Monday, February 21, 2011

Crocus, crocuses, croci

The carpet of crocuses by our gate this morning

There's something pretty magical about the appearance of crocuses - or should that be croci? - at this time of the year. I always get taken by surprise. They seem to emerge almost overnight straight from the soil. OK, most species actually have a cluster of leaves, but they're so fine and grass-like they usually go unnoticed. And then, just a couple of warm days and it's like a switch has been flipped .... wow. The synchrony is as amazing as the display.

It's a bit of a cliche to to say the crocus flowering marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring - and with February still a week or more to run, experience tells us there's plenty of time for another spell of wintry weather - but the joyous colour of the crocus is a clear promise of what's to come.

The crocus seems so at home semi-naturalised that it's tempting to imagine it must be native, but actually the native home of the 80 or so crocus species is centred on Turkey and the Balkans, but spreads out to Morocco, the Alps, Western China and Poland at its edges. Actually it's only a limited number of species that are happy in our wet climate with Crocus vernus and its large flowered hybrids raised in Holland the most successful.

The name Crocus is derived from the Greek Krokos which in turn is probably derived from the Arabic kurkum, the word for saffron. This is a reminder that one Crocus species - an autumn flowering one - is the source of the world's most valuable spice by weight. It takes 50 to 100,000 flowers to produce one pound of dried saffron worth £500 or more!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Foxgloves and fairy bells

Wild foxgloves making a showy display

The foxglove must be one of our most striking wild flowers, and in the less formal parts of our garden we welcome its stately spikes of purple flowers. The name conjures up a delightful image of the flowers making gloves for foxes, but we shouldn't take it that literally. It probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon word gliew - a musical instrument with hanging bells, and folk's meaning the little people or fairies. In Ireland and parts of Britain it's still referred to as fairy bells.

I remember as a child collecting the flowers and fitting them over my fingers. A magical plant indeed. Had I known how poisonous it was, I might have been a bit more reticent about handling it. Chewing a small piece of leaf can be fatal, and all parts of the plant are poisonous. And yet it's one of those plants which, despite being so poisonous, also yields the drug digitalis which is used to treat heart complaints - a treatment first described as long ago as 1785.

Some of our foxgloves bred for the garden

This year our wild foxgloves have been supplemented by some of the more showy garden varieties that I raised from seed last year. The colour range is from white, through cream to salmon pink, but it's the size of the flowers, the number on each spike and startling markings that make these such terrific plants for a border.

The mutant flower

A plant caught my attention today because one flower has opened flat and is significantly larger than the rest. It seems this is quite a common phenomenon in foxgloves in the wild and in cultivation and is the result of a mutation. It's called a peloric flower and even Darwin was fascinated by this oddity and did some experiments to see if seed from these flowers produced plants with the same odd flowers. Apparently they do - so I'll be following in the steps of the great man when I collect the seed, as I intend to, and see what flowers the plants I raise produce.

A bee busy pollinating

Darwin also took a great interest in foxglove flowers because they are wonderfully adapted to ensure cross-pollination by bees. In fact the whole design of the flowers has bees in mind. There's a landing strip marked with eye-catching spots, the nectar is at the base of the flower so the bee has to push its way up the tube of the flower with the anthers and their pollen attached to the roof of the tube. Pollen rubs off on the bee's back and gets carried into the next flower and onto the stigma for pollination.

The foxgloves are alive with bees at the moment and there's certainly a lot of pollination going on. The result apparently is one to two million seeds on each foxglove spike. It's a plant that doesn't leave the next generation to chance!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Glad tidings .... a bit late

What a difference a week makes. A week ago we were in the grips of our longest and most severe cold spell for a generation. We had no water which meant we had no heating - water pressure is needed to run the boiler - we had frequent long breaks in our internet connection, and our roads were so badly iced we weren't able to get out for a fortnight.

And just look at it today ....

This was the view across or local lake, Lough Graney. Not a sign of snow, beautiful clear sky and warm sunshine ... and the lake so still it was like a mirror. The unwary might have been fooled into thinking spring was just around the corner, but it's still only January and I'm sure this winter has got a few more surprises in store for us before it's spent.

But the return to good weather did allow me to do some of the early winter jobs that just weren't possible at the end of last year - either because of the incessant rain, or the freezing conditions.

One of those jobs was lifting the gladiolus corms. It's one of those tasks that reminds me so much of growing up and learning some of the rudiments of gardening from my father. He was a great gladiolus grower and used to exhibit them at local shows.

