely green ferns.


I have a great fondness for ferns. Partly it’s because of their innate elegance.

Partly it’s because of the beauty of young ferns as they uncoil.

Partly it’s because of their great age; as I have written in previous posts, I have a soft spot for those very ancient species which have survived to the present time.

Ferns first appear in the fossil record during the Carboniferous period, some 300 million years ago. The first evidence of ferns related to several modern families appeared in the Triassic period, some 250 million years ago. The great fern radiation occurred 70 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period, when many modern families of ferns first appeared. I should point out that in all these periods, CO2 levels were far higher than they are now. No doubt when that climate change I was talking to my students about, induced by rapidly increasing levels of CO2, brings our civilizations to their knees and wipes us out as a species ferns will once more conquer the world. Who laughs last laughs longest.

________________________________

Pictures: all ours, except:
fern elegance: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/ferns/structure.shtml
fern uncoiling: https://www.bestphotosworld.com/15-lovely-unfurling-ferns/
fossil fern: http://www.tiedyedfreaks.org/ace/natural/natural.html

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 1.3kg, 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire around Hangzhou, known to us as the Southern Song. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

AUTUMN CROCUSES

Milan, 1 October 2018

We’ve had a hot, hot summer this year in Vienna, with very little rain. It seemed as if the summer was never going to end. But then, quite suddenly, it did. We had three days of heavy rain in the first week of September and summer’s back was broken. Temperatures tumbled overnight, as they can in this part of the world, by 10-15 degrees. The rains passed, the sun shone again, but now there was an autumnal chill in the air.

This weather pattern has been a godsend to mushroom pickers. I had lunch with an old colleague a week or so after the rains. He and his wife are dedicated mushroom pickers. As we tucked into our Wiener schnitzels, he told me that this year it was like manna from heaven: mushrooms were popping up everywhere. They had picked and pickled enough steinpilze to last them through to next September, he exclaimed, with a dreamy look in his eye. For those of my readers who are also into eating mushrooms, steinpilze are penny buns in English, although nowadays I suspect many people know them by their Italian name porcini. I throw in a picture of this delicacy in its natural state.

Even my wife and I, who like the occasional mushroom but are definitely not aficionados, had noticed on our last walks in the Vienna woods a sudden profusion of mushrooms everywhere we looked. But since neither of us would know a steinpilz from a eierschwammerl (chanterelle in English – actually French, but the Brits seem to have adopted the name), we did not dare to collect any: stories from our youth of whole families wiped out from eating the wrong mushrooms continue to resonate.

What my wife and I really noticed on our late-September walks were the Autumn crocuses. The Vienna woods are dotted with meadows large and small.

I think most of them were created for a very utilitarian purpose. During the hunting season, they allowed a clear shot of any poor beast which made the mistake of breaking cover, and in fact many of the meadows have a hide at one end.

But at this time of the year, a good number of the meadows are speckled with Autumn crocuses. We came across a particularly lovely display on a walk we did behind Klosterneuburg, the little town on the Danube to the north of Vienna clustered around its venerable monastery. We climbed the ridge which abuts the town, pausing to catch our breath, admire the surrounding vineyards, and take this photo of the monastery below us.

We then walked a long way along the ridge, on the suitably named Lange Gasse, Long Lane.

We ambled on through some woods, and then suddenly found ourselves in this meadow. It was carpeted with Autumn crocuses.

Crocuses are really lovely little flowers, so delicate, so tender. A much better photographer than I posted this close-up photo of an Autumn crocus, which shows off to perfection its subtle traits.

When I was growing up in the UK, Spring crocuses were my delight, beautiful in and of themselves but also a harbinger of the Spring and daffodils to come, banishing the grey cold of Winter. But in Vienna, it is the Autumn crocus which dominates, a last extravagant splurge by Nature before Winter starts closing in.

Like the birds whose inner clock tells them in August that it is time to fly south

the Autumn crocuses told my wife and I that the moment had come for us to migrate down to Italy. And so we have packed our bags, flown across the Alps, and are now ensconced in Milan for the winter.

___________________________

Steinpilze: https://apollo.tvnet.lv/5095184/senu-trakums
Meadow in wood: https://www.bundesforste.at/nc/produkte-leistungen/jagd/jagdreviere/detail.html?tx_jagd_dfb%5Brevier%5D=3&tx_jagd_dfb%5Baction%5D=show&tx_jagd_dfb%5Bcontroller%5D=Revier&cHash=36e512ac3435f6026d5490ce7c4e6882
Klosterneuburg: our pic
Lange Gasse: our pic
Autumn crocuses in a meadow: our pic
Autumn crocus close up: https://www.gardeningexpress.co.uk/colchicum-autumnale-autumn-crocus
Birds heading south: http://www.nhpr.org/post/heading-south-bird-migration-and-human-impact#stream/0

NETTLES

Vienna, 25 September 2018

On the walks which my wife I have been enjoying this summer in the Wiener Wald, Vienna’s woods, we have from time to time come across nettles along the side of the path. Here’s a picture of one large patch which we came across recently.

Whenever I see nettles, I instinctively move to one side and slow to a deliberate pace to make sure that I don’t get stung by the little bastards. I suppose that those of us who live in parts of the world where stinging nettles flourish – and that’s pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa – have learned the necessary defensive tactics to adopt in order to avoid being stung, probably learned the hard way after ill-fated encounters with the plant when we were young and innocent of the evil ways of the world. To be fair to the nettle, I should note in passing that not all nettles sting; there is one species, the fen nettle, which is stingless. I read that it is a European species. I suppose I have never been to those parts of Europe where it grows, which is a great pity.

The stinging sensation comes from the plant lathering biochemical irritants on your skin, such as histamine, serotonin, and choline, and from its tiny sharp hairs piercing your skin – look at those nasty little buggers, glitteringly evil and just waiting to slice into you!

The result is, of course, those horribly itchy, hot, blotches on your skin.

Poor kid, I feel so much for him! I say this because I have a particularly painful memory from when I was a Boy Scout; I must have been 11 or 12. We had gone off on our annual week’s camp, and two groups of us found ourselves one afternoon at the bottom of a hill thickly covered with bushes, long grass, brambles – and large swathes of nettles. We made a bet as to who could arrive at the top first. For some reason, I found myself at the head of our group and so had the task of hacking a path through the wilderness. At some point, taken by a sort of frenzy, I charged ahead with minimal covering of my exposed limbs. We arrived first at the top, but by then my arms were covered with nettle welts. At first, the congratulations of my group members made up for the pain, but after a while the pain dominated my thinking. I stiffened my trembling upper lip, though, and carried on. I was a Boy Scout, after all. But the memory of the pain has lingered on all these years.

Well, I was a boy then and my behaviour can be put down to juvenility. But in preparing this post I have learned that there are actually adults who run through nettles! There is a race in the UK, called the Tough Guy Nettle Warrior contest, where the contestants not only run through nettle patches but also through fire, and through wires delivering electric shocks. They also do more mundane things like race up and down steep hillsides, run in and out of muddy ditches, clamber up 15ft rope nets, and worm their way under barbed wire perilously close to their face. Here we have them running through the nettles.

Well, all I can say is, there is one born every day.

The nettle doesn’t even have a nice flower or yummy fruit to offset its nasty stinging habits. The bramble, for instance, which is also a mean son-of-a-bitch to fall into or to traverse, has both. Does the nettle have any redeeming features? Well, it seems it does have one or two, none of which, I have to say, I have experienced personally. So I can only pass on what I’ve read.

