Monday, 29 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Spoiling the plot

Dsc_3077By Emma Townshend

Gardeners spend a lot of time getting their gardens to look nice. There are even those eccentrics who will expend hours and valuable energy improving the attractiveness of their totally utilitarian vegetable plots, for example, salad expert extraordinaire Charles Dowding plants red and green lettuces in alternating stripes for best effect. A more extreme case occurred in recent allotment cookery book Using the Plot, where ultra-anal chef and allotmenteer Paul Merrett confessed to pulling up a whole line of baby spinach simply because he realised it wasn't quite straight.

However there is a downside to getting it all to look picture perfect. You don't want to eat it. I wandered out to pick lettuce on Friday night, and then found myself staring at the gorgeous, perfect little plants, their bronze and bright green leaves contrasting so very nicely, and then thinking: "maybe I'll wait till the photographer comes on Monday".

So I knew exactly what Alex Mitchell was on about it in this very funny piece from the Telegraph web feed. Sometimes, it all looks so good that it's just too heart-breaking to actually eat it.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: The consolations of digging

Dsc_2591By Emma Townshend

The "Love & Sex"supplement in the paper today is about heartbreak, a subject we've almost all managed to make the acquaintance of over the years. Nonetheless, our shared breadth of experience doesn't always guarantee we will all be perfectly in tune when it comes to heartbreak: other, non-heartbroken, people seem to have amazingly short memories about how much it actually hurts. 

When you finally come to have your grand moment of total romantic meltdown, what happens in practice is that everybody pitches in with their version of helpful advice which bears no relation to the agonising pain you are experiencing. "More fish in the sea" is a line you can definitely hear too many times, no matter what novel version of it your grandma thinks up. Ditto: "you were too good for him" and that satisfying old corker: "well, I never really liked him".

What you need at this point in time are endorphins, and lots of them. Going for a run is an obvious solution, but let me here make my own personal case for digging. Digging is great for several reasons. It will make you sweat, like running, but it will also let you see visible results, like repainting a hallway. It also has some shared qualities with one of The Independent's recommended break-up activities, clearing your clutter. Taking a patch of weedy ground and leaving it clear, fertile and ready to plant, is enormously satisfying for practical reasons alone.

But there's a deeper level of explanation as to why gardening works as
a break-up cure. We are agricultural animals, and digging and raking
take us out of ourselves and connect us with the natural world, with
the outdoors, and with a sense of process and time that we can lose
when our lives are disrupted by personal heartache. It's no surprise
that some of the keenest gardeners are those who are coping with the
heartbreak of loss and grief: dealing with divorce, mourning a beloved
partner, coming to terms with a bad diagnosis. Books like Carl Krauss's Letters to Kate
tell the story of how gardening helps a thoughtful writer through the
tragedy of his wife's sudden death; the much more English, darkly funny
Allotted Time
by Robin Shelton, is a tale of a man who finds a good solution to
depression and marital breakup in tilling the soil and general spade

Looking at the brown paper bags of new bulbs sitting in my hallway
waiting to be planted, though, I'm reminded that it's not just the
romantically miserable who need the consolations of the garden. By
early January, I will be craving the cheery sight of bulbs breaking the
surface of the soil. The most important lesson though is that we can
all do with a bit of a restorative dig - we don't need to wait for our
hearts to be broken.

Monday, 15 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Smells as good as Chanel No.5 (To flesh-eating beetles)


Plants have got very different rules of attraction to human beings, for one simple reason: they can't move. As a consequence, they have to use different techniques - like delicious-smelling perfumes - to make what they want happen. And as it turns out, they are mostly on the case of attracting pollinators, not mates.

When I do volunteer guiding at Kew, one of our most asked-for plants is the Titan Arum (pictured here in flower at the Eden Project). It's no surprise that people want to see it, but what you can't get from the photo is the unforgettable reek of rotting flesh that issues forth from that titanic flower. 

Plants mostly do nice perfumes, so why does the Titan arum have such a problem putting together a pleasing fragrance? Well, Arums in generally are pollinated by flies and flesh-eating beetles - so actually the rotting meat odour is entirely deliberate; this flower smells just as good as Chanel No.5 to a fly.

Despite it ponging out the jungles of Sumatra, Western collectors didn't manage to track down the Titan arum till 1878 when Italian Odoardo Beccari managed to stumble across it growing in the wild. The name, however, was invented by David Attenborough in a fit of rather English modesty - according to his own account he didn't feel comfortable talking about the plant using its Latin name, Amorphophallus, through a Sunday night family TV show.

To complete the dead meat illusion the plant goes through a process called thermogenesis, where it heats up that amazing yellow spike to a good 40 degrees Celsius, sending waves of carrion perfume into the surrounding areas on movements of warm air.


