‘A Ridiculous Blue’

Arusha, a small town in northern Tanzania near the border with Kenya, is probably best known as the starting point for expeditions to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or for safari tours of the national parks to the south. For me, in 2001, it was the latter, with the holiday company Exodus, and where we spent our first night in East Africa. It was also where Agapanthus, the African Lily, first came to my attention. The short walk from the hotel to the centre of town took us along a road lined with relatively modern bungalows with lushly planted front gardens. Here were stands of Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpets) and hedges of Poinsettia, which until then I had seen only as a Christmas pot plant, doomed to fade and shrivel shortly after Twelfth Night. But most memorable was the profusion of Agapanthus Africanus, because they were ‘a ridiculous blue’, as David Nicholls describes his heroine’s eyes in his new novel ‘Sweet Sorrow’ read last week on BBC Radio 4.

In the years that followed I planted an Agapanthus in my little south-facing front garden, where it not only succeeded but positively took over for a year or three, self-seeding itself generously. Now confined to three chunky clumps of approximately 6 or 7 stems apiece, they dominate the front elevation of the house throughout July and are this week opening to their full splendour. They have shrugged off their pinkish tissue-like membrane to reveal numerous individual flowers, held on fine stemlets about 4cm long, branching from the apex of a sturdy 1 metre stem rising from a crown of strappy leaves. And they are indeed ‘a ridiculous blue’: not lavender, not navy, not saxe, but resembling the bright skies in mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. The flared six-petalled flowers are very attractive to pollinators.

IMG_8563They will remain in flower now for several weeks, before shucking off the shrivelled petals to reveal pods of slender black seeds which judging by the many plantlets that take root in the slate surface of the front garden, are both viable and vigorous. I root out these fleshy rooted seedlings every autumn and pot them up to give away or fill yet another of the terracotta pots which are threatening to crowd the sunny spot at the back of the rear garden. I feed all the Agapanthus plants monthly during autumn and winter, with a liquid seaweed feed to ensure good flowering the following season. In the summer after I failed to do so, one of the large front garden plants failed to produce a single flower. Elegant and architectural as the mid green leaves are, the absence of flowers was noted by most visitors to the house, even the non-gardening ones.

The narrow beds which surround the Palm House in Kew Gardens are planted with Agapanthus praecox, creating a soft fringe at the base of Decimus Burton’s Victorian iron and glass structure which, along with the Pagoda, symbolises the Gardens.

Another programme on Radio 4 which attracted my attention this week was ‘The Pleasures of Brecht’, which focussed on a deceptively simple poem by the German poet and playwright. Written in 1954, ‘Vergnugungen’ lists life’s pleasures including two of my own, ‘writing, planting’.  Of course planting is only one aspect of the greater pleasure which is gardening in general, although I do derive a tremendous satisfaction from the act of choosing where to plant, preparing the ground, firming the plant into the soil (using the thumb and index finger method favoured at Osterley) and watering it in.

A friend who is a German scholar tells me that composing a list of one’s favourite things, in the style of Brecht, was an exercise she was set during her A Level German course. I am trying to compose my own (inevitably horticulturally biassed) list which I might share in a future blog. Meanwhile here is a translation of the original version:

‘First look from morning’s window
The rediscovered book
Fascinated faces
Snow, the change of the seasons
The newspaper
The dog
Dialectics
Showering, swimming
Old music
Comfortable shoes
Comprehension
New music
Writing, planting
Traveling
Singing
Being friendly’

Lest it appear that I spend the entire week listening to Radio 4, I have also been working in both a client’s garden and in my own. Weeding and hedge trimming for the client and and carrying out a major ivy and bindweed clearance in my garden, in an effort to hold back the invasion from the unoccupied property next door. I also took a friend from out of town to see the Dale Chihuly glass exhibits in Kew Gardens and her delighted reaction to the first sight of the white and clear glass ‘petals’ in the pond in the Waterlily House was a highlight of my week. The pink Lotus flowers (Nelumbo nucifera) have grown through the sculptures, creating an exquisite tableau.

On Friday I joined Ed, a colleague from the Friday volunteering team to lead a guided walk in the gardens at Osterley, my first experience of doing so. Starting on the elegant steps at the rear of the house, facing the parkland, he began with a brief history of the garden and as we progressed into the garden we took it in turns to address the group of 16 visitors at pre-arranged places, to point out seasonal highlights and share stories of particular plants. When we paused beside the weeping silver lime, Tilia tomentosa, my explanation of the narcotic effect of the tree’s nectar on bumblebees was somewhat contradicted by a large bee loudly exiting from between the tree’s drooping boughs and ‘buzzing’ the audience.

