28 December 2012

The witching hour

When solstice came this year-- in Dublin at 11:12am on the 21st--we exchanged gifts and shared delight and then went on with preparations for our celebration that evening. But I also took time to check my witch hazel tree (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida' I think) outside the back door and there they were: the first delicate tendrils of lemon-yellow blossom, tissue-paper delicate, starting to unfurl. (Mrs D. would have loved them.) The witch hazel was starting to bloom, a full month earlier this year than last, probably because it has settled in well during that year: last winter was its first in the ground. It's happy out now, and so was I to see it in bloom. Today, a week after solstice, the tree is covered in those unmistakeable spidery yellow blossoms, that this evening are resisting the strong tugs and pulls of winter gales that have roared in from the Atlantic this afternoon. Through these dull winter days those yellow blossoms are doing just what I imagined - lighting up a dark north-facing back garden. At the front of the house, Hamamelis 'Jelena' is so far marking her first winter in the ground with just one deep orange blossom that glows in whatever winter sunlight we get. Only one blossom for now but there'll be more within a week and already I'm looking forward to next year. That's one of the (many) joys of gardens, there's always something coaxing you forward: imagining the first snowdrops perhaps or the delight you'll get when the hellebore flowers shake themselves free of their Elizabethan ruffs and shyly open their blooms, heads down. And of course there's always the hope of some sort of gardenly redemption that no matter how poor your tomatoes/witch hazel blossoms/tulips/etc. were this year, next year will be better.

Hamemelis, Witch Hazel,
lighting up the garden on Winter Solstice and beyond
Hamemelis, Witch Hazel
on the same tree, with a winter sky behind
As a welcome antidote to festive indulgence, we headed out to the woods and the wild this week. In the Wicklow hills today, the dull light was softened by the deep cherry-coloured haze of the bare birch trees in the valleys. Yesterday the bright winter sunshine lit up the bare trees and the glowing leaves below, although we chose to leave it behind to walk deeper into the woods where we found a few remaining puffballs, one still intact but some others ripe and having rid themselves of at least some of their spores.

Puffballs are unmistakeable and their name describes them well - they have a very short (or no) stalk and they don't carry their spores on external gills like so many 'mushrooms' do. Instead, their spores are carried within, in a round stomach-like body called--appropriately enough--a gasterothecium. When ripe, this splits and the spores escape. Unlike some of their relatives, puffballs don't shoot their spores out of their case (if they were, the spores would be called ballistospores) but instead the spores are puffed out only when the fungus is hit by raindrops or the paw of a passing mini-schnauzer. The puffballs we saw were about two or three centimetres across, but I do remember a giant unripe puffball, about 15cm across, dug up years ago by my father from a secret location, which we sliced like a loaf of bread and fried with oil and butter and a little garlic and bacon. Delicious.  By the way, puffballs were also known as Ram's Farts (!) in rural Ireland when my father was a boy - perhaps they still are? Oh hang on, I've just spotted on wiki that the Genus name (Lycoperdon) means wolf-fart.

Winter sunshine in Djouce
Puffball (probably Lycoperdon perlatum)
Ripe puffball; fresh from its audition for Alien XXIII
It's the time of the year to notice fungi in the woods,
don't know what this one is though
Winter's also a good time for spotting mosses ...
... and ferns: here's Polypodium vulgare on a tree limb ...
... and the Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant) leaning, like Narcissus, over a still pool
We'll leave the woods and the wilds of Wicklow behind this weekend and see what the north-west coast holds instead. Expect a Donegal dispatch next week.

Have a good week all.

23 December 2012

Black and gold

We made it. The year has turned. Helped no doubt by some of us gathering to celebrate its turning - what a lovely night we had. Thanks to all who made it and for those who couldn't: maybe next year. Those in the antipodes were celebrating a solstice of another kind of course, but those of us up here at 53 degrees North were relieved and delighted to know that the light now starts to fight back.