You can eat nettles. If you’re a masochist, you can eat them by entering the World Nettle Eating Championships, another competition held annually in the UK. Competitors are served 2-foot long stalks of stinging nettles from which they pluck and eat the leaves. After an hour the bare stalks are measured and the winner is the competitor with the greatest accumulated length of stripped nettle stalks. Here we see the competitors at work.

The men’s champion in 2017 munched his way through 70 feet of nettles …

It takes all sorts to make the world, they say.

If, like me, you are not into self-harm, you can cook the nettles first; that takes their sting away. I’ve often heard of nettle soup, although not only have I never tried it but I’ve never met anyone who has. Here is a Swedish recipe for this soup (nässelsoppa in Swedish, in case readers visiting the country want to ask for it). For some reason, I sense that the Swedes make a “purer” version of it than others; I mean, isn’t Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you are served pickings from field and forest, just across the waters, in Copenhagen? (and they serve nettles in various forms, according to one blogger who ate there)

  1. Pick the nettle leaves – WITH GLOVES! Pick the top four or six leaves on each spear, they are the most tender.
  2. Clean the leaves well of any grass and beasties which you might have unintentionally picked up as well.
  3. Blanch the nettle leaves, and then strain them from the liquid. Don’t throw away the liquid!
  4. Make a roux with butter and flour. Pour the water in which the nettles were blanched onto the roux.
  5. Chop the blanched nettle leaves very finely, along with the other ingredients, which typically include chives (or ramson or garlic), and chervil or fennel. Or you purée them, although this must be a modern alternative, born with the advent of mechanical blenders.
  6. Put the chopped (or puréed) nettles and herbs into the nettle water-roux mixture. Bring to a boil and then leave to simmer for a few minutes.
  7. Serve, with a sliced boiled egg and/or a dollop of fresh cream.

The result should look something like this.

Njut av! (which, if Google Translate got it right, is the Swedish for “Enjoy!” – although if Bergman’s films are anything to go by, the Swedes don’t enjoy much of anything)

I read that nettle leaves can also be consumed as a spinach-like vegetable, puréed, or added to things like frittate or vegetable and herb tarts (the latter being a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe; not a word about nettles in Jamie Oliver’s recipes). It is also an ingredient in herbal teas. And of course – but here we are drifting into Medieval beliefs (literally) – nettles have been used as traditional medicine to treat a wide spectrum of disorders: disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza, and gout. Take your pick. Or if you have rheumatism you can have someone flog you with nettles. In preparing this post, I came across a report by someone in the UK who had himself flogged with nettles for his bad back.

Whatever takes your fancy … (my country is full of some really strange people – no wonder it voted for Brexit).

You can also make a linen-like textile with nettles; the plant’s fibres have very similar properties to flax and hemp (and I need hardly mention that the processing of nettles into textiles eliminates their stinging properties). In fact, in Europe, our ancestors were making nettle textiles at least 2,800 years ago. A piece of textile from a Bronze Age burial in Denmark, a photo of which I insert here, has been identified as made of nettles.

The clever scientists involved in the research have gone one step further and figured out that these particular nettles came from Steiermark, which in today’s political geography is in southern Austria, just down the road from where I am sitting writing this. They argue, with some justification it seems to me, that if this textile made its way from southern Austria to Denmark it must mean that nettle textiles were considered a luxury item in the Bronze Age. Quite why this is so is not clear to me, however. Nettles grow in Denmark too, so what was so extraordinary about nettle textiles made in southern Austria? I guess we will never know.

After the advent of cotton, nettles fell out of favour, along with flax and hemp. There were moments, when wars made access to cotton difficult, when the use of nettle textiles was revived. It seems that one such moment was in France during the Napoleonic wars, when the UK’s maritime blockade meant that France’s access to cotton was restricted. So perhaps La Vieille Garde, Napoleon’s elite troops, about which we heard so much during our visit to the battlefield of Waterloo, wore uniforms made from nettles?

The Germans too, it seems, made use of nettle textiles in their soldiers’ uniforms during World War I, again because the UK’s blockade cut off the country’s supplies of cotton.

Nowadays, it’s niche designers who are making clothes from nettles, promoting their greenness and sustainability. Here are a couple photos of such clothes which I found during a random surf of the web.


There seems to be a whiff of the alternative lifestyle here. We appear to still be a long way from mainstream clothes being made of nettles. But the EU, I read, is deadly serious about trying to promote a greater use of nettles, as well as of flax and hemp, as an alternative to cotton, both as a stab at greater sustainability and as a way of getting farmers to grow more non-agricultural crops, thus reducing Europe’s over-production of food while still maintaining farmers’ incomes. Perhaps fields of nettles like this will soon become common.

As an environmentalist, I of course would welcome this move towards more local production – but I would agitate for a law making signs like this a legal requirement, upon pain of the farmer being flogged with his produce if he fails to put them up.

28/9/2108: POSTSCRIPTUM

After I had posted this, an old friend of mine quickly reminded me that nettles also play a very important role in supporting butterflies, or rather the caterpillars which will become butterflies; these critters will happily feed on the leaves. Suitably chastened, I did a quick search and found a page on the Woodland Trust site which explained this important nettle-butterfly nexus. To make amends, I add here pictures of those butterflies most commonly associated with nettles.

The small tortoiseshell:

The peacock:

The red admiral:

The comma:

The painted lady:

The Woodland Trust exhorts gardeners to keep that patch of nettles which they have in their gardens, to help the butterflies. Hmm, I wonder if the fen nettle would support these butterflies? If yes, I’m all in favour of it. We would have a win-win situation here: supporting our beleaguered butterfly populations but not risking getting stung in our own gardens.
_______________________

Nettles on our walks: my pic
Nettle hairs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica
Nettle rash: http://blog.shopprice.co.nz/10-health-benefits-of-stinging-nettle/
Running though nettles: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2021411/Tough-Guy-Nettle-Warrior-4-000-endure-cross-country-hell-Britains-bizarre-races.html
Nettle eating championship: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/world-nettle-eating-championships-held-8246974
Nettle soup: http://www.swedishfood.com/swedish-food-recipes-starters/92-nettle-soup
Flogging with nettles: https://wildfoxwildfire.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/how-i-fixed-my-bad-back-using-stinging-nettles/
Bronze Age textile from Denmark: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3460533/
Member of the Vieille Garde: http://www.wikiwand.com/hr/Grenadir
German soldier WWI: https://www.quora.com/Why-were-Germans-called-Jerry-in-WWI
Nettle wrap: https://www.etsy.com/listing/590489032/grounding-nettle-wrap?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-7
Nettle man’s vest: https://www.etsy.com/listing/280624084/mens-vest-handwoven-nettle-fabric?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-13
Field of nettles: https://herbaloo.org/experimence/the-nettles-experiment/
Stinging nettle sign: https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/nettle-dandelion-greens-mint-soup-recipe-nettle-tea/
Butterflies: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2016/05/butterflies-need-nettles/

MARSH HORSETAIL

Vienna, 25 August 2018

I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog. Maybe it’s because I’m British – well, half British. When I was young, it used to be said that fighting for the underdog was a distinctively British trait, the prime example always given being the UK indignantly declaring war on Germany in 1914 to protect poor little Belgium. Given our history as the biggest colonialist power of all time, I find this claim a little hard to swallow. Still, I offer it as a possible explanation. Or maybe it’s because of all the years I spent working in the UN – its main job seems to be to stand up for the downtrodden of this world, as typified by the main slogan of its new Sustainable Development Goals: “No-one left behind”. Of course, there are those who would point out the rather large gap between the UN’s rhetoric and its actions … Or perhaps working for more years than I care to remember in the environmental field has made me intensely aware of the wholesale destruction that our species is raining down on every other hapless species that co-exists on this planet of ours.