Earlier in the week the garden team had cleared an area behind the scenes which contained an accumulation of plants which were superfluous to requirements. Gardener Ed (not everyone at Osterley is called Ed, though sometimes it does feel like they are), sent me home with three Iris germanica or Bearded Iris rhizomes. He anticipates the flowers might be white, yellow or blue. I am hoping that late next spring I shall find out if one or more of them is ‘a ridiculous blue’. In the meantime the sight of plump Agapanthus flowerheads as I approach my front door is definitely one of my daily pleasures.

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Bicycle botanics

Perched on a road bike on a hill climb and in the lowest gears is not the ideal situation in which to identify plants growing at the roadside, but I confess to finding myself doing so on Monday this week. I was lucky enough to spend last weekend with a friend in the north of the beautiful island of Mallorca. In preparation for a cycling challenge later this summer, we completed a 25 mile round trip to a cafe a couple of kilometres beyond the monastery of Lluc, in the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana. Much of our route was a steady climb, craggy peaks visible ahead.

I was peripherally aware of intriguing plants to my right, but so fixed was I on the task in hand I did not give it the attention I might have done had I been on foot. The descent posed different challenges with bike handling taking precedence over botanising. However, along with a sense of a rise in air temperature as we rode towards sea level, I noticed that the scrubby white Cistus bushes (Rock roses) and Scabious (Balearic pincushion flowers) which lined the road at the higher levels, gradually gave way when we reached the plain to margins carpeted with Daucus carota (Wild carrot). Beyond the verges are olive groves and fields of almond trees.

Self-seeded beneath the wooden barriers which protect road users from cliff-sides and sheer drops I spotted species of Euphorbia and Verbascum. For most of the higher regions to either side of the route lay forests of Holm oak (Quercus ilex) and an aromatic conifer I haven’t been able to identify, with roadside signs indicating wildlife reserves and hiking paths. Fat dark brown pods approximately 15cm long scatter the tarmac in some places, the fruit of the Carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua).

Needless to say, being on a bike prevented me from photographing the plants I’ve mentioned. There follow images of some of the plants I saw in gardens on the island, several of which are grown in the Temperate House in Kew Gardens.

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Mediterranean fan palm: Chamareops humilis
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A species of Cycad

Strelitzia reginae

Succulents entwine the terracotta heads above this stone table in the gardens of a sculpture garden near Alcudia, ‘Museo Sa Bassa Blanca’.

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Apricot fades to cream in this climbing rose at the Museo Sa Bassa Blanca.
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Beyond the rose garden at the Museo sa Bassa Blanca lie the hills of the Alcudia peninsula

 

The wild banana, Strelitzia Augusta,  or giant white bird of paradise.

Finally, I’d love to identify the following plant, a shrub approximately 2 metres high, with pea-like purple flowers opening from this delicately veined bud. Do comment if you can tell me what it is.

 

 

 

Purple days

Betrayal, remorse, death: and yet such beauty. Cercis siliquastris is said to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself after turning Jesus in to the authorities having identified him with a kiss, and in return for 30 pieces of silver. The Judas tree as it is commonly called is planted throughout the various gardens of the Alhambra in Granada: in those beside the Nasrid Palaces, the ramparts, the monastery of St Francis (now a hotel) and across the valley in the Generalife which my guidebook translated as ‘the garden of lofty paradise.

When I visited in the third week of March, few deciduous trees were in leaf, highlighting the many evergreens across the estate, notably the ranks of cypresses silhouetting the upper terraces of the Generalife. Consequently, the deep mauve flowers of the Judas tree stood out boldly in the landscape. Close examination reveals that the pea-like blooms erupt from branches, twigs and even trunks of these remarkable trees, with the heart-shaped leaves emerging several weeks after the flowers making the colour of the trees  all the more prominent.

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Shades of purple predominated in many of the plants in flower during my visit to Granada: the irises in the foreground of this view of the city from the Generalife Gardens and the wisteria clothing ancient walls and perfuming the air with the unique fragrance which in this country I associate with mid to late April.

And it wasn’t only the purple flowers which were in bloom at least four weeks before those at home. The palest of pink peonies dominated a bed surrounded with clipped myrtle in one of the Generalife’s upper gardens, the Jardines Altos.

This garden was beside the intriguing Escalera de Agua, where instead of a banister rail, water flows along stone channels on either side of the steps leading to the wonderfully named Mirador Romantico. This feature reminded me of William Kent’s early 18th century landscape garden at Rousham House in Oxfordshire where the shallow zig-zagged rill’s source is in a woodland glade leading to the cascades and pools which eventually flow into the River Cherwell. In the Generalife and the palaces of the Alhambra the numerous rills connect the pools and fountains at the centre of the patio gardens, many of them cloistered with elegant pillared arcades, off which lead chambers decorated with intricately worked plaster and ceramic tiles in vivid colours.