Winter morning sky

LB mentioned that she always remembers my Da at this time because one year at this sort of celebration he reminded her that at this latitude we don't see the mornings get brighter until later in January. He would have had Brendan McWilliams in mind, I know, as he loved to read McWilliams in the newspaper every day. One of the last public events my Da went to was a lecture by McWilliams on climate change. Here's McWilliams himself (thanks for the lovely gift SOT):
"If we were to set our clocks exactly according to the Sun, to what it called 'Local Apparent Time' or LAT and by which noon each day is the exact instant when the Sun is due south, then the annual shortening and lengthening of the days would be symmetical about the winter solstice ... But in real life we do not set out clocks to LAT. Measured accurately by the Sun, the days turn out for various reasons to differ slightly  in their length ... than the precise interval we know as twenty-four hours. To avoid practical inconvenience, we 'pretend' as it were, that the days are all exactly twenty-four hours long; we use what is called mean time.
"Because of this, our clocks are usually a little out of step with the Sun, ... during December and January the effect of [this] is slowly to shift clock time a little forward each day as compared to real Sun time.
"... Once the winter solstice has passed, we ought to see earlier sunrises, but this trend is counteracted by the fact that our clocks are out of sync with nature; they show a progressively later time each late December morning than they ought to, which provides a trend for an apparently later dawn. Only near the end of January does the seasonal effect accelerate sufficiently to overcome this chronometrical illusion, and the mornings begin to become noticeably brighter."
[Published in the Irish Times on 02 January 2007]
Small wonder then that it's the 'grand stretch in the evenings' that we notice first. Whatever it is, seconds or minutes per day, in the morning or the evening, I welcome it with open arms.

Giant Sequoia (dead centre) and Scots Pine catch the winter morning sunlight
Some of my morning walks this week have been a bit later than usual and I've been enjoying the extra light. Gale force winds blew across the country last night and left us with bright sunlight and downed branches this morning. The trees in the local park stood firm, withstanding the winter pruning with little more than a scattering of broken twigs and small branches at their feet. The Scots Pines and Giant Sequoias didn't seem to suffer at all. The sycamores are now truly bare and it's hard to remember what they looked like midsummer. Handy to have a blogly reminder:

Winter sycamore

Remember this? Summer sycamore
Rain throughout the week brought gloomy skies, yes, but left its own beauty in its wake: small gems of light sparkling on the Sacred Bamboo (Nandina domestica), and the blue-black steely Black grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') shot through with the gold of fading Miscanthus with its own diamonds of rain.

Nandian domestica, Sacred Bamboo,
with festive lights courtesy of the winter rain
Ophipogon and Miscanthus
I had to get out in the garden to do something this week, so there was some desultory tidying up going on, but most gardening activity is suspended. The only botanical outlets are this blog and the painting practice; here's a seasonal attempt:

Holly leaf
Happy Christmas all, near and far. 

16 December 2012

Viburnum time

Cold air, dark mornings, the path (through what my sons--when they were very small--used to call the secret passage) sugared with frost, and the air suddenly and improbably carrying a floral scent. I look around and there it is above a garden wall: Viburnum, its spheres of blossom a pale soft pink, doing in the middle of winter what honeysuckle does in the summer: stopping me in my tracks. It's a wonderful thing that Viburnum fragrance, mostly because it's there at a time when we least expect it, and also because, like any floral scent, it pulls you right into the moment. When you're looking for the source of a scent, when you've found it high in a summer hedgerow or over a cold wintry wall, when you bury your nose in a June rose, or get up close and personal with lily-of-the-valley in May, you're there and nowhere or nowhen else. And that's not a bad thing.

Viburnum sp. Purveyor of winter scent
Out in the winter sunshine this morning to capture the look if not the smell of the Viburnum, I couldn't help but notice the ivies - their glossy leaves pooling the low winter sunlight, their curious capped berries just starting to develop.

Hedera helix, fruits
Ivies aren't that well liked here in Ireland, but I think they're a fabulous plant - ivies on my boring breeze-block garden walls transformed a barren grey wasteland into a haven of wildlife, complete with whirring wrens and happy blackbirds nesting in their hearts and chattering sparrows gathering to suss out the bird table from a safe vantage point. I've four or five varieties, but my favourite is Hedera sagitifolia, with (yes you've guessed right) arrow-shaped deep green leaves. It's one of the most graceful ivies. I've also got what I think is Hedera 'Gold Child', a rather lovely variegated ivy--not brash like Hedera colchica 'Paddy's Pride' (which is way too in-your-face for small gardens), not uptight and too contrasty like Hedera 'Gold Heart'; it's just right really! But a little variegation goes a long way (it took me a while to realise that, and it's especially true in a small garden) and it looks best where it grows into and alongside the deep green Sagitifolia and another even deeper green variety, 'Ivalace'.

