Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!
My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.
But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall
or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.
“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”
To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:
“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”
OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:
“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”
We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.
In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.
In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.
“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”
Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.
“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?”
I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.
“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”
Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.
“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”
Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.
But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.
There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.
Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.
Autumn is a wonderful time to go a-gathering. The last of the year’s fruits have ripened and are ready to be eaten – a cornucopia of Nature’s goodies waiting to be sampled!
In the various hikes my wife and I have been making during this autumn season, we have been taking advantage of this bounty, gathering fruits that have (more or less) fallen into our laps.
Our gathering started with grapes; not table grapes but wine grapes. I would admit, if my arm were twisted, that we took a few bunches from vines that were waiting to be harvested.
But we soon discovered that quite often there were bunches at the very bottom of the vines which the harvesting machines they use nowadays didn’t catch.
So we helped ourselves to those. I mean, they were obviously not going to get picked, and there was no point letting them rot on the vine, right? We ate white and red grapes indiscriminately, grapes that had been destined to become Zweigelt or Blaufränkisch in the red wines, Riesling or Grüner Veltliner in the whites. They were full of pips and had thick, rubbery skins but were wonderfully sweet.
Later on, we walked along hiking trails flanked by walnut trees
The ground below the trees was thick with walnuts still in their blackened husks.
So many walnuts! It was terrible to see this bounty given to us free by Nature just being left to rot. So we got to work and collected several bags’ full, which we brought home to eat – waste not, want not, as my grandmother used to say!
That being said, I cannot in all honesty claim that they were a good find. Most of them were small, hard to crack, and the meat inside clung for all it was worth to the shell, a meat that after a while left a metallic taste in your mouth. Once we had dutifully finished our trove of nuts, my wife went out to buy some commercial walnuts, to remind ourselves how easy they were to open, how smoothly the meat fell out of the shell, and how delicious their taste was – sometimes, I have to admit, the products of the agro-industrial complex are tastier than the original …
Lately there have been apples and pears. In so many spots on our walks we came across apple or pear trees growing by the side of the path, groaning under their load of fruit and dropping them to the ground.
All these gifts from Nature, just going bad … It really broke our hearts to see this waste. I suppose the trees were planted in a time when more people lived on the land and when they grew more of what they ate. Now there is hardly anyone left in the countryside and those who are left can’t be bothered to pick the fruit from the trees their ancestors planted. Well, in memory of those ancestors, we gathered up a bag or so of both. The apples were really delicious: red-cheeked and slightly tart in their sweetness, just the way I like them.
Not for me the vacuously mild Golden Deliciouses of this world!
The pears were not so good. A few are mixed in with the picture of our walnuts: small, green-skinned, with a flesh which was both granular and set the teeth on edge. But my wife whipped up a fruit salad, mixing them with some of the apples and adding a sprinkling of sugar and a dash of lemon juice. Mm-mm-goood! (pity we don’t have any gin in the house; a slug of that would have made the salad even more delicious).
The fruit-picking time is nearly over. Now it’s leaf-watching time. This afternoon, we immersed ourselves in a world of yellow, gold, and russet (not too many reds in this part of the world).
We finished where our autumn adventures had started, in the vineyards, yellow now but with a dash of red.
The leaves are falling faster and faster, driven off the trees by wind and rain. Soon it will be time to search out mugs of glühwein, the hot wine toddy of this part of the world.
Hopefully, if lockdowns and other Covid restrictions allow it, we’ll be able to drink the winter season away, waiting for Spring to roll around again and the cycle to start all over again.
My wife and I have been doing quite a lot of hiking in high alpine meadows this year, which of course means that we’ve been passing a lot of cows. Here is a photo I took of one such cow at one of the huts we recently stayed in.
Every time I see cows, I am struck by the same thing: they never smile (or laugh, for that matter). I am particularly aware of this lack of hilarity in cows because of the French cheese product, La Vache Qui Rit, the Laughing Cow.
For readers who may not know this product, it’s a delicious spreadable cheese that comes in wedges. Each wedge is wrapped in silver foil; the foil is removed by pulling on a red plastic thread. It’s normally given to children. That was certainly the case for me; my French grandmother routinely fed her grandchildren pieces of French baguette thickly spread with this cheese: mmmm, soo good!
But it’s not the cheese I want to talk about. It’s the round box which holds the wedges.
As readers can see, the box is covered by a picture of a cow laughing heartily (she also has a faintly gypsy-esque look, with boxes of the cheese dangling from her ears like large earrings). I would always study the picture as I munched on my cheese-smothered piece of baguette, fascinated by that laugh. Why couldn’t the cows in the field below the house laugh like that, I wondered? Or at least smile. Or the neighbour’s dog? Or the rabbits my grandmother kept in a hutch in the vegetable garden? Or the horse I would pass on my way to get milk at the nearby farm?
As one does as a child, I quickly forgot these philosophical musings. But during my recent continued meetings with cows in high alpine meadows the question has resurfaced, although since I am now considerably older and (I hope) wiser, I ask myself the question differently: why do human beings appear to be the only species who smile?
I should say at this point that my response to this question is completely based on an article by Michael Graziano, who is a Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University, entitled The First Smile.
I should also remind readers that we are, for all of the airs and graces that we give ourselves, fundamentally great apes. We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, 98% with gorillas, and 97% with orangutans. When Charles Darwin first revealed this relationship to horrified Victorians, one wit came up with this cartoon.
One aspect that we share with all the other great apes (and indeed with all primates) is our sociability. We are intensely social animals and much of our instinctive (DNA-driven) behaviour comes from us having lived in bands on the African veld. This behaviour regulated the all-important interpersonal relations. One such relation was when someone else in the band approached you and entered your personal space. Here, I let Professor Graziano take up the tale.