I always thought lifting the corms was a magical time - there was the excitement of seeing how big the corms were, but also collecting up all the cormlets that grow round the base of the new corm. Some varieties seem to produce lots of them and many fall off when the corms are being lifted. My job was to sift through the soil and pick out as many of the cormlets as I could spot. Dad used to grow them on like seeds and in a couple of years they would produce flowering size corms.

So, I was able to re-live that pleasure yesterday when I lifted the corms I grew last year for cut flowers. They're now being dried out a bit so they can be cleaned and the old corm removed, but they're mostly a good size so we should get some good long spikes this year.

And look at all those cormlets. I'll be planting them out just as Dad did - and congratulating myself in a couple of year's time for all the money I've saved by raising my own corms. We gardeners get pleasure from the simplest of things!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Daddy of Leyland Cypress

The snow's come and gone again over the last few days. Referring back to my last blog entry, it made our oldest living willow fence look particularly attractive.

Mature living willow fence in the snow

You can get a good idea from this just how much growth a mature fence can produce each year. Some of these shoots are 10 feet long or more. They all have to be pruned off before the spring. It's a big job.

This view towards our cottage shows how two conifers dominate the treescape. Most of the deciduous trees you can see are ash and sycamore which are the most common trees of the hedgerows in this part of Ireland along with hawthorn, blackthorn and holly. So it's something of a surprise to find two fine conifers specimens planted around the yard of what was a traditional Irish farmhouse. And they're an unusual conifer for this area too - Nootka cypress, also known as Yellow Cypress and Alaska Cypress.

Two conifers dominate the trees around our cottage

The one on the right is a massive multi-stemmed tree about 60feet high and the one on the left a single stemmed tree probably 10 feet shorter. I haven't got much information on growth rates of Nootka Cypress in Ireland, but it's not a particularly fast growing tree anywhere so I reckon these specimens must be 80 to 100 years old - if not older.

Quite how an ordinary farming family came to be planting trees which at that time would have been quite exotic is hard to imagine. The first specimens of this North American native tree only reached Britain in the 1850s and I suspect it would have been a little time after when they reached Ireland. The answer may be found at Caher House about a mile away down the lake. The landscaped gardens of this fine house contain some rather special specimen trees including the largest Sitka spruce in Ireland. Could it be that the family did some work for the owners of Caher House and were given the young Nootka cypress trees to plant by their farmhouse.

Whatever the reason, they've left a legacy of two fine trees that are firm favourites with us. They have a beautiful pendulous habit which means the foliage reaches down to the ground and there's little bare trunk to be seen.

The larger specimen is multi-stemmed and around 60 ft high

The pendulous branches sweep down to the ground

The name derives from its discovery on the lands of a First Nation of Canada, the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, who were formerly referred to as the Nootka. The tree is native to the west coast of North America from Alaska down to the northen part of California and favours wet sites with cool summers - ideal for Ireland then!

Its other claim to fame is that it is one of the parents of the hybrid tree, the Leyland Cypress. In fact, it was the planting the Nootka cypress alongside a botanically close relative the Monterey Cypress in a garden in Wales that gave the trees, that in nature never grew closer than 400 miles to each other, the chance to cross pollinate.

The result was actually a fine tree when planted in the right place, but as a hedging tree for suburban gardens it was a disaster. In 2005 in the United Kingdom, an estimated 17,000 people were at loggerheads over Leylandii hedges, which lead to violence and in at least one case murder, when in 2001, retired Environment Agency officer Llandis Burdon, 57, was shot dead after an alleged dispute over a leylandii hedge in Talybont-on-Usk, Powys - ironically just a few miles from Leighton Hall where the first Leyland Cypress had been discovered back in 1888.

So the claim to fame of Nootka Cypress as the daddy of the Leyland Cypress is perhaps a mixed one, but it certainly makes a fine tree in its own right and the treescape of our little cottage would be much the poorer if it were not there.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Don't take a fence

I've realised reading other people's blogs that I've really no right to complain about the cold spell we're having at the moment. There are lots of people around the world gardening in much more challenging conditions and getting on with it.

I suppose, in my defence, we are in the middle of the longest cold spell here since the 1960s and if the forecast is to be believed - another two weeks of it at least - it's going to be the worst for a hundred years or more. Our local lake, Lough Graney, which is a pretty large lake - about 100 acres in area - is now almost completely frozen over which no-one can remember happening before.

