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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Scabiosa caucasica ‘Perfecta’

It has been a rare year: snow and frosts lingered into April, and the first week of May was greeted with torrential raining and flooding. Until yesterday, it has been hot and dry ever since, and not just hot for England, but actually, really, hot. For the last three weeks, the temperature in my garden has been 28 degrees Celsius/82F by ten o’clock in the morning; there have been evenings when it was still 30C/86F at ten o’clock at night. It has not felt like England. On the edge of the demesne, there are mature trees in distress. Some beeches, Fagus sylvatica, are in their autumn coats, whilst some limes, Tilia cordata,  have been dropping leaves. In time, I expect they will present with other underlying problems – a fungal infection, most probably, perhaps root or bark damage; they were already weakened in other words, and unable to cope with the drought. I walk the boundaries twice a day with the hound, expecting to see large boughs on the ground, but so far, nothing. Yesterday, it rained, and it rained persistently. It seems to have rained through the night and it is raining now. The petrichor rose from the earth like a prayer ascending. I breathed it in and filled my lungs with moist air like balm. I, the gardener, have withered under the unrelenting sun as much as the plants have, but there is always work to be done.

Fortunately, the English garden is catholic, and the English climate, being habitually temperate, allows the cultivation of plants from across the globe and many different habitats.  Some tolerate the English weather and will live rather than thrive, whilst others grow more vigorously than they do at home. The majority of these postcards, to date, have, as their subjects, plants which are native to other lands. This week’s is no exception. Scabiosa caucasica is native, as the name suggests to the Caucus regions of what we now call Turkey and Iran. Its common name is the pincushion flower, but there are others who are better suited to that nomen, such as Knautia macedonica. It may not have rained for more than forty days and forty nights, yet these plants in the garden are show-stoppers. Our unusual summer must be more akin to the temperatures they enjoy and they are thriving. The catalogues list it as reaching 70cm/28″, but this year they are pushing 1m/36″. The flower, fully 5cm/2″ in diameter is a beautiful lavender hue which simply adores the brightest of sunlight. It gives throughout the day, in truth – it is wonderful at noon, and lovely in a different way at dusk. There is also a white form of the ‘Perfecta’ cultivar, although I have never needed it. If I had one complaint then it regards its relative scentlessness. The pollinating insects have no such qualms – the flowers are often weighed down on their long stems by fat bumblebees feeding deeply.

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Chimonanthus praecox

Wintersweet is one of winter’s compensations: a reminder that life does not stop in the dark, short days, it merely slows down, and for some species, it starts. In each flower, the next generation is conceived, and with the fertile seed, life begins. I first encountered Chimonanthus on a cold January evening in Oxford. I smelt it before I saw it, and followed my nose some 20m/60′ before finding the source, tucked against the old city wall. Even then I was confused as the scent hardly seemed stronger up close to the shrub than it had at some distance: it was equally diffuse throughout its range. The flowers are visually insignificant, and I concluded that whatever it was, it must be pollinated by moths, some species of which fly in even the coldest of the winter months. In fact, this Chinese native is pollinated by beetles, those industrious creatures which seem to have a nose for so many good things.

In China it has been cultivated for over one thousand years, being highly valued for its scent and its usefulness in traditional medicine. Its cultivation spread to Korea and Japan, and in the modern era to the USA and Britain. It was worth the wait.

Wintersweet is praecox and the flowers are borne on bare twigs, although sometimes the last of the golden autumn leaves are still clinging on when it starts to bloom. The flower has waxy, translucent petals, the outer being pale yellow whilst the inner petals are pale yellow with dark red markings. They are a little more than a centimetre across and hang their heads like a shy child. Only the scent catches the attention. The scent is sweet enough to warrant the name, certainly, and slightly fizzy, like sherbet.

In Oxford it was growing in a shady spot against an east-facing stone wall and it was rather untidy. In our garden here there is a mature shrub, growing freely. It has reached 4m/14′ in all directions and has a round, fairly open-branched habit. In leaf it is not that decorative, and it is better suited to a larger garden than ours where the burden of putting on a show can be shared by many plants. Or perhaps the edge of a woodland garden where I would plant it with other winter-flowering shrubs such as Oemleria and Hamamelis. Hamamelis, witch hazel, has spidery flowers which likewise are borne on bare twigs, whilst Oemleria tends to flower just as the bright green leaves are breaking bud. All three share scent characteristics, being light, diffuse, and clean-smelling. The scents harmonise, creating a pleasingly intriguing cocktail. Visually, all three are modest, which makes their companionship easy. In the garden here our wintersweet is planted next to an equally mature Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. It too flowers in winter, but the marriage is not a happy one. The Viburnum’s scent is heavier and sweeter, almost cloying, and it overwhelms the delicate wintersweet.

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