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.


  1. I'm loving these little escapes to the Emerald Isle, land of my father's birth. Somehow sauteed Ram's Farts do not strike me as a very inviting delicacy.

  2. thanks for dropping by ricki, hope the RFs haven't put you off too much...