Lough Graney almost completely frozen over

So, we're just not used to it, but day by day we're settling into a different routine. Normally at this time of year we'd be out pruning and doing other winter jobs and this time last year I was weaving my first willow wattle fence to protect my veg plot from the dog and the occasional deer and stray cattle that find their way onto our land.

It's great to see that a year on it's still looking just as good and has encouraged me to do some more adventurous things with the large amount of willow we have growing around our land.

The fence is a simple structure of uprights of trimmed three year old willow stakes driven into the ground with willow withies - one year old shoots - woven between them. It took quite a pile of withies to make this fence, but it's sturdy and animal-proof and should last a few years. The great thing is it didn't cost a penny and it gave me a great deal of satisfaction making it.

Most of the withies used were the common osier or basket willow, but we also have stands of a number of different coloured stemmed willows which I must make an effort to identify this year. One of them has beautiful orange- yellow stems which turn almost red on the side facing the sun.

I used these to make my first living willow fence. It produces lovely straight shoots six feet and more long which are ideal for the kind of lattice-work fence I wanted to create. This is the fence I 'planted' in March last year.

I say planted because holes a little wider than the withies are made at an angle in the soil with a thin metal pole and the withies pushed in to a depth of about six inches. Alternate withies are pushed in at opposing angles and they are woven into each other to create the lattice of sticks. The tops are tied to a horizontal withy to give some stability to the top and that's about it.

The withies root readily as the soil warms up and they come into leaf. I didn't lose a single one in this fence. During the summer any side-shoots are rubbed off to keep the lattice work of the fence clear of growth, but the top three or four buds are allowed to grow out. These shoots are trimmed back to the top of the fence in the winter - that's the next job I have to do on this fence as well as tie in some shoots along the top to provide a more stable fence.

After three or four years, the fence will look like this:

And after 10 or more years a well-established fence will look like this:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Siberian dogwood for a Siberian winter

The challenge I set myself this year was each day to find a new plant flowering in our garden or in the surrounding countryside of East Clare and talk about it. And here I am on day 3 and I've already run out of plants in flower.

We get used to blaming the weather for lots of things in Ireland - usually because it's raining. But with the warm (ha ha) waters of the Atlantic bathing our coasts we aren't usually troubled by extreme cold. But here we are three weeks into a spell where temperatures have rarely risen above freezing point.

Just a month ago we were stunned to see a narcissus in flower (it was actually December 10). We should have realised it meant that this was going to be no ordinary winter. And so it's proving to be. Who says climate change is a myth.

Dwarf narcissus in flower on December 10 2009

The upshot for this blog is that I come to a grinding halt .... or I change the rules a bit.

So today's plant, the appropriately named Siberian dogwood, is offered for the beauty, not of its flowers, but its stems. And what a stunning display it's making this year. The one we have is a selection with particularly vivid red stems - Cornus alba 'Sibirica'.

Siberian dogwood on January 3

This cultivar also has strong green foliage that turns a deep red in the autumn so you get the benefit of autumn as well as winter colour. It loves wet ground - so it loves Ireland - and it propagates itself by layers. In the photograph above, the main plant is to the left and the collection of shoots in the middle is a new plant produced from a shoot laying on the ground and rooting. We've already moved a number of clumps to other parts of land where we want to introduce some winter colour.

You can just as easily stick some of the prunings in the ground or in pots in the early spring and they're pretty well guaranteed to root. Mind you, the way this year's going I should be very wary about saying that anything's a certainty.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Heathers in a foggy bottom

We got off lightly last night. The temperature only went down to -8C. Enough, though, to freeze the water in the pump in our barn - we draw water from our own well here. No mod cons like piped mains water. Fortunately it thawed out pretty quickly with the help of a fan heater so we were only without water for a couple of hours - better than the three days we were without over Christmas.

So, with the arctic weather continuing there's not much change on the flora front. But today's blog is saved by yet another reliable winter flowerer - the winter flowering heather. It's in winters like this that its toughness and tolerance of cold is really appreciated.