Hedera, ('Gold Child'?) painted. Sort of. 
How not to do ivies; how not to do variegation:
Hedera 'Gold Heart' and Hedera colchica 'Paddy's Pride'
Mid-December is the not the busiest of times in the garden, predictably enough, but the sun shone this morning and after a ramble out to catch the Viburnum in the morning sunlight (most times I pass it these days it's dark) I spent some time in the greenhouse and the garden. In the former I potted some cuttings and slips I'd been given by another gardener (whose garden was filled with such a lovely variety and plenitude of plants!); in the latter I cut back some of the perennials and grasses that had succumbed to frost and were now a sodden mess (the texture of blancmange as a friend memorably remarked one winter). I don't know if any of the cuttings will take, it's not the best time of the year for that class of thing after all, but we shall see. While in the greenhouse I took time to despair at the state of the alpines I'd been cosseting all summer and autumn. They're a fairly sorry looking bunch now, and I'm not sure what I've done wrong...

Very sad alpines; oh the shame of it
I've been cutting up some old windfall apples for the blackbirds and other thrushes and was throwing a few more into the kitchen garden (protected by a fence from a marauding schnauzer) and discovered that there  were still some Autumn raspberries. They're not the sweetest I've ever eaten, but their taste was unmistakable in its raspberriness.

Autumn-- no, Winter!--raspberries
While out in the garden cutting back and tidying up, I gathered some bits and bobs for the wreath for our inner front door. Each year I try to make the wreath out of what I can glean from the garden; this year's is not the best I've ever done - it's simply a mix of Eleagnus foliage (variegated and non-) and some Allium seed heads with a lovely ribbon added on for some festive appeal, but I sort of like its simplicity. I also prepared a candle for the Solstice table: cones collected from the woods on a walk this week, ivy from the garden and some glittery bits from my fellow-wreath-maker whose wreath is a thing of beauty. The two of us spent a happy hour or two this afternoon working at a table strewn with ivy and Eleagnus and cones and ribbons and wire. This sort of work is always the better for being shared; and it's lovely to work alongside a friend, alternating concentration and grappling with small pieces of wire with desultory chat and musings. Thanks lb.

Solstice wreath - Eleagnus and Allium
Solstice Candle

Festive wreath (by LB)
I'll finish this week with an easy spot-the-schnauzer, once again nose down while I was looking up.

Spot the schnauzer
Have a good week all. By the time I write here next week, the daylight will on the increase. Happy Solstice!

09 December 2012

Looking up

We're in the bleak midwinter now alright; so what better to do than look up:

Mid-morning light through the trees.
Ivy-clad trunks provide shelter and food for small things
With the approaching season, I thought I'd better include holly
Seeds still there for finches and tits
At each dawn this week, the waning moon was still in the sky
An Aralia of some sort shows off its berries overhead
For Donal: Sorbus (rowan) and crocuses
planted this week

I always find this a hard time of the year; all the more so this year as the anniversary of my brother's death approaches with midwinter. How lovely that at his former workplace his colleagues and friends chose this time to plant a rowan tree in his memory and asked his family to be there. Their memories, tales and tributes were touching and comforting. Thank you to them all.

There's grief, and there's joy too. Cycling home from work on one of the cold dark evenings this week, I heard someone whistling loudly as I approached Dundrum Road. Looking around I saw a young man, earbuds in, whistling loudly and conducting, like a budding Bernstein, his imaginary orchestra and choir in Beethoven's Ode to Joy (have a listen here. If you don't have much time go to 03:40).

I think I smiled all the way home.

Finally, there have been questions asked...
So here she is:

Why look up? Much more interesting to be down to earth.
Have a good week all.

02 December 2012

Guerilla Knitting

Winter weather, take your pick: bright cold sunshine, glittering grass-crunching frost; mizzling grey, clouds  kneeling on the sodden ground; relentless rain and a biting north-westerly wind. As November gave way to ever darkening December, we had most winter weathers this week. Best to light the fire and stay inside for much of the time, and all the better if you can do it in good company, which we had in a friend's house in Co. Waterford (thanks for the warm hospitality H.) Looking out the window of her cottage on Sunday morning, the last of the rose hips and the gathering droplets told their own cold story.

Winter Rose Hips, Co. Waterford
Short winter days do mean that you can see every dawn though. And being out and about at dawn means that you hear the first robins testing the cold winter light and the rattling wrens calling from hidden hedges. It also means that one curious schnauzer gets to annoy the local foxes. I'm assuming she sees them as yet another chance for play (which is the way she views most dogs she meets) and so on one of the dark mornings this week she spotted and then chased one of our local foxes with great enthusiasm and speed. To say the fox was disinterested would understate it a little. The following morning I saw the two foxes before Izzy did - silent figures, still and watchful, eyeing us calmly before gliding off across the field, brushes gracefully suspended on the air, disappearing into a thicket of brambles and elders without a sound.

