Saturday, 30 March 2013

Unusual Herbs

The Child Within
Jew's ear fungus (Auricularia auricula)

I suppose most of us are guilty of thinking of grandad as an old man. In one sense this is obviously right, but it overlooks the fact that inside that old man body is a child fighting to get out. He would always be on about 'acting our age' just before demonstrating that he was about six and a half. For instance, it was him who told me how to wrap a banger in the clay which passed for garden soil in the place we lived. The idea was to light it and wait till it was fizzing before throwing it at a neighbour's house wall, where it would stick. Then, when it went off, Auntie Bertha's picture would fall off the wall and the hapless neighbour would dive under the table, under the impression that something big had fallen off an aeroplane. This was the theory, anyway. In fact we never found out what the result was. We were too busy running.

Depth charges were his idea as well: wrap the banger in silver paper with some small stones to weigh it down, then drop it in the park lake and watch the resultant turmoil on the surface as an eruption occurred in the depths. We were always hoping for stunned fish to pop up as well but this never happened. It was years later that I learnt our mistake by watching 'Crocodile Dundee' - we should have used dynamite.

Another example of the boy struggling to get out occurred when we were on holiday in The Lake District. The family was having a picnic at the side of Esthwaite Water and I had decided to make a pier. I was heavily into dams at the time but, as Esthwaite wasn't going anywhere, there didn't seem much point, so a pier was the next best thing. Grandad watched the operation with growing impatience until he could stand it no longer. Then I was suddenly reduced from architect to labourer, while he waded knee deep in the icy water, repositioning rocks and supervising the filling- in of crevices with sand and grit from the shallows. The underwater foundations of the pier went out a surprisingly long way, as the lake shelves shallowly. This was hard work and we were taking a rest on the bank before adding the superstructure to the foundations when a large rowing boat manned by three people bore towards us.

"Are you people aware you are trespassing?". The haughty voice came from a very posh middle-aged lady in a large hat. She actually stood indignantly in front of her seat in the boat while two Oxford looking types plied expertly on the oars. Replace her brolly with a trident and trim the brim of her hat and you had Boadicea.

We were well aware of the trespassing bit - a large sign had informed us - but Grandad had insisted that he'd fought for his country and no toffee nosed git of a landowner is telling him where he could picnic. We wondered how much his spell in the catering corp actually qualified him for this remark, but it hadn't seemed worth arguing about at the time.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
To be fair, I think Grandad was going to shout back in heated debate, but at that moment the bottom of the boat made contact with the foundations of our pier. I can't remember much about physics, but feel fairly confident that the occupants of the boat obeyed Newton's first law of motion and the boat itself paid homage to the second. Put simply, the boat stopped and the occupants kept going:  Boadicea  fell backwards over the seat, while her hat dropped over the side, to float like a discarded porridge bowl. At the same time, the two Oxford types disappeared off their perches into the bottom of the boat in a melee of arms, legs and non-too upper class curses. At this, even the war hero lost his nerve and we grabbed the picnic and fled across the field and through a hole in the fence. He was already revving the old Austin Seven when I got there.

Maybe Grandad was an exception but I don't think so. I mean, what teenagers plays hide-and-seek or mess with electric trains? It isn't cool. Wait til they're a bit older though, with kids of their own. Then the excuse is there to argue loudly about who was peeping when they should have been counting, or to heatedly claim ones turn on the electric train control. The spirit of the child is in all of us and I reckon there's nothing healthier than letting it out every now and then. Perhaps we should take heed of what Bertrand Russell meant when he said 'sod what society thinks'. On second thoughts, it was Ted Russell who said it. He used  to live down the road from us, got behind with the rent and became a tramp.

A lot of herbs would be popular with the tramps of yore who would roam the countryside and no doubt make use of anything that was free. We tend to think of herbs as those rather exotic escapees from Mediterranean climes, like rosemary, lavender and sage. However, the dictionary definition is 'a plant of which parts are used for medicine, food or scent'. This is a group that  many of our native plants, including some trees, fit into, although we probably wouldn't deem them suitable for our little herb garden: dandelion, for example, fits most of the criteria. It is widely known as a diuretic and the  French even call it 'pis en lit'. It is also rich in vitamins A and C, while being a passable salad plant (especially when the leaves have been deprived of light so that they lose their bitterness. An upturned bucket can provide the darkness). I suppose the pedant would point out that it doesn't have much scent, but so what - it possesses enough of the other attributes to be over qualified. Apparently it used to be used as a substitute for coffee during the war. Nice fat roots are roasted until brittle and the taste is said to be almost indistinguishable from coffee, without the negative aspects of a caffeine content. I must admit to not having tried it, but intend to this summer (assuming we have one) when they make an appearance. Apple growers find them a useful ground-cover in orchards, because they give off ethylene gas which speeds the fruit ripening process.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Jew's ear fungus (Auricularia auricula)is probably the last thing you'd look for in a herb garden, nonetheless it fulfils the 'food' criterion. Roger Phillips, in his book 'Wild Food' suggests simmering in butter for 20 minutes with thyme, parsley and seasoning, then rolling into slices of bread and toasting. I tried this and the result reminded me of a classic scene in an old Charlie Chaplin film where he eats his boot. Apparently it is important to pick the fungus in its young state unless you want to do a Charlie. It is called 'Jew's ear' because it is found growing on branches of elder and the legend says that Judas hung himself on that tree.

