Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Alpine House

Giddy Heights

Laura and Chris in Lilliput
      We had a toy that was supposed to encourage toddlers to walk. I can't remember the details, other than that the oblong plastic body of it was red and the wheels were yellow. There was a seat and a handle at the back so that the child could either sit on it and propel itself by pushing with the feet or stand behind it holding the handle and gaining support while a few tentative steps were taken. I remember thinking at the time that the handle was a characteristic it shared with a shopping trolley. This was the time of conspiracy theories and the suspicion crossed my mind that the thing was a subversive effort by Tesco to get kids used to the idea right from the start.

      Our daughter, Laura, regularly did the sitting thing on it but always just plonked herself on the floor if we placed her behind it in an attempt to get her to walk.Then one day she suddenly got the idea, hauled herself to her feet and gave us a beatific smile as she clung to the handle. So far so good. Her weight caused it to move and this wasn't something that had figured in her plan of action. Standing was one thing, forward motion was a totally new ball game which expressed itself in the expressions which flickered across her face.

      It was a fairly long lounge and she'd started at one end. The first couple of steps were a tentative victory, transformed into a self-congratulating smile, then the thing gained momentum as she continued to cling to it, gathering speed until little legs became a blur. Learning to run before you can walk was a fact of life for Laura. The smile faded and her eyes widened as, mouth open in a silent scream, she shot along the room at increasing speed until the sofa proved an effective barrier from her bursting through the wall into the garden. At this point the scream became anything but silent and the police were probably inundated with calls about a murder taking place.

      As a child, Laura knew how to stick up for herself, although the correctness of when to do it was sometimes questionable. My wife was chair of the school governors and, on one occasion, a meeting was taking place in our living room. The discussion had turned to something about her form teacher:

      "Better be careful what you say", my wife whispered, "Laura sometimes listens at the door"

      "I DO NOT!!", came a loud indignant voice from outside the door. Something in this statement struck even her as incongruous, and she departed tearfully to the top bunk she should have already been in - the top bunk she got headaches in due to - as her mother had informed her (and Laura firmly believed)- altitude sickness. My suggestion of asking Santa for an oxygen mask for Christmas was receiving serious consideration.

Alpine House Holehird Gardens
      And plants are also responsive to the effects of altitude, which brings me to the pleasing topic of alpines. True alpines live on mountains which are covered in snow for part of the year, then exposed to sunshine and, possibly, grazing, for the summer. A snow covering sounds pretty harsh but is actually the reason some alpines don't thrive in the seemingly less hostile conditions of temperate gardens: the snow actually protects the plants from changing conditions. In the garden it may be raining one day, freezing the next, snowing on the following one and so on, while under the snow blanket the temperature remains constant and there is no dampness problem.

Poor Man's Alpine House
      The term 'alpine' has become diluted by being applied to plants which are suitable for growing on a rockery or sink garden (see previous blog) but don't have the qualification of originating on mountains. However they may have the right cushion-forming habit and scale to make them aesthetically the right thing.

      In order to be able to grow the more sensitive of these subjects, it is necessary to do what nature does on the mountains - create a protective snow cover in the form of the alpine house. Quite simply, this is an unheated greenhouse. At its best, the benches or floor have a thick layer of gritty growing medium which is suitable for sinking pots in, making it seem they are growing there naturally. Another school of thought simply displays the plants in their pots. There is no right and wrong but the former method enables the creativity of gardening, while the latter has the more limited enjoyment of just growing plants. Cold frames are a good adjunct to the alpine house: plants can be grown to flowering point in the frames, then brought in to display under glass, giving  the house colourful ongoing interest.

Tufa Wall at Harlow Carr Gardens
      Another popular and natural way of displaying alpines is by growing them on tufa. Tufa is a soft form of limestone formed adjacent water and rich in calcium, aluminium, magnesium, silicon and iron - all elements of importance to plants. It is fairly easy to hollow out a planting hole before adding the plant in a compost enriched with the resulting tufa particles. This may seem a pretty harsh environment but it is accurately reflecting the native habitat of many alpines such as saxifrages. In fact, the name saxifrage is derived from saxum and frango, meaning 'rock' and 'to break', taken maybe from the fact that often they can be found growing from a crack in a rock, or possibly because medicinally they were once used to break up gall stones. If plants are grown this way in the alpine house, rather than outside, there is a danger of extreme drying and it is important that each watering be sufficient to soak into the stone to some extent.