In the middle of the day, in the middle of the city, I had a wildlife encounter of another sort. By the Grand Canal a heron had decided to take up temporary residence in one of the trees, much to the chagrin of the local hooded crows. Three of them harried and harassed the heron, to absolutely no effect. There was a touch of seasonal pantomime about it ("he's BEHIND you!!"): one of the crow trio would hop onto a branch behind the heron while the others hung around on nearby branches waiting to see what would happen. The crow made a lunge and missed; the heron ignored it. Another crow would then have a go from the front. Still nothing. Then when they crossed some invisible thin red line, the heron would give a desultory but well-aimed stab with that long bill and the crows would flap a branch or two away.

And start again.

I stood to watch for a while as most hungry lunchtime office workers scurried below, heads bent against the winter weather. A fellow traveller saw me watching and remarked on the goings-on; "They're not too thrilled, are they?" ... "I've seen the heron take ducklings in the summertime" he said ... And that's okay - herons have to eat too.

On the same stretch of canal, close to where Paddy Kavanagh keeps his eternal vigil, someone has done this:

Winter warmer - a tree on the Grand Canal
Guerilla Knitting! Thanks to whomever did it. It cheered me up on a grey day.
Have a good week all.

25 November 2012

Woodcuts and wonders

Do you love the smell of libraries? Not the ordinary municipal ones, which are great and valuable in their own right, but the ones in universities, in research institutes, their shelves lined with journals, folios, magazines as well as books. All of them holding dust and history and secrets in equal measure. It's a slightly musty smell and is redolent of learning and curiosity and the odd snore when it's all just too much for a tired student. Wiki and Google are great (and I'll be using them here this week): as someone in the New Yorker remarked, we all live in a library now, our smartphones pulling journals and tomes off a virtual shelf for us at the touch of a finger; but online doesn't have the same feel as walking down a narrow aisle of floor-to-ceiling shelves all bearing words and pictures on something you want to know more about, nor can it reproduce the thrill when you see right in front of you an almost 500-year old book.
File:Otto Brunfels01.jpg
Nymphaea alba, woodcut by Hans Weiditz
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Half a dozen of us were lucky enough to get a tour of the library in the Botanic Gardens last Friday, and we were treated to a view of a couple of its rare book treasures as well as some of its many botanical paintings and illustrations. Winter sunlight streaming in from the gardens outside, a warm well-lit library, a handful of budding (sorree) botanical artists and a charming and informative librarian (Ms Alexandra Caccamo) all made for a really delightful time.

The most astonishing item we saw was the first: the Herbarium vivae eicones ad nature printed in Strasbourg in 1532. Yes, 480 years ago. Still in its vellum cover. And we were allowed to ooh and aah over its amazing woodcuts by Hans Weiditz, a contemporary of Albrecht Durer. The astonishing thing about the woodcuts is that Weiditz represented the plants in a realistic fashion, blemishes and all, which was not at all the done thing at the time. Rumour has it that the author of the book, one Otto Brunfels, was more than a little irritated by this.

File:Thapsia garganica (Bauer).jpg
Thapsia garganica, by Ferdinand Bauer
(from Wikimedia Commons)
From one astonishing European artist to another: Ferdinand Bauer did the illustrations in the Flora Graeca, of which the Bots Library has a full set of 10 volumes. Published in the early to mid-1800s, the flora's author is named as John Sibthorpe, although it was James Edward Smith and John Lindley who did most of the work after the former's death. But Sibthorpe had the connections, the money and left a generous endowment to Oxford (nothing much changes does it?).  Bauer's work in the Flora Graeca is astonishing, all the more so when you hear how he worked: apparently he made sketches in the field, adding notes and numbers to the sketches to indicate colours (he couldn't carry all his colours with him). He then worked on the illustrations after his return and created hundreds of plates of exquisite and accurate detail. To see these in person in one of the volumes was such a treat.

The library also has a wonderful collection of botanical art, from the lady painters of the 18th and 19th
Nigella damascens by Wendy Walsh
(from here)
centuries--many of whom you can imagine extolling the blessings of a good thick skirt--right through to contemporary artists such as Wendy Walsh, Susan Sex and Deborah Lambkin  They weren't all ladies though - some gentlemen got a look-in too, Redouté of course, who managed to hang on to his head despite being painter to the queen at the time of the French Revolution, and closer to home, George du Noyer, whom I'd known better from his work on the Irish Ordnance Survey and his paintings of rocks and landscapes.

Tomato. Honest. By me. 
I went home and looked at the tomato I'd tried to paint and sighed. But then some of the artists didn't really start their work until their forties and fifties and Ms Walsh is still painting in her nineties. Maybe I'll be a late bloomer. And you have to hope I'll give up the dreadful puns too.

