Year of Grace, Day 140. Spring’s all bubbly and frothy

When the blackthorn and the fruiting cherry and the blueberry tree (which is what M calls the Amelanchier) bloom, the garden looks all awash with bubbles and froth. And it is such a joy to look up as I go about the garden, weeding and transplanting and often just observing and admiring what’s happening. In the dark, the sprays of frothy blackthorn look like the daintiest of handcrafted lace. Occasionally I do show my appreciation by going really close and expressing my awe, but only in my head, though I’m quite sure the plants do sense I have been rather complimentary.

Blackthorn in blossom appear like handmade lace.

Blackthorn blossom appears like handmade lace.

The trees seem to be dancing with delight too – the cherry branches seem poised to soar off into the perfect and cloudless azure sky that we had yesterday. What a brilliant day to be in the garden! The heat of the spring sun surprised me as I transplanted the Argentinian verbenas (Verbena bonariensis). It had been 5ºC in the early morning, and by afternoon the sun had worked itself up into a sizzle at 24ºC, and its warmth on my back as I weeded was welcoming and soothing.

Fruiting cherry blossom will turn into gorgeous reddish purple fruit in summer.

Fruiting cherry blossom will turn into gorgeous reddish purple fruit in summer.

Although it will be months before these verbenas show off their scented, tiny purple flowers on towering stems, I cannot help but imagine how lovely a picture they will make, as their stately stems make a screen through which other flowers and the garden can be glimpsed. That is my vision anyway, and the eventual reality may not measure up. Pests and diseases, a late frost, in other words, nature takes its own course, and the result may be nothing at all as imagined. But sometimes a gardener’s design succeeds and the result is exactly what was envisioned. Or oftener still, nature in its unpredictable way cooperates and creates an even more marvelous outcome. And that is what is so miraculous about gardening and creating with plants.

Kerria japonica, a multi-petalled form.

Kerria japonica, a multi-petalled form.

The Kerria is also in its full glory, arching over into golden cascades, and the mass of frothy bubbles behind makes an excellent foil for them.  The Kerria’s natural growth habit is this graceful, arching cascade, and so is the Forsythia’s.

Forsythia

Forsythia

It is such a pity when both of these are clipped to conform to an unnatural neatness, which is what I commonly see in the gardens in my neighbourhood, and one realises how much of the joyful grace of  these plants at their glory is stifled under gardeners’ tight control. When this lovely Forsythia dares to cascade over the fence, my neighbour loses no time in shearing it to rigid obedience.

This is known as Ranunkelstrauch, Ranunculus bush, in German. I find that there are many plant names created thus: take the Philadelphus for instance. It is called Jasminstrauch, jasmine bush or shrub, not because of its resemblance to a jasmine, but because of its sweet scent. British gardeners, on the other hand, refer to non-native plants by their genus name, instead of coining local equivalents. (There is a certain amount of one-upmanship involved in this among British gardeners, I have been told.)

The blackthorn is the favourite nesting place of nightingales apparently, but sadly there are no more nightingales around these parts. I am still hoping to entice any stragglers that may happen to fly over by leaving untouched some self-seeded shrublets in the back corner of the garden. Nightingales like thick underbrush, especially the bristly, spiny kind afforded by thickets of blackthorn. Perhaps they also like the fruits – sloes, fermenting naturally as they fall to the ground – one of the ancestors of our supermarket plums.

Sloes (Schlehe in German) make a lovely liqueur, btw, and although they are best harvested after frost, I have to pick them earlier to get a share, otherwise my avian neighbours will have scoffed the whole lot (though I make sure to leave them some as well, even though they are not as considerate of me). The traditional English way is to prick the sloes all over with a pin and drop them into a bottle half-filled with gin, with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar to taste. Top up with some more gin to cover. Left in a dark, cool place for six months or better yet, a year, sloe gin makes a lovely after dinner drink. Or any time at all really. After a year, most of its alcohol will have evaporated, and all that’s left is pure essence of fruit. Its rosey-red colour is quite cheering too.