We've got a couple of plants in a border to the front of the cottage. I have to admit that we inherited them with the cottage and we've not lavished them with much love and care. We've kept the weeds down a bit - that's about it. But that's the other beauty of these heathers, they're robust enough to stand up to some rough treatment and still put on a good show. And, unlike most heaths and heathers, they're not even too worried about having acid soil round their roots


Winter flowering heather on January 2

I'm not sure what varieties we've got, but I'd take a stab at Erica carnea 'Springwood White' and 'Springwood Pink'. Erica carnea is found in the wild in mountainous areas in central and southern Europe in the Alps - hence its tolerance to cold. A white form was discovered growing on Monte Corragio in Italy by Mrs Ralph Walker of Springwood, Stirling, Scotland in the 1920s. Originally just called ‘Springwood’ but changed when ‘Springwood Pink’ appeared as an offspring.

The Springwoods have remained the stalwarts of the winter heather world ever since although there are now many more cultivars available.

I can't see heathers without thinking of the wonderful Blooms Nurseries at Bressingham in Norfolk, England which were part of my education into horticulture in the 1960s. The nurseries were founded by one of the great characters in the world of gardening, Alan Bloom shortly after the end of WW2.

Heathers and conifers in Foggy Bottom at Bressingham

The nursery was perhaps most well known for popularising the use of herbaceous perennials by growing them in containers and so making them more widely available to gardeners through garden centres. But in the 1960s the nursery was at the forefront of promoting the use of heathers combined with dwarf conifers to create low maintenance beds with all-year-round colour interest. And they showed just how good these beds could look in the area of the gardens at Bressingham known as Foggy Bottom. A name that must have come from the imagination of Alan Bloom.

Nurseryman Alan Bloom at the controls of one of his locomotives

His other passion was steam locomotives and he set about building a collection of the locomotives then being discarded by British Rail and built a track round the nursery to show some of them off. His great joy was to take visitors round the nursery and few of them realised that the eccentric chap with the long flowing white hair and greasy overalls shovelling the coal and taking the controls was actually the founder, owner and boss of the whole establishment.

Alan Bloom died just a year short of reaching the age of 100 in 2005.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Arctic start to the New Year

It's some time since I posted on this blog. I'd love to be able to offer a convincing excuse, but it's perhaps better to look on the positive side and say that it's a New Year - and a new decade - and that's as good a time as any to get back to noting some of the plants I come across on our five acres of rural Ireland - and in the surrounding countryside - and a few other thoughts that link in with them that interest or intrigue me.

My thought was to feature every day, as far as I could, a plant that I had photographed that day in flower. In this part of Ireland where snow is rare and winters are usually relatively mild that seemed a feasible idea. But I didn't count on this winter being such an exception. We are now three weeks into what will almost certainly prove to be the coldest spell in living memory. We've had frost every night over that period and it's getting worse - the temperature is expected to drop to -10C tonight which is pretty well unheard of around here.

Needless to say, the flora is seriously non-floral at the moment and I suspect it's going to stay that way for a while, but I shouldn't have been surprised to find one old favourite still bravely putting on a show - gorse (Ulex europaeus). There's an old country saying that "When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion", meaning that lovers never need worry because gorse is to be found flowering throughout the year.

And here's the proof - gorse flowering on January 1 in the depths of a severe cold spell. OK, it's not exactly at its best, but it's a splash of yellow in an otherwise green, brown and white landscape.

Gorse flowering on January 1

Gorse, also known as furze and whin, grows commonly in this area and was probably planted into hedgerows to contain livestock and provide a good windbreak. It's said it was also planted around dwellings so that washing could be laid out to dry without fear of it being blown away.

The few flowers today weren't offering much scent, but when gorse is in full bloom it produces a strong sweet coconut scent which some people like myself find very noticeable. Others apparently are hardly able to smell it. Presumably bees and the other insects that it relies on for pollination aren't quite so fickle.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cosmic revelations

Cosmos with Small Copper butterfly

OK, I admit the last blog was a bit of a challenge. It takes a peculiar mind like mine to be intrigued by the mathematics of flowers. But I’m also fascinated by the simpler aspects of gardening – and it doesn’t get much simpler than growing annuals from seed.

I’ve always loved growing annuals from seed – right back to when I got my first little garden plot when I was about nine years old. I pretty quickly learned I could fill it with all kinds of exciting annuals from packets of Cuthberts Seeds bought for a few pence from Woolworths.

Later on I discovered that there were seed companies like Dobies and Carters that would post me wonderful colourful catalogues of their seed ranges for free. I even sent off to seed companies in the US for their catalogues and I remember getting a huge catalogue of all kinds of exciting plants from the Burpee Seed Company. As a 12 year old, I found the name enormously amusing. And I bet I was the only boy of my age in my town who had a pile of seed catalogues as bedtime reading!