“Imagine two monkeys, A and B. Monkey B steps into the personal space of Monkey A. The result? … a classic defensive reaction. Monkey A squints, protecting his eyes. His upper lip pulls up. This exposes the teeth, but only as a side-effect: in a defensive reaction, the point of the curled lip is … to bunch the facial skin upward, further padding the eyes in folds of skin. The ears flap back against the skull, protecting them from injury. The head pulls down and the shoulders pull up to protect the vulnerable throat and jugular. The head turns away from the impending object. The torso curves forward to protect the abdomen. Depending on the direction of the threat, the arms may pull across the torso to protect it, or may fly up to protect the face. The monkey snaps into a general defensive stance that shields the most vulnerable parts of his body.
Monkey B can learn a lot by watching the reaction of Monkey A. If Monkey A makes a full-blown protective response, cringe and all, it’s a pretty good sign that Monkey A is frightened. He’s uneasy. … He must view Monkey B as a threat, a social superior. On the other hand, if Monkey A reveals only a subtle response, perhaps squinting and slightly pulling back his head, it’s a good sign that Monkey A is not so frightened. He does not consider Monkey B to be a social superior or a threat.
That kind of information is very useful to members of a social group. Monkey B can learn just where he stands with respect to Monkey A. And so the stage is set for a social signal to evolve: natural selection will favour monkeys that can read the cringe reactions of their peers and adjust their behaviour accordingly. This, by the way, is perhaps the most important point of the story: the primary evolutionary pressure is on the receiver of the signal, not the sender. The story is about how we came to react to smiles.
Then again, nature is often an arms race. If Monkey B can glean useful information by watching Monkey A, then it’s useful for Monkey A to manipulate that information and influence Monkey B. Evolution therefore favours monkeys that can, in the right circumstances, pantomime a defensive reaction. It helps to convince others that you’re non-threatening. Finally we see the origin of the smile: a briefly flashed imitation of a defensive stance.
In people, the smile has been pared down to little more than its facial components — the lifting of the upper lip, the upward bunching of the cheeks, the squint. These days we use it mainly to communicate a friendly lack of aggression rather than outright subservience.
And yet we can still see the monkey gesture in us. We do sometimes smile to express subservience, and that servile smile can come with a hint of the whole-body protective stance: head pulled down, shoulders up, curved torso, hands pulled in front of the chest. Just like monkeys, we react to such signals automatically. We can’t help feeling warmer towards someone who beams [a genuine, friendly smile involving the eyes]. We can’t help feeling contemptuous of a person who makes a servile cringe, or suspicious of someone who fakes a warmth that never reaches those vulnerable eyes.”
To underline Professor Graziano’s point about the servile cringe, I insert here a picture of Uriah Heep from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, the epitome of the servile cringer.
As for people with the fake smile which never reaches the eyes, I can think of a few people I’ve worked with over the decades who would fit that description very well – I name no names so as not to be sued for libel.
In any event, Professor Graziano’s explanation of why we smile seems to me a good one. And it turns out that chimps and monkeys have something which looks remarkably like a human smile.
So we may not be the only ones who can smile. Maybe a lot of monkeys have something like a smile.
But it is a pity that cows don’t smile. It would be so nice if they would smile at me and my wife as we cross the high alpine meadows on our hikes.
And we would definitely smile back.
P.S. Any reader who is interested in an explanation of why we laugh and cry should consult Professor Graziano’s article.
They mini Mt. Fujis were really quite arresting in their symmetry among the gentle anarchy of the forests.
A closer look at them told us that these were ant nests; there were columns of ants radiating out from them into the surrounding undergrowth and their surfaces were pullulating with ants.
A bit like the statues of John of Nepomuk that I have written about earlier, once we noticed one nest we began noticing them everywhere we went on our subsequent walks. We always came across them in wooded areas, mostly among conifers or mixed woodland. Sometimes the nests were modest mounds, at other times they were really quite large.
A little surfing of the web has taught me that these nests belong to wood ants, of which there are some 32 species distributed in the colder reaches of the northern hemisphere: 13 in the Eurasian continent, spread all the way from Japan to Ireland, and 19 in North America. My favourite of all these species has to be Formica lugubris, the lugubrious ant. I wonder what its namer had in mind when they came up with that name. This particular species seems no more lugubrious than any of the others. I throw in a close-up of another species, Formica rufa.
I must confess to putting in this close-up photo simply to gross out my wife, like I did with close-ups of crickets and dragon flies in earlier posts (so childish of me …). However, the first of these photos also allows me to point out the ants’ black and red colouring – although I must confess not to have noticed this colouring scheme when inspecting the ants milling about on top of the nests.
Coming back to Formica lugubris, I have to say if I were a wood ant I think I would feel pretty lugubrious. The great majority of the ants are – female – worker ants. They spend their whole short lives (a couple of months) looking after the queens and their babies (or grubs, to give them their more scientific name), feeding them, moving them from one good spot in the nest to another, watching over them as they finally pupate and metamorphose into adult ants, and generally fussing over everyone; marching off into the surrounding forest to collect food; building up the nest, mending its thatch (more on that in a minute) … and all this and more with hardly a moment’s rest (a power nap from time to time is all they get). No wonder they croak after a few months! As for the few males, they are of course completely feckless, doing bugger-all to maintain the nest or feed the kids (typical …). Mind you, they have even shorter lives than worker ants – a couple of weeks. They have only one role in life, which is to impregnate the queens. This they do with savage abandon, with these mating rites becoming a huge free-for-all. Once that is over, they expire – if they haven’t already become lunch for birds and other predators who hang around during the mating rites and pick them off. As for the even fewer queens, they only need to go through the mating rite once in their much longer lives (they can live up to 15 years or so); the sperm they so collect lasts them a lifetime. Thereafter, they bunk down in the nests, and spend the rest of their lives begetting children and sleeping. What a life, for all of them!
Of course, to think of ants in human terms is very silly: ants are ants, humans are humans. But this tendency of projecting human foibles onto animals has a very honourable history. Take the French poet Jean de La Fontaine, for instance. He wrote many animal-centered poems whose point was to skewer human weaknesses and stupidities. One of his best-known poems is La Cigale et la Fourmi, the Cricket and the Ant:
La Cigale, ayant chanté
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue
The point of the poem is that the cricket spent the whole summer singing the days away while the ant industriously spent it collecting food to see it through the winter.
