Year of Grace, Day 181. Fiddleheads

One of the things that endear ferns to me are their tightly curled emerging fronds, aptly called fiddleheads. They are also called croziers. They are one of the wonders of early spring, and I eagerly look forward to the time when fiddleheads appear. I find their structure utterly enthralling. Here are some from under the quince tree in my English garden.

Fiddlehead ferns are a delicacy in Canada, but those are from a different fern – the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). In Japan, the same ostrich fern fiddleheads are called kogomi and are prized as mountain vegetables (sansai), together with fiddleheads of the bracken fern, called warabi (Pteridium aquilinum). Warabi have to undergo rigorous presoaking first (akunuki) before they are considered safe to cook. Even then, it is not advisable to eat them too often.

These ferns in my English garden are winter-hardy. I’ve never quite established whether they are male ferns (Dryopteris filix-mas) or female ferns (Athyrium filix-femina). They die down in winter, but come up again in the spring. I had discovered rather small volunteers growing by the steps outside the kitchen, and transplanted one under the quince and one by the pond. Obviously, they loved their new homes, as they have thrived and since grown into huge clumps.

In my garden here in Bonn, I’ve managed to establish small ferns on the once bare dry stone wall. I found them growing along a path and transplanted them, packing them in between the stones with a bit of nourishing potting soil. When it gets too hot and it hasn’t rained in a while, they wilt, but perk up again when watered.

In the Batanes Islands — the northernmost of the Philippines’ 7000-odd islands, I had ferns prepared as a salad — steamed and served with a dressing of chopped tomatoes, the juice of small citrus fruits called calamansi in Tagalog (Citrofortunella microcarpa, also C. mitis), and anchovy sauce (bagoong in Tagalog). Delicious!

Fern salad Batan Lodge2Another type of fern sold in the market on Batan Island is bird’s nest fern, Asplenium nidus. I didn’t have a chance to taste these cooked however. Sorry about the fuzzy photo. I shall have to go back to take better ones and have a taste while I’m at it.The Victorians in England were absolutely mad about ferns, so mad that later generations didn’t want anything to do with them for years. But there is a growing appreciation for them once again.  I do love ferns. Even if they don’t have any flowers at all. That some of them are edible is a bonus!

Year of Grace, Day 180. Little gems

While reminiscing about my pond the other day, I mentioned a treasure – wasp’s nests. Wasp’s nests? Leamington wasp's nest_9953I know, I do have very odd notions about what to value and what not. These perfect creations out of layers of different coloured mud or clay count among my store of gems.Leamington wasp's nest_9952

I remembered having photographed them, but didn’t recall where I’d filed the photos. And I came upon them yesterday! Here they are – so delicately and perfectly made.

Made without a potter’s wheel — nonetheless they are perfectly round, perfectly centred. Each fragile layer laid on to the precise thinness as the previous one, obviously done without the need, like humankind, for calipers. And the hexagonal cubicles within – oh! Everything just so. Simply and utterly divine. I gaze on these tiny gems, and I cannot help but marvel.

Year of Grace, Day 179. The garden at dusk

The white hydrangeas are just coming into bloom. Yesterday at dusk this is what entranced me.

The white hydrangea is Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora, otherwise known as “peegee” (p.g., get it?); the variety is Limelight, and in the run up to blooming, the panicles are lime-coloured, until the sepals open to white. In the autumn, the sepals turn to pink.

I had envisioned this part of the garden to be blue and white. Evidently the blue hydrangeas had other ideas, as you can see in the background, so after trying to get them revert to being completely blue by watering them biweekly with a blueing liquid, I’ve decided to let them be for now. They are so gorgeous the way they are – mauve, purple, blue, and pink, and all shades in between — that I’ve come to prefer them this way.

And this agapanthus nearby, its roots well protected in a clay pot from the resident voles and moles who dig up everything in the ground, is coming into bloom as well. This is a cold-hardy variety though it did suffer a bit from this winter’s frosts and snow, and I am glad that it has recovered.  I love that its buds are a very dark blue, and then when the petals open, they are pale blue with a dark streak through the centre.

The borages are in bloom too – self-sown from plants of previous years. I shall be sprinkling these sky-blue flowers that taste of cucumber onto salads.

I might add some peppery nasturtiums as well.