Mireille Johnston, in her book on the food of Provence, gave a recipe for ratafia — oranges and coriander in alcohol — which she noted made a nice relaxing drink to have in the afternoon. Hmm… excellent idea. I can imagine sitting down on a mellow afternoon, surrounded by the sharp Mediterranean scents of lavender and sage and rosemary, as in a Provençal or even a southern Catalan maquis. I rarely touch alcohol before dark, but perhaps a small glass of chilled sloe liqueur (after a year’s rest, quite non-alcoholic ), when I’ve finished with my garden chores and had a shower, and before I prepare supper, would be lovely. I make my fruit liqueurs with vodka, which has no other taste (gin is flavoured with juniper, as of course you know) to interfere with the natural flavour of the fruit. I don’t bother pricking them with a pin. Life is too short and there are more fun things to do.

Besides my gratitude for the glories of spring blossom and the other miraculous wonders of nature, I thank the muse. Show up, other writers have advised, and the muse will too. She has, and I am truly grateful.

Year of Grace, Day 80. The colours that brighten winter

Despite days of snow and frost and -5ºC temperatures, there are stalwarts that grace the garden in winter, and I love them all the more and treasure them for hanging on despite everything the fierce weather throws at them. One of them, amazingly enough, is a Mediterranean native – the artichoke – a group of which is stoically braving (knock on wood) the elements on the slope behind the house which is very exposed. Placing them there was an experiment to see if they would do as well as those planted against a south-facing wall. The ten plants are on different levels to see whether the slope and drainage affect their winter hardiness.

Artichoke leaves

Artichoke leaves

Among the earliest to bloom in the backgarden is the Kerria, a Japanese shrub, and it rarely disappoints.  It is now graced with a few cheerful yellow flowers on bright green stalks. The two days of double-digit temperatures have nudged a few into bloom and there are more buds at different stages of plumpness, just biding their time. I find it exceedingly heartening to see this spring bloomer putting forth a few flowers intermittently throughout winter, months ahead of its proper season. It was rather difficult to catch a non-fuzzy photo yesterday as although it was a mild day, the gusty winds were tearing away and whipping at the plants and the trees .

Kerria japonica blooming now

Kerria japonica blooming now

What else caught my eye in the garden yesterday? A bluebell in bloom, moss that I’d been inducing to establish itself on a stone wall (painting the surface with yogurt and sour milk for the past 3 years), catkins on the twisty hazel, lichen on the trunk of a fruiting cherry which looks rather poorly (I suspect it is ridden with honey fungus — the same thing that has already killed several trees), and the brilliant white bark of birch trunks. Fat raindrops began just as I succeeded in taking a non-fuzzy photo of the Kerria flower, and I hurried inside to warm up.

I had forgotten to put on a coat and a hat, silly of me.  A pot of rosebuds, Cretan mountain tea, and a couple of hibiscus petals warmed me up nicely, and the colours of the tea and the perfume of roses went well with a bowl of yogurt and quince syrup. I had intended to make the quince juice into jelly, but changed my mind and left it at the slightly gelled stage – and it makes a very tart-sweet and perfumed addition to yogurt. In a bowl made by potter Michael Moses with a turquoise glaze that puddles into the same colour of the quince syrup at the bottom, it was lovely eye candy as well.

Later I found some forlorn apples in the fridge and since they were no longer crisp enough to eat as they were, I was inspired to try to recreate the baked apples M and I had enjoyed at the tiny Iranian restaurant a month back. It was a hybrid of my Catalonian friend Carme’s Pomes al Forn. (Carme had generously shared a few of her family’s recipes with me for the first edition of the World Cookbook.) It was a good chance to make use of odd nuts – a few pistachios, one (!) pecan in the shell (an escapee from when I made M’s cake obviously), some slivered almonds. Chopped finely and mixed with mulberry syrup (yes, another neglected pantry item just waiting for the right moment for use), enough quince syrup to bind, a dusting of cinnamon, a few squirts of lemon juice — the nut mixture went into the cored apples and were baked for 40 minutes at 160ºC. Oh, I almost forgot – instead of capping the core with the cut-out stalk ends, I fashioned “caps” from marzipan and stuck pistachios for “stems.” With yogurt for me and ice cream for M, we had them later.

For the lovely colours of flowers and plants and fruits (and their scents and flavours as well) that cheered up my day yesterday, and for being around to brighten these dreary winter days, I am very grateful.