      I've seen a single chunks of tufa positioned on a twelve inch pot and planted with seventeen alpines at the Harrogate Spring Show. This raises the philosophical point that you don't even need a garden to practise the art. Many a forty foot square plot has not got as much variety.

      A big attraction of the alpine house is that it doesn't need heating, cancelling out a few big bills. This fact has been the undoing of many a budget-conscious gardener: he or she sees the economic sense of growing alpines in this way and dangles a toe in the water. Jaws is waiting, and the unsuspecting horticulturist is dragged into the deep waters of an addiction which relegates heroin dependancy to the level of chocaholism. Many is the besotted gardener who disappears into the alpine house never to be seen again, leaving a lonely partner to eventually succumb to the charms of the milkman or double glazing salesperson. For such a marriage to be termed as 'on the rocks' would seem particularly appropriate.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Enriching the garden with sculpture

Graceful Pond Ornament
      I've referred to the D.O.G.S. - my walking group - before and, if anyone's interested, it may be worth having a look at this post to make things a bit clearer. It's worth explaining something of the platoon hierarchy: right at the top is The Mighty Leader (Harry), then comes Fred as Number Two, a position gained by brown nosing, followed by me (the chronicler) as Number 3 and finally Charlie (the scientist and bird expert), as Number 4. We also have a newer member, Baahir, but he wasn't on the expedition I'm going to tell you about, so we'll leave him until a later blog.

      I've already been threatened with a court action on the basis of 'defamation of sartorial inelegance' by someone who thinks he is Fred, so I'd just like to point out that all these characters are fictitious. Not.

      As a departure from our usual hike, we had decided to take in a bit of culture by visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield.  So it was that we found ourselves wandering out into this oasis of creativity and already being educated by Charlie. He was informing us that the cafe chips were not to be touched with a barge pole. His position of fourth in charge means that his powers of leadership can only be exercised when the first three in charge are not present and, as there were only four of us, this area of jurisdiction was somewhat limited. However, we all looked up to him when he expounded on his greatest area of expertise - chips.

      Charlie is prone to cheap weekend breaks and, on one of these he visited Gippsland, in Australia. I was excited on hearing of this, because Gippsland is the home of the Giant Gippsland Worm, which can reach a length of ten feet. I imagine Australian fishermen using them creatively: the worm is stuck on a hook and is trained to wrap itself round a passing fish and squeeze the life out of it in the same way anacondas do pigs. At the same time, I see more skillful Aussies using  the worm to lasso fish which stick their heads out of the water for a look round. This is all fantasy, of course - Australians are not that sophisticated. Crocodile Dundee illustrated this when he did it with a stick of dynamite.  Even so, it is true that the big worms exist. Anyway, we wandered around and I became more and more aware of what Philistines we are when it comes to art: 'Seventy One Steps' by David Nash is amazing. It conspires to look exactly like, er, seventy one steps. This was good but the unanimous conclusion was that his work with Crosby, Stills and Young was more impressive.

      Some sculptures by Joan Miro (actually a Spanish bloke) provided more cultural fulfilment. Charlie however loudly interpreted one piece as an up-market letterbox. It turned out to actually be Joan's interpretation of 'a woman, with the emphasis on female genitalia', and almost led to Charlie's demotion on the grounds of 'militaristic flippancy' - a term invented for the occasion by The Mighty Leader. The only thing that saved him was the fact that he was already on the bottom rung.
Charlie's letterbox
      The works of Henry Moore, scattered all over the park like a plane crash, led to more intellectual discussion between the four connoisseurs. This mainly featured the value of scrap metal and what a Martian would think, should he be mistakenly beamed down in the Sculpture Park. 

