Cotoneaster x watereri

We have passed the autumn equinox. The year grows old and the light fails. In the garden, my eyes search out all sources of colour, of light, of warmth, of comfort. The autumn leaves are splendid this year; the trees being stressed from the drought, followed by some decent frosts to hone the colours. Their distress, physically expressed, is my comfort.  But, I suppose my eyes are searching for signs of life, even so, not the senescent leaves of trees and shrubs falling into slumber. I am seeing the berries: the berries are alive. Within them, future lives are stored in seed. The berries give life to others also. As I walked across the demesne this morning, the first flight of Turdis pilaris, fieldfares, filled the sky. They will have flown in from Scandinavia or Russia to feast on the bounty of berries here. The first sighting is one of the mileposts of the year – it tells me, we are here and all is as it should be. I expect cold weather within the next month – they are the prophets of winter. It is a reminder too, that latitude is relational. The British Isles are south and temperate for millions of migrants every year. They come here to live. Political territories, borders,  walls – these things are meaningless to them. Life is the imperative: and we are just fleas on the dog. A dog endures many generations of fleas.

The berried plants catch my attention. I see the hedgerow Crataegus monogyna, hawthorn, with fresh eyes. The humble Ruscus aculeatus, butcher’s broom, is transformed from a filler-in to something commanding attention. But, my particular attention is caught by the titular subject, Cotoneaster x watereri. Like the Ruscus, it is the chorus to the garden for most of the year. It provides body and depth, seriousness, possibly. Yet, for most of the year, like the god of the German theologians, it is experienced as an absence more often than not.

Type ‘artificial shrub’ into a search engine and numerous sites selling plastic plants will be generated. Cotoneaster x watereri is classed as an artificial shrub. Its parents may never have met in the wild – indeed, the parentage is disputed, or undetermined, at least. But, I feel its existence challenges our terminology in the same way that calling anything unnatural does. Surely, only natural things can exist. I stand with Terence, as so often before: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. My translation is free – I am a person, one of all of us, I recognise all of you. We are the same despite the differences.

I love Cotoneaster x watereri for its own virtues too. The arching branches are elegant. The ratio of leaf to berry is perfect to the eye, just beautifully balanced and proportioned, however complicated its breeding. The promise of the life in its berries gives me hope. A full life is a generous one.

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Parthenocissus tricuspidata

This week’s postcard is all about identity. Parthenocissus tricuspidata, Boston Ivy, is not what it seems. It is not from Boston on either side of the Atlantic ocean, nor is it ivy. It is a native of Japan, Korea, and parts of China. Given its ability to reach 30m/100′ in the UK, I expect it has spread widely in any similarly temperate climate. The tricuspidata, which describes the leaf shape, is the easiest part of its identity to pin down, meaning three – toothed. Except it isn’t, as Parthenocissus tricuspidata is highly variable in form. Some have five teeth, whilst remaining entire, whilst some have five, but are so indented (bitten) that they start to resemble its cousin, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, the Virginia Creeper. The Virginia Creeper is native to Virginia, but also to Canada in the north and Guatemala to the south. To further complicate matters, Parthenocissus refers to ‘virgin ivy’.  As aforementioned, it isn’t ivy, unless ivy is taken to mean a generic identifier for any climbing plant as, I believe, Coca Cola has managed to achieve in parts of the world for any carbonated drink. I have not studied Greek, hence I do not know where to divide the compound. The Parthenon in Athens is the temple complex devoted to the virgin goddess Athena, though.

It is one of the most useful of climbing plants. It adheres to walls with little pads which bind by a method of secreting Calcium carbonate – the stuff of snails’ shells and pearls. It is a chemical bond, rather than a physical penetration, unlike ivy, Hedera helix. These pads do no harm to the wall and the presence of the plant only benefits the wall. We return to the realms of the umbrella-parasol, the cloister. In a hot climate, the presence of the climber on the wall significantly reduces cooling costs. Not only does it insulate the wall from direct sunlight and the ambient temperature, the evaporation of the transpiration stream – the flow of water from the roots out through the lenticels of the leaves – also causes cooling. In cold climates, the presence of the plant, even in its winter, un-leafed form insulates the wall and reduces heating costs. In both climates, and at all times of year, it provides aural insulation – it softens sound, making it invaluable in enclosed spaces of heavy traffic, pedestrian or otherwise.