Come autumn, the cricket comes piteously to the ant, asking it to give it some food, and the ant tells the cricket to bugger off (the moral of the tale for us humans is made clear in this old drawing, by dressing up both cricket and ant in humans’ clothes and having the ant live in a human house).
My French grandmother often quoted the poem in approving tones, making it clear to me that I should be the industrious ant and not the feckless cricket. Personally, I think the story lacks Christian charity, but perhaps in La Fontaine’s day, when most people lived very close to the edge, they simply didn’t have enough to be able to generously share with feckless idiots who had failed to lay in the necessary provisions.
But back to the wood ants.
Let me describe their nests, which are marvels of engineering. First let me insert a cut-away diagram of a nest.
The whole structure is designed to maintain optimum temperature and humidity levels for the grubs and pupae. So, the nests are somewhat flatter on their southern side, to have the sun’s rays hit the nest as directly as possible; the worker ants lay the pine needles and other debris which make up the nest’s thatch in the direction which maximizes the latter’s ability to heat up in the sun’s rays; the nests are often built around a tree stump – the heat given off by the rotting process adds to the nest’s heat; and if that is not enough, worker ants will “sunbathe” on the thatch and when they are nice and hot will go back into the nest and cool down where heat is needed. As for control of dampness, the ants carefully choose sites which are not damp in the first place. Then the same thatch will act as thatch on a human house, keeping out the rain. Since the bottom of the nest, which is in the ground, tends to be damper the worker ants will carry damp material from the lower floors to the upper floors to even out dampness differences.
These wonderful nests have attracted a number of hangers-on. Some are useful, like the worm Dendrodrilus rubidus, for instance. It gets (steals?) food in the nest but it keeps moulds and fungi in check. So it pays for its keep, as it were. Others are not, like several species of beetles, which spend their larval stage in wood ant nests. Most are just a nuisance, eating plant food they find there. Several species of beetle, though, are real little bastards. They eat the pupae, and to avoid being killed by the ants they produce chemicals which disguise their presence. Some of these little buggers go so far as to secrete a scent which the ants can’t resist. The poor ants then allow the beetle to roam freely about the nest unharmed. Little shits … In the case of other species, it’s not clear if they play a role – bad or good – in the nests. There’s the tiny shining guest ant, for instance. It has its own tiny nests and tiny broods in the wood ants’ nests. If a queen and a bunch of worker ants take off to set up a new test, a bunch of shining guest ants will go with them. But when the going gets tough – when conditions in the nest deteriorate – the shining guest ants get going: “hasta la vista, baby, been nice knowin’ ya!” And then there’s a species of woodlouse which has been cohabiting with wood ants in the dark chambers of their nests for so long that it has lost its eyes and colouring (I remember reading about the same thing happening to some species of fish which were discovered living in completely dark caverns off the coast of Mexico somewhere).
As I said, if you look at a nest you’ll see columns of ants marching off to forage – and marching back with what they’ve foraged. Wood ants play an incredibly important role in keeping in check certain species which are bad for the health of the trees – more on this in a minute. But they actually get most of their food from stroking the bums of aphids. This is an absolutely fascinating relationship, probably the only known example of farming by a species other than humans.
Aphids feed by sucking the sap from trees and shrubs. They extract what they need from the sap and excrete the rest as “honeydew” – the name gives one an idea of the taste of this stuff, which is packed with sugars, acids, salts and vitamins. Wood ants love this stuff, and it makes up the major portion of their diet. Over time, wood ants and aphids have developed a symbiotic relationship. Wood ants look after the aphids; they protect them from predators and they move them around to places with more or better sap.
In return, aphids will excrete their honeydew when gently stroked by the ants. It’s hard not to think of human beings and their cows when you read about this relationship.
The ants will fill themselves up with the honeydew, march back to the nest, disgorge it and feed it to the queens and grubs.
One reads lurid stories about ants biting and stinging people. Wood ants can certainly bite – they have the necessary mandibles – but they also have a secret chemical weapon. They keep a store of formic acid in their gaster (that bulbous end section of theirs), which they can spray at attackers or prey.
As the photo shows, they can shoot our their formic acid over quite a considerable distance, relatively speaking. If they were my size, they would be squirting formic acid over a distance of 20 metres – not half bad! As you can imagine, a concerted attack like the one in the photo would be enough to keep most predators away. But some birds have figured out how to turn this spray of formic acid to their advantage. They alight close to the nest, and use the resulting formic acid shower as a way of killing off parasites which they’ve picked up. This European Jay, for instance, is having its formic acid spray-over and seems to be quite enjoying the experience.
Of course, formic acid gets its name from the Latin name for the ant, formica. Formic acid was discovered by one John Ray, an English naturalist, in 1671. He obtained the acid by getting hold of a large number of wood ants, crushing them, and distilling off the acid from the resulting mess. Poor ants! sacrificed to the advancement of science. Here is the painting of the man about to do something awful to a foxglove.
I’m sure myrmecologists (which I have learned is what experts in ants are called) would find a thousand and one other things which are fascinating about the wood ant. But I’ll stop here. There is one final thought, though, which I want to leave with my readers because it goes close to the work I’ve been doing these last forty years.
The fate of wood ants is a great example of human beings thinking they are very clever and know everything when in fact they know very little. This is particularly true of the workings of the natural world. Thus, in the case of wood ants, people didn’t realize that they probably play a key role in the health of forests. I say “probably” because actually we don’t know all that much about the life and times of wood ants, so it’s difficult to judge their true role in forest health. Nevertheless, they certainly seem to keep down the populations of insects which would otherwise attack trees, like caterpillars of moths such as the pine looper and sawfly. Their farming of sap-sucking aphids also appears to affect tree growth. They help in distributing the seeds of plants. They of course provide food to a whole suite of animals. Yet we have thoughtlessly – and ignorantly – been destroying their habitat. As a result, wood ants are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, although thankfully at the milder end of that List. Some species are already extinct locally – the black-backed meadow ant, for instance, is extinct in the UK since 1988. Not only is it really troubling that these ants could be facing extinction (“extinction is forever”), but foresters are also finding that the health of forests has been impacted as a result of the drops in ant population. In this day and age, when we desperately need every tree we have to combat climate change, that is truly worrying. In fact, efforts are now underway to protect these ants and get them to help us protect our forests. I can only hope for the best.
