Friday, 5 July 2013

Davidia involucrata - the ghost tree

Spooky Goings On

 Where the hell did it go?
Picture shot on Farne Islands during holiday
The lack of a blog last week is down to the fact that we went on holiday to enjoy a bit of luxury. The sleepy little seaside village of Alnmouth in Northumberland was the ideal setting for this and we knew we'd made the right choice. Until we experienced the 'bargain price' hotel room, that was. I suppose the large spider in the en suite bath was the first inkling of all not being well. Spiders are sometimes seen as being lucky, but not when they're the size of a tarantula, and this one looked as if it hadn't eaten. We hurriedly left the spider to its deliberations and decided to wind down by watching something on telly.

The television was tiny and  mounted on the wall, near the ceiling. When I tried to turn it on nothing happened, so my wife went down and complained to the girl on reception. As a result, the 'handyman' turned up carrying a large plasma TV. This was more like. However, when I explained how the one in situ didn't work, he immediately pointed out that it was because I hadn't switched the box on. This took some time, because he spoke in a Geordie accent which was completely unintelligible to me. There are only so many times you can say "pardon?" without eventually giving in with a hopeful "yes". However, in this case the word 'box' is difficult to mangle and that was the one I clung to.

"What box?", I asked.

He looked at me as if I was daft.

"This one", he said, moving a sign about breakfast times on the dressing table below the telly, to reveal a plastic box adorned with a red light. He then launched into another unintelligible and obviously patronising Geordie explanation of 'boxes'. I swear that if I'd made out the word 'pet', I'd have got really mad and set my wife on him. Anyway he  then flicked the remote a few times before the light eventually turned green. At the same time Andy Murray appeared on the set, knocking hell out of a tennis ball. The handyman gave me a sympathetic smile, hoisted the plasma TV back under his arm and left me to watch the tennis. By this time my wife was downstairs in the bar enjoying a free glass of wine (for the trouble she'd been put to)  and watching Andy on a screen covering half a wall.

This was the smallest screen I've ever seen and the only way of viewing (there were no chairs in the room) was to lie on the bed, propped up by pillows. This was nice and comfortable, but had the disadvantage of being at such a distance from the screen that it was hard to make out faces. I overcame this difficulty by using my binoculars but, by this time, Andy had won. Later in the evening we started  to watch a film but gave up because it was awkward with only one pair of binoculars.

Everything in the place worked, but only when you got the knack: the lavatory flush handle did a complete circle and threatened to come out unless you pressed it in while jerking it quickly and the sash window opened but refused to close unless you threw all your weight on it, then it came down with a crash that caused other residents to fall out of bed. The shower was a contraption I remember using back in the '50's - a rubber tube with a nozzle on one end and dividing into two at the other, each ending in sockets you attached to the bath taps. This worked alright for a while but, because the tube wasn't quite long enough, you would inevitably pull it slightly, causing one of the sockets to come off and scalding water to hit your feet while the spray went freezing cold. As an interesting diversion from this, it would occasionally do it the other way round.
"Hey - love the lipstick"
Puffins on The Farne Islands

When we went down for breakfast the following day, it was to be served by a female version of Basil Faulty. When everyone complained that the milk was sour, her reaction was to wordlessly retire to the kitchen then return with the news that the sell-by date on the carton was in a week's time. There was no apology, simply the implicit threat that the milkman would die and some Manuel - type waiter would get his head slapped. We never saw her smile but, working in that place, maybe she could be excused.

On the positive side, after putting my glasses on, I determined that the 'tarantula' was actually a large crack in the bath enamel, probably caused by someones head as they slipped while trying to use the shower.

The hotel is a seventeenth century grade 2 listed building and apparently has been labelled as 'the most haunted hotel in Great Britain' by the Poltergeist Society. We never experienced anything spooky apart from a neon light which flickered each time we went past (and each time we didn't). However, the spooky claim was enough to justify my gardening topic, which is the ghost tree.
Ghost tree at Harewood House, Yorkshire

The Latin name for the ghost tree is Davidia involucrata. It was given the genus name because the French missionary and naturalist Armand David sent reports of it growing in Sichuan, China in 1869; involucrata refers to the white involucre of bracts which surround the flower. The common names ghost tree, dove tree and handkerchief tree all refer to the appearance of the bracts.

The plant hunter Ernest Wilson was commissioned by Veitch, a British nursery man, to find seeds and send them back. Because the original tree had gone, this led to a nightmare eight month journey via Hanoi, Shanghai and the Yangtse gorges before he reached the village where a specimen had last been sighted. Unfortunately, it was to find a newly cut stump next to the house where the timber had just been used for roof beams. In view of the facts that his boat had been wrecked in rapids, his Chinese guide was a heroin addict and the Boxer rebellion was going on all around, he could have been forgiven for giving up and taking to stamp collecting. However, apart from reportedly vowing to never buy another Chinese take-away, Wilson continued his search and, in 1900, found a grove of the trees.

He triumphantly sent 37 seeds back and one of these, thought to be the first one in Europe, germinated. However, in true British Captain Scott style, it was then determined that a French nursery had grown one five years earlier. Wilson's mission had became yet another heroic failure.

It may seem a good idea to plant a Davidia in the garden but you must bear in mind the fact that it can take up to 20 years to come into flowering. This makes it a poor bet if you're getting on a bit and not starting any serials.

Davidia seed - about size of a walnut

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