It's hardly surprising that we find the plant off-putting when we get near it, but nevertheless there are a few human beings who get a kick from the terrible pong. For obvious reasons, these nutters are mainly expert horticulturalists who crave all the kudos of getting a plant like this to flower. Tim Grigg, Eden's top Titan Arum expert, pictured here, said just after this one bloomed in August, "As soon as I walked into the Rainforest Biome last night I could smell it a mile off - its rotting flesh-like whiff is really distinctive. I was delighted."

The really interesting question, of course, would be whether Grigg's enhanced greenhouse skills lead to him attracting more horticulturally-minded ladies.   

A Nice Green Leaf: Oral pleasure, bat stylie

Anoura_fistulata_2By Emma Townshend

As I said yesterday I have got a slight obsession with University of British Columbia's Botany Photo of the Day. 

At the end of August, though, editor Daniel Mosquin surpassed himself by posting pictures of the world's only plant evolved to be pollinated by a single species of bat. The tube-lipped nectar bat rolls out this extraordinary tongue to get at a nectar that is right down the bottom of that long, long tube. The plant can only be pollinated by the tube-lipped bat, because no other species has a tongue long enough.

The bat-flower expert who took the stunning picture is Dr Nathan Muchhala of the University of Toronto: his hilarious webpage features loads more photos of bats living it up, plus one of him looking not dissimilar to my own idea of Bruce Wayne. You can even listen to him on a Nature Podcast talking about how these bats stow their giant tongues inside their rib cages. (Rather them than me.)

The really important bat lesson, though, is that the flower and the bat together represent a great example of co-evolution. The plant can only be pollinated by that one bat, and the bat's tongue means it's adapted to feed on that single plant. so each species is entirely dependent on the other. 

The word for pollinated by bats is Chiropterophilous, as The Human Flower Project, another wonderful blog, points out. I don't think I even knew that flowers could be pollinated by bats. But apparently, what bats are looking for is musky-smelling, pale-coloured, smooth waxy flowers which produce their nectar at night. Sexy.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Seductive Lucifer


It's been a good year for Crocosmia. They seem to have grown as big and gaudy and lush in all the torrential rain we've been having as they would in a normal year in a Cornish hedgerow. I can hardly ever remember them loking this good (that is, outside the former TSW broadcasting region).

But however much they look at ease in the West Country they are actually, Kaiser-Chiefs-style, breathtakingly far away from home. As evidenced by this spectacular photo of Crocosmia "Lucifer", with its chief pollinator: a hummingbird.

The photo comes from one of my favourite blogs in the entire world, the University of British Columbia's Botany Photo of the Day. Every day they feature a new flower, with enough written detail to get you intrigued. This one certainly put a new slant on a plant I'd begun to think of as a Cornish local. It amazed me to see the Crocosmia with this tiny, precise flyer making its fuel stops.

Hummingbirds are a bird we never see in the UK, disappointingly, but in California they are common - I've even seen them on a wintry November afternoon in San Francisco. Yet in California the Crocosmia is even further from home than it would be in Newquay; the plant is originally from Africa, and the plant's original pollinators were sunbirds, tiny little things pretty much like Hummingbirds. The one difference is that sunbirds prefer to perch while feeding, and a Crocosmia stem is just stiff enough to take the weight of one of those tinies.

To be seductive to the miniature nectar-feeding birds, the plants take some serious steps. They time their flowering to the birds' breeding season; they make their nectar highly sugary to keep those little wings flying. Most importantly of all, they are bright, flaming red. Birds have their finest hue discrimination (I'm quoting Wikipedia here, does it show?) at the red end of the spectrum, so it pays to make the flowers as pillar-box, Routemaster Red as possible.

But what's in it for the plant? Well, while craning their little beaks around inside the Crocosmia's corolla, the tiny birds touch various protuberances that efficiently wipe pollen all over the bird before it flies off to another flower. A seductive red leads to a successful fertilisation. Job done.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Mosquin and the UBC Botany Photo of the Day

For an exploration of seduction of a more human kind check out day two of The Independent's "Love & Sex series".

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Your baked potato's sexy cousin


I bought a £7.99 Brugmansia from Wyevale earlier this summer, thinking it would be one of those impulse purchases that never comes to flower. So how wrong was I? I feel (as usual) ridiculously pleased with myself for getting the plant to this size, even though garden writer and fellow enthusiast Jane Owen said to me this afternoon: "Well they are easy, they're just such tarts," which took me down a peg or two.

I think Brugmansias are the nuttiest flowers I've ever grown in the sense of sheer unadulterated wow and madness. These things are actually bigger than a wood pigeon (the fattest comparable thing currently in my garden). And they appear from nowhere. The proof is in this timelapse (never let it be alleged that I don't bring you timelapse anymore).