In the final week of April, at home in west London, the two notable Judas trees in Kew Gardens have been in full flower. One spreads its branches dramatically at the foot of the steps from King William’s Temple in the centre of the Mediterranean Garden and the other overhangs the perimeter wall beside the Queen’s Garden at the rear of Kew Palace. The former forms a backdrop to some of the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly now erected in many parts of Kew Gardens, and to which I shall return in future posts. In my back garden at home I have been delighting in the extravagant purple and mauve swags of the wisteria, as well as its gorgeous perfume.

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Figs in squares and a recipe for Seville orange marmalade

During my recent visit to Andalusia, I noticed that in Seville, as in Granada and Cordoba, the most commonly planted street trees appeared to be citruses. It was a novelty to find these glossy leaved, and sometimes surprisingly thorny trees growing in the city’s thoroughfares and squares, because until this visit my only experience of the Seville orange was of the annual pilgrimage to the supermarket in mid January to secure a couple of kilos for marmalade making. This species of orange, Citrus aurantium, is favoured for preserve making because of its bitter peel and because its high  pectin content helps it to set.

This year I bought double the usual quantity of fruit and enjoyed a companionable day with a friend de-pithing and de-pipping, slicing and simmering. With the aid of two preserving pans we filled approximately 30 1lb jars with the sharply sweet preserve. After giving some jars as gifts, I estimate this will last until the autumn when I fill the gap until next January by making three fruit marmalade with sweet oranges, grapefruit and lemon. Whilst in Spain I learnt that the Spanish word for any  kind of jam or marmalade is ‘mermelada’ from which I understand our ‘marmalade’ derives, via the Portuguese word for quince, ‘marmelo’, which were originally boiled with sugar before the same technique was used with oranges.

Seville orange marmalade

1.5kg Seville oranges

2 lemons

2kg granulated sugar

1 muslin bag

8 sterilised jam jars

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  1. Halve and juice the oranges, then scrape out the pith and pips into the muslin bag or onto a square of muslin which tie into a bag.
  2. Shred the rind thinly or thickly according to taste and add to the preserving pan with the orange juice, 2.5L of water and the muslin bag, immersed in the liquid and ties to the pan handle.
  3. Simmer gently, uncovered, for 2 to 2.5 hours until the orange rind is soft. Meanwhile place some small plates in the fridge to chill.
  4. Remove the muslin bag and squeeze as much of the juices into the pan as you can. Discard the bag.
  5. Add 2 kg of sugar and the juice of the lemons and stir over a low heat until dissolved. Turn up the heat and boil rapidly for 15 minutes.
  6. After 15 minutes, spoon a little marmalade onto a cold plate. There is a ‘set’ if the marmalade has a crinkly skin when pushed with  a finger. If it’s still runny, cook for another 5 minutes and test again.
  7. Remove the pan from the heat, skim any froth from the surface with a large spoon and leave for 15 minutes before filling the hot sterilised jars using a ladle with a lip.
  8. Seal the jars with a disc of waxed paper the surface of the marmalade, a larger disc of cellophane secured with an elastic band and the jar lid. Finally, label the jars.

The other street trees which made a big impression on me in Seville were the Moreton Bay Figs or Australian Banyan, Ficus macrophylla, which in at least two squares we saw served as monumental anchor points at each corner. One such square was Plaza Cristo de Burgos where our Air BnB apartment was located: in a large two patio building behind an ancient facade. Fig trees similarly framed the corners of the Plaza de Museo, one side of which is occupied by Seville’s wonderful Museo de Bellas Artes, in a former convent building. We took a break from the beautiful paintings and sculpture at an open facaded ice cream shop on the opposite side of the square where, appropriately enough, I chose the delicious fig ice cream. Not that the small stumpy stalked fruit of the Moreton Bay Fig is appetising, being described as unpalatable and dry. The little fruits litter the ground and are presumably consumed by birds and other fauna.

The striking features of these trees, sheer girth and height aside, are the sinuous aerial roots which wind around the spreading buttress roots and are protected in ‘overcoats’ of hessian sackcloth.  Clothing the roots in this way may be less a protective measure and more a method of preventing the tree living up to its species characteristic as a ‘strangler fig’. The magnificent specimens in this square are already huge and by restricting the younger aerial roots in this way, the scale of the trees might be controlled somewhat since I read that the roots are invasive and can damage pipework and pavements.