A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to an upscale (i.e., swanky) supermarket in the central district of Vienna to buy bresaola (an Italian delicacy which I have covered in an earlier post). As she waited to be served, I wandered around looking idly at what was on offer in the condiments section, where I was much struck by this array of mustards.
Mustards of all types, from all corners of the world, were on display. So many, so inviting! (I have touched upon the delights of mustard in at least one previous post). I had to investigate this wonderful condiment, I decided. Now, after many hours of surfing the internet’s electronic waves, I am ready to report back.
We have to begin, of course, at the beginning, that is to say with the plant which produces the mustard seeds. Actually, it’s three plants: Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea, and Sinapis alba, and they produce black, brown, and white mustard seeds, respectively. The first two are closely related, the third is a distant cousin of the other two. This is what the plants look like (from left to right Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea, Sinapis alba)
Those readers who see a distinct resemblance to the rapeseed plant will be right. Rapeseed is a close relative to the black and brown mustard plant. A rarity until the 1970s, it is now grown in huge quantities around the world, giving rise to field after monotonous field of the stuff
as well as to the questionable delights of colza and canola oil (why this sudden rise to fame of the rapeseed is a story for another day).
(A quick parenthesis: the Brassica family, to which black and brown mustard as well as rapeseed belong, seems to have a hugely elastic genome; farmers have managed to coax all sorts of different yummy foodstuffs from members of this family, as I have related in a previous post. The precise genomic relationships between the various members of the family were first described in the delightfully-named Theory of U, so called because it was published in 1935 by the Korean botanist Woo Jang-choon, writing under the Japanized name Nagaharu U – readers will recall that Korea was a Japanese colony in 1935).
Anyway, back to mustard. For readers – like me – who have never actually seen mustard seeds in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a mug shot of all three together. From left to right, we have black, brown, and white mustard seeds; I think the photo explains the colour-coded names they have been given.
The seeds are tiny, by the way, 1 mm or so in diameter. Readers with a Christian background will no doubt recall the parable in the synoptic Gospels (I quote here the version from Matthew): “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” Most people believe the parable refers to the black mustard plant, which can grow up to 3 m tall.
The seeds not only differ in colour, they also differ in “punch”, that sharp, hot, pungent flavour which we associate with mustard, with white mustard seeds being milder than the other two. Here I have to explain a little where that punch comes from, because it is important to our story of mustard condiment. The seed itself has punch, so if you ate a seed or two you would feel a bite in your mouth. But much of the punch that we associate with mustard actually comes from a series of chemicals which are produced when an enzyme naturally present in the seeds reacts with other chemicals also naturally present in the seeds. These reactions only occur when the enzyme is activated by the presence of water. Thus, the real kick from mustard only comes if you break up the seeds and mix them with water or with a liquid containing water. The enzyme can be denatured, thus making the mustard’s kick milder, by applying heat (using hot water or heating the mixture) or by using acid – the more concentrated the acid, the more denatured the enzyme.
Interestingly enough, of all our ancestors only the Romans stumbled onto this trick for getting mustard to pack a more powerful punch – or at least they were the only ones who used the trick routinely. Others – the Indians and the Ethiopians, for instance – used mustard seeds as a spice and so relied mainly on the seeds’ “dry” punch, while others still – the East Asians in particular – used mustard plants as a leaf vegetable and ignored the seeds.
The name “mustard” gives us a possible clue to what liquid the Romans used to make their mustard condiment. “Mustard” derives from the old French word “moustarde” (which has become the modern French “moutarde”), which in turn comes from the Latin “mustum ardens”, or “fiery must”. Must is the fresh juice that is squeezed out of grapes in the wine presses. Here we have a Roman mosaic showing men merrily (and probably somewhat tipsily) stomping on the grapes to expel the must, which is flowing into receptacles below.
The ground mustard seeds presumably added piquancy to the must. I find this quite intriguing, because as far as I know no-one makes mustard in this way anymore. It just so happens that come Autumn, when the grape harvest is in, must is a popular drink to quaff in the wine taverns which dot the outskirts of Vienna and the woods surrounding it.
I must make a mental note to try making my own Roman-style mustard this Autumn, to see what it tastes like. Since must is quite sweet, I would imagine that I would end up with a sweet mustard.
On the other hand, the two recipes for making mustard which are to be found in surviving Roman cookbooks actually use vinegar as the liquid. I quote here (in translation) the shorter of these recipes, from Palladius’s book on agriculture, Opus agriculturae, written some time in the late 4th, early 5th Century AD.
“Grind one sextarium [2 quarts] of mustard seeds with five pounds of honey and one of Hispanic oil, diluting with one sextarium [2 quarts] of strong vinegar. Grind everything together diligently and use.”
The honey suggests to me that this mustard would also be sweet. Perhaps the Romans liked their mustard sweet.
So what “accelerant” (to use a term from fire-making) did the Romans use to fire up their ground mustard seeds? Must? Vinegar? Perhaps they used either one or the other, depending on the tastes of the cook. Perhaps they used both; a popular Roman drink was must clarified with vinegar. Perhaps they used other liquids, now lost to us in the mists of time. We shall probably never know.
What is important for the history of mustard is that the Romans took both vines and winemaking, and probably their mustard seeds as well, north into Gaul after they had conquered it, and the making of both wine and mustard took hold there. There was a certain desire – at least among the Gaulish elites – to emulate their Roman conquerors, as Goscinny and Uderzo brilliantly showed us in their Asterix album Le Combat des Chefs.
Luckily for us, the Gauls, who were soon to become the French, continued with their love of mustard long after the Romans had departed and their Empire had collapsed. The symbiotic relationship between wine and mustard seed continued. Must as the accelerant seems to have been forgotten and vinegar took its place; mustard making was a good way of using wine that had soured and turned to vinegar.
