My Favourite Window

December 29, 2010

Willow Patterns

Surely there is no fragrance more heavenly than the balsamic scent of willow foliage. This morning the air was heavy with it,  wafting even into the house.  As I walked under this tree to fetch the morning post, I was struck by the many little vignettes of mystery that have appeared about the tree over the past week of gales and heat and rain. Coming down my front steps the little pool, barely ankle-deep after the recent heavy rain, sparked childhood memories of deep pools where the River carves into the banks creating cool, trout retreats and swimming holes. 
Then stooping past the collapsed bough, I noticed how its
are quickly yellowing and falling to carpet the ground, creating a Tom Bombadil miniature landscape, where the ephemeral stream has passed through.
Tranquility, reminiscence... 
devastation: the crown of the willow broken in the first day of the gales.  Through this spring and early summer I have been admiring the shapeliness of this willow and anticipating that sometime soon a gale would steal its perfection. I remember my father thrusting a Y-shaped twig, cast from the older willow tree, into the the ground beside the dry stream bed, maybe 30 years ago. The Y-shape is still there in the hefty trunk, but the tree is changing its character.

Weeping willow  Salix babylonica

December 26, 2010

Complements of the Season

Gale force winds tearing the willow tree to shreds; wild fires consuming the land,  haymaking to beat the weather; earthquake aftershocks. . .

"Christmas Day," Lady Mondegreen reminds me,"Wasn't it a beautiful day? Sunshine with a light breeze; lunch under the willow; family around you and gentle reminders of Elwin: the best Christmas Day for years."

December 21, 2010

Sweet Solstice

Not the kindest scent to assail a newly widowed woman with: the scent of man, the scent of his loving ... smell a sweet chestnut tree in bloom and see what I mean.  One is flowering now in the Secret Garden, attracting moths at night and flies and bumble bees during the day.
"On the other side of the world it is marrons glaces time," Lady Mondegreen remembers wistfully.  If New Zealanders can eat mince pies, roast turkey and plum pudding at Mid Summer, melt in the mouth sugar-saturated chestnuts wouldn't be out of place amongst the Christmas comfits. 
"Except that this is such a bountiful time in the garden," counters Lady Mondegreen. And she is right. How can we not celebrate the produce of the season when we plan our Christmas dinner?
Kitty brought home a huge cauliflower from her school garden and as I blanch and freeze this surplus, the first cherry plums are dropping, neighbours are showering us with their strawberry glut, blackcurrants are ripening and there are some precious gooseberries edible now.  There will be new potatoes on most Christmas tables, and asparagus too, though fresh garden peas have become a rarity as gardens get smaller and convenience dictates frozen. I would like to add cauliflower with mint somehow to the menu.
As a closing thought, for a more sweetly aromatic, flowering tree than the sweet chestnut, seek out the lime trees - often in street plantings - for their bee-loud, fragrance. 
I have been writing this as I watched tonight's lunar eclipse: easily viewed through the great new gap in the willow tree, where the Nor'west gales are tearing the branches away!

Sweet chestnut  Castanea sativa
Lime, linden  Tilia x europaea or T. cordata

December 18, 2010

Clover Fork

"That's a nice pitchfork," I said to Graeme. "I could do with one of those."
"It's not a pitchfork, it's a clover fork," he said.
Graeme was clearing the hedge clippings behind me as I trimmed the church hedge this morning.  He showed me the difference: five tines instead of three, and because this farmer comes from an old farming family he could also add some history to the usage of clover forks. Whereas pitchforks were used to gather sheaves of hay or straw to toss onto haystacks, clover was gathered loose off the field for stacking. The closer tines and broader scoop of the clover fork would have suited the nature of clover better than the widely spaced tines of a pitchfork.
And for my readers in frozen climes or even the city folk here in New Zealand, this is hay-making time. Gone the days of pitchforks and sheaved haystacks, but the tractor driven-mowers , tedders and balers are working in the rural paddocks, turning out deep windrows  of hay, fitting around the frequent rain and turning much of the grass into big round bales or baled sileage.  However...
"Not a good hay year," Graeme says, philosophically.