Whatever the reason, I am, as I said, a sucker for the underdog. This tendency of mine to root for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” (to cite the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty) extends to the biological world. Simply put, I have a soft spot for really old species which once flourished on our planet but which for various reasons have been overtaken by other species and often thrust into small niches where they eke out a continued precarious existence. I was recently reading with sadness and indignation about the coelacanth, a fish older than the dinosaurs, which has managed to hang on 400 million years but whose last known representatives in waters off South Africa are now threatened by oil and gas drilling.

I have written in the past in these posts about the ginkgo. 150 million years or so ago, it was a thriving family of some eleven species but is now represented by only one, the ginkgo biloba, which has managed to hang on, simply because of the kindness of Buddhist monks it would seem.

I have also written about dragonflies, which first appeared in the fossil record some 325 million years ago. To be fair, they seem to be in quite a healthy state, represented as they are still by some 3,000 species. But there was a time when very large dragonflies with wingspans of 70 centimeters buzzed around – shrinkage seems to be the fate of species under attack.

The walks which my wife and I have been taking this summer in the Vienna woods (training for a long walk we will be undertaking in Japan in November) have brought me face to face with another such biological relic, the marsh horsetail.


Immediately I saw it, I sensed that I was in front of something very ancient. And indeed I was. Ancestors of the marsh horsetail and its brethren (there are some fifteen species still in existence) once dominated the understory of the forests in the late Paleozoic period some 300-350 million years ago, the time when many of our coal beds were being laid down – no doubt many a kilo of coal owes its existence to horsetail ancestors ringing down the curtain in those steamy Paleozoic forests. Here is the ghost of one such ancestor, caught in the fossil record.

And I show here an artist’s illustration of what these forests might have looked like.

Sic transit gloria mundi, “Thus passes the glory of the world”, I am fond of muttering at such moments, while my wife rolls her eyes at the oft repeated phrase.

Another name, at least in English, for the marsh horse tail is bottle-brush. I think readers will agree that it does indeed have a passing resemblance to a bottle brush. I throw in a picture here of such a brush for confirmation.

There was a time when I was very familiar with the shrunken version of the bottle brush, the test-tube cleaner. That was during the years when I spent a lot of time in chemistry labs, thinking that chemistry was the life for me. But it was not to be.

While the marsh horsetail could never actually be used to clean bottles, until quite recently one of its cousins, the shaving-rush horsetail, was used as sandpaper.

As my wife and I have noticed, this particular horsetail currently is becoming popular as a plant in public spaces, along house boundaries, used almost as a fence.

But since the plant contains high levels of crystalline silica, which is what coats sandpaper, our more practical ancestors used it to sand down furniture. Given our recent museum-soaked trip to the Netherlands, where we saw numerous paintings of homely scenes hanging on various walls, I was moved to find a painting from the Dutch Golden Age of a cabinet maker at work. This is the best I could find, a painting of a still life of musical instruments on a piece of furniture, all of which would have required fine sanding in their making. The painter is Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten.
Well, as temperatures have soared this summer in Europe, generating much anguished comment that finally we are faced with the evidence of climate change when it is too late to really do anything about it, perhaps the marsh horsetail and its brethren are cheering us stupid humans on. I’m sure that a world where average global temperatures are 2oC and more higher will be very agreeable to them and once again they will be able to flourish and kick out the upstarts, including us, which shoved them aside: he who laughs last laughs longest, as they say.

____________________

coelacanth: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/17/older-than-dinosaurs-last-south-african-coelacanths-threatened-by-oil-exploration
https://www.boredpanda.com/1400-old-ginkgo-tree-yellow-leaves-buddhist-temple-china/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic
ancient dragonfly: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragonfly#/media/File:Meganeura_monyi-Museum_Toulouse.png
marsh horsetails: my photos
horsetail fossil: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-fossil-horsetail-equisetum-italy-10869299.html
Paleozoic forest: https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Meganeura-Arthropleura-581872049
Scouring rush: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/grasses/plants/scouring_rush.htm
Scouring rush in public places: http://www.budgetplants.com/shrubs/accent/horsetail-equisetum-hyemale
Still life of musical instruments: https://pixels.com/featured/still-life-with-musical-instruments-pieter-gerritsz-van-roestraten.html

THE CHERRY, SWEET AND SOUR

Vienna, 20 July 2018

In one of my wanderings through the Vienna woods with my wife, I noticed a tree like this one growing along the side of the path.

The bark, with those typical striations, almost scarifications, suggested strongly to me that it was a cherry tree.

The leaves looked cherry-like too. There was a cherry-like fruits hanging on the branches, but they were really small.

Was this a cherry tree gone feral, I wondered?

Cautiously, oh so cautiously, I tried one of the fruits. There was hardly any pulp, although what there was tasted cherry-like. And the small seed looked cherry-like too. I pronounced to my wife, who was standing anxiously by, waiting for me to keel over from eating some deadly poison, that in my opinion we were standing before a wild cherry tree.

Now that I had noticed the tree, I began to see them everywhere along our walks – a nice change from the drifts of wild garlic. Later on, one of the entries along a little “Nature Walk” at Hermesvilla (a large country house built by Emperor Franz-Josef for his beloved Sissi on the outskirts of Vienna) informed me that these were indeed wild cherry trees. In German, they have a charming name, Vogel Kirsche, a name that Linnaeus echoed in the Latin name he gave it, Prunus avium. I say charming, because I can indeed imagine birds feasting on these small fruit. What a lovely banquet Nature has given them! Here, a clever photographer has caught one in the act.

I have since read that small mammals also eat them, spreading – like the birds – the seeds far and wide, this no doubt explaining why I was discovering the trees far and wide in the woods around Vienna.

When I was a much smaller mammal than I am now, I distinctly remember climbing into the cherry tree which my French grandmother had in a corner of her garden – a big, stately old tree which had been there many a-year – and scarfing down its plump purple cherries, spitting out the cherry seeds far and wide. Ah, how sweet those cherries were! Even now, fifty and more years later, I can remember their taste. So I salute the Lords of the Universe, who in their infinite wisdom created the Vogel Kirsche for the delectation of the Vogels and small mammals!

Well, after that flight of poetic fancy, let me return to earth and to a more sober turn of phrase. For those among my readers who are as interested as I am in etymology, it may interest them to know that the English word “cherry” derives from the Old Northern French or Norman word for the tree and fruit “cherise”, which itself is derived from the Latin word “cerasum”, which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Greek word “kerasous”. The etymology tracks the journey of the domesticated cherry tree into Europe.

Kerasous was actually the name of one of the Pontic Greek provinces lying on the southern shores of the Black Sea, east of Trebizond. It was here that the Greek world got to know the domesticated cherry tree that we are familiar with, with its much larger cherries than the tiny fruit of the wild cherry tree which I had nibbled at cautiously. Somewhere in the Anatolian highlands behind Kerasous, farmers had domesticated the wild cherry tree, patiently coaxing it over generations to deliver up bigger fruits more on the scale of us big mammals, and sweeter and juicier into the bargain.

I would assume that Ancient Greeks brought back some trees and planted them in the Greek heartlands. From there, I would have thought it no great flight of the imagination to think that the cherry tree spread to Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies that ran along the insole and heel of the Italian boot and the southern coasts of Sicily, and from there a skip, hop, and a jump would have brought the tree to the expanding Roman world.