Hawthorn is ubiquitous in the U.K. but most people only recognise it as a good hedging plant with nice early flowers. However the young leaves are traditionally known as 'bread and cheese' because country children would eat them on the way to school and  people used them in salads. Legend says that, applied on May day, the dew from a hawthorn will 'beautify a maid forever'. It seems that Samuel Pepys wife tried it in 1667 but there is no record of it stopping his philandering, so I suppose the jury's still out. Another legend refers to the variety Crataegus monogyna 'Biflora'. This is also called 'The Glastonbury Thorn', because Joseph of Arimathea was doing a gig on Wearyall Hill and going down like a lead balloon. In frustration, he stuck his staff, made of hawthorn, in the ground and, lo and behold, it burst into flower. That got 'em. It was better than one of Tommy Cooper's tricks working - they hung onto every word after that and the variety 'Biflora' became famous for flowering on Christmas day. It actually became a political football at one point in 1752, because, in spite of its history, it failed to flower until January 5th. This was widely recognised to be due to the change of calendar from the Julian to Gregorian, which was then said to be against God's wishes. However, the argument was ignored and the plant still flowers a few days after Christmas.

Ah, well. You can't win 'em all.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Sink Gardens

Mad Max and a Sinking Feeling
Sink Garden at Harlow Carr
I've talked about Max before (see here ), but he merits more than those few lines, so here's a bit more about an amazing fisherman:  

Following a particularly cold spell which had lasted for weeks, Max rang and suggested that we try a new venue for fishing – a large stretch of water in Cheshire called Lymm Dam. Melt water would be causing the River Dane (our common haunt) to flood and it would probably be unfishable, whereas at the dam they would be virtually queueing up to be caught (Max’s perspective, not mine). Partly in response to his enthusiasm, but mainly due to my innate masochism, I agreed.

       The water was a dirty brown, obviously a result of flood water flowing in, and it was freezing cold. All the ingredients of a classic day out with the man. I had set up my tackle and was about to bait up when I heard Max curse. It may have been in Italian, but it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

     “Forgot me glasses”, he said, “can I borrow yours?” I wandered over and handed them to him, half thinking they wouldn’t suit his eyes.
      “Perfect”, he said, with the shoelace I’ve got them tied to draped over his nose, giving the appearance of a Charlie Chan moustache.
      I settled down to fish, hoping the luncheon meat I’d fumbled short-sightedly with was going to stay on the line. It had been difficult getting the hook into it, because I’d had the meat in the freezer, and it seems thawing out is a lengthy process with Spam. I half thought of bunging a stick in and offering it as a lolly, but research into piscatorial appreciation of lollies is pretty thin on the ground, so I stayed with tried and tested techniques.
      “Sheet” (it always amazed me how he managed to imbue this single excretal word with an Italian accent)
      “What now”, I queried.
      “Forgot me luncheon meat”. I trailed across to him with some frozen offerings, then returned to my spot on the bank. I fished peacefully for a few minutes until the next ejaculation (and before you get too excited – ‘ejaculation’ isn’t always to do with sex):
      “Forgot me coffee”. As was expected of me, I dutifully plodded across with my flask. Unkind thoughts were beginning to pass through my mind: If his next offer was to be “I’ve forgotten me butties”, the bugger could starve – there was no way he was getting his molars into mine. My butties are always the highlight of my fishing day. I always do nice ones, because they make up for the boredom endured in not catching anything.
Sempervivum in pot. Can make huge coloured ball in hanging basket