      Eventually this long  day drew to a close, as all good things do, and, full to the gills with culture and relief at having avoided the chips, we made our way back home. The route had been suggested by Charlie and was the cause of any hint of popularity he had dropping through the floor. There was even talk of a court martial, because we found ourselves in the mother and father of all traffic jams. Proceeding at a speed of approximately ten miles a fortnight, we made our way down the M62. At one memorable and stationary point, trapped in a solid wall of vehicles, the Mighty Leader gave us the cheering news that we were running out of petrol. Not to be outdone,  Fred helpfully added to the claustrophobic nightmare by turning a whiter shade of pale and informing us that he felt ill. My first reaction as a non-combatant was to do a runner. Apart from anything else, I urgently needed to go for a pee. However, instead of the sweet relief this promised, it seemed I was to spend the rest of my days with my legs crossed sitting next to a dead man. The close presence of an eighteen ton Tesco waggon on one side inhibited the opening of the door , while an equally close blood donor vehicle emulated the effect on the other side. 

      As escape was impossible, I exercised my full quota of medical expertise by producing a bottle of water so that Fred could take one of his tablets. I then contented myself by trying to work out why blood doning required such a big waggon. The conclusion I came to was that Tony Hancock may have been right when he said that a pint was a full arm.

      Amazingly, we arrived home in time for Christmas, all swearing inwardly that there was no way we were going out with those daft buggers again. However, the soothing airbrush of time ironed out any wrinkles in the relationship and, before long, we inevitably embarked on the next cock-up.
Drawing the eye
      Still on the theme of sculptures, they, together with other ornaments, can be used to enrich the garden. The classic function is that of leading you to explore - the need to see what's 'over there'. A relatively uninteresting area can take on life by the strategic positioning of the right subject. And here scale comes to the fore, as it does in all aspects of the garden: too small and it can look fussy, too large and it'll take over rather than complement - Nelson's Column may be a bit much for your thirty foot plot.
Good use of a dead tree
      Humour is another aspect which can be introduced by a careful choice of ornamentation. The garden is sometimes taken too seriously. At its best it is a place of contemplation and peace but this shouldn't be confused with serious, heavy minded and dull. Laughter is the best medicine and a smile is heading in the right direction.

      It is worth remembering that the garden is an artistic expression of your own taste and it pays to remember that, as in most things, snobbery can come into it:

      "My dear, how ghastly. He's got heathers there. They went out in the seventies", or, "gnomes. Look, there's a gnome over there, ugh!" and "Forsythia. How dull - everyone has one". This latter comment reflects the outlook of the classic gardening snob. All her plants are 'special', which means few people have got them. The fact is that these plants are often 'special' because they haven't got much going for them, while the popular ones have earned that status by virtue of their contribution. Gardening is as much about the art of display as it is about growing the plants. A subject which looks good by itself can have far greater impact if displayed with another which enriches by contrast. While a person can have a good selection of plants, individuals displayed without reference to their neighbours will constitute a nursery rather than a garden. I've mentioned before about the gnome my wife bought for a friend of ours. It was a farting one and ideal for giving our gardening snob the vapours. Like that fish that sings a song about the river, it is set off by someone walking nearby.

      "Oh, my dear. How positively vulgar. I must go and lie down". 

      That got rid of the bugger.

      There is a lot of enthusiasm for carved ornamentation now: a squirrel or owl unexpectedly encountered, etched into a dead tree trunk, can enliven a stroll round a garden. The ephemeral nature of such wooden ornaments - the fact that they'll eventually return to the earth - maybe subconsciously reflects that of the garden itself - always changing and evolving. Along the same lines, the roots of a long-gone mammoth can be used as a rockery substitute. The stumpery or rootery, once popular in Victorian gardens, seems to be making a bit of a come-back and deservedly so, in my opinion. They can be planted with a variety of subjects, ferns is a favourite, but mosses, alpines and even bulbs also work well. 
The start of a stumpery
      At the end of the day, the garden is about you expressing yourself, getting your quota of creative stimulation. It doesn't matter if you like gnomes or something else seen as unfashionable by the elite - sod them and do your own thing. 
Boring gate transformed into a feature

Friday, 15 November 2013

Epilobum angustifolium and Dictamnus albus

A Burning Problem
Mysterious footwear?
      Have you ever thought about shoes in the road? The number of times you come across shoes left along the highway seems to have something significant about it. It's possible you haven't noticed this phenomena but, having read this, I can guarantee you will. The odd pair of knickers behind a park bench speak for themselves but shoes? and usually only one (nearly always a woman's)??