Not so, according to Gaius Plinius Secundus, known to us as Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History

written in the late 70s AD, he holds that the cherry tree entered the Roman world in a much more Roman way, as spoils of war. In his words (translated, I hasten to add, by someone much more learned in Latin than I), “before the victory of L. Lucullus in the war against Mithridates, that is down to 74 BC, there were no cherry trees in Italy. Lucullus first imported them from Pontus”. Lucius Licinius Lucullus (to give the man his full name) was a Roman consul in the sunset years of the Roman Republic.

He was, it seems, a brilliant general. Among his other accomplishments, he comprehensively thrashed Mithridates, king of Pontus. In the process, he gained for himself untold riches in loot, which, along with the domesticated cherry tree, he brought back to Rome. He used his riches to live a life of luxury, something which was still frowned upon in Republican Rome but was to become the norm in Imperial Rome. Apart conspicuous consumerism (which included that typical expense of the Roman rich and powerful, the organization of extravagant games), Lucullus created a number of gardens, a fragment of one of which still exists in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome.

This was another “spoil” of war – Lucullus had picked up the Persian love of gardens during his Eastern campaigns; I have had cause to mention Persian gardens in an earlier post, in quite another context. No doubt it was in his gardens that he planted his imported cherry trees and invited the Roman rich and powerful to partake of its fruit. As might be expected, the fruit became incredibly popular and plantings of the cherry tree grew apace. As the Roman legions moved north carrying the Pax Romana and civitas with them, the administrators who followed carried along cherry trees to plant in the conquered lands. Citing Pliny again, “in 120 years they have crossed the ocean and got as far as Britain”.

Of course, strictly speaking Pliny was wrong when he said that there were no cherry trees in Italy before Lucullus brought them. There were, but of the type which I had come across in the Vienna woods. The natural habitat of Prunus avium stretches from Ireland to the Iranian Plateau.

Our ancestors were eating their little fruits at least two thousands years before Pliny wrote his Natural History – we know this because various Bronze Age sites across Europe have yielded up the tiny little stones – and no doubt Italian peasants were still eating them. But aristocrats like Pliny would surely not have deigned to touch such poor food – much as I do not touch the elderberries which currently weigh purple and heavy on their bushes here in Vienna but whose weak and watery taste I came to despise when I picked them as a schoolboy in the English hedgerows.

Coming back to Lucullus, he was also known for his eating habits. His over-the-top banquets in particular were to become legendary, giving rise to the English word “lucullan”, as in “that dinner was lucullan” meaning that it was particularly large, lavish, and ostentatious (I add this etymological factoid because my wife is fond of using the equivalent Italian word “luculliano” of certain meals; it might interest her to know its provenance). If I mention this aspect of Lucullus’s lifestyle it is because of a recent lunch – not lucullan but definitely many notches above the ordinary – which I shared with an old colleague. After a starter of marinaded char with beer radish, apple and woodruff, followed by a main dish of grilled sturgeon with baby kohlrabi, Risina beans, Meyer lemon and stewed onions, all washed down with a glass of white wine, we both took for dessert a curd-sour cherry tart with hay milk ice cream. It was actually that delicious sour cherry tart that precipitated this post, not my meeting in the woods with the wild cherry.

I must admit to having been a bit sneaky with my readers, having written up to now as if there were only one type of edible cherry. In fact, as all cherry lovers will know, there are two: the sweet cherry, Prunus avium, and the sour cherry, Prunus cerasus.

For the biologically-minded among my readers, it might interest them to know that P. cerasus is actually a hybrid between our friend P. avium and another species of cherry tree, P. fruticosa, or dwarf cherry. This friendly intermingling of genes must have occurred on the Iranian Plateau or in Eastern Europe where the two species’s natural habitats overlap. As its common name suggests, P. fruticosa is believed to have provided the sour cherry tree its smaller size, but it is also thought to be responsible for its tarter tasting fruit. It seems that the hybrids took on a life of their own (“stabilised”, I believe is the scientific word for this) and interbred to form a new, distinct species. The wonders of biology …

I can personally vouch to the smaller stature of the sour cherry tree and to the greater tartness of its fruit. As a young boy, staying at my French grandmother’s house over a summer holiday, it came to pass that my grandmother decided to visit a first cousin of hers who was staying in her country house some kilometers away. She took me and my sister along with her. It was a delightfully faded house with furnishings that were rather threadbare and old fashioned: my mother rather reluctantly inherited it many years later, commenting that it would be more work than it was worth. Having politely pecked the old lady on the cheek and suffered through comments about how much we had grown since last we had met, we were allowed to run off into the garden, leaving the two old biddies to settle down to a nice cup of tea and a gossip. In that garden, tucked away in a corner, we discovered this small tree covered with bright red cherries, all very easy to reach – no clambering up ladders into this tree. Alas! A couple of cherries were enough to dissuade me from going further. They were too sour for my little mouth. I was disconsolate, although when my grandmother took a large bag of the cherries back home with her, I realized that I had stumbled across the source of those fabulous cherries that filled glass jars such as this one which stood in serried ranks on a shelf in the cellar.

My grandmother made assiduous use of those cherries, baking tarts such as the one I had eaten in my non-lucullan but still exceedingly yummy lunch. Memories, memories …

Of course, we love cherries not just for their fruit but also for their flowers in Spring.

Here, the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have surpassed us all. They have taken their local species of cherry tree (I should note in passing that there are at least 60 species of cherry worldwide) and over the ages have coaxed them into giving fabulous blooms in Spring.

In turn, cherry blossoms have coaxed wonderful poems out of Asian poets. Here, for instance, is a short poem by the late 9th century Japanese poet Otomo no Juronushi.

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

While here we have Li Yu, terrible ruler (he was the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty in the late 10th century) but wonderful poet.

Beneath the moon, before the steps, all cherry blossom has fallen,
Enwreathed in smoke, she looks sorrowful lying in bed.
She feels the same regret today as one long year ago.
Both braids like cloud in disarray, her face is wan and sallow,
The crimson corset wet from wiping tears.
But what’s the reason why she suffers so?
She lies in a drunken dream before the window.

These biological wonders have been carried all over the world to amaze and delight. Many years ago, when we lived in Washington DC, we tried to see the cherry trees in bloom there.

But the crowds were so impossibly large that we beat a hasty retreat. I have a more intimate memory from my university days in Edinburgh. There was a little square, Nicolson Square, just across from the University Drama Society’s theatre space which I used to haunt. I would often pass through the square on my way to and from the other university buildings. It was densely planted along its sides with cherry trees which had an intensely pink flower. In the Spring it was a delight, as you walked first under sprays, then, as the petals fell, through drifts, of pink. This photo, from those years, gives a small idea of the loveliness.