But the bit that drives me the most crazy is the extraordinary scent, which has a lemony start followed by aDatura_flower whole rush of peculiar smelling perfume that makes me feel as if I want to climb over the fence into everyone else's garden, strip naked and start dancing.

Evidently it's not just me, though, who gets sent a bit loopy by the moonflower. It turns out the genus have been used in magic rituals since before recorded history. The plant's most powerful chemicals are tropane alkaloids, but to many consumers it would be enough to know the plant's a member of the Nightshade family. Even if that does also include potatoes.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: (Dangerous) fruits of the forest


The British are famously reluctant to go out in autumn and pick mushrooms, particularly in comparison to our continental neighbours. This week's story about Nicholas Evans, author of the Horse Whisperer, just confirms all of our fears of the unknown dangers that lurk in the forest: he was poisoned by eating Cortinarius mushrooms, Deadly Webcaps, that he probably confused for delicious edible Chanterelles.

The worrying part of the story is that Evans is described in The Independent piece by a friend as a "real outdoorsman". Commenters on The Times site were quick to jump in as if confusion between fungi could never happen, but consulting Roger Phillips's encyclopedic photographic guide to Mushrooms, I find that the Webcap has killed people many times before in Eastern Europe as well as causing countless cases of both reversible and irreversible kidney failure.

The only real surefire way of avoiding poisoning is the American technique: as Stephanie of Bristol says on The Times site, "Wow. In American we are taught to never, ever, EVER eat wild mushrooms, an attitude that is more consistent with the dominant Health & Safety culture over here." 

The American suspicion of forest fruits doesn't just stop at mushrooms. Slate gardening writer Constance Casey revealed yesterday that US diners won't even eat blackcurrants, finding them too strong and earthy in flavour. She gives a funny account of trying to serve them at a dinner party, but from her article I imagine Americans are possibly also put off by the idea of our English teeth, and Ribena's role in their downfall. 

Yet blackcurrants are currently being touted in Britain as our own native superfood, crammed with antioxidants and undemanding to take care of, staying relatively small in size and able to thrive and fruit in light shade. In the meantime, if you go down to the woods today do not follow this advice sent into The Times in 1850: unless you are a married woman, dears.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: We need to talk about Christmas


Okay, it's the start of September, we're allowed to talk about Christmas now! I'm not about to return to the exciting topic of the imminent Sarah Raven Christmas book, nor to Lucy's recent revelation that Alan Titchmarsh also has previous form on the subject. No, this time it's about real gardening.

However much you hate premature discussion of the Yuletide season, there are several jobs gardeners need to do right now to make their currently long-distant Christmas perfect.

Firstly there's the question of forcing indoor bulbs. Honestly, get on with this and you will absolutely fall in love with your own smartness round about 20 December. Whatever bulbs you pick will need to have been fooled into thinking that winter is over - so either you pay more for pre-chilled "prepared" bulbs, or you do it yourself and save money.

Amaryllis (I learned recently) need to have produced three green leaves for every flower they put up in the winter, so treat them nicely through these last weeks of sunshine to maximise flowering. When autumn begins and the leaves start to yellow, trim the bulb back, remove it from the soil, and put it in the chiller of your fridge for a minimum of six weeks. (Don't store bulbs alongside any fruit as the gases produced by ripening fruit will cause problems.) Six weeks before Christmas, get the Amaryllises back out and pot up as you did last year, feeding and watering attentively. 

Another Christmas must is Narcissus "Paper White", the one it's almost impossible to mess up. Firstly, they don't need to be in the dark, secondly they need maximum eight weeks to come into flower. But if that "almost" still worries you, check out detailed instructions to make sure you get it right. Plant in October for for Christmas blooms, ensuring the top of the bulb is above the surface of the compost. If you try other narcissi, remember that they will need a cold spell. If you do it smartish, you can even think about giving them as Christmas presents.

I am also thinking now about new potatoes and salad leaves, for that period after Christmas where I have stuffed my face for two weeks solid and find myself craving something light and fresh and green. I've bought some Maris Peers from the supermarket, and I'll keep the bag in the chiller cabinet of the fridge for a few weeks, then plant them straight into autumn-warm soil. These potatoes will need to go in a frost-free spot such as tubs right near the back door, and hopefully will produce new potatoes sometime around new year. If it goes below zero at night, I'll be outside with the fleece to see the delicate little plants through the night. More detailed instructions from the fabulous Emma Cooper here.

Finally, if you are really ambitious, this programme really made me smile. It's nothing less than a Smallholder's guide to growing a complete Christmas dinner. There's details of how to do the entire spread, from leeks to brussel sprouts. Though not, thank goodness, the turkey.