      Max soon got fed up with the luncheon meat approach and started using a technique called ‘spinning’. This involves using an artificial lure (a piece of metal which is cunningly disguised to look like, er, an artificial lure) which you cast as far as you can and slowly reel it back. As far as I know, no one in history has ever caught anything using one of these things.
      “The pikes will go for this”, he informed me, with the same confidence that Mussolini displayed when he led Italy into the Second World War:  “the conditions are perfect”. As it turned out, no one had informed ‘the pikes’ of this and the lure was to retain its solitary state on the end of the line.
      At this point the bailiff turned up and asked to see my membership card. He informed me that we had surprised him, as we were the first people to fish since before Christmas, due to the water having remained frozen for so long and followed by the subsequent floods which had coloured it dark brown. He was looking at me rather pityingly as he said this, and a glance around the fisherman-free banks gave some indication of what he was thinking.
      While we were talking, I was vaguely aware of an Italianate figure in the background making ready to perform a mammoth cast: the rod was held over his shoulder, his whole body bending backwards, then, like a spring, he suddenly uncoiled, lashing it forward to unleash the spinner. For a moment he stood expectantly looking into the distance, anticipating where it would enter the water. Unfortunately he had let go too soon and the spinner moved vertically upwards for an impressive distance, earning an indignant look from a passing seagull, before descending and bouncing off his head into the water at his feet.
      The bailiff noticed my diverted attention and turned to witness the last part of this performance. He went fairly soon after that. I don’t think he even bothered asking Max for his membership card, which was probably fortuitous because he’d no doubt forgotten to bring it.
      Lash Laroo. That’s who Max reminded me of when he was casting a spinner. You may not remember Lash, but he was one of my film star favourites in the ‘50’s, alongside Roy Rodgers and Kit Carson. He had an eighteen foot bullwhip which was used to flick the guns out of the hands of baddies. Luckily the baddies always stood close enough and sideways on, although these trifling facts didn’t impinge on my appreciation of his skill. When film makers get on to a successful format, like the western, they strive to keep the genre alive by imbuing successive heroes with characteristics contrasting to their competitors. For example, detectives have Columbo, with his appearance of being a simpleton in a scruffy raincoat; Miss Marple, who is a woman; Kojak – bald lollipop lover; that bloke who has obsessive compulsive disorder (I forget his name), and so on. With cowboys it was Roy Rodgers in his pearly king get-ups and occasionally bursting into song: the Lone Ranger, wearing a mask and always accompanied by Tonto (which means that he wasn’t ‘Lone’ – an important point most people miss); Hopalong Cassidy – started with a limp because he’d been shot in the leg, but he subsequently kept forgetting (like Paul in Neighbours); Yul Brynner – bald; and, of course, Lash. Anyway, I reckon Max and his demon casting may be harmless where fish are concerned, but confront him with a baddy waving a gun and it’d be a different matter.
Slate Garden at Harlow Carr

            Max and cowboys bring to mind his appearance at the house of mutual friends for a barbecue. He had visited a ranch in Montana earlier in the year, ostensibly to meet his son and partner at the ranch house of the girl’s parents. The ‘ostensible’ bit was motivated by his overpowering desire to explore the river which ran through the property and, according to reports, was overpopulated with ‘three foot trouts’. Max has a thing about fish overpopulation and sees it as his duty to rectify any such imbalance in fish numbers. On returning home, his account of fishing expeditions seemed suspiciously lacking in detail, leading me to think that the overpopulation problem had proved impervious to his attempts to rectify it. However, the point was that he turned up at the barbecue wearing a white Stetson hat and flourishing a lasso. Apparently he had been tutored in the art of lassoing and was more than willing to give the assembled drunkards a demonstration. Actually there was no human way of stopping him. There seems to be a bit of a dearth of cattle herds in Timperley so, in the absence of a running steer, he chose to use a garden chair as his potential captive. This he approached stealthily, waving the lasso round his head, knocking his hat off, and creating a giant halo before unleashing it in the direction of the chair. In spite of the fact that the loop of the  lariat (technical term) appeared to have undergone some sort of stiffening process similar to that used in the Indian rope trick, or immersion in a solution of  Viagra, it was only on the sixth attempt that the chair was encircled and dragged struggling to the ground. His earlier attempts were reminiscent of the technique used by Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, but the successful one involved standing four feet from the chair and throwing the rope in the manner of a hoopla player. This seemed to me a bit like bowling underarm in a test match but Max was obviously pleased, so we all cheered and hoped to God he never got tuition in the use of a six-gun.

Cowboys always remind me of The Rockies and the word 'Rockies' metamorphoses, in my gardening mind, to 'rockeries'. People forget that a rockery is an attempt to copy nature in the form of a mountain, and that mountains are a mass of stone covered with a bit of soil, so they create the opposite: a pile of soil with a few miscellaneous types of stone bunged in. The finished product ends up more like a plum pudding than the Matterhorn. And a rockery can be as small as you like, because the plants which inhabit mountains are often tiny and sometimes minute, making it possible to create a miniature garden with them. I've seen a twelve inch clay pot with an arrangement of tufa (a lightweight form of limestone) where the crevices have been planted with species of Androsace, Saxifraga, Thlaspi, Draba and others to make a total of seventeen plants - a number that some people don't manage with forty square foot of garden. Tremendous fun can achieved from this type of gardening, often leading to an infatuation with alpines.

Old sinks can be made into striking miniature gardens. Obviously a white, shiny ceramic finish doesn't give the natural look, so this can be remedied by roughening it using an electric drill and masonry bit, coating it with Unibond and applying a covering of hypertufa (a mixture made of 1part cement, 1part sand and 2parts of peat substitute like cocofibre). When it's dry (it can take a couple of weeks), paint milk onto it as this, together with the peat substitute, encourages the growth of mosses and lichens to give that really natural effect. Fill the sink with a freely drained compost consisting of standard potting mixture with about a third of quarter inch grit, copying the natural habitat of the plants going into it. Stand it on bricks and place broken crocks around the plug hole to enable any excess water to escape.