      Alien abduction is the first thing that springs to mind - the victim was hauled up so suddenly that the shoe was left behind and I suppose it's conceivable that it could be only one, perhaps because the lace was undone. However, I think this is a bit unlikely, based on the fact that it never happened to Spock or Captain Kirk when they were beamed up. Another possibility is a broken heel.  I saw it happen to a woman in a film once: a heel broke off and she simply took the other one off and walked barefoot, keeping her dignity. That's the 'sod it' factor, how can I walk if I'm listing to port? This solution may work for Hollywood but she wouldn't do that round our way - not with the amount of dogcrap on the pavement. A better solution would be to walk with one foot in the gutter and the other on the pavement, rectifying the uneven elevation. However this could be problematic if it's your right shoe that's lost the heel and the kerb is on the left due to the direction you're travelling: the foot with the heel would then be twice as high. My first reaction to this conundrum was that you'd have to walk the other way round the block in the hopes that you could reach your destination that way. When I think about it though, this, of course, that's ridiculous - you'd just have to walk along the gutter on on the other side of the road.

      And what about the one-legged person? Did Long John Silver have to buy two shoes and throw one away? I should have thought that, in the cause of decency, the shop should  sell them one at a time. Probably there is a balance between one legged people with the left leg and those with the right so, in the long run, they'd be able to sell them both. However, if they do have to buy two, one may end up chucked through the car window.

      These things are possibilities but the most likely answer, I feel, lies in spontaneous combustion. In Bleak House, Dickens describes how Mr Krook is a victim of this. In that case there was nothing left of him but an evil smell, greasy soot, a chunk of burnt thigh and a pool of oil. Although this was a novel, Dickens had done copious research and the story was based on a number of known cases. Lots of theories about how this happens have been propounded, the most widely accepted one being that of the wick effect: having first been ignited by a fag end or something, the person burns and fat from the body works like candle wax, keeping it lit for ages. Whatever the cause, it's a fact that, in 1951, a Mary Hardy Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida was found almost totally cremated. All that was left was a pile of ash and a foot. The point is though, that the foot was still wearing - wait for it - A SHOE! I rest my case.

      A plant - Dictamnus albus - is also known as 'burning bush'. It produces volatile oils from its leaves and these may become ignited in hot weather. You can hold a burning match close and watch the resulting conflagration. It sounds advisable to only do on someone else's Dictamnus, because it wouldn't do a lot for your herbaceous border. However, the burst of flame is fleeting enough to not damage the plant. It's thought that this was the burning bush depicted in the Bible, when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. I can't remember the rest of the story, maybe Moses used it to light his pipe. It grows to about three foot high, with woody stems, and looks a bit like rosebay willow herb, another plant associated with fire.
Rosebay willowherb or fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)
      Rosebay willow herb is also known as 'fireweed'. This is due to its characteristic of colonizing areas of woodland which have been burnt down. A perennial herb, it dies out as the trees reestablish but the seeds stay viable in the ground for many years, ready to make another bid for glory should fire or felling again create the right environment. At one time it was a rare plant in Britain and only really exploded onto the scene with the coming of the railways in the 1800's- the bare ground accompanying them suited the plant and the 'wind tunnel' effect of the trains helped spread the airborne seeds. The bombing of the cities created a wealth of new sites and a new name 'bombweed' became popular, as harsh areas of rubble became hidden under a sea of pink.

      The soft, downy seeds become a snowstorm in late summer windy days and, at one time they were used with thistledown in Scotland to stuff mattresses. The fluff was also used, mixed with cotton or fur, to make stockings and other items of clothing. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the young tender stems can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable and are claimed to be a good asparagus substitute. I haven't tried it yet but will give it a go next summer. The dried leaves are used to make tea and I've heard it said that it's difficult to tell it from the real thing.