This South African allium, whose name I can never remember and so I call it garlic allium, has two flowering stalks this year, its second year of blooming. Last year it had only one. And the curious thing is that within seconds the name Tulbaghia popped into my head. My erratic memory certainly works in mysterious ways! But just to make sure I had it right, I googled it. It is indeed Tulbaghia violacea, and its mauve colour justifies its specific name. It is also known as pink Agapanthus, though it is more violet than a distinct pink. It has also been discovered to have anti-cancer and other medicinal properties. Oh, and like most other alliums like garlic and onion, the leaves and flowers are also edible raw, and thus the alternative name “Society Garlic” (milder than true garlic, and thus fit for society). I shall be using them as edible decor.

Those were the stars that lit up my garden at dusk yesterday. It was so lovely just sitting there as night fell and I was reluctant to get back indoors. But the grass mites, despite the garden being thoroughly sprayed with neem just days ago, found me within seconds, attested by itchy patches that made themselves felt at once all over my legs and arms. I was forced to retreat and immediately shower, and from the unbitten, un-itchy safety of the upstairs window, I was able to continue admiring the soothing view.

Year of Grace, Day 178. A houseful of hydrangeas

I went hydrangea-mad the other day and filled the house with hydrangeas! And it felt so wonderful, having such a wealth of flowers in my arms and bringing them into the house quickly and into a big pan (one in which I boil spaghetti or simmer soup in, as it so happens) to rest up to their ears in cold water. Then once they were refreshed, I cut an inch off their stems on the slant and another one right in the center for greater water uptake, and into tall vases they went. Not sophisticated arrangements at all – just threw them all in. And they have lasted weeks, just with the occasional top-up of water. What is fascinating is how their colours are so diverse, despite coming from two shrubs that had blue flowers when I bought them. I had wanted them to remain blue, but I rather prefer them now with this interesting variation in colour.

Nageire arrangements (“throw in” in Japanese) are hardly taken literally, as proper nageire still has rules. No, these were as simple as could be – no deliberating, no aesthetic contemplating, just doing!

This precious time spent with hydrangeas in their glory – slowly looking all around the plants, taking time to observe each bunch, selecting which ones to cut, and then putting them in a vase, even if they were not deliberate floral arrangements as such – was truly calming.

And it occurred to me that the end result of calm and serenity that the process gave me underlines the wisdom of kado, “the way of flowers” or Japanese flower arrangement, even though these arrangements were not at all Ikebana. There is more to kado or Ikebana than just arranging flowers.

It seemed to me too that in the  process time had slowed down — while losing myself among the flowers, time had gotten somehow stretched. It may be time to practise Ikebana regularly again.

Year of Grace, Day 177. Memories of my pond

I’ve been missing my pond — the pond in my back garden in England. I say “my” but actually No. 2 son helped make it, so I cannot lay complete claim to it; it is his too.

In the early morning, my usual routine was to go outside to the back garden, coffee mug in  hand, whenever the weather permitted it. I would sit by the pond, on the triangular bench with a pergola overhead and trellised sides, slowly taking everything in – the grass, the sky, the trees that sheltered the garden — and take my time becoming fully awake. The sun’s rays would just be filtering through the black bamboo, the early morning light casting reflections of various leaves on the surface of the water.

There were no fish in the pond, as I wanted to have dragonflies and frogs, and the fish would have eaten them all at larval stage. The frogs I’d intended as biocontrol against the slugs and snails that loved to feast on my plants, especially newly germinated seedlings. I distinctly remember one whole seed tray of basil plantlets just waiting to be transferred to their permanent positions, and overnight the slugs had partied on them. It was a heartbreaking loss, as it was my first time ever to sow basil. At first I used slug bait, but once we got Morgaine the cat, I decided to forego all garden chemicals. And thus the frogs, and thus as well, the pond — for the frogs to breed in, that is.

The first summer after the pond was finished, a grass snake took up residence in the composter. It would go for a morning swim just when I was sitting there too. And until I and the entire neighbourhood had determined that it was a harmless grass snake and not an adder, I was rather reluctant to continue my early morning routine.