A bit of imagination can lead to the creation of other planting environments which occupy the smallest of spaces: walls of tufa or slate can be ideal for plants originating in stark, rocky environments.

A final word on sinks: I once ran a 'Rockery and Ponds' class at Parrs Wood Rural Studies Centre and we created a wonderful sink garden under a poly tunnel. When it was planted up and finished, we tried to move it. Bad idea. A cinema has been built over the site now and I swear there's a bulge in the floor exactly where our sink was planted up. The obvious message in this is to plant up your sink where you intend to display it, unless you're in the market for a hernia. And don't forget to take the plug out.
A feature from a broken pot

Monday, 18 March 2013

Oak Marble Gall

Nightmare in Spain

Three of us, myself, Joe and Nigel, had decided to go to Switzerland for a fortnight, travelling in my old G.P.O. van. However, it was cold on the morning we set out, so we went to Spain instead.

At the time, campsites in Britain were carefully devised to take the pain out of returning from holiday: Getting back to hot water and flush toilets (a luxury after having to find a handy tree) was actually something to look forward to. There was nearly always running water on site, but it was freezing cold and emerged from a stand-pipe surrounded by a mud bath. Flat stones would be scattered around to keep your feet from the bog but these would be unevenly balanced and liable to dislodge the unwary. A visit to the tap would often culminate in the returnee looking something like The Monster from the Black Lagoon. In France though, they were different: rows of mirror-backed wash-basins were accompanied by shaving points and clean toilets.

We gazed in amazement at the first one and Joe shut himself in a cubicle. The lavatories were the continental type, basically a ceramic hole in the floor, and at first he was puzzled. He had contemplated washing his feet in it before the penny dropped and its true function occurred to him. Having solved this conundrum he sat back ready to take a leisurely bowel movement in civilised surroundings. Unfortunately he leaned too far back and inadvertently depressed a button on the wall, which turned out to be the flushing device.

The thing about continental toilets at that time was that the pressure in the cystern seemed to build up overnight and the first flush of the morning was a little over the top. So it was that Joe shot up on a column of water like a ping pong ball in a fairground shooting booth. The first we knew of this was when the door flew open and he emerged on  a tidal wave with his trousers round his ankles. At this point, the French and German holidaymakers who, until now had been standing around waiting for something, all disappeared into cubicles, secure in the knowledge that, as usual, some ignorant Brit had relieved the pressure from parts other than his bowels.

Travelling got more uncomfortable the further south we got. A post office van is not designed to cope with high temperatures and the back interior worked a bit like an oven. We were forced into a routine whereby the driver would do a stint for half an hour at which point a system of swaps took place: the one in the passenger seat would move over and drive, while the burnt offering from the back took his vacated seat and the driver took his place in the oven. I don't know what the gas mark would have shown but we were done when we came out . As part of the battle against frying, we were all dressed in swimming trunks only. We were stopped by the police when I took the step of opening the back doors to sit with my legs dangling out. They delivered a lengthy harangue which would probably have scared us if we'd understood a word. I don't know what they were worried about. The driver was under strict instructions not to do any fast starts or, at least, to regularly check whether I was still there. As it was, we nodded and smiled manically while making door shutting motions. I think they decided to let us continue because their lunatic asylums were all full.

We gave up on the open door technique anyway, because it seems that a G.P.O. van going at speed causes a bit of a vacuum immediately behind. This leads to the exhaust fumes being sucked into the interior with the prospect of the driver going off on a trip unconnected to that of the van.

Having chugged slowly up the Pyranees, then done a white knuckler down the other side, we eventually found our way to Lorette de Mar. Nigel, our interpreter, (he nearly passed his French 'O' level) informed us that the name meant something about 'mother's laundrette', but we never really established why.
Oak marble galls with ladybirds
It had  become apparent that qualification for driving in Spain (and France) was an honours degree in lunacy. We'd broken down on the exit of a motorway and were trying to push the van up the slope to get   off when cars we were temporarily blocking had to pull up. The drivers sat and pressed their car horns. No effort to help - just make a noise and watch us struggle. This could have become an international incident had not Nigel and I restrained Joe from sticking a few car horns in more creative places. I forget what the mechanical problem turned out to be, but vaguely recollect that putting oil in seemed to help. In Barcelona we found ourselves lined up at a stop light in six lanes of traffic. It was like the start of Le Mans - everyone revving furiously and making sideways glances at the opposition. When the lights changed, five lanes roared off in a suicidal rush, while the little G.P.O. van in the sixth puttered off in backfiring pursuit. The black pall of smoke it gave off seemed to signify its opinion of Barcelona and its resident nutters.