That brief blaze of pink was a harbinger of the (weak) sun and (relative) warmth to come after the long, long, dark, dark, cold, cold months of the Scottish winter. And it always happened just when we had to hole up in the library to study for our end-of-year exams! Such is life …

__________________________

wild cherry tree: https://www.waldwissen.net/waldwirtschaft/waldbau/pflege/lwf_waldbau_vogelkirsche/index_DE
wild cherry tree bark: https://www1.wdr.de/verbraucher/wohnen/service-garten-borken-100.html
wild cherry fruit: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
bird eating cherries: https://www.fotocommunity.de/photo/kirschen-essen-vogel-chrisi-online/17347944
wild versus domesticated cherry: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
Pliny’s Natural History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Pliny)
Lucullus: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/vektor/lucius-licinius-lucullus-gm686730586-126174385
Villa Borghese gardens: http://www.garden.it/chicotti/i-giardini-segreti-di-villa-borghese-giardino-dei-fiori
Prunus avium range: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_avium
Sour cherry: https://gourmandistan.com/2012/05/20/short-sour-cho-chweet-cherry-season/
Glass jar full of cherries: http://lesgourmandesastucieuses.blogspot.com/2011/07/comment-conserver-vos-cerises-2eme.html
Cherry tree in bloom: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/fotos/wild-cherry-tree
Cherry trees blooming in Japan: https://www.redduckpost.com/cherry-blossoms-in-japan-can-you-rely-on-the-forecast/
Cherry trees blooming in Washington DC: https://washington.org/DC-guide-to/national-cherry-blossom-festival
Nicolson square: https://www.facebook.com/lostedinburgh/posts/nicolson-square-spring-1972-lovely/1530993553624989/

GERANIUMS – SORRY, PELARGONIUMS

Sori, 14 May 2018

I’ve written about cacti in an earlier post. In that case it was in a plug for more cactus growing in LA. The micro (really micro) climate on the balcony of our apartment at the sea, coupled with the long periods when no-one is here to water plants, also makes this an ideal space for cactus growing. My mother-in-law introduced cacti to the balcony several decades ago, and my wife expanded the collection by borrowing a few cacti from our next-door neighbour. However, I am saddened to report that a particularly harsh winter this year, when Jack Frost managed to lay his bony fingers on the balcony, has put paid to some of the cacti. We were faced with blackened cacti corpses when we arrived a few days ago and have been mournfully wondering what to do ever since. As part of this wondering, we visited the local flower shop, to see if they had any suggestions about how we might be able to breathe some life back into our blackened cacti – and to see if they sold any cacti should we decide that there was nothing for it but to replace them. The answer was negative in both cases.

In any event, as is usual in these cases the discussion went off on several tangents. For reasons which I can no longer remember now, one of these tangents was geraniums. I’m rather fond of geraniums. My mother had large beds (or what I remember as large beds) of geraniums in her garden in Eritrea, which the memory bank of my mind suggests looked something like this.

The bright red of the flowers pleased me no end – I suppose bright primary colours appeal to five and six year-olds – and I really liked the scent which emanated from broken leaves and stems. I must confess to having been a terror in the garden. I was not above decapitating flowers or casually tearing off leaves and stems. I must have driven my mother wild with my antics.

But coming back to our local flower shop: the lady in charge said that geraniums had a hard time in this climate because it was too humid. This rather surprised me, I thought that all geraniums needed was a lot of sun. I started looking around, and I discovered that it was indeed rare to see geraniums around here. Her comments also got me to engage in my favourite pastime: surfing the web to find out more about geraniums. I am ready to report back.

The first thing I discovered is that geraniums should not actually be called geraniums. Their correct name is pelargoniums. It seems that when the first pelargoniums were brought back to Europe in the 17th Century, gardeners thought they were cousins to the geraniums already present here. By the time botanists realized their mistake, it was too late. The name geranium has stuck. To make up for this mistake, let me throw in a picture here of one of the many real geraniums, the Geranium platypetalum.

The introduction of pelargoniums to Europe is the story of European colonization of the rest of the world. It was the Dutch who first brought pelargoniums back to Europe, after they had established themselves in what was to become Cape Town.

They, like European colonizers everywhere, looked around to see what plants they could find that might have a utility back home – and this included selling them to wealthy individuals who cultivated large gardens full of exotic plants. Over the years, they and the English who came after them found many different species of pelargonium in South Africa – some 90% of the 300 or so species in the family are to be found in South Africa. But I will concentrate here on the three pelargoniums which are the ancestors of pretty much all the pelargoniums we grow today.

There is Pelargonium inquinans, seen here in the wild

and here somewhat closer up.

There is Pelargonium zonale.

These two, hybridized together, have formed all the “common geraniums” or “zonal geraniums” which you will find in flower beds. My mother’s geraniums must have been of this type.

Then there is Pelargonium peltatum

which is the ancestor of all those “ivy-leaved geraniums” which trail delightfully from balconies such as the ones we shall shortly be seeing in Vienna and in every Austrian town and village.

As I said earlier, it was wealthy individuals with a passion for gardening who in the early decades of European colonization drove the domestication and spread of the myriad foreign plants which poured into Europe from every corner of the globe. In the pelargonium story, two in particular stand out. The first is the Right Reverend Henry Compton, Bishop of London.

Compton was born in 1632 into an aristocratic family, being the sixth and youngest son of the 2nd Earl of Northampton. At the age of 43 he was appointed, in short order, Lord Bishop of London, Dean of the Chapel Royal, and member of the Privy Council, and he was entrusted with the education of the two royal princesses, Mary and Anne, nieces of the King, Charles II. He clearly moved in high circles! His career suffered a dip when, ten years later, Charles’s brother, James II, acceded to the throne. Compton was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism. Consequently, James, a Catholic convert, relieved him of all his political positions. Luckily for him, James II lasted a mere six years before being ousted during the “Glorious Revolution” by James’s daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange (great-grandson of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, whom I mentioned in an earlier post). As might be expected, Compton fervently embraced the cause of William and Mary; in fact, he was one of the “Immortal Seven” who invited William to invade England. In recognition of his support, he got to perform the ceremony of their coronation (normally, this duty falls to the Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the-then Archbishop refused to take the oath to the new monarchs, so he was “deprived of his office”, i.e., was kicked out). The new monarchs also restored Compton to all his old political positions. And so Compton lived out the remaining 24 years of his life holding high religious and political offices (although, to his bitter disappointment, his hopes to become the Archbishop Canterbury were twice dashed). He died in 1713 at the ripe old age of 81.

Throughout all this political ferment, Compton managed to maintain a 36-acre garden at Fulham Palace, the country home of the Bishops of London, which stood on the edges of the Thames River.

The building still exists. The garden also still exists, though much reduced, and is a lovely corner of London.

Compton was an avid plant collector and was the first in Britain to grow many imported species. Because his diocese included the American colonies, his focus was very much on North America. He used his parish priests and missionaries in the colonies to send home seeds. Among other North American plants, he was the first in Europe to grow the Virginia Magnolia

the jacaranda

and the catalpa.

But Compton also built up a large collection of the-then rare pelargoniums, including Pelargonium inquinans pictured above. He probably was able to do this because through his support for William and Mary he had built up a good network of contacts in the Netherlands – remember that it was the Dutch, first settlers in Cape Town, who had sent the first pelargonium species back to Europe.

The second important early cultivator of pelargoniums was Mary Capell, daughter of Sir Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham, who through marriage became first Mary Seymour, Lady Beauchamp, and then, after her husband’s death and her remarriage, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. She was born two years before Henry Compton, in 1630. Here we have her with her sister Elizabeth – Mary is on the left of the painting.

Mary’s political vicissitudes started somewhat earlier than Henry Compton’s. Her father supported Charles I and lost his head for it, while her first husband, also a Royalist, was imprisoned. Her second husband successfully navigated the politically choppy waters of Cromwell’s Protectorate, during which he lost his titles, and ended up supporting the successful restoration of Charles II. The King eventually rewarded him with a Dukedom. He loyally supported James II but managed to avoid exile for this when William and Mary took the throne. He died in 1700 with his head still on his shoulders and none of his estates forfeited, which was pretty good going for a highly political man such as he. Mary was a loyal wife throughout all this, following him through all the twists and turns of his political fortunes and all the while bearing him six children. She survived her husband by fifteen years, dying in 1715 at the seriously old age of 84.