Those of a delicate nature might not welcome it on their dwelling. It is rampant and needs to be kept in check routinely. Much of the fault lies with the human agent who plants it though, expecting it to stay content with a 5m/16′ x 4m/14′ wall, when it will climb to six times that. But, it also provides a home for insects and spiders, so confronts us with the reality that the superficial choices that we make determined on form, colour or affordability, have unforeseen consequences. The world is full of other lives and needs and we ignore them at our cost.

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Salvia guaranitica

The garden is exhausted. I walk on paths strewn with yellow poplar leaves with their unique scent which I forget year to year. But, when I smell it afresh, it brings every autumn I can remember to mind. I find it re-assuring – it situates me in the passing of the seasons and the passing of my life. By the ponds, the large leaves of the Gunnera manicata – a Brazilian native – look ragged and tired, and soon will need to be put to bed for the winter. Under the beeches, squirrels forage franticly for the mast. Everything is as it should be.

Then, rounding a corner, I come to a bed of Lobelia tupa (devil’s tobacco) and red and blue Salvias in full display, as if winter is just a fairytale to frighten children. It is a last shout of summer echoing into autumn carrying memories of a hot sun. The Salvia guaranitica catches my eye, especially. It is also known as the anise-scented sage, for the smell of the crushed leaves, and the hummingbird sage. What a sight it must be in its native Latin America, growing to its full height of 2.5m/8′, abuzz with the tiny birds sipping its nectar. The Salvias in my bed are a more modest 1.5m/5′, but still impressive. Salvia guaranitica has a running rootstock and spreads into drifts of colour. It is only hardy down to -5 Celsius though, so only a series of mild winters will allow the clump to develop any size. When I gardened in the far north of England, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, it was a plant which we kept alive from one year to the next by taking cuttings and over-wintering it in a heated glasshouse. We would plant it out with the other exotics towards the end of May or the beginning of June when the risk of hard frosts had passed. We had light frosts in September this year, just enough to blacken the leaves of the even more tender Dahlias and ruin their flowers, but the Salvias have endured them.

I am not sure which cultivar I have growing here. I think ‘Black and Blue’ is most probable. ‘Blue Enigma’ is a useful plant in the garden for those seeking that elusive true blue with no red in it. These tall sages are most effective when massed together informally with companions of similar habit. The Chilean Lobelia tupa, being more rigid provides a useful spine to the planting, whilst the Argentine Verbena bonariensis (syn. V. patagonica) brings a different flower form to the border.

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Crataegus coccinea

The scarlet hawthorn sits in the garden like the timpani of an orchestra. For much of the year, all the action, all the noise and excitement seems to be provided by showier plants – floriferous roses, or the herbaceous perennials which rise from nothing to fill the garden with colour and scent throughout summer. But, just as the garden is exhausted and it is time to cut the other plants down to their crowns, or to prune the roses severely, there is the scarlet hawthorn in its autumn dress, all flaming gold and abundant large red berries. There are few more pleasing sights on a bright, frosty day with the low sun illuminating the tree’s crown. On a dull, overcast or rainy day, the scarlet hawthorn and other deciduous heroes seem to be the only sources of colour and light to lift the spirits.