We found a suitable campsite in Lorette and pitched the tent. The idea was for two people to sleep in the tent and one in the van, taking turns. However, the discovery that giant ants roamed the sites caused the plan to be revised so that two would be in the van while only one braved the wildlife. In my role as entomologist, I informed the others that it was a known fact that ants went home to bed at night, but this didn't seem to ease their fears. The fact that I'd made it up ensured that I took my turn in the van without fail.

The first day we went swimming, then we lay on the beach before swimming again. Then we lay on the beach.....

The following day we couldn't walk. The sunburn rendered us beetroot-like and the touch of material on flesh was agony, so we stayed in the tent, reading.

The next day was slightly less painful and we managed to wander around in the shade of shops and pubs. In the evening we ate out at the cheapest place we could find.

On the fourth and fifth day, we had food poisoning. This is something not to be recommended at the best of times, but  more so when you're living in a tent.
Larvae of Andricus kollari on cut-open gall
The rest of our time in Spain was spent in standard holiday terms but with the potential horror of the return journey looming ever closer. In the event, this turned out to be not as bad as expected. I suppose we'd acclimatised to the temperature to some degree, so it was in relative comfort that we rolled through little villages where heavily armed Franco's police glared ominously at us from street corners. We kept the back doors shut.

Only in Paris did we encounter difficulty: we got lost. Joe's french was non existent, but, as he was driving, we felt it was his responsibility to ask for directions - it would be good for his confidence. Nigel groomed him in what to say and, when we spotted a gendarme, the van slid to a halt.

"Excusey moi mon sewer", said Joe to the gendarme, who had stepped back quickly in order not to have a G.P.O. van parked on his foot, "er oo ey, emm..... oh shit!" as the carefully tutored words escaped him. The logical thing would have been to involve Nigel in the conversation - he could usually communicate on a basic level by using his fragments of G.C.E. French interspersed with a sort of pigeon English. This would be delivered in a very loud voice in the traditional British 'why don't  sodding foreigners speak English?' manner, accompanied by a lot of arm waving. However, Joe panicked and resorted to the only thing he could think of - he put his foot down. The van roared off, depositing Nigel flat on his back in the rear, and the gendarme  rendered invisible by black smoke. And so we continued to go round and round in Paris until we eventually flew off the edge and toiled our weary way back home.
Oak marble galls with exit hole clearly showing
Talking about France brings me to oak trees, because so many of them were cut down to build boats for fighting the French. The ones that were left are now often adorned with oak marble galls. These are buds which have had eggs layed in them by a little wasp called Andricus kollari, on the basis that you can hardly call a wasp 'Bert'. Instead of growing into a leaf, the bud develops into a little balls which were, according to Richard Mabey, used  as marbles by Cornish children. When the wasp has developed inside the gall, it eventually eats its way out, leaving a perfectly round hole, as in the picture. Andricus was deliberately introduced in the eighteen hundreds, because the galls produce tannic acid which was used for making ink. It seems the Dead Sea Scrolls were written using the same type of ink.

There are a number of gall wasps which have a similar effect on the plant they choose to inhabit and one which often perplexes gardeners is the Robin's pincushion or rose bedegar gall usually found on roses. The wasp causing this is called Diplolepis rosae and lays up to sixty eggs into the bud. It seems that other wasps and insects then often lay their own eggs in the gall and even in the larvae of the Diplolepis. This reminds me of the old rhyme:
       'Little fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite 'em
      And lesser ones have tiny ones, and so on ad infinitem.'
Or something like that.

The name Robin's pincushion is a reference to Robin Goodfellow in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. He was a woodland sprite and went around er, spriting.
Robin's pincushion gall

Saturday, 9 March 2013

How Bulbs Work

The Big Time - Not

Narcissus 'February Gold' - a bulb
As a  group, our ability was no match for our ambition. Playing in the numerous folk clubs - in the late sixties every pub had one - was alright but didn't pay well. Substitute 'well' with 'at all' and you get the idea. We'd invested in some expensive amplifiers and mikes on hire purchase and a bit of income to subsidise this would be very useful. We couldn't afford speakers as well, so we'd made some ourselves. There were two of them, painted black, six foot high and looking a bit like coffins. In fact they were so heavy I sometimes wondered if  bodies had mysteriously materialised in them.

My wife had seen an advert for 'artistes' to attend auditions for working men's clubs in Oldham. We should have known better, having already had an unfortunate experience playing for a pub wedding party in that celubrious neck of the woods. This had ended up as a free-for-all from which we barely escaped with our guitars intact. But money is money, so we turned up at the advertised club, complete with coffins. The audition room, up a flight of steep stairs, was packed with Woodbine - smoking club secretaries and seemed a likely source for the pea-soup fogs we used to have. 'Club Secretary' was (and probably still is) a title representing power. Most of them would be lowly paid workers subjugated by bullying bosses during the day. But at night they came into their own. Their word, supplemented by frequent reference to the sexual act,  was final and you'd better know it.

