Saturday, May 30, 2009

Like golden rain

Laburnum X 'Vossii' at Doorus, Co Clare - a stunning display this year

Beautiful long strings of flowers catch the sun

Our Laburnum tree has been absolutely stunning this year – thoroughly living up to its name of Golden Rain Tree, it’s been just dripping with huge long strings of brilliant yellow flowers.

It’s not a native of Britain and Ireland, but it has been around for going on 500 years.

There are two species of Laburnum – the Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) and the Scotch Laburnum (L. alpinum). Both are native to the mountain of southern Europe from France through to the Balkans, but their potential as ornamental trees for gardens was recognised early on. The Common Laburnum was introduced in 1560 and just 30 years later came the Scotch Laburnum – so-called because it stood up rather better to the harsher conditions north of the border.

But the most showy and commonly grown Laburnum, and the one which we have in our garden, is a hybrid between the two. Laburnum X watereri ‘Vossii’ or Voss’s Laburnum. Like all the most successful hybrids, it combines the best of both parents, with the longer strings of flowers of the Scotch Laburnum and the more densely packed flowers of the Common Laburnum.

The hybrid seems to date from 1864, and I presume from the name that it originated in one of England’s most famous nurseries, John Waterer & Sons of Bagshot in Surrey.

When I first became involved with horticulture back in the 1960s it was one of the first nurseries I visited. They were still growing their speciality, rhododendrons, in a very traditional, and labour-intensive way. Most were grown in the soil and hand-dug with a root ball and bagged for sale. Techniques that had probably hardly changed over the 140 years the nursery had been in business.

Nowadays, of course, much plant production in containers is highly mechanised. It might seem more like factory production than horticulture, but it does mean that a far wider range of plants are now much more affordable than they were back then.

I’ve not been able to find any records of Waterer’s having an interest in Laburnums – or who Voss was, but a Rhododendron raised at the nursery called ‘Betty Ann Voss’ is perhaps a clue. Maybe the Laburnum is also named after her – or perhaps she’s the wife of Mr Voss who worked at the nursery as a plant breeder.

Whatever the origin, ‘Vosii’ is the Laburnum to look for if you plan to plant one in your garden. As well as its better flowers, it also sets very few seeds – a great advantage as the seeds are highly poisonous.

As this is a member of the pea family the seeds are in pods which children can think are rather like pea pods. Eating large numbers can cause severe illness and even death. But don’t let that put you off. You’ll get few if any seeds from ‘Vosii’.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The darling buds of May

Mayblossom at Doorus, Co Clare

Right now, our hawthorn trees and bushes are putting on a great show. And there’s a good chance that wherever you are in the Northern Hemisphere you’re going to be sharing the same experience ..... and feeling, just as we do, that the hawthorn display really does signal that summer is just around the corner.

Most people across the British Isles know it as May or Mayblossom – a reminder that many centuries ago hawthorn blossom was reliably available as decoration for the First of May – May Day. These days, apart from in the more climatically favoured south east of England, it’s normally at its best a couple of weeks into the month. So why is it now usually late?

Surprisingly, the answer is not climate change - or the influence of the El nino ocean currents – or one of those other fashionable environmental explanations. It’s much simpler than that. As far as Britain, Ireland and most of North America is concerned it dates back to 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. This inserted the calendar correction of removing 11 days so that Wednesday, 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday, 14 September. So when May Day came round the following year, it was actually only April 20 – and this shift in dates has remained with us ever since.

The hawthorn's pivotal position between spring and summer made it deeply important in mythology – reflected in Shakespeare’s phrase the ‘darling buds of May’ – referring to the opening buds of the Hawthorn pointing towards the warm summer ahead and marking the change from youth and exuberance to adult maturity.

It comes from Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

We also see how the flowering of the May tree has long been regarded as an important moment of seasonal change in the proverb: ‘Ne'er cast a clout ‘til May be out’ – clout being old English for an item of clothing.

Although the Hawthorn is widely known as May, it also has a host of other names, some of them quite odd. Where I grew up in West Yorkshire it’s known as ‘cheese and bread’ – presumably from the taste of the shoots which are edible when young. Here in Ireland it’s often referred to as ‘Johnny Magory’ or ‘Johnny MacGorey’ – I’ve no idea why.

