Friday, 7 March 2014

Spring Interest

Mud, Glorious Mud.
Early flowering, sweetly scented evergreen, Daphne odora
      It's probable that, if you look around, the British are no dafter than other nations and my youngest son watches some stuff on TV which makes the Japanese fairly strong contenders for masochistic world champs. We, however, are less elaborate in our tortures and don't need the sophisticated endurance courses they dream up. Take the Maldon Mud Race, for example. All that needs is a river and a crowd of nutters: the Mud Race started way back in 1973 and initially was a race across the river at low tide to reach a barrel of beer, consume a pint, then return. I suppose there was some logic in the free pint bit, but eventually there were so many people doing it that a barrel was not enough and the impracticality of building a brewery on the site ruled out that aspect. Now they just run through mud.

      The runners wait for low tide when the remaining depth of water is only two or three feet, then they swarm down the muddy banks, a bewildering cross-section of people ranging from the competitive types in running gear to the usual self-acknowledged no-hopers dressed as nuns, convicts, Superman, Father Christmas, the hero of the 'Where's Wally?' books, and all the other outfits usually reserved for marathons. If you Google it, you'll even see one bloke doing it completely naked, his dignity preserved by a thick layer of mud. Actually the layer may not be that thick - the cold water having frozen his assets.

      And 'running' isn't really the right term for what goes on here. Although the first few yards may qualify, the high stepping ballet which develops is more reminiscent of someone going barefoot through upturned drawing pins. Then there's the wildebeest stage, where they bounce their way through the water like a David Attenburough herd trying to avoid crocodiles, followed by the snake slither up the other side where their colouring uniformly becomes that of Al Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer'. I often wonder what happens to the wildlife in the river as the herd comes trampling through. Presumably a lot of cod become flounders or other species of flatfish.

      Showers are rigged up for when the survivors emerge and the next stage is to make their way to the pub, where the lack of a pint on the other bank is made up for with interest. All that then remains is to head for the Glastonbury Music Festival to do the training for the next run.

      See what I mean about the British and nutters?
Euphorbia characias wulfenii
      And as the mud of our glorious winter recedes, the denizens of the garden begin to reassert themselves: the frogs are croaking their sexy chorus, Delphiniums are pushing their heads out, ready to renew battle with slugs (protect them with slug barriers at this stage and subsequent older growth seems to be off the menu - leave them to their own devices though and all that will be left is smiling, fat, slugs ); rhubarb is shining bright green and red, unfazed but maybe indignant after having had the fence fallen on it in the hurricane; nasturtiums clamber happily up the south-facing wall trellis, having deferred to the mild winter by simply going a darker green and slowing down a bit, when normally they disappear altogether; hardy fuchsias, which usually stay in bed a lot later, are donning foliage, promising a longer season than usual and the ubiquitous wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae) is rather frighteningly appearing everywhere, subtending Daphne odora blooms, numerous daffodils and other early flowering bulbs.
Resilient nasturtiums (Tropaeolum)
      A larger, more imposing Euphorbia is growing by the front gate and has been in full flower for a few weeks now: E. characias 'Wulfenii' displays some of the spreading habits of E.robbiae but seems to do it more by effective seed dispersal than runners. It has appeared next to the wall in the street and although rather pleasingly breaking up the hard outline of the wall has more literally started doing the same thing to the pavement and it has had to go. Originating in Portugal and western Mediterranean area, it is a statuesque evergreen shrub intensely disliked by some (wife) and loved by others (me) and the foliage offers pleasing interest even when the flowers give up the ghost. Rather surprisingly closely related to poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), it bleeds the white sap (called 'latex') common to the spurges and, as well as being poisonous, this can cause inflammation and blisters, so is best treated with respect. I once accidentally tested the poisonous aspect, to a limited degree, by getting some sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) mixed up with chickweed (Stellaria media) which I was using in a salad. It was extremely uncomfortable, causing my tongue to swell up. On the positive side, my wife said, at least it shut me up.

Rhubarb which first appeared in mid February

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