December 16, 2010

Knee-high Giant

Out of the blue and in the midst of the business of Estate management, car maintenance, and school break-ups, I came across something yesterday that made my botanical juices flow beyond all reason.  Where the tyre shop jostles up to the liquor-store, and in a border, which some developer once "landscaped," but which is now a tangle of weedy shrubs and piles of rubble I found not one, but two dubious characters. Giant hogweed and coltsfoot. Coltsfoot is on the NZ restricted plant pest list of plants not to be sold, propagated or distributed.  This is one of two sites in Rangiora, where I have seen it - surviving maybe from an old garden. In traditional herbal lore it was and still is used as a cough medicine.  According to Gerard: A decoction made of the greene leaves and roots, or else a syrrup thereof, is good for the cough that proceedeth of a thin rheume.  The botanical name  reflects this use in the element tussi from the Latin word for cough. 
   Giant Hogweed: to be able to stoop and take a photo of its  huge umbel is a novelty indeed,
since its normal habit is to tower above head height.  For any dis-believers, this is not the common hogweed, which has a more restrained habit of growth. This creature appears to have been felled either by the Nor'West wind or recent work men's incursions into the border. Still, the bent stem has continued to feed the flower head, and now it is poised for admiration and study at knee level.   The individual flowers in this great head can be seen in detail, the irregularity of the outer florets are easily discernable, and bumblebees forage greedily.
Growing giant hogweed bears a certain responsibility; to understand the effects of the sap on human skin.  It can sensitise skin so that it is extremely sensitive to sunlight provoking a sunburn rash.  Yet this same plant is fondly remembered by old Englishmen, who were once naughty little boys, for its hollow stems and their pea-shooter qualities.

A note for gardeners on the bending of plant stems. Gertrude Jekyll used this technique to bring tall colour down into the front of her borders and to fill gaps.  A conceit to revive maybe in this wind-torn region.

Giant Hogweed  Heracleum mantegazzianum
Coltsfoot  Tussilago farfara

December 13, 2010

Mixed Blessings

As white as milk,
And not milk;
As green as grass,
And not grass;
As red as blood,
And not blood;
As black as soot,
And not soot.

"Have you noticed that the blackberries are flowering?" asks Lady Mondegreen.  There is quite a lot I'm not noticing in the garden these days, like the first umbel of florets on the climbing hydrangea. After ten years of coaxing the plant out of long grass and up the walnut tree it is now living up to its name.  This spring I found the first tiny green buds and showed them to Elwin, who had been watching them develop with me.  But now I hardly have time to pay indulgent attention to the garden as the business of estate affairs has taken over. 
The blackberries - one of this garden's wild things - grow wherever there is protection from Me. In hedgerows, under overgrown shrubberies, in wood piles... And now they are flowering; their dainty, hovering white cups belying their vicious brambles, and promising a juicy feast.

Blackberry, bramble  Rubus fruticosus
Climbing hydrangea  Hydrangea petiolaris

December 10, 2010

Flowers by Air

Just when I have cleared most of the flowers from the funeral - how they lifted my spirits: both the garden-gathered posies and the florist-bouquets - I received a new delivery. From Ian in Wellington, came this posy of Iceberg roses, with a picking of French lavender. Ian hand-delivered them himself having miraculously transported them in his hand-baggage yesterday, on a flight from Wellington to Christchurch.  From his garden in Karori, Ian had precisely gathered each bloom at unfurling stage and packaged them in a careful elaboration of wet paper, cling film, cardboard toilet roll inner, and supermarket bag. The lavender came in a dainty side spray for use as I pleased.

