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.



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.


Midsummer is white

I’ve noticed that now most flowers in the hedges and fields are white, in contrast to early spring when wildflowers were overwhelmingly yellow. I’m curious to know why that is, and if anyone knows, do please share your knowledge. The elderflowers  and Philadelphus (called Holunder and Jasminstrauch here) are cascading frothily against the hedge trees, mostly field maple and Ligustrum. In the fields nearby, wild carrot umbels promise a sea of white. I’m late making my usual elderflower syrup this year. Isn’t that strange, now that I’ve got  trees in the garden and don’t have to go out of my way to gather them? Just typical of me. I made the syrup just in time, as today thunderstorms and hail have changed the past few days’ brilliantly sunny skies to a dark grey gloom, and the remaining flowers on the elder are all bedraggled.

I usually add a tablespoon or so of the syrup to sparkling water for a refreshing summer drink, and my friend Hanna tells of an excellent elderflower gelatin dessert she’d had recently. I might try making that, and M is thinking of making elderflower and yogurt ice cream. Sounds divine. Another friend suggested pouring it over pancakes (thanks Charity!). The elderflowers are best gathered as soon as they open. Try to pick them from places that are not too close to traffic. They’re at their best before they’ve been rained on. No need to wash them, just shake off insects if you find any. Picked early enough, you may beat the insects to them.

Making the syrup is dead simple.


Elderflower Syrup

1 kg refined sugar

1 litre water

30-35 fresh elderflower heads

5 unwaxed lemons

1/2 tablespoon citric acid

1.  Put sugar into a pan and pour water over. Bring slowly to a simmer until sugar is completely dissolved. No need to stir: just allow the sugar to slowly melt and turn transparent. Immediately turn off the heat and leave to cool to lukewarm.

2.  Meanwhile, strip flowers from their stalks with clean fingers into a large non-reactive bowl (stainless steel or plastic). It’s okay if some fine stems join the florets, but try to keep them to a minimum, as they give a foxy scent to the syrup.

3.  Wash the lemons, thinly peel the zest, taking care not to include any white pith as it will impart a bitter taste. Squeeze the juice, and add the zest and juice to the bowl. Stir the citric acid into the syrup and then pour over the flower and lemon mixture.

4.  Cover the bowl with plastic film and leave in a dark, cool place for 3 to 4 days. Pass the mixture through a sieve or clean cheesecloth, and then store in small containers in the freezer. If using immediately, store in the fridge.

5.  To make an elderflower drink: place 1 – 2 tablespoons of syrup in a glass, pour over cold plain or sparkling water, stir, and add ice cubes, if desired. You may wish to freeze some florets in an ice cube tray for decorative ice cubes.