Thursday, 31 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Blue Valentines

By Emma Townshend

I have been wondering lately in the supermarket about the tempting fresh Kenyan peas and broccoli, and thinking whether, just for once, I should buy some. It's the first time I've ever thought about buying air-freighted produce in a positive way - rather than just avoiding it and feeling guilty if I occasionally swerve from the path -  but I have no other gesture of solidarity with which to register my (yes I know, insignificant) sympathy with what's happening to people there.

As Reuters has
reported today Kenyan horticulturalists are really in trouble. The
biggest town in Kenya for flower and vegetable growing is Naivasha,
which sits in an idyllic position by a lake in the Rift Valley. However
the town has been hit by ethnic violence, and this morning only thirty
per cent of workers there turned up for work - the rest stayed at home
for fear of encountering trouble.

In cooperation with the Red Cross, the flower industry plans to set up
camps to allow workers to stay safely near the farms without
encountering danger on the way to and from work.
The problem for Kenya's flower industry is that it is reliant on the
European market for flowers, and with Valentine's Day and Mother's Day
both up and coming in the next six weeks, they need to get workers back
into the fields, dangerous or not. In fact, all of Kenya needs the
flower harvests to take place smoothly, as exporting flowers and other
produce is one of the economy's biggest earners. Whilst I could hardly
claim to be a great fan of Kenya's flower industry, I do end up feeling that this is one time where it would be better to buy Kenyan, than not.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: The Overwhelming Gardens of Marc Quinn

By Emma Townshend

Marc Quinn's show of new work opened last night in White Cube's beautiful new Mason's Yard gallery, comprising a startling collection of stone foetus sculptures which have hit the headlines this morning. (Even the Daily Mail described them as "amazing". Surely that's a first for Britart.)

But the upstairs gallery houses a treat for those of us who are of a
more flowery inclination. Quinn has always had a botanical bent, as his
"Garden" and "DNA Garden" of 2001 showed - a kind of miniature Eden. He has since gone a step further with "The Overwhelming World of Desire", a 12 metre high sculpture of orchid "Winston Churchill".

Now in London you've got the chance to experience Quinn's weird and
colourful world for yourself. So, whatever the Daily Mail says, don't
confine your visit to the giant babies. Make sure you see the giant
flowers too.

(Photo: Marc Quinn Studio/Jay Jopliong/White Cube)

Thursday, 24 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Reading Books Can Save Trees. Sometimes.


I don't feel as guilty about the amount of paper used in books as I do in the newspapers I read, despite reports at the weekend about the amount of energy used in manufacturing paper. For a start, books are much easier to give to a charity shop so that they get re-used. But still, in Britain we use an awful lot of trees in our apparently insatiable urge for print media. You'd think, therefore, that with all this worrying about people not reading as much as they used to, that tree fans would be feeling a certain relief.

Not so. In fact one of my favourite internet sites is Green Metropolis, which is a slightly eccentric online  bookshop which gives a share of its profits to the Woodland Trust.
Just like a real-life charity shop, the contents of its virtual shelves
are pretty random, comprising A Level set texts, quality chick lit by
Marion Keyes, and the obligatory half-read copy of White Teeth.

Best of all, just like a real charity shop, you'll occasionally
find a real treasure. And every book is £3.75 including postage. Which
seems expensive, when you think that most charity shop books are more
like £1.99. But look closer, and you'll find that Green Metropolis also
conceals a sophisticated book-swapping system - because you can sell
your second-hand books through them and receive £3 for everything you
sell. So each new title you buy from the site will actually only cost
75p, as long as you sell something else too.

Finally, if you're not convinced by that, look at this way - buying
online, you won't end up accidentally also buying any of those really
amusing charity shop ornaments that your boyfriend totally hates.

Monday, 21 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Titanic Tim (and Lara)


Before Christmas I wrote about the Titan arum (smelliest flower in the entire world etc...) blooming at both Kew and Eden. This happy coincidence of timing enabled the Eden plant to be fertilised with pollen taken from Kew. Though the Titan pollen had to be driven to Cornwall at some speed by the heroic Lara Jewitt, Kew Gardener, in order for all the mechanics of fertilisation to work.

All that effort has been worth it. The Eden plant is now coming into fruit,
closely guarded by Lara's Cornish counterpart, Tim Grigg (pictured
here). For those of us frustrated by the small window of opportunity
the flower offers to visitors (it lives for only about three days),
this is promising news. The weird Lords and Ladies-type fruit will be
ripening for the next six to nine months, according to Eden. And will provide millions of hilarious photo opportunities for anyone with a wide-angle lens, it looks like.