Mary began serious plant collection some ten years before her second husband died, and her interest in gardening intensified in her widowhood. She gradually accumulated one of the largest collections of exotic plants in England, with the support, it must be said, of some well-known gardeners. Through her aristocratic circles she traded and swapped in seeds (much like I did, in far less hallowed circles at primary school, in stamps). For instance, Compton sent specimens to his sister-in-law, Mary Compton, Countess of Dorset, who passed them on to Mary. But she also managed to have seeds sent to her from all the corners of Britain’s growing empire and trading interests: the West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan. In the specific case of pelargoniums, she too, like Compton, built up a large collection of them. She is credited with introducing into British gardens the other two pelargoniums of major interest which I mentioned above, Pelargonium zonale and Pelargonium peltatum. She did her plantings in the gardens of two houses owned by the Duke, Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. The Duke was rich enough and high enough in the aristocratic hierarchy to have Badminton House painted by Canaletto

although this more humble picture shows the all-important gardens as well as the house.

Badminton House still exists. Beaufort House does not. It was a large property in Chelsea, right on the Thames River – no doubt Mary could have gone to visit Henry’s garden by boat if she had wanted to (and maybe she did, for all I know).

Later urban developments wiped out the house and gardens, although Mary might be pleased to know that the Chelsea flower show takes place not too far from where she was – with the help of her gardeners – busily growing wondrous plants come from far and wide.

Well, while I have been whiling away my time researching this post, my wife has been busy and pulled out the dead cacti which started this post. We now have to decide what to put in the gaping holes which have been left. Not geraniums –  sorry, pelargoniums – dear! It’s too damp.

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Red “geraniums”: http://www.parkswholesaleplants.com/spring-plants/annuals-ai/geranium-zonal-americana-dark-red/
Geranium platypetalum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geranium#/media/File:Geranium_platypetalum1.jpg
Cape Town 1790s: http://www.artvalue.com/auctionresult–english-school-18-united-kingd-view-of-cape-town-with-table-m-1538907.htm
Pelargonium inquinans: http://natureswow2.blogspot.it/2013/10/scarlet-pelargonium-pelargonium.html
Pelargonium zonale: http://www.africanbulbs.com/page67.html
Pelargonium peltatum: https://kumbulanursery.co.za/plants/pelargonium-peltatum
Ivy-leaf “geraniums”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/226094843769770841/
Henry Compton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Compton_(bishop)
Fulham Palace: http://www.fulhampalace.org/palace/history/
Fulham Palace Gardens: https://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/2016/05/15/five-fabulous-london-gardens-to-visit-this-spring/
Virginia Magnolia: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/413627547007792612/
Jacaranda: https://www.pinterest.com/royaljewel36/jacaranda-trees/
Catalpa: http://www.7arth.com/?product=50-%D8%A8%D8%B0%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%A7
Mary and Elizabeth Capell: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Lely_portrait_of_Mary_and_Elizabeth_Capel.jpg
Badminton House by Canaletto: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canaletto_-_Badminton_House,_Gloucestershire.jpg
Badminton House: https://landscapenotes.com/2015/10/31/book-review-a-natural-history-of-english-gardening-by-mark-laird/
Beaufort House: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463518986626622713/

WALK THROUGH THE FIVE SORROWFUL MYSTERIES

Sori, 12 May 2018

As we usually do when we go down to the sea from Milan, we went for a walk yesterday up into the hills which in this part of the coast fall precipitously into the sea. This time, we decided to follow in our son’s footsteps who, when he had been here a couple of weeks ago, had climbed the hill behind the apartment up to the Chapel of the Holy Cross perched at its top. The chapel itself is not much to write home about, it’s actually closed most of the time. But from the little piazza in front of it one has a magnificent view over the sea, from Genova to the right to the Monte di Portofino on the left.

Suitably prepared, we made for the path which runs behind our apartment and takes the walker up to the small village of Pieve Ligure. After a last backward look down to our village

we headed up along the well-kept path that wended its way among houses

and small olive groves hugging the hill’s countours

(and, sadly, abandoned olive groves as well, one of which was the subject of a previous post)

to arrive finally in Pieve Ligure, whose little church with its baroque façade is always a pleasure to contemplate.

There, we had ourselves a well-earned cappuccino before heading on out of the village, past the butcher

and the baker

past the memorial to a Resistance fighter, who was captured near here by the Nazis and who died in a concentration camp (these hills crawled with Resistance fighters in the last years of the war).

Up to now, the walk had been a stroll, with the path only rising gradually as it snaked along the side of the hill. But now it was time to head pretty much straight up the hill. Up we toiled, as the houses alongside slowly disappeared to give way to olive groves. Finally, we left even these behind. We entered woods and the path finally became a real path of the hills, rocky, muddy, difficult to navigate.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, once upon a time in Italy paths like this leading to tops of hills, especially if chapels crowned them, were turned into Vie Crucis, Ways of the Cross. Pious villagers, with their parish priest at their head, would have climbed the paths at certain opportune moments in the liturgical calendar, like during Lent before Easter, and stopped to offer prayers at each of the fourteen Stations of the Cross built along the path (they would normally have enjoyed a nice picnic once they had reached the top of the hill). In this case, the path had been dedicated to the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and five memorials had been duly erected along the path. This is one of them.

At each of these, the parish priest would have announced the mystery to be contemplated and then led his parishioners in reciting the “Our Father”, ten “Hail Marys” and the “Glory be to the Father”, before moving on to the next memorial.

In my previous post on this topic, I had been happy to insert photos of the scenes beautifying the stations, prepared in ceramic in a slightly naïve style. But the scenes tacked onto these five memorials were horrible: plasticized posters of sucrose paintings. I will therefore replace them with five paintings by various Italian painters:

The Agony of Jesus in the Garden, here painted by Giovanni Bellini

The Scourging of Jesus, painted by Caravaggio

Jesus is Crowned with Thorns, painted by Orazio Gentileschi

Jesus Carries the Cross, painted by Tintoretto

Jesus Dies on the Cross, painted by Andrea Mantegna.

On we toiled up the hill

taking in the views across the valley

until we finally reached Santa Croce, the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

Having enjoyed the view

we settled down to a picnic. After which, we headed down the path on the other side of the hill

this time decorated with a standard stations of the cross (in this case the eleventh)

until we reached the even smaller village of San Bernardo, where we had a well-earned café macchiato.

______________________

Photos: mine (and one our son), except for:

Agony in the Garden, by Giovanni Bellini: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/giovanni-bellini-the-agony-in-the-garden
Scourging of Jesus, by Caravaggio: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2012/04/the-scourging-at-the-pillar.html
Crowning with Thorns, by Orazio Gentileschi: http://www.artfixdaily.com/artwire/release/6811-with-new-partners-and-expanded-purview-master-drawings-new-york-r
Jesus carries the Cross, by Tintoretto: https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Trial-of-Jesus-Carrying-the-Cross
Jesus dies on the Cross, by Andrea Mantegna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion_(Mantegna)

ORANGE CARROTS

Istanbul airport, 5 May 2018

I was in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, over the last few days, working with some old colleagues on supporting the government to develop a national action plan to minimize the effects on the population of the country’s pollution. Fascinating stuff, but not the subject of this post.

