Mountain thistles, a suburban palace and a maritime sink garden
High in the mountains of Northern Iraq grows a wild thistle-like plant the young leaves, stems, roots and undeveloped flowerheads of which are gathered every spring whilst its the spines remain tender. The flavour of the plant when cooked is said to resemble asparagus and artichoke. In a recent conversation with a Kurdish friend I learnt that the wild harvest of this delicacy heralds the arrival of spring in Kurdistan. Called ‘Kereng’ in one of the two Kurdish languages, Gundelia tournefortii is also known as Tumble Thistle. A member of the daisy family, it grows at altitudes of up to 2,500m, and is pollinated by honeybees and pollen feeding beetles. By mid-May, the stem separates from the root, allowing the entire plant to be rolled into a ball by the wind and carried over the ground to disperse its seeds.
Analysis of pollen in the fabric of the Shroud of Turin in 1998 revealed that over a quarter of the pollen identified was assigned to Gundelia, leading some researchers to suggest that Christ’s crown of thorns was made from its spine bearing branches. I read that Gundelia has been cultivated in Paris’s botanic garden, the Jardin des Plantes, since the early C18 when it was introduced by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656—1708), a professor of botany at the garden who carried out a plant expedition in the Middle East accompanied by the German botanist, Andreas Gundelsheimer (1668–1715).
Containing more than 32,000 species, the daisy family or Asteraceae rivals the orchid family as one of the largest in the plant kingdom. Late summer and early autumn is an ideal time to see the colourful members of this diverse family lighting up herbaceous borders with vivid hot shades of yellow and orange. On a visit to Eltham Palace in south east London in late August, I found swathes of Echinacea and Rudbeckia in the Lower Moat Garden. I first visited Eltham Palace a year or so after English Heritage reopened it in 1999 after an extensive restoration of the unique Art Deco mansion attached to a Tudor Great Hall built by Stephen Courtauld in the 1930s. My chief memories of that visit were the salmon pink leather upholstered dining chairs and the huge carp in the palace moat and I do not recall the gardens making much of an impression. But I can see that the gardens have since been lovingly restored with their secluded ‘rooms’ providing welcome shelter from the hot sunshine on the day I was there.
At Osterley the daisies feature throughout the gardens at the moment. There are diminutive Cornish daisies, Erigeron karvinskianus, near the elegant steps to the rear of the house, perennial sunflowers, Cosmos and Goldenrod (Solidago) in the Picking Garden and Heleniums in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. With a handful of us volunteer garden team continuing to lead 45 minute garden tours twice a week, these cheerful flowers provide colourful highlights as we progress through the garden to where deep burgundy and orange Dahlias (also daisy family members) are complemented in one of the potager style beds in the Tudor Walled Garden by the velvety plumes of Amaranthus.
In a digression from daisies, I would like to share my favourite plant scene from the last week in August, and one created without human intervention. At one side of the coastal path from Croyde Bay in North Devon to the promontory of Baggy Point, I noticed an expanse of upended slivers of shale, in the crevices between which were growing a myriad of tiny succulents. I have often admired these miniature landscapes replicated in troughs displayed outside the Davies Alpine House in Kew Gardens, but to see one such terrain ‘in nature’ in the golden hour before sunset with the outline of Lundy Island hovering on the horizon 20 miles away to sea was a special experience.
POSTSCRIPT: 1 October 2019
I began this post with a reference to Tumble Thistle, Gundelia tournefortii, named for a seventeenth century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Paris last week and joined a walking tour of the area around Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement, in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway who lived there in the 1920s. Eager to show us an example of a street sign which had been altered due to historic events, the guide took us to the former Rue Neuve Genevieve, where the name was etched into the stone wall of a building at the corner of the street. The abbreviation ‘Ste’ was obliterated after the French Revolution in 1789, when religion was outlawed during the period known as the Terror. By coincidence the street is now called Rue Tournefort, with the classic green edged blue Parisian street sign showing the name of the botanist who lends his name to one of the more intriguing members of the daisy family. The Jardin des Plantes is located approximately half a mile from this spot.