Rather nervously, watched by about eighty power freaks, we assembled our beloved equipment at the back of the stage, then stood at the side to wait our turn. A number of acts trouped to and from the dressing room at the back, going in as Joe Bloggs and emerging in glittering finery that put our black gear to shame. When I say 'dressing room', the anticipated star wasn't on the door: it was simply a dumping area for empty crates of beer, old electrical equipment and cleaning gear. A wooden chair and row of clothes hooks were the only concession to 'changing', although I suppose the dirty cracked mirror may have crept into this category.

At nine oclock the compere, a bloke of about forty, completely bald and looking very like one of the wrestlers popular on the TV at that time, walked onto the stage clutching a pint of beer and introduced the first act. This was a singer  who belted his way through 'My Way' and only got away with it because he was the size of a brick shed and looked twice as mean. 'His Way' received a few half-hearted claps and no derision. And so followed a number of acts, mostly singers backed by the resident organist and drummer who played so loudly the audience were saved undue suffering from the larynxes of the would-be Elvises, because they were drowned out. The organist and drummer were a fixture in these places, priding themselves in being able to back anyone. The unfortunate aspect of this was that they were usually half way through a song before getting the hang of it and 'key', to the organist, was probably just something to open the door with.

Crocus - a corm
A couple of comedians then laid the lie of the popular concept that 'modern stand-ups rely on bad language and smut - not like the old days'. Seemingly, these blokes were trend setters and their flow of filth and racism went down well with the assembled intellectuals.  A woman singer was down to perform before us and she didn't get through many bars of 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' before shouts of 'drop 'em blossom' and 'gerroff' caused her to break down in tears. Seemingly unaware, the organist and drummer continued with 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', which they must have decided was close enough because Nat King Cole sang both songs. At this the compere clambered on stage, glared at the audience threateningly, and admonished them to 'give the poor cow a chance'. Understandably, this gave us no end of confidence.

After the woman left the stage, no doubt rethinking her career on the boards, we were on, having politely refused the offer of  'backing' by the drummer and organist. I walked nervously to the back of the stage in an ominous silence while the audience reserved judgement on the two young blokes and a girl who were about to entertain them. I switched the amps on and, heartstoppingly, nothing happened. No red light showed they were working. Sweating, I messed with the wires and my mate Tony used his extensive knowledge of electronics by pulling out the plugs and putting them back again. This went on for a couple of minutes and I was considering how we could do a runner carrying the coffins, when the wrestler came on and announced that 'due to technical problems' we'd have the break early. Then he told us to get it fixed. He didn't actually say 'or else' but that was taken as read.

While they had a couple of rounds of bingo, which seemed to be the most popular aspect of those evenings, we played with the wiring until, at last, the little red lights unaccountably winked on. Then we switched off and waited, nervously. We were re-introduced after the fervour of excitement engendered by the bingo died down, and climbed back on the stage in another ominous silence. I switched the amps on, watched the red lights fail to become red and, in growing panic, again flicked the switches. Nothing. We were going to get lynched and  Big Daddy was heading back towards the stage when a bloke standing to the side said 'ere, you can use my amp'.
Wild garlic - a bulb which is invasive

This man was a singer and he'd brought his own backing track which was played through an amp large enough to deafen a cup final crowd at Wembley. It was situated at the side of the stage, so we gratefully plugged in and the wrestler hung back on his forearm smash while we struck up with 'The Gypsy Rover'.

Unfortunately, the guitar leads were only long enough to reach our own amps situated just behind us. The one we were using was considerably further away, which meant that we had to huddle in one corner of a stage the size of the London Palladium  and the leads were stretched tight. I had one just under my nose and my left leg was over another so that I was standing on one foot as if frozen in mid-step. The other two weren't much better off but strangely the audience remained peaceful and we eventually finished our set and trouped off unmolested.

Amazingly, we got four bookings from this. Apparently they thought we were a comedy act.

And this whole story hangs around the little red lights which failed to perform, bringing bulbs to mind. A plant in a package: everything is there, only needing water to set off the expansion of leaves, roots and flowers. This is readily shown by growing a daffodil in a bulb glass containing only water.

The bulb, representing the resting phase of a plant, is a bit like a balloon. It deflates as the energy is drawn from it to produce the flower, and so needs blowing up again if it is to perform next year. The blowing up is achieved by sugars, produced  in the leaves, being pumped down into it, and this is why we leave the foliage on for six weeks or so after the flower is finished. The leaves need sunlight to produce the sugars and if we follow the daft practise of tying the leaves back on themselves because they 'look neater', we are halving the light- catching potential and hindering this regrowth.

