Friday, 13 September 2013

Clianthus puniceus (parrot's claw)

Animal Crackers

Parrot's Claw
      A Norwegian Blue parrot shot to fame for being  debatably dead in the Monty Python sketch. The bird I had dealings with wasn't blue, Norwegian, or dead.

      Nick and I were having a walk and had stopped to have a quiet pint in a pub on the promenade at Neston, a village on the Wirral in Cheshire. It is a strange place, being situated on the estuary of  the River Dee: at one time it was a port, a fact illustrated by the bollards for tying boats to which still decorate the prom. The only thing that stops it still being a port is a distinct lack of water. The river has silted up to such a degree that the view is of a wilderness of grass, sedges and rivulets which stretch into the dim distance of the Welsh shore, along which dredging has ensured a still healthy flow of water. The marshes which have been created are a haven for a wide spectrum of birds and other wildlife and this is graphically depicted at high tides:  the rising water causes  refugees who's nests and burrows are being flooded to escape across the promenade. Usually this takes place in front of a large audience. People come from miles around for the spectacle and birds of prey also arrive in force to take advantage of the situation.

      Anyway, there we were having our pints. The room was shared with the biggest parrot I've ever seen, presumably an attempt by the owners to bring back a more nautical ethos. He was doing a little dance, chained to a perch by the window. We'd gone through the compulsory routine of trying to teach it to swear but had achieved only a baleful look which implied he could teach us if the mood took him. His little dance involved slowly lifting one claw then the next, as if the perch were hot, while his head stayed in the same position, glaring unnervingly at us.

      We were admiring this choreography when a large bundle of hair appeared in the doorway. It was a Dulux dog (old English sheepdog to the uninitiated) and he seemed to be looking for someone. The parrot stopped his dance, remaining on one leg and watching the dog with an evil glint in his eye. Then he slowly turned his head and looked at us. He winked. I swear the bugger winked, before turning slowly back to watch the dog. Fido was obviously unaware of the parrot, too intent on his search for his owner. Anyway he then came padding through the room, unconsciously on a course very close to the base of the parrot's perch. As he drew level, the bird suddenly lowered his head and uttered a deafening SQUAAAAWK!!!! This had a remarkable effect on the dog, who shot off the ground and described a 380 degree turn in mid air, legs going like the roadrunner when he's gone over the edge of a cliff. I don't recall having seen a Dulux dog's eyes before - the hair covers them - but, as he came down, I did then: they were crazed with terror. When his paws finally met the ground they scrabbled frantically for a couple of second - legs a blur - before gaining traction, then he was gone. The parrot resumed his dance and, if a parrot can look smug, this one did.

      This is something I've noticed. Animals in captivity exact revenge for their loss of freedom in various ways. I've already mentioned the technique of the rabbit I looked after ( here). The dog was an unfortunate innocent victim of the parrot's vengeance, but the incident was an example of the same embittering process. Another that springs to mind occurred at Chester Zoo:

      A crowd of people were watching orangutans in an open area separated from visitors by a deep pool. The bloke standing next to me had one of those donkey-type braying laughs and he was practising it with annoying vigour at the animals' antics. Apart from annoying me, this eventually got through to the monkeys, because one of them turned and looked at him speculatively. The serious look on the animal's face provoked even more laughter from donkey, safe on his side of the moat, and the monkey turned away in disdain. Then he raised his left arm, as if to conform to the stereotypical armpit scratch. Before anyone realised what was happening, he'd bent slightly then, without turning round, threw something with amazing velocity backwards under his raised arm in the direction of the crowd. There was a resounding bonk! as eight inches of dried orangutan turd bounced off donkey's forehead, then the monkey slowly turned and eyed him thoughtfully. His look conveyed the message: 'on yer 'ead, mate'.
Parrot's claw
      Clianthus puniceus is an obvious follow-up to this story because its common name is 'parrot's bill'. It is also sometimes referred to as 'lobster claw'. The R.H.S. list it as having doubtful hardiness but I decided to chance a specimen someone had given me in a sheltered spot. It was on an east facing wall, protected from the north by the front of the house. The books recommend south facing but, short of turning the house round, I couldn't provide this luxury - sometimes it pays to suck it and see. I had created a narrow bed by digging out some of the concrete drive and, while this didn't exactly emulate its native North Island in New Zealand, it was the best I could do in Manchester.

      For a few years, it thrived. As it isn't a natural climber, more a scrambler, it was necessary to train it against a wire support , tying it in as it grew. The fact that it is evergreen meant that there was some interest even during winter when the pea-like foliage (it is a member of the pea family) made an interesting contrast with the brick. I was able to control its growth by occasionally clipping it back with shears after its late spring flowering and, in this position next to the front door, it provided an interesting conversation piece.


Nasturtiums giving later interest
      Because a plant is sometimes of doubtful hardiness, it pays to give some protection in winter - a deep mulch around the roots or a protective covering of fleece, and at first I did this. However, I got blase after a couple of years and didn't bother. That was when we had a bad winter and the plant decided to demonstrate its expertise at snuffing it. The books say that this often happens and that it will sprout again the following spring. Unfortunately, this one hadn't read the book.

      I had successfully taken a number of cuttings in case the plant should die but as it continued to thrive, I gave them away, so my parrot's claw is now just a fond memory.

      It's worth mentioning that if a plant is early flowering, as this one is, it may pay to prolong the period of interest by partnering it with something else which performs at a different time. I'd like to say I'd had this forethought but I hadn't. However, nature came to my rescue when nasturtiums (Tropaeolum major) suddenly appeared, having spread from a nearby container. They gave a welcome splash of colour until late summer, when the cabbage white caterpillars regularly made a bit of a mess of them. It is nice to add a few nasturtium leaves  to a salad, where their peppery flavour lends a refreshing piquancy and their position right next to the door meant they were comfortably available. The caterpillars aren't to my taste but apparently are rich in protein.
R.I.P.












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