The oval evergreen leaves reflect the species epithet ‘macrophylla‘ meaning large leaved and create a dense shade which was welcome even in the last week of March.

 

 

Where the street trees are oranges

If the overriding fragrance in late March in the southern Spanish city of Granada is that of wisteria (four weeks ahead of Greater London!), that in Cordoba is of orange blossom. Orange trees, many bearing both blossom and fruit, line the squares and avenues of this elegant city. Those growing on Calle Claudio Marcelo, where our Air BnB apartment was located, were laden with waxy white flowers and were planted closely together to create a cooling, shady environment for the busy office workers who seemed to frequent this district, a ten minute walk from the famous Mezquita. A temperature on the day we arrived of 25 degrees helped to pump out the sweet scent onto the street, having the practical effect of masking the less than fragrant odours emanating from the large recycling bins opposite the door to the apartment building.

Previous readers of this blog may have noted the writer’s penchant for salmon-pink geraniums. Just a cursory exploration of the secluded patios and calles of Cordoba revealed dozens of terracotta pots attached to available vertical surfaces: white-washed walls, metalwork balcony railings and external staircases: almost all spilling over with geraniums ranging from pale pink to magenta, via salmon-pink and scarlet. Clearly little or no frost affects the colourful displays. In a few secluded patios, glimpsed through wrought iron grilles known as ‘cancelas’, orange Clivia Miniata is visible, its spectacular trumpet like flowers thrown into vivid relief against the strappy dark green leaves. To this Northern European visitor, used to seeing the ‘Bush lily’ in glasshouses or conservatories, this was a truly exotic sight: in March AND outside! I read recently on the Kew Gardens Facebook page that this South African species, also commonly known as the Natal lily, is threatened in the wild by over-harvesting for both horticultural and local medicinal uses. The latter includes the treatment of snake bites.

Citrus trees also feature in the courtyard gardens of the Palacio de Viana, a mansion dating from the sixteenth century in the district of Santa Marina in the north east of the city. Twelve patios and a central garden are embedded within the extensive buildings of the palace, each courtyard inspiration for a small formal city garden. There are central pools with fountains in most of the courtyards, each of which is named for a predominant feature (Courtyard of the Well, the Pool and the Chapel) or historic association: hence the Courtyards of the Cats and the Madama. The planting is distinctive in each patio with an emphasis on container planting in most of the smaller areas. The range of plants is very extensive. A corner in the reception courtyard features Monstera deliciosa, the Swiss cheese Plant, in terracotta pots. Assorted half pots filled with the Sprengeri asparagus fern, Asparagus sprengeri, decorate a nearby wall. Intricate patterns of pebble mosaic cover the patio floors around the central fountains and doors and shuttered windows painted a muted shade of turquoise open tantalisingly off each patio.

In the Courtyard of the Bars, intensely blue and purple Senecio cruentis (commonly called Cineraria) is displayed in a theatrical tableau against one of these doorways: another example of a plant which is more usually seen at home as an indoor or conservatory specimen. The formal structure of the large square garden is created with four quadrants each comprising four beds bordered with box hedging (not a hint of box blight to be seen), some of the top surfaces clipped into hemispheres. Here a Date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, towers over the citruses: lime, lemon, grapefruit and mandarin as well as sweet and bitter oranges.

Function also plays its part in this little corner of paradise, in the form of the Courtyard of the Gardeners, where the gardeners used to store their tools, and the Courtyard of the Pool with its glasshouse used for propagation and pool containing water from the well in the neighbouring Courtyard of the Well which is served by an underground stream and supplies enough water for all twelve courtyards.

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The design principle of a house constructed around a central patio is evident in the site we visited in the countryside to the west of Cordoba, Madinat Al-Zahra, where archaeologists have uncovered and partially reconstructed an Arab city dating from the tenth century. Rooms in the houses in the upper part of the site are arranged around wide square patios. An introductory video in the visitor centre at the foot of the hillside upon which the ancient city is located, helped me to envisage how these homes would have looked. In the March 2019 edition of the RHS magazine, The Garden, an article about garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith’s ‘Le Jardin Secret’ in Marrakesh contained a useful summary of the elements which symbolise the Islamic vision of paradise: ‘fourfold layout, water (the essence of life), enclosure and shade, a private space and symbolic, indigenous planting’. Madinat Al-Zahra survived for barely 75 years before power struggles within the ruling caliph’s family brought about the destruction of the city. Six centuries after its demise, the builders of the Palacio de Viana used these elements in the design of the many courtyards of the palace.

Next time I visit Seville Cathedral and discover a link with a tree in the garden at Osterley.