While many of the emerging wine regions of France also became mustard making regions, the prince among them all was Burgundy, with its capital Dijon. For want of a photo of Dijon mustard from the 14th Century, I thrown in a photo of the delightfully coloured roofs of Dijon’s cathedral instead.
Dijon mustard seems to have become the gold standard for mustard makers, with everyone else around Europe trying to emulate them. But what did you do if you lived in a part of Europe to the north of where vines would grow? The following map shows roughly where the current northernmost boundary of vine growing is. I don’t think it’s changed much over the centuries, although it is now creeping northwards because of climate change (but that is a discussion for another day).
What did you use instead of wine vinegar?
Well, of course these northern regions all had fruit or grain, and you can ferment either to make alcohol, and you can ferment alcohol to make vinegar. As an example, let me use the English mustard from Tewkesbury (which, for those readers who are somewhat hazy about English geography is a quiet market town in the county of Gloucestershire). I choose this particular mustard for a number of reasons, as will become clear in a minute.
I haven’t talked at all about all the other herbs, spices, and other goodies which mustard makers have added over the centuries, and continue to add, to their mustards, to amend the taste. As readers can imagine, though, they all have their secret list of additional ingredients. Tewksebury mustard is interesting in that its makers added large amounts of horseradish (and for this reason it got a mention in an earlier post about this potent root). This seems to me to be an example of creating a double-whammy, because the chemicals created by that enzyme in mustard are very similar to the chemicals in horseradish. From which I deduce that Tewkesbury mustard must be pretty damned strong. So that’s one reason for my choosing to talk about Tewkesbury mustard.
To make Tewkesbury mustard, its citizens would steep grated horseradish in vinegar made from apple cider for some two days and then mix this infusion with powdered mustard seed (ground, I am delighted to report, by using an iron cannonball as the pestle in a mortar). So here we have an example of a non-wine vinegar being used as the accelerant. Other vinegars have been used by other mustard makers.
Tewkesbury mustard was famous all over England. Why, it was famous enough to get mentioned by the Bard of Avon himself! The citation comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part II, where at some point Falstaff says of his companion Ned Poins, “He a good wit? Hang him, baboon. His wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard. There’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet” (for readers interested in looking the citation up, it appears somewhere in Act 2, scene 4).
To get around the tricky problem of how to transport their mustard all around the kingdom, the citizens of Tewkesbury rolled it into balls and then allowed them to dry. The dried balls could then be transported quite easily and would keep a long time. Customers would purchase a ball, cut off a slice whenever needed, and then steep it once again in any manner of liquids of their choosing: water, milk, cider, cider vinegar, wine, ale, beer, or fruit juice. Once soft enough, it would be whipped to a thick, creamy consistency (as we know from the quote from Shakespeare).
At some point, the round shape of the product, allied to its horseradish-enhanced pungency, led wits to use Tewkesbury mustard as slang to describe incendiary fire-balls. Here, for instance, we have the great philosopher David Hume, in his History of England, writing about a rumour that the Great Fire of London of 1666 was started by foreign arsonists trained by Jesuits: “Fire-balls were familiarly called among them Tewkesbury mustard pills”. That certainly tells us something about their fiery nature …
I find this idea of offering mustard in the form of balls quite delightful. Sadly, the manufacture of Tewkesbury mustard died out at the beginning of the 19th century, possibly under the pressure of having to compete with newfangled powdered mustards liked Colman’s. Luckily, however, some brave souls are trying to revive its manufacture in Tewksebury (although also wisely offering the mustard in the modern form: ready-made in jars, ready to slather on). They are also trying to brand the mustard by applying for Protected Geographic Indication status. Here is a photo of a pile of these balls.
It’s certainly the case that for some reason finely powdered mustard became the norm in England (as well as in certain British colonies like Australia). Colman’s mustard dominated the market, selling its mustard in these iconic yellow tins.
One of my first memories of mustard was a small yellow tin just like these in my English grandmother’s kitchen cupboard. She used it in her vinaigrettes and she taught little 8-year old me how to make them (I still remember the recipe: “1 teaspoon of vinegar, dissolve in a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, 2 pinches of Colman’s mustard powder, add 3 teaspoons of oil”). A whip around the web shows me many people of about my age fondly recalling their mothers using Colman’s mustard powder in all manner of dishes. It seems to me, though, that those mothers of yesteryear were using mustard powder more like a spice – like a curry powder – than a condiment. Interestingly enough, the first Mr. Colman, Jeremiah Colman, was not in the vinegar business as were many of the mustard makers of the time. He was a miller instead; clearly, he was only interested in the milling of the mustard seeds; what liquid was used to fire up the powder didn’t interest him (this connection between mustard and milling rather than mustard and vinegar was at the basis of at least one other well-known mustard, la moutarde de Meaux in France; Meaux was well-known since Carolingian times as a place which sat on a rock formation which made excellent grinding stones).
In 1756, some 60 years before Jeremiah Colman set up his mustard grinding business in Norwich, a revolution occurred in the heart of the mustard business, Dijon. There, a certain Jean Naigeon switched from using vinegar to using “verjus”, or verjuice in English. Verjuice is an acidic juice made from pressing unripe fruit or sour fruit of one variety or other (“verjus” translates as “green juice”). During the Middle Ages it was widely used all over Europe as an ingredient in sauces, as a condiment, or to deglaze preparations. Over time it fell out of fashion, with cooks replacing it with either wine or some variety of vinegar or lemon juice. Jean Naigeon moved in the other direction, shifting from vinegar to verjuice. Specifically, he used verjuice prepared with green, unripe grapes hailing from the Côte d’Or (home to most of the greatest Burgundy wines). For readers who are curious about what this verjuice might look like, I throw in a photo of a bottle of the stuff made by one of the few local mustard manufacturers left in the Dijon area, Edmond Fallot. It looks quite like a normal white wine; it is simply much more acidic.