I still reckon annuals from seed offer fantastic value in the garden and we grow quite a lot to fill the holes in our beds while we are waiting for the perennials to reach full size.

One of my particular favourites has always been Cosmos. It’s such a big showy plant with lovely fern-like foliage and attractive flowers that insects and butterflies just love. But I always wondered why it was called Cosmos as it seems pretty extravagant to name a flower after the universe.

Apparently it was given the name by Spanish priests who found the plant growing wild in Mexico and grew it in their mission gardens. The evenly placed petals led them to christen the flower Cosmos - the Greek word for harmony or ordered universe.

And why is it so ordered? Well the fact that every Cosmos flower has eight petals might have something to do with the previous blog …. but I did promise. No more mathematics!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunflowers - maths, art and the pineapple

My apologies for such a long gap since my last blog - I can only plead pressure of work - some paid, some voluntary unpaid .... and a great deal unpaid and not particularly voluntary either.

But I just couldn't let this picture of sunflowers from our garden pass without a blog.

Why? .......not because it's one of the most beautiful flowers in cultivation or because it's one of the most economically valuable plants in the world.

No ..... what stirred me into action was the connection between the sunflower and a little known Italian mathematician from the thirteenth century, Renaissance artists and the pineapple.

Unlikely, I know, but let me explain.

When you look at the sunflower above, what's one of the first things to catch your eye once you've taken in the overall beauty of the flower and the purity of its yellow colour? It's the spiral patterns shown by the developing flower seeds in the centre of the flower.

It's obviously a result of the way the seeds are packed into the seed heads to get the maximum number into the space available - a triumph of evolutionary development creating such perfection? Maybe ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

Look closely at the flower and you'll see two sets of spirals radiating in opposite directions. In one direction there are 21 and in the other 34. And this is where the Italian mathematician comes in. Those two numbers are successive numbers in a sequence starting with 0 and 1, where the following number is the sum of the previous two. So the sequence goes:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610

This sequence is known as the Fibonacci Numbers after Leonardo of Pisa also known as Fibonacci who lived from 1170 to 1250. The sequence of numbers was his attempt to mathematically define the growth of a population of rabbits under idealistic conditions. That may have been what he had in mind, but actually the sequence has been found very widely in nature - as in our sunflower. There they are - ninth and tenth in the sequence - 21 and 34.

Look at any sunflower and count the spirals. They will always be two successive numbers from the sequence. The huge sunflowers may have 55 and 89 spirals or even 89 and 144 - but they will always be two adjacent numbers from the sequence.

The reason is the golden ratio - and that's where the connection with art comes in.

Renaissance artists who studied classical art and architecture found that there was often a ratio (0.618 to 1) between key features. For example in Michaelangelo's statue of David many measuremnts between important features of the figure follow this ratio. Similarly on the Parthenon in Athens, the ratio between the measurements of key architectural features fitted the golden ratio. Artists felt that using the ratio in their paintings would capture the essence of classical art and used it to position figures in the canvas, or to divide it into land and sky and often in much more subtle ways.

The golden angle is the golden ratio expressed as degrees of a complete circle of 360 degrees. It works out as 137.52 degrees.

Are you keeping up at the back there?!

So, to return to our sunflower. The flower grows on the end of a shoot and if you blow up the shoot tip under a microscope the end is like a flattish circular dome. Each seed starts as a little bump just to one side of the very tip of the dome and moves down the dome as it develops and as new ones are formed after it. To get the maximum number of seeds on the flower head each new bump that becomes a seed forms at exactly 137.52 degrees round the head of the dome from the previous one and so on. It has to be accurate - just a small error and the whole thing would become chaotic - the spiral patterns would disappear and the exquisite packing of the seeds would be lost.

But nature doesn't get it wrong! It keeps producing those little bumps at exactly 137.52 degrees from the previous one hundreds and hundreds of times over to make a single flower head. And it repeats it millions of millions of times around the globe on every sunflower from the Andes to Ireland to Australia.

And the trick is repeated on lots more plants from daisies to pineapples - which makes our final connection.

Ever noticed that the blocks that make up the pineapple fruit are arranged in spirals? Count them up and they will usually be 8 one way and 13 the other. Numbers 7 and 8 in the Fibonacci sequence.

So that completes the connection between the sunflowers growing in our garden, an Italian mathematician, Renaissance art and the pineapple.