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.