The children were elated however — wow, our very own grass snake! And I began to hesitantly congratulate myself too, because having a resident grass snake in English naturalistic gardening circles is the ultimate accolade. Apparently it is only when a garden feels safe (i.e., no chemicals used) and there are plenty of hiding places (translate to grass kept longer than 5 mm) will rare wildlife, such as grass snakes, make their home there.

The adder is the only venomous English snake and rare as far north of England as Warwickshire. However, global warming might have caused it to expand its territory, explained the budding naturalist son of a neighbour, rather a bit too enthusiastically when he saw faces turning green at the thought of an adder on the loose in our gardens. Even when the entire neighbourhood had established that it was indeed a harmless grass snake from its markings and likely the same one that had preyed on the goldfish in another neighbour’s pond (for which a couple of herons had been blamed earlier), I decided it was better to keep some distance between me and the grass snake. Better safe than sorry.

And how did the herons get out of being blamed for the disappearing goldfish, you may well ask. Orange peel. My neighbour next door thought some schoolkids had thrown litter onto her back lawn (our houses border on the playing fields of the primary school, you see). On coming closer to clean up the offending peel, she unwittingly scared a snake who rapidly slithered away, leaving behind not orange peel, but a goldfish — dead alas.

For some time after that, I sensibly wore gardening boots (locally called wellingtons or wellies for short) even when it wasn’t raining, especially when giving the box hedges their annual trim. For over a decade, I had encouraged those box plants (none taller than my mid-calf) to grow to over shoulder height and thicken up to be shaped into clouds. I used to take a good hour or more to do this, and the hedge had grown so dense and dark, that it made a good hiding place for snakes, grass or otherwise. Just recently I read that although grass snakes are not venomous, bacteria from their bite are liable to cause nasty infections. Just as well I’d been cautious back then.

When the grass snake went for its early morning swim, no doubt it was having breakfast too, as there were no more tadpoles or frogs to be seen. One afternoon, I saw not one but two grass snakes! Oh dear, I thought. Despite my wish not to discourage the children’s interest in wildlife, I was and still am rather frightened of snakes. However the other snake turned out to be just shed skin. This trophy went to join the other natural curiosities found underneath the house eaves — delicate nests that wasps had fashioned from layers of vari-coloured clay.

The following summer, there were new residents in the pond — newts! Unlike the grass snake, I was completely happy about the newts. I had been hoping our pond would get some. I’d envied the one in a neighbour’s pond, which they said had just come one day. Our pond had well over 20 newts, counted meticulously by No. 2 son.  My coffee mornings became quite exciting, as I eagerly awaited Mama or Papa Newt surfacing for air while I sat nearby. Below you can see a baby one, resting momentarily above a beige cobble. By this time, the grass snake had moved on. Perhaps it did not like newts, as they are toxic.

From midsummer onwards, the yellow-orange Montbretia and its close relative the red-orange Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ would bloom together with the purple loosestrife and mauve phlox – a true riot of summer colour. I had never imagined that orange and purple would harmonize together until this accidental combination. I had placed the Crocosmia surrounding the pond, because I thought their leaves would look good arching over the water. Little did I know then that theoretically orange and purple are complementary. I love these felicitous colour discoveries learned from gardening.

Another accidental colour pairing — a new elder cultivar, Sambucus ‘Black Beauty’, with yellow-orange Montbretia.

I had planned on a pond here in my Bonn garden. But time has run out on me. And besides, in the three years we’ve lived here, I have yet to see a single frog or toad, though there are slugs aplenty. There have also not been any butterflies other than the small yellow cabbage ones. This is rather unusual, considering that my garden is surrounded by woods with blossoming trees. I’ve taken to wondering just how many chemicals my neighbour uses in her perfect garden.

Year of Grace, Day 176. Currently blooming

Two years since I planted them, the daylily and Crocosmia Lucifer are now in bloom. And it has been well worth the wait, particularly for the daylily, as it displays extraordinary coloring — a bronzey orange red with golden centre and gold pollen. I had expected the more common yellow or orange, as I’d bought the plant unlabelled at the organic garden shop, Leyenhof, in Friesdorf. Look closely to see veins in lapis lazuli darkening to indigo-purple towards the centre. Stunning! The stamens too are purple just below the pollen.