Crataegus coccinea is a useful tree in the garden. It is genuinely small, as opposed to being small for the first ten years before turning into a monster like so many other ‘small trees’ of the catalogues. When mature, it reaches 7.5m/25 feet tall and, in truth, it is its round-headed nature which is more likely to cause a problem in a city garden as it will grow as broad as it does tall. I enjoy plants which give and give again at different times of year; the scarlet hawthorn is generous. In spring it is covered with white, slightly sour-scented blossom which is loved by the insect pollinators. In summer, it settles down to a reliable green – the sort of background noise in a garden which is only noticed when it is absent. In autumn, the leaves turn gold before they fall. I believe that in their native New England, the deeper cold turns the leaves to red and even to purple. The berries are a valuable food for birds, birds which may have nested in its crown, protected by its 5cm/2″ thorns. Even in winter, the scarlet haw continues to give, to us and to other creatures. I find the fissured bark visually pleasing. Ladybirds and other hibernating insects find it homely, which in turn brings tits and numerous insectivorous birds in search of a meal. I have spent many a happy coffee time, wrapped against the cold, watching the sharp-eyed birds flitting from twig to twig, picking the crevices for food. Like other hawthorns, the bark of the previous year’s growth ripens through the cold months, gaining a deep red lustre. Slowly, in the cold chemistry of the tree’s stored energy, the buds ripen and swell with the promise of life. These changes, expressed by the tree, are fundamental to the timbre of the garden as a living space as, indeed, are its movements, and the movements of the creatures which are drawn to it.

When first I encountered Crataegus coccinea, it was by a different name, C. pedicellata. The two former species have been shown to be one species. Coccinea, being the older name, takes precedence. It is a more accurate description of the plant, and I should be less reluctant about this change than I am.

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Solanum lycopersicum ‘Crimean Black’

I believe it is the finest tomato I have ever grown. At 370g/13oz it is not the largest, that honour goes to a ‘Marmande’, but it is the largest ‘Crimean Black’. It is not black, of course, just a dark red of a shade which looks particularly fine when mixed with golden and scarlet varieties in a tomato salad. The depth of the colour intensifies with temperature, but even in this exceptional year, I have grown this outdoor variety under glass.

What a story the ‘Crimean Black’ has to tell! It is unknown when the tomato crossed the Atlantic for the first time, but if it wasn’t with Columbus then it was probably with Cortes, sometime after AD1521. Tomatoes were being eaten in Italy by AD1544 when Mattioli describes them in his herbal, but it was slow to catch on – the first cookbook to make use of it dates from AD1692. The clue to why is recorded in the second part of its botanical name lycopersicum or ‘wolf-apple’, the German name for the nightshade berry, by which occultists could transform into werewolves. The people of Europe were divided as to the toxicity of the tomato, recognising its relationship to a known danger. The SOLANACEAE family is a curious one, containing many useful foods such as aubergines and potatoes, and many highly poisonous species too. At some point, the tomato made it to the Crimean peninsula where local ‘black’ strains developed which were suited to the hot summers. After the eponymous war, these journeyed back across Europe in the pockets of homeward-bound soldiers, eventually re-crossing the Atlantic where they grow successfully in the favourable climate of the southern United States.

The tomatoes first appeal, like that of another American import the runner bean, was as a decorative rather than a culinary plant. The runner bean too was considered toxic. Tomatoes were prized in the flower garden and as a table decoration. It wasn’t re-branded as a ‘golden apple’ until AD1554 and as pomo d’oro it spread into Polish and Russian. An almost obsolete German word paradeisapfel connects the pomo d’oro to the Garden of the Hesperides as mush as to Eden. Tomatoes have travelled far and wide, geographically and figuratively.

I’m going to send my ‘Crimean Black’ on one final, alimentary journey. Years ago, in Turkey, I ate a simple but perfect salad which was served with my grilled lamb kebabs. As I remember it, cucumber and tomato had been diced finely, there was chopped onion and green chilli, olive oil and parsley. It was at once heating and cooling, and utterly delicious. I have cucumbers and chillies from the glasshouse and parsley from a pot by the back door. I have some Muntjac for the kebabs. A Mesoamerican-Crimean tomato, an Asian deer, an Indian-Germanic cucumber – all local. Fusion cuisine at its finest.

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Urtica dioica

When Attila the Hun was besieging Milan, the city council opened the gates to him after he declared he was the Flagellum Dei. The city was thus subjected to the customary three days of pillage etc.. Urtica dioica, stinging nettle, is my scourge. It lurks within the crowns of other plants and punishes me for my lack of observance. The fingers of my left hand are tingling now from one I encountered earlier. I am not overly interested in the narrative of sin, however, with its infantilising blame – I have always been more interested in responsibility, and adulthood: Nietzsche, for all his faults, did have a point.