As part of the work, it was necessary to schmooze with the local diplomatic community, preparing the ground for future requests of assistance to deal with the country’s pollution. I therefore found myself one evening attending the event put on by the Dutch to celebrate the King’s National Day. As is customary on such occasions, the Dutch Ambassador made a speech, thanking us for coming, listing the important Dutch-Kyrgyz partnerships, and of course – given the occasion – mentioning the Royal family. He did so in an interesting way. Having mentioned partnerships in the agricultural field, he segued smoothly from this to inform those of us who didn’t know it that carrots were orange because patriotic Dutch farmers had selectively bred this root crop to turn it orange, in honor of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, patriarch of the Dutch Royal family.

Well! This was interesting indeed. As anyone who has even a passing interest in sporting events knows, the Dutch national color is indeed orange.


And this patriotic show of orange is indeed linked to William the Silent’s feudal title of Prince of Orange, although the orange in this case is the pretty little town of Orange in southern France, which was William’s fiefdom (and an old Roman city).

But to say that Dutch farmers had turned carrots orange as a patriotic gesture … Such is the dominance of orange carrots in our supermarkets, groceries, and farmers’ markets that it had never, ever occurred to me that carrots could have been anything but orange!

In other posts, I have demonstrated my interest in the humble history of vegetables. The Ambassador had now given me a wonderful opportunity to study the history of the carrot. So these last few days I have been spending time which I should have been more usefully devoting to the pollution problems of Kyrgyzstan to happily digging into the carrot’s history instead. I am now ready to report back.

The first thing I have to say is that the Ambassador was indeed correct in his basic contention, that Dutch farmers had turned the carrot orange. This happened in the 17th Century and, for reasons that I shall explain in a minute, the orange carrot took over the carrot world. But first let me throw in some pictures of different colored carrots:
Purple carrots


Yellow carrots

Red carrots

White carrots

Black carrots, even!

Here we can see all these different carrots in glorious technicolour.

Personally, I have never seen any of these. I suppose they are like heirloom tomatoes: there are some enthusiastic aficionados out there who are growing these in their vegetable plots and trading seeds with other carrot enthusiasts. Perhaps one day, like I’ve seen in upscale Californian supermarkets, there will be a corner of the vegetable section devoted to these – to my eye – strange and wonderful carrots.

But why did the Dutch farmers breed these orange carrots? Here, I have to say that, with all due respect to his august person, the Ambassador seems to have got it wrong (along with 99% of the Dutch population). The farmers did not do it to honor William the Silent and his House of Orange. They were looking to breed carrots which were sweeter and whose core was smaller and less woody. The root of wild carrot is actually quite bitter, so since time immemorial farmers had been trying to breed the bitterness out of the root, and as anyone knows who has eaten a big and mature carrot, its core can take up a good part of the carrot and be disagreeably tough to eat.

It just so happened that the carrot they bred was orange. I suppose the carotene which gives the carrot its color also gives it its sweetness. It was only later generations of Dutch who saw the political dimension of the carrot’s color, and actually saw it in a negative sense. Dutch burghers of strong Republican sentiment frowned upon carrots because of their too Royal orangeness – in their Republican zeal they also went after other orange plants, discouraging the planting of marigolds for instance.

Another example of the politics of color.

Before I leave orange carrots, I should report that analysis of carrot genomes strongly suggest that the Chinese independently bred orange carrots. It pleases me no end to know this, because in my years in China I was always puzzled by Chinese carrots. They somehow seemed different from the European carrots that I was familiar with. I throw in a picture of Chinese carrots to show what I mean.

They are a darker orange – the fact that the Chinese obtained the orange color by changing different genes from the ones which give European carrots their orange color probably explains this. And they were much stockier than European carrots, a fact that I put down to the Chinese breeding carrots more as animal feed (like the wonderfully named mangelwurzels) than as human food.

I could not resist the temptation of using this research into the orangeness of carrots to carry out research into the broader history of the carrot. It turns out that the wild carrot is at home in Central Asia – so it is indeed apposite that this little piece of research was kicked off by a chance remark made in Kyrgyzstan, which happens to be one of the homes of the wild carrot. For those of my readers who, like me, have never seen a wild carrot, I throw in a picture.

It seems that its root is bitter and woody, but I suppose that hunger makes one tolerant of not-so-tasty food – better than having nothing in one’s stomach. The wild carrot, perhaps in some domesticated form, was carried far and wide from its Central Asian homeland. Carrot seeds have turned up in archaeological digs of prehistoric lake dwellings in Switzerland.

The Babylonians knew of it; it is mentioned in a cuneiform tablet listing the plants growing in the garden of King Marduk-apla-iddina (King Merodach-baladan in the Old Testament).

Seemingly, the Egyptians knew of it, although the evidence is rather weak. The Greeks and the Romans knew of it. But in all these cases, it seems that it was the leaves and seeds which they were interested in; the root was too bitter. They used the root or the seeds for medicinal purposes and ate the leaves much as we would eat spinach (I am reminded of a story my mother used to tell us young children, of how during the War, when she was trapped in occupied France, one could not find carrots in the market. Only the leaves were on sale. She and her mother made do and ate those – better than having nothing in one’s stomach).

All this time, our ancestors were tinkering with this foodstuff as they were tinkering with all their foodstuffs. Finally, possibly as early as the 6th Century, one or more farmers somewhere in today’s Iran and Afghanistan bred a carrot with a sweeter, less woody, more edible root. This plant was destined to become the ancestor of all modern carrots. From there, the seeds were carried by passing traders and travelers both east and west, no doubt along the Silk Roads which I have had cause to mention in earlier posts. In the case of its carriage to the west, Arab traders seem to have been the vector after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th Century, much as was the case for the lilac bush, the subject of an earlier post. More tinkering and crossbreeding took place in today’s Turkey before a carrot with an even more edible root continued on its journey to Europe. It arrived there in the 10th Century, eventually ending up in Northern Europe in the 13th Century. It came in two colours, yellow and purple, with a rarer white variety thrown in. For some reason, the Dutch got heavily into carrot production and the rest is orange history.

Since the Dutch started this post, let me finish by throwing in some of those still lives so beloved by the Dutch, of kitchens full of vegetables and fruit. Normally, I pass these over with a yawn (I have never understood our ancestors’ fascination with this type of paintings), but it seems appropriate to admire them in this case. I invite my readers to locate the carrot in each of the paintings.



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William the Silent: https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Death-of-William-the-Silent
Dutch football players: http://www.football-oranje.com/sweden-v-netherlands-match-preview/
Dutch fans: http://www.newsweek.com/dutch-men-latvian-women-are-tallest-world-study-483868
The city of Orange: http://be.france.fr/fr/a-decouvrir/orange
orange carrots: https://www.well-beingsecrets.com/health-benefits-of-carrots/
purple carrots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU03lczH6mk
yellow carrots: https://www.bukalapak.com/p/hobi-koleksi/berkebun/benih-tanaman/fs8sg5-jual-biji-2-benih-wortel-kuning-yellow-carrot
Red carrots: http://www.gardenpicsandtips.com/18-vegetables-that-are-colorful-and-worth-eating/2/
White carrots: http://blue-myhanh.blogspot.com.tr/2014/08/khi-trai-cay-co-mau-khac-voi-chung-ta.html
Black carrots: https://www.amazon.co.jp/%E8%BE%B2%E6%A5%AD%E5%B1%8B-%E3%81%AB%E3%82%93%E3%81%98%E3%82%93-%E7%A8%AE-%E3%83%96%E3%83%A9%E3%83%83%E3%82%AF%E3%82%AD%E3%83%A3%E3%83%AD%E3%83%83%E3%83%88-%E5%B0%8F%E8%A2%8B%EF%BC%88%E7%B4%84300%E7%B2%92%EF%BC%89/dp/B00NHD5BCY
Carrot spectrum: http://sezahrana.tumblr.com/page/130
Split carrot: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Marigold: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Chinese carrot: https://www.pinterest.com/kurskinlab/spa-men/
Wild carrot: https://myediblebackyard.net/2014/05/02/wild-carrot/
Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_prehistoric_lake_dwellings._Wellcome_M0015374.jpg
Cuneiform tablet: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3066115&partId=1&searchText=Merodach-Baladan+II&view=list&page=1
Pieter Aersten, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary: https://www.tumblr.com/search/christ%20in%20the%20house%20of%20mary%20and%20martha
Anonymous, Kitchen scene in Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html
Pieter Cornelizs. Van Rijk, Kitchen Scene: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html

CACTUS RULES, OK!