      Although it was once considered a garden plant, rosebay willow herb quickly outgrows its welcome: the thick woody roots spread horizontally and its dense clumps suppress other plants, although foxglove seems to thrive happily with it. However the white form - Epilobium angustifolium album - is a bit less belligerent and can be a stately addition to the herbaceous border.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

Colour in Autumn

Finding Religion 
Prolific colour in autumn
  I've noticed that I seem to inspire a lot of my friends spiritually: Dan was a mate who was a bit religious before we went on a hike over Bleaklow, a hill in Derbyshire. When we got back, compared to Dan, the pope was an atheist. I seem to have this evangelistic potential. I have a recurring picture in my mind of the J.S. lifeboat saving countless struggling souls from the surface of life's stormy sea. Meanwhile, squashed deeper into my semiconscious is a haunting, faded picture: It is of someone looking remarkably like me pushing them off the cliff in the first place.

      The plan was to leave the car at a place called Lady Cross, on one side of Bleaklow, climb up Black Clough to the top, wander across to Bleaklow Stones, then drop down to the Snake Inn via Doctor's Gate and the short length of linking road. Then we'd do it in reverse.

      We completed the first part, had a beer in the pub and ate butties surreptitiously withdrawn from paper bags on our knees under the table (the landlord was always snotty about having to buy the food from them). Then we set out to retrace our footsteps back to the car. What could be simpler? you ask. Well, as it turned out, the discovery of D.N.A. would have been a doddle in comparison.

      The weather had deteriorated while we were in the pub and a thick mist descended by the time we got to Doctor's Gate.

      "We'll need the compass in this fog", said Dan and, to keep him happy, I obliged by searching through my pockets for an implement I'd never possessed.

      "Oops", I said, "seem to have forgotten it. Doesn't matter though, all we have to do is follow the stream to the top, then wander across to Black Clough and follow that down to the car. It'll be a doddle".

      If I ever get round to compiling a book of famous last words, 'it'll be a doddle' will feature prominently.

      Two hours later, having followed one stream up, and then walked down the other one, we found ourselves in vaguely familiar territory. This familiarity was explained when we found a sign, leaning drunkenly and informing us that we were back at Doctor's Gate. We had walked in a circle on the top. By our reckoning, to walk back to the car by road was about fourteen miles and it was only six if we tried again and went over the top, so we decided to have another bash at it.

      Heavy rain  set in as we followed the muddy track along the stream. Looking back now, I think the map may have been faulty, because we followed the stream as closely as possible but didn't end up where we should have. The moment of truth came when the stream had dwindled to nothing and we were walking through a thick wall of mist in the direction we deemed would lead us to the top. All semblance of a path had long since disappeared and the tufty grass had given way to ten foot peat cakes iced with heather. The rain continued in a deluge and we seemed to have walked a lot further than the map thought we should have. In addition to this, it was fast going dark and we were probably miles from civilisation. Dan had gone strangely quiet.

      At this point the storm started. we'd heard it rumbling in the distance, moving closer. Now the thunder occurred almost simultaneously with the lightening, which seemed to be forking into the hillside at an uncomfortable proximity and with frightening frequency. I turned to say something to Dan, to find him prostrate on the streaming peat.

      "Get down", he screamed "lightening strikes things that stand above the ground". I looked down at his now black face and decided that frying was preferable to drowning.

      "Come on", I said reasonably, "it's passing over now. See, the rain isn't as bad".

      As if in reply, the mother and father of all bolts of lightening sizzled to extinction at what appeared to be a few yards distance, accompanied by a crash of thunder which deafened me for a few seconds. My hearing returned with a low drone and I thought for a moment that it had been permanently affected. I needn't have worried, the drone was Dan going through the Lord's Prayer. There may be a bit of a tendency to laugh at this but I didn't, because it worked. The blinding flash of light had momentarily outlined something ahead of us through the mist.

      "There's a post over there", I said excitedly.

      Joe muttered something and I bent to hear properly.

      "Give us this day our daily....."

      "No, you don't understand. I reckon that where there's one post there's probably another, marking the top of the ridge". I said this on the basis that our old ordnance survey map had a line of dots going along the top of Bleaklow. There was nothing to show what they were on the key, therefore they must indicate posts. Got to be. All we had to do was follow them.