I prefer to think of the presence of nettles in the garden – and the presence of its friends – those that we call weeds, but which are really just plants which do not suit us – as the stone I must push to the brow of the hill, only to do it again tomorrow. Unlike Sisyphus, I do not consider it a punishment. I mean, what is the alternative to work – the interminable boredom and purposelessness of effortless pleasure? I’ve witnessed that firsthand and it isn’t attractive. I am happy to see weeds, including nettles, in the garden as then I know I have something to do tomorrow. And, when the day’s work is done, I can pour myself a glass of whiskey and find comfort in the memory of the work completed and the thought of tomorrow’s labour, sleeping sweetly with anticipation.

At school I was told that the Romans introduced nettles to Britain and the soldiers used to flagellate themselves or each other – it was never explained clearly – in order to stimulate their circulation in the cold climate. This seemed improbable to my eight year-old self. I was also taught that the Roman Empire fell in 410AD and that was never true. I would have thought that nettles more probably arrived in a shipment of hay for the cavalry horses. However the nettles arrived, they remain a sign of the presence of human activity. Nettles love nitrogen. They thrive on old middens, along fence lines where stock have been corralled, or next to walls where builders have been working. And they seem to invite nitrogen. My hound cannot pass a clump without blessing it.

I try to find a place for nettles in a garden. I don’t pick them to make into beer, tea or soup, although they are high in calcium, iron, and Vitamin K. I avoid consuming them on the grounds of the previously observed benediction. I take no pleasure from the stings, unlike the eccentric Sir Charles V. Boys, the author of Weeds, Weeds, Weeds [Wightman and Co., London, 1937]. No, I leave nettles their own space in a garden, as opposed to the places they usurp, for the many creatures which benefit from them. One of the greatest pleasures of summer is to see Red Admiral butterflies on the buddleias. But first Red Admiral caterpillars must engorge on Urtica dioica. They are the poets of the garden, metamorphosing pain to beauty.

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Cucurbita pepo

I have picked the last of this summer’s courgettes and pulled up the plants. Although the plants are still flowering gamely, the shortening days and dropping temperatures ensure that little will come of them. Besides, as the growing season wears on, courgettes always seem to suffer from mildew and the once handsome palmate leaves are now mottled, grey, and tattered.

I bought a packet of seed which contained six different varieties – three were the ‘traditional’ baton type, one was round, and two were patty pans. As courgettes are very reliable germinators, I soon had more plants than ground in which to grow them, and as each plant can reach over 1m/3′ across, it is very easy to run out of space. I gave away as many plants as I could, then resorted to planting the spares in the flowerbeds. If life is willing, it seems wrong not to help it thrive. I chose my packet of seed for the varieties of colour and form, but my understanding was slight. Each type matured at a different rate and fruited with variable generosity. ‘Ronde de Nice’ fruited quickly and abundantly, but ended before the others. ‘Yellow Scallop’ was slow and shy and clearly needed an earlier start, more heat, or a balmier autumn. In another season with different conditions, the varieties might perform differently, but that is the virtue of diversity – there will be a harvest.

The abundance of plants quickly turned into a glut of berries, which is what courgettes are, botanically speaking. The ‘pepo’ in the name refers to a berry formed from the swollen ovary of the flower. In the kitchen, I settle all fruit-vegetable distinctions by the Yorkshire method: fruit can be eaten with custard. Courgettes became a twice-daily feature of my diet and I scoured my recipe books for new ways of preparing them. A favourite has been from the Moro cookbook and involves sautéing them with onion, pine nuts, and raisins – simple yet delicious. Still, the supply outstripped demand and I have adapted chutney recipes to include more courgettes. The freezer is filled with variations on ratatouille which will bring memories of summer sun through the dark, cold days of winter. I even became a courgette pest, badgering friends, neighbours, tradesmen who came to work at the house to take courgettes away with them, and still there have been too many.

And yet, this week or next week, when I have eaten or processed this final picking of courgettes, I will miss them. Cucurbita pepo, courgettes, zucchini, originate in the Americas, as do tomatoes, potatoes and chillies, and although exotic, they have become such an essential part of my diet and of my English vegetable garden, that summer would not be the same without them.

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