Year of Grace, Day 153. From laburnum to oysters (mushrooms, that is)

Now that the cherry and amelanchier are past blossoming and busy setting fruit, it’s the laburnum’s turn at centre stage. In just mere days of generous sunshine, its flowers have progressed from shy bud to full bloom. I love the delicacy of the emergent buds, and the daily excitement they  arouse as I anticipate their opening, from the moment they show just the slightest hint of colour. The laburnum’s blossoms, descending from the branches in wisteria-like clusters, though in yellow, not blue, have such grace, and are known also as Golden Showers (Goldregen, ‘gold rain’). Like their wisteria relative, they are also sweetly scented. And when the sun’s rays touch them with the first light of the morning, these flowers, aptly named golden, blaze gloriously, a contrast to the surrounding box and hazel and other thick undergrowth, still drowsy and dark in the comfort of sleep.

Laburnum in early morning

Laburnum in early morning

It’s a pity that the laburnum is toxic in all its parts, and thus not recommended in a garden with small children.  Once, in my garden in Leamington Spa, what I suspected were oyster mushrooms appeared in the trunk of an ailing laburnum tree. We had cut some branches that had died out, hoping to revive it. And there on a low, forked branch was a luxuriant clump of grey and beige layered mushrooms. It had been an experiment – I had, months earlier, taken the trimmings off bought oyster mushrooms and placed them on the fork. And quite promptly forgot about them. The mushrooms seemed unmistakably like oyster mushrooms with their characteristic layers and presented themselves so invitingly, looking succulent and luscious. However, just to be sure, I consulted with local fungus experts. They were kind enough to come at once and they identified the mushrooms without doubt as Pleurotus ostreatus — definitely oyster mushrooms. But as to these particular ones’ edibility, although oyster mushrooms are indeed edible and in my experience one of the more delicious of commercially grown mushrooms, I asked the experts if they knew whether fungi absorb the toxins of their host and if so, retain them unaltered. (They had not known the laburnum was toxic.) They said they did not know, but advised that in such uncertainty it would be wiser not to eat this lot. Besides, they added, their group did not condone eating mushrooms – on their fungus forays, their goal was specifically identification. Their subjects’ eating qualities were not of any interest, they said (making me feel like a greedy pig). I was, you can imagine, rather disappointed. But… better safe than sorry. I would feel such a fool to be poisoned by my own crop of oyster mushrooms growing on a laburnum!

I admit I am a fungus fanatic – fanatic not only to know the names of fungi that I come across wherever I am, but also their edibility. When I see fungi, the first thought that comes to my mind, after I’ve admired them, is – are they edible? And after I’ve looked them up and tried to identify them (this process is complicated and far from reliable, especially doing so from books alone) and checked their edibility, I wonder, will they be delicious? And yet, perhaps out of self-preservation and extreme cautiousness, I hesitate to eat any wild gathered mushroom, even when someone has positively identified it as edible. And, additionally, there are fungi that can be eaten and so assuage hunger, but make no contribution at all to stimulating other senses.

Well, this has been a rather curious bit of writing! I began with admiring the laburnum’s blooms, and that led, rather unexpectedly, to my fondly remembering my laburnum tree in England with its wonderful crop of oyster mushrooms that alas could not be eaten, and then onwards to my predilection for fungi.

As I sign off, there is a red squirrel, the European one, skimming like animated red fluff — shiny and silky with the sun’s rays glinting on  its fur — along a branch of the cherry tree straight ahead. These delightfully ruddy squirrels are almost extinct in England because the American grey ones brought over centuries ago, being more aggressive, have taken over. It is truly wonderful to see these sprightly creatures making themselves at home in my garden here in Bonn. (And when my children come to visit, they too are as enthralled with these red squirrels as I am.) There are three of them that wander in and out among the trees and shrubs, and often come very close to the kitchen door, looking for peanuts in their shells that we put out for the birds. They must have been burying their winter store of walnuts in amongst my planted pots. How do I know this? Because there are walnut seedlings shooting up among the potted tulips and sweet peas, and I certainly could not have planted the walnuts there myself!

Have a good day all! It is a lovely, sunny, mild spring day, and also a holiday in Bonn: Ascension Day (Himmelfahrt). The month of May is crowded with religious holidays, and the Rhineland, as a staunch Catholic stronghold, celebrates them all. And we who live here consider ourselves lucky to have these many days off, especially as May this year has been blessed with such gorgeous weather, perfect for being out and about.

Blondy and the Finch


Each morning around 8 or so, the yew tree in the back garden hosts two breakfast guests: a red squirrel and a finch. They don’t come at the same time: they quite thoughtfully leave a gap of about a quarter of an hour between their visits. Throughout the day one or the other may come again, say, for elevenses and for lunch around 1, but without the predictability of one coming right behind the other. Towards the end of day, just before twilight, they both come for their evening meal, again with the same predictable time lag as at breakfast.

What fascinates me is that both seem to favour the exact same branches to dine on. I wonder what they can be eating at this time of year, when there are as yet no red-fleshed fruits to feast on. Both unerringly head for a precise branch: no previous reconnoitering, turning up branches and checking them, as a human forager would do. Both know exactly where their next meal is set. Amazing.

The red squirrel, whom I have named Blondy, as more of a strawberry blond and not as bright red as another that I call Ginger, is a real Fresser (both in German and Yiddish). Blondy and not Blondie, as I’m uncertain as to gender, but Blondy seems like a lad (am I being sexist here?). Extremely agile, he glides from branch to branch and on to the farthest twigs, performing astounding acrobatics in mid-air. I’ve seen Blondy completely upside down, not even hooking his tail for security, as he hoovers up yew yummies. He manages perfect balance, even when to my eyes the fragile twig he’s on could not possibly support him. In contrast, the finch (I haven’t named him or her yet) is more fastidious, or perhaps because there are so few goodies left by Blondy.


I’ve googled to check what they could possibly be eating and the result was —seeds. Squirrels and finches and other birds that dine on yew have learned to remove the toxic outer seed coat to get at the palatable interior. Those who don’t, naturally don’t get to pass on their ignorance to offspring: I was saddened to see a beautiful thrush and a coal tit dead at the foot of the yew last autumn when the yew was overflowing with red berries. However, seeds could perhaps not be the only food item Blondy is after, as I see him almost inhaling lengths of branches, all along the bark.

The yew, however, does not look well. It seems to be ailing, as some branches have yellow and brown needles, and there seem to be more this year than last. However, there are also lots of new growth. Perhaps this is the usual leaf drop at spring, as the new needles come on? The brown needles don’t bother Blondy, as he’s been gobbling at them as well. Could there be some kind of disease affecting the yew? This occurred to me as some trees in the garden —cherry, walnut, and Viburnum— died recently.

Is it possible that a fungus, possibly Armillaria, is causing the yew’s needles to dry up and affects the taste of the bark, and this fungal spicing is what Blondy and the finch find so tempting? No other red squirrels come, but two finches flew in together the other day.  I assume they are related, as they also flew out towards the same direction. From the short video below, Blondy doesn’t seem to be eating just seeds; he’s snuffling something all along the bark. After a few minutes (at 6:34), he stops and his eyes begin to glaze over, as if he’s about to doze off. Then he revives and as he begins to chew what he’s stored in his mouth, his jowls quiver. Is he having some kind of hallucinogenic high? I shall have to take a few samples of the yew to Plant Pathology at the University of Bonn to find out. Whatever the cause, Blondy and the finch are the highlight of these late spring and early summer days. I feel privileged to have a grandstand view.