Friday, 24 January 2014

Chocolate scented Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus)

Anyone for tennis?
Embryonic tennis superstar with brother Chris
      Keeping fit is not all it's cracked up to be, in my opinion. The ones who put the most effort into it seem to be also the ones on first name terms with the people in A& E. I've got a couple of friends keen on doing marathons: they train themselves to a point when they're running twelve miles a night after work, then they get a cold, which would be a minor annoyance to an unfit slob like me but, with them, turns into an infection that lays them low for a fortnight. Or they're just doing a bit of vacuuming, make an awkward turn round the sofa, and something goes in their leg. This leads to them watching the marathon on the telly, groaning as the hoards wheel by and snarling as some nutter in a suit of armour or Yogi Bear outfit waves cheerfully at the camera.

      My daughter Laura has found a way round these most painful aspects of fitness: she has developed a craze for tennis equal to that of the marathon runners for running, and recognises the importance of fitness in achieving success. To this end, she has joined the boot-camp regime at the tennis club and endures the tortures with a complacency which surprised me to the point of asking for details:

      "How exactly does it work?" I asked her one day, visualising marines climbing twenty foot nets, dropping into knee deep mud before crawling through a tunnel underwater while wearing God knows how many kilogrammes of equipment and being berated by a foul-mouthed sergeant major.

      "Oh, he shouts a lot and we have to do loads of press-ups followed by sit -ups and then he makes us sprint round the gym", she told me, while in the process of demolishing a bar of chocolate (she once showed me the chocolate stash in her cupboard and it explained why she has to keep her plates on the floor).

      "And how many press-ups do you have to do?", I asked, finding this a bit hard to swallow.

      "Oh, loads", she said airily, while rooting in her bag for another Crunchie, "look, I'll show you", and with that, she knelt down on the floor, leaned forward on her hands and worked her feet back until her body was straight and at an angle of about 35 degrees with the ground. Then she sort of shook, an agonised look on her face and arms barely bending at the elbows. She did this for a few seconds then stood up.

      "Yes, but I thought you were going to show me the press-ups", I said.

      "That was it- I did ten of 'em - didn't you see?" she said in amazement. I thought for a moment she had done a Superman and moved at the speed of light while I was blinking. Maybe she had, because the Crunchie had gone, along with any chance of her being accepted by the S.A.S.

      "Oh, well what about the sit ups?" I asked and, obligingly, she lay on her back on the floor. Then she raised her head and looked at me with that same agonised grit-toothed expression, lowered it and repeated the action about ten times, "See", she said. The only limb on her body which had moved was her head (we'll count the head as a limb, because no other part of her was getting any exercise). Then she gave my wife and I a demonstration of how her forearm smash and service had improved, standing in the middle of the living room and going through the movements with a lot of arm flailing and vicious looks. Thankfully though, on this occasion she wasn't actually holding a racket, so avoided the usual devastation to lampshades or any living creature in the vicinity.

      So there you go, Serena Williams. Read this and quake.
A field of pink Cosmos
      Inevitably, all that talk about chocolate brought Cosmos atrosanguineus to mind, because it is so reliably chocolate scented. Cosmos is an attractive plant occurring in annual and perennial forms and atrosanguineus, with chocolate-maroon flower heads is one of the latter. It originates from Mexico where it is now extinct in the wild, so I suppose gardeners have some sort of responsibility to keep it growing. It's not self-fertile, which means that it can only be propagated by vegetative means: for the gardener this is achieved with basal cuttings in early spring using bottom heat (not for the gardener - for the cutting); commercially, growers use tissue culture (this involves scraping tiny samples from the parent plant and placing them in agar containing nutrients and growth hormones called auxins. It has to be carried out in sterile conditions and isn't an easy option for the amateur gardener). Coming from Mexico, you wouldn't expect the plant to be hardy and it isn't. In cold areas it is recommended to lift the tubers and store them, like Dahlias, in mildly damp coconut fibre out of the reach of frost. This is a case of do as I say, rather than do as I do, because I forgot to lift mine and that is why there is no photo.

      The scent of chocolate is more noticeable late in the day. If you can't smell it, a tip Alan Titchmarsh once gave on 'Gardeners' World', relating to scented plants in general, was to breathe warm breath onto the flower, while cupping your hand round it.This, for some reason, releases the aroma.

      The closely related Cosmos bipinnatus is a reliably showy annual which has white, pink or crimson flower heads but unfortunately lacks the promise of returning next year. As with most plants, removal of dead flowers will ensure a much longer display because the plant will not be wasting energy in developing seed. When the flowers are removed, the natural response is to produce more in order to ensure future generations. By leaving a few flowers to develop seeds, you can collect them at the end of the season, keep them in a paper envelope in a frost-free place, then sow them the following spring. Sometimes they'll even self sow.
Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'
      Dahlia is another plant originating in Mexico and some species are fairly similar to Cosmos. It is named after Doctor Anders Dahl, a Swedish botanist who was a pupil of Linnaeus, the bloke who invented the current  binomial naming system for plants and animals. This, like Cosmos, is a member of the daisy family and consists of some 30 species and 20,000 cultivated varieties. My current favourite is 'Bishop of Llandaff', with semi-double ('double' refers to more than one row of petals) red blooms and attractive reddish foliage which blends well with greener companions. It needs the same winter treatment as Cosmos atrosanguineus in order to give frost protection. Growing to a height of about 3 foot it is a notable addition to any border. Pity it doesn't smell of chocolate but maybe, even now, some hybridiser is working on that, along with roast beef, turkey, freshly baked bread.......

      God. I want my dinner.


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