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 130. By train to Bad Münstereifel

I love train journeys. There is something enchanting to me about travelling by train. Perhaps because as a child, I often travelled with my mother by night train, from Manila’s Tutuban Station to Damortis, La Union, the end station, and then onwards by bus to Santiago, Ilocos Sur, arriving at dawn, just in time for breakfast at the house of her mother, my grandmother Lela Pacia.

I also love landscapes mysteriously shrouded in fog and mist. And yesterday’s journey from Bonn to Bad Münstereifel was through Rhineland countryside alternately hidden and revealed: the fields nearest the tracks an eye-smarting emerald green and in the far, far distance, dimly glimpsed amidst the white-blanketed horizon, faint skeletons of trees, still bereft of leaves. It always amazes me how each type of tree possesses its own distinct silhouette: branches and twigs angled just so — the layout of trunk and branch and twig characteristic of that particular species, and none other. The weeping willows have just begun to leaf out. And the very palest chartreuse of its fragile pendent branches — like giant maiden’s greenish-blond tresses let down to be washed by waters of streams or rivers where such trees flourish — rivals the brilliance of yellow cornelian blossoms peering through the mist.

Bad Münstereifel is not that far from Bonn, though the journey takes a full hour and a half, as the train stops for some time at the major junction of Euskirchen to shift tracks. I don’t know why we don’t go oftener, as from our very first visit some years ago, we were very much taken with it. Being in Bad Münstereifel, from the moment one beholds the walled town’s imposing entry gate, is like being in a fairy tale. Or inside a picture book of medieval European townscapes, titled Topsy-Turvies, by Anno Mitsumasa, my favourite Japanese book illustrator.

We just strolled around, soaking in the bewitching ambience. And it is wonderful that the town centre is entirely pedestrianized so that the air is free of pollutants, adding to Bad Münstereifels’ reputation for healing and recuperation – it is renowned as a Kurort (Kur = cure; ort = place). The curative baths (Bad) are just outside the town centre. (I must have some sort of affinity to healing places: Leamington Spa, where I lived in England, had been one such as well. )

The day’s joys included lovely Baisertorte, eaten to the accompaniment of the sounds of the river as it winds its way down, burbling merrily as it flows through the town. Baiser is German for meringue, though amusingly pronounced the French way, “behzey.” This part of Germany has incorporated a lot of French, from the Napoleonic army’s thirty-odd years’ stay. Military uniforms reminiscent of that era are much in evidence during Karneval. Though why native Bonners pronounce “Ich” as “Ish,” akin to the French pronunciation of “ch,” may not be due to ancient French colonization. I am told that Bonnsch pronunciation is regarded as uncouth by those who speak proper hoch Deutsch.

Baisertorte

Much later, we had lunch of locally brewed beer and crisp roast Spannferkel (suckling pig, the local version of Philippine lechon), partaken at the brewery itself, overlooking the roofs and charming higgledy-piggledy muddle of half-timbred walls. A lovely and memorable day, and I was glad that we had come and left early, as it had begun to rain in earnest as we left for home. Interestingly, by the time we arrived in Bonn, the sun had come out, picking out the pink peach blossoms near Bonn’s Old City Hall, the Rathaus, also pink. It used to be much more startlingly pink and looked like a wedding cake, but… the political regime changed, and with it, the town’s aesthetic taste as well. I rather liked the old shocking pink — properly Baroque.

Ah, the delights of early spring – ever its mercurial self – one minute rain and the next, brilliant sun.

View from the brewery

View from the brewery

Path from brewery

Path from brewery

Johannistor, one of the town’s gated towers.