Friday, 18 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Palm Tree So Big It's Visible From Space (And On Ceefax)


It reads like the beginning of an article in The Onion, but I am actually reporting on new scientific research, published this week in the journal of the Linnean Society. It's not often major botanical discoveries are reported on Ceefax, but there it was:  "Giant Self-Destructing Palm is Discovered", see Ceefax page 124 for more details.

The palm is almost 20 metres tall, and was discovered by Xavier
Metz, the manager of a nearby cashew plantation. Anyway, here's my
favourite bit: "The palm is so massive that it can even be seen in
Google Earth." Area man says wow.

But why haven't the Linnean Society posted Google Earth coordinates then? So unfair.

Actually, it's probably because we'd all be out
trying to dig up one of less than 100 known trees to sell
to unscrupulous collectors. Sigh. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Drunken Women, Lazy Blondes

Sarpo1_2By Emma Townshend

Disappointingly, despite the misleading headline, it's some more potato news. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall may go on and on about how we are missing out on amazing tastes by neglecting traditional varieties of fruit and veg, but what about those evocative names? (The Drunken Woman and the Lazy Blonde are both kinds of lettuce, by the way, according to London Seed Exchange organiser Lindsay Wright.)

You can check out alternatives to the standard supermarket options at this year's London Potato Fair and Seed Exchange,
at Harris Girls' School in East Dulwich, on Sunday 27 January. The
cutest thing about it is probably the verging-on-1950s £1.50 entrance
charge. But it remains a real opportunity to recycle some of those
seeds you haven't got round to growing, trading them in for other, more
promising varieties. And all the money raised goes to charity.

If you fancy adding to the list of deliciously-named potatoes,
but don't have time to breed your own, consider entering the
now-almost-legendary celebrity potato competition at Dulwich College on the fourth Sunday in February. (Honestly, don't ask, just click the link.)

Sunday, 13 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: It's a home-wrecker


Wisteria pruning is beginning again in earnest this week. The first prune was done back in July/August, when you trim back all those whippy strands which grew so particularly fast in 2007's wet weather. The usual rule is that you make them about an arm's length.

But in January, once all the leaves have died away, you do another once-over of the whole plant. This second prune shortens all the growing stems back to about a hand's length of the main trunk and branches.

The objective of the second hard prune is to get the world's prettiest shape, even when there are no leaves on it, and also to force the wisteria into flowering profusely.

I took this springtime photo in France two years ago and it shows the absolute ideal as far as I'm concerned: a beautiful twisty trunk and branches, about to burst into thousands of racemes of flower (you can click on the picture to see it in more detail).

It's no wonder that the wisterias come from China and Japan where the beauty of a gnarled trunk like this is much appreciated. But I am determined to master the art of the wisteria this year, involving me and my secateurs in many shaky ladder moments. But by pruning hard and often like this, not only do you get a better shape and flowers; you also keep the wisteria out of the roof tiles, gutters and chimney pots, where it can really do some damage. Even this classy and well-controlled French example is showing the unquenchable wisteria desire to wreck some exterior fittings.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: International Year of the Potato 2


A breaking story just in to the Potato News Desk... Bee Wilson's new book, Swindled: From Poisoned Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee, currently being read on Radio 4, introduces the new science of food DNA profiling. Environmental health officers and their equivalents the world over are turning to brand-new methods of sniffing out dodgy fruit and veg, according to the Authenticity Unit at the British Standards Agency.

"Authentic" food just means that the food is exactly what it says on the label - nothing else. And some of the most inauthentic food we eat turns out to be the humble spud. We will pay a substantial premium for named food varieties these days, whether it be Aberdeen Angus beef or Egremont Russet apples. In a study reported by Wilson, 294 samples of so-called King Edward Potatoes were tested against the known DNA profile of a genuine example of Britain's
favourite spud. 33% were mislabelled, and 17% were not King Edwards at all. Many were actually Ambo, a similar, modern variety of floury potato, which has more disease-resistance and which is therefore easier to grow.

However the two don't actually look all that similar, as a quick consultation of the European Cultivated Potato Database will confirm. Is it a bit depressing that we don't even know what the food we buy is meant to look like?

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Year of the Potato

800pxpotato_and_cross_sectionBy Emma Townshend

Amazing how different the history of the world can look when you spend the day with some French people. Eating hachis parmentier for Epiphany on Sunday (a dish which looks suspiciously like Shepherd's Pie to me) I learned that Antoine Parmentier, not Sir Walter Raleigh, was responsible for giving the potato to cuisine.