      Dan rose slowly and dramatically to his feet like something  Hammer Horror would be proud of.

      "I can't see a post", said this apparition, "you've got a thing about posts. You hit 'em in boats, you hang on to them in lakes, you're a lunatic, you are" (for those stories try this and this).

      His voice was cracking and I could see that he was going over the edge. He always had been a bit highly strung. It was at this critical moment that another flash of lightening illuminated the landscape in front of us.

      "Bloody hell, there's a post over there", said Dan. I don't know what I'd have done without him.

      And here I'm going to end this tale. Suffice to say that we managed to follow the posts to safety, albeit miles from the car, and spent the night in a barn. I heard a few more comments from Dan which I didn't know were in the Christian lexicon and I haven't seen him since. Perhaps I'll outline the rest of the journey in another blog.
Strange winged stems of Euonymus alatus
      A plant which could have been useful in this trip up Bleaklow is Silphium laciniatum, also known as the compass plant. It comes from the U.S. and the flat sides of the leaves always face east and west. Apparently early settlers were able to travel in the dark by feeling them, so perhaps Dan's blood pressure would have benefited from their presence. However, a more seasonal gardening subject is that of autumn colour and one plant which never fails to come up with the goods is Euonymus alatus:

      Unusual for its winged stems, this is a shrub which can reach 6ft high and can spread as much as 10ft. A more compact version, perhaps better suited to the smaller garden is the variety 'Compactus', which only reaches 3ft high. Readily available in most garden centres, it originated in Japan and China but is well suited to our climate. A friend in the north of the Lake District has one in his garden and the fact that it came into colour at least ten days before those in the Manchester area (some eighty miles south) gives an idea of climate difference over a relatively small distance.
Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)
      Another import from China and Japan, this time much bigger, is the Katsura tree - Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Ultimately reaching about 45ft in Britain (147ft in its native habitat), the foliage changes from bronze when young to orange, yellow and red in autumn. When crushed, the leaves smell of toffee apples or candy floss, depending on your sense of smell. Although it is related to the tulip tree and Magnolia, the flowers are nothing to write home about, being red but minute.
Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree)
      I used to have difficulty telling the Katsura from the Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum, which has similar foliage also turning yellow in autumn. Then I noticed that the leaves are usually borne opposite on the main stems, whereas those of the Cercis are alternate. In flower, there is no confusion, because the Cercis has showy pink (occasionally white) flowers arising from the bare stems before the leaves. It was said to be the tree Judas hanged himself on - hence the common name.
Callicarpa bodinieri giraldii 'Profusion'
      Autumn colour can come from sources other than leaves and this is epitomised by the beauty berry, Callicarpa bodinieri 'Profusion', a shrub which can reach 10ft in height, with a spread of 8ft. This has small pink flowers but it is the berries which are its main attraction: a dark violet, they are borne as the leaves begin to fall and, especially on a sunny day, stand out in glorious celebration of autumn. Apparently they are very bitter, so the birds leave them alone unless absolutely desperate and they last well into winter. Cotoneaster, and Pyracantha, on the other hand, are bird magnets which, in my book, is a different kind of advantage. Horses for courses.

      For more on autumn colour and how it works, visit this link


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Houseplants for shade

Nick, confusing Superman with Mary Poppins
      When you look back at the characters in your life it can be guaranteed you'll bring to mind some who were memorable for the over-the-top approach - the Boris Johnsons  of the world. In some cases their behaviour may be seen as a one-off, whereas in others it was, or is, their way of life. As an example of the one-off species I can cite my youngest son (some people may query this limitation), Nick, and an incident in Tatton Park when he was about eleven:

      We'd cycled to the park on a Sunday morning and were going along the track leading to the Old Hall.

      "Bet I could ride through that stream and up the other side", said Nick, with the bravado of youth. There was a steep slope from the path we were on, down to a stream. The far bank was almost as extreme.

      "Don't be daft", I said, "you'll end up in the stream with a broken bike".

      "No, I can do it", he said, lining the bike up with the edge of the path.

      "Stop", I commanded in my best authoritarian parent voice.