From then on, mustard makers in Burgundy, as well as in many other places which were copying Burgundy’s mustards, used verjuice, possibly mixed with vinegar, possibly mixed with wine, as the accelerant in their preparations. When mustards proclaim on their labels that they are made with wine, they may have some real wine in them, but most of the “wine” will actually be verjuice.
This shift to verjuice leaves me thinking. As I said, verjuice can be made from any unripe or sour fruit. A quick whip around the web has shown me that there are makers of crab apple verjuice and apple verjuice. Perhaps other fruits have been used. Has anyone tried making mustard with other verjuices? I have not found any being marketed on the web. Is there a reason for this, I wonder? I cannot think of one. Perhaps some clever entrepreneur will give it a go (and if I find a bottle of non-grape verjuice here in Vienna, I might also give it a go, before I try making my mustard with must).
The one other big change that happened to mustards took place in Munich, in the mid-19th Century. This was the development of Bayerischer Süßer Senf, or Bavarian sweet mustard, a mustard which goes exceedingly well with the traditional Bavarian white sausage, or Weißwurst (normally eaten with a large soft pretzel, the Laugenbrezel).
This is the type of mustard we currently have on our dining table. We don’t eat it with white sausage (we wish!); my wife uses it to give taste to her rather bland diet of chicken and turkey (which I suppose has always been the purpose of mustard, ever since Roman times, to give otherwise bland food some oomph).
This mustard was developed by one Johann Conrad Develey. He was from an old Huguenot family which had escaped from France to Switzerland (hence his French-sounding name). He himself came to Munich from Switzerland via Lindau and Augsburg, where he had done his schooling. He started by making Dijon-style mustard, but he sensed that there was an unfulfilled demand for a sweet mustard. He played around with various ingredients, of which sugar was naturally one. He finally hit the jackpot when he caramelized the sugar by plunging red-hot pokers into it. The caramelization process gave his concoction a depth of taste he couldn’t get with sugar alone. Thus, it seems, that mustard development had gone back to where it started in Roman times, with a sweet mustard.
The rest of the mustard story is rather depressing. It is a story of industrialization, developing machines that could make mustard ever more quickly and in ever greater quantities (this is what made Maurice Grey, of Grey-Poupon mustard, famous), which in turn meant ever greater concentration: the micro mustard makers didn’t have sufficient capital to buy the new machines and went to the wall, allowing the remaining firms to capture more market and grow ever bigger. It is then a story of building up brands through advertizing of one form or another.
Notice the stoneware pots in this ad; this became a very popular way of branding mustards.
Amora started selling its mustard in pots which housewives could reuse as drinking glasses. Themed glasses were made, where you could collect the whole set.
It is finally a story of ever bigger companies buying up the smaller companies.
Now all that’s left are vast, faceless multinationals which have no sense of place, of “terroir” as the French call it, which are only interested in owning famous mustard brands – made famous through clever advertizing – and which will make the mustards wherever it is cheaper to make them, with ingredients it will source from the cheapest place, and will look to substitute the more expensive ingredients with others which “give more or less the same taste”. I know, I’ve been there. I once did environmental due diligence work for a multinational company whose name will not pass my lips, which was intent on buying up an Italian shoe polish company with a well-known brand. The company had been making the polish from the very start in Padova, using a local workforce. The purchase went through. The last time I passed Padova by car – you could see the factory from the motorway – the factory was gone; the polish is probably now made in China or somewhere similar.
Luckily, though, there are courageous entrepreneurs fighting back, trying to make mustards again locally, with local ingredients where possible, aiming to put on the market a product which is good and not just branded. I wish them luck. I urge all my readers to buy these non-branded mustards. I also urge them to have a go at making their own mustard rather than getting it off a supermarket shelf. There are tons of recipes online for making mustard at home. And I will try to make mustard with must this Autumn and with non-grape verjuice if I can find it. I will report back if I succeed (a big part of the success will be to persuade my wife to help).
Last year, at about this time, my wife and I undertook our first hike in the Dolomites. Readers can see the commented photos of that hike in an earlier post. At the time, we promised ourselves to come back this year, to explore another part of the Dolomites. We were true to our promise, even though Covid-19 threatened to upset our plans, particularly since we were joined by one of my French cousins and his wife: would the borders be open on time? would they have to quarantine in Italy? or in France on their way back? But all was well; restrictions on travel were lifted in time. And it was great that they could come, because I have shamelessly used a good number of the photos they took.
This year, we explored the Dolomites around the Val Pusteria as well as the Ampezzine Dolomites close to Cortina d’Ampezzo. I have a fondness of bird’s-eye view maps like the one below, but they do allow me to mark the route we took.
We started in San Candido at the bottom of the map (which is Innichen to the local, mostly German-speaking population; we are in the South Tyrol here). We hiked over the group of mountains south of the town, where the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the Three Peaks, were the star of the show, and down into Cortina d’Ampezzo at the top right of the map. Then we hiked around another group of mountains to the west of Cortina; I’ll show a map of that in a minute. But let’s have the photos tell the rest of the tale!
On the evening we arrive, the setting sun brightens the tops of the mountains behind San Candido / Innichen
First stage, hiking up the Val Campo di Dentro up to the Drei Schuster Hütte / Rifugio Tre Scarperi: gradual climb of about 450 m. Here we are, arriving at the hut in time for lunch.
The mountain blocking the end of the valley. After lunch we climbed up to the top of the saddle to the left of that mountain: a brutally steep climb of 840 m!
We have started climbing. The valley floor is dropping away below us
Clambering over an impossibly lovely stream, hoping not to fall in …
And we climb …
The valley is far below now …
… but still we climb … we begin to hit snow patches …
Last sighting of the valley far, far below
… and still we climb …
Finally, the top!
Our first sighting of the Three Peaks of Lavaredo. We will be walking to the saddle to the left of them, to reach the mountain hut we will be sleeping in.
Our first clear view of of these three majestic peaks
Getting closer to them, while the weather is turning …
… also looking back at the route we’ve taken.