But that's not what we were told at school, where we all drew nice
pictures of Sir Walter planting his Irish fields with the new delicacy.
Or for that matter, how they told the story on Blackadder,
that repository of British historical folk knowledge. So where does the
truth lie? Maybe the UN can spend a bit of time in its slightly
bonkers-sounding Year of the Potato getting to the bottom of this cross-channel battle for pomme de terre supremacy.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: A New Park for New York


More news from New York: Governor's Island, reached by ferry from the Battery Terminal in lower Manhattan, is about to be redeveloped as an open space for New Yorkers and tourists alike. I can't believe there are still unused bits of land anywhere near Manhattan, but there you go - 167 acres, just half a mile off the shores of Wall Street, are going to be given a proper going-over by a team combining several firms of acclaimed landscape architects.

Governor's Island always used to belong to the US coastguard, but in
the 1990s they closed down operations there. Then in 2002 President
George W. Bush announced that the United States of America would sell
Governors Island to the people of New York for a nominal cost, as long
as the island was used for public benefit. Apparently this doesn't
mean casinos, the only use strictly forbidden in the covenant of sale.

There are lots of historic buildings in the northern part of the
island, but for open space fans the southern part of the plan is the
most exciting. A new 40-acre park
may include museums hidden under earthworks and will make the most of
spectacular views of city and harbour. I'm particularly keen on the
idea of a wild salt marsh, returning part of the island to its natural
state, and many miles of bicycle trails. Lovers of rusty machinery and
benign neglect may want to visit this year, though, before work begins.
From June you can pop over and hopefully take advantage of a free bicycle scheme to tour the island.

Friday, 4 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Too Posh to Hoover


It's that time of year when you find yourself at the municipal tip with a queue of other ferociously irritated people all waiting to get rid of their Christmas trees. I cheered myself up by spending my time in the grouchy-tempered line by flicking through all the newspapers in my recycling, which actually did reveal some gems I'd missed.

In particular, Robin Lane Fox's ever hilarious gardening column in the FT continues to represent all that is fine about having one of Britain's top academics writing about small niceties such as how to keep your cyclamen alive.

And bless the old duffer for writing about the "new fashion" in Christmas trees - retentive anti-needle-drop species. Maybe Oxford has a slower innovation take-up rate than Richmond-upon-Thames, but my mum started buying Nordmann firs when I was about fifteen (needless to say
this is really quite a long time ago now). Well anyway, I found out one thing – having decided to eschew novelty and plump for the old-fashioned and painfully needle-dropping spruce, I think we can safely conclude that one job dear Robin clearly doesn't have to do is his own hoovering.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: The Finest Vines Available to Humanity


The New York Times reported this week that Staten Island Botanic Garden, smaller brother of the prestigious Brooklyn Botanic Garden, has decided to plant an authentic Tuscan vineyard to tempt visitors on to the ferry to their under-visited Gotham neighbourhood. Nearly 40 per cent of Staten Island residents are descended from Italian stock, so the theme seems particularly appropriate: "The vineyard encapsulates what Italians brought to Staten Island: agriculture, wine, culture," says board member Joseph J. LiBassi in the NYT piece. Lucky members of the board have already been on a fact-finding mission to Italy (tough job).

There's just one problem with the SIBG idea: since the phylloxera
epidemic that raged through European vinestocks in the 1860s, plant
imports from Europe to the US are strictly forbidden under tough
American customs rules (despite the fact that they gave it to us
to begin with...). So in a slightly sad undermining of the whole point
of the exercise, Staten Island will have to import the grape plants for
its Tuscan vinery from within the US. Still, I've heard that America is a big Italian country too...

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Lose Pounds the Lagerfeld Way

800pxhoodia_gordonii_p1010383By Emma Townshend

Having stuffed yourself silly over Christmas you can now ponder some of Karl Lagerfeld’s best horticulturally-related diet tips. Lagerfeld famously lost six and a half stone a few years ago on a severe regime using the appetite suppressant Hoodia, which is derived from a south African desert plant. Hoodia leaves have been chewed for hundreds of years by African bush hunters, who use the plant to stave off hunger pangs on long hunting expeditions. Now, Hoodia plants are more likely to be guzzled by anorexic New Yorkers in desperate pursuit of size zero. Anyway, it worked for Karl.

However, there is a downside. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has warned that diet enthusiasts have pushed the species to the edge of extinction in its native Botswana. That's why they are stockpiling seed in the Millenium Seed Bank, a nice place for a feel-good winter visit, and a hike through Wakehurst Place's windy paths at the same time will definite burn off a few calories without you having to despoil further the Southern African bush.