Corms are a bit different, in that, instead of the structure being re-inflated, a new one is formed on top of the old. Thinking logically, this should mean that eventually your crocus corms will appear on top of the lawn or bed. However, they have adapted to avoid this by developing contractile roots. These are unlike ordinary roots in that they grow to a point and then shorten, pulling the new corm down until it occupies the same space as the previous one.
Bluebells look great but can also be invasive
Flowers are formed because, although most bulbs spawn new ones underground, there is still a need for genetic diversity - that factor which enables some offspring to evolve to be different and possibly able to cope more effectively with changing conditions. So seeds are formed in the same way as in other types of plant.

In order to encourage regrowth it helps to know that, together with water, the roots also take in nutrients from the soil. These are part of the 're-inflating' process and we can assist by giving the plants a feed rich in potash. The daffodil in the bulb glass is unlikely to be able to rebuild for next year because of the lack of necessary nutrient in tapwater.

We tend to relate bulbs to spring, but there are species available for throughout the summer (Galtonia, lily, iris, gladiolus, cardiocrinum, etc.) and for different situations: Naturalised, many species can be left to their own devices, and some are suitable for rockeries and containers, even hanging baskets. So look beyond King Alfred daffodils to the myriad selection lying beyond.

It is a little known fact that daffodils are extremely useful tools in the highly fraught matter of sex education. My own five year old  son was sitting munching his cornflakes thoughtfully when he came out with the perfect lead in:

"What are the yellow bits for in the middle of that flower, daddy", he asked, indicating the anthers of a daffodil in a vase, with his dripping spoon.

Well", I said, seeing the opportunity to open the subject which playground rumour had indicated fathers  broached on ones thirteenth birthday. Perhaps my father had heard the same mythical references to this birthday and  experienced the  anticipatory dread that I had, because somehow he never got round to it. "That yellow bit is the male part of the flower. It's called the 'anther' and produces powdery stuff named 'pollen'. What happens is that the pollen is moved by wind or rain splashes onto that forked bit which is the female part of the flower, or 'stigma'. Then it travels down the pollen tube in the middle of the stigma, until it reaches the eggs which  are situated at the base, here", I indicated the position of the ovary. "The pollen is the last piece of the jig-saw puzzle that is the egg, finishing it so that it becomes a seed. Its a bit like what was happening with the frogs in the garden". We had watched a couple of frogs mating in the pond, where I explained that the male was clinging to the back of the female in order to fertilize the eggs as they were laid.
I sat back, pleased with myself but dubious as to how much had actually gone in. A few minutes later I decided to find out.

"Would you like to explain to me what goes on in the daffodil flower, son", I asked.

"Yes", he said, easily. "Yellow stuff called pollen is given off by that bit", here he indicated the anthers. It moves down the centre of that middle part". Here he actually managed to recall the name of the stigma, with a bit of prompting. "Then it stops when it gets to the egg".

"That's fantastic son", I enthused, glowing with pride. "What happens then?"

"Well", he said, in a confidential way, "you get millions of tadpoles, daddy".

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Plant Sexuality

A Dog's Life

Hazel catkins in spring
Nobody seemed to know where the dog came from, he just appeared in the central aisle of the church, intent on having a good time.

Three of us had formed a group to play folk music and we'd do it for anyone masochistic enough to ask us. In this case, the priest of the local catholic church had asked us perform in a service, doing stuff like Kum ba ya and other songs which loosely fitted a religious remit. In order to lead the congregation in singing, we'd been positioned on one of the steps of the altar. We'd finished the first song and the priest was doing his preaching bit when the dog arrived. He was a mongrel with a black spot over one eye, one ear which stood up and a constantly wagging tail. At first not many people noticed as he proceeded along the aisle, cocking his leg up on every third line of pews. I was mesmorised: I couldn't understand how such a small dog could have such a large bladder.

Anyway, the priest, who was a stand-in for the bloke who'd invited us - he'd got 'flu or something- suddenly noticed the interloper and stopped talking. He looked witheringly at the dog, who responded by wagging his tail even more furiously while giving another demonstration of the infinite capacity of his bladder:

"Get that dog out, will you", the priest intoned through gritted teeth, addressing a bloke on the end of the front row who seemed to be an usher (and here I'll refrain from coming out with the old one about an usher being someone who tells people to shut up - no way will I sink that low). The man who, until this point, hadn't seen the dog, looked round, spotted him and went to pick him up. This, it seemed to the dog, was someone who fancied a game, so he went into a 'come and get me, then' position, resting on his front elbows with his bottom in the air until   the bloke was almost up to him, then rushed off along an empty pew, emerging at the far end. Here he waited again, adopting the same pose, obviously  thinking that church was great fun. By this time, the rest of the congregation had cottoned on to what was going on and the usher was joined by a number of other people. All we could see from our vantage point was buttocks bouncing above the barrier of the pews as fruitless lunges were made to capture him.

