Wednesday, 30 March 2011

A fleeting show of pomp . . .

The subject today is an exploration of the flower described as a colourful weed, a term which breaks my heart as it is my absolutely, most definitely and assuredly, favourite flower, the poppy.  It may be not be the season for this little beauty, nor a farmers’ favourite, but today I glorify the tender bloom, which has been deemed by some as “too colourful to be believed”.  The family Papaveraceae, which includes about 200 species found mostly in northern temperate regions, contains my favourite, the common field poppy, Papaver rhoeas.  It is native to Britain, although remains celebrated as the poppy of Flanders.  Poppies have been powerful symbols of blood and resurrection since ancient times.  To the Romans they were sacred to Ceres, goddess of the crops.  In our own century they symbolise the carnage of two world wars.  Following the 1916 Battle of the Somme, fought over the chalk farmland of northern France, countless poppies and other annual wild flowers grew up from buried seed and flowered on the former battlefield.

Their swift vivid colonisation of bleak, bare ground bringing loveliness into a place of killing and barren sorrow.   

John McRae, a British poet, World War I wrote:
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

They are widespread in the British Isles, but less common in northern Scotland and western Ireland.  Found throughout Europe, except Iceland and Turkey.  Flowers appear between April and September and although poppies do not produce nectar, bumble bees still love their pollen.  The single flowers are borne on erect branched, leafy stems up to 60cm tall.  Stems that contain a distinctive milky sap packed full of poisonous alkaloids, nitrogenous plant chemicals known to make animals ill after consumption and for making the opium poppy famously known as a narcotic.  The leaves are divided deeply into lobed sections, with the stems bearing short outspreading hairs.  The buds hold the precious flower and are protected by two hairy green sepals.  These quickly fall away as the petals unfold to reveal a flash of red grandeur.  The flower, which is up to 6cm in size, is beautifully crumpled and tissue-like to begin, then as each petal stretches toward the sunlight, it becomes smooth and silky as if the gentle breeze irons out the imperfections.  Two larger petals form the outer perianth and overlap the two inner petals, meeting at the centre where there are dark blotches and rings of black-anthered stamens surrounding the pistil.  This is crowned with 8 to 12 dark ridges with are the stigmas and will later form the seed-head, a cup-shaped capsule, which spills its many small dry seeds from holes hiding under the top, like a shaken pepper pot.

Poppies ideally grow on disturbed wastelands.  The more disturbed the better!  They love cultivated fields and are especially associated with corn, roadsides and coastal shingle.  I have even seen them in a car park, pushing up through the gravel.  It is due to the ability of these seeds to lie dormant for several years and then germinate when conditions are favourable, that the plants appear so prolifically on arable land.  Wherever soil is turned you’re likely to find these beautiful weeds.

After World War II, poppies gradually declined in the face of modern weedkillers, improved screening of seeds of food-crops, and better farming methods.  Recently, reduced use of herbicides has brought joy to many fields as poppies are becoming common again and the scarlet blooms are reappearing all across the country.  Where poppies are still abundant, whilst being a pain for the farmer, it spells beauty for the onlooker.

A remarkable flower, whose seed can be more than one hundred years old and still germinate.  As quickly as each flower appears, it bursts into an exuberant life, which although short-lived, is one of beauty and boldness.  Without shame, the delicate stem shows off its crumpled, papery petals in a show worthy of a head of state.

Carol Klein describes them as a bunch of brilliant beauties that burst upon the scene.  She says they are the archetypal shooting stars, bringing excitement to its zenith for a short time, only to disappear at a moment’s notice.  But that is their raison d’ĂȘtre.  Suddenly without warning the poppy rapidly thrusts up its fat buds wreathed in hairy cases until, one morning, the first case splits and the red, crumpled, papery petals tumble out, unwilling to wait a moment longer, insistent that their time has come.  Within hours the bud cases have been abandoned, thrown to the ground or occasionally still hanging on to one petal, before it too, swells to take its place, its puckered surface extending almost visibly, pulled to a smooth, satiny shine.

I am completely in love with these delicate, scarlet ladies.  The curve of their stem, the nod of their heads, the fur of the bud.  Most of all I love the crumpled petals, the vulnerability of each flower and their tantalizing appeal.  I am obsessed, hooked on the narcotics of this plant.   I need my fix, quick and sharp but the beauty, the splendour, that remains etched on my mind.



 “In a gentle way you can shake the world” 
~ Gandhi

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Springtime Gardening

The clocks have moved forward and we’re not seeing that beautiful sunset until much later in the evening.  That means some precious time after work for all those things that seem more difficult during winter, the evening walks, the extra few minutes spent looking out the window or in the garden.  It’s not just the darkness of the winter months that makes doing things more difficult, but the dreary, lethargic feeling that it invokes.  It seems that a greater amount of energy is needed, accompanied by a will power of steel.  I have decided to seize those extra sunshine filled moments and take up gardening.  Although I love nature and feel at home in the garden with my camera, my fingers are not exactly what you would call green.  Office plants die under my care, cacti shrivel and orchids run screaming.  It’s going to take a bit of work, copious books to read and no doubt some back pain, but it will be so worth it when the rainbow colours are nodding their glory after they have pushed up through the soil.