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ has always been a favourite, and I’m rather surprised it hadn’t bloomed earlier. I rather assumed it was fine directly planted into the clayey soil, since the Crocosmias in the clay soil in my English garden had thrived. But perhaps it isn’t the soil so much as the voles who are responsible, and have gorged themselves on the bulbs, which is why only a couple leafed out from the bulbs. I’m glad I managed to rescue some and safeguarded them in my “experimental” beds – black rectangular tubs normally used for mixing concrete. I drilled holes for drainage and these have protected some plants from vole and mole depredation. What a stroke of luck that the colours of the Crocosmia and the daylily, planted in the same tub, go together!

Nachtigal Crocosmia Lucifer fab_1167

Nachtigal Crocosmia Lucifer in rain fab_1169

This is my first time to plant this elegant charmer – Gaura lindheimeri – and its flowers are like fragile butterflies perched on tall stalks.

And the rich deep red, almost black hollyhocks are also blooming, after two years as well. Regrettably these dark varieties are prone to rust. I wonder why it’s the darker flowered variety that is most susceptible to this condition. I do adore these sultry beauties, so I shall just have to ignore their disfigured leaves.

The volunteer evening primroses are also in bloom. What amazes me is that they have positioned themselves in just the gaps where I thought some height was needed to balance the height of the artichokes, hollyhocks, and acanthus. How Mother Nature – the Supreme Designer – has managed to answer my wishes — through avian telepathy — is just incredible! And the evening primroses have just the right colour too – not too brash a yellow to clash with the pink roses – and just the right kind of wide fan-like structure so that one can still see through. As well, its fragile stalks complement the robust structure of the acanthus and the equally robust artichokes and hollyhocks. For the serendipitous positioning of these heaven-sent plants, I am immensely awed and truly grateful.

This is the second year of bloom for the acanthus above.

The past few days have seen gentle rain nourishing the parched soil from the recent heat wave, and for this extended watering I am equally thankful. The flowers and plants seem to be enjoying themselves too.

Despite recent disappointments for me and M, and as well for a very dear friend, I remain hopeful that all will be well, and that the best is yet to be.

Year of Grace, Day 175. A symphony of hydrangeas

Three years ago I bought 3 hydrangeas — 2 blue mopheads and 1 peegee (Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora – thus “p.g.”) Limelight. I potted them in acidic soil, hoping thereby to keep them blue. Below you can see the yellow bags of Rhododendronerde, ‘soil for Rhododendrons.’ I used 90-liter tubs to plant the hydrangeas in, instead of direct planting in the ground, as additional precaution to maintain blueness.The hydrangeas made spectacular growth; however two years later, the flowers were no longer totally blue, as you can see below.

So starting in April this year, I watered them with a blueing agent — aluminium sulphate/aluminum sulfate — every two weeks but no more than ten times per season, as advised on the container. Curious as to its efficacy,  I monitored the blooms, from the first tight buds to the eventual colouring of the sepals, which start out  as bright lime green.

The hydrangea is not a real flower as such: it has sepals, not petals; the “buttons” in the centre are the actual flowers.  The  sepals change from lime green to the palest of greens, then to white or a soft yellow. Despite the blueing, the first blooms were pink.

Nachtigal blue hydrangea first flwr showing pink_0937

Later to my relief did come some blue.

Then came some with a curious mixture of mauve suffused with blue.

Nachtigal hydrangea first sepals purple_0866

It is fascinating that the same plant displays such a symphony of colours — from lime green to the softest whites and pale yellows to tender pink and mauve, blue, and purple. Sunlight no doubt plays a part — those branches in more shade from the yew trees above having the gentlest of colours.

As well, age might have an influence, with the younger branches taking up the blueing more eagerly. This is just a surmise — if so, then next year’s blooms should be bluer.

NACHTIGAL same plant range of colors xlnt_1058A cutting that I had taken from the original plant and rooted in regular potting soil (non-acidic) bloomed a pale pink, with lovely lime green centres.

Compare this with the pinky mauve ones growing on acidic soil with blueing added.

NACHTIGAL hydrangea pink to purple heads xlnt_1029I have another hydrangea, which I suspect is a Preziosa, though not certain, and its bloom is a bright cerise.

Should I give this beauty some blueing next spring? I cannot wait to find out, though I do love this extraordinary colour.

I rather love this amazing diversity of colours. How about you? Which do you prefer?

Ah… Nature  —  the Supreme Colourist!