Hazel  (monoecious) clearly showing male and female flower
The usual priest would probably have dealt with this situation by laughing and perhaps incorporating a joke in his sermon but the stand-in took himself seriously.This one had reached a state where he was daft enough to try canine excommunication or something. He was fuming, building up a head of steam, and this led him to make the big mistake: he joined in, and the priestly buttocks joined the throng. The first couple of rows of pews now resembled a headless Punch and Judy show.

If God was watching, he'd be rolling his eyes.

Eventually, the dog got fed up, saw us on the altar steps and scampered over. Then, to my horror, he sat at my feet and looked up at me in panting adoration. All eyes turned on me. This, in the mind of the congregation and the by now incoherent-with-wrath priest implied that it was my dog. I grabbed him and, with a sickly smile, carried him to the side door, put him outside and shut the door firmly. When I made my way back to the group the priest glowered at me, obviously regretting the decision of his resident colleague in getting us involved. I don't think my three- chord guitar work helped, either. However he had little option than to continue his sermon.

Unfortunately, everyone had overlooked the ingenuity of the little dog, because, within minutes he reappeared, having found the main door at the far end to be open. This time however, the priest ignored him, ploughing on with a sermon which  became more and more hell and damnation in direct proportion to the workings of Fido's bladder.

And this became a problem to me: I had always been useless at school. The one thing I excelled in was laughing. The more I shouldn't, the more I had to. In junior school we had a teacher called Miss Roberts. Everyone was scared stiff of her, including, I suspect, the other teachers. Anyway, on one particular occasion, she caught me laughing and obviously decided to show me up:

"John Steedman", she said in a threatening voice, "come out to the front".

I sloped to the front of the class, thinking this was the day I was going to die.

"Face the class", she told me and I turned slowly to look at them.

"Now laugh", she said. She'd probably read  in Froid or Jung  or somewhere, that if you scare the excreta out of someone they are unlikely to laugh. Unfortunately my reading hadn't progressed that far and, as I faced my classmates, their blank faces brought back the irrepressible urge and, following a battle to control myself, I started to shake with suppressed laughter. Very shortly the other kids started to giggle and, in no time the whole class was in stitches. I looked round in terror at Miss Roberts and realised there was no need to worry. The old battleaxe was laughing.

And now it started to happen again. It wouldn't have if I hadn't been looking out at a sea of serious faces, or had been free to laugh. It was the fact that to do so would be unthinkable. I stared determinedly at the carpeted floor, willing myself to think of carpet fluff but it didn't work. My shoulders were shaking and I thought my head would explode. Tears were running down my cheeks.

I'm not saying that the congregation collapsed in laughter, but a lot of them seemed to find the woodwork of the pews as interesting as my carpet fluff and a number of explosive snorts turned out to be some sort of catarrhal  problem needing the application of a handkerchief. The priest was no Miss Roberts, and seethed his way to the end of the service.

The sad ending to this story is that the little dog converted to C. of E., we were never asked back, and there was a rumour that the priest had given up his calling in favour of driving buses.

The reason I bring all this up is that it happened at this time of year: there were flowers on one of the church window sills and someone had arranged them with hazel twigs laden with catkins.

Skimmia japonica (dioecious) berries
The sex life of plants is a subject in its own right. Some plants, like Skimmia, holly, spotted laurel, Pernettya and many others are dioecious. The word literally means 'two houses', because the male and female flowers occur on different plants. This is of importance to the gardener because if we go to the garden centre and choose, say, a holly so that we can enjoy the berries at Christmas, we'd better make sure it's a female. It stands to reason that, if we get a bloke it's not going to have babies and, even if we do get a female, there needs to be a male somewhere in the vicinity in order for pollination to occur.

The hazel (Corylus avellana) is a native plant which is termed 'monoecious' and it follows from what has already been said that this means 'one house'. In this case, the male and female flowers occur on the same plant but as different structures. The photo shows the male catkin, which releases pollen and the separate female flower existing as a number of red tassels emanating from a tiny bump. When pollen from the male reaches it, the bump develops into a hazel nut. It's interesting to note that the male and female flowers on one plant often mature at different times. This is because one plant benefits from being fertilised  by another  because too much inbreeding can cause genetic defects. The same applies to human beings: breeding within the family leads to all sorts of problems (although if you watch 'Deliverance', you get the message that you'll be able to play a mean banjo). Alder, the tree we associate with river banks, is another example of a monoecious plant: it has tassels but its female flower develops into small seed-bearing cones.

And then there are the hermaphrodite plants, those like buttercup, lily and rose which posess both male and female sexual appendages in the same flower.

The more you look at the sex life of plants, the more diverse it becomes. There don't seem to be many fixed rules: the individuals have all evolved the system which is perfect for them. Methods of spreading seeds are equally adventurous and deserve a look at in a coming blog.

Lilium regale (Regal lily) - hermaphrodite flower
Rose - hermaphrodite flower