A little note about the pink glass vase, which was just the right one for this offering: like many recent aquisitions this came from my mother's house. But unlike most of the treasures, which had been hidden for so long, this 1940s vase had sat on a window sill to be admired at every outside passing.  Visible but untouchable, since the room behind the drawn curtain was filled to the brim with the hoardings of an obssesive collector.  I was still working on clearing this room when the Earthquake struck, and when I was eventually able to reach the window, this vase was a reward in more ways than one.

December 2, 2010

Bobbie James

"You forgot to mention Bobbie James," chides Lady Mondegreen.
"I haven't seen Bobbie James," I reply in defence, but go out to look for this rose in bloom. No wonder I hadn't noted it yesterday. This rambler does not tumble but romps instead into high places to show its flowers. And the highest place available to our plant is the top of Nick's Pittosporum hedge behind our garage. This explains the lack of illustration today - I just cannot get close to the flowers. The flowers: those beautifully restrained semi-double, white saucers with their little boss of gold stamens flowering in multi-flora clusters. Sir Robert James' original plant grows massively against the front wall of his family home, St Nicholas House in Richmond, Yorkshire (England), but was covered with mildew, when I last saw it. I think Bobbie James' eponymous rose prefers the Antipodean climate as this Ashley specimen is always robust.
Sir Robert was a renowned plant collector and during his lifetime gathered plants in New Zealand, some of which were still growing at St Nicholas fifteen years ago. My favourite discovery was the stand of whipcord hebes grown above head height and flowering prolifically, their dainty blue flowers an unfamiliar sight in New Zealand gardens. About this time his widow, Lady Serena, asked me if I might be able to source some Mt Cook Lily seed, as Bobbie's original plants had died out, but being a fickle young traveller I never did get around to replenishing her stock.
But back to the rose! Seeing it's adventurous spirit, I feel inspired to take some cuttings and throw a few more around the Secret Garden: mingle it perhaps with the earlier flowering Cherokee rose up the gum trees or through the big pine hedge.

Rosa 'Bobbie James'
Cherokee Rose  Rosa laevigata
Whipcord hebe  Hebe cupressoides
Mt Cook lily  Ranunculus lyalli

December 1, 2010

Of Cabbages and Roses

I have been overwhelmed with gifts these last few weeks, amongst them the most beautiful fat cabbage. This was a neighbourly gift from Nick-next-door and I am eagerly making coleslaw from it.  But while I haven't been looking, the roses have been coming into full bloom.  This little village of Ashley Bank sits on heavy silt deposits over old river shingles. The overlying loam is likewise heavy, although where the Secret Garden dips into an ancient river terrace, sandy soil laced with sea-shells is only a spade-depth away.  Gardeners may curse the loam, sodden in winter and baked hard in summer, but roses thrive in these soils.  In years like this one, blessed with La Nina weather conditions, they spill over fences ancient and modern, in barely governed display.
One day I will have a good camera to express detail, colour and depth of field well. In the meantime I can at least show you this serendipitous  association of a lusty hybrid tea rose (which may be Royal Dane) growing up through indigenous kanuka.  The fine needle-like foliage of the kanuka offsets the robust blooms and glossy rose leaves.
Other roses flowering around the garden are Sombreuil, Albertine, Cecile Brunner, Blanc double de Coubert and an old climber heavily laden with white pompoms. This last, I rescued from the old station-master's house site during a council drain clearing, but it can also be seen spilling out of a big macrocarpa hedge further along the road. I realised when Nick was admiring the roses flowering along our common boundary, that here is another one of my long-standing dreams come true - old-fashioned roses tumbling all over the place.  A little sadness surfaces, that Elwin didn't quite see the flowering of the hybrid tea cuttings I struck a year and a half ago along the front of our veranda. This is the rose that I call Dad's Rose, and which could be Royal Dane; Elwin was full of awe that I could poke some sticks in the ground and have them grow into bushes before his eyes. He had been watching the first plumping buds with interest and now they are revealing their colour and scent.

Rosa spp
Kanuka, tea tree  Kunzea ericoides