In Ireland there's also a lot of superstition surrounding the hawthorn. A tree standing alone in open ground is known as a fairy tree and there is a strong feeling that to cut one will disturb the fairies and bring a great deal of bad luck. Even in recent years roads here have been re-routed to avoid uprooting hawthorns.

The hawthorn also features in one of the most evocative books recounting the horrors of the Irish Famine in the 1840s when over one and a half million men, women and children died from hunger and related diseases. ‘Under the hawthorn tree’ by Marita Conlon-McKenna tells the story of the three O’Driscoll children who lose both parents and then their baby sister who is buried under the hawthorn tree to be with the fairies. They set out to walk across Ireland to try and find their great aunts who they only know about from the stories their mother told them. Not surprisingly, it’s an epic battle for survival. It was made into a film by a cast and production company made up entirely of young people – mostly at school. Here’s a clip.

The last part of it refers to protests against the disgraceful continuing export of corn from Ireland to England rather than it being used to feed the starving.

Even more inexplicably, Britain’s relief effort, such as it was, centred around dried corn which was bought from the US and kept under close lock and key in the control of Sir Charles Trevelyn. He welcomed the famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population,” and refused to distribute this corn to anyone who could theoretically provide for themselves including those who were fit enough to work, regardless of the fact that no work available, and those with a quarter of an acre of land or more.

Anyone caught attempting to steal the corn from his warehouses faced deportation to Australia – the subject of one of the most powerful Irish songs - The Fields of Athenry – heard at its best when sung by many thousands at one of Ireland’s great rugby matches. This clip was recorded at a match between Munster and the welsh team the Ospreys just a couple of weeks ago. I was there with my daughter who was visiting from England, and you can get some idea of the spine-tingling effect of 25,000 voices singing this deeply moving song in unison.

Fields of Athenry - the Lyrics

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Micheal they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the Fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing
we had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters Mary when you're free,
Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity.


By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blackthorn to Finnegan's Wake

Blackthorn in flower at Doorus, Co Clare

If gorse, the subject of my previous blog, lights up the Irish landscape with splashes of yellow in early spring, then blackthorn follows with a liberal dusting of white. Only to be replaced by the more intense white of hawthorn blossom in May.

All three are thorny, but blackthorn takes the prize for the most vicious, as we’ve discovered to our cost when we’ve been trying to cut it back or clear it. The thorns will penetrate leather gloves, the soles of Wellington boots and many layers of clothing and leave themselves buried painfully deep in fingers. It’s these qualities that make it a hedging plant of choice in this part of Ireland to retain livestock and provide protected shelter for game birds.

Not surprisingly it’s been given the Latin name Prunus spinosa – the Prunus part, a reminder that this is a member of the plum family and it does indeed produce small plums – commonly know as sloes.

They’re really much too tart to be used in cooking, but most people know about Sloe gin – not really a gin, but an infusion of the fruit in gin or other distilled spirit to create a liqueur.

But what makes the blackthorn a plant steeped in Irish folklore is the shillelagh – the walking stick or club which was very often made from the dense wood of the blackthorn – using the knotty stem base and root as the club end. Suitable sticks were suspended in the open chimneys to harden and acquire the sooty blackness of the true shillelagh.

These days the shillelagh is an object of fun bought, often with a shamrock painted on it, as a ‘souvenir’ of Ireland. But in reality it was a serious weapon used in stick-fighting contests, and the skills of this marshal art were passed on from one generation to the next.

I remember singing along to The Clancy Brothers, who revived the wonderful 1850s Irish drinking song, Finnegan’s Wake and wondered quite what was meant by:

“Shillelagh law was all the rage and a row and a ruction soon began”

Of course, this was a reference to the laws that governed the use of the shillelagh in formal fights.

By the time Finnegan’s Wake was written, the shillelagh was much more the weapon of choice in gang warfare and faction fights that had a habit of breaking out at social gatherings – particularly when there was a lot of drink around.

Listen to this performance by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem of this wonderfully funny song – with a bit of explanation about the song and the lyrics ….. and sing along.

The singer Tommy Makem, in the introduction refers to James Joyce and his book Finnegan’s Wake – said to be loosely based on the story in the song.

Most people know Joyce for Ulysses – and that’s considered to be a pretty hard read – but it has nothing on Finnegan’s Wake. It was Joyce’s final work and written over 17 years in Paris and published in 1939.