Los Angeles, 19 April 2018

As we did last year, during our latest stay in Los Angeles my wife and I visited the old house and grounds of Arabella and Henry Huntington, now the grandly-named Huntington Library, Arts Collection, and Botanical Gardens. The arts collection, which we visited thoroughly last year, is well worth a visit. It holds some very famous pieces of European art, such as the Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough.

It also has a really great collection of American art, especially early American art, holding this piece for instance.

But this year we ignored the art and headed for the gardens. Because the gardens are equally wonderful. During their lifetimes, the Huntingtons had already laid out several gardens around the house. One was a traditional rose garden (primarily so that Arabella Huntington could fill the house with cut roses). Henry Huntington also started a camellia garden along the edges of the Vista which the couple created in front of the house. He also surfed what was then a popular trend and created a Japanese garden. He was also an admirer of palm trees, so he started a palm garden. And after some prodding from his head gardener, he agreed to start a desert garden. The same head gardener, presumably with Mr. Huntington’s approval, also installed lily ponds in an unsightly corner of the garden.

Some of these original gardens have been expanded over the years, while new gardens have been added: a Chinese garden, a semi-tropical garden, a tropical (“jungle”) garden, and an Australian garden (along with a couple of much smaller gardens: a herb garden and a Shakespeare garden, the latter housing all the plants mentioned in one way or another in Shakespeare’s works). All in all, this complex of gardens give the visitor a taste of the sights and scents of many of the world’s biomes (they also give people a lovely scenography for picnics and general lazing around on lawns).

The desert garden is what interests me today. As we wandered the paths which crisscross it, we marveled at the wonderful cacti and succulents which populate this garden. We are not the only ones to have been struck by them. I throw in here some of the better pictures which other visitors have posted on-line.



If I focus on the desert garden rather than on any of the other gardens at the Huntington it is because of water, or rather – in this part of the world – the lack of it. As most people probably know, Los Angeles and southern California in general is a semi-desert; in fact, the region wouldn’t have been able to develop nearly as much as it has if its politicians hadn’t managed to filch large amounts of water from the northern part of the State. But this grand water larceny has only put off the day of reckoning. Southern California is running out of water. Something must be done to contain water use.

Under the circumstances, it makes eminent sense for everyone in this city who has a garden to stop planting water-thirsty plants, especially those lawns so beloved by Americans. Here are a few prime examples from the swank properties surrounding the Huntington.


The Huntington itself has its fair share of thirsty lawns.


To their credit, the people running the Huntington are now pushing the idea that Angeleno gardeners should opt for water tolerant plants in their gardens. And what the desert garden shows is that a garden of cacti and succulents can be every bit as beautiful as a traditional garden. These poor plants get a lot of bad press, probably because of the spines which most cacti sport and perhaps because they can often look somewhat bedraggled. Certainly, it seems that Mr. Huntington’s initial reluctance to have a desert garden had to do with unspecified bad memories of run-ins with prickly pear cacti from the days when he was building his uncle’s railroads across the country. My guess is that his horse threw him into a patch of prickly pear – but that’s only a guess.

As we walk around the city, my wife and I notice an encouraging trend towards more cacti and succulents in gardens and public spaces.


Among all the drought-tolerant plants on show, the one I am most fond of is this one, which I have been seeing a good deal of this year.  This example, for instance, graced a space near a bus stop which we were waiting at.
These examples, instead, are part of a more general planting of cacti and succulents which we have often been walking by as we stroll along the boardwalk at Venice Beach.

It is called, I have discovered, firesticks (or variations thereon: sticks-of-fire, sticks-on-fire, and probably others). The name obviously refers to the plant’s crown of very pretty red, pink, and orange stick-like twigs. It’s really very lovely. But beware! The white sap which oozes from a twig when broken can irritate the skin and is especially dangerous if rubbed into the eyes. I should know. The firestick is a direct descendant of the pencil tree.

This tree can be found throughout East and South Africa. And in fact it grew in our garden in Eritrea. I still remember my mother’s frantic screams when she realized that my little fingers one day had broken a twig and I was busily spreading the sap on the palm of my little hand.

Even though they don’t have a garden, my daughter and her boyfriend are moving towards cacti and succulents on their balcony. They have planted a bunch of flower pots with them. I’m pleased to see that the firestick is one of their choices.

Truth to tell, they have chosen these plants not so much as a commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle but rather for their low maintenance requirements. Neither of them are particularly diligent in watering and previous planting attempts ended badly because of this. Let’s hope that when we come back next year, they are still flourishing: cacti and succulents rule, OK! (at least in Los Angeles)

__________________
The Blue Boy: http://huntington.org/webassets/templates/general.aspx?id=14392
Early American art: http://www.huntington.org/WebAssets/Templates/content.aspx?id=22779
Picnicking, Huntington gardens: https://www.facebook.com/HuntingtonLibrary/photos/a.70860174880.63671.51018909880/10156013615919881/?type=3
Desert garden-1: http://www.huntington.org/desertgarden/
Desert garden-2: http://fr.gde-fon.com/download/huntington_jardin-botanique-de-San-Marino/433151/2395×1590
Desert garden-3: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.gardenista.com/posts/escape-to-a-desert-garden-in-pasadena-huntington-library-garden/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-4: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g33029-d110203-i41542481-The_Huntington_Library_Art_Collections_and_Botanical_Gardens-San_Marino_Cal.html
Desert garden-5: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/107875353549586117/
Desert garden-6: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27398485@N08/3280510696
Desert garden-7: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/561331541042981128/?source=images
Desert garden-8: https://www.visitpasadena.com/businesses/the-huntington/
Desert garden-9: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-10: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Golden_Barrels_%26_Senecio_mandraliscae_Blue_Chalk_Stick_succulents,_Huntington.jpg
Desert garden-11: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.gardenista.com/posts/escape-to-a-desert-garden-in-pasadena-huntington-library-garden/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-12: http://huntingtonblogs.org/2014/01/torch-bearers-of-the-desert-garden/
Desert garden-13: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-14: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
San Marino property-1: http://www.pasadenacarealestatehomes.com/blog/san-marino-ca-real-estate-market-reports/
San Marino property-2: http://activerain.com/blogsview/4681118/san-marino-ca-homes-for-sale-and-recent-market-activity-june-7–2015
Northern vista: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/280278776779445390/?source=images
Rose garden: http://www.huntington.org/webassets/templates/general.aspx?id=15523
Gardens around LA with cacti and succulents: my photos
Firesticks: my photos
Pencil tree: http://patioplants.com/product/pencil-tree-cactus-euphorbia-tirucallii-big-7-deep-plug/
My daughter’s cacti: my photo