      "Whoops", he said with a grin, "sorry Dad, I can't stop", as he started the descent and gravity accelerated him at an unforeseen rate. I made a mental note to do an update on my authoritarian voice. He hung grimly to the wildly bouncing bike as it tore down the slope and his face underwent a change from bravado to 'I want my Mum'. I must admit that his mum came to my mind as well: what she would do to me when I brought home the remains of her beloved son.

      "Shiiiiiiit", he screamed, taking a leaf out of Butch and Sundance's observation as they jumped off the cliff.

      At this point his mother would have severely reprimanded him for the use of bad language but, after careful consideration, I decided it was the appropriate comment.

      The bike careered to the edge of the stream then, instead of proceeding through it and scaling the far bank at diminishing speed in accordance to the plan, it hit a rock and cartwheeled. For a few seconds, this was the closest Nick ever came to fulfilling his lifelong ambition to be superman. However this first solo flight ended abruptly with him lying prone in the middle of the stream. He lay for a few seconds then slowly rose to his feet, mournfully surveying the wreckage of his bike, while the stream bubbled merrily round his feet. Without a word, he waded to the bank where he sat, removed his shoes, and thoughtfully wrung out his socks. It's amazing how much water a sock can hold, and this is probably the reason Superman doesn't wear them. I then did what all authoritarian dads would do: I laughed. I laughed until I'd hurt myself more than he had on landing. This may seem harsh, but it was the funeral laugh. The one people get after the emotion of a burial demands some release and the weakest joke is an excuse for it. He glared at me, then slowly realised the futility of wringing out socks when the rest of you is waterlogged and he started a grin which turned into a belly laugh. Together we sat, helpless, until the realisation of how we'd explain this to his mum sobered us.

      Don't know if you've ever seen 'Carry on Caveman', but I think it was in that film that they portrayed the invention of the wheel. The prototype needed some improvement however, because it was square and this had obvious limitations. I mention this because it reminds me of Nick's front wheel after his death-defying Tatton stunt.

      This got me thinking about what pot plants cavemen would choose for their rather gloomy living quarters.:Spathiphyllum comes from the tropics of the Americas, the Philippines and Indonesia so, on the face of it, doesn't look  a likely candidate. However, it thrives in a shady position and is tolerant of cool conditions above freezing. The origination of the common name 'peace lily' is a bit obscure - even Wikipedia doesn't offer a thought - although the fact that it often makes an appearance at funerals may have something to do with it. Perhaps it was thought that, as a poisonous plant, it actually spawned funerals, but this is a bit of a long shot because large amounts have to be eaten for drastic results and it doesn't taste nice. Dogs and cats often suffer diarrhoea and vomiting, along with other symptoms after eating the leaves, so it is best to position the plant out of their reach.
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum)
       Spathiphyllum needs dividing annually, yielding a couple of extra plants which come in useful as presents for friends. A peace lily makes a pleasing change from the bunch of flowers often presented to dinner party hosts. It should be split during the winter or immediately after flowering (which can occur every two or three months) and an indication of when it needs it is the appearance of roots on the surface of the compost. Drooping and dullness of the leaves often shows a need to water and it is surprising how quickly they perk up and regain their shine when this is carried out.

      Another plant suitable for the caveman's parlour is the Aspidistra. This has the common name 'cast iron plant', indicating its tolerance for shade and indifferent temperatures. Its flowers aren't very noticeable, as they occur at soil level, emanating directly from the rhizome. It used to be though that they were pollinated by slugs and snails but recent research in Japan indicates that small terrestrial crustaceans called amphipods are the most likely suspects.

      Aspidistra is easily propagated by taking root sections and transplanting them. The rhizomatous roots are more woody than those of the Spathiphyllum and secateurs come in useful for the purpose. Care should be taken to ensure that each piece of rhizome has a couple of leaves coming from it.
Young Aspidistra
      No plant is completely idiot-proof, but Aspidistra and peace lily come pretty close to it and most of us have a shady niche in the house which would benefit from a bit of living decoration. Pity neither of these were in the country at the time of cavemen. They probably had to make do with potted dandelion.