I think the style would be described as experimental. To me it’s a bit like the literary equivalent of abstract art. You’re not entirely sure whether it’s a work of genius or a lot of nonsense. Still, it’s kept a lot of worthy academics busy trying to interpret what it all means.

What makes it so hard to understand is that Joyce made up a language with references to Latin and other languages and then threw in a lot of made up words –often combinations of other words or made-up words conveying sounds or emotions.

Here’s a sample:

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

You can get an impression of what he's writing about - or at least you think you can!

So there we are. The humble blackthorn has got a lot to answer for.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gorse of course

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and rainbow over foothills of Wicklow Mountains (top) and gorse flowers (and spider!) at Doorus Co Clare

This is really just an excuse to include in my blog this photo I took last week on the fringes of the Wicklow Mountains on the Eastern side of Ireland. It was early in the morning and the countryside was bathed in bright sunshine when a sharp shower produced a spectacular rainbow right ahead of me. I had to pull in and capture the moment.

I'm sure I ought to have known this, but it hadn't struck me until then, that when the sun is low in the sky, as it was then, the rainbow it produces is also a low arc in the sky. I suppose I'm more used to seeing rainbows that come with rain later in the day and then it's hard to capture the full arc without a very wide angle lens.

It's not coincidental that gorse is in the foreground. It's a dominant feature of the landscape in Ireland - surprising really for a plant with reduced leaves and spines - adaptations for growing in dry conditions. It obviously isn't aware that 'dry' and 'Ireland' are rarely, if ever, heard in the same sentence.

In early spring gorse has the landscape to itself and wherever you look, yellow is the dominant colour. Now the blackthorn and hawthorn are in flower white is starting to edge out the yellow. But the remarkable thing about gorse is that it flowers pretty well throughout the year, hence the old saying:

"When gorse is out of bloom,
Kissing's out of season."

The custom, in some parts of the British Isles, of inserting a spray of gorse in the bridal bouquet is an allusion to this saying.

We've got quite a few gorse bushes on our land and the sweet scent of coconut they give off is quite noticeable - particularly at this time of year. It's inspired me to have a go at making gorse flower wine which apparently retains this delicate aroma of coconuts.

The recipe is:

1 gallon of gorse flowers
1 gallon of water
2-3lb of sugar
1 tablespoon cold tea
1 orange
1 lemon
50g root ginger
25g yeast

Cover the flowers, ginger, orange and lemon juice and rind with boiling water. After 5 days, with occasional stirring, strain into a fermenting jar. Dissolve the sugar in the rest of the water and add it. When cool add the yeast and cold tea. Syphon after a couple of months and again in 8 to 10 weeks.

I wonder what the tablespoon of tea is for?!

It sounds easy enough. Look back around October to see whether it turned out to be drinkable!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Archangel or devil

Yellow archangel
Lamium galeobdolon

We have a lovely plant growing at the top of our trackway and next to our car park. Its common name is Yellow archangel or Yellow deadnettle. English Nature agrees and says it is a “beautiful, yellow-flowered plant with nettle-like leaves which is a member of the dead-nettle and mint family.”

The one we have growing is actually a cultivated form with silver markings on its leaves which makes it even more attractive. But over in the USA the story is very different. In a number of states the archangel has become the devil in plant form and it has noxious weed status. Orders can be made to have it cleared and destroyed like some dangerous alien invader.

OK, it does spread quite readily, but sometimes that’s just what you want – a plant that does what a ground-cover plant is supposed to do …. cover the ground. I suppose it's all a matter of degree.

Why is it called archangel? The view is that it closely related to the red and white dead-nettles which, because they flower close to April 27, the day dedicated to the Archangel Michael, are sometimes called red and white archangel. Yellow archangel flowers a little later, but shares the name because of its similarity to them.

It also shares with them the reputation as a guardian against evil spirits and, in particular, for protecting cattle against a disease known as elf-shot. This disease is commonly referred to in the literature and folklore of Celtic areas. It was considered to be inflicted on cattle by elves acting for witches using flint arrowheads – the artefacts we now know to be of Neolithic origin. The arrowheads were supposed to cause a paralysis known as elf-stroke – from which we get the now familiar medical term of a stroke.

So, you take your pick …. archangel, the devil, or protector against witches. I just like to think of it as a lovely plant with bright golden flowers and attractive foliage. If it keeps my farming neighbour’s cattle healthy, then so much the better.