Ready to plant are the “Jetfire” daffodil, the giant summer snowflake, puschkinia, tulip, hyacinth, ranunculus, Calla lily, allium, freesia and a whole host of seeds to sow.  Most exciting for me, the poppy!  I have literally thousands of seeds to sow and absolutely CAN NOT wait to see the papery petals unfold.  A tip for a colourful, endless summer of beautiful red poppies is to get some poppy seeds and every week during March/April, chuck some around the garden.  Aim for bare patches of soil and come the summer, they’ll flower and fill your garden with their beauty.  Because you’ve sown in succession, there will be a longer period of colour hitting you.  More on the poppy tomorrow, in the mean time, to get us started, here are some tips for spring gardening from Matthew Biggs at Gardeners’ Question Time.

  • Fill gaps in borders with hardy annuals – sow lots of seed and there will be plenty of flowers for cutting.
  • Resist buying tender plants until the danger of frost has disappeared.
  • As soon as the first weeds appear, pull them out.  This will stop them being too much of a problem later in the season by removing them before they set seed.
  • Buy seed compost to encourage the rapid germination of spring-sown seeds.
  • Tie in climbing and rambling roses so the stems are as near to horizontal as possible.  This will ensure the plant is smothered in flowers as it restricts the sap flow and will encourage more side shoots to form.
  • Sow spring and summer salads.
  • Use high nitrogen spring fertiliser on ornamental lawns (unless it is a children’s play area).
  • Cut back last year's growth.
  • "Harden off" seedlings sown indoors before planting outside.  Move them to the greenhouse, then a closed cold frame.  Slowly start putting them outside on mild days.
  • Feed woody plants with a slow-release general fertiliser.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus...


Happy St David's Day!  

A gloriously warm day, the kind full of sunshine, promise and the scent of flowers.  What better day to celebrate the patron saint of Wales, sat in a sun drenched room thinking of days long gone by in my adopted home country.  In this abundantly beautiful land, that has welcomed me with arms wide open.  

March 1st celebrates Dewi (St David) and his bringing of Christianity into Wales.  Born towards the end of the 5th century, he was a scion of the royal house of Ceredigion.  He founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosin (The Vale of Roses) on the western headland of Sir Benfro, the spot where St David's cathedral still stands and his glory was prophesised many years earlier.  Sometime in the early to mid-tenth century, a poem was written, Armes Prydain, and it predicted that the Cymry (Welsh people) will unite and join an alliance of fellow-Celts under the banner of St David.  During Dewi's lifetime, his fame as a teacher spread throughout the Celtic world, even influencing the original Welsh flag, which depicts light being brought into the darkness (it is black with a gold cross).  Perfectly fitting then that as I write this, hazy light is streaming in through the window.

The national day was chosen on the day of Dewi's death, possibly in the year 588 or 589, and he was recognised as a national patron saint at the height of Welsh resistance to the Normans.  Celebrations go back a long way with the 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys noting how the Welsh celebrations in London for St David's day would spark wider among their English neighbours.  By the 18th century "taffies" (gingerbread figures baked into the shape of a Welshman riding a goat) were being made by confectioners.  Today, many of the 3 million population of Wales will wear a daffodil, leek, be sending their young children off to school in traditional dress or be taking part in a parade or concert with pride.  The leek, St David's personal symbol, arises from an occasion when a troop of Welsh were able to distinguish each other from a troop of English enemy dressed in similar fashion by wearing leeks.  The daffodil is an alternative emblem, which is a generic Welsh symbol and is in season during March.  In Welsh the symbols have similar names; cenhinen (leek) and cenhinen Pedr (daffodil, or literally Peter's Leek).  I will leave it until another post to talk about the daffodil.

In my Welsh class today, we celebrated with our lovely tutor Sharon and a feast.  There were daffodils, welsh cakes, caerphilly cheese, bramley apple sauce and grapes.  Welsh cakes (picau ar y maen) are similar to scones (only flatter), traditionally baked on top of the stove or fire, on a bakestone or heavy griddle and are delicious warm.  The following recipe is from the highly recommended book, The Great British Book of Baking.  It is my current favourite book, filled with enticing recipes and stuffed with stunning photography.

Welsh Cakes - makes 15 

225g self-raising flour
a pinch of salt
100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
75g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
25g currants or sultanas
1 medium free-range egg yolk mixed with 3 tablespoons milk

a 6cm round cutter
a griddle or heavy-based frying pan

  • Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl.  Add the butter and rub in using the tips of your fingers untiul the mixture looks like fine crumbs
  • Stir in the sugar and fruit.  Add the egg yolk and milk, stir the ingredients together using a round-bladed knife, to make a soft but not sticky dough.  If the dough is dry and won't come together, add a little more milk
  • Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface and roll out about 1cm thick
  • Cut into rounds using the cutter, re-rolling the trimmings as necessary.
  • Heat the griddle or frying pan - grease it very lightly only if necessary, as the Welsh cakes should not be fried!  
  • Cook the cakes in batches until puffed up, a good golden brown and just firm on each side, adjusting the heat so they cook evenly.  Allow about 2 minutes on each side.  Remove from the pan, dust with sugar and eat straight away
Wishing you all a lovely St David's day, I will leave you with the very words uttered by Dewi as his tearful monks prepared for his death - "Brothers be ye constant.  The yoke which with single mind ye have taken, bear ye to the end; and whatsoever ye have seen with me and heard, keep and fulfil".