Nearly at the top of the saddle …
Looking over the other side of the saddle, down onto the Rifugio Lavaredo where we will be staying the night. Nearly the end of a long day.
Beautiful day. We go back to the top of the saddle.
That’s the path we’ll be taking today, snaking away to the far left.
The Three Peaks keep us company on our left as we walk
We pass a lovely spray of pink flowers
A last look at the Three Peaks …
… and at the panorama behind us, with the path we’ve just taken winding across it
Lake Misurina, glinting in the sunlight, beckons to us from far below in the valley. It is time to start climbing down.
We drop about 600 m before finally arriving at the lake.
We take the chairlift to the Rifugio Col de Varda, the mountain hut where we will be staying the night.
Today is taken up with a walk to the Rifugio di Città di Carpi and back via Lake Misurina. It’s a walk primarily through forest but with some fine views across the valley …
… as well as sightings of some beautiful flowers – this is a particularly lovely example of the globe flower
We arrive at the Rifugio di Città di Carpi in time for coffee – to be purchased with masks on the face; Covid-19 haunts us even here.
After coffee, a final look at the view …
… before we plunge once more into the forest, walking down to Misurina.
Today the weather forecast is for rain, so we kit ourselves up. We are walking mostly through forest, up to the Passo Tre Croci and then down to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
A tank trap near the pass, built by Mussolini to keep out the Germans – the most obvious sign we came across of this area being a border region, with all the tensions that come with that. During our walks around the Tre Cime we were crossing now vanished World War I trenches and spied dugouts carved into the rocks.
Some lovely forest land around the Agritur El Brite de Larieto (closed, alas, when we passed by; I had rather been hoping to have lunch there), which mixed woods and pastures – a delightful combination, especially when we saw the cows wandering between the trees; and what a heavenly smell they gave off! Of fresh milk.
By the time we reached the Rifugio Mietres (also closed), the weather was turning decidedly to the stormy, with thunder rumbling away in the mountains above us.
Our first view of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the valley below, our objective for today
Going down a ski track. In the middle distance a flock of sheep
A closer look at the sheep. They must be on their way to the high alpine meadows for the summer
The main street in Cortina d’Ampezzo, where we had a late lunch before driving up to the hotel at the Passo Falzarego
I said I would show another map of the trail we did on this last day of our hike, so here it is.
We start at Lagazuói, taking the cable car from the Pass up to it.
View of the Pass far below from the top of the cable car
View of the other side, where we would be walking down and then going off to the right
We’ve walked down, over extensive beds of snow, to this first pass
Further on, a plunging view down to our left
Striding across a soggy meadow
The clouds are billowing up from the valley below …
… which means that we are soon climbing down into mist
Soon, the world around us turns milky
But we eventually break out from the mist and can look up at the heights we came down from
The path wends its way through dwarf pines
We go on until we reach the cable car you can see in the distance.
So ended this year’s hike to the Dolomites. I’m sure we will be back next year – Covid-19 permitting.
This post was going to be about the oleander, but as often happens when I surf the web I disappeared down some fascinating rabbit holes along the way. So while I will discuss the oleander I will also throw in a couple of disparate facts linked more or less tenuously to the oleander.
First the oleander. The walks which my wife and I have been taking recently on the Ligurian coast have led us past many an example of this fine plant, whose showy red and pink flowers have lit up our way, especially when we have been traversing urban sections of our walks.
As usual, after quietly enjoying at this display from Nature, I looked to the plant’s history, to see where it had originally come from (not believing for a minute that it could be native to Liguria). What I found was, I suppose, a testimony to its enduring attraction to humans as well as to its toughness and endurance: enduring attraction to humans because it’s been domesticated for such a long time that no-one can make out its original home – South to South-West Asia seems to the best guess; toughness and endurance because even when taken out of its native habitat it has survived and thrived and created new homes for itself – here is a picture of oleander which has gone native in northern Israel, growing along the side of streams.
It has gone similarly native in many places, from Portugal and Morocco in the west to Yunnan in China in the east.
Its toughness and endurance has made it a popular plant to use in unforgiving environments, like the median strips of highways: you can’t get much tougher than that – poor, stony soil, little water, fumes from the passing cars, collection point for all the rubbish that people throw out of their cars, or that drop off their cars. As a bonus, it almost makes highways look pretty.
One of the first things that struck me when I went to Sicily was the oleander bushes along the highways there, the flowers turning what was really a very sterile environment into a pleasure to look at as the car whizzed down the highway.
The only other thing to note about oleander is its poisonous effects on humans and other animals. Every part of the plant is poisonous: in a word, beautiful but deadly. A couple of books have had as plot devices the murder of someone with oleander. For me, the best is Dragonwyck, not so much for the book as for the 1946 film made from the book. It has Vincent Price, a slimy smoothie if there ever was one, who does in his wife with oleander. We have him here staring broodingly at the fatal oleander plant.
Actually, oleander’s deadliness has been exaggerated. It’s not really that bad. Very few people have certifiably died from ingesting oleander. The worst that normally happens is that you feel horribly sick, you vomit, you get diarrhea … I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out, readers get the picture.
And that’s it, really, for the oleander. Now I can turn to the rabbit holes I fell down!
The first is related to the plant’s effects on humans. But I must start with a little bit of context. I want to take my readers to Delphi, in Greece.
Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE, it was really famous in the Ancient World, a place to go to if you wanted divine advice about something important to you: should our city go to war with our neighbour? should we start a new colony? or, on a more personal level, should I marry her? The temple there was dedicated to the god Apollo, and one of the temple’s priestesses, the Pythia, would answer your question. After offering a splendid goat for sacrifice and paying a suitable tribute (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), supplicants would be led down into the inner sanctum of the temple, this dark small room, where they would find the Pythia sitting on a tripod and flanked by a couple of priests. The tripod was placed across a cleft in the floor through which vapours or fumes would be rising and enveloping the Pythia. She would be holding a branch of laurel in one hand (the laurel was sacred to Apollo) and a small basin of clear water from a nearby sacred stream in the other. Rustling the laurel branch and gazing into the basin of water, she would answer your question. Here is the scene depicted on the bottom of an ancient Greek drinking cup, the supplicant to the right, the Pythia to the left.
Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be pretty agitated: “her hair stood on end, her complexion changed, her heart beat hard, her bosom swelled, and her voice became seemingly more than human”. Here is a much more satisfyingly dramatic rendering, painted by a certain John Collier in 1891, of what the Pythia might have looked like.
The whole experience must have been quite unnerving and overpowering for the supplicants. On top of it, the answer they got was often quite cryptic, leaving the supplicants scratching their heads trying to understand the true meaning of what Apollo had told them through the Pythia.
Why am I recounting all this? Because there has been considerable discussion about how the Pythia got herself all worked up. What was she eating, drinking, or smoking to get herself into that state? Some of the ancient sources say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leaves. But as we all know – bay leaves, which are actually laurel leaves, being used in cooking – laurel leaves don’t have any effect on someone who eats them. Which is where oleander comes in. The Greeks were rather slipshod in their use of the name “laurel”, using it to denote several plants including the oleander (the leaves of the oleander and the laurel do look quite similar). So one clever chap has suggested that the Pythia was actually chewing oleander leaves, which could indeed give you all the symptoms the Pythias exhibited.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vapours and fumes emanating from the cleft under the Pythia’s seat (and which are very evident in the painting by John Collier). Some have argued that it could have been these that (also) set the Pythia off. Given that Delphi sits on two geological faults which cross each other, it is thought in certain circles that the cleft which the Pythia sat astride was a natural opening into the bowels of the Earth. There has therefore been much discussion about what naturally formed fumes and vapors could have been seeping out from the Earth’s interior and been having this effect on the Pythia – ethylene? benzene? something else? – but it’s all been quite inconclusive. The above-mentioned clever chap suggests what seems to me a much simpler solution, that maybe under the room where the Pythia sat was another room, connected to the former through the cleft, and in which a priest was burning oleander leaves. By inhaling these fumes the Pythia was adding to the effects from chewing the leaves.
That’s one interesting rabbit hole connected to the oleander.
The other involves Hiroshima. As I would hope everyone knows, the first atom bomb ever dropped came down on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Here is a picture of the dreaded mushroom cloud which formed over the city.
The city was totally devastated. Here are a few pictures of what the city looked like in the days and months after the dropping of the bomb.
The city’s botanical gardens were not spared. So bad was the destruction that the garden’s directors thought that nothing would grow there again for decades. Yet lo and behold, the year after the bomb was dropped the oleanders in the gardens grew out from their blasted roots and flowered! The oleanders became a symbol of hope for Hiroshima’s citizens, convincing them that the city could be reborn even after this terrible catastrophe – as indeed it has. Ever since, the oleander has been the city’s official flower.
I’ve become a bit of a cynic in my old age, but this little story does warm the cockles of my heart.
Milan, 14 June 2020
Revised in Vienna, 20 October 2020
In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.
“These” are woodland strawberries (but see the Postscript at the end). I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.
The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.
Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.
Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?
Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.
The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.
But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry
and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.
It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.
Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.
These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.
When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.
While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.
The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!
The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.
So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.
His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:
They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.
Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!
Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.
Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.
But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.
And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.
An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).
And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.
And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.
A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.
As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …
POSTSCRIPT 20 October 2020
A sharp-eyed, and knowledgeable, reader recently informed me that I had made a fundamental mistake when I thought that the little red fruits I was seeing on those hikes with my wife were woodland strawberries. Actually, he kindly told me, they were false strawberries (or mock strawberries), Potentilla indica. The fruits look like the Real McCoy, the leaves look like the Real McCoy, but it ain’t the Real McCoy! After a moment of indignation against this plant masquerading as another, I actually felt relieved. I wrote above that the fruits which I had tasted were bland tasting. Actually, eating them was like eating paper filled with sand (the keen-eyed reader felt it was like eating styrofoam; the few times I’ve bitten into styrofoam makes me think that that taste is quite nice compared to what I was tasting). I kept on wondering how our ancestors could ever have thought they were nice to eat. Now I know that what they were eating – the Real Mccoy – probably tastes quite nice, and I look forward to coming across some in next year’s hikes.
This discovery that what I had been looking at was actually Potentilla indica led me of course to do my usual (Wikipedia-based) research. Which in turn led me to discover that this false-friend is actually native to southern and eastern Asia. Another invasive species! Any faithful reader of mine will know that this has been a topic on which I’ve written several posts over the years. If any of my readers happen to live in Minnesota, they should be aware of the fact that that State’s Department of Natural Resources invites people to report this plant (and any other invasive species) to the authorities. I’m not sure if Italy has any such reporting system, but if it does I will be sure to report any more patches of this fake strawberry which I come across to the right authorities, and will gladly help them in uprooting the little bastards.
All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.
This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).
The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.
Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.
As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).
The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.
But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.
Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.
The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.
If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.
Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.
It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.
By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.
But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.
By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).
No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).
But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).
Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.
In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.
Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.
For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.
I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.
Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.
We’re out at last! First day post-lockdown in Italy. Like Basil Fotherington-Tomas, I was saying, “Hello clouds! Hello sky!” as I skipped (well, walked) along.
For those of my readers who are not familiar with this character, he appears in the book “Down with Skool!”, written in the 1950s, purportedly by one Nigel Molesworth, a boy in an English Prep school.
The delightful cartoons which pepper the book’s pages are by the great Ronald Searle.
Molesworth’s judgement of Fotherington-Tomas is severe: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic).
Well, I’m not utterly wet and a sissy (although I do admit to being a bit of a nerd), but my joy of finally being let out of my apartment is uncontainable.
Hello birds! (even if they are filthy urban pigeons)
Hello ancient church!
Hello canal of Milan!
Hello bridge over the canal! (even if you are a pretty ugly bridge)
It’s great to be out here and see you all again!
We now just have to hope that we don’t get too much of a spike back up in the numbers, otherwise they’ll send us once more into lockdown …