Not much happening in the garden at the moment. November dreariness hit its nadir today, lights on in the house at three in the afternoon, cold rain all day, relentless grey. Just as well the pool in the back garden did its thing this morning: catching the early sunlight over trees in another garden, borrowing light and graciously lending it to a gardener with the winter blues.

Borrowed sunlight
Have a good week all.
(And when you've a few spare moments, look at this take on libraries: more wonders).

18 November 2012

Rimes and reasons

A windy wet night as I write this; rain has swept in from the Atlantic, reaching Dublin just before darkness fell. We were oblivious to its arrival as we were listening with wonder to the Cantando choir weave magic into the chilly air of St Bartholemew's Church in Dublin: light and dark, a chiaroscuro of sound as they sang the Sanctus and Benedictus of James Whitbourn's Son of God Mass.  

Before the rains came, we got out to the Wicklow hills while a watery wintry sun was still shining. It was early enough that the frost still rimed the beech leaves with tiny ice crystals crowding onto the undulating edges. 

Beech leaves rimed with frost
In the sheltered parts of the woods we came across solitary and dying oaks, crowded out by encroaching conifers. But we were delighted and surprised by coming into a clearing where the light poured in not on a carpet of grass, as often happens, but on a sward of mosses: Sphagnum and Polytrichum

Sphagnum (the shorter shaggy one) and  Polytrichum (the taller spiky one); isn't Botany easy?
Sphagnum and schnauzer
The Sphagnum here grows in the damp open space of a woodland created by humans in a place (a Wicklow mountainside) that we generally see covered in blanket bog. Sphagnum mosses are one of the main builders of our bogs in Ireland; in Donegal on my walks in the heaths and bogs, I have a spring in my step as I tread on hummocks of Sphagnum rubellum and S. plumulosum, amongst others. I notice on the IPCC website that a Sphagnum hummock of just one square metre can contain up to 50,000 individual plants... Sphagnum was one of the first mosses I learnt to identify (it's an easy one to start with!) and for me it's one of the plants I associate strongly with this sometimes rainy island we live on. 

Whether it's the blanket bogs of the Atlantic seaboard and the mountains, or the raised bogs and fens of the midlands, these landscapes (complete with  visual whispers of bog cotton in the summer, the climbing songs of skylarks, the jewel-like tiny Sundews, the drifts of purple heathers) are one of the reasons I came home to this island nearly 20 years ago. In a week when the conduct of our legislators, our medics and, on a more personal note, some of our government officials left me and so many others terribly sad, angry and upset, it was good to remind myself of this.

But righteous anger can be a good fuel and I got into a bit of a cleaning frenzy in the greenhouse. I removed the last of the tomato plants, cleaned the panes of glass of webs (inside) and algae (out) and did some general tidying up.  At the end of that, nothing had changed in the world of government and politics, but I felt a bit better, and I had a greenhouse ready for winter.  
Ready for winter
On Saturday morning, I looked out to see tiny coal tits swooping and flitting in and around the birch trees in the front garden, alighting  to help themselves to seeds dangling from bare branches. 

A coal tit  feasting on the seeds of one of our birch trees, Betula utilis, "Jacquemontii"
I noticed this week that other bloggers have been checking what's in bloom still in their gardens; for me the asters are still going well (and not too nasty at all with mildew), there's an odd welsh poppy, there's even some Cosmos still! And one of my tenants, the gorgeous Salvia uliginosa is still incongruously blue. Of course the Sedum is still doing its deep pinkish burgundy thing too. 

Autumn colours: Asters through a haze of Molinia caerula "Transparent);
Miscanthus zebrinus is on the right
Autumn colours: Sedum spectabile contrasts with the yellowing dying stems of Agapanthus
I'll end this week with Agapanthus. Here's how it has looked in the garden from bright mid-summer through to darkening mid-winter; each stage has brought its own delight, from candles of green, through blooms of blue, to finish as intricate seed-heads, each case unfurling to release its cache of anthracite-black seeds. Such intricacies can be hard to capture with pencil but I'm hoping to learn bit by bit this year how to do that better.

Agapanthus flower buds in June

The flowers glow blue in July

And seeds break free in October and November

The starburst of an Agapanthus seed head

An attempt to draw ... 

... and another
A coda: I mentioned the nubbly black buds of ash last week and noticed some lovely examples on a walk in the local field this week; a pic taken with my phone was dull but my resident photographer went back on a bright morning and did the job right:

Buds of Ash, Fraxinus excelsior (thanks BvG).
Have a good week all.